If You’ve Made it this Far, You Might as Well Leave a Message

Matthew Olzmann

If you’re listening to my voice, it’s too late for me, but there’s still time to save yourself. What you need to know is this: our dead would not stay dead. We fought them off for as long as we could, but soon most of us were infected and joined their ranks. We’ve run out of ammunition and they’re so hungry.

If you called my house in the middle part of the 1990s, that’s the type of message you’d hear when the answering machine picked up. A fake apocalypse — and in the background some guy trying not to laugh.

It was an ancient machine, even then. A relic from the ‘80s. One of those awkward contraptions that weighed like fifteen pounds, plugged into the wall and had two separate cassette tapes: one intended to play an outgoing message (“Please leave your name and phone number”), and the other to record your response (presumably, your name and number). But the outgoing messages were never that simple, and the incoming responses were usually just people hanging up.

Hi! Would you like to talk to Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure? Well you can’t. Sorry. I know this is difficult news, and it just wrecks my heart to bits. But he doesn’t live here, and there’s nothing we can do about it. He doesn’t even live in this country. However, there are close to a hundred people named “Smith” who happen to live in Detroit and are listed in the phone book. Maybe they’d like to hear from you. Maybe they’re tired, and in pain, and in need of a friend. Let’s begin with “A. Smith.” You can reach him at …

It became routine. Someone would call. No one would answer. And then: a strange, one-act play. The voices you heard were usually me or Evans Tasiopoulos or both of us, though there were sometimes other conspirators as well. There might an improvised story. Song lyrics. Someone swearing for three consecutive minutes. Or just a voice — weary, lonely — talking to himself until the tape ran out.

Thank you for calling 1-800-EXORICSM, America’s only exorcism-by-phone resource. We’ll begin by reciting some words in Latin. All you have to do is repeat them, and all your demons — real and imagined — will disperse. Our lawyers require us to inform you that if you are not actually possessed by a “legitimate demon,” this exorcism might have the reverse effect: a gate will open, and the “unafflicted” will become “highly afflicted.” But you’ve got to break an egg to make an omelet, right?

The house became known as “The Goddamn House,” and though no one agrees on how it got that name, the name stuck, and was used all the time.

I heard there’s a party at The Goddamn House.

I left my wallet at The Goddamn House.

Is it cool if I crash tonight at The Goddamn House?

Only four people lived there at any given time, but the names on the mailbox were constantly being replaced by new names, and it seemed like half the city was sleeping on our floor, our couch, or the kitchen table. There was always someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Someone passed out in his car on the front lawn. Some stranger making breakfast in the kitchen.

And then there was Evans — who didn’t live there, but was there more than anyone who did.

All of us had low-end jobs bagging groceries at supermarkets, selling crap door-to-door, mopping the floors in movie theaters, making bagels at whatever place was selling bagels. These were the kind of jobs where you could start at the bottom and — if you worked really hard — remain there until the end of time.

[Voice 1]
Did you know Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes? That means, by default, he’s also the patron saint of everyone in this household. Coincidentally, Saint Jude is the name of the church just down the road from us, and if you give them a call right now, you’ll win a fabulous prize. Evans, tell our lucky callers what they'll win.

[Voice 2]
If you call now, you’ll win a brand new pony!

[Voice 1]
I don’t think that’s right.

[Voice 2]
Yes it is.

[Voice 1]
No it’s not.

[Voice 2]
Yes it is.

[Voice 1]
No it’s not.

[Voice 2]
Dammit you promised! You son of a bitch. You always do this to me.

[Voice 1]
I don’t —

[Sound of gunshots]

[Sound of screaming]

[Sound of more gunshots]

[Sound of more screaming]

Tape ends.

I had taken a “semester” off from college, which would turn into six years off from college. At bars and coffee houses across the city, I was trying to learn how to be a poet by listening to Detroit writers do whatever Detroit writers did at local open mics and poetry slams. When these were over, we’d come home — exhausted but inspired — and direct what little energy we had left at the machine.

Hi. Thanks for calling. It seems that we’ve misplaced Evans again. If you see him, tell him that if he dies before me, he owes me twenty bucks.

