Christopher Noxon’s first novel, Plus One, centers on a Hollywood marketing executive whose TV writer wife’s 15th attempt at a pilot is a runaway success. The book was just released in paperback.
In this excerpt, Alex Sherman-Zicklin (“We went the hyphenation route,” he explains) is nearing the end of an awful day when he is called to the school of his two kids, Sam (11) and Sylvie (7) to deliver an “emergency bag.”
He arrived at the Pines just before dismissal and collected the bag from the trunk. On the quad, a group of kids was clustered around a guy in a tank top finger-picking an acoustic guitar and a girl in short-shorts who looked to be about twenty-six but couldn’t have been more than sixteen. She was scooping tiny colored pellets from an icebox painted with a sign that said “Dipping Dots for Darfur!”
He made his way to the administration office and plopped the bags on the counter. “Hi—I’m Sam and Sylvie’s dad? I guess I’m a little delinquent with this—but can I turn it in now?”
A dark-skinned woman with a nose ring popped up from her desk. “Oh hi. I spoke to your wife. All here? Change of clothes, pictures, medications?”
He gave the bags a wan tap. “Yup—good to go.”
“You’re all set for the comfort recording?”
The receptionist flashed a tight smile. “The comfort recording. Part of our innovation initiative—you’ve been getting emails about it? Very exciting. Instead of traditional emergency letters, we’re doing digital audio recordings. The studies show stress levels are dramatically reduced by the actual voice of loved ones in times of crisis.”
Alex shook his head, a barrage of half-read e-mails now coming back to him. “I guess I’m a little unclear about the whole ‘times of crisis’ thing. What ‘times of crisis’ are we talking about here?”
“Earthquakes, obviously,” she said. “But also flooding, gas leaks, shootings, police lockdowns, wildfires, urban uprisings—we need to be prepared for all contingencies, don’t we? It’s L.A., after all! ”
She pulled open a drawer under the counter and pulled out a handheld recorder, nodding sagely. She stayed put, intent on ensuring that he properly completed the assigned task. He cleared his throat and looked around the room at the three or four other people working at their desks. No one paid him the slightest attention.
He clicked the red button and held the recorder to his mouth. “Hi Sylvie honey! And Sam—hey kiddo! Dad here. This is pretty weird, right? I guess something bad has happened? That’s why you’re hearing this? But it’s going to be okay, okay? You’re safe here at school with the teachers and the nice nose-ring lady and the kid who plays guitar on the quad? Sam, he’s your buddy, right? Go get your sister and hang with him and I promise I’ll be there as soon as I can, okay?”
He looked over at the receptionist and hunched his shoulders. She smiled and motioned for him to go on. He paused, not sure what else to say. He closed his eyes. At once, an image formed. Sam and Sylvie were crouched in a darkened classroom, faces smudged, strands of insulation hanging from the ceiling, electrical wires whipping overhead, flashlight beams cutting through the murk. And then he saw himself in his own kitchen at home, pinned against the floor in a pile of rubble, his voice calling out for help.
“But I may not be able to get to you,” he was saying now, voice trailing out from the wreckage. “It’s a time of crisis, right? I may be—I don’t know, stuck under the fridge.”
He kept going, voice trembling, the events of the day making the prospect of calamity entirely plausible. “The point is, shit happens. It just does. So if this really is the last time I get to say anything to you… God.”
Alex coughed and looked up above the receptionist’s desk at a square of sky through a high window. “Sam, honey. Are you gay? You’re gay, right? You poor sweetie, that’s gonna be hard. I always knew. You’re so mad at me. Why are you so mad at me? I’m not mad at you—really I’m not. What other eleven-year-old has his own line of cosmetics? Do you know how incredible that is? You know you made more money than I did last year?”
The receptionist leaned forward with a look of concern. “Sir—maybe we should stop here and get some tea? Would you like some tea?”
He put up a finger and closed his eyes again. “Sylvie, honey. Oh God, Sylvie. You’re such a princess. I’ve spoiled you rotten, I know. You’re kind of a brat, aren’t you? At least with Mom. That’s my fault. The truth is that some sick part of me loves it when you ignore her and act rude to her—because when you do, I’m the favorite. You may not know it now, but that’s some unhealthy vain shit right there.”
“Sir, please,” the receptionist said.
Alex took a single step back. He paused for a breath. “The point is, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for not being a better dad—I’ve been so crazy, about Mom’s show and the move and the rest of it. I’ve been checked out. But the truth is you guys are both so strong and funny and smart. I wish I could claim more credit, but everything that’s good about you is yours alone—you came in fully loaded, and you’ll have what’s good about you long after I’m gone. So don’t worry. You’ve got each other and you’ve got your mom—and she’s the most loyal, ferocious lioness in the jungle. She’ll keep you safe. She’s a lot like you, Sylvie. And Sam, you too. What I’m trying to say, kids, is that being your dad is the best thing I’ve ever been even involved in. And you should know that I’m thinking about you even if my body has been cut in two by an industrial-grade refrigerator.”
Alex clicked the stop button and put the recorder on the counter. The receptionist was silent, her eyes narrowed and expression blank. Behind her, the principal and a few others had come out of their offices and were standing around watching the show.
“All set then,” he said, turning to the door. “See you at the gala.”
Christopher Noxon is an accomplished journalist who has written for the New Yorker, Details, Los Angeles Magazine, Salon and the New York Times Magazine. His first book, Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up (Crown), earned him interviews on the Colbert Report and Good Morning America and generated features in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Talk of the Nation. His debut novel, Plus One (Prospect Park Books), is a comedic take on breadwinning women and caretaking men in contemporary L.A. Noxon happens to be married to acclaimed TV writer/producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds, OINTNB) and does the school chauffeuring for their three children, so he knows whereof he speaks regarding Plus Ones. He lives in Los Angeles.