Above and Beyond
Laura Schmitt | Fiction
At the job I’ve redacted from my resume, call center was considered a derogatory term, so the office was referred to by employees and management as Customer Experience Headquarters. I suppose the term “headquarters” was meant to make those of us in lowly customer-facing roles feel important, but the place was what it was. Rows and rows of people on headsets taking calls about eyeglasses orders. We were in Milwaukee, the actual headquarters in Boston. Another reason management likely branded our office with this faux official title was so that when customers asked Where are you right now? We could say, Our headquarters, and the customer, picturing us in the same building as the CEO, would feel like they were in slightly better hands.
I was working a Saturday shift and had already had four escalated calls when Brooks sent the message saying he wanted to chat about my performance. Escalated calls were defined by the Customer Experience Division as calls in which customers were emotionally heightened, and Brooks liked to debrief the most intense ones. Usually such calls looked like swearing or screaming, demanding to speak with someone higher up, threatening to write bad things about the company online, etc. I set my status to In A Meeting and slipped off my headset, my ears thankful for the relief. After intense calls, the back of my neck was often stiff, and I was a bit skittish. A year into the job and I still didn’t have the thickest skin, still felt my heart beat faster at the sound of a raised voice. Maggie, my old deskmate, said I took calls too personally. Stop internalizing everything, Greg, she’d always say. Looking back, I suppose she was on to something.
The eyes of my coworkers followed me as I walked towards Brooks’s office near reception. Everyone knew I’d been having a rough day on the phone, a rough week really. We always knew when someone was having a string of bad calls. It was obvious by the way we repeated I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll do everything in my power to make this right. Escalated calls were never private, never a secret. We all sat at desks directly next to each other, a terrible design. Customers could overhear snippets of other reps on the phone, which only angered them further. Our headset microphones were sensitive, picked up sounds as small as coughs or a heavy sigh. Despite this, management never listened to our requests for cubicles or sound dividers. Their desire to tout a communal workspace trumped our desire for quiet and privacy. All we wanted, really, was a little solitude as we subjected ourselves to being the company’s scapegoats.
In Brooks’s office, I sat in the modern leather chair that was impossible not to sink into. He offered a cup of mint tea, which I eagerly accepted. Being on the phone all day, my voice tired easily. I typically spent my days off not speaking because of this. Instead, I did silent things: watched soccer, played online chess against strangers, maybe messaged girls on dating apps. My roommate had moved out two months prior for a job at a law firm in DC, so I had an apartment to myself. He’d bought most of the furniture, which meant he took most of it too. I suppose I was lonely in that bare place without him, but never in a crushing way. So like a dormant infection or a cancer that hasn’t yet become detectable, I didn’t fully register the effects of my loneliness.
“So how’s things?” Brooks said. He crossed his leg so that his ankle was resting on his knee. The bottom of his sneaker was perfectly white, likely new. Brooks wore fleece vests and had several different pairs of wire glasses, free frames a perk of working for the company. I didn’t need glasses, so I never cashed in my quarterly perk. That day, Brooks was wearing his small oval pair from the last holiday collection.
“Things are alright,” I said. The key was to always downplay. “I’ve had a few challenging calls. Warehouse delays are causing some frustration.”
Brooks nodded. “We’re working diligently on getting that resolved. Really appreciate you guys being resilient through these delays.” He paused. “Did you feel good about these customer interactions?”
“For the most part,” I said. “I provided some discounts to correct the situation.”
“That’s excellent. Really good to hear.” Brooks uncrossed his leg and leaned forward a bit, which told me we were about to enter the but it could’ve been better portion of the conversation. “I did listen to your last escalated call, the one with the guy in California, and I have just a few suggestions for how to help you really shine in these situations going forward.”
They recorded all of our calls for training purposes and also to prevent lawsuits. Every three weeks, managers listened to four random recordings and gave us a scorecard based on our performance. “Poor” was the worst evaluation you could get, “Above and Beyond” the best. I usually fell into “Needs Improvement” or “Good.” In the call with the man in California, Brooks said I should have offered him a partial refund from the get go, should’ve anticipated his needs so that he didn’t lose his temper on me.
