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phone booth on the side of the highway molly mary o’brien

first female breadwinner Things are not looking good. It’s raining. The tire’s blown. The husband is home cooking a roast chicken of some description. She’s in the car, silently freaking out. She’s the first ever female breadwinner. It’s a big role, she knows, but someone had to be the first. She started last month. She knows that some other woman probably went to work as the family breadwinner maybe a day or two after her, and a day or two isn’t much difference, but anyway, she’s the first, and she takes her responsibility seriously. She received a pin for it. And a sash with a badge sewn on. The rain is making drumming noises. She should have never gone to work, she thinks. She should never have dared to do anything alone. The worst things happen to people when they’re alone: being born, dying, and lots of things in between. Things that aren’t so terrible when you’re with another person are just awful when you’re alone, she thinks. Setting off the smoke alarm. Seeing an ex-boyfriend at the diner when your cheeks are full of chocolate milkshake. Stuff like that. Your face gets hot and you’re aware that there’s no one on either side of you. The smoke alarm sounds all the more ridiculous when no one else hears it. So does the sound of a tire exploding. Whoever threw their Coke bottle out the window today can go die.


She had wanted to work, and her husband hadn’t wanted to. “Honey, would you mind working instead of me?” asked the husband one day at the dinner table. She replied, “That’s so funny. I was literally just about to ask that.” Then she sniffed her fingers, which smelled like garlic. She couldn’t stand when that happened. She went to work. Learned how to type. Got an awesome paycheck once every two weeks. Started feeling like a productive member of society. And her husband learned her roast chicken recipe. The secret, she told him, was putting little chunks of butter under the skin of the chicken. “It feels gross to poke them in, but it’s worth it.” She opens the car door. The rain soaks her hair. She wishes she knew how to do everything at once. To be a vessel of useful knowledge. She walks in high heels to the payphone on the side of the highway. She’s been working for a company that makes cold cereal. The cereal is for people who think breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and also for people who don’t feel like cooking and want to eat cereal for dinner. She types correspondences. She seals envelopes. The dial tone is comforting. The payphone is exactly the size of one person. If she gets splashed, she’s going to commit a murder.


i can’t not answer marie’s call If you had asked me a day ago whether I'd have any reason for using a phone booth on the side of the highway, I'd have said, no way, because that would be a ridiculous premise. These are the parameters that would need to occur in order to make the situation plausible:


1) Naturally I'd have to be in a car, driving down the highway. 2) Not only would I have to be on this particular highway, I'd need to be on this very stretch of highway, mile 196 on U.S. Route 6, just outside of Kenesaw, Nebraska. 3) That means I'd have to have a car at all—and I don't own a car. 4) And that means I'd have to have a pretty good reason to be in Nebraska as well. 5) I'd have to have lost my cell phone somehow, because why would I use a phone booth if I had my cell phone? 6) I'd need a reason to make a phone call. 7) I'd need two quarters—I think it still costs 50 cents to make a phone call, but I'm not sure. 5

This all being said, I need to use the phone booth on the side of the highway, and I need to use it as soon as possible. 1) Marie called me from San Diego and said come quick, I have an idea and you have to be here for it. And I had no money for a plane ticket. And I didn't even have enough money for a train ticket. And I needed to come quick. And I drive fast. I’m a fast driver. That's why I'm in a car, driving on the highway. Or rather, why I'm in a car and I was driving on the highway. 2) Mile 195 is where the gas ran out. I got out of the car and walked a mile until I found the phone. I would have been happy to find a house, or a gas station, but a phone booth would do. It was so lucky.

3) I stole Sarah's car, which I feel awful about, even though I didn't really steal it so much as I borrowed it—she was face-down asleep and the keys were on the nightstand and I don't have a car. I've never had a car. I've driven probably 85 cars over the course of my lifetime and none of them were mine. But I needed to see Marie. I haven't seen Marie in two years. Sarah and I have been seeing each other for a year and we aren't nearly as serious as me and Marie. That's just the way things are. 4) I thought it'd be nice to take Route 6 all the way across. I didn't want to get bogged down in highway exits and GPS directions. I didn't want more than two lanes touching my tires. I mean, Sarah’s tires. I didn't want to pass cars and I didn't want to have cars pass me. I just wanted a straight line to Marie.


