Ringing phones start too many stories.
Take this one for example. When it rings right at the mouth, we are forced to consider others that open this way – those crime novels, that translation, some classic, a romance, the paperback. And we wonder how to react to it happening again, here. Ring, ring. Are we angry? Bored? Do we write it off as cliché, played out, done? Or do we forge ahead, like a cocksure gymnast swinging from one ring to the next, remembering similar openings as generally worthwhile?
Or, hanging on the sound, do we pause to consider why it’s such a common technique? Is it the sense of mystery? The call to action? Laziness? High probability? Phones are ringing everywhere, from bedrooms to submarines – why not at the beginning of a story? Is this cynicism?
Or is it, like bells, an affirmation? Of hidden things, like funerals or weddings or Sundays? Of a place that’s only real between the time when the ringing starts and when it’s answered? An imaginary place where everything is possible at once, vibrating phono, sounds waving in and out and from one thing to another?
But isn’t sound, like a spooked herd of gazelle, a thing that spreads outward from a point of conflict, in all directions? Yet this only further illustrates multiplicity, the array of options opening up to us – it could be anyone and anywhere – rushing away from danger, suddenly.
That sounds nice!
But a ring is also singular, an object placed around a finger — a promise, which is an engagement, which is a constriction. The phone keeps ringing, and it grabs us, encircles us, tightens around us with a kind of caged hope, an optimism drafted in the belief that, with so focused a direction, something good has got to happen, finally, so don’t let go. Follow the karats, jump through the hoop.
And we answer it, both the story and the phone and everything else, not because we are actually hopeful, but to find out – in the spirit of all too many engagements – whether or not we are wrong. About what? Doesn’t matter, we are always wrong – though often in ways we haven’t thought of yet, which is a poor reprieve. “Hello?” we say.
At first there is only static, a muffled shuffling, like a pillow smothering a sock. “Hello?” we say again. We bristle excitedly. Anything could happen. And then there’s nothing. Not even a click, just nothing. The ring is empty.
The number, too, is unfamiliar.
Oh well, you think, forget the call, time to go over finances.
You place your tax returns on the desk (pressboard) and retrieve the bills collected in the kitchen (linoleum tiled). You chew the relationship between the two (dreadful), and then compare this against a list of available funds (liquid and solid). You feel a mix of shame and anger at these digits (0 – 9) because it is only when dealing with numbers, infinite though they are, that the finite world flops back down, like meat onto a counter. God, remember when the phone was ringing and everything was possible? That was great. And now these numbers. There is no way to compete with numeracy, only the means to applaud it, meekly. It is a spectator sport, and wins races and runs companies. Galileo turned Dante into astrology with maths, tossing the rings of hell into orbit; what have you ever done? Narrowly avoided bankruptcy?
It’s at this point, as always (if you double check, you’ll see that this is true), that you become uncomfortable being the subject of the story. How did it happen anyway? Wasn’t this about all of us before, or at least everyone else? Now it’s just you? Get out of here. It’s all too specific and a bit trivial, even snide. And barely accurate. Yet, whether it’s mundane, dishonest, or even mildly antagonistic, you admit it doesn’t seem to be changing. Now, open the bank statement.
Thank god, the phone is ringing again.
Oooooh! You answer it too quickly, forgetting to savor the brief precipice of possibility, and fall straight into the familiar canyon of a loved one’s voice, asking you if you want Mexican or Thai tonight.
Ugh. The riddle is solved, the mystery over. The lens has focused, the image cleared. Fuck: no more ethereal hope bells. No more possibilities. Only regional differences.
You feel a pang of disappointment. Then guilt. Why opine the absence of an imagined stranger upon the arrival of an actual loved one? Is the unknown more appealing to you? Pig! Just start talking. There’s not much to say, but say it anyway.
Now: Mexican or Thai? For some reason, you hedge around these two, trying stupidly to dredge up what little uncertainty lies between Mexico and Thailand. “Um,” you say, considering the Pacific, “well…”
Then – yes! You can hardly believe it — you’re getting another call, the other line. Fidgeting, you admit to being curious, but not thankful, though to whom you’re admitting this you can’t be sure. You’ll admit it to whoever’s on the other line if they’ll forgive you for secretly relying on them, or if they’ll carry you across a chasm you don’t understand and which in fact doesn’t exist. Wait, the Pacific? “Hello?” you say, clicking over.
