Dan was laid off at beginning of November, as usual. By Christmas he would be receiving a sixth automatically generated pay slip informing him he had earned nothing during the previous two weeks. Season’s Greetings!
Despite being canned, at least temporarily, perhaps permanently—there was no guarantee a laid-off park interpreter would be rehired in the spring, despite the continuation of empty pay slips—Dan and the others were invited to the Parks Department Christmas party, where they would be expected to show up all cheery and pretend to be part of the team. Presence provided no guarantee of rehiring, but absence would ensure an abrupt termination of the empty pay slips. You wouldn’t even get official reminders that you weren’t being paid.
The party was at Head Office, fourteen floors up in a tower in one of the suburbs. Sarah dragged him along, and he endured, speaking as cheerfully as possible to those he ought to have spoken to, refraining from being drawn into sullen corners where other laid-off interpreters clumped. He would have drunk, but there was no booze, although the bigwigs seemed well lubricated and kept ducking out to relubricate. Following Sarah’s advice he stayed exactly an hour and a half, bade coached seasonal farewells to his supervisor and a few others, and then departed before the stupid Santa stuff that Sarah as a rising star the bigwigs wanted to drunkenly flirt with would be unable to escape, and went to hide in her car in the parking garage, scrunched low in case one of the bigwigs wobbled past prematurely.
It was cold. He should have thought ahead, brought a blanket. He should have brought two. Wintertime parking garages were always inexplicably colder than the world outside. He opened the glove compartment, hoping for a diversion. Sarah was a woman who left few careless clues. He liked that about her, except that it meant that in addition to being cold, her car was boring.
He reached to stick the key into the ignition and twisted it to wake up the dashboard. He fiddled with the radio to find CBC. The current events program, As it Happens, was on, a story about a flock of sheep in Wales that had adopted a seal pup washed inland by a storm, and would charge at anyone who tried to approach the stranded pinniped, which was starving. To Dan, the most interesting aspect of the story was the clipped, lilty speech of the Welsh person. His ancestors spoke like that? He turned off the radio, fearing running down the car’s battery, and under the thin light of the garage’s fluorescent bulbs perused the car’s owner’s manual, which, hundreds of pages thick and printed on super-slippery paper, was as difficult to flip through as one of Sarah’s fashion magazines. He worked at it for a while, reading the section on oil changes, and then gave up. He contemplated doing Sarah a favour by tossing it out the window.
He wiggled his phone from his pocket and asked it to ring. It was the phone Sarah had given him for his birthday, and came with a new number. Over the months since, he had become accustomed to receiving accidental phone calls from people in Mississippi. He was puzzled at first, but after a while he figured out that the area code was the issue. The screen on his phone told him they were dialling from area code 601. He googled his own phone number, but with area code 601. Shazzam. The Mississippians were meaning to phone a department store in Jackson, Mississippi, but instead were reaching his breast pocket in wherever he happened to be. He hadn’t wanted the callers to run up their phone bills, so would quickly tell them that they had accidentally phoned Canada, would wish them a nice day, and would disconnect. He felt bad about maybe seeming brusque, because they seemed pleasant. They spoke slowly, with gentle voices, and were invariably apologetic for their mistake. He half-wished a Mississippian would phone now, a person to speak with, if only for a few seconds. He had no inkling of the deluge to come.
The instant he stuffed the manual back into the glove compartment the locks popped. The door swung open, and Sarah dropped into the driver’s seat.
“You behaved better than I expected,” she said. “You almost pulled it off, as if you were actually enjoying yourself, but I could tell you were faking it.”
He said. “I’ve been waiting so long I’ve become hypothermic. I was nearing the legendary point where you just give up and blissfully drift away.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
As they exited the garage, he asked, “Have you been changing your oil on a regular basis? If you haven’t, you could be in for a massive bill to have your engine de-sludged.”
A week later he sank into a classic pre-Christmas interpreter’s funk. He was on the balcony, leaning against the railing, searching for perched eagles, surveying the forest and its fingers that wove into the university. Low fog hugged the ground in the gaps, including the ugly tennis courts. Sarah was bustling around, getting ready for work. She yanked open the sliding door. “Get in here,” she said.
He stepped inside, and was lectured. "You're depressed. You need to leave the apartment, get out. Out-out, not just out on the balcony. You have SAD. You need to go outside, walk around. Every day you have to put your shoes on, go outside and get some natural light.”
He said, “Get some what? Where do we live? This is a Kingdom of Gloom.”
“Yesterday was somewhat sunny.”
“I must have blinked.”
“Look. You need to interact with other people. Go birding. Isn’t it about time for the Christmas Bird Count?”
“Like I want to interact with birders. That’s like agreeing to ride on a float in a demented hobbiests’ parade.”
She stared, hard. “You are a birder. You are a god-damned birder.” She rarely swore.
