The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.
He had the nicest voice. Pleasant-sounding. If he was a doctor giving you the worst possible diagnosis, you might not even notice the words. His voice was so soothing.
"Yes," he said, "I am so glad you called back." It was as if he had been holding his breath waiting for my phone call. I imagined this charming and good-looking stranger on the other end of the phone line.
"I have just a few questions," he said. And, you know, like sure, why not. Sure I could answer a few questions.
Before I had called his number I had already written myself a note beside his name. "Don't be cute." I would not engage in friendly banter; I would not try to explain, I would not complain. I would simply answer the questions that he asked and no more.
"I noticed," he said ... and then went on to ask about things he wanted clarified.
I could have ended the conversation before it got started with a simple inquiry of my own, but to tell you the truth I was still mesmerized by his voice.
"Ha," I said to myself. "Don't be taken in. He may sound all warm and fuzzy, but do not – do not – offer things that you are not being asked.
Ten minutes into our lovely conversation we were laughing and joking with each other. And oh, so polite. We are Canadian after all. He tried not to interrupt me and I tried not to interrupt him as we chatted back and forth. All perfectly pleasant and enjoyable.
We sounded as if we had been old chums from way back, and he even confided that – and I have no intention of getting him in trouble, really – his daughter worked in the same field as I do, and we laughed. Ha ha ha, together. And smiled. Yes, it was on the phone, but you can still tell.
Fifteen minutes in, after answering all those nice questions from this oh-so-nice person on the line I asked, "So how much do I owe?"
Now, interestingly enough, this piece of by-the-by could have been dealt with in the first minute of the conversation. He could have called and said "Ms. Laufer, you owe ... " But he didn't. "Just a few questions," he had said instead.
Now, he said this so nicely. Really. The guy could be a salesman! And maybe he was, in a way, soft-selling the role he plays for the Canada Revenue Agency in reviewing your income-tax claims; someone who just wants you to get things right, and who is just helping you to understand the way you should fill out your income tax form so that 1) you get it right, and 2) you don't get a phone call.
In truth, those few questions had no impact on what I owe; I think. I think he was just covering his bases, so to speak, and making the formal inquiries about line 16 or 73 or whatever line it was that I had erroneously filled out on my income tax. I think.
At the end of our conversation he had explained how I had filled out the wrong line, 42 or 72 (I have it written down somewhere), but all I had to do was fill in the right line, 96 or 230 or whatever, and all would be well with me and the government of Canada. How lovely is that?
Really it was just the nicest lesson in understanding on how to fill in those darn forms, which sometimes can be a little confusing.
Now I had a few questions for him. To which he answered, "I don't know."
Oh sure, he was apologetic explaining how his office did not have access to other pieces of information, and this was all about protecting me since you wouldn't want one person having access to information that really was not relevant to their line of inquiry.
It made sense at the time, at least the way he said it. But obviously, I was in no position to resist. After all, he had me at "I'm so glad you called back."
Still, it was an interesting turn of events. I answered all his questions. And he could answer none of mine.
I persisted. "Can you tell me who might be able to answer my questions?"
He did give me a number to call. After a few busy signals, I did get to press "1" or the star button a few times and speak to a real person who said he couldn't answer my questions either. Huh. It definitely looked like this was a one-way street. They ask, I answer. I ask, nobody knows.
I called the first Mr. Nice Guy back. Oh, he was unhappy that they didn't know the answer and suggested I call back because I would probably get a different person on the line, and that person might know the answer.
Between phone calls back and forth – we actually ended up speaking twice more – I decided to change my question, and finally got the right number to call.
Bottom line: He could not answer any of my questions, and I owed money.
He probably was sincere when he said, "I'm glad you called back." He gets to finish his file on me and go on to the next customer he will soothe before telling her or him that they owe the government money.
Huh. Oh, and by the way, thanks a lot. Really.