Michelle Huston

The Phone Call



        Percy Robinson sat upright in his recliner, twiddling his thumbs while he watched the TV. With each revolution, he felt the roughness of his skin scratch at the undersides of his thumbs. Scrape, scrape, scrape. All morning long, a subtle nagging feeling pinged inside his stomach. When he woke up, he accidentally kicked one of his slippers and sent it sliding across the hardwood floor into the hallway. At breakfast, he picked up his favorite mug and saw a wet ring on the table. A bead of coffee dripped from the bottom, followed by another and another. In the living room, he sat down to watch a rerun of Gilligan’s Island, but the lineup had unexpectedly changed to an episode of Mister Ed, his least favorite show. A talking horse was hardly his idea of entertainment. With dashed expectations, Percy got up to turn the dial on the television set. He settled on The Price is Right and made his way back to his seat, feeling the kilter of his routine swaying over a foggy precipice.

        The contestants on this program were a bunch of lousy idiots. He particularly hated the mousy looking girl who insisted on bidding one dollar every time. “Well,” he thought, “that explains why she’s been at that podium for the past three rounds.”

        The twin bell ringer of the old rotary telephone shot through the game show and vibrated hard against the wooden surface of the end table across the room. Percy pulled himself up and headed over to answer the call. Halfway there, the tone cut out. Percy stopped abruptly and found himself staring quizzically at the heavy hunk of taupe plastic. He swore he had heard it ringing. Better make sure, he thought as he picked up the receiver. “Yell-oh?” he said with a deep twang in his voice. An unpleasant dial tone tickled his eardrum. He put the receiver back into its cradle and turned around toward the recliner.

        Just as he was about to sit down, the phone rang again. He rushed to answer, but the phone fell silent after one ring. Again, he picked up the receiver and bellowed, “Yell-oh?” to the dial tone. Percy scratched at the stubble on his chin. Maybe it was a wrong number. But in that case, wouldn’t the caller stay on the line to make sure? No, probably not. People these days had no decency or courtesy.

        He sat down in his chair and refocused on The Price is Right. In the midst of the phone situation, the mousy girl had somehow made it to the next round. She had to putt a golf ball into a hole with only one swing. The girl looked like she might topple over as she held the putter with her hands too close together. There was no way she was going to make this shot. Her form was off and her arms were wobbly. The crowd cheered behind her, which was a waste of time and effort as far as Percy was concerned. Just as she pulled back to take a swing, the phone rang.

        “Goddammit!” Percy exclaimed. Once again, he got up and headed toward the phone. Once again, the ringing stopped. He let out an elongated grunt and tightened his fingers into two shaky fists. His bulging eyes stared at the phone, daring it to ring again so he could swoop in and give this son of a gun a piece of his mind. Moments passed by without another ring. The sound of the ecstatic audience on the television interrupted him. He turned to see that the mousy girl had made the putt and won a brand new car. His foot started to twitch as it tapped furiously back and forth.

        Although he wasn’t quite sure how, he knew it was time to take action. He picked up the phone by the base, dragged it over to the television, turned the volume all the way down, and headed back to his seat with the long grey telephone cord trailing behind him. Percy sat in his chair with resolve, one hand on the receiver as the phone sat in his lap. He felt like a hunter waiting in the weeds to snipe a wild turkey. As time passed, he started to tap his fingers along the receiver, first with all digits pressing down in unison, then with each one taking a successive turn, starting with the pinky and ending with the index finger. A clicking noise accompanied each tap. He stretched out his hand and examined his long fingernails. He thought about where the clippers were, but could not remember the last time he had seen or used them.

        The jarring sound of the ringer startled Percy out of his fingernail contemplation. His heart leapt in tandem with his body and the phone tumbled out of his lap, sending the receiver rolling across the floor. “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” Percy cried as he pulled the receiver’s corkscrew cord toward him to retrieve the handset. “Who is this?” he demanded as he held the receiver up to his ear. The callous noise of the dial tone mocked his eardrum. He slammed the receiver down into the cradle and left the phone on the floor.

        He began pacing back and forth. His mind raced with thoughts of who would be cruel enough to call somebody and hang up after one ring. His asshole brother Jerry fit the bill, but they hadn’t spoken in years. If Jerry wanted to mess with him, he wouldn’t resort to a prank call. But a teenager would. He pictured a group of wiry necked fifteen-year-old boys gathered around a phone book, snorting as they asked innocent callers if their refrigerator was running. But why would they call and hang up multiple times? Wasn’t the point of a prank call to hear the befuddled reaction from the person on the other end of the line? No, it couldn’t be a prank caller. But if it wasn’t a prank caller and it wasn’t Jerry, who the hell could it be?

        The phone rang again. Percy decided that he wasn’t going to fall for this trickery anymore. The ringer stopped, but its echo carried through the room. Percy’s chest tightened as he waited for the silence to spread, for the cruelty of another one-ringer joke to invade his already sour morning. A second ring pierced through the quiet, followed by a third, and he rushed to pick up.


        “P-P-Percy?” said a soft, trembling, female voice. “It’s Mary Jane. Jerry’s wife.”

        Percy pulled back and stared at the receiver in disbelief at the live human voice on the other end of the line. He pressed it up to his ear, utterly confused as he thought about his brother’s kind, pretty wife. Unsure of what to do, he puffed out his chest and spoke in his most careful, formal tone, “This is Percy speaking.” Panic emanated from his eyes. He was glad that Mary Jane could not see him in all of his awkwardness.

        “Percy, Jerry’s in the hospital. He’s dying. He ain’t got more than a few days left. I know he wouldn’t want me calling you, but I thought you had the right to know. I was hoping you could come over to say your goodbyes.”

        Without realizing what he was doing, Percy hung up the phone and threw up all over the living room floor.

Copyright 2013 Michelle Huston

Michelle Huston lives in Connecticut with a menagerie that includes a husband and two spoiled cats, one of whom has interrupted the biography writing process several times for a scratch on the head. She teaches English and First-Year Experience courses at several colleges and universities. Huston earned a BA in English from Western Connecticut State University and an MS in counseling/higher education administration from Central Connecticut State University. She is currently working on a second master's in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. When she isn't teaching or taking classes, she enjoys writing, traveling to Disney World, working out at the gym, and reminiscing about the days when My-So Called Life was on television. Huston chronicles her experiences in higher education through her blog, which can be found at http://professorhuston.blogspot.com