Monday, August 30, 2010

Handle Time

Miles had just enough time to register that his friend Jill was suddenly on a call in the middle of their conversation before his headset beeped in his ear, telling him that he had a call of his own to handle.

A moment after the beep, in a well-conditioned pavlovian response, he began:

"ThankyouforcallingRiseWirelessmynameisMiles. How can I help you today?"

"I need to go over my bill. It looks like there were some roaming charges that just don't make sense. I was hoping you could help me clear it up," the woman on the other end answered distractedly.

"Certainly. I'll be happy to help you with that today. Can I get your name and the last four digits of your social?"

"Yeah. Lily Haber. Last four is 9046." A few breaths later she said "Hello? Are you still there?"

"Yes. I'm sorry. Just one moment."

Miles struggled to reorient himself. He rubbed his eyes and nodded.

"Yeah. I'm here. I'm sorry, something just distracted me here. What were those last four digits again?"

She sighed. "9046."

"Right." He swallowed and tried not to shake as he brought up her account information. It was her all right. Right name, right place, right age. He knew quality control could be listening. He knew he was supposed to give this one to a supervisor. But, after all, there was no need to mention how or why he knew this person.

"What can I help you with today Lily? Oh, right, excuse me, the roaming charges. Let me just bring your bill up here."

Five years experience had its advantages. He managed to bring up her latest bill without losing track of what he was doing.

"Do you have your bill out right now?"

"Yes. By the way, you guys have got to do something about the hold times. That was just ridiculous."

"I do apologize, ma'am. We do try to serve you as quickly as possible. Now, uh, can you tell me just where the problem is?"

She walked him through the bill. He followed along. The charge didn't make sense, but it was a problem he had seen once or twice. They had sent out a memo about it last week; a bug in the billing system easily remedied by a credit to the customer. No need to call for a supervisor. No drama. Just a few clicks and he would be done.

"Okay. Ma'am I see what the problem is here," his heart raced as he considered his next words. "Unfortunately it's going to take some time. Can I take a moment to handle this and I'll give you a call right back?"

"Uh, sure. I guess that's fine."

"Should I call your wireless number or do you have another line you'd like me to call?"

"Uh, yeah. I have a dead spot in my apartment, so you better call me back on my landline. It's 503-555-7046."

Miles struggled to keep up with the numbers as he jotted down her home address from the information he was seeing on the screen.

As he closed the call he made a point of skipping the part of the script that dictated that he remind the caller of his name.

"Thanks so much for calling Rise Wireless. You'll be hearing from me soon."

QC would probably not look twice at that since this was an unconventional call. Then again, they would wonder why he didn't simply resolve the issue.

As much as he tried to evade the fact that he was playing roulette with his job, that's precisely what he was doing.

He tucked the small note into his pocket, looking around as though he had just pilfered a candy bar.

The rest of the shift passed in a blur of call after call, and he nearly forgot about Lily. But just the presence of her name and number written down and in his pocket brought back the old feelings, good and bad. On this particular night it turned out that he and Jill got off their shifts at the same time. He trailed her out of the building. Her dark hair brought Lily back to his thoughts and suddenly the tiny piece of paper in his breast pocket glowed and warmed up in his mind's eye.
Driving home in the dark his mind stayed hypnotically fixed on her. A familiar cocktail of feelings and thoughts rushed through his brain and his body like a drug he'd been sober from since high school. She was back in his system.

The heady mix was a blend of the thrill activated by her proximity to him and the sick feeling of desperation and fear that had kept him from talking to her before she moved away and it was too late.

He only knew what city she had moved to from eavesdropping. She was still there, in that city. And now he knew precisely where she was.

He thought of getting rid of the paper. After all, it had been a relief when she had left and he had a chance to move on. She had been a terrifying obsession for him since the sixth grade.

And why shouldn't he have been obsessed? Can't fault me for my taste in women, he thought to himself. She was pretty in such a way that he could almost convince himself he was the only one who thought so, but it was more than looks that he had watched. She chose good friends; nice people he was nevertheless terrified to talk to because of their mere proximity to her. She had many developing talents, doodling beautiful landscapes during bored moments that found full flower in the painting class he had cooincidentally taken with her. She liked to wear flowers in her hair, and her smile made him want to weep. She wore white keds that she had personally decorated with stars and stripes.

