Montreal |


by Michelle Sterling

I found my first job in Montreal in the back pages of the English alternative weekly when I saw a telemarketing ad declaring, DEALCLOSERS WANTED, BADASS BONUSES, FREE COFFEE!!! I could use some free coffee, I thought, so I called the number and after a two-minute interview was hired on the spot.

The call centre was in a furrier building downtown. Each time I took the elevator, I had to squish into the corner to make room for the racks of fox fur shrugs and mink stoles that were transported from the factory to the showroom downstairs. We were the only business in the building that wasn’t related to furs, and I suspected the Greek brothers, who I often saw in the showroom opening and closing unmarked envelopes, owned the call centre. There were seven us Dealclosers in total, all women, who sat in front of a different phone, smoking cigarettes and watching our boss, Frank, swish back and forth in track pants. Occasionally, the phone would ring and a man from a place like Horse Cave, Kentucky would be on the other end.

“I just saw this tree stand on TV and they said something about a free beer koozie,” he’d say.

“Yes, sir,” I’d say, reading directly off the script. “Can I ask you a personal question? Are you a gun hunter or a bow hunter?”

“Gun hunter.”

“Well, may I suggest the Gun Hunter’s Tree Lounge? It’s roomy enough for the kickback of a Winchester, and even comes with a Jumbo cup holder in the armrest.”

“No, no, I’m not interested in the chair, I just want the free stuff.”

“All our Tree Lounges come with a free video and a comfy carrying case for long treks out into the bush,” I’d cheerily respond. At this point, I’d deviate from the script.

“I'd like you to close your eyes for a second and imagine a big buck in the distance, just ahead in a stand of trees. He’s a big fellow with a beautiful set of mossy antlers. You raise the barrel of your gun, you’ve got him in your sights and are about to take the shot, but then SNAP, a branch breaks underfoot. The buck disappears into the bush. You have that sick feeling of another hunt gone, another opportunity not taken.”

I’d pause to see if he was still listening. If he hadn’t hung up yet, then I was 75% there.

“Now, imagine what it’s like high up in that stand of trees, sitting with a hot drink by your side. That big buck is back, but this time your sights are on him from above. Bang! You get him right in the chest, a straight shot that takes the breath out of him. He stumbles, you reload, set your sights and bang! Another clear shot, this time in his hindquarter. You can tell by the way his knees buckle, he ain’t going anywhere fast. Even if he does his blood is running thick and viscous in the leaves. And you’ll track him. You always do.”

If he said, “I do, don’t I,” then I knew I had him by the throat for a sweet $199.99 in USD, not including shipping and handling.

I had been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy at the time, and the deaths of noble beasts brought down by the survivalist instincts of plaid-wearing men greatly appealed to me, even if the reality was these men were responding to an infomercial they’d seen on daytime TV, and I was talking to them in a cold office in Canada for a commission. During my training, I watched the Tree Lounge video where a bearded man in Carhartts effortlessly humped his way up the tree while strapped into the chair, like the way a lumberjack ascends a pine, and it embarrassed me that I felt turned on by the video.

Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt, especially Frank who wore three ruby rings on his right hand and was always casually mentioning the gift certificate he had to the Scandinavian Bathhouse that was just about to expire. But I wondered if the other Dealclosers ever felt a little willowy in the loins. If they did, we never discussed it, and instead I funnelled my desire into speaking to these strangers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia – warm, wild places I had read about in Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor stories, but would likely never visit.

I brought a thesaurus to work, so I could find better words to describe a trail of blood, and was closing more deals on the Tree Lounges than anyone else in the office. I tried not to notice how thin-lipped the other girls were each time I tallied another sale on the whiteboard.

“You’re a real ball buster,” Frank said, genuinely impressed after I sold two Bow Hunter Tree Lounges to a near-deaf oldster in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “Seriously, you can go far in this business.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “I’m thinking of breaking out into my own thing, just one or two phones max, 50/50 split on everything sold.” Before I could answer he placed an index finger on my lips and said, “Shhh. Think about it.”

I thought about it and tried to imagine Frank and I as business cronies with matching gold chains looped around our necks and a pocketful of bills. I could see it now: we would have our business meetings in the Super Sexe strip bar on Sainte-Catherine and snack on cold cuts from the free buffet after paying $10 for a lukewarm Molson. A bottle blonde would gyrate indifferently to Celine Dion. I would start eating meat. I would grow a goatee.


The next week at work, I agreed to meet Frank for a drip coffee at the A.L. Van Houtte down the street. After we sat down, he poured three packets of sugar into his mug and waited until the coffee grew cold before taking a sip.

“You want a panini?” he asked. He seemed uncharacteristically nervous and kept looking around the café. “The tuna one is good.”

“No thanks,” I said.

He nodded and waited for an elderly man gripping a slice of banana loaf to pass us by.

