“Me and Her and My Machine” by P. Kobylarz

 

Blinking red eye. The blinking red eye. How he dreaded it. Like in that crazy Poe story. The one about this man and he’s, well, living with this other guy, and, now, how does it go? And so anyway he gets real pissed off at this guy ’cause this guy has this eyeball that’s milky white gross and so this other guy, like, slices him up, and well, you get it. Quite logical if you think about it. For a while.

But what can you do to a machine? A machine with a blinking red eye. A fucking twenty buck heaping crap of technology you bought from a derelict at a pawner’s who had missing bottom teeth and cologne that smelled like sweat. A little black box of a machine that’s got something on you– that knows a little bit about your eventual future, knows who you hang with. A machine that has some vital information someone else has entrusted to it, and not you. An answering machine that never not once answers to you.

I hate these things and so do you. Everyone does. They’re the price we pay for living in modern times. We need so bad to catch all possible information, invitations to parties, possible job leads, romantic intrigues of friends and co-workers. Any bit of information that tells us something about us or who we want to be. Any possible reflection of ourselves. Narcissus with technologies. Narcissus in a Hall of Mirrors.

You sit there like an idiot, alone in a room, after three hours of trying how to figure out how to record a message, and when you finally do, then you dread the deed. It’s like cuddling in public. There are better times and places. One on one. Your worst date–you and yourself. Duration: sixty seconds.

What makes it so bad is that you’re on the spot with yourself. You fuck up– you stutter, you mispronounce– and you have to do it all over again. Like being your own blind date on a mutually bad night. You and you in secret conversation. Overheard only by yourselves.

Who doesn’t despise their own voice played back on tape? All day long, you walk around the halls at work, sifting some Sinatra tune from your gut through your teeth into the air. Thinking the ladies are melting in their seats, you trill those vocal chords at others assured that the organ music emitted from your pipes is wholly an original, mellifluous song. (Note: you have practiced how to say mellifluous).

You yourself a Benedict Arnold of spontaneity who rehearses what amounts to be almost prescribed messages to friends and beloveds in what you have cleverly learned to be named dulcet tones, describing your exact state of mind and mental/spiritual bearing (that have oftentimes been cut of by a rude beeping), but regardless of all this, you never think that of the betrayal done to all your grandiose croonings by the rare instrument of your throat until that very moment that all of life stops, as you press the playback button and sit silently, open-mouthed in denial hear the seal in heat croup.

You hate the way you sound. If only you recorded yourself having sex! And maybe even watched it in slo-mo.

Then there’s the rhetorical problem. The message. What should it say, exactly. Should there be funky music in the background, the James Bond theme, or classical, the sound of a busy city and people mumbling “peas and carrots, carrots and peas?” No one knows. But everyone thinks about it. More than once.

Should it just be you– your voice– the humm of electricity– a confession presided over by the priest of reality? How does it go?

beep

“Hello, this is Pete’s machine answering because Pete isn’t here . . .”

beep

Why the hello?

“Hi, this is (#). Please leave a message.”

A robot with an electronic soul. Too informal. Too– I am not a number! I’m a man! And why the please. This type of message solicits a lot of messages from wrong number callers anyway. Never worth the listening. People are so sure they’re calling who they want to call. They choke up in disbelief that they’ve screwed up. How could the telephone lie? How could they misdial? Technology can always be trusted. Technology never means to let us down.

So there’s no way to actually go about it. Strange the wrong messages left on a machine. These are great to listen to, probably because the people are prepared and it’s their choice if they leave a message or not. Those who need to reveal something about their personality.  A dollop of them. A pause you’d never want to interrupt. A catch in the throat that signals vulnerability.

beep

“Misses Jackson, you left your wallet in the pocket of your dry cleaning. We put it in a bag under the counter so you can come in and pick it up. It looks like a wallet, but we didn’t open it, so we’re not so sure what in it. It is here though, so you an pick it up whenever. Your pocketbook that is.”

You got to believe it.

The reason why I’m even going into all of this is because I do not know what to do. The tv’s playing, birds are chirping outside even though it night, I’m messed up and the phone is in my hand. My brain is dancing to that dialtone tune, that little tornado warning that the line makes after the dialtone has hung up on you.

“eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”

It began when she left this message I recorded onto a microcassette recorder. I listen to it periodically. I have a lot of these tapes. They keep me busy. Anyway, hers kinda goes like:

beep

“mmmmmm-ello,(tune humming in background) thought you’d be (deeply seductive intake of breath) . . . home. But you’re not and that’s (pouty baby voice) oh so too too bad.”

After I heard this I fumbled through the receipts that I keep and invariably lose when it comes to checkbook balancing time. I ripped through my wallet to find that piece of napkin or tear of post-it-note that I wrote her number on. God is willing and I find it. I called her back. I get her machine.

Her voice is as sultry on her message as it is on my machine. She sounds good recorded. How can this be so?

It beeps.

I hang up.

I’m not one for phone tag.

I call back immediately. Busy. Her machine is thinking to itself.

I wait five minutes. Ring.

beep

“Hey, what’s going on? Got your message. Now it’s your turn to call. Thought maybe we could hook up, hang out, have ourselves a time. Call me back.”

Yeah, I practiced it a few times in my head before I said it. So it would come out nice and smooth. So it would leave little waves of reverberation that would cause her fingers to move and her throat to tremble and the creases underneath her breasts to sweat as she phones me back. Ready. Willing. Eager.

It doesn’t happen for days.

When I do finally get her message, it goes something like this. And, oh, I didn’t re-record this one.

“Hey, what’s up? Didn’t get your message until too late to get back with you. If you want to go out, or something, I’m going to be at the Massachusetts’ happy hour on Friday. With some friends. Be there. We’ll talk for real.”

The Massachusetts is this kind of preppy bar downtown where people go to be seen. Drinks there are real expensive. The women there are mostly beautiful. Sometimes they smoke cigars. The guys there are all assholes. Sometimes they smoke cigars, too. The other thing that freaks me out is it’s name. I don’t know why it’s called the Massachusetts even though I should.

This is a day later. I call her in the afternoon. I leave her this one:

“O.k., hi and everything. That bar thing sounds all right if I can get away at that time. Hope your friends are as pretty as you. See you then.”

Guess what? I never went.

It just wasn’t my kind of place. I mean, you got to feel right about where you are for things to happen, if you know what I mean. I don’t even know what that place’s jukebox has on it– probably Bananarama and select soul tunes thrown in for flavor. I don’t even know if it has a jukebox. What’s a guy to do?

It just wasn’t my kind of place. I mean, you got to feel right about where you are for things to happen, if you know what I mean. I don’t even know what that place’s jukebox has on it– probably Bananarama and select soul tunes thrown in for flavor. I don’t even know if it has a jukebox. What’s a guy to do?

A couple of days later I call her back. I get the machine. I freeze up. I get paranoid. I start thinking she has caller ID and is avoiding me. But I think, hey, she gave me her number. She wrote it down on a something or other. Does it get more official than that? Wasn’t a drunken ink bleeding scrawl on some cheap dive’s sorry ass excuse of a napkin the classic intro? Or maybe I’m dreaming this. Maybe she wrote it down on a bus ticket. A matchbook, a movie stub, an invitation to a party she never went to.

Maybe she was being polite. Democratic and all. Maybe she collects phone messages. Oh what I wouldn’t do for her machine’s secret code. So in the privacy of my own mental womb, I could dial her up, plug in that number, and surf through her other messages.

beep

“Yes, hullo, this is Dale the plumber. Can you call me back so I know when’s the best time I can drop by to check out your pipes? Thank ya.”

beep

“Hi honey, this is Mom. Was returning your call of, oh let’s see, Thursday evening. Hope everything’s all right. Love you.”

beep

“Hey baby, it’s Charles. Last night was out of sight. Did I leave my belt there? Call me.”

beep

” Girl this is Rosalee. Did that guy ever get back to you? How was he? He isn’t gay. I mean, he seemed so nice and all. You never know. Calling to let you know that if you aren’t interested in him, I might be. Talk to me.”

Nah, it couldn’t be like that. She doesn’t seem like that kind. I mean, she wears braids. She uses clear nail polish. Am I getting my signals crossed, or what?

