By Susan Read
I arrive for my second last scheduled day of work at, well, let’s call it Tarsucks. This is only based on a true story, after all. I don my green apron, punch in my seven-digit code, and get called to the back office before I can make myself an Americano.
In the crowded back room, four folding chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, three of them occupied by well-dressed, smiling people—a man, and two women. A plastic cup of water and a pile of napkins sit on a desk beside my empty chair.
“Should I take my apron off?” I ask.
“Whatever makes you comfortable. We’re sorry it’s a little warm back here. We hope this won’t take long.”
The man does all the talking. He begins asking me questions. I know why he’s here. He’s here because there is money missing. A lot of money, I’d assumed when I completed a seven page questionnaire about it a week ago. He wants information. He wants me to rat someone out, or fess up. I’m not sure yet because he isn’t asking me about money.
When did you begin working for Tarsucks?
How did you find your training?
Do you like working here?
Do you like the people you work with?
It’s a barrage of bland questions that ought to make me suspicious, perhaps, but I prefer to err on the side of kindness.
Then the man, who has been fidgeting since he sat down, begins to tell me about his job. Something about assets and investigations. Everything from free coffee to grand larceny. I nod politely and watch his left thumb circle his right index finger nervously. I feel calm, cool, collected. I wonder if that bothers him.
He tells me stories of past thefts. Who did what, and why, and how it all worked out for everyone in the end. He says, “We want to know why people do this.” He says that a lot. And, “We don’t blame people here, we are problem solvers.” “We prefer to keep our problems in the family.” “This interview is your chance to be honest.”
I nod and smile, watching him shift uncomfortably in his metal folding chair. He clears his throat and wipes a trail of sweat from his forehead.
“Susan, when did you decide to take the money?”
I start. I glance from him to the two silent, stoic women at his side who I now know are only here to judge. I feel my face go red (it is hot in here), and my heart starts to race, just a little.
I say, “What?”
“What’s the most you’ve ever taken from Tarsucks?”
But that’s not what he said. He changed his question.
It’s fascinating what a little heat can do. I have become the one sweating and fidgeting. I feel a sudden weight on my chest. It’s their eyes on me expectantly. It’s shock and discomfort. It’s guilt.
I decide it’s time to confess.
“I give out free coffees to my friends. No. Not just coffees. Whatever they want. Lattes. Strawberry blended lemonades. Even Frappuccinos.”
“Okay,” he says, “let’s start there.”
But he has no intention of stopping there. I reach for my water and shift uncomfortably in my metal folding chair.
(One Week Earlier)
“There is money missing from the store,” Megan, my supervisor, tells me.
She says she’ll tell me when I don’t work there anymore. That is, a week from now, when I start school. I shrug, knowing the real story will come out over beers, not under the twenty-two watchful eyes of the Tarsucks surveillance system.
She hands me a form.
“You don’t have to fill it out,” she recites, “but the information you do or do not provide will be considered very carefully.”
I flip through the pages. There are a few essay questions at the front, short answer at the back.
Money has gone missing from Store #97051. Please explain in detail how you think this might have happened.
I consider walking out. I didn’t take the money, and this test looks tough. I turn the page.
How would you conduct this investigation?
“I’m not filling this out,” I say.
It’s up to me, Megan repeats, but it is a serious matter. I frown, wondering if refusal to fill out the form is like refusing a breathalyzer: guilt assumed upon failure to cooperate.
Page 1. Please explain in detail how you think this might have happened.
After a moment’s consideration I write, I don’t know. I guess someone could have dropped twenties into their apron. Except this is probably a lot of money, so, probably not, right? Maybe it was left unattended in the back room and someone grabbed it. But this is all wild conjecture. I have no idea what happened.
Page 2. How would you conduct this investigation?
I’d make everyone fill out this stupid fucking form and hope for a confession because otherwise I have no legal recourse in the matter.
Shouldn’t say that.
I’d check the cameras, and interview a few suspects. Nothing else you can really do, is there?
I guess I’m being kind of a jackass. But I have been having a bad night, a bad week, and a bad month at work. With the end in sight, this seems like a lot of bullshit to go through when either they know who took the money or they don’t.
Page 3. List five (5) reasons why someone might take this money.
I am having that dream where you show up to an exam that you haven’t studied for, and suddenly can’t remember having ever attended a single class.
Let’s see, five reasons.
Terrible wages. Poor treatment. Low self-esteem. Bad day. Good day. Family problems. Mental problems. Corporate rage. Service industry burnout. Sticking it to the man. Just for a laugh. Drugs. Debts. Depression. Desperation.
