Jannie bites into her first slice of pizza -- pineapple and tomato, hand-tossed from Torry's Takeout (home of the caribou burger) -- when the phone rings. That's the way it always happens.
If it is a chronic, like Wendle, she will get rid of him. She will tell him she is on a suicide, or something. Tell him to call back in an hour.
When she first started working at the Help Line, it was her mission to save the chronics. Her mission to get them better. Her mission to show enough compassion and support that they would become functional.
The others had warned her.
"The best you can do is talk to them on occasion," they all told her. "Encourage them to eat right. Encourage them to bathe. Encourage them to get outside. Ask them if they have taken their medication."
Wendle, Jannie's favorite chronic, calls every day at two hour intervals and talks for 15 minutes. "Just checkin' in," he always says.
"Did you bathe, Wendle?"
"I lost my cigarettes."
"Did you bathe, Wendle?"
"I think the neighbor's dog took them."
"Wendle, did you bathe?"
"He smokes, you know. He does it in his yard when he thinks his owners aren't looking. He steals them from me. Comes in at night while I'm sleepin'."
"Wendle, have you taken your medication?"
"Once he crawled in bed with me and started licking my privates."
"Wendle, when you get off the phone, eat something, take your medication."
"Jesus is on my wall. How do you get Jesus off the wall? I've tried washin' him and washin' him, but he just watches me, his eyes and mouth moving, sputterin' from the soaps suds. You think he wants my cigarettes, too?"
"I don't think Jesus smokes."
Wendle is always like that. Each week a different story about Jesus, the neighbor's dog, the devil, ghosts (both good and bad) and Vitaman (he drinks Wendle's bath water). Jannie gave up on Wendle.
The other chronics are similar: Betty is afraid to take a shower on Tuesdays because that's when her dead sister comes through the pipes trying to talk to her; Ben feels the need to drive at more than 100 mph, outrun police, and charge over the limits of his credit cards. Tammy won't bathe and only eats raw rice because everything else, she thinks, is poisoned. Mike has regular talks with the president who he says has a plan to murder long-haired men and use their hair for a couch stuffing.
Jannie takes a bite from her pizza, chews quickly, and picks up the telephone. She hopes it is a chronic so she can finish her meal. "Help Line," she answers.
"Help Line," she repeats. "Jannie speaking."
She can hear movement, breathing. This type of call is common. She knows the person is probably depressed and doesn't know what to say, or from a Native village.
Some Natives, especially those in rural areas, don't normally think of themselves as an "I" and have a hard time expressing themselves as individuals because of differences in cultures. That, and they are frightened of the white voice on the end of the line. They always speak slowly. Lots of pauses. Don't like questions. Jannie treats everyone differently, but with Natives, in general, she takes it slow, at their pace. She sits and listens to the empty line for hours if necessary. She keeps a magazine nearby to break the silences.
"I will be here," says Jannie. "If you just want someone on the other end, that's fine. I will be here as long as you need me." She hears nothing but labored breathing. She figures whoever it is has probably been crying. "It's okay," she says. "I'm here for you."
The phone drops. Jannie hears a crash then a scream - a man's. Then cursing. She can't tell if it is the caller, or another individual. She quickly starts a trace, just in case. Water is running in the background. Footsteps are getting louder.
"Pardon me," a man says. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry, for what? Who is with you?"
"What was the scream?"
"Pardon me," says the man. "You shouldn't have to listen to that. Let's forget it."
Her screen flashes: Jon Paul Redline. Age 31. 16432 W. Turnley Avenue, 994-3341.
He lives in one of the nicer areas -- big homes, each on at least a half acre. That is if it is Jon speaking.
"I'm Jannie," she says. "Who are you?"
"Jon, he says. "J-O-N. I don't use the "H" it's too common." Jannie quickly searches the files. There is no Jon. No Redline. He is a new caller. Not a chronic. She picks up a form and starts checking off the blocks: male, 31; income, not yet determined; Caucasian, probably; educated, likely. Is under the influence of drugs or alcohol? She thinks he must be. A lot of people call when they drink. They are reaching out for someone. These are the kind she can help. She knows. She's been there.
After she lost her son, she attempted suicide one drunken night. Swallowed an entire bottle of anti-depressants, then sat in bed waiting for it to kill her. She was amazed by her calmness. When she woke she was in a hospital and angry her neighbor had saved her. A month later she was grateful. About a year later, on the anniversary of Paul's death, she joined Help Line.
"Have you been drinking, Jon?"
"Yes," he says. She checks it off.
"What have you been drinking?"
"Bourbon. I don't normally drink. Would you pardon me, excuse me for a moment?" Jon asks. She uses the time to write on the form: "bourbon," "says doesn't drink normally," "polite on phone," "perhaps drunk -- greatly distressed -- screaming, throwing things, then getting on the phone acting like nothing has happened." She wonders why he is so willing to talk, when at first he couldn't. She thinks the direct approach with him will work best. He seems responsive to questions.
Another crash. Another scream. "Damn. Fuck. Aggggh. Stop it. Stop it. No do it. Just do it." More running water and footsteps. She is sure the voice is his. "Perhaps schizophrenic," she writes. "Perhaps having a vision or hearing voices." She is disappointed. Another chronic. Yet he doesn't sound like a chronic and doesn't live in a rundown neighborhood.
"Pardon me," the man says again.
"Jon, what are you doing? Why are you so angry?"
"Forgive me. I don't want to bother you with my troubles. I just want someone to talk to."
"I'm listening," she says. She skips the normal questions: Are you on medication? Are you seeing a counselor? Have you been diagnosed with an illness? She decides it best to let him lead the conversation. She is puzzled by his mix of intelligence and madness, drunkenness and calmness. "Tell me about yourself, Jon."
"No, tell me about you first," he says. "Tell me what you are like. I want to know who I am talking to."
Jannie knows it is against the rules to release personal information. But she can be vague. "I'm 30. A pianist. I guide boats in the summer. My favorite show is Cheers. I like chocolate ice cream."
"Jannie," he says. "You are lying."
"Your name isn't Jannie," he says.
"How do you know that?"
"I don't know," he says. "I'm not psychic. But for some reason I can sort of see you. You were eating something before the phone rang. I can't tell what. Something saucy. Something like spaghetti. You are slender. Dark blonde hair. You are pretty, but don't believe it."
"You are wrong," she says. He is right, but she doesn't want him to know it. She gets the feeling he must know her. But he can't. She doesn't know a Jon. She doesn't know anybody in that neighborhood. Jannie wonders what to do. Hang up? Send out an officer? She wonders if he watches her. What if he is a stalker? But he is too far from the center to know she had just ordered a pizza. He couldn't have known.
"I am right. Tell the truth. I want to trust you." Perhaps he once worked the line. There have been a few weirdoes on line (somehow passed the screening), and all have access to her files. Another one beat his wife. And Ted. Ted was strange. He once came in while she was working the late shift, sat in an overstuffed chair and watched her. "You know Ted Bundy worked on a crisis line before he lost it," he told her.
"How do you know these things?" Jannie asks Jon.
"I don't know. I just sense it. I feel a closeness. Do you feel it?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm Jon. Jon Redline. Nice guy. Who are you? Really?"
"Beth," she lies. Her real name is Samantha.
"I can't tell you."
"Beth is a much prettier name."
"We're not allowed to use our real names," she says. "We have to remain anonymous." She doesn't say why: because there are people who threaten to kill us, people who get obsessed with us. Mentally disturbed people who would never leave us alone if they had more than a generic telephone number to find us. She'd been proposed to 12 times. Threatened three. Told she was loved 100s.
"Pardon me," says Jon. "I'm going to put you on speaker phone. I'm going to make a drink."
She hears more crashing and cursing. Then ice clinks into a glass, something fluid splashing into it. She doesn't want to talk into the speaker phone. For some reason she feels violated.
