“Hello.” This time it was a sing-songy voice, twinkling with melody. They were all so different and yet, somehow, few sculpted a mental image in Diana’s mind. With each hello, she heard suggestions of the words that would follow, but often she saw only the gray of the screen, the purple logo, and the highlighted row of the call list.
“Hello, I’m calling for Meegan McMasters.”
“Ah, hello, Ms. McMasters. This is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you this morning?”
“I’m fine, thank you. What can I do for you?”
“Well, as you’re probably aware, in the upcoming elections we have a lot at stake.” This is where Diana could practice her theatre skills. Not that she had to act to deliver the persuasion embodied in the message, but with the denial of a face-to-face appeal, dramatic inflection offered some recompense.
“Um hmm.” Meegan was racking her brain, trying to recall something about the upcoming elections. Before she could come up with anything, more immediate worries returned to hobble her thoughts.
“There are several anti-choice candidates looking to displace our key allies. You’ve probably heard about the tea partiers and their outrageous anti-family planning agenda.”
“So you know they really are a threat to women’s health. And then there’s Senator Bickabay who recently introduced a bill in the senate that’s been dubbed ‘Stupak on steroids.’ This proposed legislation, Ms. McMasters, would make it impossible for a girl under the age of 16 to access abortion services without the written consent of both parents. So you see, there’s really a lot at stake for the health and well-being of women and girls in our society.”
“Yes, there sure is.”
“So that’s why we’re asking, since the stakes are so high, if you could make a special contribution today of one hundred dollars.” Every time Diana spoke that number it sounded larger. She would have fallen over backwards had someone actually agreed to her proposition, but the people who wrote the script never made the phone calls or heard the weary voices echo in empty wallets.
“Oh no, that’s way beyond me,” Meegan replied without regret. What kind of ally would ask for the grocery money?
“Well I understand, that is a lot for some people, but would you be able to give us fifty dollars at this very important time?”
Sigh. “No, I’m afraid not. Last month my job was cut back to three days a week, and I’ve had to cut a lot of expenses. It’s been really scary. I’m a single mom.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. McMasters, about your job. That is a real hardship. In that case, would you be comfortable giving twenty-five dollars?” Diana hated pressing dispassionately on, but she’d agreed to do what they paid her for, which was to appeal until disconnect or an emphatic “no, nothing.”
“I’m sorry but I just can’t contribute anything right now. Hopefully next year I’ll have a full-time job again. Then I’d be happy to pitch in fifty dollars.”
“Well, all right. Good luck to you.”
“Thanks. You too.”
Another flat conclusion after a brief, intense encounter. Understood sisterhood, fleeting, now invisible again in the room where Diana worked and the kitchen where Meegan worried. Diana always wished she could meet some of these brave and gentle women.
“Hello, you have reached….” The ever-more-common answering machine or voice mail. Sometimes Diana actually wanted to leave a message, if the woman sounded intriguing, if her voice rang sweet and true, but she was expected to immediately move on to the next number. She compromised the rules by listening to the entire message.
Diana could tell from the abrupt, aggravated tone that this woman would hang up on her sooner or later.
“Hello, I’m calling for Angela Havalka.”
“She’s not here. Is there a message?”
“No, this is just—” and a click cut her off.
“Sorry,” Diana added under her breath.
“Hello?” Another anxious, annoyed voice. Were these numbers clustered by neighborhood?
“Hello, I’m calling for Eve Polli.”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Ms. Polli, this is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you today?”
“No thanks, I’m not interested,” Ms. Polli said, barely finishing her civil exclamation before slamming the receiver down so hard it bounced out of its cradle. And stayed there while Diana had one of those intensely lonely moments. She’d had glimpses of them even before she began telephone soliciting, but now she had three or four per shift, moments when all the space between her shoulders throbbed with anguish, moments when she knew the truth about alienation versus compassion in the world.
“Hello. This is Jane.”
“Oh hello, Ms. Chatham? This is Diana from WERALL Pro-choice. How are you today?”
“Well….do you really want to know? This is my saying: 86 and still in the mix.”
“Still in the mix! That is to say, I’m 86 years old but don’t count me out.”
