Dear Robert James Waller

Ellen Wade Beals

 I loved your book, so romantic and tender. Bittersweet, I think that’s the right word. It’s plain as day you know desire. And you know Iowa. So I figure what better writer to write—right? I’ll tell you everything. Please just tell me what to do.

Think of me as Cherry. I know, that’s over the top, but it’s what everyone around here knows me as. I’m accustomed to it. Cherry is nice, something juicy and delectable, more wholesome than skanky. Anyway, I’ve been Cherry for some nine months now. Hard to believe.

Peg hired me. Madam Peg we used to tease, but really she was more like Selma Diamond than anybody. Remember Selma Diamond from Night Court? The cigarette- smoking little pug of a woman? That was Peg—she had it all going on: the dyed yellow hair cut short and spiked, the nails out to there, all acrylic and bright (to this day I can hear them drumming on the desktop). She was the one who interviewed me, sat me down opposite her desk in a little trailer, just outside our ordinary farm town that butts up against the Wisconsin border. “I need someone who is good with people.” She flicked her ashes and waited for my response. What could I tell her but the truth? I’ve been a people person all my life. “Our clients are men—do you have any problem with the opposite sex?” I always got along pretty good with men, I told her. I was married, and me and Carl had two kids, that’s why the hours of this job were so appealing.

“What is your understanding of the position?” She resumed smoking, taking two drags, one right after the other.

The ad in the Pennywise Pages said telephone sales, that was my understanding. “You’re right,” she said, “it is telephone sales. But do you know what we’re selling?”

“Time shares?”

With this she let out a laugh so I did too. “We do offer our clients a chance to get away, but it is only over the phone. We give them an escape.”

I wasn’t following. “Let me put it this way sweetie: guys call and we talk dirty.”

I didn’t know what to say so she went on, all the time speaking in an even tone.

“Have you ever heard the term ‘phone sex operator?’” She didn’t wait for my answer. “It’s a bad term, a naked lady at a switchboard. I like ‘telephone sales.’ Only we don’t need to sell—they call us to purchase. We’re a service.”

“We answer the phones here in this trailer?” I looked around at the place –it was new but cheap, clean but with bad lighting from an overhead fluorescent. Yeah, she said, she was even building us cubicles, each with a desk, a telephone. Everything was going to be installed the next week. So far she had two girls from Dubuque, a housewife from Dyersville, and another probable from around the area. She had done this before, she said, run a number from outside New York City, but her boss, Mr. Jerry, wanted to move out to the country, and she arranged it. You could do this anywhere.

Mr. Jerry probably wouldn’t make an appearance, she said, he never did before. After the explanation, she counted it out again on her hand, “I only need one more but I am not so sure about you. Can you talk dirty? I bet you get embarrassed. This might not be for you, this job.” She shrugged.

I hate it when people think I can’t do something. Right then I wanted the job—to show her that even though I was born and bred in Scales Mound, I was no ordinary country bumpkin. I was good as any New York girl, maybe even better.

“You’re wrong,” I said, “I can do it, no problem.”

The cigarette was snuffed out so she considered her nails before looking at me, “Do you know what you’re saying?”

“I can do it.”

“Some guy is going to call you and he’ll probably have his schlong out already, while he’s dialing, and he’s going to want you to bring it to attention, to sit up in his lap like an eager dog. And you are going to help him walk that puppy all the way home. He’s not going to want to stop until he’s come full circle, if you catch my drift. And you have to make him enjoy it, but extend his pleasure—that’s how we make our money, by the minute. So we don’t just want satisfied customers; we want satisfied customers who stay on the phone. You got that—right? What it’s going to be like – you understand it fully? Capiche?”

“Yeah I get it. I can do it,” I said, though I wasn’t so sure.

“You’re savvy?”

“Yeah I’m savvy.” I could be savvy. I could be matter of fact and sophisticated–it wasn’t real, it was over the phone. I just had to clear it with Carl first, wouldn’t be a good wife if I didn’t. Others didn’t have to know what I sold in my telephone sales job, but Carl did. I’m not saying the idea didn’t take some getting used to.

It was date night, our first in a long time, and we went to the Bridge Restaurant so I could have a Brandy Alexander. It was after we got our cocktails that I sprang the idea on him. “I had a job interview.” I made sure to sound nonchalant.

He stirred his Black Velvet and cola with his finger, licked it, and sounded interested, “Really.”

“Off Council Hill Road, in a trailer.”

“Doing what?’

“It’s like telephone sales, that’s what the lady said, only it’s not like telephone sales.”

