Portrait of a Rotary Phone

Across the road behind a stone wall, hidden under a February depth of melting snow, was an old cemetery where Will was never allowed. The attic workroom at his grandmother’s house was another zone forbidden to the nine-year-old. It was up narrow stairs at the end of a hall, behind a locked door in a lofted space under the gabled roof that expanded like the interior of Dr. Who’s Tardis. Today, he found the door unlocked. Far from his grandmother three stories below, Will searched the attic in his own Dr. Who episode. He looked for clues among drying canvases and an easel. A huge painting hid an old two-drawer wooden file cabinet. The canvas was dry, but the round face of a giant black telephone portrait spelled its name, R-O-T-A-R-Y, and warned him away.


With difficulty, Will moved the painting and opened a musty bottom drawer. He found folders of letters and pulled one out. A name and address were handwritten in pencil below a postmark circle, NEW HAVEN, CONN. TERMINAL STA. OC 31, PM 1966. In the corner of the faded envelope were two stamps that said REGISTER VOTE 5c POSTAGE. The boy unfolded four pages of old paper. At the top of each page was a small dark blue shield LUX ET VERITAS banner, and at the bottom the word YALE.

Hey little girl:
I’m terribly sorry I didn’t try to sock it to ya the other night, but am equally certain that if you understand my intentions you will readily forgive me. I’ve never wanted anything so badly. Let me tell you about this dream I had (it might take awhile).
A young boy is walking down a long, narrow dimly lit city street. It is late at night. His younger sister clutches his right hand and looks up at her big brother now and then.

Will paused and thought of Faye downstairs.

At the far end (over)

[Will turned the page]

of the street a fire is raging in a large tenement building.
As the boy walks down the street he realizes that something very strange is happening. MiliPeople are calling out for help from the windows on the top floors of a building. And their faces, as they are illumined by the licking flames, show a distressing similarity of expression, a mixture of joy and terror, utter joy and utter terror.
A tall ladder reaches up from a long white fire engine. The firemen (over) scramble up the ladder, one after another, in rapid succession. But instead of rescuing the screaming tenants, these men are leaping high from the top rung of the ladders into the fire. As they climb the ladder in their shiny black coats, their countenances betray a certain ambivalence, a mixture of utter joy and utter terror.

Will didn’t know countenances or ambivalence. The boy had never seen a white fire engine. If only he were reading on his Kindle, he could dictionary it instantly as he had “bilabial trill” when his mother had told him to stop doing it.

The milling crowd (over) below, wailing in unison, is set upon by one of the firemen with a long, high-power hose. As they run in all directions their faces are frozen in a curious mixture of joy and terror, utter joy and utter terror. The young boy and his sister have fixed their attention so fastly upon this scene that they do not see that the cover had been removed from a manhole. They fall in. The little girl trembles and grasps (over) the boy’s hand more firmly, as they walk down a long, dark and narrow tunnel. A few inches of stagnant water cover the surface of the tunnel. The odor is strong.
At the far end of the tunnel a light is shining. The boy and the girl make their way slowly, damply toward the light and find a kindly old priest waiting in a doorway. The priest receives them (over) heartily and offers them food and warmth. When they get inside a high-arched candle-lit room, the priest turns into a witch and nails the little girl to the wall. The boy turns around as he reaches the door and sees written on his sister’s face a mixture of joy and terror, utter joy and utter terror.

There was a wide space and then the handwriting began again at the very bottom of a page.

The boy got up and walked to where (over) the girl lay naked upon a round white bed. The room was filled with red light. He leaned over to kiss her but stopped. The boy walked out of the room.

Stay out of that room, Will ordered the boy.

“Yeah, baby,” he said. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” Lying upon a couch he came to a sudden realization. Arising he walked to the mirror. The face in the mirror had a hauntingly familiar expression, a mixture (over) of joy and terror (you guessed it) utter joy and god-damn utter terror. He ran back to the red room with the white sheets and the naked girl. He embraced her taking care to grab her cunt very securely.”

Suddenly, it was signed, Love, Reilly
Six-year-old Faye was at the table with their grandmother, cutting and pasting a colorful collage. Voices sang with the oboes and strings playing the mournful Dvorak Requiem low on the speakers in the adjoining family room.

“You look a bit eau-de-Nil around the gills,” Gran said.

“What’s R-O-T-A-R-Y?” Will asked, locating his iPad.

She slapped her mouth with her palm, then said, “It’s a kind of circle. In my painting, it’s a landline telephone.”

He Googled:

“Like that?” Will said.

“Yes, and they came in colors, and they hung on walls.”

