Tom stared unmoved through the cottonwood trees behind his ranch; his Sony fifty-five inch high definition TV monitor tumbled end over end, cartwheeling like a glass spewing boulder down the steep North Dakota gully, finally settling on the banks of the frozen Red. “I’ve had enough Martha,” he said out loud, fingering his blue turquoise bola, speaking to beyond the river; to the family plot, the snow-covered meadow where three generations of Scotts were buried.
With a steady drip, the techno world had finally spilled over the top of his frustration bucket, already choke-full. And the last drop was such a small thing really. Netflix had simply moved their EXIT button to a nebulous space on the lower right making it difficult to find; but really it was more than that, he admitted to himself. It was the INTENT behind the move, and so many moves like it, the disregard for any human courtesy in the avaricious world of those he would get back at. But where to go with it? And that’s when the business idea came to him that could make him wealthy beyond all reason.
“You can’t just change things around like that Tom,” said Harold, the winter blowing harder than ever out the plate glass windows of Sally’s Diner in Fargo.
Tom motioned with his paper napkin at his friend to wipe the egg from the corner of his mouth, dripping down his handlebar mustache. “But I can Harold, I can.”
“So tell me again.” Harold was used to Tom’s antics but always needed about three tellings before grasping the intricacies of his business ideas: like using barbed wire to scrape the weeds from the north forty, or hiring genome students from Colorado State to reverse engineer locusts; and then there's the one he liked best, piping classical music to get alfalfa to grow faster, which worked, but they just couldn’t monetize it.
“It’s a club. Worldwide scale if you think about it.” Tom tried to move his legs under the table, couldn’t, and just let his lanky self spread out into the aisle.
“You said there’s an agreement.”
“Yup. A promise to reduce using social media when they enter the contest.”
“Do you think folks would do that?”
“Maybe not. Nice to find out though.”
Harold’s face squinched up, his face leather tan to his hat line, white above. “You’ll need to test it."
“Come to the ranch tonight,” Tom said, tapping his ring finger twice on the Formica with a click, click. “Won’t take long to get an inbound. Bring your pad to take notes.”
That night Tom and Harold huddled in at Tom’s kitchen table. They each popped a Schlitz and waited. In no more than a few minutes Tom’s phone gave a ring, not the wall phone which never rang, but his Jitterbug Flip2. He checked the caller ID, hit record, and put the caller on speaker.
A pleasant young woman’s recorded voice said, 'You are in danger of losing your Google Business Listing. This could mean severe repercussions to your business. Dial one to speak with an operator.'
Tom pointed to the phone with an exaggerated finger, mouth wide in a silent guffaw, then gestured to Harold with a loud whisper, “Start the dern timer!” He then pressed ‘1’ and put the phone on speaker.
A male voice came on the phone. “With whom am I speaking?”
“This is Tom Scott. How can I help?”
“Do you have a business Mr. Scott?”
”I sure do. Many of them you might say.”
”You understand your business needs a Google Business Listing to be truly successful don’t you?”
“Sounds good so far.”
“Yes sir. You’ll simply need to set up an account for direct access to the on-line tool.”
“Is there an investment?”
“Three-hundred and twenty-nine dollars to gain all the benefits of Google driving customers to your business.”
“What do I do after you drive them over and all?”
“We don’t actually drive them over sir.”
“What do you do then?”
“What is the name of your business for the listing sir? We’ll want to set you up right away.”
“Phil’s Muskrat Extermination.”
“But your name is Thomas Scott?”
“I don’t want anyone to know I exterminate muskrats.”
Harold pressed his thumb on the stopwatch and Tom hung up the phone. “What’s the time guy?” Tom said.
“One minute thirty-five seconds.”
“We can do better.”
“Ok. Let’s do another.” Harold rose up in his seat and held up his phone. “I’ve got a spam message from Direct TV right here.”
“Ok. Get ready. Gimme that stopwatch.” Tom counted down with his finger. One… two… three, and he pointed to Harold and clicked the watch with his thumb as Harold hit ‘CALL BACK’ on his phone.
In no time Harold had a conversation going …
“But I’m still confused,” Harold said. “If I have Direct TV with the sports channel can I get PBS?”
“Yes sir. PBS is in that lineup. That’s our Premium Select.”
“What if I don’t ever watch PBS?”
“You’ll still have the Premium Select and will have the Sports Channel and ESPN.”
“Can I trade not wanting the PBS for wanting ESPN?”
“I’m not sure what you mean sir.”
