Friday, January 6, 2012

Dollars Per Hour, Chapter 1

    The setting sun painted the sky an obscene orange fluorescence, the color of some sleazy, fast food drink. The scuffed black Mustang blazed down the empty, cracked highway, smoke and dust swirling in its wake behind the car, a bullet fired at the horizon, the hand of God blasting through the night.

    Trailing behind the Mustang, approximately 100 feet away, a tight six-car wedge of police cars flowed along at light speed in pursuit. The lights on their black roofs spun madly, striking sand and cactus alike. Their sirens drowned out all sounds of the desert, and through the megaphone mounted on the lead car, one yelled, “Rubin Valentine! You can’t win this situation! Pull over before this gets any worse.”

   Inside the Mustang, Rubin Valentine screamed in laughter, trying to keep the speeding car in control with one hand. He was tall, with shaggy brown hair, a black leather biker jacket and a pair of dirty blue jeans pulled over the top of his scuffed motorcycle boots. He wore a torn Mötley Crüe T-shirt and a pair of leather driving gloves with no fingers. Clenched in his groin was a half-empty bottle of rum, and in the seat beside him was a Alternatron Bird of Prey™ 31C. It’s a magnificent weapon of .357 caliber, an easy equal to the Excalabur Deluxe® Desert Talon© .45 Caliber. It is 7.32 inches in length and stands 5.43 inches tall and weighs 9.87 ounces. His has a magazine capable of carrying seventeen shots. The weapon has two exhaust vents on the top of the barrel to compensate for the recoil, making shots far more accurate. The frame of the gun is made from a stronger-than-steel synthetic polymer that can be effective anywhere between -40̊ all the way to 150̊. Its metal components have a Blak-Ice® finish, making them virtually as hard a diamond and with more corrosion resistance than stainless steel. Rubin took a swig of the rum, grimaced at the taste and popped a tape into the stereo, which blasted out Guns ‘N Roses’ “Out Ta Get Me.”

    “Pull over?” Rubin asked the radio with a laugh. “Fuck you, pigs!” He rolled down his window, grabbed the Alternatron Bird of Prey™ 31C and started firing blindly behind him. In the rearview mirror, the lead car swerved, and the car behind it broke off, sliding off the road and nearly rolling.

    Rubin wailed laughter and jammed on the accelerator. “How’s that for pulling over?!” he cried and took another pull from the bottle. “They break down my door and they rape my rights!” he screamed along with the music. “‘Cuz I got something I been buildin’ up inside! For so fuckin’ long!”

    The police answered with a return volley, smashing out the back window, and hitting the car with a collection of metal-hitting-metal ‘thunk’s. “Rubin Valentine! Pull over now!”

    “Didn’t I already answer that?” he whispered. “You’ll never take me alive!”

    “...And I gave the money to my son, but he kept it, and he never told me, so you people were calling me and I kept saying it was on it’s way, but you wouldn’t stop calling, and you made me so furious that I wanted to switch my service...”

    Rubin’s eyes jolted open as they traced the horizon ahead of him. “Oh shit,” he whispered, his words still audible over the music and the sirens and the scream of his tires on the asphalt. Blocking the road ahead of him were three rows of three police cars. Cops perched around the cars, aiming shotguns.

    “Rubin Valentine, pull over and surrender immediately!” boomed a loudspeaker.

    Rubin finished the bottle in a single pull. “You won’t make me! Let me see ya’ try!” he screamed with the music.

    “...But then, I found he hadn’t sent the money...”

    “Uh huh.”

    “ I had to get more money and do it myself...”

    “Uh huh.”

    “Never take me alive, pigs!” Rubin screamed, jamming the accelerator to the floor and flying at the blockade. The police around the cars dropped their guns and scattered, trying to move their vehicles, trying to get out of the way and avoid being killed, but Rubin was moving too quickly for them to react. He slammed into the blockade, knocking police cruisers about and exploding the car front and center into a massive conflagration, igniting both cars around it and the Mustang as well. Quickly, all the cars were burning and exploding with police dashing about, bodies burning, dancing like beheaded chickens. All the while, Rubin continued to laugh.

    “...because he wouldn’t pay me back! Oh... (sob)”

    “Uh huh.”

    “...and I walked all over this city trying to pay your bills, but you don’t have any place around here...”

    “Uh huh.”

    The five remaining police cars following Rubin tried to break, or veer off, or anything to avoid the burning roadblock, but they were moving too quickly. They hit the blaze at full speed, all five cars immediately exploding in enormous, oily balls of flame rolling skyward. Burning police screamed and rolled about in the sand. Rubin continues to laugh as he burns, his world fading to black.

    And from the darkness of my retina, I’m pulled  back to the agony of the real world: The stinging chill of the air conditioning; The inadequate padding in my chair that’s flattening my once-respectable ass; the fact that there is no head rest on the back of my chair, so I go home with a cramp every night from flopping my head over the back of it like I’m doing now; the pain in my eyes as this computer screen burns them away a little bit each moment (but our insurance gives us a great deal on glasses);  the dull roar of several hundred other people gibbering away at the same time; and the fact that this woman is still fucking talking.

