Even before Ebling reached home, his cell phone rang. For years he had refused to buy one, because he was a technician and didn't trust the thing. Why did nobody wonder about whether it was a good idea to clutch a powerful source of radiation to your head? But Ebling had a wife, two children, and a handful of acquaintances, and one of them was always complaining that he was unreachable. So finally he'd given in and bought a phone, which he asked the guy he bought it from to activate immediately. In spite of himself, he was impressed: it was absolutely perfect, beautifully designed, smooth lines, elegant. And now, without warning, it was ringing.
Very hesitantly, he picked up.
A woman asked for someone called Raff, Ralf, or Rauff, he couldn't figure out the name. A mistake, he said, wrong number. She apologized and hung up.
That evening, the next call. "Ralf!" The man's voice was loud and hoarse. "What gives, what are you up to, you old bastard?"
"Wrong number!" Ebling sat up in bed. It was already past ten o'clock and his wife was looking at him reproachfully.
The man apologized, and Ebling switched off the phone.
Next morning there were three messages. He listened to them in the subway on the way to work. A giggling woman asked him to call her back. A man yelled that he should come over right away, they weren't going to wait for him much longer; you could hear music and the clink of glasses in the background. And then the same woman again: "Ralf, come on, where are you?"
Ebling sighed and called Customer Service.
Strange, said the representative, sounding bored. Simply couldn't happen. Nobody was given a number already assigned to somebody else. There were all sorts of security measures to prevent it.
"But that's what's happened."
No, said the woman. Absolutely impossible.
"And what are you going to do about it?"
She said she had no idea. Because the whole thing was impossible.
Ebling opened his mouth, then shut it again. He knew that someone else in his shoes would have lost it - but that wasn't his sort of thing, he was no good at it. He hit the off button.
Seconds later, it rang again. "Ralf?" said a man.
"This number is ...There's been a mistake - you've misdialed."
"This is Ralf's number!"
Ebling hung up and stuck the phone in the pocket of his jacket. The subway was jammed again, so he was having to stand today as well. On one side a man with a big moustache was glaring at him as if he were his sworn enemy. There were a lot of things about his life that Ebling didn't like. It bothered him that his wife's mind was always somewhere else, that she read such stupid books, and that she was such a lousy cook. It bothered him that he didn't have a smart son, and that he didn't understand his daughter at all. It bothered him that he could always hear his neighbors snoring through the party walls, which were way too thin. But what bothered him most of all was being on the subway at rush hour. Always packed in, always jammed full, and always the same stink.
But he liked his work. He and dozens of his coworkers sat under very bright lamps examining defective computers sent in by dealers from all over the country. He knew how fragile the brains of the little disks were, how complex and mysterious. No one fully understood how they functioned; no one could say for sure why they suddenly broke down or went haywire. For a long time now nobody had attempted to establish the root causes, they simply substituted one component or another until the whole thing started working again. He often thought about just how much in the world depended on these machines, bearing in mind what an exception, even a miracle, it was if they actually did the things they were supposed to. In the evenings, half asleep, he was so troubled by this idea - all the airplanes, all the electronically guided weaponry, the entire banking system - that his heart began to race. That's when Elke snapped at him, saying why couldn't he just lie there quietly, she might as well be sharing her bed with a cement mixer, and he would apologize, thinking that his mother had long since been the one to tell him that he was too sensitive.
Excerpted from Fame by Daniel Kehlmann Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Kehlmann. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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