The Harassment
by Dennis Kaplan
(from Oxford Magazine)


You turn a corner and it can change your life.

The corner Janna turned was at work.  She had just returned from the Divisadeli, her lunch-break latte still buzzing in her skin.

Nichole and Ted were in the medical library's reference room, squinting into the monitor of the main PC with the absorption of aerospace technicians tracking a deadly anomaly.  Janna's entrance seemed to have caught them off guard, almost in an embarrassed way, as if they regarded her arrival a social calamity.

“Is the database purging itself?”  she asked, straining for an appropriate tone of work-a-day irony, and fishing for the gaze of Nichole, her boss.  It was the subsequent glance between Nichole and Ted which made her consider the possibility that the two of them might have been discussing her.

“Janna, did you proof read this?” asked Nichole.

“The database?”

“No, the serials list.  A stack of them just came back from the bindery.”

“Is there a problem?”

When Nichole did not reply Janna glanced at Ted who was still peering into the monitor, his thick gray eyebrows pulling together with an intensity that left little promise of response.

“Of course.  I proofed it several times.”

“You checked everything?  The sort?  The frequency codes?”

“Yes.  If something’s screwed up I'd not only be upset, I'd be damn curious.”

Nichole exhaled after a long pause and said, “Never mind.”        

Her lips met in a flat, disenchanted line, accentuating her narrow cheeks and natural mousiness, which for Janna was a slippery expression that would frequently blossom into an entirely different look of fragile, sun-starved beauty.  It was somewhat the way school marms were depicted in movies where you were supposed to get the point that a hidden sensuousness lay entwined with their intellect.

“Well, tomorrow maybe,” offered Janna.

Nichole never replied.  She scooped her overcoat off the library's mica circulation counter, tossed it over her arm, and flew out the door.



“She didn't even tell you what was wrong?” asked Jody, Janna's psychotherapist sister.

“No.  She just got up and left.”

“What a bitch.”

On the word bitch Janna glanced toward her mother, just as if they were still teenagers and the Thanksgiving for which they were preparing was a distant Thanksgiving of yore.  But Evelyn remained non-reactive, clearly tuned into the conversation as she methodically chopped celery and consulted her stained Joy of Cooking.

“Bitch.  Bitch.  Bitch,” chirped a moon-faced three year old, surveying the effect of her contribution with a grin that revealed the base of her gums.

“Stop it, Megan.” said Jody, re-directing her daughter’s attention to the doughy pie crust she had been pounding.  “But here's the thing, Janna.  A supervisor can't just say, 'Stop screwing up.'  She has to let you know what was wrong.”

“That's very true,” added Evelyn, with a starchy, moralistic emphasis.

Jody continued as if her mother hadn't spoken.  “But the other point, Janna -- and here's what you have to look at -- you have a place in this too.  You can't sit back and let her run trips on you like that.  It's your job to be your own advocate.”

Your job -- the therapeutic sound of it grated.  There was even an element of I'm-the-sister-with-the-interesting-career.  But, no, she would not take it like that.  She would take it as supportive and familial.

“I know.  I know.  I'm just not up for a big confrontation at this point in my life.”

“I'm only pointing out that there's a way to take care of yourself.  You know you're strong.”

“Look, I'm still recovering from being dumped by David, I’m frazzled at work, I'm seriously considering Prozac, and, to tell you the truth, I'm not feeling particularly strong right now.”

Then her mother chimed in something truly irritating.

“It may seem like that now, but someday it will be your turn to be strong.”

“Bitch.” said Megan.

Janna took a long sip of wine and savored its warmth.  And by the time it settled in her, worked its way into outer provinces of digestion and thought, she decided that, predictable irritations aside, she really did feel comforted to be surrounded by family.  And at least this was an improvement over last Thanksgiving, when she was frantic with library school, and The Dumping was still a fresh blade in her being, leaving her so unfocused and raw that even the effort of simple sentences felt like building skyscrapers out of oatmeal.

“Megan,” she said, deciding to go with an unexpected impulse.  She waited until she held her niece's undivided attention, then deftly timed the word: “Boo!” 



Could it be that she had imagined the whole thing?  All Monday morning Nichole had been acting quite normal, moving about the library's inner offices with her customary pre‑confrontation demeanor, which was actually rather affable.  She even repeated a joke she had heard on the radio about Dan Quayle's reaction to losing the election: “Thank God I still have that other job as President of the Senate.”

When Janna felt safely unobserved she scanned the serials list in search of errors and promptly discovered two: Acta Paediatrica: an International Journal of Paediatrics was missing its colon, and the final “Y” was truncated in The American Journal of Roentgenology.  Before she could explore further, she heard Nichole's footsteps, causing her to push the list aside, turn to the circulation computer, and punch up the screen for overdues.

Nichole continued to act as if nothing had happened, and by noon Janna was emboldened to stop by her office to clear the air.  She found Nichole eating a plate of choose-your-own-topping frozen yogurt.  The inclusion of two maraschino cherries gave the dish a rather playful look, which Janna read as a sign of hope.  “I just wanted to say I'm sorry about the problems with the serials list, and that if there is anything I can do to rectify matters, I hope you will let me know.”

Nichole looked up blankly.  Normally when she established eye contact she would immediately heighten the connection with a loose smile, but she was not doing that now.  “That's all right,” she said, attention returning to her yogurt.

“I did notice a few of the typos.”

Nichole looked up again, this time parking her spoon into a soft, peach-colored mound. 

“Why would you be looking at the typos?”

“I thought it would be useful for next time.”

“It doesn't matter.  You're off the project.  I explained that.”

She did?

“I just thought it would be helpful if I could review my mistakes.”

Nichole made an exasperated face.  “You are no longer on the project, Janna.  To spend time on a project you are no longer associated with is not worth our time.”


2:00 P.M.-- time to move her car.  It was a daily ritual imposed by the hateful “four-hour parking” signs that surrounded the hospital for a half-mile radius.  She walked up Bush street with anger rising through her like a vaporous toxin.  Off the project.  There was a kind of pride in the way Nichole had snapped those words, an inflated self-awareness of supervisorial skills:  God I communicate well.  The typos burned at her.  If she had found two under such hurried circumstances how many others might there be?  Maybe it had been a mistake to assume she could handle such a detail-oriented job.  Maybe library school had been a mistake.  Maybe she should have stayed what she was: a Berkeley artist, taking sustenance from the kind of praise you got from others in the circuit of third-rate galleries.  Not third rate: non-mainstream.  “I admire it,” Jody once told her.  “Society rewards what I do.  The fact that you persist in something unrewarded is actually heroic.”   But if she was such a heroine why did she cling to those words the way brain fibers clinged to neurons?  And why did she find it necessary to speak in that arched tone whenever she said “psychotherapist sister” in the company of her art gallery friends?


She returned to discover that Nichole had left for a meeting, which immediately put her at ease.

Ted was stationed at the circ desk methodically sorting shelf cards.  He was wearing shapeless pants and the kind of loud, citrus-colored shirt someone might wear to a nerd theme party.  Even though he was in his forties, every time he said ‘my wife,’ it surprised her to remember he was married  The words were invariably sheathed in a tone of affectionate pride which Janna found rather touching.  It made her think of David in the early days, saying things like, “It's a kick hearing myself refer to you as my girlfriend.”  But she knew too well the danger of David thoughts and quickly purged them from her mind.

Back at her desk she discovered a note; it was folded in two and stapled, so that all she could see was her hand-printed name.


            I'd like you to begin the journal binding project as soon as possible.  You should work at a rate of six minutes per journal which means that the entire process should take no more than fifteen hours.


Janna had bound journals only once before and the entire process had taken three weeks.  She read the note again, her face heating with anger.  She wanted to be out of there so badly her eyes smoldered, but she still had four hours to go.




The brochure was one of about twenty she had filed away her first week on the job.  She retrieved it from her bedroom file, and was able to obtain an appointment with just one call. 

The counselor she saw was a fiftyish man named Carl Hildebrandt, who immediately put her at ease with his Papa Bear physique and semi-thick graying beard that gave him the look of a made-over child of the Sixties.  Though currently trimmed, she suspected this beard had seen more untamed days. 

“The truth, Dr. Hildebrandt...”

“Call me Carl.'“

“Okay...Carl.  The truth is I can't tell you for certain that I'm not screwing up.  I'm not even supposed to be looking at the serials list, but I've managed to find errors just taking furtive peeks.  Maybe it's worse than I thought.  I've never done detailed work like this before.”

“Wasn't painting detailed?”

“I suppose, in a right-brained sort of way.”

“What inspired your career change, if I may ask?”

“I was living on ten thousand dollars a year.  I didn't have medical care, the economy was becoming meaner, I was getting older, and at some point I just got scared.  Actually, terrified.”

“Well, I'm impressed that you managed to support yourself on your art at all.  I'm no expert, but I know that few artists ever get to that point.”

“Thank you.”

“Look: I want to say two things.  One: everyone makes mistakes.  In fact, the kind of acknowledgments you've made demonstrates a lot more self-reflection than most people I see.  And two: if it's really true that she's refusing to discuss these mistakes, then she's depriving you of timely feedback.  You're entitled to that, especially if you're being told that your work isn't up to par.

“I'm relieved to hear that.”

“And as far as that binding project goes: she does have a right to set deadlines.  But I'd have to know more.  Deadlines have to be reasonable. And they can't be imposed for punitive reasons.”

“And this is all stated in the personnel policy?”

“Either stated or distilled through umpteen Vatican-like re-interpretations.”

