Amrita steps off the metro at the Nehru Place station. Her mother has warned her that the city is dangerous late at night, so she takes every precaution. Bahija is already there, standing next to the stairs. They walk to work together every day, there’s safety in numbers. Outside the station, they hurry past tall buildings and shops crowned with glowing neon. Moving more quickly now, they pass the shiny new shopping center where Amrita spent the first rupees she’d ever earned on piri piri fries at McDonald’s. A tall hotel looms on the corner, shiny windows reflecting the bright lights. They’ll have to cut through the park if they’re going to make it to work on time.
At this hour, the city’s buzz has slowed to a muted hum. The night is warm and thick, a perpetual haze turning street lights to glowing globes strung along in the inky darkness like party lights. A family huddles together, sleeping in velvet shadows. The distant jangling of truck horns punctuates the stillness. Amrita and Bahija walk close together, like sisters, practicing their accents.
“Red car, sorry,” they say in unison, rounding their R’s.
“Good morning, friends.” Bahija says in a perfect English accent.
Amrita goes for American. “How may I help you today?”
“That’s too California,” Bahija says like a midwestern newscaster.
“California,” says Amrita, accent properly adjusted, “is a place I would like to go.” A place I will go, some day.
Bahija laughs and holds up two fingers. “Peace out,” she says like a true Californian.
Two more turns and they’re hurrying up the steps to the Talk Chat BPO, right on time. In here, it is bright as morning. The floor hums with conversation. Abey ready laga! Shouting punctuates the steady drone. Oye not ready hata! Operators switch from call to call, fragments of a familiar script float above rows and rows of sectioned-off work stations. Good Morning, sir. My name is Randy. How may I help you? Thank you for your loyal support.
Bahija slides into her chair, flashing a peace sign and a grin. Amrita, three stations down, smiles back, tucks her head set into her ears, and adjusts the microphone. She takes a deep breath and thinks of her favorite Seinfeld episode, the one where Elaine is dancing. She chuckles to herself. That funny dance always puts her in a good mood. “Good morning and thank you for calling BiggieMart,” she says rounding her R’s perfectly. “My name is Rita, how may I be of help?”
Sunlight begins to fall on streets and neat houses in a suburban neighborhood on the other side of the world. Karina McWilson is just getting out of bed. Saturday is sleep-in day, but she's always up early. She stretches, enjoying the satisfaction of waking up without an alarm. She unplugs her iPhone, slips it into the pocket of her cashmere hoodie and pads through the quiet house to the kitchen. Terra-cotta tile is cool under her bare feet and warm brass knobs gleam on navy and white cabinets. She shivers and checks the weather app. It’s going to be a warm day, maybe she’ll take the kids to the beach later.
Karina moves through the quiet house, opening drapes and shutters. The cat jumps up on a sipcovered sofa, the bell on his collar softly jingling. The newspaper is outside. Karina opens the front door and tips her face to the sun. A newly planted row of white impatiens glistens in droplets from the automatic sprinklers. Two plants look a little wilted. She’ll have a little chat with Manuel later about plant quality and replacements. The plastic-wrapped LA Times soaks in a shimmering puddle. Dammit. Again?
Stephen is stubborn when it comes to a “paper newspaper.” Karina wishes he’d just get with the times and go digital. They’ve compromised with a weekends-only subscription, but the damn thing still gets thrown into a puddle at least once a month.
She picks up the sodden mess and makes a mental note to call customer service after she makes the kids’ Acai bowls. She decides to add Greek yogurt for extra protein, which should keep them from begging for McDonald’s later. She’s already sent email to the corporation, to remind them of the country’s soaring obestity rates. It’s horrifying. Back in the kitchen, Karina opens the smooth aluminum refrigerator with a whoosh. Seriously? No oat milk?
“And this yogurt,” Karina says out loud, “is a little past its prime.” She takes a sniff for good measure.
Karina grabs her phone and punches in a quick order for delivery with BiggieBox. She’s against their workplace policies and some of the moms at school have mentioned child labor, but their prices are rock bottom. Something’s got to give if she wants to keep the Escalade.
By ten o’clock, fingers of irritation poke at the edges of Karina’s consciousness. She grumpily slides on a pair of Lulu leggings, circles her wrist with her smartwatch and pops wireless earbuds in each ear. On her way out the door, she checks on her BiggieMart order. Good, there’s just enough time for a run in before the driver arrives. Lord knows she needs the exercise today. “Going for a run!” she shouts to no one in particular.
