First Reads
4:45 am
Tue June 24, 2014

Exclusive First Read: You CAN Phone Home Again In 'Landline'

Originally published on Tue June 24, 2014 10:40 am

Rainbow Rowell turns her attention back to adult (but still young at heart) fiction in Landline, the story of Georgie, a successful sitcom writer who's not having a lot of success on the homefront. It's coming up on Christmas, and Georgie suddenly backs out of a planned holiday trip to her husband Neal's hometown — something's come up at work and she just has to stay. But when Neal packs up the kids and goes without her, she has to face up to the trouble in her marriage. Luckily, she discovers an ancient, clunky, possibly magical phone (have we mentioned the magic phone yet?) that lets her connect with the man Neal used to be — and the love they first fell into. In this scene, Georgie is returning to work the morning after her first encounter with the phone. Landline will be published July 8.


CHAPTER 4

There was a Post-it note from Pamela (the front-desk girl) on Georgie's office door. She must have missed it when she left last night.

Your husband called while you were talking to Mr. German. He said to tell you they landed and to call when you can.

Georgie'd already tried to call Neal twice that morning on the way to work — she wanted something to replace their last stilted conversation in her head — but he hadn't picked up.

Which wasn't that unusual. Neal often left his phone downstairs or in the car, or he forgot to turn his ringer on. He never purposely ignored Georgie's calls. Never so far.

She hadn't left him a message — she kept freezing up. But at least Neal would see that she'd called. That was something.

He'd sounded so off last night ...

Clearly Georgie had woken him up. But it was more than that. The way that he'd said his mom was fine — "they're both fine" — for a second, Georgie thought maybe he was talking about his dad.

Neal's dad had died three years ago. He was a railroad yardman, and he had a heart attack at work. When the call came that day from his mom, Neal had gone into their bedroom without saying a word. It was only the second time Georgie had seen him cry.

Maybe Neal was disoriented last night, waking up in his parents' house, sleeping in his old room. All the memories of his dad ...

Or maybe he'd just meant Alice and Noomi. "She's fine. They're both fine. Everybody's fine."

Georgie set her coffee on her desk and plugged in her phone. Seth was watching her. "Are you about to start your period?"

That should probably be an offensive workplace question, but it wasn't. You can't work with someone every day of your adult life and never talk to him about your PMS.

Or maybe you could, but Georgie was glad she didn't have to. "No." She shook her head at Seth. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine," he said. "Are those your clothes from yesterday?"

Jeans. One of Neal's old Metallica concert T-shirts. A cardigan.

"We should work in the big room," she said, "with the whiteboards." "Those are your clothes from yesterday," Seth said, "and they were sad enough yesterday."

Georgie exhaled. "I spent the night at my mom's house, okay? You're lucky I showered." She'd used Heather's shower, and Heather's shampoo. And now she smelled like frosting.

"You spent the night at your mom's house? Were you too drunk to drive?"

"Too tired," she said.

He narrowed his eyes. "You still look tired."

Georgie frowned back at him; Seth looked pristine, of course. Gingham shirt, tan pants cuffed high over his bare ankles, suede saddle shoes. He looked like he'd just stepped out of a Banana Republic. Or what Georgie imagined that might look like — it'd been years since she was actually inside a Banana Republic. She did all her shopping online now, and only when things got desperate.

Seth, however, had never let himself go. If anything, he'd tightened his grip. He looked like he hadn't aged a day since 1994, since the first day he and Georgie met.

The first time she'd seen Seth, he was sitting on a pretty girl's desk, playing with her hair. Georgie had been excited just to see another girl in The Spoon offices.

She found out later that the girl only came in on Wednesdays to sell ads. "Girls aren't usually into comedy," Seth explained. Which was better than what a lot of the other guys on staff said: "Girls aren't funny." (After working at the college humor magazine for four years, Georgie eventually convinced a few of them to add, "Present company excluded.")

She'd chosen the University of Los Angeles because of The Spoon. Well, and also because of the theater program, and because ULA was close enough to her mom's house that Georgie could still live at home.

But The Spoon was the main thing. It was Georgie's thing.

