Note: An extract from a novel
Sheila had promised a judge that if he let her out on parole she would get a decent job, stay away from Oxycontin and other Schedule II narcotics, and start making amends. This was proving harder than she had imagined. It was a recession and employers could take their pick of candidates. No one in Eastern Tennessee – and she’d applied all over – wanted to hire a 38-year-old woman with a drug problem and an armed robbery conviction. Maybe the former could have been overlooked. The latter was a no-go. This seemed slightly unfair: it had only been a Taser. Not even a real gun.
That hadn’t mattered at her sentencing and it only earned her disapproving looks when she mentioned it in interviews. ‘Weapons are weapons are weapons,’ her transition counselor had claimed, smiling patiently. Sheila had stopped trying to explain it. Dutifully, she filled out forms. Then she returned to her friend Pam’s sofa to watch her soaps, drink her gin and tonics and wait for her phone to ring.
Before jail, Sheila was pretty in a faded way. Before drugs, she was ravishing. Ravishing overlapped with the drug use for a time but petered out when Sheila graduated from snorting to shooting. Back then she didn’t particularly care how her complexion was faring, but now, looking in the mirror, she cared a lot. It would be easier to get hired for a job she had no passion for if her skin and hair looked healthier. Then, employers might assume she at least had a passion for something besides painkillers. Pam, bless her heart, claimed that Sheila was a better hire now than she was before jail.
‘People are always saying how hard it is to keep good employees. And they know you can’t leave without getting permission from your P.O.,’ Pam explained.
‘You’re right. I’m a dream candidate. And they even get a tax break.’
Finding work was important not only to the judge and her parole officer. Sheila had set it as her own benchmark, telling herself that she needed a job before she could contact her daughter, Marcie. Somehow she wanted to have something to say other than, ‘Hey honey, I’m out.’ If she were being truthful, which tended to happen between G&T three and G&T five, Sheila would admit that she was afraid that Marcie would reject her.
When Sheila was sent away, her daughter was a rebellious fifteen, with raccoon eyeliner and five or six holes in each ear. She refused to call Sheila ‘Mom’, and invited her boyfriends over at all hours, some of them closer to Sheila’s age than her own. They skulked in through the basement door with 12-packs of cheap beer. Back then, Sheila was generally so out of it that fighting with her hostile daughter seemed like too much trouble, and so she didn’t. She instead spent long hours in the bathtub avoiding Marcie and her beaux while staring at the beads of condensation on the ceiling. Last Sheila had heard, Marcie was living with an aunt on her father’s side, and not coming home very often.
There had been certain times in jail when she had fantasized that they were best friends who painted each other’s nails and talked about boys. But then on visiting day she would look around for her glowering teenage daughter and find only her newly divorced former neighbor, Pam. Pam was a Christian, so she had been willing to let Sheila stay with her once she got out. She was also lonely, so she was only too happy to spend her evenings talking about someone else’s problems.
In a county where next-door neighbors were often a five-minute drive away, Sheila was trapped. Her driver’s license had been revoked at her sentencing. The walk to her parole officer’s downtown office every other Wednesday took her seventy minutes. Once she was there, sweating in the outdated business clothes she had acquired from the Salvation Army, the meetings never took more than fifteen minutes, and always unfolded as if they were following the same script.
Don, looking harried, motioned for her to sit in a chair in front of his overflowing desk. ‘Still hunting for a job?’ he asked.
‘Any interviews since we last met?’
‘Yeah, one at Montgomery Donuts.’
‘How’d it go?’
‘Well, the guy was half my age and asked me if I’d been on death row.’
Don took off his glasses and rubbed his temples. ‘I suppose most managers don’t really know how to interview parolees.’
‘Then he asked me how many people I’d killed during the robbery.’
Don sighed and tapped his pencil. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said, “That’s not on my résumé.”’
Don looked out the window. Not a good sign. ‘So, how’d you leave it?’
‘He said they’d call if they needed me.’
‘Listen Sheila, I’ll be frank. Less than 25 percent of convicted felons are able to find full-time employment in the first few months. You’re going to have to put up with some unpleasant questions if you want to crack that statistic. We both know you can, and I have faith that you will.’
‘Yep,’ Sheila said. That was generally Don’s closing spiel. She knew what he was thinking as a postscript, which was that convicts who didn’t get hired were three times as likely to return to prison. Sheila got up to leave.
‘You should stop by the Phone World on Frazier Avenue. They have a sign in the window that says they’re hiring. I would emphasize your retail experience.’
‘That’s from when I was in high school,’ Sheila said.
‘See you in two weeks,’ Don said, already looking at the next file.
An old man in the waiting room gave Sheila a suspicious look over his walker as she trudged past. He was probably here for selling his pain medication. She wondered if she had ever bought Oxy from him, then tried not to think about it.
The midday sun was hot against Sheila’s polyester blazer. She wasn’t really in the mood for rejection, but it made more sense to go to Phone World now, while she was already downtown, than it did to drag herself back later. As always, she had printouts of her résumé and a copy of the Work Readiness Certificate she had earned from the transition center in her handbag. As she walked, Sheila repeated interview tips from the booklet they had given her.
