I’ve been at war with my answering machine. I thought it wasn’t working right, but now I know better.
I didn’t think anything of it at first. I answered the phone with my usual breezy “Eh?” and one of the women of my dreams said, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d be home. I thought I’d just leave a message on your answering machine.”
It happened again, once, twice. I began to notice disappointment in the voices of people when I picked up the phone. “I’m just surprised you’re home,” people would say.
“Why would you call when you think I’m not home?” I finally asked.
“It’s your answering machine. It’s so nice.”
The next time I was out, I called home. After four rings, the machine picked up. It was my voice, all right, but it was different somehow. The message sounded live, and instead of saying “This is Bill. I’m not home right now,” it said, “Hey, how’s it going? Bill’s not here, but we can talk.”
Startled, I hung up. With my hands shaking and my ears ringing, I called the number again. Four rings, then: “This is Bill. I’m not home right now,” it said. In relief, I left message for myself. I went back home and played back the tape.
“Bill, this is Bill,” it said, which was exactly what I said. I sighed, and as I did so, I thought I heard a snicker coming from the machine.
I started getting wrong messages. “Meet me at your favorite place,” I distinctly heard one of the women of my dreams saying. “I’m buying.” I went. I waited. Who can blame me? No woman-just a long wait. She denied any such message. There was lipstick on my receiver. I left home and called me up. The phone picked up immediately. “Hello,” it said.
“Hello,” I said. “Who’s this?”
“It’s Bill,” my answering machine said. I hung up.
Sometimes messages got lost. “Why didn’t you call me back?” I was asked several times.
“It’s my answering machine. It’s acting up,” I’d say.
“But it’s so nice,” I was told. “You sure you’re not the problem?”
Sometimes it would answer even when I was home. I’d pick up and could hear my machine talking to my friends, but I couldn’t make myself heard. “Hello, hello,” I’d say.
“Bill, this is private,” my machine would say.
This has been going on for awhile, and it seems to be escalating. I think the machine is not only answering calls, but making them. I get phone bills like you wouldn’t believe-calls all over the world. Packages have been arriving, ordered from catalogs-stuff I didn’t order. Pretty good stuff, like CD’s, The New Yorker and a fancy 50-function phone that looks like a jukebox. My answering machine is a spend-a-holic, but at least he’s got good taste.
My machine’s apparently calling some 900-line numbers. One day it was literally smoking, with little plumes of smoke rising from the speaker. The phone was hot to the touch. I picked up the receiver. I listened. I could hear my own voice saying, “Oh, baby, you give such good voice.” I was mortified and intrigued-I was eavesdropping on myself! Had I no shame? But I seemed to be having such a good time, I hated to hang up.
Sometimes I go out and call me, and when I answer, I hang up, just to mess with the machine. Sometimes when I call the machine hangs up on me. Sometimes at night I’ll answer the ring, and when I pick it up, it hangs up. Sometimes , thinking it’s me, I’ll slam the receiver down before anybody speaks.
At this point I have to think hard when I am on the phone to figure out if it’s me that’s calling or me that’s answering. It’s scary, but not as scary as when I think that I’m doing both, or neither. I can stretch the cord to reach a mirror in my bedroom, and when I can see myself, I at least know that it’s me on the phone-an odd comfort, that.
You can turn off most machines and still get calls, but not mine. It has firm control of my line- when I disconnect power, the line goes dead. I can’t even remove the line from one of those-it seems to have fused together, probably from one of those 900-line calls.
I’m learning to live with it. I get lots of calls-I’m not sure, but I think the machine has set up its own 900-line business. The phone is often hot, and I’ve been getting some checks in the mail, addressed to “Big Bill’s Party Line.” Sometimes the machine seems to be smoking a cigarette, a contented glow on its little red display, and it’s then that I am sometimes allowed to answer the ring; I hear from some very friendly people. I never answer with a breezy “Eh?” anymore-I’m always as professional as I can be.
They want to talk to my answering machine. That’s all right. I play along.