Volume 23, Number 3

Cold Calls

John M. Radosta

Still, I’m lucky I have this assignment. Plenty of other, newer guys slog through hot neighborhoods where you get shot at before you can even knock on the door. If I complain, the powers that be remind me I could always go back there. No thanks, I’ve earned my stripes, and I’m happy doing this. Mostly happy. So I do my job.

It’s not an easy sell these days. A couple years ago, things were better. I hit the quota before the fifteenth of the month, no problem. That was when I first started at this office. We were riding high, could pick and choose our contracts. All I had to do was show up, and they flocked to me. I was authorized to promise the world, and we delivered on it, too. I’m good, real good.

See, I got a story, and I just tell it. Every salesman’s got a patter, and mine is particularly effective. Exciting, suspenseful. Romantic. Storytelling is a kind of selling, and I’ve always been a natural storyteller. Know when to speed up, slow down, what details to emphasize. Some details you leave out, of course. Everyone knows them, so why dwell on it? When you reach the low points, bring in the cavalry, or something like, and then you see the smiles. You can sell anything that way. Especially when they want to buy. Yeah, promise the world, and people will follow you anywhere.

When I started this gig, we were still on top, couldn’t lose. But the pool’s drying up. You drain the neighborhood of likely candidates, and you end up having to scrounge. So the sell gets a little harder, the pressure from above gets a bit more desperate. Last month I noticed we had a company goal and individual goals. Funny thing is, our individual goals added up to twice the company’s. How’s that happen? But I was still hitting my numbers, though it got later each month. Sometimes I was making cold calls on the thirtieth, just to make it. I did it, though. Always did it. No ringing bells in our office, no horns to signal success. Success was taken for granted. It was when you missed, and I saw plenty of guys who missed their quotas, that you got busted down.

Of course, it doesn’t happen without commitment. I work twelve, fourteen hours a day, at least six days a week. That’s how you get the job done. These new kids, still proud of the scars from their last assignment, they don’t know how to stay alive in the long run. So they burn out. I seen at least two guys in this outfit who couldn’t cut it. People ask me how I can do it, day in and day out. It’s because I believe in what I’m selling. That’s the key, you gotta believe. But I have to admit, it’s not what I’m used to, playing with numbers. I’m more about action, the heat of battle. When I was in the thick of it, I was the guy others depended on. Now, I tell my story, again and again. Each time, it sounds more like a story even to me, less of the truth. Did I really do that? Was that really me?

True, it’s not the same outfit I joined, but nothing stays the same. You have to grow, adapt, be flexible. I tell that to Meg, but she doesn’t understand. All she talks about is the yelling, the quiet, the nightmares. I tell her, it’s going to change when things calm down. I tell her, the nightmares are just from before. They’ll go away when things calm down. But I see in her eyes she doesn’t believe me. I don’t blame her; there’s lots who feel the way she does. But still, I keep telling her I’m lucky to have the assignment I do; I could always go back to the old neighborhoods. Sometimes I think I should. It’s who I am. But then Meg tells me, “It’s who you were. This is who you are now. And I’m not sure I like it.”

That kind of pressure doesn’t help at work, and it’s so much harder these days. I didn’t hit my target the last three months running. Lately I catch hell from upstairs all the time. So I hit the road more. I got a contract last week, but not the quality material we had before. You have to lower your standards a little, to get the momentum going. It’ll get better. And if it doesn’t, I’ve done my time, and I can quit any time I want.

So I make my calls. First, I prepare like I would for any tactical operation; I steel myself for whatever I might have to face. I get a couple dozen calls in before lunch. Mostly I get hung up on, but I got a little network of friends who give me leads on folks who might be willing to give it a shot. Guys who’ve run out of options. Used to be, we were the first option, but not anymore. And like I said, we lowered the standards. We don’t look so close at your résumé; we’re willing to overlook a mistake or two. Or three.

