The Volunteer

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Nancy swept both hands along her flanks to straighten her skirt as she sat down in a folding chair opposite three people she really wanted to impress.

“Good of you to be so prompt, Miss Hastings,” the middle person, a gray haired woman with a steady gaze and matronly air said by way of introduction. “We are happy you want to volunteer to help hurricane victims. As you know, this is your final interview. We intend to put you on a plane tomorrow and send you where you will assist with Red Cross efforts. I am Mrs. Standish, this is Mister Howard and to my left Deedee Wells.”

“How do you do,” Nancy said politely.

Mrs. Standish wore a pair of glasses with a thin silver chain that fell in arcs from her ears and wrapped around the back of her neck. She lifted the lenses to hover over the bridge of her nose, squinted into them, dropped them back on her nose and gave Nancy a two second stare before asking, “Are you prepared for this sudden and abrupt change in your lifestyle? You will essentially be camping out with our staff and your fellow workers in a devastated area of the country where the humidity is overwhelming, the insects hungry, facilities few and your work load full with almost no time to yourself. In short, Miss Hastings, this is no piece of cake. You will be gone for two whole weeks. Have you any idea what you are getting yourself into?” the woman demanded. “I assume your employer,” the glasses rose again from the bridge of her nose as she read from a piece of paper on the table in front of her. “You work for a newspaper I see. And what do you do for this newspaper? Are you a reporter?”

Did Nancy detect a note of concern in the revelation that she was employed at the New Times? Perhaps the Red Cross did not want to open itself up to public scrutiny by accidentally accepting someone who might write about them. But that shouldn’t be an issue, she thought. Glen and Chris had volunteered, spent two weeks aiding victims and they were senior editors. No, it could not possibly be that her offer to give up two weeks of her life as an unpaid laborer might be refused on such flimsy paranoid grounds.

Before she could answer Mrs. Standish, Nancy’s phone rang. Damn, she thought, I forgot to turn it off. She leaned forward toward the interviewers as if pretending the opening notes of the trumpet brilliant from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” were not coming from her purse.

As the second staccato sequence began, Nancy reached for and withdrew the cell phone. She held a finger in the air toward her interviewers, said, “Excuse me,” snapped the clamshell open and answered. She immediately attempted to interrupt the caller, to say she would get back to them, but a voice kept talking right over her.

It was Karla. She was bitching about the money from the estate. Then she began itemizing the household items she intended to pick up.

“Karla, listen to me, Karla,” Nancy said. “I’m in a meeting. I can’t talk. Let me get back to you as . . .”
“I need that money. If I can’t get the money, I’m taking everything, the leather couch and the dining room table, chairs, beds, everything and I’m going to sell it all at a garage sale!”

Nancy kept her gaze lowered, off the three people opposite. She knew answering the phone was a serious breach of etiquette, not hanging up immediately another. But Karla was so insistent, so pushy and so mean.

“Karla, that’s not in our agreement. You gave me a list of the things you wanted, the couch is not on that list.”

“I don’t give a damn. Gerald left me $25,000 and today I learned through my lawyer that the estate is challenging that. So I want every scrap of stuff in that house. I’m going to sell it all.”

As happened often, Nancy was insulted by Karla besmirching her brother. “You know what a shitty thing that is to do to Gerald’s memory? Karla, you’re a fuckhead!”

She snapped the case shut, let out a big sigh and finally looked at Mrs. Standish and the two who flanked her. Obviously, they had overheard one side of the conversation and from that formed an opinion.

Nancy began a preemptive response. “I’m so sorry about that. It was my deceased brother’s former girlfriend. I had to talk to her. I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Standish allowed her glasses to dangle from their chain. They rocked back and forth in front of her chest several times, much like a hangman’s noose Nancy thought abstractly, before settling down in a stationary position.

“Nonetheless, Miss Hastings, we have come to an agreement. And we believe you are unstable, Miss Hastings. We cannot send you anywhere as a volunteer for the Red Cross.”

Nancy was thunderstruck and sat immobile for five full seconds before she could reply.

“No, you don’t understand. My brother died. His estate is being settled. That’s why I couldn’t get off the phone. I have to take care of the day to day household things for the executor. That was Gerald’s old girlfriend threatening to take everything in the house, not just the things she agreed to take last week. I had to talk with her. I’m so sorry.”

“We need someone with compassion, Miss Hastings,” Deedee Wells spoke for the first time.

“I am compassionate. I have compassion for everyone.”

Mrs. Standish remained silent. Then she closed the folder on the desk in front of her which Nancy took as a final gesture of denial. She resigned herself to the situation, thought evil thoughts toward Karla whom she never did like even when Gerald was dating her, and stood. She grabbed the purse by its handle, swung it over her shoulder and walked out of the room.

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