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Caller 8

From lost girl in a new city to producer of a radio relationship show, Abby’s world had changed. She was no longer lost, no longer tumbling aimlessly and, above all, she was no longer lonely. Then, a voice on a phone, a plea for help, someone searching for understanding sends her out of her comfort zone and, perhaps, dangerously close to be lonely again.

Written by Rebecca Milton
Published by AmorBooks

“Thanks for calling, Dr. Darla, KUEV radio. You’re going to be caller number 8, can you give me a little rundown on what you want to talk to the doctor about?”

Pause. Silence.

Seven years, over ten thousand callers. I am her producer. I prescreen. Write a little blurb for her to read when she picks up the calls. The calls I let through. Name, where they are calling from and a brief snapshot of what they want to talk about. Dr. Darla is the relationship doctor, the love doctor, the romance doctor so most of the people calling are women, and most of them want to know about …

“Hello? You’re caller number 8, can you give me a little info about what you want to talk to the doctor about?”

Silence. Pause.

Women want to know what they’re doing wrong, why they can’t keep a man, why their men cheat. Men they want to know, indirectly, the best and quickest ways to get women in bed. Some of them want to know how to keep them in bed. Their bed, for as long as they want them there. I have heard all of it. I have grown numb to the callers who say things like; the damn bitch, she’s gone out and cheated on me. Or the ones – women – who have a deep, semi-permanent sob in their voice because their husbands, boyfriends, sometimes girlfriends, don’t seem interested any longer. How can they make them interested again?

“Okay, number 8, I have a lot of blinking lines here, a lot of folks need Dr. Darla’s advice so …”

I work for her because she helped me. I had moved to town seven years ago. Fled a bad relationship in the Midwest, thought I’d come to the city and just … lose myself. Become anonymous. Not be Andy’s girlfriend any longer. Not be Andy’s other half. Be me, for a change. And, you know, it worked. Trouble was … it worked. I didn’t know who I was when I wasn’t Andy’s something. I lost myself, got lost in the city, got lost completely. Then, one night, in my crappy little apartment, with a cheap bottle of wine, I heard Dr. Darla on the radio and I listened. I heard voices that sounded like mine. I heard problems that could have been mine, were mine. The next night, another bottle of wine, I called. I was caller number four on a Tuesday night. When I talked to Alan, the guy who had my job at the time, he asked my name, where I was calling from and what I wanted to talk to the doctor about. I said;

“I’m lost.”

And he said;

“It’s okay; she’ll find you.”

When Darla picked up my call, welcomed me to the show, asked what I meant by saying I was lost, I really don’t remember what I said. I remember her voice, I remember feeling instantly better. We talked for a while and then, she said she had to take a break. Asked me to stay on the line and she wanted to talk to me off-air. I did, and she offered me a job.

“You need a job,” she told me.

“I have a job,” I told her, I was working at the public library. I loved books, and so, it seemed like a good job.

“Too much time to be in your own head,” she told me, “come down to the station tomorrow, we’ll chat, you’ll come to work here, it’ll be better for you.” I didn’t think about it, I just said ok and the following day I was at the radio station. I was hired on as Alan’s assistant. I did that job for three weeks, getting to know everything he did and doing well and then, he got kicked upstairs to produce a nightly news talk show, and I took over his job. Been with her for seven years and, she was right, I needed this job. I found myself, my place and I was known as Abby, not Andy’s girl or Andy’s better half, I was Abby, producer of the Dr. Darla show.

“Caller 8, I really need …”

Then, I heard it. The dry mouthed swallow, the inhalation, the hesitation, the breath being pushed over the vocal chords, the chords vibrating and the words.

“I’m lonely,” he said.

Jesus Wept. Shortest verse in the Bible.

“I’m lonely.” Quickest way through my work toughened skin, into my sometimes cynical heart.