    “...and then I had to go to the doctor because of all that walking and I didn’t even get that bill paid! And now you’ve turned off my phone, and I can’t go without it...”

    “Uh huh.”

    “You have to understand, mister, I’m a sick lady, I can’t go without my phone, I need to call my doctor! I can’t go all that time without my phone!”

    Growing bored with the game, I finally break out of my stupor and ask, “Did you call us to see if we had any payment locations near you?”

    “No, but...”

    “Did you have our phone number?”

    “Yes, but...”

    “So why didn’t you call us to find out if there were any payment locations nearby? When you did it the hard way and didn’t find anything, why did you wait two weeks before you called us? You got the notice saying we would be suspending your service, didn’t you?”

    “Yes, but...”

    “So you knew this was going to happen, didn’t you? Or did you think we were bluffing?”

    “Yes, I knew, but...”

    “So how can you call and argue that we have no right to do this? We are your phone company, ma’am, we have every right to do this. You haven’t paid your phone bill in three months.”

    “Do you pay your phone bill every month?”

    “Ma’am, my life isn’t the one in question right now,” I drone.

    “It would be different if you were in my shoes!”

    “Different?” I ask disappointedly. “Ma’am, my phone was shut off just last week. Do you want to know why? Because I didn’t pay my bill. Do you want to know why? Because I was lazy. When they told me how long it would take to turn it on, I said, ‘okay,’ I didn’t argue.”
  “You can’t do this! I’m mailing my payment today, you need to turn my phone on today!”

    “Ma’am, I’ve already told you the timeframe for your payment to post, which is seven to ten days, and it then takes up to 48 business hours to restore your suspended service. I’ve told you that repeatedly. Was it necessary for me to repeat it again? The only way to get it on faster if you aren’t going to one of our payment centers is to pay it over the phone by check or credit card right now.”

    “This is not right!”

    “This is business, ma’am,” I sigh in a lifeless monotone. “You can’t expect us to keep being nice and let you have service you aren’t paying for,” I drone on. “You need to accept responsibility for your actions. You brought this on yourself, and now you don’t think it’s right that we take action?” I sigh audibly, hoping this will finally signal my frustration, that she won’t get any further with me. “I’m sorry if you don’t agree with our policies, but we are going to wait to receive your payment before we restore your service.”

    “Then I’m going to switch, and I’ll never send you that payment, and you’ll never get that money!”

    “Well, ma’am, if that’s the course of action you choose to take, then do be advised that you are unable to migrate your service while it is suspended, so the only way you can do that is to either wait until we cancel your account and set up new service with someone else, or have a new phone line installed in your house. Either way, it will take a lot longer than the possible two weeks you will need to wait, and cost you a lot more money, and either way, you lose this phone number.”

    “I’ve had this number for twenty years!”

    “Better pay up then.” Honestly, sometimes it hurts to be this good.

    “I’m 87 years old. I need my phone. Don’t you care about my problems?”

    I sigh again, and mustering all the emotion I possibly can, which brings my voice slightly above a monotone, I say, “Yes, ma’am, I care.”

    “Fuck you!” she screams and slams down the phone..

    “Thank you for using SpectraCom and have a good day!” I tell the dead air. My roommate, Kurt Vance is sitting at my left. I mute my line to say, “I’m sick of dealing with all these fucking old people.” The third of the month. Social Security. All the old people call in to yell at us. The same happens on the fifteenth when they get their second check. Not to mention the first when the welfare checks arrive.

    Kurt looks at me and laughs mutely. He lifts his left hand, clapping together his thumb and forefinger. Kurt, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who spent too many of his free hours in the high school computer room trying to hack the mainframe. Small and awkward, he’s the kind of kid that bullies would track down to beat the shit out of when they did poorly on tests, but the kind of kid that would own titles to those same bullies later in life. Shortly after the three of us started, we discovered three accounts with huge credit balances, resulting in any unmarked and yet-unclaimed payment. Immediately, we started formulating a plan to set ourselves up with accounts, transfer this balance over to these accounts, and send the money to us. It didn’t pan out, as the plan relied heavily on convincing Kurt to use his talents for evil. We found it impossible to break the years of indoctrination into the world of comic-book superheros, and we were unable to persuade him to foray into the dangerous and seductive world of villainy.

    “Rambler?” I groan. When he nods in response, I ask, “How long?”

    He holds down his mute button. “Fifteen minutes.” He moves around some of the programs on his screen. “Fifteen minutes and he hasn’t even gotten to when he plans to pay...” He unmutes his line and says, “Uh huh, yes sir.” He remutes and continues. “He says that was his reason for calling.”

    “Rat-fuck bastards,” I jump forward as my line beeps with another call coming in. “Hi, thank you for calling SpectraCom, my name is Rubin, could I please have your ten-digit phone number starting with the area code?”

    A heavy, drawling voice on the other end slurs, “Five five five, two four, three o.”

    “Ten digit phone number,” I repeat.

    “Five five five...”

    “Ten digit”

    “Five five...”

    “Ten digit phone number, starting with your area code, please.”

