A Conversation With Mary

by Christopher Defossez, Contributor
__________________________________________________________________________________________

It was the Spring of 1973 when she called me. I don’t remember the exact date or I’d tell you. It was soon after my divorce though, so it must have been nearer the end of April than the end of March. I was sitting down watching The Tonight Show when my phone rang. Figuring it wasn’t as important as my entertainment, I let it ring, hoping the caller would give up and allow me to enjoy my evening. Put simply, that didn’t happen. After ten minutes of continuous ringing I stood up and answered.

“What is it?” I said. I was a little annoyed and that feeling leaked into my tone. My caller didn’t seem to notice.

“Hello there. What’s your name?”

It was a woman’s voice. Cheerful. Eerily so. It took me by surprise and before I could think better of it I answered, “Uh, Frank. Frank Ranekin.”

“Ah, yes,” said the woman’s voice in a way that suggested my name was familiar to her, “My name is Mary.”

“I don’t know any Marys,” I said. This was true.

“I know this must seem strange,” said Mary, “I’m probably interrupting something important. Am I interrupting anything, Frank?”

“Just The Tonight Show,” I answered.

“Just The Tonight Show,” she repeated. “Tell me, Frank. Would it trouble you terribly to talk to me for a little bit? I feel like I should be honest with you. I take random numbers from the phone book and call them up because I get lonely. Would you mind giving me some of your time?”

I should have said that I did mind. I should have told her in no uncertain terms that watching The Tonight Show was the lone bright moment in my otherwise depressing life and there was no way in hell I was going to let a random stranger convince me into missing an episode by talking about nothing with her on the phone.

I didn’t say any of that. I said, “If you’ve got nothing better to do, I guess we can talk.”

My response produced genuine sounding laughter and I think I might have heard her stomping her feet or slapping her thigh in glee. “Oh good!” she said, “Sometimes it takes so many numbers before I get someone willing to talk to me.” Her voice fell, “Maybe I’m just not a very interesting person.”

Something about the way she said that stirred my sense of pity and I said, “No, I’m sure that’s not it. Lots of people are just shy.”

“I’m shy, too, you know,” said Mary. “You might not think so because of how many phone calls I make, but this is really all the interaction I can handle.” She paused for a moment before continuing, “I haven’t left my house in over two weeks. Sometimes I think Princeton is my only real friend.”

“Princeton?” I asked.

“He’s my dog. He’s a really good dog. Do you want to say hello to him?”

“Sure,” I said, now slightly intrigued with how the conversation was unfolding.

“Oh good!” said Mary, “He’s right here next to me. Say hello, Princeton!”

The line went silent for a moment and then I heard a loud, doggish panting through the phone. I used the word ‘doggish’ there, because I’m still not convinced it was actually a dog making the sound. It was too high pitched, too caricatured. Like a human imitating what a panting dog should sound like. I decided not make an issue out of it though. This was obviously a woman with some mental baggage and I did not want to disturb her further.

“Hello, Princeton,” I said in what I hoped was a passably affectionate manner. There was, obviously, no response, and after a few seconds I heard the phone rustle and Mary’s voice once again filled my ear.

“I think he likes you, Frank.”

“I’m flattered,” I said. The line went silent for long enough to make me feel uneasy and I asked the first question that came into my head to kill the silence. “Are you married, Mary?”

My question didn’t do much to stop the silence at first. I could hear that she was breathing heavier and I wondered whether or not my question had insulted her.

“I used to be,” she said, “My husband died three years ago. He left me enough money so I could support myself and Princeton. But…” her voice trailed off.

“I’m sorry to have brought it up,” I said. And that was the truth. I hate to make people sad, even unintentionally. I decided to try and distract her by changing the subject to me. “I’m not married anymore, either. My wife just finished divorcing me.”

She responded by saying “I’m sorry,” but I swear there was a kind of strange hunger, and not sympathy, behind her words. “Tell me about her,” she said to me.

When she said that I could feel a great mental block vanish that I hadn’t even known was there. I told her everything I had ever wanted to say about my wife. Her name was Jessica. We fell in love after I returned home from the Korean war. She couldn’t have children but I didn’t mind. She loved to cook pancakes in the morning but I’d make breakfast on Sundays and carry it up to her in bed. Her eyes were green and I loved them. Then I lost my job. I developed a drinking problem and she began seeing another man. I lost my temper one night and she left. She’s getting married to that man. I sent her a bunch of roses to say I was sorry and to wish her the best and I hated myself for it. You need to understand that while I was pouring my heart out I could hear that panting sound coming through the phone again, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

After I had finished I sort of sheepishly mumbled, “Sorry about all that. I’m sure you didn’t call me up to hear it.”

“On the contrary, Frank,” she said, her cheerful demeanor recovered, “it makes me happy to know that I’m not the only one in the world with problems. Your Jessica should be ashamed.”

That last statement confused me. “No, that’s not really what I was saying. Most of what happened was—”

“Nonsense.” It was the first time Mary had interrupted me and it startled me into silence. “When people fall in love they should stay that way. No matter what.”

“Yeah, but that’s not how it works,” I protested, “It’s great that people can love but in the end it never lasts. People change, you know? What someone once found endearing can become annoying years later. Hidden flaws surface. And even if that doesn’t happen, one person is going to d—” I realized what I was about to say and held my tongue. Still, it was too late.

Mary’s voice again took on that air of childlike despondency and I could hear her sniff audibly, “That doesn’t mean that they’re not in love!” she cried. “It doesn’t!”

“I know it doesn’t,” I said, trying to reassure her, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

She didn’t respond and I could hear the sounds of her sobbing. I felt terrible.

“Mary, please,” I said, “Don’t cry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

At first there was only the continued sounds of her sobbing. Then, “Would it be alright if I gave you my phone number, Frank? Even though you make me sad I don’t mind talking to you. You can call me back later, alright?”

How could I refuse? I said yes, of course she could give me her phone number and I’d be glad to call her up again. It seemed to brighten her spirits, if only by a marginal amount.

Mary sniffed loudly again. “Thanks for saying you’d talk to me again.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“I need to go now. Princeton just finished making me tea and he gets impatient if I don’t come when he says its ready.”

“What?”

“Goodbye, Frank!”

Before I could respond she had hung up the phone, leaving me feeling confused. I immediately called her back on the number she had given me. A man’s voice answered.

“What is it?” he said.

“I need to speak to Mary,” I said, “Is Mary there? Who is this?”

“You have the wrong number,” he told me. “Now if you don’t mind, The Tonight Show is on.”

I apologized and hung up. I’ve not heard from Mary since.

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LANDFILLS is a grassroots literary, arts and culture online collective based in Chicago. All work is original, except the featured images that accompany text posts (which are blatantly stolen from tumblr.com). Complaints should be directed to Po via Twitter.
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