Januray 30, 2023


In PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon the author walks around rural Kansas, picking up history like rocks from a field. He stops in private offices to ask the time and then stays to chat after being greeted with such warm rarities as “Come on in. We’re not doing anything but sitting here lying to each other.” He writes the lies down, catches rides, paces the old church yard, sits by a stranger’s fire.

But in Palouse, it is phone-book-phone-tree season and I am the shabby salesman making her rounds instead. My boots sit unpolished by the door and my seeds are expired in their packaging. Pages of names are waiting to be called and planted: an entire ecosystem gone unwatered in the digital age.

I call the grandmother of an old classmate who used to bring fry bread and an accordian to every one of her granddaughter’s school birthdays. Her breathing is strained and when I ask, “How are you?” she says “Not good.” I ask her if her phone book listing is correct and she says yes. I wish her well and she breathes a goodbye. 

I call the man who bullies me and threatens my friends with violence on Facebook. I say to his voicemail: “This is Sarah calling with the Palouse Chamber of Commerce. We’re updating the phone book and I wanted to make sure that your listing was accurate. Give me a call if you need to make any changes. Have a great day!”

I call the wife of my former high school teacher, the wife of my chatty neighbor, the wife of the man with lecherous eyes. I worry that only calling wives is contributing to the unspoken labor they already shoulder but I really don’t want to talk to their husbands. I call the woman who might be angry that I don’t already know that her phone number is correct. I call the man who goes by two different first names but never cares which one you use.

As I finish another phone book page, I think about how surprised people are to even remember that they’re in it. I imagine sitting in City Hall with all of the people I just called when a stranger comes in and says, “That big clock outside isn’t working. I was wondering if any of you could tell me the time?” 

“Forget the clock,” they would say. “Have you checked the new reader board?”