The Answering Machine

by jwcarvin.

(Being a short story that appeared in the May, 2017 issue of The Foliate Oak literary magazine….)

I woke this morning to the sad news that Kessler (our daughter’s dog) was being taken to the Vet today, to be put down.

I went next door, to her house, to say my goodbyes to the dog.  Looking into Kessler’s cloudy eyes, I thought I could see evidence of suffering.  I thought I could see returned affection.  I tried to convey what comfort and love I could, wondering whether I really had any idea what was going through the mind of the dog during these, his last hours —or whether I was projecting my own, human thoughts into him – and whether what I was seeing was merely a reflection of myself.

I also observed the way the three grandchildren were dealing with the situation.  “But, Mom, I don’t want Kessler to die.”  Death is something they’ve never really encountered before.  They’ve seen road kill; they’ve even experienced the death of some of their chickens; but that’s not the same thing.  Kessler is older than any of the kids; he’s been their pet their entire lives; in a few hours, he’ll be gone; they are looking at mortality with new eyes today – experiencing the process, not just the aftermath.

Returning home, I found myself wondering about the difference between adults and children of elementary school age.  These children encounter new things every day. Their lives consist almost entirely of new experiences.  At this point, they seem to take it for granted that they have an awful lot yet to learn.  For them, not understanding things is the normal state of mind.  And I wondered – what happens to us, as we become adults?  How do we lose our childhood sense of wonder, our belief that the world is full of things we do not understand?  How do we come to think that, because we are adults, we now understand so much that we can be sure of ourselves?

As I came back into our house, I noticed a message waiting on our answering machine.  (Yes, Karen and I have land lines, not “smart” phones.)  Picking up the receiver, I listened to a delightful message that Karen had saved.  It had been left, three days ago, by Jackson, our five year old grandson.  The reason she’d saved it was that she is a grandmother and the recording was cute:  Having only made five or six phone calls in his life, Jackson had obviously never encountered an answering machine before.

“We’re not available right now,” said my recorded voice.  “Please leave a message.”

“Poppi?” said Jackson, recognizing my voice.  “This is Jackson.”

A long pause as he awaited a reply that never came.

“Hello.  This is Jackson.  Hello?”

Another pause; the barely audible voice of his mother (coaching him) from the background; her words indecipherable.

“This is Jackson,” he said at last.  “Call me.”

More indecipherable coaching from the background.

“This is Jackson,” he said again.  “Call me.  Goodbye.”

I pictured the scene in my mind, imagining the thoughts that had gone through Jackson’s mind three days ago, during his first encounter with an answering machine.  I’d already been trying to remember what it was like to discover new things all the time, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reminder.  I recalled my own fascination with telephones – maybe 1958 – back in the day when we picked up the receiver and waited for a human being to ask us, “Number please?” Remembering how we’d tell her (yes, always a her) what the number was that we wanted her to connect us to.  How she would magically connect us to others, across vast distances.  We didn’t understand how it all worked, of course, but then, we didn’t expect to.  The world was full of things we didn’t understand.

I was still reminiscing when, at that very moment, the door opened and in walked Jackson, in person this time.  Well, me being an adult and him being a five-year-old, I couldn’t pass up the chance to teach him something about life, by which of course I meant life as it really is.  (You know – I wanted to help him along on his path to an adult world in which he would understand just about everything I understood – even old fashioned answering machines.)  So I decided it was time for Jack to have his second encounter with an answering machine.

“Hey Jack, buddy, come over here.  I’ve got something I’d like you to listen to.”  I picked up the telephone, dialed *86, and pressed 1 to retrieve our messages.  There was only one saved message – Jackson’s.  I put the phone to his ear so that, hearing his own voice, he could learn about answering machines.

There was a confused look on Jack’s face.  I was sure it was because he was perplexed by the sound of his own voice. But when I moved my head closer in order to hear what Jackson was hearing, I could hear a robotic, clipped adult male voice who  (at least from my perspective) sounded nothing like me.

“Voice message received at 2:31 p.m.” said the robotic recording.  “December 6th.  From (804) 551…”

“Poppi?” asked the living Jackson in front of me, mistaking the robotic voice for mine.  “This is Jackson.” This time, instead of listening to a three day old recording of Jackson, I was looking into his eyes as he spoke.

“Poppi?”  came the reply.  We both heard Jackson’s recorded voice – from three days ago – at the same time.  I waited for him to realize it was his own voice he was listening to.  “This is Jackson,” said the recording.

“Who is this?” asked the real Jackson, standing in front of me – and again, he got an answer.

“Hello?” came the voice from the phone.  “This is Jackson.  Hello?”

“Hello,” replied the little boy in front of me.  “What do you want?”

“This is Jackson” said the recorded voice.  “Call me.”

The living boy in front of me searched his five year old brain for a sensible answer, but found none.  There was a long pause; some muffled whispering in the background could be heard over the phone. Finally, Jackson’s recorded voice broke the silence:

“This is Jackson” it repeated.  “Call me.  Goodbye.”

Without missing a beat, the living boy in front of me politely replied, “Goodbye,” and handed the receiver back to me, obviously very confused.  It took me a long time to stop laughing.  When I’d mustered sufficient composure, I informed Jack that, due to the miracle of the answering machine, the voice he’d been hearing was his own, and that he’d been having a conversation with himself.  His face lit up as my words sank in.  One of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen came over his face, and he started laughing with me.  We laughed together for a long time.

It’s a true story, really – at least, it’s the truth as I perceive it.  The story of Jackson and the answering machine is my story; I have no idea how Jackson perceives it; no idea how the story would play out, if he told it, from his perspective.  I wish that, somehow, I could climb into the mind of another person – or even a dog – and see whether we’re perceiving the same reality.  But, sadly, I don’t seem to know how to do that.  Sometimes it seems that what I take to be reality is really nothing other than the playing back of a recording – a recording I don’t recognize, but which, in fact, is only my own voice, repeating things I’ve already thought, and said, and have come to believe I fully understand, and nothing more.

But it’s been a good day, all things considered. True, Jackson and I and the rest of the family are all sad about the passing of our dear friend, Kessler.  But as I think about Jackson and the answering machine – as I’m amused anew by his innocence – as I’m joyful anew at his discovery – I’m especially attracted to the way he was able to laugh at his own folly.  I wish I could learn to do that more myself.

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