5a) Sarah kept calling my phone, over and over, and I picked up the fourth time, which was a huge mistake. She asked where I was and started crying when I told her I was in Pennsylvania. What are you doing in Pennsylvania, she asked me. You're going to see her, I knew she called you, you're a piece of shit, you always go back, what's the big idea now, huh? What's she going to make you do? You told me last time you went along with one of her schemes you almost died, remember, she tried to launch you into space like a fucking human satellite. You remember that, or did you hit your head so hard that you just up and forgot again? Huh? Huh huh huh?

5b) I hung up, and I turned the phone off, but I was so mad I wasn't happy with just having the phone stay off—I threw it out the window and it landed in a field in Pennsylvania. It is probably still there. 6) I need to call Marie and tell her I'm still on the way. That I can't wait to see her, and I'm ready for the next experiment, and I can be there in less than 24 hours. I also need to call someone else who isn’t Marie to bring me some gas in a plastic tub, so I can keep my promise to Marie.


7) I don't have two quarters. I have three pennies and a dime. My pockets have failed me.


I get in the booth and call Marie collect. I have her number memorized after all these years. How did I forget money? How did I forget to eat? How does she do this to me?

She doesn't pick up. Her answering machine is full. I call again. I call again. I call again. Who invented calling collect? Who could have predicted the incompetence of someone who would need to call someone else collect? Marie is going to do the sĂŠance without me, and I'll never talk to my father again. Who would expect that an incompetent, collect-calling person would even have a friend who'd be willing to accept the charges? What an act of faith, to invent collect calling. How nice was the person who decided to put a phone booth here in Nebraska just for me. 11Â

The night is roaring with crickets. She's not picking up. I call 911 and tell them to come pick me up. You can take me wherever, I tell them. Grand theft auto and abusing a collect calling system are two crimes I've committed in the past 24 hours. In the next 24 hours I would have also probably committed the crime of trespassing in areas reserved for dead people. Also I broke a woman's heart. Also a woman broke my heart. You can find her in San Diego. At least that's what she told me on the phone.


What area code is Kenesaw, Nebraska? I'm not hungry. What number did she see when I called her? She didn't know the number and didn't pick up. Oh, she didn't know. I don't want to leave.


allergy season “Hey.” “Hey.” “What’d you tell your mother this time?” “I didn’t tell her anything. She had too much beer at dinner and fell asleep in front of That Gives Me the Willies!” again.” “Well. That’s good you didn’t have to make an excuse.” “Yeah. Last time I had to say that I was going grocery shopping. That was a pretty dumb lie. I picked a bunch of corn from the side of the road and came home and said I forgot to buy anything else. My mom was angry, needless to say. Angry and confused.” “So, what’s the story?” “I finished my calculus homework. I went for a jog along the highway and back. Took a shower. Read some Dickens. Bleak House. I feel like it’s too warm out to read Dickens, though. Dickens is wintery. You should eat hot gruel and sit by a fire and read Dickens. It isn’t meant for allergy weather.” “Bleak House is an obscure one for your teacher to assign, no? I thought they always did Great Expectations. I don’t know. Anyway. What do you see right now?” “The sky is blue. Dark blue. A car hasn’t passed the whole time I’ve been talking to you.” “Surprising. I figured there’d be Sunday drivers.” “You’re such an old man. No one takes Sunday drives anymore.” “Marlene.” “Yes?” 14

