by Allen Woodman
A drunken woman calls to break up with me, even though I do not have a girlfriend or a wife anymore.
She dialed the wrong number because she has been drinking and she “never drinks.”
She says, “I don’t know who I am anymore, but we just don’t work.”
I repeat her words, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” although I really do not know who she is.
She continues, “We love each other so much, but we can’t go on this way.”
“You have the wrong number,” I try to tell her.
She just laughs. “That is so like you. Same as always. You are so deluded. Can’t face the truth.”
On that, she has my number. I say it, “I can’t face the truth.”
I have had other wrong number phone calls before, late at night, back when my ex-wife and I lived together in Tempe.
Once our new phone number was the same as the defunct Jokeline.
People would call the old Jokeline number needing a joke-a-day, and I would answer.
I’d try to tell them that they had the wrong number, but they’d say, “That’s not funny.”
After a while, I started to tell them jokes.
I got a joke book from Barnes & Noble. I copied down jokes from late-night TV. I even Googled the world’s best joke. My wife was not amused. She would shake her head in disgust that I would spend so much time away from studying for my graduate classes at ASU to take the calls. When she got a wrong number, she would hang up. The line would go dead.
I knew other things were not too good between us when she told me, right before bedtime, that the previous night she had dreamed of plunging scissors into my eyes while I slept. In her dream, I must have deserved it, she said. I think you can tell a lot about a person if they stab you in the eyes with scissors in your sleep, even if it is just a dream.
After reading Eat, Pray, Love, my wife left me. She wanted to be alone, she said, so she ran off to Italy with one of her freshmen composition students. That day, I told callers on the Jokeline that I was the world’s best joke.
The woman who dialed the wrong number is still talking between sobs. “At least we did not have the baby. You were always my baby.”
I think of the jokes I learned, something to help. I try one that according to Wikipedia and Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire’s LaughLab was the funniest joke in the UK, although a footnote suggests that it originally appeared years ago in the US on the Jack Benny Program.
I tell her the joke. “A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says, That’s the ugliest baby that I’ve ever seen. Ugh! The woman goes to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her, The driver just insulted me! The man says, You go right up there and tell him off—go ahead, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”
Then I tell her another. I am on a roll like a giant wheel of humor, and she laughs, a sweeter laugh this time. “Stop it,” she says, her voice softening, but I see the green light.
My wife had always said I was too chirpy for her, and she was right. Even now, alone, except for a cat I found in a snowstorm who looks something like a big Virginia ham in a tuxedo, my heart is wired for happiness. I wake up in the morning and make up little silly songs to sing to Raymond the cat while he purrs and eats his Purina cat chow. And if someone calls and needs a joke, the optimist in me will give them a joke and think that somehow it might help.
I give the woman on the phone a quotation about misrepresentation. I say it in a soft voice, “Chico Marx always said, ‘I wasn’t kissing her, I was just whispering in her mouth.’”
She gets quiet. I can feel her smiling inside. She is still out there. She starts talking about the history of our relationship, our first date, the sweet first kiss, and more.
In the house, I hear Raymond the cat working on a hairball.
I wave my hand towards him like I am waving good-bye to something. “It’s okay. Get it out,” I say to both of them.
I think about my history with my ex-wife and how I thought that we would be together long after graduate school, still loving each other more than life, happy forever and ever, again, the optimist, and how now we would always be apart. I thought about it as the woman on the phone talked about her story, until my story was like some other person’s story in my head.
“History has no future,” I say, emboldened by the distance on the line. I know it’s a bad joke, but it’s also a kind of hope that there will be a new future, a new first date, a new first kiss, a chance to live another life, and I wait in the brief silence, listening before action.
“You sound different,” she says tenderly.
My tongue thickens. The past is slipping away. There will be things to work out, but anything can happen. “Honey, I am different,” I say, “I’ve changed. I am a new man.”
Allen Woodman is Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. He has published six books of fiction, including the collection Saved by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Cows Are Going to Paris, a children’s picture book (co-written with David Kirby, selected for Doubleday and Literary Guild Book Clubs). He has also published many short stories in magazines and anthologies, including Flash Fiction, Micro Fiction, Sudden Fiction Continued (Norton), Mirabella, Washington Post, and Story. His stories have been heard on NPR’s Selected Shorts and at Symphony Space (NYC), and an interview with the author appeared on Books & Co. (PBS).