Voice Only

Wesley Browne


            Whether it’s a phone billed monthly, or a prepaid phone, there are several ways to pay a cell bill that don’t involve going to the store, standing in line, and paying in person; and every one of those ways is easier. Especially if we’re busy. There’s online pay, phone pay, we even have terminals in the store where people can pay without getting in line. Still, they get in line. And what I don’t get is, pretty much all of them hate the line. They tell me so. When I explain the alternatives, they either nod at me, or wave me off, or just keep bitching. A month later, they’re back in line.

            The average person who walks into a cellular store for service can be pretty annoying. I don’t think they mean to be, but then again they don’t mean not to be either, if you know what I’m saying. Most of the questions I’m asked on a daily basis are just common sense if you stop to think, but the majority of people who come in my store don’t do that. They play games and text and talk and make their phones make car engine noises or fart noises or play songs or whatever, but they don’t do much in the way of thinking. It’s partly my fault, because I give them the tools, but I don’t tell them to do all that stuff to the exclusion of thinking. I wish they would think. At least for the few minutes they’re in the store.

            If it’s bad on the average day, imagine what it’s like the first of the month. The first few days of the month look different, they sound different, they feel different. If I lost track of the date, and I walked in the store on the first of the month, I’d know immediately.

            There’s this one first-of-the-month lady, and she’s got a name, and I know it, but I just think of her as “Edgar’s mom.” She’s got two kids. One is this little girl who’s about five and seems okay, and then she has Edgar. I’m not really sure, but I’d say Edgar is three or four. Anyway, it’s probably wrong because he’s so young, but there have been times when I kind of hated that kid. It’s not like I’m proud of that fact, but it’s true. I’ve hated his mom too. I’ve had to be civil to them because I need my job, but I honestly didn’t like them.

            Edgar never has a coat on. Ever. No matter how cold it is or if it’s raining. He’s always wearing some t-shirt that’s nasty and the neck is all stretched out. When she’s in line, his mom is either on her phone complaining about something, laughing about something, or talking about her plans for later. To pass the time, Edgar trashes our merchandise racks; kicks, hits, or pulls the hair of his sister; lies on the nasty floor; or tugs on his mom’s leg and says, “Momma,” over and over again while she shakes him off. The whole time this goes on, his sister says, “Quit it, Edgar,” or, “Leave me alone, Edgar,” or, “Momma, Edgar won’t stop ________.” You can fill in the blank there.

            The crazy thing is, when the mom gets fed up, she swats both of them with her free hand, and tells them, “Hush your noise,” or something like that, then goes back to making hers. The little girl always gets all teary eyed. Edgar usually whacks his mom right back and continues whatever he’s doing. This cycle can repeat numerous times if the store is crowded.

            I’ll put it this way. I have a little cup full of Dum Dum suckers under my terminal that I can give to little kids—you know, like they do at the bank. It not only makes them happy, but it also makes them shut up for a minute. As many times as I had Edgar in my line, that kid never got a sucker. I couldn’t give one to his sister either because he didn’t get one, but that’s the way it goes.

             So this one day, Edgar’s family had been in my line like fifteen minutes. Alicia called in because—get this—her dog was sick. Not her. Her dog. She knew it was the first of the month. She knew what she was doing to us, but she decided to stay home with her vomiting dog. I was so pissed.

            We only had two stations open. My manager got called to a lunch meeting, but that was okay. She’s a raging bitch when we’re slammed, so it was almost better she wasn’t there slowing us down. Still, I hadn’t had a break in three hours, and my line was rolling six deep. People coming in could pretty much forget about new accounts or equipment if they wanted to get out within an hour.

            Edgar was whaling on his sister. At this point, she was just playing defense because she knew her mom wouldn’t help her. I finished an upgrade for one customer, and there was an old guy in line between me and Edgar’s family. I just wanted to get the guy out of my queue so I could get to Edgar’s mom and get Edgar’s evil little ass up out of my store before I came around the counter and backhanded him.

            Unkempt was the word that came to my mind when I greeted the old dude. He had on a blue winter hat that was all pilled and a dark nylon jacket. The dark color of the jacket made the white flakes on his shoulders and upper chest stand out. His hair hung down on his neck in lank bundles, like mop strings, and he hadn’t shaved in days. He had angry red patches at the base of each nostril. It looked like embers smoldered just beneath the skin. He needed ointment. I don’t know what kind, but something.   

            When I asked what I could do for him, he peered up at me with his neck craned like he was trying to see me from under a ledge that wasn’t there. His hands were clasped together in front of him, and he wasn’t exactly wringing them, but he was sort of pinching the ashen skin between his thumb and index finger, kneading it. He just looked at me not saying anything.

            I affixed a smile to my mouth and tried again. “What can I help you with today, sir?”

            It took him a second to get his voice started. “I need to put minutes on a phone.”

            “Okay. What’s the number?”

            He grimaced slightly and started digging in one of his coat pockets. I sighed a little louder than I intended. He glanced up at me, and I put my smile back on. He pulled out an aged flip phone. It wasn’t one of our brands. He started working the pad.

            “Are you trying to refill that phone, sir?”

            “No. This one’s mine. I got my son’s number in here. I don’t remember it.” He shook his head. “Awful how it is.”

            “So, is it his phone you’re trying to refill?” I dropped a hand on my mouse and cued up a name search. “What’s your son’s name?”

            “Robert Perkins.”

            I keyed in the name, but there were a bunch of Robert Perkinses. “Looks like I’m going to need that number.”

            His eyes were on the little phone screen. He held up a hand while he read the number. Once I entered it, the correct Robert Perkins’s account details came up. Robert’s plan had expired five days earlier.

            I said, “Your son has our unlimited talk, text and web package. With taxes and fees, it’s $63.60 for a thirty day refill. How did you want to pay for that?”  

            He lifted his watery eyes and worked his lower lip into the upper. His lips made me think of molted snakeskin. “I can’t do that much.” He squeezed one thumb with the other.

            A non-payer. I sucked through my teeth and raised my brows. “That’s the price,” I said, pattering both hands on the wooden surface of my work station. “I don’t know what to tell you.” I looked over his shoulder at Edgar’s mom. I hoped she’d see me and step up so the old man would step aside. She was still well immersed in her phone conversation. Edgar lay flat on his back making commercial grade carpet angels. His sister had that look on her face where she was focused on something so distant that it wasn’t even in the room where we were standing, maybe not even the same town.

            Something in the man’s eyes swirled like pinwheels, but his gaze stayed on me. “Can I switch him to a cheaper plan?” he asked me.

            “Only if he was here with you. You could also do it online, but you’d have to have his four digit PIN. I’m not allowed to change rate plans without the permission of the account holder.”

            He dug a hand in one of his front pants pockets and came up with a twenty dollar bill and a couple singles that looked like they’d been stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe. “Can I pay for a few days?”

            I studied the acoustic tiles on the ceiling in the middle of the room behind him “I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “The prepaid rate plans are renewable in thirty day increments only. I wish I could help you, but without your son here, I can’t do anything. If you bring him in with you, I’d be glad to help.” I looked over his shoulder again to make a point. “I have a really long line of people waiting, and I really need to keep it moving.”

            His head lulled down but he didn’t go anywhere. He scratched his right shoulder through his coat with his left hand. Since the man had reached the front of my line, two new people had tacked on the back. I was losing ground. It was time to move on, and it was time for the old man to figure it out.

            I just barely heard his voice when he said, “My boy can’t come in.”

            I tapped my mouse up and down on the mousepad and shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I finally said, “I can’t help that, sir.”

            “He’s buried two weeks. He’s drowned.”

            I stopped. He didn’t look up. Only one thing came to me to say. “I’m sorry.”

            His eyes were on his hands. “I just want to hear him. His voice on that message. That’s all I got.”

            I fidgeted some more, trying to think. I narrowed one eye. “Sir,” I said, “is it possible you have a voicemail from him on your phone?”

            We see that all the time. People change phones but want to keep voicemails from loved ones who’ve passed.

            He shook his head. “Not a one I kept.” He showed me his melting, reddened eyes. “How’s I supposed to know? He was thirty-two years old. Died in four foot of water.”

            The strings holding my face in place went slack. I pulled air slowly through my nose, held it a beat, then released it. My index finger rose and fell on my mouse as I traversed the machinations of the system until I reached our lowliest plan: voice only. No data. No internet. All a person needs to hear an outgoing voicemail message—$24.99 a month. When I entered the plan change, a dialogue box opened requesting Robert Perkins’ PIN. I entered my manager’s override code. I had watched her key it in twice at my station earlier that morning. If she caught it at end of day, that would be that. The system accepted the new rate plan. With taxes and fees it was $26.07.

