The radio stations in Mecklenburg County catered to many tastes. The college had a classical station. It employed men and women with deep, resonant voices to pontificate on the trivia related to composers of centuries past. A little further up in frequency, there was a series of country stations. Some of them advertised themselves as light rock. Nevertheless, all the song lists mainly consisted of agrarian themes; outlaws, thunderstorms, broken hearts and memories in the words. The country disk jockeys spoke little and had to have voices as sweet as iced tea. The only time the announcers let their tongues go was when the weather got bad. WTRX, the country classic with bluegrass after ten PM, had a doppler radar all its own. They kept a watch on the tornadoes that came across the man-made lake and black ice on the roads in the winter. The traffic reports, though, came from the rock’n’roll stations. In between ominous anthems, heavy declarations of dissatisfaction, drum solos and veiled drug references, the announcers received helicopter analyses of the backups at rush hour. The rock’n’roll stations held contests, as well. Hundreds of callers jammed their phone lines to be the sixtieth person to dial the receptionist at the station. The stations gave away tickets to the stock car races, drum sets, buckets of chicken wings and kegs of beer from local micro-breweries.
One morning, an announcer at one of the rock stations, WROK, started talking about his weekend. Z Lloyd, Z as everybody called him, and the-Z when celebrities were on the show, told a long story about how he had wanted to get out of the heat. It was August in Charlotte, when you’d find your tapes melted to the seat of your car in the mall parking lot, so Z cranked the A.C. in his four-by-four and headed down to Myrtle Beach. He got down there late Friday. He had reservations at a little motel right on the beach. It had a pool. The rooms surrounded a parking lot full of empty beer cans and puke on the sidewalks. He parked in a spot full of shattered glass, checked in with a Russian concierge in a goatee and a mesh Adidas tank top— Z imitated an Eastern European accent to describe the man who demanded to see all of his identity papers— and went up to his room to change into his bathing suit. Then Z headed out to the beach. He bodysurfed for about half an hour, until he’d blown so much salt water out of his nose he was starting to get a headache. Afterwards, he took a long walk by himself down to the pier and back. When he got to his hotel, some of the revelers staying at the hotel had trashed his room. They were so drunk they thought it was theirs. What appeared to be the last remnants of a run-over cat laid across the cable box on the tv. The bedsheets had been shredded, the bathub was full of ice and a guy with a pot belly was passed out in a little plastic chair by the window. He had on white briefs. Z didn’t want to wake him up; he had no intention of touching a man in his underpants. Plus, he figured trashing the wrong room and falling unconscious in it was a mistake he had made a thousand times before, himself. Z went down to the front desk, told the Russian guy what happened, made sure he wasn’t charged for the damages and asked for another room. There weren’t any. Then there weren’t any other rooms at any other motels in Myrtle Beach. The heat wave made the whole coast so packed that the Russian man recommended that Z just head home to Charlotte. He even tore up Z’s blank credit card receipt to show he wasn’t going to bill him for anything. But Z didn’t want to get back in his ride and drive all night. Instead, he walked out to the pool with a beach towel and a six pack, found himself a clean chair and sat down to listen to the ocean all night. That’s when he met the girl of his dreams. She was walking down in the dried foam where the tide had gone out, holding some apricot schnapps by the bottleneck to rest on her right shoulder. Then she came up to where he was. She wanted to see if it was her hotel behind him. It wasn’t. She offered him a shot. They talked all night and killed the bottle. Z thought he was in love. The problem was, he passed out before he got to kiss her. Then he woke up, she was gone and he couldn’t remember her name. He was just drunk enough to black out on her name and that was it. He almost couldn’t have forgotten anything worse. So after all that, he looked around for her on the beach that morning and never found her. Z finally made a plea to all his listeners to call in if they knew the woman, or, if his sweetheart had her ear out, she could call in herself.
The phone at the receptionist’s desk began ringing immediately. A landscaper wanted to know if the guy in his underpants had a boner. A UPS driver said his sister had been down in Myrtle Beach last weekend. She broke her nose in a bar fight. Did Z’s girlfriend have a broken nose? A bunch of guys from a construction crew called in. They were still drunk from their weekend down there and they shouted the word "party" over and over into the phone. They wanted to tell what happened to them. Apparently, one of them had stuck his tongue out at a woman and now his nickname was Lizard. The receptionist hung up.