“Marlene, why did your parents give you such a sophisticated name when you live in a cornfield?” “Marlene was my great-grandmother’s name. I think she was more sophisticated than anyone else in my family. She lived in Chicago.” “You’re a lucky girl.” “I saw a picture of her once and she was wearing a short dress and she had knobbly knees, like me. You know, like bony young person knees. Not old person knees. Those didn’t come until later. You know...when she was old.” “You don’t have to remind me how old I am.” “sneeze” “You should take an antihistamine.” “I wouldn’t be lying if I said I was getting tired of this.” “You want a plane ticket.” “I do. I’m so bored here. You keep telling me we’re going to do that thing, that crazy thing, you’re going to sweep me away to New York when school’s out.” “You’re going to need a better excuse for your parents.” “I’ll say I’m going to New York with Jessie. I’ll say we’re going on an adventure and staying in a hostel and seeing a Broadway show. That way she can go sneak off and go camping with her boyfriend. It’ll be a good excuse for both of us.” “...” “sneeze” “I don’t like that you’re being so hesitant. It sucks. I’m sick of asking you to describe your apartment. No matter how many times you say which paintings you have on your wall, I can’t 15

ever remember all of them. I don’t remember things I hear, you know that. Once I see it, I’ll remember it forever.” “I think you’ve got whatever the spring equivalent of cabin fever is. You know I want you to come here. These things just take time.” “It’s getting dark.” “Well, it’s already dark in New York.” “I wouldn’t know anything about that. Anyway, it’s a mile back to my house, and I’m going to have to run it. In the dark.” “Next Sunday? The usual?” “You’re going to have to make me a good promise to make me come back for the usual.” “I love you.” “I’ll know that for sure when I see the email with my plane ticket in it. You keep saying I love you, but each time you do, the tingle I get down my spine is a little less intense. I’m going to need a bigger promise. You better hope I don’t get bitten by a snake on my run home. Who knows what’s crawling around on the path.”


the end of telepathy They came to take the phone booth down. Two men arrived in khaki jumpsuits that read “Bell Telephone Company” even though Bell Telephone Company turned into Northwestern Bell back in ‘87, and then AT&T, and then AT&T was bought out by, and so on and so forth. They came to take the phone booth down because there was no need for a phone booth any longer. People pretty much just beamed thoughts directly into one another’s heads. Instead of calling someone, you sort of mentally knocked on that someone’s forehead. If they were available, they let you in. If not, you just left a message they could read at their convenience. In this way, ambulances were called, cops were summoned, dates were made and broken, gossip was spread (just as inaccurately as ever), people talked, just without opening their mouths as much. So the phone booth by the side of the road was obsolete. The men came to take it down. The first man started setting up the uprooter and asked for the second man to go in and start unscrewing all the little metal parts in the telephone.


People didn’t really talk face to face much anymore, not if they could help it, and especially if they didn’t like one another. The two Bell Telephone Company men did not like one another, so they communicated with brusque telepathy. “Go in,” was what the first man had beamed to the second man. But when the second man went in, he stood up extra straight and his eyeballs popped out, almost out of his skull. He started vibrating, standing with both feet planted, moving almost imperceptibly back and forth, like a topiary before an earthquake. The first man looked at the second man, wondering what the fuck was going on. “We can’t sleep together anymore,” the second man said out loud, in a sort of bored, hypnotized voice. “What?” beamed the first man to the second man. “Can I get a ride?” the second man asked. “What?” beamed the first man. “I need some help,” the second man said. “What is wrong with you?” asked the first man, this time out loud, because he didn’t know what else to do.


“A woman broke my heart. You can find her in San Diego,” the second man said. The first man beamed the Bell company HQ and started telling them his partner had gone nuts. “Please help. Just send anyone,” the second man said. “Help help help help help.” He shook a little more, then his eyes rolled up in the back of his head, he went absolutely silent, and he vomited a giant stream of quarters onto the highway. The sound of jingling change—a slot machine winner, a big big winner—overwhelmed the silent highway.

The ambulance came quick. Everything generally came quick, at that time. The second man went to the hospital to recover. The insides of his esophagus were all torn up and needed some medical-grade salve, but otherwise he was okay. No brain damage. The first man took a month of paid leave because he felt a little shaken up about the whole thing. Bell was fine with that. It ended up being nearly $20,000 worth of quarters. The company disinfected them all, and turned them into dollars, and started a college fund for the second man’s children.

~the end~ 19

Phone booth on the side of the highway by Molly Mary O'Brien  

19 page ebook published by Peanut Gallery Press.

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