The Operator

From my switchboard I was so very connected to this corner of the Southwest. You see, I was a telephone operator for over thirty years. I took my job very seriously and I loved almost every minute of it. So much so, I never once set foot outside the Imperial County line.However, now that I’ve reached these golden years as folks like to say when they’re attempting to be polite, I find myself retracing past steps. Thinking of what was or what could have been. Quite frankly, its not like I have much else to do but there is something to be said for letting your “fingers do the walking” as that silly yellow page ad likes to sing through my television screen. That oversized big bird book was part of my demise, you know.

Back in my day there weren’t many office positions to choose from so being a telephone operator was an incredibly fine job for a single woman especially being right out of high school as I was. The job came about because of my Daddy. I was hoping to go away for my studies and he was doing all he could so I wouldn’t leave him. I tried reasoning with him that my grades were good and I wanted to study somewhere different where fall leaves fade away and showers of rain sprout baby buds on bald trees. My youthful wants aside, I do admit I was intrigued by the career prospect he was dangling in front of me. You would think it was because of the depression, times being tough but no, it was really because of a movie I had just seen where a telephone operator saves her town of Riverdale from a massive flood caused by a burst dam. I remember thinking how powerful that old actress Judith Allen looked commanding her switchboard, her character putting her own life at risk to make sure everyone got out in time. Course, it was also your typical love story with just the right amount of conflict, mistaken identity where the good girl temporarily takes the wrap but ultimately is united with her leading man, the justice of the peace takes his cue and the credits roll. But what really spoke to me as I was sitting at the picture show sucking on my penny candy was that a woman in this line of work could really help people by giving them sound advice and intervene when life, death and even love where in the mix. So, I took the job.

I never got around to marrying. I liked talking so much to people over the phone that once I was done with work, I didn’t want to partake in anymore conversation. The idea of going home to someone and having to exercise my vocal cords and make dinner, well that just sounded exhausting. And unlike the east coast watery splendor of Riverdale, this telephone operator lived in the Imperial Valley, a fertile mirage in the arid hot desert. The heat alone will force you to conserve your energy. I spent so many years with people echoing inside my headset, you’d think I had the opportunity with my gift of gab to lure a cowboy right my office where I used to face an old alleyway of stray dogs, daily strollers taking their shortcuts and as time marched forward, more and more cars trying to find that faster, easier way to there assumed destination. I suppose love and companionship was never something I longed for cause I liked my job so much. So much, I never once thought that living alone was a lonely thing. I never thought I needed one person in particular like Gilda and William seemed to need each other.

Speaking of William and Gilda, I must say that in all my recollecting, my memories of them do come and go quite often. Especially when I find myself watching couples stroll hand in hand at the local park or when I have to haul in my own groceries. So many years ago, I felt such a sense of responsibility for what happened at the beginning of there journey together. And it is most certainly why I tried my best to make up for the heartache they went through. In retrospect, it really was a silly thing to get riled up about. It was an innocent assumption. I still try to understand the why of it all, I mean I never had nobody and it worked out just fine for me and yet back then, I kept regretting that I accidentally played god and I didn’t do such a bang up job. I couldn’t bear having anything to do with preventing true love from living out its days uninhibited. I witnessed the repercussions up close once and it makes you wonder why unforeseeable circumstances can be so cruel.

In all my years, I never ceased to take pride going beyond just connecting people from telephone to telephone. I was their encyclopedia, radio personality and newscaster all rolled into a petite gal in a starched blouse. I was always answering questions that had nothing to do with my job because well, I guess folks assumed I could. And then eventually I assumed I could too. There were simple questions like, “What’s the weather forecast today, Arlene?” And I’d say something like, “What you usually see in this Valley, warm clear and sunny skies, so get on out there and enjoy your day!”

Or sometimes they’d inquire whether I knew a good dressmaker or a plumber that could fix a runny toilet. They’d ask if I knew what time it was or what the baseball score was or back when I was just beginning, if there was any news on whether President Roosevelt was sending us to war when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Any question, I’d find the answer to or I’d make something up like, “It’s gonna be ok Mrs. Benson, your son surely wont go off to war, in fact go check if he has flat feet, you never know.”

