Tate Shelby’s lieutenant, the talented Lanville Hardge, is handling the dull parts. But the meeting belongs to Shelby. Hopefully, everything will be dull parts unless Ambien gets a bug up his ass as he usually will. Especially on a project this big, this secret, this… well, Morris Ambien will certainly knicker-knit on this one, controversy-wise.
Poor Hardge, the younger man, will have to serve as Tate’s foil, to direct the sparking energies of the weird, easily aggrieved copywriter safely to ground. Likely he’ll fly off the handle, vituperate, sputter, go too far, feel embarrassed, slink back into the pack and then out-do himself with something creative. Also, there’s the bonus for Hardge if he handles it well. If he can successfully ride Ambien into coöperation with the herd, he’ll look good in front of… well, You-Know-Who. Because anyone can tell young Lanny is courting Her with the force of Maximum Workplace Allowability™.
This happy phrase had been written by Morris Ambien for their client BLUNT Deodorant. A perfect snowflake of an idea hatched from the fragrant wetlands of the young consumer’s musked armpit. Yes, yes, how amusing, the long-running Let me be BLUNT campaign with its inexhaustible set-up line, then the payoff, which could play in any direction. Let me blunt: You smell great. Let me blunt: You smell. Let me blunt: We’re having sex right after this commercial. Let me blunt: Haha.
Morris’s great breakthrough had been to “Freshen” the deodorant’s claim by inventing the “Science” of attraction. Maximum Workplace Allowability hinted at a sexual animus barely managed by organic chemistries formulated or even grown at secret government hormone research installations, of dark secrets of military chemistry temporarily permitted on the supermarket or pharmacy shelf, of restricted-access areas of R and D where the progeny of von Braun, Haber, and Kammler labored antlike in the laboratories of Mothercorp, the largest consumer-goods company in the world.
Hints abounded of the product’s direct-line descent from a formula that the company had tested some years before on the suburbs of Chicago, with a statistically very noticeable “Baby Boomlet” evidently triggered by the compound. At least against the control neighborhoods which were only sprayed with a placebo, and which continued their demographic declines.
“MWA” wasn’t a bad acronym, either. You could allege someone’s got “MWA” (pronounced like Felix Unger with his tricky sinuses, “Mmm-WAH!”) or Let me be blunt: MWA. Man With Attitude℠.
Others are there, too. Art director Lance Villareal. Copywriter Morris Ambien with the inevitable baseball cap covering his fast-depleting monk’s tonsure and one or two junior people, like Liz Mendoza and some boy right out of Edge City University, “Brett.”
The usual 10am banter precedes the meeting, Villereal sliding the lid off of a tall mocha, pretty Elizabeth Mendoza the junior account executive blinking with smiling terror at the men around her, using her laptop as a shield. Ambien scowls at the small drawing of a football player or a gun he’s making on the legal pad in front of him, his glass of yellow icewater set towards mid-table.
“Red Bull,” he explains, to no one, taking a gulp and closing his eyes for a moment.
Lanville Hardge seizes, or at least clasps the moment. “Well, Morris’s ‘Liquid Crack’ offers kind of a good segue,” The room quiets as the lights fade and the conference room’s 79” x 46” diagonal Solaris Intelliscreen lights up with the usual agency cover page: Titanic Ideas from Titan Inc.
“We’ve got an exciting new opportunity on the beverage front, and it’s the next possible Red Bull for the party set. We’ve been tasked to provide a fresh campaign for a fresh new product from our friends at St. Louis Brewery.
“Sounds mighty fresh, if you ask me.” Ever his disruptive self, Morris Ambien causes the room to laugh.
Hardge is used to this aspect of Ambien and laughs over the interruption.
“It’s a new, flavored malt liquor product called…” and here, Lanville pauses to clear his throat.
“… AnBusch Malt Liquor.”
Morris’s jaw goes slack. He isn’t feeling funny anymore. Funny has left the room.
“Are you fucking kidding me? AnBusch? What’s the target demographic? Black kids, traumatized veterans, gangstas?”
Lanville waves Morris down defensively. “We’ll get to that, Morris. First thing, AnBusch Malt Liquor comes in three flavors, Lime-Damiana, Honey-Ginseng and Mescal-Yohimbe.”
Morris’s art-director pal, Lance Villareal, chimes in.
“Some of those are aphrodisiac herbs.”
“Why would you know that, I wonder?” pipes the voice of You-Know-Who with musical subjectiveness. Everyone laughs, except Villareal, whose already ruddy, unshaved features darken a little more.
Lanville skates over You-Know-Who’s awkward question.
