The Right Number: A Short Story

Originally posted June 10, 2012

John McLean tapped the cracked screen of his yellow iPhone and brought it to his ear.

“Hello, Ming’s Café. What you want?”

“An order of egg rolls, Hot & Sour Soup…”

“…and Pork Lo Mein, right? I know your voice. 3337 Guadalupe Street #2? Same credit card?”



“20 minutes.”


John tossed the phone on his grey, tweed couch and glanced around the apartment. The oily, plastic tubs, used chopsticks and red & white, cardboard trapezoids served as evidence of his dietary apathy. A living museum. Empty cartons petrified in time. A hunger that was once wrenching and desperate—now reduced to a low grumble. Eating was more like an annoying habit these days.

Six months. Six months since she left. Only two things remained: her white sapphire and 18K yellow gold engagement ring and a 43-second message on Google Voice. He had it memorized. Verbatim.

Katherine didn’t really say much. After almost two years, she just—poof—vanished. Said her heart wasn’t in it. Said she didn’t want to hurt him. When he returned home to Austin from his mother’s funeral in Mobile, she had packed her things and placed the custom-made ring on the top of his dresser. Where it still sat. Untouched. An orphaned relic of a past life.

Their courtship was short-lived. She was an intern in the hospital where his mother was staying. They had known each other for about five months before he popped the question. She had comforted him through the toughest parts of his mother’s MS. Perhaps their bond had formed out of security rather than love, but still, he had never opened himself with anyone as much as he had with her. If it weren’t for the ring’s insistent existence, he might have believed their relationship was just a passing dream. That would have made things easier.

But it was real. And he now had the Chinese take-out boxes and extra 40 pounds to prove it.

He looked into the mirror and slid up his greasy, white tank.

“Something’s gotta change,” he thought to himself. “Jesus…man. I feel so numb inside. Like I’m spending my life waiting to die or something. I don’t want to live like this. The fucking Chinese delivery lady knows me better than anyone else, for Chrissakes! How fucking pathetic is that?”

He sat back down on the sofa and absent-mindedly reached for the remote.



Comedy Central


He paused. TBS was playing Die Hard. Again.

“Typical,” he muttered. He loathed this movie. Or rather, he loathed his inadvertent affiliation with it:

“John McLane!? Like that Bruce Willis character in ‘Die Hard’? I love those movies! Are you gonna save the Nakatomi Tower or something?”

No, you fucking moron. I’m gonna bash your fucking brains in with a two-by-four.

“Uhhh…yeah, funny. No, not saving anything. He spells is differently anyway. L-A-N-E. I spell mine L-E-A-N.”

“Well, we know who to call when the Germans come to town, eh?”


But on some level, he knew it wasn’t their fault. His name did have a level of notoriety. If he had met a woman named ‘Elizabeth Taylor’, he’d probably say something just as douchey like, “Really? How are the ex-husbands?”

And yet, like a scab he couldn’t stop picking, he didn’t change the channel.

“Ironic.” he reflected. “The hero and the loser. The champion and the deadbeat. John McLane, the savior of humanity and John McLean, the king of Chinese delivery.”

The tinny sound of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ jolted him from his self-loathing.

“That’s strange,” he thought, “no one ever calls me. Maybe the Chinese place ran out of eggrolls or something.”

He looked at the phone, but didn’t recognize the number.

“Oh what the hell,” he said, answering. “Hello?”

“Well hello yourself! I have been waiting for over an hour-and-a-half at Spider House! Where the hell are you?!” shrieked a woman’s voice on the other end of the line.


“What? WHAT?! Jenna said you were a little flaky, but this is RIDICULOUS!!!”

“Jenna? Who…who the hell is Jenna?”

“Jenna…your cousin? Wait. Is this Randy Morgan?”

“No. My name is John. John McLean. You must have the wrong number.”

“Oh my God…I am so sorry. It’s just…my co-worker—well, former co-worker—tried to set me up on a date with her cousin and she texted me his number and…well, clearly she made a mistake and sent me the wrong number and…oh, Christ, it’s just been a long day—a long week really. Oh who are we kidding, this whole year has been pretty shitty, what with the divorce settlement and losing my job and my father’s accident…,” she trailed off, stifling her tears.

“I’m sorry,” John said, genuinely moved by this strange woman’s pain.

“No, no, I’m sorry…for dumping all that on you and for screaming at you and…geez, you must think I’m some sort of crazy woman, huh?”

“Well, actually, I think you’re pretty spot on. I mean, if I had to deal with a divorce and losing a job and the father thing—and on top of all of it, being stood up—I’d be upset too.”

“Thanks,” she said, softening. “What did you say your name was?”

“John McLean.”

“Why is that so familiar?”


“Um, Die Hard?” he muttered, grudgingly.


“The Die Hard movies? The main character is John McLean?”

“Never seen them. Not a Bruce Willis fan.”


“Wait a minute!” she cried. “Westlake High? Class of ’92? Well, I guess you were ’90 or something…?”


“Yes! This is Marsha! Marsha Graves. Well, Marsha Reynolds now, but soon to be back to Graves. We were in band together. I played sax and you were trumpet, yeah? You were pretty good in those days.”

John remembered her. Pretty. Blonde. Soft features. A little flighty. Spent more time smoking weed under the bleachers than in band practice, but she was always kind.

“Sure, I remember you. What you been up to since high school?”

“Oh, local community college. Left after a year. Got it together long enough to get my aesthetician license and been doing nails ever since, though the place I worked for closed down last month. Tough times, ya know. Plus my father just got in a car accident. He’s alive, but his legs are crushed. Not sure if he’ll ever walk again. And he has no pension and no insurance—what with being the local handyman all these years.”