“How is it enforced?”

He smiled dryly.  “You've found the rub.  This agency has no powers of enforcement.  What I can provide is a forum for you and your supervisor to mediate your differences.  It would be entirely up to the two of you.  There would be certain ground rules and I would make sure everyone played fair.”

“Suppose Nichole refused to participate?”

“I think the key will be in the way you present this to her.  You want to sound like you're owning full responsibility, that your only motive is to clear things up, not put the onus on her.”

“You mean something like 'Nichole, I know we haven't been communicating well on this...'”

“Not weI.  The more you use I  the less she's going to feel attacked.”

“Okay. How about: 'Nichole, I've been feeling uncomfortable about the kind of communication I've been having with you, and I’d like to propose something that might improve it.'”

“Definitely better.  There were three I's.  I counted.”

She walked back in a light rain feeling the lifting of enormous weight.  He may have sounded a little shrinky toward the end, but he was supportive, he listened, and most importantly, he didn't assume she was a screw-up.  She watched the N Judah take the turn at Ninth Avenue, pantograph sparking, wheels squealing in a high-pitched song.  A streetcar that had survived into the Nineties, and somehow the quaintness of it all filled her with a burgeoning, post-menstrual hope.  She even began to savor the prospect of this mediation.  There were a few things she'd like to say to Nichole, and in Carl Hildebrandt’s court, Nichole would have little choice but to shut up and listen.


“Nichole, I've been feeling uncomfortable....”

“That's your problem.”

“....the point is that I've been feeling uncomfortable about the kind of communication we've been having and I'd like to make a suggestion.”

“What do you mean?”

“I've seen a counselor at Employee Assistance and he's offered to facilitate a mediation.”

“I have no interest in pursuing that,” she said, after a moment's thought.

“I understand your reluctance, but....”

“How are you coming on the binding?”

She awaited her answer over a tough, no-nonsense jaw. But after a moment it did not look tough at all; it was more like an impromptu imitation of tough, borrowed from some admired third party -- a man, perhaps, who had counseled her to stop playing nice guy.

“I’ve started on it, but to be honest, I don't believe it can be accomplished in the allotted time.  I thought that was something we could address in a mediation.”

“I've done it in fifteen hours.”

“Well, I can only go by my experience and last time the entire process took three weeks.”

“That's because you were working too slow.”

“Nichole, it was my first time.”

“Now it's your second time.  So you should be able to work faster.

“That's over six times faster.  Deadlines have to be...”

“End of conversation.”


New Plan, part 1:  Start looking for another job.

New Plan, part 2:  File a grievance with the union.

The grievance track required multiple phone calls and labyrinthine voice menus, simply to pin down the name of her union steward.  Once she found John Fabriani the next problem was managing to meet.  He set three different appointments, then proceeded to cancel each on minutes’ notice, due to “unforeseeable conflicts.”

“Can we establish a time you'll definitely be able to keep?” she asked, straining to keep the rage from her voice.

“Wednesday.  Four-thirty.”

But when Janna arrived at the appointed place, she found him at a receiving desk, apparently still enmeshed in his regular hospital duties, clerically administering to a long line of black and Hispanic women, many with small children. 

“What should I do, ask all these people to wait?”  he snapped, when she asked about their “definite” agreement.

She left and came back forty minutes later.  The line, if anything, had grown longer, but this time someone came to relieve John, and he led her into a small concrete room tucked under a stairway.  Once inside she could see the reverse shape of the stairs, slanting up to the ceiling.

They sat in folding chairs, John mounting his backwards, and facing her with a vaguely more friendly demeanor.  His thin face and blotched complexion hardened his appearance, but it was essentially his too-close-together eyes that suggested the dogged, volatile core she would love to loose upon Nichole.  To her disappointment, his questions had a tame, checklist quality, entirely void of insight or unionist ire.  And it galled her having to say to “no” to such boilerplate items as, “Has she ever said anything racist?”   But at the point where she described the binding deadline John suddenly snapped to life.

“That's bullshit,” he said, looking up and intensely meeting her eyes.  A thrill of alliance blew through her being like a sweet wind puffing out sails.

“It's against personnel rules?  Right?” 

“It's retaliatory.  She's pissed off about one thing, but using the deadline as a way of getting back, also probably to build documentation.  Let me ask you something.  Has the deadline passed?”

“Two days ago, but so far she hasn't done anything.”

He shook his head slowly, his close-set eyes appearing in particular danger of touching.  “That may make it tough.  If she hasn't done anything - cut your hours, changed your performance rating - there's nothing concrete to grieve.  I'm not saying she hasn't made your life hell.  But, strategically, it might be better to hold off.”

The sails deflated.  “I don't want to hold off.  Isn't harassment concrete enough?  Every day she finds some new way of digging at me and it's turning me into a basket case.” 