Carl Gustav Jung once said, “The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense.” When that pendulum got stuck, became permanently lodged in the couch cushions of the absurd, you’d find us. The more ridiculous the bit, the more time we’d devote to it. Afterhours, we called wrestling hotlines, gambling hotlines, gun and ammo shops, and fishing supply companies, then recorded their answering machine messages onto our answering machine just so people who called the house would think they dialed the wrong number and have to call back only to hear (again) stuff like this:

You’ve reached Super Dave’s Tackle and Bait Shop — your stop for the region’s finest freshwater reels, rods, and lures! We’re open Monday through Saturday but closed on Sunday because that’s the day that The Good Lord set aside to go catch us some fishes!

It was an unlikely type of community theater, featuring brief vignettes that were composed over the course of several weeks and long-winded manifestos written over the course of several minutes. There were arguments and conversations and the longest-running inside jokes ever recorded.

Once, Evans and JT recorded a “debate” over what would happen if they pushed the “Blue Button.” This blue button was never explained, and they talked for nine or ten minutes. At some point, near the end, one of them said, “Well, if you’ve made it this far, you might as well leave a message.”

There I was. Naked in the middle of the desert. Nothing but a glossy 8 x 10 photo of Yul Brynner and my trusty thermos to get me to where I had to go: Cleveland. I was on my way to Cleveland.

Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? I can’t feel my legs and the clowns have come back with the turpentine and the barbeque sauce. They’re firing up the grill and won’t stop smiling.

Once again, we can’t find Evans. If you see him, please tackle him and return him to us before midnight. Also, if you feed him, he will turn into a real live centaur!

At some point, a select group of people stopped calling the house to talk to us, and began calling specifically to listen to the machine. I became aware of this only after — while searching for a new job — I recorded a more “normal” message.

Hello. You've reached the home of Matthew, JT, Jennifer, and Jake. We’re sorry we can’t take your call, but if you leave your name and number we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

When I got home that night, the machine was blinking. I pressed play.

Olzmann! What the fuck kind of message is that?

There were three or four messages. All were a variation on this theme.

In earlier times, there was a magical elf with bones made of piano keys and eyes that were the color of boiled cabbage. Everyone loved him for his ethereal singing, his understanding of nuanced mathematics, and his chicken corn chowder recipes. One day, it was discovered that he had written several love poems to the emperor’s daughter. The poems were of an inferior quality, and the emperor was enraged. He placed the elf in a little box and sentenced him to remain there, forever recording the thoughts of all the idiots in the village. The village idiots would call — endlessly, they would call — and the elf would have his ribs kicked in if he didn’t take their messages. So go ahead and start speaking; the elf has been waiting.

Gordon Matthews — one of the patent holders for the invention of voicemail — was often quoted as saying, “When I call a business, I like to talk to a human.”

These days, I too would rather talk to a human. On the day I moved out of that house, I crashed my car into a cement wall. Later, I stood in the rain, at a pay phone, dialing number after number, hoping someone would answer. No one picked up. I spoke into the machines.

Thank you for calling! As the world ended, we disappeared, one by one. There were fires. There were fault lines where the ground opened like the mouth of a whale. Phone lines were down, trees split in half by lightning. In all directions, the highways were blocked. You called out. There was no one there. You called out. We’re trying to restore service. Thank you for calling! We have our very best people working on this.

The Goddamn House lasted approximately a year and a half. Then everyone scattered. We’re in Arizona and North Carolina. We’re in Detroit but our last names have changed and no one knows how to reach us. We’re in Costa Rica and parts unknown. There have been weddings, and children born in the middle of the night, and funerals, and letters marked “Return to Sender.”

The answering machine has gone the way of the dinosaur. Everyone has a cell phone, though few people use these as phones. Text messages. Social media. This is how we keep in touch, now.

Not long ago, I called a friend. He didn’t pick up, but immediately sent a text back: “You … called? Is everything okay?”

I think about how the phone used to ring, and how I’d never answer. Now, I find myself wanting to speak to people. I want to know how you’ve been, what trees look like on your side of the country, and if you’re happy.

The tape ends.

Hello. You’ve reached Matthew. I can’t take your call, so please leave your name and number. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

This time I promise: If you leave a message, I’ll call you back.

There was a darkness and, through that darkness, there was a strand of copper wire, resplendent and burning. From one wire came another wire, and through each of these wires, a voice travelled like a postman riding through history on the back of a horse. Eventually, the rider came to a shack at the edge of a field. You were not there, so he left something by your door. It was a parcel with your name on it. It was a message, and it was waiting for you, a message, waiting, for whenever you returned, from wherever you were.

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