All of a sudden there was a small business in the house that sat on the corner of Richmond Road and Hanover. It was the little bungalow-style place that had been home to a photo lab and before that a local bank with a drive-thru window along the side where the carport used to be. It was also, a few people say, headquarters for the Republicans in the last mayoral race. Even though that race was non-partisan, we all knew who was backing Berryman. But overnight, the way condos go up and churches are torn down, the way long-distance friends lose the ability to pick up where they left off, the eaves of the building were painted red, the white siding got whiter and a sign appeared: Decision Makers.
No one went, not at first. There was one navy Taurus parked out front from nine to five, and occasionally the car of a local high school kid or a woman talking on a cell phone asking for directions. People parked there for games, sometimes, but only the big rival games when people came into town from Morehead or Versailles. But you would never see a local car there, with Fayette County plates, or one of our cars.
They started running ads before and after the six o’clock news. The type of ads that didn’t have any actors, just print scrolling across the screen, like a brighter, more helpful version of the Star Wars opening. The ads said something like, “Wrestling with a tough decision? Want to trust your gut, but your gut’s gone kuput? Let us make the decision for you and put your mind to rest. Call 859-757-0999 for consultation and pricing. No decision too big or too small.” There was a voiceover. The same hyper male voice as in the liability attorney’s commercials - the old liability attorney, who didn’t appear in his own ads anymore, not the fat one, who did all his own ads, despite his eyebrows - eyebrows and chins - plastered on billboards all over the north side of town.
It became a local joke. I think most people thought it was a hoax or a scam. Well, to be fair, most people didn’t pay any attention to the ads and I think several people still dropped their film off in the mailbox of that small house on the corner without realizing that they were no longer given a pick-up time for prints. After three months we were surprised to see that the ads were still running and that the blue Taurus was still parked out front every day, and a red and blue neon OPEN sign had been added to the window. Coming home late from a fundraiser, where she ultimately hadn’t contributed anything because she couldn’t decide whether to bid on a basket of bath products or a spa weekend, Patty Grisbee said she had seen the sign and the lights on after ten.
It was not something that anyone in our group was going to do. That same week we were all at Patty’s for a disco/eighties-themed birthday party and we laughed at the notion of not being able to decide things for ourselves. Someone even suggested that it was un-American to not be able to make a decision for yourself. I think it was Bradley Marks, who had a decidedly healthy career as a developer in town and a new, and questionable, marriage. But he had a point, we all agreed.
“What’s a person going to do,” asked Bradley, “call up and tell them he can’t decide whether or not to leave his wife for this hot woman he met at the Whole Foods, and these bozos are supposed to understand? I don’t see it.” We’d known Bradley longer than his wife and we chose to believe he was being hypothetical even though the dip he brought to the party was a leek, artichoke and Parmesan spread that his lactose intolerant wife wouldn’t touch.
“People won’t even go to therapy because they’re afraid someone will talk,” said Barbara Kastenburger. She was a therapist whose clients mostly came in from the smaller counties.
“That’s what they’re offering,” someone else said, probably someone from Patty’s office. “They’re offering therapy, only they’re disguising it as practical. But that doesn’t work. The whole point of therapy is to help you see what it is you want. The decision isn’t important. It’s the desire behind the decision.” This someone was probably also a therapist, or had majored in psychology before going into graphic design.
“It’s fast food,” said Larry Sims. He’d been drinking. “They are selling decisions to the people who come in from the counties. From the mountains.”
“Appalachia,” said Barbara.
“Right, Appalachia. They are selling them cheap decisions the same way McDonald’s sells them cheap cheeseburgers and Walmart sells them cheap shit. They don’t realize that they are probably getting bad advice. It’s criminal.” Larry Sims taught Sociology and was very concerned for the poor.
Bradley poured Larry another bourbon. “It’s a joke. They’ll be gone in six months. Nothing lasts in that building. It’s too residential.”
