Friday, March 22, 2019

The Nests of Birds of Paradise by Bailey Bridgewater

Lynn works for an answering service and starts getting regular calls from a vulnerable psychiatric patient, in Bailey Bridgewater's moving story.

"Watkins and Kinny Psychological Services. How can I help you?"

There was flat silence on the other end before a wavering man's voice cut it. "Is this the answering service?"

"Yes it is." The handbook clearly stated that we should never tell people we were a call center representative unless they asked directly - then we couldn't lie.

"Thank you for telling the truth." Another silence.

"Can I help you with something?"

A muffled thumping like he was playing with the receiver of an old wall-mounted telephone. I pictured this person wrapping the curly cord around his fingers as he hesitated.

"I don't know. Maybe. No. I don't... There's another girl that used to talk to me sometimes. Her name was Sharon. Does she still work there?"

I was surprised. We rarely had occasion to give out our names, and a lot of my female coworkers gave fake names to the psych callers, just in case. Sharon had always been especially careful about not using her real name, even with clients of the veterinarians and morticians we answered phones for after hours.

"No, I'm afraid not. Maybe I can help you though?"

His voice trembled as he replied. "Oh my. She's gone? She didn't tell me that. I didn't know. I hope everything is ok..."

"Oh yes she's ok. She just took another job."

"Oh. Oh. Ok. She didn't tell me..."

I waited, lights blinking on my screen as calls popped up and were redistributed to other stations. The goal was usually to get through as many as we could as efficiently as possible, but the psychs always threw that off. And the morticians; they liked shooting the shit and telling morbid jokes when we relayed body pick-ups to them.

His voice sounded far away now, like he was holding the phone at arm's length and talking into it from there. "Well, let's try maybe with you helping. Ok? Is that ok?"

"Ok. What can I help you with?"

"I have... I need to make a decision."

"Ok. Just keep in mind that I'm not a psychologist..."

"Oh no I know. It's not... it's not an important decision. My doctor would say it's a small decision. I... Ok. So I have... he says I have a condition where I have trouble making decisions. He's right. He's right. I don't mean to sound like he's not. I can't make little decisions that other people make all the time. Normally someone is here to help me, but she's off a couple nights a week and I need to make a decision."

My heart beat slightly faster in my chest. I was being asked to help a stranger make a decision, and I didn't know what it was going to be. He might have a problem that I wasn't qualified to help with. What if I helped him decide the wrong thing? Should I even attempt to help, or should I put a message through to the doctor on call?

"I'll do my best if it's a decision I think I can help you with."

"Oh good. Good. Ok. I'm at the vending machine because I need a drink." His voice sounded like the delicate sugar flowers my grandmother made to top wedding cakes. Like he might melt or crumble unless conditions were just right. "I don't know what drink to get though."

I exhaled, relieved. That was it? That was the decision? He seemed to read my thoughts because he stumbled over his words in his hurry to explain.

"I know it sounds stupid, but trying to pick... it makes me anxious. My heart starts going too fast and I get sweaty and... I know it's not rational. I know. I know. I just can't..."

"Oh no it's ok. I was just worried that it would be something I couldn't help with, but I can try to help you pick a drink."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes I think so. We'll do our best at least."

"Ok."

"Well let's start with the options. What do we have?"

"Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Diet Pepsi, Fanta, Coke, Diet Coke. Also there is a button for Water but there's a sign taped over it that says there is no more water. That's ok. There's a water fountain."

"Oh good. That's a lot of choices. Are there any of those drinks that you know you don't like?"

His voice was steadier this time. "It IS a lot of choices! I think it's too many. And I know I don't like that orange drink, the Fanta. I got it once. It was a mistake. It was... I couldn't open it." His words came more rapidly as he continued, and louder. "I mean I did open it later, but it smelled... I couldn't drink it." His voice started to tremble like a woman singing a sad aria in the opera. "That was a mistake because I picked the thing I shouldn't have picked..."

"But now you know you don't like Fanta, so you know not to pick that."

Silence. "That's true. That's true..." I could tell he was contemplating the machine. I pictured the hallway. Where was he? An apartment building? A hospital of some sort? I pictured it as white with the generic carpet of cheap hotel rooms, some vague landscapes on the walls.

