Fast & Sloppy
Claudia Silver, the production assistant, ordered lunch for the ladies of Georgica Films every day. The all-female staff ate family-style, around a large oak table that their employer, executive producer Ricky Green, had purchased at considerable expense for just this purpose. While the daily lunch order at the little production company was perhaps her chief duty, Claudia had other key responsibilities, including the speedy typing of contact sheets for different production jobs on the Selectric in the corner. She handed the documents to her bosses Faye, Tamara, or Kim to review, and invariably trudged back to the typewriter, taunted by the crop of typos that only minutes before were nowhere to be seen and now required immediate correction.
Claudia ran errands and picked up giant brown-paper-wrapped bunches of flowers from the wholesaler on Twenty-Seventh Street. Ricky, who’d gotten into the business of producing television commercials because he wanted to wear jeans to work and considered restaurants and a place in Idaho important, arranged the flowers himself in various Depression-era pottery vases from his sprawling collection. Claudia FedExed gift certificates from day spas and salons to clients whose birthdays had almost been forgotten. She called the messenger service for pickups and drop-offs around town. She greeted, with a wink, the various rangy, ripe, dreadlocked, tattooed, gold-toothed, knit-capped dude-bros whose cycling cleats clattered on the parquet and whose Public Enemy pounded through their Walkman headphones as they waited for a signature, while her bosses tensed, silently calculating the degree of sexual threat the messengers posed.
Claudia carefully observed and pitied the ladies of Georgica Films. She was determined to perform her daily tasks with an ever-so-slight yet palpable indifference, which, when paired with her charisma, would keep her pointedly on the fringe of the operation and protect her from ever turning out like them.
Her idiosyncratic work ethic had earned Claudia the nickname Fast & Sloppy.
Every day at Georgica Films there were fights, usually over the phone. They typically began with first-date nervousness, rocketed into cocky aggression punctuated with gales of ballsy laughter, and ended with a pounding of the receiver into its cradle, followed by loud analysis, frustrated tears, and a cigarette on the fire escape. Faye, Tamara, and Kim screamed at production managers and casting directors on the phone: hours later they would call back and laugh it off, comrades once again. This style of conflict resolution was a new one for Claudia.
In the home of Claudia’s mother, Edith Mendelssohn, fireworks had always been followed, swiftly, by cataclysmic ice ages. Only once, when she was nine, on a long, cranky car trip, Claudia told Edith that she hated her:
“I HATE YOU.”
Hearing the hot syllables leap from her throat had been satisfying. She’d heard other children rage at their parents similarly with negligible consequences, and telling her mother she hated her made young Claudia feel, briefly, normal. But she soon regretted it. Edith didn’t react suddenly. Her hand didn’t fly into the backseat to box an ear. She kept driving, under a remarkable silence that Claudia soon realized Edith planned to keep up. As it turned out, Edith neither spoke to nor looked at her child for three straight days. Finally, when Claudia couldn’t take it anymore, she dropped to her knees and begged for forgiveness at her mother’s lap. This method was successful. Edith accepted her child’s apology, recognized her once again, and life resumed.
Ten years later, Claudia was a senior in college, sitting on the floor of her dorm room on Manhattan’s far Upper West Side, on the phone with Edith. In one week, Claudia would graduate and set out to seek God knows what. She was afraid. Over the last month, she’d visited several of her favorite professors at their office hours to ask what they thought, but none of them had a particular plan of action in mind for her. Recognizing that she was utterly unprepared to depart the snug little campus, Claudia was tempted to demand a refund from the bursar, despite the fact that her education had been financed largely on credit.
Claudia had called her mother to discuss the upcoming summer. Graduation ceremonies would be held in a few days, and Claudia’s various friends would be going home to catered graduation parties held in leafy backyards, professional internships killing time before graduate school, or bright new backpacks that would soon be hauled off on wine-dark European tours. Claudia had the weekend waitressing job in SoHo she’d held on to since her senior year in high school. Plus a hangover.
“I’m afraid I’m unable to offer you accommodation at this time,” Edith explained. Edith, who spoke more languages than she owned bras and trusted poetry more than people, might have been known for her slim but stunning volumes of sestinas in multiple translations, had circumstances far beyond her control not required her to become a business-school librarian at Baruch College. She spoke in calligraphy.
“Accommodation?” Claudia echoed, disbelievingly. “Are you my mother, or Howard Johnson’s?”
Claudia’s best friend, Bronwyn Tate, had just come downstairs from her own nearby single to visit. Theirs was the druggy dorm, now in a wistful state of dismantling as its residents prepared to scatter. Good-quality museum posters had been stuffed, ignominiously, in trash cans, as a general scorn for the Impressionists was required as an exit visa, and futon frames, broken by one too many threesomes, were piled on 114th Street to dry their particleboard bones in the hot May sun. Bronwyn joined Claudia on the floor, pulling the shredded cuffs of her faded Nantucket Reds up over her bony knees and folding her long legs Indian-style.
“Quarters have become close,” Edith continued, “and I’m afraid I just don’t have the space.”
“And would those close quarters by any chance go by the name of Robbie Burns?” Claudia accused, as she and Bronwyn exchanged a look. Bronwyn communicated her focus and sympathy by tucking a long, loose strand of blond hair behind her ear.
Edith’s gentleman friend was Robbie Burns, although Claudia knew he was neither. Edith had become involved with Robbie a decade before, when she’d still been married to her second husband, Mr. Goldberg, the father of her younger child, Claudia’s half sister, Phoebe, who was eight years Claudia’s junior. Neither Claudia’s father, a hotshot émigré professor with a penchant for psilocybin mushrooms and primal scream therapy, nor Phoebe’s father, a Jewish playboy with a sixth-grade education and a velour wardrobe, had remained in the picture. But each girl resembled her own father as well as the brunt of Edith’s humiliation, embodying separate failed chapters of her fragmented life. Edith had kept her maiden name.
The family was shaped like a triangle.
Edith and Robbie Burns had met at Baruch. She’d been thirsty and flagging, en route to a Hillel Club event, a lecture on Malamud and Roth presented by a darling widower of the English department who would have been a suitable mate for Edith, if only he’d been fifteen years her junior, tall, ponytailed, sp...