This is something I just wrote for a class at Richard Hugo House. The assignment was to “write about a job that has influenced a relationship, or a relationship as it relates to a job.” After weeks toiling over a serious story, I wanted to write something with more levity.
Zoe was so stoked when she got the job at a small imprint of a major publisher, right there in San Francisco. She wouldn’t have minded moving to New York—I mean camon! seriously! what a blast!—but at least she wouldn’t have to move now. Or leave her boyfriend. She was totally moving on up in the world, graduating from promoting books like Pray for a Miracle: The Building Blocks for Successful Prayers and The Wiccan Cat Calendar: Pet Edition to publicizing real literature, and poetry too. I mean how cool is it that the first week she started, the marketing manager assigned her the whole Jeremiah Hairball series. She was now the publicist for M. W. W. J. Rawlins! And they were paying her for it! Like, a lot of money! Ka-ching!
Rawlins was a total sweetheart. She’d been with the same publisher for years, same editor even. Really whipsmart, too. When Zoe started, Rawlins sent her a box of chocolates which Zoe put out on the table in the break room, which Rawlins must’ve known would happen because Zoe was an instant hit at work. Even the guys in Accounts Receivable said I totally love caramel chews. And Zoe appreciated how down to earth she was in real life, always signing off her emails, “Pawtastically yours.” Such a goofball! Such a nut! Zoe had to be careful to check herself from name-dropping at literary gatherings. It’s a bad habit publicists have, and Zoe didn’t want to be that girl—“oh, you mean Margaret Rawlins?”—just because she had a more famous author than anyone. Those gatherings were usually better if you didn’t talk about literature at all anyway. It was hard enough being Zoe, young literary bumblebee of the Bay Area, so dazzling was her smile and so fierce her Dorothy Parker-esque wit that Francis Ford Coppola named Zoetrope after her, and several of the wines in his private collection.
Zoe sent out mailings for the eighteenth Jeremiah Hairball title, making sure they went out to all the usual suspects—Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, New York Times, et alia—but she added her own personal touch, blending her publicist’s je ne sais quoi with a list that Rawlins had provided her. So books went out to the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and forty copies to Oprah’s producers. Yeah, she caught shit for that, but Zoe totally believed that Rawlins had a shot, y’know? I mean, it’s M. W. W. J. Rawlins. Nine million copies sold, translated into forty languages, including Arapaho and Phoenician. Oprah should be coming to them.
The Jeremiah Hairball titles totally went viral when they first came out, and they’ve been a cash cow for the publisher ever since. You’ve probably already heard of them. They’re like choose-your-own-adventure stories for grownup pet lovers, but with a subtle spirituality. Famed New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani had once described them as Paolo Coelho meets Ace Ventura. Zoe was a bit confused by Rawlins’ request to send eighty copies to the owners of a shooting range outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but Rawlins assured her that “these people will be sure to get the word out.”
Rawlins totally had this reputation for being all secretive and keeping to herself. She kept a PO Box and didn’t let anyone know her whereabouts until just before a signing when BAM! she’d post it on her LiveJournal account and maybe Facebook. All fan mail had to go through Zoe, and Zoe was alerted to the events two days before anyone else. It wasn’t really enough time to book any radio interviews or get listed in any of the papers, but Hey man! that’s what social media is for! This is the new era, and Rawlins is hip, despite her age.
Things ran into a bit of a snag when Zoe emailed Rawlins a year later—the nineteenth Jeremiah Hairball title was due out, an A-list title in their fall catalog—and neither Zoe nor Rawlins’ editor had heard from her in months. Oh, the manuscript was already in, that wasn’t the problem—Rawlins submits them three at a time—it’s just that, according to her LiveJournal page, Rawlins had done like forty events in the last three months. Ordinarily great, right? Hand sell some books, connect with readers, build relationships with booksellers—Zoe even taught Rawlins to sign as many copies as possible in the store so they’d be damaged on a technicality and couldn’t be returned to the publisher for a refund. But all those forty events were in the same place, which was Poluklokaw County, Georgia. Zoe set out frantic emails, “Where’s Broomville? I can’t find it on Google” but she’d hear no response. But always according to Rawlins’ website, the events were a big hit. She even posted photos of people sitting in folding chairs at different venues listening to Rawlins—it was definitely her—read from her last book.
When Rawlins finally did emerge, it was in a total whirlwind. “And I’ll need to make sure it’s the presidential suite, and don’t forget the incandescents my dear, those fluorescents sap my strength.” Zoe did her best, but sometimes details fell through the cracks.
“Did you send books to the Costco in Alamogordo?” the marketing manager came in to ask. “I think so,” Zoe said without hesitating, “Yes, definitely.” “But there’s no Costco in Alamogordo,” the marketing manager would say and take a pencil from behind her ear and make a note on what looked like, could only be an evaluation sheet. Regardless, there was a signing at the Costco in Alamogordo on Tuesday that Rawlins had promised to be there for. A huge order was on the line, and Costco plasters their books with these heinous stickers that never come off and they ALWAYS end up returning boxes of them, totally uncool.
“M. W. W. J,” Zoe wrote. “I know this is highly unorthodox, but—I don’t know, I feel like we’ve got a good rapport here—could I ask for your phone number, please? Our whole internet is being rebooted this week and there’s just so much we need to talk about before then. Please, Margaret, just this once. Sincerely, Zoe (your publicist).”
Rawlins wrote back immediately. It was a short email, just a 907 phone number and signed “Pawtastically yours, M. W. W. J.” Zoe had spent a lot of time in her short, meteoric career on the phone talking to book reviewers and editors and journalists and producers, but she had never spoken to anyone in 907.
The number was for a pay phone in Fairbanks, Alaska, which just threw Zoe into such a tizzy. “Relax, dear,” Rawlins said, and her voice was just as Zoe had imagined it: stentorian, marbled halls with crushed velvet banners. “I’ll be there in time.”
“Okay, because if you don’t I don’t know, I might just lose my job.”
“That is all fine and well,” Rawlins said in slow inches. “Now let me ask you something, my dear … where on earth do you think I get the stories from?” There was a pause, a raspy breath, and then there was a click, and after a minute or two, a dial tone, like the rotary kind you used to hear a long time ago.
Zoe didn’t try to fight back the tears. She left the phone off its cradle and smiled brightly as she walked to the ladies’ room, where she locked herself in a stall and wept quietly as could be, trying to think of all the hundreds of things she might have done wrong.
(a) Zoe went home that night and downed a bottle of Clorox and shot herself in the face with her boyfriend’s stolen revolver.
(b) Zoe went on to have an illustrious career at another fine publishing house. M. W. W. J. Rawlins is still with the same imprint, working with her fourteenth publicist. The thirty-sixth Jeremiah Hairball book is hitting shelves this November.
(c) Zoe pulled the plug on the Costco gig. Crazy bitch, she thought. She was promptly fired, and is now an event planner for Costco in Alamogordo.
(d) Zoe wrote a tell-all memoir and made a million bucks and was Oprah’s last on air guest, married and divorced George Clooney and is now retired and has eight cats.