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The Epiphany Hotline

 

Doris Thorkelson was working on the line at the Burger Buddy processing machine having the worst day of her life when it dawned on her that she had the power to do something about her terrible job.

The pay was lousy but it was the best she could get, a dollar more than minimum wage. With overtime she managed to get by. But the task was monotonous and repetitive, giving her carpal-tunnel pain not to mention the headaches she got from sniffing the fumes of the Savory Flavor spray she injected into the thin slabs of ground chuck as they rolled down the conveyer belt.

Her main responsibility was stamping the meat into round patties and tossing the remnants into a bucket, which a mentally challenged man named Gomez hauled to the top of the steps and tossed its contents into the reprocessing vat. The meat was then extruded from a tube back on the conveyer belt. It was a marvelously efficient operation that fed the kitchen of the massive Burger Buddy Palace in Dthe Westside Mall. The restaurant boasted about selling approximately 1,700 hamburger units a day to diners.

Doris was a vegetarian. But she didn’t mind handling the meat so long as she didn’t have to eat it. It was her job to do this and even if she hated it she took pride in doing it well. Lately, however, the headache and the pain in her wrists, not to mention the backaches from standing all day, were grinding her down. She needed a job where she could sit.

She checked out the online employment services and learned that call-center jobs for native English speakers were plentiful. She applied to seven of them but got a callback from only one, the Epiphany Hotline. The man at the other of the line, Horace Cauldwell, said he was impressed by her resume: A master’s degree in English Literature from Tulane and an earlier career as a systems analyst at IBM. But Horace was most curious about the 18-month gap between IBM and Burger Buddy.

“They fired me, she said. “Those three-piece blue-suited bastards outsourced my job to a contractor in Tamil Nadu. I spent a year-and-half searching for a job in my field but no one hired me because I’m a women, I’m over qualified, I’m over forty and I made too much money at IBM. And maybe my weight was a factor. When my unemployment benefits ran out I had to settle for Burger Buddy.

“We like overqualified applicants because of the nature of the job. It takes a sophisticated operator to answer calls from people with epiphanies. It pays by the call and you get a bonus when you sign them up for our online pay-for-play services ,like the Egg-head Business Incubator and Truisms Copyrighting Center,” Horace said. “You make very good money and the customer can’t see you so they won’t know you’re fat.”

“I’m not fat,” Doris protested. “Just a little plump.” It stretched the truth, she had to admit, but Mr. Cauldwell wouldn’t mind. He seemed like very nice man.

“No worries, Doris said. We’ll have a photo of a pretty model posted for you on our website,” he said. “And we’ll give you a stage name to protect your privacy. With a voice like yours you’ll have them wrapped around your finger. A pleasant voice is vital in this industry and you could make it sound sexy for the male clientele. . It’s like a 900 call, only it’s totally legit. We’re regulated by the State of Louisiana’s Institute for High Tech Entrepreneurs and Epiphany Management.” Doris asked when she could start.

“My associate will call your tomorrow for the epiphany empathy response test.”

Mr. Cauldwell’s assistant. Betty Badenov, called Doris the following evening and put her through her paces. First she had to memorize the script that the hotline operators recited when they answered the phone.

“Welcome to the Epiphany Hotline. We’re here to help you turn your flash of realization into a sustainable idea for fun and profit. I’m your helper Victoria. Please tell me your name and describe your epiphany. This phone call is being recorded for quality purposes and we’d appreciate it if you could stay on the line after this call has ended or a brief survey and a chance for me to get back on the line to tell you more about our other products and services.”

Doris nailed her lines in no time. She had, after all, memorized the complete text of Hamlet in college.

Betty went on to explain the next steps. First, get the caller’s full name and contact. The credit card information, which is essential, comes later in the conversation. Doris’s role was to play the sympathetic listener, coaxing along her epiphany callers with a lot of ah-hahs and uh-huhs and I sees.

Doris gave notice to Burger Buddy and reported to the call center on Monday. It was located in a strip mall on South Watson Avenue in the iffy part of town. She noticed that most of the storefronts in the mall had their windows covered by brown paper. But a discount cigarette outlet and a Vietnamese sandwich shop were still in business. So was a as mysterious store with blinking Christmas lights strung around its chalky window with a sign reading “No Minors Allowed” posted on the door. She wondered what kind of business that would be. Then she spotted an anonymous storefront that had its Venetian blinds shut and the address Marg0 was looking for stuck on the window with little gold-foiled squares.

She knocked and was admitted by a tall and sleek lady in a black velvet pants suit who reminded her of Cat Woman. Doris was overdressed for the occasion in her best blue IBM skirt suit and high heels. She always prided herself in looking nice at work, even at Buddy Burger. But she became acutely self-conscious of her weight when shook Betty’s hand. The woman is gorgeous, Doris thought, like a retired ramp model in her 40s with luxurious red hair and intimidating blue eyes..

“Please, come right in,” Cat Woman said. “You must be Doris. I’m Betty. It’s such a pleasure to meet you in the flesh.”

Doris cringed at the word “flesh,” but managed to conceal her embarrassment and reply with poise. She looked around the room to see a dozen women sitting at long collapsible tables wearing headsets and tinkering on laptops while they chatted with Epiphany clients in voices suggesting they were in love. The room was stark, ceiling and walls covered with white acoustical tiles brightened by hanging fluorescent lights. The call center was devoid of furniture save the long tables and a desk where Betty sat typing on her i-Mac server.

“You’re all registered honey,” Betty said as she fished a headset from a cardboard box and handed it to Doris. “Why don’t you sit over there behind one of the laptops that’s not in use. Turn it on and follow the instructions in the program that pops up. It’s a synch. Your name is now Victoria. Imagine yourself wearing a negligee, and don’t forget to get the credit card numbers before you offer the free trial.”

That skinny bitch had to say negligee, Doris thought in distemper. I’ll show her what I can do wearing army boots. She noticed the laptop was bolted onto the table. Did the machines walk out the door when Betty wasn’t watching?

“Hello,” Doris said cheerfully when the screen flashed red and beeped, connecting her to the first incoming call. “Welcome to the Epiphany Hotline. We’re here to help you turn your flash of realization into a sustainable idea for fun and profit. I’m your helper Victoria. Please tell me your name and describe your epiphany.”

“I got a great idea about how the universe works,” said a frail voice a man she estimated to be in his eighties. “And I want to get it patented it before someone else steals the idea.”

“No worries, we offer deluxe patent services,” she said. “now, please share with me your epiphany – in total confidence.” She was getting of the ground running.

“You see, we’re actually living in a multi-verse that has concentric circles. Not parallel ones like those misguided astrophysicists and sci-fi writers think. Inside my atoms is another solar system that has inside it another solar system and on and on to infinitely,” he said. “Same in the other direction. We’re all just molecules in an ever-expanding and shrinking circles of universes. I got the in my hot tub last night.”

“That’s fascinating! I never thought of it that way. What was your name again? I think we really have to work on this ingenious epiphany.”

“My name is Lester Philby,” he said. “I’m a retired furniture salesman.”

“That’s terrific,” Victoria said. “A hot tub is an ideal place to have an epiphany, our research shows. Saunas too. Many our most successful clients find this to be true.”

Betty was eavesdropping at her station for quality control purposes. “This girl’s a natural, she told herself. She’s going to be a star.”

Doris went home after her nine-hour shift brimming with pride and feeling new confidence. She had transferred Lester to the science division for a nominal fee of $300, where a voice recording promised to return his call within two business days.

Doris satisfied a woman who cooked up the idea for an exercise program that ladies could use on their iPods while doing housework – stretching with the broom and dustpan, hip-hopping with the vacuum cleaner, and squeezing kegel exercises while washing the dishes. For a small fee , she directed the caller to the Physical Training unit of the Health Services Department.

She handled, deftly, a homeless veteran who invented a contraption that would allow soldiers with red hair to jump the line for medical services at VA hospitals. It involved a shoebox filled wires and jagged stones. He felt comfortable enough to tell Victoria he had red hair himself and was infuriated by all the discrimination people with red hair suffered from “the man.”

“My boss has red hair,” Victoria, said tons to console him, “She she seems very well adjusted, but I don’t think she’s a veteran. I’ll have to ask her whether she’s experienced discrimination.”

Victoria asked him to stay on the line while she looked up the actual number for the VA’s crisis hotline, at no charge, knowing, with heavy heart, her client would have to endure three hours listening to patriotic Musak until his line was cut.

Doris thought hard and wondered if she ever showed bias toward redheads. The man’s gripe seemed trivial in comparison to the ugly racism targeted at African-Americans and other minorities. Yet it resonated with her because of her weight issue, which she knew had the unspoken effect of prejudice. It’s not necessarily a conscious thought on the part of the beholder, but it’s real. She didn’t need an epiphany to know this.

Of course, there were exceptions. Her old boyfriend, George, used to say he’d love her no matter what shape she was. He’d gently stroked her cheeks and run his fingers through her auburn hair saying how beautiful she was. They had great sex, far better than she had in college when she was thin. One day George moved back home to Alabama. It was too cold in San Francisco, he said. It was devastating.

But now she was a voice-vixen named Victoria. No more hamburgers, no more software algorithms. She had the power to seduce, console and monetize people with interesting ideas. She was smart and beautiful again.

 

tossing and turning and grinding my teeth. Then last night it came to me in a flash. We need to deploy micro-fiber nets in the upper atmosphere.”

“I like that idea, Victoria said. “Now, Sylvester, tell me exactly how it works. I took a class on environmental astrophysics in college, but that was years ago, before the global warming fad caught on.”

 

Epiphany Hotline 4

 

“So, you’ve figured a way to reverse global warming? That’s terrific,” Doris, said to her first caller the next day. “We’re going to get you a Nobel Prize for this.”

“I’d like that very much” said the man, who identified himself as Sylvester O’Hara, a retired audiologist. “I’ve been up at night for months think about this problem.

“It’s simple, and that’s the beauty of it. We make the net out of discarded women’s panty hose and treat them with a special substance that reflects UV radiation and blocks solar heat,” he said in a giddy voice. “Then we stitch the fabric together in football-field sized patches and send it aloft with hot air balloons stationed d strategically around the globe. Presto! We reverse decades of climate change.”

“I wonder what would happen to all the carbon down here. Wouldn’t it be trapped inside the net?” she said, following the Hotline’s guidelines for “gentle devil’s advocacy,” which provokes pitched excitement in the epiphanizer that enhances sales

“I knew you’d ask something like that,” Sylvester b said. “You see, the net is ionized in a one-way technology so carbon goes through the porous membrane but doesn’t come back.”

“I never would’ve imagined panty hose could do that. The idea is so brilliant I’m going to connect you directly to our science division at Ames Research Center. The government needs to know about this. It’s a $3,700 deluxe package to get started nd worth every penny. I’ll just need to get your credit card information before I transfer you, and oh, yes, your social security number for the background check.”

Doris was born for this job, thought Betty, who was monitering the call. She marveling at her improvisational gift. She phoned Horace immediately after hearing Victoria say goodbye to Sylvester, who was laughing and thanking her profusely. “Get over here right away, Horace,” Betty said. “You got to see what your new hire is doing. She’s an artist, a savant!”

Victoria completed two more slam-dunk epiphany advisory calls before Horace arrived at the scene, racking up $1,20 in up front sales.She could sense that her call-center colleagues were already getting jealous of her quick mastery of epiphany processing. She saw them glare her direction and heard them whispering behind her back. “A one-day wonder,” a brazen colleague sneered within earshot. “Just wait until she screws up.”

Horace swaggered into the room and turned on his heels when Betty pointed out their new star.

“You’re not fat at all,” Horace said as he reached out to shake Doris’s hand. “As they say, Big is Beautiful, honey. We’re lucky to have someone of your formidable talents on our team. Betty says you’re knocking their socks off!”

Doris inspected her new boss. He was a little guy, a scrawny rat-like figure with a bent nose and bad teeth. His attire, however, was impressive. Doris could see markings of ostentatious wealth in Horace’s finely tailored black suit and flashy Rolex watch. The open collar of his teal shirt revealed a heavy gold chain glittering in the office’s fluorescent sheen.

Doris was insulted by Horace’s fat comment, but decided she had to shrug f it off. She needed to stop being so sensitive about her appearancesif she was going to be successful at her new career. She’s invisible to her epiphany clients anyway, and she was discovering the power of her voice.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Horace,” she said. “I like the job very much – it brings out the best in me, helping people to express their dreams and giving them hope, even when their ideas are delusional.”

“You got it exactly right, honey,” he said. “We are the Epiphany Hot Line and our mission is to help the needy.”

The next caller after Doris returned to her folding chair and stuck on her headset was from a man who identified himself as George of the Jungle. “It came to me in a flash,” George said. “The earth isn’t round at all – it’s flat! They’ve been deceiving us for centuries. They’ve been keeping up the lie with modern technology at Area 51. I know this to be true because I’m naked and have no pockets.”

Victoria flipped through the Epiphany Manual Betty gave her to see if George of the Jungle fit the criteria for Raving Lunatic classification. She followed the instructions and didn’t waste time in cutting off the poor man before he could say another word. “Unlikely to have a valid credit card account,” said the manual, which consisted of seven pages of printer paper stapled together. She saw Horace across the room wearing headphones and chewing on an unlit cigar. He gave the thumbs-up sign of approval. She wondered whether Horace planned to eavesdrop on her calls all day, It felt creepy. She wondered if the NSA was listening as well and reminded herself to be on the lookout for terroristic epiphanies. She waited for the next call.

When she answered her last call of the morning she could hear slight buzzing on the line, which she figured had to be was Horace listening in on the conversation, not the NSA “Epiphany Hotline. This is Victoria. How may I help you?”

“Hello Victoria. Is that like the Secret Victoria? Maybe I misdialed. My name is Butch Slowinski. I’m single, six-foot-three with an and athletic guild and looking for companionship. Ha ha.”

“Not funny, Butch. This isn’t a sex-talk line or a call-girl service or a virtual whore house,” Victoria said, feeling oats. Doris loved this job. “We’re here to listen seriously to your epiphanies and try to help you turn them into reality. Although I might add that I’m wearing a sexy lace bra today. Now, fess up. What’s the nature of your brilliant insight?”

“Okay, I’ll get right down to it. I’m a retired Navy Seal. I got dinged by a percussion grenade in Afghanistan and during my convalescence I figured out how to win the war against ISIS, “ Butch said. It involves strategic dentistry.”

“That’s absolutely intriguing Butch,” Victoria said, suppressing a gigigle. “Go on.”

Butch’s voice turned into a whisper. “This has to be confidential. The Navy said it doesn’t deal with this sort of thing and Homeland Security doesn’t return my calls. The idea is to put up a website n Arabic that offer free dental services to Jihadists. The CIA will provide trained Sunni dentist-agents who will implant homing devices in the terrorists’ teeth when they’re doing root canals. With the aid of satellite technology we’ll send in drones and blow them up on the battlefield.”

“Oh, wow. That could turn the tide in the war,” Victoria said, sounding as earnest as she ciuld be.. “We have contacts in the intelligence community who’d give this serious consideration but it might cost some money to go through backchannels, you know, a bit of baksheesh. I’ll give the direct line to our government department. Press #7 and leave a message and someone will definitely return your call this time. Meanwhile let’s get your contact information and your credit card number. I think a $800 discounted down-payment fee should get us started. And I neglected to say, thank you for your service. America needs men and women like you to protect our nation.”

