I've screened phone calls for decades. It's just what we do. I say "we" because Flash has converted. In the early years, when the home phone rang incessantly, he'd holler across the house, "Can you not hear the phone?"
"I hear it!"
"Are you going to pick it up?"
"No, I'm screening,"
"I'm screaming too."
"No. I am screening."
"Well, answer the phone so we can stop screaming."
This intellectually stimulating conversation lasted as long as the phone rang. You can cover a lot of ground in five rings.
It drove Flash nuts to miss a call. It pushed him to the outer limits when I took the phone off the hook. Removing the receiver and placing it on the kitchen counter was empowering. Later, pushing a button to get a dial tone on our cordless phone, but refraining from dialing a number, was the equivalent of off the hook. Flash said the ringer could be turned off, but technology was not my friend, so I defaulted to archaic methods. Once the dial tone stopped, followed by one ring, a voice would say, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again. If you need help, hang up and then dial your operator.” No, I did not want to make a call, RoboOperator. This was premeditated avoidance. After 540 low-tone beeps emitted from my phone, I was rewarded with silence. The only sound in the house was the occasional buzz of my cell phone vibrating. With all lines of communication blocked, nobody could disturb my movie, or my reading, or my writing, or my mere existence on earth.
"Why do you have a phone if you never answer it?" the uptight man I live with would ask repeatedly.
"In case I want to answer it."
When he could no longer tolerate my boycott of telecommunications, he would run to the ringing phone.
I’d hear, “Hi. Oh yeah, she’s right here.” Waving my arms like a flamingo trying to make it off the ground, I’d mouth the words, “I will call them back,” to no avail. He’d hand me the phone, committing me to a conversation I hadn’t agreed to. I never asked him to lie. Instead, I’d sometimes run to the bathroom so his “She can’t come to the phone right now” would be the truth.
Now, Flash has fully assimilated. And then some. The last time he answered the landline was 2011. Now I'm the one screaming, "Get the phone! Hurry! We can't screen right now."
"Since I’ve been submitting articles for publication. They normally respond by email, but what if their responses get lost in the shuffle? What if they are desperately trying to reach me? They might call, and I won’t recognize their numbers."
"It was a 1-800 number."
"What if they have a generic line so crazy writers won't harass them? What if they don’t call again? What if I miss my big break? One man’s screened call is a woman’s urgent call to publication." Flash looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.
Now every time the bell tolls, I leap over furniture, dogs, and Cowboy in an effort to check Caller ID before they hang up. Nothing is safe on my path to the phone. It’s not a pretty sight if someone calls when I’m indisposed; I make sure the living room blinds are closed. It’s a presidential election year, so picking up the phone is risky. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Several weeks ago, I decided to vote for the candidate whose people have not called me during weekends. Since that didn’t work out, I’m going for the least number of calls made from any campaign headquarters.
“Hello,” I answer every phone call, sounding quite winded from the 50-yard-dash to the living room. So far, I’ve had three propositions from people who thought I was an obscene phone answerer.
Often, I am greeted with, “You have been pre-selected for a trip for two….”
“Oh, you again. No, I still don’t want your trip.” I return to my mundane, between-phone-calls duties around the house.
Again, ringing beckoned me this afternoon. It was an unknown number. I started to answer, then remembered promising Cowboy we’d watch a movie together. We put the DVD in, but I couldn’t take not knowing. I pulled out my cell phone and googled “area code 646.” Mexico or New York. That narrowed things down geographically. I googled phone numbers for all publications I submitted to in the United States. None of them started with 646. But what if an editor is using a cell phone to call prospective authors? An editor incognito.
When I called the number, I got a recording. “The number you have dialed is unable to accept calls at this time.” Yeah, right. There’s a double standard in the world of cold calls. Salespeople catapult me out of my chair, filling my head with dreams of publication, but I don’t have the luxury of making them put down their bagel and coffee long enough for me to hang up on them, shattering their dream of one more customer.
When Flash walked in from work last night, I was running to the ringing phone when I stubbed my toe. “Mom down, mom down. Repeat, mom down. Please pick up the phone,” I screamed.
“I just walked in the door.”
“Pleeeease…” I whined from the hallway.
He obliged with a heavy sigh.
“Hello” was the last word I heard him utter for the next five minutes. I shook my head, knowing he was caught in a marketing web.
"What? No, I...well, right now we can't. Fifteen dollars? Well, maybe," Mr. Soft Sell said. The Just Say No campaign was designed with Flash in mind. When we are approached by salespeople or go to a timeshare presentation for the sole purpose of receiving a trip, it's a bad cop/good cop scenario the entire time.
I yelled, "Step away from the phone. They're pulling you into their vortex." I thought a little Star Trek lingo might help.
But the conversation continued. I was wondering if we needed to plan for an extra person at our next Christmas dinner. Flash finally hung up.
"Remind me to pay fifteen dollars to the Sherriff Department's annual...."
"Flash we're not giving to any more charities right now, remember?"
"I tried to tell him. Then he said he’d send me an envelope for the money. I think I made a pledge through coercion.”
Poor Flash hadn’t screened or checked caller ID. He went in blind, taking a telemarketing bullet for me.
The phone rang again, and I hobbled over.
“Hello?” I answered,
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Oh, hanging out with Cowboy, about to start dinner,” I answered, still trying to figure out to whom I was speaking. “What are you up to?”
“Just getting everything ready.”
“I’m sorry. Who is this?”
“Karen,” she said, laughing.
It didn’t sound like the Karen I know.
“Just wanted you to know we moved the party to one o’clock tomorrow,” she continued.
“Yes, the party we planned for the fourth of July. We talked about this two days ago. Fajitas, DJ, fireworks, apple pies, at my house…”
At this point, I knew I was talking to a stranger. I may forget my friends’ voices, but I never forget a party. We had no big plans for the fourth. Surely she’ll know I’m a stranger if I ask for her address, I contemplated, but it’s a party.
My hesitation blew my cover.
“Is this Betsy?” she asked.
“Who?” I innocently replied.
“My sister! Who is this?”
“Um, sorry, wrong number. But can I still come to the party?”
Click. She was gone.
I dialed her number back, but clearly she was screening.
It’s exhausting answering and returning all calls of unknown origin. I’m chilling out about the whole thing. Now, chances of those calls being answered or returned has decreased to 95 percent, depending on how many repeat offenders I get each day. Those who know me best leave long-winded messages on my answering machine to help me play my own little game, “Talk or No Talk.” The more details, the better.
Tonight as I sat down to relax, with my cordless phone in my lap, I saw “Dust me” written on the TV screen and “Feed me” written on Flash and Cowboy’s bare stomachs. They don’t understand. I’ve been busy. I listen to voicemails and review Caller ID for missed calls six times a day. It’s all a matter of priorities.
But, for the sake of my family, I’ve decided to hire a team of telecommunications experts to help field calls. It will free up my time to read through last month’s mail and check emails every hour on the hour. I might even pay my bills and take a shower. If you’re interested in the job, dear reader, call me. An operator will be standing by, her cordless phone in one hand, cell phone in the other, and a laptop nearby.