"I think... I think I don't want the Sprite today. And I don't like the Diet sodas. They taste... they taste like when you've smoked pot. Like it's just a little too different. I can't... I don't like it."

I accidentally laughed without covering my microphone. A friend had recently given me a brownie and I'd gotten pissed off that time was, as I told her, 'being dicked with'. My friends thought it was hilarious, but I hated it.

His voice was almost a whisper. "Did you..." I heard him swallow "laugh at me?" He sounded ready to cry.

"No no no. I'm sorry. You said something about pot that I thought was funny because I feel the same way." I could feel my supervisor's eyes suddenly on the side of my head. I turned to her, drawing my lips back into a "sorry but I swear it's not what you're thinking" half-smile. She raised an eyebrow curiously. A second later there was a dull click on the line and a light flashed. She'd tuned in.

"Oh. Ok. Did you make that click noise?"

"Yes it was just my phone." I was eager to get back to the situation so my supervisor would get it and move on. "So you don't like Fanta, and you don't want a Sprite. You don't like the diet sodas, so the choices left are Coke, Pepsi... there was another one right?"

"Dr. Pepper."

"Well that's a more reasonable number to choose from, don't you think?"

"I guess it is."

"Do you like all three of those drinks?"

"Yes they are all ok drinks. But I don't know which is the best drink for today."

"Well if you like all of them, are any of them bad choices?"

"No... maybe... yes one of them could be. I could get one and then regret it and wish I had gotten another one."

"If that happened could you go back and get another and save the first one for later?"

"No! Oh no. No, no. I only get one. I only ever get one." His voice mounted in agitation as he spoke and I could hear his breath coming in short, quick gasps.

"Ok. Just one then. What drink did you get last time?"

"Last time I got Dr. Pepper."

"How did you feel about it?"

"It was good. I enjoyed it. It was the right decision. But I remember thinking... it was a special day for that drink. It... maybe Dr. Pepper is too much for a regular day.

"Is today a regular day?"

"Yes. I think so."

"Then Coke or Pepsi."

"Yes. Ok. You're right. Coke or Pepsi."

"Do you like one better than the other?"

He pondered this for a long time. "It depends on how much sweetness I need. I think..." I could hear shuffling, like he was doing an awkward dance in front of the machine. "I think I'll get Pepsi today."

"Excellent!"

"Do you think that's the good choice?"

"I do. I'm glad you picked the Pepsi."

"Well thank you!" I could hear the smile in his voice, as if I'd offered him a prize. "I'm going to put in my money and get the Pepsi now." True to his word, I heard the clank of coins disappearing into the machine. I held my breath that the Pepsi wasn't out. Soon there was the hollow thud of the can hitting the bottom. For some reason it always reminded me of giraffes giving birth, the way they fall from such a height.

"Do you have your Pepsi?"

"I have my Pepsi! Ok. I'm going to go drink it, but I don't need you to stay on the phone anymore. You were very helpful though. Can I talk to you the next time I call and it's the answering service?"

"Sure. My name is Lynn."

A heavy pause. "Ok Lynn. You have a good night!" I liked the way he placed the emphasis on "you", as if he wasn't just saying it as a formality. He really meant it.

"You too. Enjoy the Pepsi!"

"I'm sure I will." And the line cut off.

My supervisor, across the room and standing so as to overlook the stations, pulled her lips into an exaggerated frown and nodded her head up and down - she was impressed. I smiled and picked up the next call.



He called again a few days later. I heard the new guy next to me answer, "Watkins and Kinny Psychological Services," then pause. Next it was, "Please hold." Newbies are so formal. He pressed a button and leaned over to me. "Someone is requesting you."

"It's alright. You remember how to transfer it?"

"Yeah I think so."

The call popped up on my screen and I answered it.

"Oh it's you! Good. It's Lynn?"

"That's right. Hello again!"

His voice sounded shattered today, as if he'd already been crying.

"How are you today?" I ventured, dipping my toe in gently.

"Not good. Not good. It's been a not good day. I had some hard decisions I had to make. I talked to Dr. Kinny first, but they were still hard."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Did you make the decisions in the end?"