“Okay, cool, I'll file.  But at least let me wait until the end of the week so if she happens to do something else we can include that too.  Okay?”

“That's fine.”

“Good.  I'll call you Friday.”



For two days Janna savored images of Nichole being served the grievance.  How would it arrive: letter? union courier?  Maybe it would be channeled through Nichole's own boss, the perpetually smiling, casually dressing, Dr. Allan Myerson, whom everyone referred to as “eminently fair.”  Maybe Dr. Myerson would drop into the library minus his smile to deliver the grievance personally and make a few concerned inquires of his own.

But Friday came and went without a call from John Fabriani.  On Monday Janna called him six times, only to receive his voice mail.  By Tuesday she still had not made contact.  The afternoon found her on the floor of the journal room, pulling issues of Roentgenology for binding, trying to decide if Supplement 1A, should precede or follow supplement 1.1.  At some point her attention drifted to the female physician in one of the drug ads, a brown-haired, thirtyish woman, seated at her desk, looking efficient, focused, and as moored to her femininity as mountains are moored to the Earth.  A woman who could handle anything.  But suppose the love of her life, the first man she fully trusted, who confessed things to her like her girlfriends did, and acted privileged to do so, had suddenly announced, “I'm just not attracted to you any longer,” exactly as David had announced it, driving his Jeep Wagoner through the rain to Miss Millie's Restaurant?

Suddenly Janna became aware of a pair of scruffy moccasins pointed in her direction.

“You have a phone call,”  said Ted, looking downward in an eye-wandering, apologetic manner which suggested Nichole had sent him.

Janna went to the back room, feeling tracked as she passed Nichole's office, even though the door was closed.

“Can I help you?”

“Janna.  John Fabriani.  I got your message, actually messages.  What's up?”

What's up?  I thought you were supposed to call me on Friday.

“Holy shit.  I thought you were supposed to call.”

“You did?”

“Wasn't that how we left it?  You were going to wait and see if she did anything else then decide if you wanted to file?”

A white hot fury shot through her skin, so charged and breath-disrupting she feared she would be unable to speak.  Could anything she said to this moron have contributed to such a misunderstanding?

“You're telling me you didn't file?”

“No.  I still can, though we'd be into next month's deadline.”

She almost said Do it, while another self screamed, Don't even deal with him.   And suddenly the burden of carrying on this conversation with Nichole in potential earshot was too overwhelming. 

“Let me think about it and call you back,” she said, hastily getting off the phone.

It was still twenty minutes before the time to move her car, but now the only relevant issue was her need to be out in the wind.         

“Where are you going?”  Nichole asked, as Janna passed her office.  She stood in the doorway, lips parted in a neutral manner.  Her fingers clutched her Preakness coffee mug, which in better days had once inspired her to joke, “I have a weakness for spectator sports that only last two minutes.”

“To move my car.”

“I'm sorry, I need you here.”

“Nichole, everyone on this staff has been moving their cars since the day I got here.  Has the policy suddenly changed?”


“An hour ago Ted moved his car.”

“Don't' ever, ever, say anything to me about another employee.”

“I'm just saying...”

“End of conversation.”



Dear Dr. Myerson,

I am writing to inform you that I am being harassed.  The perpetrator of the harassment is Nichole Roarke, my supervisor at the Medical Library,

This harassment has taken place over the past several weeks and has manifested itself in various forms, including, but not limited to:
  • Reprimand in front of other employees.
  • Sarcastic and disrespectful treatment.
  • Separation from my regular duties without explanation. 
  • Deadlines imposed for punitive reasons.

I can provide examples of each of these cases, but rather than do so here, I would prefer to bring one particularly significant incident to your attention.  On November 20,  Ms. Roarke informed me that she had discovered a number of errors in our annual “serials list.”  She would not tell me what these errors were, other than to inform me that I was responsible for them, and that I was immediately being taken off the project.  My requests to review these “errors” were only met with derisive comments such as “This isn't worth our time.”

Since this incident I have tried on several occasions to communicate with Ms. Roarke, but every attempt has been rebuffed.  At one point I offered to set up a mediation through the Employee Assistance Project, but Ms. Roarke refused to participate.

It is my belief that, since that time, Ms. Roarke has deliberately created a tense and hostile work environment by repeatedly treating me with disrespect and removing privileges that are given to other employees.

This situation has caused me a great deal of personal stress and has had profound consequences on my life.  It is my understanding that, as Ms. Roarke's employer, St. Stephens Hospital of San Francisco may be held legally accountable for her actions.  In view of that, I am respectfully requesting that you intervene and require Ms. Roarke to refrain from all forms of harassment, and/or violations of hospital policy.

If you have any questions about anything I have said in this letter, please feel free to contact me.


