|The Ringing Phone
© Copyright 2003 by Seth Chambers
The phone rang.
It would not stop.
It never did.
Roland James tried to sleep through it but the effort was always futile. The night stand with the phone floated closer, farther away, closer again. Or was it hallucination? The phone rang loudly, a strident voice demanding attention... Then it grew soft, so soft that in times past he would believe maybe he could sleep, sleep at last, but now he knew better.
Each day was a year in this place, so each night was four months long. But Roland counted himself lucky if he got even an hour’s sleep in that time. The phone was hooked to some sort of EEG in a most diabolical manner and would jar him back to wakefulness just as he began to drift off.
The words had long ago lost their irony.
He groped for the phone, knocking over the single glass of water allotted him for the night. He cursed and lapped doglike at the spilled water. The phone persisted. He groped some more until his hand came down upon the receiver.
He hurled the phone across the room but of course it did not hit anything. Instead, the mechanism dematerialized in its trajectory and rematerialized on the night stand, there to mock him with more ringing. If only it would just hit the wall when he threw it! Was that asking too much? All he wanted was the momentary satisfaction of the phone disintegrating into a thousand pieces as it crashed against the wall. But that never happened.
With a tiny cry, he picked up the receiver.
A polite -- it was always polite -- voice addressed him:
“Could I please speak with a Mr. Roland James?” As if The Voice had not called a thousand times -- ten thousand times -- before!
Roland said nothing. No type of response would shut up the Polite Voice. Instead of trying, he merely lay there blinking at the darkness, his eyelids making audible clicks, like the pincers of a crab, as the Polite Voice droned on about some prize drawing he was eligible for.
I will kill him. I will kill him or them. Whoever, whatever is responsible for this, I will kill, kill, kill.
Roland James had been a telemarketer for 28 years of his life, so this was perhaps an appropriate part of his Hell. But still, he vowed to someday kill whomever had rigged up this Hell. He also vowed to someday do in the sadistic, albeit polite, bastard on the other end of the line.
Day times were more Traditional: His personal demons chased him through sulfur pits with red-hot tridents. It was, essentially, what he used to imagine Hell would be like, not that he had often given the matter much thought. His demons were short, and not too fast, but they always got the best of Roland. His problem, of course, was sleep-deprivation. His reflexes were either too slow or overly quick. Plus he was always distracted by some thought or memory or half-forgotten dream that was just out of reach but oh-so-important. If he could just be rested then he would deal with these demons! Demons, hell! More like a bunch of dim-witted munchkins.
Each day lasted one year. Midway through the day
year, Roland was granted a 20-minute break. An actual glass-walled break room appeared amidst the fire and brimstone. Roland and his personal demons filed in.
“Allow me,” said Demon Pride, reaching deep into a pocket for quarters. “Coffee or tea?”
“Coffee,” Roland sighed, wishing like anything there could be a cold beverage. What he wouldn’t give for a tall glass of Sprite with ice!
The demons set their tridents in a corner. Pride brought Roland over a cup of coffee and a small bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. Deceit set a tall glass of Sprite, with crackling ice cubes floating in it, in front of him. Roland’s hand passed right through the glass.
“Thanks,” Roland said to Pride.
Lust sat across from Roland with a copy of Evil Wenches open on the table. Demon Envy stared pointedly at Roland’s chips and coffee.
“What a long day,” said Roland. “Sweet Jesus!”
The next instant the demons turned inside out and black vultures swooped into the break room to tear at their guts. Alas, this entertainment lasted only a minute and, Roland knew with certainty, the demons would have the whole rest of the day
year to exact revenge a hundredfold on him for uttering the Holy Name.
“Naw, this is a short day compared with some,” said Demon Envy, as if nothing had happened. “Hell, Hitler’s still working on his first hour.”
“There has to be a way out,” said Roland.
“Ooow, my, oh my!” shrieked Lust, pulling out the centerfold of his magazine to reveal a naked, purple, fin-covered demoness with four-inch tusks. Roland glanced over and was aroused. It had been far too long...
