When I first learned of The Count, though he’s not a classic Dracula type, it creeped me out that he existed, that we came from the same place, and that we had this one behavior, this secret thing, in common.
It happened at the call center on a regular workday. My sister Laurel texted me: “Did you listen to NPR this morning? Kalispell doesn’t hit the national news very often. Check it out.” I was on my morning break, and it was the end of my break. Well, technically, I was no longer on my break. I was twenty minutes into a fifteen-minute break. I hadn’t listened to the news that morning and couldn’t at this moment. We aren’t allowed to use our cellphones in our cubicles, which is sort of ironic when you think about it, because my job is basically talking on the phone. Talking on their phone, not mine. There are lots of things they don’t allow us to do. I had to wait until my lunch break, which was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. that week. My supervisor changes it every week. I’m not sure why. He has some sort of plan. He’s always up in my business. He listens in on some of my calls. Says it’s “quality control.” Anyway, I went back on their phone and didn’t give Laurel’s text much thought.
At lunch time I ate two squares of leftover lasagna from a Tupperware container in the break room. I ate it cold. I like most things better cold than hot. Something about the texture. Cold, congealed fat appeals to me. Also, the microwave in our break room is filthy. I don’t think I’d actually get sick from using it, but I know it would affect my appetite.
After I ate, I put in my earbuds and went into the Quiet Room.
The Quiet Room is about twenty by thirty feet and dimly lit. It contains seven Lazy Boy recliners. We keep the door closed at all times so that it will be, you know, quiet. It’s designed to give the agents relief from the stress of dealing with the customers, who are unemployed and trying to get benefits from the state. People phone in to the call center if they can’t figure out how to file their claims online. Or if they don’t have access to a computer. Or if they can’t see the claim forms very well on their cellphones. Or if they just prefer to hear a human voice. Sometimes they cry on the phone. Like if their check is late, or if they’ve been denied benefits because they don’t qualify because they cheated or whatever. People often believe they’ve contributed to the unemployment insurance fund through payroll deductions and are therefore entitled to draw benefits out of it, when in fact it’s all employer taxes. Sometimes the claimant will say he’s been laid off, and the employer will say he got fired for showing up drunk, or not showing up at all, or being incompetent, or stealing from the company. Then the agent has to sort it out and decide who to believe and whether to pay the claim or not. Some agents find this emotionally difficult, making these decisions. I don’t, but I like the Quiet Room and I go there more often than most. I do it to get away from my nosey teammates and their empty chatter, not to decompress from the work itself.
On this day, I was the only person in the Quiet Room. I pulled up the NPR piece Laurel texted me about. As I listened and realized what this guy, The Count, in Kalispell, Montana was doing, I straightened up in my recliner with a shock of recognition. I wondered if my younger sister had sent me the link to this story because it came from the place where we grew up, or because she too identified with its content. But then I decided not to worry about that. I didn’t want to know this intimate thing about Laurel.
Here’s what The Count does that NPR thought the world needs to know about: he counts. Not objects, just the numbers themselves. He does it on paper and he does it over and over again, probably for hours. That’s all I can really remember about the NPR piece, but what I thought about then and still think about now was that there was a person in my hometown, who sat in a room all by himself for many hours of his life with a pen or pencil and paper—he must have used notebooks—and wrote:
Rinse and repeat. I imagined that he did this in a room alone, but maybe not. Maybe he did it at a kitchen table while his wife made avocado toast and his kids ran around chasing Bitsy the Cat. Maybe he did it in the break room of the call center where he works. No, wait, probably no call centers in Kalispell. Maybe he did it between customers at his cashier job at the Quickie Carwash east of town on Highway 2 near the Flathead River. Didn’t matter. What mattered was why. Why did he do this at all?
And why did I?
See, I’m a counter too—or I was back then. I hadn’t known that there were others. I did it differently than this guy in Kalispell, but still. And I have never told anyone about it.
