I was a directionless kid when I got out of high school. Solidly average grades, never heavily involved with any particular extra curriculars, no lifelong dream driving me to a particular field. I was just drifting along, letting life’s current take me wherever. I knew I needed a job after graduation, but my options were as limited as my experience. I took the first gig offered to me at a call center taking inbound orders for a company specializing in knick knacks, trinkets, and all other manner of dust collectors. I had always heard how soul crushing call center work was, but I happily threw myself into the compacter to make a couple bucks over minimum wage.
The job itself was simple: answer phone with canned greeting, punch their request into the order screen, attempt to cross sell them on a related product (translation: try to sucker them into buying some other overpriced item), verify delivery address and billing information, recite close of call language, let customer disconnect, move on to next call. Letting the customer disconnect was one of the most important parts of the process. It was drilled into us from day one that we weren’t allowed to hang up for any reason; apparently it brought down customer loyalty or something. I didn’t have a problem with it, I actually kind of liked some of the people who called in. Many were older and just enjoyed having someone to talk to and, in return, I got to hear some pretty cool stories. My supervisor wasn’t thrilled with the average length of my calls, but I was one of the top sales people for the entire company, so I didn’t get into too much trouble. It turns out, people are more inclined to buy if they feel like you actually care about them.
I’d been on the job for about a year when I was asked to move to an evening shift. Sales needed to pick up and they were moving some of their stronger people around to try and improve numbers. I agreed, but only after I was told I’d be getting a raise if I did it. It took a couple days to adjust to the new hours, but soon I was back to being a top seller with too long phone calls.
“Thank you for calling, this is John speaking. What can I assist you with today?”
“John?” It was a woman’s voice, older and soft spoken.
“Yes, ma’am, how can I help you?”
“Oh, John, it’s so nice to hear from you again! It’s been so long!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m with Hartland’s Finery. Were you calling to place an order?”
“It’s Rosie, John!” She continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “I can’t believe it’s been so long. Are you doing well? I’ve not been so good, John, but I’m certainly better now!”
“Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but I think you have the wrong number. This is-”
“I know it’s you, John, don’t be silly! Do you know, I was just talking to Alice about you. She’s my neighbor, sweet lady, but I think she’s starting to get a bit touched with age. Not quite so sharp as she used to be.”
She’s not the only one, I thought. I’d had a few customers with dementia call in before. They usually thought they were calling someone else and would get upset if you kept telling them otherwise. Sometimes I’d feel really bad for them, so I’d play along until they decided to hang up or someone on their end found them and took the phone away. It seemed harmless enough and they always sounded happier after.
“Are you listening, John?”
“Where have you been?”
“I’m at work right now, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to be so formal with your Rosie, John!” She said.
“I apologize, but I’m an employee with Hartland’s Finery. You called our company’s number just now.”
“Well, I don’t know what’s gotten into you tonight, John, but it’s not funny! I’ll call back tomorrow.”
The line was disconnected. I briefly told my coworker in the next cubicle about Rosie, laughed it off, and took the next call.
The following evening, as promised, Rosie called back.
“John! How are you?”
“I’m doing well, thank you. How are you?”
“Just fine. I’ve missed you so much, John.”
I chuckled, “We just talked last night!”
“But you were being so strange, John, acting like you don’t even know your own Rosie.”
I tried telling her again that I wasn’t who she thought I was, but she started ignoring me outright or talking over me. At one point, I muted myself and flagged down my supervisor, Taylor.
“This lady has called back twice now and thinks I’m her dead husband or something. I’ve already been on with her for almost ten minutes, can I hang up?”
“Sorry, J, you just gotta hope she gets tired of you soon.”
It took Rosie another twenty minutes to hang up. The next night, an hour. The night after that, another hour. She had stopped giving me much of a chance to say anything at all, much less deny being her John, so I would sit quietly and listen to her tell me about her neighbor, Alice, or what kind of flowers she was planning for the garden. I didn’t know how she kept getting routed to me or how she managed to be perfectly on time every night, but it became a routine. 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM became known as the Rosie Hour and The Rosening. My coworkers all wanted to get a call from Rosie, they thought she sounded like a sweet, lonely old lady, but she only ever came through my line.
