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Law of the Landline

It’s a school night in Fall and I’m walking with my friends into a lawyer’s office in Huntington when I realize I’ve never been inside a lawyer’s office before.

The only lawyer I knew growing up was Owen’s dad, and in my mind his office is a series of square rooms on a long hallway. I’ve never been inside Owen’s dad’s office, so I’m probably dead wrong on the layout, but the description is how I picture a lawyer’s office. Studious spaces with austere hallways and grim faces.

This lawyer’s office, the one I’m entering now, is a large house transformed into, you guessed it, a lawyer’s office. It reminds me of my house. But it’s not my house, it’s a lawyer’s office. An office of the law for officers of the law.

No wait, aren’t those cops? Lawyers just argue the law, right? Are they actually called attorneys? I should know this, except my eleventh grade civics class hasn’t gotten there yet. I’m secretly afraid that anything one does inside a lawyer’s office becomes legally binding, so I’m watching my step.

At this point, one might ask why a cadre of young, liberally-minded high school boys are walking into a lawyer’s office at night. Since the answer to that question is potentially incriminating, I had to check with my attorney and he approved the following statement.

On a cold school night during the 2004 Election season, I made campaign calls for Kerry.

There. I said it.  I know it’s not necessarily incriminating, but you’ll get no more from me until there’s a signed deal. I’ve seen THE WIRE. I watched JAG. I know how this works. This story won’t continue until I get immunity, and possibly witness protection. At the very least, please promise not to tell anyone important about this, okay? Swear on the life of your parent’s favorite child you won’t blab. I mean it. Cross your heart and hope for pie.

Did you pick boysenberry? Good. I knew I could trust you.

Once inside the rather plain office, my friends and I are naively left to our own devices. The devices in question are phones. Landline phones. If you’re too young to remember a landline phone, they carry an aura of legitimacy about their person- err, device. Person-device. Device-American. Whatever. They feel real because you can follow the route your voice takes as it travels from the phone through the cord into the wall and off to the great network of telecommunication. Also you can play with the cord. I like wrapping it between my fingers.

Playing with our cords, we listen to Phil, the friend in charge, give the final briefing. Our instructions are simple. Look at the list. Dial the number. Follow the script. Don’t screw up.

It’s the last one that I’m most afraid of. There are doubts among my friends that I will be able to make the calls. It’s not that I can’t look at a list, or dial a number or follow a script.

I was Tiny Tim in community theater production of a CHRISTMAS CAROL, twice, four years apart. I can follow a damn script.

The fear is that the person on the other end of the line won’t be able to hear me.

Objection!

This isn’t the time or place for objections but I need to introduce a new piece of evidence.

Approximately seven months before tonight, I lost most of my voice function due to an induced coma that saved my life. Because of a small hole that forms when the back of my vocal chords refuse to meet, I can’t manage enough vibration to talk in a normal voice.

My outside voice is a loud whisper. My inside voice is also a loud whisper. If I need to shout, I use my eyebrows.

Still thinking my voice might gradually return by the new year, I insist I can make these calls just as well as anyone else. In truth, it is a testament to the belief my friends have in me that they actually let me try.

The first call is a doozy. Even dialing the phone, I’m practicing the spiel while fervently denying the little voice in my head saying this won’t work. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Tired of reading “ring”? Fine, we’ll skip to the end. The first call is a no answer. I hang up, and secretly hope all my calls are no answers. Wouldn’t that be great? I could do my bit for the common good without actually having to find out whether or not my voice can be heard. Surely there exists a list of numbers where no one will answer, called The Ghost List, and why can’t that list be my list?

On the second call, someone answers. Here we go. With a loud whisper, I introduce myself. There’s a pause. A long pause. A really long pause. I keep waiting for a reply, but nothing is coming. Did they hear me? Did it work? Can I be a normal person? Will anyone ever love me again? Am I still presidential material? What will I-

Oh, they hung up already. I must have missed the click.

It would be the utmost of narrative convenience if my alleged crime happened on the third call, but in truth, I don’t remember the number. However it’s the last campaign call of my life. Probably.

The call began normally enough. I make it through my name, the candidate’s name, and the rest of the inane drivel I’m supposed to say. There’s a silence. I think they’ve hung up but then a voice on the other end announces they can’t understand me. I apologize, repeating my spiel. They accuse me of whispering. I try to explain I have a vocal chord dysfunction, and it’s only temporary (it’s not) if they could just try to hear me a littler harder.

They’re not having it, but they’re not hanging up either. A puzzler.

Trapped on the line with what sounds to me like a little old lady, I panic. This call is headed downhill fast but I also know we’re not supposed to hang up on them. That’s prank calling. That’s illegal. In a haze of frustration and fear, I say the one thing that pops into my head to resolve the situation.

“I love you.”

And then, I hang up.

For a moment, I wait to see if anything bad happens. Part of me wants to believe I didn’t just do that. Across the room, at other desks, my peers jabber merrily away to their callers. It’s so easy for them with their working vocal chords, I grumble to the Phone-American in front of me. I pick it up to make the next call when I hear Phil’s voice across the room. He’s apologizing to someone. I walk over to investigate, fearing the worst. Listening to his conversation, I realize this is the person who I just called.

The jig is up, but maybe not all the way up.

After Phil hangs up with the irate man, he launches an investigation of his own. Like a practiced politician, I open with a straight-up denial. No, Phil I don’t think that was me, I say with feigned confidence. Who would do such a thing? Only crazy people call strangers at night to whisper “I love you”.

The evidence is circumstantial, but unfortunately, it’s also compelling. I shift tactics, admitting that maybe I did say it, but not to the person, just to myself, as I was hanging up. They probably heard that, I suggest, but maybe I shouldn’t make anymore calls.

Like a practiced prosecutor, Phil takes this plea deal and I retire to the adjacent sofa.

Waiting in the lawyer’s office for my friends to finish up, I cycle through the consequences in my head. This is a lawyer’s office. Am I going to get them in trouble? Will they come after me? I can hear them clearly.

“Sorry kid, nothing personal but we have to sue the crap out of your parents because you told this model-citizen’s wife that you loved her.”

It sounds ridiculous, but say it in a lawyer’s office and it becomes legally binding. I imagine the head lawyer in his important suit (compared to his non-important suit, the one with the tie his kid picked out) calling my father on the landline, the legitimate line, informing him that his small business would have to be closed, its assets seized to pay for his son’s offense. We talk about the sins of the father damning the son, but nobody ever talks about the son screwing up his dad’s shit. The terror weighs on me mightily as I sweat out the remaining time.

After we leave, I remain wary of repercussions, but none have found me yet.

If Lady Justice has forgiven my crime, then I wish her all the best. And to the person out there, who over a decade ago, on a cold autumn night received a whispering caller, I have but one thing left to say.

“Good evening, my name is Tuck and I’m calling on behalf of the John Kerry campaign and we’re reaching out to make sure you’re registered to vote.”

I love you.

Click.

Published inNon-fiction

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