“Is there?” he asked the room at large. “Is there a way out of here?”
Pride gaped at him. And was that a tear forming at the corner of his eye? The demon said, “You want out?”
“Yes!” He restrained himself from saying, “God yes!”
“Well, we’ll miss you,” said Envy.
They’re screwing with me, Roland told himself. But he followed their gaze out beyond the glass walls of the break room. There, in the midst of the sulfur pits, stood an ordinary-looking door. It could have been a door from an office building, complete with a lighted EXIT sign hanging just over it.
Roland looked at the demons.
“Is this for real?”
“Would we lie to you?” Deceit asked with a snigger.
It had to be an illusion, a trick, or something. But Roland’s legs acted seemingly on their own and the next moment he was bolting from the break room and charging for the EXIT door. He expected it to vanish, but it did not. So then he expected it to be locked, but it wasn’t. It opened for him and he expected to walk right into more sulfur pits. But instead he stepped into a plushly-furnished conference room. There was even a water cooler with a dispenser for cone-shaped paper cups. Roland guzzled about twenty cup fulls of cool, fresh water.
From another door, across the room, flowed a translucent, white figure in flowing robes. For one moment Roland’s heart stopped cold as he contemplated the possibility that this was Jesus, Himself.
His knees were just about to give when he suddenly dismissed the idea from his mind. No, this was not the savior, he was fairly certain. It wasn’t so much the lack of stigmata as something in the being’s demeanor.
And yet, this being, while Roland could not tell whether it was male or female, possessed a beauty that transcended gender.
“Are you an angel?” Roland asked as he
it drew nearer.
“They say I am.”
The angel would not meet Roland’s eye, but instead spoke as if addressing the floor or the overstuffed sofa. That had been what cued Roland in to this not being the Big J.C. Surely, Jesus would be able to look him in the eye.
“So, are you an angel?”
“I guess. I came from Heaven to minister and to help.”
Light shone through the wispy, cloudlike angel.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m not worthy of a name,” said the angel in a near-whisper. “Not until I’ve brought a million souls to the Light.”
“And how many are you up to?”
“I’m hoping... Well, maybe you will be my first.”
Roland looked at the holy waif standing before him and inwardly cursed. Back in his telemarketing days, he would have sold somebody like this ten dozen of every product he had. Okay, so this wasn’t much of an angel, but a wimpy angel was better than no angel at all.
“How do I get out of here?”
“If you would only forgive, then you’d be set free, you could go to the Light, instead of residing in this... This horrid, horrid place!”
Roland looked around the conference room. “This place is a nicely furnished, pleasant room. You should try the sulfur pits.”
The angel’s eyes went wide. “Sulfur? You mean, this isn’t hell right here?”
“Hardly. It’s more like the antechamber outside of Hell. A waiting room, maybe. It’s nothing. Earth was worse than this.”
“Oh, Heaven! Oh mercy!” the angel cried.
“Hey, stop that! Get yourself together!”
“Okay, I’m sorry!” The angel choked back his tears.
“Tell me who I have to forgive. Come on, help me!”
“He comes to this room. Forgive him and you are free!” the angel without a name implored.
“Who? Someone from my past, you mean?”
“Past?” said the angel. “That word... It confuses me.”
Just then the door from which Roland had come opened again. A man he had never seen before stepped through.
“Forgive!” the angel pleaded.
Piece of cake, Roland thought.
Then the stranger spoke: “Hello, sir, it has been brought to my attention, via reliable sources, that for a limited time only...”
It was him. It was the voice that came through the phone line all those times in the endless nights after he relented and picked up the receiver.
It was him. But it was more, so much more. It was the voice of every supercilious boss, civil servant and lover Roland had ever encountered. It was the voice of his second-grade teacher informing him that his efforts at painting were “cute.” It was the voice of his first wife telling him how much she truly admired the courageous way he accepted his -- ahem -- shortcomings with such grace. It was all of them, it was everyone who had ever pissed him off royally.
