One inescapable attribute of the human condition is that events do not always proceed as people expect, intend, or wish. Another characteristic of the human condition is that humans rarely, if ever, find an optimal solution to any problem or situation. Nevertheless, people manage, muddle through, and find a path that works for them. “Phone Tag” addresses those and other aspects of what it means to be human. The characters in “Phone Tag” see, as people in the real world see every day, that small, even minute, perturbations in external conditions and circumstances can lead to enormous differences in results.
“Y’know how it is,” Don said, “when you ’phone somebody and their line’s busy and you get diverted to voicemail, so you leave ’em a message. They ring you back later, but your ’phone’s turned off, so they leave you a message. When you ring ’em back, they’re out of the service area so you leave ’em another message, then they ring you back and your line’s busy so they get diverted and leave you a message. You decide enough is enough, so you call their office number—but they’re in a meeting, so you end up leaving another message.”
We all chuckled and nodded, and Jim began, “But what does that have to do w—”
“I’m getting to that,” Don assured us. “That’s just the way it was with Rocky and Annaliese.”
“What, they kept leaving each other ’phone messages?” Pete said.
“No. Well, not exactly,” Don said, “but it was always that back’n’forth, never-there-at-the-right-time kind of thing.” And he proceeded to tell us the history none of us knew about our friends Rocky and Annaliese.
Annaliese blew into the area looking to get away from the border regions and make a fresh start. She needed a place to live. Rocky, who’d scrimped and saved for five or six years and headed for the woods to get away from urban life and environments, had just bought his first real estate, an acre with two small houses on it. Having been a tenant for most of a decade, he felt uncomfortable about becoming a landlord, but leaving the second house standing empty seemed stupid. When Annaliese appeared and inquired about renting the place, therefore, he agreed—all the more quickly, because he found Annaliese extremely attractive.
Not wanting to take advantage of his position as landlord, Rocky never mentioned his feelings to Annaliese. In due course, he became involved with Kendra, whom most of us knew. Before that relationship came to an end, Annaliese had become involved with Kevin. Bearing no grudges, Rocky accepted Kevin and the two became good friends. Rocky remained single through the time when Kevin and Annaliese married and went off to make their fortune in Alaska.
“I remember that,” Tommy said. “I didn’t know them all that well, but I knew Rocky pretty well through music. Rocky and Kevin used to play music together. When Kevin was leaving for Alaska, Rocky gave him a harder flatpick than he’d ever used in his life and said, ‘Play with it for one month. If you don’t like it after a month, you can give it back to me next time I see you—but give it a month.’”
That filled in a blank for me, because I’d been present at Kevin and Rocky’s reunion, when Kevin and Annaliese returned from Alaska. I remembered Kevin saying, “You got any more of those picks? I don’t like to play with anything else.”
Don filled in another blank, when he told us where Rocky’s name came from: turns out his first name is Rockwell. That reminded me of that American Nazi Party leader and made me wonder if Rocky’s parents were fascist wingnuts. Maybe they were, but Rocky got his name because his mother liked Norman Rockwell’s pictures so much.
About the time Kevin and Annaliese came back from Alaska, Rocky met Lisa, and they were seeing a lot of each other by the time Kevin’s ride took him to a watery grave five months later. Kevin had earned a commercial pilot’s license and was working on his multi-engine ticket, when his damn fool instructor did something stupid and put them and the ’plane into the drink and straight to the bottom. We—there must’ve been fifty of us, friends and relatives—scoured the shoreline for almost two weeks and never found so much as a cushion.
Rocky’s relationship with Lisa fizzled out a few months later, but Rocky wasn’t about to approach the grieving Annaliese. Another of Kevin and Annaliese’s friends, Ed, a hot guitar and pedal steel player they’d met in Alaska, proved less reticent. His comforting Annaliese led to a romance and, eventually, a marriage and a baby. Rocky and Ed never became as close as Rocky and Kevin had been, but they got along well and played several gigs together. Rocky used to visit them at their place on the other side of the mountains, and they came over and stayed with him a few times. Their daughter Edie was about four or five when they sold Ed’s ranch and went their separate ways.
