Hangups get a big H in the center of the card. It’s okay if it covers up the name of the person you called. The ones that go to message get a little m. You put it in the corner. It wasn’t like working at the suicide hotline, or the telemarketers, or even the sex line he’d gotten involved in in college. This was different.
What they did was sell people another life, one phone call at a time. The first call was the hook. You’d do best at midday, Wheel and Jeopardy! time, when prime customers were likeliest to be by the phone. There was a script they gave you, but it was best to memorize it, do something new with the material. People could tell when you were reading off the page. They wanted a human conversation. They wanted reality. They wanted a new life.
He’d turn colostomy-bagged Vietnam vets into NFL players. Lonely widows into supermodels. Shut-in octogenarians into movie stars. The trick was to make the free trial believable enough, but to hold onto your best cards for the paid subscription.
What they paid for were the galas, the sold-out premieres, the grandsons who called. Someone to read them something, anything–the phone book, receipts, junk mail. Didn’t matter what.
After a few weeks of briefing Presidents on foreign policy, mentoring chess prodigies, and flirting with Oscar-winning actresses, he got this one lady:
“Describe where I am.”
This was breaking protocol. The scenario was always agreed upon ahead of time. The client was never to refer to the scenario once it was agreed upon. Suspension of disbelief and all that.
“You’re, uh… You’re in a sprawling mansion nestled in the hills. Sipping daiquiris.”
“No I’m not. I’m in a doublewide my husband left me after he passed. I’m thirsty, but if I stand too quickly to fill a glass I might faint. I’m hypoglycemic.”
“A… Um, a butler greets you in the foyer. He asks what you’d like to have the chefs prepare for dinner.”
“Wrong again. My WIC card finally got refilled, so I can Uber over to the grocery store with what’s left of my social security for the month. Get a bag of frozen peas. Maybe potatoes if I’m lucky.”
“You’re, uh… What is this? Um, as the butler leaves, you catch a glimpse of the Olympic-sized swimming pool in your backyard, perfectly-manicured hedges behind it.”
“Try the city dump. I can see raccoons from here, fighting over a bag of rancid Mickey D’s. Can smell it, too.”
“Once inside your lavish bedroom, you peruse, uh, your walk-in closet and pick out a tasteful sundress.”
“Honey, the only dress I have left is the one my husband picked out for me fifty years ago. April 4, 1966. Our one-year anniversary. Got it at Macy’s, on Fifth. Had to sell the rest to thrift stores.”
“You pause for a moment at the bathroom’s mirror, apply lipstick. Gather your earrings.”
“Doctors tell me it’s fungus. The heat only aggravates it, and I haven’t had AC all summer. Can either afford the antifungal medication or the repair, but not both. Damned if I do, and if I don’t.”
“You slip on the dress, admire the way it clings to your frame.”
“I knew what it was before I even bothered going in. The right one was bigger. Bigger than usual. Painful, sometimes, too. I felt the lump, so the only news I got from the doctor was how long I had. A couple months, if you’re wondering.”
“You glance to… I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“What’re you apologizing for? You didn’t put the lump there, did you? It’s fine. It’s all right. Everything is.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“Well, you’d be able to. You’d be able to pretty quickly.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to.”
The quiet of a line being held, only air flowing over mics. The sterility of an office. Stifling heat of a doublewide.
He quit the job that night. Hopped on a Greyhound. First one he saw. Didn’t know where it was headed, when it would get there. But then again, maybe he didn’t have to.