Jamal stood in the doorway and wondered if he’d made the right decision. He knew that his grades hadn’t been stellar, and his Bachelor of Arts in Music Education came from a university that was no Julliard. Still, the scene before him made him wonder if he might have rushed his decision to take his new job.
A college friend had told him of an open job running a smaller university’s music library. Jamal, with his student debt looming and no steady job, had been happy to apply. He’d been asked to interview, and to say his panel had been disappointing would be an understatement. He’d entered the room to find four people sitting behind a cheap folding table. A white woman with fading blond hair and a girth nearly as great as her height sat next to a black man who might have been a walking skeleton. Next to him sat a shriveled Asian man who’s wrinkled face looked like it had never experienced a smile. The last member had been another woman who spent the entire interview with her eyes fixed on her smartphone. She remained silent through the whole interview, leaving the others to ask a few cursory questions about his musical education. Fifteen minutes after he’d sat down, he was walking back to his car.
Jamal had been sure he wouldn’t get the job, sure enough that he’d gone back to his previous best source of income: DJ’ing at a strip club. It came as a complete surprise when, three days after his interview, Jamal received a job offer. The specifics were that he would manage the university music library and “undertake such other duties as may be specified by the Dean of the School of Music”.
Now, he stood in the entrance to his new ‘office’, which looked more like storage space than office space. It was inside the music building of Western Iowa University, completely enclosed by the building. He stood in one doorway, and not fifteen feet in front of him was another doorway. Those were the only openings in the concrete block walls that made up the space. And seeing as how the other door was in a wall further inside the building, where it might lead was a mystery.
Stretching between those two doors, a swath of thread-bare carpeting that looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed in ages. A motley collection of tired office furniture lines the walls, no two pieces the same height, and all of them stacked with oddments of paper. File folders bulging with sheet music. Pages laid out in grids that could have been calendars, or schedules, or any number of other things. Stacks of blank paper in a multitude of vivid, even garish colors stood in different spots, though Jamal saw no printer anywhere that might use them.
The room was offset to the right of the door, and here a weary desk stood. It held a collection of pens, sticky note pads and in its center, a flat screen display. Facing it was a desk chair, the only new piece of furniture in the entire room. Jamal looked at it and shook his head. “I guess if you’re spending all your time in here, you’d want something comfortable to sit in.” He hadn’t been told anything about the person he was replacing, and they evidently didn’t feel enough attachment to the job to be around to tell him how to do it, so he was on his own.
Hooking the chair with his foot, Jamal pulled it out and sat down. He found it to be every bit as comfortable as it looked to be. “Don’t know who you were, but you had good taste in chairs.” The monitor light glowed yellow, but when he reached where he expected the mouse to be, it wasn’t there. No, the former user had placed it on the other side, the left. A quick swipe brought the monitor alive, and after consulting his phone, he entered his user credentials and brought the machine fully to life. Finding Yoda staring at him out of the monitor brought the first smile he’d had this day to his face. Croaking in his best imitation of the fictional Jedi master, he addressed the screen. “Troubled, you are, by your decision!”
“Not bad, but you need to pitch your voice a half-octave higher to really make it sound like Yoda.”
The voice caught Jamal by surprise. It was the Asian man from the interview panel, and he stood in the doorway with his lips set in a broad grin that proved he did know what a smile was. “Sir, I mean professor-” Jamal had heard the man’s name, but the surprise of the moment drove it from his recollection. He started to rise but the older man motioned for him to stay seated.
“I’m Jang, Jang Li Jun, and you can call me Lee, or Professor Jang if you feel the absurd need to be formal. And don’t be bothered by not remembering my name. We went through that interview pretty quickly, so I’m not amazed you forgot my name. I remember your name is Jamal Jones, but I have the advantage of having read your name more than once, and hearing it several times. You made a very good impression on the whole panel, even the Dean thought you did well when you didn’t respond to her ignoring you.”
“So that’s why she kept her nose in her phone! I thought she was just some bored civil servant who found her social media account more interesting than me.”
“She’s no civil servant, far from it.” Lee leaned towards Jamal before continuing in a lower voice. “She’s only been in charge of the School of Music for five months, and she’s ruthless about getting rid of anyone she feels has an independent streak. That’s why you’ve got this job. Miss Jenny wasn’t one to kow-tow to anyone, even a new Dean.”
“Miss Jenny? Who’s that?”
That brought a surprisingly deep, warm laugh from Lee. “Miss Jenny was a force of nature, that’s who she was. She’d been working here, in this office, for five years before I started teaching. She pretty much ran the day-to-day operations of the school. If you were a professor who needed a piece of music ordered, or one pulled from the library, she was the person you talked to. Students who needed a room to practice in, or who needed to rent an instrument came to her too. She’d schedule recitals and concerts, do all the work to get the programs laid out and printed, and even arrange for the people to do the off-stage work. She retired two weeks ago when the new Dean dumped every system she’d set up to keep this place running. Mind you, she was less than half a year away from the date she’d have normally been able to retire, but she had enough sick time and comp time saved up that I hear she retired with a little over 31 years of service credited to her.”
Jamal hadn’t been alive for even thirty years, and the idea of holding a job for so many years just didn’t seem possible to him. “So which school did she get her Music degree from?”
The question made Lee stare for a moment before answering. “That’s the thing, Miss Jenny didn’t have any education in music. She was a Political Science major, got her BA right here at Western Iowa. She once told me she started working for the university as a part-timer, while she was still a student. She was offered a full-time job in Registrations after she work two semesters there.” Lee smiled, perhaps remembering something his former coworker had said. “She told me she hated the job, but she needed the income, so she stuck with it. I don’t know how she ended up getting her job here, and I know she considered me one of her closest friends. Why they picker her, I don’t know, but whomever hired her was either smart or lucky.”
Jamal let his head swing around, taking in the mess about him. Would a good office manager leave an office in this sort of shape? Maybe his expression gave away what he was thinking, because Lee answered Jamal’s question.
“Don’t let the status of this office fool you. Like I said, she’s been gone for two weeks now, and with no student workers to keep things organized, professors and other people who needed stuff have just been coming in and rooting around for what they want. Then again, Miss Jenny didn’t keep this place as neat as a pin. She liked to say she had her trash stored according to her own special system, and it was uncommon for her to not know where to look for something if she needed it.”
Waving his hand towards the door at the back, Jamal asked the question that statement brought to mind. “So, is this the sort of shape the music library is in?”
The smile vanished, fast. “No, it isn’t. More to the point, it’s not behind that door. It’s up on the third floor, and takes up three former practice room. That door leads to the backstage of the concert hall, and getting that set up for performances is something else Miss Jenny learned to do.” A beeping noise stopped what looked to be a long lecture. “I’ve got a class to get ready for, but let me give you one final piece of information. Miss Jenny might not have had a musical education, but she played a big part in keeping this department running. So as they say, you’ve got one big set of shoes to fill. As a first step, you might want to careful about how you speak about her.”
Professor Lee stepped away from the door, but someone was waiting to take his place. The young Latina woman in sweats with a backpack slung over one shoulder looked past Jamal, then focused on him. “Are you running this place now?” Jamal opened his mouth to answer, but she didn’t give him a chance to speak. “I asked for the sheet music for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A to be pulled, the piece his catalog refers to as K581. Do you know if that was ever done? I need that music so I can start practicing for my recital, and I’ve only got two weeks to get myself and the musicians who will be supporting me up to speed.”
Jamal rose. “Yes, I am running the library, and no, I don’t know if your music has been retrieved. Today’s my first, and so far, I’ve been told nothing about how I’m to run this office.”
Some musicians act like normal people, but others take the role of diva to heart. This woman seemed to be the latter. “Whatever. Can you just get me my music, now if possible. People are in Room 245, waiting to start practicing.”
“Yeah, just give me a minute to look for it.” Jamal was very tempted to tell this self-important little thing to take a hike and come back later, but he checked his temper. Whether it had been left there or Fate had decided to smile down on him, the file folder Jamal had noted earlier bore the label “Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K581” His hand started to close around it when he saw the piece of paper laying next to it. It was a shade of green that took the term attention-grabbing to a new level. But the thing that really stood out wasn’t the color of the paper, but how what had been hand-written on it jarred against what he was experiencing.
“To whomever takes over this office: May you make many happy memories.”
Putting several comments that message brought to mind aside, Jamal gave the sheet music stuffed folder to the insistent student. “Here’s your music. I take it there’s some sort of procedure for signing school property like this out, but no one’s told me what it is. So, do you know?” He might as well have spoken to one of the concrete blocks in the wall, for all the attention the woman paid him. She’d gotten three steps before Jamal decided how to handle the situation. A head taller and with longer legs, he was in front of the student in four fast strides. “I’m in charge of the music library now, and I am not going to just let you walk off with that sheet music. I need you to at least show me your student ID, and to sign for the music.”
