by Len Kruger
gasped at the newspaper opened before him. Mr. and Mrs. William Moffett of Shaker
Heights proudly announce the engagement of their daughter, Sheila Marie, to Mr. John
Browning. Dismayed, he studied her Plain Dealer wedding picture: chin up, smile
stretched and taut, a bouquet of flowers sprouting from her lap. Jimmy had been in love
with Sheila Marie Moffett at Cleveland State, back when they were seniors majoring in
chemical engineering. After ten years, she still occupied his fantasies. He imagined that
Sheila wasn't getting married to Mr. John Browning, that she lived alone in Washington
D.C, that she too sat in the Library of Congress periodical room on a late Saturday
afternoon, leafing through back issues of the Cleveland Plain Dealer
The lights flashed on and off, alerting library
patrons that the building was closing. Jimmy made a photocopy of the wedding announcement
and stuffed it in his pants pocket. On his way out, he stopped at the bulletin board next
to the main entrance. Community announcements only, it said. No Solicitations.
His eyes were caught by an index card whose large wavy letters shouted: Learn
communications skills and help others! Make new friends! Training starts October 24. Call
HOT-LINE now! At the opposite end of the board, another card read: Lonely? Anxious?
Confused? Someone's listening! Call HOT-LINE. All calls confidential! Both were
written in the same red ink.
Jimmy remembered when Sheila told him about her
volunteer work at a crisis hotline. He was so impressed. "I could never do something
like that," he had told her, hands in his pockets, slouching in the dimly lit
corridor of their dormitory. "I'm not qualified. I wouldn't know what to do."
"Qualified?" she had laughed, poised at her
doorway, key in hand. "They train you. You just have to be a person." She
disappeared into her room, leaving him alone in the hallway.
"I can do that," Jimmy had called after her,
hearing the lock on her door click shut.
Back in his apartment, Jimmy lay on his bed, head
propped on a pillow, gazing at the photocopy. He traced his fingers over Sheila's lips,
her eyes, her long white neck, smelled the copier ink on his fingertips. A telephone sat
on an end table next to the bed, at eye level and arms reach. The phone was encased in a
clear plastic shell, exposing its brightly etched circuitry, the wires swirling and
nesting. Jimmy stared at the telephone, as if it would ring and he would answer and some
patient voice would tell him what to do. He punched in the first six numbers and stopped,
his stomach churning. I have to do this, he told himself. He punched the seventh
"Hi. This is Hotline." It was a woman's
voice, friendly and direct.
"Don't worry, I don't have some big problem or
anything," Jimmy said.
"Glad to hear that," the woman said,
chuckling. "How can the hotline help you tonight?"
"I just want to be a volunteer," Jimmy said.
"I saw the notice in the Library of Congress? The one about training sessions, not
the other one. I want to be trained." He talked too fast, he told himself. Did she
understand what he wanted?
Hannah talked to hotlines. She told
drug hotlines she had a cocaine habit and wanted to quit, but all the treatment centers
were full, and yes, she had checked them all. She told wife abuse hotlines that her
husband came home drunk and beat her up whenever he lost money at the horse races. She
told consumer hotlines her appliances were defective.
"Hmmm. Sounds like a very difficult
situation," they replied in voices big and small, cheery and grim. "How do you
feel about that?"
"Has anything like that ever happened to
"I'd rather talk about you and your
"Why?" Hannah asked. "You're much more
The hotlines told Hannah they could no longer talk to
her. The voices, always polite and restrained, suggested that she speak to her therapist,
that they couldn't help her.
"But you're helping me already," she would
say. "Who am I talking to, please?"
The voices stopped giving their names. "I'm sorry
but the hotline cannot help you," they said. "Please talk to your
But Hannah's therapist was indisposed. He had a stroke
and his speech was slurred. He got beaned at a baseball game and lost all memory. He was
in Hawaii. He was in Tahiti. He was thrown off a horse on the Argentinean pampas. He was
kidnaped by parapsychologists in the Bermuda Triangle.
