“Come work in the call centre with me,” says the Indian boy.
“Saying that because you’re drunk,” I tell him.
“Not at all.” He chugs his beer. “Why does a broke boy come to India?”
“Have you ever been to Brandon, Manitoba? Ever experienced being the worst student in Brandon, Manitoba?”
“That’s a place? Listen, you need a job. In the call centre, you could make good money because you don’t sound Indian.”
“Why would that be important in a call centre?”
He smiles and extends his hand. “My name is Raman.”
The room is filled with novels. Every shelf.
“What is this place?” I ask, dizzy.
“My house. This is Ma’s floor. She is next door.”
“What’s that noise?”
“She is in a bad way. Okay during the day, bad breathing at night. Loves books. You can stay on that cot,” he points. “Ma will not disturb you.”
“Are you going to murder me for my money?” I ask, and we both laugh. “Why are you letting me stay here, Raman?”
He turns on a light. “I go to check on Ma and tell her you’re here. In the morning, Ma will make you breakfast and I will take you to the call centre.”
The cot is made of rope, and very stiff. The strands rub against my back until Raman brings me a blanket to lie on. “In this country,” he whispers, “we lie on our blankets, not under them. Funny, right?”
“Very funny,” I tell him. Later, Ma shuffles through the darkness, pawing at the air. I’m not sure if she sees me.
The call centre is in a building without a front door. We hop a wall and get in through a service corridor.
It’s air-conditioned inside. I follow Raman around, the only white person in the place. Someone gives me tea, but it’s too hot to drink.
I listen to the phone calls. It doesn’t take long to understand what is happening. These people are pretending to be from the Canada Revenue Agency, and are asking Canadians to buy gift cards to pay off government debts they don’t actually have.
In the middle of the cubicles, four television screens are hanging from the ceiling. Each one is showing a different cartoon. The language is Hindi, the subtitles German.
“My name is Arthur Pott,” says Raman. “That is with two t’s. It is important to spell it right.”
“Who believes with your accent that you’re a Canadian named Arthur Pott?”
“Canadians are most gullible. They fall for this all the time. We make a lot of money here. Much harder to fool Americans.”
He sits down. “I tried before, my old job. Internal Revenue Service scam. One time, I got a city name wrong and the person on the phone screamed. Otherwise, I would have had them. For Americans, it only takes one mistake for them not to trust.”
“I can’t believe you guys do this, and that it works.”
“You could instead build a nice factory for us to work in, right? How about a big highway to connect north India to south?” He laughs. “Just listen. This is training. Be not too pushy. Sound official. Don’t start with jail.” He curls his hand into a fist and shakes. “Never start with jail!”
I practice on the Supervisor, a big man with a beard, as Raman looks on. This is the only office in the call centre.
“Where you from?” asks the Supervisor.
“New Jersey. United States.”
“Know anything of Canada?”
“A little,” I shrug.
He tells me to leave and that I can start the next day.
“Why did you lie about where you are from?” asks Raman.
I shrug. “Why do you lie about being Arthur Pott?”
He blinks, confused. “It’s my job, Dan.”
“This is your cubicle,” says Raman. “Here is a script.”
“It’s all men in here.”
“No, over there is Asha.”
I stand up. Asha is wearing jeans and has short hair. She looks over for a moment before giving me the finger.
I pick up the script. The language is horrible, but I can correct it as I go. On the computer screen is a set of phone numbers. I dial one. A man comes on the other end, and for a moment I’m sure that I know him. But he’s just a stranger, some guy in Calgary who lives by himself on a farm. I tell him my name’s Ronald Biglake. He says his is Albert. We chat about that one time I slid down a long slope of scree on a mountain in the Rockies, and lost my water battle in the abyss.
Turns out it’s not hard. By the end of the day, I tell Raman how much money I got, and he’s amazed. This scrawny little Indian boy who got kicked out of university because his marks weren’t quite perfect enough buys me a victory dinner. It’s pizza with lamb on it, tastes like shit.
“Ma’am, the Canada Revenue Agency is going to file a lawsuit if you can’t make this payment.”
