Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ghosts On The Wire

It happened some years ago in the dead of a cold winter night, according to my mother. She and my father were asleep in the master bedroom of an old Virginia farmhouse, nestled somewhere in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

At the darkest hour, she awoke to a feeling like static electricity crawling all over her. She sat upright to face a lone figure standing across the room on the broad hearth of the stone fireplace. The young man, bore an expression of unspeakable weariness, woe and distress. He wore the tattered, filthy uniform of a Civil War soldier.

They looked at each other for what must have seemed like an eternity—my mother struck dumb, all but deafened by the blood rushing in her ears. The man spoke just four words to her:
“Where is my mother?”

It was all my mother could do to reach out and touch my sleeping father’s arm and rouse him to witness this spectral visitation. Yet at the very moment she touched him, both the apparition and the crawling sensation vanished, discharged like lightning. My parents, now both fully awake, were alone behind a latched and locked door.

I reminded her of this story a few months before she died. She laughed and shrugged. “ I had forgotten all about that. It was so long ago.” She laughed again, shook her head dismissively, and went about her work.


Not long ago, I had a second phone line installed. Before I had told anyone the new number, I started receiving strange calls at all hours of the day and night. I would answer, and after a long pause of hissing and static, a thin, quavering voice would ask: “…Can I speak…to Joe?”

I was always polite, and explained the number had recently been reassigned, and there was no Joe here. After another pause of hissing and static, the frail quavering voice: “But Joe must be there. Joe is my son; I just spoke to him last week.”

I knew demand for phone numbers was high, but the phone company wouldn’t have reassigned the number in a week. I asked what number she was trying to call. Hissing and static. Then she recited my number, area code, exchange and all. Her confusion turned to agitation, yet there was little I could do but leave her with hollow assurance there was no Joe.

She called many times. The same thin, tired voice, streaked with weariness, woe and distress, so far away on the other end of the line and stretched to the breaking point through the wires. “…Can I speak…to Joe?”

I have come to instantly recognize that plaintive voice. I have tried to help her, to accommodate her inquiries. I know she lives in somewhere in Virginia; because she calls from a private home; she lives alone. Yet my help only seems to confuse her more. She believes I am the phone company, and that I can somehow trace Joe down a wire.

But she still needs my help. I will reach out through those thin wires, through the hissing and static, and connect her with Joe—if there even is a Joe.

I find myself waiting for her call, and I am reminded: “Where is my mother?”

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