“So here’s the deal,” he finally whispered. “There’s this new Yellow Pages job that’s getting really hot. I heard a few guys out in the West Island are making ten thou a week, for real.” He carefully unzipped his backpack and withdrew a thick stack of printed pages. “Addresses and numbers,” he said. “A shit-ton of them.”

“Are these from the phone book?”

“They’re leads. Good ones, too. All you have to do is call each number and ask to speak to the company’s decision maker – that could be a manager, owner, whatever. Say you’re updating their company’s Yellow Pages listing and they’ll receive an invoice for $299 in the next month.”

“What if they hang up?”

“Just move on to the next one, and then the next, and the next. You want it to sound like it’s no big deal, like you’re just calling for their yearly update.”

I looked out the window of the café at a young couple walking their small erratic dog. They seemed to be in love and for all I knew, he could sell blood diamonds and she could oversee a horse processing plant. And yet there they were, all cute and happy in their shared dog ownership and matching cashmere scarves. What did their jobs say about this particular moment?

“This isn’t illegal, is it?” I asked him.

He snorted, a quick intake of breath that made him sound like an insulted pig. “You’re in Montreal, sweetie. Define illegal.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do it.”


My new office was in Frank’s grandma’s guestroom in Longueuil, a peach-carpeted addition that barely had enough room for a desk. It smelled like a potpourri bomb had exploded in there, and after an hour of making calls I usually had a headache. I liked it better than the office downtown, though, because Frank’s grandma thought I was working on a school project for underprivileged youth, and always left a crustless egg sandwich at the door.

“Too skinny!” she’d say, and grip my shoulder with surprising strength. “Must study. Get good grades. Be President.”

It was unclear what country or century Frank’s grandma thought we lived in, but I liked her enthusiasm and the way she carefully folded the paper napkin under the sandwich. I ate the sandwich with one hand, while dialling an unfamiliar area code with the other, waiting, and hoping the conversation would be quick and merciless. It was hard to see any romance in a snow removal service in Hazen, North Dakota.

“He-llo, this is Joe’s Snow Ploughing,” a man answered.

“Yes,” I said, taking a guess, “can I please speak with Joe?”

“Sure, hold up.” The phone was set with a clunk on a table, and a moment later, I could hear Joe shuffling towards the phone.

It many cases, an older man would answer the phone, someone with a ratcheting cough who spoke with the unmistakably flat vowels of an American. The conversation would be brief, and within a few minutes he’d give me the fax number to send the invoice to. And then he’d wish me a Merry Christmas.

Deal Closed.

In comparison to the Tree Lounge, the commissions on the Yellow Pages deals were much higher. I was making so much money that I began to idly daydream what it would be like to live in an apartment with windows. Frank was even more excited. Once, he dropped by during his lunch break from Tree Lounge with a small gift wrapped in foil paper.

“A Top Dog bonus,” he explained as I examined a ceramic bell with a windmill motif on one side. “Every time you close a deal, I want you to ring this motherfucker so the rest of the world knows who’s on top.”

I placed the bell on the desk and never touched it again. It looked so fragile and sweet, like something Frank’s grandma would display in her china hutch and proudly admire when company was around.

But something happened after Frank gave me the Top Dog bonus: I stopped trying to close deals. I intentionally stumbled over the script, made my voice as affectless as possible, and even pretended to fall asleep on the phone a few times. Still, most people I spoke to were so nice, so completely unaware of the hidden bear traps in the script I robotically recited.

“Sure thing, honey,” a woman named Fannie said to me from Noah’s Bark Pet Grooming Salon in Stillwater, Oklahoma. “Why don’t you fax that to me, and I’ll get it to you in a jiffy.” I could hear the whirring sounds of a hairdryer in the background, and something mopey and country-sounding on the radio. I imagined Fannie with perfectly lacquered nails and a perm, holding the phone under her chin while she blow-dried a stiff poodle.

I never faxed an invoice to Fannie, or Rod the shoe repairman, or Juan the landscaper. With each phone call, I crossed their names off the list and wrote: NOT INTERESTED. HUNG UP. NO ANSWER.

When Frank dropped by again, he couldn’t understand what went wrong. “You killed it with the Tree Lounges,” he said, while scanning the list of failed leads. “And last week, your stats were through the roof.”

I shrugged, and told him the hunting chair was more my thing. “You know, man versus beast. The thrill of the hunt. It’s way more poetic.”

He looked at me as if I had just told him I liked to eat babies’ limbs for nutritional value. “You want back on the Lounges?”

“Nah, I’m done.” I stood up from the desk, and started to gather my things. “You’ll find someone else.”

Frank sat down on the edge of the bed and held his head in his hands, the ruby rings glinting like three fiendish eyes. “It’s your voice, you know, that made me think you’d be good at this.”
I slung my backpack over my shoulder. “What about it?”
He looked up at me, and then laughed. “You sound so fucking innocent.”