Ladies, Look Alive
BY SHAYNE TERRY
Most of us took the news okay. Holly, who’s a crier, ran to the bathroom and missed the
part where they told us what we actually needed to know: the acquisition would be final on the first of the month, we’d be issued new uniforms at no cost, and our lunch hour would be split into shorter breaks with assigned times to maximize desk coverage. We would no longer be Finexpro Services, Inc. Now we would be Profinserv, period.
“Maybe I’ll go somewhere else,” Bev said, but she’s my age and we both knew we weren’t about to find other work.
“It could be worse,” Lou said. She didn’t say anything else, so we all imagined things that were worse.
“What I want to know is will our new color be better than this?” Leyna plucked at her salmon polo. Those shirts weren’t doing favors for anyone.
We had our reasons for staying. Bev’s grandkids live with her, same as me. As she says, “Kids eat money.” Holly’s has developmental delays. He’s six and he won’t talk, so she sells vitamin powders on the side to pay for speech therapy.
Lou seems to need the routine. She uses the same cracked ceramic coffee mug every day, even though there are better ones in the break room. She counts customers on a beaded bracelet like a rosary. It has twenty beads, and when she gets to twenty customers, she starts over at the first bead.
“Addict,” Bev said when Lou first started. “Former, maybe. But that’s addict behavior.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought about my daughter, whether it was stability she craved.
Why did Leyna stay? She was young with straight white teeth and soft hands. She could have been a leasing agent at a nice apartment complex and earned commission. She could have been a teller at a real bank.
“You could be a teller at a real bank,” Vern said when I wondered about it in bed one night.
I found his belly under the covers and gave it a pat. “You’re sweet.”
The new uniform was a big improvement. The lime green shirt looked best on Leyna and completely washed Holly out, but the khakis were Scotchgarded. You could pour a Pepsi in your lap and it would roll right off, brown beads of sugar.
The District Head of Customer Experience conducted his first drop-in on a Thursday. “This is my style,” he said, meaning surprise visits. “Keep the lines moving, and you have nothing to worry about.”
I could tell his two front teeth were capped. Vern has a capped tooth and you can just tell. Our granddaughter once called it his tooth’s hat, and now it’s our private joke.
The DHCE stopped in front of Lou’s desk. “You cut your hair.”
Lou touched the back of her neck where the hair was buzzed. “No?”
“Since your employee photo.” The DHCE pointed to the plastic badge dangling between Lou’s breasts, a faded photo of Lou taken when she was barely out of high school, below it her full name: LOUISA. Before Lou could say anything, he shrugged and went back to outlining the new reporting structure. Our manager, Regina, had been let go. We would roll up into him.
The DHCE handed out pins that said, “The fast casual of wealth management!” and told Leyna that she looked nice in the lime green shirt.
“How’s it feel to have all that smoke up your tush?” Bev said when he stepped outside to take a call.
“I think he’s cute,” Leyna said.
Leyna was born the same year as my daughter, although she’s lived easier and looks
younger. My daughter was a fearful child who grew into an angry teen and dated guys who were bad news. Our pastor said she had the devil in her, that he and the church elders would need to lay hands. Not long after that, she disappeared for good.
She left behind a little girl. I check out books from the library for Vern to read to our granddaughter while I’m at work. When we go out for pizza, I let her pick out the toppings, and I’m always home to say goodnight. My daughter had night terrors, but my granddaughter’s sleep is silent and still.
Leyna started as a part-timer and took college classes at night. Now she has her Associate’s degree and her own apartment, and she’s nine-to-six like the rest of us. All grown up.
We went electronic.
“Right this moment,” the DHCE said, “IT is installing our proprietary chat client on your computers to encourage knowledge sharing and communication between the branches.”
“Right this moment?” Bev looked at our row of desks in mock suspicion.
“Via a remote connection.” Regina would have bantered with Bev, but the DHCE barely looked at her. “Chat can be used to ask questions and to observe the best practices of the other branches in the district.”
We were required to deposit our wire mesh desk organizers in a plastic bin and they were
taken away. “They will be replaced by something even better,” the DHCE told us. “Electronic inboxes save paper and mitigate the risk of loss.”
“We know what email is,” Bev said.
The DHCE stationed himself in the lobby and observed us taking customers, our practical exam on the new Steps of Service. Leyna and Lou passed on the first try, Holly on the second. The sudden switch was more difficult for Bev and me. We had spent years of our lives remembering to:
1. Smile warmly
2. Offer a friendly greeting
3. Ask questions to ensure understanding
4. Suggest a win-win solution and
5. Invite the customer to come back soon.
Now we had to:
1. Offer a friendly greeting
2. Smile warmly
3. Ask a minimal number of questions
4. Suggest a solution from our suite of alternative financial services products and
5. Take the next customer promptly.
I kept smiling before saying hello and accidentally inviting people back.
The problem was that customers continued to bring in paper documents that needed to be scanned and filed, but the new Steps of Service did not allow for leaving one’s desk between customers. Without our desk organizers, the documents piled up. We did our scanning and shredding after our shifts or during lulls, but there weren’t many lulls due to our new lower promotional fees.
The disarray on our desks led to things getting sloppier over time. I saw two customers discard the wrappers from their mints on the floor instead of in the trash can. It didn’t help that new management consolidated from three trash cans to one in order to find efficiencies for the nightly cleaning crew. It didn’t help that the nightly cleaning crew became the weekly cleaning crew.
“Ladies,” the DHCE took to calling us. “Mind the queue, ladies,” and “Ladies, look alive!”
“He has a nice voice,” Leyna said.
“But there could be a man among us,” Bev said. “There isn’t, right this moment, but it’s not like this is women’s work. We’re not a bunch of travel agents.”
“My mom is a travel agent,” Holly said.
“That’s what I mean.”
Bev was the first to notice. She sent me and Holly a three-way message on the new chat client.
Beverly B.: Leyna and I were supposed to be second lunch, but she disappeared. Same thing happened last time the DHCE was in town.
She raised a penciled eyebrow and took her next customer.
Holly O.: Do you think she’s in trouble?
Bev shook her head.
Beverly B.: I’m not going to say what I think, but the DHCE stays at the Holiday Inn on I-90. Draw your own conclusions.
That afternoon, the DHCE emerged from the back office with a clipboard and a pen. When Leyna finished with her customer, he put up his hand to stay the next person in line and approached her desk. She swung her chair around toward him as he leaned in to show her something on the clipboard. She nodded and laughed and looked up at him like she was in the front row of a rock concert.
Bev’s eyebrows shot up as high as I’ve seen them, but she kept her eyes on her monitor.
The DHCE straightened up and cleared his throat, gesturing for the next customer to step forward. “Keep up the great work, ladies!”
“What would a pretty young girl like Leyna want with someone so smarmy?” I said to Vern over custard at Culver’s. “He’s got hats on his teeth and long spider fingers.”
“Grandpa’s teeth have hats,” our granddaughter said, her mouth ringed with hot fudge.
“Yeah, my teeth have hats,” Vern said, feigning offense.
“But you have nice hands. It’s the whole picture.”
Vern covered our granddaughter’s ears and grinned. “How about I nice hands you later?”
Our granddaughter stuck her spoon in his custard and said, “I can still hear you, Grandpa.”
Leyna began wearing gold shimmer on her eyelids and under the roundness of her cheeks. She got her nails done twice a week. Her hair was a commercial for Pantene Pro-V.
“Extensions,” Bev said. “And who do you think she got them for?”
Beverly B.: Where does she get the money? I bet her parents pay her rent.
But we had other things to think about. Lou lost an entire file, sixty-seven pages that never made it to the electronic filing system.
Beverly B.: Not one page. The whole thing, gone
Holly O.: What’s going to happen?
Beverly B.: I heard the DHCE calling the VPCE. Let’s hope she’s actually praying over those beads.
Lou didn’t touch her lunch for three days. I found her sitting in the break room, staring at the table. If it had been Holly, I would have known what to say. “You’ll get through this. Surely they won’t fire such a steadfast employee.” But Lou never talked to any of us much, and she brought a nervous energy to the floor.
On his next visit, the DHCE took her to the back office. He didn’t fire her, but he did take away her desk and her chair. Her new job was to stand at the door and fulfill the first two Steps of Service for all of us. Lou counted customers on her beaded bracelet and the rest of us skipped right by offering a friendly greeting and smiling warmly, which actually saved us a lot of time.
After the file incident, the DHCE began working from our branch three days a week and would frequently emerge from his office to linger behind our screens. He mostly focused on Holly, who had received the lowest Personal Net Promoter Score in the first half of July. PNPS was a new management thing. We used to report on customer satisfaction at the district level, but the DHCE said he wanted to drill down.
Bev was right. On days when the DHCE was around, just before second lunch, Leyna disappeared.
Beverly B.: And do you see him during that time?
I was hesitant to answer her, even in our private chat, which she had renamed MOMS, but the evidence was worrisome.
Beverly B.: And don’t you find it strange that she has the highest PNPS when she’s only been here three years? Higher than any of us?
Holly O.: Customers like her because she’s pretty.
Holly O.: I’d give her a 10.
“Do you think Leyna really wants it?” I asked Vern over Subway footlongs.
Our granddaughter spit a macadamia nut from her cookie into a napkin.
“Your mother used to do that with raisins,” Vern said to her.
“My mother is dead.”
This is a thing our granddaughter’s been saying lately.
“That’s not true.” Vern picked up the sucked-clean macadamia and ate it. “Your mother will be back.”
Vern believes this like he believes in God.
I tried to explain why Leyna and the DHCE bugged me. “I hate to see someone so young get all tangled up.”
I thought about our daughter’s ex, how once, when they were fighting, he left a message on our machine that began, “I’m calling to tell you all the dirty things your daughter does.” I erased it halfway through.
“It’s impossible to know what goes on between two people,” Vern said.
The DHCE emailed weekly with an update on our quarterly goal progress and a breakdown of how each of us had contributed. We were a pie chart. Bev was always the largest piece of pie, then Holly, her name in red letters due to her low Personal Net Promoter Score. I was the slice someone cuts when you say you just want a small piece but they don’t believe you. Leyna was after me, and then Lou was the tiniest sliver due to the cases she took before she was put on door duty, and due to the cases she lost.
Our old manager would have found some small way to celebrate the top performer, a gift card or a box of donuts, but the DHCE did nothing special for Bev, not even an announcement in the district-wide chat.
Meanwhile, Leyna started coming back from lunch late and taking longer afternoon breaks, even on days the DHCE was at other branches.
Beverly B.: It’s not right. He’s her direct superior. She’s getting away with this because she YOU KNOW.
Holly O.: How can you be sure?
Beverly B.: Come on, Holly. We all know. She’s got the look.
“What look?” asked Vern.
“You know, the look. The look of a satisfied woman.” This was how Bev put it, but it sounded silly coming out of my mouth.
“Are you a satisfied woman?” he asked me, which had us both laughing until we fell asleep.
Leyna missed a day of work but her PTO balance didn’t change.
The DHCE had installed a computer monitor on the wall of the break room that displayed our PTO in two columns: Taken and Remaining. Bev and I had each started out the year with twelve days—“At least seniority still counts for something around here,” she said—and everyone else got ten. By August, Holly was out. Her kid gets sick a lot.
I had eight days left. I emailed the DHCE and asked if I could give three to Holly.
On his next visit, the DHCE called me into the back office.
“I recognize that your gesture is well-intentioned,” he said.
I took the chair across from his desk. As soon as I sat, he stood.
“But we need to consider fairness. Would it be fair to the others for Holly to receive additional compensation without performing additional work?”
I studied the DHCE for signs of the look, but Bev said later that men don’t get a look.
“You do understand that PTO is one component of your compensation package?”
“I have three days I don’t need.”
He took his time sitting down again and folded his hands on the desk to signal that they were tied. “Use them or lose them.”
