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by Jenni Moody – WINNER OF THE MASON’S ROAD SUMMER 2013 LITERARY AWARD!
On Sunday nights the regulars call in. I might talk to the same person maybe three, four times in my eight-hour shift. In between calls I take the headset off, twist my neck, roll my shoulders back to work the stiffness out of them. Midnight in an office building can get pretty lonely. But I don’t have to handle any money or stay on my feet. It’s a better gig for a sixty-five year old man than greeting people at Wal-Mart.
Jerry put the coffee on before he left for the night. It’s quiet in here except for the steady drip into the carafe. Outside a storm has blown up, and the wind is apocalyptic. I’ve got a little space heater someone dragged in here, and its fan whirrs steadily. I keep the heater near my feet until my toes start to sweat in my socks, then I pull my feet underneath the chair and open my Star Trek novel.
It’s 9:23pm. I’ll be here all night.
There are a few rules to working on the helpline. You tell the callers a name, but it doesn’t have to be your real one. You listen to the callers, ask them questions, help them find answers to their life problems. You don’t judge them, tell them they’ve done something wrong, tell a gay person they need to find Jesus. And no clients come in the building after lock-up at 5pm.
Plus, my boss doesn’t mind the communicator badge I wear on the left side of my t-shirt. The one that lets people know I’m a member of Starfleet. I’m not crazy. I know the difference between Kirk and Shatner, Spock and Nimoy, Sulu and Takei. There’s no spaceship out there waiting to beam me up. But I respect the ideals of Star Trek, and wearing the badge lets other people know that I want a better future, too.
When the phone rings I take a deep breath before answering. On the little screen next to the receiver the caller ID lights up. There’s a number taped by the security cameras, a phone number we’re not supposed to answer. This isn’t it.
“Helpline, this is Bill.”
Her voice is a jumble, but I know who it is all right.
Third time tonight.
“Now just take a deep breath, Trisha, and tell me what’s going on.”
“I’m having thoughts of hurting myself.”
“Then who’d keep me company at night?”
“Bill, you old goat.”
In the background the television is on. Trisha changes channels.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” I ask.
“Going fishing with my nephew.” She’s future-oriented, she most likely isn’t going to hurt herself tonight. She just needs a distraction. Something better than a TV.
I need the distraction, too. “Whatcha watching on TV, there?”
“Just a bunch of crap.”
There’s the sound of television laughter. Faint static. Like it’s been taped on cassette, then copied to another cassette, and another.
The channel changes. Here’s the laughter again. Probably watching one of those home videos gone wrong shows where someone swings themselves into a tree instead of the pool.
“At least I’m not that stupid,” she says.
I pull my Star Trek movie magazine out of the desk drawer. I’ve got the clock ticking on Trisha. She’s got ten more minutes of my time before I wind it up and tell her goodbye. I’m the only one here at the moment.
There’s a trainee coming in in half an hour, but until then I’m all alone, and there might be another person trying to get through the phone line.
I try to turn the pages quietly, but I think Trisha can hear the rustle.
“Bill, you listening to me, buddy?”
“Mmhmm. I’m just processing what you told me.”
“Don’t get on your high horse, Bill. It don’t suit you.”
The dial tone comes up, and I set the receiver down gently. Trish’ll call back in a few hours, like nothing ever happened. Still on the sofa, still watching TV.
I turn up the ringer on the phone and walk to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of coffee. The trainee should be here anytime now. At least she’ll be some company.
Usually, Sarah’s with me at night. She’s a retired schoolteacher who drinks cans of diet soda like she’s in a contest. Single-handedly fills up our recycling bin every week. You can tell she’s a teacher because one of her strategies is to make the callers do a goal chart. It makes them feel like they’re making progress. It makes her feel like they’ve taken a step to the light. We talk Trek when she’s working. Our favorite episodes, our hopes for the future of mankind. But she’s out of town this week, back at home with her mother who’s ailing. I take more pills every year, myself, but I’ve still got the go in me.
There’s the buzzer at the door. I squeak out of my chair, past the little heater on the floor and stoop down to get a closer look at the security cameras.
It’s the trainee. All windblown and full of energy despite it. It’s her first full shift. Her first time to take some calls without me hovering over her. I’ll be here all night, like I said, but if we get two calls at once, she’s on her own.
I flip a switch beneath the desk and push the button on the speaker.
She pulls on the handle and disappears from the screen. I watch until the door closes behind her, and make sure that the lock is back on. I put my Star Trek magazine back in the drawer. My fingers linger over my communication badge, but I decide to leave it on.
She bounces into the call room, trying not to look as excited as she feels. She claps her gloved hands together and stomps her feet. Some childish affect that hasn’t worn off yet. Her red pea coat is new. The color is a punchy kind of bright. Her blonde hair comes just to her shoulders, but lifts a little higher in the back. She’s probably one of those girls that gets her hair styled every six weeks. Money. Might as well have a tattoo across her wrist that says trust fund.
“Hell of a night,” I say.
“Lots of calls?”
“Just Trisha. You know.”
“Yeah. Raman told me about her.”
Amanda. That’s this girl’s name. I had to dig it out from those dusty filing cabinets in the back of my head. Maybe I am getting old.
There’s a big television in the room, with some DVDs and spine-broken paperbacks. Amanda pulls the copy of Mutiny on the Enterprise that I donated to the center off the shelf. She asks me if I ever watch the tube while I’m here.
“Usually I just talk with Sarah.”
We sit with each other for a few minutes. When I ask her about school she says it’s going fine, but she doesn’t know what to ask me in return. I remember how I felt when I was her age. Old people seemed to be a different species. They just happened to have a language close enough to mine to communicate the basics. Greetings. Status updates. Calls for help.
But not everything translates.
In Star Trek, there’s this rule called the Prime Directive. You’re not allowed to interfere with the development of an alien species. You’re not even supposed to let them know that space travel exists, or that there are living beings in the universe besides themselves. Sometimes I wonder if the helpline really helps people. Maybe they’ve got their own course for developing, and I just screw it all up.
Amanda makes little arcs in the swivel chair, the underside squeaking a bit. She sits in the chair like she’s in finishing school. Back straight, feet crossed at the ankles even though she’s wearing black dress pants. Her eyes go to my communications badge. I think she’s going to ask about it, but she’s trying to figure out how to phrase it so that it doesn’t come out mean.
The central heat comes on with a rumble and a puff of hot air that makes the piece of paper taped to the cubicle wall flip flap back and forth. In the center there’s a grainy photograph of a guy wearing a baseball cap. His hair sticks out from underneath the cap, in that long mop cut that’s popular these days. There’s a soul patch on his chin. He holds a joint between his thumb and middle finger, his eyes closed as he inhales.
Amanda asks about the photograph.
“That’s Ted. We don’t answer calls from him anymore.”
“Why not?” Her voice is young, smart, sensitive. She’s in school for counseling. She wants to make this her life’s work.
“He’s abusive towards the Helpline workers. Very combative.”
“He looks sad.”
Raman got the picture off of Ted’s Facebook page. The jerk actually posted a photo of himself taking a toke on the Internet. This ain’t California. Isn’t even close. One guy at the monthly Starfleet meeting told us how the whole SWAT team busted into his house over half a joint. Guns in his back, people in black masks calling him a drug lord. It’s one thing for a guy to light up to keep from stressing out over his job. It’s another for some pampered asshole to skip out on life. You have to work to better yourself and the world. At least, that’s how it works in the 24th century.
The girl just stares at the photograph for a few minutes.
She’s hoping for Raman’s job: Volunteer Coordinator and Trainer. At least, that’s what the gossip says. It’s a far-off hope, a stab towards something shifting in the dark. It’s the best she’s got. She tells me she’s living at home with her parents. No customer service job will take her ‘cause they think she’ll bail as soon as she gets a real gig. They’re right, but they’re bastards just the same.
The phone rings. I let it go two, three times.
