Arnold put a bullet in each of the six chambers.
“Talk about overkill,” he muttered, and made himself chuckle.
He took a last look around his apartment, at the peeling wallpaper in the living room, the leaking faucet dripping on a stack of dishes in the kitchen, the worn carpeting, the old furniture that wouldn’t last long enough to become antique – and it wasn’t his to sell if it did make it that far.
He looked at the stack of bills he had permitted to accumulate on the corner table. They weren’t even all his bills; the previous tenant’s overdue notices were still arriving even after four years.
Arnold looked at the phone. The service had been cut off, but he remembered the last time he had used it. That memory brought him right back to the gun in his hand and the main reason for its being there.
Last words, he thought. I should say something, even though no one is here to listen.
He thought for a couple of moments but nothing interesting came to mind. He finally settled on, “The hell with it,” and raised the gun to his mouth.
The telephone rang.
It was an old phone he had found at a Goodwill: a genuine Western Electric desktop model — with a dial — made back in the days when the phone company was responsible for keeping it working and so it was made to last forever. This kind of telephone did not chirp or warble; it played neither Beethoven nor circus music to announce a call. It rang. Two actual bells inside the case made a racket you would hear over your toddler’s tantrum and the neighbors’ pool party combined.
Arnold jumped, made skittish by the din, and nearly pulled the trigger by mistake. He stared at the phone and it rang again. After three more rings, having thought of no reason why the telephone should be working again, he walked over and picked up the handset.
“Hello?” he said timidly.
“Arnold! You’re still there. You made me wait so long I thought maybe I was a minute too late.”
“Who is this?”
“Name’s Vescovi. You don’t know me. That’s all right.”
“My phone doesn’t work,” Arnold protested.
“We seem to be getting along with it OK.”
“No, what I mean is—”
“Never mind the phone. It’s doing what we need it to. It’s the thing in your other hand let’s discuss.”
Arnold looked down to find a pistol in his right hand, where he had left it.
“I have a gun,” he announced.
“No foolin’,” Vescovi said. “You know, there aren’t too many things you can do with one of those.”
“I’m going to kill myself.”
“That’s one thing, all right. But why, Arnold? Why would you do such a thing? Such a terrible thing?”
“It … it’s a long story.”
“No, not really it’s not,” Vescovi argued. “It’s about Susanna.”
“How do you know about her?”
“How do I know you’ve got a gun in your hand?”
“Yes, how do—?”
“We’ll get to that later maybe. Your problem is that you’re grieving over Susanna.”
“Yes,” Arnold said, and his head drooped.
“Susanna … dear, lovely, perky, sweet Susanna.” Vescovi paused. “Susanna who died in that terrible crash with the train.” Pause. “Along with Pete, an assistant manager of mall properties and a man on his way up.” Pause. “The guy Susanna dumped you for.”
Arnold said nothing.
“She dumped you on the very phone you now hold in your south paw. She got in the car with Pete who only an hour later bet both their lives that he could beat the train to the crossing. See? Not such a long story.”
“I could have talked to her later,” Arnold whispered. “I could have gotten her back. Now I’ll never have the chance.”
“Mmm, maybe you could have, maybe not. From where I sit, I’d say ‘not,’ but that’s just me. Let’s move along. Susanna, who dumped you and broke your heart when she took up with Pete, is dead. And you’re thinking to join her, is that it?”
“Life isn’t worth living without her,” Arnold said. “There’s no point in going on.”
“What do you suppose the population of the world would be if everybody who lost someone he loved killed himself?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s just say the pyramids would never have been built. You’re not the first person to feel this kind of pain.”
Arnold understood Vescovi’s point but it peeved him anyway. “So what? It’s my pain. That makes it special to me.”
“So doesn’t a special pain deserve a special response? Suicide is a cliché. So is hiding from the rest of your life because you don’t feel you deserve to do anything with it. That’s another kind of suicide; it just takes longer.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” Arnold blazed. “The one person who made this miserable existence worthwhile is gone. What am I supposed to do now, Mr. Vescovi?”
“Just Vescovi. As for your question, how about taking up the guitar?”
“The guitar. It’s a musical instrument.”
“I know that. Why would I take up the guitar?”
“OK, the saxophone, if you prefer. Or the tympani, although I think that will depress the neighbors a little.”
“Why should I learn a musical instrument?”
“Music has charms that soothe the love-torn breast and whatnot. You could put your love and loss and longing into music. Just think, Arnold, just think: if Mark David Chapman’s aim had been off a little, and Yoko had been murdered that night instead, what incredible music John Lennon would have given the world out of his grief. Songs that would have made grown men weep openly in both sorrow and joy.”
Arnold spluttered a little. “That’s sick! That’s disgusting!”
“Yeah,” Vescovi admitted, “it’s not a popular theory. So forget music. How about kayaking?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Arnold shouted.
“I’m talking,” Vescovi said quietly, “about there being a whole world full of things to do with or without Susanna in it. You are not confined to the city or to your three-quarter-time job that doesn’t quite pay the bills or to the memory of a girl you loved and who didn’t love you and died. You are not chained to the life you have thus far led. Go somewhere! Do something! Break out of this little preview of hell you’ve built up for yourself and live and enjoy.”
Arnold was quiet and the silence began to stretch.
“Kid? Arnold? Still there?”
“So, c’mon, kid. What do you say?”
There was another long wait, followed by the sound of a pistol firing and a body falling.
On his end of the line, Vescovi closed his eyes and rested his head on the top of his telephone handset, one remarkably similar to Arnold’s.
“What … what is this?”
Vescovi sighed. “ ‘This,’ Arnold, is Hell. The real thing.” He gently replaced the handset in its cradle on the desk and slowly turned his head to look at Arnold. “The fake hell you’d made on Earth wasn’t enough for you, was it? You had to have the real thing.” He pointed into the distance. “See over there? The lake? Recognize anybody?”
“Oh, no,” Arnold whispered. “Susanna.”
“Yeah, Susanna. And Pete. And between dunkings in the flames maybe the three of you can work things out.” Vescovi nodded at a minor demon who took Arnold away.
“Why didn’t you listen, Arnold?” Vescovi asked no one. “Why don’t they ever listen? The long distance charges I rack up on the boss’s dime … why don’t they ever listen?”
Vescovi sighed for a full minute. He looked upward, as if searching for something. Then he picked up the phone’s handset and began dialing.