The Big Red Phone

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

She entered the detectives’ room at the end of my shift. I felt sick when I saw her. I somehow knew that this was going to be a late night. She had that strange look on her face, the type that told me she probably shouldn’t be here. She should be at home, perhaps preparing dinner or taking care of her kids. Or, after I take a closer look at her clothing, she should have been supervising her nanny who would prepare dinner and bathe and put the kids to sleep. In my precinct, we get a lot of her type. I wondered not for the first time whether they paid us to fight crime or to fight these wives’ boredom. It didn’t make much of a difference in the end. Dealing with these wives was what kept the money in the bank and the food on the kids table. Their mother prepared their dinners and was happy to do it. And I was happy for her to do it. She wasn’t a trophy woman. She was a good woman. She did her share and I did my share. It didn’t take a detective to know that the woman before me never did her share.

She walked through the wooden gate and made her way to my desk. I was the only one left. I was here to catch any calls before we called it a night. Her clickity-clackity shoes echoed off the walls. She was more plastic than natural. Good to look at but not look at too closely. “Officer?” she asked as she made her way to the front of my desk.

“Detective, Ma’am. Detective Thomson. What may I do for you this evening?”

“May I sit?” she asked as she sat on the wooden chair. I should have told her that less than an hour before an HIV-positive drug addict sat on that very chair. We caught him lurking around the mansions around Turner’s bend. It was strange that he was in our precinct since no public transportation went anywhere near our precinct. He didn’t tell us, but we figured a drug deal went bad and they dropped him here as an object lesson, knowing how we treat people like him in our station. I guess that makes us the drug dealers’ muscles. We had a job to do and we did it. The addict won’t be heading to these parts again. For all I knew, while we processed him in that very chair, he might have bled a little into the wood. It was an old chair and there were many splinters. The office was one big splinter, when you really got down into it. The fresh coat of paint they threw on the walls each year was as bogus as she was. It was all rotten to the core. I didn’t speak about these types of things when her kind was in earshot. As I said, I was here to put food on my kid’s table, and if I had to baby the likes of her, I was a good father, and I’d do it.

“Please. What’s on your mind?” I asked her. I maintained a bemused look. It was the most serious I could manage at this time of night in front of this type of woman.

She looked me in the eye. She had blue eyes. The type of blue you only see in aquariums and advertisements for tropical beaches in far off islands where I’ll never be able to afford a vacation. I could see why swimming in her waters could be so enticing. It’s too bad that sharks infest her waters. I felt bad for her husband. He probably thought he was getting so much more than a plastic trophy. I guess we always think we’re getting so much more until we get it home and unwrap it.

“I had the strangest call tonight,” she said. “I debated whether I should come here. There are so many prank calls. But he sounded so honest, so sincere.”

I immediately knew that she had fallen for a swindle. This happens more than you can imagine. You couldn’t tell by looking at them, but these trophy wives are very lonely creatures. They have their chatter groups, where they get together and bitch about their help and their shopping. But when they get right down to it, they’re alone. They don’t confide in their husbands or their friends or their family. They don’t confide in anyone. I’ve seen many of them take the opportunity to confide in psychics and swindlers. They think they’ll talk for a chance to put someone down. And that includes telemarketers and swindlers. I saw how this evening was going to go down: she wanted me to pry her out away from whatever they got from her. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a late night after all. We fill out the paper, and she talks to her bank and credit cards and makes everything right. It’s better when they come early on these types of things. I’ve caught a few of these cases where they waited too long and it took hours to get all the paper straight. If she spoke to him on this night, then I might be able to get this all squared away in an hour. There’s a reason their husbands thought to keep these women in trophy cases. Better there than breaking everything in sight. A bull in a china store is no better.

“Tell me about what happened, Ma’am. It’s never worse than you think it is. We’ll take care of it.”

“Protect and serve, eh, officer?” the woman asked. Her head turned to the side and she looked at me sideways. I could see each of her black lashes curled up and away from her eyes. My wife was a good cook and great with the children, but she didn’t have an eyelash to bat an eyelash at, if you see where I’m going. I’m a man, as weak as any other man is. And don’t think I didn’t think about it right there. Finish the paperwork. Maybe she’s feeling lonely. Maybe she likes men in uniform. I have a uniform in the back, in the locker room. It was all very private. Everything was always very private back there.

