Pay Day

Pay Day

I work in phone solicitations. Sales leads for life insurance. It’s a part-time gig. We sit around a long conference table, the five of us, and dial numbers off a list. Everyone smokes, except me and Murray. He’s around seventy and like most of the phone crew, he’s looking to make a few extra bucks, but not enough to screw his Social Security check. Murray, though, also works to get away from his wife. He says since he retired, she constantly needles him or feeds him or insists she needs an errand run. The job gives him an out and sometimes, he treats her to lunch at Pumpernick’s with his minimum wage earnings. At the end of the meal, she sweeps the packets of Sweet ’N Low into her bag and when he gives her a look, she tells him, what already, it’s on the table, they want you to take it. Whatever makes her happy, he tells us between dial-outs.

Peggy is the queen bee. She’s good at landing sales leads for the insurance agents, that’s why she’s the supervisor. Her paycheck pays for beauty essentials. Her hair is high-maintenance auburn, cut short around the ears and lofts her cranium like a nestling hawk. Her fingernails are thick with nail polish, always painted some tropical color—tangerine, aquamarine, hibiscus red. I wear clear, nobody can tell when it chips. Peggy recommends I wear hot kiwi lime. For godssake, she says, at least look like you are making an effort, such a young girl, now’s the time, you can get away with wearing anything, live a little. She reaches in her bag and pulls out a bottle of polish. Pear-Adise Cove. “My treat,” she says.

I’m nineteen. Carol is twenty. We are the youngest in the room. She holds two part-time jobs, the other, waiting the counter at Mother Butler’s Pies. She likes phone solicitation because it gives her feet a rest. Hang-ups beat bunions any day, she says. Carol sits by Edna, her great-aunt who got her the job. Great-great from the looks of her, but then the Florida sun can ravage a person, no matter how liberal one applies Fashion Tan. Edna is frenemies with Peggy, her neighbor at Orchid Gardens, Phase V. Peggy is president of the condo association. She gets things done, Edna always says with a wink. Which makes sense, Peggy gets sales leads like crazy. Ten an hour sometimes. She twirls the cord of the rotary phone around her little finger and makes the person on the other end of the line her best friend. I can tell when a woman answers and starts to resist the pitch. Peggy is quick to interrupt with some topic women have in common. Oh one moment please, I chipped my manicure on this damn desk, excuse my French, it’s a new color for me, coconut, not white like the inside, dark like the shell. You know the brand? Yes, well between you and me sister, it’s all bullshit, the crap ad about this polish being hard as a coconut, it wears more like a soft banana. She reels in the lead, dashing down the contact information on the appointment pad and cuts the line quick, with an it was so nice talking to you. I have your number, let’s meet for lunch sometime. Maybe Wolfie’s, you like Wolfie’s? Good, it’s a date. She sticks the sales appointment into her lead stack and lights up a Virginia Slim.

I’m lucky to get one lead. I never go off-script. Our agent will be in your area on such and such a date and would like to schedule an appointment to discuss your life insurance needs. I’m uncertain where these phone numbers come from, but everyone who picks up sounds one step away from a different kind of garden and I’m not talking Orchid Gardens, Phase V.  Peggy calls them geezers, which is funny because I think Peggy is old. She and Edna and Murray, with his slick-backed balding grey hair, mottled with Grecian Formula. Not a good look, Peggy says to Murray. She’s good at demeaning others, but steers clear of Edna, who once told me and Carol on break that Peggy pushed through a new condo association rule making house plants set on kitchen windowsills a fineable offense. She was sick and tired of looking at succulents standing half-baked brittle as she patrolled Orchid Gardens, Phase V. God help the person who parks in a reserved space, says Edna. She witnessed Peggy let air out of a violator’s tire just enough for a pain in the ass lumpy drive to the 7-11 fifty-cent air pump and she’s got the photographs to prove it. Edna lights a Winston, exhales and tells me Peggy is efficient, a mover and a shaker, so Edna gives her a pass, for now anyway, until the day Peggy double-crosses her at work or anywhere else in South Florida. The cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air with the scent of Tabu, the cologne Carol gifted Edna for recommending her to Peggy for the phone job. The smell of Asia, Edna says and yet, of Thanksgiving. It’s the cloves, she thinks and stabs out her smoke.