Diva looked up at him, frowned, and shook her head. “I thought we’d stop that nonsense once to old bitch was gone. Fine. The sign-out sheet is on that clipboard, the one lying next to where this folder was. So why don’t you go get it and I’ll sign it for you.”
Jamal had once priced a copy of the sheet music for the trumpet Concerto in D Major after hearing Winton Marsalis slay it, so he had a good idea of how much replacing the music in that folder would cost. “No, you’re coming back to the office and signing that music out there. I might be new to this job, but I’m no fool. That music’s worth several hundred dollars. I don’t know your name, or anything about you, so I am not going to trust that you won’t walk off with it.”
Diva stiffened visibly. “Are you accusing me of being a thief?”
Jamal raised his hands. “No, I’m not, I’m just telling you the truth: I don’t know you, so I don’t have any basis to judge how you might act. Now, are you willing to be reasonable and come back to the office, or do you want to keep your accompanists waiting while we continue this confrontation?”
For a moment, Jamal thought Diva would choose to keep arguing. Then, her shoulders slumped and she turned on her heels to march back to the office. Jamal followed her, glad that she’d seen reason. At the doorway, Diva stopped and pulled her backpack around to extract a wallet. Flipping it open, she turned one side of it towards Jamal. “Here’s my student ID, See, I really am a student here.” Diva was willing to comply to get what she wanted, but it was clear she wasn’t going to stop acting like a self-centered bitch. Focusing in on the ID, he gave it a quick read, then walked into the office, his office, and grabbed the clipboard holding the sign-out sheet. Holding it out, Jamal did what he could to smooth things over.
“So, you’re Maaria Carcamo? I’m sorry for not getting your music for you right away, but I hope you’ll understand that the last thing I need on my first day on the job is to have a piece of music vanish.”
Whether it was his attempt at being conciliatory, or her desire to be done and on her way, Maaria signed the sheet without protest. Handing it back, she gave him the first smile he’d seen on her face. “I guess I can understand that. Thanks and good luck with the new job.”
Jamal laid the clipboard back where he’d found it, and as he did, he saw the note again. Shaking his head, he moved the note to his desk. “I don’t know if that was a good memory or not, but at least it wasn’t a total disaster.”
Someone clearing their throat caught his attention. A short, heavy-set white boy with a bad case of acne blocked most of the doorway, but standing behind him, a beefy black kid in a Bob Marley t-shirt gave Jamal a broad smile. White boy cleared his throat again before speaking. “Sir, are you in charge here? I need a locker to store my sousaphone in.”
Jamal had once seen one of those monstrous brass instruments, the marching band version of a tuba, and couldn’t believe that any school had a locker big enough to stuff one into. The black kid saved him from his ignorance.
“I tried to tell this fool that the school hasn’t got any lockers big enough for his toy, but he won’t listen to me. Miss Jenny had to deal with another player semester before last. She let him store his instrument in the control cage for the concert hall lights.” He leaned past the offended-looking brass player and held out his hand. “I’m Jack, Jack Lister, and I was hoping you might be looking for a student worker who knows what’s happening around here.”
Jamal hadn’t been, but if this kid had enough knowledge to know the size of the biggest lockers, he’d be worth having around. Taking the outstretched hand, he shook it. “I hadn’t planned on it, but then again, nobody told me I could hire student workers either. Any help you can give me, Jack, I’d appreciate it, starting with telling me how I go about hiring you.” Releasing Jack’s hand, Jamal focused on the other kid. “I’m sorry, but this is my first day on the job, and I’ll have to defer to those who know more about the situation than I do. If you’re okay with storing your instrument backstage, and if Jack here will show us where this cage is, I can get you set up. Okay?”
If the frown on his face was any indication, the white kid was far from happy. But unlike Marria, he didn’t seem interested in being a pain in the ass. “Yeah, that’s fine. As long as I don’t have it in my dorm room, I’ll be relieved. I’ll have to go get it, but I should be back in, like, half an hour.”
“Fine, when you get back, come round here and I’ll get you set up.” White boy left, leaving Jamal to size up Jack without distractions. He had the prominent muscles of an athlete, not the sagging frame Jamal and pretty much all the other musicians he knew had. “So, Jack, football or basketball?”
