At 11:45PM on a February Friday, William dusts the snow from the shoulders of his full-length, dark wool business coat and enters the office of The Samaritans’ Counseling Services. In the small, mold-scented foyer of the 50’s era building there’s a front-page clipping of Emmitt Smith, the newly crowned MVP of Super Bowl XXVIII, tacked to The Samaritans’ associates’ bulletin board. As always, William reads each note, looks behind each piece of scrap paper, and peels back each scribbled on business card for a personal message from one of his anonymous callers. Again there’s nothing for him, and he’s becoming desperate to know if being away from his family on Friday nights is helping anyone.
William settles into his cubical, sipping the office’s coffee that he hates, and reading the last chapter of Dale Carnegie’s Stop Worrying and Start Living, though he’s already worrying about finding something helpful to read next. He leaves his newspaper out of reach. A lurking fear of finding one of his callers on the obituaries page keeps him from reading.
“Hello, Samaritans,” William says when his desk phone rings.
“Yes,” the man on the other end says.
“Do you want to talk?”
“Yes,” the man says, breathing unevenly into the phone.
William knows the man on the other end is waiting until he won’t cry.
“Tonight,” the man says, “only the second girlfriend I’ve ever had left me.”
“Why did she leave?”
“I’m fat,” the man says. “I’m disgusting. That’s why I’ve almost always been alone.”
“Well,” William says, “how overweight are you?”
“You can’t even imagine,” the man says.
“You may be right,” William says, “but I’m going to ask you again. How overweight are you?”
“I’m pushing fifty,” the man says, “and with my weight, I’ll never find another companion, and I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life. I think I’d rather kill myself than be alone anymore.”
Loneliness is one of the most common problems William discusses with his callers, including all those callers who aren’t suicidal at all, who just want someone to speak with to satisfy the unfortunate novelty that conversation has become for them.
“None of us can do much about aging,” William says, “so let’s focus on the other issue. How overweight do you feel you are?”
“I work with computers,” the man says, “but I’ve gotten too fat to go into my office.”
“It sounds like you have unique skills and a good job,” William says.
“I think I’m gonna get fired.”
“Let’s stay focused on what’s most controllable. How much do you weigh?”
It’s the first long pause of their conversation, and William thinks over the depth of pain that seclusion takes on his callers. Despite the stories of abandonment, neglect, violence, drug abuse, and metal health struggles, the resulting loneliness often proves to be the consequence that feels most unsolvable.
“I can’t sit in a chair with arms.”
“There are lots of different sized chairs,” William says, “so that could mean a lot things. How much do you weigh, really?”
William looks over his cubicle into the yellow office lighting, and he listens to the muffled voices of his fellow Samaritan counselors.
Are you thinking about hurting yourself tonight?
Is anyone nearby?
When was the last time you spoke to them?
Have you told anyone how you’re feeling?
“Over six hundred pounds,” the man says.
William tries to visualize six hundred pounds of human sitting in an armless chair.
“No kidding,” William says, “but you’re wrong, you know. You’ve accomplished a lot, because to be over six hundred pounds and to have had more than one girlfriend is one hell of a good trick. You must be a nice guy.”
The man chokes up into the phone, and William knows he has some conversational room to work with.
“Have you ever read Dale Carnegie?” William asks.
“No, not at length.”
“Carnegie says dealing with stress isn’t about emptying a big basket of problems all at once, but emptying the basket one small, individual item a time, no matter the pace, or the size of the basket. So, for you, I’d say step one is to lose a bit of weight.”
“It’s impossible,” the man says.
“I bet you can do it,” William says, “and, while you’re losing the weight, you should buy yourself a chair with arms, and every day, until you can sit in it comfortably, you should tell that chair that its ass belongs to you. Or, better yet, that your ass belongs to it.”
“Hello, Samaritans,” William says into his receiver.
Ten seconds pass, and then twenty. The clicking hand of William’s watch crosses forty-five seconds, and then one minute. “Take your time,” William says. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Two minutes, but from experience William knows someone is on the line, and they want to talk.
Another minute of silence goes by before the voice of a young woman murmurs over the line, but William can’t make out what she says. He asks if she wants to talk. He makes out a whispered, “I think so.”
William does his best to follow her brief, non-sequitur snippets of consciousness until she tells William she’s a high school senior, and tonight she wants to kill herself.
“How come?” William asks.
“I’ve already done it,” she says, laboring to get out her breaths. “But I want to talk to someone before it happens.”
William’s Mentor Counselor had trained him for these situations, giving him questions to raise his callers’ self-awareness.
Have you thought about who’s going to find you?
Have you considered the people you’re leaving behind?
The young woman tells William she’s ruined her life, and it’s impossible to fix. She had an abortion three months ago, and her boyfriend broke up with her after the procedure. She probably can’t have kids now, and she’s missed a lot of school since then, and now she won’t graduate with her class. She hasn’t had her period in two months. She throws up her food as punishment to herself. The thought of sex makes her puke too. Her parents won’t allow her to go to church with them anymore. And tonight, she’s taken a lot of sleeping pills.
“Do you still live at home,” William asks, “or with a relative?”
“I feel cold all of a sudden,” the young woman whispers.
“I’d like to send you help,” William says, “if that’s okay with you.”
William waits through her silence. He can’t push. He can’t sound desperate.
“Thank you for talking,” she says.
“I’d like to send you help, if you’d let me.”
William hears the line click, and the dial tone comes through his receiver. He knows she may or may not have taken the pills, but he also knows he won’t be reading the newspaper anytime soon.
There are stories just like this girl’s call all around The Samaritans’ office that end with a “Thank You” note on the associates’ bulletin board, but that doesn’t stop the familiar feeling of clammy sweat pressing through the back of his cotton dress shirt, dripping from his hairline, trickling down his temples, stinking up his cubicle with panic.
William returns his receiver to its cradle, wondering if he should have talked to the young woman about Dale Carnegie, but the stakes were too high, he thinks, and he didn’t want to risk sounding like a regurgitated, impersonal presentation instead of genuine help. On that call, he couldn’t beat his fear of saying the wrong thing and being her final reason.
“I’m sorry for eavesdropping,” a gentle female voice says from behind the beige partition that separates William from his neighbor, “but I can’t help checking in on you. Those calls are difficult.” Backlit by the yellow overhead bulbs, a cottony, blue haired head appears above the wall of William’s cubicle. Her hands rest on the metal bracing of the dividing panel, as she looks down at William.
In his few months with The Samaritans’, William had never had a conversation with any of his co-volunteers. In The Samaritans’ office it was understood that it was fine if people wanted to chat, but it was to be respected if people didn’t.
“Do you want to talk?” she asks.
William shakes his head.
“I’m Janet,” she says. “You know a lot of us were callers before we were volunteers.”
Williams thinks, and gives his head a single shake.
“It takes answering a lot of these calls to become comfortable answering all these kinds of calls, you know? We’re all sort of darned if we do, and darned if we don’t.” Janet ducked behind the partition and came around to lean against the entry of William’s cubicle. “I’m going back years and years ago now, but it took my daughter and her husband over three years to get pregnant, and then she miscarried her first two. But then they had my first grandchild, and he was beautiful, and he was healthy. My second grandchild came along fourteen months later, and, oh boy, were my daughter and her hubby off to the races from there, let me tell you.”
“How many grandchildren do you?–”
“It just goes to show you, once my daughter believed she could create life, she never looked back, and now they have six kids. You’d think they’re Catholic farmers, not nine-to-fivers.”
“Create a life to create your own,” William says.
“Or save a life to save your own.”
Wearing lightweight suit pants and a short sleeved dress shirt and tie, and a pristine newspaper pressed under his arm, William embraces his first recognition of the new season’s warmth at dusk. Wishing he was on his porch with his kids, or maybe just out there alone with a beer, William slips through the front door of the Samaritans’ building.
In the lobby, a fellow volunteer tacks a piece of lined paper to the associates’ bulletin board. It says, “Samantha – Thank you. Day by day, by day.”
William assumes the note makes enough reference to the call itself to remind Samantha of her specific caller, and William is jealous, and his jealously makes him guilty, and his guilt distracts him from searching for his own note with his usual precision. He’s also becoming tired of his routine, and rather than pushing himself on a pursuit with no closure, he stares at the bulletin board’s current event headline, “Simpson Is Charged, Chased, Arrested.”
William places his newspaper on his cubicle’s work surface, settles into his chair, and sips cold beer from his metal thermos, which tastes the same as it would have on his porch, but it’s accompanied by a far less favorable atmosphere. He listens to his neighbor across the aisle, Dr. Mo, speak with the volume and determination that he only uses with his son.
“You must remember,” Dr. Mo says, “‘better than the ignorant are those who read; better still are those who retain knowledge; even better are those who understand what they have learned; the best of all are those who work hard.’ Do you understand?”
The self-help books had become repetitive, so William’s newest purchase was a blend of sales training, life guidance, and the universal personal habits of successful people. William bought the book because he felt it was the right thing do to, but he hasn’t yet convinced himself that he cares enough about its teachings to begin reading.
“Daljeet,” Dr. Mo barks from across the way, “a thief thinks everybody steals.”
William’s first call comes in at 8:25.
“Yes,” says a graveled female voice. “Thank you.”
“Would you like to talk?”
“Yes, thank you,” the woman says. “But thankfully, though, not like the last time. It was a few months ago now. I spoke to a man. He sounded Indian, I think. To be honest, I thought I’d called the wrong number and got some customer service department in god-knows-where.”
“Daljeet,” Dr. Mo hollers, “your name is to conquer. I will not accept you blaming your faults on your nature. It does not change the nature of your faults. You must be perfect on your finals. One more grade of A-minus is too many.”
William’s caller takes a moment to clear her throat.
“I was hoping to pass along a message to him,” the woman says, “to thank him. I just wanted to call and pass along that message if he’s still there. He said his name was Mo. He was very kind, very insightful. He told me what I needed to hear. Will you tell him it’s from Roberta?”
“Of course,” William says, jotting Roberta’s note onto scrap paper. “Anything else?”
“No,” she says, “but thank you. He helped save my life. It’s not perfect, sure, but I think it’s gonna be okay.”
William replaces his receiver, and turns towards Dr. Mo’s cubicle.
“Do not just cross the river, Daljeet, cross it bearing fire.”
William wants to leave Dr. Mo’s note in the same place he leaves his newspaper each night, but, fearful of the bad karma, he looks for a push pin.
Entering the Samaritans’ lobby was easier for William in the winter. Darkness was darkness, whether it be four o’clock in the afternoon or eleven o’clock at night.
He hangs his coat and drops into his chair, relieved that he’s discovered whisky as the cure for the office’s terrible coffee. He sips, folds his hands in his lap and slouches his body to the right. He stares at his desk phone until it blurs in his vision, and he waits.
It’s just past midnight, and William has answered four calls from people who were just looking someone to chat with, nobody in any real danger.
“Samaritans,” William says.
“Hello,” a man says. “Is this the Samaritan Counselors?”
“It is. How’re you?”
“I think I just need a little perspective, if that’s all right,” the man says, sounding rather drunk. “You don’t have to answer, I guess, but do you speak with a lot of people who are suicidal?”
“Of course,” William says. “They come through in many different voices. Although no real ones tonight. Mostly Eleanor Rigby’s looking to chit chat.”
“Sometimes we get calls from lonely people who just want someone to talk to,” William says, “but they’re not really thinking about hurting themselves.”
“I see,” the man says. “How do you tell the difference?”
“Sometimes we even get the occasional prank call from someone who’s had too many cocktails.”
“Sure,” the man says. “So, do you always – or maybe just mostly – know when a call is serious?”
“For the most part –”
“Because I actually, really do think I might be thinking about hurting myself.”
William realizes he’s misunderstood. Maybe because the caller’s voice wasn’t too young or too old, or maybe because he was so clearly audible, despite the slurring.
“Do you want to talk?”
