CHAPTER THREE: Pendulum Publishing – Midtown
“Love you too,” Kate said, ending her conversation with Jesse. She telescoped her neck until she could view the labyrinth of cubicles surrounding her own. Heads of hair bobbed up and down and back and forth, as the bodies they were attached to read and typed and processed miles upon miles of aimlessly insipid and seemingly never-ending manuscripts that never had a prayer of being published. Midtown Manhattan’s afternoon light poured through the windows and created a fuzzy glow above the thin layer of dust covering every horizontal surface higher than five feet from the floor. Thousands of discarded yellow sticky notes sat crumpled out of sight, whatever reminders written on them had fallen to the wayside; and yet no one seemed to have ever noticed their absence. Only rubber bands and clumps of hair had now found themselves attached to the notes, and they blew gently from the freezing breeze of the office’s amped-up air conditioners.
There was a note stuck to the top of Kate’s partition; she reached out and unfolded it. All it said was: LUNCH WITH GENE, in her own chaotic right-handed printing. She had invented the art of writing notes in the office with her right hand, while reserving her natural left-handedness for the real world outside. What would happen if a co-worker should one day discover some sort of incriminating information? Kate’s jumbled, right-handed printing could never be traced directly back to her, could it? Maybe it was paranoia, but Kate figured that just a sprinkling of paranoia was a lot better than the alternative: that someone in the office might know when she had to pick up her vaginal anti-fungal cream, or when she was reminding herself to record reruns of The Osbournes she had already seen. Kate stared at the wrinkled note in her hand, the yellow paper not even yellow anymore, and she couldn’t recall if she’d ever made it to that once-promised lunch date with her husband. She crushed it even tighter in her fist before tossing it into a nearby wastepaper basket.
From one of the bobbing heads came the words, “Swish! Oh yeah! Kate’s got game!”
“Fuck off,” Kate mumbled in the direction of her unseen fan.
Katherine Prince was a strong person, but it was her natural self-doubts, jealousies and competitiveness that continued to pull her in weak directions. She was an inappropriate dresser, always selecting the wrong wardrobe for any occasion. She would wear business suits for greasy coffee shop lunch dates with Tommy and Jesse, but then choose worn, tattered bohemian skirts and Jamaican knit hats for meetings with authors and literary agents. Still, she braggingly described her own fashion sense as being somewhere between a Park Avenue spinster on a bad day and a Meat-Packing District hobo on a good day. She had an embarrassingly vast collection of printed tights, the argyle or checker-pattern being the most popular of late. But there was always the chance that the once-favored purple cow pattern would still show up for an early morning meeting.
Her face was impossibly oval. Her hair, rich with beautiful curls, was always wrapped behind ears that seemed too small for her head. Once or twice a year she considered cutting her hair short, but would always reassess when Tommy reminded her of the flack Felicity took after butchering her hair in Season Two. She had the delicate wrists of a high-end mannequin and legs that were made to show off, although she’d cover them up as often as possible. At times her generosity was unheralded; she was never opposed to paying for a friend’s meal and she could always be counted on to remember a birthday or anniversary. Her kitchen calendar was the most thoroughly complicated chart anyone had ever seen. She considered herself to be a polite pedestrian, navigating her way through the city’s crowded sidewalks using a variety of courteous tricks she’d garnered over the years. She would plan her moves seconds in advance, finding empty pockets to slip through, and she would always shoulder check before swerving from side to side. She claimed to have names for many of her more popular moves, but would never divulge them. In her dreams Kate was the city’s greatest bike courier, but in reality she was a below-average book editor.
Kate’s favorite food was anything hot from a street vendor. Kebabs. Chestnuts. Pupusas. Her favorite cereal had always been Frankenberry, which she thought was discontinued until she discovered that the Sunny Mart, a dusty Filipino market on 128th Street, was the only place in Manhattan that still carried it. Her favorite gum was Nicorette, not because she was trying to quit smoking (she’d never smoked more than one-and-a-half cigarettes since I’d known her), but because to her there was nothing quite as satisfying as the combined flavor of mint and nicotine. Her favorite color wasn’t even a color; it was really just a complicated explanation. Her favorite place in the city to sit was the artsy, tiled benches near Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park; on summer evenings, she enjoyed watching the lightning bugs dance across their colorful surfaces.
