My second year of noveling, I reasoned, had to be easier. I knew I could do it. I knew where I had gone wrong before. Plus, I had a fantastic idea. What would happen if someone developed a perfect cure? Something that would rebuild a human from the DNA out, in a matter of minutes? What would happen if it were released to the world, without asking the world first?
In my book, someone would get sued.
I loved the idea, had reams of notes. Piece of cake. I even considered waiting a week to start, to make it fair.
By the end of the month I was seriously thinking about giving one of my characters an uncontrollable impulse to recite ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” whenever he entered a room, because I needed the words. Made a strong start, got quite a ways into it, and then made the cardinal mistake of speed-writing and horror movie chases: I looked back. Spent the rest of the month endlessly editing and re-editing what I’d already written, barely managed to stumble over the 50,000 word finish line with a half hour to spare.
This one I’ll probably come back to, because I still love the idea. Here’s the last version of the opening:
By Chris Bridges
The cool thing about working at Starbucks, Mannie thought, was the awesome potential for spying.
You had to be discreet, of course. People often got touchy when they were distracted from their private affairs by a nosey guy who took a half hour to wipe their table, but Manny was a pro. So far this morning he had carefully not noticed the three gorgeous, giggling co-eds bragging about the sex they had the night before (he especially liked not hearing the story about the blindfold and the jar of grape jelly). The fact that he was pretty sure all three were lying to each other made it even better, almost as good as the two weepy guys he overheard the other day trading lost love stories. Great stuff.
People who are unable to function without caffeinated beverages are at their most vulnerable during the first cup, noted Mannie, amateur sociologist. Before they get it they’re surly, sarcastic, and often incomprehensible, more like Dawn of the Dead extras than real people. After their fix, when the murky hot bean juice seeps into every pore of their bodies and kicks them awake, they gradually evolve into productive, sharp-eyed and unnaturally alert members of society with brief cases and SUVs the size of a mid-town apartment. But oh, in those magic moments between the first scent slapping them in the face and the last drop swirling around the bottom of the cup, when their whole body chemistry is changing and their brains are still wiping the sleep from their lobes, that’s when they’re as wide-open as a white-collar prison. Working unobtrusively around the shop Mannie spent his days hearing about passionate love affairs, unsavory business deals, divorces, flights of fancy, moments of despair, heights of selfless nobility, and the deepest, darkest secrets of the human soul. It was better than TiVo.
Mannie called it “breakfast theater.”
Some day he hoped to overhear some spies, or become a hero by single-handedly thwarting the nefarious plans of some bomb-throwing, latte-guzzling terrorists. But until then he’d settle for the usual, which was smut and soap opera.
Right now he was refilling the straw and napkin dispensers, which happened to be located in a prime spot with great acoustics. A couple of stockbrokers were talking in low and excited tones about something that would surely have gotten them arrested if Mannie had been an undercover agent for the SEC, but he was too busy carefully not paying attention to the two men hunched over the table in the back. They were some kind of science guys and were always good for some bizarre entertainment. He placed straws in the bin one by one and listened.
“Jackson’s results are in, Vince,” the big one said. He always reminded Mannie of an old Grizzly Adams, or maybe Santa Claus the morning after a bad eggnog drunk, and he looked like he had gotten dressed in a burning house. Wrinkled, mismatched clothes, wild hair, no socks. From the excited way he was gesturing about and trying not to yell, part of him might still be on fire. “They’re better than anything we even dreamed of!”
The other man, presumably Vince, wasn’t impressed. Or else he was trying really hard not to be, Mannie guessed. He made a small bet with himself over that and reached for another straw.
“We still haven’t tried it on a large enough sampling,” Vince muttered. “A group of scientists and their families over a couple of years is hardly a statistical city block, much less a universe.”
“Brinker is cured, Vincent,” said the other man. “Completely, totally cured! Projections were for partial remission, maybe just slowing things down, but his PCR was clean as a whistle. The lab tested his viral loads and it went away while they watched. While they watched! And do you know how long it took?”