When Doris saw Horace jumping up and down and clapping his hands she knew she hit the mark. The man thrived on audacity and she was his soldier. He invited her to lunch at the Vietnamese sandwich shop on the other side of the desolate mini-mall. The place served noodles as well as various meats on dry French rolls. Doris had the temerity to correct Horrace’s pronunciation.

“It’s phuh, not phoh, not phah,” she said. “I know some Vietnamese language and the word for noodles is unquestionably pronounced phuh.” In fact, Doris had never utterered a word of Vietnamese or eaten phuh, nor phoh, nor phah. I’m getting the drift now, she thought. It’s all about the art of deception.

“You’re the boss,” Horace said. “You’re full of bullshit, but you’re the best. From now on we’ll make sure all the foreign language calls go to you.

Over the next six weeks Doris’s Epiphany acumen increased at a phenomenal rate until she was grossing more income that the rest of the staff of operators, earning several bonuses on top of her premium per-call rate. Her colleagues despised her and excluded her from their table at the Vietnamese sandwich shop. Betty stopped monitoring her calls out of trust and concentrated on the other women at the call center, at one point asking Doris to lead a half-hour training session. “Why do you have to gloat about your fucking track record you bitch,” one of her students snapped. “I’ve working here much longer than you, but Betty’s directing the best calls your way.”

“How could that happen? The program is automated,” Doris said, hoping she didn’t sound haughty. “It’s totally random” Everyone grumbled, some hissed, as they rose in protest and stomped back to their stations to sulk. Betty didn’t schedule a second teach-in.

Doris went on to direct caller after caller to the Hotline’s special pay-for-play services. The irate customers who called back to complain about being ripped off were screened out by a voice recognition application Doris designed with he IT skills that detected anger and pitched emotion. It was huge improvement in the efficiency of the operation that the operators grudging appreciated without giving any credit to Doris. They didn’t need to rudely hang up on their victims. When a nasty call slipped through the screen it was directed to Victoria’s line, where, she sweet-talked them and assigned a case number, promising to report the error to customer service. “If you don’t hear back within] 48 hours call this number and say “Complaint Line” when prompted. Make sure you have your case number handy, It may be a long wait time due to call volume, so try calling back later in the day,” Victoria explained in her best mellifluous voice.

One afternoon Doris was taken off guard when she fielded a call from a man named Bob. He was bold and charming when he started flirting with her, complimenting her for her lovely voice and her phone manners. He jokingly asked her whether her call center was located in Hyderabad or Manila, pronouncing each city in the local accent. Victoria giggled and deflected the question by saying she was not allowed to disclose her whereabouts to annoying callers like him. “You mean to stalkers like me,” Bob said in a stenorious laugh that reminded Doris of a Shakespearian actor. “Are you tracing this call? Don’t you see I love you, Victoria, oh sweet Victoria!” The tables had turned, Doris realized, Bob was in control of the conversation, seducing her with great skill.

“Okay Bob, I can tell you’re a real bull-shitter. You have called the Epiphany Hotline not the circus clown employment center. State your epiphany or I’ll hang up on you. Speak up. You need to stop wasting my time.”

“You’re good, honey. You’re very good,” Bob said. “You see, I have an eye for talent. I see that Horace and Betty have trained you well. So let me tell you my epiphany. This hotline business is a total scam, a very clever scam. I want you to put Horace on the line right now or there will be serious repercussions. He owes me $780,000 and I aim to collect it.”

“I’m so sorry, Bob, but Mr. Caldwell is not in the office right now,” Victoria said, seeing trouble ahead. “He’s in an important meeting with the police commissioner to discuss ate joint citizen-police community task force on drugs and gang violence. Mr. Caldwell is the chairman of the group, He can’t be disturbed until late this afternoon.” Buy some time, Doris thought, until Horace sorts this out.

` “That’s hilarious, Victoria. Like I said, you’re very good at this. When our little problem is solved I want to hire you. Come to work with me and I’ll pay you double what that crook Horace gives you,” Bob said with bravado. “I’m going to give you my cell phone number. Write it down for yourself and be sure to give it to Horace. Tell him if he doesn’t call me by 6:00 pm I’ll ruin him. Say Lodi Zen temple. Tell him I know his address and license plate number and that I’m having breakfast with his parole officer tomorrow morning. Tell him special agents from the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit will be crawling all over your mini-mall once I report bomb-making at your office, that is unless we can make an accommodation.”

Betty wasn’t listening to the call so Doris rushed over and blurted out the details.

“How the hell did he find us?” she exclaimed. “I’ve got to get Horace out of bed. Jesus Christ! I better get home to wake him up. He drank himself silly again last night, but this will open his eyes for sure, It’s an un-fucking-mitigated disaster. Doris, can you please hold the fort unlit I get back. Make sure none of the girls get wind of this. I’m counting on you.”

Betty sprinted out the door like her black velvet pants were on fire. She didn’t return by the end of the day, so Doris had to turn out the lights and lock up, wondering who Bob was and why he put the fear of God in Betty

The following morning Doris went to work as usual, hoping Horace had smooth things over, but she prepared herself in the event Bob followed through with his threat to tip off the FBI on their con game. She parked her car in the rear lot and planned to dash out the back door if agents staged a raid. When she circled around to the front of the building she saw her colleagues milling around outside the office door and peering into the front window. They all looked hopping mad.

Doris looked for herself. The venetian blind had been removed, revealing an empty room, stark and ominous. The folding tables and laptops were gone. A thin layer dust on the floor was marked with boot prints and the narrow tracks left by the tires of moving dollies.

Some of the girls were weeping because they hadn’t been paid in a month and were supposed to get their checks at the end of the week. The Epiphany Hotline’s workforce was coming out of shock and started yelling and kicking the door and window. Then they turned their rage on Doris, Horace’s toady, pointing fingers at he as though she were complicit in the outrage. “Traitor,’ one of them screamed. “Bitch! Management whore” Doris saw them stomping their feet, ready to pounce and rip her to pieces.

She stepped back gingerly then trotted around the building to the safety of her car with the angry women in hot pursuit. She stepped on the gas, leaving the irate crowed of Epiphany consultants in her wake. Doris pulled into the nearest Burger Buddy outlet to hide in case any of her former colleagues gave chase.

She took of the situation. She had been had. Horace and Betty didn’t have the decency to include their star performer in the contingency escape plan and left her flapping in the breeze, subject to mob violence by her fellow victims. Doris called their cell to confirm her suspicions and found both lines were disconnected.

She went inside to order a Cheese and Bacon Special with spicy fries. She could not imagine going back to the demeaning job she performed with such excellence on the sweatshop assembly line. She now possessed mastery as an epiphany professional, in addition to her advanced skills in the high-tech industry. But the epiphany scam was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and her chances of landing another job as an electronic engineer were virtual nil on account of her age, weight and glaring gaps in her resume. She deserved more, she thought. She may be a little overweight but she was pretty for her age and judged herself to be very smart, competent and resourceful.

Doris chomped on her burger, enjoying the special savory sauce she once had injected into the meat patties herself. In ten years she could retire and live comfortably on her IBM pension and IRA funds, but wanted to do in the meantime? She wanted to be appreciated. She wanted dignity. She wanted o make an honest contribution to society. But the system was stacked against her. Without sufficient cash flow she feared losing her house and living in s cardboard box under a highway bridge.

Then she had an epiphany. She fished through her handbag for the scrap of paper on which she jotted down Bob’s phone number. It was a leap of faith. She didn’t know what went on between Bob and Horace but sensed that a grave injustice had occurred at a Zen temple in Lodi and that Bob had a legitimate gripe. Doris warned herself she may be involving herself with another swindler, but what did she have to lose? She already missed the thrill of the call center and liked the pay. And Bob was such h a charming man. She held her breath, closed her eyes and dialed the number.

Doris howled with glee on the way home, all four windows zipped open, radio blasting Lead Zeppelin, speeding, swerving, making illegal lane changes, feeling like a skinny teenager again.

#

Copyright  © 2015 Karl Schoenbergeer

 

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