••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Dreamscapes Life Stories
Gwynette Lilburn sucked it up and called the help line. She could access her internet account online, but it wasn’t linked to her mobile phone account. She just wanted one account, one bill for both internet and phone, but could not see a way to make that happen online. In desperation, she dialed and navigated the phone maze until a real person was talking with her.
Gwynette was single and rented a decent apartment, although she had two bedrooms and only needed one. She couldn’t afford the rent and scrimped to pay it. She wanted to buy a house but didn’t really know how to go about it, and the process seemed to her like a giant clam waiting to clamp her leg. She was twenty-three going on thirty, worked at an art store selling frames, and was plain in every aspect. Her straight brown hair with bangs touched her shoulders and neither bounced nor shined but just hung there like a kitchen drape.
Ariel worked in customer service for AT&T. She spent her days fielding questions from mostly unpleasant customers. She was on probation for hanging up on a customer, after failing to settle a disputed bill, and was now eager to please, although the job bored her to within suicide. Ariel was plump, a lover of ice cream, and proportioned much as a grandfather clock with a pillow strapped to it. If only her belly would creep around to her backside. Her butt was so flat! The next customer’s data pooped onto her screen, the phone number indicating a Gwynette Lilburn.
“Hello, my name is Ariel. May I have your phone number?” Just one of a list of questions she was required to ask.
“Well, shouldn’t you know that?” said Gwynette.
A little jagged tear formed in Ariel’s brain. “Oh, just for identification purposes.” She was already looking ahead to the sales script. Gwynette didn’t have cable TV, and she was required to pitch it.
Gwynette mumbled her number. She was sitting on a little plastic chair on the tiny landing just outside her back door. The sky looked grimy, like it had been wiped with a dusty eraser. At two, she had to be at the art store, in less than an hour.
“I’m speaking with Mrs. Lilburn? And your account’s PIN number, please?” Ariel toyed with a bag of corn chips, imagining the corn taste. She checked the address on the account and saw that it was in Chattanooga. Ariel was in Orlando.
Gwynette shook her head no. “I have no idea, sweetie. Like a credit card?” Gwynette felt her heart beat a little faster.
“You created a four-digit PIN number, but that’s okay. To verify your identity, I’ll ask two of your personal challenge questions,” said Ariel.
“You’re challenging me?” said Gwynette. This was getting to be quite the bother.
“Well, yes, but I mean no,” said Ariel. “To verify your identity.”
“What is this, the FBI?” said Gwynette. “I’m not a spy.”
Ariel’s eyes strained. All around her was the chatter of other phone reps. Everyone knew she was on probation, that she could be let go in a heartbeat.
“How’s the weather in Chattanooga?” said Ariel. She looked at her nails, dusty and dry, a cuticle with a drop of dried blood.
“Well, it’s kind of gauzy, like there’s some smoke in the air, but I don’t smell smoke. Does that make sense?” said Gwynette.
Ariel rubbed her belly. She’d forgotten the question she’d asked. “So, there must be a fire?”
“Well, maybe,” said Gwynette.
“Okay,” said Ariel. “Here is the first question to verify your identity. What was the name of your first pet?” She wanted a corn chip.
“Oh, Lord, I had so many. Did I put that question in there?”
“Yes, you provided an answer for that question.”
“Was it, Bessie? She was a rat snake. We lived on a farm.”
“No, maybe another name?”
“Huh, well let me think. Maybe it was Harold, an old stray that howled at the roosters,” said Gwynette.
Ariel bit her lip. “No.” She wanted to give a hint. “Let’s try another question. Who was your first-grade teacher?”
“Oh, well now we’re getting somewhere. That was Mrs. Dunlop. We called her Mrs. Dumpling. She was a fat thing, big as a schoolbus.”
Ariel winced. “Yes, that’s correct.” The corn chips would go nicely with a Diet Coke, but she would have to leave the room during one of her breaks. “So, just one more question—”
“You’re kidding. How many Mrs. Dunlops could there be?” Gwynette scowled and held the phone at arm’s length for a second.