Lunch is a good time to get out of the office. Away from the phone, get some fresh air. My job lets me into schools, so that’s where I go. See some young faces. Eager, bright. Pretty girls who still think I’m a neat guy. And I talk to them. Like I said, I can be romantic. If I can’t find the type of kid I’m looking for, I find myself roaming the halls and hanging around the parking lot at dismissal. There are some things I’m not proud of: I look for the loners, the ones who don’t have friends. They like to hear the stories about guns.

Used to be, those were ones I wouldn’t want. I trained my scope on the athletes, those pretty girls, kids with a future who needed a little boost. Used to be, I sold the financial package: job training, college tuition, free medical. Tax-free bennies. It was the best deal going, even if the reality didn’t always match the promise. But when the tide started to turn, even the money wasn’t enough. What good was tuition if you were too messed up to go to college? So we started to play up the duty and honor angle, the pride of wearing the uniform. But I have to admit, when I talked like that, I felt like a gang-banger rapping about guys who have your back when the rest of the world doesn’t. It’s a line that works more and more these days, but what’s the result? Kids we never would’ve wanted before, and it costs more to train them.

And then, I gotta close the deal. So I show up at home, sweet-talk the parents. They’re a lot harder to sell. The older guys call me “baby killer,” call me “Nazi.” And worse. That’s if they let me in the house at all. The mothers, they smother the kids in hugs like protective hens. But I told you, I believe in what I’m selling. Danger’s always been a part of the job. Used to be a draw, as a matter of fact, so long as it was an abstract, and for years it was. Now, though, it’s too real. But someone has to do it. It is honorable, it is patriotic. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I want others to feel that pride, too.

But how do you tell the truth and still make the deal? Others, better than me, tried. And there’s a lot that happens that no one over here knows about. They don’t want to know, not even the ones who are always sniping. Ok, so it’s not going as well as they said it would. They said it would be over by now. There are no guarantees, in life or in the military. I tell that to the parents—I have to—but one time a father took a swing at me. Right in his own living room, smashed the glass of iced tea he’d brought me not five minutes earlier. His son looked ashamed, but I knew he didn’t have it in him to sign up. If he had, he might’ve said something, but instead, he ran to his room. I could’ve got him, but now I’m glad I didn’t. I couldn’t trust him to have my back, so why should I foist him on someone else?

Doesn’t look like I’m going to hit my numbers this month, either. Even though I caught a break and they lowered expectations for the next quarter. It’s not what I’m used to. I was a good soldier, and then I was a good recruiter. I brought in hundreds. Now I troll high-school guidance offices for kids who might not graduate, punks who’ve had run-ins with the law. We can turn them around. It happens all the time. We can make them proud of themselves, proud of our country. We can make them like me. Though Meg, she doesn’t think that’s such a great idea. “You’re not the guy I knew before,” she says. “And you’re dooming innocent kids to the same fate.” In a way, she’s right. But we all change, we all adapt. Usually I can deal with that.

Sometimes, though, when that third nightmare keeps me from going back to sleep, I see what she sees: I still wear the uniform, but I’m not a soldier anymore. I tell the stories, but they don’t seem real anymore, like they happened to some other person altogether. Maybe they did, and my memory lies to me. And I tell myself, I can quit any time I want. But I keep on doing it, for my company, and for my country, and yes, even for Meg. Because I’m proud of my decision. But how can I send others to see what I had to see, to do what I had to do? Which ideal is more important to me: being innocent, or losing it to protect the innocence of others? But I follow orders. That’s what I do. I’m a good soldier. Even here at home, I’m still a good soldier.

So I’m making those cold calls still. Almost two hundred today. I put more miles on my car every week than you would in half a year. Right now I got a line on a kid, a good one: honor grades, athletic, patriotic as hell. And if I don’t get him, there’s always a hanger-on I can nab as a consolation prize. And if that doesn’t work, I can always get out. I’ve put in my time. Still, I’m lucky to have this assignment, that’s what they keep telling me. And I still have a sidearm. I can quit any time I want.