Once by Stephen Dixon



By Stephen Dixon



Things he left out. For instance, only time he remembers yelling angrily at Dan. Okay, gave it away and incident probably isn’t interesting enough to be worth repeating, but he’ll give it a try. Doesn’t like it, out it goes. They have a second phone line for his wife’s and daughter’s computers. He hates these expositions as to why or how they got something—explanatory lead-ins, in other words—but thinks one’s necessary here for the scene to be clear. Got the second line a year and a half before Dan’s death. Before that, no one could call in if someone in the family—not he; he’ll never use a computer—was online. So, the second line which was to be used only for the two computers or if someone wanted to call out and the other phone was tied up. Surely he could have made that shorter. Maybe he just should have said that he was working in the dining room, where the phone for a second line and his daughter’s computers are, and got three telemarketing calls in an hour and when the phone rang about ten minutes later he picked up the receiver and yelled into it…For the first two months with the new phone line they got a number of personal calls for a Sidney Forb. Then one to two a week for a while, and then nothing for about a month, or not when he was around. Then they started getting three to four telemarketing calls for Forb on the computer phone. Then two to three a week and then at least one a day. To each he’d say or had told his wife and daughters to say  “Mr. Forb doesn’t have this number anymore, we do, and for the last half year, so please take it off your calling list,” and the telemarketer were always polite about it and said they would. But one morning, when he was working in the dining room where his daughter’s computer and the computer phones were, and during a period when they were getting one to two telemarketing calls a week for Forb, he answered three of them in an hour. “Jesus,” he said to the third caller, “how come I’m getting so many of these telemarketing calls today when we were down to almost none?” and the woman said “All I can tell you is you must be in our computer, or your phone number is, if Mr. Forb doesn’t have the number any longer, so in all the other computers that call you. You want me to remove it from ours?” and he said “Please, will ya? It’s a damn nuisance.” When the phone rang ten minutes later, he said “That’s enough, goddamit,” and jumped up from the table and darted over to the computer station which the phone was on and grabbed the receiver and said into it “Listen, I’ve had it up to here with your calls every ten minutes to sell something nobody here wants and even if we were halfway interested in it, would never touch because it came from one of these calls. Just remove our number from your files, which I don’t even know because we only use this phone for our computers,” and Dan said “Hey, hold it a minute; what’s the problem? It’s only me,” and Stu said “You? God, thought it was another telemarketer selling us another gravesite or whatever they were trying to sell this time,” and Dan said “They’ve been harassing you? Same with us, but once you tell them to delete your name from their computer list, they’re compelled by law to.” “Doesn’t seem to work. Cut one head off and two appear, or seems like. But I’ll keep trying. You saw me in action. Probably the wrong way to, though. Scares them off before they can punch the right key into the computer, or whatever they do. But how’d you get our number? As I said, it’s our second line and it’s true, I really don’t know it,” and Dan said, “Janice gave it to me as an emergency backup in case I couldn’t get through to the other. I never thought I’d need it. But your regular line’s been busy for more than an hour and I knew, because of how much you say you hate talking on the phone, so it couldn’t have been you,” and he said “Janice is out with one of her homecare attendants and Anita’s in school, so the phone must be off the hook—I’ll check. But is there an emergency with someone?” and Dan said “She’s out of danger now and has been moved from ICU to a private room, but Harriet was rushed to Roosevelt late last night with a serious intestinal infection. I’ve just seen her. She’s on IV and still a bit weak, so don’t call her for a day or so; I’ll keep you informed.” “You know,” Stu said a while later, “that was the first time, before, I can ever remember yelling at you like that. And of course it wasn’t you I was angry at but those poor guys who are paid to make those calls,” and Dan said “You were very young, so you forget. But when you were three or four and a little late at putting even elementary words together, you used to get so frustrated at your inability to communicate, or maybe you thought it was our inability to understand you, that you’d scream stuff nobody could understand at everyone. More to me than to anyone else, I think, because at the time I thought your stammering attempts at speech and subsequent frustration was very funny. You once even beat my legs and chest with your fists, I was laughing so hard. I was what—you’re eight years younger than me, right?” and Stu said “Nine years minus six days,” and Dan said “So I was twelve or thirteen, old enough to know better, but on this matter, I didn’t. But after, when you were able to speak comprehensible words and then put short sentences together, and didn’t stammer so much, but oh boy were you ever the stutterer for years, which I didn’t laugh at—I’d learned by then—it’s been very smooth between us I’d say. Though I’m sure, over the years, each of us has been a pain in the ass to the other sometimes. But not so much where we had to voice it, or am I wrong?” and Stu said “I don’t’ remember ever being mad at you for anything or thinking you were a pain in the ass, even when you threw that pillow at me and made me fall and split my head open. At the time I felt I deserved it because I was being a little brat to you. And after all, it was just a pillow, so I knew it was an accident.” “Damn,” Dan said angrily, “just when I had completely forgotten the incident, you had to bring it up. Only joking.”






Excerpted from Stephen Dixon's upcoming book Phone Rings. Stephen Dixon is the author of twenty-three books of fiction and has over four hundred published short stories. He has received two NEA fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his short stories have been selected for the O.Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize and the Paris Review John Train Humor Award, among others. His two novels Frog and Interstate were both finalists for the National Book Award. His latest novel is I, published by McSweeney's in 2002. He teaches writing in the Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University.

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