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
“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
“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
“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,
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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 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.”
“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.”
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
Back at her desk she discovered a note; it
was folded in two and stapled, so that all she could see was her
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
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.
PROBLEMS WITH A SUPERVISOR? A
CO-WORKER? IS STRESS GETTING TO YOU AT WORK? AT HOME?
TALK TO US. THE EMPLOYEE ASSISTANCE PROJECT IS HERE TO HELP.
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
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
“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.
“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.”
“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
“Either stated or distilled through umpteen
“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
“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 we. I. 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.
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
“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
“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
“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
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.
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?
“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
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
“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?”
“Good. I'll call you Friday.”
For two days Janna savored images of Nichole
being served the grievance. How would it arrive: letter?...phone?...surly 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.”
“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
“An hour ago Ted moved his car.”
“Don't' ever, ever, say anything to me about
“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,
has taken place over the past several weeks and has manifested itself
in various forms, including, but not limited to:
front of other employees.
my regular duties without explanation.
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.”
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
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
If you have any
questions about anything I have said in this letter, please feel free
to contact me.
“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
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
“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
“I thought you liked lesbians.”
“I'm just stretching here for something
could call sexual harassment. Does she know about your situation
“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
When the phone rang twenty minutes later
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.
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
“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
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
“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
“Hopefully I won't have to contribute
he said in a upbeat, casual manner.
“I'm just here to set a few ground rules and remind everyone to be
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
“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
“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
“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
“Most disputes are simply
told Michael. “I wouldn't have believed it when I started this
job, but after years of these things that's what I've
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
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
had my informal grievance hearing today.”
“Oh. How'd it go?”
“I'm still digesting it. She said
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,
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
ten journals on this list, then make any necessary corrections in the
“Nichole, I wasn't trying to be difficult.
was just wondering if these were the errors we had discussed in the
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 anecessary
correction?...or simply a matter of preference?
“She made it into a test,” she told
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.”
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
investigated, though not specifically addressed here, are consistent
with my finding that no harassment, or intent of harassment, has
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
It is my sincere
hope that this matter can be successfully resolved.
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.
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
“Hi, Janna. I just thought I'd call
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
“Is it a bad time?”
“No, no, no. What I mean...look,
say it—the last time you called it was the very day of my
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
“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
to go postal? Who the hell is on this team?”
“It would be inappropriate to reveal that.”
“Look, I know this has been very
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
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
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
“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
“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 judgment...it's just like the
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
Janna stopped enroute
to the phone, then turned to face Nichole
“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
“That would be very convenient for you,
“If that's a no, then I take your
resignation to be immediate.”
“Would you mind telling me one thing?”
“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
“I'll give you some advice, Janna, and
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
doing my job.”
“End of conversation, cunt.”
The next morning she drove directly to OceanBeach. 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
She sat on a cement abutment and watched
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
“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
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
“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.