I’m lucky because they replaced a bunch of chairs last month and I got a new one. A good chair is important when you spend ten hours a day in a cubicle talking to strangers about their problems. I’ve been here three years and worked on most of Westermorgen’s services which means I can with no thought help grandma set up her wifi. Or troubleshoot banking software. Or set up your cellphone plan or help you with some app designed to find your soulmate that nevertheless fills you with hopelessness.
(I can’t help you with the hopelessness.)
It’s nonstandard, but I’m Westermorgen’s floater, and Geordie or Keersty just drop me where the calls are heavy or turnover is high. On twitter I can answer questions within five seconds of some asshole in Toronto saying wtf my TV doesn’t see the house network. And I respond I’m sorry to hear that @TOasshole let’s see if I can help. I’m impossible to rile because I’ve heard everything, every possible stupid question, every strange request regarding lapsed policies and missed payments, every paranoid rant, every sort of impotent rage. The management is shitty and the customers are irritable, but there’s beauty in problem solving.
The really bad stuff started at the end of last month, when I had to do a 1-on-1 with Geordie, teamlead for the floor. I’d been fielding a bunch of questions regarding a recent patch that had broken everything. I had this rhythm hitting my 30s AHT and typing without thinking Mark here how can I help you. But 1-on-1 is a mandated interruption, so I listened to Geordie brainstorm about improving morale. They stopped having barbecues because it was too expensive even when the burgers were sawdust and soy. Also no one wanted to be outside because Detroit was still burning and the ppm up to something like Beijing.
“Listen to this. Westermorgen. Idol,” Geordie told me. “We judge three of the top ranked calls and we have a thing and someone walks away with a Timmy’s gift card. Like. Fifty bucks.”
Geordie said that like it was a good thing.
“What about a key fob?” I asked. We can’t get out without one after hours, but only management can hold. “Or the winner gets to wear jeans. Or keep their phone for a shift?” That didn’t rate an answer. The most frustrating thing about Westermorgen is that teamleads have to hold your phone, like you’re an untrustworthy teenager who’s been grounded. I feel like I’m lost in a cave or a space station. When I do a lot of overtime I arrive when it’s dark and I leave when it’s dark and while sometimes I go around the corner for coffee or McNuggets, it always feels like I’m just visiting the world. I don’t know what’s happened: if a government’s fallen, or an ice shelf has collapsed, if Detroit is burning again, or maybe California, or the Great Lakes are dying at a slightly faster rate than they were when I left for work.
Never knowing what’s going on outside, I sit in my good chair and say That sounds frustrating, to everyone, no matter who’s talking or what they want, let me see if I understand your problem.
“You could judge,” Geordie said, still talking about morale. “You’re impartial. You hate everyone.”
“I don’t hate everyone, Geordie,” I said reflexively, though to be fair, I hate a lot of people here.
After my mandated fifteen minutes with Geordie I saw that Misty had a problem with my documentation, which has been rough since they changed policy on me. She’s in the Philippines where most of the real work happens. Upper management is all in India. They only have us because they need Canadian accents on the phones, and they get tax breaks, bringing jobs to one of the more desolate parts of the country. Downwind from Detroit, rampant West Nile, and ninety percent of the province’s heavy metals processed at the plant out by the mall. Seventy percent of the babies born here are girls, something to do with residual BPA.
Misty is on the other side of the Pacific, in Legazpi, but you’d think she was right here, considering how aggressively she organizes us.
ur shit at filling the forms mark the write up is going to kill ur rank
We’re stack ranked every shift. It gets you points you can redeem which, honestly, is worth it for the grocery store gift cards.
Just tell me what I did wrong, Legazpi.
We were in the middle of a rough month. The flu hit everywhere at once and no one could afford to lose the work, so we had a bunch of people come in sick, coughs and juicy sneezes all over the floor, and half the time you got on the elevator and everyone was grey-faced and weaving.
I came in over the weekend to cover mobile because they lost half their staff, so I’d been on for eight days by Monday when Geordie was manic trying to call people in so he wouldn’t have to go on phones. He always says, when we’re smoking outside and he’s pointedly not looking at the place where the GM building used to be, “It’s not the extra fifty cents an hour, it’s the fact that I don’t have to deal with people.” He hated taking calls.
