I could feel everyone staring at me. How had I been so thoughtless, so careless? Didn’t I see how others were trying to better themselves? Why couldn’t I? Did I want to? Or was I, perhaps, a saboteur of others’ desire to improve? Another phone rang. But this time it wasn’t mine. Thank all gods everywhere. Everyone looked around. Another tinny melody erupted across the room. A woman gasped and rummaged through her purse. She brought it out, the phone happily ringing away. “It was off!” she cried. But she answered it. On speaker. “I got a bad diagnosis,” a man’s voice said. “I’ve got to quit my job. And hire someone to take my place. But to hell with it! I won’t—”
A sadness. The most human sound in the world. I understood this more than any words. So I did not turn off the phone. “I know,” I said. “Sometimes, I feel the same way.” I waited. There was the sound of a human breathing. “Thank you,” said the voice, and hung up. The phone shuddered in my palm. And then it was off. It seemed to be off. I almost wanted to call her and continue the discussion, but I did not. Then I heard, very clearly, the voice inside the phone of Frieda Sonnenbaum, who was standing beside me. In her phone, a man said, “and for the last year George, my son, started drinking, and he won’t talk to me. My son. I drove him across the whole state of North Carolina for his basketball games when he was a kid, and he was an honors student in college and he drove drunk to our house and we started meetings but I just want to drive to his apartment, grab the bottles of liquor, and empty them into the street . . .” This man was upset. Of course he was, but I heard something else in his voice, too. I grabbed Frieda’s phone. She was a real estate agent, and not one who relinquished her phone easily. But this time she did. “It’s hard,” I said. “I know. It is.” There was silence. “Yep,” said the man, and hung up. Frieda stared at me. I gently placed the quiet phone in her hand. The phones exploded into sound, over and over, in the room until this. Until the person who answered the phone did not tell the one on the other end to stop. The phones were adamant, ferocious for attention, their rings shrieking so that it felt as though they would reside forever in the air, but as soon as we said something to the person on the other end, anything but “stop,” the phones ceased their ringing. One by one, the ringing vanished and after a few minutes, finally all the cell phones in the temple were silent. The silence in the room seemed new, it seemed enormous. The congregation looked a bit shaken. My ears felt a bit tender from all the buzzing. I was depleted. But now, the air was pure as glass. In this silence, I felt I could hear everything. Or I could try, perhaps, to listen. We stood in front of the rabbi, who gazed at all of us, pleased. “We are all ready now?” he asked us. We were. I think we were ready. There was so much that all of us needed to fix. The world was still hot and despairing and full of pain, and I wasn’t a giant at all, but I wasn’t dust, either. I was trying to be a hopeful resident of the world. I stood with my fellow congregants in the room, feeling their presence beside me. We were all paying attention now, our minds unfastened. We looked to the new year. Here it was. “All right then,” the rabbi said. “Let’s begin.” * --- KAREN E. BENDER is the author of Refund , a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction, short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and long-listed for the Story Prize. She is also the author of the novels Like Normal People and ATown of Empty Rooms . She is the Visiting Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University. Find out more at karenebender.com
THE CELL PHONES SANG AND BLEEPED AND WHIRRED AND FILLED THE SANCTUARY WITH AN UNHOLY RUCKUS, AND NO ONE KNEW WHAT TO DO.
Another phone rang. Then another. The rabbi and cantor, the temple president, various high-ranking members stood bewildered, suddenly ineffectual in the presence of these spirited ring tones. All the phones were going off at once, and the entire congregation seemed to be scrambling through their purses and pockets, pulling out their phones and answering them. My phone was ringing again, too. Each time I shut it off, it burst into its fierce song. Each time it rang, a person wanted something. Urgently. Or they were going to act. “If the elevator keeps breaking I’m suing the building. Now.” “If you tweet those photos of yourself I swear I will take your phone and smash it against the wall—” “Stop,” I kept saying, and snapping my phone off. Would they just shut up already? Who wanted to hear the world’s complaints? The world was mad, as in disappointed, humiliated, hurt, resentful, confused, lost, and everyone had personal solutions to this, most of which were inadvisable. They were human, most solutions were inadvisable. All of the congregants were answering their phones and going pale. No one was listening to the calls but instead, everyone was annoyed and confused by the rush of the ring tones. But the calls kept coming, on and on, and the pleas became more high- pitched and urgent. The cell phones sang and bleeped and whirred and filled the sanctuary with an unholy ruckus, and no one knew what to do. “Rabbi, how do we make it stop?” The rabbi gazed, bewildered, upon all of us. He clearly didn’t know. My phone rang again. “My dog ran away,” a woman said. “I don’t want to leave the house.” I was about to hang up, but this time, the phone trembled, living, warm, inmy hand.There was a feeling in her voice that I understood.
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