- by Adam Akin
I’m really not supposed to be telling you any of this, so please, please believe me.
I’m sitting on one side of a big conference table in a depressing little room. Halogen-white walls, cheap, sand paper carpeting the dirty grey of factory floors, and fluorescent lights. I hate those lights. My bare forearms look bleached out, hairless and pock marked, and my eyes are aching.
Michael is at the head of the table. He’s in charge, and he seems nice enough. He smiles and talks a lot of shop. FCC this, Federal statutes that, blah blah blah. He’s bald. Like, super bald. Like, that close a shave doesn’t even seem possible bald, and all the light in the room is reflecting off of his impossibly bald head and right into my eyes. I’m squinting so hard when I look at him that I probably look like I’m in some kind of pain.
Tanya is at the other end of the table nursing some sort of iced coffee drink and smiling this big, white, empty Zoloft/Percidan-cocktail smile. Her eyes look bright and vacant at the same time. And she doesn’t talk except to give some snappy, abridged version of whatever Michael’s just said. She’s pretty, I guess. But she’s wearing way too much makeup. Like, so much that you can smell the makeup. And her jewelry is an accident waiting to happen. Hoops, bangles, chains, pierced in, latched on, looped around. She should stay away from pool halls and paper shredders.
Gloria is directly in front of me. She’s from human resources, and she says she’s here to observe the interview, whatever that means. Gloria looks the way Jabba the Hutt would look if you were to squeeze him into a Lane Bryant off-the-rack power suit and slap a Tina Turner wig (circaThunderdome) on his head. She’s got nails that could shred a warthog carcass, painted blood red, and there are various and sundry forms of bling hanging off of her like war medals. Whatever she’s looking for, it’s not here, because she’s clacking out a text message with her werewolf nails and having a love affair with a pack of Skittles.
Loop back around to me. And I’m about to lose my marbles, looking at the paper in my hand. I just keep staring at the words, like what’s written there is going to ease into focus, revealing new information.
This is my second interview with MCI, the fallen long-distance phone dynasty that now runs IP-Relay for the entire country. My first interview had been a brief meeting vaguely describing the job, followed immediately by a typing test. There was a minimum of 80 words per minute for consideration. I clocked in at 99 words per minute and was offered a second interview.
“Ok, well, what we’d like for you to do is just look over those statements and, when you’re ready, just read them slowly and clearly,” Michael says.
“Whenever you’re ready,” says Tanya.
“I realize this may seem very off-putting,” Michael says. “But that’s the whole point, really.”
“That’s the idea,” says Tanya.
“What we’re trying to do here is to gauge your ability to relay any conversation, no matter how brutal or sad or offensive it might be,” Michael says.
“That’s the idea,” says Tanya. “Whenever you’re ready,” she says.
And me? I’m just looking back and forth and back and forth from Michael to Tanya, catching a glimpse of the paper in my hand every other trip.
“It’s ok if this makes you uncomfortable,” Michael says. “Being uncomfortable is perfectly natural.”
“That’s natural,” echoes Tanya.
“The point,” he says, “is to detach.”
“And separate yourself from the information.”
“What we provide to the deaf community is not just a service.”
“Everyone has the right to available and meaningful communication, and it’s the job of the relay operator to provide that.”
“That’s the job.”
“Think of yourself as a tape recorder or a puppet. By design, you don’t have to think about what you’re saying. You don’t even have to understand it. You just have to relay the information.”
This time Tanya just nods, and Gloria the Human Resources High Priestess steps out of the room to answer a call on her cell. I look from Michael to Tanya to the paper in my hands and back at Michael again. He’s waiting.
Michael’s last statement lingers in my mind, and I’m plagued by visions of myself half-conscious, plugged into some sort of Geigeresque, sci-fi, relay machine, typing automatically, random words falling out of my half open, drooling mouth, trapped in a kind of epistemological purgatory.
I read the first sentence from the page. It details a spirited plea for all those of African or Asian descent to surrender their inalienable rights to reproduction.
For a split second I feel like I’m high. It’s that kind of reverse deja-vu feeling where you wonder if you actually did what you think you just did or if you imagined the whole thing because you’re high. I look from Michael to Tanya and back to Michael again.
“That’s just fine,” Michael says, and I almost think he’s going to smile. “Keep going,” he says.
“Continue,” says Tanya.
So I do.
In the next sentence, I’m asking a presumed friend if he or she would join me, for both moral support and my need for transportation, at my gynecologist’s appointment tomorrow, wherein I will be having an abortion.
Next, I’m arguing with an associate on the best location to dispose of the corpse of the young woman I’ve just raped and murdered.
After that, I’m opining on the tactile similarities between anal sex and defecation.
There’s nodding in stereo.
I clear my throat and take a drink of water from the glass in front of me, trying to drown the giggle that’s just hanging out in my chest.
I suggest that any person of Middle Eastern descent be incinerated.
I secure a suitable location for the purchase of a large amount of cocaine.
I drop the C-bomb on my cancer-ridden mother.
I’m starting to perspire, and my throat is dry like cardboard. I get another sip of water, and, over the next few minutes, I, as the impartial, disconnected, invisible relay operator do the following:
1) confess my undying love for giving oral sex
2) tell a young girl her mother has just expired
3) insult Christians
4) insult Jews
5) insult Muslims
This is the point where I can’t help myself any longer, and I put the paper down on the table.
“Can I ask a question?” I say, looking back and forth from Michael to Tanya.
“Sure,” Michael says.
“Well… I mean, honestly? Are the chances of getting a lot of calls like these very good at all? Is that really likely?”
“Well that depends, really,” Michael says. He refuses to break eye contact.
“On whether or not you would work in the Tennessee Relay department, or whether you would work in IP-Relay.”
“What’s the difference?”
“TRS operators only take calls from people using TTY machines, and only from people in the state. IP-relay is on the internet, available to anyone, and it can be used anywhere in the world.”
“So,” I say. “This service is intended for deaf people, but anyone can use it from the internet?”
“We really can’t say that.”
“We can’t say that this service is solely intended for the deaf and hard of hearing,” he says.
“Well,” he says, “because there could be reasons other than deafness that might cause people to use this type of communication assistance.”
“Legitimate reasons, you mean?”
“Like what?” I ask.
“I really couldn’t say.”
I think hard about this, the wheels in my head all grinding rust and sparks.
“So,” I say. “So do people, like… know about this?”
“In what way?”
“I mean, does the common person know that he can log onto the internet and have an operator make a completely anonymous phone call to anyone he wants?”
“Common person? No. But the word’s getting around, especially with the younger crowds.”
“So what you’re saying is that there are a bunch of sixteen-year-olds, all over the country, the world, even, and they know about getting online and using relay?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“And do they?”
“Do they what?”
“Do they get online and use relay?”
“But that’s only in IP-Relay? Not in TRS?”
“And are there openings in both TRS and in IP-Relay?”
“No. We only need people for IP-Relay.
“So,” I say. I say it slow, looking for signs of confirmation in Michael’s face. “So then the answer to my question is yes.”
“What was the question?”
“Whether or not it was likely that I’d have to say things like the things I’m saying in this room right now.”
“Well, then, yes, I suppose the answer to that question would be yes. Is that a problem?”
“Because you’re doing fine with this so far.”
“I mean, I’m not saying I have a problem with it.”
“It’s fine, really. I have no problem with this.”
“Well then why don’t you recite that last phrase, and we’ll be done here.” He smiles in a strange way that suggests he’s getting ready to establish his dominance somehow. Like he’s biding his time. Surveying my weaknesses.
The last sentence is a longer one that begins with me laying out a violent plan to thrust a sharp object into someone’s eye, remove said eye and then to copulate with this person’s recently vacated ocular cavity.
This is where I stop. This is where I have to breathe, because I realize I haven’t taken a breath since what feels like forever. There’s more to the sentence, and my eyes must be doing some kind of cartoon eye-bulge double take at this point. I look from Michael to Tanya and back to Michael and then at the paper again.
I hesitate. My bottom lip starts to quiver, and I’m so scared they can see it and that this is going to be the end of the interview. I’m not even halfway down the page yet. I start again, having to multitask reading aloud and willing myself not to laugh.
“And then I’m going to…” I say. I try to say the last part quick, like pulling off a bandage. “I’m going to cut off your head and walk around with your decapitated head hanging off of my titanic manhammer.”
Ok, so a couple of different things are going on here. For one thing, I’m dizzy. I mean, like, literally dizzy. I’m grossed out and want to laugh at the same time, but more than that I want to check the room for cameras. I feel like I’m the victim of some practical joke television show. This just can’t be real. This just can’t be my job.