‘I don’t just want to work here, I want to help you grow your business,’ she said quietly as she neared the store.
The ‘Help Wanted’ sign that Don had seen in the window was still there. As she went in, a bell above the door tinkled. Mounted speakers were blaring Taylor Swift. The middle-aged man at the counter had a greasy brown ponytail and one silver hoop in his ear. He looked like he’d rather be swigging bourbon, or listening to Hank Williams Jr.
‘Hello. I’m interested in applying for the position in the window.’
‘I’m sure you’d look good in the window,’ the man, whose nametag
said Gary, answered. ‘But we’re looking for a sales associate.’ He grinned.
Sheila laughed weakly. She felt coerced.
‘Do you have a résumé with you?’
‘I do.’ She pulled it out of her handbag.
‘All right then, just sit tight. I’m going to go to the stock room to get our management trainee. She’ll be interviewing you today under my supervision.’
‘Sounds good,’ Sheila said, wishing she could camouflage herself among the phones. Most of the store’s space was devoted to the complicated-looking gadgets with tiny keypads that Sheila had no idea how to operate. Most confounding was the iPhone. She’d heard of it, but she didn’t understand how one could dial it without buttons.
That same phone had caused an uproar last year in State, when a sniffer dog smelled its battery inside Wanda Jenkins’s mattress. She was put in solitary for a month, and lost all her good-time credits. Gary reappeared behind the counter, ‘We’re ready for you.’
Sheila followed him into a room with a worn couch, a small television set and a circular table with four chairs. There was a Star Trek calendar on the wall with that day’s date already X’d out. He gestured for her to sit in a metal folding chair at the table, while he sat on the sofa. ‘She’ll be here in a minute,’ he said.
Sheila heard a toilet flush, and a few seconds later, a bored-looking girl in tight jeans sauntered into the room. Sheila flinched as she recognized her daughter but forced her lips into a tentative smile.
Marcie stopped abruptly on her way to the table. They hadn’t seen each other since Marcie walked out during the first recess of Sheila’s trial, three years earlier.
‘What are you doing here?’ Marcie mouthed, while her manager’s head was turned.
Gary hadn’t noticed anything amiss. ‘Here’s her résumé,’ he said, thrusting it at Marcie, before she took her seat.
‘Thank you,’ Marcie said slowly. Despite her initial shock, she now sounded composed. Sheila noted with some pleasure that her daughter had given up caking make-up over her sweet freckles. She was proud of Marcie’s calmness, but also slightly unnerved by it.
‘Thanks for coming in,’ Marcie said, not looking at Sheila but scanning her résumé with raised eyebrows.
‘Hello,’ Sheila said softly.
‘Could you tell us a little about yourself?’ Marcie began, in what sounded to Sheila like the most apathetic tone she could muster. Gary nodded approvingly.
‘Sure. I’m a … ‘ Sheila’s mind went blank. The monologue she had practiced about how she was a hard worker, who was good with people and very organized, hardly seemed appropriate now. ‘I’m a … mother.’
‘That’s interesting,’ Marcie said.
Sheila started again. ‘I’m a mother who has made many mistakes, but I am looking to change my life and start over, to get my life back on track.’
‘And how do you think a job at Phone World will help you accomplish that?’
‘Well, I think staying in touch is important. A phone isn’t just an appliance. It’s a connection.’ Immediately she felt her answer was too much or maybe too little.
‘Only if you use it,’ Marcie said. ‘We make most of our money on the calling plans, not the phones.’
‘I see from your application that you’ve been convicted of a crime. Can you explain that?’
‘I’m glad you asked because I want you to feel comfortable … hiring me. It’s embarrassing for me to talk about, but I had a substance abuse problem. It affected those that I love most, but did not interfere with my previous jobs.’
‘I see. What was your last job, and what was your wage at that job?’
‘Sewing uniforms for twenty cents an hour.’
‘And your reason for leaving?’ Marcie asked.
‘I got paroled,’ Sheila said.
‘What would you do if there were a conflict between you and a supervisor?’
‘I would do my best to listen to the supervisor’s criticisms, apologize, and then do everything in my power to correct the situation.’ She looked imploringly at her daughter, who looked away.
‘Thank you for coming in,’ said Gary. ‘We’re glad we had a chance to talk to you. We’ll be giving this some thought and will get back to you in a couple of days.’
‘No,’ Marcie said, to Gary’s surprise. ‘I think we can give you an answer now.’
Sheila leaned forward.
‘I’m sorry, but I just don’t see a place for you here.’
The room was silent except for the ticking of the clock and the muffled country ballad emanating from the showroom. Sheila’s mind scrambled for something to say. Should she apologize for not calling? Or for being a bad mother? But instead, she stood up, shook Gary’s hand and then her daughter’s, and said, ‘I appreciate your time and your candor. I’ll show myself to the door.’