andrew foster altschul




The first time the new phone rang, F. and his wife were pleased. They had purchased the top-of-the-line instrument on a recent shopping trip, one of a number of such trips to equip the new townhome. They plugged it in, set various preferences, and went about their day. Some hours later, it rang, a few bars of a pleasant song F.’s wife had selected from a menu. F. and his wife fought playfully to get to the phone first. F. managed to pick up the handset, but when he put the receiver to his ear there was no voice, only a shrill tone which startled him. He held the phone away and then listened again. The ugly sound repeated itself—several seconds of electronic indigestion—then repeated itself a third time. He hung up.

His wife pursed her lips and bent to examine the top-of-the-line instrument. Maybe it’s still charging, she said. F. frowned and rubbed his ear. He looked around the townhome’s freshly painted living room. The new furnishings were tasteful and satisfying. An entertainment center blinked various indicators and still-unset clocks. A new personal computer purred atop a corner desk.

These things happen, said F.’s wife, with whom he agreed.

The next morning, the phone rang as he was brushing his teeth. They didn’t usually receive telephone calls so early—he thought it might be a problem at work. But when he picked it up the grating, high-pitched sound answered back. A drop of toothpaste fell from his chin and plopped on his bare foot. He set the receiver down. His wife leaned out of the shower to ask who had called. No one, said F. I don’t know. Wrong number.

They went to their respective jobs, where both F. and his wife made and received several calls throughout the day without mishap. F. arrived home first and was pleased to discover that the display on the state-of-the-art telephone indicated 7 messages. He loosened his tie and sat down to listen. His wife’s father had called from the home. A friend invited them to dinner on Friday. The third message was the awful sound, made more awful by the answering mechanism’s amplification. It sounded four times before the machine had disconnected. The next message was from the store that had sold them the entertainment center. The store wanted to know if everything was to F.’s satisfaction. The remainder of the messages were repetitions of the tone. Each time, the machine had waited a little longer before disengaging.

When his wife got home from the fitness center, he told her about the messages. She said it must be a glitch somewhere. But where? he said. She shrugged. It would likely correct itself. She picked up the handset and dialed and spoke to the switchboard at her father’s home. See? she said, covering the mouthpiece. It works fine.

The next day when F. came home the display read 26. Worried about losing messages from friends and associates, he scanned through all twenty-six. He tried to hit the state-of-the-art instrument’s delete function as quickly as possible, so as not to hear more than a split second of the shrieking tone. He lost one human message this way. When his wife arrived she found him standing above the machine and glowering. I’m going to call the store tomorrow, he said. Why don’t you call the phone company, she said. I’m sure it’s just a glitch. He said, I’ll do both.

The phone rang twice during dinner. They allowed the answering system to pick up and listened in silence to the persistent tone. It seemed louder. We could turn the volume down, said F.’s wife, her fork suspended over her plate. Yes, he said.

At work the next day he called the store where they had bought the phone and described the problem. The store assured him they had heard no other complaints regarding this particular model and suggested he call the manufacturer’s automated help line. The automated help line listed a number of problems a con- sumer might encounter, such as the instrument not being connected to a phone jack or electrical outlet or the consumer misunderstanding the procedure for recording an outgoing message. The automated help line suggested that if F. had further difficulties he should contact his local telephone service provider.

It was late in the workday. F. dialed his home number and entered the code for message retrieval. He thought perhaps the situation had corrected itself. These things work themselves out, his wife had said. You have fifty-one messages, the pleasant voice said. He slapped the top of his workstation. The man in the next workstation raised his eyebrows but did not look at F.

F. dialed his local telephone service provider and immediately heard light jazz music. There were many options to be listened to and prompts to enter the digits of his home telephone number and social security number. A voice said the average waiting time to speak to a customer service representative was, but did not finish the sentence. The clock at his workstation read 5:12. He waited for several minutes and then hung up.

The phone rang just as F. and his wife got into bed. He lay staring at the ceiling for a while and shortly after he drifted off it rang again. From several rooms away the tone sounded softer, echoing through the townhome. It rang again several times during the night; half-awake, F. had the strange idea that it was a kind of revenge for his attempts to contact the authorities. He whispered I’m just going to unplug it, but his wife held his wrist and said, Please. My father. What if someone needs to reach us. He lay back down. When it rang again he ran naked to the living room and shouted into the handset, You have the wrong number! Stop calling, it’s the wrong number! The tone drowned him out in his own ear. He cocked his arm as if to throw the handset against the wall but he didn’t do it. That was also the night they first heard the scratching in the walls.

