Every Friday, The Gloss is publishing a chapter of Andrea Dunlop’s novel, The Summer of Small Accidents. Catch up with Chapter 1 and if you decide you simply can’t wait for next week’s installment, you can buy the ebook here. Happy reading!
Heighton House had a comfortable, oddly campus like atmosphere to it. All of the divisions shared one big cafeteria, there was a gym on the third floor right above that and in the place where lunch trays were deposited there was a bulletin board where softball team schedules, notes about furniture or pets that were for sale and event invitations were posted. It was an attempt at community building that Leigh had never really felt the urge to take advantage of. She couldn’t imagine being at a softball game or a happy hour with the bright, peppy publicity girls or the serious prim editorial assistants; least of all her own dour colleagues, although she supposed most of them were too old to want to participate in these kinds of pseudo sorority get-togethers. Arguably, the kind of women she worked with were the most married to the place of anyone. Most of them would probably pitch a cot in the corner of their offices and sleep there if they could. Maybe some did.
She and Lulu sat in the same place everyday at lunch, just behind the cash registers, so that they could people watch and snark about the sartorial disasters of their colleagues, of which there were inevitably many.
“What’d you get for lunch?” Leigh asked.
“The tomato soup,” Lulu said, setting her tray noisily down on the table, “actually, its old-fashioned tomato soup, and I’m wondering ever since I got it what makes it so old fashioned? Is it the kind of soup that would judge me for having premarital sex? The kind of soup who wears sock garters and stands when a lady enters the room?”
“It does look as though it’s passing judgment, come to think of it,” Leigh said.
“Right? Damn you, soup that quietly judges. Anyway, how are you?”
“Not in a very good mood actually,” Leigh admitted.
“Any particular reason or just the general summer doldrums?”
“Something like that,” Leigh said, deciding at that moment that even she was tired of hearing herself rehash the night with Asa or dwell on the mess with Max.
“Well, fear not I have a cure. Do you feel like going out tonight?”
Leigh raised her chin, piqued. “Possibly, what did you have in mind?”
“Well nothing involving straights since I’m boycotting men.”
Leigh opened her mouth to speak.
“Unintentional pun!” Lulu said.
Leigh grinned and took a bite of her turkey wrap, chewing it innocently as if to imply she’d never intended to mention it.
“So you’re off men altogether?” Leigh asked incredulously.
“Temporarily at least, I’m going on hiatus. Anyway this morning I was taking a break from this god-awful manuscript I’m reading for the acquisitions meeting tomorrow—like I swear to God these geeks can come up with an entire multi faceted society of dragons and yet there are still only three kinds of women: damsels in distress, evil sirens, or evil shrews. I think the only women male fantasy writers have ever spent time with are their mothers, who must all be damsels, siren or shrews I guess. Anyway I digress. I was catching up on Martin Mundo’s column and he was going on and on about this new party on Tuesday nights at this place The Valley. This woman named Lucinda Trollope runs it…”
“Lucinda Trollope? What a name. Drag queen?”
“Nope, real woman- infamous former club kid I gather. The party will be full of all sorts of wild miscreants, which is pretty much what I’m in the mood for, I don’t know about you. Mundo was waxing on and on about how it so old New York, you know, like the real New York. You up for it?”
“Sure, what the hell?” Leigh shrugged, anything to break up the tedium. Leigh’s job was so dreary that if she didn’t vigilantly try to make the hours outside of work interesting, her life would itself be dreary.
Leigh getting her job in the production department of Heighton House had been an accident. There was a tiny ferocious woman in the HR department named Mary Beth who was in charge of all new recruits. Unless you knew someone who could pull in a favor and streamline the process for you (a privilege that was reserved for the sort of ivy-league going girls with more useful pedigrees than Leigh’s), all entry-level applicants had to go through Mary-Beth. Like nearly every other bright eyed twenty-two-year old who came through the door, Leigh had come there to ask about a job in the editorial department. She had a very clear fantasy about herself in a cubicle with piles of manuscripts from a kindly mentor of an editor who entrusted her to decide what was and was not worth her time.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing available in editorial at the moment,” Mary Beth had said, peering into a mysterious notebook in front of her. She was compact and sleek looking, with big, dark perfectly made-up eyes and a nose that gave her face a certain authority. She had the shiniest hair Leigh had ever seen, no strand had the audacity to fall out of line with the others.
“I’m sorry,” Leigh had said. “I thought I saw a couple of jobs posted on the website. I…”
“Oh yes, sorry the Bochner-Stem job is already being filled and the Halcyon job is not really entry level, they’re looking for someone with one to two years experience.”
Leigh had felt her shoulders sink downwards and stifled a sigh. Mary Beth had looked down again at the mysterious notebook.
“Have you ever thought about working in another part of book publishing? Everyone thinks they want to do editorial work in the beginning but it’s really not the best fit for everyone and there are lots of other excellent jobs you could apply for. We’re in need of production assistants for a couple of imprints at the moment.”
Her tone had changed almost imperceptibly from discouraging to solicitous.
“That sounds good too,” Leigh had said, lying, she didn’t really know what book production people did. “But I really was interested in editorial…”
“Well,” Mary Beth had said, with a dramatic sigh of resignation, “I don’t want you to apply for something you’re not interested in.” Leigh’s heart jumped as she watched Mary Beth close the notebook and push back just slightly from the table, as though ready to dismiss her. Suddenly, whatever was in the notebook was the key to the realm. She had begun to back-peddle madly, reiterating over and over her love of book publishing and her desire to know more about the process. Words came streaming out of her mouth from some unknown origin: multitasker, team player, aptitude for organizational productivity. These words meant nothing to her but behind them she threw the full weight of her enthusiasm. Overall it was quite a performance. She’d left believing it was she who had won the day and this was the genius of Mary Beth.
At first she had been able to romanticize the position by thinking of herself as a shepherd, guiding books into existence, overseeing all the intricate details that were involved in turning piles of pages into the beautiful volumes that she loved so much. And after so many months of temping, she had briefly allowed herself a reprieve, told herself she was on her way. After all, she lived in New York! She worked for one of the most famous publishing houses in the world! This job could be a stepping stone towards the goal of being an editor! And yet she had the sneaking feeling that, rather than coming closer to her reach, that dream was slipping away with every day she spent in that place.
In reality, most of Leigh’s job involved transferring various piles of paper from one person’s desk to another. She also spent a lot of time imputing codes into the antiquated operating system. She was convinced that with enough repetition over the years, the blinking cursors in their little text boxes and the long list of reference codes she used to fill them could be the doorway to the kind of madness that seemed to have befallen her older colleagues.
Most of her department sat on one long side of the floor; the senior staff members had proper offices and the junior members’ cubicles were on the adjacent side of the hallway. Since Leigh had been there she had not heard of anyone either leaving or getting promoted. Assistants came and then left while they still had their sanity. Everything above entry level was stagnant. Leigh called the line of offices, in her head and occasionally out loud to Lulu, Spinster’s row. They were a lineup of cautionary tales. There were four senior production heads, three women and one man. The women were uniform in that they were unmarried and stayed every night in the office until at least eight o’clock. Being that Leigh was a sort of universal departmental assistant, she was familiar with the size of their workloads and often wondered how each of them managed to have enough to do to arrive before nine, work through lunch and then stay so late in the evening. Two of the oldest women in the office, strangely both named Pamela, spent, by Leigh’s calculations, at least two hours each day rattling off to each other a litany of grievances, including but not limited to the amount of work they had to do, the incompetence of the people in the printing plant, and the incompetence of people in the editorial department. The two didn’t seem so much to like each other as to be allied with each other. The third senior member was Tabitha, Leigh’s direct boss. While she was much younger than the Pamelas, she had the same air of complacency and bitterness- Leigh guessed she had become old somewhere around thirty-five. She too had many complaints about people but unlike the Pamelas, she would level them at anyone directly reporting to her. Leigh sat straight across from her so she could yell without even leaving her desk “Leigh, where are those transmittals I asked for?” or “Leigh this purchase order is incorrect. Again.” Perhaps the thrill of briefly humiliating a younger colleague was all she had left in life to look forward to; Leigh almost wouldn’t begrudge her it if she hadn’t happened to be that colleague.
The sole male in the senior portion of the staff was a middle-aged oddity named John. He was stout and reminded one of an angry turtle. He said very little to anyone except to mutter obscenities each time someone deposited more work in his inbox or to occasionally loudly announce to no one in particular his plans to off himself the coming weekend or his failure to stick to such plans the previous weekend. The fact that he had not yet been fired was nothing but a testament to bureaucracy.
The combined effect was a sort of symphony of discontent that echoed down the hallway, reprimands from Tabitha, cursing from John, and simple unadulterated moans and groans from the Pamelas.
The saving grace about Tabitha was that she always called out for Leigh to come to her and rarely ventured over to Leigh’s cubicle, though she would occasionally materialize in her doorway like the wicked witch of the West if she happened to be already up and about when she thought of some demand for Leigh. Thus, Leigh was mostly free to surf the internet at her leisure as she did today.
She googled “Lucinda Trollope.” One of the first sites to come up was that of a popular New York photographer. She clicked on the photo tag labeled The Valley for a preview of coming attractions. She clicked through them listlessly, there were boys and girls, but everyone looked young. It looked as though the photos were taken at a Halloween party though given the dates on the tags, it was unlikely. Partygoers were festooned with all sorts of shimmering paraphernalia, eye makeup to the eyebrows on both genders, tiaras and comically thick eyeglasses and asymmetrical haircuts abounded. In the dress there was a trend towards the costumish and the childlike, people seemed to be making some sort of anti-fashion statement with their unicorn sweatshirts and neon windbreakers. Everyone vamped for the camera, no one simply smiled. Everyone looked used to having their picture taken; everyone looked like they were in on the joke, whatever the joke was exactly. This was amazing to Leigh; she loathed having her picture taken. Usually if someone insisted, she declined to look at it. She hated to be presented with angles of herself that she didn’t see when she looked in the mirror and having to then wonder if this other image wasn’t a much closer representation of what people saw when she looked at her. She was patently unphotogeneic, always managing somehow to shorten her neck by tucking in her chin when she smiled or stand at the worst possible angles that made her torso warp into a shape more bottom heavy than it actually was.
In several photographs from a night weeks beforehand, Leigh noticed one guy in particular who appeared several times. In a couple of shots he was next to Amelia LaRouche, a downtown transsexual so well known that anyone who had so much as perused a copy of the Village Voice would know who she was. It appeared the two might be friends. He was one of several regulars featured in many of the photographs. His outfit was a costume too but an exceptionally good one from what she could see in the picture, a velvet coat paired with a high Victorian collar, his bleached blonde hair slicked back into a ponytail. He wore the same expression in all the pictures, a pouty half-smile that accentuated a cushiony bottom lip. He looked oddly familiar but she couldn’t place him.
Who were these people? What did they do for a living? Were they sitting in cubicles right now thinking about what they were going to wear that evening? Maybe this was what the sulky, tattooed art assistants did with their evenings. It was even better to imagine them with stultifying corporate jobs, to imagine that the twenty-something with his hair pushed into an asymmetrical Mohawk was actually a CPA during the day. Half of them were rich kids because half of everyone everywhere in Manhattan were rich kids. She looked again at the picture of the blond boy and it finally clicked; from Café Deville, she had seen him before. How could she have forgotten that face even for a second? She smiled to herself. Of course he was gay.
Her eyes blurred while her thoughts wandered and the pixels of the photos ran together.
“Leigh!” Tabitha was standing in her cubicle doorway, leaning back as though she had halted in mid-stride. Leigh looked at her, startled.
“Mee-ting,” Tabitha said, over-enunciating the syllables as though talking to stupidest person alive.
“Right,” Leigh said, springing up and grabbing a notebook that was always at the ready next to her keyboard.
She took a seat next to one of the other assistants at the large oval conference table. She stared fixedly at the proposed meeting agenda: Routing procedurals, standard transmittal requirement adherence, supply ordering documentation, kitchen cleanliness. All four issues were discussed at length. The Pamelas had particularly strong feelings about the penultimate matter, pointing out that there was somehow always too many file folders of the legal size and never enough of the letter size in the supply closet. As it happened, Leigh had no opinions or insights to share on the matters at hand and so while making sure to keep her face and eyes fixed in an expression of alert attentiveness, she did what she usually did during meetings, thought about sex. At first she conjured some of her favorite scenes from the past: dorm rooms, summer camp after ninth grade, a night somewhat more recently in an alley close to Grand Street. Then she began to think of Asa. The picture in her mind had become murky as the days had passed since that night. She saw certain pieces clearly- the thickness of his stubble, his smooth olive skin, the coarse linen of his shirt, even the smell of his hair came back to as vividly as if he were leaning his head on her shoulder but when it came to putting it all back together in a single entity she found herself at a loss. What she remembered better than any of the details apart or combined was the way it had felt to be in the room with him, how all of the breathable air had suddenly seemed to be sucked out and drawn in around him.
For the rest of the day she tried to weave a viable fantasy of seeing him again and yet as with her memory of his body, each time she had a vision close at hand of him appearing at her doorstep or of her suddenly needing to go to Paris for some reason, the image fragmented and was gone again.