I dial her up again. I know she must know that it is me calling and hanging up but I’m hoping that her machine doesn’t record me hanging up (it’s not like I’m breathing hard) and I do, can time my click with quartz-like precision.

beep

“Me again. Hoping you know me now by voice. We got to get together soon. You must be busy working, or I hope nothing’s come up. Give me a call. I should be around most of today and tomorrow. Number is 321-8868. Bye.”

Couldn’t be more straightforward than that. What I will do is wait. I won’t hang out. I’ll stay home. She’ll call. We’ll go out. I’ll see where she’s coming from. We’ll go out for a bite. We’ll get a drink. She will see that I’m more than a nasally voice badly taped. She’ll hear that my voice is song. She’ll get addicted to that tune. We will get it on. When other men call her number in the future, they’ll get me on the message machine.

beep

“Hi, we’re out right now. We’ll get back to you. Message us.”

But it never happens this way, does it? Never except in lame movies.

She calls me back. She gets my message. This is how it happens.

beep

“Hey, it’s me. So what is your problem? Are you afraid of me? Of yourself? You need to lighten up. I’m real busy that’s all. I work my ass off. I’m trying to make my job a better one, or quit. I don’t know what I’m doing. I take whatever as it comes. I hate schedules. I can’t organize anything, least of all my life. I’m sorry we can’t hook up. But you need to hang loose. Not be so anal. Here’s something for you. To think about. BRRAAPPPPPPP  click.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was astounded. She ripped one. One the phone. She farted on my machine! I have it taped! I play it back to my friends! It’s great! God, does she have guts! She does have guts. And I’ve heard them!

The funny thing is is that I’m the one who’s too embarrassed to call her back. Usually, people are together for years before they can share such moments. I know married couples who can’t even after years. And she rips one on my phone. What the hell does it mean?

I call her back. I get her machine. I don’t have to fart. I have ten seconds. I don’t know what to say. I am disgusted. I am enthralled. There’s no time to think.

beep

What is up with that? More subtle ways to make a point. You did, didn’t you. Listen, I’ll call you back. Or I’ll pick you up after work. Call me, tell me the address. Friday night. We’ll do happy hour. Bye.”

After hanging up, I wondered what phone sex with her might be like.

Days go by. I do nothing. I check my messages endlessly. Always some idiot calling to sell me something like life insurance, magazines, crap no one ever buys on the phone, more credit cards. I’m too afraid to call her. Ball’s in her court. Or the balls.

I watch a lot of tv. I begin drinking by myself while watching a lot of tv. I listen to music. I drink. If I had any drugs, I’d do them. I begin cooking for myself. I invent sandwiches. Bologna and friend onions with Dijon mustard. A fried ham/hamburger and bacon bits steak platter. I eat these things. I wait by the phone.

RRRRRRRRRIIIINNNNGG. She calls. It must be her. It’s Sunday night. I put my hand on the receiver. My machine picks up before I have the will to. It’s her. There’s something wrong. She’s not saying anything. She’s crying. She’s trying to cry. She’s trying to say something.

I hear heavy breathing. I hear what sounds like pain. I hear seriousness made into sound. She’s struggling. She’s fighting to hold something off. She’s breathing, breathing harder. I recognize her breath. It’s getting more difficult. She’s saying something like “ooooooooooooooooo”. She screams as the phone cuts off, hangs up.

I’m sweaty.

I go get the bottle.

I drink.

I don’t know what else to do.

I stare at the tv screen. There are people talking. Whatever they have to say is pointless.

A woman has phoned me.

A woman has phoned me and a woman has orgasmed on my answering machine.

And if I had picked it up?

I drink.

I drink some more.

The rationality alcohol brings makes me wonder. I’m putting two and two together. Did she have someone with her? Would she do that to me? Why would she do that to me? I don’t even hardly know her. What does she want with me? Could it have been me? What should I do.

I wait five minutes. I hold the phone in my hand. I don’t want her calling back. I don’t want her smoking a cigarette on my machine. My machine is my machine. We share secrets. My machine knows everything thing about me. Now my machine knows her. She does not know me. I do not know her. But she knows something I don’t.

She knows my machine.

 

P. Kobylarz has recent work in Connecticut Review, Scrivener (Montréal), Pleiades, Colorado Review, New American Writing, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry 1997.

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