And then, talking to you, almost too quickly to comprehend, is someone offering both forgiveness and a ride across unknowable and nonexistent chasms, in as much as thinly veiled real estate scams amount to all that, which they usually do, and for a competitive price to boot.
There are condos at Rates You Would Not Believe.
There are People Just Like You changing their lives As We Speak.
Great! What are you waiting for?
You politely ask this person, who you now notice has a kind of sexy musk-laden voice, to add you to the do-not-call list – despite the endless coastlines, European architecture and astounding APR. “And your number is?” they ask, which is strange, considering they called you. But you give it to them anyway, if only to hear it repeated back in damp, dulcet tones.
And then, clicking over, you’re answering “Mexican,” while secretly weighing supernatural realty equities against your impotent check book and imagining that sultry voice materializing in your living room as a blooming genital spilling over with peppers and ground beef and desire and boundless wealth. “No, wait, Thai,” you say.
And, like a gauntlet, the conversation turns suddenly to when and where. Christ, the certainties are really adding up now. Time. Space. Distance. Speed. Volume.
Jesus, Surface area.
“Seven PM,” you barely manage to shoot out. Whew.
Relief doesn’t last long, however, because your loved one throws all caution to the wind, saying “How about eight? I have some errands to run.” Errands? Eight? You can barely process this. You just want the phone to be ringing again, to be about to answer it.
Then, like a guardian angel, that blessed beep – another call, this time somehow answering you. Is it the musky service-rep calling back to say your voice is sticky too, to drag you through the ear piece? Oh, you can only hope.
Clicking over, however, there’s not a trace of musk, only dull rhythmic thumping which increases in decibel and rate. And underneath all of that, something else – a genderless and desperate scream, over and over again, knifelike and real. It too is getting louder and more hopeless, like a dog that learns language but gives it up after judging speech too inadequate to express suffering. There are not enough buried bones to embody it; a whole new realm of terrible possibilities is blooming out there. You don’t even say hello, merely click back over to space-time and love.
“Eight sounds good,” you say, shaking.
And now, poof, a date, 8:30 pm. The clatter of plates, silverware. A surprise change of heart: Italian. Wooden boardwalk as marimba. Inaudible chatter. Sea breeze. Clams. Jazz. Laughter. Lights, couples, gulls, and hair blown gently from faces. A tide coming in. The service here is poor, but no one is screaming. The wine is provincial, but no one is in pain. Or at least they’re not flaunting it like new scarves or fancy hats.
Which is only polite. What kind of person dials a stranger and dumps their anguish on them out of the blue? It’s terribly inconsiderate. There are prescribed numbers for everything. When hungry, call Pizza Hut. When sued, call a lawyer. When troubled, call a department: police, fire, technical support. Do not put it on a stranger. And it follows that if someone hasn’t called those numbers, then they aren’t actually in trouble. It’s as if that call didn’t even happen. A comforting thought! Yes, it happened to someone else.
It’s almost too easy, he smiles, grabbing a hand from across the table, thinking of someone else.
Who? Musky Meat-mouth? Maybe. Admittedly, he cannot block out entirely the memory of that call, nor the inhuman howling. His mind circles back to it at inopportune times: dessert, the mention of a sick relative, a compliment. When his date steps out to the bathroom, he checks his phone, stupidly. What was the number of that call? Staring at the screen, he imagines a movie plot wherein he dials that last number only to hear an ominous ring from the purse across the table. How maudlin. Then, in reality, he registers a peculiar fact.
All the numbers were the same. Something sticks in his throat.
Three calls. Muffle. Pitch. Scream: each originated in the same place.
The weight of this fact barely registers by the time she returns, smiling.
He eats distractedly and talks coolly, but only at first; soon he’s drawn into routine. Not forgetting, just floating, as if the evening were a mid-afternoon drive to nowhere, with him in a passenger seat, the third person, while a potentially sinister world simply sails safely by, out the window.
It’s while they’re fucking later that the phone rings.
