THE COLD CALL

 “Hello, I’m calling from the Limitless Life Insurance Company for Mr. Stanley Barnacle. My name is Roslinda.” No response. “Sir, are you there?” A low moan came over the phone line. “Mr. Barnacle, are you all right?”

“No, I’m not all right.”

“What’s wrong? Maybe I can help.”

“I’m tired of living. I hate my life.”

Roslinda looked frantically among the rebuttal sheets she had been given during fronter training last week. She couldn’t remember anything about how to deal with potentially suicidal mooches, but she had been so utterly bored that nearly everything trainer Vilma Harkbuss had told her was already forgotten, possibly never registered in the first place; Roslinda couldn’t remember. So she fell back on Plan B.  “I may have just the product for you, Mr. Barnacle. Our new single premium life insurance policy; we call it the Silver Bullet. One payment and your loved ones’ financial security will be protected for the rest of your life.”

“I don’t have any loved ones,” Stanley said.

“But surely there must be someone whose financial security you are concerned about? Are your parents departed?”

“My parents abandoned me as a child. I was raised in an orphanage.”

“Well there you go. The orphanage that was your home, where you grew up, it would make a wonderful beneficiary for a Silver Bullet policy.”

“It burned down. The kid who slept in the bunk below me was a pyromaniac, when he wasn’t jerking himself off day and night. He set fire to the orphanage several times. After I left to go into the service, he’d gotten good enough to succeed in burning the place down. He’s serving life at Lompoc. I get a Christmas card from him every year.”

The ‘time’s-a-wasting’ clock symbol on Roslinda’s display started to rotate frantically; she was taking too long arranging an appointment with a closer for the mooch. Vilma had explained how to make a dispassionate judgment of the likelihood of success, but that was during the second hour and Roslinda had forgotten the algorithm.

There had to be a way to make a connection to this sorry guy. It wasn’t just the sale, not for her anyway. This guy needed a reason to keep living, to care about the financial security of someone or something besides himself. He sounded depressed, just like her older sister who had gone through a bout of depression in her senior year in high school. It took a whole year, lots of doctor visits and a bag full of pills to get LeeAnne back to her old self—not quite to her old self, she was a little, let’s say, spacey on her meds, but she at least was willing to get out of her pajamas and into a halter top.

Now LeeAnne and Roslinda were about to enter Tucson Community College in the fall, together. LeeAnne was going to get an associate’s degree in fashion design and clothing, while Roslinda was pursuing an associate’s degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. This summer LeeAnne had gotten a job at the Maya Palace in the Casas Adobes shopping center; she was only doing gift wrapping and schlepping clothes out of storage when the salespeople couldn’t find the right size on the rack, but still she was part of the fashion industry. Roslinda decided that experience in sales and marketing would serve her career plans best, and so she took the phone marketing job with Limitless Life.

“Now, Mr. Barnacle, may I call you Stanley? That wouldn’t be too informal would it?” Roslinda said. Start talking with the mooch on a first name basis, and the odds of a sale double—Roslinda was sure Vilma had told her that.

“You can call me shithead, if you like,” Stanley said.

“Good, then, Stanley. Now look, I think I know what you’re going through. The same think happened to my sister LeeAnne. Why, she got real depressed in her senior year of high school. She laid around in bed all day, stopped texting her friends, closed her Facebook account; she even broke up with her boyfriend, Geoff. He was so-o-o hot I could hardly stand to be around him without flirting.”

“I’m not a fag, Miss,” Stanley said. “I like girls, I mean, women, of my own age, or maybe a little younger. I’m no pedophile, if that’s what you are thinking.”

“No way, Mr. Barnacle, I mean, Stanley. I am sure you have a normal sex life.”

“Oh, it’s been quite a little while since I’ve done the deed with a woman,” Stanley said. “I suppose that’s not so unusual for a man in my age group.”

Finally, something Roslinda could use to get the conversation back on target. “Now I see here from your profile that you aren’t quite elderly yet, Stanley. At fifty-nine, we could still place you in the middle age premium group. It’s really quite a bargain; a one-time payment of only seven thousand nine hundred and forty-five dollars for one-hundred and fifty thousand dollars in coverage, for the rest of your life. You aren’t a smoker by any chance?”

“Only marijuana.”

“Oh good. The detail script only asks about cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking. You’re probably going to need a physical. Nothing big going wrong, I hope. No cancer, heart attack or stroke.”

“The arthritis in my left knee’s gotten pretty bad the last couple of years. I’ve had a helluva time keeping the yard mowed.”

“No problem there. Now tell me the truth, Stanley, are you much of a drinker?” Roslinda said.

“I wouldn’t say so, no. I’ve only been too hung over to show up for work once, maybe twice, in the last year.”

“Sounds like you’ve got that under control. Assuming your liver’s okay, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“That’s a relief. I wouldn’t have much to do around here after work without a couple of brews during Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, not since the cat died.”

“Oh, you have pets. That’s something people are often concerned about after they pass. You could set up a little trust for them with the proceeds of your Silver Bullet Policy.”

“It was just a stray my wife, former wife, took in before she left. Said she didn’t want to leave me completely alone,” Stanley said. “Mostly the cat stayed under the couch, except when it wanted food. It was a good mouser, though.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. I remember how sad I was when our Muffy died. When did you lose your cat?” Sharing experiences with the mooch was like a bullet in the brain for getting a sale.

“Oh, maybe a year, year and a half ago. It was about the time the SciFi Network cancelled the Dresden Files. You remember that.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t remember that show, but you know that’s the great thing about the Silver Bullet policy—once you pay the premium, that’s it, it’s in effect until you’re gone to your great reward, no way to cancel it.”

“You know the one what still irks me?”

“What’s that?” Roslinda said.

“It was when they cancelled Firefly, back in 2002. I still get upset when I think about it.”

Roslinda frantically fingered through all of her rebuttal sheets; nothing on entertainment miscarriage. She looked up. Vilma’s head rose over the cubicle wall like an impaled vampire. Vilma made the cut-throat sign. Roslinda had too much invested in this call to let it go. She gave Vilma the just-a-second sign.

“Stanley…,” Roslinda said.

“Say,” Stanley interrupted, “would you mind calling back in half an hour; Jeopardy just started.”

“Sure,” Roslinda said and hung up.

“Nothing you have learned from our training drills,” Vilma said, spinning Roslinda’s chair around to face her. “Should you not be closing in on the target within the ninety seconds, you must be planning the termination of the interchange or you should begin processing to pass the mooch to a seller. You are nothing but a fronter, an inexperienced one at that. You cannot ever be talking for more than two hundred and seventy seconds, unless a sales agreement is to be ready to be consummated and you are lubricating their transfer to the closer.”

“I’m sorry. I just thought I made a connection with the guy. I thought I could get him to buy a Silver Bullet if….”

Vilma slammed her hand down on Roslinda’s desk. “You are not to be talking about specific policies unless the mooch should be asking you about such directly. Only the closers are authorized to talk about the advantages of specific policies. You get the mooch to be wanting a life insurance policy and then pass over him to someone who knows what he is doing. Understood?”

Roslinda’s eyes were filling with tears, but she held back. It would be unprofessional to cry.

“Go to the washroom and pull yourself together,” Vilma said. “You can be taking the eight-thirty break early and then be back to the console.”

After three evenings of calling, Roslinda had only had one phone call that lasted more than fifteen seconds, which she’d passed on to the seller Tom. During the eight-thirty break, Tom told her the mooch was an auto parts salesman who only wanted to complain about how incompetent his salesgirl was. Tom was in his late twenties, getting a little heavy in the mid-section. He had a nice phone voice, but he was still as pimply as a teenager.

“I’d be glad to help you with your technique,” Tom said, resting his hand on her shoulder. “We could go out for a drink after work.” Roslinda noticed the ring on his finger and declined the offer. “Suit yourself,” he said.

The remainder of Roslinda’s first week was equally unsuccessful. Only two referrals to sellers, one of which was a complaint, then other was a misunderstanding—they wanted to buy long term care insurance. Roslinda started to wonder if she would be able to do this all summer until classes started in late August. On Friday the shift ended at nine-thirty. Roslinda went to Vilma’s office to pick up her check. Vilma didn’t smile at her when she handed Roslinda her check, but then Vilma never smiled.

Roslinda was exhausted being pleasant on the phone all week, but she tried to sound sincere. “Thank you,” she said, as she took the envelope. There was a pink slip inside. A large black check from a felt-tip pen sat next to the box Poor Skill Acquisition.

“Hand over your name tag,” Vilma said. Roslinda removed her name tag. “You never completed your probationary period, so you have the disqualification for an exit interview. Sign this.” Vilma handed her a light green document labeled Nondisclosure Agreement. Roslinda signed. “You shall be saying nothing about your activities here at Limitless Life Insurance. Understood?”