My wife and I first called on a Saturday night. We did it, like I imagine most people did, to be funny. We were hungry, didn’t want to cook and couldn’t decide between Chinese, which meant we would have to drive across town if we were going to get what we wanted, or Mexican, which was closer but she had eaten tacos at a work party the night before. She said she would eat Mexican again, but I was pretty certain she was just saying that. She’d go along with things, just to make it easier and avoid conflict. After thirty minutes of back and forth between her finishing the laundry and me cleaning out the litter box, she said if we can’t make a decision why didn’t we just call those guys on TV and let them decide.
“I’m sure it costs,” I said.
“Not for a first time consultation. First time is free,” she said. “They were running a new ad night before last during the doctor show I was watching,” she said to my puzzled look.
“So little time to operate, so much sex?”
So we called and a nice, older sounding woman answered the phone. We explained this was our first call, gave our names and our phone number and held the line while she drew up a new file.
“Now, please briefly state the decision you are trying to make along with a short account of why this decision is not easy for you to make,” she said.
I told her about the burritos at Rancho Mio, my wife’s taco overdose and the steamed dumplings across town at Yen Ching. I also told her how hungry we were.
“Please hold,” she said.
I don’t know what I expected her to say. Probably something motherly like have a snack and then decide once you’re not operating on an empty stomach. Or maybe I thought she would avoid the decision by sending us to the pub downtown. It was closer and I could have a bison burger and my wife could have that salad with salmon on it. I was certain she would come back on the line and tell us something that would render moot the question of Mexican or Chinese, like the Mexican restaurant is closed for a private fiesta or that particular Chinese place received a low grade on its last health inspection. Something that would ultimately leave the decision up to us.
“Hello,” she said.
“Chinese,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Why Chinese?”
“That’s the decision. I hope you enjoy it. Please call again.”
And she hung up. My wife had left the kitchen and when she heard me say goodbye, to no one since I’d already been hung up on, she yelled from the front room what’s for dinner. “Chinese,” I said.
“Yum,” she said, and we grabbed our coats.
It was an average meal. Not the best we’d had there and not the worst. On the way home we stopped off at a movie rental place and picked up a film I wanted to watch about the civil war in Uganda. I was thinking of showing it to my class. We went home, watched the film, and my wife went through our tax material. It was a good night. No indigestion. No missing Mexican food. No feeling regret at having chosen poorly or that slight irritation at the other for pushing sweet and sour chicken over enchiladas verdes. We slept well.
But we didn’t tell the others we had called, not until the second time, and by then most of them had called too. In six months the Decision Makers had graduated to actors in their commercials, a billboard on South Broadway, and they had re-opened the drive-thru window that the bank had used so that people could fill out a quick form, send their questions through the pneumatic tubes while they ate their lunch in their cars, and have an answer in time to swing by the cleaners and get back to work.
Our second call was about our taxes and whether we really needed to report the five hundred dollars I’d received as an honorarium for a conference presentation. Pulling out twenty percent wasn’t that big of a deal, but we wanted a new television and it had felt good to get that nice round check in the mail. They said, don’t report it. We didn’t.
With a little objective decision making Barbara Kastenburger had purchased her first home in a neighborhood with a watch group and a list of acceptable lawn furniture, despite having to give up Landau, her Doberman, because he wasn’t on the list of acceptable pets. Lindsay Cocker left her husband for his sister even though the sister didn’t have his long lashes or his good intentions. Joe Bethelfern evicted the tenants of his rental property despite his concern that they had nowhere else to go. Lauren Hammond put her name into the hat for an internship in New York and got it. Although, to be fair, things always worked out for Lauren. Matt Overbee quit his salaried job as a CPA, used his savings for flight school, and after learning that it would take too many hours of solo flying to qualify for the airlines, had joined the army and was headed to Iraq. Larry Sims, who’d complained about living in a complacent city fed only by small towns and closed minds, had taken a leave of absence to go follow the FARC around Colombia. No one’s heard from him.
The city council and that stupid Berryman, after much debate, voted to submit certain planning and deferred maintenance decisions to the people at the corner of Richmond and Hanover, resulting in the destruction of an historic block of downtown buildings in favor of the construction of a high rise condominium / luxury hotel with shops on the lower level and an underground parking garage. There was, of course, some opposition to this, but when it came time for the protesters to either hold a march downtown or a benefit concert, the Decision Makers said concert and unfortunately it rained that day. The block was torn down. The ring of horse farms that had cushioned the city from urban sprawl slowly became dotted with intermittent construction projects after owners received word from the Decision Makers that selling was the right choice. In a matter of months, familiar drives I’d taken all my life became alien and treeless. The new jobs and commitments, the houses being sold and bought, meant we saw less of our friends. Our lives were changing.
My wife and I made our third call on a Tuesday night in late May. She had come home from work upset. The new receptionist at the center had given birth a few weeks before and had brought the baby in to show everyone. They had cake and got nothing done the rest of the day because they were all too busy holding the baby, talking to the baby, looking at the baby in the baby book that the mother carried around in her shopping bag-sized purse. My wife came in the door at five fifteen, crying, and told me I was going to have to make up my mind.
This was our hardest decision. It was the decision we’d not been making for four years and for four years before that. The decision we put off when we made other decisions like where to go on our first vacation together – the Gulf coast – or our second – Greece. The decision we overlooked when I proposed and she said yes, which was an easy decision once she had her masters and I was tenured and she was living with me, and the cats were getting along and eating from the same dish. It was easy because we did love each other even though we wanted very different things. It was the deciding which of those things we were going to have and which we were going to give up that gave us trouble – and those were the decisions we started giving over to the people in the little house on Richmond Road.
“Well,” she asked. She was still standing in the entryway to the house, silhouetted against the screen door and outside on the street a couple of boys rode by on their bikes. We had bought a house in a kid-friendly neighborhood, just in case.
“You want me to decide now? What do you mean with or without me?”
“I mean if we’re not going to try to have kids, I’m leaving.”
“That sounds like a decision that you have to make.”
“You want me to make the decision? Because I want a child, you know that, and --” “No, don’t start. Let’s talk about this,” I said, but didn’t know what to say. I needed time.
“No, even better,” I said, “let’s call the service and ask them to decide.”
“You would let strangers decide if we are going to have children? Or if we are going to divorce so that I can find a man who will have children with me?” She stepped forward into the light, gritted her teeth.
It did sound a little preposterous, but I thought, and I said to her, what can it hurt to see what they say? It’s like flipping a coin. You don’t have to do what the coin tells you. Hell, most of the time you do the opposite, but it forces you into something and then you react, you decide. I told her we’d know how we really felt based on their decision.
She argued a few rounds with me without trying very hard.
“It would be interesting to see what they say,” she finally admitted. And I thought at least then we’d have a place to start from. I closed the door while she went upstairs to change clothes. I made us a couple of drinks and we sat down on either side of the phone to call.
“Please briefly state the decision you are trying to make along with a short account of why this decision is not easy for you to make,” said the operator, this time a man, a younger man.
“My wife and I are trying to decide if we should have kids or divorce so that she can find someone to have a child with. She wants children. I’m not as sure. I would rather be free – to travel and to be active, not tethered to anything. My wife wants me to decide.”
“So, the decision is whether or not you want to have children? You, sir, not your wife,” said the man.
“Well, I guess, but also whether we should stay together.”
“But if you refuse to have children, she’ll leave. Is that right?”
“That’s what she’s saying,” I said, looking up at her. She was looking at the phone in my hand. “But we love each other very much.”
“Still the decision to be made is your decision, correct? You can’t decide whether or not you want children.”
“That’s right. I can’t decide between children and freedom.” I made a funny face to show I was only half serious.
“I’m holding,” I told her.
“What’s she saying,” she asked.
“It’s a man.”
“Great,” she said.
