Plaster of Paris; chapter nine, part one

“I suppose you’re wondering why I called this meeting,” Sandra says to me, smiling a brittle smile.  We are in her office, with the door closed, of course.  She is wearing a prissy white blouse buttoned up to her neck and beige pants, perfectly creased.  Today, her hair is scraped off her face and held back with a gallon of hairspray.  It does unfortunate things for her buck-toothed grin.

“Uh, sure.”  I have no clue, nor could I care less.  She could be giving me a raise or firing me for all I know.  I’m pretty sure it’s not the former, but it certainly might be the latter.

“Rayne, I know it’s been a hard time for you lately,” Sandra says with faux sympathy.  She leans forward, a semblance of concern lurking on her face.  “What with the, uh, incidences and all.  Because of your involvement in the, uh, events of the past few months, the administration has tried to cut you slack in your time of grief.”  She pauses expectantly, waiting for me to say something.

“Uh huh,” I say, not sure what it is she wants from me.  I have the distinct feeling she’s looking for thanks, which she’s not going to get.  “Hard time.”  I nod my head like an idiot, waiting for her next move.  Even though I had slept soundly after my nightmare, I am still bone-tired.

“Yes, a hard time.”  Christ, now she’s repeating me repeating her.  There has to be a point to this, but I’m not sure what it is.  “The thing is,” she pauses, fiddling with the cuff of her shirt.  She moves it a quarter of an inch down, then a quarter of an inch up.  When she has it to her satisfaction, she finally me square in the eyes.  “We’ve been having complaints about your work.  Paperwork not done on time; emails going unanswered—that sort of thing.”

“Who’s complaining?”  I ask idly; I don’t really care, but I’m curious to see if she will come up with anything more substantive.

“You know I can’t reveal that,” she says with a strained smile.  “Confidentiality and all.”

“Then how about specific examples?”  I ask politely.  “If you’re going to fire me, I’d certainly hope you have the documentation for it.”  I watch carefully.  I know she can’t produce proof, because there isn’t any.  The emails I left unanswered were in the manner of, ‘Rayne, I’m going to be a tad late filling out that form you requested.’  Things I have no power to control, nor any desire to pursue.  As for me being late with my paperwork, my promptness is predicated on the timeliness of others.  If I’m being chastised for it, my coworkers should be held responsible as well.

“Who’s talking about firing?”  Sandra says in a placating tone, her hands in front of her.  “Nobody’s talking about firing.”  She must be worried about me suing or something to be using such a tone on me.  “The administration has decided to place you on probation for the next six months.  During that time, you’ll have to document all your work—what you have due and what you’ve done each day.  You’ll check in with me at the end of each day to hand in your list.”  She smiles at me, as if she’s conferring a favor.  I stare at her without blinking and without smiling—a trick that unnerves the most savvy of poker players, which she’s not.  “Um, in addition, you’ll need to check in with me at the beginning of each day and at the end to make sure of your, um, time here.”  She drops her eyes as she delivers this bit of news.

“What if you’re not here?  When I get in, that is,.” I say sweetly, still not smiling.  I am often the first or second person in the office while she is usually the fifth or sixth.  “Should I wait in your office until you arrive?  Wouldn’t want to be working more than you’re paying me for.”  She has the grace to look discomfited.

“Um, ah, no.  I can see if you’ve come in if you’re at your desk.”

“True, but you won’t know how long I’ve been here,” I remind her.  “Wouldn’t want you to short me any minutes.”  This is the most fun I’ve had in days.  It’s so liberating not to give a damn.  “I’m just curious.  What if I play games on my computer?  Is that construed as a waste of time?  What about if I watch movies?  How am I supposed to get my paperwork done on time if others don’t give me their paperwork on time?”  My tone is light, almost merry as I ask the questions.

“That’s not what we’re discussing here,” Sandra says sharply, her face coloring.  She doesn’t like the fact that I’ve alluded to her and the director whiling away the afternoon hours watching movies on their computers or that the director only uses his state-of-the-art computer to play games, even though the students don’t have enough computers to do their work on.  Or that Alicia, the lead counselor, is constantly missing deadlines, then screaming at me for not returning things to her an hour after she hands them to me.

“Sandra, it’s obvious what we’re discussing here,” I say calmly.  Even though I’ve only given it rudimentary thought, it’s been a long time in coming.  “The administration doesn’t want me around for whatever reason and is trying to get me to quit so I won’t sue for a wrongful firing.  It’s even more delicate because I’m Asian, and the agency doesn’t want to appear racist.”  I stand up, suddenly fed up with the office politics.  I know that it happens in any office, but I can’t stand this particular one any longer.

