May I Ask Who’s Calling?

An elderly woman wearing a dust mask patiently waited across the sidewalk. She read the environment–someone scrawled in sharpie on a sticker pasted to the back of the bus stop sign, “I hate this world.” A young boy waiting nearby for the same bus hadn’t lifted his eyes from the screen of his smart-phone since sometime before he arrived there. Ambling along with no particular destination in mind, a young woman pushed an empty baby stroller and scanned people’s faces for glints of generosity. Like the old woman, she wore a dust mask, though hers rested on top of her head the way a pilot might rest her goggles at her hairline before take-off. Everything else she owned was in a tattered backpack slung across her back. A small crowd populated the rest of the bus stop, and people walked here and there along the sidewalks and across the streets.

And then the phone on the wall rang, just once, and then stopped.


The younger woman instinctively pushed her stroller forward and checked the coin return for change. She toggled the switch hook where the phone receiver once hung and pulled the lever to the coin return, but the payphone offered nothing. She looked around for another witness, only half convinced that it actually rang, and a man shouldered past speaking into his headset.


“Watch where you’re going,” he said to her. Then he clarified, “no, some street trash,” into thin air.


But beside the bus stop, the old woman had fixed her gaze on the phone and the young woman–her sharp and curious eyes defiantly interested and striking a contrast between her aged body and vibrant mind. The two women met eyes, the younger one startled to find herself sharing this experience with a regular person. Did she hear it, too?


The bus approached from the north; it’s sound characteristically quiet for such a large machine. As the bus drew nearer, the phone rang again, this time continuing on. Both women flinched, and the younger one inspected the phone,
running her hand over the side in search of the handset that was obviously missing.


The young boy finally lifted his eyes from his screen–he’d never heard the authentic sound of a phone ringing, and he thought that someone had downloaded a curious-sounding ring tone. The noise made him impatient, and he frowned first at the old woman and then at the younger one, from which direction the noise emanated.


“You gonna answer that?” He barked.


The young woman stammered, looked at the phone and then back to boy who now glared dismissively. The old woman returned her puzzled and shocked look, and the bus announced itself, snorting its air brakes at the curb. The crowd inside the bus stop stepped aside to give departing passengers room, and then they filed in to find their seats. The boy shook his head at the young woman–a commonplace experience she barely registered–and stepped onto the bus. The old woman hesitated and unwittingly memorized the young woman’s face. If she was to keep her schedule, she’d have to board the bus immediately. Resigned to carry on with her day, the old woman smiled from behind her facemask and entered the bus. As she took her first step up, the ringing stopped, and the center walkway, she quickly turned to look once more at the phone and the young woman. Their eyes met and watched each other as the bus pulled away, and each went about their lives, secretly holding the experience for posterity, in the event that it might one day become important again.


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