by Phoebe Matthews
by Phoebe Matthews
Salty, the bank manager, did his favorite act, he phoned the temp agency that keeps me in his employ half days and he told them I was no longer needed at the bank.
In other words, I got fired. Yeah, so what else is new? Kind of insulting to be fired from a place that hires me secondhand, but other than that, I needed a break from Salty. My one regret was that I would no longer see the women tellers who work there. We are friends and we often lunch together for birthdays and baby showers and any other excuse.
Not that I expected the layoff to be permanent. Sure, Salty lays me off regularly. He would like to make it permanent because he seriously dislikes me, but when the computer-entry work falls behind, I am the only temp who can catch it up and then he is forced by necessity to phone the temp agency and ask them to send me back.
What with poor management and all, the bank is big on using temps because it cuts benefit costs.
And I am big on keeping my bank job to half days because I have another parttime job at the Neighborhood Center. The Center pays the minimum of minimum because that is all they can afford. They exist on donations. I would work there for free if I didn't have all the usual bills. That's how much I love that job. I love the work, I love my boss, and have I mentioned that my live-in boyfriend also works there?
On the other side of the coin is the temp agency. They don't care what I love as long as I accept jobs, make money, and earn their percentage for them.
"I am afraid your layoff at the bank is permanent this time," Joyce at the agency said when she phoned. I have never met Joyce in person. She is the voice on the phone assigned to me. I am probably the assignment no one wants. Poor Joyce must have lost a bet. Despite this, she is always courteous and cheerful and in the past she has managed some good raises for me. "He has eliminated the job you had."
"My job was making computer entries of account info. How can he eliminate it? Is he going back to quill pens? Or is he outsourcing to a third world country that specializes in identity theft? What?"
"I have no idea, Claire. What I do have is a similar position at a bank up near Northgate."
Ack. Northgate is at the north end of Seattle and has a major shopping mall that creates major traffic and overloaded buses. "Northgate is at least two bus changes away from where I live," I whined.
Joyce remained courteous but not cheerful. "That's the best I can do. Jobs are tight right now. I have nothing downtown unless you want to cashier in a store. That would put you back to minimum wage."
"What's this bank in Northgate pay?"
"I told them the rate at your last job. As you know, I arranged three raises for you there. This new place will match it."
Bummer. I did not want the long ride. However, temp agencies have the same bad attitude as the government unemployment offices. They expect folks to go to interviews and they get cranky about it if you don't. With the State, cranky means cutting off unemployment benefits long before your time runs out, so then you can't move on to the Feds. With temp agencies, cranky means forgetting you exist.
Which is why I went ahead and told Joyce to set up an interview appointment for me. It was that or stand at a cash register and try to be nice to strangers for minimum wage. But none of this meant I actually had to accept the job.
Like I told my boyfriend, "I'll get home so late, we'll never have time together."
"Then don't do it," he said. Anybody else would tell me to get my head on straight and go for the income. My guy believes I should only do things that make me happy, and how embarrassing is that? It makes me feel like a spoiled brat.
"If I don't go to the interview, the agency won't offer me anything else. Also, I won't be eligible for unemployment pay."
"You get paid for being unemployed?"
"You bet. The creep laid me off, which is a nice way of saying he fired me."
"You work too hard, my Claire. We can manage on my salary, can't we?" Wasn't that cute, the way he said that? Okay, I admit. All he has to do is smile at me and I go mooshy inside. So now you know why I don't want a job that adds a couple hours of commute time to my day.
The problem? He is a complete flake when it comes to money. Never mind what he says, there is no way we can pay the bills on less income.
Also, I did not want the agency to drop me. I did want another job, just not one with a long commute. "I'll go to the interview," I told my hunky blond guy. "They'll be interviewing several applicants. They probably won't choose me."
"Of course they will choose you. Anyone would choose you." Right after that he said a bunch of stuff about me being smarter and sweeter and better than anybody. He loves me and somehow that blinds him to my numerous flaws. Hurrah!
I spent way too much time checking the bus route info online only to learn my guess was right, it was a ridiculous list of changes with long waits between buses. But I wrote down the changes and then got ready.
There is this really great green clay face cleanser, to be used in the privacy of one's bathroom and removed before answering the door. I dabbed a bit on my forehead and around the edges of my face, not a lot, not like I had purposely left it there, just enough to make me look sloppy.
As for clothes, I pulled on a worn shirt and equally threadbare shorts, the pair I use for housecleaning. They were clean, of course, because my guy likes to do laundry. I sprayed them with hand lotion and it made nice spots.
Hair? Mine is naturally long and dark and now it had interesting green clay streaks. I didn't bother combing it into a ponytail, just let it slide into its usual messy state, tendrils hanging over my eyebrows.
With the addition of a beat up canvas purse from the Salvation Army, I was ready. The Salvation Army runs my favorite store. The clothes have been worn enough to be soft. This particular purse, however, was past its shelf life date and ready to be donated back to them.
The commute was a beast, with long waits at bus stops, and was slower than I had calculated. An hour and twenty minutes later I found the bank and was greeted by a teller with a pasted on smile.
Digging into my purse, I found the instructions from the agency. "I have an appointment with somebody named Martha. How do you pronounce that last name?"
The pasted smile morphed into a genuine one. "I don't." She picked up the in-house phone and said, "Martha, your appointment is here."
Martha came out of an office in the back, looked around, didn't see anyone who could be applying for a job, and glanced at the teller. The teller repeated her grin and gestured toward me.
Martha wore a business suit complete with jacket, and a face to match, carefully made up. Piece of cake, right? I would be out of there in ten minutes tops, I figured, although one glance from Salty in the same situation and he could have cut it to two.
Okay, she wasn't Salty. She gave me a genuine smile and said in a weirdly genuine voice, "Claire Carmody? How nice to meet you," and led me into her office where she asked if I would like coffee or tea.
Coffee does more for me than oxygen. She could have told me to go find it, help myself and keep walking out the door. She didn't. She rushed out and returned a minute later with a paper container of coffee and it even tasted like coffee, not like the stuff at Salty's bank. Maybe a bank located way past nowhere has to serve better coffee.
She faced me over her desk and kept on smiling. "Claire, I have gone over the resume the agency faxed and you cannot imagine how excited I am to meet you. Your experience is exactly what we need."
Maybe what she needed was glasses? Or not. Although she obviously could not see me, she saw the fax clearly. She read off the names of software programs I can do in my sleep. "You have worked with all these programs?"
"That's right." I could have lied but then she would have picked up the phone and called the agency and miserable Joyce would have asked to talk to me and when Martha handed me the phone, Joyce would have hissed in my ear, 'Why are you lying? Would you rather work at a car wash?'
"When I saw this resume, with your experience and all the right security clearances, I knew you would be perfect. Can you start tomorrow?"
"Would you like to start tomorrow?" Martha repeated. "I have to fill out forms for you, which I will do immediately and honestly, if you want to start this afternoon, I can have everything ready by then."
She talked like a woman who would skip her lunch hour to get me and what was going on?
"Umm, shouldn't we discuss hours and salary and exactly what you need done?"
"Oh, Claire, what I need done is you in the computer room. The last three people we had in that job lied about knowing the software and only did part of the entries and we are in such a mess and the agency assured me you have been doing this type of work for years, and oh! Right. Salary. They have your last hourly wage here and I can sweeten that, say an extra five an hour?"
That would pay off some overdue bills. Tempting. I said, "I have a problem with the commute."
"We will provide a bus pass."
"The problem is the bus."
"Bring your car. We have free parking. You'll have your own space."
"I don't have a car available and by bus it takes over an hour to get here," I said. But for that raise? Maybe I could ride the buses to work and my boyfriend could pick me up after? No, that would waste almost an hour of his time with a twenty minute drive each way, plus the cost of gas.
"That is insane!" Martha exclaimed. "Of course you can't do that! Let's see, cab fare would be about as much as car rental. We can provide a rental for the first month while I look into leasing something for you. Don't give it a thought."
Don't give it a thought? I was blown away by the thought. She would give me a raise AND a car? How desperate was she?
"Is there a dress code here?" I asked.
"For working in the computer room? No. Wear whatever is comfortable."
