By Terry Barr
The blinking red light of the phone machine, as usual, unnerves me. Why do I always think that somehow this will be the message that changes my life? It’s all I can do to walk past it, even though I’m holding my baby daughter Pari, even though I need to put her down gently to keep her warm and asleep. Still thinking of that machine, I wait a beat, two. Her breathing is normal, calm. Exhaling now, I walk back to my machine, abandoning my wife Nilly who, as usual, wants to glow in our daughter’s sleep.
There are two messages flashing at me, actually. The first is mainly silence until the very end when I hear “TERRY BARR” in a voice attempting to speak its authority. The message ends there.
The next one begins.
I am standing alone in our living room looking out of the broad picture window at our quiet, connector street. It’s getting late on this Saturday night, ten days before Christmas. Nilly hasn’t emerged yet from Pari’s bedroom, which rests at the back of the house, far from the living room where I stand, and I thank God for that now.
When I hear it, I freeze until the message runs out. I look back towards my daughter’s room. Has Nilly heard? But there is nothing stirring back there, no “Oh my God,” and no footsteps approaching with worry and fear. So it’s only me. Me and my machine.
And those words.
Before I can think this through, I do the one thing that in the light of day I’ll most regret: I hit the erase button. But I want to make this disappear. I want to throw my machine like a discus out into the night. I want to wake up again on Saturday morning for a do-over. I want never to have heard what I heard, and more than anything else, I want to be sure that neither my wife nor our daughter has heard it. Or ever will hear it.
And it’s only in this last desire that I succeed.
We had been to two Christmas parties that night. The first was an Amnesty International gathering celebrating our recent success in our Holiday Card Action campaign. We’d succeeded in sending over one hundred greeting cards to prisoners of conscience all over the world that morning as we took to the main street of our downtown. Stationing ourselves at a cross street with heavy shopping traffic, we would gently accost perfect strangers who’d sometimes smile and sometimes sneer at us as we ask them to send a message of hope to a prisoner of conscience of their choice. We have twenty-five to thirty different prisoners to work for—men and women who have been bound and held in a prison in some remote part of the world for exercising their human right to speak their beliefs, wear what they want, or support some loved one who has run afoul politically of a governmental tyrant.
Mixed in, too, and usually the hardest to get people to sign for, are the death penalty cases. Amnesty unconditionally opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. Sometimes our card-signers want to debate the issue with us. These debates usually get nowhere, and I often refuse to engage because who knows what this other person has experienced? My strong beliefs are my own, and I keep telling myself that I’m not threatening or challenging anyone else’s, or if I am, I’m doing so respectfully. Beliefs can’t hurt, right? I’m aware of the irony here that if I truly think that beliefs can’t hurt, I won’t fully get what Amnesty’s prisoners are suffering.
Still, it turned out to be a good day despite these moments of doubt and conflict. Over a hundred messages of hope that we hope will reach our prisoners. Maybe it’s true that Christmas does bring out “goodwill toward men.”
At our party this night, everyone is in high spirits. We toast each other for our success; we toast those who signed our cards. We toast our prisoners and hope that next year they’ll be free. And we toast the founders of Amnesty, two British students who wanted to change the world, or at least show the hopeless that someone cares.
Our Amnesty group is a diverse lot: teachers, students, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. Our group leader is a British astronomer, one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. A man, in his sixties, who still likes to climb a good tree.
We eat our potluck supper, raise our glasses one more time, and then the three of us—Nilly, Pari, and me thriving on all the attention—head off to our next gathering, which is a party for the staff of our weekly alternative newspaper. I’ve been writing film and local theatre reviews over the past year, trying to hone my skills and give voice to whatever arts scene our town has.
The party is held at a duplex in an older part of town. As we enter its arched doorway and I see peeling paint on the inner hall walls, I’m reminded of all those grad school parties I attended not so many years ago. Our host, a guy wearing a silken robe and an ascot over what might be flannel pajamas, leads us to a side porch where a pumped up keg awaits. Strings of mismatched Christmas lights are draped haphazardly from room to room, greeting us everywhere we turn, but saying what?
Pari is sneezing at the party’s cigarette smoke. I barely know the paper’s editor—and he’s the only person I know here—but he’s nowhere to be found at first. Soon I see him and another boy his age tumbling out of the bathroom.
“Hey Terry,” he says, before his momentum, or his friend’s weight, pushes him out the door onto the porch.
“Are we about ready to leave,” Nilly asks. She gives me that look, but it isn’t necessary. Not at all.
I love this paper and am glad it gives no restrictions on what I write about and say. No word count; no demand to simply recount the plot and give a thumbs up or down. There is a star system, though, and for my latest review, I gave Spike Lee’s X four and a half stars out of five. I thought Lee’s ability to capture the complexity of Malcolm in just under three hours was a feat itself worthy of high praise. I appreciated his courage and tenacity. His audacity. And my review said so.
As we drive home, I’m thinking that even though we stayed at this party for barely half an hour, it was worth it to mingle with people who, even in our small town, aspire to a more bohemian lifestyle. In fact, the whole evening for me has been warm and cheerful—an evening surrounded by friends and people who love each other. While I’m not a Christian any more, this time of year is still—and I know of no other word for it—so joyous.
Or so I believe until we get home. Until we walk in the front door and I see that red blinking light. Until I press the “play message” button.
Until I hear his voice.
The next morning I walk across the street to my neighbor’s house. Steve’s a police detective, and he agrees to come over and talk to us. After greeting Nilly, he gets right to the point.
“Why did you erase that message?”
“I don’t know. I just reacted. I didn’t want anyone else to hear.”
“What exactly did it say again?”
“Well, it began with: ‘Terry Barr!!! We know who you are and where you live! We’re watching you!’”
That was bad enough.
“Have you had any other messages like this?”
And then I remember the other late night calls, the ones asking: “Is this Mark, the Art professor at Clinton College?” The same college that employs me.
“He doesn’t live here,” I answer, but the caller hangs up before I can ask “Why do you think he lives with me,” or more importantly, “Just who the hell are you anyway?”
“All I can tell you to do,” Steve says, “is to save any other messages you get, and put call-tracing on your phone. We need to build a case file and collect evidence.”
I must still be in shock. Will this work? Will I even want to answer the phone again? Still, we purchase call tracing, the phone calls stop.
In their place, packages begin arriving. Round, white packages unlike any I’ve ever received. They come from The Bradford Exchange and other such “collectible” outlets. Commemorative plates and coins: things you see advertised in popular magazines or on late-night TV. Places with 800-numbers that don’t ask questions and don’t demand credit cards. Places that allow the “Bill Me Later” option.
Over the next few weeks, we receive BassMaster equipment, Columbia House LPs usually containing the latest from Brooks and Dunn or Toby Keith—musicians I’d never intentionally listen to. We get subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Field and Stream.
“I’ve never seen a Penthouse,” Nilly says.
When we see him, we ask the postman what we should do with this stuff.
“You didn’t order it, did you?”
“Well, it’s all yours then. They can’t do anything to you!”
So we return what we can, refuse what we’ll never want.
And then the first Hustler arrives. We’re anxious now, and ashamed of the pornography, of the violation, of someone we don’t know imagining us holding such a magazine.
I call their 800-number to cancel any other Hustlers and strangely, miraculously, they’ve saved the order card. They mail it to me, and I see the writing for the first time. A hand not only not my own, but a form of printing that I’d characterize as coming from someone who isn’t comfortable holding a pen, someone who stopped paying attention to anything scholastic around the sixth grade.
Next comes an afternoon call from a representative trying to confirm the “escort” I’ve ordered for that evening:
“I have the request right here on my phone tape, though I have to say that the voice really doesn’t sound like yours.”
“Could you play it for me?”
