Flash Fiction Friday: Reception
A short story about getting your signals crossed.
June 27, 2014 | Summer 2014
My mom bought me the cell phone when I started high school, because the walk was longer and I was pretty small for my age. As if calling her would save me from getting jumped by the older kids. But I didn’t mind. Now, I figured, I could give girls the cell phone number instead of my house number, where my mom would answer, or my grandmother, and yell, “Paolo, it’s a girl on the phone for you!” They did that to my brother when he was in high school. That was before cell phones became so common. He bought his own when he moved away to Palermo, griped when he heard our mother had bought one for me.
“You kids are spoiled these days,” he said.
Everyone in school had cell phones; the smaller and sleeker the better. The more lights, the better, especially blue light. They were worn clipped to the waistband of your pants, and even the trouble we’d get into if they went off was overshadowed by the need to display the little silvery nuggets of technology.
I didn’t like showing mine off. It was enormous. It glowed a poisonous green behind the buttons instead of blue. My mother was never one to spend money. So I kept it in my backpack while everyone else’s glittered and chirped at their hips.
Giovanni had one of those really tiny, fancy ones. His parents were rich and he was an only child. They bought him a leather holster for it too, to protect the corners from becoming scuffed like mine were.
“Lucky,” I said.
“I keep it turned off all the time,” he said. “Otherwise my mom is always trying to call to make sure I’m not in trouble.” He shook his head, “I thought I’d get to talk to girls all the time.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said.
The truth was that no one’s phone rang much. I heard my aunt telling my mother that it was the fact that we lived in a valley that made the reception so bad. I pictured it like a glittering electronic web of cell phone connectivity that skipped over us, laid over the land like a quilt, leaving us dark and unconnected in the hollow of the valley. The few times I called home it was so fuzzy we spent more time yelling “What?” than actually talking, so I stopped. And girls never asked me for my number anyway.
Different people had different theories about the reception. Some people, like my aunt, blamed the topography. “Nothing you can do about living in a hole,” she said, but my uncle disagreed. “There are a thousand valleys where you can use a cell phone fine,” he said. “It’s just here.” Some people said it was the pollution settling over the valley that caught the signals and sent them sprawling all over the place, like mirrors in the air. Some people blamed the wind, but I don’t think even wind can blow away something as strong as a cell phone signal. The superstitious people, the old people who didn’t understand things like cell phones, shook their heads and said that the lines were obscured because there were things we weren’t meant to hear, or something like that. I didn’t like hearing that theory. It was true that the sky above town was more often gray-green than blue, and at night the lights from distant cities lit its underside red. But I was used to it.
“Any girls ask for your number yet?” My brother Pietro asked me when he called home, as he always did.
“No,” I sighed. The thick phone cord lay like a snake in my lap. He always called on the house phone from his apartment in Palermo. “I tried calling your cell phone once,” he told me when I first got it. “The lines crossed three times before I gave up.”
“How was Nonna’s birthday?” He asked. “Sorry I missed it.”
“Yahno, it was okay. The cousins from Ribera came.”
“I know— Mamma told me. I wish I could’ve been there, but, you know, work.”
“You didn’t miss much.” I shifted in my chair, not wanting to talk about the party we’d held three days before. The sky had cleared to almost blue so we had set up the table in the back yard. Nonna turned eighty. I didn’t want to talk about it.
“Did something happen?”
“I know Angelo can be an asshole sometimes, but you shouldn’t let him get to you—”
“No, Pietro. Nothing happened. It was just boring, that’s all.”
“Okay,” he said. I knew he didn’t believe me. Pietro could always tell when people were lying, especially me. It really was remarkable, I thought, that he could even do it over the phone.
* * *
“This doesn’t happen to me anywhere else,” I heard a woman say. I knew she was talking about the reception. I was sitting on the balcony in the angry afternoon sun that still didn’t manage to completely burn off the haze, and two women were below. I could see the tops of their heads, smooth black with a part down the middle and a pile of bleach blonde. “Just here. It must be because of the valley. The signal gets bounced all around.”
“It doesn’t happen to me in other valleys,” the blonde said.
“I feel like I wasted my money.”
“My boyfriend’s paying for mine.” The blonde shrugged. She was wearing a pink tank top and if she moved just to the right spot, I was sure I’d be able to see down the front. “So it’s his money wasted, not mine.”
“You know what my grandmother said? She said if the lines got crossed I would hear things I shouldn’t,” the dark-haired one said. “She told me to get rid of it.”
The blonde laughed. “Hear anything good?”
Just then a big black car drove by, polished so much that I could make out an inverted version of myself in the hood for an instant. I could see the two women in the tinted windows; the blonde’s low-cut shirt.
“Was that Signore DiSanto?” The dark-haired woman asked when it had passed. Paolo DiSanto was the commissioner in town. I didn’t know much about politics, but I knew that my parents didn’t like him.
“Yeah.” The blonde shook her head. “With all that money he can’t fix up the houses downtown. He needs a car like that.”
“You know, I hear he was involved with that woman. What’s her name? The crazy one with the red–” another car drove by and drowned out the end of the sentence.
“No way. That’s got to be just a rumor. I thought he was married.”
“He is. But he was having this thing on the side, see, and this morning they found—-”
“Paolo!” My mother’s voice cut through the living room to where I was sitting on the balcony. “Come eat lunch! It’ll get cold!”
Reluctantly I went inside, where my mother was setting out bowls of soup. The little TV in the kitchen was on, the fuzzy, colorless local channel (television waves fared a little better in our atmosphere) and my mother was staring at it.
“This morning, the body of Trina Sclafani was found in her home, an apparent suicide. The coroner reports that she had been dead about three days before a neighbor investigated, having not seen Signorina Sclafani for some time. Signorina Sclafani has no known relatives in the area, and authorities are still trying to locate any existing family. If anyone has any information as to the whereabouts of her parents, siblings, or anyone else, they are asked to contact…”
“So sad,” my mother said. “But what did you expect from such a crazy woman?”
I said nothing, just felt my stomach tighten around the chunks of vegetables in the soup. Everyone knew Trina Sclafani. She was one of the only people in town with natural red hair, and she let it grow out wild and curly, all over the place like a plant. It was too bad such a head of hair was on Trina Sclafani. My mother was right. She was crazy, but she wasn’t that old. She lived all alone in a big house at the end of a narrow street. It was painted yellow, and somehow, although she didn’t seem to work, she always had expensive clothes and, of course, a tiny silver cell phone. Giovanni, who lived on the same end of town, said that sometimes he saw a shiny black car approach the gate.
“Maybe she’s in the mob,” he said. “Maybe she’s an assassin.”
But I didn’t think so. The only times I’d seen her she was yelling at someone, screaming and waving her arms and threatening them, or she was high on something, like the time she was sitting at an outdoor table at the café, her eyelids nearly sealed shut and purple. She was rocking in the chair, like she might fall over, and the owner was telling her to leave. My mother grabbed my arm then and pulled me off down the street.
And now she was dead, apparently, having done herself in. Or maybe Giovanni was right and she really was in the mob and someone else had killed her.
“Probably an overdose,” my mother muttered.
“No,” my grandmother said. “They said she hung herself.” She said this in a stage whisper to spare my innocent ears, I guess, but I heard her perfectly clearly. My mother put a hand to her mouth and told me to go back to school.
“My dad she’d been hanging there for like three days from the big chandelier in the front hall,” Alessandro said the next day at school. His father was on the police force. He crammed the rest of a candy bar into his mouth. “Everyone was surprised that the chandelier didn’t fall out of the ceiling. That would have been totally gross to clean up.”
“Thanks for that,” Giovanni said.
“Why do you think she did it?” Alessandro mused.
“I don’t care,” I said. I got up to sharpen my pencil, but the whole room was talking about it.
“Maybe, like, she had a boyfriend who broke up with her,” Elena was saying. “I mean, she didn’t work, so how else could she have all that money? I bet he dumped her and she realized she wouldn’t get any more money.”
