Big news: we already found your your summer 2022 reading pick. Lara Williams, the author behind Supper Club and A Selfie as Big as the Ritz, is releasing a riveting new story on April 26, 2022 called The Odyssey, from new independent publisher Zando. The book follows a young woman named Ingrid, who works onboard a high-end cruise liner. Luxe as it sounds, most of Ingrid’s positions have been…humbling. While her weekends are full of local exploration and random hookups, her workdays are mostly spent manning the cash register on the boat’s gift shop.
So when the liner’s spirited captain plucks her out of the crowd to join an intense employee mentoring program, she’s ready to dive in. Too bad it’s way more difficult than meets the eye! Keep reading for an exclusive selection from Lara’s upcoming novel, and check out the never-before-seen cover (designed by Evan Gaffney and illustrated by Alicia Tatone) above.
I got the memo while on rotation in the gift shop. I liked working at the gift shop and I particularly liked working the cash register. It was positioned in the middle of the shop, a single column of heavy wood. It felt like I was sailing the ship. I’d rest my elbows against it while surveying the space, breathing stale, recycled air. I’d watch customers move lethargically between the aisles and pretend I was in charge of them all, issuing instructions in my head. Sometimes they would obey my instructions and I would get a very warm feeling, the kind of feeling I used to get from watching a video of a dog on the internet. It would sustain me for a little while.
From the register I could see almost everything in the store. To my right were the artisanal and novelty chocolates. Flavors like wasabi and goat curd, Gouda and sun-dried tomatoes. Beside them were the edible insects, exoskeletons dipped in dark chocolate or salted caramel. To my left were the animal-skin rugs and blankets, all different kinds, all perfectly intact. The skin slipped from the body the way athletic girls can peel an apple in a single, flawless spiral. At the front of the shop were racks of allegedly designer clothes, with brand names I had never heard of, though they all sounded European enough to be convincing.
Further afield were perfumes and cosmetics, vodka in skull-shaped glass bottles and clocks made from old records, earrings cut out from bits of Lego and pens capped with real gold, watches that would work five hundred feet beneath the ocean’s surface. There were cheaper things as well. Plastic key rings and T-shirts with the WA logo and coffee cups that said I Love You, Mum. There was an operatic quality to it. A domed roof and heavy velvet curtains. A white marble-effect floor threaded with veins of gold and gray. The air smelled oily and perfumed. The day before, an American couple came in and the woman looked around the shop and said, Honey, isn’t this great, we can buy all our presents without ever having to leave the boat. It was one of many identical gift shops on board.
I’d begun my morning by mopping the floors, which was also my last job of the day. If I worked the late shift followed by the early shift, I would get this unpleasant feeling of hovering in and out of myself, like my body and brain couldn’t agree on where I was standing in the order of time. I’d often have to retrace my steps, waking up and then falling asleep and then going to bed and then taking off my makeup. Sometimes I’d have to go further back, remembering when I started working on the ship, when I left my old apartment, when I got married, when I passed my entrance exams, when I broke my arm roller-skating. Recently I’d developed this compulsion where I would try to figure out what I was doing exactly a year earlier, but it was hard work after several years on the WA. I had done the same things so many times. Mia would call this my auto chronological endo pathology. She could be pretty smart when she wasn’t pretending to be a baby.
After I mopped the floor I wiped down the surfaces and sprayed the room with very expensive air freshener. I removed the fresh flowers from the fresh-flower fridge and arranged them around the shop. I was the only staff member on rotation trained in arranging the fresh flowers. This is something my coworker, Zach, hated me for. He told me I was not a visual person. He told me that at least twice a day. Often, after I had finished arranging the flowers, he’d go over to them and act as though he was plucking invisible pieces of fluff from them, but he would never actually touch them, because he knew he was not allowed to. I watched him do this from the register, rolling my eyes and hoping he’d notice.
Midmorning, I watched a customer pick up a rhinestone-studded T-shirt spelling chic, holding it against her body and watching herself in the mirror. Buy it! I thought. Buy it! Buy it! But she did not, returning it to its slim glass shelf, folded inexpertly but not inexpertly enough that I felt compelled to fix it. I felt my serotonin levels deplete.