The wild guy leaned back in his chair to make more room for the grin that was yanking his face around and getting larger by the minute. “Ten minutes. He’s the fiftieth one, and he had the farthest progression, and he was all better before he could finish watching a Friends rerun.”
“And now you want to go public, I assume? That’s what this is about?”
“Of course! We all do! This is the greatest breakthrough in the history of… of breakthroughs! We’ve just cured-”
“Quiet! Keep it down, you idiot! You know my opinion on this, we’ve been over this a million times. We’re not ready yet, there are too many complications. We still haven’t figured out how to deliver it or keep it stable, and we haven’t decided how to keep from being killed doing it. A few more years and-”
The wild guy smiled like Heaven’s own lottery winner. “You can’t keep stalling forever, Vincent.” He stood up and dropped a couple of bills on the table. “It’s time to kiss the world and make it all better. There’s been a meeting called for tomorrow, the full staff. Take your precautions, I’ll catch up with you later.”
Vincent (and Mannie) watched him leave.
Mannie watched the remaining man out of the corner of his eye. He was almost to the point of no return as far as napkin-stuffing went. Come on, come on…
Finally Vincent slammed his fist down on the table, making the coffee cups jump.
“Damn,” he muttered. Then he got up and stalked out.
Point for me, Mannie thought cheerfully, and headed over to clean windows behind the crying lady who was writing the Dear John letter to her fiancé in Boise while her hazelnut frappé turned into warm mud. He loved his job.
So intriquing was her tearful prose that he completely failed to notice the man in the far corner who folded the newspaper that had coincidentally obscured his face, and left in the same direction Vincent had gone.
Chapter One – Dysfunctional Family Planning
The United States spends a larger share of the GDP on health than does any other major industrialized country. In 2000 the United States devoted 13.3 percent of the GDP to health compared with 10.6–10.7 percent each in Germany and Switzerland and 9.1–9.5 percent in Canada and France, countries with the next highest shares.
— “Health, United States, 2003”; U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
If by chance I talk a little wild, forgive me;
I had it from my father.
— William Shakespeare; Henry VIII I, 4
I wonder if any other companies start their meetings this way, Carl Browry thought to himself. He sank farther into his chair and watched his sister and fellow company vice-president walk quickly around the long oak table behind the woman who was simultaneously their mother, their president, and their CEO. At the moment she was also naked. And singing.
“It’s a ga-as! Just a dash of silicone! Shake your new maracas and you’re fine!” The song had certainly been sung better through the years but even the most avid theater-goer would be hard-pressed to remember anyone who had ever sang it more enthusiastically, or with more visible maracas.
“Mother, please!” his sister Elizabeth pleaded. She was carrying the Donna Karan ensemble that their mother had shucked and was chasing after her like she was trying to douse a fire. Which wasn’t, after all, too far off the mark.
Fortunately the elegantly appointed boardroom had no windows or, for that matter, sharp corners, and had been soundproofed months ago once impromptu naked performances became commonplace. Other than those minor modifications it was a pretty standard executive hidey-hole with a small side bar in the back, computer monitors around the table, and leather and oak fighting it out everywhere else for interior supremacy. A large whiteboard covered the far wall next to the painfully distinguished picture of the company’s founder, Nathanial Lancaster, whose stern expression suggested he had just taken a moment to sit stiffly and pose before popping off and single-handedly ending WWI, beating Joe Lewis in two rounds and inventing value-added tax.