“Too young. He was 17 when I was born. So mom and I just have to do what we can to scrape up the money to pay for it.”

John glanced quickly at the ring on the dresser.

“Hmm. I’m sorry to hear that. Seems mighty unfair, if you ask me—for God to rain down a bunch hard stuff on just one person.”

“I stopped believing in God a long time ago,” she answered coldly.

“Me too. It was just a way to get my point across. Haven’t been to church since I stepped foot out of my momma’s house. Though I do miss the music. Always liked Amazing Grace and…”

In The Garden,” they both said simultaneously.

“Ditto!” she cried. “That one was always my favorite!”

“Heh, yeah, mine too,” he laughed.

His laughter took the edge off his uneasiness. He hadn’t had a conversation that lasted more than three minutes in some months. He feared he wouldn’t be able to remember how to be politely sociable. But the clumsy frankness of Marsha felt open and fresh. It gave him permission to reveal a bit more of himself.

“Well. Nice to hear we have something as lovely as In The Garden in common,” he said.

“Indeed. So what about you? I’ve been talking this whole time. What happened to you after you left school?”

“Well, I went to A&M, got a degree in computer science, found a job where I could work from anywhere, so I moved back home to be with my momma. She was sick with MS for a long time.”

Was sick?” she asked.

“Yeah, she died about six months ago.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not. The years of hell that woman went through. I’m glad she’s found her peace,” John retorted, a bit too callously.


“Anyway,” he said, trying to soften the moment, “we scattered her ashes in her hometown of Mobile, like she wanted. And that was about the same time that my fiancée decided to skip town. Left me just a phone message and a ring. Haven’t heard from her since.”

“Wow, that’s a little selfish, if you ask me.”

“Yeah, it felt that way at the time.” John was surprised at how quickly he’d opened up to Marsha. He hadn’t revealed this part of his life to anyone since Katherine left. He did most of his work from home, had no siblings or close cousins and his father had been out of the picture since he ran off with one of the neighbors’ wives when John was 12. They both died in a boating accident one year later. John never forgave his father for leaving him alone with his sick mother. He allowed himself a maximum of 30 seconds of grief when he heard of his father’s death. The rest he packed away in a hermetically-sealed time-capsule lodged in the back of his heart.

“But, you know, time heals all wounds, I guess,” he said, brushing off the memory.

“Yeah, except yours don’t seem so healed.”

“You’re poking a little too deep for someone I just re-met over the phone,” he said jokingly, but not without a real intention to end the conversation.

“Haha…ok…another time, perhaps.”



The hard, electric buzz of John’s doorbell jangled the pregnant stillness.

“That’s my dinner, Marsha,” he said, somewhat relieved at having an excuse to get off the phone.

“Oh, OK,” she replied. “Well, maybe I’ll give this Randy guy another 20 minutes or so before I give up on him.”

“Yeah, maybe he lost his phone or something and is caught in traffic...”

“Yeah, maybe…”



“OK, well. 20 minutes. Spider House. Then I’m heading home,” she firmly declared.

“Good luck, Marsha.”

“Yeah, you too John. Maybe I’ll see you in band practice sometime,” she joked, a little too nonchalantly.

“Heh. Yeah, I wouldn’t count on it. I haven’t touched a trumpet in ages.”

“Hm. Pity.”


“Better answer that, John.”

“On it,” he said, without moving a muscle.

“Goodbye,” she said.








The phone started ringing again. John eagerly prepared to answer it, only to find it was Ming’s Café, no doubt wondering where he was.

He sat motionless until the ringing stopped, the driver stepped off his stoop and the car drove away, undelivered Chinese food in tow.

“What the hell just happened?” he thought to himself. “It was just a simple wrong number. She didn’t actually want to talk to me again, right?”

And yet, he remembered the hint of an invitation in her voice when she joked about band practice. And there was something in the way she said ‘Pity’—it was almost like she was seeing deeply into him and pulling out…what? He didn’t know how to explain it, but, for the first time in a long time, he could feel. His heart hurt. His forehead was hot and slick. His skin felt tingly and tight all at once.

And then he knew was it was—that simple piece he would not allow himself to acknowledge.

Joy. Pure, innocent joy. The joy he felt when he played his trumpet. They joy he felt when his mother sang in church. The joy he felt when his father bought him his first Miles Davis album. And the joy he felt when he and Katherine used to slow dance in the hospital stock room, sharing one pair of earphones.

But unfortunately, with joy, comes hope. And dreaming. And love. And history had proven to him, over and over again, that every time he allowed himself the luxury of love, life was going to abandon him in a swamp of unfulfilled desire.

And yet something’s gotta change, he reminded himself. He knew it. He didn’t just know it—he felt it. The truth was pouring out of his body. In his shaking, his sweating, his crying.

He didn’t have much time. He slipped on his tennis shoes, threw on his leather jacket and grabbed the ring from the dresser. He didn’t know if it was worth enough to cover her father’s medical expenses, but he knew it could help.

“Something good needs to come out of all of this,” he thought, as he stuffed the ring in his pocket.

As for what would happen next, he wasn’t sure. Would he and Marsha strike up a friendship? A love affair? Marriage? Or would she even still be there when he got to Spider House?

Honestly, none of that mattered. He wasn’t doing this to try to win a relationship. He was doing it in gratitude to the gift of joy that God (or whatever) had given him that day.

Before rushing out onto Guadalupe Street, he pulled his iPod from his jacket pocket, stuck an earpiece in each ear and pressed the bottom of the white circle. And as he closed the door behind him, he raised the left corner of his mouth in a slight smile as Bye Bye Blackbird began to play.