“Well let’s say I wake up on a Sunday with a hangover like I do and don’t want sports that day. Can I cancel and then up again on Monday?”
Tom hit the stop watch like he was at the Texas National Rodeo. “One minute fifty-two seconds!”
“We can still do better,” Harold said, rising up in his chair. “Look at my phone. I’ve got another five spam messages flagged. We’ve got some work to do.”
“Ok,” Tom said. “A little advice though. You can’t go antagonistic. You gotta play the line, giggle it a little, tickle it with your middle finger, and then let the line string out again. Got it?”
“Straighter than fence posts,” Harold said.
The submissions came in slow for three months until one early morning, twenty below outside, Tom checked, and immediately called Harold. “Get over here. The bass are biting and the beavers are in the water!”
Harold’s white Ford pickup spun into Tom’s iced driveway and Harold dashed to the front door of the house. Tom called from inside. “Come on in guy. It’s open.”
Tom was at the kitchen table underneath his pushed back Stetson with that squinty look he gets when he’s crunching numbers. “So here’s the deal,” he said. “We’ve been testing the market for five dollars each submission. That seems to be ok. They’ve been sending us the transcript of the call and the time from when the call is ‘nitiated to the hangup. That works too.”
“Initiated,” Harold said.
“That’s what I said, ‘nitiated.”
“Will you just listen up! You know they must record, post the audio file, and we have the right to audit. Done.”
“And then we judge by the length of the call and also the creativity and somebody wins the two-fifty. I know all that,” said Harold. “Maybe the two-fifty is not enough.”
Tom thought a minute on that. “We can always up it later. I’m thinking five-hundred with two runner ups, one for one-hundred and one for fifty.”
“It’s not working though. It doesn’t seem like—“
“Hold that thought. Here’s the latest. The hook. I set it up so members can comment on everybody else’s submission and also give ‘likes’. The judges decide who wins though.”
Harold shook his head slowly. “It’s only as good as the fannies in the saddles. Have you had any response on Boiler Room Busters yet?
“That’s the thing; why I called. The 'comments' and the ‘likes’ kicked it. This weeks submissions are over three hundred. I already checked for tomorrow. We’ll have over a thousand next week.”
“I'll be hell-fired.”
The clock read six-fifteen in the morning before Tom and Harold had gone through all the submissions. Tom was concentrating on the yellow legal pad in front of him with three columns. “I think the winner should be the lady with the name angle.”
“Play that one again. They’re all starting to sound the same.” Harold was nursing his fifth coffee that morning.
“Ok. Here's the part I like.”
A woman’s voice on the recording said, ‘… well ok. Let’s go ahead I guess. The name on the card is Martha Wolfeschlegelsteinhausen.’
‘Wolfeschlegelsteinhausen. With a double-u’
‘How do you spell that?’
‘Let’s work through it sonny. 'W' like in whatchamacallit. 'O' like in olfactory…’
Tom paused the recording. “It goes on like that remember? I think she’s the winner.”
Harold leafed through his legal pad. “There’s the couple in Ireland that could be better. Remember the lady coming on the line?”
“Play that one again.”
“Here’s where she comes in.”
‘… is this Virgin Cable?’
‘Yes. I was just finishing up with Mr. Kelly.’
‘Well. Mr. Kelly is confused laddie. He’s drooling into his porridge right now and can’t talk. I’m Mrs. Kelly. Can I approve everything? I know Mikey was excited to move forward.’
‘Yes ma'am. Mr. Kelly was ready to go with the cable solution including Sky Sports, Sky Cinema and BT Sport.’
‘Lord that sounds like just what we need. Can you go over it from the beginning? I’m sure we will go ahead. I want to get all the details though.’
Harold gave a thumbs up and hit PAUSE. “I think that’s the winner. They double tag-teamed with a reverse switch. Stars for creativity. Plus. Are you ready? One-hour and thirteen minutes. A new record.”
Tom took a big breath, exhaled slowly, and took one hand and wiped it across the top of his wispy white head. “This is really tough. They’re all good. And now we’ll have thousands of submissions.”
Harold reached out and touched Tom’s arm. “It’s ok buddy. We’ll just need more judges. But there’s something else isn’t there? I know you pretty well, kinda’ like knowing you keep a wall phone because Martha wouldn't let you give it up?"
Tom rose and went to the rear window. "She always said the land line was the only phone we needed."
"Yes she did… but I saw the paperwork on the table when I came in Tom. What’s that about my friend?”
