Midmorning hum of his god of work: clean, fresh glass of leader offices looking into row on row of busy cubicles. Secretaries, smart and dialing, sending, receiving. Motion to and fro. Meetings small and large. Work, work, work - what makes America America
... his happiness.
The phone brings the dark timbre of the young man ignored earlier this morning, requesting to show his work. The boy's mind has been filled with pictures ever since college, his great discovery that Aaron Douglas, Mailou Jones, even Degas, Lautrec knew him - or he knew them, he wasn't sure. But he had been advised by wise people that he wanted to eat, that painting was a weekend sport, that he must teach or perhaps design or maybe sell. So he came here, to dream that the advertising world is an art world, that after it, or alongside it, would come the studio, wide, hard, and open despite its crude setting, and all the canvassed beauty of his imagination.
At the respectful tap at the door, he nods the young man in, watching, thinking, as he always does at the onset of certain people, of affirmative action, standards, the challenge of hemlines and mannish suits in the workplace. Finally some nothing words, that young Frank has never been able to make out but doesn't care for: "There's young Hank Aaron." Then, "How's the Livelife account." "I never played much ball, Mr. Wright - here is the layout." "Beautiful beautiful, as always Sims, but you could be a little plainer about what you're selling." And as he crosses, advises, adjusts, enjoying this destructive authority over the young man's hold on beauty, Sims finds his little used window. Taking in the music of six tram doors, opening and closing as if under a baton; a hawker swimming through stopped cars; the gait of the sun on the white sidewalk; and the diabolical rapids of people passing. "Humph?" he says, shoving the layout at Sims. "Oh, yes, I see what you mean," - big smile. And he frames his picture outside the window. "Thank you, Mr. Wright." The quick twist of his computer screen, the recomposition of his face is his reply, his dismissal.
A bird dives straight down through the window, beyond Wright's shoulder, as Sims leaves.
Rid of the interruption, he turns the screen aside, pulls from his desk his proposal "Capturing a Share of the School Market." His gem that the old timers are balking at. He reads from the first page: "School boys and girls of all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds represent serious consumer dollars. Direct advertising in the schools offers an obvious advantage over more traditional ways of reaching this market." Obvious to anyone but Garrison and Bernstein. His new house, newly angled but stately and remote as though from another century, his copper Benz resting on the upswung curve of the driveway, lithe wife stirring friends by the nightlit green of the pool - his gem they want to kill with some petty words about bumping up against traditional educational values! They want to "go slow," ginger the educators and critics, limit time and type of ad. He spins for a rare gaze out the wide window. "What's slow - gingerly - or limited out there? They're struggling with all their might - just like the sun struggles each day to rise and then settle down after a day's work, people just don't see it. It hurts ... Like me ... In fact, they really don't want to go; they believe, somehow, in those - what! - traditional educational values! ... What I've learned - well, no school teacher taught me."
The sun fights to pass the pane to get to his airconditioned neck as he rehearses his arguments once more for a final push at the oblong table. It is a struggle; he'll win. Other companies are in; he'll get in. Bernstein, Garrison, the others at the table will shift pieces of themselves, as though they were the bright squares of a thumb puzzle: their upbringing - the simple words over a child's book, a teenage failure, a letter to college - their learning - stopping their ears to the heavy words of a particular teacher - their remaining principles of work and family, until - presto! - there's a modified man that looks out at the others and says, as though satisfied, "Yes, there's merit here, let's give it a try."
Try harder, through this new way, to sell for their clients. So that our children might learn the beauty of a new tread on a basketball shoe, the purity of a soft drink, the social obligation of a pair of jeans, the necessity to their education of the wealth of marketers' ideas . Behind Wright's satisfied face is a new commitment to the teaching of the absolute importance of buying, buying, buying, and selling. And as a golden afterthought, "Yes, we'll run, for free, some anti-drug ads too." Ads against drugs, yes. So young drug sellers, who have already learned to need expensive sneakers and a gun, will learn irony too. "You know, I gotta addict you, Young Sister, so that I can get these fine shoes and soon a fine car, hey, it's what they taught me at school." For already, though Mrs. Wilson lets the screen that now elbows her blackboard lie mute and gray while she speaks of the things she has always spoken of, Mr. Fusco, on whom it's been impressed that "They hate me and learning, and their parents are no good," simply lets the TV run, trusting there'll be some random learning in the midst of selling.
At lunch Wright bathes himself in alcohol. The yellow light rises and rises in him, making happier and happier plays for his head. As he playfully darts and dodges, he grins to himself amongst the finery of white linen, balanced cutlery, and gently placed dishes. And his goals march themselves past him in neat review: the house, the drive with car, the pool, a school "with some history" for young Jim, and, something new tentatively bringing up the rear: perhaps a little something less weary than Janet on the side. He leaves a fair tip.
