Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The Voice on the Other End of the Line

The Voice on the Other End of the Line

Jay Firestone

Yesterday there were a number of things that I was dreading about the Bobbins meeting. The list of anxieties unfolded in my head as I went about performing my regular daily tasks. On the way to work (after I slipped on uneven ground and sent a stack of conference programs flying, soaking them in a combination of muddy water and the morning coffee that had slipped out of my hand), I passed by Butler library and was reminded (yet again) of my failure to find anything useful about Lev Vassilynikov.

Surely tonight, I thought, will be the night when David will prod me about my relationship to the absurdist writer, question me about how, specifically, this relationship will be instrumental to the Bobbins mission. Because ever since he claimed (via mysterious text message) that he’d located Jonathan Bobbins, an assertion he’s refused to substantiate until the Construction founders are together in one room, there’s been no doubt in my mind that I would be asked at the meeting to provide the alleged insider information that I have guaranteed.

My next pang of anxiety was provoked by memories of a phone conversation I’d had with Nathan the week before. Though my call to him was brief (simply informing him that we had to meet), I could tell by the low tenor of his voice, the shrinking, cracking sounds that his vocal chords had transmitted over the satellite waves that there was something wrong. He seemed almost unhappy to hear from me, confused even, by the sound of my voice, which was strange given that before the whole Bobbins thing had ever begun, we had been on the phone constantly—editing, brainstorming, sometimes conspiring, and discussing urgent Construction matters—and now he was acting as if we had never been friends at all, seemingly perplexed by the very notion that I would even be trying to get in touch . . .

So yesterday I sat at my work desk staring at the computer, trying to write up a report about a talk outlining the events that had led to the fall of the Soviet Union and sighing loudly as I thought about how maybe I shouldn’t have told Nathan, upon my discovery that he didn’t appreciate Jonathan Bobbins, that he didn’t know the first thing about writing and never would . . . Then I wondered if there was any point to the Bobbins mission at all, why it was that I’d placed so much hope into this hardly feasible—absurd even—goal that only David and I really cared about. I thought about the fact that later that night it would be David, not me, who would reveal the news that he had found Bobbins, and that possibly he had already interviewed the writer, alone.

I was on my way back from hot yoga class (I’d needed to shed all that negative energy), my hair matted to my head, my wet T-shirt soaking through the sweatshirt I’d put on for the walk home, when I saw Nathan pacing back and forth in front of my building and periodically pressing his thumb to the buzzer. His hair was longer than I’d last seen it, curlier and messier, hanging over his forehead and nearly reaching the tips of his . . . black-rimmed glasses? For as long as I’d known him (which has only been a couple of years), he had worn nothing but the plain, boring, very simple rectangular glasses that had no rims at all . . . This was strange.

“Nathan? What are you doing here? The meeting, it doesn’t start for another hour.”

He kept pacing, walking up to the buzzer again mechanically, as if I had never spoken, as if I didn’t exist.

“Nathan? Hellooooo?! What is wrong with you?” I said in a louder voice, tapping him on the shoulder before he could actually buzz and watching him jump at the feel of my hand.

“Oh, uh . . .” he laughed with forced giddiness. “Another hour? Okay.” Without looking at me, he turned around and sped away.

“What? Hello? Well, you don’t have to leave! You could come in and sit on the couch while I shower!”

My words echoed off the sidewalk and Nathan, who had the habit of wearing running shoes even while he wasn’t running, disappeared quickly around the corner, the reflectors on his shoes glowing from the light cast on the sidewalk through the windows of the bodega at the corner.

By the time David arrived, I had finally shaken my confusion, the stream of shower water on my back soothing me to the point that I was willing to put my interaction with Nathan into the category of a distant dream . . . I simultaneously hugged David and dug a Q-tip deeper inside my ear canal. He smelled like fresh air and Subway sandwiches and appeared oddly tranquil and content, which triggered my anxiety as I remembered the text message I’d gotten from him when I was leaving the library the week before.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve got Bobbins!” he’d written in his usual, over-excited David way. I’d called immediately and found him bubbling with glee but withholding the information that was responsible for his happiness. “Just trust me, Mash, I’ve got him, I won’t say anything more because I want all of us there together when I tell you, but I can say this—the whole thing has brought me to tears. This is everything I’ve been working toward.”

Now I studied his face and tried to distinguish whether or not he looked like someone who had already spoken to Jonathan Bobbins. He smiled, the dimples below his cheekbones deepening. “I can’t wait to tell you everything!” he said, and then the buzzer started to sound.

“Oh,” I said, “it’s probably Nathan,” and as I buzzed him in, I quickly recounted to David how strangely he’d been acting just an hour earlier.

“Yeah, man, he’s been kind of off lately. He hasn’t been returning many of my calls. Whatever, he’s always been kinda weird.”

Nathan appeared moments later, and under the overhead hallway light I could tell that his skin was bumpier and more porous than it usually was. He clutched an empty pizza plate soaked with grease and was drinking a root beer through a chewed-up straw.

“Nathan, you look like shit, man, what happened to you? Where have you been?” David said and grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Around, I’ve had so much work to do with the blog and everything. I know I should’ve called, but I couldn’t find my phone for a while.” Nathan brushed off David’s hand, and, without smiling, shrugged, nodded, and stared silently ahead.

I rolled my eyes, feeling both sick of, yet concerned with, his behavior. Then I asked David when Domenick would be coming.

“Dom’s on his way.”

I looked skeptical because Domenick was always getting everything confused.

“He may be in his own little world,” David went on. “But he’s still coming—that’s one reason why I had to stay secretive about the Bobbins text, as bait to get him down here again.” Dave checked his phone. “See, that’s him, he says he’s around the corner!”

Nathan attempted to force a smile as he eyed us suspiciously from the spot between the closet and the coat rack. I beckoned him, and we walked down the hallway to the kitchen; Charlie Brown, my roommate’s Westie, barked at Nathan’s feet in a way that I’d never seen him bark at any of our visitors. Nathan paid no attention to the dog and walked straight to the table.

“Well, first things first,” David said, putting his sandwich down and opening the paper wrapping, making the room smell so strongly of Subway that I wanted to plug my nose. “I’ve already mentioned this to Dom, so while we wait for him I’ll fill you in on my latest project. I’m starting a Lev Vassilynikov book club! You might have already seen the flyers posted all over Park Slope!”

Nathan and I looked at each other for the first time—I was guessing that, like me, he also hadn’t seen the flyers—and we kind of half-smiled at the idea of Dave leading a book club in Park Slope. That half-smile was the first and only semblance of Nathan’s normal, sarcastic self that I would witness for the rest of the night.

David started explaining that the whole book club thing was a scheme to reel in Bobbins, to attract the writer’s attention by evoking his favorite nearly forgotten writer.

“Come on, guys, it’s genius, if you were Bobbins and you saw that, wouldn’t you be curious? Wouldn’t you at least call?” he practically patted himself on the back. “Plus, why wouldn’t he want to connect with other writers and readers? We literary people, we’re all in this together!”

David was smiling to himself, presumably at the thought of the cozy literary community he was about to establish. “The first meeting will take place next week,” he said, pausing for effect, “and I can almost guarantee you that Jonathan Bobbins will be there.”

Nathan and I stared at him silently.

“Guys! I’m talking Bobbins! Jonathan Bobbins!” David screamed, pounding his fist on the table, the bread on top of his sandwich shaking and pieces of lettuce falling on his napkin.

I looked at David’s face and thought about how even at thirty he was so boyish looking, so naïve. I thought about how if I were a famous writer the last thing I would be doing would be responding to postings for a random book club in Park Slope, even if that book club was focusing on my favorite author, even if, supposedly, “we were all in it together.” And the more he spoke, the more it dawned on me that my anxiety about Plick having Bobbins had been for nothing.

“Wow, Plick,” I said withholding my smirk, “that’s great. How did you maneuver it?”

“Weeell . . .” David folded his arms in front of him and smiled, “We’ll talk about it once Dom’s here.”

Dom looked thinner than the last time I’d seen him. His shirt was baggier and his cheeks were sunken, slightly ashen, I imagined that it was the stress of finals that was bringing him down. He pushed up his glasses with his middle finger and smiled at us, shifting a little bit from foot to foot before he sat down.

“So . . . Brooklyn, I’m back in Brooklyn,” he said, sucking in air through his mouth. “I’m going nuts, guys; can’t we ever meet somewhere a little more convenient? Sheesh.”

The rest of us dismissed him. There was no excuse for living in Riverdale.

“It’s not our fault that you came down here for no reason last week,” I said, remembering that Dom had already trekked down to Ozzie’s just to find out that it was closed for renovations. “We told you that the meeting was this Thursday.”

“Well, there are too many emails to keep track of! You’ve gotta be more clear about these things! Anyway,” he said, “the only reason I came down again is to learn about all of these crazy text messages. Plick, you’ve got Bobbins?!?!”

Nathan, who under normal circumstances would have said something, biting, funny and contradictory, was leafing through a New Yorker he’d found on top of the liquor cabinet. I nudged him with my toe but he shooed me away.

David stood up, put his hand in his pocket and took out his phone. He turned it on, fumbled with the buttons, and laid it on the table between us, raising an index finger to his lips. The speaker came on and the background was all fuzzy, a faint crackling of static, and a voice that was both harsh and soft emerged from the microphone on David’s month-to-month GhettoPCS:

“I am calling in response to your posting. A posting I saw taped to a sycamore tree and fluttering in the wind, catching my eye and . . . appealing to me somehow, though how precisely, I cannot say. I don’t respond to flyers. I don’t like them, they are like litter and should be treated as such. But . . . I felt that this particular flyer was made for me specifically. Like it was designed to . . . ”

Here the message cut off. We all stared at David blankly.

“Don’t worry,” he laughed, “it picks up again, he calls back, and in the second message . . . you’ll see, the second message is the best part, it’s him, Bobbins, I just know that it’s him!”

I squeezed my hands together, pinching my fingers to prevent myself from expressing the emotions that were tearing through me as I watched this spectacle . . . listened to this message from this . . . loony bin, this . . . I felt torn apart, exhausted from a day of worry, cheated out of valuable time for this . . . joke, this insanity, this madness . . . Having been called to a meeting for something so ridiculous, something so obviously not Bobbins, having wasted my energy on the anxiety that I had not needed to feel . . . but . . . simultaneously, I was holding in laughter, I was entertained to be observing David’s overwhelming excitement, his childishness, his faith that with his stupid book club posters he had accomplished something great . . .

The static resumed.

“You must forgive me for the bad connection,” said the voice from the GhettoPCS on the table, a sinking yet deep voice, a voice struggling to crawl out . . .

“When I saw the flyer, I was walking down Carroll Street. I never walk down Carroll Street. It reminds me of a terrible accident . . . a mother and a baby tossed from their Volkswagen Bug—it was blue—hurled out onto the pavement. I was helpless.”

“I saw your sign, and while instantly hating it for . . . well, I already mentioned why I hated it . . . I looked closer and I saw the subject and . . . remembered that I hadn’t uttered the word ‘Vassilynikov’ in so long. I haven’t heard myself say it, or anyone else. That name has been dead to me for so long. Too long. Sometimes your past creeps up on you . . .

I plan on coming to your book club. I haven’t been in the company of others and need to practice being human again. I need to practice being anything again. Thank you for doing this.”

The line went dead.

“Seriously, David?” I said, smirking, “Seriously? This is your idea of ‘getting Bobbins?’ This psycho, mysterious message (I hope you didn’t put your address on the flyer!) is the reason you’ve gotten us all worked up for a week? I hate to break it to you, but this isn’t Bobbins.”

“Of course it’s Bobbins, haven’t you heard him speak before? Haven’t you seen him on Oprah? He sounds just like that. Plus, listen to how literary it is—and this is a spoken message.”

“Bobbins wasn’t on Oprah, David, that was Franzen. Bobbins would never go on Oprah.”

“Right, not Oprah”—David was turning red—“but, um, haven’t you ever watched a YouTube clip of him reading? It’s his voice, dammit! A mix of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. His voice!”

I happened to know for a fact, after devoting a bit of time to watching these YouTube clips, that this was not Bobbins’s voice, that his voice was not quite nearly as gravelly as Waits’s or Cave’s, and that David was starting to sound certifiably insane.

“And he talks about an accident . . . didn’t you read Slept Through the Night? That’s how the book starts, a baby getting hurled out of a blue Volkswagen bug. We all know that writers write from experience! Come on, it’s undeniable!”

I looked at Nathan for support, but his eyes were vacant, and he was feverishly biting his nails.

Domenick, like Nathan, also wasn’t paying attention; he was checking his watch, flipping through the dog-eared pages of some book (was it The Lilac?) and tapping his thumb on the table.

“Dom,” said David, “what do you think? Nathan? Someone, participate!”

Domenick raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “I’ve never heard the guy read, but, judging by this book, I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

Nathan looked agitated. “I, uh, I don’t know. Bobbins, not Bobbins? Who fucking cares?” His voice was shaking and he stood up from the table. “Look guys, I just got this text message. My roommate, he’s locked out, I gotta jet.”

“But I didn’t even hear your phone vibrate!” I said.

“You can’t keep track of everything, Moosha,” and he patted me on the back, nodded at Dom and David, and hurried out of my house.

It’s difficult for me to remember what happened after Nathan left. There was a lot more animated discussion—David trying to convince me to come to the book club because Bobbins would be there, me trying to convince David to double chain his locks and forget about the book club idea because message was so stupid but also kind of creepy, Domenick chiming in by reading passages from The Lilac, and, finally, David bringing up the dreaded Lev Vassilynikov, telling me some convoluted narrative that his possibly Russian student told him about Sartre looking for Vassilynikov in Moscow during the 1930s while Vassilynikov hid from the police.

“Do you know anything about Soviet Russia?” I said. “Sartre would never have been allowed in to the Soviet Union, no one was allowed in! Whoever told you that bullshit was yanking your chain!”

“Yeah, well, eh, whatever . . .” said David, and we sat there silently for a while, with me realizing that for tonight I was definitely off the hook about any insider information I may or may not have.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, David and Domenick left my apartment, and I sat there alone at the kitchen table, looking up at the light on the ceiling, feeling restless, uncomfortable, unable to shake the feeling that things were going terribly, horribly wrong, that this whole Bobbins project was turning all of us into something . . . someone . . . we weren’t supposed to be.