Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Jim Mentink
Nigel sat in his car, staring at the expansive one story building, the sun’s first rays of light striking the roof at the edge, promising a sunny day.
A quick glance at his watch showed him he had eight minutes before he needed to be logged in, ready to go. A mini-van pulled into a parking spot ahead of Nigel, the occupant hurrying out of their parked vehicle, racing toward the door.
Nigel sighed heavily, resigned himself to one more eight hour day–minus the half hour unpaid lunch–and eased out of his late model Chevrolet.
As he walked toward the doors, he listened to the gravel crunch under his heavy hiking boots–an unusual footwear choice considering he’d be sitting at a desk answering phone calls all day. The boots made him think of where he’d rather be: the trails; and what he’d rather be: free.
From seven in the morning until nine-thirty, Nigel answered customer calls, before going on a ten minute break. From nine-forty until eleven-thirty, more calls followed by a thirty minute lunch, with another ten minute break at one-forty five.
Nigel went home at three-thirty and was religious about it, even milking the calls if need be, his normal awkwardness with small-talk not an issue when the clock was nearing the day’s end and he needed to keep the call going just a little longer.
It wasn’t difficult for most of them, Nigel’s co-workers. Most of them had a natural tendency to talk about everything and anything. Nigel often said he couldn’t sell water to a thirsty man; Nigel’s co-workers could sell the thirsty man.
On his way to his desk, he nodded at Richie, an overweight and endearing fixture at the call center, someone whom everyone loved for no good reason, other than the fact he was endearing, his cherubic face lending that quality to an otherwise boring personality. Nigel couldn’t stand Richie, but nodded anyway because that’s what people did.
At his desk, Richie logged into his computer and checked his email messages. Three from the leaders, one from the sales director. Nigel’s fingers felt heavy as he typed his passwords, the emails describing yet more changes.
“Morning, Nigel,” Cindy said, Nigel’s neighbor across the partition. Cindy’s perky cheeks flushed red when she smiled. The kind of woman that sat up straight in her chair, feet shoulder width apart and flat on the floor. Her posture so straight she could hold a pencil between her shoulder blades.
“Hey, Cindy,” Nigel said, sniffing. “Ready for another day?”
“Did I tell you Frank and I got a Wii?”
And that was Cindy. Rarely acknowledging a question posed to her, instead talking about inanities from her own life. Nigel wondered how she did with customers’ questions.
He slipped his headset on, logged into the software that would enable him–force him–to speak to the demanding public. Nigel had an outgoing greeting recorded so that he didn’t have to repeat himself every day and it sounded as soon as he hit the In button.
“Thank you for calling Mid-Tel Communications, your phone and internet leader, my name is Nigel. How can I help you today?”
And the calls began.
At ten each morning, Misty came into the office. Misty, Nigel’s one true friend in the place. The kind of girl that everyone thought they had a shot with, but Misty liked whales. Not in a weird way, in a Marine Biology major way.
Nigel liked that about her and she liked the fact he didn’t try to get her drunk and out of her sweater sets after work like some of the other guys. Theirs had been a chance meeting–a quick hello at the door once–which had turned into rather in-depth chatting within their IM software. They seldom chatted in the person, but vowed to do so often.
She sent him a ‘Good Morning’ as soon as she came in. At the same time, he heard his own outbound greeting sound and a caller came onto the line.
Nigel typed a message to Misty, told her he was ready to go home already.
“Hi, Nigel,” the voice said, a young sounding woman. “I’m Marisa.”
“Hi, Marisa, how can I help you today?”
He looked at her account. Had been a customer three months, had the local phone plan with the fastest internet they offered–the Blitz package. Most of Nigel’s peers would be figuring out how to sell her an upgrade to the unlimited phone package, but Nigel was either less motivated or less interested in doing anything beyond helping the customer with their immediate need.
Most of his sales came by accident, though he was grateful for them.
“I’m having trouble.”
Misty wrote ‘LOL–so soon?’.
Nigel said, “What are you having trouble with?” as he minimized the window Misty was chatting in.
“I’m not sure yet.”
Nigel smiled. He liked the cadence of her speech, young but mature sounding; soft-spoken but a little husky. He thought maybe there was an accent there, too–a veiled Latina accent.
“Well, is it your internet? Is your service out?”
“I’m not calling about my service.” And then let it hang for a moment. Mysterious.
Nigel felt a wave of nausea pass over him but didn’t know why.
He opened the IM box, told Misty he had a nutcase on the line, generating another LOL.
“What are you calling about?” he said. “You do know this is the phone company, right?”
“Mid-Tel, yes,” Marisa said. “I can see it on my statement. Next to your number.”
“Okay, But you’re in trouble?”
A little smirking sound. “I’m having trouble. I’m not in trouble.”
Nigel was getting discouraged. “How can I help you with it?” Didn’t know what else to say.
“You tell me.”
Nigel glanced down the row and over the glass to see Misty’s head. She must have sensed him looking and glanced up, smiled big at him. He shrugged.