And it’s her phone this time, a 30 second pop tone looping through the room. Had she purposefully placed it on the bedside chair? He doesn’t know, but can just about make out the LED display, glowing over the socks and old magazines. Unfortunately, the number is obscured. He doesn’t answer it, of course, but keeps thrusting the two of them along the sheets, closer and closer, inch by inch, trying to get a better look.
658, okay – and, is that a 4? Or a 7?
The numbers blend together as if working to other purposes, as if adding up whatever it is that accumulates each time people sleep together. How much do I have, he thinks, and what is it? 9? 718? The ringing fills the room, jarring and arrhythmic. People, too, are rings, he muses like a fool, but he hasn’t the slightest idea how to answer one, so he keeps going, sliding slowly toward a revelation. It looks like it could be the same number, maybe. Just a little closer. But before any kind of arrival or epiphany, the ringing stops, the glow fades, and the room is left darkened and silent, save for the sound of a nameless thing pointlessly accruing.
Then factors multiply. That is, things change. For one, I can’t fucking take it anymore and go to the police. I’m surprised to find myself at the center of whatever this is, and I don’t know how to proceed, or even how I got here, really. The buoyant and attractive officer registers my anxiety with a wry smile, though I can’t be sure this is in my favor, or in his, or someone else’s altogether.
“So, let me get this straight,” the officer says, “You got a call from a number, but it didn’t connect.” I nod. “And then, you got another call, from what you now know to be the same number.” I concur. “And it’s some kind of real estate offer?”A scam, I say. One of those pyramid schemes. Like spam. “Isn’t spam on the computer? Anyway, then you ask them not to call again, right?”And I give them my phone number, I say, that’s important. “Is it? They clearly already have your number.” Exactly! “Hmm, and then, you get another call, again from the same number, with a lot of noise and something that could be a scream, like a dog but a person?” Right, and then it got louder. “Okay, and afterward you went on a date? And your girlfriend got a phone call? And maybe it was the same number?” Yes. “But you don’t know for sure?” Before I could check, she caught me going through her things, trying to guess her cellphone password, and broke it off with me. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir.” It’s okay, but now what? “Oh, well I’d try a dating site I guess.” No, about the number. And my credit card, like I said, which has been cleared out. “Oh, that. Take it up with your bank. And otherwise there’s not much to go on here. I can call if you want, but that’s about it. Neat story, though.”
The police are useless, and my cancelled card is tangled up in litigation and red tape. But when the system fails, it’s time for good old fashioned American ingenuity. Grab the boot straps and fly. For wings, I’ve invented a story that keeps me going, pulls me along, a fiction wherein the musky sales-rep is borne into a secret, shattering Condo bondage, all for merely letting one too many contacts slip into the dark crack of the do-not-call list, and that, through some deranged logic, she thinks of me, of all people, for help – not only because I was the catalyst for her incarceration, no, but also because we shared some undeniable intimacy, rare in this world, unforgettable even in the red-glossed throes of a bloody and sadistic pummeling.
This is my bootstrap.
The story is a bit flimsy, and in fact completely false, but something rings true enough to keep me going, so I do a little research on the internet, dig up some dirt. The numbers lead me from old leases to private holdings, distant bank accounts to poor credit scores, nebulous websites to unregistered phone numbers, from angry forums to storied comments sections, and finally from deeply buried “About tabs” to one Annulus Equity Marketing and Management, a small company located in rural Dry Prong, Louisiana, a town, or village really, founded two hundred years prior, around a water mill whose principal river source dried up each summer, leaving the town financially unbalanced and clawing desperately for stability in an unforgiving and alien landscape, a legacy that may or may not have left its people innately prepared to take on just about any scheme, Ponzi or otherwise.
I hate these people from afar, imaging a kind of hillbilly methlab that conjures money from trace elements, like modern alchemists, warlock financiers.
