when supervision gets personal
They arrived at the door to the courtyard at the same time. “Where’re you heading?” Jared asked.
“Sandwich Express,” Carmen replied, offering an apologetic shrug.
Because he managed twenty-two women in a customer service department, Jared had to beware of singling out any particular one. He would, however, allow a one-off, since Carmen, a recent hire, was such a welcome contrast to the covey of pale, blond phone-reps nesting in their dovecote cubicles. “That’s where I was headed,” he said. “I like their tuna salad on oatmeal. Mind if I join you?”
“Sure,” she said, leaning on the push bar and letting him pass.
At over six feet, he could look down on her curling, glistening globe of gracefully shaped hair as they walked along. At a light, she looked up and across at him—startling black eyes, olive skin, full lips parting in a teasing grin. “So, you like tuna from a can. Where I come from in Mexico, we ate it from the ocean.”
“You were born there?”
“Uh-huh. Zihuatanejo. Came here when I was seven.”
“Y sus padres, tambien?”
“Of course. All eight of us…wait. You speak Spanish?”
“Yeah, I lived in la Capital on an exchange program one summer in college.”
“Tell me about that. Where did you stay?” Carmen asked while they took their place in the lunchtime crush snaking out the door.
They found an empty bench on the pedestrian mall and talked and ate and drank each other in. By the time they crushed their bags and wrappers and tossed them in a bin, there was an unspoken frisson between them. Which made it all the more difficult when, a week later, Carmen’s supervisor bristled and fumed in his office. “She called-in sick again. That’s twice in the past three weeks plus leaving early another time. And more than once I caught her arguing with family over the phone.” Jared frowned. A minority woman, new hire, how much slack could he—should he provide?
“Look,” he finally said, “we need to allow for cultural differences…for a bit. Let me know if it gets any worse. In the meantime, I’ll have a word with her.”
The next day, on the way past the office bulletin board, Jared paused to read a new posting:
ALLEGIANCE supports continuing education for our employees
Sign up for FREE Community Education Classes.
Jared scanned down the list past Photoshop, Excel, Bookkeeping, Introductory Spanish to a listing for writing classes:
THAT NOVEL IN YOU…
Instructor: Mavis Ahearn, prof emeritus, Eng Dept. WMU
Get started writing with bi-weekly assignments under the direction of a creative writing professor. Members of this virtual critique group will share their work online and receive feedback from Professor Ahearn and each other. Six sessions beginning May 1.
The concept appealed to Jared. He had always wanted to try his hand at wordsmithing. He would be able to work from home at his convenience and always favored the idea of learning from and with others as opposed to formal classroom education. So, he signed up.
The introductory session listed a group of thirteen participants (email addresses only), a welcome by the instructor and the structure of the class. Students would be given a topic for that week’s assignment and could post it REPLY ALL anytime in the following week. Comments and observations would be shared by all, including, of course, the instructor. Suggestions were to be constructive and all were encouraged to be open to criticism.
Scanning the list, he noticed a CRivera@gmail.com address. He wondered if that could be his Carmen Rivera from work. The first assignment was to write a 100-word description of a person—real or imagined. He unconsciously grinned to himself. How much fun would it be to describe Carmen? Maybe call her Carlotta. No one would know who she was but the two of us.
Week 1 assignment
People looked twice when Carlotta entered a room. The first look dismissed her as nice but ordinary. Often that first scan was quickly followed by a second take. Something about the way she carried herself—her composed strut, her compact body, fine but not demanding attention. Or maybe it was the promise of a smile dimpling at the corners of her mouth just waiting for you to trigger it. And when you did—it didn’t take much—she rewarded you with dancing black eyes beaming her full attention to whatever you had to say. She was there. For you. And would be for as long you wanted or needed. Very attractive, that.
Jared scrolled through several other submissions until he came to Carmen’s.
Week 1 assignment
When Gerard left his office, the women would chatter over and through their cubicles about their boss. Needs a haircut. No, it looks good shaggy. Nice buns. Where does his wife get his ties? I wish my husband could wear an Italian-cut suit like that. But what they missed was his manner. Like he saw you, but saw more—maybe more than you saw in yourself. I could be wrong. Have been in the past. Deep can turn out to be just thick. But that’s the fun of getting to know Gerard, the allure of more over late-night projects, lunches, special assignments…
Jared was stunned. Could Carmen be referring to him? Did his staff—did she—she see him that way? Was she interested in him? He could hardly wait for the next assignment which turned out to be a 200-word sketch or scene on the theme of responsibility—emphasis on ‘show not tell.’
This time Jared waited till CRivera posted her story before writing his.
Week 2 assignment: Responsibility
“Nah, c’mon sis,” Raul pleaded, I need a ride to the mall. Guy said he had a job for me.”
“What kind of job?” Carlotta asked.
“I dunno. Somethin’ at the mall, I guess.”
