After Ma’s death, I occupy myself by answering scam calls. I always pick up instantly, like they’ve kept me waiting.
Taken aback by the immediate connection, the man takes a beat to recover. His voice grows soggy with concern: “This is Officer John from the San Antonio police department. We found your car with drugs inside. We will need your date of birth and SSN to proceed with investigating this case.”
I indulge him with follow-up questions. (“Is it a 2003 Camry?” I eye the fossil sitting in my driveway. Somberly, he confirms that is indeed the year and model.) I swaddle myself head to toe in the yarn being spun. Trying not to sound too eager, I say, “Tell me more.”
Sometimes the line crackles and both of us panic. “Are you there?” shouts Officer John. “I’m here,” I yell back.
Sometimes I hear, in the background, bottle-pops of laughter and off-key singing, foreign disco music, someone audibly whispering Officer John’s next line whenever he falters.
Sometimes the lapses in logic are so obvious that I can’t help but provide unsolicited feedback. “Isn’t it odd for a police officer to ask me for my personal information, especially over the phone?” I point out. “Oh, and your friends are being too loud.”
Muffled shushing. “Are you still there?” wonders Officer John, to which I say yes, yes, I am.
Sometimes I have to be the one to render comfort. “My father, a Nigerian king, has been exiled and requires your aid,” wails the man on the other end. I offer up handfuls of the condolences I’ve hoarded over the past year. I repeat what others have assured me will lend solace in some small, shallow way – hearty stews, swimming, adopting a pet, crocheting, molding a normal routine out of the bones of everything I assumed would stay the same forever. I am a well-oiled dispenser of advice that I refuse to follow myself.
Silence from the king’s son. And then, “So you will give $5,000?”
It’s too bad he got me instead of Ma, the most gullible person in the world. She would have believed any sob story, no matter how threadbare. She took everyone at their word. Particularly my dad, who insisted the girls that he invited to Sunday dinner were his students, nothing more. “How many extra plates should I set out?” Ma asked, like clockwork. The girls always carried weak smiles and glass-bottomed casseroles. Ma showed them in, making sure they had mugs of tea, letting them putter around in our living room and giggle at our framed photos.
In the kitchen, I cornered her, hissing, “Will you open your eyes for once?”
She had been trying to reach the bowls we kept tucked away for special visitors. Her blouse lifted at the hem, revealing a pale, tender paunch. As a kid, I used to paddle that ridge of skin, pinching it between my fingers, laughing at how it sprang back into place as soon as I let go. Ma would play along, scrunching the droops of her belly into a sad face, then happy, back to sad. Looking at it now, though, filled me with an impotent rage.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” she said, gesturing at the bowls. “Can you get those for me?”
“Don’t play dumb.” I grabbed one of the casseroles, a wet, meaty-looking monstrosity, and shoved it into the sink, hard enough to make the glass clatter and Ma flinch. The chatter in the other room hushed.
Stop it, her eyes begged me. Please.
“Hello, hello,” the Nigerian prince bellows.
Had Ma picked up this call, she would have hung on to every word by her fingertips. She would have jotted down notes on everything she was being asked to do, commiserated at the trouble that this displaced king had found himself mired in. She would have marched to the bank, all the while still on the phone, instructed the teller how much to withdraw from her savings account, and followed, to the letter, the instructions for wiring the money over. When she’d finally hang up, she would chide herself at how she could have done more to help a stranger in need.
Afterwards, I’d add my own rebuke. How could you have gotten suckered into something so obvious?
I don’t know, Ma would say, head bowed. I’m sorry.
The man bleats away in my ear. I want to know what type of person his father is. If he ever cups a girl’s shoulder or knee and his mother turns away to not have to look, all the excuses and stories piling up like pebbles in her lap, and still she nods and believes absolutely. I want to ask this man if he can even find Nigeria on a map, if he has an hourly wage or earns a commission based on how much he can fleece out of me. But I catch myself. What does any of that matter? Why am I fleshing him out? Those are the useless questions that a swindler would never answer, at least not honestly. An ache curdles inside me. I lift the phone off my cheek, rub away the residue gathered on the screen, and check the time. We have been talking for hours. We are both spent.
“Listen,” I interrupt. “This is a lot of money you are asking for. Can you hold on for a sec? I’m going to ask my mom if this sounds right to her. She’s sitting right next to me.”
“No, wait! Don’t do that!”
But he’s too late. I call out, “Ma,” over and over, as though I’m a child again, begging to be lifted and settled into the crook of her waist.
Joy Guo lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is published or forthcoming in failbetter, Passages North, Okay Donkey, No Contact, and Maudlin House. Her Twitter handle is @gojiberryandtea.