I’m no good at this job, I feel too sorry for the people I call, they seem lonely. They ask me how old I am, say I sound young and ask me if I’m in college. What do you care, Peggy will say. Work the loneliness, take as long as it takes to milk sympathetic, you’re not being timed here, but at the end of the shift, you better by God have four leads ready to go. Besides, so what if they just want company? Get the salesman in the door to make the customer his best friend. Often, Murray hides a couple leads beneath my two when he thinks I’m not looking. He knows I need the job to pay for school.

A man answers hello in the gravelly voice of super senior citizen. I start my spiel and hear the catch in his throat. The beginning of no in no thanks. He’s about to hang up. I plunge on, go off script. Excuse me, do you have grandkids? Yes? How many? I’m a grandkid too, only one of three, not thirteen like you have and my grandfather, I love him so much but he will kill me if I don’t make enough money to graduate college, but he can’t kill me because he got run down last week jaywalking Collins Avenue and I’ll never ever ever again get to hear him tell me why it’s so important for me to earn my own way like he did, driving a fruit truck for Meyer Lansky down at the docks and I miss him so much, my grandfather I mean, not you know who, his boss, we’re not really supposed to talk about him in my family and I don’t know, I can’t even think… what? Really? Does Wednesday at nine o’clock work? My grandfather was an early riser, too. Thank you, so much from us both.” I grab a tissue to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. Edna and Carol give me a standing ovation. Murray shakes his head and Peggy sticks two of her own leads into my stack. “Nice touch, the jaywalking,” she says.

I get promoted to receptionist. Not because I mastered phone solicitation, but because the boss likes the color of my fingernail polish. Murray told me, you are not the first young lady to grace the reception area of this cesspool. The man is a known lech, why do you think Edna never lets Carol out of her sight? If you need me, I’m right here in the next room. He touches you one time, I’ll knock him into the middle of next week. I don’t need this cockamamie job, I’ve got a pension and Social Security.

My receptionist responsibilities include cutting paychecks for the sales agents, all who work on commission. I use a metal contraption called a Paymaster. I set the numbers, align the blank check and mash the handle down to imprint the earnings. I waste a lot of blank checks the first week with my boss observing too close behind me and Murray watching all eagle-eyes through the open door of the phone room. The checks are sorted alphabetically in an old stationary box for distribution on Fridays. All the sales agents show up for the check, even those not scheduled to work, they really need the money. I felt bad for the lonely heart customers, but worse for the sales guys, standing in front of my reception desk sweating a cheap suit, required wear for schlepping around Fort Lauderdale in one hundred per cent humidity.

They look hard at the check and back at me and say there must be some mistake. Once, I cut a check for fifty cents, another time two bucks. Fifty dollars was the high commission one week. I shake my head and offer to buzz the boss if he has a few seconds to discuss the amount? Most wave me off and slam out the door, some with a few fresh leads in hand from Peggy. What keeps them in the job, I don’t know and I don’t want to know.

Six weeks as receptionist, the boss calls me into his office to discuss (disgust) my future. He respects the way I learned the Paymaster on my own and has big plans for me within the firm. He comes at me from around his cheap pressboard desk and I get out of there fast. Murray has my purse in hand and the door wide open. He has given up the Grecian and gone silver and somehow, he looks younger.


About the Author

Sheree Shatsky is the author of the novella-in-flash Summer 1969 (Ad Hoc Fiction 2023). She is a contributor to MAINTENANT 17: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing and Art ‘PEACEFIRE’ (Three Rooms Press 2023). She calls Florida home and is a Tom Petty fan. Read more of her work at .