I have my reasons, too: the current enterprise stinks more than I previously suspected. There’s nothing concrete, but I sniff out ambiguous turd after unspecified plop, all stinky and congealed. Annulus, for example, crops up in more than one missing money case, not to mention numerous allegations of identity theft and fraud. They’re tied, if only tangentially, to a ring of misleading business ventures meant, it seems exclusively and almost blatantly, to take advantage of people, their ambitions, and finally and most importantly their money and property. A few of its primary figures are currently serving upwards of twenty five years in federal prison, though stamping them as officially part of anything would be a legal mess not worth attempting because all of these incriminations amount only to patchwork threads sewn together through blind guesswork, vague news reports, old court filings, peripheral public tax indexes and side-line property records. But the tone is there, a disembodied voice screaming over miles of unlabeled telephone wire for my help. The bottom line? I’ve got to get to Dry Prong.
Musky meat-voice, I will answer your call. I am A Person Just Like Me and I am changing my life As I Speak.
Driving across the Mason-Dixon Line is like diving into America’s underwear. It’s sweaty and thick with growth, and ever more so deeper into its counties. The south has an impersonal and detached way of being itself, despite the reputation for friendliness. Hospitality may be true of its people, in a greater degree than can be expressed through anecdotes and travel journals, but the landscape itself is different – or, more accurately, indifferent, even arrogant, with its green swaths and endless vines taking over everything in its path, like it owns the place, which perhaps it does.
Dry Prong, the village, is no exception. It is surrounded on all sides by a latter day American jungle, a billowing green mesh of trees and swampland and thickly knotted bushwork, cut through by hair-like waterways, streams, springs and creeks, some sullied by distant industry, lone factories and shipping/receiving centers, while others remain mysteriously pristine. Yet, time worn or resilient, all call out in unison: sorry, don’t care, busy.
So, when a driver from up north comes snooping into town, as if to save the Princess from certain danger, Dry Prong takes little interest. Dry Prong lets the man walk about peeking in windows and loitering because Dry Prong has better things to do. Like what? Like sitting, resting, aging, warming, cooling, raining , drying, counting, tilling, and growing and dying.
Who else but Dry Prong is going to hold that house in place? Who else will push the wind across the concrete blocks of that abandoned apartment building? Who else is going to admire the useless mill as it nobly gathers dust and families of rodents? And who else will take on the tedious work of sitting quietly in the town center, as if referee to a boxing match between long-closed shops?
No one. The answer is no one.
It is only out of the goodness of its heart that Dry Prong shows the sneaky man an empty model home and an old office. And Dry Prong doesn’t mind when the man crawls into the forgotten Condominium Complex, “A Private Community” — because what will he find there beside the Annulus Realty sign, graffitied with obscure obscenities? Nothing else but foliage and emptiness. A few muddied toys, sure, but no stories of how they arrived here or why they need privacy. There are no stories in Dry Prong, only blank pages, defiantly filled with grammatical errors and scattered in the street.
But when the stranger oversteps his bounds by breaking and entering, kicking a door in, Dry Prong goes from indifferent to wrathful. First Dry Prong takes out the man’s car, with a flat tire, via broken glass, and then Dry Prong sucks the man’s wallet dry, at the mechanic and the motel, and then Dry Prong takes his dignity when it attacks and beats him outside of a bar, though it doesn’t require much to do so, just a few kicks to the ribs and face, a few broken bones and maybe a concussion, very little effort for a town whose weight trumps that of its inhabitants a million fold, amounting to a lopsided boxing match held in a ring that is Dry Prong itself.
So it all too easily leaves the man adrift, far from home, broke, hospitalized, fee-laden and without a soul to care for him, in a place where the water has run thin along with its population and opportunities, and it doesn’t care that the man pleads he’s “only trying to help someone in need,” nor that the man has made nearly no progress at all in doing so, save for being in the general proximity of the fiction he aspires to. Ha! But Dry Prong, though vengeful, is not wholly uncaring. It prefers an even hand, so Dry Prong kindly offers the man an olive branch, the only way it can – in the form of a job. At Annulus Equity Management. As a telemarketer.
Together, they march into the second floor office. They wear hair-curlers and cargo shorts. They gossip about soap operas and child rearing. They’re here for the money. They are here because the bowling alley closed. Because their grandmothers are sick, because their dog has diabetes, because a television program is cancelled, because time is running out, because it’s raining, because someone lost a leg, because the opportunity presented itself too many times, because it’s fun, because of snacks.
All too often, it’s the snacks.
