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When Jonathan and I were first married, we lived in an apartment near Boston. My father had died and left me just enough money to quit my job teaching and begin what I hoped would be a writing career. To supplement income from freelance work, I was a private tutor. My Japanese students had returned to Kyoto so I was running an ad again in the Boston Phoenix. Each morning Jonathan drove his Saab to Brookline where he was an architect in a small firm. I fed our cats, then sat down at my desk. Discouraged by the rejection slips that arrived like bad smells, I had decided to take everyone’s advice and write a dirty book. Sex sells, they all said. The problem was overcoming my own modesty and writing down things that would make me die of shame if read by my in-laws. Usually I took the phone off the hook and kept it disconnected until I’d finished working but since my tutoring ad was running I wanted to be available. Nowadays we have so many options with telephones but back in the 1970’s we just didn’t. Even answering machines were rare. My friends knew not to call during the morning so when the phone rang I hoped it would be someone needing English lessons. “Miss Dutelle?” “Yes?” It was a pleasant young man’s voice. “Will you watch me masturbate?” My stomach flipped over. Could my thoughts while writing have been projected into the world? “Who is this?” “Bill Stanley.” No. Couldn’t be. I knew Bill Stanley. He was in my class when I taught seventh grade, a skinny little kid who hoped to make himself look more developed by wearing a pack of
Marlboro’s rolled into the sleeve of his tee shirt. It was touching to see his toothpick bicep. Always disorganized, I sat with him one afternoon arranging his three-ring notebook, separating his math notes from social studies, sorting homework papers according to subject. How old would he be now? Sixteen? I could see him surrounded by other young punks guffawing with their palms over their mouths. How could he do this to me, me who helped him understand that a short story is not just retelling last night’s television show. “This is the saddest phone call I ever got,” I said and hung up. Heart pounding, I went back to my desk. Now where was I? The girl was in the bedroom with...brrringgg! Maybe this would be a new student. “Hello?” “Well, will you?” I slammed the phone down. It rang again and I stood there waiting to see how long the moron on the other end would let it ring. If I took the phone off the hook then prospective clients would continue getting a busy signal and they’d give up. The phone was still ringing as I put on my coat and went out the door. Picking items off the shelf at the health food store, I imagined confronting Bill Stanley. I’d go to the high school where he was surely failing every subject, walk into the remedial reading class and say in front of everyone, “Here I am, Bill, come to watch you.” Jonathan did not believe a former student would call after three years. “Maybe I’ve put myself in touch with all the scurviness in the world by spending time writing a dirty book,” I said. Jonathan read the chapters and said he didn’t think the book was all that dirty. I wondered if I was more sheltered than I realized. It was the blustery time of year when people from other states wonder why anyone would live in New England. Gray every day, skeleton trees, slushy streets. It was already dark at four in the afternoon. I was still smarting from the phone call of the week before, hurt that Billy would
want to disgust and scare me. I’d felt so motherly toward him when he showed up in my homeroom after school. At the same time I kept imagining scenes of revenge. If that little brat ever called again, I’d fix him. I’d catch him and punish him. Through the window I could see lights come on in the house across the street. Someone came to the window and pulled down the shade. Brrringgg! “Hello?” “Will you watch me masturbate?” Ha! Here was my chance. I’d teach that little creep to mess with me. If he thought being sent out to the hall for disturbing the class was bad, he hadn’t seen anything yet. “Who is this?” “Bill Stanley.” “Do I know you?” Silence. Then, “No. I don’t think so.” “Then how do you know me?” “I don’t.” “Then how did you get my name and my telephone number?” “You really want to know?” “Yes, I do.” “Should I tell you?” “Yes, you should.” He would make up some stupid story and I’d say you can do better than that, Billy. “Out of the paper. You advertised as a tutor.” He heard the sharp intake of breath he’d been hoping for. “Well, will you?”
