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Piper dials the phone with the top of her pencil eraser, like she once saw a receptionist glamorously do in a movie. In reality, it’s inefficient, and she tosses the Ticonderoga aside on the fifth number to finish out the rest with her scraggly fingernail. She’s been biting them far too much lately. A casualty of the job, she thinks.

Across the telephonic distance, there’s a click. A rustle against a receiver. A gruff voice that either comes with age, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, or having James Earl Jones as a father. “Hello?”

“Hi, is this Ron Davidson?” she asks.

“Yes, who is this?”

“My name is Piper, I’m conducting a poll with—”

“How did you get this number?” Ron says, the words coming out loud like the rumble of a train speeding over the tracks. “You know what? Don’t answer that, and don’t call me again!”

The line goes dead like it does 99 out of 100 times. No one wants to have their nights interrupted by a ringing phone to answer some questions for which they have no care and get nothing in return.

Hell, she doesn’t even want to make the call and it’s her job.

But rarely do the people on her list of calls understand that. It doesn’t matter that their feeling is mutual. She’s a pest. Nothing more. Possibly something less—like boat scum or mud clotted and dried onto a boot’s bottom.

To make it more bearable, at times, she likes to imagine she’s working in the 1940s, connecting people with the plug of a wire, while wearing a classy headset, all shiny black plastic and chrome set into overly-sprayed hair. Unfortunately, none of her fantasy rings true. There’s no cuteness to her gear—or comfort for that matter—and when she calls, all she does is leave people in a worse mood than she found them.

The only redeemable quality is the paycheck deposited into her account every two weeks. It gives her enough to do a little more than scrape by, while she drives her energy into creative pursuits.

Piper also can’t deny that more than once the people on the other end of the phone line—or just a few cubicles down from her—have found life in some form or another on her canvas.

Like Andie Ross.

Her name is just above Ron’s on her paper of phone numbers, but unlike Ron, she was a repeat for Piper. Three weeks ago, she brightened her name in green highlighter as they’re supposed to do to remind themselves to circle back to a caller. When the whole page is green, though, she’s just adding another blade of grass to an already overgrown lawn.

On her first call, Andie answered and before Piper could get a word out. She started at her in three —THREE—different languages. Despite being able to identify some of the colorful words, Piper couldn’t find it in herself to be too offended. No, she was flat out impressed.

She pictured Andie as some everyday warrior, armed with smarts and a take-no-bull attitude, ready to put anyone who dared crossed her into their place. After her shift with Andie’s imaginary traits, Piper crafted such a protagonist into her new short story. When, tonight, she picked up the phone by banging it against something hard—maybe a thick wall of concrete for how ear-piercing it was—Piper felt like her characterization was right.

“Sir, I understand you’re on a no-call list…”

“No sir … I just get a list of numbers. I’m not the one who makes them.” Piper swivels ninety degrees to look at the desk diagonal to her, where her-coworker Zoe props her head against her hand, fingers woven through her sunlight-colored hair.  They catch eyes and Zoe rolls hers, pulling her mouth in an exasperated expression.

“I apologize sir. If you’d like, I can transfer you to my supervisor,” she says, using their one “get out of jail free card” to be used in instances the conversations escalated. Half the time, the person would take it. The other half, they’d respond with pushing “end” on their phone.

When Zoe enters three numbers into the keypad, she knows their supervisor is about to get a blaze of hellfire sent her way.

Over her shoulder, Zoe shrugs with a sideways smile. “People.”

“People,” Piper repeats and Zoe returns to her phone.

Unlike Piper, this isn’t the only paycheck Zoe has to work for.

And she isn’t the sole person she has to support. On the cusp of Zoe’s 19th year, a piece of solid-metal factory machinery dropped on her dad as he performed maintenance on it. With the snap of a restraint, life as she knew it shattered, just as his leg had.

The company gave him a settlement, which quickly was eaten up by hospital bills and medications and day-to-day expenses. While a disability check appeared in their mailbox each month, and her 14 year-old brother received some benefits, it wasn’t enough for all of them to survive, or even two out of three. To bridge the gap, there was no other choice but for her to extend herself across jobs as far as she could.

Many a time, pieces of Zoe—her strength, her wit, her circumstances—in some way or another sparked a story from Piper. Every nugget she scribbles on to a scrap of paper, squirreling it away like an animal preparing for hibernation, creating a reserve if inspiration becomes scarce. Between everyone she’s spoken to at desks beside her and through sound waves, she has quite the store.

Which she needs. She doesn’t write solely for enjoyment, or to be like her hero, Jo March, and earn a few dollars from selling off a story or two.

Just as this job helps her survive physically, the writing helps her survive mentally.

Without it, she doesn’t know how she would make sense of this knotted, dirty ball of yarn that is life.

Down the aisle, their supervisor walks and before she can get written up, Piper turns back to her call sheet and dials another number. As the trills come through her headset, she wishes the phone had a camera, and whoever answers would see into this room before shouting or insulting. If they could, she had a feeling they’d realize they weren’t just a nightly annoyance, but the same as them: people trying to get through life in whatever way they can.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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