“Is this a scam?”
“Does it sound like one?”
“I’ve heard of these scams before! My friend lost a lot of money in one.”
“Phone frauds are usually perpetrated from overseas, ma’am. Bangladesh or Cameroon. By the way, here’s my employee identification number.”
“Slow down, can’t write that fast!” Scribbling. “Where are you from?”
“Toronto,” I lie. “Can you please go to your local grocery store and purchase a gift card? Once you get it, you need to scratch off the back and tell me the number. Quickest and most effective way to transfer money. Avoids red tape.”
“That’s smart. We spend too much money on red tape, don’t we? That Pierre Trudeau!”
I can hear her getting up and moving around. It sounds like she’s putting on shoes. “I’ll stay on the line with you,” I tell her.
“You’ll stay on the line?”
“I will.” And that’s exactly what I do as she walks the streets of Hamilton on the way to a Wal-Mart.
I run into Asha near the bathroom. She flips me off again.
“We haven’t even met,” I tell her.
She puts a hand on the door. “Are you going to follow me in?”
She pushes her way through, leaving me in the hallway.
Later, I stare at her cubicle. She’s on the phone, curling hair around a finger. When the call’s done, she stands up and stretches, and I swear most of the men in the centre look over. On the way out, Raman tells me that Asha is Caller #1. She doesn’t sound anything but Indian, but something about a female voice is apparently very convincing.
“Why don’t they get more girls here, then?” I ask.
“Not very respectful job,” he replies, and that’s the end of that.
“Supervisor says you are the best caller here,” notes Raman, breaking up his roti and pocketing lamb curry. “Says you have no accent, so people believe you.”
I chew on pakoras, dipping them in mint sauce. Drink tea, hot as can be. Later, after I get paid, I hire an old man to give me a massage, and walk home in the dark. I should be worried about the streets, but I’m not.
The light in the apartment swings on its cord. I pick up the phone. “Raman, listen. It’s not the accent that does it for me.”
“A decent Canadian would believe that a person with an accent could still be Canadian. That’s not the issue. What I do is talk to them about the country. Cities I’ve seen. Food I’ve eaten. Celebrities and writers, that kind of thing.”
Raman considers. “Could I learn about these things?”
The light swings. “Don’t see why not.”
The legend of the white scammer from Brandon, Manitoba spreads. They put a stuffed animal on my cubicle. It’s a chicken.
Three weeks into the job, I get handed a second wad of rupees. I go to the store and buy a novel for Raman’s Ma.
I spend at least an hour a day going over Canada with Raman. Places, names, events. History, geography, tragedies. Successes recognized on the world stage. Things that made me cry. I tell him all about Brandon, Manitoba, until he can describe it better than I can.
Two months into the job, I dial a number from memory. It’s my home number. No one picks up. I didn’t think they would. It’s night here in India, 3 am. At home, it’s mid-day, and my parents will be at work. But I do get the voicemail. I let it play out, and hang up just as it ends.
“If you were home, you would do so great,” I tell Raman, on the bus.
“You found no job over there. Why would I?”
“You’re much smarter than me, for one.”
We’re going to a fort. The bus drives right through the gate, and we climb steps up a wall. He jokes about throwing spears from the battlements. I pretend to shoot an arrow into the sun.
“You could leave,” I tell him, as we snack in the courtyard next to a tank of diesel. “Go to some other country where it’s easier. Where everyone’s not so damn smart.”
“Ma wouldn’t like that,” he notes. He looks up as a bus enters the fort, kicking dust over our food and into our eyes. “Besides, who could leave all this?”
Asha comes to my cubicle dressed in a skirt. “I thought skirts weren’t allowed.”
“Says who? You white foreigners? Maybe in your country when my people go there, that’s so, but they only remember India as it was when they left. They don’t know what it is now.”
I stare at her. It’s not hard to stare at her. “And?”
“You take me out tomorrow. For food and drinks. Then we got to a movie.”
She sighs, as though I’m the largest idiot she’s ever met. “Of course not.”
“You ask her or she ask you?” says Raman.
