I’ve been at the newspaper only a matter of days, but I’ve already noticed the guy sitting across from me participating in some peculiar phone conversations. The calls always end the same: he’s cut off midsentence and carefully sets the receiver down, sometimes deflated but other times more carefree, like getting hung up on happens so often it has lost its sting.
His name is Craig, and he is the wire editor at the paper. The calls all involve someone named Honeybun. I presume Honeybun is his wife, although I can’t for the life of me understand (1) why he would voluntarily and unironically call his wife “Honeybun,” or (2) why he uses his desk phone in this fashion in a quiet office with a at least a dozen colleagues eavesdropping.
When Craig mentions his wife to coworkers, she’s Barb. On the phone, she’s Honeybun, always Honeybun, as if invoking the name earned him a monetary bonus each time he used it. “Oh hi, Honeybun. Did you have a fun time, Honeybun? Honeybun, I told you: I left them in the top cabinet.”
With our office phones, one long ring means an internal call; two short rings is someone on the outside. Craig’s phone rings from the outside approximately ten to twenty-five times per night. Or as I would categorize it: incessantly.
Craig is tall and 50-ish with hair the color of a gloomy day. For a typical shift, he wears a pink cotton short-sleeve shirt—a summer clearance find at J. C. Penney’s—nearly white khakis, and gleaming white sneakers someone might wear while riding a three-speed in a dentures commercial. His glasses, the lenses of which have a subtle tint to them, peaked in style eighteen years ago.
His voice is attentive and kind. Even during stressful deadline crunches, I never see Craig lose his cool or raise his voice. Upon arriving each day, he greets me with a delicate “Oh hi, Dave,” delighted and almost surprised that I have returned for another shift. He is gentle and jovial, often sharing interesting tidbits from the Associated Press newswire, quizmaster style: “Okay, which country is the world’s number-one exporter of drinking straws?”
He will inquire what I did on my weekend, or what I do in my free time. “You’re from Colorado, right? Did you ever get up to, is it, Winter Park? Barb’s parents used to stay at a lodge up there. I bet they get a lot of snow during the winter.” Here he pauses in thought, formulating in his head a year’s worth of snowfall in Winter Park. On paper, he is everything you could ask from a coworker who is twenty years older. He’s deft with pleasantries, making the forty hours you sit at your desk per week, at the very least, bearable.
Then the phone rings. “Craig Howell…Hi, Honeybun.” I listen and wonder: How could a guy who seems so constitutionally merry be the same guy who gets hung up on seven times a night?
This is my fifth job in five states in eight years. That’s how the newspaper business works. You start at a small paper, stay for a couple of years, then move to a bigger one.
Living without the foundation of the family and friends of my hometown promotes a sense of detachment. Because I’m young and ambitious and at work more often than not, my coworkers have become my family. Age, gender, family status, it doesn’t matter; the colleagues of the moment fill my life. Nearly all of my greatest friends begin as strangers whom fate has placed in the adjoining cubicle. I’ve cruised to Mexico with one colleague-turned-pal and been a groomsman for another.
When I am first seated next to Craig, I figure we might eventually get to the point of sharing a coffee break or grabbing lunch. Or who knows? I might eventually tag along with him and his wife for a day or two of skiing in Vermont. But over time, we stay mere colleagues, acquaintances.
As the months pass, I begin to notice patterns in the daily onslaught, as 70 percent of Craig’s conversations consist of him pleading his innocence. “No, Honeybun…No, I didn’t…No, that’s not—”
I develop a number of theories and observations:
1. The topic of conversation is almost irrelevant, because anything Craig says seems to be taken as the opposite of what he means. As defense, he has three responses:
a) “No.” This sturdy rebuttal sandwiched between barrages is intended to mean “I am listening to and engaged with this discussion, but I do not concur.”
b) “No-no.” These two nos are spoken rapidly, back-to-back, usually in high-pitched desperation, as he senses the misunderstanding beginning to unravel beyond immediate repair.
