Short Story by Anton Kurnia (The Jakarta Post, September 04, 2017)
The phone rings. Matari picks it up. “Hello, this is 250-0998.”
“Sorry, wrong number,” says a woman on the other end, softly.
Matari puts the phone down and returns to his book. He has read it seven times. Not because he loves it, but because it is the only book he owns. Its last page is missing. Maybe somebody had torn it out.
Matari has been living in this room for a week — a small office owned by his friend. His friend is currently staying in another city on a business trip. Because Matari is one of thousands of homeless people seeking shelter in this city, his friend kindly invited him to stay in his office while he is away so Matari can look after the room. As a homeless person, Matari is used to sleeping anywhere. Sometimes, he’d sleep on the side of the street or on the veranda of a neighborhood mosque. Sometimes, he’d go to a friend’s house just to crash there for a night or two.
Matari is jobless. He hates all kinds of jobs. It’s not because he is lazy, but because he doesn’t want to be enslaved by mindless routines, which most jobs require. A long time ago, he too had a job, but it didn’t last long. Now he has no intentions of getting a steady job or a monthly paycheck. Fortunately, he doesn’t need material things in life. He just needs a cup of coffee in the morning, some rice for lunch and dinner, and a few cigarettes a day. That’s all. Thank God he has some friends who continue to help him in times of need.
Matari has no family or relatives. In their absence, he had to learn to rely on his own sense of restraint to survive. He can go on without a meal for a few days if he has to. To be fair, he is not the type of homeless person who takes advantage of others. He is a nice young man. His friends know nothing about him except that he ran away from home a long time ago and has been living on the street for years. But there is a blank spot in his life: a woman.
He always says, “If a woman loves me, my life will change.” His friends usually mock him and retort, “But you still won’t get a job.”
“I will get a regular job if it really happens,” he says.
“Why don’t you go and have an affair with a rich woman?”
“Ah, what’s good about having affair with a rich woman?”
It is only a few minutes before noon. The phone rings. “Hello, this is 250-0998.”
“250-0998?” says a woman on the other end, softly.
“Yes, that’s right,” answers Matari.
“Who is this?” says the woman.
Silence for a second.
“Who are you looking for?” asks Matari.
“You,” the voice answers.
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, no. Not at all.”
“You said you wanted to talk to me,” says Matari.
“I don’t know what I should say. What are you doing there?”
“I was reading a book. The last page is missing but I have read it seven times. One day if I can find the missing page, I will know how the love story ends.”
“It sounds like you are an interesting and unique person.”
“What is your job?”
“Job? Nothing. I don’t have a job. But sometimes I get some money from my writing.”
“What do you write?”
“Lots of things.”
“Do you like your life?”
“I don’t know,” answers Matari. “I never ask myself questions like that, but I think I like my life. I have been living it for years.”
The woman on the phone laughs.
“Your laughter is beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Her voice sounds shy. She suddenly hangs up. Matari looks at the phone for some time and smiles.
The next morning, the phone rings again. Matari is still asleep, but the ring wakes him up. He yawns and answers.
“Hello, this is 250-0998.”
“Good morning, Matari.”
“Morning … Is it you?”
Matari hears the laughter again.
“Why you don’t ask for my name or my phone number?”
“What is your name for me? You know my name and my phone number. It’s enough.”
“What are you thinking about?” asks Matari.
“I just can’t find any topic to talk about.”
“So why don’t you hang up?”
“Hey, you’re very rude. I will hang up now.”
Then the line is cut abruptly.
Matari smiles and puts down the phone. Then he washes his face in the wash basin in the corner of the room. He grabs his jacket and goes out. All day he thinks about the mystery woman who has been calling him. She sounds educated and young. Her laughter is music to his ears. It reminds him of his late mother’s laughter.
Late in the evening, Matari returns to his room. The phone rings again.
“Hi, I phoned you many times today, but you didn’t answer. Where did you go?”
Matari laughs. “I have things to do, you know.”
“Oh, just walking around.”
She laughs. Then silence.
Matari asks, “What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing. Matari, do you want me to sing for you?”