            “You’re all set, sir,” I said. “This month will cost you twenty-two dollars.”

            He looked at me. “Twenty-two?”

            I shrugged and showed my hands, palms up. “It’ll probably be a little more to renew it next month.”

            He reached the beleaguered bills to me and I took them from him. As I did, his other hand grasped mine at the wrist. His fingers felt like pumice stone. I started to pull away, then didn’t. His mouth stood open. His bristled lower jaw shuddered before he snapped it closed. “That’s it?” he said.

            “That’s it. Give me about thirty seconds to get the service turned back on.”

            He bobbed his head and mouthed, “Thank you,” before he let me go. He turned toward the door and headed out with a shuffling gait.

            I entered the payment received, and my cash drawer opened. I found a five in my wallet so my drawer wouldn’t be short. When the man reached the door, he took his flip phone out and flopped it open. He poked it with his left index finger, then put it to his ear. A moment later, his shoulders dipped and shook. After a few seconds, he rose back up, closed the phone, and opened it again as he ambled out of sight.

            Edgar’s mom still had her phone to her ear when I turned my eyes to her and said, “What can I help you with today, ma’am?”

            She said into her phone, “I gotta go now. I guess I’m finally gonna get waited on,” and hung up on her call.

            “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

            She stood looking at me like I was a sign printed in a foreign language. Her daughter peaked at me from behind her mother’s legs.

            I started over. “I’m sorry for your wait, ma’am, but I’m ready now.”

            She studied me a little longer before she said, “I just gotta pay my bill.”

            She told me her phone number and I brought up her account. I could have done the whole transaction in my sleep. She paid me and I entered it without either of us speaking another word until I handed her a receipt and said, “You’re all set.” I smiled when I said it, but when I did, I didn’t look at Edgar’s mom or Edgar. I looked at the little girl. I can’t say I ever saw her smile before, but she smiled back. Just as she did, Edgar pounded her in the ear. It sounded like a jelly jar dropping onto a tile floor.

            The little girl shrieked. When she did, her mom whirled around and jerked her by the arm. If you have ever gotten pulled by the arm like that—and I have—you know it hurts. “You cut it out,” Edgar’s mom said, snarling at her.

            “Ma’am,” I said, before I could even think about it, “that little girl didn’t do anything but get punched.”

            Edgar’s mom ripped her head my way. Her eyes were wide, and her nostrils were wider. “I’ll deal with my own kids.”

            I held her receipt out to her. “What’s your daughter’s name?”

            Her expression didn’t change any when she said, “Her name’s Kyla, and she’s my business. Not yours.”

            “I’m sorry,” I said, “but Kyla didn’t do anything, that’s all. She was just standing there.”

            Edgar’s mom took the receipt and started to turn, then looked back. “Do you have a manager?”


            “I’d like to speak to the manager,” she said.

            I shook my head. “She’s not here.”

            “Well, I want to talk to her.”

            “I understand that,” I said, “but she’s not here.” I took one of my manager’s cards and slid it across the counter. “You can wait for her if you want, or you can just call her.”

            Edgar’s mom snatched the card. “She’ll hear from me.”

            “Whatever you want to do,” I said. I reached under my station and pulled out my little Dum Dum cup. I held it over the counter. “Hey, Kyla. You want a sucker?”

            Kyla still had one hand on her left ear. She looked at me, then the suckers, then her mom. She shook her head. Edgar reached for a sucker, but I drew back the cup. “Not today, Edgar. Maybe next month,” I said.

            His mother sneered at me. “You’re awful,” she said.

            I shrugged. “That makes two of us.”

            “You’re going to lose your job.”

            I took a brown sucker from the cup—which is root beer—unwrapped it, stuck it in my mouth, and said, “Maybe.”

            Edgar’s mom pointed my manager’s card at me, then turned and left with the kids trailing behind her. I wasn’t too worried about her costing me my job. I figured she was probably too sorry to follow through.

            I turned back to what was at hand. The twenty-or-so-year-old kid next in my line had huge, white noise-canceling headphones over both his ears. He was bouncing his head front to back, looking over my head at a bunch of nothing. I took my sucker from my mouth, waved my other hand to get his attention, and said, “Next.”

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Wesley Browne lives in Richmond, Kentucky, with his wife and two sons. He is a member of the Hell of our Own Writers Group.