The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.
It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more. Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource. Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.
It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling. On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read. On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.
This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands. You may be surprised at what you find.
I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone. It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project. I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks. Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.
Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem. Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby. After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.
I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.
It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely. I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind. I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment. Of course, all was not lost. I just turned the phone on.
I already mentioned it was a Motorola. It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript. It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard. It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach. Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half). My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.
I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank. The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.
I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious. This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was. That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.
So I set the phone aside, and went about my business. It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen. I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.
I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking. There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off. (I personally hate ringtones.) But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over, that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification. One new text message.
Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message. It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local. The message said
are you home yet?
I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to. I hit send and waited.
I expected a response within at least a few minutes. In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing. But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time. I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.
are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol
Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first. Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?
The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later. I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.
when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?
Still the same number. I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk. Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something. No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.
I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework. It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon. Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.
Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.
hes been weird since you left
By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me? I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project. Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts. I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.
That still didn’t make any sense.
I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.
i saw lights outside my window are you home yet
I swallowed. It had to be a trick. Someone’s dumb game. Would I be playing into their plans if I called?
Only one way to find out.
I called the number and waited. One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up. ”Hello?” came a voice. It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.
“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts. I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”
There was a groan. ”I’m so sick of this,” the woman said. ”Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Then she hung up on me.
I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again. It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided. I was getting texts from the woman’s number. I got one just before I called her. There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to. It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.
A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off. But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further. So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes. As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life. I went to bed.
I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next. How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room. That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound. The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.
I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere. I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.
The screen was dark. The light was coming from the other phone. Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.
That was when I caught sight of what the screen said. It was not a call, of course, but a text message. But not just one. The screen said there were now 15 new messages.
I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses. I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly. On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up. 16 new messages.
I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.
im coming now let me in
I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes. As I focused on the screen I noticed two things. The first was that it was past two in the morning. The second was that the battery icon was flashing.
But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant. But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.
Then I was alone in the dark.
I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it. I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.
“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”
“Sure do,” he said. ”Lose something?”
I shook my head and showed him the phone. ”I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said. ”No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”
“Ninth floor?” said the man. ”Thank you very much.” He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.
I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us. It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise. Or recognition. Maybe I had imagined it, I decided. Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.
Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number. I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.
This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.
“Hello?” I asked. I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.
“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice. ”I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”
I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level. I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.
But I still don’t know what came over me. I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say. I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this. Don’t you have anything better to do?”
And then I hung up.
My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back. I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.
When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.