By late afternoon the daily newsletter had been delivered. It was filled, as usual, with all the stupid stuff happening on board. A hypnotist in the cocktail lounge. Polynesian night and poke. A talk with a marine biologist in which she was contractually obliged not to answer questions about the sea levels or the dying mollusks or the coral outcrops or the whales.
It also contained what was tenuously labelled news about the passengers. A ruby wedding anniversary plus a photograph of the couple holding champagne flutes. So-and-so dying. I imagined Mia walking around the ship and searching for stories. She was on rotation at the news desk. She hated it. She said the only story people had was that they were rich and unhappy.
After we’d finished reading the newsletter we got ready for what we were supposed to refer to as Twilight, the early-evening hours in which we played yé-yé and served French martinis. Customers would pop by to do some shopping before their evening meal. Many of the female passengers bought gowns or catsuits or new blouses to wear straight out of the store and into dinner. I was often put on changing-room duty because I was good at wrangling zips and making small talk with husbands. I had a good idea of what husbands wanted generally, and I was happy enough to give it to them. But before I could take up my usual position, a courier appeared in the shop entrance, walking toward me holding the envelope out in front of him. It was a plain brown envelope, very humble.
Ingrid, he said. Are you Ingrid?
I am, I replied.
Congratulations, he told me. You have a memo from Keith.
He handed me the envelope. I held it to my nose and inhaled. It smelled like butter and malt. It smelled like a cake missing a crucial ingredient. My heart moved quickly in my chest. Zach appeared by my side.
Open it, he said.
I stared at him. Come on, he said. We’ve not got all day.
I slid my finger beneath the fold and ripped. My hands were shaking slightly. I held the letter in front of my face, noticed theWA letterhead, the looping italics of Keith’s signature. I ran my thumb over it to confirm it was real and not a scan. I read the text in erratic chunks, like eating a meal the wrong way around. But I already knew what it meant. I knew as soon as I saw the brown envelope.
I’ve been chosen, I said.
I passed the memo to Zach and pretended to be surprised, like I wanted him to confirm it was true. But really I wanted him to see for himself, to rub it in his face. Zach twisted the head of the Anglepoise lamp, spotlighting the paper. I watched his eyes move across it in mechanical lines. He handed it back to me with a taut look of regret.
You’ve got to be kidding me, he said. I’m in, I said. Aren’t I?
You’re in, he said. Fuck sake.
He tugged the letter back.
What do I do now? I asked. Clearly, you say yes.
Okay. Right. Who do I say yes to? To Keith. At the ceremony.
Zach was regarding me with a nervous urgency. It was exhausting to witness.
When is the ceremony? I asked.
How can you not know this? Why did you even apply? His face stiffened. Tomorrow, he said. Most likely.
I looked up at the passengers moving around the shop. The women’s gowns grazed the floor, collecting dust. The men wore monochrome, big square shoulders. They were ready to begin their evening. I put the letter in my pocket and told Zach I was leaving. I don’t know why. He was not senior to me and I didn’t owe him anything.
I’ve finished my shift, I said.
You’ve finished more than your shift, he replied. What’s that supposed to mean?
Zach brushed the keys of the register, pretended to be very engaged in the task.
I think you know exactly what I mean, he mumbled, not looking up.
Walking away, I wondered what it was about Zach that I found so offensive. Whether it was how overly tactile he was with the till and its contents. Sometimes I’d catch him running his fingertips over the surface of the fake cruise money some of the customers preferred to shop with. He once told me the money had been designed by Keith himself, and that there were all sorts of hidden meanings in the artwork. The tiger, for example, symbolized power. I glanced back and saw he was watching me leave, his pale eyes freakish and crazed. I quickened my pace toward the exit, feeling like a balloon floating in the sky or an animal wriggled out of its chain, something untethered and set free.
Excerpted from The Odyssey by Lara Williams. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Zando Projects. Copyright © 2022 by Lara Williams. All rights reserved.
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