“Don’t get me wrong, you sounded wonderfully sincere and apologetic. Great work there.” Brooks smiled and gave me a thumbs up. “But, I do think you missed an opportunity to exceed expectations. Had you better commanded the conversation from the outset and offered the partial refund within the first two minutes as well as, say, free limited-edition lens cloths as soon as you sensed Mr. Cooper might get heated, you could’ve wrapped up the conversation and moved on to helping other customers. Right?”
I nodded and said yes, absolutely I recognized I had missed an opportunity.
“You’re doing good work,” Brooks said. He pointed at me. “Just remember, above and beyond, right? We gotta get that scorecard consistently up. I know you have it in you.”
Sometimes I really hated Brooks. He always seemed to be on the verge of calling me champ, though we couldn’t have been more than five years apart. I suspected on weekends he got together with his MBA buddies and did cocaine, which, whatever, people can do what they want. But it bothered me to picture him cutting up lines in fancy nightclubs and violating the company drug policy when the rest of us were subjected to random testing. I left Brooks’s office with my mug sitting on his table, still half full. The thought of Brooks having to walk to the communal kitchen and dump out the dirty green water, toss my dripping tea bag in the trash, it gave me some pleasure.
Back at my desk, I delayed putting on my headset as long as I could. I blew my nose twice, fumbled with the cords of my monitor as if something had come loose. Eventually, though, I had to get back on the phone. Management tracked how long we were offline, our Time Away, and too much time resulted in an even lower scorecard. I hated the job, but I needed the money to stay in my apartment. I wasn’t like other guys my age who had supportive parents showering them with unconditional love, willing to send them money or let them move back home when things got too hard. My dad was a quiet man who preferred the company of old car parts to the company of people, and my mother had quit her job at the bank and moved to Mexico to devote her time to helping baby sea turtles make it to the ocean. We had never been a close family, not the type to eat dinner together or say I love you, and these new circumstances simply allowed the distance between us to flourish. I changed my status to Available. A call came through immediately.
“Hi, this is Greg,” I said. “How can I help you?”
There was a pause on the other line, then a young woman’s voice came through.
“Woah,” the voice said. “I wasn’t expecting a real person to answer so quickly.”
“Ha, yes that’s what we pride ourselves on.” People said such things to me often, things like I can’t believe you’re a real person and I’d fake a laugh and say, surprise, I am. “How can I help you?”
“You have a really soothing voice.” The voice laughed. “Wait, is that super weird to say? Gosh, I’m so used to automated robot prompts I guess I forgot how to talk to a human.”
On some loose leaf paper, I wrote my name in bubble letters, but the r somehow looked more like an n. Gneg. “No worries at all,” I scratched out the doodle. “What can I do for you?”
The voice was interested in blue-light filtering glasses. She said she wrote grant applications for nonprofits which required a lot of screentime and her migraines were becoming more frequent. I occasionally made hmm and oh noises to assure her I was listening. If I had learned anything from answering calls all day it was that people just wanted to feel heard. She told me her email, and I pulled up her customer account. Her name was Tess Pinsky. Her prescription was four months expired. I braced myself as I explained that we would not be able to place an order for new glasses with an expired prescription.
“Seriously?” she said. “Not even if I’m positive my eyes haven’t changed?”
“No, we must abide by the expiration date prescribed by your doctor. It’s in your best interest to make an appointment.”
“You seriously can’t make a one-time exception for me?”
“Legally, I cannot. I’m sorry.”
She let out a frustrated sigh. “Ugh, that’s not at all helpful.”
I didn’t want the conversation to descend into a downward spiral, didn’t want to have a fifth escalated call that landed me back on management’s radar, so I implemented Brooks’s advice to anticipate. “But I’d be happy to offer you free limited-edition lens clothes once you receive your new prescription. As well as add free expedited shipping to your order.”
“Okay yeah, that would be amazing,” she said. “Thank you.”
The tension dissolved, and I relaxed in my chair, not even realizing I had been sitting so straight. I talked her through the process of what to do once she had her new prescription, how to select frames on our website and upload her prescription. I followed the script and ended our call by telling her that for every pair of glasses bought, we distributed a pair to kids who couldn’t see in Africa.
“This might be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with customer service before,” Tess said. “What’s your name again?”
“Uh, Greg,” I stammered. I wasn’t used to people asking.
“You’re the best, Greg. Seriously.” In the background I heard the sound of cars honking. She was likely driving. “I hope people are nothing but nice to you the rest of the day. You deserve that.”
After that call, I felt strangely happy. It was amazing what one positive interaction could do to my mood, how a kind customer could make the knots in my stomach loosen just a bit. Brooks liked to say that people who worked in customer service roles had a better understanding of the overall mood of their nation than the average citizen, and that this knowledge was a privilege. I suppose part of his statement was true. I knew most people were angry and tired, but this didn’t feel like a privilege. I felt sad and full of anxiety most days and sometimes even felt like crying when I saw simple acts of tenderness. A toddler making a wish on a dandelion, an old man bending down to pick up his dog’s poop. I was easily moved. And this customer, this Tess Pinksy who said I deserved kindness from people, she made the rest of my shift a little better.
Saturday was the end of my work week, so I stopped at the corner store after my shift to buy groceries for the weekend. Frozen meals, iced coffee, some eggs. While waiting in the checkout line, I thought about texting Maggie to tell her about my day, yet another one-on-one meeting with Brooks, but I didn’t. Maggie had moved to Austin two months prior, and like my old roommate, we weren’t speaking as much now that life had moved us apart. The last text I had sent was still unanswered.
One of the last times we’d hung we’d shared a plate of spring rolls at my favorite Thai restaurant. I had asked her to meet me there because it was my birthday, and I didn’t want to just sit at home alone. We didn’t hang out outside of work much, but I felt we were still good friends. At the CX Headquarters, other reps called us work wife and work husband because sometimes we coordinated outfits. Red on Fridays because Fridays were a massacre, angry people calling in to make sure their packages would arrive before the weekend. Black on Tuesdays because we were mourning the start of our work week. Green on Wednesdays, a reminder that we were doing it for the money. The outfit code had been Maggie’s idea after Brooks sent a memo regarding appropriate dress. No more open-toed shoes or tank tops, two clothing items Maggie typically wore.
What’s it to Brooks what I wear? Maggie had privately messaged me after the email hit our inbox. No one even fucking sees any of us. I could be in a garbage bag or a ball gown, a customer would never know.
At the Thai restaurant, Maggie had walked in with a single, blue balloon on which she had written In dogs years you’re dead in black marker along with 25 nestled in a dog bone. The balloon made me laugh, but also feel a little sad, which I doubt Maggie intended. We were only at the restaurant for an hour because she had tickets to a concert at The Rave with some other friends. When the waiter cleared our plates and came back with the bill, he brought two separate checks. I signed my name and left a good tip even though I secretly wanted to leave nothing. I was oddly hurt by the way he had looked at us and simply known we’d be paying separately.
Maggie gave her two weeks notice a month later. I didn’t blame her. Her real passion was web design and painting portraits of ballet dancers. She wanted to be in a warmer, more creative city. Plus women never lasted too long at the Customer Experience Headquarters. They were yelled at even more than me. I would never say it out loud, but I was glad I wasn’t a woman in that role. I’d heard about customers being perfectly civil with male reps only to call back ten minutes later and blow up at one of the women. Maggie and the others got hit on and called names and were condescended to on a daily basis. I definitely didn’t have it the worst. Part of the reason I stuck it out as long as I did was because I was technically one of the lucky ones.
So that night, after returning to my apartment with my groceries, I practiced self control and didn’t text Maggie or my old roommate because I didn’t want to be a nuisance. Instead, I ate my dinner of orange chicken and rice and watched YouTube videos of news anchor bloopers. I wanted to laugh. The rest of the weekend passed in a similar fashion. Food, sleep, some form of entertainment. My laptop overheated on my lap, but I let it remain there. I liked the warmth.
The following Tuesday, back at the office, I cleaned my headset with a wet wipe as I did at the start of every work week. The mics could start to smell a bit sour if it wasn’t done regularly. Afterwards, I checked my emails. According to one from Brooks, the warehouse was beginning to work through their backlog of orders. The sorting machine was back up and running and shipments were being scanned and sent out. The morning was slow, and I was grateful for it.
Around noon, my coworker Sam pinged me with a message. Sam was new and had high energy. He loved the company brand and had goals of putting time in at the Milwaukee office in order to be promoted to the real headquarters in Boston. Soon enough he would realize the brand and the company were very different, that a brand is simply a public perception, an idea, and like any company with venture capital investment and CEOs from Ivy League business schools, greed and ego lurked just behind the scrim. No for-profit company would save the world, but people high up in the company sure acted like it would.
