The doctors were perplexed, although not enough to do much about the problem, which was that Tonya’s ears had been ringing for the last month. The low tone monotone squeal made Tonya want to rip her hair out and stick her head under the water. She played loud rock music whenever she could, but then at night, when the noise departed and silence washed back over the house, the ringing resurfaced.
The first doctor suggested a few things she could try—none of which worked—and charged her $150 for the 10 minutes of terrible advice. The second doctor spent 20 minutes with her and prescribed her medicine. But he charged $180, and the medicine didn’t work.
Tonya was watching TV five weeks after the ringing had started and kept turning up the volume to drown out the sound in her ears. Finally, she hit her right temple just once with the heel of her hand, using defective-alarm-clock logic to stop the ringing.
The ringing stopped.
She muted the TV just to make sure. Blessed, blessed silence.
“Hello?” a tentative voice said, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Hello?” Tonya said, looking around her chair for tiny home invaders. She checked her phone to make sure she hadn’t butt dialed anyone.
“I’m glad we could reach you,” the voice asked.
Tonya got up and moved to the kitchen. “Are you still there?”
“Yes. Thank you for answering. We’ve called you several times.”
“You have?” The voice seemed to be following her. It seemed to be in her own head. She thought about the medicine she was taking and wondered if hallucinations were a side effect. Tonya looked under the kitchen table.
“Oh yes!” the woman practically cooed. “We’ve been calling and calling.”
“So . . . what do you want?” Tonya asked.
“I’m glad you asked,” the woman said. “We have this great limited time offer on a new Pan Am credit card, only 45% APR for eligible customers, with 25% on balance transfers and very affordable annual fees. You gotta act now though.”
Tonya hit her left temple. She did it a couple times until the woman’s voice suddenly cut off. Well, that was that.
A minute later, the ringing started again.
It took five minutes before Tonya broke down and hit her right temple. The ringing stopped.
“Hello?” she said.
“Good evening, ma’am,” a man’s voice said.
“Are you from the credit card?” Tonya asked.
“Credit card?” the man said. “Goodness, no. Nothing like that. I was just wondering if you were satisfied with your long-distance service. Deseret Telecom now has a package deal for this month only—”
Tonya hit her left temple so hard she only most knocked herself out.
* * *
“Let me get this straight, you want me to prescribe you medication that will put you on a no-call list?” The doctor’s forehead wrinkled so hard it looked like a geriatric pug. Tonya thought she could see his hand straying towards the speed dial button marked Psychiatric Ward.
“Well, not exactly,” Tonya said, “but essentially, yes.”
The doctor prescribed her medication to help her relax and charged $240 for the service.
* * *
“I don’t think you’re lying,” Tonya’s sister Debbie said that night. “You don’t have the imagination for it.” They were sitting on Tonya’s couch eating Slovenian takeout from their favorite restaurant, Little Ljubjana.
“But you think I’m crazy?”
“Eh.” Debbie shrugged. “Is it still ringing?”
“Nonstop. I’m going bonkers, no joke.”
“So answer it. Answer it now. Let’s see who it is.”
Tonya set down her Styrofoam container of štruklji and tapped her right temple. “Hello?”
“Congratulations, you’ve won the lottery!” a cheery woman’s voice said.
“So, how much did I win?” Tonya asked, picking up the štruklji again.
“Ten million lievers!” the woman crowed.
“Oh, really? Ten million levers?” said Tonya, who couldn’t see how the woman had spelled the word. “So what is that in real money?”
The woman’s confident tone faltered. “I’m sorry?” The conversation had apparently gone off script.
“What’s a lever?” Tonya took a big bite and gave Debbie an apologetic look. Debbie, who could only hear Tonya’s side of the conversation, was looking worried and fascinated and a bit like she had to pee. Worrinated, Tonya decided. I won the lottery, she mouthed.
“It’s . . . money,” the woman said. She appeared to find her place again. “So anyway, we are all ready to send you your winnings. All we need from you first is—” Tonya tapped her left temple and hung up.
“I’m not ruling out insanity,” Debbie said, when Tonya had relayed the call to her. She held up a finger messy with prekmurska gibanica. “But, you may be getting telemarketing calls from another dimension. I’m not saying you are, but it is either that or insanity.”
“Okay, Stephen Hawking, so what do I do about it?” Tonya asked, stabbing a piece of štefani pečenka with her fork.
“Do whatever you want,” Debbie said. “What are they going to do, steal all your money? Good luck getting it from wherever they are.”
Tonya’s ears started to ring again. She tapped the side of her head. “Yep?”
“Good evening,” a young man said, clearly reading off a script. “Do you dream of a vacation away from it all where you can relax and be your true self?”
“Yes,” Tonya said. “Yes, I do.”
“Oh. Good!” the man said. “Um, when you take a vacation, do you like to lie on the beach or go mountain biking?”
“I like to ride a mountain bike on the beach,” Tonya said. “Look, just give me your most expensive package.”
She heard pages rustling. “You mean, the month-long getaway on a private island in Viti Levu?” the man asked in a tone pregnant with commission payment calculations.
“That’s the one. Make it for two. My sister’s coming with me.” Private island, she mouthed.
Everything went well until they got to the credit card. Tonya made up a number and gave it to him.
“I’m sorry, what kind of card it this?” he asked. “We take Adventure, BNY and Bourse. Oh, and Discover, of course.”
“It’s an Adventure card,” Tonya said, winking at her sister.
“But all Adventure card numbers start with a ‘P’, the man said, sounding confused.
“Right. Sorry, I’m skydiving at the moment and couldn’t read the card number well.”
She tapped her temple and hung up. “I got us a month-long trip to a private island.”
“That’s great,” Debbie said. “Good for you.” She held up container. “You want any more jota? I’m stuffed.”
* * *
Over the next week, Tonya answered as many as twenty calls a day. She signed up for everything that was offered, plus promised to co-sign a loan for a prince from Abyssinia, and even agreed to pay the IRS $4500 in back taxes with Barnes and Noble gift cards. It was better than the constant ringing, at least.
The next Sunday, Tonya was on the treadmill when the ringing started up again. Her ears were not ringing all the time these days, so it seemed that answering it was doing something. She tapped her temple.
“Hello, sign me up,” she said.
“By Moroni’s beard,” a voice said. “It’s really you.”
Tonya stepped off the treadmill, still breathing hard. “Who is this?”
“You don’t know me, but everyone knows you,” the man said. “You’re the sign-me-up lady! I thought you were just an urban legend.”
“What do you mean?”
“They say that when you’re working the night shift and the call center only has a few operators, every so often a line will get switched and a woman answers. She has no idea about normal things like money and credit cards, and she can’t name any of the eight original Beatles, but she’ll buy anything. You take all her information and then she disappears, and none of the information works.”
“That’s me,” Tonya said. “My name’s Debbie.”
“Hey, just like the president!” the man said. “My name’s Jimmu. I don’t suppose you’re going to want to sign up for an explosive earwax removal system, do you?”
“I think we both know that I do want to sign up,” Tonya said. “But that’s up to you. Hey Jimmu, I don’t suppose you can put me on any sort of no-call list over there, can you? This is fun and all, but the constant ringing is driving me nuts.” Even as she said it, though, she wasn’t sure if it was true anymore, at least not completely.
“I don’t even know your number,” Jimmu said. “My screen says that this is the number for Adelardo Bess. You don’t know him, do you?”
“Not even a little,” Tonya said. “Have a good night. Who knows, maybe you’ll get me again sometime.”
“I’d like that,” Jimmu said. “Oh, the giant ant alarm is going off again. I’d better go.” And for the first time in Tonya’s life, a telemarketer hung up on her.