First Friday Fiction: Tom Haven Takes a Leap

“Please don’t jump,” I begged Tom Haven. “Don’t do it. Nothing is worth it.”

“Only one person can talk me out of it,” he snarled back at me, his face contorted with fear or anger or mix of the two—I couldn’t be sure which. “You go get her, Allen.”

“Oh, no, Mr. Haven. I can’t do that,” I answered. “You know she’s been through too much already.”

“Do it, Allen,” he insisted. “Do it, or I’ll jump.”

Now that I have your attention, I have to back up and tell you who Tom Haven is and who he wanted me to get, to try to talk him out of jumping. Along the way, I have to tell you who I am and why I was there that day. And I have to explain where we all were, so you understand why I was desperate to keep Tom Haven from jumping.

Let me start with what I know best: myself. My name is Allen Dean. I’ve been working for Mr. Earnshaw since the day he opened his business. Mr. Earnshaw is an investment counselor, which means that he tells people what to do with their money so they end up with more money. The first year it was just him and me. Now he has eight other people working for him too. At first I was his secretary. Then I was his personal assistant. Now I am his office manager. Mostly, though, I answer the phone and take messages for Mr. Earnshaw or for the other counselors. I schedule appointments. I help the counselors remember their appointments. I even keep the books and write the checks from the business account, which is kind of funny, since I’m the only one in the office who never took a class about how to manage money.

Mr. Earnshaw says that he hired me for my voice. He says I have a fine voice for answering the phone. I give people confidence that they are dealing with professionals. At first we sat in the same room, me and Mr. Earnshaw. The phone would ring. I would answer it. A man or (sometimes) a woman would ask to talk to Mr. Earnshaw. I told them I would see if he was available. I would wait about half a minute. Then I would say, “Here is Mr. Earnshaw,” and I would hand the phone to him. After a while he had enough work to do that we needed to be in separate offices, and I really did need to interrupt him to see if he could take a call. Then, as he became even more successful, he began hiring young people just out of school, and I was in charge of taking messages for all of them. When a new person called, I needed to make a quick judgment about which counselor to assign to them. Part of my decision was based on who was least busy, but I also needed to guess if the caller wanted a counselor who was friendly and had a sense of humor, or whether he (or she) wanted a counselor who was all business and matter-of-fact. Mr. Earnshaw says that I’m a good judge of people. He says that my first impressions are almost always right. He says that’s why he’s kept me in his company all these years.

I told him once that he should advertise with the slogan, “Earn more with Earnshaw’s.” He just laughed and said that my slogan didn’t sound professional. His business does a little advertising, but not much. I know this, since I write all the checks. Mostly we get new clients through word-of-mouth. We have a very good reputation in Memphis.

I’m sorry to leave you dangling through all this exposition, as the writers call it. I’m sorry to leave Mr. Haven dangling too. But you had to know something about the work that we do so you can understand who Mr. Haven is. You see, most of our clients like the kind of financial counselor who is friendly and puts them at ease. Most of the agents that Mr. Earnshaw hires have just that kind of approach. Don’t get me wrong. They’re all very good with numbers, especially numbers about money. They understand taxes and investments and a thousand other things that are over my head. But when Mr. Earnshaw was interviewing one year, he found Tom Haven, a serious young man who had graduated at the top of his class. He had no skill for putting people at ease or trying to find out about their personal life. That made him exactly the kind of man that Mr. Earnshaw wanted. More and more of his clients wanted that all-business approach. Tom Haven is very good at what he does—dealing with money—and it shows. When I pick up the phone and talk to a client, if I get the sense that they only want to talk business, I transfer them to Mr. Haven’s line.

The company has moved three times since Mr. Earnshaw and I sat in our one little room. The last time we moved, about six years ago, we ended up in a very nice office building in Memphis. We have the entire fifth floor—offices for each of the counselors, a desk out front for me, two meeting rooms, and a staff room with half a kitchen and a coffee-maker and a table for eating lunch. There’s also a small bathroom. Mr. Earnshaw has a second private bathroom off his office, which of course is bigger than all the other offices.

