Phone Calls from Bobby

Phone Calls from Bobby

by Jeremy Mercer

This must be the fifth time I've tried to write this story. Once I finished but the result was dreadful and even the crime journal that commissioned the piece refused to publish it. So now, I'm not going to bother with anything fancy. I'm just going to tell you what happened.

I let a man die. This might sound melodramatic. It likely is. But I've convinced myself the blame rests with me. To make the guilt tolerable, I've rationalized the event a thousand different ways: I wasn't responsible for him; if I had stopped him that night he only would've been successful some other time; I can't spend my entire life holding the hands of distraught friends. I kept telling myself it wasn't my fault. But of course it was. Of course it was my fault.

Bobby was the nicest criminal I've ever met. Nice. The kind of man you'd be proud to invite home for dinner with your parents, as long as you warn them ahead of time about the jailhouse tattoos and kept an eye on his hands when he was near anything of pawn-shop value.

I met him at the local jail during a hot Canadian summer several years ago. I was there that day to interview another man with a story to tell. That man, whose name I've since forgotten, was a life-long drug addict: heroin, cocaine, acid, speed, whatever he could get his hands on. As a boy, he'd been sodomized by the priests at his reform school and never really had a chance after that. For ten years, he'd padded his habit with prescriptions from a handful of doctors who scribbled away sedatives without questions. When one finally drew the line, the man walked into the pharmacy with a knife and forced his way back to the shelves of restricted drugs. Looking at a good ten years in prison, he was angry enough to call me, the crime reporter for the city newspaper. He was going to rat out the doctors. He blamed them for getting him hooked on hospital-grade morphine.

In the August heat, I rushed to the visiting room of the detention centre in one of my newspaper's aging, air-conditionless cars. This was a story, as they say, with legs. Careless doctors feeding drugs to addicts. It had a million good angles.

The visiting room was crowded when I arrived and as usual it was nearly impossible to hear on the crude phones that spanned the thick bullet-proof glass separating visitors from inmates. I got the details I needed - the names of the doctors, the address of a brother where I could pick up prescription records, a run-down of his pharmacy hold-up - and prepared to leave. It was then that another inmate man came over and grabbed the phone. With his helmet of curly brown hair and brilliant smile, I recognized him immediately. It was Bobby Mackenzie.

Bobby was perhaps the city's most quixotic criminal. He first made the national newspapers in the mid-80's by cutting a deal while in jail to plead guilty to outstanding robbery charges on the condition that he could marry his girlfriend during the same court appearance. The judge agreed and performed the wedding ceremony after adding another 12 months to Bobby's three-year sentence. It was a perfect love story, save for the fact the couple divorced long before Bobby's sentence was served.

The summer I met Bobby in the jail visiting room, he'd gained fresh notoriety thanks to an audacious jailbreak and armed standoff. He and a friend had escaped from their cells and walked out the front doors of a medium security prison. They were whisked away in a waiting taxi called from a prison phone. Three days later, Bobby marched into a bank with that same friend and two guns. The situation deteriorated and the pair ended up taking eleven people hostage. The block was cordoned off and police snipers were everywhere. The standoff lasted hours and ended with Bobby being taken down by the tactical unit and police dogs in front of a legion of photographers and news cameras. Afterwards, one of the women taken hostage insisted she never once felt afraid. Bobby had been courteous, she told reporters.

The story became more bizarre. Bobby had a reason for holding up that bank. His prison friend had AIDS and they needed the money to cryogenically freeze him until a cure was found. At least, that's what Bobby told his lawyers and that's what people across the country heard on television. A love story of a different kind this time.

In the visitor's room that summer day, Bobby pried the phone away from the other man and introduced himself. I flushed with excitement. With some sheepishness, he asked if he could call me. I gave him my home and office phone numbers and told him to call collect. I assumed he too had a story to tell or needed a favour. Of course, that wasn't the way it turned out. As for the drug addict, the paper wouldn't spring me for the month of research required and his story died a slow death.

Bobby ended up calling me the next day. To my surprise, he only wanted to talk. We spent more than an hour on the phone discussing everything from the rigours of prison routine to his belief in an afterlife. The calls became irregularly regular - two or three in one week then nothing for months. But we exchanged letters and he began sending me poetry he'd written in jail. He was an intriguing man. He loved books, he loved music, and more than anything he loved love. That, he told me, was the explanation for the courtroom marriage and his hopeless mission to save his friend's life.

It was a pleasing friendship for a young crime reporter to have. Insight into life on the inside, a good source for prison stories, some welcome grit in a world that is often a little too smooth. And I began to consider him a genuine friend. When a girl I was living with left me, I spent more than an hour on the phone with him discussing our failures in love.
Bobby seemed to enjoy the relationship too. I occasionally deposited a little money into his prison bank account, I almost always took his collect calls, and I was a sympathetic ear for his poetry and problems. When he embraced the Wiccan religion, he even tried to convert me to this modern-day witchcraft.

