Ring! Ring! Ring!

“Hello? Hel-lo-o-o?” Click. Dead air. You hang up the phone feeling perturbed and, oddly, jilted. Who could it be? You make an effort to dismiss it but find that you can’t. Instead your mind begins to race, flipping through your mental Rolodex of possible culprits.

Was it someone you know, someone you don’t? Which is the more disturbing prospect? Ex-lovers always rank high on the suspicion barometer. Or what if this is someone trying to hurt you? You comfort yourself by checking the doors and quickly recite 911 to yourself in case you should need it. Unless you just saw Silence of the Lambs, you probably won’t dwell on that one for long. Ax murderers rarely call ahead. But there was that surly waiter. You paid for that dinner with a credit card, leaving him a coolly calculated 10 percent and your home phone number.

Then there was the car mechanic who installed a bunch of parts without your consent. You complained when he tried to charge you and he sent you away with vivid suggestions of alternate uses for the parts. And think of all the telemarketers you’ve hung up on with great abandon and those utility representatives you’ve given verbal lashings to. You realize you’ve been racking up quite a few enemies out there. And they’ve all got your number.

So when the pamphlet came in the mail from Illinois Bell offering a new feature called automatic callback, I could barely contain myself. It’s the most recent addition to Illinois Bell’s Custom Calling Services. Some of the more harmless of these services include call waiting (though some would argue), three-way calling, and call forwarding. Now they offer a feature that can automatically return the last call transmitted to your phone; all you have to do is press a three digit code: *69.

Say I’m in the shower and I hear the telephone ring. Despite a valiant effort to reach the phone, dripping wet and all, I get there one ring too late. I now have the technology to track down the caller. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of. As I read the brochure I felt dizzy teetering on the cutting edge of the technological avant-garde!

Automatic callback is not as foolproof as the controversial Caller ID, which presents a digital display of the actual phone number from which the call originates, but some might argue it is less intrusive. It’s also widely available, and at only $3.50 per month it’s much less expensive.

“Now let me get this straight, Lynette,” I said to my Illinois Bell service representative (discussing the details of deception lends itself to familiarity). “You mean all I have to do is press a code and I can find out who’s been calling me all these years?”

“Yes,” said Lynette, apparently oblivious to the benefits of this remarkable feature. I kept the poor woman on the phone examining the fine points, checking the details, and looking for glitches until, finally satisfied, I said, “Sign me up.” Count me in. Hit me.

It wasn’t long before I was hit head-on with the pitfalls of automatic callback.

At first it seemed like a waste of money. Suddenly no one was hanging up on me. So I started creating situations to use it. I began to experiment.

I would come home and press the code to see if the last person who left a message on my answering machine was indeed the last person to call.

Sometimes it was. Their phone would ring, I’d recognize the voice, and bingo! I’d returned the call.

Sometimes I’d get a recording that said my call could not be completed. I checked with Lynette, who told me the feature was not yet fully equipped to connect long distance calls or calls from many surrounding suburbs.

It also fails to work if you receive a call from a car phone or a non-Illinois Bell phone. Already I was starting to feel ripped off.

With my failure rate rising, I became reckless. I pressed *69 at the drop of a hat.

If I went to 7-Eleven for five minutes I’d come back and punch in the code, hoping someone had called while I was away. Satisfied that no one had, I’d hang up. But if someone had, I didn’t know what to say. “Hi, why did you just hang up on me?” was too confrontational, and it meant explaining how I knew they had just called. I was not prepared to divulge that information; they might not understand.

In the meantime, I started to use automatic callback to save on dialing time, as a sort of three-digit speed-dialer. If my last caller left a message to call back, I’d simply press *69 instead of their number.

It was right about then that things really began to backfire.

Once while I was in the shower, I got a message from a friend. I called her back using the code. “Hi Elise, it’s Rose. What’s up?”

“Rose? How in the world did you know where to find me?” Elise was free-lancing at a new job location. How was I going to explain this? I didn’t want to tell her about the code. I wasn’t sure she would approve. I felt embarrassed and petty. I muttered something obtuse and hung up.

Then there was the first time my phone rang–only once–and then stopped. I was ecstatic. This is more like it, I thought. Boom. Boom. Boom. But I didn’t recognize the voice on the other end. It was a telephone voice, formal and remote.

Now what? The person said hello a second time. “Uh, sorry, wrong number,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” the voice replied. “Rose? What do you mean wrong number? This is David.”

“Oh yeah, of course. Gee, it didn’t sound like you Dave. How are ya?”

“Well now, that’s weird,” he said. “I almost called you just a second ago but I’m running late and changed my mind.”

“Oh really?” I felt cheap.

It became apparent that some subtlety was required. I supposed I could wait a half hour or so after a caller hung up before investigating. But what if I let my machine answer, and the caller hung up instead of leaving a message? Should I call back right away, risking exposure, or should I wait and gamble that another call might come in and I’d lose my phantom caller forever? I found myself staring blankly at the telephone, paralyzed with indecision.

My system necessitated a more exact science. So after a hang-up call on the machine, I would take the phone off the hook. That way I couldn’t get any more incoming calls, and I’d wait. Of course, I’d have to run back and hang up the receiver every couple of minutes when that ear-piercing siren that warns that the telephone is off the hook would sound. This was becoming quite time-consuming. I fashioned a small fortress around the telephone with reinforcements like red wine, candy bars, and cigarettes. Eventually I pushed my bed up next to the telephone for easy access and comfort. All this made it difficult to leave the house, and since my phone was off the hook so often, friends began to call less frequently. It seemed that instead of becoming simpler, more manageable, my life had taken on a new level of anxiety. This I did not need.

I always like to find out who has called even when I’m away from home. Now, when I called my machine for my messages, I’d find that an anonymous caller had struck. But because I had called my own phone, my call became the last call and the phantom caller would escape.

I felt like a frustrated fisherman waiting for that big catch. My phone bills were approaching the cost of my monthly rent. The quality of my life was disintegrating right before my eyes and I didn’t quite know how to stop it. Every hang-up call was another opportunity to be vindicated. But deep in my heart, something awful was beginning to dawn on me.

I realized that every time I pressed that code I became a phantom caller.

Then the obvious question sunk in: What if they have automatic callback too?

Eventually I became hardened and mean and started to use it as a weapon to vent my resentment, even the score.

There is a foreign woman who mistakenly calls my house on a regular basis. I don’t know why. She just starts chattering away in a language I do not speak while I repeat over and over “Wrong number, wrong number.” She is a sloppy dialer. Sometimes she calls two or three times. When she does, after the second mistake she will just quickly hang up. One day after she called, in a particularly dark state and with revenge on my mind I pressed *69 and said threateningly, “Don’t you hang up on me anymore, you understand? Comprende?” I sensed her confusion as she chattered wildly, her voice shrill and frightened. Like a hot potato she must have handed over the phone: a man’s voice with a heavy accent cried,

“Hello, hello?”

“Just tell your wife to be more careful,” I said and then I hung up.

She hasn’t called in a while. I wonder if I convinced her the phone was possessed by the devil.

This was behavior of which I was not proud, but still I pressed on. It was an addiction. I had a big cellular monkey on my back.

I knew the end was near when I came home one day and as usual went straight to the phone for a fix and pressed the code. I hung up when I heard the voice. The last person to call had been my boss. A few moments later my phone rang. “Hello,” I said nervously. Click. My caller had hung up. Could it be that my boss, a woman I admired and respected, was addicted to auto callback too? I had to know. I quickly unplugged the phone and waited. A queer fusion of abject fear and unbridled curiosity consumed me and goaded me on. Later I replugged the phone and called. When I heard her voice I groped for the chair behind me. “Hi Jane, it’s Rose. I was just calling to make sure I’m on the schedule for tomorrow.”

“Well yes, Rose, you are. Same as always.”

“Oh good. I thought so. Thanks. Bye.” So she had it too.

About a half hour later the phone rang again. I stared at it numbly, afraid to answer, afraid not to answer. Afraid of what I already knew.

“Hi Rose, this is Jane. Uh, by the way, that nature show is on Channel 11 tonight. I just thought I’d let you know.”

“Thanks Jane,” I said.

I didn’t sleep much that night; the next day, baggy-eyed, I called Jane and confessed. For the first time I admitted to someone that I was powerless over my telephone. Of course it was hard but it was a first step. She felt relieved too. It felt good to know that there was someone else who couldn’t control her calling. When it was over we felt so much closer. We made a pact not to tell a soul, and I swore that I would get rid of my *69. “Uh-huh,” she said.

But instead my life deteriorated even more. I was on the verge of taking myself to public phones late at night in a robe and slippers to call the person I just hung up on so I couldn’t be traced.

I knew what I had to do and I finally gathered the courage to do it.

I called Lynette and told her of my decision to take automatic callback out of my calling package. I’m grateful she didn’t try to strong-arm me into call forwarding or three-way calling; I was fragile and could have easily buckled. Like a good friend she simply asked why.

“It wasn’t what I expected” was all I said.

“Get some rest,” she said, “you sound tired.”

The first time a caller hung up after that was the hardest and I’m ashamed to admit I even fantasized that caller might have been Lynette trying to gaslight me. Full recovery takes time, they say, and relapses are to be expected.

Now I live my life one day at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. The color on my face has come back, and I’ve put on a few lost pounds.

But the other day as I was driving in my car something happened that made me pull over to the side of the road. I started to shake. I could barely see straight. It was an advertisement for Illinois Bell on the radio. I turned up the volume and listened to a 30-second spot for automatic callback. Don’t do it! I wanted to cry out. This is nothing to toy with. It might happen to you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.