Amanda’s frozen. Looking at me, kind of pleading.
“Want to take it?” I ask.
She’s considering it. Trying to work out some algorithm of luck in her head. Is this going to be a good first call to take?
She’s still working on it on the fifth ring.
I pick up the receiver.
“Helpline, this is Bill.”
“Having a good night there, Bill?”
It’s Trisha again. “Hey, old girl.”
Amanda smiles and pretends to wipe sweat off her forehead. Nobody wants to talk to Trisha. Especially not on their first call. She’s easy to ruffle, and it can seem like there’s no right answer.
Another ten minutes, and she tells me she’s about ready to go to bed. She has me say the prayer we worked out months ago. Calling out the names of the spirits she says haunt her at night, telling them to settle down and leave her alone so she can sleep. Then she hangs up and that’s all I’ll hear from her tonight.
Amanda’s been listening in, getting herself ready to answer the next call. I remember how it felt when I started. Wanting a call to come so you could answer it, so you could help someone. But afraid, too.
In the training they tell us that people make their own decisions. Whatever help you can give them, that’s help they didn’t have before. But their decisions aren’t your fault. Repeat callers are kind of my specialty. That’s why I work the night shift. I like building up that bond. Letting people know I’m going to be here to take their call.
I get up to empty my bladder. I walk down to the bathroom at the far end of the building. It’s quiet in here.
When I get back there’s a man at the front door and Amanda’s talking to him through the intercom. It’s hard to see his face. He’s keeping it turned away from the cameras.
“What’s your name?”
Amanda looks at me, but I’m too busy listening to his voice.
I go to the phone and dial a number. On the monitor, I see the man reach into his pocket and fish out his cell phone.
The man on the screen shoots a bird at the camera.
“Let me in, old man. I need to talk to you.”
“You know that’s not how it works, Ted.”
He shuffles his feet. There’s a gate banging open and shut somewhere, and the riffing of the air over the intercom.
“Will you talk to me?”
“We don’t have such a great history, Ted.”
He shakes the front door, hoping the locks aren’t on. “Lemme talk to that girl, then.”
Amanda’s watching the screen.
“Listen,” I tell her, “he’s out there. He can’t hurt you. You want to talk to him for a few minutes, fine. If not, we tell him to hit the road.”
On the camera screen a big wind blows up. Ted punches the intercom again.
“Bill, you there? Hey, lady?”
She leans into the intercom. “This is Amanda.”
There’s another call coming in, so I move over to the phone station and let her talk through the intercom. It’s a referral. Simple. Just look up the number in the binder above the desk and give it to the person on the phone. This lady needs help paying her electricity bill. I give her the number for Hope House, the only place in town that has money for that kind of thing. Their phone line only works from 9:00am – 9:30am every Friday. They give out money once a week until it runs out. This lady has the smallest of chances. I ask her if she wants to talk about her situation, if she’d like a non-judgmental ear to listen. But no, just the referral. Thanks.
I hang up and look over at the monitors. Ted’s not at the front door anymore.
Amanda’s voice floats down the hall. A man’s voice responds.
I’m down the hallway in under a second. They’re sitting together in Raman’s office. Amanda’s in his office chair. Ted’s sitting across the desk from her and he’s got fire in his eyes. He’s waiting for me to throw him out.
“It was so cold out there. He was shivering,” Amanda says.
This troubled mind’s just an abandoned puppy to her. But she hasn’t heard his story yet.
“Amanda, you go back to the call room,” I say.
She starts to argue with me, but I cut her off. “Now,” I tell her.
In a quick, graceful move she stands up and walks in front of me. Her smile is gone, and her lips are a thin, tight line. Her eyes tell me things won’t always be like this. That soon she’ll be in charge and no old fart with a Star Trek button on his shirt will be able to boss her around.
But she’s out of line. Student or supervisor, it’s my responsibility to take command.
When she’s left I close the door to the office.
“I could have the police here in five minutes,” I tell him.
