The phone clicked on and a female voice answered, "911, fire or emergency?"
A male caller with a shaky voice answered, "I just wanted to let you know," he said before pausing for a few deep breaths, "that I'm going to kill myself in a moment and you should send an ambulance or something over to pick up my body."
The operator was unfazed, "Now sir, don't do anything rash, I'm going to send a police officer over to your house and we'll find someone for you to talk to."
"I don't want anyone to talk to!" the caller shot back, "I just want you to come and pick up my fucking body!"
"Sir, please calm down, everything will be all right. A police officer is on the way, now why don't you talk to me and tell me what's wrong?"
The caller was sobbing loudly and wheezing every time he took a breath, "I… don't… want… to… talk…" he said between moans, "I just want to die."
"Sir, please stay on the line with me, I want you to talk with me. An officer will be there in a few minutes but I want you to…" POW. A gunshot rang out over the line. The sudden blast caused the operator to gasp loudly into the receiver. "Sir? Sir? Are you there sir?" she began calling over the line as she began loudly typing on her keyboard. There was no response.
After a few seconds of silence, the instructor got up from his chair and turned off the audiotape. He paced slowly in front of his class for a few moments, watching them closely, studying them for any signs to tell him who to look out for and who to try and nurture.
There were about twenty of them, mostly women and though ages varied almost all were younger than forty. They came from all walks of life, some showed up in little more than T-shirts and jeans while others appeared to be nicely dressed, the same went for the men in the class. But though there was little consistent about them, they all had a look of fear etched on their faces. All of their eyes were as wide open as they could get and their stares were blank and unfocused like someone had just hit them on the back of the head.
He had them where he wanted them.
The instructor took a moment to clear his throat, "This is your job people, or at least it could be," he said. The seemingly sudden noise shook everyone out of their blank stares and their eyes narrowed to focus on the instructor. "You all came here today to train to be 911 operators. This is what 911 operators do," he said motioning to the tape recorder.
"Being a 911 operator is a tough job physically, mentally and emotionally," he continued. "Physically, it requires spending long hours in a dark room staring at computer screens unflinchingly. Mentally, it requires extreme memorization, the ability to recall information under fire and the gift of staying calm under pressure. And finally emotionally, well, I think this tape shows you how hard the job can be emotionally. As a 911 operator, you WILL lose people you try to help. People will die on you because you couldn't do enough for them and that's a very hard burden for anyone to bear. But for an emergency operator, it's just another day on the job."
The class was so silent when the instructor paused he could hear them breathing. If he listened closely, he could distinguish between the patterns of those on the front row, some were heavy, some were light, but all of them were breathing very, very fast. "My name is Detective Joe DeBusa and my job is to train you in the procedures, techniques and regulations that you need to know to be a 911 operator. Your job is to decide if this occupation is right for you."
DeBusa took a seat on the corner of the heavy oak desk at the front of the classroom and paused for a second to let his eyes roam over the class one more time. No one had flinched, no one had moved, but he could tell they were all thinking very hard. "I know it seems like I'm trying to scare you off and I am. This is a very rewarding and fulfilling job, but operators who choke under pressure, who aren't ready for the job or decide too late that this line of work isn't for them, wind up doing much more harm than good. You have a bad day here and it's not that the accounting report is late or that the boss is going to be mad. Here, a bad day means someone dies."
Joe ran his fingers through his short black hair and took a moment to contemplate his appearance. He realized that he was the only Hispanic and only one of two non-white people in the room. Growing up in Texas he had gotten used to hearing Spanish stations on the radio and being surrounded by his culture. But ever since his move to the Midwest, he felt oddly out-of-place, like a foreigner in his own country.
He also felt over-dressed. His neatly pressed black suit and well-shined shoes made him look stuffy. Even the few women who had dressed up for the event were significantly more casual than he. However, his parents had always told him to dress one step above his audience and he smiled to himself knowing he had done just that.
Meanwhile, his class had trailed off into thought. Though he must have gone two minutes without speaking, no one spoke up to fill the silence. He had put the entire group on edge, a technique he'd mastered from doing this many times before. As he saw it, if he could weed out the weak now, that would give him more time to dedicate to those that might actually be taking calls.
