Short Story: A Firm Hand by Ariel Kay

“You can’t talk to customers like that. Yelling, giving ‘em attitude, never okay.” Frank leans in toward Katie, aiming for gentle but firm in his tone. She’s a good kid and usually a good employee too, so he doesn’t want to tear her a new one. It’s a learning opportunity for her, and, down the road, she’ll thank him for it.   

The backroom is a mess of ripped plastic cases half-filled with Gatorade and Arizona Iced Tea taking up space on the floor. There’s not enough room on the metal shelves, full of the rest of the drink stock, huge cans of tomatoes, boxes full of pappardelle and linguini and spaghetti. After he’s finished talking to Katie, he’s going to ask her to take a beat and clean this room up.   

It’s not the most private place to talk. Still, the only alternatives are Frank’s makeshift office next to the produce section where he’s got a table, a chair, and a notepad full of gift basket orders—or the non–air-conditioned office space upstairs, but the assistant manager’s up there printing out the new schedules. So Frank’s pulled two metal folding chairs out into the break room-slash-stockroom to have this discussion in semi-private.   

Katie sits ramrod straight, back pressed against her chair like it’s magnetized her spine. With her scowl and her store-mandated ponytail pulled too tight, she looks severe. It’s a damn shame because she’s got a great smile and usually wears her hair a little looser, friendlier.  

“I know,” Katie says, staring down at her hands, balled into tight fists in her lap. “I didn’t mean to yell. Everything happened so fast.”   

“I get that.” He reaches out to touch her arm, ignoring as it stiffens beneath him. Poor girl must be having a bad day. Normally she’s one of his best at the store’s register—sassy and bubbly, ready with a thousand-watt smile.   

She only just turned sixteen a couple weeks back. He remembers because he’d asked Connor why she wasn’t working her usual Saturday shift. It was her birthday and she had special plans with her boyfriend, Connor said, raising his eyebrows so Frank got the picture. They were tight here, always in each other’s business.   

“Thing is,” Frank starts, hand still resting on Katie’s arm. Her soft skin is cold to the touch, and he slides his hand up and down to create some warmth, to show her she’s okay. Katie’s eyes track the movement, but she otherwise remains still. “You gotta stay cool in situations like that. When you need backup, you page me to the front, and I got you covered. If I could hear you all the way back here, other customers could too. They want service with a smile, not service with screaming, you know what I’m saying?” He winks at her, but she doesn’t crack a smile.    

“He was touching me,” Katie says, a defiant lift to her chin. There’s a dangerous spark in her eyes. Her breathing is fast, a quick rise and fall of her chest, but her tone is still even. “I couldn’t reach for the phone because he had his hand on my wrist. He kept saying my bracelet looked pretty or something. I don’t know. It freaked me out. I don’t know when I was supposed to reach for the phone.”  

Frank nods. He’s got some sympathy for how hard it can be to keep cool in the moment. Hell, there have been plenty of times he’s imagined decking rude customers. Or on really bad days, throwing his apron and store keys on the ground and walking out on the job, saying screw this and heading straight for the driving range. Katie doesn’t even know the half of it, really. Make her manager for a day and then she’d probably feel real silly for overreacting today.   

“We’ve all been there, Katie. Next time, you stay firm but polite,” he tells her. “‘Sir, please remove your hand. I need to finish ringing you up, and I have a question for my manager.’”  

There’s a blankness in her expression as he talks. Teenagers have this way of looking at you where you can never be sure if they’re taking in what you’re saying or not.   

“You understand, sweetheart?” he presses, inclining his head towards her so he can catch her eye. “Next time, you stay calm, get someone else up front, and then we all win. We’re a small operation; we can’t afford to lose customers because they’re uncomfortable coming in.”   

“Yeah, I understand.” She still looks upset, jaw clenched, blinking fast like she’s trying to hold back tears. At least she’s not raising her voice, knows enough not to take frustration out on her boss. “I should get back to work,” she says. “Conner’s up front by himself.”   

Her eyes flick down to Frank’s hand before she stands. Frank’s hand hovers suspended briefly in mid-air; he hadn’t realized he’d left it resting on her arm.


About the Author:

Ariel Kay is an American writer living in London with ADHD, her husband, and two cheeky rabbits. She enjoys exploring themes of love, longing, and loss in her stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reflex Fiction, NUNUM, and Indie It Press.