“Bye!” the responses float out from three separate corners of the house. Karina shoots off a quick text to Stephen. Groceries coming. Be on the lookout. Perishables!!
When she arrives home, Karina finds four Biggie Box bags on the marble countertop. Ugh. She pictures the germs shimmying across their plastic bottoms. God knows where these have been. She begins to unload, putting the groceries away, swiping the counter with a Clorox wipe as she goes. It’s not until a few minutes later that she notices that there are no perishables. Half of her order is missing! Oh. My. God.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she mutters, swiping a Clorox wipe angrily. Stephen wanders into the kitchen and pours himself a cup of coffee, even though it’s edging towards noon. Karina retrieves her phone, waves it in his direction and snips, “Big BiggieMart fail. They forgot half of our order!”
Stephen peers over his mug. “You better call customer service, then. Work your magic.” He grabs an apple from the fruit basket, crosses one leg over the other, and leans against the counter.
Karina searches her phone for customer care. She punches the screen with restrained rage. It rings once, twice, then switches to music. Your call is important to us. Please hold for the next available operator. Karina presses one earbud into her ear and paces. A little red heart appears on her watch. BPM is rising, it blinks.
The call center floor is humming, louder and more chaotic. It's high call flow time. Amrita’s headset beeps softly, red light blinking urgently. Her stomach growls. She needs to use the toilet. She scans the cavernous room. Bahija is frowning at her screen. The RTA is circling, fingers tented, eyes flitting to the clock. She doesn’t dare ask him for a break. “Hello and thank you for calling BiggieMart. My name is Rita...”
“Hello, Rita,” Karina interrupts, writing the name down in all caps on the back of her grocery list, underlining twice. She looks at Stephen and makes a face. “I have a problem and I’m hoping we can solve it.”
“I'm sorry that our service did not exceed your expectations,” Amrita replies, “I will be happy to help you.”
When Amrita was in training, their instructor taught them about all the different types of callers they would encounter. “There are seven,” He’d said, ticking them off on his long fingers. “Aggressive, arrogant, organized, sweet, argumentative, rural and talkative.” Amrita can tell that this caller will be a mix of argumentative and aggressive. She thinks of Elaine doing that funny dance on Seinfeld, all elbows and feet. She forces a smile.
“Now,” she says pleasantly, “what seems to be the problem?”
Karina exhales loudly into the phone. Stephen is crunching on his apple. Irritation pulls taut, like a rubber band across her chest, each time he goes for a bite. Can’t these companies just hire people here?
“Well, Rita” she holds her hand over the phone and whispers dramatically. Stephen’s mouth hovers over the apple. “I hate the fake names. Rita. I bet she made it up. So annoying.”
On the other side of the world, Amrita focuses on her screen. They always think she can’t hear. She and Bahija have lists of all the mean things people say. Sometimes when they get off work, they walk through the park in the hazy early morning light and compare notes, their laughter sending flocks of birds into flight.
The tinny voice continues. “I ordered my groceries this morning, and guess what?” Karina pauses for dramatic effect. “You guys screwed up.”
Before the caller can start ranting, Amrita grits her teeth and speaks. “Of course, I’m very sorry that you are not satisfied with our service.” She rarely calls American women ma’am. It sets them off and she only has seven minutes to complete the call. “Before we get started, I’ll need to get some information from you. Will you give me your name, please?”
“K-A-R-I-N-A” The words come out of Karina’s mouth in an angry rush. “My problem, Rita,” she snaps, “Is that your company has charged me for items that I have not received. I ordered oat milk and yogurt and vegetables. I did not receive any of these things. This is not acceptable. I’ll need to give your driver a two-star rating and I’d like to revoke the generous tip I gave him. Please make a note of that. My next stop is going to be Yelp.”
Amrita types furiously. The driver has submitted a receipt, the order is complete. Oat milk, Greek yogurt, organic vegetables, they are all there. “I see that the driver did indeed complete the transaction for your groceries,” she switches to another screen. “I’ll open a ticket for you now, and we will begin an inquiry.”
Stephen tosses his apple core into the sink and moves on. Karina grimaces. The band around her chest tightens. The trash can is right here, dude. She opens the refrigerator, stopping short. She cocks her head, squints into the cool air. Who put the oat milk away? That’s not where it goes.
