Joan looked down at her hands in her lap, like they could tell her what to say. She fucked up, fucked up bad.
“I’m going to ask you again, Joanie. Do you know why I called you into the office?”
She knew she was going to lose her job. After all her years, they were going to fire her for something that had nothing to do with how good she did her work. Times were hard and getting harder, especially for someone almost fifty and looking it. How was she going to find another job? And now of all times, with her two older kids out of the home and mostly on their own and finally being able to catch up on the bills.
“Joanie? You know you can talk to me.”
Four years ago, when she was promoted to head of housekeeping, she believed she could talk to Marge, her supervisor, but since the new owners took over last year, she didn’t trust anyone anymore. “Am I gonna be fired?” She swallowed hard and pressed down on her lips to smother a sob.
“That’s not my call. Corporate wants me to find out what happened, so they can decide.”
“I dunno, the human resources module?”
“I don’t know, somebody at corporate.” Marge shuffled through the file on the table in front of her, which took up half of Marge’s office in what had been a janitor’s closet.
“Oh, ya mean the lady who did the orientation after they took over, the one who talked like a robot?”
“I don’t remember–”
“Sure, you do. We joked about it after, how she kept talkin’ about how we don’t need so much staff because of computers and aggrarhithims—somethin’ like that.”
“I told you, I don’t know who it is.” Marge snuck a glance at her watch.
Joan crumpled, her head down with her fists over her eyes. She cursed herself. She never cried, even though in this life she had lots of reasons to. Why couldn’t she just keep it together?
Marge slid her hand across the table, but Joan didn’t reach for it. Marge’s voice became quieter. “I think if you own up to what you did and apologize, things’d work out. You’ve been here a long time, been a hard worker.”
“I dunno, they’ve let a lotta people go for less.”
“But not a supervisor like you. You always did what you were told, hung in there after they took over and cleaned house.”
Joan looked up, groping for a sign of hope. “Yeah, even after they told us we were ‘independent contractors’ and had our own businesses and had to pay our own taxes. That was weird.”
“Right, but you stuck with them.”
“That should count for something, right?”
“Sure,” Marge replied, not meeting Joan’s eyes.
“Right, that should count for something,” Joan repeated weakly.
“Joan, did you really call Alma that?”
“What did she say?”
“This is your chance to say what happened.”
She looked hard at Marge, knowing she should say something, anything in her defense, but she couldn’t. Maybe saying nothing meant nothing happened. She looked down and silently cursed herself for being so stupid and losing everything—her job, her place, maybe even custody of her son if she couldn’t afford to keep him. Her mind was being sucked deeper and deeper into a whirlpool of catastrophes.
Marge blinked a couple times and looked away. She wrote something on the file and leaned toward Joan. “Take off a couple days; they’ll contact you.”
Joan didn’t respond or look up, frozen in her seat.
Marge got up, hesitating as if to say something more, something consoling, then rushed off. Joan remained seated, trying to compose herself before exiting into a cold world, to who knew where.
Joan didn’t go home, too afraid of seeing someone in her hood who might ask why she wasn’t at work. They didn’t need to know why. She didn’t have to be home until four, when Jason came home from school. He’d just started high school, a boy who looked like his father, tall yet heavy-set. He’d stopped talking to her except to complain how she never left him alone.
All she was trying to do was keep him on the right track, whatever that meant these days. She worried he was being bullied at school, like she’d been, but couldn’t figure out how to help him. Complaining to the principal would mark Jason as a mama’s boy who couldn’t take care of himself. Sometimes he made her so angry she wanted to slap him, as her mother did to her. But he was too big to hit now, and anyways wasn’t she the adult who should know better? When he seemed overwhelmed with fury, he yelled he was going to live with his dad. Sometimes, she’d yell back out of spite, “Go ahead, call him.” She knew Ralph, “the Ex” to her, looked out only for himself. He hadn’t paid child support for years, so how was he going to take on a kid?
In the parking lot, her fears festered. She was about to explode and had to do something, anything, to distract herself. Between working long shifts and taking care of Jason, she had no time for friends other than her co-workers, and she couldn’t face them.
