Boston, D.C.

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            “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.”

            “No way!”

            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?”

            “Excuse me?”

            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.”

            “No?”

            “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.”

            “Indian 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.

            “She, me.”

            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.

 

Dream hard, rage hard.

45 thoughts on “Boston, D.C.

  1. Like all your stories, I get caught up in the scene and the mood, as if I’m there, and I feel fascinated. I’m not a hundred percent with what’s going on, but I can figure out some of it at least. This one I could figure out more than most. For me it was a fun little adventure into the shady lives of a couple of phone scammers. I kind of felt sorry for them, but I also didn’t like them. But I hoped that one day they would find more honest ways to make a living.

              1. Can you imagine if a scammer called someone who ended up doing something bad? I feel like I should play with one of these guys (they’re always guys around here) and make them feel guilty. But who has the time?

              2. I just get so frustrated as soon as I realize it’s yet another solicitation or scam. But yes, one day I’m going to play along for a bit and see what happens.

              3. Yeah. Next week’s story, the one that finished in the long list this year, is much better in my opinion. Curious to see what people think. Listen, one final thing Mark. I just want to thank you for all your support. It still blows me away that you went through my book with that level of detailed comments. I’m so appreciative. I will never forget that.

              4. Trent, the honor was mine. I consider you to be one of the best writers I’ve met on the blogosphere. The opportunity to provide input to you is an honor, an absolute honor. And again, you should never hesitate to ask me for the same level of input whenever you want it.

                I’m looking forward to seeing the next story you post.

      1. He does. His tales are full of many unique, unexpected oddments that pique my curiosity and keep me reading on. I’ve never read writing like his before.

        1. Totally agree. Let’s talk about him as though he wasn’t here. I want to now how he comes up with these ideas and the progression of the stories. All he ever tells me is that he just gets and idea and starts writing until he’s done. Well, I’m sorry, I want a peek inside his brain to see where this stuff comes from. Oh wait, maybe I don’t. 😉

          1. Get a room, guys! And stop making me blush, there’s nothing special going on, it’s just stream of consciousness. Sometimes, it hits. Often, it doesn’t. It’s just thought vomit. Idea spewing. And it feels marvellous!

              1. Do you ever have one of those moments where you’re just in that moment and you’re free to think? I love those moments. That’s when I write best. But they’re rare. And alas, alcohol doesn’t bring those moments to me – it’s a different experience. I find this weird calm and I go at it. There’s nothing wrong with thinking it through, though. It’s probably better.

              2. It’s been years since I’ve been able to just write. This is why it’s been a struggle for me. In the next week or so, I’m going to try to set aside an hour or two each day for writing. To force myself back into the habit. And to see what happens.

    1. Thanks Tippy. I feel sorry for them, they’re both in a bad place and don’t really seem to realize it. I wonder about these phone scammers. They do this for a living. Can’t they find something better? They’re putting in effort and creativity to scam people. Why couldn’t that effort be put into something positive?

      1. Maybe it’s a mindset people get trapped in. They develop habits of dishonesty that they have a hard time breaking. Once someone gets good at something, even if it’s something illegal, they can be tempted to continue on with it. Perhaps because it’s the only thing they know how to do well.

        1. I think I’ve been in this trap before, long ago. It felt okay at the time (not phone scamming, but just doing something I probably should have been doing). It was perfectly normal. The world approved. But it wasn’t good, and looking back, I wonder how I got there. It was easy at the time.

  2. I got caught up right into this one, Trent. I can’t say it is funny-funny and I think both of the main characters are despicable but sad at the same time. I can imagine when you are in such a situation with limited means and resources (or, at least you think you are) you can justify your actions…

    You might not love-love this one but it’s good! Plus, let’s face it… long-listed? I’d be dang proud.

    1. Thanks Dale, I am proud! I posted a different story a while ago called We the Divine that I thought was a fair bit better but also much much crazier. I don’t know, I fall in love with some stories and not with others. But I really appreciate you reading. Next week I’ll post this year’s long listed story, I think it’s pretty good. But I could easily be wrong.

      1. Good! Gad that you are! Maybe too crazy is harder to get chosen 😉 I enjoyed reading it. and look forward to reading more of your stuff.

    1. Thanks Matticus. I don’t even really need to win. I just want… well, I don’t know what I want. Yes I do. I want to make lots of people feel something. Is that a dumb ambition?

  3. I haven’t written too many stories, but in my personal experience, when something just “sort off rolls off”, it’s tends to end up as good or better than something that might have taken hours and hours of work. I’m not sure how to explain it, but there’s some sort of natural flow in the “just rolled off” pieces that laboriously crafted pieces subconsciously lack, and maybe at best, are just more or less successful at replicating.

    1. I think that is such a great thought, X. I would agree. It’s like playing baseball. The less effort you put into the swing, the further the ball sees to go because you tend to make contact right in the middle. The sweep spot. Trying too hard is just… trying too hard. Thanks for this, it’s well put.

  4. The first time I heard of Brandon, Manitoba I wondered if it was really a place. Somehow likening these scamming predators on the phone to a drug dealer selling to kids seems appropriate. We have all wondered at one time or another what kind of person could do this. I can see why this story made it to the short list.

  5. So late to the comment section. Brilliant and thought provoking writing, Trent. Lots of emotions stirred up with this one, too. It’s not weird. It’s real life. Anger was my primary emotion in this one because I worked in a department and saw the financial and emotional fallout from this crime.

    The ironic part is that Raman gets Karma in that last paragraph. The robbers are brazen, not the cowardly kind that he and Dan are. I also found it a bit funny and sad at the same time. He does care for his Ma and that humanized him.

    Dan is quite the conundrum. When people think about empathy, usually thoughts of doing good come first. This is an example of how having empathy can serve bad actions because Dan relates to his marks. When Dan dials his parents’ number, what would have happened if someone answered? Would he have followed the script or been dinged for a ‘No Sale’? What if that number was on Raman’s list and in a casual convo, the parents mentioned to Dan that they fell victim to the scam he was perpetrating? That poor man with the knife, I hope he didn’t use it. I hope that experience puts Dan on the straight life. It sounds like he wants to be on that path, or maybe I’m all wet.

    I can see how it was long listed. The writing is solid as ever. If it wasn’t short listed, emotions could have impacted that decision, right or wrong. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Ah thank you! I didn’t ever love this story, but it made me laugh a bit and then get sad, imagining people in these situations for whatever reason. Brilliant people in India not quite good enough to escape the many brilliant people around them, ending up like this. Desperate Canadian hoodlums on the run, trying to find a better life and just finding themselves in shit. I always hope for people like this. I really do. Because as much as I try to humanize them, they are human. They’re just like us, only a bit more fragile, a bit more susceptible. I could have been one of them, easily. Maybe I was, I dunno. And now I sit around and wonder about them, and I question who I am, the scammer or the guy with the knife. What are we destined to be, which side of the coin does our face get imprinted on. Sorry, rambling! Thanks for the thoughts.

        1. But I’m not. It’s just a name. It’s not even mine, but that doesn’t much matter. Funny how we can make up our truths. Fiction, and other made-up stories.

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