At that moment, Kensie walks into the kitchen, her hair wound on top of her head in a sassy bun. “Ooh, mom,” her voice drips with ten year old teenage swagger, “You’re about to blow.”
Amrita hears the young voice and thinks of her own two girls, living with her parents in Uttar Pradesh. She imagines them helping her mother with the chores, cooking, walking to school. Both of them so smart. She sends all of her extra money home.
“All right,” she says. “I have initiated a ticket.”
Standing in the blue light of the refrigerator, Karina spots two cartons of yogurt. She picks one up, it’s heavy. Huh. She looks at Kensie, holding up the yogurt. “Did you know this was in here?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Kensie, yawning. “I got the groceries from the guy and I put away the cold stuff. You always get mad when the perishables stay out too long. Can we get McDonald’s later?”
Ohmygod. Karina feels the blood surging from her neck to her cheeks. The band around her chest dissolves in a surge of horror. Everything is here. The oat milk, the yogurt, everything. Right down to one avocado with a bright green sticker proclaiming I’m organic!
“Rita?’ she says slowly into the phone, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“I’m so sorry that our customer service has not exceeded your expectations,” Amrita replies, confusion crowding her thoughts. This has never happened before.
“No, no,” the words come out in a flush of embarrassment. Karina shakes her head. “I’m an idiot. It’s not you, it’s me. My daughter, she put the groceries away and I didn’t notice.”
Amrita can’t help it, she begins to laugh. There is silence on the other end of the line, then a chuckle.
Both women dissolve into deep belly laughs, tension releasing, a balm. Amrita’s shoulders relax. She pictures a woman on the other side of the world, laughing in Jerry Seinfeld’s kitchen, with its enormous white refrigerator. She pictures a telephone with a curly cord and a fruit bowl on the counter. She thinks of her own daughters, such good girls. “What a helpful girl,” she says, regaining her composure. “You are very lucky to have such a good and helpful girl.”
“She is, Rita,” Karina pats Kensie on the head. “She is. Do you have kids?”
“I do,” the voice on the other side of the world replies, “I have two girls. I work because of them.”
Karina feels a strange connection, a bond of motherhood, traveling from cell tower to cell tower, bright electronic pulses spinning out from the dark of night in India to the middle of the day in Los Angeles and back. “Thank you, Rita. I know how hard it is to be away from your children all day. I appreciate your help and your patience with me. I’m sorry I was so mean.”
“Thank you for saying that,” Amrita replies softly, “Mistakes happen and you are kind to apologize. Most people don’t.” Her timer is ticking. Thirty seconds left. The RTA circles, glancing at her screen.
“I mean it, really. One more thing before we hang up,” Karina scrolls on her her phone. “Your real name. What is it?”
“I am Amrita.”
“Thank you Amrita. I’m Karina.” She glances at the screen. It’s 1:30 a.m. in India. “Have a good night.”
Amrita smiles at that small detail, her voice becoming professional once again. “I’ve updated the ticket now and we’re all set. We appreciate your business and we thank you for being a loyal customer. Have a nice day, Karina.”
The phones click off. On one side of the world, a mother slows down at last, sits down to lunch and laughs with her daughter. On the other side of the world, another mother waits for a soft beep and a blinking red light, takes a deep breath and promises to return home to her girls.
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What a great story, Julie! I love the connection you formed and the way you moved back and forth between the two perspectives. I also love how it came to an unexpectedly happy ending - I hope more calls end like that. Wonderful!
I'm so glad you liked it, Kristin! It's been a doozy of a week, so this one felt a little scattered to me. I tightened it up a bit this morning, so hopefully it flows a little better. I really wanted to go for that sense of place, and the contrast between the two women. I hope that came through. I also did a deep dive into life in a call center, which was fascinating.
Congrats on coming up with a solid story amid a crazy week. I know how that goes. Sometimes, it feels like an accomplishment just to post something. But you did more than just post - it was such an interesting story that drew me in throughout. Your research into the call center really came through. As much as I loved the entire story, it was the setting up of Amarita and the call center description I found truly fascinating. I’m so glad you managed to post - it’s always a disappointment if a week goes by without a Julie award story.
You are so kind. I actually had a nice customer service interaction/conversation a little while ago and I started thinking about the actual person on the other end of the line. That's what sparked the story, so it's been floating around in my head. I know a little bit about life in Delhi, but I watched a few minutes of a show called "Delhi Crime" to get a better idea of what the city feels like at night. I'm going to go back and watch the whole thing - it looks really good! And that's how we travel in 2021...at least for now! Ha!