Janna Handerly



“Excuse me,” said the mustached intern at the circulation desk.  “I asked for the October issue of Pediatrics, you brought September.”  Janna glanced at the journal she had just retrieved.  The brisk Roman characters of September shimmered with accusation.  How was it possible?  She had been so ultra-cautious all day, double-checking herself at every turn.”  Thank God Nichole had not been present.

“It was as if the print just magically changed on the page,” she told her sister that night on the phone.

“Stress can do that,” said Jody, who sounded as if she were eating soup.  “And naturally your letter is going to crank up the general anxiety level.  Isn't it weird that no one's responded?”

“It's about what I expected.”

“Well, the bitch probably got called in to answer a few questions.  She's definitely got some weird karma going.  What do you know about her personal life?”

“Single mother with two boys.”

“Well, there goes my frustrated lesbian theory.”

“I thought you liked lesbians.”

“I'm just stretching here for something you could call sexual harassment.  Does she know about your situation with David?”


“Maybe there's some kind of identification thing going on, especially if she's had a difficult divorce.  I mean you have to represent something  to her, right?”

“Maybe she just thinks I'm incompetent.  Maybe I am incompetent.  Does everything have to be so breathlessly psychological?”

“Sorry, Jan. Maybe we should change the subject.”

When the phone rang twenty minutes later she hoped it was Jody calling to smooth things over.  Instead it was a light‑voiced man who introduced himself as “Michael Pelke from “Local 12,” telling her that an informal grievance had been filed in her behalf.

“John Fabriani notified me about your case.  Frankly, he knows he screwed up.  You have to understand that our contract was one of the big losers in the last merger, and we're forced to operate largely with volunteers.  John's just gotten himself a little over-extended which, unfortunately, is the case with most of our reps.”

“That may be, but to be honest, I'm still not comfortable with him handling my case.”

“He won't be.”

“Then who will?”



She met Michael Pelke in the hospital cafeteria twenty minutes before the hearing.  He was a thin, scholarly looking man with ample salt-and-pepper hair and deep eye pouches, which struck her as a liberal's style of aging.  He wore a tweed sport coat over solid blue shirt, with reflective shell-colored buttons.

There's no real teeth in an informal hearing like this,” he explained, removing the lid from a heavily-milked Starbucks. “But sometimes just going through the process will compel a supervisor to tone it down.  They get a sense their behavior's being monitored, and suddenly feel accountable.”

“And if this doesn't work, what would the next step be?”

“A Formal hearing - Stage One.  But you want to avoid that.  It's a drawn out, Byzantine process, in which the employee looses about eighty percent of the time.”


“Because the arbitrator's an employee of the hospital.”

“They can do that?”

“It's in the contract.”


The hearing was scheduled in a long, windowless room called Conference One.  Nichole was already seated at the table looking wan and infringed upon in a soft, loose-fitting dress which struck Janna as the strategic antithesis to power clothes.  Her hands were folded over a copy of the serials list, with Post-its protruding from the pages.  Next to her was a young black man in coat and tie, who introduced himself as Shelby Hale from Human Relations.

“Hopefully I won't have to contribute much,” he said in a upbeat, casual manner.  “I'm just here to set a few ground rules and remind everyone to be respectful.”

Michael spoke first, outlining Janna's complaints in dispassionate monotones which coasted with lawyerly dignity.  As he spoke, Janna could feel the heat of Nichole's stare, which she did not want to return, but in her peripheral vision it took on qualities of a squint, eyes narrowing to slit transmitters of low-band hate.  And it registered for the first time that Nichole truly believed her public posture as the wronged party.   The effect was unsettling, and it threw her into a tizzy of doubt: were things really as dire as she had claimed?  Were they bad enough to justify the word harassment?  She attempted an ad‑hoc re-analysis but the details were simply too slippery.

“I'd like to respond to something,” said Nichole after Michael had finished.  The squint was gone, replaced by a polite, intellectually flexible gaze that projected not only composure, but warmth.  “Michael, I acknowledge your point about timely feedback.  Of course, it was never my intent to prevent Janna from seeing her mistakes.  I simply wanted to take some time for assessment then, naturally, I would go over the facts.”

Could that be true?  Panic crawled up Janna's spine like a hobbled insect.  She would come off as the crazy unreasonable one.  If only they could see Nichole as she really was.

“I'm glad to hear you say that” she said, relieved and proud to discover her own self‑control.  “But I'm just a little concerned because in previous conversations about this you said 'This isn't worth our time.'“

“Janna, I was obviously speaking in the moment, I certainly didn't mean we would never discuss it.”

Shelby Hale put up a hand.  “Look...look...I think what I'm hearing is a note of agreement.  Can we say that, you Nichole, will do your best to reveal the serials errors, without blame, and that Janna will perform the corrections?”

“That was always my intent.”

“That's also fine with me,” said Janna, “especially the part about without blame.”   Her final stipulation lingered like a rude body noise, but it was necessary, wasn't it?  She awaited support from Michael, but he was busy scribbling into a note pad.

Next on the agenda was the car-parking episode.

“That was a one-time incident,” explained Nichole.  “We were having coverage problems that day, but of course Janna can move her car.”

The hearing continued in that vein, until finally, Michael and Shelby Hale were shaking hands, declaring the day a success.

“Most disputes are simply misunderstandings,” Shelby told Michael.  “I wouldn't have believed it when I started this job, but after years of these things that's what I've learned.”  

Janna stood from the table, avoiding Nichole's eyes, feeling adrift in a muggy purgatory, but generally relieved it was over.  At least her own blood had not been spilled, even if Nichole had not been exposed.  And there had been one non-nebulous accomplishment: tomorrow she could drive her car.


That evening, as she finished her tuna salad dinner, numbly determined not to think about work, the phone rang.

“Hello, Janna.  It's Carl Hildebrandt from the Employee Assistance Project.  I just wanted to touch base and see how things were going.”

A certain benevolence she associated with this voice pirouetted inside of her; it was a little like the early days of her breakup when her sister called from out of the blue.

“It's so weird that you called.  I just had my informal grievance hearing today.”

“Oh.  How'd it go?”

“I'm still digesting it.  She said all the right things, but I can't say I'm trustful.”

“That's understandable.  As I recall, you were rather depressed the last time we talked.  Has that changed at all?”

“This hasn't been pleasant”

“Well, I know you’re handling this through the union, but if anything comes up that I can help with, or even if you just want to talk, feel free to give me a call.”

“Thank you.  That's good to know.”


“What I'd like you to do,” said Nichole, “is look up the ten journals on this list, then make any necessary corrections in the database.”

“Is there something in particular I should be looking for?”

“I'll say it again: I'd like you look up the ten journals on this list, then make any necessary corrections in the database.”

“Nichole, I wasn't trying to be difficult. I was just wondering if these were the errors we had discussed in the hearing.”

Nichole held up the list and replied in staccato.  “I'd like you to look up the ten journals on this list....” She paused, waved the list, and dramatically flickered her eyebrows.  “...then make any necessary corrections in the database.”        

Janna fought back an urge to lunge for her eyes and accepted the list.  Her hand trembled slightly, but she didn't think it was perceptible.

The first item was Anesthesiology, but in the database it appeared: Anesthesioloxy.  God, had she typed that?   Okay, at least it was easily fixable.  But on the next entry, British Medical Journal, she could find nothing wrong, a knot tensing in her stomach as she scanned each of the forty-three fields and their subfields.  Maybe Nichole didn't think the “count supplements” default should be set to “manual,” since the supplements were irregularly numbered.  But was that a  necessary correction?...or simply a matter of preference?  

“She made it into a test,” she told Michael that night on the phone, squeezing the handpiece so tightly she occasionally triggered the buttons.  “Could anyone in the hearing room have thought that's what was meant by without blame?  Can't we call back that Shelby Hale and tell him she violated the agreement?”

“I don't think that would be a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Let her actually do something, then we'll have something to go on.”

“But she has done something.  Her purpose was to harass, and that's what she did.  And what do you think the result of that 'test' is going to be?”

“Janna, I wish I could put the kibosh on this thing for you.  I really do.  But this is how things are in the current labor climate.  I've got one supervisor who's so out there that he went to the County Court and looked up an employee's divorce transcripts.  And you know what the administration of this hospital said?  'Those are public records.  It's his right.  If the employee doesn't like it he can get a lawyer.'“

“Jesus. Did he?”

“As a matter of fact, no.  The only one who would take the case wanted a $10,000 retainer.”


Over the next few days Nichole made no mention of the test.  The combat atmosphere even seemed to diminish somewhat, not to the point of truce, but at least to a manageable level.  It made Janna wonder if something had happened behind the scenes, hospital lawyers perhaps, dragging Nichole back to Conference One, dismantling her flimsy justifications, and demanding an end to her excesses.

Even this slight loosening of the noose left her in a substantially calmer mental state.  It seemed like a novel visit to a once-familiar land: she could think more clearly about her resume, job hunt on her own clock, fall asleep to the Nature Channel, as ferrets and anteaters persevered in their unending struggles....         

It was as she was leaving the library Wednesday afternoon that she discovered the letter, perfectly centered on her desk blotter.  A blue stamped message on the face declared: PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL.  

TO: Janna Handerly

FROM: Dr. Allan Myerson, Assistant Director

This letter addresses your allegations of harassment. 

I have supported, and will always support, every employee's right to work in an harassment-free workplace.  However, in the current situation I believe you are equating accountability and normal supervisorial discipline with harassment.

Specific to your allegations of “Reprimand in front of other employees,” I have interviewed the library assistant at your work site and, frankly, have been unable to obtain collaboration.

Specific to your allegation that you have been “separated from regular duties without explanation,” I have reviewed documentation indicating that examples of the errors which led to your reassignment have been presented to you.  I have further been advised that when you were recently afforded an opportunity to correct those errors, you demonstrated insufficient familiarity with the database to perform that task.

Other claims investigated, though not specifically addressed here, are consistent with my finding that no harassment, or intent of harassment, has occurred.

Janna, it has been my experience that it is seldom comfortable when corrective actions need to be taken in the workplace.  Nonetheless, it is hospital policy for supervisors to work with employees toward the goal of satisfying work standards.  With this in mind, Ms. Roarke will continue working with you and monitoring your performance.

As a matter of personnel policy, Ms. Roarke has filed with me, and you will soon receive, a formal warning of unsatisfactory performance.

It is my sincere hope that this matter can be successfully resolved.

Nonetheless, you should be aware that once a formal warning has been issued, failure to demonstrate immediate and sustained improvement may result in further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

If anything about this letter is unclear, or you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact me.


Allan Myerson, M.D.

Assistant Hospital Director


When she arrived home the first thing she did was call Michael, but hung up when she heard his voice mail.  She then ordered a pizza, not wanting to deal with food preparations of any kind.   When the phone rang a minute later, she assumed it was Diamond Pizza, calling to verify her order, but instead it was Carl Hildebrandt.

“Hi, Janna.  I just thought I'd call to touch base again.  I know things were in a kind of quandary the last time we talked.”

There was a warmth and sympathy in his voice she wanted to nestle herself in, but this time something made her feel cautious.

“Things have been better.”

“Are you still feeling depressed?”

All at once she understood the grounds for her caution.  “Carl, I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but I have to ask: is there some reason you're calling at this particular moment?”

“Is it a bad time?”

“No, no, no.  What I mean...look, I'll say it—the last time you called it was the very day of my grievance hearing, and today I've just received this whitewash letter from Nichole's boss, essentially telling me I'm on probation.  To be frank, there's been something of a Johnny-on-the-spot factor.”

“What are you asking, Janna?”

“Is this connected to anything?”


“Are you reporting to anyone?”

There was long pause, a little like the pauses between new lovers having a phone squabble.  And the longer it lasted, the more she grew aware of the sourness rising in her stomach.

“Look, I work as part of team.  Naturally there's some inter-communication.”

Now Janna paused.  “What team?”

“It's nothing sinister.   It's hospital policy that when there's been a difficult employee situation we want to make sure everyone's interests are respected.  A professional team is assembled and my particular function is to act as your advocate.  It's when interests aren't respected...well, everyone's heard about the kind of things that can erupt.”

“Are you telling me someone thinks I'm about to go postal? Who the hell is on this team?”

“It would be inappropriate to reveal that.”

“Jesus, Carl.”

“Look, I know this has been very upsetting....”

“You're goddammed right it has.”         

“Janna, I understand that.  I also understand you've had a difficult experience today, and I'd like you to feel you can talk about it.”

“Carl, I am not comfortable continuing this conversation.”

She set down the receiver, careful not to slam it.  A moment later someone knocked at the door; she might have screamed, if a voice had not called out, “Pizza!”



“My wife and I really enjoyed the Christmas display at Nordstroms,” said Ted, as he threaded a printer with tractor paper.  “They're one of the few Union Square stores that still have their act together.  A lot of these places don't even do their own displays anymore.  They call in contractors.  That's why everything looks the same.”

You're not only cowardly, you’re boring, she thought as she kept up a steady stream of uh-huhs.

She shortly broke off the discussion and wheeled a truck of books into the reading room for reshelving.  It was the most hated of her daily tasks, made all the more difficult by the distracting pull of the books themselves.  One which presently caught her eye was a thin blue volume entitled Infant Cry Patterns.  Who would research such a thing?  What sort of why-the-world-needs-this angle might be espoused in the introduction?  She was just reaching for the book when she became aware that Nichole had entered the room.

“You have a phone call,” she said, in a manner which could not quite be pinned down as censorious.  “Someone named Michael Pelke.”

Thank God.  At last.  Now the only trick would be managing a semblance of privacy.  As she headed toward the circulation desk, she became aware of Nichole walking behind her.

“Why are you getting this call here?”

“It's been a long-standing phone tag,” explained Janna.  “I have no control over when he calls back.”

She picked up the phone, Michael greeting her in one ear, while Nichole spoke to the other:  “I don't want you talking out here at the circ desk.  Transfer the call to your office.”

“Michael, hold on a second....”  She began the transfer, as Nichole continued to speak, some phrases registering better than others: “...its exactly what's wrong with you...absolutely no sense of appropriateness....”  It was all she could do to focus on the numbers, which were slipping away like things in a dream; she pulled them back by force of will, purging the sensory periphery, clinging to one integer at a time: EIGHT... SIX...NINE...

“...more bad's just like the serials list....”


There.  Success.  She could hear it ring in her office.  But wait.  The sound was a little too distant.  And then the humiliating truth: she had transferred the call to Nichole's phone instead of her own.

“You see that?  You can't even transfer a call.”

Janna stopped enroute to the phone, then turned to face Nichole directly. 

“I quit.”  The words burst out before she had weighed them, but in the aftermath a profound relief seeped through her, spreading through corporeal layers like a numbing balm.

Nichole looked back quizzically, her mouth creased in a subdued smile.  “Would you care to put that in writing?”

“That would be very convenient for you, wouldn't it.

“If that's a no, then I take your resignation to be immediate.”

“Would you mind telling me one thing?”

“It depends.”

“What the hell has it been with you?  Why have you found it necessary to do this?  Even if I were the most flagrant incompetent on earth, nothing I've done could have justified this venom.”

“This conversation has become irrelevant, Janna.”  The smile was gone, but she nonetheless seemed pleased with her snappishness.  It was the first moment that she struck Janna as purely arrogant, unlike previous collisions, where Nichole's combat deportment had been arguably tempered by nervousness or anger.  O for the perfect rejoinder.  O for some twist of logic, or even some credible threat that would render this victory something less than the perfect steed to ride home upon and parade.  Then, from a frontier of recent memory, a thought materialized...but would she dare?

“Nothing gave you the right to do this, Nichole.  I don't care how screwed up your life may be or how messy your divorce was.”

Her return gaze was a mixed beam of incredulity and hatred.  Just behind the sheen of her eyes a new kind of intelligence seemed to deliberate, something deadly and previously uninvoked.  “You don't know shit about my divorce.”

“It's public information, Nichole.  Anyone can go to the County Court and read the transcripts.”

A silence elapsed; Nichole's phone had stopped ringing.  “Are you telling me that's what you did?”

“I didn't say that.  I simply said it was possible.”

“I'll give you some advice, Janna, and you'd better heed it—don't mess with me about this.”

“The same way you didn't mess with me.”

“I wasn't messing with you.  I was just doing my job.”

“End of conversation, cunt.”


The next morning she drove directly to Ocean Beach.  It all flew at her: rent, health insurance, references, age, David‑replacement, balding front tire.  But she shut it out, determined to pass this one particular day as free from such snares as possible.

She sat on a cement abutment and watched the people on the beach.  Who were these denizens of the mid-week, free to run with dogs, or toss frisbees, or ride bicycles with mounted water bottles? 

A young boy caught her eye.  He was building small mounds of sand, and placing rocks before them in meticulous, intricate patterns which could only have meaning to himself.  And it struck her: if she were still in her other life, her artist life, this was precisely what she would want to capture.



“Was it worth it, getting to call her the C-word?”

“I know what that means,” said Megan, jostling in her chair, and smiling so broadly it flared out her nose.  She was four now, and her face was beginning to take on her mother's roundedness, particularly in the lower cheeks.

“You see that,” snapped Janna's mother.  “You girls talk like that and she picks it up.”

For a moment it looked like Jody was on the brink of counter-attack, only to reconsider.  “Stop it, Megan.  Eat your turkey.”

“Yes,” Janna replied.  “It was very smart of me.  I not only forfeited my unemployment, but without a reference it took me seven months to lie my way back into the profession.”

Jody raised a spoonful of cranberry sauce. “But you know, I think you might have hit something with that divorce business, I really do.  Besides, it was your only way of fighting back.”

“I agree,” said Phillip, Janna's guest.  “It's hard to know what was really going on with her.  At least I find that when someone's different enough from me, it can be impossible to see into them.”

Janna knew it was precisely the sort of psychology-laced comment that Jody would admire.  And a moment later, when he affectionately cupped his hand over hers, it felt like the perfect tableau.



Phillip was not a keeper, but Efrem was.  A year after they married they had a son, who Janna's mother never lived to see.  Cory had his father’s eyes, and his mother's jaw line, along with a certain emotional quality which sometimes caused Janna concern: call it a sensitivity, a rawness, a too-quick propensity for victimhood.  It was particularly apparent one November Tuesday, when she took off from the Glen Park Library to walk him to school so she could confront a homeroom teacher who had been infuriatingly nonchalant about a bully who was putting Cory through daily hell.  He grasped Janna's hand as they walked; she could feel his terrified need and profound gratitude that she was present.  A strangely familiar anger chafed at her, and it took a while to recognize the source: Nichole Roarke -- the image shimmered, taunting and inexorable.  How many years had it been?  When would the indignation subside?  Something her mother once said came back at her.  And because it was irritating at the time she did her best to shut it out.

But the words came anyway:  Some day it will be your turn to be strong.