"The Pain Study" 

Second Place

I was one of those people who called you right when you sat down to dinner. That's how my dad had always termed people who did what I now did: "Those people who call right as you're sitting down to dinner." He used to like to, as he put it, "mess with" such people. The lady of the house? Why, he'd say, she just died, tragically.

I had my first person tell me his wife died on my very first shift. Only I don't think he was pulling one over on me. He just said it really quickly and quietly. "She's deceased now." And I said "Oh! I'm sorry." And we hung up at the same time.

I worked for a pharmaceutical company, screening people for medical studies. After that first day I got a lot more people who told me the person I was calling for was dead. I quickly got to where I'd just apologize, hang up, and code in "DNC" for "Do Not Call" next to the name in the database. Then, in the "Notes" field, I typed, "Patient deceased." When I saved the record, the computer screen read, "Patient Saved." Oh no, she's not.

It was technically a part-time gig, so I got as much time as I wanted to do my own thing. I really only had one thing: training for the Pittsburgh Marathon. I was doing pretty good, too. When I got home from work, I just changed into my running gear and shot through that door.

Most nights at the call center I clocked in and saw the same women reading the same sentences and paragraphs off their screens right into their gray-carpeted cubicle walls. It was almost all women, and we knew one another's names from hearing everybody repeat them on the phone all night. Some of the women were chummy. They traded recipes or compared stories about taking their boats out on the Mon River with their husbands over the weekend, but I didn't have a boat, and I wasn't into cooking.

After clocking in, I'd go up to Renee, the shift supervisor, to get my call list. Renee wore six earrings in her right ear. She was always looking at some spreadsheet while cracking her mint chewing gum. I didn't want to interrupt, so sometimes I'd just stand there for a few seconds, watching her right ear lurch up and down as her jaws worked the gum.

When she saw me, she'd laugh and say, "Oh, hey, Gretchen. Still running?" And I'd say yeah and she'd ask how many miles, and I'd tell her. And she'd say, "Wow. I'm lucky if I make it over to my couch after work instead of straight to bed," And she'd hand me the night's call list, laughing and playfully slapping my elbow. Renee was pretty lax. She'd usually let us out early some nights, but I also wondered sometimes if she was hitting on me. The second month I worked there, I moved to a new apartment complex and it turned out she lived there too, which only made things worse. If you're a fat girl, even a former fat girl, and you have short hair, lesbians everywhere hit on you. You are considered a lesbian even to some straight people, or a lesbian waiting to happen.

At first, the job had been kind of like an adventure because I'd been learning new things. Things like how not to let a patient know why he or she has been disqualified for a study. (Answer: Keep going, three or four questions beyond the point where they disqualify, and then tell them they're done.) Things like the reason we have to be so vigilant about this. (Answer: People will try anything to get their hands on painkillers like Hydrocodone, Vicodin, and Lortab.)

Mostly, though, I talked to no one. I went down my list and left a lot of phone messages and got a lot of disconnected phone numbers. I tried not to think about it. I tried to exist In the Moment only, like when I ran. I tried just to float above the job and pretend as much as possible that those hours that I spent talking to no one didn't exist. They were made of a time and space outside of regular time and space, in which I became something other than human; a Q&A vessel, dealing with the disembodied voices of people selected by some business model, according to time zone.

I left messages. I hit Dial. I listened to Barbara, in the cubicle next door. Her voice was jovial. Tonight she was on a real roll with a number of male patients. "Oh, Mr. Vanhersky!" she scolded, laughing. And later, "How's the weather in San Jose this afternoon, Mr. Garcia?" She was screening him for a study for which he'd take an experimental narcotic for six months. I knew this; I was screening people for the same thing. Around the building, we called it the pain study. I sat there and took a sip from my water bottle. "Oh, you're too much!" Her voice carried. Call after call. It was like she led a rich and varied life right here through the phone line. If I had to pick a phone center role model, she would be it.

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