Now, I’m not a sentimental woman but my greatest joy was taking a small role in folk’s intimate moments. I so loved to hear the tired excitement in the voices of new parents as I connected them to family waiting impatiently for the blessed news. How I smiled uncontrollably when a child’s voice would come on the line and innocently ask if I could get a hold of Santa Claus in the North Pole. I mean, don’t get me wrong it wasn’t always wonderful. Especially when there were party lines I had to manage. Goodness, people could get angry with one another! Courtesy doesn’t always come easy I suppose when you need to make a call and your neighbor is hogging up the telephone. I refereed many clashes between neighbors. The one benefit of this job is that not everyone knew what I looked like so just in case someone held a grudge against me for thinking I was taking sides well, I could always disguise my voice and blame it on the other shift worker.

And then, there were those times when I found myself fighting against the feeling of helplessness as next of kin was notified that a loved one passed from old age or worse, in a tragic manner where as quickly as it came out of the caller’s mouth that the special someone was dead and gone, it was almost as if I could hear it enter into the afflicted person’s soul on the other line and lay itself to its final resting place.

And finally, there was that unequivocal nervousness of man’s voice when he was truly smitten but drunk as a skunk.

I remember the war was about to end. I was working the late shift one Saturday night filling out a report where feuding Hatfield’s and McCoy’s or this case, Herrera’s and Medina’s were accusing one another of abusing party line phone time. I could hear the soft sounds of a big band orchestra playing “I’ll be seeing you” just a few blocks away at the San Juan Hotel. They must be slow dancing to the last dance of the night I thought. It was one of the many USO dances our valley had, as there was Marine Core Air base and a border crossing that needed to be protected from an enemy who could apparently strike at any moment and from any angle. It was strange having such military presence in the valley but it did make folks feel safer. With this influx also came many eligible bachelors in shiny shoes and clean uniforms.

Now, sometimes I played guessing games with folk’s cause they couldn’t remember someone’s last name when asking to be connected. Children especially trying to ring their granny and me playing family ancestry with them by asking, “Now who’s your Momma or Daddy again?” But the call I received that fateful night was a bit difficult. You see, he was new in town, a Lieutenant from the Midwest who said he met a beautiful Mexican girl. I told him that doesn’t rule out very many women in this town, as most of the Mexican girls here are stunning. Even the poorest one could look impeccable in a freshly pressed dress she must of worn a hundred times, probably using ashes as eyeliner and steaming her hair over a pot of boiling water so she could towel off the dirt when there wasn’t any shampoo to be rationed. I should know, my father was a proper southern gentleman from Mississippi and he fell deeply in love with a heavenly Mexican woman who had fled the revolution. Funny thing, she survived the atrocity of her own country only to die in this one not much after. I was a very young girl when my momma passed but I can I still picture my father gazing at her from the kitchen’s entrance as she cooked. Not a hairpin was out place with that woman as she did her chores. Her illness was brief but her death sent my father into periods of private despair. When he was off to work and I was picking up all the empty bottles he left in his room, I’d always ask myself why the loss of love truly instilled so much grief. My final answer was that I never wanted to find out as it frightened me so. But I do wish I could remember my momma’s voice.

