"Yes, this is Eduardo Caballo. Who is speaking?"
"My name is Claudia Meyers, sir. I'm calling from Atman Ames Recovery." Claudia usually tried, at first, to sound formal.
"Atman Recovery? I've never heard of you. I think you got the wrong Eduardo. You want my cousin who lives next door."
"Actually I'm looking for a Marshall Slotnick."
Eduardo lived above a botanica on 78th Street and Jackson Heights Boulevard, and although it was the middle of the day, he was not yet at work. She knew from his file that Eduardo worked as a dresser in the theater district, and she imagined walls of a three-room apartment, not unlike her own, covered with programs from Broadway shows, scraps of costumes, feathers, pictures of costumes, hats from several centuries and a variety of animal masks.
At the sound of the second syllable of his name, do-or, drawn out and pronounced almost like a drunk, Claudia knew she had a problem. Caballo had co-signed for credit cards with a Marshall Slotnick whose story, on her computer screen, was a small cyclone of debt. He hadn't paid his bills in months, and his phone had been disconnected. It wasn't that he owed a staggering amount of money. Claudia had seen worse, but he hadn't paid what he did owe on several accounts, and it added up to semi-staggering. To make matters worse, she couldn’t locate this Slotnick anywhere in North America. Caballo, his co-signer, was liable, and he was easy to find.
The company she worked for, Atman Ames Recovery, was a collection agency that settled accounts with customers who had fallen so far behind in payments that the banks sold their debts to agencies like AAR. Ten employees each worked from their own carrel, personalized with photographs from weddings, vacations, children, cartoons torn from papers or magazines, signs and magnets from Gettysburg, coffee cups from Yosemite National Park, from the Bronx Zoo, from Dunkin' Donuts, calendars from restaurants, from laundromats, balled up bags of chips, dishes of M & M's, but no ashtrays. The director of Atman Ames Recovery wanted the office to be a smoke free environment, though it was located above a dry cleaner whose fumes, on rainy days, infiltrated the office.
"Listen Mr. Caballo..."
"Yo, Ding Dong. It's Ka-Ba-Yo. Not Ca-bawl-oh. The accent is on the second syllable." Eduardo stirred a cold cafe con leche with his index finger then turned up the volume on the television with his remote control. Dishes lay in the sink. The souvenirs which meant so much to him hadn't been dusted in months. A television commercial competed with a recording of Celia Cruz. The Ding Dong irritated Claudia, but she let it go for the time being.
"Your partner owes a substantial amount of money." Claudia tried to maintain her get-tough voice. Over the telephone it was somewhat easier to keep up a fake persona of this kind. If she had to do the job in person, knocking on doors or standing in front of cars, she knew she would fail miserably. Even on the telephone she wasn’t very convincing. Leaning back in her chair, looking at a calendar for August featuring a picture of a Bollywood movie star that had been given to her at a nearby take-out joint, in Caballo she could smell a guy who got stuck holding the bag and would declare Chapter 11 before the end of the year.
"I can't hear you," he said.
"Mr. Caballo, as co-signer of several cards, you're responsible. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to reach Mr. Slotnick. Some of these credit card bills haven't been paid in nearly a year. The company I represent has been authorized to investigate and urge you to pay up. You might want to consider debt restructuring, otherwise your salary may be garnished."
He explained that he was very worried about his job which had its ups and downs.
“You know I'm doing Richard III, and all day I'm thinking: if the understudy has to go on, will I have time to lengthen the sleeve that's supposed to hide Richard's bum arm? Is that sleeve long enough to hide the understudy's longer arms? You see both actors are normal, but they have to appear like they have a deformed hand so the sleeves have to be altered. From the moment I get to work there's one crisis after another. Like the actors are all wearing pretty much modern clothes. Well, great, that's easier than Elizabethan shit you might think, but it isn't, no, not at all. You don't have to iron tights, farthingales, starched lace collars. You do all right in the ironing department if you're in the sixteenth century. Modern dress can be a nightmare. We've got tuxedos up to here in this production." He waved his hand a few inches above his head. "We got a thousand parts and accessories to keep track of. Richard has a rose in his lapel buttonhole when he meets Lady Northumberland, and then it's removed in the next act. The flower always gets lost, and I go crazy trying to find it for the following performance. My assistant doesn't iron so good. The show's designer is always changing her mind at the last minute. A total tyrant, you know what I’m saying? She sends her assistant to Fourteenth Street to Paterson Silks which went out of business when? 1983? But she thinks that piece of cloth might still exist somewhere, under a brick or something. Meanwhile we're all just standing around getting paid union rate to wait for her. Someday her assistant is going to take scissors to her while we all watch. It's one headache after another, believe me, and please explain to me why I got to pay Marshall’s debts.”