"Now I look out on this class and I count about twenty of you," he continued, "In a class of twenty, a graduation class of eight is considered good for this type of course. That means about twelve of you, or over sixty percent of you, will either drop out or flunk out. That's just the way it is."
He stood up for a second and began walking down the aisle between the desks, "If you can't tell, I'm a bit of a hard-ass. But I'm a hard ass because I know how important it is for someone when they have an emergency to be able to call 911 and get a capable, competent and confident operator who can get them help in the quickest possible fashion. The job that you may grow to call routine will be made up of the most important minutes of other people's lives. Five minutes from your job stand between a heart attack victim and death, two minutes can get help to a serious automobile accident and thirty seconds can save a choking baby. These are the most critical moments in their lives, but it's your routine and your regular job."
Joe took a long sip from his water bottle. "Now we're going to adjourn for fifteen minutes and what I want you to do is go outside and think. You can talk amongst yourselves, do some deep contemplation or whatever you need to do, but decide once and for all if this is the job for you, if you're ready for this. There's no shame whatsoever in deciding you're not ready, I'd rather you say so now so I can spend time training those who will take calls. In fact, by being honest with yourself now, you might save more lives than you could by working the phones. So step outside, and if you have any questions or need to talk with me, I'll be right here."
The only sounds the class members made as they got up to leave was the occasional squeak of a desk across the tile floor. They piled out of the door in the back of the room and almost immediately started murmuring amongst themselves. Joe, wanting to get comfortable, plopped down with his water in a folding chair that was set up along the back wall, sipping from the bottle in quiet contemplation. Though he didn't intend to eavesdrop, one conversation taking place right outside the door, which was held ajar by a small block of wood, was coming in so clearly he couldn't ignore it.
"Claire, listen to me, you can't back out on me now, you said we were going to do this together. I need you for support."
"I didn't know it would be this way. I mean, I don't want to spend all day thinking someone died because I wasn't good enough. I haven't held a job in ten years, ten years Diane and I don't want this to be my first one, I can't handle the pressure."
"Do you remember what you were like back in college, back before you met Hank? You were driving fast, partying hard and studying just to survive. When things got tough you always pulled through. You know you can do it. It' just that… that… that… Hank. It's Hank Goddammit! He kept you cooped up in that house for ten years and didn't let you do anything. Now that he's gone sleeping with that bimbo and you've got the house, he's got you thinking you've lost your nerve."
"I don't know, I just… Maybe I have lost my nerve. I just didn't think it was going to be this way."
"How'd you think it was going to be? We're training to be 911 operators dummy. What did you expect? Cake and roses?"
The sight of someone standing over him interrupted his eavesdropping. It was a guy from the back of the class wanting out. Joe pulled out a notepad from his shirt pocket, jotted the guy's name down, wished the gentleman luck and sent him off with a firm handshake. The man was followed by two women, the first was a professional woman who had decided she didn't want the stress and the second a recent high school graduate who was fighting tears the entire time. He gave each of them the same treatment he gave the first and sent them off with a handshake and a reassuring smile.
After the second woman left there was a break in the action and he moved to the front of the room in order to begin organizing his things while the students finished up. But when he got to the desk, another student came in the room, this one a young male was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a smug grin on his face. "Can I help you?" Joe asked him.
"Yeah," the man said, "I want to drop out of the class."
Joe pulled out his pad, "What's your name sir?"
"Names Randall, Randall Hewitt." Joe set about writing down the name when Randall spoke up again, "Just to let you know, I ain't scared or nothin'. I just don't want to be taking lessons from no border-nigger."
Joe didn't flinch. His parents had warned him about this type of thing and even named him "Joe" to help him blend in better. While he couldn't hide his skin color, his police training taught him to bury his emotions and not to respond to insults. Not that he ever came close to blowing up, whenever he began to get mad at someone, he always heard his mother saying, "Don't let anyone who calls you names get you upset. They ain't worth your time. Just pity them for the poor souls they are and pray that, some day, they grow to be half as strong as you."
Joe shook his head slightly and finished jotting down the name without missing a beat. He looked up into Randall's eyes, which were practically daring Joe to respond, and said, "I feel sorry for you Mr. Hewitt. Perhaps you'll try again another day."