She always seemed to have so much in her hands when unlocking doors that there was the inevitable need to be holding something between her teeth. Every year she hoped for a technical malfunction during the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration so she could say: “They really dropped the ball on this.” It was a joke she never told anyone else so that she might receive the best possible reaction, should the opportunity ever present itself. She was still paying for a gym membership that she hadn’t used for six years. She loathed anyone who clapped at the end of movies. She never wanted to have kids but she still had baby names picked out in case there was ever an accident: Creston for a boy and Liberty for a girl. And Kate always wanted to write a book; however her inability to think of something worth saying was what continued to obstruct her progress.
Kate worked at Pendulum Publishing in Midtown. Pendulum was intended to be no more than a stopgap between school and the life she’d once imagined for herself, but as it stood, Kate had been an assistant editor now for much longer than she’d planned. After seven years of self-inflicted promises, Kate was still fine-tuning her first novel, Paper Fences. The book’s titular journey began once upon a time as Paper Fences but eventually turned into Hold for Applause, followed by The Breakfast Special Comes with Toast, which soon after became known as Am Not, You Are. It was labeled The Things We Forgot for what must have only been a day or two before it had once again embraced its original and ambiguously titled roots as Paper Fences. But this was still just considered a temporary title until Kate finished her latest rewrite. Essentially, the story hadn’t changed much: it had always been about a wallflower of a girl who’d grown up to become a woman living a life of regret. It was about bad decisions and poor choices and the character’s desperate fight to win back her lost childhood. There was a reason the book had been turned down so many times, and it was never because of the title. Tommy knew it, and he’d tried on numerous occasions to convince Kate that she should detach herself altogether from the whole unworkable mess, to start fresh with a blank piece of electronic paper. Internally, Kate agreed that she probably should, but her competitiveness towards Tommy prevented her from ever doing so.
The real difference between Kate and Tommy was that she was quicker to make excuses for not writing. The barking dog from somewhere in her neighborhood was the latest in a series of prime examples. Tommy never once made an excuse for himself. His first novel, BLANC, was published three months to the day after his very first draft was finished. It was an instant success (even having its own movie adaptation) and Tommy followed it up with four more books in the critically acclaimed series starring Detective Buster Broome. While Kate couldn’t help being jealous, it was the strength of their friendship that kept her real feelings quietly simmering just below the surface. She didn’t even realize it, but those feelings were all blatantly confessed within one paragraph of Paper Fences. It was directly in the center of page two-hundred-and-forty-nine.
Kate’s brain was still trying to piece itself back together after one of the most inane staff meetings the Pendulum office had organized that year. The last three publications had utterly tanked, and the higher-ups whose voices were actually heard decided it would be best to find fault with how their employees were working rather than why certain employees were even there in the first place. The consensus put forward was thus: editors and copywriters were no longer allowed to listen to their iPods while working. Apparently the prognosis was that if an editor was listening to a song they liked, they were more likely to give the final approval on something, no matter how bad it was. And, as Troy “The Shark” Dunlop of Consumer/Media Relations and Employee Motivations (the sign on his office door said just that, in those exact words) so eloquently put it: “Especially if it sucked really, really hard.” Conversely, if said employee were listening to music they didn’t enjoy, works of genius were quite possibly being tossed into the slush pile, never to be seen by human eyes or touched by human hands again until its next life as recycled toilet paper. The only reason Kate had raised a hand during the morning meeting was to ask: “Why would anyone have music they hated on their iPods in the first place?” A valid point, but once it was established that Kate didn’t even own an iPod, her case was quickly dismissed and everyone was sent back to their cubicles where they could hear the muzak version of Livin’ La Vida Loca softly playing over the constant static of the office intercom speakers.
The meetings were constantly unnecessary, her co-workers were fundamentally unreliable, and the work was tedious, but it was also a paycheck. Kate had even started to mold the mildly retarded older brother who worked part-time at the failing party supplies store in Paper Fences after Troy Dunlop, so it had also been a good source of creative inspiration.
Kate fumbled through a mess of notes on one of the books she was currently editing, but they were nearly illegible to her. She found herself staring at one page for nearly a full minute before realizing it was upside down.
From beyond her cubicle, Kate could hear the squeaky wheels of an office supply cart approaching. Suddenly, a head popped up from behind Kate’s partition. The head belonged to Dwayne Reamer, one of Pendulum’s temporary workers. Although “temporary” didn’t really seem to apply to Dwayne anymore, since he’d been there for well over two years now, and he didn’t appear to have any dreams of leaving. “Hey, Kate! You get my email?”
“Nice going Dwayne,” Kate said as she reached over and added another notch to her open notepad. In her notebook, in a series of marks of five, Kate recorded every time she heard the phrase “did you get my email?” around the office, or some variation thereof.
“Ah, shit! That one was completely unintentional too.” He argued his case, but it was already too late.
“Dwayne, you know there’s pretty much only one thing I hate more than people wearing their backpacks on the subway and idiots who repeatedly hit the crosswalk button. And that’s when someone in the office asks someone else if they got their email.”
“I know, I know…”
“I mean, if they’re going to come sauntering over looking for some sort of self-gratifying confirmation on whatever meaningless drivel they just spent twenty minutes typing without their supervisor knowing, they may as well have just come on over and asked what they wanted to ask and not have sent the fucking email in the first place. At least that way they’d be getting some exercise too. Do you know what I mean?”
“Kate, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the ‘did-you-get-my-email’ rant from you before.”
“I’m positive you have.”
“Maybe even a couple of times last week.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“Should I say I’m sorry again?”
“It couldn’t hurt.”
“Okay then. Kate, I’m sorry for whoever pissed on your muffet this morning, because they’re sure to get it later.”
“Hold on…muffet? Isn’t the saying, Who pissed in your Corn Flakes?”
“Nah. Muffets are better for you than Corn Flakes. And they’ve got twenty percent of your daily fiber.” Dwayne Reamer’s claim to fame was his constant attempts at revamping old catchphrases. Or better yet, starting new ones of his own in the hopes that they would one day catch on. “Times are changing Kate. You gotta keep up.” Dwayne’s only dream was to one day overhear a catchphrase of his own creation uttered on the subway by strangers.
The one he was most proud of was a little saying known as: “You’re on, Huron.” Definition: it’s a deal, buddy; I’m totally in agreement with you, pal. Kate could only assume that the Huron in question was some sort of reference/homage to Lake Huron, but she wasn’t entirely convinced. And she had never cared enough to ask Dwayne either, even though he could be heard saying it around the office a few times a day.
“That’s what I’m doing,” he butted-in.
“I appreciate your continuous attempts to try and keep me just as chipper as can be, but I’m really not in the mood today. No offense.”
Dwayne swiveled his ear a little closer to Kate.
“And I know I say that every day, but today I really mean it.”
“You know me Kate,” he boasted. “I’m not easily offended.”
Kate turned back to the mound of paperwork on her desk. She rarely found herself intimidated by her workload, but she hadn’t been in the right frame of mind all morning. Her realization that Gene wasn’t, and probably never had been, the right choice for her had made Kate question the relevance of everything else in her tiny world. “Listen…” she began again.
“I’m still here.” He didn’t mean to be, but Dwayne Reamer could really be quite irritating.
Kate slid the pile of paperwork in closer and thought for a moment about laying her head down and simply waiting for an end to come. “I’ve got submissions from design artists to sort through. I’ve got facts that need to be checked. And I’ve got a whole other manuscript to rewrite. My copy editor called in sick, so I’ve got to finish her work too in order to get this fucking thing out by five o’clock.”
“So you’re extremely busy. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“You’ve sure been saying fuck a lot lately. Did you realize that?”
Kate wondered for a moment if she had possibly muttered the word at the morning meeting. Fuck, she thought. There was probably a pretty fucking good chance.
“It seems to me Kate, that there must be something else on your mind, because you’ve had these kinds of deadlines before and you’ve always hit them. And, might I add, you’ve also never complained about it. Before now, that is. Unless of course I interpreted your complaining as some sort of semi-jovial nitpickery.”
Kate was hoping the pile of work before her might disguise what was really on her mind, but no mountain of paperwork could ever be distracting enough for Dwayne Reamer. “Nice work detective.” Dwayne rolled his forearm in front of him, and bowed as though he’d just sawed Kate in half and there was a cheering crowd surrounding his stage. In truth, Kate felt like she really had been opened right up. “There is something,” she started slowly. “And I don’t know why I’m even telling you this, but…”
Dwayne crooked his neck forward, his interest officially piqued. “Spill it, Vesuvius.”
“…But I’m having some…marital…dubieties at the moment.”
His shoulders slumped. “Shit, Kate. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t even realize it until this morning. I knew something was wrong; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. But now I know what it was.”
Dwayne twisted his head back a little, as if to ask: So, what is it?
“I hate my husband.”
Dwayne continued to lean over the partition of Kate’s cubicle. “Well, shit…” He wanted to extend a little more sympathy than that same four-letter word, but some unknown factor was holding him back. “I don’t know how you could miss something like that Kate.” For someone who lived for coming up with the next great catchphrase, Dwayne’s blatant overuse of the word shit was hard to comprehend.
Kate leaned back in her ergonomic office chair, and looked up at the ceiling panels with murky brown eyes. “I was up before him this morning. He’s usually gone by the time my alarm goes off, but today he said he wanted to sleep in a little. So I brushed my teeth, had a glass of orange juice, and I —”
“Wait, you drank orange juice after you brushed your teeth?”
“That’s right. I actually prefer it that way.”
“Anyway Dwayne, I got dressed in the bathroom and when I went back to say goodbye to him, I realized he was already asleep again.” Kate stopped for a moment, but her silence went uninterrupted. She assumed this would have been a difficult conversation and that the thoughts in her head would be wearing away at her, weakening her, word by word. But they weren’t. It was actually easy for Kate to acknowledge the fact that her life was on the cusp of being torn apart. “You know those picture frames that people have? The ones that don’t have any pictures in them, and they’re just hung from the ceiling, suspended in the air like a room divider?”
“I hate those things.”
“Me too Dwayne. Me too. But we have them in the bedroom, right beside the bed. Like they’re part of some kind of invisible wall.”
“Wait. Why on earth would you need windows if your walls were invisible?”
“It doesn’t matter Dwayne. So when I came back into the room, instead of waking Gene to say goodbye, I just looked at him through that picture frame. I don’t know what it was, whether I felt like I was watching him from another room, from across the street or from another world. Or maybe it was like a television.”
“Or a picture frame?”
“Exactly! But there was only one thought that occurred to me at that moment: Why am I here? I hate this man. We have nothing in common.”
“I’ll ignore the fact that that was three thoughts right there and not one. So why’d you marry the guy then?”
“Let’s just say that I’ve made some embarrassingly bad relationship decisions in my life and leave it at that.”
“Hasn’t everyone? Shit, I could write the book on bad relationships, if you wouldn’t mind editing it for me.”
“I doubt you could compete, Dwayne. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even qualify.”
“Hey, I’ve got stories.”
“Have you ever had anonymous phone sex on your lunch break?”
“Ever licked the neck of a cab driver?”
“How about a threesome in the back of a deli?”
“Um, well no…”
“Have you ever given a hand-job to a co-worker in the supply closet?”
“Take your pick.”
Dwayne groaned as his imagination began to run wild. Compared to Kate, his book of bad relationship decisions instantly became more like a brochure or a playbill at best. “I did it with a Furry one time.”
“Please Dwayne. Who hasn’t? Honestly though, I think I might have been hiding these feelings for so long because I’m afraid that my marriage is headed in the exact same hopeless direction as my novel.”
“Ah yes. The Things We Forgot. How’s that coming anyway?”
“Actually, it’s back to Paper Fences again.”
Dwayne thought to himself for a moment before responding, “Hey, can I use that?”
“That line: back to paper fences. You know, like if you’ve found yourself right where you started. Or when you’re coming back to work on a Monday morning.”
“Sure Dwayne. Do whatever you want with it. Enjoy.”
“You’re the best!” Dwayne paused for a moment before Kate’s story fully cycled through his mind. “Jeez Kate. I would never have pegged you for someone who would have those hanging picture frames.”
“Everyone’s entitled to a few secrets. Just don’t tell anyone else, you hear?”
“Your secret’s safe with me.” Dwayne grabbed the few pieces of mail from Kate’s outbox and filed them into his cart. “You know, Theo told me that he’s changed the name of his book too.”
“Theo? From Finance?”
“No. Theo from Sales.”
“I didn’t know Theo from Sales was writing a book. Is it a novel?”
“Everyone here is writing a novel, and the majority of them are being typed up right now on company time.”
“Really? How is it you know that and I don’t?”
“I’m the mail room temp Kate. I pick up and deliver all their mail every day. You think you’re the only one I talk to around here? Some of the staff I don’t know, I only know by their book titles.” Dwayne looked to the ceiling, trying to list off a few from memory. “There’s Frozen Lake in Editing. Soul Blood is in Accounting. And I work with a guy named Piddle Paddle in the mail room.”
“Soul Blood? Fuck.”
“Yeah, and Theo’s just changed his title to Running Through Gravity.” Dwayne put a finger in his mouth, hoping to gag himself in reaction to the author’s choice. “So Paper Fences is not so bad, really.”
“It’s been a pleasure as always Dwayne.” Kate assumed that would signal the end to the conversation, and that Dwayne’s arms would slide slug-like from her cubicle wall until he’d melted from sight completely, but the Temp’s visit was not so temporary. He continued to hang in front of her. “What did your email say anyway?” she asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said, recalling the reason he came by in the first place. “I think I found out who’s been stealing my yogurts from the fridge.”
“You’re doing a bang-up job around here Dwayne. And if I’m actually interested in the details, I might even read it later.”
“You’re on, Huron! Well, it’s back to paper fences for me.” With that, Dwayne finally disappeared from sight. The squeaky wheels of his supply cart could be heard for a moment, but then stopped suddenly. Just as Kate had thought about opening the marked manuscript, Dwayne’s head popped right back into place. “And Kate?”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry again, even though there’s no requirement for me to be.”
Kate gave him a nod of appreciation and then immediately turned back to her work.
Thirty minutes later when Kate thought to check her email, she noticed the message from Dwayne (with the subject line: YOGURT THIEF!), and was amused to find that Dwayne was accusing Cliff Barnes from marketing of stealing his precious fruity yogurts from the nineteenth-floor refrigerator. Kate smirked to herself knowing that Dwayne would never suspect it had actually been her all along. There was also one email from Teresa (sent out to the entire office, letting everyone know that her cat’s hip surgery was a success), one from reception (a reminder that this month’s employee prize was a new iPod) and one from Troy ‘The Shark” Dunlop (he of Consumer/Media Relations and Employee Motivations) sent precisely thirty-one seconds after reception’s email, again stating the office’s new iPod policies. In it, he even had the audacity to use the phrase, “bass ackwards.” Jesus.
And just when Kate decided she would call Tommy again, to let him know that she and Jesse planned on meeting at the coffee shop later, a second email from Dwayne the Temp’s account suddenly popped up:
SUBJECT: “RE: YOGURT THIEF!”
Just wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me tomorrow night. Actually, I’m free pretty much any day.
For the first time ever, Kate felt guilty for stealing the Temp’s yogurt. She deleted the email and went right back to work