A Brief Fiction Interlude

August in Los Angeles has a way of making me glum and melancholy. I’d started working on an essay about the peculiar frustration and embarrassment that comes with trying to gain access to an industry that wants nothing to do with me, but then I realized I’d already written a ninety thousand word novel on the subject. Summer is about being lazy, and what could be lazier than recycling old content instead of writing a fresh blog post? Thus, in lieu of an essay, I'm posting the first chapter here.

About Charlotte Dent: I sort of thought I was writing a grim, serious book about themes of identity (“Charlotte Dent” sounds like “charlatan”; Charlotte frets about the disconnect between her public and private images, and she’s constantly mistaken for and/or replaced by other people). I’m not sure I succeeded: a very generous Publishers Weekly review of the unpublished manuscript, written for judging purposes in a competition, opened with this sentence: “Chick lit embraces Hollywood pluck in this perky novel about dreams that come true, with a few nightmares along the way.” Works for me -- I think “perky chick lit” trumps “grim and serious” any day. Here’s the first chapter.

Chapter One

Stone urns bearing vast arrangements of white lilies and lemon leaves flanked the entrance to the reception area. Always lilies, fresh every Monday, except throughout December, when they were swapped for white poinsettias. My heels clicked on marble, professional and correct, as I navigated past them. The reception desk swept up in a high dark curve, seamless against the floor, a ship’s bow rising from a dead gray sea. The firm’s name in hammered metal letters, lit with pinpoint lights from beneath, hung high on the storm-colored wall above Frieda’s head. The font, the spindly letters that appeared on all the firm’s stationary and publications, was trademarked by and named for the firm: Ausberger.

At the desk, Frieda’s posture was impeccable, her eyes fixed on her monitor screen. She spoke into her headset in a modulated stream of words, a near-constant rhythm of repeated speech: “Ausberger Bender Bob. Thank you. Ausberger Bender Bob. Thank you.” One hand hovered just above the switchboard, the pad of one finger pressing buttons in quick succession. This was a cultivated skill, the ability to infuse her voice with the proper balance of warmth and professionalism and connect all callers with the correct party.

Easy to spot the celebrity in the trio of individuals seated on the suede armchairs, even if I hadn’t known her on sight. Paragon Berthieu, a splotch of vivid color against all the stern grays, her strapless sundress the color of an ocean someplace I’d never been. Saint-Tropez, maybe. Barbados. Crete. Pale hair, pulled off her face with a scarf, fell in an uninterrupted spill of a white sand beach over one shoulder. She was tiny and bronzed, primped and polished, her small face dominated by gigantic round white sunglasses.

I walked over to the assembled group. “Good morning. Are you here to see Marti Bob?” Face hot, heartbeat erratic. Huh. Nervous. Intimidated, even, by this wisp of a girl, this pop star of indeterminate talent, maybe ten years my junior, better known for her romantic escapades than her body of work.

The man in the chair beside Paragon jumped to his feet. “That’s right. I’m Josh.” He thrust out a hand. I took it, hoping mine wasn’t sweaty or sticky. “That’s Paragon, and the other one’s Charity.”

Paragon’s appeal was such I’d barely noted the girl beside her. Cutoff jean shorts and flip-flops, ironed platinum hair. Thin and tan and plain, a low-wattage version of her older sister. Charity played with the phone in her lap and didn’t look up at her dad’s introduction.

Josh grinned, wide and natural. He seemed too young and energetic to be the father of two teen girls. Shiny tanned face, yellow polo shirt, white shorts, whiter teeth. Too casual for a business appointment, all of them, but this was Los Angeles. He looked like a youth pastor at a church camp, or a charismatic cult leader. “Are you Marti’s assistant?”

“That’s right. I’m Charlotte. If you’ll follow me, Marti will be with you in a minute.”

“Sure. Girls?”

Expressionless behind her sunglasses, Paragon got to her feet and picked up her purse, a woven monstrosity better suited for toting magazines and bottles of suntan lotion to the beach. Charity didn’t take her attention away from whatever captured her interest on her phone’s tiny screen. Without looking up, she fell in line behind her sister.

I led the procession to the big conference room. There was a brief scuffle behind me, then an explosive burst of giggles. “Dude, you farted.”

Hard to tell which of the little darlings it was. “Did not. You liar. It was you.” More giggles, jostling, possibly the sound of someone knuckle-punching someone on the arm.

“You did. I can smell it.”

“It’s not me. This place smells really bad.”

“Girls, come on.” Josh’s tone was indulgent even in a reprimand.

I took a discreet whiff. The office smelled like it always did, like copy machine toner and chemical air freshener.

Whispers behind my back, a chorus of hushed giggles. I felt my back muscles tensing as though I expected to be attacked. They weren't necessarily talking about me, mocking me, but they could be.

It was time to make an adjustment. I flexed my feet inside my shoes. Black pumps, some synthetic material made to look like shiny patent leather, cheap and scuffed yet not without style. They didn’t make the same satisfying click on the gray carpet as they did on marble, but I focused on placing one foot in front of the other in measured paces, heel-toe, heel-toe. Get into character from the feet up. That was one of the first things I’d learned in a lifetime of drama classes. This situation called for summoning up an alternate version of Charlotte Dent, one better equipped to handle Paragon and her sister.

Moving up through my spine now… I relaxed my shoulders, let the tension at my neck uncoil. My eyebrows lifted, my chin raised. At the next round of giggles from behind, I moved my head to the right, not turning all the way around, moving nothing beside my head and my neck, letting them know I’d marked their antics and, like any self-respecting high-level assistant in a formal corporate environment would be, was Not Amused.

It worked. Hot dog. The giggles stilled. I faced front once again, eyebrows still high.

I held the door to the conference room open while the procession trooped in. “I’ll make sure Marti knows you’re here. Would anyone like coffee or a soft drink?”

“Coffee’s great, thanks, Charlotte.” Josh grinned.

Aw. He remembered my name. One point for him. “Cream, sugar?”

“Do you have soy milk?” That was Paragon, and she seemed genuinely invested in the answer.

“Of course.” They carried soy milk in the convenience store downstairs, didn’t they?

Paragon grinned, her smile almost as charming as her dad’s, and I forgave her a bit for being so pretty and ill-mannered. Charity didn’t look up from her phone. She almost seemed autistic, the way her attention was absorbed by it to the exclusion of the world around her. I could pity her if I hadn't seen her interviewed on some red carpet or other, full of life and giggles, burbling with enthusiasm about her sister’s career.

I ran into Marti in the hallway. “Have you gone to the store yet?” was her greeting.

“I’m just on my way.” It sounded defensive. I smiled to take away any bite.

“If you pick up a box of tampons and leave them in my top desk drawer, you will be my friend for life.” Marti looked at me in desperation. She was bright-eyed sparrow of a woman, spindly and small-boned and sharp.

The request was embarrassing and human, and it made me forget the wary resentment I felt toward her. “No problem.”

Marti patted my arm once and went into the conference room.

The convenience store in the lobby was well-stocked for my purposes. I picked up a half-dozen muffins, a couple of croissants, a plastic container of fresh mixed fruit. Ripe blackberries, shaved raw coconut, honeydew chunks, halved strawberries. There was Paragon’s soy milk. I snagged Marti’s tampons and paid for my bundle with my poor overused debit card, making sure to get a receipt.

I stashed the tampons in Marti’s drawer and headed for the lunchroom with my bags of goodies. I arranged everything on a tray and grabbed napkins--the cloth ones with the company monogram kept in the locked cupboard above the sink--and headed for the conference room.

Marti was in with the Berthieu family. I tapped on the door once, then looked through the side window to catch Marti’s attention. Marti gestured for me to come in. She looked tense and humorless.

Josh broke off whatever he’d been saying to grin at me. “Coffee! Fantastic.”

I set down the tray. Charity didn’t look up, her attention on her hands. She’d peeled off her nail polish, leaving flakes the color of dried blood on the table, like a pile of picked scabs. Paragon, sunglasses still on, stared out the window at the Century City skyline, the shiny new buildings, Fox and MGM and CAA, all whispering promises of success and fulfillment of wishes. I’d done that before. If I stood right up next to the glass, I could look straight down into the Fox studio lot.

Music broke in, a loud snippet of a pop song, a breathy voice gasping unintelligible lyrics. Paragon frowned, pulled out her phone, looked at the display, and stuck it back in her purse. The ringtone continued for a few seconds longer before stopping. The song was familiar, something currently in heavy rotation on radio stations I didn’t listen to. I thought the singer was Paragon, but would Paragon have the utter narcissism necessary to use one of her own songs as her ringtone? I looked at Paragon, emotionless in her too-large sunglasses and too-bright dress, and thought perhaps she might.

I set the soy milk down in front of Paragon. Paragon smiled at me. “Oh, thanks.”

I smiled back and left, annoyed at feeling star-struck again.

Marti wouldn’t need me until the meeting was over, so I headed back to my desk. My lunch break started now, but Marti would have kitten fits if I left. I typed a letter for Dale, sent a couple faxes. Waited.

Commotion. The Berthieu girls yapping like Pomeranians in the reception area, the more modulated tones of Marti and Josh exchanging pleasantries. The meeting was over. I went to the conference room.

One of the croissants had been eaten. That was Josh, I was willing to bet. In front of Charity’s seat, next to the pile of nail polish peelings, were the bottom halves of three of the muffins, their crowns missing. Three half-full coffee cups, one of them Marti’s. Paragon’s cup was unused, the soy milk unopened, the fruit plate untouched.

My end of the hall was quiet. Dale’s and Ken's office doors were open, their computer screens dark. Out to lunch, probably, somewhere in nearby Beverly Hills where they could linger over porterhouse steaks and pommes frittes while discussing cases.

Marti popped her head into Dale’s office. “The guys go to lunch already?”

“I think so. I didn’t see them leave,” I said.

“Damn them. I told them I’d be done by one.” Marti frowned. “Is the conference room cleaned up?”

“Yes. Do you need anything else, or can I take my lunch now?”

“Go ahead,” Marti said. She looked vexed and tired. At moments like this, when Marti seemed human, it was easy enough to feel bad for her. It couldn’t be easy, viewing each day as an endless series of minute negotiations, analyzing every action for possible slights. I did plenty of that, and I was an amateur compared to Marti. “Dan just called and said he’s on his way in, so you won’t need to cover my phone this afternoon.”

She laughed, a thin, uneven sound unsupported by genuine feeling. She leaned against the small stretch of wall between Dale’s and Ken’s offices and folded her arms across her chest. With mild horror, I realized she was settling in for a chat. Girl talk. “He took the morning off for an audition. I knew I shouldn’t have hired an actor.”

“Did he say what the audition was for?” Good for Dan. I’d grill him about it later.

Marti examined the nails of one hand. “I don’t know. A cereal commercial or something equally crappy. He said he didn’t get a callback.”

“That's too bad,” I said. A cereal commercial meant a big national campaign. The auditions were hard to come by, and the competition was always stiff, but landing one could’ve changed Dan’s life.

“I’m sure his parents appreciate shelling out money for acting classes so he can star in commercials.” Marti smiled, the thin bones of her face standing out tight. “I’m glad you’re not into any of that business, Charlotte. You’ve got more sense than Dan.”

I was still for a moment. My skin was too thin today. Marti wasn’t being snide. She didn’t know. Marti never paid attention to my life outside the office, and why on earth should she?

It wasn’t worth explaining. I smiled, noncommittal, and waited for Marti to head back to her own office. I left the letter I’d typed for Dale on his desk so he could sign it upon his return.

A flicker of movement at the window made me pause. I looked closer.

A bird was on the windowsill, a pigeon. Unusual to see one this high up. I approached the glass.

The pigeon seemed to register my movements on the other side of the window. Its head bobbed from side to side in bursts of frenetic movement. I could see the details of its feathers and the bright glint of its beadlike eyes.

It bobbed up and down, scooted a bit to the side on the thin windowsill. Careful not to startle it, I moved even closer. I placed my palm against the glass just opposite it.

It could see me, and it wasn’t afraid. It seemed to be trying to get inside, confounded by the illusion of the window. It hopped to the side and teetered. I felt my breath catch. I stayed very still.

The pigeon hopped backward off the ledge and disappeared from sight. I glanced down to see if it had taken flight, but I couldn’t see anything. Maybe it was flying, swooping through the air, its miniscule brain no longer clinging to what had been its most important goal moments earlier.

Looking straight down from this height gave me vertigo, even with my forehead pressed against the thick glass and my hands braced against the sill. I left the office and went to lunch.


Ingrid Richter said…
Dang, I like this, Morgan! I know that's not very original to say, me being your sister and all, but I really love Charlotte Dent.

