BABY, BOOK, BOSS
The day after Christmas, your agent calls. The day after Christmas and you are feeling terrible, still crying because on Christmas Day, you tried to visit your grandmother’s friends Adele and Rudy, the dancers. The couple that worked in the Catskills when they were young. They used to come to your room when you were a little girl all dressed up in their various costumes to make you happy when you were sick in bed. Your grandmother would call on them when you wouldn’t take your medicine. Somehow, you’d always take your medicine for them as they danced around you in their Indian costumes that looked so real with all the feathers and beads and heavy headdresses. The peace pipe that puffed real smoke. Adele’s flapper costume with its shiny swaying beads that moved when she did. Rudy as a matador. He even let you wear the real satin cape from Mexico. They were like an aunt and uncle to you. Those people.
Well, you were back in town for the holidays and finally went to visit them and found out they had died in their apartment months earlier. Rudy opened the wrong door one night on his way to the bathroom and fell down an entire flight of stairs, and Adele died two months later. To the day, the landlady said, puffing on her cigarette, eyeing you like she suspects you were standing behind that door and pushed. You were quiet on the drive back home until you got to the Popeye’s on I-94. Your husband just had to have some Popeye’s baked beans. He thought you were all right with this. All right with death. He kept telling you, “They were old, honey. They lived a good life. Eighty-seven years old.” No, you tell him. Eight-eight and eighty-nine. “Well, see,” he says. Then he says, trying to get you to laugh, “I’ll bet they ate lots of beans.” You try to smile but you can’t. You know the truth: you should have taken care of them. Or at least kept in touch better. “I know you’re sad, honey, but they were old,” he says. Old. “Eighty-eight and eighty-nine. They lived a good life.” And he goes to the counter to order his beans and you think of your last phone call to Adele. When she realized it was you, her voice became so soft, so sweet, so tender. She loved you. In Popeye’s, you burst into tears, surrounded by parents with their children and, beside you again, your husband not knowing what was going on inside you while he was up there at the counter. You covered your face and sobbed hard like you hadn’t sobbed in years. The parents looked at you for a moment and started gathering their belongings, putting on their children’s coats and mittens. Your husband came back, a smile on his face, a bowl of beans in his hands. The smile fell from his face. “What happened?” he said, as if surely nothing could have happened in the short time he went to get those beans. And you couldn’t stop crying.
You’re thinking about this when your agent calls, thinking about how kind your husband is, how, after he leaned over to wipe the tears from your face, he offered you the only other thing he had right then: Beans. He shoved the bowl toward you, handed you the spoon. “Here honey. Have some,” he said. “They’re good. And they’re good for you.” You laughed in spite of yourself, laughed at the idea that those beans would solve anything.
So the day after Christmas, after you’ve come home, when your agent calls and asks how you are, you say in your fake cheery voice, “Fine, oh fine, everything’s fine. I hope you had a happy holiday.” You dab your swollen face with Kleenex.
“I hope you had a good holiday, too,” he says, and by the tone of his voice, you have the feeling that he wants to add, because you’re going to need it. And then he goes on to basically tell you, what? You go over and over it in your mind, but what it amounts to is this: He wants nothing more to do with you and your book. In so many words. Nice words. Kind words. Well, not really. He wasn’t angry, just odd, stiff, like he had bigger fish to fry and they were all lined up there in his office, the fish, eager to jump into his pan. His bigger-fish-to-fry pan.
Well, that was the day after Christmas. That was yesterday.
Today you run into your neighbor. Sally, the one with the big red glasses. The nursery school teacher. “I went to the bookstore the other day looking for your book,” Sally says. “I couldn’t find it.” She wasn’t saying it to be mean. She really meant it. You wanted to tell her, yes, well, look harder. Open your eyes, for God’s sake. But instead, you said apologetically, “Well, it’s not out yet. It’s not published. Well, actually, it hasn’t been taken yet.” How had Sally ever concluded that it had?
“What about an agent?” she asks. “You should get yourself an agent.”
“Well, I had one,” you say, sounding sheepish and apologetic, as if you’ve misplaced him. How does she know about agents anyhow? You had an agent, you tell her, but you kind of went your separate ways. You think it was a communication problem. One day it was, You’re terrific, the book is terrific. And then yesterday, you tell her, yesterday he said it wasn’t so terrific. Before she leaves, she looks at you as if she is deeply sorry for you and somehow this is worse than if she just said, “Yeah, okay, see ya, bye.”
