When Imogene, a country girl by birth, was forced to abandon New York City, her adopted home and the place of her dreams, she considered herself an abject failure.
Her eight years in the big city had been both exhilarating and brutal. She had ended her marriage two years before, after a revelation about her husband that shook her to the core. In her subsequent dating life she experienced a “parade of jerks” that almost made her husband look good by comparison. Her professional life was also a shambles. She had risked her financial security by leaving a safe but boring job for an exciting opportunity that had proven too much for her. She would have been fired before now, she suspected, if her boss had not also been a close friend. That was, in itself, an awkward situation.
How had Imogene reached her thirtieth birthday with so little to show for it¾especially when ambition had always driven her? She had savored that feeling when she graduated from Glendary College, the small-town campus in the Appalachian foothills where she had met her husband Steve and her eventual boss, Sara. The daughter of a farmer, she couldn’t wait to begin her married life in New York with the son of a Baltimore bus driver.
They had continued their working-class romance¾their rags-to-riches trajectory, she hoped¾as she supported Steve for three years while he attended New York University Law School. She found an entry-level position in the publishing industry, which she hoped to use as stimulus for her own writing career. For five years after graduation, she produced the annual class notes for the Glendary Alumni Magazine, an efficient way to track the lives of her classmates.
She thought at first her life compared favorably to most of theirs¾although she never expected to measure up to her high-powered former roommates, Emily and Sara, whom everyone had known were hell-bent for fame and fortune. They were the only members of their class who could actually claim to be in show business¾Sara as a triple-threat musician, film producer and film actress, and Emily as a struggling but frequently employed model and TV actress.
Imogene’s five-year class reunion at Glendary, which she attended without Steve, had given her a chance to take stock. She had admitted to herself by then that her marriage was troubled, but since she dreaded being single, she glossed over that topic with her old friends. The job offer she had recently received, after Sara had returned to New York and contacted her, was something to gloat about.
Thanks to that, she could joke about her experiences at the lowest possible rung of the publishing industry. She amused her former hallmates Betty and Shelley, both high school teachers, by describing what passed for advancement in that job. She still typed letters and fetched coffee¾but in the last year or so, she had been allowed to get close enough to actual manuscripts to spill coffee on them. There was no danger that her clumsiness would impede the cause of literature, since her company published mostly dry textbooks.
“What about that Great American Novel you were planning to write yourself?” asked Betty.
“That just might turn into the Great American Screenplay instead,” said Imogene, “now that I’m going to work for Sara’s outfit.”
“Ah, yes, the resurrected Peace Enterprises,” said Shelley, her ironic friend. “I can’t wait to see whether Sara’s version of the company does more to change the world than her brother Jake’s did.”
“She should try changing it for the better this time,” put in Betty, her sarcastic friend.
Betty had agreed to take over the Alumni Notes, and Imogene couldn’t wait to see how remorselessly she skewered their former classmates.
“Looks like we’re all living up to our college nicknames,” remarked Shelley, who had been especially adept at coming up with them. She had dubbed Imogene “Groupie with a Pen” because her senior honors thesis had analyzed the rock band fronted by Sara’s brother Jake. Betty, always a stickler for dormitory rules, was known as “Schoolmarm Betty.” Emily and Sara continued to live up to their respective nicknames, Supercilia and Superwoman, having been too busy and important to attend this trivial event.
Shelley then alluded to the collective nickname she had bestowed on her own type: “the nondescripts.” These were the plain-looking and unadventurous girls who tended to be overlooked on campus¾and sometimes resorted to underhanded means to exert their influence. Imogene was startled when Shelley brought up the self-deprecating nickname. She had been toying with the idea of calling her prospective novel or screenplay “The Nondescripts.” Her plan was to glorify those unsung girls.
The topic of marriage and children came up at the reunion. “The girls” were approaching their late twenties and most had not started families. Shelley was a step up on her friends, having two step-kids with her teacher husband. Betty and the rest of the nondescripts professed themselves too busy planning aggressive career moves, or pursuing advanced degrees, or both, to contemplate their personal lives at all.
They did angle to find out why Imogene’s five-year marriage had as yet produced no offspring. Imogene couldn’t say it would never happen¾she often trumped up her nebulous monthly symptoms in her own mind, and was doing that even now¾but she maintained that she and Steve were not yet on solid enough footing, and left it at that.
“Emily and Sara seem to be having it all,” she added irresistibly. “I don’t know how they do it.”
“They must have their husbands well trained,” said the typically cynical voice of a nondescript.
Imogene, as class correspondent, had reported on this phenomenon. She had helped to popularize the story of how Sara had attempted to breastfeed her three-month-old daughter Laraine on the set of her first self-produced film, a strenuous music-and-dance extravaganza. When this proved difficult, she switched to a breast pump, and her husband, professional football player Jim Guthrie, agreed to take the brunt of the baby. He hunkered down in a trailer with bottles and diapers, while Sara spent her days cavorting across a soundstage in the arms of her dance partner and co-star. This had everyone exclaiming about what a great guy Jim must be.
As for Emily, who had run off with Glendary drama instructor Mark Piluras and moved to Hollywood with him, motherhood had tempered her acting career, at least temporarily. Her professional breakthrough had been a recurring role on “Cops and Lawyers,” a network TV drama produced by two of Mark’s cousins. Since giving birth to son Marcus, she had not appeared on the show; in fact, her hiatus had begun sooner, since her pregnancy evidently didn’t fit the story line. But she had taken the precaution of finishing her degree in dramatic arts at UCLA, where Mark had become an assistant professor. If she chose, she could go back to school for teaching credentials, without in the least giving up her real dream.
“If our two favorite powerhouses still plan on conquering the world,” continued the sourpuss voice, “I hope they’re at least smart enough not to have any more children.” Imogene silently agreed.
When Imogene returned to New York after the reunion, the pace of her life picked up while the core of it deteriorated. She had become accustomed to Steve’s late work hours, which meant they rarely had dinner together. His excuses were getting flimsier. One evening shortly before the reunion, she had startled him by demanding, “Who’s the legal or paralegal babe who’s been keeping you out so late?” He had declined to answer, but had offered to pay for her trip south, and even bought her a new necklace for the occasion.
On the Monday morning when Imogene walked into Sara’s office at Peace Enterprises for her opening conference, she knew this vibrant place would infuse her life with purpose. Sara’s carpeted corner office was the largest on the third floor¾larger than that of the Fiscal Officer or the Director of Public Relations. She seemed to need the extra space to exert herself as an artist as well as a businesswoman. She reclined in an executive chair behind a huge mahogany desk, with heavy manuscripts in front of her¾screenplays, Imogene surmised. She flipped up her tinted reading glasses to appraise Imogene, who sat on a visitor’s sofa facing her. This subservient position was nothing new; when they had first established their friendship at college, the respective positions of leader and follower had come naturally to them.
Behind Sara, Imogene glimpsed a quadraphonic sound system, which proved to be connected to speakers placed strategically around the room. Near the left wall was an electric piano with an amplifier and a stand holding many scribbled-over pieces of music paper. This evidence that Sara was composing, as she had always wanted to, excited Imogene more than anything else.
It was no secret that Sara was rescuing Imogene from a dead-end situation. Every attempt she had made to move up in the publishing industry had ended in frustration. None of the choices she made seemed to get her anywhere. She had left a secretarial position at a literary agency that had handled the kind of books she liked, and taken an editorial assistant job at the less congenial textbook firm. The more exalted title proved to be fairly hollow in terms of responsibility.
Driven by boredom, she had filled some of her blank hours with her own work. A hefty lady with an amazingly quiet footstep, who seemed to serve no purpose other than office busybody, had caught her more than once working on her novel, paying bills or reading the newspaper. Although never officially reprimanded, Imogene could feel her stock in the company falling. The ambience of Sara’s office couldn’t be more different. She felt sure she would be allowed, and even encouraged, to turn its creative energy to her own use.
Sara had been a good enough friend to hire her on impulse, improving on her previous salary and leaving the exact job description for later. This opening conference was their first attempt to formalize the position. Sara began by stating her basic expectations. She thought Imogene could make herself useful and learn the business by providing administrative support to the Fiscal Officer, Leroy Pierce, and the Public Relations Director, Gus Travelli. Both men, obvious products of the big city, were called in briefly to shake hands with Imogene. She had met Mr. Pierce before, during a whirlwind tour of Peace Enterprises that Sara had arranged one weekend during their senior year at college.
Imogene recalled the moment, five years ago, when Leroy and Sara had put their heads together and agreed that the company needed “saving” from Sara’s brother and his wife. Jake and Marianne had taken over most day-to-day oversight from the original founder, folk singer Byron Robarts, who had left town altogether to live at his upstate New York getaway. Jake’s songwriting partnership with Byron had foundered, and both men had left their band, the Sunburst, to lesser talents. Jake’s interest in running the company in Byron’s place didn’t last much longer. He and Marianne were sabotaging any notion of profits through their sporadic attention, interspersed with horrendously bad business decisions. Sara, with the arrogance of an ambitious college senior, had urged Leroy to hire “a big-time p. r. guy” to at least begin refurbishing the company’s image. That would provide a stopgap until she was ready to take the reins herself¾which would be soon after she graduated, or so she thought then.
Leroy grinned and reacquainted himself with Imogene in his slightly lascivious way, caressing her shoulder and pecking her cheek. Gus, whom she was meeting for the first time, was friendly, but much cooler than Leroy. When she and Sara resumed their private conversation, Imogene, assessing her current skills and experience, told Sara that she saw herself as an assistant publicist rather than an assistant accountant. Sara promised to instruct Gus to help her with that goal¾although it was only fair to warn Imogene that there would be more competition from other “assistants” in Gus’s office than in Leroy’s.
Grateful to at least have her foot in the door, Imogene prepared to sell herself. “I do feel like I belong here, since I’ve written about Peace Enterprises before. Remember my senior thesis?”
“Yes, that was clever,” smiled Sara, “the way you analyzed a disintegrating rock and roll band for college credit. ‘The Spirit of Byron’ was a great idea for the times, but a lot has changed since then. Once the band broke up, Byron deserted this place rather than try to put the ‘peace’ back in Peace Enterprises. It was partly my fault, as you’ll recall. I slept with him the summer I worked here as a secretary. Our romance ended badly, and he fled back to his family upstate. He never returned to the city as you predicted he would. Instead he sold out to Jake and Marianne, who jettisoned the folk music tradition and made the most non-commercial rock and roll they could think of.”
“I know they did,” said Imogene, “but I still believe my thesis wasn’t totally wrong. I like to think Byron’s original inspiration in launching the company survives. He sincerely wanted to promote peace¾and even Jake caught that spirit, at least once in a while.”
Imogene was somewhat taken aback when Sara laughed. “I guess that sounds naïve nowadays,” she admitted, “but the bottom line is, it’s still Peace Enterprises, right? Nobody has changed the name of the company yet.”
“I never promised not to,” said Sara. “Once I finish acquiring Jake’s share, I’ll be totally free to remake the company in my own image. It’s bound to be different, if only because I intend to make it profitable.”
As Imogene struggled not to show disapproval, Sara looked amused. “Dearest Imogene, I can see I’ve disillusioned you already. You’re just beginning to realize I’m running a business here and not a love fest. Sorry, but I won’t be recreating the non-business models of the past. Sure, we all miss those fun times when these suites and corridors were filled with nonstop music and love and partying. But the place was bleeding money.
“My mission now is to advance Jim and myself in show business. It hasn’t been any cakewalk so far. We were both champion athletes at a small college. We parried that into Jim’s pro football career and my broadcasting gig. But I learned the hard way that nobody was gonna knock down doors to offer us movie roles. I had to put together the deals myself. That meant selling myself as the sister of a famous rock star, something I swore I’d never do. I had to do it because I’m not like Emily. That is, I’m not enough of a hot-looking babe to impress Hollywood.”
“But you did impress everybody,” piped up Imogene, “by making two great movies.”
Sara discussed the relative success of the independent films she had produced. The New Swing Time, which had shown off her singing and dancing skills, was made on a shoestring, with an alley in a small mid-western town as its main set. It scored a moderate success, but Bloody Skies, featuring Jim in an ensemble cast with other football players, was more of a popular hit. The space-war thriller, while expensive to make, had recouped its investment almost upon release, and had given the Guthries financial security apart from their “day jobs.” Sara could now afford to take her time deciding on her next project.
“The most satisfying thing about producing films, truthfully, is helping out family and friends. I gave my has-been mother, the former burlesque bombshell, a few moments of relative dignity in Swing Time. And maybe I’ll get Jake back on his feet someday by persuading him to write a musical score or two. As you’ll see once you have a chance to look around, I’ve kept on a few Glendary alumni who’ve been doing odd chores around here for years. But I’m not trying to save the world¾unless it can be done profitably. I hope that doesn’t come as a complete shock to you.”
“Certainly not,” said Imogene¾unconvincingly, she feared. “I understand the company has changed its focus, and that you have to make money in order to make movies.” But she couldn’t help wondering how well she would fit in. She doubted any of her current story ideas were commercial enough for the new Peace Enterprises.
“I’m curious,” she continued irresistibly. “Why do you say the past five years have been such a struggle? It seems to me you’ve been amazingly successful from day one. That was the consensus at the reunion too. You forged ahead of everybody else¾even Emily. How did you do it?”
Sara was flattered, especially to be elevated above Emily. “How did I do it? Good question. Our college careers weren’t exactly a springboard toward national fame. Jim had to launch his pro football career without being drafted by any team. He made the roster in Kansas City as a walk-on, and waited three years for any significant playing time. The mid-west was hardly the ideal place for me either. I grew up wanting to star in movies or Broadway musicals, and I landed in a place thousands of miles from either coast.
“But I modified my dreams and built my career patiently, like Jim. I started out doing commentary on women’s sports for a local TV station. Soon I was covering local news and hosting talk shows. The network affiliate noticed my work, and I got one or two national assignments. Then Jim was traded to the New York Giants, a great move for both of us. It brought me back home, where I could take a good, hard look at the family business. I knew it had been treading water since Jake gave up on it and followed Byron out of town.”
By then, Sara continued, Jake and Byron were both living commune-style with their families on Byron’s six-acre estate. On principle, they had turned their backs on the company and its commercialism. Left alone at headquarters, Leroy had managed to cut loose all the unprofitable garage bands and other artistic leeches that had been milking the place dry. But the flow of creativity had stopped as well. The Sunburst band, its most profitable venture, would not revive as long as Jake and Byron’s songwriting partnership remained dormant. Thus neglected, Peace Enterprises had become a mere accounting firm for protecting and investing past profits.
“That’s something, though, isn’t it?” pointed out Imogene. “At least Jake’s wealth wasn’t totally squandered. He was able to invest in The New Swing Time.”
“Yeah, but that’s a bit of a myth. Of course it sounds heartwarming, my brother supporting my first film venture out of his passionate belief in me. But in reality, the funding was Leroy’s idea. Jake has never known or cared what Leroy does with his money.”
“Well, at least he went along with¾Leroy’s decision.” Again Imogene felt the raw facts hitting her in the face like a splash of cold water.
“Is Jake doing anything these days? I mean, besides trying to farm a patch of land and raise two families?” Imogene tried to keep the question casual, but Sara gave her a long look.
Then she laughed.
“That’s one way of putting it. Actually he’s not much into raising either food or children himself¾that’s for the womenfolk to attend to. He claims to be spending most of his time working on a novel based on our family history. I can only imagine what a horror story that will turn out to be.”
Sara seemed hesitant to go on discussing her brother. That was understandable, Imogene thought, but a little disconcerting. She and Sara rarely alluded to the fact that Imogene had had a brief sexual encounter with Jake as a college student. It had happened during Homecoming weekend senior year, when the disintegrating Sunburst had returned to campus and managed somehow to give a concert that Saturday night. Imogene’s tryst with Jake the next day had been accidental, almost comical, but wildly passionate. Sara had been mildly shocked to hear about it weeks later from Jake’s pregnant wife Marianne, who had been furious when she found out, despite her own less than exemplary behavior that weekend. Now Sara was eyeing Imogene as if she suspected a romantic motive for asking about Jake.
Sara, evidently deciding not to mince words, opined that Jake had yet to figure out what he wanted in a relationship. He had married his second wife, Jade, and had a son, Madison, without really moving on. His first family, Marianne and daughter Crystal, lived near them on the same estate like “one big happy family.” This arrangement, while minimizing the pain of divorce, made for many awkward moments. Sometimes to escape the turmoil, he returned to the city he professed to hate and crashed for a week or two in the condo he still owned upstairs, next to the Guthries’.
“I guess he drops by the office too?” This time Imogene failed to keep her tone casual, and Sara laughed outright.
“Yeah, but don’t count on it. He’s still the same unpredictable genius you used to love. Didn’t you write in your thesis that his music formed the soundtrack of your college years? A pretty smaltzy line, but not bad. As long as you keep thinking along those lines, Imogene, you’ll do fine as a p. r. type. Just don’t expect the old maestro to be a perfect role model.” Imogene, who had stopped worshipping Jake with the innocence of youth as soon as she slept with him, nodded wisely.
“If you should by chance run into him,” continued Sara, “just be careful. He still has his reputation for demolishing lives, and unless I’m mistaken, you’re trying to have a marriage.”
“Trying to,” said Imogene, smothering a sigh.
They turned to personal matters. Sara glowed with pride as she described her precocious two-year-old daughter Laraine. “But enough of my cooing,” she said, as Imogene tried not to squirm. “Her adorableness is the fun part, but I’m not going to sugarcoat the hard part. Working motherhood is a constant juggling act. You’re always torn, even when you’ve got a near-perfect situation like mine.”
“I’m sure it can be hard,” said Imogene, unconvinced. “But it seems to me you’re managing to have it all¾you and Emily both. You’re the Superwomen we all aspire to be.”