Arthur held one finger up to his wife while he checked the number. “I need to take this.” He didn’t wait for her to protest, he just got up from the table and moved to the sidewalk in some vague notion of modern etiquette as he swiped his finger across the face of his phone and put it to his ear.
“This is Art.” He hoped his voice didn’t sound too anxious.
“I have Josh for you.” And then a few seconds later, “Arthur, how are you?”
“Good Josh. I’m good. How are you?”
“I’m returning your call.”
“You have to get me a meeting with George.” Well, that cut to the chase. He heard some shuffling on the other end of the line. Before Josh could answer, Art blurted, “Listen, you know I can get this job. You know it. Remember, Sarah? Remember when I said get a meeting with Sarah and I nailed that down with one phone call. I didn’t even have to go into her office. I just talked her through it and she pulled the trigger. Right then and there. Remember?”
“Art. That was six years ago.”
“Has it–? Well, I didn’t…”
“Sarah’s had a lot more work since then and she hasn’t called you back.”
“What’re you saying?”
“I’m saying people talk.”
“Sarah’s an idiot. That much was clear from the get-go.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, Art, but you have a bit of a stink on you now.”
“You hired me because I tell it like it is. And I’m telling you, you’re toxic. George isn’t going to happen.”
Arthur looked at his wife still in the booth in the restaurant, drinking a black and white milkshake. Why’d she have to order the milkshake?
“You know what, Josh?” He looked up at the sky, gray and pitiless. He hung up the phone before he finished the sentence. His wife would ask him who that was calling and he rehearsed saying “nobody,” then went back inside the diner.
He worked for a company with a made-up name that beta-tested websites for bugs. Everyday, a new email of links would come to him, and he would click on the links, which would take him to a client’s website, and he would click on all those links and if they didn’t go where they were supposed to go, he’d note it. His notes would then be emailed to his supervisor, who would combine them with other notes from the “techs,” and this would go back to the client who would supposedly fix the broken links.
Arthur had his own cubicle, but he’d refused to decorate it like some of the other techs, with their bullshit action figures and bullshit ironic movie posters (Gil had SHORT CIRCUIT and MANNEQUIN) and bullshit pictures of their children. Arthur didn’t put anything up to decorate his own cubicle because this was not Arthur’s job, not his career. He was not a “tech.” He was not. He had five years at Emory University and he’d taken the GRE and could’ve gotten into any number of graduate programs save maybe the Ivy League but then things had heated up and he’d ditched the idea of further education for bigger dreams.
His computer screen was open to a website called BackLife.com, a company that sold products combating back pain. He started left-to-right, top-to-bottom, clicking on the various links, none of them dead, all of them going exactly where they were supposed to go. Health charts and product information and testimonials and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
He yawned and opened up Amazon. Typed in his own name and looked up the author whose name he shared. The son-of-a-bitch had a new book coming out so Arthur clicked on the link. Correction, already out. The title was one of those ridiculous jingoistic military titles: Triple Target. Art went to the “write a review” section, logged into his dummy account, and wrote a one-star review. He felt his face flush as he did.
He heard his supervisor coming down the hall and quickly opened back up the window for BackLife. His supervisor passed without even looking in his direction.
Art clicked from BackLife over to a website for a company called YellowFish. Best he could tell, YellowFish was some kind of architecture firm, servicing commercial clients. He went up to the “Who We Are” link and clicked it. It took him to an error message.
Art leaned back in his chair. He’d reported the broken link four months ago. No one had bothered to fix it.
“Scott, it’s Art.”
“Hey, buddy. How you doing?”
“I’ve been better.”
“Sorry to hear it. How’s Belinda?”
“She’s fine, listen—“
“I’d like to get in to meet George.”
Art held his breath…
“You gotta get me in there, Scott.”
“Josh is your primary –“
“Josh isn’t doing shit. He’s not doing his job. He’s not helping me. He called me toxic.”
“He said that?”
“That was his exact word. Toxic.”
“Well, what do you want me to say? Word is you tanked that Sarah job.”
“I did not. I did NOT. Sarah was out to get me from day one. I did everything they asked and more. THEY tanked that job before I could even get it on its feet.”
“Perception is reality in this town, Art.”
“Scott, Scott, forget all of that. Forget it. Just do this for me.”
“I wish I could help you, Art…”
“Have I ever asked you for anything?”
