There were about a thousand other things he could do with the first week of his first vacation in seven years, but being the good little brother that he was, Wes agreed to man the switchboard at his eldest sister’s telephone companion company, Impulse. He used to direct calls and take messages back when it was just a straight phone sex hotline with 4 female agents waiting and a zero queue, but these days, the company proudly boasted over 200 agents of various genders to reflect their clientele who could now select phone companion services such as, current events, fan and hobby chats, a crying shoulder, and, of course, sex. Not that he ever wanted to, but since the only thing he could really talk about was southern dialects and accents, Wes steered clear of the companion call queues and logged into the dead end line. Callers would only reach him if they couldn’t decide what they wanted to talk about or if they exhausted the seven-deep phone tree and selected the final More Options. Even with the extensive options available on the automated system and the three other dead end operators waiting, Wes usually answered enough calls to keep him relatively busy throughout his shift.
While conversation wasn’t his forte, he was really good at helping callers narrow down what they were in the mood for and getting them to the right line. His sister’s husband would always joke that when he got tired of the limelight, he’d always have a place to fall back on. During a particularly difficult year, Wes actually considered giving it all up and doing just that, but that time passed and now he was more or less used to the hassle and the hustle.
Wes flipped through the stack of lookbooks his sister left on his desk. She asked him to put together outfits for the actors in Impulse’s upcoming promotional video; he was happy to oblige. He was admiring a pair of faded gray jeans with contrast stitching when he got his first call. He cleared his throat and slipped into his phone persona. “Hello there, you’ve reached the end. Let’s see if I can help you find your way back. I’m Zach. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”
Wes could hear the caller open their mouth to speak, but nothing followed. He was used to people verbally stumbling over themselves in response to his greeting; he couldn’t blame them. Half of them were surprised that it was a guy’s voice. Most companion hotline switch boards were staffed by women because market studies showed that the public–regardless of their gender–felt more comfortable speaking to someone with a feminine voice the first time they called companies that provided such services. As for the other half, if a caller took more than 35 seconds to make a selection, the call would automatically be put into the dead end queue, so they were surprised to be talking to anyone at all.
He wanted to get on with the conversation, but he didn’t want to pressure them, so Wes made a playful humming sound that anyone would have taken as, ‘well…?’
“I’m sorry. You– I was caught off guard.”
In his head, Wes complemented the man on his hickory smoked voice. If he had to place him, he’d say Seattle or Eugene, but since there was something of drawl underneath, maybe Northern California. “Ah, no worries, Mr….?”
“Oh, yeah, Bradley… Jason Bradley”
Once first-time callers entered their trial account information and existing subscribers keyed in their account number, they were allowed to be anonymous, so Wes wondered if that was his real name. “Well, alright Mr. Bradley, what’s on your mind?”
“Sure thing, Jason.”
“So… how does this work?”
“I take it you were referred to Impulse?”
“Well, sort of…?”
Wes chuckled. People found Impulse by all sorts of means, so he was never really surprised with their stories–well, there was the one guy who was bequeathed a 52-session subscription in his grandmother’s will, but that was about it. He could tell that Jason wasn’t up to spilling the beans. If he had to guess, it was most likely a case of him finding the number in someone’s phone… where he shouldn’t have been looking. The world was full of curious people. Often he would tell the callers that how they found them wasn’t important, but, “well, you’re here now, so let’s make the best of it. What do you say?”
“OK, I guess.”
“Right. So, Jason, is there anything you want to talk about or are you looking for something new to get into? You want to rant about the war or talk shop? Anything is fair game.”
“I was hoping that I could…,” Jason hesitated.
Wes could hear a chair scuff a few inches across a floor somewhere close to Jason, if not under him. He leaned back in his own chair and waited.
“I want to talk to a guy about sex. Can I do that?”
Wes considered for just a moment. “Are you looking to have an intimate conversation or a practical one.”
“Practical, I suppose. I-I’m bi and I’ve never had sex with another man. I’d like to, but dating is weird and I’d really like to know what I’m getting into before I do.”
It was a story he’d heard before, but this guy sounded like he was shopping for a new computer and Wes wasn’t sure what to make of that. Up he sat in his chair and crossed his legs under his desk, suddenly intrigued; he couldn’t help but count himself as one of those curious people. “Fair enough. Are you looking for experiences or how-tos?”
“Alright. Let’s talk about personalities. Would you like a conversationalist or someone who’s more matter of fact?”
“Matter of fact, please.”
Wes was tickled by his ‘please,’ it was so kid-like. It took great effort to keep the giggle out of his words. “Do you have a preference for voices?”
“Deep, gravelly, quiet, sonorous, nasal, piquant–“
“Isn’t that for food?”
“Wha– oh, ha! I guess it is usually is used for food. How about audacious or sassy?”
