Customer Care Eric Severn
Another August night with the spiders. Some great exodus from the heat sending them dueling for dark spaces. I hunch at my desk and fiercely perspire. Northern Canada, the deepest Dakotas. The state I’m in has driven me to the Internet for vast landscapes. And while I’m particularly drawn to empty swaths of plains, a craggy bluff or fog-haunted coast will surely do. They afford me a certain forgetfulness. And then I’m an old, old man, listless and indifferent, triumphantly alone. I double-click on a wind-lashed fishing village somewhere in Norway. The photo fills my screen and I know I should be lost, should be captaining a boat, a boat christened Valhalla, Valhalla in cursive on the bow.
Two more hours online. Three more spiders swatted with the spatula. The sheer heft of their bodies raises questions of ethics, but it’s two a.m. and sleep finally seems possible. When I attempt to log off, the mouse refuses. To coax and treat it tenderly does no good. Nor abrupt thrusts. Centered on a derelict barn swept up in an effusion of Nova Scotia tundra, the little white arrow holds firm. More sweat. I curse the laptop’s obstinacy, curse its hushed technical chambers. Outside my archaic studio, the black stillness is broken by a passing car. It trails off into heat-crowded streets. A shower seems the best solution.
Turned all the way to cold but spurting lukewarm. Dripping wet I return to the same frozen barn. Nothing. Even the power button refuses me now. Lifting the thing, a few tender shakes do no good. I’m sent into a mild tantrum. Scraping at the pile of dirty clothes where I last cast the manual, but two spiders guard the creased book. They’re swift, wildly athletic, breaking one way then scurrying another. The first down a floor crack, but in a full-arch-slap I spatula its lover and for a moment swell. It’s a primal vigor and it encourages me back to my desk to decipher the manual’s language. File paths, disk drives, gigabytes—no reference to freeze-up, if that’s even what this is called. But in the back of the manual, a list. Phone numbers for all manner of technical support, all manner of country. Tehran. I want to call Tehran. Sounds of soft blown sand against rock cottages. But I don’t.
Three rings and then the electronic tones of some sexless being. My host provides seven numbers for seven common problems, and none of them are a freeze-up. So now I’m of an unpractical and severe mind. My want is to fling the nastiest obscenities in hope of overwhelming the circuits, in hope of being delivered to a real person, but I wither. It’s quickly approaching three a.m. After pressing two for monitor troubleshooting, the voice blooms with a new list of options. Soon nearly half an hour’s sucked up in the 1-800-labyrinth of suggestions and redirections. Finally, I find a customer service representative, awaiting behind a simple press of zero. Though it’s ten more minutes to an instrumental version of Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence before a voice, feminine and real, rises from the chorus. I tell her my name. Rhythmic finger pecking on a keyboard, and then more questions: the computer model, the serial number, which Windows program, etc. Silence billows as she retrieves the information. “Sir,” her voice returns, “I’ll have to transfer you to a representative familiar with your model.”
Sent back to the music, this time synthesized, vaguely industrial, a trance-like beat, a sense of movement, of great distances traveled in seconds.
“Service desk. Your name, please?”
An accent slow and spacious, as if each vowel were its own word. He and I go through the same routine. First and last name, make and model. When he asks what seems to be the problem, I explain the freeze-up. “The mouse,” I say. “It’s completely stuck.”
He pauses, absorbing. “Do you have a back-up disk?”
“What do I need that for?”
“If it crashes you’ll want your files saved.”
“It’s not crashing. It’s just frozen. And no, I don’t have a backup disk.”
“You should consider having—”
“Fine. But what about my current problem?”
“Okay, Mr. Flinders. And you tried turning it off?”
His words rise and fall with a breezy inflection so dimly familiar. I say, “Listen. I’ve explained this. It won’t turn off. That’s the problem.”
“I understand. But have you tried manually turning it off?”
To keep from losing my self-possession, from slipping into growling fury, I ask where he’s from. “Your accent, I can’t place it.”
“Canadian,” he says. “I’m out here in Nova Scotia.”
Still frozen, my screen, the image of a barn, tundra. “You’re kidding me.”
“I don’t kid. All the way in Eastern Canada.”
“Amazing,” I murmur.
Through the window above my desk seeps thick smells of mud flats and stagnant salt water. I was looking up photos of Nova Scotia, I tell him how I was doing this before the freeze-up, and on the other end I hear him breathing, attentive, receptive. I’m tempted to tell him about the calming effect the images produce, to issue forth to this man the facts of last night, the situation, my guilt. “Geography,” I say, “it’s always interested me.”
