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Fiction Issue - The Pain Study

Second Place

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.

After work, I ran. At first, so late at night, I'd made a habit of looking vigilant. I'd clutched my pepper-spray and narrowed my eyes, as if that very watchfulness meant I was smart enough not to get attacked. I did not want to be a cautionary tale on some call-in radio show. "She was running alone at 11 o'clock at night. Wasn't even carrying pepper spray." No. I ran with both pepper spray and what I hoped was a ferocious demeanor.

The truth too, is that when you spend your early years as a fat person, it seems inconceivable that some man hiding in the dark would ever pick you out to attack when there are so many skinny girls around. B.S., I know, but there it is. And so far I'd been right. I was invisible when I ran. Each moment carried its own momentum, measured not just by my heart-rate monitor, but by my breath and the smells and the sounds of the park at night. The path lined with the green leaves lit up by the gold streetlight, and my feet as they hit the earth and pushed it away, chuck, chuck, chuck, as it turned under me, that wave of nighttime darkness moving across the map back in the other world.

The next day I did it all again. Next door, Barbara laughed and laughed. The fluorescent light above me crackled every couple of minutes but otherwise preserved an air of sameness, from four in the afternoon till 10. When I went to the water fountain, there was Renee, getting a Coke. She said she had been in classes for six straight hours that day.

"I'm telling you, when I get off, I just want a cold beer. Just to sit somewhere and drink a beer, you know?"

I nodded and tilted my bottle to try to fill it a little more. I could smell not only Renee's gum, but her shampoo, too. Something aggressively floral.

"Do you know of any good bars?" asked Renee. "I always end up at the same ones."

"No," I said, righting my bottle. "I don't really drink."

"Oh," she nodded. "Well, that's healthy." I smiled and took a sip as if to demonstrate my healthiness.

Back at my desk, I adjusted my headset and hit Dial. The screen showed Salvatore Pittman, in Versailles, Louisiana. I imagined Salvatore Pittman: 69 years old, 240 pounds. His answering machine message would still be loaded with that computerized voice from the factory. When his sons came over, they saw the red light indicating "Full." "Dad! Your messages!" they said. With a wave of the hand, Salvatore would dismiss: the sons, the message-leavers, this excessive technology.

The phone rang and rang. And then a man answered. It took me a beat to scroll to my script.

"Hi, um. I'm Gretchen. I'm calling for Salvatore Pittman regarding a medical study. Is he available?"

The pause.

"He's not here, right now." (Liar. You are a liar, Salvatore Pittman.) "Can I take a message?"

"Yes. I'm calling regarding a study for people suffering pain—" The fluorescent light over my head flickered. I blinked and my eyes jumped from the script. When Barbara reads, it sounds like she's just talking, but I sound like I'm back in the first grade Bronze Stars reading group. I scrolled down, but went too far. "Um. For people suffering arthritic pain of the back or hip."

"Are you selling something?"

"No. No, not at all." I found my spot again. "We're ah, we're looking for volunteers for a research study and I can leave a number he can call if he's interested in screening via telephone." Far away, in Versailles, Louisiana, a screen door squeaked.

"You know what? I would be interested in screening." His voice was hushed, like a secret. It was a low voice, a pleasant voice.

"OK, well, I have a series of questions about your medical history. Do you have about 10 minutes?"

"Uh, no. Actually, not right now." Where Salvatore was, I could hear mourning doves chirping and children playing some street game. Here, the air was cold, the light fluorescent and stale. In Salvatore's town, a perfect summer evening was happening. Some part inside of me filled with green, with the smell of fresh-cut grass.

"It sounds like it's really nice out," I said. Going way off script, just like Barbara. A hummingbird wheeled in my chest. Was this how she felt with all her callers?

"You know, it is. It really is perfect," said Salvatore.

"I can provide you with a phone number that you can call for the screening when it's more convenient."

"Can you call me back?" he asked.

"No, I can't." People asked this all the time, and we always told them the same thing. They'd have to call a toll-free number back. But this was something else. The sounds of the night and the way he said it, not like he was making a request of a receptionist, but like he was asking me a favor. Hopeful. Nervous?

Maybe Salvatore Pittman was 69 years old and weighed 311 pounds. Maybe he sat shut up, day after day, in some airless house where both the plastic that covered the furniture and the cracked windows were covered in layers of smoke residue. Who knew. It was his voice. It was musical and redolent of all sorts of dark swamp-kneed things. Did he use that voice to order food at Burger King? To call the tax preparer? It was too generous, too sweet.

He didn't ask why the number I gave him did not start with 1-800. A moment hung between us, between me and Salvatore. It's not like he was breathing heavy into the phone. On his end it was just the summer night for I'm-not-sure-how-long, and I was positive he meant to share it with me.

Across the aisle, a girl in sweats asked if a caller had a history of tumors. There was the usual pause, and then, "Tumors!" she shouted. "Like, cancerous tumors!" Then she giggled. "I'm sorry," she said. "That's just one of those words that start to sound funny if you say them too much."

Later, I was feeding quarters into the snack machine for trail mix when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped, turned, and Renee laughed.

"Sorry, Gretchen."

"It's OK. I'm sorry." I took a step back. Then I saw the tall guy standing behind her. He had a long, narrow face like a creature from the African Sahara, and a ponytail. Renee put her hand on his arm. "I was just showing Jeff around."

"Hi." I shook Jeff's hand, and Renee smacked her forehead.

"Oh, sorry! Jeff, Gretchen is one of our newer call screeners. Gretchen, Jeff. My boyfriend."

"Hi," I said again, like the first time hadn't counted.

The rest of the shift was full of cranky Pasadenians. One man said, "I'm tired of you people ruining my evenings!"

When I got home that night, my head ached with tension as I laced up my shoes. The buzzing phone made me jump. No one ever called me.

"Hello?"

"Yes. We spoke earlier."

I actually gasped into the phone, "Yes!" I could hear the TV in the background. I imagined its stark glow lighting up a dark room.

"Chronic Pain Gretchen."

"Yes." A long pause. "Would now be a good time to answer some questions about your health?" I asked.

"That would be absolutely perfect."

I shut my eyes tight, and became aware that I still held one tennis shoe aloft. I lowered it slowly. "OK. Please answer the following questions with either a 'Yes' or 'No.' Has your doctor diagnosed you with having osteoarthritis of the hip or back?"

"No. I don't have osteoarthritis."

Disqualified. I set the shoe down. "On a scale of one to 10, how would you classify your pain?"

He sigh filled the phone with static. "Six. Maybe seven."

"What is the source of that pain?"

He paused. "It's all just wear and tear. I can't sleep, nights. I have a dog who died."

"What kind of dog?"

"A dachshund. Tony. He used to come up on the couch and curl up next to me when I couldn't sleep. I'd pat the couch once, twice, and he would jingle down the hall and curl himself into the crook of my arm. This probably sounds ridiculous, but it felt so comforting to have him there. His skin was warm but really thin."

"That small, beating heart." I lay back on the futon.

"Yes. Exactly. Excuse me." He didn't sob. He coughed. "It wouldn't always help me sleep, his being there. He burrowed and tossed and sighed, but he felt so comforting."

"Now Tony's gone," I said.

"Now Tony's gone," he said, half out of, and then into the receiver. "Yes, and I enter contests. Those Internet contests? Win a music player? And then you click on the ad and they make you answer these questions about the household cleaning products, and I do it. Then they ask for your address and send you books of coupons, and more. Stuff in your mailbox, you wouldn't believe. And these lists of questions you fill out online, they're extremely long."

"And you get up in the night and do these."

"No. I do them during the day. But at night, I lie there when I can't sleep, on this couch — I have terrible back pains — and I think of the books of coupons, coming through the mail toward me, somewhere out in the world, and half asleep, I pat the couch twice, or three times. Only now I'm only half-thinking of old Tony. I know I'm not calling him anymore. I'm thinking of those coupons. And I'm directing the portable music player that I hope will come. And tonight, I ..." He stopped short.

"Tonight?"

"Tonight, I thought of our phone conversation, short as it was."

"I thought of you, too," I heard my voice say, so quiet I'm not sure he heard it.

"—And I hate to whine, but that pain that you asked about? Really, lately it's really closer to a nine."

"Yes." Even in Versailles, Louisiana, there could be grief, I thought. Even in Versailles, Louisiana—

Salvatore Pittman cleared his throat. "These back pains, like I told you, they're the real trouble."

"Oh."

I rolled onto my belly as he continued, about drug after drug not working, the doctors he'd gone to, and how my beautiful voice had so brightened his day. I listened to Salvatore Pittman with my nose buried in the futon, the smell chemical, like the factory it had come from.

"Now, I can tell you're sympathetic, my dear Gretchen. A kind soul."

Finally, I sat up and wiped my eyes. "I'm sorry. You disqualify for this study." Hung up. Hit "Ignore" as it rang again a minute later, grabbing my headband, instead. As I ran out the door, I heard it buzzing again. I left it there.

I did not pace myself. Instead, I ran hard through the parking lot, and when, from out of nowhere, a shadow reached for me and a deep voice called, "Hey!" with a cocky knowing, I put on a new burst of speed, because it was finally happening. "Hey!" yelled the voice again, and I tripped at the entrance to the apartment complex, the ground rushing up and striking my hands, knees and chin, my mouth filling with blood.

I scrambled to stand as they came for me.

"Oh, my god; it is her!" It was a woman. Renee. Her breath smelled like beer, her beautiful dark-lashed eyes round with concern as she stepped close and held her arms out in an almost-hug, surveying me. "Are you OK?"

The boyfriend rushed up behind her. "I didn't mean to scare you!" he said. He held his hands out in the same hug/plead, his face pulling itself from about-to-laugh to concern. "I'm sorry."

"It's OK," I said. "I'm fine." I was still in a semi-crouch. The boyfriend no longer resembled a gazelle. He looked like a huge and sweaty red-faced human. A sound escaped me as I straightened. Something like a growl, something like a whine. I spat. Before they could say more, I straightened up and flew between them. My shoulders were low and loose, my torso straight, my gaze on the horizon. Above me, the cell phone trees relayed coded messages that bounced across that rolling world, from regions of darkness to regions of light and back again. Down on the ground, I ran.

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Kate Sweeney is a producer at WABE (90.1-FM). Her first book, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning, will be published by University of Georgia Press in March of 2014.

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