“I kinda just want to know if I’m really suicidal,” and the man forces a laugh. “I think about killing myself every day now – gunshot to the head. No pain. An easy exit. But I don’t know if I’m really gonna do it. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Are you thinking about hurting yourself tonight?”
“I don’t know,” the man says. “I just really want to know if there’s a danger in thinking about it every day. Or if maybe that’s a sign of someone who isn’t suicidal at all, maybe just someone who’s trying to make peace with the idea to move on?”
“How long have you regularly been thinking like this?”
The man’s breathing comes through the receiver in uneven vibrations, their inconsistency increasing with silence and time.
“Since my son died,” the man says with a quiver. “He was four. Brain cancer took him pretty fast.”
William reaches into his desk drawer and removes Carnegie’s Stop Worrying and Start Living, and begins a panicked search through the pages.
“Do you have any other children?”
“Have you ever read Dale Carnegie?”
William flips through the book, but he can’t find what he’s looking for, and time feels like it’s moving too quickly for him to find the page he wants before he loses the conversation. “Carnegie writes about the seven ways we can adopt an attitude that will bring peace and happiness.” Unable to find the proper chapter, William scales back to the table of contents and reads from the chapter’s title. “The first way is to fill your mind with thoughts of peace, courage, health, and hope.”
“Peace, courage, health, and hope?” the man says.
“Your son is no longer sick. He’s no longer suffering. Maybe that can help you find peace, for example. I bet he was brave in his fight, too. Maybe remembering his strength can be a source of courage for you. Try to focus on those good memories as a way to work through the understandable anger –”
“Good memories?” the man says. “Peace, courage, health, and what? Are you kidding me? I’m about to shoot myself and you invoke some quack’s advice for me to remember what my son looked like on his death bed. Do you know what he looked like when he was dying? He was unrecognizable by the end. Why would you assume there are good memories? Those memories are what’s making me want to die. Jesus Christ, I hope you haven’t been doing this long because you couldn’t sound any more like a bad salesman.”
The line went dead.
William’s eyes were welling up so quickly he didn’t even attempt to get to the men’s room. With his elbow on his desk and his hands over his face, William began to cry as silently as he could, although he knew the gasps could be heard throughout the call center. It was the same unnegotiable sadness he had felt for the first time just over a year ago, while crouched in a bathroom stall off a conference room where he’d been presenting a tutorial on teamwork as a natural byproduct of competent sales management. Back then William was what his company called a “young veteran,” and a talented public speaker. He was the go-to guy who stood in front of the banquet room of executives to make dreadful topics digestible. But on that day the stage lights didn’t black-out the audience, and William saw a table of his peers signaling for another round of drinks, and talking amongst themselves. At another table his boss was leaning back in his chair and looking at the ceiling, his attention nowhere near William. For the first time William became aware of his audience’s apathy, their boredom, their torture in spending their time with him instead of at the open bar.
Had it always been this way?
Had he ever been the man he always thought he was?
How long had he been alone in his self-perception?
William feels something slide across the back of his shoulders, then two hands cup his arms, and then the gentle weight of another person pressing down onto him.
“What happened?” Janet asks.
“I think I just killed someone.”
The sight of the Samaritans’ parking lot had become an anxiety trigger, but the dread William feels on the drive to his overnight Friday shift doesn’t yet outweigh his hope for purpose or progress. However, the contest in his head gets more competitive every week.
He parks as far away from the front entrance as he can, without being too suspicious. A warm spring twilight breeze coos through the open driver’s side window. William has the radio on, a song he likes but can think of the name or artist, but its comfortable to listen to with his seat reclined, drinking the three nips he needs to medicate himself enough to be able to walk into the Samaritans’ building and face his cubicle.
Every week now on his walks towards the front door he remembers his caller from last winter. “Gunshot to the head,” William says to himself. “No pain. An easy exit.” He reminisces on his caller’s words, comforted by a lingering, although weakening, attachment to the time when such a threat sounded crazy to him.