It started in 2014. Once a month I would take a day off work—which is exactly the rate at which I accumulate paid leave time, eight hours per month—to make a three-day weekend so that I could drive over the mountains from the industrial area of south Seattle to Madras, Oregon near where my sister Laurel lives. My mother lived in a nursing home in Madras. She was in her seventies when she lost the use of her legs and landed there. Not coincidentally, my five feral brothers fled Kalispell at the same time, abandoning her in her hour of peril and then returning to claim the spoils afterward. She remained in that nursing home for the rest of her life, which ended when she was 83. For seven years I used all of my vacation time travelling to Madras, and I do not regret it. I didn’t have anywhere else to go or anything else to do, so no problem. The point of these trips was to give Laurel time off from her twice-weekly visits to Mom in the home, which were not fun. Unpleasant smells and sounds, depressing sights, all that. This was after Laurel flipped out one day in Mom’s room. Some uncharacteristic shouting of coarse language was reported to me, as my mother’s oldest child and the one with power of attorney, by Nancy, the head nurse. Also jumping around and wild gesticulation, that sort of thing. Nancy said this behavior upset Lois, Mom’s roommate. While I found Nancy’s account of Laurel’s spell or whatever it was, disturbing, Mom attributed it to Laurel’s menopause and seemed to find it mildly amusing. Mom forgot it, and much else, right away. I interpreted it as Laurel’s plea for help. I was the eldest, and felt protective of her. I could see that I needed to be a better daughter and a better sister, in view of my brothers’ selfish refusal to engage in any meaningful way with the woman who had given them life. For some reasons, I guess. They owed her. They were the cause of her fate, living in this depressing place and yet they couldn’t be bothered to even mail her a Christmas card, much less show up in the flesh and pretend interest or concern. They were all single and childless, like Laurel and me. No coincidence there. Still, they could have made an effort.
Well, to hell with all five of them. Especially Rex.
I started coming monthly to give Laurel a break and to give Mom some attention. I had not seen our mother regularly for some time. We’d never been close in the way that Laurel and Mom had been. My mother seemed to blame me for rescuing Laurel from the pathology that was our family. Someone had to.
As it turned out, Mom, despite her numerous physical and mental disabilities, was still alert most days. She wasn’t too crazy about this business of giving Laurel a break, and substituting me for my sister. The first time I came into her room on my inaugural weekend visit, she didn’t even say “hello.” She said, “Where’s Laurel?” I thought she would get used to my visits and stop asking, but she never did. It was always “When is Laurel coming?” “Is Laurel sick?” “Why are you here?” Once she even said “Did you bring your brothers with you?” I guess she must have loved them, despite everything.
Eventually I learned small ways to curry favor. She liked to play cards, games like Hand and Foot and Polish Poker. She usually won and experienced apparent pleasure at this. She liked to watch football but was confused by the remote, and Lois hated football so would never put it on the TV they shared. Lois seemed afraid of me, at which I experienced pleasure, so I tuned in college ball games when I was there. Mom seemed to enjoy having an ally against Lois. Gifts of food worked too. She hated the bland, soft institutional diet offered up on plastic trays: pudding, applesauce, mashed vegetables. She like crunchy, salty things, like Doritos and egg rolls fried hard. She said she wanted food that put up a fight, not passive, soggy food. So I made a habit of bringing edible offerings that seemed to please her and in this way, I formed a relationship with her. Laurel said the things I brought were unhealthy and that if Mom wanted crunch, we should give her raw carrots and apple slices. I didn’t see the point of encouraging healthy habits. If she’d asked for cigarettes, I would have brought them. I took the short view. Not that it mattered. Mom never seemed happy to see me.
There was a period in late 2015 when I could have earned her undying approval, but Laurel put the kibosh on it. Mom had been complaining for months about unbearable pain in her legs. They’d been seriously burned in the farmhouse fire that I believed my brother Rex started. Even after the skin healed as much as could be expected, the nerves underneath kept flaring up. The medical people at the nursing home said they were giving her as much pain medication as they could without getting in trouble with the state regulators who snooped around frequently. Mom said it wasn’t enough, she was in agony, she couldn’t bear it. Then finally, during a visit in November, she told me she didn’t want to live anymore, and wanted me to help her to stop. Stop living, she meant. I pondered this. She didn’t qualify for Oregon’s assisted suicide law, because her condition was chronic, not terminal. How then? Street drugs? Suffocation by pillow? She seldom asked for anything. I wanted to help. There was risk, of course. But I could figure this out.
I talked about it with Laurel, the good daughter. She was aghast that I would consider such a thing. Absolutely not, she said. But during my visit the following month, Mom brought it up again, this time more forcefully, with tears and all. She begged. I did some research online. There are ways. I spoke with Laurel again. She dug in. She threatened to “tell.” I believed she would have. I gave up. Besides, if our mother were dead, how could I ever get in her good graces? How would I spend my vacation time?
I arranged for Mom to have weekly treatments from a travelling acupuncturist. He was young and handsome. She liked the attention. And she stopped whining about pain.
