Rock Star

story about arrogance

‘News flash, Nick − we’re getting a new boss.’

Nick Ikaros looked up from his computer. Randi Lake leaned against the doorframe of his office, twisting a lock of dark hair around her delicate fingers. Tall and pale, she favoured the sixties look: oversized glasses and long, dark sweaters over black tights. Plus shitkicking black Doc Martens.

‘Who?’ asked Nick.

‘You aren’t gonna like it. Somebody from outside. That’s all I know.’

‘Fuck.’ Nick kicked his chair away from his workstation and hit the wall behind him with a thud, leaving a small dent in the sheetrock. He ran his hands through his curly black hair.

‘Sorry, Nick. We all thought you’d be moving up.’

‘So did I.’

He was only twenty-six, but with his slim stature and soft Greek features, he looked even younger. Despite his youth, Nick was the hottest graphics guy in town. There wasn’t an award in Cleveland he hadn’t won at least once. Or in all of Ohio, for that matter. Okay, Ohio wasn’t the centre of the design world, but he was still the proverbial big frog. Randi was his writer. Not his writer exactly, but the one at Omni he worked best with and the one he always tried to get assigned to his creative team. They did great stuff together.

A new boss was a pain in the ass. The new hot buttons, new danger zones, the motivations and insecurities, even the new family photos on the desk. But creative was a delicate house of cards. Everybody in creative was hypersensitive − any change in the lineup could bring it all down. They’d be fighting and backbiting for months, and that didn’t make for a good product. And creative getting a boss that wasn’t him was an extra kick in the nuts.

Nick stood and looked past Randi to the bullpen − a dark, cavernous room filled with glowing oversized computer monitors where the creatives punched away at their latest tickets to advertising immortality. Mostly empty now, this close to noon. Everybody hated the arrangement. No separate offices, not even cubicles. Just workstations crammed together in the dark. Management said it was the most efficient way to use the space, the interior architecture of the future. Nick noticed the interior architecture of the future hadn’t been implemented on the top floor, where the CEO and all those other initials hung out. Fortunately, by virtue of the closetful of precious metal he’d piled up at ad shows over the last few years, Nick now rated an office on the perimeter to himself. Nothing big, nothing fancy, but four walls and a door that closed. That was enough. For now.

He turned and looked back at his office. The long wall behind his workstation was covered three rows deep with framed award certificates. Golds, silvers, bronzes. The product of five years of competition. And five years from now the other walls would be covered, too.

‘You guys talking about the new boss?’ Max Kellerman stuck his head around the corner. ‘I heard he’s from LA.’ Max was a roly-poly Photoshop specialist with a shaved head and thick glasses. Nick wondered how anybody with vision that bad could do anything at all with Photoshop. ‘Used to work with Sturdivant out there.’

Nick exploded. ‘LA! Los fucking Angeles? What the hell does an Angelino know about industrial accounts in the Midwest?’

‘Look at the bright side,’ said Randi. ‘Knowing Sturdivant, it’s a woman. Probably a beach bunny with long blonde hair and a total body tan. You guys will finally have somebody around here to hit on besides me.’

‘Reynolds told me it’s on the website,’ said Max. ‘The resume. I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet.’

Nick sat back down and punched up the internet and the agency website. Randi slid between Nick and the wall and watched over his shoulder as he flipped through the site to the article.

‘Carter Cunningham,’ said Nick. ‘Jesus, look at the white hair. He’s a fucking boomer! This is the creative whiz kid who’s going to connect with generations Y and Z? Lead us into the digital future?’

‘Betcha he still has a flip phone,’ said Randi.

‘What’s his background?’ asked Max. ‘Is he a writer or a designer? Or a producer?’

Nick scrolled through the article. ‘Oh, fuck.’ He pointed to a paragraph at the bottom of the screen, then enlarged it.

‘Are you kidding me?’ said Randi. ‘Marketing?’

‘We’ve got MBAs up the wazoo already,’ said Max. ‘Why put another one in this job? What’s this dude going to know about creative?’

‘Listen to this,’ said Nick. ‘He’s only been in the agency business for the last ten years. Before that he was on the client side.’

‘Client side?’ asked Randi. ‘What the fuck is Sturdivant thinking?’

‘The timing’s for shit,’ said Max. ‘Right in the middle of the Champion campaign. I suppose he’ll want to jump in with both feet and splash around. The first presentation’s next week, isn’t it?’

‘And he won’t know his ass from his anode about batteries,’ said Randi.

‘Why the hell did Margo have to pick this month to jump ship?’ asked Max.

Nick wasn’t unhappy to see her go. They’d battled tooth and nail for three years. Bottom line, the lion’s share of the agency’s creative awards were coming through Nick’s work. Creative awards were the heart and soul of the agency world − clients ate them up and they made recruiting new talent easy. Margo had resented him − Nick was half her age, and a lowly wage slave to boot, but she felt his shadow falling over her future at Omni.