“What would that be like, anyway?”
“Maybe, kind of heavy, but with a tendency to get pitchy in volume and tone?”
“Hm… I don’t think that would work for me. I just– I’d just be imagining a lot of upper body movement and that would be distracting.”
“What would you call yours?”
“My what? My voice?”
Wes had to think about it; the voice he was using for ‘Zach’ was similar to his own, but he ditched his Gullah tinged Charleston intonations for what he approximated to be something more Mid Atlantic, Philly to be exact. He was still working on it, though. “Not sure. I’m often told it’s annoying,” said Wes without a hint of sarcasm, “but other than that, I can’t really say.”
“Hoarse, maybe? There’s this Mason-Dixon scratch, but it’s also kind of giggly, like a laugh is threatening to break out at any moment.”
Wes was silent while the chills coursed through his body. He’d never heard such a provocative description of anything related to himself. He tried to speak over the chills that were settling into butterflies in his stomach, but the words came out as a whisper that even he could barely make out.
“Uh… Sorry, was that.. Did I offend you?”
“Nooo… Not at all. I was just taken aback.”
“OK. Good. So… I think I’d like a voice like yours.”
“…I’ll see what I can do. Any other preferences? Like… gender identity? Preferred role? Ethnicity? Religion?”
“Not really. Maybe, flexible?”
“Gotcha. Well then, let’s recap. You’d like to talk to a flexible guy who has a matter-of-fact personality with a pseudo-southern scratch and giggle to his voice about sexual experiences and how to go about having them, is that correct?”
“It sounds so weird when you put it all together like that.”
“Well, if you’re satisfied with this profile, I’ll just need a minute to get you set up.”
“Any hold music preferences?”
“Uh… Bebop or Swing?”
“No problem. I’ll be just a minute or two.”
Wes put the call on hold, exhaled loudly, and tried to shake it off. He had two agents in mind, Ran and Gene, and both were free. He called Gene and asked if he was up for it. Gene didn’t sound anything like Wes, but he was good at accents, so it wouldn’t be a stretch for Gene to mimic him. He saw on his agent catalogue screen that Gene switched his status to Pre-Session. He returned to Jason and prepped him for the call; appreciations were exchanged and goodbyes were said. As soon as he ended the call, he slid out of his chair and under his desk. As he laid in a puddle giddy, most of the butterflies fluttered up to his heart and a few determined ones made it up as high as his ears where he promptly took on a delirious shade of red.
No. Way, Wes thought. It just isn’t possible. A 33-year old man has no business melting over some neophyte. So what that he seems to be considerate? So what that his voice is like a lullaby in and of itself–it’s just a voice, one that I only heard for not even 10 minutes. So what I’m having trouble breathing? So what? Wes inhaled slowly and exhaled even more so and gathered his wits about him. He knew this was silly. Connecting Jason with Gene meant that Jason was now a customer with an account number, and if he liked Gene, an Active Session Code, and that meant that he’d likely never talk to him again. It was just as well, because it was silly. Not even 10 minutes… I must be losing my mind… I seriously need to get laid.
So much for taking a year off. Three weeks on this new set and Oliver had mostly forgotten about his desire to dial life back and take strides toward settling down. In-production gigs were the worst; one disagreement after another. Once a film started production, the budget was pretty much divvied up and relatively set unless the producer was aiming for an aneurysm with a side of migraines–or they got more funding. This meant that a good deal of the sets were already underway for the various units and any number of locations were already somewhere on the continuum of being scouted and reserved. As a consultant brought in on an in-production gig, he would be tasked with confirming authenticity–this was never a good situation. When money had already been spent people were always reluctant to start from scratch and more likely to dismiss his advice making him nothing more than six feet and four inches of useless opinions and expertise. It was a soul-sucking thing, not being able to do what you were being paid to do. But it was a last minute favor for Marjorie to whom he’d never been very good at telling no and meaning it.
Oliver yawned, stretched, and yawned again, but the droning sound was not full enough to drown out the absolute nothing that was going on around him. It was eerily quiet on the set–that it was one for a supernatural horror film didn’t help. He was not the timid sort, but he’d been in the business long enough to know that strange things tended to happen on these types of sets. Two hours ago he was on his third flight in 24 hours; he wasn’t sure which time zone he was in, but by the light coming in from the bays behind him, he figured it was about 4PM, wherever he was. The lights on the stage to his left flashed on and ushered in a heated but friendly argument. He wasn’t making any great efforts to listen in, but that didn’t stop the noise from pulling his attention. Because of this, he was caught off guard when a cold hand touched his bare arm. “What on–!”
“Goodness Oli, what’s got you so spooked?”