* * *
Three magnolia trees stood in front of a white cottage. Across its gravel driveway, an empty filling station collected junk cars in the back lot. Mamie Juilliard had lived in that house on and off for most of her life.
The bedroom was her delivery room, she grew up there, she left and moved two blocks away when she married, she found her mother dead in the bed there one Sunday morning, received visitors for both her parents’ funerals in the living room, and moved in by herself once her husband passed away.
Mamie’s family had owned one of the first telephones in Mecklenburg County. As a little girl, she used to drag a stool up to the side of the cabinets, hitch up her checkerboard skirt and climb the rungs to stand on the seat. Then she plucked the receiver off its hook and shouted into it, "Hello? Hello? You big stupid!" Her asthmatic aunt Nancy came running into the kitchen. She demanded that Mamie "get… down… off of that… chair."
When Mamie got older, she started wearing a pearl choker, silk dresses and smoked Pall Malls. She played cards with the seminary college boys from Cabarrus County. She said she used to get spanked for making prank calls. The truth was, she only got whipped when her mother came home once and found Mamie, then just twelve, in the middle of a telephone conversation with a fireman. She had not reported a fire. She had put on a deep enough voice to make the lonely, bored firefighter think he had found himself a girlfriend. Her mother heard her say, huskily, "I’m gonna be wearin’ a big, ruby red hat all drippin’ with jewels and you’re gonna come get me at the M and M. I’m gonna be drinkin’ a big, fat sweet tea and you’re gonna pay for it." As an adult, she patted herself on her hips whenever she talked about getting spanked.
Later, once she had married, she started wearing turtlenecks and scarves. She waved her hair up into a beehive. She and her ladyfriends from the book club got into the habit of prank calling each other for kicks. The other ladies started out calling her to ask if her refrigerator was running, if she had Prince Albert in a can, etcetera. After they all thought the calls had come to an end, she waited a month and then started to think up new tricks.
Mamie practiced changing her voice with a gigantic tape recorder that had been specially mail-ordered from New York. When she couldn’t disguise her voice well enough, she asked the yard man to help her in her dirty work. She gave him a ten dollar tip, swore him to secrecy, and he pledged his allegiance to her. They made three sets of calls over the next few weeks.
Patty Cole drove all the way into Charlotte to make a complaint at the dog pound. The Supervising Animal Control Officer had been harassing her about a mutt she didn’t even own. Then, Mary Louise Devry got a public service announcement by telephone. Finally, she called the Mecklenburg Chronicle to ask if they had heard anything about when the sewage lines would be working again. She hadn’t gone to the bathroom in three days and was afraid to ask anyone she knew. When Cecil Foakes received a call from a policeman that his house had been burglarized, he raced home from his law office. Elizabeth Foakes, meanwhile, had received a man who sold therapeutic back massage brushes. It was a hot day, and the man loosened his bowtie over a glass of tea. Then she lied on her couch for a quick demonstration. He rubbed the knobby prongs between her shoulder blades. Her cotton dress creased down to the bow on her backside. The screen door opened. Cecil sent the man onto the front porch with one heave, stomped on his Oriental massage contraption and kicked the broken pieces across the floor and out of the house onto him.
A few days later, Elizabeth left to visit a health spa in the mountains. When she got back, Patty, Mary Louise and Elizabeth talked and figured out what Mamie had been up to.
Over the next few weeks, Mamie’s telephone went silent. She tried passing the time by reading, but she couldn’t concentrate. She’d blur her focus and imagine what her friends were saying about her. Finally, she got her head cleared enough to focus on a Southern Living article on pies when she was interrupted by a phone call. A smile broke across her face and she hurried to pick up the receiver. The dentist’s assistant wanted to confirm her appointment the following month. In the fall of that year, she heard that her friends had formed a bridge club. Mamie started knitting sweaters.
Even when the bridge club had moved out to the Meadows, the retirement community on the county line, Mamie wouldn’t lower herself to talking to them. She had never had children of her own, so when she lost her friends, she lost. Then, after her husband passed away, Patty and Mary Louise took her out for banana pudding and coffee. On that last outing, she had wrought her loose cheeks into a sour, puckered grimace and said nothing. If no one was going to call her for fifteen years, there wasn’t any reason she saw to start talking then.
