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Off the Hook

May 8, 2009


I am not going to the office today. It’s not because of the sunshine and rising thermometer, although those are both very nice. It’s not because of too much wine on a Thursday, or too little sleep, or a headache or bellyache or other complaint. I’m just not going; you can’t make me.

My work is always slightly fraught–I deal with the surviving families of dead people, who have lost touch with one another over time. There’s usually a good reason a family fractures or disappears, so the cases where everyone I speak with is lovely and well-mannered, adjusted and sane and competent, these are the ones that stand out as remarkable.

People misread my letters, hide or fib or obfuscate family facts, fail to respond to my queries then arrive on the scene years later to create a gigantic fuss. The stories they share at first seemed exceptional and wild; over the past five years, I’ve grown accustomed to tales of uncles’ heads on stakes during various uprisings, and cousins who turn out to be brothers, or relatives who end up being of no relation at all. Digging up dirt about the long-departed then sharing it with the survivors is a strange business, and I’m not surprised when a telephone conversation deteriorates into the caller shouting an inventory of “everything I hate about dealing with you people.” Nonetheless, rare callers take a few too many liberties–even accounting for the crazy–and I get a little crazy in return.

Yesterday was a banner day, with a series of especially messy pasts landing on my desk. And, in that “it never rains but that it pours” kind of way, everybody and their brother (literally) decided to give me a call. First, I spoke with a woman who was jacked on cocaine. I could hear her sniffing, shouting, stomping around, talking to someone in the background, and shuffling papers at the same time. She was telephoning with a list of demands. Demands I was unable to meet.

A few minutes later her husband called with the same list of demands. He was so drunk he couldn’t follow his own end of the conversation, and began mocking me for using such big words. Which words? “Everybody”, “papers” and “five”. I did my best to explain where his case stands, without becoming condescending or sarcastic, much as this would have felt delicious to do.

He became incensed.

“Listen here, it’s all nice for you, I mean real good for you, that you have a fancy job and fancy words and think you can talk this way to me. Yeah, that’s real good for you. But you’re gonna have to stop being so complicated, ok? I am not so fancy like you. This ‘everybody’ you keep saying? Who’s this ‘everybody’? I been around a long time, and there ain’t no one I ever heard of called Everybody, so they’re lying, whoever they are. They ain’t no relative of mine. What’s an everybody, anyway?”

Mercifully, he then began swearing like mad, which entitled me to hang up. And, today, I have opted for sunshine and bicycle rides and a latté on my balcony, leaving the madmen to fill my voicemail with tirades that can wait till Monday.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Carrie permalink
    May 8, 2009 2:02 pm

    How I wish I was having a balcony day! But, alas, I’ve had too many already…

    Your day job seems both fascinating and wearying at once.

  2. Amanda permalink
    May 8, 2009 3:06 pm

    Yeah, for each “interesting” story the job yields, it dishes out a full serving of un-fun craziness.

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