I GIVE YOU A BABY AND YOU DROWN IT IN THE BATHTUB
Sebastian told me not to tell my sales reps I was mugged at gunpoint the previous night, but god damnit I was gonna hit my numbers anyway. I fixed my tie in the cum-stained bathroom mirror and then headed into the call center. The sales board was marked zero and I had ten hours to increase it to one hundred. My team of reps consisted of ex-cons and coked-up college kids. As long as they made sales, I didn't give a shit what they did.
"All right, everybody. Listen up," I said. "I'm just the messenger here, so don't kill me, but we need to hit one hundred today or some of you are getting laid off."
This didn't faze anyone. Management hired ten reps every Monday and fired nine of them before Sunday. You could sell or you were gone. Before Sebastian took over, Reggie, a seven-foot hustler wearing war paint on his face, ran the center. He paced with a walkie-talkie to listen in on calls. If he thought you weren't up to snuff, he'd toss the walkie on the floor and yell, "Get this person off my phones." The miserable salesman would then be escorted out by security.
No one knew for sure what happened to Reggie. Some said he'd been committed. Others said he ran drugs down in Rio. I just missed his respect for a true salesman. He didn't care that I had pink hair and dangly earrings. He only cared about green. Sebastian hated my hair, thought a boiler room should be shiny.
"Hey, Smart Guy," he said to me. Sebastian called me that because I attended college. "Hey, Smart Guy." His Al Pacino Scarface voice was gravelly, like he swallowed crushed glass. "Hey, Smart Guy. Come fuckin' mere."
"We'll hit one hundred," I said.
He wagged his finger at me. "You better." He pointed at Jeremy, one of my reps. "This mother fucker wearing sandals?"
"It appears so."
"He think this is a fuckin' beach?"
"I wouldn't know."
"Tell that piece a shit this isn't a God damn beach."
"He's one of my top sellers."
"You testing me, mother fucker?"
I sighed. "No, Sebastian. I'll take care of it."
Jeremy closed out a deal as I delivered the news. "But you like saving money, am I right?" Jeremy said into his phone. "So this is the best option, am I right?" Jeremy wrote the fool's number on his sales sheet. "I'm happy to help, sir."
The rule of threes is common in telemarketing. You get people to say yes three times, and they'll say yes to anything after that. Were you born on earth? Yes. Ever seen a monkey? Yes. Like to eat pizza? Yes. Can I have all of your credit card numbers? Yes. Yes. Holy shit. Take me for all I'm worth. Yes.
I tapped Jeremy on the shoulder. "I know it's stupid, but you can't wear sandals in here."
"You shitting me? I just closed my third sale."
"Listen, man. Sebastian told me to tell you."
"Suck my balls."
"Get me five more sales. Then I'll be happy to. And wear shoes tomorrow. Please."
The silver metal of the mugger's gun glimmered over the sales floor. I forced a smile. When you run a sales team, showing anxiety creates a virus that infects everyone, and sales drop. I focused on David failing to close a deal instead of the bruiser who shoved me against my car, demanded my wallet, pressed his revolver into my chest.
"She wants to talk with her husband first," David said.
"Did you tell her she can cancel later?"
"Yeah, I went through all the spouse rebuttals."
I have to talk to my spouse first was one of the most common objections we received in the center. There were several scripted rebuttals the reps countered with: You can cancel after you've talked to him. The only thing worse than making a bad decision is not making one at all. I understand your need to talk to your spouse, but this offer is limited to one call per household. They had to close the sale immediately—because ninety-nine times out of one hundred—once suckers hang up the phone we never hear from them again.
"All the rebuttals, Dave?"
"Yes. This lady really wants to talk to her husband."
"Okay. I got this."
I plugged my headset into his phone. This muted him and allowed me to speak with the woman. "Hello, ma'am. Pardon me for barging in like this, but I overheard you talking to one of my associates and wanted to make sure he was doing a good job."
