Here’s my favorite amongst my recent short stories. A horror story inspired by my time working in the advertising industry. You might have seen Mad Men and think you know the industry. But advertising is a hive of scum and villainy where sexual harassment is only the beginning of your spiritual troubles…
Jason sat at his customary bar, under the el train tracks. There was nothing he particularly liked about the bar itself. It was the closest place to his office that his coworkers didn’t frequent. The dipshits.
The guy sitting next to him was Tom. There was nothing Jason particularly liked about Tom either. But they’d sat near each other three or four times a week after work for the past couple of months, and they’d never had a significant disagreement. Tom was a White Sox fan and Jason was a Cubs fan, but it wasn’t baseball season right now, and both of them were laid-back guys. Jason was starting to accept seeing Tom the way he used to accept seeing his college roommates every day in their living room.
But college was a long time ago. He supposed he should have a more grown-up relationship with Tom, but time was playing tricks on him lately. Sometimes yesterday seemed longer ago than the day he drank his first beer.
Tom was married and somewhat competent at his job, delivering mail around the Loop. His wife worked at a daycare place—“monsterfarming,” as Tom called it. Jason was a genius at advertising and easily made enough money to keep a housewife, but somehow, at age forty, he could still rarely get a woman to go on a second date with him.
He was looking at one now. “Take her,” he said to Tom. “Just looking at her, I can do all her stats and triggers. She’s so easy.”
To Tom, she just looked like a stuck-up young bitch in ill-fitting new clothes, clown makeup, and the flip-flops they all wore these days. He was thinking about how much sexier it used to be when the young professionals bothered to wear suits and high heels. He tried to imagine her dressed thus.
But afforded the same glance, Jason knew everything about the girl. “Bit on the heavy side for her age group and income level,” he said. “Fairly adventurous use of makeup and accessories, although I don’t see anything that hasn’t been displayed somewhere. So I’m guessing, party chick, wants to fit in, but also dreams of standing out… in the fitting-in sort of way. Purchases diet snacks in response to health and fitness-related signage, then eats the whole box at her desk around ten A.M. the next day. That’s a gold mine right there. She impulse purchases like the world’s about to end. I could get her to try a new flavored vodka with two words and the silhouette of Robert Downey Junior’s left ass cheek.
“ Treats herself to department store makeup when she can; falls for their signage like a ton of bricks, then gets upsold to the nostrils by the salesgirls. Groupon not coupon is her motto du jour, at least until Groupon goes out of style. Uses her unlimited gym membership once a week—did you know how much gyms love those customers? They get ninety-nine bucks a month out of her fat ass to wash four towels.
“This girl is everybody’s dream. Ten years ago she could have been counted on to buy every vaguely Bridget Jones-related product in the book, so to speak, including vodka or whatever they drink in that shitty movie… shit, I just realized I don’t know what books these girls are reading now. Can’t be Bridget Jones anymore, can it? Is the Shopaholic woman still writing? And I don’t know where that under-thirty over there got those shoes!” He pulled out an Internet device and began furiously researching.
“You’re amazing, Jason.” Tom took a slow pull of his domestic beer and gave the TV a glance; the sound was down, but someone was advertising something in a bikini. “For a man who looks at girly froufrou all day, anyway. I got to admit… you’ve got a kind of modern superpower. Unless you’re lying. You could just be making that shit up for all I know. For all your boss knows.”
Jason laughed. “All my boss knows is that if he sends me into a supermarket to look around at people and then I write up a campaign, the brand client gets a 30 percent lift and the retailer gets a twenty percent up basket ring within the week.”
“I am the Walrus?” said Tom.
“Ha ha. To the layman, that means the people I’m helping out make a lot of money. And then I make a lot of money.”
“Helping out? Don’t you mean working for?”
“They don’t know it,” said Jason, rather drunkly, “but they’re actually working for me. They run their ass ragged doing the infrastructure grunt work, and I just waltz in and take my genius cut.”
“You should have a cape and tights, Jason. You should also buy me a beer.”
“You should buy yourself a beer! Jesus, be a man.”
“I am a man, I actually carry things all day. Make it a skirt and tights.”
“What year is this? Five thousand B.C.? Suck my nuts, I can practically make the world go around with my mind. You buy me a beer, plebian.”
“OK,” Tom said, and to Jason’s mild surprise he put in an order for another round on his own tab.
Jason accepted the beer and felt friendly. “Look, I’ll show you. Take that one. What do you think she wants when she goes into a store?” He gestured at a very pretty woman in her early-mid-30s. In her twenties she would have been stunning. She appeared to be waiting for someone.
“She wants to buy stuff. Then she wants to leave the store and, I dunno, maybe go to some bar and ride your dick on the urinal. Ha ha.”
“Shut up. Of course she wants to buy stuff, or at least she wants to make plans to buy stuff, but she also wants to… well, imagine she’s going to buy makeup. What does she want out of a makeup display?”
“She wants it to have makeup in it.”
“Wrong. I mean, of course she wants it have makeup in it; also, she doesn’t want it to suddenly turn into a cobra and bite her face off, dumbshit. But she doesn’t want it to just sit there and leave her to her own devices, either. I mean, look at her—she used to be really beautiful, and it was easy for her. She maybe never wore makeup till she was 28. But now she’s feeling a little insecure, and she’s ready to learn what all the other women have had to know all along. So what she really wants is not to have to admit that to a real human being. She’s only going to admit it to your makeup display. So she wants to feel like she’s having a conversation with the signage.”
“You spend all day helping grown-ups talk to imaginary friends? I’m not sure I envy you.”
“Hey, there’s a little bit of the child left in all of us! I just happen to be able to make money because of it. This is a real intimate thing for her!” Jason looked and sounded sincere, which made Tom feel odd. He gestured to the bartender for a shot. “She wants the faces and the text on the makeup display to answer the questions she isn’t even ready to admit she wants answered. She wants advice. She wants friendly advice, but she wants to get it from someone she’ll never have to talk to again. She wants to feel like that makeup display is her with-it, helpful, supportive, and completely disposable gal pal.”
“Or gay friend!”
“Hm… I suppose that would work too.” He pulled his device out again and punched in a quick note. “Thanks. Anyway—“
“I was kidding!”
“No, no, that could be really helpful, I owe you the next round… anyway, what was I saying?”
“That you’re not full of shit, and you really can read people’s minds.”
“Well, not exactly,” Jason said, with half-genuine modesty. “I mean, thanks, but I can’t actually hear their exact thoughts, it’s just an uncanny… oh shit, she just took off.” The once-stunning girl was slipping her arm into that of a still-beautiful man around her own age. He looked like a flea-bitten artist, Jason thought; the little shit.
He gestured dismissively and expansively at their backs. “See, it’s just a matter of seeing things as they really are. Most people in my profession only see a blurry sort of image of the consumers we’re studying. When we survey people and get our shopper profiles together, we take similar groupings of answers together, and decide to call them a type of customer. We give that profile a name, and then for practical reasons we discuss it like it’s an actual person. Most people in the business only do this for convenience’s sake, because it works.
“What I realized is that the reason it works is because once you have a profile, even though each profile is made out of many people, those are all people who more or less ARE that profile. Of course, no one is a perfect copy of any universal shopper profile, but they act enough like the type that you can predict about 90 percent of their in-store behavior. So once you find those ideal consumer forms, you’ve got 99.9 percent of real-life individuals sitting in the palm of your hand. Basically they’re like little voodoo dolls.”
“Voodoo dolls with tiny little credit cards.”
“Now you’re grasping it. We can practically scan the tiny little numbers on their tiny little cards as we move them through the miniature aisles. Once you know what all these little voodoo dolls want, you can make them buy whatever you both want them to buy. Because we’re getting them to their desires, after all. We’re just making sure they fulfill them the way we want them to. Nobody gets hurt, nobody gets cheated, and I get another raise.”
“I still think you’re just making lucky guesses.”
“Oh yeah? Let’s try it with this one.” A middle-aged woman, well past her evidently very solidly attractive blonde prime, was fidgeting a few feet away from the bar, settling nowhere.
He chuckled. “Catholic. Full nest. Husband makes 35-40 grand a year, and she works part-time to make ends meet. Spends most of her paycheck on work clothes at Target—maybe Nordstrom’s Rack if he gets a bonus. She’s only here for a girls’ night out, and it’s going to be light beer. Home early. Will get up early to do some baking tomorrow morning to try to keep her holy matrimony sacred. To no avail, I’m guessing, from the desperate quantity of drugstore base makeup she’s got shoveled on there. No use trying to sell her much liquor. But if I brushed past her and mumbled something about dryer sheets under my breath, I guarantee she’d ring 20 dollars minimum just on laundry products the next time she wanders into the grocery store.” He folded his arms and chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe the stupid shit people will buy just to convince themselves they’re taking good loving care of their offspring. Other animals will defend their young, but you can’t guilt trip a mama tiger into buying stain remover.”
“Hey!” Tom yelled at the woman. “Hey, lady! Are you Catholic?”
