The Bystander


So I’m temping in the accounting department of this software company in Munsee, Connecticut, which is an okay little town; but not fancy like you’d expect from Connecticut. I mean, on a sunny day the houses and shopping centers look fine, especially if the trees are in bloom. But when it rains, the concrete downtown gets dark and drippy, and the bagel shop smells like mildew.


Anyway, this place. It feels a Bruce Springsteen song except instead of a factory, there’s an office park. I grew up two towns over, and I still see people I know from high school. They’re total booze hounds, but there’s this one guy who moved to San Francisco. His name is Parker, and he’s got sandy blond surfer hair, and whenever he comes back to visit, he stands apart from everyone at the bar looking all expanded and calm, not shrunk in on himself and miserable like everyone else. The way he acts makes me think California is the place to be. All I know is I have to go somewhere. I can’t stick around here to work my way up from data entry temp to permanent administrative assistant. That’s no life. I don’t want to copy Parker, so I’m not going to San Francisco. My plan is I’m going to Los Angeles to get a job in the film business or maybe I’ll be a music executive. Something exciting right? I have to save money though, so I’ve got like three jobs. Waitressing at one restaurant, hostessing at another and then this temp gig.


So the software company I’m working at is totally sterile and corporate. It’s a ten-minute walk across the parking lot, and there’s plastic ferns in elevator lobbies and grey cubicles. My department is filled with these accounts payable lady types. Like they wear panty hose and low pumps, and they’re all coming out the tail end of middle age, and it’s kind of sad when you think they still have a decade until retirement. The woman in the cubicle next to me, her hair is platinum and all crisscrossed and poufy on top like an upside-down basket. She has a picture on her desk of a kitten looking in the mirror and seeing a lion reflected back.


Anyway, the lady who does the billing. Her name is Ginny. She has feathered hair, and I compliment her on her purple shirt. It’s a dressed up cotton t-shirt, with side darts and a lacy neckline. Ginny says, “Guess how much I paid for it?” And then she doesn’t wait for me to answer. She shoves her hand out wide and says, “Five dollars!” Then we get into a big conversation about how cheap clothes have gotten.


So one day this Vice President comes down from two floors above. Now the guy is a real shit. He fired a woman before I started working there. The woman’s son was dying of a genetic disease called Adrenoleukodystrophy, and he told her, “You make your coworkers uncomfortable when you talk about it.” Now I don’t know if she had cause to sue or anything. It never got to that because her husband called him up and said he was going to beat the crap out of him. This Vice President then got a restraining order and sued the couple for emotional distress. I swear. Sometimes there’s no justice.


Anyway, this Vice President. He has a thick head of grey hair and wears a bushy mustache, and the software they make at this company, it’s business-to-business, right? It’s totally boring too. They sell invoicing and tracking systems for medical device companies. But the monthly billing is super complicated, because there’s like, a million different types of software packages the clients can pick from, and Ginny has a pretty big job keeping track of which bundles of programs get billed to which customers.


Sometimes there’s even pieces of code from a whole other company. Like, there’s stuff that we sell but didn’t invent. The usual deal then is that the company I’m temping at has to pay royalties on that extra code. It’s all worked out in the contracts. Every month the customer who buys our software gets an invoice with a line item that reads something like, “Microsoft Royalty: $0.00.” The long and short of it is the customer doesn’t pay the royalty. The company I work at pays it.  


But this Vice President. He comes down and tells Ginny, the billing lady, to start charging the customers for the royalties they’re not supposed to be paying. See if they notice. He’s betting they’ll just pay up without checking the bill. He tells her if anyone complains, she should say it was a clerical error and apologize for the inconvenience.


All this is happening two cubicles down from me. And I can’t see Ginny, but I can see the top of the Vice President’s head, and I can’t believe he is saying this stuff out in the open, like he doesn’t even care if the rest of us hear it. I can tell he’s practically standing on top of her, daring her to object. And Ginny, she’s silent for a long time before she says in a low voice, “Okay.”


I know she doesn’t want to do it, because holy crap, it’s so dishonest. I mean, I’ve known the difference between right and wrong since I was like five, and this is just so wrong. But I know Ginny’s going to go ahead with it because she probably thinks she has a good job, and the office is close to her house and everything. I stand up and look over at the blond basket-hair lady’s cubicle, but she pretends she doesn’t notice me.


I can tell that no one is going to do the right thing here. And I’m starting to get really mad on behalf of those customers. Like, this situation isn’t going to fix itself, and I get all up on my high horse and think over and over again: It’s not right. I can’t let it happen.


I have access to the customer database because I do the data entry. My job is to put in when companies pay us. Almost everything is still done by paper check at this point, so there is enough to make it a full time job for me, what with opening all the envelopes, and I’m super detail oriented too, so the ladies give me more to do than they gave the last temp. I make $339 a week after taxes. Between this and my two other jobs, I’m trying to save $5,000 so I can have some breathing room in case I don’t get a job right away in L.A. I think I’ll be a producer or something independent, so I won’t ever have to put up with some asshole Vice President giving me orders that are totally illegal.


I think about getting into the database and printing out address labels for all the companies that are about to get ripped off. Like I can do a mailing and tell them not only are they being overcharged, but it’s on purpose. But then I realize that everything I do in the database is logged, and if I try anything like that, they’ll know it was me in about two seconds.


I’ve got $3,680 saved at this point, and when I calculate my rent, groceries, and car payments, I think I can get to $5,000 in two months. So I decide I’m gonna wait until right before I leave Connecticut. That’s when I’ll expose them. With a big kiss off.


So on weekends I waitress at a country club. Ty, one of the other waiters, has a crush on me. Or he just wants to have sex with me. It’s hard to tell which. He shaves his head and has a ton of tattoos. I’m not into in him of course because I’m going to California, but he’s fun to drink with. I tell him about my plan to be a whistle-blower, and he says I should mind my own business and starts calling me white lady, which is ridiculous because he’s white too even though he tries to act like he’s not.  


Anyway, the other restaurant where I work nights, they have no idea I’m leaving as soon as I put together my $5,000. The owner would never have hired me if he’d known. It’s a new restaurant and pretty empty most nights. They serve things like halibut with mango salsa, which I know about because I watch the Food Network, but people around here don’t eat like that.


I never have a day off by the way, and most of the time I’m doing a double shift. I can tell it’s getting to me, how hard I’m working, because when I’m at the Laundromat or checking to see if the leftovers in my fridge are still edible, I’m slamming doors and saying, “Goddammit,” a lot more than normal.


Needless to say I’m totally relieved when I get to $5,000 in savings. I sell my car for $1,800, and I wish that money could go on top of the cash I’m putting together, but I’ll have to buy another car as soon as I get to L.A., so it’s a wash. I find a room on craigslist and hold my breath as I book my flight to L.A. I can’t believe I’m actually doing it.


So on my second to last day at the software company, the accounting ladies surprise me in the small conference room with a going away party. They’re super sweet, I realize, and they’re even hip to the fact that cupcakes are a thing now. I feel bad that I’ve been secretly making fun of them the whole time. Ginny tells me to be safe, says the west coast is full of weirdo’s.


Anyway, the next day, right before I leave that temp job forever, I log out of the database and am about to turn off my computer when I remember what I’d been fuming about a few weeks before. How I was all up in arms about that jerk of a Vice President ripping off his customers. How I’d planned to do something about it.


But I already called for my taxi, and people are saying have a nice weekend to each other, and it’s not like I actually decide not to do anything. I just start thinking about Ginny and how she’ll probably be the one to end up in jail for fraud, not the Vice President, because I have an inkling of how this stuff works now.


So anyway, I get major butterflies when I board the plane to L.A. I’ve flown before, but this is like six hours. I have a window seat, and the scenery below me is all tree tops and baseball diamonds until it spreads out to these huge tracts of open land. And I’m noticing all the other passengers too. I look up whenever anyone comes down the aisle, and after a while it feels like I know everybody. Like, we all live on the plane now, and they’re the townspeople I see when I’m out and about, and their faces are comforting and familiar even though I don’t know any of their names.


And there’s this kid behind me. He’s in the middle seat. I can tell by the cute pitch of his voice, he’s around three or four years old. He keeps asking his dad, “Where are we going?”


The dad is in the window seat, and he keeps answering, “Be quiet!” He says it harsh and urgent, like he really wants to shut the boy up.


Then the kid asks, “Where’s my mom?”


“Quiet!” says the man.


And none of this is feeling right to me. The man’s voice shoots through me, and I start to wonder, why does this little kid not know where his mom is? Is this guy the dad or what?


I get up to go to the bathroom and check them out. The bridge of the little boy’s nose is still cushioned in baby fat, and he’s opening and shutting his mouth like he’s blowing dry spit bubbles. The man’s hair is close cropped. His face is hard and clenched. He sits up straight and stares at the back of my empty seat.


I make my way to the back, and the flight attendant, she’s really busy. They’re about to start the drink service, and I don’t even know what to say about what’s happening in the row behind me. I remember how Ty told me I should mind my own business, and I go into the bathroom and pee, and when I come out, she and the other stewardess have already rolled the cart to the front of the plane.


On my way back to my seat, I stop at the end of their row. The man makes a quick move like he’s hiding something. Like, his hands are suddenly folded in his lap, but I’m pretty sure a second before they weren’t. The boy seems frozen. His eyes are on his knees, and his fingers are tucked under his armpits, and the corners of his mouth are turned down like a stick figure frowny face.


And I feel this haze around me all of a sudden. Like, there’s these little gnat sized fireworks whistling spirals in my field of vision, and I hear myself saying, “What? What?”


The boy turns to me. His expression is hooded and hurt looking, and I swear he’s about to ask me question. The man then kind of totem poles his face above the kid, resting his chin on the top of the boy’s head. He smiles at me. It’s a diseased looking smile. He leads with his upper lip, and his eyes are really small. He asks the kid in a fake singsong if he wants apple or orange juice when the stewardess comes.


And all the pieces of me come together. Like, my whole self solidifies into this certainty, and it’s only now that I get what it means to be sure of something. And I know that something terrible is happening. Something terrible is happening to this child.


I hear a cough. The woman from the aisle seat in my row is standing next to me. The guy from the middle seat is standing next to her. There is time, I think. We still have a few hours left on this flight.  


I order two bottles of gin and a can of tonic when the stewardess gets to me and crane my head around to watch as she serves the man and kid. I want her to get a funny look on her face. I want to see her get suspicious too, that way I won’t have to worry about coming across like a crazy person when I go and talk to her.


The guy asks for a Heineken and an apple juice, no ice, and says to the kid, “What do you say?”


“Thank you,” says the boy.


The stewardess says, “You’re welcome,” all friendly and cheery, and it’s so normal and innocent, this exchange between them all. It gives me this sliver of reassurance I didn’t even know I was looking for.


I finish my drink, and it’s totally silent behind me. I get this little wave of euphoria from the booze, and I think how weird it is that I can feel so good when something so terrible might be happening so close to where I’m sitting.


After about forty-five minutes the boy asks again, “Where are we going?” And I can feel myself getting pissed off all of a sudden. But not at the guy. At the little boy. I don’t even know why, but he’s getting on my nerves, and it’s like, I feel compelled to do something. I want to say, “Shut up.”


But of course I would never say that to a little kid. That’s not me.


Instead I put my earbuds in. The Beach Boys is first up on my playlist because of where I’m moving and all, and I have this thought that if I’d been wearing headphones the whole time, I would never have heard that kid asking about his mom in the first place. I start thinking about California things like hiking and VIP rooms and wonder if I should taking surfing lessons just in case it ever comes up.


Anyway, before you know it, the plane is landing, and there’s no sign telling us which baggage carousel to go to. I go to the help desk, and they’re like, “It’ll be on the screen,” and it takes twenty minutes for that to happen and another twenty before I see my suitcase.




So I live in California now, that’s the important part. I work in commercial real estate, which is totally cutthroat by the way. I figured how to navigate that stuff though. I tell all my clients and colleagues the same thing, and I say it with a smile, but with a little edge to my voice so people know it’s a warning.


“I’m a triple checker,” I tell them. “I put my eyes on every bill and every version of every contract, and I always catch when something is snuck in, and whatever dishonest creep I complain to always says sorry.”


Sorry for the inconvenience.


And if that isn’t the most twenty-first century bullshit excuse for bad behavior. I swear. It’s like you can’t ever trust people to do the right thing. Like everybody’s a criminal, and I get paralyzed just thinking about it. Sometimes it actually makes me itch all over but underneath my skin where my nails can’t reach, and I grab my phone like I’m gonna call 911 or the FBI, even though I have no idea what I’d say if I got through.


So anyway. Anyway.


I try not to worry about this stuff most of the time. I mean, it’s better not to, and deep down, I know I’m super lucky. My office is close enough to the beach so that I can go to yoga class on the bluffs before happy hour. It’s awesome in the winter especially because of the early sunsets, and when the sky turns all pink, and the palm trees turn into silhouettes, I swear. It feels like I’m in the middle of something classic. Something bigger than myself.


Anyway, it’s beautiful out here in California.