Margo was gone, but it wasn’t really news. That was the system − put in a couple good years, win a few awards, send out resumes and climb the ladder. He wished her luck. But it still didn’t solve Nick’s problem. There was just another body standing in the way. After all he’d done for the agency. All the press he’d gotten them. Creatives were standing in line to work at Omni because of him. Was he too young? Was that it?

‘Shit!’ Nick picked up his mouse and whipped it at the wall, watching it splinter and spray fragments of plastic around the floor.

There were a few seconds of silence, and Randi and Max exchanged glances.

Maybe he shouldn’t have done that. It was his favourite mouse. It had taken a month to get used to the touch, and Logitech probably didn’t even make that model anymore.

‘Lunch, you guys?’ asked Max. ‘We can stop at Office World and pick up a new mouse.’

‘A box of them,’ said Randi. ‘West End?’

‘No,’ said Nick. ‘Someplace dark, where they serve the hard stuff.’

 

*

 

Every square foot of the wall space in Emma Locke’s apartment was covered with prints and watercolours, and the floor along the walls was stacked with art books. She was the girls’ athletic coach at the high school in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland, but her secret vice was art − a passion shared by Nick. Art and design, after all, were essentially two sides of the same coin. The place was small, but comfortable. ‘Cozy,’ they called it in the ads.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swung softly in the background, the rising clarinet dancing with the aromas of tomatoes, garlic and basil floating on the air. And that other distinctive spice in Inky’s pizza that Nick had never been able to identify. Their secret ingredient.

It was great to spend an evening with Emma. The workload had been crazy, and it was the first night in a week he’d found the time to get away. It was a constant battle to maintain a personal life when he was so committed to his work. Even his weekends were swamped. He should do something about that. He needed this. He didn’t have to throw himself at every new project that walked in the door.

There was just enough space left in the living room for Nick to stretch out in the big overstuffed chair and throw his feet up on the footstool. He was long and lean, but uncoordinated. In eighth grade, the basketball coach had drooled over his height until he actually saw him play. In high school, he never bothered trying out.

‘You want that last piece?’ Nick shouted.

‘It’s yours,’ Emma called from the bathroom.

‘I’ve already had four.’

‘It’s still yours.’

Nick folded it up and stuffed a corner into his mouth.

Emma appeared in a white terry sweatsuit, still damp from her shower, brushing her short auburn hair. ‘So, how’d your day go?’ she asked.

Emma was the athlete Nick wasn’t, with her own shelf full of trophies: tennis, volleyball, softball. A hard body with long, strong legs and a brain to match. They made a good couple and things were getting serious. He’d even allowed himself to think about marriage. She was the first girl he’d dated who had the confidence to stand up to him. He knew his self-assurance could put people off sometimes.

‘I have a new boss.’

‘Oh, no − you didn’t get it. I’m sorry, babe.’ She slid into his lap, wrapping her arm around his shoulders. ‘What happened? Did Sturdivant say why?’

‘Sturdivant didn’t say shit. The first I knew was from Randi, then the website had an article.’

‘That’s harsh. Not even a little consolation pat on the back?’

‘I haven’t met him yet. Don’t know if he’s ever even been in the building. He’s from LA. I have to do a show and tell for him in a couple days.’

Emma laid her head against his and ran her fingers through his hair. He could smell the garlic on her breath. He didn’t know why people thought that was offensive. To him it smelled great. Especially on her.

‘LA? Is that good or bad?’

‘Bad for me, obviously.’

‘But I mean LA’s big time. Maybe he could bring some new ideas. You know everything starts on the coasts and seeps in toward the flatlands. We’re always the last to get everything. You could get a little in front of things.’

‘Omni doesn’t need any LA spin − it won’t work here. Ohio isn’t California. I just need people to get out of my way. This is just one more fucking hoop to jump through.’

She sat up in his lap and slapped him smartly on both cheeks. ‘Snap out of it, Nick. Don’t go Greek god on me again.’

His face warmed a bit, but he kept his mouth shut. Was he learning?

It was like Feng Shui − every element had a specific place in the whole which gave it harmony. When it all fit together, it was beautiful. It touched people’s emotions and they responded. Just like art. If something was off, there was no magic. It wasn’t something you could find in a textbook − either you had the touch or you didn’t. And not many had it.

‘There’s a real difference between good and bad design, you know that.’

‘And everybody else is wrong. Some designer told me that once.’ Emma wrapped herself around him again and kissed his neck.

‘It’s not that they’re wrong, exactly. Most creatives can do decent stuff, they just can’t resist the compromises. The creative director, the account exec, the client, the client’s boss, even the client’s wife − all of them want a piece of your idea. And if you cave, your concept’s in the toilet. The design doesn’t work and you get the blame.’

Emma jumped off his lap and grabbed the remote. ‘Lecture alert! Lecture alert!’ she shouted. Suddenly the Village People were pounding out YMCA at full blast.

Shit. What were his chances in the ad world if his own girlfriend wouldn’t listen to him? But that was the problem − the compromises. No, if you wanted to see your idea intact and the program fully functional at the end of the process, you had to have a will of iron. There was a little flag hanging above his workstation embroidered with his personal motto: Illegitimi non carborundum: Don’t let the bastards grind you down. So what if it was a joke − it was the reason he had that wall full of awards and the others didn’t.

And when he won, the client won; and when the client won, the agency won. Wasn’t that the way it was supposed to happen?

He got up and stomped into the tiny kitchen. ‘All right! All right!’ he shouted. ‘You win.’

 

*

 

The big conference room was the colosseum of the agency, where creative gladiators were summoned to battle managers and account executives and clients, where ideas were ripped to shreds and the weak and unprepared were dispatched in humiliation. The anticipation of appearing in the big conference room was enough to send creative hearts pounding and blood pressure spiking. It was the big stage. But Nick was never unprepared. The colosseum was also the birthplace of heroes.

Nick walked into the conference room with a stack of layouts. Sturdivant and the new creative director were already seated at the long table facing the door. This was Carter Cunningham? In the photo he’d looked like the general in command of NATO, tall and erect with steely blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and thick white hair blowing in the wind. He had the white hair. But he was barely six inches over five feet with a bad slouch and dark bags under his eyes. They must have rammed a stick up his ass to get him that straight for the photo. And he looked like he’d walked all the way from LA.

Nick dropped the layouts on the table and extended his hand across the table. ‘Nick Ikaros, Carter. Nice to meet you. Welcome to Omni.’

Cunningham took his hand. ‘Likewise, Nick. So, you’re the company hotshot, eh? Really looking forward to working with you. Feeling the magic.’

Was he kidding? Was this some bum off the street they rushed in at the last minute as a joke? Would the real Carter Cunningham come walking through the door any minute and have a big laugh at Nick’s expense? He glanced at Randi and raised his eyebrows. She didn’t return the glance. Playing politics already.

Nick spread the drawings and printouts for the Champion Battery campaign across the table. Nick and Randi and a couple production guys had pulled a late night to get their concepts presentable for Sturdivant and Cunningham, and they were tired and cranky. They were too senior to pull grunt work like this anymore. But Cunningham wasn’t wasting any time in throwing his weight around, making sure even the company hotshot jumped when he called.

‘Just give us an overview, now, Nick,’ said Sturdivant, a blast from the wayback machine in his boxy brown retro suit. He’d fallen in love with Madmen a few years ago and never outgrown it. ‘Let Carter see what you’ve got going. I’ve already showed him the campaigns for the last couple years.’

‘The theme we’re going with is ‘Fire in Ice,’ said Nick. He held up a board with a dramatic typographic treatment of the theme.

‘What the hell’s that got to do with batteries?’ asked Cunningham.

That didn’t take long. One sentence in and he was already challenging the concept. At least Margo waited for the whole presentation before she started chopping away. Long enough to get the big picture.

But Nick had the answers. ‘It says that Champion batteries always fire, no matter how cold it is. Those frigid, icy winter months are the time every car owner starts worrying about reliability. “Is my car in the parking lot going to start so I can get home to the safety of my garage? Will I have to find somebody who can give me a jump? Will I have to stand in the freezing weather waiting for a service truck? Will I have to call home and have somebody pick me up?”’

‘We’re planning to show a battery frozen in a cube of ice,’ added Randi. She pulled out the most recent ad design and held it up.

‘The cube will be lit from outside with lots of different blues − winter colours, lots of reflections. Inside the cube, a battery-shaped shadow and a crackle of red and yellow around it like lightening represents the battery cranking. The ice in the stills will be plastic, of course, but we thought for the trade shows we’d have a battery frozen in an actual block of ice connected to a light or something. We haven’t got that part nailed down yet. The customer can turn an auto key to crank the battery and light the light.’

‘A nickel to a buck every battery out there can do that,’ said Cunningham.

‘You’re probably right,’ said Nick. ‘But if we claim it first, we own the idea. All the competition can do is say ‘so can we.’ That’s weak, and they know it. We win.’

‘Okay, I get it. You’re selling the sizzle. And it’s good sizzle – but the last few campaigns have been all sizzle. All the same.’

‘And the client loves them. Harrington keeps coming back. We’ve taken three Best of Shows in five years with those campaigns.’

Cunningham slid a sheet of paper with figures and graphs across the table.

‘Yeah, these are sales numbers,’ said Nick.

‘You notice they’re flat as a fritter for those same five years,’ said Cunningham. ‘Sales haven’t gone up more than a percent since you’ve been bringing home all that shiny stuff.’

