Sam feared old people. She feared their drooping folds, their soft edges, like a block of butter left out for too long. They haunted the office in their squelching orthopedic sneakers, moving so slowly that Sam sometimes expected them to leave behind snail trails of mucus. She drifted behind them in the hallways, keeping at least ten paces of distance. She didn’t like to get too close to their odor of mothballs and lye soap; she didn’t want to see where their hair had thinned to reveal the shocking white of their scalps.
The dinosaurs did the same amount of nothing as Sam but were paid twenty times more. Because Bob had signed David Foster Wallace thirty years ago, it didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to work a PDF, and Sam had once spent an excruciating afternoon hovering next to him at his desk, periodically scrolling for him on Adobe Acrobat. After that, she just printed out the manuscripts, trees be damned.
Sam had come to the company to edit books or to bide time until she wrote her own book, but she had never gotten around to moving up or on, and now she was twenty-eight—a dinosaur in assistant years. She used to worry that she would be fired at some point, but the imprint was poorly managed and no one had realized her particular uselessness yet. If some snotty McKinsey consultant came and tried to calculate the financial efficiency of the imprint, their poor Redbull-and-Ritalin-riddled heart would thump itself to death. There was no cost-efficient way to produce poetry books about Japanese birds or dense novels about men walking the length of America. There was no money to be made from them, either.
The company offset its losses via another imprint, which churned out Republican insider tell-alls to the effervescent and profitable delight of liberal book clubs nationwide. Sam figured she had at least two more years of reminding Bob that no one used fax machines anymore and probably even Bret Easton Ellis had email.
One Tuesday, Sam found a surprise waiting for her in her cubicle—a middle-aged woman frowning at the leaking pile of Java Monster Energy cans in her trash bin.
The woman was draped in an indecipherable black garment and clearly had never slouched in her life. Her hair was piled on top of her head and her mouth was a severe red-lipsticked line. She was—and Sam very rarely felt this about people who looked like they might qualify for Social Security—hot. Out of the corner of Sam’s eye, she saw Bob peering at them, his expression more animated than she had ever seen before.
The woman said, “You’re late.” She had a British accent.
“I am?” Sam looked at the time on her phone—10:38 a.m.
“I’m your new boss.” The woman was looking Sam up and down. Sam wondered what she was thinking. She looked down at herself: little German boy shoes swallowing a pair of pilling black socks, Carhartt work pants, a short sleeve button-up with a pack of menthols visible in the breast pocket.
Sam said, “You are?”
The woman’s mouth thinned. She had sharp features—nature’s way of saying Beware! Do not cross! Sam did not know how to address this situation. Luckily, Bob was painfully making his way across the office.
He bellowed, “I see you’ve met!” Bob was always bellowing. Sam sometimes wondered if he had a brass horn for lungs.
“Sam, this is Imogen. She’s one of our friends across the pond.” Likely, he was talking about the British half of the company. “Now she’s here with us! She needs an assistant.” Bob was gesturing his big hand between them like this was an obvious set-up.
Sam and Imogen looked at Bob with matching disbelief. Sam was thinking, This seems like a lot of work. Imogen, Sam imagined, was thinking, Do you expect me to work with this dyke? Sam sympathized.
Bob beamed back at them, unbothered. He was unable to read the expressions of women and seemed to find great joy in this illiteracy. Imogen cast her gaze around the office, but there was no higher power to appeal to. There was just Bob, and he was already shuffling back to his corner.
The first thing Imogen did was direct Sam toward the slush pile, a task she had spent years tiptoeing around and sloughing off to the unpaid interns. She hated wading into the muck of other people’s desire, their naked and earnest hope. She found it difficult to read submissions with any sense of emotional detachment. She spent too long with obviously pointless manuscripts, imagining the stolen hours each chapter took—brisk dawns before school drop-offs, furtive lunch breaks in fluorescent offices. Sam usually started out with pity and ended up with anger and resentment.
She had seen every way a novel could fail, and there were more ways to fail than to succeed. There were more words to describe a bad novel: trite, sentimental, overwrought, self-serious, meandering. Sam sometimes wondered if she was contaminating herself by reading all this bad writing, but it was a pointless concern, since she wasn’t doing much writing anyway.
The imprint was sparing with the number of new writers it took on—they had contractual obligations to their current ones, who needed their advances to continue their plodding lives in Upper West Side brownstones, bonking NYU students. Sam could have command-A’d the entire inbox into the trash, to the same effect.
She was tempted to, but she suspected that Imogen would have a way of knowing. Imogen’s previous assistants were probably a series of sleek British women who followed her around like purebred greyhounds, high-strung and expensive. These hypothetical women would appear at Imogen’s door at the exact moment she needed a cappuccino.