My curiosity kicked in. "This is a temp job. What are the hours? Do you have an estimate of how long you will want me?"
"As many hours as you want and as long as you will stay! Oh, I think I am not allowed to offer you full employment. There's some fine print in our contract with the agency, so forget I said that. For now you'll be half time."
At that point I could not think of a way out. And as long as I was already there, I agreed to return after lunch and yes, I was right, the poor woman skipped lunch and did the paperwork. I know because I was sitting in a McDonald's, dreaming of lunching at Starbucks with all that extra money, when my phone rang.
Joyce said, "An extra five an hour? Clever you."
"And she's paying for a rental car."
"Today? Why do you need a rental?"
"Today she is sending me home by cab. Tomorrow I will have a rental and my own parking space, can you believe it?"
"Good God! They are desperate."
"Thanks a lot," I said.
But Joyce was right. When I returned to the bank, after washing off the green stuff in the McDonald's rest room and combing my hair and dabbing water on the spots on my shirt and making them worse, which was not my intention, Martha did a sprint for the computer room with me in tow. For a terrible minute I thought she might lock me in. I would have to phone my guy to come break down the door.
Martha had it right about the condition of their records. I settled in, studied the sloppy and nonexistent work of my predecessors, and wondered if in another week I could hit her up for another raise because an hour later, I knew exactly what bits of the software they hadn't understood and hadn't tried to use. I dove in. By five o'clock I had filled in obvious blanks.
When Martha returned to the computer room to tell me she was leaving and I should, too, I showed her what I had found so far. She didn't actually jump up and down and click her heels, but she did open the purse she was carrying and pull out cash.
"This should cover your fare home tonight and back tomorrow. I'll get a rental lined up for you tomorrow."
I cabbed home.
It was peculiar. Well, maybe not. There are large companies in the area expanding faster than the speed of light and gobbling up techies. Most jobs are full time, which won't work for me, even though I know they pay way more than banks. Still, at the rate Martha was handing me cash and raises, I might catch up.
When I got home, my sweetie was in the kitchen starting supper. (I already told you he is way out beyond believable and now do you believe me?) First thing he said was, "How's this? More salt, you think?" and held a spoon up to my mouth.
Right after I finished swallowing a spoonful of the world's most delicious spaghetti sauce, which does not come out of a can and is actually made by chopping tomatoes and all that stuff, an activity I never try, I said, "Fabulous. Perfect."
He handed me a glass of wine as thanks for my taste testing. "I saw a cab from the window. Was that you?"
I took the glass, sat at the kitchen table, and after a big sip I told him about my day.
Yes. He was impressed. "How long does this job last?"
He was impressed but not surprised. Bless the boy, he thinks I am some kind of genius and so he assumed the raise and the promise of a car were exactly what any employer would offer for my skills.
"Well, it's temp, so maybe a month? I don't know. She mentioned she would like to offer me a full time job but I did tell her I can only work half days. Gosh, imagine what she would have offered if I had dressed up."
He glanced away from what he was stirring at the stove and looked at me. "You look beautiful. You always look beautiful."
I really do worry about his eyesight.
For the next three weeks I drove myself back and forth in the rental car, and yes, I dressed neatly and combed my hair, not that it ever stays combed, and then on a Monday morning I walked in and one of the tellers called me over and said, "Claire, Mr. Morgan wants you in his office."
Three weeks was plenty of time to learn the names of everyone who worked at the bank and there wasn't any Mr. Morgan. Also, all of the staff went by first names, which sounded suspicious, so of course I said, "Huh?"
She said in a low voice, "He showed up Friday afternoon after you left. Main office transferred Martha and sent him."
"New manager? Howcome?"
"Don't know. He must be somebody's brother."
"That bad, huh?"
"Worse," she said.
I went into the office that I thought of as Martha's office. Behind the desk was a man who didn't know how to smile. Right. I used to work for one of those. So I smiled and did a little wave of one hand and said, "Hi, I'm Claire."
He leaned over his desk and studied a piece of paper. I had to assume he was a very slow reader because it took him a full minute to read my name and look up and say, "Claire Carmody, is that right?"