That happened when Rocky was head over heels in bed with Judy, a music- (and Rocky-) loving lawyer from Roseburg. I knew a little of that part of the story and had met Judy a few times. To me, she and Rocky seemed like the perfect match. When I asked him why they’d split up, he told me she was passionate only in bed but never about anything other than sex. I could see that as a major difference, ’cause Rocky was passionate about a lot of things and a lot of the time. The main problem, though, he said, was that her PMS lasted three weeks out of every month. That worried him, and when he backed off a little, she soon jumped in bed with someone else. I think she regretted that, though, ’cause I was with Rocky a few years later, when he and Melanie were together, and we bumped into Judy. Her face was a picture of longing and regret.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—or, rather, I’m getting ahead of Don’s story. Before Rocky and Judy split up, Annaliese had moved out of the area. He travelled a great deal for work and visited Annaliese and Edie a few times, but on his way home from an overseas tour he met Jewel and fell hard for her. That relationship lasted less than a year, and Jewel’s departure left Rocky so shattered he fled the country.
He was living in Queensland, when a European tour brought him into contact with a Danish maiden who swept him off his feet. He romanced her for six weeks, while he was in Europe, and they wrote to each other for a year after Rocky returned to Queensland. On Rocky’s next European tour, he pursued Yngrid with an ardent courtship that convinced her to return to Australia with her suitor. Don told us he thought Rocky’s living in Far North Queensland persuaded Yngrid to go home with him, because she’d always wanted to live in the tropics.
Several of us, including Don and me, met Yngrid when the pair stopped in the U.S. on their way from Europe to Australia. None of us got to know Yngrid at all on that visit, but we all noticed her startling beauty. She and Rocky visited again a couple of years later on the way to more gigs in Europe, but that short visit didn’t afford me any opportunity to get acquainted either. Their next visit came seven years later with their toddler in tow, and on their return journey they stayed in the U.S. for more than a year and went home to Australia with two kids.
Annaliese had in the meantime settled down with a fellow named Mickey, who seemed like a nice guy. They lived a five-hour drive away, so most of us rarely saw them. Rocky and his family spent a few days with them in the course of the long visit, so he probably knows Mickey better than any of us and apparently likes him. Edie had grown up and moved out by then, and I don’t think she’s ever met Rocky and Yngrid’s kids. Rocky mentioned that Annaliese had started smoking, which worried him.
Despite the smoke, Rocky and Yngrid and their kids visited Annaliese and Mickey and vice versa in the course of another extended visit from our Aussie friends. That occurred another six years later, and everyone noticed Yngrid had put on a lot of weight but still looked beautiful. Four years after that, Annaliese spent a week with them in Queensland while in Australia for some kind of conference. Since then, none of the folks in this area have seen any of ’em for almost ten years. Don and I share occasional emails with Rocky, and Don and George share occasional emails with Annaliese.
Don told us Rocky and Yngrid split up, which I’d already heard from Rocky. Their younger child just started college, and Rocky left Australia running from pain the same way he’d run from the U.S. thirty years earlier. I know he’s in Asia somewhere, and I think Don knows where Rocky is but has been sworn to secrecy. Both Don and I have received emails from Rocky suggesting he might return to the U.S. for an extended visit, but no specifics.
Don and George both think Annaliese and Mickey are still together, but who knows—things change. Maybe Rocky and Annaliese will finally get together. Don reckons it’s time they both answered that ’phone call, although they aren’t quite the same people they were when they began dancing around each other as young adults.
Harlan Yarbrough was educated as a scientist and graduated as a mathematician by M.I.T. He has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular performer on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry. Yarbrough’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city (land use) planner, among other occupations. He lives, writes, and continues to improve his dzonkha vocabulary and pronunciation in Bhutan but visits the US and Europe to perform and thereby to recharge his bank account. Yarbrough has written five novels, three novellas (one published), three novelettes (two published), and forty-some short stories, of which thirty have been published in six countries. His work has appeared in the Galway Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Red Fez, Veronica, Scarlet Leaf Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and many other literary journals and has won the Fair Australia Prize.