He could not be reached.
"Sorry, the hotline can't help you. Please talk
to your therapist," they kept saying.
Hannah knew how to resist. She could disguise her
voice: a squeaky schoolgirl, a husky matron, whatever worked. She could put raw
desperation in her voice and sometimes they would talk to her and tell her things. She
kept notes in a composition book she hid under her mattress. Linda: likes Chinese food.
Matt: got lost at Disneyland at age five. Andy: never votes.
"I just don't know what I'm capable of doing
to myself," Hannah said one night, her voice cracking expertly. "Do you know
what I mean? Have you ever felt like . . . you just can't go on . . . any longer?"
She sobbed into the phone.
An anxious pause, then: "This is Hannah, isn't
it?" She knew the voice. Dave: from Massachusetts. Dave sounded relieved.
"Sorry, but we're not supposed to talk to you anymore. You're terminated."
"And you're not supposed to say what you're not
supposed to say," Hannah shot back. Now she was getting somewhere. She dropped her
voice to a confiding whisper. "Tell me Dave, how do you feel about this policy? It
sounds like you feel kind of bad about not being able to talk to me. You seem like a
really compassionate person."
The voice paused. "The hotline can't help you.
Please talk to your therapist."
"He's DEAD," Hannah said. "What am I
supposed to do?"
"I really should hang up now."
"The man died. Seriously. He was hang gliding in
Hawaii and his heart stopped. His corpse made a perfect landing. They had to peel his cold
dead fingers from the controls."
"OK, I'm going to hang up now. Please talk to
"I will if you will," Hannah said. "Why
don't we begin, Dave? You first."
Twelve women and three men sat in a
circle of chairs. Each wore a name tag: Brenda, Melissa, Pam. Andrea, Beth,
Janet. Jimmy marveled at the odds. Twelve to three. Four women to every guy. He leaned
forward on his chair, listening to the opening lecture of the Director of Volunteers, a
middle aged woman named Margaret. "What is the profile of the successful hotline
volunteer?" she asked the group, her question echoing across a bare church auditorium
smelling of ammonia. "What are some of the adjectives you would use to describe him
A flurry of hands went up.
"Very good," said Margaret. Her eyes scanned
the circle. "Anything else?"
Jimmy noticed that most of the women were in their
twenties or thirties, all pretty good looking. There were two other men being trained, but
one looked to Jimmy like he might be gay, and the other was at least 50 years old.
"How about empathetic?" Margaret asked. The
group nodded. Margaret nodded. "That's right. Empathetic. The successful hotline
volunteer uses active listening techniques in order to reflect the caller=s feelings, ask
open ended questions, and explore options. He or she never judges the caller or gives
advice or answers personal questions."
Jimmy wondered if Sheila had met Mr. John Browning of
Shaker Heights at a hotline training session. Maybe they answered calls together and she
got upset by a caller jumping off a bridge or something, and this John Browning, he
comforted her. He imagined him taking her back to his apartment, gently peeling off her
name tag with the tips of his fingers, lightly brushing against the smooth roundness of
Dr. Olson was the name of Hannah's
therapist. He wore brown loafers and no tie. He sat next to her on a long black couch and
brushed away the smooth bangs that covered his forehead and kept getting in his eyes.
"So Hannah," he said, Ahow are we doing today?@
"So, Doug," she said. She always called them
by their first names. "How was your vacation to the Bahamas? How was the food?"
"Let's just talk about you, OK?"
"Did they show an in-flight movie? Did you rent
"The earphones," Dr. Olson sighed, glancing
at the clock on his desk, "were complimentary."
"I want to show you an item in the
newspaper," Hannah said, unfolding a lump of newsprint. "It says here the city
is installing phone boxes on the Duke Ellington Bridge. As a practicing and prosperous
mental health professional, I'm sure you know, Doug, that the Duke Ellington bridge is a
very popular jumping off point for despondent residents of the District of Columbia."