With no place to go, she ended up at The Watering Hole, a local dive. She and the gals from work went there to celebrate divorces or to just blow off some steam. They’d flirt with the men who, after a couple rounds, looked less like the losers they were.
Max, the owner, was behind the bar. “Good morning, darlin’. You’re sure makin’ my day.” He leered alertly over the bar. “What’ll it be, sweetheart, the usual?”
The attention was just “Max being Max,” but it made Joan feel good after all that shit that morning. “Nah, let’s try somethin’ different. How about…a greyhound.”
“Wow, heavy artillery, must be your birthday. That why you’re not at work?”
She shook her head. “What the hell, make it a double.”
She’d never been in the joint during the day to see what a dump it was. She was repelled by the dust motes floating in the light from the grimy front windows, the thrift-store furniture and paneling, and the stench of spilt beer. She scanned the room to make sure she knew no one there. A couple of old-timers hung on the other end of the bar, smelling of inertia. Older couples sat at tables, diving into burger plates. She didn’t know The Hole served regular food. On ladies’ night out, she and the gals would declare loudly that they were on “liquid diets,” but after a couple shots, they’d order nachos and pans of tater tots. She thought about the tots.
With a flourish, Max brought the greyhound. “Your drink, madame, on the house for your birthday.”
Joan smiled, as if in on the joke. Max seemed peppier than usual. At night, he was often sloppy, already on the home stretch to oblivion, clearly enjoying the perks of owning his own place—free drinks and not having to drive home.
“Just givin’ ya a head’s up—the burger and a bump special ends at noon, both for five bucks.”
Joan sat up on her bar stool and pulled down her blouse in back. “This’ll do, for now.”
“Ah, right, the ‘liquid diet.’ Just what the doctor ordered.” He winked, as if in on a secret. She took a sip, then looked away like something wasn’t right. What was she doing here in the middle of the day, getting gassed and spending money instead of earning it?
“Oh, fuck it,” she murmured. She knocked back her drink, dismounted the stool, and strode to the jukebox. The silence was suffocating her. She punched in their song—”Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” One night, she and her gang sang it over and over, their desperate exuberance increasing the volume. She dropped in enough coins for three plays and hit replay.
When younger, Joan had been told she was a “catch” with her long, auburn hair and sassy flair, but she never really believed it and settled for “the Ex.” She’d been afraid of being alone, but then he left her and the kids when they were still young. Sometimes she tortured herself over not finding a good man when she still could have snared one. Her body had become foreign to her, thick and achy. She tried diets, but they only worked for rich people who could afford to be choosy about what they ate. Plus, her hair had whitened early and she could afford only cheap dye jobs that left her hair more magenta than auburn.
During the first play, she squirmed on her stool, humming the words, until the last chorus when she sang along, first at half-voice, then full-throated by song’s end. When the song started again, an older woman at a table looked over and gave her thumbs up, like they were now sisters.
Joan waved for Max and pointed at her glass, then got up to dance. She looked around and saw everyone looking at her. She motioned for them to join along, but they looked down or away. Fuck them, it was all on her, as it had always been in this life.
After more plays (Eight? Who was counting?) and a couple more doubles, Max shook his head when she pointed again at her empty glass. She looked at him in a come-hither, why-the-fuck-not way. He smiled, but then turned back to talking to the barflies at the end.
She looked around and saw she was alone. Whatever compelled her to come here, that urgency to be somewhere else, had passed like a rolling thunderstorm. She commanded herself to leave.
Max caught her at the door with her coat and the check. She forgot she had a coat, didn’t feel she needed it, but grabbed it. She had problems getting the bills out of her wallet and figuring out how much was enough. She finally handed him her credit card, which she never used anymore. She’d been stupid before with the card, and she’d sworn never to be stupid again.
Max grabbed her arm, still too familiar, which sobered her up a bit. “You okay to drive? I got a couch in the back, if ya need to chill out a bit before driving home.” Joan had heard about that couch and Max’s boasts about getting lucky at closing time. “I’m not that drunk,” she declared and focused hard to believe it.
After signing the receipt without looking at it—the total would just depress her more—she took a deep breath and marched deliberately to her car, mostly holding her line. She worried she was taking too long to get the car started and the seat belt secured. Another wave of self-revulsion flowed over her. She just sat there, inert, and began crying.