Jack laughed. “Neither. I’ve been working summers for a moving company. You do that and you either get fit, or you don’t stay on the job, and I need the extra cash.”
Jamal could understand that. He hadn’t been happy DJ’ing, but it was a job, and he too needed the money. And Jamal could use someone with that sort of work ethic. Holding his hand out again, he gave his new employee’s hand another shake. “To borrow the line, Jack, I think this might be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
The voice woke Jamal from his unplanned nap more efficiently than a splash of ice water. Cathy Park, the oldest of his current crop of student employees, stood in the doorway, her frown and cocked head signs to anyone who knew her that she was concerned for his health. Did he really look that frail? Just the thought of one of his workers feeling the need to mother him brought his temper bubbling to the surface. “I’m fine, I just got tired of waiting for you and Fran to bring the instruments down from 421 is all.”
Cathy gave him a smile that went no further than her lips. “Yes, sir, they’[re right here on the cart, and here’s the scans of the inventory tags.”
A flick of her finger across the intelligent watch she wore brought the holographic display in front of Jamal alive. Yes, they’d brought him the instruments that needed to be serviced. Virtual reality could allow students to do a lot of things, but getting the feel of french horn’s rotor valves opening and closing under their fingers was something else, Learning that meant having the an instrument in your hand. Two of the school’s horns were on the cart, as was the old Schilke trumpet Jamal played in his spare time. It hadn’t been serviced in years, and the last time Jamal had played it, he’d noted that one of it’s valves had started leaking. Between them and the annual visit from the piano tuner, they would eat most of the school’s maintenance budget. But they all needed to be working, especially the Schilke, which was one of the best-sounding trumpets they had in the school. “Okay, take the cart down to the main backstage entrance and put it all in the cage with the pianos. Pau won’t be here until tomorrow morning to pick them up, but if we’ve got them down here and ready to take, he can’t complain about having to wait on us.” That drew a laugh from Cathy, who’d had to deal with Pau Linnus’ fixation on getting pick-ups done quickly. Not that he’d ever shown any hurry about getting the instruments he took in done, but he was cheap and his repairs were outstanding.
“Yes sir. We’ll get them put away and I’ll get back to going through our music database.”
Jamal squinted at the time displayed in the corner of the holographic interface. “Sure, and there’s no need to hurry on that database clean-up. It’s close to time for you to go off the clock. And remember what I told you: never work overtime if you’re not getting paid for it!” The girl smiled, then started to turn away, but before she could walk away, he reminded her of something he’d told her on her first day. “And what’s with this ‘sir’ and ‘Mister Jones’? I’m Jamal, and I keep this place running. I’m not some manager with an office and a nice window to stare out of while they wait for time to go home to arrive.”
Cathy laughed at the old joke. “Yes sir, Mister Jamal sir! We’ll put this stuff away and be on our way.” Then the smile vanished and her face went serious. “And I hope you’ll follow your own advice, Jamal. Jack wouldn’t have wanted to know you were working all the hours you do.”
As she walked away, Jamal remembered that was why he’d been thinking of Jack. There was a holo-image of him on the wall, standing before the CSO, bow poised and ready to start the violin solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”. He’d gone far beyond this small school, and justly so.
He’d died earlier today, dropping dead from a heart condition no one knew he had. Jamal had taken the image he looked at now, the performance staged for him by his oldest friend after he’d recovered from chemo. Jamal still remembered being ushered into the vast hall, alone, to sit near the stage before being introduced to the entire orchestra as ‘the man who helped me on my way’.
Jack was just one of the many students he’d interacted with and helped when they needed help in his twenty years on the job. But thinking of him gone, of never having a chance to hear his violin soaring above the rest of the orchestra again, he felt tears forming in his eyes. As he wiped them away, his eyes strayed away from the holo-image to a more conventional frame, one that held a single sheet of green paper. The awful green had faded to something only slightly stomach-turning, but the still-black letters looked back at him now.
“To whomever inherits this office, may you make many happy memories.”
Losing his oldest and best friend Jack had been a blow, not the sort of memory he wanted, but as Jamal reflected on his time in this room, it was offset by many more good memories. He had no plans to retire any time soon, but Jamal knew that when he did, he’d make sure to leave that note, frame and all, lying in the middle of his desk. It was still a drab little space, but it was also a place where Jamal had made many good memories. All he could hope is that whomever took over from him would find a way to make their own happy memories.