So I kept coming. I would leave directly after work on a Thursday. I usually got off at 4:00 p.m. but during the winter we had an avalanche of unemployment insurance claims to process relating to seasonal layoffs in agriculture and construction, so there was mandatory overtime, and sometimes my shift didn’t end until an hour or two later. Though I like to drive, I would get sleepy at about the third hour into the six-hour trip. I’d stop for coffee, which helped. So did sugar. Still, sometimes neither was enough, so I would open all the windows or set the air conditioning to “frigid.” Or sing real loud. Then one day when I was having trouble staying alert, for reasons unknown or unacknowledged by me, I started looking for and then counting birds. I would scan the horizon through the windshield and glance out the side windows and when I saw a bird, I’d say out loud “one bird.” Then “two birds” and “three birds” and so on.
That’s how it started.
At first the rule was that if I saw multiple birds at once, I could count only one of them. My goal was to count at least one hundred birds before I reached my destination of Madras, in central Oregon, about ten minutes away from Laurel’s house. This was hard to do, especially in the winter when it got dark early. The first few times, I didn’t get much past fifty. But with practice, my proficiency improved and soon I was routinely hitting one hundred. Achieving this goal gratified me. Once I saw an owl sitting on a tree branch. There were lots of gulls and starlings on the west side of the mountains. I liked magpies a great deal and saw them occasionally after the pass over Mount Hood, in the high desert. As I gained experience, I changed the rules on multiple sitings to include as many birds as I could separately identify and count aloud. For example, if there were a lot of crows— “a murder,” they call it, but that’s not the reason crows remind me of my brothers—perched on a wire, and I said “one bird, two birds, three birds” while they were all visible, I got credit for three. Later, I further relaxed the rules. If I saw a couple dozen doves on the roof of a barn, or a pond full of geese, I gave myself automatic credit for ten. Using this method, I could sometimes count as many as three hundred birds between the parking lot at the call center in south Seattle and Mom’s nursing home. I considered allowing extra points for large birds of prey—hawks and the occasional eagle—but ultimately, I decided it was disrespectful to all the LBJs (Little Brown Jobbers, the many nondescript North American species I can’t tell apart).
After a while I found myself counting birds not only to remain awake on the long drive to Madras but on my way to work or to the grocery store. I would even drive around the block a few extra times to increase my chances of seeing and counting more. I counted birds every day, even when I had decided not to; I couldn’t help it. There was a rhythm to it. It put distance between me and my concerns. It relaxed me.
At about this time, KNKX, my local NPR affiliate, began to broadcast a program called “Bird Notes” weekday mornings at exactly the time I commuted from my apartment to the call center. I listened with increasing interest and learned a great deal about the habits of many species. For example, some birds keep their nests clean in an ingenious way. While their babies are too young to fly, yet fully capable of eating and defecating, parent birds secret a gel-like substance, use it to encapsulate the poop, and then dump the bagged poop over the edge of the nest. Crows, I learned, can recognize human faces and harass people who harass crows. The “Bird Note” host interviewed an ornithologist at the University of Washington who had trapped crows and outfitted them with tiny digital devices to further his research. A decade later the guy still can’t walk across campus without attracting negative attention from crows.
I know how he feels.
Anyway, about counting: I started keeping track of other things besides birds. “Keeping track”—that’s what I told myself I was doing. At work, a computer system monitored how many calls I answered, how many minutes I spent on each one, how many unemployment insurance claims I filed, how many claims I denied, how often my decisions were reversed by the adjudicators, how many customers complained about me (more than other agents’ average rate of complaints; people often said I wasn’t “nice” to them, whatever that means), all that performance stuff. I began to tally how many of my customers were women, how many belonged to unions (I belong to a union; I need its protection), how many called me “ma’am” (which I liked), how many were jerks. I made little score marks, the kind with four vertical bars crossed by a fifth diagonal bar. I recorded these on color-coded 3M sticky notes, pink for women, green for union, and so on. I didn’t label these categories; I memorized the color-coding system. Just in case. Then one day there was a broadcast email message to everyone in the call center about excessive consumption of office supplies. I suspected that my supervisor knew it was because of me so I bought my own sticky notes in colors that weren’t stocked in our supply room: lavender, ecru, tangerine. I used the colors I liked for the callers I liked. Robin’s egg blue for those with well-modulated voices. Ugly colors for ugly callers. Mustard yellow for anyone who used profanity or talked over the top of me. At the end of my shift I would put all the Post-it notes in my bottom drawer and recycle them when no one was looking. Later, I started taking the tally notes home and entering the data into a spreadsheet on weekends, so that I could examine trends using the charting capabilities of Excel.
I also counted: the number of times the younger members of our team used the word “like” in a single sentence. I found this nearly as irritating “irregardless.” The number of days in a row that Dennis, the agent in the cube to my right, wore the same pair of pants to work (record: brown corduroys, eleven days). The number of shampoos I could get out of a sixteen-ounce bottle. The number of pieces of junk mail I received per day. The number of times each week that Laurel texted me (average: three). The number of times my mother phoned me (zero). The number of times one of my brothers contacted me (also zero).
I asked my mother about her sons once. I wanted to know if she held them responsible, as I did, for the fire that destroyed her legs. I wanted to know why she had them—so many children, so many boys. I wanted to know why she stayed with our father (who art in hell as far as I’m concerned). To the limited extent she was willing to discuss this, she gave me an answer that surprised me. She said that from a teleological standpoint, the function of male animals is to spread their seed (she actually used the words “teleological” and “seed”) as broadly as possible, and that this biological imperative sometimes required domination of the female, even violence, for impregnation. This explains male marital infidelity, she said. And rape, she said, giving me a meaningful look. It explained why she was continually pregnant, lactating or miscarrying between the ages of twenty and forty-five. This was her obligation, her purpose in life, she said.
What she didn’t discuss with me was our father’s unilateral decision to sign over the deed to the family farm to my younger brothers in equal shares. Our father died shortly thereafter. Our brother Rex was chummy with the county coroner, so I had suspicions about the determination that the cause was “death by misadventure” as recorded on the certificate. My brothers buried our father on the farm without a coffin. His body was not embalmed, or even washed and dressed in his Sunday best. My father never owned a Sunday suit, or a suit of any kind. He had no use for one. He didn’t care which day was Sunday.
Laurel and I also doubted the validity of the signature on the deed. We speculated forgery. And worse. The five of them, we believed, subsequently resorted to burning Mom out of the farmhouse when she refused to leave at their request. She had nowhere else to live, but they found her meddlesome and wanted her gone. She didn’t die, though, which was inconvenient for them.
By this time, of course, my sister Laurel and I were long gone, having dropped out of high school and fled the jurisdiction at the earliest opportunity. It was my idea, though I don’t know whether it was another biological imperative or an act of free will. We left when I was sixteen and Laurel was fifteen but no one pursued us or encouraged us to return. We lied about our ages and got jobs. Everything worked out fine.
Considering these family circumstances, counting things seemed a minor anomaly. It didn’t worry me. I found it calming. It seemed harmless. Until I learned about The Count in Kalispell, Montana. I was different from him, though. I had a job and managed my household competently, which, presumably, he did not because he was fully occupied by writing down sequential numbers. Or so I imagined. This habit I’d developed didn’t impair my effectiveness in any way I could see. Or if it did interfere, it didn’t hurt anyone. If I was in a car with someone else—this was rare—silently keeping track of birds, for example, I might not quite follow the conversation for a minute. So what?
I did wonder from time to time why my sitings of crows nearly always consisted of groups of five, seldom four or six. I know of the design principle favoring odd numbers. Like in arranging flowers, for some reason eleven roses looks better than twelve, seven looks better than eight. The crows reminded me of my brothers Rex (third in birth order after me and Laurel), Al, Harry, Ed, and Art. All were short, dark men. Ugly aggressive men. Lots of people in Kalispell couldn’t tell them apart. I could, but it didn’t matter.
Then one day, seven years and four months after I’d started counting—it was a Wednesday morning in May and I had taken eleven calls so far (six from women, two from union members, zero from jerks, and three from people who called me “ma’am”)—I noticed that my cellphone, which was in my purse by my feet rather than in my bottom desk drawer where my supervisor specified it should be, was vibrating. Not just once but repeatedly, giving the impression that someone really needed to talk to me. I had already taken my break, and I hate talking on the phone in the restroom with the flushing noises and all. I concluded my customer conversation by intentionally disconnecting and then saying “Hello? Hello? Unfortunately, I think our connection has been broken”—for the benefit of the quality control recording. Then I slipped into the Quiet Room, which was unoccupied.