In the meantime, she filled her home with phones. One phone had large, mint-green buttons. Another had a computer memory of sixty numbers. She thought she had put the doctor’s office in for number one, but every time she entered the code, a man named Raul swore at her, "Why don’t you fix your damn phone, lady?" That was why she most often called in for her prescriptions from a Star Trek phone shaped like the Enterprise. It was easier to use.
Then, as her memory started to fade, the numbers in the phone book spun into each other like the fruits of a slot machine. She called an army colonel a con-man who had ruined her friendship with a woman who might as well have been a virgin, told a shoe store clerk that she should have let her friend go to the toilet and then she called an airport pager to say she had pretended to be a dog-catcher.
In the solitude of her old age, she walked around her house dazed. The air conditioner rattled at full blast. The black plastic glasses on her long nose drew two dark rectangles on her curvaceous face. Her eyes floated like fat goldfish inside the lenses. She had a fanny pack strapped around her cardigan sweater. Hunched over, ready to walk out to the mailbox, the eighty-three-year-old wavered as if she were balanced on the seat of a chair, then leaned forward as if to fall and, suddenly, took three steps.
As she looked for her keys, she walked in and out of her memory. She tried to remember where she had placed her hands on her shelves. Then she tried to remember what could make her so lost at the moment. The flat surfaces crowded with telephones. The key, the key, she remembered.
She picked up her phones to see if the front door key lay underneath one of them. She couldn’t find it under the Academy Award, Mickey Mouse, Elvis, the Super Bowl football or the fuzzy white rabbit. Then, again, this time with the rabbit phone in her hand, she forgot what she was looking for. She looked down and saw the numbers on the rabbit’s underbelly. She pressed a number. Then she pressed another. She pretended to herself that she knew what number she was dialling, but she made it up as she went along. Then she listened to it ring.
"Alo?" a woman answered.
Mamie hung up. She looked around. The nine digits, the number sign and the star in her hand glowed a faint green. Then she pressed the redial button. The phone sang out with all the tones together, then the earpiece hissed and rang out.
Mamie didn’t recognize the voice. She couldn’t believe a stranger had answered the other line with a foreign accent. She hung up again.
Then Mamie called again.
"Alo? Jackson?" the woman said hotly.
Mamie pressed down on the mute button.
"Is there something you want to say or not?" the woman asked.
Mamie listened, bewildered and fascinated by the accent and the names that came from her rabbit’s head earpiece.
"You had better say it now or I will break off our appointment."
Then Mamie realized she had done something wrong. She felt shame. Once again she had played with a telephone, a grown woman fooling around with a phone like a child. She felt embarassed and guilty for hurting the stranger on the other end of the line. She hung up.
* * *
Z’s receptionist started taking calls from women only. Z patched them up to broadcast their voices along with his between the songs.
"Caller, you are on," Z said.
"Hey Z," a raspy voice said.
"OK, caller, I have couple of questions for you."
"Anything you want, baby. Just as long as we get to rock and roll like we did the other night."
"OK, honeypie. But you have to answer this questionnaire correctly to get yourself a date with me. I’m a monogamist now. There’s no one else for me but my beachside babe."
"I hear you. Bring it on."
"Question number one, drum roll, please:" the station sound effects manager heeded Z’s command. "It’s an easy question— what kind of bathing suit did I have on?"
The caller hesitated. "Let me see... I have a mental picture of it and it’s growing in my mind. You had on a speedo."
"No cigar. Thank you for calling in. Maybe you’ll find someone else from New Jersey to spend the rest of your life with. Next caller."
An elderly woman’s voice made a wet, delicate cough.
"Hello? Caller? You’re on the air. What kind of bathing suit did I have on last Friday night?"
"Hello? I have a prescription to be filled."
Z paused. "And so do I. I’m looking for the girl of my dreams. Do you know who she is, ma’am?"
"What? I have to get a prescription."
"You’re on the radio, ma’am. This is a search contest. The winner gets a date with me."
"Then what did you call me for? I suppose I could meet you down at the M and M. Are you a fireman?"
"No, not exactly. And where are you calling us from today?"
"Is your house on fire?"
"No it certainly is not."
"What’s your name?"
"Mamie. Mamie Juilliard. I don’t pretend to be anyone I’m not. Not anymore. I won’t pretend to do something that I won’t do just because I’m talking on the telephone. No, sir."