Maybe it will see some action eventually?
Morgan Richter said…
Maybe it will see some action eventually?

The heat is making my brain slow. Because my immediate reaction was, "Dude, Ingrid, you've read it! You know there's no action in it!" And then your meaning kind of dawned on me. You mean "action" like mebbe getting it published? Yeah, that'd be cool.

(BTW, the sorta blurry tar pit photo is an old one I took with the $20 Walgreens camera, not the sleek shiny new one you gave me. I would have gone up to the tar pits to snap a better one, but it's freaking hot and awful outside today.)
Ingrid Richter said…
Er, yeah, I should have said action on it, not in it. My bad.

My boss loved Charlotte Dent so much that he printed out the Amazon sample for everyone to read at the circulation desk (er, I work in a library, obviously).

And how cruel would it be if I said "I think it needs more action in it" right here on your blog?

My first thought with the La Brea Tar Pits photo was "Did I take this?", followed by "Damn, I need to get Morgan a better camera" :-) Love the pic, though...
Ingrid Richter said…
(Clarification: the picture is great when it's small, but becomes lossy when large)
Morgan Richter said…
I love the word "lossy". Much more evocative than "blurry." I think the photo is kinda lossy whilst small, too. Still, I think the whole tar pit mystique comes across.
Dan said…
Heh. Y'know, I read this and thought 'That's not how I remember the beginning of the story'. Then concluded you must have changed it in a rewrite somewhere.

And then realised the opening I was thinking of was from your other novel.

But, yeah, Charlotte Dent's great, even if I did completely misremember how it began.
Morgan Richter said…
Heh. Well, to be fair, I did chop the first chapter down by somewhere in the neighborhood of seven pages from the Amazon version (I think that version started off with a thousand-word digression about how Los Angeles is, like, hot and stuff). So it's definitely changed from the version you read. Every time I go through it, I tend to lose thousands and thousands of words...
Red Haired Stranger said…
I quite like this, and I'm not just saying that because I find your Heroes recaps and all the awesomeness in between duly hilarious. I'm pained to hear about your job hunting and writing woes-especially with your knack for spotting problems and suggesting reasonable alternative courses, along with pretty much everyone else who comments on your posts (I approve of a possible campaign for Mookies). Just wanted to finally comment and tell you that your posts are appreciated and your writing is more up to par than many published works I've read. Go team!
Morgan Richter said…
Thank you so much, Red Haired Stranger, and please, do feel free to join in on any of the Heroes-related nonsense that goes on around here. Thanks for taking the time to comment -- it's very much appreciated.
Morgan Dodge said…
This is one of my favorite stories. Now I want to go back and read it again. I think I have the same version as Dan, however. Can we call that the "unabridged Charlotte Dent"? Which would make this version bridged?
Morgan Richter said…
Heh. Yes, this would be the bridged version. The version you and Dan have is the third-person version; I switched it to first-person some months ago at the advice of an agent, who thought it would make readers feel closer to Charlotte. The agent ultimately passed on representing it anyway, so that was fun. Lemme know if you want me to send you the version I'm currently shopping around. It's shorter.
Dan said…
I switched it to first-person some months ago at the advice of an agent

Agents! They so wacky!
Morgan Richter said…
Agents! They so wacky!

Yeah. Good times. I sort of think it works better in first person, so I'm sticking with this version for the time being. I also really liked the agent who agreed to represent it, then without a word of explanation broke off contact with me and wouldn't return my calls or reply to my emails. That made me feel super-awesome about myself.

It's about time I do another big push to try to gain representation, but it takes a teensy bit more gumption than I currently have available.
Jason Gilman said…
How did I miss this? Here I've been curious about Charlotte Dent for most of the year and you actually posted a chapter and I didn't notice until today. That's what I get for experimenting with a Google Reader alternative earlier this month. Now I want to read more of course, but I also want to read the original third person Chapter 1 too.
Morgan Richter said…
Jason, Amazon used to have the first three chapters of the original first person version available for free download on their site, but I just did a quick look and couldn't find it anymore. I'll send you a copy of it. I'm on the fence as to which version I prefer: I specifically wrote it in third originally because I wanted a little distance from Charlotte, but the agent feedback I was getting suggested the distance was a drawback. The first-person version is definitely chattier and more intimate, for better or worse.

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