A Thousand Leaves
(c)2000 Jacob Williamson


“You got four more applicants this afternoon, but Scott’s been running behind on the information forms, so if he doesn’t get them done after lunch, he says there’ll be about ten more processed for tomorrow morning.” She looked up from the Formica on her desk, jaw working the same piece of chewing gum she’d been popping since she came in late, at 8:36. Pro Team Employment, it seemed, had been hiring their clientele. We should start contracting from ADM--they’ve got better punctuality policies than we do... Elisabeth Dorn drummed her fingers in her odd way, just the ring and index finger. Chandra kept chewing, like she was going for a record in something besides height of “in” basket backload.

“Is there the slightest chance Scott could tell us whether or not we should expect the rest of the day’s applicants?”

Chandra shook her head, no. “Says his printer’s been sick all day. He called the south office to get the spare sent up here, but they stopped answering the phone since it’s Brandy’s lunch break. She said she’d be back by noon.”

Elisabeth didn’t know what was more painful--the simple disorganization, or the fact that Chandra either didn’t notice it or had internalized it along with her coffee. She had hoped to take Wednesday at home, like her schedule said she could. Perhaps she could at least salvage the afternoon, but the August hiring crunch wasn’t giving her the chance. “Well, there’s no chance of my actually having a day off, then. Get me the applicant’s paperwork when you get a chance, okay?” Chandra flashed a toothy white smile and went back to examining her Formica.

Elisabeth returned to her office. She knew she was, at heart, a meticulously neat person, but time never allowed for it. Her own desk was awash with requests for staff, requests for specific staff positions, complaints about the people sent to fill those positions and about the people who offered them, and the résumés of what looked like a hundred hopefuls to the fast-paced world of temporary office employment. She looked over the sea of paper, where to begin…with the flawed timing of a picnic rainstorm Chandra came with the latest batch of application paperwork, characteristically when Elisabeth had developed a plan of attack for letters of complaint. Chandra was still chewing her gum.

Three packets, not four. Each would ideally have the hopeful’s application letter, a comment sheet from his or her preliminary interview, a completed personality/aptitude test, and when Scott was at his best a collection of relevant position openings to match the applicant’s aptitudes and typing speed. The positions weren’t included, but at least the letters were paperclipped to the tests. Say what you like about her, Chandra’s good with the paperclips...

Randall Tibbs was the first contestant, and one of the most underqualified she had ever seen. He’d left “typing speed” and “computer experience” blank—that alone made a minimum wage receptionist’s position difficult to swing. Elisabeth paged the front desk. “Chandra?”

“Hello?” smack, smack.

“Randall Tibbs—did he come with a comment form?”

“Janice said there were some problems at his interview—he’ll be in at twelve-thirty, right?”

Yes, that was the time marked in pencil in the corner. And that was, against the odds set by “Relevant Work Experience: ??" the time Tibbs arrived. He was a short, malleable-looking man with a shiny pink patch in his brown hair, a moustache that projected further than his nose. He wore a grey suit with faded shoulders. They made introductions.

“Mr. Tibbs, you said you were in surveying?”

“Yes?” There was a silence, while both sides tried to guess what was supposed to come next.

“Could you elaborate on that?”

“Trees. I worked with trees.” Another strange silence. Elisabeth found herself at a loss—most interviewees were more responsive, they generally seemed to want a job. Any job.

“In what manner, Mr. Tibbs.”

“Leaves.” Elisabeth made the universal gesture for more information. “Oh. Quantity inspection.” There was another silence. She puzzled out the statement. “Quality, too, but that’s hardly worth noting.”

“You…counted leaves?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Tibbs said. He seemed to be earnest about it, as if this made sense. “Fifteen years.”

“You were paid for this?”

“There really isn’t much call for it. That’s why I submitted my résumé.”

“You were with some sort of state agency?” Again, a significant silence. She couldn’t read his expression—no, she could, but there wasn’t anything to read. He was completely open. “Well then. Tell me about your work experience.” Such as it is.

His open features lit up, it seemed he didn’t get to talk about his work very often. “The hours were never very good, particularly in the spring.” He paused, until Elizabeth said “Of course.” “You understand? That’s the rush season. Every tree, covered with tiny buds—it’s frustrating. The cedar, you expect it to have those little leaves—but an elm should have nice broad leaves. I never did like the spring—it’s just out of balance. Everything builds up, hasn’t gotten to the nice, broad stretch past about March.”

Dorn also felt a little unbalanced. He didn’t seem like an unemployment case, making a token effort at a job interview. She looked for the right response. “Oh.”

He took the cue. “Summer wasn’t so much better, but at least it was a better schedule. Everything was all sorted out after spring, sometimes there were flowers. They got in the way, but the scents made it worth the bother—particularly mimosa. Mimosa was always my favorite—each leaf was a handful of little paired fronds, each with one or two dozen pairs of leaflets, no odd ones to muddle the counts, no thorns like mesquite has, though they’re not so different, really. The flowers smell like spun sugar, which is a nice touch, but it was the leaves that made it my favorite. They were so obliging.”

The interview was wandering into alien territory, like the time one of the day’s applicants swore he was the prophet Elijah. It was time to bring some order to the process.

“I did the evergreens in the winter. It only made sense,” he said.

That did it for order. Dorn clung to the interview; the man was clearly unemployable, but he was as oddly charming as a mimosa leaflet. “Do you have any special qualities that you could bring to Pro Team?”


There would be no elaboration there. “Your previous position…your previous position was voluntary. Left for financial reasons. Do you have any references?”

“There weren’t many chances to talk. Busy, not a very crowded field.”

“No references. Ah…would you say that you had any particular problems that might have interfered with your previous job?”

“Mushrooms.” She waited, someone would eventually expand on this. “I didn’t like them. Ugly, blind things, with gills. They actually have gills. One night, a patch of dirt and leaves, maybe those little pollen things you get on live oak towards the end of winter, the next, twenty, thirty sprouting up where there wasn’t anything but wet dirt. It’s like grave-robbing. They don’t need them anymore—“

“The leaves?”

“The leaves. But there’s no call for them nasty pale things.”

She reached in the dark for something familiar. “Could…could you describe your duties in your previous job?” He began to open his mouth, but she interrupted, “Leaf quantity inspection, I know, but could you possibly expand on that?”

He seemed confused, his eyes turned upward in thought, they’d already been through job description. “I enjoyed the winter. No, enjoy isn’t it, but it was a good time of the year. I had my hardest job set aside—pine needles are okay, but juniper, look at it, every little scale. A thousand leaves in your hand. It’s cold, but the green, the smell of sap and life when everything else is dead and naked…the way each day walks into the next one, perfectly still except for the sun, brighter than the summer sometimes. Enjoy’s not the word, but it was still the best part of the year. The evergreens would wait."

He continued. Mimosas came up again, though he avoided the subject of mushrooms. He waxed in a manner that would be poetic, if he had better words, on the mountain laurel’s oblanceolate leaf structure. His own font of words dried up, and Dorn, for her part, had lost the interview when mushrooms came up, but it was blandly fascinating to listen to him. And then he stopped. This seemed a more final silence than those that came before. The shock jolted Elisabeth back to her own duties. It was one-thirty.

She stood, and with polite formality informed him that his application would be reviewed for consideration. Randall Tibbs nodded earnestly, moustaches bobbing, and left. Dorn filed his paperwork under “for later consideration,” where it would, perhaps, sprout mushrooms, and waited for the next applicant. Outside Chandra smacked her chewing gum and a lost soul fell from “on hold” to a dial tone.