"Yes. I made them like we talked about. We talked a lot beforehand. It was helpful. I made them but it's hard to trust that they'll be right, you know?"

"Yeah. That's true. It's hard to predict how things will turn out."

"It's almost impossible. But not quite impossible. That's the thing. If you just think hard enough... if you just reason it out... you should be able to pick the right thing every single time, but you can't! People just can't. We make mistakes and then we pick the wrong thing and it ruins everything. And we should have known better."

"I've never thought about it that way. I guess you're right though." Now it was my turn to pause. Then I remembered the other calls waiting. "So do you have a decision to make now?"

"Yes. It's the vending machine. Dr. Kinny says I should try to not call about the vending machine, but today... today was just so tiring." His sigh was so painful that I wanted to pull up a fluffy recliner and let him sink down into it. He sounded like a person defeated. I wondered what the decisions had been. "I just... I'm going to cheat a little and ask for help. Ok?"

"Ok. I won't tell."

"You won't? You won't have to tell him I called about sodas?"

"No. We can take calls without leaving messages if the person wants that."

"Oh good! Ok. That's perfect. No we won't tell him. Unless you think we should."

"No, it's ok. So do you have the same choices as last time?" Oddly, I found I could remember them easily.

"Yes. There is still no water."

"It sounds like today was a special day. Do you think it's a Dr. Pepper day?"

"I don't... maybe. I don't know." A nervous tapping, as if he was drumming his finger rapidly on the receiver. "I don't know I don't know. You decide please!"

"Ok. I think today was not a regular day, so I think Dr. Pepper is the right choice." I was surprised by my own boldness, even as he was clearly in tears. "You deserve a Dr. Pepper tonight."

"Ok. Ok. I'm going to buy it now or I'll think too much and then I won't buy it and then I'll wish I had."

"Go ahead." The coins clunked in rapidly, and then the giraffe thud, somehow not breaking its neck on the hard bottom of the machine.

"I have it. I have the Dr. Pepper. I'm going to go drink it. Goodnight!" He hung up so abruptly that I was startled. I spent the next three hours answering calls and wondering somewhere in the back of my head if the Dr. Pepper had been the right choice.



He didn't call for a week after that, but when he did, he assured me that the Dr. Pepper was indeed the right choice that day, which in retrospect he felt hadn't been as bad as he'd made it sound. He'd drank his soda and then watched one episode of Planet Earth like he always did on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then he'd gone to sleep. The caffeine had not kept him awake. When I noted that it had been a week since he called, he said with pride that he had visited the vending machine four times in that span and had made his own decision each time. I smiled and congratulated him. Tonight he needed a little help, but as we assured each other, that was ok.

Sometimes there were as many as nine days in between his calls. Some weeks he called almost every day. Every time he asked for me, and every time we chose a soda. Usually it was Coke or Pepsi. Often he arrived at the decision himself; he just wanted a witness to confirm it. Sometimes I wasn't sure he needed the help at all.

On a windy late November morning he called and sat on the line for a long time before he even spoke. I knew it was him anyway. I assured him that I was there and that I'd wait, and we sat together in silence. After 2 minutes and 43 seconds by my clock's time, he spoke.

"Ok. I can hang up now. I just wanted to know that somebody was there." And the line clicked dead.



The following Monday he was in better spirits. He didn't need help, he claimed. He was going to get a Dr. Pepper. It was a special day. It was a good day. He'd made an important decision by himself. He didn't need his assistant's help, though he had consulted his doctor. He had already known what he was going to do though. He didn't need soda help, but he was in a good mood, he said, and he wanted to talk to someone.

"The problem is, I don't know what to talk about."

I didn't want to delve into his decision, so I asked about Planet Earth.

"Which is your favorite episode?"

"Oh. If I had to pick..." I realized I had asked him to make a decision. Some days that would have been disastrous. Today, it seemed mercifully alright. "They're all excellent, but if I had to pick... well not an episode. But my favorite is when David Attenborough talks about the Birds of Paradise. They make very fancy nests and decorate them like we decorate houses."

"I like that one too! Why is that your favorite?"

A long pause, but no quick breath and no drumming or shuffling. "I think... I like how much thought they put into each decision. They move things around a lot. They take it very seriously. It has to be just right. I appreciate that."