He does. It’s familiar, I think, the same voice: deep, smug, satisfied with itself but in a southern dialect not even remotely close to mine.
I’m from the South, have lived in this region all my life, from Alabama to Tennessee and now here in South Carolina. When I travel to New York or Boston, people there recognize my southern accent immediately. But down here, there are people who believe I’m from New York. Maybe it’s my training in music and theatre back in high school. Maybe it’s that while my mother drawls with the best of them, my father, also a native southerner, has a different slant. A Jewish slant. An accent that seems to defy a specific region.
All I know is that the voice on that tape is truly and defiantly southern. And not “city Southern” either:
“Mah name is Turry Bawhr, an’ I’ed lahke an es Cort for toonaght at sebm.”
He gives our address, and then, in an even more smug tone, he signs off with a “Thaink yew vera much!”
I ask, and in a compliant and law-abiding way, the escort service turns the taped message over to the police. And then, the calls start coming again. Always late at night; always asking for “Mark.” We trace these, turn them over to our investigator. Months have passed since the initial disturbing call, and we have collected diecast cars and random cologne samples and Playboys and US magazines. And more BassMaster stuff. I can’t begin to describe all that we got, all that subsequently made up our massive yard sales.
The police have enough evidence now to confront our harasser. He hasn’t actually committed a crime, but they think they can at least scare him, intimidate him. Make him stop. And just as they’re ready to do so, we put it together, or at least together enough to see how this started, to understand what set him off.
I had asked Nilly before if she remembered any crank calls, anything suspicious, even anything that seemed innocent. It’s usually the thing you’ve forgotten, the thing you say to yourself, “It just couldn’t be.”
“You know,” she says, “there was this time when I got a call asking if you were the same Terry Barr who reviewed movies. I said ‘yes,’ but that he’d have to call back to speak to you. He was polite and thanked me.”
“But he never called back.”
“No, he never called back…Why did I tell him who you were?”
“It’s okay. You couldn’t have known.”
A few days later, our investigator checks in. He and another officer paid our caller a visit. They told him they knew what he was doing and that if he didn’t stop, we might press charges. He never actually denied anything, but he didn’t admit his guilt either.
“We warned him pretty good. You should know, though, that he’s in his late thirties and still lives with his parents. And, of course, he has a record.”
They even tell me his name, and later, I look him up and find out where he lives—an area of town notorious for its less-than-progressive thinking, though of course I’m just stereotyping now. It does my soul—so committed to human rights—no good to know the truth behind every stereotype, or to be right in my stereotyping. Is it good to know who this man is, though? Can knowing bring peace?
“Well, that’s all we can do for now,” our investigator says. “Let’s hope he doesn’t bother you again.”
I understand. I’ve watched enough episodes of Law and Order in my life to get it. To get that the best we can do is to change and unlist our phone number, and so we do. The phone calls stop, but the packages still come.
A year or so later, after our second daughter is born, we move to a larger house in a different zip code. The packages stop then, and after a few months, I finally get out of the habit of looking out our window at night when random cars come driving by.
It’s obvious, too obvious to say—though I will anyway—that though I erased that tape, I can’t erase its memory, its message. I can’t erase the fear or the harassment of those many nights in our young life.
I did tell Nilly, as well as the police, what the voice on that tape said. But thankfully, neither Nilly nor Pari ever had to hear that voice, so if they have any memory of that night or that time, at least it won’t be what I remember. At least I protected them from that. And if I did put them at risk by liking Spike Lee’s X, or erasing a hate-filled tape, I’m as sorry as I can be, as I’ve ever been. We didn’t deserve this; of course we didn’t. But then, does anybody?
“Terry Barr!!! We know who you are and where you live! We’re watching you! Remember. WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE! SIEG HEIL, SIEG HEIL, SIEG HEIL!”
TERRY BARR is a regular contributor to culturemass.com and has had essays published or forthcoming in such journals as The Museum of Americana, Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Fat City Review, Sport Literate, and Melange Press. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Greenville, South Carolina.