IT IS TWO IN THE MORNING when the phone rings. “Damn,” Joel says. “Sweetheart,” Daniella groans, meaning nothing particularly tender, just saying the word to put the world on pause while she figures out what’s required of her.
“I’ll get it,” she adds, though there’s really no point. The call isn’t for her.
In normal families, a late-night call means only one thing: tragedy. A drunken mishap. A car crash. A heart finally giving out. Maybe a decapitation or a roadside bomb, the twenty-first-century offering, as it does, an escalating range of horrors.
But the Pearlmans are not a normal family. When the phone rings at 2:00 a.m. at their house, it is always her calling. From Geneva or Paris or London. They can never be sure where she’s taken up residence, only that the call will be long-distance and unpleasant.
THE PHONE RINGS A SECOND, then a third time, sounding unaccountably mad, as if gauging the mood of the caller and comporting itself accordingly. Daniella hurries to the dresser where the phone sits. She means to catch it before Ben wakes, though one more ring and the machine will pick up, and there will be a fuzzy recording intoning, “Elvis has left the building. Elvis has left the building,” after which Joel’s voice will say, “We’re not here. You know the drill. After the beep.” But of course electronic barriers do not dissuade this caller. At the sound of the tape clicking on, she will hang up and try again. If Daniella and Joel simply unplug the phone—which they are disinclined to do, since what if someone truly needs them?—the woman will ring Joel at work tomorrow, and there he doesn’t have the luxury of failing to answer. They’ve tried new numbers over the years, unlisted ones, but she always finds them.
“Joel?” the woman on the line inquires, perfectly polite, though Daniella’s groggy hello is plainly not male.
There was a time when the woman wouldn’t speak no matter who answered. She just hung up. Then called again. And why, Daniella always wondered. Because she couldn’t bring herself to talk? Because her purpose had been merely to bother?
“No,” Daniella says sleepily now, keeping her voice mild and unsurprised. “I’ll get him.” It is the only exchange she has ever had with the woman. “Guess who?” she mouths to Joel.
The woman—she has a name, Liesel—was Joel’s wife for five months, nineteen years ago. She doesn’t call as often as she once did, but now when she does, it isn’t to hang up but to accuse.
“Stop yelling,” Joel will say, and “I don’t know what you want from me.” Sometimes he just lays the phone on the bed, and Daniella can hear Liesel’s angry cries, though she can’t make out the words.
“What does she yell about?” Daniella has asked on more than one occasion.
“What doesn’t she yell about?” Joel says. “You abandoned me. You don’t care. We could be starving, and you wouldn’t care.” He shrugs, defeated and maybe—just slightly—amused. The whole thing is ridiculous.