Calling Out by Rae MeadowsCalling Out by Rae Meadows

Calling Out

byRae Meadows

Paperback | September 4, 2007

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Fleeing heartbreak and boredom in Manhattan, Jane quits her job, drives west, and lands in Salt Lake City, where she takes a job answering phones at a Mormon-endorsed escort agency. As Jane struggles to find companionship and purpose in her new surroundings, she mothers the escorts and flirts with callers. But the pull of mystery and danger is too great. Boundaries begin to blur, and Jane inches toward a place that would have once been unthinkable: she becomes an escort. Shifting between self-doubt and confidence, uncertainty and adrenaline, Jane descends into the lonely world of sexual commerce and discovers–through her “bad” behavior–a new sense of self.
Rae Meadows is a graduate of Stanford University and the MFA program at the University of Utah. Her short stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, Flyway, 580 Split, and Fine Print. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Calling Out is her first novel.
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Title:Calling OutFormat:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 7.99 × 5.01 × 0.78 inPublished:September 4, 2007Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385665385

ISBN - 13:9780385665384

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chapter 1It’s the taxidermist. I can tell by my caller ID. His picture, which he once gave to one of the girls, is taped to the wall above my phone, between a photocopy of our business license and the list of descriptions that Mohammed has written to help sell the girls: “classy, mature, enthusiastic, efervessent, exotic, curvie”–whatever adjective might get a caller going. The taxidermist lives down in Nephi, a town named for the righteous, fair-skinned leader of an ancient Hebrew tribe who, the Book of Mormon claims, brought his followers to America by boat in 600 B.C. But this modern Nephi doesn’t offer much more than windy, lonely scrub hills. It’s the sticks, even for Utah. The taxidermist pays a $300 travel fee for a girl to drive three hours there and three hours back. That’s on top of the $120 per hour he pays for the time she spends with him, not including a usually good-sized tip. In the photograph, his hands are on his hips and his feet are apart, as if he’s just quelled an uprising. He’s wearing a long denim coat with epaulettes and leather lapels. His hair hangs just past his shoulders, frizzed and bleached yellow with dark roots and lifted up and away from his face by a breeze. He’s thirtyish, with a gut, and I can picture him in the cab of his pickup with the rigid legs of a stuffed deer sticking up behind him. The hunter. The craftsman. Sure of his manly role in the world. The photo was posted as a joke but its continued display is evidence of his mascotlike status among us.His name is Ephraim and sending him an escort is a lengthy process. He claims he doesn’t like anyone who’s available, he gets surly about the last girl he saw, he haggles over the travel fee. But Ephraim in Nephi doesn’t have a wealth of romantic options, so eventually he’ll say okay, and sigh, as if he’s doing everyone a favor by letting a girl come to him. He treats all of us–the phone girls, the escorts, probably even the woman at the drive-through window–as if we conspire against him. The escorts complain that he trumpets his skill as a taxidermist, that he reeks of formaldehyde, that he reminds every girl she is lucky to have been chosen. But after paying out to the house and tipping the booker, the girl takes home about $500 for just three hours of face time, which makes even Ephraim worth the trip. Plus he gives each of his female visitors the souvenir of a fox pelt, which I find endearing. The last time I talked to Ephraim, I pitched him Sunshine, one of our older girls, describing her as thirty, blond, a class act. Actually she’s in her early forties and, though pleasant, not exactly cheerful, especially given her ragged-edged smoker’s voice. She is blond, though, and that’s usually all that matters. Booking an escort requires a few bets to be hedged, a little confidence, and a glimpse of insight into the mind-set of a man who calls an escort service from the barren middle west of Utah. Ephraim is, like most callers, nothing if not optimistic, and that night the blond hair conjured enough sexiness for him to imagine a fulfilling evening.But the feeling of erotic promise shrivels quickly in a one-sided endeavor. Apparently Sunshine didn’t know what a taxidermist was when she agreed to head to Nephi. She barreled into the office at five o’clock the following morning, still mad after three hours on the road, insisting she would never see that disgusting son-of-a-bitch again. When she slammed the office door on her way out, I couldn’t help but imagine the slamming door of Ephraim’s workshop, and then the sound of the doleful Nephi wind, as he found himself, once again, alone. But the taxidermist always calls again. And tonight, I’m almost glad he has. It’s a rule that we don’t let the men know we have caller ID–this business is all about mystique, Mohammed tells us–so I pretend I don’t know it’s him and I start from the beginning. “Good evening, this is Roxanne. How may I help you?” “It’s Ephraim,” he says. Like all regular callers, he assumes an air of entitlement. He expects me to know him and to show deference. I’m supposed to ask if he’s used our service in the last six months and to recite the “Utah rules” so there are no misunderstandings. But I know this will make him angry, so I don’t. Most regulars shed all embarrassment, any hint of shame–many become self-righteous. But there is something about Ephraim, a naked desperation in his voice he can’t fully conceal, that makes me want to cheer him up. “Have you see Nikyla before?” I ask. There are four girls on the schedule, but none of them has called in. “Sounds foreign,” Ephraim complains.“It’s just an exotic name. I think you’ll really like her.”“I want real tits. None of them fake ones. And not one of those kids, neither. They don’t know how to act,” he says.“She’s twenty-four, 5'4", 110 pounds, 34D-24-34, long black hair and green eyes. A stunning beauty. The most amazing breasts. Real and full. You won’t believe how luscious they are,” I say, “You’ll think you’re dreaming.”The only thing I’m lying about is that Nikyla is barely nineteen, but she is more mature and self-possessed than her age might suggest. Ephraim takes the bait.I have to page Nikyla a few times before she calls me back, but she agrees to see Ephraim because she likes me and because she wants to get away from her boyfriend’s mother who’s going on and on about the Mormon president’s exalted General Conference address. Nikyla has never gone to see the taxidermist but she laughs when I tell her who it is and says it’s sort of like winning a fucked-up lottery. Ephraim may be the butt of our jokes but he is so heartbreakingly fallible we treat him with a certain gentleness. Because I know what he looks like, the longing on the other end of the line is all the more palpable. I imagine him answering the phone in his cold metal shed, surrounded by glass eyes and mounted elk heads with their antlers not yet sewn into place. “Hello, Ephraim, it’s Roxanne from Premier,” I say.“Yeah,” he says.“Nikyla is on her way.”“Better be. I don’t got all night.”“Ephraim, sweetie,” I say, my voice a slow, aural smile that melts the border between reality and fantasy, “You have a happy Thanksgiving.”*In the spring of 1846, Brigham Young set off for the Rockies with 70 wagons carrying 143 men, 3 women, 2 children, a boat, a cannon, 93 horses, 55 mules, 17 dogs, and some chickens. I left Manhattan on a warm May day with everything I owned either crammed into my old Subaru wagon or piled high on top like the shell of a turtle, and I drove west on Highway 80 with little more to direct me than an Outside magazine article about the high quality of life in a city surrounded by mountains in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. I had faith in the curative power of new geography. Brigham Young had stopped his wagon train at the mouth of Emigration Canyon and said, “This is the place,” and so would I. There was the fetid lake smell but I grew used to it soon enough. And the Mormon cultural oddities, like excessive politeness and proud moral correctness and 3.2 beer, I found refreshingly quaint. Even the missionaries were amiable when I lied and told them I was Jewish to make them go away. Besides, no one knew me in Salt Lake City and it was a long way from New York, which made it as good a place as any.My real name is Jane. I’ve lived in Utah for six months. My landing here may seem random, but I like to think that there was some sort of fatalistic breeze that steered me to this place. Although I don’t have a particular sense that the land of Zion is where I’m supposed to be, I do feel at ease here. The landscape hasn’t yet been dulled by the patina of disappointment.chapter 2Even phone girls need pseudonyms for safety and, I realize now, to make a game of the whole thing. It took me a few times before I could say “This is Roxanne” without laughing. Kendra did phone sex before working here, so she is all seduction, all business. She holds a Benson & Hedges 100 between crimson, acrylic-nailed fingers and books more dates than anyone. She says it’s about foreplay. I see it more as straight sales. Bait and switch. Leads and closing. Either way, it comes down to the fact that we’re paid to prey on men’s desire and loneliness. Most of our clientele are local and they’ve used us before. But some are just in town for business. “We are a legal escort agency,” I say in a low flirty voice. “There is no sexual contact involved. I can send a lovely young lady to see you, she can dance, do a little striptease…” I trail off to be suggestive, because other than sexual contact, what an escort and client can do is limited only by their own creativity. But with the out-of-towner I’m usually met with the standard disbelief, the insistence on how the “no sex” part can’t possibly be true. I didn’t believe it either when I answered the classified ad for a phone manager, but the job’s legality did make it easier for me to justify taking it. “Here at Premier,” Mohammed told me then in his guttural Arabic accent, “we do things by the book and with integrity.” And the Utah men keep coming back. In the Premier lounge hangs a poster with a climber gripping an impossibly sheer rock face. In bold script beneath the image it says, “Strive for Excellence!” On the wall of the bathroom in a scratched plastic frame is a list titled “Reasons Not to Break the Law.” Number ten reads, “Your self-esteem will suffer–who wants to be a whore!” With that exclamation point I always read the last clause as a cheer. Mohammed composed this list to keep his young charges in line, to simplify the Byzantine maze of regulations and codes to which Utah-style escort services are subject. A few months ago he had to pay a fine for an escort who encouraged an undercover officer to masturbate while he watched her. This was after he had her lick chocolate from his inner thighs, which is perfectly legal. Since I’m not from Utah, I volunteered to work this shift so the other phone girls could spend Thanksgiving with their families. I told my parents I wasn’t coming home to Ohio because I had to finish an important project–they think I work at a small advertising agency–but really I didn’t want to have to face too many questions about what I’m up to in Utah. My sister will be there with her husband and in-laws, which stressed my mom out enough that she didn’t press for my attendance.I used to love Thanksgiving, the consistency and ritual of it, the forest green cloth napkins, the good silverware, the overdone turkey, my mom’s earnest blessing, our required pronouncements of the things we were thankful for. But at some point my sister and I no longer had much to say to each other, and my dad grew quiet, and Thanksgiving became more of a duty than anything else. Last year, my sister was with her husband’s family, so it was just the three of us. My mom didn’t ask me to help mash the potatoes or set the table. Instead we had dinner at the country club.Tonight the heater comes on only intermittently and the cable is out altogether. I’ve been scraping ancient Scotch tape remnants from the desk in between reading sections of a month-old Sunday New York Times. Mohammed rushes in to drop off some new invoice sheets, chattering in Arabic on his cell phone with barely a nod hello in my direction. He’s in his fifties, his hair still inky-black, and though he says he’s 5'9", so am I, and he’s shorter than I am by at least two inches. He emerges from his office a moment later and looks over my shoulder at the night’s meager phone log, then shakes his head, his cinnamon complexion gone ashy.“Who’s working?” he asks.“Um. Nikyla’s on her way to Nephi. I haven’t gotten a hold of Mimi or Vivian. Or Miranda.” “So who?”“At the moment, no one. But Jezebel’s on later.”“No one?”“No one,” I say, “but it’s Thanksgiving. I don’t think that many people are going to call.”“Oh you don’t,” he says. “How am I supposed to run a business where none of the employees show up to work? They think they can just decide if they feel like working or not? These kids have no work ethic.” Mohammed also owns Saharan Sands, a Middle Eastern restaurant run by his wife, and the Carpet Oasis, an Oriental rug store, which flank the escort office. All of his businesses are losing money, so he exists in perpetual motion between the venues, on high alert for ways to turn a profit. Last month he added a belly dancer to weekend lunch and dinner hours at the restaurant. She doubles as a phone girl. He is considering a neon sign for his always-empty rug store. He had a phone line installed here for another venture, which we are told to answer by saying “Creative Artists,” offering clowns, singing telegrams, and practical jokes, presumably performed by the escorts. It never rings. A French maid’s costume and a musty bear suit hang in a locker in the back room. Mohammed pulls out his cell phone but then puts it back in his jacket and begins to pace behind me. “You will have to go out,” he says.“What?”“If someone calls and wants a date, you will have to go.”“No way,” I say. “I’ve told you before. I don’t do that.” “You don’t do what? It’s not sex! We’re a legal business! I contributed to the mayor’s campaign!”“Mohammed,” I say, “I only book the dates.”“I cannot understand you,” he says, throwing his hands up. “Making money is making money. It’s a service, like being a nurse or a babysitter or something like this.” He rubs his temples with his eyes closed.“I can’t believe you’re trying to bully me,” I say. I took this job to do something different than what I knew–but not that different. “If it’s such a bad thing then why do you work here, huh?” But his tone betrays his resignation and he breathes out with a weary sigh.“I’ll try calling the girls again,” I say.Mohammed crosses his arms and scowls. His beeper goes off and he scurries out, leaving behind a trail of peppery cologne.

Editorial Reviews

“I recognize these dreamers and fallen angels from the books of Joan Didion and Hubert Selby and Denis Johnson, and here they spring to life in an unexpected place–the Great Salt Lake, the onetime American Holy Land that still draws wayward pilgrims. . . . In her own rush toward oblivion, our clearheaded heroine navigates among them without pity, but with a grace that ultimately make this a story not of loss, or sin, but of redemption.” —Mark Sundeen, author of Car Camping and The Making of Toro“[A] writer to watch.” —Kirkus Reviews“Sexy [and] provocative.” —Publishers Weekly“A sexy, confident, totally winning debut. . . . [Meadows] is a shining talent.” —Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy