An Excerpt from “Reception”

Nona Caspers

The previous receptionist had left the Barbie doll legs there on the corner of the desk, tan vinyl calves dangling over the edge, and during the sixteen months I worked at CrackerBrokers, Inc., I did not move them. The only other item on the desk was an old-fashioned beige telephone with three lines and an intercom that I never used. As soon as I saw the outmoded equipment, I knew this was the job I was looking for, and indeed, the telephone rarely rang. When it did ring I was always startled, as if the sound were an alarm jarring me too early out of sleep.

I sat at the desk reading books or magazines, or sorting out my lover Michelle’s mail. We had been living together for two years when she died, and though she had been only twenty-six and hadn’t accumulated a lot of obligations—a few bills, overdue student loans—the mail just kept coming. I kept telling the senders that Michelle was dead and wouldn’t be making any more payments.

My desk faced a dark, wooden door in the entry of a suite on the top floor of a sixteen-floor building. The matching paneled walls were bare; there were no chairs or furniture, only the flat, soothing stretch of clean beige carpet. Except for Thursdays, the three brokers who had offices in the suite came and went all day; they answered their own cell phones and made their own calls. Behind their closed doors the muted sounds of ring tones whirred, like distant birds in a vacant forest.

In those early days in the office, I moved as if my body were two halves stitched together, my head down as though I were watching a very interesting movie on the carpet. Days went on, zigzagging back and forth, from nothing to nothing. I have no idea why the broker on the phone had hired me without an interview, or why the three men kept me on. I don’t even know why they thought they needed a receptionist.

 

My first morning on the job, two months after Michelle’s funeral, I stepped off the elevator and one of my three new bosses, the one who hired me over the phone, greeted me. He wore a gray suit and an off-white shirt with a white collar. His name was Jim White. For a moment I panicked, wondering if he could tell this was the first time since the funeral that I had dressed in clean clothes and washed my face, but he held out his hand. “I’m Jim,” he said to me. I took his hand, which was so fatty and soft I didn’t want to let it go. He was about thirty pounds overweight and had a square head and fleshy nose that made me think of Captain Kangaroo. He walked me down a wide empty hallway, led me into suite 1601, and pointed to my desk. “Well, uh,” he said. “That’s your desk.” Then he walked into his office and shut the door. A few seconds later his cell phone rang out the opening trumpet of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, followed by Jim’s muffled voice.

The other two brokers in the suite were named Carl and Ricky. Carl mostly stayed in his office, which was the first office on the hall and closest to my desk. When he left his office and walked by my desk, he lifted one hand, which was proportionally large and reminded me of a Ping-Pong paddle, and when he returned he lifted the other hand. I said, in my most neutral voice, “You’ll be going, then,” or “Signing off, then,” when he left, and, “I trust you’re well this morning,” when he arrived. He lifted his hand as if he were waving, but also as if he were hiding his face, and then Carl walked down the hallway and into his office, shutting the door. His ring tone was a foghorn.

The third broker, Ricky, had a very loud laugh, pink lips, a tanned, gaunt face, and the narrow body of a serious runner, though I have no idea if he had ever run anywhere. He often dipped his fingers into white bags, pulling out bread, cookie pieces, chips, popping the food into his mouth and chewing amicably. To Ricky I said, “Ricky, good morning! Beautiful day!” and when he left to meet with clients I said, “Have a great meeting!” His ring tones changed daily—Dixieland jazz, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” lion’s roar, the Joker’s laugh, “Jingle Bells” and, from what I could tell, various explosions—producing around his door a strange, muffled vibrancy.

The three bosses arrived and left according to their own schedules. They rarely conversed with each other, but they all spoke to me, and maybe that was why I was there. Maybe they needed a fourth person, a channel, to connect them, as if each man really were, as the saying goes, an island. They were all pleasant, or pleasant enough; even Carl spoke to me on occasion. After the last boss left, I stuffed my hair under Michelle’s old watchmen’s cap, pulled on my coat, and packed up my bag. The first six months I was still carting her papers and old mail in a Safeway bag, but later I bought a backpack for the Safeway bag, plus my magazines, books, and whatnot. I locked the main door and walked home down Market Street.

Jim’s comings and goings were the most erratic. Some days he was buried in his office, other days out gathering clients, and still other days he was in and out as if tuned to some primordial migration pattern. But he always called to let me know when he was arriving. In fact, in the sixteen months I worked at CrackerBrokers, Inc., about half the time the phone rang I assumed it would be Jim telling me his plans. “Don’t expect me soon.” Or “Long lunch.” Or “Not coming in.”

Like everyone else, he always wore suits—gray, blue, beige—but Jim wore his according to the day of the week. Sometimes his tie was in place, other times askew, and still other times his white shirt was unadorned, and he seemed naked compared to the other men. On occasion he would arrive with his shirt, coat, and tie in place and impeccably clean. But when he lumbered out for lunch, his shirt would be buttoned oddly, puckering at the waist or throat, making him seem more like an untrained adolescent than a middle-aged, certified, and practiced food broker. To Jim I said, quietly, “Hey Jim,” or “Bye Jim.”

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