Ma is in the other room, making food. This whole country smells, I think to myself. But when the food comes, it’s delicious and I can’t stop eating.
“Ma,” says Raman, “this boy has a date with Asha.”
“I thought you were sweet with Asha?” asks Ma.
“Believe it or not, Asha has a free mind,” returns Raman. “Can you make us tea? We want to sit on the roof and talk. I will give Dan a good lesson on Indian women.”
“Fat lot you know,” she says.
On the roof, we drink. Now and then, a star winks at me as though it’s been watching for a long time, and as the caffeine kicks in, I tell it: fat lot you know, star. Fat lot.
“I have no money.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” I tell him. “The only thing we can do is put you on a payment plan. Would that be okay?”
“I can’t live on the money I have right now.”
“It’s that or jail, sir. If you don’t pay, I’ll have to ask the local police to come and collect you.” I tell him the number for the nearest RCMP station.
Silence. Rustling. I go on mute and stand up to blow a kiss at Asha. Then the man comes back. “I got a knife.”
“Sir, what’s that got to do with anything?”
“It’s a hunting knife. My brother left it for me. He fought the big forest fires up north. Got caught by one. I went and buried him in the bush. Better up there than here.”
He goes silent. I can see him in his house, the lights low. The kitchen is full of plates, it’s a mess. The carpet stinks. The television is on but he’s looking past it. Then I’m there with him, in all that filth. I have my hands in it. I’m touching his air. I’m looking at his knife.
The day ends. Asha comes to me. “Ready for our date?”
“Was that today?”
“Of course. Have you forgotten?”
I’m in India, I realize. Far away from Brandon, Manitoba. “Listen, you’re nice but I want to hang out with Raman today.”
“Are you going to eat together? I could join you.”
I shake my head and tell her no, Raman and I are going to go drinking. We’re going to drink a lot, I tell her, and then I go to Raman’s cubicle.
“Ready?” I ask him, loud enough for her to hear.
He looks up at me, and blinks.
The table wobbles. Beer bottles clink. Raman brought some paan. We chew it and spit out the window.
“You won’t get a second chance,” he says. “Asha is a good girl.”
“You’re a shit,” I tell him, drunk. The paan has kicked in, too. I would kill for some weed.
“Excuse?” he laughs.
“You’re a shit,” I repeat. “You’re a shit for the job you do.”
“You do the same job!”
“I have options, you’re just desperate. Probably smarter than anyone in my home town but too dumb for this place. I could go home and work in a factory. Or in a restaurant. I’d feel okay about that. I’d feel good about myself.”
Raman makes me buy beer and tells me that I’m being rude, that I don’t understand this country. I tell him sure, I don’t understand it, then make him buy the next round.
Outside, I kick over a scooter. Nothing happens.
“To making money!” says Raman, bouncing in the street. “And to lovely Asha! And to this amazing country!”
He runs, me following as the lights in the street blur and the smell of food makes my head hurt. When the dizziness is too much, I put my back to a wall and slide down. The world is spinning. I’m from Brandon, Manitoba, and left because I got busted for selling drugs to high school kids. They said I was taking advantage of poor people, and idiots who didn’t have any hope in life. I laughed. Then I got on a plane.
I’m from Brandon, Manitoba, and have exactly one friend in the world. I watch that friend dancing in the middle of the street, until some kids walk over and kick him in the nuts. I see them take his wallet. I listen to them laugh. I know I should do something, but I just sit there, as a kid in a hoodie drops his pants and pisses on Raman’s head, like he had it coming. Maybe he does, I think. Maybe this is the only way things can go for the selfish, lying shit.
Hi all, this story was long listed for the CBC short story contest last year (one of about 30 or so selected from 2,500 entries). I never honestly though much of this story, it sort of rolled off me and was forgotten. But I think it’s funny and says something about how we can get backed into the dim corners of life at times – and sometimes those dim corners present themselves as opportunities.
Next week, I’ll post the story that was long listed for the CBC contest this year, called The Arms of Village. To me, it’s a real story and I quite love it. I wish I could write more of these types of stories, but curious to see what you all think of it.