 

Now it was Roslinda’s turn to lie around the house in her pajamas, while LeeAnne scurried off to Einstein Brothers for a power bagel and a caramel macchiato before arriving at the Maya Palace five or ten minutes late. Roslinda was reconsidering her career choice, wondering whether pharmacy technology might be a better fit, since she always liked taking pills. She was halfway through a box of Cheezits, when Dr. Phil said to the portly middle-aged lady with the twenty-seven-year-old son who had yet to hold a job, slept in Mickey Mouse pajamas, and occasionally wet the bed, “Do you know what the real issue is? Get real about why you're doing what you're doing, and deal with that issue.”

Yes, Roslinda said to herself, the real issue. I couldn’t help that poor man, Stuart Barney, or whatever his name was. If I can make the sale to that guy, help that guy, all at the same time, I’ll know which way my true path lies. Roslinda wasn’t that good with names, but she had an almost photographic memory for numbers. She hit the mute button, flipped open her Dragon Tattoo cell phone and dialed Stanley’s number.

“Hello, Stuart, is that you?” Roslinda said.

“My name’s Stanley, not Stuart.”

“That’s what I meant to say. This is Roslinda. Remember, I called you last week. About life insurance. The Silver Bullet. We got interrupted. Remember?”

“Yeah, that was nice,” Stanley said. “I don’t get to talk with real people on the phone much. Mostly just computers telling me I owe money for something I never bought.”

“That drives me crazy too. And they always call at a bad time, don’t you think.”

“Roger that, usually when I’m sitting on the can.”

“So, I was wondering if you had time to think about a Silver Bullet policy. You seem a little more upbeat this week.”

“I am. I got a card from my wife saying she was remarrying.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Roslinda said.

“Why, it means I can stop paying alimony.”

“So, you’ll have a little extra cash?”

“That’s right,” Stanley said. “Maybe I should give some thought to my financial future.”

“Excellent.”

“Maybe we could get together to go over some the policy options? How about coffee at the Tully’s in the Fry’s Supermarket on La Cholla. I usually shop there on Thursdays.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Roslinda said. “I am only authorized to do business over the phone. Maybe I could mail you something.”

“Gee, I thought you were really interested in helping me get out of this funk I’ve been in. It would mean a lot to me.  You could bring one of your coworkers along, if you’re worried about meeting me alone.”

“Ah, no, it’s not that. I just don’t do much face-to-face sales work.”

“Well, I don’t usually meet with sales people either.”

Roslinda had to think fast. She just bet that Vilma had a decision algorithm for this kind of situation, but she’d returned all of her rebuttal sheets to the call center. She could go down to the main business office and pick up a bunch of brochures, maybe some forms. If she could get Stanley to sign something, she could take it to Vilma and get her job back.

“Sure, why not. What time at Fry’s?”

“My shift is over at Roger Road at six. I could be there around six-thirty.”

“Great, I’ll see you then,” Roslinda said.

 

“Are you nuts?” LeeAnne said. “You don’t know jack-shit about this guy. He’s divorced. He could be a million years old. He probably hasn’t had sex with a real woman in this century. What were you thinking?”

Roslinda stared at the mountain of insurance brochures she’d pick up at the Limitless Life Insurance office on Broadway. She pretended not to hear anything LeeAnne had said.

“Okay, then, I’m going to tell Mom and Dad what you’re up to,” LeeAnne said.

“No, you’re not.”

“Oh, really?”

“Not unless you want me to tell them where you really were when you said you were at a sleepover at Tiffany’s.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Roslinda stood up next to the chair LeeAnne was sitting in. “This is my chance to get my job back. I’ve never been fired before. I’ve got to prove myself.”

“I’m your big sister. I’m not letting you go meet some perv on your own,” LeeAnne said.

Roslinda planted her hands on her hips and gave LeeAnne her best bitch stare. “You’re a four-foot-eleven, quasi-anorexic, size-0 feeb. What good would you be if some perv puts the moves on me?” Roslinda immediately regretting the slam; LeeAnne looked as though she might cry.

“I don’t need to be a kickass,” LeeAnne said. “I’ve got Jake.”

“Jake?”

“My new boyfriend,” LeeAnne huffed. “He’s big. He’s the starting tackle for the TCC football team. If he wasn’t so uncoordinated, he’d be playing football in the Big Ten on scholarship.”

 

Roslinda hung out by the organic vegetable display, picking up and turning over each of the cucumbers, while keeping an eye on the Tully’s coffee shop area. If the guy with a salt and pepper beard and a maroon hiking vest looked like a total creep, she’d be out of there in a nanosecond. Jake and LeeAnne, looking like Chewbacca on a date with the queen of the Ewoks, were stationed at the table under the big screen TV, where Rush Limbaugh was pointing to the inverted pineapple in the seal of the State of Hawaii on President Obama’s birth certificate that proved it was a forgery.

A little after six-thirty the automatic doors opened and a short man in a maroon vest limped in. He went directly to the coffee area and placed an order with the attendant, who seemed to recognize him and chatted with him during the preparation of his order. The attendant also prepared what looked like the Mocha Bellaccino, Roslinda’s favorite. Stanley sat down at a table near the wall with the two drinks.

He wasn’t that bad looking, for an old guy, not really overweight or otherwise too gross, but he was a guy old enough to be her grandfather, for crissake. And they’d be out in the open. What kind of moves could he really put on her? It looked like the store people knew him, and there were most likely cameras trained on all the customers. Roslinda took a deep breath and came out from behind the flower display, where she’d been acting like a customer. She relaxed her shoulders and walked confidently toward the bearded man.

“Stanley?” she said, “Stanley Barnacle,” just loud enough so the coffee attendant could hear her.

“You must be Roslinda,” he said, standing to greet her. “Have a seat, please. I bought you a Bellaccino.”

“My favorite,” Roslinda said and sat down. Something was wrong, something smelled wrong. She had the irresistible urge to wrinkle her nose. Vilma’s training didn’t include facial expressions, but Roslinda was sure she should maintain a smile throughout the sales encounter. She took the Bellaccino and sniffed to be sure it wasn’t the cause of the odor; no, it smelled sweet.

“What kind of work do you do, Mr. Barnacle, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I thought we were on a first name basis, Roslinda. On the phone, you called me Stanley.” He beamed at her like cat that had just stumbled on an unconscious mouse.

 “On the phone, you know, the age difference didn’t seem so important,” Roslinda said. “I’m just not used to calling someone so old by their first name.”

“I thought you said my age profile didn’t classify me as elderly. We mature men can still be quite virile, you know.” If anything, his grin had gotten even wider. “You, on the other hand, are quite a bit younger and more attractive than I expected. On TV the women who work in the phone sex call centers are the ones too ugly to work on the streets. But I suppose that’s just a Hollywood stereotype.”

Roslinda has kept her nose next to the Bellaccino to mask the odor. “You didn’t say where you worked, Stanley,” she said, trying to change the topic.

“You know, I think I would prefer Stan. Stanley sounds kind of sissified, don’t you think? Like the skinny guy in the Oliver and Hardy movies. I’m no sissy.”

“Sure, Stan. Where’d you say you worked?”

“Me? Oh, I’m a technician at the Roger Road Water Reclamation plant.”

Ah, now it all made sense. Roslinda took a swig of the Bellaccino and held some in her mouth, increasing the aroma. It was going to be hard to make a sale while she was gagging from the stench coming from Stanley’s, Stan’s clothes.

“I wonder if you could take a look at some of the brochures for a second, Stan. I need to run to the little girl’s room, for just a second.”

“Sure, but hurry back. I’m sure I’ll need help understanding all of this.”

Roslinda had seen the CSI actors use Vick’s Vapor Rub under their noses when they were handling a rotting corpse. She snuck around the restroom entrance over to pharmacy, grabbed and opened a jar of the rub and put it under her nose. She rushed back to the restrooms and then to the coffee area.

“Ah, that’s better,” Roslinda said.

“Say, it looks like you missed a spot when you washed your face,” Stanley said.

Roslinda touched her upper lip. “So I did. Well, I’ll just let it dry on its own. I don’t want to muss my lipstick.”

“You aren’t wearing lipstick.”

“Ha, right.” Roslinda touched a napkin near her mouth, but didn’t wipe off the rub. She raised her Bellaccino before taking away the napkin; she held the cup in front of her face, blocking Stanley’s view. “So, what do you think of the insurance information I brought you?”

“It’s all quite complicated. Do you have a recommendation?”

“As I said on the phone, the Silver Bullet would be a good choice for you.”

“If I am interested, should I sign this form here?” Stanley said, holding up one of the documents Roslinda had brought with her. She wasn’t sure exactly what the form was for, but anything with a signature would likely get her job back.

“Yes, that one.”

Stanley signed the document and then leaned forward over the café table. Roslinda had to take a big whiff over the top of the Bellaccino as the odor intensified beyond the ability of the vapor rub to mask it. “Are you a licensed insurance broker?” he said.

“Well, no.”

“So, is it legal for you to recommend insurance products to a potential customer?”

“Well, I’m not sure. I thought we were having a friendly conversation, nothing really formal.”

“But didn’t you just have me sign a document committing myself to buy an insurance product from you?”

