Susan Vandagriff, 4/25/2016
Current Occupation: Freelance Editor and Writer
Former Occupation: Intern
Contact Information: Susan Vandagriff is a recent college graduate currently working freelance and seeking formal employment.
My phone is haunted by a former employee. When I got to work today I had eleven missed calls. Honest to god eleven, by 7:30 in morning. Not for me, for Larry Scroggins. His name is on the phone, and the desk, and the stapler. It’s printed on the pencils in the top left drawer.
I’ve already made coffee for everyone, turned on all of the thick antique computers, and begun proofing today’s stories when the writers arrive at 9:30. The editorial room is divided into sections, sports writers in one corner, photography in another, and features and dailies. I sit at the leftover desk at the back of the features and dailies section, facing the wall.
Suddenly my phone rings. Everyone else has cheerful ringtones like a saxophone, a bell, or chirping birds, but my phone sounds like a sinking submarine. I hate answering the phone. I know the call isn’t for me. I’m the interning copyeditor. No one calls the interning copy editor. My job is to give and take away commas while making as little impact on the writer’s work as possible. So I ignore it. But around the fifth depressed whoop, my section’s writers, Wilton and Gina, and the managing editor Angie turn to stare at me.
“It’s Leslie Lipking,” I say, looking at the caller ID. “Should I answer it?”
Wilton and Gina exchange a look. Angie takes off her glasses and cleans them with a sigh.
“No, Jen. It’s not for you,” she says finally.
Jane, I think. My name is Jane, but I smile and nod to show how competently I can not answer a phone. I go back to the accident report, adjusting a misplaced modifier that suggests the car’s decapitated head flew six feet from the site of impact.
“I don’t like to talk about people’s personal lives at work,” Angie continues.
I smile and nod some more, and then Angie pulls her chair over to my desk to tell me about someone’s personal life.
“Leslie Lipking is Scroggin’s ex-wife,” Angie tells me, leaning in, though Gina and Wilton’s desks are so close there’s no way they aren’t hearing this too. Of course they would already know. They worked with Larry before he was fired.
“Oh. Okay,” I say, hoping my smile shows eagerness to please, polite interest, sympathy, and sorrow at the decline of the American marriage. I want to return to my modifier, but Angie isn’t through.
“They have a child,” she says, widening her eyes. I think I’m expected to swoon or something.
She can’t remember my name, but the details of Larry’s marriage, sure.
“Larry had,” Angie sucks in her breath and begins polishing her glasses again, “a very messy personal life.”
Wilton and Gina aren’t even feigning work at this point. Larry’s a fascinating void, like the space left by a lost tooth.
“I’m guessing,” she says and replaces her glasses, “she doesn’t know he got fired.”
“Should we tell her?” I ask.
“No, no, Jen. I don’t want to get involved,” Angie says. Of course she didn’t want to talk about personal lives either, so I figure it’s only a matter of time. I clear the missed calls list, and go over to Wilton’s desk to collect the obituaries.
“Hang on,” he says, jabbing the print button. Wilton is one of the oldest writers on staff and has a partially detached cornea from a hedge trimmer accident. This means he needs to close his eyes for extended periods of time throughout the day. Sometimes he snores. His desk, like most of the writers, has tidy stacks of yellowing newspapers. No one ever seems to throw anything away, which is really starting to concern me. I don’t know where the trashcan is, and I don’t want to bother anyone by asking. Every night I carry all of my trash home in my backpack. The worst time was the cookies. I’d brought a box to work, but no one noticed or took any. After two weeks I dumped the dusty, molding mess into my backpack. I’m waiting for the day someone blows their nose so I can follow them and find out where these people hide their wastebaskets.
On the side of Wilton’s desk is a mustachioed Civil War soldier. This is my in.
“I see you’re a Joshua Chamberlain fan.”
Wilson looks nonplussed.
“I’ve seen the memorial. At Gettysburg,” I continue. My feet are sliding around in my shoes, the faux leather lining slick with sweat.
“Your magnet,” I say, pointing and praying that there wasn’t another Union general that resembled a skinny walrus.
“Oh.” He leans over to look, his chair groaning. “I’ve never noticed that before. Thirty years I’ve been here.” To my relief the printer spits out the last death notice.
“Here you go, Jen.” Wilton says and hands over the goods before returning to his monitor.
My mother had brought up the Gettysburg trip only a few days before when she and my older sister Miri were planning the speech for Miri’s rehearsal dinner.
“We could talk about the time we left you at Gettysburg!” Mom said.
“That was me,” I interrupted.
“No, honey. That was Miri. I remember.”
I remembered too. My dad, a history buff, drug us to Gettysburg when I was in the second grade. We had climbed Little Round Top, the hill Joshua Chamberlain defended, as well as Big Round Top, aptly named larger hill that Chamberlain also defended. I wandered around examining the trees for bullet holes, while my parents and sisters hiked back down. They reached the Visitors Center before they realized they were a child short of three. They found me shivering and sobbing with snot clotting in the polar fleece of my jacket sleeves.
After the paper goes out at eleven, we have our newsroom meeting. Everyone pulls their chairs into a circle at the middle of the editorial room, each writer says what they’re working on, and Angie writes it on a whiteboard. Wilton, seniority dictates, goes first, and begins the list of deaths, engagements, births, and weddings.
And then I hear the submarine, water rushing in, the crew scrambling. It’s probably Leslie, for Larry again. And why shouldn’t he be here? His name is on the stapler, and the phone, and the desk, and the pencils. But then Angie’s phone lights up. Leslie wouldn’t. But Larry is determined to infiltrate every level of the office. Angie excuses herself and returns to her desk. My fingers are compulsively exploring a hole in Larry Scroggins’s chair cushion.
“So, Gina,” Wilton says, sitting back in his chair and resting his hands on his stomach. “How’s the boyfriend?”
Gina, sniffling occasionally, begins to fill us in on her long distance boyfriend who works in the West Indies.
Angie has been talking for a long time. I wish I knew how to read lips. I wish Gina would shut up. I continue to decimate Larry’s chair. Angie frowns and turns away from the meeting, talking still, and I’m leaning after her.
“And he said, ‘I’d like to make this an open relationship.’ And I told him, just because you met a supermodel from Aruba over the internet,” Gina is sobbing, “you think you ca—”
“Sorry, about that,” Angie said, as Gina honks into the tissue Wilton offers. “That was Leslie, Larry’s wife.”
The whole office snaps their head towards her en masse, like meerkats on Nature. I, on the other hand, am staring at Gina, who at any minute could reveal the location of the secret trashcan.
Angie pulls out her glasses cloth and begins kneading the lenses between her fingers. “She didn’t know about Larry. She’s a very nice woman, and I was able to clear that up.”
Everyone is exchanging glances, well, except Gina who’s still buried in the tissue hiccupping. She gives a final blow, and then she folds the tissue up and sticks it in her pocket while I groan internally. Maybe they don’t even have a trashcan. My black serious-working-adult pants are covered in bits of yellow chair-interior foam.
As soon as the meeting adjourns, the office is buzzing and not about the inevitable demise of Gina’s long distance relationship. It won’t be that time the intern revolutionized grammar, but the time Larry left his messy personal life trailing through the office. I’ve lost the summer to Larry Scroggins.
Larry wasn’t even a good employee. Gina says he stole her staples all the time. Wilton chuckled once that his messy desk was like a falling rock zone. I glance at my own backpack, filled with litter. Maybe he didn’t know where the trashcan was either, so he could only pile the garbage higher and higher while fearing that an angry ex-wife would attack his phone.
As if sensing my thoughts the phone begins it’s sad whooping. I pick up Larry’s stapler and begin picking at the label. Into the backpack goes “PROPERTY OF LARRY SCROGGINS.” I feel like declaring “I am Mrs. DeWinter now!” but I doubt anyone here has read Rebecca, and they struggle to remember my name now without my confusing them. The phone is still ringing, so I answer, “Larry doesn’t work here anymore. I work here, and my name is Jane.”
“Are you the person who told my ex-wife I got fired?” The voice does not belong to a Leslie. I look down at the caller ID, which now, like the desk, stapler, and pencils, reads LARRY SCROGGINS.
“No.” It’s like talking to a celebrity. The Larry Scroggins. Of cubicle fame.
“So, Jane. You’re my replacement. Good luck with that.” Larry laughs, not unkindly.
“I’m an intern. You left your stapler here.” I look guiltily at the crumpled label in my bag.
“You can keep it, Jane,” he says. I knew it wasn’t a hard name to remember.
I do a chair pirouette. Wilton is asleep over his computer, Gina is crying, and Angie has moved to some other part of the office. “Thanks. Angie told on you,” I whisper.
“Of course she did. Not one to get involved in others’ personal lives, that Angie.” He laughs again, and I join in this time.
“I should probably go,” I say, twisting the phone cord around my thumb.
“Well, have fun doing all the work, Jane.”
There’s a click, and Larry is gone. I hang up, then turn to find Angie standing behind me.
“Hi.” I sound like one of the friendly mice that dress Cinderella.
“Whenever you get tomorrow’s C5 page formatted, could you bring me a copy?”
“Absolutely.” I’m excited. The C5 page is the horoscope, advice columns, and crossword puzzles. You read it to check that nothing is capitalized that shouldn’t be, the dates are all correct, and the “Astrograph” has the appropriate spacing to stretch the column longer. Nobody wants to do it, so it goes to me. But, I have the C5 page done now. And the C5 pages for the next two weeks. That’s probably a record.
I carry my collection of perfectly formatted pages over to Angie’s desk. Look how competent and driven I am, what a team player who’s self-motivated and detail oriented. I put them down gently, with my most benevolent smile, like Mary putting Jesus in the manger. I facilitated this miracle. You’re welcome.
“Thanks,” Angie says.
“No problem. I went ahead and did the next couple of weeks too.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks, Jen.” She doesn’t even look at them. The “Astrograph” spacing could’ve gone to hell for all she knows or cares.
“You’re welcome,” I say, bouncing slightly on the balls of my feet. She’ll notice how many proofs there are. Any minute, she’ll notice.
She lifts off tomorrow’s page and hands me the rest. “I’m sure these are fine, you can hold onto them.”
“Right.” I return to my desk, and consider writing profanity on the proofs with a Larry Scroggins pencil. Luckily the phone rings.
“Hey Jane, by any chance have you found an umbrella that has ‘Larry—”
I cut Larry off. “Did they pay attention to your work?”
“No. And they aren’t going to pay attention to yours either Jane.” He laughs. “No matter how good it is.”
“What did you do to get fired?”
Larry’s silent for a moment, and I worry he’ll hang up.
“Well I was working my ass off to no avail,” he says, and I’m nodding though he can’t really tell. “I mean the only way you any recognition there is if you’ve been there for centuries whether you do anything or not. Like Wilton. Unless things have changed?”
Wilton is snoring softly on a pile of papers from 1988-89, Gina’s mascara and snot are streaming as she screams ‘But I love you!’ into her phone, and Angie is windexing her glasses.
“No,” I say, cupping the phone close to my mouth. I imagine Larry with stacks of proofs on his desk, getting up at the crack of dawn with his mug of coffee, being called Lenny or Lester.
“I figured. I asked for the raise I deserved. I told Angie I wanted to be a writer with a writer’s salary. And when she said no,” he paused for a moment, “I went on strike.”
“Wow.” I want to ask how you strike as a copyeditor, but Angie is approaching in the reflection of my computer screen. “I’d better go.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about me, Jane, but Wilton and Gina were threatened by me. Don’t let them take advantage of you too.” Angie stops at Gina’s desk and appears to be asking her to lower her volume.
“I won’t. I’ll make sure,” I promise before hanging up.
“Jen, who was that on the phone?” Angie asks glasses in hand, and I spin to confront her.
“Jane. It’s Jane. Not Jen. I’ve been here for three months, and you haven’t called me the right name once.” I say, noticing that Wilton raises his head off the desk at the sound.
I’m pleased to see Angie has frozen mid-lense.
“I’m sorry Jane, but could you refrain—”
“No, I won’t refrain. Not only have I been here for months, but I’ve been doing a great job. You think these computers turn themselves on in the morning? You think any of these people can spell on their own?” All of the whispered rants I’ve been giving the bathroom mirror are spewing out. Suddenly I’m standing and jabbing an accusatory finger at Angie.
“And you never notice me, just like you didn’t notice Larry. And when he asked to be noticed, you fired him because you and the other writers were threatened by his talent,” I continue. I’m shouting now, loud enough that all the writers can hear it.
“His talent?” Gina hiccups from her desk. She’s hung up the phone, and her eyebrows have nearly disappeared behind her bangs. “He never did anything. And when he decided to ‘strike,’ he sabotaged everybody’s work, he added errors that weren’t there.”
“And he lit the trashcan on fire,” Wilton adds. Behind him I see other writers craning their necks to watch.
“And he deleted a full day’s paper from the system,” Angie sniffs, returning the glasses to her nose. “It didn’t matter how talented he might’ve been,” she continues. “We had sufficient reason to fire him.” She gives me a final glance, goes to her desk, pulling out a file I’m certain says Jen Anderson on it.
My face feels like I’ve been in the sun for too long. The whole office hums. People cluster around the water cooler, near the copier, by Wilton’s desk, and they talk about Larry Scroggins and me.