“You have it all wrong,” Sandra says, looking at me in alarm.  I have a feeling this meeting didn’t go as plan.  “We don’t want you to leave at all right now.”

“Then what’s with the bullshit?”  I remain standing, staring down at her.

“The board is concerned about your involvement with the current murder case,” Sandra explains, clearly rattled.  “As well as your involvement with the last two.  They think it reflects badly on the agency.”

“So?”  I must be slow, but I’m not making a connection.  Sandra sighs, then blows out her cheeks.

“They want to put you on probation so that they can let you go after the probation period.”  She has the decency to blush.

“So they do want to fire me.  They just don’t want to get flak for it,” I sum up.  “And they don’t want to get sued.”  I am disgusted, but far from surprised.  “Well, it’s bullshit, and you know it.  You know what?  I’m giving you my two weeks notice right now, then I’m using my vacation days to make up those two weeks.  You can send my final paycheck to my home address.  I’m out of here.”  I have no sick days left, of course, but I have just enough vacation to cover it.  I turn around and go to my desk to start collecting my things.

“Wait, you can’t just leave like this,” Sandra sputters, her hands flapping like mad.  “There’s procedure.”

“So sue me,” I say with a laugh.  “Wouldn’t that be ironic?”  I survey my desk area and realize with a start that there is nothing personal on it.  I’m not a hugely sentimental person, and I don’t think of things such as making my desk at work homey.  I turn to my computer and start deleting emails that I no longer need.

“Rayne!  I need this done today,” Alicia says, slapping down a form she was supposed to have given me a week ago.

“You’ll have to do it yourself,” I say cheerfully, continuing what I’m doing on the computer, Sandra squawking in the background.  “Since I just quit.”

“What?”  Alicia’s jaw literally drops.  “Huh, what?”  She turns to Sandra for explanation.  Unfortunately for Alicia, Sandra is just as out to sea as is she.

“I can’t believe you thought I’d put up with that shit, Sandra,” I say, deleting like mad.  I’m tempted to wipe out agency files that I painstakingly created during my incarceration, but my sense of honor forbids me from doing so.  “I thought you people were supposed to excel in administration.  Really, the bullshit you were laying on me in your office.  I’m disappointed in you.”  I shake my head as I delete.  I take great joy in erasing my life at the agency.

“You can’t do this!”  Sandra says in a panic.  “What are we going to do?”

“Not my problem,” I say, feeling better than I have in months as I continue my mission of destruction.  “I don’t work here any longer.”

“Stop that,” Sandra says, trying to pry my hands from the keyboard.

“Get your hands off me,” I say in a low voice.  I am beyond pissed, and I can’t be responsible if she doesn’t listen.

“Hey, Rayne,” Jamal begins, skidding to a stop when he sees that I’m talking to Alicia and Sandra.  “Uh, you busy?”

“Not in the least,” I say, staring defiantly at my supervisor and Alicia.  The two of them scurry into Alicia’s office to chat.

“What’s up, Rayne?”  Jamal  “Why they sweatin’ ya?”  His brown eyes are worried.

“No reason, Jamal,” I sigh as I continue to purge the computer.  “You know how it is.”

“Yeah, I definitely know how it is,” Jamal says, nodding his head wisely.  “Jus’ wanted to ask how your homey be.  You know, the one on the life line.”

“About the same, Jamal,” I say wearily, touched that he remembers.  “He hasn’t opened his eyes yet.”

“That’s so foul,” Jamal says softly, suddenly looking younger than his fifteen years.  “Why people got to be trippin’ like that?”  I have no answer.

“Jamal, I have to tell you something.”  I hesitate, not knowing what I’m going to say.  These kids do not take change very well, especially since most of them come from a life of upheaval.  “I just quit.”

“You did what?”  Jamal yells, his face turning gray.  “Why?  Why you wanna do a fool thing like that?  Don’t you care ‘bout us no more?”  He stares at me, betrayed.

“I care about you very much, Jamal,”  I say gently.  “It’s just,” I pause again.  I don’t want to say anything negative about the agency that is trying to help him.  “There are some differences between me and the administration that we can’t work out.”

“That’s fucking bullshit,” he screams, his face now red.  “They always be telling us kids to work things out.  Fucking hypocrites!”  The kids aren’t supposed to swear, but I am not going to stop him now.  Besides, he’s right.

“That’s enough,” Sandra says sharply.  I hadn’t heard her walk up to us, but I had been too busy trying to placate Jamal.  “Go upstairs.”

“Don’t you be tellin’ me what to do, heifer!”  Jamal snarls, tears springing to his eyes.  “How can you do this to me, Rayne?”  He sprints up the stairs, and I resist the impulse to follow him.  It’s better to let him be mad.  God knows, he has the right.

“We need to talk,” Sandra says, her earlier alarm dissipated.

“I don’t think we have anything left to say,” I sigh, my elation gone.  “You want to keep me on a leash, and I want to leave.”

“Perhaps we were too hasty,” Sandra says evenly.  At my incredulous look, she adds, “And unfair.  Forget what I’ve said and consider remaining at least as long as it takes for us to find a replacement.  We need someone to train that person.”

“Why should I?”  I ask bluntly.  “What incentive do I have to stay?”

“One reason just left,” she says, nodding at the stairs.  As much as I hate to admit it, she’s right.  This wouldn’t be the best way to leave the kids.  “Two, we’ll give you a five percent increase on your salary.”  That sounds impressive until you realize that my salary is forty thousand.  I raise an eyebrow.  “Ok, ten percent.”  It’s still not much, but it’ll have to do.

“And no bullshit about watching me or late papers or anything like that?”  I ask sharply.

“Nope,” Sandra says, tapping her foot.

“How long are we talking?”  I don’t want to get trapped into being here for many months while they drag the search out.  I’m a damn good assistant, and they know it.

“Three months.  Four, tops,” Sandra says.

“I want a month’s extra pay when I go,” I say querulously.  Paris would be proud of me for sticking up for myself.  I feel a pang as I think about him.  “And I want it in writing.”

“Done,” Sandra says with alacrity.  “You write it up, and I’ll get it signed.”

“Wait, this can’t be legal,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it.  There are ways.”  I don’t want to ask about that.

“I need to talk to Jamal,” I say after a moment.  I have a feeling that I’ve played into their hands somehow, but I don’t care because I would have been quitting soon, anyway.  Actually, I should thank them for giving me the impetus to make a decision.

“Who?”  Sandra’s face is completely blank.  I sigh, but don’t answer.  I go upstairs, not caring that I’m leaving my desk unattended.  I peek into each room, not wanting to disturb the kids, but wanting to find Jamal.  I find him in the game room, shooting pool.

“Jamal?  Can I talk with you?”  I ask, which prompts catcalls from the other kids.

“Ooooh, Jamal, you be in troubulllll!”

“She your lady, Jamal?  She old!”

“What you do now, Jamal?”  Jamal’s face reddens, but he continues to play.  His partner shoots him a puzzled look.

“Just for a minute, Jamal.”  For a second, it seems as if Jamal is going to ignore me, but he nods his head infinitesimally.  Handing his cue to someone else, he follows me out of the room and into the hallway.

“What you want,” Jamal asks sullenly, staring at the ground.

“I’m not leaving, Jamal,” I say softly.

“So?  Don’t mean nothing to me,” Jamal shrugs.  “You go do your thing.  It’s not like you my friend or nothing.”

“I am your friend, Jamal.”  I sigh.  “Look.  I’ll be honest with you.  I’m leaving as soon as they hire someone else, but that will take a few months at least.  I’d like to be friends in the meantime.  Is that something you’d like?”

“Whatever,” Jamal says, still not looking at me.  “It’s yo’ life.  We done here?”

“Yes, Jamal.”  I watch sadly as he shuffles away.  I know there’s nothing else I can do or say to make things better; I feel as if I’ve lost something important.  I’m not good with loss in general, and this is a lousy time to experience more of it.

For the rest of the day, the administration treats me with kids’ gloves.  I don’t know what they hoped to accomplish by the little charade this morning, and I don’t particularly care.  The few times Jamal passes my desk, he studiously avoids looking at me, his little braids bristling.  It hurts every time.  It’s my worst day at work in many months.  I make more mistakes in one day than I usually do in a week.  I have no motivation to do anything, and I loathe talking to any of my coworkers.  The latter is not really a problem as they aren’t particularly eager to talk to me, either.  I am disheartened by the time I leave for the day.  A part of me wishes I had just walked out in a self-righteous huff, but I know that I need the time to find another job.  Besides, I want to try to mend fences with Jamal if possible.

“Goodbye!”  I say loudly as I leave.  There is no response, not even from Quinn.  I feel oddly bereft because I’m finally enough of a pariah for even Quinn to shun me.  I march towards the hospital, steamed.  I’ll have to catch a cab sooner or later, but I want to walk off some of my ire.  My phone rings, startling me out of my reverie.

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