The telephone rang. The sound, as shrill as the cry of a falcon zooming down on its prey, echoed through the small, shabby house.
“There it goes again, Betty. Been doing it all day. That’s why I asked you to be here.”
“Well, answer it, Lizzie. Momma always said it is bad manners to let a phone ring more than three times.”
“I know. You don’t have to remind me of what she used to say. I’ll answer it.” Lizzie Goodwin’s gnarled, arthritic hand picked up the phone. She listened a moment, her head cocked to one side. “Maggie Lester! I know it’s you,” she shrieked and slammed down the instrument. Her face was twisted into an ugly mask of rage. The veins in her forehead and neck bulged beneath the surface of her wrinkled skin like thick cords. Her matted gray hair hung in clumps on her bony shoulders.
“Who was it?”
“Just like before. No one there,” Lizzie snapped. “But I know it was Maggie.”
The phone rang again.
“Hello, Maggie Lester,” she said before the caller could speak one word. I know it’s you. I hear you breathing. If you call one more time, I swear I’ll kill you.”
“Calm down, Lizzie. Don’t let her upset you.”
“Calm down, indeed. That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what I’ve had to put up with all day. The phone rings, I answer it. No one is on the line. A minute later it rings again. No one is on the line. But I don’t need Caller I.D. or Star 69 to know that it’s Miss Sweetie Pie playing mean tricks on me.”
“But it could be just a child playing with the phone. Remember how Momma took a belt to me when she caught me pulling that trick?”
“Damn it, Betty, it’s no child playing with the phone. It’s Maggie. She’s lived next door for twenty years and for twenty years she’s always been cheerful, always been helpful — like I don’t know what she’s up to. Like the day she moved in and rang my bell. Said she’d come to introduce herself. Well, I knew she’d come looking for a babysitter to mind her brood of brats. Slammed the door shut in her face, is what I did. And every year I throw out the Christmas fruit cake she leaves on my doorstep. I know it’s laced with arsenic. Whenever it snows, she offers to shovel my sidewalk. She says it’s so I don’t get a summons for not clearing a path. But I know it’s so she won’t slip and break a leg. I wish she’d slip and break her neck, is what I wish.”
“Don’t be nasty, Lizzie. She is only being a good neighbor.”
Lizzie’s lips curled into a feral snarl. “Well, I’d rather be nasty than an ugly old hag like you. You always were the ugly one in the family.” Lizzie turned her anger with her neighbor onto Betty.
“And you were the fresh one,” Betty snapped right back.
“Darn tootin’. Fresh as a new laid egg and proud of it. Did I tell you that Maggie’s husband died last year? The cause probably was sugar poisoning from listening to her sweet talk for forty years.”
The phone rang.
“I won’t answer it this time and you can’t make me.” Lizzie’s voice hovered between rage and hysteria.
“You have to answer it. Remember what Momma said about not answering the phone.”
Lizzie nodded reluctantly, and picked up the receiver. “Stop it! Stop it!” She slammed the phone down so hard that a basket of plastic flowers flew off the top of her 13″ black and white television set.
“No one there?”
“Of course, not. But she can’t fool me. I know it was Maggie. If that phone rings one more time, I’ll kill her. I’d kill her stupid kids, too, if the last one hadn’t moved out years ago.”
“Sit down, Lizzie, and don’t do anything foolish. Remember what happened the last time you got all worked up.”
“That was a long time ago.” Lizzie’s watery oyster gray eyes strayed to the black and white photograph of a young couple that hung on the flyspecked wall. The man wore a fedora and a three-piece suit. His hand was clasped tightly around the waist of a smiling young woman.
“Damn two-timing fool wasn’t worth the trouble.” Lizzie snatched the photograph from its hook and flung it down on the thin worn carpet.
“Shut up, Betty. I gotta get ready for Maggie’s call.”
Lizzie threaded her way through the cluttered living room. Her eyes darted from a desk piled high with unopened mail to a lumpy chair to a battered table. “I know it’s here. Where are you, my darling?” Her voice accelerated to a frenzied pitch, then quickly sifted to a soft coo when her hand reached under a cushion on the threadbare sofa and she touched her prize.
“Here you are my sweetheart.”
The phone rang.
“Be careful, Lizzie. Control your temper.”
“Shut up, Betty!”
“Hello, Maggie,” she screamed into the mouthpiece. “You wait right there. I’m coming for you.” She slammed down the phone.
“Don’t do it, Lizzie.”
“Shut up! Go back where you came from, you old hag.”
“But you begged me to come.”
“And now I’m telling you to get.”
Lizzie brandished her sensuously cool silver pistol overhead like a saber and stormed through her tiny living room, then she scurried down the sagging front steps and dashed across the lawn that separated the two houses. Her filthy, sweat stained shift clung to her skinny body.
“Open up, Maggie. It’s Lizzie. I know you’re in there.” She shouted her diatribe all the while she stormed up the steps to Maggie Lester’s freshly painted front porch. When she reached the top, Lizzie took aim at the image that had appeared behind the metal meshwork.
The loud blast of the single bullet sent a flock of birds into a frenzy of flapping wings that sounded like a hundred hands clapping.
“That’ll stop your damn calls,” Lizzie cackled.
Maggie Lester lay crumpled on the floor of her vestibule. A smile of greeting was frozen on her face. Thick ribbons of blood stained the front of her freshly laundered white dress.
Lizzie ran back across her neighbor’s neatly mowed lawn to her litter-strewn yard and climbed the crumbling stairs to her house.
“See, Betty, I took care of Miss Maggie Lester, just like I said I would,” Lizzie shrieked at her image reflected in the hall mirror.
The phone rang.