Quitting for Beginners
Eileen woke that afternoon to two new voicemails on her phone. Both were from HR. To get it over with, she called them back. A woman picked up before the phone rang.
“Leslie’s Pool Supply HR department, how can I assist you?” The distinct sound of clearing teeth and sucking lunch from fingertips filled the phone.
“This is Eileen Ross. I’m calling about—I’m returning a phone call.”
Eileen kicked a pile of dirty socks off the office chair in the middle of her living room and sat in the dark. The sun peeked through her blue curtains, casting the room in a greenish glow. After faxing her resignation to the district manager and HR department at the end of her shift yesterday afternoon, Eileen put everything behind her. She had run all out of truth; she ran on rage. She didn’t even wait for the paper to cool after running it through the fax machine before she shoved her name tag and all three of her work shirts into her small cubby behind the desk they all shared at the busiest Leslie’s Pool Supply outlet in Phoenix, Arizona. Afterward, Eileen came home and took her girlfriend to bed.
“Oh, yes. Hold on one moment. Let me close my door,” the woman said. She set the phone down in a tumble, and Eileen heard rustling papers and the whoosh of something covering the phone. “You still there?” the woman asked.
“Yeah.” Eileen planted her feet and leaned forward. “I’m here.”
“I just have a few questions for you.” The woman on the other end sounded as if she were selling something. She’d forgotten the fact that Eileen was doing a courtesy in calling her back. “Where and when did the action take place? And is it ongoing?” The woman paused as if she were filling out a form. A pen hung above the box on a sheet of paper that would have all of Eileen’s personal experiences on it, filed away somewhere, to be refuted at some point by the corporation.
“I put it all in my letter. He only said this to me the one time.” Eileen waited a moment for the woman from HR to chime in. “I guess if you’re asking if there were other instances, then yes, I’ve been uncomfortable working with Richard on several occasions.”
“Ok. We can get to those in a moment. I need you to tell me exactly what happened, what you wrote in your resignation.”
Eileen swept the socks on the floor into a pile with her feet then mashed and stomped at them until they were a cohesive ball, packed tightly under her arches. “Well, he only threatened me the one time. Like it says in my letter, he stood behind me and told me a story about how one of his former co-workers—”
“Did he say who?”
“No, he didn’t. He only said that she—”
“Yeah. That she told him about a fantasy she had where someone would break into her house and rape her.” Eileen stopped there. She didn’t even want to think about it.
“And you found this threatening?” Eileen imagined that question typed on the white slip of paper. She wondered who might have come up with it.
“I found it inappropriate.”
What Eileen hadn’t mentioned was the way Richard told this story to her while she ate lunch at their desk during her break. She’d just closed a big sale. Her biggest yet. A good enough excuse to take an early lunch even. She thought he was coming to congratulate her. He stood behind her. Close enough that she could feel his body heat on the back of her neck. Close enough for her to feel cornered. She felt him there—on the back of her neck—uninvited. Richard even waited a beat too long after saying it to help the customer who’d interrupted the conversation.
“How did you react? Did you indicate that you were offended or somehow displeased by the act or offensive treatment?” Eileen heard the woman’s pen clap against a clipboard.
“I don’t know…Was it my responsibility to do something?” Eileen paused, hoping for some humanity from the woman on the other end. “What would you have done?” Eileen waited for an answer. “Look, all of this is in my letter. Is there any way we can speed this up?”
“I’m sorry. You must feel—” There was a long pause. Long enough that Eileen thought she’d been disconnected. Long enough for Eileen to become suspicious of the woman on the other end. Was she talking to someone else? Was Richard in the room with her? “Well, I can’t imagine. But I do have to ask these questions for continuity.”
“You mean you want my statement in case I take it to court? Well, I’m not going to. I just want to be done with this.”
“That’s fine. Do you need anyone to escort you to gather your personal belongings at the store?”
“No, I have everything.” Eileen thought about it. “Does he have access to my address—my personal information?”
“I can send the district manager to the store to get your file.”
“Yes. I’d appreciate that. Thanks.” She didn’t know how much good that would do, but it was something. Eileen felt nothing like the woman who’d run the fax yesterday.
