Karen Bender "The Cell Phone That Would Not Stop Ringing During High Holy Day Services"

By Karen E. Bender

The rabbi told us to turn off our cell phones before he began the Rosh Hashanah services. So I pressed that button on the side of the phone and saw its square face go dark. I was ready to reform, after all. It was Rosh Hashanah. I wanted to join the hordes of others reforming, trying to change into better people for the New Year. I stood at the cusp of the New Year, a plain of good intentions, stood with my husband and children in the pews, surrounded by others in their suits and fine dresses and pumps and satin yarmulkes; the congregants were thinking of all the ways, the past year, in which had not been the best of persons.

We all stood and peered into the Ark, its tall oak doors now open, inside the sheer white curtains floating lightly  over the Torahs. The Torahs were dressed up in their crimson velvet cases; they looked as though they were ready to go to an expensive restaurant or a wedding. The cantor’s voice soared as he sung the deep notes of Avinu Malkeinu, all of us bowing slightly before the Ark, trying to appear humble, or concerned, assuming the blank and philosophical expressions particular to the High Holy Days. The other congregants were so focused I envied them. They were closer to imagining their better selves. This was an opportunity for that. I was trying, too, to imagine this, but my mind kept swerving the wrong way. I tried to think about how to forgive those who had wronged me in various ways, from the cashier at Food Lion to my boss to my friend who had stopped calling to that mean guy who blasted his horn at me and gave me the finger when I was, in fact, driving the speed limit today. I was not able to access this better self, no, for I was mired in my own personal grievances.

I wanted. I wanted everything I shouldn’t; I wanted a load of cash and a Jacuzzi tub in our bathroom and everyone to stop yelling and I wanted everyone at my work to shut up and listen to me. I wanted sometimes to escape to another life and I wanted to freeze time so my children and husband would always be who they were at certain perfect moments and I wanted my family and friends to appreciate the love I wanted to lavish on them, but everyone kind of preferred their own sort of love, which was their choice, naturally, but sometimes made me sad. I wanted my dead parents and an aunt and some friends who were dead to be alive again, and I could not get accustomed to, and even bitterly resented, their deadness. I wanted my brother to stop being mad because I had taken the best chandelier out of our parents’ dining room. I wanted the cats to stop napping and clean up the house. I wanted to eat ten Entemann’s coffee cakes and not gain a pound.  I wanted to go completely deaf when some people were talking, and I wanted others to just vanish. I wanted my nation to not be so embarrassing.  I wanted to ram my car into the car of the mother whose child bullied mine.  I wanted to climb back into my mother and try again to be born. I wanted to stop burning with jealousy over stupid matters. I wanted not to be so ridiculous. I sort of wanted to repent but really I wanted others to repent, or maybe the world to repent, with its obstinate and senseless rules.

And this was just what I wanted, this was not what I actually did. That I won’t even go into.

Then a cell phone started to ring.

It was a cheery, slightly irritating tune, the unmistakable melody of a device that wanted you to grab it and make it stop playing. I thought, what idiot left his cell phone on, and looked around, and then, I realized with a jab of horror that the melody was coming from somewhere around my feet.     

The ringing phone was mine.  

I grabbed my bag. How could my phone be on? I had turned it off.  We were in the middle of services! I was not this dumb. My hands were trembling, and I fumbled with the phone, forgetting briefly how to turn it off.  The damn thing kept ringing.  My hands were as clumsy as enormous mitts, and somehow could not figure out how to turn it off, so, instead, I answered it.

“Marry me,” said a stranger’s voice.

The members standing in the pew behind me glared at me. The cantor’s voice soared through the room.

“Uh, wrong number,” I whispered.

“Please. You know I’d be good,” said the voice.  “I have a truck, sweetie, please marry me or I’m going to --“

I was trembling. Everyone in the congregation knew the phone belonged to  me. They were concentrating very intently on their holiness--oh the pure focus of their blank faces!-- and I had interrupted them.  

“Stop!” I said and hung up. I pressed the button on the side, the Power button, so the phone would turn off and I could get back to my quest for my higher self.

The phone rang again.

What the hell? The phone was off. Seriously. Now the cantor was looking, none too happily, at me.

I answered it. “Yes?” I whispered.