Tom noticed snow flurries were starting to come down. “Did you ever think we could move the needle, get people to live more outside the tech world, press the flesh more, use social media less? It could be the best thing we’ve done in our lives.”
“Sure I did. It’s gotten crazy out of control though.”
Now the sky looked like real snow was possible; the monitor was still all busted up at the bottom of the gully, the river still frozen over, and the meadow beyond still covered by a white blanket. “Those are lawsuits on the table Harold. All the, what I guess they call conglomerates, are scratchin’ the dirt like bulls to take me down. They’re calling it deceptive business practices, making me cease and desist, whatever that is.” Tom nodded to the window. “Fun and games are over Harold. I think I might lose everything, the ranch, everything.”
Roy Wilkin’s kid, Jimmy, took the case and it worked its way up the court system. Everything came to a head in Washington, DC the next fall. Tom said the only reason it went that far was because he was David against Goliath and the politicians had to make it look good, what with the news media picking up on the story, calling it—when Tom read it aloud from the Fargo Times—‘a tidal wave of public sentiment against boiler room solicitations intruding on people’s lives.’
The judges sat on the bench with patient expressions on their faces, bored even, lined up in their black robes. The plaintiffs were from New York, but London and even Tokyo were in the back, if you could count them as they had no jurisdiction, but they were there, knowing it was just a matter of time till the ‘tidal wave of public sentiment’ hit their shore also.
Hundreds of people in the court, the gallery, including the press, all looked on as the sharpest attorney of them all, the black pinstriped man with a thin mustache spoke to the bench. “Your honors, not only is the tying up of salespeople without the intent to purchase malicious, but worse, counterproductive to the unemployment rate. These people are innocents, thrown onto a cold unforgiving unemployment line by such tactics. We are here to protect jobs, the livelihood of millions.” Thin mustache then paused to let that settle in. When the murmuring in the courtroom was over he said, “I call to the stand Ms. Ann Woodson, from Boston, Massachusetts.” Ms. Woodson made her way down through the rows of people in her white blouse, hair pulled back, glasses. All eyes turned. She took the witness stand. After she was sworn in and the preliminary questions were out of the way the thin mustache got to the heart of the matter. “So you lost your job is that right Ms. Woodson?”
“Why did you lose your job Miss Woodson?”
“I couldn’t make my quota. I just felt blindsided, like everyone I talked to knew something I didn’t.”
“What did you do after you were terminated?”
“I took on two roommates, but I was luckier than most I guess. I found I could be re-trained. I’m working through that now.”
“Ah ha! But the point is you were fired do to people aligned with Boiler Room Busters deceptively taking your time, your livelihood, away. Am I right?”
As Tom and his attorney came out, the courtroom door slammed behind them, echoing off the empty marble floor in the grand hall. Harold sat waiting on a bench at the far end of the corridor. Tom excused his attorney and headed toward Harold with only the sound of his boots bouncing off the walls, in days gone long past the spurs jingling, striding between a gauntlet of silent white statues looking down on him with blind eyes of justice.
“Hello, my friend,” Harold said with a tight smile.
“Let’s get out of here.”
The two men exited the building and stood together on high marble exterior steps and Tom took in the bright light of day like he was puzzled by the glare. Behind them bold letters stood above the eight white columns of the US Supreme Court Building—‘EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW’.
Harold chuckled. “You’re a stubborn SOB you know that? Why didn’t you let your attorney know you filed non-profit, charitable? Hell, stubborn? You’re stubborn stupid is what you are. I mean, hiding you were the one behind the re-training programs for anyone laid off. Keee-riced” Harold bent over and shook his head laughing.
“We won Harold. We won.” Tom said it soft and like a question.
Harold was surprised by what he saw in Tom's face. “There’s a reception at The Willard Tom. Hundreds are there now. Folks want to congratulate you. Shake your hand?"
“I’m not so sure about that. We had us some sport. I'm not so sure we changed anything. And I almost lost everything important to me and I'm not so sure I'll be that lucky next time.” Tom looked from the side back at Harold, raised a white eyebrow, and extended his hand with a sly smile. After they shook, he tossed to Harold his Jitterbug Flip2 and started down the marble steps.
Harold hesitated, holding Tom’s phone. "Tom?" Tom turned to look back to his friend and Harold cried out to him from high up at the courthouse entry. “They’re saying you put the boiler room industry on its head Tom. They’re saying people are thinking about what's important, and more than that Tom. They’re saying you’re a legend, a man of vision Tom!”
The blue turquoise bola flashed in the sun. “You go Harold. I’ve got a date with a meadow.”