Hally Joseph is an Atlanta native and has the freckles to prove it. Though she is currently a freelance writer pursuing an MFA in Writing, she’s previously worked as a marketing manager at a professional theater, a summer camp counselor, a Chico’s sales associate, a soccer referee and she once was paid to host tea parties while wearing a ball gown and faking a British accent. Fortunately, she’s always had writing to fall back on, fall into and fall in love with.
The phone rang and Marian picked it up, tangling her hand in its spiraling plastic cord. “Hello?” she asked.
Just like the other week, there was no answer. Marian’s thin lips got even thinner and her left eye twitched. Jim kept saying she needed to eat more potassium, but Marian knew that wasn’t it. She needed a new hobby.
Marian married Jim in June in her parents’ backyard in Augusta, the sweat soaking into the polyester of her department store wedding dress. Jim’s friends had brought a keg of beer and the two families, the Dunwoodys and the Bunkers, drank late into the evening, dancing to Johnny Cash and June Carter records. Marian still kept the wedding dress with its sweat stains in the closet and it smelled like her parents’ house, the perfume she ran out of eight months ago and her father’s fat calico cat, Bennett.
Marian’s new house was a white, two-story farmhouse. When Jim got the job as a restaurant manager of the Jalapeno Hut in Lorrelville shortly after they married, he told Marian they were moving out of their squat basement apartment in her parents’ bungalow to a beautiful two-story lake house three hours south. Marian ran right out to the Walmart and bought a two-piece swimsuit with a raspberry print and one set of plastic coral flip-flops. She pictured days on the lakeshore, her skin becoming ruddy with sun as Jim brought her a glass of white wine, her raspberry suit matching her raspberry lips from all the kissing they would do.
Two weeks later, when the newlyweds pulled the Buick into the wooded lot where the white farmhouse stuck out all alone like a hillbilly’s tooth, Marian asked, “Where’s the lake?”
Jim pointed proudly, “Two miles that way. We can go fishing in the summertime.” As far as Marian was concerned, it was a farmhouse without a farm and now a lake house without a lake. She helped Jim carry in their bags.
Marian placed her new bonsai tree on the kitchen table in a puddle of sunlight and smoothed her hands over her apron. She adjusted the tree first left then right to see which angle she liked best. Left it was.
“What’s that?” Jim asked as he drank from the milk carton, checking his watch. He was wearing his black pants and dark green Jalapeno Hut button-down. It was about time for him to go to work.
“It’s my bonsai tree.” Marian answered. Bone-sigh. Bawn-sai? The woman at the gardening store had said it but they both sounded the same now. They both sounded lush and foreign in the old house with its rusty pipes and faded white paint, a piece of chipping Americana.
“Bone-sigh!” She insisted. “Little Japanese trees.”
Jim shrugged, “Whatever you want, baby.” He kissed her on the top of her head and hesitated before softly rubbing her stomach; then he picked up the keys to the Buick and jangled as he went out the front door and the Buick vroomed to life. To Marian, the start and stop of the Buick sounded like the tide that was Jim coming in and out. Marian was only allowed to drive the Buick on Sunday, Jim’s day off, when she navigated the ten miles to the market in Lorrelville.
Marian considered her tree again, without interruption. It was big, with lots of knotted branches and prickly green thistles, and its roots dipped down into the miniature gravel like ducks disappearing beneath the surface of a pond.
The woman at the gardening store had sold her a satchel of special tools to work on her tree. She pulled them from the bag and lay them out one-by-one. She felt like a dentist with these small tools and their pointy ends; there was a root hook, a two-prong root rake, eight-inch shears, and a concave branch cutter. Her bonsai tree was a wide, smiling mouth in need of orthodontia.
She would have to save up to buy more tools. Miles from town and without her own car, Marian couldn’t pick up any work to earn money, so she spent her small weekly allowance saving up for ways to pass her time. “The life of luxury,” Jim called it, grinning as he saw his wife was provided for.
The first chop was difficult. She used the shears to take off a branch that was reaching too far, and it took her a minute to hew it all the way through. She stared at the fallen branch and her eye twitched, but it felt good this time. She began to hum as she worked, considering each clip carefully, and the hours passed by.
“What do you mean the phone keeps ringing?” Luanne asked.
“I’m telling you, Luanne, it rings at least once a week and when I pick up, there isn’t no one there,” Marian told her best friend, tucking the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she dried her breakfast dishes.
“Like someone is out there breathing on the other end? Hold on – Peter, don’t do that. Peter! Put that down.”