“What?”

“I’ll just say what it is.” First I looked around to make sure the waitress wouldn’t be coming to the table soon. “Telephone sales of sex, you know, phone sex.”

Carl sat up in his chair. “Are you kidding me?”

“I know. It was hard not to tell you yesterday, but I couldn’t bring it up.” He gave a look that insisted I continue.

“Anyway, I saw this ad and called, and made the interview appointment, and I get there and it’s this lady, a real nice lady, Peg, and while she’s interviewing me, she lets on what service it is that they sell.”

“Talking dirty,” Carl says matter of fact, like we’re watching CSI and he’s just figured out the case.

“Yep. Peg says not to call it phone sex operator. That’s a naked lady at the switchboard.” It sounded so absurd I just had to laugh.

And then, to my surprise, Carl did too. Sometimes we run out of things to say over salad but that night we never did. I told him about the trailer, the other girls, and how I said to Peg I had to think about it when really I meant no. “’I’m a married woman’—that’s what I told her, but then she got to talking about money and we never came back to the yes or no, just left it that I’d call her.”

Carl ordered another round, and asked, “So how much we talking about?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean how much does it pay, and are you really anonymous?”

That night the date ended quite well. “Let’s just suppose,” Carl asked after he had paid the bill and left the tip and grabbed a toothpick on the way out, “I was to call.” He gave me a grin I hadn’t seen in a while, and that night in the car, as we crossed over to Illinois, the Mississippi dark beneath us, Carl pretended to phone in, and outside of Galena, we pulled to the side of the road like we’d done in high school.

There would be lots of plusses: the hours were great—two nights and two days per week; the flexibility—I could make my own schedule; the convenience—this trailer office was only 20 minutes from my front door; and the pay—more profitable than anything else in the middle of corn country. Believe me, we needed money, what with Carl’s job outsourced four months back. His being a volunteer fireman was just that—voluntary—good for getting him out of the house but it didn’t pay squat. Thank God for unemployment. By weekend’s end, he told me to go on and call Peg. In a way it was her that made we want the job at all, just to prove myself. I can still hear myself telling her, “I’m savvy.”

I don’t do my best with everything – who can? And some things, let’s be honest, don’t rate your best anyway; it would just be wasted. But on this, I did my best. In the early days there’d be fat Eileen (the older of the Dubuque sisters), an Eve cigarette at the ready in that cheap tin ashtray, her Hanes hoodie pulled tight over her stomach bulges, and she’d answer the phone like she was doing them a favor. I’d think to myself couldn’t she at least dress a little nicer? Couldn’t she have a little more energy, show a little more enthusiasm? These guys are paying a lot of money. Sure, a lot of people don’t think of this as a legitimate business, so in some twisted way, I figured I had to be professional about it all the more. I didn’t wear a three-piece suit to work, but I at least came in presentable clothes. After I got a couple of checks, I started to get bi-weekly manis and pedis, so I guess you could say the job boosted my self-esteem. At least I worked on being attractive.

Which was more than Eileen did, but the guys seemed to like her, that nasal voice and couldn’t-care-less attitude really sparked some of them. Maybe it was like they were doing their old lady. But that is beside the point.

It was the first call that kind of defined me. Because even though I thought I was prepared for this job, I wasn’t. I suspect Peg didn’t think I was ready either, so she listened in to my first time and she made certain it was with a regular. And sure enough, when that deep voice came over the line I was flustered, sheepish, almost on the verge of hanging up.

“Are you there, doll?”

I managed to answer in a very small voice “Yes I’m here.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m new at this.”

“You’re a newbie?”

“Yes.”

“A virgin?”

And I thought for a minute and figured technically I was. “Yes.”

“Cool,” he said, “I’ll be gentle with you, cherry.” So that was how I got my name and my persona because the guys liked it that way. They liked that I was hesitant; that they had to tell me what they’d do, what they wanted me to do. And I was always compliant and then I’d make it seem like I couldn’t help myself, like they were so alluring I couldn’t stop from feeling ecstatic, from being overcome. And it worked great because I didn’t really even have to talk dirty, well too dirty, or say anything disgusting, well too disgusting, and the guys always hung up satisfied because I had pumped them up, made them feel irresistible.

So whereas Eileen was the gruff one who said the most pornographic stuff and treated the guys like a bitch, and Teddy was the party girl, all revved up for va-va-va- voom, and Brett was the black eyeliner girl who liked tattoos, motorcycles, and leather, I was the one who was demure and giggly and not quite sure of how it would all turn out but who was eventually swept away by the caller. I couldn’t help myself, or so it seemed.

