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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Instructional Calls

   The first instructional phone call came when Dean was fourteen. His parents had left him at home for the evening while they went to the Multioak Aquarium without him so he couldn’t ruin the trip with boring speculation about what the starfish were thinking. Dean had been sitting in front of the TV for an hour and a half, moving only to adjust the rabbit ears and to scoop more melting ice cream out of the tub sitting next to him on the carpet in the den, when the phone rang in the kitchen. He jumped to his feet and ran to answer it, excited to tell whoever was calling that his parents were unavailable.

     “Hello, this is the Cratsler residence, Dean speaking.”

     “Dean,” said the voice on the line. “Be at the corner of Sumac and Whistler Street at 8:45 tonight.” The voice was male. It was calm, authoritative, clear. Dean didn’t recognize it.

     “Who is this?” he asked.

     The voice again said, “Dean, be at the corner of Sumac and Whistler Street at 8:45 tonight.” Then the line went dead.

     Dean went back to the living room and looked at the clock on the wall. It was 8:20. There was plenty of time to get to the corner of Sumac and Whistler by 8:45. He sat down on the floor next to the tub of soupy ice cream, his mind racing in circles. Should he go? Would someone hurt him if he didn’t? There hadn’t been a threat, implied or otherwise. In fact, there had been no mention of consequences at all, good or bad. 8:45 came and went. Dean’s parents came home. They were upset about the wasted ice cream. Dean went to bed without mentioning the phone call and rested his head on his familiar pillow, his familiar covers pulled up around his neck, his mattress springs letting out familiar creaks every time he shifted his weight.


     The second phone call came three weeks later. Dean was in the house by himself while his parents worked in the front yard. He’d been helping them for a while, but had been sent inside when he’d feigned a dizzy spell that he told his mother must have been brought on by heat stroke. She hadn’t believed him, but she was so disgusted with his performance that she wanted him out of her sight. He was reading comic books on the couch when the phone rang. Right away he thought it might be for him. He let it ring and ring until he heard his mother yell through the screen door, “Dean, for heaven’s sake, if you’re not going to help in the yard, at least answer the phone!”

     He got off the couch and went to the kitchen, the tile floor gritty and cool on his bare feet. He picked up the phone and said, “Hello?”

     “Dean,” said the voice. “Ride your bike to the Get N’ Go gas station. Purchase a bottle of chocolate milk.”

     Dean hung up the phone and returned to the couch. “Who was it?” asked Dean’s mother, standing on the front porch with two limp, freshly pulled weeds from the flower bed in her gloved hands.

     “They hung up right when I answered,” said Dean.

     “Why don’t you come back outside,” said his mother. “I think the thought of you in here reading comic books irritates me more than the sight of your poor yard work.”


     The calls continued. Sometimes months apart, sometimes several in the same day. Dean moved to different towns in different states and the voice found him. When Dean was 31, he moved back to Multioak, and almost an entire year went by without an instructional call. He thought they were done forever, but then one day while his wife and two kids were gone swimming in a family friend’s new above-ground pool, the phone rang, and when Dean answered, the voice said, “Dean, drive south on the interstate until you see a slow-moving livestock truck. Follow it.”

     “Welcome back,” said Dean, and hung up. He stood in the kitchen for a while and looked at the drawing his son had done of him in his kindergarten class. His son’s teacher had labeled it “Dad” so Dean would know he was the subject. It looked nothing like him. It didn’t even look like a person. Dean wondered how long it would take him to catch up to the livestock truck. Ten minutes? Two hours? That was the trouble with the voice’s instructions. It omitted so much pertinent information. Dean went outside and contemplated the overflowing gutters on the house. Then he remembered he’d loaned his ladder to the New Pinnacle Church youth group for a service project and had never gotten it back. The only reason he and his family had even visited the church in the first place was because Dean had seen the youth group installing a wheelchair ramp for his handicapped neighbor. And now he couldn’t clean out his own clogged gutters. Sometimes Dean couldn’t stand how connected everything was.


     When Dean bought cell phones for the whole family in one fell swoop, the voice started calling him exclusively on his cell, especially when he was driving to and from work. When the voice called, the name on the caller ID would be someone Dean knew, but when he answered, there would be the voice, telling him to go somewhere and do something. Dean started hanging up before the voice finished its instructions. The entertainment value of listening to what was expected of him this time had long since worn off. In all its years of calling, the voice never answered questions. It never identified itself. It never even sounded like it cared that Dean had never once followed its instructions. Dean had to admire that about the voice. It was consistent.