“That’s what I’m here for. To protect and serve, Ma’am. In all ways.” I turned my bemused look into a meaningful one. If she was going to flirt, I was going to flirt right back at her, food on the kids’ table or not. “What is your name? For the report, I mean. We need to keep good records here.”

“Sandra MacDonald,” she said. She put her left hand on the desk and the huge engagement ring almost blinded me. It was larger than her thumb’s knuckle. I pulled out my notepad and jotted down her name. “That’s with an M-A-C,” she added.

“Okay, Mrs. MacDonald. What happened on your call tonight?”

She laughed nervously. I straightened in the chair and cleaned the ink off the tip of the pen. I chewed the pen cap and waited for her to continue. In any good interrogation, you have to let the witness talk it through first, before you start putting words into their mouth. It makes it seem like those words were their own. It helps them sound more honest since they believe the words are their own. They never are, of course. The words end up being whatever it is we feed them. In this case, I’m already working out the words I will include on the report. I just needed her to say a few keywords and sign the paper. After the paperwork, we can see if there’s anything left between us. I resisted smoothing back my hair.

“He didn’t give me his name,” Sandra started in. “I have a good memory for these things, conversations. I’ll tell it like he said it and I’ll let you think if this is as crazy as it sounded.”

“However you want it. Take your time. Do you want water or coffee or something?”

“That’s okay. He sounded so desperate. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The phone rang late this evening. It was after dinner and the kids were asleep. I was straightening up after our dinner. I don’t spend much time on the phone. I never liked phones and never gave my number out. It surprised me when it rang. Only my mother had the phone number, and she called early in the morning after I see the kids off to school. It was the only time it ever rings and the only time I ever pick it up. That’s why I was so surprised. At first I was worried. My mother isn’t in the best of health, and they know to call me if anything ever happens to her. Thankfully this wasn’t that call. But I did think for a moment that it might be, which is why I grabbed it.”

I pretended to jot down notes as she talked. I nodded often and wrote the L.A. Raider’s schedule in my pad. I almost have the games for the season memorized. Knowing when you’re going to play and who you’re going to play is important in understanding the strategy for your team. The Raiders were going places this year, I knew. I just wanted to make sure I understood how they were going to get there.

“I picked up the phone on the third ring. There was a man on the other side. As soon as I picked up he started saying, ‘hello, hello?’ He kept repeating it, as if not expecting to hear anyone on the other side. He had called me, and it was strange. I greeted him and asked who he was. He said me he didn’t know. I held the phone’s handset at arm’s distance away from and really looked at it. I don’t know what I was expecting. I thought maybe it would tell me who this strange man was. Normally I would have hung up. I think most normal people might have. There was just something in his voice that sounded desperate. It wasn’t only desperation it was also—I don’t know how to say this. He reminded me of someone but I couldn’t really place it. It was like a déjà vu moment. You know the type? You are sure you’ve heard it before but you just don’t know when. He kept talking as I held the handset away from my ear. He sounded resigned, as if another person was about to hang up on him, and he kind of understood why we did that and didn’t want to hold it against us.”

I wondered what type of scam she was involved with. This didn’t sound like the typical Nigerian call. The scammers are much smarter now. Either they pretend to be a bank or something to get your information at the beginning of the call. Or the keep you on the phone for a while. They want to build up your trust before they start asking for things. This sounded like the second case. “You heard all of that when not even listening into the phone?”

“I know it sounds strange.” She laughed. “It sounds strange to me too as I describe it. But I knew that voice and I knew what it wanted. I put the phone back on my ear and I said hello again. He stopped talking for a moment. Then he started in. He spoke slowly. It wasn’t like he was choosing his words carefully, it was like he was afraid that if he said things too quickly I would run away, like a dog approaching a bone to see if it’s safe to grab. He said, ‘Do you mind if I go on? There’s just so much I want to tell you. Not many people want to listen once I get into it. I know it’s me and all my talking, and I completely understand if you want to go before I even start in.’ I assured him that I did want to hear what he had to say. At the time it was just curiosity. He reminded me of someone that I couldn’t place I figured if he spoke more I’d be able to put a name on it.”