"Oh," she said. "He was doing fine. I was just telling him I need to speak with my husband before making a decision."
I could sense pride in her voice. Knowing she was a reliable wife brought her pleasure. Sensing this was the primary part of my job. When the script fails, and the rebuttals don't work, intuition was all that was left. If you had it, you were more than a manager. You were a T.O., a takeover. You were there to make someone say yes after they've definitively told another rep no.
"I think that's terrific ma'am. I wish I had a woman in my life as steadfast as you."
She giggled. "Thanks. And it's Susan. I hate being called ma'am."
"Got ya, Susan. I'm Brett. Feel free to write down my name so you know who to tell your husband you talked with."
"I will, Brett. I'll tell him everything."
"Wonderful. But before you go, would you mind doing a working man a favor?"
"I'd like to take you on a quick vacation."
"Not a big vacation. Just a little trip to your garage. Would you mind walking out to your garage before we hang up?"
She hesitated a moment and laughed. "Sure. I can do that." She breathed deeply as she paced. "Okay. I'm in the garage."
"Great. Can you tell me what you see in there?"
"Boxes, chairs, recycle bin."
"Yeah. Wrenches, hammers. The lawnmower is in the corner."
"Sounds like he's got lots of toys in there."
Susan laughed. "He sure does."
"Now, just out of curiosity, how many of those toys did he ask you if it was okay to buy?"
She paused. Her voice trembled. "None."
"And that's because you trust him to make good decisions, right?"
"And I know he married you because you're an intelligent woman who knows a great deal when she sees one. I can hear it in your voice. Not only are you smart, you're decisive. I can see why your husband loves you so much."
"Well, um, thank you but—"
"And I think we can both agree this is a good deal, right?"
"Fantastic. I'm going to put my rep back on the phone with you so he get your credit card information."
I unplugged and put David back on. He was floored.
"Go on. Ask for her information."
He stuttered at first but eventually closed the sale. It was moments like this that helped me get through it all. It was the Jesus moment. My rep would view the call as a lost cause, and would I swoop down from heaven and make miracles happen. As much as they cursed me for riding them all day, when I shutdown a call they still said, "Brett's a stone cold killer." I didn't feel like a killer when the gun was in my face, when I handed over my wallet like one of the dopes we suckered, but I still felt like one when I closed David's call. I always did. It was the most powerful I'd ever felt in my life and probably the most I ever will.
There were eight other T.O.s on the floor. Each of us managed a team of forty reps. Each of us had our own fucked up reason for being able to cut through a person's words, voice, protests and intuit what the real objection was.
"It's all about trust," I told David. "If they allow you to read the whole script without hanging up, a part of them wants it. You just have to make them trust you."
"But some people really don't wa—"
"Yes they do. If they're dumb enough to listen to you talk for five minutes they can be closed. Always. It's just about trust. Remember that."
Long, sharp nails dug into my shoulder. "You tell him, baby," Dee Dee said. She smiled, showing off a gold tooth. Dee Dee was at least a decade older than me, but you'd never know it. She wore leather pants and ran her team like a prison colony. "If my reps don't listen to me, they gonna get cut."
She laughed, and I laughed with her, awkwardly.
"How many sales, Dee?"
"About twenty five. Gotta put 'em to work." She stretched out her hands and admired the shiny jewels that decorated all ten fingers. A girl working the phones claimed she stole one from her, so Dee Dee had her fired quick. "How many you got?"
"Counting the one I just closed, sixteen."
"Sixteen? Boy you better get on it before Sebastian goes off on yo' ass."
"Yeah. He's a peach."
She rubbed my arm. "Last night was fucked up. They catch him?"
"No. The police had the dogs out and everything, but nothing came up."
"Messed up shit," she said. "Sebastian said we can't tell nobody. Don't want to stir up shit and hurt the numbers."
"I was updated on the meeting this morning. My lips are sealed."
"I wish I could kill that Cuban bastard."
"He's a joy to behold all right."
"Speak a the devil," she said as Sebastian lumbered over to us.
"Smart Guy," he said.
"Later, cutie." Dee Dee scurried off.
Sebastian wagged his finger at me. "Come 'min my office."
Walking into his office felt like walking into a gas chamber. He swiveled behind his desk.
"You wanted to see me?"
He scowled at his desk for a minute and then said, "Listen to this shit." He pressed the voice mail button on his phone. "Hello, Sebastian. It's Kathy from HR. I just wanted to let you know that I sent over the sales reports you requested this morning."
He hit the button again to silence her. "I didn't ask for no sales report. These people are fucking idiots." He raises his arms in the air. "All around me are nothing but fucking idiots."
"Well, if that's all I better get back to floor and close more deals."
"That's right, mother fucker. And don't think because you got a gun on you last night means you can take it easy." He pinched the side of his neck and pulled the skin outwards. "If you don't get those pieces of shit to make money, I'll cut off your fucking air supply."
He continued to squeeze his neck. "Your fucking air supply, man."
Back on the floor Mindy was working the phone like a pro. I could tell she was talking to a man, her specialty. She was one of my best reps. "You like riding bikes? I like riding bikes too. I bet you're super sexy," she said.
"Nice work, Mindy."
She put her hand over her phone. "I've been talking to this guy for like an hour. I think I have him."
"Good, but I need at least two sales an hour from you, so finish him already."
Irene tottered over to the sales board and wrote 23 with a marker.
"Good work, people," I said. "You close that, Irene?"
She lifted her bifocals in disbelief. "Hell naw. It was Jeremy. Figured I might as well get up and walk before I'm in a wheelchair."
"Don't talk like that, Irene. You know you can sell."
"You sweet, child, but I ain't making no sales."
I sat on her desk and spoke as gently as I could. "I know it's hard, Irene. Assholes just hang up on you without giving you a chance. Being on the phones all day is rigorous. But you can do this. I believe in you."
"Sweet, boy. I'm gonna make you a birdcage."
"I've been listening in on your calls. If you just make a few small adjustments your numbers will go way up."
"Well, you read the script really well, but whenever someone is actually interested and doesn't just hang up, you get excited. They can tell you're nervous, which makes them nervous. When they hear excitement in your voice, they think they're being scammed. So, all you need to do is keep calm and steady and you'll do great."
She sighed. "So, basically what you're saying is, Iiiii'm shit."
"No, that's not what—"
"Yo, Brett," Marcus called out from behind me.
"You're great, Irene. Be right back."
Marcus played with Mindy's hair as she continued to flirt with the man on her phone. His team had the best numbers in the center. "What are you pussying around with your reps for?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Come with me."
I followed him over to his side of the building. His team was hard at work. I thought of first time I saw him. It was my second day on the job, and I accidentally walked in on him receiving a blowjob from one of his reps in the parking lot. All he did was smile at me.
"All right, sales team," he yelled out. "Look at this watch." He held his arm up in the air, brandishing a golden Rolex. "You want this watch?"
"Hell yes," they said in unison.
"You all see my BMW outside?"
"Yes," they said in unison.
"You want that car?"
"Yes," they cheered.
"Then sell that shit." Marcus smiled at me. "Yo, J.T."
"Yes," J.T. replied.
"How many sales you got?"
"None so far, but—"
"Then get the fuck home and come back tomorrow when you can work."
J.T. removed his headphones and left the building.
"See," Marcus said. "That's how you motivate them mother fuckers."
"Fear isn't my style."
"Is Sebastian breaking your skull your style?"
"It appears to be today."
"You going to close them sales all by yourself? Cause they ain't cutting it."
"If I have to."
"How you learn to hustle, anyway? I learned this shit in the streets. When you slingin' heroin, you got to know when somebody is running bullshit on you."
"I don't know. Must just have been born with it."
