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Ask not for whom the phone rings

January 27, 2012
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

According to the cliche, there's no rest for the wicked. While I don't consider myself particularly wicked, I sure lost a lot of sleep last week.

It started on Tuesday night. To be more precise, it started on Wednesday morning. And to be most precise, it started at 0147 on Wednesday morning.

I was in a deep sleep, when suddenly the phone hammered me awake.

"Yikes!" I yelled, thrashing this way and that, trying untangle myself from the layers of blankets, dogs, and cats. My heart was pounding its way out of my chest and every nerve ending in my body was buzzed.

And why not? Let's get real. When the phone rings in the middle of the night, it can be only one of two things - a wrong number, or a horror show. I mean, no one calls anyone else at 0147 to tell them their kid got an A on his Spanish midterm, or they bowled a 223, or they just ordered a riding mower from Sears.


A voice from afar

Of course, it could've been a wrong number, but given my status as a born-again pessimist, that thought never entered my mind. So with nightmare visions swirling in my head, I stumbled downstairs and grabbed the phone.

"Yes, yes?" I gasped.

On the other end a very pleasant female voice chirped away.

And what did she say?

Just this: "Power has been out at location 9999 for 18 minutes."

Next, taking on an authoritarian and rather snotty tone, she continued with, "Please check conditions at your monitored location immediately."

Then, as if I was just too dumb for words, she repeated herself, word for word. And what else could she do, since "she" was a recording? But so what? I was still standing there in my gotkas, scratching my head, wondering what the hey was going on.

My latest canine addition, No Stress Jess, joined me, alternately rubbing his snout against me and then pointing it at his food bowl - a very clumsy and I might add smarmy attempt to take advantage of my vulnerability.

"The hell?" I said to Jess.

He kept staring at his food bowl - he'd already bailed on the snout-rub ploy.

I scratched my head some more, and then decided it was all some weird fiber-optic freakout that had nothing to do with me personally. And then I did the only thing that made sense I went back to bed (Jess trailing, looking as despondent as only a big hound denied a treat can).

I rearranged covers, curs and cats and immediately fell asleep till the phone rang again, a mere 15 minutes later.

Again I ran downstairs, picked up the handset, and again got the same rap laid on me by the same Robot Nag.

OK, so the power was out at Location 9999. But it wasn't out in my house. This posed an immediate question, namely where was location 9999? Which in turn raised another question, namely why was I getting the message in the first place?

I pondered it a bit and the only answer I came up with was it was all a fluke. And because it was, the only thing I could do was go back to sleep, which I did. Or more exactly, which I tried to do, because -?and this should come as no surprise - 15 minutes later, the phone again rang, the RN gave me the same metronomic warning/scolding, and I was just as flummoxed as before.

The more I thought of it, the less sense it made. In fact, the only thing that made sense at that hour was to get some sleep, since I had to go to work soon. So I disconnected the phone and went back to bed. But at this point I was too wired to fall asleep.

My thoughts ran wild, going over one explanation after another till it suddenly hit me: This was no mistake at all. Instead, it was part of a plot: Some nefarious freakazoids somewhere were sending this message, just for their own vile amusement. It sounded far-fetched to me, but then again, computer hackers don't devote all their precious time and energy to the betterment of humankind, do they?

Admittedly, I have a strong paranoiac bent and this was a paranoid's nightmare come true. But still, if someone was toying with my delicate psyche telephonically, who were they?

I tossed and turned, this way and that, for another couple of hours, finally falling asleep, only to wake up just after dawn, disheveled, disoriented, and disarrayed. But I was not defeated. My head may have been bloodied, but it was unbowed, in the best tradition of Invectus and all that: I was going to get to the bottom of this, and I was going to do it straight away.

I called Verizon and the operator told me what I could've figured out if I wasn't a complete techno-clod: Dial star 69 and it'd give me the number. I did, and the number that came up was a local one.

But whose was it?

I jumped on my computer and punched the number into the reverse directory and lo and behold, it was not the number of a nefarious freakazoid. In fact, it was the number of my dear friend Kookie.

And as soon as I found that out, the whole scene made sense.


The light goes on

A bunch of years ago, Kookie moved to Vermont, but she kept her house here and rented it. Last fall, her tenant moved out and she decided not to rent for a while. Being the scrupulous planner she is, she had installed in her phone some sort of sensor that registers the power and temperature in the house and when either one hits a danger point, it sends a message to someone, informing them of it. And of course I was that "someone."

And being who I am, right after I agreed to doing it, I forgot about it. So when the power hit the fan and I was duly informed by the RN, I had no idea what was going on.

But once I realized why I'd gotten all those calls, everyone was A-OK, right?

Uh, not quite

See, the thing about the RN is she's both an R and an N. She's programmed that when the power comes back on (which it did in a few hours), she keeps calling every 15 minutes, until someone calls the number back and whispers the password into the mouthpiece.

Unfortunately, I didn't know nuttin' about no stinkin' password, and Kookie had forgotten about it as well, at least till the afternoon, when she called it in and called off the Robot Nag.

When I got home late that afternoon I saw dozens of messages on my voicemail. Oh yes, oh yes, I immediately thought: After all these years, I've finally won the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes and everyone has called to congratulate me!

My comfortable future was assured. No longer would I have to fret about eating gruel three times a day, driving trashmo cars and skulking around My Home Town in my brother's hand-me-downs. I was set for life!

As soon as I heard the Robot Nag's voice in the first message, I knew what the rest of them would be.

It was a crushing disappointment, to say the least, but I had one consolation. While Publishers Clearing House had deprived me of my rightful fortune, the RN was not going to deprive me of a good night's sleep.



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