The caller told me his name was Lieutenant William Weigand and indeed he was sauced. The USO dance had been over for a couple of hours and a few of his fellow companions had gone to play pool at a beer hall. I told him to describe his beloved as maybe I could place her; I did know a few families. William, who I sensed was holding onto the pay phone receiver for balance sighed almost like a schoolgirl who was talking about her first crush. For a moment, I was worried we would lose this war with this caliber of man. He said she wore an ivy print dress but the leaves were white and the background was green. She was tall almost lanky but there was shape to her calves, enough that he gave them a very long second look. Her auburn hair was in an up do, curly on top and she had the longest lashes and softest hazel eyes. He went on to say that they didn’t speak much, they mostly danced and he couldn’t stop staring at her. I told him I wasn’t sure who he was talking about but she did sound lovely. He began to try to remember her name; Cecilia, Emilia, Matilda, Hilda or perhaps Gilda- he wasn’t completely sure. I asked him if he could recall any clue, any last name, parent or even something she said that would help us unlock this great mystery. William, breathing into the receiver as if he was gasping for an epiphany finally said that she stood out within her gaggle of friends but someone, he wasn’t sure who, had some connection to the brewery that was sponsoring the dance. I told William that the only thing I could think of was that it could be the brewery owner’s daughter and I was almost positive her name was Hilda. I didn’t know much about the family to be honest I knew most people only by their voices. I did know that the brewery owner father was a German immigrant who had married a prominent Mexican socialite. She bankrolled his beer business on the Mexican side of the border. I’m sure he had to downplay his nationality as those were rough times. I assumed that was probably why he sponsored every USO dance at the San Juan.

After a lot of back and forth, I finally convinced William to wait and call her in the morning as it would be the proper thing to do. We had found his Hilda and I had to assure him over and over that she’d be just as happy to hear from him in the morning. The servants tended to answer the phone and there would be no way her parents would allow her to speak to him that late at night. He thanked me profusely and said they’d name their first child after me. He sloppily hung up the receiver without asking so I never told him my name was Arlene Boone Arellano.

In moments of guilty obsession, I think of what it must have been like for William to arrive to Hilda’s parent’s home for that very first date. His eyes widen as the address he holds on a piece of scratch paper matches the luxurious white rambling Spanish hacienda before him. He becomes self conscious and begins to nervously adjust his military issued tweed jacket and oversized hat, making sure those medals were pinned straight. He walks erect, deliberately on his heels down a long path of bright fuchsia geraniums and talavera tile. This leads him to the front door where his future father in law, an overweight man who has sampled too much of his own beer welcomes the young soldier inside. William momentarily freezes as Hilda Klein descends dramatically from the top of the iron rod staircase with her child bearing hips, coke bottle legs, proudly sporting a beauty shop black pompadour too big for her squat body. Poor suitor must have been horrified.

I never knew much about Gilda Maria Acuña. In fact, I never knew she existed before the night of the dance. These girls were far younger than me so I couldn’t keep track. But there was a Gilda, indeed she was a beauty and I had made a colossal error. During those first few months when all this unfolded, to the naked eye it seemed as if William had forgotten Gilda. I kept asking myself, why hasn’t he corrected our mistake? Maybe not the first date but then there was second and a third as I kept having to connect him to the Klein household. I wanted to ask him if he had even bothered to track down Gilda as I had. When he found her address, did go by and see where Gilda lived and watch her water a dead lawn, barefoot with a kerchief over her head as I did after work one day? Did he sigh like he tends to because she still seemed regal and lovely but he knew the war was over and he had an amazing financial opportunity if only he could just hold on? Or was he too proper to say, “I thought you were someone else, I wanted you to be someone else, Hilda. I’m so sorry.”

When I first saw William in person, I was struck by how big he was, so muscular and strapping with blond locks of hair falling over his face, wearing a healthy desert golden glow that disguised his corn-fed complexion. He certainly didn’t look like the slushy fool I spoke to over the phone. But my blood began to boil as he opened the car door of Hilda’s Plymouth deluxe, and out she came, grabbing his hand, her smug moon face smiling ear to ear, leading him around by the nose through a department store. I reckoned the booze was talking and he was never that serious about Gilda. Oh well, so much for love at first sight I thought.

No surprise, it was a big wedding. Everyone knew the day William Weigand and Hilda Klein got married. The night of the wedding and like every night whenever I worked late, I took my usual shortcut through the park to get home. I had a standing date with my nightgown and the Groucho Marx You Bet Your Life radio show. I lived alone as my father had been gone awhile. Thankfully, his broken heart was finally at peace. At twenty-nine, I had the routine of what others perceived as that of hopeless old maid. Now, normally at this hour you’d see old hobos snoring loudly looking like over stuffed baked potatoes but on this particular night there was a glowing vision in yellow taffeta. Sprawled out on a park bench, Gilda had green flecks of paint chipping and burrowing right into her bright auburn hair. As I stopped in front of her, she must of felt my presence as she lifted her head revealing those soft hazel eyes William swooned over. Now it was her turn to be tipsy. Broken hearts and alcohol always seem to go hand and hand.

