I walked into a room, saw Billy sitting on the couch. He looked up. I said, “Look. I have three things to say to you,” and I launched into the first item of my agenda. I believe it was an apology of some kind from me and Billy gave me a smirk, a patronizing one, I thought, but he was staring right into my eyes. “Okay, I’ll save the rest for later,” I said. I walked out of the room, knowing there would be other opportunities.
I sat on the edge of the bed, feet flat, staring into the carpet.
There would be other opportunities.
The dream started to fade, as they do, being in the direct light for too long, the imagery softly sliding away. On my way to Joe’s annual family backyard crab feast, I needed to hear his voice. In longer than I can remember, I dialed his number, waiting for that outgoing message, the one saved for so long, the one I happily pay thirty-five dollars a month to keep active, the phone ringing in the abandoned guest house three thousand miles away. It’s been too long since I called. I anticipated listening to his voice, to the messages left from his friends who call his number frequently, leaving sorrowful statements of love, wishing Billy well. Instead, I heard the familiar mechanics of that auto-woman telling me the mailbox was full. After several attempts at clearing the mailbox, I started to panic. What if the system deleted Billy’s voice? How could I retrieve it? Was I a damned fool all this time to pay for a phone line that would never be actively used?
I arrived at Joe’s wearing the modern dangly earring of a hands-free earpiece from my cell, on the phone, on hold, in panic. I greeted his pal, Alan, while talking to an operator, and I tried to make small talk, an instrumental medley of Manilow in my ear, but when the conversation started to get live and interesting, I went far back into the wilds of Joe’s yard, a lush expanse of green grass and towering trees. I braced for the worst, any outgoing message deleted, his voice gone, but the live woman walked me through how to break into the voicemail system. I sat there in the grass, chain smoking, and listened to message after message from Gene and Jim and Mike – some of them crying, some just bidding a friend a friendly hello. I was far enough back in the yard to prevent the arriving guests from seeing any tears. I heard the collection agencies leaving dispassionate demands for a return phone call to 800 numbers, and I wished I could call every one of them back and scream at them, tearing my throat apart with anger for them having the nerve to call.
I finally deleted most of the messages, clearing the brush, and left behind a few that struck me as particularly meaningful. I’d yet to hear his voice. I called back.
Hi, it’s Bill Ledbetter. Please leave a message and I’ll call you back. I look forward to talking to you. Thanks for calling. Bye.
Nobody saw me wipe my eyes, or heard me whisper, “I love you, honey bunny,” into the dangling earpiece when I walked back into the gathering party crowd. I smiled as I approached Joe, probably an unconvincing smile, but I was relieved Billy’s voice was back where it belonged, knowing I could hear it any time I chose, and that for a mere thirty-five bucks a month, his voice would always be there, for his friends and for me.