Nine-Hundred Luv-Talk by Aaron Case

Alex was maybe two the first time I saw him use a telephone. We were in my parents bedroom, all taking turns talking to my father who was in Frankfurt, Germany. Not for any Germanic reason, but because that was his job.

He was a flight attendant, so early childhood seemed to be a perpetual state of either dad in nothing but gym shorts smoking outside with a stubbled under bite, ashes snowing on his gut, or dad in navy blue smelling like Nivea for Men, and the fugue of suitcase wheels tripping over tile grout. Coming going coming going.

We were all huddled around the phone, my mother providing an Indian-style nest of leg for my brother to sit in. She offered to give the phone to Alex, not to genuinely inform my brother that my dad was coming home tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or whenever, but to prompt an adorable reaction—something else to check off on the list of firsts. She stretched the spiraling, off-white telephone cord to my brother’s ear, the tangled bunched up knots that would never become untangled, popping as my brother grasped it with his tiny anemone fingers. The cord wrapped and pressed against his remaining baby fat. He let out a breathy, hiiii, and in response came the bee swarm sound of my father’s voice from the plastic receiver. His reaction was a subdued version of a Neanderthal discovering fire. He pulled the phone away from his ear and just stared at it—this tiny asterisk of sound—with the twisted gaze of a child whose mind was just split in two by the sound of his own father’s voice.

She would later tell my father of this moment, to provoke the idea of all that he was missing here. “Alex picked up a fork today, Alex crawled around the house today, Alex said ‘ma’ today—I think. I’m pretty sure.” My mother was in a ruthless, unannounced competition with everyone to witness all the firsts she could with Alex, and it didn’t help that all the important ones happened with my father. He helped him stand up, walk, bending his little anemone fingers so that only the middle one was left erect, resounding, and unaware, pointing at my mother. Everything Alex did she logged in a haphazardly constructed baby book. The front page had a blue painted handprint of Alex as a newborn, Alex after his first year, Alex after his second year. My mother was taken by how the hand grew larger and larger, just as it was supposed to happen. I guess this is what happens when you’re shelved in a suburban neighborhood in Deluth, Minnesota, while your spouse is paid to travel to French Nova Scotia Brazillianburg Island. Away from everything.

My mother snapped a picture of my bewildered brother cradling the unknown, while my father’s distorted voice sifted like flour through the receiver—hellohellohellohello? He was on a pay phone somewhere, and the Viking lady inside the phone was assertively asking for more change in German. My mother flicked her thumb across the film crank.

Regardless of where he was, he would be bringing us back a glass jar of Nutella. A sure sign that he still loved us. We would trash the empty one with the plowed trails along the side made by my eager finger, cherishing each hazelnutted goop. All the kids at school would be jealous of my Nutella sandwich that I wouldn’t trade for anything so don’t even ask.

I thought that by dialing random series of numbers on our off-white telephone that I would somehow reach my father when he was out of town for “too long,” as my mother said.

“Bueno?” said one.

“Dad?” I said back.

“¿Quien es esto?” The process was like fiddling with a ham radio. Most of the time, no one would answer. One time I got a strong signal. No one would answer, but the phone would keep ringing. I sat on the side of my parents’ bed listening to the sound of the pigeon song in my ear and how it would stop for a breath, or to swallow, or to bend over and quickly tweeze at a speck of something invisible, and then sing again. I would wind the cord in my fingers, my long brown hair draping over my face, switching arms to hold the phone if they got tired, watching my pink light up shoes flicker every time my dangling foot bumped against the bed. Like a lost pigeon it would sing.

I’ve been a morbidly obese woman living in a hammock used to transport show whales, I’ve been a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, I’ve been a mother, I’ve been an alien, I’ve been a landlady, I’ve been a black chick, I’ve been an Asian chick, I’ve been an animal, I’ve been too young, I’ve been too old, I’ve been a famous actress, I’ve been a not-so-famous actress but she was in that one movie that did alright, I’ve been Vanna White, I’ve been Rosa Parks, I’ve been a babysitter, I’ve been the parent coming home to the babysitter, I’ve been forty, I’ve been fifty, I’ve been eighty, I’ve been hairy, I’ve been honey, I’ve been water, I’ve been an ex-girlfriend, I’ve been a current girlfriend but more willing to do stuff, I’ve been a crush, I’ve been unattainable, I’ve been a man, I’ve been a boy, I’ve been a lesbian, I’ve been a girl with a dick, I’ve been a robot, I’ve been raped, I’ve been a rapist, I’ve been raped by a robot, I’ve been a bride, I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a schoolgirl, I’ve been Spanish, I’ve been Russian, I’ve been English, I’ve been a doctor, I’ve been a therapist, I’ve been easy, I’ve been perfect, I’ve been the most powerful woman in the world.

