Title 5

“HEY, BIG GUY. HOWZITGOIN’?”

It’s my Monday morning phone call to Angina. I’m not sure what Angie’s short for, but I’ve chosen to think of her as Angina because Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a disease marked by spasmodic attacks of intense suffocative pain,” a fitting description of my symptoms when dealing with my team leader.

“I see you’re seventy-three percent complete. Good job!”

She is not congratulating me; she is patronizing me. We both know that anything less than 92.1 percent of interviews completed by next week scores a “Level 1,” the equivalent of “fail” on a five-level scale that is just one of the many absurdities of government bureaucracy. Of the 100 million or so American households, just over 5 percent refuse the Census interview. So, the bureaucrats reason, if I have a 5.2-percent refusal rate, I’m a C-student.

What they fail to consider is that statistics are like physics: when you go from big to really small the rules need to change for it to make any sense. Which means this: since I get about twelve cases each month, just one slammed door leaves me at 91.5 percent completed—a failing grade. But nobody’s going to give me any sympathy over this, Angie least of all.

“So, do you need my help with any of your outstanding cases?” she asks.

Yeah, bring some amply exposed cleavage out to Papa Bear’s place and try the “Big Guy” routine on him. I’m sure it’ll help. This is what I’m thinking. What I actually say is, “No. I got it covered. I’ve got one refusal so far and I had the letter FedEx’d this morning.”

“OK,” she says, disappointed that I didn’t need her help with that, “but have you checked with the tax assessor yet?”

“Roger that. The property is registered to Restoration Ministries. It’s listed as a ‘Seasonal Camp: Religious.’ The tax bill goes to a P.O. box in Colton.”

“Well, did you mail a letter there?”

Here we go. She’s got to find something to correct, even if it makes no sense.

“Why would I do that? The FedEx goes directly to the respondent’s door; he’ll get it today. Mail would take two to three days, and we have no idea how often he gets into town to check the box.” I don’t hide my exasperation well, nor am I really trying.

“Don’t get testy with me, Mister. Just have the letter sent.”

“Fine.”

“But you’d better hurry and call the RO. It’s already 10:30 and they stop processing requests at 11.”

If I can get you off the damn phone. I think this but don’t say it.

Before I can think of something else to say, Angie adds, “Oh, I almost forgot. You’ve got an observation coming up next week. Let me look at the calendar.”

Just shoot me now. I’m not ready to spend another six hours in the outback with this chain-smoking shrew.

“How about this Saturday, 9 a.m.?”

“You know, people like to sleep in on the weekend,” I protest. This might be true, though it’s only myself I’m thinking of at the moment. “Wouldn’t afternoon be better?”

“Listen, Big Guy,” she says, “I’ve got to drive from the West Hills, and I want to be back at a decent hour. Besides, all I need to see are two complete interviews.”

So much for the spirit of the law. This is typical of Angie’s passive-aggressive relationship with the Census Bureau rules. She’s supposed to spend eight hours with me: two counseling me, and six observing my technique. But she only has to write up two interviews, and she’ll do the “counseling” while we drive, cutting at least two hours from her schedule. That’s fine with me. I just wish it weren’t so damn early.

We confirm the date and a place to meet. It’s ten to eleven when we hang up. I’m so exhausted from biting my tongue that I figure it’s time for a long, hot shower, where the phone can’t reach me. I forget all about the eleven-o’clock letter-request deadline. But it doesn’t matter. Papa Bear is not going to change his mind, no matter how many letters he gets. I figure I’m just going to have to eat a Type A–refusal on that one. I’ll still claim the mileage for a second visit though.

*     *     *

It’s 2:15 a.m. when Flight of the Bumble Bee shocks me from an erotic dream which, as usual, involves Beth. It’s my cell. Who the fuck? Instinctively I grope for it. But without my contacts I can’t read the caller ID, and I don’t remember where my glasses are. I check the display anyway. Even without discerning individual digits, I can tell that it’s not a phone number; it says “Private.”

Fuck that. If you can’t bother to tell me who you are, then I’m sure as hell not going to chat with you at 2 a.m. I don’t care if it is an emergency. You can bleed until the sun comes up.

I switch the phone off and toss it on the floor. Within sixty seconds I’m dreaming again.

*     *     *

I’ve already showered, had breakfast, and done my social networking before I remember to check voicemail. Sure enough, there’s a message logged at 2:18 a.m. I punch y to listen. There’s some rustling and the sound of breathing before anyone speaks:

We got your letter, the male voice says. Please come today at 6 p.m. More rustling. You know, Elwood.

That’s it; the message ends. I punch 4 to replay it. I’m pretty sure it’s Tom Sawyer. Or maybe the guy I saw in the second van; the voice is definitely too young to be Papa Bear.

Wow. I sure wasn’t expecting a callback on that one. But why the fuck was it at 2 a.m.? The place still freaks me out; still, if there’s any chance I can get at least a “sufficient partial” interview, I’m certainly not going to pass up the chance. I just wish the appointment weren’t smack in the middle of Happy Hour again.

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