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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Nobodies

A Novel

Liza Palmer

Flatiron Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

[crying emoji]


“This is that rock bottom I’m going to mine for the inspiring commencement speech I’ll give at an Ivy League college in a few years. This is that fun, disruptive detour I’ll laugh about on various international stages while dispensing my pearls of wisdom to auditoriums full of admirers. This is the temporary crucible of failure in which I will create my greatest work and—”

“Cute top. Vintage?”

“What?” I turn around, interrupted before I can finish the well-practiced pep talk I’ve been giving myself over the last two weeks.

This very same rousing speech got me through yesterday’s interview for a job as a part-time receptionist at a small insurance company in Pasadena. A few days before that, I whispered this speech as I power-stood in the poorly lit ladies’ bathroom of a dentist’s office in Highland Park that needed a file clerk. And the week before that, I screamed it in a garbage-drenched back alley just before trying to convince a surly biker that I could be the best bar back in the world. He laughed in my face about the bar back job, but then said he did need a go-go dancer for the weekday lunch hour, if I’d be interested in that. When I hesitated, he then scanned my body, flicked his toothpick to the other side of his mouth, and shrugged that I’d only have to show “maybe one titty.”

It’s nice to know that I’ve got options going into today’s job interview.

“Is your top vintage?” he repeats. I loosen my fingers from around the cold metal bar that’s supposed to stop me from launching myself over the side of this rooftop parking garage and face the inquiring gentleman. Chunky mint-green glasses. Floral shirt with shoulder pads. Jodhpurs.

“No, it’s just from my closet,” I say, touching the fabric of my shirt with newfound disdain.

“You’re hilarious.” He loops his messenger bag over his head and meticulously flips his collar so it falls perfectly over the argyle-patterned strap. “Have a wonderful day.” He pushes his glasses farther up his nose and waits.

“Yeah, you too,” I say, feeling downright bullied into reciprocating his obscene level of cheerfulness. I watch him suspiciously as he bounds down the four flights of stairs instead of taking the perfectly good elevator. Once he’s gone, I’m finally able to finish my now thoroughly deflated speech.

“—the temporary crucible of failure in which I will create my greatest work and prove her wrong. I’ll prove them all wrong.”

* * *

Bloom. A company of trendy tech people whose parents have no idea what they do for a living. And me.

I pull open the glass doors.

There is no lobby. Bloom’s neon blue flower logo takes up an entire wall. I quickly scan for anything familiar. Receptionist? No. Coffee table with old magazines? No. The swell of pride and purpose I once enjoyed as an award-winning journalist? No.

I step forward a few more careful inches. The impossibly cool workforce moves like blood cells, hurtling through the rows upon rows of computers that cut up the barn-like space. I reach into my pocket for my phone, hoping to offer my proximity to technology as a white flag.

I scroll through my group text thread and scan the texts I’ve gotten in the last five minutes. Reuben’s play is opening tonight. We’re getting tacos and then caravanning over to the theater. Lynn is asking about the parking situation. Hugo says he thinks there’s street parking. I pocket my phone before the untold thousands of follow-up texts come flooding in. A conversation about parking in Los Angeles is never a brief one.

“Welcome to Bloom, how are you today?” It’s the man from the garage. “Oh, hey. I know you!” His effortless intimacy and exuberance makes me immediately wary. I can feel my phone buzzing in my pocket.

“Hi. I’m—”

“Hi!” Eyes narrowed.

“Hi,” I say.

“I’m Caspian.”

“Hi.”

“Hi!” Do I … is it my turn? Caspian continues, “You have lovely skin, what kind of moisturizer do you use?”

“It’s this homemade soap my parents make, but it’s not just for the face, it’s…” Why am I still talking? “It’s for the whole body.”

“Oh, fun. I live with my parents too.”

If it weren’t for the hyper-efficient numbing I’ve perfected in the eight months since I got laid off and subsequently had to move back in with my parents, Caspian’s comment about our comparable living arrangements would have flattened me. Thank god I’m a mere husk of the person I once was. Every cloud.

Caspian hands me a clipboard. I take it. “So, Ria is running a bit late, but if you fill this out for me, maybe we can wrangle you a glass of cold brew before your interview.”

I’d heard about the secrecy at tech companies and look down at the clipboard fully expecting to find a nondisclosure agreement attached. Instead, I find what appears to be a three-question survey about my first impressions of Bloom. Each question is multiple choice, but rather than A, B and C, they’ve provided (neutral face emoji), (heart eyes emoji), and (crying emoji) to help me express myself.

“How did you know who I was here to see?” I ask.

“I am the all-seeing eye.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “I’m just kidding!” He awaits my reply with a troublesome level of eye contact.

“Phew,” I offer meekly.

“But I kind of am, though.” He lowers his clunky mint-green glasses. “I know everything.” He turns his monitor around and points to today’s schedule. “You’re Joan Dixon. Here to interview for the junior copywriter job with Ria Jones. I got you, girl.”

As I scan the survey, Caspian greets every single Bloom employee who walks past his counter with unadulterated joy. The bespectacled IT kid. Exclamations and high fives. The pack of fashion mavens. Peals of laughter and a quick selfie. The blue-haired Amazon carrying a motorcycle helmet. Tight, closed-eye hug.

I circle the (heart eyes emoji) for my parking experience. A (neutral face emoji) for the Bloom lobby and a (crying emoji) for “Initial Human Greeting”—which I can only assume is tech for Caspian.

“You said something about coffee?” I ask, handing the survey back to Caspian.

“Ooh, yes.” He unclips the survey, scans it, and sets it into a pile. “Right this way.” He hops up onto the counter and spins around, landing in front of me with the grace of an Olympic gymnast. “That took me months to perfect,” he says with a wink.

“Is this my 9 A.M.?” A voice from behind us asks. We turn around. Tall and lanky, Ria Jones has on a flannel shirt, vintage wingtips, and pants that could, at best, be categorized as “high-waters.” Her dreadlocked hair is swept up in an immaculately tied wrap.

“Yes, hi. Joan Dixon,” I say, extending my hand. Ria takes it. Firm handshake.

“Ria Jones. Let’s get to it then.” Ria motions for me to walk into the mosh pit that appears to be the inner workings of Bloom. Ria abruptly stops, turns around. “Which room are we in, Cas?”

“You guys are in Tupac,” Caspian says, air-kissing a girl who’s wearing a misshapen, plum-colored felted hat.

Ria speaks like she’s atop a double-decker bus careening down Hollywood Boulevard. “Bloom was started eighteen months ago by Chris Lawrence and Asher Lyndon, but the legend began over ten years ago in a Caltech dorm room when the then roommates developed the CAM algorithm. CAM, which stands for Collects All Materials, is—”

“So, it’s a storage unit. Like, a digital storage unit,” I say, absently scanning the conference rooms as we stride past: Freddie, Whitney, Luther, and what looks to be a real corker of a meeting going off in Selena. When I focus back on Ria, she is not amused.

“The CAM algorithm sets Bloom apart. It means we don’t use server farms.”

“Very interesting,” I say, trying to work out the theme of the conference rooms.

“So, yes, CAM is like a digital storage unit, but without the actual hassle of a physical storage unit.” I nod, my face twisted in focused concentration that—a-ha, got it! The conference rooms are named after beloved, yet sadly passed, singers. Ria conveniently mistakes my euphoric expression for an understanding of whatever it is she’s talking about. Continuing her speech, she checks us in on the tablet just outside our conference room, opens the door to Tupac, and motions for me to go in. I oblige her. “We moved into this office space just last month, so pardon the mess. A tech company that’s more company than tech, Chris and Asher started Bloom in order to make it more accessible because we all experience tech differently.”

Based upon Ria’s nonsensical—yet clearly practiced—dissertation, Bloom’s need for copywriters is worse than I thought.

Ria settles herself on an uncomfortably modern gray tweed couch. Cement block walls. Dark wood rafters. Ria screws open the lid of her travel mug and the smell of coffee wafts through the tiny conference room. My seating options are a navy-blue beanbag chair or a persimmon-colored cube adorned with pizza slices. I choose the cube.

“What does Bloom actually do?” I wait. Ria sets her coffee on the cement floor.

“So, you were a journalist?” Ria asks, ignoring my question. She sifts through her messenger bag, pulling a large stack of applications from its depths.

“I am,” I say. Ria looks up at me, vaguely curious.

“But that’s not what you’re applying to do here?”

“No.” It dawns on me. “No, you’re right. I meant to say that I was a journalist.” Ria nods. She flips through the papers, finally pulling mine from the heap.

“Right.” Ria scans my application.

“Right,” I repeat. I wonder if now is when I should let Ria know that I am a highly sought-after applicant, already fielding exciting part-time work loosing one boob at a time for lucky lunchtime diners along the Pico-Fairfax Corridor.

“Let’s move on,” Ria says, crossing her legs. “You didn’t go to college.”

“I was able to get an internship at The LA Times right out of high school,” I say.

“That’s impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“How did you manage that?”

“When I was the editor of my high school newspaper, I broke the story of a city councilwoman who was taking bribes. It was this whole land development deal. Usual politics stuff, but the woman was pristine before this went down.”

“How old were you?”

“Seventeen.”

“You went on to cover local school board meetings.”

“Politics, yes.”

“Which Hogwarts house would you be sorted in?”

“I’m sorry?” My voice stutters.

“Which Hogwarts house would you be sorted in?”

I am … quiet. Stumped.

“Hm.” Ria scribbles something on my application. She’s decided something about me.

“Is that important? That I know that?” I ask.

“You’ve had seven jobs in under a year.”

“I’m … was a journalist. The work is primarily freelance.”

“And would that freelance work continue should you be hired here at Bloom?”

“At the moment, I’m looking for a full-time job to replace the freelancing.”

“But—and excuse me if … I’m just having a hard time understanding. Isn’t there full-time work within the field of journalism that would better suit someone of your skill, age, and experience?”

(crying emoji)

I try to find the spin. Find the reason I’ve been unemployed. The exhausting hustle. Walking another box full of my belongings through a crowd of people who are relieved it wasn’t them. Getting evicted from the shithole studio apartment that was already a last resort. Having to move back home with my parents. Spending six months writing a story I thought would put me back on top only to be told that it—along with my writing—wasn’t compelling enough to “even run on someone’s online blog, Joan.”

“Joan?” Ria asks. “Why the gap?”

“I’ve been applying for jobs within the journalism field. I haven’t—”

“No one will hire you on full time.”

“No.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Why are you asking?”

“To see if you understand where your strengths and weaknesses are.”

“For a junior copywriter job?”

“Do you think the job is beneath you?”

“I don’t think any job is beneath me.”

“You’re thirty-six, and, no offense, but most of our junior copywriters are twenty-two, twenty-three. Fresh out of college.” I am quiet. Ria leans down, picks up her coffee. Unscrews the top. She continues, “So, why should I hire you?”

Ria sits back on the couch, takes a long drink of her coffee. I study her as she luxuriates in what is most assuredly some kind of pour-over home brew that has to be prepared in just the right way. Fresh face, no makeup. Pressed jeans with cuffs that had to have been measured, they’re so symmetrical. The printed-out applications. Calling Caspian Cas. A 9 A.M. interview.

I take a breath. “The world is changing. Companies like Bloom are the future. I am a serious applicant and want to learn. And the way I learn, as you can see from my application and work history, is by doing. Let me try.”

Ria screws the top of her coffee tight and stands. She extends her hand. “Thank you. I will let you know.” I take her hand. Firm handshake.

“I’ll work hard.” I look her right in the eye. She holds my gaze. “Please.” An efficient nod. Ria opens the door to the conference room and we walk out.

“Remember to get your parking validated on the way out.” She walks me back to the front desk.

“I took the bus, so I don’t need validation. But thank you,” I say.

“Well, then you’re all set,” Ria says and leaves without another word.

“You are seen and valued,” Caspian says with a wink. His voice dips to a whisper. “Get it? Validated?”

If only it were that easy.


Copyright © 2019 by Liza Palmer