“Aphrodisiacs! Very good. You get an A,” jokes Hardge. “Although we won’t be able to promise anything, the promise, or promise, will, of necessity, hang in the air.”
“Like a beer belch,” offered Morris. Lanville countered.
“To answer your question, Morris, the demo and media skew African-American…”
“Okay! That’s it!” interrupts Morris. He stands up.
“This has CIA Black Ops written all over it.”
Hardge and the rest of the room just stare at him.
“Why do you think they call it ‘Black’ Ops? That’s your basic Black Genocide Operation going on, there. Straight out of the AIDS Playbook.”
The conference room, like most things and people else in Ambien’s universe, expresses blank incomprehension at his words.
“Why are you involving me in this? I’ve done beer. Brown and white liquor. Tobacco. Great clients. American Coaloil… the Brown Coal People. Pi Industries. You remember those, with all the missile impacts, boasting to the world about minimal collateral damage during Ramadan. Easy as Pi. Yep. That was my line. All me. I’m wanted by Interpol, practically, for a hearing at the Hague as an accessory to Hate Propaganda. But not this. This is too much!”
The room experiences the same hot-eared embarrassment at Morris’s excess.
“Tell me you’re joking.”
Nobody’s joking. Ambien turns to Hardge. “Why are you countenancing this? It’s Sex Beer! Why don’t we cross-promote with G-Love Condoms…”
Tate Shelby finally speaks up, a trace of his four years at the University of Kentucky detectable in his voice.
“That’s a pretty good idea.” It’s said as a joke, complete with In the Heat of the Night-accent, but it arrives ill-timed on its hearers, cold and slappy as a newlywed’s undercooked pancake. Tate’s accent is affect, anyway. He adopts it on occasion. Tate was born and raised in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
“Tate, I’m African American. So’s Lanville, in case you missed it.”
“Well, of course, but…”
“Ye’r not like…”
“I’m not like, what?”
The silence is awkward. Morris wonders, Like what?
“Oh, Goddamn it, Morris. You’re an Egyptian-American. That’s… that’s not the same thing.”
“I am very much an African-American. We are the Original Africans. Born of the Nilotic Delta. You could argue. Like Indians, uh, here.”
Shelby counters, “About as much as Wilhelmina vanden Bruick is African.”
“She’s South African! Still an African, technically.”
“But she’s… Whi…” Shelby hits conversational ice… losing steering control… “Whi-, whe… whell, anyway…” Morris pulls him clear of the flaming conversational wreckage, and after dragging Tate to safety, returns to the red-hot debris with… an extra can of gasoline!
“… Why…” helped Morris, “Don’t we get back to the subject of… AnBusch! Tell me we didn’t name it, I implore you.”
Well, now, that remark silences the room. For the room, as rooms always seem to do around Morris Ambien, has gone quiet, just as Morris mouths regrettable words, so that everyone in the room is listening to him and looking at him just as the reins of his tongue have slipped and the offending comment is launched, at its previous, noise-defeating volume level.
It is an untoward, if characteristic, Morris-style remark. And the secondary explosion…
All the heads swivel from Morris, and all eyes lock on the Head of Naming, Dex Hallowell, for his reaction.
A tall, variably overweight man of lazy strength and an agile superciliousness, Dexter Hallowell alternates between childlike adorableness and childish viciousness that makes you want to clip him every once in a while with an axe-handle. Which is why Ambien keeps one behind the door in his windowless office.
Hallowell bristles. He and Ambien have a bit if a history, see. “Let me be ‘Blunt,’ Morris. It’s genius.” With a nod, he indicates his subaltern, the recent Edge City U grad named Brett. “Brett came up with it. He is the perfect demographic, as well.”
Brett, young, and unaccustomed to restraint of tongue at table, starts talking.
“Well, it was a team effort, really…”
“Except Brett’s white,” overrides the older Ambien. At this moment, Ambien begins to register his internal Human Resources Department warning: hot ears, tingling and a slight tunneling of vision. His inner limiter flashes, “WARNING.”
Shelby now takes his turn to ride to the rescue and extricate Morris from the disintegrating stagecoach of his own runaway tongue.
“It’s really not a race thing. It’s an age thing. Lanville, here, fits it to a T. He’s the next step. Pilipina mom and African-American Dad, two Scottish great grandparents… cousins in Nagorno-Karabakh… He’s Target Audience of the 21st Century, all in one guy!”
Lanville, precisely half Shelby’s age, winces at the remark. It’s intemperate, inexact, yet a still-accurate characterization of his, and many of his generation’s, personal beliefs.
“Uh, it’s sort of like that, Tate.”
Shelby mimes helplessness aided by an idiot smile stinking of cheese.
“Ooh. It’s all so complicated.”
Morris jumps on him.
“It sure is! This is a minefield! How do you expect me to advertise this junk? This is some kind of evil conspiracy.”
Company chairman and CEO Carl Titan at this moment materializes like Jor-El, a Brandoesque big-chested Man among Men with a penchant for bolo ties clasped ornately in silver-and-turquoise below the lustrous silver of his private-hairdresser-maintained hair.
He’s joining the meeting–probably just to ogle You-Know-Who.
“If I may offer an implanted autosuggestion in my super-paranoid colleague, AnBusch is not junk,” announces Titan. “It’s fuel for a new baby boom! Come on Morris, you old bastard, drop your inhibitions and lay out a couple of AnBusch’s! Set a love trap! Do I have to write this shit myself?”
He glared at Morris.
“Boost those birthrates! Walk into an Anbusch and welcome not Death, but Life, your bundle of joy! You should welcome this opportunity, Morris! Undo some of the destruction your captivating beer-prose and investment-company-propaganda’s done by hastening new lives into the world! You old bastards need someone to pay for your dotage. We need more producers in this economy. I’ll be long gone!”
Titan lets out a cackling belly laugh and stares directly at Her, the real reason he’d come to this meeting.
You-Know-Who, a shimmering apparition emitting the faintest scent of jasmine, returns the smile and then turns and addresses Morris, who carefully looks away from her luminescence as she speaks.
“Yes, Morris, it is cynical. But we must meet, all of us, Egyptian, French, Samoan, Inuit, Chechen, French-Canadian or just American at the marketplace. This product will either live or die on its merits. As our Esteemed Founder, here,” You-Know-Who fetches Carl Titan a smile that nearly fells the big guy with its combined effect on his coronary artery and aging prostate. He sits down, paler.
“As Carl says, Only the marketplace rings the idea true. So, you’ll simply have to conceive of an advertising campaign that compels not just our target audience but also aspires to ensnare the entirety of mankind through the bewitchery of its intrinsic allure. To tell the truth in the best way possible. A campaign to uphold the highest standards and sensitivities, not patronizing, infantile, stereotyped or proselytizing. Only enrapturing!”
She gleamed, continuing, “This business could produce the Art of our Times. In some way as yet unknowable, your work, starting today, could well be viewed by future historians as our distinct cultural marker. And, from the aphrodisiac point-of-view, it so happens, by insinuation, that this new project is a ticket to ride the Baloney…” she lets it trail, leaving unspoken the word, “Pony” in “Baloney Pony.” That’s You-Know-Who for you! The room explodes in laughter.
“And, because,” continues Tate Shelby. Everybody’s much quieter now, though still intermittently laughing, daubing eyes, cleaning glasses lenses, etc.
“And because, the client specifically asked for you.”
Morris stews a moment. Then he dares look at her, Cidaris Musz. For that’s You-Know-Who’s name.
He realizes he’ll give in, and do anything to try to succeed in her eyes. He would Crusade for her, if need be. He surrenders.
“So at least the Brewery remembered I was African-American.”
“Who could forget, Morris?” laughs Cidaris, looking not without interest down the long oaken table to Morris’s crotch. His limbic response is so instantaneous that he grows faint. It’s like she’s gently slipped her hand there, in front of everybody. Everybody looks in the direction of Ambien’s pants. He crosses his legs with some difficulty and turns again to Hardge.
“You’re in good enough odor around here, aren’t you, Lanville? Couldn’t you have found maybe a different product to work on? Why are you a part of this?”
Lanville bristles. “I don’t see you wearing a dashiki or celebrating Kwanzaa, Morris. And come on, Little Eichmann, you wrote ‘MWA’, didn’t you? That’s some attitude. And I don’t quit just because I don’t like… the taste of something. Ginger-Yo-Bimbo, or whatever.”
Morris blinks twice and turns to Shelby. “Even he gets it! This is crazy, a criminal enterprise!”
From beneath his swept-back longish blond receding hairline, Tate Shelby levels a Patented Private-Eye Up-from-Under look at Morris, whom he now knows is going to give in.
“You make it sound downright dangerous.”
Ambien’s and Tate’s eyes call a momentary summit, for in any case they are friends, and for a moment they share at the table a sense of perfect commiseration, communion, solidarity, unspoken. They’d been at this silly, argumentative business of huge egos, capricious clients and demographics a lifetime or two longer than Lanville… he’d come along… this game of folly would always ends in tears, ha-ha… and, who knows?
