That’s it. My friend Lynn is dead. Probably. And it’s my fault. I didn’t pick up the phone. That is how it always starts, isn’t it? With the missed call from the friend in distress, in this case due to a car with a dead battery compounded by a forgotten cell phone. Then the other friend (me) not picking up. Then the accepting of a ride from a stranger, and then, boom! Dead. Found under a freeway overpass, the victim of a string of easily avoided unfortunate events.
At this point it should be said that I have a freakishly simple phone number, thereby making it easy to remember. So it goes without saying that whenever a friend is having car trouble, that friend will (a) have forgotten her cell phone, because Murphy’s Law dictates that whenever you leave your cell at home, you may as well just pull over, because your car is about to break down, and (b) call me.
I was right here, at my computer, and my phone was right here too, next to it. When the call came, I stared at the strange number and debated picking up. A number I don’t recognize usually means somebody wants something from me that I am loath to provide. Like maybe a local restaurant wants me to be a guest bartender. Or worse, someone wants me to write her biography. I guess it’s because I’ve written my own to some success, and people feel I now need more material. The other day the cashier at Kroger told me, “I got your next book for you.” Ultimately I declined writing it for her, but only after I listened to her tell it.
So this was going through my head while I stared at the strange local number. I let it go to voicemail, then hit play. The second I heard Lynn’s frantic voice, I called back and was sent to the answering service of the waxing salon next door to Lynn’s new office. Immediate panic ensued. Because, believe me, I’ve watched enough real-life forensic crime reenactments on the Investigation Discovery Channel to know that this is how it always begins, with the missed phone call. And before you know it, the police are picking apart the crime scene and the victim’s remorseful friend (me) is on camera, blubbering, “I should’ve picked up the phone.”
Because Lynn always picks up for me. I remember once when my flight home was so delayed that it didn’t land until after midnight. The taxi line outside baggage claim was packed like a protest rally, so I bypassed that and went straight to the MARTA station. Fools! I thought. I’ll just intercept a cab from a stop farther up.
Ha! Unfortunate Event number one: getting on MARTA in the middle of the night. Almost immediately I realized my mistake. I was eyed by my tatty fellow passengers like a juicy morsel, ripe for the picking. So I got out at Five Points, which led to Unfortunate Event number two: finding yourself alone on a street in Downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. Junkies and bums closed in on me like hyenas sniffing a wounded warthog. When I wasn’t calling to plead with the cab dispatcher, I was dialing every friend I knew. The only one who picked up was Lynn, but she lived in Baton Rouge at the time, so there wasn’t much she could do except provide a reliable witness should I need to scream out the identifying characteristics of my eventual attacker.
But the miscreants never closed ranks. I’m certain it’s because Lynn stayed with me on the phone until the cab appeared forty-five entire minutes later. Looking back I was stupefied at how easy it was to find myself in that situation, vulnerable and exposed. That’s all it takes: the stepping onto the train, the stepping off of the train. Such small gestures get us into these situations, yet small ones can get us out of them as well—such as talking to a friend for forty-five minutes, in the middle of the night, until the cab comes.
Today, unable to reach Lynn by calling her back, I jumped into my car and began a search of nearby streets. Eventually she left me a message that she’d made it home and was fine. So, phew, not all missed calls lead to a corpse on a slab in the coroner’s office. I could have saved myself a solid half hour of panic if I’d gotten Lynn’s message right away. Unfortunately I was unable to pick up when she called, because I was too busy being on the side of the road, changing my flat tire, having left my cell phone at home.
Illustration by Peter Arkle