‘This may come as a bit of a surprise,’ said Nick. ‘You’re probably not that familiar with the battery market. But aftermarket batteries are getting near the mature stage of the product life cycle. Not much growth, not much product differentiation. We’re the only company still selling brand, trying to justify the slight price premium. One of our competitors is going to have to go belly up before we get a significant bite of new market share. But it’s reliable, it’s a cash cow.’

‘I’d like to try a new approach,’ said Cunningham. ‘Less sizzle, more steak. See if we can’t sweet talk that cow into coughing up a little more revenue.’

‘The presentation is in four days,’ said Randi. ‘That’s not much time to totally change direction.’

Cunningham waved his hand in dismissal. Easy for him, he wouldn’t be the one pulling weekenders and all-nighters to bring this baby in under the wire. Cunningham browsed through the stack of sketches.

‘What’s weak here is channel support. For the distributors and dealers. Point of sale, sales incentives, packaging, yada, yada, yada.’

‘They’re in the plan, but we can certainly beef those areas up,’ said Nick.

‘I’d like you to do that, and to give us a little more of the nuts and bolts − the technical stuff. Where are we better, that kind of thing. Features and benefits.’

‘In case I haven’t mentioned it in the last two minutes,’ said Randi, ‘The meeting is four days away, two of which are on the weekend.’

Sturdivant finally opened his mouth. ‘Carter, send him a memo on this and copy me, will you please? Give it some detail − the kind of thing you’re looking for. It’s an interesting approach, Carter, it really is.’

It was worse than Nick had thought. Cunningham didn’t just want to take a look, he didn’t want to tweak the details. He wanted to rip up the concept and start over. And who knew what the fuck else he’d put in the fucking memo. Sturdivant, of course, was standing behind the new hire. They didn’t have time to put anything off − the deadline was set in stone. Media space was already purchased. Trade show space was already booked. That was the lion’s share of the budget. They couldn’t create an entirely new program in four days. There was no way they could start over now. Where was Bernie Freed, the account exec on this? He’d blow a kidney.

‘In case you’ve overlooked it,’ said Nick, not trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice, ‘the client presentation is in four days. You better have that email to me in ten minutes.’ Son? He’d shove that snark up his anode.

 

*

 

A half hour later, Nick was on the phone.

‘Randi. I sent you a copy of the memo.’

‘Got it.’

‘He wants new packaging, point of sale, a distributor incentive of some kind and more tech stuff. Plus a new theme, but that’s not gonna happen. See if you can round up a couple designers for a weekender. Get back to me with any thoughts. Deadline is first thing Monday morning. Presentation-ready panels. Can do?’

I’ll get on it. Jesus Christ, Nick.’

‘Good. Hope this didn’t mess up any hot dates.’

‘Just the first one I’ve had in a month.’

‘Sorry. File a complaint with the new CD.’

Nick punched up a new line.

‘Bernie. Nick. Get your ass down here now. It’s hit the fan on the Champion account. Our new CD wants to add components and you have to massage the budget or talk him out of it.’

‘Holy crap! You know that presentation’s Tuesday, right? And on the weekend, suppliers aren’t going to be in the office for pricing. I’ll have to wing it.’

‘Yeah, I know − blame the new management.’ He punched off and dropped his head into his hands. This used to be fun, didn’t it? Even three days ago it was fun. How could it all go off the rails so fast?

 

*

 

Monday morning, the panels lay spread across the big conference room table under the fluorescents. Nick and Randi were struggling to stay awake, sucking at huge styrofoam Starbucks cups. Cunningham picked up the first panel and opened the flap.

‘What’s this shit? This isn’t what we talked about.’

‘What you talked about,’ said Nick. ‘I told you we were going to keep the fire and ice theme. We worked in everything you wanted. The distributor program, the point of sale, the new packaging, more emphasis on the nuts and bolts. Bernie even wrestled the budget into shape by chopping social media and TV. But nothing less than eye-popping stuff goes out of here under my name. This isn’t a technical manual.’

Cunningham passed his hand through his hair and walked down the length of the table, lifting the flaps and scanning the designs. ‘Most of this actually ain’t bad. You got the feel of it. Of the structure, anyway.’ He walked back to Nick and picked up the first panel with the typographic theme. ‘Take a look at this, son.’ He closed the flap and held it up. ‘You see your name on here anywhere? No? You’re right. He pointed to the Omni logo, a silver sticker they put on every panel. ‘This is the only name that goes on this pitch or any pitch that goes out of here. Omni. Omni cuts the paychecks, Omni calls the shots, Omni gets the credit.’

Nick’s face was beginning to burn.

‘Randi,’ asked Cunningham, ‘You got any opinions?’

She glanced at Nick. ‘What can I say? We’re a team.’

That wasn’t exactly a ringing affirmation, but at least she wasn’t going to cave. Good for her. Although she might be digging her own grave. The coil of guts grinding in his belly told him this was not going to end well.

Cunningham frowned. ‘Look, I can appreciate you kids aren’t used to working with me. We come from different generations and our styles don’t exactly match up. I know you busted your asses on this all weekend. You got talent. This fire and ice thing is slick, alright, spectacular, even. But it’s too slick. We’re not selling computers or rocket ships. We’re selling goddamn ugly black batteries that a customer sees maybe once in his life − when it dies. I’m no ivy league pinhead, but I’ve got a hell of a lot of experience. This theme ain’t gonna fly.

‘The presentation’s tomorrow afternoon. Have new layouts for me first thing in the morning.’

This is what it always came down to: the compromise. You looked it in the face and said no or you followed your career down the rabbit hole into mediocrity. This pompous old goat with his condescending attitude wasn’t going to roll Nick over.

Nick gritted his teeth and shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, trying to keep from throwing something. ‘Carter, what you see is what you get. I’m not going back to the drawing board again. We’re not robots, we can’t just work around the clock at your command. And you’re wrong about my name. It’s all over this design, anybody who knows my work can tell you that.’

‘Nick, you like working here?’ said Cunningham.

Nick was stunned. ‘One week on the job and you threaten the star creative? Fuck you, Cunningham.’ Nick snatched the panel out of Cunningham’s hands and ripped it in two, He sailed the pieces down the length of the conference room table. ‘There. You don’t like this design, no problem. But if you want something different, you need to find another designer.’

Cunningham watched the panels slide down the table. ‘I can do that.’

‘You can’t even find the john around here yet. But talk to Sturdivant. Can me. I’ll have three new job offers before I can get my locker cleaned out. Another thing − forget about me being in the presentation tomorrow! You’re on your own.’

‘Don’t worry, Carter,’ muttered Randi. ‘It’s just a printout. We can have another in half an hour.’

They could fire him, of course. That wouldn’t exactly be a gold star on his resume, but he’d land with somebody else tomorrow. Omni would need to find another cleanup hitter, too, and sluggers didn’t grow on trees. If they booted Randi, though, it would be harder on her − she was a single mom with two kids.

He turned and stalked out of the room, leaving Randi holding her face in two hands and looking at the floor. He stomped up and down the halls for five minutes, trying to cool off. By the time he got back to his office, the phone was blinking.

‘What?’ he shouted.

Nick, what the hell’s going on?’

It was Bernie.

Cunningham says you aren’t going to do the presentation tomorrow. Harrington’s going to throw a fit. He always wants your input to take back to his boss. You’re the guy he relies on to explain everything.’

‘Tell him there’s a new advertising genius in town. Cunningham’s on the case.’

Dammit! Carter’s refusing to go, too. He says the program doesn’t reflect his thinking and he won’t stand behind it. I’ve got a fucking dog and pony show to put on with no dog and no pony. Sturdivant’s out of town. What am I supposed to do?’

‘You’re a silver-tongued devil, Bernie − you can pull it off.’

You’re really bailing, after all that work we just put in? Nick, this is my biggest client. This is the annual campaign. Give me a break. If we drop the ball, Harrington’s gonna walk and Sturdivant’s gonna blow the place up!’

‘Take it up with Carter − he’s the creative director. The buck stops there.’

 

*

 

‘Don’t worry, Randi. If you get the shaft, too, I’ll cover you. We can do some freelance for a while until somebody picks us up. And they will. We’re the best creative team around.’

They were standing in the parking lot next to Randi’s van, letting the five o’clock flood of Omni employees clear out. The winter wind whipped a spray of dead leaves and litter across the concrete, sending icy fingers up Nick’s jacket and he zipped it up to his chin.

‘They aren’t going to fire me, Nick.’

‘You stood up for me. You’re my writer.’

‘But I’ve got four or five other work teams. I can work with anybody. Look, Nick, you need to know this − the reason I’m on your team all the time is that the other writers don’t want to work with you.’

Nick stood there in amazement. Of course they wanted to work with him. Everybody did. Creatives from all over the city applied for jobs at Omni to work with him. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You’re arrogant, Nick. It’s always your way or the highway. You’re a great designer, but being around you is dangerous. Like today. I’m not the one you have to worry about − watch your own back.’ Randi put her arms around Nick and leaned into him. Her voice softened. ‘Go get some sleep, Nick. Get laid. Take a couple days off. We’ll talk later in the week. Maybe we can still save something.’

She unwrapped herself from Nick and let herself into the van.

In a daze, Nick wandered off to his own Camry. He slid into the seat and slammed the door. He started the car and turned on the heater. What the fuck? Could this be possible? He pulled out his phone and punched in the number of the creative director at Lacey/Johnson, the biggest agency in town. Taylor had been dangling the hook for years.

‘Taylor? Nick. You got a minute?’

Sure, Nick. How you doing? Haven’t seen you around much lately.’

‘Yeah. A relationship really ties you down, doesn’t it? But it’s been great. I wouldn’t change a thing. Speaking of change, though, I’m thinking it might be time to make a move. You guys still have any interest?’

There was a pause, longer than Nick liked.

‘Wow, we’d love to have you. Who wouldn’t? But this really isn’t the best time − business is a little soft and we’ve got a couple young Turks in the house hollering for promotion. By this time next year we might be ready for an outside hire, though. Want me to put the word out?’

‘No, thanks, Taylor. I’m looking to keep it in a small circle right now. Probably won’t even happen. But I’ll let you know.’

‘Okay, Nick. Good luck with it. Boy, I’d hate to see you leave town − I wouldn’t want to lose our local rock star.’

‘I don’t think it’ll come to that. Take it easy Taylor.’

‘You, too, Nick.’

Shit. Why wouldn’t the biggest agency in town, with all their loose pocket change, want the local rock star on their own marquee?

He’d crash at Emma’s. Take a couple personal days. And if they didn’t like it, screw it. What did he have left to lose?

 

*

 

Nick felt the mattress sag and the dream slipped away. He’d been sitting in a classroom in grade school by himself, all the other chairs empty. Even the teacher had left. There was a math test coming, but he hadn’t picked up his math book all semester. He felt new motion in the mattress. Emma was home from school.

‘Unh!’ He jumped and his eyes popped open. Damn, that was cold! Something against his back.

‘You been sleeping all day?’

He rolled onto his back, lavender scent rising around him through the powder blue silk sheets. ‘Hey, Em.’

Emma leaned over and kissed him gently on the lips. He kissed her back more firmly.

‘You think I haven’t been earning my keep? I spent all day shovelling the snow out of the parking lot. Thought I deserved a little nap.’

Emma punched him. ‘Liar. It didn’t even snow.’

‘Yeah, but it looked like it might. Preventive maintenance. What the hell was that cold thing?’

Emma slipped a glass jar into his hand.

He held it up to his face and squinted. Sun-dried tomatoes.

‘Can’t avoid it any longer. You’re cooking tonight.’

‘What day is it?’

‘Still Tuesday. Dinner time.’ She got up and headed to the kitchen.

Tuesday. The gig at Champion would be over. Likewise his gainful employment at Omni. There would be a tsunami of rumour and anger and accusation pouring through Omni about now, directed primarily at him. Who else would be ass up? Carter? No, he was probably still on the honeymoon express. Randi was a strong swimmer. Bernie might be treading water, though − it was all his baby in the end.

It was hard to imagine that his days at Omni were over. So much good work, such fun times. He’d miss Randi and Bernie and some of the others. Even Sturdivant. But it was time to turn the page. There was a whole new career to look forward to, new clients, new problems.

He was free. At least for a while. Free from all the late nights, the frenzied deadlines that left his eyeballs spinning and his pecker limp as a steamed clam. He’d be free to concentrate on his relationship with Emma, to push that down the line toward something more serious. She’d welcome that. She’d be as tired of his rat race as he was.

He jumped out of bed, feeling lighter than he had in years, and did a fancy stepping tango to the shower, kicking and tossing his scattered clothing toward the wicker hamper on the way.

When he emerged, Emma was chopping and slicing. Terifficano. That was what he didn’t like about cooking. All the dull prep work. Leave that to the scullery maids. Nick was the culinary maestro, beating his wooden spoon to Vivaldi, tasting and tossing the spices, coaxing each dish to its own tiny crescendo. It was an act, a performance, a game more than a production of dinner. Sometimes Emma brought out her high school piccolo and accompanied the orchestra. They were going to have a blast.

But he couldn’t forget what Randi had laid on him. The weight continued to grow. He poured the oil into the big pan and lit the fire. ‘You don’t think I’m arrogant, do you?’

‘Yep.’ Emma chopped away, now on the olives.

He jerked his head up and stopped pouring oil. ‘What?’

‘Yeah. Of course you are.’

‘You think I’m arrogant?’

‘You’re talented, Nick. Talented people have a right to be a little arrogant.’

‘Does it bother you?’

Emma stopped chopping and looked up. ‘Jesus, Nick, it’s not like being arrogant is a mortal sin. You even make it fun sometimes.’

‘How am I arrogant?’

‘Nick, we’re having such a good time. Why do you always do this?’

‘Do what?’ He put the oil down and turned off the fire.

‘Piss on everything. In this particular case, challenge me on something out of the blue, then grill me. So what if you’re arrogant? Is that my fault? No big deal to me. We still have fun.’

‘But how am I arrogant?’

‘Listen to yourself. You’re the only person that can ever be right. I didn’t give you the answer you wanted, so right away you jump on me. I didn’t go looking to pop your fantasy balloon. You asked.’

‘You call this jumping on you?’

‘Duh.’

‘Give me another example.’

‘Jeez, Nick. Okay, every time we watch a decent film, you give a running critical commentary of the direction. Too much backlighting, clunky dialog, scene’s too short, scene’s too long, lousy casting, stupid metaphors. It’s kind of fun, but I can’t ever just enjoy the show.’

‘So why didn’t you ever mention this before?’

‘Because, goddamn it, you’d react just like this! You’d get pissed and the evening would be fucked. Just give it a rest, okay − you promised me puttanesca.’

Nick sat down at the kitchen table and lowered his voice. ‘If I’m such a jerk, why are you still with me?’

Emma rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and spread her arms. ‘Jesus Christ, does this guy ever listen? You’re not a jerk. You’re a great guy. Just now I told you it’s fun sometimes to fall into your fantasy with you. It’s a different kick. It’s not like marriage is in the cards here, Nick, we both know that. You don’t have to be Mr. Perfect to be a good time. Here I am telling you I accept your faults, even enjoy them, and you still can’t admit you have any.’

Nick was stunned to silence. Again. Marriage wasn’t in the cards. How could he have misread things so badly? A fun roll in the hay. Slam bam, thank you sir. What was their relationship, then? He’d thought they were in love, or something close to it, hoping to work out a future together. What did this mean? Were they just dating? Was she seeing anybody else? How could he have been so blind for so long?

Nick opened the cupboard next to the fridge. ‘No whiskey?’

‘We finished it last weekend.’

He yanked another bottle out at random. It was a watershed moment that demanded a suitably dramatic gesture. Pull a Hemingway, get blasted on something, feel sorry for himself. He didn’t give much of a shit what it was.

‘Cooking sherry? Are you kidding?’

Christ, is that what he had? Fuck. Well, he couldn’t put it back now and go shuffling around for something else. It would kill the drama of the moment. He snagged his jacket from the chair and headed toward the carport. He glanced back. Emma stood there with her mouth hanging open. He might have seen a tear, but it was probably a sliver of reflection on the inside of his glasses. She knew, just like he did. He stepped out and closed the door behind him without a word.

In his car, he started the engine. He’d let it run a while to defrost the windows. He pulled out his phone. He checked his messages. Had to face it sometime.

Nick, you sonofabitch. You really blew it for us this time. Harrington was furious we didn’t have some top dog at the presentation. There was too much new stuff in the package I just couldn’t explain and he won’t be able to explain to his boss. It’s gonna make him look bad and that’s bad news for us. I saved your ass on this and you turn around and shaft me. Heads are gonna roll, and I hope the first one is yours!’

Bernie wasn’t happy. What a surprise. Join the club.

He didn’t bother with the other calls.

 

*

 

His tongue felt huge and dry and scabby, a week-old dog turd in his mouth. Coffee. He smelled coffee. Wherever he was, it was warm and dark. And soft. A bed. He opened his eyes. It was still dark, but he started spinning and his stomach began to roll. Cooking sherry? He’d never been so sick. Emma was probably still laughing about that. He had a vague memory of a couple of other bottles, too. He closed his eyes again. Suddenly a blast of light reminded him he had a massive headache.

‘Hi, Nick!’ A noise like a dozen squeaky toys. What the fuck? Some kid had lifted the blankets up and was staring in at him. Two kids. He yanked the blankets from the kid, who burst out in full voiced guffaws. God, what an obnoxious sound. Randi’s kids. Heather and Rose. How the fuck did he manage to end up here? What was he thinking? He stuck his head out over the top of the blankets.

‘Girls, leave Uncle Nick alone, now. He’s had a bad night. Let him get some coffee.’ Randi walked in the room wearing a puffy pink robe and giant quilted slippers. Her hair was a dark snarly mess. But she looked pretty sexy with those big glasses perched on the very tip of her tiny nose. He was sure someday they’d fall off the end, but they never did. Maybe she had them taped to her ears. Or had one of those around-the-head cords that basketball players wore.

She sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Okay, you can come out, now. I’ve got a tray − turn over and sit up.’ She pounded the pillows against the headboard to lean back on.

He followed orders and she placed the tray over his legs and set a mug of coffee on it. He lifted the mug to his lips. The coffee was better than the office. Nick looked around the room trying not to turn his head. That hurt, too. It was a bedroom. Randi’s. A woman’s clothes scattered around, a makeup table with the usual mass of small, glittery, expensive-looking bottles.

‘What happened?’

‘You lucked out, that’s what happened. Next door neighbour’s dog found you huddled against my door about eleven. It was his last outing of the day. Any later, you’d be a stiff little corpsickle and I’d have to blowtorch you to get your clothes off. Actually, I’m surprised he didn’t pee on you. He usually pees on anything new.’

‘Maybe I looked dangerous.’

‘Yeah. Somebody could trip over you in the dark and break his skull. Why didn’t you just ring the bell?’

Why hadn’t he? Too drunk? Wasn’t sure he trusted Randi anymore? Couldn’t make up his mind? Yeah, probably that. ‘I walked out on Emma.’

‘She called. Thought maybe you’d show up here.’ She pushed around at her hair, maybe trying to make it less snarly, and tucked her legs underneath her. ‘So what’s that mean, walked out?’

‘Just that. Grabbed a bottle and walked out.’

‘So?’

‘So what?’

‘Why did you walk out? Have a fight?’

‘Not really.’

‘So why?’

Nick thought for a minute. ‘She said she didn’t think marriage was in the cards.’

‘Did you?’

‘Yeah. Kind of.’

‘That was it? And you left?’

‘Yeah.’

She sighed and fell back against the headboard. ‘You’re such a fucking idiot.’

He couldn’t disagree with that. Not anymore. ‘Um.’

‘What?’

‘Uh.’ He gestured back and forth between them. ‘Did…’

Suddenly Randi’s eyes lit up and she shrieked, followed by a long burst of laughter. She got up and went back to wherever she’d come from. He could hear her still laughing. It hurt his head. Everything hurt, in fact.

Even Randi was laughing at him, now. Randi, his faithful Sancho Panza. Yeah, he was a joke. So why had he come down this road? If he was such a smart bastard, you’d think he could figure this out for a change instead of going all flash-bang.

He was hurt. And his reaction was anger. It always was. It was the way he responded to frustration. Had he wanted to punish himself for being such an idiot? For being so blind? No, that was a convenient self-deception. He’d never been into self-punishment. He could never admit he’d deserved punishment for anything.

Then why? To hurt Emma. No, that was bullshit. No, no, that was true. She’d hurt him and he wanted to hurt her back. But if he thought she’d be hurt, he must think she cared about him. And she did. She did and he knew it, didn’t he? She was just telling him the truth − how she saw their relationship. And he responded by dialing it up. By making a dramatic gesture of self-destruction. Playing out the Greek drama.

And if she didn’t think marriage was in the cards, whose fault was it? After all, what had he done to let her know how he felt? Had he ever talked about love or marriage? Ever given her a reason to expect more?

If he’d only stopped there − made a joke about the cooking sherry. They could have had a good laugh and he wouldn’t have this headache and they’d still be together.

His eyes opened again. He’d been asleep. His head still hurt. The clock on the table read 1:35. There was a note on the bed.

Gone to work. You remember that? Kids and babysitter back at 3:00. Help yourself to the fridge. Watch out for the dog. Randi.

He’d better do something. He’d rather face the dog than those kids again.

 

*

 

Days passed. No new work landed on his desk. Randi and Max stopped hanging out in his office. Junior designers no longer collected at his doorway to talk shop. He sat and waited for the axe to fall.

So who was this creative savant, this Nick Ikaros? He didn’t know any more. Not the advertising wizard he thought he was, leading his troops to battle in the marketplace. Certainly not the lover he thought, either. Just a shadow, a doppelganger, waiting for the real Nick Ikaros, whoever he was, to blunder in.

The rows of frilly award certificates staring down at him from the wall now looked silly − the morning remains from someone else’s late night party. He had some great posters at home − Bob Dylan with the colourful hair by Milton Glaser, Warhol’s Marilyn, the Rolling Stones tongue. They’d brighten the place up. He started pulling the frames down off the wall.

Randi rapped on his door and slid into his side chair. A fresh scent of saddle soap and violets. New for her.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Long time.’

She gazed at him over steepled fingers − new body language, too.

‘How you doing?’ she asked.

‘I’ll survive.’

‘That’s two creative directors in two months you’ve chased out of town. Gotta be a record of some sort. They don’t hand out awards for that, you know.’

Had he done that? He hadn’t meant to. He just wanted to see the job done right. But that meant the new guy was gone, too. ‘What happened to Cunningham?’

‘He went back to LA. Said he hated Cleveland. Said God stomped Ohio flat as a punishment for inventing corn.’

‘He didn’t belong here in the first place.’

‘He knew that,’ she said. ‘Sturdivant finally figured it out, too.’

Nick stacked a handful of frames on the floor and fell into his chair.

‘Are we going to be okay?’ asked Randi.

There was a new tone to her voice.

‘Oh…’ He should have seen it coming, but the realisation still hit him like a punch in the gut. ‘Congratulations.’

‘Thank you.’

A little more formal, a little more crisp. The new boss maneuvering into position.

‘You’ll be good.’

She would. She could work with anybody. And she was still young − she had a wide-open road ahead of her. But the axe wasn’t going to fall after all. She needed him back in harness again. Clean up some of the mess he’d made. It was only fair. After all, that was what he did for a living, and he still did it better than anybody else in town.

He glanced up at the little flag over his desk: Illegitimi non carborundum. No matter what new version of Nick Ikaros emerged from this, he knew there were parts of him that were too deeply buried to be bent or broken. He’d be back, whether they liked it or not.

Emma would get a kick out of this − Nick reporting to Randi. If she was still speaking to him. Well. If he really wanted to know, he could call and find out.

 

 

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