Robin Crane (fiction)
When We Meet in Heaven
It was June 2003, and I was helping my supervisor Yvette interview candidates for the position of receptionist; this was before it was in my nature to automatically help a desperate person. At this point in time, I had already known several desperate people, I knew my mother and father, and I knew my father’s best friend George, whose toy store was long gone by the time he died of throat cancer, it’d gone belly up a long, long time ago, and he kept most of his inventory in his tiny apartment, his doleful teddy bears and his loyal cats taking up all the room on his bed. George had been childless and enigmatic and was committed to rescuing stray cats from their poverty and taking them into his own impoverished home, where he adored and entertained them. So through George I’d also met other grown ups whose lives revolved around their cats, and since cats are such little mammals, they are easily lost or killed, so these people lived in a constant state of anxiety. And there have been others, too, other desperate people I’ve known. But at this point in time, I didn’t think to save anyone. If I could speak to Ralph today, I would just tell him, “Shhh, it’s okay.” But what I said to him the first time we spoke was just a modified version of what I’d been saying to every candidate for the receptionist position; I’d been calling the candidates all morning.
“Good morning, may I speak with Ralph Cummings?”
“Speaking.” His voice was full of pathetic, tentative chipperness, so it sounded like this: “Speaking?!”
“Good morning, Mr. Cummings, my name is Suzanne and I’m calling from the L.A. County Environmental Health Department regarding the receptionist position you applied for-”
“Oh! Good morning! How are you?”
“I’m doing well, thank you. Anyway, would you be available to come in for an interview this Friday, at either 10:30 or 11 am?” And the conversation went on like this with him saying, “Yes! Yes!” to the standard interview-scheduling questions and answers that came out of my mouth, and meanwhile, while speaking, I simultaneously skimmed his resume, learning that he’d been a paralegal for the last fifteen years at the same law firm, and that he’d graduated from a community college in 1974, which would make him at least fifty years old. But this was a receptionist job he was applying for here, a job at our front desk, which, during the four years I’d been at that office, had only ever been occupied by Hispanic women in their early twenties, each one possessing a professional confidence I could already tell Ralph lacked.
When I got off the phone with him, I remembered that I hadn’t given him directions to the parking lot, and I was a very thorough person at this time, so I called him back.
“Hi, Ralph? This is Suzanne calling from the Environmental Health Department again. I just wanted to let you know that our parking structure is located on the corner of Wilshire and Normandie, and we do validate, so just make sure to bring your ticket up with you, okay?”
“Oh boy, now I’m really getting excited! Thanks a whole bunch, Suzanne!”
And then on Friday he came, wearing a gray three-piece business suit, a white dress shirt and a pale yellow tie, while Yvette and I sat there in our business-casual clothes. Yvette was probably wearing one of her pairs of designer jeans and a silk blouse, I bet, and I was no doubt in some passable dress from Target. I’ve noticed that, at least in Los Angeles, rich people are usually the people who show up at fancy restaurants wearing sweatpants, while the lower middle class go out of their way to put on pressed pants or floor-length dresses to go out somewhere nice. My dad the sociology professor would probably have some answer for why that is. Anyway, this was the same kind of imbalance of effort occurring between casual, effortless Yvette and me versus Ralph with his beads of sweat forming along his hairline, on a 95-degree summer day, in his suit, in the conference room where the air conditioning was broken. And he was so excited to be at his job interview he could barely contain himself, it was like Christmas and a first date all rolled into one. He sat on his hands and rocked back and forth in his chair.
As it turned out, the law firm that Ralph had been working at for the past fifteen years was now losing most of its clients, and many employees had been fired already. Himself, he’d been downgraded from a full- to a part-time employee, and was doing double duty as both paralegal and front desk receptionist. The fact that someone who’d employed Ralph for fifteen years would be able to offer him this combination of less money and a seat at the front desk (where people expect to find a young women sitting) made me think, at the time, that there must be something really wrong with Ralph; I couldn’t imagine a supervisor treating anyone of value in that way. This was before I knew that grown men get robbed of their dignity every single day, probably every single minute. Ralph had been told that he would most likely be let go within the next two months, and this was particularly unfortunate timing, because he’d just gotten married and bought a new house, the first house he’d ever owned, in fact. He showed us a picture he had on the screen of his cell phone of his young, Filipino wife holding her young son on her lap, and this made me dislike him further, because there were two real creepy guys at the office who’d gone to the Philippines to get wives to bring back home with them; it may have been a fad at the time. But Ralph told us that he met his wife at his church, which he was very active in. Yvette encouraged him politely the whole interview, “What a cute picture!”, “My husband and I just moved, too,” etcetera. I remember wondering if it was possible that she was genuinely interested in his life, and if so, was it because they were both Christians, and if so, was it just because they belonged to the same religion, or was it that being Christian made them both authentically kinder people than I am?
