This is a true story from the dot-com days: There was an older man, a temp, who worked in our office, who talked to no one and ate his lunch sitting where he worked, if he ate lunch. When he stopped working there, no one remembered his name, but what he left us was better.
From day to day you could never predict where he’d sit; that was part of his mystery. One day he’d be in the conference room, stacks of paper bulwarked in front of him; the next day he’d be in the spare cubicle next to the sales department’s photocopier; by the end of the week, he’d be sitting at the folding tables in the back room next to the data entry temps. And if you asked them, they didn’t know what he did. Some kind of accountant?
Until he was gone, Human Resources had nothing to say. And that added to the mystery as well.
What do I remember? A model employee, dutiful and dependable, this guy; thick gray hair, square glasses, older than the rest of us, in a plaid shirt, Dockers, and brown shoes, every day. He always made us wonder. Was he an ex-con reforging his life after twenty years? An executive downsized from somewhere else starting anew at the bottom? A venture capitalist checking out the place? As I said, we didn’t know.
No one knew what his name was. Dell or Jim or Paul, someone said when he was gone. He reminded me of my father, someone else said. He always reminded me of a high school English teacher, whose clothes were sturdy, dependable fabrics, the clothes of a person making sacrifices for the next generation’s promise.
He paced himself while he worked. He shuffled and rearranged papers calmly, putting each into its pile after checking the numbers; writing numbers from printouts onto a legal pad with a pencil and detaching some paper from a stapled bundle and reattaching it to other bundles. You had to stand there for a long time to see the piles of printout expand and contract like flower petals in a time-lapse movie, in some irrevocable program of life.
One thing we remembered about him later: he worked with paper, mostly scrolls of computer printout, which was odd because we all worked at a computer company, but he had no relationship with a monitor or a keyboard. Never compared the numbers on the pages of printout with any numbers on a computer screen. The supervisors watched on monitors how many calls the salespeople took and how many units they sold, and the CEO watched the supervisors on a computer screen, but his only implements were a mechanical pencil and a stapler.
He had worked there how long? Several months. Then he was gone.
One Monday, nowhere to be seen. And no one knew why. An inheritance, a hunting accident, a parole violation, who knew, and of course Human Resources had nothing to say, and it was as if he’d never been there in the first place.
And yet: One day several weeks later, two executives took some files to the conference room to arrange them, opened the files on the thick somnolent slab of the table and discovered inside–a gift? a lesson?–small origami cranes.
Dozens of cranes in each file, each lighter than a flower petal, each with wings and beak precisely folded from a strong translucent paper in an array of brilliant patterns and colors that made each crane appear individual, unique. The cranes lay flat in the files, so flat you couldn’t tell there was anything but requisitions, bills of sale, lists of inventory in there, until the files were opened.
At which moment the cranes mysteriously unfolded and pushed aside the stapled papers and lifted themselves and tumbled out of the files in a feathery rush, splashing out fresh against the premature tinge of pale age of the file folder and spilling out onto the dark wood of the table and then onto the floor. First the executives gasped with surprise–then in dismay–then in awe, as they scooped up rustling handsful of cranes and threw them in confectionary bursts in the air and let the cranes shower on to them, light as snowflakes.
I ran down with the others to the growing sea of paper cranes, and we laughed as the cranes proliferated. We ran our hands through the gentle flocks of paper, thinking how familiar they seemed, picking them up and loosing them in streams so thick they did not seem to fall at all but remained, between our hands and the floor, suspended like rainbows.
Frequent contributor Michael Erard is a writer living in Austin.