I’d put my surname in the paper as I always did. Call Miss Dutelle. Here was a coward alone somewhere with the phone to his ear attacking me from the shadows. I was in the shadows too, as far as he was concerned. Two hidden beings. Did he think he was smarter than I am? Did he think he was stronger? What would be the exact thing that would scramble his brains? “Sure,” I said. “Where should we meet?” Now it was my turn to be rewarded by stunned silence. “Where do you live?” “Why should I tell you?” “Because I want to know.” “Tough luck. I’m not telling.” “Well,” he said, “do you really want to watch me?” I would schedule a rendezvous, phone the police, and we’d pounce on him. “Why do you want me to watch you?” “Because. I don’t know why. It’s just a need I have.” “Do you always call people up when the need comes upon you?” “Yes. I do. You find that hard to believe?” This seemed a strange question. What did believing have to do with it? “You find it hard to believe that women agree to watch?” “I can’t imagine why they want to.” “They like to. Why did you agree to meet me?” “Curiosity.” “Well, that’s why they agree, some of them. And some of them just like to watch. I can tell you find that unbelievable.” “In a way I guess I do.” “Why?”
His voice was full of education and careful upbringing, an east coast person. “I don’t know,” I said. “It just seems strange, that’s all. I mean where do they watch you? Right out on the street?” “Sometimes. Sometimes in cars or sometimes in their apartments.” “Don’t you have an apartment?” “Yes. But I have a roommate.” “Why don’t you ask your roommate to watch you?” “No. I’m not into men.” “You aren’t into women either by the sound of it.” Silence. Then, “No, you don’t understand. I have intercourse with women but then, later, maybe the next day or a little while later I get this urge to have someone watch me. I mean it’s just not enough, sexual intercourse. It’s a problem I have.” “Why don’t you try to get rid of your problem? You must like it.” “I do like it.” This was said in a way that made my stomach lurch. Car headlights lit up the walls. “Tell me about yourself,” he said. “I will not.” “Why not?” “Why should I?” “Well, tell me at least what you thought the last time I called. Were you annoyed?” “I thought you were my old student Bill Stanley.” “You did?” “Yes. He was a kid in the seventh grade and I thought you were him and that he was just fooling around.”
“No kidding. Do I sound that young?” “He’s not so young now. Sixteen.” “And I sound sixteen?” “No. You don’t.” “Well, how old do I sound?” “How should I know? How old are you?” “How old are you?” “Infinitely older than you.” “How do you know? Maybe I’m older than you.” “Maybe.” “I’m twenty-one,” he said. “How old are you?” “Infinitely older than you.” In truth, I was only four years older. “Why won’t you tell me?” “Why should I?” “Because I’d like to know.” “I’m not going to tell you anything.” “Why not? I’ll tell you about me. Anyway. I know something about you already. I know you’re not married.” “How do you know that?” “Because in the paper it says Miss Dutelle.” Didn’t occur to him that a woman might keep her maiden name. “And I know you were a teacher.” My ad boasted experience in public schools. “Are you still a teacher?” “Listen,” I said. “I’m not going to tell you anything about me.”
“Why not? It would be nicer.” “Nicer! You call this nice?” “Sure.” “Then you tell me about you.” “Okay,” he said. “I’m twenty-one and I’m a student at B.U.” “A senior?” “Yes. This is my last year.” The clock told me it was time to go downstairs and start boiling the soaked adzuki beans. The time had come to slam the door shut on my trap. “Where should we meet? I said. “Can we meet tonight?” “Sure. Where?” “You aren’t teasing me?” “Why should I tease you?” “I don’t know. Maybe you would say you’ll come and then you won’t.” “That’s the chance you take. Where should I meet you?” “Could we meet now?” “No. I have to have dinner. I’ll meet you later around nine o’clock.” “Can I come to your house?” “Of course not.” “Well, do you know your way around Boston? Do you know where the Cadillac-Olds is on Commonwealth Avenue?” “Yes.” “Well, I’ll meet you on the corner in front of that place.”