She clutched at the tiny cross at her throat. “Y…! How is that any of your business?” She shuffled away to the other end of the bar.
“Got to hand it to you,” said Tom.
“Now look at this one! Women with children are easy enough to drive, but old ones that are still married… I can hear the basket ring now.”
“Don’t cash registers make more of a beep these days?”
“She’s actually here to see if men will look at her anymore. Probably on her way home from a literary reading or some bullshit charity work. Ten years ago she would have ordered a fruit juice, but she’s probably heard enough about glycemic index to… bingo! Sugar-free club soda, can I call them or what? Cost her three dollars, cost the bar three cents. She’ll start pretending it’s a gin and tonic if anyone talks to her, though. See the way she’s glancing at me? She thinks I’m interested, the poor old wax doll.”
“Can you tell me anything about any of the unmarried women our age in here?”
Jason gave him a wry look. “Yeah, I thought so. Males 40-55 who consume on-premise alcoholic beverages and tell you they’re happily married are usually full of—”
“I meant for you! I’d like to see you actually talk to one of these women so I can see if you’re really guessing their desires or if you’re just full of shit.”
“You think I’m wearing $550 Armani shoes because I’m full of shit?”
“I also think it would make you a more pleasant person to drink with if you didn’t have to masturbate alone every night.”
“The government hasn’t assigned you to this particular bar, you know. Yet. Anyway, you saw what happened the last time I hit on a woman in here.”
“And the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before…”
“I don’t understand it! I get more drinks thrown in my face than I buy in here! It doesn’t make any sense! I know everything women want! I know what women fundamentally want, and instead of appreciating me for it, they get offended. They don’t go for what’s in their own interests. I don’t get it. Under all the other stats, all the little purchases they want to make and the boost it will give them… well, they’re trying to impress their friends and attract a man, but they’re in a little bit of a catch-22 because the only way they can do both is through what a caught man can give them: an extra salary to spend. Preferably a big one, so he’ll have enough left over for his own desires and triggers that he won’t resent the drain. If you boil it all down, what they want is pretty much me. That’s the only way they can get off this debt treadmill they all get on because they’re single.”
“Don’t you suppose they may have figured out that they’re on that debt treadmill because of people like you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Most of the women who come into these places are people like me! They’re just not good enough at it. And sure, I’m driving lift and basket ring for my clients, and I’m driving it like a motherfucker. But they’re just going to go spend that money for somebody else’s client if I don’t! People are sensualists. Especially women. Unless they believe in God or Obama or some crazy shit, they’re just kidding themselves if they tell themselves they’re more complicated than that. They want to eat a lot of food and still look good. They want to save money on makeup and still look good. They want to drink skinny margaritas so they can get drunk enough to fuck, and still look good enough to keep the men they go to bed with.”
“Yeah, but I think the operative word there is ‘kidding themselves.’ Why do you think the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeps selling tickets? People don’t want to think of themselves as just food, booze, and shoe machines. They don’t want to think of their face as just something to use up makeup on every day,” said Tom. “So you do your little parlor trick on them. And they tell you they have to go to the bathroom and suddenly they disappear and you’re surprised. As though someone who’s trying real hard to fool herself wants her mind read. Like all she’s hearing is the fact of the mind reading, and she’s going to think, oh wow, I wonder if he can do that in bed, touch me there! But women have all kinds of thoughts that are not sexual road maps, and of which they aren’t particularly proud. And all they actually hear is you calling them out on what they are. Or on what you think they are. And from what I’ve heard you say, what you think they are is pretty damn ugly.”
“The operative word there being ‘pretty,’” Jason sighed. “Look at that one. Doesn’t she look perfect? Not just naturally pretty, but well put together, considering her income level. I know the shade of lipstick she’s got on. I made her buy that lipstick. She probably bought it at the Walgreens not thirty feet from here, and she saw my signage and realized that her personality was just that lipstick. So she bought it, and she was right—it looks fucking great on her! She didn’t waste any money, and she got the perfect product, thanks to me, and she’s happy. Look at how confident she is! I’ll bet she won’t respond to any diet-conscious in-store for three days. But she’s just going to wind up fucking some incompetent little graphic tonight. Or a sous chef. Jesus Christ. When did that become glamorous? I wish I could strangle Gordon Ramsey with my bare hands.”
Tom shrugged. “Change the topic if you like. I still think you’re making the mistake every amateur cynic makes.”
“Amateur cynic?! If I weren’t trying to get laid, do you really think I’d be wearing $550 shoes in this shitty bar?”