She'd started reading it in the ninth grade; she used to save back issues and stick the front pages up on her bedroom wall. Everyone said The Spoon was The Harvard Lampoon of the West Coast — lighter, better-looking. Some of her favorite comedy writers had gotten their start there.

Georgie had shown up at The Spoon offices, a rumpus room/computer lab in the basement of the student union, the first week of her freshman year, willing to do anything — willing to make coffee or proof-read the personal ads — but wanting, so badly, to write.

Seth was the first person she met there. He was a sophomore and already an editor, and initially he was the only guy on staff who'd make eye contact with Georgie at editorial meetings.

But that was because he was Seth, and because she was a girl. Seth's chief pastime back then was paying attention to girls. (Another thing that hadn't changed.) Lucky for him, then and now, girls usually paid attention back.

Seth was shiny and handsome — tall, with brown eyes and thick auburn hair — and he dressed like he belonged on the cover of an early Beach Boys album.

Georgie got used to Seth's madras shirts and khaki pants.

She got used to Seth. Always sitting on her desk or falling onto the couch next to her. She got used to always having his attention at The Spoon — because she was almost always the only girl in the room.

And because they were a good team.

That was pretty obvious, almost immediately. Georgie and Seth laughed at all the same jokes, and they were funnier together — as soon as one of them walked into a room, the other started putting on a show.

That's when Seth had started calling Georgie his secret weapon. The other guys on staff at The Spoon were so busy ignoring her, they mostly missed how funny she was.

"Nobody cares who writes their favorite sitcoms," Seth would say. "Nobody cares if it's a cool guy with little wire-rimmed glasses." (It was the '90s.) "Or a cute girl with yellow hair." (That was Georgie.) "Stick with me, Georgie, and nobody'll see us coming."

She did.

After graduation, she'd stuck with Seth through five half-hour sitcoms, each one a little less terrible than the last.

And now they finally had a hit, a huge hit — Jeff 'd Up — and who cared if it was terrible? (Who cared, besides Georgie. And Seth. And the rest of the bitter, disillusioned writing staff.) Because it was a hit, and it was theirs.

And it would all be worth it if this deal went through.

Seth had been ecstatic ever since they got the call from Maher Jafari's office. They'd thought, even after their triumphant pitch meeting, that Jafari was going to pass on Passing Time. On them. He'd sent them a weird note that seemed like a rejection. But then, two days ago, he'd called to say that the network needed a midseason replacement. Something they could turn pretty quickly. And pretty cheap. "I've got a feeling about this one," Jafari had said. "Can you make it happen in a week?"

Seth had promised to make everything happen in a week. "We can make it happen by last week," he said.

Then he'd climbed up on his desk chair to dance again. "This is our Sopranos, Georgie, it's our Mad Men."

"Get down," she'd said. "Everyone's going to think you're drunk."

"I may as well be," he said, "because I'm about to get drunk. And time is an illusion."

"You're a delusion. We can't write four scripts before Christmas." Seth didn't stop dancing. He pumped his chin and did a little lasso move over his head. "We've got till the twenty-seventh. That's ten whole days."

"Ten days during which I'll be in Omaha, Nebraska, celebrating Christmas."

"Fuck Omaha. Christmas came early." "Stop dancing, Seth. Talk to me."

He'd stopped dancing and frowned at her. "Are you hearing me? Maher Jafari wants our show. Our show, remember? The one we were put on this earth to write?"

"Do you think anybody actually gets put on earth to write TV comedy?"

"Yes," Seth said. "Us."

He'd been irrepressible ever since — even when Georgie was arguing with him, even when she was ignoring him. Seth wouldn't stop smiling. He wouldn't stop humming, which should probably annoy her. But Georgie was used to that, too.

She looked back up at him now to ask about a Jeff 'd Up deadline ... And ended up just looking at him.

He was grinning to himself and typing an e-mail with his index fingers, just to be silly. His eyebrows were dancing.

She sighed.

They were supposed to end up together, Seth and Georgie.

Well, technically, they had ended up together. They'd talked every day since that first day they met.

But they were supposed to end up together-together. Everyone thought it would happen — Georgie had thought it would happen.

Just as soon as Seth exhausted his other possibilities, as soon as he worked through his queue of admirers. He hadn't been in any hurry, and Georgie didn't have a say in the matter. She'd taken a number. She was waiting patiently.

And then, one day, she wasn't.

After Seth headed down to the writers' room, Georgie decided to try calling Neal again.

He picked up after three rings. "Hello?" No. It wasn't Neal. "Alice? Is that you?" "Yes."

"It's Mommy."

"I know. Your song played when the phone rang." "What's my song?"

Alice started singing "Good Day Sunshine." Georgie bit her lip. "That's my song?"

"Yep."

"That's a good song." "Yep."

"Hey," Georgie said, "where's Daddy?" "Outside."

"Outside?"

"He's shoveling the snow," Alice said. "There's snow here. We're gonna have a white Christmas."

"That's lucky. Did you have a good plane trip?" "Uh-huh."

"What was the best part? ... Alice?" The girls liked answering the phone — and they loved calling people — but they always lost interest once they were on the line. "Alice. Are you watching TV?"

"Uh-huh."

"Pause it and talk to Mommy."

"I can't. Grandma doesn't have pause." "Then turn it off for a minute."

"I don't know how."

"Okay, just ... " Georgie tried not to sound irritated. "I really miss you."

"I miss you, too."

"I love you guys ... Alice?" "Yeah?"

"Let me talk to Noomi."

There was some shuffling, then a thump like somebody had dropped the phone — then finally, "Meow?"

"Noomi? It's Mommy." "Meow."

"Meow. What are you doing?" "We're watching Chip 'n' Dale." "Was Grandma happy to see you?"

"She said we could watch Chip 'n' Dale." "Okay. I love you."

"You're the best mommy in the world!"

"Thanks. Hey, Noomi, tell Daddy I called. Okay?" "Meow."

"Meow. Tell Daddy, okay?" "Meow!"

"Meow." Georgie ended the call, then fidgeted with her phone for a minute, flipping through a few photos of the girls. She hated talking to them on the phone; it made them feel farther away. And it made her feel helpless. Like, even if she heard something bad happening, there'd be nothing she could do to stop it. One time Georgie had called home from the freeway, and all she could do was listen while Alice dropped the phone in her cereal bowl, then tried to decide whether to pick it up.

Plus ... the girls' voices were higher on the phone. They sounded younger, and Georgie could hear their every breath. It just always made her realize that she was missing them. Actually missing them. That they kept on growing and changing when she wasn't there.

If Georgie didn't talk to her kids all day, it was easier to pretend like their whole world froze in place while she was at work.

She called them every day. Usually twice.

Georgie and Seth and Scotty worked on Passing Time long after dark. They worked until Scotty fell asleep with his head tipped back over the edge of his chair, his mouth hanging open. Seth wanted to leave him like that. "At least we know he'll be here on time tomorrow."

But Georgie took pity on him. She poured three packets of Sweet'N Low into Scotty's mouth, and he woke up sneezing. Then she made him drink half a can of flat Diet Coke to perk him up before he drove home.

She and Seth stayed and stared at the whiteboard for a while after Scotty left. They'd mostly worked on characters today — drawing a sprawled-out family tree showing how everyone on the show was connected, and brainstorming stories that could branch out from each of them.

A lot of what they were doing was just remembering all the ideas they'd come up with over the years, some of which had definitely expired. (Chloe decides to be emo but never figures out what it means. Adam is overly defensive of Monica Lewinsky.) They'd been talking about these characters for so long, Georgie could see them in her head — she could do all their voices.

Seth pulled down a few notecards they'd taped to the wall. "It's still good, right? Inherently? The show — it's funny?"

"I think so," Georgie said. "We're not moving as fast as we should be." "We never are. We'll get there."

"Yeah." She rubbed her eyes. When she looked up again, Seth was smiling his just-for-her smile. It was smaller than the ones he gave everyone else. More eyes. Less teeth.

"Go home," he said. "Get some sleep. You still look exhausted." She was.

So she did.