"And what makes this significant for you?"
Doctor Olson brushed the hair out of his eyes.
"I'm getting to that. These phones are automatically
linked to a crisis hotline. Do you know what that means? You just pick up the phone, and
you're speaking to a volunteer who will try to talk you out of jumping. It's like those
courtesy phones in an airport that go directly to a hotel. You don't even have to
"To what extent do you identify with those
jumpers on the Duke Ellington Bridge, Hannah?"
"Not one whit, Doug. I'm thinking about that
hotline volunteer. That valiant, selfless, victimized volunteer who's not even getting
paid for his or her troubles. Think about it. The caller goes, 'Hello there, I'm calling
you today, perched on the Duke Ellington Bridge overlooking beautiful Rock Creek Park.'
Can you imagine the pressure on that poor volunteer? One wrong word, one little slip up,
maybe the wrong inflection in the voice, a cough, a stutter, tomayto, tomahto, whatever,
and it's all over. Can you imagine what they might hear over that phone? The cry of the
caller, getting fainter and fainter as they plummet earthward! The phone hanging from the
box banging against the rail! The screams and shouts of passersby!"
"Hannah," Dr. Olson said, his face
impassive. "Do you still talk to hotlines?"
Hannah didn't answer. She imagined a voice gently
talking to people in distress, people who teetered on windswept ledges overlooking a city
of blinking lights and roaring traffic.
Every morning, Hannah scoured the
newspaper, from tire ads in the sports section to editorials on the international monetary
fund. She read movie reviews, paying special attention to the plot summaries, analyzing
their logical progression and plausibility. She read obituaries and imagined how a slight
change in circumstance -- a different name, for example, or maybe a different
configuration of facial hair -- might have changed the course of the deceased's life, if
only they had known.
The classified ads were her favorite. Thousands of
names clamoring for attention, reaching out to her. They teemed with life, full of
randomness and possibility. "Hi, Mike, I'm calling about the sofa bed," she
would start off, businesslike and official. "Could you tell me a little about its
history? Exactly what would one find underneath the cushions? Any untoward indentations in
"And do you sleep on your stomach," she
would whisper, "or on your back?"
Nobody told her anything. Hannah scanned the
classified pages for notices of hotline training sessions, knowing that several weeks
later a new round of volunteers would be answering calls. They wouldn't recognize her
voice. They might talk to her.
"Hotline," the voice said. "How may I
help you tonight?" Hannah hadn't heard this one before. There was static on the line,
oscillating in tone and intensity. She sat cross-legged on her bed, wrapping the telephone
cord on her index finger, around and around.
"Hello, who am I talking to, please?" she
said. Her voice was low, conspiratorial.
"My name is Jimmy. What's yours?"
"Hi Jimmy, can you talk to me tonight?" She
recited a drama of forsaken love, broken promises, dashed hopes. "My boyfriend Pete's
got an answering machine, Jimmy," she said, "and when I call I just know he's
there listening to me pleading with him to pick up the phone. He just stands there and
listens to me crying on that machine. I feel so helpless. Can you imagine that,
"You sound upset."
"Yes! That's it exactly, Jimmy. Wouldn't you be
upset if you were in my situation?"
"Sounds like you're really upset about being
rejected by, uh, Pat?"
"I was wondering. Has anything like this ever
happened to you, Jimmy? Have you ever loved someone who didn't love you back?" There
was a long pause. She imagined his mouth twitching, his eyes darting.
"I'm sorry if I've made you feel uncomfortable,
"I'm not uncomfortable."
"I'm feeling so much better talking to you and
listening to you."
"Sounds like you're very concerned about the
issue of rejection and relationships and stuff like that," Jimmy said. "How did
you feel when Pat told you he didn't want to see you anymore?"
"Here's a good one. . . How did I feel," she
said, her voice now down to a whisper, "when my parachute didn't open?"
"I'm not sure I follow you."
"What was her name, Jimmy?"
"The woman who you loved but didn't love you
back. What was her name?"