“Have you placed him now that you’ve had some time to think about it?” I asked, looking for a way to cut this story shorter. Wherever Sandra was trying to get, she certainly was taking her sweet time.

She ignored me, lost in her memories of the strange phone call. “I asked him what his name was. He said he didn’t remember. He didn’t remember a lot of things. I was sure I had heard that voice before. It was why I stayed on the phone. I had to place it. It nagged at me like a mosquito.”

“What did he want?” I asked her. I realized it was time for the leading questions. I needed to lead her somewhere. I was again wrong about her. I thought she had come in to report something. Now I figured she had come in only to talk to someone. And where there’s talk there may be other things. I might have to give the wife a call, let her know that I’d be home late tonight. A late night report. The usual.

“He didn’t want anything, exactly. He seemed relieved to talk to someone. He kept telling me that most of the people he spoke to hung up immediately, or after they heard his story. He told me it was a fantastical story, unbelievably so. And the way he said it, I believed it. He voice was soft and had a roll to it. I could see myself falling on top of that voice and losing my way.”

I lowered my voice. “Did you catch the number when he called?” She wasn’t looking at me anymore. She was staring at the wall behind me, lost in her thoughts.

“At this point he took a long deep breath. I could hear the wind cross over his throat and down into his lungs. He held it for a second a let it out. I thought he might be crazy, perhaps delusional. I didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t that I was entertained, it was that I was enthralled. There was a mystery to it. Something real, and my life is so full of stuff that’s not real, if you know what I mean.”

I decided to take a different tact. There are always lots of ways to crack an oyster, and the more I looked at her, the more juicy I thought of the pearl inside her plastic shell. “Your life at home isn’t real?”

She looked at me with that look that spoke volumes: it was as if I had no idea how difficult her life was. I swallowed down a laugh. This woman was quite something. Her life must be very difficult, with her big house and her help and her judging the common folk. Her oyster tasted sour already, and I hadn’t chucked the shell.

Her eyes flashed with anger as if she had been reading my thoughts. “My husband has been in a coma for the past eight years, officer. So, yes, my home life at times is surreal and at times difficult. When I say that there was something real in the man’s voice, what I was talking about was an emotional connection. It’s something I only have with my children, and it’s one way with children. A parent loves their children so much more than the children love their parent. It’s not their fault. It’s how it is. You love because you give, and children take. But that’s not important. I want to finish my report. I’ll try to leave the emotional asides to the side.”

“I’m sorry about your husband. I didn’t mean anything by it. Please, do go on. I want to finish this report for you and see what we I can do to help you.” After the news about her husband, I downshifted for a moment. What she was saying really got me thinking. But it didn’t take long to return to the subject at hand. She was as good as a widow and clearly not emotionally all here anymore. I judged whether this would be considered taking advantage of someone, and it fell into the line in the middle. I probably shouldn’t do it, but if I did, I wouldn’t go to hell—at least not over this infraction.

“When I told him I’d listen to his story he told me how kind I was. It was like I was giving him something, when just listening to him talk was giving me something. I asked why he chose me. This is where I got my first clue of what was going on. He told me he didn’t call me. Don’t look at me like that, officer. Ever since I walked through those doors, all you’ve been doing is judging the best way to get into my skirt. Just listen to the story first.”

Her last word gave me hope. Maybe once the crazy woman got through her story there might be something else in it for me. I looked longingly at the phone on the desk, only half listening to her words. I was planning the call to my wife. It wasn’t that my wife was suspicious but she was no dummy. Each night I worked late she checked the police blotter. She would know if an investigation ran late tonight. The town was quiet tonight, too quiet to get away with what I had planned. I missed the first part of her words before I pulled myself back over to her conversation.

“He said he was studying the phone. He spent a lot of his time studying the phone when he wasn’t talking on it. Isn’t that the strangest thing? Who studies their phones? I mean, I see lots of business people on their fancy phones checking mail or sending messages. But who stares at a phone, especially an old rotary phone for hours at a time? When he described the phone I began to understand. I hadn’t seen a real phone is so long, it was almost comforting to know that those types of phones still exist.”

I knew I shouldn’t, but how could I resist. “Did he tell you what type of phone it was?”

