Wrong numbers, right answer

I found a cryptic message on my answering machine yesterday morning: "Hey, Terry! This is Mmmbxy. I'll be there in half an hour. You'll be ready, right?" The voice was male, friendly, and too crackly (between his cellphone and our recorder) to recognize. I listened to the tape a few times, but was unable to decipher the name. Obviously I'd made plans I'd forgotten.

So, I got ready. I traded my "I work at home" power suit (otherwise known as sweats) for a decent pair of jeans and a sweater. I brushed my hair and corralled it into a ponytail. I threw all caution to the wind and put mascara on my eyelashes. I waited, filled to bursting with anticipation. It could be anyone, I told myself, suddenly remembering old friends I hadn't seen or thought of in years.

My morning of sorting memories and guessing who might appear on my doorstep was blissful Â- even though Mr. Mmmbxy stood me up. The caller who didn't call on me was a true mystery. But finally I realized what had probably happened.

When we first moved to this town, I wondered if we'd be lonely. Would our telephone ever ring? I'd no more completed that thought than the phone rang.

"Is this the Nothers?" (Not their real name.)

"No," I said. "Sorry. You have the wrong number."

"I'm positive this is the Nothers' number."

"It may have been," I said. "This number is new to us." Little did I know I'd be repeating that speech several times a week Â- for years.

The Nothers were extremely popular, we discovered.

"Why do you think they didn't let their friends know they were getting a new number?" I asked Craig one evening after we'd each fielded several Nother calls.

The phone rang.

"Maybe they wanted some peace and quiet!" Craig suggested as I dashed by to answer it. "I wouldn't mind a little myself."

To complicate the wrong-number problem, Mrs. Nother's first name happened to be Terry. So many conversations followed this pattern:

"Hello. Terry?"

"Yes?" Being an extremely slow learner, I'd be trying to place the voice.

"Your library books are overdue."

"They are? Oh, I'm sorry ... Wait a minute. I just got them yesterday Â- they can't be overdue."

"Isn't this Terry Nother?"

"Oh! No ..." (Insert long well-rehearsed spiel about new phone number previously belonging to Nothers, including one named Terry.)

"Are you sure this isn't Terry Nother?"

"Positive."

"Right."

Sometimes when Craig called from work, he'd say, "The line was busy earlier. Anyone interesting?"

"Nother," I'd explain.

We had so many more telephone calls for the Nothers than the Shannons that when we went on vacation, Craig left a message for the Nother callers: "Hello, you have reached the Shannon residence. This is not the Nothers' house or telephone number. So if you're calling one of the Nother family, you have reached a wrong number."

Back from vacation, we found several messages from Nother callers (some of whom seemed to believe we were the Nothers, playing a trick on them), along with a plaintive message from my sister: "Hi, Craig and Terry. I'm sorry I missed you. I don't watch much TV, so can you fill me in on the joke about the Nothers? Is it something like the Simpsons?"

After five or six years, calls for the Nothers trickled down to one or two a week, then one or two a month. Finally, long periods of time would pass without any of our accustomed wrong numbers.

"Gosh," Craig said a couple of times. "Where do you think all the Nothers' friends have gone? It seems downright strange not to be hearing from them."

One dull, gray late-winter day I answered the phone. "Terry!" said a muffled, cellphonish man's voice. "You'll never guess who this is! It's your long-lost brother!"

"Oh!" I said. "Hey! It is so great to hear from you! How have you been?"

"Just fine! Yeah, I thought it was about time I called. It's been about seven years!"

I burst out laughing. "Seven years? Get out of here, you exaggerator, you!" I laughed again. "So, how're the boys?"

Silence.

"Boys?" he asked.

"Yes, my nephews! How are they?"

Silence.

"Nephews?"

"Uh huh," I said. Then, "Oh! Are you by any chance looking for Terry Nother?"

Terry's brother and I had quite a chuckle over that bit of business. And when I hung up, the day felt considerably less gloomy Â- more pre-spring than late-winter.

In the past several years, we've heard no word from Nother family or friends. But I do believe I mascaraed my eyelashes for one of them yesterday.

Terry Nother, I hope you and Mmmbxy had a great day. Tell your acquaintances to stay in touch, will you? Life is not quite the same here without them. Those wrong numbers were so often just right.

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