When he arrived home and his room mate had not yet returned, he flipped on the television to forget her and had a drink. A few more drinks later, and after the room mate had gone to bed, he pulled the paper out and looked at it. Just a collection of numbers scrawled in his own frenzied hand. He thought of calling her, but realized it was too late.

He thought of moving to her city. He thought of putting himself on her street from time to time, hoping for a glimpse. No, he assured himself, she still had her name, so she was unattached. No boyfriends. No children. No exes. Only her waiting for him.
"Why didn't you say anything?" she would ask him after he worked up the nerve to talk to her.

He would smile and push back her hair and kiss her softly in reply. And she wowuld yield to him. And he would be happy, and get a new job in the new city and take care of someone.

He fished out a lighter from the spare kitchen drawer and went to the back porch. He simply stood there in the dark cold, holding up the lighter and the tiny note in a long hesitation, like a suicidal man contemplaying a long jump from the side of a bridge.

The flame almost surprised him, leaping from the gas vent and licking at the edge of the note. He dropped the flaming thing and Lily burned on his back porch.

He was half way to work the next day when he realized that he had promised to call her back to resolve her issue. He would not and she would grow frustrated and lose confidence in the service provided by Rise Wireless. She would call again, exasperated, and talk to someone else, another stranger, in another call center far away.

She would threaten to break her contract, cancellation fee be-damned, and they would transfer her to retention where they would bribe her and woo her and butter her up. But she would say no and hang up and that would be that.

He had let a customer down and might lose his job, but nothing could be done.

It was much too late.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Giulieta wiped the grease from her cheek with a saturated grease rag and turned to see Ty, the boy she had crushed on for weeks, losing a finger in a fan belt. Later, as she wrapped the tourniquet tight she idly wondered if Ty liked gourmet Italian cooking, and if his girlfriend would be very vengeful for what she was about to do.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Silent Killer, Part I

Michael woke he looked over at his wife. Sleeping. Present. Breathing. Warm. He gently stroked her golden brown hair in an effort not to wake her, and wondered how she would look when it was over, if it would soon be over. He wondered if he would be able to look at all, and if she would look beautiful to him if the worst of what the doctors had said were to come true.

His cousin, a beautiful girl of sixteen, had been killed in a car accident. Her fair features were bloated, somehow set awry in death. Her familiar warm colors had been changed to something startling, like a black-and-white photo with painted-in accent colors. There had been no beauty there any more, only a husk that had once been a person’s body.

He had no tears for Gennie yet: only a wild fear that ran through his blood and made it beat faster. He felt himself go cold, a pale feeling crawling up from the tips of his toes, up the back of his calf, then creeping up his spine like a leak in icy water bed.

He wanted to hold her tight, as though it might save her, but did not want to wake her. He rose, knowing that there was work to be done for the day. An early start, things to do, things to put in order.

Gennie’s mother’s visit brought with it boxloads of junk from their old place, and it had sat like unfamiliar furniture across three Saturdays in which neither of them had had the time to tackle it.

Michael found the folder in among Gennie’s old school papers she had insisted on keeping all these years. He had already dispensed with all of his long ago, or so he thought. Whatever he hadn’t thrown away he thought for sure had been forgotten in his dad’s attic in the decades since he moved out.

He had told himself that he wouldn’t open it--the yellowing manila folder with decayed, photocopies of hand-written pages of college ruled loose leaf. He feared making a mess far bigger than he had the strength or will to clean up before the weekend expired and forced him back to work.

He knew he had some of his old stories in the folder. These had been his means of escape in the hell of junior high school and had, in a way, become a career.

He had to escape now, but this was not a conscious decision on his part--only a whim that he felt he couldn’t resist, and which he never gave himself the time to challenge.

The vaguely familiar handwriting grabbed his curiosity. A few words in, and Michael was hooked.

“Silent Killer” was the title scrawled in precise-yet-awkward cursive letters, and the name of his old friend Omar Jiles.

The name brought up a face which he hadn’t seen since their third year of high school: the year when Michael and his dad had moved away.

This copy had been one of six passed around the room during a session of a weekly writer’s club meeting held after school. Michael had almost been too embarrassed to hear Omar read the story out loud in front of everyone else. He felt that he was being watched--a paranoia that had been shared by all his classmates, he was now sure, but which had been acutely intensified by the fact that this particular story of Omar’s had him, Michael, as the central character.