Marian could picture Luanne Hossler sitting in her backyard in Augusta, corralling her two-year-old son, Peter. Luanne was plump with dark brown hair, and she wore red lipstick all the time. It wasn’t until Luanne convinced Marian to start wearing lipstick that Marian met Jim. If it wasn’t for the lipstick, maybe right now Marian would be sitting side-by-side with Luanne on matching chaise lounges, sipping tart Arnold Palmers and yelling at Peter as he toddled around the yard.
Little Peter was monstrous, always breaking things or running top-speed into traffic. Marian prayed that the baby forming in her belly was a girl. She hoped she had all girls. She would dress them up in matching pastel jumpers from Walmart, and they would have art projects all over the tall, white house.
“No, not anyone breathing. The dial tone starts back up after a minute, like someone hung up.”
Luanne was quiet. “You don’t think…?”
“I do think! I think Jim has some other woman in this little town somewhere. Who else would be calling all the time like that? With his hours, I can’t track a thing, Luanne. It’s just me all alone in this big house.”
“Awww, Marian, in that creaky old house your phone may just be bad. Doesn’t it hang up on you all the time?”
“Well, yeah, it does sometimes, but this is different, Luanne. I just know it.” Marian chatted with Luanne a while longer about the going-ons of Augusta, then hung up to work on her bonsai tree for several hours before Jim got home.
She was asleep by the time he got back, and all that she left for him was a plate of cold ham and eggs in the fridge and green thistles on the kitchen table. Jim crawled into bed beside his wife, the four-month-old fetus between them the only evidence of the last time they touched.
The first few months they lived in lake house-farmhouse, as Marian called it, she cleaned it from top to bottom. She mopped the floors and set up mousetraps, opening all the windows to air the place out. She had Jim build planter baskets for the downstairs windows so she had armfuls of pansies blooming on every sill. She stocked the kitchen pantry with canned corn and cloth sacks of grits, and in the spring her little garden yielded nice-sized tomatoes and nubby green broccoli.
With a breeze drifting in, Marian could almost smell the lake she never went to, the sheer green of it, floating over the sill. Sometimes it was enough to know that it was there, and that she could visit it every now and then. That first year, she and Jim made love in a creaky cast iron bed on the second floor of the house, and they slept with the windows open and listened to owls coo.
They settled into the slow routines of country life. Jim drove twenty miles to the Jalapeno Hut every day but Sundays. On Mondays, Marian washed all their laundry and hung it on the line to dry, Jim’s green work shirts snapping in the wind. Her second hobby, after getting the house in order, was painting. She owned two canvases that she painted on with dried-up acrylics, painting over the canvases each time she started a new work because they were too expensive to buy a new one. Sometimes a layer of paint would peel off, and Marian could see a former life trying to peek through.
Marian was half-happy this way and might have gone on like this for some time, listening to the owls coo and waiting for her husband to come home. Then the phone started ringing and the days grew long.
The week the phone calls first started, Marian simply shrugged her shoulders. “Bad, old phone,” she muttered as she placed the receiver back in its cradle, the plastic clacking closed.
The second week, she began to grow scared of the continuing calls. Were they being haunted by the ghost of the former resident of lake house-farmhouse? Why would a ghost use the phone? Why did it only ring when Marian was by herself? She kept these niggling superstitions to herself, embarrassed that she could be so silly to let the old house intimidate her, but she couldn’t keep her suspicions from growing. She began to feel jumpy whenever she answered the phone, unsure if she would hear Luanne’s throaty voice or her parents’ lilting tones, or the full, rounded nothingness of no one replying to her “hello?”
After several calls, she began to feel certain that it was a woman’s presence on the other end of the call. It felt expectant like a woman, patient like a woman. Sometimes she waited on the line with the woman, both of them being silent, and then she heard the phone hang up and the dial tone start.
After a month of this, the eye twitches began. After several months, each phone call rang out like a lash upon Marian’s back. They brought with them a wired tension, a buzz of anxiety that ran up her veins in brilliant strokes.
The bonsai tree replaced the tabby cat, which Jim never met. The stray cat slipped through Marian’s window one day like a breeze mottled with spring pollen. It was gone within a week, but not by its own accord.
