My first few cases, I had no idea what I was doing. Grayson sent me to a women’s triathlon where a personal injury client had gotten run over by a bicycle the previous year. His instructions were rushed—for lawyers, every minute is worth dollars—so I wasn’t sure how to find witnesses to talk to. During the race I held up a fluorescent green poster board sign that said DID YOU SEE A BICYCLE ACCIDENT HERE A YEAR AGO? IF SO, PLEASE TALK TO ME!! Nobody talked to me. I got a bad sunburn.
I kept trying. In winter, he assigned me a medical malpractice case, featuring a maternal death. Grayson was again vague, instructing me to “find something on them.” I visited the hospital and pretended I was pregnant—no pillow under the shirt, just a big burrito for lunch. I told a nurse, “I may be high-risk. Do pregnant women ever die here?” The nurse extracted me from the group and escorted me to a lilac-smelling charge nurse in pink paisley scrubs who said, “I think another hospital may better suit your needs.”
Grayson assigned me to a car accident, another personal injury case. A state trooper showed me accident scene photos, but I couldn’t decipher them. “What’s that smudge here?” I asked. “Tire tracks,” he said. “And this?” “Blood.” “And this bump here, where’s that?” “That’s the median.” I pretended to stare hard, to see something that meant anything to me. In my report for Grayson, it was difficult to disguise the fact that I had nothing to say.
Grayson frowned and said, “I don’t think I’m making good use of your skill set.”
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What skill set? I knew my methods were wrong, but I didn’t know what the right ones were. I had read enough detective fiction to know a good PI doesn’t just find out what happened; she makes things happen. Or he does. Maybe the problem was that I was a woman. If I were a gearhead man, maybe the accident photos would have made sense. If I were a cute man, some woman might have talked to me when I held up the sign at the women’s triathlon.
I didn’t even have a PI license. Colorado, ever a cowboy state, didn’t require licenses for marriages, psychotherapy practices, or private investigators. But every private investigator in every novel I had ever read was an ex-something— an ex-cop, an ex-lawyer, an ex-con. I was an ex-dishwasher, an ex–instructor of poetry. I had also previously worked as an ice cream truck driver, a waitress, an accountant, a shoe saleswoman, a house cleaner, a canvasser, a school bus monitor, a hospital aide, an after-school elementary teacher, a creative writing instructor at the university in town, a pizza cook and delivery person, a security guard, an administrative assistant, a piano player at weddings and funerals, a telemarketer, a data-entry drone, a B&B night manager, a tarot card reader on the street, a cafeteria worker, and a writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, technical manuals, marketing materials, book reviews, and even horoscopes for a fashion magazine, all without proper qualifications or any particular talent. But I couldn’t seem to pull off this PI job. I had never exactly been a wunderkind, but I had never failed at anything so spectacularly before. I wondered which would disappoint Grayson more—if I quit, or rode this job until the wheels fell off and the poor guy was forced to fire me.
Despite my nonperformance, Grayson was still paying me by the hour, which made me feel bad until he called me into his office. I had been working for him less than six months, and I dreaded the meeting. This job had ended before it had really begun.
Our meeting was postponed because of the weather. Following a season of Chinook winds clocking up to eighty-five miles per hour, the drought temporarily paused with a record-breaking three-day spring blizzard. An upslope snowstorm dumped three and a half feet of snow on the flats and foothills, and between seven and eleven feet in the mountains that crowded our small city. Wind pushed drifts against doors, garages, Dumpsters, or any still structure. All the powder in the air completely obscured the mountains that defined the western perimeter of the city. We might be in any flat place—Nebraska, Kansas. Except for gusts, the city was silent. Cars hulked like sleeping animals, houses wore marshmallow caps, and the roads turned to cold, white silk.
It took four days for the city to clear the sidewalks downtown near Grayson’s office, and I had to walk there because my street was still unplowed. Commuters cross-country skied to work even on main artery streets. Few cars drove the roads, but every now and then an SUV towed a whooping skier behind it on a long bungee cord. Walls of melting snow flanked my path so high it felt like I was traversing a maze. With the mountains obscured, everything was strange again, which would have been exciting if I hadn’t been about to get canned.
I gave my name at the front desk and Grayson called me into his warm, windowed office. The room was spotless. In contrast to the sloppy weather, Grayson sat at his desk with perfect posture in an immaculate suit. He smiled amiably and gestured for me to sit on a mesh chair so deliberately ugly it must have been expensive. Too late, I noticed that my blouse had a hole in the elbow, so I sat with my hands tucked into my lap, ankles crossed like I was in finishing school. I had never been fired before, and wondered how to sit in a way that would make him regret his decision.
But it turned out Grayson had a new case for me. He rolled his chair forward and consulted his yellow legal pad. “It’s rape. College rape, gang rape. That okay with you?”
Involuntarily I shook my head, which I converted into a vigorous nod.
Grayson told me about the client, Simone Baker, raised in a tiny town on the eastern plains. Her mother worked a desk job and her father ran cattle and raised horses. The family chose Grayson to represent them because he had been wearing cowboy boots when they met.
In high school, Simone had been part of the National Honor Society and she taught Sunday school. While attending the university full-time, she worked thirty hours a week, Big Sistered a foster-home teenager, and spent a summer doing refugee relief work overseas. I had never met anyone that uniformly virtuous. I wondered if she was real.
Grayson said, “Over a year ago, on December seventh, 2001, Simone was hosting a girls-only party at her apartment when twenty college football players and recruits unexpectedly showed up at her door. She was drunk, so she went to lie down. At least five and as many as eight of them followed her into the bedroom. Several of them allegedly raped her while the others surrounded the bed as spectators. It was too dark to see well, so she doesn’t know who her attackers were.”
What a terrible story. I wondered what it was like to not know your attackers—if it was a relief, or if it made everyone on earth feel dangerous.
Grayson said, “We may be able to sue the university under Title IX. You went to school there, right? Is that a conflict of interest for you?” I shook my head. I had gotten my master’s degree in English at that university, but all my favorite professors were gone.
Grayson said, “I’m making an argument for a rape culture. We’re going after the system, not the individuals. There’s no Title IX precedent for a sexual assault lawsuit of this kind. It’s new legal ground.” Grayson tugged the edges of his smile downward with a thumb and forefinger, trying not to appear proud and excited.
“Isn’t Title IX about facilities and money?” I asked.
Grayson relaxed into an educating-the- client stance. “Title IX is a civil rights initiative. It basically means that if a federally funded education program doesn’t protect students from discrimination, they risk losing their funding. Simone’s trauma and ongoing harassment amount to discrimination. Football players are funded by the university, which is funded by the state and federal governments. As long as the university allows their football players to behave dangerously, women aren’t safe there, which means women can’t receive the same benefits as men.”
That was a new thought: a school was responsible for the safety and equity of its female students. I had been harassed and discriminated against in most schools, jobs, towns, and venues, and I had accepted it long ago as a given. It was unfair, sure, but so was weather.
Grayson said, “This case is different, because we’re claiming that it’s a system of sexual abuse. My colleague dug up one Title IX precedent, with an elementary school. Sandra Day O’Connor had ruled that you have to show that the school was”—he tried to decipher his own handwriting on the yellow legal pad—“ ‘deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which they have actual knowledge.’ ” He looked up for emphasis. “That’s going to be the hard thing—proving that the school’s decision makers knew about it. Because if they did, they’ll deny it all over the place.”
Excitement displaced my nervousness. I was going to work on a civil rights case. Me! I wrote down everything Grayson said: pervasive harassment, school’s knowledge, deliberate indifference. Inequality. The phrase “deliberate indifference” ricocheted around my mind. Could indifference to crime be a crime? I had never imagined such a thing.
Grayson said, “I want you to start discreetly gathering evidence. If we file, it’ll be much harder once the university mounts their four-dog defense. So keep it quiet.”
“What’s a four-dog defense?”
Grayson recited, “One, that’s not my dog. Two, if it was my dog, he didn’t bite you. Three, if my dog bit you, it didn’t hurt you. And four, if my dog bit you and hurt you, you provoked him.”
I thought for a second. “So they’ll argue they’re not responsible for the football players. But if they are, the players didn’t rape your client. If they did rape her, it didn’t hurt her. And if it did hurt her, she asked for it. Is that it?”
Grayson said, “You understand this pretty well.”
Of course. I understood perfectly.
I had to turn down this job.
Excerpted from “Tell Me Everything.” Copyright © 2022 By Erika Krouse. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of MacMillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Erika Krouse is the author of “Come Up and See Me Sometime,” a New York Times Notable Book, and “Contenders,” a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She teaches creative writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop and lives in Colorado. Her debut memoir, “Tell Me Everything,” has been optioned for TV adaptation by Playground Entertainment.