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Authors: Jennifer van der Kwast

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BOOK: Pounding the Pavement
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Someone should cue the bolt of lightning and turn on the rainmakers. And then I could crumble under a torrential downpour, letting it pelt my head and soak my clothes. Because self-pity doesn’t really work without a good dose of heavy-handed melodrama.

I blame Amanda. I blame her for convincing me that going to a party would be the answer to all my problems. I had almost forgotten how tedious and exhausting the whole process could be. What is so grand about forcing tight-lipped smiles, shaking limp hands, and nodding in agreement to a comment I haven’t even heard? If I really wanted to get all dressed up—put on a pretty skirt,
douse myself in orange-scented body spray—if I really felt the need to act all gracious and attentive, I’d be better off just scheduling another interview.

And I blame Amanda for loving it so much. The way she laughs at a terrible pun, the way she can make her total lack of interest in politics sound charming, the way she can talk so passionately about Ben Affleck’s love life. And when her favorite song comes up on the jukebox, Amanda is the only one I know who can convince someone to dance with her. Together they’ll be the only ones to wiggle their hips under the “No Dancing” sign while everyone else at the bar stares in blatant amusement. Most people would cringe at an act so audacious. But somehow, Amanda makes it seem endearing. That carefree love of life—okay, that joie de vivre. I miss having that.

I step away from the wall, feeling a bit steadier on my feet, and cast a look around to get my bearings. My eyes alight on the glimmering sign across the street. The Screening Room. I check my watch. It’s 11:45.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
starts in only fifteen minutes. And suddenly, I feel giddy as I think of Audrey Hepburn floating around her apartment with a cigarette holder. One man holds out a match for her and another man blows it out so he can light her cigarette instead. Now there’s a party I would love to attend.

Filled with new purpose, I march toward the theater. And I can’t imagine a better way to spend my last ten dollars.

chapter three

    It isn’t quite fair. All over Manhattan phones are ringing, and in the most inappropriate places. A man will take a woman to a romantic restaurant, lovingly stroke her palm with one hand, flip open his cell with the other. Doors to a bus will slide open, but the line of passengers will halt because someone up front is fumbling in her bag to answer an important call. A Hitchcock revival will be playing at a theater downtown, and audiences will grimace and squirm in their seats, because someone’s pocket is trilling Henry Mancini’s “Elephant Walk.” (Henry Mancini is a brilliant composer, don’t get me wrong. But Hitchcock belongs to Bernard Herrmann.)

And here I sit, flossing my teeth in the living room, pleading with my silent, stoic phone. Of all places, this is where you
should
be ringing.
Come on
, I beg.
Ring, ring, ring!

And then it happens. It rings. At first I think I’ve only imagined it. But it rings again and it is as if my wildest dreams have come true. In my haste to answer, I only succeed in yanking half the strip of floss out of my mouth.

“Erro?”

“Sweetie-pie, is that you?”

It’s my mother. It figures.

“What’s the matter, sweetie-pie? You sound strange.”

“Umfroshing.”

“What? Uh-oh. I can’t hear you. Sarah? Sarah!”

She shrieks as if the demons of static were carting me off to their netherworld. Meanwhile, I take the time, patiently, to unthread the piece of floss wrapped around my molar.

“I was flossing.”

“Oh,” she says, relieved. “Good. Now, listen, sweetie-pie, I just called to tell you that your father thinks he might have found you a job.”

Oh no.

“He was just talking to Carl about your … er … 
situation
. And, well, it turns out Carl has a cousin who is the CEO of a company in New York.”

“What kind of company?”

“I don’t know. It’s called … let me see here … Pharmateque Capital Corporation?”

That doesn’t sound too promising. But I force myself to bite my forked tongue. “What position is he looking to fill?”

“I think Dad said he needs a secretary.”

“Mom, people don’t
have
secretaries anymore. They’re called assistants.”

“No, I’m pretty sure he said secretary. Hold on, let me put him on.”

“No, Mom, that’s okay, really—” Too late. The phone squawks in resistance between changing hands.

“Sarah?”

“Hi, Dad.”

“I gave Carl’s cousin your phone number. His secretary will be calling you to set up an interview.”

“I thought he didn’t have a secretary.”

“He does. She’s leaving.”

“Why is she leaving?”

“How the hell should I know! Maybe you should ask her yourself when she calls.”

I could snap back, but I consider myself far too old to be sparring with my father. Instead I say nothing, enjoying the tense silence. I close my eyes and imagine my father back home in Denver, squirming in his chair, trying to get a better angle on the television set in the next room.

“So,” he says finally. “How are things?”

“Things are fine.”

“Really? Mom says you still don’t have health insurance.”

“Well, no, I don’t, but I’ve been looking into it.” Dad sighs. A loud, yawning sigh he’s been perfecting ever since I was nine years old.

“You know that’s really selfish of you.”

“Right, I know.”

“What if you were in an accident? Who would pay for your hospital bill?”

“I suppose you would—”

“That’s right. Me! You would wipe us out.”

“I know, I know. But, Dad, even COBRA still charges over three hundred dollars a month for their continuation policy, and I just can’t afford that right now. So, I mean, if
you
don’t want to pay hospital bills and would prefer to just write out a three-hundred-dollar check every month—”

“Oh, Jesus.” My father lowers his phone, but his voice is no less booming.

“Maggie! Maggie, she’s asking for money again!”

“What? No, I never said—” I am interrupted by another squawk of the telephone.

“I thought you said you were solvent,” says Mom.

“I am. Just, with health insurance, things are going to get tight.”

“You have to have insurance! Don’t you worry about your health at all?”

“Of course, I do. Why do you think I was flossing?”

“You’re being really selfish, you know.”

“Yes, Dad already told me so.”

“Don’t get snippy.”

“I’m not snippy. Mom, I have to go.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to call the health insurance offices before they close.”

I hang up. Almost immediately, my phone rings again. No longer is it music to my ears. It’s probably my mother calling back to demand an apology. Unfortunately, I am in no position to be screening calls so I answer it begrudgingly.

“Hello?”

“Sarah? Mark Shapiro here.”

“Oh, hi, Mark.”

“Listen, I just found you the perfect job.”

“You did?”

“You wanted a media company, didn’t you? Well, you got it!”

“What kind of media? Publishing? Film?”

“Commercials!”

Oh. Not quite the media I’d been hoping for.

“You’re in luck,” Mark continues. “It’s a great place. They do lots of steady work. But they just lost one of their employees and they need someone to replace him ASAP.”

“What’s the job?”

“Hmmm? Umm, hang on … let me find it for you.” I hear him riffle through pages. “Oh, okay. It’s for an office manager. Sounds good, right?”

No. Does not sound good. Sounds, at best, tolerable.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll give it a shot.”

“Super! They want you to start tomorrow at nine a.m.”

“What? I don’t need to go in for an interview first?”

“Ummm, not exactly. They really just need a temporary replacement for the time being.”

Temping?
I groan. “Mark, I told you. I can’t temp. If I work for even one day, I’ll lose all my unemployment benefits for the week.” Yes, I agree. It’s one hell of a lousy rule. But, hey, I didn’t make it.

“I know. But there’s a very good chance it could turn into a full-time gig. If they like you, they might decide to keep you on. Don’t you think you should at least look into it?”

“Umm, well …” Shit. I’ve been had. Because, unfortunately, as a rule, I don’t turn down potential full-time job leads. “Okay.”

“Great. The company is called Stellar Productions. They are located at 581 Broadway. Ask for Gregory.”

When I hang up this time, I do indeed yank out the phone cord. Because if any more sticky situations come up, I know for a fact I won’t be able to talk my way out of them.

S
haring a workspace is a lot like sharing a toothbrush. This I realize the moment I find myself chewing on the end of a pen that doesn’t belong to me. I remove the cap from my mouth and discreetly look to see if anyone else in the office has caught me in so vile an act.

Stellar Productions isn’t much of an office. A cunning real estate agent would probably call it “raw space,” making it sound exotic and appetizing, like a tray of sushi. Of course, all “raw space” really means is there is no clearly defined reception area, no navigable layout, only a lump of carelessly constructed cubicles. Frankly, I
prefer my offices more well-done. Cooked to a crisp, thank you very much.

By as early as 10 a.m., the excitement of embarking on a somewhat promising new job has all but vanished. So has the anticipation. And so has the curiosity. Instead I am filled with a frothy, bubbling rage. I’ve already decided I hate everyone who works here. I hate the haughty executives who wouldn’t deign to introduce themselves to me, who flee to the sancity of their windowed offices in the back, emerging only every now and then to toss their outgoing mail on my desk, without even the courtesy of a “please” or “thank you.” I hate the boy who has been hogging the company stereo system, proudly inserting his mixed CDs and taking enormous pleasure in telling us what song is playing, who is singing it, and what year it was recorded (and should anyone ask, he can also supply the name of the LP and the track number). I hate the girl seated beside me because she doesn’t need to talk on the phone quite so loudly. And I hate the smug interns, because they know their free labor is a gift they could just as easily bestow elsewhere.

But most of all, I hate being me. Because I am smarter, more professional, and more eager to please than anyone else in this damn office and there’s no way for me to prove it. Nobody noticed how quickly I filed my paperwork, nobody thought to mention how polite I sound when I answer the phone. And when I dutifully watched the Stellar Productions reel of sample work and coughed up a few giggles where I thought they might be appropriate, nobody even looked pleased that I made such an effort to pretend to be enjoying myself.

With each passing hour, and with fewer assignments coming my way, I can feel myself peeling back layer after layer of the Professional Sarah, letting a little bit of the Unemployed Sarah shine through. Come to think of it, there’s only a fine line between the
two (a line made even finer after taxes). I can’t help but wonder if my time wouldn’t be better spent at home, where I don’t have to hastily click out of the Hotjobs website every time someone walks by my desk. Hell, my time would be better spent if I were waiting to get picked for jury duty.

It isn’t that I’m not happy to be working. I’m just not happy to be temping. If the company interns are the larvae and the employees the fluttering butterflies, then being a temp makes me the pupa, nestled in the gooey cocoon of my own slime. No one is going to take the time to nurture me and no one is going to give me wings to make me fly. I’m just a waste of space on a twig.

Oh, you know who else I hate? I hate the former dweller of this cubicle, whatever mangy mutt has already pissed on this here fire hydrant. He, with the stacks and stacks of videocassettes—some even mutated to be twice or half the size of regular VHS tapes. And then there’s the bookshelf, chock full of binders with budget reports and production notes, and books with such sterile titles as
The Simon Archer Plan: How to Break International Markets
, or
Research Analysis: Volumes I—IV
. What a sad, sad existence this person must lead.

And yet by mid-afternoon, I find myself poring over these tomes voraciously, starved for entertainment of any kind—yes, even the dry, insipid, boring kind. I am delighted to find a talent binder devoted to headshots for aspiring commercial actresses, crushed when the young Alice Zucker’s paltry résumé marks the last entry.

I return the binder to the shelf and move on to the next item, surprised to find my index finger take a sudden dip. For the next book down the line is a paperback with a spine so worn and frayed I can’t make out the title. I withdraw it curiously and gasp when I see the front cover.

Still Life with Woodpecker?
Get out! Since when does Tom Robbins
rub shoulders with child star Alice Zucker and Simon Archer, International Market-Man of Mystery?

“Excuse me?”

I look up and find a frown. It’s on the rather unpleasant face of a middle-aged man eyeing me carefully. I shove the book back on the shelf and smile prettily.

BOOK: Pounding the Pavement
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