Diana allowed herself an appropriately large laugh.
“No ma’am, I would not count you out. You sound very lively!”
“Well I am. I stay active, get out and see people every day. Talk to lovely people like you on the telephone.”
Diana laughed again, her shoulders now soft and thick and glowing with the rush of being alive.
“Well the reason I’m calling you today, Ms. Chatham, is because, as you probably know, there’s a lot at stake in the upcoming elections. The anti-choice movement has poured huge sums of money into the campaigns of candidates who are threatening some of our key allies. I’m sure you’ve heard of these tea partiers and their – ”
“Yes, I have,” Jane interrupted, “and every time I hear about them I want to know, why now? What have we done to get to this point in time and place? I thought things were getting better, say back in the seventies. So why, almost forty years later, are we losing everything we worked for?”
“That’s a good question, Ms. Chatham. I don’t have the answer to that, but we here at WERALL Pro-choice are mobilizing to fight back by supporting the pro-choice candidates in this election. As I said, the stakes are very high for women’s health . Uh, just the other day Senator Bickabay introduced a bill that is being called ‘Stupak on steroids’—”
“Stupak on steroids. People are calling it that because—”
“Is that what he called it?”
“No, that’s just the name the pro-choice community has given it because it goes so far to limit women’s access to abortion.”
“Sounds like a good name. I mean, why doesn’t he just call it that, if that’s what he wants to legislate? We better be careful. We don’t want to help these people think up good names for their bad ideas.”
“No, we don’t, Ms. Chatham,” Diana agreed smiling, though her call timer was not amused, “but we do want to beat them at the polls, and that’s why we’re asking you for a special contribution of one hundred dollars to help us defeat the anti-choice candidates on the ballot next month.”
“A hundred dollars!” She hadn’t paid that much for her wedding dress. “I guess I don’t understand how a hundred dollars will help us defeat them in the election.”
“It will enable us to buy more advertising, more exposure for educating the public and promoting the candidates who support women’s health issues.”
“Hm. So is that really all it comes down to? Whoever has the most money to spend in the media will win? Of course that’s not democratic, but I don’t think it’s true either.”
“Well of course that’s not all that matters, but it is the best way you can help us support the candidates who stand for choice.”
“If you’re not able to donate a hundred dollars, would you be comfortable giving fifty as a special contribution at this important time?”
“Fifty dollars? Yes, I think I would be comfortable with that.”
“Oh, we really appreciate that, Ms. Chatham. This certainly will make a difference to women and girls in our communities. When you’re ready I’ll take your major credit card number.”
Jane was away from the phone for a few minutes, finding her purse, and also tying the dog out in the back yard. Getting the necessary credit card information from her took several more minutes, and Diana finally had to cut Jane off as she was already two calls behind, according to her monitor. She was fascinated by the old woman’s comments and insight, her engaging tenacity, but Diana’s job didn’t allow half hour conversations with anyone—not even hundred dollar donors. She hung up reluctantly, sheepishly, with a blurred image of Jane setting a feisty spark in her heart.
“Hello, I’m calling for David Gonzales.”
“My name’s Diana and I’m calling from WERALL Pro—”
“No thank you.” Click. Sounds for all the world like a door closing in your face. Diana pressed the next number before the dial tone was even ready. Four rings.
“Hello, I’m calling for Hannah O’Connor.”
“Hello, Ms. O’Connor. This is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thanks, and you?”
“I’m doing well, thank you. The reason I’m calling today, Ms. O’Connor, is because, as you probably know, there is a lot at stake for women in the upcoming elections. The extreme tea-partiers are making outrageous attacks on women’s health.”
“Yes.” Embedded in a deep sigh. Just what Diana needed.
“I’m sure you’ve heard some of them. And then there’s the new bill Senator Bickabay has introduced in the house that’s been dubbed ‘Stupak on steroids.’ If this bill were to pass, it would have grave implications for women and girls in our society, Ms. O’Connor. For example, one of the provisions would require girls under 18 to get written consent from both parents before obtaining an abortion. So you see, there’s really a lot at stake for girls rights this election. And that’s why WERALL Pro-Choice is having a special fundraising drive to assure that we can beat those right-wing extremists. With the stakes so high, can we count on you for a hundred dollar donation?”
