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[Readings]

Ring of Fire

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From “Phone Calls from the Apocalypse,” an essay in the collection Thin Places, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Nearly every day now, my phone rings from numbers unknown to me. The area codes are always Californian, and always different. The calls started from cities in or near Los Angeles: Culver City, Inglewood, Marina del Rey. Then, once I stopped picking them up, they’d come from farther north: Merced, Turlock, Patterson, Stockton.

My parents still live in California, so when I’d see these unlisted California numbers, I’d think that one of them was in the hospital and I was being notified. I’d pick up, worried, and hear a long silence. Then a man’s voice would say: “First they deceived you, then they oppressed you.”

The voice is clearly a recording—there’s something scratchy about the line, some ambience that sounds canned. The man’s diction is familiar to me from memories of old televangelists and Pentecostal preachers, though I can’t tell from his voice where in the country he might be from. The way he speaks is stylized; every consonant is rhythm, every word is beaten through the teeth. He sounds as though he’s trying to exorcise you over the phone.

“There is a person keeping you in this situation,” he says, every time. “Press the numerical button 1; press 1 now.” From there the messages deviate, but they’re variations on a theme. Here’s what he said on October 2: “There is someone you must rebuke that is attacking you. Press the numerical button 1 now; press 1 now. There is an individual causing this situation that you must rebuke; press 1, press 1. You must rebuke the snake that is controlling the person to cause this mess; press 1. It has even been affecting people in your household. Press 1 now; press 1.”

The first time I got the call, I was so stunned by his vehemence that I didn’t hang up. I sat there, clutching my cell phone to my ear all the way through the man’s exhortations to press the numerical button 1 until the line seemed to go dead. Then, another man’s voice came on the line, someone who was speaking normally, like any regular telemarketer. “If you’d like to continue, press 1 now. If you’d like to no longer receive these calls, press 4.”

I hesitated. The obvious thing to do would be to press 4, but I was curious. I badly wanted to see what would happen if I pressed 1, but that way lay the robocall deluge. Instead, I did
nothing and waited. Eventually, the call disconnected.

I began receiving these calls almost a year ago. Sometimes I pick up, sometimes I don’t. They’ve started to become part of the cadence of my week, a visitation from some other corner of the country. Sometimes my phone will ring in the middle of dinner with friends and I’ll check it, only to put the phone back down when I see the unfamiliar California number. “It’s just the apocalyptic preacher calling.”

The scripts of the calls aren’t always precisely apocalyptic, but they are always formulated as a warning. I got a call from Oakland as I was walking up Sixth Avenue in the West Village. “Hello?”

“I saw the spirit of witchcraft; someone was trying to manipulate you. Press the numerical button 1.”

Visiting my brother in Los Angeles, I got a call from Fresno. “There is someone who has your name in their mouth. Press the numerical button 1. You have always been uneasy about them and this is why; press 1. You used to be around them and things are coming up now. Ushebe—press 1, press 1. We must break this thing before sundown; please press the numerical button 1 now.”

Your situation is bad, the caller wants to convince you. You sensed it, and you were right. Someone is trying to cause you harm, and they’re succeeding.

It’s all very strange, but there were years when it might have seemed stranger. The news is only vaguely less eschatological. Mass shootings are carried out weekly at schools, synagogues, concerts: eleven dead, fifty-nine dead, seventeen dead. The deceased owner of a brothel called the Moonlite Bunny Ranch is posthumously elected to the Nevada state legislature. Nearly nine million acres burn; “historic” floods; “once in a generation” storms. So many people die of opioid overdoses that the national life expectancy falls for the first time in fifty years. North Korea brags that its missiles can easily reach Hawaii, and the United States dissolves a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. Climate scientists revise an earlier prediction that a 2-degree rise in the earth’s temperature would be irreversibly catastrophic to say that, actually, 1.5 degrees will do the trick­—a point of no return for the planet that they’re expecting to arrive not in fifty years but in fifteen.

In such days, the phone calls sound almost reassuringly in touch with the spirit of the times: this is going badly.

Even the language the evangelist uses in his pitch for “the numerical button one” sounds familiar. This was the call from Oakland on September 25: “They can no longer mess with your stuff. This has happened because of what they tried to mess with that is yours. Press the numerical button 1 now. God is about to go before you to fight what they’re trying to do to you; press the numerical button 1 now. These are individuals that the enemy is using and institutes that the enemy is using to come against you. Press 1, press 1.”

And another, on October 13, from Calistoga: “They will not take anything else from you. They tried to take your family your money your joy your peace your happiness—press 1, press 1—they will not be able to take anything else from you; this is the end of it; enough is enough. Press the numerical button 1. You thought you would have been out of it by this year, you thought you would have been taken care of by now; press 1, press 1.”

This is the era of being “robbed,” the year of the con artist, the time of everyone losing out to someone else. Immigrants are coming to take your jobs, Republicans are coming to take your health care, angry women are coming for men’s reputations and careers, straight white men are coming for your bodily autonomy, the police are coming for your life, trans people are coming for your bathrooms, the Democrats are coming for your guns, Silicon Valley is coming for your privacy, left-wing snowflakes are coming for your free speech, oil companies are coming for your land, and on and on. It’s an incomplete and uneven list—some are valid fears, some are hate barely disguised—but the rhetoric of persecution has become the national common denominator. The apocalyptic telephone preacher knows this. Someone is taking away from you what is rightfully yours, he says. There is someone to blame for your troubles, and I know who it is.

I keep waiting for this man to ask me for money. It’s curious that a call of this nature doesn’t come right out with a request, something along the lines of “For only six hundred and sixty-six dollars you can know the name of this usurper and I’ll smite him for you.” I can only assume that if I were ever to go ahead and press the numerical button 1, I’d be transferred to some kind of donation hotline or my number would be sold to hundreds of other evangelists, since, further research shows, robo-evangelism is its own cottage industry. But he never comes right out and asks. Instead he says simply, I know what ails you. You can know, too.

Lately, it doesn’t seem like what ails any one of us is simple enough for that. It’s a big, ailing world, and like an idiot I keep picking up the phone. Not every day, but often enough that it’s irrational. I keep wondering what he’ll say.


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March 2020