“I can see the bay from here. It’s beautiful country.”
Then representative and customer both fall quiet, a flutter of connection, glint of a bond. My voice quivers slightly. “What’s your name?”
Craig, alone in his call center, with the window, looking out over the bay. “Take out the battery, stick it back in, reboot,” He says, “Simple as that.”
I do as I’m told. A flickering screen. Crackling circuits. Life once again. In his gentle satisfaction Craig imparts a few tips to prevent another lockup, and then his work is done.
“Wait,” I say, “Nova Scotia…” To know about the winters, the fall colors, the coastlines, and somehow an hour zips by. He tells of restaurants, hidden lakes, seafood and big game, or storms and the northern lights. Craig, he goes on and on. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You can’t imagine the colors of the trees.”
At four in the morning the conversation reaches its zenith on the topic of Prince Edward Island, and as our parting nears there’s the feeling of participating in something forbidden, even dirty. We say goodnight. One of us puts in a hasty thank you. I fall asleep and dream of Halifax.
Ten the next morning, wide awake. Two nights behind me. Stand in the kitchen, stare out the window. Two crows clutching a telephone wire and pecking at each other, beating their wings and exchanging desperate caws. Leave the house, that’d be the best thing, and Nick and Zoe, they’ll surely feed me. Like a family rescuing an orphan they’ve taken me in, provided a couch when I had no bed, cash when I was broke. Married, they own the coffee shop where I’m employed, one of those freestanding, drive-through gigs with the cutest of names: Bean Town. Zoe’s idea.
Sputtering down State Street in my beater Nissan, windows open to waves of heat rippling off parked cars. At the edge of town a cluster of scrubby blueberry farms, rows shuddering in the sun. It’s the 15th, I remember, bill day. Guiding the steering wheel with my knee, I pull over, find my phone, dial my credit card company. The automated voice answers and I give a quick, stern shout. “Representative!”
No hold music, just yawning frontiers. An old white house sits outside my window, a willow tree swaying mournfully in dry wind. Then a woman’s husky voice. “This is Brittany, how may I help you?” Before we take care of my balance, there are formalities: credit card number, social security number, address, zip. Authenticated and trusted, I pay. The confirmation number I pen on my palm. I ask her to repeat it, always sure to double-check. Is there anything else?
“Wait, Brittany. How are you?”
She hesitates, clears her throat. “I’m okay.”
“Wonderful. Listen, where am I calling?”
Again, hesitation. “Nebraska.”
“Nebraska. Like the Bruce Springsteen album.”
“I don’t really listen to him. Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“Wait. What’s Nebraska like? I’ve always been curious.”
“It’s hot,” she says.
I tell her it’s hot here, too, sweltering, in fact. “I’m out in Washington,” I say. “State. I’m in Bellingham.”
She’s interested now. Bellingham, it sounds so familiar, and then the connection: A childhood visit to an aunt and cousin, a little harbor town on Puget Sound. Bellingham, of course—and so I boast of the harbor, the evening strolls on the boardwalk, that scarlet blush of our sunsetted Cascades. “But how about Nebraska? Flat, right?”
No, there’re mountains. But then she corrects herself. More like hills, little nubs, really. I say, “What about tornadoes?”
“We’re used to them,” she says, “like Californians with earthquakes,” and then she’s going on and on. Reveals a mind brimming with Nebraskan facts. The home of Buffalo Bill Cody’s first rodeo, the origin of the Reuben sandwich, the residence of the world’s largest porch-swing and how the honey bee’s their state insect.
Sun catches on my dirty windshield, casts its glare, and I’m forced to stanch Brittany’s reservoir of knowledge.
“I’ve got to get going, Brittany.”
“And there’s nothing else I can help you with?”
Inside Nick hovers over the stove, boxers, shirtless, free and open in his own home. The two dogs do laps around my feet, paw at my clothes, then roll over to pant at the ceiling. Zoe, in sundress, sets the table. By the smell, it’s hot sausage to peppers, onions and garlic. I mumble hello and Nick turns from the spitting pan to blink at me. “You look like shit,” he says.
Zoe hands me a glass of orange juice, appraises, and agrees with her husband. They’re in love, these two, and I have often caught them in that furtive communication lovers share, though I have never once let on I’m aware of their secret language. I take a determined sip of my juice, sending it down the wrong pipe. It burns my throat, tears my eyes. To the table as a defeated boat finds its berth, I slump in a chair, rest my head in my hands. “I had a late night,” I say.
Steam trails from the pan as Nick walks across the kitchen. Eggs and sausage all around. I pretend to be greedy with my food, to attack it mercilessly, but I’m too aware of Nick’s knowing look.
“You’ve done something—I can tell by your face.”
I watch him across the table but say nothing. One of the dogs barks at a truck rumbling down the road. Nick turns to his wife, not long, then back to me. “What about Susan?”
Through the screen door a warm wind sweeps up the curtains and I resolve to pick at my breakfast.
Breakfast is finished, strained small-talk finished. After, I mope around the kitchen. Nick and Zoe do the dishes but I leave them to burn a half hour on their back deck staring at oak trees. The sky bunches with inky clouds. Inside the married couple communicates in their secret language. Without a goodbye, I slip around the side of the house, get in my truck. Driving for home, rain drops turn month-old windshield dust to mud. In the distance a dull flash of heat lightning and I’m back in my studio. We sulk on repeat. Heat. Dirty and mist-heavy, it rises from wet concrete and presses against my windows. A final bill to pay, then the oblivion of another August afternoon. I pick up my phone and dial my cell phone company. The automated system is curt and efficient, collapsing time and distance into seconds. I’m transferred to someone named Erin. Bubbly and optimistic, she asks how my day’s been and I explain the manic weather, the broken clouds and torrid rain. I explain the sticky streets and on the other end she’s skeptical when I ask about hers. But then she loves summer, or so she says, and we take care of my payment. When she asks if there’s anything else, I tell her I’m calling from Bellingham. You know, northern Washington, I say, and there’s the chasm of a delay on her end. I fill it.
“Washington. It’s really great. Everything is always green. And where are you?”
“Idaho,” she forces.
“Idaho, wonderful. I hear Moscow’s nice? Moscow, Idaho? Are you close? Have you ever been there?”
“Once,” she says flatly.
“So how was it?”
“It was cold. Sir, is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Wait,” I say. “Yes. You can spare a second, yes? Where am I calling in Idaho?”
She goes mute. One count, two. Three. Then she’s all business. “I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t tell you where in Idaho.”
“Sir, do you need me to take care of anything else on your account?”
“I guess not, but—”
“Have a nice day, Sir,” and she hangs up before I can say goodbye.
Crouched on my bed, the phone burns against my ear. I lay back on the sweaty mattress. The lump in my stomach returns. From the corner of my eye I catch a spider making a break from under the fridge. I club it with a rolled magazine. The crunch of its blameless body leaves a streak across the glossy cover. I’m standing there unable to muster any pride when my phone rings and it’s Susan.
After four rings I answer. That familiar, ever up-lifting voice. Clear across the country, and I can feel her body almost, touch her hair almost, inhale that vanilla scent. Almost, and she tells me about the package she sent today. It’s something handmade, full of beach and sea secrets from Rhode Island. Through these tired pangs of regret, I promise I’ll send her something too, something of Washington, of myself. Don’t, she tells me. Because the package would arrive too late and we’ll already be together, be here.
“I need to tell you something.”
“What?” she says. “Is everything ok?”
“It’s, it’s just...”
“You can tell me. You can tell me anything you want.”
I fidget with my car keys. From the cracks between the slats, two more spiders emerge.
“What is it?” she says. “We can talk to each other.”
Oblivious, the bugs scuttle around my kitchen. But I unroll the periodical because they’ll just keep coming.
“It’s just, I’ve got these damn spiders in my house. The heat’s bringing them in. I think. All over. I just wanted you to know before you get back and you’re here.”
She calls me silly. And I tell her I know. Very silly. I lie back on my bed, peeling sheets, bare blue mattress. After possibly a too-deep breath I tell her I want more about Rhode Island, more about the people, the beaches, and she says I’d love it. The houses, they’re just like those New England cottages you see in pictures. Stone chimneys and shake siding. We’ve been getting these storms with thunder that echoes through the whole city. And the salt off of the Atlantic. It’s different here. I wish you could taste it too, with me. Wonderful. Wonderful, I say. Wonderful, and there she goes, riding her bike down narrow streets, and covered bridges, and a basket of fruit, warm rain just rolling off her skin.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.