     Once when Dean was sitting on the front porch enjoying the night air while his kids slept and his wife read catalogues upstairs in bed, the voice called and said, “Walk to the end of your driveway. Check your mailbox.”

     “That’s it?” asked Dean. The line was dead. Dean stood up. Moths battered their dumb faces against the porch light over his head. It was so easy. Just walk to the end of his driveway and check the mailbox. He’d done it hundreds of times. He’d probably do it tomorrow afternoon, actually. The voice just wanted him to do it now too. It was so convenient. But how could he start following instructions now? He’d been blowing them off for years. It didn’t make sense that he could just start up now at age 38 and be back on track. And it didn’t make sense to follow these instructions if he wasn’t prepared to follow the next ones and the next ones and the next ones. He didn’t walk down his driveway and open up his mailbox until the following afternoon, which was when he always checked the mail. Inside he found a wedding invitation and a bank statement.


     Two nights later, Dean awoke to his twelve-year-old son standing next to his bed and shaking him by the shoulder. “Dad,” whispered his son. “Dad, wake up.”

     “What time is it?” whispered Dean, not wanting to wake his wife.

     “It’s 2:30 in the morning,” said his son. His silhouette was scrawny and badly proportioned.

     “Why are you waking me up?” asked Dean. “I have to get up for work in four hours.”

     “Someone just called me,” said his son. “On my cell phone.”

     Dean sat upright, looking over at his wife for a long moment to make sure she was still asleep. She was. He turned back to his son and whispered, “Who called you?”

     “I don’t know,” said his son. “He didn’t say. He just told me to walk to the vacant lot and start picking up litter.”

     “Now?” asked Dean.

     “I guess,” said his son. “I think so.”

     Dean tried to see his son’s face. He squinted his eyes to make out his son’s features in the dark, but he couldn’t. It was no use. “Is this the first call you’ve gotten like this?” asked Dean. “Telling you to do stuff?”

 “Jeez, Dad, yes. What should I do? Are you going to call the police?”

     “What?” said Dean. “No, son. No. You have to do it.”

     “Do it?” said his son. “You want me to go out to the vacant lot in the middle of the night and pick up litter? Are you gonna come with me?”

     “If the voice didn’t say I should go with you, then I shouldn’t. But I’ll wait up for you.” Dean eased himself out of bed. His wife stirred and sighed in her sleep. Dean put his hand on his son’s shoulder and guided him out into the upstairs hallway.

“I don’t want to do it,” said his son. He looked up at Dean with wet, frightened eyes.

“You’re not doing it because you want to,” said Dean. “It’s more substantial than that. It’s clearer than that. There’s one particular, specific reason that you can point to and say ‘That’s why I’m doing this.’ Get it?”

“No,” said his son, starting to cry. “I don’t get it.”

 “Come on,” said Dean. “Get your shoes on.”

A minute later he stood on the front porch and watched his son walk into the night, sniffling and shuffling along. Dean wanted to tell his son how much he envied him, how lucky he was to be on track, to be on any track at all, but he knew his son wouldn’t understand so he held his tongue and imagined the quiet, moonlit vacant lot and its modest accumulation of litter – cups, wrappers, cans, bottles – waiting in expectation of his son’s precisely arranged arrival. As per instructions.


Discussion Questions

  • Do you want instructions? Give me your phone number, and I’ll call you every once in a while and give you some.

  • If you regretted not being on the Debate Team in high school, and then you had a son, would you force that son to be on the Debate Team even if that son wanted nothing to do with the Debate Team for reasons that most people would consider blindingly obvious?

  • Do you think Dean sees a difference between a desire for a direction and a desire for meaning? Do you think there’s a difference?

  • Why doesn’t Dean seem to care about the specific nature of the consequences of following the voice’s instructions?

  • How would you describe Dean’s feelings toward the voice? Use as many paragraphs as necessary.

  • If the voice called you, would you tell anyone? If so, would you describe it as “creepy” or “random?” If so, have you ever considered forcing those words into permanent retirement?