What was she doing here, outside a bar in the middle of the afternoon? She had no place to go but home, except…
The house where Alma lived with her family must have looked different during the day because Joan had a hard time finding it, driving around and around blocks of squat, one-story ranch houses. She had dropped off Alma a couple times after a girls’ night out went on too long and Alma said her husband would be too drunk to pick her up. Joan probably wasn’t any more sober than the husband, but she drove Alma because they lived not far from each other in what everyone called “The Barrio.”
Finally finding Alma’s house, she was sure she could work it out. Shit, they were more than co-workers; they partied together. She must have known Joan didn’t mean what she said.
Since the new regime took over, posters had appeared near the time clock, telling them to “Work SMARTER, not harder” and “You do MORE, We all get MORE.” The new property manager, who insisted everyone call her “Coach,” kept telling them, “Computers and proprietorial algorithms will help us reach our goals!” Joan didn’t know what the hell that meant and figured no one else did either. She was afraid to ask and look like a troublemaker.
The day had started out as the craziest of all the crazy days: two cleaners called in sick, leaving just Joan, Alma, and two others to clean after a night of full occupancy. There was no way they could get 150 rooms ready by check-in time for “Our Patrons,” guests who paid top price per night and expected the world.
Rushing from room to room, Joan became even more pissed at the two no-shows, fuming about how many times she herself worked when sick. The front desk called every ten minutes, jumping on her about irate “patrons” demanding their rooms right now. Each time, Joan swore the rooms would be ready soon, which was impossible, and that led to even more heated calls. She pushed herself hard, even popping a couple dexies from a bottle left by a truck driver after a drunken night she could barely recall. She was really buzzing when she saw Alma coming out of the bathroom. “You better hold it next time!” she lashed out, along with something else she didn’t want to recall.
After the rooms were finally done and “Our Patrons” cocooned in their rooms, Joan was called into Marge’s office. She knew why. She thought about blaming the outburst on her ongoing insanity of going through the “change” the past year, but she was too ashamed to use this excuse. Besides, would they even give a shit?
Now parked in front of Alma’s house, she breathed deeply to clear her head. She had told herself over and over that she and Alma could work this out, surely Alma knew they had to stick together against the new bosses. But deep down, Joan knew no one had ever stood up to them for fear of being replaced.
As she was being sucked farther down into the eddy of depression, she saw some kids go in the house. How many kids did Alma have? How could she support them? She had a husband, but from what she said, he was no help. Joan had often heard that pregnant Mexican women snuck into the States to give birth so their kids would be citizens and wondered if thinking like that got her in this jam. She cursed her ignorance. Alma just wanted to work hard and take care of her kids; didn’t every mother want that? It wasn’t Alma’s fault the rooms weren’t done on time for “Our Patrons.” Fuck them, and fuck the bottom line.
A pickup turned in the driveway, Alma in the passenger seat. Shit, the husband was with her. Joan took another deep breath and pulled at the door handle of her Ford Focus, the door flying open and rebounding back against her leg. Alma looked over, then turned quickly to go into the house.
Joan stumbled getting out of her car. “Alma! Come on, just let me talk to you…” She took two steps to catch Alma, but she’d already gone through the front door.
“She don’t need to talk to you, not after what you said to her,” her husband spat out while opening the garage door. He got back into his truck, revved the motor, and screeched into the garage.
Joan climbed the three steps to the front door, sobering up quickly. She had to talk to Alma; it was life and death. The damned tears were back. She couldn’t find her voice. She squeaked out a request that only a dog could hear, “P-p-please open the door.” The curtains of the window to the right of the door moved, but then closed when she turned to look. She was humiliated—how could she have fallen so far? But then her disgrace strangely gave her strength to persist, like she had bounced off rock bottom.
She banged on the door, insistent. They weren’t going to get rid of her.
From the garage, the husband shouted, “I’m gonna call the cops if ya don’t just fuckin’ leave!”
She stopped pounding. Alma was a friend, or used to be, and if Alma told them it was no big deal, nothing to get fired for, then everything would be back to normal.
“Alma, I’m sorry, that wasn’t me, ya know that. What can I do to tell you how sorry I am? Those two not showing up, they’re the ones to blame, they really fucked up, leaving us–”
“Hey, I have children in here.”
“Oh, shit—uh, I mean, yeah, your kids, sorry…” She lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “Can you just open the door and talk to me? I feel like an idiot out here, all your neighbors listenin’. I’ll tell everyone, anyone, I really fu—uh, messed up…”
She just stood there, hanging on to nothing, every second a minute, an hour a lifetime. “Alma? Can’t we just talk?” Jason’d be coming home now to an empty apartment and wondering where she was. Shit, he’d be happy to see he didn’t have to do his homework right off, without her there to bug him. The thought of her son spurred another wave of desperation.
“Alma, it’s just me and my boy, I don’t have nobody else. Do you want me to beg, because I will, if I have to. I mean, we’re friends–”
“Friends don’t say that to each other.” Alma, through the door.
“I know, I know, but–”
“No ‘but’ about it, I thought you were better than that, didn’t think like that.”
“But I don’t–”
“Oh, that wasn’t you yelling at me to take my lazy ass back to Mexico?”
“Those two calling in sick, I was crazy–”
“And I’m not from Mexico, I was born here.”
“Yeah, I know–”
“And my people are from El Salvador, but you didn’t even know that. Yeah, we’re friends all right. Just go home.”
“Alma, don’t let it be like that…Alma?…Alma!” Joan kicked the door in frustration and screamed in pain from jamming her big toe. A dog next door began barking and others joined in, but there was not a sound from inside.
She slid down on the small porch, her back against the door, massaging her foot. Tears returned, breaching the dam. She made no effort to contain them. She had to give up, go home, but she couldn’t move. She felt a killer hangover coming on. Already?
She sat there, frozen, her mind shut down. It was like all the shit dumped on her in this life had piled up into one big dumping, suffocating her. It was only a job, why was she feeling so defeated? Because it was more than that, it was all the other shit. Nobody liked her, not even her son, and nobody ever would.
A police car slowed to a stop in the street. Joan squinted into the sun to look into the car but couldn’t see who was in it. Fuck, the husband did call the cops. What the hell was going on? They never responded to calls in The Barrio.
An officer got out slowly and took his time putting on his hat and adjusting the gear on his belt that hung below his belly. He looked both ways before striding to the house. He stopped when he heard Alma’s voice.
“Luis, you just drive on. This don’t have nothin’ to do with you.”
“Your old man called me.” He started walking again.
“It ain’t no business of his either.”
“He lives here, so I gotta check it out.” He shifted his focus to Joan. “Ma’am, you need to move on if you don’t wanna be arrested for trespassing.”
Joan started getting up, when Alma opened the door a couple inches and snarled, “She ain’t trespassing. Why don’t you go chase some criminals instead of doing your buddy a solid. We never see any of you cops around here when we need ya.”
“Listen, Alma, you can’t be disrespecting an officer of the law. I’ll run you in, too.”
“How ya gonna explain a tu madre you’re running two mothers in? Hijo, she taught you better than that.”
Luis glowered. He looked over at the husband in the garage. “Hey, Esteban, you still want the blanca outta here?”
“What the hell ya gettin’ paid for?”
Alma turned toward her husband. “Get inside!”
“Woman, this is my house, too. You shouldn’t be bringing home problems from your shitty job.”
Alma came out, still in her work clothes with her hair pulled back, and faced him from the porch. “Shitty job? How about you gettin’ one instead of stickin’ your nose in my business.” She turned to Joan. “Give me your keys.”
“The keys. I’ll drive you the fuck home.” Alma looked at Luis and Esteban. “What are you guys still doing here?”
Esteban protested. “Who’s gonna take care of the kids? They’re crazy hungry after they get home from school.”
Alma stood over Joan. “The keys!”
With some effort, Joan pulled them out. Alma snatched them and marched to Joan’s car, not looking at the men. Joan stumbled behind her.
Alma turned and took her arm. “Shit, how’d you drive here?”
