Novel excerpt: Current work in progress
By Jess Szabo
In the novel tentatively titled Baxtalo (a romany word meaning “happiness” or “luck”), fifty-something Utica artist Heather Toth has taken what she believes to be a writing job for a local businesswoman in the process of building a business themed podcast. At first, it feels like the perfect way to supplement her day job as an online tutor and earn some extra money to support her slowly emerging creative writing career. But soon, signs that something might not be right begin to emerge. Below is an excerpt from chapter four of the third draft of the novel:
Chapter 4: Not Suited
By the end of my first week at Baxtalo Business Seminars, I’ve only managed to write one article for the blog. Seeing my name up there, on an article somebody actually wanted again is a thrill. It really is. I feel like the actual writing part of my writing career is taking off again.
Michelle doesn’t seem to mind that I’m writing awfully slow. At least it feels like slow writing to me. I come in and do my writing, but Michelle and Courtney don’t sit out in the front. They both sit back here where I sit to write, and the two of them like to talk. And then there’s the phone. Answering the phone is not something I ever want to do again. I’m here as a freelance writer, not as their new receptionist. But every time it rings, Michelle goes, “Heather, get that,” and continues texting on her phone. I’m afraid to tell her “no.”
I can already tell I’m not going to get much done today, even though the phone is not ringing so far. Michelle and one of her podcast hosts are having a loud conversation in the room right when I need to add the final touches to this second assignment and go over it one last time for edits. I wish the two of them would at least go out in that empty lobby. Or go sit in the podcast room. Surely that thing is somewhat soundproofed.
“You want me to tell you something about who doesn’t make it here at Baxtalo?” Michelle suddenly yells. I jump. I can’t help it. She seems to get loud when she’s worked up about something, but this has just progressed to flat out screaming.
The podcast host, a tall skinny white guy in a suit, nods, as it is clearly a rhetorical question. She only wants him to acknowledge that he’s hearing her. He looks like half of him wants to get right up in her face, and half of him wants to take off running. I’d go for running if it were me. He selects to stand there and stare down at her.
“Lazy people who make excuses,” Michelle declares, still yelling. “The ones who say, ‘Oh, I can’t because I work too hard and I’m too tired to prepare’ but turn around and spend half an hour with their coffee at Starbucks every morning. Or the ones who claim they don’t have time to work after hours because they have kids, but they have all evening after the kids go to bed to binge watch Netflix.”
What Michelle is berating this man for sounds like relaxing before and after work to me. Of course I don’t know this man, but he sounds like he’s done nothing more than leave this job at this job. Plus, it’s podcasts. Surely he has something else he does to make a living.
The podcast host finally responds by explaining that he needs some time to relax, and some time to do his own thing, that he’s studying to be in sales, in college, and he needs time to do his studies and work his day job. There it is. I knew it. This only seems to irritate Michelle a little more.
“How are you going to be in business, in sales, if you have the opportunity to promote yourself by promoting us.. but you won’t take it? We’re launching careers here, lifting people up to do their best work, live their best lives, but I can’t lift you if you keep weighing us all down.” Michelle has backed down a bit physically, but her voice is still loud enough to make the guy step back until he nearly topples over the desk next to Courtney.
Glancing over at Courtney, she looks upset, but unsurprised. She’s wearing a black and white pinstripe suit and a red blouse today, and the only moves she makes are to slip the jacket off and adjust the cutouts in the shoulder of her blouse so her bra strap doesn’t show. I expect her to stand up, to intervene somehow. But she stays seated and watches Michelle and whoever this guy might be.
“I show up ready to go online” the guy finally raises his own voice to match Michelle’s tone. “You see me?” He holds out his tie. “Here and ready to go.”
“Yeah today,” Michelle snaps. “But what about the way you talked to our listeners? I’ve had two people request a topic, and twice now you’ve given them some line about how you couldn’t do it.” She’s not yelling anymore, but she’s not calm either. I half expect her to reach over and smack the guy. “Interacting with our audience is one thing that differentiates us from radio,” she’s lecturing. “If you want to do that, you might as well just go find a radio station and be a DJ or something.”
Courtney, the podcast host, and I all stare at her. Radios have had call-ins on their shows, and taken requests for decades now. Baxtalo Business Seminars Podcasts are literally only different from a radio station in that they’re on the internet instead of the airwaves, and the focus is narrower. The three of us exchange glances, checking to see if anyone dares to tell Michelle she’s not making any sense.
“When I started here…” the podcast guy says instead, backing out the door. “I made it clear that I am taking business classes online, and I need time for those. You knew about my other job. I believe I gave you my schedule.”
“Well, things are different now.” Michelle’s tone is almost worse than yelling. It’s condescending. “We’re starting some new things, some new growth, and we need you here to grow with us.”
“Well I can’t grow with you.” The presenter makes “grow” sound like the concept could not get more ridiculous. “I’m here to do the job I agreed to do.”
“That macho attitude doesn’t fly here with me, and you know that,” Courtney snaps. She’s loud again, loud enough that it’s giving me a headache. “I can’t believe you don’t want to do this,” she says, her voice in what would be a whine if it were not so loud, “You watch YouTube. You see how big some of those channels get. We could be bringing in millions of dollars in a year or two, but you don’t want to do the work needed. You don’t even appreciate that you have an advantage here. You have a whole team working with you.”
“You know what?” The podcaster maneuvers until he’s backing out the door.
The above content is property of the author, Jess Szabo