Beverly B.: So he would agree
Beverly B.: that Leyna’s getting paid
Beverly B.: for work she didn’t do?
Beverly B.: Why didn’t you ask about Leyna?
Leyna was chosen to star in our local advertising. Men with cameras came as we were closing up, and she and the DHCE stayed late for the photo shoot.
“Advertising my ass,” Bev said, but sure enough, a billboard went up on Route 251. Leyna’s wide smile, her long dark hair against her lime green shirt. On the billboard, she is holding her hand out to the side as if she is a restaurant server with a tray. Above her hand, the billboard says, “You don’t have to be wealthy for wealth management!”
The DHCE was pleased. “Next, we’ll shoot the TV commercials.”
Bev confronted Leyna, in her way.
“Don’t you look done up,” Bev said as we deposited our phones in the metal lockers in the break room. “Are those new?” Bev pointed with her eyes at Leyna’s earrings, dangly golden suns.
Leyna brought two electric blue fingertips to her ear. “They were a gift.”
“You can always tell when a man picks out jewelry.” Bev clipped her locker key to her lanyard. “They just don’t understand subtlety, do they?” As she headed to the floor, she did a perfect impression of the DHCE. “Big smiles, ladies!”
New management rolled out another policy.
“Often, happy customers complain just to see what they can get,” the DHCE explained. “Starting today, the customer must clearly state the complaint three times before you may offer monetary restitution.”
“Like a refund?” Holly said.
“Like a refund. Those who are just testing the waters will give up, allowing us to better assist those with true complaints.”
That was the day we started teaching customers to be meaner, to be harder, to be cruel.
On the Wednesday before Labor Day, I had my afternoon break with Leyna. She usually spent her break on the phone in her car, but it was sunny and not too hot and she parked herself on the curb. My knees screamed as I lowered myself to sit beside her.
I unwrapped a granola bar and offered her half. I thought she would say no, but she took it. Her nails were red and blue with tiny white stars.
“You and the DHCE,” I said. “Are you?”
Leyna studied the granola bar and took a bite. She chewed and looked out at the cars. Her red Volkswagen, recently washed. Bev’s white Honda, spotted with rust. When the DHCE was in town, he drove luxury rentals and parked them all the way in the back of the parking lot, away from the other cars.
“He has a wife,” I said. “And kids.” Immediately, I wished I hadn’t said it. I could picture my daughter’s face going blank. I tried again. “I’m sure he says he loves you.”
“You wouldn’t get it.”
Always what my daughter said. You don’t understand. You are not me and I am not you. “Did he promise to leave them? Move here, be with you?”
She finished her half of the granola bar and stood, dusting off her fingers over the asphalt. “Maybe that’s not what I want.”
My daughter wanted a Polly Pocket Magical Mansion, the one with the real working fountain. She wanted every tabloid at the cash register. She wanted to go to the movies. She wanted gummy bears and Junior Mints, to put her feet up on the chair in front of her, to get there early enough for the previews and stay through the credits. She wanted CDs from infomercials and pens with gel ink that cost a dollar apiece. She wanted a computer and a cell phone. My daughter didn’t want to wear garage sale clothes, even if they were name brand, even if they still had the tags. She ducked when we pulled into the recycling center. She said the food I cooked was greasy.
One day, my daughter came home from school and said, “Our house smells.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Like garbage,” she said.
“You can’t tell her different if she’s made up her mind,” Vern said when I told him about Leyna.
I stood in the bathroom doorway while he did bathtime.
“Eyes closed.” He filled up a yellow plastic pail and poured it over our granddaughter’s head. “You know how it is. She’s got to figure it out for herself.”
“For herself!” Our granddaughter splashed so hard that drops of water hit my khakis and rolled down. When our granddaughter shouts, she looks just like her mother.
“What if she never figures it out?” I said.
Vern put down the pail and looked at me. We both knew I wasn’t talking about Leyna anymore. “She will,” he said.
I had confirmation. I could have told the others. Thursday and Friday were slow and Leyna took a long lunch in her car by herself. But I knew what Bev would say.
The day after a holiday is always busy, and this particular day after a holiday, new management decided to run a back-to-school promotion. We got slammed. The DHCE arrived just before first lunch and the line was out the door. He told Lou to wait until the rush died down to take her break.
“But it’s going to be like this all day,” she said.
“Man the door for another hour or two and we’ll see how the lines are.”
The DHCE decided the rest of us would take our lunches one at a time because we needed hands on the floor. Normally, Bev would have complained over chat, but we were all too busy.
At two, Lou was finally excused to eat and the DHCE himself stood at the door in her place, smiling and saying hello with too much force.
“Hello! Welcome! Beautiful day!” It was hot. The armpits of his dress shirt were two damp moons that danced around as he swung his arms.
The disturbance of our lunch breaks had caused a backup and now we tried to make time by rushing customers. It’s not something any of us likes to do, but sometimes you do it for the team, and for the other customers. You sacrifice the one before your eyes, the one who is already annoyed, for the idea of a better future one, one who can have a smooth experience from the start. Bev said later that it takes years of practice to rush a customer well and Leyna lacked the confidence.
We all know the sound of a customer losing it. They say they don’t have all day or ask if you were born yesterday. Bev is always quick with a comeback. One time she said, “Yes, I was born yesterday. Goo goo gaga.” She made a sucking noise like nursing a pacifier. Lucky for her, that customer decided to find her funny.
This customer was a man in a bright orange jacket who was not laughing. He leaned on Leyna’s desk with both hands. “What, my business isn’t valuable to you?”
It must not have been the third complaint because Leyna said, “Sir, our policy—” as the man in the orange jacket threw his hands in the air and spun around, cutting a circle so wide that the customers in line behind him had to shuffle backward.
“That’s right,” he shouted. “You call me ‘Sir.’”
The DHCE, with his capped-tooth smile, left his post at the door and approached the man. “What seems to be the problem?”
The man in the orange jacket did not want to talk to the DHCE. He put his hands back on Leyna’s desk. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ve seen you before.”
“Perhaps you’ve seen our billboard,” Leyna said, keeping her voice low and slow like we were taught in our deescalation training.
“No. No, I’ve seen you.” The man in the orange jacket stood back. His shoulders relaxed, and he smiled. “But I thought when I paid for sorority girls, I got real sorority girls.”
That’s when the DHCE punched the customer. Hit him from the side in a flash of orange.
Real violence never looks like the movies. Real violence is sloppy and awkward, like real sex, like having a real baby. Leyna leapt up and back as the man in the orange jacket stumbled forward and his face hit her desk. She glared at the DHCE and screamed, “I was handling it, Dave!”
The DHCE looked stunned. By his rage, by hers. Leyna took off for the bathroom.
The line broke up and customers hustled out to the parking lot, taking photos and dialing numbers from a distance.
Holly helped the man in the orange jacket to a chair and applied a salve from the first aid kit.
“I’m going to sue the shit out of you,” he said, but he didn’t mean it. He sounded as tired as the rest of us.
The DHCE put his hands up to show that they would do no more harm and made his dazed way out to the parking lot. He got in his rental car and drove away.
“How much you want to bet that’s the last time we see him?” Bev said.
I headed for the bathroom, where I imagined that I would find Leyna blotting her eyes with toilet paper. I wouldn’t say, “I told you so” or “There’s no saving that mascara.” I would tear off a paper towel and dampen it under the tap, hold it out to her like an offering. She wouldn’t say, “I can do it myself.” She would let me put my arms around her. She would cry into my shoulder and I would tell her what I should have told my daughter: “You’re too good for him.”
I pushed open the bathroom door. Leyna and Lou stood before the sink. Lou held Leyna’s face in her hands and wiped the tears from Leyna’s cheeks with both her thumbs. They must have heard me come in, but neither looked at me.
Lou touched her forehead to Leyna’s forehead and said, “Listen to me.”
Leyna sniffed and Lou said, “Look at me.”
Leyna looked into Lou’s eyes and Lou said, “There will be other commercials. We’ll find you a better commercial.”
I didn’t understand. I never understand.