“Well, have a good day.”
“You know, he works with a sixteen-year-old girl. Are you going to do something about that?” Until now, Eileen hadn’t thought of Martha, the sales associate they’d hired as a temp for the summer.
“Has Martha complained to you?” Eileen imagined the woman pulling out the clipboard again. Checking off questions. Neatly printing the answers inside a dialogue box.
“No, but I don’t know if she would.”
“What do you want the company to do?” the woman asked. A knot formed inside Eileen’s gut as she understood that this woman felt no sense of obligation to Martha. She realized there was nothing she could do. She had quit. It was over.
“We’ll send someone to talk to Martha,” the woman said, finally.
“Thanks for your cooperation.”
Eileen could hear the click of a metal filing cabinet opening and the shuffle of papers being stuffed into a folder, never to be looked at again. “You know, between me and you, you’re not the first to complain about Robert.” The file cabinet clicked shut. “We’ll call if we have more questions. Have a good day.”
Eileen sat for a moment in the middle of the dark room listening to the dial tone. The phrase, have a good day, turned over in her head. By the time her girlfriend, Kay, came home from work, the dial tone had turned into an obnoxious beeping. Kay waved and nodded at Eileen. A plastic bag of groceries hung from one elbow and in the other hand, a case of beer. Eileen put the phone down and listened to the chime of Kay stacking bottles of Heineken into the refrigerator, replacing the ones they’d gone through the night before.
“How’d it go?” Kay asked.
“They don’t care.” Eileen exhaled deeply, but the knot in her gut settled in—took root.
“Are they going to fire him?” Kay peeked around the corner of the fridge door letting the cool air fill the kitchen.
“I don’t see why they would. He manages the highest volume store.”
Eileen looked down and thought about how long it’d been since either of them had swept. Crumbs lingered underneath the stove from the last cookout they had when Eileen threw a 90’s gangster theme party for her friend’s birthday a few months ago. Eileen remembered her mother’s house. How Mom cleaned every Sunday morning before heading out for her half shift at Boston Market. Aside from overstaying at Kay’s place before they signed the lease together at Casa Valencia, this was Eileen’s first apartment. Her first time living away from home without help from her mother. Without help from anyone. She had some money, three months’ worth, maybe four if she were careful enough, squirreled away for just-in-case. But it wouldn’t last long.
“I’m going to dump some applications. I’ll see you later,” Eileen said.
“Maybe you should take the week off.” Eileen heard Kay say this through the closed door but didn’t respond.
She went to the strip mall around the corner and grabbed applications from all four sandwich shops, the grocery store, and the one lone bookstore. Although she didn’t get an application from Starbucks, she ordered a venti iced chai latte with soy, before sitting down to fill out the applications. With new purpose, Eileen collected herself. Even though she never went to college, she’d done alright for herself. She was the only twenty-two-year-old she knew of that hadn’t moved back home for a spell. Aside from recent events, she knew how to keep a job. She started with the bookstore application because she’d always wanted to be bookish but never had the patience for reading. Now seemed a good time to start.
She’d gotten halfway through the application, all the way up to the employment history section, before hesitating. She sat and stared at that little box on the form, reading it over and over again: reason for leaving. How could she fit her reason into this small box? And what would they think? She skipped over to the next question: employer’s phone. Eileen sipped her latte. The barista mopped the countertop with a white rag. Eileen looked down at her table. She traced the sticky coffee rings with her finger. Then, lifting her applications from the table, Eileen saw that the rings had ruined the back of her applications to the bookstore and the grocery. Her two best prospects, stained by coffee rings. They would recognize her if she went back for another application. Why would they hire someone who can’t even keep an application clean?
Eileen watched the barista sweep the floor behind the counter. She felt Richard’s hot breath on the back of her neck again. She wondered why he’d said what he said. It sounded like a lie. And if it were a woman’s fantasy to have someone break into her house and rape her, why would they ever tell pudgy, bald Richard? Was he bragging? He did like to brag. He often told Eileen, while training her to fix the pool vacuums customers brought in for maintenance, that people from all over the valley would come to this store just to have him fix their cleaners. He was the guy. The woman from HR rang in her head. “And you found this threatening?” She tried to imagine hearing this story from someone else. It was threatening. Wasn’t it? Eileen got up from the table, leaving her stack of applications and her latte behind.