I quickly get to the short answer questions and read another disclaimer saying my answers will be taken very seriously and to answer honestly.
Doy. If this is such a big deal, why don’t they just talk to us about it?
Do you know who took the money?
I have a few ideas. I write, No.
Did you take the money?
They did say to answer honestly.
Did you have any part in taking the money?
Should we believe that the answers you’ve provided us with are true?
What? Fuck off. Who answers ‘no’ to that? I refuse to write yes. Baffled, I write, You gotta do what you gotta do.
If you answered yes to the above question, give one reason why.
I am a good Christian soul. I pay my taxes. You can’t prove nothin’!
I wonder if I should speak to a lawyer.
What would you say if we found out that you had lied on this questionnaire?
Objection, Your Honour. This piece of paper is badgering the witness.
What emotions did you experience while completing this form?
Shock. Rage. Contempt. Hatred.
How much of the stolen money would you be willing to pay back to the Tarsucks corporation?
…What? I mean… Really?
Frankly, I conclude, I am offended to be asked most of these questions, particularly by a questionnaire. I find this form absurd and accusatory, and I am not convinced that it is entirely legal. Although I assume you know your loopholes. Feel free to talk to me like a human any time –you know, in person—if you have any further questions. I hope you get your man.
“So, Susan, how were you able to orchestrate this giving of free coffees to friends?”
“Well.. I’d make them a drink, and I’d hand it off to them. And I wouldn’t ring it in.”
“And the people you work with?”
“I think we all do it. I’m—sorry.”
“Susan, you filled out a form for us last week.”
“Yes. I’m sorry about that. I was a little…flippant.”
“We take these forms very seriously.”
“We use top of the line, state of the art analytic techniques employed by the police, CSIS, the CIA, the FBI,” Each acronym spoken as if more impressive than the last. “We not only read what you tell us, we read what you don’t tell us.”
Is that so.
“Susan, did you know that you did not once deny taking this money on the questionnaire?”
“We asked you directly if you took it and you wrote, I wish.”
“Well, I was angry and I do wish I took the money. I mean, I wish I had it. ‘Cause then at least I’d have a thousand dollars. I don’t have anything close to that.”
“How did you know it was a thousand dollars?”
Oh, shit. I’m not supposed to know that.
“Megan told me.” Sorry Megan. “I made her, really. I’m sure she didn’t mean to—”
“That’s fine. We’ll deal with Megan later. Now, Susan, we asked you if we should believe your answers and you wrote, You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Yyeaaahh. Sorry. I just though these forms were, well, ridiculous, but also kind of irrelevant. I mean, you have so many cameras in here! You must know who did it.”
“What we see on camera is not as important as what you tell us, Susan.”
“Video evidence would never hold up against what you tell us.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
“It’s true, Susan. This is why we’re giving you the chance to be honest with us.”
“I have nothing to be honest about. I mean—” Damn it. “I am being honest.”
“We just want to know why these things happen, Susan.”
“You want me to say I did it.”
“We want you to be honest. But if you are so interested in what the cameras have to say, I can tell you.”
“I can tell you, Susan.”
“What would you say if I told you that according to the tapes you were the last one with access to the stolen money?”
This looks bad. I mean, this looks worse than I thought it did, and I knew it looked pretty bad.
“I don’t have your money,” I say.
“I’m not saying you have it. But we believe that you have information that you are not providing. We want you to be honest with us.”
“I am being honest.”
“Who do you think took the money, Susan?”
“Umm, no, I won’t answer that.” I’m starting to wise up to his games. He’s a real trickster, this one. Sure, maybe I’ll accuse my accomplice, who he can then take into the backroom, give her a glass of water and some napkins, and tell her he has information about her. Make her shift uncomfortably in her seat and sweat out a confession. Oh, no. I’m not helping him do this to anyone else.
Also, I believe that anything I say can and will be used against me in a court of lattes.
I watched The Wire. I know my rights.
I say, “I think I should go.”
“Susan, before we go any further” (…further?) “I want to give you this form.”
“It’s just a chance for you to make a statement. You fill out this top part with your name, number, the date goes here, see?” He points. “Then it’s just a few blank pages that give you the chance to make a voluntary statement. If you feel you’ve left anything out of your story, now is the chance to let us know. This is strictly confidential.”
Sure it is. I don’t want to tell him that my hand is shaking too much for me to even consider filling it out. Can my heart pounding in my chest be submitted as evidence?
“We’re going to leave you alone for a few minutes, Susan. Let you write anything down that you wish to say. Let you think about this.”
“I—uh—I don’t think I’m going to fill this out.”
“That’s okay. That’s your choice.” His tone is gratingly amicable. “We’re going to give you a few minutes anyway, just to process everything.”
“Oh… Can I go for a smoke?”
One of the women who are only here to judge smiles sympathetically, which I guess is a no. They leave me in the back office alone, to sit and think about what I didn’t do.
I wonder if I need a lawyer. I can’t afford a lawyer so maybe one would be provided to me. How far will they really take this?
I don’t know, this guy seems to take it all pretty seriously. Maybe he’s got nothing better to do than chase me all over town looking for a confession.
I wonder if my manager thinks I did this. If my friends think I did this.
I mean, I would think I did this, if I wasn’t me.
It’s hot and I feel anxious and I feel angry and I feel…guilty.
And then I feel even angrier, and I think about how hard I have worked for Tarsucks, how I am probably the best barista at my store, and instead of a farewell party, I will be walking out of this place with my tail between my legs, and my head down, hoping that no one will notice the tears that are now readily streaming down my face in fear and anxiety and frustration.
I take a sip of water.
I lift up the form I was handed and notice another beneath it. It has a similar format: fill in the blanks and sign your name, we’ll take care of the rest.
I _________ do hereby permit __________to ________ me up the _____.
Actually, the form authorizes Tarsucks to compensate the stolen money directly from my paychecks until full restoration of funds is received.
It is a confession, typed up and waiting for me to sign.
I sit back in my chair, crying a little but no longer fidgeting, still sweating in that tiny back office, which I am free to leave at any time. I wait for my tribunal to reconvene.
That’s about when the voices start.
My jury or executioners return, refreshed. I obviously look upset but what they can’t see is my newfound sense of entitlement to get the fuck out of here.
It’s not just me. It’s the walls.
I say, “I think I should go.”
“Susan, who do you think took the money?”
“I told you. I won’t answer that. I don’t fucking know.”
“Okay. That’s fair.”
“I didn’t take the money.”
“That’s not why we’re here.” Bullshit. He’s already sweating again. “We want to know why these things happen.”
“We want to prevent this from happening in the future.”
“We prefer to solve our own problems. We’re not here to accuse anyone of anything, but we need to know what happened.”
“I have nothing to tell you.”
“This is your chance to be honest. We prefer to solve these matters within the family.”
“Our investigation is over, Susan. If we can’t reach a solution today, my next step is to hand this information over to the police. Then it’s out of our hands. We’ve tried to reach a peaceable solution here.”
“The police can show up at your door and question you. They can contact your family and friends. They can check your bank records.”
I laugh, breaking the tension, at the mention of bank records.
“Let them. There’s nothing in there. I don’t have the money.”
“I’m not saying you do.”
“Can I go now?”
“I want to look at this form with you again. We asked what you would say if we found out you were lying and you didn’t provide an answer.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore. You think I took the money. I think I didn’t.”
“We only want all of the information that you can give us.”
“You want me to confess.”
“Why did you lie on the questionnaire, Susan?”
“I didn’t lie.”
“You stated earlier in the interview—”
“No, no, no, no, no. I’m not doing this. We’re done here. I’m done. I’m leaving.”
“That’s your choice, but I just want to ask—”
“Do I have to work the rest of my shift?”
“I’ll leave you to discuss this with Thing 1 and Thing 2 here. If you’re sure that you have no more information.”
“Then I’ll just need you to sign this form,”
“So you’ll be paid for the hours,”
“And this just further states,”
“That you’ve been treated fairly during the course of this interview.”
Now, maybe it’s the heat, or the screaming walls, or the intoxicating aroma of espresso beans, but I sign the motherfucker, just to get out of there. Which I guess means I can’t sue for emotional damages.
It’s worth it to watch him leave defeated.
Thing 1 passes me a tissue while Thing 2 explains that I don’t have to work my shift and they’ll pay me anyway. And I don’t have to come in tomorrow, and I’ll be paid for that as well.
“Great,” I say. I grab my ugly work shoes, my purse, and the remnants of my dignity, and I make for the door.
I leave without fanfare: no parties, no partner beverages, no thanks for eight months of excellent service. Worse than that, I leave with the distinct feeling that I’ve done something wrong; I leave questioning myself.
But I refuse to answer.