[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]
Don't let the title fool you: "Hotline" (first published in 2007 in Closing Time and Other Stories) isn't some phone-sex-themed tale of erotic horror but rather an exercise in coal-black humor.
Joe Fitzpatrick has gotten a job working the Crisis Center Hotline at the local YMCA. Today's his first solo shift, and should anyone find out about his behavior, likely his last. Joe is no stickler for protocol (at one point, he abandons his post to go sneak a cigarette in the bathroom), and worse, he shows zero sympathy for the
"goddamn whiners" who call him because they are contemplating suicide. During one extended phone conversation, Joe's half of the dialogue transforms from rote responses into an infuriated rant. The hotline-manning hothead, an ex-cop who worked highway patrol for twenty-four years, reveals that he is precisely the wrong guy for this job as he launches a verbal barrage at his caller:
Because over twenty-four years you see things. A lot of things you don't necessarily want to see. You know in some states attempted suicide's still against the law? It is. And there's a reason for that. Do you know what you goddamn people put us through? You jump off a bridge, we find you gray and blue and bloated in the water. We pick you up, good chance you're gonna explode in our faces or fall the hell apart in our hands. Blow your head off and we pick pieces of you out of the carpet or the grass or scraps of what passes for your brains off the goddamn walls. Take a dive off a building you maybe kill a pedestrian, whoops, sorry! we got to figure out who the fuck's who. We pack you in bags, wipe away your vomit and shit and your piss. You miserable sonovabitch. You make somebody else pick up your cold dead guts and you think you're worth the trouble. You want to die? You piece of shit I ought to kill you! I'd at least be cleaning up my own mess! My mess! Oh you're such a nice guy, you're hurting, my fucking heart goes out to you!Not since Robert DeNiro's character attempted to undergo psycho-therapy in Analyze This has there been a more hysterical diatribe delivered.
Most authors would have been content to orchestrate one surprising turnabout in a short story, but not Jack Ketchum. The narrative is given another terrific twist when a subsequent figure phones in ominously promising that he is going to "eat [his]
weapon," and Joe recognizes the voice as that of his ex-partner on the force. The despondent caller Ralph, in turn, recognizes the irony of the situation: "Aw, shit, Joe. It fucking figures, you know? I call to tell some anonymous fuck he can shove life up his asshole and I get you of all people." Ralph further marvels that Joe has taken up such a line of work: "What the fuck are you doing manning a crisis center. You fucking hate people!"
But misanthropic Joe doesn't hate Ralph, as he quickly reminds his friend, and pleads with him not to kill himself. And here's where one begins to see what a fiendish little tale "Hotline" really is. Joe actually "figured he was doing a lot of good" by berating his previous callers, but now his genuine concern for Ralph pushes the man even closer to suicide. "Amazing," Ralph sardonically remarks. "Good old Joe Fitzpatrick, model compassionate citizen. Now I seen everything. Now I can fucking die happy."
Ketchum clinches his narrative with a couple of amazing lines, which I won't cite here (I want to leave at least some surprise for those yet to read the piece). Once you do track down the story and encounter its ending, you'll be sure to agree: when it comes to mordant wit, "Hotline" is searingly brilliant.