c) Pure repetition. If his intent is to drive home a point, he uses a word or string of words over and over, like a talking teddy bear whose chest has been stepped on one too many times. In one epic contest of will and determination, Craig utters the phrase “I didn’t touch it” an astonishing sixteen times. Say it in your head: I didn’t touch it, I didn’t touch it, I didn’t touch it…
2. Regardless of subject matter, any call may end without notice. There is rarely the standard “Okay, bye” or “Talk to you later” (although he occasionally employs the antiquated “ta-ta”). Rather, the talking stops, and Craig hangs up the phone. To the casual listener, it might seem that Honeybun had been on a cell phone and driven into a tunnel without warning. I guess when you talk to the same person twice an hour, there’s no sense in creating any notion of finality. But usually the end is more abrupt; Craig gets interrupted midsentence. He might pause, sigh, or clear his throat before gingerly replacing the receiver. Sometimes, a seemingly pleasant conversation undergoes a sudden about-face, with Craig pleading not to be misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted. Then comes the same hang-up as before.
Because calls can end abruptly and are made and answered in varying degrees of hostility, it is possible for some conversations to consist only of one sentence.
“Craig Howell. No, we didn’t talk about what you would have for dinn—”[Click.][Phone rings again almost immediately.]
“Craig Howell. No-no. No, we didn’t…We didn’t—No. We didn’t…We didn’t talk about it. I was thinking…I was thinking of yesterday.”[Five-second pause.][Click.]
It would be unfair to say that Craig and Honeybun only argue. Because the combative calls are so common, the pleasant conversations begin to get my attention. Sometimes they’re short and playful.
“Craig Howell. Oh really? [Snickers.] Oh. Huh. [Simultaneously replacing receiver.]”
Other times, they become a marathon of quirkiness.
“Craig Howell. You did right, Honeybun…yeah, yeah…He’s incapable of…He’s, he’s…yeah…What do you mean over the barrel?…What do you mean over the barrel?…Yeah…So…It’s just him playing Santa Claus…Keep in mind…I’m aware of the issues…I’m aware of the issues…I’m aware of the issues…I think Chris…Yeah…Yeah…They take the kid apart and ask him…If the mother says it’s fine…No…I’m saying legally, they’re not going to hold him…No, I think you’re right…They just don’t think these things through…”[Click.]
Just when I think I am heading toward some sort of solution to the Honeybun Mystery, something even more bizarre happens. Craig’s phone rings. He puts the receiver to his ear and pauses for about three seconds, and then, in a soft and gentle lovey-dovey singsong, says, “Is that you, Honeybun?”
“Is that you?” I can’t imagine what might prompt an “Is that you?” Is it faint moaning or sobbing? Has her voice dropped two octaves and become unrecognizable? Is she caught in a sneezing fit? Speaking in tongues? Perhaps it’s dead silence. Regardless, are there really enough people phoning Craig and disguising their identities to warrant an “Is that you, Honeybun?” Of course it’s Honeybun. Everyone in the goddamn building knows it’s Honeybun.
As always, I keep my gaze on my computer screen. To ask him anything at our desks would be to put him onstage in our quiet office. So I carry on like normal, like I don’t hear what I hear, as if his conversations are appropriate in a professional environment, as if all married couples communicate so brokenly.
What’s astonishing—nay, inspiring—is that Craig never seems adversely affected by even the harshest phone activity. I see him hanging up the phone, apparently browbeaten, one moment, and seconds later, he’ll ask someone a snappy, relevant, work-related question. A second after that, he’s on the phone again using the Honeybun Voice, a tone generally reserved for pets, infants, and angst-ridden teens.
In our office, where the loudest sounds are a faint, faraway TV and fingers tapping keyboards, Craig’s shenanigans dominate.
“No-no, tell me about it, Honeybun…Tell me about it, Honeybun…Tell me about it, Honeybun. [Hangs up. Dials back immediately.] Tell me about it…[Hangs up. Waits approximately thirty-five seconds. Dials back.] Hi, Honeybun…No-no. That’s not true…No-no…That’s not true, Honeybun…No-no…[Hangs up. Dials phone immediately, then speaks under breath for about forty-five seconds. Hangs up abruptly, clearing throat at same time.]”
