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“Smart Pups Support” by Erica Korer

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Smart Pups Support

By Erica Korer

Whenever a call pops into my queue, the first thing I say is “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew.” That isn’t my real name, though, and where I am it isn’t morning; but none of that is important. “How may I help you?” I say.

My first customer today is Suzanne Thomas from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. I know this place. I look at my American map beside my monitor and place my finger there. Steelers, I think. Super Bowl champions 2009. Suzanne Thomas has a complaint. Her Smart Pup is having problems with his navigation capabilities, she says. “I was in New York last weekend and told my dog to lead me to Madame Tussaud’s, but we ended up in the Lincoln Tunnel! I thought that couldn’t be right, but I trusted my Smart Pup. I was nearly flattened by a commuter bus before I figured we’d better turn around.”

I ask her to read me the numbers on her Smart Pup’s e-collar, and she does. “Hold down the reset button,” I say. I tell her to repeat loudly after me: “Madame Tussaud’s New York,” I say. “234 West 42nd Street.” When she’s finished repeating, I tell her to release the button and to give her Smart Pup an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat. “Tell him ‘good boy’”, I say. I ask her if there’s anything else I can help her with, and she says no. “Well then,” I say, “have a good day.” Remembering my Entertainment Culture training, I add, “and please do enjoy the News Room’s wax figures of award winning journalists Anderson Cooper and Barbara Walters.”

“Well I’m actually home now…,” she begins, but I’ve already ended the call. I realize my mistake and sit for a minute with my face in my hands. These calls are recorded for quality purposes, and if Mr. Khan listens later I’m going to get a note in my Employee File if not a stern talking-to about Professionalism and Conscientiousness as well as a reminder of all the people outside who would kill to have my position; and this isn’t an exaggeration. Last September a young, quiet agent who used the name Jason was found tied up and floating face down in the river, and before the body was even identified a cousin had showed up to take his place.

For the rest of the night I guzzle tea and answer calls, determined to deliver customer service beyond reproach. I resolve all of my customers’ issues without having to escalate them to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor. I make all the right jokes and laugh at the right moments. I even manage to sell five Upgrade Packages (for just 4 extra dollars per month), which is well above the average of two Upgrade Packages per day. At 6 a.m. my shift officially ends, and I can finally clock out. I shut down my station and start to leave, but before I reach the door I’m intercepted by the mustached head of Mr. Khan, sticking out of his office, calling my name. “Come in here for a moment,” he says.

I take a deep breath and do as he says. I’m going to act cheerful and innocent. I’m going to pretend not to know what he wants to talk about. “Hello, Mr. K!” I say. “How’s it going? How is the family?” There’s a picture on his desk of his sons, two fat boys in their school uniforms. “Ah,” I say. “Are their studies going well?”

“Huh?” Mr. Khan says, distractedly putting papers in his briefcase. “Oh. Yes, yes.” To my surprise, he pulls a crystal goblet out from his desk along with two brandy snifters. “Please,” he says, “have a drink with me.” My confusion is obvious, and before I have the chance to respond, he says “Fine, fine. You don’t drink. That’s okay. Here.” He pushes a flimsy box across his desk. “At least have a doughnut.”

“Oh,” I say. “Okay, thank you.” The doughnut, though, is hardly a special treat. The boxes have long been a fixture in the employee break room. It’s part of our Culture Training, they told us. Americans eat doughnuts, so we should also eat doughnuts, and then we can develop a rapport with our customers over doughnuts. I don’t particularly care for these doughnuts. However, I dutifully select one with black and white icing and sink my teeth in. “Mmm,” I say, suppressing a shudder.

“So I wanted to bring you in here,” Mr Khan begins, and the bite of doughnut sits like a lump on my tongue, “to make sure you know you’re invited to come out with us guys after work.” I manage to swallow. It’s not what I expected him to say. “You’re so quiet. Man!” he says, “You should get out more and socialize. That is, of course, unless you don’t like us. We aren’t going to force you to spend time with us and be a team player if you don’t like us.”