At home, Kay was making a sandwich. “Come sit down,” she said. She placed half of her sandwich onto a paper towel and put it on Eileen’s placemat.
“I think they’ll fire him.” Kay smiled and nudged Eileen’s arm. “At least you won’t get any more headaches.”
Eileen constantly complained about migraines since she started working at Leslie’s. It was the chlorine smell. It seeped into everything: her hair, her clothes, her shoes. Eileen’s hands became so dry that she eventually had to keep a bottle of Lubriderm in the car.
“You should take some time off. Figure out what you want to do. Find a job that makes you happy.” Kay took a big bite of the sandwich, almost swallowing it whole.
“Like deliver pizzas?” Eileen was hoping to hit a nerve.
“Don’t knock it.” Kay pushed the last bite of sandwich into her mouth and reached for Eileen’s half. “If you keep throwing barbs, I won’t offer to front your half of the rent this month.”
“I can cover it.” Eileen pulled Kay’s hand close and stole a bite before letting Kay have the rest.
“You hated that job anyway.” Kay touched Eileen’s back. “Just let it go. No more Richard in this house. Now we can move on."
“That’s not the point. Yeah, I did. But I was getting good at it.”
That’s not what bothered Eileen about the situation either though. She felt unsettled and, after this morning, she was beginning to question herself. “It felt so right yesterday and I just don’t know now. Maybe I overreacted.”
“No. That guy was a creep. There is no reason to say what he said. He’s a rapist.” Kay looked at Eileen and nodded her head in reassurance. “You keep going on about this guy. Every day it’s something new. Now it’s done. You can get over it. We can talk about something else for a change.”
“It’s not like he touched me or anything. He just freaked me out.” Eileen tried not to think about the way she felt when Richard was behind her. Like standing in the back of a crowded elevator. Nowhere to go.
“I validate your claim and return it with renewed sense of outrage.” Kay smiled and stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth. “Let’s talk about something else.” She’d minored in psychology before dropping out and was always clear about her opinions. Something Eileen found attractive, usually.
The next day Eileen received several calls from Richard. Her shift had started at seven that morning. Richard left messages at fifteen till, ten after, forty after, and at noon, after which she turned off her phone and began cleaning the entire one-bedroom apartment. She swept and mopped. She vacuumed the bedroom. She cleaned the windows and the sliding glass door. She stared out at the back patio, empty save for some dusty patio furniture.
Richard liked to stand at the window in the mornings, drinking his coffee instead of merchandising the storefront. Staring at the women headed into the gym next door. During Eileen’s training, he invited her once to watch with him. Maybe it was the only way he could think of to bond with a lesbian. Not telling her what they were looking at, he paused, sipped his coffee, and said, “Look at this morning rush. If only the nooners looked as good.” By her second week, Eileen had learned to busy herself by stocking the shelves or cleaning around the register whenever she heard the squeak of Richard’s shoes against the polished linoleum floors near the windows. And when he invited her over to look, she’d pretend not to hear him. She felt sick at the memory.
Eileen decided to go to the hardware store to pick up some things for outside. She bought chimes, a wooden dish that contained sparkling marbles, and a few tomato plants. Although her income was hardly disposable, she needed this. The computer beep and click of itemized receipts being printed reminded her of Leslie’s. Sometimes Richard would walk around the store while Eileen rang people up. Each time she had to look up a SKU number, he’d yell it out. As if he’d memorized the whole store. As if he were watching her. It was fun at first, helpful even. Customers complimented his ability to expedite the check-out process. Sometimes when they didn’t have customers, Eileen would call out an item and Richard would respond with the SKU number. Eileen had only stumped him once or twice, and that was only because they were items nobody had ever bought or new items he hadn’t had time to memorize yet. Eileen paid the hundred and change dollars, went home, and began decorating the empty patio.