Sitting in his cubicle, sipping his spiked coffee, William stares at his chiming phone without picking it up. He knows after twelve rings the call will return to the directory’s loop, and be sent to another volunteer’s desk.
“You haven’t hurt anyone,” Janet says from over his shoulder. “Intent and result are sometimes as unrelated as perception and reality.”
“Thanks, Janet,” William says without turning. “I appreciate it.”
“You’re worrying us, William.”
Another call comes in. William sips his coffee and lets it ring.
The words had become wisdom. “Gunshot to the head. No pain. An easy exit.”
William sits in his car, turning the small six-chamber shooter in his hands, looking at it from all angles. He’d never held a gun before, and he couldn’t get over how surprised he was by its weight. There was a box of bullets on the passenger seat, and the Samaritans’ building through his windshield. Drinking his third nip, William wonders if he’s really going to give it another try.
Janet stands in the entry, holding the door open. She says something about the beautiful summer night, and she seems happy to see him, greeting William with a loving smile, as if she’d been waiting for his arrival.
“Please make sure to remember to see me before you leave tonight,” Janet says. “I have something for you.”
“It’s nice to see you too,” William says, faking a smile. He walks past Janet and the associates’ bulletin board, and into the call center.
He’s thankful not to hear Dr. Mo, just the normal, muffled voices of his co-volunteers. Summer nights produce the lightest volume of callers. But somehow there is something encouraging about the evening’s lack of desperate voices that makes William feel that his path is unique, almost righteous. The relative silence of the Samaritans’ call center makes William eager to finish his shift and get on with ending his life, to put an exclamation point on a path gone stale, to make one final statement of power over his unrealized potential.
With only an hour until his shift is over, William stares at the clock, sips his drink, and lets the phone ring in front of him. He could leave at any time, he realizes. There could be no consequence for leaving early tonight. William also wonders about his last caller, and the expiring hope, like watching a Hail Mary pass, that his final interaction will provide the salvation, or even some minor satisfaction, that he’d always anticipated his volunteerism would deliver.
“Samaritans’,” William says.
“Hello, yes,” says a man’s voice. “How are you tonight?”
“Do you need help, sir?”
“Who doesn’t? Am I right? We could all use a little direction. Don’t you agree? My son says that’s what I need since I retired. I need a hobby, he says. He’s grown now. He’s got a family of his own, out on the west coast –”
“Sir, this is a counseling line for people who are in danger. Are you in danger?”
“In this crazy world? I have to think we’re all in –”
William hangs up his receiver. It’s close enough to the end of his shift when he can leave without being too noticeable.
He finishes his drink, tucks in his chair, and ducks out of his cubicle. Ahead is the lobby, the door, his car, his escape. He wants it. He feels ready. Have you thought about who’s going to find you, he thinks to himself, and he nods. “Professionals,” he says to himself, and he fantasize about being missed, about his funeral, about the story he’s going to leave behind.
William pulls the lobby door open, sidesteps into the vestibule, turns towards the outer door, and pushes himself into the parking lot.
“William,” Janet beckons from behind.
He doesn’t stop.
He keeps walking, increasing his pace. He’s minutes away from finally solving his problem.
“William?” Janet yells. William, stop, please. I have something for you.”
He aims his body towards his car, but he realizes he can’t have Janet follow him any further if he’s going to successfully escape.
“William,” Janet says, “I asked you to see me before you left. I have something for you.”
He feels bad for tuckering out the old woman.
Janet pauses, and looks him over. “Do you want to talk?”
“I just forgot to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” Janet asks. “Not ‘goodnight?’”
“I think I’m all done here,” William says, avoiding her eye contact.
“Are you sure?” Janet asks. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?”
“I think so,” William says.
Janet takes a small piece of folded canary yellow note paper from her pocket. “I got to take this call before you came in. I didn’t put it on the board because I know you can’t look at it anymore.” Janet presses the small square of lined paper into William’s hand. “I remember him, so I’m sure you do too.”
William unfolds the note. It reads, “William, I got my ass in that chair.” He looks up from the scribbled message, connecting with Janet’s stare.
“Do you want to talk?”
“I think so,” he says.