She let him keep talking. Someone walked by catching her examine her press-on nails, black palm trees against a coral and silver background. She was doing too much listening, not talking.
"Pay attention, girlfriend."
Claudia put her hand over the receiver, too late. Mr. Caballo had no doubt heard the warning and guessed he was dealing with one of the more spineless employees in a business that favored those who ate their young. Go work for the ASPCA rescuing puppies and sparrows if you can’t hack this, she’d been told. Because she was new at the job, the office constantly eavesdropped on her calling technique which frankly misfired half the time. Humiliation seemed always to be nipping at her heels and took new and unusual forms both in and out of the workplace.
In what was meant to be a vote of confidence Roger, who did technical support on a contract basis, had recently set her up with a cousin visiting from Miami. She usually turned down such offers, but since he was only in town for a week she agreed, thinking, how bad could it be for one night? The man arrived in a green vintage Chevy Impala, an impressive car he had borrowed from a friend. He introduced himself and was about to open the car door for her when he stopped for a moment to run a comb through his hair. As they drove to the restaurant, apartment houses and storefronts sped by, yet he continually checked at his watch as if he were timing something. Maybe, Claudia thought, he’s really on the way to the airport. People are always timing their trips to the airport.
“I’ve got to get a map,” he said, his arm brushing closer to her than was absolutely necessary, and she instinctively flattened her spine against the back seat of the car, not out of prudery but because he appeared so confident, so in control, it made her edgy. There was no map in the glove compartment. The silence between them was palpable, and Claudia, distracted, found herself humming Face the Music and Dance (Nat King Cole version) until she realized he was not humming along but mimicking her, and she stopped dead in her tracks, barely able to utter another word for the rest of the night. After an awkward dinner, as entirely expected, she never saw the man again.
"You know you're in danger of losing your remaining cards." When Claudia said this she felt like she was saying: you're in danger of losing your breakfast. The threatening tone was unsustainable for any length of time. With good reason she was known as the office pussycat, a total pushover. Whoever was on the other end of the line couldn’t help laughing into his sleeve at her feeble attempts at sounding tough. It was a problem. You had to sound aggressive for this job. You had to be a pro at being a pain in the ass and scaring the living daylights out of people.
Her first case had been the only really interesting one. Elaine Levy had put the production of her film on ten different credit cards. Small independent film directors often put the production of their films on as many cards as they could, maxing them out, hoping they would hit it big with the film, savor the fruits of success, and go on to make more big budget movies. Sometimes they were triumphant, but Elaine Levy who made a documentary about a nail salon in her neighborhood was not so lucky. Her film was built on a house of cards, and it had rather quickly gone kaputzsky. She told Claudia all about the film, about how she viewed the social structure of the nail salon through an anthropological lens, how the women who worked in the salon were exploited, how they breathed noxious fumes all day, how many salons were money laundering operations, but she couldn't prove it without risking her life. Claudia thought she sounded entirely convincing. Elaine had a temporary obstacle. She had run out of money for a Korean translator, and that meant her film couldn’t be subtitled, and would go nowhere. Claudia, as if she were a private foundation speaking on behalf of American Express and Master Card, was happy to turn her debt into a grant.
"I understand you're in a tough situation. I'll see what I can do."
Mr. Atman had nearly pulled her phone cord out of the jack. He attributed her harebrained idea to lack of experience, and turned the account over to the office pit bulls who felt no sympathy for Elaine Levy and her failed documentary.
"What?" Eduardo repeated, "I can't hear you."
"Why don't you turn down Celia Cruz?"
"Why don't you people go after real criminals?" Caballo's voice on the other end of the line suddenly changed, adopting a hostile, almost hysterical tone.
Claudia couldn’t get used to the people who screamed at her. If they were insulting, if their tirades went off the deep end, she was supposed to ignore them or make threats in return. Some people, like Mr. Caballo, told her about all kinds of personal problems: gambling addiction, sudden deaths, fathers who disappeared and never sent checks, as if she had the authority to suspend their debts or at least lay off the harassing calls. Don't be a sucker for dead beats, the others told her repeatedly.
"Is there a time when I could call back and speak to Mr. Slotnick directly?"
"Directly? Sweetie, Mr. Slotnick is dead as a doornail." Eduardo started to weep.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Why are you apologizing?’
Someone yelled at her from across the room, not to apologize, not to ever apologize. Rule #1. She hung up the phone, leaving the man at the other end still weeping, but partially relieved, he’d dodged Atman Ames for a day or so, though someone else would be back. Atman Ames Recovery was like a kind of coroner service. Bodies were human beings only in so far as the particulars of their lives helped solve the puzzles; i.e., procure payment. Until now Claudia hadn’t encountered an actually dead deadbeat. Most debtors were elusive, hard to locate. Many, when contacted, would say instinctively that no one by that name lived at the number she had just dialed. She developed some strategies for finding people. Checking off Caballo-Slotnick she dialed the next number on her list.
"Hello, I'm looking for a Mr. Ivan Fishmit."
A woman's voice informed her that Mr. Vischmidt was out of town. She could hear a man yelling in the background. Although she couldn't understand what he was saying, it sounded like he was giving the weepy, flustered woman instructions as to exactly what to recite. She kept turning away from the receiver and asking him questions before returning to Claudia.
"Well, is this Mrs. Vischmidt?"
"If you could please, will you tell Mr. Vischmidt that Claudia Meyers called. I'm with Atlantic Promotions, and if you could, convey to Mr. Vischmidt that his name has been selected from a random group of Brooklyn residents to win a new Ford Taurus. We will deliver the car—color of your choice—within a week. We would like to take a few photographs of Mr. Vischmidt and his family."
She evidently understood some of what Claudia had said because she yelled new car across the room. Ivan himself got on the phone. Claudia had already spent the commission she would receive from this call.
"Hello Mr. Vischmidt? Mr. Ivan Vischmidt? We've actually spoken before. I'm calling from Atman Ames Recovery."
Before Mr. Vischmidt could answer, Delia in the next cubicle screeched at her. Get off that line, immediately! What do you think you’re doing? Do you want to bring the State Attorney General’s office down here? Heads popped up from desks, phones dangled. There were threats that you couldn’t make good on, but made anyway. However, fake offers of riches in order to entice defaulters into talking to you were strictly forbidden. No deception. That was Rule #2.
Claudia hung up on Mr. Vischmidt, momentary dupe, who now knew there would be no Ford Taurus in the color of his choice delivered to his door. She switched to a program that would give her the credit history of the next person on her list, and pretended to be absorbed tracking the case on the computer so she would at least look extremely busy. The name of the new defaulter appeared: Josef Stalin. This had to be a mistake. The original Stalin would be well over one hundred years old if he were still alive, if he hadn’t died from ingesting rat poison in 1953. Even a double would be long dead. Why would anyone take that name? She had read of relatives of Hitler living in Long Island who had changed their name to Hiller or Hillman, something like that, but here on her computer screen blared the undisguised name in blue Arial, as well as his address, and telephone number. She tried to tell Delia in the next cubicle that someone had made a mistake, a person with that name couldn’t exist in this city, but Delia had never heard of Stalin. It was just a name. That’s the guy’s name. Call him already. She accused Claudia of dragging her feet, so she wouldn’t have to actually do any work, and in a split second had swiveled back to her phone, whispering gently into the receiver, you will lose your house, your car or cars, everything, pronouncing each word as sweetly and delicately as if she was predicting rain, take your umbrella, dearest. We will notify your employer, your neighbors, and your extended family. I have all their contact information right here in front of me, Delia added in a slightly more menacing whisper. She had been reciting the script for many years, and swatted fruit flies hovering over her lunch, or just stared at the ceiling while she delivered her lines. Claudia tapped Delia on the shoulder, interrupted the recitation, and explained Stalin probably didn’t speak English, to which Delia slammed her headset on the desk, and said that wasn’t her problem, just make the damned call. If they don’t speak English, fuckem.
So Claudia dialed. Mr. Stalin owed $38,000 at 29% apr, plus late fees, the amount owed was increasing rapidly. If he didn’t get on a payment plan, Mr. Stalin was going to be taken to court by the bank issuing the card. This was standard procedure. According to the bank, there had been no response to letters or electronic queries sent to email@example.com. So Claudia punched in the phone number, wondering what kind of message Stalin would have on his voicemail. Much to Claudia’s surprise, an old man answered after only two rings, and said, yes he was Mr. Josef Stalin. He sounded only barely conscious as if she had woken him from a long, deep sleep. As required, Claudia asked if he was prepared to make a payment before midnight. If so, the interest on his account would be frozen at its current rate. No bargain, but better than owing 380K before the end of the year. The old man coughed out a sentence that she interpreted as directing her to a passage in a southerly direction. In other words, the man on the other end of the line would pay nothing. Yet, he didn’t hang up.
“Atman Ames will contact your employer. I have the number right here.” Claudia shut her eyes and held her head in her free hand as she spoke, knowing that this threat was nonsense. According to agency script, it was one of the first statements she was supposed to make in order to encourage the delinquent to pay up without further fuss.