“Umm, I’m really sorry. I really appreciate the work you’re doing, but I lost my home in a flood this summer. We had two and a half feet of water throughout the house. It’s wrecked.” As Hannah told her disaster story, her voice changed slowly, crinkling at the edges. “So I don’t have any extra money. We had to move, and we’re paying rent now. We lost our property—can’t sell it. So I’m sorry, I can’t help you out this time.”
“Oh, I understand. What a terrible thing to have happen.” Diana reviewed the empathy checking strategies and fell back on the teeth of economic necessity. “Well, do you think you could do fifty dollars then?”
“No, sorry, I really don’t have any spare money. Hopefully next year my life will be back to normal, but you’ll just have to count me out this time.”
Okay, Diana could log that as a definite refusal. As she did so, she imagined Hannah’s flooded house, the water soaking the couch cushions, dish cabinet, and dresser drawers. Years of sentiment and personal history drowned in a day, destined for a dumpster. It seemed almost every day the news carried a story of a flood somewhere.
“You know,” Diana confided, “I’ve heard so many sad stories, difficulties people are having right now.”
“I’m sure you have,” Hannah agreed deeply. “These are tough times.”
“Yes they are. I’m so sorry about your house. What caused the flood? Is there a river?”
“No, a retention pond. It’s there to keep the water off the highway. And it did that, but it redirected all the excess rain to our homes. But we’re still very lucky. We’re still alive, we have each other, even got to keep our pets. Not like all the flooding in Pakistan, hundreds killed, millions affected. Nothing like that. Just that we’re broke.”
“I understand. Well, I hope things get better for you soon.”
“Thank you. And thank you for the work you do.”
There followed another unsuccessful call.
“This call may be monitored.”
If she didn’t push hard enough on people in precarious financial situations, would she lose her income? Surely anybody listening would agree there was no talking Hannah into a contribution. Were the domiciles of her co-workers’ call lists this shaky?
“Hello?” A pleasant-sounding woman.
“Hell, is this Eva Smith?”
“Yes it is.”
“Hello, Ms. Smith. How are you today?”
“Oh,” an airy sigh, “I’m okay. Who is this?”
“My name’s Diana and I’m calling from WERALL Pro-Choice. The reason we’re contacting you today, Ms. Smith, is because, as you probably know, there’s a lot at stake for women and girls in the upcoming elections.”
“Um, yes. Could you call another time? I’m on my way to a funeral right now.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
“Thank you.” Eva paused. “I’m okay.”
“We’ll call some other time. My condolences.”
Diana exhaled deeply and shook her head as if there were spiders in her hair. That was the worst yet. Anybody on their way to a funeral had to be excused. But how many more zeros was she allowed this hour?
“Hello?” A husky female voice, irritable.
“Hello,” Diana heard her own solicitous tone over-compensate. “I’m calling for June Hensen.” And I’m hoping that’s not you.
“Yes. This is June. What do you want?”
One in a million chance that she’ll be receptive. Diana wrapped her emotional armor around her and plunged in with well-feigned optimism.
“This is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you today, Ms. Hensen?”
“Mrs. Hensen,” June growled. “I get a call from you whiners every week! Stop calling me!” No crash when she hung up, just a quiet, cold click.
The sting from that type of response didn’t hurt so much, was as brief and superficial as the severed connection. Instead Diana felt a strange gratitude as she clicked the “not interested” box next to June’s phone number.
“Hello?” The voice was so soft Diana had to make sure someone was really there.
“Yes? Hello.” Just a hair stronger, like a very dim light.
“Hello. I’m calling for Heather Luckowski.”
“Umm. This is Heather. How can I help you?”
“Hello, Ms. Luckowski. This is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you today?”
A whimpering guffaw caused Diana’s heart to seize.
“I’m much better,” Heather sobbed. Then she began crying in earnest.
“Ms. Luckowski? I’m so sorry to upset you. Is this a bad time? Do you have a minute? Can I tell you why we’re calling today?”