“I guess so, but….”

“I’m getting hungry. How about you?” Stanley said. “Let’s go find something to eat, and we can settle this matter friendly-like.”

“I already ate. I need to get home.”

“Okay, but I am going to have to file a complaint with the Arizona Department of Insurance,” Stanley said. “I don’t think you told me your last name, Roslinda.”

“If I go to dinner with you, will you drop the complaint?”

“I’m sure we can work out an arrangement. Let’s take my car.”

Stanley drove his car over to the In-N-Out Burger at the Oro Valley Marketplace. Roslinda kept her window open the whole way, even though it was getting a little chilly. At the drive-up window he ordered a cheeseburger and a vanilla shake. “Sure you don’t want anything?” he said to Roslinda, who shook her head. Then he pulled his car to the far end of the parking lot, next to the CaĖada del Oro Wash. The rest of the parking lot was empty, except for a car at the drive-up window.

“Would you mind rolling down your window?” Roslinda said.

“Sure.” Stanley unwrapped the cheeseburger. “Now that my wife’s remarrying, I think I should start dating again.” He took a big bite out of his cheeseburger. “Mayb somum in fiancul survce sctr,” he said through the masticated beef and bun.

“What?” Roslinda said. Stanley wiped his hand on a napkin and placed it on her knee. Roslinda frowned. “Are you trying to get me to have sex with you, in return for not reporting me trying to sell you an insurance policy?”

Stanley swallowed. “I wouldn’t put it so crudely, but I think we would make a cute couple, don’t you?”

“Got that?” Roslinda yelled.

“What?” Stanley said.

“Got it,” a voice from outside the car said.

“”What the…” Stanley said. He opened his car door to see LeeAnne standing next to the car. She held up her Droid X and replayed the video of Stanley extorting sex from Roslinda.

“I’ll take that,” Stanley said, lunging at LeeAnne.

LeeAnne stepped back, and a large hairy gorilla-arm stretched out from behind the car and stopped Stanley in his tracks.

“Phew, man. You need a shower.”

“Jake, would you show Stanley back to his seat in the car,” LeeAnne said.

Jake twisted Stanley’s arm and forced him back into the driver’s seat. “Tell the lady you’re sorry,” Jake said.

Roslinda conferred with Stanley for a few moments in the car, and then walked over to LeeAnne, who was standing next to Jake’s car. Jake was finishing off his 4 x 4 Burger with a slurp from his double strawberry shake.

“Make sure to thank Jake for me,” Roslinda said to LeeAnne.

“I already did. I’m going to be sore for a week.”

 

“Hello, I’m calling from the Limitless Life Insurance Company for Mr. Marvin Cranberry. My name is Roslinda.”

After the call dragged on and the ‘time’s-a-wasting’ clock symbol on Roslinda’s display began to rotate frantically, Vilma’s head rose again like a vampire looking over the edge of its coffin into Roslinda’s cubicle. Again Vilma slashed her throat in the call termination sign, and Roslinda again held up the ‘wait-a-minute’ sign. Vilma sighed and moved down the row of cubicles, away from the experienced sellers and into the realm of the inexperienced fronters, who did what they were told.

© Andrew J. Hogan

Bio:  Andrew Hogan has published more than one hundred works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014),The Legendary, Widespread Fear of Monkeys, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Long Story Short, The Lorelei Signal, Silver Blade, Thick Jam, Copperfield Review, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Defenestration, Mobius, Grim Corps, Coming Around Again Anthology, Former People, Thrice, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Black Market Lit, Paragraph Line, Subtopian Magazine, Pine+Basil, Festival Writer: Unpublishable, Fiction on the Web, Children, Churches and Daddies, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Spank the Carp, Beechwood Review, Pear Drop, Marathon Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Short Break Fiction, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, Slippery Elm Online, Story of the Month Club, Birds Piled Loosely, Zero Flash, Canyon Voices, Alebrijes, Rose Red Review, Yellow Chair Review, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Funny in Five Hundred, Penny Shorts, Front Porch Review, Minetta Review, Silver Pen Anthology, Zany Zygote, Ginosko Literary Review, Four Ties Lit Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Down in the Dirt, Ariel Chart, Minetta Review, Columbia Journal Online, The Dirty Pool, Indiana Voice Journal, Corvus Review, The Stray Branch, Weird City, Halfway Down the Stairs, Three Minute Plastic, Red Earth Review, The Rabbit Hole, Alternate History Fiction Magazine, Wagonbridge Lost and Found Anthology, Abstract Magazine, Magazine of History & Fiction.