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?”
<i>Not another one. Why can’t he just ask where to get a parade permit?</i> “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?”
<i>Oh, great</i>. “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. <i>How did he know I was frowning</i>? 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. <i>He sounds nice, Lord, but… I’m guarding my heart, remember</i>?
A day later. “What’s another word for <i>thesaurus</i>?” 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 (<i>black</i>) 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. <i>What time does the passport office close? How do I get a building permit?</i> I answered them listlessly. Between calls, I alternated between prayer and distraction. <i>Help me, Lord! I can’t stop thinking about that caller. What’s going on? I don’t want to hurt again…</i>
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.
“<i>Anticipation</i>,” I said, “and <i>let’s take a chance on happiness</i>.”
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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