Halfway out of his chair, he looked over his shoulder. She was just as he remembered, from shoulder to toe, decked out in all gray and the voluminous waves of the jet black hair on top of her head were topped off with his favorite baseball cap that he lost to her in a bet. “Dammit, Mar!” His glasses moved up as he pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to still his jitters. Oliver’s face pulled into a hound dog droop as his hands slid down his three-day beard. “It’s the middle of July, why are you so cold?”
“I’ll be sure to get a B12 shot later, now what’s going on with you?”
Oliver lowered himself back into his chair, slouched and sighed, “Jesus, Mar, I’m worn out. Why’d you hitch me to this mess?”
She giggled, “let’s just say it’s one more thing to convince you that you won’t be missing a thing.”
“Look here, tell your dad that I am considering his offer, so he can stop with this nonsense.”
“Tell him yourself, he’ll be here soon. You look like you need some sleep–no hat and a beard… goodness,” she patted the front right pocket of her jeans, presumably where her phone was, “if my battery wasn’t dead, I’d be snappin’ away. This is the rarest of rare.”
“Mar,” Oliver said as he crossed his arms across his chest, “don’t talk to me about hats unless you plan on giving mine back to me.”
“Ha! Not a chance!” She patted his arm in mock comfort, “I won this fair and square.”
He shivered from the cold.
Times like these he wished he wore a watch just so he could dramatically tell people how much of his time they were wasting. “Here soon” turned out to be three days later. He trailed behind one of the set designers down a long hall lined with open doors that granted entry to gaudily bedecked boudoirs and gloomy studies. His notes were extensive. They were shooting for Federal Style, but they landed on the border between Addam’s Family and The Best Little Whore House in Texas. At least the larger architectural details were right, but THIS is why you call in a consultant during pre-production. If he didn’t know any better he’d have no problem believing they were all new at this. He saw no end in sight. When they returned to the staircase, he beamed his notes to the set designer and one of the ADs that joined them at the last minute. If there could be a favorite part to this kind of gig, it would be the ashen and sallow faces that were guaranteed to replace the mask of pride none-the-wiser crew members wore once they looked at his notes. So he waited.
A laugh that sounded like it was hauled over sandpaper and dipped in butter creme before it was let loose wound its way up the stairs and found it’s way to his ears. Oliver stopped. Everything stopped but the laugh’s reverb. He watched as the set designer and the AD paled, but he couldn’t really appreciate it while his mind turned to the heat creeping up his back, coiling around his neck, down his torso, and to his groin. Hello Stranger.
“–ley. Mr. Bradley?”
The task at hand called him back. “Yes?” he said as he smiled at the AD’s ghostly countenance. The guy started talking, but Oliver wasn’t really listening. He turned his head toward the stairs and turned back to the AD, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder, “mind if we walk?”
They made their way down to the ground floor and followed the voices to the back of the house set. There they found what looked like most of the second unit crew, a handful of stylists, three actors, and some guy who had his right hand around one actor’s neck and his left holding the lead actress’ hand to his sternum. It hadn’t even lasted 10 minutes and it had been nearly a year since and it wasn’t as if he had actually heard the guy laugh, but, without a doubt, it was Zach. The problem was, which of these 30-odd people was him?
Not that it was impossible, but he figured it was safe to exclude the women present from the running–now he was down to about 20 people. Marjorie’s dad, Davis, the second unit director, clapped his hands and asked that the actors try something out for themselves. With his neck now free, the first actor turned away and walked down the hall while asking if he could be heard. Oliver quickly decided that this heavy Boston accent counted him out. The actor who was not being guided by the trainer, stepped back with his script rolled up behind him and began to recite his lines. Even with the accent, he’s too nasal. The trainer lightly backhanded the underside of the actor’s chin and then plucked his Adam’s apple. The sound he made sent the group into hysterics, but he didn’t hear it. Oliver noticed that two guys didn’t laugh, at least not out loud. Before things could go any further, Davis noticed him and called him over, momentarily suspending the proceedings and signalling for the crowd to mill about for a moment or two.
“You look tired, my friend. If you settled down, you might stop going gray,” Davis said, keeping his voice low.
“I’ll take gray over bald,” Oliver responded quietly while he surveyed Davis’ shiny scalp and accepted his extended hand. He was a round man that carried most of his weight in his ego, but he was genuine enough that you couldn’t hate him. In fact, most people loved him. Davis was the one that got him into consulting; he practically dragged him out of The Georgia Trust and into Hollywood; kicking and screaming is how he remembered it. “You threatened me out of public service and into this monkey carnival,” he playfully groused as he did his laziest impression of Vanna White presenting the set, ” and now you want me to retire into academia? When do I get to choose?”
“Heh. It’s always been your choice. My suggestions are just me agreeing with your decisions ahead of time,” Davis claimed as he shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back smugly on his heels.