"That makes sense to me."

"Your name is Lynn."

"Yes?" This sudden shift was new and unexpected.

"Oh it's ok. It's ok that that's your name! I have a daughter named Lynn..." His voice trailed off in a way that marked it as potentially dangerous territory. "She doesn't live with me though. I don't know her."

"I'm sorry."

"No, no. I understand. Her mother was very smart. She knew I have... well I have some problems I guess."

"Ok."

"Parents have to do what is best for their kids."

"Of course."

"I loved them though. Lynn and her mother. I did. I just... my head is very complex on the inside. I don't think they could come in."

"It is very hard to get into other people's heads."

"Nearly impossible. And if you try you can mess it up. It was best that we didn't try. They could get inside each other's heads though, Lynn and Moira. They understood each other. I was always a little jealous of that."

My mouth was open and I knew it. My breath was caught somewhere halfway up my chest, like when you take a pill and it doesn't go down and it just sits there, lodged, painful, and your eyes begin to water. My mother's name was Moira. She'd left my father when I was a toddler. I tried to say something, but I couldn't breathe. I blinked and tried to clear the air from my throat to no avail.

"Well, I think I'm going to go to sleep for the night, Lynn!" He was still in his chipper mood. "It was nice to talk to you and not have to make a decision though."

I coughed. "Yes. Yeah it was great to talk to you..." I hesitated. "I hope you have a good night, ok?"

"YOU have a good night." And he hung up.



7:01 the next day. "Watkins and Kinny Psychological Services."

"Oh!" It was him, surprised. The phones had just turned over to us. "You're... oh. They've closed?"

"Yes, I'm afraid they close early on Tuesday evenings."

"Oh, right, right. I knew that. I forgot what day it was."

"Is it something I can help with?"

"No, it's not time for soda yet. I had a question for the doctor that only he can answer." Worry was edging into his voice as he spoke. "I... I made myself sad thinking about something and I had a thought that maybe... maybe I should do something. But I don't know. I don't know if it's a good idea." He started to choke on his own voice. "Oh dear. He won't be there until tomorrow. I wish I could talk to him and ask him what I should do. I know... I think I know what he'll say, but I want him to say it so I'll feel like it's right."

"That sounds upsetting. If you like I can send a message to him on his personal phone and he can call you back if he's available."

"You could do that?"

"Yes. For emergencies the doctors will sometimes take special calls after hours."

"That's a lot to ask. He works all day, and he must be with his family. I don't want to bother him..." He trailed off and I wondered if he'd put the phone down he was so silent.

"Are you still there?"

"Yes, yes. I just... I don't know if I should give him a message."

"Well, if you don't, do you think you'll be able to relax and sleep ok tonight?"

"No. No no. I will keep thinking about my daughter and her mother and I won't know what to do."

I closed my eyes tightly and tried to keep my voice neutral. "I see. Then maybe it's best if we have him give you a call."

"Ok. Maybe you're right. Are you ready to take the message?"

"Of course." I opened my eyes and clicked on the text box that I would then relay to the doctor.

"Tell him I was thinking about my daughter a lot again. I went and got the home video. I tried to think the way he said I should about it, about happy times. But I just... I keep thinking maybe I should find them and talk to them. I know he said it would be bad, that I'm too... I guess I'm fragile for that. He's afraid it would make my anxiety a lot worse and I might lose all my progress. He says I should always try and keep things as predictable as possible, and there's no way I could predict how they would feel. He said even if they were happy to see me it would be unpredictable and I might feel too overwhelmed and then I might start... well... I might start with the bad habits again. We haven't talked about that, Lynn. But those things happened for many years. I couldn't control them. It was so scary..."

"So you watched the home video and you thought about contacting your daughter and her mom." I paused. I didn't want to proceed - I didn't know how to. I wanted so badly to know if it was really him, but part of me didn't want the confirmation. What would it mean if it was? "Would you even know how to find them anyway?" It wasn't the right question. It was unprofessional and maybe he would know now and everything could be ruined.