"OK, Mamie. Thanks for calling us. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you," Z said. He paused for a second and tried to think of something to say that would make her look ridiculous. Then he felt a twinge of guilt and just hung up on her.
* * *
Despite Z’s gentlemanly urge, not everyone who heard Mamie felt the same. In the far Northern suburbs of Charlotte, just near the Mecklenburg County line, behind a shopping mall full of discount stores, there was a neighborhood of identical, one-story houses with little flat roofs and short driveways. The pastel vinyl siding came in three colors, blue, pink and chalky grey. In a blue house, a teenager named Leonard Arrowstone had his stereo on.
The stereo sat against the wall. It had five levels. Each of them had black graphite knobs, dials, tabs and buttons and pulsating graphs to illustrate the quality of every sound made by the system. He had a radio, cd player, double cassette recorder, an old lp turntable and the receiver-amp. In the two inches between the stereo and the wall, a tangle of wires connected all of the component parts of the stereo to one another and the four towering speakers in each corner of his room.
In the center of the room, he had his single bed. He lounged on it all summer long. The air conditioner cranked out cold air and his stereo played all of his favorite albums. He loved songs about doom, bloodlust, demonic armies and runes. He listened to them and read fantasy novels about elves on failed quests in netherworlds.
He had a collector’s penchant for many things. He saved toenails in a mason jar that sat on one of his speakers. On his bookshelves, he lined up many-sided die that he used for role-playing games. He owned all or most of the albums of his favorite bands— an early taste for Ratt, quickly followed by Gangrene, Pantera, Danzig, Anthrax, and a studied appreciation of Black Sabbath— and had them organized in cardboard boxes along the wall. The only problem with his habit for collecting and organizing everything that related to his interests was that he exhausted his curiosity with things after a few months. That summer, he had heard every single one of his albums in alphabetical order twenty times and now he didn’t know what to do. That was when he started listening to the radio.
He followed all of the hard rock stations for two weeks, but he quickly became disillusioned with them once he called in a request for Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden and they never played it. He switched over to the more mainstream WROK for a while to see what it had for him. He followed their contests and became obsessed with trying to win one of them.
When Mamie Juilliard called in and talked to Z Lloyd, Leonard had been listening. He had tried to call himself, but the lines were busy. His sister had gone to Myrtle Beach the last weekend, so he felt like he had a worthwhile tip for Z. But after Mamie called in, Z gave up and said he wasn’t taking any more callers.
Leonard was furious. For two weeks he had been trying to win something, all for nothing since the line was always busy. He always thought that winning had to happen to cool people. The cool people who didn’t win the prizes should get revenge. He listened to Mamie’s creaky old voice and decided to get her.
He picked up the phone and called information. He told them Mamie’s first name, last name and Cornelius, the town where she lived. The operator gave him her number.
He called her.
Mamie picked up the phone, "Yes, are you the doctor?"
He recognized her voice and hung up.
Over the next few days, he started making advertisements with Mamie’s name and number. He sent letters to the want ads of the Charlotte paper, The Mecklenburg Chronicle, a magazine from Huntersville and an auto-trader magazine. Then he made flyers advertising yard sales, computer repairs and car washes. He pinned them up at the Cornelius post office and in the window of the supermarket.
* * *
Mamie’s perfectly groomed house, the ordered world of her trimmed grass, clean windows, wind chimes and telephones spun into chaos. The phones in her house all rang at once. With her hearing aids turned down all the way, she still had to cover her ears when someone called. Her telephones clanged constantly.
She would get up and walk away from the frogpad telephone when the house would shriek with noise again and she would, with a weak hand and a stooped back, step two feet over to the Elvis phone.
The calls came at all times of day. The flyers asked to call her between eight and ten in the morning, nine and twelve at night, any time during the afternoon and especially at noon. The clamor and the questions cluttered her mind.
No, she didn’t have a boat for sale. What did she know about computers? She didn’t wash anybody’s car. Why in the world would she give anybody piano lessons? Nude models? What was a Ferrari?
She walked back and forth from every telephone in her house. Her carpet bore the spiralling path of her footsteps. It looked as if she had a hundred invisible guests, but no one was there. To anyone that would have visited, the house would have seemed to have a poltergeist.
Blake Radcliffe in an editor at The Other Press. He is at work on a novel and lives in Park Slope.