The crumpled pink slip lay at the bottom of her wastebasket. Rebecca Swain wiped a tentative tear from her eye as she reread the email from Human Resources.
“Dear BedBugz Tuck-In Specialist,
Today I regret to inform you that BedBugz, Inc. will be downsizing its Waltham operation effective immediately. If there is a pink slip attached to the monitor at your desk, then you are among….”
Tuck-In Specialist? Rebecca thought. Is that what I’m supposed to put on my résumé now?
Tuck-In Specialist was not much weirder than some of the other jobs on the growing dirty laundry list of serial failure that was her résumé. She had quit her last job, as an accounts administrator at GreatHealth Healthcare, in a blaze of glory. But she liked this job. She always felt appreciated (at least by her clients), despite the low pay, and despite this evening’s Fuck-Off Letter, which included the backhanded addendum that if she accepted the company’s terms and worked out the rest of the week “without incident,” she would be eligible for a non-negotiable severance package, which included COBRA, a program offering the recently-downsized or –displaced the opportunity to continue their health care coverage, albeit at monthly rates so exorbitant that the sub-prime housing interest rates seemed reasonable by comparison.
Rebecca spent the first three minutes of the evening’s shift trying to process the letter from HR without crying, before her supervisor, Todd Elvenstein, knocked suddenly upon the plastic-ish wall of her cubicle.
“Rebecca,” he said. “Sorry. Sorry to burst in.” He made a face of well-practiced sympathy. “So you heard the news….”
“Are we all fired?” Rebecca asked after making ostensible noises of sympathy-among-gallows-comrades with Todd.
“Not all of us,” Todd said. “I’m hanging on for now. For what it’s worth.” He shrugged.
What the hell was that supposed to mean, “for what it’s worth?” It was worth everything. It was the difference between keeping your job and not, the difference between your lifestyle and a drastically-shittier lifestyle which could include loss of entertainment options at best and relocation to parents’ abode at worst.
“Obviously you can use me as a reference,” Todd said. “You’re one of our best callers.”
“Then why I am being laid off?”
Another shrug. “The decision was made above me. Trends in the marketplace too. Fewer people are going to sleep these days, it seems.”
A third and penultimate shrug preceded Todd’s departure, as he had many other cubicles to visit at the beginning of what was surely going to be a grim and grumbling shift. From somewhere out in the cubicle forest, Rebecca heard someone say: “What the fuck is this?”
There was nothing else to do but grin and fucking bear it if she wanted to head back out into the job market with a nice two-month BedBugz salary cushion. She cued up her client list on her computer, put on her headset, and dialed the first number.
Lucy Martin was a working professional in her forties, older than Rebecca but similarly anchored to her job. The demands of her job, which included regular travel, weighed heavily on Lucy, but Rebecca knew, from their brief conversations over the last few months, that what really carried Lucy through her days was her young son, Devlin.
“I had you call early this evening because I’m flying to San Antonio in the morning,” Lucy said.
“No problem,” said Rebecca, trying to summon the usual bounce to her voice. “Have you packed everything?”
“Packed everything. Made a list and checked it twice.”
“Cell phone charger?”
“Well, my phone is charging now, but I taped a note to the charger.”
“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I know. I just hate flying.”
“Tell me about it. Everyone does. But you always get through it. And tomorrow I’ll tuck you in in Texas.”
“Thank goodness. You know I hate being away from my son, Rebecca, but just knowing I’m going to get a call from you before I go to bed makes those business trips a little easier.”
Not for much longer. “I’m glad to be a comfort.”
“You are, Rebecca, you definitely are. Well, okay. I took an Ativan. I’m going to try to sleep.”
“You’ll be fine, Lucy. You’re a seasoned traveler. And remember, all airports have bars.”
They shared a secretive laugh. “Thanks, Rebecca. Good night.”
“Sweet dreams, Lucy.”
Rebecca hung up.