That wasn't true. I learned it in the schoolyard when bullies beat me for my lunch money, during panic attacks when I had to stay still.
I returned to my team to discover Darren rolling blunts at his desk.
"Plan on making some calls today?"
"Hell no," Darren said. He looked like a fat version of Frankenstein's monster, his forehead bigger than the rest of his face. "That your sister's jacket?"
He stopped rolling joints and smiled. "You wear women's clothes?"
"If they fit me well," I said. "I need you to be making calls, Darren."
"You know, if you were in prison with me you wouldn't make it long."
I was used to taking shit for dressing effeminately. Of course a bunch of ex-cons were going to challenge a superior with pink hair. But that was one shred of my identity I wasn't willing to sacrifice. It's part of why I took the job in the first place. After my girlfriend left me, one of the only things I had to hold onto was the pride I took in expressing myself the way I wanted to. I was twenty-two, had no degree, an appearance unfavorable to most employers in 2002, and the new burden of paying for my ex's half of the rent. Talk America paid well, and most importantly, they let me keep the hair and piercings.
I leaned into Darren. "Glad I wasn't in prison with you. You going to make calls now?"
"Why would I do that, you faggot mother fucker?"
"Because if you don't I'll make you suck my faggot cock."
Darren laughed. "I heard you got shanked last night. Wish I could a seen that."
"All right, if you're not going to work I guess I have to send you home."
"I'll make you some sales, faggot. Just let me finish rolling this."
"Five minutes, Darren."
"Why can't you be cool like Sebastian? He don't give a shit about the numbers."
"If you had to spend time alone with him you'd think otherwise."
Darren shook his head and rolled another joint. Sebastian strolled out into the middle of the sales floor. His gravely mafia voice was replaced by clear, vibrant articulations. "Hello, everybody," he said. "It is I, Sebastian, your humble leader and friend."
The entire room cheered.
"I know you have all been working hard, so I got you a little gift." He pointed to the break room. "There is a brand new microwave in the kitchen."
Darren nodded in approval, and Irene beamed joy through her dentures.
"Know that your concerns are being heard, my friends. Thanks for your hard work. Now if you wouldn't mind, I need a moment with your managers."
They applauded as the other T.O.s and I entered his office. Sebastian sat behind his desk and chewed on a hamburger. He glared at Marcus. "You gonna shut the door, mother fucker?"
"I'm on it," Marcus replied.
The gravelly mafia voice was back with a vengeance. "How many sales each a your teams got?"
"Bout seventy," Marcus said.
"Okay, but you're still shit," Sebastian said.
"What? I'm way ahead of schedule."
"Don't backtalk me, you mother fucker. I shit hood rats like you through my toes."
"You shit through your toes?" Marcus asked.
"Not another word, mother fucker." He pointed at Dee Dee. "You."
"Fifty," she said.
"Fifty. I should strangle you right now."
Dee Dee balled her fists. "I've been working hard. You don't know shit."
"Shut up, you black bitch." He stood, heaving every breath. "Don't make me end you." He turned to Pierre, who was doped out of his mind.
"How many you got?"
Pierre snapped awake. "Hundred, dude."
"Good," said Sebastian.
"Mother fucker, you ain't got one hundred," Marcus said.
"Shut up, hood rat," Sebastian said. "Wha' bout you, Smart Guy?"
I gulped hard and stared at my shoes. "It's been rough today. The callers haven't been as receptive."
"Was that, Smart Guy?"
"Last I checked it was thirty six."
Sebastian growled, shook his head, and threw his hamburger at my chest. It hit with a gush, ketchup and mustard splattering on my tie and dress shirt. I looked down to the floor where the obliterated sandwich lay at my feet.
"Mother fucker." He held out his hands as if holding a basket. "I give you a baby and you drown it in the bathtub."
"Sebastian, just listen," I said.
"You are going to make those worthless shits make me money or I'm going to kill you." He crumpled a piece of paper in his hand. "I cut you apart, mother fucker."
"Like I was trying to say, the numbers we've been calling have already been called three or four times. Maybe if we could get some fresh leads—"
"You tink I pay these shits to call fresh leads?"
"No, I—I'll get on it."
"All you get the fuck out of my office."
As we left the office, Dee whispered in my ear, "One day I'm gonna cap him."
"I won't be shedding tears, Dee."
I walked down the aisle. Through the window blinds cigarette butts littered the parking lot. I cycled through the previous night's motions: I stood by my car, fiddling with my keys. He appeared out of the dark, silver gun in his hand. It didn't feel real. When he demanded my wallet, I just stared at him. Even when he pressed me against my car window, buried the muzzle of his gat in my chest, I was silent. I handed him my wallet, as if on autopilot, and then he disappeared. Gone. Leftover adrenaline burned in my veins like bleach. I ran to the office door, banged till my fists hurt. Dee Dee answered two minutes later, wondering what the fuss was about.
Someone yelled my name, rousing me from my stupor. I shook in front of my team.
"Everything all right?" David asked.
"Yes," I said, collecting my breath. "How many sales we have on the board?"
"Sixty? That's great."
"Ten are mine," Jeremy said. "You gonna suck my balls now?"
"Pepper 'em up, sweetheart."
I walked over to Darren. "How about you?"
"Nice work. Try to get me at least three more before the end of the day." I walked to the front of their cubicles. "All right, team. We're on target. Knock out another forty sales and we're in business."
Irene wasn't listening. She pled with someone on the phone, her face teary and broken. "I'm sorry, sir" she said over and over. "I'm really sorry."
I gritted my teeth like a man bent over a guillotine waiting for the blade to drop. "I'll take it from here, Irene."
"He doesn't want it. He's just cussing at me."
"I know," I said, fire in my lungs. "Just let me handle it." I plugged into her phone, muting her.
The sound of him screaming hurt my ear. "Do you not hear me, bitch? I said don't call here anymore. One more damn call while I'm sitting down for dinner and I'm suing you bastards."
"What? Who is this? Where's that bitch I was talking to?"
"You seemed dissatisfied while talking to one of my representatives, so I thought I'd pop in to see what the problem is."
"Do you know what time it is?
"The time you eat dinner?"
"That's right. The time I eat my fucking dinner," he roared. "You assholes have been calling my house every day this week right as I sit down to eat. I don't want to switch phone companies. If you call me again I'm gonna find you and shoot you."
I closed my eyes. "Sorry about disturbing your dinner, sir. And I really wish you could shoot me. I would be very grateful if you did."
Irene stared at me confused.
"What's that now?" he asked.
"I wish you could drive here to Orlando from Michigan or Georgia or whatever state we're calling. I haven't checked in the last hour," I said. "I wish you could point a double barrel shotgun right between my eyes and blow my head off."
"Don't get funny with me," he replied. "I hate you god damn people."
"I hate myself as well, sir," I said. "And if I were you, I'd hate me too. I'm scum. I'm worthless. I bother people during dinner. And, God, I'd love to eat dinner. I can't remember the last weeknight I ate dinner in peace. I'm always here in this call center, talking to people about how much they want to kill me."
"Stop calling me."
"I think we both know that's not going to happen, sir. If threatening little old ladies made us stop calling people, we would have stopped calling you a long time ago."
"I'm contacting the Better Business Bureau."
"Go for it if it makes you feel better. Won't stop us from calling, though."
He growled into the phone. "You threatening me, punk?"
"Interesting remark from a man who is yelling about killing me, but no. I'm not threatening you. I don't care enough to do that."
"Then why are you calling me, asshole?"
"Because, believe it or not, I want to help you."
He laughed. "Help me. Help me how?"
"Your company is taking advantage of you."
"I like my company."
"Good. Because you can keep the same line, number, everything. You just pay us for it instead. Less. A lot less. There won't even be an interruption in service."
"How the hell is that possible?"
