A Storyby Marian Thurm
It is 1976 and Mel is twenty-two years old, and this is the most excruciating sore throat she’s ever had.
The timing couldn’t be worse.
Recently married, she had, several weeks ago, nailed her first real job after a steamy, humiliating summer devoted to looking for work in Manhattan, a search that required her to submit to one typing test following another. After the briefest of these mortifying tests—60 words a minute was the best she could manage, but she’s an Ivy League alumna and evidently that mattered more—and then a short, skimpy interview with a magazine editor who was in the market for an assistant, Mel was hired at an annual salary of $7,800, which worked out to a princely $150 a week. Barely a living wage during these early post-Nixon years. But at her new job on Madison Avenue at one of those glossy magazines, she will, it’s been promised, be meeting (over the phone, anyway) some famously brilliant writers and will be able to smoke as many cigarettes as she likes, anywhere she likes—at her desk, at the Xerox machine housed in the alcove near the elevator, or in the ladies’ room, which has an anteroom with a couch, a pair of comfy upholstered armchairs, and a few extra-large ashtrays that the housekeeping staff empties and Windexes every night.
In the office, Mel discovered on her first day of work, IBM Selectrics are coveted by editors and their assistants, but the typewriter assigned to her is merely an electric version of the manual Smith Corona she had in college. A minor disappointment, one she can easily live with.
Google and Wikipedia are decades away and unimaginable, as are cell phones and their many apps, Instagram, Twitter, and impulsive, ill-considered text messages that can swiftly bring down a career. Or a marriage. In these pre-Internet days at the magazine, a trio of fact-checkers rely on the telephone and big, fat volumes of facts and figures that they consult repeatedly throughout the workday. All three fact-checkers are, like Mel, in their twenties and are deadly serious about their work; they are rarely seen smiling. Except for one guy named Simon, who likes to talk about his Birman cat, a breed he rather formally refers to as “the Sacred Cat of Burma.” Mel and her husband also have a beloved cat—his name is Caramel and he is part Himalayan and part Maine coon; when she brought in a snapshot of Caramel on her second day at work, Simon was unimpressed with this magnificent, long-haired cat of hers, and Mel’s feelings were hurt by the apathetic shrug of his shoulders.
On this Tuesday in the middle of September when that fiercely painful sore throat first hits, Mel has been an assistant for all of fifteen days, and she panics at the thought of being fired if she allows herself any time off to recuperate from what will turn out to be a relatively severe case of mononucleosis. But she needn’t worry: her boss, Austin Bloch, a slender, handsome middle-aged man, is more than generous when it comes to the issue of a brand-new employee asking for a leave of absence of sorts. He instructs Mel to give herself as much time as necessary; he’ll get a temp to take her place until she’s well enough to return to work. Which she manages to do through sheer force of will just two weeks later, still feeling not quite herself, and weighing in at ninety-two pounds, a number her mother worriedly deems “the critical weight.”
Austin, that generous-hearted boss, has eyes that are sea-green, and a thick head of graying blond hair. He wears Top-Siders and a safari jacket to work every day, along with a thin silk scarf tied around his neck. There’s a lovely-looking wife, whose sort-of-sexy, professionally photographed black-and-white portrait hangs on the wall of his office; and too the family includes his impressive three-year-old daughter, Skyler, who has, mysteriously, somehow taught herself to read. Austin also has a couple of sulky ex-wives who call the office from time to time complaining—Mel has heard from a colleague or two—about alimony and child support. He usually answers the phone himself, and once a month or so, Mel will come to observe, Austin will speak in the urgent, intimate voice that lets her know it’s one of those ex-wives at the other end, wanting something from him, something he clearly isn’t happy about handing over. But when the voice at the other end belongs to one of those brilliantly talented writers, Austin’s own voice turns boisterous and is pitched at a higher volume. “Wayne, my boy! I was just thinking of you!” Mel hears him say, and by the end of the conversation he’s convinced Wayne to send him the new story that has already been reworked again and again, a story Austin promises to whip into shape for him. According to Austin, Wayne is a boozer and an occasional wife beater, but his stories—at least when Austin gets through with them—have begun to attract attention out there in the literary world when they appear in the magazine. Austin has an unusually heavy hand when it comes to whipping those stories into shape; he sits for an hour in his windowless office across the hall from Mel’s desk, an extra-fine-point pen poised between the fingertips of his left hand, deleting deleting deleting, while in his other hand there’s that ever-present Winston. From her desk near the end of the linoleum, typewriter-lined hallway, Mel watches, mesmerized by the swiftness with which Austin’s arm sails from left to right and back again across the pages of Wayne’s manuscript, the pages themselves illuminated by the column of light that shines from the single draftsman’s lamp clipped to the side of Austin’s metal desk; his office is mostly dark, and Mel looks on as the smoke from his endless cigarettes rises straight up and into the lamplight. When he finishes editing, he calls out to her, “Melissa, dear heart, will you take this to the Xerox machine for me?” and each time, as he transfers the typed pages of Wayne’s story from his own narrow hands to hers, she instinctively winces at the mercilessness of his editing. She’s not yet officially a writer herself—the publication of her first story in a similarly glossy, and even more distinguished, magazine is months away—but after only a few weeks on the job, she finds herself aching for Wayne and what has been banished from those stories of his that Austin pares down so brutally. Though he is overbearing in his editing, in truth, Wayne’s work will gain strength from Austin’s efforts. And Wayne, like the best of Austin’s discovered talents, will, in the end, surpass him and find his way back to his own unforgettable voice.
Wayne is talkative and friendly over the phone, eager to chat with her while Austin is out to lunch, eager to listen when Mel tells him, prematurely, and in her softest, shyest voice, that she too is a writer. He occasionally sounds drunk when the two of them talk, but that doesn’t mean she needs to discount his encouragement, does it? So what if she can readily imagine Wayne’s drunken smile as she talks earnestly about her writing, about those stories focusing on her piano teacher or her long-widowed grandmother or her father’s best friend, who died of brain cancer at the unseemly age of thirty-six. So what if her writing is severely limited to what she knows and only what she knows?
It occurs to her that Wayne must be lonely—why else would he be spending all that time schmoozing with her about this and that, about the omelet with whiskey-infused bacon he made himself for breakfast or the toe he smashed against the bathroom door when he got up in the middle of the night to take a whiz. And where is his wife, she muses. It’s difficult to envision Wayne chasing his wife around their Seattle home with a beer bottle aimed at the back of her head, as Austin has told her he’s done; eventually Mel will hear that he has stopped drinking entirely. Sometimes when Wayne and Mel are talking, their conversation is interrupted by another call, sometimes from yet another brilliantly talented writer, one who sounds so whiny and childlike that Mel comes perilously close to laughter each time the guy takes pains to identify himself. I know, I know, she wants to tell him, of course I recognize your voice, Lincoln, and Yes, of course I saw you in the spring on The Tonight Show—pot-bellied, in a light-blue turtleneck and blazer, wearing a pair of dark sunglasses and seated next to Joan Rivers as the audience and an attentive Johnny Carson learned about that childhood friend from Mississippi, “the girl who wrote Blackbird in the Dead of Night.” “The girl” was thirty-four years old when Blackbird was published—be respectful! Mel wants to shout into the phone, but how can she? Instead, she tells Lincoln, politely, as she invariably does, that Austin is out to lunch but will return his call as soon as he gets back.
“Out to lunch,” she learns from an older colleague, is a euphemism when referring to Austin: soon enough the arrangement of those particular words will be something Mel will put in air quotes whenever the subject happens to come up. But today her wiser, hipper colleague, Elizabeth, has taken it upon herself to sit Mel down at the very back of the office at lunchtime and spell it out for her in the simplest terms, which trigger in Mel a frisson of alarm, immediately followed by overwhelming disbelief. She is still a suburban-bred innocent, so unworldly that she can count on two fingers of one small hand the number of friends she has whose parents are divorced. In college she smoked some pot on weekends, and of course she and Eric began sleeping together when she was a freshman and he was a senior, but that’s the modest extent of the ways in which she strayed from her parents’ very clear instructions about life. She has no idea how to navigate a universe where husbands and wives betray each other or snort coke with straws off glass coffee tables while their toddlers are asleep in their beds down the hall.