by T.R. Healy
Bernie Rotfeld started to take a sip from the Perrier bottle on his desk when he received another call.
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“There’s a car on fire outside my dry cleaning shop.”
“Where is your shop located, sir?”
“On 15th and Hazelfern.”
“A fire engine should be there shortly.”
He took a sip of the lime-flavored water and swished it around his mouth before swallowing.
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“If my mother has a stroke is this who I should call for help, operator?”
“You say your mother is having a stroke?”
“No. She’s sleeping now but she’s quite old. So I want to know if I should call 9-1-1 if she does have one?”
“Yes, ma’am. That would qualify as an emergency.”
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?”
“My dog jumped into the pond behind my house.”
“I’m concerned she might catch cold.”
“So I’d appreciate it if you’d send someone over to get her out and to bring a blanket.”
Imbecile, he fumed, angrily yanking off his headset.
“What’s wrong, Bernie?” Emma Powell, a colleague whose desk was next to his, asked, startled when he slammed down his headset.
“I can’t tell you how tired I am of these damn prank calls,” he grumbled.
“We all are, honey.”
“Some idiotic woman wanted me to send over someone with a blanket so her dog didn’t catch cold. Can you believe it?”
She smiled. “The other day this lady called to say that an elderly guy in her neighborhood for whatever reason decided to climb up a tree in front of her house and now couldn’t get himself down.”
“That sounds like it might be for real.”
“Turned out it was and a couple of firefighters got him down.”
He nodded. “You just don’t know whether to believe some of these crazy calls or not.”
“Which is why we have to treat all of them as if they’re genuine.”
Not all, he thought, remembering a guy a couple of years ago who made nearly thirty prank calls before he was identified and arrested. He reported house fires and heart attacks and car crashes and bomb threats and random shootings. Just about any kind of emergency that popped into his demented mind.
Before he got out of his car, a Saab he hadn’t washed in months, Rotfeld leaned over and looked at himself in the rearview mirror. His hair was so long and shaggy it curled over his ears but, as always, his goatee was neatly trimmed. He had the small, pointed beard since his sophomore year in college when he saw a photograph of Leon Trotsky in an illustrated history of the Bolshevik Revolution. He knew Trotsky was a vile and heartless tyrant but, despite that, he thought his goatee looked distinguished and decided he wanted to grow one like the Russian revolutionary. When he did, however, he looked more like a derelict on the street and was disappointed but not enough to shave it off. It was hard to believe but, in another month, it would be twenty years since his chin was bare.
Meticulously he sharpened the point of the beard with a small brush he always carried with him before a performance. Smiling, he wagged his head back and forth, trying to relax the muscles in his neck. Then, leaning back in his seat, he shrugged his shoulders and held them in a hunched position for five seconds. He repeated the exercise again and again, holding his shoulders in that position a fraction longer each time. Next, to relax the muscles in his throat, he hummed for a minute as he exhaled then, with his mouth open, he continued to hum for another minute.
He looked at his watch and saw that the baseball game would not start for another twenty minutes which was more than enough time to warm up his voice.
One of his more reliable vocal warm-ups was the “lip bubble” because it reduced so much tension. Smiling again, he suspected Trotsky might have been comfortable performing this exercise as well because it involved blowing a raspberry, or Bronx cheer, which was a sound of contempt and derision. So, with his head erect and his eyes closed, he slipped his fingers inside his cheeks near his lips on both sides of his mouth then silently blew a raspberry until he was able to do it consistently without interrupting the flow of air. Forcefully, then, he began to sing “do-re-mi” up and down the scale until he would not be surprised if he could be heard by some of the fans in the stadium.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, we ask that you stand and join us in the singing of our national anthem,” the public address announcer blared through the speakers mounted throughout the stadium.
Quickly he touched the recipe card in his back pocket on which he had scribbled the lyrics of the difficult song. So far, he had never needed to refer to it during a performance but there was always the chance he might get what his nephew called “a head freeze” and forget a word or even a line so it comforted him to know the card was in his pocket.