"Um, I'm not supposed to talk about that."
"I understand, Jimmy. Sounds like there are other
volunteers with you on your shift and you can't talk to me right now. How do you feel
"What did you say your name was?" he said.
She loved how he sounded. She hung up the phone, tenderly.
The location of the hotline phone
room was a secret. Jimmy had imagined a high-tech control room with rows of people wearing
headphones, maybe a giant city map on the wall with blinking red lights. After he
completed training, he took a tour of the phone room, which looked like a living room in
disarray. There were a couple of beat up, musty couches and a coffee table where people
piled magazines next to the phones and rested their feet.
Jimmy worked Saturday nights, the 9-1 shift. He found
the real thing a lot duller than training. Most of the calls were less urgent, less
challenging. Sometimes, listening to a caller talk about a bad day at work or a family
dispute, Jimmy would open a People Magazine on his lap and look at pictures of
famous actresses sitting in their living rooms with poodles cradled in their laps.
"Uh huh, right, uh huh. How do you feel about that," he would say as he turned
the pages. The call would go on for a little while, then end. He would hear a metallic
clicking sound, and most likely, never talk to that person again.
"Do you know who this is,
There was a silence. "Are there other people
there with you? Are you afraid that they will hear you talk about yourself? Say yes or no,
they won't know what's going on."
"Remember last week I asked you if you ever loved
a woman who didn't love you back? If the answer is yes, give me a reflection, if it's no
ask me a question."
"You sound upset."
"Good. You won't tell anybody you've been talking
to me, will you?"
Jimmy glanced at his shift mates. One was crunching on
pretzels, crinkling cellophane, waiting for the phone to ring. The other was reading off
emergency shelter addresses from the referral file. "OK, here's one. No, wait, they
don't allow children. Let's see what else we have here . . ."
"No," Jimmy said.
"Good. Now listen carefully, Jimmy. I'm going to
give you instructions on how to tell me the name of the woman you once loved. Simply
address me as her in hotline speak."
"'What' Jimmy? 'What?' I can't
imagine that sounds very empathetic and/or therapeutic to your fellow volunteers. Just
say, 'so what I'm hearing, my dear sweet girl, is that you feel bad about the things your
stepfather said to you.' Only don't say 'my dear sweet girl,' say the name of the woman
you once loved."
"So what I'm hearing, Sheila, is that you feel
bad about the things your stepfather said to you."
"Sheila! That's such a pretty name, Jimmy. Did
she have a pretty face?"
"Don't just say yes, Jimmy. Say yes, uh
huh, like you're the dutiful hotline volunteer leading me down the path of self
revelation. Every word counts. Didn't they teach you anything?@
"Yes, uh huh. Right."
"Right, a nice touch. You're an innovator.
So anyway, did Sheila and you ever have sexual relations?"
"No." Jimmy looked at his shiftmates, both
off the phone now and looking at him. "Uh, no, I'm sorry but the hotline can't tell
you what to do. But we can, uh, explore options."
"Good, Jimmy! I mean, bad, too bad, that you
never had sex with pretty Sheila, but good that you threw in that chestnut to throw them
off the scent. Trust no one, Jimmy. I don't have to tell you the hotlines in this city are
crawling with informants."
"So why do you think that Sheila never loved you,
"Sounds like your, uh, stepfather just wasn't
physically attracted to you and besides that, she never, I don't know, never really took
the time to get to know me."
"Jimmy? This is either not working well at all,
or working all too well, I can't decide which. Will you be alone next Saturday night? How
about the eleven PM to 8AM shift? Can you arrange that?"
"Sounds like you're pretty excited about
"Wouldn't you be, Jimmy?"
Jimmy walked into the phone room at
a quarter till eleven. His first call was from a divorced middle-aged man whose ex-wife
kept calling him, making demands. "Who does she think she is?" he said, over and
"Wow," Jimmy said. "Sounds like you're
upset that your ex-wife keeps calling you."
