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By Debra S. Levy

At the Amoco station a man slouched inside the booth, his posture telling me he planned to be there a while. Across the street, at Texaco, a woman and child huddled together inside a plexiglass booth, the woman’s hands flying the whole time, deep into something; she gave me a hard look, as if to say, Get your own damn phone. So I turned around and got in my car and drove to the mall, where there were three pay-phones next to the Food Court alone. A yeasty smell wafted over from Hot Sam’s and a juicer masticated fresh fruit at the Orange Julius stand. I went to the last booth, nearest the restrooms, where it was quiet and pleasantly smelled of disinfectant. Before feeding a coin into the hungry slot, I noticed a cleaning lady who had come out of the restroom. My heart went out to her. She was heavy, her ankles bulbous. She reminded me of my own sweet mother.

I dropped the coin, examined names and numbers scratched into the enamel – a pimply surface painted over so many times I could chip away and carry off a rainbow of color beneath my fingernail. Soon I would hear my mother’s voice – low, nasal, reassuring – reaching across the distance, and as always she’d take her time, in no hurry. Hel-lo, she’d say, emphasizing both syllables, and I, mesmerized, would be content to stand there all day listening to her lilting voice through the wires – Hel-lo, hel-lo – imprinting the inflection, the tone, the pitch to memory. A true perfectionist, she took I don’t know how many times to get the message just right. I had given her the machine the Christmas before. “Why do I need this?” she had said, laughing as she tugged it from the box, but I could tell she was thrilled to get it.

The coin slid through the pay phone, exiting out the chute as if I’d hit the jackpot. I fished it out and sent it back down again, and this time I remembered my uncle’s old slot machine, the one he had won in a poker match. Whenever we went over to his house I was allowed to go to the basement to play the one-armed bandit while he and my parents visited. My uncle always kept a Chase and Sanborn coffee can filled with dimes to last an unlucky gambler all night long. Sometimes my mother would come down and join me. Every now and then a row of bright red cherries would roll over and she’d cry “Bingo!” as if she were in some smoky American Legion Hall instead of her brother’s damp and dreary basement. “Mom,” I’d correct her, “it’s jackpot.”

But she didn’t care. She was happy to have hit upon a little luck any way she could – which was exactly how I felt standing there, listening to her tell me she couldn’t come to the phone right now, but to go ahead and leave a message.

Of course, I didn’t. And just what might I have said? That I missed her? That I wished we could talk, like before? Instead, I hung up. And then I went to my car and started home, and as I was driving across town I realized it was about time I finally unplugged her answering machine and got serious about selling her house. After all, she’d been gone for months now, and in all that time I’d had to listen to her promise to get back to me as soon as possible – the only promise I’d ever known her not to keep.


Debra S. Levy lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with her husband, four cats, and a dog. Her work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, Carolina Quarterly, Columbia, and others.

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photo by Dinty W. Moore