By Robert Hodierne

THEY SAY A SMALL TOWN IS THE kind of place where, when you dial a wrong number, you talk to the person anyway. Here's evidence of how small a town this is.

I had just plugged in the phone in my new apartment when it rang. My first call.

"Is Cynthia there?" a well-spoken woman asked.

"I'm sorry, you have the wrong number," I said.

And so it went. Two, three, sometimes half a dozen calls a day for Cynthia, who apparently had recently possessed my number. Callers who listened to my male voice on my answering machine nevertheless left messages for Cynthia.

Your typical cranky urbanite might have reacted with angry calls to the phone company or rude responses to the callers ("Cynthia's in the bedroom with a customer -- call back in 15 minutes"). I was unfailingly polite, even chatty and friendly. There were two reasons.

First, calls to the phone company would only have led to greater frustration. I sometimes wake at night in a sweat, dreaming I'm lost in automated-answering hell ("For questions about purgatory, press 1").

More important, I became curious about Cynthia's life.

AT FIRST I WAS PASSIVE. I LISTENED TO all sorts of messages -- from people confirming plans for a charity luncheon Cynthia was chairing, from the opera company that wanted her on its board, from her pest-control service, from her hairdresser, from Neiman Marcus (a lot of calls from Neiman Marcus). It became a game. I tried to piece together this woman's life story from misdirected phone messages. I could see a novella, a farce. A movie, a thriller.

Then I listened in embarrassed pain to a message about the death of a man who had known Cynthia from her work at United Cerebral Palsy. The caller left no name or number, so there was no way for me to help get the news to her.

As much as I knew about Cynthia -- one day she was late picking up her three-year-old from nursery school (how could you, Cynthia?) -- I didn't know her full name. So I finally asked one of the callers who Cynthia was.

"Cynthia Steele-Vance," the caller said. "You know, she used to be an anchor on Fox television."

"Oh, that Cynthia Steele-Vance," I said, having no idea who she was.

That call was easier to deal with than the one from a gravel-voiced guy calling from overseas.

"Chuck?" he asked. The confusion in his voice made it clear he did not brook confusion.

"There's no Chuck here."

He was silent for a moment.

"Chuck Vance," he said. "I'm calling for Chuck Vance."

"Oh," I said. "Cynthia's husband."

"Yes. Cynthia's husband."

I explained the situation, and he laughed.

"What does Chuck do?" I asked.

"He runs Vance International," the man explained, without explaining.

Charles Vance, as it turns out, used to be a Secret Service agent and now runs a bodyguard service. He has all these guys working for him who carry guns. I was happy I'd been pleasant to the callers.

I FINALLY DID TALK TO CYNTHIA, THIS woman I'd gotten to know so well. It was the day I got the voice-mail message from her veterinarian saying Chloe needed to change her thyroid medication. I thought that one needed to get through.

"Oh, all my friends say you're so nice!" Cynthia said when I explained who I was. I told her about Chloe and the medication. She ended the conversation with "Let me have your address."

"Why?" I asked.

"I want to send you a birth announcement. I'm due in two weeks."

"But no one told me!"