I made my first prank phone call when I was seven. A misdial. A simple slip up. I pressed a wrong digit and an older gentleman picked up instead of my seven-year-old classmate. Couldn’t tell you how old he was. Everyone’s an adult when you’re seven. He asked, “Hello, who’s this?” This was before caller I.D.
I was a shy kid and was told not to talk to strangers.
Not knowing what to say, I put the receiver back on the cradle on the wall. I was in the basement, my parents out of earshot. So, I picked up the phone and dialed again. An intentional misdial. Same number. Same number of rings before the old man picked up again.
Same groggy, “Hello, who’s this?”
The coiled, plastic-covered cord on the phone was long enough to reach across the room, but I stood next to the receiver, ready to quietly place the phone back into position, unnoticed. My hand rested on the particle board VHS cabinet. It was the kind with the doors that swung open like wings. It had a lock, but never knew why until a couple years later at a friend’s birthday party. Long after his parents went to sleep, my buddy grabbed a key and opened the VHS cabinet in his basement. Our own cabinet’s twin. The doors opened like some pervert selling contraband from underneath a trench coat behind the playground. It was filled with skin flicks: Hootie and the Blowjob. Smokey and the Bondage. Plowed and Prejudice. M*A*S*H.
I didn’t answer the old man’s question.
Instead, I hung up. Redialed. Hung up. Redialed. Hung up. Redialed.
By now the old man was pissed and I was having a blast.
“Listen here, motherfucker. You call me again and I’ll call the cops.”
It was the first time I heard someone use the term motherfucker with such authenticity, such control. He wasn’t an actor in a movie. He wasn’t some kid on the playground exploring new sounds floating from his mouth. No. It was genuine rage steeping in barrel-aged piss and vinegar. Sealed in wax. Jarred and kept for special occasions. I was enthralled.
I called again.
“Jesus Christ, you little shit—”
I hung up.
I felt rebellious. Never in my life had I had such power over another human being’s emotions. And all by accident. Fate. Destiny. My own nuclear launch code.
That number was etched into my brain for years and years.
I’d call it out of the blue from time to time and listen to the old man rage. I’d always call from pay phones at the mall—a nickel for his thoughts. He got older, but stayed just as crotchety. Admittedly, I was a little shit for what I’d done. Schadenfreude, I believe, was the word.
I continued to call well into my high school years, long after DVDs filled the VHS cabinet and we had cordless phones, eagerly awaiting his fuming verbal tirades. His vulgar assaults. There was something about the way the phrases shot out of his mouth I couldn’t get enough of. Every motherfucker. Every piece of shit. Every little bastard. Every swear word, a loaded mouth-bullet, spit at my willing heart for my transgressions. My years of annoyance. My years of abuse.
His cussing was predictable. I had every phrase in his repertoire memorized. I knew the order in which he’d say them. A song I heard a million times. One I knew every word to by heart. It wasn’t cursing creativity I was after. I longed for a barrage of the classics after a hard day. Every motherfucker. Every piece of shit. Every little bastard. Every son-of-a-bitch. Every blasphemous Jesus Christ. It was the authenticity in which the phrases graced his lips that kept me coming back for another round.
I called the number freshman year of college after I had failed my first big exam. I was hours away from home. Most people called their parents. A sibling. A Friend. Whomever.
Not me. I called him. I needed to be cheered up by his rage. But a woman picked up. Middle-aged, I guessed.
She asked, “Hello, who’s this?”
This time, I answered.
I said, “Hello,” and scrambled for what to say next. “I was hoping to speak to the head of household. An older gentleman—”
She hung up.
I called back, hoping I misdialed. Hoping for a motherfucker line-drive to my eardrums. I knew it wouldn’t happen, deep down. I couldn’t remember how to calculate slope any longer. I couldn’t tell you the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye if my life depended on it, but I knew this number. It was tattooed onto my brain.
The phone rang.
It was the woman. And again, she said, “Hello, who’s this?”
I hung up. I redialed. I hung up. I redialed. I hung up.
She picked up time and time again and was finally in tears.
She said, “Why are you doing this? Who are you? My father died.”
I took a deep breath, tasted the bittersweet grief, but held onto it as long as I could to savor what we shared. My lungs burned and I let it out. A slow exhale, our relationship released into the ether. The only way it existed. My face was hot. Snot clogged my nose while tears ran down my cheeks. I lost a friend—no, an unknown part of myself. And I wondered what the old man had lost. And did it hurt? I didn’t know what else to do so I hung up.
And I redialed.
It rang forever, until it finally went to voicemail. That same crotchety voice saying, “Yeah? I’m not here. Leave a message mother—”
It ended on the beep.
I choked up hearing his voice again, however brief, because in that moment, despite being a recording—it felt true, like the old man was there in his recliner. His voice had always been a familiarity, an odd peace I could rely on. And fueled by my own rage, one I’d learned from the old man—I redialed, because it dawned on me that I’d never once heard her voice in all these years. Did she visit? Did she care? Where the fuck was she when I was calling?
I called and called and called, ready to spit my own barrage of curses at her, until finally she picked up. But she was ready.
“Listen, motherfucker. I don’t know who you are, but if you keep calling, I’m going to call the cops, you little shit.”
Time had frozen and I pictured her sitting there as a little girl on the arm of the old man’s recliner, taking it all in, raised on profanity—for her cadence was a mirror image of his. The delicate control of the word motherfucker. The way the shhh lingered just for a moment with no concern for brevity, before driving the message home with an intense T that could stop you in your tracks and scare you into hanging up the telephone in the basement next to the old VHS cabinet.
I stayed on the line long enough to hear her breathing slow with a calm catharsis. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve, an audible sniffle on the line.
She whispered thank you.
I told her I was sorry about her father, and that he was my oldest friend. I gave her my number and told her to call any time she wanted. That I’d be there to wait on the line and listen. I wondered if she was sitting in the old man’s chair. Had she taken my number down? She stayed on the line in laconic patience, just as I had for all those years. I understood her silence. It was my turn to hang up.