And they are divided into sets. They‘re rushed toward the forums section, where they are instructed to friend-request at least fifty people per hour, and to consistently upload nearly-nude profile pictures, not of themselves but of anonymous women, women surmised to be Russian or Uzbekistani or Korean, not specifically but generally, if that is possible, and as if this were some kind of an apology for everything, though in the end, the women are just as apt to be American, and no one is sorry. They operate under the belief that “there are plenty of hornies out there” and everyone wants free porn. No apologies are made — and to who these apologies might even be directed remains a mystery. To their mothers? Themselves? Who cares, they say, just add me, add me.
Or they are cordoned in the ROMS and emulators barracks, a makeshift office in what used to be the supply closet, where they aggregate the digital images of every video game known to man, crossbreed them with feigned news reports about the health benefits of acai berries, and make them available for download in the hopes of driving traffic through briefly-lived sites crowded over with ads about abdomens and legs, like insects — themselves often created by other departments. Also, more porn here, indefatigably.
Or they are shuttled to the email department, a huge hive of activity, where they’ll write free-form poetry and heartfelt letters from fictional Nigerians, to better strut through the gates of email filters and ultimately net more personal information, zip codes and social securities and drivers licenses, as if information were the direct product of probability, which perhaps it is, or they will sit in rooms where videos are uploaded, graphs rendered, Powerpoints structured, codes written, and they will contact other agents in an expanding ring of entrepreneurs, amongst whom they will, at higher levels, herd finances and financers toward shaky land markets, both in the states and abroad, through gentle nudges and tough prodding, promising booms and busts, braying as if the transcontinental railroad were about to be rebuilt across once useless towns and counties and sections of the internet, each now destined for an unprecedented future prominence in a World Beyond Belief Where Not Everyone Can Win But Why Not You?
They try to find the melting point of every object and hyperlink, like monetary alchemists squeezing rocks and html until gold and paper pop out. They do so without meaningful regard for profit, casually allowing others to use their methods, letting money funnel gradually off into anonymous accounts, perhaps out of carelessness or stupidity or apathy or, though unlikely, a rare camaraderie and sense of empathy. In large measure, too, they are often calling on themselves, swindling different portions of their enterprise one day, another the next. They not only offer Inventors Tool Kits, As Seen On TV, but they buy them too, wholesale. They acquire their debt. They redouble their interest. They catch their tails.
They are unaware, however, that they have been infiltrated. They do not notice themselves, at least in very small part, traipsing through the hallways, looking. They do not feel themselves spying around corners and through doors left ajar. They remain unaware that the smallest contingent of them, namely one, persists only out of an inexhaustible determination to rescue a fictional woman that, despite (or due to?) being only a figure of their meek imagination, remains frustratingly elusive. They do not know that they are still trying to win, because, well…win what?
It’s only when we pick up the phone to make our first unsolicited call that we realize we’ve come full circle.
We’ve been gone for a while and need to take stock. We hear the ring we’ve made, but no one answers. We can’t help but feel the same way we did after our first call – empty, hollow.
Why? We spit Ouroboros’ tail from our mouth.
Despite all the voices we’ve heard, she is still missing.
She’s isn’t in any of the utility closets. She isn’t in the unused gymnasium or the boiler room. And then, when we find her, we admit: well, not really, no we haven’t, because she isn’t real. We have not unlocked a conspiracy any larger than a few idiots skimming bucks off the top. We have not untangled a dangerous web of illicit activity in which women are shepherded into dire sexual misadventures. We give up.
But then, unforeseen, she is sitting next to us. Great!
