“Mrs. Powers, what would make you happy?”
Just like that, her hopes came crashing down. Lena thought it was too good to be true when she saw the ad in the Talon Tribune. Looking for a maker of miracles and master of your own universe for call center position. Great pay and benefits on hire. It was a strange recruitment line, but it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. Maker of Miracles was a superficial and sly way of saying that the business wasn’t going well so they were looking for fresh blood willing to accept minimum wage. Master of your own universe and great pay…must be a sales job where your pay is on commission which probably means worse than minimum wage but could be great. Never lying, just deceiving… they’re all soul suckers but she had come to terms with all that. Rent was already past due and there was no time to be picky. One good thing about jobs at a call center was that there was usually a training period which could be enough to catch up her rent.
She’d faxed in her resume and received an email the next day, which just affirmed how desperate she thought they must be…and shady. They still hadn’t disclosed their company name or location, but considering the fact that she’d applied to a “friendship hotline” before, this couldn’t be much worse. So when they insisted on a telephone interview, bells went off but she was relieved. She could talk the talk better than anyone. It was always in person that she had trouble with. Something about getting used to being alone meant that she forgot when to smile when she made a joke or forgot to let the smile reach her eyes. The end result of trying to force either one was pretty creepy even when she practiced in the mirror at home.
Nothing she practiced before their appointed call prepared her for this. She had been expecting the typical interview questions like, ‘Why are you interested in our company?’ or ‘What makes you the perfect fit for our company?’ Without a stock answer, she felt the natural confidence of a practiced liar sucked out of her all at once. Happiness. Who has time to think about Happiness?
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Surely there is something that could be changed that would reset your fortune, as it were.” The nasal-like voice seemed to stress the first few words in a way that suggested annoyance- it certainly annoyed her, but she could hear a stern undertone that reminded her that this was an interview and her answer was important. Employers hate indecisive answers during interviews.
“I…I just don’t know.”
“Well, that’s very disappointing.” She heard a sound that she guessed was a pen clicked shut and the squeak of an office chair being moved. Lena pulled the phone away from her ear and let out the nervous breath she had been holding. She gave the offending phone a good glare before putting it back to her ear. What she wouldn’t give to be in a face-to-face interview right now.
“Adam.” An exasperated sigh crackled through the line. That was it. The job was lost already. Adam was about to be the unfortunate victim of years spent job hunting in a crappy job market.
“Adam. I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve probably undergone more interviews to get a job than you’ve undergone to hire for a job and while I’m not impudent by nature, I’m tired. I’ve sold myself in these interviews so many times that if I were a whore; I’d need reconstructive surgery on my vagina.”
She stopped there long enough to let the offending word soak in and take a calming breath before continuing. “I hate call center jobs with a passion. They may seduce you in with some vague idea that you are customer service or at best a support tech, but generally they are sales positions that prey on stupid people that don’t realize that they are being sold something until it arrives and they’ve already paid for it. I don’t like lying to people, Adam, and I don’t like being lied to or having my time wasted. -However, I’m a single, unattractive woman who needs to pay my rent and at this point I am more than willing to sell my soul to your call center if it pays enough. So please, if you’re going to hire me -do it or stop wasting my time.”
There is a moment of silence before he replies. “…You need a job.”
Holy Mother of God, are we just now on the same page? “Yes. A job would make me very happy.”
“Monday at Eight O’clock, Mrs. Powers… Meet on sixth and line. Daniel will be your trainer. I’d suggest you get all your anger out before then. He doesn’t take well to vulgar analogies.”
Sixth and Line was an old part of town. It was home primarily to old, long abandoned buildings that the city would love to condemn if they weren’t probably owned by wealthy old men to whom buying something meant they would never let go even after the dust had settled on the prime of their real estate lives. Standing outside the door, Lena was reminded of the small businesses in her home town because the sidewalk was quiet and although the street level of the building was made up of bricks and windows, they were dark and murky enough that you couldn’t see inside. Warm, dark wood made up the frame of an old, long un-kept door. It was obvious that the door was heavily used because the gold polish on the handle was cracked and faded.
Seven thirty… I’m too early. She leaned against the side of the building, glancing nervously around the corner at the door. She was checking her watch again when the door opened and a man peered out at her. He looked to be in his mid-forties, balding a bit but with a strong face and clear skin. He had wild eyes, though, the kind that saw too much and didn’t care if she noticed. Judging by his posture, he was not just passing through. “Mrs. Powers. You’re early.” You could pretend you didn’t notice.
She smiled all the same. “Ah…yes. I can wait here if I’m too early. I was concerned about traffic so I left early but there was none… So here I am.”