    “Five five five...”

    “Area code first, please.”

    “Five five five...”

    My mind is left to wander around the room, endless seas of grey and blue with endless people overdressed for the job they do, manning the nonstop phone calls. I’m near the front door, so I can easily escape at the end of the day. I’m idly watching Jenn, the classroom trainer giddily swaying her wide hips, leading a class of fresh-faced recruits. Around the office, Jenn is a godsend, providing one of the newbies to horrify with your calls, and a free break for you as demonic customers vent and rage, while you just tell them they are doing a good job. I’m the best and brightest SpectraCom has to offer; I usually get the honor.

    Jenn’s eyes fall on me, and she leads doe-eyed rookies to me, her plump body jiggling happily beneath her conservative sweater and class pink stretch pants. “Mr. Valentine, would you like to impart your vast knowledge of the SpectraCom systems on one of our new soldiers?”

    I mute my line and ask, “You’d trust me with a trainee? I’ve already made one person cry today, Jenn. It might not be safe.” On the computer screen, I’m busy taking a credit card payment.

    Jenn turns around and with her revolving door arm, presents me with a tall, pretty girl and says, “Rubin, this is Alicia, she can listen to you for the next few hours.” Jenn grins absently and orders me, “Try to be nice,” and then gently assures, “Rubin may look scary, but he doesn’t bite.     I point to my call box and say, “Go ahead, plug in, let’s get this show on the road.” I extend my arm as she sits down, saying, “Rubin Valentine,” as she sits. “A pleasure to meet you.”

    “Alicia Higgins,” she tells me with a defensive, rabbit-in-the-trap smile, eyes darting back and forth from me, to the row after row of shielded desks and the Customer Care Professionals® chained to them.

    Trying to block the demoralizing view with my body, I do my best at distracting her with, “Have you done anything like this before? You know, like... worked on the phones before?”


    “It sucks,” Kurt chimes in.

    I wince as his words sting. It’s too early in the day to break a spirit; that kind of thing rolls better after lunch. I would have liked to ease her into the pool before showing her just how miserable we all are, not just toss her in, letting the chill of the water come close to stopping her heart. I grin in concession. “Kurt is bitter, but, alas, he is right. This job sucks, but just try to find a job around here where you aren’t on the phone.” I lean back in my chair. “It’s time to tell you the truth about SpectraCom.”

    “The truth?” she whispers in a low, bewildered voice. Good. She hasn’t been roped into the sick cache of corporate filth and lies yet, hasn’t been blindfolded and led like a lamb to the slaughter in the name of the SpectraCom profit margin.

    “The truth,” Kurt agrees, placing his customer on hold. “SpectraCom is an evil, heartless corporation, that has little concern for either their employees or their customers. Each and every human being they encounter is a simple statistic in their megalomaniacal quest for domination of all world markets. Some suspect they use black magic to achieve their goals, but regardless, all they want is to wring you out until you are dry.”

    I sigh and give Kurt a pleading look. “Yes, that’s true, customers and employees are about the same in the eyes of SpectraCom Holdings Inc., but they are the ones giving you a paycheck and benefits, which are not easy to come by in this day and age,” I explain. “In exchange for those things, they request that for 40 or so hours a week, you pretend you believe in their policies and protocol.”

    “And what are those policies and protocols?” she asks.

    “The customer is the enemy. He has something that belongs to SpectraCom, and we are the patsies they hired to take it away. Sometimes customers have just forgotten to give it to us, and realize they made an error, and they are happy to pay. Once in a great while, there is someone proactively calling to pay, a few are even cutting you off to give credit card information. That’s rare though, most want to fight.” I look her over. “Do you have a mean streak? Are you a fighter?”

     “I... I guess,” she says nervously.

    “Good,” I tell her. “You will need every bit of it.”

    “Okay...,” she says, trailing off apprehensively.

    “Just watch,” I say. I switch myself over to outbound calling. The line beeps as I’m given a call.

    “Hello?” asks a girl who sounds about nine or ten.

    “Could I speak with April, please?”

    The little girl says, “Yeah, hold on. Mom!” There is a pause and I can hear a person speak in the distance. “Who’dis?” she demands.

    “SpectraCom,” I say flatly.

    She resumes screaming to her mother. “He says he’s from SpectraCom. He wants to talk to you!” Another pause and she says to me, “She isn’t here.”

    Alicia giggles.

    “She’s not home?” I ask.

    “No,” answers the girl.

    “Even though you were just talking to her?”


    “Please put her on the phone.”

    “She’s not home,” the little girl says feebly.

    “You know it’s bad to lie, don’t you?” I ask menacingly.

    “Yeah,” she squeaks.

    “Then put your mother on the phone please,” I grumble condescendingly.

    “Okay,” the little girl concedes. “Just wait.”

    There is a short pause, and the line is snatched up with a vicious and demanding, “Hello?”

    “Hi, is this April?” I ask sweetly.

    “Yeah,” she snaps.

    “My name is Rubin and I’m calling from SpectraCom...”

    “Why are you calling my daughter a liar!?!” she screams and the phone disconnects.

Go to Chapter 2.

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