Call and Response
Fri, 03/19/2010
Special to the Jewish Week

I really admire considerate telemarketers who listen and try to sense your mood without immediately forcing a dialogue on you when they call. That’s why, when Devora from YES, the satellite TV company calls and asks if it’s a good time for me to talk, the first thing I do is thank her for her consideration. Then I say politely that no, it isn’t.

“The thing is that just a minute ago I fell into a hole and injured my forehead and my foot, so this isn’t really the ideal time,” I explain.

“I understand,” Devora says. “So when do you think it’ll be a good time to talk? An hour?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “My ankle must have broken when I fell, and the hole is pretty deep and I don’t think I’ll be able to climb out of it without help. So it pretty much depends on how quickly the rescue team gets here and whether they have to put my foot in a cast or not.”

“So maybe I should call tomorrow?” she suggests, unruffled.

“Yes,” I groan. “Tomorrow sounds great.”

“What’s all that business with the hole?” my wife, next to me in a taxi, rebukes after hearing my evasive tactics. “Why can’t you just say ‘Thanks, but I’m not interested in buying, renting, or borrowing whatever it is you’re selling, so please don’t call me again, not in this life, and if possible, not in the next one either.’ Then pause briefly and say, ‘Have a nice day.’ And hang up, like everyone else.”

I don’t think that everyone else is as firm and nasty to Devora and her ilk as my wife is, but I must admit that she has a point. In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than people in other places on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies towards strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth. And though I guard my time just as jealously, I have a real problem saying no to strangers on the phone.

I have no trouble shaking off vendors in the outdoor market or saying no to someone I know who offers me something on the phone. But the unholy combination of a request plus a stranger paralyzes me, and in less than a second, I’m imagining the scarred face of the person on the other end who has led a life of suffering and humiliation.

I picture him standing on the window ledge of his 114th-floor office talking to me on a cordless phone in a calm voice, but he’s already made up his mind: “One more asshole says no to me and I jump!” And when it comes down to deciding between a person’s life and getting hooked up to the “Balloon Sculpture: Endless Fun for the Whole Family” channel for only 9.99 shekels a month, I choose life, or at least I did until my wife and my financial advisor politely asked me to stop.

And that’s when I began to develop the “Grandma Strategy,” which invokes a woman, may she rest in peace, for whom I’ve arranged dozens of virtual burials in order to get out of futile conversations. But since I’d already dug myself a hole and fallen into it for Devora of the satellite TV concern, I could actually let Grandma Shoshana rest in peace this time.

“Good morning, Mr. Keret,” Devora says the next day. “I hope this is a better time for you.”

“The truth is that there were a few complications with my foot,” I mumble. “I don’t know how, but gangrene developed. And you’ve caught me right before the amputation.”

“It’ll just take a minute,” she gamely tries.

“I’m sorry,” I insist. “They already gave me a sedative and the doctor is signaling for me to close my cell phone. He says it isn’t sterilized.”

“So I’ll try tomorrow,” Devora says. “Good luck with the amputation.”

Most telemarketers give up after one call. Phone pollsters and internet-surfing-package sellers might call back for another round. But Devora from the satellite TV company is more persistent than any of them.

“Hello, Mr. Keret,” she says when I take the next call, unprepared. “How are you?” And before I can reply, she goes on. “Since your new medical condition will probably keep you at home, I thought I’d offer you our Extreme Sport package. Four channels that include all the various extreme sports in the world, from the dwarf-hurling world championship games to the Australian glass-eating matches.”

“Do you want Etgar?” I whisper.

“Yes,” Devora says.

“He died,” I say and pause before continuing to whisper. “Such a tragedy. An intern finished him off on the operating table. We’re thinking about suing.”

“So who am I talking to?” Devora asks.

“Michael, his younger brother,” I improvise. “But I can’t talk now, I’m at the funeral.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Devora says in a shaky voice. “I didn’t get to speak with him a lot, but he sounded like a lovely person.”

“Thank you,” I keep whispering. “I have to hang up. I have to say Kaddish now.”

“Of course,” Devora says, “I’ll call later. I have a consolation deal that’s just perfect for you.” TranslatedSondra Silverston


Etgar Keret is the author of “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” “The Nimrod Flipout”and “Missing Kissinger.” He is the director of the film “Jellyfish.”