May 30, 2010
Patrick Stanley, amidst the noise and vibration of the work site, barely heard the shouts of his foreman but, looking up, he saw the stocky, heavily muscled, veteran of road construction pointing at his watch and then drawing a line across his neck: lunch time. Pat nodded and waved, acknowledging and, then, keeping his eyes open for the heavy, rolling machines, deposited his shovel in an equipment bin and, collecting his lunch pail, walked to the periphery of the site and a thin band of shade at the side of the planner's trailer.
He sat on the hard ground and, with a sigh of relief, pulled off his bright yellow, hardhat, feeling a slight coolness as the surrounding air, as hot as it was, touched his sweat-slicked and short-cropped hair – a few drops trickled down his neck to his shoulders which, under his t-shirt and fluorescent orange, safety vest were also bathed in sweat. Through his dark, protective sunglasses he looked up at the sky which was vivid blue and cloudless. He was thankful that, for the moment, he could not see the unforgiving brilliance of the sun and it could not see him.
He flipped open his lunch pail and pulled out an exaggerated, submarine sandwich which, for the convenience due to its length, was cut in three sections; two for lunch and one left over for afternoon break. He carefully re-wrapped the third section and replaced it in the box. While his teeth ravenously tore through the crusty, meat and cheese filled sandwich, his free hand slid to a sagging pocket on the side of his army pants and retrieved his cell phone. He looked at the screen, noting the floating icon, and chewed.
Nicolette had called twice and the fact surprised him. Pat took a deep swallow from his two litre bottle of water and wondered why she would call. She knew well enough that he was not allowed to use his phone on site - for safety reasons. He continued to tear large pieces off the sandwich, chewing and keeping an eye on the time since he only had 30 minutes to eat and try to cool off before returning to that Hades of hot asphalt and noise. He conjectured that there must be something important happening or she would not have tried to call. A preoccupation settled into his mind. He tried her number once and got a busy signal.
Across the city, in the small house that she and Pat had bought together, Nicolette looked at the clock and judged – at 1:18 pm - that he would be on lunch. She pressed the 'rapid' number. A busy signal immediately came back to her.
'Pat, where are you?' she insisted, standing in the sun-lit kitchen. 'I need you.'
The visit to Dr. Esmeralda Levine had gone, not well but, wonderfully.
“Hi Nicolette,” had said the Doctor brightly, bustling into the examination room, “I'm so happy for you and Pat.”
“You mean it worked?”
“I would say so! I wasn't sure on your last visit so I had to do more tests but I'm pretty sure that the hormone therapy has fixed the problem.” Dr. Levine busied herself with the Ultrasound machine and then directed Nicolette to lie back on the table.
They fell into silence as the Doctor probed, the wand searched and Nicolette held her breath. Then, without warning, amidst strange and unidentifiable echoes, came a wheezing, repeated 'whoosh'. The Doctor beamed.
“It's implanted, Nicolette and, by the sound of it, doing just great.”
Nicolette began to cry.
Pat finished his lunch and stood up, brushing crumbs of bread from his face and vest. He used the latrine and then, from the large reservoir, refilled his water bottle. He noted the time and headed back to the work, heat and sweat of the afternoon.
At 1:32 pm, still hoping to catch her husband on his break, Nicolette called Patrick's number again.
The conspicuous buzz in his pocket told Patrick that his cell phone was ringing. Glancing around, he noted that the foreman's back was turned in his direction and, risking a reprimand, or worse, he quickly pulled his phone from his pocket and stepped into the shadow of the gargantuan asphalt spreading machine that, inch by inch, lumbered along the new stretch of highway. With the spinning wheels and belts of the thing behind him, he answered the call, holding both hands to his ear to try to shield out the noise.
“Nicolette, what's going on? I can't talk now!” he bellowed to hear himself.
“You're going to be a daddy,” shouted back Nicolette, her voice ringing in the silence of the brightly lit and yellow painted kitchen. She was beside herself with joy for hearing his voice – even with the mechanical grinding and squeaking that threatened to overwhelm their conversation.
“What? I'm going to meet Paddy?” he answered, confused. Distracted, he stepped backward, closer to the massive machine. The shadow of another machine gradually encroached from the opposite direction.
“Sweetie, listen! I love you – don't worry! Be home soon,” he exclaimed. He looked up and his face drained of colour.
