At the call center we didn't give people advice. That was the first rule. Our job was to listen. Pray. Recommend books by our founder, Steve. And then, when the moment felt right, ask for a donation. That was the second rule. Ask for donations. If someone said they were going to kill themselves, we kept them on the phone until they promised not to or until the police came or until they actually did kill themselves, which they never did. I made $13 an hour. We sat in a small white room. It was hard to keep track of the days and then it was hard to keep track of the months. The one thing that became clear to me the longer I worked at the call center was that there was nothing we could do for the people who called us. They kept calling though. Hundreds a day. A man having sex with his parents. A woman having sex with her boyfriend's dog. A teenager having sex with a pool noodle (but imagining it was his sister). So mostly people having sex with things. I asked them to tell me more. I spread fake orange cheese across rectangular saltine crackers. I made active listening noises.
I was twenty-one years old. A college drop out. Living with my parents. I took a hundred calls a day, which isn't that many spread out over eight hours, but it's a lot when you consider that most of those people were having the worst day of their life. The worst day so far. (I'm sure there were more terrible things to come.) I waited for my phone to ring: an operator standing by. For eight hours a day, five days a week, I sat at a 3ft x 3ft desk, eating various Nabisco products that cost 50-cents apiece from the break room (I stole them), and I listened to people's confessions.
Confession: I have already lied multiple times in this essay.
Listening advice: Don't believe most things you hear.
Gardening tip: Coat your flowers in coffee and vinegar.
There was, that year, an infestation. Dallas was swarming with crickets. They covered the sides of grocery stores and gas stations. Invaded my parents' garden. Squeezed their way into the call center through the HVAC system. All the walls in the city were moving. The cold hadn't been cold enough, our weatherpeople told us. All the eggs survived. Dallas smelled like raw fish. Like rotting. We swept the dead crickets into the storm drains but more came and took their place. There's a name for when things like this happen. It's called a plague.
And so that summer we endured a plague and I answered the phone. I stayed close to my phone. Took short bathroom breaks. Ate meals at my desk. Learned the subtle difference between my phone's ring and the others (mine was higher pitched with a slight warble.) Most of the callers had done something they thought was terrible. Cheated on their spouse. Abused their children (we filed reports). Masturbated to fetish porn. But it didn't take long to realize that there are only so many things that people do. Five or six things. I heard the same confession over and over, dozens of times a day. (Reader: whatever you have to confess, it does not separate you from other people: it is what you have in common).
In August I took the night shift. Sat in the call center alone with the sleeping computer monitors and blinking servers. Sometimes I turned the lights off and sat in the dark. I could hear the crickets in the air ducts. The whole city was chirping. Around midnight the crazy callers started calling in. Cora called them loonies. Lunatics. Touched by the moon. There weren't very many of them. I took two or three calls a night. Let them talk as long as they wanted. I liked the crazy callers best. Their secrets were all different. Unlike sane people, whose secrets were all the same. They told me about our national indiscretions. Failed and successful assassination attempts on foreign leaders. The lie known as the FOOD PYRAMID. The truth about gastro-intestinal health. My colon, they told me, was a garden. Farts shouldn't smell bad.
A woman called, had a long orgasm, thanked me, then hung up.
I ate their secrets. Swallowed them whole. I've had a stomach ache for eight years. I should have chewed them properly. At least thirty-two times per bite. Some of the secrets might still be in there, working their way through. The service I offered was one of digestion. I had a young stomach. I could take it. (This is no longer true.)
By October the crickets had all died off. Birds came along and ate the bodies. Got fat on the bodies. Then we had a bunch of fat birds. Our power lines sagged. The birds flew two feet off the ground, wheezing and molting, shitting uncontrollably. The city went from being covered in crickets to being covered in shit. It smelled about the same. There's very little difference between things. Almost none.
One day my boss called me into her office, turned her monitor around, and highlighted a series of hour-long calls I had taken between 9pm and midnight. Mind explaining these? she said. I told her not to be surprised if something very unfortunate happened to the Canadian Prime Minster. I told her that kale was an essential component of any colon-conscious diet. I told her to go ahead and fire me if she needed to, no hard feelings. Fire you? she said. You take more donations than anyone in the call center. How do you do it? Oh that's easy, I said. You just stop believing that the people on the other end of the phone are real.
The worse a caller's confession the quieter they spoke. And when they couldn't speak at all, they wrote us letters. The letters were long and handwritten. Front and back. Wildly incoherent. Written desperately, and out of shame. It became my job to read them. Sometimes I wrote back.
Dear Ms. Porn Addict...
Dear Mr. Unfaithful...
Dear Inmate #C.3.3...
I told them all the same thing: We were praying for them, we had books available, would they like to make a donation? I signed the letters Steve. My first of many pen names.
Why do people tell each other things? I thought we weren't doing anything for these people but that might not have been the case. Confession is also known as The Sacrament of Reconciliation. Of restoration. Out with the bad. (In a pinch, shit can be used as fertilizer, rich in nitrogen and potassium, full of essential microbes.) But what I've been trying to tell you, reader ⎯ (listener?) ⎯ is that listening has always been enough.
When I'd heard enough secrets (50,000 by my count) I sent the letters I'd written to an advertising agency that hired me as a junior copywriter. I worked in a tall glass office eight stories above the Dallas North Tollway. I watched traffic compress and release like an accordion. That winter Dallas was encased in three inches of ice. All the bug eggs froze to death underground. The next summer there were hardly any grasshoppers, which are essential for plant decomposition and regrowth. We need their magical bowels! There was nothing for the spiders to eat. They snuck into our homes and burrowed under our sheets. And then, while we were sleeping, they crawled down our throats. The first of many we will all unknowingly swallow during the 26 years we're asleep.
Mike Nagel’s work has appeared in, or will soon appear in, The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, and the Paris Review Daily.