V

I promised my wife that I would call Dr. Song today. After putting
Mira down for her nap and slipping outside for a smoke, I lifted the
receiver. The sound it emitted, which I have heard without pause
countless times before, seemed to me otherworldly now, like
somebody’s finger playing on the wet rim of a crystal bowl in a
derelict theater before the wars.

It’s hard to say how long I stood there listening. It may have been
seconds or seasons. The rings of Saturn kept turning in their
groove. For reasons beyond me—our seminar had already moved
on from late medieval Europe to developing world underworlds—I
dialed 1-800-INFERNO, and before the first ring, a woman’s voice
answered in heavily accented English.

“Is it you?”

“I think so,” I replied. Outside, the honey locusts sprinkled their
pale spinning leaves in real time. Focusing on one as it fell seemed
to slow the general descent.

“Oh creature, gracious and good,” the faraway lady recited, as if
reading, against her will, from a prepared text, “traversing the
dusky element to visit us / who stained the world with blood.” I
could hear rain trickling in a gutter spout on the other end of the
line.

“Please,” I said into the receiver, “remove my name from your
list.”