"Son, have you ever been married?" the man
"No," Jimmy said. "Never."
Jimmy's second call was a woman who said she was
having a nervous breakdown. She breathed heavily and spoke very fast. Jimmy could barely
understand her. "Are you OK?" he asked. "Do you want me to call an
"Are you a doctor?"
"No, I'm just a volunteer."
"What should I do? Tell me what to do."
"It seems like that's your decision. What are
"Oh God, just forget it," she said, hanging
The phone rang again. Jimmy answered and the line went
dead. The phone rang again, another hang up. Five hang-ups later, Jimmy took the phone off
the hook and tried to lower the ring volume by twisting a little white knob on the
underbelly of the receiver. It was 2:30 in the morning. Sirens whooped somewhere in the
distance. He put the phone back on, and it rang louder than before.
"Hey man, where are the ladies tonight?"
said a raspy male voice.
"Is there something I can help you with?"
Jimmy asked. Another hang-up. Jimmy twisted the knob back the other way. Ten minutes
later, the phone rang again. It sounded tinny and muffled, like a toy.
"Hi, Jimmy. There's no need for code words
tonight, is there?"
"No. So, what would you like to talk about?"
"I'm supposed to ask that question, Jimmy."
"I'm not sure we should be doing this."
"What would you like to talk about, Jimmy?"
He stared at the bright multicolored poster taped to wall. CRISIS MODEL: Establish
rapport. Explore the situation. Explore options. Make an agreement. He looked out the
window. From the ninth floor he could see the streets glow in the darkness. He thought of
the giant map of the city with blinking red lights.
"Oh, I think you know," Jimmy said,
unfolding the picture of Sheila, now worn and tattered and grainy to the touch.
Jimmy sat at his desk on a Monday
morning, reading a chemical engineering newsletter. The phone rang.
"Why have you been talking to Hannah?"
Margaret said, her voice rising.
"Who?" Jimmy asked. He gripped the phone
"You've been talking to her on Saturday nights.
Apparently she's going by the name of Sheila these days. She's been telling some of the
other hotline listeners about her conversations with you."
"How do you know her name is Hannah?"
"Jimmy," Margaret sighed, "have you
ever read the repeat caller book? Like you're supposed to? Hannah is terminated. You're
not supposed to talk to her."
Jimmy looked out his window. Two men unloaded file
cabinets from a panel truck, the veins in their arms bulging.
"Hannah claims she knows certain things about
you. Things of a . . . " Margaret sounded embarrassed, ". . . very personal and
sexual nature. I trust she's making this up."
"Of course she is," Jimmy said. "I
mean, she's a nut, right?"
"I hope you don't use terminology like that over
the phones. The proper term is 'person with a mental illness.'"
"OK. Well, isn't it possible that a person with a
mental illness would make things up about another person without a mental illness for no
"Why does Hannah appear to be fixated on you,
"OK. First of all, she told me her name was
Sheila, not Hannah, and that's why I didn't read her entry in the repeat caller book. I
didn't know it was Hannah."
"What is the nature of your conversations with
"Well, she told me her name was Sheila, and she
was new in town and very lonely and, you know, didn't know how to meet people or anything.
I was very empathetic with her, reflected her feelings of loneliness and alienation like
you taught us, and then we explored such options as, you know, joining clubs, engaging in
social activities, taking classes, doing volunteer work. That's pretty much it. Every time
I talk to her, we discuss how thing's are going and other strategies she might employ to
meet people. I thought I was really helping her, but now that I hear it's all a big lie,
I'm just shocked. I mean, she was really convincing."
"I know. You're not the first person she's done
this to. In the future, Jimmy, be more circumspect with the callers. And next time you
talk to Hannah, just tell her you can't talk to her and hang up."
Jimmy closed the newsletter on his desk. He drew a
thick blue line through his name on the routing slip. "So I'm not the first,
huh?" he said into the phone.
