Author’s Note: This is the fifth and final chapter of Long Distance. If you haven’t read the four previous chapters, you should scroll back and begin at chapter one.
“Alethia, it’s Ian.
“Hello, Ian. Nice to hear from you. How can I help you?”
“Well, for starters, you can explain how I ended up with this number.”
“Ian, I think I told you,” she said it like a mother to her child, “I can’t do that.”
“Can’t or won’t”
“Can’t. If I knew, I would. People call here for all kinds of reasons. How they get the number isn’t really what matters, Ian. It’s why you call that matters.”
Ian suppressed the urge to lash out at Alethia. Another night without sleep, combined with this madness, made him ill-tempered and impatient. But he knew—with that kind of deep down in your belly sort of knowing—that Alethia was telling him the truth.
“I’m not sure I know why I’m calling. I wish I did. Maybe if you could tell me why other people call you that would help.”
“Oh, Ian, I wish I could. But that wouldn’t be right. You see, people trust me with things—important, scary things—and I can’t betray that. I could no more do that than tell someone else why you called.”
This conversation was maddening. Everything led back to where it began. Ian was a child riding atop the carousel’s winged-horse going round and round. He paused, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Are you there? I mean, are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m thinking.”
“Thinking is a good thing sometimes, Ian. Not always, but sometimes.”
“Why isn’t think always good?”
“Hah!” blurted Alethia with a smile. “Now there’s a question I can answer!”
“Well, thinking is a good thing. But sometimes your thoughts get you in trouble if you believe all of them.”
“Wait. What? Why wouldn’t I believe my own thoughts?”
“Well, just because you think a thing, doesn’t mean it’s true, right?”
“I guess not.”
“Trust me on this one, Ian. Not to make a pun, but think about it. One minute your thinking about the past and you’re living with regret. The next minute, you’re thinking about the future and you’re anxious. Then you worry it might rain, or that you’ll be late, or that you won’t have enough money. Or you tell yourself a story—you think—about your disappointments and your victories and how someone mistreated you, but you don’t know the whole story. But you believe your thinking anyway. And your life just ticks away while you’re thinking”
“Jesus, Alethia. You’re a woman of few words—until you’re not.”
“Like I said, Ian. You finally asked me a question I could answer. You have any more?”
“So I’m supposed to figure out why I called, right?”
“So maybe, there’s a question I have to figure out before I can ask it. Is that possible? Assuming you can answer, I mean.”
“Yes, meaning you can answer it or yes, I have to figure out what the question is first?”
“Both, Ian” whispered Alethia.
“You know, I really wish I’d just left that ’effin piece of paper where it was and let somebody else pick it up. What if I had done that?”
“Then, Ian, you would have missed something important. Sometimes, it’s the smallest, seemingly most insignificant things in your world that are the most meaningful. They are like little divine appointments.”
“I’m not really a religious guy, Alethia. I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing.”
“You don’t have to be religious to see the order of things, Ian. To revel in mysteries. You just have to pay attention. You have to pay attention to yourself, to your thoughts, and to others. You have to look for what matters, Ian.”
“So what matters, Alethia?
Ian interrupted her. “I know. You’re sorry. You can’t answer that, right?”
Ian hadn’t noticed, but traffic had slowly been gaining speed. His was finally nearing the State of Georgia’s prescribed limit of fifty-five miles per hour on this part of the road. As the traffic was clearing, so was his head.
“Alethia, can I call you again some time? My exit is just ahead.”
“Of course, Ian. Goodbye. Call me anytime.”
Ian drove the remaining few blocks in silence. He was still exhausted from not sleeping, but the anxious voices in his head were strangely quiet. He felt a dim flame arising from the embers of his mind. As he paced across the parking lot, he went through his final ritual before entering the office. He buttoned his collar. Cinched his tie close to his neck. He patted his pants pockets. Yep. Wallet’s there. Then he patted his jacket pocket. Phone? Check. He slipped his car keys into the outer pocket of his jacket, finding the yellow scrap of note paper that had plagued him for the last week.
Approaching the door, Ian saw the trash can. As he opened the glass doors, he lobbed the note at the open can, watched it swirl into the basin and disappear as the building breathed cool air onto his face. He punched the elevator’s up button and waited. For a moment, Ian thought he would go back and retrieve the note—maybe keep it as a memento. But the elevator doors opened and he stepped inside still pondering his conversation with Alethia.
With the elevator doors closing, he caught a glimpse of a young woman glancing at a yellow scrap of paper.
“Did anyone drop this?” the woman asked, waving the ragged note. “I found it in the parking lot. It has a long distance number on it.”