“Or maybe she got all that money illegally,” her friend Lisa said. “And the cops finally caught up with her and she didn’t want to go to jail.”
“Why is everyone talking about this?” I finally snapped.
Elena and Lisa looked blankly at me. “Because, Paolo,” Lisa finally said, slowly, as if I was very stupid, “it’s kind of a big deal?”
Giovanni and Alessandro were still arguing about it when I get back to my desk. Everyone talked about it. It was the first suicide in our town in something like fifty years. All day I thought about how as soon as I graduated, I would move even farther away than Palermo, to a really big city where people could kill themselves every day and I wouldn’t have to hear about it.
Alessandro caught me after class. “Hey Paolo. We’re gonna go see if we can get into Trina’s house tonight. Are you in?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh, come on, it’ll be cool,” he said.
“Why? It’s just an empty house.”
“I bet it’s not. My sister says that when someone kills themselves they can’t go to heaven so they haunt the place where they die.”
“Your sister’s full of shit.”
He shoved me in the arm. “Don’t say that about my sister.”
“Sorry. Look, I just don’t want to go, okay?”
“Why not? You got a hot date tonight or something?” he asked me, with a curl to his lip.
“It’s not like there’s anything else to do,” Giovanni said.
“You’re going?” I asked. “I thought you’d think it was immature.”
He shrugged. “Whatever. We probably won’t get in anyway.”
So I agreed. I told my mother that I was going to Giovanni’s to do homework, which was a terrible lie and I was surprised she didn’t catch it. If Pietro had been home, he would have shot me one of his smirks.
So we gathered in front of Giovanni’s house. He lived the closest to Trina Sclafani. The sky was dark at six, the dome of it covered over by the thick clouds that reflected the light from cars and houses. Somewhere, someone was yelling “What?” into the blue light of a cell phone.
We began walking under the clouds, up the slick cobbled street towards the yellow house at the end. There was no one there but a single ribbon of police tape, sagging in the middle almost to the ground. In the underbelly light of the clouds the house looked the color of egg yolks, with shadows on the tile roof. The windows were dark. The plaster looked slimy.
“I wonder if she was naked when she did it,” Alessandro said.
“That is so disgusting,” Giovanni said.
“What? My sister told me that when people kill themselves they take off all their clothes sometimes.”
“I don’t want to think about a dead naked chick,” Giovanni said. “Besides, she was old. She was like in her thirties.”
I was lagging behind them on the hill, watching the light from the streetlights slide on the worn cobblestones.
“Paolo, what’s with you?”
Giovanni turned around. “Seriously, Paolo, what’s your problem? You’re not scared are you?”
“No, I’m not scared. There’s not going to be anything up there. It’s just an empty house. Let’s go.”
“Shut up, Alessandro,” I said. “You’re the one who wants to see naked dead people. I want to go home.”
“You were never this scared of an empty house before, Paolo.”
I flipped my cell phone around in my pocket.
We walked on. Trina Sclafani didn’t have much decoration in the front of her house, no plants like my mother did, just iron bars on the bottom windows that bowed out towards us. The door was locked, of course, but Alessandro seemed surprised by this.
“They want to keep people like you out,” I said.
Giovanni told us to shut up and snuck in for a better look in the window. “It’s hard to see,” he said. “I hear she did it right in the front hallway, from the chandelier. I can’t see anything.”
So Alessandro pressed his face against the bars, too, and tried to squint through the black glass to catch a glimpse of the chandelier. I hung back on the street, scuffing the cobblestones with my shoe.
“Paolo, seriously, don’t be such a downer. What’s wrong with you?” Giovanni called over his shoulder.
At my grandmother’s birthday party, we all crowded into the backyard, me, my parents, my grandmother and my aunt and uncle and cousins from Ribera. There were four of them, all sneaking food. I had no one to talk to without Pietro. I sat on the outskirts of the crowd, smiling politely when I had to. I kept my cell phone in my pocket. I didn’t really know why I’d chosen to bring it out; it wasn’t like anyone was going to call me. Maybe it was to show it off to my cousin Angelo, even though I didn’t want to want to impress him. I sat watching my grandmother’s dark gray head bob to kiss the younger kids, and rubbed my feet along the patio stones. Everyone was being louder than usual, echoing off the metallic sky.
My cell phone rang. My cell phone never rang, and now it was ringing in my pocket, vibrating against my thigh. I had forgotten what the ring sounded like, and it was the vibration on my thigh that made me realize that the call was for me. I thought maybe it was Angelo calling me as a joke, but he was pulling his younger brother out from under the table.
There was a crackle of static, like wind into a microphone. “Paolo?”
A girl’s voice, soft and high across the static. I tried to think if maybe there had been a girl I’d given my number to. Maybe Giovanni had given out my number. Depending on who was on the other end, I’d either have to hug him or punch him in the face.
“Paolo.” It sounded like the girl was crying. “Paolo, why haven’t you called me?”
“What are you talking about?” I kept my voice low so my mother wouldn’t come wondering what was wrong. It must have been some kind of prank; I would have to punch Giovanni.
“Stop it, Paolo. Why haven’t you called?” There was a burst of static, maybe a sniffle. “Oh, my Paolo.”
“Stop it,” I said. “Don’t call me anymore.” Girls had weird senses of humor.
“No, Paolo mio, don’t say things like that!”
“Don’t call me that,” I said.
My little cousins started chasing each other, shrieking across the yard.
“You’re with your family?” the girl sneered. Her voice bobbed and warped through the phone. I felt my stomach tighten. I had never been scared on the phone before. I tried to think of which girls I’d pissed off lately, but I couldn’t think of any.
“And they always come first, don’t they?”
“Well, well, yeah,” I said. “Of course they do.” I wanted to hang up on her, but I thought maybe she could see me, and if I did she would do something horrible. I looked up at the windows in the houses around us, but they only reflected the flat sky. Maybe she was up there.
“What about me? Don’t I mean anything to you?”
“I don’t even know you.”
“How could you say that to me?” I could hear an echo behind her voice, like she was in a big empty room, and it sounded like she was really crying, but it could have been the reception. “How could you say things like that to me, Paolo?”
“Don’t call me anymore,” I said, trying to sound forceful. I was far enough away and my family was being loud enough so that they didn’t notice me on the phone.
“Paolo, please.” The wind picked up and the static built. Her voice sounded far away, under water.
“Look, I don’t know what you want, but I don’t want to talk to you again. Understand?”
“Paolo, no, please, don’t say those things.”
“Well, I’m saying them. You’re crazy, okay? Don’t call me. This isn’t funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny!”
“Just go away,” I said, and hung up. I looked down at the screen for a minute longer, anticipating the next ring, but there was nothing. The phone lay still and dark. It told me the time. That was all. I left it inside on the kitchen table for the rest of the afternoon, though, just in case.
“Paolo. What’s wrong?” Giovanni waved a hand in front of my face.
“Nothing.” I looked up at the house with its dark windows. There was a window at the top, where the chandelier had shone through on countless nights, though now there was no light. “I guess I just don’t feel well. I, uh, think I’m going to go home.”
Alessandro and Giovanni looked at each other.
“Yeah,” Giovanni finally said. “There’s nothing here. Let’s go.” Alessandro grudgingly agreed. We turned away and walked without speaking, and the police tape fluttered behind us.
After Giovanni and Alessandro had turned off the road to go to their own houses, I walked the last part of the way home alone, under the clearing sky. I could even make out a few stars if I squinted. When I got older, I thought, I would move somewhere where I could see the stars every night, where the air was clear and clean, and where the cell phones got better reception.
Image by Brie Moreno
Laura Caseley is a New York City-based writer and illustrator. She can usually be found making strange things in the name of art or drinking tea. You can find more of her work on her website, or follow her adventures on Facebook and Tumblr. Drawing on a variety of inspirations, including folklore, nature and pop culture, she works to create visual manifestations of her interior world.