Dial Tone

Timothy Day

My parents had arranged for someone to pick me up from the facility. They didn’t want to go near it—that had been written several times in the letter they’d sent, once underlined, once italicized, once bolded, really covering their emphatic bases. They. Didn’t. Want. To. Go. Near. It.

I waited outside for ten minutes, staring at the empty parking lot, before an old red Toyota pulled off the highway and sputtered towards me. It stopped a little ways down from where I stood, engine idling, windows fogged to hell. I waved, but the driver didn’t come any closer. Fine. I picked up my duffle bag and lumbered over.

The driver said nothing as I got into the backseat. The rearview mirror was all smeared over and I couldn’t see their face, just the side of their head. We took off and the facility faded into obscurity behind us. Had it helped me? My itch for the drugs was kicked, but mostly that had only come when I was with Sarah, anyway. I tended to get addicted to people more than anything, and when Sarah wasn’t around, the drugs felt pointless, along with most other things.

I knew I was supposed to have reflected on what had happened—Sarah, the drugs, my semi-truck swerving off the highway and skidding onto its side, taking a couple cars with it. But the truth was, I doubted that this current version of me would do anything different. I still would have stopped at the bar where Sarah worked, just like I did every time my route went through Midland. I still would have taken what she gave me in the back of my truck, before we danced to the oldies station that crackled and fizzed on my pocket radio. I still would have attempted to drive Sarah to the hospital after she got the call about her sister overdosing.

I could pretend that I’d grown, that I’d learned something, but all I knew now that I didn’t know then were the names of the people who were in critical because of me.

Out the window trees and marshland turned into gravel and concrete, warehouses and truck stops, and this in turn became tall buildings and busy sidewalks, lights coming on in every direction upon dusk.

My parents had cleared the charges against me. I’m not sure how. They’d always had a lot of money, but still. Their letter had been vague about this, along with most everything else—their typical communication style. They’d written that they wanted me to come home, but couldn’t bear to be around me yet, so they’d arranged for me to live in a long-unoccupied apartment owned by a “family friend”. I’d never known my parents to have friends, but then I’d never known my parents very well at all. They’d kept me at arm’s length my whole life, acting more as stewards placed in charge of me than as mother and father. This elusive family friend of theirs had a late daughter, the letter said, who had lived in the apartment nearly two years ago. The place had just been sitting there since she died—of what, my parents left out.

The place was just outside the city, in a modest beige-colored complex at the end of a dead-end side street. It was dark by the time we got there, the driver pulling into a small parking annex.

“Thanks,” I muttered.

I thought I heard a groaning noise come from the driver as I got out, throaty and thin like the breath of the nearly dead, so quiet I couldn’t be sure if I’d heard anything at all.


The apartment was a dusty one-bedroom full of purple and brown. It was fully furnished with what I assumed had been the dead daughter’s things, and this gave me a strange sense of safety, of home. I was thirty years old but had felt closer to death than life for some time.

I wandered around, turning lamps on. On first glance the apartment seemed entirely normal, a little cold maybe, austere, but how could a place not seem that way after sitting dormant for so long? It was only when I returned to the living room that I noticed the chair in the corner. It sat apart from the rest of the furniture, rickety and handmade-looking, out of place in the otherwise sophisticated tableau. The chair was backwards, facing the wall, but when I went to turn it around I saw that its feet were nailed to the floor, stuck that way. Maybe it was just the oddity of it, but I got the feeling that this was the chair the daughter had died in, and once this had occurred to me, the feeling became stronger and stronger until I was almost certain. It seemed obvious, even though there was nothing making it so. I tried again to move the chair, really pulling on it now, but it wouldn’t budge. Perhaps the daughter had nailed it to the floor herself, or perhaps it was the work of some strange relative, thinking it symbolic to turn her death chair away from the room. I thought about throwing a sheet over it, but in the end decided to just let it be.

What disturbed me about the chair wasn’t that the daughter had likely died in it, but that I didn’t remember seeing it upon entering the apartment. I tried to forget it, but couldn’t shake the distinct impression of there being, initially, nothing but empty space in that corner of the room. Surely the chair had been there— it was nailed to the goddamn floor, after all—and I simply hadn’t noticed it. I was tired, disoriented. It made sense that I would miss a few things. But the feeling that it hadn’t been there was very strong. How this managed to coincide with my conviction that the daughter had died in the chair, right in the spot where it now appeared, I don’t know.


Someone had stocked the freezer with enough microwaveable meals to last me about a week. I heated up a tray of rubbery mac n’ cheese and ate it by the small blue glow of the oven light, then went down the hall and got into the queen-sized bed, which, in all likelihood, had last been slept in by the dead daughter.

