Irony is not a literary device. Irony really happens and often in a way that makes you think God is trying to tell you something. After all, coincidence can only go so far in explaining things. In fact, coincidence explains nothing; it just gives the inexplicable a name and lets us off the intellectual hook. Some ironies, however, just won’t pack away that nicely, like the incident with the phones.
We once bought a cute little Cape Cod house in the southwest corner of Lincoln, Nebraska. It sat, nestled amongst four sliver poplars, in one of those motley older neighborhoods that had happened gradually and naturally, without the aid of a developer. Houses of all prices and styles of architecture had settled in cheerfully, side by side, connected by lilac-lined alleys which filled with fireflies and children on sultry summer evenings. The house to the north of ours was the oldest on the block, dating back to the turn of last century. It was a square little hip-roofed, four-room bungalow, one of those tiny white clapboard places with a kitchen and bathroom lean-to tacked on to the back like a mere afterthought.
A couple of years after we bought our house, the old man who lived in the bungalow packed up and left, renting the place to a young couple. Bob and Andrea moved in with two Australian shepherds, several un-caged parakeets (which they allowed to swoop incontinently through the tiny rooms), and a little girl who didn’t seem to belong to either of them.
In the Midwest when a new neighbor moves in you bake cookies or make a tuna casserole, walk over, introduce yourself and offer gardening advice or any random assistance -- “If you need anything...”
Bob and Andrea needed to use our phone. In those days it could take a couple of weeks to get your phone hooked up, so that wasn’t an unusual request -- not until a couple of months had gone by, and Andrea was still popping over several times a day to bang on the half-glass back door and point demandingly at the phone -- even when I was standing there using it myself.
Often her phone calls were of a frantic nature. She’d grab our phone book, rip it open to the yellow pages and with one finger resting on one number at a time, she’d work her way down through the list of local bars until she found Bob. Usually, in these instances, she was visibly shaking and once I heard her say, “Well, he was supposed to bring me something, but he hasn’t shown up yet.” It wasn’t hard to figure out the something wasn’t a quart of milk.
Needless to say the situation both annoyed and unnerved me. I am naturally a social wimp -- I had just started teaching and hadn’t yet perfected my confrontational do-it-my-way-or-else tone of voice, so I was at a loss. I knew how to be Nebraska nice, and that was about it.
Other goings-on next door concerned us. At our house we buy a new stereo about once every ten years. At Bob and Andrea’s stereos came and went on an approximately bi-weekly basis. Out with the old in with the new.
Then there was the case of the missing Indian. He stood well over six feet tall had long, pony-tailed hair, and drove a dark turquoise Baracuda. He came one evening and then vanished. The Baracuda stayed, but we never saw Tall Chief again. We watched their backyard for burial mounds, but no evidence ever appeared.
Tom and I don’t usually monitor our neighbors’ activities so closely; they usually aren’t that interesting. It was Lincoln, Nebraska; we weren’t used to such inner city behavior and we were fond of our stereo. Besides which, the phone thing was getting to be more and more weird.
I had been rehearsing my get-your-own-phone speech and was almost ready for the showdown when we woke one morning to find all their furniture in a pile on the front lawn. They were gone. Must not have had money for the rent either. Eventually their furniture vanished too and little by the little so did the bad taste the whole thing had left in my mouth.
A year later we too left the neighborhood. We headed west. We hosted the requisite, pre-move garage sale, packed everything we’d need until the movers arrived into our panel truck and hit the highway. After a sleepless night in Wyoming (Did you know it is possible for all the motel rooms in an entire state to be full at the same time?), and an endless trek across eastern Oregon (during which the kids sang mind-numbing repetitions of “Sweet Betsy From Pike” and we got buzzed by an F14 Phantom on a training run -- but that’s another story) we arrived in the Rogue Valley.
Now to find a house to buy. We checked into a motel right off the freeway, sent the kids out to the swimming pool and started reading the want ads. But alas, the phones in the motel weren’t working, so off I went to find one, my pocket full of dimes (You could make a phone call for a dime in those days.) and the newspaper rolled up in my hand. The pay phone sat in the parking lot of a nearby gas station and, in spite of the August heat, I stepped in and slid the door closed. I stacked my dimes on the shelf, opened up the paper and began making my calls.
About half way through my list I realized that someone was pacing around the pavement waiting to use the phone. I know how to be nice, so I scraped the dimes off the shelf, rolled up my newspaper, and squeaked open the bi-fold door.
Busy tucking away the dimes, I didn’t look at the next tenant until I had stepped out of the phone booth. There, standing in the gas station driveway, Australian shepherd at her side, stood Andrea, 1600 miles from home and a whole year later, still waiting to use my phone.
Whatever Bob had been bringing her in the year since I’d seen her last had killed a few brain cells, because she had no idea who I was and so the irony of the situation was completely lost on her.
It wasn’t lost on me, though; I’m still trying to figure out what God was trying to tell me.