Voicemails to the Editor

by By Catherine Lacey, Graham Mason, Sean Cole, Barbara Fremont, Sayre Quevedo, Kellie Mejdrich, David Weinberg, Bianca Giaever, Deborah Kelley, and James T. Green

Produced by Jenny Ament

​The physical component of this piece is a green diamond-shaped keychain like the sort you get at a motel or car wash or a small insurance firm, printed with the words: “McSweeney’s Quarterly. No Call Is Too Small. (415) 573-3899. Lines are open 24-7.” The audio can be accessed by calling that number.

[robotic male voicemail voice] McSweeney’s has eleven new messages. To leave us a message, press one. To listen, press two.

[voicemail voice] Sunday, 11:05 A.M. [voicemail tone]

[woman speaks] Hey McSweeney’s. I don’t know many people who can forget the things they want to forget and remember the things they want to remember. I wish I were one of those people, if there are any of those people. But it also seems to me that forgetting the past is a privilege we’ve begun to squander. What I mean is we’re sitting on a huge trash heaps of our past: email archives, text messages, all those photos, voicemails, voice memos. I don’t use voice memos or I thought I didn’t use voice memos. But then I came across this, a recording I apparently made with someone six autumns ago. Hold on. Let me see if I can play it. [shuffling, the sound of a phone being handled. Recording begins.]

[original woman, mid-sentence] —professional talking.

[second speaker, in an old-timey voice] Hello, hello.

[original woman] One more.

[second speaker] Hello.

[They both giggle.]

[original woman] I don’t recall recording this voice memo. I don’t know who the other voice is, and it troubles me, not just the fact that I can’t remember, but the fact that there’s so little now that I’m allowed to forget. Who is saying hello? And who were they saying hello to? I can’t remember, and now, even worse, I can’t forget. All right, well, I hope you’re okay. Bye.

[voicemail voice] Sunday, 8:33 P.M. [voicemail tone]

[man speaks] Hey there, I am outside your building, but I’m not clear on which door is the right door. I’m waving. If you can look out your window you can see me waving. Oh, I’m, I guess this is a message. So, uhm, so if you get this, I’m going to keep waving for another hour. Hopefully you’ll get this and then, you know, you can look out the window and you’ll see me, uhh, waving.

[voicemail voice] Tuesday, 10:21 P.M. [voicemail tone]

[man speaks] Hey McSweeney’s, how’s it going? I’m out here on the street in my neighborhood and I had to call you because I feel like I’m losing my mind. There’s just too many of them, all the time, and they all sound like they’re coming from everywhere. It’ll be quiet for a second. And then all of a sudden: [ice cream truck jingle begins]. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the ice cream truck jingle has racist origins. That’s not this song, actually. That song is Turkey in the Straw, a.k.a. the Rose Tree. This song is the Mister Softee theme song, a.k.a. the Butter Pecan Death March, a.k.a. Nightmare on Every Street. I’m not even talking about the music right now, though. I’m talking about this: [music stops] the pause in between one repetition of the tune and the next, because I know what’s coming. [Jingle resumes.] That’s it’s just going to start up again. Like that. That pause is just 6.312 seconds long and it seems like both a merciful and accursed eternity. If I could just sit in that pocket of Softee songlessness forever. In that precious silence, just soak it in like a kiddy pool full of melted Mallomars, or even just fool myself into thinking that this will be the last time. [Music stops.] The very last time. If I just hold on and hope with the pure focus of a blameless child [jingle resumes, exasperated grunt.] All right, well, talk to you later.

[voicemail voice] Tuesday, 11:53 P.M. [voicemail tone]

[older woman with a strong Bronx accent] Hello. I don’t know what’s going on. What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s going on? Hello?

[voicemail voice] Wednesday, 2:07 A.M. [voicemail tone]

[man speaks] It’s me. I’m just calling 'cause I’m on my roof, and I thought of you, even though we’ve, you know, spoken two times today, I figured, why not again? [Fireworks pop in the distance and shower outward.] Whoah. It’s been like seven straight days of fireworks. Yeah, I don’t know. I found myself getting annoyed about fireworks the other day, and so I looked up what the loudest sound in human history is. And it’s, uhmm, this island, Krakatoa, is a volcano that exploded and it was so powerful, the sound was so powerful, it could be heard from 3,000 miles away, which is like if a volcano exploded in New York and you could hear it in L.A. [Fireworks continue in the background.] And the explosion was so powerful that it pulverized this island, some of it sank into the sea, but the rest of it was turned into dust and it floated around the earth and it changed the sunsets, it turned them lilac and orange and crimson. It also lowered the temperature of the planet by several degrees. I dunno, just think about how powerful that is, that it literally reshaped and changed the earth for like a split moment. [Another series of fireworks.] There’s something really beautiful about that, really. I close my eyes and I imagine the sounds that I’m hearing, instead of coming from the sky, they’re coming from the earth from somewhere like deep, deep, deep inside. And it’s actually just the pressure escaping. The sound of the earth sort of shattering underneath me. [Fireworks after fireworks after fireworks set off, then a car horn.] Anyways, I miss you and I love you, and I wish you weren’t so far away.

[voicemail voice] Wednesday, 6:27 A.M. [voicemail tone]

[Music plays as a woman sings along playfully, the lyrics unintelligible] Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. [Laughs.] I hope you’re doin’ okay. I miss you bye!