CHAPTER 5

When Georgie got home, the front door was locked. She fumbled for a minute with her keys.

She'd left a few of the lights on, so the house wasn't dark — it just felt dark. Georgie realized she was tiptoeing. She cleared her throat. "It's just me," she said out loud, to prove that she could.

She tried to remember the last time she'd come home to an empty house, and couldn't. Not this house.

They'd moved out to Calabasas when Georgie was pregnant with Noomi; their old house, a squat, mint green bungalow in Silver Lake, only had two bedrooms, and there were more tattoo parlors and karaoke bars in their neighborhood than kids.

Georgie missed it. Not the tattoo parlors and the karaoke bars ... She and Neal never went out much, even before Alice and Noomi. But she missed the house. How small it was. How close. She missed the scrubby excuse for a front yard, and the crooked jacaranda tree that used to drop sticky purple flowers onto her old Jetta every spring.

She and Neal had decorated that house together. They'd gone to the hardware store every weekend for a year to argue about paint. Georgie would always choose the most saturated color on the card.

"You can't always pick the bottom color," Neal would say.

"But the bottom color makes all the other colors look dull." "You're looking at them wrong."

"How is that possible?"

Neal almost always let Georgie win; their house in Silver Lake looked like Rainbow Brite lived there — and you could tell which walls Georgie had painted, because she was lousy at edges and corners.

They both had jobs then. Neal worked weekends. So there were plenty of days and nights when Georgie had their old house to herself. She'd watch TV shows that Neal would never watch with her. (Everything on The WB.) And then, when he got home, he'd climb over her on the couch and bother her until it was time to make dinner.

That was back when Georgie still pretended to help. When she'd hang out in the kitchen with him and drink wine while she watched him slice vegetables.

"You could do this for a living," she'd say. "You could cut tomatoes in a tomato-cutting commercial, that's how good you are."

Then Neal would chop extra loudly and wave the knife over the tomato slices with a flourish.

"I'm serious. You could be an Iron Chef." "That or work at Applebee's."

Georgie had a regular spot on the kitchen counter, and Neal worked around it. He'd pour her too much wine — and feed her pieces of things before the rest of dinner was ready, blowing on the fork until the bite was cool enough ...

How many years ago was that? Eight? Ten?

Georgie dropped her phone and keys onto the coffee table, on a stack of Noomi's picture books, and wandered into the kitchen. The plate of salmon stir-fry that Neal had made two nights ago was still in the refrigerator. She hadn't felt like eating it then, even though she'd been starving. She didn't bother to heat it up now, just grabbed a fork and brought it out to the living room, sitting on the couch and turning on the TV for light. There were two new episodes of Jeff 'd Up on the DVR, a rerun and an hour-long Christmas special.

The Christmas special had been a pain in the ass to film. The script had Jeff and Trev both secretly bonding with a stray dog they were pretending to hate. Jeff would kick the dog out of the house, then Trev would let the dog in, then Jeff would go looking for it, trying to sneak it in himself, then he'd get caught and kick it out again. The laugh track had more "aw"s than laughs, and Georgie could tell the sound guy had just used the same "aw" over and over.

The dog was a mistake.

Jeff German had insisted they use his dog, an ancient beagle that couldn't take direction and that nobody else was allowed to touch. Then it turned out that the kid who played Trev was allergic to dogs, and his mom followed him around with an epinephrine pen the whole day. He didn't end up needing it, thank God, but his eyes got all runny and puffy.

"It's fine," Seth said. "It looks like he's been crying."

"Let's get rid of the dog," Georgie said. "Let's make it something else." "You just don't like dogs. What do you want? A cat?"

"I was thinking an orphan."

"Fuck no, Georgie. The network will make us keep it."

Normally, Georgie would text back and forth with Seth while they watched Jeff 'd Up. But her phone was plugged in on the other side of the room, and she didn't feel like getting up.

She'd get up if Neal called.

Which wasn't likely, not this late — Neal hadn't called her back all day.

Georgie had tried him half a dozen times since lunch, and every time, the call went to voice mail. She'd tried his mom's house, too, but got a busy signal. (It'd been so long since Georgie had heard an actual busy signal, it kind of confused her.)

She set her empty plate on the coffee table and pulled the afghan up over her shoulders.

"Awwwww ... ," the TV audience said.

Georgie looked up at the ceiling. Neal had painted a spray of flowers there. They started at one corner, then wound down onto the wall. Blue with white starbursts — she forgot what they were called.

Neal had picked out this house. In Calabasas. He liked the porch and the yard. The wide-open kitchen. The fact that it had a real second floor and an attic. (Their house in Silver Lake was one and a half stories, with the bedroom up in the half. Neal hated the way you could hear the rain hitting the roof at night.)

Georgie was five months pregnant when they moved in, so she couldn't help paint. (Fumes.) Also, she and Seth were working as show-runners by then, so her hours were crazy — and also, she felt like garbage.

She felt like garbage that whole pregnancy. She gained more weight with Noomi. She had more pain. Her fingers got so swollen and purple that she'd stare at them while she typed, imagining she was Violet Beauregarde — imagining that Seth was going to have to roll her out of the writers' room when she went into labor.

(She didn't end up going into labor. Georgie was really good at getting pregnant, but not so good at getting the babies out. She never had a real contraction with either of the girls.)

Georgie had been relieved when Neal started painting the walls without her. At first he chose colors from the bottom of the paint strip — there were a few Georgie-bright rooms. But mostly this house was white. Or pale yellow. Or watery blue.

He'd started painting murals a few years ago, when Noomi grew out of her baby sling and was okay playing with Alice on the floor. Georgie came home one night and found a willow tree curling out of her closet.

Neal painted landscapes and seascapes. Skyscapes. (Was there such a thing?) He painted murals all over the house, never finishing one before starting another. Georgie didn't ask why.

Neal didn't like to be asked things. It made his jaw tense. He'd give you a flippant answer. Like, whatever you were asking, it wasn't any of your business.

Like nothing was anyone's business.

Like nobody should ask questions that didn't absolutely need to be answered.

Georgie had gotten really good over the years at not asking questions. Sometimes she didn't even realize she wasn't doing it.

This house really was much nicer than their old house ...

Neal was better at picking out paint and arranging furniture than Georgie had ever been. Plus their laundry actually got done now that he did it.

"It never ends," he'd say.

"We could hire someone," Georgie would offer.

"We don't need to hire someone."

Their neighbors had a nanny and a cleaning lady, a lawn guy, a pool guy, and a dog groomer who made house calls. Neal hated them. "You shouldn't need a staff of people larger than your own family. We don't live in a manor."

"Like the Malfoys," Alice said. "With house elves."

Neal was reading her the Harry Potter books.

Neal mowed their lawn. In worn-out cargo pants and T-shirts that he'd had since high school. He always smelled like sunblock, because without it, he'd immediately burn. Even with the sunblock, the back of his neck was stained red.

Neal trimmed the trees. Neal kept tulip bulbs in the refrigerator and sketched garden plans on the back of Whole Foods receipts. He'd pore over seed catalogs in bed and make Georgie choose which plants she liked best.

"Purple eggplant or white eggplant?" he'd asked her last summer.

"How can you have a white eggplant? That's like ... purple green beans."

"There are purple green beans. And yellow oranges." "Stop. You're blowing my mind."

"Oh, I'll blow your mind. Girlie." "Are you flirting with me?"

He'd turned to her then, pen cap in mouth, and cocked his head.

"Yeah. I think so."

Georgie looked down at her old sweatshirt. At her threadbare yoga pants. "This is what does it for you?"

Neal smiled most of a smile, and the cap fell out of his mouth. "So far."

Neal ...

She'd call him tomorrow morning. She'd get through to him this time. This was just — this had just been a weird couple of days.

Georgie was busy. And Neal was busy. And time zones weren't on their side.

And he was pissed with her.

She'd make it better; she didn't blame him. Everything would be better in the morning.

Morning glories, Georgie thought to herself just before she fell asleep.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell published by St. Martin's Press, LLC; audio produced by Macmillan Audio.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.