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Phone root system ruled attic roost

Painting by John Pohl

John Pohl

Before there was computer messaging, there was the “telephone tree.”

Or, more appropriately, the telephone root system, since it started with one person calling three people below him or her, each of them having three people below them until the one or two at the bottom had to call 10 to 20 people since all the new names were foisted on people like “my” family.

I call them my family because I lived above them for many months and could hear them chatting during dinner and talking on the phone to their friends. I never actually used their telephone root system, but whenever I looked at their bulletin board in the kitchen by the back door, I felt protective of them, and felt the warm glow of being connected to other human beings.

The password to the bike lock that secured all my family’s camping equipment and bicycles in the backyard shed was visible to anyone looking through the window of that back door. After so much time listening from my attic roost to their conversations and dinner talk, I wanted to move the paper with the password (and all the phone numbers of their family and friends) out of sight, but doing that would have scared them.

I myself was paranoid after losing my job as a university math professor. It was either being accused as a fraudster, unqualified to teach, or being identified as the math whiz who developed an algorithm for rooting out opponents to the regime that ruled my home country. When the RCMP came to my classroom to interview me, I claimed I suffered from numerolexia, disqualifying me as a suspected war criminal. I proved my inability to work with numbers through multiple failures to dial a phone number correctly. The police let me go, but I lost my job and found an attic to hide in. A retired war criminal has to watch his back.

My own telephone root system depended on me being in the attic, where I monitored news of coups back home.

Still, my heart fluttered every time the house was empty and I could leave my attic roost and visit the kitchen for some leftovers or discreet choices of fresh vegetables and fruits that no-one in my host family would notice missing. I would stare with longing at the

many alert systems taking root there: Workplace closures for the parents; snow days for the kids.

Each system spoke of a human connection, and the concern and love they would show each other if ever my host family was warned of an unknown person seen lurking in the shadows of their house. When I saw a new telephone root system growing on the board: “Retired War Criminal Hiding in an Attic Near You,” I knew it was time to leave – after first moving the family’s bulletin board away from doors or windows.

That same day, my own telephone root system produced a call from an old comrade. I returned home, where my best friend was now President-for-Life and had named me Minister of Justice. I hope this time I will not drop suspects from helicopters, but give them a proper show trial.

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