Imogen had something to prove, a feeling she kept close to the surface. She emanated a forcefield of tension. Sam imagined that dogs barked and fire alarms rang as Imogen walked by. It was an impressive feat, given that the senior-most editor at the imprint Zoomed in to the all-hands meetings in his surfing get-up from his Jeep Wrangler in Cape Cod.
Sam was charmed by how hard Imogen tried. She was always booking Imogen working lunches at Serafina—Imogen was new in town and didn’t know better—and sending Diptyque candles to editors and agents. She was on the phone wrangling a refund from the printer when ARCs came in with all the pages tinged slightly pink; she was calling taxis to deliver writers to book signings and university lectures.
Waiting on the street for a messenger to deliver a manuscript one night, Sam realized she was in trouble. The only power that Sam ever had as an assistant was in her well-maintained apathy. She didn’t care about the just-above-living-wage salary or the terrible benefits. She didn’t care that most editors couldn’t remember her name and most projects never saw the light of day. Those indignities didn’t get to her because she didn’t work enough to expect more. She came late, left early, and stole office supplies.
Or she used to.
That night, Sam went home three hours after the working day had ended. She mulled it over on the L-train platform while a bongo quartet banged cheerily on. She couldn’t be seduced into unpaid overtime! She wouldn’t be.
When Imogen summoned her to lunch via an Outlook calendar invite, Sam suspected that the jig was up. They ate their ala carte salads in Zuccotti Park, watching a citizen’s puppet theatre perform. Imogen had a very precise way of spearing her salad—cucumber, tuna, lettuce leaf. She folded everything into her mouth without disturbing her lipstick.
When Imogen was done, she set down her plastic fork and looked Sam in the eye very seriously. She said, “It used to be feminist to be ambitious.”
Sam thought of her roommate, Clara, who spent her days cutting the collars off of dress shirts and selling the collars on Depop. She was always wearing brooches and stealing kombucha from Whole Foods. Clara thought it was feminist to trick rich people out of their money.
“I think ambition requires a sincere belief in the system,” Sam said.
Imogen pressed her fingers to her brow. She made even exasperation seem elegant.
Sam had spent so long deconstructing things, dispelling the false narratives of capitalism and individualism, that now she believed in nothing. She knew communism would never happen and she knew every little thing she did was trampling on the neck of some more vulnerable person and she knew nothing she did would turn the tide of climate change. She was just treading water until the end of the world.
All of Sam’s friends were. They mocked people who did anything that assumed a distant future—save for retirement, make a down payment, get married, buy a minivan, have children to fill that minivan. Sam and her friends had begun to count on the apocalypse. There was the bleak possibility that nuclear Armageddon would never come and one day they would all be fifty years old, living with three roommates in Bed-Stuy, dying of lung cancer.
It must be difficult, Sam thought, for Imogen to understand. Her generation had burnt their bras and grown out their armpit hair, and for what? They wanted women to have choices, and it turned out that women these days wanted to choose nihilism.
The imprint’s death was announced on a Friday during an afternoon conference call. Sam almost missed it—she liked to beat the overstuffed five o’clock L-train—but Imogen had caught her on her way out. Watching the CEO gesticulate over Zoom, Sam found it incredible that someone she had never met, someone who did not even live on this side of the country, could send her life into a tailspin. She should have expected this. Twitter was full of people announcing their descent into the freelancer melee, but the economy often felt like it was a natural disaster happening to other people in other places.
The Zoom was full of angry faces, but there was something impotent about acting out your rage over video call, where you could be silenced with the click of a button.
Besides Imogen and Sam, only the dinosaurs were in the office. They seemed gently stunned but resigned to their fates. They probably had lake houses to fix up and grandchildren to babysit. It might have felt poetic, to them, to go down with the ship. To see publishing through its last epoch.
It was Sam who had to find something else to do with her life. She thought, distantly, of cover letters and job interviews and unemployment and health insurance. She looked over at Imogen, whose face was very still. The higher-ups had to have known they would close the imprint a long time ago, well before Imogen’s transfer. She had been cast out on a sinking ship. Sam put her hand on Imogen’s forearm.
After the meeting, Sam figured it was her last chance to drink the beer that someone had left, for months, in the staff room refrigerator. Sam and Imogen drank warm Heineken in a long-since abandoned boardroom, swiveling in seven-hundred-dollar Swiss ergonomic chairs.
On the far side of the room, someone had lined the bookshelves with every book the imprint had ever published. Sam thought about how many people had touched those words: someone had written and edited and typeset them. Someone printed and bound and packaged them. Marketed them and stocked them and talked and written about them. Read them. How difficult it was to tell how much it was all worth.
Imogen stopped swiveling in her chair, coming to rest just so her shoulder was touching Sam’s. A gentle but steady pressure.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________ Serena Lin is a journalist covering legal affairs in Austin, TX. She grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English Literature.