Camille Lancaster, Nathanial’s great-granddaughter, was just as imposing. By the time she turned twenty-five she was already running the family’s shampoo company almost single-handedly, her father (Horace Lancaster, previous CEO and renowned inventor of hair conditioner as a separate and vitally necessary product) having died the same year in an inexplicable accounting accident. Unfortunately, by the time she conquered the business world she found to her dismay one of the few things that doesn’t sexually discriminate: Alzheimer’s didn’t sexually discriminate. In the last few years her failing faculties forced her to begin delegating some of the responsibility to trusted subordinates who could be relied upon to guard against exaggerated rumors — or selected truths — reaching the stockholders. That meant family. Her daughter Elizabeth was already showing remarkable financial acuity and unsuspected depths of anal retentiveness, so VP of Finance and Marketing was a natural position for her. And Carl…
Officially Carl was Vice President of Research and Development. What Carl was in real life was a semi-talented chemist in a suit who found that nepotism wasn’t really all that bad once you got used to it. What he was in practical terms was the guy who did everything that Camille and Elizabeth didn’t, which included designing new product labels, researching and purchasing new equipment, and picking up the pizzas for the weekly Employee Appreciation Lunch.
What he was most of the time was mortified and frustrated. Summerville Shampoo Company, Inc, his chosen future, was going under, and its once-powerful leader was singing it down with a bang.
Camille was apparently heading into a big finish, expertly dodging Elizabeth like a star quarterback and hauling a chair between them for defense. On her next line she paused, and posed like she’d just turned over a vowel. “What they want is… whatcha see!”
If Carl was embarrassed or uncomfortable at seeing his middle-aged mother in the altogether he’d gotten over it quickly during the last year. Instead he focused on her face with an intensity that even the most advanced meditation couldn’t create and tried to think about whether pumping up the pH balance on the latest product line would be worth the hassle. Some of his most innovative ideas had come while trying not to look below his mother’s neck.
With a heroic lunge Elizabeth grabbed her and began dragging the silk blouse over her head. “Are you going to help me or what?” she snapped in Carl’s direction. Camille sang on, undeterred. Carl tried to discretely clear his perpetually-clogged sinuses (an annoyance for most, a boon for a person who mucks around with chemicals all day) and grudgingly leaned forward to get up with the speed of a sleeping jungle cat, stopping instantly when his phone rang.
“Sorry, gotta take this,” he said, smiling insincerely and thanking the gods for whomever the caller was. She glared at him and went back to wrapping a skirt around Camille’s chubby hips. Camille, meanwhile, was singing to a hidden audience somewhere by the overhead projector about debutantes, chorus girls, and wives, and how they might be suitably enhanced. Why do I put up with this, Carl wondered. “Hello?”
The voice at the other end suggested intelligence and guile, genius and self-purpose. A Grand Vizier’s voice. This voice, you could tell, was issued from under a very thin mustache. “Let me guess,” it said. “A Chorus Line?”
Oh yeah, that’s why. “She was just telling us about the fantastic performance she saw last night, Dad.”
His sister’s head snapped up, wide-eyed and slightly revolted, at the word “Dad.”
“I’m certain of it. Did this performance, technically speaking, exist?”
“Of course,” Carl said, hating to be little-kid defensive right off and knowing no other way to react. Vincent Browry, scientist, bioengineer, genius, was a man who took life by the horns, presumably to kill it and hang it on his wall. If there was ever a time when he had treated his son (or anyone else) as anything other than a slightly embarrassing problem to be solved and dismissed, like dandruff, Carl couldn’t remember it.
“Ah, good. Normally she tends to see very limited debuts, often in the strangest places. Remind me to tell you about the time I found her singing a soulful duet with the washing machine. Very moving. But for now I’ll be quick, I know how important you think your time is.”
Elizabeth, using arcane combat dressing maneuvers no doubt learned in the Orient, had managed to get Camille more or less completely covered. She hustled the still-warbling woman through the side door to her office, suddenly relieved she only had a whacked-out mother to deal with while Carl got the terrifyingly sane father. The door closed with a heavy clunk, leaving him alone in a room with no really satisfying methods of suicide, which meant he had to keep talking.
He held his phone away from his head in case snide condescension was catching. “No problem,” he lied. “What can I do for you?”
“Please. I’m merely informing you I’ll be away for the foreseeable future. I’m at a crucial juncture in my work and I’ll be in an undisclosed location finalizing it, for an indeterminate amount of time. Distasteful though it is you are my next of kin and as such I thought you should know. Also, something of mine may be arriving shortly and I would appreciate it if you would keep it safe.”
“Glad you can be so precise. Are you sure you called the right number?”
“Unquestionably. Anyone else I might have called, anywhere in the world, would surely have understood me better.”
“So what are you sending me? Is it something you need help with?”
Now there came an audible sneer. It was almost like a mime act, in reverse. “No, none of my experiments currently involve keeping one’s hair springtime fresh. The only reason I’m calling you at all is because you were convenient and helper monkeys are prohibitively expensive to rent. But obviously this is a waste of my time and possibly even yours, difficult as that is to imagine. I leave you to your cleaning products.”
“Dad,” Carl said. Silence on the other end. “I’d like to help. Please.”
A sigh this time, as if agreement hadn’t been expected and wasn’t entirely welcome. And then, in a single rushed breath, “Thank you, that’s all I required, instructions should arrive soon, please do not tell anyone about it or tamper with it in any way, I trust your holidays will be well,” his father said, and hung up.
Carl stared at his phone for a long, silent moment, as if waiting for his father to call him back and say “Ha ha, just kidding” before he folded it up and slowly placed it back in his pocket. What in the world could that have been about? Vincent Browry’s phone calls to his son in the last six years could be counted on the fingers of one thumb. And the odds of him ever asking for help of anybody at all was as likely as Carl being elected Pope on the Liberal ticket.
The empty board room suddenly seemed even more depressing. Apparently the meeting was over, unless there was an encore planned. He opened over to the side door and peered in. Camille, mostly dressed, was sleeping peacefully on the leather couch in her office with her legs propped up on the back. A visibly worn Elizabeth was sprawled in the desk chair. “Oh, you made it,” she said wearily. “Good, we have a quorum.”
“I need to talk to you-”
“This meeting of the executive board of the Summerville Shampoo Company, Inc, is now called to order!” she said loudly. Looking around, she selected a pen and rapped the desk with it. “All accounted for and present?”
“You’ve got to be kid-”
She stared him down. “All accounted for and present?”
“Aye, aye, sir,” he said. He grabbed the last soda out of the little refrigerator by the bookshelf and sat on the other end of the couch. Almost immediately his mom’s feet slid down and landed with a plop in his lap. He clasped his hands together over her ankles and tried to look executive.
“I’ve been going over our books, Mr. Browry,” Elizabeth said.
“Liz, you don’t have to-”
“…And it appears obvious that this next quarter could very well be our last quarter.” She pushed off from the desk and let the chair spin around. “I’m serious, Carl, I don’t know what we’re going to do about it. This is it, we’re tapped out.”
“Completely? How much do we have left?”
“That Coke you’re holding represents the last of our capital expenditures budget. Sip it slowly. And save the can.”
Carl abruptly forgot about his father, which for once was a mixed blessing. “But all we have to do is just hold on until the new line starts selling, right? “Enchanted” just rolled out, that’s gotta be bringing in some cash, right. Do we have any numbers on that yet?”
She laughed once, without the slightest sign of amusement, as if somewhere in front of her someone had held up a cue card that said “Chortle” and she was gamefully playing along. “Numbers? Yes, we have a number on that. That number would be three.”
“Three? Three thousand?”
“Three cases. Jimmy Joe’s Discount Warehouse bought them after I promised free shipping and one of those promotional hand towels.”
“I counted them. Twice. Used my executive calculator and everything.”
“After all that work? Three? That’s insane, “Enchanted” is the best product this company has ever made!”
“You’re right, it is. There were two problems with it.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, we barely had enough money left to manufacture it and get it in the little bottles. There was nothing left for distribution or advertising. And when I say nothing, I mean exactly that. I had to drive the three boxes over myself.” She sighed. “I was hoping to get by on advance sales from our regular customers, but they didn’t bite.”