“Oh, but you like your $550 shoes. You like the way they feel,” said Tom. “Soft leather on seldom-used feet. You know what it is you’re doing? You’re including everybody in the world under the spray blast of your disdain for human nature except for yourself. Like you’re not one of us! You’re just a clearance-rack Diogenes. You think you’re different from me or these women, just because you see certain shit on a higher level. But just because you know that everyone else is just a sensualist and everything else they are is an act, doesn’t mean you’re any more than a consumption machine.”
He poked him in the belly. “You like your beer, you like your food, like any fool consumer whose ‘behaviors’ you’re so proud of ‘driving.’ And yet, with a physique which I’d call average at best, you continue to consider yourself worthy of only model-quality women. What, do you think you’re the only rich guy in town?”
“What, are you a mind-reader now? How the fuck do you know what kind of women I consider me worthy of?”
“Because I see the women you talk to. Jesus, you think I’m stupid too? You think I’m just sitting here drinking in the beer ads and increasing my ‘beverage ring’ and I don’t observe your behavior?”
“I think we’re dangerously close to having our first disagreement, bro. The Sox all have man-tits.”
“ If you’re any better than anyone else, why don’t you go hit on that girl over there? Be spiritual! I’ll bet she’s just so beautiful on the inside.”
Tom pointed to the corner, where an average-looking, relatively harmless female was hunched over an appetizer portion of chicken wings (they were $5.95 on the menu, Jason noted; probably an office manager at best) and a beer (piss domestic; either former sorority or high-school education only) while reading a book (Jason couldn’t see the cover, but from the thick pulp he guessed fantasy, maybe vampires).
“I admit,” Jason said, “I’m not man enough. Single women between the ages of 30 and 35 who impulse-purchase stuffed animals have got more issues than a supermodel. I would never have time to deal with her shit. What do I look like, a psychiatrist?”
“Of an evil sort, I suppose.”
“Go sort your fucking mail. I have to get home.” He picked up the bill in front of him and scrutinized it for extra drinks.
“And do what? Fuck your pillow? I’ll tell my wife you said hello.”
“Yeah, bone her in the ass for me.”
Jason left a 12 percent tip on the bar and climbed onto the nearby el platform, only about half as tipsy as he wanted to be. He lurched onto the brown line and gathered the riders’ triggers furiously all the way to his stop. He rode up to his condo and opened a bottle of Scotch. He didn’t sleep till the Scotch was gone and he’d sketched out the idea for a public-transit signage that would eventually give eight related beer brands a 30 percent lift in the areas serviced by the brown line train.
But before the triumph came the corporate red tape. The next day at work was a bullshit affair; he’d done the real heavy lifting at home on his own time, and knew by rights he should be able to push the new concept straight through to the creative team. But the account manager was a pretty little shit of a girl two years out of business school who thought her social skills and doe eyes were more important to the clients than genius. So he was asked questions, and specifics, and details, and then she conveyed them incorrectly to the client, and even when they got that straight the morons on the other end had more stupid questions still. By the time the ball even got rolling toward the copywriters, it was seven PM, the account manager was whining about some social event she was missing, and Jason was as thirsty as a frog in an oven.
He went to his bar and ordered a premium margarita with Patron® Reposado Tequila 100% de Agave mixed in plus a shot on the side because, what the hell. Tom was already on his accustomed stool, drinking some horrible beer from Ohio that wasn’t even marketed.
“You look rough,” Tom said.
“I had a great night. And a horrible day. Want liquor.” He ordered another shot, knocked it down, chased it with the rest of the margarita, and ordered some Scotch before Tom could even come up with a smart-ass comment.
“All geniuses need their crutch,” Tom said finally.
“What crutch? I’m celebrating. I started a beer campaign today that will drive sales from Wellington to Western.”
“Can you buy me a shot then?” Tom suppressed a chortle.
“Just never stop, do you? I need a new drinking buddy.” Through the liquor, he still felt the slow burn of the day’s frustrations. Everyone’s such a fucking moron. I need a new planet, is what I need…
“What you need is to get laid before you kill a bunch of people.” Tom sighed and ordered another one of his shit beers thoughtfully. “After all, just because you clearly have some sort of personality disorder doesn’t mean you deserve to go home to a cold, empty bed every night for the rest of your life. Nobody deserves that. Did you notice that group of women over there? They’re our age, more reasonable for you than the chicklets you usually talk to when you’re wasted, but they’re still hot… nice clothes, nice legs…”
Jason grunted and turned around. The women Tom were pointing to were clearly from his industry. Dumb, overpolished, overpaid; probably most of them senior account managers and a couple token creatives that some affirmative-action-minded matriarch had let in to ruin things. Caked in makeup, and they clearly buy into our own bullshit. Probably still follow signage in the fucking Target.They’re their own research subjects. Look at that one… she’s actually using that Eye Pop Shadow System we just did in August. No meta-thinking whatsoever. Christ. He slammed his scotch, ordered another Patron® Reposado premium margarita, and sipped it desperately.
