Your Only Job Is to Ignore That Phone

"The Temporary Job," a short story by Hannah Gersen

orange phone

Your Only Job Is to Ignore That Phone

The Temporary Job

It was a recession and I got laid off.

“I’m sorry,” my boss said, “I just can’t afford to have an assistant right now. I might know of something for you, though.”

He handed me a business card. It was white with bright red lettering. It said: Echo Enterprises.

“I met this guy last night at a party,” my boss said. “He said he’s looking for someone.”

I thanked my boss for the lead, then I gathered my things and went outside. It was a Friday, a summer afternoon, and very hot. I walked until I found a payphone and then I dialed the number on the card. The phone rang ten, fifteen times, but no one answered. I walked until I found another payphone and tried again. Once again, it rang and rang. On the eleventh ring, a woman answered. She sounded young, around my age, and told me to come in the next day for an interview. I thanked her and hung up. Later that night, I realized she had never asked for my name.

At the interview I was greeted by a middle-aged man wearing a red tie. He gave me the usual spate of grammar, spelling, and typing tests. After I finished those he took me to a small, windowless room.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You passed all your tests. Now it’s time for your interview. First question: Do you mind working on a temporary basis?”

“No, that’s fine. I’m just looking for something to tide me over until I figure out what I’m doing with my life.”  

“Great,” the man said. “You’re hired.”

He escorted me into another small, windowless room. There was a square table in the center of it. On the table was a beige telephone.

“When this phone rings, your job is to not answer it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s a very simple job,” the man explained. “Don’t answer the phone.”

“If you don’t want anyone to answer the phone, why do you need someone to sit here? Why not just shut the door and let the phone ring?”

“I’m not paying anyone to answer the phone. I’m paying you not to answer it.” He glared at me. “You should bring something to read tomorrow. It usually takes a while for it to start ringing.”

I arrived the next day with a newspaper and a novel. I took a seat at the small table and moved the telephone to the corner. I spread the newspaper and began to read.

By then end of the morning, the phone had not rung and I had read the entire paper. I was pleased with myself; I felt as if I had learned more about the world in one morning than I had in several years.

I took a long walk during my lunch break. When I returned to the office, I began the novel I had brought with me. The phone remained quiet and the afternoon passed peacefully. 

At the end of the day, the man in the red tie came by.

“Did the phone ring?” he asked.  

I shook my head.

“Great.” He handed me an envelope filled with new bills. I counted the money. It was three times what I was typically paid for a day’s work.

That night I treated my friends to dinner. I told them I was working as a secretary at a big law firm. My primary responsibility was to answer the phone. Easy money, I said.

Two weeks passed by in this manner. I went to work, read in the windowless room for seven hours and collected envelopes from the man in the red tie. In the evenings I went out with my friends or to the movies. I was happy, but sometimes I felt guilty. My life was too easy.

Nearly a month passed before the phone started to ring. But when it rang, it really rang. It rang like rain beating on the windows; it rang like locusts in summer — incessant, unstoppable, freakish. 

The strange thing was, I didn’t have any desire to answer the phone. I wanted it to stop, yes, but I wanted only in the way you want a headache to recede, or a car alarm to shut off. That is, I didn’t feel like I had much control over it.

At the end of the day I went to the office of the man with the red tie. “The phone started ringing,” I told him.

“Good.” He handed me my cash. “See you tomorrow.”

The next day, the phone was already ringing when I entered the room. I wondered if it had been ringing all night. Something about the way it sounded made me think it hadn’t been. That the phone waited for me.

I actually started to feel better about my job, because now I was actually doing something. There was a challenge. It was hard to concentrate but after a while, I learned to read between the rings. 

It wasn’t until the phone stopped ringing that the job began to get to me. After two weeks of ringing, it stopped midday. The silence was luxurious, a sea of quiet. But at the same time I felt as if I had missed a terrible opportunity. As if a window had been open and now it was shut. I began to feel anxious. It was hard to concentrate and I couldn’t read as much. I kept thinking: What if it never rings again? And then: If it does start ringing, should I pick it up? And then: But what if never rings again?

And then: Who had been calling?

To my great relief, the phone began to ring again. But this time it was excruciating to hear, an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

“Why can’t I answer the phone?” I asked my boss.

“Because you aren’t supposed to answer it.”

“Then why does it keep ringing in my room?”

“Because you aren’t supposed to answer it.”

“Then why doesn’t it ring in the room of the person who is supposed to answer it?”

“Because you’re the one who’s not supposed to answer it,” the man said, exasperated. “Are you going to be just like the other girl? It’s so simple, it makes me want to scream!”

The phone stopped ringing again. Once again, I was overcome with anxiety. When the man with the red tie came by at the end of the day I told him I wanted to quit.

 “The only way you can quit this job is to answer the phone.”

“Are you saying I can’t quit this job if the phone isn’t ringing?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’m not going to sit around and wait for the phone to ring so I can quit. That’s absurd. I’m quitting.”

“You can’t quit.”

“I just did.”

He looked at the phone. “No you didn’t.”

The next day I did what people do when they call in sick to work. I washed my clothes, cleaned my apartment, drank wine with lunch, and went to a matinee. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my job. It was as if there were a beige phone in my mind, perched at the corner of all my thoughts. I saw what the man in the red tie meant and I hated him for it.

I had to wait another two weeks before the phone started ringing again. When it first started I felt a strange and physical elation, as if I were in a plane that was just taking off, but a moment later I had vertigo and couldn’t even look at the phone without getting a cold feeling in my chest. I listened as it rang five, ten, fifteen, times. Then it stopped and my heart stopped, too. I thought to myself, that’s it, I’ve ruined my chances, I’ll be stuck with this job forever. Even when I die that phone will somehow still be with me; I’ll drag it like Jacob Marley and his chains, its spiraling cord will bind my wrists and ankles, its spurts of ringing forever curtailing my unwound thoughts.

And then the phone rang.

I waited to answer. I don’t know why. It was like I wanted to make sure it was real. It rang five, ten times. On the eleventh ring I picked it up.

“Hello?” I said.

A young woman responded, “Hello. Is this Echo Enterprises?”

“Yes.” There was something familiar about her voice but I couldn’t place it.

“I’m calling about a job? Someone told me there was an opening there?”

“Yes, there is. You can come in tomorrow for an interview.”

I gave her directions and then we said goodbye. It was only after I hung up that I realized I had not asked for her name.

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