by Amy Blaine
Mrs. William Hancock inserted her finger tip into the telephone dial, but only just. Arthritis had made the first knuckle of her finger swell up and the holes on the rotary phone were unforgiving.
She began to dial, reciting the exchange in her head. There wasn’t any reason to remember the exchange, she knew that, but still — it was habit. Devonshire 4-8372 . The wheel spun round.
The phone on the other end rang once, twice, three times. She knew if she waited two more rings, Amanda’s answering machine would click on. Or what was it called now? She could hear what her daughter would say:
Mom, we don’t call them answering machines anymore. Nobody has an actual machine. And stop calling the house. If you want to reach me, it’s better to call my cell.
Five rings. Mrs. Hancock replaced the handset in the cradle. She looked down at her wrist, at the slender gold watch she had received from Mr. Hancock on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was just as well Amanda wasn’t home (or not answering the phone, more likely). Juliette would be calling in three minutes. The arranged time was 10:00 a.m. but Juliette’s watch was a bit slower than Mrs. Hancock’s.
At 10:03, the phone rang.
“Mrs. Hancock! Why don’t you just answer, ‘Hello Juliette!’? You know it’s going to be me!”
Mrs. Hancock smiled despite the admonishment. “May not be. My daughter might call.”
“At 10:00 in the morning on a Thursday? Isn’t Amanda at work?”
Mrs. Hancock realized she was. She wouldn’t have gotten an answer from her daughter, even if she had called her cell phone as instructed.
“Of course. It’s just that sometimes she has a break.”
“Ah, well.” Juliette left it there.
“How are you doing, dear?”
“Oh, just fine. What have you been up to this week?”
Mrs. Hancock looked around her well-appointed apartment to see if she could remember anything that had happened to her since she’d spoken to Juliette the previous Thursday.
“Not much. Staying put, mainly.” She didn’t want to admit it, but her stumble the month before had scared her. What if she had fallen? She’d had a friend who’d broken her hip, and never recovered. It was one of the reasons she’d moved out of the multistory house she had once shared with Mr. Hancock, leaving it to her daughter.
She thought about her recent visit to the doctor for her annual checkup. Nothing abnormal - actually quite well for her age. Eighty-three was nothing to sneeze at but perhaps she was lonely? The doctor gave her a card with the telephone number for Company Calls.
It’s like having a pen pal, except over the phone. The same person calls you, once a week. Just to chat. You never meet. You don’t even have to exchange names.
Juliette’s voice brought her back to the conversation. “I thought you were going to make an effort to see a show at the Kennedy Center. Don’t you have season tickets?”
“Yes, two as a matter of fact.” She and Mr. Hancock had had two season tickets for years. Unfortunately, she couldn’t think of anyone to go with now that he was gone.
“Two. How lovely. We should go together.” Juliette’s voice sounded conspiratorial.
Mrs. Hancock bit the edge of her lip. She tasted a smudge of lipstick. “I don’t think we’re allowed to meet.”
“No, you’re right. It’s the rule.” There was silence over the phone.
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Mrs. Hancock.
She heard Juliette’s sigh on the other end of the line. “Well, I guess there are a lot of people that might take advantage. Sign up for the call program just to scam people.”
Mrs. Hancock supposed this was true, and she said so. It had happened to her mother, hadn’t it? Oh, many years ago, when she was just a little girl. After her father died. Her mother lost all her savings. Convinced by someone to just hand it over. Couldn’t have gotten it any easier if they’d had a gun.
“Why don’t you invite your daughter to the Kennedy Center?”
“Oh, not really to her taste. Performing arts isn’t her cup of tea.”
“Shame. Speaking of, I would love a cup of tea. Have you had one today?”
“No, not yet. I was just waiting until after our call.”
Mrs. Hitchcock didn’t want to say. Sometimes Juliette was the only person she talked to all week — well, besides the grocery delivery man, or sometimes the doorman, if she had a package waiting for her in the lobby.
“No reason. I just didn’t want to miss it.”
“You know I would call back if you didn’t answer the first time.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Or I’d leave a message. Don’t you have voicemail?”
That was the word Mrs. Hancock thought: voicemail.
They chatted for exactly thirty minutes, covering the news, the weather, Juliette’s overfed cat, and Mrs. Hancock’s sister who lived 2,000 miles away.
At 10:33, they hung up.
“I think we should do it!”
It was the following Thursday.
“Do what?” asked Mrs. Hancock.
“Meet at the Kennedy Center! For a Thursday matinee!”
Mrs. Hancock steadied the receiver with her right hand. Her hands were shaking more these days and it embarrassed her, even with no one to see.
