On the Line
by Meghan Phillips
There is always the possibility of other women. Diner waitresses with kind eyes and tired feet. An extra thick slice of cherry pie from the rotating glass case. A splash of coffee to warm up his cup. Office girls back at Tri-County, pristine in sweater sets and nylons. Neat fingers typing. Shoulder blades fluttering like the memory of wings.
He's gone for long stretches, and he calls her when he can, which isn't often. Over lines that he installed himself, he tells her that he needs her more than he wants her. She knows that this must sound romantic to him, that even this small tenderness is difficult, but what she hears is his need to have clean sheets to come home to and a stack of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper to take when he leaves.
She pulls paper scraps from the pockets of his county-issued coveralls. Tries to decipher his scrawl. Numbers that could be coordinates for new poles. Numbers that could be voltage readings from his last job. Numbers that could be measurements. Frequencies. Kilowatts. Numbers that could belong to other telephones. Numbers that would not call home.
There is always the possibility that he won't come back. His truck will stall out, and the prairie night will be too cold. The wires he handles like snakes in a Pentecostal church will strike him, and his body'll dangle dozens of feet in the air waiting for the kiss of life that never comes.
He says, You can't imagine how lonely it is on these southern stretches, as if loneliness can explain away what she fears he will do, has already done. Nothing to see but road and prairie. Telephone poles the only break in the horizon. Nothing to feel but the soft buzz of electricity through the wires. Nothing to hear but the vibrations of other people's voices carrying down the line.
She listens and thinks, I know loneliness too. A double bed with only one sleeper. Grilled cheese and canned tomato soup. Only dirtying one bowl, one pan, one plate, one pillow case. Being needed more than wanted.
When he is gone more than he is home, she picks up the receiver of the phone in the kitchen. She imagines him perched high on a telephone pole, running wires through his hands. She sings into the dial tone. Hopes that he can feel her through the electric hum.
I wrote this story as a response to the song “Wichita Lineman.” It’s one of my favorite songs, lonesome and lovely, and it’s from the perspective of a lineman who’s away from the woman he loves because of his work installing telephone lines. I wanted to write what the woman in the song would be feeling. How her loneliness would be different than the lineman’s. I wanted to give her a voice.
Meghan Phillips is the fiction editor for Third Point Press and an associate editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. Her fiction has recently appeared in formercactus, Hobart, and Paper Darts. You can find her writing at meghan-phillips.com and her tweets @mcarphil. She lives in Lancaster, PA.