“Why yes, he did. It was a large red telephone. He described it as very heavy and very large. He was very interested to know how big I thought the phone should be. When I told him about my cell phone, he was amazed. He said he had heard of them before—he had spoken often on the phone to other people—but he had never seen one. He wasn’t only amazed at the phone. He wanted to know about other modern conveniences.”

There had to be a point here. And it was time I started guiding her to it. “You must have found that a bit strange.”

“It was like he had never been outside in modern time. I thought of dementia, of course. He told me that his memory was ‘no longer his friend’ and it played tricks on him from time to time. He sounded so sad and alone. I figured he was trying to call someone else when he got through to me. I started questioning him about who he was trying to reach when he got me.”

She had been talking for twenty minutes already. It was clear from her body language that she was no longer interested in me. I had lost interest when the fraudster turned out to be such an old guy. It’s not that I have anything against old people. My parents were very old and I liked them well enough. It’s that old people scared me. It might have something to do with my job, or maybe I spent too much time hiding from my grandparents when I was younger. The old people have a smell, and it’s a smell I wanted to avoid when possible.

“But his sadness had a curiosity that was deeply embedded in his speech,” she continued. “He found everything so interesting and amazing. He sounded trapped in the past, a place he no longer wanted to be but couldn’t figure out how to escape. That’s why he called people. At least that was what I thought in the beginning. The phone was his window to the outside world. The only when he received his information. He knew things had changed, but it was hard to explain the new things. It was like trying to explain colors to a blind person. They understand at some level, but it’s not the same level as someone who had seen colors.

“It was his description of his room that nagged at me. His phone was not only big, it was also red. It was the only color in the room. He admitted it was a bit of cliché, but he enjoyed the color. The walls and floors in his room were white, as was the table and chair. He said that if it weren’t for the red phone, he would lose the ability to discern colors. There were no other colors in the room. I asked about a window or a door, but he said there were none. Just the table, chair, and phone. I asked how he ate, and he said he didn’t know.”

“And the bathroom,” I asked. It was clear this caller was insane. I still couldn’t figure out why she brought this story to me. The hospital was for the insane people. We were only interested in the criminally insane at the station.

“I asked about that as well. He claimed there was none. It was an empty room with a table and a red phone. I had my doubts about his sanity again. He sounded like such a nice man, a man whose voice I could almost place. It was there, pulling at my furthest memories. But whoever it was, I couldn’t remember at the time. This closed-in room was not the only weird part of his story. He went on to describe how the phone worked.

“The phone had a rotary, with the ten numbers working their way around the dial counterclockwise. He would sit for hours and turn the rotary. It didn’t do anything, though. He would turn it and watch it turn back. It made that clicking sound as it worked its way around the dial. When he lifted the handset, it automatically connected somewhere. He didn’t know who connected him or how they decided on the number. All he did know was that they never called the same number twice. When the person on the other line hung up, another call was placed immediately, and then another, until he hung up the handset on the phone. He wasn’t sure if anyone listened in on his side of the phone because he never heard anybody. But by the speed of the redial, he assumed they were listening.”

“I think I see where you’re going and why you’re here,” I said. “You think he’s trapped somewhere and you want me to investigate who he is and how to rescue him?”

“You make me sound like a crackpot.”

I didn’t say anything. She did sound like a crackpot. She wanted me to investigate a strange call from a man who said in a long, convoluted way that he was trapped in a white room with a red phone for so many years that he didn’t know about modern phones or the way the world worked today. He never ate and never shat and she thinks this is a job for the police. I was wrong about her when I said she was a plastic trophy. At least plastic trophies knew to only worry about themselves and perhaps their pocketbook dogs. This woman worried about crazy people—and crazy people who might only exist in her crazy head. Stranger people with stranger stories had passed through these walls. At this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she fell into that bucket. At least she was small and didn’t look dangerous. I didn’t need to frisk her or worry for my safety. All thoughts of a quickie in the locker room disappeared. The last thing I needed was an insane person coming to my house and wanting to continue our relationship. She did have fine legs though. The legs always got me. Maybe I could make an exception for crazy with good legs. Maybe just for this once.