He nodded and held the door open wide. “No need. Come on in.” As she walked in, she noticed even in the low light that he was wearing a tweed suit that might have been popular twenty years ago but now it just looked eccentric. It made her self-conscious all the same. She had chosen to go business casual based on her cumulative experience in call centers. Her blonde hair was tucked in a tight ponytail, long black slacks and a soft beige sweater. What if she were underdressed? Granted, she had almost yelled the word vagina to their hiring department so it would serve her right if she were.
He led her through a low lit hallway that highlighted several smaller offices, all full of people and paper. It was a tremendous amount of paper for any business that made money over the phone. As she walked through, she could see people huddled together surrounded by that paper and it amazed her that the furniture was just as old as the outside of the building. One office even had a large black rotary phone. Rotary? This place must be owned by some stodgy old man who doesn’t believe in technology. That could be a good thing. Less technology meant a less likely chance that she was being hired to sell something to someone. No automatic dialer would work with a rotary phone.
With one right turn, the man opened the next door on the left and waited for her to go first. This room was similar to the rest, but empty except for two desks facing one another. He led her to the first and motioned for her to sit down. “Have a seat, Mrs. Powers.”
“Lena, please.” She smiled quickly before setting her purse on the floor and sitting down. As usual, the smile felt forced and she wondered if he noticed.
“Lena, I’m Daniel, your trainer. I suspect we’ll be working together for the next few weeks. Do you have any questions before we start?” He sat to her right and now that he was closer and face to face, his eyes were that much more disturbing. He leaned forward in his chair with an eerie excited look on his face that reminded her of someone passionate about their work. Absolutely creepy…
“Yes, actually. My interview was over the phone and a little…unorthodox and this is my first time through this neighborhood so I’m not familiar with the local businesses. What…company is this and shouldn’t I fill out some paperwork first?” At her timid question, he grinned.
“We’ll see to the paper work later, first I’d like to tell you a bit about our company and what we do. Happiness for Hire,” on seeing her lips twitching, he laughed then she laughed and she was finally able to relax. “I know it’s cheesy. Don’t feel bad, I had no hand in the name. Bear with me, our company sells happiness.”
“Ah I knew it!” Dread started seeping into her. If I can just make it through training and catch up on my rent, I can look for something else. “What kind of happiness do we sell?”
“No, I feel like you’re still misunderstanding. We don’t call and sell anything. The calls that are forwarded to us are recipients. Happiness has already been bought and paid for by a third party.”
“What exactly is happiness?” A scented candle? Sixty-two inch flat-screen? Satellite service?
“What a perceptive question. Happiness is an abstract concept so it’s different for everyone.” He leaned around her and grabbed one of the folders beside her as he talked. He leaned back in his chair to leaf through it.
What in the hell is he talking about. “How do you sell something abstract? I’ll be honest, I’m feeling like you’re about to tell me that we sell weed over a rotary phone or something.” He looked up from the file at that. “Not that I would mind as long as I’m not legally responsible as an employee. We can just pretend I don’t know, but I’d really like to know…secretly so I’m not so confused or don’t say the wrong thing to a um… customer.” He smiled again, a rather quirky smile.
“Lena. We don’t sell weed. We don’t sell happiness or something. We sell happiness itself, whatever makes the recipient happy. Literally anything. A buyer pays a one-time fee for a one-time use of Happiness for Hire.”
“So we have a lot of rich repeat customers?”
“No. There are rules against that, actually. A buyer cannot be the recipient and there is a one purchase per lifetime limit.”
“I don’t think I understand…how can we know what makes someone happy. Adam…” she said his name with due snark, remembering the snarky voice that he used. “asked me that during my interview and I had no idea what to say. Even if I’d said that I want a car, I don’t think that would make me happy. Thrilled to ride in it, but not really happy. So how do we know and how happy do they have to be?”
“Adam called you himself?” He looked surprised and he sat up and set the folder back on top of the stack. He turned toward her and leaned an arm on the edge of the desk, inspecting her intently.
“Well… yes. Is he someone important?” That would figure.
“No…never mind that.” He glanced behind her towards the door long enough to make her start to turn around and look before he continued. “Our job isn’t easy. When I say happiness, I mean happiness as in the pinnacle of their existence up until that moment. I suppose a fancy car might work if it were a single mom with six kids who was about to lose her job because her lack of transportation. In that instance, a car would be the exact catalyst that you would look for. A cheap price to pay for someone’s happiness, wouldn’t you say?”
“Maybe…what is our budget?” The entire scenario was ridiculous. There was an old saying that money can’t buy happiness and the Monkeys said money can’t buy me love, but she wasn’t that stupid. Money could buy a whole lot of fucking happiness. But who would pay for someone else’s happiness? And probably boucoups of money since this guy wasn’t even blinking at buying a woman a car.
“There is no budget restriction. Money will never even pass through your hands. You talk to the customer, find out their major malfunction or untapped mine of happiness and fill out a form. Then you move on to the next customer.”