He offered me overtime, so I started coming in at six and leaving at ten, and I didn’t even notice the weekend. I do remember going home those nights and thinking how hollow my room felt, with my roommates playing CoD in the living room, and how my body seemed to vibrate. Caffeine maybe, or pseudoephedrine. I heard phantom time warnings and chimes, and when I closed my eyes I could see the screen and call after call flooding the queue. By Saturday Westermorgen was a haunted house, but I still wasn’t sick.
That sounds frustrating. Let me see if I can help.
I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.
“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“
“—oh,” she said, “what—“
And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.
“Are you there? Ma’am?”
I called back but I got a re-order tone, not voicemail or an old-fashioned busy signal but the one that means the whole system is busy or blocked or down.
I dropped out of the queue then, which you’re not supposed to do obviously, and went looking for Geordie, who was chatting with Keersty about Westermorgen Idol. I asked if they knew anything but of course they didn’t and when I asked if I could at least grab my phone to see what was happening, Keersty did a kind of elementary-school-teacher sigh.
documentation for #3990180 ur overdue mark.
saw that. explanation?
Happening across the board. Looks like the problem is at their end.
I didn’t find out until Mo came back from break streaked wet in the way you are if you’ve run out into that rain blowing in from Detroit because you don’t want it to touch your skin, saying, “Earthquake on the westcoast. You know anyone out there?”
I thought about the woman trying to get the invoice together for a tiny order of sea salt from some equally tiny place on Vancouver Island, her business so miniscule it all fit into our cheapest subscription. In my un-submitted documentation for Misty I had written that her voice sounded like a hopeful-but-slightly-overwhelmed Great Aunt trying to make the remote control work.
“No one. How bad?”
“Like 9.6. The worst since forever. For hundreds of years.”
“Jesus,” I said, “Jesus. Jesus.”
I’ve had similar moments on calls. When the shooting happened in Montreal—not Vieux-Montreal, but the one where the kids ran downtown away from McGill, and the photographer caught the girl as the bullet tore out her right kneecap—I was on the line with this dickwad in a coworking space on Maisonneuve who was asking to talk to my supervisor. Then—mid whine—he stopped talking, like he suddenly didn’t care about my attitude. I could hear his phone pinging.
“Sir, are you there?”
“Can you hear that? It’s happening on the street. I can see—”
A faint popping. Voices raised and doors slammed. Then he cut the call.
I kept in the queue. I helped someone update. I did a subscription renewal. The next person, though, needed a backup and that took forever so we chatted about hockey until she said, “Did you hear about Montreal?”
“No ma’am,” I said, thinking about that sound I maybe heard before his phone cut. Fire crackers. Backfires.
“Some guys shot up the whole downtown. I think it was terrorists. Who knows. FLQ? Or Muslims maybe. Red Power. Fifty dead but it was going up every time I refreshed the page.”
She kept going on like this while we did a backup and then I made sure everything worked and it had been like three hours at that point, and I kept thinking of the guy and his silence, and what was going on in the streets while we talked about his login and how unprofessional I was. I don’t have any friends in Montreal. I went there once to drink when I was eighteen, but that’s it. I just had that guy and the thump of footsteps fleeing the co-working space.
When I took my break the rain was falling again, the faintly grey kind that runs down the sidewalks and the gutters and when it builds up enough you can see that it’s a little milky because it’s full of ash. If you think too hard about what’s running into your eyes as you stand outside, smoking until your pack is empty, you go eat a twenty-four box of Tim Bits, or six Big Macs, or you stop for one beer on the way home and only leave when they push you out the door.
Geordie was outside. I gave him a cigarette even though he doesn’t smoke, either, and he said, “it doesn’t seem to be getting cleaner. Wasn’t it supposed to get cleaner?” He grew up in Detroit, though he was already over here when it burned last year.
“Maybe it’s safer. The hum is worse. I thought the hum was supposed to go when they sent in the cleanup crews.”
We watched the warm, ash-coloured water run down the gutters until it was ankle deep. The city is a wetland, and there isn’t far for water to go, so it ends up in people’s basements, all that ashy, bony water running through foundations and drains, a constant trickle in the background. Sort of like the faint pop you might hear while you’re on the phone with a guy in Montreal who wants to talk to your manager.
“Does it feel.” Geordie said and lit another cigarette.
“What, Geordie.” I hate how often he doesn’t finish his sentences.
“Does it feel like it’s happening more often? This kind of thing?”
