Have you heard about number 55, she said. It's a new service. Here. Let me show you.
She picked up the phone. He hadn't realized it had been hidden, cradled almost, in the dishevelment of the twisted sheets, an old model, the ones they don't make any more, with its black snake of a cord dangling like a vine and swinging as she dialed.
Oh, hello, she said now, into the phone. A mother and a child, yes. Both decapitated in a car accident. In the last half hour. I'd like to know their names.
She waited and smiled at him, stretched out her limbs in the bed. He noticed again how dirty her nightgown was, he'd have to see about that. But that wasn't what he was thinking. He was thinking: so this is how she spends her days, spends her nights, this is the latest thing.
It's the latest thing, she said, as if she could read his thoughts. Which she always had been able to do, but somehow he hadn't expected it to be that way this time, this visit. She cupped a hand over the mouth of the receiver, but softly, not as if she were suffocating it or angry or anything like that, just the veil of the hand over the receiver so the person on the other side could not hear them. They are so very nice. At times we'll speak for hours. Well, not hours. We'll speak as long as we can manage. I don't want this woman or that womanbecause they're all women, that's what's so nice about this service, I've even wondered if perhaps I could get a job with them, you know, I could do it from here. I'd have to learn how to use a computer, of course, but the women tell me it's easy, a cinch, they said, I remember the word because I liked it. But that's the whole point. I wouldn't want any of these nice women to get in trouble, because they spoke too long to just one client. Kept the line busy, I mean. They could even lose their job. Though that might open something up for me, an opportunity, I mean. You know, to apply.
Now she stopped, uncapped her hand, scratched her ear with the hand, said into the phone: You're sure? And listened a bit more. Wait a second. I'll take down the details. He saw her reach out with the same hand, the one that wasn't holding the receiver, lazily extend to the night table where a piece of paper and a ballpoint lay next to a disarray of medicine. She placed the paper on the sheets and scribbled a few words on it, laboriously, not quite like a six-year-old learning to write, merely like anyone anywhere who might be having trouble pressing down with one hand on a piece of paper deformed by the contour of sheets underneath. He felt like clasping the paper down for her, just as she had helped him when he had been a child and she had been an adolescent in full bloom, resplendently sure of the body he could not look at directly back then, for fear she would realize how electrifying he found the budding of her breasts, the budding of her cheerfulness. But he did nothing, let her note down those letters as if they were sticks and not letters.
Is that an F or an S? she asked now into the phone. An S, of course, of course. It's hard to know the difference. Or should I say the disserence. And she laughed and the laugh was as pleasant as ever, cool in summer and warm in winter, he had always thought, and thought it again in this room where the temperature was invariably the same, the lights were always the same, day and night, so this was how she spent her days. And her nights, he thought. Her nights as well.
Oh no, I'm the one who's grateful, she was now saying into the phone. I'm the one who feels grateful, believe me. This is interesting information. I'll call later and find out more about the family, maybe it'll be you on the phone? And have a nice day yourself, dear.
She hung up and passed him the piece of paper. He could barely make out the two names scribbled there, preferred not to try.
It's a great service, number 55, she said. You want to give it a spin? It's only a dollar an hour. Imagine. They must not pay very well, but the women are all very courteous and surprisingly efficient. Ask them, here, go on. She was stretching the whole phone, receiver and all, out to him, almost like an offering, a small dead black chick or something of the sort, a creature once living whose throat had been cutand for the first time that afternoon he really did not know what to do. I'll treat you to it. I've got some money saved up. What do you want to know? What's the latest news you don't know and want to know?
He wanted to know how she was coping, but that was not anything he would ever be able to articulate, not now, not ever, and certainly not the sort of question she could address to those nice women on the other side of the line.
He said, I'm not good at this, I don't have the expertise.
The expertise? And she laughed all the way down into her throat, delighted at the word or perhaps at the idea that she had more of anything than he did, that this was one area where now, all these years later, she had more skill and know-how. You're right.
You do it for me, he said. Ask them something for me, something you think I need to know.
Number 55? she asked. You want me to call number 55 again?
Yes, he said. Ask them something.
Maybe I'll get the same woman as last time. She nodded, enthusiastic, but with a certain ripple of nervousness that he had not anticipated. Maybe she'll recognize me, but this time we won't chat, we won't, how do you say it, prolong the conversation. What do you want to know? Anything, you can ask them anything and they always have an answer.