The story was not long, only a ten to twelve hand-written pages. Omar had been changed, unimaginatively, from Michael to Mike.

The wording was awkward in most places. The characters felt a little bit flat and ordinary. Some of the spelling was horrendous.

What kept Michaelf frozen in place as he sat alone on the living room floor, awash in a sea of cardboard, old paper, and bits of junk, was not the story’s quality, but it’s content.

Michael, in a fit of narcissistic boredom, had asked Omar to write a sci-fi story about him: a story that would take place in the future. “Silent Killer” was the result of that challenge. Parts of it had riveted his attention: the details about his wife in particular. Michael had searched in vain among the girls at school who might fit the name and description of his future wife in the slightest way.

But over all, Michael had been disappointed by the result. It hadn’t described the adolescent fantasies of his future quite the way he had hoped, and now he knew why.

It had accurately described his life in the present day with chilling accuracy: an argument he had had with his editor only yesterday, the color of his wife’s hair, and the heartbreaking news concerning Gennie’s health. He had gotten her name wrong, however, spelling it “Jenny.”

Numbly, Michael read it to the end. Omar had not really finished it--a work in progress, he had said. Michael remembered that he had asked Omar to get on with it, wanting to know what happened next. Omar had said he had lost interest and was working on something new.

When Gennie came home from therapy she found Michael sitting still, holding the story in his hands, a tear staining his face.

She came over and immediately embraced him. She had been crying herself, and had no more tears left. She held her husband as he sobbed silently. Soon his breath slowed and he held her close to him. He whispered into her ear.

“Hey honey.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“That old boyfriend of yours--do you happen to know if he’s still a private investigator?”

To Be Continued

Monday, August 2, 2010

No Name #1

My friend fell. He was on the way out to the playground after lunch. He just laid there while half the school passed him on the way outside.

“Get up! Why don’t you get up?” they said.

Another said. “You’re faking. He’s faking.”

They went out and they never came back. I still remember where he fell. Everything seemed big then, in the way that large important buildings are big in the adult world. You moved down the hall away from the cafeteria, past the vending machines, around the corner. Another left down the stairs--concrete clad in gripping rubber-- and the landing, and then the long flight down into the dark.

You move through the dim hallway that was dim in sickly fluorescent light. It turned black when the people ahead of you opened the door wide in to the bright sunlight facing south.

We had laughed a lot at lunch. We almost ran down the hall, forgetting rules, forgetting everything. His big legs frenzied down the stairs like we had done together a million times. He jumped the last steps. He fell, and didn’t get back up. He shouted and I came back to see what was wrong.

“Can you get up?”

He wasn’t crying. “Just give me a few minutes. It just really hurts right now.”

I looked at him and someone opened the door, letting the light into the long dark hallway. I left and joined them.

I wandered around the playground. I came in on a game of foursquare, then waited in vain to be picked for kickball. I toyed with tether ball alone. I trotted slow and alone from this game to that toy, like a kid in a nickel arcade waiting for his ride home. I thought of my friend again and I went back. Nobody else had.

He still laid there. “I’ve tried to get up and I just can’t,” he said.

I tried to lift him on one side. He was always heavy. On the day of our physicals I watched silently, invisble as I could be as the other kids laughed at him.. One hundred and fifty pounds in third grade was unforgivable. He didn’t look very fat. He was heavy, and fell from my hands when I tried to lift him..

People had stopped coming through. Lunch was over.

He tried to slip his leg under himself and shouted in pain, his voice echoing down the dark hallway.

“I’m getting a teacher,” I said.

The paramedics arrived with flashing lights, parking near the opened door at the end of the hall. Everyone gathered and watched in a circle and pretended they cared about him.

His face was dusty with the tracks from size 8 tennis shoes that had been brand new in September. They had his ankle braced tight and loaded him into the aid car like bread into a truck.

When we were gathered and corralled inside I turned invisible in the back corner of the classroom where my desk was and brushed my fingers along the margins of my text book. I wondered if he was okay. I wondered if he would leave me alone there, and if he would come back and try to do for me what I had done for him.

The next morning I cried and lost control and told my mother that I wouldn’t ever go back to school again.

It was another week before we saw him again, and we all pretended it hadn’t happened in our heartless way.

We didn’t go to the same high school.