Ted shakes his head, runs his hands through his hair and scratches the back of his neck.
“No one answers when I call. It just rings and rings,” he says.
I know that feeling. But regulations are regulations, whether they’re call center or Starfleet.
“My friend Sarah,” I tell him, “listened to you for two hours straight one night. Then you cussed her out.”
Ted’s leather jacket puffs out around his middle. He’s not that big underneath it. There’s a bunch of padding inside it, maybe for riding a motorcycle. He’s a bit on the skinny side, and on his face is that look I know too well when I start thinking about Matthew, Jr. and I can’t go to sleep. Dark rings beneath his eyes, a tightness at the corner of his eyelids. A phone rings down the hall and Ted starts, his shoulders raised up in defense.
I ask Ted how many days it’s been since he’s slept.
“I don’t know anymore.”
There are tiny cuts on his jeans. These days that’s the style. I bet Amanda would pay $60 to have her jeans designed like that. On commercials the stores call it “distressed.” But I know Ted doesn’t have a bunch of money, and he’s not keeping up with fashion. He takes a box cutter out of his jacket pocket. It’s routine to him. He’s looking at me, thinking of what to say next, but his hands have their own thoughts. His thumb pushes the blade forward out of its sheath, and he presses it lightly on his jeans. Not enough to cut through them, into the skin, but enough to press down into the tough fabric. The threads make tiny popping sounds as they’re cut.
“How are your arms doing?”
Ted tenses up. He looks down and realizes he’s got the box cutter out. He laughs, the kind where you’re too deep in the well to care.
“I’ll show you.” Ted slips the box cutter back into his pocket and then pulls off his jacket one arm at a time.
As if he’s giving blood, he lays his hands palm up on the desk, exposing the veins on his inner arm.
They’re a wreck.
White lines cut across his skin. There must be hundreds of them. Ten or so are fresh. The marks are still red from where the blood welled up.
“How long since she left?”
Ted runs his fingers along his arm, counting under his breath.
“And the cutting, it makes the pain disappear?”
His eyes are shut. He takes a deep breath. “No. It helps me remember her.”
Amanda’s voice floats down the hall. She’s chatting with a caller. But it’s still too quiet in here. Ted puts his coat back on. The tattered arms disappear beneath a layer of leather.
“I bet you don’t know what I’m talking about. Always had it easy.”
I take a minute before I speak. Sometimes I come to this crossroads with a caller. In the training, they say not to monopolize the conversation. You’re there to listen. But if you do have an experience, one that might help the caller, then it’s up to you if you share it or not. Most of the time I don’t.
The building’s quiet. Even Amanda’s voice is gone. I think I hear something outside the door to the office. I imagine Amanda standing with her ear against it, but I shrug off the old paranoia.
I run my right hand into my gray hair until I feel the ridge of raised skin. Then I pull up the sheaf of hair so Ted can see. “I was going to use a shotgun. It went off before I was ready.”
There’s a badly patched circle in the wall of my bedroom. I didn’t try to make it blend in.
Ted leans in to get a look at the scar.
When he’s seen it I let go and smooth my hair down. “My son came back from the middle east with some bad memories. He was better with guns than I was.”
I pull out my wallet and show Ted the photograph of Matthew in military dress. His wide grin and a bit of mischief in his eyes. “He shot himself three years ago. I was working as an Engineer at NASA, coming home late at night.”
A small smile pulls at Ted’s mouth. But he isn’t smiling at my pain. He isn’t a monster. It is a smile of recognition. Of traveling for a long time in a foreign land and finally finding someone who speaks your language.
Ted nods at the photograph. “Looks like a good guy.”
Matt Jr. smiles in front of an American flag. My son. “He could read people like you or I read a book. When he was five he told a lady in the supermarket he was sorry she’d lost her job. He knew it just from looking at her basket full of spaghetti and coupons, from the raw look on her face. She busted out crying, holding Matt Jr.’s little hand. Matt came back from Iraq with these medals and commendations, stories from his troop about saving their asses over and over. He could tell when people were covering something up.”
