2020 Porch Prize Winner in Fiction 

I am not a nice person. I do not like to be high-fived. I’ve been working at the call center for three years and can’t say that I’ve “made strides” with co-workers. Sometimes, when I pass someone on the way to the meditation room I’ll attempt this casual “how’s it going” kind of smile but end up doing this pained, confused thing instead that says “Am I going the right way?”

People are a fan of the call center snacks. I can’t say they didn’t appeal to me when I first started. I found myself addicted to the yogurt-covered pretzels for half a year. I liked to put the pretzels in an organic coffee filter so that I could just scrunch it up and throw it in the trash circle when I was done. The call center makes you lazy that way. The trash circles are about what they sound like. They are tiny holes (circles) in the floor meant for trash. There is one in each work pod, and they allegedly connect to a network of recycling modules in the basement.

I say “allegedly” quite a bit now because it’s in the call center word bank. In training, you are given a list of approved words and are encouraged to use them on the phone with customers. “Family” is also in the word bank, along with “awesome sauce,” “cohesion,” and “heretofore,” as in: “You are heretofore banned from the call center network, effective immediately.”

I am on the Elimination Team, meaning I handle calls related to strictly forbidden practices by users. Things that are forbidden would be: asking another user too many questions, offering another user food, offering to drive another user home or “carpooling” with another user, and sex. The call center is, at its core, a matchmaking service. It is currently the number three ranking communication interface tool for people who want companionship without contact. While I personally don’t see the appeal, the job offers me the health insurance I need to see a therapist once a week. It also offers me a certain amount of free food, which—as my therapist likes to say—is nothing to sniff at.

The team in charge of hunger strategies recently added tuna packets to the break room. The head of HS is adamant about the safety of the tuna packets, as they are caught in a smaller net. I’m not sure if ethically caught tuna contains less mercury or if we’ll simply feel less bad eating mercury that is ethically sourced. Regardless, people find creative ways to eat the packets. I’ve compiled a sort of running tuna variations list, which I’ll leave here:
                                                                             tuna stirred inside Instant Cheezy Mac Cup
                                                                            frozen burrito in bowl with tuna throughout
                                                 frozen burrito smothered with Cheezy Mac, hot sauce, tuna underneath 

The tuna became so popular that the head of HS had to send out an email alert. The email pinged to life with the subject line: “Tuna Issue.” It read:

Please refrain from dumping tuna juice (water from tuna bag) directly into the trash circle. Please first drain the tuna in the water basin and rinse as needed. Failure to do so can cause quite a smell. People have complained, tbh. Lol.
High Fives,
Hunger Strategies Team Lead” 

I generally steer clear of the tuna. Lately, my meal of choice has been to eat two bowls of cereal at the start of my shift and a Compassion Bar in the middle of the day. Compassion Bars contain all the protein one would need in a week and leave me feeling pretty good, unlike the yogurt covered pretzels of yore. I eat my cereal without milk in the break room and listen to podcasts about celebrities or luxury skincare products. When I’m done, I rinse my bowl, shove a Compassion Bar in my pocket, and head to my pod. I like to eat one half at my desk and one half sitting in a bathroom stall. It may sound unsanitary to some, but this allows me a kind of ultimate privacy I find preferable, if not thrilling. I sit directly across from Dave, an aggressively happy new guy who constantly motions for me to take my headphones out just to give me a “thumbs up.”

I made my first call of the day to a man named Oscar. Oscar was to be banned for offering another user a granola bar. I cleared my throat.

“Who is this?” he said.

“I’m calling from the Elimination Team. Am I speaking with Oscar?”

“The who?”

“I’m calling to follow up with you on some concerning feedback we received,” I said, craning my neck. I didn’t like to repeat myself.

“What kind of feedback?” he said.

“It alleged that you offered another user a granola bar.”

“Granola bar?” he said. There was a kind of pleasure in discovering what strangers could be indignant about.

“Yes, a granola bar,” I said.

“Listen, hon—do you know what I do for a living?”

“No,” I said. I didn’t.

“Irregardless,” he said. He told me a story about his mother, and I let him blather on until I eventually told him he was banned.

Most days, I usually stop at an organic grocery store after work and buy pre-made chicken salad. Then I eat it in my car on the way home and throw it out before I go inside. I have a small apartment in the basement of a rich couple’s house. They moved here from somewhere bigger and bought houses to convert into short term rentals, which they sometimes pay me to clean. Over the years, I’ve watched a rotating door of wealthy tourists come in and out of old houses that are now unaffordable to actual residents. The tourists leave behind moldy coffee grounds and thirty-dollar take-out and itineraries for “authentic” experiences. I don’t feel bad for stealing from them.

