She smiled some more. She had a lot of lines around her mouth and wrinkles at her brow, and her hair had gone through so many dye jobs it had forgotten its original color and had settled on crayon brown. Her eyes—I had known her when they sparkled with blue. They had since deepened to gray, yet they remained clear and luminous.

“Oh, McKenzie. You were always so sweet.” Looking over my shoulder, she asked, “Who are you?”

“I apologize,” I said. “I should have introduced you. Jolene Waddell, this is Karen Studder.”

“Ms. Waddell,” said Karen and extended her hand. Joley shook it carefully.

“Karen is Scottie Thomforde’s parole officer.”

“Oh,” said Joley. She released Karen’s hand as if it were suddenly radioactive.

“Have you seen Scottie?” Karen asked.

“Seen him? No.”

“You’ve heard from him,” I said.

Joley hesitated for a moment, then said, “Come in.” She held the door open for us. I could almost feel her thinking as I moved past her into the house.

I was surprised by how clean her home was. Her living room was furnished with matching sofa and chairs that looked as if they had never been used and a rich blue carpet that looked as if it had never been trod upon. The prints on all four walls were enclosed in identical silver frames and mounted at the exact same height. The novels in her bookcase were arranged in alphabetical order, and so were the CDs on the shelf next to the CD player. There was no dust, no dirt anywhere, and it made me feel uncomfortable, made me feel like I was soiling her house just by being there. ’Course, I’ve lived like a bachelor since I was twelve years old. My idea of cleanliness is stacking plates in the dishwasher.

The only thing that seemed unplanned was the well-used blue three-ring binder bustling with ruffled white paper that lay opened on the gleaming coffee table and the cell phone that was next to it. The phone rang while Joley was suggesting that we take a seat. She picked up the phone, wrote down a number that she read off the display onto one of the pages in the binder, and returned the phone to the table.

“We’re not interrupting, are we?” I said.

“No,” Joley replied. “He’ll call back.”

“Who?” said Karen. I was sure she thought the call came from Scottie.

“A client,” Joley answered.

“Joley’s a telemarketer,” I said.

She smiled at me and said, “That’s a diplomatic way to put it.”

Karen seemed confused, and I would have been happy to let her stay that way. Joley wasn’t.

“I’m a phone-sex operator,” she said.

Joley had acted in a few plays in high school—played Marian the Librarian in The Music Man and Emily in Our Town. Afterward, she did some voice work in radio spots and videos, only not enough to pay her bills until she met a woman who put her to work selling a variety of products over the phone. Joley discovered that she had a knack for it, that she was particularly good at drawing men out in conversation. Her employer noticed, too, and asked Joley if she would be interested in a different kind of telemarketing, something that would utilize her acting skills.

Now the phone rings and she answers, “I’m blond, and I have big brown eyes, and I’m about a thirty-six double D.” The men who call believe her, too. Listening to that sweltering voice, they believe her to the tune of about two-ninety-eight a minute, not counting the forty-dollar panties that she has never worn or the twenty-five-dollar photographs of a blond brown-eyed woman she has never met that she also sells. On a good day, for five hours’ work she’ll gross as much as eight hundred bucks that she splits with her employer. Add that to what she makes for her legitimate voice work and Joley does very well for herself.

“It’s not like it’s prostitution,” she told Karen. “It’s not unsafe sex. It’s not stripping. It’s just words, just talking dirty on the phone. A lot of the men who call, they’re lonely. They’re calling cuz they need someone to talk to. What my callers are really buying—it isn’t sex. What they’re really buying is a few minutes of human contact.”

I wondered if that wasn’t the reason Joley had agreed to work the job in the first place, why she kept going back to it even though she had quit at least three times that I knew of. For the human contact. I wondered if that wasn’t the same reason she continued to involve herself with Scottie Thomforde. Joley had been as popular as hell in high school—pretty can do that for you. Only she wasn’t pretty anymore, and losing another thirty pounds wasn’t going to change that.

Karen nodded her head when Joley finished her story. She said, “I can see where the job rewards your creativity and imagination,” and nodded some more.

“I’m not educated,” Joley said. “Unlike the big guy here”—she waved her hand at me—“I wasn’t what you call college material. I doubt there’s another job anywhere that they would let me do that pays as well as this.”

Karen nodded again. She had the gift of empathy. She understood other people’s emotions and knew how to make you feel good about having them. Either that or she was one of the most duplicitous women I have ever met.