“Should I ask for someone else?”
“I don’t think you can do that,” she said.
I patted her knee and took a sip of my drink. I had put too much ice in it.
“Sir?” the man said.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Children. You should have children.”
“Why?” I said.
“That’s the decision,” he said. “How would you like to pay?”
I said to bill me. He took my information and we hung up.
“What did he say?” my wife asked.
“He said to have children.”
“Oh,” she said, and seemed to slowly deflate in the chair until she was reclined and still. We sat there silently for about thirty seconds. It was the quiet time of evening, when people have arrived home and they are inside cooking and watching television. It was so quiet, and for a moment I felt something like panic. It passed. I asked what she wanted for dinner. She said breakfast. We went out. When we got home, things seemed normal again and we made love. She was still on the pill and neither of us mentioned the phone call or the decision or the baby.
“Bradley left his mistress, and he and Leslie are pregnant,” said Lindsay Cocker a couple days later. She was standing in my office doorway, killing time before her World Literature seminar, wearing several layers, all in different shades of tan.
“I hate it when people say so-and-so and who’s-a-what are pregnant,” I said, looking back at my article. “Only the woman gets pregnant.”
“Apparently they called the Decision Makers and they told Bradley to leave the Whole Foods woman and have children.”
“They’re big on children,” I said.
“Are you two trying?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not going to let people I’ve never seen tell me whether or not I’m having children.”
“I guess you’re right. Just because you do what someone tells you to do doesn’t mean that it’s the right decision,” she said, looking down at the papers she was holding.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean you,” I said.
“I called them back. After I left Jim and started seeing Madeline, I called them back one night to ask if I should go back with Jim.”
I looked up at her, eyebrows raised.
“I miss him. I miss how he would make dinner for me. Maddie doesn’t cook – she doesn’t really do anything except read books on birth procedures and make her own teas.” Maddie, Jim’s sister, was an unemployed midwife and herbalist who worked at the local food co-op. It wasn’t clear to my wife and me whether or not she was a lesbian or whether she just wanted what her brother had. They’d always been that way. It was hard to understand what about Lindsay caused such a stir in that family.
“What did they say?” I asked. “When you called back and basically asked the same question, what did they say?”
“They said to stay with Maddie.”
“The thing is, Jim’s got a new girlfriend and he doesn’t seem to miss me much.”
“It’s only been a couple months.”
“It seems too late now,” she said. “Sometimes if you don’t make decisions they just get made for you, you know?”
I did know. That was exactly how I’d ended up marrying a woman who wanted kids, who probably thought that deep down in some slow-to-bloom place I was harboring a fathering bulb that would any day break through all my resolve and sprout kids and toys and Saturdays wrestling with car seats on the way out of town. We never talked about it, never decided what we wanted. And here we were.
I knew she was waiting for me to tell her to stop taking birth control. Knowing my wife, she was waiting for a grand gesture, a nice dinner or a new dress. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want kids and if I told her I was afraid she would leave. I believed her about that. She could be indecisive about a lot of things, but when she made up her mind it was done. I should have let the call to the Decision Makers settle it. In the moment, I thought a jokey call would ease the tension and buy me time. But if anything it had made me more aware of what I wanted, or didn’t want, just like I had said it would. Now she would have to decide between babies and grandchildren and growing old surrounded by a family or growing old with just me.
That’s what I told her the night of our fourth call to the Decision Makers. I didn’t want kids and I couldn’t make myself want them. The decision was hers to make. She cried for a little while in the bedroom, called her mom, and then came looking for me in the den. I was watching that doctor drama that she usually watched. Its season finale had somehow usurped my baseball game. She said she couldn’t decide, that she loved me and our life, but that didn’t keep her from having doubts or wanting more. She was holding her cell phone.
“Don’t call them,” I said.
She looked at me and started dialing.
“They don’t know us,” I said. “They don’t care if they make the wrong choice.”
“If we can’t make up our own minds,” she began, but someone picked up on the other end of the line and she stood up and walked into the dining room to talk.
I could hear her explaining the situation; she went into a lot of detail. She told them what kind of husband I was, what kind of lover. She told them how we met and that she was still in love with me, even after eight years together, which was more than she could say of most of her friends’ relationships. She told them how I supported her through school and made her feel stable. I thought she must be talking to a woman, because she kept saying, “You know?” She explained how after a couple of early conversations when we were dating we stopped talking about kids and focused instead on furniture and what our first house would look like. And then she told the woman about what it felt like when she babysat for her best friend Genna. She said how she imagined growing round and glowing like the celebrities in the magazines did when they were pregnant. How she had cried last Christmas thinking that her father, who was cradling a young cousin’s baby, might never get to hold a grandchild of his own, and how good of a grandfather he would be. She said she could feel in her gut that she would be a good mother – she had imagined her son’s tiny feet and skinny dangling legs. It would be a boy, she was certain. She said that she knew I would be a good father, better even than she could imagine, better than her own father.
After several minutes she stopped talking and listened. I couldn’t see her. She had stopped pacing next to one of the windows that looked out on the side yard and I thought maybe I could make out her shadow standing next to one of the curtains. But the dining room was dark and there was no light from the street coming in those windows. I thought she might be crying again and then she said that yes, the decision was between me and her freedom. Then she was quiet again. I knew enough of the Decision Makers’ drill to know that she was holding now, waiting for them to come back on the line and tell her whether or not she would leave me and go in search of someone new. I thought suddenly that I should stand up and tell her to stop, that I would do anything to keep her. It was true, I thought, I would do anything. I would get her pregnant. I would give up weekends and nights and summers off. But I didn’t move. I just sat there watching those doctors on mute, running around like a bunch of hormone-clouded idiots, and thought to myself how glad I was that real doctors were so much uglier.
“Yes, I’m here,” she said, and then after a pause, “Okay.”
She gave them her credit card number and hung up the phone, but stayed in the dining room, looking out the window. I waited as long as I could, until the doctors went to commercial and came back to begin their rounds.
She came back into the room. She had been crying. I could tell by her eyes and the redness around her nose.
“They said you,” she said, and something about the way she said it, with such resignation, told me that she would never leave me.
A couple months later, I started looking for part time work in the evenings. I had moved out and needed something to do at night instead of sitting in my apartment alone, grading essays and watching our old TV. I found a classified ad that read: Easy money, fun work environment. Qualified candidates will have good phone manners and common sense. The address was 1950 Richmond Road, the Decision Makers’ house.
I went down the following evening with my resume and a travel mug of coffee. I knocked on the red side door and an older woman opened it. She was in her early seventies and had silver hair and skin that was unwrinkled and pink. I told her I was there about the job and she showed me in to a room with several armchairs placed about four or five feet apart. The room occupied the main part of the building. Before it had been the waiting room of the photo lab or the lobby of the bank, but now it was one big parlor with peach carpet, soft lighting and matching wooden side tables set next to each chair. On each side table there was a phone. Most of the chairs were empty, but four of them were occupied. A couple of college-aged girls sat in matching scarlet chairs. One of the girls I recognized as a former student. Another woman, about the age of the woman who answered the door, sat in a floral chair, and a young man, whose voice I thought I recognized from the night of my third call, sat in a leather wingback.
“It’s a low time,” said the woman with the perfect skin. “Early evening we get few calls, mostly about what to make for dinner or whether or not to go to an event that a person might feel obligated but not excited to attend. More serious calls come after dinner.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I said.
“It does,” she said. “It all makes sense.”
Most of the people on the phones were listening. The older woman in the floral chair had her eyes closed and was nodding slowly. They were all apparently at the stage where the caller explains why the decision he or she is trying to make is a hard decision. Nearly at once, the four operators said, “Hold please.”
