The phone rings. It’s 2 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
A woman is on the line.
She left him three months ago.
Now he calls her all the time.
Tells her what she has to do.
One day she brought him their son
straight from the playground.
He complained the boy was dirty.
Told the mediator she was
not taking care of him.
He doesn’t want to pay. He curses.
He promises she cannot win this.
What can she do?

The phone rings. It’s 10 P.M.
It’s the answering service.
A woman is on the line.
She saw him again outside,
looking in the window.
She called the cops. She has an order.
The doors all locked. They did not come.
Her friends won’t visit. They’re afraid.
She won’t leave. It’s her fucking house!
The cops arrived two hours later.
They were sorry. Someone died.
She showed them her longest scars and
she played them some messages.
She won’t go to court again.
The judge got angry. She has no more
money for a lawyer.
What can she do?
Can I help her?

The phone rings. It’s 3 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
An emergency room call.
I meet my partner. She looks beat,
all gray, and blinking like a frog.
We go to meet our latest victim.
She is fat. Her face is wet.
She tells the cops she was asleep.
The window crashed and he was on her.
She tried to fight. He hit her hard.
The sun is rising on her cheek.
I hold her hand, then my partner’s
as they cry. I try not to.

The phone rings. It’s 2 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
Someone at the sheriff’s office.
I meet my partner. She looks angry.
She has heard part of the story.
I hear, she met him in Mobile.
He was handsome, nice clothes, suit.
He had money, took her dancing.
Didn’t even try to kiss her.
She was nineteen. Three weeks later
he sent her an airplane ticket.
Married her.
Didn’t beat her for a month.
Then, she didn’t fold the clothes right,
supper late, one night she went out,
didn’t answer when he called.
He looked at the phone bill. Who’s that?
Some old Alabama boyfriend?
Don’t make calls when I’m not here!
That night he hit her, broke her cheek, then
took her to the hospital and
went out drinking, told her she should
take a cab home.

The phone rings. It’s 4 A.M.
It’s the answering service.
She is at the hospital.
I meet my partner. The room’s full
of doctors, cops, and mostly nurses
because she’s one of them and they
all love her.
Second marriage, nine months old.
Threatened her before. This is
the first time he has ever hit her.
It will be the last.
Her face is purple.
She won’t have to go to court.
The cops have everything. They have him.
She never wants to see him again.

The phone rings. It’s 3 P.M.
It’s the office.
The victim that we saw last week
went home. She’s dead.
The funeral is tomorrow.

The phone rings.

I wrote this poem as a result of my experiences for 19 years as a volunteer for the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. While the program helps victims of all kinds of crime, the volunteers respond to a hot line which serves victims of rape and domestic violence. Every two months, two volunteers go on call during the hours when the office isn’t open, 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. and all weekend. We went mostly to hospitals and police stations.

The hospital calls often occurred when rape victims were brought to the S.A.N.E. (Sexual Assault Nurse Examination) Unit. The S.A.N.E. procedures were originated by a group of hospital nurses in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1991. At that time, the District Attorney of Ulster County was a man named Frank Kavanaugh. He read about S.A.N.E. in a law enforcement magazine and decided that Ulster County had to have that program as soon as possible. Nurses from Ulster County went to Tulsa for training, and the Ulster County program began soon afterwards, the second one on the U.S. The program is now very widespread and provides humane treatment for rape victims along with useful evidence for prosecutions.

Since very strict confidentiality prevails in the CVAP, I’ve never shared any of my experiences as a volunteer without thoroughly disguising any potentially identifying details. That is true of the poem, which changes some details and uses composite characters. But it’s as true to my experience as I could make it.

I wrote the poem in 2008 at the beginning of a poetry workshop run by Sharon Olds at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. It was a response to a writing prompt Olds gave, and I was thinking only of that, and of my experiences, when I wrote it. We all read our poems after a lunch break, and it was only then that I realized that the other nine people in the workshop, all women, were hanging on my words to find out who I was. I felt a perceptible relaxation go around the room as I read, and we all got along fine after that.

2 Responses to “Late Calls”

  1. Steve Smolian Says:

    Good poem, good blog.

    Steve

  2. Leslie Gerber Says:

    I didn’t make it clear that the volunteers work on two month rotation. There were enough volunteers so that there are always two on call every week, but nobody was on call more often than once every eight weeks–except for one heroic woman who took a week every month.

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