The third rule of being a phone sex operator is to be open-minded. The first rule is to never hang up.

I used to see the commercials late at night. Pretty girls coiling phone cords around their fingers as they lay in their pretty beds in their pretty nighties, seducing someone who isn’t there, laughing playfully with whoever’s on the other line. About what, one would have to wonder. What’s so funny about “I wanna watch you play with yourself?” And the phone numbers would always have some easy to remember word as the last four numbers. 123-TALK, 123-GIRL, 123-LOVE. I wanted to try it, disembodied voices pawing at each other. Couldn’t be that hard. So I dove firmly into a company called LUV-TALK.

“Hi, who’s this?” I said cautiously into the phone.

“Um, I’m Gus. Who’s this?” The second rule of being a phone sex operator is to always use your character name. All the different girls you could call had beautiful greasy names. Names that needed to take a hot shower. Names that needed to brush their teeth. Names that suggested that they would do whatever you asked. No Mary’s, no Theresa’s. Slutty Disney princess names. Ariel, Jasmine, Aurora, Wendy.

“This is Belle. How are you tonight, Gus?” Not only was it a Disney princess name and slutty, it was play on the inventor of the telephone. I laughed at my own joke. I still laugh at my own joke. Gus is nervous.

“I’m nervous,” he says. He’s never done this before, “I’ve never done this before.” He’s had a rough childhood. His parents always gone, always going, not really having enough time for him. He was always socially awkward in his classes and with girls especially. He’s thought of killing himself. Killing himself at only twenty. Not even the half-way point. The quarter-way point. The beginning, really.

“What are you wearing right now?” he asks. He wet the bed one time when he was fourteen. He was invited to a birthday party where everyone would be spending the night, sleeping in sleeping bags on the living room floor in front of the big screen watching Star Wars. The older ones, not the newer ones. The newer ones are no good, he would say.

“Well, I’m wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt,” it was late, “would you like me to take them off, Gus?” I could feel my heart beating in my ears.

“Yes, take them off.” So at four in the morning, he awoke to the blue room of a finished VHS tape and felt himself. He was soaking wet. He could feel himself pooling around his legs. He could feel himself sinking into the carpet.

“Alright, they’re off,” my sweatpants and T-shirt slump to the floor. I feel vulnerable and cold and hungry.

“I don’t know what to do.” He doesn’t know what to do. He wants to run away barefoot out into the night. His soaked pants and half-soaked shirt only making things colder. He doesn’t know his way home, so he just pretends to sleep while all the other kids wake up and have breakfast and go out and come back in and step over him. “When’s he gonna wake up?” they ask quietly.

“Don’t worry, Gus. Just relax,” I say, “just relax, and we can just talk for a bit.” He sighs. Not out of disappointment, I’m guessing, but out of relief. I made $67.39 that night.

When I hang up with Gus, I realize what I was doing is considered dirty and no good. But the number attached to the money was now all mine. Simply for talking with a sad man. There is no struggling to make ends meet. The ends have met and are enjoying each other’s company. There is no person I’m doing this in spite of.

Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, it always comes out the way a programmed-to-be-excited game show contestant would say to the hair-slicked host:

“I’m an adjunct professor for a major university in Minnesota.”

Oh, what do you teach?

“I teach Intro to Composition.”

Do you like it?

“Yes, very much, I very much love working with young people, very much.”

It sure is cold here, isn’t it?

“Yes, it is.”

Then we just continue drinking our draft somethings. Awkwardly shifting our weights onto different piles of peanut shells and crumpled up napkins. Originally, I came to The Wooden Bucket, a bar near campus to be snarky with fellow adjuncts about lazy students and their uses of adverbs and passive voice and comma splices. How does one shout “bombastically?” I mean, really. Teaching Intro to Composition at a major university in Minnesota is like untangling Christmas lights—lots of pulling and lots of screwing with the one dim bulb that causes the rest to burn out. In the end, it’s a beautiful thing. I try to love it.

I love reading the evaluations. I love it when they grant me the epithet of “Dr.” I love it even more when they use my first name. This implies that I was personable and cool enough to say, alright, enough with the formalities, call me J——. The game show host is named Graham—“I love that name!”—and works as an adjunct as well at a major university in Minnesota as well teaching Antrhopology, and he likes it as well. We talk about how frustrating parking can be, how frustrating sharing an office can be, having to walk to your classes in the snow. Tell me about it.

He pays for my draft something and asks if I want to get out of here. Or at least a better place away from the ambient cigarette smoke. I want to tell him that I actually like it. That it smells like soft pretzels. Do you even know the last time I had a soft pretzel? That it wasn’t even in this state. That I’m like a Parisian dying for a crepe. That they taste like salt and Styrofoam, and how I imagine that’s the sensation of smoking. That my dad smoked, but I never tried it.

