Chris says that making these calls, the same ones every day, has made him lose track of time.
‘Is it Friday?’ he will say. ‘Feels like a Friday.’
I tell him like I do every week that, ‘No, it’s Thursday.’
Gene eats the same meal at his desk without fail at 1pm. And Chris asks, ‘What’s it today Gene?’ Smiling at me, because he knows.
Gene’s wife died two years ago and he doesn’t know how to make anything but hard-boiled eggs and chips from the vending machine. He is the least liked person here on account of his food stinks up the whole office and on account of he’s always talking about sad things. I also heard once that he got drunk at the Christmas party when his wife was still here, when his wife was just sick not dead, and told Alison that he ‘didn’t trust the Chinese’, forgetting that Alison’s grandmother is Chinese. So that’s another reason not to like Gene.
We each have our own desk. Which is to say we each have a seat that we gravitate to for every shift. It is an unspoken migration, like what animals do, as the fluorescent lights blink into life. Almost like we’re birds skimming the sunrise, riding the light to something warmer, better. Except that birds get real light, sunlight, the good light, and we get this. Fluorescent bulbs that hum and give you headaches.
We’re each allowed one personal item on our desk. Chris has a printout picture of The Simpsons Blu Tacked to his computer that he peels off and places back up every shift. Leaving it blank for the night shifters. He said he doesn’t have anyone he loves enough to carry a photo of and then, ‘I guess you could call me a commie.’
I didn’t know what that meant so I just laughed and said, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ I looked it up that afternoon on my break outside, with my cigarette and tea. Informal, Derogatory: Communist. No clue what politics has to do with loving people, but there you go.
I have a picture of my father, wrapped in blankets in his wheelchair at the beach. I’m there, crouched beside him and smiling smiling smiling. Chris raised his eyebrows when he saw me pin it to the board behind the computer, carefully. I stared at Chris, thinking, I dare you, I just dare you to say something. But he must’ve read my thoughts and being a commie, being a contrarian (another word he uses to describe himself) he said nothing and ducked his head back behind his divider, leaving Dad and me and the computer humming alone in our plastic square. I kinda wish Chris had said something and then that meant I could’ve talked about him and then someone here would know about him, and he could’ve been a part of the office too. But things don’t always go the way you hope.
We sell better lives. This month, anyway. Some months it’s magazine subscriptions. Some months it’s hotel rooms. This month it’s happiness.
You Have The Power to Change The World is written on the big white board in front of us. Mr Devon callmeBrian says that we must have the right energy to work in this office, we have to have the right frame of mind, and if we don’t believe we have the power to change the world one phone call at a time, then what’s the point of it all? ‘What’s the point of it all?’ He says with his hands on hips and his shirt collar undone a button too far, revealing a shell necklace from a wellness retreat in Bali. He gives us motivational speeches every morning and makes us stand at our desks, wiggling our arms out to the side and making funny gurgling noises. ‘Energy,’ he says as we do this, ‘is a Frame. Of. Mind.’ He jabs his right forefinger on each word. Accusing each of us.
Sometimes when I have to go to his office, I’ll interrupt him watching speeches on YouTube. And sometimes when I look through the glass at him at his desk, I can see his mouth moving along with the words. Like he’s a child learning to read.
His favourite is Tony Robbins, who he calls Anthony, like they are friends, and under the daily Change The World declaration on the whiteboard are quotes from Tony Robbins, which are rubbed out and written anew by Lolly, his secretary, every morning, in rotation.
‘You know where Anthony started?’ He asks us as we stand at our desks in silence. ‘Right where you are, people. Right where you are.’
I find it hard to believe that Anthony started here, at 8:05am, in Warehouse-brand pants clinging to his thighs with static, out in the wop-wops in Pakuranga, but I get his point, I think.
Mr Devon smiles at us. And we smile back, nodding, hoping he will wrap it up soon. These morning motivational chats are off-the-clock, extracurricular. Except that they’re not because if you don’t attend you don’t have the right frame of mind, the right energy for the office, and then, what’s even the point of you being here? He will ask, like he did to Aroha when she first started. And now she learns with us what her inner power is, how she can change the world, instead of dropping her kids off to school. Cold calling. Which is, to be specific, calling people who don’t expect your call, don’t know you and don’t care, with the express aim of extracting as much money as possible from them.