Darla called them her misfits, her sad sacks, Dr. Darla’s lonely hearts club band. She used these terms to keep herself sane, above it. If she allowed herself to be too involved, I don’t know what would happen. Why she allowed herself to be involved that deeply with me is a question I have never asked her. Why would I? She saved me, and I am not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I thanked her, and I do my job as best I can. Better than Alan did, better than anyone who thinks they can do it better. I get to come to the station five days a week, do a job that I love, actually help people on some level, and I am no longer lost and lonely. So, Darla does what she needs to do to stay above it, to continue to be able to do it. So calls them wackos, nutjobs, sad sacks, whatever. Me? I think they’re brave. Most of them. Sure, there’s a handful that need to move on. The one’s who are still wondering why their high school sweetheart dumped them, still wondering twenty-five years later. The ones who call to assure Darla that they will get the girl back, they will prove to her that they are the best thing in their life. And yet, for every weirdo, there are a dozen or more people who are really trying to figure it out, really trying to make a go at love, romance, relationships and it’s just come to the point where they need some help. I was one of them, so maybe I have allowed myself more sympathy, more understanding.

I think that being willing to talk about your fears, your hopes, your faults and failings on the radio, that’s brave. I know what it takes to get to that point so I admire them when I can, I accept them when I have to.

“Don’t screen all the nut jobs,” Darla told me early on, ‘Give me a few of those every night. People I can fight with, maybe slap down a bit. It’s good for business.”

“Okay, caller 8, you’re lonely,” I said, hearing the loneliness in his voice, almost feeling it through the phone. “I understand.”

“You do?” the voice asked and, it took me off guard.

“Yes,” I said, being sincere, being completely open, “I understand lonely.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For not saying you know how I feel,” he replied. He was right, I hadn’t thought of that. Usually, that is the response we give when we’re trying to be empathetic. I know how you feel is, in some way, supposed to make the other person feel less alone, less isolated in the world but, to me, it has always caused some level of anger. No, you don’t know how I feel because, I am, just now, trying to figure out how I feel myself.

“Well, caller 8, I don’t know you so I cannot say I know how you feel but I do certainly know lonely,” I told him, “I know lonely very well and, if your lonely is half of what I experienced, I am sure Dr. Darla can help.”

Silence again.

“So, I’m going to put you on hold, you have seven callers and one break ahead of you, and then, you’ll be talking to the doctor,” Silence. “Okay, caller 8?”

“Could I …” he started to speak then paused for a moment, “could I just talk to you?”

“Um, well, I have a bunch of callers to line up for her and … you know … I’m not a doctor.” Immediately I felt bad. To be honest, Dr. Darla wasn’t a doctor either. I mean, she was, she had a PH.D. But, she wasn’t a medical doctor or a psychological doctor. Her doctorate was in eighteenth-century romantic literature. She couldn’t prescribe medication; she didn’t have a vast and thorough psychiatric background. She was smart, had a huge vocabulary and she was a very good listener. So, she was a doctor but not the kind of doctor most of the callers really needed.

“Okay,” he said, and I hesitated before I put him on hold. Something told me that, if I did, when I came back to him, he wasn’t going to be there. I had to move on; I had to line up the callers.

“Okay, putting you on hold now, just hang tight, this will go by quickly,” I assured him. He said nothing. I hit the hold button, lined up the next twelve callers and then, checked back. “Caller eight are you …” gone, his line wasn’t flashing, the silence was dead. He had gone. I felt a little sad. I wished he had stayed on; Darla would have helped, I knew it. I got caught up in thinking about him, and I forgot to drop him from Darla’s screen. I snapped back into reality when I heard her pick up the line.

“And next we have Dexter from midtown and Dexter, you say you’re lonely,” Darla said, I was too late.

“Hello,” an elderly woman’s voice came on air, she was caller number nine, now eight and…

“Sorry, Doctor Darla,” I said into my show mic, “Dexter had to run, my mistake, this is Agnes from Hightown, and she feels like her dating years might be behind her.” Darla gave me a glare through the studio window, I shrugged, she smiled and took the call in stride.

“How old are you, Agnes,” she asked the caller.

“I’m sixty-two,” the woman answered, and Dr. Darla went to work.

