Telephone Man

Story and picture credit: Karen Lillis

I met him in the Park, the day before he moved away. He said he would write, and he did. When the correspondence arrived, it was a love letter. Soon letters were flying in two directions. From the curbs of north Brooklyn to the hills of western Pennsylvania, and back again. Once the love letters became frequent enough, they turned into phone calls. Since I didn’t have a phone in the apartment, that meant the phone booths at Soula’s.

Soula’s was the luncheonette on the edge of the Park. The Park was two blocks from my house, so – two blocks and a hop to Soula’s. Soula owned not only her luncheonette but also her building, she was very proud of that. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she was ashamed of the buildings around her. “Did you hear the house on Monitor Street sell for half a million dollar? Tsk, tsk, tsk.” Soula’s frown was both sad and angry as she said it. She had a flock of chickadees to take care of, young and old, apartment dwellers from a ten-block radius, and she worried how they would pay the rent. Even people who were worried about paying the rent could eat all day at Soula’s. Egg breakfast, cheeseburger, egg cream. Her prices had hardly changed since 1966.

I met him in the Park, the day before he moved back in with his mother. The park bench got steamy that August afternoon. Without the steam, there wouldn’t be any more to the story. Without the love letters, there wouldn’t have been any phone calls. Without the phone calls, there wouldn’t have been any heartbreak.

The phone booths were divine. Two side by side, made of well preserved wood, with a smooth walnut stain and beveled glass doors. To my eye, they had weathered the decades slightly better than the lunch booths or the counter stools or the greasy grill or the checkered floor. I only ever used one. Phone booth. It had a built-in wooden seat, the perfect size for getting cozy. At least as good as a park bench. I closed myself in for moments of privacy, and opened the door again when the glass fogged up. The steam still rose from the sidewalk in early September. Soula left her window open all day, so the sidewalk customers could take away a cherry ice without breaking stride.

I met him in the Park, right after he let everything slip through his fingers.  Apartment, dissertation, music gigs, the old girlfriend. But he was all hands on the park bench under the sycamores. On the phone he talked about what it was like before he met me. What it was like when things were humming. On the phone he serenaded me with his violin. I’d close the phone booth doors like an accordion and then open them again after a spell. On the phone he told me what it was going to be like when he came back to Brooklyn. When he came back to me.

When I wasn’t distracted by work, I was thinking about our phone calls. What I would say to him next and what surprises would echo back. Our conversations moved along at a lively pace and his handprints were all over them. I’d read him poems, my lips to his ear. He’d read me Balzac, or Flaubert. He was becoming my muse and my favorite audience. He was my biggest fan, my best editor, my raw material. At home, my poems were falling out of my head like limbs dripping over the sides of a park bench.

Days, I’d head to work across the river. After work, the train brought me back to Brooklyn. I’d float up to the sidewalk level with the hordes of beauties going back to their hot boxes in Williamsburg and from there I would glide down Bedford Avenue which flowed into Nassau Avenue. In my mind I was having the conversation the whole way. Over the many blocks, I only noticed my whereabouts at certain corners, and then I would jolt myself awake before I walked into traffic.

I am nearing the luncheonette and Soula tells me through the window, “Your young man called.” She is smiling at me. She has her hair piled up high as always and a greasy spatula in her hand like a scepter. When Soula gives me messages, because this isn’t the first time, it means that Charlie answered the phone and relayed it to Soula at the register. Charlie has been hanging around Soula’s since about 1984. He likes a hamburger with pickles and mustard and he sits at the counter, never the banquettes.

Well, I was feeling so good that I went home and did a few things there to prolong the sensation. After an hour or so I went back to Soula’s and settled into our phone booth and dialed him across the wires of Pennsylvania. It rang and rang, but no one answered. I got my quarters back, blew on them and tried again, but same deal. No one picked up: Not him, not his mother, no answering machine, either. I ordered some food from Soula and sat around, in case he wanted to find me. A cheeseburger and a slice of lemon cake, $3.25 plus tax.

And just like that, days were passing, with no messages at the luncheonette and no one picking up the phone in Pennsylvania. I didn’t cry, but I couldn’t breathe, either.

I got some strange ideas about how I was going to find him again. I thought he might be humming out there on the phone wires and the trick was to figure out which exact phone would pick up his frequency. (That notion was a lot like an esoteric music theory he’d told me about.) Then I’d get strong feelings about which phone I should try next. I tried the wooden phone booth next to our phone booth. I tried the gross phone on the corner of my block. I tried the shiny phone at the bar across the street from me. I tried the phone at my job because I was there, but I didn’t actually expect anything to come of that, and it didn’t. And I walked all the way back to Dangertown to the phone I fed so many nickels to keep talking to Cynthia, who desperately wanted to keep talking to me, too, until the point where she’d get more worried for my safety standing on Greenpoint Avenue than anything else and hang up on me mid-sentence. But no one in Pennsylvania picked up there, either. I had three ice cream cones for dinner that night, $2.25.

On the second Thursday morning – it had been over a week – I tried him from our regular phone booth, on my way to work. He answered just as I was about to give up.


I’d woken him, and I didn’t quite recognize his voice.

“Hey, you.”

I was surprised to reach him at all, and I found myself quieter than usual. I was taking in his voice without asking him where he’d vanished to.

“Well, it’s a gorgeous day here in Greene County. Blue sky. Round clouds. Today I’m going to take a walk down to the South Fork, read some Zola, and practice some new sheet music that came in the mail. Mother is making goulash for dinner tonight.”

I pictured a grassy slope, and the kind of trees that lean out over rivers and creeks, with their trunks straining away from the bank and towards the rushing water. It looked idyllic but it felt like he had fallen all the way into one of his 19th Century novels.

We talked for about twenty minutes and although he was full of warmth, he didn’t ask what I’d been up to or what was going on in Brooklyn. He didn’t hint at anything about his recent days or mention the gap in communication at all. Soon enough I had to leave for work and we signed off.

“Talk to you later, Sweetie,” he said with casual confidence.

I met him in the Park, the day before he became a figment of my imagination. On a park bench we moved close and then closer. What started sitting upright tipped over into something else, another dimension. I never asked him where he went, I never found out which wire he’d been humming on, though Soula sometimes asked me why I stopped returning his calls.

About Karen Lillis

Karen Lillis is a bookseller and the author of four novellas, including Watch the Doors As They Close (Spuyten Duyvil). Her writing has appeared in Blink Ink, The Brooklyn Rail, Evergreen Review, LA Cultural Daily, LitHub, Local Knowledge, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. She lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Karen Lillis is a bookseller and the author of four novellas, including Watch the Doors As They Close (Spuyten Duyvil). Her writing has appeared in Blink Ink, The Brooklyn Rail, Evergreen Review, LA Cultural Daily, LitHub, Local Knowledge, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. She lives and writes in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Leave a Comment