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“You don’t have to be any good at it” – This is Not a Sales Call – Hopeless Paperwork –

“You don’t have to be any good at it,” says Jo, punching the fourth floor button. A dusting of powdered sugar is left behind. “Hell, you don’t even have to try. You just have to make do for a week or so.” She stoops and plucks another donut from one of the plastic sacks of groceries at her feet.

“You want me,” says Ysabel, “to work. For money.” One hand hangs by a thumb from a beltloop on her plum jeans. The other holds a bottle of peach tea.

“You said yourself it wasn’t work. It’s just talking to people on the phone.”

“You want me. To exchange my time – hours out of my day – for money.”

The elevator dings. The doors slide open. “Well, yeah,” says Jo, hauling up a sack of groceries in either fist. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

Ysabel rolls her eyes.

“Look,” says Jo, leading the way down the beige and burnt-orange hall. “See these groceries? That tea? If I don’t go in and get my paycheck so I can cover the check I wrote for this shit, well, that’s the sort of thing they take away your bank account for. If you don’t have a bank account, you don’t get to keep the apartment.” At the end of the hall, Jo sets the groceries on the floor by a door and fishes in the cavernous pocket of her workpants for her keys. “And I tend to get cranky when I don’t have an apartment. So. Since I have to go in anyway, and you have to go with me, well, Becker can’t exactly kick you out if you work there.”

“Why don’t you call out sick again?” says Ysabel.

“You didn’t listen to a thing I just said, did you,” says Jo, unlocking the door.

“As little as possible,” says Ysabel.

Jo blinks. “What the fuck?”

The window on the far wall of the apartment is framed by floor-length burgundy drapes. A gauzy shade filters the sunlight into something soft and cool. By the futon, neatly made and piled with a crazy quilt of patterned pillows, a glass-topped café table stands between two spindly wrought-iron chairs. A bulky blond wood armoire takes up the corner behind it, and a contraption of thin metal tubing hanging from one side racks a couple dozen pairs of shoes. The sink in the little hallway kitchen gleams mirror-bright, with only a single glass in it. A bit of milk rings the bottom.

“What the,” says Jo. Looking at the number on the door. Looking into the apartment again.

“You like it?” says Ysabel, sliding past her. “I had someone in to clean the place while we were out.”

“You had someone,” says Jo, hefting the groceries up onto the spotless kitchen counter. “You,” she says again, stepping into the main space of the apartment. “I,” she says, looking at the expansively shaggy bouquet spreading across the table, the thick, stubby candles burning before it. “You,” she says. Shakes her head. “Where the fuck is my stuff?”

“Black cumin,” murmurs Ysabel, stroking some ghostly blue flowers frothing the top of the bouquet. “I’m sorry?” She turns, looks about the room. Points. At the foot of the futon are three or four blond wood crates filled with neatly folded clothing.

“You,” Jo’s saying. “I mean. I. You.”

“You don’t mind, do you?” says Ysabel, opening the armoire, running one hand along the shirts and tops and dresses and jackets and skirts hung within. “It’s just while I’m staying here. Do you think you could make do? For a week or so?”

Jo’s wrinkling her nose. “Smells like fucking Pine-Sol,” she mutters.

It’s a small, windowless room, not much bigger than the round table in the middle of it. Ysabel sits in one corner, staring up at a white board that says WinBank 4.3 an hour How to Improve? A small stack of typescript stapled in one corner on the table before her. Her hair’s pulled back in a thick ponytail high on the back of her head. She’s wearing a light turtleneck sweater in some nameless natural color.

The door pops open and a head peers around the frame. “Um, hey,” it says from behind a curtain of black hair. “Becker said I should come in here and, uh, run you through the script – ”

“Hello, Guthrie,” says Ysabel.

“Um,” says Guthrie, looking up at her. His eyes are ringed with black mascara. “Hi.” He’s wearing a black T-shirt that says Snarky Kite. “So I’m supposed to run you through the WinBank script,” he says, stepping into the room, closing the door. “Um. They call this the Little Conference Room, which I think is some kind of joke, since the other conference room isn’t any bigger.”

“That isn’t part of the script,” says Ysabel.

“Um, no. It isn’t. I guess you’ve already read the background memo?” Guthrie pulls out a chair and sits down.

“When you said that you might remember more than I’d thought, what did you mean?” Ysabel leans her elbows on the table.

“That, uh, isn’t in the script, either,” says Guthrie.

“Humor me.”

He smiles, his eyes jerking away from her. “Um,” he says. “I just mean, well. Becker doesn’t remember how that guy fought Jo with a sword. And, uh. I do.”

“And you think you weren’t supposed to remember this?”

“I don’t know,” says Guthrie.

“Guthrie,” says Ysabel. “Look at me.” His smile has tensed into a grimace that’s crawled up under his nose. “I don’t have any secrets here, all right?” His eyes slide away from her. “I’m not hiding anything. I know Jo said there was an evil boyfriend, and there isn’t, but that was her idea. Okay? I don’t know why she said it. Okay? I’m a lousy liar, Guthrie. Guthrie. Look at me.” He does, now, unsmiling. “It really doesn’t matter if you remember the duel or not, okay? Got that?”

Guthrie nods. “Can we just, you know. Do the script?”

Ysabel shrugs. “Sure.”

“I’ll be the respondent,” says Guthrie, “and you do the survey, okay? Just start from the top.”

Ysabel holds her hands out in front of herself there on the table and traces a vague box shape in the air. She mimes plucking something and lifts it, an imaginary telephone handset, to her ear. She stabs the air with her finger where she’s shaped out the vague box, six, seven times.

“What are you,” says Guthrie. “What are you doing?”

“Calling you,” says Ysabel. “I need to call you on the phone, right?”

“Yes,” says Guthrie, “but, I mean, there’s no need to, to pretend all this, we could just – ”

“Your phone’s ringing,” says Ysabel, pointing to the space on the table before him.

Blinking, frowning a little, Guthrie mimes picking up a telephone handset. Silvery rings glitter on his fingers. “Hello?” he says.

“Good evening, sir,” says Ysabel. “My name is Ysabel Perry, and I’m calling on behalf of Barshefsky Associates. This isn’t a sales call. We’re an independent market research firm located in Portland, Oregon, and we’re conducting a brief survey. Am I speaking with the person who makes most of the financial decisions for your household?”

“Ah, yes,” says Guthrie.

“Would you say that you make all of the financial decisions, at least half of the financial decisions, less than half of the financial decisions, or none of the financial decisions for your household? That’s redundant,” says Ysabel.

“I, what?”

“That’s redundant. You already said you made most of those whatever decisions. So I shouldn’t ask if you make less than half, or none.”

“That’s, ah,” says Guthrie, holding up his hand, then pointing to the script, “that’s how it’s written.”

“It’s written badly,” says Ysabel. “I shouldn’t ask you a question you’ve already answered. It makes me look stupid.”

“Yeah, but,” says Guthrie, pointing to the script again. “Look, you have to ask each question as it’s written. It has to be the same, every time you do the survey or anybody else does. Otherwise, I mean, you’re going to get different answers than somebody who’s sticking to the script like you’re supposed to.”

“Isn’t that the point?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I mean, if you wanted to get the same answers every time, you could just figure out what those are supposed to be and write them down and save the rest of us a lot of time and trouble.”

Guthrie closes his eyes. “Just read the script. The way it’s written. Okay?”

“The whole thing,” says Ysabel.

“Yes,” says Guthrie.

“Because there’s some grammatical errors in here, you know.”

“Just,” says Guthrie. “Read it. What’s the next question?”

Ysabel flips over the first page of the script. “I’m going to read you a list of financial products and services. For each one, please tell me whether you or someone in your household has that product or service. And I have a question here.”

“What,” says Guthrie, who hasn’t opened his eyes.

“What on earth is a ‘financial product’?”

“I, uh,” says Guthrie. The door pops open and Becker sticks his head in. “How’s it going in here? You going through the script?”

“Ah,” says Guthrie. “Yes,” says Ysabel.

“Good,” says Becker. “Ten more minutes, and then you’ll go live, okay, Ysabel?”

“Okay,” she says.

“Um,” says Guthrie.