The sheets were stiff and seemed to wrap too tightly around me no matter my position. I would lay still and feel them slowly pressing in, in, in, molding around my form, until they got so snug that I couldn’t take it and had to shift again. Finally I threw them off the bed and lay there, too cold to sleep. I wished for a drink. I wished for Sarah. I wished I didn’t have to keep watching reruns in my head; the same words, the same details, the same mistakes—and then the inevitable return to the present, to the non-life that held me inside of it like a mannequin in a lake of tar.


There had been a community phone at the facility that we were allowed to use for five minutes a day. It was mint green in color, accented by faded scrawlings on the back panel that had been scrubbed into illegibility. It had taken me a month to gather the courage to call the hospital, my voice sputtery and skeletal, hardly there at all.

I wanted to ask about the status of a couple of patients.”

“Of course. Their names?”

In my head I saw the photos of the totaled Subaru, the red Toyota flipped over in the grass.

Susan, David, Paul…”

“And their last names?”

…There was no on else around, you know? She was even worse off than I was, and we were in the middle of nowhere. I had to drive her.”

“Sir? The patients last names?”

“I forget.”

I hung up and stood there until someone came and took me back to my room. Thorpe, Moyer, Davies.


In the morning I made coffee and wrote a letter to Sarah using a sheet of paper and pen I’d found in a desk drawer in the bedroom. The facility had taken my cell upon intake, and when I was released, I told the guard with the plastic tub of phones that I didn’t have one. A sort of fresh start, I thought.

In the letter I apologized to Sarah for the accident—a ridiculously inadequate thing to say, but it had to be said all the same. I told her that I looked forward to my route passing through Midland weeks in advance, basically as soon as I left, and that those nights we spent together in the truck were some of the best nights of my life. All of this was true, but as I read the letter back, it somehow felt disingenuous.

I threw the letter in the communal recycling bin outside. There was nothing else in it—the garbage truck must have just come that morning—and the letter floated all the way down to the bottom, sticking on whatever residue had accrued there.

Not wanting to return to the apartment yet, I took a walk through the little nature path behind the complex. It felt good, actually, to touch a tree and hear the birds and whatnot, and I was encouraged, if only fleetingly, by the notion that I could still feel a sense of belonging amongst living things. There was a stream running parallel to the path that was nice to listen to, and I stopped and leaned against the railing beside it. After staring at the water for several minutes, I began to feel like I was somewhere else—not just physically, but in time, in reality, even in identity. Maybe this was what “moving on” felt like, I thoughtMaybe this was letting go.

A couple passed by with their daughter and the daughter waved and smiled, the couple nodding. I waved and nodded back, and then thought: they have no idea. And in thinking this I was reminded that there would be no escaping myself, not really; for while I may be able to trick my thoughts away from it momentarily, at the end of the day I would forever be stuck with this mind, this body, and all that it knew. I looked down and closed my eyes, trying to summon back the letting go feeling. But the sound of the stream had become much too loud, the birdsong suddenly threatening, all of it congealing into one steady throb in my head. I turned and hurried back to the apartment, covering my ears as I went.

When I got back to the complex there was a man standing at the door to my apartment, or rather, the family friend’s apartment. He was old, in his sixties, I imagined, but looked to be in decent shape—one of those people who took every measure to push back on the workings of time. He turned to leave, but stopped upon noticing me approaching.

“You must be Trevor,” he said.

“Hi.” I agreed reluctantly. “You’re friends with my parents?”

“I am,” he said. “But don’t judge me too harshly for it.” His voice was low, cordial, and gravelly, the kind of voice that always sounded like it was at a cocktail party. “William Krummel, but you can just call me William. That’s friendly terms for me, I promise—never went by anything else.”

I wondered if William was the one who’d nailed the chair to the floor.

“How do you know my parents?” I asked.

“College,” William said flatly. “But I didn’t mean to keep you, I just wanted to come by and introduce myself, and also to say that I’m sorry for what happened to you.”

“Oh,” I started, taken aback. “Well, it wasn’t really something that happened to me—”

“My daughter went through something difficult, too,” William interrupted. “And afterwards she didn’t leave the apartment a whole lot. I suppose it just doesn’t feel natural sometimes, going back into the world.” He smiled.

“I’m sorry,” I said after an awkward silence. “I appreciate you letting me stay here.”

“It’s nice having someone here again,” William said, eyes flitting between me and the ground. “It’s been empty too long.” He stood there another moment, then patted me on the shoulder—a hard pat, almost like hitting—and made his way off around the corner.


Upon entering the apartment I felt strangely drawn to the idea of sitting in the chair in the corner. I couldn’t understand why—it looked uncomfortable and, being stuck facing the wall, didn’t offer much in the way of a view. There was no reason why I should want to sit in it, apart from a morbid fascination with the concept of sitting in a chair that someone had died in. But that wasn’t it, not exactly; it was more like someone was calling me over to it, telling me please sit! while they fixed me a drink. It felt like a natural course of action, to go over and sit there, something one wouldn’t think twice about. But another part of me considered the chair as a grave not to be stepped on, and so I resisted.

