The city’s last payphone rings as I pass it. I reach for it, then hesitate. In the days before disposable burner phones, drug dealers used the pay phones. What if I pick it and find myself in the middle of a sting? Or kidnapper running the bagman to hell and gone before revealing the drop site. Clearly, I watch too much crime drama.
Despite realizing I have nothing to fear by answer it, I decide to walk on but the phone is insistent. I look up and down the darkening street. On both sides, I see empty old foundations interspersed with a few ramshackle two-story houses, their windows broken, their paint faded and peeling. A sheaf of yellowed newspaper blows across the street. The remaining trees have long shed their leaves. I see no one, no people and no cars. The phone is still ringing, so I pick it up.
“Hello?” I say as if guessing at an answer.
An operator comes on and says, “Long distance for Mr. Smith.” Her voice has a tinny quality, as if coming from out of the past, from before direct dialing.
“John Smith?” I say, confused.
“Yes, sir,” the operator says. “Are you Mr. Smith?”
“Yes,” I say, suddenly unsure. “This is John Smith.”
“Please hold. I’ll connect you.”
The line momentarily goes dead, and then another woman comes on. “John?” she says in a voice as sweet as a forgotten dream. I struggle and fail to match a face to her voice.
“Speaking?” I say.
“Don’t bother,” she says. This time I catch a hint of an accent I can’t place.
“Si, don’t bother?”
Si? That explains the accent, but it doesn’t help. I want her to say something else, anything. I want to ask her name but I don’t. What if she’s someone I should know?
So instead I simply say, “All right.” And with that, she hangs up. “Hello?” I repeat uselessly, clicking the switch hook several times. I pull the handset away from my ear and look at it as if somehow that will help, as if my eyes can find her voice. I say “Hello” into the phone one more time, but she’s gone.
I return the handset to its cradle and back up, still staring at the phone. I again look up and down the deserted street trying to recall which way I had been headed. I decide it doesn’t matter and walk away slowly, glance again at the phone only when I turn the corner two blocks further along.
I return every night at the same time, hoping the phone will ring. After a week, I pick up the receiver. The line is as silent as a secret taken to a watery grave.
A shorter version of “The Last Payphone” appeared originally at 52/250 A Year of Flash (http://52250flash.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/the-last-payphone-by-al-mcdermid/), and is part of an upcoming collection of flash fiction and poetry entitled Kindergarten of a Thin Mind.