Consider the other end of the 911 line.
Mrs. Garland doesn’t want to be a nuisance. In fact, she tried to see what the smell was herself earlier, but with all the rain recently her walker got stuck in the mud and she barely made it back to the house. “I hope I’m not being a nuisance,” she says again. Mrs. Garland is 91 years old.
“No, not at all. I’m just not quite clear yet…” This is Judd, who is 42, and has been with the county 10 months. This is his first call of the day. In fact, his little reassurance for Mrs. Garland is the first thing he can remember saying since he left the call center last night, except for his regular conversations with the cat. The cat is Earl. They eat together anyway and sleep together, and when Judd gets home from work he unloads his workday to Earl, and once in a while Earl leaves a dead mouse for him on the kitchen floor, one of those little kindnesses that makes a relationship work. The cat came with the apartment, which in all other ways was no-frills, and they have had three good months together, Judd and Earl, never a cross word.
Judd works the second shift, beginning at 2:30 in the afternoon. The call center is a small, windowless room, divided into four cubicles. Today he is three minutes late. Anyplace else—especially working for the county—three minutes doesn’t matter. Anyplace else, nobody cares. Here it can be big trouble. There is no real reason—the cops and the firemen are not reprimanded for being three minutes late—except to say it’s part of the ambience, one little extra piece of stress.
The girl who operates Judd’s console on the first shift is taking her time moving out of the way, and he is worried that Mrs. Garland may think he’s hung up on her, and he’s worried that a supervisor will drop by and notice that Judd hasn’t settled in, and is therefore technically late. He adjusts his headset and microphone, and hooks into the outside world.
“Mrs. Garland?” he says, “still there?”
“Still here.” The old woman sounds more cheerful than a moment ago.
“We were talking about your walker. It’s stuck in the mud?”
“Yes, about a foot deep. The suction’s got it, you know. Out in back between the house and the shed.”
“Is there a neighbor who could help you pull it out?”
In fact, yes. Mrs. Garland has a neighbor, he is the one who advised her to call 911. But she backs up now, thinking Judd doesn’t understand. The call isn’t really about the walker—she has other walkers—it’s the odor. A vile aroma she calls it, emanating from out in back, behind the shed. Something decaying.
“And you’re calling 911…” he says.
She says, “I tried the non-emergency police number, and man suggested I check my panties.” Judd is already thinking this is not his day. She says, “I’m afraid that I’ve reached an age where I am no longer taken seriously.”
He asks her to give the neighbor one more try. She is reluctant, not wanting to be a nuisance, but agrees to try him again.
In his pocket, Judd’s cellphone shudders against his leg. He takes it out, has a look, and shudders too. A picture of Gretchen’s wrist. Gretchen is legally still his wife, the woman he left for the cat. He will be divorced as soon as he has the $150 or so for the filing fee. He and Gretchen have been separated three months now, after 13 years of marriage, and a six-year courtship previous to that. The suicide threats began early and have continued for 19 years. Two months ago she called one night, saying she was sorry if it was hard to understand what she was saying but it wasn’t easy to talk with the muzzle of a shotgun in her mouth. He’d called 911 himself that time, and she’d spent most of the week in a psych ward.
They let her go. The doctors did not think she was a danger to herself or anyone else, but Judd already knew that. He knows her inside out, better than he wants to, maybe better than he knows himself. In some way he will never understand she was unavoidable. Always there, depressed and manic and needy—sudden unexplainable crying jags, liver trouble, overweight—and then, then he married her. Like confronting an addiction.
After that she begged him to move here—into the country’s flat, farm belt—to be closer to her parents, then begged to move back to California, to be closer to her friends. There was no money for another move, though, and maybe not enough energy. It is a draining proposition, living with Gretchen.
The photograph: Gretchen’s wrist has been scratched hard enough to suggest blood, but not enough to look like the real thing. Judd’s own wrists have deeper cuts from playing with the cat. Still, the picture of her wrist turns his stomach. The skin hangs loose off the bones like a bracelet, testament to the 100 pounds or so she has lost over the last year. The result of years of obesity and problems with her liver. Beneath the photograph is a message:
THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!
Judd puts the phone face down on his desk. Gretchen has been on a rampage for the last week or two—actually, since before he moved out—and he knows more texts are on the way.
The job at the call center doesn’t pay much, $15 an hour. Most of the kids who work here are making their way through community college, or waiting for their number to come up for civil-service placements with the police or fire department. Waiting to get on with their lives. Nice kids, he thinks, who sometimes feel sorry for the callers, but have not really glimpsed yet what it might be like at the other end of the line.
There is a favorite story in the call center. An old man who—how to put it?—fell in love with the vacuum cleaner and had to call 911, unable to get loose of the oval-shaped, brushy attachment used for dusting. A toothpick had lodged inside, just out of sight, and the man could not pull away without impaling himself further. Kind of like a Chinese finger puzzle only … Never mind, like a Chinese finger puzzle.
Not that Judd blames anybody for liking the story—it gets monotonous around here when nobody calls, and the same old emergencies tend to pass through the little room in one-sided conversations, night after night: car accidents at rush hour, domestic disputes, fires in the housing projects when people try to keep warm with their ovens. Bar fights—the later it gets on Friday and Saturday nights the more important it is to straighten the world out before last call, especially on religious holidays, where the calls pour in at 100 miles an hour.
The story about the old man and the vacuum cleaner is funny to Judd too, but not the same way it is to the kids. It’s not just their different ages—Judd is twice as old as most of them (and newest, by the way, in seniority)—but he has lived long enough now to understand the way things get out of hand.
In any case, the calls are picking up. It’s late autumn, the ladder season, and the old-timers are dropping like flies off their roofs and ladders. Clearing the drains of leaves.
An hour later Judd’s cellphone begins to dance. He stares at it a moment, then picks it up. Another picture. She has parked her Toyota in the garage and run the garden hose through the window. The garage door is open, though, and she has forgotten to hook the other end up to her tailpipe.
The message says: NIGHTY-NIGHT.
In another cubicle, one of the kids is taking the address and phone number of a woman whose husband has beaten her up.
The next picture comes in half an hour later, while he is back on the line with Mrs. Garland. The neighbor has gone out behind the shed with a flashlight. “It’s still there,” she says.
“The vile aroma…” He is already looking up the number of the county’s sanitation department. A moment of quiet confusion. “You called about an odor out in back, by the shed.”
“Oh, yes. I think it’s worse. He and I agreed it’s worse.”
“My neighbor. He’s the one who found it.”
“The walker?” Judd says.
“Oh no,” she says, “I have other walkers. I mean the body. I thought I’d mentioned that.”
He opens the cellphone, which is still warm. In the next cubicle one of the operators is trying to reason with a woman who believes her dentist’s X-ray machine has given her a fatal dose of radiation.
The photograph this time is of a new silver scalpel, glistening in its box.
IN CASE I RUN OUT OF GAS
Judd glances at the clock, 7:30, four and a half hours to go, and it already feels like a long day. He aches to be back at home. To take off the headset, turn off the cellphone, disconnect from the outside world.
To sit down at the kitchen table with Earl and unload the day.