There was a moment of silence while she processed what he said. Could this be a hoax? A reality TV show meant to judge people’s reactions to unbelievable situations? The desk near her was another black rotary phone, but the phone line was unplugged from the wall. “Why is the phone unplugged?”
“Excellent question, you’re very observative. That will work in your favor. We keep them unplugged when not in use so the switchboard knows not to forward any calls.”
“You can forward calls to a rotary phone?”
“Of course you can.” She wanted to argue, but if it came to a battle of wills and rotary knowledge, she suspected that he knew more than she did so she chose not to comment. Instead, she focused on the stack of plain manila folders stacked next to the phone. “What are these?” she asked as she reached for the same folder he had looked through earlier.
He reached around her and grabbed the whole stack, sitting them on his side of the desk. “Not so fast. We’ll get to those soon enough.”
“Sorry.” She gave a sheepish smile and he returned it.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about, it’s just that the contents are sensitive and should be examined only when you intend to answer the phone.” Again there was a moment of awkward silence that seemed to stretch for an eternity. She had so many questions she wanted to ask, but she almost didn’t know where to start.
“How do we know they have achieved happiness? What if we requisition something and it doesn’t make them happy.”
He leaned toward her slightly and touched her arm. They were close then, close enough that she could see even in the low light that his eyes were blue. Still creepy…
“Lena. This is really important so listen carefully to this above anything else that I tell you. When you get it wrong, there is a process for a call back. You do not want a call back. I’m not just talking about a huge monetary loss. For you and me who never see the bill, the cost is nothing. I’m talking about the fact that your job gets incrementally harder after the first call. If you’re lucky, you will never have to talk to the same customer twice.”
“Would I be fired? That’s a lot of responsibility and some people… well most people are difficult. If they don’t know what they want then how am I supposed to know…”
“You won’t be fired.” He let go of her arm and leaned back. “You’ll wish you had been. Don’t forget my warning. Don’t hang up until you’re sure.”
“How will I know?”
“You’ll know… Do you want to listen in on a call?”
“Yes! Please, I think that would really help me understand.” Before she even finished talking he was opening a drawer to his right and shuffling through it. He pulled out a small boxed connection of some kind and something that she stared at intently with an unknown sense of fantastical terror. She didn’t know if she should laugh or cry.
It was a bright pink rotary phone with a darker pink Barbie printed on the side. “Do you like it?” He asked, grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s absolutely…awful and awesome at the same time. Do you save that for all the new female employees?”
He smirked and started to hook the phones together. “No, you’re the first female trainee I’ve had, but I am politically correct. Just in case you hated it, I have a GI Joe one in there too.” At this point they were both laughing so hard that by the time they stopped, he was finished and waiting to plug in the line, still wearing a cheeky grin. His suit is old, his head is practically shining at me, but he has a nice smile. Maybe he’s just awkward, like me. “Ready?”
“Ready.” She pulled the pink monstrosity closer to her and waited as he plugged the phone in. It rang almost the second he plugged in the line and the sound still made her jump. I was the harsh, grating bbbrrring that she learned to dread when she first worked at a job that involved answering a telephone. Always someone wanting something or her trying to make them want something. She swallowed the angst as much as she could for the time being. For now, it wasn’t her on the line. She was just listening.
He grabbed the folder from the top of the pile again and flipped it open in time to answer on the second ring. “Hello, Mr. Brinkman, how are you doing today?” He gestured for her to look at the file with him. What she saw could only be described as amazing. Mr. Brinkman, 43 year old born in Benchkirk, New Jersey. Married twice with two kids- a boy and a girl. The information continued like that, listing his past residences, a brief summary of his finances, a series of checkboxes next to a variety of things like a security background check, known contacts, employment history… all things that from her past experience, a phone representative should never have all collected in one place. Since the folder was pretty large, she’d be willing to bet that the checkboxes signified documents inside the file.
“Hello, who’s this?” The voice on the other line was scratchy like a man who smoked but should have quit a long time ago. There was a scratching noise and a muffled, “Nancy, who the fuck is this? Nobody should have my private line, Nancy. Did one of the newsies let a ‘porter tween their legs again an sell it?”
Lena pulled the phone from her ear and looked at Daniel and then the phone in question. He did the same and leaned forward to whisper, “Like I said, Buyers are not Recipients. He doesn’t know who we are until we identify ourselves.” He then leaned back and put the phone back to his ear and she did the same. “Mr. Brinkman, my name is Daniel and I am calling on behalf of Mr. Vaughn.” Daniel tapped where on the first page in the folder that the Buyers name was listed as he talked. “Did he tell you that we would be calling?”
There was another scratching noise and a yelled, “Never mind, Nancy. Don’t fire her yet.” Then he was clear again, “He did. He just didn’t say nothin’ about you callin’ my private line.”
