My NonFiction

Hello, good morning, hello there in Tucson

That was the first message the young woman left on my answering machine on February 18, 2000. I’m sure about the date for two reasons. 1) She left the message shortly after the company I worked for moved to the airport area, thereby inconveniencing most of its employees, including me. 2) Even better: I’m a writer; I tend to document stuff, stuff like strange phone calls. I documented that first message and many subsequent “hello, hello” messages from the same woman. I still have those notes in my files.

To add to the mystery, on January 26, two unidentified women had called at different times and briefly talked with Other Half (OH). Unfortunately, their attempts to converse with him were not successful.

When the first caller, who OH thought was in her twenties, asked to speak with him, OH told her she was speaking with him. The woman hesitated. In hindsight I think she might have covered the phone and talked with someone in the background. Asking for further instructions, perhaps? Not being the most patient person in the universe, OH didn’t wait for her response. “Well, okay, goodbye,” he said and hung up.

Later that afternoon, another woman, who OH thought sounded older than the first one, called and asked to speak with him. When he told her that she was speaking with him, the woman giggled and hung up. OH said he could hear children in the background.

Several days later, we got a garbled message that OH thought might have been from Ms. Giggles. I listened to the message several times. The woman seemed to be saying “It would be at night.” What would be at night? I decided that she probably was talking to someone in the background because we certainly didn’t have any evening plans that involved her.

I was annoyed by the messages and mystery calls and with good reason. I had been the recipient of some bizarre phone calls when I first moved to Tucson. I had ended up changing my phone number, and I didn’t want to feel forced into doing it again. If these women had something to say to us, I figured they should just say it and stop playing games.

I was almost certain that the calls were not coming from some zany, disorganized telemarketing company.

And, as it turned out, they weren’t.

In 2000, Tucson was probably the call center capital of the United States, if not the world. Many of those companies had set up shop in the airport area. During the week, I rode the bus surrounded by legions of call center employees. Out of curiosity, I asked a few of them if telemarketers ever left messages on answering machines. No, they did not.

“Telemarketers can’t sell anything to answering machines,” one woman said.

Ms. Giggles, had called once for sure—possibly twice. I know she didn’t dial a wrong number because she asked for OH by name. Well, maybe she was a volunteer calling from her home on behalf of a local charity. That could explain the children chattering in the background.

Our February caller was more persistent. Every couple of weeks, for several months, she left the same repeated one-word message on the answering machine. I dubbed her Ms. Hello Hello.

If she wasn’t a shy or nervous newbie telemarketer, then who was this woman with the soft, rather musical voice and very limited vocabulary? More important, how did she get my unlisted phone number? Every time I found a message from her, I punched Star 69, hoping to get her phone number. All I got were extra charges on my phone bills and a recorded message that announced, “The last number called cannot be reached.”

One friend suggested that I change my phone number. A coworker urged me to complain to the phone company. Complain about what? The customer service representative (CSR) would have laughed at me. The greeting “hello, hello” wasn’t threatening by any stretch of the imagination. However, by the end of April, I was sure this woman thought she was playing games with someone. I just wasn’t sure if it was with us.

I couldn’t think of anyone we’d offended recently. Maybe someone purposely gave Ms. Hello Hello a wrong number. Maybe she wrote the right number down wrong. Or maybe she thought she was calling the person who had the phone number before I did.

The calls were annoying, but they didn’t freak me out. I didn’t want to change my phone number, but I wasn’t looking forward to listening to her messages forever. I wasn’t going to give up easily, even though I knew it would cost me. I figured if I kept punching Star 69, I would eventually get a phone number.

And I did.

Unless it’s an emergency, we’ve always asked friends and family members not to call after 9 p.m. So we were a bit apprehensive when the phone rang shortly after 9:30 p.m. on April 29.

OH picked up, growled (yes, growled), “Hello,” and slammed down the phone. “Sounds like someone is having a party,” he muttered. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. He picked up again. There was no one on the line again. Same background noise again.

The third time the phone rang, I bounced out of the bedroom where I was working on the computer. “Don’t answer it!” I yelled. I picked up the phone, hung up, and punched Star 69.

After weeks of trying to get a phone number, I finally got someone’s phone number. I did a quick area code search and discovered that the phone number (and presumably the phone) was located in Los Angeles. That was another surprise. We didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles.