The woman clears her throat and sings him a beautiful, sad song.
“Very nice,” Matari says after she finishes her song.
“Thank you.” She hangs up again.
All night, the woman’s singing voice haunts Matari. The next morning, he gets up earlier than usual and waits for the phone to ring. But it doesn’t ring.
Matari walks around the room restlessly. Then, he lies down across his desk and reaches for the book he has read seven times. One more read won’t hurt, he thinks. The day progresses ever so slowly. At around 7 p.m., the phone rings. Matari immediately answers it.
“Hi. Where did you go?” asks Matari sharply.
“What’s wrong?” the woman’s voice trembles.
“I waited for your call all day long. I didn’t even eat because I thought you’d call.”
“I call you whenever I want. You…”
“Tell me when you will call. I can’t stand the waiting.”
“I’m so sorry. Starting tomorrow, I promise I will call you every morning and night.”
“I couldn’t call you earlier.”
“I wanted to know if you missed me at all.”
Matari and the woman talk for long time. Matari asks her to sing for him again. She laughs and sings to him as requested.
Now she calls Matari regularly at certain hours. Sometimes they talk on the phone for hours. But Matari never asks for her name or number. In the beginning, Matari tries to imagine what she looks like, but now he thinks it doesn’t matter anymore. Her voice says it all — he can imagine her face, body and soul.
One day the woman asks him, “Matari, have you ever fallen in love?”
Suddenly Matari feels sad. “To answer that question, I must tell you the story of my life and that will make me sad because there is no single beautiful moment left in my memory.”
“Then you shouldn’t. I don’t want you become sad, Matari.”
A week has passed. On a gloomy day, Matari receives a call from the friend who lent him his room. He says he will be back in three days. When the woman calls, Matari tells her with a sad tone, “My luck will end soon.”
“My friend who owns this place will be back in three days.”
“But you have another friend who has a phone, right?”
“Yes, I do. But I don’t want to give you their number.”
“I am jealous. I don’t want another man to hear your beautiful voice.”
She laughs. “Listen. On the day, when your luck is over, I will tell you my name and my phone number.”
Matari’s sadness vanishes like dust in the rain. He tries to imagine her face, but fails. Only her voice echoes in his ear. In a few days, Matari thinks, he will be able to see her.
When she calls him in the morning, Matari says, “I want to see you. Will you tell me your address?”
“You can see me anytime, even today.”
“No, not today. I want to meet you in proper clothing. I will borrow some from my friend when he comes back.”
She laughs. “You are childish. By the way, I won’t call you for two days.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I will go on vacation with my family. Only for two days.”
Matari doesn’t go out that day. The next morning, he runs a fever. First, he thinks he isn’t well because he is bored. He is waiting for the woman to call. In the afternoon, the fever worsens. He feels suffocated.
Later that night, Matari becomes delirious. He acts as though he is conversing with the woman on the phone. The day after that, he begins to hear voices in his head — as if thousands of phones are ringing simultaneously. Yet, when the phone actually rings, he cannot hear it.
When his fever finally drops, Matari can hear the phone ringing. He tries to get out of bed and reaches for the phone. His hand trembles. His lips are dry.
“Hi, Matari, how are you?” The woman greets him.
“Yes, it’s me …” Matari’s voice is very low.
“Hello? I can’t hear your voice.”
Matari tries to say something, but he can’t utter a word. He is very weak.
The woman says again, “We came home earlier than planned. I called you many times but you didn’t answer. Where did you go?”
Matari’s head feels dizzy.
“Matari, what’s wrong?” she asks.
With great effort he says haltingly, “My luck is over…”
Matari is coughing. Blood drips from his mouth to his chin.
“Are you OK? Please take note of my number: 0878-878-999. Call me in the morning. By the way, my name is Bianglala Biru. I have to go now. So long.”
The woman hangs up. Matari can’t stand it anymore. He falls unconscious, blood dripping from his mouth.
Anton Kurnia is an Indonesian short story writer, editor, essayist and the chief editor of Penerbit Baca.