The themes of Craig’s conversation rarely move beyond this. I have no choice but to make assumptions about the relationship, which seems to be built on a series of misunderstandings, all the fault of Craig, who apparently lives waist-deep in a pond of ineptitude, idiocy, and all-around bungling of everyday tasks.
“I’m always in her dreams screwing something up,” Craig says. “Just the biggest imbecile. The biggest screw-up that you could imagine.” While relaying this story, Craig never turns off his grin. “She’ll wake up the next day and say, ‘You made me so angry last night!’”
If I weren’t such a calm person, I would leap over the one-foot wall separating the tops of our desks, grab a handful of his collar, put my nose two inches from his, and scream, “Why does your wife hate you? And why are you still smiling?”
Here are a few things I know about Craig’s life beyond our workplace.
1. Craig married Honeybun in his early 30s. He’s in his early 50s now. Before newspapers, Craig worked as a lawyer. Not the flashy kind of trial lawyer you see on TV, but a financial lawyer, the kind that works in a bank amidst blue walls and gray carpet and a feeble setup of coffee and hard candy for customers waiting to inquire about free checking. The kind of lawyer I imagine occasionally being asked by wandering customers where the withdraw slips are kept.
2. Craig wore a mustache in the early days of his marriage. I know this because the day I shaved my beard, he was the only coworker to notice, bless him. He followed his observation with a story about his own facial hair and the day he shaved it on a whim. He recalls Honeybun’s response:
Honeybun: Did you get a haircut?
Craig: No, I shaved my mustache.
Honeybun: I never liked that thing anyway.
He recalls this story with a head-shaking, ain’t-she-a-character grin. With a nervous half-smile, I shake my head, too, then uncomfortably scratch the back of my neck.
3. Craig and Barb do not have children, together or otherwise.
4. In the place of children, Craig and Barb have a boat. The boat is Barb’s deal, but Craig is its primary caretaker, compelled every weekend during warm months to sail it, sleep on it, or bear the burden of supervising its repair and maintenance. The first thing I know about the boat: They paid too much for it. (“It was out of our price range,” Craig says, “but the agent said, ‘Just take a look,’ and of course Barb fell in love with it. It was the first one we looked at.” He sighs. “It was the same way with our house.”) The second thing I know about the boat: It is sucking the life out of Craig. Literally. At the cafeteria, he pulls out a sandwich sans lunchmeat—just cheese and lettuce—to save the dollar. He blames the boat. Despite his just-below-the-surface contempt for it, Craig never directly insults the boat. He’s more passive-aggressive when it comes to the sea, opting for heavy sighs during and after discussing anything boat-related. At times, his feelings emerge, and he verbalizes his displeasure for the boat, the sea, and the time it swallows from his life.
“It took us 21 hours to sail to Nantucket,” he tells me. “I could have driven halfway across the United States in 21 hours.” He sighs and speaks as if he was criticizing someone else’s trip. “It’s like if you had a car with a radio that didn’t work, so there was nothing to do but sit there, and its top speed was seven miles per hour, and you had to drive it up to the White Mountains.”
Though the words are spoken calmly and powerlessly, they are the closest he ever comes to confronting this thing that occupies his life. I feel like he wants me to examine the subtleties and nuance of his voice, to look closer and closer until I see a miniature Craig, waving his arms, reflecting a mirror into the sky, hoping someone, someday might save him.
It occurs to me that seeing Craig’s wife in the flesh might provide some answers to the Honeybun Question. I think of ways I could meet Craig and Honeybun outside of work. I keep my ears alert for dining plans, which might create the opportunity to “accidentally” bump into him at a restaurant. I consider boldly inviting myself to dinner or showing so much interest in sailing that he feels obligated to have me out on the boat. There I could give their relationship a fair hearing, free from the limitations of the one-sided phone call. Maybe Honeybun is right. Maybe Craig is the scorn-worthy buffoon that Honeybun makes him out to be.
A new person is hired who sits adjacent to Craig twice a week. During an after-hours conversation, she becomes curious about some of her new coworkers. I bring up Craig. And Honeybun. And the phone calls.
“You have to ask him,” I tell her. “You must demand to know all about these conversations.” Like a director, I spell out the scene: “You’re young, you’re innocent, you’re curious. You don’t know these calls happen twice an hour. It’s all new.” She refuses. But I plead with her, because I should have pleaded with Craig when I still could. I should have jumped in when I couldn’t have known any better, when I could have chalked up my faux pas to the ignorance of being the New Guy. I could have waited for him to set the phone down and chimed in, “A little fight with your old lady, eh? The old ball ‘n’ chain? Haha! Yessir!” and he might have detected an odd closeness with his new carefree colleague and felt obliged to let me in on his secrets.
I continue to look for opportunities. I pass him in the break room at dinnertime, a perfect moment for some blunt questioning beyond the earshot of anyone else. But everything I think of seems obtrusive. “So, Craig…What’s the deal with that crazy wife of yours?” If I were a better liar, perhaps I could act like we have something in common: “Man, I didn’t get all the laundry done this weekend, and boy, did my old lady let me have it!”
Instead, I smell the air in exaggerated fashion and try to guess what he brought for dinner. “Chili?”
“No, lamb stew.”
From a series of calls, I piece together bits of information here and there, and determine Honeybun will be manning a booth at one of the region’s largest boat shows, to be held at the convention center downtown. I consider showing up, hoping for a chance run-in. I might wear a polo I have that features the newspaper’s masthead prominently; it might spur some conversation with strangers, and one of those strangers could be her. But if I went to the boat show, what would I be looking for? From the picture in my head, it would be a scowling lady with stringy gray hair and a weathered face creased by years of sun and wind and unhappiness. She’d be belligerent and confrontational, launching irrational accusations at passersby.
I wonder how someone could be committed to a person like this, enduring a marriage for years, belittled and held back by contempt. I imagine it happens slowly, never from day one, never overnight. One end of the relationship slowly gains power and control as the other end gets smaller and quieter, settling into a helpless existence, having forgotten what life is like outside the darkened room.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems so clear: Leave. Nothing is worth a life of regret and unhappiness. You have no kids. You deserve better. Leave.
I sit next to him for forty hours a week, spending more time in his company than in any other person’s. But I don’t know him. Hearing one side of his phone calls doesn’t give me the right to judge. He may be perfectly happy, enduring grim phone calls because the payoff is so great. Perhaps Honeybun is insanely attractive and twenty years younger, independently wealthy with a British accent. Perhaps she apologizes profusely when he gets home and makes up for the phone calls with exquisite home-cooked meals and vibrant, mind-twisting sex.
Or perhaps she suffers from something beyond the scope of the phone calls, something that wasn’t there when they were newlyweds. Brave, valiant, and compassionate, he’s refused to give up on her, committed to hearing only the voice he fell in love with. Maybe that’s the woman I should be looking for if I go to the boat show.
Today, I know that nothing is stopping me. I could call across the half-wall and demand the truth about Honeybun, the other side of his phone calls, and his life. I could know everything. As much as my curiosity haunts me, the truth might haunt me more. For Craig’s sake, I cling to the idea that key information has somehow eluded me, that their relationship would make sense if only I heard the other side.
When I’m honest, I sense that Craig is exactly who I think he is. Years of verbal and emotional abuse have made him hollow. Crushed beyond the point of accepting his predicament, he’s forgotten that he even has a predicament.
I’ve decided I don’t want to know. At least not for sure. If he were a friend of mine, I’d listen. I’d plead. I’d tell him to demand his freedom, his life. But he’s just a colleague, and I just happen to sit by him.
For two years now, I have avoided investigating the intrigue of Craig and Honeybun, which inclines me to doubt that I will ever solve the mystery. The window of overt curiosity has passed. I know that he knows that I can hear every word, and it’s as if we’ve made an unspoken agreement that his phone calls don’t exist.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.
Listen to David read his essay: