I leave it on for possible lovers, potential employers and friends, to tell when and where we will meet. Tuesdays a special recording reassures my students that I'll be here, and they can reassure me they'll be here, or it's snowing and they have the flu. I leave it on so that people can record their crises, and mine:
"My car died: please come pick me up. I'm somewhere on the Beltway."
"Great Aunt Jenny has fallen again: Come quickly!"
"Your insurance expired . . ."
"Your check bounced . . ."
"You're canceled . . ."
Thus when I come home and play back, or wake up and listen, or call up and beep in, I learn what I ought to have been doing.
My magic machine, like the spool of a kite, connects and retrieves and winds me down to earth. Some day it may tell me I've won the lottery or made the best-seller list.
Meanwhile the machine screens out callers with red-hot specials on 80 pounds of detergent, or the deed to a trailer hitch in the desert.
My own recorded message seldom admits where I am, or even whether I'm in or out of the house. That's too risky. Callers get insulted if they find out one is only in bed or merely writing and the machine is on to isolate from their interruption. Let friends think I am out. Let burglars think I am in.
But not alone. Up to eight or 10 other people may be staying here at a given time: foreign writers hoping for news of publications, domestic young home from college waiting for jobs, itinerant musicians with an ear cocked for gigs, old friends and new, spilling over couches and beds, in and out on their various errands. In my 30-second announcement, all rate their three-second mention: ". . . so please record any message for Vladimir, Muhammud, John Smith, Mr. Chatterjee, Alexander or Alexander, the Harvard Bartenders, the Wineberry Press, and if you'd care for a beautiful kitten free, please . . ."
If on a rare occasion no one else is in residence, I list the cats: Samantha, Smetana, Emily, Annabelle, Herodotus who turned out to be Herodotia . . . Only Telemachus, the gray adolescent tiger, has been known to pick up the receiver, but he bungled the message.
Which is why I need a machine, and why I wish others used them. I'm tired of other people's spouses, secretaries and kids forgetting to relay messages. I'm tired of dialing every hour but encountering only dissonant rings. Phones have a different sound in unoccupied apartments, the rings ricochet off bare walls. I want human contact, even electronically.
I want to know my calls will be returned -- and to have callers promise, at least electronically, they'll call me back soon: They are simply busy now. Or as one friend's cassette confides at any hour or in any weather, "We're probably just out in the garden, or around the corner getting groceries. But if you want to go sailing . . ."
When I last dialed this friend's number, however, he answered. At the sound of his real voice, all I could stammer was, "S-s-sorry. I didn't actually want to talk with you. I'd hoped to get your machine."
The best recorded answer I've encountered is that of poet William Packard, editor of New York Quarterly. When you dial and his machine clicks on, you may hear a field of mooing cows, or the whistles and huffs and roars of locomotives, or Packard himself reading from "Hamlet" or "War and Peace" or "Phe dre." Friends call merely to hear his recording of the day. Poet Allen Ginsberg sometimes sings his messages onto Packard's tape.
Not everyone likes to reach an answering machine. At the sound of my "Hello! This is the -- " my late ex-mother-in-law would slam down the receiver. Timid suitors and students listen to my poltergeist, then click off. Another friend once left me a long oration of horror: "How could you, of all people, use that infernal machine!" He never called back.
But my debtors persist, and the heavy breathers moan, and the robot who hopes to sell me a plot of Florida sun doesn't give up.
So I may be unlisting my number.