All right. Okay. So this is the way it is, your life. You wanted to be a writer. Well, okay, you are a writer, but things aren’t going so hot. There is a barrenness there, something you can’t get your hands around. Oh, what is it? Well, you’re not going anywhere fast for one thing. And then there is the fact that you bought into it, bought into it all. That pseudo-feminist thing of staying childless in order to preserve your creativity. A child could stunt your creativity, you thought. A child would take the place of your creativity. So you waited and waited until the day you could quit your job, the day you were published—really published, secure, you know—to have that child, have that baby, buy those pretty things for the baby’s room that you would fix up. So you waited and waited and, of course, there was another big thing: who to have that baby with? There was no one. So you waited and waited until you got the man and were published and now you’ve waited so long, you have one of these things but don’t have the other, and maybe won’t have the third. So it’s all about barrenness, then, you realize at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. It’s about not able to bring things to fruition. And you are surprised. Oh my God. You should have had that baby instead. You should have tried harder and not relied on chance. What if that’s what you were really supposed to do, or maybe, selfishly again, you realize even as you think it, maybe that would have unstopped you. It was creativity, creativity, the fullness of it, in all aspects you were after. You stunted your own growth, you tell yourself at midnight, 1 a.m., 2. It’s all swirling around in your head, but the big thing—that you don’t have either, a baby or a book—has really hit you full in the face. And now there is writing writing writing everywhere as far as the eye can see. Everyone is writing. There are writing courses and writing programs and books about writing. Your mailman—the same one who brings you all those rejection letters—comes to your door one Saturday morning and says, “Look where it’s from! Maybe it’s an acceptance!” You’ve had exchanges about this very thing, after he learned you’re a writer. He looks so hopeful, so boyishly hopeful, as he holds out the envelope to you, and you have to tell him, “No, it’s a brown envelope. Acceptances don’t come in brown envelopes. They just stamped it with their return address so I’ll know who it’s coming back from. It means nothing. Nada. No hope.” He looks down at the ground embarrassedly, thoughtfully, and starts to say goodbye.
But then he says, “Yes, I know.” What does he mean he knows? He says, “I was just thinking… I was just hoping for you, you know. I thought maybe it was an editor who wanted some changes. Of course, that’s right. That’s not the way it works. They either call you or email you or . . . hey, they send you a letter. Well, I should know that. I’m a mailman, for God’s sake.” He grins at you, not maliciously but nicely, and you realize you like him. And then in your daydream fantasy, he says, “Well, sometimes acceptances do come in the brown return envelopes.” You look up at him. “Like when they really like the story,” he says, “but they want you to make a few changes. That’s happened to me a few times.” You can’t believe this. He holds the envelope out at a distance so he can read the return address better. “Yeah, that’s a nice publication. I was in there once.” It turns out he’s not making this up. He knows too much, like the name of the editor. The details are too rich. Probably like his writing, you think. And the funniest part is he likes being a mailman. It doesn’t seem as if he’s just waiting for his writing ship to come in. “I like delivering mail,” he says proudly. “Being outdoors, meeting new people. Nobody should do a job they hate.” Turns out, after a day of delivering the mail, he has dinner with his wife, tucks the three kids into bed, “cranks up the ol’ laptop,” as he puts it, and has “a bit of fun.” A bit of fun?
“Yep,” he says, shoving off. “Nobody should have to do a job they hate.”
“Tell me about it,” you say and he looks taken aback as if you have just offended him.
On his way down the sidewalk, he turns around and says, “Now that’s why I like the Web.”
“No brown envelopes,” he says, laughing. “But don’t tell my boss.”
As he walks away, you think: Maybe I should have been a mailman. You’re just kidding yourself, ha ha, a little joke.
Yes, you like the Web, too. It’s easier to send things out. Click click click.
But now when you click and send your story away (like sending a child into the world), you think of your mailman—wherever he lives in your town. Maybe he is sitting at his own little desk, having put his three little children to bed. He has a big smile on his face because he’s having so much fun. And, of course, the people on the other end of his emails are clicking back at him with good news, making him even happier. Tomorrow, he’ll rise and go to work—the other job he likes.
You make yourself think about other things. For a long time when you were a little girl, you wanted to be an actress. Then there was the photography thing, but you couldn’t afford a good camera. And then you never understood that f-stop thing. Then there was the time you wanted to be an architect, build things. That was it. Maybe that was it. That test you took in high school. You scored highest in carpentry. You’ve been wrong all these years. Your grandfather was a carpenter. He died before you were born, but maybe those genes were passed on. Like mental illness and the propensity for chocolate. Then there was the modeling career. Adele and Rudy said, You’re tall, you should be a model, and you only did it a few times because you thought, Hell, models don’t work much, right? They are paid a lot of money, and don’t work much, and you’ll have much more time to read, to write, to think about things that will make you a better writer, so you did it and you hated it. You turned as stiff as a stick when the camera was aimed at you. And besides, you knew, all you really were was tall. That time the modeling agency called you to do the benefit at the haunted house was the tip off. Up until then you thought, maybe, maybe, when you looked in the mirror. Maybe you are beautiful after all.
