Edward Austin Hall
Call my phone one time too many in short succession and something odd happens. A fax machine answers.
For readers to whom the phrase fax machine is cryptic, think: analog device for turning telephonic signals into really shitty print documents.
Because I have trouble throwing shit away (thanks to a mother who survived the Great Depression and once said to me, “You never threw away anything because you never knew what you might need …”), I suspect I could unearth some ancient faxes from my time at Newsweek magazine’s long-defunct Atlanta bureau, given time enough and love. Whether 20-year-old faxes remain readable is unlikely, though. I think the bureau’s machine used special paper and heat to translate from Chirpish to English. Or to whatever human language/s the original fax message comprised. And yes, I made up Chirpish, after the distinctive trill that one fax machine directs at another, a predigital call in search of an automated response. Of course, photographs and other nonlinguistic information can be sent via fax. I choose to think of them as traveling between machines in a separate language let’s call Pictish.
Can you tell yet that I decided to do zero research for this essay?
Nowadays, fax machines may well be mere computer programs or apps, rather than physical devices. I could check, but instead I refer you to the previous paragraph. In addition to its fax machine, Newsweek Atlanta also had a Telex* machine (capitalizing in case proprietary; again, see previous paragraph) whose rotating printer drum is what incorrectly enters my mind’s eye when I try to picture our old fax machine. Possibly both devices incorporated corded phone handsets — imagine a hard-plastic boomerang with a tiny, asymmetrically perforated drum perched at either end — but certainly among the things I do seem to be tossing out, now that I’ve reached my fifties, are my sharper memories.
Supposedly such jettisoning of memories — ones I’m not using on a daily basis — is typical of the middle-aged brain, and the purpose of such winnowing is to make less room for mnemonic dross and more room for connections among memories. Maybe that delayed internal connectivity accounts for my late blossoming as a writer of science fiction. And maybe my ambivalence about technology is what accounts for the impending whimsy I’m about to inflict upon you, reader.
To clarify what I mean, I first have to explain that I do not own a fax machine. I have never owned a fax, whether app or program or physical device. So … what machine is answering those repeated calls to my landline (oh, come on)?
Other users of AT&T voicemail may be familiar with this phenomenon, which seems to accompany the service, and has done so for decades. A friend phones me, I try to answer but catch the call just as voicemail engages, the friend calls right back, and I hear … well, it depends. Before a recent overhaul of AT&T’s system, I’d hear nothing — that almost roaring absence of tone that characterizes a dead phone line — whereas the caller heard a fax prompt. In Chirpish. Since the overhaul, I hear the caller, but the background sound is that of a fax machine answering, noise audible to me and the person calling. On one level, this new development provides some kind of relief. In the old days some callers, especially my eldest sister, seemed to doubt my explanation of the fax noise’s origin. Now they can hear it at the same time I do. Because it continues as long as we share the line, conversation is impossible, so we have to ring off and start again.
But that evidence makes all the difference in one respect: My aforementioned sister no longer asks, every time, “What fax machine is that?” Toni, 14 years my senior, has powers and lapses of recall more like my own than does any other person I know. We both have vast semantic memory: She works daily crossword puzzles, whereas I compete in Atlanta’s annual adult spelling bee (which I won in 2006). We both have trouble forming new facial memories, and I am prone to confusing people of similar complexion, build, and hair color/type for each other. And we both have crap sequential memory, which means the past quickly becomes a blur, and the order in which things we do remember having happened gradually becomes a jumble unless written down.
Perhaps the sentimentality I feel lately toward certain machines is mere denial or maybe even transference. Perhaps those feelings of sympathy toward things that I presume to know no emotion whatsoever are the “safe” ways of dealing with the routine human obsolescence that my sister and I, and all the people we know (or know of), are inching toward. Perhaps she and I are at that behavioral extreme of empathy that some cognitive scientists now see as the opposite of sociopathy (if so, based on the number of cats we own — my three versus her unknown number — her empathy is more extreme than mine).
Or perhaps I’m wrong. My friend Richard, who teaches swordplay and meditation in the American Northwest, believes that even elementary particles are capable of emotion. In any case, the sf writer in me feels certain that regardless of whether emotion is alien to machines or other inanimate objects now, someday we’re likely to build things whose ability to feel might have to be determined for ethical or even judicial reasons.
Thus, I wonder about that doubtless lonesome and possibly unused AT&T fax machine.
Think about it: It’s a device made to interact with other similar devices, but the only such interaction in which it engages happens accidentally. You know, someone trying to send a fax to a number one digit different from mine gets a machine other than the one intended. And in the age of email, how often can we seriously imagine such a wrong number occurring? Okay, sure, maybe the fax function for the system exists for AT&T business clients, and evidence of its existence as perceived by residential customers is a mere glitch. Maybe the whole thing is a glitch, but somewhere, sometimes, for no good reason, a fax machine activates, obsolete from the moment of its installation. It may be a glitch in my own systems that this thought seems mildly sad to me. Or the erratic nature of my memory may mean that I have to attach emotion to objects — photographs, books, rocks, scraps of paper — to hang on to whatever association those objects spark. I don’t know. And even if I find out, one day I’ll die and forget everything. That, anyway, is the order in which I hope those events unfold.
Sometime last year I salvaged from the trash at Eyedrum a wire recorder+ that the organization inherited when it rented a South Downtown-Atlanta building — which housed, among other storefront spaces, the long-defunct Ideal Music — as the nonprofit’s current home. The Art Deco design of the recorder makes me think it dates from the 1930s or earlier. Across its metal front the device bears its maker’s name, “WEBSTER CHICAGO,” below which, in cursive, it boasts “Electronic Memory.” I remember my anger at someone having tossed out the rare appliance, despite its nonfunctionality. To prevent a second such disposal, I brought the recorder home. There, I discovered a tag I had previously overlooked. On this yellowed scrap of paper, written in ink, are the name “Eli Frisch” and, below that, the word “personal.” I’m guessing that this Frisch person owned the device and left it at Ideal Music for repair, but he never reclaimed it. Alternatively, he may have worked at Ideal Music, and the labelling as “personal” distinguished it from devices brought in by outsiders.
I hope someday to learn the truth about Eli Frisch and his recorder, as well as the truth about AT&T’s mysterious fax machine. I further hope to retain those truths until they flee me alongside my lies, loves, hates, and everything else I take a great poet to have intended by the phrase “the whole boatload of sensitive/bullshit.”
*Nope, not even going there; you could look it up.
+See asterisked text immediately above.