I took a shower, using what I assumed was the dead daughter’s old shampoo, the bottle half-full. The bathroom was gray-toned and modern, weakly lit by a low-watt bulb over the sink that would have been better suited as a child’s night-light.

I thought about what William said. I didn’t know my parents went to college, but I’m sure there was a lot I didn’t know about them. I started boarding school at ten and went to camp every summer, my parents little more than distant benefactors—rarely seen, felt only in the ways that they maneuvered the circumstances of my life. Even before, when I was still living with them, they rarely spoke to me if they could help it, and too much bother from me would result in Eleanor, the live-in nanny, being summoned to take me to my room.

After showering I went to the kitchen to look over the selection of microwaveable meals, but couldn’t focus, again feeling the pull of the daughter’s death chair from the living room. I tried to ignore it, but the longer I did, the more I felt as I had in bed the night before, the sheets gripping me tighter and tighter. But now it was as if the air itself was folding into a fist around me, closing a little more with every second I refused to sit in the chair.

It had started to rain but I felt I had to get out of the apartment, so I walked to the diner I’d seen up the road yesterday, a snug, inconspicuous place with a worn sign that you had to peer closely at to read: Mitzy’s. I sat at the counter and ordered oatmeal and coffee, then took the sheet of paper I’d brought with me out of my pocket, intent on trying to write another letter to Sarah. I’m so sorry, I began, and I’m sorry for saying sorry for the beyond sorry. I stared at this one line, pen hovering just over the paper, until the woman behind the counter set a bowl of oatmeal in front of me. I think I said thanks, but afterwards wasn’t sure if I’d only thought it.

“Week-old pot, hope that’s okay,” the waitress said, pouring me a cup of coffee.

“That’s fine,” I think I said.

She laughed. “Just pulling your leg.”

“Pulling your leg,” I echoed. “You don’t hear that much anymore.”

The waitress shrugged. “I’m classical like that.”

I took a sip and pressed on with the letter to Sarah, writing many of the same things I wrote in the first letter. I added that I would understand if she never wanted to speak to me again, that I knew a total cutoff might be necessary for her to move on, but in writing this I began to wonder if simply receiving a letter from me would, to some extent, be harmful, and again decided to scrap it, crumpling the paper up into a ball.

“Need the recycle?” The waitress held out her hand. “I’ll add it to the pile of unsent love letters from the drunken midnight crowd.”

I smiled and gave the letter to her and she tossed it somewhere beneath the counter. That’s that, I thought, trying unsuccessfully to bring about some feeling of resolution in myself. The bell chimed on the door and a group of people came into the diner, laughing about something. They sat at a booth behind me and I half-listened to them talk, not paying attention to the words, just the tones of their voices. After a while, they stopped sounding human. Their timbres molded into each other, pitches lowering as a group, their speech becoming constant, a steady hum without breath. I turned to look. It still appeared as if they were simply having a conversation, starting and stopping, the focus moving around the table. But all I could hear was a singular, ceaseless drone.

And all at once, I remembered. It was the dial tone, back again.


I’d called the hospital my first day at the facility, as soon as they’d let me, after they’d put me in my room and said just try to relax and I’d banged on the door for two hours.

My fingers shook badly and I had to work hard to get them to press the right digits, but eventually I got it.

I’m calling to ask about the status of a patient.” Every syllable weighed ten pounds in my throat.

“Absolutely. Their name?”

Sarah Carver.”

“Just a moment, sir.”

Time skipped.



“I’m very sorry. Miss Carver—“

I hung up quickly and the phone fell from the receiver and hung by the cord, swinging gently from side to side. The dial tone blared from the speaker. I expected to stop hearing it when I walked away from the phone, but I didn’t. It was there when I got back to my room, when I tried to sleep, when I met with my counselor the next day, every word dulled beneath its omnipresent hum. Soon it was all I could hear.

Eventually the dial tone began to soften, even go away for short periods of time. The memory of the phone call grew murky in my head, as if it couldn’t be accessed without the dial tone present.

But the dial tone came back. It always came back.


The mind is amazing, I thought as I left the diner, hearing as if from a great distance a muffled commotion of honking and shouting as I walked into traffic to cross the street, it can make you believe an anvil on your head isn’t there.

Time skipped.

I found myself standing in the apartment, wet and shivering, paralyzed by the indomitable flatness of the dial tone swelling all around me. I covered my ears, but just as when I had tried this before, it only seemed to concentrate the dial tone further, trapping the noise inside my head. I could think of nothing else beside it, such was the grip the dial tone had on me. The only thing that managed to cut through it, at least intermittently, was the daughter’s death chair, as strangely inviting as ever. I went to it, hovered beside it, examining its splintered flesh, its crooked bones. I decided to sit in it; I decided that would be alright.