The next day F. spent nearly an hour on the phone with the phone company. They assured him the problem could be easily remedied by initiating an electronic trace procedure. After the phone rang, F. was to dial a code which would be received by the central switchboard. The computer would determine the number from which the unwanted calls were initiating and report it to the phone company’s Investigative Office, a representative of which would contact the offending party and have the calls discontinued. Will they tell me?, asked F. Will they tell me who it was? The customer service representative said they would not, but they would ensure that the problem was resolved. F. was pleased. But he wished he could know who was making the calls. He wanted to call them back and give them an earful. Still, after tonight there would be no more calls and he was sure this unseemly urge would disappear.

That night they kept the handset of the phone on the new nightstand and after it rang F. quickly dialed the code. He squeezed his wife’s hand under the covers. It rang twice and a voice said the number you are trying to reach cannot be traced. F. looked at the handset and dialed the code again. It said the number you are trying to reach cannot be traced. It gave another number to call for more information. When he called that number it said that some numbers cannot be traced. He should call his local telephone company for further assistance. His wife took the handset from him and carried it back to the living room and F. lay back in the dark bedroom and he could hear again the scratching sound. It was hard to tell if it was inside the walls or outside the townhome or possibly even in the ceiling. The phone rang again before F.’s wife had gotten back in bed.

If the automated tracing system can’t trace the calls, the customer service representative was afraid there was nothing he could do to help. It was a different representative from the day before. He said F. could try contacting the police but the police were unlikely to do anything if the calls weren’t threatening. But they are threatening, F. said. The representative paused and then said, You know what I mean. Sir. F. asked to speak to the representative from the day before, but his current representative had no way of knowing who that was. That morning F. had pulled out the trash can from under the sink and noticed a number of tiny black pellets. The edges of the brown paper bags his wife folded and stacked were ragged and gnawed. The customer service representative suggested that F. change his phone number and informed him what the fee for that would be. He said he was very sorry but that these things happen. F. had not slept well for several nights. When he did drift into sleep, he was soon awakened by the sound of the phone ringing. Sometimes it was only a dream.

It was Friday, and F. and his wife had dinner plans with the friend who had called earlier in the week. He would go home and turn off the phone, just for an hour or so while his wife was at the fitness center. He would take a nap and wake refreshed and ready for a social function. The message counter read 99 and was flashing in a way he hadn’t seen before and when he pressed playback the pleasant voice informed him that the memory capacity of the top-of-the-line telephone system had been exceeded. He was unable to imagine listening to all 99 messages to find the one or two that might be important. He got in bed with his work clothes on, but the scratching sound in the walls started almost immediately and seemed closer, as though it were right behind his head. He threw open the closet door and saw what he thought was a tail disappear into a corner. The phone company’s customer service department was open until 6. Change it, he gasped into the handset. I don’t care what it costs.

The new number was to take effect Monday morning. F.’s wife was displeased. Now we have to call everyone we know, she said. There would be missed calls. Her father was likely to get the numbers mixed up. What if he has an emergency, she said. F. spent Saturday on the couch, grimly calling everyone they knew. Every time he hung up from a call the phone rang. The pleasant song his wife had selected for the ring option was no longer pleasant. He tried to reset it to a plain ring tone but there was no such option. His wife spent the day at the fitness center and the mall. She said she needed to get out of the house. They had not gone to dinner with their friend the previous night. They had cancelled their plans. On Monday F. would call the credit card companies, banks, utilities, insurance companies, IRA managers, mortgage officers, doctors, etc. He would spend most of his day on phone queues. It would be worth it.

Yes, we were having some trouble and decided to change the number, is what he said to their friends and relatives. These things happen he said, and tried to laugh. He was up to G in their joint telephone directory. The entertainment center was displaying a football game, but F. had to turn off the surround sound while making the calls. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement, and when he turned he caught a glimpse of something snub-nosed and gray, a shadow scurrying across the kitchen floor.

At noon on Monday he called the old number and a pleasant voice said it had been disconnected. He called the new number and it rang and F. hung up and leaned back in his chair. He felt like crying. He felt like calling the phone company to profess his gratitude. He applied himself to his work, anticipating a wonderful night’s sleep and was cheerful to everyone who stopped by his workstation. He picked up flowers for his wife and after dinner they had intercourse. The idea of an uninterrupted night’s sleep was like a perfect symphony and he delayed turning out the light in order to prolong the anticipation. At a quarter past four in the morning the phone rang.