“Oh sure, I’m sorry.” Heather sniffed her tears back in.
“No, I’m sorry, Ms. Luckowski. But let me just tell you quickly that the reason for my call is there’s a lot at stake in the upcoming elections, as you may know. In many states we’re facing candidates who pose a grave threat to women’s health. I’m sure you’ve heard about some of the extreme rhetoric from the tea party candidates, for example.”
Silence. No affirmation, no sobbing. Diana anticipated a dial tone, but continued, a mostly obscured image of a tiny, fear-curled woman in her mind’s eye. Recite a couple more sentences, then probe the silence and hang up if appropriate.
“Perhaps you’ve heard of the new bill introduced by Senator Bickabay, the one dubbed ‘Stupak on Steroids’? This bill would make it extremely difficult for a teenager to obtain an abortion, thereby putting many girls—“
Heather was sobbing again.
“Ms. Luckowski? Maybe I should call back another time. I’m so sorry to intrude right now.”
“I don’t think there is a better time,” Heather wailed. “My husband found a lump on my breast, then they found another one with the MRI. I wanted to have at least one child, but now I don’t know if I’ll even be alive in a year!”
“Oh. That is very bad news,” Diana groped helplessly. Understatement of the century. None of the training she’d received had prepared her for this situation. “I understand your distress. But you’ll probably be okay, thanks to early detection. More women are surviving now. There are lots of new treatments that weren’t available—“
“Yes, but if I do survive it will be with one breast. I’m only 27. I’m not ready to give up my body.”
The 27 hit Diana like a blow to the stomach. She slumped in her Office Depot chair. Her mind racing for all of three seconds, she pondered how to proceed with this call, hopeful for a swift farewell. What do you say to someone who couldn’t bear the thought of one breast?
“I understand, Ms. Luckowski. Thank you for your time today. I hope everything works out for you.”
“Thank you,” came the wistful whisper.
Only one successful solicitation in the last half hour. Diana felt a ripple run up her spine and catch in her throat. A cruel voice insider her warned that she was just one paycheck away from homelessness. Not true, she shot back. Possibly two paychecks; admittedly three.
“Hello?” A very articulate man with a thick, deep voice.
“Hello, I’m calling for Eric Snyder.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Snyder. This is Diana calling from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you today?”
“The reason for our call today is that, as you probably know, there’s a lot at stake for women and girls in the upcoming elections. For one thing, there are the tea party candidates who are calling for extreme anti-choice measures. And perhaps you’ve heard—”
“So this is a fundraising call to try and match the dollars spent by our adversaries?” Eric was a man of little time.
“Well, yes. Because there is so much at stake for—”
“I read the paper every day. I’m pretty well informed on the issues. You don’t need to review the points with me, just skip to the donation part.”
Had it been a woman on the other end of the line, Diana would have laughed in collusion, but being that it was a man she felt a flush of humiliation. Speaking in her plain, every day off the job voice, she told him, “We’re asking if you could make a hundred dollar contribution.”
“A hundred dollars!” Eric laughed. “Well, that’s pretty brazen.”
“We understand, Mr. Snyder, that one hundred dollars is not realistic for some of our supporters. Do you think you would be able to give us fifty dollars?”
A reckoning sigh.
“Yeah, I guess I can handle that. Money well spent if it keeps those idiots out of office. Sure, put me down for fifty. I’ll probably regret it. I just found out my son needs a fifth year to graduate from college. He didn’t tell me ’til Christmas break that he wouldn’t be finishing up in May. In his fourth year and he’s hardly taken any of the classes required for his major!”
“I said ‘Okay, one more semester.’ But now he’s saying he needs two more semesters. I think he’s just having too much fun on campus. No sense of money or responsibility.”
“It takes a long time to grow up.” Diana slipped back into her phone work voice to take Eric’s credit card number. Fifty dollars was good. Nobody ever agreed to a hundred, so this was something to feel good about. Nothing like one success to get you on track for another. Upswing, for sure, Diana thought as she listened to the next number ring.
“Hello?” The voice was scratchy, wispy, but not sleepy.
“Hello, I’m calling for Judy Cicheria.”