It’s changed a lot since I started. Technology is so improved that Eileen and some of the new ones don’t even have to leave their homes. They are all hooked up somehow. But I wouldn’t want either of my babies in the next room listening. So party girl Teddy and me—we’re the only two from that first crew who still come to the trailer. And Selma Diamond’s desk sits empty—I’ve not even met the person who screens our calls now, she’s in the remote office in Chicago or a suburb. I bet you think I am going to tell you Madam Peg died of lung cancer or something like the real Selma Diamond. No, she set up shop and stayed for a while and then went back East where her mother was dying. And, I have never met Mr. Jerry. Our checks are from Midwest Sales, the address is a P.O. box in Glenview, Illinois.

We’ve all had our share of weirdos. If a guy asked if I was a young one and seemed to be into the ruffled panties of a prepubescent girl, I would tell him he had it all wrong, I was eighteen, just. I figured feeding these guys’ fantasies was wrong if I didn’t also make them aware of the age of consent. Or, if the dude said anything about violence, I’d terminate the call. Our goal was to help the lonely, not the criminal. There were other girls that did those calls—he could re-connect with the operator. So think what you may, but I did have some standards. It wasn’t all about the money.

So when I got his call last Friday night, I had no intention of doing anything more than satisfying his harmless fantasy.

“Hiya Cherry,” he introduced himself. “I heard about you from my buddy, he said you weren’t like the others.”

“Well that’s nice, that he liked me.”

“Oh yeah, he did.”

“I hope you like me too. I’ll try.” I left a beat of silence. “Real hard.”

“That’s good, you trying. ‘Cause nothing else is going my way tonight. I couldn’t get lucky if I put horseshoe up my ass.”

“You might get lucky with me.”

“Don’t be teasing now. You’ll take me all the way—right? I can’t take any more losing.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Cherry, I went to the casino and I lost it all. You know what I got?”

“No baby, what you got?”

“I got dick, Cherry, nothing. The only thing I have in my hands is my dick.”

“Oooh.” So you can probably guess how it went from there. I walked him through a whole scenario of tender loving care – the drink, the shower, and the sex. You can guess how it went.

The only time the scenario varied from the usual was when he said, “Cherry,” in such a way that made me take notice because I thought we were on a roll.

“Yeah, baby.”

“Tell me I’m better than him.”

It took me a minute to compute, but I guessed what to say. “You’re better than him. He doesn’t compare.”

“Tell me he don’t mean anything.”

Somebody screwed him over. I switched gears as fast as I could, “Of course he doesn’t. He doesn’t mean a thing. You’re the only one. You’re my guy. It’s you I want.”

“Tell me you’re sorry.”

“Oh man, I am so sorry. He doesn’t mean a thing. You’re better than him. I’m so, so sorry.”

He was quiet.

“Really I’m sorry baby.”

He was silent still, like an honest-to-god boyfriend who wanted to make me beg.

“Baby,” I said. “Baby,” I began again, and this time made my voice catch, like tears could be falling, “I’ll make it up to you. What can I do? How can I show you how sorry I am?” Now the terrain was more familiar, I needed only to follow the crumbs to beg forgiveness and turn him on. “Let me make it better.”

Then I made all the noises you’d expect, the slurps and moans. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I got into this part. And usually my clients did too. This night was no exception. So at one point, just after our final clutch, I needed a moment to regulate my breathing. When I listened again, I can’t really say what I heard, but it was kind of like that mash of noises made when a telephone modem connects to the Web—remember that noise, so jarring and harsh?

“Honey?” I hoped someone would answer. I scanned my brain to remember if he had told me his name.

“Hey there big guy.” And you know how it is with a cell phone; you can’t tell if you’ve been cut off. I tried again but didn’t think I’d hear an answer. “Are you still there?”

It was just me in the trailer, shouting into that phone for a minute when my cell phone rang. It was Carl calling to say he wouldn’t be home; he’d gotten a call to respond to a car driving off Terrapin Ridge. Right then something in my gut clenched. Diamond Joe casino isn’t far from there.

I was worthless with worry. There was nothing to do but go home. I got in my pajamas and waited under the covers. The crash took Galena’s, Elizabeth’s, and Stockton’s squads and still they had their hands full once the gas tank exploded. You’ve probably heard about it, it was big news in Jo-Daviess County. The driver was thrown from the vehicle, out the shattered windshield, not wearing a seatbelt. If that weren’t enough, volunteer firemen are still puzzling out how he blew out of his pants. They were wrapped around his ankles—that’s what they all yakked about, when the emergency was over and they gathered at the Broken Yolk, and talked about the disaster from beginning to end.

