Occupational Hazards “So dear, what do you do for a living?

” No one tries to pretend they would ever be able to do my job, for they know they can’t, and they don’t know why I can. There are always so many questions once the initial shock relinquishes their tongues. Maybe they expect me to be a teacher or something of a similar social acceptability. Once I replied I answered phones, and their first assumption was secretary, personal assistant, whatever you want to call it, but I’m not one for slaving over copy machines. After I denied that occupation, I had to tell them who is calling. Mrs. Hutchins looks so expectant in her fuzzy, pink bathrobe, frayed at the bottom and embroidered with grinning cats. She’s only trying to engage me in friendly conversation as we collect the mail from our respective boxes at the front of the building. It’s not as if the question isn’t apropos, seeing as I’ve just come back from work. Through the cheap plastic frames of her horn-rimmed glasses her eyes never leave mine in anticipation of my reply, and I know they won’t relent without an answer. Bluntness always is the best approach to so delicate a topic. At least I’ve never found any better method. “I’m a telephone operator for the suicide hotline.” Their reactions are always so unpredictable. Very few are sure of what to make of me after that. Those who aren’t so certain generally excuse themselves and avoid my presence; others swiftly divert the conversation from further discussion of the topic. Not that I am in any way fonder of the people who make their assumptions. I once had a man ask me if I had ever tried to off myself. “No, I do my job because it pays bills,” was the only response I offered. If there is still any semblance of conversation at that point, they ask me how I do it. I don’t know. Perhaps they’re just voices on a phone to me. During the first few weeks of my current occupation, I was struck with horror every time I heard the phone ring. Even the phone at my house caused me to jump in fright, but I went back there everyday no matter how much of a fear I developed for any rhythmic, blaring noise, because I needed the money, and I still do. There are bills to pay if I want to keep the apartment under Mrs. Hutchins’, though cat hair seeps down through every possible inlet. Like I became wont to the scent of litter boxes and that malodorous substance referred to as cat food, I developed an immunity to my job. My cell phone can ring for hours now and I won’t notice. It’s just a buzz in my ear, like their voices. I know they’re there, I can hear what their saying, and I respond, but they’re not real. They’re just voices on a phone. Anyway, I don’t believe there’s really any need for all the fuss. I’m not that different from anyone else with a job. This morning, like every morning, at seven my alarm hummed with the news to wake me for the day. There was a time when it shrilly beeped, but that sounded too much like a phone. At first I was terrified, but then I began to sleep through it, and it’s not like I don’t enjoy the news anyway. Like everybody else I get dressed in something that appears professional, go to make breakfast, and pretend. I pretend that I didn’t drop a piece of the shell into my scrambled eggs, that the cleanliness of the spatula wasn’t questionable, that my morning coffee didn’t taste so bitter because it’s dirt-cheap and I forgot to buy milk, that I didn’t spill a third of the acrid, lukewarm liquid on my pant leg, that my toast was palatable even though it was pitch black, and I

pretend that I didn’t consume this repugnant meal as slowly as possible, because finishing it meant going to work. Eventually I put an end to my suffering with the last few bites, followed by the final swig of that bitter and unfortunately milk-less substance I feel compelled to drink each and every morning. Pretending I’m content, I walked out my door. Out on the front steps 2B always sits. For someone I see everyday, I can’t tell you a thing about him. I think he’s nineteen but I don’t even know that for sure. Not even his name comes to mind, just that he lives in apartment 2B. I could swear he told me his name once, perhaps twice, but when I’d see him the next day, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue, and I see him so often that it’s inexcusable. There’s never been a morning he hasn’t been idly observing passersby from those steps. This morning was no different. We had our usual interaction. He calls my name, which only augments the guilt I feel for not being able to recall his, and says hello. I wave in return, notify him that cigarette lingering about his mouth will kill him. Smiling back out of politeness, he replies, “I know. Thanks for caring.” I guess I forgot to say that today. Though I distinctly remember those deadly curls of grey pouring off his lips, I can’t recall saying anything before heading off to the bus stop. As I said, I’m not so different from anyone else with a job. Standing at the bus stop, I see those with socially respected occupations pass by or stand beside me, and I bet they pretend too. The businessmen and women, the laborers, the lawyers, the criminals, the teachers, the students, the doctors, the patients, even the fry cooks and their increasingly overweight patrons all pretend they’re perfectly content, just like me. I’m not the only one who tries to fool myself as I head off to work. The bus halted for me in front of an unlabeled building, like it always does. There isn’t a sign adorning the front or even the door. What would it say anyway? Selfdestructive people call here. Give us a holler. Pushing open the unmarked door, I went up to cubicle 17. It was just a few minutes before my shift started. This isn’t a nine-to-five job. The phones buzz more at midnight than noon. I’m just lucky enough to get a shift that’s closer to regular work hours, but that means being a few minutes early forces me have to wait for the cubicle to be vacated by Mr. Emerson. He always leaves the chair reeking of something pungent. When I sat down I dared not inhale. Mr. Emerson and the woman with the shift after mine, Melissa, have both taken it upon themselves to decorate cubicle 17. There are bobble heads of various baseball players I can’t put names to, courtesy of Mr. Emerson, along with a picture of him and his son on a fishing trip. The son seems as happy to be there as I am looking at it. This only clashes with Melissa’s gaudy ornaments. I think she was just trying to lighten up the place, but I can’t help feeling like a unicorn defecated on my desk. Nothing of hers isn’t florescent. My eyes can’t focus on any of it for more than a minute. It almost makes me want to stare at the bouncy headed, overly grinning athletes. I appreciate the attempts of her garishly colored decorations, but a solar flare couldn’t lighten the place up. The one possession of Melissa’s I have ever been grateful for is her air-freshener, which I promptly sprayed before I began taking calls. Answering the phones isn’t as awful as one would expect it to be. Most of those who call want someone to tell them to live, and it doesn’t matter to them that it’s just one voice on the phone telling another voice on the phone not to jump off the edge. The people in their lives have failed them, so here we are to intervene. It’s a horrible