“Who picked you up in Vegas?”
He held his breath. Silence from Scott on the other end of the line. Even when it had happened, even as it was happening, when he’d driven four hours across the desert and bailed out Scott and cleaned him up and watched him shake and drove him home and covered for him with Kaitlyn, even as it was happening, he knew he’d use it at some point, down the road, like a lottery ticket always in his back pocket. Well, here it was and now he wondered if he’d played it too clumsily.
“You did, Art.”
“Did I ever ask you for anything after that?”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Did I ever ask you for anything?”
“That’s right. I came through for you when you were on your ass and that’s what I’m asking for now. Just a meeting. I know I can win this. I KNOW I can. You gotta just get me in the door.”
“I’ll call you back.”
“I’ll call you back, Art.”
The line went dead and Art held the phone to his forehead like a cold compress. He let out an exhale that went on for an eternity. He didn’t remember breathing back in.
Belinda looked him over. She was fidgeting, fluttering, as nervous as he. “You look great,” she told him.
“Not too nerdy?”
“Perfect. Where are you going to park?”
“They have valet.”
“No, park on the street and walk up. You don’t want him to see what kind of car you drive.”
Art let that one go. She was right, but he didn’t want to hear that shit. He needed to focus. He had it all memorized. He had handwritten papers but he didn’t need them; they were for show. He knew it backward and forward, every detail. And he’d leave George wanting more. That’s how he’d done it with Sarah six years ago, and so what if that had gone sour? This was it. This was his time.
Belinda cleaned the last bit of lint off his shoulders and gave him a kiss and a lopsided smile. “You can do this.”
“Call me as soon as you’re out of there.”
He shut the door.
He climbed the hill to the front of the sidewalk. The valet parkers shot him looks that said they knew he couldn’t afford to park there, much less stay there. They didn’t bother to get the door for him.
He looked at his watch. He was five minutes early. He’d debated coming in casually late, but it just wasn’t his style. As he crossed the lobby for the lounge, he realized he’d forgotten his papers in the car and a moment of panic set in. If he went back for them, he’d be late, and hot, and sweaty, and what kind of an impression would that make?
He closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts, fighting the rising terror spreading across his chest and up his throat. He could do this. He didn’t need the papers. He knew it backward and forward. He wasn’t just selling this, he was selling himself, he was going to tell George that he was the kind of guy George would want to spend the next six months, hell, the next few years with, and the only way to do that was to appear sharp, calm, and passionate. Forget the papers. He knew this.
He walked into the lounge and a hostess said his party was already there and waiting for him. She lead him toward a table in the back, and he felt his feet propelling him forward involuntarily, as though he were on a conveyor belt, or a chute heading down, down, down…
He could turn and run. He could feign sickness, beg forgiveness, head to the bathroom. His feet kept moving him forward. You got this, he said over and over in his head. You got this, you got this.
He saw George and everything went blank. The man was half-standing from behind the table and extending his hand. “Art? I’m George. This is Kathleen.”
Art shook hands with George and did the same with the woman at the table. They were in the middle of eating omelets and oatmeal respectfully.
Art heard himself say, “So great to finally meet you.”
George had a pleasant enough look on his face, but one that said he’d heard every compliment under the sun and didn’t have time for pleasantries. “Well, great to meet you as well, Art. Obviously, we’re excited to hear what you have to say.”
Art’s mind raced over planets and galaxies, characters and plots, weapons and wars, ships and stars and then it focused, the way a flashlight sharpens its beam the closer it gets to a wall. He smiled.
“All right, I’ll make this quick. Episode Seven opens on an asteroid, floating lazily in space, and as the camera pushes past it, we see a speck of dust, no wait, not a speck… a ship… and not just any ship… it’s the Millennium Falcon, and as we push in, tighter and tighter, right into the cockpit, we see it’s not being piloted by Han Solo, not by Chewbacca, but by a ten-year-old boy…”
Art watched a broad smile spread across George’s face, and continued.
Derek Haas is the cowriter of the films The Double, Wanted, and 3:10 to Yuma, co-creator of the new NBC series Chicago Fire, and the author of The Assassin Trilogy, including The Silver Bear, Columbus, and Dark Men. He lives in Los Angeles.
Mulholland Books will publish Derek’s new novel THE RIGHT HAND, introducing CIA agent Austin Clay on November 13th, 2012.