“Great. What’s two?”
“Jennifer said we couldn’t use the name “Enchanted.” It’s already being used for a Revlon line of nail polish, a Neutrogena blush, and at least twelve different bath soaps and herbal shampoos. For other companies.”
Carl sat perfectly still, ignoring his own sudden frustration and Camille’s gentle snores. Jennifer Gaskidy was the company’s lawyer. She triple-checked everything she encountered, which gave rise to some interesting speculation about her love life. If she said they couldn’t, they couldn’t. If she said Carl was a moo cow he would begin grazing without a moment’s thought because he knew she would have more statistics and worker-impact studies to prove he was than he could produce to prove he wasn’t. “So what did we go with, then?”
Elizabeth nodded mournfully towards the couch. “We didn’t. She did.”
“Yep.” She spun around again and faced out the office window that looked over the retention pond and the company parking lot. Both were more than half-empty. “The ad agency called while I was in the bathroom and Mom answered. Apparently she told them to call it “Whizzipoo.” Got a certain ring to it, don’t you think?” she asked, smiling crookedly for a moment until her face collapsed into despair. She laid her head down on the desk blotter and began pounding it there in a slow, easy rhythm that suggested she was prepared to keep going until the nice ambulance people arrived.
“”Whizzipoo.” Our new line, crafted for elegance and decadence, designed specifically to be an expensive-looking product that was reasonably priced so Wal-Mart shoppers could pretend they bought it at Tiffany’s, went out marked as “Whizzipoo.” Our last and greatest shampoo, the one we pinned all our hopes on.”
She stopped pounding to look at him. “You know, that’s exactly what our buyers said, the ones that weren’t laughing. Maybe you can get a job with one of them after we lock the doors here.” Pound, pound, pound.
Carl leaned back and thought frantic thoughts. Then he drew a mental line under them and examined the result. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t. There simply wasn’t a shampoo on the market that could match “Enchanted,” er, “Whizzipoo” for strength, gentleness, conditioning, silky feel, or honeysuckle-scentability.
But if no one knew that, no one would buy it. Except, presumably, for discount warehouses who get free towels. “So when can we remarket it and try again? What’s our next move?”
Elizabeth lifted her head again. Her dark brown hair hung in frazzled strands over her face. “We’ve got about a week, I think,” she said.
“Before the creditors start prying the copper pipes out of the employee bathrooms.”
“Hi, everybody,” Carl said to the small group of people in front of him that represented the remains of Summerville’s once-reasonably-mighty work force. They consisted of a head chemist, who was given the title instead of any actual subordinates, four women who worked the line and made sure the shampoo went in the bottles instead of the other way around, and a sole security guard who took the expensive security system home with him at night so no one would steal it. They shuffled nervously.
“I’m glad you could all make it to our Friday Employee Appreciation meeting–”
“We’re getting canned, aren’t we,” said Flora, one of the line women. She had the perpetually downtrodden look of someone who expected to get fired every day of her life and was rarely disappointed. The fact that she was often fired because she kept depressing other employees with her dire predictions about imminent layoffs never seemed to register with her.
“Um,” Carl said.
“I don’t see any pizza. That leaves termination,” Flora said, unwittingly encapsulating everything anyone needs to know about operant conditioning in human psychology.
“Um,” Carl said again. Personnel management wasn’t his strong suit, or even his casual one. He had enough problem managing his own life, much less anyone else’s, and he strongly suspected that whatever Human Resources he personally possessed didn’t include knowing how to fire anyone. He always had the secret worry that anyone he laid off would come back with a shotgun, or a scheme to tamper with the products in a vengeful and creative fury. Then again, within a matter of days there’d be no more products to affect or people to shoot, so he relaxed.
