Moof Curtis settled down and pulled out a pen, then an envelope. He scribbled for a while and then slid it across to me. It was like walking down Sixth Avenue when a sudden rainstorm catches the women of New York off guard in the spring. All those sundresses, suddenly clinging, telling at least part of the real story, revealing more and yet denying honesty a gutter airing; you know you’re a jerk if you look but the temptation is just too much. I tried to let it be. I really did.
I snorted. “How is this any different? This is pretty much company playbook, except for the fat salary you’re offering. There’s got to be more.” Curtis nodded and took back the envelope. More scribbles. Another slow slide over.
“Okay, again, I’m following, though I don’t see…” and my finger rested on the PERSONAL CUT, “how this is going to be justified to HR at the level you’re describing.” Curtis just smiled. My eyes moved to the gap in his description. He drew the ten letters firmly, and circled them.
I laughed out loud. He continued his Cheshire Cat act. “First of all, that’s a job I am not qualified to do as a freelancer. Second of all, that’s not a job I would rate, or want for that matter, as a manager. Third of all, I don’t even speak the language around here, and fourth of all, there must be twenty or thirty people who, if they’re not already doing that job, they could be.”
“You done exploring the impossible? Can we move on to the probable?
“Sure, why the hell not?”
“Fourth of all, there are three people already doing the job, and they’re not my old, dependable, creative buddy. Third of all, I don’t need you to speak the language around here. I got guys for that. You want a toe? I can get you a toe. I probably don’t even need you around here very much, except for basic research, the feel of the place, atmosphere. Second of all, you won’t be management, you’ll be feeding management just like you fed that craggy professor. And first of all, I wouldn’t have flown you out here if I didn’t think you could do the job, and I don’t want a salary guy. I want my piece of shit, broken as fuck, old freelance friend that I know better than he knows himself.”
“What are you trying to do here? How are you meeting your numbers? What—“
Wait. That, right there. I felt my heart rate notch up, my vision narrowed a little. My scalp tingled. I knew I was safe, but sitting in that chair I realized my back was to the door. The least I could do was plant my feet flat on the floor and slide to the edge of the seat. “I wouldn’t have flown you out here if I didn’t think you could do the job.”
“Human Resources flew me out here, Moof. They’re going to want some kind of an answer, and this sort of thing doesn’t fit in a two-page memo. You’re talking about, well, thinking outside the box.”
“Far outside the box. I told you I was innovating, building for the future. Think of this as incubating a test bed for future marketing platforms. Same but different. Wholly owned subsidiary meets spinoff. The Royale With Cheese. ”
“Okay, now I’m lost.”
“Yeaaaaah, that’s ‘cause now I’m fucking with ya a little. Let’s get out of here. I know a place we can talk. Drop the euphemisms. Get a little exercise.” And with that, he picked up the two beer cans and the envelope, brushed by me, and opened the door. I started after him, through the room with the empty desks.
When I was a kid, we were told that if the Soviets ever launched, there would be some kind of electrical zap or something, and people… soft tissue… would just instantly incinerate. There was a TV movie, The Day After, and it didn’t have a happy ending. They assigned it as homework, and so many kids were traumatized they had to have a teach-in or some such to talk about it. They were afraid we’d commit suicide or something. Some of us just internalized it until it after high school. I only mention it because those empty desks looked as I’d imagined. Like everyone had been right in the middle of something, and then, zap. Technically, of course, everything would then be consumed by fire, but in that moment…
“You’re telling me your own conference room isn’t secure?”
“That’s not my conference room. I don’t even have a conference room.”
“I just borrowed this place. It’s an architectural consultancy or some shit. I paid the shift manager three hundred bucks and told him to take the whole crew out for birthday lunch. It has to be somebody’s birthday, right? Anyway, they’re due back soon. Let’s motor.”
I stopped in the doorway.
“Perception, bucko. That’s all reality is. Better get used to it, because it’s going to be your job pretty quick. I can already tell you’re going to take the red pill and see how deep a rabbit hole we can dig.”
We got in the car. Was this what perception was all about? Perpetually questioning everything around you, living one lie after another? What must it be like, existing in a network of mirages and sleight-of-hand? Could I really be sure ordinary life was all that different? The apricot was behind the wheel soon enough, and we rolled out silently past ten or twelve men in white shirts, just back from lunch. Would they wonder about the spilled beer in their conference room, or would they just wipe it up and get on with the day? They looked happy, I thought.