I always reached out to touch someone.

The reason I write noir thrillers in the 1930s and ’40s is because no one had a cell phone. Hardly anyone uses a phone. Whenever possible, I leave the phones under a pile of bombed-out rubble.

FOREVER, I HAVE been trapped inside the sound of a dial tone, the hopeless prisoner of the telephone.

When I worked for the newspaper, I existed with one hand resting on the phone. I interviewed people by phone. And too often I knew something they did not know when I called.

Someone had been shot.

Someone had drowned.

Someone had been killed in a wreck.

And I was on deadline, and I needed the story.

“Hello,” I would say, “I’d like to speak to Harry.”

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know where he’s gone?”

“He went down to grocery store to pick up some milk for the baby.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“How old?”

“She was born three months ago.”

And that’s how stories came to be written.

The lead in the afternoon paper would say: “Harry Simpson was shot to death in a drive-by shooting early this morning as he walked to a grocery store to pick up milk for his three-month-old daughter.”

I know we weren’t allowed to print anyone’s name before the next-of-kin was notified, but police were on their way to her home and, by the time the newspaper was delivered that afternoon, she would know what I had known when I called her.

When you hear someone say newsmen don’t have heart, they’re wrong. Reporters have big hearts. Deadlines don’t.

I would ask questions.

I would hang up.

I could hear my heart break.

The phone was a valuable tool. I couldn’t do without it.

When a crime erupted close to our two o’clock deadline, I would gather up all of the facts and quotes I could find, then run down the street, knocking on doors, until I found someone who would let me inside their home to use their telephone.

It wasn’t so difficult in those days. I wore a suit and tie back then.

Working for Southern Living Magazine, I tracked down travel stories in person, wandering across Civil War battlefields, down the hallways of antebellum homes, and through every museum that had more than one relic or artifact that fascinated me.

I got the facts later by phone: when so you open, when do you close, how much do you charge, and what’s the best way to get there.

Facts were always changing. Phones kept them updated.

While working for a custom publishing company in Dallas, we did a lot of business in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

Call in every two hours, my boss said as I walked out the office.

Why?

I may need you, he said. Something may be going wrong. I was in charge of production. Something was always going wrong.

So I knew every stop on Interstate 35 to Austin and San Antonio and every service station on Interstate 45 to Houston where I could find a good, reliable pay phone. I never drove away without a pocketful of quarters.

My jobs have always depended on the phone. My future depended on the phone. Often I felt like my life depended on the phone.

Then something wonderful happened. Somebody invented the cell phone.

Mine is always charged. It’s always with me. I can’t escape it.

Morning, noon, or night, somebody can reach out and touch me by phone.

Morning, noon, and night, they usually do.

I don’t leave home without it. I won’t drive around the block without it.

It was on a Thursday morning when I committed the unpardonable sin.

I was in a rush. I was leaving for Dallas. I packed up my clothes, threw my computer in a case, and hit the road driving west.

I was somewhere between Glen Rose and Granbury when I realized I needed to make a call. I reached in my pocket. The cell phone wasn’t there. I pulled off to the side of the road and frantically looked in and under the seats, front and back. The cell phone wasn’t there.

I had set it aside on the table beside my desk. I had left it there.

I suddenly had peace and relief, and nobody was tracking me down on a phone. The peace didn’t last long.

Relief turned to a bad case of the nerves. And I kept wondering: Why isn’t anybody calling me?

The silence was deafening.

I stared at the windshield, and it stared back. The silence was driving me crazy.

For the first time in a long time, I was alone.

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  • You CAN turn the things off, you know – then check periodically? Completely OFF, no buzzer, no nothing.

    The best of both worlds.

    Unless you’re afraid no one will call.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia: I tried turning the phone off, then was paranoid because no one was calling me. Cell phones are a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation for me. I admire your discipline.

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