Annie’s adult grandchildren sometimes made fun of her for still having a landline, but everyone she knew in Florida over the age of sixty still had a phone mounted to the wall of their kitchen. Hers was about fifteen years old and came with her when she moved from the Northeast to the Sunshine State back at the turn of the millennium. Annie still thought of this one as “modern” because it didn’t have a twisty cord keeping her within ten feet of the wall unit. In fact, it didn’t have a telescoping antenna to fiddle with, and it even had a caller-ID screen so that she could see who was trying to get in touch with her.
Lots of her friends were getting cellphones, but Annie thought these gizmos seemed like a bit of pain and a colossal distraction. One friend even dropped out of their bridge club because she wanted to devote more time to playing bridge on her cell phone. Annie found that downright silly. Maybe she’d get one someday, but, for now, her landline was all she needed.
When that landline rang on a rainy Friday afternoon, Annie was just finishing a ride on her exercise bike while watching the TV news in her guestroom/exercise room/office. As much as she hated the current political situation, she knew that her agitation could serve as motivation to keep her eighty-something-year-old knees and hips churning in circles. She’d rather walk on the paved pathways of the abandoned golf course behind her house, but the storm passing a hundred miles south was threatening to become a hurricane to show everyone that nature was still the boss. Considering the wind and rain, she was glad the electricity hadn’t gone out. So she would either not exercise or exercise inside on this day.
Annie’s legs wobbled a bit as she made her way to the kitchen to answer the phone. Approaching her middle eighties, she would happily trade wobbly muscles for the fluidity of her joints after half an hour of exercise. She’s seen more than enough friends grow sedentary over the years, and she knew that pain, illness, and death were the inevitable result. Life was movement, she had come to realize, so she kept moving.
Her caller-ID displayed a number she didn’t recognize and the name, “Micronsoft.” Annie had recently been gifted with a new computer that used software from “Microsoft,” so she didn’t notice the misspelled word in her caller-ID. Worried that something might be amiss with her new computer, Annie decided to answer the call.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hello, good afternoon,” a slightly accented, male voice greeted her. “Am I speaking to Annie K. Mullen?”
“Yes,” Annie replied. “Are you from the computer people?”
“My name is Walter, and I’m calling from Microsoft technical services representative, ma’am,” the man said without missing a beat.
“Oh,” Annie said. “Yes?”
“Ms. Mullen,” Walter continued, “we’ve discovered that your cloud account has been exposed to possible hacking, which could endanger the privacy of your hard drive as well as any online exposure you might have.”
Annie admired the confidence of his telephone voice, despite his accent. Was it Middle Eastern? She wasn’t sure. “I’m sorry, Walter,” she said with a chuckle, “But I don’t understand much of what you just said.”
“That’s okay, Ms. Mullen,” he replied, friendly and helpful. “It just means that our technicians have found a possible breach in your computer security.”
Annie could hear the clicking of computer keys and many muffled voices in the background at the other end of the call. “Is it serious?”
“It could be,” Walter replied. “I’ll just need to walk you through some security procedures to make sure that you’re safe.”
“Okay,” Annie replied, cautiously. “I want to be safe.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Walter said. “ We all do.”
“You know, that’s a really good point, Walter,” Annie said. “Everyone wants to be safe.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Walter replied. “Now, you’re at 1010 Martha Place in Elsa, Florida. Could you please verify your zip code?”
Annie was impressed that he knew her address. “32001,” she said, almost automatically. “Where are you, Walter?”
“Oh,” he replied, “our office is located in California.”
“How’s the weather there?” Annie asked.
“Hot,” he said.
“Here, too,” Annie said. “And raining. Hurricane season.”
“I understand,” Walter said. “And are you at your computer?”
Annie had walked to the computer at the desk right next to her exercise bike. It had a streamlined screen bigger than any TV she had ever owned and a keyboard that barely fit on the narrow desk. Her son had given it to her during a visit from his home up north last fall. Annie didn’t miss the Northeast winters. Her son said that his landscaping business had been doing so well lately that he needed to spend some money on his “favorite mother.” She was glad to have it and was gradually getting used to its many features.
“Yes,” she spoke into the phone. “I’m at the computer, and it’s turned on.”
Walter continued: “The first thing I’ll need you to do is go to your computer’s control panel—”
“Walter? Wait,” Annie cut him off.
“Ma’am?” he replied.
“How do I know that I’m safe from you, Walter?” she asked.
