The Call Center

I'm squatting down in front of the open fridge, looking for beers when the phone rings. I yank open the crisper, it's stuck to the sides with the goop of something that only bacteria ever ate. Inside, a couple of bronze cans of Yuengling roll around. I had to go all the way to Alabama to pick them up, but they're nothing special. Not out here on the state line. The phone keeps ringing and I know I've got to be the only person under fifty with a landline. I need it, though. For my way of life.

There's a reason that people say “He's a liar,” more than they say “he's lying.” Some people are just that – they lie. They get away with it until they don't. People keep an eye out for liars.

I look at the little black-on-grey LCD display. The number's out of state, gotta be some call center in some other far-flung hellhole. Sick early evening light keeps playing over the blinds, I make a mental note to fuck Daylight Savings Time and I hit the button.

“This is Carl Larson speaking.” I say, automatically. I crack the seal on the Yuengling, take a first gulp that gets me more than halfway through the can. Half empty? Half full? I know that nobody gives a shit. If you're filling it up, it's halfway full, if you're emptying it, it's halfway empty. This can more than halfway empty by the time the stammering voice gets halfway done with her quarter-assed sales pitch.

“Mr. Larson...” She pauses. They never pause. It throws me off. Potential memories. I take another massive swig.

“Yeah? Tell me what's going on.” My voice does it's thing. My voice could relax a bull on crack. If I was on the other end of the line...

The thing is, on the phone, I am always lying. But on the phone, I'm not a liar. On the phone, nobody even thinks I'm lying. The bullshit alarms, the reality detecting circuits, they all fail to fire. So long as it's on the phone. I can't get a job in a call center. I'd go to jail.

“The, the, we, are the, uh makers of Vynseal, a revolting... a revolutionary new vinyl siding...” The voice trails off and I hear her swallow.

I drink a bit more and the beer is almost done. I wander back to the fridge, phone to the ear. She's about to launch back into the sales pitch so I hit her with my voice.

“What's your name? Aren't you supposed to tell me? Increase the empathetic rapport?” I ask her. So friendly. I've got her. I can just feel it. I know she's reading a script and I'm not.

I can't lie in the flesh. My body language, some quirk of my demeanor, some scent or look, it always gives me away. I can't lie online. I fill out the wrong forms or give the wrong user name or put the wrong picture on the wrong website.

But on the phone? Believe me.

“They... we are pre.. prepared to offal... to offer you an awesome... no, amazing, no...”

“The deal's going to be awesome.” I say. It's going to be true. For me, not her.

Lying on the phone is my mutant gift. I'm the Magneto of the telemarketing world. It's not as useful as you'd think. But as she speaks, I know. Something on the other end is wrong. I can tell, the voice gives me everything I need.

“They... it.. we.. we're offal... we're offering a brain... brand new crisp hundred dollar bill!” The leadup to the cheer is stomach-churning, like listening to a hostage pleading. She's snapping, but I haven't done anything. I play my telemarketer magic.

“What's your name?”

“Jennifer.” She says. Voice cracking, terrified. She can tell me anything she wants, but she doesn't know it yet. All I have to do is give her a moment of silence. I smile, and she can hear it.

“It's in here.” She says, quietly. Her voice goes to nothing and I can hear the background in of the call center, cubicle walls reflecting a hundred calls, everyone offering that crisp hundred dollar bill, that miracle of Vynseal.

I wish this was first time I'd heard this.

“Tell me what it looks like, Jennifer.” Once I have the name it's all over. Once I have the name, the free stuff arrives at the door, the rebates get bigger than the purchases, the coupons come in the mail. Jennifer is no different. I need a good vinyl siding job, I wish I could get a new paint job, but instead, I am dealing with this.

“It's in here. It's... stalking the aisles. It's a bug. A really big bug. It sees us. We can't see it. You made me see it! What did you do?”

I don't know what I did. But she'll never know that. I'm not sorry, either. This is the bug's fault. Still, what I say is:

“I'm so sorry. I let you see. Told you that you could see. Now, Jennifer, tell me what it looks like.”

"It knows." Is all she says. Jennifer hangs up the phone and I go back to the cabinet for something stronger than America's Oldest Brewery.

Despite worry and bad dreams of jointed legs and molt, the night goes on as normal. I drink too much and fall asleep and wake up sore, go through the money from the shitty sweepstakes, drink the free coffee, check the coupons and fill out all the forms, making sure to leave my telephone number every time.

Before noon I get in my car, a “gift” from a supplement pyramid scheme – or, as they called it, a “wealth funnel system.” I go get groceries in town, a full sixteen minute drive each way, no radio, no music, just thinking about Jennifer and all the other call center terror I've heard since I discovered my gifts.

Probably nothing, I think. Probably some unique psychosis. Nobody else deigns to speak with them, I reason. Working in a hive like that, buzzing noises and phones, you'd see insects. I tellmyself that as I buy my vegetables, I buy my bread, I stock up on the vitamin B supplements I require when I have to influence over the wire. I buy lots of beer.

It helps.

I shop local. McRowdey's. Not out of some overriding desire to help the economy of this two-stoplight town, not because the leering eyes and meth-riddled faces at McRowdeys are soothing and familiar. No. At Wal-Mart, the insect stalks the aisles.

I've seen it. I've seen what Jennifer sees, what the other call center zombies see – the bug in their midst, regarding with calculated managerial menace. The thing that looks like a man, capable of wiping out their lives with the stroke of a pen, or proboscis, whatever it may wield. I'm not sure how it work. Why it works. If it works. If they made me see, or I made them.

Too much time on the phone.

Today, there is one in McRowdey's. I see it, antenna twitching, as real as the bruised avocados and green bananas. I do not raise my voice or warn anyone when I check out. Everyone is oblivious. It does not watch, all it sees are the blind sunken eyes of the old man putting soup cans on the shelf. I know it's going to eat him. Just like the thing that has eaten Jennifer by now.

I recall someone talking about a buyout of McRowdeys as I drive home, going the speed limit, keeping both eyes peeled for deer darting across the strip of asphalt. I don't listen to the radio, ever. The music channels are okay, but I worry, worry that they'll catch the chittering tones of talk radio, the hisses and pops of the hosts that take calls in a language I've never heard.

That night I do something I almost never do, I check the news online, I do it in terror, drunk, covering one eye with the parted fingers of a hand as I scroll, checking headlines, painfully reading a thing here and there, never checking the commentary.

The emotions still come rolling off, the voices are there, the faces and pictures. The story comes up again and again and I know that Jennifer is who they mention. Blood in the call center. First female mass shooter. Going after her boss. Mad claims that no outlet dare print.

I know what she said: Her boss was a monster.

Any mention is buried in metaphor. I know it can't be any other way. I am unable to tell if Jennifer killed her boss. To even get that information, I would have to go into the online places where half the things were true and everything was lies. Not even worth it. Nine dead would suffice.

I do not sleep for fear of dreams. At three, the phone rings and I did not recognize the number. For once, I don't pick it up.