Breaking the Chains

Michele Finn Johnson

When I call you on my allotted Friday, your answer to my opening question is always the same—Crazy Busy.

I close my eyes when you answer the phone. In my head, we are 19 and in my dorm room bed. You’re halfway through a bowl of Orville Redenbacher—your hands are buttery and when you reach for my TV remote, I lunge away. Your blanket drops. You are striking in your Dokken tee shirt. The double ‘K’s are thunderbolts, and your hair looks like woven chains.

I give myself orders to keep busy until next Friday’s call: throw away takeout clamshells, shred old bank statements, wipe out the crumbs from the silverware drawer, look for expired cans of non-perishables in the pantry. That’s the kind of oxymoron you’d find funny—expired non-perishables—and so I grab the phone to call you, even though it’s Wednesday and you’ve been very clear that my day to call is Friday.

Crazy Busy. I hear Wolfgang barking in the background. Someone yells, Apple juice! Your telephone rattles to a stop on your countertop. The vacuum seal of your fridge breaks open; kiddos squeal. Wolfgang pants his fuzzy tongue directly into the receiver.

Are you mad at me? It’s Friday and you’re not answering the phone. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m doing this—I sniff my dress khaki’s (you would say Gross!) and search for an unwrinkled polo shirt, one without an IT company logo, but I don’t have any of those. I get in my Camry, turn on the AM radio, and scan for news about ten-car pile-ups or local house fires (Ha! Who’s the dramatic one now?). When I pull up to your curb (Is that too close?), your minivan’s in the driveway (BTW, the 19-year-old version of you would hate the 29-year-old version of you). I drive straight home and hit redial.

He answers the phone. She’s busy, he says. I know, I say—Crazy busy. He pauses. This is stupid, you calling to talk to a dog. It sounds like he has some of Wolfgang’s fur in his throat. We can’t expect you to understand, I say. I like invoking the word ‘we’ as if it is ‘you and I’ that are primary and ‘he’ is other, ‘he’ is odd-one-out, the one who missed the best version of you—kohl-circled eyes with a heavy-metal soundtrack; the way you’d throw your head back and swallow cheap tequila with no hands, pull me out on the dance floor and solo air-guitar to Dokken or Ratt; the cool chick, the one who taught me how to touch a girl and be with a girl and buy a dog with a girl and get left by a girl and go nuts over a girl. I’m so whipped up about 1984 you, I forget he’s still on the phone. I’ll go get Wolfgang, he says, like a ding-dong.

It almost kills me, but I wait three Fridays before I call you again. Take him, you say. I do not expect this. Wolfgang, that’s what you want, right? What you’ve always wanted? Something is missing in your voice; I can tell there’s no crazy, no busy left inside of you. I listen for the sounds of your life—babies, the ice dispenser, microwave popcorn, the washing machine agitator, an unbalanced ceiling fan, Wolfgang, even Ding-Dong—but it’s silent. It’s just us. You still there? You ask. Your voice is powdery; maybe you’ve just woken up from a nap. I want to speak, but now all I can see are your braids on my pillow, those Dokken tee thunderbolts. There’s a family of dead bees lying next to me on my windowsill; they’ve been there for at least a month but I don’t have the heart to sweep them away. I want to tell you about them—I know you’ll understand how sad it all is, but now you are up and moving. You leave our line open and go on about your business. Cabinet doors creak open. Hamburger Helper rattles in the void space of a cardboard box. Cabinet doors bang shut. Somewhere far away from you and me, Wolfgang barks and barks. You slide a screen door open and yell, Wolfgang! Quiet! Wolfgang goes silent. Kiddos squeal. Another Friday night begins.


Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Booth, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, The Adroit Journal, DIAGRAM, Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019, won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, and has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as assistant fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her online at and @m_finn_johnson.