The Long Distance Call
As you can well imagine, we belles can be a little intimidated by our authority figures. And there was a time, not so long ago, (before cell phones and instant messaging) when long distance calls were a rare and expensive treat. Let's say crazy Uncle Stan from Memphis called one Sunday night to tell us that he had given up on women and was getting a dog. Well, we all would gather around the phone, jockeying for position by the receiver, straining to hear or be heard. As is the law of the jungle, it was survival of the fittest, so we little ones (if not trampled by the stampede to the phone) were usually forced to the extension in the hall where we were repeatedly told, "Quit breathing so loud—we can’t hear!"

For about three minutes our world was reduced to the size of a phone focused on the voice of a loved one from far away. I kinda miss Sunday night phone calls--the specialness of it all. To this day I have to remind myself to sit down, take a deep breath, and relax when someone from out of state calls (now living in the age of unlimited long distance it's not quite so exciting...a shame, really).

One rainy Saturday afternoon years ago I made an error in judgement...I answered a ringing phone. In our kitchen, to be exact. If Caller ID had existed at the time, this whole nasty episode could easily have been avoided. But alas, I innocently lifted the receiver off the cradle and said, "Hello."

First mistake!

"Is your Mama home?" I heard a gentleman ask.

"No sir," I politely replied with a smile (being raised right and all).

"This is Mr. Selser (Mama's boss). I am in Washington D.C. right now, and I really need to speak with her immediately."

I told him that she had gone grocery shopping and would he mind calling her back later?

But No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o! He said that he would be in and out of his hotel all day, so could I just take a message?

Take a message??? My eyes frantically darted back and forth looking for a pen. Nope! A pencil, maybe? Crayon? No! A lipstick? Nada! I was well aware that Mr. Selser was WAITING! Long distance! Herein was my problem--Mr. Selser was a stern, no-nonsense man, devoid of humor or patience, AND he was calling LONG DISTANCE! An authority figure on long distance...the clock is ticking…I am pacing to and fro as far as the perpetually tangled telephone cord would let me go. Just as I was contemplating slicing my finger and writing in blood on the fridge, I hear an annoyed, "Are you ready yet?" Oh when will this nightmare end?

Now here is where the Southern thing kicks in. Any normal human being would have just said, "Excuse me while I go get a pen." Not me, though. I panicked! To put down the phone and look for something to write with would take time and being long distance and all (as we learned earlier) time was of the essence! No pen, no paper, just my memory. Well, how bad could it be? So assuming he just wanted to give me the number where Mama could reach him, (knowing surely I could remember that) AND wanting to people please to the best of my ability, I bravely mumbled, "Yes Sir, I am ready."

Second mistake!

"Okay, here it goes." Those were the last words I can clearly recall Mr. Selser saying to me that rainy afternoon. It all became something of a blur after that. Because without fanfare, my Mama's boss started speaking…slowly...word after word. Not a phone number. Not something easily memorized, but a letter! A LETTER! Gamely at first, I tried to burn into my brain the words he was saying. I remember thinking if I could just get the gist of it and relay it to Mom as soon as she walked in the door, then she could call him back and straighten it all out.

But as he kept going on and on, I realized there was no way that was ever going to happen...I was in over my head—big time! He just kept going on and on, sentence after sentence. So I just figured, what the heck, I gave up. A full white flag surrender. I didn't even bother to listen to his words anymore. The sound of his voice became a bee buzzing in my ear. I thought to myself, I'll just tell Mama to call him when she gets in and he can dictate it all over again to her. Yeah, that's an idea! With a plan in mind, I started to relax a little, and my heart rate started to return to its pre-phone call rhythm.

As my fog cleared, I could still hear him droning on, syllable after syllable. My, he is wordy, I recall thinking! While he spoke, my thoughts wandered...Would the rain ever stop? What's for dinner? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? (Just kidding...I just threw that in so y'all would think I was deep and to make up for the stupidity that follows!)

Back from my reverie--Mr. Selser had been going on about a minute--when I start getting a bit bold. Wanting it to appear as if I really was taking down the message, I start to interrupt him. "Excuse me, sir. Is that a capital 'r'?" Or, "Should I start a new paragraph here?"

I start to have a little fun with this, and with this man who made my Mama's life so miserable on a regular basis. I am actually sitting down now, feet propped on the fridge door (and remember, I never sit during long distance calls!), filing my nails and throwing out some suggestions to help make his letter a bit more interesting. Imagine my delight at playing editor to my Mama's hellish boss as he dictated to me a letter I was pretending to take down.

Now, even after all these years, that is too twisted for me to wrap my mind around. But the innocence of youth was on my side, at least for a minute. Once more I interrupted his train of thought to question the spelling of a word. "Thank you, sir. Let's see...that was T-e-n-n-e-s-s-e-e? I got it, Sir." Finally we were heading for the home stretch. I was pretty pleased with myself, thinking I handled the whole situation pretty well. Here it was, a long distance call on a SATURDAY from an authority figure. I had not thrown up, nor did I panic (well not much), and I had been nothing short of charming and helpful to Mr. Selser, if I do say so myself. Heck, I practically co-authored his work!

So now as he is beginning to close what would have been a two-page letter, I think to myself, remember to tell mom to call him when she gets in. Two minutes of Mr. Selser's non-stop dictation (albeit with brief interruptions thrown in for my own amusement) finally came to an end.

I said, "Okay, Mr. Selser, I will have my Mom call you if she has any questions when she gets in." And as I get ready to hang up the phone, I hear the words that will forever live in infamy: "Could you read that back to me?"

My world stopped, my heart went into my throat, and I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach! "COULD YOU READ THAT BACK TO ME?"!!!!

So, of course I did the only thing any self-respecting Southern girl could do. I threw the receiver to the floor and screamed at the top of my lungs, "Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord, the kitchen's on fire!!!"

Lisa Love, a talented and insightful writer with a skewed sense of humor, looks for, and often finds the absurd masquerading as the mundane.

©Copyright 2006 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.