I was still under the covers, praying for good news, when Carl finally came home to tell me about his night, how the explosion actually upended a tree and blew a crater in the hillside, how the Jeep Cherokee was practically unrecognizable, what with its roof nearly sheared off and its front end battered. When he described the driver as a bag of bones, I had to get up and heave, the thought of it so sickening, the poor guy with his dick in his hands and me on the line. Why had I never thought something bad would happen?

What if they find his cell phone and trace his last call and it turns out to be Luscious Locals? Already the town is abuzz, and if it weren’t bad to speak ill of the dead, don’t you know everybody would be saying out loud what they whisper now – the driver’s pants undone, damnedest thing. Of course on these rural roads, it isn’t just truckers who make trucker bombs, yet everyone seems to think it was something more sinister than a simple need to pee.

Carl says Highway 20 is still messed up, what with the twisted guardrail, the makeshift shrine of flowers and candles, the burnt ground. It wasn’t until yesterday that they were able to pull the car up, knocking down saplings and bushes just trying to get the hydraulic cable secured, and then causing an even bigger path of destruction when they pulled up the wreck.

I keep hearing Madame Peg asking me if I’m savvy. I tried to find her but she dropped out of sight. I looked in every White Pages in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I Googled her. Nothing. I even tried calling Midwest Sales, but there’s just the P.O. box.

The thoughts that run in my head – mostly they’re about him. Turns out he was a pharmaceutical salesman from Elgin, married with two kids. The last words I said were: “I’m sorry, baby,” and I am, I truly am. Sometimes, when I think back to everything he said, like I have so many times now, I get to wondering whether maybe he was depressed. He was hurting, no doubt about it, which makes me wonder about his wife, what she’d been up to. I bet she was fooling around. Broke and betrayed. My only hope is that he felt a little better before we lost our connection. But then, that’s just me rationalizing.

I am just waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. I feel heartily sorry for my role in this, what can only be called a death. Me causing a death – that’s what it amounts to though it took me ten minutes just to type those words. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen and it did, because who am I kidding, lust is one of the seven deadly sins, and I was engaged in it, made money off it. How was I thinking that sins could be committed and no one would be the victim? Did I kill that man? Is that what it comes down to?

So I know one thing for certain, I have to tell my husband. Maybe this is what I’ll tell Carl, how I should put it. Let’s just suppose we’re back at The Bridge Restaurant, “Carl,” I’ll say to him, “You can always call my private number.” Then if the waitress is far from the table, maybe I’ll put my hand under his napkin, and give the tiniest of squeezes. When I’ve got his attention, I’ll say, all matter of fact, “But as far as telephone sales, I’m hanging it up.” Then we’ll laugh, and maybe that will be the end of it.

Then I will get down on my knees again and ask the Lord’s forgiveness. And yet, though I am feeling contrite, considering going back to church, swearing off the phone sex, ready to face the consequences and make amends, and ready to change my life forever, I keep hearing Madame Peg asking me if I am savvy. Let’s be honest: I’m just a housewife with junior college education whose favorite class was English composition. I’m not savvy; I’m not savvy at all. And that’s what it comes down to. How do I handle this now? It’ll only be matter of time before or someone finds his phone and analyzes the data. Me—I’m the last number dialed. It will all come out. Then some reporter will show up; probably one of those tabloid TV shows or supermarket newspapers will want to do a story. They got people on their staff that just looking for wacky news.

Anyway, I am writing to you because I have no one else to turn to. I know your address because my cousin’s sister-in-law’s girl babysat for you, and she told everyone from here to Waterloo about your house and your kid and the script from the movie based on your book framed in a shadowbox over your desk. And you wrote that book, after all—it was a big best seller, and it was about the farmer’s wife who had an affair that changed her life so I know you know something about fame and romance and doing something not right.

I don’t know what to do. Should I wait until I’m discovered? Should I get my story out so it’s me who does the telling? Is there any way to make this better?

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Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web. In 1999, her short story, “Picking,” was awarded Willow Springs fiction prize and her poetry has placed in local contests (sponsored by Evanston Library, The Guild Complex, and http://www.chicagopoetry.com). Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is the editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words (Weighed Words LLC, an imprint of Hourglass Books), and she has been working on a novel for what seems like forever. Her website is: http://www.solaceinabook.com.