From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

A Direct Line to Heaven

With the fearful strain on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.

Abraham Lincoln

When we were kids, I always admired Heshy Greenblatt. He was in my kindergarten class, and we stayed together until sixth grade. But he moved a few blocks away and eventually, after high school, we lost touch with one another.

Nu, so why do I mention Heshy all of a sudden? Last week, while riding downtown, who gets on the train and sits down next to me? Of course, Heshy Greenblatt! His face, I’ll never forget.

We reminisced, and then he sighed, “Oy, if you only knew what I’ve been going through these past months, a literal nightmare!”

Nu, so please tell me,” I pleaded.

Heshy sighed and began, “I married a wonderful girl. Gave me four wonderful kids, three college graduates, and one drives a cab. Listen, it’s a living. But, with a beautiful wife, you get a mother-in-law and a grandmother-in-law.”

Heshy sighed. “Nu, so my wife’s grandmother was in her late eighties. She was an avid reader and loved cheap adventure and mystery stories. So she gets it into her head that a great number of people, when they are legally declared dead, they sometimes really aren’t dead. So she added a codicil to her will that said when she dies the family should put a telephone in the coffin with her just in case she was really alive and might wake up. She figured, at least she would be able to call someone.

“So, she checked with a rabbi and he humored her and said it was okay if it wasn’t attached to the coffin and if they didn’t use screws in the process.”

I looked at him like he was crazy. “A telephone in the coffin?”

“Yeh, yeh.” Heshy continued. “Listen, she was a sweet old lady, what could we do? So we went along with the gag. Nu, maybe she had a premonition or something, but she passed away six months ago. Don’t laugh, when we went to the funeral home there was a telephone company truck in front of the place. Really! My mother-in-law had notified a lawyer; the lawyer notified the phone company, and they actually sent a man to the undertaker to place a phone in the casket and lead the wires out through a tiny hole at the side.”

I looked at him like he was crazy, but he wasn’t smiling. He shook his head soulfully, “It’s the truth! So the phone man placed a small kitchen wall phone on the inside of the box, with a length of wire sticking out.

“Our rabbi was going out of his mind. There was a question of Halakhah, but he figured this was what she wanted, so let it be as long as the phone was not attached to the casket.

“We got to the cemetery,” Heshy sighed, “they had to dig her grave near the road so it could be near a telephone pole. A telephone lineman was waiting for us. So the rabbi said the prayers and that was it. Everybody was crying, even the man from the telephone company.

“My wife wasn’t feeling well so I sent her home in the funeral director’s car, and I stayed behind with my cousin while the workmen filled the grave.

“Then suddenly one of the workmen bent down on one knee and put his ear to the ground. He shouted, ‘It’s ringing!’ Sure enough, there was a ringing sound we all could hear. We all grabbed a shovel and began to dig like mad to reach the box. Maybe it was a sign. Who knew?

“The gravedigger attached some ropes to the coffin. As we helped to pull the coffin up, the phone continued ringing. The gravedigger pried open the lid of the casket, put his hand inside, near the old woman’s mouth, but she was still very dead. He reached for the phone, put it to his ear, waited a minute then uttered a solemn ‘No.’ Then he put the phone back in the box and reset the lid.

“My cousin and I just stood there. ‘Who was that?’ I screamed. He looked at me vacantly and said, ‘The phone company called to see if the phone was working.’”

I looked at Heshy, who said, “Yeh, yeh, it’s the truth.”

“So what else happened?” I begged.

“What else?” he screamed. “The old lady paid the phone company for phone service for a year in advance for basic service before she died. She even got a discount. Listen, that was her thing.”

Heshy looked at me and sighed. “Two months ago, my mother-in-law got a call from the phone company. The phone was showing up with four out-of-town calls—to Florida and California!”

I gasped. “You have to be kidding.”

“Really,” Heshy sighed. “Nu, so I called the phone company and I told them, ‘You have to be kidding!’ So the guy starts getting nasty and says, ‘Look, mister, we have three calls to Florida and one to California made from that number.’

“I talked myself deaf, dumb and blind but the guy wouldn’t listen. I told him where he could go and hung up. The next day another guy from the phone company gets on the phone and says they are going to remove our service and take back their instrument. I told him, ‘Lotsa-luck!’ I doubted whether they were legally allowed to touch the grave! So he says if they can’t get the phone back we have to pay for it. Anyway he says they are canceling the service immediately.

Nu, so now my wife’s mother panics. She calls the lawyer, who’s got a pretty penny from that old lady so naturally he’s gung-ho to see that the old lady gets to keep her telephone six feet under for the full year she paid for.

“So he gives the phone company the old razzle-dazzle and threatens them with all kinds of legal stuff and the phone company finally agrees to continue the service. They said the out-of-town calls were because of a crossed wire and we weren’t going to be charged.”

I asked, “So everything with the phone company was worked out?”

Heshy smiled uneasily. The train roared into the Brooklyn Bridge station, and he started to get off the train.

“Look, it’s like I told you—one nightmare after another. That old lady drove me crazy when she was alive and now, even when she’s dead, I can’t get away from her. Then last Sunday was a corker!”

The train came to a halt and Heshy started to say goodbye. But I had to hear the end of this saga so I got off the train with him.

Heshy continued, “Last week, the people who are working on the headstone asked if I could come out to Staten Island where they were making the monument. They seemed to be having a problem with the stone the old lady ordered before she died.

“‘What’s the hurry?’ I asked. ‘We have a few months yet before the unveiling.’

“The monument maker showed me a letter from the attorney. Would you believe the old lady wanted her phone number engraved on the stone over her name so her children could dial that number if they were ever in need of solace? Do you believe this!?!”

I looked at him in bewilderment. “Nu, so what did the monument man want?”

“He wanted to know if we wanted the area code engraved in the stone also! Honest! So I told him, just do what the note says and leave me out of the whole thing.

“‘I can’t,’ the monument man said. ‘The note says to check with you to see if the area code is necessary. Nu, so we’re checking!’

“I told them to put the area code on the stone. The reason the monument man wanted to start on the stone so early was because he wanted to use it as a sample in front of his place so people should stop and see this thing. It’s a curio! It could start a whole trend.

“So now I feel everything is over with,” Heshy explained. “However, when I get home I get a call from the manager of the cemetery, and he wants me to come out there the following Sunday. He said it was something of a delicate nature.

“So I have to go shlepping out to Long Island. When I get there he tells me he has a great idea. The cemetery wants to take ads in the local papers, and he wanted to know if we would object to the slogan, ‘The Only Cemetery with a Direct Line to Heaven’ with a picture of my wife’s grandmother’s grave site with the phone wires coming from the ground!

“So I tell the guy, ‘You’re nuts! The old lady was crazy, but you take the cake! Let the old girl rest in peace!’ So he tells me she really isn’t. The workers in the cemetery can hear the phone ringing all day long. Apparently some guy at the phone company passed the number on to his friends and kids. The kids must have passed the number on to their friends for a big thrill, so they call that number night and day, especially before the Regents exams. They figure the old lady may have an ‘in’ with the Lord. It doesn’t cost them anything, because no one picks up, so they call and call!”

“So,” I joked, “what do you want them to do, change the number to an unlisted number?”

Heshy didn’t laugh. “That’s just it. The old number is engraved on the stone already and to have them change it will cost over two hundred dollars. I even refused to pay a penny when the phone company changed her area code.”

I looked at him strangely. “Nu, so what are you going to do?”

“Nothing,” he said softly. “By the end of the year the phone service will run out and the whole mess will end— I hope.”

Arnold Fine

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