‘The difference between living and Living with a capital L,’ says Mr Devon, ‘is being Present.’ He says this with a knowing nod and we nod back, our minds floating off to our kids, or what we can make for dinner with what’s left.
I want to ask Mr Devon if he’s Living.
Mr Devon who doesn’t drink coffee in the morning but energy drinks instead. Burping after every sip. Mr Devon who wears a wedding ring even though his wife left him a year ago.
‘What are you grateful for?’ We think about this in silence. The sun has started its way up the windows and it edges along the carpet in big squares towards our feet. Soon our feet will be covered in it, swallowed up, like when you stand at the shore and the tide gets you. And it will illuminate every scrape in our toes and the egg on our pants and the toothpaste speckles. Soon the light will show us for what we really are, it has a way of doing that. Like the time the evening sun slanted so far through the office it caught Aroha’s face and I could see, in the humming pink, the rims of her eyes, raw and rubbed. Once I saw her in the breakroom swallowing pills, washing them down with a can of coke.
‘Time for my happy pills.’ She said it like that, like quoting someone with her fingers. Like it was a joke, which I guess maybe for her it was. The evening light glowed orange behind her and she was awash with the warmest colours. The flyaways of her hair caught all the light they could. And I thought her hair was brown but it was red, and gold, and maybe orange.
‘And we go on,’ was what she said that day in the breakroom as she moved back to her desk.
‘What are you grateful for?’ He whispers as though we are in church which I guess, in a way, we are. I suppose that would make him the messiah. And us the disciples.
What am I grateful for? I am grateful for the weaves of skin that give us life and breath and a person to carry it all around.
Which is, I know, a very delicate chance of luck. How quickly that can all mean nothing but a memory. And memories, actually, aren’t anything, aren’t any thing, aren’t a thing. I am grateful for the things that aren’t any thing. But I know the answer Mr Devon wants is something more concrete, I mean, something real, like a car or a house. I don’t have either of those things, but if I did at least I would have an answer to the question. Gratitude has a right or a wrong, actually.
And grateful is a word that I haven’t thought about much, really. I guess you have to have time on your hands for such a thing. Like Dad when he was in hospital, a fuzz of gray nothing instead of hair and loops of veins like rivers across the valleys of his hands, folded there, waiting patiently. The time on his hands.
I did ask Dad, ‘What are you grateful for?’
And he said, ‘You.’
I look around the room and there is Barb with her eyes closed, a smudge of apricot-orange along her jaw. Her lips are icing pink and lines like exclamation marks circle her mouth, Hello! Mascara thick and casting speckles of black dust along the rings under her eyes. Barb who I know doesn’t sleep. Barb who I know has a husband who drinks. Barb who I know once asked me in the toilets, ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ while she washed her hands clean. Barb who I know.
Almost everyone has their eyes closed. I guess flicking through the pictures and stories they tell themselves, inside their heads, of all the things that they are grateful for. Like a good laugh on the wall outside with the warehouse guys, laughing so hard it’s almost pain. Pain and bliss, same same but different. In that it is a feeling you can actually feel.
I feel Chris looking at me and I turn my head to catch him smiling. His eyes dreamy like when he’s about to tell a joke or when it’s 5:30pm on a Friday or when we sit in the parking lot on the hood of his car after work and he says, ‘This, this is what it’s all about,’ looking up at the stars which are just beginning. Which actually are, just the beginning.
And I say yeah, not knowing what he means because everybody’s this is always different.
Our scripts this month are littered with the word time, as if someone could buy it. Time, Mr Devon realises, has crawled all the way into his pocket and so we are sent to our desks. Time here is halved in two: paid time and free time and there is a big difference about what you can do with either. Paid time is someone else’s time, and you better be damn careful what you do with it. Paid time is not free, you see, paid time doesn’t come cheap, paid time costs someone something somewhere. Not us, because it’s not ours. Not anymore.
