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D E C E M B E R  1 9 9 9

Illustrations by Kathy Osborn

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

WHEN the repairman arrived, Sam and Bess were back downstairs, now dressed. Bess was in the kitchen, in the rocker, and Sam was at his desk in the dining room, writing to the town. Adele opened the door for the repairman.

"Come in," she said. "Thank you for coming so quickly. The refrigerator's right here." The refrigerator was humming quietly. Inaudibly, really; it was hard to hear that it was on at all.

"It was making quite a lot of noise before," Adele said, embarrassed. "Could you hear it?"

The repairman was tall, with a pleasant round face and sunburned-looking pink cheeks. He wore a green shirt with JERRY embroidered on the pocket. He put down his toolbox in front of the refrigerator.

"Let's just see what the problem is here," he said, not answering Adele.

Bess leaned forward in the rocking chair. "We've had too much food in there, I know," she said apologetically. "It's because of my husband's hip operation."

Sam appeared in the doorway, a letter in his hand. "Well, I've finished this," he said. "I'd like to take this in to the post office to mail."

The repairman stepped in front of Sam to get at the back of the refrigerator. He wrestled it gently out from the wall.

"Why can't we just put it in the mailbox?" Adele asked. "I have a stamp. I'll take it out to the box for you, if you want."

"No, I want to mail it at the post office," Sam said. He wasn't yet able to drive again, so Bess had taken over. "You about ready?" he asked Bess. She had been watching the repairman, and not listening.

"I said, 'Are you about ready?'" Sam repeated, louder.

"Ready for what?" Bess asked in alarm.

"To take me to the post office to mail this letter," he said.

"Could it wait?" Bess said. "I just want to see about the refrigerator." The refrigerator shuffled farther out from the wall, toward the crammed table.

"What's the matter with the refrigerator?" Sam asked, turning to look at it.

"The noise," Adele said.

"Oh, yes," Sam said. He stood in the doorway for a moment, watching Jerry, and then he moved past the refrigerator and down to the other end of the table. He pulled out a chair. "I think I'll fix this telephone while I'm waiting," he said.

"What's wrong with the telephone?" Adele asked. "I just used it. It seemed fine."

Sam did not answer. He sat down at the table. The repairman emerged from behind the refrigerator and knelt on the floor in front of it with a screwdriver.

Sam picked up the phone and set it down. "It wobbles," he said accusingly. "When you set it down, it wobbles." He demonstrated, setting the phone down on the table again. The phone rocked slightly. He turned the phone upside down, and he and Adele stared at its bottom.

"It's missing a foot," Adele pointed out. "That's why it's uneven."

"I know that," Sam said. He righted the phone and stood up. "I'm going to get something to fix it." He went into the dining room.

"Are you having any luck?" Bess asked the repairman. He was peering into a mysterious opening he had created at the front of the refrigerator.

"Well, we haven't solved the problem yet," Jerry said.

"Got it," Sam said, reappearing in the doorway. He sat down and turned the telephone upside down again. He had a box of binder-hole reinforcers, small white gummed circles. He took one out, licked it, and stuck it carefully on the bottom of the telephone, on the site of the missing foot. He took out another one, licked it, and painstakingly stuck it on top of the first. Layer by layer he built up thickness. Each time he pressed a reinforcer onto the plastic underside, he banged the telephone against the table.

"Well, let's not keep thumping the phone around," Adele said. "I'll unplug it." She found the small square plug on the side and disconnected the cord from the phone.

"Here's the problem," Jerry said, backing away on his knees from the refrigerator.

"What is it?" Bess asked, smiling at him.

He held up a yellowed newspaper clipping. "SAM BOLTON HITS SEVENTY-FIVE, STILL A HIGH SCORER ON HIS HOCKEY TEAM" was the headline.

"Oh, my goodness," Bess said, holding out her hand. She shook her head. "I guess I wondered where that was. We had it up on the door, stuck on with a magnet. And that's what was making all that noise?"

"Yep," Jerry said. He was back inside the black hole again, replacing everything.

"Look at this, Sam," Bess said.

The telephone rang shrilly in the living room. Sam continued his licking and pasting.

"Excuse me, Daddy," Adele said. She tried to take the telephone from him to answer it, but Sam, who had not heard the ring, looked up at her in irritation and would not release it.