“I’m not done yet, officer. He started talking about the other people he had spoken to. As I said, he never spoke on the telephone to the same person twice. At first he was happy to speak to anyone. He felt it had been so long since he had spoken to a real person. Again there was that sadness I spoke about earlier. And with the sadness came a strong tug of recognition. I still couldn’t place it but I was so close I just needed to keep him talking to find out who he was and why he sounded so darn familiar. I was so close at this point.”

The good thing about crazy people was that their stories were almost never consistent. Finding holes in their story was not exactly good for the crazy person, but it was always fun for the officers. The way the crazy people reasoned around the holes was always entertaining. I put aside the report and the pen and decided to push her. To see how far she’ll stretch to keep her story mildly coherent. “Did he remember where he was before the white room—before he started making calls on the big red phone?”

“I did think to ask that, of course. His story was so strange, how could I not ask? But his recollections were hazy. It was like he was remembering through a fog or a dream. He remembered bright lights before the room, but he did know not where he was or where the lights came from. I suggested maybe he had been interrogated. It sounded a little like the scary stories we were hearing after 9/11. He didn’t think so. He felt that he had been away for a long while, and just finding the white room had allowed him to reconnect with the outside world. I pushed him for where he had been even before the bright lights. I wanted to know who he was that remembered the old style of phones. He said his recollection grew even hazier the further he went back. He had memories of material things, but he did not know who he was or how he connected to those material things. He did know that he had been a real person interacting with other real people in a real world. He had not always make phone calls. He knew how strange it sounded to be trapped in a white room with a red phone that only made calls out to random numbers.”

“This is certainly a strange story. I’m still confused why you came here to the station. You haven’t told me much that I could investigate. I guess we could pull your phone logs, but I would be surprised if we found anything.”

She watched me for a long while after I finished. I felt her weighing me in her eyes. Crazy people don’t always trust us normal folks. I couldn’t begin to guess what or why she judged me like that.

“I said before it was eight years ago that my husband fell into a coma. That was eight long years ago. I used to visit him every day. Then it was every week. Over the years it became a monthly ritual. Now it’s a good year when I visit him on our anniversary and his birthday. We all change, officer. Everyone of us. We all have the best of intentions going in, but we have to live our life, even if our life is as empty and hollow as my turned out to be. My husband was a good man. He didn’t garner much sympathy. He was in a car crash eight years ago. He had been drunk and hit another car, killing its teenage driver. My husband was not a drunk but he did drink socially. I didn’t blame him for the accident. He worked hard and he went out hard.

“The caller grew tired at the end of the call. He described it not as a physical tiredness but as a psychic tiredness, as if every part of him needed to slow down and rest. I bid him farewell and wished him luck on finding a way out of the room or finding who it was he was looking to call. He said the strangest thing to me then. He said he had found her, and that all he wished over each twinkling star was for her forgiveness. And then he said goodbye. I held the phone to my ear for the longest time after he hung up. I listened to the off-hook ringing until after it grew silent. I must have sat there with the silent phone against my ear for another hour. You see, I placed his voice when he made his wish. My husband wished over twinkling stars. It was how he proposed. He didn’t believe in prayer or god, but he did believe in the universe. He prayed to the universe in the form of the twinkling star. The callers voice, the one I couldn’t place, it was my husband’s voice. A voice I had not heard in almost decade.”

“Why’d you come to me? Why didn’t you go to the hospital? Isn’t that where your husband is now? Why not talk to doctors about this? Did he wake from his coma to make the call?”

“Don’t you think I started at the hospital? My husband was there, and the doctors listened to my story patiently. I could tell the doctor wanted to suggest counseling for me. I could see it in his eyes. He didn’t listen through the entire story. He kept cutting me off and pushing me to get to the point. I appreciated that you didn’t do that tonight, officer. I came to you because I had to find out whether the man on the phone was real or not. If his story was true or if he was just a crazy man, then it wasn’t who I thought. Then I am crazy or he’s crazy, and either way it doesn’t get me much closer to my husband. But if it’s not—if he managed to make some connection through a different way, then I have to know, officer.”

For once I wondered who the crazy person in the police hall actually was. It might have been her shapely legs, or maybe the sadness I finally felt from her, but whatever it was, I wanted to help her. I actually believed her. I know it sounds crazy. I looked her in the eyes and told her to start over, from the beginning. To explain it slower and with as many details as she could remember.

 Seattle, WA | , ,