Maybe, actually, dangerous.
Over beers at the St Louis Brewery taproom, Morris was well liked by clients because he regaled them with tales of the traumas he’d endured in his Upper Upper Upper Westside childhood.
As the first American-born Representative of the Ambien clan, Morris had routinely received undiplomatic ass-kickings from other Harlem boys who didn’t consider his Egyptian-American origin to be nearly-enough African. For Morris looked more like the young Gamal Abdel Nasser than Jomo Kenyatta. His trace British Colonial lilt betrayed itself in the perfection of his pronunciation. For young Ambien, the world seemed doubly racist. He wasn’t good enough for a slum! He would never fit in, no matter how ardently he desired.
Shelby had known Ambien ten years now and watched him complete his evolution from scholarship and honors at Caliyuga into a midlife of comfortable income and accruing benefits in a job he gave every indication of detesting but did so unaccountably well. Morris had hit a longball on his work for Wayverley’s Sweet ‘N’ Sours with his “Sourful Stuff” campaign, in addition to Blunt. That success, and the general approbation that accompanied it (and promotion) had mellowed Morris.
Mellowed him until his wife left him, that is.
Morris repeats. “Dangerous?”
From his position at the other end of the conference room table, Lanville Hardge, interjects with an inappropriate “pistol-hands” gangsta gesture.
“Dangerighteous!” All look at Hardge, surprised by his loud tone. “Dat right, MuTHA. Cap you late-TUH. BOOM BOOM!”
Morris stares sourly back at Hardge, who freezes with his arms crossed in front of him, cavalry-style, ready to draw two pistols.
Ambien snorts. “Nailed it. You nailed it first try, Lanny.”
“The opening campaign direction. AnBusch: The Biggy Smalls Version.”
Morris breathes the last in a tone that could not be mistaken for anything but the same derisive emotion that powers jeering hoots, tosses rotting vegetables, or cruelly ties cans to the tail of misused cats.
For all the stupid obviousness of the idea.
Yet ultra-competitive and envious Morris curses himself for not having thought of the same thing, first. He follows up with a Barry-White basso profundo, “If you’ve got a big engagement coming on, ain’t no harm laying out a couple a AnBusches.” Morris then makes some playground Army noises. The other occupants of the room, save for Hardge, can’t restrain their laughter.
The ragging that Ambien is delivering in metered doses is, indeed, finally registering in Lanville’s Hardge’s MBA mind. Hardge accepts the shove, and fouls back, hard.
“I’d go easy on the verbal blackface, there, Ambien. Minstrelsy’s likely to get you a closed-door with H.R.”
Ambien acknowledges Hardge’s words with a further playground emission: “Ooh. ‘Minstrelsy’. Bleah-bleah, Bleah-bleah!”
Ambien, scoffing, “H.R.! I remember when it was called Personnel!”
He turns back sourly to Shelby.
“This is some kind of renegade operation from the Brewery. Or,” and he pauses, contemplating, a finger to his top lip. “This is a spoiling attack by the competition. To discredit the Brewery. Or to discredit us.”
Shelby affects not to hear. “Anyway we’ve got to get cracking on this. It’s a two-week turnaround. Top-secret, too.”
He turns to Hardge. “Ain’t that right, Lanny?”
Lanville winces again, this time at this intentionally comic use of his diminutive, coming on top of Morris’s intemperately rude behavior. He grows even more irritated. He does not appreciate getting handled like a freshman, especially in front of Cidaris.
So he doesn’t hold back, rejoining scornfully, “Yeah, Tate. Sure, right, yeah. CAP you LATEr, Tater. CAP you TOO… Mo-REECE!” He flexes a little, still young and gym-toned.
“That kid’s weird,” notices Carl Titan. The room laughs, relieved.
Shelby, perfect in designer suit and tassled loafers exits with Carl, who performs the sign of the Cross. Villereal and Cidaris and the rest edge out of the uncomfortably silent conference room as well, leaving Morris Ambien and Lanville Hardge to stare at each other.
Morris backs out of the conference room.
Lanville follows him with his eyes, staring at the vacated doorway, then exhales explosively through his nose, thinking What a dick!
Their relationship, what there was of it, has forever changed.
A critical imbalance had been struck. A crucial balance of respect, upset. A terminal instability in what had been a tentative friendship anyway. Now, on the Power Point Piechart of Possibility, gleamed a new, brightly colored, but fast-widening Piece of Probability Pie, tagged Prematurely Purchasing the Pharm.