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Today's Story by Matt Galletta

The past few months had not been easy for us, and the baby had not been helping.

A Brief Survey

Really, the hardest part for me was the not-knowing. Only hearing her half of the conversation gnawed at me. And her half, of course, was just a series of short, ambiguous answers.

“Yes,” she’d say.

“No,” she’d say.

“Three or four,” she’d say.

I should have been the one to answer the phone that evening. But when it rang, I was in the middle of some super-important, long-winded story, so Jen answered. After I finished telling Kat and Gary my story – so super-important I can’t remember anything about it anymore – I noticed Jen still hadn’t come back into the room.

We needed more drinks anyway, so I headed into the kitchen. There was Jen, leaning against the stove, phone pressed up to her ear. She seemed really caught up in the call, brow knitted, head nodding slightly.

My mind went through all the emergency call possibilities: dead parents, terrible accidents, medical test results….

“Who is it?” I whispered.

My voice seemed to startle her. She hadn’t even realized I was in the room.

She put a hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “Survey.”

“Survey? Just hang up,” I told her. “We’ve got company.”

We got a lot of junk calls back then. Wrong numbers, surveys, sweepstakes contests. Our number was one digit off from the local bank’s, too, and an old woman called every single Monday wanting to know the balance in her savings account.

I waited for Jen to hang up, to grab a drink and come join us in the living room, but instead she just held up a finger.

One moment, it meant.

I shook my head, not wanting to argue with her, tired of arguing with her, just aggravated with her in general. The past few months had not been easy for us, and the baby had not been helping. David was in the midst of this toddler-tantrum stage, and Jen and I had been taking our frustrations with him out on each other.

Not the healthiest relationship, I admit, but till she took that call, it was nothing out of the ordinary.

I grabbed a handful of drinks and went back to Kat and Gary in the living room.

“She’s taking some weird phone survey,” I told them, rolling my eyes.  “Should be done in a minute.”

They both laughed. Oh, typical Jen. Ha ha.

Ha ha indeed. An hour went by with no sign of Jen. I went back in the kitchen and she was still there, leaning against the stove, phone cradled in her shoulder as she picked at her nails.

“Seventeen… No… Strongly agree….”

“What the hell kind of survey takes a fucking hour?” I asked her. She ignored me. I didn’t even get the one finger one moment sign. Nothing.

I could feel my pulse quicken, my scalp tingle. All those warning signs. I wanted to rip the phone out of her hands, hang it up, maybe throw it across the room.

I didn’t, though. It was something I was “working on,” my responses to situations like this. Jen had been on me about that a lot lately. She claimed it wasn’t good for little David to see, that he was picking it up from me. As though other two-year-olds don’t have temper tantrums, unless
of course they have a shitty father like me.

So I left her alone. Got a few more bottles out of the fridge and brought them to the living room.

“She’s still on the phone?” Gary said.

I nodded and uncapped my beer.

“Was it something I said?” Kat asked, always worried she’d just offended someone.

“No, no,” I said. “She’s just, I don’t know. She’s just fucking stupid sometimes.”

We sat in silence for a spell. I wondered if I should have chosen my words more carefully.

“Maybe we should go,” Gary said.

“Stay,” I told them. “Don’t worry about it. She’ll be off soon.”

“No, I think it’s time,” Gary said. They trotted out all the familiar lines: it’s getting late, work in the morning, blah blah blah.

Before they took off, they both ducked into the kitchen to wave at Jen, but I’m not sure she even noticed.

After they left, I went back in the kitchen.

“You ever getting off the phone?” I asked her, the anger just bubbling inside me. I must’ve said it too loud, though, because I heard David on the baby monitor suddenly start doing his rustling-and-moaning routine.


I watched Jen for a second, to see if she’d react and finally get off the phone to go tend to her baby boy. But she was still too entranced in her call.

“Disagree… Two… Every other month….”

Fuming, I rushed into David’s room to deal with him before the rustling-and-moaning turned into a full-blown crying session.

A half-hour later, he was settled back in his crib and I was spent. I crawled into bed myself, not even bothering to clean up the living room.

Fuck it, she could do it if she ever got off the damn phone. I curled up, my back to her side of the bed, my face to the wall. I closed my eyes, but I could still hear her voice in the kitchen, taking that

“No… Yes… Never….”

It had to have been, what, two or three hours now. I didn’t understand.  To keep myself calm, I thought of David. Think of David, she used to tell me whenever I was getting too mad at somebody in traffic or when some backyard project wasn’t working. Right then, I wanted to slam doors,
smash phones, yell and scream and punch some fresh holes in the wall, but instead I thought of David.

I don’t know how I managed to sleep that first night.

The next morning I found her still in the kitchen, sitting on the floor now. She looked haggard. The phone was still up to her ear.

“Did you sleep in here?” I asked, astonished.

She glanced at me for a brief second, then back down, still listening to the survey. She held up her index finger.

One moment.

Rather than get mad, rather than yank the phone cord out of the wall and swing it over my head like a lasso, I walked away. Checked on David.  Decided to ignore her, ignore whatever weird mind game she was playing with me. If she didn’t want to sleep in the same bed anymore, that was
fine, she could just say so. She didn’t need to pretend like she was stuck on the phone all night.

But if that was how she wanted to play things, then fine. I’d go along with it, pretend like I didn’t even notice.

I got David ready and dropped him off at daycare on my way to work. Jeff at the office said I looked “tense.” I just shrugged him off.

That evening, Jen was still playing her game. She was even wearing the same clothes as the day before, as though she hadn’t changed, as though she hadn’t gone to work. David ran and hugged her, and she put one arm around him, though her eyes were miles away.

“Yes… Thirty-year mortgage… No….”

I didn’t bother acknowledging her. I made dinner instead. While I was cooking, she moved out of the kitchen and carried the phone to the bathroom. We had an extra-long cord for the phone, and it reached halfway around the house. Good thing, too, so she wouldn’t have to end the charade just to use the toilet.

She kept the act going during dinner. We ate in near-silence, aside from the clatter of David’s plastic utensils and Jen’s monotone responses.

“Thirty to thirty-five thousand… No… Twelve….”

I didn’t realize I was quaking with anger till I saw the food trembling at the end of my fork. Maybe that was her game. Get me to blow one final time, then claim I was dangerous and file for divorce.

I wasn’t going to let it happen. Instead, I got David in an elaborate conversation about what he wanted to be for Halloween.

We cleaned up after dinner and I put him to bed. I drank a beer and watched a little TV. The whole time, Jen kept it up in the kitchen with the phone, just giving one inane answer after another.

“Yes… Bachelor’s degree… Married….”

What kind of survey was it? If I thought about it too long, it started to make me feel crazy. If only I could listen in, hear the questions that Jen was being asked.

If there even was someone there on the other side – I was still thinking it might be an elaborate mind game she was pulling on me.

I went to bed wishing we had an extension on the phone line, another unit I could pick up and listen in on. To figure things out.

The next day was pretty much a repeat of that one. The day after that, likewise. A week went by, then another.

The sight of Jen on the phone became one of those things I did my best to ignore, like the neighbor’s compost heap. She began to blend in with the rest of the appliances in the kitchen. Even her strange, non-sequitor answers to the survey faded into the background with the hum of the refrigerator and the gush of the dishwasher.

I was wrong, of course. I shouldn’t have let it go on. I was so busy ignoring her, stifling my anger, occupying myself with David, that I let it go too far.

I think about all the things she missed. David’s birthday. The daycare field trip to the zoo. Visiting friends. The summer trips to the beach, the parties, the fun. I grew, improved. Being the defacto single dad at that point, I had to. The anger never went away, there were still flare-ups, but I think he helped me learn to control it.

Then one day I went to drain some pasta in the sink and I tripped over something. I looked down and it was Jen. It looked like she had fallen asleep with her eyes open. The phone was resting on the kitchen floor a few inches from her limp hand.

“Look,” I said patiently. “You’ve gone on long enough with this. We need to talk.”

I knelt down and touched her shoulder, and it felt wrong. That’s when Inoticed her skin – pale, lifeless, waxy. Her hair looked like it had been falling out. She was cold.

I had let it go too long.

I tried to trace things back in my mind. How many months had this been going on? Had she even been eating? I’d been working so hard not to notice she was there, I didn’t notice she wasn’t there.

It’s amazing what you can get used to if you really try.

I reached for the phone. Because that’s what a person does in these situations, when he finds his dead wife on the kitchen floor, isn’t it?

He calls 911.

But there was no dial tone. Just silence. My thumb moved to the CALL button, to click it to get a dial tone, but then something stopped me. I put the phone back to my ear.

“Hello?” I said.

A man’s voice came through the receiver.

“Hello, sir! Would you have a moment to take a brief survey?”

I looked down at Jen’s cold, clammy face, her one cheek pressed flat against the tile floor. I heard David in the living room, watching cartoons on the TV.

I paused. A brief survey. It would just take a moment. And then I would know.

“Okay,” I said.


Matt Galletta lives in upstate New York. He brews his own beer so he never has to leave the house. Find out more at www.mattgalletta.com.


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