For that week, Marian and the stray lived parallel lives – their days spent padding around the house, the cat with its snarled ears and Marian with her swirls of hair. At first pleased to have the company of an unexpected pet, Marian spent long hours petting the tabby, its tail whipping back and forth, a flag staking claim to lake house-farmhouse and its inhabitant. It was too late when Marian realized she’d spoiled the cat with her affections; it became obsessive of her attention, yowling and leaping at her for an embrace she refused to give any longer. When she was painting it would run across the room and spring onto her lap, knocking her arm aside and causing her to paint an unintended stretch of gold across the canvas. “Shit!” Marian remarked. She began honing her curse words, something she had never allowed herself to do at home in the hustle of polite Augusta society and in the ham dinner hush of her parents’ home. Here the words came out clunky at first, then sinewy and strong as she grew more confident, lingering in those explicit vowel sounds. “Fuck, cat,” she’d exclaim. “Damn you, I’m trying to paint. Go away.” The cat only stared. Marian stomped her foot and the cat hid under the couch, and she began to ponder ways she could run it off so it never returned.
That Thursday, an avenue of disposal presented itself. Marian sat on her heels in the garden, digging deep grooves for her tomato seeds. When the cat came hurtling around the corner of the house and leapt towards Marian’s face, her spade went squarely through its heart, pinning it to the tomato patch. Its chest rose and fell in three hissing breaths, and then Marian was alone again.
“Jesus Christ.” The final swear word came burbling out of Marian, giving her mastery over the genre, as she fell backward and pushed herself away.
She buried the stray on the edge of the woods, putting the bloody spade in a plastic Walmart bag and then depositing it deep into the trash bin. She decided she would never tell Jim about this. She wouldn’t tell anyone. She wasn’t sure what there was to tell.
Marian sobbed in the tub that night. That weekend she began saving up her money for a new hobby, a new distraction. She didn’t want to think of the tabby cat again, and she felt her hands needed something more interactive to do than gardening. They were getting to be powerful hands.
Marian took to her new bonsai tree hobby with gusto, pruning its arms into orchestrated embraces. She shaved at its trunk to make it stand straight. She chopped tiny little unnoticeable pieces away to make it round and full. When she went to bed at night, she thought about how well she had done, how her work was almost finished, but every morning the tree looked like it had grown more overnight, erasing all her good work. One Sunday afternoon in their second August at the house, she asked Jim, “Jim, does it look different to you than it did yesterday?”
Jim shook his head and said, “Baby, it looks like a little tree now, and it looked like a little tree when you brought it in here.” He laughed and turned on their battery-operated radio, tuning it to the baseball game. And if it wasn’t for that handy ham radio he’d purchased from sixofthebest.co/best-handheld-ham-radio-2019/, then he’d have had probably spent the rest of the evening in ennui.
They did not go to church on Sundays, which Marian did not tell her parents when she called them. She had made up a church that she pretended they attended, the Church of the Holy Gospel of the Lord, and she kept her parents abreast of the made-up sermons. Typically they reserved Sundays for the market and relaxation. Jim took long naps on the chaise lounge in the yard, his skin browning to a crisp, while Marian worked on her bonsai. She did not miss church and she found that she was calmer on Sundays. The phone never rang on Sundays.
The baseball game coming to a close on the radio, Marian stared at her tree and didn’t notice her eye twitch. She began pruning, lopping off some little branches and then sitting back to contemplate the cloudlike shape of the tree. She inhaled the woody smell of it, which was beginning to smell more familiar than the smell of her parents’ house that had started to fade from her wedding dress.
Around five p.m. they made dinner together, Jim grilling the chicken over charcoal as Marian mashed the potatoes and browned the green beans. When they sat at the kitchen table, the bonsai tree as their centerpiece, Marian tried to keep her left hand covering her eye so Jim didn’t see how twitchy it had gotten, but Jim focused on his dinner anyway. At these Sunday dinners, they usually talked about the baby growing in Marian’s belly. Jim seemed excited, but Marian felt nervous about it. Miles away from Augusta, Marian felt she and Jim had run out of things to talk about. She was hiding more secrets than ever and the only project they were working on together was the one growing inside her. But even that felt more hers than his.
One morning in late summer, Marian came downstairs and her bonsai tree was missing a large limb on its left side. She walked towards it and reached out to where the branch was missing, the discolored area on its trunk that was carefully smoothed over, the soft, white flesh of the tree’s insides peeking through. The limb was missing, a noticeable chunk of her tree gone. “What in the hell?” she muttered to herself. She thought Jim could not have done this; the trunk was doctored up too smoothly and expertly, and yet she couldn’t imagine how the limb disappeared.
Marian opened the trash can lid and there was the branch, sitting amidst the shards of bark and thistle, mixing with the residue of last night’s dinner: country-fried steak and corn cobs.
Flustered, Marian sat down to recreate the symmetry her bonsai tree was now lacking, sawing through a branch on the right side. Her eye beginning to twitch almost rhythmically, she chopped, pruned and shaved, beads of sweat popping up on her brow. “All my hard work,” she muttered. “All my hard work.”
