C/W: Sexual Harassment
Ingrid thought it was a good thing when Big Todd offered her the job of assistant manager—a post that had been vacant since she’d started working at the Reel to Reel video store eight months earlier.
Her co-workers cut corners. Gabby got lost for full hours on smoke breaks. Little Todd only vacuumed the heavily trafficked aisles where he expected Big Todd would notice his efforts. Dakota skimmed dollar bills from the register when she thought no one was looking. Getting the assistant manager job marked Ingrid less as superlative than not as bad as the rest of the team, but the title came with a fifty-cent-an-hour pay bump as she paid her way through community college, and—who knows?—maybe she’d learn something from holding a set of store keys and weekly one-on-one meetings with Big Todd.
Big Todd announced the promotion with a note attached to every employee’s paycheck. Dakota offered a half-hearted salute and, “Congrats, boss.” Ingrid watched Little Todd when he tore the envelope, removed the check, and tossed the announcement unread.
Gabby congratulated Ingrid. “I know I couldn’t do it,” she said. “But good for you.”
Ingrid asked what she meant, and Gabby asked why she thought the assistant manager job had been open for a year? Ingrid asked what happened to the last assistant manager, and Gabby suggested she might want to ask Big Todd what happened to the last three.
Big Todd smiled. “It’s a challenging role. I hold my assistant manager to a higher standard than the rest of the team. It’s why I let the position stay open. I wanted to make sure I had someone up to the job.”
Ingrid sensed she wasn’t getting the whole story and followed up with Gabby. Gabby said she’d probably already said too much. But she could provide names. She wasn’t in touch with any of them anymore, so it would be up to Ingrid to find them if she wanted answers.
Ingrid found Hannah Stephens on LinkedIn, with a job history that included waitressing and working the checkout aisle at the Fresh Foods. Her assistant manager role at Reel to Reel, which she’d stayed in for a month, was her last job listed, ending two years ago. Ingrid sent her a message, framing it as a new assistant manager seeking advice from someone who’d done the job before.
Ingrid found Ashley Chen on Facebook. Barebones information, but enough to confirm she lived in town and went to Shermantown Community College. Ingrid messaged her, too.
Ingrid couldn’t find Erin Gentile.
Days passed. Big Todd wanted to meet a lot in the back of the store. He showed Ingrid how he drew up schedules, seated close enough for their arms to touch until Ingrid moved hers out of contact, until Big Todd moved his to touch hers again. He reassured her she wouldn’t be responsible for scheduling, but it was the kind of training he wanted to give her to get her ready for jobs in her future. On a similar premise, he showed her tax records for the store, standing over her to flip through a binder of taped-down receipts and photo copies of forms. She could feel his breath, hot on the back of her neck.
Ashley wrote back. It had been three days. Three long days, working extra hours with Big Todd. Ashley said she could meet Ingrid at the coffee shop at the college library. Ashley said she could give her twenty minutes, no more. She had a research paper due.
On the way to the meeting, Ingrid tried to think of it like research, too. What was it her First-Year Composition instructor had told her? That research was not a formality to prove what we already knew, not a way to fill page space, but an exploration. How can we know what we think, he had implored, before we know anything at all?
Ashley came late. She hauled a backpack stuffed full, a travel coffee mug in one hand, books in the other, with the tell-tale Dewey Decimal System white tags of belonging to the library. She checked her watch before she sat down, and Ingrid figured she’d better cut to the chase.
Ingrid told Ashley about her new job.
Ashley opened her bag and took out a zip-lock full of granola with chocolate chips and raisins mixed in—a pairing of accouterments that felt dangerous for how much they looked alike, how different they tasted. Ashley fished out a handful indiscriminately and offered Ingrid the same gamble.
Ingrid hates raisins, but she took some anyway.
“Be careful,” Ashley said. “Big Todd isn’t all bad. But if he gets too close, you have to leave.”
Ingrid asked what she meant by too close, and volunteered their moments spent skin to skin, close feeling his body heat.
“I got out early,” Ashley said. “Before things got bad. The girl before me tipped me off that if he smelled my hair, it was time to run.”
Ashley didn’t volunteer a lot more. Maybe she didn’t have much more to say, having gotten out sooner, it would seem, than Hannah or Erin. Ingrid didn’t think to ask which of them had tipped her off, or if she knew how to contact them, or if Ashley had tipped off anyone else who might know something.
There were a lot of things she’d forgotten to ask, and she didn’t expect busy Ashley would meet up again. Questions rattled around Ingrid’s mind, louder with repetition, a cacophony of one question overlapping with another, begetting another as she made her way into work, loud enough she hardly noticed Big Todd coming from behind her, before he took a big whiff and asked her what shampoo she used.
Michael Chin grew up in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He has published three books: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue (Duck Lake Books), Circus Folk (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), and The Long Way Home (Cowboy Jamboree Press). Visit miketchin.com. He tweets @miketchin.