A Telling Silence

By Tom Ipri

Brian Featherstone walked down Spruce Street—smart phone in one hand with its ear buds snuggling in his ears, its microphone dangling just below his chin, vape in his other hand—ignorant of the existence of other pedestrians in whose way he was getting. Some gave him an Evil Eye while others muttered things to themselves with a subconscious hope that he would hear them and change his behavior. A subset of those also uttered insults which revealed their bias against men with man buns.

But he was going where he was going—home in this case—and talking with Melissa Baer, his female friend of a few years with whom he hoped to become more than just friends. Melissa complained about her job, one that Brian had some exceedingly tangential influence in her getting. As was his way, he was plenty willing to support the fiction that his influence was more important than it actually was.

“I’ve been working at this place for over two years,” she said. “And I’ve only gotten a couple of cost of living increases, and those were cost of living increases in name only. They barely scratched the surface of what it takes to live here anymore.” Born and raised in Philadelphia, she had moved into Center City for her job just as urban life there exploded in popularity.

“What you should do,” Brian suggested pausing to suck in some atomized Caramel Cheesecake e-liquid, “is march into Mitchelson’s office and tell him that he either give you a raise or you will quit.”

Brian, of course, could not see the face she made. Melissa had not called him to ask for his advice, merely to complain, to give voice to her current displeasure. She realized she was lucky to have gotten such a job right out of college and knew she had to weather some growing pains. Even though she worked hard, often putting in more hours than she had thought she would be working—taking a serious divot out of her already compromised social life—she also understood that two years was not really that long to have worked anywhere. Her complaint stemmed more from the fact that she needed and wanted more money than that she felt entitled to a raise.

“No,” she said. “I’m not sure that’s necessary.”

Brian wasn’t having any of her hesitance. He saw this as an Opportunity to offer Sage and Profitable advice. This was his chance to improve her life in such a way that she would see him as an invaluable part of her future. What Brian didn’t know—although he probably should have known—was that Melissa was so not interested in him as anything other than a friend and professional colleague. He was so distant from being of romantic interest to her that there really was not anything he could do to persuade her otherwise. He could raise her grandmother from the dead and not get to first base.

She had explicitly told him such one night when they lingered at a bar after their other friends had gone home. He had taken her decision to stay behind as a Sign of her interest when, in fact, it was nothing more than a Sign that she wanted another drink. At first, she had not even realized that he also remained.

That night, Brian wasted no time in invading her personal space, touching her arm with increasing—and increasingly drunken—frequency before caressing her knee which prompted her to be clear in her position regarding any possibly romantic future between them. He backed off at her request—which he took to be a move she would list in his pro column, being, as he had seen himself, a Gentleman—and figured she just needed some time before coming around to recognizing what a good couple they could be.

“You deserve a raise,” Brian said almost walking into a young woman pushing a stroller. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to tell Mitchelson that. You’re good at what you do. He’s not going to let a good person walk away. And it makes more sense for him to give you a raise and hold onto a good employee than to let you leave and have to go through the whole hiring process while trying to run his business shorthanded and risk not getting someone as good.”

Melissa made an excuse to end the conversation. She assumed his intentions were good, but she really did not want advice. She felt he was totally missing The Point of her having called him. He was older than she was by over five years, which is one of the reasons she had little interest in him. Over the course of a lifetime, five years isn’t much, but to a 24-year-old, a 29-year-old was someone pushing 30 which seemed like an impassable chasm. But he had been working in the field since he graduated college, had previously given her good advice, and had some role in getting her this job. She wouldn’t go so far as to say she viewed him as a mentor, but her relationship with him, as far as she was concerned, was certainly more on that path than on a romantic one. So although his advice was unasked for, she silently gave it some consideration.

By morning, she decided she had no intention of marching into anyone’s office demanding anything. However, Brian texted her first thing in the morning wishing her luck with her big conversation with Mitchelson. He sent another text a few minutes later saying it was the only smart thing to do. Sent another one reminding her she had nothing to lose. Sent yet another one saying he would be disappointed if she did nothing. She opted to not respond to any of these missives.

What Melissa did not know before deciding it could not hurt to at least initiate a conversation regarding her salary was that Mitchelson had already been contemplating making some changes to his business. He had been thinking about having fewer full-time designers and relying more on freelancers. Sure, he would have to spend time negotiating contracts, and, sure, he would probably end up paying more per project at face value, but he wouldn’t have to pay health benefits or provide office space. He would without a doubt want to hold on to some of his longtime employees. Where would he be without Betsy Carmichael who practically put his business on the map singlehandedly? She had old time skills which he appreciated. She had been designing before everything went digital. Kids these days jumped right onto their tablets and laptops to begin working on projects. Mitchelson would walk by Betsy’s desk, her laptop shut until she crafted a clean draft with rulers and t-squares, with tracing paper and compasses. He would do whatever he could to hold onto Betsy.

But these kids right out of college? Dime a dozen. And he was reading a story in the newspaper about how that generation was eager to work in the “gig economy.” He’d save a fortune by hiring freelancers and moving his business into a smaller space.

This was exactly what was on his  mind when Melissa marched into his office, looking—as he often thought—cute as ever. Summer dress flowing along her slim frame, thick frame glasses contrasting her fair skin, which combined with her short cut dark hair, made her face a dramatic presence.

“I think we need to talk about my salary,” Melissa said sitting herself down in a chair across from his desk. Mitchelson encouraged his staff to interrupt him at any time. “I’m a hard worker and have put in more time than is probably fair. If we can’t have this conversation, then I may need to consider resigning.”

“OK,” he said, not believing in his luck at not having to lay her off. “You’ve been a great employee. Feel free to use me as a reference. If you’re ever interested in freelance work, give me a call.”

“Oh, well, it doesn’t really need to come to that. I was just trying to, you know, start a conversation.”

“No, no. It’s good to stick to you convictions. It’s admirable.” He explained how her offer would help him move his business in the direction he had been planning. He went so far as to thank her for getting the ball rolling.

Melissa sat there stunned that he was actually grateful she was quitting even though that wasn’t her intention. However, seeing how she was considered expendable after all her hard work, after all the time she had put in almost made it feel reasonable. Almost.

Not sure if she had quit or had been fired, Melissa packed up her two plus years worth of desk supplies and trinkets, said goodbye to her co-workers who met her eyes with “I’m next” fear in theirs, and went home. Her steady paycheck was gone. Her health insurance was gone. But her student loans and credit card bills weren’t going anywhere.

She didn’t call or text Brian and just hunkered down in her tiny apartment to start calculating how long her meager savings would last. Not long was the answer she came up with regardless of how she approached things. Was she really contemplating moving back in with her parents? What friend of hers would share an apartment if she didn’t have a reliable income? She wanted to immediately take up Mitchelson’s offer to do some freelance work but didn’t want to appear desperate; however, she was feeling desperate and needing to consider that option.

Early that evening, when other people would be coming home from work, Brian sent her a text which she ignored. Then, half-an-hour later, she ignored his second text. Then a third. But she answered when he called.

“You have to fix this,” she said.

“Fix what?”
“I went to Mitchelson and said I wanted to talk about my salary. Said I was considering resigning.”

“Of course, he gave you a raise,” Brian said hopefully.

“He let me quit. He thanked me for quitting.”

Brian’s thoughts went to all the ways this turn of events would hinder his efforts to have their relationship turn romantic.

“You’re not going to say anything?” She asked.

“I’m sorry he answered that way.”

That’s what you’re sorry about? You need to talk to him. This was your idea. Get me my job back.”

“Well, if that’s his decision, what can I do?”

“You’re friends with him. At least talk to him. You have nothing to lose, and I have everything to gain.”

“I wouldn’t say we were friends.”

“But you put in a good word for me with him, didn’t you?”

“Well, I kinda know a guy who knows a guy who knows Mitchelson.”

“Are you serious?” It would occur to her later that this admission meant that she had gotten the job solely on her own merit, but she was too upset in the moment to see any upside.

Brian was in a panic and nearly choked on his atomized Mint Chocolate Chip e-liquid. Melissa was actually getting mad at him. His chances with her were slipping away. He needed to think of something and think of it quickly.

“I have student loans and other bills, you know. I need to feed myself for fuck’s sake. And a need a place to sleep at night that preferably isn’t back with my parents.”

Her words triggered what he thought was the perfect solution. “You can move in with me,” he said.

She laughed and said, “Jesus, no.”

“What do you mean ‘no’? You just said you need a place to sleep. You said this is my fault and I should fix it. So, move in with me until you find another job.”

“Suddenly, moving back in with my parents doesn’t see so bad.”

“I’d be happy to support you until you get another job.” He was more than willing to strain his own finances if it meant bringing them together.

“Support me? I don’t need you to support me. I’m not getting into some weird obligation scenario with you.”

“Well, you need someone to support you since you just lost your job.”

She hung up. He gave up trying to contact her after two weeks of unanswered texts and phone calls.

They wouldn’t cross paths for another four years when they ran into each other at a design conference in Chicago. She was freelancing and, after a couple of rough years, wound up successful. She never took up Mitchelson on his offer but, instead, found the ideal mentor in Betsy Carmichael who, she learned, was terribly upset with Mitchelson’s decision to let so many people go. In fact, Betsy ended up quitting to start her own design business and hired her own freelancers, Melissa among them.

She relayed all this with great pride to Brian.

“Wow, that sounds amazing. As for me,” he said although she didn’t ask, “I’m still at the same place grinding away day-to-day.”

“You should demand a raise,” she said with a certain bitterness although things worked out quite well for her in the long run. “and threaten to quit.”

He puffed out a little laugh. “Yeah, well, I don’t see that working.”

“Why was that good advice for me but not for you?”

He said nothing, admitting, in his own way, the answer she always assumed.

Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing