Men’s hats blooming on the rack, his tap pulled and ten patrons inside, Mick Magnason sucked his cigarette and felt suspicious. The foamy head settled on the beer and he took the man’s dollar. “Does your telephone work?” asked the customer, seventy if a day, as he moved his mouth onto the pint, hands remaining inside the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“Sure it works,” Mags answered flatly. The bartender eyed the rear of the room. A public telephone hogged the corner of the bar’s interior, its dirty and cracked glass doors shut, no one inside. It rarely rang and was almost never used. For six months, he considered ripping it out for another booth. Three booths weren’t enough, not during Happy Hour.
The customer gingerly slid from his stool, beer in hand. He did not go straight to the telephone. Instead, he plunked down again, uninvited, at the table of Freddy Dix, a barber from Eighth Avenue, who sat in a chair downing schnapps.
Mags couldn’t hear them speaking, not directly. Words trickled to his ears: words like “anyone” and “no charge.” Ten minutes on the clock and Freddy Dix placed his chair legs back to earth, his schnapps glass on the dark oak table, and walked, diffidently, to the bar’s phone booth.
The old man followed behind Freddy, but only part way; he soon took the lead. From the pocket of his gray trousers, the old man fished out a dime. He opened the pay phone’s doors with a push. The hinges squealed. One foot inside, he lifted the receiver, dropped his money in the slot, thought a moment, then spun a number on the rotary. Satisfied, he handed the telephone over to Freddy Dix.
Mags, distracted by another order from Tom Reedy, in his work overalls and cap, watched the movements of the two men by the phone.
Freddy smiled weakly before stepping inside the booth, alone. He held the receiver to his ear. The old man closed Freddy inside and leaned against the cigarette machine, to give the man his privacy. Distantly, Freddy spoke, his voice a baritone murmur to Mags, indistinguishable through the glass. Freddy’s body changed shape from tired shoulders and bent back, to straight, erect, his right hand touching the booth’s ceiling, left fingers curling tighter around the phone. Not once did he turn to face the room.
The call lasted four minutes.
When finished, Freddy hung up the phone as if laying a child in a cradle. He rested his cheek against the top of the phone. At that angle, Mags could see Freddy’s face for the first time, a small quake of muscles, and tears, channeled onto his shirt collar. Freddy Dix left Mags’s bar quickly, knocking over a barstool as he slapped a fiver near the register, to clear his tab. “Thanks,” he said, the word more in the direction of the old man than Mags.
The old man stood twiddling his thumbs against the cigarette machine.
In time, he passed to Marty Scholcott, a union electrician with a round face and a thick beard. Bald Phil Dorchester was after that. Then Conner Wrightwood. One by one, these men talked quietly with the stranger, were led to the pay phone, made their call, and left in tangles.
After the last, the old man again stagnated by the cigarette machine.
“What’s the deal, Mister?” Mags had had enough; he had lost his best customers.
“It’s all right. I’m through. I’m out of dimes,” said the old man happily, his palms up. Slowly, he passed by Mags, leaving his beer untouched since that first sip, and exited into the city’s rush hour by way of the stairs.
Two days passed. None of the men who made a call that afternoon returned. Neither did the old man. Mags, during the usual one o’clock dry spell, opened the phone booth doors and looked inside. It could use a sweep. But not by him. Mick Magnason left such labors to the night bartender, a younger man named Salt. The phone’s receiver, weighing on the plastic coupling, mocked him. He snatched it off the hook and put it to his nose. The ready tone came through strong. Mags slammed it back down.
He found the number for Scholcott’s Electrical in the city directory. Using the bar’s telephone, which didn’t require a dime, Mags dialed. A ring and the man himself answered.
“Marty, it’s Mick Magnason down at the bar.”
“Oh hey, Mags. What’s cookin’?”
“You haven’t been in the bar.”
“Keepin’ tabs on me? That’s sweet.”
“Are you sick?”
“No, Mags. Right as rain.”
Mags did the math. “Marty, you’ve been in here every day, two to four p.m., eleven months runnin’. I never ask your reasons, but when you stop…” Static took the line for a second. “Hello?” said Mags, irritated.
“Look.” Scholcott’s voice returned, thinner. “Delilah told me th’other day I have to stop drinking. I’m trying to be good. No offense. Sorry, Mags, got a customer waitin’. See ya round.” Marty Scholcott hung up on him.
Mags still had hold of the tar-black receiver when Tom Reedy came in for his usual. The man took his place at the end of the bar and hiked the legs of his overalls to the top of his socks. “Hit me, Mags,” said the man as he scratched through his hair with his fingers. Quickly, a shot was poured and downed.
Mags gave another. “On the house,” said the bartender.
Tom toasted. “Why, thank you, kind sir.”
“Tommy…” began Mags in the most casual voice he could muster, “why do you think no customers last two days?”
“What am I, chopped liver?”
Mags waved him off. “Right, right. You’re golden. I’m four short, though. Probably get you and a few others off the street today, but that’s that. My regulars have all deserted me.”
“Maybe it was that guy with the phone,” said Tom as he choked back his second shot.
Mags grabbed Tom’s hand suddenly. “You know what he was up to?” When Tom gave Mags a steely look, Mags loosened his grip and shrank away.
“Yeah,” said Tom slowly, thoughtfully. “I seen him and his routine lots, actually.”
Mags couldn’t help himself – he came forward at Tom, who retreated off his stool. “Where?” asked the bartender. “Where have you seen him?”
“Other bars,” answered Tom nervously. “Ya know, Mags, this place isn’t the only dive I frequent. I’ve got a mornin’ bar, an evenin’ bar, a late night bar, a weekend bar, and a Sunday afta church bar. You’re my favorite, though, Mags, don’t you worry. Nice and quiet afternoon bar. Hands down.”
Mags narrowed his eyes. “This old guy just goes into bars and gets people to use the phone?”
Tom’s gaze lit on the empty shot glass between them. From the nozzle, Mags poured whisky to the fill line. “I don’t know what he does,” continued Tom. “Never talked to him directly. Seems to go for certain people. All I’m saying is I seen him and his habits. I think I heard him say once that he used to work for the phone company. Maybe he’s pretending he’s still on the job. Old sot.” Tom started laughing.
Mags drifted back to the register. After a time, he came around with a rag and wiped the six tables clean. Customers started appearing on the steps, descending to the bar from the street. He set them up and took their money.
Tom seemed to be holding out for another free shot, but he wasn’t about to get one. At last, he put cash on the bar and Mags came closer. “You talked to Scholcott?” Tom asked Mags, unexpectedly.
“Yeah, today actually,” Mags answered. “He’s been banned by the wife. Delilah.”
Tom pushed his face back into his neck. “Say again?”
“He told me on the phone that Delilah razzed him the other day to stop drinkin’.”
Tom shrugged. “I thought his wife Delilah died ‘round a year ago. Told me that when he first came in. Remember he used to sit beside me? Before he staked out his own spot. Musta been heard wrong, though. But that name sticks with me. Biblical.”
“Heard wrong,” Mags echoed, going pale.
“Don’t trust a rummy,” Tom said in cheers, his advice inward as well as out.
The rest of his shift, Mags felt nauseous. He quelled it with ginger ale.
When he was back to his apartment, he called everyone he knew from the phone company. A list survived from his days with the city, his brief run at ward alderman, before his beard and his thirty extra pounds and his forty-fifth birthday. Mick Magnason on posters and shaking hands, his ambition torpedoed and now isolated to the tap and the tables of his bar.
No, Mickey, doesn’t fit anyone I know, said one contact. Too old for my days, added another, a lineman, expelled for a bribe. Old men by the dozens in our local. Good luck, Mags, where ya been? Try person X, he did the payroll; no, try Y, he did the pensions. The tips of Mags’s fingers hurt from the rotary. From his apartment, he made fifteen more calls. Yes. Him. Stanley Vecker. “Stanley What? How do you spell that?” V-E-C-K-E-R. Strung wires for twenty-eight years. Pole climber. I’d say seventy-three years old. I could crosscheck the file for a birthday, if you like, Mick. Born latter half of the last century. Came in at the start of the business. No wires then. Plenty when he finished. “He climbed poles?” Used to. Think he was at a desk the last few. How should I know? I just cut the checks. “The address. Give me the address.”
Stanley Vecker’s apartment building was only ten blocks from the bar. He had been working his own neighborhood. When Mags arrived, he brought with him the page from the city directory, confirmation that he wasn’t lied to. It matched. Mags took the stairs to the second floor and located the door to Vecker’s apartment. Mags knocked until he had an answer.
“You’re too loud!” said the old man who came to the door, the same old man who had been in Mick Magnason’s bar three days before. “I’m not deaf, you know.” Here, the old man’s gaze surfaced from Mags’s shirt to his face. A glimmer of recognition lit his eyes.
“You remember me?” asked Mags.
“No,” Vecker replied, after a pause. “No.”
“You were in my bar.”
“I own it. ‘Mickey Mags.’”
Vecker tried to close the door. His hand was already on the bolt. “I won’t come in again, if that suits you. Didn’t mean to cause a stir, apologies all around–”
Mags barely got his shoe in the jamb. “No!” he said, then softer, “No.”
The old man disappeared from the crack of the door. Mags took it as permission to enter.
The apartment was small and crowded with old, tattered telephone directories. There were commercial listings, residential listings, business supplementals and neighborhood editions, stacked ceiling-high in jagged piles. Windows along the outside wall had only the uppermost sash visible. Breeze came from a ten-inch metal rotating fan that blew about the apartment. The kitchen was equally buried in books, as was the bedroom. Through the open bathroom door, Mags saw an army cot flush up against the porcelain bathtub. The man confined himself to a single room. All else, the directories.
“Pardon the mess,” Vecker said politely. He built two short stacks of books so that they both might be seated. “How can I help you?” the old man finally said, beaurocratically.
Mags stared at his own shoes. “What did you do to my regulars?” he asked. “They’ve left me. You spoke with them and they didn’t… come back.”
“So it’s business that’s on your mind? Lost cash.”
“No. Not that.” Mags met the old man’s stare. “I want to know who they called on my pay phone.”
The apartment held silent, except for the sound of the whirring fan.
“Mr. Mags,” the old man began (and the bartender didn’t bother to correct the name), “I don’t usually seek out those behind the bar. Those men are employees, or, so as not to offend, sometimes owners. The customers are my targets.” Stanley Vecker reached forward and put his hand, as a father might, onto Mick Magnason’s knee. “I have a gift for numbers. Telephone numbers. Exchanges. You’ve found me, so you know. I strung wires all over this city. Sometimes I strung them places where they shouldn’t be. Mistakes, sometimes. Other times… uncharted territory.” Vecker leaned back on his stack of phone books and nearly lost his balance; Mags went forward to catch him, but it wasn’t needed. “Have I missed you?” asked the old man, absently.
“I’ve developed an eye for those who need a number. Because you were behind the bar, I didn’t catch it. But I missed you, didn’t I? You’ve actually had someone go and die on you.”
Here, Mags put his hand up to his cheek as it suddenly started to burn. The inner points of each eye felt as if they had sties. “Yes,” said the bartender, “I’ve had someone die on me. What does that have to do with the phone calls?”
Vecker winked, conspiratorially. “I can give you that person’s number,” he sang.
“The person’s dead. They can’t just be telephoned.”
“Ah, but they can!” said the old man with his finger wagging. “Who is it? Who would you call? And, here’s a hard and fast rule: you only get one. A single call to a single person.”
“Why just one?”
“That’s the way the exchanges work. It just is. Don’t ask me to explain, as I probably couldn’t. I only strung wires; I wasn’t an engineer.” Vecker caught Mags’s eyes scanning the stacks of directories that surrounded them. “The number may be published, but you’ll never find it. These are fifty years worth of city phone books. But, as I said earlier, I have a knack for numbers. You give me a name, I’ll give you a number.”
Mags humphed. “Sorta like ‘Information.’”
“Yes,” nodded Vecker. “Exactly like ‘Information.’ Only don’t try to call those clowns. They’re never any damn help anyway.”
Wriggling, Mags fiddled with his shoelaces. He didn’t want to say her name out loud. He remembered Freddy Dix’s face, leaned up against the telephone in the bar, relieved but also panicked. Mags waited for the old man to become impatient, but he just sat quiet. In his tweed jacket and gray trousers, as before, he didn’t seem the sort to be climbing poles. If it weren’t for a call to the old contacts, Mags would think it a lie. This man was a bank clerk, a nebbish. An odd type to be hanging out in bars. The man may know numbers, but he didn’t know liquor. Instead of giving a name, Mags asked a sudden question. “Why do you find people in bars?”