“My apologies, Sir. Did he tell you exactly what we would call about?”
“He said you deal in happy shit and you’d be my fucking fairy godmother. I think you’re a fucking bunch of pansy-assed con men is what I think, but he said you did him right once with his ma and he ain’t one to lie.” Daniel frowned and grabbed a pen from a cup holder nearby and clicked it on, poised to write but then he hesitated. Instead he grabs a note from a sticky note pad to the left of the phone and stuck it in between them and wrote: Customers are not supposed to talk about their experience with our service. It makes our jobs difficult if customer has a precedent or expectation. I.E Predetermined idea of what makes them happy can be wrong. The message was long enough that he had to get a second sticky while he talked.
“Mr. Brinkman, I see you are running for your local mayoral office. Is that true?”
“Sure as hell. Stayed up all night watchin’ Nancy make some flyers. This place needs some managin’ and it might as well be me. Tellin’ you the truth, Danny, if you wanna make me happy, you can work on this campaign for me, if you know what I mean.”
Lena fought not to set the phone down. Listening to this guy was painful and somewhere while he was talking he started crunching on god knows what while he talked. She looked to Daniel and his face looked pained as well. Around the same time the crunching started, he’d started to draw circles on the sticky note and the circles were dug pretty deep. Mr. Brinkman was done talking and was waiting on a response and Daniel continued to look pained. He leaned to the side and brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose between his eyes. When he finally did answer, he words were polite, but his tone was forced.
“Yes, Mr. Brinkman. I understand. I’m happy that we could be of service. Please enjoy a life full of happiness and joy.” He didn’t wait for an answer. Daniel hung up and immediately jerked the line out of the plug.
“You’re not seriously going to help him win an election, right?” Daniel was pulling a form out of the drawer as she spoke.
“Yes, I am.”
“But that’s ridiculous! Its a complete misuse of power! That guy is a P-I-G pig, there’s no way that he’ll be good for his town.”
“That’s not our decision to make. We find out and fill out the form, Lena.”
“But he won’t be happy with that! He’s an idiot. He probably woke up yesterday and decided he wanted to be Mayor!” At that comment, he stopped filling out the form and looked at her carefully.
“Lena. A rule was broken and the Buyer will be fined for breaking it. But the unfortunate part is that Mr. Brinkman is not the one who broke the rules so his happiness is still our priority for this call. By having a scale of what we can do, his expectations were already set. This is one of the few cases where temporary happiness is acceptable. As soon as an expectation is set and the Recipient decides by himself what will make him happy- to give him anything else will make him unhappy. There is nothing else we can do.” With that, he signed the form and put it in the folder and set the folder to the side. “It’s unfortunate that this was your first training call. Most are much happier than that.”
“What if he’d asked us to kill someone.” She asked because he looked so resigned, but so reserved and so afraid. He stilled immediately when she asked. She expected him to deny it and laugh. She wanted him to deny it and laugh.
“Lena, our job is only to find out and report.”
“That is bullshit!”
“Please control your language, Mrs. Powers.” He shuffled and scooted his chair at a diagonal and backwards slightly, visibily increasing the distance between them. Definitely a good thing that he wasn’t the one that did her interview.
“It’s still Lena.” She said carefully. “How can you work someplace with this much responsibility that isn’t checked. None of this can be legal.”
“Lena…I had hoped to ease you into this slowly, but this place is outside the realm of culpability. If you left here with the intent to tell the police, nothing would come of it except they would think that you’re crazy and you wouldn’t be able to return. You need a job, don’t you?”
“How very sly of you, do you think I’m that desperate? If I leave, I’ll get kicked out of my apartment and at worst have to move in with some friends for a while.” She didn’t mention that she didn’t really have any friends. “If I stay, I run the chance of ruining lives.”
“Or saving lives and making a lot of money doing it. If you stay you will see your luck change forever. It’s your choice. I can count how many calls like this one I’ve had on one hand and I’ve been working here for… a very long time. Nowhere else will you get this kind of freedom. Most call centers give you a timeline and you may answer hundreds every day. I answer anywhere between ten to twenty calls a day depending on how long it takes me to find their answer.” At that he stood and collected his coat, preparing to leave. “Look… take some time. Think about this rationally. Think about it in terms of what would make you happiest. Stay as long as you like. Look around if you like or go, but remember… don’t close a door that you don’t want to stay closed.”
Lena watched him go and didn’t move. Her morals said she should get up and walk out. Go back to her job search and accept being covered in grease or cleaning dirty toilets if it meant that her soul would be clean as well. Clean or dirty. Angels or demons. What was the difference? Was there a difference? Was it a choice? She knew what she should do, but something made her reach towards the stack of folders and grab the next one in the stack.