And actually, my very first thought is how annoyed I am that part of the sentence says “eyeball hole” instead of “eye socket.” I consider that this is the job I wish I were actually applying for. Dirty sentence crafter.
Michael and Tanya erupt in a fit of laughter, and it startles me so much that I jump a little in my seat.
“Oh!” says Michael, wedging words past his own guffaws. “That one is my favorite of the whole bunch!”
“Classic,” says Tanya. Her head is shaking as she laughs, and I can hear all of her dangerous jewelry clanging together.
And me? I’m just slack-jawed and sweating and hoping that this is a good sign because this job pays a lot of money for just talking and typing. Michael gets his laughter under control and takes a stack of papers from the manila folder in front of him. Tanya stops laughing, and they both look really serious all of a sudden.
“We’d like to offer you a position here,” Michael says. “There’s just one little piece of business we need to talk about before we get the ball rolling on all of that.”
He slides the papers in front of me, his thick fingertips turning white from the pressure. My eyes shoot up to meet his, and complete seriousness is wafting off of this dude like BO. He’s sweating pure badass.
“This,” he says, smiling slightly and leaning closer to my face, “is our confidentiality agreement.”
His breath smells like red meat, and when I glance over at Tanya, she is staring right at Michael, fondling one of the buttons of her blouse. I immediately and involuntarily create a mental picture of Michael and Tanya, right before our interview, still high on fumes from their biweekly nooner, her straightening his tie and purring into his ear, “Yeah, baby. I love the way you say ‘inadmissible evidence.’”
“You need to read this,” he says, “and sign each page.”
There are at least fifteen pages here. I glance up, and Michael is still looking at me.
“This is a lot to read,” I say. “Do I have to actually read this whole thing, or can you just give me the gist of it?”
“If you feel ok with signing something you haven’t read, then that’s fine.”
“Should I feel ok about that?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Well… I mean, assuming that you’re not going to leave anything really important out, I’d just as soon take your word for it.”
“That’s fine,” he says, smiling. “Just start signing, and I’ll break it down for you.”
I sign my full name on the first page and date it.
“Basically,” Michael says, still perched over me, “here’s the deal. Never. Never, ever. Never, ever, ever talk about anything, and I mean anything, that you heard on a call. If you just remember that you’ll be fine. Did you know that these calls, even the adolescent prank calls that you will have to make are outside the scope of the Patriot Act? Nothing that gets said through relay will ever be admissible in a court of law. You can be relaying a call between a couple of guys talking about a bomb they’ve planted in the building that you’re sitting in, working. If you say anything, you violate the callers’ confidentiality, and then we fire you. If you don’t, you blow up. You know, technically, and it says this on one of those pages you’re signing, we’re not even supposed to tell people where we work. This guy I met at a conference in January said that there’s part of these documents that’s really similar to something that CIA agents have to sign. But, you know, in the CIA if you share things you’re not supposed to they… y’now.”
He mimes a gunshot wound to the head and laughs. Tanya giggles, and I’d almost forgotten that she was here.
“But like I told you,” Michael says, “just don’t tell anyone anything you hear on a call. Ever. Just remember that, and you’ll be fine.”
I sign the last page and date it, and Michael snatches the agreement up, jamming it back into his manila folder. I’m a little freaked out by his last speech, but I don’t let it show. I do the fake exhaustion thing after signing all of the documents, shaking my right paw, all slow and deliberate, before giving the standard hand swipe across the forehead (phew!) followed by a hearty laugh and the assurance that no, seriously though, I really appreciate the opportunity. I’m just that classy.
“So is there anything else I need to do?” I ask, standing up.
“No, that’s all we need for now,” says Michael.
“That’s all,” says Tanya.
“We’ll see you in two weeks when your training starts,” says Michael.
“See you then,” says Tanya.
“Welcome to IP-Relay,” Michael says. “I think you’ll do just fine here.” He reaches out and shakes my hand, squeezing hard — a tacit reminder that “loose lips sink ships.” I shake Tanya’s hand after putting my coat and scarf back on and walk back to my car, smiling from ear to ear the whole way.
Today is my birthday. There’s a party tonight, and I can’t wait to tell all my friends about my new job.
Adam Akin is a student of philosophy and English at the University of Tennesee at Martin. While his craft has been mostly limited to scholarly writing, his recent attempts at more creative work have been met with praise and excitement by both students and faculty at UTM. His turn-offs include exercise, sugar substitutes and fake people.