Authors: Jennifer van der Kwast
“Can I help you?” I ask.
Damn it. Don’t people know I’m the temp? Why must they insist on asking me questions I can’t possibly answer? Part of me wants to crawl under the desk and mutter, “That’s strange. I know he was just here a minute ago …”
Instead I shrug and opt for the infinitely more mature, “Dunno.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Sarah. I’m temping for him.”
“Great.” He holds out one of those minicassettes. “Can you transfer DV to D-Beta?”
Again the shrug. Again the pretty smile. Again the sophisticated reply. “Ummm … nope”
“Oh.” He looks utterly bewildered. “Jake usually does all the transfers for us.”
“Well, do you know anyone who could do it for me, then?”
“I don’t know,” I glance inconspicuously at the taped-up list of phone extensions under my elbow. The first name reads Abbott, James.
“Have you asked James Abbott?”
The guy blinks at me.
“Oh, well, then I’m sorry. I guess I can’t really help out.”
The phone rings, cutting him off before he can respond. I gladly reach for the receiver on my desk, only to find the lights aren’t flashing. The ringing is coming from my bag under the desk.
For a split second I consider acting a true professional and ignoring my personal cell phone calls. But what if it’s another job interview? I decide to take my chances.
“Pardon me,” I say, holding out an obnoxious finger to silence him. With my other hand I reach under my desk to grab my phone. Jim Abbott skulks off reluctantly to try his luck with the next assistant down the line.
“Hello?” I say into the cell.
“Hi, it’s Laurie. I just got fired. Wanna do dinner?”
Laurie can be flippant about getting fired because she is
getting fired, even before it was fashionable. Her particular situation, however, is quite rare. She hasn’t lost a string of jobs, or even two jobs for that matter. She just keeps getting fired from the same job, over and over again. For three years now she has worked for a megalomaniacal film producer whose violent temper tantrums have achieved an almost legendary status. During his fits, he is likely to flip over his desk and hurl large objects at his television set. And after his outbursts have subsided, if Laurie can’t get the office back up and running within fifteen minutes, she gets fired. She got fired last week because her boss dealt the fax machine a crushing blow, and by mid-afternoon she still couldn’t get the damn thing to print incoming memos properly. She was kicked out of the office sometime around 4 p.m. By 9 a.m. the following morning, another assistant called to tell her it was safe to come back. So she did. She always does.
“Yeah, dinner’s fine,” I say. “Dancing Burrito?”
“Sure. Six p.m. happy hour?”
“Perfect. See ya then.”
I hang up the phone. Two seconds later, a sudden, sharp trill on my desk makes the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. A loud, deep voice then crawls through the mesh of the phone deck.
I freeze. I’ve never mastered the art of speakerphone parlance. It is one thing to deal with a disembodied voice coming from a tangible phone receiver. Quite another when the voice is an eerie, invisible hiss coming from nowhere in particular.
“Uh, yeah?” I pitch forward and yell.
“This is Gregory.”
“Oh!” I yell back. “Oh, nice to meet you!” A positively stupid thing to say to your phone deck.
“Thanks again for coming in today,” says the full-throated voice. “You’ve been doing an excellent job.”
“Oh?” I pause. He left large folder of deal memos on my desk this morning. I filed them all within twenty minutes. “Thank you!”
“Been quite a hectic day, hasn’t it?”
Rather shamelessly, I find myself agreeing. “Yeah, but I’ve been managing all right.”
“The good news is you’ll be getting a little bit of extra help this afternoon. Jake might be dropping by later.”
“Umm …” I stare at my phone curiously. “Jake?”
“The person you’ve been replacing?”
“I see,” I say, when in fact I don’t see at all. Did I just get fired halfway into my workday? “He’s coming back?”
“Well,” The voice sounds more distant this time. Like Gregory has already given up on the conversation and has literally begun to wander away. “I don’t know if he’s coming
, per se. I think for today he’s just going to show you around, explain how the office
runs. That sort of thing. He hasn’t been very reliable lately. He’s been …” His voice drops to a whisper. Which isn’t very effective on speakerphone. “Well, he’s been dealing with personal problems.”
“Oh?” For the first time during our entire conversation I perk up with keen interest.
“He’s just taking some time off. You understand, right?”
“Sure.” Of course I understand. Sounds like heartbreak to me.
“Oh, also,” Gregory continues. “I’m having my assistant Marcia bring over more deal memos that need to be filed. Marcia!” I hear him bark, from both my phone and from directly behind me. “Can you bring these over to Jake’s temp?” I turn to gaze over my shoulder. A girl seated across from me stands and disappears into the adjacent office. I can make out only a vague silhouette of a man hovering over his desk. “Talk to you later, Sarah.”
“Bye!” I say to a phone that has already gone dead.
Not a minute later, Marcia trots over with the stack of deal memos. I’ll take my time with this load.
I take a bathroom break and when I return, there is a tall, thin woman hovering about my cubicle. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d assume she’s Susanna Carlyle, the executive vice president of Stellar Productions. She scurried past me this morning without so much as a word and fled into one of the back offices. Her door remained closed throughout the day. Call me irrational, but I’ve never much cared for people who close their office doors. The quest for privacy in the workplace can only mean one thing: someone is going to get fired.
“You’re the temp?” she asks me, staring down the long, thin ridge of her nose.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“The coffeepot in the back is empty.”
“It is?” I ask, playing dumb.
“Do you mind making another pot?”
What I would give to be twelve years old again. To be able to snidely reply, “Why me?
didn’t finish it” But even at twelve, I wouldn’t want to risk losing my weekly allowance.
“Sure, no problem,” I say brightly as I skip my way into the pantry.
Now, see, I have a theory about being asked to brew coffee. It’s a theory I have about being asked to perform any degrading office task. I figure if I absolutely
to do it, I’ll do it once. I’ll do it wrong. And I’ll never have to do it again.
My secret to making bad coffee is quite simple. I decided long ago, harking way back to my intern years, never to learn how to make coffee at all. Oh, I suppose if push came to shove I
measure out an appropriate amount of coffee grounds. (Or beans? No, grounds. Right?) And I guess I
figure out just how much water to add. But I don’t much care to fuss with such details. The less effort, the better. Reuse yesterday’s soggy grounds, keep the same gaping filter, fill to the brim with tap water, presto!
When the coffee has brewed to my satisfaction, I carefully pour out two full cups. One for Ms. Carlyle, and one for her bitchy assistant for good measure.
Susanna Carlyle’s door is, of course, closed. I tap a cute little ditty on her name plate and she answers with a clipped, “Come in.” I open the door.
“So sorry to interrupt,” I tell her assistant, seated in the guest chair. “Here you go.”
“Thank you,” says Ms. Carlyle. Her assistant takes her mug wordlessly and glares at me over the rim. To piss her off, I beam her an unnatural, oafish grin.
As I prance out of the office and nudge the door closed behind
me, I hear Ms. Carlyle speak to her assistant in a purposefully loud whisper.
“Jake’s coffee is much better,” she says.
again. Maybe it’s just absence that makes the heart grow fonder. But there was no mistaking Jim Abbott’s look of despair when Jake couldn’t be found. No ignoring the catch in Gregory’s voice when he said his name out loud. And that look of scorn Ms. Carlyle’s assistant shot me when it was I who walked through that door? That was a decidedly feminine look, and a hostile one at that—a look generally reserved for the woman holding the last pair of jeans you specifically came to the store to buy. Believe me, that look would have been far softer and more docile if it had been intended for someone else.
These are the only clues I have to go by, but with them I have myself convinced Jake is someone I really, really want to impress. And so when I commence my filing, I pay special attention to my posture. I furrow my brow and look studious. I read the legal memos laboriously, and sometimes I even look off into space and pretend to be absorbing incredibly useful information.
Eventually looking off into space turns into looking wistfully at the door, imagining his dramatic entrance. First I picture him carrying his motorcycle helmet in one hand, a single red rose in the other, which he will gallantly place on my desk to thank me for coming in today. Then I remember the Tom Robbins book, and think maybe he wears glasses, but he also has outrageously wild, red hair. And the interns will leap up when they see him, and he’ll goofily slap their outstretched hands with a high-five and tell them the
just happened to him on the subway …
At 4 p.m. I figure he must be balding. At 4:30, I decide he is also grossly overweight. And by 5, he is also short. Not just a little short. Like shorter than me short, five feet two at the most.
In the end he turns out to be none of these things. He turns out, in fact, to be just like every other guy.
He doesn’t show up at all.
appy hour at the Dancing Burrito is always packed, but Laurie is easy to spot in even the most crowded bar. She waves to me when I walk in, the pillowy sleeve of her shirt drooping to expose a glimpse of her black lace bra underneath. Laurie might not have Amanda’s legs, or her cleavage, but she’s damn sexy in a way Amanda could never get away with. When people compliment Laurie—and they do, constantly—they tell her how much they love her chic new haircut (Louise Brooks pageboy, jet black), or her fantastic taste in clothes (tonight, impossibly short jean skirt, cowboy boots). Yes, this is probably what she wore to work this morning.
If you think Laurie might treat her office like a nightclub, you should see what she does to her table at the bar. Her deflated messenger bag is strapped to the back of her chair, its contents neatly arranged in front of her. Personal cell phone on the right, work cell phone on the left. A stack of manuscripts in the middle.
“What are those?” I ask, eyes wide.
“They’re for you.” She slides the manuscripts toward me.
I touch the pages lovingly. I was afraid to even hope Laurie might show up with her latest contraband. Usually, about once a week, she’s able to sneak me out a copy of the latest book or script her boss has optioned for the film studio. Two manuscripts are a blessed rarity. I flip the top manuscript open to the first page, suddenly ravenous for new people, new places and new beginnings.
“What, you’re going to read them now?”
“Of course not,” I say, feeling a hot flush on my cheeks. Reluctantly, I close the manuscript. “I just wanted to see what it was.”
“The top one is the new Ian Pascal—”
“You’re kidding! Already?”
“The other is a translation of a German book that has been a best seller for months in Europe. No one in the States has seen it yet.”
“Cool! You read it?”
“Oh, please. I don’t have time to read.”
She’s not kidding.
Laurie’s left cell phone rings. She grimaces at it.
“Shit. They’re going to want me back tomorrow morning. I was so looking forward to the day off.” She picks up the phone. “This is Laurie.” Her eyes roll upward. “Leon, this is my work phone. Call me back on the other line.” She hangs up and waits, drumming her fingers against the table. “Some people,” she seethes.
Her phone rings on the right. She picks it up. “Yeah?”
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember Laurie as that bright-eyed New York neophyte I met only three years ago, back when we were both fresh out of college, working at the film festival by day, scamming our way into exclusive premiere (and after) parties at night. I’m sure that same little bon vivant still dwells somewhere inside her, popping up every now and then to tempt her with glitter eyeshadow or a pair of fishnet stockings. Maybe now her edges are a little hardened, her tone a little more gruff, but God bless her for being the only friend I have who still gets a thrill from crashing parties.
“Sorry about that,” she says, snapping her cell phone shut and sliding it back into place. She reaches for one of the menus propped up at the center of the table and flips it open. I already know I’ll be having the Bay Burrito and that she’ll probably want to split it with
me. But as long as her eyes are temporarily averted, I nudge open the top manuscript with my elbow and start reading the first page.
“So, how’s the new temp job going?” she asks.
“Fine. They want me back tomorrow.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“Maybe it is.” Then again, maybe it isn’t.
Laurie snaps her menu shut. “Wanna split the Bay Burrito?”
“Sounds good to me.”
I close the manuscript discreetly and slip it into my bag. Laurie leans forward on her elbows.
“Oh, hey! I totally forgot to tell you. Guess who I just saw in the elevator?”
“Was it Ben Stiller?”
“No, okay. Stop. It was Princess.”
I gasp. “My Princess?”
“What was she doing in your building?”
“I think she works there now.”
I gasp again. “Shut up!” I squeal. “Since when?”