“I’m a biologist who knows birds okay. There’s a big difference.”
“I’m crappy on sub-adult gulls and fall shorebirds. And hopeless on pelagics.”
“Well do something else then. Get back to regular running, or get a membership at the pool. You have to cheer up one way or another. As a favour to me, stay off the balcony until you do.”
The Mississippi deluge came the day after that, shortly after Sarah left for work and he was debating with himself whether or not to fry the last two slices of bacon in the package. Was it worth dirtying a pan for two slices? His phone rang on in the living room and he dropped the bacon back into the deli drawer and closed the fridge. He walked around the counter and picked up his phone. Oh god, another fumble-fingered Mississippian. “Hello,” he said.
“Are you the Canadian fellow?” a woman asked.
“I am a Canadian,” he said. “You’ve phoned a home in Canada. This is Area Code 604.”
“That was my intention,” she said. “I’m calling to say hello to you, and to wish you a very nice day, and a Merry Christmas.” This puzzled the hell out of him. He stood, looking at his reflection in the balcony door.
“Hello?” she said.
“Yes, hi,” he replied. “I hope you have a very nice day too. And Merry Christmas.”
“That’s all. I don’t want to bother you,” she said. “God bless you, and your beautiful country too.”
“The same to you,” he said. And then she was gone. He turned off the phone and placed it back on the coffee table. Almost instantly it rang again. Again, Mississippi.
“Hello, Canadian friend,” said another woman. This one had a smokier voice.
“Hello person from Mississippi,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“You don’t know me, but I heard about your story, and I wanted to take a minute or two to call and say hello, and wish you the blessings of the season.”
“Well, thank you,” he said. “I wish you good wishes too.” He was painfully inept at salutations and other basically meaningless pleasantries.
The woman said, “This is a hard time to be alone, and I make it my practice, regardless of town, county, state, or country, to reach out to others to let them know that they are truly not alone, that someone cares for them.”
“That’s very kind of you,” he said.
“Not at all. God bless you.” And then she too was gone. He placed the phone back on on the coffee table, safely far from the edge, and stepped away. It was at least three minutes before it rang again.
After the initial exchange of greetings, a little smoother this time, he got a bit more out of the caller. He said, “I feel very lucky today, because you are the third kind person from Mississippi to phone and wish me well.” He told her, “I get the occasional misdialled call from your state because my number is similar to a department store down there, but that is the extent of my interactions with people from Mississippi." He hastened to add, “Not that I mind. Your call and the other two have certainly made my day, and it’s not even 9 AM yet.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t think about the time difference. You’re on California time.”
“No-no. That’s not a problem. I’m just puzzled why I’m receiving these calls.”
The woman laughed, and said, “It’s because of Jo Nell Cobb’s column. It’s in today’s Barton News-Outlook.”
“The Barton News-Outlook?” He reached for a pen to jot this down.
“She wrote a story about you. You and your fellow Canadians are dear to us here, because of your help after the tornado.”
“The tornado? When was this?”
“May 5th, this past year,” she said. “We’re a small town, and the larger towns got all the response from FEMA and from the Red Cross. And then, about a week later, the Canadians showed up.”
“I remember the tornados,” he said. “There was a record number of them, all in one night.” Among his other science-related interests, Dan was a weather nerd. “I saw it on the news, but I’m sorry, I don’t remember hearing about your town. It’s called Barton?”
“Barton, yes. You didn’t hear about us because we’re too small to matter, except to those Canadians who came and helped us clean up and get a start on the rebuilding.”
“What did they do?”
There was a pause. “Well, it wasn’t that they could do a lot that we couldn’t do ourselves. We can fix stuff fine, given the time and materials. It was that they came without anyone asking. That’s why it mattered.”
“Were they from our armed forces?”
“Were they soldiers?”
“They were Mounties,” she said.
“We never heard about that up here.”
“Well, you should know. You should be proud of them.”
“Thank you for telling me about this.”
“Well, you should know.”
“Yes, we should.”
“Now, what’s your name? Jo Nell didn’t include your name.”
“Daniel. Hello, my name is Trudy.”
“Hello, Daniel.” She paused, taking a sip of coffee, perhaps, or a drag from a cigarette. She said, “Daniel, I want to tell you to have hope. I’m sure you will find new work soon, once this mixed-up economy finds its way again. It’s a hard time for many.”
“Yes,” he said.
After she hung up he did something he had not done since Sarah had given him the phone. He turned it off, powered it down completely. He went online and quickly found the latest version of the Barton News-Outlook. Even extremely small-market papers had their own websites. It had a search box. He found Jo Nell Cobb’s latest column. Her mugshot was at the top. She had puffy hair, big glasses and a friendly smile. The picture didn’t look recent. He figured she could be anything between 50 and 80 years old.