“It’s pronounced Si-KER-ia. Is this the nurse from the clinic?”
“No, this is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. How are you today, Ms. Cicheria?” Clinic plus raspy voice equals diminished expectations.
“Oh. What do you want?”
“The purpose of our call today, Ms. Cicheria, is because, as you probably know, there’s a lot at stake for women and girls in the upcoming election.”
“When’s the election?”
“November third. It’s only a few weeks away, so we need to get moving fast.”
“It’s not the president though, right?”
“No, not this year. But there are many congressional and governors races. At WERALL Pro-Choice we’re trying to raise money to fight against the many tea party candidates who are pushing an agenda that threatens women’s health.”
“Oh good. I was like, we just elected him, he’s not gonna get pushed out already.”
No point in repeating herself or checking for comprehension. Might as well go right to the extended hand.
“So we’re asking our supporters, since there’s so much at stake in this election, if you could help us out with a one hundred dollar contribution. Do you think that’s something you could help us with, Ms. Cicheria?”
“With a what? A hundred dollar contribution? Oh man, you’re crazy! I’m waiting for the clinic to call with my penicillin prescription. I’ve got this abcessed tooth, you know? And it really, really, really, really hurts. But it costs two hundred and fifty dollars to get it pulled, and I don’t have two fifty. So every so often I go to the clinic and they give me some penicillin, and then it’s better for a while. No, I can’t give you a hundred dollars. You must think I’m filthy rich!”
“No, we just know that some people are able to make a large one-time donation, especially with the stakes so high right now. I’m very sorry to hear about your tooth. That sounds so painful.”
“Well, do you think you could help us out with…” Diana couldn’t bring herself to say 50; she knew that would be deserving of another ear boxing. “…with a smaller donation?”
“What’s the date today? Seventeenth? Rent not due for awhile, but now that I need more penicillin….Na, I’m afraid I can’t give you a cent. Need to find me a rich boyfriend, I guess. The last one ran off with my best friend. I hear they just bought a house.”
Diana’s tongue retreated, tried desperately to hide, wishing the phone line would be severed by a nervously chewing squirrel. The seconds ticked by huge and empty, waiting for her to do her job, but she couldn’t open her sunken throat.
“Hello?” Judy asked. “Did you hang up? Are we done?”
“I’m sorry,” Diana finally said. “I was distracted. And I’m very sorry to hear about your difficult situation, Ms. Cicheria. Isn’t there a clinic where you can get that tooth pulled?”
“No, too expensive. I don’t have any insurance. I was all excited about that health plan we were supposed to get for everybody, but then it turned out to be nothing. Shoulda known. They always promise you something you need and then just give you a little miniature model of it and it’s up to you to pretend it’s real.”
“We do need something better, you’re right. Well, thank you for your time, Ms. Cicheria. And we hope you will vote.”
“Yeah,” Judy replied languidly. “Depends how I feel that morning. How much my tooth hurts. How angry I am. If it’s raining. I dunno, I’ll try. Bye.”
Diana continued to think it must be impossible for her co-workers to be having the same experience she was having. How could everyone on the membership list be facing financial disaster? Maybe she was having a crazy dream and it was time to wake up. Very dreamlike, the continuing downward spiral and chain of unexpected events. But she never dreamed about work. Must be she’d gotten all the bad numbers. Sure, there were lots of headlines about foreclosures and unemployment, but that was only one in ten, maybe one in five people.
“Hi. You have reached seven four two, zero six nine six. We’re not able to take your call. At the tone please leave your name, number and a brief message. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
Diana disconnected and advanced to the next line in one deft move. Someone answered on the first ring. Diana imagined it was someone pert, alert and ready to make a sizable donation.
“Hello, I’m calling for Stephanie Wallace.”
“Yes, this is Stephanie. What can I do for you?”
Diana’s hopes took the upswing, the conversation was already promising.
“This is Diana from WERALL Pro-Choice. The reason for our call today is that women have so much at stake in the upcoming elections, as you probably know.”
“Umm hmm,” Stephanie acknowledged in the briefest pause.