I dropped my smoke into the rain water and shrugged, then said, “I wish I knew what to tell you.” Which wasn’t a real answer, and I used my tech support voice when I said it because I didn’t want to have that conversation.
On my first break after the earthquake I smoked and watched the rain and videos on my phone, someone livestreaming the moment it hit—boring talk about food or weather, then a strange look on their face, their eyes dart upward, then the phone falls. Overhead footage from helicopters of downtown Vancouver, all those green towers swaying and falling, and the bridge swinging until the cables snap like rubber bands. The worst in recorded history. Worse, probably, than the last megathrust in 1700. I just kept thinking of that woman, and the sort of quiet shock in her voice, her “oh—is that—” and then nothing, and I was standing out in the rain, but still warm, when it occurred to me that I might have heard her last words. I kept thinking about the texture of the silence after the call dropped and what had happened the moment after that, if that had been the worst of it, the shock of the whole world rumbling. Or if it had been worse for her after that, or right now, or tomorrow.
I only had ten minutes because call volume was increasing. My throat was starting to tickle, and the world—just suddenly, out of nowhere—started to look glassy, the light thick from the ceiling squares, and my skin prickled when I ran my hands over my arms, which were covered with goose bumps.
The floor was nearly empty except for Geordie running around supervising and not taking calls, and the queue was packed. My first call was from way north along the coast, Prince Rupert, a woman calling about a password reset. “I want Mark,” she said, “He helped me before. Can I talk to Mark?”
While I was documenting I thought, fuck it, I’m going to tell Misty what the woman told me while we were waiting for the password reset email, about how when you’re that far north you don’t notice time passing, and you feel good in an unimaginable way in summer, luminous and hopeful, and how in winter all you want to do is die and drink yourself into a coma, so you know, it balances out.
After that I reopened #3990180.
An elderly woman, I wrote, on a phone, trying to print invoices for locally produced sea salt, looks over at the rack of glass jars in which she keeps her stock because she hears a rattle, then another, then she says, “oh—is that—“ and nothing else because at that moment, the force of twenty-five thousand Hiroshimas lit the Cascadia subduction zone—on which Vancouver island rests like a cork on a bottle—centuries of continental tension released.
I typed that, then I hit send, then I added a secondary note on her file. At 8.32 PST a 9.8 hit the Cascadia subduction zone.
And Misty was right there on ChatHive, not telling me it was Inappropriate. She wrote, rest their souls and I was comforted by those temporary words, which surprised me.
my grandparents were on mindanao in the 1976 earthquake. u got anyone there?
I heard the hum from Detroit. It was, somehow, a relief to know that across the world Misty was in a similar room among people evaluating documentation for apps and ISPs and accounting software. People saying that must be frustrating, let’s see if I can help. Something occurred to me.
You hear anything about tsunamis?
no word so far
Do you have your phone? So you can get the alerts?
theyll let us know. we’re so bad im taking calls so i won’t be fixing ur doc until tomorrow
I wondered if Keersty would let us know, or if she would dither about it until all we could do was climb to the top floor of the building and watch a wave consume what was left of Detroit before it swamped us, too.
Five more calls and I refilled my water bottle—the one with the slogan on it, fueling small business with the tools to succeed, that some now-lost Westermorgen contract brought in—and I was looking at my skin reflected in the sink, which was the colour of those pale, lumpy smokers you see outside the entrance, the colour of a raw filet o fish. I felt adrenalized, like a moment before I’d been terrified, but I could not remember how or why. I wondered what it was doing to me, inside, all those cells now remade into virus factories, turning to goo and mush and sloughing off while the virus proliferated through my system, and I left traces on everything I touched.
The water ran over the top of the bottle. Clear. So far the ash hasn’t worked its way through the city’s water system. Or maybe it had and it was invisible like the microplastics in the lake.
“So you going to judge?” It was Geordie. “We’re going to do it next week. I was thinking we’d set a time limit. Like, five minute calls. You and me and Keersty judge it. I grabbed fifty for the Timmy’s card, too.”
“Man,” I said, “man.”
Geordie just stared at me. “You getting sick? You know what you need to do is . . . .” He went on about Echinacea or FluFX and I thought about the tsunami that was, or was not, traveling across the Pacific. “ . . . Or just hammer your system with anti-oxidants, and take a double dose of Nyquil—”
Without thinking I pulled my phone out of my pocket.
“—You know you can’t have that anywhere near the floor.”