As always, Sam’s message was full of exclamation points.
Hello, hello! I’m on the phone with a customer who is requesting to speak with you! She is quite friendly!! I told her you would call her back since I forgot how to transfer calls…don’t hate me! Attached is her customer record!!!
I clicked the link. The record belonged to Tess Pinsky. I called her back right away because with outbound calls, you knew what to expect, knew who you’d get on the other end, so they were a bit of a luxury. The phone rang.
“Hi, Tess. This is Greg from the Customer Experience team at Japhy Glasses.”
“Oh, hey!” she said. “Thanks for calling. I know I probably could’ve talked to that other guy, but he was kinda annoying and since I already worked with you I wanted you again.”
She explained that she had gone to see her eye doctor over the weekend and had the new prescription. She needed help figuring out how to upload it even though I had explained the process on our last call.
“My doctor said my eyes changed a lot, so good thing you made me go see him. I didn’t even realize how much I couldn’t see. Like I can’t read exit signs on the highway until I’m under them and thought this was normal.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “That will feel nice to see where you’re going.”
“Yeah, it’s only minorly important.”
I walked her through the steps again and stayed on the phone with her as she followed my directions, waiting for the prescription to come through. Once it did, I typed the new information into her account. She did indeed have bad eyes, +4.75 in both with an astigmatism in the left. She was born in 1993. Three years older than me. Her eye doctor’s name was Beatrice Johnson. I told her it would be just a few minutes before the prescription info was visible on her end.
“So do you like what you do?” Tess asked.
I paused a little too long. “Yes.”
“Are calls recorded?”
“Ohhhh,” Tess said. “Okay. Got it. Understood.” There was a crunch. She was eating chips or pretzels. “Where are you located?”
“At the company headquarters.”
“And where’s that?”
“I’m in Milwaukee!”
I felt myself smile. “Seriously?”
She told me she had attended the private university in town, studied non-profit leadership. Her favorite place was the art museum on the lake, which I’d been to once for a glass sculpture exhibit. I had attended the same university and studied history, which I had enjoyed in the moment but now regretted due to practicality reasons. After ten minutes of random chatting about the city, I got nervous and steered the conversation back to glasses related stuff. If a call went on for too long, management sometimes flagged it to listen. I told her she was all set to order, just needed to pick out the frames she wanted. I promised I’d keep an eye on her account and update the shipping to expedited as soon as she placed the order.
“And I get the free lens clothes, right?”
“Absolutely. I made a note of that in your account.”
“Thank you so much, Greg.”
“You’re welcome so much, Tess.”
She laughed. “Okay bye.”
I was in a pretty decent mood after the call, didn’t even get that annoyed when Brooks sent a mass email telling us we needed to work harder to get the email inbox down. I wasn’t the best multitasker, so I wasn’t the best at responding to emails while also answering calls, another thing that caused my scorecard to be average. I pulled up the eighty emails assigned to me. The first one had a subject line in all caps:
THIS EMAIL IS FOR GREG PLEASE
SOS I can’t decide what glasses to get. This is what I look like. Please advise which style is best for my face shape.
She had attached a selfie. Tess had short blonde hair and a silver nose ring that made her look like a bull. Behind her left shoulder was a wooden desk, and hanging above it, a Vampire Weekend poster. Customers sending photos of themselves for advice on what glasses would best complement their face wasn’t unusual, but I felt a small thrill over the fact that Tess had singled me out, that we seemed to have a sort of rapport developing, that she seemed to be interested in the same music as me. I didn’t believe in a god, but I did sometimes believe in signs, and this photo of Tess and the fact that she lived in Milwaukee and we had overlapped a year in college felt like more than pure coincidence. What were the chances, really, that of the hundreds of calls I received each day, I had answered hers, that we would hit it off and be merely miles away?
I responded to the email with the names of a few frames I thought she might like. Colorful ones, cat-eyes, thick acetate ones that were a bit oversized in a vintage way. I kept the email professional. But after some consideration, I decided to add just a small offering of friendship as a signoff.