“I’m calling about the job,” said a woman, sounding nervous.

“There’s no job. Forget it,” I hissed.

“But I need it,” she said. “Please! Give it to me! Now!”

I hung up.

I looked around. The activity by the Ark had ceased. There was no pretense of worship anymore.

I shrank to a puddle of shame. Happy Rosh Hashanah from me, the idiot whose cell phone had gone off. Twice.

“Don’t you know how to turn your phone off?” asked a man behind me.

I held out the phone, as evidence.

“It’s off!” I said. “I swear!”

I could feel everyone staring at me. How had I been so thoughtless, careless? Didn’t I see how others were trying to better themselves? Why couldn’t I? Did I want to? Or was I, perhaps, a saboteur of others’ desires to improve?

Another phone rang.

But this time it wasn’t mine.  Thank all gods everywhere. Everyone looked around. Another tinny melody erupted across the room. A woman gasped and rummaged through her purse. She brought it out, the phone happily ringing away.

“It was off!” she cried. But she answered it. It was on speaker.

“If I don’t get pregnant this time,” a voice cried, “I’m having an affair.”

Another phone rang. Then another. The rabbi and cantor, the Temple president, various high-ranking hi-hos, stood, bewildered, suddenly ineffectual in the presence of these spirited ring tones. All the phones were going off at once, and people scrambled through their purses, pulling out their phones and answering them.

My phone was ringing, too. Each time I shut it off, it burst into its fierce song.  Each time it rang, a person wanted something. Urgently. Or they were going to act.

“I want my wife back or I’m beating you up.”

“I want my gardening sheers back or I’m kicking you out of the garden club.”

“I want that teddy bear or I’ll cry at the restaurant.”

“Stop,” I kept saying, and snapping my phone off. Would they just shut up already? Who wanted to hear the world’s millions of complaints? The world was mad, as in disappointed, humiliated, hurt, lost, and everyone had their personal solutions to this, most of which were inadvisable. They were human, most solutions were inadvisable. There were shouts of anger and grief rolling across the world. All of the congregants were answering their phones and going pale and shutting them off, but the calls kept coming, more and more, and the pleas became more high-pitched and urgent. The cell phones sang and bleeped and whirred and filled the sanctuary with an unholy ruckus, and no one knew how to continue the service.

“Rabbi, how do we make it stop!”

The rabbi gazed, bewildered, upon all of us. He clearly didn’t know. My phone rang again.

“My dog ran away,” a woman said. “I don’t want to leave the house.”

There was something in the voice that made me pause before I said Stop! And turned off the phone.

“I know,” I said.

There was the sound of a human breathing.

“Okay,” said the voice, and hung up.

My phone shuddered in my palm. And then it was off. It seemed to be off. Now I had a theory. I heard the voice inside the phone of the man standing next to me, in which someone on the other end was saying how his child had started drinking, a lot, and wouldn’t talk to him and he, the father, just wanted to drive to his apartment, grab the bottles of liquor, and empty them into the street.

“It’s hard,” I said.

There was silence.

“Yep,” said the man and hung up.

The phones exploded into sound, over and over, in the room, until this. Until the person who answered the phone did not tell the one on the other end to stop. The phones were adamant, ferocious for attention, their rings shrieking so that it felt as though they would reside forever in your ear, but as soon as we said something, anything but “stop” to the person on the other end, the phones ceased their ringing. One by one, the ringing vanished and after a few minutes, finally all the cell phones were silent.

The silence in the room seemed new and enormous. It was as though we had all been assigned new ears. Everyone looked a bit shaken. My ears felt a bit tender with the buzzing from all of the ringing, all of the sorrows and complaints of the world. I was depleted. But now, the air was clear, pure as glass. In this silence, I felt I could hear everything.

We stood in front of the rabbi, who gazed at all of us, pleased.

“We are all ready now?” he asked us.

We were. I think I was ready. In my hand, my cell phone was still.

“All right then,” he said. “Let’s begin.”

This work appeared in SR Issue 11. To purchase issue 11, click here

Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund and the novels A Town of Empty Rooms and Like Normal People. Her stories have appeared in magazines including The New YorkerZoetropeNarrativeGuernicaPloughsharesThe Harvard Review, and others. Visit her at www.karenebender.com