The phone line was silent except for the low murmur of voices droning through the line. Annie visualized a crowded room in a featureless building with rows of gray cubicles and two dozen other “Walters” wearing headsets, drinking tall, to-go coffees while leaning forward on sagging, cheap office chairs. Amid the drone of indistinct noise, Annie heard one rise above the rest. She couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was unmistakable. Orders. Someone was issuing orders. Orders in an angry voice.
Walter laughed. “Oh, Ms. Mullen. I’m just a technical services representative for Microsoft. You are safe with me.”
“I’d like to believe that, Walter,” Annie said. “Really, I would. You sound nice. Your English is very good. But we see news reports about phone scams all the time. I’m old, but I’m not feeble.”
Walter laughed again, this time sounding to Annie slightly nervous for the first time. “We are not scamming you, Ms. Mullen. Believe me. We are here to help you.” Annie thought she detected paper rustling, but she couldn’t tell for sure. She might have to look into that hearing aid her friends in book club had suggested. “I am here to help you. You can trust me,” Walter said, emphatically this time.
“I’d like to trust you,” Annie said. “What did you say about a control panel? Is that on the back or bottom of my computer?”
“No, ma’am,” Walter said, his voice gentle and friendly again. “Call up your control panel from your computer’s menu, please.”
Annie squinted at her computer screen. “Is that near the apple in the corner?”
“Oh,” Walter said, “you have a Mac.”
“Well, it’s a computer with an apple in the corner,” Annie replied. “Does that make it a Mac?”
“We’ll need to do things slightly differently,” Walter said. “Take the pointer to the apple in the corner and click on it.”
“If you’re really from Microsoft,” Annie asked, steadfastly not moving her pointer anywhere near the apple in the corner, “and you think I have a problem with my security, wouldn’t you know what kind of computer I have?”
“The process is just as easy to do on a Mac,” Walter replied.
Annie could tell he was evading her question. “How do I know you’re really calling from Microsoft?”
“Your caller ID said, ‘Microsoft,’ did it not?” Walter responded. Now Annie sensed something defensive in his voice, something vaguely strange in the structure of his sentence. He almost sounded British.
“Fair point,” Annie said. “The caller-ID says that you’re calling from Microsoft.”
“Good,” Walter replied, trying to bring the conversation back on track, “Now, please click on the apple in the corner. We’re going to need your IP address to help with the security issue.”
“My pee-pee dress?” Annie said. “That sounds very personal.”
Walter was silent for a moment. Then he sounded out the words as if he were talking to a child: “No, ma’am. That was “eye-pee, add-dress.”
Annie laughed. “I’m sorry, Walter. I was teasing you. I know what an IP address is.” When Walter made no immediate reply, she got serious with him: “I don’t think I want to give you my IP address, Walter.”
Now Walter sounded like a chastised child. “But I need your IP address to fix your computer.”
“When will you get around to asking me for my credit card number?” Annie asked.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” Walter said. “We would never do that. Here at Microsoft, we value customer privacy and—”
Annie cut him off again. “Who is your supervisor?” she asked in a voice made firm by years of parenting.
“My supervisor is Mr. Fring,” Walter said. Annie thought that the name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.
“Is Mr. Fring the man yelling at people at your office?” she asked.
Walter forced a laugh. “He’s not yelling, Ms. Mullen. This is a busy office, and we’re helping many people, so sometimes voices are raised.”
“Who’s the CEO of Microsoft?” Annie asked. She heard fingers quickly tapping on a keyboard very distinctly this time, several long seconds of tapping while Walter remained quiet. “You should know that, Walter, if you really work for Microsoft.”
“Just a moment, ma’am. It’s on the tip of my tongue,” Walter said. His voice through the phone carried little of the earlier confidence of a well-trained technical services representative.
“You can stop googling now,” Annie said. “It’s Bill Gates.”
“Yes!” Walter said. “William Gates!”
“My computer has Google, too,” Annie said. “And I sometimes use it to look up things I don’t know when I’m on the phone with my grandchildren. But I do it so they don’t think I’m losing my mind to old age. I don’t do it too hide the fact that I’m a criminal.”
“I’m not a criminal,” Walter said, very quiet now. Annie could picture him looking around the room to make sure his supervisor wasn’t listening.
“Maybe you don’t know that you’re working for criminals,” Annie said. “But you certainly don’t work for Microsoft.”
Walter was silent again. Annie sensed that she could see him and the room around him. He seemed like an island adrift in a storm stronger than the one pelting rain against her windows. She imagined him staring ahead and picturing a crazy, old lady on the other side of the world.
“You’re not in California, are you Walter?” Annie asked.
His reply was barely a whisper: “I’m not allowed to talk about that.”
“Are they recording your call?” Annie asked.
“No,” he said.