"Excuse me, Daddy," she said again. "The phone is ringing." They tussled briefly.

"The phone is ringing," Bess said loudly to Sam.

Sam relinquished it, and after the second ring Adele picked up the receiver.

"Hello?" she said. The line was dead. The phone in the living room rang for the third time, and Adele remembered that she had unplugged the cord of the kitchen phone. She looked for it, but it was no longer on the table. It must have been knocked to the floor. Rather than scramble for it and try to fit it back into the tiny aperture before the caller hung up, she decided to answer the phone in the living room.

As Adele stood up, Bess said to the room in general, "Would somebody please answer the phone?"

"I'm working on it," Sam said. The phone rang a fourth time, and Adele made for the door, feeling panicky at the insistent summons. As she ran past the refrigerator, Jerry stood up, and Adele made a sudden intimate acquaintance with the flowing script over his pocket.

"Sorry," she said, flustered but still moving.

"It's okay," Jerry said.

"Do you think someone could answer the phone?" Bess said loudly.

In the living room Adele reached the phone on the fifth ring and at last lifted the receiver. "Hello?" she said, breathless.

"This is nine-one-one," a man said.

"Nine-one-one?" Adele repeated.

"You called for help," he said, his voice stern.

"No, I don't think so," Adele said.

"Ma'am, I am required to ask you certain questions. You may be forced to say things against your will."

Adele looked around wildly, wondering for a bewildered moment if something had happened that she didn't know about -- if she was in fact being held by an armed terrorist, a gun at her head, alien forces in command.

"No," she said. "We're fine."

"Who is it?" Bess called from the kitchen.

"Ma'am," the man said, "I must ask you further questions."

"We didn't call, really," Adele said, trying to sound convincing. "Nothing is wrong. It was a mistake."

"Who is on the phone?" Bess called louder.

"It's nine-one-one," Adele shouted.

"If you don't give the appropriate responses to my questions," the man said, "we will send out a car regardless of what you say."

"Who?" Bess asked, mystified.

"Nine-one-one," Adele shouted. "Go ahead," she told the man.

"Nine-one-one," Bess said to Sam.

"What do they want?" Sam said to Bess.

"Can you tell me what your mother's maiden name is?" the man asked.

"My mother's maiden name?" Adele repeated. "Hogarth."

The man was silent for a moment. "All right, ma'am," he said quietly. "We're going to send you some assistance."

"No!" Adele said, struggling to think. "It is Hogarth! That's my mother's maiden name. I promise you we're all right. What name do you want?"

"Are you Mrs. Samuel Bolton?" the man asked.

"What do they want?" Sam shouted. "Why are they calling?"

"They called because you called them," Adele shouted back. To the 911 man she said, "No, I'm her daughter. You want my grandmother's maiden name."

In the kitchen Jerry said, "I'm all through now, Mrs. Bolton. Is there anything else you need?"

"No," Bess said weakly.

"I did not," Sam called in energetically to Adele. "What a ridiculous thing to say."

"You did too," Adele said resentfully, putting her hand over the receiver. "You kept banging at the phone while you were pasting those things on it." The 911 man said, "We have to be very careful here. If you are Mrs. Bolton's daughter, then will you give me your grandmother's maiden name?"

"I didn't call nine-one-one," Sam said loudly.

"Chase," Adele said triumphantly. "You did," she called back to her father.

After a pause the man said, "Are you sure you're all right?" He sounded reluctant.

"I can promise you," Adele said in a heartfelt voice.

Around her the air was singing, jingling, alive with disturbance. It was as though two languages were being spoken here, and Adele could not forge a meaningful link between them. She was mute, helpless, impotent, listening to a strange foreign tongue, even speaking it, but utterly unable to transform it into known and useful speech.

She imagined the 911 vehicle arriving, armed men in sunglasses creeping silently from it to surround the house.

"Everything here is fine," she said, trying desperately to make herself understood. "It's perfectly fine. Don't send any assistance. Please."

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)


Roxana Robinson is the author of Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life (1989) and the novels Summer Light (1988) and This Is My Daughter (1998).

Illustrations by Kathy Osborn.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; Assistance - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 97-104.