About this mother and her child, he said now, pointing at the piece of crumpled paper which still lay in front of him, yawning between them as if it were a raft on a lake, surging with her sudden kicking movements under the bedsheets. Ask them if anybody is left in the family that had the accident, a father, another child maybe, he said, ask them that.
That's a nice idea, she said, cocking her head to one side as she had once done whenand suddenly he saw her at her wedding day, when she had cocked her head in exactly that way to lift her lips towards the man she said she loved, the man who had sworn to love her forever. And flooding back to him came the glorious stream of light surrounding her that morning, at least in his memory, at least that's how he remembered it now, the sun breaking out of the clouds at that moment, as if on cue. You've always been a kind man, caring about others, about the survivors. You were like that as a boy, always. Maybe too much. Because you can care for others too much, do you know that?
Is it always number 55? he asked, because he was strangely embarrassed by that memory, how she remembered him. There was nobody else in the world who knew these things, nobody left except the two of them to remember things like these.
She snorted. You do lack expertise, she said, but it was gentle, not really chiding him, more like oh these men, or perhaps worried because he could be showing signs of age, this brother who was forgetting something so elementary. Of course it's always number 55. Do you think they have this service for any old number? It's always number 55. Here, you dial it.
But she didn't hand him the phone. She punched in the two numbers herself and waited.
They're not answering, she said. But I can wait. I mean, they are getting popular, maybe I shouldn't tell anyone else about this service. Now the silly line is busy.
She hung up and dialed again. You can ask them all sorts of things, she said. Like how to end war. That's something you were worried about, used to go to all those peace marches.
I went because you took me there, he said.
Well, now you can find outhow to end the killing, the wars, I mean. The bombs. Just ask them. These women have an answer to everything. Do you know what they told me the other day? Last night, in fact. I asked her about thisnurse, I guess I'll call her. Not very pleasant, you know, a bit fastidious and sort of bossy. How to deal with her, that's what I asked. And the woman on number 55 answered, the truly mighty person is someone who can turn an enemy into a friend. How's that for good advice, eh? I'll follow that advice, you can be sure of that. Let them guide me in the days ahead. But now they're not answering. Maybe you should try.
I wouldn't know how to ask, he said.
She hung up again and waited and then carefully, deliberately, punctiliously, punched in two fives. She closed her eyes as if to listen more attentively, as if that gesture would free the line. He used the opportunity to glance at his watch, found himself transfixed with the jerking stutter of the second hand crawling up its face. When he looked up, she had opened her eyes, but gave no sign she had caught him consulting it, that watch which had belonged to their father, which she had insisted he should wear.
He waited, hoping she would not mention anything about the watch, mention their father.
She didn't. She had always been like that, protective, considerate, and now she asked, out of the blue, wrinkling her brow, puzzled, wondering: Have you changed the way you part your hair?
I've had it this way for thirty years, he said.
Oh no, she said. You've always had your hair parted on the left side. Don't tell me no, because I can remember combing it. Hands have memories too, you know, fingertips can remember things even when the brain forgets.
I'm left-handed, he said. Mom never noticed. You didn't notice either. But when I was old enough, I started combing my hair with the left hand, like so. The last time you combed my hair was
She shushed him. Wait, wait. They're answering. Yes, yes, it's me. Yes, again, dear. I have another question.
He hardly listened to her next words, the conversation about the rest of the family, if someone had survived in the accident where the mother and child had died, something about how sad it was to receive news of a sudden death, he somehow tuned her chatter out of his mind, looked away and started to rehearse what he would say to his wife when he returned home.
How is she? his wife would ask, not really interested, but that was something she would ask for sure, she always did.
And, Fine, he would say and repeat it one more time, though he shouldn't, the mere fact of repeating anything too emphatically was already a sign of weakness, a sign of confusion, his sister had taught him that many years ago: She's fine.
Her voice suddenly interrupted his thoughts.
I'd rather you didn't tell her, she said. Your wife, I mean. When you speak to her. If you could do me that favor.
Tell her what?
Some sort of alarm must have crept into his eyes, darkened them, because she smiled at him, said into the receiver, I'll call you back later, dear. And say hello to your supervisor from me. I'd like him to know you're doing one hell of a good job.
Tell her what? he asked again.
About number 55, she said. Don't tell your wife just yet about number 55, can you do me that favor? When she asks how I'm doing.
I won't, he answered. Not a word to her or anyone else about number 55. We'll keep it a secret, just between the two of us, you and me.
Ariel Dorfman writes novels, poems, plays, and stories, as well as opinions in newspapers. His short story "Gringo" won an O. Henry Award in 2007.