“Okay.” “How will I know you?” “You won’t,” I said. “Well, that’s no good. Tell me something so I’ll recognize you.” “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll recognize you. You’ll be the only one hanging around on the corner.” “But how do you know that? Tell me at least how I’ll know it’s you.” “Okay,” I said. “I’ll be in an old red Volvo with a lot of rust stains on it.” “And you’re sure you’re not kidding?” “Why should I kid?” “Well, maybe you don’t understand my problem and maybe you won’t show up.” “Maybe.” “Well, how can I be sure?” “You can’t.” “Well, that’s no good if you won’t promise. I don’t know what to expect.” “That’s right. You don’t.” “Well, that’s not fair.” “Those are the breaks,” I said. “Just tell me if you’ll be there.” “I’ll be there.” “You promise?” “I said I’d be there and now I have to hang up.” “Why?”
“Because I have to.” “Okay,” he said. “I’ll see you at nine o’clock.” “Yes,” I said. “See you then.” I put down the receiver then phoned the police. “I wonder if you could advise me.” My voice was trembling. This surprised me because I thought I was calm. “There was an obscene caller just now on the phone and he gave me his name and said he’d meet me tonight and I don’t know if I should meet him or just forget it.” Dead silence. “It’s up to you, Ma’am. If you want to meet him then...” “No,” I said. “You don’t understand. I wondered if maybe some police would go with me and then we’d catch him.” Dead silence. “There’s not much we can do, Ma’am, if you agreed to meet him. That’s between you and him.” “But I only agreed so he could get caught.” “Yes,” the sergeant said. “But he isn’t caught. He’s got to be apprehended in the act of placing an obscene call. As it is now he’d just deny he called you and then where would we be?” “But what should I do?” Dead silence. “We’ll send a patrol car around to your house and they’ll take care of it. What’s your name and address?” I told him. “How long will it take?” “We’ll send it right away. Should be there in ten, fifteen minutes.” The second I put down the receiver the phone rang. “You were on the phone. Who were you calling? The police?” “Maybe.”
“You were. Why were you calling the police? Do you want to have me caught? Is that your game?” “That’s the chance you take.” “Well, now I’m not sure I want to meet you.” “Okay. Let’s hang up.” “Just tell me if you’re going to show up alone or with someone.” “No. I won’t tell you.” “Did you call the police?” “I’m not going to tell you.” “Why not?” “Why should I tell you who I call on my phone?” “Well, can I trust you?” “Of course you can’t trust me. You’d be an idiot to trust me.” “Well, what am I supposed to do?” “How should I know,” I said. “You’re the obscene caller.” “Just tell me if you’ll be alone.” “No. I won’t tell you.” “Well, tell me if you’ll be with men.” “Maybe.” “You mean you want to hurt me? Is that what you want to do? Is that fair?” “Fair? Are you being fair?” “Yes,” he said, “I am. I have a need which I’ve asked you to help me with and you won’t even tell me if you’re going to show up alone or not.”
“That’s right.” “Why are you being like that? What’s the big deal? If you want to watch me just say you do but if you don’t want to just say no and I’ll hang up and that will be the end of it.” “I said I’d meet you. That’s all I’m saying.” “And will you show up alone? Are you going to have your friends there ready to jump me?” “Maybe.” “Well, are you?” “If you’re afraid of getting in trouble,” I said, “why do you make these phone calls?” “Because. I can’t help it.” “You can’t help it?” “No. I can’t. I have this need to have someone watch me. I’ve made a simple request to you. All you have to do is say whether or not you want to watch. If you do, good. If you don’t that’s cool too. Just tell me the truth.” I kept looking out the window for the patrol car. If I could keep the caller on the phone, the police could hear for themselves and then he’d be caught. “I’ve said all I’m going to say,” I said. “Can I trust you?” “That’s up to you.” “Okay. I’ll trust you.” “I’ll see you at nine o’clock,” I said. “Okay. But let’s not meet in front of Cadillac-Olds. Let’s meet in front of the B.U. library.”
