Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
"Work Makes Freedom", a story by Dennis Vannatta
By 11:00 o’clock in the morning, JoAnne had called 250 of the 500 names she started the day with. When she first began working for All-American Telemarketing Services, over a year ago now, she would look at the list of 500 names and think, Five-hundred phone calls? It’ll take me a month! But as she quickly discovered, well over half would be NA (no answer) or AM (answering machine), and the vast majority of persons who did answer the phone would hang up the instant they realized they were in for a sales pitch. Maybe a dozen persons in one whole day would listen with something like genuine interest. Of these, maybe a half dozen would agree to a follow-up call by a technician to make arrangements for a home inspection. And of these, from zero to never more than four would actually go through with the inspection. Only for these happy few is JoAnne actually paid. Twenty dollars a head. She makes just about enough to pay for the unlimited calling plan for her cell phone, the one requirement for employment by All-American Telemarketing Services.
“It’s slave wages,” her husband, Gary, tells her. “Worse than slave wages. At least slaves got food and a roof. You don’t make enough to buy a sack of dry pinto beans,” which wasn’t quite true but close enough she didn’t argue the point. Not that she’d argue a point with Gary anyway. She wasn’t anxious to get the back of his hand upside her head any more often than necessary.
She didn’t really consider it a job, anyway. She could do it watching TV or even cleaning the house, although that would be a lot easier if she had one of those Bluetooth dohickies. She could do a hundred calls in an hour, easy, and so, starting at 8:00 when their son Daniel had left for school and Gary for work, she could be finished by early afternoon, no problem. There were other compensations, too. Sometimes she would get a guy—or even a couple of times a gal!—who wanted to talk dirty, and JoAnne would let them go on for a while, pretending to be shocked and outraged, which of course made them really get into it. Once her mom had been over when JoAnne got one of those perverts on the line, and JoAnne put her phone on speaker. What a hoot! Didn’t they laugh? Her mother enjoyed it so much she decided she wanted to work for All-American, too, but they wouldn’t hire her. Probably because she didn’t have the right cell phone plan.
The best thing about her job was Sandra.
JoAnne checked again to make sure she’d reached at least halfway, 250 calls, because that was her routine. Do half and then get Sandra as a reward.
JoAnne dialed Sandra’s number. It was a 228 area code, not Missouri where Joanne lived. There was probably some way to figure out where 228 was, but JoAnne wasn’t technological. She’d never asked Sandra where she lived. There were certain things they talked about and certain things they let alone. They hadn’t discussed what they could talk about and what not; it was just understood between them. That was what was so special about their friendship. The way they understood things without saying it.
“Hi, JoAnne,” Sandra said as soon as she answered the phone. Of course, she would have known it was JoAnne calling by the number on her phone. JoAnne had Sandra on speed-dial and she bet Sandra had her on speed-dial, too. Still, it gave JoAnne a little thrill to think that Sandra just knew, that’s how attuned to each other they were.
“Hi, kid,” JoAnne said. They’d never divulged their ages, but it seemed to be the assumption between them that JoAnne was slightly older. JoAnne was only twenty-eight. Maybe it was her raspy smoker’s voice that made her sound older. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Eating the last of the Twinkies,” Sandra said, and JoAnne whooped. It was doubly funny because Sandra and her husband argued a lot about her weight but also because Bob was a Twinkies nut. He ate a package of two every night while watching TV, and if Sandra didn’t have any in the house, he’d blow his stack and rush out and buy a box, which would give Sandra the benefit of the house to herself for an extra half-hour.
“Kiddo, if I did something like that to Gary, he’d knock hell out of me,” JoAnne said, and Sandra, her voice dropping in sympathy and concern, said, “Yes, honey, I know.”
Sometimes JoAnne thought she’d like to go visit Sandra, but sometimes not. Probably this way was better. This way was like when you were a young girl and had an “invisible friend,” which was always better than the real ones.
Sometimes she thought about seeing into that Skype business—wasn’t that what they called it?—where you would see on your phone who you were talking to. No doubt it would cost more, though, and Gary would probably hit the ceiling. Then, too, even if she could somehow swing the finances, and then suggested it to Sandra, that might be one of those things that were too personal, that would scare Sandra off, and then where would JoAnne be? Still, there were millions of telephone numbers, millions of voices out there. Eventually, she’d find another Sandra.
Even the hope of another Sandra is enough to keep her going, to make life livable, and she’s encouraged by that. Or maybe encouraged is the wrong word. Proud. Yes, she’s proud at how resilient she is, how little she needs. But maybe proud isn’t the best word, either. Terrified? Yes, that’s it. Terrified.
Author Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.
This is his first appearance in Offcourse.