Temp for Life

Sam Lipsyte recommends an excerpt from the novel TEMPORARY by Hilary Leichter


To recommend an excerpt from Hilary Leichter’s Temporary is not just to recommend a piece of writing, but a kind of derangement, a unique way of being in language, thought, feeling. Leichterworld is built with the author’s astonishing heart and ear, and it’s a world of delightful, ever-escalating absurdity, mesmerizing prose and a poignant serio-comic vision. It’s a world whose perpetual shape-and-scape shifting is powered by both the mad logic of our so-called gig economy and the unrelenting inventiveness of its creator.

The novel tells the story (or the story tells a novel) of a woman reared to be a temp, raised to fulfill a task function in any organization (corporate, crustaceous) or personality orbit, be it a multinational company, pirate ship, or shoe fetishist. To cement her coghood, sometimes she even takes the name of whoever preceded her, if not more:  “Birthdays aren’t a serious affair for temporaries. Usually, one simply adopts the birthday of the employee one has replaced.” The key to our narrator, our everytemp, with her dozens of boyfriends––the earnest boyfriend, the tall boyfriend, the frugal boyfriend, the agnostic boyfriend––and her endless cavalcade of placements, is her fervent wish that each job be the last one. This is a quest narrative. Our protagonist seeks steadiness when all around her is flux, confusion, grief, but she eventually comes to understand that “subordination doesn’t lead to steadiness,” and that steadiness may not be quite what she thinks. She also discovers in precisely which manner the second part of the work/life (or work/love) balance was maybe with her all along.

As another profound and playful writer, Donald Barthelme, famously said, the purpose of “wacky mode” is to “break hearts,” and Temporary adheres to the dictum in refreshing ways. In Leichter’s prose, sound and meaning collide, transform, reproduce the delicate, vibratory nature of affection: “‘Remember when we kept tabs on each other’ we’ll say. ‘Remember when we took those tabs and settled them up?’ I think of his socks, folding them in little packages. I think of how many times I’ve seen him walk naked from the door to the tub.” Passionate attention becomes itemized domesticity. One tab morphs into another tab, and then a tub. Sometimes these exultant smash-ups kick free treasures lying in plain sight, as when our narrator suggests we all might benefit from a “listicle of popsicles” we ate as children. Listicle of popsicles: of course. But anyone could do that, you say, like some dolt sneering at a Picasso sketch. But you didn’t. And also, you couldn’t.

Leichter, however, can do that, and lots more. One of her gifts is to locate the dire center of every trifle, and the deep comedy at the core of our grief. Temporary, of course, is about work, but it’s also about the very human play of words and moods and images that help make life worth working to sustain. Finally, it’s about our relationship to time. We are all temporaries, of course. We will all eventually find ourselves, in the marvelous parlance of this book, “working remotely.” Meantime, we have prose fiction like this with which to find succor and joy, not to mention commiseration.

Punch in and get to it.

Sam Lipsyte
Author of Hark

Temp for Life

“First Work”
by Hilary Leichter

My mother arranged for me my very first job, just as her mother did for her.

“We work,” she said, “but then we leave.”

She unfolded the family tree of the temporary lives recorded before ours. My aunt with her stack of resumes. My grandmother with her dainty paper coffee cup. My great-grandmother behind a desk, and on the desk, a nameplate with someone else’s name. “Filling in!” she had written on the back of the photograph, in legible, steady script.

“I’m just filling in. You’re just filling in,” my mother explained. “See?”

She didn’t have to explain. I already knew it in my bones, in my knees, in the way you understand things about yourself even before you hear them spoken aloud. I knew I, too, would always find myself somewhere new, someone new, for the rest of my life, like my ancestors, like theirs, like theirs, like theirs. The top of my head measured just above the side of my mother’s full blue skirt, where the fabric emptied into a hidden pocket, where unbeknownst to anyone but me, my mother stored a bright set of inky pens.

She drove us for three hours, deep into the suburbs. We stopped along the way for sandwiches, and she said, “Why don’t you order for the both of us? I trust you.”