It isn't the drink, he thinks, when in the mid-afternoon lull he hears a deep, metallic sound - timpani under many feet of water - not from in his office, not clearly outside the building - annoyingly random.
He ceases to hear it, as he turns to his coming appointment. One of these expose shows did a hatchet job on a major player - violation of safety codes, irresponsible treatment of workers, that sort of thing. He shakes hands firmly with the client who has slid, a gray slice - bland against Wright's robustness - into the office.
"A worker gets hurt," the slice says. "Tragically, maybe one dies under a piece of equipment." Then with emphasis, "Our customers get the mistaken impression that Capital Corporation doesn't take care of its workers and doesn't care about consumer safety either. Oh we'll sue these - journalists," then smiling, "We'll find out how much money they've got, but we need to do something about our public image, change the thinking of some workers, as well as some doubting customers."
They understand one another. The agency has always appreciated his rapport with clients, his lack of a need of many words. Clasping tight his pen, he runs over the material, a man permanently disabled by a rollover vehicle, one dead, a long list of accidents reported - the rabid face of dissent: Ambition, he thinks, it's all ambition, and what's wrong with ambition in America?
"I'm thinking about a note like "There's nothing wrong with Ambition." The gray slice smiles, they shake hands, as the sun lowers below the highest buildings. As Capital Corp. leaves, a clear, bold ad saving ambition from the pink-gummed dogs of dissent unfolds easily in his head, with the felicity with which one imagines music unfolding from Mozart's mind.
Young Sims is sketching a whispy ad, with sophisticated leaps of imagery, hearing the saxophone he wants playing in the background. He's forgotten what he's selling.
Shadows escape the hindrance of buildings, sunset sidles along remaining city spaces, admires miniscule center-of-town streets, the remnants of the past century. Autos still pressure those that hamper them, though there is flow now. The transit system has begun to breathe more regularly, but passengers still sigh, elbow, and shoulder for space, as though it were a commodity authorities had announced would no longer be available. Insufficiently ambitious, Sims has left, strong in the early evening light that spells people, poetry, painting for him. Now Wright is making for the swift click of his car door, the smooth hum to propel him out of the circle before nightfall,
since the city soon nervously shakes away the Eastern calm of the business offices and turns seriously to drink, lust, love, drugging, brawling, killing. Watchful grandparents, aunts have gathered up their children's children and closed their doors to the city's threatening knocking. One boy hurrying home late from the school program that flung him far from his row house touches the knife in his pocket his parents approved and his teacher reluctantly returned after hearing the history of his homecoming. A teenage girl, big for her age, struggles with the aggression masquerading as charm of the boy who's cornered her. Another rides up and down with her man who's going to make good - whose baby she will bear and ultimately bring up alone with the support of a circle of school friends who wear their outcast in their eyes, who give a tone to the certain corridor of the school they populate, and with perhaps the help of a kindly grandmother.
Gentlemen, drunk or bitter from the business trade, eager, unlike him, to put aside moderation, score quietly, nervously in parts of the city they've come to know. They meet, always with a certain surprise, their twin images in the druggist's Benz, BMW, beeper, cellular phone, and his crisp business manner. His killing is direct, though, and the executive must respect this, as he fumbles for his cash.
As his colleague steals away, delighted as a child breaking a school rule, Wright reaches the quiet suburb of his home. In town, the neighbors can hear too vividly the wife bruising, the abuse of children. Here it goes on under the cover of long yards, almost poetic in the night air, high hedges and fences, silenced by the buddhistic facade of tall houses. As he pulls into the drive, shutting down the auto with a satisfying hiss, he can see his son and daughter through the picture window: Confident profiles; no drive-bys here.
But the moon rises over the circle and the suburbs alike. Its light has entered a city home where a woman dances with it, sings to it, dreams to it. Indeed, dreaming in the city crowds hurriedly around the sweet chill of the disk. For, blocks away from the woman who is dancing, the fire of drugs and money have lit up the tired facade of a house where someone who "messed up" lives. Who lies dead or maimed in the house will serve as the lesson. And in the ghostly shadows of a deserted playground, a hot animal is breathing in the pinned face of "a problem" between knuckling the face and issuing the principles of his law. This one will be allowed to survive, to live more correctly; the hard, red woman he'll come to next will simply be killed, expendable trash.
Everyone must learn the hard principles of buying and selling. Soles rap sidewalks, clap quick time out of pavement, tires squeal, lights flash before being hung by darkness, as it goes on through the night. Until the new day bursts its flame of new riotous traffic.
© Copyright William Ray.
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