Winner of the 2014 Neil Shepard Prize in Fiction

(1989-90)

Rose swivels the guest chair with her back to Steven Reiser. Rather than face his desk, she looks out wall-to-wall windows at a slice of Pacific Ocean horizon or glances into the hallway through Steven’s open Funk, Ogden, Upton, and Rosen Agency door, to avoid viewing some revolting thing like the saliva tongue roll. Steven sits behind his desk with his legs open, making jerking-off gestures, tongue hanging out—looking straight at Rose—apparently to illustrate his phone conversation. It’s her own fault; she looked. She closes his door on her way out. Steven stomps on his under-desk pedal, and his office door pops back open.

From her desk, Rose can hear—everyone on Fourteen can probably hear—Steven, The Voice, on the phone: “Gettin’ a chubby! Givin’ me a woody! Make me an offer, baby! Now, now, now!” Steven is on with Mack Lebeda, on behalf of cinematographer Wylie Lester, due to shoot the Calibretti picture. Does Wylie know this is how his agent conducts himself?

Steven’s voice whines out his open door like a kettle whistle. He says he wants it open between them so that Rose can hear negotiations from her desk. Steven compares Rose to Radar on M*A*S*H—“Radar in heels”—and reminds her that if she can’t hear him, she can’t do that, can’t be that, can’t anticipate his next move. He wants her to learn his business by listening in. He wants her to want to be his protégée.

His volume says he expects others will be impressed by what he is saying in a voice like Edith Bunker on helium. “Now you’re yelling at me? Don’t yell at me!” Steven yells. “Mack, why are you yelling at me?” Steven inexplicably puts Mack on speaker. Mack is not yelling but does sound frantic like, Rose thinks, when a bee gets in your perm through an open window and you still have to drive the car.

“I told you, Steven,” Mack says, “we’ll see about paid ads, right before you were screaming like a girl over your stiffy!”

“Are you done?”

“I’m a brisket now, Steven?”

You done yet?

“Am I a turkey?”

“You done, Mack?”

“Okay, fine, what?”

“Don’t yell at me.”

“Don’t insult me, Steven.”

“Mack! Do not yell at me!”

“Don’t insult me, Steven!”

“Do not yell at me!”

“Insult me, Steven!”

“How’m I insulting you?” asks The Voice.

“D.P. gets six-for-five, time-and-a-half overtime, guarantee of weeks, and you want paid ads?”

“Six-for-five and paid ads! Cameraman gets six-for-five deserves paid ads!”

“‘Deserves,’ Steven?”

Mack! Mack! Mack! Can I saaay somethin’, goddamnit?”

Jared, Joel Robb’s assistant next door, comes into Rose’s frame of vision, cheeks cupped in palms, eyes bulging, like Munch’s The Scream. (Is The Scream’s figure—Rose wants to ask—screaming or hearing the scream?) She and Jared are not hearing Mack anymore. Maybe he hung up. Maybe Steven plugged his headset back in. Jared, if he wants, could see through the door from where he is standing, but instead he is watching Rose.

Steven says, “Are you done for a sec?”

Mack grumbles.

Steven shrieks, “It was not my understanding– ”

“I–”

Mack! Mack! Mack!

“I–”

Wait a minute!” Apparently, The Voice has risen and marched around his desk on his long leash, because his door slams from inside with a force that the pedal cannot offer—the sound of a tree cracked by lightning—a wooden sonic boom. Rose gets up, hand to heart, and crosses to inspect Steven’s door frame.

Jared says, “The most frightening ejaculation yet!”

Steven squeals behind his closed door, “No! Wait! Mack! Let! Me! Saaay somethin’ here!”

“Think I get paid enough,” Rose asks, “without knowing how much I get paid?”

Their recently upgraded FOUR phones jabber at them like dolphins.

Jared plugs his headset back in: “Joel Robb’s office.” He stops his free ear with a knuckle and minuets his long cord around to the chair-side of his bay, where Rose, at her own desk now, can no longer see him.

She plugs her free ear with a finger and picks up her receiver. “Steven Reiser’s office. Rose Singer. Yes. He’s on another line. Would you like to hold? One moment, please.” Both her ears are now free, and Rose is not hearing anything from behind Steven’s door. His lit line flickers and Rose uses her receiver to buzz in on the intercom before he can dial out: “Your mom’s on four.”

“Tell ‘er t’ fuck off!” can be heard not only through the receiver but loud and clear through Steven’s closed door. Their buzzer system is the only thing Rose allows on speaker at her end: one buzz means ask the caller to hold; two buzzes for Steven will call back; three buzzes for Rose should start dialing the next call. Nothing else from Steven should be on speaker.

Rose steps across the hall to open Steven’s door and avoids meeting Jared’s, and Joel Robb’s, eyes on the way.

Steven is dialing out. He plugs his headset’s voice-tube with a nail-bitten finger. “Tell ‘er I died!

“I can be literal,” Rose says from the doorway. “Remember? So, if you want me to tell your mom, ‘Steven says to fuck off. . . . I’m sorry, Mrs. Reiser, but Steven says to tell you he died,’ I will. And, when your dad calls–”

“Tell ‘er t’ hold!

Everything for Steven is about his dad (“my daad”), a Hollywood writer going back to the 1940s. Steven is Zalman’s youngest (just a couple years older than Rose; same age as her sister, Aggie), and Steven knows Hollywood mostly through a spectrum of those like his dad—award-winning bigwigs behind the scenes and on camera, below-the-line and above it, still busy working, and many of them represented by Steven, who lives for their associations.

Steven and his list, his stable, his boutique of famous fogeys and their protégés and progenies do not fit into any one department or division at FOUR—Motion Picture, Television, Talent, Literary, Below-the-Line, or Music—but into all of them. No matter which territory other FOUR agents cover, Steven is point-man for his own clients. Other FOUR agents have to deal with The Voice and what it is liable to say. For instance, Steven thinks it is okay to tell a “joke” that opens with, “Know how to shoot a nigger in the face?”

“Are you insane?” Rose asks him “What is wrong with you? Do you know how to shoot a Jew in the face?”

I’m a Jew,” Steven says. “You’re a Jew.”

“Duh!” Rose pokes, stabs, at him like words with a finger, without actually touching him: “Do you know how to shoot a kike in the face, Steven? You want to hear the rest of that ‘joke’?”

Thelma—FOUR’s personnel director—has signed Rose on “full-time,” nine months at a time, paychecks spread out over a year, with benefits, renewable. Rose plans to draw and paint next summer, as she did this summer, in Montana, where she was born. When Rose got back to L.A. from Montana last month, Steven heard she was looking for a new gig until next summer and kept calling her and Thelma and the partners, making a big deal and a valid point that no other girl (he will not consider a guy) is going to stay with him nine months anyway. His last assistant slapped him pretty hard about the head before running out in tears, arms flailing, and afterwards her fiancé phoned threatening to beat Steven up and to sue FOUR for severe emotional distress. Thelma is convinced the recent stink-bomb explosion in the elevator shaft of the express car that shoots from Lobby straight up twelve floors to FOUR’s lower level, Fourteen (really Thirteen, if the building admitted to having a thirteenth floor), and the agency’s subsequent evacuation down more than a dozen floors of fire stairs, was motivated by, was in response to, something Steven must have done or said. Rose plans to buy a four-wheel-drive. She needs to be able to keep paying her L.A. rent the months she is gone, whether she sublets or not, and also afford living in Montana three months without carrying a balance on her credit cards. She was hoping for five-fifty or six hundred a week elsewhere, like on another picture, but the “Steven situation” was a disaster and a golden opportunity staring her in the face with its mouth hanging open. Still, Thelma would not start Rose at more than five hundred a week (when some of Steven’s clients are paid five thousand a five-day week, some less, some more, not counting overtime). Thelma needs to know FOUR is going to be able to save on the cost of another quick turnover (and perhaps another and another), needs to see Rose stick it out some before Thelma can justify paying her more.

Steven has been trying to woo Rose to sit on his desk for years, watching her long-term temp around town and for FOUR colleagues (a schedule that earns her days and weeks and months between jobs, to paint at home or to road-trip with cameras and tripod, pencils and paints and easel). Steven has tried to bribe Rose with the promise of a home computer, a new T.V., a car phone—as if he knows what she wants, which he apparently thinks is other than what she says it is—is always offering to reach in his pockets—and Rose has always said no. Up to now, she would rather earn extra dollars working for her caterer friend as a server; would rather wear a bow tie and carry a tray above a fray of dancing movie stars, than be stuck listening to Steven’s crap all day, every day, as she had to some extent while temping for agents adjacent to him. The more repulsive she finds Steven, the more he wants her on his team, which annoys her, but it pays. FOUR is providing Rose with life, dental, and medical insurance. Steven is already talking about her year-end bonus, even though she will have been there by then fewer than six months.

Up and down FOUR corridors, people smile over Rose’s hire. She’s good, she will tell you, because “I grew up in this shit storm.” She will also say, “Don’t expect magic.”

Part of Rose’s deal is to create the Steven Reiser Desk Manual in preparation for the next poor soul that has to hold down the desk, and the soul after that, when not Rose. Yet, Thelma tells Rose that she may not type into the S.R.D.M.: Steven sheds like a dog, so you should probably keep a lint roller in your desk. Thelma says Rose may not put in: Steven’s shirt is perpetually untucked, his zipper down. Don’t take it personally.

Rose’s big sister Aggie, who works downtown in the Garment District, today came to Century City to get Rose for lunch and went straight at Steven, yanking up his waistband with one hand, pulling up his zipper with the other. “Lock your tongue down,” she told him, demonstrating forcefully at the top of his fly. Steven makes Aggie crazy.

“Gettin’ a stiffy!” Steven told her.

In the regular course of things—walking into restaurants, into meetings, into elevators, driving his Bimmer (which sounds like the motorcycle version, Beeemer, when Steven says it)—Steven is reaching his arm apelike over his head, spinning a lock of his hair like a beanie propeller. Steven looks absolutely ridiculous and claims not to understand why he is treated like he is absolutely ridiculous. He is doing it now, behind his desk, off the phone call from his mother, going over incomings and outgoings on the phone sheet with Rose. Now he rolls his tongue and foamy, white saliva out past his lips, then slurps it back in.

“I will lose my lunch,” Rose tells him, “if you don’t stop doing that.”

“I have cold sores. They hurt me. I need to keep them lubricated.”

“I do not want to know from that.”

Steven readjusts his genitals—some guys at FOUR call it playing pocket pool. “Don’t want to look at that,” Rose tells him.

“I have a problem. My urologist says–”

“I do not want to know from it, Steven!”

When Rose leaves the agency at night, she has imprints of her teeth along the insides of her cheeks and the edges of her tongue. Sometimes the imprints are still there mornings when she drives in to the office.

*

Rose is awake from a dream in which everything is too pricey (stacked-leather replacement heels for her worn-down rough-out boots, a black bra, a colored pencil set . . .) and realizes she is still angry with her father, Matt, who was able in the dream to interpret the art of a woman who drinks too much, which reminds Rose of Matt’s own drinking. Last Sunday, when she pulled up at the curb in front of his house to pick him up for Cousin Cleo’s birthday party, he climbed in with a coffee mug of Scotch because, he told Rose, he lived in fear there would be no hard liquor there—“Some godforsaken wine-and-cheese nightmare!”

Rose hears water through the pipes beneath her tiny bungalow—the timer setting sprinklers off, station-to-station, on lawns and beds around the property. Rose tries to calculate how much sleep she has gotten, wonders whether she should try to doze or should shower, start her day, work at her easel, until it is time to think about getting ready for FOUR, and now the phone rings, at 4:16 a.m..

“Hello?”

Behind the static Rose’s cordless typically has in the back room, her bedroom, she hears a rhythmic clicking and a creepy breathing. She pushes Off and collapses the antenna. She does not remember having pulled the antenna out.

The phone rings again.

“Hello?”

Static.

“Hel-lo?”

Faintly, a man: “Good morning.”

“Who is this?”

Muttering.

“Who?”

Muttering.

“Who is this?”

A low humming whisper, too intimate. Rose disconnects.

Again it is ringing.

Rose swings out of bed, stumbles past the grounded kitchen line and into the front room, where she turns the lamp on and squints her way over to the answering machine, next to the cordless’s base, to make sure volume is up. The machine clicks on, and the phones stop ringing. She hears her own voice. The machine clicks again, and the cassette rewinds before Rose’s greeting is finished greeting. Could it have been Spencer, Rose wonders, who used to try for phone sex? How long since she has heard from Spencer?

In Rose’s dream, the art of the soused woman was fragmented, as were her sentences, unfinished thoughts dropping off cliffs. When Rose complained to Matt that the artist’s fragments were not telling a story, were not forming an overall image, Matt told Rose that he could see a story, he could decipher a pattern—and Rose could not understand what he was getting at.

She showers—considers all the men it could have been that she hopes it was not calling. She tries to remember if Spencer has ever opened any conversation with “Good morning.”

*

The Bay Area World Series pre-game show is, in Rose’s opinion, inconsiderately loud from the T.V. in Julie and Bass’s office, but she will not say because of what they put up with from Steven. If she were to complain, they would probably laugh at her; perhaps as if she were being ironic. Rose plugs one ear with her receiver, the other with a finger, and tries Zoetrope’s post-production guy, who keeps missing Steven (on purpose? she wonders). The receptionist in San Francisco puts Rose on terminal-hold. Now Rose is disconnected. “Fucking bimbo,” Rose says. To no one in particular and to everyone in general she says, “Can you believe I said that? Did anyone hear me say that?” No one answers. She punches in a fresh tone, hits Redial, thinks: I’m infected; I’ve been contaminated.

Bass, a Commercial Talent agent who transferred to L.A. from New York, calls out, “Are we having an earthquake?” He has never been in an earthquake and always thinks there is one, more terrified than coworkers who have skinned their knees and elbows scrambling under desks and tables.

Christy in Music Travel calls out, “Earthquake!”

Rose takes her receiver under the desk at the end of a long spiral cord that will reach all the way across the hall into Steven’s office if she needs it to. Rose is wearing a short skirt. She clamps her legs together and braces her pumps on the opposite wall of her knee well. No one answers at Zoetrope. Rose hears Bass’s tchotchkes rattling on the brushed-metal ledge below his shin-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows, his glass-and-chrome desk lurching, and Bass crying, “Oh God, oh my God, this is not good!”

“Earthquake!” Steven calls from his office into the hall, then shouts, “Wrong!

Rose reaches up top and pulls her phone’s base down with her, also on a long cord, to see how many lines are lit. Steven has made a call on his own while he waits for Rose to get Zoetrope.

“That’s not right,” he yells at whoever it is.

Rose’s desk chair rolls towards the shelves. “Look at the doors!” she says. Her door is propped open with a stop, but she sees unstopped doors on either side of the hallway flapping on their hinges like slow elephant ears. Century City buildings shift and sway. Sidewalks are grouted with rubber that Rose’s high heels sink into; leather wrapping skinned between slabs of concrete. Century City highrises in earthquakes sway, they shift, they tilt, like re-enforced palm trees in a wind storm.

Rose’s chair returns.

Two other lines are ringing. She gives up on Zoetrope. “Steven Reiser’s office, please hold. Steven Reiser’s office.”

Bass is crawling on his hands and knees down the hallway toward reception: “This’s not good! This’s not good!”

Breathing on the line. “Please hold.”

“Not fair!” Steven yells.

“Thanks for holding.”

“You beneath something?” Rose’s dad asks. “We’re under our goddamn desks!” he tells her, calling from his office on the Burbank lot. He sounds as though someone is sitting on him.

“Me, too—my desk,” Rose tells him. “Hang on, Dad—there’s another call. Thanks for holding.”

This breather—Rose has to wonder—is he the same as Mr. Good-morning at home or another breather altogether? Is this breather hurt, scared, or jacking off?

Steven yells, “You are screwing me up the asshole!”

Rose tells the breather, “Please hold.” She cannot read the digital display. Is this from in-house, direct from outside, or through the switchboard? When she starts to try to reason or to imagine who, she realizes she does not want to know, does not want to picture the possibilities.

Motion has abated.

Rose punches in the other blinking line. “Sorry, Dad.” She has been avoiding Matt’s calls —he wants her to attend a tribute at the Century Plaza Hotel in honor of an old-timer, a producer friend and colleague of his. Matt’s girlfriend, his agent, Evelyn, is out of town. Rose’s sister, Aggie, has already refused to be their dad’s date.

“You okay, sport?” Matt asks.

“I’m okay. You?”

Matt makes big-man-rising sounds. “So, what’s about tonight?” he asks, gasping—either standing now or sitting in his desk chair. Rose can hear him tapping one end of a cigarette on its box.

“C.C.’s a perv, Dad. Why pay tribute to a man who would probably proposition me at your funeral?”

“Jesus! F.!” Matt says. Rose hears him tapping the cigarette’s other end. Now he flicks his lighter, inhales. Rose notices that, though her door-stop reads DOOR STOP, when in use, it reads DOOR ST, which could be the name of their hall, their street of doors. She is still on the floor. “Christ!” Matt finishes, exhaling.

“Dad, I’m punchy. I need to get off the floor and run downstairs for food. If you’re okay.”

“Fine!” Matt says and hangs up.

Rose leaves the breather’s line blinking.

“Epicenter’s in San Francisco!” Julie calls from her office. “Candlestick’s dark!”

“It’s not even 5:30,” Rose says, standing on her knees.

“Expression!” Julie tells her, stomping past, probably in search of Bass.

Rose thinks: That’s why Zoetrope lost her. This was theirs? Hundreds of miles north?

Guys,” Steven shouts, “keep it down out there!”

What about Margot? Rose thinks. She dials Margot’s number “Up North” by heart, and Margot answers. Rose says,“You answered!”

“Saul!” Steven complains. “I’m the one who’s got to bend over again?

*

Rose’s dad, Matt Singer, a producer Steven would like to represent, has had the same agent for more than a decade, his girlfriend, Evelyn Reyes, and he is happy with her representation.

Matt grew up in L.A. His parents, Rose’s grandparents, are a costume designer and a film editor, for the most part now retired. Matt met Rose’s mom, Kat, at U.C.L.A. in the mid-1950s. His start as a television writer and Kat’s as a freelance book editor were interrupted on the cusp of the ‘60s when Kat’s dad, a Montana horse rancher, had a crane accident while plucking snags from his land, and Matt moved with baby Aggie and Kat, pregnant with Rose, to help Rose’s grandmother work the ranch while her grandfather was laid up. It was there that Matt started writing, of all things, frontier novels, which years after they were published were optioned for television; and Matt attached himself forever to his own work as a writer-producer. During this time, Rose’s grandfather recuperated slowly, then Kat was diagnosed with breast cancer and, toward the end, Matt started drinking a bit more every night. By the time he—a single father— returned to his home town with Aggie and Rose, he was maybe more knee-deep in Hollywood than he would have been had he stayed in L.A. and not moved to Montana at all. Matt embarked on a successful career—is still at it—but creative executives can, no problem, have bars in their offices for supposedly professional purposes: cracking open the Scotch at the end of a day on the lot, unwinding with coworkers and recapping, before their inevitable drives to dinner dates or screenings or another bar or home. The work bar in Matt’s office makes his drinking look pretty normal in the scheme of things, as long as he is not drinking alone. Matt is kind and funny, if sometimes ill-natured or exasperated, as with Rose’s attitude about C.C., and most people cannot tell when he is drunk but—though it took her awhile—Rose can tell by now: when he is no longer funny, and if witty perhaps at someone’s expense—somebody actually in the room or about to be in the room. When Matt is drunk, he gets stupid, Rose thinks, but he does not want to hear about it, so she gets away from her father’s drunkenness and breathlessness with summers in Montana, where her maternal grandparents no longer live, but childhood friends do—to paint, yes, and also Rose considers moving back, to detox from L.A. and see what happens. She is good at L.A., but she can feel it is bad for her, and the men she meets in L.A. are bad for her. Working in the industry is what she knows how to do, yet she has not risen in the ranks because she has not seen a career track that appeals to her as what she would like to be known for— known as—what or how she would like to actively be.

Rose’s “doppelganger,” Margot Helmut, a television writer, established a name for herself in “Hollyweird” before she showed some actual agency and got out of L.A. to San Francisco and has managed to stay in the business from Up North. Rod Helmut, Margot’s dad, is a friend and colleague of Matt Singer’s and is also a drinker and a smoker with whom—as with Matt—both are catching up. Rose and Margot are called doppelgangers because they grew up in part living back-to-back on two different bays of the same glacier lake in Montana, Peaceful Bay and Placid Bay, plus they know each other from growing up in L.A., both their dads starting out together in television, now both creative execs—writers who produce—still friends with similar charms and problems, like their daughters, whose mothers, on those back-to-back Montana bays, separated only by a point that becomes a ridge between their properties and townships, both died of breast cancer within a year of one another. Then, Rose and Margot in their early teens were both living with their dads and sisters in L.A.. They each took a turn living in the same Pacific Palisades apartment, too, upon reentry—one single dad of girls handing his keys over to the other, after Matt bought his house just as Rod was receiving Margot and her little sister full-time back in L.A.

Margot not only writes for television from San Francisco but to make ends meet at times also teaches, not only screenwriting but fiction, to remind herself to read and to write—to stay in the business of—prose. Margot returns to L.A. when she has to, but aside from wanting to make her own name, separate from Rod, she also does not want to witness what she sees as his steady decline in health. Rose strongly understands Margot’s desire to get out, and she admires that she has, but herself has only moved so far as her artistic road-trips and now whole summers back in Montana, which she also sees as her test driving the idea of a potential permanent move. Her dad has, as Margot’s dad has, threatened to disown his daughters if they attempt an actual intervention. The men say they would rather live and die with drinks in their hands and cigarettes between their fingers than have to live life without them—just what their girls are afraid of. And why hang around for that?

*

Rose receives from Margot, addressed at FOUR, an old picture postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge, as usual, as it is today, still standing, still functioning, unlike the Bay Bridge with its section of collapsed upper deck. On the message side, Margot has written in her distinctive printing:

I am not a secretary, the secretary says, I’m a painter.

I am not a waitress, the waitress says, I’m a dancer.

I am not a dancer, the dancer says, I’m a doctor.

Rose tucks the card, picture side out, into the frame of her bulletin board and wonders what the Mailroom made of it.

She is obsessing at the computer on the latest draft of the S.R.D.M., while Steven is away at meetings—rare and precious moments—and Richard Dick phones to say that Ben Sandy and Harry Rothstein are taking the Motion Picture assistants to dinner tonight to discuss “synergy” and “bonding,” and Harry would like Rose to attend.

She tells Richard, “I have plans already.”

“Can’t you break them?”

“With Steven—and with his dad. I’ve been putting them off for months. They finally nailed me down.”

“Putting off Steven?”

“Don’t you?”

“Harry wants you there, and so does Ben. Geoff Harris’ assistant canceled his pre-existing plans.”

Rose tells Richard she’ll get back to him.

When Steven phones from his car, he says, “Cinergi? We don’t like Cinergi.”

“Not capital C, Steven: small s.”

“What’s the difference?”

“One is an actual word, concept. Company’s a play on words—synergy?—cinema? You don’t know that?”

“So? You want to go?”

“No. But shouldn’t we find out if it’s important for me to attend as your internal rep?”

“If it’s important! Why didn’t they invite you when it was planned? And not six or seven hours beforehand? You’re an afterthought because I am!”

*

Rose does not have a T.V. in her closet of an office but she has brought in her twenty-year-old transistor radio that she used to wear with a shoulder strap horseback riding around her grandparents’ ranch and its closest small town. She keeps it on F.M. news talk. She cannot bring herself to stop listening to the Berlin Wall coming down after twenty-eight years, nearly her entire life span. She keeps it on low as she works through lunch on the S.R.D.M. with the phones forwarded to the message center, so Marc Goldberg—FOUR’s in-house attorney—comes to find Rose in person to tell her that the switchboard has Steven holding from jail. Marc cannot find any of the partners and no one from Accounting to sign a check for Steven’s bail.

“Jail, for what?”

“Speeding.”

“Bail?”

Marc tells Rose that Steven did not have his license with him, didn’t have his wallet on him, and he upbraided the officer so severely for bringing that to light that she found she had to place him behind bars—this from the officer, not from Steven, whose version, Marc tells Rose, is less believable.

Rose has often fantasized that the pedal under Steven’s desk instead was under her own, and that she could stomp on it from her desk to close Steven’s door, and lock him in, from the outside.

Rose and Marc leave him to sit for now. What else can they do? It’s lunchtime.

He could have called his dad.

*

Steven manages to get Rose a year-end bonus of two-thousand-dollar—partially out of his own pocket, that portion to be officially deducted from his paycheck by FOUR, because he did not consider the bonus FOUR had planned to give her big enough—plus Thelma gave Rose the pay raise up to what she had hoped to start at, six hundred a week, because she is proving to be worth it.

Rose begins researching the differences between 1990 Isuzu Trooper and Mitsubishi Montero four-wheel-drives and will be next researching selling the Honda Prelude she bought almost-new in 1980 from the Van Nuys dealership at a discount—it had been their ‘79 test driver—which has been good to her. But Rose wants to feel safer between California and Montana on her own and, once there, to be able to get just about anywhere, at any time of year. She looks forward to getting used to four-wheel-driving and riding up high.

*

Rose returns from lunch to find, in the “From Steven” In-box, a hard-stock envelope containing black-and-white eight-by-tens of Steven and his dad Zalman Reiser with Sonny Bono, all of them in tuxes, against a mayoral Palm Springs night. Her other In-box, from the outside world, including in-house, is piled high. Rose’s Out-box should be just as high with audios, videos, headshots, resumes, and scripts before the next Mailroom pick-up for post and messenger. She slides the photos back into the envelope and stomps the package across the hall. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she asks Steven, standing in his doorway.

“Send them to Sonny, to autograph for me and Daaad.”

“No way, Steven.”

“Do it for meee, Rosie!”

“This is personal. Not in my job description. Do it yourself. Have your dad’s assistant do it.”

“He wants you to! You’re so good at getting to people!”

“If you ‘know’ Sonny, get to him yourself. Do you realize how much it would take from my day, from doing client business? Can’t you tell how behind I am with all that shit piled on my desk? I have submissions to make! Hire a personal secretary.”

“What if I order you to?”

“Please fire me.”

*

Steven has already purchased one-hundred-and-fifty-dollars worth of laser disc movies as a birthday gift for an actor client, then asks Rose to write a memo from Steven to “our so-called department” head, Ben, requesting approval, saying that the client’s birthday is coming up, and Steven would like to gift him with one-hundred-and-fifty-dollars worth of laser disc movies. If Steven gets purchases pre-approved, he does not have to include them on his itemized monthly expense reports, a regular battle in which each line item is scrutinized in Accounting. Steven ignores the “pre-” part of the approval process. The memo from him that Rose sent to Ben backfires, because Ben is not allowed to okay anything over fifty bucks—above that, one of the partners has to approve—and now Steven has drawn attention to himself. The partner that Ben reports to approves half: seventy-five dollars; and, Steven is incensed, because he will now not be able to list the other half on his expense report. He asks Rose, “Should I make a stink over this with Ben?”

“Ben has nothing to do with it. Save your fights for something you’re right about.”

“So, you think,” Steve says, “I should take the low-key approach?”

*

Matt phones to tell Rose that Barbara Stanwyck, another vestige of Hollywood class, is gone, dead. Rose thinks of the beautiful record she has left of herself—not only as a movie queen decades before Rose was born, but also on T.V. in The Big Valley, when Rose was in single digits and living on the Montana horse ranch where she was born; in which Stanwyck played a glamorous matriarch on horseback whom Rose admired, relating to the mother horsewoman more than identifying with her beautiful blonde teenage daughter played by Linda Evans, whose character struck Rose as being like the precarious head of a dandelion puff next to the steely, spiny substance of a pine cone, Barbara Stanwyck—always a classic. Matt sounds to Rose as if he has been crying and Rose thinks if so, it is likely more to do with Stanwyck’s death coming in the same week as the anniversary of Kat’s death, Aggie and Rose’s mom. For several years now, Kat has been gone for more years than Rose was old when she died. Stanwyck’s age is off, but it is not a stretch to say that the Big Valley character of Stanwyck represents Kat and their life on the horse ranch and Matt’s foray into Westerns near the end, a new beginning.

And here they are.

*

Rose is taking lunch at her desk to justify leaving at one-thirty for a dental appointment, and Steven has for some reason decided to stay in for lunch himself. He tried to buy Rose’s lunch, which she does not plan to eat with him, so she said no. It makes him crazy that she will not take anything from him that is not technically earned, business-related, which going to eat with him at a restaurant, or working through lunch around the conference table, would be—earned—work— but eating a lunch at her desk that she was going to buy and eat there anyway is not.

In the middle of the hot pastrami on rye she snuck downstairs to purchase for herself, she gets a call from a man asking for Eva Reiser. There is no Eva Reiser. He says he spoke to Eva Reiser at this number yesterday about the renovations he is doing on her house. Rose asks him to hold. She steps across the hall to Steven’s open doorway. Steven has his headset on, but he is not on the phone. He is at his desk, sucking remnants of lunch from his teeth, reading Variety.

“Remember yesterday,” Rose says, leaning in the doorway, “when you forced us all to hear you tearing your contractor a so-called new asshole, showing him who wears the balls in the relationship? Well, he’s holding right now, to address with Eva Reiser the issues he insists she broached with him yesterday from this number. He hasn’t said a disrespectful thing about her, he’s nothing but professional and polite, so he didn’t say this, it’s my interpretation, but might he have thought during your ball-busting tirade that he was speaking to a screaming woman?” Rose thumbs-up him. “You’re the man, Steven.” Steven steps on his pedal and takes the call. With the door shut between them, Rose cannot tell whether he has deepened his voice or not, but she would bet that he has. And, because she cannot hear anything, she concludes that his tone must be civilized, to match Rose’s description of the man at the other end, professional and polite. She returns to the sandwich at her desk and the work she has to complete before she can securely leave Steven on his own and unsupervised for a couple of hours. The lit phone line goes dark.

Steven’s door opens by his own hand. He crosses to Rose’s desk, trailing his headset cord, which rarely remains alligator-clipped to his waist. He asks her what the matter is. “Why are you so mean to me?”

She tells him what else is new. Plus, she admits that the application for a five-year loan for the ‘90 Trooper she is set on, applying for new-car insurance, and selling the Honda so she can un-insure it are all at once stressing her out, on top of Steven’s regular bullshit.

He asks her if she needs to borrow money.

“I am borrowing money,” she tells him. “That’s what the loan application is for!”

Does she need to borrow money from him, he asks her.

“No thank you,” she says.

“But, if you need to, would you ask me?”

“No, Steven, I’d ask my dad.”

“You’re so damn mean to me. We’re like family.”

“No. We’re not.”

“You know you love me, Rosie!”

“Steven, please, you’re holding me up. Let me finish and get out of here. You may have noticed I’m eating pastrami, and I need time to floss and brush and gargle on my way out.”

“Brush your teeth?” Steven says. “You’re going to the dentist.”

Rose pictures Steven going to the dentist following lunch. “Disgusting.”

Christy in Music Travel screams from her office, “Gross!”

“What?” Steven spins his hair. “What? Aren’t they going to clean your teeth anyway?”

*

In Rose’s dream, Steven stands before her, slouching like he does, twirling his beanie-propeller lock of hair, and she places all five fingers of one hand over his face and crumples it off his head like a wad of paper.

*

February ends with a long, rolling earthquake. Rose, on hold with Orion, goes under her desk with the phone. She is wearing jeans today, so the quake does not mean flashing undies.

The legal-size, three-ring binders on top of the lateral files domino. Rose makes a mental note to write down “3/1: order book ends.”

*

Nelson Mandela, after twenty-seven years, was freed last month. As with the Berlin Wall, he has been imprisoned almost Rose’s whole life. Now she sees him, she hears him, they watch him, in Julie and Bass’s office, on Donahue.

*

Steven has been giving Rose credit for bookings and tells FOUR partners that he wants her to become an agent under him, even though everyone knows summers painting in Montana equals the reason she is there.

Jared, who worked his way up to assistant from Mailroom trainee, tells Rose, “You are being wasted here. You are so self-possessed. I want you to want to be an agent, too. You could make so much money. You could create such a niche in this industry. You could hire me.”

 *

Their march across the desert from slavery into freedom is once again interminable. Gramma Singer has given everyone a part. Everyone. Haggadah cum script with major to minor players. Because Rose and Cousin Cleo know from last time—and the time (and time) before that—they drink vodka rocks from water glasses and stationed on the floor between their chairs is a bottle of Cabernet from which to substitute during Manischewitz moments. Their stomachs growl. Their heads swim in low blood sugar and alcohols mixed.

Matt, who openly drinks Scotch at their table but is not yet drunk, says, “Please pass the symbols of my heritage,” and Gramma Singer tolerates it.

Cleo swallows her first bite of matzah, charoses, and maror sandwich chased with Cab. “God, the bitterness of life tastes great on the bread of affliction.”

It does. “It does,” Rose says.

*

Thelma will not let Steven interview summer-replacement candidates without Rose’s presence either in the room or outside his open office door. Thelma says in case he is accused of anything untoward in the interview process, there will be a third person, a witness, to mediate fact and to serve as translator. Through this process, they hired Erika, who Rose will soon be training on the desk. Soon, Rose will be sending a print-out of the Steven Reiser Desk Manual to the Copy Room: one for the desk, one for Steven’s home, one for Personnel.

Rose has no sense yet of how long Erika will last. But that is not her problem. Steven will not have Rose’s Montana contact number, and her L.A. answering machine will be with her in Montana. Thelma can reach her, but only if she has to.

Rose is packaging the S.R.D.M. to take home for the weekend, to proof it quietly. It has grown to seventy-six pages. She needs to devise an alphabetical index that cross-references with the table of contents, which she will not have time to concentrate on in the office.

Steven says, “Table of contents? Index? This isn’t Gone With the Wind!”

Rose shakes her head at him. “Yeah. It is.”

*

Steven and Rose have been receiving bushels of flowers. Rose thinks FOUR colleagues are jealous of such displays of gratitude, but mostly they look confused. Today comes a basket of flowers from Tina Berger, an actor-producer that Steven (and Rose, he would say) packaged into “the Sheinberg thing.” Rose received a live orchid from Mike Joseph, an art director who says he’s shocked by how special Rose and Steven make him feel compared to his last agents; he sent Steven a bottle of Cristal. Steven received flowers from Irene Crawford for the message he left on her machine after Rose told him how badly Irene’s rewrite was received. Rose got a gorgeous flower basket from Steven’s friend, Ron Craig, a D.P. now directing a music video. Ron is not a client. His card says, “Thanks for making possible my directorial debut.” Rose doesn’t think she did anything more than Steven asked her to: put Ron in touch with the producer.

Steven wants her to reconsider going to Montana, to stay.

For pleasure, but charged to Steven’s expense account, Rose takes their three composer clients—Cathy, Joel, and Isaac—out to dinner. They gift Rose with certificates to (as Gramma Singer puts it, “the Koreans”) Beverly Hot Springs, for a shiatsu massage, a mineral bath, and a body scrub. Cathy says Rose should plan to “scrub off L.A.” the very day before she aims her Trooper for the Rockies.

*

Rose sits, stands, leans nearby while Erika “womans” the phones and the phone sheet on her own. “Steven Reiser’s office,” Erika says. “Hello?” Erika covers the mouthpiece: “Someone’s breathing.”

“Say who you are,” Rose reminds her.

“This is Erika,” she says into the phone, then to Rose, “So, then he hung up.”

“What did the display read?”

“I think he came through the switchboard.”

“Why ‘he’?” Rose asks. She wonders, but does not ask, did he say, Good morning?

Erika says, “What woman would do that?”

The Voice, from his office: “Erika!” Erika leaves the desk, takes the steno pad, the phone sheet, and a yellow highlighter with her, a pencil behind her ear, a blue pen clipped to her collar. Rose follows her to the threshold of Steven’s office.

*

STARTING THE DAY                                     1-4
NOTES ABOUT THE COMPUTER                              50
WHEN STEVEN COMES IN                                   4
WHEN STEVEN NEEDS A COPY OF THE PHONE SHEET            7
STEVEN’S JOB/YOUR JOB                                 13
WHEN STEVEN MAKES A DEAL
(“If a deal has been agreed upon”)                    24
AFTER A NEW DEAL HAS BEEN MADE                        41
WHEN STEVEN SIGNS A NEW CLIENT                    13, 44
WHEN THE AGENCY SIGNS A NEW CLIENT                12, 46
WHEN A CLIENT LEAVES THE AGENCY                   13, 46
STEVEN’S CALENDAR                                     49
STEVEN’S MONTHLY EXPENSE REPORTS                      56
PHONE SHEET AT END OF THE DAY                          7
BEFORE YOU LEAVE AT END OF THE DAY                     7

 

Pamela Ballack

PAMELA BALLACK's fiction has appeared in—among other publications—Western Humanities Review, The Southeast Review, Quarter After Eight, PANK, Night Train, Freight Stories, The Way We Sleep, Ocean State Review, Drunken Boat, Prompt, and most recently live at LitRagger. “Agency” is part of the recently completed Development Girls: Linked Fictions in Two Parts. Balluck teaches writing at the University of Utah and lives in Salt Lake City.

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