And it was the sound of an endlessly ringing phone.
“...in my Earthly life, sir, I was always short with people, never took time for them, was rude, sir, yes I was rude, but here things are...”
On and on the Polite Man droned. And in that instant Roland understood what the angel had meant when he said the word “past” confused him -- for there was a realm in which past, present and future all melded into one singular now, and that now consisted only of this endlessly droning Polite Voice...
Roland roared and charged the Polite Man. The man had appeared to be solid enough but Roland passed right through him to go sprawling across the floor. Nearby, the angel with a self-esteem issue gasped loudly. The Polite Man droned on. Blood roared in Roland’s ears and he thought he heard the sound of a telephone nearby. He took several swings at Politeness Man but of course he connected with nothing.
“Forgive, please, forgive!” cried the angel.
“I would if I could just... Just belt the son of a bitch a good one first,” Roland cried out. He thought of all the times in his life he had bitten back rage. He thought of all the times in this existence he had hurled the phone across the room only to have it quietly rematerialize on the night stand.
“I am so unworthy, I should just throw myself in the sulfur pits,” the angel sobbed.
Roland spun. His rage, having been denied its target, could only lash out in a wider arc. He had never been a violent man in his life (here in the Other Place, he was plagued by Demon Anger and Demon Petulance, but only on a part-time basis). He had never, during his Earthly life, hit anyone, save for during a couple grade-school scuffles. But there was something about residing in Hell that just brought out the worst in a person.
He swung with everything he had. He fully expected his fist to pass right through the translucent angel, but instead it connected with a hearty and satisfying solidity. The angel fell but no sooner had he sprawled to the floor than Roland was hauling him up by the robe to his holy feet, the better to hit him again. An uppercut this time. His fist buried itself in the angel’s gut and lifted him right off the floor and it felt good, God but it felt good! Then Roland let loose with an old-fashioned haymaker that connected with the angel’s nose, and it was like opening a spigot of blood. The angel’s eyes were wide with surprise, shock, horror.
Then the rage was gone as the angel slumped one final time to the floor. The Polite Man was silent. A pool of blood spread slowly across the floor. Roland stared for a time and fell to his knees. What have I done? He reached out to touch the angel. The angel flinched. Roland’s mouth was filled with the nasty aftertaste of adrenaline.
“I’m sorry. I...” He didn’t know what else to say. What else could be said? “I’m sorry!”
He and the Polite Man helped the angel up from the floor. The angel was unsteady on his feet.
“I should be going,” the angel said, holding one hand to his nose to slow the bleeding.
“Not that way,” said Roland, as he started toward the door that he, Roland, had come in from.
The angel steadied himself and shook both men off. He stood straighter, held his head high and his shoulders back. “Yes. This way. Allow me to do my penance.” He looked Roland in the eye, briefly, before walking through the door.
“Go with God,” Roland whispered.
After the angel had left, Roland turned toward the stranger. This was just another person serving his time in Hell. How could he be angry? If this man didn’t call him up all through his night, then somebody else would.
“I’m sorry for everything. It’s... It’s been a long day. Please forgive me.”
“Apology accepted, sir. And please accept mine, as well.”
The two men shook hands. Roland was surprised to find this other man to be solid flesh and bones, just like himself.
From across the room there was a soft click as the door -- the one from which the nameless angel had come -- popped open and a beautiful light filled the room.
“Good day, sir,” said the Polite Man. “I wish you well.”
Then he walked through the door into the Light.
Roland gazed at the light a long time but eventually turned away and exited through the door from which he had entered.
The phone rang only twice before Roland picked it up.
“Hello, Mr. James, I am calling to inform you of our one-time-only offer to enter into our sweepstakes....”
It was a new voice but a familiar spiel.
“Yes,” said Roland. “Please tell me more.”
Roland James stayed on the line for a long time. When
morning finally came, a day or week or a month later, he said “good bye”
and gently, almost lovingly, placed the receiver back into its cradle.
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