He says as we walk out of the bar, “You know, second hand smoke is worse for you than actually smoking.” I try to act bewildered by his pocket trivia, but it kind of makes sense. Drinking a glass of water is probably better for you than someone else drinking a glass of water, swishing it around, and then spitting it in your mouth. He was just as smart as an adjunct professor teaching Anthropology at a major university in Minnesota should be, I would think.

He talks about how he wants to study behaviors of primates. “Oh, like Jane Goodall.” He explains that Jane Goodall was full of shit. He explains that he wants to study instances of cannibalism within chimpanzees, and I swallow the fact that Jane Goodall already did that before it escapes my throat, “Oh, that could be interesting.” He does most of the talking which is fine since I spend most of my nights talking anyway, so it was good to just listen to someone talk about himself.

“So, where are we going?” he asks. I just say somewhere warm. By that standard, I know he’s going to say his small but efficient apartment with heating and a window walking distance from campus dressed with M.C. Escher prints and books by Levi-Strauss. The wind is getting sharper, and my toes are getting wet. “How about my place?” he says. That’s fine. It’s so cold that you could snap a tree in half just by leaning on it. We’re colleagues, so it isn’t like we’re strangers. As people we probably fall somewhere between strangers and family. Like third cousins at a family reunion, or ostriches mingling with sparrows.

His apartment is on the second floor of a three-story building sandwiched between an elderly couple teetering on the edge of being deaf who lives below him and a younger undergraduate couple who are quickly realizing that they shouldn’t have moved in with each other who live above him. We fall in between these two lives. As we lay naked in his twin sized bed, the two stories converse with each other. I stare catatonically at a lava lamp.

“Brenda, have you seen the rye bread?”

“The bathroom is filthy, what happened to the bath mat I bought?”


“I thought it was a table runner, so I put it on the counter.”

“The rye bread, Brenda. Have—you—seen—it?”

“There’s water everywhere.”

“What? I’m dead?”

“Well, the bath mat’s on the counter.”

“No, Brenda. Rye. Bread.”

Heavy walking.

“Oh, I thought you said ‘I’m dead.’”

Graham’s fallen asleep with his head resting on my chest, his frizz curls tickle my nose, his crusty navel feels papery on my side, trance music plays over the stereo, my shaved legs are tangled with his unshaved legs. We’re just one warm wad of human wrapped in plaid. Sex with a real person always has that warmth that you can’t get over the phone. I continue to pat his hair away from my nose. Brenda still can’t hear her own husband, and bath mat still won’t get his feet off the table.

A few weeks into phone sex, I was starting to make serious money and getting regular customers. There was Jesus who only spoke Spanish, and Roland who was always drunk, and of course Gus who still called me every so often. I’d also been working on mastering my “sultry voice.” The workers at LUV-TALK suggested trying to mimic a voice you’ve heard before. I chose Chelsea Connelly-Curtain from NPR. At one in the morning, I received a call from a spritely and happy woman. She sounded professional and awake. “Hello, Belle?”

“Yes?” I thought I was being contacted by the FBI, or someone official, someone that would find me and take me to jail. I thought maybe one of my conversations had been tapped into and now I was being arrested through the phone for prostitution. Arrested for being dirty and no good, cuffed only by my own embarrassment.

“My name is Marcy, and I work for DHI-Relay. We’re a company that relays messages over the phone to the deaf and hard of hearing. How are you doing tonight?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I pulled the comforter over my body as though she could see me.

“The person you will be speaking with tonight’s name is Cole. Be sure to speak slowly and annunciate clearly so that I can communicate with Cole effectively. Be sure not to say things like ‘tell him that,’ also be sure to let me know when you’re finished speaking by saying ‘finished.’ Speak as though you were speaking directly to Cole. Do you have any questions for me, Belle, before we begin?”

“You know that this is a uh—”

“Yes, ma’am, I know.” She probably thinks I’m horrible. She probably thinks I’m trash. I have a Doctorate in English for chrissakes.

“No, I’m ready.” The fourth rule of being a phone sex operator is before you answer the phone, anticipate challenging customers.

“He-llo, Belle. My name is Cole,” she spoke in spaced out syllables. I start like I normally do.

“Hello, Cole. Can you guess what I’m wearing? Finished.” There was a long pause. I found that people don’t really want to know what you’re actually wearing. People would rather use their imaginations. Regardless of what they say, they’re always right. A bear suit, a suit of armor, or nothing at all. I have all of these things hanging neatly in my closet. The fifth rule of being a phone sex operator is to remember that your customers are missing four of their senses, and you have to paint a picture for them.

“A pink sat-in night-tie with black lace?” Marcy’s mousey voice as Cole.

“That’s right. What do you want to do tonight? Finished.” Long pause. I can hear Marcy typing, the uncertain hum of her computer.

“I want to watch you have sex with a black man.”

I’m grading papers about my students’ rites of passage at four in the morning. A lot of suicide stories, a lot of homecoming queen stories, a lot of parents-getting-divorced stories. Calls usually stop at three-thirty, but I stay up just in case. I underline the sentence It was then that the cough syrup had an adverse effect on my health, and write “passive voice” next to it. I start going cross-eyed trying to stay awake. I see two papers, two desks, two pens, two telephones, diverging and converging further and closer together. I feel my eyes rolling back into my head. My neck bends forward. The grip of my pen loosens. I feel like I’ve been tranquilized, etherized, about to be peeled open. My body temperature must be dropping.

Earlier that day, I went to visit my brother. After a certain point, the guilt of leaving your mother behind alone in the dusty shelf of Deluth, and not so much as calling any close family member in days (in weeks (in months)), begins to make everything you think you deserve to eat or drink taste inside-out and tomato-y. Every thought becomes an overexposed, off-colored home video where mothers’ voices are muffled and drowning in the way they were when you would fall asleep on her chest, little brothers are trying to walk and little girls are addressed by your name, even though they certainly can’t be you, “I love you, J——,” your mother says dead straight into the camera.

Alex never went to college. He works two jobs living in a major city in Minnesota, one as a telemarketer, and the other as a bartender at a bar called Infinite Tap. I catch him at a slow spell in the bar. Everything inside that could be flawed is covered by neon signs like busybody antibodies, and eighties music drowns out the sounds of drunk people crying in an empty booth in the corner. He picks up an already dry glass and begins drying it. He thinks he’s obsessed with movies, and in the movies, if a bartender isn’t juggling drinks, he’s drying glasses while having a profound monologue with the film’s protagonist.

“The telemarketing biz is killing me. I don’t even give a fuck if these people buy a timeshare in Wyoming from me. I just want to have a conversation with someone. Anyone. I mean every time. They hang up before I even finish my opening sentence. Every goddamn time! Why does everybody always hang up on me? I mean, it’s my job. It’s how I make money, it’s how I live, it’s how I—I mean, why? Why does everybody always hang up on me?”

“I wouldn’t hang up on you,” I say, rotating a paper napkin.

The phone rings and I jolt out of sleep. My entire body feels carbonated like club soda, and every trilled note from the phone shakes me. It’s almost five in the morning. At this point I can’t decide whether to answer as Belle, all come hitherly and blonde-headed, or as myself—tired, tired, tired. So I decide to just sound happy and excited as though I just won a trip to French Nova Scotia Brazillianburg Island—

“Hello!” but instead I just sound like I killed someone.

“Hiiiii,” a man’s voice that comes out all breathy.


“I’m horny and just wanna jack off,” he says, either drunk from alcohol or fatigue. We never really established if this was a call or not, so this could be just a random stranger who somehow acquired my phone number. Then again, I guess that’s what they all are.

“Do you want me to do anything?”

“Nah, baby, not a thing. Just stay on the phone with me.” I get up from my chair, pulling the tangled phone cord with me to my bed. I lay back and watch the cord bounce up and down. The noise of his phone being strangled between his ear and his shoulder becomes synchronized with the quick breaths associated with the rhythm of his body, his arm, his hand, doing everything, anything it can to achieve just one orgasm. Just one. Please.

I just lay there scratching my thigh. He sounds like an accelerating freight train. His arm gets tired and has to switch, so he switches. He has the TV on loud in the background. There’s an infomercial for a collection of Christian rock songs singing about mountains and clay pots with three-note melodies.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Just laying here, listening.”

“You’re not going to hang up, are you?”

“No.” The first rule—never hang up.

“Ok.” He keeps going. He keeps going for fifteen more minutes. He’s focusing all of his life, all of his years, into that left hand. He holds his breath, he stops thinking, he stops feeling. He tries his hardest just to get something out. The phone quakes against his ear.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to do anything?” I’m Simon pressing my back beneath the cross.

“No!” the word escapes him. He makes noises that sound like sobbing into a plastic bag, but then breathes just like everybody else.

“Sorry,” I say.

“No, it’s ok,” there’s some silence then, “Thank you.” He hangs up and I lay there still with the phone resting on my collar bone. I fall asleep to the mocking witch-cackle sound of a telephone when it’s off the hook.

Aaron Case is an English undergraduate at the University of North Texas, making a deliberate decision to be clear, precise, and on point since 2005.