The second call of the day was to a woman named Mary. She reported another user for driving her home, and in doing so reported herself for accepting said ride. She answered after three rings.

“This man was a drunk,” she said.

“How do you know? Was he driving erratically?” I said, transcribing our conversation as I spoke. Catching a drunk driver in the network translated to five Excellence Points, which I could turn in for a gift card.

“No. His driving was flawless. But I know a drunk when I see one.”

“Okay,” I said.

“His whole car smelled like chemicals,” she said.

“Like alcohol?”

“No, not alcohol,” she said. “Like Lemon Pledge. I know it was Lemon Pledge because Lemon Pledge was big in my family.”

“Mm,” I said. I googled a picture of Lemon Pledge and imagined a family cleaning their house with several cans of it. I googled Lemon Pledge high and then can you get high from Lemon Pledge and then Compassion Bar calories.

“Mary I’m afraid that—”

“I’m going to tell you something very personal about myself,” she said. “I come from a family of nine kids, all Catholic. I was never confirmed but still, whatever. Irish. Five out of nine of those kids turned out to be alcoholics, like drinking-mouthwash-in-the-bathroom-on-Christmas alcoholics.”

“Yes,” I said. “I know the type.” I did.

“What I’m saying to you, I guess, is that you never really know what someone is going through,” she said. I’ve heard people say this before and was almost certain I’d also seen it on a laptop sticker at the call center, but something about the way this woman said it made my chest tighten. I hung up the phone.

I went on about my day. I made small talk with a few coworkers who wore shirts that said things like “coffee is my spirit animal.” I took a required session of “personal growth time” and watched a video about empathy. The video was animated and featured a group of talking birds. I got to thinking about my call with Mary and remembered I hadn’t actually told her she was banned. After my personal growth time, I took a quiz about how empathy can help maximize productivity in the workplace. I called Mary while calculating my scores (eighty out of one hundred). She told me about movies she liked to watch—how she had over two hundred VHS tapes catalogued in a notebook she kept in her bedroom. I didn’t really respond much; I let her talk, saying things like mmm, mmhm, wow intermittently. We went on talking until the end of my shift. The next day, we spoke again. We began talking every day after my lunch break, jabbering about nothing in particular until one of us said goodbye.

On Friday, I clocked out and went straight to the rental to start cleaning. The house smelled like stale smoke and wet bathing suit material. I found ticket stubs to comic book movies, pizza boxes, a shirt with the tag still on it, and weed wrapped in tin foil. I mopped the floor. I poured bleach in the shower and watched it bubble into a sudsy gray carpet on the tiles. I liked spraying the dirty mirror blue, wiping smudges away with a measured precision. I stopped to evaluate myself. Fine, I thought. When the whole house smelled like astringent, I called my friend from high school. He believed the government controlled the weather, and he openly wept whenever we watched America’s Got Talent. He seemed to only express emotion for exceptionally gifted children and small animals, but we shared the familiar loneliness of wanting to be treated badly. Plus I liked that he smelled like Parliaments. No one smoked those anymore. He made his money selling coke and lived with his mom, who still called me occasionally to say things like, “You know, he really is a good boy. Deep down,” like she had when I was young.

“I know. A big heart. Deep down,” I would say.

“Such a big heart. Deep down,” she would say.

Back at work, I didn’t hear from Mary. My team lead was starting to notice I hadn’t off-boarded her account, so I figured I’d get it over with. She answered on the last ring.

“Mary,” I said. “You are heretofore banned from the network, effective imm—”

“I do not want to be alive anymore,” she said. I continued transcribing, hitting the delete key where I had typed I do not want to be alerv anymore.

“Can you repeat that please?” I said.

“Yes. I do not want to be alive anymore,” she said. “I can’t give you a good reason why. I have a nice house.” Suddenly, her voice made this bizarre gurgling sound and then she hacked a forceful cough into the receiver. I held the phone away from my face, and Dave gave me a “thumbs up.”  Mary coughed again, but I kept the phone to my ear this time. I wanted to hear if there were any other sounds I recognized. Traffic. A dog barking. Something like that. I stopped transcribing.

I found myself scrolling through the data tab of Mary’s account and clicked her user photo. Her hair was pulled back into a loose braid, her preference set to men from the ages of sixty to sixty-seven. I found two addresses and scrawled them on my hand. This was not allowed, but I figured I could pretend it was for a special team project. Besides, I suddenly felt like there was a tiny person inside of me saying, “Hey, you should write down Mary’s addresses,” like the tiny person was actually little me, or me as a child and the child was saying “I wish you were nicer to me.”  The child said “I wish you were nicer to me because I’m hurting all the time. I’m down here and it would be nice if once in a while you didn’t pretend I wasn’t hurting all the time.”

