Kevin's Red Telephone

I was working in large room on the other end of town cold-calling for circus ticket sales. The circus tickets were being sold to benefit a local burn unit. We were told that our mission was superior to that of the Shrine Circus, because all of their money was sent to Galveston, Texas and ours stayed in town. They said Galveston, Texas a lot. None of us cared. This was the kind of job people did when no one else would hire them.

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I don't know that no one else would have hired me, but I was under pressure to perform. I had graduated high school, but I had no plans for university, and it was better to get out of my parents' basement than sit through tense suppers scored by the nightly news. The evenings had grown long and complicated.

There were about ten of us at that job at any given time. We would filter in from the webwork of neighbourhoods on buses and in peeling second-hand vehicles to sit at collapsible tables that faced white walls. There were two telephones, two telephone books, two ashtrays, two pens, and two pads of paper, each with two columns, one titled "Calls" and the other titled "Hits". We were each assigned a section of the phone book, and then we each worked our way through our lists, crossing off names as people hung up on us, swore out their irritation, or just didn't answer.

It was repetitive work that was met with constant rejection. The first thing we were told when we arrived on that initial shift was that most of us wouldn't be there the next night, so we should get used to seeing new faces. When I showed up the second night, seven of the original twelve had been replaced with people who were told not to expect anything, either, and every night for the next week, half of the people in the room were new.

The person who was in charge of making sure we made calls and keeping expectations low was Sue. Sue never made any calls herself. She just smoked, read second-hand paperbacks, and made intermittent and entirely disheartening attempts at motivation, which she delivered in a gravelly monotone from her chair. Every half hour she would call out how many hits we'd made that night and how many more we needed to get. I could hear her shift behind me as the long hand on the industrial clock turned toward the next thirty-minute mark. Before each report she would stub out her cigarette, shuffle her chair back, and wait out the second hand. It put me on edge, and I would wait, too, wondering how she held her breath for so long with the lung capacity of a schnauzer.

After about a week, the few of us that were still there from the beginning were considered long-timers, and we were organized into pairs of tablemates. My tablemate was Kevin, because I was the only one too quiet to pipe up and say hell no. Kevins were either nice guys or misfits, and it was already clear at that point which one he was, because, on the second night of the job, he showed us his Private Investigator license and insisted that Sue lock his unicycle up in the back room. He didn't trust any of us around his unicycle.

Kevin smoked fat, cheap cigars and insisted on using the one red telephone in the room. The other long-timers took to moving the telephone to a different table every night before Kevin arrived just so they could watch him swear while he dragged his belly around on the carpet and fumbled with phone cords. I felt kind of bad for him and started switching the phone back before he got to work. If the guy had to have that phone so bad, I wanted to save him the nightly humiliation.

It was immediately clear that my switching the red phone back to Kevin's side of the desk made me an outcast with the other salespeople. I had not even bothered to learn most of their names, not even the ones who stayed, so it was actually kind of a relief not to have to go through awkward chatter and non sequiturs during breaks anymore, but the social shunning left me with no allies aside from Kevin and Sue, neither of whom were particularly desirable company.

They both wheezed like tuneless accordions, and I couldn't decide which of their dominant traits I disliked less: that Sue grew her thorny toenails out to thick points she showed off in plastic flip-flops or that Kevin smelled like a McDonalds parking lot. Still, though, they were kind to me. I should have been fired after the first two or three nights during which I clocked hundreds of calls that resulted in zero circus ticket sales, but Kevin continued to whisper his selling tips to me in between calls and Sue, after looking over my sheets at the end of every night, would tell me she'd see me the next day.

"You made a sale tonight," she said in my ear one time. "Maybe you'll make two tomorrow."

It dawned on me that I was maybe the most pathetic person in the room.

I had never been high on the social ladder anywhere, but I had always had others below me, and, from the beginning, I had felt superior to pretty much everyone in there. To me, they all whiffed of despair. It was clear, though, what the others thought of me. I smoked alone. The donuts always ran out now by the time they got to me. People took pens and paper from my desk, leaving me to find more for myself.

This went on for a couple of weeks until one night when I showed up fifteen minutes late after missing my bus. I rushed in and sat down to a surprise at my table. My telephone was Kevin's much-prized red one.

Kevin was already there talking on one of the regular beige phones, writing down a cake recipe from some lady who apparently didn't want to go to the circus but loved angel food. I pushed a piece of paper with a question mark written on it over to his end of table. He pushed it back with No trubble written on it and gave me a little smile. Kevin obviously thought I needed the red telephone more than he did.

The sudden obviousness of my situation startled me. I started to cry right there at the table with that damn red telephone in front of me. It stared me down. It pointed a finger. His act of generosity had unwittingly made my position all too clear: I was, indeed, the most pathetic person in a room full of low-rent assholes.

"Sue?" I said.

"You'll have to get up and come over here, dear," she said. Sue only stood up twice a night, once during break to pour more coffee into her over-sized 7-11 mug, and once to pack up her cigarettes and paperbacks at the end of the shift.

I sucked back a lug of snot that had puddled in my sinuses and walked over to her table.

"We're going to have to let you go if you don't make sales tomorrow night," she said.

It didn't surprise me that she saw my tears as a way in. Some people can't help but poke an open wound when they see one.

"That's okay. I won't be back tomorrow," I said.

"I figured," she said. "You made it a long time. Selling circus tickets is a hard business."

I stood outside at my bus stop after that and thought about how almost nobody I knew was aware of that place and about how all those people hunched over beige telephones right at that moment were gone now for me so immediately upon leaving that it was like we had never been locked into that smoke-laden room together. I thought about how easily I could just step up onto a bus and be gone, just as they were all gone now, and about how we could all just walk away from each other and whole universes would collapse.

My bus pulled up. I sat at the very back so I could look at the streets fold in behind me while it worked its way across town. A universe in which I was the most pathetic asshole in the room had just collapsed, and I felt like a small god who could easily fold her life into pockets if she tried.

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