Monday, October 16, 2017

Fiction #75: Finn Harvor

Author's statement: This story ("Last Question of the Evening") speaks, I hope, for itself. It is set in a call center during an election when a conservative party is in power … and wants to keep things that way. However, the story also exists as a movie and is part of a larger project entitled PLASTIC MILLENNIUM. Links to the movie version of this story are below. I'm hoping people will check out the movie as well as the story.

Vimeo links (two parts)
https://vimeo.com/126326733 (pw: lastone)
https://vimeo.com/126785622 (pw: lastone)

*



Last Question of the Evening

Fade in.

An office comprised of cubicles, all of them lined in rows, as if the aisles of an airplane had been converted into office space. In each cubicle, a worker with a headset.

"They're all liars," a voice through one headset says.

The man conducting the interview, Anders, doesn't reply. He waits for the respondent to answer the question in the survey.

"Eh?" the respondent says, his voice charged with a coercive energy. "Whaddayou think?"

"A lot of people feel the same way you do, sir."

"That's right!" the man from rural Saskatchewan says. "They all go to Ottawa, they promise you the world, and then they do nothing."

Pause. Anders glances at the supervisors' station, eager to see if his call is being monitored. He can't make out the supervisors' screens.

"Sir, if you could please answer the questions as they're phrased, we'd get through this much faster."

Saying this is a mistake; not because the respondent is offended by Anders's chastisement, but because it suddenly makes him aware of how long he's been on the phone. "Good lord, mister! Lookit the time! We've been yammerin' for half an hour!"

"We're almost done," Anders lies.

"I can't be talkin' about all this sort of political nonsense for half an hour!"



"Please, sir. Would you just bear with me for another ten minutes?"

"Ten minutes?! Listen, I don't have ten minutes. I think I told you enough."

"Is there some time I could call you back at?"

"No. I'm real busy. I said enough. You just fill in the rest."

"I can't do that, sir." Now a note of pleading has entered Anders's voice. "I'll get through the rest of this really fast. If we don't finish it, then I'll have to throw the whole thing out."

"Am I gettin' paid for this?"

"Pardon?"

"Are you sendin' me money? I give you a lot of my time, I expect something in return."

"Sorry, sir, the company I work for hardly pays me anything, I don't think they'd be generous enough to start mailing cheques to all the people we interview."

This attempt to establish a sense of camaraderie falls flat. "I'm serious, mister. I gotta go," the man says.

The line is cut.

Anders lets out a deep sigh and swivels around in his chair. He first looks at the supervisors' station, then the clock. It's twenty to ten. An incredible exhaustion, mitigated by the proximity of quitting time, washes through him. He rubs his eyes and stands up.

Laura, one of the supervisors, casts him a condemning glance. Feeling guilty, then, an instant later, feeling with defensive pride that he does his fair share of work and deserves the occasional break, he walks over to the station.

"Cheques in?" he says. The question is virtually rhetorical.

Laura looks at him with her glassy, neutral eyes. "No," she says.

"They were supposed to be here at five," Anders says.

"Don't blame me. There was some screw-up with the payroll system."



"Yeah, well --." Anders bites his tongue. He simply says, "I need that money."

"You're not the only one." Laura smiles tightly. "They'll be in tomorrow."

"I'll be hungry tomorrow."

Perhaps Laura feels a touch of compassion for him. She regards him with full attentiveness. But then she says, "You should plan ahead."

Anders gives her a what's-that-supposed-to-mean? look, then turns away to make a trip to the washroom.

On the way back, he notices one the senior analysts behind the glass wall that separates the executive offices from the hall that leads to the teleresearch room where the interviewers work. The analyst is a bulky guy who's shaved his head bald and clearly works out. He has the aggressively friendly, somewhat sinister manner of a doorman at a night club. In front of him is a woman in a power suit.

Anders only glimpses all this as he walks down the hall.

When he gets back to his work station, it's twelve minutes to ten. Generally, this is just around the time when one of the supervisors begins walking around and telling everyone who's not on a survey to log off. Anders feels a contented relief. He figures he'll find a way to feed himself until tomorrow. He fingers the change in his pocket: his clinking life's savings.

At ten-to-ten, Jeremy, one of few consistently nice supervisors, begins walking down aisles. Anders stretches his arms. Then Jeremy's voice becomes audible. "Don't log off. We'll be working to ten. Even if you're not on a survey, keep dialling."

"But Jer-emy," a whiny voice says. "This survey is super-long. If we get someone now, we'll be here to, like, midnight."

"I'm just passing my orders along. I don't want to stay here any more than you do," Jeremy says. Then he adds, as if as an afterthought, "We're going to be starting another survey at ten."



"WHAT?!" a Jamaican woman named Celia says.

"I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. We've got a rush job from The Policy Group, and everyone has to work till quarter past."

The Policy Group isn't technically part of the company that Anders works for. Anders's company is called Windgate Research, and it's a pollster for the federal Liberals. The Policy Group has its office halfway down the hall between Windgate's executive suites and Anders's workplace. It in turn does polling for the provincial Conservatives. Both firms use the same interviewers.

Celia says loudly, "I SIGN UP FOR TEN, AND THAT'S WHEN I'M LEAVING. YOU WANT PEOPLE TO STAY EXTRA HOURS, YOU TELL THEM IN ADVANCE."

Anders listens to Celia with a distant kind of neutrality. He doesn't share her fury. Then he starts thinking about what's going on and gets angry not only because Celia has a point but because she isn't pin-pointing the exact nature of the way the truth is being spun.

The description of this survey as a 'rush job' is a misnomer; while it's understood that some surveys are more urgent than others, all of them need at least a day or two of preparation. If nothing else, the analyst who wrote this particular survey would have begun working on it early in the afternoon. There is no way management could have 'just' discovered it needed this survey done.

Then a more calculating, more cautious part of Anders's mind kicks in. He's been having trouble getting along with the supervisors lately -- even the normally genial Jeremy has been prickly. And Anders, a university student with post-grad ambitions, is too intellectually proud to put up with the low-level condescension which is routinely directed at the interviewers. He tends to snap back when criticized. He knows that he has a reputation for being difficult. If he were to stay for an extra fifteen minutes, it'd help him go down in the supervisors' good-books.

"Everybody log off," Jeremy says to the whole room. He repeats his message a few more times, like a portly town crier walking down a street of computers.

"You know what this survey's about?" Anders says to Michelle, the woman with no front teeth, who's sitting at a station opposite his.

She shrugs. "Maybe the teachers' strike," she says.

Anders realizes she must be right. It's early November, 1997 -- the strike has been dragging on for over a week. And the provincial government is starting to lose the battle of public opinion; simply that it has been holding off legislating the teachers back to work shows that it's scared.

Despite himself, like a true political junkie enzymes of excitement begin coursing through Anders's blood. It's like being a sports fan at a playoff: He wants to see what the final match up is going to be.

"The survey's number is 154," Jeremy announces. "This is manual dial. Please log on."

Anders begins reading the new survey. Any anticipation he experienced a moment before is evaporated by the sheer length of it; it contains over eighty questions.

"LOOK AT THIS!" Celia says. "THIS SURVEY LONG, JEREMY."

There are murmurs of agreement from her section of the room. Laura rushes over to quell the problem. She speaks to Celia, her voice inaudible.

"I DON'T CARE," Celia says. "THEM POLICY GROUP PEOPLE DO THIS ON PURPOSE. THEY DO IT LAST WEEK, TOO. AND WHAT ABOUT OUR HALF HOUR BREAK? WE WORKIN' FOR MORE THAN FIVE HOURS, WE'RE ENTITLED TO HALF ... AN ... HOUR ... BREAK."

"It's only fifteen extra minutes," Laura says. "You'll be paid for it."

Celia's tone lowers, but it's still adamant and clear with outrage. "That's not right. They're tryin' to nickel and dime us. They plan this."

Again, Laura's voice slips under the threshold of hearing. Anders turns back to his screen.

He's been phoning the West most of the evening. With its time differential, he hasn't had to worry about upsetting people by calling too late. With dismay he realizes he'll now be phoning metro Toronto, the most cranky and survey-harassed region of the country, at ten on a Tuesday night. He swears to himself. The questions keep appearing before him. Almost all of them are leading.... As was said earlier, the strike by the teachers' unions is illegal. Does knowing this make you more likely or less likely to support the provincial government's reforms to education?

"It's just another fifteen minutes," the interviewer sitting next to Anders says. He's a skinny skateboarder named Lance. He once told Anders that he ate one meal of eggs and bread a day for a week.

Anders looks back at Lance with an aghast expression. "Are you kidding?!"

Lance shrugs. He slouches deeply in his seat. "Just phone a coupla numbers. Look like you're workin'. Make 'em happy."

Anders's emotions shift very abruptly. Lance is right. Pretend to be a good employee.

But at ten sharp, a mutiny breaks out. People begin rising from their seats, starting first, it seems, with Celia. "I got a connectin' bus to catch," she says by way of explanation.

