“Burnt Words” gives us the story of a man beaten down and trying to reach out the only way he knows how. It is a story about communication, how we go or don’t go about communicating, and what lengths we will go to in order to speak or avoid speaking. Johnson answers a phone for a living, but the phone never rings. The telephone company puts up a tower in his backyard. Yet nothing is what it looks like, and it’s hard to get at what things really are. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
In red ink the letter asked, WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS, WILL YOUR SIGNAL BE STRONG ENOUGH TO RECEIVE IT? It came the same day as three credit card bills, overloaded with charges that outlived his marriage, maybe as old as the overblown wedding he could hardly remember. So he called the number provided and told them yes, build a cell tower in my backyard, and a crew was at his door the next morning like they’d been waiting around the corner, like they’d known all along what his answer would be. And maybe they had, because communication is the phone company’s business. As a man who spent most of his time waiting for calls unlikely to come, Johnson was impressed by their ability to make the phone ring.
The company rep said hosting a tower would pay off the house in a couple of years, and although Johnson knew it would pay for the house across town where his wife and his daughter still lived before paying a dime on the much smaller house that was his, he worried that saying so might sound ungrateful and sour the deal.
His work as an on-call software consultant had dried up now that so many programs came with troubleshooting guides built into them and everything else could be found for free just by searching the millions of forums and weblogs and help sites online. He was still getting paid, but his phone rang only two or three times a day and mostly he sat doing nothing. Positions like his were obsolete; it was only a matter of time before his contract ran out and did not get renewed. He’d done it for so long, years of working at home and rarely leaving the house, years of questions with clear cut answers, that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. His wife couldn’t imagine him doing anything else, either, and she’d said so before kicking him out with his phone and computer. “The television is a bigger part of the family than you are,” she told him. “At least it talks without being asked.”
She was right, he wasn’t a talker. He liked giving answers to straightforward questions: how do I create a new document with the same template, and how do I reset my page numbers halfway through a long project? How do I start the whole program over when it crashes? Now people knew too much about their computers to ask for his help so he sat waiting for his phone to ring and his wife sat waiting for him to say something until she couldn’t wait longer, until she started one-sided arguments about who was picking up dinner and who made the car payment and was their daughter old enough for a cell phone.
They argued about nothing because they no longer spoke. “Ask me something,” he told her. “Ask me, and I’ll try to answer.” But she had no straightforward questions. She found her answers in books and on blogs, she asked her friends instead of her husband, and by then it was too late for him to speak up.
Since early summer he’d lived in a two-room outbuilding left behind from an estate. The big house was torn down when the elderly owners passed on and their children sold the land to a developer who broke it into parcels and built a whole neighborhood on it. Johnson’s land couldn’t be changed, there was something wrong with the soil or what was beneath so it could be only be sold as it was; he had gotten it cheap. There were thick trees between his house and the neighborhood of identical houses—identical to each other, much bigger than his—and his house sat unseen at the center like the hole in a wheel. Night was so dark that the LEDs on his computer and peripherals shone like the brightest lights in the world. Sometimes he heard children on trampolines and at basketball hoops, the chatter and sizzle of backyard barbecues, but he couldn’t see who was making those sounds.
The phone company rep said isolation made his yard ideal: already surrounded by trees so another one wouldn’t stand out, and without any neighbors close enough to complain. Johnson mentioned his soil problems, but they could work around that. And when he made an extra demand with a lump in his throat, the rep took it in stride: could they, Johnson asked, send a phone to his daughter, top of the line and with service for a whole year? And could they give him the number?
The crew drilled with an augur so big and loud that it shook the whole house, which had no basement and sat on a stacked stone foundation. Dirty glasses and empty bottles rattled againstone another on the kitchenette counter and living room floor, and a bowl and plate stuck together with leftover pasta and sauce shook apart. Clothes fell from their piles in the bedless bedroom, half the house he hardly used because sleeping on the couch felt less permanent. He watched workmen slide a brown pipe down into the hole then fill the space around it with concrete. They added length upon length, tapering as they rose, and within hours the tower reached as high as his roof. They had to take down the old wooden swingset to make space in the yard, but no one had used it for years. Someone with children had left it behind. His own daughter had never seen it. She was probably too old for swingsets, but he could have invited her, he had visiting rights. It was just his daughter had been through a lot—they all had—so as many things as he wanted to tell her, as much as it ached, he would wait for her call. He took a picture of the swingset before it was torn down, in case she wanted to see it.
“You’ll forget it’s there,” the rep said. “We know what we’re doing, and we’ll pick the right tree so it blends.” Johnson had never built anything taller than the stack of pizza boxes he piled nearly as high as the top of the fridge in the weeks after moving in here. At first it had been laziness, then three or four pizzas along it became a project, something he felt committed to, until a few boxes short of his goal he dropped a whole case of beer on the floor, bottles falling and bursting like dumb fireworks and soaking the layers of cardboard. What he knew about building tall things could fit in the scoop of the plastic snow shovel that had scraped up the soggy brown mess, or into one of the bottles he’d dropped.
The workers sprayed textured paint onto the brown metal trunk and in time it was rough as real bark. They’d gone with Douglas fir, it had come down to that or blue spruce. The fir was more local, although there weren’t any in the yard yet. Johnson kept to himself that he wouldn’t know the difference if a Douglas fir or blue spruce fell on his head, even if both trees fell at the same time and were side by side to compare.
With the tower as tall as his roof and a crane looming over the yard, he waited for neighbors to come out and ask what was happening, but none of them did so he had no questions to answer. Late in the afternoon, with the crew almost done for the day, he walked away from the noise and called the number of his daughter’s new phone. Her voicemail picked up on the first ring with a robotic voice. Before he could leave a message the signal was lost. He hoped it would be better once the tower was active, and sat watching the construction crew working while wondering what questions his daughter might have, what she longed to know and what answers he could give her once the tower put them in touch.
Workers tiered branches up the sides of the trunk, boughs for each service provider whose calls would come through his yard. People ordering pizza or delivering bad news would need to use his tree to do it. When his daughter called for a ride home, he would be part of the conversation—not listening in, but included. The neighbors who weren’t quite his neighbors and the software users who had stopped calling would count on Johnson to provide all the major providers. His was like those old trees at the centers of towns, where everything happens from picnics to murder.
When the crew had packed their trucks and were gone, after the company rep had come back to give him a check, they left him alone with his tree. He thought about drinking something special to celebrate, but he’d decided to pretend the tree had always been there, that nothing had changed, so he drank his usual cheap brand in cans. He called his daughter and got her voicemail again, still that robotic voice on the first ring, though the signal was stronger this time. He left a message and told her about his new tree and about the construction he’d watched. He invited her over to see it but he didn’t insist, and when he called himself Dad the sound stalled on his tongue like a word processor asked to do too much at once.
Evenings turned cool and still he spent hours sitting out on the back porch instead of inside, watching the sky instead of TV and imagining the crackle of all of those calls coming and going, picturing blue sparks around his tower like bugs flying into a zapper. Some nights he’d swear he could smell burnt words in the air as good news and bad news flared in all directions. He called his daughter in the late hours and left her long messages; he told the voicemail robot what he knew of the world and of himself, what he knew of her mother, his wife, and what had happened between them. He spoke words he’d never spoken before and when the voicemail timed out he called back and kept talking, and filled her phone with every answer he had so she would find them when she woke. He told her to call back if she had any questions.
By daylight his tree looked like a brown metal tower with green wire needles and too-perfect cones that never fell off. Birds never sat in it long. They would land, sing a few notes, then fly to a real tree nearby. Maybe they felt a current or ear-aching hum. Their fleeing quick as conversation reminded Johnson his tree wasn’t real. So he went online and bought a box of stuffed birds, tossed out by a bankrupt museum of taxidermy (or so the seller emailed). The auction listing didn’t say what kind of birds were included beyond “assorted,” so he didn’t know if they were native to his yard or not but he wouldn’t have known, anyway, and didn’t mind.
When they arrived he unspooled the birds from bubble wrap, and from a ladder leaned against the tree trunk he perched bird after bird in the branches. It was hard to make them stand up with wire—some leaned to one side or hung upside down—but glue might be corrosive and screws or nails would damage the tree.
Birds in other trees twittered and flittered and rustled the branches. His birds were quiet and calm. They were dead and acted like it. As he kicked himself for the wasted money and stupid idea, the man from the phone company called to check how he was doing and to see if he’d had any problems. Johnson asked if he could have some old phones; they didn’t need to be good, he explained, just new enough for custom ringtones. He also asked for a few extra cones for the tree. The rep didn’t ask why. The next morning a box of phones came, each labeled with its number. Johnson spent the afternoon downloading ringtones of birdsong, putting a different tune on each phone.
He climbed up to his birds and slit each open and pulled out enough stuffing to slide in a phone, then stapled them closed because he didn’t know how to sew. He marked each bird with its number on a chart of the tree, then put his ladder away and scattered some cones near the trunk. From the porch he dialed one bird then another and set all of them singing. He called them in pairs or in threes, trying out combinations; he made harmonies and cacophony, the way a conversation is whispers one minute and the next turns into a fight. He made the birds sing like he imagined the secret conversations would sound in his tree if he were able to hear them, the voices of his neighborhood and family and town.