Almost immediately, the dial tone began to fade. I sank lower in the chair, sighing in relief. Soon I could hear the rain on the roof, even the clock ticking in the kitchen. I stared ahead, still shivering a little, thinking of Sarah. I saw her sitting in shadow in the passenger seat of my truck that night, the headlights of passing cars briefly illuminating her panicked, bloodshot eyes. Then her mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. She was looking at me and pointing and the road was oceanic, its sides curling up, lines tilting away. And then everything lurched all at once and the world blinked out of being like an unplugged television.

After staying in the chair for a few minutes, the dial tone faded completely, but the knowledge of Sarah’s death didn’t leave with it this time. A pearl of anguish formed beneath my sternum. I stared into the emptiness of the corner, noticing small inscriptions carved on the walls, branching out from the point where they converged. They were on the arms of the chair too, I realized, though I didn’t remember seeing them there before. The writing seemed to be in another language, ancient-looking and full of patterns that began and ended over and over. I squinted at the markings on the walls, trying to see if they had the same patterns, but they were so small that I couldn’t make them out clearly from my position, and when I tried to get up to take a closer look, I found I couldn’t move.


“Your timing was impeccable on this one,” a voice said behind me, low and coarse. William.

“I wish we could take credit.” I knew this voice, too. It was my mother’s, just in a cadence she’d rarely used around me—deadpan, with a touch of amusement. “But really that part was handed to us on a silver platter.”

“That’s for certain,” I heard my father add, the hushed reverence I recalled him speaking with replaced by a convivial cruelty. “It’s a wonder he didn’t beat us to the punch.” They sounded somehow close and faraway at the same time, as if they were standing at the door but also right behind me.

It had grown dark. Someone had turned on a lamp, a small amber glow just reaching the corner of the room, where I waited, stuck in the chair, unable to move a muscle. I could still hear the rain on the roof, the clock in the kitchen. William and my parents seemed to have stopped talking. And then suddenly they were right there in front of me, pinched into the corner together. They smiled. Even in the dim light, I could tell my parents looked different, younger, maybe even around my age. They looked like the people in the photos I’d come across as a child, one afternoon when school let out early and nobody was there when I got home. I’d risked looking through their bedroom—typically off-limits, the door always shut—and opened a small wooden box buried at the back of their closet. The photos inside were of my parents, younger than they were then, but still my parents, that much was clear. The strange thing was that all the photos were in black and white, and there were dates imprinted on the bottom that couldn’t possibly have been correct—1929 on a picture from their wedding; 1917 on an image of them standing before an old station wagon, looking exactly the same; 1900 on a large group photo taken in an ornate ballroom, my parents smiling into the camera on the bottom right—appearing, again, to be roughly the same age.

I’d put the box back exactly where I’d found it. I didn’t want my parents to know I’d gone into their room, and even if I did ask them about the photographs, I knew what would happen. You imagined it, they’d say, looking at me like an insect come to rest on the table during dinner. Children see things all the time. And if I ever had another chance to look in the box after that, the pictures would be gone.

Eventually I was able to push the photos to the back of my mind. It didn’t mean anything, I told myself. Obviously the dates weren’t real. There were computer programs that could do that kind of thing. People could make their pictures have any date they wanted. It must have been some sort of joke. And there were plenty of antique station wagons still around. Over time I forgot about the photos completely.

But now, looking up at my parents as I sat immobile in the chair, I remembered. I was seeing them as they were in 1942, 1917, 1890.

“He’s nearly gone now,” William said. “I can tell.”

And indeed, though physically I remained present, I could feel myself leaving in another way, as if all that made me more than a wax replica of Trevor Stanton was slowly seeping out. I imagined William’s daughter sitting here, experiencing the same erasure. I wondered how many others there had been. Hundreds, maybe.

My vision grew foggy around the edges, William and my parents reduced to three sets of legs and torsos in front of me. The clock stopped ticking, or at least I couldn’t hear it anymore. The sound of the rain grew muffled, then faded altogether. The dial tone didn’t come back.


A perk of transporting home goods cross country was that there were often materials on hand that you could make beds out of. You just had to be careful to put them back neatly and tape their boxes up like-new, which I was. This way I could keep the motel per diem I was given for myself and Sarah and I could buy whatever we wanted when I came through Midland. The makeshift beds in the back of the truck were manageable after a few drinks, but with the drugs they were comfortable as anything. Sarah and I would sleep for ten hours on a couple of throw blankets, wake up and get coffee at the diner like a regular couple. I knew we weren’t, but the feeling that I imagined regular couples having was right there between us, true as table salt, so what did the rest matter?

In the diner things clinked and rattled and we cringed, commiserated over our headaches. Kissed outside to the pelagic hum of the interstate and split paths for the month.