On this episode of the Dance Cry Dance Break, we open with “Answer Inc.,” a story by Corey Farrenkopf followed by Inhuman, a track from the album Nothing Is by Nashville artist/producer Thomas Bryan Eaton.
For Thomas Bryan Eaton, music is everything. Obsessed since childhood with sound and how you can make it, his musical journey has taken him all around this world. While often seen wandering around the fret boards of guitars & pedal steels with Miss Tess, Western Centuries, or JP Harris & the Tough Choices; Thomas also makes his own recordings reflecting his unique take on the music of America and beyond. Delving deep into the roots of music and searching for ways to push forward are at the core of his efforts & artistry.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. His short stories have been published in Tiny Nightmares, The Southwest Review, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Smokelong Quarterly, Catapult, Flash Fiction Online, Reckoning, Uncharted, Wigleaf, Bourbon Penn, and elsewhere. He is the Fiction Editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review
By Corey Farrenkopf
Answer Inc. doesn't provide a company computer. For thirty-two fifty an hour, my old Mac does the job. The screen illuminates my face as I hunch over the keyboard. Every light is off in my basement apartment, the scent of microwaved Biryani filling the cramped space. I’m confined to the beanbag chair my parents let me take from my childhood bedroom, the faux leather slightly sticky beneath my back.
Once I log in, questions fill my ears.
Is a Pomchi the right breed of dog for me?
How far is too far to drive for a Tinder date before I look like a creep?
If I can only afford to buy my father’s diabetes medication or my brother’s diabetes medication, whose should I buy?
I’m not allowed a follow up question. I can’t delve into which relative Asker C is closest with, which attended more of her high school drama performances, which calls on her birthday. No. They are paying for a one sentence reply, so one sentence is what they get.
No, a cockapoo is the correct breed.
Anything over fifty miles and you’ll seem like an axe murderer.
Strictly based on life expectancy, your brother.
Sometimes I imagine my callers. Twenty-something with a perfect fade. Late thirties with a softening gym body. Early forties, grays coming in at the roots. It helps me answer, to humanize the anonymous caller numbers and blurred-out headshots.
For fifty dollars, clients log on to have someone else make their decisions. Should they get a face tattoo? How many cats is too many cats for their condo? Which is the best day of the week to bring up divorce to their blindsided spouse? I can see the allure. There are too many options these days, too many lives you can live, and none of them feel right. The vastness is crippling. If I had money, maybe I’d use the service. Employees get a twenty percent discount, but rent is steep.
My questions remain my own.
I rarely get the same caller twice, except b582 that is.
Somehow, she’s in my queue every day.
I imagine she’s in her thirties, short hair, eyes baggy from sleep. At least that’s what her one sentence a day conveys.
“Is the air in my apartment toxic?” she asked on her first call.
I listened for the bleep of CO detectors. Finding none, I said “No, the air in your home is clean.”
The next day she asked, “If my landlord is trying to poison me, how would I know?”
After consulting a poison control Google search, I said, “You would feel light-headed and nauseous.”
Her daily questions morph from outward concerns to inner.
“Is it crazy to believe your landlord is trying to kill you?”
“Is it normal to fear the water coming from the tap?”
“Is it normal to worry about what’s coming for me?"
To each question, given the times we live in, I say No it is completely normal to worry about X,Y, and Z as long as it doesn’t rule your life.
After a month, I email my boss asking if I can get in touch with b582 to give her the number for a healthcare professional or therapist that may be better equipped for her questions than an ex-barista with a sociology degree. My supervisor writes back that of course there is no way to contact b582. Answer Inc. cares about customer privacy, and, if we were to pass b582 onto another service, we would be losing the fifty dollars per call, and that certainly isn’t in the business plan.
We are a form of therapy, he says. The simplest form of therapy.
On b582’s hundredth call, I refuse to answer her question about fearing the inhuman silhouette standing on her street corner. Instead, I give her my cellphone number, rattling off the digits, hoping my supervisors aren’t listening in.
“There’s got to be a better way of doing this. I can’t give you the help you need. Call me and we’ll figure something out.”
“But what about the silhouette?” She asks after a minute. I swallow whatever response I thought I’d come up with and simply tell her, “If it’s close to your house, yes, go lock your doors.”
Then she hangs up and my next caller is on, asking me about haircare products and flammability around tiki-torches.
I wait for an unknown number to light up my cellphone screen, but nothing happens. I continue to answer questions about organic sheets, dopamine deficiency, and the most successful ways to potty train a cat, with no interruptions. I end my shift at eight o’clock and move to the kitchen where I microwave instant cup noodles and continue to wait for her call.
But the call doesn’t come.
I worry about how quick she locked the door.
The next morning, b582's ID pops up on my screen. She neglected my personal number, but I’m cool with that simply for the fact whatever she thought she saw beneath that streetlight didn’t get her in the night. I click “accept” and wait for her voice.
“How do you live in this world?” she asks, words coming quick, as if startled.
I’ve given up on one sentence replies. If she isn’t going to call my actual number, this is the only chance, the only way I might help
“By following the truth. Listening to facts. Believing those you love. Not letting every fear swallow your day.” Each option sounds sensical as I say it, but there is a hesitancy in the back of my throat, an uncertainty clinging to my tongue.
“But everyone possesses their own individual truth. You’re seeing a different world than I’m seeing.”
“Nope, there’s one world and we’re all sharing it.”
I’m waiting for my supervisor to come on the line to end the call, but it’s just the two of us, despite the fact we’ve far surpassed the time limit. My heart rate is up. I can smell my own sweat.
“You tell yourself what you need to. Our worlds aren’t the same, but they might be some day. You couldn’t do your job if they were the same. You’d have too many questions and there’d never be enough answers. You’d always be too afraid of what’s coming.”
“What is coming? Is it that silhouette again?” I ask.
“What’s coming for me is also coming for you. It comes for all of us, eventually. Why do you think I’m so afraid?”
“I assumed you had an anxiety disorder or a list of phobias, not this.”
“We all have anxieties,” she replies. In the background, footsteps fall on hardwood, boots approaching from down a long hallway. “But this is different. It has arrived and I never learned how to prepare.”
“Prepare for what?”
“You’ll know it when it gets to you. All I can say is you need to be the one asking the questions, not the one giving…”
Then the line goes dead.
“No, wait,” I reply, leaning forward, my face close to the screen as I frantically search for some trace of b582. An account number. An email. Something I might have previously overlooked. There’s no redial option, no number I can reconnect with. It’s just me and the next question.
“What’s the cheapest wine I can get away with on a first date?”
I want to ask if he’s aware of what’s coming for him, whatever got b582, but I hold my tongue.
“Twenty-eight a bottle,” I reply, not ready to be the one asking the questions.
The Dance Cry Dance Break is written and produced by Natalie Bayne and recorded and edited by Moe Provencher.
Theme music is Red Lines, by Dance Cry Dance Records artist Tiny Tiny.
Dance Cry Dance is a collective record label in Seattle, WA. Paid subscriptions support our artists and writers.