I dialed the number, and a woman answered. When I heard her say hello, I should have hollered, “Okay, Ms. Hello Hello, who are you, and what do you want from us?” But I was so stunned that I slammed down the phone. A few minutes later, I stopped freaking out and re-dialed. I got a voice mail recording from a woman with an accent who identified herself as Bina. Bina wasn’t the woman I had just hung up on.

Ms. Hello Hello didn’t have an accent.

Oops, big mistake. Hanging up on Ms. Hello Hello was a really dumb move. Why, oh why, did I do that? Maybe it was the shock of recognition. I don’t know whom I expected to answer the phone, but it wasn’t her. Ms. Hello Hello always seemed to call when we weren’t around.

OH suspected there was a party in progress. So maybe Ms. Hello Hello had a couple of margaritas and got up the courage to call us from a friend’s phone. Maybe she had hopes of finally speaking to a real person. On the other hand, maybe she figured that 9:30 p.m. was a good time to play phone games and annoy the heck out of us.

In the morning, I decided I didn’t have anything to lose, so I called Bina. On the first try, I got a busy signal. On the second try, I got Bina. I expected her to deny knowing Ms. Hello Hello or to hang up on me. However, she seemed willing to listen.

I explained that someone apparently had called my house several times from her phone on Saturday night. She hesitated and then asked if I was in Arizona. When I told her I was, she said she had been trying to call her boyfriend in Arizona and guessed that she had dialed a wrong number.

“Three times?” I asked. She hesitated again, so I decided to level with her. “When I called your number last night, the woman who has been leaving hello, hello messages on my phone for the last few months answered your phone.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about that,” she said. I asked if she had been at a party. “I was at a nightclub.” Okay, so Bina had a cell phone. Sometimes people are a little careless about leaving their cell phones lying around. I suppose it was possible that a stranger had helped herself to Bina’s phone when Bina was occupied elsewhere.

Possible, but not really probable.

Bina knew that the calls had been made to Arizona. So I was sure she had at least a nodding acquaintance with Ms. Hello Hello. “If you think you might know this person,” I said, “please give her a message from me. Tell her to tell us what she wants or stop calling.”

For a while, there were no more messages from Ms. Hello Hello. And then, over a period of several months there were maybe two or three, barely audible, “hello” messages from a woman who sounded a lot like her.

Most likely, Ms Hello Hello had an unlisted phone number or she had blocked her phone number before calling us. I no longer punched in Star 69 in an attempt to trace her. I would have succeeded only in adding more extra charges to my phone bills. Anyway, if she didn’t have the courtesy to actually call when she might be able to talk with one of us, I couldn’t be bothered trying to track her down.

Yes, I was curious as to what she wanted. But not that curious.

Ms. Hello Hello wasn’t the only one leaving messages on our machine. Around that time, we also found messages from other individuals. Were those calls simply coincidences? Who knows?

One day, I was home when the phone rang, but I let the machine take the call. A man asked for OH. He sounded rather stressed, and his voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I picked up the phone just as he hung up. He didn’t call back.

Another time, a woman called and asked for me. As I listened to the message, I realized that she was also talking to someone in the background. She said, “In a little bit, I want to finish my sucker first.” Yikes! What sucker was she referring to? A lollipop? Or me? And then she said, “In grape or mint.” Whew!

Two or three weeks later, we found another message from the “lollipop lady,” asking to speak to OH.

The strangest message was from a little boy who asked to speak to OH. The child was probably between the ages of four and six, and he seemed on the verge of tears. Yes, I know telemarketing companies hire them young, but not that young.

Telemarketers who are selling something apparently never leave messages. When company CSRs call clients or customers, they often do leave messages for the persons they are trying to reach. They also usually include phone numbers where they can be reached. Our mystery callers never left call back numbers.

Fourteen years later, all those phone calls remain an unsolved mini-mystery. Ms. Hello Hello, never spoke to me, nor, to my knowledge, did she speak to OH. Did she want a favor from us? What? Was she trying only to annoy us? Why?

If she wanted something from us, if she really needed our help with something, I would have tried to help her.

And would I recognize her voice if I heard it today? You betcha!

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