“Amy, phone for you.” It was the third week in May and already starting to get hot. They had just brought out the big floor fans in the library. No air conditioning in the main reading/reference areas of this old building; that was reserved for the collections and computers. There was a Paul
Gimble-Hayes on the line from HRI. Ross had given him my number.
“You know we’re setting up the new regional office here, as well as the research wing of the Refugee Office—I’m calling to see if you can give us any time. Unfortunately, it has to be on a strictly volunteer basis. Probably just phone stuff at first, though Ross thought you could coordinate the other volunteers and he said he wanted you working on the detention research, I think, something like that; you’ll need to talk directly to him. But we’re not in a position to pay you a salary. I just want to make sure you understand that.”
“I understand that,” I said. “When would you need me to start? Tomorrow? Well, I doubt that . . . I’ll have to check with my boss first. I’ll need to rearrange my schedule,” I cautioned. “Let me call you back.”
“Fine, but soon, if possible, and remember, we can’t pay—right?”
I was determined to do this if at all humanly possible, not for the sight of Ross Fowler, but for a sight closer to heaven. I longed to operate on a higher level. On some pretense, I abandoned my cubicle and went down into the chilly nether stacks where I wouldn’t be disturbed and sat in a carrel, furiously calculating on a legal pad how much money I needed for rent, for food, how many hours I needed to work to keep my benefits, how many hours I could give to HRI. I figured I could do a 3-day/2-day split if I didn’t buy anything new ever again, brought my own lunch, skipped dinner once or twice a week, and prayed on a regular basis. I had no desire to sink back into the poverty I had not so long ago crawled out of, though I carried the stupid conceit now that I could live on less than almost anyone. Well, we’ll see . . .
While I still had a grip on the logistics, I went to my boss, Renee, and hesitantly explained my scheme. She was surprisingly accommodating, a flexible-thinker; she was a dreamer at heart. “If you need to do this, am I gonna stop you? What do you want to do?”
“I’d like to cut back to three days a week.”
“You would, would you?”
“I’ll work longer hours on those days,” I hastily added.
There was a pause while Renee mulled this over, thoughtfully munching her corn chips, silently tilting the bag towards me, offering a handful. I shook my head. Then she rubbed the salt off her fingers with paper napkins, threw the whole lot into her wastebasket, and took up a calendar off her desk. We worked out a schedule starting with the first week in June: Monday, Wednesday, Friday 8 to 6, with Tuesdays and Thursdays free. Twenty-seven hours—enough to keep my benefits.
“You’re one of my best workers,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you. And I’ll get just as much work out of you this way as with most other people working full-time because . . . ” she smiled at me as though bestowing a blessing, “you’ll be happy. I can see that.” Occasionally it pays to be a good girl. Yet I was amazed there were still people who possessed a certain expansiveness of mind. Amazed at the unexpected glint among the cinders, the unexpected kindness shown in a generally self-absorbed world.
* * *
An inordinate amount of time and energy was spent getting ready that Tuesday morning of the first week of June, omens surfacing in every mundane occurrence, every ordinary object. Every piece of clothing, every decision was fraught with significance, holding mighty powers that could change the course of world events. My heart was pounding at the prospect of seeing Ross Fowler again after so many weeks as I rode the elevator to fourth floor of the building that housed HRI. Would he remember me? Would he care? Would I care? My fellow occupants stared at me sourly—they resented my expectant eager expression, my shining eyes—it was 8:30 in the morning, for Christ’s sake, and we were all stuck this summer day back in the office, nothing to be so damn happy about.
As with most over-anticipated events, this one turned out not quite as imagined. The office was locked and I was left to cool my heels in the hallway. Paul Gimble-Hayes arrived shortly after 9 a.m.; the staff as a general practice did not get in before 9:30 he told me. A sensible straightforward guy of medium height with brown curly hair and a mustache right out of the 70’s. Dedicated and serious, he had clear anxieties about every cent spent, about using everyone’s desire to effect change to maximum efficiency. He lacked any sense of irony or whimsy, however, and after making a few offhand nervous wisecracks and being taken literally, I began to understand how one needed to deal with him.
I was seated at the reception desk to answer the phone, given a mailing list to proof for duplicates. This was not what I would generally be doing, Paul assured me, but he wanted to wait until Fowler got back to get into the research stuff, and he was out of town. It was going to take a couple of weeks to get up and running, sort things out, and then there would be more than enough to do, he added, reading the disappointment on my face and assuming it was due to the clerical nature of the duties assigned. But it all worked out for the best, as they say, for by the time Ross returned I was busy and absorbed in my work.
Renee was right, I was happy; I felt among my own kind for the first time in a long time, not the oddball out. I had found my tribe. Things were finally coming together, and I had done it to myself, by myself. I hadn’t fully realized the cleansing power, the seductiveness of battling evil straight on. It made me feel powerful, lifted the weight off my shoulders so I could stand up straight to my full height. I could throw a punch now as well as take one. During one of my first days there, I got into an argument with one of the older volunteers about wearing fur, the “discussion” ratcheting itself up into non-pleasantries, and Paul sitting at his desk looked up from his memo and asked rhetorically, “Why don’t you just pin hundred-dollar bills to your lapel?” I smiled at him, letting some of the sunshine that was warming my insides radiate out toward one of the deserving.