The green thistles pricked at her hands as she used her fingers to crack a branch off its base, the dull crunch of matching missing limb for missing limb. She wiped the sweat from her forehead, and her own eye continued to throb.
Marian forgot to eat that day. Every time she stood up and viewed the bonsai tree from a few feet away, it looked more and more uneven, the branches stretching out at wrong angles. It seemed every branch she took away just created a ladder to the next problem branch, the ruination of the missing limb working its way steadily up the tree like a disease. “God damn it,” she murmured, returning to the table. She accidently sliced her finger open with the root hook, and she stuck her hand in her mouth to suck on it as she continued on. The floor became littered with thistles and branches mingling with drops of Marian’s blood.
The clock on the kitchen wall ticked past eight p.m. when the phone rang. Marian jumped, startled, then she stood, knocking her chair to the ground, and ran to the phone with the shears still in hand. “Hello?” she demanded. Her eye twitched furiously once, twice, three times.
It was quiet on the other end. Marian once more felt the silence was full; the silence at the other end of the line was pregnant, waiting.
“Who is this?” Marian barked into the phone. “And why do you keep calling?”
Marian’s eye was twitching so badly now that she could hardly focus her vision. The heat and her empty stomach were beginning to overwhelm her; she felt sick.
On the other line, the dial tone clicked in with its vague buzzing hum when Marian heard the Buick coming up the long driveway to lake house-farmhouse, home early from its long day baking in the sun of the Jalapeno Hut parking lot. She slammed the phone back into its cradle. She had had enough.
Jim had turned off the Buick and was walking up the pathway when Marian hurtled out the door, raising the eight-inch shears in her hand. She felt the rage of every lashing phone call fill her blood with heady adrenaline. Emboldened, she yelled at him, “Who the hell keeps calling this house, Jim?” The swear words felt familiar and fitting now, like an ensemble she shrugged into that morning.
Jim stared at her. His face was glossy from sweat; the Buick didn’t have air conditioning. “What are you talking ‘bout, baby?” he asked.
“The phone has been ringing for months, and someone on the other end keeps hanging up when I answer. I know you know who it is, and I think she’d wise up by now and stop calling. Who are you cheating on me with?”
“Cheating on you? Baby, what are you talking about? Are those your tree scissors, what are you—“
Marian felt it boiling through her, bubbling up and out of her like a wild animal, this painful and helpless roar of too many months alone with the ringing phone. Her feet moving before she knew what she was doing and her eye twitching painfully, Marian ran at her husband, digging the shears down into his shoulder. “Who keeps calling?” she shrieked, pulling the shears out from his skin. A limb for a limb.
“Holy shit!” Jim yelled, backing away and pressing his left hand onto his shoulder to staunch the blood, which was spilling out of him in thick lines. He stepped further back from her, stumbling back into the Buick. “Marian!”
Marian climbed back up the porch steps and said, “You get the hell out of here! You get out of here right now! I don’t need no man cheating on me and you tell that woman to stop calling!” Her hand shook with her newfound strength.
Jim, still holding his shoulder, slid into the Buick’s front seat and turned the car on. He stared at her through the windshield, the small pregnant woman with the shears still brandished above her head. He thought she had a slash of red lipstick on, the one she hadn’t worn since their wedding day, but he realized it was blood smeared across her chin. Then he backed the car out of the driveway and left lake house-farmhouse.
When she could not hear the Buick’s engine anymore, Marian went inside, trembling. She dropped the shears by her bonsai tree, which sat nakedly in its pot, just a stalk with a few bare branches. She poured a big glass of water and jumped when she saw a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the sink. Who was that? Marian stared at the woman in the mirror and used a wet rag to wipe the blood from her chin. She sat down at the kitchen table and waited for the shaking to stop. The linoleum at her feet looked like a forest floor, the bonsai’s many sacrifices strewn across the ground.
The phone ringing did not startle her this time. She almost expected it. Marian stood slowly to pick it up. “Hello?” she asked.
“Hey Marian, it’s me,” Luanne said. “I’m sorry I hung up on you earlier. I had rung you but then I saw from the kitchen window that Peter fell into the swimming pool. I didn’t mean to startle you, I know you’re worried about those phone calls, but—“
“That’s okay, Luanne,” Marian countered. Her voice cracked and she missed her tree suddenly, a sharp longing for its calm presence in the room, for its sense of green and growing and aliveness. She put her hand on her stomach, and she thought maybe she felt a kick. “It wasn’t really you. It was somebody else. It’s been somebody else for a long time.”