I started working this week for the University's telephone fund drive. The job is three-and-a-half weeks long, pays $8.15 an hour, and hints at the possibility of occasional free pizza and other "prizes" for employees who meet their pledge goals. Besides trading my time and my shame for $8.15 an hour, the job isn't too bad, and has not, to this point, meant making pushy phone calls to irate alumni (This is not, after all, telemarketing—a fact reiterated several times during the four-hour-long orientation). It does mean that I was encouraged to write my own script so I would sound more genuine (a move I appreciated because "cheesy" would be a nice way to describe the sugar-coated blah that "Corporate" had prepared for us), and it does mean that because I'm new, and my skills are unproven, I spend six hours on the phone four days a week calling "non-donors"—a spirited group which includes the very oldest of alumni who've never given (I called a woman yesterday who graduated in 1922), and the most recent of graduates (most of my calls last night were to alumni from this decade, the vast majority of whom are still paying off student loans, or are barely making enough to get by and who would love to pledge but probably can't until next year).
One call last night brought the whole call center (about 12 people) into silence. I hung up the phone and said, "The person I just called was murdered three weeks ago." The person I talked to, who I can only guess was the widow, told me in a broken voice that the man I was calling for was not there because he was dead, and he had been murdered at the beginning of the month. I didn't know what to say except to apologize, assure her that we would make note of it in our records, and hang up after whispering "God bless you." I couldn't believe it, and wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't sounded so convincing, and if we hadn't all looked up the murder on the internet.
The alumnus in question was 25, married with a small child, and was shot and killed more than three weeks ago, we found out from a newspaper website. He was coming out of a store he managed late, and was accosted in the parking lot. The criminal is still at large and the case appears to be a mystery. What isn't a mystery is how devastated the widow must be. I spoke with her for less than a minute, and she only said, "he's dead, He was murdered," but her voice said everything: that for three soul-scouring weeks her bed has been half-empty at night, her kitchen table 2/3 full in the morning, the phone not ringing midday on his break at work, her daughter perpetually waiting for Dadda to come home, the Christmas tree out in the back never trimmed and brought in to be decorated, the ignorant telemarketers calling for him, asking when they should call back, and all she wants to do is scream "NEVER!" "NEVER CALL BACK!" And all anyone can do is apologize and feel awful in the distant way that bystanders always feel when they know that now is not the time for laughing, or frowning, or even crying because it is impossible to even begin to have empathy for a mother and wife who has just lost half of herself to a reckless criminal too short-sided to think what he might actually be doing, impossible even to find a good way to end this blog entry without sounding negative, or sentimental or irritatingly optimistic, or at worst, moralizing.