C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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End of the Line

End of the Line won 3rd place in The Toronto Star Annual Short Story Contest and was published in August 2008. For your entertainment, a tale of torture and redemption… 

            “You must listen very carefully,” she said.

            “Uh-huh,” I said as I flipped through her file. Every call from a collection agent is meant to accomplish two things: squeeze blood from coconuts and gather more information to squeeze more blood from coconuts. The rule is we can’t call more than once a week and we stick to that rule as long as we’re getting somewhere. We rotate agents so the deadbeats have to tell their sad stories to a new caller every time. Talking about outstanding debt over and over compounds the target’s humiliation. I wanted to be an actor but I’ve been paying my bills by talking to people who don’t pay their bills. My horror, shock and surprise at their failure to pay sounds equally fresh with each call so I guess I act for a living after all.

“You are not listening,” Dr. Papua said.

I tuned in. “Oh? Have you said anything that changes the fact that you owe $382.51?” Never say “about $380” or “about $400.” Always be specific about their debt. It squeezes.

“I do not owe it. I told your colleagues to send me a copy of the original receipt. All you sent me was a letter saying I owed the money but no proof, not even what the purchase was supposed to be. I could make a lot of money too if I just sent out random bills.”

 “It was a Taunton’s account.”

“Those stores have been out of business for years and you have no actual record. All you have is my name and the time to harass me.”

“You need to at least send us a goodwill payment to keep this from going to court and so I can help you keep your credit rating.” Always say “you need to” not “I need you to.” Everyone is terrified of being sued and paying a lawyer, especially for such a relatively small debt. A lawyer would charge her more per hour than it costs to pay me to go away. “We need to clear this up today.” Always say “today” not “soon.” “Soon” means never. “Today” means now.

“This fictional debt is almost ten years old. The statute of limitations on debt in Ontario is six years. You have no case.”

I let my heavy practiced sigh drop on her and gave her a moment of silence. Lay a pregnant pause on most people and they’ll rush to fill the empty space. The longer they stay on the line, the closer you are to getting the money. She didn’t take the bait though. “Even if you don’t have a legal obligation to pay your debt, you do have a moral obligation,” I say finally.

I heard—or felt—something change then. I don’t remember there being static on the line but she suddenly came through so clearly I fought the stupid urge to glance over my shoulder. It was as if she was standing over me.

“A moral obligation?” she said. “You have made a tactical error.”

I smiled. In a moment she would be screaming into the phone and telling me she’d get me fired. The screamers were the reason we didn’t use headsets. It’s quicker to hold a phone receiver away from your ear than to snatch off a headset. She would hang up and stew for a week and one of us would call her again. Soon she’d send us the money. In a moment I would be skipping on to my next call and the next and the next.

But she didn’t scream and my smile dropped away. “Now you need to listen to me very carefully. Listen to me as if your life depends on everything I say.” Her tone was cool and I noticed for the first time that her accent sounded vaguely European, but not Zsa Zsa identifiable. She pronounced words in a way that said she formed each one with great care, as if each had to be dealt out letter by letter, syllable by syllable in a Morse Code of spoken language. “Are you ready?”

I held the receiver away from my ear. I thought she was going to blow a whistle into the phone or something. An old collection agent told me the worst is getting hit through the phone with one of those air horns fans use at football games. It damages your hearing it’s so bad. Then I realized she really was waiting for me to tell her I was ready.


“No matter what happens in the next few minutes, you will not hang up.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“You are correct. You are not going anywhere in life, either.” She spoke slowly and clearly as if I was a dull child. “No matter what I say, you will not let go of the phone.” She hit the word “not” hard and I thought of the sharp blade of a shovel striking bone.

My hand tightened around the receiver. I shoved the handset to the side of my head, squashing my ear. I took a sharp breath in but she headed me off. “You will not interrupt me and you will not yell or ask anyone for help. Do you understand?”

“Sure,” I tried to sound casual but didn’t make it. “Where is this going? This doesn’t help you solve your problem.”

“Your feet and legs cannot move.”

 I almost laughed at her but all I had was a gasp. Somebody tells you your legs don’t work and without even thinking about it you move your legs to show them they are ridiculous. My feet were cemented to the floor. I couldn’t even wiggle my legs the least bit sideways.

My head suddenly felt hot. I could hear the buzz of the other call center workers but I couldn’t see anyone without shoving my chair way back. I craned for a glimpse of my shift supervisor stalking by. No one.

“You will not try to get anyone’s attention or assistance, Mr. Gayed.” Had I told her my last name? No, I never tell the deadbeats my real last name. She was worming into my brain. “You will answer my questions truthfully and without obfuscation. For your benefit you will comply.”

“Yes,” I said. What did she mean, for my benefit?

“You don’t care for people very much, do you?” she said.

“No.” I said, a little surprised.

“That is unfortunate. There is an axiom. If everyone you meet is an idiot, it is you!” Her laughter was glass breaking.

 “I don’t have to take this,” I said.

“Yes, you do. You want to hang up, I forbid it. You want to move your legs but the nerves and muscles aren’t speaking with each other right now. You want to call out, but I forbid it.”

All she said was true. I was surrounded by people making their calls but there was no one to rip the thin gray wire out of the wall and free me. “You witch you—!“

“I do not approve of name-calling, Mr. Gayed.”

“Why not just ‘forbid’ me? You’re deeply into that. I notice you never use contractions. Does that make you feel like you’re a higher class of deadbeat?”

“Mr. Gayed. You sound articulate and functionally intelligent. I have already paralyzed your feet and legs. I wonder why you think it would be difficult for me to shut down your diaphragm?” My jaw moved more but no sound came out. My hand cramped around the receiver.

She made a tsk sound of impatience. “Stop breathing.”

With my free hand I grabbed at my throat. Useless. I looked down and saw that my torso was not rising and falling. The realization seemed to ignite fire in my lungs. I looked at my desk clock and watched the second hand sweep around half the face. I had not taken a deep breath before my breathing stopped and the air hunger was beyond a burning need. Need is not a big enough word. Black spots appeared at the edge of my vision and then they began to grow larger. Would the paramedics be able to move me when they arrived? Would firefighters have to saw me off at the ankles? Would they take my body to the morgue and leave my feet in my shoes forever glued to the Berber carpet? I pitched forward from the waist and my head slammed into the desk.

“Start breathing,” she said.

My first gasp was a great heave and it was several minutes before my breathing slowed. The bridge of my nose was bloody. It stung like bees. I decided not to call Dr. Papua any more names. The air tasted cold and sweet.

“Please let me hang up. I won’t bother you again.”

“I am fascinated with the workings of the body. When I studied anatomy I was awed by its complexity. I thought its design was proof that there is a god.”

Please don’t do anything.”

“Then I studied pathology. When you see all that can go wrong with this incredible organic machine it makes one think there must surely be a devil. Do you know what the Circle of Willis is?”


“It is a little circle of blood vessels at the top of your brain. It is a very common site for strokes…your heart is starting to pound much faster now.”

I could feel the gallop in my chest instantly and I was breathing harder.

“The hand that is not holding the phone to your ear is going numb.”

It was. “I’m just doing my job. Look, I’m sorry!”

 “Your job compounds misery. You harass people. How many files do you have on your desk which are dead cases like mine?”

“I-I’m sorry…what do you mean by dead cases?”

“Those which are more than six years old.”

“I have all the old Taunton’s files.”

 “Ah, yes, of course. You are the ‘go to guy’ of the office, are you not?” She used  the expression as if the words had a strange taste.

“Yes.” The numb feeling was creeping up my forearm. I gave it a tentative whack on the edge of the desk. It felt like my arm was asleep, only the near border of emptiness was crawling up my arm toward my shoulder.

