We were talking about dead bodies at work the other day, if we’d even seen one, and I said the only dead bodies I’d ever seen had been at open casket funerals but then I remembered that wasn’t true. I have seen a dead body. It was ten years ago, outside the life insurance agency where I was working a summer job as a telemarketer. This was the summer between high school and college, 2005. My friend Aaron got me the job, or maybe it was Ben. The three of us worked there together, at a folding table they set up for us in the hallway. We wore telephone headsets and button-up shirts. We made 120 calls a day. When people answered the phone we tried to sell them life insurance but it didn’t matter to us whether they bought it or not. We were paid by the hour and by the call.
Our first day on the job, the owner of the company sat us down in a conference room and explained what we were selling, something called universal life insurance, the details of which I have completely forgotten now and even back then I don’t think I really understood. I remember when he was done explaining it I thought it sounded great and that people would be crazy not to want it. This policy practically sells itself, he said, now let’s get you boys on the phones. Without thinking about it we had become active members in the industry of death, a complicated series of transactions that happens when a person dies.
Those first calls were terrible. We were unconfident, not used to the sound of our own voices on the phone, not used to the words we were supposed to be saying. We read our scripts flatly, without any inflection. Most people hung up but some people got angry. They told us to take them off our list and we scratched their names out of our three ring binders. After a few days the script became more natural. We changed words to make it our own. We improvised. We leaned back in our office chairs, put our hands behind our heads, and waited for people to answer their phones. By the end of the week people were asking us for more information. They were interested. I’d love to get you on the phone with one our vice presidents, we would say, and then we would write the person’s name and phone number down on a sticky note and hand it to Jessica, the receptionist, who would pass the lead off to a salesman. After a few hours of phone calls we took a break in the break room and drank coffee mixed with Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
Everyone in the company was in their fifties and sixties except Jessica who couldn’t have been older than twenty five. She came to work in sundresses and her lips were always wet. She had a strong jawline and wasn’t pretty exactly except that I was in love with her. Her desk was near the front window and the sunlight made her skin glow.
The owner of the company was sixty-three. His office door was made of thick, dark-stained wood and it was always closed. He was friendly but he scared me. His eyes were bright white and his face was clean-shaven. He wore three piece suits and pocket watches. Sometimes when Jessica came out of his office she was adjusting her skirt.
Sleeping with boss, Aaron said. We were eating lunch at the McDonalds down the street from the office. No way, I said. Oh yeah, he said. Believe it. We were eating from the Dollar Menu because we were only making minimum wage. It was hot that summer and at lunch we untucked our shirts. Ben was eating a side salad. Burgers made him feel sick he said. Well, look at the working stiff, I said, and Ben told me to shut up.
There was a creek behind our office and sometimes me and Aaron and Ben would roll up our pant legs and go hiking back there. I thought it was strange that something so wild could edge right up to something so tame. There was no transition at all. We stepped from our office into the forest. One day we found pieces of an animal scattered in a circle. Maybe it was a rabbit. It hadn’t been eaten, it had been torn apart. We walked back to the office and my mouth tasted like tin foil.
Our second month at the insurance agency, Jan, one of the salespeople, had a heart attack. She slumped over at her desk with her phone in her hand. We could hear the dial tone from the hallway. When the ambulance took her away the owner put his hand on my shoulder and said be thankful you’re so young. Jan came back to work a few weeks later but she looked ten years older and a couple inches shorter.
I saw the dead body my third month at the insurance agency. It must have been in August. He’d killed himself in the parking lot, in the front seat of his car. He lit a camping stove in the passenger seat and it sucked all the oxygen out of the air. The fire truck came first and then the ambulance. We were standing in front of our building and I remember the concrete was hot. I remember feeling the heat through my shoes. My mouth tasted like tin foil again. A paramedic pulled the man from his car and laid his body on the ground. He was wearing a suit and his shoes were untied. The ambulance and fire trucks’ lights were flashing but there wasn’t any sound. A fireman was stomping out the camping stove coals with his boot. Jessica was crying and I wanted to put my arm around her but I didn’t know how so I just watched her cry until the owner told us all to get back to work. When we got back inside I called my dad. I told him I’d just seen a dead body and he asked if I was OK. I said yeah I was OK. I said I was fine. I’d thought seeing a dead body would be something but it wasn’t. It was nothing. Death was nothing.
We kept selling life insurance for another three weeks until school started. Me and Aaron had enrolled at the local community college and Ben had gotten into Dallas Baptist University as a business major. On our last day the owner gave us each a $400 bonus. He said we’d done a good job and that we were welcome back anytime, which didn’t turn out to be true. In the three months we’d been there we’d called every number in the binders and there was nothing left for us to do. Nothing else we were capable of doing. We’d eaten other people’s food out of the freezer and drunk all their coffee. No one was sad to see us go.
The owner was in his office when we left. His door was closed and Jessica wasn’t at her desk. I didn’t feel happy or sad or relieved or nostalgic. I didn’t feel anything, which is the same way I’ve felt about every job I’ve had since. The air in my car was hot and thick. I could barely breathe it in.
Telephone photo by Holger Elgaard, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Push-button_telephones#mediaviewer/File:Dialog_knappar.jpg via Wikimedia Commons