Well Julie, that was a very nice story, with only minor grammatical errors (mainly having to do with the placement of your commas--make sure that a comma is warranted). I liked the mood you developed and the link between the two women/mothers. This story did not have any big plot element or problem, but was more of a cultural contrast (I am not sure what genre that would be, or if it needs one). You did an excellent job of the two settings and I thought that you developed the characters nicely. Since I am pretty sure that you are American o...
Julie you are getting better and better which is almost impossible because you were already so good. I’ve said it before but your gift for description is out of this world. This stories comment on the human condition should be required reading. An absolute triumph. If you get a moment please check out “The End of The Beginning for me?
Thank you, Thom! I'm so glad you stopped by to read this one. For some reason, I really like this story - maybe because I miss being able to travel. Or maybe because I'm ordering so much online, which means I'm talking to customer service reps more! Ha! Reading your stories is always a pleasure. I'm heading over now!
I actually work in a call center so this one really struck a cord. It was really magnificent.
Really!!?! Wow, you must have some stories!! I've had a lot more positive interactions with people who work in call centers than negative. I remember one call in particular that was so nice, with a phone - or maybe cable - rep years ago. We both kind of stayed on the line, making excuses to keep chatting. My kids were little at the time and I really needed adult interaction...and she was just so friendly! I'm fascinated by the whole industry overseas as well. I did have one guy-at a small company here in SoCal - who took the call in a ve...
It’s an odd job for sure. It’s full of short relationships. I am an escalations specialist so I deal with the people who are the angriest. I pride myself in being able to de-escalate calls. I also develop training and serve as a subject matter specialist for many of our products. It isn’t my childhood dream but it pays the bills. 😀
I'd be willing to bet money that you are very, very good at your job.
I love this! It’s fresh and vibrant. The characters are distinct and real. The conflict builds beautifully to the resolution and the grace that Amrita has speaks volumes to customer service workers - you’re lucky to have such a helpful child indeed! Love the name choice - just a smidge from Karen but far enough away that it’s not a cliche Your writing is so real - I love it!
Thank you Laura! I am so happy that you saw the Karen in Karina! I wanted to give her a few traits that would poke at the reader - that was one of my subtle ways of making her a little prickly without being too unlikeable. I'm so glad you liked the story. I really enjoyed imagining the two characters in their separate worlds!
Very nicely done...I love the way you meld the two perspectives. Kudos! If you have a moment please read my story The New Years Resolution and leave a comment.
Man, when you wrote, "Most people don't," you were speaking capital "T" Truth. Such a sweet story. In customer service you always remember the interactions that are rough, but when one goes right like this--like, almost supernaturally right--it outshines all the very bad ones. You captured the life of a customer service rep so well--the conversations on the walk home are therapy--and also captured the life of the customer, too. Great juxtaposition, and such a great choice in endings.
I'm glad you picked up on the juxtaposition - I wanted to show how different the characters are, and and how they have a lot in common too. It sounds to me like you've spent some time in the customer service trenches!
This is all so true and you don’t even need description to perfect it. It’s beautiful on its own with the realistic feel and research and connections. Wow. “I’m Karina” You just forgot a period here at the end after Karina. What a nice name. What a nice story.
Thank you, Scout! I fixed the period, thank you for pointing it out! I really like the idea of two people on opposite sides of the planet, who have no connection whatsoever, finding something in common.
I like that idea too--far and near. :) Very well-written.
You're missing a word that you may have time to fix: It’s going to (BE) a warm day... in the beginning of Karina
Thanks for the heads up! I just fixed it.
I love the way you researched this! The care shows through in the story. I was transported by your description of hazy street lights in humid air. And the way the women were practicing their accents was a great moment (and relatable because I'm weird like that and would love to have someone to practice different accents with...). The details you invoked for Karina and her family were very powerful, too. As much as I wasn't liking Karina, I liked Steve less for putting his apple core in the sink. I was surprised by the way Karina redeemed her...
Thank you! This story was kind of an excuse to do some research, actually. I found a couple of fascinating articles and some Reddit threads that gave me a real picture of what it's like to work a call center overseas. It's a brutal life. The people I read about had all sorts of different perspectives on the long overnight hours, the callers, having their entire lives turned upside down and inside out. Amrita is a combination of several women I read about - bright, ambitious, often college graduates with prior professions, who see the call...