Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Millennium Phone Call

One Away From the Morgue

By Margaret Thompson

JANUARY 17, 2000:  The phone rang sometime just after midnight, in the very earliest hour of New Year's Eve. The woman spoke quickly. She told me that her friend had shot himself in the head, and that she wanted to know about claiming his body.It took me a terrible second to realize that it was another morgue call. My number is one digit off the number of the local morgue, and I get their calls every so often. Less than you would expect, actually, given the condition of the fingers pressing the buttons.

For some reason, most of the calls come during the day, so that I'm greeted home by a blinking light and a message that says something along the lines of "My son has been beaten to death, and I need his papers and his body for the funeral home." The people always leave their numbers. I never call them back.

The night calls are rare. But there I was, on the phone with the woman who had lost her friend on the verge of the new year, the new millennium.

"Do you got him?" she demanded.

I told her that I thought she had the wrong number, and explained about my house and the morgue, so close, in terms of digits, at least. I told her that I was very sorry.

She breathed into the phone. It was an astonished, furious breathing, incredulous at the injustice of it. Her friend had killed himself, and she had gotten the wrong number when she called to check on his body.

"It is the morgue you want, isn't it?" I asked. As soon as I said it, I felt an immediate flush of guilt; there I was, rubbing it in: She wanted the morgue.

"Yeah," she said. And she hung up, done, just like that.

I rolled onto my stomach and fumbled with the phone. The cord is short and tangled, and the receiver falls off the bedside table every time I lift the speaker. Jonathan, my partner, was already sitting up. He is a light sleeper; he startles at nearly any noise. One night last winter, when the door hinge cried on my return trip from the bathroom, he leapt out of bed and rushed naked for the supposed intruder, grunting and grabbing until I hit the light switch and showed him: It was just me, just me, just old lady girl in her yellow nightgown.

"What did they want?" he asked.

"Her friend shot himself in the head," I told him.

"Oh," he said. "Oh, Lord." He flopped back and fell asleep almost immediately.

I stared at the ceiling and thought about the vast reservoir of pain filling in some life across town, or next door. Sometimes you know about it, and sometimes you don't, but it's always there. Not at your house, maybe, given factors as diverse as luck and timing and medical insurance mental health coverage, but always there. As the room grew lighter and the sprinklers clicked on, I offered up a number of silent prayers: for her, for her friend, and for all of us in this world being born and reborn all the time.

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