He dialed through the day and into the evening, forgetting to eat until he went inside for more beer and remembered food. So he brought a package of hot dogs out to the grill and when they were cooked he dunked them—no buns—into a jar of mustard and ate the whole package one after another. Then he dialed long into the night, after other birds were asleep and other trees were quiet except for rustling from breezes too high to feel on his porch. He wondered if he might rewire the birds so they rang when calls came through the branches. His birds would sing on their own like birds in other trees, except his would stay where he perched them for as long as he wanted them to.
Rewiring the phones was beyond him. He’d built his computer, he liked to tinker with radios and that kind of thing, but cellphone parts were too small and too sensitive; a bad breath or a misspoken word could screw everything up and ruin all chances of communication. Instead, after dragging his computer out onto the porch, he downloaded software to randomly dial a list of phone numbers and soon his birds were singing again. Sometimes a bird sang by itself and sometimes in pairs or in threes. Every few hours they all sang at once. He listened for repetitions or obvious loops and couldn’t pick out any patterns. Though they might have been singing for their own sake, they weren’t: they were singing for his. He called his daughter but when her voicemail picked up he found he had run out of answers, so instead he held his phone up to one bird then another and left her hours of birdsong.
Summer ended and his daughter went back to school, he assumed, because he saw the yellow flash of buses through thinning leaves. He hadn’t seen her in a while now. He left a message to wish her good luck, wishing she would call back. It should have been a busy time for software help calls, with so many new students and new computers, but his phone went days without ringing and all he heard was the singing of birds. Sometimes he climbed into the tree with an extension cord, charging one bird then another. Most of the time he sat on the porch and left messages on his daughter’s phone. He didn’t know if she was hearing them, and by now he wondered if she’d gotten the phone he sent her at all. He kept calling and calling in case. Then one afternoon a different robotic voice answered and told him the number was no longer in service. He called back, assuming he’d dialed the wrong number. That same voice answered again.
The trees surrounding his tower had stopped drawing birds of their own, ever since his started singing. Leaves darkened and fell until only his evergreen tower had its branches full. Bare trunks and branches stood out like gray cracks against the pale sky, and the brown trunk and green boughs of his tower began to look unreal again. There was nothing to blend in with now.
He paced with crunching steps until he was cold. He stood against the trunk of his tree and looked up, into the branches and needles and cones, into the green tunnel above, and he couldn’t see anything else, no periphery, no distractions, no leafless crowns to remind him that his wasn’t real. He wanted to wrap himself warm in the tree, to look out from within instead of look in from without.
On his phone’s browser, standing in the backyard, he ordered a hunter’s tree stand for rush delivery and it arrived first thing the next morning. The instructions and assembly were simple enough. Johnson had no trouble hauling the rig up his ladder, but at the top he ran into a problem. The tower, although textured like bark, was too smooth to allow the straps and clamps of the tree stand to get a good grip. However much he tightened the straps, the stand still felt loose, and though it would stay put while empty, even a slight push made it slide down the trunk. The weight of his body was out of the question. He climbed down the ladder, leaving the empty seat high in the tree, and ran his palm over genuine bark on the bare trees at the edge of his yard. It wasn’t as rough as he thought it would be—his tower’s trunk was grittier, from sand mixed into the paint—but this bark would flex in the grip of the straps. He peeled sections from several trees, a few different kinds just in case, and carried it all up the ladder. He wedged those sheets of bark between the clamps and the trunk, then tightened the straps as hard as he could and pushed down on the seat with his hand.
It worked—the stand was secure. He made certain by leaning into it with one leg on the ladder, then shifting into the seat, ready to jump for the rungs. The seat took his weight and though it shifted a little—a breathtaking half-second—it stayed where it was on the trunk.
Inside the tree’s crown, wrapped in its branches, the rest of the world was erased by green needles of monofilament and metal boughs. Other trees looked no more real than his did and his house seemed as distant as the neighborhood around him and all the other houses in town. Real birds would have flown away at his arrival, but his went on singing around him. His cell phone couldn’t raise the slimmest of signals; maybe it was the web of signals and wires he’d climbed into, or all those providers overriding each other. If someone called he wouldn’t know it, and if he were tempted to make calls he couldn’t.
As afternoon wore into darkness, Johnson’s light jacket wasn’t enough to ward off the chill. He was hungry and thirsty. His ladder still stood up beside him, tied with rope to the trunk just in case, but he wasn’t ready to go to the ground. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the trunk, feeling the hum of conversations coming and going, of calls made and received. Spouses telling each other why they’d be late and what was for dinner, daughters calling their fathers to talk for no reason at all, calling just because they had phones and had fathers. And he wondered about tents shaped for tree stands and tree house kits he might order; grocery delivery services and winter clothes he could buy online, and if he could just get a signal in here, up the tree, he might never again have to climb down and go inside the house.
—photo Flickr/Keoni Cabral