“Pay phones,” said the man. “This only works with pay phones. One dime only. If you feed it more, it’s just a waste. The call lasts the standard duration and then it ends. And once you’ve called, you can never call again. The line will sound busy. Forever. The first call is the only one that’s picked up. And also, Mr. Mags, in bars you find those in the most pain, don’t you? They don’t have churches. Often no families. So, knowing these limitations, Mr. Mags, tell me a name.”
Mags said it quickly this time. “Angela Magnason.”
“A woman,” Vecker nodded. “It’s often a woman.”
“She was my wife. She died three years ago.”
“Of what cause.”
“Does it matter?” Mags asked, but realized that it mattered to him. He wanted Stanley Vecker to hear it. “She was murdered,” he said, “when I was running for city government. One night we were home cooking dinner. The phone rang, I answered, and someone said that I should drop out. I told him to go take a flying leap. The voice said something bad would happen to her. He made good. He made good.” The burning in Mags’s eyes returned. The old man could probably see the reddening, the veins.
“Angela Magnason’s number is Primrose 327,” he said simply, without any effort.
“P-Primrose?” stuttered Mags, “Where’s that?”
Vecker winked. “I doubt it’s a city exchange.”
Mick Magnason shot up from his seat on the stack of phone books. “Get your phone,” he said quickly, “we’ll call her right now.”
“It wouldn’t work on my phone, even if I had one. It has to be a pay phone!”
Vecker started to rise, but too slow for Mags. Mags grabbed the old man by his tweed jacket. “Then where’s a pay phone?”
“On the corner,” said the old man, flustered. He wasn’t use to this treatment.
Mags threw the door open and ran into the hallway. Vecker followed, but slowly. In seconds, Mags was on the street, looking left and right. Adjacent to a candy shop, stood a phone booth, empty. His feet light but clumsy, Mags zipped around pedestrians until he reached the crosswalk. He didn’t wait for the signal, instead buzzed around two moving cars and ignored the honks from their horns.
Once at the pay phone he yanked the door, stepped inside, and jerked the receiver from the hook. There was a dial tone. He padded his pockets, fumbling as if his clothes were on fire. He didn’t have any change! Mags slammed the phone down with the intention of running into the candy shop when Stanley Vecker appeared beside him. Despite his physical limitations, the man had gone down the apartment hallway, the building steps, traveled a city block and crosswalk, all only twenty seconds behind Mags. “Do you need a dime?” he asked.
“Of course I need a dime!”
Vecker reached into his trousers and pulled out a dull dime, dusting off a piece of lint. “Here you go,” he said and repeated the number, “Primrose 327. Best to dial slowly. Don’t want to accidentally call your dead mother, now, do we? Although I have her number, too, if you want to switch names.”
Mags shut the phone booth door on Vecker’s face, but both men could still see each other through the glass. Mags again picked up the receiver. Vecker waited a moment and then drifted away to the read the headlines of the candy shop’s newsstand. Shutting his eyes, controlling his breathing, longing for a cigarette, Mags dropped the dime into the slot.
He heard the coin bounce through the gears until it landed in the change box. The dial tone skipped and restarted in the receiver.
Carefully, eyes open, Mags dialed.
The line started ringing.
“This better not be a gag,” Mags said to himself, gritting his teeth.
A third ring.
“Hello?” said a woman.
“Hello?” said Mags.
As a popped balloon full of confetti, Mags wept. He threw his arm around the rectangle telephone, holding himself up. “Angela!” he cried. “Is it really you?”
“Yes, it’s me.” She, too, carried heavy emotion in her voice, trembling, excited. “They told me you’d be calling. I didn’t believe them. How long have we got?”
“Just a few minutes.”
“Are you good, Mickey?”
He smiled and jumped inside the booth. “I am now,” he shouted.
Outside the booth, Stanley Vecker purchased a daily paper. His gaze went to the phone booth, to the elation on Mick Magnason’s face. A dime doesn’t last long, he lamented, use it wisely. Seeing no more reason to hang around, he wedged the newspaper under his arm. He was suddenly hungry. He knew a good place for corn beef sandwiches. The nice woman at the counter also didn’t complain when asked to break a dollar for ten new dimes.
Darren Callahan lives in Chicago. His novel “City of Human Remains” is published on Fiction365, and can be read in its entirety here.
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