One evening while I was reading in bed, I heard the downstairs phone ring and the answering machine pick up the call. I arose from bed and stood at the top of the stairs to listen if the caller would leave a message and to hear if it were a telemarketer, political pollster, or friend.
At first the voice was garbled and I thought it was a drunken party-goer who was pranking my phone and I turned away to return to bed. I don't know exactly what it was that caught my ear, but I realized that the person was not a drunk but a person in deep trouble whispering a plea for help.
I have poor depth perception and it is very hard for me to run down stairs without fear of falling. I have to take one step at a time with both feet being on the same step before stepping down again. It is slow and awkward and frustrating. The bile of fear rose in my throat as the panic and pain in the voice on the phone was becoming more and more evident.
I'm sure it was only seconds that passed, but it seemed like hours. "Don't hang up," I prayed aloud. My four cats, sensing my alarm, were now weaving in and out between my legs, tripping me up, always a quarter step in front of where I wanted to be, stalling me like in some horrible dream. I tapped their behinds with my foot, clapped my hands in a flurry, shouted at them to hurry them along, but they were oblivious to my angst.
I could clearly hear the voice now, TWO voices. A woman sobbing, begging, "Don't hit my face anymore...don't hit my face anymore....I'm sorry...I'm sorry..." And a man whose rage chilled me so deeply that I was frozen in place. "I will hit you as many times as I want! I will hit your face! I will kill you if I want!" More cries, more sobbing.
I grabbed for the phone. Too late! The caller disconnected!
I paced my kitchen furiously. I dialed *69 to ring back the caller, but their phone number did not accept the reverse dialing. I played back the sickening message that was now record on my answering machine, and the numbness and shock of what I heard overtook me and my thoughts were paralyzed, my mind was blank as if I could not remember how to think.
Caller ID, caller ID, I have caller ID. I scrolled through my directory and found the number. The caller was someone who lives two hours away in Nashua; how did she ever dial my number? Random dialing in a panic hope for help? Dialing her local police and she misdialed and reached me? It didn't matter, because it was now my responsibility to respond to her cries for help.
Telephone book, where in the name of God is my telephone directory? I need to call the police in in Nashua, I decided. They can send someone out immediately. I cannot find my telephone directory, the cats are even more crazed with my anxiety and I am yelling at them.
I dial "O" for operator but that does not work anymore here. When did that change? I wonder in my fury. I dialed the national number for information: area code, 555-1212, and finally after the tenth ring an annoyed automated answering service dryly intones, "City and state, please." Frustration is building. This is an emergency for God's sake!! I provide the requested information. No listing for that city and state, would I spell the name of the city. I spell the name. I can barely speak, my jaw and throat are tight with fear and frustration. "Name of person you are calling," the automated voice says. I give the name of the police department. "No such person by that name," says the voice. "Please hold for an operator to assist you."
I want to throw the phone through the window and drive aimlessly in that city two hours away to find that woman who is being beaten. The operator finally comes onto the line. In a single breath I explain, "This is an emergency, I need the police department."
"Please hold while I get that number for you," the operator says. A click, and another automated voice comes on and gives me the emergency police number for the Nashua Police Department. "Would you like that number repeated?" the hollow voice asks. Yes, yes, yes, as I write the number down and want to make sure I have it correct. "For an additional fee of 55 cents your call can be automatically dialed. Would you like the call to be automatically dialed for an additional fee of 55 cents?" Yes, yes, yes!!! I want to cry and scream. Everything is moving too slowly. I am moving too slowly.
The phone rings at the Nashua Police Department and a female dispatcher answered on the second ring. "Nashua Police Department. What is the nature of your call, please?"
In a breathless rush, I identify myself and give her my residential address. "A woman is being beaten and she is crying for help. I think she misdialed -- she reached my number -- she is crying and asking for help. You need to send someone out to her right away. She could be dead by now!"
"I'm sorry. We can't help you. You must call the police department in your own city and they will contact us and then we can send someone out there."