“I don’t know how to help you if you don’t tell me,” Nigel said.
“In a minute,” Marisa said. “What about you? What troubles you?”
Taken aback, Nigel fidgeted with his foamy Mid-Tel stress toy, shaped like the planet earth, the Mid-Tel logo long faded away. “I’m actually just trying to troubleshoot phone issues. Take payments.” He leaned forward and spoke low. “This is a little unusual, to be honest.”
“Do you like it? Troubleshooting phones?”
He hated it. But all calls were recorded for quality assurance purposes and he was forbidden from saying anything detrimental about his job or the company.
“It keeps me busy,” he said, reading a new message from Misty: It’s so beautiful out today.
Typing back ‘The weather will be cold soon’ as Marisa said, “Do you like keeping busy?”
“It makes time pass quick.”
“Why do you want time to pass quick?”
Nigel laughed nervously. “I’m starting to wonder why you called.”
“I told you,” Marisa said, waiting a beat. “I have trouble.”
“But you won’t tell me what it is? Because you sound nice and all, but there are customers waiting for legitimate help.”
“Why do you sound uptight?” Marisa said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I don’t know. It’s not like we’re supposed to have normal conversations here,” Nigel said, found himself leaning forward and speaking low to avoid being heard by peers.
It was noisy enough, he thought, that he could get away with it. The chattering of his co-workers rose above all other sounds.
“Is this normal?” Marisa said. “You told me it was a little unusual.”
Nigel flushed, embarrassed that she seemed to be playing with him. He’d had a late night, felt tired that morning and here she was all fresh, probably had a good night’s sleep, maybe doted on by a boyfriend or husband.
“It is,” Nigel said. He typed ‘weird lady’, got an LOL from Misty.
“What do you keep typing?” Marisa said.
“You can hear that?”
“I can’t taste bitter things well, but my other senses are good,” she said. “Especially my hearing.”
“I’m just typing a message.”
“To a girl.”
“That’s personal,” Nigel said.
There was a pause before Marisa said, “Tell me what you look like.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Nigel glanced around self-consciously. Nobody seemed to notice he wasn’t troubleshooting, nobody cared the heat was rising off his neck like a desert floor.
“What are you afraid of?” Marisa said. “I hear a tightness in your voice.”
“It’s not…I’m not afraid. This is just unusual. I’m supposed to help people in trouble.”
Regretting it as he said it because she told him, again, “I have trouble.”
He sighed heavily, muting the mic so she didn’t ask for his supervisor to complain about the rep breathing into the phone. That had happened once. The elderly woman demanding his superior told them that an exasperated technician was a poor face for the company.
“Can you at least verify your account?” Nigel said. “Name, address, stuff like that.”
“Marisa Navarro. 590 Boulder Place. I’m in Loveland. Twenty.”
“I didn’t ask your age.” Nigel said, feeling his face grow hot again.
“You were wondering.”
He didn’t respond.
Misty walked past his desk on her way to the restrooms, ran a teasing finger along his back, teasing only to him because even though they were just friends, he’d been single a long time, having left Jill two years prior.
Misty meant nothing by it, though, and that’s how he took it.
“The girl…sorry, personal person you’re typing to,” Marisa said. “What’s she like?”
“It’s nothing. Just a co-worker. We chat sometimes.”
“You sound thin. You never told me what you look like.”
“This isn’t the place.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“It is fear,” Marisa said, that tone just above a whisper thing again. “If I saw you in public and asked, you’d talk to me. There’s something stopping you.”
“I’m at work. All calls are monitored, recorded, stuff like that.” He glanced around again, grateful nobody seemed to noticed his discomfort.
“What are the odds?”
Marisa said, “How many people work there right now?”
“Maybe one hundred.”
“And how many people listen to calls?”
Nigel saw where it was going, being astute that way. “Two. They pull them randomly.”
Marisa laughed. “And you’re worried? About what? What are the chances this call will get pulled?”
“I see your point.”
“Unless I ask for your super, and they listen.”
That flush in his face again and the wave of nausea. “Do you want a supervisor?”
“Will they tell me what you look like?”
“Why do you care?” Nigel said. He was surprised to feel the irritation sloughing off like dead skin cells.
“I’ve never got to ask before.” He could hear her smiling and she added, “Think about it.
How often do you call a company and ask questions like that?”
“I never have.”
Dan Fitzpatrick came into view and Nigel felt a start. Dan was Nigel’s supervisor, a clock watcher making sure people’s breaks never went over the allotted ten minutes.
Dan was moving past Nigel as Nigel said, “How long has the dial tone been intermittent?”
“That’s the best you can do?” Marisa said, her accent a little stronger when she laughed.
“What scared you?”
He waited until Dan had passed completely, Dan stopping to slap another supervisor on the shoulder, the two of them laughing so hard their eyes bugged out.
“I’m all set,” Nigel said, not wanting to give merit to her accusation he was scared. He found his foamy earth again and began to tap it against his desk. “I’m average. To answer your question.”