I’m going to kill somebody, he told his wife in the dark. I swear it. She said nothing. He fantasized about buying a weapon, but he didn’t know who there was to shoot. In the living room, the answering device broadcast the piercing tone through the townhome. The scratching began a moment later. F. tried to bury his head under the pillow. He bit the bedsheets. It was all breaking down.

When the alarm went off he was unable to get in the shower or get dressed. He called his office to say he would be taking a mental wellness day. After his wife left he sat in his bathrobe on the living room floor. The phone rang continually. The machine answered and the tone howled. No sooner did the machine discon- nect than the phone rang again. A mouse darted across the kitchen floor. He stared at the phone and the entertainment center and the tasteful new furnishings. It was all very hard to recognize. The phone rang.

F. sat very still and tried to meditate. He had friends who meditated. He thought perhaps he could train himself not to hear the telephone or to incorporate it into his consciousness in such a way that it no longer disturbed him. He listened very closely to the tone. He counted the intervals between tones, which were always precisely four seconds in duration. The tone itself was between eight and nine seconds in duration. He turned the phone volume to maximum and examined the tone. It was very complex. It had many layers. It had periods and changes. Certain layers were constant and high pitched and others had waves and were more mechanical and a kind of whisper ran through it all. He contemplated that the tone likely contained some kind of information. He tried to understand what that information was. There were many mice in the kitchen now, scurrying in concert over the floor, the countertops, gnawing at the molding. The phone rang.

The phone rang. He felt that violence again, gathering itself in his belly. A customer service representative was calling to inquire if the new telephone number was satisfactory. The man’s voice sounded strange to him, very bland in comparison to the tone. It thanked F. for using the local telephone company. The phone rang. There was no one left to call. F. sat in his bathrobe in the middle of the living room and remembered hearing someone once say, You cannot use the master’s tools to bring down the master’s house. He couldn’t remember who had said this or why. There were a lot of mice in the kitchen. The entertainment center’s clocks were blinking, though he had set them to the correct time a week ago. The phone rang and the tone sounded and the state-of-the-art message counter blinked at him and he wondered whether it was a kind of malice that had invaded his town- home but he knew that it wasn’t and that was worse.

What he wanted more than anything was for someone to be responsible for the tone. Even if he could never find that person, just the existence of someone for F. to despise, to fantasize about injuring, torturing, dismembering. He did not want to become a murderer, only for there to be an object of his murderous- ness, somewhere to put it. He was a kind man by nature, everyone said so. He stretched out on the living room floor and wept onto the faux-parquet because he was a kind man who had been brought to such thoughts.

The phone rang.

It took him some time to ascertain the location of the offices of his local phone company. The people in the office were clearly unaccustomed to local phone service customers pursuing their customer service issues in person. He spoke with several people, each of whom asked him to please call the toll-free number and speak to a customer service representative. He explained that he had done this but felt his particular customer service issue would be better resolved if he could just talk to a customer service representative face to face. He asked where he could please find one. They’re not here, he was repeatedly told. He was certain that the uniform look of horror on their faces was not a reaction to any expression of his own but to the question itself. If they aren’t here, then where are they? he asked. No one knew. There were many phones ringing down many corridors. Computer terminals grinned from every flat surface. You mean there are hundreds of customer service representatives available to take my customer service call and no one knows where any of them are?

The regional offices of the local telephone company were in another city, over an hour away. Throughout the drive F. could feel the violence in his belly expanding. He could hear the tone in his mind, as well as the song his wife had programmed into their telephone. The people in the regional offices of the local phone company were not at all pleased by his request to speak to a customer service representative in person, or to be given an address where he might find one. There were many people waiting in the comfortable reception area, but none was a customer. The receptionist told him there was no one there who could talk to him but he smiled very politely and said he would wait until someone arrived. A woman sitting next to F. looked frightened and changed her seat. I don’t want to hurt anybody, he said. They stared at him. My phone won’t stop ringing, he added. They all pretended to read magazines. The receptionist traded glances with the security officer in the doorway and said something quietly into the microphone attached to her head.

Some time later F. was ushered down a carpeted hallway. It was no longer possible to determine if the phones he heard ringing were external to his thoughts. A nervous looking man waited for F. with his hands folded atop a desk. The man was much younger than F., with stiff blond hair that was black at the roots. There was a small silver ball beneath his lower lip.