“But someone’s there, walking around the room, listening, right?” Annie asked.
“That’s right, ma’am,” he said, his voice back to sales pitch. Annie visualized a man in a bad suit and cheap shoes walking behind Walter, hovering near him for a moment, checking items off a clipboard, and then moving on to other corners of the big room.
“Listen to me, Walter,” Annie said. Then she paused as she realized something. “Your name isn’t ‘Walter,’ is it? Can you tell me your real name?”
“I can’t say that,” he whispered.
“Okay,” Annie said. “ I’m sorry I said some mean things to you earlier. I’m sorry I called you a criminal.”
“I don’t want to be a criminal,” he said. “It’s very hard to get a job here.”
“I believe you,” Annie replied. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven,” he replied. Annie thought he sounded older.
“You’re about the same age as my granddaughter and not much older than my grandson,” Annie said. “I’m sorry that you have a hard time getting a job.”
“I have a wife and two daughters,” he said. “I’m looking at their pictures on my desk right now.”
“Oh, Walter,” Annie said through the lump in her throat. “I’m going to tell you some things now and I really want you to listen to me. And then I’m going to hang up so you don’t get in trouble with your bosses.” Annie leaned forward, resting her elbow on the table next to the big computer keyboard. She moved the phone from one hand to the other and pressed it to her ear.
“I’m not saying this because I’m some kind of stuck-up American who thinks I’m better than everyone else,” she continued. “We might have more things, but we’re not any better. We have plenty of scammers here just like you do there. Some of our scammers even getting elected to important offices. “ Annie thought of how angry the news made her these days. “In fact, the worst scammer out there is talking about running for president! Can you believe the nerve of that?”
“We have people like that here too,” Walter said. “They rig the elections and then make it harder for everyone except their friends.”
Annie kept going: “Walter, I know you need a job, but you need to get out of there even more. One day, there will be a loud knock at your office door, and your bosses will run out the back. Then the door will burst open and the police will be there. You won’t have time to run. They’ll arrest you and take you to prison and you won’t be able to go home to your wife and daughters. Walter, I know you don’t want to hear this, but the people you’re working for are stealing from people like me. You might think we’re rich, and some of us are, but most of us are just trying to get through the rest of our lives with dignity before our bodies shut down and fall apart. My husband has been dead for many years, and I get by on a little savings, Social Security, and whatever my family can help me with. It’s enough, but it could be gone if I did something stupid—like give you my IP address. We don’t deserve to have people stealing from us. And you don’t deserve to have to work for people who steal. I really hope you can find a different job, an honest job, a job that lets you look your wife and daughters in the eye and hug them at the end of the day. You sound like an intelligent man with too many skills to be doing this.” Annie paused and laughed. “Maybe you could apply for a job with Microsoft!” she said. “I hear they outsource their technical jobs all the time.”
Walter laughed. “That might be a good idea,” he said.
“You deserve better, Walter,” Annie said. “You can do better than this.”
Annie paused and imagined the picture of Walter’s wife and daughters. She envisioned it in a simple wooden frame, not something just tacked to a corkboard behind his phone and computer. Something that he cared enough about to make it special.
“I will try,” Walter said softly.
“Thank you, Walter,” Annie said.
“My name …” he whispered. “My name is Adesh.”
“Adesh,” Annie said. “That’s a fine name. Goodbye, Adesh.” Annie pushed the button to hang up the phone. The electrical impulses connecting her to a stranger in some far-away part of this planet disbursed into the void. She sat staring out at the storm for a while, a different kind of electrical impulses flashing now and then in the distant sky. For a few minutes, the light gathered at the horizon, and she wished for the sun to break through. But the clouds thickened again, and the storm raged, unmoved by something as inconsequential as human hope.
Annie said to the empty apartment, “I’m sending you good thoughts, Adesh.” Then she stood and returned her landline phone to its cradle in the kitchen. She wanted to make sure it stayed charged after the long conversation with the young man so far away. Another young man far away would be calling her soon. Her grandson, Danny, far to the north where hurricanes are less common than snow and ice, would be calling her later, as he always did on Friday afternoons.
Annie wanted to tell him about Adesh. She wanted to know what he thought about her call. Most of all, she wanted to make sure that Dan never found himself in the same kind of situation as Adesh. She knew that Dan planned to take over the family landscaping business when his parents retired in a few years, but she also knew that everything in this world was unpredictable where our plans, hopes, and wishes were concerned. She wanted Dan to be prepared for whatever storms might blow into his path.
John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent books are a flash fiction collection, Too Wild, and a fictional thriller, Uncorrected. Find him at JohnSheirer.com.