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“Hello, my name is Belle. I am calling on behalf of—”

They hang up.

“Hello, my name is Ariel. I am calling behalf of Krippler Incorporated, a market research institute. Today we are conducting—”

“On behalf of wha’?” replies a woman with a heavy southern accent.

“On behalf of Krippler Incorporated, a market research institute.”

“Wha’s tha’?”

“It is, uh, a market research institute.”

“Where are you calling from?”

“We are located in Ottawa,” I recite.

“Where?”

“Ottawa, the capital city of Canada.”

“Oh,” she says, sleepy, “never heard of it.”

Then she hangs up.

“Hello. My name is Pocahontas. I am calling on behalf of—”

“Pocawhat?” repeats the respondent.

“Pocahontas. I am calling on behalf of Krippler Incorporated—”

“That ain’t no name.”

“No it is,” I assure him. “Today we are conducting a survey—”

“Yer parents hippies or wha’?”

“Aboriginal,” I answer. “Our survey today is on feline diabetes.”

“I ain’t talking to no hip—” he begins to say as he hangs up.

I find it difficult to envision a place more hellish than a labyrinth of grey cubicles populated by depressed, robotic-speaking smokers responding graciously to a never-ending lineup of people telling them to fuck off.”

Disheartened by everyone hanging up on me, I decide that it is time to cheer myself up. I touch the post-it note adhered to my computer screen and dial the number. I listen to it ringing while absentmindedly twirling the phone cord in my fingers, in the same way that prepubescent girls do when they call a boy that they have a crush on.

“Hi Billy, this is Sarah calling from your English class. Janey said you like me, is that true?”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m calling on behalf of Krippler—”

He hangs up.

“Hello?”

“Hello this is Aurora calling on behalf of Krippler Incorp—”

“NO!” the man promptly begins shrieking. “You Godforsaken cretins have called me every Goddamn day for the past fortnight!”

“Please accept my apology—”

“I absolutely will not accept anything from you! You can remove me from your calling list!”

I look down at my calling list and recite: “We do not have a calling list, sir.”

“Liar!” he explodes. “You are absolutely lying! I demand your name!”

I forget which name I gave him.

“Your name!” he repeats.

“Jane.”

“Why don’t you go out and get yourself a real job, Jane? Why don’t you go to school? Why don’t you become a contributing member of society!”

“Please let me assure you that I am not selling anything—”

“I hope you rot in hell!” he screeches as he hangs up.

***

I would not be astounded to discover that Krippler Incorporated is actually Hell. I find it difficult to envision a place more hellish than a labyrinth of grey cubicles populated by depressed, robotic-speaking smokers collectively responding graciously to a never-ending lineup of people telling them to fuck off. I suspect that Hell is also decorated with dusty synthetic ferns and yellowed motivational posters. I would certainly not be surprised to discover that Satan himself is responsible for the incessant buzzing noise that rains persistently down from the fluorescent lights above me.

***

I am spending my lunch break in the hoary back alley of Krippler Incorporated, in exile with my fellow smokers. Communally exhaling, we have created an imposing white cloud of tobacco and condensation over our heads. It looms there, joining the looming repentance and remorse we probably all share.

Snow has coated my hair like icing and my fingertips feel anaesthetized.

The frigid outside has prompted me to toy once again with the idea of quitting smoking, but then how will I slowly kill myself?

I am accompanied by two women who both possess unmemorable names. One of the two women has the face of a person who has done heroin. The other of the two women has the face of a regular person, who has likely never done heroin. Frank is also standing with us, but he does not smoke.

Prototype hands-free phone by Western Electric, 1922. AT&T/Wikimedia Commons

Heroin-face asks us, “Are you guys getting many interviews?”

Regular-face answers, “Yeah, a couple.”

I reply, “A few.”

Frank nods. “I got a couple too.” Then he chuckles. “This one guy—”

Heroin-face interrupts him before he can finish his sentence.

She says, “This is the worst job I’ve ever had.” She then inhales half her cigarette in one go.

Frank does not attempt to finish his story. He looks down at his feet, defeated.

I glare at the woman as she exhales, bothered by her mistreatment of Frank.

Regular-face nods. “You’re telling me. It’s a soulless job.”

I nod too. “Totally.”

“I used to dance,” heroin-face shares. This doesn’t really surprise me. “I got too old for that though.”

I smile weakly at her sad, drug-assaulted face. “What are you talking about? You don’t look a day over nineteen.”

She grins at me. “Thank you, baby.”

Nineteen million.

“I used to work for a pet store,” Frank tells us, looking up from his feet. He shakes his head. “I got fired for stealing pens.”

***

I have buttoned my blouse all the way up my neck in preparation for my probation meeting. I did this in an effort to present myself as meek and upright; however, all I have succeeded in doing is presenting myself as breathless. My humble and unassertive outfit is gently depriving me of oxygen. Seemingly distraught by being draped over my immodest body, the unyielding grip of my collar is softly strangling me.

“So how are things?” Asks my probation counselor, who is dressed in a low-cut breathable smock.

“Good.” I smile, covertly resentful of her comfortable collarline.

“How’s work?”

“Good,” I say again, still smiling. Still being strangled.

She begins to read a list of my prescribed medications.

“So, you’re on Lithium, Fluvoxamine, and Clozapine?”

“Yes,” I nod, internally resisting a powerful compulsion to tear the buttons off my shirt.

“And are you taking anything else?” She locks her pupils with mine.

“Absolutely—” I gasp for air “—not.”

***

“Jane!”

After returning home from my probation meeting, I laid down on the floor of my bedroom. Weak and frail from breathing inadequately for hours, I concluded that walking the extra meter to my bed would be too strenuous an exercise.

Cushioned by the piles of clothing that I have amassed on my carpet and sedated by a fistful of Clozapine, I accidently dozed off.

“Jane!”

“What?” I stir, winded.

Keats’ girlfriend, Ivy, pushes my door open. It fights against my mounds of laundry.

“As per usual, Jonathan’s asleep”, she complains while positioning one of my hoodies under her head and lying down beside me.

She always refers to Keats by his first name.

“Typical Jonathan.” I rub my eyes.

“I hope that you don’t mind me hanging out here anyways,” she says, without pausing for me to interject with my feelings on the subject. “I just cannot stay at my parent’s house for even a moment longer.”

“Not even a moment, eh?”

“Let me ask you something,” she continues, “what do your parents do?”

“My parents are dead.”

“Oh Jane. I’m so sorry,” she stammers.

“That’s okay. They died a long time ago.”

“How long ago?”

“I was thirteen. They both died of a pretty rare disease. It was eventually named after them, actually. Jerry and Sheryl Syndrome. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”

She shakes her head.

“It’s pretty rare.”

She begins to extend her arm out towards me, apparently aiming to touch my hand in some sort of gesture of awkward sympathy.

I dodge her touch and say, “They were pharmacists before they died though, to answer your question. Really great pharmacists, too. Critically acclaimed. Why did you ask?”

“Oh,” she breathes, “because my dad owns a car wash.” She rolls her eyes. “A fucking car wash. And you’d think it washed AIDS cure, the way he talks about it. Every conversation I have ever had with my father has revolved around the Ottawa City Car Wash. Can you even imagine?”

“I can’t.”

“My sisters and I spend every family dinner sitting silently listening to my parents delude themselves about that stupid car wash. They think it’s the most interesting place on earth, I swear. And my mom just hangs on my dad’s every word about it. She encourages him! She says stuff like, ‘Really, honey? Wow a Porsche came in today?’” she mimics her mother’s voice, which is apparently comically high-pitched. “I just want to scream shut up, you know? I just want to fucking scream that no one gives a shit about the car wash.”

“Then do it.” I advise.

She laughs. “Yeah, right. Would you say that to your dad?”

I shrug. “Yes.”

***

Keats has awoken from his ritual mid-day nap and has come to accompany me and Ivy in my room. The three of us are now lying on my bedroom floor, taking turns with a sixty of tepid beer, a cigarette, and a joint. I am now in possession of the beer.

Keats is discussing tomatoes.

“Anyone who would willingly eat a genetically modified tomato deserves a medal for stupidity. A medal.”

Ivy nods. “Totally.”

I consider the sum of money I would be willing to bet that Ivy has no idea what genetically modified food is.

I like to press sharp objects against myself and bleed… The one setback I have experienced is that people who see the marks either interpret them as a cry for help or for attention.”

“But what are we supposed to do?” Keats continues, impassioned. “We can buy organic, sure. Sure, if the food labeled organic were actually organic. It’s just a sticker used to up the price tag.” He exhales loudly. “We are all under the oppressive rule of Monsanto. Modern day peasants living under the tyranny of the corporate kings. We might as well brand ourselves with barcodes.”

“Yeah, like what even is organic?” Ivy adds insightfully as she tugs the sixty from my grip, apparently fervent for her turn with it.

This causes her to inadvertently move the sleeve of my sweater up my arm.

“Speaking of branding,” she murmurs while I pull away from her.

Keats’ eyes dart to my arm.

I like to press sharp objects against myself and bleed. I consider this a recreational activity that has little to no negative ramifications on my everyday life. The one setback I have experienced is that people who see the marks either interpret them as a cry for help or for attention. I then receive their unwanted pity, or their judgement for being attention-seeking. The subject is embarrassing.

I just like the sensation, and I believe that I should be able to amputate my own hand if I am so compelled. I am the sole owner of all of my own appendages.

I scowl at Ivy while I pull my sleeve back down.

“Some of those look pretty fresh, Jane,” Keats says in his angry voice.

Keats expresses his affection for me by acting in an inappropriately paternal way. Though I can appreciate that the sentiment is coming from a loving place, Keats is derisorily underqualified to be my father.

I take a drag from the cigarette.

“Jane…” Ivy says in a vexed tone that irks me and makes me want to punch her in the face.

“Hush,” I say to them both calmly, trying to remain in control of my cool.

I am the master of my cool.

“You know that we both care about you, right?” Ivy says softly.

I cringe. “Every expression of emotion is overly sentimental and a reflection of one’s stupidity, Ivy.”

“Why do you do that to yourself?” Keats asks me loudly.

“Why?”

I imagine force-feeding Keats genetically modified tomatoes.

“Why?” he demands again.

“I do it entirely to trouble you,” I sneer, losing my grip on my cool.

“Well consider me troubled!” He flings the roach of the joint onto my bedroom floor and storms out of the room.

“I already consider you troubled,” I say before he marches fully out of sight.

***

In direct response to the unsolicited meddling of Keats and Ivy, I have tinted my bath water rosy with the happy colouring of my insides. I move my legs rapidly under the water to create waves. I am Moses reincarnated, turning this tub into the Red Sea. Bringing God’s almighty wrath onto this unholy washroom. The rubber ducky cowers in my presence. My wrists bleed like I’m Christ.

***

Frank came into work today proudly clutching a new pen to gift me with. He placed it delicately in front of me on my desk, like a religious offering. The words “Larry’s Famous Pet Store” are emblazoned on its side, and its cap is shaped like the head of a dog.

“Is this for me?”

He nods. “Yup.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

***

A woman is taking my survey.

“Feline diabetes, gosh!”

She exhales loudly down the phone.

“Yeah, pretty heavy stuff.” I yawn. “Do you, or any member of your household, own a cat?”

“Yes, I have four cats.”

I code “yes” into my computer.

“And what are their ages?”

“Dwayne is eighteen, Desmond is ten, Dixie is also ten, and Muffin is two.” She laughs. “And I know what you’re thinking, who names their cat Muffin? Well, let me tell you, if you saw her you’d see how well it suits her.”

I try to imagine a cat that looks like a muffin.

“Do any of them have pre-existing health problems?” I ask.

“Mhm. Dwayne is completely blind. Can you believe that? He’s totally blind. Gets around totally on smells. Isn’t that just remarkable?”

“Yeah,” I say, “that’s pretty impressive, sure.”

“And Desmond’s got liver problems, which is what normally kills cats. Did you know that?”

“I didn’t.”

Everything I know about cats derives fully from this survey.

“Excuse me for just a minute, miss,” she says, “I have to go turn my television down. The news keeps reporting on this awful story about a homicidal boy.”

“That’s fine,” I tell her.

“Have you heard about that?”

“About what?”

“This kid who murdered his whole family,” she sighs.

“That’s terrible.”

“It’s grotesque. The news is always reporting on the horror stuff.

For once I’d like to hear a pleasant story. You know?”

“Yeah, maybe something on a blind cat,” I suggest.

She giggles. “Wouldn’t that be neat?”

“Gets around totally on smells,” I say under my breath, imagining that I am the reporter.

***

“Hello, my name is Mallory. I am calling on behalf of—”

“You must be joking!”

“Krippler Incorporated. Today we are conducting a survey on feline diabetes—”

“You goddamn impudent excuses for human beings have called my household relentlessly for weeks! I demand your employee number!”

“I don’t have an employee number.”

“Preposterous! There is no reputable company—” he stops himself. “Oh, of course you don’t have an employee number. Of course Krippler Incorporated, enterprise of the depraved, doesn’t abide by Goddamn rudimentary business principles!”

“Our survey today is on feline diabetes.” I press on. “Do you, or any member of your household, own a cat?”

He hangs up.

***

“Hello, my name is Ainsley. I am calling on behalf of—”

“Ainsley? Or is this Jane again?”

“My apologies, yes, this is Jane calling on behalf of Krippler Incorporated. Today we are conducting—”

“A survey on cat diabetes,” the man finishes my sentence.

“Exactly yes.” I continue. “Do you or any member of your household own a cat?”

“Are you suicidal, Jane?” he asks me calmly. “Are you?” he repeats, the volume of his voice increasing. “Because I sense that you may be. Why else would you continue to call a man who has expressed in no uncertain terms his disdain for your calls? Are you trying to oblige someone to kill you so you don’t have to, Jane? Is that the master plan, Jane? Too goddamn craven to commit the act yourself?”

I stifle a laugh at the implication that I am thoughtful enough to execute that intricate a suicide.

“Do you or any member of your household own a cat?” I repeat.

“Do you own a death wish?” he asks.

“Perhaps a Tabby?” I propose. “Maybe a Burmese?”

He hangs up.

From Oh Honey

 

emilyaustinmontmartreEmily R. Austin was born in 1989 and grew up in St Thomas, Southwestern Ontario. She earned a BA in English Language and Literature and a MA in Library and Information Science from the University of Western Ontario, and now works in information management for the federal government of Canada and as a school librarian. Oh Honey, her debut novel, is out now in paperback from Holland House Books.
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