Once she finished, Eileen began to plot out where she was going to plant the tomato plants. She started digging into the dry silt dirt beyond their little slab of concrete outside. Although it was late fall, the Arizona sun still beat down on Eileen. Beads of sweat curled behind her ears. It was better to dig than to use a container. Eileen looked out at the dirt that surrounded her building, dry and cracked like the top of an overbaked brownie. To grow something here would really mean she’d done something.
Eileen began working the earth. The topsoil crumbled in her hands. She dug and dug. She went down almost half a foot into the ground using the clay soil to form the garden bed. While shaping the perimeter, Eileen noticed that she dug into a large hole. Some animal had tunneled through here at one time or another and left this cavity in her soon-to-be garden. While Eileen patched the hole with red clay, she had an idea. She dug a trough in the bottom of the bed and placed several smooth stones, which she found near her back patio and around her neighbor’s patios. Once the stones were in place, Eileen filled the garden bed with several buckets of water. The water turned brown and murky then sank into the ground easily.
As soon as she stopped moving, she thought of it again. She knew she would. It had nagged at her all day. She was able to dismiss it until she began to think about Martha. Had HR spoken to her yet? Had she experienced something too? Eileen went inside to check the messages Richard had left for her the day before.
Message one: “Hi, Eileen. This is Richard. Just calling to make sure you know you’re on the schedule today. It’s fifteen till. Call me back if you’re running late.”
She could hear the irritation in his voice. But he wasn’t as mad as she’d expected. He hated to work alone. Even when Eileen went to the break room for lunch, he would follow her. He’d work in the adjacent parts of the shop so he could see the door if anyone walked in. But he never once left her to eat in peace.
Message two: “Your shift started twenty-five minutes ago. Let me know if you’re stuck in traffic or if you need some help.”
It’s true. He wasn’t a slouch. He had let her go early plenty of times saying, “No point in both of us sitting here while I add up the daily.”
Message three: “Hey it’s me again. Just calling to make sure everything is alright. Give me a call. You’re about an hour late for your shift. If you don’t call me, it’s a no call, no show. Bye.”
The last message was just a hang-up. Eileen wondered if HR had gotten her file from the store. She knew Richard had her number in his phone. Were they going to fire him? She began to feel bad. He did have a daughter. She wondered if he would be able to find another job. Did she really have to report it? Couldn’t she have just left?
At that moment, her phone rang. It was the store. Eileen ignored the call and turned her phone off. She sank—tried to catch her breath—exhaled.
When Kay got home, she complimented Eileen’s efforts. Kay took them both out to dinner. She kept ordering drinks and asking what Eileen wanted to drink to. “Cheers!” She’d say. Then she’d look at Eileen with an expectation of happiness in return. Eileen smiled each time and would always drink, “To us.” That was enough for Kay. When the bill came, Kay took it and paid without asking Eileen for money. This made Eileen sink into her chair and wish she hadn’t bought those patio decorations.
In the morning, Eileen was ready to mix the soil and put it into the bed. By the time she stepped outside, the dew had already burned off in the sun. The garden was dried as well. The exposed clay now looked like paint chips, cracking in uneven webs across the garden bed. The only place that hadn’t dried out completely was the small patch Eileen had made to cover the gopher hole. Eileen poured more water over the garden and waited for it to sink in and smooth the cracks on the garden bed. When she poured a second bucket of water, the patch to the gopher hole broke, and the water washed in before it could sink into the earth. Eileen grabbed the trowel and began patching it again. She knew it would become a problem if that gopher was still living there.
While she worked, Eileen replayed the moments with Richard in her head. She always thought better when her hands were moving. None of the moments added up to anything individually. They were all just little things. His undermining her in front of customers, maybe that’s just who he was. He wanted to be the best and who could blame him? His job was almost all he had in life, as far as Eileen knew. And watching women at the window. What man doesn’t like looking at pretty women? Heck, even Eileen caught a glimpse every now and then. It didn’t hurt anybody to look. So why did she feel like she needed to leave? Eileen poured each bag of soil into the garden and considered this question while she mixed the lime into the wet black dirt.
Eileen’s hands were stained from mixing the soil. She put the tomato plants into the ground. The sun was over the horizon and the long shadows of the desert evening cast down enough shade that Eileen could sit outside and enjoy the fruits of her labor. The leaves on the vines tousled in the wind. She drank a glass of cold water and watched the garden vibrant with life. The ladybugs fluttered around the plants. The bees investigated the yellow blooms on the vines. For a moment, there was peace. The first stillness she’d felt in a while. She wasn’t so alone. There was a pulse of life in those vines, and she gave the rest of her water to the plants. She thought of the times Richard had walked in on her in the bathroom. Had she forgotten to lock the door? Twice? Maybe. It’s possible. Then why did she feel so threatened? The questions piled up in her head—crowding out her own voice. She could hardly hear herself anymore. Just the questions remained—the questions about Richard—the questions from HR—from Kay. She couldn’t answer any of them on her own. She dialed the store.
“Leslie’s Pool Supplies, how may I help you?” Richard said.
“I quit,” Eileen said.
“Well, I figured that out.” Eileen could hear him smacking down on a banana or some soft food through the phone. But he didn’t hang up. She listened to him chew for a moment.
“Do you know why I quit?” Eileen paced the length of the patio.
“Should I care?” Eileen could sense the smile on Richard’s face.
“You’re a gross human being,” Eileen said.
Richard still didn’t hang up. Eileen listened to him chew another moment.
“I reported you to HR.”
“Do you think some stuck-up dyke reporting her discomfort with men will change anything about my life?” Richard laughed. Eileen heard the hum of the register and Martha’s voice in the background talking to a customer. She hung up.
The idea that she had no control whatsoever, that’s what bothered her. She could have stayed. She didn’t have to quit. Right? Would it be different if she had stayed?
When Eileen saw the gopher hole had opened up inside her vegetable garden the next day, and her tomato plants tilted, slightly wilted, and bowed to the side, she almost lost it.
She walked out to the maintenance shed at the far end of her apartment complex and asked to speak to Arturo, the maintenance guy who had fixed her kitchen sink when they’d first moved in. They walked across the parking lot and through the complex together in silence. There was a familiarity in working this way with someone else. She stared at Arturo, who walked with an exhausted step. His head down, ready to troubleshoot the problem. This familiar sense of duty and purpose was something that she’d once found comforting, but now it only made her uneasy. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Was it Arturo that made her uncomfortable? Eileen had always worked with men, starting in landscaping and moving into cleaning and maintaining pools before applying to Leslie’s. Before Richard.
As they rounded the corner of her unit and headed towards the back of the building, Eileen wondered how she should feel about being alone with Arturo, behind the building, where no one could help her if something happened. She wondered if she’d always have these thoughts.
Arturo stopped in front of the garden. “It’s very nice. Good job,” he said. He leaned into the wilted and bowed tomato vine and pressed one of the leaves between his thumb and index fingers. “This one though.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
Eileen pointed to the gopher hole. “I have a pest.”
“Ah, yes. Well, what do you want me to do about it?” Arturo asked.
“What’s the best way to get rid of them?”
“You can poison them. That’s very effective.”
Eileen had planned on an organic, conflict-free garden. “I don’t want to put poison in my garden. Is there any other way?”
“Yes, but…” Arturo looked at Eileen as if she were a child. “If poison bothers you…”
Eileen hated that look. She’d gotten it several times before from most of the men she’d worked with over the years. It was a look that said she wasn’t tough enough to handle what the job required. Maybe she wasn’t. The last person to give her that look was Richard before she took her key holder’s exam.
“I just don’t want to kill my plants,” Eileen said. “Anything else is fine.”
Arturo responded with a simple okay. Eileen was surprised and thrown off by how little convincing he needed from her. She felt a sense of confidence for the first time in a while.
Arturo made his way around the side of the building. He came back with a coiled hose, then cast it out into the far reaches of the yard like a net. He walked over to the garden and asked, “Where is it?”
“It’s there.” Eileen pointed to the gaping hole in the side of the clay dam, what could have been the Grand Canyon inside the bed of her vegetable garden.
Arturo pushed the hose inside the hole and packed some dirt around it to hold it in place. He turned and walked back around the corner of the building. After a moment, water rushed through the hose and into the hole. Eileen was surprised by how long it took for the hole to become wet around the edges, even though it never seemed to fill up or overflow.
“Hopefully the gopher will drown.”
Arturo wiped his hands off against the front of his t-shirt, leaving dark muddy lines and water spots along his torso. They both nodded at the plan.
“It depends on how many are in the colony. You might have to call me back to do it again. They use these tunnels over and over.”
Eileen looked out at the grassless lawn, like a balding man, a few sprouts here and there, clinging to what little water and nutrients they could find. Richard. The blonde peach fuzz on his head. What little he had left. Arturo squatted down near the hole to get a closer look. The dirt he had packed around the hose to keep it in place began to move in and out. The way land breaths during an earthquake. Bits of dirt fell down the sides and into the vegetable garden. Then something pink emerged. A nose, raw and tender above two long yellow teeth.
“It’s a mole,” Arturo said. He held a smile ear to ear. Eileen felt the thrill of seeing something new for the first time. Something few have seen. They stared at the mole digging through the thick clay, trying to make its way out of the hole. The mole’s mouth opened and closed. It wanted air. Eileen and Arturo watched it wiggle almost entirely out of the hole. The mole’s rib cage swelled, its mouth agape while it rested on the mound of dirt for a moment.
Arturo laughed and looked at Eileen. Eileen smiled back. A heat climbed in her throat. She planted her foot on top of the mole and waited a beat before pressing down. The mole struggled underneath her weight. She felt it fighting. Felt the crunch of bone against bone, against fur, against dirt underneath the sole of her shoe. The slight twitch of life kicking against her. She picked up her foot and saw the mole still gasping for breath. She brought down her foot again, harder this time, sending drops of mud into the air and across Arturo’s jeans. She held her weight there, pressing the life out of the animal, for what seemed like hours but was only a few moments.
Arturo looked at Eileen in surprise. Neither of them knew she had it in her. “There you go, ma’am. Problem solved.” Arturo kicked the dam of dirt, which bordered the garden bed, to bury the mole’s body. “It’s good for the garden too,” he said, smiling.
Eileen stepped on the body again, pressing it further into the mud. The liquid rushed over her shoes and into the dry lawn. Flecks of silt floated on top of the water as it weaved its way through the dust and settled in the lowest lay of the lawn near the sparse blades of grass. Arturo went around the side of the building to turn the spigot off. He began coiling the hose in the lawn when he came back. “Anything else you need, ma’am?”
“No. I think that’s it.” She stood still but felt the pulse of her heart beating underneath her earlobes as if something was living inside of her. Some subterranean thing trying to burrow out of her body.
“Well, have fun in your garden. It’s a little late for those tomatoes. Maybe next year, huh?” Arturo waved goodbye, swung the hose over his shoulders, and left.
Eileen stared at the pile of dirt. Her stomach throbbed and the world went silent. Water sank into the ground. Bubbles rose to the surface like soda fizz. Something shifted inside of Eileen. Her sock was wet. She still felt the mole squirming beneath her even though it was long dead now. The way it pushed against her big toe. The way she pushed back. Orange light flooded the back porch as the sun sank into the horizon. The porch smelled of wet dust, of creosote in a monsoon, of thirst finally quenched. The bougainvillea petals scattered across the dusty lawn lit the yard pink. Warmth crept over Eileen’s ankles. She stood still—careful not to lose the feeling. Careful to hold on.
Eileen lifted her foot and stared at the mole. She thought about how long it takes for something to die. When does the brain grow silent? When does the body stop? When does it actually end? She watched the water pooling around the bare skin of the animal’s paws, its digits still alive and moving. She watched the animal’s head sink below the water. Death isn’t instantaneous. Just because you want something gone doesn’t pull it out of existence. It takes a moment to settle in, like turning off a halogen lamp, or powering down a generator. It takes a minute for the gears to stop turning. It takes a moment for the lights to flicker out. Eileen stood there and stared at the mole, still twitching. Its paws pulsed with electricity like it still had a chance. All it needed was someone to help.