To celebrate the holiday season properly, Underwords brings you a reprint of “The Get” by Ellen Neuborne. Happy holidays from Ellen and Underwords.
by Ellen Neuborne
I’d finally made it through the line to the revolving doors at FAO Schwarz when my cell blared Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough. Work. Damn. Had to take it so I stepped in and tried to maneuver the spinning glass container while flipping the clamshell open to my ear. I was still yelling “Hello? Hello?” into my fist when I missed my exit and had to go around another spin. Okay, two actually. I got disoriented.
The blond family dressed in coordinated LL Bean parkas laughed. The FAO security guard, in tin-solider red, was less amused. He glared and swung his arms officiously, as though he were directing jet planes rather than toy shoppers.
“Please step outside to use your cellular device!’ he boomed. “Please show courtesy to other shoppers!”
At that point, I had managed to exit the revolving door and was standing on the red carpet of the store’s entryway. I’d waited 20 minutes and endured two performances of the sidewalk fire-eater to get inside and I wasn’t about to leave. I kept the phone to my ear and ducked behind the two-story stuffed gorilla for cover.
“Pia? Can you hear me? Pia?” I tried to enunciate without shouting and alerting the Nutcracker cop to my position.
“Hannah, yes, I can hear you. Omigoodness, I’m glad I finally got you. We are in gi-normous trouble,” she purred. My assistant had a truly astonishing vocal combination of deep Mexican accent and Valley Girl jargon. Her throaty delivery was surely going to get her leap-frogged over me and onto the air at Channel 3 in a matter of months. But I understood this, and she did not. Thus, her stress level.
“It is going very very badly. I don’t see how we are going to get this ‘get’,” she said, using TV industry slang for a high-profile interview. “We are doomed. I heard today at the gym that the company is simply waiting for after Christmas to announce layoffs.”
“Don’t panic,” I told her.
“How can you say that? I have called everyone. The publicist isn’t returning my calls. The publisher isn’t returning my calls. The author is not listed.”
I shifted the phone and started walking towards the escalators. “Don’t let that stop you. The only way to get this interview is to be aggressive. You know Channel 4 is not sitting around waiting for call backs.”
“But who else –“
“Stop banging your head against the wall trying to get the PR guy on the line. Obviously, he’s blowing you off. Find out the name of his assistant and work her instead.”
“Oh, good idea,” Pia trilled. And the line went dead.
Pia wasn’t wrong. She and I needed to find some way to land Loreli D’Chella and her book Ciao Tao on the show for Christmas night or we were both candidates for a New Year’s rightsizing. Just this morning, we’d debated the possibility of an Air Kiss – that’s the euphemism for the highly unethical practice of swapping favors for airtime. Pia was worried enough to suggest it. I was old enough to know better.
The Air Kiss is like using anti-matter in the photon torpedoes. It seems like a good way to solve the immediate problem, but it comes back to bite you in the ass later. Anyone caught doing it gets fired. And in the chatty, catty news biz eventually, everyone eventually gets caught. I tried to explain this to Pia. The panic in her voice on the phone told me I’d not quite made my point.
But this afternoon, I had more pressing matters to tackle. I needed to secure one Zorianna, Princess of the 7th Dimension, for Casey, for the first night of Chanukah, or losing my job was going to be the least of my problems.
“It’s the only toy of the season,” Casey had said to me at breakfast. “It’s all anyone is talking about.”
“What does it do?” I asked her.
“Do? It’s a doll, Mom,” Casey said. She drained the milk from her cereal bowl and pulled a pink Spandex headband over her brow. “What do you expect?”
Withering delivery from an eight-year-old is more than I can manage most mornings before my second latte. So I just smiled and told her it was all under control.
This was before I discovered that Zorianna Princess of the 7th Dimension was in ridiculously short supply at retail and getting your hands on one was listed in Vegas at 100 to 1. This for a doll that didn’t “do” anything.
I was sure FAO would do the trick. But the line in front of the building should have been my first clue. By the time I got to the doll department and waded through the milling crowd, a cheerful elf with a wireless mike taped to her cheek informed me that Zorianna was sold out.
“Will you be getting more?” I asked her.
“You can check back next week,” she said.
“Next week is already Chanukah,” I told her. “By next week, I’ll be late.”
“Actually, by last week, you were late. We’ve been sold out since Thanksgiving,” the elf said, breaking her cheerful character to look down her tiny little nose at me. “It’s the only toy of the season,” she said.
“So I’ve heard,” I answered.
Macy’s was not any better. Wall-to-wall shoppers, aisle-blocking end cap displays, and Christmas music demanding I be joyful.
The clerk at the toy department counter did not have an elf costume, a wireless mike, or a Zorianna doll. “Sold out,” he said. “However, I can still save your Christmas!”
“Really?” I said hopefully. I needed a save.
“Absolutely,” he answered. He ducked behind the counter and emerged with four boxed dolls – all with silver and gold packaging. He began to tell me the stories of each.
“Kayla is very popular this year. She comes with a matching lead crystal pendant and faux gem Prada footwear.”
I leaned in to hear him over the crowd when my cell rang again. Miss Gultch’s theme music. Great, just what I needed.
“Hannah, honey, I know it’s not a good time to reach you—”
“No, not really.”
“—but I really do need to get the planning underway. How many are you going to be for dinner next week?”
I sighed. “Mom, it’s me, David and Casey. That’s three. Same as last year. Same as the last eight years since she was born. I did not have another baby and forget to tell you.”
“If you were going to have a second you should do so before you’re 40.”
“Which is next month, so that deadline isn’t looking good.”
I kept eye contact with the sales clerk and gave a sheepish shrug in the hopes he would forgive my cell phone discourtesy. He seemed oblivious and continued his pitch.
“Ming Li comes with three silk outfits and a bilingual Mandarin ‘All About Me’ scrap book.” I leaned in on the glass counter to show my continued interest as he went on. “Isobel—”
“It’s just that there are health risks,” my mother continued. “I saw your friend Katie Couric do a piece on it last week.”
“Mom, Katie Couric is my rival.”
“Really? She seems so nice and friendly.”
“She’s on another network.”
“Well, they’re all the same to me.”
“Great Mom, that’s just great, I’ll let the guys in marketing know. They’ll be thrilled you can’t tell the difference.”
I looked at the array of dolls before me and realized something was missing. “Don’t any of these have a space theme?” I asked the clerk.
Mom was still talking. “Now with cable it’s just hours and hours of talking heads anyway.”
The clerk shook his head no.
“I just let your father watch his sports most of the time.”
“Well, I think I really do need to find a space theme. Thanks for your time, though.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
“I’m talking to the clerk, Mom.”
“I don’t care who you are talking to! A nice Jewish girl does not wish anyone a Merry Christmas.”
“Mom, it’s an expression.”
“So’s Heil Hitler!”
“Okay, I’m hanging up the phone now.”
“I thought I raised you better.”
“I’ll see you next week, Mom.”
“If you can still manage to remember it’s a Jewish holiday, we and the six million would all be appreciative,” she sniffed.
Back out into the Herald Square crowds, I began pushing south along Sixth Avenue, ducking into every store that seemed likely – Kmart, KayBee even Duane Reed. No Zorianna. I checked in with Pia. Three calls had come in: Tiffany’s, Home Depot and Toys R Us. Would I please please please consider including them in my holiday coverage? Still no D’Chella interview. But Pia had managed to turn up the information that Loreli D’Chella was nee Lauren Dechesky. “Try information for that name in New York City,” I told Pia. “Then do Long Island, headed East. Try to get her at home.”
I was about to flip my phone shut when a text message came across. “Still getting C at 5:30?” it read. Shit. I was on pick up duty. I texted back to David. “Of course!” And spun around to flag down a cab.
In the backseat of the sedan that smelled of cardamon and wet umbrellas, I sat back for a moment and pondered my work crisis. Christmas night is normally a dead zone. The Christian world and its secular followers are generally so wiped out on comfort and joy, getting them to tune into anything but a football game is a Herculean challenge.
That’s why I volunteered for it in the first place. I needed something big, something splashy. I was, as my mother had noted, perilously close the Age That Must Not Be Named in television journalism. I needed to show I was worth keeping around through my Botox years. It was no longer enough to be smart and articulate and easy on the eyes. I needed a big moment. I needed a “get.”
When Loreli D’Chella’s unlikely little volume on transforming your life into a harmonious peace zone shot up the best-seller charts, I knew this was my chance. This little book – and its rags-to-riches author – was going to get me my moment in the spotlight. In the dawn of the New Year, in the glare of the conspicuous consumption holiday, I was going to deliver the path to true peace and happiness to television millions. It was the perfect Christmas spot.
Sadly, I was not the only one who had that bright idea. The past week had been flurry of calls, voice mail, emails and brush-offs as the publisher, publicist and author juggled the panting media requests. I’d put everything else on hold to chase this interview. David even had to send me an email to tell me he thought I was obsessed. Fine. Wall Street analysts don’t age out of their jobs. I, on the other hand, may as well have a lit fuse attached to my taupe sling backs.
I dug into my purse for the sheaf of printouts. I scanned for names we hadn’t tried. I shuffled through them, trying to sort the work papers from out from the collection of additional paper crap I had crammed in here. Flyers, invitations, drawings by Casey I’d promised to look at later. It looked like a recycling bin in there. Shit!” I yelled as my hand slipped and flipped the entire paper collective all over the inside of the cab. “Goddamn it,” I muttered as I tried to get my papers together in the dank, dark foot well.
“You need to relax,” said the voice from the front seat.
I didn’t even bother to straighten up. I grabbed handfuls of email prints outs and business lunch receipts and stuffed them back into my bag.
“Stress is not healthy.”
“Is that so?” I said giving up on the main compartment of my purse and starting to stuff the outer pockets.
“It can kill you. You need to reduce stress.”
I put my purse and paperwork to the side and leaned forward, putting my elbow up on the ridge of the bulletproof plastic partition.
“You know what? I’m sick of that attitude. I’m sick of people trying to push it back on me.” The driver looked startled at my proximity and turned his head back to face the road. “I don’t want stress. I don’t seek out stress. Stress is what happens when I try to make other people happy. Do I give a damn what people watch on television? No. But Procter & Gamble won’t be happy unless I cook up draws a 30 share. How exactly would you recommend I reduce that stress? And do I know why Happy Kids toys only made a limited number of Zorianna Princess of the 7th Dimension dolls? No, but my kid wants it. And is it my fault that Cohen Katz merged Citigroup and now there’s a fight to death to see which analysts survive the combination? Is it my fault there are more Christians than Jews and so their holiday, their music, even their small talk takes over the whole Western world for the month of December? Did I do any of that? Can I control any of that? My stress is not of my making. I am unhappy recipient of stress packages from every corner of my fucking life. So you and all the other critics who see fit to pile on can stuff it.”
I finished. Too spent to sit back, I rested my forehead on the sliding plastic window frame. I hardly noticed when the cab stopped.
“$9.50, please,” the driver said, frozen with his hands at 10 and 12, eyes on the road.
I handed him $15 and lumbered out of the back seat. It was dark already, and the street in front of Casey’s school teemed with rush hour traffic. I tried to check in with Pia again. Dead battery. Great. That’s a freaking metaphor. I began trudging towards the school.
There seemed like more people than should be in front of the school. Lots of parents and kids. I expected it to be quieter – the usual trickle of workaholics picking up from the tail end of the after-school program. As I got closer, I noticed the family groups. Smiling kids, parents, even grandparents. Some of the kids were holding flowers and balloons.
I looked up at the banner over the school door. “Welcome families!”
A holiday recital. I’d missed the holiday recital. I dug back into my purse to see if I had the flyer. Then I stopped. It didn’t matter. It was over. I had been absent. I stood on the sidewalk and stared at the building. The lights in the auditorium had already been dimmed. I looked over the whole facade. One panel of lights was still aglow. That’s the office, I knew. The office, where the kids who were still waiting for their parents to turn up were sitting, coats on, backpacks on, game faces on.
I turned away from the school and darted across the street, running half a block to the corner. I dug once more into the depths of my purse and came out with a quarter. I stepped up to the ancient grimy phone booth. It took a minute to wade through the automated voice mail system, but Lucy Finn, publicist for Toys R Us, picked up.
“Hi Lucy, it’s Hannah Hersh from Channel 3. How are you?” I let her do a minute or two of pleasantries before I hit her with the pitch. “Listen, I have a proposition for you.”
And then I did it. I made the deal. I offered the Air Kiss. I would feature her client in my pre-Christmas show, excluding all the other retailers. If she could get me a Zorianna doll.
“Deal?” I asked. “Deal,” she answered. I hung up the phone. The greasy receiver slipped out of my hand and banged down. I left it swinging in the air and turned back to the school.
When I arrived in the office, a handful of kids were sitting on the long wooden bench. The security guard was watching the evening news – Channel 4. I watched as the orange ribbon crawled across the bottom of the screen. “Tune in Christmas Night for Katie Couric’s Exclusive Interview Loreli D’Chella.”
Casey slid off the bench when she saw me. “You need to sign me out,” she said as she put her hat and mittens on. I fumbled through the paperwork and followed behind her as she walked out into the hall.
We walked in silence for a block down the cold dark avenue. “I’m sorry I missed the concert.”
“Whatever. It wasn’t very good.”
“Still, I’m sorry.”
“Maybe you can sing some of the songs for me?”
“Jingle Bell Rock?”
“Yeah, me too.”
We turned off the avenue and headed east. “I was thinking we could make some plans for Christmas week.”
“Can I have a playdate with Heather?”
“Sure, but I was thinking us.”
“I thought you were working.”
I thought about my Air Kiss and pondered the time it would take for my inevitable firing. “Maybe not so much,” I said to Casey.
“I guess. So we could do something. We could bake cookies.”
“Cookies? That is so lame.”
“Yes. It is. Who bakes cookies?”
“I don’t know. I thought someone did.”
I shifted my overstuffed purse on my shoulder. “There’s this guy in midtown. He’s doing a whole fire-breathing act. But I think he’s faking.”
“Yeah, I didn’t get enough time to watch but I think it’s a hoax.”
“A mystery! Cool,” said Casey. “I’m in.”
“Me, too,” I said, stepping up the curb onto the sidewalk, heading for home.
~ The End ~
Ellen Neuborne is a writer, editor and ghostwriter living in New York City. She is the co-author of the children’s novel How Ella Grew an Electric Guitar. She is currently at work on a short story collection titled Mommy Noire. You can also find Ellen’s new short story “Anarchy Becomes Electra” in the Pop Fic Review.
“The Get” was originally published in December 2007 in The Chick Lit Review and republished on Underwords with permission of the author.