Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Help (02/20/06)
TITLE: Cashmere, Umbrellas, and Gooseberries
By Jan Ackerson
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“Yes, it is, sir. How may I help you?”
“I need to know how to spell that Irish thing-a-ma-bob. You know—shuh-LAY-lee? How’s that spelled?”
I sighed. My job at the Help Desk of the Franklin Governmental Complex was not supposed to involve spelling stumpers and trivia bets. Ask me where to get a passport, or how to replace a lost Social Security Card—I’m your girl. But several times a day, I got questions like this one. People seemed to think that since it was called the Help Desk, I could answer anything.
“That word is spelled S-H-I-L-L-E-L-A-G-H.” Luckily, I had always been good at both spelling and trivia. Whenever possible, I answered the ridiculous questions. “Will that be all, sir?”
I was answered by a click, then silence.
I turned back to my computer. I had taken this job to escape from heartbreak at my old office. I was thankful to have discovered Joey’s lies before we married, but then I had set a garrison around my heart and escaped to this new place. Remembering Joey, I scowled at the monitor.
The incoming call light blinked. “Help Desk, how may I be of assistance?”
The voice at the other end was pleasant and masculine. “I was just wondering—is it true that it takes more muscles to frown than to smile?”
Not another one. Why can’t he just ask where to get a parade permit? “Sir, that’s a myth. Frowning and smiling use approximately the same number of facial muscles.”
He chuckled. “Then what would it take to put a smile on your face?”
Oh, great. “Sir, do you have a question about birth certificates or anything like that?”
“Nope—have a great day!”
I looked back at my monitor, feeling slightly as if I’d been spied upon. How did he know I was frowning? My face felt strangely warm, though, and I wondered if I’d hear that voice again.
I didn’t have to wonder for long. The next morning, Pleasant Voice called again.
“What kind of animal gives us cashmere?” It was just a coincidence, I thought, that I was wearing a cashmere sweater that day. Nevertheless, I glanced around the cavernous lobby. Dozens of people lingered there, each jabbering into a cell phone. My mysterious caller could be any of them. He sounds nice, Lord, but… I’m guarding my heart, remember?
A day later. “What’s another word for thesaurus?” Pleasant Voice made me laugh with that one. I was convinced now that he was one of hundreds of workers in the complex—who else would know that I’d brought my well-worn book of synonyms with me that morning? I swallowed the laugh and sent reinforcements to the troops protecting my emotions.
With day three came this question: “What’s the most common color of umbrella in the United States?” This particular call came just as I sloshed in, dripping from having been caught umbrella-less in a morning downpour. I quickly scanned the lobby, answered his question (black) and tried to spot one of the cell phone users hanging up. But I couldn’t watch them all at once—the lobby was just too busy.
Despite my resolve, I was beginning to look forward to Pleasant Voice’s calls. But on the fourth day, only genuine Help Desk questions came in. What time does the passport office close? How do I get a building permit? I answered them listlessly. Between calls, I alternated between prayer and distraction. Help me, Lord! I can’t stop thinking about that caller. What’s going on? I don’t want to hurt again…
I plodded to my desk the next morning. It seemed that no one needed help that day; I was alone with my leaden mood.
Some time around mid-morning, Pleasant Voice was back. “In the language of flowers, what do gooseberries and white violets mean?”
He had me stumped. “Call me back in five minutes.” With trembling fingers, I googled “language of flowers.”
I was studying the flowery website when someone cast a shadow across my monitor. I looked up—there was a smiling man, holding out a quirky arrangement of gooseberries and white violets.
“Anticipation,” I said, “and let’s take a chance on happiness.”
He set the flowers on my desk. “I’m Ben.” His voice was pleasant in person, too. “Will you have coffee with me after work?”
I took a chance.
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