"Take me off the speaker phone," she says. "If you want to talk, sit down and talk. No more beating up the room. No more drinking."
"I'm going to finish this one," he says. "But I will stay seated."
"Do you do this often?" she asks.
"I can't burden you with my problems."
"That's why I'm here. Why did you call the line if you didn't want to talk about your problems?" She wonders if she is being tested. If this is someone checking up on her emergency response performance. She wonders how she's doing. "Talk to me, Jon. Tell me how I can help you."
"No," he says. "I can't hurt you."
"Don't make me explain. I'm depressed. That's all. Just having someone to talk to is helping."
"Why are you so down? Sometimes it helps to talk about it." She doesn't know whether or not to believe him. She thinks she is being tested. But finally decides it doesn't matter. Pretend it's real. She will play the game. And even if he is a stalker, he is too far from her to get to her. "What has happened, Jon?"
"It will depress me. Will you just talk? Just talk to me?" She looks at the form: Counselor? Suicidal? Medications? She has to ask the right questions.
"Are you seeing a counselor?"
"Yes. Joanne Wilkins."
"Are you on meds?"
"Yes, a mild antidepressant." Good. That means he's not in too bad a shape. It means he can function.
"Will you promise to go see her tomorrow?"
"I will talk to you."
She tries to picture Jon in his living room. It's a game she plays. Imagine the caller. Picture the surroundings. Sometimes she's right. She envisions white furniture with green throw pillows. His art is expensive. Modern. There are holes in his walls - fresh blood still dripping down the plaster. He's tall, about 6'2", with curly brown hair, green eyes, his knuckles still bleeding. He is wearing a green sweater and white Dockers.
"Jon. Tell me about you." Keep the conversation light. Gain trust. He will soon come around to tell what's really the matter. They always do.
"I'm an artist. Divorced. Tall. A Leo. I'm into astrology. When's your birthday? I'll read your chart."
"What day? What time were you born?"
"I don't want to tell you."
"Okay. I'll guess. April 26. Taurus." He is off by a day. She remembers Ted's real name: Mark Turney. She pulls his file. He moved to California. She feels better.
"You are creative -- probably a closet poet. You have a hard time getting close to people, trusting people. You are kind. Very kind, but suffer from depression. You have undeveloped psychic abilities. Hey, mine said that, too. You're best mate is a Leo. It sounds like we're well-suited for each other."
"Are you really reading something?"
"Yeah. You know what else it says?"
"What?" she asks.
"You're a great lover."
Beth's face warms. "What else does it say?"
"About being a great lover? That you will meet a nice man named Jon on the Help Line and live happily ever after."
"No, really." She's starting to feel silly. Jon is a nice guy. Just depressed. Just drunk. That's all. A professional out of control, getting back into control. She'll talk him through it. She grabs another slice of pizza and munches. "Really, Jon. What does it say?"
"You will never be rich. But you will be happy. It says you will marry your first love. Then divorce him years later. Did that happen?"
"Are you a closet poet?"
"More like a starving poet."
"Do you have undeveloped psychic abilities?"
She could play the game. "I know your favorite color."
"You're right." She doesn't know if she is or if he's just saying so.
"Do you have throw pillows?" she asks.
"What color are they?"
"You've already said it." She wonders if this is a game to him, too.
"What color is your couch?" she asks.
"It's striped," he says. "White and green. Green throw pillows." She is partially right.
"How tall are you? How tall is tall?"
"Why are you putting holes in your walls? Tossing furniture?"
"I'm not any longer. I'm feeling better." He sounds better. Nice. Like someone she would like to spend time with. She pictures him kissing her, and then feels strange having such a thought. Get a grip, she thinks. Meeting a man in a bar is safer. She's been talking to too many chronics. A weed would look like a rose under these conditions.
"You sound nice," he says. He says it like he means it.
"Jon, you said you are down. Are you suicidal?"
"If I say ‘no" would you believe me?"