“Sleep tight, Mrs. Tulowitzki, and don’t let the bed bugs bite!” came the voice of her cubicle neighbor, Pam Strong, who was normally loud and cheerful, but this evening seemed loud and bitter, meaning she must also have received a pink slip.
Let your clients cheer you up, Rebecca thought as she dialed the next number, ten-year-old Kristen Curry, whose mother had gotten her BedBugz to help her adjust to being away at summer camp for the first time.
“Hello?” came Kristen’s daffodil voice.
“Hi, Kristen, it’s Rebecca, just calling to say good night.”
“Hi, Rebecca.” The girl sounded happy.
“What’d you do today? Sailing, right?”
“How was it?”
“Awesome actually. I got to steer the boat. We went to this little island that had a rope swing.”
“A rope swing? Ooh, I’m jealous. I think I’m going to go to your camp next summer.”
“It was fun.”
“You weren’t scared?”
“I was a little at first. But I did three jumps. Some of the boys didn’t even jump.”
“Girls are always braver than boys.” Rebecca glanced over her cubicle wall and saw Todd Elvenstein cruising through the office, his trademark shit-eating grin looking even more fecal-smeared than usual. “Yeah, boys always seem to get what they want, though, even though girls usually end up doing all the work,” Rebecca said.
“Listen to me, buddy,” Rebecca said. “You’re a very lucky girl right now. You get to go sailing all day while grown-ups have to sit in their offices. Tomorrow morning you get to get up and have fun. My advice to you? Have as much fun at camp as you can. Jump off the rope swing every day. Go back for extra ice cream. Kiss a boy, if you want to, and then tell him he smells bad when he tries to kiss you back. Get it while you can, kid. ‘Cause in a few years you’ll grow up, and you’ll have to get a job, and you know what? Jobs suck. They suck, Kristen. They suck your soul right out of your heart, then turn around and spit in your face.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. Then Kirsten asked: “Why are you telling me this, Rebecca?”
“Because you deserve to know. We’re all food for worms.” She cleared her throat, found the old cute-voice. “All right, kiddo, good night, sleep tight, don’t let the mosquitoes bite. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
It was going to be a long night if she kept making calls like that. She took a moment to step out for a smoke break and collect herself. There were still five more shit-kicking hours until her shift ended at 2 AM.
Returning to her desk, Rebecca left a few quiet voice messages. Her clients didn’t always pick up the phone, even when they specified a time of tuck-in.
“All right, gang, I’m ducking out,” Todd Elvenstein announced a short time later, amidst a chorus of louder-than-usual whispering. “I know this has been a rough week, but we have thousands of clients out there who need a little kind word before they go to bed, so let’s think of them. Good night, everyone! Sleep tight and don’t let the….”
He hurried out of the office before completing the thought.
Pam Strong peeked over the cubicle wall. “Sure, fire half your staff, make a few fake apologies, leave early. I want Todd’s fucking job next time.”
“Tell me about it,” said Rebecca.
“Did you know that little prick gets a company car?”
“Do not tell me about that.”
Michael Raisen, the man whose cubicle formed another quarter of the quad that included Rebecca and Pam, raised his mousy face above the wall.
“Pamela, can you please not use profanity?” he asked in a deliberately hushed tone. “I’m on with Mrs. Breckinridge, and she hates that kind of talk.”
Michael disappeared and Pam leaned closer to Rebecca. “Get yourself a vibrator, Mrs. Breckinridge,” she whispered. “And go fuck yourself.”
Rebecca looked forward to her next call. George Frost lived in a senior assisted living facility. His family visited seldom, and each day seemed to add another millimetric octave of dementia to his voice, but Rebecca enjoyed George Frost, who had once told her he would never go back a day in his life, that at eighty-five, he was happier than he’d ever been.
“Hello, George, it’s Rebecca.”
“Rebecca from BedBugz.”
“Who?” The voice sounded angry.
“Is this George?”
“Who? This is Ed.”
Rebecca glanced at her screen. She had the right number. “Is George available?”