“But what’s average?”
“What about you?”
Marisa said, “We’re not talking about me.”
An IM from Misty popped up. You look nervous over there.
Nigel typed a quick reply. Give me a minute.
“I hear you typing,” Marisa said. “Do you date her?”
“No,” Nigel said.
“You sound like you have brown eyes.”
“That would be correct.”
He heard her smile again. “Okay, we can do it that way. Dark hair?”
“What do your shoulders look like?”
“Average,” Nigel said, looking around again. “I don’t know.”
“Where do you work? What town?”
Nigel smirked. “This is getting kind of weird.”
“I thought it was weird. Unusual, that’s what you said.”
Nigel didn’t speak for a moment.
“I have black hair, dark brown eyes,” Marisa said. “Full lips. Or is that too much info?”
“I’m fine,” Nigel said. “I better find out what your trouble is, though.”
“Do you dance?”
He heard the sound of merengue music being turned up through the phone and began to hear what sounded like sharp breathing noises, finally realizing she was dancing to the music while talking to him in the phone.
“You any good at that?” he asked. It sounded like a good question.
“I’ll show you,” she said. It didn’t sound like an invitation, it sounded like a point of fact.
Nigel leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling for a moment before clicking through a couple screens to look busy.
“What are you wearing right now?” Marisa said.
“I’m not sure what to do with this call,” Nigel said.
“I’m wearing a white dress,” Marisa said. “Simple. One inch wide straps exposing my
shoulders, fitted to my torso and very loose and flowing around my thighs.”
Nigel found himself creating a mental picture, thinking of Penelope Cruz for some reason.
Nigel told himself it wasn’t a moan but an acknowledgement.
“Still waiting to hear what your trouble is,” Nigel said.
“I need a new CD to dance to,” she said. “That’s one of my troubles.”
“Maybe you should get one.” Nigel glanced at his hands, saw they were gripping the armrests.
“Can you bring me one?” She laughed. “What if you could? What if you looked at my address on my screen and just, I don’t know, randomly decided to come to me?”
“That’s kind of against the rules.”
“Kind of. A little unusual. You don’t sound like a confident guy to me. Maybe someone else should help me.”
And inexplicably Nigel felt jealous. “No, I got this,” he said.
“So what if you did? Come to me, I mean?” Marisa was saying.
“I might get fired.”
“Who’d know? Again, this fear. Do you think I would tell if you came over and told me you were Nigel and you had my CD. Complimented me on how wonderful my dress is, made love to me at night.”
Nigel tried to swallow but his throat felt frozen. He glanced toward Misty’s desk, not sure if he was doing it because he wanted relief or because he felt guilty–the whole friends only thing bothering him some days.
“Did I offend you?” Marisa said.
“No, I’m good.”
“Have you thought about it? Going to a customer’s house?”
He had. Once or twice an unruly male he wanted to punch the stuffings out of, or maybe a random girl that sounded good, like Marisa did.
“No. I try to keep my work and private life separate.”
“Nobody does that.”
Nigel grinned. “What do you do? Do you work?”
“I don’t have to work. I have a rich husband.”
That got him to sit up. He thought she’d been flirting but now?
“Well, good for you,” he said. Feeling disappointed, he added, “Look, if there’s not anything I can help you with, I need to get to other callers who are waiting patiently.” Saying that louder and sounding firm, a few of his nearby co-workers looking at him now.
Nigel felt his skin turning pink.
“Oh relax, sweetheart,” Marisa said in that near whisper. “I’m not married, my little worry wart.”
Nigel sighed heavily, not even muting the mic that time. “Marisa…”
“I like it. How you say my name. Your voice is like an actor, I can’t think of his name.”
“Johnny Depp. I get that all the time.”
“That’s him. Do you look like him, too?”
Nigel didn’t. He didn’t really look like anyone, his own description of average being a very good assessment.
“A little,” he said.
“Bring me a CD,” Marisa said. “Do it, you have my address.”
“As nice as this has been, I really do need to get to customers.”
“I am a customer.”
“Yes. But you’re not having a service issue. And we’re here for billing and service issues. Not for conversation.” He felt guilty saying it but felt guiltier engaging in small talk on company time.
“I understand, Nigel. Thank you for your time.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
She laughed. “You haven’t helped me yet. God, I need a shower. This dancing.”
“Well, again my name is–”
“Bring me some soap when you come by with the CD, Nigel.”
The call disconnected.
On his way to lunch, he walked past Misty’s desk. Nigel saw her headset on her desk and she was writing on a yellow card, the same cards they used to request time off.
“How’s it going over there?” she asked.
“Had kind of a weird call, but otherwise alright.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that. A nutcase?”
“She wasn’t so bad…” Nigel said. He’d been thinking about the call ever since she’d hung up, mesmerized somehow by their brief exchange.
“You going out to lunch?” Misty said. “One of these days I should go with you.”
“Yeah, I’m going down to Smythes.”
“The CD store?”
“Yeah, that one,” Nigel said.
He walked out.