'Sweetie, listen! Above you – so sorry!” came the garbled syllables to Nicolette's ear. There was something else but the background noise grew louder and louder negating the possibility of conversation.
“I love you, Patrick Stanley!” she shouted into the device, holding it in front of her mouth and then replaced it to her ear, hoping, wanting, desiring nothing more than for that one message to have reached his ear and been comprehended.
She listened intently to the mechanised clatter originating from the other end of the line. There was, what sounded like, a bump and then more noise before the line went dead.
The roller had approached, stealthily puffing black clouds of diesel into the air and only inches away from the side of the asphalt layer. When Pat looked up, it was almost upon him. He turned sideways, seeking an escape route and hoping to pass between the two industrial behemoths but, quickly realised that the space was insufficient. Behind him, a spinning mechanism on the side of the asphalt layer, first delicately tasted and then bit forcefully into the tough, plasticised fabric of his safety vest. He was hauled, bodily, upward over six feet and then ejected by the top pulley, lodged and still fighting against the predicament, into the narrow space between the two machines which continued their inexorable pass, gradually drawing his body into the space, compressing and deforming it. When the pressure became too great, his body ceded its integrity in a viscous spray of scarlet and purple.
His cell phone, still in his hand, attached to a segment of forearm was found later, pressed by the roller into the new highway surface.
Richard Willoughby, a legal officer for Excel Telecom and Mobile Solutions Corporation, sat at his desk and the letter opener slowly sliced through the top of the rich, vellum envelope marked Lazenby, Arthur and Stott, Barristers and Solicitors and, for which, he had signed only a moment previously.
He put down the letter opener on the desk and, spreading the cut edges slightly, withdrew the official document. He unfolded it and scanned the contents quickly to understand the type of notification and, then, re-read it to pick up on the details of the actions to be taken.
It was, he knew almost immediately, a simple formal inquiry: Request for Release from Contractual Obligations due to Client Decease. The lawyers had worded the document with customary severity but, in it, he also saw the human dimension and, despite the company's need to maintain it's market share, well, it would not be a popular move to make dead people pay cancellation fees. He decided to move on it quickly and, as it were, let the matter rest.
Richard turned to his computer and typed the name of the client into the database query: STANLEY, PATRICK.
'That's sad,' he thought, noting the date of birth. 'Only 35 – that's way too young.'
He continued to scan the client file and, noting no irregularities or outstanding charges that needed to be liquidated, he was about to flag the account, freezing it for cancellation when he noticed the cell phone number to which it was attached. He stopped dead, his hand withdrawing, convulsed, as though shocked, from the computer keyboard.
'That number – again,' he stared at the screen, unable to tear his eyes away from those ten digits that stared back at him so innocuously from the plasma surface.
It took Richard an hour to recover, from the backup archives, the files of the previous owners of the same number. One by one, he retrieved the files – some of them process by him and, others, by his colleagues – but one thing united them all. Each file ended with the cold, emotionless clarification of 'Contract canceled on request of legal representation – Customer deceased'.
There were 14 names in those files but, he wondered, dismayed, how many more would be in the files of the company's defunct predecessor?
He picked up the phone and speed-dialed.
“Tech here, Eric speaking,” came the prompt response.
“Hi Eric, Richard here. I was hoping to find you,” said Richard, feigning lightness.
“Rick buddy! Nice to hear from you! What brings you to slum it with the geeks?”
“Geeks aren't so bad,” affirmed Richard and wiped a bead of sweat from his neck that threated to drain down his neck and stain the collar of his shirt. He laughed at his friend's upbeat banter but didn't feel it in the slightest.
“I needed to ask you something, Eric. Can I get a number canceled from our database – I mean, so we still have it but it won't be sold again?”
“Sure we can, buddy. If it's not already contracted – I don't think corporate will like it but it can be done. What's going on?”
Richard smiled briefly at the news and began to relax.
“Maybe I'll tell you one day,” he joked half-heartedly. “Here's the number. Can we do it now?
He pronounced the odious digits.
“I'm on it, man. OK, let's see. Uh oh!” Eric's voice over the line was lilted with fun, uncomprehending of the situation.
“The number's just been sold, buddy. Hey! Isn't Maggie Willoughby your wife?”