Leah Mueller

The Lust Peddlers

“Hello, this is Tracey. Which ad are you answering?”

“Tracey. This is Bob.” The man paused briefly, and I could hear the furtive sound of rustling trouser fabric. Bob forged ahead: “I saw an ad in the back of the Reader. It says, ‘Meet sexy friends who like to travel. Call Tracey.” There was a deep silence, fraught with one-sided tension. “Will these women really come long distance to meet me?”

Every call began in this manner. Every woman who answered the phone was Tracey, unless one of the men probed further, and we wanted to close the sale. At that point, it was safe to reveal our Phone Slut names, so we could create the illusion of intimacy. My Phone Slut name was Melissa, but most of the time, I preferred the anonymity of Tracey. Tracey got the job done.

My job entailed selling packets of women’s names, addresses, and phone numbers for $25.00 to men who were horny but lazy. It was 1980, and phone sex for hire was still nonexistent. However, the lust for phone sex was raging and omnipresent, and men called Tracey all the time. Sometimes, an especially desperate man actually ordered one of the packets. A few days later, a thick envelope stuffed with the names of traveling swingers arrived at his doorstep. The postal carrier collected the COD charges and left the hapless buyer with a worthless list. Astonishingly, many of the women’s names had originally been obtained through legitimate means. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, 300 desperate females had agreed to have their contact information provided to a nation of sexually starved would-be Lotharios. Now, several months later, most of the phone numbers on the list were disconnected.

The boss, Bill, was rarely around, but his photograph hung in our office. In the picture, Bill and his wife Jo Ann sat naked on a Naugahyde couch. Bill’s legs were spread wide, and an expression of cartoonish ecstasy was plastered on his face. Jo Ann grasped his enormous penis firmly in one hand. Above the photo, someone had written “Our fearless leaders!” in bold lettering. It was best to sit with our backs to the photo and pretend it didn’t exist.

We did have a supervisor — Lorraine, a statuesque woman who was in the midst of an ongoing sex change operation. Lorraine’s salary was so low that the process had to be done in installments. She sported perfect melon breasts, but rumor held that she was still saving up to have her penis removed. Lorraine didn’t talk about her penis. She was a cheerful woman, with a good sense of humor, and she allowed us to do whatever we wanted.

Most of the time, we wanted to ridicule the men who called TNT Enterprises. These fellows believed that sexually ravenous women would spend several hundred dollars on plane fare so they could exchange body fluids with strange men who lived on the opposite end of the continent. Some of the guys were slightly cleverer. They bypassed the sales process entirely and attempted to pull us directly into their fantasies. One of my favorites was a man who liked to play a porn tape in the background while I discussed the benefits of obtaining Tracey’s list. Whenever I picked up the phone for one of his calls, I could hear pre-recorded voices screaming “Oh, YES!” in the background.

A few seconds into my pitch, the fellow always asked, “Can you excuse me a moment?” and turned his face away from the receiver. He then shouted, “Would the two of you be QUIET?! I’m trying to use the phone!” He returned to our conversation immediately afterward. “I don’t know why they’re always going at it,” he’d say with sheepish exasperation.

A particularly frightening man called several times a week while masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. We could hear the electrified sucking noise. It nearly drowned out the man’s voice, which was surprisingly timid. “I’m using a vacuum cleaner on my dick,” he’d say quietly. We ridiculed him without mercy. “Why, is it really dirty?” one of us would howl, to which he always replied, “Yes. Very dirty. I’ve been so bad.”

This wasn’t surprising, since Chicago was a Catholic town. But, as Bill had hugely successful ads in a variety of national publications, it became clear that the entire country was pretty fucked up. He was on a mission to provide sexual relief to as many men as possible, and even appeared on a local radio show, proclaiming, “I’m offering an essential service for a reasonable fee. In New York, I’d be a pornographer. In Chicago, I’m a philosopher.” No one had the slightest idea what he meant.

It was rumored that Bill and Jo Ann lived in a 20-room mansion in one of the northern suburbs. It was also rumored that Bill’s doctors had given him a prescription for the maximum allowable dosage of pharmaceutical anti-depressants. Meanwhile, his minions labored above a secondhand store on Howard Street, while seated at mismatched tables that were covered with nests of haphazardly arranged phones. Our pay was five dollars an hour, plus a five dollar bonus for each guy who actually paid for his packet when it arrived at his door.

My co-workers and I were in our early twenties-a ragged crew of misfits who were unable, for various reasons, to hold any sort of corporate job. The bespectacled, pimply fellow who wrote our ad copy held a journalism degree from Northwestern University. He’d wanted to be a screenwriter, but somehow landed a job churning out porn instead. We had sex occasionally, even though he was in love with Astrid, a blonde German girl who usually sat to my left. All of us were cynical beyond our years, a fact that was exacerbated by the sordid nature of our job. We were too young to handle our daily immersion into the shadow side of male sexuality, so we ruthlessly made fun of it instead.

Other than Lorraine, the only middle-aged employee was a woman named Martha. None of us could fathom why she had decided to work for TNT Enterprises. I suspected that she was in the throes of a particularly difficult midlife crisis. Martha had a comparatively lucrative day job, working as a secretary for the Chicago Board of Education. She was married to a cop, but after 20 years, she could no longer stand the sight of him. Martha’s husband was extremely upset by her decision to moonlight as a Phone Slut. He called constantly, demanding to speak to her, threatening to use his vast network of police connections to shut the phone room down. Obviously, his connections were not as helpful as he imagined, because cops often walked past the door of our building, without so much as a glance in our direction.

All of us had repeat callers, men who requested us by name, but Martha was the worst of the lot. She had several suitors who phoned insistently. They always asked shyly, “Please, can I speak to Miss Martha?” We’d hand Martha the receiver and then watch, dumbfounded and amused, as she spun a completely inauthentic web of enchantment around the poor fools. Martha had a puzzling weakness for Southern men with thick, almost unintelligible accents, men who said “ma’am” and “I’m fixing to come” while they masturbated. Martha egged them on because she had nothing else to do except go home and listen to torrents of abuse. Who could blame her, really?

For several weeks in a row, Martha had carried on with a man named Buddy. Buddy’s accent was straight out of “Deliverance.” He owned a gas station in Alabama, in a town so tiny that he was on a first-name basis with all of its inhabitants. The work was abysmally dull, and Buddy was lonely. All of the girls he’d fancied in high school were married to football stars and wealthy farming magnates, and every day he had to sell soda and candy bars to their grimy, demanding children.

Buddy was in love with Martha, and he wanted desperately to meet her. He proclaimed his love fervently and loudly. We could hear him all over the phone room, as we sat in our chairs with our hands over our mouths, trying desperately not to laugh. There was something poignant about Buddy’s ardor, and we were reluctant to hurt his feelings. Also, the routine was so entertaining that we didn’t want to hasten its ending.

Three days beforehand, Martha had looked especially rattled when she hung up the phone. “I’ve gone too far,” she announced. “Buddy purchased an airplane ticket, and he’s flying out to meet me next Thursday. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’ve been leading him on this entire time. What the hell should I do?” None of us had an answer.

I was deliberating about the possibility of going home early one uncharacteristically mellow night, when my phone jangled sharply. I lifted the receiver, and Buddy’s thick twang assaulted my eardrums. “Is Martha there, ma’am?” he asked politely. I placed my hand over the mouthpiece and gestured towards Martha. She shook her head vehemently, a look of terror in her eyes. “I can’t,” she whispered. “Could you talk to him? Tell him I quit or something.”

Resolutely, I removed my hand from the mouthpiece. “I have terrible news, Buddy,” I said, without missing a beat. “Martha quit a couple of days ago. She got up from her desk and said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ Then she walked out the door, and no one has heard from her since.”

There was brief, stunned silence, then Buddy emitted a low, shuddering gasp. “Oh no,” he said. “Did she tell anybody where she was going? Does anyone know where she lives?”

“I’m afraid not,” I replied. “None of us can say we really knew Martha.” I paused for a moment and gazed around the room. Astrid and Lorraine were convulsed with silent laughter, slumped over their desks, their shoulders heaving. Struck by sudden inspiration, I reached over to a stack of papers on my desk and jostled it slightly. “Wait, here’s an envelope,” I said. “It says ‘To Buddy, from Martha.’ Let me open it.” I rustled the papers again. “Dear Buddy, I am so sorry, but we can never be together. I will always love you and treasure our conversations. Please forgive me.”

Buddy burst into tears. “Oh God,” he sobbed. “I loved her so much.”

“I know, Buddy,” I intoned solemnly. “We all did. At least she left a note.”

“She was a wonderful person,” Buddy wept. “If you see her, tell her I still love her.”

“I certainly will,” I assured him. There was another long pause, punctuated by strangled sobs and gulping noises, as Buddy attempted to get a handle on his emotions. I waited patiently, while my co-workers writhed on their desks, trying desperately to contain their laughter. Obviously, Buddy was irrevocably shattered by Martha’s defection, and I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t fall apart before he even had the chance to hang up. There was nothing left for him now, except for the unrelenting bleakness of the town in which he resided, and his gas station duties.

Buddy’s sobs gradually subsided. “I have to go,” I said softly. I removed the receiver from my ear and prepared to return it to its cradle. “Goodbye and good luck.” Buddy suddenly regained the power of speech. “Wait!” he cried. “I have one more question.”

“Sure,” I said charitably. I was willing to do anything that would offer succor to the poor man. Perhaps I could say something that would help him get through his next few, tortured days.

“What’s YOUR name?” he asked.

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