Toll-Free

fiction by Rudrapriya Rathore | runner-up for the 2016 Blodwyn Memorial Prize in fiction, sponsored by BookThug

 

Near the end of the year, the toll-free number flashes across my phone three, five, seven times a day. There’s an odd rhythm about it that orders everything I do. A buzz on the morning subway ride where the train surfaces long enough to get phone signal, like a metallic dolphin mid-leap. A buzz during my lunch break while I eat my cucumber-cheese sandwich at the receptionist’s desk. A buzz when I walk to the grocery store in the evening, or if it’s Friday, to the Owl to get a drink with Phil. And when I get home after dark, two or three more while I watch TV in bed, the phone lighting up my covers with its bluish glow.

I never pick it up.

“Why not?” asks Phil, sucking down his weekly dose of pub fries while they’re still hot.

“Why should I? It’s just a telemarketer.”

“You don’t know that.” We’re more than a year deep into Owl Fridays and the waitresses know us so well they give us the same window table every time. Phil likes the curvy girl with the ponytail, though he’d never admit it, and gives his usual order trying not to look at her chest.

“Who else would call me this many times? It’s a machine, I bet. Not even a real telemarketer.”

“What if it’s your bank?” He licks the salt off his fingers.

“It’s not my bank. My bank emails me.”

“It could be your insurance company, or your internet.” He glugs his beer. “What if it’s the government or something? CSIS?” We look at each other for a moment, thinking it through. Then he snorts into his pint and I laugh because he’s dripping on his shirt collar.

“Alright, I get it. I’m too boring for CSIS.”

“That’s true. You haven’t even had two beers in a row since college.” Phil wipes his face. He likes this. If I play along for long enough, he slips his arm around me on the walk back to the subway station. Once in a long while, he comes home with me. We have sex for half an hour and then he calls a cab, waving as it pulls up to the curb.

This began when I got the job at the reception desk. Phil’s a manager in the office, I think, or an agent. A buyer. A seller. They’re all something like that, the ten or twenty men and women that pass by me every day on their way to the coffee machine. They look the same: blandly content, middle class. They say the same things on a weekly rotation. Hump Day! Happy Friday! Nearly the weekend now! Ah, Mondays! Sometimes I play a game where I try and beat them to it. “Almost Friday!” I say as Marie turns the corner, her glossy pink lips just opening up to greet me. She pauses. I think I see a flash of irritation move across her face—or maybe it’s just a ripple in the sea of foundation-powder blush. “That’s right!” she replies, heels clicking by.

“If I’m boring, what are your colleagues?” I ask Phil.

He shakes his head and gets up to pay. “You should pick up the call. See who it is.”

The phone buzzes two more times that night, and each time, as I lay there in my pajamas watching TV, I look over hoping it’s Phil. CSIS agent here, Ma’am. We’re concerned about the dullness of your daily routine. He might say that, if he called. That sounds like him.

I think of calling him, but I can’t make myself do it, can’t imagine what I would say. That kind of spontaneity belongs to a different kind of person. Those people regularly surprise themselves with what they come up with. They find a new version of themselves in every phone call, while I agonize over how to sign off in work emails. Sometimes I sent documents I needed for the next day in emails to myself. I watched them leave and then land in my inbox, a virtual boomerang. Each one pinged, Look! It’s you!

But the toll-free calls were different. I liked knowing that someone or something had logged my number. There was an entity on the other end of the line, and it wanted something from me.

I roll over and turn off the TV show. It’s almost eleven o’clock. If I did call Phil, he might not answer. That would be the best scenario, I think, if he sat in the dark, too, watching the phone buzz, liking the feeling of being wanted.

***

Either the next day or the next week, I get a voicemail. I stare at it with my eyebrows furrowed over my cucumber sandwich before opening it. I almost want to walk to Phil’s office so we can listen to it together, but I don’t. It’s been so long since I listened to a voicemail that it takes me five tries to remember my password, and when I finally get it right, the perky automated voice sounds a lot like Marie. I listen hard, but the message is just silence. Not dead air, exactly, but a kind of quiet hum. When I listen the second time I think I can hear a slight shuffle. Clothes, maybe, rustling against each other.

I tell Phil later, when he walks by to get coffee, and he says, “That’s weird.”

“I know.”

“Pick it up! Next time. I’m telling you.” He raises his eyebrows for emphasis.

That day I get home and tip over the potted plant on my windowsill while doing dishes. It spills fresh, black soil into the clean dishes on the counter, so I have to wash them all over again. Afterwards, I fix the plant and realize the windowsill’s dirty, so I clean that too, and it gets me on a roll, scrubbing the counters and the floors and the walls of the kitchen, where dirt has been secretly accumulating without my noticing. The top of the fridge where I keep the cereal boxes. The crack of space between the stove unit and the cupboards. I clean until my knees hurt and my nostrils burn from the soap and bleach, and then I listen to the silent message saved on my phone again, this time with earphones, so I can turn it all the way up. The shuffle is still there, hiding under a hum. Something human that does not speak.

It starts happening all the time. My voice mailbox fills up every two days, the mechanical-Marie alerting me loudly every time I punch in my password. The messages are always nearly silent, but one in every ten or so sounds slightly different. There’s a muted, tinny beeping through one of them. A sound that could be breathing, if you listen a certain way. A buzz like an air conditioner.

One night, I make a spreadsheet so I know how often the noises happen and colour-code it according to the time of day. I type the number into a search engine, but nothing comes up. I even search company directories online, trying to trace it to a corporation. Another night, I dream that something is watching me through the small camera lens on my phone, so I stick a little piece of green tape over it when I wake up.

Phil passes by my desk three or four times a day and we exchange nods. Friday at the Owl, he leaves early, after only one drink, so I go home and scroll through the spreadsheet, waiting for the phone to ring so I can make another entry. According to the numbers, I’ve been receiving more calls since that first voice message. It’s no longer three, five, seven times a day but thirteen, fifteen, seventeen. I cross-reference columns, trying to find a pattern, but there’s nothing there except for the fact that I never get the good voicemails, the human ones, more than once or twice a day.

It should be scary. I know this. It should make me feel anxious, like I’m under surveillance. But it makes work bearable, to have that phone constantly buzzing in my pocket where no one else can hear it. I suddenly like seeing Marie, because she doesn’t know that she sounds like the automated voicemail lady who greets me so fondly, and I wonder in my daydreams at the desk if Phil is actually the one making the calls, because maybe he doesn’t know how else to tell me he loves me.

My mother calls. I hear another call go through while she tells me about her new yoga class, and my hands shiver a little while I think about the new voicemail. She asks me if I’m dating anyone, and it slips out of my mouth: Yes, I am—actually, he’s here, I have to go. But of course she asks who, and I tell her, A man in my office, we get along great, it’s been a couple of months now.

“Well, well,” she says in a tone of voice that suggests she finds this difficult to believe, “What’s his name?”

Another call starts on the other line and my palms grow clammy. “Phi-Patrick.”

“What?” I resist the urge to hang up on her.

“Patrick,” I repeat. Maybe the voicemails have sharpened my ears somehow, because I can hear something that sounds just like if she was sucking on a cigarette. She hasn’t smoked since before I was born, though, and I refuse to ask her.

“It sounds like things are really looking up for you, darling. I couldn’t be happier. Just a little while ago you were telling me how bored you were, and terrified of never getting married. Is this Patrick—I mean, is he serious about you?”

My hand lowers the phone from my ear. There’s a translucent smear of sweat and beige makeup on the screen. Feeling as though my face is breaking down and sliding off me in wet little puddles, I half-cover the bottom half of the phone and call out to my empty kitchen, Patrick, hon, are you serious about me? and giggle.

“He says he’s not quite sure yet,” I say to her, laughing.

She laughs too. I hang up and wash my face.

***

I love it when Phil is nervous. This I realize at James’s retirement party, which I attend in a blue dress that makes my legs look longer than they really are. A big frosted cake has been ordered from the bakery in honour of James, his name piped over it in green and yellow, and a card that says, Now Real Life Can Begin! has been signed by everyone regardless of whether they spoke to James or not.

Phil gives a speech. It’s not clear to me why he is the one giving the speech instead of one of James’s friends. Maybe he is a bigger manager or agent or buyer or seller than I thought. He hands out glasses of champagne in the lunchroom and then takes a few index cards out of his pocket. He reads off them a few things about how lucky we have all been to benefit from the great attitude James brought into the office, and makes a joke about how some people think not working means being less tired, but others think it means being re-tired, tired again. Then he begins to talk about how much we’ll miss him. He must have copied the cards out wrong, because he reads the same one twice. He knows, too, but is too embarrassed to stop, and remains blotchy for minutes after everyone has toasted James and begun to chat again.

I watch from across the room, near the doorway, and he catches my eye and smiles. I gesture to him with my glass and point out the door, trying to ask if he wants to grab a drink later, but he shrugs and begins talking to someone.

Later on, at home, I watch the phone ring. For reassurance, I print off a copy of the spreadsheet, all eighty pages of it, and lay on my impeccably clean bedroom floor listening to the hum of the printer. I remember my favourite voicemails—the breathing, the definitely human shuffle. There will be someone, I tell myself, who can explain this to me. I smooth my hair and tuck it behind my ears before beginning to read over the notes on the spreadsheet again.

 

RR authorpic-hiRUDRAPRIYA RATHORE is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at U of T. She won the Irving Layton award for fiction in 2014 and has published pieces in the Hart House Review, The Puritan, and The Walrus. She lives and writes in Toronto.