I was already googling Pacific tsunami alert, and it was rolling rainbows and I stared at it so hard that it seemed to take over the whole world, and then I shivered, but Geordie was still talking.
“Don’t make me write you up. I don’t want to deal with it.”
“K.” I said.
“It’s about privacy for our users. They need to know they can trust our integrity, our word, and our system.”
The poster on the far side of the break room said Integrity, Word, and System. I saw that the alert had been issued for Japan. That’s when he took my phone.
“You fuck the dog, I have to write you up. I don’t want to write you up.”
Japan in six hours. Eight pm. I’d still be here, while very far away a wave crested on the seacoast, filling the river basins and the car parks.
I know you don’t have to surrender your phone, even if they can require you to leave it at home. I know they’re not supposed to lock you in, either, or let you smoke within three metres of the door, even when the ash is falling. They’re not supposed to pay you in points you can then exchange for grocery store gift cards, which you need because the new minimum wage doesn’t even cover rent. But I need a job.
The next call I got was farther south, closer to the epicenter. The first thing I did was ask about the earthquake.
“We felt it, and there’s the tsunami warning, but we’re far enough inland it shouldn’t be—”
“So when I try to log in—”
“—I keep getting the same error, it says my account’s frozen. What does that mean? I need to do some invoices. And yeah, I just got the text like half an hour ago. Landfall is like an hour.”
The account was frozen due to missed payments, so I pointed that out and the guy insisted no, he’d set up an automated transfer, and he kept me on the line while he chatted with the bank’s tech support on another line to sort out the direct deposit, and then I reactivated his account, all this time the tsunami traveling toward the coast, where the shallower bottom would raise the wave’s height by narrowing its length because the last time I’d been outside I’d looked at a gif on Wikipedia that demonstrated how tsunamis crest as they travel through shallow waters.
The last thing he said wasn’t thanks, it was “there it is, the tide’s going way out, I hope everyone’s out of downtown.” Then he was gone, and I could imagine it, the water running away from shore, like a huge exhalation, and then collecting into a rising wave that would destroy them all.
The tsunami warning? I wrote in ChatHive, hoping Misty was there.
Keersty responded instantly: That is not appropriate ChatHive is for important work stuff.
we havent heatd anything but were swamped so who knows what going on outside
CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.
Maybe you should get out anyway.
CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.
CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.
I’d been there for sixteen hours, and I couldn’t remember the last time I slept a full night at home, when I hadn’t been buzzed on cold pills and exhaustion, and the sound of CoD from the living room. That week when I did sleep I kept saying This is Mark from Magnacorp or This is Mark from Wherever I Am Right Now, and heard explosions and the way voices carry over the river from Detroit, the screams and the crowds and the gunshots. Or maybe I was never actually asleep, maybe I was just off my head. I shouldn’t have washed the pills down with beer, but there’s that thing that happens when you stop in for a beer after work and the inertia of the whole thing, the job, the shitty beer and the fact that a person brings you food, even if you can’t afford it, that sticks you to your seat. It was bad last summer when we couldn’t afford to run the AC but the bar on the way home could, and it was full of familiar guys, broke and lonely and trying to avoid looking at what was left of the Detroit skyline, or the grey-green clouds boiling to the north, and the hail and the lightning storms every afternoon like clockwork. The summers are definitely hotter, and the mosquitoes are definitely worse, and last summer I noticed that the birds don’t sing anymore, all their whistles sound like videogame lasers.
I stepped outside for a cigarette and realized the doors had been locked and I don’t have a fob because I don’t rate a fob. Geordie was there too, setting up his stupid Westermorgen Idol, piles of bright pink and green and blue post-it notes all over his desk.
“I need to go out.”
“The doors are locked for the night.”
“I need to get out.”
“We lost another girl from Online. You’ll have to take over social media if we lose anyone else. Take your break here.”
I just kind of stared at him and my skin prickled like all the pseudoephedrine I’d taken had rushed to the surface and was blasting every single nerve ending in my body.
“I need to go outside.”
“You can’t. Like, you physically can’t.”
I kind of stood there and I’m ashamed to say I wanted to cry. Like a little kid who isn’t allowed to use the bathroom, or who just wants to sit with his Dad but keeps getting dragged away by unfamiliar relatives. The kind of crying you see on the bus at rush hour when some little kid coming back from the mall loses it and lies in the aisle wailing, cramming road salt in his mouth, and you just think you and me both.
I didn’t actually cry. I hate myself, because I just said, begging, “can I please can I have my phone back, please?”
Geordie looked at me like I was an idiot, him in the middle of all the post-it notes that read CONGRATULATIONS! or YOUR A WINNER! or WESTERMORGEN IDOL!!!
I didn’t say anything. I left. At first I just sat in the lunch room, shivering and nauseous, staring at a plastic solo cup leftover from the barbecues they used to give before the ash. There will be worse moments in my life no doubt—more pain, more sadness—but I can’t imagine anything so wide-ranging in its desolation as that moment. The only thing I could focus on was telling Misty to get her phone back and watch the horizon and be ready to escape.
A girl from Online staggered through, sweaty and pale, and I knew that Geordie would be here in a moment to ask for another eight hours, overnight, answering strangers’ questions so perfectly that they all treat me like a shitty customer service AI built to serve.
There aren’t a lot of choices in your life, are there? You can choose to have kids, or not, or leave your hometown or not. Or to stay in a terrible job you are, for some reason, very good at. But other than that, what is there? Just a lot of compliance and noncompliance. This didn’t feel like a choice. I said to the girl, “we need to get out of here,” and she nodded. Then we headed down to the lobby. The doors were locked and no one carrying a key was in the building and the girl looked bad, but when I went to the fire escape she still said, “no, we’re not supposed to!”
“We need to get out—“
“—they’ll fire us!” And I could hear the fear in her voice, and I wondered how badly she needed this job, that she was here in the middle of the night, so sick she could hardly stand.
“Tell them I did it,” I said, and hit the bar.
Only it didn’t move because it was locked, too. The next thing I did was stupid, but I don’t know what else I could have done. I walked back to the lobby and picked up a garbage can and began slamming it into the glass door. Behind me she was just coughing and coughing and said, maybe, “stop stop,” but so faintly I could ignore it. Then we were out, and she was staggering toward the emergency room on Ouellette and I was alone in rainwater the same temperature as my blood. Then I went looking for a payphone because the only way to sort this out was to call in, but I couldn’t remember which of Westermorgen’s departments Misty was assigned to so when I finally found the city’s last payphone—in the bus depot—I called them all, all the sad voices of men and women here and on the other side of the world.
“Welcome to Caiphas Business Systems, Jane speaking, how can I help you?” “Welcome to Tesla Mobility, how can I help you?” “Welcome to Roscommon Account Services.” “Welcome to Lighthouse Mobility.”
“I’m looking for Misty. She helped me before.”
“I’m sure I can help you. What’s your user number?”
“Misty. Misty knows,” I said, my voice querulous and elderly. “Put on Misty!”
I could hear the exhaustion in his silence, then the compliance. “One moment, and I’ll transfer you.”
“Hey Misty.” I said, “Misty. Misty. You need to get to high ground.”
“What? Who is this?”
“Just promise, k?”
“There’s no tsunami warning—”
“—it’s on its way. It’s passing Japan and Hawaii. It hit the Aleutians. California.” I hoped she didn’t mistake me for what I felt like, right then: a crazy old man, mad with loneliness, longing to hear a voice in the void, even if it was only to harangue them for the weakness of their service and the terrible nature of their product.
“Another six hours to landfall. I know you’ll still be on shift. Promise.”
I waited for her to disconnect, which was okay because at least I’d told her. Then I think maybe she said, “Thank you, Mark,” or maybe it was just the noise in my head. I held the line another moment, then hung up. I felt okay because I’d got through, because I wasn’t in a cubicle anymore, because I could walk home and enjoy the silence before CoD marathons in the living room, enjoy the ashy rain falling across my slowly cooking skin.
I walked home hoping Misty said, “thank you, Mark.” It felt like I was slipping through a gap in the world, between noises, a kind of silent passage, the way kids slip along the abandoned rail easements in town, below grade, the corridors of grass and rats and squirrels and birds. Between the noise of the phones and CoD. Between heartbeats. Between cresting waves, the silence you hang onto for just a moment when someone hangs up, before you go onto the next call because there is, temporarily, a respite from the tyranny of the queue. The silence after a bullet connects, or a wave hits on the other side of the world. I just hoped, harder and harder and harder, that Misty would insist they unlock the doors and break the windows and they could escape before the wave arrived to wash the rest of us away.