The Saxophone

The phone rang.

“911, what’s your emergency?” Andrew said in his practiced, controlled tone.

“Hello? Who’s this?”

“This is a 911 operator, sir, what’s your emergency?”

Silence.

“Sir?”

The caller hung up.

Andrew killed the line and leaned back, counting the ceiling tiles again. Thirty-two, just like last week. Andrew’s head swiveled around the dispatch center. Brianna was in her corner doing a Sudoku puzzle. Andrew didn’t understand the appeal of those things, but he never understood numbers either. Charles, his supervisor, was on the line with Mrs. Button, calling about her neighbor’s dogs shitting in her yard again. He was texting his wife about dinner while explaining that 911 was not intended for minor complaints, and Mrs. Button was exclaiming that this was not a minor complaint. Her zinnias could not be truly appreciated if there were mountains of dog shit in her yard.

Janine crunched into her apple two seats away from Andrew. He cringed as if she had taken a chunk out of his leg. Janine had pictures of her kids by her computer, and her six dogs, and she had a Betty Boop coffee mug that displayed seven months of collected dust. Her acrylic nails were like the claws of a harpy, and every click on her keyboard was twice as loud, twice as irritating. All of these things bothered Andrew, but her fucking apples drove him to the brink. Janine would take three bites where Andrew would take one, and each bite was a crunch. Brianna and Charles never seemed to notice it, but it irritated Andrew so pointedly that he wondered how it would feel to cram the apple down her throat. He wondered who 911 operators called when they were the ones who snapped.

The phone rang.

“911, what’s your emergency?” Andrew said in his tired, apathetic tone.

“I’m sorry that I hung up before.”

“That’s okay, what’s your emergency?” It was the same voice from before.

Silence.

“Hello, sir? Are you there?”

“I just wanted someone to listen to this.” Shuffling in the background.

Andrew listened carefully. An attention to detail and quick thinking were important skills for a 911 operator, and although Andrew was constantly berated by the weaknesses and vices of his coworkers, he took pride in his work. His sensitive ears, however, weren’t expecting the cacophony from his caller. As a reaction, he pulled the headphones away from his ears to alleviate the ringing inside his head, held back a curse, and realized the caller was playing a saxophone. It was loud as hell, and Andrew had to hold the headphones away from his ears. Janine’s head turned and looked at him like he was fucking around and listening to music. She didn’t deserve to be given an explanation.

After a minute, the sonic assault ended and Andrew could wear his headphones again.

“Sir, this line is for emergencies only. If you aren’t in danger I need you to get off the line.”

Silence.

“Sir?”

“What did you think? Was it good?”

“It was loud.” Andrew stuttered three syllables into half a dozen, completely taken back by this interaction.

The caller hung up.

Andrew shook his head in disbelief and swiveled his head. Sudoku. Mrs. Button. Apple. Andrew was invisible, and the room was quiet. That was the bittersweet taste of working a 911 dispatch in a small, quiet area. Busy nights were rare, leaving a lot of downtime in between legitimate emergencies.

The phone rang.

This time Andrew just looked at his screen. It was the same phone number. After three rings, he picked it up.

“911, what’s your emergency?” Andrew said in his impatient, frustrated tone.

“Here, I’m going to play it again, but farther away, so it’s not as loud.”

“This line is for emergencies only, sir, please hang up.”

“It is an emergency. I want somebody to listen. Nobody else will.”

“I’m sorry sir but I can’t help you with that.” Andrew was getting pissed.

Silence.

Silence.

“I’m going to kill myself.”

Silence.

“I just want somebody to listen to me.”

“I can direct you to a crisis hotline, but stay on the line with me.”

Silence.

“Sir?”

“Okay, you can connect me. But first just listen, okay? Please?”

Andrew looked around. Mrs. Button was off the phone with Charles, leaving three other operators to respond to other callers. Janine crunched into her apple, and Andrew made his decision.

“Okay, I’m pulling up the number now, but you can play in the background.”

Shuffling, static, then–like a summer breeze–sweet and heavy notes poured from the receiver. A dulcet stream of notes slowly gained strength into a heartbreaking river, one that eroded all of Andrew’s many grievances with day-to-day life. He thought of his English teacher, the first adult to speak to Andrew like a man instead of a child. Sleepy days in the shade of his grandfather’s apple orchard as a boy, when apples were the only comfort Andrew ever needed, instead of the terrible annoyance they had become.

The notes trailed off.

Shuffling.

“So, how was it? What did you think?”

Silence.

“Hello?” The caller’s voice was like any other. But the music that he created was unearthly. The caller’s pain, confusion and anger were tempered with an expectancy that it was worth it. It had to be.

Andrew wiped away the moisture forming in his eye.

“It was amazing. Thank you.”

Silence.

The caller hung up.

***

Andrew would try to call back several times before discovering that the call was made from a payphone. Emergency units would investigate the payphone, but the caller was never found. Andrew was anxious, and the remainder of his shift stretched the minutes into hours.

Andrew would walk out of the dispatch center with his lunch bag and coffee mug, held by fingers that seemed to appreciate the well-worn steel thermos and exhausted, insulated fabric as if he were experiencing them for the first time. The light rain outside felt refreshing, and it turned out that the night sky had a few stars in it, even with this much light pollution. The bus ride was eye-opening as he saw the familiar passengers as individuals again. He felt light. The feeling might dissipate by the time he woke up, but for tonight, it was enough.

He hoped the caller hadn’t done anything to himself.

The bus cruised down Northampton Boulevard, its windows open slightly, letting in fresh air and the sounds of the city preparing to rest. The stoplight ahead turned yellow, then red, and the driver halted. Andrew closed his eyes and tried to listen to the music again. It was slow to come at first but note upon note formed in his memory. After a few seconds, he realized it wasn’t his memory playing the notes. They were coming from outside. He tilted his head quickly, listening to the music. Somewhere in town, off of Northampton Boulevard, a saxophone was being played. Anger, pain, and confusion were there in every note, but Andrew heard the change, the fresh life breathed into every note. The other passengers didn’t seem to notice, absorbed in their various distractions, but Andrew heard it. It was golden. Unmistakable.

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