Becker pulls the door closed and heads down the narrow hall and around a corner into the phone room, full of chatter and grey late-afternoon light. He’s got a new manila folder in one hand and he’s wearing a bulky plaid flannel shirt. Jo’s sitting midway down one side of the U of carrels. The black tufts in her hair stick up around the band of her telephone headset. She leans into her carrel, one hand up holding the mike closer to her mouth. “Well, sir,” she’s saying, “I don’t – Well. We made the appointment with your wife – Yessir – Well, she said – Sir, I don’t believe you. Just what I said, I don’t believe you. Nobody makes all of the financial decisions in this day and age. Well, your wife seemed to think – Sir, you shouldn’t say – Well, fuck you too.” She yanks the headset off and drops it by her computer monitor.

Becker kneels down by her chair. “Hey,” he says.

Jo jumps. “Jesus,” she says. “Hey. He already hung up before I started swearing. Okay?”

“I figured,” says Becker. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about something else.”

In Tartt’s little office, with its poster on the door exhorting them to shoot for the moon, Becker holds up the manila folder. “I shouldn’t be showing this to you, but I’m thinking you can help me with Ysabel.”

“Yeah?” says Jo.

“Well, the paperwork for her I-9 is hopeless.” He spreads the folder open on top of a couple of relatively level stacks of paper on Tartt’s desk.

“Hopeless?” says Jo.

“She doesn’t have any of it,” says Becker. “No driver’s license. No passport. No Social Security card. No birth certificate. No voter’s registration card or school ID. She says she was born in the US, but she’s got nothing to prove it. She wanted to know why her word wasn’t good enough.”

Jo chuckles.

“Look, it’s not that funny. If we can’t get this filled out, we can’t pay her. Okay? And if we could, well,” he flips over the larger form and pulls out a small half-sheet, “I’m not sure what the hell to make of what she put on her W-4.”

Jo leans forward to peer at the form and says, “Oh, God.” She claps her hand to her mouth.

“What?” says Becker.

“I had no idea,” says Jo, stifling a giggle, “that that’s how she spells ‘Ysabel’.”

It’s a round room on the third floor of a tower, and it’s empty except for a big three-way mirror and several cardboard boxes of clothes and more clothing strewn across the floor here and there and the woman who’s standing in the middle of it all, wearing a pair of white boyshorts and lifting her mass of pale gold curls up into a pile the color of clotted cream on top of her head. The radio at her feet is muttering something sprightly and bossa–nova-ish. To be all she wants, it’s singing, I cannot do. All the things it would take, just to pull it through.

She stoops and pulls a soft, baby-blue hooded jacket out of one of the boxes. She wrestles one arm and then the other into the long tight sleeves, lined with red piping, that flare suddenly at the cuffs, swallowing the heels of her hands. She has far too high expectations, sings the radio, she thinks she deserves all she can get. What she wants from me is something I cannot be. The hem of the jacket hits just above her navel. She works the one end of the zipper into the other and tugs it up to her throat, then pulls it down, to just about halfway between her breasts. Tilts her head, swings herself to one side, then the other, examining herself in the mirror. Pouts thoughtfully. Tugs the zipper down a little more.

“Hot date?” says the man leaning in the doorway.

She jumps a little. “Don’t scare me like that,” she says to him in the mirror. He’s wearing a blushing salmon shirt, and his pale, pale hair hangs in tangled dreadlocks down past his shoulders. She squats by the cardboard box and rummages through it. “And no, brother dear. I’m just doing a favor for a friend.” She pulls out a long athletic skirt in matching baby blue and red. Sitting on the floor, she pulls the skirt over her feet, then her knees, then works herself back up off the floor to yank it up her thighs and over her hips.

“Hey,” says the man leaning in the doorway. “Let me help you with that.” He steps behind her, helping her settle the skirt into place, low on her hips. Tugs the zipper up in back. “And would this friend be Roland?” he murmurs, in her ear. “And is this favor what I think it is?”

She reaches up and taps his nose lightly with a fingertip. “I told you,” she says. “It isn’t a hot date.”

“Well,” he says, stepping back. “You look fantastic.”

“Naturally,” she says, sitting by another cardboard box.

“Be sure to tell your cool date that your brother’s jealous,” he says, stepping back out of the room.

“Oh, I’ll be sure to,” she says, absently. Pulling out a pair of rose-colored running shoes. Frowning. Reaching back in for a pair of light blue jellied sandals.

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All I can do” written by Johan Angergård, ©1998.