Hunger gnaws at Anders's stomach. He only had a can of sardines for supper. He was counting desperately on the pay-cheque. He figured after work he'd make a beeline to a bank machine, deposit his pay, then treat himself to dinner at a souvlaki place. Physical discomfort reminds him of how much he hates his company.

Despite his resolution, almost involuntarily Anders finds himself rising from his seat. He makes an extra show of lining up his keyboard neatly on his desk and putting on his coat with genteel calm.

"What are you doing?" Michelle says.

"I'm not staying. This is ridiculous. What, we're supposed to phone people now, and ask them a bunch of propagandistic questions for half an hour?"

"It's a job."

"Barely."

As Anders is walking towards the supervisors' station, the man who was in the front office -- the one with the bald head and fighter's build -- enters. He sees the mass of people huddled around the sign-out sheet.

"What's going on?" he says loudly to Laura.

"People don't want to stay. They signed up till ten o'clock, and they're leaving."

The tough bald man looks around him. For a second his expression is so similar to that of a captain trying to give orders to soldiers who are on leave that Anders wants to laugh. Then the man composes himself, and his face becomes a managerial mask.

"Everybody, could I have your attention!" he says loudly. "Everyone! Listen, this is a rush job. It's very important. We need you people to stay."

A number of the people milling around stop. Everybody seems temporarily frozen by this man's voice. Then a few people move discreetly towards the door.

"Listen, I know it's late, and I know you people want to get home. But we have to start getting results on this particular issue. Certain people -- important people -- need feedback, and they need something that they can start working with first thing tomorrow. So everybody, would you please ... just return to your stations. If we all pitch in, we can make a dent on this baby."

Some people seem to have been convinced by this man's manner, but no one actually returns to a station.

Seeing this, the man adds in a deal-maker's tone, "I'll give you a bonus."

The man is standing right beside Anders. Although the man isn't looking right at him, Anders can practically feel tendrils working their way out of him, as if he has thousands of microscopic hairs waving gently in the air, picking up people's opinions chemically.

"How much?" Anders says. His voice is steady, but he's surprised at how fearful he feels.

"Come on," the tough bald man is saying to everyone, clapping his hands together. Then he turns to Anders, his body language like that of an adult irritated by a child.

Anders watches as the man's eyes settle on his. They are disconcertingly focused; they are powerful and unblinking. When the man's mouth moves, there is the slightest of hesitations when he pronounces his first syllable. "Three bucks." 

The adrenalin that Anders experienced minutes before comes back to him stronger. "You've got to be kidding."

The tough bald man holds his hands out from his pockets as if to say: hey buddy, that's all I got.
Then the man says, "You think you're worth more?"

A voice in Anders's head tells him that he should back off. It tells him he's making a huge mistake, engaging in confrontation. Everybody else in the room knows this man's a jerk. Why say it to his face?

So Anders, thinking he's being conciliatory, says, "I'll do it. But yeah, I think I'm worth more."

"Let me tell you something about what you're worth," the man says. He holds up his hand, making a zero sign with his thumb and forefinger. "I could have you replaced like that." He snaps his fingers with startling volume. "Now you get back to your friggin' station or you take a walk out the door."

This is too much. Anders glares. "Maybe more than one person will walk out that door."

"What's that supposed to mean --?"

"People here are pretty sick of working for eight bucks an hour. We get no raises, no benefits, no consistent hours, and the company rakes in millions." Anders feels as if his nerves are exposed. He's absolutely convinced the man is going to hit him. He's startled; he thought he'd left this level of fear behind in high school.

"That's the industry standard," the man says. He narrows his eyes. "Pal."

"You got people here who don't even get enough to eat. You think that's a fair standard?"

The man looks at Anders -- he looks at the people nearby. He smirks. Most everybody is well-dressed.

A schizophrenic electricity fills the room: Anders is completely alert but also more tired than ever. He feels that everybody's attention is on him and nobody is with him. The other people all stand around, waiting. A horrible sense of defeat hovers on the fringe of his consciousness.

"What did you say your name was?" the man says. His voice is superficially polite, but it's edged with the appetite of an axe.

*

Finn Harvor is an artist, writer, filmmaker, and musician. He lives with his wife in South Korea. His work -- literary and academic -- has appeared in several journals including Poetry Film Live, This Magazine, Canadian Notes and Queries, Former People, Eclectica, and others. His author-made movies have been screened in Korea, the U.S., the U.K., and Greece, with upcoming screenings at the Athens Poetry Film Festival and the Rabbitheart Poetry Film Festival.


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