They Do Not Spin
The temp enters my office just as I hang up the phone.
"You had two calls while you were on the other line." Her mousy eyes flicker from me to the slips of paper in her hand. "Mary Haggerty needs the settlement express mailed to her today."
"She doesnīt, but sheīs an important client, so send it anyhow. You know where the forms are for that." Charlotte wouldnīt have asked me for something this minor, but Charlotteīs on yet another maternity leave. Temps always feel they need to get permission from their bosses on every detail. The ones I keep eventually realize which questions they can answer by themselves and what their position empowers them to do. The ones I toss back canīt pick it up. This tempīs still iffy. She may make the leap, but she shows signs of falling flat. "The other call?"
Charlotte would have known to give more information. "Did he say what he wants?"
"He said he was a friend of Warren Rodenīs, and that you might not remember his name, but you told Warren Roden to have him call you."
"I havenīt spoken to Warren in years." The temp stands uselessly by the door. "Give them to me. You just get the papers on the Palmetto case. And some pens. You do remember where the stock room is, donīt you?"
The temp slinks out, leaving me with two crinkly message slips. Her round handwriting reads a little easier than Charlotteīs, although she takes messages in pencil. Maybe she ran out of pens in her own office as well. As I dial Mary, I glance at the other message.
Brian Eckert. Two phone numbers are on the paper, and underneath them: "Traveling." Presumably if he wasnīt at the first number, a New Hampshire number, heīd be at the Brooklyn one a few hours later. The first has the same area code and exchange as one of my phone numbers from Dartmouth. Another graduating student prowling for a job.
Remembering Dartmouth brings back the name Warren Roden, a student who lived in my dorm. We drove together every Thanksgiving and Spring break. I had a roomy car compared to the ubiquitous compacts, and although I didnīt need the gas money he offered, Warren could keep a conversation running the entire length of I-91.
"Thatīs it," I whisper. "Brian Eckert." At our fifteen-year reunion, Warren had mentioned an acquaintance of his just graduating law school and needing to network. A new partner in my firm, I had mentioned a few people he could talk to about possible jobs, so I offered to have the young man give me a call. Iīd handed Warren a business card, but Brian Eckert hadnīt phoned.
Two years, and now a call? I look again at the number. Traveling. Probably Iīm wasting my time, but a new lawyer may be worth contacting. He might have landed a plum job before calling me, and anyone that hot could be an asset.
The temp hasnīt found the Palmetto papers yet, nor the pens, so I dial the Dartmouth number.
A whistle, and the recorded voice tells me, "The number you have reached..." Brian has, apparently, called and then cancelled service. He must be the only student on earth with no cell phone. The other number is in Brooklyn, and heīll still have several hours to get there, but I dial anyway, planning a message for his voice mail.
I sit up when an older woman answers the phone, her voice thin and tired.
"This is Michael Oster from Oster, Lawrence and Glitterson," I say. "Iīm trying to reach Brian Eckert."
"Is this the right number?"
After a hesitation, the woman says, "Yes. But youīre a little late."
"Brian called earlier this morning," I say, "and Iīm returning his call."
"Is this a joke?" Sheīs irritated. "Brian is dead. Heīs been dead for a while."
I huff. Yet another reason to get a new temp. "I probably do have the wrong number. I was trying to reach a Brian Eckert who had graduated law school and wanted to talk to me about a job. My secretary is on her first day. She probably took the number wrong."
"Wait!" Thereīs a moment on the other end as the mother collects her thoughts. "My son went to Dartmouth, and he was going to become a lawyer. But he died in a crash on the way home from his last semester. Someoneīs playing a joke on you."
The temp has come into the office again, sorting this morningīs mail in my various in boxes. "Hold on," I say into the phone, and then look up. The temp has been watching me, so I donīt need to flag her attention. "This call from Brian Eckert, did it sound like a prank?"
"No, sir." The temp steps back and clasps her hands behind her. "He said he had been referred by a friend of yours, and that heīd be traveling."
The woman on the phone hasnīt stopped talking. "I found his diploma in the attic this morning," she says in my one ear. "It arrived from the framers a week after the crash, and we never unsealed the box. Today I opened it and hung it in his old room."
"He said heīd just graduated," the temp says to my other ear. "I think he was looking for a job."
I nod at the temp to dismiss her, but she stays at attention even though Charlotte would have known better. Hitting the mute button, I murmur. "You can go."
I talk into the phone again. "Iīm sorry Iīve bothered you."
Brianīs mother sounds shaken. "I donīt know what to think."
"Iīll take care of it. If whomever it was tries again, Iīll make sure to talk to him myself."
I summon the temp back to my office after I hang up. "The next time you get someone claiming to be Brian Eckert, you put him through to me."
No one from beyond the grave phones before I have lunch with one of the partners. Just as I return, though, a call comes in. The temp answers before the second ring and puts the caller on hold. "Itīs Mrs. Eckert, the woman whose son called you this morning."
"If youīd use the speaker phone," I inform the temp as I head toward my office, "I would know that without your telling me."
I never gave her my number. Intriguing.
I put Mrs. Eckert on the speaker phone and greet her by saying my name.
"Mr. Oster," she says, "I think it really was my son who called you."
Having followed me into my office, the temp puts the Palmetto papers on my desk. I flip through to the signature page. "Do you?"
"Remember I told you about his diploma? Iīd left it in his briefcase. I looked inside just now, and I found a business card with your name and phone number."
I canīt dispute her, since she obviously called the number on the card to reach me. On the other hand, Iīve worked with the law long enough to know human nature. I continue talking as I walk around my desk to get the pen I left on the credenza. "You arenīt very convincing with your ghost story."
"I am not joking. You called me. I have your business card here, and I have my sonīs diploma, and I have a dead son."
"Granted," I say. "But what do you want me to do about it?"
"If he calls back," the woman says, "send him to Greenwood."
The temp is searching for a criminal file in the civil folders. I gesture at the other file drawer, but she isnīt looking, just fingering through the files with a very deliberate slowness.
"Itīs the cemetery. Tell him to go there, to the the hill, and follow the road halfway. Heīs buried near the poplar."
"Are you suggesting," I say, settling myself into my leather chair, "that your two-year-dead son is looking for a job?"
"The job market isnīt that tight," I tell her. "Iīm sure theyīre not saturated with lawyers in the afterworld."
I hang up. The temp looks lost, so I escort the temp to the proper filing cabinets.
The afternoon passes. Itīs about time for the temp to leave, although Iīm going to stay late again tonight. I might keep this temp after all: she managed to find the stock room and bring me some pens, and she finally comprehends the difference between civil and criminal.
The phone rings, and she answers using the speaker phone. One more point in her favor.
"This is Brian Eckert," says the caller.
She stiffens and faces me, her mousy eyes round.
"Hang up on him," I say. "I donīt have time for games. Get Mary Haggerty on the phone."
She looks at me, about to speak, but when she sees my face, she punches two buttons, then dials the number for Mary. I walk into my office to take the call only to see two lights on the phone.
That temp put Brian Eckert on hold.
I stride back to the tempīs desk, my face hot. Direct disobedience from a temp? The agency has a whole holding pen full of other, competent, dutiful temps, and she knows it. I step up behind her, but with her back to me, sheīs already speaking. "Mr. Oster canīt talk to you right now," she says. "But he left you a message."
The speaker phone has a slight hum, as though the caller has a very bad connection. "What did he say?" The voice is young, not much older than the temp. Thereīs a confusion about the way he sounds, as though heīs just finished a very long drive.
"He said you might try Greenwood," the temp says. "On the hill. Go halfway down the road. Itīs near the poplar."
The voice hesitates. "On the hill?"
Watching the temp from behind, I fold my arms. Sheīs leaning over her desk like sheīs swaddling a baby, and sheīs speaking slowly, clearly. "Go halfway down the road."
"Thank you." The voice softens, like a sleepy childīs yawn. "I just found his card today, and I remembered I had to call him for a job. Warren Roden told me."
"Mr. Oster wants you to go to Greenwood," the temp says.
"I need a job. I need to work." I hear how the voice has gone softer, the hum on the phone more static than sound. "Are you sure thatīs a good place for me?"
"Itīs the best place for you for right now," the temp says. "There are lilies in the field, and theyīre beautiful."
"Then Iīll try there." The voice wavers just before the static swallows it. "Thank you."
"Be like the lilies," the temp whispers.
She hangs up the phone. She doesnīt turn around. She must know Iīm here.
Then without a word, I step backward into my office.