“I don’t think the OED would agree with your usage of ‘suggestion.'”
“I’ve always been partial to Merriam-Webster myself.”
Oliver rolled his eyes as he ran his hand back over his locs. They weren’t in his face, but he had developed the habit since growing them to replace his previously ever-present baseball cap. “Don’t you have work? Y’know, even if you don’t–“
Without looking, he gestured in the general direction of the attention seeker and laughed, “see?”
“You’re in cahoots, is what I see,” said Davis as he waved the guy over. “Wes, you two should get along famously. This here is Oliver Bradley, he’s my go-to for nearly everything Southern. And Oliver, Wes King. He’s my new go-to Southern dialect coach. Wes, Oliver,” motioning from one to the other. “Oliver, Wes.”
Wes stood about 6 ft tall with muscular bowed legs. Loose auburn curls were pulled away from a pale complexion into a reasonably neat ponytail. His face struck a curious balance between round and angular and featured clear gray irises peeking out from half closed lids, a well-groomed goatee, a smattering of freckles, and wooden plugs in his ears. In a spring green polo, navy Khaki shorts, and loafers, Oliver thought he looked like some pretentious art student posing as an ivy leaguer. He was one of the guys that didn’t laugh. Please don’t let it be him. He watched as a fair, manicured hand cordially extended towards him.
“It’s a pleasure Mr. Bradley. If he’s calling you here, I suspect you’ve got a lot of work cut out for you.”
Oliver was no expert, but he’d become pretty good at locating southern accents. However, he wasn’t sure about this guy’s. It could pass for a heavy Tennessee accent if it wasn’t for his slightly more heavily yawning a’s and that brief exhalation where most of the r’s should have been. On first listen, the accent was entirely too thick to be Zach’s, but the coarseness was there. On second thought, this guy was a dialect coach and it had never even crossed Oliver’s mind that Zach’s voice (or name for that matter) was part of an act. Thinking on it now, he realized that faked accents and aliases would be more likely than not for the services Impulse offered.
Oliver accepted Wes’ hand; it was cool to the touch. Only half feigning interest and not quite looking him in the eye, he answered, “the pleasure is mine, I’m sure. I don’t think I could be convinced to perform clean-up crew duties for an–” He could not disregard the unexpected heat now swirling in his palm. His eyes darted to their grasp and as if drawn by some irresistible magnetism, they followed the fever up Wes’ pinkening arm, to his neck, and then his face to see a moderate blush spreading, lips parted in wonderment, and eyes wide with skepticism. Oliver thought for a moment, but that too was interrupted.
“You’re looking pretty rosy there, Wes. You alright, son?” Davis said with a hint of actual concern.
Oliver’s eyes met Wes’ for a brief moment before their hands let go and then he knew. Even though he was certain that Wes recognized his voice, he thought it impossible. How many people did this guy talk to each day on that line? And how long ago was it? Eight, nine months? With the exception of the hoarse voice which could have easily come from practicing with the actors, nothing else matched up with what he knew of Zach, but for some reason, that didn’t matter. It was his voice and Oliver was sure of it.
The updated schedule that was attached to the email he was reading stated that there were only three more locations that he needed to inspect and by the looks of the dates, he’d be done with this gig in a week, two at the most. If that was so, Oliver figured it was time to make his move. In the two and a half months since he met Wes, they’d only crossed paths on set a handful of times and shared a meal in the company of Davis and Marjorie about the same. Each time he was in his presence, Wes was engaging and entertaining, but he kept his distance like a cat trying to decide if he was friend or foe. It was cute.
Contrary to Oliver’s first impression of Wes, he found nearly everything about him to be cute. For starters, his preppy look, was just that, a look. It turned out that he was honoring a request from one of his stylist friends and didn’t have time to change before coming to the set. His regular attire could have probably been labeled hipster, but there was no pretension in his attitude, so he just ended up seeming like a guy who felt most comfortable in jeans, a plaid shirt, and Chucks. Next was his hair. It was in a ponytail on that first day, but Wes usually wore it down and under a knit skully that his grandmother made for him. Oliver really wanted to run his fingers through all that red. Then, there were his eyes. Once he replaced his contacts with his usual glasses, you could see the gold and green flecks in them–all of the eye contact he attempted was skillfully avoided by Wes. And lastly, his voice or more specifically, his accent. Though the hoarseness was still present, his real accent was a custom blend of Nashville–where he lived throughout high school and university–and Geechee–having been born on the coast of South Carolina and having returned to it after graduating. Oliver discovered that the guy rarely laughed, but was hardly ever without a smile, it wasn’t entirely genuine though. Quiet as he was, it was different story when he was riled up; the Tennessee would take a backseat to the Sea Islands. He wasn’t the first spitfire redhead Oliver ever met, but he was certainly the most interesting.