It was the call I had long known would come, the call from Laurel saying that Mom had finally had a massive stroke and died this day. And that she, Laurel, wasn’t exactly afraid to go to the nursing home alone but she didn’t want to. Could I come right away and accompany her? Of course. I told my supervisor and left immediately. I didn’t go home and pack a bag. I just got into my Prius and traveled south and then east. I didn’t even realize until much later that I had left my colored tally notes on my desk by my phone in plain view. About half-way through the journey, at the top of Mount Hood, I became aware that I had no idea how many birds had been visible, eligible to be counted, since leaving the call center. This distressed me. I considered reversing course, driving west then turning around to start over again, but I knew it would take too much time.
It occurred to me that this might be the last time I would make this drive. This too I found distressing.
The next few days went pretty much as you would expect. I drove Laurel to the nursing home to collect Mom’s things. We offered Lois her pick of the leavings, and she asked for Mom’s mini-fridge and a pale green cashmere bed jacket. She didn’t seem sad about Mom’s passing, just a bit rattled about having spent the night in a room with a dead body that wasn’t discovered until breakfast. We dropped off most of the other stuff at Goodwill in Redmond. Laurel called Rex, the ringleader of our tribe of lame brothers, on the land line at the farm where they all lived. Laurel said he seemed uninterested in Mom’s demise, but curious about her estate plan. Was there a will? No. Did she leave any assets? There was a bank account on which Laurel and I were signatories, but she didn’t tell him about it or that the balance was significant. Maybe we’d get back to him on that. Or not. There was no one else to notify and no compelling reason to write an obituary.
We met with the guy at the crematorium. He was an odd-looking person with a shaved head and nearly colorless eyebrows and lashes. He was small, maybe five foot three and a hundred twenty pounds. He told us to turn off Mom’s Social Security benefits or we’d get in hot water with the federal government. He gave us several copies of the death certificate. We gave him a check for $200 and Mom’s favorite outfit, a bright red ankle length muumuu made of shiny polyester, a highly flammable fabric, and a string of fake pearls with matching clip-on earrings. He agreed to dress her. He didn’t appear to have the physical ability to wrestle stiff corpses into muumuus, but we didn’t ask if he needed help. He said that if we wanted to, one of us could push the button that starts the conveyor belt that would take Mom into the fire in the body-burning oven. We declined. I bet Rex would have done it if he had the chance. We decided to scatter her ashes and have some sort of memorial event later in the summer, though we had no idea who might attend besides the two of us.
With Mom gone, there would be no reason for further communication with Rex or my other brothers. Ever. Laurel was an open question. I no longer had any power to protect her. Nor any obligation.
By late Sunday, everything that needed to be done was done so I traveled back to Seattle alone, in the darkening May evening. On this last trip I had the jitters and didn’t need coffee or sugar or loud singing to keep myself alert as I drove. When I arrived at my apartment, the air inside felt cool and smelled stale. I didn’t want dinner. I walked around, back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen, many times. Everything looked the same. But it wasn’t the same.
Monday morning, despite little sleep Sunday night, I arrived at work early. Another car was already in the space where I usually park. It’s festival seating, not assigned. But everyone knew my blue Prius and that I always parked in that spot. Still, I felt no annoyance. I proceeded to the far side of the lot and pulled into a vacant space near an unkempt juniper hedge.
Inside the call center, I saw that Dennis, the agent in the cubicle next to mine, was wearing an unfamiliar pair of khaki pants with sharp creases pressed into the legs. The door to the Quiet Room stood open and the overhead fluorescent lights were on, giving the impression that it had been scoured. In my cubicle, I found a small floral arrangement and a sympathy card signed by my supervisor and our team of agents. It sat on my desk where I had, in my haste to depart, abandoned my colored sticky notes recording last Wednesday’s tallies. They were nowhere to be found. I felt relief.
It was a regular workday. I answered customer calls. At lunch time I went into the break room and noticed that someone had cleaned the microwave. When I returned to the parking lot to go home at the end of my shift, I saw motion in the juniper bushes near my car. A pair of adult quail, followed by a conga line of a dozen juveniles. I love quail because of their odd voices and comical hats and because they choose to walk, though they are capable of flight.
Susan Hettinger is a Wyoming native, former attorney and writer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Fiction Factory, Scribble, Havik, Please See Me, Reedsy, Seattle Magazine, Washington Law and Politics and Colors Northwest. She takes courses at Hugo House in Seattle and participates in the creative writing certificate program at the University of Washington. She is a three-time alum of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College where chapters of her still unpublished novel Third Woman, Third Act were workshopped.