Don’t try this at home! Camille Perri’s The Assistants recounts in hilarious (albeit fictional) detail a young “executive assistant” ‘s encounter with $19,147. It’s half her annual salary, working for a Rupert Murdoch-type media magnate. It will pay off her college loans. A check for that amount, made out to her, is sitting right in front of her! Short-circuit your moral compass (hmm, mixed metaphor) and enjoy this tale, published in May by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. And don’t worry about that moral compass: The story has a very cool dénouement. You can buy it at local booksellers or here or here.
YOU’VE PROBABLY heard of my former boss. And even if you haven’t heard of him, he has influenced you, I promise. Ever watched the all-day news or seen the big blockbuster summer movie? Him. Do you read the newspaper? What about one of those glossy magazines with magenta cover lines like, Dirty Talk Hot Enough To Make His Boxers Combust? Him. Odds are, if you exist in the modern world, Robert owns all or a portion of what you just consumed. He hovers around number 35 on the Forbes Billionaire List. I was his assistant.
All important men have assistants.
That’s the first principle I want you to remember.
Do important women also have assistants? Yes, of course. But men rule the world. Still. That’s the second principle I want you to remember. Men still rule the world. Not because this is some feminist manifesto, but because it’s a simple fact essential to how this all started. And that’s what everyone wants to know—the reporters, the bloggers, the American People—what they all want to know is how we did it.
How Did Two Little Girls Outsmart The Most Powerful Man In New York? That was the E! Entertainment headline. I’m thirty years old; Emily’s twenty-eight. My 5 feet 4 inches on tippy-toes brings down the average, but Emily is a solid six-foot-something in heels. Not so little. What E! meant was powerless.
The Daily News story read: Modern Day Robin Hoods Look More Like Charlie’s Angels. They Photoshopped us into swimsuits and put guns in our hands.
The Post dubbed our network the Secretary Sisterhood of Thieves! (Exclamation theirs.)
Now let me make this perfectly clear. It wasn’t stealing, really. And it was almost by accident that we discovered just how much money there was out there for the taking.
That’s the third principle I want you to remember. There is enough money.
There is so much money.
Here’s how this whole mess started: Robert had to be in LA for a big meeting with his West Coast Titan Corp. execs and his Boeing’s engine had the gall to malfunction.
“Tina!” he yelled, from inside the soundproofed glass cube of his office.
Robert isn’t a yeller by nature, but he had no other choice in order to overcome the soundproofing, forcing his voice to travel through his open office door. I knew it was my name he’d called for by the tone. We each had our own tone. If it had been his deputy he’d wanted it would have been a gruff monosyllabic bark; for his senior editor it would have been a throaty holler; his executive producer called for a higher pitched squawk. My skill at deciphering these subtleties was critical because it was my job to fetch whomever he called. When he wanted me, his voice dropped to a quieter bellow that bordered on a plea. It was a more intimate sound because with me Robert’s needs were always personal—he had an upset stomach and required TUMS, he’d forgotten a birthday and needed a last minute gift, or he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how to load this new software onto his iPad. Robert’s vulnerable call for me was a daily assurance that I was essential to the success of this castle of a man—a man who half the world considered to be a monster because they could never come within earshot of understanding him.
In less than a second I was at his desk, notepad in hand. Behind me a wall of flat screens flashed the news being broadcast by Titan and its so-called competitors. Robert had the uncanny ability to devote a small portion of his gaze to each screen simultaneously. In all he owned nine satellite television networks, 175 newspapers, 100 cable channels, 40 book imprints, 40 television stations, and one movie studio. His total audience reached around 4.7 billion people, which came out to around three fourths of the population of the entire globe. But the news was his baby. He was never not watching it, analyzing it, shaping it. That’s why he situated his office here at Titan News headquarters, where he could keep close watch not only on his wall of flat screens but also on his journalists. A man as powerful as Robert could have hidden himself anywhere, pulling at the strings of the world from a lounge chair in the Seychelles, unseen by his employees—but he needed to be here at the center of it all, at the hub.
Our office didn’t look like a newsroom that you’d imagine from movies or TV drama series. The floors below ours were more like that—the broadcast, print media, and digital newsrooms—each of which could have easily passed for something out of The Matrix. And there was an entire floor of flashy studios used for our nonstop news coverage and thrill-a-minute opinion shows. But our office on the fortieth floor was far less exciting, just row after row of desks and cubicles. Still, we were the brain of the whole operation, the source from which all orders trickled down. Titan’s chief editors and all of Robert’s most trusted deputies had desks on our floor so Robert could pull them into impromptus with the business leaders and celebrities he met with—so he could foster relationships between them and the political-party representatives (yes, from both parties) who came to lobby him. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what the fortieth floor lacked in flash it made up for in influence.
Robert had his shirtsleeves rolled up and was rubbing his dark-haired head with both hands like he always did when he was upset. For a man his age, Robert had a surprisingly full, thick head of hair, which he attributed to a hearty diet of smoked meats and aged bourbon.
“I need to be on the next flight to LA,” he said. “And have them bump the seats around mine.”
Robert made requests like this as if he were ordering a pastrami on rye at the corner deli, or in his case, maybe braised brisket on a roll.
“You’re flying commercial?” I asked.
“Don’t get me started. The Boeing died and they tell me there aren’t any jets available for the rest of the afternoon. Can you believe that shit? Not one. I used to be somebody in this town, you know that?”
In the six years I’d worked for Robert, not once had he ever flown on a commercial airline. I glanced at the clock. In order for him to make the LA meeting on time, he’d have to be on a flight in the next two hours.
“And make sure they comp me,” he said.
“The airline?” What amounted to buying out half of first class on a flight that would be leaving almost immediately, Robert wanted for free. And he expected it to be done as simply as saying, hold the mustard.
“Okay.” I said.
Robert brought his hands down from his head, placed them flat on his desk and looked at me amiably with his big brown eyes. “Thank you,” he said.
That’s something people who haven’t met Robert can’t understand—his graciousness. They see a seventy-year-old media tycoon accused of evading every tax and law imaginable to expand his multi-national domination. They see a sinister businessman accused of single-handedly making a mockery of news journalism. They see a one-percenter with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper sticker on the back of his Mercedes. But actually, Robert’s a very nice man.
So I called the airline, used my executive voice, and politely explained our crisis situation.
“You do understand this will cause a great disruption to our other first-class passengers,” the phlegmy-voiced woman on the phone said. “But because Mr. Barlow is such a valued customer we’re happy to accommodate him.” She sounded like one of Marge Simpson’s chain-smoking sisters.
“Thank you,” I replied, perfectly mimicking Robert’s amiability.
All sweetness and light, Robert always said. That’s how you have to talk to people, all sweetness and light, but tough as stewed skunk.
She clicked away on her keyboard. “The total fare will come to $19,147.”
I had the urge to gasp. That was a high enough figure to make flying in a private jet sound fiscally reasonable.
“Ma’am?” I said. “I do understand this is terribly short notice and you’re going to great lengths to accommodate Mr. Barlow’s sizable request, but I was wondering if it would be possible for this fare to be complimentary.”
More silence. Then laughter, then the clearing of mucus, then finally—“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
“Who does this guy think he is?”
“Ma’am,” I said again, which always made me feel slightly southern in spite of my New York roots, and also a little bit like an asshole. “Did you just curse at me? I’d like to speak to your manager immediately.”
“There is no way we’re comping Robert Barlow,” she said.
I glanced at the time and then at Robert’s desk. He’d already left for the airport, unable to even fathom that his request would be denied. Jesus, no wonder he never flew commercial if this was the treatment he got. Asking to fly for free or not, where were these people’s manners?
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll pay the fare. But as soon as I hang up this phone I’m filing a complaint with your customer service department.”
“Credit card number please.”
I recited Robert’s corporate Amex number from memory as obnoxiously as possible.
Two seconds later the woman replied, “I’m sorry,” like she wasn’t sorry at all. “That card’s expired.”
I could hear her grinning through the receiver. “It expired yesterday.”
Shit. Fine. How could I be losing this battle of wills so terribly? I fished through my bag, found my wallet, pulled out my own credit card, and read off the number.
Titan didn’t allow assistants to have corporate cards, so it was my personal card that I had to use.
“One moment please,” she said.
I listened to her breathing, which sounded like Darth Vader performing an anti-tobacco PSA, and then she came back with: “I’m sorry. That card’s also been rejected. You’ve exceeded your credit limit.”
I pretty much set myself up for that one. None of my credit cards had a limit over eleven thousand dollars. “Can I split it between two cards?” I flipped through my wallet.
“No,” she said.
“I would seriously like to speak to your manager immediately,” I said. “I’m not even kidding now.”
“Okay, fine.” My nemesis was growing bored of sucking the life out of my day; I was obviously harshing her mellow disengagement. “But this isn’t customary. I’m doing you a favor.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, because at heart I’m a total weakling.
I read off the number to my second credit card, got “one moment”-ed again, but—at last—tragedy was averted.
I hung up the phone and took a deep breath.
Of course I filed an expense report the moment I received an email confirmation for the fare. Twenty thousand dollars was half of my yearly salary.
People often assumed I made more as the assistant to one of the richest, most powerful men on the planet, and I let them. It was less humiliating that way. Maybe there was a time when “executive assistants,” also known as “secretaries,” were “taken care of,” but those days are long gone, at least in the media industry. They went out with lunches at the Four Seasons and smoking indoors, and the existence of the middle class. Every assistant I knew made under 50K a year. But the new hires only made 35K, so it wasn’t really my place to complain.
You know how sometimes when you call to order something over the phone, like plane tickets let’s say, a recording might come on just before a real person answers that says: This call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes?
Well, my call with the hater from the airline was one of those lucky calls. I’d never filed a complaint the way I threatened to; I’m way too lazy for that sort of thing. But a few days after the incident, I received a call from the airline’s head of Customer Relations apologizing for the “confusion” of the attendant on the phone. She’d been “let go,” I was told, also known as fired. The airline retroactively comped Robert’s flight and they were sending a gift for his troubles.
“Would Mr. Barlow enjoy a bottle of good red wine?” the groveling woman asked.
“Why, yes. Yes, he would.”
Things like this happened to Robert all the time. Before I worked for Titan, I never realized that very rich people didn’t pay for stuff.
(Let’s call that rule number four: Very rich people don’t pay for stuff.)
I was so naïve. This sucking up from the airline would have at one time struck me as shocking and unbelievably unfair, nonsensical even. Why wouldn’t a billionaire have to pay for something a poor person would absolutely have to pay for? But I’d grown used to it in the past six soul-crushing years, so it no longer fazed me. I immediately filed the whole incident under forgotten, went home, watched some Netflix, and fell asleep ignoring the unpaid bills piling up on my kitchen table, per usual.
A few days later I was g-chatting with Handsome Kevin Hanson from legal (that’s what every female in the office called him, or just Kevin Handsome for short) while shoveling spoonfuls of Pinkberry into my mouth. I was enjoying an intense brain-freeze coupled with the rush I always experienced while chatting Kevin, when Billy the mail guy (aka “Patchouli,” on account of him stinking to high hell of the stuff and dutifully passing it on to all of our parcels) dropped a white, hippie-infused envelope onto my desk that read: Travel & Entertainment Reimbursement.
Suddenly I remembered.
I signed off g-chat, made sure Patchouli Billy was at a safe distance, and then sliced open the envelope with my silver letter opener. And there it was. A crisp green check in the amount of $19,147 with my name on it.
Of course. My credit cards were billed. My credit cards were unbilled. But T&E had already filed the claim. I’d already been approved for the reimbursement.
I couldn’t stop looking at that beautiful, blossoming number. $19,147. It was so much money to me. It was nearly, to the dollar, the exact amount of my student loan balance, and I’d been struggling to pay that down for almost a decade. (Thanks for nothing, NYU.)
I folded the check in half, then in half again, and shoved it deep into the black hole darkness of my bag.
Later, I would recognize this as the moment that I faltered, my pivotal turn. But at the time it seemed innocent enough. I would just, you know, bring the check home and then tear it to shreds.
Sure, I could have torn it up right then and been done with it, but I wanted to look at it some more first. To sit with it in my moldy one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, with its leaky roof and rats in the walls. I needed to take the check home to bed with me, for just one night, before discarding it.
So I did.
One night then turned into a week that I slept with that gorgeous green patterned piece of paper on my nightstand, weighted down by my half-empty orange pill bottle of Lexapro. Then I had a nightmare that one of the rats in the walls made it into my room when I wasn’t home and ate the check, so I weighed it down with a mousetrap instead. Not one with cheese in it, just the trap, set and ready, cocked like an armed security guard.
While gazing into the check’s fine crosshatched surface, I’d let my eyes go soft and compose scenarios of cashing it and then being caught. What would I say? Oh that check? Didn’t I cancel that? I’d never intentionally take money that didn’t belong to me. That’s just not how I was raised.
Which was true. I was raised Catholic by what they call old-school Italians. (Or what Robert in his native Texan twang would call Eye-talians.) My parents were the kind of people who favored the vengeful, Old Testament God to the more forgiving, non-violent version from the “Americanized” (their word) New Testament. My father would threaten to cut off my pinky finger himself for a lesser offense than stealing. But then again, wasn’t my angry Geppetto of a dad’s most favorite phrase, God helps in mysterious ways?
What if this was that mysterious way?
And didn’t I “secret” this exact type of scenario when I read that self-help book, “The Secret?” Twenty thousand dollars, I remember saying to the universe. That’s all I need. It’s not that much money, but for me it would be a life-changer. $19,147 was pretty damn close to twenty thousand dollars, and only a fool would refuse an accurately answered prayer from the universe.
Before long, I found myself becoming absentminded. I would catch myself leaving the house without shoes on, or forgetting where I put my keys. I was this close to brushing my teeth with hemorrhoid cream when I realized what was going on. I was in love. I’d fallen in love with the idea of not having student-loan debt, and all the swooning and fantasizing that accompanied love was making me scatterbrained.
While drinking a cup of coffee or riding the L-train, I’d slip into daydreams about how my life would change for the better if I let myself keep the reimbursement money. I could have savings, I thought. I could start hoarding my money in one of those things they call a savings account. All at once I would become less anxious and more generous. Maybe I’d get a dog—one of those adorable new mixed breeds, like a Cheagle. Maybe I’d start going to the gym with all the extra time I’d have not debating between eating the slightly-off leftover burrito in the fridge or splurging on some groceries from C-Town; between getting the cavity in my molar filled or having that funky paramecia-shaped mole on my back looked at. And, sure, I could get one more wear out of this pair of socks before I go to the Laundromat. And look at this sheath of aluminum foil, it’s still good as new, I’ll just give it a little rinse. No. No more of that. Instead, I could be living the good life of enjoying dire necessities and bountiful comforts. I could pay my phone bill and go to the movies on the same day.
The next thing I knew, I’d come to in Canarsie.
This is the last stop on this train. Everyone please leave the train.
Something had to happen. I had to rip up that damn check!
Okay, fine, I told myself. I’ll do it.
Back in the safety of my bedroom now, blinds drawn, check in hand, I was poised to end this thing once and for all. But maybe I would just, you know, take a picture of the check first. Not a selfie or anything, just a snapshot. And not the kind that disappears thirty seconds after you take it, or whatever—just an old-fashioned photograph, to remember the check by.
And then I remembered that app on my phone, the one where all you have to do is click a photo of a check and—poof—it’s deposited into your bank account.
Damn you, technology.
Technology made it so easy to deposit that check, I could have done it by accident.
It wasn’t an accident—but it could have been.
First I had to open the magical check-depositing app and log on with my username and password. Then I had to snap a picture of the check’s front and the check’s back. Make sure the entire check is inside the box and touch the camera icon when you are ready.
Was I ready?
No, but the novelty of this process was so fascinating that I continued on anyway. Depositing a check with my phone? Who knew I’d ever see the day? It was just unreal enough to feel imaginary.
It wasn’t an accident when I logged on to my student loan account either. But that was the cunning whimsy of technology at work, too, because if I actually had to leave my house at any point—or even just sit down at my desk and write out a physical check, and stuff that check into an envelope, and walk that envelope to the mailbox to mail it—I don’t think I could have done it. But quietly typing alone in my dark bedroom felt so innocuous, so anonymous, and even potentially undoable. There’s something devastatingly permanent about dropping a letter into a public mailbox, isn’t there? The way the envelope is in your grasp one minute, and then it’s gone, followed by that heavy metal lash of the door. You open the door again just to make sure, as if in the history of all letters there was ever one that didn’t make it down. And then there’s that split second of panic. Did I remember the stamp? The return-address? It’s too late now.
But just clicking send? There would always be cancel. Edit/Undo.
I stared at the words on my computer screen—Pay in Full—for a long time before making the decision. Earlier in the day, Robert had an argument with his wife about whether the peppers growing in their garden were jalapenos or habaneros. He turned out to be wrong, so he had me run out to buy her the diamond bracelet she’d had her eye on from Tiffany. Total cost: $8,900.
So $19,147 was roughly only two lost arguments to Robert.
And it wasn’t even his money, was the thing. It was the Titan Corporation’s money, and Titan had billions—literally billions and zillions of dollars. Could anyone really blame me for not giving this minuscule-to-them, yet life-changing-for-me amount of money back to the Titan Corporation?
It had already been three weeks since the reimbursement check was issued to me, and nobody had missed it. Nobody had missed it! Meanwhile, I could have fostered a family of Cambodian children for what I was paying in interest alone on my student-loan debt each month.
One double-click. Pay in Full. That was it, that was all it took, and it was done. I was free.
From The Assistants by Camille Perri, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Camille Perri.