In light of this development, I did something that night I never done before. I tried to pacify a person without using my voice. I circled around to the back of the bench and put my hand on her head patting it as I gazed at a lonely play yard of still swings and solo rocking horses. After a hard days work, my foundation and lipstick were always nearly gone and my hair was mashed down in the middle from wearing my communications crown. I was quite a sight but I doubt that mattered much to Gilda.It must have been no more than five minutes or so when I heard quick steps and saw someone approaching us. It was a man in long tuxedo tails. It was William. I have no idea how he managed to escape his own wedding but there he was. I couldn’t contain my anger and that’s when I told him he had no right. He looked at me confused and it dawned on me that he didn’t know who I was. So I introduced myself.

William did most of the talking while Gilda sipped on some coffee he brought over to her. It was a mistake he kept saying. He learned of Gilda’s identity on his first date with Hilda so just as soon he left the Klein residence, he bee lined it to Gilda’s.

“We both come from very poor families” He said.

And as it turns out, that was precisely why this telephone operator didn’t know of Gilda’s existence. She and her mother had no phone. Her mother took laundry in after Gilda’s father died in a freak accident working as a foreman. William’s family were dustbowl folk, he had very little education and worked in the fields before they blew away in black clouds of dust. As a child, he said wore his sister’s hand me downs and worked menial jobs until he joined the military. He then put his arm around his bridesmaid in a protective manner as said,

“That night I told Gilda things I never told no one before, Arlene.”

In my impatience with this sob story I blurted, “Why then, why would you go through with a wedding to another woman!”

Here he was with Gilda and not with his new bride.Whatever was he thinking?

“Arlene, I told him to go through with it. I pushed him away. And I made a horrible mistake.”

Gilda was wiping away tears with her dainty fingertips.

Gilda worked as a secretary at the brewery for Hilda’s father. That’s why William remembered the brewery when he and I spoke the night of the USO dance. She told him to phone her there. I just assumed it be the owner’s daughter he was talking about, not a worker. And if you looked at Gilda’s willowy body, you would never ever associate her with tubs of fermented yeast. And apparently neither did the brewery owner. You see, Hilda Klein Weigand’s father had taken too much of a liking to Gilda. So much so he had forced himself on her a couple of times. Poor Gilda was petrified of him but she had to work.

“I knew that if William dated me, Hilda and her father would be furious and I’d lose my job. My mother and I have so little to begin with. At least this way I thought I’d get see William often and he’d have a good life. But seeing William marry Hilda tonight was just… just awful!”

And with that I remember Gilda weeping again.

It was at that moment I realized that William Weigand and Gilda Maria Acuña were two foolish children who deserved one other. But they also needed to be protected. So that night I made them a promise. And when I finally got home, Groucho had already signed off without me.

The kids found time alone whenever they could. And I helped perpetuate it. At my
switchboard, I would call William’s new residence, his in-laws home where he had moved his few belongings into. Initially, I’d pretend it was someone else ringing. If William picked up, I’d immediately connect him to Gilda and give them their privacy. If it was someone else, I used to say the caller on the other line had gotten disconnected. William kept a close eye on Gilda too. The war was over and he told his father in law he wanted to learn the brewery business. Because I worked a few late nights during the week, I let William and Gilda meet at my home. All my life, I’ve lived in the same cottage tucked away on a side street with it’s own tall white wooden fence that blocked any street noise or any noise for that matter. They would just have to tolerate my Persian cat, then again she was rather liked to go out at night so they probably never saw her.