"No." For some reason she doesn't believe him. "You say you are an artist. Tell me about that."
"Oh, I've always loved art. As a child I loved art. I grew up in Arizona painting deserts. I sold my first painting when I was 10. By the age of 15, all the galleries in Phoenix had my work. I was making $30,000 a year at 20."
"Why did you come to Alaska?"
"A change. I burned out on deserts."
"What do you do now? Mountains?"
"No. Modern art. Abstract art. Three-dimensional pieces. Do you like art?"
"I love it. I can spend hours in the galleries. I've probably seen your work."
"It sells better internationally," he says. "People in Alaska want wolves and polar bears."
"Jon. Why are you drinking?"
"Back to depressing."
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't."
"Do you care about all your callers?"
"Some more than others."
"How ‘bout me?"
"More than others."
"I don't know."
"I had a knife to my throat," he says. "When I first called you."
"Where is it now?" She can see it, sitting on the coffee table in front of him. Long. Sharp.
"On the coffee table."
"Put it away. Go put it in the kitchen."
"I called so someone would hear me die. I was going to slash it the moment someone answered. I couldn't bear the thought of police finding me decayed, head rotting."
"Why would you do that to me?"
"I don't know. I heard your voice and couldn't." She hears him take a drink. She pictures his smile gone, him tensing.
"Did you trace the call?" he asks.
"No," she answers.
"Yes," she whispers.
"If you send someone, I will kill myself."
"What if I don't?" Silence. "Jon, are you going to kill yourself?"
"I don't know," he answers. "But if you send someone I will. Right now I just want someone to talk to."
"I will talk. But I want you to make a pact with me. A pact not to kill yourself. A pact to call, go to the hospital, throw out the alcohol and weapons - whatever it takes to get through tonight. Into tomorrow."
"Because I want you to trust me. Trust my judgment."
"I don't understand."
"Trust me to make the right decision."
She knows he is talking about death. The right to choose death. She knows he doesn't know what he is doing. She knows he isn't thinking clearly. She knows if she calls the police to go to him it could save him.
"I'm sending help."
"Do and I'll kill myself. Don't, and I'll make the decision on my own time."
"But you're talking about your life."
"That's right. My life. I have the right to decide when it's over."
"You can't put this on me."
"I'm saying I don't know. Let's change the subject. I want nice conversation. I want friendship."
"Okay. Friendship." Talk him into a good mood. Talk him through the night until he's sober. It's the alcohol that gets them like this.
"Why do you do this?" he asks. "The Help Line?"
"I guess I want to help people."
"What do you mean, wrong answer?"
"Why do you do this, Beth? Why are you here right now?"
"To help people."
"Beth. What if I told you I had a knife to my throat? What if I told you the blood was already dripping? What if I told you if you really wanted to help me, you would just talk me through it?"
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because. I don't want to die alone."
"You don't have to die."
"Beth. Let me die. Be with me. Talk me through it."
"What is so awful in your life you want to die? What is so awful it can't wait until tomorrow?"
"Why do you need to know the whys? For your form? For your personal satisfaction?"
"Because I care."
"If you cared, you'd understand."
"I'm not Kevorkian."
Beth can picture him getting off the phone, slitting his throat, lying in a red pool among white and green furniture. She can see him doing it if she calls. Doing it if she doesn't.
"Talk to me," she says. "I'll talk all night. I'll talk until time to see your counselor. Put down your drink. Lie down. Talk to me. I'm here for you."
"You tried," he says. "I won't kill myself. You are off the hook and I thank you."
She knows he is lying. "Let me help you."
"Will you come here? Stay with me. Talk to me in person?"
"I will send someone." She pushes the button.
"Will you meet me somewhere?"
"I can't. It's against regulations."
"Do you really think you help people?"
"Do you really think you help people?"
"Yes," she says but doesn't feel it.
"Do you want to help me?"
"Yes. I want to help you live."
"You can't help me."
She hears the click in her ear. Then nothing.