“So remember, don’t despair, you’re not alone, you know I am always as close as the phone. Good night, good romance and thank you for listening to the Dr. Darla show here on KUEV radio.” She looked at me.

“We’re out,” I said, and she dropped her cans on the console, stood and stretched. I cleaned up my area, said hello to Arnie Grimes, the producer for the Wolf and Crane sports talk show and headed to my office for my nightly post-mortem with Darla.

“Sorry about the mix-up,” I said as soon as she sat down in my office.

“Not a problem, what happened?”

“Not sure. Caller eight said he was lonely, I gave him the run down, he asked if he could just talk to me, I told him I wasn’t a doctor …”

“Well, neither am I.”

“Right but, well, you know. I put him on hold, and when I checked back, he was gone.”

“Well, maybe he wasn’t that lonely.”

“No, he was,” I assured her, “I could hear it in his voice, he was lonely.” She looked at me for a moment, thought and then moved on.

“Maybe he’ll call back earlier next time,” she said and then we ran down the show.

I got off the subway that evening, and the city seemed oddly quiet. It was a quiet that usually comes with snow, blankets covering the roads, dimming the street and traffic lights. The muffle, the cover of snow makes for a sweet, romantic lull over a usually rough and careless city. That muffle, that silence was there, but it was July. I stood for a second, top of the stairs, listened, wondered and then walked on, slowly, toward my apartment. I had upgraded considerably since I started working for Dr. Darla. My place wasn’t crappy anymore. It wasn’t a cave. It was bigger, lighter, warmer to the soul.

As I strolled along, I was thinking about caller eight. I remembered the loneliness in his voice. That sigh, that hesitation before he spoke. I knew it. I had lived it for a long time. Not just when I had moved here, started again. I had felt it when I was in the middle of a holiday party back home, and someone introduced me as Andy’s girl. I felt that sense of being alone in my own skin, in a crowded room. I was so lonely. Of course, when I moved here, knowing no one, making contact with only books, beautiful books, living mostly in my own head … I was lonely. Deeply, deeply lonely.

There are people who don’t understand the feeling, have never, ever experienced the feeling. They may miss someone, or feel alone one or two nights. Those are real feelings, valid feelings, but they are not the same as being lonely. I remember walking home from the library, back to the old apartment and, even in the middle of summer, the buildings, the shops, the people, they all had a tint about them, a dark, bluish color. I often felt trapped inside some kind of Dickensian novel, the sadness, the misery, coloring the world this hue of blue. Loneliness, my loneliness, was painting the world around me, dragging me further and further down into … what?

That was the question, day in, day out, into what? What happens now? Can a person live this lonely? The answer, of course, is no. At some point, you stop living, and you slip silent, quiet, like a blooming spring into a mild fall, into existing. Simply existing. Walking paths, eating foods, looking at things. You are on the edge of humanity. I often thought that zombies aren’t the undead, they are the lengthy lonely.

I wandered home in the strange silence for a summer street, got home, poured a glass of wine and sat on my balcony and watched the night. Watched it with joy and a measure of thankfulness that I have never given up on. Tomorrow, as always, was another day, another chance.

***

“Thanks for calling, Dr. Darla, KUEV radio. You’re going to be caller number ten, can you give me a little rundown on what you want to talk to the doctor about?” The following night, lining up the callers, listening to Darla. Silence On the phone. I waited, repeated myself and heard it, the dry mouth, the inhale, exhale.

“Hello, I called …” he started to say, and I interrupted him.

“Caller eight?” I asked. I waited, heard nothing and then …

“Yes, right, last night, yes … caller eight,” the voice said. I held my breath for a moment and wondered what to do.

“Caller eight,” I said, leaning on my desk, almost whispering into my mic, “does your loneliness make the world around you seem … a certain color?”

“Blue,” he said without hesitation, “it’s blue. The buildings and cars. Like an old fashioned photograph in some ways. Blue.” As he spoke, I was typing it into the computer, putting it on the screen for Darla to read, the information she would have when she took his call. He stopped, and I could feel him on the line. The worry, did he say too much, would I think, would the doctor think, he was crazy.