“A stroke can be terribly disabling and disfiguring. It can twist one side of your face or just kill you.” I wet my pants then, not in a spasmodic squirt I could try to hold back but a long hot coursing stream down my immobile legs. “If you were to live but could not take care of yourself, who would help you?”

The numbness was still spreading and tears began to slide down my cheeks. “My mother would help.”

There was a long terrible pause. The minute hand swept around twice before she spoke again. I couldn’t hear her breath or any ambient sounds. It was as if her end of the line was in some underground space lined with cotton. I couldn’t feel the right side of my face. “Hello?”

 “Are you a disappointment to your mother?”

 “Of course I am, Dr. Papua. No kid wants to grow up to be a bill collector. No parent dreams that.”

“So, you are disappointed in yourself, as well?”

“You know you are a sadist, right?”

Her laughter trilled again and a chill went through me that started with the cooling urine down my legs and crawled with spidery feet up my spine. Spine-tingling is not an empty cliché. It’s real. I know that now.

“You dare to offend me. You still have some dignity. You may be redeemable.”

A little flame of hope sparked that she would, just and finally, let me go. Dr. Papua was quick to douse my little fire. “I let your predecessors live. That strategy does not seem to be enough to stop these calls from your firm. You know I can do more than simply stop your heart. I could instruct you to put a baby in an oven and broil it for your dinner if I was so inclined. If you fail me, you fail yourself. The world is full of phones.”

“Y-yes.” I would have grimaced but my face wasn’t under my control anymore. Were straining blood vessels in my brain about to burst? Had they already? She talked and all I could do was make urgent agreeing sounds from deep in my throat. When she was done she told me to close my eyes and count backwards from ten. I did so, though from ten to five I couldn’t speak and the numbers were only in my head like the opening of an eight millimeter film counting down. At one the line went dead. No click. No dial tone.

I lurched backwards and yanked the phone away from my burning ear. A long vowel sound burst from me as I shot out of the chair. People were suddenly all around me asking questions and telling me to sit down but it was all a meaningless buzz. I swept up the files and hugged them as I strode to the door.

Engells, my supervisor, appeared in front of me. At first he was perplexed and then he tried to hold me back and grab the files. I pushed him away. He leapt at me and I pushed him down. I had to get out. As the door closed behind me I glanced back to see Engells still on the floor staring after me with bug eyes.

I burned Dr. Papua’s file in a steel drum behind my apartment building. Then I burned the rest of the files. I watched the paper curl in the heat and turn to ashes. My cell phone went in next. I stood back from the drum and watched. I don’t know for how long. The cell phone battery exploded with a tinny bang which woke me to the night and the cold that was gathering its strength around me. “It’s time to come in out of the dark,” I said aloud to no one. I climbed the stairs to my apartment, feeling lighter with each step. Tomorrow I would begin again, I decided. I’d get my acting career going. This time for sure.

After I ripped it off the kitchen wall, I shattered the phone on the floor. I kept kicking until all the phone’s components skittered across the linoleum in small jagged pieces. I put on clean pants, sat on the couch and listened to my heartbeat. The pounding in my temples finally began to slow. I took a deep breath and the air was new. A hot tear slipped down my cheek. I was so grateful for my breath, as if I had finally surfaced after being underwater a long, long time.

I am still grateful. Dr. Circe Papua, wherever you are, thank you.

Robert Chute is a freelance writer, editor and existential horrorist with a background in newspapers and book publishing. End of the Line is from his short story collection Despair is a Vowel Sound. Copyright © Robert Chute, 2008. All rights reserved.

Filed under: My fiction, short stories, , , ,

One Response

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lorina Stephens, Robert Chute. Robert Chute said: My short story called End of the Line won 3rd place in the Toronto Star contest. Read it at http://bit.ly/9niHTn. Enjoy! […]

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