THURSDAY: Inalienable Rights


Copyright is held by the author.

“THANKS FOR your time,” Connie groaned in response to the abrupt hang-up. The 26-year-old lab technician removed her wireless headset and raked slender fingers across her brown hair. She then checked the Total Calls tally on her Dashboard: 41. While the Leon Jackson for Congress campaign didn’t assign a quota to phone bank volunteers like herself, Connie’s personal goal was 50 calls a night, three nights a week. Yet with the way her calls had gone this evening, nine more seemed like 90.

Contact information from public voter registration records displayed on the screen. Michael Holbrook lived in an affluent suburb east of the city where Connie lived; her three earlier calls to the same suburb this night had ended as suddenly as call 41. She took a deep breath, put her headset back on, and dialed the number on the screen. Her call picked up after the second ring, a male voice greeting her curtly.

“Is this Mr. Holbrook?”

“What do you want?”

Just read the script. “My name is Connie, and I’m calling on behalf of the Leon Jackson for Congress campaign. Are you –”

“Jackson? You mean the guy who wants to give welfare to the space aliens?”

Read. The. Script. “Leon Jackson believes in fair treatment for the Ngtoki, a people who have lived peacefully on Earth since they arrived 15 years ago.” Connie preferred the native pronunciation of the alien species, Ng-!, but was never satisfied with her replication of the exolinguistic tongue click. “The poverty rate among the Ngtoki is twice what it is for humans, and Leon Jackson wants to change that.”

“If the aliens are poor they should work and make money, not ask for handouts,” Holbrook scoffed.  ”They come to our world, they need to play by our rules.”

“But the Ngtoki aren’t allowed to play by our rules.” Connie scrolled down to the Policy section of her script. “The Alien Minimum Wage allows Ngtoki workers to be paid less than humans for the same work. Their legal status also means they pay taxes on their wages without receiving many of the benefits available to human taxpayers. Leon Jackson believes it’s time to abolish the AMW and allow the Ngtoki to apply for permanent legal resident status.”

Holbrook laughed. “Green cards for the little green men?”

“The Ngtoki aren’t green. Their skin is mahogany, sometimes purple.” Connie braced herself for yet another reference to Sheb Wooley’s inane ditty.

“If they really want to be permanent residents, why’re they still trying to fix their spaceship? I don’t know who I’m voting for next month but it sure won’t be your guy Jackson, because he clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to those aliens.”

Her phone bank training and experience had taught Connie to recognize a call with no potential. After thanking Mr. Holbrook for his time she ended the call. Under the Are you voting in the primary? question on her screen she clicked the Yes icon, generating additional questions from the Jackson campaign’s online database. Under Will you vote for Leon Jackson? she clicked No only because Hell No wasn’t an option.

Information for the next call displayed on her screen, but before Connie could review it her phone started playing “Love Me Tender.” She tapped the screen – “Hi Mom.”

“I’m making a pot roast for dinner tomorrow night and need some spices,” her mother began in her typically direct manner, “but Anthony won’t go to the store.”

“Did Anthony tell you I’d go shopping when I’m done with my calls this evening?” Connie had long abandoned attempting to call her mother’s caretaker by his Ngtoki name of N-!-hee.

“I just don’t understand why Anthony can’t be bothered.”

“We’ve talked about this, how he doesn’t like going to stores because of the attention.” The Ngtoki’s purple skin, absence of hair save for razor-sharp eyebrows, and teeth resembling miniature bolt cutters frequently elicited fearful stares from humans.

“I’d go shopping myself if I could get out of this damn wheelchair.”

“You shouldn’t be going anywhere.” Her fall last week had been the third in the past two months. “I’m sorry Mom, I’m almost done for the evening and really can’t talk now. I’ll call you when I’m finished.”

“Are you still calling people on behalf of that foolish man running for Congress?”

“This won’t take much longer, I promise.”

“I’m all for you acting on what you believe, but I wish you had better beliefs. Didn’t your candidate say these aliens from space had ‘inalienable’ rights the other day?”

“He wasn’t referring to the Ngtoki when he said that.” Although given his notorious malaprops, Connie wouldn’t be surprised to hear Jackson make that statement one day.

“This isn’t like you, Connie. You’re too smart to waste your time like this. You do know he has no chance at winning, right?”

“He’s definitely a long shot.” Clayton Atticus, the 20-year incumbent being challenged by Leon Jackson and several other candidates in next month’s primary election, was polling well ahead of the field. “But if there’s a remote chance Jackson could win, I have to help. He’s the only candidate who really wants to help the Ngtoki.”

“And what makes you believe Anthony’s people need help?”

“Because they’re suffering, Mom. Anthony and his family are okay, but many Ngtoki can’t afford enough food for themselves or their families. It’s been going on for years, and it’s not getting any better. Haven’t you heard the stories about Ngtoki scouring dumpsters for food?”

“Anthony’s people are resourceful, I’ll give them that.”

“Nobody should have to eat garbage, Mother! Especially people who work as hard as they do. Just think of all the things Anthony does for you, especially with all your falls lately.”

“And yet he can’t be bothered to go to the store.”

This conversation was becoming as uncomfortable as the call with Michael Holbrook. “I just have a few more calls, Mom. Then I’ll go shopping.”

“Anthony can’t understand what you see in this man either.”

“I’ll call you in thirty minutes.” Connie then ended their conversation as politely as possible.

Keeping her headset on, Connie walked into her apartment’s kitchen. She was accustomed to snarky comments directed at herself, but she’d never heard her mother speak so ungratefully about Anthony. A member of the Steward class in his Ngtoki community, Anthony had served as nurse, butler, janitor, chauffeur, handyman, and gardener to Connie’s mother for seven years; she even allowed him to cook for her on occasion, a privilege Connie’s mother rarely granted to others. His demeanor was steady yet distant, and while Connie often had difficulty relating to him her mother appreciated the discipline and efficiency of the Ngtoki she called my little drill sergeant. “She should pay you more for what you do,” Connie had told Anthony once. “Every Ngtoki should receive more for their work.”

Anthony had glared back at her with a face as dark as midnight. “If any Ng-! wants to be paid more, THEY should work harder.” Anthony had the Ngtoki tendency to overemphasize each th, as tongue clicks were the closest sound their native language had to the consonant blend.

“You work harder than anyone I’ve ever known, but you’re paid half what a human would. Doesn’t that bother you?”

The purple-skinned Steward answered with an unintentionally frightening smile. Sarcasm was uncustomary among the Ngtoki, and their attempts at imitating the mannerism were often inelegant. “How much money do you earn for THE calls you make for THE election?”

“That’s different. I’m a volunteer.”

“It’s your choice to work for no compensation, Connie. I choose to work for your moTHer, through which I earn all my family and I need. How much oTHers are paid does not boTHer me, and it shouldn’t concern you.”

Connie’s thoughts returned to the present as she came back to her desk with a soda she’d retrieved from the kitchen. She reviewed the information for her next call and recognized from the address that the caller lived in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in the city. Regretting once again that all she remembered from three years of high school Spanish was Navidad, Navidad, hoy es Navidad, Connie dialed the number.

“Hola?” After fifteen seconds of failed communication, Connie apologized and disconnected, clicking the Spanish icon on her screen.

She opened her soda and initiated the next call. When it went immediately to voicemail, Connie scrolled down to the messaging script. “Good evening. My name is Connie, and I’m a volunteer with the Leon Jackson for Congress campaign.” After finishing the script and ending the call, she clicked Left Message on her screen. Connie always found messages disappointing, largely because the voicemail script only mentioned the candidate, not his beliefs; the Policy section was only used for live calls. She hadn’t volunteered to leave voicemails on behalf of Leon Jackson, but rather to work for fair treatment of the Ngtoki. Her mother’s caretaker was all the evidence she needed to know Anthony’s people deserved better.

“Your moTHer is having furTHer difficulty with basic mobility,” Anthony had told her on the evening of Connie’s most recent visit. “I had to assist her in getting out of bed THIS morning. I know how much she enjoys cooking, but she may not be able to even do THAT much longer.”

Connie hadn’t liked the desperation she’d heard in his voice. “You’re already doing so much for her. I know my mother hates the idea, but I really think she needs to hire a visiting nurse. She can’t rely on you as much as she does, Anthony.”

“She will not do THAT, I’m certain. She believes a visiting nurse is one step closer to assisted living.” Anthony’s face had saddened. “I know how greatly she fears moving to assisted living, so I can’t allow THAT to happen. I’ve talked to my wife, and she will begin assisting me.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Anthony’s wife belonged to the Engineering class. “Shouldn’t she continue helping to get your ship operational?”

Anthony’s skin tone lightened, his face contorting into a halting expression she’d never seen from him. “Her work on the repairs is no longer needed.” Because the spaceship can’t be repaired, Connie realized. The Ngtoki are never going to leave Earth. “We will not abandon your mother.”

Connie shook her head and checked her Dashboard. Forty-four calls, and her only extended conversation so far this evening had been with the xenophobic Michael Holbrook. Why the hell am I doing this? Nobody wanted to talk to her, nobody wanted to listen, nobody cared what she believed. Her mother thought she was wasting her time, Anthony didn’t support her cause, Leon Jackson’s candidacy was doomed, the Ngtoki weren’t going to get the help they needed.

But she still had six more calls to make. Connie reviewed the contact information on her screen.

Marie Olbinsky was nearly the age of Connie’s mother and lived in the same suburb as Holbrook. Connie dialed the number and on hearing the fifth ring scrolled down to the voicemail script. But then the call picked up, an elderly woman’s voice greeting Connie. “Is this Mrs. Olbinsky?”

“Yes it is.” Her tone had the warmth of a party host welcoming her first guest. “How can I help you?”

Be polite but direct. “My name’s Connie, and I’m calling on behalf of the Leon Jackson for Congress campaign. Are you aware of the primary election next month?”

“Yes, dear. My husband and I vote in every election.”

“That’s great, Mrs. Olbinsky.” Connie felt herself smiling. “Are you familiar with Leon Jackson, who’s running to be our representative in Congress?”

Mrs. Olbinsky sighed. “My husband and I have never voted for Clayton Atticus and don’t plan on doing so this time, but unfortunately we don’t know much about the people running against him. The only thing we’ve heard about your candidate is that he’s awfully concerned about those poor creatures from outer space.”

Connie spun her chair away from the screen. “They’re called the Ngtoki, and Leon Jackson believes they should get more respect for the work they do.”

“Oh I’m not questioning whether they deserve respect. They probably do. I just wonder if humans have too many problems of our own right now. Diseases we can’t cure, wars that never end, ruining our environment. People with nowhere to live… my husband and I are still fit, we help refurbish houses for low-income families, but we know what we do isn’t enough. We don’t seem able to take care of our own planet, so what makes your candidate think we can take care of people from another planet?”

During her phone bank training, Connie had rehearsed the script for responding to these comments. Yes Mr./Mrs. [caller last name], I know that [problem(s) identified by caller] is/are overwhelming. That’s why Leon Jackson… Yet Connie knew she couldn’t respond to Mrs. Olbinsky with someone else’s words. Her back still turned to the computer screen, she leaned forward in her chair, laid her forearms across her legs, and closed her eyes. Thought of Anthony’s firm yet gentle hold on her mother as she shuffled on slippered feet towards the bathroom, his bemused patience while sitting with her mother as she cackled through her sitcoms, his alien forehead glistening like a ruby in a late fall sunset as he reclined next to Connie’s mother on her deck. Connie then opened her eyes and spoke slowly into her headset’s microphone.

“We do have a lot of problems Mrs. Olbinsky, and we’re a long way from solving them. But I believe we can solve them if we’re determined enough. I also believe we’ll never find that determination if we ignore what’s happening to the Ngtoki. I won’t bore you with facts and figures, but trust me when I say the Ngtoki are struggling. They’re paid poverty wages, and most earn barely enough to survive. Mrs. Olbinsky, when we see other people suffering and convince ourselves that we shouldn’t care, it makes it easier for us to not care about the suffering among our own people. That’s the reason I’m working for Leon Jackson, why I want him to be our new congressman. I believe his ideas will help a people who not only need our assistance, but deserve it, have earned it through all the work they’ve done for us. And I believe that when we see Leon Jackson’s ideas are working, when we see the Ngtoki prosper, we’ll realize humans actually do have the ability to solve our planet’s problems.”

Connie stopped, uncertain whether her soliloquy had made any sense.

Mrs. Olbinsky cleared her throat. “You sound quite fond of the aliens.”

“I admire them, Mrs. Olbinsky. One of the Ngtoki takes care of my mother. Her health isn’t good, and if it weren’t for him I don’t know what she would do.” I don’t know what I’d do either.

“I’m so glad for your mother. One of the aliens drives the bus my husband and I take to the senior center. She never smiles but is such a dear, helping anyone who needs assistance getting on and off the bus, even walking them into the center or back to their homes.”

“That’s wonderful, Mrs. Olbinsky.” Connie decided now wasn’t the time to suggest the Ngtoki bus driver probably earned the Alien Minimum Wage.

“But that’s not why you called me, is it?” Mrs. Olbinsky asked. “You’re calling about the election, and you still haven’t convinced me that your candidate deserves my vote.”

Connie turned back to her computer and scrolled down to the Policy section. After a few minutes of conversation about Leon Jackson’s positions, Mrs. Olbinsky declared that her opinion remained unchanged but did promise she and her husband would give Connie’s candidate more consideration. Connie thanked Mrs. Olbinsky for her time, reminded her of the date for next month’s primary election, and wished her a good evening before ending the call. She then scrolled down to the Will you vote for Leon Jackson? section of her screen and clicked Undecided. Connie wondered if this answer would prompt the campaign to follow up with Mrs. Olbinsky closer to the election. If so, Connie hoped she’d be the one to make that call.

Before checking her screen for the next call Connie spread her arms wide, arching her back. She felt refreshed after her call with Mrs. Olbinsky, as it made her realize results weren’t driving her volunteer work for the Jackson campaign. At this moment anyway it didn’t matter to Connie who Mrs. Olbinsky voted for, didn’t matter if Leon Jackson got clobbered in the election, didn’t matter that the Ngtoki couldn’t apply for green cards. Connie had just spoken from her heart, and Mrs. Olbinsky had understood her. This was all the success Connie needed to keep going.

After finishing her stretch, Connie picked up her phone and initiated call 46. Four more calls, then she’d buy groceries and deliver them to her mother’s house, where her volunteer work would likely receive more ridicule from her mother and no support from her mother’s caretaker. But as her call went to voicemail, Connie realized she didn’t care. She would continue her work for the Ng-! and people like N-!-hee, the purple-skinned drill sergeant she and her mother called Anthony.


Image of Ken Rogers, looking down at the camera, wearing glasses.

Keigh Ahr is a phonetic spelling of the initials for Ken Rogers, a resident of Northeast Ohio. His fiction has appeared in the Permafrost, Scarlet Leaf Review, and the Take Five anthology. His essay “Essential” was published in Voices from the Edge, a collection of essays by workers in front-line industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. While writing and reading are his favourite activities, he’s also fond of doing his own yard work, which he does reasonably well, and grilling, where his success has been decidedly intermittent.

1 comment
  1. […] June, Commuter Lit published “Inalienable Rights,” an alternate-reality tale about a phone bank volunteer working to improve conditions for […]

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