The first address I’d written on my hand brought me to a store that sold cupcakes out of an ATM machine. They called it the Cupcake ATM. I watched a family order one, dipping their fingers in the piled-up icing. The next address was a house. It was a bungalow near the fairgrounds and had a tree that covered the whole porch with shade. I opened the door without knocking. Inside it smelled like cats and rose water. There was an old piano in the corner and the TV was playing loudly. Some kind of infomercial for really sharp knives.

“Hello?” I said, my voice shaking.

“Leave the package on the porch,” she said, hacking a familiar cough into the room. I walked to her slowly.

“Shouldn’t you be wearing some kind of uniform?”

She was sitting on an overstuffed red couch. There was an old bar cart like a side table by the arm rest, piled high with tumblers and old Kleenex.

“My name is Caroline,” I told her. I guess I didn’t mention that before. “I spoke to you on the phone.”

“You look tired,” she said, pouring herself a glass of whiskey from a crystal decanter. “It’s not real crystal. What are you doing in my house?”

“I thought you were going to kill yourself,” I said.

“How is that your business?”

“I don’t know,” I said, a lump edging its way up my throat.

“Do you usually go around trying to save all your friends from killing themselves?” she said, swirling the ice in her glass.

“We’re not friends,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.”

I asked if I could use her bathroom. It had pale pink tile and a mirrored medicine cabinet. I found a bottle of Valium and popped it open. I put two pills in my mouth and chewed. When I went back, Mary was watching Roman Holiday on TV.

“I just love Gregory Peck,” she said, handing me a glass.

“I have to go,” I said.

I imagined what it would be like if Mary had actually tried to kill herself. I imagined calling the ambulance, the paramedics rushing in to shine tiny flashlights in her eye and yell in her face. I imagined myself defending her.

“She’s not deaf,” I’d say.

“Is this your mother?” the imaginary paramedic would ask. It was all a bit dramatic for my taste, even for a fantasy.

On my way out, I ran my hand along the keys of the piano. They were cold and smooth and moved a little under the weight of my fingers. I paused in front of them and let my hands hover as if about to play. I suddenly felt that I needed to take the piano with me. I needed to take Mary and the piano with me and move into the cupcake store and play classical music like Chopin or that song Claire de Lune all day while Mary hummed something. I suddenly felt upset that I didn’t know how to play any songs. I felt so sad for not knowing how to play the piano that I started weeping. I let the screen door shut behind me and heaved loud, ugly sobs on Mary’s porch until it was time to go home.

Back at the call center, I ate two bowls of cereal. I listened to classical music in my headphones and patted myself on the back for being so sophisticated. Once the bathrooms cleared out, I sat in the tiny stall and imagined I could hear a dial tone. Once I could hear the dial tone, I imagined what it would be like to become a dial tone. My lips and ears vibrated with a low whirring hum, and I saw the child from before. I saw the child playing with a can of Lemon Pledge. I saw the child brushing my hair and eating pieces of a piano and watching me at my desk. I guess I had enacted some kind of prayer. I kept being the dial tone until my legs and feet went numb from sitting.

After that, I listened to a new user tell me she was thinking of divorcing her husband. I told her that sounded fine and that she should do it if she really wanted to. I sent my friend from high school a video of a baby sloth. Then I took three hours of sick time and left the office early.

On my way home, I stopped at my usual store and surveyed all the portions of chicken salad, each wet helping shiny and congealed in its plastic. A man behind the deli counter leaned over the glass case:

“Do you want to sample it?”

“No thanks,” I said.

Instead, I drove to an Italian trattoria and sat with a large family at a communal table. The proprietor, a squat older woman, placed her hand on my shoulder as she set down the plates of food. Her hand was warm, and I sort of leaned into her imperceptibly. Each plate steamed like it was from a cartoon movie about food. The tomato sauce was bright and glossy like wet clay. There were fried zucchini flowers and potato dumplings with green peas and cheese. I found myself making those horrible sounds of delight they make on cooking shows. I scooted a little closer to the man sitting next to me. He had his daughter on his lap, who squirmed over with an outstretched arm to show me a booger on her tiny index finger. I laughed and made funny faces at her, sopping up the rest of my ragù with chunks of fresh bread. This practice of sopping up sauce with bread, the man told me, was called fare la scarpetta in Italian, which literally translates to: to make the little shoe.  I thought that was quite marvelous. I swirled the wine left in my glass and gulped it down. I scraped my bowl clean.


Hilary Bell was born in Italy and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the founder of Mirror House, an immersive reading series with The Porch, Nashville’s nonprofit literary center. Her work has appeared in the Nashville Scene and in The Rumpuswhere it was featured as one of the most read pieces of 2019.