Taylor quickly became frustrated with Rosie; one of her top salesmen was spending an hour of every shift talking to someone who clearly wasn’t buying anything and it was having a negative impact. She went to a manager and asked to allow me to break the no hang up rule with this one customer, but was told no, I’d just have to try and make up my sales around Rosie. Of course, management didn’t offer any solutions as to how to do that, just said to make it happen.
I got used to my strange caller. She became an expected part of my day and I looked at her hour as a break from actual work. Until one night, she called in sounding more subdued than usual.
“What’s wrong, Ms. Rosie? You don’t sound like you usually do.”
“You know I don’t like blue, John.”
“It was never your color.”
“I’ve always told you that blue wasn’t your color and your promised you wouldn’t wear it.”
It took a minute for her words to sink in and I slowly looked down at my shirt, a blue polo.
“How do you know what I’m wearing?”
“You promised me, John.” She started to weep, as if there had never been such a betrayal as my blue shirt.
“How do you know what I’m wearing?” I demanded again, this time a little louder.
“Don’t take that tone with me, John!” She sobbed, “Not with your Rosie!”
I disconnected the line and threw my headset onto my keyboard, my mind racing. Was Rosie a prank played by someone I knew? If so, they were taking it too far. It might have been stupid to get so worked up over something that was probably just a joke, but I was extremely unsettled and I stalked across the center floor to Taylor’s desk.
“I need a new extension.”
She barely glanced up from her paperwork, “Why?”
“Rosie knew what I was wearing, it was creepy and I don’t want her calling me again. I want a new extension.”
To my surprise, Taylor took my concern and my request seriously. I didn’t even get in trouble for hanging up on a caller. The next night, I logged in to a new extension and started taking calls, relieved to be done with Rosie. When a new call came in at 8:30, I didn’t even look at the caller ID.
“Thank you for calling, this is John speaking. What can I assist you with today?”
“Why’d you hang up on me, John?”
“Rosie?” My blood went icy.
“Did you really have to try and change your number, John? Don’t you want to talk to your Rosie?”
“How did you get my extension?” I raised my hand and started waving it around to get Taylor’s attention. All the while, Rosie’s voice was getting shriller and shriller while she went on about how hurt she was. I muted myself when Taylor came over, “It’s her again.”
Taylor shrugged helplessly so I did the only thing I could; I hung up. I knew she wanted to say something about it, but my agitation was stamped openly on my face and she could easily see how bothered I was.
“Am I being messed with?” I asked heatedly, “It has to be someone here who knows I changed my extension.”
“The only people would be the IT guys, J. I don’t think they’re doing it.”
“This is getting ridiculous!”
She agreed and said she’d try to get Rosie’s number blocked, if that was even possible. I got permission to take my break early and paced in circles in the dark parking lot. Even if it isn’t a joke, she’s just an old lady, I thought, I’m not scared of an old lady. But I was. I didn’t know how she kept getting through my line every night, how she knew what shirt I was wearing, how she knew my new extension. If someone stepped forward and admitted they were playing an extended joke on me, I wouldn’t have even been mad at that point. I would have been relieved.
I decided to burn some paid time off and clocked out early to calm my nerves. Wanting to get Rosie off my mind, I made plans with my girlfriend, Isabelle, to go out to a late movie and then spent the night and most of the next day at her place. She knew something was off, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that phone calls from a geriatric creep were getting under my skin, so I just said I’d had a really bad customer experience. It wasn’t a lie.
When it came time to go to work the next evening, Isabelle walked me to my car and gave me a big hug and kiss, “Hope tonight goes better for you, babe.”
She pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout, which made me smile, “I hate when you’re grumpy.”
“I know, sorry. I’ll feel better tonight.” I hoped. I gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and climbed into my car. Isabelle stayed on the curb, waving me down the road with a goofy dance to send me off with a laugh.
