Tuesday, December 27, 2016


         On a bright morning, a man could be seen driving west along I-287. He crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge that spanned the broad Hudson and continued to Route 303 where he turned south. After the small village of Blauvelt, he left the highway, drove a few blocks and pulled up in front of his destination. It was April 7th and spring was evidenced by the profusion of yellow forsythia and daffodils.
Alex Schaefer made this trip on this date for many years. He parked in front of the cemetery. The burial ground was a small one, not much larger than a square city block, backed up by a patch of woods. Alex recalled reading somewhere that the ancient Saxons called them God’s Acre. It was well maintained, set unobtrusively in a quiet neighborhood near a high school. An iron fence supported at intervals by tall stone pillars enclosed the cemetery. The burial ground was bisected by a low railing that separated the occupants by faith—Christians on their acre, Jews on theirs.
         Alex entered the open gate carrying a small bunch of daffodils and walked toward the rear of the cemetery where his father’s grave lay. There were no other visitors and only the chirping of birds disturbed the quiet. His practice was to place the flowers on the grave and then address his father. As he approached his father’s resting place, rehearsing the brief family summary he always delivered, he saw something black on his father’s grave. A blackbird or a crow he guessed, but whatever it was remained stationary as he drew nearer. The object rested on the small footstone that read “George Schaefer, 1899-1975, A Man for All Seasons”. It was a telephone! The telephone was an old-fashioned one with a shiny black handset resting on a low base with a rotary dial. He was astonished to see that a cord ran from the phone and plunged into the grave.
         Some prankster Alex presumed—a macabre joke. He looked around, half expecting to see a few high school kids in the woods or hear derisive laughter. He lifted the handset to his ear and was stunned to hear a dial tone. He dropped the handset into the cradle and stood staring at the instrument. Alex felt stupid.
Many years earlier, while hunting geese on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Alex had come upon what appeared to be a flock of geese feeding in a field. He crawled on his belly for twenty minutes hoping to get within range before they flew off, but when he stood up to shoot, there was no movement. He had been stalking a bunch of decoys. Chagrined by his faux pas, Alex was certain that unseen eyes were laughing at him. He felt ridiculous then as now.
Alex tried to pull the cord out of the grave expecting to find a cable to the woods, but the cord resisted. He picked up the handset again. The dial tone was still there. He remembered an old phone number the family had when he was young—DEfender 3-7367. On an impulse, he dialed the number. It was ringing.
“Hello?”  It was his father’s voice.
 Alex’s heart leaped in his chest. He could never forget that almost musical, professorial quality with its clear enunciation and friendly timbre. His father had been his best friend, supporting him during the difficult days of his childhood. He died taking Alex’s two sons to the circus. More than anything else, Alex wanted to speak to him. He could hear a radio in the background, Ethel Merman singing, “You’re the Tops”.
“Who’s calling?” his father asked.
“Dad, it’s Alex. Your son,  Alex. I wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday.”
“You must have the wrong number. My son is here in his room. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Wait. Don’t hang up.” There was a click. Alex was talking to a dial tone.
He dialed the number again. A busy signal. After a minute, he tried again. Still busy. Alex kept dialing over and over to no avail.
Finally, he dialed “O” and a voice said “Operator”.
“Operator, I’m trying to reach a number, and it’s always busy.”
“What is the number? I’ll try it for you,” she said. He gave her the number.
“I’m sorry, Sir. That number is no longer in service.”
“But I just—.” Dial tone.
Alex felt frustrated. He dialed “O” again and when the Operator came on, he said, “I’d like to speak with your supervisor.”
“One moment, Sir.” After a minute, another voice came on.
“A short time ago I was connected to a number. Then I got busy signals, and now the Operator tells me that the number is no longer in service.”
“What was the number?”
“DEfender 3-7367,” Alex told her.
After a pause, she said, “Sir, the DEfender exchange hasn’t been used for almost 40 years.”
“But I just spoke...,” Alex expostulated.
“I’m sorry, Sir. There’s nothing I can do.” Dial tone.
Incredible as it seemed, he had actually spoken a few words to his long dead father. Now, he wanted to continue. Here was a chance for him to talk to his father again, and it was being taken away from him. Alex was becoming irritated. Then he remembered another phone number his father had used, perhaps ten or more years after the first number. HAvemeyer 3-6624. His hand was trembling as he dialed it. It was ringing. Once again he heard his father’s voice. This time his father spoke a little slower. He sounded older.
“Hi, Dad,” he said. “It’s Alex. Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks, Alex. Where are you?”
Alex didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t tell his father that he was at his grave. He ignored the question.
“I’m fine, Dad. How are you?”
Someone in the room spoke to his father.
“Just a minute, Alex,” he said, but after a moment the connection was broken by the dial tone. Alex frantically redialed, but got a busy signal. He dialed the Operator again and was advised, “I’m sorry, Sir. That number is no longer in service.”
That was it. He couldn’t think of any other old phone numbers. Reluctantly he drove home in a state of depression. Alex spent the evening searching old documents trying vainly to find other phone numbers. He called his brother who was able to provide one.
“What do you need those for?” his brother asked.
“Just doing some research,” Alex said.
Alex tried calling the number his brother had given him as well as the other two old numbers, but nothing worked. Somehow he felt it had to be the phone in the cemetery.
Alex spent a troubled night filled with dreams like old family photographs. After a quick breakfast, he drove back across the river, clutching the number his brother had given him. This time he knew he would succeed. He really wanted to speak with his father again, if only to tell him all was well. He pushed the speed limit.
The day was overcast when he reached the cemetery. He walked quickly to the grave, but something was different. The phone was gone. He couldn’t believe it. He knew the phone had been there yesterday. Or had it?  Was yesterday’s experience a figment of his imagination? Was the telephone episode a fantasy?
 Alex got down on his hands and knees to examine the turf over the grave. There it was. Just behind the footstone, he saw it, a hole, about an inch in diameter, where the cord from the phone had entered the soil. It was unmistakable. He hadn’t imagined it.
Alex grew angry. It wasn’t fair. He was certain that the number his brother had given him would have connected. He got up and stood by the grave, considering what to do. A light rain began to fall.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said aloud. “I tried.” He turned and walked slowly back to the car.
Driving home, Alex’s thoughts vacillated like the windshield wipers. Who or what had put the phone there? And why? Was it some kind of a test?  Maybe a reward, but for what? Why me? These questions tortured Alex to the extent that he left the highway, pulled off to a quiet adjoining street and parked. The only thing he knew for certain was that after all these years he had been permitted to hear his father’s voice again. His mind vainly sought answers. He had to go back. 
At the cemetery he walked to the gravesite and stood staring at the footstone. The daffodils still lay there, but the rain was turning the topsoil of the turf into mud, and the hole where the cord had been was becoming obscured. Yet Alex was sure that the experience had been real. He even recalled the smell of the handset when he had clutched it to his face.
Alex imagined that in the infinite number of human experiences, there must be some that are beyond reason or understanding which defy explanation.
But then a thought occurred to him. If this had happened once, it could happen again. He wouldn’t tell anyone about it, but when he returned each year on his father’s birthday, there was always the possibility the phone would be there. Although it was only a taste, it was enough.
“Thanks,” he murmured to no one in particular.
Crossing the bridge, the rain stopped, and the sky was beginning to brighten. He turned off the windshield wipers with a sigh of relief.
Alex walked in his front door to be greeted by his wife.
“What happened? You’re soaking wet,” she exclaimed.
Alex kissed her.
He smiled. “Something quite wonderful,” he said.

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