"Some loophole in the law to stop monopolies. It basically lets us fuck big companies for fucking nice guys like you."
"I've been with my company for a long time."
"You've been getting ripped off for a long time."
"They've been around forever."
"Cancer has been around forever. Genocide. Penis warts. Doesn't make 'em good."
He sighed. "How do I get you to stop calling?"
"By helping me help you. Screw your company. Join us and save money. When was the last time your company harassed you into saving money?"
"What do I need to do?"
"I'm just going to put you back on with Irene. She'll need your credit card and other info. Try not to make her cry this time."
Irene frowned at me in shock. I put my finger to my mouth to let her know not to protest.
"I didn't mean to make her cry. I just didn't—"
"I understand completely. I look forward to saving you money." I leaned over to Irene and whispered, "Think you can take it from here?"
She shook her head yes and I unplugged. "Add another one to the boards, David."
Marcus strolled over to me. "Nice work, bro. How did you come up with that shit?"
"It's been an inspired day."
David called out from behind us.
"What you doing off the phone?" Marcus said.
"My phone isn't working," David replied.
"Mine isn't either, faggot," Darren chimed in.
"Same here," said Mindy.
I checked their computers. It was true. No one on my team had a working phone. And it wasn't just my team. Every computer in the center was down. The reps leaped out of their chairs and shot the shit with one another. Sebastian burst out of his office. "What the hell is going on?"
"The computers are down, man," Marcus said.
"What, mother fucker? Get these pieces of shit to work."
"Naw, man. The computers are down. Ain't nothing we can do," Marcus said.
Sebastian grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him close. "Make them work."
Marcus slapped Sebastian's hands off him. "Shit, man. I'm gonna be outside. Fuck, man," Marcus said. He took out a cigarette and bolted out the door.
I crept over to him. "Sebastian, you're going to have to call someone who knows about computers. None of us are trained to fix this."
He jammed his finger into my cheek. "What you say, Smart Guy?"
"I said." I cleared my throat and stared him straight in the eyes. "None of us can fix this. You can scream at me all you want, but the phones aren't going to start making calls."
He pulled his hair and snarled. "I don't pay these shits to stand around." He pointed at Darren. "Get on the phone, mother fucker."
Darren laughed. "Phones ain't working, bro."
Sebastian shook so violently it seemed like he was about to have a seizure. "Fuck," he screamed and ran down the aisle. "I'm not paying you worthless shits for nothing." He ran up and down every row of the call center. "Fuck. Fuck. I'm not paying you shits for this," he said to reps as he charged by them. "Go home, mother fuckers. Everyone clock out. No one makes another fucking cent today."
My reps all turned to me, grimacing.
"I told you guys dealing with him was awful."
They nodded in agreement and headed out the door. I followed them into the parking lot and loosened my tie. It was dark enough that it took me a minute to find my car. I looked around before getting in and driving home.
After I finally quit the call center, I learned that my mugging was no mischance. Dee Dee had arranged the entire thing. She knew that I had just cashed my check and would make for an easy target. Can't say I blame her. She did what we all did best and made the right call. Sometimes I think of her, Darren, Irene, and my other reps—and long for my Jesus moments.
Yes, I lied for a living. I cost people money, exploited their emotions—their insecurities. Whether they were disabled veterans or blind little old ladies, if they stayed on the phone long enough for my rep to call out "T.O." I closed them. Did I feel bad sometimes? Sure. But those thoughts passed when I saw that a rep looked up to me, believed in me. I'd never been someone people needed to make their quotas and keep their jobs. And despite whatever ethical problems the work presented, none of them compared to what I knew was the most important moral prerogative: keeping my pink hair.
Brett Pribble teaches creative writing in Orlando, Florida and is in on the selection committee for the Kerouac Project writer in residence program. His work has previously appeared in Saw Palm, The Molotov Cocktail, and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. He is afraid of sharks and sometimes isn't sure whether or not he's dreaming.