These things happen, he told F. There’s nothing we can do.

F. said They’re your phone lines. You must have a way of finding out where the calls are coming from.

The man said there was no way of ascertaining that information. The calls were routed through many computer systems and could have come from any of countless networks, relays, satellites, nodes, cables, wholesalers, cellular grids, or other unspecified sources of telecommunication. He said given so many possibilities F. could surely understand why they couldn’t trace every call received by each of their millions of customers. Just think about how many phone calls are made every day, he told F. It boggles the mind.

F. blinked at him. He was extremely tired. He thought the man should at least offer him a cup of coffee. When the man spoke the little ball under his lip bobbed. When the man stopped speaking the little ball fell still.

That’s just not right, F. said.

It is right, said the little ball. Modern telephone systems are more productive than at any time in the past. In the future they’ll be even more so.

You should come to my house, F. said. He considered taking the man hostage and forcing him to sit in his living room. You should come hear it. You’re killing me.

The phone rang. The man pointed a finger at F. Don’t threaten me, he said. Who are you to threaten me? F. looked at the tip of the man’s finger and felt a great roar beginning to push out of him. He could imagine himself picking up the handset of the man’s telephone and clubbing him with it. Security! the man yelled, and two men hurried through the door. Each took one of F.’s arms and he kicked at the chair and tried to hook a foot under the man’s desk. The phone rang and F. writhed in the grip of the security personnel. The young man had backed into the corner of the small office and was clutching a pen as though he would stab F. with it if F. got near him. The little ball quivered. The security personnel dragged F. backward through the doorway and F. hooked his legs on the doorframe. One of the security officers held a plastic device to F.’s side and something hot stung him and his arms spasmed uncontrollably and his legs turned to rubber and the fluorescent lights in the ceiling turned colors and flickered and disappeared entirely.

He had the sensation of falling, slowly. When he regained consciousness he heard elevator doors open and then he was being dragged backward down a long hallway. He could feel a line of drool running down his chin. The floor and walls were concrete and there were large pipes overhead. They dragged him past many doors and behind each one F. heard ringing. One of the security officers said They should pay us extra for this shit and the other grunted. F. tried to pull his arms away but he could not make them do what he wanted them to do. Phones were ringing on both sides and nobody was answering. The tone had been looking for something, F. thought. It had been asking for a response. If he’d just known how to answer it the tone might have understood and stopped calling. He’s coming to, said a security officer. F. tried to say something and to get his legs under him but he couldn’t make his body work correctly. One of the doors was slightly ajar and he thought he saw someone standing inside with a phone to their ear. So many phones ringing, an ocean of phones ringing. The security guards stopped and let go of his arms and his body folded to the concrete and the back of his head knocked against a closed door. He tried to bring his hands up in case one of the guards kicked him. He could feel that hot thing inside of him again, pushing its way up. It would come out soon.

The guards turned away. F. tried to say something but all that came out was more drool.

What happens to these people, said one of the guards.

Beats me, said the other guard. Their footsteps echoed in the hallway amid the syncopated ringing of phones. F. had enough control of his body now to bang his head repeatedly against the door behind him, but the guards did not turn around. How’s the new car working out, he heard one of them say. Elevator doors opened and closed and F. was alone in the long hallway with the ringing of the phones. He banged his head against the door and fought against the scream in his throat. He did not know where he was or how he would get back home. What was there to get back to, he thought.

The phones rang now in such a way that there were no silences in between. When he was able to move his legs F. stood up slowly and wiped his chin. He took several deep breaths. The door behind him said Exit and he steadied himself and opened the door and entered a tiny room with no windows. There was nothing in the room except for a small table. On top of the table was a telephone. It was an old-fashioned black phone, but instead of a circular dialing mechanism it had only a black, mute face. The phone was not ringing. F. was shaking all over, tears running down his face. The endless ring of the other phones was like a strange wind behind him. The only thing to do was to pick up the phone in front of him and hope that someone on the other end would tell him what to do. He closed his eyes and steadied his hand for long enough to grasp the handset and bring it to his ear.

There was a dial tone and then the sound of an automatic dialer. He would ask for help. He practiced it in his mind. Help me. The phone rang. He grit his teeth against the thing surging in his throat, but he didn’t think he could hold it back any longer. The phone rang again and a familiar sounding voice answered and said Hello in a pained, desperate way, and F. fell to his knees and said Please, please you have to help me, but when he opened his mouth all that came through was a terrible, high-pitched wail of inhuman loss.