Jo Nell wrote,
The idea for this column came to me this morning, a few days after I had a telephone conversation with a person I don’t know. I don’t know his name, what he looks like, or how old he is—although I don’t think he is either young or elderly, somewhere in between. I don’t know exactly what he does for a living, although I know he is an educator of some sort, and that he has recently lost his job, just before Christmas, and we all know someone who has been in a similar situation, and how trying that can be. The reason I was speaking to him was because I dialled the wrong number.
He knew I had called the wrong number, pointing out that I had dialled area code 604 instead of 601, and he wished me a nice day and was about to hang up, but those of you who know me know how I never miss a chance to coax out someone’s story, and a stranger on the phone is as good a chance as any. So I said, ‘I don’t want to bother you, but what’s the hurry, hon?’ That set him back in his tracks a bit. He said, ‘No, it’s not a bother, but it will be a pretty big phone bill if we keep talking. You’ve phoned Vancouver, Canada.’ So I told him I was happy with that, seeing as how much we appreciate Canadians down here. We talked a little more, a minute or two, and I learned that our stranger at the end of the phone is not only out of work, he’s also separated from his family who live at the other end of his country, and to put it plainly, he’s lonely. I was the one to end the call, didn’t string it out too long, which would seem to be an imposition. Besides, he is probably too polite to tell me if there was a reason he really had to hang up, even if his house was on fire. We know how those folks are, since our tragedy last spring when we got to meet other strangers from Canada who came to help us. Those ones are no longer strangers. We know their names and even the names of their spouses and their children.
I thought that now maybe it’s our turn to be a helpful stranger, in a small way. Help a lonely Canadian who has lost his job at this stressful time of year. If you’re in the mood to spread a little Christmas cheer to one of our northern friends, do as I did and mis-dial Schnell’s in Jackson. Change the 1 to a 4, and there you go.
“Oh God,” he said. He remembered the phone call.
After he told her that she had phoned Canada, she made a little gasp, and then surprised him by saying, “In this county, we love Canadians,” but she didn’t say why. She instead asked if she could take a bit of his time to chat a little more, a friendly chat between neighbours.
He had said, “No, I don’t mind talking.” He added, “I’m kind of lonely anyway.” He meant on an hour-to-hour basis. It wasn’t a chronic condition.
She asked, “Why are you lonely, Hon?”
It was the “Hons” that got to him, southern charm against which he had no learned defence. He told her he had just gotten laid off from his job as an environmental educator. She asked him if he had family around to make Christmas more cheery. He should have mentioned that he lived with someone, a girlfriend, but kept his response to the point and said that his family was more than 2000 miles way. She must have been taking notes. She was a pro.
He searched through the archives of several online versions of southern newspapers to read about the tornados, and learned more of the devastation and loss of life in central Mississippi on May 5th. He dug deeper through the archives of Jo Nell’s paper to find out about the Canadians who went to help. They weren’t Mounties, but close enough.
Having forgotten about the bacon, he dressed to go outside, turned his phone back on and slipped it into his pocket. It rang before the elevator reached the lobby.
He was in a good mood when Sarah got home.
She asked, "Did you go out?”
He pointed at a poinsettia on the kitchen table. “To add some Christmas cheer,” he said. “Since the strata tyrants won’t allow us to have a tree.”
His phone rang in the living room. He said, “Who could that be?” and scampered to get it. Sarah went into the bathroom and closed the door.
He was wrapping up another call as she emerged in a robe, her hair wet, her face thoughtful. She opened her mouth to speak, but then saw he was engaged, saying, slowly and warmly, “Thank you. You have a Merry Christmas too.” He hung up, smiled at his phone, and then at her.
“Who was that?”
“Someone named Sam, from Mississippi.”
“Mississippi? You know someone in Mississippi?”
“You were very pleasant to Sam. Was it a boy-Sam or a girl-Sam?”
“Girl,” he said.
“You often get calls from women in Mississippi? What do you do on the Internet?”
“No-no.” He waved his hand. “Ever since you gave me this phone, I’ve been getting occasional misdials meant for a store with the same number, but Area Code 601. However, since this morning I’ve been getting a slew of intentional calls from a town called Barton, wishing me a Merry Christmas, because of a newspaper story about me down there. It’s mostly women, but a few men too.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come, sit,” he said. He took her hand and led her to the sofa. He set his phone on the coffee table and picked up a printed sheet, Jo Nell’s column. He told her more about Barton, what he had learned from reading the Barton News-Outlook website and talking to the town’s citizens. He said, “Much of it was obliterated by an F4 tornado in May. Six people were killed, including two children.”
She frowned, because this was terrible information, but was more concerned about whatever strange situation he had gotten himself into.
He said, “They have a lot of churches there. Or they did. In a town of 2700, they had seventeen churches. Now they have eight. That must be hard. They’re very churchy people.”
