The Day Shift by Jeremy Tavares

When I was twenty-three years old, I sat at a card table in the back room of a business called Security Check. It was a collection agency in Oxford, Mississippi that specialized in over-due balances and checks returned for insufficient funds. I had a small computer in front of me with a black screen that flickered with green letters and numbers. The room was filled to the limit allowed by the fire marshal with college students and people who didn’t have many other options.

Sitting three feet to my right was a lady in her mid-forties named Betty. Each day, she carried in a framed picture of a guy who looked to be about half her age, wearing a Marine Corps uniform. It was really too big for the table. It should’ve been hung on a wall somewhere. I always assumed the man in uniform was her son, but I never asked. Betty stuttered, and she tended to get angry and start shouting into her headset at some point during her shifts. To my left was a guy I knew only as Doug. He was taking a semester off from the university to pay off some DUI citations, so he could get his driver’s license back. He told me there was an attorney with an office downtown who could have your record cleared for five thousand dollars. He smoked two cigarettes during every break and usually mentioned how he was hung over from the night before. Betty scowled at him from time to time, but he didn’t seem to notice. The three of us made for a good representation of the city of Oxford. The fraternity boy from a wealthy family, the poor local who hated him, and the recent graduate who had nowhere else to go.

We all sat three to a table in metal folding chairs and waited for the auto-dialer to pull up the next account. There was no script or assigned seats. You were just supposed to sit down at an empty computer and start making calls. A manager walked around us shouting, “Who has a payment?” You held up your hand when you had one, and you held up your fingers to show how many. If you didn’t hold up your hand at least once before each break (once every four hours), you would be sent home for the day. “I can’t lose this job,” Doug would say. “My dad’s going to take my car if he finds out I lost my license.”

It was a stressful environment, and it was rare that Betty made it to mid-day before she stood up and started shouting obscenities at someone through her headset. The people we spoke to were angry, and some of them were rightfully so. Security Check charged a lot of extra fines on top of the original bank or business’s late fees. When these were totaled up, they would make an overdue balance of only a few dollars into something a lot of these people couldn’t afford to pay. Some of them told us their identity had been stolen, or a family member had bought something under their name. We were supposed to direct them to our legal department, but we all knew that wouldn’t change much. The legal department was very hesitant to remove someone’s number from the auto-dialer. The reasoning was supposedly because they knew that eventually a lot of people would just go ahead and pay off the account to be done with the harassment.

The third or fourth time we called someone who said they hadn’t made the purchase we were calling about, they tended to get nasty. Threats of lawsuits and violence were common, so were tears and stories of drug addiction and poor health. The lady who trained me said I’d get used to it in a couple of weeks, but I never did. The threats and shouting didn’t bother me all that much because it was just a voice over a headset, but I tended to carry some of the sob stories home with me. One day, a guy broke down and told me his wife had left him for a younger man. They had taken his Visa with them and they were running up a fairly steep bill, but he refused to cancel his card because he thought she might come back to him if he could continue to show her how responsible he was. “I’m going to pay for all of it. I just need more time,” he said. He read out the number of his Discover card and authorized a fifty-dollar payment to buy himself another week.

During our next fifteen-minute break, I told Doug about how genuine the guy sounded when he cried. We were sitting behind the building on a section of asphalt looking out into an empty field. Doug took a long pull from his cigarette and smiled with perfect teeth. “Man, some people have all the luck,” he said. “Write that guy’s number down, then put a seven-day hold on his account.”


“So, you can call him every week and have at least one definite payment,” said Doug. He barely spoke above a whisper. You had to be careful with things like this. Security Check didn’t care what you did as long as you got someone to pay their bill, but the other workers would gladly steal an account from you. We were supposed to get a bonus for every payment we received. The promise of that extra money, above the minimum wage we were paid by the hour, is what attracted most of us to this job.

You could see the side lot where everyone parked from where we sat. If you looked out into it, you could tell we rarely got those bonuses. Twenty-year-old Chevy and Ford sedans with pealing-paint and mismatched hubcaps made up the majority of the cars in the lot. There were a handful of BMWs and Escalades, but those belonged to the college students from wealthy families, like Doug, who were just there make a few quick bucks to finance a Spring break trip or pay off some legal fees. I was only at Security Check for a year, but I saw a lot of them come and go.

I stared off into the field. I’d already put a seven day hold on the guy’s account. It was a new account, so we didn’t have much information on it yet other than it was already over eight hundred dollars. “The guy might be making the whole thing up just to buy more time,” said Doug. I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a woman with a mass of bright red hair and an oversized t-shirt. The airbrushed face of a guy my age in a Marine Corps uniform stared at us from the center of her chest.

“The break is over,” Betty said. She always took it upon herself to tell everyone when it was time to go back inside.

“Okay, Betty,” I said. Doug took one final puff of his cigarette. We watched her walk away.

“Holy shit, she had his picture put on a t-shirt,” Doug said. I nodded.

“This is the first time I noticed it,” I said. “She was wearing a jacket inside.” I wiped my forehead with my palm. It was a hot day, but it was freezing in the call room. I had no idea what the thermostat was set on, but they kept it cold enough that everyone was advised to bring a coat to work with them even in the summer. Doug said he thought it had something to do with keeping the computers from overheating.

“If you don’t want to do it, just give me the number, and I will,” he said. I shook my head and told him I would handle it. I went inside and waited for the auto-dialer to pull up the next account. It was fairly common to get the same person multiple times during the course of a week, but I never got that man again. Maybe someone else strung him along like Doug recommended, but I wasn’t going to.

I was terrible as a bill collector. Most days I barely made the minimum number of payments to stay on. All I ever did was ask someone if they wanted to pay or not. If they said they didn’t or they started screaming, I’d just end the call and move onto the next one. I put a lot of seven-day holds on accounts to give people a break if they had a sad story. They may have all been lying, but I knew what it was like to hurt for money, so I kept doing it.  A lot of the other bill collectors would make threats or promises to get a payment, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. From the perspective of Security Check, I might’ve been the worst employee they had. How I wasn’t fired, I’ll never understand. I kept waiting for the dismissal that never came until the day I tendered my resignation, and the manager on duty shrugged and said, “okay.”

I drove home to my one-bedroom apartment with a porch overlooking a large drainage ditch that the old lady in the office referred to as “Windsor Lake.” My only chair was made of white molded plastic and had a crack across the seat that pinched your butt cheeks if you sat on it the wrong way.

I watched a trio of geese paddle their way across the top of the Windsor Lake. A male and female pair that looked like an advertisement for the perfect goose relationship slid across the water. Behind them a single male followed in their wake, alone and pathetic. He puffed out his chest and honked. Maybe if he hung in there and did the right thing long enough everything would work out for him eventually.

I leaned back to stretch. The chair’s seat expanded and contracted. I felt a sharp pinch across my right butt cheek. The crack was spreading. Soon I would have to take it back to the dumpster where I found it.

I watched the sun set below the line of dilapidated apartment buildings and pictured Betty screaming obscenities through the headset at someone far away who needed direction in life. The Marine’s face on the front of her t-shirt would ripple as her body moved beneath it. Somehow, I hoped she would be cursing at the man who was trying to pay back the bills his wife and her lover charged to him. They always ended the call and put a three day hold on the account as soon as Betty started to shout at someone, and that guy could use some time to think. I sighed. It was only wishful thinking. Life is never that easy or generous, and Betty worked the dayshift.



Jeremy Tavares is a nonfiction writer, graduate instructor and MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky. He currently lives with his wife and son in Lexington, Kentucky.