I assure him that I like him, them, very much. Today, though, I tell him, I have dinner plans with my girlfriend, Meena, and her parents, so I really must go rest up beforehand. Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll go out and be social. I tell him I can’t wait and thank him. And then I make a beeline for the door.

My workday normally ends just before the sun has a chance to rise, and the walk to the edge of the Smart Pups campus is usually quiet, save for the singing of birds and the last hoots of a few owls. The guard opens the gate for me, and I’m spit out into the city. Outside the gate there are five regular beggars in various states of dismemberment. One man is missing a leg. Another’s missing both legs. A woman has somehow lost half of her face. They immediately swoop in with their hands out. They tell me they’re starving, that their children are starving, that anything will help. As usual I keep walking, feeling humiliated, feeling unreasonably angry. “What do you think I owe you?” I think but don’t say.

The gated community where I live, where a lot of the Smart Pups employees live, isn’t far away. I scan my key card at the gate and then at the door of my building and take the elevator up to my apartment on the 16th floor. I shut the blinds to block the rays that have just begun peeking through. In a few hours, the city will be roasting, but fortunately I have an air conditioner. I flip it on and collapse onto my bed without taking off my clothes.

I wake some time later to my shirt being unbuttoned. Despite the closed blinds, it’s bright in the room. I squint and see Meena naked next to me. “What time is it?” I ask. I hazily remember we have plans with her parents at some point, but I’m disoriented.

Meena kisses my chest. “It’s noon,” she says. “This is my lunch break. We have an hour.” I’m quite groggy, but I rise to the occasion, and afterward we lie breathless underneath the AC unit. “Our new lab assistant started today,” she says. “I don’t think he’s going to last a week.”

“Shhh,” I say into her hair and pull her in close. Since I started at Smart Pups on an American schedule, it hasn’t been easy for Meena and me. We’ve made many sacrifices, but on the plus side, we realized, we can make love in the middle of the day and sleep together in my bed, something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, with her living in her parents’ house. I’m already drifting back to sleep, but I can tell Meena’s restless. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just not very tired.” I tell her it’s okay, that I should get up and try do get some things done before dinner. She dresses, and we kiss goodbye. I then begin my weekly process of transferring funds- some for my parents, some for my younger siblings’ educations. Some for my older siblings and their children’s educations. Some for the nurse who looks after my grandmother.  Some for my sisters’ weddings.

By the time I arrive at Meena’s parents’ house for dinner, which is really my breakfast, I’m tired again and a bit cranky. “Hello Mrs. P. Hello Dr  P, I say, and then we sit down to eat an admittedly delicious meal. Though we used to see each other often, that hasn’t been the case lately.  They want to know if I’m still at “that place.” They want to know if I’ve had any promotions. When I say no, they look at each other and ask if I think I might have a promotion soon. I quickly lose my appetite and push food around my plate. Meena fills the silence. She talks about the latest political news, she talks about fashions, she talks about the incompetent lab assistant she started speaking of earlier. “I swear. I really don’t think he’ll last a week.”

Back at work, I throw back several cups of tea and for an extra sugar buzz even eat a doughnut. “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew. How may I help you?”

“Yes, hello, Matthew” an older man says on the other end of the line. “This is Arnold Franks.” I recognize the caller. We’ve talked before. I pull up his record in my system. The last couple weeks, it appears that his Smart Pup has been standing in his house, barking at absolutely nothing. I ask if it’s the same issue, and he says yes. I tell him we’re going to try something new.

“Press the control button on her e-collar” I say, “and when the tracking beams appear in her eyes, let me know.” When he does, I ask where the beams land. They’re landing on the bookshelf this time, he tells me, but her gaze is weird, he says. She doesn’t really seem to be looking at the bookshelf.

“Okay,” I say. “I want you to press the blue and green buttons on her e-collar simultaneously and then go and lightly touch the part of the bookshelf where she’s looking.” He tells me Okay, that he’ll be right back. It seems he’s calling from a landline rather than a cell phone. I wait. When he’s back on the phone I tell him to press the green and yellow buttons now and then go back to the bookshelf and call her. In the background I can hear him calling his Smart Pup. He calls her “Lucy.” “Here Lucy,” he says. In a moment he’s back on the line. “Did she come when you called her?” I ask. She did. “Feed her an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat,” I say. “Tell her good girl.” I ask him to please call back if he has any other questions or concerns. I give him his case number. I tell him to have a good day.”

The rest of the night drags. I have to escalate two cases to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor, I sell zero Upgrade Packages, and I have a lady tell me she can’t understand my accent and insist on being transferred to someone else. This is something that hasn’t happened in months. I had been relieved and had begun to assume it wouldn’t happen again, so I’m disheartened now.  When 6 a.m. rolls around, I just want to go home and crash, but in a flash Mr. Khan appears beside my desk and asks if I’m ready to go. I say yes and force a smile, and we walk together out of the building.

Outside an auto rickshaw is waiting. Two other Smart Pups Agents, Raj and Haroon, are in the vehicle. We all say hello and I shyly take a seat across from them. “Curry Club,” Mr. Khan tells the driver. I’ve never heard of this place, but nobody else asks any questions so I don’t either. We drive to the campus gate, and when it opens we speed past the beggars and rip through the city streets. The wind makes it too noisy to talk, which I don’t mind at all. Mr. Khan passes a flask around. What the hell, I think, and I take a sip.

We pull up to Curry Club as the sun starts coming up. From the outside it looks like a foreigner bar, and I quickly realize I’m right. However, since it’s now morning there are only a few straggling ,wrecked -looking foreigners, and the place is mostly empty. Mr. Khan says he assumes I’ve never been here. I nod, and he tells me not to worry. It may be quiet now, but in a while it will be Smart Pups Central, he says. That’s why they stay open all the time. They make their money off the night owls, and then they make money off the day owls. He laughs at his own non-joke.

Three very young foreign girls are sitting at the bar. Haroon orders a round of six drinks, three whiskeys and three cocktails with fruit and umbrellas, and motions for Raj and me to follow as he carries the drinks to the girls. I dumbly trail behind, and when the girls see us they look at each other and laugh. Haroon sets the drink tray down. “Hello Ladies,” he says, and again they laugh. The blonde asks if the drinks are for them, and when it’s confirmed, she says thank you and lifts one of the cocktails to her mouth. “Wait! Don’t drink that!” one of the other girls, a short brunette, says, and her friend nearly drops the glass on the floor.

You’re not supposed to accept drinks from strange men, the girl instructs all of us. It could be roofied. If a guy wants to buy you a drink, she says, the bartender should make it and then hand it right to you. Her friend pouts and picks the fruit garnish out of her glass. “Don’t eat that!” the same friend yells, and this time everyone laughs.

The tall brunette tells us, fine, they’ll come have drinks with us if they drink the whiskey and we drink the fruity drinks. “Yeah, okay,” Raj and Haroon say, and we join Mr. Khan at a large table.

Mr. Khan says he has a surprise for us and winks. He walks across the room, grabs a microphone from its stand, and music begins to play. Club Curry, after all, is a karaoke bar. The song is an old one by The Carpenters. I vaguely recognize it. “What the world needs now,” Mr. Khan sings, “is love, sweet love.” It’s bad, and he’s making things awkward by gesturing at our table.

“Where are you from?” Raj asks the girls. They look at each other and smirk. They appear to be having a very hard time drinking their whiskey. “Chicago,” they say. Chicago Bulls, I think. Lake Michigan. Windy City.

 

Lord we don’t need another mountain. There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.

The Chicago girls have set their drinks down and are exchanging glances. They’re trying to communicate, I would guess, that they should make an excuse to leave. Haroon elbows me. “Say something,” he whispers loudly.

Lord we don’t need another meadow. There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m in a karaoke bar, nursing a tropical drink. I just want to go home. I look at Haroon and Raj and shrug, lost for words, and then I think of something: “Do you eat a lot of doughnuts?”

For a moment, everyone looks at me in shock. Haroon guffaws while Raj covers his face with his hands, and the girls collectively get up and storm out, but not before the blonde picks up her whiskey and dumps it in my lap.

There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen lord, if you want to know. What the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now. Is love, sweet love. No not just for some, oh but just for every every everyone.

© 2013 Erica Korer

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