I had to make an international call recently. Nothing big, just a few minutes to an office in London. I could have emailed the information, but with hackers creeping around behind the curtain of our computer screens—diving in and out of people’s accounts like “water bugs” climbing around our bedrooms at night—I figured it was safer to give sensitive info over the phone.
It was my first international call in a while and my new phone hadn’t been set up for it. Suri was blocked. Too annoyed to ask her what I should do, I plugged in the “magic jack” I’d unplugged years ago. I sat there, waiting with hunched shoulders for the old desktop to boot up, thinking about how weird it felt to use the word “desktop” to mean this old, gray computer tower—with Intel inside.
My wife had taken the dog for a walk, so I had time to sit, relax, and sip tea. My nerves vibrated a bit, because today was the last day I could pay the entry fee. I was afraid the office might be closing soon, since it was five hours ahead. The screen had come to life but the computer still had other things to do before giving me control.
Oh, great, look at that, it’s upgrading me! The black icon turned green, as if begging me “a minute of patience for a lifetime of savings.” Eight minutes later, I wondered if I should have just called my phone company. It was just after 1 p.m. on the East Coast; I had hoped to call earlier. I had been working on a revision of my story for months, and now all could be dashed in a matter of minutes.
F’ it, I told myself. It was beyond my control. I went outside. Two puffs later I was back. The screen hadn’t changed, so I tracked back to the bedroom for my phone and dialed 6-1-1. A female android gave a list of options and sounded remotely sexy. In my mind, I saw C-3PO and tried to imagine his sister, glistening silver. I wondered if they’d give her curves? I hit zero.
“Hi, this is James, thank you for calling customer service, to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“And, yes,” James said. “May I call you by your first name?”
“OK, and, yes, Joel, how can I help you?”
“I would like to make an international call, please.”
“My phone said it was blocked or something,” I said. “Whatever I need to do, even if I have to change my plan or whatever, it’s cool.”
“Oh, OK,” James said. “At first I thought you were asking me to patch you through.”
I laughed, thinking, That would be incredible if you could, all of a sudden realizing how much easier things used to be when operators seemed intent to do just that. “No,” I said, playing along. “That would be crazy.”
But, would it?
“OK, I’m going to have to get someone from international calling on the line to take care of this,” James said. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’m going to put you on hold.”
I put the phone on speaker, opened The Paris Review, read about a trip to Norway. I fantasized about a trip to Norway. With my tea finished, I wondered how “magic jack” was doing. Back at the computer, the little dialing box finally appeared. I dialed the access code number with my mouse and was about to hang up on James as the faux landline rang for a second but stopped with a chime.
“This phone is incapable of making international calls,” another feminine android said, “Please go to www.&%$#*.com to purchase prepaid international minutes.”
Damn! I hung up. The soothing music from my cell phone reminded me that all was not lost. In some cubicle far away, my guy, James—bound to me by big brother’s recording his every move—must have been waiting, too, scooping some game scores on his handheld until the sophisticated voice from international calls came online. James explained my problem. They pulled up and scrutinized my account—revealing who knows what—before formulating their best response.
James finally clicked back on. “Jo`el?” He asked, as if all of a sudden I was French.
“Yes,” I said—the way you do when you just want to get on with things.
“I have Hubert on the line with us from international calls who will take it from here on out.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No thanks,” I said.
“OK, then,” James said. “Thank you both and have a great day.”
“Mr. Finsel?” The new voice inquired.
And the process pushed on until 45 minutes later, I finally was able to call overseas, but only after enduring Hubert’s polite explanation on how to call another country. He spoke as if it was rare and special for Americans.
The call to London lasted under 2 minutes. The woman’s distant voice sounded sweet. I imagined her one of the last to leave the office. Quiet copying machines sat on a ledge behind her, rarely used at all anymore. She took my payment info. I wondered whether or not she was married, had a dog or anyone to go home to. Was it raining outside? Would she smile soon?
After we hung up, in my mind’s eye I watched as she turned off her monitor, grabbed her coat and purse, off to meet someone for a drink, gold funneling through patches of clouds.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.