“I don’t know where that is.” “You don’t?” “No.” “Do you know where the School of Public Communication is?” “Yes.” “Okay. I’ll meet you in front of there.” “Okay.” “How will I know you?” “You won’t.” “Come on. Just tell me a little bit about you.” “No. You tell me what you look like and I’ll recognize you.” “Well, I’m about six feet tall, green eyes, and a black moustache. What about you?” “I’m six feet tall,” I said, “green eyes and a black moustache.” “Oh, you aren’t serious at all.” “Are you?” “Yes. I’m very serious.” “Okay. I’ll meet you later.” “Are you sure?” “I said I would.” “Well, I’ll trust you.” “That’s up to you,” I said. Now it began to dawn on me that the police would not send a patrol car. “And you’ll be there?”
“I’ve got to hang up.” “How come?” “Because I’m making dinner and it’s burning up.” “Okay. I’ll see you at nine. Maybe we can just talk or go get a cup of coffee or something.” I went downstairs to the kitchen and put water in the pressure cooker. As I was twisting the lid the phone rang. “How’s your dinner?” “Oh, for heavens sakes. What do you want now?” “I just don’t know what to do.” “Do what you want.” “Just tell me if you’re going to be alone or not.” “No,” I said. “I’m not going to tell you.” “But can I trust you?” “Trust me or don’t trust me. Do what you want.” “But I’m scared now.” “You ought to be.” “Why won’t you just tell me if you’re sincere or not.” “I said I’d meet you and that’s all I’m going to say.” “But you’re making it into some kind of game,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I? What’s so serious about it?” “Why won’t you tell me what you look like?” “Why should I?” “Okay. Just tell me if you’re going to be alone or with someone.”
“No.” “Just say if you’re going to be with women or with men.” “No. I already told you I’m not telling you anything. Do you want guarantees or something? You called me out of the blue. Don’t you understand what kind of risk you’re taking? Don’t you understand that what you’re doing is against the law? Hasn’t it occurred to you what could happen calling up people like this?” Silence. Then I heard my apartment door open. “Hold on,” I said. “Something’s burning.” I intercepted Jonathan setting car keys on the table by the door. I put my finger to my lips and whispered, “It’s the obscene caller. He’s on the phone right now.” “The obscene caller?” “Shhh. Yes. Remember?” Jonathan loosened his scarf and unbuttoned his jacket. “You mean that Bill Stanley guy?” “Shhh. Yes. He’s on the phone right now. I don’t know what to do.” “Let me speak to that bastard,” Jonathan said striding to the phone. “No!” I pulled Jonathan into the kitchen. “If you talk to him he’ll just hang up and we’ll never catch him.” “Catch him?” “Yes. I agreed to meet him and I called the police and they said they’d send a patrol car over here. I thought maybe they’d go with me and then he’d be caught.” “Who is this guy?” “He’s a student at B.U. Bill Stanley. I was thinking that if he got caught then he could go get help, like the brother of that friend I was telling you about, the one they caught calling people in telephone booths. They sent him to McLean.”
“Try to get that guy’s phone number,” Jonathan whispered. “Tell him you’ll call him back.” I went to the phone. “Bill?” “What took you so long?” “Nothing. I was just trying to keep my dinner from getting ruined. Listen, Bill. I don’t know what to do. Could I call you back in a little while?” “You don’t know what to do? I thought I was the one who didn’t know what to do.” “Well, I don’t know either.” “I thought you said you’d meet me.” “I did say that but now I don’t know if I should. I need time to think. Let me call you back.” “How long?” “I’ll call you after I finish eating.” “No,” he said. “I’ll call you back.” Jonathan signaled me with impatient hands. “I have to eat now. All the food’s getting cold. Goodbye.” Jonathan dialed Boston University. He asked university information if there was a student enrolled named Bill Stanley. Back then we were not so security conscious and you could ask for such information. “There’s no Bill Stanley at B.U.” “There isn’t?” “No. Not in any class. Such a common name you’d think there would be at least one.”
I sat down hard. I’d been talking to a criminal. I’d been trying to outwit a bug hiding under a stone. Brrringgg! I stormed to the phone, yanked up the receiver and said, “You’re a liar. There is no Bill Stanley at B.U.” “You called B.U.?” “I certainly did.” “You did? You called B.U.?” “Yes. I did. And now I’m going to hang up because you’re just a liar.” “No! Wait! That was the only lie I told you. The rest was all true. I am a student at B.U.” “I don’t care what you are.” “It was the only lie. I made up a name but all the rest was true.” “Yeah, yeah.” “It is, honestly. I am a student at B.U. My name is Barry.” “Barry what?” “You want my last name?” “Yes. What’s your last name?” “I can’t tell you. That’s crazy. I can’t tell you.” “Then goodbye.” “Wait!” “Why? You’re not sincere. I’m not going to waste my time.” I hung up and went into the kitchen. The pressure cooker knob was vibrating. “He gets his kicks from calling,” Jonathan said. “He would never have met you.” Jonathan opened a cabinet and took out two wooden bowls and set them on the table. “He would
have called you tomorrow and said he didn’t show up because he got scared.” Brrringgg! “There he is,” Jonathan said. “See if you can get his number.” I picked up the phone. “Don’t be mad at me.” “You’re just a liar. All you want to do is annoy people. I said I’d meet you but that’s not what you want. You just want to call on the phone like an idiot.” “I do want to meet you,” he said. “Believe me. I am sincere.” “Why should I believe you?” “You should, that’s all. I do want to meet you.” “Then give me your telephone number and I’ll call you back.” “Why?” “So I can find out if you’re sincere or not.” “You want my telephone number?” “Yes.” “Can I trust you?” “Listen. I’m not giving you any assurances. As far as I’m concerned we can just hang up now and that’s an end of it.” “Just tell me if I can trust you. Just tell me if you’re out to hurt me.” “No,” I said. “I’m not out to hurt you.” “And can I trust you?” “Yes. You can trust me.” “Okay. This is a big step.” “Yes.” “My number is 617...” and he told me. “We could just get coffee or something.”
“I’ve got to go.” “Is your dinner burning?” “Yes. Goodbye.” I went into the kitchen. “He gave me his number.” Jonathan and I sat there under a cloud of gloom. “I mean he thinks he’s just some immune creature who can call up and say obscene things and somehow he’s exempt from all consequences. But it’s pathetic because he’s sort of knocking on the door of the world and asking to be let in.” I went to the refrigerator and took out salad fixings and began to tear them into our salad bowl. “I mean is asking someone to watch you masturbate obscene?” “Sure,” Jonathan said. “That’s obscene.” “Why?” “Because it’s sex used in a violent, angry way. It’s obscene.” “He said it was just a simple request. He said I should just say yes or no.” “It’s not a simple request.” “He said women watch him all the time. Some of the ones he calls agree and some say they don’t want to.” “He’s lying. They all scream and hang up. You’re the only one who’s ever talked to him. It’s not a simple request. It’s a very angry thing to do. He asks you to watch and that hits you like a fist and when you hang up he keeps badgering and badgering and badgering.” “Oh.” “If he really wanted people to watch him he’d just go do it. In subways or something. This way he stays immune. The thrill is that he stays invisible. Only now you’ve made him visible. You’ve gone right past his bullshit and treated him like a person. He’s always pretending he has this problem about wanting people to watch him and because he doesn’t really have that
problem he can see calling strangers as a big joke. But now you’ve challenged him to put up or shut up and he suddenly has to see himself more clearly. Suddenly he hears what he’s been asking and realizes he’s crazy.” “I’ll call him back,” I said. “Find out if that number was real.” I picked up the phone and dialed. “Barry?” “Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry. Really. I’m sorry.” “You should be.” “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. God. I don’t know. I’m sorry. Really. I apologize. Really.” “I accept,” I said. “Just don’t do it again.” “No”, he said. “No. I’m sorry. Really. I’m sorry.” I hung up. Jonathan and I sat there listening to the pressure cooker knob jiggling. Outside was the steady hum of traffic on the Mass Turnpike. Brrringgg! “You want me to put an end to it?” Jonathan said and without waiting for an answer he went to the phone. “Hello? Who’s this? Oh, Barry, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. This is Jonathan, Miss Dutelle’s husband. I know. Yes. Okay. Well, I suggest you go through it alone. Yes, I’ll tell her.” Jonathan came back into the kitchen and sat down. “Says he’s going through a bad scene. I said he should go through it alone. Said to apologize to you. Said he won’t bother you anymore.” “Bother? You were right then. He just wants to bother.” “I never heard such a frantic voice,” Jonathan said. “I never heard anything like it. So confused and sad.”