It was during this time that I got to know Gilda. While we’d wait for William to pick up the line, I found out that Hilda was part of that gaggle of friends that blended and blurred for William the night of the dance. Gilda bashfully admitted that she was always known as the bait amongst her friends. They’d cast her out to pull all the boys in. So it was no surprise that Gilda served as Hilda’s bridesmaid. She once told me of a date she and William went on so that I wouldn’t think she was some back alley mistress. They took a long drive outside of town into the agricultural fields and stopped to pick honeydew melons. She packed them a light dinner and they parked to watch the mild flow of the All American Canal, that illustrious body of man-made water from the Colorado River that makes everything grow so beautifully.

“It’s funny Arlene, she said, you never realize how powerful a current can be when it doesn’t look like much from the surface.”

I was sad when the kids and I had to part ways. I so enjoyed being in on their secret. But all good things must end as the saying goes. Last time I saw them I remember I had an awful cold. Through my headset and in my congested state, I could still hear the charming lilt in Gilda’s voice. She sweetly thanked me for everything I’d done for her and William. She was a simple girl who wanted to be happy and especially for her William to be happy; I know she never meant to hurt no one.

Speaking of all good things coming to an end, I did mention at the beginning of my story that my forced retirement was because of the yellow pages. Well, I must admit that’s only a half-truth. It was a powerful technological wave that really burst my dam. And no one could have ever warned me. I wouldn’t have wanted to know anyway. Despite this unfortunate event, I do hold on to my dear memories of being a telephone operator. Even the bittersweet ones like those final moments that William Weigand and Gilda Maria Acuña spent in the Imperial Valley.

William, sporting a new mustache, pulls in to the only all night diner in town. Gilda, recognizing William’s car flutters out in her kitten heels and gets into the passenger seat. They embrace passionately. He smells of musky aftershave but all he can do is breathe in her honeysuckle perfume, the same two scents I had to wash out of my sheets whenever they came to visit. Just thinking about it still makes me blush, even if I am a tired old woman. They drive toward the All American Canal and have their quiet dinner, a couple sandwiches Gilda picked up at the diner and two cups of coffee. Sitting on the hood of the Plymouth Deluxe, they snuggle in close. He probably asked her if she was ready. She probably replied that this was all she ever wanted, her tears regretful because she was scared. No more shortcuts he’d promise her, kissing her on the forehead.

They found the car in the same place William parked it. The tan trousers and plaid shirt his wife last saw him in were strewn across the wild foliage and lumpy dirt that lined the canals embankment. It was assumed he had gone for a swim and back then that was nothing out of the ordinary; most folks assumed they could get away with when swimming in a canal. As days went by, it was a forgone conclusion that William drowned and his body was washed away by the fast current. Even if they had found him, he would look beyond recognition. What made me more melancholic, was that no one noticed Gilda was gone for at least a week. The only consolation was that her mother was dead so luckily there was no news to break to anyone.

Once in awhile as I was plugging people into their destinations, I’d get asked if I had ever overheard any conversations between William and Gilda. Over time, with no body being recovered or news of Gilda’s whereabouts, people did start putting two and two together. After all this is a small town and everyone likes nosing in each other’s business. I’d always say the same thing,

“Why no, of course not, why I never knew Gilda even existed.”

In fact, I’d go on by saying that this is precisely why her disappearance was so inconsequential to me and such a tragedy for poor Hilda.

Speaking of Hilda, in poor little rich girl fashion, Hilda Klein formerly Weigand did bounce back. After her father died of a deserved coronary thrombosis, she remarried a wealthy businessman from Jalisco, Mexico who owned a Tequila conglomerate and was expanding his alcohol portfolio.

And as for me, well I did give those two foolish children a proper send off. I had short evening nap and took an aspirin for my cold. That gave them about an hour to finish dinner and that’s when I picked them up at the canal and drove them to a greyhound bus station a couple towns over. I never heard from them again.

As the credits roll for my tale, I suppose I really am a hopeless romantic. Here I’ve spent most of my time talking about William and Gilda. I guess I do love happy endings after all.

I’m glad I could save the day even though it did take a little longer than your average telephone conversation. In my former line of work as an operator, I could always be counted on to efficiently find a solution or at least make something good up that will make everyone happy. Or at least eventually so.