When all was said and done he preferred chemicals. You knew what worked with chemicals, and if something didn’t work you just made a note to never do it again, at least not until your other eyebrow grew back. But the head of the company was currently circling Venus in a geosynchronous orbit and the other VP was crying in the executive washroom, so that left him. “We’ve, um. We’ve had a bit of a let-down with the projected sales of “Enchanted,” our great new shampoo–”
June, another line woman who differed from Flora only in her choice of head scarves, jerked a scarred thumb over her shoulder at the pallets of boxes piled up in the dark warehouse behind them. “You mean “Whizzipoo”?” she asked.
“Yeah. And, due to our rising, um, fluctuations in the market, we, uh…”
June walked over and touched his arm in what he had to assume was a motherly way. “Do we have jobs or not? I don’t mean to rush you but if we hurry we can still make the bus.” The other women, similarly drained of life, interest, or color, waited.
“No, I’m afraid you don’t,” Carl said miserably. All four women heaved a single, chorusing sigh at the culmination of their private patriarchal conspiracy theories and dispersed to the break room to get their things. The two men, obviously out of touch on the whole patriarchal thing, started to follow. “Pete? Marty? Could you guys hang around for a few minutes? I was hoping you could both stay on for a few more days. Marty, we need you to keep watching the place until we figure out what’s going to happen to it. Insurance. And Pete?”
Head chemist Pete Santago looked at him like a puppy waiting for a treat, or at least hoping not to get kicked. Before Carl got his foregone promotion to VP Pete had been his assistant, which in Pete’s experience was slightly worse for picking up chicks than working for a funeral home (which at least had the benefit of attracting goth chicks). He had seen Carl’s rise in the company as a good move all around; he got the head chemist position and the key to the restricted chemicals closet, and he now had a friend in management who understood what it was really like in the labs and who could cover for him the morning after “Rum and Pop Rocks Night” at O’Malley’s Beeratorium. Pete had always been a “job half-full” kind of guy, which is why Carl was stalling. Pete was the closest thing to a friend Carl had that didn’t need to get watered every day.
“I’d like you to… to… to help with the disposal of the remaining materials!” he announced. “Yes, some of that stuff needs to be handled carefully, OSHA and all, and I’ll need your help. If that’s okay.”
Pete grinned widely and shook his hand. “Sure! I can use the extra bucks. Look,” he said, while Marty went back to the guard shack, “if you get a line on a new place, you let me know, okay? I got your back, you got mine, right?”
Carl smiled, despite everything. “You got it. Temporary setback, we’ll be back in no time!” He even almost believed it as long as he didn’t look in the warehouse.
Florida is a great place to live unless you have allergies. Carl had been known to experience allergic reactions to paintings of haystacks. He stumbled out into the soft light of a typically magnificent Florida sunset which cast brilliantly lit tendrils of color across the sky, blues and pinks and purples all suffused in the thick golden light of the setting sun. Glorious, he thought bitterly. Just freaking glorious. Beautiful or not, more colors in the sky meant more particles in the sky, which meant more particles in the air, which meant more sneezing for him. The benefits of a near-total lack of smell in the lab was offset by the hard-to-describe-and-who-would-want-to experience of sneezing into a face mask.
For a brief moment he was torn between going back in to clean out his desk or saving it so he’d have something to do Monday.
Across the lot he saw Elizabeth helping Camille into their Ford Explorer. See, things could be worse. I could have been the one that ended up as Mom’s live-in nurse, chauffeur and babysitter. Almost immediately he felt guilty for the thought. His half-sister had basically put her entire life on a shelf to keep their mother going. It was an incredible act of love and self-sacrifice that he was deeply, sincerely glad someone else was making.
As he was buckling his seat belt he remembered the promise to his dad. Probably not the best timed request he’d ever heard. I’d suspect him of doing it on purpose, if I were the suspicious type, he thought suspiciously. So should he keep his word and honor a promise to a person he despised, or break it and stand by the family and the spectacularly failing company to whom he had pledged his loyalty?
It was an interesting question. Carl couldn’t wait to find out what the answer was.
He might have been cheered up had he known that in a little more than forty-eight hours he would change the world forever. But probably not.