Answering Machine

Liliana Heker

Translated by: Aimée Valckx Gutiérrez

Original text: "Contestador "

Artwork by Morton Livingston Shamberg

Artifacts do not agree with me. I am capable of solving a system of equations with n variables somewhat gracefully, and even the cross product does not frighten me, but if I as much as try multiplying twenty-three times eight in a mere pocket calculator, highly unlikely figures swarm the little screen and, in spite of my desperate efforts, obstinately refuse to go away. To say it once and for all, even the most archaic of electric blenders tends to insubordinate as soon as I touch it.


But the answering machine meant something else to me. I used to think of it as a benevolent artefact, a kind of gentle muffler between the outer world and me. I must confess that my first —remote— contact with one of them was not amicable: I was calling a melancholic poet on the phone; I forgot (or did not realize) that he was a veterinarian as well.  After a few seconds his voice burst in, only it was solemn and annoying, and said: “I am the answering machine of Doctor Julio César Silvain; you have thirty three seconds to tell me your problem”.


Things have changed now. Without even the slightest notice, Bach or Los Redonditos can burst into our ear and mitigate our anguish, and a friendly or seductive voice, or the concise announcement: “Guys, I’m not here or I blew it; call me later”, anticipates fairly accurately what we will find once a human finally answers the call.


Being aware of this anticipatory quality, Ernesto and I, as soon as we got an answering machine, took the greatest care with the recording. Verano porteño was the result of a meticulous analysis: I wrote the message (distant but friendly) and he read it in a pleasant voice. Everything seemed benign. Not only because of the freedom the answering machine would accord us in the future and because of its poetic virtue -isn’t there a certain beauty in the arbitrary succession of messages, in the at times violent contrast between the tones and purposes of one and the other?-; it was benign above all because of hope. Yes. Even though we never talked about it, when coming back from a trip or just from an evening away from home, as soon as we hit the playback there was a suspense, a very brief but intoxicating instant in which both of us knew that some fortunate news could jump upon us and catapult us to joy. It is true that many times a creditor or a mother would sadly bring us back to reality, but nobody could take away that privileged instant in which the message held a promising future and happiness could be around the corner.


Until on Monday, April 28 everything changed.  We came home, hit the playback and, as usual, awaited salvation. Right after the message of a researcher from Texas came the voice. It was a woman’s voice, smiling and relieved, like someone who has freed herself from a tenacious burden. It said: “Nico, it’s Amanda; I’ve been thinking all these months and you were right: we can’t live apart. Call me.” I worried; it was clear that Amanda did not doubt Nico’s love; how long would it take her to set her pride aside and call again (this time the right number) and thus things straight? I forgot about it after, until on Wednesday, while I was taking a shower, I heard the voice again: “Nico, it’s Amanda; it’s been two days since I…” I came dripping out of the bathroom; when I reached the phone Amanda had hung up. The message from Saturday shed light on some obscure details about Nico’s character; according to Amanda, he had also played his part for this to end, so how come was he taking offense now? Ernesto and I looked at each other in despair; love is a sublime and infrequent state, we could not let these two split up. We decided to unplug the answering machine and stay home during the entire weekend. Useless: Amanda did not call. However, twice I answered and someone violently hung up; the message from Tuesday indicated that my voice had only made things worse. Ernesto gave it a shot; for two days he did nothing but answer the phone with a faded voice but, apparently, Amanda also hung up on him. I thought I knew why: by now, she was not interested in making things easy for Nico. If he was home, he should take the trouble to call, what the hell, if he still believed that this love “so exalted by him before” (Amanda’s ironic tone) was still worth it.


The fifth message made up our minds: it was heartbreaking and vengeful. They are tearing each other apart, we said. We had to come up with something. We figured that, if Amanda did not remember the number correctly, it was probable that Nico’s phone resembled our own. We began by changing one number at the time. Forty five possibilities, and ten more including those characteristics that could be mistaken for our own. It took us two days. We found two men called Nicolás, but they did not know any Amanda. In eighteen cases we got an answering machine. We thought that, in that case, the simplest thing to do would be for me, imitating as best as I could Amanda’s voice, to record the first message. We learnt, from an increasingly ruthless Amanda, that my message had not reached its mark. We took to simultaneously alternating two numbers. In order to organize the work I did a preliminary calculation: there are 6,075 possible combinations, without taking into consideration the characteristic variables. At the rate of sixty calls per day, we would be done in less than four months. Wasn’t the love of those two and the recovery of our joy worth it? Ernesto took care of the humans; I, of recording the first message in the answering machines. It was all in vain; Amanda continued registering the increasingly opprobrious details of Nico’s habits. One day Ernesto had what he thought was a revelation. He said:

—I don’t know if I would have answered Amanda’s first call. After all, she was the one who left him.

I was overwhelmed by what was to come but I had to agree with him. While we continued with the beginners, I started recording, in the already registered answering machines and with growing hate, the successive messages from Amanda. In the meantime, her ferociousness kept growing in our own answering machine. Yesterday I almost fainted. Amanda’s message alluded to a particularly disgusting event in the relationship between those two.

—There’s nothing else we can do — I told Ernesto—; by now Amanda could no longer get back together with Nico. Now the only thing she wants is to destroy him.


          We looked at each other with fatigue. We had understood that it was useless to keep looking for Nico; even if we did find him nothing would be able to stop Amanda’s bloody messages. Then we received a new message in the answering machine. It was a woman’s voice, smiling and relieved. It said: “Nico, it’s Amanda; I’ve been thinking all these months and you were right: we can’t live apart. Call me.” It wasn’t Amanda’s voice: I know it too well. It was the imitation of my own voice imitating hers. Jesus, someone whom I had called (and how many would come after) began the fruitless task of reuniting Amanda and Nico. Something irreparable is being unchained. Now, the act of listening to the messages from the answering machine is frightening: with which stage of Amanda’s hate will we come across next? There is no peace for us anymore.


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Liliana Heker
Born in Buenos Aires in 1943, Liliana Heker started her professional writing career at age 17 with the support of fellow Argentinian novelist and essayist Abelardo Castillo. Her written include close to 10 novels as well as numerous contributions to highly politicized literary journals in the 1970s and 80s.
Aimée Valckx Gutiérrez
Aimée Valckx Gutiérrez is a Mexican student currently in her second year of the PhD in Translation Studies at the University of Ottawa. She holds a Master degree in Translation Studies from El Colegio de México and a Bachelor's degree in Cultural Anthropology from Universidad de las Americas Puebla.