I came home to a message on my answering machine. My heart made a little flutter, just like it always does when there’s a message waiting for me. This one was bizarre though. The computer man voice recited: One new message. Sunday October 5. 4:52 PM. Then a very real, very flesh and blood voice came on. It sounded like the kind of voice that had been through a war. “This is Bob Hucks calling. I just thought that you should know that Betsy died early Thursday morning. I thought that you folks should know that. Thank you and goodbye.” I listened to it again. I listened to it a third time.
The man, the Bob Hucks man sounded sad but at the same time composed. He sounded tired. He sounded like he was making a phone call he didn’t want to make. I wondered if Betsy was his wife. I wondered if it had been a surprise death. It seemed to me from the sound of Mr. Hucks’ voice that he’d known it was coming, maybe it was his composure telling me this. The worst part was I had no way of getting in touch with Mr. Hucks. You’ve got to take into consideration that for every message you receive by mistake, there are two other people out there who lose out. Mr. Hucks never got a hold of whoever these “folks” were. These folks have no idea Betsy died. Their friend Betsy? Their Aunt Betsy? Their neighbor? I’ve got no idea. How close could they really have been to Betsy, if Mr. Hucks simply left the message on their machine? My machine I mean. They may miss the funeral.
After the few minutes it took for me to realize this, I pulled out the phone book and looked up Hucks. I called and got Mr. Hucks’ machine. At least I think it was Mr. Hucks. It was a robot voice very similar to my own machine’s robot voice. The message I left went something like this: Hello, you don’t know me but you left a message on my machine. I’m not sure who you were trying to get a hold of, but I think you’ve dialed a wrong number. I’m sorry to hear about your wife passing away, but I don’t think I know you Mr. Hucks. So whoever it is you wanted to tell, they still don’t know.” I left him my name and number but he hasn’t called back. Why should he?
Is there a socially acceptable way to act in a situation like this?
There have been other answering machine messages. “Hi Jeanette this is your Aunt Virginia. Thank you so so much for the tape. I watched it from the beginning to the ending and I loved it! Thank you so much. Bye-bye.” I saved this one. This is the one I feel the best about. Maybe because the content of the message is not very important. Jeanette doesn’t need to know Virginia loved the tape. It’d be nice, but little harm was done when I intercepted the message.
I thought about changing the greeting on my machine to something I’d record myself, instead of using the computer man voice. If I changed my greeting, these random messages would stop coming. You can’t mistake my weird sounding little girl’s voice for anybody else’s, especially not if I prefaced the message with “Hello, you’ve reached Rachel’s phone.” But I always feel like such an ass leaving a message on my own machine. It never sounds right in the playback.
I’d received another message, maybe 4 months earlier. It was from a teacher. He’d called looking for a Mr. or Mrs. Lex and he wanted them to know that Jimmy hadn’t turned in any of his homework this week. He didn’t leave a name at all; he only identified himself as Jimmy’s teacher. This left me no recourse. I suppose I could’ve called a few Lex’s in the phone book, but that would’ve been much more awkward than calling Mr. Hucks had been. “Hello, you don’t know me but your son’s teacher left a message on my machine. He said your son Jimmy hasn’t been turning in his homework. Just thought I’d pass along the message.” I figured this one I could let go. After all, it was only homework. It’s not like Jimmy had died.
Why do I feel this need to fix things that go wrong in the universe?
It reminds me of the time one of my boyfriends stole some photos from the photo pick-up bin at the grocery store. He did it for no good reason. No, I take that back, he did it because he was a thief. The photos had a “paid” sticker and he just walked out the door with them. We just walked out the automatic door. He sat in my car and opened them. They were photos of a child’s birthday party, an Indian family. I asked him why would he do that? What did he think he would find? He said he didn’t know. I felt so guilty that I mailed the photos back to the family. I got their address off the photo drop-off envelope. I mailed it in a plain brown mailer, no return address, no explanation. I wonder what they must’ve thought. I figured it was better than not having their family photos.
I think in a way I feel accountable for being here, in the time and place where I intercepted the messages. It wasn’t my fault Mr. Hucks dialed a wrong number. I wasn’t the one who walked out the door with the family’s photos. But I knew about them and that gave me a kind of responsibility. The idea of not coming through for these people gave me a sense of guilt.