I close my wallet gently, lean back in the chair and settle in. “Tell me about her.”
The night passes, one memory at a time.
At five am there’s a knock on the office door.
It’s Amanda. “Raman just pulled up. I guess he decided to come in early.”
I stand up and motion to Ted. “Let’s take the back exit.”
He follows me down the hall. I’m walking fast, but not too fast. I keep my voice nice and level.
“This is the deal. You leave now, and you don’t come back to this office again. You do that, and I’ll take your call when I’m here,” I tell him.
“You’re just trying to get me to leave.”
“You’re right, but I’m also offering you some help here.”
Ted sizes me up. My bit of belly, the strands of white in my hair. The communications badge on my shirt.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” I say.
Ted zips up his jacket, making him look bigger than the skinny body underneath.
“You better keep your word, old timer.”
Ted pauses just outside, his body still half in the building.
“What would Captain Kirk have done to me?”
“I’ve always been more of a Picard man, myself.”
Ted gives me that look that says You have got to be kidding.
“But Kirk?” I tell him, “He’d have kicked your ass.”
Ted laughs and walks out the door. He flashes the Live Long and Prosper sign at me from the sidewalk, and then puts his head down and pushes against the cold air.
I make sure the door is locked behind him.
The front door beeps and I figure it must be Raman. I step into the bathroom at the back of the building. My hands cup the cold water, and I splash some of it on my face. It’s been a long night.
I take my communication badge off and put it in my pocket. My chest feels bare without it, as if I’ve taken off a vest of chainmail instead of a small plastic pin. There are two small holes in my t-shirt where the needle held the badge in place. When I run my finger over them, the threads stretch and the holes disappear.
When I walk back into the call center, I notice my old copy of Mutiny on the Enterprise is open at one of the call stations. Amanda and Raman are in his office talking. She laughs and I pick the book up and place it back on the shelf.
A call comes in and I answer it.
Silence. I wait. After five minutes the caller finally hangs up without ever having said a word.
Raman pops his head into the call center.
“How’d her first night go?”
Amanda’s walking up the hallway, close enough to hear.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” I say.
Raman laughs. I put the Star Trek magazine in my bag and walk down the hallway, out of the building. I nod at Amanda as I pass her. “Night.”
The sun’s not quite out yet. The dark parking lot hasn’t changed since last night. I almost expected my car windows to be smashed. By Ted, maybe, or just all the people out there in the world having a hard time.
While I’m pulling the keys out of my coat pocket, I feel her standing next to me. Waiting for me to look up.
“I heard what you said about Matthew,” she says.
So she was eavesdropping. Standing here, I realize she’s young. Twenty-three, tops.
She’s wanting me to say something back. Like I’m a caller. Like I need to talk about this.
“If you need someone to listen,” she says.
And then her arms pull out from her sides just a little bit, like she’s ready to give me a hug if I want it.
The morning air is cold and my breath fogs. My lips chap into ragged bits of skin I resist pulling off. I want to get in the car. Turn the heater on. Drive home and watch an episode of Star Trek while I eat breakfast. Feed the dog. Then lie down on the sofa and sleep for a good long while. But this young lady’s staring at me.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she says.
And I hear that clock ticking in my head. Counting down the time I have left before my emotions get the better of me. She’s got maybe two minutes.
I’m trying to think of the words that will make her step away from me. That’ll keep her from talking to me, but not piss her off so much that it’ll be weird to work a shift with her again. My throat feels kind of tight and dry. I’m not sure that the words would come out right.
She touches my arm. There’s no skin contact. It’s her glove on my coat sleeve. But somehow the warmth tunnels down to my skin. It’s the first time anyone has touched me in six months. I’d bump into people at the grocery store sometimes. On purpose. Not rough, not hard. Just a little bump to let me know all these people are still real. That I’m still connected to them. But this is the first time in a long time someone touched me.
The wind gusts and her body sways a bit with it. But her hand stays put on my arm.
“It’s okay, Matthew,” she tells me.