“Just one more,” said Ariel. “Who is your favorite author?”
“Well, duh, God. He wrote the Bible,” said Gwynette. She bit at a ragged nail.
“Um, yes, that’s correct. Thank you.” Ariel reached for the bag of corn chips and popped one into her mouth, checking over her shoulder for the supervisor. Ariel’s rent was outrageous, and the dog’s nails needed trimming. He was scratching up the wood floor and digging into the couch. She remembered she was at work, and her head jerked. “So, how can I help you today?”
“I need my internet and my phone account put onto one bill. I get two bills and have to write two checks.”
“Oh dear, I apologize but I will have to transfer you. Is that okay?” Ariel sucked on the corn chip, her eyes narrowed as if Gwynette was there in person. She had a sharp pain in her belly and lifted her leg.
“Well, for Pete’s sake. You can’t help me?” Gwynette shifted in her plastic chair.
“I’m afraid not, please bear with me. I’ll transfer you personally.”
“Well, okay,” said Gwynette. She checked her watch. There was scratchy elevator music. The music stopped. Leonard took the call from Ariel.
“My name is Leonard. Mrs. Lilburn, how may I help you today?”
“Well, for god’s sake, I’ve explained that already. I want one bill and not two bills.”
“Oh, I can help with that. First, I just need to verify your identity.” Leonard was dressed in slacks that were too short, showing his nylon socks.
“What? I done been verified by Eroplane or whatever her name was,” said Gwynette. “This is mighty tiresome, I would say.”
“Just bear with me. Can I have the last four digits of your social?”
“Four, three, two, six.” Gwynette swatted at a gnat and it flew into her eye. “Well, hell!”
“I’m sorry?” said Leonard.
“A goddamn gnat got in my eye!” Gwynette put the phone down and rubbed her eye, which was watering.
“Yeah, that’s me. Can we get on with this? I gotta get to work soon and need to make some noodles before I go.”
“Oh, noodles,” said Leonard. “Can you give me your four-digit PIN number for identification purposes?”
Gwynette felt like a fat balloon was being dragged through her intestines. “Again? Really? What about that other girl, Oreo? I told her I didn’t know, and please don’t ask me any more questions. I just want one bill. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Well, I will need to ask you a challenge question,” said Leonard. The rep in the next cubicle had sprayed some air freshener. Leonard feared that it was his shoes.
“Oh lord, here we go.” Gwynette stood on the tiny landing, ready to throw the phone into a bush.
“What was the name of your first pet?” Leonard sneezed. He smelled flowers, like laundry detergent.
“Dammit, I’ve already answered that. Can’t you people listen? I just want one bill!” Waving her left arm, Gwynette stepped forward and missed a step, sprawling onto the hard, grassy ground, rolling onto her back with her leg bent under. She squeezed the cell phone like a chicken’s neck and was just shy of passing out.
Leonard listened to the silence for a full ten seconds and moved on to the next call.
Gwynette hollered but she was on the side of the building facing an empty road. A sharp pain shotgunned through her leg and hip. Looking up at the sky, she worried about losing her job. Desperate she dialed 9-1-1. A woman named Anna answered.
“Help me, please, ma’am. I was trying to get one bill and fell off the porch. They were challenging me.”
“Are you being attacked?” said Anna. She had golden curly hair and wore skin-tight jeans that made her butt go to sleep. “Do you need an ambulance?”
“Yes, I was attacked by AT and T! They wanted my PIN number. Help!”
“Two perpetrators? You know them? They took your credit card? I’ll send police now. Stay on the line.” Anna got busy.
Gwynette lay on her back and let the cell phone drop into the grass. Her head lay inches away from a pile of dog poop. Then it hit her, the PIN number. She sat up and yelled, “Three, four, six, nine!”
© Russell Helms January 2019
*Best American Short Stories* nominee Russell Helms has had stories in *Whitefish Review,* *Driftwood Press*, *Bewildering Stories, Drunken Boat, Sand,* antiTHESIS, and other journals. He holds a lectureship in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His novel, *Fade,* is forthcoming
More fiction in Dreamscapes