But I don’t think you can go wrong, Tess! Any of them will look really great on you. I’m here if you have any additional questions. Maybe I’ll see you around town.
The rest of the day, I found myself pulling up Tess’s email again and again. I wanted to see what else I could gather from the image, what other clues into her personality lurked within the background. Milwaukee wasn’t a small city, but it also wasn’t so big that running into each other before would’ve been impossible, especially since we were close in age, likely frequented similar bars. She did seem vaguely familiar, but perhaps just in the way that most nice girls do, how they all look a bit alike and like someone you feel you know because you want to know them. She had a cup of colorful pens on her desk, which made me think she maybe kept a color-coded planner, which meant that, like Maggie, she was perhaps mindful and creative. Her windowsill was lined with various plants that appeared well taken care of. She seemed like someone who might own a very fat cat. During one of the times I was rereading the email, a reply from her came through:
Thanks for the quick reply and suggestions. Going with the thick, oversized ones. I feel like a grandpa on the inside, might as well let the world know the real me. Appreciate you ; )
Later that night, when I was back at home and watching soccer, I swiped through dating apps absentmindedly. I wasn’t really registering the faces I saw, my thumb moving left faster than usual. After a few minutes, I realized why. I was hoping for one face. Tess’s face. The realization startled me a bit, the fact that I was longing for this person I had never met. But I welcomed the feeling, because it was a rare and positive feeling, one that added some excitement to my life. I narrowed my settings so the app would only show me girls aged 25-28 within a fifteen mile radius. But still she didn’t appear. I fell asleep in my clothes, the thought of showering, of standing in water and cleaning my body with a sliver of scummy bar soap just too much. When I awoke the next morning, I switched my shirt to green, as it was Wednesday, Doing It For the Money Day. I hopped in my truck and ran three yellow lights to make it to work on time.
I checked on Tess’s order first thing. Her glasses had left the lab and were scheduled to arrive at noon. During my break I sat in the communal kitchen where white couches and a ping pong table sat neglected. A variety of snacks were kept in clear dispensers along the long windowsill. When I first started working there, I had been amazed at the amount of free food in the office. The guacamole packs stacked in the stainless steel fridge, the wicker baskets filled with oranges and bananas, the various cereal brands to choose from. But by the time of Tess Pinsky’s call, I had long ago grown resentful of the snacks. They were just a gloss on an ugly machine, a trap to lure in job applicants before they could pause to think about how demoralizing the day to day would actually be. Sam was filling up a bowl with Goldfish and M&Ms. He still loved the snacks. But soon, he would realize trail mix and jalapeno chips was the least management could do. He would learn that if management actually cared about him, they would replace snacks with better dental insurance, a higher wage. They would stop making impossible promises to customers simply because they could use people like me and Sam to bear the brunt of it.
I was swiping on the app during my break, still searching for Tess, when Sam sat next to me on the couch. Since I didn’t want him to see me online dating, see me searching for companionship, I closed the app. That’s when I saw the Instagram notification that Maggie had posted a photo. I clicked the push notification and was brought to her page.
The photo, posted twenty minutes prior, was of Maggie smiling in front of a vibrant mural of flowers. Beside her, a man who I’d never seen or heard of before, and beside him, a group of six people excitedly pointing at the two of them. In the photo, Maggie was wearing a yellow sundress patterned with birds. Her left hand was placed on the younger man’s chest, nails painted robin’s egg blue. On her finger, a small diamond that glittered in the Texas sun.
“Everything good?” Sam looked over at me.
“Yeah.” I pressed the lock button so my screen went black. “Just found out a friend of mine is getting married.”
“Aw, that’s awesome.” He tossed two M&Ms into his mouth. “God, I love love.”
I didn’t want Sam to start discussing his favorite things about weddings, so I cut my break short and went back to my desk. I felt betrayed. Not because she was getting married, but because I had found out from a post. There was a time when Maggie and I talked every day. We had become fast friends during our two week training period at the company, assigned to role play escalated situations with each other. Maggie was horrible at being an angry customer, and this made me laugh, her inability to be convincingly upset. She would dramatically furrow her eyebrows and make her hand into a phone and try to yell about delayed shipping, but she always broke character. We sent each other photos of squirrels on Slack, a developing joke between us that to be a squirrel would be the best possible life. Climb trees. Scamper across streets and parks. Stuff food into our cheeks. Possess no knowledge of supply chains or quarterly profit goals. To this day, every time I see a squirrel I think of Maggie. I wonder if she feels the same, or if the joke had never actually meant that much to her.
Back on the phone, my headset beginning to pinch my ears, I spoke with customers and solved their problems and did damage control, but I wasn’t really there. I couldn’t stop picturing Maggie’s photo. She seemed so genuinely happy, surrounded by people who loved her.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
The customer who had been complaining that his glasses hadn’t arrived on the day he’d been promised let out a frustrated sigh. I felt a flash of annoyance.
“It’s really not a huge deal, man,” I said. “They will come tomorrow. It’s literally one day later.”
“You can’t talk to me like that,” the man said. “Who the hell do you think you are? I need these glasses. You have no idea how much I need these glasses. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but I have to read a eulogy tomorrow. How am I supposed to do that when my current glasses are shattered? Tell me how? You’re making an already terrible week more terrible. I wanna talk to your manager right now.”
I set up the transfer, hating myself for my slip up, for letting my real thoughts come out, and with this specific customer. Brooks would surely call me into his office again, and this time he would have a right to be mad at me, maybe even suspend me. Minimizing a customer’s problem was never allowed. That had been drilled into us from day one. And on top of that, this man was grieving. The call connected. My manager took over.
I told myself I needed to correct my mistake, to do something that proved I did in fact care about customers and their experience with the company. I hadn’t meant to hurt the guy, and a feeling of guilt started lodge itself in my stomach. I wanted to talk to someone, to feel like I could do something right. I pulled up Tess Pinsky’s customer account, checking over my shoulder quickly. It was rather amazing, the customer information I had access to at the job. Customers treated us as faceless, inconsequential nobodies, yet I knew their prescription information, their doctor’s office, their date of birth, their credit card information, their home address. Tess Pinsky lived at 24 Wallen Street. When I typed the address into maps, I was told it was only a fifteen minute drive from my house. I decided I would swing by after work, personally deliver an extra set of limited edition lens clothes by hand. Really go above and beyond, and maybe even make a friend.
Tess’s house was a small, single-story brick home in a neighborhood lined with narrow sidewalks and For Rent signs. I parked my truck on the street and slipped the lens cloth packet into my back pocket. For a few moments, I just sat in the car with my hands on the steering wheel, rubbing them along the leather to wipe away some of the clamminess. I eventually got out of the car and walked up the front stoop. I smoothed my T-shirt before ringing the doorbell. A dog barked, and I waited.
After a few moments, Tess Pinsky opened the door with one hand, using the other to hold the collar of a small yorkie that was attempting to get out. She was wearing the oversized glasses I had suggested. They looked good on her.
“You’re early,” she said. “The mulch needs to go out back, so I can show you and then you can give me an estimate.”
“Oh, no, I’m actually—”
“What? That’s not how it works?” She picked up her yappy dog, cradled him in her arm. “Listen, I need this mulch by Tuesday because I’m hosting a barbecue, so can we please just get this assessment done? I don’t get why you couldn’t just bring it over now and bypass this whole ‘yard assessment’ stage.” She pointed to my truck. “Mulch definitely could’ve fit in that bed. But whatever, I’ll just show you my yard and you can come back.”
I looked back at my green, beat up truck and realized she thought I was with a landscaping company, that somehow I had unluckily timed my visit so that she confused me for someone else. For some reason, I had expected she would just know who I was, that our connection was real enough that she would have a hunch it was me, Greg. But as I stood on her front stoop, mistaken for a landscaper who would be dropping by later, it dawned on me how strange it was for me to stop by her house. She seemed to be stressed, and I figured if I told her then that I was Greg from Japhy Glasses, she would not be pleased, maybe even creeped out. So I decided I wouldn’t correct her. I just nodded and followed her to her backyard for this so-called assessment.
“I just want enough mulch to surround the trees and then around the fire pit,” Tess said, gesturing around the yard. It was a large space, a tall wooden fence blocking the space from the neighbors. The grass was short and patchy and a few cigarette buds and scraps of paper littered the area. A stone fire pit sat in the center, the stones cracked, some even missing. Her recycling bin was overflowing with beer cans. The yard smelled wet and vaguely of garbage.
I nodded. “That’s doable.”