He didn't even pause. "Oh yes, Moira lives at the same apartment she's always lived in I'm sure. She loved it so much I can't imagine she'd move. She loved being so close to those hybrid roses. She'd sneak over into the garden even after it closed. She'd hop the fence, that crazy woman! I was terrified. I wouldn't go with her."

I was crying now, tears running down onto my microphone. I wondered if they made any sound on his end. I pictured my mother, middle age, winking at me as she asked if I'd sneak into the rose test gardens with her. I always said yes, and we clambered over the gate regardless of how fancy or new our shoes were. Those were always special times to me, and even if he wouldn't go with her, that's how he remembered her too.

I took a few deep breaths, exhaling carefully and quietly until the tears stopped forming, even if they continued a trail down my cheeks. My supervisor's eyebrows were furrowed.

"So I should tell him you're having a hard time because you don't know if you should try to find them."

"Yes. Yes that should do it. If he can call me, even if he just tells me the same thing as always, that would be good."

"Ok. I'll pass along the message."

"Thank you so much. You have a good night."

"You too. Enjoy Planet Earth." He made a sound like a pained laugh and hung up.

I went home early. My stomach was in knots and I failed to make myself anything for dinner. I considered calling my mother and telling her. I thought about the look in her eyes anytime she mentioned my father - loss and pain. I decided against it. I could never tell either of them, and I knew it.



The next Thursday, he called.

"Hello? Is this Lynn?" he asked tentatively after I read the proper greeting off the screen.

"Yes it is. How are you?"

"I'm... today was... There was some trouble with the bus. My assistant wanted me to try to take the bus home alone. She had an emergency. I... I messed it up. I made all the wrong decisions." He started to weep, his gasps sounding wet and choked.

"Oh no! That sounds very stressful. Are you safe now?"

"Yes. Yes. I got home a few minutes ago." It was after 11pm. "It was... it was very scary. But I'm here now. My clothes are wet." It was raining.

"Well I'm glad you got home, even if it took a long time. How did you get home?"

"I asked....I kept asking people how to take the right bus, and then there wasn't a bus and I went to the pizza shop and I had to talk to someone. It was terrible. I hated having to ask that stranger. But I asked how to get home and gave him the address and he tried to explain but I didn't understand. There were too many steps. And then he said he would drive me."

"Did you drive with him?"

"I did. I did. I don't know if the doctor would have wanted me to."

"But it turned out ok?"

"Yes. I guess so. It was ok."

"Well it was smart of you to ask at the pizza place. Otherwise you might have stayed lost."

"Oh I don't want to think about that!"

"But you did the right thing. You made the right decision to ask the pizza person."

"I guess... I guess I did."

"Because you made that decision, you're safe at home."

"That's true. That is true."

We sat for a minute, both relieved.

"Are you going to have a soda tonight?"

"Yes. Yes I would like a soda. I don't want to pick though. Will you pick?"

"Ok. I think there's been enough excitement today. Dr. Pepper is awfully exciting. Maybe we'll go for something calmer. How about a Coke?"

"Yes. I'll buy the Coke."

"Perfect. You know what? There's a vending machine here. When we get off the phone, I'm going to have a Coke too."

"We'll have Cokes together!"

"Right! I'll be here at work and you'll be at home watching Planet Earth, and we'll both have Cokes."

His voice was brighter now as he said, "I think that's the right decision."

8 comments:

  1. They say theres six degrees of separation between all of us. You never know who you'll meet unexpectedly

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  2. Very moving. This story unfolded at just the right pace and hit all the right notes, especially the bittersweet ending, for me.

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  3. Well done! I really felt for these characters.

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  4. A powerful and moving story, the interactions beautifully judged. I find myself wanting to know more about these engaging characters. Maybe this scenario has the potential to be developed into a bigger structure - an extended short story or novel?

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  5. I also found this story very moving, the characters and dialogue were so credible. I found the whole idea original and not far fetched, and as has been mentioned 'you never know who you`ll meet'
    Mike McC

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  6. There are very genuine voices here, both from the service staff and the person calling in. Empathy is key to the authenticity of this story and the writer brings it off beautifully.

    Well done.

    Arthur

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. This is one of the best stories I ever read. This is outstanding writing and it is filled with emotions. The best stories make us feel something and this one does that to me.

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