“You’ve probably heard some of the tea partiers’ inflammatory rhetoric, and perhaps you’re aware of legislation recently introduced into the Senate that has been dubbed ‘Stupak on steroids.’”
“Which one is that? Oh, is that the one by Bickabay?”
“Yes, you are on top of things!” Diana almost giggled. “Then you probably also know that this bill would make it extremely difficult for a girl to access abortion services without the consent of both parents.”
“What garbage. And they know that just drives teens to risk their lives with illegal abortions. Bunch of sadistic old men.”
“I’d have to agree with you on that, Ms. Wallace. Anyway, being that the stakes are so high for women, we’re asking our supporters to make a special one hundred donation to ensure that our candidates prevail in this election. Is that something you’re comfortable with, Ms. Wallace?” Diana held her breath, frozen in the indifference of possibility.
“Oh gosh,” Stephanie sighed. “I’m really strapped for cash right now. I’ll spare you the details, but my latest problem is the renters in my mom’s house—which we’ve been trying to sell but can’t ‘cuz the housing market crashed. Meanwhile I’ve got my mom in an extended care facility because she’s in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s—”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Diana heard herself say. The clouds rolled back in, heavy gray clouds. Her problems paled in comparison to many of those she’d heard in the last hour, but her bottom line was hanging over her head.
“Anyway, the renter is two and a half months behind on the rent, and I just found out he hasn’t paid the water bill, so the water’s been shut off. And there are seven people living there.”
“Yeah, and he’s working, his wife’s working. He’s just a jerk. So I’m having him served with an eviction notice, but it cost me seventeen hundred dollars to get a lawyer to start the process.”
“Yeah, and I can’t afford that. My mom can’t afford it. And I don’t have time for all that! It’s really a nightmare.”
“I’ve heard some horror stories about renters, so I’m not too surprised. But I never would have guessed the price of an eviction notice. Outrageous.”
“Yeah. So I’m pretty broke right now,” Stephanie continued matter-of-factly. “But the funny thing is, there are still reminders that there are other people in way worse shape. Like when I called the public aid number, you get all these options: ‘If your physical safety is threatened, press one. If this is about a restraining order, press two. If this is a medical emergency and you have no insurance, press three.’”
“Oh no,” Diana breathed. A hotline switchboard full of her contacts. Where was everybody else? Where were the people whose physical safety was guaranteed, the people who were on the other end of the restraining order, the lawyers writing the expensive eviction orders, the hospital board members flicking away anyone without insurance? Could she have their numbers? Weren’t there as many of them? Wouldn’t they donate to WERALL Pro-Choice?
“Yeah, you realize, wow. There are people out there who are simply at the end of their rope, nowhere else to go. No safety net. I’m not nearly that bad off.”
“It’s great that you can adjust your attitude that way,” Diana told her, miserably collecting herself for one last request. “I understand this is a difficult time for you, but do you think, because the stakes are so high for women and girls in this election, that you could make, perhaps, a fifty dollar donation?”
“No, I just don’t have it,” Stephanie replied. She was used to having it though, so in the next breath she offered, “I guess I could do 25 though.”
So Diana got one more spreadsheet entry, enough to keep her shift total from appearing in yellow highlight in the office manager’s database. When she finished processing Stephanie’s credit card and thanking her and wishing her well, it was five o’clock and the end of her day. The longest shift she had worked there, the culmination of fortunes slowly changing. Used to be a couple bad calls, few enough to laugh over the details with friends later. Then it was half the calls. Not so funny, with so many details clasping to one another like magnetized misery.
She rode the elevator down eight floors alone. The revolving door rolled her out onto a bustling, uncaring sidewalk where an early winter wind whetted its taste for exposed flesh. The street was crowded but lonely, even dangerous, if hostility is a danger. Diana fell in step before someone could plow into her and watched the faces streaming by. Most eyes were focused somewhere in the vague distance, the future, perhaps. Every fifth person or so would meet Diana’s gaze, but it was inevitably a nervous encounter, the eyes suspiciously darting away as if she were trying to take something from them. Taxis blared their horns and buses droned deafeningly among the skyscrapers. No one, not even their mothers, heard the tiny whimper rising from the throats of the pedestrians.