The letters and phone calls went on like this for about a year. During that time, I continued to write crime while Bobby got transferred from one prison to another. Once, he spent an entire month in solitary after being caught brewing his own alcohol using potato scraps from the kitchen. Another time, to prove his prison connections, he sent me the sticker from the asthma inhaler of the fiercely-guarded Paul Bernardo, the man who raped more than forty women and sexually mutilated and killed two young girls.

Things started to go bad for Bobby a year after I first met him. During that summer, he plunged into paranoia-fueled depression. He felt the guards were persecuting him. It was another eleven years before he became eligible for parole. He saw little hope.

As summer turned to fall, the calls became more frequent. He said the guards were refusing to give him medication. Even worse, he was sure these same guards were encouraging the prison's other inmates to harass him. As his crisis deepened the calls started coming daily. Bobby begged me to help him. He rightly believed that if I called the prison superintendent with a journalist's concern for an inmate, he would receive preferred treatment and his torment, real or imagined, might be relieved.

His request came at a bad time. Things, as usual, were hectic on the crime beat with murder investigations and drunk driving fatalities piling up. To top it off, I was researching an investigative feature on the city's underground medical marijuana network. To appease Bobby, I made a half-hearted attempt to contact the superintendent. I left a single message on his voice mail and my call was never returned.

It was about this time I started screening my calls. I'd invested in call display at home and whenever my phone display read 'unknown name, unknown number' - the telltale sign of a collect call - I refused to pick up. At work, I often chose to let the receptionists tell Bobby I was away from my desk.

The night it happened was especially brutal. It was the week after my marijuana series ran and I was swamped with follows - police reactions, doctor reactions, politician reactions. Adding to my burden, another reporter called in sick and I was assigned to take over the day's most sensitive story. Two years before, a man had killed two of his children before committing suicide. All that was left of the family was the wife and a young son. Earlier that week, the wife died of breast cancer leaving the boy alone. A fund had been started to bring an uncle over from Africa to care for him and I was assigned to write the story for the front page.

Bobby started calling at about five o'clock that night. I had two interviews left to conduct and about a thousand words to write. A half dozen times he called the desk. Each time, I told the receptionist to take a message. Finally, at eight o'clock, he insisted on talking to me. I was an hour from deadline and said I couldn't spare the time. He begged. I told him to call me back in an hour when the deadline had been met. In a tired voice, he agreed.

An hour later, he called. I was haggling with an editor over the wording of my lead paragraph. I took the phone, one eye on the clock. I snapped at him.

'Can't you call back later?'

Again, he told me how bad his head was. He told me he didn't think he could take it anymore. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the editor fidgeting with the second sentence of my story.

'I can't talk. I'm still on deadline. Hang in there tonight and call me tomorrow. I can talk as long as you want then.'

Bobby didn't argue and I had the phone hung up before he finished saying goodbye.

The next day was busy again, as it always is at a daily newspaper. I didn't notice Bobby hadn't called until I had a quiet moment waiting for a bacon-and-tomato sandwich in the cafeteria. I didn't think much of it. Bobby was unreliable. Maybe he was back in solitary confinement. It could have been anything.

About a half an hour later, the crusts of my sandwich among the rubble on my desk, the receptionist shouted my name. A collect call. Did I want it? Had to be Bobby, I thought, and asked her transfer me the call. Bobby was dead.

It was the inmate who lived in the next cell. Bobby had spoken constantly of his journalist friend who was going to save him. The man who was calling me had got my phone number by digging through some papers left in the cell. He said that after talking to me the final time, Bobby used his prison-issue towel to hang himself. He thought I'd want to know.

I felt nothing as I walked through the parking lot to my car. I headed to the same bar I went to every night and had the same pints of beer. A girl I knew was there and when I told her what happened, she took me home and held me in her bed.

Bobby's family called me the next day. Prison phone records showed I'd been the last to talk to him and they wanted to know what he'd said. I tried to explain. I tried to make myself look as blameless as possible. They didn't seem to understand

The service was held the next week at a funeral parlour in the south end of the city. It was the first week of December and the cold winds tore at my face as I walked to the door. Inside, there were twenty people sitting in a circle. At the back of the room, Bobby's wax face was visible through the coffin's open lid. It was a Wiccan ceremony and the priests, a man and a woman, both in flowing white robes, stood at the top of the circle. They were in bare feet and the man held a ceremonial dagger in his hand. Space was made for me to join the group and the service began.

The ceremony was brief. Words were said, a poem of Bobby's was read, and then the man in white robes told the gathered mourners it was time to say a final goodbye. One by one, each person in the circle told Bobby how much he was loved. When it came my turn, I bowed my head. With a weak voice, I apologized to Bobby for letting him down. I told him I would never forgive myself for not taking his final call. I told him it was my fault he was dead.

When I finished, I kept my head down. There was an awkward silence before the woman next to me began her own goodbye. After the last person was done, a few more words were said and then it was time to leave. As I got up to go, the woman in the white robes came to me and clasped my arm in her hands. She told me Bobby would forgive me and that everything would be all right. I smiled but I did not believe her. Breaking away from her grip, I headed for the door.

Published Kilometer Zero Magazine, Volume 00, December 2000