Each had a pad of paper and pencil. I could see the pad of the girl who had taken my class. The paper had a vertical line drawn down it, and at the top of each column was a word that I could not quite make out. She had placed the phone back in the cradle and a blinking red light had come on to indicate the hold. She took the pad in her hand and wrote one word in each column. The others were doing the same. Then each of them picked up a quarter lying on the table next to them, placed it gently on the seam of their bent thumb and index finger and flipped it into the air. Just like that, four silver coins flew up into the air and four hands reached out, caught the coins and slapped them gently down on the back of their other hand. Then they each looked, a couple of them circled one of the words on their pad, the others used the tip of their finger to underline it, and they picked up the phone receiver and delivered the news.
“You’re just flipping coins,” I said to the woman at my side.
“You expected something more,” she said. “A lot of people do, I guess. That makes sense. Do you speak any foreign languages? Spanish?”
I looked at her.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls from the Latinos. I’m not sure what about, but I’m guessing it has to do with staying or leaving. It would be a break to find a Spanish speaker.”
“No, I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Where are you people from?” I asked, suddenly thinking that she seemed foreign, like a gypsy or a sideshow peddler. Everyone in the room, even my former student, seemed strange. The light seemed more orange; it pulsed.
“We’re from here, most of us. From Lexington and the surrounding counties.”
“But, we don’t know you.”
“You know us,” she said. “Go ahead and sit down. You know us.”
She took my elbow and led me toward a dark blue armchair patterned in tan horses jumping white fences. She brought me a glass of water, and later, a pad of white paper and a newly minted quarter.
Over the next few months I grew comfortable in my evening work. I graded student papers between calls and ate dinner in the break room with everyone else. There were probably fifteen people working nights then. Some of them became friends, the type of friends that you tell everything to, but never see outside of work, never call once you’re home. Oddly enough, none of us were phone people. I didn’t see my other friends much and only a couple of them, like Lindsay and Matt, knew about my second job. With the rest of them it became too awkward to hang out once I’d answered one of their calls. It’s hard to say if they recognized my voice. They never admitted to it. But I would recognize them by their stories, by the decisions they were trying to make. I would listen sometimes for a decision that might involve Kasey. Like whether or not they should still be friends with their friend’s ex-wife. Or would a cookbook or a gift certificate for a massage be a better gift for a woman who is newly single, loves to cook but works at a community center. But anything I could parse from their calls just told me more about them, the people I’d known since grade school, whose weddings I stood in, whose furniture I’d carried, whose failed business ventures and romances I’d supported. They were lonely. They were terrified.
Sometime the next spring a woman called. It was early evening and just starting to get dark outside. Business had dwindled in the little house. Most people in town had caught on or moved on, settling into the next phase of their lives. So I was alone in the call room, sitting at a window, watching the traffic on Richmond Road slow to a halt. The woman said that she was pregnant and trying to decide whether or not to learn the sex of the baby. She thought it was a boy, and that was enough for her, but her mother wanted her to know for sure, so they could start decorating. Still she liked the idea of it being a surprise.
“Does your husband want to know?” I asked.
“He says it’s my decision,” she said. “It should be easy, but I keep thinking if I find out it’s a girl then I will have been wrong all this time and what if she can feel that wrongness in me.”
I had my pad marked Heads and Tails sitting on my lap. “So the decision is between learning the sex of the baby or not, is that correct,” I asked.
“The decision is between learning who I will love right now or waiting until that moment when he reveals himself,” she said. “Or herself,” she added, “and then I take that child for what it is, not what I will have imagined he or she to be.”
My pencil hesitated over the pad.
“This is not one of those decisions I can take back,” she said, suddenly. “Who you love. It is not a decision that you can take back.”
I was holding the quarter in my palm. I’d grown attached to an Oklahoma quarter because of the flycatcher on the back, leaving it in my locker with my travel mug. I was looking at the bird’s scissortail, like two long skinny legs.
“I think you’ve made your decision,” I said and I hung up.
Which settled it. Not long after, I moved away.