"WHAT?!" I scream. "Are you kidding? Did you not hear what I just said? A woman is being beaten in YOUR city and you want me to call MY local police department? You are not going to send help that she needs NOW?!"
"It's procedure. The police department in the jurisdiction of the...." I don't know what she was going to say after that as I slammed down the phone in helpless rage.
Phone book, phone book' I just find the phone. I did not want to dial 911 as I didn't want the police sent to my house; I needed police sent to that other poor woman's house. Found it! How to look up the police department. My mind was going blank again; I was forgetting how to think clearly. I know how to use a phone book, so why can't I find what I'm looking for. I cup my head in my hands as if to clear the cobwebs.
My orange cat, Buster, jumps onto the counter where I am trying to read the fine print in the book and paces across the pages in front of me. I unceremoniously swipe him off the counter and he sits sulking and glowering at me from the floor. He leaps onto the pages again, and this time when I brusquely push him off he tears the pages with his claws as he dug in to hold on.
There are two telephone numbers listed for our local police department. One is for the detectives unit. I dial the number, ring, ring, ring. An answering machine saying that they are available during the work hours of blah, blah, blah. I cannot believe this night. Our police department keeps banker's hours? Crime doesn't happen in our little city after five p.m.? No one is available?
I am lost and incredulous; I am cold and numb; but I still feel fury as never before. Everything is moving in slow motion again. I find the second number for our police department, dial, and a woman answers, "Dispatch."
Relief surged through me. Once again I identify myself and I tell her all that happened. I play the recorded message into the receiver so she can hear it, I tell her I have caller ID and that I have the number of the caller. She patiently takes this all down, says they will do a reverse phone number look up, and assures me that they will follow up.
I went back upstairs to bed but could not sleep. I sit up with all the lights on, my knees up to my chest and my arms wrapped around my legs, hugging myself to myself. The woman's voice reverberates in my head, and I hear it over and over. I fell asleep with the lights on and awoke after midnight when Earl came home from work, listened to the message, and came into the bedroom, white-faced, asking if I were okay.
Late the next afternoon, I called my local police department and asked if they knew anything further about my mysterious caller. They could only confirm that they called Nashua but did not have any further information; I would have to follow up with them if I wanted further information.
So, this time I dialed them directly, saving 55 cents to have the phone company automatically dial the number for me, and spoke to the female dispatcher. "Sorry, we can't give out any information. I can tell you that we did receive a call from the police department in your city about a phone message belonging to someone to the address at the phone number that was provided. That's all that I can tell you."
"You can't tell me if you actually sent someone or if you simply took a message? You can't tell me if the City of Nashua responded to a cry for help from one of its own citizens? You can't tell me if that poor woman were dead or alive if you even went there? Did you hear the recording that she left on my answering machine?"
"It's an issue of privacy..."
"PRIVACY! That woman called me. Never mind. I have the number and I have the name. I know how to do reverse look up as well as you do. (I provided the name and address of the caller.) I'll call myself. Thanks a lot. I'm sure that woman is thanking you as well!"
"Wait! Just wait a second." The dispatcher weighed her words. "Look, I'll tell you this much. We did send out a car and we went to the door. We asked if everything was okay. The person who answered the door said everything was fine. We asked to see the woman of the house, and she also confirmed everything was fine. We've done all we can."
I was stunned. "She said she was fine? Was this some horrible telephone prank after all?"
I could feel the dispatcher's shrug. "No, I think it was real enough. But when the police show up at the door, the woman backs down. It happens all the time. She's afraid of her husband or boyfriend going to jail and they'll be alone. They just want this beating to stop and they hope that having the police showing up at the door will scare the beater into stopping permanently. We see this a hundred times a week here, at least. Alcohol, drugs, crime, poverty, certain ethnic groups that think it's okay to beat up their women all play a role...every night we get these calls. After a while it's just hard to care as much as you should care, but we keep trying because sometimes what we do makes a difference in someone's life. You have done far more than most people ever would have thought of doing."
I thanked the dispatcher for her thoughtful and honest answer and hung up the phone. I replayed the message one last time, and hit "erase."
I wish it felt as if I had done enough.