I ordered burgers instead, and she applauded my initiative.

“Nice improvisation,” she smiled, squeezing ketchup from a packet. We ate at a picnic table under a stately oak until the juice from the burgers soaked the buns, until the birds came to claim our soggy fries. The lake nearby was full of children in canoes, running their fingers through the water, wanting and not wanting to capsize, in equal measure. When I finished my food, I stretched out on the grass and looked up at the light that filtered through the branches of the tree, until my mother’s face encroached on the view, her head hovering above me like some newly built nest.

“Time to go.” She smiled, and we piled back into the car.

We sang along with the radio. Something about the seasons, something about eternal love, and then several songs with lengthy metaphors. She opened her window, then closed it, her short dark hair nicely whipped with wind. I pulled a single leaf from a single strand.

“Thanks, kid,” she said in a voice that felt too kind, too sweet, settling a score that hadn’t yet been unsettled.

I dozed off with my head tilted all the way forward, as if sleep were a somersault I couldn’t complete. When I woke, my mother had pulled over to the side of the road to check her directions.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I think we’re lost,” she said, but I knew that she knew where she was going. She didn’t have the frantic flutter of confusion in her eyes. Her finger traced the map with an absent sort of attitude, and she looked straight through the paper to something just beyond the visible world. She was making a decision.

For a long moment, like a dimple in the day, I thought she might turn around and take me back to our living room, our kitchen. The particles of dust hung in midair over the dashboard, and the rear-view mirror was filled with homeward potential. Then the moment broke, the engine kicked, and she merged into traffic. Our car continued along its intended route.

When we arrived at my new job, she left me with a leather-bound planner. “To fill your days,” she said in the customary fashion, “until none are left.”

My mother had no other children, and she adjusted her hosiery as she walked away.

The job was in a lovely little house with a lovely little door. There were more doors inside the house, seven doors precisely, in total. My job was to open the doors, then close them, every forty minutes, every day, all day long, until otherwise notified. The instructions were laminated and taped to the inside of a kitchen cupboard, which, being a cupboard and not strictly a door, I never had to open or close again if I didn’t choose to do so.

My favorite door was blue and small. For a child, perhaps, or a pet. The door was at the far end of the house, and it was difficult to see what was on the other side. It only ever opened halfway, but it was important to make sure it was open when specified, even if only a crack, and, later, closed. I had a glorious, shiny wristwatch to keep track of time. But time kept no track of me, and soon, my arms and legs shot out and up, and I was grown.

I learned to do everything in forty minutes. Some tasks that were shorter I extended for the sake of clarity and precision. Brushing my teeth, for instance, or combing my hair. A forty-minute sneeze is something I know how to do, and it’s not even listed on my resume.

The doors, I imagined, opened to a city somewhere beyond the house, to a knowledge somewhere in the deepest pit of myself. Each squeaky swing closed still felt like an opening, over and over again. Or perhaps the doors kept the house alive, like valves to the atria of the heart, pumping whatever substance the house needed in the right amounts, at the appropriate rate. First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. The bathroom door and the door to the basement and the front door of the lovely little house.

Across the street sat another lovely little house, with a lovely little door surrounded by cream-colored hydrangea. One day, I opened my front door at the scheduled moment, and the front door opened across the street. There, behind the door, was another little girl like me, though neither of us was truly little any longer. She had a glorious, shiny watch like mine, with a tiny face and a skinny gold band.

Her name was Anna, and we met in the center of the road on our quiet street where it seemed no cars ever passed, except for the truck that came to drop off bread and cheese and eggs once a week. We waited at the ends of our driveways, sometimes mine, sometimes hers, and waved at the driver as he drove away.

“Friends?” I asked.

“Neighbors,” she said. Then later: “Yes, friends.”

We played the customary games. We found ropes and jumped them. We found coins and tossed them. We bet the coins on probable events.

“I bet my house will blow down.”

“I bet my house will fly away.”

We were two little girls with property, with nothing to our names. We drew straws for keeping track of time. We drew the scotch for which to hop. We drew doodles in our leather-bound planners, but only on the first page and the last. The days have only so much room for frivolity.

Anna’s house had a different regimen than mine. Instead of doors, she was instructed to open drawers every hour. Little drawers, big drawers, both deep and shallow.

“Some of the drawers are empty,” she explained, “and some are not.” She didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask for elaboration.

One morning, we were waiting for the food delivery at the end of Anna’s driveway. She sat on the back of the truck, pulled me up beside her, and the truck drove away. We drove past one street and then drove past another.

I realized we were leaving. My face started to burn.

“I promise we’ll be back in forty minutes,” Anna said.

We drove around the neighborhood and saw many houses like ours. We saw a shop that sold ice cream, and we hopped off the truck, and we dumped a pile of coins on the counter for two cones, walking back to our street with milky streams trickling down our arms. But the ice cream tasted wrong, and as we approached the end of the block, I dumped the cone on the curb and ran inside my house to close the doors on time.

First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. The bathroom door and the door to the basement and the front door of the lovely little house.

Anna’s hair was short, and it curled behind her ears in two tiny wings. In the summer, her bangs stuck to her forehead, like feathers glued to an art project. Her bangs were a source of pride and irritation, always needing the remedy of a clip or a pin. Anna owned a fashionable pin with a tiny rhinestone glued to the bend in the metal.

“I put my pin away in a drawer,” Anna explained, her bangs mingling with her eyelashes. “Old habit. Didn’t think it was a problem.”


“Closed the drawer.” She mimed the action. “Opened the drawer an hour later, my pin was gone.” Her hands went poof, to signal the words disappeared and into thin air.

We walked down my driveway and up hers, then back again, pretending the street was a moat and the driveways were drawbridges and the houses were castles and we were queens. We bowed to each other, then curtsied and continued our promenade.

“What do your laminated instructions say?” I asked.

“Nothing about this.”

“Maybe give it a day or so,” I suggested. “Maybe your pin will boomerang back.” I did an exaggerated move that involved boomeranging myself away from and back to Anna’s side.

She laughed like royalty, or maybe she simpered. “OK,” she said. “OK, you’re right.”

The next day, I saw Anna sitting on the tree stump in her front yard. Her face was a sickly shade of gray.

“I did something bad,” she said.

I put an arm around her shoulders.

“I couldn’t find my pin, so I took something.”

“What did you take?”

“I took something precious,” she said, revealing a small set of inky pens identical to my mother’s. My eyes widened.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. I said it louder than I intended.

“From the kitchen drawer,” Anna said, pulling them away from me. “I thought we could use them to doodle in our planners.”

Why were my mother’s pens in one of Anna’s drawers? I ran back to my house to close the doors again. First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. The bathroom door and the door to the basement and the front door of the lovely little house. I searched everywhere for a set of pens of my own, for more of my mother’s things. Her stockings folded  in a dresser, or her car parked on the street behind my house. I watched Anna’s windows through my windows—a figure waltzed upstairs, then back down through the living room. Of course, the figure wasn’t my mother, only Anna. Of course, pens can belong to anyone. Of course, there were many pens in the world, I thought, sitting on the floor with my legs crossed. But I was tempted to give my mother a call. Tempted to go home, which of course, for a temp, is not an option.

Later I found Anna at the end of my driveway, her pens arranged neatly on the concrete.

“Can I draw with them?” I asked.

It looked as if all the color had drained from her face, her shirt, her pants, and into the inky pens. She had a translucent quality.

“Here,” she said faintly, and her hand barely registered as skin against my fingers. I tried the pens, but they were dry.