Will found

“When I was a teenager, there was even a Princess phone,” Gran said.

“I found an aqua one,” Will showed her. _telephone

Gran touched her heart. “When you’d put your finger into the last hole to 9/zero, and then let it go, you could hear the sound of going back the way Macbeth couldn’t go. You can’t imagine.”

“I can do better,” Will said. “Listen:”

“I wonder what the sound of your childhood will be.”


Faye handed her a cutout, gluestick, and directions about where to paste the soccer ball image on the green construction paper.

Will protested, “The President gave Gran a medal, and you’re giving her orders.”

Gran held up the collage. “Faye’s doing fine. Her picture is almost fini. Did you find what you were looking for upstairs, Will?”

The boy turned to his sister. “What rhymes with runt?”

“What’s a runt?”

“A shrimp like you.”

Faye kept cutting out pictures with the small plastic scissors. “Runt, blunt!”


“WalLAH! FEE-NEE!” Faye put down the scissors and slid down from the chair, flourishing her picture. “When will Mommy and Daddy get back from house hunting?” She chose magnets to center her work on the fridge and then crossed the wide room to a pile of library books.

“Soon, I hope. Voila. Will, help me clean up,” Gran said. “Cunt is another word for vagina.”

“I read a letter I found in a file cabinet. I’m sorry.”

“So am I. When I was your age, I found what looked like yellow M & M’s in my mother’s pocket book, and I ate them. I spat them out, but I threw up anyway.”

Will sulked. “I don’t like the music on your shuffle.” Gran put a bowl on the counter beside salad ingredients. “It’s a disk player. The only shuffle I know is off to Buffalo.”

Faye wandered over and broke lettuce into pieces. Will drained chickpeas in a colander. Gran sliced tomatoes and peppers.

Will snapped, “Who was Reilly? Who was Macbeth?”

Gran cupped his cheek. Will pulled away.

In a small frying pan, pancetta sautéed. The kitchen filled with the scent of bacon. A February sun set.


Ed found Fran at work on a new canvas in the attic. The one open skylight brought in non-toxic air, and a heater warmed the lofted space. Fran was sketching in another rotary dial portrait. Likely there would be a series of these huge faces in a gallery exhibition.

She put down her brush and palette. “Did you eat?”

He knew every one of her voices. “Long day?”

“Faye created another masterpiece. And the kids found a house.”

“Good news? Closer to New Haven?”

“Much shorter commute to the hospital. I’m relieved,” Fran said. “And your Saturday?”

“Tomorrow you’ll read in the Times that your ‘exquisite realism is fused with mythologized technology,’ and here you are at it again. What happened?”

She picked up an old envelope from the paint-spattered table.

“I forgot to lock the studio, and Will got in.”

She took out the pages and handed them to him. He read quickly.

“This is from back in the Mad Men days?”

“I had to show the letter to the kids.”

“Well. The real reveal of the movie The Sixth Sense is that we all see dead people all the time. Matthew 26:11, ‘the dead, like the poor, are always with us.'”

“That’s you, not Matthew.”

“Did you eat?”

They went downstairs to the kitchen. She sat on a stool and Ed cooked. He waited.

“Junior year, Reilly was Liz’s boyfriend’s roommate. She apologized for arranging the blind date because she thought he was ugly. His father was a mailman in New Haven. I was so sleep-deprived, I barely saw him at all.”

“Ah, this was the hitchhiking overnight from Poughkeepsie to New Haven?”

“Yes,” Fran sighed. “Reilly ran the concessions at the Yale Bowl. He put Liz and me on an I Love Lucy assembly line filling soda cups, then he got us seats in the Bowl for the Yale-Princeton game. I slept utterly unmolested in his bed, and he said he fell in love with me.”

“You and Liz could’ve been expelled for breaking parietal rules.” He placed a plate of toast in front of her.

“A detail I omitted when I confessed to my mother. She would’ve turned the song’s whiter shade of pale. I saw Reilly only once again when he and Liz’s Yalie showed up uninvited on a weekday night. All I did was argue with him, and he wanted me to win.” Fran waved the hand not holding a fork. “But he rattled me. A year later, Liz brought me the Yale Daily News with the headline and his photo: DRUG RINGLEADER ARRESTED/ EXPELLED. I felt like Will today. Why are you smiling?”

“Because I’m feeding you eggs.”

“After graduation, when we moved to the City, Liz’s father paid our rent. She was having an affair with a married guy she couldn’t tear herself away from until Fate hit him with a car.”

“The ’60s. The word ‘draft’ still makes me shudder.”

“She told me Reilly was in the City, and I agreed to meet him by the right hand lion. At the last minute, I panicked and stood him up.”

“That wasn’t panic, it was your frontal lobe kicking in.”

“He made me feel I was falling, though never for him.”

“The lions in front of the 42nd Street Library? Patience and Fortitude.” Ed sat down beside her and ate. “And I enter the picture a year later.”

Fran brightened. “In May at the art fair in Carl Schurz Park near the Mayor’s mansion. Who was the Mayor then?”

“Lindsay? Far more memorable was your painting. It sold the moment I got it back to the gallery. How I wish I’d kept it.”

“I wish I hadn’t kept that letter. He jumped from a sixth floor stairwell. Acid flashback. I went to his funeral with Liz. We took the train up here to New Haven. His face and hair had been so many Irish shades of rust iron red. In the open casket, he looked … blanched. I started to fall in a faint, but someone caught my elbow.

“Then, I romanticized the only way for a Reilly to compete with his rich classmates was to risk the criminality they depended upon and after graduation would practice with inherited socio-economic impunity. Now, I think maybe there just are punk genes.”

“You were never a punk.” Ed sipped the coffee. “Art breaks different laws. You’re still bad.”

“I’m sure the kids agree. How could I forget the attic door? Am I losing my mind?”

“Your mind’s not lost, it’s just gone before.”

“Who said that?”


“Ah,” Fran said, “you’re both comedians.”

“It’s just two weeks till Daylight Savings.”

“You always look on the bright side.”

“What can you see in the dark?”


At bedtime, Will first shared his day’s most interesting online discovery on his iPad. Next, son and father read together from Will’s current library book until he wanted to read alone. Then Daniel kissed him goodnight.

After Faye had been settled by Jill, she asked, “Did Will say anything?”

“Not a word about the word. He just wanted me to see rotary telephones on his iPad. Most interesting fact, in Will’s opinion, is that they only had one ring tone. ‘You couldn’t even choose your own!'”

“Why on earth do you suppose your mother kept that letter all these years?”


“Our scars are the hieroglyphs life writes on us. That letter depicted someone wrestling his own psyche. As I guess your mother does. I never understand her paintings.

“Will learned, you poke your nose where it doesn’t belong, it’s likely to get punched. My parents didn’t keep anything. They divorced and he moved cross-country. My mother died leaving only her regrets. I have a hyperparathyroidectomy in the morning.”

They were in bed. As usual, Jill fell asleep instantly. It was dark and quiet except for the humidifier and occasional creaking of the old frame house. As if viewing a documentary film narrated by his mother’s apology, Daniel saw Reilly’s penciled letter exposed like his body on a tiled stairwell, then in a coffin. The camera rose to an aerial longshot presenting New Haven in time lapse. The voiceover lowered to masculine, “The past is a ghetto, the future a gated community.” Daniel dreamed he resisted sleep. He argued, “No, the past is a cadaver, the future a coroner.” Then he saw a sharply-focused frame of his mother as a college girl changing with the time lapse into a blurred septuagenarian paint-daubed at her easel. Will stood beside her, dialing an ancient phone, and Daniel fell into the relief of solving a difficult equation. He saw it clearly: Life was the crime; Q.E.D.: the sentence awaiting them always had the same end.




Author's Comment

The story began in the instant I heard the sound of a rotary phone being dialed in an old episode of, maybe, Perry Mason. Instantly, I heard the line of dialog in the story, “I wonder what the sound of your childhood is.” “Rotary” clearly invokes the ghost of a young suicide and an era. I struggled with point of view and could write the story only when I realized I needed several, the child’s shocking discovery as entry. I needed a way to convey Reilly’s effect in the present as well as the past and to relieve the tensions he still evoked. I guess it was an exorcism to release his spirit and relieve my own. In The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell wrote, “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” Twenty-first century update: ditto for a man.



Lois Bassen is Fiction Editor for In 2014, Typhoon Media published her novel, Summer of the Long Lives; the collection Lives of Crime & Other Stories is forthcoming from Texture Press. (One appeared in Persimmon Tree.) Bassen was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award. You can hear two poems read at View/15_3/poems/bassen.html.


  1. What a clever use of up-t0-date technology in a traditional story. A perfect way to show the differing interests and values of the three generations. I enjoyed this one thoroughly.

  2. Authors do not write quality stories these days. Many tales are incoherent, disjointed, attempt to be poetic, insert drugs, sex, zombies, and science fiction, where it doesn’t belong, and in general are a written disaster. With older authors there is a tendency to rely on the last gall bladder surgery or knee replacement as a story plot. Oh, well, make the best of it. Write your own saga. One up the last story printed.

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