But as Randall turned to walk away, Joe spoke up again, "You know Mr. Hewitt, I saw the way you jumped when you heard the gunshot on the tape. It's a scary thing isn't it?"
Randall looked back at Joe with his look of confidence replaced by confusion, "Naw, it didn't scare me none."
"It's ok if it did. It scared me when I first heard it. I was on the police force for four years before I started doing this. During that time I was shot at by three different people and one of them even hit me in my vest, right above the heart too. Yet every time I hear that shot, I jump a little inside. You never get used to it." Randall didn't say anything back, just looked at Joe in stunned silence. "We're all only human Mr. Hewitt, I hope someday you can realize that."
Randall said something unintelligible and shuffled his way out of the room. When the back of Randall disappeared behind the doorframe, Joe noticed someone else in the room with him. It was a plain-looking woman wearing a brand-new pantsuit. Joe didn't get to speak before she said, "Did he call you want I think he called you?
"Yeah, he did." Joe said grudgingly.
"I am so sorry about that," she said.
Though he didn't let on to it visually, Joe suddenly recognized the voice as belonging to the mysterious Claire he was eavesdropping on. "Don't be, I pity men like that and you have nothing to be sorry for Miss…"
"Miss Trist," she said, "Claire Trist."
"What can I do for you?" Joe asked.
"I'd like to withdraw from the class. I don't think I'm the right type of person for this job."
"I see," Joe said as he was pulling out his pad, "I'm sorry to hear that."
"It's ok, I just don't think I have the ability handle pressure, I know it sounds silly, but I guess I didn't realize how much pressure would be involved in the job."
"It's ok," Joe said. "But can you tell me something. Did you hear that whole conversation that just took place?"
"Pretty much. Why?" Claire asked.
"I was just wondering why you didn't say anything."
Claire stepped back at the question. While his voice wasn't particularly accusatory, she felt like she was being put on the spot. "I just figured you were a police officer and could handle these things. You looked like you had the situation under control and I didn't want to make things worse. I'm sorry if I offended you."
"Would you say it was a tense situation?" Joe asked sternly.
Claire loosened up a bit at the question, "Yeah, he just called you a border 'n-word' and, well, I was halfway expecting you to slug him."
"Tell me something. You made the right call in that tense situation. What makes you think that you can't do it in another?"
"Well," Claire stammered on her words for a second, "no one's life was on the line there."
Joe remained calm and focused, "His was and so could have yours. If you had escalated the situation, it could have gotten out of hand and someone could have gotten hurt or killed. But, you did the right then, even though it probably wasn't easy." Claire threw her gaze to the floor and drew a long breath as she began to calm down, "I think you have what it takes to do this job, you have the instinct at least. Why not sit through a few days of training and see what happens?"
"I don't know. I'm just not sure if this is for me or not."
"Well, in your case I don't see any harm in trying," Joe said in his the most reassuring voice he had. "Besides, it'll teach Hank a lesson," he added without thinking.
Immediately Claire snapped up to attention and Joe covered his mouth with the tip of his fingers as if to catch the words he just said, "How did you know?" Claire began to ask. However, midway through the question Claire's broke her gaze and shuffled her feet on the floor as if a realization had hit her. She sighed loudly to clear her throat, "I guess we were talking pretty loud."
"I'm sorry about that," Joe said trying to remain calm, "I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I just happened to hear." There was another long pause as Claire sat down on one of the student desks and began looking at the floor again, "I'm very sorry," Joe added again hoping to reassure.
There was a seemingly endless pause as Claire gathered her thoughts. When she was done, she had a slight smile across her face and a new look of confidence in her eyes. "It's alright. It's my fault anyways. Besides, I guess I owe you one."
"Does this mean you're staying?"
Claire let out a long sigh, "Yeah, I'll stay. The least I can do is give it a shot right? I have your permission now."
Joe smiled slightly, "Good. Now if you would be as kind as to step outside and tell the other's we're beginning, I'd appreciate it."
"Will do," Claire said as she turned to head for the door. Halfway through the room, she stopped in her tracks, looked back at Joe and said, "Oh, Joe?"
Joe looked up from the papers he was organizing, "Yes?"