Or maybe not.
Well, okay. You have a nice husband, a loving husband. That’s all that matters. You shudder to think if you didn’t have him with no book and no baby and your horrible job, that horrible boss who doesn’t even like you no matter how hard you try and even though you hate him because he is stupid, you want him to like you because you want everyone to like you. And besides, you’re giving up all your writing time for him. Well, not him, exactly, but this job you hate. You started all this, this career thing, because you needed the money. What else were you supposed to do? Live on air? So all night long it’s Baby, Book, Boss, Baby, Book, Boss, until it’s 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5. And you’re so tired when you go to work that your boss senses you’re not quite there when he’s talking to you. And he’s right about that. You’re not there. You’re not there, and you don’t want to be there. And lots of other people don’t want to be there either. You’re in the field of corporate communications and no one you work with can communicate with one another. Things look up when he puts you in charge of the communications retreat. For some reason, he decides to have faith in you. You rise to the challenge. You decide to take advantage of those midnight hours by staying up all night for days on end to plan this thing. It’s a huge success that he takes credit for. Until his boss decides he didn’t really like it. One person complained of food poisoning. Then suddenly it’s your project again. But it’s too late. He told all of his bosses it was his idea. He literally calls you on the carpet in his office and asks, “How could you could have let that happen? How could you have done that to me?” You wonder what you could have done to prevent food poisoning. You think of telling him the only way you could have prevented it is if you’d cooked the food yourself. You realize you’re smiling as you imagine yourself in the hotel kitchen cooking lunch for 60 people. He is furious. You’ve been telling your friends incessantly about your boss and they’ve been saying, with a sigh, “Well, you always were a little sensitive. I think you’re just sensitive.” So you figure, okay, I was wrong, until Karen in accounting, the one who’s just a little too perky says after one of those big group meetings, “I wonder who they’re going to blame for stuff once you leave.” You laugh, but then you wonder, hey, who said I’m leaving? I can’t afford to leave.
Okay, but you have friends, lots and lots of friends. And nice neighbors. Neighbors who like you. Neighbors who are friends, too, but ever since The Sally Situation you’ve been afraid they’re all going to start asking you about that book you wrote. They’ve already started looking at you funny, like they want to ask you something but just can’t bring themselves to do it. They’re probably talking among themselves. Maybe Sally has warned them: “Whatever you do, don’t ask about her book.” Well, there’s always the Net and you can’t sleep, so you get up, get up for something to do because you’re so tired and you can’t write. Or won’t write because what will come of it if you do? And what kind of writing can you do when you’ve had 15 hours of sleep in four days. That’s 3.75 hours a day, you calculate, and then get afraid because you’re counting things.
You could take pills but you’ve never liked pills. Never wanted to be a pill taker. Your mother was a pill taker. You wrote a story about that and the editor said, “Another crazy mother story.” And you wanted to write back and say, But my mother really was crazy, so what am I supposed to do? Most writers write from personal experience. Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even millions of people are writing now. Say a large percentage of them really had crazy mothers, weren’t faking it just for the sake of a story. That would mean there were—are—millions of crazy mothers all across America. You imagine a map of America filled with dots, each one representing a crazy mother. No wonder things are so bad. No wonder there are so many writers. You wonder how many of those crazy mothers responded to medication. Your mother didn’t. So no, pills aren’t the answer. You could drink but you don’t drink. Lucky you don’t like the taste of alcohol because look at what you do to chocolate. You had your first drink when you were five. Your grandmother had that bottle of Manichewitz, always that bottle of Manichewitz, at the dinner table. Lifted it off the table like it was Dom Perignon. So lovingly. Her hand around the neck of that bottle. You thought it was going to be great. You were a big girl, she said, old enough to have your first taste of wine. “When I was a girl in France,” she said as she poured it into the tiny glass, “all the children had wine with their dinner. We are going do that here from now on.” But you winced when you tasted it, more than winced. Everyone howled with laughter as you looked around for a place to spit it out. “Swallow,” grandmother said. “Swallow.” She was afraid for her new carpet and your new party dress. So you swallowed. And the look must have gotten worse because everyone was yukking it up now, slapping their knees. Rudy and Adele, too. Rudy and Adele. Dressed, this time, in their real clothes. Tears coming down their faces as you said, “That was awful . . . awful.” A feeling so strong every time you have a drink, once or twice a year, usually on a holiday like Christmas or New Year’s, you conjure that taste in your mouth. It will never go away.