“They’re dead,” I said. Anna grabbed the red pen in a sudden burst of energy and pressed it to the paper so the felt pushed flat. She pulsed it several times, applying force and releasing, like squeezing a heart for a beat, until a small dribble of ink bubbled forth. The droplet sat atop the page in my planner, wet and wide, not sinking in or spreading out as ink is meant to do. When Anna couldn’t produce another drop, she pulsed the pen once more, then, with a slow shake of shoulders, she began to cry. I squeezed her shoulder once, twice, three times. I didn’t know what to do. After crying for just under sixty minutes, she lifted herself up and away, and floated inside her house to open the drawers.  The skies opened, and the rain fell.

First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. The bathroom door and the door to the basement and the front door of the lovely little house.

Anna took more things. She amassed a small pile of stuff. Hairbrushes, photographs, jigsaw puzzle pieces. Lone buttons. Lone items on loan from every single drawer.

“I’m worried,” I said. “Should we consult your laminated instructions?”

But Anna didn’t respond. She stacked her things in a small suitcase outside, which she had stolen from a deep drawer under the bed. She hid the suitcase under the hydrangea bushes.

“If I take enough from the house, maybe the house will give me back my pin.”

The house didn’t give back her pin. Anna was sitting in her driveway with me, writing with chalk, and she stood to go inside, to open the drawers on schedule. The house was locked. The back door was locked too. We didn’t have keys, and we weren’t the ones who locked the doors. Anna ran around the house in a frantic circle. She ran so fast it looked like she was flying.

In a moment of desperation, on behalf of my only friend, I removed my shoe and threw it against a low window. It bounced back, barely leaving a mark. I picked up a rock and tried the harder, jagged solution. The rock bounced back like rubber without a sound. Anna saw my attempts, and before I could grab her, she threw her fist through the window.

“No!” I yelled. But her fist didn’t go through. We both knew she had hit it hard enough to break her skin, to break glass. She tried it again and again, and then she used her head. But nothing broke, and nothing shattered, especially not the window.

Anna’s jaw hung open. Mine did too. We looked at each other for a moment in silence. Then she adjusted her shirt and dusted off her pants. “I think I’ve been released from my employment,” she said.

“You can stay with me.”

She could not stay with me. She tried to enter through the front door of my lovely little house, but her feet stuck to the welcome mat. Whether she couldn’t or wouldn’t cross, I was never completely sure.

Anna slept in her driveway, no longer concerned with the schedule of drawers. I brought her a slice of bread every morning, and she lined up the slices by the bushes, for the birds. She let her hair go wild and tangled and left her leather planner unattended. I searched my house for contact information, for a phone number or an emergency procedure, but there wasn’t a thing available to me.

I once spied the delivery truck parked in Anna’s driveway. Then I spied it again, and more times after that. I would wait and watch until the driver emerged from behind the hydrangea bushes. Then, in close pursuit, Anna would stumble through the bushes behind him. Oh Anna, I thought. But the driver is so very old! Then again, watching him, I changed my mind. No, he wasn’t very old at all, not much older than us. He might have even been younger, by a minute. And how handsome he was, how his shirt stretched against his chest.

“Anna, here,” I said, and I gave her my collection of found coins.

“For what?” she asked.

“For something, or for anything.”

“Thanks, really.” She smiled and tucked her shoeless feet into the long grass of the lawn.

Early on a Monday morning, Anna took her suitcase and boarded the back of the delivery truck. I watched from the window, too stuck in the midst of opening doors to come downstairs and say good-bye. I pressed my sweaty hand against the glass, and it didn’t leave a mark.

First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. The bathroom door and the door to the basement and the front door of the lovely little house.

Without Anna, I was sloppy. I almost missed the schedule by a minute one afternoon, busying myself with daydreams. I felt immaterial and light. I tried to make eggs sunny-side up and broke the yolks in the pan, then scrambled them instead until they formed a thin, papery layer underneath. Sitting with the plate of uneaten eggs, I realized I hadn’t been hungry in a very, very long time. The refrigerator, to my horror, was full of bread and eggs and cheese, untouched. I fell asleep at the counter and woke the next day having missed three separate door openings and closings. The smell of old egg filled the kitchen.

What should I do? I panicked. What should I do? What would Anna do? I tried to work backward and consulted my shiny watch. I figured out the doors, at that juncture, should have been closed. I went around as quickly as I could to close them. First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. Everything was going to be fine. The bathroom door and the door to the basement, but the door to the basement was somehow already shut.

I had never been in the house this way, with one of the doors arranged in a different state than the others. Something felt thick and horrible. I had failed. The room conspired and shifted against me, and my cheeks itched, and I could barely stand straight. I reached forward with a long, queasy arm and opened the basement door a crack to correct the inconsistency, then closed it once again. Success.

And there, in the corner of my eye, a shadow darted out of view. With the doors adjusted, I regained some composure. I could walk again. But the house wasn’t lovely anymore, or little. I felt it expand, though I had no proof. I felt the corners darken and deepen, like a drawing smudged with charcoal. My error had upset the house, and the house now upset me. With every opening and closing of the doors, I could see the edges of something leaving just as I arrived, the door a proscenium framing a departure, me witnessing the halo of an image exiting the room. First the small blue door. Then the master bedroom, the second bedroom, and the third. The bathroom door and the door to the basement and the front door of the large, haunted house.

I concocted a bowl of oatmeal and left it nestled in my lap, steaming hot, unconsumed. I sat on the floor outside the bathroom door and waited to see who or what was inside. I closed the door on cue, and at the moment it shut, I glimpsed a towel swinging back and forth. My nose filled with the fresh, damp smell of shampooed hair. Then later, to the master bedroom, where upon turning the knob and slowly pulling forward, two entangled figures scattered in opposite directions.

I leaned against the doors to the second bedroom and then the third, hoping to hear a creak or a scratch, a murmur of conversation, a clue. When it was time to pull the doors ajar, the bedrooms smelled messy and busy. A mug of tea and sour milk. A pile of books filled with book smells. The scent of a leather glove, the edge of an arm pumping the air in a cheer, or some other quick, half second of choreography. A single riff of music abandoned and lingering and stale.

Finally the small blue door at the other end of the house, opening only a smidge, revealing the leftover glow of a wet nose and shiny fur, floppy ears and marbled eyes. I ran to open the front door of the house and saw the flash of a completely different street, with cars, with fences, with a different house, not Anna’s house, just across the way. Then the flash subsided, and the street as I knew it returned.

I sat on the curb for what felt like hours, but it could only have been forty minutes. It took a few tries to get there, but once I arrived at the thought, it was inescapable, as inescapable as the coins that had cluttered the carpeting. Who dropped those coins for me and Anna to find, and later, who forgot to collect them?

The house was a house for a family, and I was filling in for a ghost.

Years later, I tried to describe the way I came to know my placement had ended. I was sitting on the sofa with my frugal boyfriend, and he had made me a microwaved brownie in a mug. I described the day in question, and he listened, eyes wide. But I knew my words were falling short. I couldn’t explain, for instance, how I had one foot in the door, and how one foot wasn’t enough. I couldn’t admit to having watched the family’s edges for so long that I was able to construct a collage of their true nature in my mind. I couldn’t, at the time, describe the slice of light that glowed between door and floor, how the promise of this light was actually a slim, dull weapon. I couldn’t admit my deepest hope: for the family to finally reveal themselves in full, and for me to join them. But the family wasn’t my family. At best, they were my neighbors. Every mother has a set of inky pens hidden in a pocket or a drawer for her daughter. Just because something is familiar does not mean it is mine.

The feeling of ending was the feeling of a new season. My complexion changed, and birthmarks that had gone into permanent hibernation once again rose to the surface. I was suddenly famished. The house unfolded around me like a paper swan laid flat, and the spring air came rushing across my shoulders, and I knew the job was complete. I know this isn’t how houses work, but this  is how it felt, and it’s the only way the memory exists for me now. I packed my leather planner, soon to overflow with meetings, interviews, endless interviews. I collected the envelope of payment from the mailbox at the end of the driveway, closed the front door one final time, and went off to claim my palimpsest career.

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