“I don’t know George. I was asleep here. You’ve got the wrong number, honey.”
After a complicated series of grunts and mechanical noises, the line went dead.
Rebecca sighed. It was just going to be a shitty night, she decided.
The next client confirmed her theory. Kevin Thiel was a new-start. This was his first night. He answered on the third ring.
“Good evening, Kevin, this is Rebecca calling from BedBugz. I’m just calling to tuck you in.”
“Oh, hi, okay. Yeah, hi, Rebecca. I was just- I’m not even in bed yet, I was just getting organized, didn’t realize it was that time already. Let me just get… settled.”
There were some noises of movement, and the volume of something, presumably the television, vanished.
“So how do we do this?” asked Kevin Thiel. “I’m in bed and ready whenever you are.”
Rebecca laughed. “There’s nothing to it, Kevin. I just say good night, sweet dreams, kiss kiss little love taps, and that’s how we roll. If there’s anything you want to tell me, you can.”
“Ah… I mean, it’s like quick like that? I’m not even, not even really touching myself yet.”
“Even a cannon needs a little grease!”
“You can start whenever you want; I’m just gonna set the channel here…. There we go.”
This happened more often than Rebecca had expected it would when she first took the job, a certain specific confusion about the nature of her services, such condition often suffered by youngish single guys with frat-house voices. Rebecca had lost her patience for the misunderstanding.
“Sir, I’m not sure what you think BedBugz is,” she said (she knew exactly what he thought it was). “But this is simply a tuck-in service. We just call you up to wish you good night.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the phone, during which Rebecca heard what sounded like the plastic snap of a lotion bottle opening or closing.
“I thought this was a sex-thing,” Kevin Thiel said flatly.
“Did you get BedBugz as a gift, sir?”
“Yeah, from my brother.”
“You may want to talk to your brother.”
Kevin Thiel sighed deeply. “Listen, Rebecca- Rebecca?- Rebecca. I’ll be straight with you. I just got out of a semi-serious relationship. I haven’t been laid in almost three weeks. If you could just be a pro right now and talk me off, I will totally go online to my BedBugz account and give you a fat tip, or whatever.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Thiel.”
Rebecca hung up. No way was she sex-talking some pop-collared techie perv, not for any sum of money, not even in her last backstabbing week at BedBugz.
“And don’t let the corporate bed bugs bite,” she heard Pam Strong hiss. “Don’t let them get their nasty little fangs in you!”
There followed an audible slamming of a phone.
“Keep it down, Pamela,” Michael Raisen whined.
“Go screw, Michael.”
Rebecca took a time-out. It was approaching eleven o’clock, the tuck-in rush hour, where she would have to make fifteen calls in thirty minutes. She drank a Red Bull, and slowly rotated her neck until her vertebrae popped into alignment.
Glancing at her screen, Rebecca saw it was now time to call Tom Folds. She took a deep breath and smiled. Dialed his number.
“Well, it must be eleven o’clock,” Tom said, answering.
“Good evening, Tom.”
“Turn off your TV. It’s bedtime.”
“HBO is re-running the entire season of Game of Thrones. Like many socially-stagnant men I may be developing an unhealthy crush on that golden-haired dragon-hottie.”
When she’d first begun calling Tom six months ago, Rebecca assumed he was the archetypical Lonely Man. Forty-two. Divorced. High school math teacher. Didn’t even have a cat. BedBugz bread and butter.
“That’s really what men want, isn’t it?” she asked. “A smoking-hot mother-figure?”
“I don’t know, maybe. That girl is what I imagine you look like, Rebecca. I imagine she’s the person whose voice tucks me in.”
Tom sighed deeply.
“You sound tired, Tom. I mean, not like end-of-the-day tired.”
“Sometimes you just don’t want to get up the next day and do it all over again; you know what I mean?”
Rebecca stifled a cynical laugh. “Actually, I know exactly what you mean. But for me, that’s no longer a concern.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m getting laid off. I just found out tonight.”