"Do you read the comics page, Jimmy? Do you look
at the horoscope? Can your essence be charted and catalogued by people who believe that
the Earth sits at the center of the solar system?"
"I don't understand. Why did you tell the other
hotline listeners about me?"
"My hotline improvement program, Jimmy. I held
you up as a model others can aspire to."
"What did you tell them?"
"I praised you. You should have heard me. I
called you a miracle worker, a magician. My problems have cleared, I told them, like a
nasal passage. I can feel the mucous draining, I can breathe. You've healed me,
"But I'm not supposed to talk to you again. What
are we going to do?"
"You're not long for this hotline, Jimmy."
"How do you know?"
"Sounds like you don't know that I know what you
"I know who you are. You see, you're not my first
"Am I your best?"
"I want you to do something for me."
"Read me a bedtime story. Open the repeat caller
book. Find the entry marked Hannah."
"Hold on a minute. OK, here it is. Woman, late
20's, early 30's. Speaks in hushed tones, sometimes whispers. Can you talk to me
tonight? Very manipulative. She will tell you lots of different stories. None of them
"We're both Scorpios, Jimmy. Did you know that?
Listen to this. Finish what you start. Create your own traditions. Carve your own destiny.
Escape from the one who takes you for granted. Do go on."
"After her story, she will ask you many personal
questions, and she will refuse to talk about herself. Hannah is terminated. Do not talk to
"Popularity zooms. Opposition melts. Listen to
mysterious strangers, who speak when spoken to."
"Hannah is a borderline personality. When she was
14, she was sexually abused by her stepfather while her mother was out of town on
business. She now lives with mother, who has asked us not to talk to her. If she calls,
tell her the hotline can't help her and suggest she talk to her therapist."
"Of course, we both know that newspapers provide
horoscopes to their readers for entertainment purposes only, don't we Jimmy? I have an
entry for you too. It's too long for me to read over the phone."
"Come on over. I'll give you the address. No one
else is here, we'd be all alone."
"The top secret hotline address! You would give
that to me? Nobody else has ever offered me such a precious gift. I'm touched."
"4823 Vermont Avenue. Northwest. Apartment 923.
"That's got to be a direct violation of your
hotline oath. Which is what, Jimmy? First, do no harm. Second, answer no questions. Third,
tell plenty of lies."
"Come on over. Right now."
"Jimmy. Didn't you pay attention to my entry in
the repeat caller book? Did it not occur to you that I'm under a curfew? Prowling the
streets at two o'clock in the morning is not allowed."
"I want to see you. I want to touch you."
"Let's not forget smelling and tasting, Jimmy.
Sounds like you're ready for the next step in our relationship."
"Well, watch out for that next step, Jimmy. It's
She told him to meet her on Sunday
afternoon, between two and three o'clock on the Duke Ellington Bridge. "But how will
I recognize you?" he asked.
"Don't you worry about that," she said.
"When you see me, you'll know."
Jimmy walked the length of the bridge, along one side
of the street, then the other. He stared at the women walking by, searching their faces.
He approached a few, the ones with long wild hair and a manic glint in their eyes.
"Hannah," he said, "is that really you?"
An hour went by. Another. The sun sank behind the
trees of Rock Creek Park; he could feel the autumn chill. He walked halfway across the
bridge, and stopped. White bars stretched upward from the railings, curved like hands
waiting to catch. Jimmy saw a phone box, painted blue, attached to the railing. Crisis
intervention, a sign said, direct line to someone who cares.
He opened the blue box, the hinge groaning. The phone
rested in the box like a body in some ancient sarcophagus. How ironic, he told himself.
How very like her, he scoffed.
He picked up the phone.
"Hotline," said a woman's voice. "How
can I help you?"
He peered through the railing, the bars cold against
his forehead. Yellow and orange leaves drifted into the creek, so far below it looked like
"Hello?" the voice said. "Anybody
Jimmy heard the faint whining and cracking of dead air
modulated through transmitters and switches and circuits, heard the sound of someone
breathing from far away.