The Phone Booth

Here’s a Samhain-tide story for you. Some bits are quite true, and might suggest an addition to your ancestor altar, or an idea for a connection practice when (and where) the veil is thin…

 

 

THE PHONE BOOTH

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“There’s my smart girl,” she said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

I wanted to say “Come on, give me a break, this wasn’t exactly intuitive.” But I didn’t.

First, I had to find a phone booth. They disappeared so quietly, one by one, over the years, while we’ve all been busy looking at our cell screens. Who took the time to notice? To remember, even, where they had been? Who noted the small, person-sized square footprints that marked their leaving?

I started out by driving around the area near my house, in widening circles. Efficient. Low-effort. Thorough and methodical. It felt wrong from the beginning. Too scientific. If there was anything I needed to slip the bonds of, on this thing that I realized was actually becoming a quest, it was rational thinking. That wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

So I started walking. When I needed to go further, I took a bus. Eventually I bought a used bike, from a friend of a friend. Sometimes I’d just get on the first bus that came along, without looking, and when I got off, somewhere I didn’t recognize, I’d let the bike turn itself onto smaller and stranger streets. I spent most of that autumn hopelessly lost, in my own city, on purpose. I’d decided to trust the obsession, and the obsession told me I’d know it when I saw it.

I found a few. They never felt right, but I checked anyway. Leaned my bike up against the junctions of peeling metal and milky plastic glass, walked right in. They stopped putting doors on phone booths a long time before they stopped putting up phone booths at all. Not even really booths anymore. Cubbies. Niches. Fat little half-moons of pretend-privacy, cut out of the hot, exhaust-reeking city air like someone had set one of those tall, thin cookie cutters down into the dough of the street, and then left it there.

Most of them, surprisingly enough, worked. I picked up that fat receiver that felt like a mistake in my hand, and heard a dial tone. I did that first, because if there was a dial tone, I knew I was in the wrong place. When the phone didn’t work I’d breathe carefully, try not to get my hopes up, turn and look out through the years of stains and scratches at the street, or the alleyway, or the side of a grocery store. Nope. None of them had the right view.

My mother had been dead for months before the dreams started. I had expected something sooner. Expected to wake up in the dark to find her sitting on the edge of my bed, maybe, saying reassuring things about loving me and being in a better place and everything was going to turn out all right. I’d heard about those dreams. I didn’t care if they were “real” or not, I figured that the brain’s desperate subconscious clutching at comfort might make up these things, along with the tunnel of light lined by dead loved ones that some say we see at the end, and the sense of a presence we desperately miss – a scent or the sound of their voice, even just a strong, eerie-enchanting feeling – continuing to be with us until we don’t seem to need it anymore.

I expected something like that, but what I got were mostly very matter-of-fact dreams, never marked by big emotion. I’d come downstairs, for example, see her sitting at my kitchen table with paperwork stacked and scattered all across the bleached wood surface. “What are you doing?” I’d ask her. “I’m doing your taxes,” she’d answer. Of all the possible objections to that, mine was, probably, the most obvious. “But you’re dead.”

“Doesn’t mean I can’t still do your taxes,” she said.

The other thing that would happen in dreams, all the time, was that the phone would start ringing. This was back in the days when cordless telephones were just starting to be a thing, and the reception sort of sucked. Most people, including me, still had at least one phone that plugged into the wall. In the dreams, if the phone was ringing, and I looked at it and noticed that it was not plugged into the wall… I’d know it was my mother on the other end of the line.

I always woke up before I could answer, but that didn’t matter. What I knew, in those dreams, with absolute certainty, was that when a phone that wasn’t connected to anything rang, I was about to talk to my mother.

On March 11, 2011, almost twenty years after my mother died, an enormous earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Japan. That earthquake shook up a tsunami that is credited with more than 18,000 lives.

Very close to the epicenter, in Iwate Prefecture in the town of Otsuchi, a retired steel worker named Itaru Sasaki lived through the storm. He had retired early and, at 69, he was not a steel worker anymore. He was a gardener.

A month after the storm, Sasaki built a phone booth in his garden, on a rise overlooking the sea that had risen up, slapped so many down, sucked so many lives out into the deep. In that booth he put a black rotary-dial phone, connected to nothing. He called it Kaze no Denwa, the Phone of the Wind.

That’s the phone where people can call and talk to the ones who were taken out to sea. And they do. Five years later, almost 10,000 people have picked up that receiver, dug their fingers into the holes of that old, sluggish dial, and talked to the ones they lost.

That’s what the story on NPR said. I was listening to the radio in the car, on my way to somewhere that I never got to, because that – that moment – was when I started looking.

First, I had to find a phone booth. It took me awhile. It was months before I stood in the rickety structure on South Flores, almost hidden behind a telephone pole in the mouth of an overgrown alley. I didn’t have to pick up the receiver to see if it worked. The metal-cased cord hung straight down from the bottom, stiff and pointless like the tail of some road-kill armadillo, swinging just the tiniest bit, a foot or so above the weeds that were growing up through the cracks in the floor.

There was no ocean-view, but across the street the late afternoon autumn light was slanting in buttery thick beams across the store-fronts in the run-down little strip mall. Gilding into patina-ed glamour the hand-painted signs: Botanica Miracle Hands, right next to Dust Fitness. I was right. I knew it when I saw it.

I’d been thinking, all those months, about how to call. I didn’t know how many chances I’d have to get it right. I remembered that the radio said the people in Otsuchi dialed that phone. Most of them dialed the last known number of the person they were calling. I spent a useless week trying to remember what my parents’ phone number had been, twenty-five years ago. But then I had another idea.

I dialed her birthday. I knew a lot of people were born on that same day, but I figured it narrowed things down a little. When a voice answered, I asked for her using her maiden name, the one she’d been born with. I added both of her parents’ names, just to be safe.

“One moment please,” said the voice on the other end. The wait wasn’t even very long.

“There’s my smart girl,” Mom said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

 

photo from www3.nhk.or.jp

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