Someone, thought Mitchell Pierce, is having his apartment painted.
A large pile of painter’s rags—what looked like a spotted gray tarp, an old Indian blanket, a black unblocked fedora—sat on the pavement just outside the front door of his apartment building. In the June morning heat, steam rose from the rags. Mitchell walked from under the awning, stopped, felt a lukewarm sun on his shoulder, and wondered why he was not beginning to sweat. Then a hand grabbed his ankle.
“You got a dime, chief?” Under the black hat, the Indian smiled with only one side of his mouth; the other side held a cigar. Now Mitchell could smell him, sweet and pungent as old bananas. “Come on, chief, a few silver trinkets.”
Mitchell tried to pull his leg free, but the Indian held fast, red and black eyes staring from a broad brick-colored face cut by a thousand tiny wrinkles, coated with soot, caged by two thick braids. Breakfast, not long crushed, began to turn in Mitchell’s stomach. He put his foot into the Indian’s chest and tried to kick him away.
“Just a dime, chief, so I can make the happy hunting grounds.”
Pulling change from his pocket, Mitchell aimed at the Indian’s face; the hand left his ankle. Late already, he did not wait for a thank you. At the office, his stomach still upset, he was told by his secretary that Mr. Cook wanted to see him immediately.
He knew why. Mr. Cook had assigned Mitchell and a coworker, John Godwin, a commercial. Since Mitchell knew very little about the intricacies of selling such a product, Godwin had volunteered to do it alone, and Mitchell had agreed. He had seen Godwin’s work only minutes before they submitted it to Mr. Cook. But those few minutes had been enough. Even Mitchell knew it was a bad job. Now he would have to face Mr. Cook, and accept half the responsibility for the failure, or confess that he had done no work at all.
Mr. Cook’s office did not have a desk, only fifteen orange leather chairs, arranged into three circles in various parts of the room. They sat in the chairs nearest the window, the sun just outside, above the river, Mr. Cook’s back to the window. Mitchell was glad to be squinting. It would be harder for Mr. Cook to know what he was thinking.
“I’m not going to ask which of you fellows is basically responsible. I think I know already. Besides, the last thing I want is a spy system around here.” Mr. Cook, eyes shaded by yellow-tinted spectacles, smiled at Mitchell and John Godwin in turn; the sun lit his thinning hair from behind. “All I care about is creating a one-minute play that will educate people about their need for heces. So maybe if we sit here and work on it together, we can get something by lunchtime. All right?”
Mitchell had just torn out a match, the cigaret already between his lips, when Mr. Cook asked the question. He answered as quickly as he could: “Yes, sir.” Godwin simply nodded and Mitchell wondered if ever he would have that kind of courage.
Mr. Cook did not seem to notice. “Now, we have this couple, in their early thirties. Two ugly people. The husband is balding. The wife? No hairdo. Straight hair, brown, a little curl on the end. Am I right? Those are the kind of people who buy heces. What’re they wearing?” He smoothed his tie, and waited.
Godwin, to Mitchell’s right, crossed his legs. “What time of day is it?”
“You’re supposed to be telling me, John.”
“I thought you might want to change it.” Godwin looked at Mitchell for a second. “We put the time in the early evening, after supper.”
“All right. Now, what’re they wearing?”
Godwin turned to Mitchell. “I think you have some ideas on that.”
This was not true; he rephrased what Mr. Cook had already said. “Well, sir, I saw them as working people. The wife has on a cheap housedress. The husband has on a white shirt, with his sleeves rolled up.”
Mr. Cook was happy, but did not smile. “Now look what you have here? The man says: Gee, honey, this room smells really good tonight. Did you use some air freshener?
And she says: No, I used heces.
And then you go into the demonstration and the rest of it. It’s all wrong. Awareness of a problem must come before a person begins to look for an answer to that problem. Those people aren’t that smart. You see what I mean?”
Mitchell was not sure, but nodded anyway.
Godwin lit a cigaret, exhaled, looking out of the window.
Mr. Cook sighed. “Now, do you have any suggestions?” He sat back in his chair, his thumb and index finger starting at the tip of his nose and sliding up, under the two yellow circles to press against his closed eyes.
Godwin signaled Mitchell to lead off.
Mitchell doubted that Godwin was actually giving him the opportunity to answer the question. More likely, he was trying to get Mitchell to test out Mr. Cook. Then Godwin could judge Mr. Cook’s reaction and make his own suggestion. But he decided to gamble and accept the challenge. “Well, sir, it seems to me that we must make people aware of their fears.” Mr. Cook nodded. “And don’t people fear rejection most of all?”
“Right.” Mr. Cook came forward in his chair. “Go on.”
He glanced at Godwin, who, surprisingly enough, seemed genuinely pleased. “So we can start with silence, no music, just these two ugly people sitting in their living room. We have a close-up of the husband, balding, needing a shave, an ape. Then his wife, plain as a grocery bag. They’re sitting in the living room, just staring at each other. Their life is boring and dull. They’re lonely. Then the husband says: Gee, honey, I wonder why no one ever comes to visit us?
“Good, Mitchell.” Mr. Cook smiled at Godwin, who nodded as if Mitchell were his younger brother, though they knew each other only slightly. “Then what does the wife say?” Mr. Cook had stopped smiling.
Mitchell tried several answers to himself, but none seemed right. The room was very quiet.
“Something like: The Jensens always have a house full of friends.
Right, Mitchell?” Godwin was trying to help him; Mitchell could not understand why.
“All right, John.” Mr. Cook frowned. “But that doesn’t really advance the action. We have the rejection theme started. We have to keep it moving.”
Godwin nodded, did not defend himself.
But Godwin had given Mitchell time, and he thought he had the answer, and even decided to risk coming to Godwin’s aid. “Excuse me, Mr. Cook, but I think John is trying to give us a second for reflection. I may be wrong— I mean, you’d probably know better—but I wouldn’t rush them. Let this new awareness of their loneliness sink in.”
Mr. Cook thought for a moment. Godwin seemed to be watching a bird, wings sparkling, circle away toward the river.
“All right, Mitchell. I’ll accept that. But then what?”
“Then the husband says: You know, I’ve been hearing about something new, called heces.
Then he tells a little bit about it . . .”
But Mr. Cook was shaking his head. “No, Mitchell. You’ve made a mistake. The wife’s got to get the idea. She’s the one who does all the buying. She’s the one who watches television all day.”
“You meant wife, didn’t you, Mitchell?” The bird had disappeared and Godwin had returned to them.
Surprised again, but picking up his cue, Mitchell made himself laugh. “Did I say husband? I’m sorry, sir. I mean wife.” He watched, but could not tell if Mr. Cook believed him.
“All right, the rest is easy. The demonstration. Then what?” Mr. Cook smiled at them. “I want you fellows to earn your money.”
“The obvious stuff, Mr. Cook.” Godwin sat up. “We give the husband a good shave, a suit coat, and a tie. The wife gets a nice simple hairdo, not too much to notice, and a cocktail dress with some spangles on it. We change the lighting. And a house full of people, a party setup, some music, and couples dancing in the background. The husband kisses the wife, and says: Gee, honey, I’m sure glad you made me get some heces.
That what you had in mind, Mitchell?”
“All right then. When can I see a final draft with camera directions?”
“In a week, Mitchell?” Godwin crushed out a cigaret and started to get up.
“I think so.” Mitchell gathered his notes.
Mr. Cook walked to the door between them. “I always have a better lunch when I know I’ve done a good morning’s work. What about you fellows?”
He and Godwin agreed.
They walked the two flights down to their offices, Mitchell following. Godwin held the door for him. “It was nice of you not to say I messed up the assignment, Mitchell. My mind isn’t within a million miles of here.”
“What about you?” Mitchell was still puzzled. “You kept throwing me fat pitches.”
“Why not?” Godwin shrugged. “Listen, how about lunch? You have anything on?”
“No.” Mitchell shook his head. “Sure, let’s have lunch.”
Copyright © 1967 by The Estate of William Melvin Kelley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.