Home > NaNoWriMo 2011 > Day One Hundred and Ninety-two: Hotline

Day One Hundred and Ninety-two: Hotline

Carissa sat at her phone station a full minute before her eight o’clock shift started and took a photograph out of her purse. It was old, the colors muted by the years, but still resonant with meaning. Her mother, dressed in a cheap black graduation robe, holding her diploma aloft with both hands. It was a gorgeous summer day, and she stood a little apart from her mother and father, who were watching with a kind of bemused interest. Carissa’s mother had been the first in the family to graduate from college, and Carissa meant to follow her example.

And if that meant working at a psychic hotline to pay the bills, then so be it.

She picked up her headset and had it settled right as the clock ticked over. She took a deep breath, whispered, “Graduation,” and hit the flashing white button that gave her the first call of the night. The young woman on the other end was convinced that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and it took Carissa about fifteen seconds of conversation to decide that he probably was, and she wasn’t sure she blamed him.

There was only so much you could tell about someone after two years of an undergrad psychology degree, but growing up with three older sisters was a Masters’ course in how to ruin relationships. She threw a couple of well-aimed guesses at the caller – Did he sometimes hide his phone? He’s been behaving strangely, hasn’t he? – and advised her to go look for someone else, because he was just no good for her.

Most of the calls were like that. They were people with fairly ordinary problems who just needed permission to do what they were probably going to do anyway. Those callers were entertaining. There were some, though, that made Carissa’s heart heavy and kept her staring at that picture of her mother all the longer. The people who called for real trauma, for answers that she couldn’t really give. Is my father okay in heaven? Will my baby boy ever get better? When will I ever feel normal?

For those calls,she leaned on the cloudiness of the future. “Events have a way of unfolding,” she’d say, “and none of us can be absolutely sure what the end will be.” She would reassure them that life, on balance, does get better and that a brighter future was waiting for them if they were willing to go get it. Which was not advice that was privy only to psychics, but it seemed to make them feel better.

After a few hours of angry lovers, people who wanted to know about Life Beyond the Veil and a few folks who seemed to just want to talk, Carissa took her final call of the night.

“Welcome to The Psychic Connection,” she said. “I am Roxinda and I am at your service.” Countless movies and TV shows had taught her what people expected to hear from a psychic, and she was sure to deliver – a voice that sounded like she smoked too much, a name that was just exotic enough, and a trace of an accent that had no clear origin. “Let me part the veil and reveal to you what the future holds.”

The person on the other end waited nearly long enough to make her think the call had dropped. Then he spoke. “You’re a liar,” he said. He sounded exhausted. His voice cracked, and seemed to be coming from far away.

“Why would you say that?” Carissa asked. She’d been accused of not being a real psychic before, of course. There were the skeptics who tried to test her and the angry family members who were upset that their mother or brother or son was allowing some so-called “Psychic” to make decisions for them. Carissa had some sympathy, of course. She wasn’t psychic, and she was pretty sure none of her co-workers were either. They were all just really good at figuring people out, cold reading and making the vague and speculative sound precise and prophetic. They weren’t allowed to reveal that, of course. Admitting to not actually being psychic was the fastest way to lose the job, and right now Carissa needed what little cash she could scrape in.

The man on the other end of the phone sighed, and it was heavy and tired. “I know your type,” he said. “You let us give you our money and you wave your hands around and tell us what we should do. and then you hang up, and nothing is ever your problem again.”

Carissa blinked. That was a new approach for her. “Perhaps you could tell me about your problem,” she said. “I feel a great sense of urgency, of a great decision that needs to be made.”

He laughed, and it was a single, short bark. “You could say that, yeah. Yeah, a decision.” He paused, and Carissa could hear the short scrape of a lighter being lit. “I sure do have a decision to make,” he said around what ha to be a cigarette. He exhaled, and it sounded like wind in her ear. “I’m on a bridge,” he said. “A good high one. And I’m just about ready to jump.” He took another inhale. “And it looks like a long, long way down.”

Carissa’s insides froze as he spoke. Part of her wanted to keep him on the line, to keep him talking. But she had no idea what to say to him, no idea what she could say to keep him from jumping. And if she should say the wrong thing? If she said something that made him want to jump? Her mind froze up, and throat closed. After a moment, he said, “You still there?”

She took a breath and had to try a couple of times. “Yes,” she said. “Of course I’m still here. I… I would…” She swallowed, hard. “Sir, perhaps you have called the wrong hotline?”

This time his laugh sounded genuine, if still dark and bitter. “That was good,” he said. “Nice.” Another exhale. “No,” he said. “I called you and I wanted you.”

“Well, then,” she said. “Tell me what I can do for you?” All of her lines fled from her head. She knew what her psychic persona should ask him, but she couldn’t make it come out. Finally she settled on, “How can I help you?”

“You can give me back the life you people took from me,” he said, and all the humor was gone from his voice.

“Sir,” she said. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Carissa reached down and grabbed her purse from the floor. “What do you think we did to you?” She started rifling through her bag. There was a notebook and a pen in there somewhere, she was sure of it.

“You’re the psychic,” he said. “You tell me.”

She resisted the urge to sigh. That was always a favorite line whenever she tried to fish for information from people, and it was a hard one to get past sometimes. “Very well,” she said, laying on the accent a little thicker. “This is not the first time you have called us,” she said. The notebook was at the bottom of her bag, of course. She pulled it out and started looking for her pen. “One of our number has helped you in the past.”

“Very good, Saturn Girl,” he said. Carissa didn’t get the reference, but she caught the tone. “And how do you think that turned out?”

She found the pen and quickly scribbled a note on a piece of paper. “You are troubled.” Guy on phone going to kill himself, she wrote. “Your problem remains unresolved.” What the hell do I do? “You are searching for answers to a question you do not know how to ask.” She leaned over to Lizette, the girl who sat next to her, and slid the note onto her desk. “You wish to know -”

“What I wish to know,” he said, “is where the hell you people get off?” The anger in his voice was a good sign, at least from a psychic point of view. Angry people were less careful about what they said, more prone to letting information slip. She tapped the note, and Lizette waved her off. She was on a call of her own, and it looked interesting.

“We are merely conduits,” Carissa said. “We look into the mirror darkly and interpret what we see.”

He barked out a laugh again, and she could hear him lighting another cigarette. “A mirror darkly,” he said. “That’s a good one. You people steal my wife from me, my job, my friends, and all you can do is mis-quote the Bible at me.”

“Sir, I assure you. We stole nothing from you. All we do is advise.”

“Advise?” he said. “You people advised me that my wife was cheating on me with my best friend. You advised me that my boss was planning to get me fired. What the hell kind of advice is that?”

Carissa looked over at Lizette, who had just tapped her on the shoulder. She pointed at the note and mouthed, “Seriously?” Carissa nodded, and Lizette started to write her own reply.

“I am sure that it was advice given in good faith,” Carissa said. She took the paper from Lizette, who had written, Find out where in her loopy handwriting. Carissa gave her a thumbs-up, and Lizette got up from her station. That was a surefire method of getting a supervisor’s attention, and usually not in a good way.

“In good faith,” the man said. “You mean you were making shit up.” His voice was getting tired again. The anger was draining away from it, and Carissa wasn’t sure what that meant. “You were just doing what you do – taking my three dollars per minute and pulling answers from your ass.” He sighed into the phone, and the hairs on the back of Carissa’s neck went up. “I should’ve known better.”

She could picture him. He sounded middle-aged, and the wife and job comment seemed to point that way. He smoked, and that gave her an image of a thinner, sallow man. Standing on a bridge, looking down on the water below. Probably wearing the clothes he woke up in that morning. The tips of his shoes – his sneakers – would be peeking over the edge, and the wind would be cold and wet. She wondered if there was anyone else on the bridge, and why no one had stopped to see if he was okay. It was only 10:30, after all. There should be some traffic. She wrote on her pad, High bridge, little traffic? – and passed it to Lizette, who was showing the original note to the floor manager.

“Sir,” she said. “I understand you are upset. The waters of the future… they can be treacherous. Even we who see can sometimes only see poorly.” She glanced up at the floor manager, who made a twirling motion with his finger over the note. More. “But no matter what we see or do not see, the future is ultimately up to the choices we make. And perhaps a lonely bridge in the middle of the night in your sweatpants is not the best choice right now?” Carissa cringed a little. She always did when she guessed blindly like that.

There was a silence on his end, and she thought for a moment that he’d jumped. Then he said, “How did you know that?”

She wanted to say that he’d given her all the clues. That her uncle had lost his job a year ago, and he was still on the couch, in sweats and a dirty t-shirt lamenting the unfairness of it all. That the caller was probably clinically depressed by now, and one of the features of depression was not caring for one’s appearance. She wanted to say that she had studied this kind of thing, that they’d talked about it in class. That she’d woven the image together out of guesswork and hope.

Instead she said, “My eyes give me the visions. All I can do is trust that they are right.”

And she hated herself for it, even though it worked.

“Please, sir,” she said. “Give life another chance. Tell us where you are, and we can send someone to help you.”

“What,” he said. “You mean like a spirit guide or some bullshit like that?”

Carissa smiled, and wasn’t sure if she was about to laugh or cry. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “But perhaps a friend?” She gritted her teeth. “I feel that there is someone who can help you, but you feel unworthy of his help. You could call, but…”

“But I couldn’t,” he finished. His voice cracked again, and she thought he might be crying. After a little coaxing, he gave her a name and a phone number. She wrote them down.

“Thank you,” she said. “And your name?”

He hesitated before saying, “Leonard,” he said. “Leonard Wells. I’m at the Palmer Mill Bridge.”

Carissa let her breath out slowly. “Thank you, Leonard,” she said. She handed the note to Lizette, who nodded and pulled out her cell phone. “We’ll call your friend for you. In the meantime, can you stay on the line with me? Just so I know you’re okay?”

“I dunno,” he said. “At three dollars a minute…” He laughed a moment before she did. She scrawled another note to the floor manager, who would probably be able to find the right person to get the charges fixed.

She stayed on the phone with him for an hour, her accent fading as she talked. When his friend arrived, she let him go. “Good luck, Leonard,” she said. She pushed the white button on her phone, and dropped her head to her desk. Lizette and the floor manager and a few other people who had realized what was going on started applauding and patting her on the back for her work. Carissa got the rest of the night off after that. When the buzz had died down and the floor manager told everyone to get back to their phones, Carissa carefully put the photograph of her mother back in her purse, squeezed Lizette’s shoulder as she walked out, and left the call center.

She never went back.

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  1. November 30, 2011 at 10:34 PM
  2. November 30, 2011 at 10:37 PM

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