“Are you there? Hello?” The voice breaks a little on the final oh. The sound of a foot scuffing against pavement. “Talk to me!” The distant wail of an ambulance — or is it a coyote? The paper’s been reporting more and more of them in the area, killing housepets and alarming the parents of small children.
“Hello? Hello?” Yellow light and the smell of curry spill from a window over on the far side of the parking lot. The figure at the pay phone is a dim outline in the deepening dusk. It doesn’t sound like any of the neighbors.
“Are you there? Listen, I can’t even tell if that’s your breathing, or just something on the line. Hello?”
A very long silence this time. Then in a low voice: “Just one word, O.K.? One word. It could even be ‘goodbye,’ if you that’s what you’re thinking. Just so I know you’re alive, and I’m not talking to myself.”
A car swings into the parking lot, illuminating for a couple seconds a hunched figure whose elongate shadow tracks across the face of the building like the hand of a backwards clock.
The car door slams, and the footsteps quickly retreat toward the far entrance, followed by several minutes of silence — or what passes for silence around here. It’s not a bad neighborhood. Most of us work long hours, come home, and fall asleep in front of our televisions. Weeks can pass between encounters even with the people across the hall; it can be hard to know whether a given neighbor is still there or not.
“Listen.” The voice finally resumes. “I’m sure I’ve given you plenty of reasons to give me the silent treatment. But this not knowing whether you’re there — it’s hard to take. I don’t know where you moved to. I don’t know…. Oh, hell!” The clink of coins falling into a metal well. “You people are thieves!”
Another long pause, then one final, resigned “Hello?”
The once-familiar sound of a pay phone returning to its cradle seems almost as anachronistic now as the clip-clop of a horse. Who are these people without mobile phones or Blackberries, traveling alone through their lives? “Hello,” you whisper to no one in particular. Such a funny little word! “Hello.”