I told Chris my theory about the two halves of time here. And he said, ‘You forgot the most important one.’
And I said, ‘Oh yeah, what’s that?’
And he said, ‘Home time.’
The day moves the way it always does. I get hung up on more times than I can count. Though Chris can, apparently. Each time he hears my voice hang in the air Mrs so and so? Are you still there? He pops his head up over the divider and holds another finger up. This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home.
Sounds like something someone who didn’t like you would do, but I don’t mind it and it even makes me laugh, eventually. Expecting him, hoping for him to notice, each time a phone is slammed down in my ear.
The computer rotates the next number up on the screen. The last call before break.
‘Hello?’ Asks a woman softly.
She is old, you can tell. You can tell a lot of things about someone from their voice. From the way they say hello. Like whether they are happy or whether this is the first time they’ve spoken all day. This woman is the latter, she clears her throat and asks again, ‘Hello?’
You have the power to change the world.
I say who I am and why I’m calling and then I ask how she is.
She repeats the question, ‘How am I?’ And I hear her ease into a chair beside the phone.
She tells me about her garden. Her flowers that she tends to in the front and the children that used to visit in the summer to steal the caterpillars from her swan plant while she watched from her window. How she didn’t mind, liked it in fact, how they stroked each of them so gently in their palms, faces wide with wonder and heads bent right over. How the caterpillars would turn into butterflies. How whenever she sees a monarch butterfly in her garden she thinks of those children, giddy with wonder, trembling with joy and life and freedom like butterfly wings.
She didn’t have children, she says, even though she wanted them.
She used to be a teacher, she says, which is like being a mother of sorts. Sometimes she sees the children she taught out and about, but none of them recognise her, or pretend not to, anyhow. ‘That’s what you get,’ she says with a soft chuckle, ‘for being the strict one.’ She used to call them Her Kids, when she was teaching. But they’re not, never were, she says. The children from the street have grown up and moved on to other things, things that aren’t as soft and simple as caterpillars.
She talks about how the bank on the corner closed a month ago and now she doesn’t know where to go. She doesn’t drive anymore, and who would she call if she got into trouble again?
I look at the time and we’ve been talking for fifteen minutes already. We get demerit points for phone calls that go over a certain time; the shorter the call, the more profitable. We are not paid, Mr. Devon tells us to talk, we are paid to sell.
I say, ‘I’m sorry but I have to go soon.’
‘Gosh,’ she says. ‘I’ve rabbited on. That’s my problem, you see, I talk too much, puts people off.’
‘That’s okay, it’s been nice talking to you.’ I say.
‘So this membership then, how much is it?’
‘A hundred and nineteen per month for a minimum of twelve months, plus GST.’
‘Okay, and if I have any problems can I call and speak to you?’
I look across the divider and see Chris who taps his watch and makes an eating motion with his hands.
‘No, once you buy the membership you are transferred to the customer support team and my phone is blocked from receiving inbound calls. I’m an outbound-only caller.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Well how about that.’
In the break room I do the crossword and Chris sits with his book upright, held with one hand, arm cocked on a knee while picking at a packet of chips.
‘What’s this one?’ I ask and he looks up, folding the book so that his thumb is caught in the spine. ‘Ten letters, something V something R, clue is: The whole hog.’
I tap my pencil against my teeth and we stare at each other, thinking. His eyes shift in and out of focus as he scans his brain. He has so many words up there, I swear. It takes him only a few seconds and he’s got it. His eyes shift on mine, dead serious, dead straight, dead at me, and he says, ‘Everything.’
He looks at me with that smile and says again, in case I didn’t hear, ‘Everything.’
And I wish the clock would stop. Just ten minutes more, please, I want to say, please, but Gene eases into a chair next to us and opens up a jar of his damned eggs and Chris’ smile fades to something else, to something more like a mean joke and he opens his book and turns his eyes away.
After a while, after I’ve filled in the words around Everything, Chris says, yawning and looking out the window, ‘Is it Friday? Feels like a Friday.’
And I smile, looking at the blank squares waiting to be filled in, and say, ‘No, it’s Thursday.’
Edith Poor is a writer and actor living in Auckland.