The phone was already ringing when she came home from mass that morning, and she let it go a while as she settled in. She crossed through the living room — the "common room," Tom still sometimes called it, as if he and Sophie lived in a dorm, or as if the entire place weren't common to them — and arrived at her desk after three or four rings. They had the landline only for the Internet connection, and they never used this phone, which was the cheapest thing they could find, off-white with a cord and a cradle and an oversized touchpad, as if one of them were going blind. In another setting it might have seemed knowing or campy, but here it looked bluntly functional, like most of the apartment; Sophie lacked the domestic instinct, and Tom was too rarely home to bother over such things.
Nevertheless, the number was listed, and they occasionally got calls, mostly solicitations. The phone sat on her desk, near at hand, and if it rang while she was working she might pick it up and drop it back down without a word. She was often tempted to unplug it, but Tom would complain if he came home and found it that way.
What if there's an emergency?
Who's going to call? she would ask. No one has the number.
I do, Tom would say.
You can call my cell.
But it's never on.
Which was fair enough. She turned off her phone each morning before mass and often forgot about it for the rest of the day. She wrote grant proposals for small charities, and her clients — ostensibly nonprofit directors but mostly just individuals with causes, sometimes nuns or parish priests seeking to serve their congregations in ways the archdiocese hadn't provided for in the budget — had little need to be in touch while she made their cases to various corporate foundations. There was occasional fieldwork involved, trips to shelters and soup kitchens, once to the home of an old man, a former violent felon, who collected clothes for parolees to wear to job interviews. But mostly she sat at her desk all day as she had before, and she didn't want to make herself entirely available to the world. A certain kind of disconnection felt necessary, though she couldn't explain to Tom why this was so.
She worked in the same marbled notebooks she'd always used, and she opened one now while the phone rang for the tenth or eleventh time. They had no answering machine, so it might continue indefinitely. Perhaps it really was something important. More likely one of those recordings. She wondered if the computer cut off at some point, or if it went on forever.
Once she'd decided to answer, she moved with slow deliberation, daring the caller to give up on her. She closed the notebook, which she'd bought along with half a dozen others three weeks before, after running through her last batch. She waited for the phone to sound out once more and then picked it up midring.
A pause on the other end, as if for the drawing of breath. Later, when she told the story, trying to make something out of it, she said that she knew in that moment who was there. But who can say what intimations she really felt?
Her husband's name came through to her, weak and uncertain. Then she did know, though she'd never heard this voice before. And she knew that she'd been waiting for the call.
"Tom is at the office," she said. When no response came, she added, "You can call back later if you'd like. He usually gets in around midnight."
This was not an exaggeration, but an outer estimate. Tom hadn't come home before nine in weeks, and he was often still at the office when Sophie went to sleep.
"Can you give me his number at work?"
She didn't mean to leave the man in suspense, but she took a moment deciding what to do, what Tom would want her to do. He filled the silence apologetically.
"This is his father."
Something about the voice wasn't right. He's drunk, she thought. I can't let him call Tom in this condition. As if in answer to her suspicion, he continued slowly, sounding out his words, letting each stand a moment on its own.
"It's an emergency."
Sophie gave him the number, but only because Tom would want to handle it himself, would want her to have as little as possible to do with the man, and because this seemed the quickest way to get him off the phone. After he'd hung up, she sat at her desk, receiver in hand, until the phone started to make that obnoxious sound it made when left off the hook, a plea for attention from the world of objects. She had waited years for a chance to speak to him, and now the chance had passed. Tom would do his best to make sure there wasn't another.
The notebook sat dead on her desk, and she left it there. She opened the sliding door and stepped out into the sticky heat of their small concrete terrace. From twenty-eight stories up she looked at New York, to which the late-morning humidity seemed applied like a wrapping of gauze. The sky above was cloudless, empty but curiously pale.
Over the years, she had given many hours of thought to Tom's father, wondering how it would feel if she still had a parent alive in the world, always present, and she never spoke to him. She and Tom had a long understanding that she would not ask about him, and she'd abided by it. Tom gave no sign that the man's continued existence interested him at all, but Sophie couldn't really believe this was true. For her own part, her father-in-law was among the most persistent puzzles in her life. She marveled now at the fact that she'd spoken with him only a moment before, even more at the idea that she had hurried him off the phone when she'd finally had a chance to speak with him. She regretted this rush in the uneasy way that she occasionally regretted doing something that she nonetheless felt had been right. Still, she wasn't sure what she would have asked him, had she felt free to ask anything.
Excerpted from What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher R. Beha. Copyright 2012 by Christopher R. Beha. Excerpted by permission of Tin House Books.