There was a pause on Tom’s end of the line. Rebecca heard a low-volume television go mute. “Are you serious?”
“Yup.” She felt like she might cry now.
“Well… that’s terrible news. I’m sorry, Rebecca. I don’t know what to say. I’m going to miss you.”
Please do not cry. “I’m going to miss you too.”
She had realized at some point, talking to Tom, that even though she had never met him in person, had no idea what he looked like other than her own disembodied image of him in her head, he was actually sort of a friend. It was a connection she had not expected to build. She had lost co-workers before, especially when changing jobs, but this relationship was different. There was no place for it, seemingly, outside of BedBugz.
“I’m surprised you’re still at your desk,” Tom said.
“If I finish the week I get a nice little no-hard-feelings package.”
“Shit. Well… for what it’s worth I think you do a great job. This has become an important part of my day. A nice voice at the end of the night. Something I took for granted when I was married, I guess.”
Rebecca was also divorced, and like Tom she had no children. They had commiserated many times.
“Seems like everywhere you turn they’re snuffing out the little things that get you through your day,” Tom said. “At school, they’re shortening teachers’ lunch breaks from forty-eight minutes to twenty-two. Starting next week. I know it’s not like I’m losing my job or anything, but all those little moments of relief add up. You need them.”
“The thing is,” Rebecca said. “I actually look forward to making most of my calls. I like my job. I like tucking people in. It brings closure to the day.”
“Exactly,” Tom said. “I look forward to it. It’s not easy for a forty-year-old divorced guy to get out there and build a rollicking social life. I don’t even mind staying in every night because I know at least you and I will get to talk for a minute.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll get another caller.”
“I don’t really want another caller.”
They silently sat on the phone together for a moment. Rebecca knew she had more calls to make. 11 PM was a popular tuck-in time.
“My boss, of course, gets to keep his job,” she muttered.
“Asshole. You should sabotage him somehow.”
“Ha. I wish.”
“Have sweet cock-sucking dreams!” she heard Pam Strong sing from the next cubicle.
“Hey, Tom, I’m sorry this isn’t much of a tuck-in tonight,” Rebecca said. “I actually feel like shit. But I have to go. There’s a lot of pixie dust to spread around on little eyelids.”
“Yeah, not sure I’m going to sleep too snug tonight.”
“I’m sorry.” Rebecca hoped he did not hear her choking back tears, but apparently he did.
“Hey, listen,” Tom said, his voice softening. “I know this is just a job for you, and you probably maintain a certain buffer of professionalism, like I do with the kids I teach, but no job is ever really ‘just a job,’ in the sense that we’re not machines. I don’t get tucked in by an automated voice.”
“Not yet,” Rebecca scoffed.
“What I mean is: we don’t have to treat this as a business transaction,” Tom said. “I’ll be honest. I think of you as a friend, Rebecca. Your calls have helped me through a tough time. I’m happy to return the favor if I can. If you’d like someone to tuck you in when you get home tonight, I’d be happy to do it.”
Rebecca laughed, but not with her usual cynicism. She realized that she would like very much to have Tom call her and wish her good night. A warm, familiar voice to ease her troubles. And why couldn’t they continue the ritual outside of BedBugz? The company did not own the rights to simple human empathy.
“All right,” Rebecca said. Suddenly self-conscious, she ducked down in her chair, as if someone else in her office might be listening to her. “I go to bed at like 3 AM, though.”
“That’s okay,” Tom said. “I’ve got Game of Thrones. I’ll watch them disembowel each other for another few hours.”
Rebecca laughed, wiped away a furtive tear, and gave Tom her cell phone number.
“I’ll talk to you soon,” Tom said, and they hung up.
Rebecca felt strangely comforted, a warm feeling in her stomach. She took another deep breath, sipped her Red Bull. She would make it through the end of this miserable shift, at least.
Her phone rang, and the number on the caller ID looked vaguely familiar.
“Hello?” Rebecca said.
“Hello, my name is Susan Thompson? I’m a nurse at the Elm Tree Senior Residential Center? I’m calling on behalf of George Frost?”
“I just wanted to inform you that Mr. Frost passed away this morning.”
The nurse made a series of professional sympathy noises, but her tone was hurried, like one of her other patients might be pressing their call button.
“So you can go ahead and cancel Mr. Frost’s account,” said Susan Thompson, and after a terse apology, she hung up.
Rebecca opened up George Frost’s account and stared at her screen as silent tears streaked down her face. She clicked the various boxes to terminate his account. Under Reason for Cancellation, she checked “other,” and wrote: “Deceased,” which struck her as almost irreparably depressing.
The next couple of hours went by in a daze. Rebecca phoned in, so to speak, most of her tuck-ins. About half her clients sounded politely disinterested as if the novelty of being tucked in each night had begun to wear off. Others sounded unsatisfied by Rebecca’s bland, distracted promises of sweet dreams. By 1 AM she decided so no longer really gave a fuck. She would work the rest of the week, telling her clients whatever she damn well pleased when she tucked them in.
“Well, fuck you too, I hope your house burns down while you sleep!” Pam Strong virtually shouted into her phone. Pam, it seemed, might not be destined to qualify for the severance package.
Rebecca scanned her call list for the number of her new-start, Kevin Thiel. She leaned back in her chair and pulled a cigarette from the pack in her purse. Dialed Kevin Thiel’s number and lit the cigarette.
“Hello?” His voice sounded somewhat groggy.
“Hey, Kevin, it’s Rebecca again, from BedBugz.”
“Huh… oh. I thought we tried this.”
“Yeah. Listen. I’ll be straight with you, Kevin. I’m getting laid off at the end of the week. If you still want me to talk you off, I will. For two hundred bucks.”
“I was thinking more like forty.”
“Whatever. Grab your cannon, matey. This one’s gonna blow.”
Michael Raisen peeked his scrunched-up face over her cubicle wall.
“Rebecca, you can’t smoke in here,” he gasped.
Rebecca took a deep drag and blew the smoke in Michael’s face.
“Where would you like me to put my fingers?” she said into her phone.
Michael Raisen retreated coughing back into his cubicle.
For the next ten minutes, Rebecca filled the air with smoke and purred sweet perversions across the ether to Kevin Thiel, who by his frequent offers of encouragement and unselfconscious metronomic grunts was clearly a veteran of the 1-900 circuit. When the experience reached its inevitable and audible conclusion, Rebecca grimaced and stubbed out her cigarette on her mousepad. She immediately lit another one.
“You know, that was great,” panted Kevin Thiel. “You might think about going into business for yourself.”
“That’s just what my guidance counselor used to say,” Rebecca said as she hung up.
Pam Strong appeared along the cubicle wall and pointed to Rebecca’s Marlboros. “Can I have one of those?”
Rebecca lit a fresh butt off the one she was puffing and passed it to Pam.
“Oh, sweet relief,” said Pam Strong.
The last hour of the shift was always slow, as the people who tended to go to bed between 1 and 2 AM were not typically the types who needed their bar-closings or their anime-porn interrupted by a sweet, cozy voice wishing them pleasant dreams.
At 1:59, just before she was about to sign off, Rebecca opened up the BedBugz employee directory on her computer and dialed one final number.
It rang several times before Todd Elvenstein whispered a groggy “Hello…?”
Rebecca silently gripped the phone, fiercely exhaling clouds of smoke.
“Who is this?” asked Todd Elevenstein.
“Sleep tight, motherfucker,” said Rebecca.
Adam Matson’s fiction has appeared internationally in over a dozen magazines including Straylight Literary Magazine, Soundings East, The Bryant Literary Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Morpheus Tales, Infernal Ink Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Indiana Voice Journal, with forthcoming publications in The Crime Factory and Wilderness House Literary Review. He has also published a collection of short stories, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press).