A Friend on the Line

A Friend on the Line

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Friend on the Line

Life without a friend is death without a witness.

Spanish Proverb

Even before I finished dialing, I somehow knew I’d made a mistake. The phone rang once, twice—then someone picked it up.

“You got the wrong number!” a husky male voice snapped before the line went dead. Mystified, I dialed again.

“I said you got the wrong number!” came the voice. Once more the phone clicked in my ear.

How could he possibly know I had a wrong number? At that time, I worked for the New York City Police Department. A cop is trained to be curious—and concerned. So I dialed a third time.

“Hey, c’mon,” the man said. “Is this you again?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” I answered. “I was wondering how you knew I had the wrong number before I even said anything.”

“You figure it out!” The phone slammed down.

I sat there awhile, the receiver hanging loosely in my fingers. I called the man back.

“Did you figure it out yet?” he asked.

“The only thing I can think of is. .. nobody ever calls you.”

“You got it!” The phone went dead for the fourth time. Chuckling, I dialed the man back.

“What do you want now?” he asked.

“I thought I’d call. .. just to say hello.”

“Hello? Why?”

“Well, if nobody ever calls you, I thought may be I should.”

“Okay. Hello. Who is this?”

At last I had gotten through. Now he was curious. I told him who I was and asked who he was.

“My name’s Adolf Meth. I’m 88 years old, and I haven’t had this many wrong numbers in one day in 20 years!” We both laughed.

We talked for 10 minutes. Adolf had no family, no friends. Everyone he had been close to had died. Then we discovered we had something in common: he’d worked for the New York City Police Department for nearly 40 years. Telling me about his days there as an elevator operator, he seemed interesting, even friendly. I asked if I could call him again.

“Why would you wanta do that?” he asked, surprised.

“Well, maybe we could be phone friends. You know, like pen pals.”

He hesitated. “I wouldn’t mind. .. having a friend again.” His voice sounded a little tentative.

I called Adolf the following afternoon and several days after that. Easy to talk with, he related his memories of World Wars I and II, the Hindenburg disaster and other historic events. He was fascinating. I gave him my home and office numbers so he could call me. He did—almost every day.

I was not just being kind to a lonely old man. Talking with Adolf was important to me, because I, too, had a big gap in my life. Raised in orphanages and foster homes, I never had a father. Gradually, Adolf took on a kind of fatherly importance to me. I talked about my job and college courses, which I attended at night.

Adolf warmed to the role of counselor. While discussing a disagreement I’d had with a supervisor, I told my new friend, “I think I ought to have it out with him.”

“What’s the rush?” Adolf cautioned. “Let things cool down. When you get as old as I am, you find out that time takes care of a lot. If things get worse, then you can talk to him.”

There was a long silence. “You know,” he said softly, “I’m talking to you just the way I’d talk to a boy of my own. I always wanted a family—and children. You’re too young to know how that feels.”

No, I wasn’t. I’d always wanted a family—and a father. But I didn’t say anything, afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold back the hurt I’d felt for so long.

One evening Adolf mentioned his 89th birthday was coming up. After buying a piece of fiberboard, I designed a 2' x 5' greeting card with a cake and 89 candles on it. I asked all the cops in my office and even the police commissioner to sign it. I gathered nearly a hundred signatures. Adolf would get a kick out of this, I knew.

We’d been talking on the phone for four months now, and I thought this would be a good time to meet face to face. So I decided to deliver the card by hand.

I didn’t tell Adolf I was coming; I just drove to his address one morning and parked the car up the street from his apartment house.

A postman was sorting mail in the hallway when I entered the building. He nodded as I checked the mailboxes for Adolf’s name. There it was. Apartment 1H, some 20 feet from where I stood.

My heart pounded with excitement. Would we have the same chemistry in person that we had on the phone? I felt the first stab of doubt. Maybe he would reject me the way my father rejected me when he went out of my life. I tapped on Adolf’s door. When there was no answer, I knocked harder.

The postman looked up from his sorting. “No one’s there,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a little foolish. “If he answers his door the way he answers his phone, this may take all day.”

“You a relative or something?”

“No. Just a friend.”

“I’m really sorry,” he said quietly, “but Mr. Meth died day before yesterday.”

Died? Adolf? For a moment, I couldn’t answer. I stood there in shock and disbelief. Then, pulling myself together, I thanked the postman and stepped into the late-morning sun. I walked toward the car, misty-eyed.

Then, rounding a corner, I saw a church, and a line from the Old Testament leaped to mind: A friend love that all times. And especially in death, I realized. This brought a moment of recognition. Often it takes some sudden and sad turn of events to awaken us to the beauty of a special presence in our lives. Now, for the first time, I sensed how very close Adolf and I had become. It had been easy, and I knew this would make it even easier the next time, with my next close friend.

Slowly, I felt a warmth surging through me. I heard Adolf’s growly voice shouting, “Wrong number!” Then I heard him asking why I wanted to call again.

“Because you mattered, Adolf,” I said aloud to no one. “Because I was your friend.”

I placed the unopened birthday card on the back seat of my car and got behind the wheel. Before starting the engine, I looked over my shoulder. “Adolf,” I whispered, “I didn’t get the wrong number at all. I got you.”

Jennings Michae l Burch

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