She pulled a smoke from her purse but didn’t light it. “At this point in my career, I didn’t think I’d still need to prove myself. Did you?”
“No,” I admitted. “I thought by now I’d at least have my own office.”
“With a window,” Jackie added. “I thought I’d have a window.”
“I never thought that was too much to ask.”
Jackie lit her cigarette and took a long drag. “It wasn’t. That’s the sad part of it all. These kids want everything and want it now. Byron doesn’t want one window, he wants a floor-to-ceiling panoramic view. Rhiannon doesn’t just want her own office, she wants the whole floor.”
“Do you think they’ll get it?” I asked.
“Hell if I know,” Jackie said. “The only thing I do know is we aren’t.”
“Take a chance. The corporate body becomes invigorated by risk—adrenaline pumps, neurons fire, energy surges—the end result might not match the original plan, but the zeal with which the employees embrace the risk can add vibrancy to the entire organization. Find a way to make use of it.”
Tomson’s Bookshop in downtown Willow Falls was indie in all the right ways, the perfect venue for Ms. Petra Polly. Her photo—blonde, kitschy, vaguely Icelandic—hung prominently in the window, copies of The Petra Polly Workbook for the New, New Creative Workplace stacked precariously high underneath. If they intended for all of those books to sell, then we were not only in for a long wait in line, but we also had a lot of competition for her attention.
So far as I could see, we had arrived before anyone else. Employees meandered through the aisles, apparently not as excited as we were about Petra’s pending arrival. Lukas, in contrast, was beside himself. He carefully readjusted the collar of his light blue button-down shirt, which was halfway untucked from his tattered black skinny jeans. He wore a black sport coat, also ripped strategically, and a scarf made from leather and some material I assumed came directly from Mars, as I’d never seen anything so metallic that wasn’t a product of NASA. Just looking at him made me break into a sweat.
“We need to strategize,” he murmured unnecessarily. “She’ll be sitting right there.”
He pointed to a rectangular table and forlorn-looking folding chair. One young bookseller slowly began to stack copies of Petra’s book on the table. With a sigh, she aligned three Sharpie markers and a generic bottle of water.
Lukas kept glancing at the door, his nerves giving him a slight twitch. He fluffed his hair over his bald spot and checked his phone. “One half hour,” he announced. “She’ll be here in thirty minutes.”
Byron smirked. “Thanks for the clarification.”
“I’ll speak to her first, as planned,” Lukas said, ignoring him. “But then I’m not leaving. I’ll browse until I see Paige lock her in.”
My stomach flipped like a gymnast. Even though I had a difficult time taking Lukas seriously at times, he was counting on me. So were my coworkers. So was Big Frank, in a way. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
So I wouldn’t. Petra Polly was toast.
But she had to show up first. People began to filter into the bookstore, congregating in small groups, until it became difficult to maneuver in the aisles. Petra’s Chicago-area fan base was representing.
Lukas came up beside me. “There is a possibility . . .”
“What?” Either his outfit or the crush of bodies was getting to him. Small beads of sweat dotted his upper lip and the small protuberance of his brow.
“I might lose my shit. I feel . . . very connected to Petra. In a way I’ve never felt with anyone.”
This is getting way too weird, I thought, but then Lukas being vulnerable was such a rarity I let him keep talking.
“How do you convey that to someone?” he asked, clearly struggling. “When someone’s voice is in your head for months, when her words dictate your thoughts and actions . . . it’s very intimate, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s important to remember our purpose here,” I said gently. “This might not be the right venue for spilling the contents of your heart.”
“Of course not!” he said, retreating, as I’d hoped. “I was simply thinking out loud.” He dabbed gently at his upper lip with one perfectly ironed cuff. “You really aren’t a romantic person, are you, Paige?”
“Too practical. Those things are diametrically opposed.”
“Your thinking is too limited.” Lukas and I both started at the sound of Rhiannon’s voice. How long had she been standing behind us? The outfit I’d thought looked ridiculous in the office fit perfectly with the indie spirit of the bookstore. Rhiannon managed to achieve an odd balance between Girls cast member and seasoned professional.
“Romance can serve a practical purpose,” she continued. “You should use it, Lukas, if you think it would work. We should use anything we think will work.”
“That seems cynical,” I said.
Rhiannon smiled. “I thought you said you were a practical kind of person. Don’t you want to get Petra into our offices?”
“It’s time!” called a bookstore employee. She seemed irritated by the haphazard way the customers formed a line. People doubled up, cut, and wove in and out. Petra’s fans were an eclectic bunch, everything from hipster to Wolf of Wall Street. The only thing they had in common was the inability to organize.
“We need to spring into action,” Lukas murmured.
“Just push your way in,” Rhiannon said. “That’s what Byron did.”
As if on cue, Byron waved from his spot in the middle of the line.
“He’s quick,” Lukas said, with admiration. “That’s good. We need to get in there. Paige, get to the back of the line. Keep letting people in front of you so you lock in your position. Rhiannon, find a place ten or twelve people down from me.”
I sauntered over to the end of the line, behind a madly texting woman and her college-age look-alike daughter, also madly texting. No one paid me the least bit of attention. I watched Lukas authoritatively march to the front. He stood in front of the small table until people made room for him. Surprisingly, he had that effect on people. Rhiannon slithered into the line somewhere between Lukas and Byron. I lost sight of her.
A few minutes to the hour and still no Petra. According to Tomson’s Bookshop, there would be no speech, no reading, no Q&A, just Petra scrawling her John Hancock on the inside of the book cover. I’d only been to a few of these author things, but even I recognized this as unusual. No online interviews, no podcasts, no public speaking—what was Petra hiding? Her book had hit the Times list, with mentions in Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair. Petra qualified as big-time. Why wasn’t she acting like it?
A few minutes after the hour. Petra’s fans grew antsy. The girl next to me stopped texting and started swiping, probably on Tinder. “This isn’t worth it,” she muttered to her mother. “She isn’t even going to talk.”
“Who cares?” said the older woman. “The photo will look good on Instagram.”
The younger one subtly rolled her eyes.
“There she is,” someone shouted.
Petra Polly appeared, hair braided, multicolored knee socks matched to an expensive-looking robin’s egg–blue silk dress, Buddy Holly glasses, and a messenger bag made out of what resembled aluminum foil—like a manic pixie dream girl for people who actually had jobs and should know better. A Tomson’s employee guided her to the table and made an announcement about the rules: Petra would only sign copies of her book; she wouldn’t pose for photos—at this the two in front of me sighed—and engaging Petra in conversation was a no-no, as there were too many of us. That didn’t throw me. We’d have to work quickly in the time it took to write the inscription, but a lot could be said in thirty-second increments.