[voicemail voice] Thursday, 9:25 A.M. [voicemail tone]

[man speaks] Hey, McSweeney’s, this is David Weinberg. I was actually, I was just calling cause I wanted to tell you about this email that I got. Let me pull it up here. I’m going to read it. The subject line was “Polygon and Non-round Grinding with Paragon Machinery Grinding Machine.” And the email said, “Hi, editor. I’m Chiayin Hung from Paragon Machinery Company LTD. Paragon Machinery is dedicated to designing multifunction high-precision grinding machines for metal-working parts. I’ve been following your articles on KCRW and think you might be interested in our products. If you think Paragon Machinery Company is a product that will resonate with your audience, I would love to help you put a story together. Let me know what additional information you need.”

So it was a press release. I get dozens of them every day. Usually I think of these as junk mail and ignore them. But every once in a while a subject line catches my eye and I find myself wondering, what would it be like to interview that person? So anyway, the day I got this Grinding Machine press release, I decided I would respond. So I wrote back asking for an interview because I had a lot of questions, like which of my radio articles on KCRW caught your eye? And what about them made you think my audience would be interested in your industrial grinding machines? Was it my interview with Wolfgang Puck? So I sent my reply and waited and I wondered, was this the beginning of a journey into a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about industrial grinding? Would Paragon turn out to be a Willy Wonka-like factory of fantastical devices and gadgets? Also, what is a non-round grinding machine and what did they grind? But my questions remain unanswered because when I responded saying I wanted to schedule an interview, Chiayin Hung wrote back saying they weren’t ready for media exposure yet, but they would let me know when they were. And that was the last I ever heard from Paragon Machinery. I was bewildered.

What was the point of sending out a press release if you didn’t want to talk to the press? I felt a little like I had been asked out on a date. And when I replied with an enthusiastic, Yes, I’d love to go on a hike with you in Griffith Park, my suitor replied, Actually, I don’t want to go out with you. Were they holding out for Anderson Cooper? But it’s okay, because lucky for me, there are plenty of fish in the sea. For example, this email I got earlier today that said, “Former prison guard channel’s Kate Bush in new single.” Or the one I got from a businessman seeking investment in a candy factory to be staffed with war veterans making a product called Linky Doodles.

So I’m going to take another one of these press releases, one that I normally wouldn’t respond to, and say, “Thanks for sending this to me. When would be a good time to chat?”

I’ll let you know what I find. Wish me luck.

[voicemail voice] Friday, 10:11 A.M. [voicemail tone]

[woman speaks] Hey, it’s Bianca. Uhhm, listen [phone jostling]. I’m going to be a little bit late. Uh [the sound of something sliding over crunchy, packed snow] I’ve got caught up in some extreme sledding— [Panting, panic noises and we can hear her voice, far in the background now] I can’t see. I can’t see. Bail, bail, bail. I can’t see. Okay, you have to let— I’m trying—owww, oww, oww. [A companion’s laughter in the background.] Bail. Bail. I need to bail—

[voicemail voice] Saturday, 8:28 P.M. [Voicemail tone. Background noises for a moment, and then the message cuts out.]

[voicemail voice] Saturday, 12:30 P.M. [voicemail tone]

[woman with a rich southern accent speaks] I’m sorry I missed your call. I was sittin’ on the porch. Uhh. Talk to you later. Bye, bye.

[voicemail voice] Saturday, 4:21 P.M. [voicemail tone]

[The din of a city street.] Hey boo, it’s your, uhh, it’s your phone. I mean, I feel so weird about hitting you up. I don’t know, like, it’s been a while since we’ve been talking. You know, you put me on Do Not Disturb, and you threw me out the window. I know I can be a bit of a distraction, uhh, annoying. I know the notifications, right? But, I don’t know, like, I miss you. I miss— I miss your touch on my glass. I miss— I miss the, uhh, the way you used to look at my VGA. I know it’s so embarrassing. But I know that reading all the stuff about Mark and... I forgot the Twitter guy’s name. Uhh but, I don’t know. I just miss you. And, you know, I hope you could, uhh, you know, pick me up soon. Maybe we can get back to how things used to be, you know, just hang out on the couch, for like ten hours. You know. All the snacks. Anyway, uhh, you know, I got to call me back, but, just let me know. Alright. Bye.

[voicemail voice] End of messages.

Jenny Ament is the senior producer of audio at Politico.

Sean Cole is a producer, reporter for, and occasional host of This American Life. He’s contributed to many other public radio programs and podcasts over the past twenty years, including Radiolab, 99% Invisible, Marketplace, Studio 360, and All Things Considered. His poems have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, Black Clock, Pavement Saw, Boog City, and other journals. He wishes to be published in a magazine called And Other Journals so that the previous sentence could read, “His poems have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, Black Clock, Pavement Saw, Boog City, And Other Journals, and other journals.”

Bianca Giaever is a radio producer, filmmaker, and writer. She is the creator and host of the podcast Constellation Prize, distributed by the Believer. Her film, radio, and print stories have appeared on This American Life and Radiolab and in the New Yorker and the New York Times, and her awards include a Daytime Emmy Award and a Webby Award. She currently works as a producer on the New York Times audio team.

James T. Green is an audio documentarian by trade and an artist by practice. He’s from the flatlands of the Midwest but currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. His website is jamestgreen.com.

Catherine Lacey has authored four books, lives in Chicago, and knows how to cook a rutabaga.

Graham Mason is a filmmaker and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. He has written and directed several short films that have played on prestigious websites and cable TV channels. He recently completed a feature-length comedy called Inspector Ike, which will be released in 2021.

Sayre Quevedo is an award-winning documentary artist. He works across mediums to tell stories about intimacy, identity, and human relationships. He currently works as an audio producer and journalist for VICE News.

David Weinberg is an award-winning journalist and radio producer based in Los Angeles. He created and hosted the KCRW podcast Welcome to LA, which was named best podcast of the year by publications including the Atlantic, Vulture, Vox, and IndieWire. His other podcast, Random Tape, is weirdly big in Denmark.