We continued making the salad, poured some yogurt dressing on it, dumped the brown rice in the bowls and spooned some beans on top then just sat there. “All of a sudden there’s this presence in here,” I said. “I feel responsible for him. Like God meant him to call us so he could get some help.” “There’s some reason he called,” Jonathan said. “Those things aren’t accidental.” “I thought it was punishment for me because of my dirty book but maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe it was fated for Barry to start on the way to being responsible for himself. Maybe he called not because I’m so bad but because I’m good. You know what I mean?” Then I started crying. “You are good. You’re the best thing that ever happened to that guy.” I sank against Jonathan and let him comfort me. After a while I pulled back and said, “You think we should call him back? You think we should offer to be his friends?” “Like go for coffee or something?” “Yes. Meet him and help him get through the night. Maybe be good influences on him.” Jonathan went to the phone. “Hello, Barry? This is Jonathan. Yes. We’ve been thinking about you. Yes. We were wondering if you’d like to get together and talk. Maybe talk out your problems. Yes. Well, sometimes it helps to talk these things out. Good. Yes. That’s a good idea. Good. Okay.” Jonathan came back to the kitchen. “Says he’s going to go to the B.U. counseling service in the morning. Says he knows he needs help. Said I made him feel worse by offering to be his friend.” After that we couldn’t stay in the house anymore. We went out to a movie. Next day I called the telephone company and told the operator that I had received an obscene call. I mentioned the telephone number and she asked me to hold. You could get information from the phone company back then. The operator said that a Barry Seljan owned the
number and she told me his address. I phoned B.U. and asked if there was a student there named Barry Seljan. Yes. He was a senior. Student information told me his telephone number and his address. They matched the phone company’s information. I phoned the Boston University Bureau of Student Affairs and spoke to a Mr. Marini who said, “Next time he calls, Miss Dutelle, I advise you to hang up.” “Next time he calls? You don’t understand. He’s not going to call again.” “So what’s the problem?” “The problem is you have a student in serious trouble.” “So what do you want me to do?” Mr. Marini asked. “Talk to him. Care for him.” “I suggest,” said Mr. Marini, “that you file a complaint at the police station. That would be normal procedure. We don’t even know if it’s Barry whatever his name is who called up. It might be his roommate or somebody who doesn’t even go to B.U. We don’t know. Could be some crazy guy using the name of a B.U. student. Who knows?” “I know,” I said. “One of your students needs help. I figured you’d care enough to try.” Mr. Marini said. “I’ll hand it over to campus security. And I suggest that you stop encouraging these callers. It’s the encouragement that keeps them talking.” “Yes,” I said. “I encouraged him right into telling me his name and number. I meant to encourage him!” “No doubt you did the right thing as far as your civic duty is concerned,” he said. “Still, I’d never let my wife talk to some stranger like that. You took a big risk.” “Of what? Being stabbed through the phone?”
He left me feeling like the only brave warrior on earth. What would the world be without people like me to save it? Poor crazy Barry. But then sympathy did a somersault and I was attacked by my own furious thoughts. I’d get back at that creep. I’d pester him. Every time he picked up his phone, I’d hang up. At three in the morning I’d cluck into the phone. His heart would leap to his throat. I’d plaster posters on the bulletin boards at B.U., Beware! Barry Seljan makes obscene phone calls. He’d tear one off, find another, tear that one down, find another. His friends would say, “Hey, Barry, did you see…?” Or, I’d send an anonymous tattletale to his parents. He was somebody’s kid. They had nagged him to finish his college application essays, were relieved when he was accepted, had written the sizeable check that secured his place, had discussed the pros and cons of various majors. And there he was in the apartment they were probably paying for, there he was about to break their hearts again and make them look at themselves in a horrible, bald light.
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