Alma helped Joan in the car, got into the driver’s seat, and they drove off in silence. Joan’s head drifted toward the window, and she started blubbering about her life. “You’re lucky you got a man around, I got no one…”
Alma looked over at her, as if contemplating whether it was worth the effort to respond. “Him, he’s just another mouth to feed, that’s all.”
Joan’s head started falling toward the door, but then she suddenly bolted up as if from an electric shock. “I’m sorry ‘bout what I said. I don’t know where the fuck that came from. I’m such a piece of shit.”
“Where it came from? Hell, it’s all over the place. I was just surprised you said it.”
“Yeah, me too. I’m so, so, so sorry, I…” She whispered, “I don’t know what to say.”
Alma looked over, her face softening. “I’ve heard a lot worse than that.”
“That don’t make it right.”
Joan looked around. “How you know where I live?”
“I’ve been to your house before.”
“When was that?”
“You had that barbecue for Mary’s retirement, back before the corporation took over. I just started and was surprised I got invited. That was nice.”
“Wow, that seems so long ago, like another damn life. Looks like I gotta find a new one. Oh, fuck, it’s about time; the Coach is a fuckin’ asshole.”
Alma smiled. “Amen.” Silence descended between them again.
Alma slowed the car down. “You in this next block?”
Joan was snapped out of her thoughts. “Yeah, ‘round the corner.”
Alma pulled up at the tiny ranch with patchy grass around it. Joan didn’t get out right away. A heavy stillness held its breath between them. Finally, Joan pulled on the handle to get out, and Alma did the same. Outside, Joan got the keys from Alma. “Thanks for driving; you didn’t have to do that.” Joan just stood there, not knowing what more to do or say.
Alma started to walk away but stopped and took a breath. “Okay, okay. I’m gonna tell them not to fire you, that I don’t wanna make a big deal out of it.”
Joan slowly responded, the tears returning. “I don’t want you gettin’ in no trouble, changing your story. I mean, I need the job, but I was the one who fucked up.”
“They told me they were letting you go to make me happy, probably so I won’t sue them. I’ll just tell ‘em I’m happy; you don’t need to be fired. Might have to sign some release or somethin’.” She turned to look at Joan. “Shit, we gotta stick together.”
Joan couldn’t reply. She moved to hug Alma, but her friend turned away. “That’s okay.” She walked away, not looking back.
Joan waited all the next day for the call to say she could go back to work. The pounding in her head was worse because she couldn’t think of anything but the call. By the end of the workday, there was no word, so she phoned.
“Marge, what’s goin’ on?”
“I told you, I’m not the one deciding.”
“But Alma, didn’t she tell them she didn’t want them to fire me?”
“She told me that.”
“Well, so everything’s good, right?…Marge, you gotta know what’s going on…we’re friends, just tell me.”
Marge said nothing, the silence an answer.
“They’re not letting me come back.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But Alma didn’t want them to fire me.”
“Yeah, she said that.”
Joan was now silent. She heard Marge take a deep breath.
“I guess legal said something about you doing it again; they’d be sued back to the stone ages.”
“But it was only the one time, never gonna happen again.”
“I guess one time is too many. I’m sorry.”
Joan breathed out. “So that’s it.”
They both became quiet. Joan heard Marge’s halting breaths. She hung up and lay back on her couch.
Tomorrow was another day; it’d be all right. She had to get to a place where she believed that. She had to. That’s what people do, don’t they?
South Side born and raised, Larry Smith has lived on the West Coast for the last several decades, meanwhile frequently visiting his sister back home in Chicago. While working as an administrative law judge in Oregon since the ‘80s, Larry wrote for stage and video. Now in retirement, he is writing short fiction and, in the tradition of Nelson Algren, his stories usually address the struggles of people on the margins.
Over the years, Jeff Corwin has taken photos out of a helicopter, in jungles, on oil rigs, and on an aircraft carrier. Assignments included portraits of famous faces and photos for well-known corporate clients. After 40+ years as a successful award-winning commercial photographer, Corwin has turned his discerning eye to fine art photography. Trusting his vision is important as he has always created photographs grounded in design. Simplicity, graphic forms and repeating configurations personally resonate. He does not second guess elements like composition or content. Humble shapes, evocative lines. Eliminate clutter. Light when necessary. Repeat.