“Churchy? You mean religious.”
“Well aren’t they?”
“Do you realize that if you actually went there and met them, you would find that you have almost nothing in common with them, at any level?”
“That’s not the point,” he said. “Or perhaps that’s exactly the point.” He said, of the Mississippians, “The way they speak is calm and elegant.” He searched for a word. “It's courtly, and gracious. During the first few accidental calls, I always wanted to talk longer, because they were mistaken strangers from far away, and I wanted to make sure they understood their mistake, and I also really enjoyed the way they talked, but I didn’t want to run up their phone bills for no good reason. Now they’re phoning on purpose to speak to me because they think I’m lonely, and they want to help Canadians. I’m their designated hard-luck Canuck.”
“They're assuming you’re white. To people down there, Canadians are white.”
This knocked him off course. He said, “Yes, probably.”
“And you didn’t think about what if you weren’t? How far would this happy phone-thing go if they discovered you were black, or brown, or Chinese, or that your girlfriend was one of those things? What if you were gay? Or worse, an atheist? Hey, wait a minute.”
“Please,” he said, “don’t make them villains. They had a tornado.”
She shook her head. “This is weird. It’s happened because you spend too much time home alone, like I said.”
“No, it’s innocent. It’s payback. After the tornado, several groups of firefighters from Ontario, from St. Catharines and Welland, went down there on their own funds and helped clean up the streets and repair some of the houses. The people assumed they were Mounties, which they associate with the entire country. Out of a sense of gratitude and fairness they are aching to pay Canada back. If you’re Canadian and want a free lunch, go down to Barton.”
“So long as you're white, and straight, and God-fearing, and..."
“How many have phoned?”
“They should be phoning the Ontario guys who helped them.”
“No doubt they do. They’re branching out, paying forward.”
She sighed, eyes closed. “We can pretend this is a nice, Christmassy story, as long as it stops.” Her abrupt summation meant that they were done with Mississippi. She said, “And now here’s this,” and withdrew a short, white, plastic wand from the pocket of her robe. She placed it on the coffee table, next to his phone.
He leaned close, but didn’t touch it. It looked to be a mysterious woman-thing.
She said, “I quadruple-checked, using three other brands. All gave the same result.”
He didn’t understand, but dared pick up the portentous wand. There were two tiny, recessed windows. One had a blue line through it. There was a blue cross in the other. He couldn’t read the words on the narrow stem. Recently he had started needing reading glasses for text smaller than ten-point. He extended his arm and strained. The wand’s meaning eluded him.
“Remember that time, that night, after we went to the Halloween party, and I said I was 99 percent sure we were safe, and you said you were 99 percent sure you had pulled out in time, and then you did some of your mental math and came to the conclusion that there was only one chance in ten thousand that things could go wrong?”
The phone rang. Big bright numbers, Area Code 601. He said, “It’s Mississippi calling. You answer. They’re nice people. You’ll see.”
“No way. They’ll know you aren’t really lonely. Think of the disappointment.” She reached for it anyway.
The wand’s meaning hit him the instant Sarah slid her finger across the face of his phone. He was starting to say, “Oh f...” as she pressed the phone to his ear and with her other hand pried the wand away. Catching himself, he said, “Hello? Oh hi. Yes, hi. Pretty good, thank you, how are you?” There was a long pause. “Oh wow. Oh really. How many of you? Really, wow, okay, yup, ready all right.” He looked to Sarah, apprehensively.
She raised her eyebrows.
He lowered the phone. “It’s Jo Nell, the one who wrote the story. She’s at her church carol service. Her choir is going to sing a song for me. She says it’s a Canadian song.” He pressed the speaker icon and gently placed the phone on the table, beside the wand. Then, slowly, clumsily, guiltily, he reached to put his arm around her. She settled against him.
The singing started. It wasn’t a Christmas carol. It was Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah, a powerful song easily sung, performed often, usually as a solo, never before this way, by a southern church choir thousands of miles distant, a chorus of tornado survivors, their blended voices emanating from a smart phone on a coffee table next to a pregnancy test wand.
After the second verse he said, softly, “I’ve never understood what this song is about. Is it celebratory, or is it angry? Isn’t it kind of dark and sexual for a church?”
She said, “They can really sing.”
The volume increased. The folks in Barton were raising the bar, and the roof. There seemed to be more verses than he remembered. Maybe you were allowed to add your own, he thought, as he stared at the phone and at the plastic wand beside it, now practically glowing. Yes, it was time to start running again, or join the pool, and find a new job, make himself as strong and long-lived and useful as possible. He put his free hand on her arm. She pulled it to her belly, and placed her hand on top.
During what was to be the song's final verse, she said, “Something life-changing and unexpected happened to them. They’re working together, dealing with it.”
His eyes went back and forth, the phone, the wand.