Listen to a reading of “Eight Rings” by Meghan Pipe.
Frances Bjorklund is the first name to appear on your call screen and you wonder, adjusting your headset and pulling the lever on your chair to let it hush down a few inches, what Frances will be doing when you call. Perhaps the hot breath of the oven is hitting her face as she checks the crisping top of a casserole. The light of a muted television may be throwing a blue glow onto the rivulets of her veiny hands. She might check the Caller ID on the phone in its dock, next to a carved wooden loon on a bedside table: MN ORCH, area code 612.
Of course, she may be dead. It will not be the first time you’ve called and asked for a dead person. Jake has you on probation after last week: you got no pledges, no donations, and he caught you hanging up without making a second ask. Your calling pool is now SYBUNTS, which is an acronym for Some Year But Not This (Year), as in they gave money some year that wasn’t this year, but SYBUNTS just sounds like cyborg cunts to you and it’s hard to take the task seriously. The Some Year range that Jake has given you is in the late 1980s, a throwback to years you spent licking flecks of lead paint off the walls in your mother’s kitchen. Why are you calling me, they say when you introduce yourself. I’m retired, I can’t travel to the concerts anymore. Take me off your call list.
Well, I see here that you donated $10 back in 1988, and on behalf of the Minnesota Orchestra I just want to thank—
You’ve got some nerve calling me at dinnertime, the voices say. If words were liquid, these ones would ooze from your headset like spoiled milk.
Have a wonderful evening, you say, but it is only dead air on the other line.
In the cubicle next to you, the girl who introduces herself as Laura on the phone is doodling. An anthropomorphic rabbit with hentai curves and a studded jacket smokes languidly in the margin of Laura’s call script. Black ballpoint ink skids the base of her palm, the part of the palm that your father told you could break a nose in one strike. Laura is studying to be a massage therapist, which you only know because she tells people on the phone during the ‘building rapport’ portion of the script.
The fluorescent gleam of the call center reflects off the windows like a mirror after dusk, which lingers a few minutes more each day now that February is stretching into March. You see your reflection staring back: flecks of yesterday’s mascara dotting your cheeks like volcano ash, greasy bangs pushed back with a bobby pin because you had no reason to wash your hair today. You’re wearing a sweater taken from your mom the last time you visited home, because it smelled like detergent and the skillet onions that all of her recipes begin with. When you started working here, you told her you’d gotten a job in the orchestra’s development department. Interacting with constituents, you phrased it. Preserving the future of classical music. You don’t tell her that the dress code is ‘no pajama bottoms,’ and that you are the only person here who can pronounce Shostakovich.
How great is that, she said, I’m so proud. What did I tell you, everything happens for a reason. Just look how it all worked out. She told you the same thing when your fifth grade stand partner came back from Vermont with her arm in a sling and you got to play the Brandenberg solo instead.
Laura snaps her gum so loud you can hear it over the ringing in your ears. After six, seven, eight long tones, a wavering voice tells you that Frances isn’t home, to leave a message and please talk slowly when you do.
About the author:
Meghan Pipe lives and writes in Minneapolis, though her squawking vowels hint at New York roots. When she isn’t writing short fiction, Meghan works at the Loft Literary Center and collects stamps in her Passport to the National Parks. Her work is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket.