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During a few years in which I went to bed half-heartedly wishing not to wake up and woke up whole-heartedly hoping to be the person I believed I would someday be, I worked for eight months at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Telecommunications Headquarters for the Southwest Chapter, Region 8, calling local business leaders and begging them to be jailed for charity. We were paid $6.75 an hour, not including our state-mandated lunch. We were never to place the phone on its cradle between calls. We had scripts into which we were encouraged to inject our own charm. A rotating cast of twenty-four Outreach Associates sat at long desks lining a warren of rooms connected by riot-proof hallways hung with portraits of Jerry Lewis smiling next to children. Our room sported two tall windows that let us gaze at the office park’s internal courtyard whenever we opened the vinyl mini-blinds, which we were allowed to do but often did not.
My deskmate Raya and I had become friends during training, when we were the only pair who neglected to brainstorm a list of five persuasive interjections for keeping targets on the phone. Raya had the wide-set docile eyes of an herbivore and a cleft in her round chin. A few times each day, as a respite from harassing strangers, we made cheerful scripted conversation with her voicemail. One day at lunch, while we shared Lotaburger fries from a torn-open white paper bag transparent with grease, she told me that she could whistle low in the back of her throat without opening her mouth. She had done so throughout middle school and, she admitted, some years into high school, just to watch her teachers whirl and pace the classroom in frustration. I recognized in her a thing I had suspected about myself, a stubborn, blinking detachment from the splatter of pain, panic, desire, striving, vulnerability, joy, lust, bloodshed, heroism, obsession, grief—something that let her witness without participation the spectacle of human unraveling. I had been thinking a lot about it at the time. I felt I had to monitor this quality the way you watch and wait for swelling to go down.
Raya and I began to carpool to work and go for drinks after. Over whiskey sours with extra cherries at Cowlicks we imitated our boss Marlene and the way she said “Receptionists are your friends,” even though they did not seem to be my friends when I called them in the middle of their morning coffees and said “Hello, has your boss committed the crime of having a big heart?” or “How would you like to see your boss behind bars for good?” or “Hasn’t your boss always wanted the chance to meet Jerry Lewis . . . in the slammer?” In line for the bar’s bathroom we said “Oh-kay” the way Marlene did after the lunches at Souper Salad that amped up her iron levels. When driving home a little drunk we patted each other on the bulge of spine where neck became back, the way Marlene did when she was being encouraging, her rings cold on our skin.
If we got to work before Crystal, who had short blonde dreadlocks and a permanent dignity, one of us would toe her phone’s plug from the wall on the way to fill up our water bottles, but we rarely got to work before Crystal. Her name was at the top of the office whiteboard next to a forest of tally marks and a jaunty malformed star that said Shine—for Muscular Dsytrophy. She wore blue blazers with slip dresses and Timberland boots and at lunchtime she sat alone in the courtyard no matter the weather, eating pasta salad studded with red peppers and breathing deeply. Although Crystal was in her early twenties like the rest of us, she had a dandelion-headed daughter named Mavis, who stared back at her each day from a frame covered in plastic jewels and hot pink foam dolphins I assumed Mavis had cut with safety scissors at the after-school program she attended while her mother reminded targets about the limo ride to and from La Quinta Inn, and the hot appetizers from Chili’s, and the keepsake pictures in prison costume.
We made fun of these keepsakes, which Marlene sometimes printed and taped up near the whiteboard for motivation. At biweekly team meetings, when Marlene passed around glossies of gap-toothed kids enjoying the camp we’d helped pay for, Raya and I had to force ourselves to coo before we passed them along. When Denise from down the hall’s mother died of a heart attack while sitting in traffic and Raya and I caught Denise sobbing in the break room with a knot of white lilies twisted and dripping in her hands, Raya told me she worried she wouldn’t cry for her own mother, and I told Raya I worried I might be secretly cruel, two things we said we’d never said to anyone.
By winter Raya had left for another job, a receptionist’s position (“Receptionists are your friends!” we said on her last day), and without her I only lasted a few weeks. I moved on to no great success but no great failure; sometimes I catch sight of myself in store windows and see evidence of some subtle improvement that by the next moment has lifted like mist. When we stopped calling each other, I still liked to think about running into Raya, liked to decide that she had on a whim or out of passion broken up a series of marriages, that she had adopted a yowling houseful of dogs or moved to Nebraska and made a fortune in fracking, that she had begun following some band and leaning forward in the crowd at overseas shows while sweating from devotion, or scattered her mother’s ashes in the grass of her backyard and stared into the night dry-eyed.
Marta Evans teaches fiction writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she recently received her MFA. Her work is forthcoming in Fence.