misconception that we are fighting a losing battle, that we hear a gunshot, or a falling step stool and tightening rope, or the rattling of a pill bottle at the end of every call. Perhaps they do all die after we’ve put the phone down, but when we hang up they’re quite alive. It’s not like we’re making guesses and taking chances from the time we pick up the phone to when they hang up. We’re given guidelines. There’s no script that makes us all seem like prerecorded, mechanical voices laden with spurious sympathy. A script would be unable to aid us anyway. We don’t talk to a bullied teenage girl in a broken home the same way as we would a middle aged man whose wife just left him, but they aren’t that different after all. They’re all the same underneath; they just want someone to tell them to give life a second chance, and perhaps recommend a good therapist, but every now and then, one of them isn’t looking for anything of the sort, or anything at all. When everyone else is looking to be proven wrong, I think they’re looking to be proven right. They’re the ones who want to die. They don’t really believe we’re able to talk anyone away from the edge, but they have to see that for themselves. By the end of their call though, they often find the will to live, sometimes asking “How do you do this everyday?” Even they don’t understand how I can do this. I tell them I do it for them, but even that’s not entirely true. I just know if I were on that end of the conversation, I’d rather hear that lie than be told I’m nothing more than a voice on a phone, a single plea for help out of a sea of similar cries, for eventually they all start to sound the same. One might be a little raspier, one a soprano, another a bass, but I still have trouble distinguishing one from the other. It doesn’t matter what they tell me either, or if they tell me anything at all, I won’t remember their names an hour later. There was one in particular today who was nothing like the others. Some callers are simply looking for someone to listen, but not this one. He was quiet at first, and when he did speak it wasn’t anything like the self-deprecating monologues of most other callers. When I picked up the phone, it sounded as if there were no one on the other end. Seconds before I would have hung up, the voice of a man, young from the sound of it, asked, “Can you help me?” “That’s what I’m here for,” I replied. “What’s your name?” He sighed. “That’s not important…Has anyone ever told you you have a really unique voice?” “Um, no.” “I could recognize it instantly.” Slightly uneasy about the turn the conversation had taken, I asked, “So why did you call?” “Oh, I just felt like talking. Really? Why do you think I called?” Contemplating taking his own life and still sarcastic. “Would you like to talk about it?” With a chuckle or two, he said, “If I were any good at talking about any of this, I wouldn’t be calling you, now would I? So what’s your life like? Have a significant other? When was the last time you talked to your mother?” “This isn’t about me,” I redirected the conversation. “Let’s talk about you.” Another chuckle. “As you may have guessed, I’m not the biggest fan of me.” “And why not?” “That’s not important.”

Taking one of those deep breaths that’s supposed to be calming, I told him, “I can’t help you if you don’t let me know anything.” “Never mind,” he breathed. “I shouldn’t have called.” The words were getting fainter as the phone was being set down. “Don’t hang up just yet,” I pleaded, afraid I had let some of my frustration, no matter how mild, slip into my voice. “Yes?” as loud as ever. “If you called me, you must want help. Let me help you.” “No, I’m good thanks.” His voice was getting fainter again, but just as I was about to hang up, he suddenly said, phone back to his mouth, “What’s my name?” I was taken aback by the question. “You – you never told me.” “It’s Blake, and thanks for caring.” The hollow ring of the dial tone flooded my ears, only to be replaced by just another voice on the phone, and that’s how I continued for the rest of the day. I did nothing but that until four when Melissa showed up. Her clothing was as florid as her decorations. Though my eyes ached just looking at her, I was glad to see her arrive, for it meant I could go home. So after a bus ride and a block’s walk, here I stand, Mrs. Hutchins still unresponsive. I honestly think she’d rather have heard me say I worked with terminally ill children or cleaned road kill out of the streets. The only reply she offered was, “Does it pay well?” She should know the answer to that. My apartment, saturated with the stench of her clawed, little friends, isn’t exactly luxurious. “Well enough,” I respond. Closing my mail box, I bid her good day, and head back up to my apartment. See, I’m just like anyone else with a career, and I’ll go to bed tonight to repeat the same process tomorrow morning. The news buzzes, getting louder as I fail to find the off switch. Once silence ensues, I groggily rise for another day of pretending. I still forgot to buy milk, and my breakfast is somehow even more unpalatable than ever, yet I consume it at my usual comatose rate. There’s a stain on my collar and my hair refuses to comply with the laws of gravity, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just a voice on the phone after all. Mrs. Hutchins stands in the lobby. Her eyes flit to her feet as she folds her arms, crumpling the worn, pink fabric of her robe, trying her best to politely pretend she doesn’t notice me. I know what she must think. Perhaps it’s best she imagines I don’t exist as I pass her by. A cool breeze hits me as I step outside. Staring into the azure expanse of a cloudless sky, I say, “Lovely day, isn’t it?” When there’s no reply, I glance down at the empty steps below me. Reentering the building, I go up to Mrs. Hutchins. Still pretending I’m not there, her horn-rimmed glasses point to the floor. Removing her ability to ignore my existence, I ask, “Where’s the guy who lives in 2B? He’s always out on the steps.” Her eyes lift up to mine. “You didn’t hear the sirens last night?” “No.” It’s been a while since I last noticed sirens; they sound too much like phones. She shakes her head. “They found him dead on the floor. Took is own life, he did. I didn’t really know him though. Can’t even remember his name. Bernie? Brandon?”

“It was Blake.”