In my own cold way, I was trying to protect him by not leading him on. There was no way Yvette was going to hire a hyper, middle aged man who would probably come to work in a suit everyday to sit at the front desk. For starters, he was older than her, and I knew she’d feel uncomfortable having to admonish him for screwing around online, like she invariably had to do to everyone who worked at the front desk, because there is nothing to do there besides stare at your hands all day and sometimes sign for a package from UPS. But mainly, he was just too desperate and too much of whatever faulty thing it is that he was — hyperactive or an overly medicated Borderline Personality or some other affliction that makes people behave too childishly. So this is why I didn’t smile when he showed us the picture of his new family, and when he said, “Aren’t they beautiful? Boy, they are just the loves of my life,” this is what I said: “Okay, so getting back to the questions (and I started reading from the Xeroxed sheet of questions in front of me): ‘What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses?'”
“Gosh! That’s a hard one.”
When we were done asking questions, I tersely shook his hand and went back to my cubicle while Yvette stayed in the conference room chatting for a few minutes. After hearing her settle back in at her own cubicle across the walkway from mine — I could tell when she’d settled in because I heard her turn on her fan (that was part of our office-culture there, to make ourselves cozy by bringing in little desk fans from our homes and setting them up on our desks and feeling the cool air on our faces, a way of pretending we were somewhere less boring, like the beach), I came into her cubicle and said in my deadpan voice, “Well that was weird, huh? I wonder what’s wrong with that guy.”
“Oh, I know. He was so nice, you know?, but can you imagine him at the front desk? In a suit? I don’t think the UPS guys would go for that.” We ended up hiring a girl named Virginia, whom I think is probably still there to this day. I remember telling her on her second or third day there that I used to work at the front desk too, and how it was so boring I couldn’t stand it, but she said she didn’t mind it much at all. She was an attentive listener and always had pretty hairstyles.
I was a little anxious at the thought of Ralph possibly calling me back in a few days to ask if we’d made a decision yet. But he didn’t call. Instead, his wife Catherine called a couple weeks after the interview, when we’d sent out our rejection letters to everyone who didn’t get the job. She enunciated in a crisp way I’ve only heard from people whose second language is English, but she also sounded sedated, if it’s possible for someone to sound both crisp and sedate at the same time. She asked if Ralph had left his phone in the conference room when he was in for his interview. I said something like, “Nope, he didn’t leave it here. Did you guys try calling his cell number from a different phone to see if you could hear it ringing?” That’s what I did whenever I lost my cell phone. She said, “Ralph blew his brains out.” And she wasn’t kidding, either.
Later on, when I’d be sitting at home drunk by myself one night shortly after his death, I would call her, having gotten the phone number from Ralph’s resume, to offer my condolences. She would tell me that he must have lost his cell phone the day of our interview, and that he was so worried about missing a call from me to his home phone that he quit his job, to stay home and wait. Only when it got to be five pm each evening did he let himself walk out of earshot of the phone’s ringer, because he knew Yvette and I would be leaving work at 5, and that we wouldn’t be calling him until the next morning.
George, the near-saintly cat protector and appreciator of toys who I mentioned at the beginning of this — George’s death could have been prevented or at least made less painful if he’d had health insurance, if his business had not failed, if he had not failed to get over the surprise of failing at something he’d put so much effort into. He was dad’s best friend but he was also mine, and I loved him. But it took Ralph’s brains on the wall to make me really understand how dangerous it is to be as vulnerable as these men were. It took Ralph’s brains to make me really understand this kind of person. For some reason, they don’t know how to be suspicious or to expect disappointment. They have nobody to protect them. And we are allowed to let them futilely spin their wheels and to sometimes starve to death or go crazy with regret. We are allowed to let them just die like that, in so much pain, so confused about what went wrong. It makes me cry just writing it down. It makes me cry just remembering.
by Robin Crane