“It’s like a Dickens novel sometimes,” I said, and there was silence. A long silence. I didn’t push him along, I had nine callers lined up and a break on the way, I had time. I waited. Finally …

“Yes,” he said, simple, clear, true, “that’s exactly … yes.”

“I told you; I know lonely.”

I gave him the rundown, told him he’d be caller number ten, nine and a break ahead of him.

“You going to hang on this time,” I asked, trying to be light, to tease but to keep him on the line.

“I hope so,” he said and, I understood. I recalled the days of thinking, I hope I can get out of bed tomorrow. I hope I don’t just walk to the basement, into the stacks of forgotten tomes and just … stay there.

I hoped. He hoped. I understood. I put him on hold and checked back with him after every caller Darla took, telling him his place in line. Seven more, three more, a break and it’s you. Darla took the break and then I watched her look at her screen and read the rundown on caller ten. She leaned into her mic,

“Abby, is this the guy from last night?”

“Yes, he called back, he’s still on the line.” She nodded, read the screen again and then leaned in, “bump him,” she said, “put the next caller through.”

“What do I do with him,” I asked, not at all understanding why she would turn this guy down.

“Talk to him.” I checked the time.

“Back in three, two …” I hit the playback on the intro, and she took caller number eleven. I waited, made sure the call was going well, and then I picked up his line.

“Hey,” I said, “you still with us?”

“Still here, am I next?” There was a painful pairing of hope and fear in his voice. I was proud of him, I didn’t even know him, but I was proud of him for staying on the line. I was also worried that he would be shattered, hang up when I told him what happened.

“No, caller eight, Darla took the caller after you, and she told me … that I should talk to you.” Silence. Long silence. I waited.

“Dexter,” he said at last, “can you call me Dexter instead of caller eight or is that against the rules?” I relaxed.

“Absolutely, Dexter,” I said, and again, he was quiet.

“I’m glad I’m talking to you,” he said after a moment, “I was, truly, going to talk to Darla, but, honestly, I feel more comfortable talking to one person than I do talking to the listening public.”

“I understand.”

“I know you do,” he replied quickly, no hesitation, “that’s another reason I feel better talking to you.”

“Okay, good. Now, what do you need to talk about?” He was silent again, which, now I knew was his way, his toes on the edge before he jumped. Now, I knew he would jump so I waited.

“Down the street there’s a small park. Not even a real park, some grass, a few benches. There’s a statue of Grant. Green now, it’s one-time red copper having oxidized and then become adorned with the leavings of the pigeons. For some time, I liked this little park. I walked through it to and from work. On Saturday mornings, I would sit on one of the benches and drink my coffee, read the paper, let the morning ease gracefully into afternoon. I had a favorite bench of the three. I liked the view; I liked the people who walked by.

Mind you, I never spoke to them, I never asked any of them to sit with me. I never showed up on a Saturday with a box of danish from Cromley’s on second and offered them to passers-by as if they were friends or I was shilling for the red cross. I sat, drank my coffee, read my paper, I walked through. I cannot tell you why I liked this park so much.

One day, two events happened in the park. A Saturday so, I was sitting. It was rare for people to stop in the park. It was a pass through sort of place for most people. I didn’t mind that. Actually, I liked that. I tend to like humanity at a short distance or in motion, moving away from me, around me but rarely stopping to be with me. On this Saturday, a young couple was sitting on the bench opposite from the bench I normally sat on when I arrived. They were silent, heads down, as if in prayer. I sipped my coffee, opened my paper and started to read. Then I heard her voice.

She asked if he blamed her, if he was mad at her. He assured that, no, no blame was being laid on her, no anger was being directed at her. I caught bits and pieces and, not normally an eavesdropper, I was surprised at myself for listening. She asked again and again for assurances and he, best he could, supplied them.

Something was wrong. There was a break in communication that seemed unnatural. I did not know this couple, but I could feel that there was a deep fissure growing. As I listened more, put pieces together, I realized that she had lost a child, miscarried their child, and she was feeling … guilty.

They talked more. She needed him. She needed him to say it was going to be fine. I was sure he would. He was saying the right words, almost. Soothing her, almost. Then, he stood. I looked over the top of my paper and watched him. He stood, looking down at her for a long time and then, he said that he couldn’t do it any longer. She said I’m sorry. He didn’t reply, he turned and walked out of the park. She didn’t cry, she didn’t chase after him, she sat. The sorry. The words she spoke, the feeling she put into that two-word phrase, was large and liquid, and it hit the ground at her feet, unanswered and spread. It covered the path, moved up onto the grass, burrowed into the roots of trees and then, the park was … sorrow.”

He went silent again. I waited, clicked buttons, sent callers to Darla and waited.

“Dexter,” I said, “did you stay in the park?”

“I did, I was frozen there. I waited for the girl to leave, I was determined to say something to her. Answer the plea of sorrow, say something that maybe would have helped her and maybe, just maybe, the sorrow that now engulfed that park would have retreated, and things would have been … I don’t know.”

“Dexter,” I started to say something, not knowing what I was going to say.

“That’s all, that’s … okay, I have to … good night,” he said, and the line buzzed then, silent. He was gone. I sat, feeling a weight, a sadness and, that sweet, slim flicker of hope that maybe, I did some good.

“Is that how you feel,” I asked Darla later in my office. I had told her about the call, the story, “Do you feel … hope?” She thought for a long time before she answered.

“Sometimes hope, sometimes, less.”

***

“It’s Dexter,” he said, the following night when I picked up his line. I told him to hang on, I was just starting to set up calls. “I’ll be back in like ten minutes, is that okay?”

“Yes, thank you.” I set my callers, wrote the blurbs, told Darla he was back on and then picked up his line again. As soon as he heard me, he started to speak. No hesitation, no toes on the edge, he just leaped in.

“I don’t give change to panhandlers, never have. Too many and it can be too much. I realized, when that poor young girl left the park, alone, destroyed. I realized as she walked by me, caught my eye, looked directly at me, her eyes asking me for … something. Me incapable or … I don’t know, suddenly unwilling to extend myself, to get involved … for … fear of failing. Fear of saying the wrong thing. I turned my eyes to my paper and let her walk away.

Something changed in me. That was the second event. I stopped making eye contact. I stopped greeting people. I stopped being … human, I think and retreated. Now, I am trapped. Now, I cannot reach anyone. I cannot touch anyone, and no one can reach or touch me. I started being alone and now … I am lonely. No matter what I do, how I start my day, I cannot seem to change. I don’t sit in that park any longer. My hands don’t reach to help. My voice never raises to praise or sooth or bolster. I am trapped inside of my clothes, my skin, my head and now … now, dear God, I am so lonely.”

“He needs to see someone,” Darla said that evening in office, “he needs a real doctor.” I didn’t agree. I didn’t tell her so, but I felt that he needed something different.

***

Dexter called the following night and the night after. On the third night, I gave him my cell number and told him to call me directly, at home, when I was not at the studio. He did. We talked every night after I came home from work. As we talked, as he let go more and more, I heard him, truly the person I thought he was in there. Under the sorry, the fear, the loneliness, I heard true glimpses of him. At the end of the calls, each time, he thanked me and told me how much talking to me helped. I didn’t mind.

At first it felt like therapy, and I worried that I would fail him, push him too much. Then as we talked, I relaxed, and I liked it. I liked his word choice and how he saw the world. I marveled at how brave he was to say that, stopping, retreating from humanity was the worst thing people could do, and yet, he fully admitted, that is what he had done.

As the weeks passed and the talks got deeper, I heard him shed his fear. Then what took over was a very powerful desire to shed the lonely, step back into the world.

***

“Tomorrow,” he told me one late Friday evening, “I am going to put on the human suit and get back into the world.”

“It’s time,” I said.

“It truly is,” he replied and then, he thanked me, told me how wonderful I was, told me that I was truly an angel and that I needed to step up to the mic on my own.

“So, what’s this,” I asked, suddenly feeling uneasy, “We’re done, you’re cured, and now, we’re done?” Silence. A sick violence.

“Yes,” he said at last, “thank you. Take care.” And that was it. He hung up. I was struck by a mixture of anger, disbelief and yet, there was some small bit of pride in there.

***

“Well, you cured him,” Darla said the following day, “you heard him, understood him and you cured him. That’s something to be proud of.”

“Yes, but …” I protested.

“But what,” she asked leaning on the table looking me in the eyes. She smiled. “But, you thought it would be a romance. Pull the thorn from his paw and hey, we fall in love and live happily ever after. Is that what you wanted?” I had to think about the question. Is that what I had wanted?

“No, I just thought, I don’t know, a cup of coffee, maybe.” She laughed.

“Once in awhile, when I get a repeat caller, I think of what it would be like to meet them, speak to them face to face … have an affair with them, you know. I mean, if I help them, maybe there’s a connection. Then I realized, I would always be … in charge, I was the one who saved them, they would always, in some way, be beholding to me. I don’t want that. Do you?”

“No,” I said and meant it. She had a point and maybe, probably, Dexter knew it as well. He was smart, and his way of ending the situation was probably the best, the smartest thing for us. It didn’t completely satisfy me but, it was, intellectually, right. “But, I did help him,” I said, and she agreed.

“You did, you heard something in his voice that, who knows if I would have heard, you took the time and you helped him. Maybe next time, you should do it on air so we can sell products and make more money.” I laughed, she didn’t.

***

A month later, Darla announced her vacation and said she had a very eminent relationship specialist who was going to come in and cover for her for the month she was away.

“Who?” I asked.

“You.” I laughed. She didn’t.

***

A week later, I was on the air. Abby, not a doctor, not a specialist, just talking with Abby. Filling the space while Darla recharged the batteries. It was a little rough at first but then, it felt natural, felt right. I half expected Dexter to call, to ring the studio, talk to me on the air.

At the end of the first week, I had concocted this notion that he would call, we would pick up, reunite as it were and then … who knows? The call never came and I just … moved forward.

***

Darla came back, and the station offered me my own morning drive-time show. Gabbing with Abby was the pitch. I knew I had arrived the day I saw my picture on the side of a bus. I was caught in press functions, special appearances. My life became very, very different. Also, it became … lonely. I was retreating from the world because it felt like everyone in the world was grabbing a piece of me.

I talked to Darla about it, did an evening segment on the air with her as a guest on her show. It helped some, to know she had gone through it, and there was another side, an end to it. It just felt like the end, the return to normal, was so far away.

***

After one year, the show was so popular that I became syndicated. I sat in the board room with lawyers and representatives from the parent station. I signed contracts for merchandise and the like. Lots of handshakes. Lots of congratulations. Darla hugged me, and I thanked her, telling her, truthfully, that I would not have been there without her.

“Stay in the world,” she said, and it struck me hard. I was feeling the need, more and more, to leave the world. I was feeling more and more lonely.

The room thinned out; the people went back to their work or home, and I sat in the boardroom by myself. It was a lot to take in. I had never imagined anything like it, ever. Radio, talk shows, merchandise, none of that had ever crossed my mind. After breathing for a while, letting it all sink in, I gathered my things and walked out of the studio.

It had snowed while I was in there, a light dusting was on the ground, and I was not wearing the right shoes for the weather. I clung to the handrail and inched along to the edge of the parking lot. I could see my car, a few feet away and I figured I was safe.

I stepped forward, took two more steps and then, I was in the air, the blue sky above me, the pavement below. I started to come down and hands, gracious, glorious hands caught me, set me upright on the ground. The owner of the hands was standing behind me; he asked if I was all right. I knew the voice. I knew it, like my own heartbeat. I turned slowly.

“I”m fine, Dexter,” I said to him, “how are you?”

“Ready,” he said, and he took my hand and walked me to my car.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Contemporary Fiction, Fiction, Romance, Sexy Stories

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