Taylor pulled me aside first thing after I arrived and assured me they’d taken further steps to keep Rosie from calling back. They’d blacklisted the number they had for her and changed my extension again. My lunch had been switched to 8:30 so that I wouldn’t even be on the phones for the Rosie Hour. I thanked her with a hug, said I was sorry for bailing the night before, and logged in to start my shift.
I was optimistic about all the changes and appreciated the way the company had handled my situation. I channeled my gratitude into my work and was extra diligent with my calls, earning me more sales than usual. By 8:25, with only minutes to go until my break, I was feeling pretty good.
“Thank you for calling, this is John -”
“Who was that whore, John?” Rosie screeched into my headset.
“What the fu-”
“I saw you! I saw you with that whore! You said it would never happen again, John, not after last time!”
“How did you get my number again? Who is this?!” She was following me, my stomach dropped in dismay, she’d seen me with Isabelle, “Don’t you dare go near my girlfriend! I’m calling the cops!”
“Am I going to have to do it again, John? I didn’t want to do it last time, but she had to go, John, she was trying to take you away from me!”
“Whoever this is, you need to knock it off! It’s sick, it’s not funny!”
“It’s your Rosie, John! How could you do this to me?” She was screaming through angry tears, “That whore will never love you like I do! She needs to go, John. I’m going to make her go away, just like last time and then we’ll be ok again. You’ll be my John again.”
“I’m not your John!” I was on my feet, shouting into the headset. The cubicles around me went quiet and I could feel my coworkers listening, “Stay the fuck away from me, stay away from my girlfriend!”
“Don’t you dare say that!” Rosie snarled with such force that every hair on my body stood on end, “This is that whore’s doing. Don’t worry, John, I’ll make it right again. You’ll be my John again”
“It’s ok, John. I won’t let her come between us. I know what I have to do.”
The line went dead.
The world around me seemed to slow. Taylor was next to me, saying something, but I pushed past her and was running out to my car. My ride to Isabelle’s was a blur of honking horns and squealing tires. I didn’t even park properly, leaving my car still running and half in the lane of oncoming traffic. She was on the fourth floor, but I took the stairs anyway, bounding upwards two at a time.
Isabelle’s door was closed, but unlocked, which set off every alarm in my body. She was a cautious person and always had at least her chain in place. I shoved the door open and called into the dark apartment. No answer. My shaking hands felt along the wall for the switch and I flicked it on. The apartment looked exactly as I had left it earlier.
“J?” I screamed when Isabelle’s voice sounded right behind me. She gasped as I turned and crushed her against me in a tight hug, “What’s wrong? I was just next door helping Mr. Sopaldo water his plants.”
We sat on the couch all night after I told her everything that had been happening with Rosie. She was skeptical at first, but then scared, understandably so, and couldn’t calm down enough for sleep. She wanted to go to the cops then and there, but I wanted to wait. I’d call Taylor in the morning and have her come too to back up my story. It was too crazy to try to tell it alone. Isabelle finally managed to fall asleep around 6 and, after setting an alarm for noon, I wasn’t far behind her.
I was awoken by the sound of my cell phone ringing. Still half asleep, I pawed through my pockets for it and mumbled a hello.
“J, man, did you hear?”
I sat up, stiff from an uncomfortable few hours wedged between the arm of the couch and Isabelle, and yawned, “Who is this?”
“Ed, you know, from work.”
“Yeah, of course, Ed, what’s up?”
“Man, have you heard about Taylor?”
“She was found dead this morning! They think she was hit by a car when she was walking home from work. Apparently it did a real number on her.”
The phone slid away from my ear with Ed still talking. Taylor. Taylor who I had thanked last night…with a hug. Rosie hadn’t been talking about Isabelle at all. I groaned and dropped my head into my hands. Ed must have realized I wasn’t listening anymore and hung up because the phone rang again. Someone else calling to tell me about Taylor, no doubt. Exhausted, sick with grief, I picked it up.
“Don’t worry, I did what had to be done for us. I forgive you. You’ll always be my John.”
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