by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Herkemer Swift founded and built the company it is my privilege to shepherd today. One day, Father was entertaining a client at home, and I called the gentleman by his first name. The client laughed, and I thought I was the most sophisticated little girl in town. Later, my father took me aside and said I was not ever to call a man by his first name without that man’s permission. He said it was his fault for not teaching me, so I wouldn’t be punished. Daddy, however, declined Mama’s peach cobbler the following evening, calling it an act of penance. I have never forgotten that lesson, and I never presume familiarity with gentlemen.”
Mesmerized by Carly Swift’s voice, Brian startled himself by asking, “What about ladies?”
“I presume whatever the hell I want with them.” She smiled, and Brian laughed while Gilton looked from one to the other, mouth open.
“Please call me Brian, Ms. Swift.” Brian said.
“And I’m Carly. I sense, Brian, that you and I came out of the same old school of courtesy.”
Brian grinned. “There may be something to that.” She smells like wildflowers, he thought.
“Huh?” Gilton said. “You mean you two went to the same school?”
“I mean,” Carly Swift said, “that Brian will remain standing until you offer him that seat. And I’m sure you’re not a man who likes having his subordinates stand while he sits.” The smile with which she dazzled Gilton made taking offense impossible.
“Of course not. Brian doesn’t need... Sit down, Hibble.”
Brian did so.Fun’s fun, Carly, he thought, but don’t lose me my job. Which brought him back to the likely reason he’d been called in, and his stomach lurched again. Here is where I lose the account, he thought. May as well jump as be pushed.
“Changes not up to snuff?” he asked her.
Gilton answered. “Not entirely. And, as we discussed, the next time the account came back we were going to see if somebody else would be more comfortable with Carly’s requirements.”
Carly Swift sat up. “What? You’re dropping my account?”
“No, no,” Gilton said. “We’ve elected to give it to another exec here at the firm. That’s why I called you in here, ah, Brian.”
Brian stiffened in his chair. You son of a bitch, he thought, you’d already decided. Before my wife made my life hell for working through another weekend. He forced his breathing into a normal rhythm. Ice ran down his back and his hands tingled.
Gilton continued, “We’ve assigned the work to a young man named Kerby who’s very, ah, promising—”
Carly Swift said, with the hint of a whip in her voice, “This is the first I’ve heard of any proposed personnel change. Be so good as to explain.”
“Well, it’s just that this will be the third time you’ve sent back the work Brian’s done, so, ah, you see, we thought there might be the need for fresh eyes. As it were.”
Carly Swift looked at Brian. “Is this true? Do you not want to work on my account?”
“No, I want to very much. But the decision is not mine.” Brian shifted and crossed his legs so that he mirrored Carly Swift. Brian knew that this mirroring was a subtle compliment, and women in his experience responded favorably to it. His apparent unease around women when in Mildred’s presence was a performance that Mildred’s jealousy made politic. “The truth is, I’m at something of a loss.”
“How so?” Carly Swift tilted her head to one side.
“What Brian means is—”
“Please, John,” Brian said, before Carly could crack that whip, “let me.” What the hell, he thought as Gilton gaped, my career has begun its downward slide.
“Carly, you came to us with a certain set of requirements. I was given the account, and I met those requirements to the letter. It may be vanity, but I like to think I brought a little something extra here and there, always within the boundaries you established.
“And you gave the work back, with changes. That is your right; you are the client. But I met the new requirements also. And you made a new set of changes, and, for the third time, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled the project. This time, however, I was told that, if the work was handed back again, the project would be taken away from me, despite my having consistently met your specifications.”
Carly Swift said, “So you’re not fed up with my account, Brian?”
“Not at all. I welcome the challenge.”
She looked at Gilton. “You have not asked why I keep coming up with changes.”
Gilton shook his head.
Still addressing Gilton, Carly Swift tilted her head at Brian. “The changes that bedevil you so are inspired by Brian’s work. What Brian calls his little extras are so good they give me ideas for improvements.”
“Well, yes, Brian’s one of our best.”
“I have no doubt of it. So you see, John, that it isn’t dissatisfaction that sends the project back again and again; it is the creative excitement Brian’s work engenders.”
Like she’s explaining to a child why you can’t eat tomato soup with a fork, thought Brian.
“Now, do I understand that you were going to hand my account to somebody else without consulting me?”
“Oh, no, not at all. It was just preliminary—”
“I didn’t really think so.” Again the million-candlepower smile. “Because such a lapse in professional courtesy would bring our relationship to an abrupt end.”
“Ah. Ah. No need—” Gilton’s hands spun like red pinwheels.
“And I hope it’s clear that I mean my account to stay in Mr. Hibble’s hands through all the changes.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, of course.”
It was Brian’s turn to look on, stunned. Carly Swift, he thought, my savior. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air that felt like electric flowers. It’s almost as if... — Brian caught himself, then completed the thought — It’s almost as if she has restored a tiny part of my soul.
What, he wondered, is the opposite of a devourer of souls?
* * *
Mildred sighed and looked up from her magazine. The slight flush of her cheeks indicated that the glass of red wine on the end table was not her first. The sickly sweet scent of her potpourri hung thick in the air. She used her index finger to mark her place in the article she was perusing. Was it the one on toe-curling orgasms? he thought, glancing at the cover. Or the thirty ways to liven up chicken? Perhaps the one titled “Your Moods Aren’t Your Fault. Make Him More Sensitive to Them” had excited her interest.
“About your sewing room, here—”
“I was thinking we might share it.”
“Share it how?”
“I thought we might alternate. One day it’ll be your sewing room, the next it’ll be my workroom, and so on.”
“How would you do that? You know all my things are in here.”
“So I observe, piled on top of the sewing machine I gave you that Christmas. Did you ever learn to use it?”
“You know I never have time.”
“Ah. Quite so. It strikes me, dear, that you don’t really get much use out of this room, whereas I might.”
“You have an office at work. Unless Gilton is letting a homeless person sleep there during work hours.”
“My office is still mine. Sometimes, however, I prefer to handle certain aspects of my assignments outside office hours.”
“Yes, and then you make a mess of my kitchen table so we have to eat off TV trays like savages.”
“All the more reason—”
“This is about having a den like your father, isn’t it?”
“It is true that my father had a den—”
“While your mother had no room of her own.”
“My mother had a house. Their bargain was that the house, including the master bedroom, was hers to do with as she pleased, with the exception of my father’s den. They found it an equitable trade.”
“So you want to take over my coping retreat so you can emulate your father. Honestly, Brian. Wasn’t he a full partner by the time he was your age?”
“My father was in law, not advertising, and he co-founded his firm. There are no partners in Gilton’s company.” The energy left him. He drooped, then forced himself to stand straight. “I can see I’ve chosen a bad time. But think it over, would you, Mildred?”
She returned to her magazine with a snap of glossy pages. As he closed the door, he could hear her muttering. “Why I should have to give up the little... All I do around here... Too much to ask...”
* * *
“Brian, you’ll be the end of me.”
“How’s that, Carly?” They had stayed late in Brian’s cramped and poorly-ventilated office.
“I should have turned you loose at the start. How embarrassing to have imagined I was in a position to give you instructions on preparing a layout.”
“Nonsense, Carly. I had to know what you needed.”
“Two sentences would have sufficed. Beyond that you should have patted me on the head and told me to run and play, or distracted me with a shiny bit of ribbon.” Up close, a mischievous dimple was visible at the corner of her mouth.
“Anyway, I think you gave your specifications to my boss, who passed them on to me.”
“Ah yes, your boss. Tell me how John Gilton got to be head of this agency rather than a shift supervisor at Orange Julius.”
“I worked for Orange Julius as a kid. They wouldn’t have him.”
“Ah... his father owns the company.”
Carly Swift grinned. “Just as my father owned mine.” She had dressed to work late, in black jeans and a lilac sweatshirt. She had kicked off her ankle boots and was padding around Brian’s office in socks. In the tight space, her scent of wildflowers defeated the fug of his stuffy office. Now that he had grown used to it, a toss of her hair would freshen the air anew.
“Well, yes. Or perhaps not ‘just as.’ Your father clearly took pains to teach you some things.”
“Only some things?” Her blue eyes twinkled impishly.
Not icy now, Brian thought. “Well, I don’t know what all you’ve learned, Carly. But it’s obvious even to my blunted sensibilities that you know the important things.”
“Not hardly. You, for instance, remain a mystery, Mr. Hibble.” She curled into Brian’s client chair, which was small so as not to dominate the space in Brian’s tiny office. It had replaced the metal folding chair Gilton had insisted Brian use despite Brian’s assertion that it was hardly respectful. “Just tell ‘em the good one’s out for reupholstering,” Gilton had said.
Brian had instead taken clients out to a local restaurant named Chino’s Juan and Garden. Chino, really one Lyle Murchison, had gone from insolvent to prosperous thanks to Brian’s advertising and refused to take money from him. Brian tipped the waitstaff handsomely instead.
The chair Brian had chosen for Carly was, in fact, child-sized. Brian had run the campaign for the company that made them. Office chairs for the children of the rich to sit in while they did their homework, pulled up to professional desks that were ludicrous in miniature. The chairs had brass studs sunk deep into fat mounds of pastel-dyed upholstery. Cartoonishly pretentious, the line had sunk like a rock tossed into a medium where rocks sink fast.
The young, hipster owners had been at the point of asking their parents how to file for bankruptcy when Gilton had flung the account onto Brian’s desk. Brian had treated the plaid-shirted twenty-somethings to some expensive, fair-trade certified, organic coffee infused with chai and talked them into letting him target the line at small white-collar women. “The petite professional. You’ve made it, now look it. Your first step? A chair you’re not swimming in.”
In smaller text below: “Not running the company yet? Then fake it till you make it, sister. Show those testosterone balloons the little titan who’ll be signing their checks, if you keep them on the payroll, that is. As the suits say, it’s all about the bottom line (wink).”
The whisper-thin lads had uncrossed their denim-clad legs, leaned forward and placed forearms covered in still-dark Viking rune tattoos on the table. They had stroked their lumberjack beards, incongruous against their tender white necks. One had taken off and polished his round working-class hero glasses. The other had flicked a speck from the shiny steel toe of a Chippewa-insulated work boot. Apparently this had been some arcane communication, because the hip, young entrepreneurs had then nodded crisply, once, in unison. Under Brian’s command, the line had sold and spawned imitators.
“Eh?” Brian said. “A mystery? How do you figure?”
“You seem to reverse the usual order of things,” Carly said. “You have more energy at the end of the day than at the beginning.”
“Really? I hadn’t realized.”
“It’s as if the act of working charges your battery rather than drains it. As if...” — she cocked her head to one side in that way she had — “as if something else drains you, and being here fills you up again, Brian. Whose name means ‘strong’.”
Brian shifted. This was, suddenly, uncomfortably close. Carly had tucked one foot under her and, turned toward him attentively, eyes alight with mischief, presented a picture that was altogether too charming. That, coupled with her insight and the implied compliment... And when was the last time a woman had wanted to talk to him about himself?
“And ‘Carly’ comes from what?”
“My father admired the Carolingian kings past all reason. He tried without success to trace his lineage back to Charlemagne. How are you going to spend it?”
“The money. We’re going to make pots of it, you know.”
He spoke without thinking. “Cabinets.”
“Cabinets and countertops. I think the money will go for cabinets and countertops.”
“Is that all? You could build an addition on your house with what you’ll make on this job alone.”
“Can’t. I looked into it one time. Neighborhood zoning ordinance or some such. Lots are too small.”
“Rot,” she said. “I never heard of such a thing.”
“Neither had I. But there it is.”
“What were you going to build?”
He was distracted. “What was I... do you remember the story you told about your father having a client home, and taking you aside after your pardonable child’s faux pas?”
“Where did all that take place?”
“Why, in Dad’s den.”
“Where he worked at home. When necessary.”
“That’s what I wanted to build. A den. But even had it been allowed, I didn’t have the money.”
They were quiet for a moment. Then she seemed to shake off the silence. “Never mind. After the next campaign you’ll be able to buy a new house.”
He blinked. “The next campaign?”
“You bet, Mr. Hibble.” She swiveled the chair to face him squarely, an effect made silly by her girlish body arrangement. Also silly was her attempt to talk like a thirties Hollywood gangster while two spots of color stood out on her pale cheeks: “You got moxie, kid, and I like moxie. You and me are going places, see?”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Max Christopher