After we got that all straightened out and both agreed that's who I am, he said, "There must be some error here. You are a temp and have only been here three weeks and have an hourly wage that exceeds the rate of most of the tellers. They are permanent full time employees."
I did another smile, a little more forced, and said, "They get benefits that I don't."
"Of course. They are full time. You are a part time temp."
I almost said, 'And wicked good on a computer,' but changed it to, "I am a tech expert."
God knows what a tech expert is. Didn't matter. If he called the temp agency, Joyce would assure him that's what I am.
"Also, there is a receipt here for a car rental. What's this all about?"
Did I want to say it was Martha's idea? Wherever she was, I didn't want to be the reason she was demoted. In the three weeks of my employment she had been very nice and never questioned me sliding in twenty minutes late, which is standard for me.
"Sorry, I don't have an available car and there is no other way for me to get here."
"That's ridiculous," he snorted.
"So much of life is," I agreed.
Guess he didn't like my answer because his next move was to glare at me and make a phone call and ask for Joyce, whose name must have been on that file he was studying.
He did a lot of muttering about unreasonable salary and extras, meaning the car, and I agreed with him about the car. About the salary? You get what you pay for. I had seen the results of their last three employees in the job.
"She wants to talk to you," he said, and handed me his phone.
In my ear, Joyce said, "Let him lay you off. Call me when you get home."
"How do I get home?"
"Gotcha covered," she said, and hung up.
So I continued to insist that I could not work for a lower rate and could not commute without a car and he said I could be replaced and I wished him luck. In that order.
When I walked out of the bank, wondering if I had enough cash for the bus, there was a cab waiting at the curb. He waved and called me by name. Joyce had hired him, but why?
I was home with a glass of wine in hand, despite the midmorning time, before phoning Joyce. She would sell me to the highest bidder. If that was a bank in Bellevue, across the lake and a real pain to reach, I might try for a barrista job at Starbucks. They pay okay, below what the bank had paid me but way above average for barristas, and they are located on practically every corner in Seattle. I might even find a place in walking distance. Plus, I could drink all the Starbucks I wanted.
On the other hand, I would be on my feet for four straight hours and worse yet, expected to be relentlessly friendly to customers. Seattle is big on friendly. I may be the only kid raised in Seattle who flunked that course.
I phoned Joyce. "What's up?"
She giggled. "You are not going to believe this."
"Salty wants me back at double the salary."
There was a long silence.
"Joyce? Are you there?"
She sounded pissed. "Of course I am."
"So what was the cab about?"
"I didn't want you hanging around arguing with Morgan. I was afraid he'd change his mind and decide to keep you until we found a replacement."
"Oh. Oh! You have something else for me? Downtown? Really? Great! What is it?"
"You already know. I wanted to surprise you. How did you know?"
"Know what?" And then I got it. "Oh, that! I was joking. It's a lower percentage for you than you were getting from Northgate, right?"
"Wrong," she said. "I told Mr. Salt what you were now earning, plus bus pass, well, I am not crazy. I knew he wouldn't go for a taxi or a car rental. But I did tell him that he had to better their offer by at least five an hour or I would not let you walk away from your new position."
"Go, Joyce!" I said and then I ran the whole three blocks to the Neighborhood Center where my guy was putting together a high protein high veggie casserole, because some of our lunch crowd are street people and they need the nutrition.
"Aren't you early?" he asked when I skidded into the cafeteria kitchen and gave him a hug. He hugged me back and then he said, "Oh. Never mind, my Claire. You didn't like the commute, anyway."
He presumed I had been laid off and just because I get laid off every couple weeks, that still seemed unfair of him to presume.
"Listen, smarty, you will never believe what happened." I tried not to grin and failed.
His face lit up and he gave me one of those smiles that melts me to my toes. "Mr. Salt needs you back so much he added another raise!"
Now I knew how Joyce had felt when I guessed her surprise.
"Okay, boyfriend, you got it in one."
This story first appeared in the Rock's Dogs anthology. Claire Carmody is the main character in the Mudflat Magic series. For the list of novels in this series go to the HomePage (the link is at the top of this page). The series is available in ebook and paperback.