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My whole life changed with a single phone call.
“Call on line two, Jack.” Mary parked my call with the press of a button and resumed entering sales orders. Ugh! What was it with this day? I had been running non-stop all morning and just couldn’t catch a break. It was only Tuesday, but I felt like I had worked a full week already. I was exhausted, stressed out, and still had hours to go. At least I had transmitted the payroll data to ADP, so we’d all be paid Friday–we couldn’t have a mutiny now, could we? I still had accounts payable and invoicing to finish before I could go to lunch.
I punched the blinking button on my phone and crammed the handset into the crook of my neck. “This is Jack,” I said, sorting a stack of vendor invoices. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mary eavesdropping.
“Is this Jack Schaeffer?” asked the voice in my ear.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Barry Wilson. I’m an attorney with Wilson, Matthews and Associates here in Chicago. Do you have a couple of minutes to talk or is there a better time for me to call you?”
Did he just say “attorney”? Uh oh. I hesitated, trying to think of a reason I might attract a lawyer. I lived a boring life—what could I have done?
“Um...I have a couple of minutes now, I guess. What’s this about?”
“Well, Mr. Schaeffer, a fellow attorney in Denver asked me to arrange a meeting to discuss a legal matter. I’m calling to set up an appointment as soon as possible.”
My stomach flip-flopped. My heart pounded with fear. This sounded serious–and very much like trouble. I glanced over in Mary’s direction, hoping she was no longer paying attention, but no such luck. I certainly didn’t need her asking questions about my conversation with a lawyer.
“You’ll have to explain a little further,” I said, trying for a non-committal tone.
“Sure, Jack. May I call you Jack?”
“Uh...I guess so,” I replied.
“I’m not at liberty to share specifics over the phone, but as I said, a colleague in Denver is handling a case that he says involves you.”
Call me paranoid but his whole premise was bizarre and it put me on guard. I smelled a scam. I’d never been to Denver and I definitely didn’t know anyone there.
“That’s...interesting,” I replied with a noticeable edge to my voice. Mary perked her ears in my direction. I groaned.
“Look, Jack, it will all make more sense if we could meet face-to-face,” continued Barry. “How about later this evening? Or tomorrow after work?”
I sighed. Maybe it was fatigue and stress, maybe it was Mary’s nosy ears, but I needed to end the call. Against all better judgment, I agreed. “Um...okay. What did you have in mind?”
He outlined his plan for meeting in the lounge at a nearby hotel later in the evening. He suggested six o’clock, which was doable. I never had evening plans.
“Fine,” I replied. After describing himself so I would know who to look for, he thanked me for agreeing to meet and hung up. The call was suspect but I’ll admit I was a tad bit curious.
“What was that all about?” asked Mary the second I hung up.
I wasn’t about to tell her the truth. “Just a guy trying to sell me something. I’m not really interested.” Thankfully the phone rang again, ending her immediate inquisition.
With Mary now chatting away, I finished sorting the vendor invoices. She appeared to accept my answer—for now. I gathered my files and ledgers and went in search of my boss, hoping she would forget the call in my absence.
As I walked through the office, I noticed, not for the first time, the drab, worn out beige cubicles and faux wooden desks with antiquated touch-tone phones and five-year-old computers outfitting our humble workspace. Not exactly the picture of a high-rolling enterprise, this shabby home away from home. I spent more time here than anywhere else, and the office conditions more or less matched my personal life. For years I had been telling myself, don’t despise small beginnings.
Truthfully, I didn’t really care what the office looked like. I worked for cash, so I was happyish, as long as I got paid every week. And I made sure I did, since I was responsible for payroll. As the office manager, when you’re the guy who hands out the checks on Friday mornings, you always make sure there is enough cash in the account to cover them. In fact, my boss, the CFO, had an unwritten rule—there must be three weeks’ payroll in the cash account at all times, no matter what.
An hour later, after reviewing the payables and getting approval to run checks, I couldn’t help thinking about the strange phone call again. How could this mystery legal case in Denver involve me? I had never been to Colorado.
An insane idea zipped through my head—what if someone did leave me a pile of money? I almost laughed out loud. I didn’t know anybody with fifty bucks in their pocket, let alone enough to hire a lawyer. With my luck, I would end up with a pile of bills.
I kicked my desk leg in frustration and plopped down in my ripped chair. I picked at the black electrical tape holding the fake leather together, silently lamenting my now uncertain future. I liked my boring, uneventful, simple life.
I groaned, seeing Mary make a beeline for me on her return from the breakroom. The woman was on a mission and I was the clear target. I was so doomed. Why did I ever take that stupid call?
I tried to ignore her as Mary studied me from her desk, which butted up against mine near the front windows. “You okay, Jack?” she asked. I nodded, giving her a weak smile, and reached for my keyboard.
“You sure you aren’t upset? You seem preoccupied. Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’m fine, Mary. I promise. Just...busy.”
She made a face. “You’re always busy, Jack. Something’s definitely bothering you.”
I made two fists over my keyboard, ready to scream. I held it together—barely—and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Mary, look...I appreciate the concern, I really do. But I’m fine. I really need to get back to work. Marcus needs the payables done as soon as possible.”
She gave me a look indicating she didn’t believe me, but did end the interrogation for the moment. I sighed and pulled up the accounting application on my screen.
Despite her chronic nosiness, I liked Mary Ricketts and working with her was often fun. She could make a long day go faster with her sense of humor and good nature. She meant well...mostly. But she was a notorious gossip and loved to involve herself in everyone’s affairs, so I kept my private life just that—private.
My stomach grumbled but I still had checks to run before I could knock off for lunch, so I hunkered down. While the company itself was nothing to write home about, I loved my job. I did payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable and some general ledger work for the boss man, Marcus Thompson. He was okay, as bosses go. He was nice to me and we worked pretty well together. His son was a college buddy of mine and Marcus was an excellent teacher of all things accounting.
When I first took the job right out of college, I had been desperate for employment. The job was primarily accounting, and I hated accounting in college. I passed the required two classes to get my Business Administration degree but avoided any more. Now I did bookkeeping all day. Go figure.
After a few weeks of Marcus’ tutoring though, it started to make sense. He claimed I was good at it. I even assisted with preparing quarterly SEC filings, which honestly, I did not understand at all. But it was cool to work on them just the same. It felt like I was doing something important and worthwhile.
The other thing I loved about my job were the computers, old as they were. I managed to get them all working together in a simple little network. I even talked Marcus into buying some inexpensive accounting software to do the bookkeeping. Once I had the application running, we cut the time it took to do the books in half. After a year, Marcus declared he trusted the printed computer reports and he did away with most of the hand written ledgers.
We still used typewriters for sales orders, invoices, and other multi-part forms. After hours, I was trying to teach myself how to write database software with a book I borrowed from the library. We needed a way to enter our orders and invoices directly into the computer so we could just print the paperwork rather than type it all. I spent many nights scrubbing multi-colored typo correction fluid from my fingertips. We so needed autocorrect.
When I wasn’t doing accounting, I was office managing, meaning I did everything that an office required to run efficiently. Mary, the sales secretary, worked hard, and she was faithfully at her desk every day, but she had her hands full answering the phones, processing orders and filing paperwork to support the sales team, so the other tasks fell to me—ordering supplies, generating invoices, mail processing, etc. We were a small company, in size and dollars, but there was still a certain amount of paperwork and other crap which all companies needed to do to function.
It was a small company so I knew everyone by name but I didn’t socialize with any of them. I talked mostly to Mary. We had almost nothing in common other than where we worked. I was twenty-four, she was forty-four and divorced, estranged from her son and generally lonely, I think.
Which was weird, as she was much more social than me. She played bridge with her girlfriends during the week and on most weekends she attended a theater show or concert with a friend or two. Every Monday morning, she would have several new jokes to tell. Some of them were funny, most just made me uncomfortable. I tried to smile and play along. She didn’t seem to notice my occasional discomfort at the subject matter, especially the sexual ones, but I wasn’t going to clue her in. That could lead to more unwanted conversations.
She talked about her love life all the time, or the lack of one. I never, ever discussed mine. In the beginning she would ask if there was some special girl in my life and I’d say I wasn’t comfortable sharing such personal things with coworkers, but it sounded pretentious and aloof. So I made excuses—I was too busy to date or never went anywhere to meet anyone. It was a crock and she probably knew it, but eventually she stopped asking.
The reason I avoided the subject was simple: there had never been a girl in my life, special or otherwise, and there never would be. I first suspected I was more attracted to boys in junior high, but I never discussed this unfortunate fact with myself, let alone with the company gossip. I even moved far away from my family to avoid facing the truth. I was terrified of being gay, but what could I do?
So I did nothing. I didn’t date—I barely socialized at all. And I had no sex life to speak of. Well...not totally. I had a very active fantasy life. I was, after all, a twenty-four year old man and I could take care of my own physical desires all by myself, thank you very much.
So far, I had managed to keep my little secret a closed book, despite Mary’s frequent attempts to rip it open. There was nothing worse than being gay. It was a good way to get yourself killed.