The train came to an abrupt halt. “Sunset!”
With a polite nod to the plumpish redhead whose morose stares he had endured for the larger part of his 57-minute trip from Newport Beach to Sunset Boulevard (“So sorry miss, didn’t mean to bump you there,”) Alex Plinkers left the bus, feeling confident and possibly sick. He had always been a planner, except for with his groceries, and so felt less than culpable about eating a browned, stringy avocado for breakfast the morning of his big interview to become Assistant Research Editor at Turnkey Press – the largest and most respected publishing house in Los Angeles – because he knew the scant meal had little to do with his anxiety about the day and everything to do with his terrible ability to stock a fridge. Oblivious to the shoddiness of his fridge-stocking abilities, his stomach whined in protest while Alex climbed a tall and narrow set of stairs to the street. The ride was only supposed to take 41 minutes and not 57; with 16 minutes wasted, there was no time to eat.
He reached the top of the stairs and stopped briefly to glance at the sheeny, reflective wall at one side; his blonde hair fell easily toward his neck in long-ish, golden waves; his eyes were clear blue and focused; his face clean-shaven and almost dewy from the trek up the stairs. It was just the look he imagined for an Assistant Research Editor, if a little on the lanky side, but Assistant Research Editor dinners would help fill him out over the years.
Quickly exiting the station, Alex took in a gulp of air streaked with moisture and January chill. Alex was glad to discover the rain lacked the same angry intensity he awoke to this morning when his alarm went off at 5:43, but was disappointed that sloppy, large droplets still fell in arrhythmic morsels onto the pockmarked sidewalk of Sunset Boulevard, liquid-made traitors sent to wreak havoc on his new Giuseppe Zanotti shoes and custom Italian wool suit.
Outside – and despite the weather – everything hummed with the formulaic exactitude of a Monday morning. Alex, who thought himself creative despite his obsession with punctuality, likened the scene to a nest of swarming, frenzied bees and vaguely thought about jotting the metaphor somewhere in case he should need it during the interview if Janice Kloppler was it? asked about the kinds of things he might, as Assistant Research Editor, consider to be good writing.
A glance at his brush-gold watch told him he couldn’t afford the pause.
Thankfully, the worker bees hurried at a good pace along Signal Street and it only occasionally became clogged by unruly students on school trips or ambling tourists, eyed fixed to the soar of downtown skyscrapers above. The Turnkey Corp. building was perhaps the most impressively tall of any in the downtown area and Alex could discern its scalloped roof even from fifteen blocks away, slickly mirrored edges taunting him to quicken his step. Could he see the office of an Assistant Research Editor from here?
The next leg of his journey took Alex down Otting Street, a wide, methodically paved road bordered by unopened storefronts and small kiosques, bland colorless curtains drawn to hide knock-off purses and cheaply made jewelry underneath. In less than an hour, Otting would be frenetic and lively but by then Alex would be sitting in the office of Janice Kloppler, reminiscing about his four years as a philosophical literature major at Saywater University … how he graduated with honors, how he received an A in his Introduction to the Art of Writing class – a coup d’état for a freshman – how his dreams of becoming a writer jangled in his chest like an unused set of keys unlocking his bright future, (oh that was good! Too bad there wasn’t time to get it down.)
The last street – Millburn – stretched meagerly to the left of Otting, and it too was empty except for one elderly woman lingering at the corner, gray hair short and spikey, pale skin like lumpy, curdled milk. She frowned at Alex as he passed, her mouth scrunched and tiny. Of course she couldn’t know she had just frowned at the potential new Assistant Research Editor of Turnkey Press. If she had, she would never have been so carelessly rude.
“What floor?” A burly, balding security guard asked from behind a swirled marble desk, the lobby of Turnkey Corp. swelling behind him in grand flourishes of gold plaster and steel. Alex remembered reading about the extravagant renovation of the building last year. A very famous architectural firm from Europe had remodeled the space, subsequently declaring it the new paradigm for business design, “a carefully crafted amalgam of old-world charm and inventive modernity,” if he remembered right.
“Uh, fifteen? Turnkey Press,” said Alex, watching a few people swivel past brassy turnstiles in a clatter of leather briefcases and high heels made squeaky from the rain.
“You’ll need to sign in,” said the guard with a churlish wave to an electronic touchscreen set into the marble desk.
Alex signed with a little more flair than usual (in case he would one day want to go back and look at what he wrote), curving the “P” with added extravagance and taking care to dot both his “i”‘s and draw a long end to the “s” of his last name.
The small badge he received let him through the turnstile and he was soon standing in the very center of the voluminous lobby – and maybe at the center of his new life of Assistant Research Editorhood, he wondered poetically – directly under a stained glass cupola bordered by silvery metal and gleaming gold stones. Then it was up a tightly packed glass elevator to the fifteenth floor.
The elevator doors opened slowly, with just the right amount of drama to form the overture of his Assistant Research Editor career, to a small room filled by a dark wood desk and high bay windows, two plush red velvet couches on either side. Intermittent drizzles speckled the high-rise view and Daniel watched the tops of tall buildings slip into a muted gray sky.
He might sit in this room if he ever got to work early and would enjoy how shards of sunlight warmed his face in the summertime and how when it snowed, you could see the frost accumulate from fifteen stories above the street. Although, he reasoned, Assistant Research Editors probably didn’t have much time to waste on windows.
“Yes,” smiled the thin brunette behind the desk and her skin crackled under the pressure of too much makeup. “You can wait in Janice’s office while she finishes up a meeting. It should only be a few minutes.” Another smile forced a clump of rouge to peel away from her angular cheeks. Months from now Alex would tell her politely that she was beautiful without all the gunk. She’d believe him a few months later and they would become close friends. Maybe more.
Janice’s office was a short walk away and proved a cramped room of red-inked manuscripts and seemingly untouched books. Alex would keep his office much tidier than this.
“Alex Plinkers,” said an extraordinarily tall woman as she entered. Her features were implacable and shadowy, her voice marred by unmistakable petulance and gruff. She neglected to shake his hand and instead sat at some unseen chair behind the paper-strewn desk. “Does your email work?”
A strange opening question for his Assistant Research Editor interview but Alex was ready with an answer. “Yes … well, no, not my school email. They deactivate it once we graduate.” Should he ask her why she would like to know?
“I see,” Janice snorted. “We’ve been trying to reach you.”
In the small distance between them, Alex could smell cigarettes and orange juice on her breath.
“I should have given an alternate address,” he replied, undeterred by her harsh tone or the citrus-laden smoky stench of her mouth, which all fit squarely into the perfect moodiness and theatrical grandeur of his hours-long odyssey to sit before her on this day. He thought then of the rotted avocado breakfast, of the cantankerous redhead on the subway, of the surly old woman at Millburn Street, of the irritable security guard and the painted secretary with rain dancing just beyond her reach …
Janice Kloppler of Turnkey Press fame parted her wiry lips to speak, a smudge of fuschia lipstick on one of her front teeth, the other stained a light gray, and Daniel almost held his breath, ready to hear the words that for weeks – since he received the email asking him to interview for the position of Assistant Research Editor – he knew she would say … You’re the best candidate for Assistant Research Editor we’ve ever had … We love everything about your writing … Could you write a novel for us in your spare time? … Will you use a pen name or keep your own? …
“Thank you for coming, Alex, but you should probably turn around and go back to Newport Beach. We’ve hired someone else.”