“So how much will it cost?”
“Uh,”—I didn’t know how to get out of the situation, but I didn’t know how to properly lie either—“I’ll have to check with my manager.”
She stared at me. “You can’t even give me a ballpark?”
“We… have had some pricing changes so I’ll have to recheck.” I tried to pivot the conversation. “What’s the barbecue for? Just hanging out with some friends or a special occasion?”
“That isn’t really your business,” Tess said. She set down her dog. He dashed over to the bushes and lifted his leg to pee, struggling a bit with his balance. “I’m just a little frustrated because I literally called you guys six days ago to set up this assessment, and this has been like the longest wait ever, and now you come here a half hour early and with zero information?” she said. “Frankly, you don’t really seem all that knowledgeable about pricing, and I don’t understand. It’s literally your job. This is unacceptable.”
Tess was looking at me, expecting a response, an apology. She looked so different from the selfie she had sent in her email, unsmiling, arms crossed, standing in her dirty backyard. But this was her, this was Tess. I had imagined our interaction going so differently. I had imagined that she would recognize my voice because it had made such an impression, and after I handed her the limited edition lens cloths, we would talk about the new Vampire Weekend album then suddenly it would be night and we’d realize we’d been talking so long the stars were coming out. Her dog started barking again suddenly, pulling me from my thoughts. He ran over to the large tree near the fence, attempting to jump, his front paws on the trunk. There was movement in the branches. A squirrel was making its escape over the fence, the branch leading to the other side dipping under its weight.
I suddenly wanted to get out of that place. Out of Tess’s yard, but also out of my life in general. I wanted to be somewhere farther away, somewhere higher up, somewhere visible and above my current standing in the world.
“I’ll have someone senior to me stop by,” I said quickly. “Sorry to disappoint you.” I used the side gate to leave.
Back in my car, I roared away from her neighborhood and the panic set in. The real mulch guy would inevitably show up, and what would Tess do once she pieced together I was not actually with the landscaping company? Would she call the police? Tell them a strange man had posed as a landscaper? Had I somehow walked into committing a crime? I felt somewhat emotional, frightened by my own lapse in judgment over my desperation to connect with Tess. I felt alone and full of shame, desperate to make things right in some way.
Off the highway, I pulled over at a gas station I had once applied to during college to earn some extra cash, pay off loans. There was a payphone next to the air pump. I picked up the scratched receiver and inserted enough change for a short call. I opened Maps on my phone and searched the business nearby. When I found the one that seemed the most likely, I dialed. I used the payphone so the number couldn’t be traced. The line rang.
“Greener Landscaping this is Ellen. How can I help you?”
“Hey, there,” I said, lowering my voice slightly. “I just wanted to call and say you guys are great, and I really appreciate your service. If someone calls to complain, remember it’s not your fault. I hope you have a good day. That’s all.”
“Oh, wow,” she said. “That’s very kind, sir.” She paused. “Is there anything I can help with?”
“No. I’m all set.” I hung up.
Back at my apartment, I sent Brooks an email saying I quit, that a family emergency was forcing me to leave town. When I hit send and shut my laptop, I felt as if I could cry. I didn’t know where I would work next or how I’d pay rent in two months, but I knew I needed a change, and leaving this job was the first step. I turned on the TV and caught the end of a soccer match, leaving it on mute so that I could enjoy some silence. When there was five seconds left, the forward for the team in the lead duked out a defender and sent the ball soaring toward the left side of the goal. The goalkeeper dove to block, but he missed, falling flat on his stomach. The forward ran around the field, pointing to the sky. The crowd stood and waved flags. Even though I couldn’t hear the celebration, I found myself standing too. For a second, it was almost like I was one of the fans in the stands, rising to my feet at the exact same moment, as if I could turn in any direction and there’d be someone there to hug or return my high five when I decided to reach out my hand.
Laura Schmitt holds an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Hollins University. She was the First Place Winner of the 2022 Francine Ringold Award for New Writers, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod International Journal, Cream City Review, Grist Journal, The Boiler, GASHER, and Electric Literature. A 2023 Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference Scholar, she has also received support from the Tin House Winter Workshop and One Story Summer Writers’ Conference. Previously an indie bookseller at The Bookshop, she is now an Editorial Assistant at Grove Atlantic.