A few feet in front of my desk is a glass wall with a door in it. The door has the name of the business, “Earnshaw and Associates,” stenciled on it. Through the door and the wall I can see the elevators that connect the floors. To one side of the elevators—to my left as I look through the glass—is an atrium that runs from the top of the building down to the main doors at street level, five floors below. People who come in the doors off the street and walk to the elevator cross through this open space. The floor of the atrium is some kind of hard stone. It’s not even carpeted. There’s a guard rail between the lobby and the atrium on our level and on every other level of the building. The rail is just two pieces of polished wood held up by a metal frame. The wood is waist-high, maybe three feet above the floor.

When I came back from using the bathroom this noon, I looked through the glass and saw Mr. Haven sitting on that wood, his feet dangling into the openness of the atrium. That’s when I rushed through the door and asked him what he was doing. When he said, “Life has just gotten too complicated. I don’t want to deal with it any more,” that’s when I begged him not to jump. And that’s when he told me that only one person could keep him from jumping.

Of course I knew who he meant. Jessica Green is another financial counselor who works for Mr. Earnshaw. She and Tom Haven are opposites in some ways. Where he is cold and business-like, she is warm and friendly. Where he seems to have no personal life and no interest in anyone else’s life (apart from their money), she always knows about family members and birthdays and other personal things. Not only is she charming, she is also beautiful—not in a glamorous way, like an actress or a model, but in an approachable way, like every man’s girl-next-door. I think that when she came in to be interviewed by Mr. Earnshaw, every man in the firm prayed that she would get the job. Our prayers were answered, by God or by Mr. Earnshaw, I don’t know which. Most of the men flirt with her a little bit from time to time, but that was OK, because she was happily married and we all knew it. She didn’t exactly flirt back, but she was friendly with everyone, and nothing anyone said in the office ever seemed to bother her.

If you were paying close attention, you might have noticed that I said she was married. Something terrible happened last year. Her husband was murdered, right in their own home. Two police officers in uniforms with guns in their holsters got off the elevator that Tuesday morning and came through the glass door and asked me to take me to her office. They didn’t tell her right away that her husband was dead. They just asked her to come to the station with them. I don’t know, but I think they might have thought that she killed Brad, being that she was married to him and he was killed in their house at night. We didn’t find out about the murder for a few more hours. Everyone was asking me what happened, what the police wanted with her, and I couldn’t answer. The funny thing was that, from the police station, she called Tom Haven, and he went down there to get her. I never could figure out why, out of all of us that might have helped her, she chose him. But people do strange things when they are under stress. Like Tom Haven, still dangling on the wooden rail fifty or sixty feet above a hard stone floor, patiently waiting for me to get through all this exposition so the real story can be told.

I hope you can understand why I said what I said to him, that she’d been through too much already. But when he told me that I had to get her, I figured I didn’t really have a choice. I ran back to her office. “Miss Jessica, Miss Jessica,” I called to her even as I was entering. “Mr. Haven is sitting on the rail by the elevator. He says he’s going to jump. He says you’re the only person who can talk him out of it.”

“What?” Mrs. Green asked, her eyes opening wide. I had to repeat it all again. Then I added, “Should I call the police, Miss Jessica?”

“No, don’t call the police,” she answered. “I’ll talk with him.” Calmly she began walking down the hall toward the lobby.

“Are you sure I shouldn’t call them?” I asked. I was almost hopping, trying hard to slow myself down to her pace. “I think they have people who are trained for things like this.”

“No, calling the police is not going to make anything better, and it will probably make things worse.” Then, as I started to say maybe I should call anyhow, she added firmly, “Allen, do not call the police. Whatever you think, just don’t call them. I can handle this.”

By the time she reached the lobby, two other partners of the firm had gotten off the elevator and were talking to Mr. Haven, although I don’t think he was paying much attention to either of them. Besides that, two others had heard parts of what I said to Mrs. Green, and they also joined the crowd that was gathering in the lobby. I didn’t think I could add anything to the conversation, so I sat at my desk and watched through the glass. I kept looking down at the phone, wondering if I should dial 911 in spite of what Mrs. Green had said. She told me she could handle this, but how could she be so sure?

I guess I understand why she doesn’t want the police involved. I know she had a frightening experience with the police the day her husband was killed. You can hardly blame them for considering her a suspect, but I don’t think they were very nice about it, even after the other woman came in to the station and confessed to the killing.

Mrs. Green went to her parents’ house for two weeks after the murder. When she finally came back to work, she was not as lively and sparkling as she had been before. We all understood. We left her alone as much as we could, and we tried to act like everything was perfectly normal. She had no trouble picking up her work and taking care of all her clients. I don’t know what she did nights and weekends. That was none of my business.

Mr. Haven went with her to the trial, which had all of us in the office scratching our heads and wondering. She had to testify about her husband’s murder, and I’m sure she had to answer some pretty grueling questions. The newspapers didn’t report much about the trial, aside from the fact that the killer said she was acting in self-defense. Whatever reason she had for being in the Greens’ house, and whatever involvement Jessica Green had with the whole event, the newspapers didn’t say. The whole thing was done in a day. The jury reported their verdict—not guilty because of self-defense—the evening of the trial. Mrs. Green went to her parents’ house again for a few days. By the time she was back at work, we were all very good at pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

But none of us really believed that everything was just the same. I could feel the tension in each member of the staff. The men who used to flirt with Mrs. Green were far more reserved. Her smile, especially for the first few weeks, was more forced and had less sparkle. Mr. Haven, though, showed the biggest change. He glanced her direction every few minutes throughout the day, although he looked away just as quickly if she happened to be looking his way. He did not speak to her often—perhaps even less than he had done before—but I could see that he listened carefully every time she spoke with someone else.

Finally I took him aside and gave him some advice. “Everyone knows that you’re fond of Mrs. Green,” I said. “Go ahead and ask her out on a date. The worst she can do is say no, but she’s likely to say yes. There’s no harm in asking. And she probably needs someone to show some interest in her, after all the bad that’s happened to her lately.”

Nothing changed, and so two weeks later I visited with her. “I know you’re just getting the pieces of your life back together, and I know this is none of my business, but I think you should give Mr. Haven a little encouragement. He’s a nice man, and he thinks the world of you. I’m not saying that you should plan on marrying him, but let him know that you’d be willing to go out with him a time or two. He’s dying to ask you, I’m sure, but he’s very shy, you know. Drop a hint that, if he asks, you would say yes.”

She smiled at me, a sad smile unlike those she used to flash. “Thank you for the advice,” she said, but her face added the message, “It really is none of your business, so don’t bother to say anything like that to me again.”

Mr. Haven appeared more likely to listen, so I talked to him again. “You should ask her out,” I urged, “and you really need to be more careful around the office. When the other men talk to her, try not to look so jealous. I thought you were going to hit Mr. Carson yesterday, and all he did was tell a little joke to try to make her laugh. If you’d be brave enough to talk to her yourself, you wouldn’t need to worry about what anyone else says to her.”

Yes, all these things went through my mind as I watched the group in the lobby grow. Everyone from the office was there now except for me and Mr. Earnshaw. I knew that Mrs. Green was talking to Mr. Haven, although I couldn’t hear her voice over the murmur of the other men and women from the office. If they were talking to Mr. Haven, he didn’t seem to notice. He was speaking to Mrs. Green, I could tell, but the crowd and the glass made it impossible for me to hear any of the words he spoke.

Twice my hand began to reach for the phone. It would be easy to dial 911, to report what was going on, and to get some professional help into the building before it was too late. Both times, though, I remembered how serious Mrs. Green had looked as she said to me, “I can handle this.” I was worried for Mr. Haven, but I had to trust her word that she really could keep him from jumping.

Mrs. Green had always enjoyed decorating her office and the hallway for the holidays. This time, when Halloween came, none of her usual decorations appeared. Some of the other members of the staff put out a few things, but it wasn’t the same without her contribution. To everyone’s surprise, Mr. Haven actually brought in a few autumn decorations, something he had never done before. The rest of the staff eyed his effort and exchanged a few smiles and winks, but no one said anything to him about it.

We had a full week off for Thanksgiving. Some of us traveled to be with family, and others hosted holiday banquets in our homes. We knew that the next few weeks would be busy, as investors rushed to carry through their plans before the end of the year. Since we would have another week off at Christmas, we were trying to do about double a week’s work each week between the two holidays.

It seemed to me that something changed somehow during that Thanksgiving week. Mr. Haven did not stare at Mrs. Green in quite the same way, although I could not identify exactly what had changed. Maybe it was that he did not look away as quickly when she looked his direction. Maybe it was that she seemed almost to smile and invite his attention. As Christmas drew near, he again startled us all by putting up a few decorations. Mrs. Green also did a little decorating, although it was nothing as elaborate as what she had done the year before.

Then came the Friday-night Christmas party before our week of vacation to end the year. Mrs. Green arrived in an elegant sleek black dress. No man in the room could keep his eyes off of her. She was actually cheerful, happier than any of us had seen her for many weeks. Only one man in the group stayed away from her. Wherever she went, Mr. Haven seemed to be at the opposite end of the room. He did not seem unhappy, but he did seem to be trying his best to avoid her. He was the first to leave the party. She was the second, heading out the door just five minutes after he had gone. One or two of the staff made a small comment about his behavior and her behavior, but the party was still in full swing, with plenty of other things to occupy our attention.

January came, another of our busy months. Toward the end of January, Mr. Earnshaw asked me, “Allen, is it just my imagination, or are Jessica and Tom both eating out for lunch more often than before? And does it seem to you that they are both gone at about the same time?”

“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, Mr. Earnshaw,” I said, although my mind was less confident than the words I spoke.

Early on the morning of Valentines’ Day, a vase of flowers was delivered to her at the office. She took the card, read it, smiled, and locked the card in her desk. Everyone else noticed the flowers and commented on them. “Oh, they’re from a secret admirer,” she breezily replied. Mr. Haven was the only person who said nothing to her about the flowers, but he did not seem upset or jealous.

The next month, Mrs. Green came to work with a large plastic shamrock in her hair and a smile on her face more radiant than any I could remember. Once again, as with the Valentines’ flowers, she maintained an air of mystery. I watched Mr. Haven closely, but if he was hiding any secret, he hid it too well for me to find. Speculation ran wild through the office, but Jessica Green just kept on smiling and laughed at any guesses that she heard. Mr. Haven kept himself busy taking care of his accounts all day long.

And now, only two weeks later, he was sitting on a ledge threatening to jump and demanding to speak with Jessica Green. She was out there, talking with him, and all the other people from the office were crowded around, witnesses to the conversation. Suddenly I heard a shout, muffled by the glass. I stood quickly, dreading the worst—I reached for the phone, but missed. My hands were shaking so badly, I doubt that I could have managed to hit the right numbers if I had the phone in my grasp.

Before I could find it again, I realized that the men and women in the lobby were not frightened or worried. In fact, they were laughing. Some were calling out, “Congratulations!” Others, still laughing, were saying things like, “You really had us going,” and, “I should have remembered it was April First.” As they came through the door, one of them was saying, “Her I would have suspected, but who would have guessed that Tom would pull such a prank?”

Sitting down, I breathed out a gust of relief. Tom Haven had not jumped off the rail to drop five floors onto the stone floor. Instead, he and Jessica Green had used April Fools’ Day to announce their engagement. They walked through the doorway, arm in arm, and she showed me the ring he had just put on her finger. “It’s lovely,” I said, “and congratulations to you both. But if you ever pull another stunt like that, I’ll… I’ll push you over the edge myself!”

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