The voice-mail call from the Lakeforest Mall Sears came as a surprise: The tractor we ordered had arrived. Come pick it up.

While we do have a small vegetable garden in our postage-stamp-size District yard, we don't need a tractor. We can barely justify the electric mower I use to cut the grass, always in under an hour's time.

Since there wasn't a real person on the other end of the line, we ignored the call -- until it happened again, and again. I phoned to report that there had been a mistake. That did not stop the computer from churning out another voice-mail message on our equally impersonal message machine.

Finally, the tractor calls ceased. Instead, we got a call directing us to arrange delivery of the pool table we'd ordered. Only, of course, we hadn't. In both cases, the Hills, of Mount Airy, Md., had. The callers had neglected to dial the Hills' 301 area code when calling them, and so got us instead.

"I hope you won't be getting any more of our calls," a pleasant woman who identified herself as Mrs. Hill said when I dialed the 301 number. "We don't have anything on order right now."

Since our number has been with our house since my wife's grandparents moved into it in 1924, I was not about to change it to avoid the confusion. Now, thanks to the phone company's new area code system, I don't have to. Anyone calling us from Maryland won't get us without punching in 202.

We'll miss you, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, now that our connection has been severed. Although we've never met face to face, it seems as if we are related to each other in some technologic, accidental way.

And our respective phone numbers will remain our shared secret. It seems the Hills' number in Maryland, like ours in the District, is unlisted.