And so you bundle them up, those sheaves of paper, those stories, poems, those whatever they are: Work. You bundle them up, fold them up, paperclip them up, write them up, send them out, or just click to send them away. And to send some of them out you must go to the post office where they ask you, “What are you? A writer?” And you’ve gone often enough that they have asked, “So did that magazine publish your story? Did they take that story you sent them?” They have the same looks on their faces as your mailman. In fact, you think, as you look around, oh, god, I hope I don’t see him here. Just like him, they’re pulling for you, all six of them, their eager faces shiny and clean, all in a row like freshly bathed children. You could lie but you don’t. Because what would be the point? You could say, “Yeah. Took them all. All of them. Let me buy you lunch, you metered them so well.” And they ask and they ask and they start to get sorry looks on their faces when they see you come in. Like your dog died and they know it and they know that you don’t. So, you look around town for another post office. You keep going to different post offices, switching post offices when they get to know you. “Ha ha,” you say to one postal clerk, since she seems so confused by all the envelopes, the return envelopes with postage that have to go inside. “Ha ha, looks like I’m doing something illegal, doesn’t it?” And you realize you’d better shut up. Better shut up. Or you’ll turn out like that guy from Atlanta years ago, that security guard everyone blamed for the bombing that he had nothing to do with. That would be swell. But then. Then: you could always write about it.
So you’re up. You’re up and it’s 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7, and you feel there’s nothing left to do. Nothing left to write. You wrote it all, every drop, and sent it away on those little sheaves of paper. Or attached to those ubiquitous emails. But you have a new computer that you bought with money you earned on the job you hate. You know the one: the job that steals all your time. Since you’re up, you spend your time Googling things. You hate that expression, but you do it. You do it because you’re doing research. Research about writing. Research about publishing. Research about babies. Babies, books, and bosses.
You remember a scene at a friend’s house. Your friend’s wife says to you, out of the blue, “Why don’t you write like Stephen King? He gets published. His books are all over the place. He’s really good. I’ve read every word he’s ever written.” You remember the hideous, frightening covers and you say, “If I had to write like Stephen King to get published I’d rather never be published at all. Ha ha.” No one talked to you for the rest of the night. The point was not lost on you that you don’t insult someone in her own house. “Well, I still love you,” your husband said kindly, as he handed you your coat and you both left. And no one said, “Oh, come on. Stay for some dessert,” like they said to other people. Well, now the joke’s on you because you finally readsomething of Stephen King’s and it isgood. And so is his book about writing. You like his work. You really do. You try not to, but you do. And you think, isn’t it funny the way things fold back on themselves as if there’s some great master plan? Well, there is. So, you call up the friend’s wife and apologize, tell her she was right. You can feel her on the other end of the line, grinning with forgiveness. “See?” she says. “I’ll bet you’re good, too. You just haven’t found the right market. Don’t give up.”
Market?you think. I don’t think in markets. I’m a real writer. Oh, God, you realize, you’re doing it again.
You lie in bed trying to sleep, but you’re wide awake now. Everything swirls around, swirls around like the snow in those plastic snow globes kids like. Your crazy mother. Your mailman. Your husband. Your friends and your neighbors. Your boss. Even those baked beans. And paper. Lots and lots of paper. A blizzard of paper and words. They all swirl around until you’re dizzy, just dizzy from watching them. You see that room with your grandmother, you in your pink party dress, the friends and relatives all around you. Rudy and Adele in their costumes. They are looking at you. They love you. You have taken the drink, made that face, and they are wiping tears of laughter from their faces, tears for you.
Rudy. Adele. Your grandmother. You miss them. You miss them all. You miss your own childhood, back when you really could be anything you wanted. An actress. An architect. A nurse. A veterinarian. A famous writer. Mother of two. It’s as if all the people from your past are talking to you now: Rudy, Adele, your grandmother. You listen to your heart in order to hear what they would tell you if they could. A chorus of elders. “Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Keep trying.”
They’re also telling you something else. They’re telling you it’s time to step up to the plate and really live your life. They’re telling you to quit putting things on hold. They’re telling you: Drink the drink. Take the shots and the bitter pill.
You might have missed things before. Important things. You had no idea how important. But not anymore. You’ve done the research. You know what to expect. The shots. Clomid. Pergonal. In vitro fertilization. But wait, no. Adoption. Adoption.
The bad boss recedes into the distance like the fog of a bad dream, where you predict he will stay. The book is on hold until you complete what you imagine will be a ton of paperwork. But first, you have to get this one good thing resolved. You’re already writing the story in your head as it unfolds.
Listen to Cathy read "Baby, Book, Boss" below:
CATHY MELLETT's (she/her) short stories have appeared in Atlas+Alice (a Best of the Net nomination), Hobart, Pif, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She recently completed a story collection.