On headphones in the quiet basement cubicle, Barry listens to himself get berated by a strangers. This is part of his job; every Friday he listens to the Most Challenging Call from the week before. The automated voice that says Some calls are recorded for training purposes does not lie. Though Barry was not listening for training purposes. That was why management required him to listen. That was why Barry was supposed to listen. But Barry listened for other reasons. He listens intently to the stranger scream “just transfer me to the manager, you fat fuck!” Barry has been noticing that inference more often, and hearing his own placating response, he understands why. It is how he pronounces words starting with the letter ‘b’. For instance, how he might better assist, that he doesn’t believe that is Company policy. And, of course, the introduction: Hello, my name is Barry, how may I help you…? The Alfred Hitchcock “B”. The recording ended. Barry rewinds again and hits play.
Barry works odd shifts so there is hardly any traffic out of Atlanta when he leaves work. Barry makes two stops on the way home. One for fish food, the other for a newspaper and .22 caliber ammunition. It is Friday, and his roommate, Steve, will be gone for the weekend. Barry met Steve four years ago at a Weight Watchers meeting. Steve had since become an Aerobics Instructor and lost 280 lbs. Barry was waiting for Steve to break the news that had been hiding in his voice for months; he was moving out. Barry understood why. His presence–albeit a distant one, as the two had very different schedules–reminded Steve of a life he’d worked desperately to escape. A life that no one would choose for himself, where you placate strangers who called you a fat fuck over the phone. Sure enough, the answering machine is blinking when Barry gets home; this was how the roommates communicated now, in awkward answering machine messages. Listening to the recording, Barry feeds his fish. It is a pink beta fish Barry named Pinker, after Virginia Wolf’s family cocker spaniel. And, like Virginia, Barry pronounces it ‘Pinka.’ Pinker fed, Barry loads his gun, and he decides his last meal will be Checkers.
Barry struggles to place his order at the drive-thru. He thinks how embarrassing to ask for a burger or buffalo wings and his voice cracks. Barry realizes the cashier can hear him sobbing; he spits out a combo number and parks his car. A young girl brings his food. She nonchalantly hands him extra napkins and asks, not unkindly, if she can get him anything else. She has braces that seem new, and lisps badly. Barry realizes it’s the first real voice he’s heard in years.
Excerpt (Accompanied by Happy Hollows performing Endless)
The voice above the brightly lit drive-thru menu was hardly a voice at all. More static puffs than words, ageless and sexless. Did humans still work here? Were they all machines now?
Did it matter? Barry shook his head. He was tired of noticing these things. He looked at the menu. The combinations were familiar of course; he’d been coming here for years. But tonight their names blurred. Just ask for a number 4 or number 5. Better that than a burger no mayo or buffalo wings. He thought again of last week’s call, and shuddered in disgust at his own voice.
“Just a minute,” he told the menu.
“Take your time,” it grated back.
It was hard to breathe. Probably the AVSD. In its early stages, atherosclerosis were also called “fatty streaks.” Presumably because they made your arteries look like marbled steak. Chris Farley’d had them. Newspapers all across the country had cited them as a contributing factor in his overdose. Barry was self-diagnosed. Since Chris had died, he’d stopped watching SNL.
Screw it, he’d just get both. He tried to order and his voice cracked.
“Could you say that again?” asked the menu.
“A number 4 and 5,” Barry gasped.
There was a long silence. Maybe the mechanical voice belonged to a real person, and that real person could hear that Barry was losing it. Losing it right here, right now, in the Checkers drive-thru.