Cheeseburger Brown CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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Wrong Number
An article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown
Wrong Number, an article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown

"My daughter talks to 1929," claimed KM as she held my eyes through the steam of her coffee. She was a broad-shouldered, red-cheeked, hard-working single mother, burning the candle at both ends with two jobs just to get by – she had better things to do than waste my time.

I looked up from my notebook. "1929…is that an address?"

"No, Mr. Brown," she replied. "It's a year."

Diann at Footprints had contacted me about the case, told me KM had been trying to get in touch with me through the magazine. I offered to give her a call but Diann said KM was done with telephones – I could write her a letter in longhand or make a personal visit. "What's her hang-up with telephones?" I asked.

"Wrong numbers," said Diann seriously, writing down KM's address for me.

How wrong can a number get? According to KM and her daughter: very wrong. Since the spring of 2009 they had logged some 133 wrong numbers from some particularly strange strangers – strangers who claimed, upon being questioned, to be calling from different decades or even different centuries. If the callers are pranksters than they are well researched: the statements in KM's notes are historically accurate in every detail.

I leaned across the kitchen table toward KM. "So what do these callers want?"

"To talk to somebody," she said, rolling her eyes. "Isn't that what everybody on the telephone wants?"

Fair enough. KM's log of the wrong numbers speaks volumes: six calls from an Alcona milkman in 1942 looking for his mistress, two calls from a Stroud-area 1957 preteen looking for her grandmother, nine from a Cookstown woman from 1935 seeking her husband at a long-defunct tavern. Those are a sampling from the multiple callers; the majority of the entries, in contrast, describe single call events from people as perplexed as KM and her daughter to be connected across history. None of them have claimed any inside understanding, nor have any suggested that they are in control of the situation to any extent. Most of them just want to move along to their intended party as quickly as possible. "Isn't this Hemlock 7, 2864? Curse that ham-fisted operator!"

As part of my due diligence I spent an evening sitting in KM's kitchen while she worked the late shift at a local restaurant. I sat looking at the old-fashioned wall-mounted rotary telephone with a nicotine-yellow handset, waiting for it to ring so I could hear one of these wrong numbers for myself. KM's daughter sat there too, kicking me playfully in the knees and pestering me to make her improbable meals like peanut butter and saxophone sandwiches or fried pillows. I think the kid was yanking my chain. "Who do you talk to in 1929?" I asked.

She kicked me in the knees. "My boyfriend. I told him my name was Hannah Montana."

"Aren't you a little young to have a boyfriend?"

"No. Kids today have, like, five boyfriends. Don't you know anything?"

The telephone rang with the startlingly loud clatter of actual metal bells. I looked up sharply. It rang again. I licked my lips, steeled myself and picked up the handset. "Hello?" The connection was bad, as crackly as an old record. "With whom am I speaking?"

I heard a tinny, faraway voice squeal, "Mama, there's a man speaking from the phonograph!" Some muffled sounds were followed by an adult voice – much clearer, the accent uncannily antique: "I say, what's the meaning of this?"

"What year is it where you are?" I asked.

"Gracious! I should say that it is nineteen-hundred eleven. Is it a different year inside the Victrola?"

"I'm speaking from the year twenty-ten, on a telephone."

"From when? On a pardon me?"

It all sounded so authentic that I started to feel really creeped out. I said a hasty "Sorry!" then juggled the handset awkwardly until I managed to hang it up again. "That was weird," I gasped. "I don't even think they had a phone…I think I was talking through a record player." KM's daughter glared at me and called me chicken. I narrowed my eyes at her. "Go to bed, or I'll tell your mom you were crank calling churches."

I was paid $6 for my babysitting. My next step was to look at the hardware. An extensive review of Bell's marketing materials revealed no voice packages that included services that broke the laws of physics, so to get the inside scoop I decided to call the company. Unfortunately, all I got was the runaround from a customer service representative named Emily who didn't seem to understand every second thing I said and, in a bizarre fit of presumption, proceeded to list options for rephrasing myself. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand Footprints magazine. Would you like help with your mobile bill?"

I hung up on her, furious to be stonewalled.

KM's home lies in one of the few parts of Innisfil still serviced by the oldest grade of automatic switching telephone technology, so my next strategy was to call the town to report a damaged telephone pole. I waited by the side of the road less than two hours before a Bell van pulled up. I introduced myself to the technician. "You called in the problem?" he asked.

"Yes. This pole -- the one attached to this house -- is having issues."


"Uh, yeah. Major issues."

"It looks fine."

"Um, I think there were sparks coming off the wires or something."

The technician frowned but agreed to climb the pole to check the equipment. He shimmied up with his harness and cleats, then paused about half-way up. A moment later he rapidly came down, hands visibly shaking. "Is this some kind of joke?" he sputtered, tripping over his harness as he fought to get loose of it. Before I could ask him anything he jumped into his van and fled.

As the dust cleared I looked down at the harness at my feet, then up at the pole. How hard could it be? I slipped into the harness and started inching my way up the pole. I was so focused on the effort that I didn't notice anything amiss until I felt warm sunshine on my shoulders. I paused. Hadn't it been an overcast day?

I looked around. KM's house was gone. Instead, the rickety old telephone pole was now surrounded by nothing but woods and grasses as far as the eye could see. I blinked, stunned, and then gasped as I turned around to see a Huron Indian brave looking up at me, his mouth shaped into a little ‘O' of surprise.

"Hi," I said. "So, this is…what -- the seventeenth century?"

He knocked an arrow into his bow and took a shot at me. I let go of the pole and dropped.

The wind was knocked out of me when I hit the ground. I shook my head, seeing stars. A cool rain was falling. KM's house was across the road again, where it was supposed to be, and I could see a cellular tower in the distance. A Cessna was flying overhead. I spun around to look behind me, but the Huron was gone. In his place was a mailbox.

I remembered what Dr. Prajapati the geologist had told me last year: that Innisfil was sliced through with magneto-gravitic anomalies that he believed caused actual distortions in probability. I now felt that he had a point, because I was fairly sure that time-travelling telephone poles were highly unlikely.

Thunder rumbled.

I gulped and tried to screw up my courage to continue investigating the pole but was stopped in my tracks when it was struck by lightning. I stumbled backward, forearm across my eyes, ears ringing from the monstrously close thunderclap.

When my vision cleared of throbbing afterimages I saw that the pole had been splintered into blackened pulp, half-melted wires splayed across the road. I waved the smoke away.

KM came out onto her porch, hands on her hips. "Well," she said tartly, "now my telephone doesn't work at all."

I looked back at the ruin. "On a positive note, you won't get any more wrong numbers."

"Yeah. Great. Thanks tons, Brown."

I sighed. The extraordinary is fleeting.


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