“Your house will be foreclosed.” This was not strictly true, and it was illegal to make this threat, but Atman Ames Recovery often used it anyway. Unless they were renters, in which case you threatened to contact their landlords, no one seemed to notice. Even so, the man who had escaped Siberia seven times, who commanded a vast network of spies, informants, torture masters, was not moved to say, ok then in that case I’ll do an electronic transfer of funds this very minute.
“I’ll contact your family and inform them of your situation.” Claudia tried out one of Delia’s tactics, and it usually worked well for her.
“If you find them, Madame, don’t call me,” the man known as the Father of Nations cackled. “You can keep the whole lousy rotten turncoat clan for all I care.”
Others in the office hovered nearby like vultures on their way to the coffee machine. Claudia broke out into a light sweat. Tell him you’re the ghost of Trotsky, someone said, tapping papers and stapling them with a definitive metallic punch.
“You can’t scare me!” He coughed, and Claudia knew this was true. She had no power over the man often billed as the Gardener of Human Happiness.
“Mr. Stalin, I can assure you, my company will sue you for this outstanding debt. You will be served papers. You will have to pay the agency’s legal costs. There will be no end of this for you. Financially speaking. To make this go away, you need to start paying back what you owe.”
“Now,” Delia prompted.
“Now,” Claudia echoed.
He coughed spat laughed. Was he lying on a narrow bed in a room smelling of cabbage and dill somewhere in Brighton? A room with a view of the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, maybe? These amusement park giants would make no sense to him. What did they do? What did they mean? To go up and down as fast as Coney Island technology would allow, screaming over artificially precipitous hills and plummeting valleys, to go round and round in a big useless circle at greater and greater speeds, the height of foolishness and distraction. Perhaps he would shrug off the funland view as another example of impenetrable Western folderol. Yet despite his consummate irritation and alienation, that seemed the most logical place for him to live, where in a few city blocks he would find Russian-speaking compatriots, maybe some who bore no grudges and even missed his radio addresses, his monuments, his relocation programs. Claudia looked closer at the screen. The address on it was unknown to her. She imagined him hidden in a garage in Dyker Heights, nestled behind the stored Christmas lights and lavish manger and saint displays that were only set up in late December. Head resting on a plastic virgin, feet up on a stoic sheep garlanded with fairy lights; that would be ok until it got cold, but he was used to frigid temperatures. That would be no deterrent. Or perhaps he lived in a Manhattan apartment in a blocky tower with a view of Central Park, or a housing project whose elevators smelled like urinals that would, when they worked at all, get stuck between floors for hours at a time. Chinese and pizza delivery boys bang on his door holding cooling plastic bags. He can’t understand a word anyone around him says, and small bags of soy and duck sauce are hardly something that would, for him, come under the category of food. Fortune cookies he crushes in his good fist.
If you bring this one in, you done for the day, Delia told her. Word come down, you got a big fish now, girlfriend.
“Mr. Stalin, how about settling your debts? This isn’t going to go away. You’ll feel better when it’s all behind you.”
No deception, no good news here, Delia reminded her. The man on the other end of the line made a noise that sounded like gargling. Tell me a story I can understand, Claudia pleaded. Tell me about nail salons that smell like paint thinner, a lost job, a tiger escaped from the Bronx Zoo roaming the streets in the vicinity of Morris Park Avenue, and that’s why you can’t pay, tell me about the Richard III’s sleeve— he had a bad arm, too, just like you, or unpaid medical bills, that’s one you hear all the time, house lost in a flood, burned down when an old iron was left on, nothing left but sitting on a curbstone talking into a cell phone to yours truly, or a man so desperate he’ll believe a stranger who calls out of the blue is really going to drive up in a new car just for him, another weeping at the death of a friend who seems to have left him suckered royally, but he misses the guy anyway, and he’s got nothing, or nothing much to speak of. Just as she thought he was going to answer, the line went dead. An ambulance went by outside, lights flashing, siren screaming. Hello? Hello? Claudia couldn’t hear anything. She re-dialed. All around her she could hear fragments of cajoling that soon reached a crescendo of threat administered in unmistakably acidic voices, and leaking through the dozen head sets was the sound of whines, cries, pleadings, wind taken out of already considerably depleted sails. Recovery Services flexed its muscle, omnipotent, able to wreck credit, destroy lives, crush small individual futures, by but virtue of her last call, Claudia was reminded that Recovery, its offices and all the people who worked within, it too, could be flattened, so that little more remained than a smudge of quickly evaporating ant parts, no higher than a short stack of molecules. It was a thought.
© Susan Daitch 2010
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