SOMERVILLE, Mass. Maggie Turbek once had hopes of making a living as a writer, fueled by a $700 check from The Atlantic Monthly for her first short story, “Goodbye Mrs. Pizzoni,” a taut re-telling, roman a clef style, of being thrown out of her first apartment when her landlady discovered she and her boyfriend weren’t married. “In retrospect it probably would have been better if they’d turned it down,” she says today without a trace of self-pity. “If they hadn’t got my hopes up I probably would have gone to law school and have a house and a place on the Cape today.”
Turbek’s clear-eyed view of the scribbler’s life is now available for hire, and she has become the “go-to” coach for young writers who find themselves too distracted by the roller-coaster ride of American politics to buckle down and finish what they started back when they were working towards worthless Master of Fine Arts in Literature degrees from top programs. “I don’t know what I’d do without Maggie,” says Ginger Everwarst, who is trying to complete a soul-baring chapbook of poems that traces her life from precocious summer camp writing prodigy to distrait and anxious artiste, constantly on edge from the prospect that Donald Trump will be re-elected. “She keeps me focused on what’s most important in this world, which is peering into the dark chasm of my soul.”
Turbek, along with her young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent summa cum laude graduate of Tufts University with a B.A. in English, uses an internet-sweeping algorithm to scour social media sites and writers’ discussion boards in an attempt to keep her clients from wasting their time in pointless political arguments. “It’s sad, really,” she says, shaking her head as she scans a computer print-out of one of her charges’ on-line activity. “You might as well re-arrange grains of sand on the beach for all the good your hyperventilating about politics does.”
“Maggie, can you come here for a second?” Twellman asks Turbek softly, nodding her head side-wise at her computer screen.
“Who is it?” Turbek asks as she puts on a pair of reading glasses she bought at Walgreens for $12.79 earlier in the day.
“Everwarst,” Twellman says as she turns her monitor so Turbek can see more easily.
“Jesus Mary and Joseph,” Turbek mutters when she sees the political poem that the young woman has posted on Writer’s Cafe, a website that rewards budding litterateurswith points they can redeem for espresso drinks at selected independent coffee shops. “This is so bad I should call the Federal Election Commission,” Turbek says then begins to read aloud:
I feel the long dark night of fascism falling upon the land, the poem begins.
Tinglings of frustration like acupuncture needles in both my hands.
If Trump is re-elected, with God as my witness I swear,
I’m packing up my Toyota hybrid and moving out of here.
Turbek uses the direct “instant messaging” feature of her service to interrupt the young woman. “Ginger–sweetie, listen: Nobody gives a rat’s ass what you or any of the other two million unemployed MFAs think about politics. And your poem stinks. ‘Fascist’ is just another word for somebody you disagree with. Be like the sidewalk outside your crappy apartment–specific and concrete!”
There is no response at first, then Everwarst meekly taps out “Sorry–I’ll get back to work now.” “Attagirl,” Turbek replies. “Writers WRITE. If you want to talk politics go into radio.” She leans back in her chair and takes a sip from a Mount Holyoke coffee cup she received for a $250 donation, “the largest I’ve ever given,” she says, but her brief moment of relaxation is interrupted by the constant demands of her business.
“Excuse me, Maggie, here’s something you should see,” Twellman says as she cuts and pastes a link to a “spoof” written by a young man Turbek has taken on, then sends it across the room where the older woman squints as she tries to read it on her outdated phone.
“Is this supposed to be funny?” Turbek asks Twellman after reading a bit, thinking she may have missed some nuance that the younger woman caught.
“I guess so.”
Turbek’s left eyebrow crawls up her forehead as a skeptical reaction overtakes her. “Woodrow Wilson gets a private carrier pigeon . . . so he won’t have to turn over his ‘p-mails’ to the government. And when he’s caught he says all the messages were about–yoga classes?”
“That’s the gist of it,” Twellman says, trying to maintain the dispassionate approach that Turbek promises her customers.
“Good grief,” Turbek says as she closes out of the post and scrolls through her contacts to find the cell phone number of Tony Vlasick, who should be working on a science fiction novel but is instead fooling around on his blog in support of a Hillary Clinton comeback. She purses her lips together and begins to tap on her phone’s keyboard with the same force she used on her first manual typewriter forty years before. “Tony–remember what Oscar Wilde said. ‘I don’t care if the Cavaliers or the Roundheads win, I just want them to keep fighting.’ You’ll never finish ‘The Red Clouds of the Planet Eenore’ if you don’t ignore politics and buckle down.”
A little row of bubbles appears on Turbek’s phone, indicating that her student is preparing a response. “Sorry Maggie. I promise not to give a shit about the fate of our nation ever again.”
Turbek is taken aback at the young man’s sarcasm. “If this was a brick-and-mortar school, I’d send him to the principal’s office to be paddled by the vice principal,” she says, and this reporter notices that a bit of color has flowed into her face. “This calls for a more emphatic response,” she says, and instead of texting back Turbek switches to vocal mode and calls the young man, putting him on a speaker phone.
“Hi, Maggie,” he begins a bit sheepishly, but she cuts him off.
“Listen, you dingbat. I lived through Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, LBJ and Nixon, okay?”
“I’m sorry, Maggie, I . . .”
“No, you listen up and listen good. ‘The dogs bark, the caravan moves on,’ understand? What you think about politics doesn’t matter to anyone but you. If you want the congratulations of all your MFA girlfriends, keep it up. If you want to be a writer, get your ass in your chair and start writing.”
There is silence, and then finally a meekly-voiced question. “Do you think I should name the princess of the Plutarians Ee-ka-Nora, or Ee-ka-Phyllis?”