Jobs for Writers hadn’t existed before Moira was in her mid-twenties, out of work and in something like love with men who never called their mothers. She liked loud music and spicy curries, cloudy springtime, and Christmas (secretly). She had graduated college a few years prior with more B’s than A’s and so much debt it felt made up. Mostly she just missed her mother. So Moira did what people do in that time of life where everything is an attempt to waste time or save money. She moved into an apartment with cracked walls in a city far enough from home to feel like an accomplishment. On weekends, she went to flea markets with girls who fashioned personality out of thrifted sweaters and the details of sex they didn’t yet know to be degrading. Years later Moira would search their names and find that one of them had gone blind and the other had married rich. It struck her as the kind of thing to write about.
It was through the boyfriend of one of these girls that Moira had learned of jobs for Writers in a new division of the private equity behemoth Writ Large. “Easy money,” he said, adjusting his baseball cap that read THE CAPE in big dumb letters. “Easy money.” This would have meant something to Moira if this person didn’t already possess the particular penchant for describing everything as “Easy money.” Maybe it’s some sort of tick, Moira thought to herself. Like Tourette’s, but for aspiring Republicans. Though the boyfriend had likely only mentioned this to Moira so as to curry favor with the girlfriend, Moira found herself noticing postings, advertisements, and emails from Writ Large. It reminded her of the way you start to see all of the other people who wear glasses when you start wearing them yourself. Moira hadn’t worn glasses since middle school when she faked a bad score on an eye exam only to wear the chunky brown and black frames that had started to connote “serious intellect” amongst academically below average seventh grade girls. On Fridays, though, when the group convened with their corresponding male group to swim in Lisa G.’s indoor pool, Moira noticed that the glasses everyone was “blind without” had mysteriously vanished. Not privy to the plan ahead of time, Moira absconded hers in the basement guest room, even though they had cost more than one hundred and fifty dollars since the optometrist was “out-of-network.” These days Moira sometimes confused tall women on the street for the kind of long-haired men she’d be attracted to. “I’m either going blind or gay,” Moira wrote in an email to her mother. “Both seem like an inconvenience.”
When Moira interviewed for the job, she had to do little more than list books she’d never read and refer to herself as a “poet.” It was all true enough. About half the books she claimed to love she had at least considered buying, and one day Moira would write a poem. In fact, she would have already written hundreds if she weren’t cursed with the compulsion to look at herself in the mirror every time she started writing. Perhaps, Moira thought, this behavior could be solved with serious psychiatric intervention. But the last time she saw a shrink he had told her she belonged to a different emotional era and tried to sell her a CD of Christians chanting in Tibet.
“If you want therapy to work, you have to scare them a little.” Moira’s friends told her as they sipped on whiskeys. “I tell mine I’m going to cut out my tongue if my parents keep calling, and now I’m on 10mg of Diazepam.”
“Easy money,” said the boyfriend. He was on pills too.
Writ Large had offices in San Francisco, New York, Shanghai, London, and a vanity outpost in Leviathan, New Hampshire because founder and CEO Dashel Ward was nostalgic. It was rumored that he was born to Christian fundamentalists who disowned him when he, at age seven, wrote an ontological response to Rene Descartes so brilliant it disproved the existence of God entirely. By 21 he had a PhD in Mathematics, a MacArthur for experimental fiction, and a keen understanding of what people were becoming increasingly incapable of. More than once, Time called him “prophetic.”
The new division was part of an expansion into “personal exchange.” Via teleconsultation, clients could speak with “input analysts” about a situation or event which they lacked the words to describe. Most requested things they could say for birthday toasts, corporate meet and greets, dates. Writers, on the fifth floor, wrote the stories. Directors, on the eleventh, instructed clients on how to perform them. Within a week of her interview, Moira had a cubicle and a paycheck and a Director named Gina who wore grey suits and drank gin with lime.
“The most important thing is that you never write stories that actually happened to you. Did onboarding talk to you about mental health resources?”
“Some Writers find it difficult to separate their lived experiences from the fictional stories, which ultimately belong to the client.”
Moira thought of the time she’d shown her mother a poem in progress about a daughter and mother whose heads were conjoined.
“You hate it.”
“No…I just didn’t know you found me so suffocating.”
Moira scrapped the poem immediately.
“But obviously clients can only purchase fictional stories.” Moira nodded accordingly, thinking more about the bit of red nail polish on her index finger that she was desperate to scrape off. Gina mistook Moira’s distraction for contemplation and decided then that Moira was someone to be privileged with the kind of information Gina had spent years acquiring.
“I’m sure you know why what we do has to be fiction.” Moira didn’t. “If it’s fiction, it can be anyone’s story. Doesn’t matter who wrote it, belongs to the reader. We’re in the vessel making business. Handle with care.”
mostly wrote for high school seniors applying to college and middle-aged women entertaining their friends. Matt. P wants to convey his deep love of philanthropy, soccer, and women’s rights. Samantha L. hopes to impress dinner party guests with stories of travel and adventure…Near death preferred. At the end of year one, Moira got a small raise and a different cubicle and a pain in her left temple that wouldn’t go away unless she sat in the supply closet with the lights off for no less than twelve minutes.
When the weather improved, Moira played tennis with Katrina and Solomon, who reported to a different Director. They played on public courts a few blocks from the office, exchanging only pants and grunts like some brutalist concerto until the almost summer light turned the court to charcoal. Only once did they extend the evening to dinner. Underdressed and unfamiliar to each other, their odd trio was invisible to the sea of first dates, finely dressed women, and men with big watches bellowing from the dim bar. With the conversation painfully sparse, they let themselves listen to the neighboring tables, joking that they had probably supplied half the freshly laundered yuppies with their takes on politics and love for the evening. When they shared a taxi uptown, Moira noticed the way Solomon angled his knee to touch Katrina’s and realized then that she had mistakenly interrupted what would turn into a happy, uncomplicated life. As Moira exited the car, they all thanked one another for a great evening and promised to do it again. From then on, Moira preferred to drink with Gina.
“Being client facing isn’t what you think it’s cracked up to be when you’re in your twenties.” Gina finished her drink and gestured for another. “Who would have thought?!” Moira knew better than to respond. When Gina drank, she liked to direct her questions into the ether, like some kind of drunken confessional. The first time this happened, at Moira’s first holiday party, she’d taken Gina’s questions seriously. “What am I doing here?” Gina had crooned as she slunk down the side of the bathroom wall, the way prettier girls did in movies. Moira kneeled down in the shoes she’d worn to her college graduation, dabbing Gina’s booze inflated face with a monogramed cocktail napkin. For the rest of the night, Moira wondered the same thing.
Siddharth Y. wants a first date story that casually asserts his ample income and sexual history…Dominance over other men? Include sense of humor.
Nancy G. is meeting her fiancé’s family…requests explanation of her own parents’ absence…avoid father’s alcoholism and mother’s job as housecleaner.
Chris H. expects to encounter a former love interest…needs “life changing” experience. Chris should seem different than he was at time of break up.
The longer Moira worked at Writ Large, the harder it became to imagine doing something else. She tried to write poems on the weekends but found herself preoccupied with the smell of an electrical fire in her building or the infinite loop of deep-sea fishing videos she watched to fall asleep. One day she skipped work altogether with the intention to write one thousand poems about computers, but ended up getting drunk in a hotel bar instead. She lost and gained weight, started swimming, quit swimming and started running, made promises to write a poem a day, took day trips upstate, started smoking again, made promises to write a poem every other day, took up yoga, went vegan, quit yoga, bought a pasta machine, tried a poem a week, dated men with beards, adopted a cat called Clyde, tried to write a word a day, got promoted, and fell in almost love with a carpenter who liked to have sex in a replica of his childhood bed that he made by hand. They broke up when he got drunk at a bad party and introduced her to his friends as the best poet they’d never read.
“I’ve never met someone who would rather live in constant misery than do the thing they say they want to do.”
His critique was neither unfounded nor the totality of why the relationship, like all of Moira’s relationships, ended. While other women might worry for their partner’s sexual loyalty, Moira worried for verbal fidelity. How could she trust what men, or anyone told her, when she knew of all the words in circulation that had been written by someone else.
Moira considered staying at the party after he’d left with a girl who once called Writ Large a fascist conglomerate but left instead to see the sequel of a movie she hadn’t watched the first time. When she got home, she smoked two Marlboro Lights out of her window and drafted a story for a Stacy B. who wanted her parents to think she’d found God. Moira decided it would involve a baptism in the ocean.
It was around this time that Moira started getting meandering voicemails from her mother in the middle of the day and night.
“You’re probably asleep, but the Ellermans’ cat keeps getting loose…They must be getting a divorce.”
“I had a little accident at the store. Nothing to worry about.”
“The papaya went busted last Tuesday. Big old busted lady. Please send back my hat when you can.”
“It’s Mom, just saying hello.”
“The evergreens were singing that song you like.”
For a woman who worked for thirty years in customer service for a refrigerator installation company, her words had become lyrical enough to give Moira pause. So she requested time off and boarded a flight for home, receiving an automated “Condolence” email from Writ Large before she landed. The email, a mistake in the system, turned out to fate a rapid decline in her mother’s health. But for six weeks, Moira played house: organizing mortgage papers, tending to the garden, washing her mother’s hair in the kitchen sink. They ate big omelets with potato and onion for dinner and fell asleep in the same bed to old Barbara Streisand movies. There wasn’t much to talk about. Only once did they fight when Moira went down to the basement and found bins of silverware her mother had been taking from restaurants for months. The discovery had startled Moira into the realization that though she loved the woman she was taking care of, her mother had long left the building.
The funeral was small and costly. Moira hadn’t requested an open casket but the funeral home had made a mistake, dressing Moira’s mother in a dress she would have never worn, painting her lips a brownish mauve. Though Moira and her mother had been a world of two, it was now impossible for Moira to ignore that the rest of the world didn’t know her mother. Worse, it was content to confuse her for a woman who would wear a paisley dress and purple lipstick on her deathbed. “You could at least take off the lipstick,” the neighbor urged her. So Moira submerged the edge of her napkin in a glass of seltzer and blotted the color from her mother’s lips, shrieking like a child when she stood back and realized she’d wiped the mouth clean off.
“It happens sometimes because of the embalming chemicals,” a pimply faced funeral home employee offered with little consolation.
“And you’re responsible for this?” Moira demanded.
“I just drive the hearse.” He smiled too big. People with big smiles shouldn’t work near the dead, Moira thought to herself.
Gina had offered to refer Moira to the best eulogy Writer she knew, someone in the San Francisco office who had a family of four boys and a wife from Switzerland, but Moira had declined. At her mother’s request, there’s wasn’t a eulogy, perhaps a final gift to her daughter who would never be able to write something so important with the fallen, broken-down words she knew. So twenty five ordinary people took sips of white wine that was neither good nor bad and apologized to Moira for a crime no one had committed.
When Moira returned to the office after her mother’s death, she found it nearly impossible to meet deadlines. Suddenly, Jennifer K.’s request for an envy-inducing story about her truthfully dull honeymoon didn’t seem so urgent. Instead of writing at work she started wandering around the office, taking food from the communal fridge, and sending emails to her mother’s old address about how much she blamed her for loving her more than anyone else in the world could.
Only you knew me before I could talk, before I could deceive and manipulate. I’d rather live forever with you in silence than in constant approximation with the living. Why are you punishing me for what I can’t control? I DIDN’T CHOOSE YOU… I wonder all the time when your words stopped meaning what I thought they did.
Eventually Gina called Moira to the eleventh floor for what Moira secretly hoped would be termination. Instead, Moira found Gina hovering next to a distinguished man in a navy suit, a silvery scar snaking just underneath the starched cuff of his white shirt.
“Moira, I think you’ve met Dr. Paul Schreiber before.”
“No, I have not.”
“Really? Well, Dr. Schreiber is the newly appointed director of Writ Large’s reorganization team.”
As if on cue, he stood.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what that even means.” He smiled gently to reveal just the bit of a gap between his two front teeth. “I’m a shrink, and I report to Dashel Ward.”
“And now you’re wondering why the on-staff psychologist would ever be placed at the helm of corporate restructuring.” Moira didn’t have the heart to tell him that she wasn’t wondering anything at all.
“Writ Large, as you know, is a for-profit corporation, but as Dashel Ward likes to say, it’s also a cooperative for people.” Gina adjusted her skirt so the bulge of her stomach resubmerged behind the waistband. “Naturally, Writ Large at its best demands a keen understanding of its people, does that make sense?” Moira nodded and tried to furrow her brow in a way that conveyed thoughtfulness. “So it was both a natural and ingenious decision for Mr. Ward to put me in charge of redesigning who does what around here.” He smiled to fill the silence. “It’s come to my attention that you recently lost your mother. My sincerest apologies.” Moira detonated a smile of her own. “Thank you.”
“We want you to know that Writ Large doesn’t see your decline in performance as cause for termination.” Moira looked to Gina who looked away. Suddenly, the room felt like ambush. “In fact, we think your recent personal experience, along with your strong record to date, puts you in the unique position to lead a team of your own.” Moira looked again at Gina who fixated on something outside the window.
“Gina will be stepping down from her position as Director, and we’d like you to assume her role.” Again, Moira tried to meet Gina’s gaze but could only locate the sweat pooling underneath her arms, turning the grey polyester a sickly purple.
“Additionally, we’re redesigning teams around thematic strengths. Solomon and Katrina, who I believe you know well, will be co-Directors of Celebration. They will take vows, declarations of love, as well as a new focus we’re calling ‘little joys,’ small words or gestures people can purchase daily on our digital platforms. No need for input analysts. Customers ask and the app delivers.
“And my team?” Dr. Schreiber tilted his head, exposing the thin rivers of vein and muscle below his almost raw red skin. Moira imagined intense workouts and searing hot showers as a part of his morning routine, the punishment and reward system which exhausted his body enough to lubricate his mind.
On her first day as Director, Moira moved into Gina’s old office. She set up an orange scented diffuser to quiet the near sour stench of hangover sweat and vanilla that had fermented in the space for years. She reviewed the files of the new recruits who would write words of comfort that they themselves hardly believed. Most of them were recent liberal arts grads with tiny craters in their noses where rings used to be. Some brought creative writing portfolios, others video footage of their performances as Portia or King Richard. She listened to them lie through their teeth about how important it was to “facilitate” “communication” in the “post-digital hyperspace.” She didn’t tell them that they would mostly be writing words of mourning that funeral goers and inept husbands would parrot to the grieving or that whatever creative vision they had for themselves would likely die upon Writ Large’s offer letter. They wouldn’t know until they were in Moira’s seat that she had been instructed to select Writers who would lose someone close to them soon just as Gina had been instructed to find people who had already given up on themselves. She didn’t tell them any of this. Instead, Moira sat with her chin on her gently clasped hands and listened intently to the words that already meant almost nothing.