“I thought you said that we’re not allowed to meet in person.”
“It’s true. We’re not. Well, not technically. We’re not going to plan to meet in person,” Juliette said.
Mrs. Hancock pressed the phone closer to her ear as if the sound of Juliette’s voice might leak out and give them away.
“We’re going to meet ‘by chance’. No one can tell you who you can sit next to or not sit next to at the theatre. It’s a free country, isn’t it? You’re just going to tell me the seat number on one of the tickets and I’ll happen to show up.”
“But how are you going to get into the theatre without a ticket? Past the usher?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll find you.”
There was silence.
“Well,” Mrs. Hancock said, connecting the dots. “If we’re going to do that, I suppose you’d better start calling me Ida.”
The day of the performance, Ida Hancock woke up and tested her body gingerly. Stomach seemed fine, no pains in her back, no aching neck, teeth. She sat up. No dizziness.
Ida followed her usual morning routine, until about 11:30 when she changed her clothes for the theatre. She had just finished checking her purse and making sure she had the tickets, when the telephone rang. She jerked.
Oh, I suppose it’s Juliette, having to cancel.
She picked up the phone.
“Amanda? What’s the matter? What’s happened?”
“Nothing at all. I’m just calling. I have a break so I thought I’d say hello. And I have a surprise!”
“Yes, it’s a teacher planning day, so I’m free for lunch. I’ll be there in about twenty
“Yes. Mom? Is everything alright?”
“No, yes, everything is fine. I just have plans, that’s all.”
“Plans? Well, can’t you postpone them? I can’t usually get out during the school day.”
“Yes, well, okay.”
“See you soon! Twenty, thirty minutes at most. I’ll call you from the lobby when I get
Ida Hancock hung up and then she sat down. She took off her earrings. She wrung her hands. Getting up, she went into the kitchen and put on the kettle. She turned on the flame. She turned it off. She stood looking at the clock.
She sat back down again. She thought about all those times she’d waited. By the phone, by the door, in the lobby. All the tickets that had gone to waste because she was scared of falling. Or maybe she wasn’t scared of falling. Maybe she was just hoping. At the last minute for someone to go with her.
She thought of Juliette. If Ida was going to meet her at the Kennedy Center, she should be well on her way now. She clipped her earrings back on, and put her jacket on. She made sure she took her purse, checking one last time for the tickets.
Just as Ida was leaving the apartment, the phone rang. She stared at it as if it were a ghost. She already had her hand on the doorknob. Disappointing herself, she went to pick it up.
“Mom, I’m going to be another thirty minutes, I’m sorry. Just wait there. We can go to
the Greek place right nearby. Think about what you want. My treat.”
Ida Hancock thought this might be one of the most important decisions of her widowed life.
“Mom? Are you there?”
She had learned a lot from her daughter, she supposed. She closed her eyes and said into the phone:
“Amanda? Amanda? Are you there? I’m sorry. It’s a bad connection. Please. Call me back.”
She hung up and before the phone had the chance to ring again, she picked up her purse and left the apartment. The door made a resounding click as the lock hit the latch.
A couple of times in the cab she felt slightly dizzy, but Ida knew it was excitement and not her health. She checked for her tickets a half dozen times, latching and unlatching her purse.
The cab pulled up to the Kennedy Center. It looked different in the daylight. She had always thought she’d preferred evening performances when the facade of the building was lit up, ghostly shadows lurking between the columns. But now with the sun glinting off the Potomac and the tidy edges of the roof slicing through the blue of the sky, this seemed lovely.
Her cab stopped at the taxi stand that was filled with ordinary-looking cars. Ubers, she supposed. She would have liked to try an Uber, but she didn’t have a cell phone. The taxi driver did help her up the broad wide steps, even though the parking attendants kept telling him to move along. She wasn’t sure if an Uber driver would have helped her do that.
Ida found their old familiar seats. Mr. Hancock would have sat to her right. She wondered if Juliette would have a preference. She checked her watch. She turned her head and then her body frequently to see if she could see Juliette coming down the aisle. Of course she had no idea what Juliette even looked like, she realized, so her constant checking was useless. To take her mind off Juliette’s arrival, she scanned her fellow audience members. The house was full; the performance of Howard’s End seemed to be a popular choice. Most people were in groups of two, mostly elderly like her. Some larger groups of four or six. Some kind of outing club, she thought. There were no children.
“Here she is! Ida, I am so sorry!”
Ida looked up into a smiling face who was giving her wide-eyes over the usher who was with her. “Silly me, Ida. I thought I was picking up the tickets at will-call.”
“Oh...I…” Ida recovered. “Yes, I’m so sorry.” She gave a wan smile at the usher. “Thank you for bringing her down - I have the tickets right here.” She had been clutching them in her hand for thirty minutes.
The usher took a quick look at the crumpled papers and, satisfied, walked away.
Juliette perched on the edge of the velvet-covered seat and leaned in to Mrs. Hancock.
“He was a bit of a stickler. But finally! Mrs. Hancock. Ida! So nice to meet you in person!”
The two shook hands and then sunk comfortably into their chairs, sighing with the same relief.
The lights dimmed and the overture began.
After the performance was over, Ida and Juliette sat on the rooftop cafe, having a snack.
“It’s funny talking to you like this. In person.” Juliette gave Ida a smile.
“Why do you do it?”
“Talk to old people? I’m sure you have other things you could be doing.”
Juliette stirred what remained of her small glass of ice cream.
“I suppose. But I do it for myself as well. Not just for you or the other people that I call.”
“You call more than one person?”
“I call three per week.”
There was a silence.
“Oh, Ida. You’re the only one I’ve met in person. The only one I’ve gone out to the theatre with.”
“Why me then?”
“Well, William needs a little medical care and Vanessa’s family would never let her go anywhere with a stranger.”
“Ah, but you’re not a stranger.”
“I kind of am. I mean, what do you know about me? Truly know. I could have made everything up.”
Ida gave her a look.
“Oh, I don’t think you’d do that.”
“No, you’re right. But I could have.”
Ida took the last sip of coffee.
“This has been nice. I’m so glad you came. I’ve been looking forward to something like this — for a long time.”
“You are so welcome. What a lovely day. How much do I owe you for the ticket.”
“Don’t be daft.”
The two walked down the wide, carpeted steps of the performing arts building.
“Now where is this cab stand?” Ida’s purse dangled from her arm.
“I think it’s over here.” Juliette guided her gently.
“How did you get here?”
“I walked over from the Foggy Bottom metro, but it’s so lovely I think I’ll walk across the bridge back to the Virginia side.”
When Ida’s cab passed Juliette walking across the bridge, Ida smiled. Maybe she could move like that again: confident with not a timid step.
When the cab pulled up to her building, there was a police car occupying the car port. She paid the taxi driver and stepped out, up the front steps, and into the elevator. When the doors opened she saw two police officers at her door along with her daughter.
“Mom! Oh my God! Here she is, officers. This is her.” The three of them stood waiting for an explanation. None came.
“Mom, where were you?” She was grabbing her mother’s wrist now. “I came to pick you up for lunch and you weren’t in the lobby and you weren’t answering your phone. I wish you would give me a key. I thought something had happened to you.”
“Something did happen to me. I went out. I went to the theatre. I told you I had plans.”
“The theatre — what?”
Each officer closed their notepad.
“Are we all set here then?” the first one asked.
The second officer gave her daughter a smile. “Seems like it was just a missed connection. Glad everything’s okay.”
The officers took the stairs back down.
Ida took her key out of her purse. “Do you mind if we go into the apartment? I could do with a second cup of coffee.”
Her daughter followed her incredulously.
“Second cup? Where have you been?”
“I told you. The Kennedy Center. Seeing Howard’s End. You know ‘Only connect’ and all that. They’ve made it into a musical. You’ve seen it? At least the movie.”
“Mom, that’s not the point. And besides. You went by yourself?”
“No, I went with a very nice young person named Juliette.”
“Juliette? Where did you meet her?”
“She calls me. Every Thursday. We chatted and so we decided we might meet up at last.”
Amanda sat down at the kitchenette table and ran her hand through her hair.
“Mom. You know you can be taken advantage of quite easily.”
“What time what?”
“You said you were going to be here around noon and then you called again to say you’d be late, so what time did you actually get here.”
“Actually get here?”
“Yes,” she spun the gold watch around her wrist. “What actual time?”
Her daughter looked down at her fingertips. “About four o’clock.”
“About then. I left a little early.”
“I would have been quite hungry for lunch by then. So yes, I see how I can be easily taken advantage of, which is why I decided this time to meet a friend to see a play. Do you see where I’m coming from?”
Now it was dark. Ida opened her bedroom window with the crank handle and let the breeze come in. What a day. She had not known a month, a year ago that she would have been spending the day with her friend, watching a live performance with someone other than Mr. Hancock. She had not even predicted the extra call from Juliette making sure she’d gotten home alright. She didn’t tell Juliette about her daughter and the police and the “missed connection”. She’d tell Juliette all that — next time they met.