Carlotta closed her eyes to her blinking computer and the long list of customer complaints waiting for her attention. “So, tell me, hermano, how I’m supposed to leave my job so you can go find your job. But if I lose my job because of that, are you gonna pay the rent? Or buy gas for my car?”
“You gotta help me. You’re the big sister. We need you.”
“Hey, pendejo who died and made me the fixer for the whole family? I’m bustin’ my chops to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads.”
“Well, maybe I can help if I get this job.”
“You can help by finishing high school. And if you want a job at the mall, you’re gonna have to figure on how to get there on your own. So, start now. Cause I can’t take off work to get you there. You think of that?”
“Just this once, Carly. C’mon.”
“No. I’m already in trouble here because of you guys. Right now, I can see my boss givin’ me the eye. Take the bus, man.”
“I don’t know what bus goes out there.”
“Not my problem. You figure it out.”
“Damn, that’s cold.”
“That’s the way it’s gonna be from now on. And don’t call me again unless Ma is dying or something.”
All right. All right, Jared thought: her life, her responsibilities. What is it they say? Write what you know. Well, now I’m going to write about the pressure I’m under.
Week 2 assignment: responsibility
Miriam sat in the chair in front of Gerard’s desk, legs crossed, foot waggling in irritation. “Well, dammit, Jed. I can’t have one person strolling in or out—or not even showing up—whenever she wants. My folks notice and have to work extra. Carlotta’s nice…sweet. But they’re starting to get resentful of covering for her.”
Gerard nodded, twirling a paper clip on his desk blotter, muttered, “Uh-huh.”
Lurching forward in her chair, Miriam added, “And she’s still on probation. You have to nip this in the bud.”
“I know my job, Miriam. Believe me. I also know rules of affirmative action and openness to minorities.”
Miriam huffed, swung part way around. “Yeah, well I know my job too. And my production standards and quality control measures and my yearly evaluations.”
Gerard held both palms out in a calm-down gesture. “Let me talk to her. Maybe there’s just a temporary family situation…”
“No,” Miriam insisted, “she talked to Carol and Denise over lunch the other day and this is just ‘situation normal’ for her. The way those folks are.”
“Do I hear some ethnic profiling?”
“Hey, Jed,” Miriam snapped, “get real. If the shoe fits wear it.”
At work, Jared was distracted, kept looking for Carmen and a chance to talk. No luck. She was always engaged and on task. The next writing assignment was a 300-word scene involving strong emotions like love or guilt or hate. Again, Jared held off writing, waiting for Carmen’s lead.
Week 3 assignment: Strong emotion—love
Carlotta sat at the Shamrock Bar, down the block from the office, sipping a glass of Chardonnay. How can people drink this crap? she wondered. But Cheryl from purchasing saw Gerard in here one Friday night all alone and looking down. Wouldn’t it be great if he walked in right now? And what? Well, he would walk over and say hello and I would give him a good look at the sisters when I bent to slide his stool out. Then he would nod and give me a smile like ‘all right.’ And then we’d talk about stuff. Not work. His hobbies. The Tigers. No family shit. I’d swig the rest of this cat piss and he’d ask if I wanted another. Sure. Why not. Then maybe I’d go to the ladies and give him a good look going and coming. Maybe scooch the stool a little closer to him. Hint about getting something to eat. More drinks. Maybe his place. I know he’s got it for me. God he’s hot.
Jared blanched. Could it be? Could Carmen really have the hots for him? He spent two days trying to get his thoughts together. It was complicated. A work relationship. A subordinate work relationship. Red flags. His wife. Kids. Guilt. Finally, he wrote.
Week 3 assignment: Strong emotion—guilt
Gerard worked late one night. His was the only car in the manager’s parking lot. When he swung the door open, he froze. Carlotta was sitting in the passenger seat. He got in very slowly and then they both sat very still for a long time. Finally, Gerard cleared his throat and spoke in a raspy whisper. “I know there is something here. We both feel it. But…” Before he could go on Carlotta lunged across the seat, grabbed him behind the head and silenced him with a hard, long kiss. At first Gerard responded. Then all at once, he stopped. She knew it. Pulled back. Stared out the window. Nodded to herself three times, grabbed her purse and climbed out of the car. Gerard waited until he saw headlights swing across the employee parking lot before he drove home.
The next week, instead of longing for Carmen sightings, he tried to avoid such. Until one day in the cafeteria line, she was suddenly standing next to him. “Hi, Jared. How’s it going?”
Rattled, “Oh, fine,” he responded. “How about you?”
“Same old same old…or…not really. I’m getting into my Photoshop class.”
“Huh. That’s a lot of classes.”
“How’s that?” she said, picking up her plate of fish and fries.
Jared paused. “Well, writing and Photoshop.”
“I’m not taking a writing class. What made you think that?”
Jared shook his head as if to clear it. “Nevermind.”