“Tonight leading us is a 9-1-1 dispatcher, Mr. Bernie Rotfeld.”
Staring at the flag on the pole behind the center field bleachers, he sang as if for the first time though he had performed the anthem so many times he had lost count.
Rotfeld didn’t really know why he liked to sing, certainly no one else in his family could carry a note, but ever since he could remember he sang whenever he had the opportunity. In high school, as a member of the boys choir, he was one of the featured soloists. And on more than one occasion Mr. Amiton, the director, said he thought he was good enough to make a living with his voice. He tried while in college and after he graduated, performing with different bands and in various musical productions, but the only regular income he received was from singing the anthem. Every day, though, he hoped he would get the break that would make himself well enough regarded that he could earn a livelihood with his voice.
“9-1-1. What is your emergency?” Rotfeld asked.
“I was out walking my dog in Fernhill Park and came across this man lying at the bottom of some stairs.”
“Is he conscious?”
“Doesn’t appear to be.”
“Is he breathing?”
“He is and, I almost forgot, there’s some blood behind his left ear.”
“Where are you in the park?”
“At the north entrance near the duck pond.”
“Paramedics will be there soon.”
“9-1-1,” he answered the next call. “What is your emergency?”
“There’s this lady on Tanner Creek Bridge.”
He slipped a mint under his tongue. “What is she doing there?”
“Yeah,” the youthful-sounding voice giggled. “And I’m worried she might get a charley horse and fall into the water.”
“Listen, caller,” he said, bristling, “are you aware of the punishment for making false emergency calls?”
The youngster, however, hung up before Rotfeld was able to inform him of the multiple penalties.
“Another prank call?” Emma asked.
He nodded, stroking the tip of his chin whiskers. “I recognized the voice right away. It was that kid who’s been calling us practically all summer with his ridiculous alarms. I should have hung up before he said why he was calling.”
“You can’t do that, Bernie.”
“I know but I wish I could.”
“Don’t we all.”
Two weeks later, an overnight dispatcher did ignore what she considered to be a crank call and it turned out she was mistaken. A woman who threatened to leap off the Tanner Creek Bridge did indeed jump. Immediately the delinquent dispatcher was put on administrative leave and it was unlikely she would ever be reinstated because the family of the woman who jumped indicated they intended to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
“All we can do to guard against something like this happening again is to treat every call we receive as legitimate,” Emma said to Rotfeld one morning over coffee.
He agreed. “Even if we suspect it’s bogus.”
“That’s what we’re there for, right?”
“So it is,” he said, taking a sip of coffee. “But just think of all the calls we get about people threatening to jump off that damn bridge. And how many ever turn out to be real?”
“I just wish there was something that we could do to reduce all these prank calls.”
He thought a moment. “Maybe I could sing.”
Her eyelids fluttered in confusion. “Sorry?”
“It’s just a thought,” he said, “but perhaps two or three nights a week I could go on to the bridge and sing a song or two. That might change the attitude of anyone thinking about jumping off.”
“That wouldn’t stop jerks from making bogus calls about jumpers.”
“No, but it might prevent someone from making the leap. Who knows?”
“I certainly don’t so maybe it’s worth a try. Besides, it might show the public that dispatchers aren’t the lazy, uncaring people we’ve been made out to be by the press the past week.”
The first night Rotfeld ventured out to the notorious bridge he did perform the national anthem along with two selections from the musical Carousel. To his delight, he received a few compliments from others on the bridge which gave him encouragement to return to sing the following evening. By the end of the second week two local television stations had presented stories about his bridge performances on their evening newscasts. He could not have been more pleased because the attention he garnered brought him several offers to perform the anthem at ball parks and picnic grounds and lodge halls and numerous other venues. He had no way of knowing if his singing had prevented anyone from leaping off the bridge but, deep down, he really didn’t much care. He had come up with the idea of singing on the bridge as a way of promoting his career as an entertainer. It was a cold and calculated maneuver that he suspected the founder of the Red Army might have understood and appreciated.