She is huge and sudden. She rolls out from her own body like flour from a ripped bag. Really, she doesn’t sound at all like the woman with the musky-voice, or the screamer. In fact, she is neither of these women, nor even the one we imagined them to be. She is someone else entirely. But as with so many before her, we let her stand in for what we want. A place-holder occupying a pronoun and a body. She works here, too, has for much longer than us. She has gotten used to it — in the same way that we begin to think she’s what we’ve been looking for anyway, that we were wrong before, that she is it. She takes us home. When she has sex, she splays out across the bed like a half-melted chocolate. She smells of uncooked chicken, neither appealing nor offensive, but overwhelming and occupying. Afterwards she discusses what she knows about Annulus as if reciting bad poetry or deciphering a poorly crafted horoscope. She’s been in almost every Annulus department, and she imagines that things are more organized than they at first appear. She views Annulus not as cynical but as an absurd affirmation of something that remains unseen. She says that they are not con-artists but patriots, not thieves but heroes. She is delusional. She says that it’s all like an equation, the economy and our lives. She smokes inordinate amounts of cigarettes. She keeps saying the word equation as if to multiply it, or divide it, and she says there must be balance. She does not mean this in terms of moderation and restraint, but literally with regard to equal sides, as in the case of scales, as in how much gold is equivalent to six hundred thousand dollar stores, as in how can we tip the weight against trillion-fold stimuli, as in a train leaves Dallas going sixty miles an hour and to what degree does this obfuscate our dreams? She says we keep growing and moving outward, that we have to, it’s natural, but that, since it is an equation, something has to be added to the other side to keep everything from being flushed out through the equal sign, like so much shit and paper and hair, though she does not clarify where any of the sides are located, nor where things might be flushed to or how. She says that in math the equal sign is an anus. She says this again and again. She is excited by it and usually wants to have sex again after she thinks about it. She says we have to turn everything into money and credit as a kind of colonic blockage system, to render a lasting stillness in America. She says spam and scams are a kind of financial peristalsis liturgy to be spoken by a chosen few. She watches too much television and has as much to say about American Idol. She does not understand my incredulity. She gets angry when I make my own metaphors. She says it is not a metaphor. She says there is an enormous hole through which real value can actually be lost. I ask her to show it to me.
First off, it can talk.
“Have a bloody-mary,” it says, gesturing with a twitch of its muscles toward a makeshift bar. It’s in the water mill, where it somberly gurgles. It is round and pink and fleshy. It is a hole yes, but it is crowded, and it brings to mind uncooked hotdogs and raw sausage, bisected like oversized pepperoni. But it’s not dry. Rather, it appears buoyed as if by a brine, floating in the center of the room, like a meaty donut hung by strings from the rotting rafters, and it is wet and leaking. Every now and then, the dark hole at its center is revealed by the parting of its veiny membranes.
You can sense it defiantly smiling.
You want to talk about what she told you, about the equations, about scale, but don’t know where to begin. You want at least to ask about the musky-voiced woman and where she went, or if she’s even gone.
It talks instead about bacteria and how cute they are.
It talks about the ones living in the Mississippi River, that they average 8,000 microbes per cubic centimeter. It says that it would like to see a new Huckleberry Finn, starring effluent water and Vullisneriu Americana, common hydrophytes. Gut flora especially are its favorites, and it imagines Twain’s new narrative exploring rivers within Huck’s pubescent body, his esophagus, stomach, large and small intestines, colon. Bacteria are too often maligned, it says, with anti-bacterial soaps and antibiotic pills, yet the entire body would collapse without them, the forgotten organ.
Eventually, it asks us how we feel about the story ending this way. After starting with a mundane ring, it wants to know, is there balance in a non-existent and floating math hole? Or does the narrative need more grounding, more reduction?
We aren’t sure how we feel yet, but reduction is good. Give it more time.
But what, it asks, could be more reduced than math?
No, we disagree, math is 100% abstraction.
That’s not fair, it says.
To be honest, shouldn’t we be talking about people, not numbers? About home owners, not functions? About retirees, not equations? About shareholders, not dividends? Or, at least, about sex, not sums?
People aren’t constants, it says, they’re variables.
That’s a little hard to digest, we say, and you’re a real jerk. Stop doing math.
It begins to pucker itself in retort, but moves instead as if angered, then hurt. It begins fluttering, shaking what might best be described as its lips. “Fine!” it manages to mumble obnoxiously just as it’s overcome with a heaving thunder. From underneath the thumping and gyration spills a familiar scream, real and hopeless. And then, as if to affirm the fact that speech is an inadequate release, there’s the smell.
Oh, it says meekly, Pardon me.
And you do — with a kiss.
Dolan Morgan is currently cataloging every airplane hijacking in history, a portion of which will be serialized in Fortnight Journal this winter. He co-curated an experimental art installation of a “pirate internet” on the L train in NYC, and he is a member of the writers collective, 1441. Find him at dolanmorgan.com.