And yet, halfway into the margarita, the wave of depression finished washing over him and he began to bounce his eyes idly and mildly between the game on the TV and the ad women’s well-preserved body capital. They were nice to look at, after all. Women were lucky. The tabloids might make stupid puns about it but the truth remained: they had two portfolios of assets, ho ho ho, and in case of unemployment (he certainly would barter cheerfully with the right one on a pinch) this was better than any conventional insurance. Though, granted, one portfolio was tied to the relentless march of time… and the other to the relentless vagaries of the stock market. Hm, maybe they aren’t so lucky after all. These days you can’t even depend on your paper boobs.Not that a real paper stock certificate has probably been printed in ten years…
He was about to bet Tom a drink that he couldn’t think of one thing in the world you could depend on when the door opened and a few more women came in to join the clique he was gazing at.
Most of them were average females of his profession. But the one all in white and black… where could she have possibly gotten those clothes? Not from any of Jason’s clients. They fit her perfectly, but they didn’t look tailored to fit so much as made for her. Who had clothes made for them these days? Her shade of lipstick was one he couldn’t name, her hair looked like nothing on television, her nails were plain but somehow photogenically elegant…
She noticed him staring at her and underscored her discernment with the slightest nod. He raised one eybrow slightly and gave what was almost a half-smirk, refusing to retract his ocular aggression. Unsmiling, she stared back. After a few minutes she said something dismissive to one of the cheap copies surrounding her, and walked over to the empty barstool next to Jason.
She didn’t set down her briefcase. She fished her wallet from her clutch with one hand and ordered a Skinny branded margarita with an ersatz self-deprecating smirk of her own. “I know what you’re thinking. My consumer profile, right? ‘The target is a well-educated, unmarried non-mom, 25-45, extraordinarily high income. Health-conscious but mainly from an appearance perspective, she purchases upscale cosmetics, workout clothes, and diet books often, but likes to let herself have a treat once in a while.’ Not because I want to be part of the gang, mind you. I don’t treat myself to goddamn cupcakes or overeat at baby showers. I just like the taste of hard liquor.”
“Also, you live in the West Loop.”
“Very good!” She took a ladylike sip, as the skinny margarita commercials implied she should, exaggerating the gesture with another smirk. She looked him up and down. “Let me do you. ‘Single man, 40-55, never married, not happy about it, but can’t help being finicky. Can be upsold from his usual toothpaste brand on his birthday; also on the anniversary of his father’s death. Responds well to liquor ads that congratulate his taste. Won’t admit that to himself, though, since he works in advertising and is considered a genius at it. Can be pushed to impulse purchases by signage when he’s too drunk or hung over for his brain to fully grasp the fact that he isn’t at work and finds itself thinking in the customer’s role while actually in a store. Wears expensive socks on principle; might die if he realized that he bought the cologne he’s wearing because of a forgotten glimpse of signage he caught while ordering a burrito while drunk after a bad day with the subnormals at work.”
She took another sip and smiled, more softly this time. “Would probably be influenced by any signage right now if I’d had the brilliant idea of selling my cleavage as advertising space. Oooh, maybe I should write that down…”
“How did you know I work in advertising?” he said, astonished.
She shrugged. “I can see a lot of things. I can even see when I’ve met my match.” She still hadn’t set down her briefcase. In his silk Armani boxers, Jason detected sweat. “You know I work in advertising, don’t you?”
“Don’t you know when you’ve met your match?”
“Oh, so you’re trying to one-up me?” He was realizing, not quite too late, that this one needed stinging banter. “This one…” He chided himself: she was obviously a person, a thinker, a creature who was too rare to think such tawdry thoughts about. He could not afford meta-thoughts right now. He had not just met his match, he had met his mate. He suddenly realized he had never respected another human being before. Not even his own father. For a moment he thought that was the tequila talking to him, but then his face lit up: “I just figured out where you got that lipstick from! It was a line we did three years ago. How did you save a lipstick for three years?”
His heart fluttered with admiration. My mate, my mate, my mate, my mate…
“ If I could get lipsticks from the future in order to live free I would, but this is the next best thing.” She smiled at him fully this time. “I think we could leave now.”
Along with everything else around them, they had forgotten about Tom. He knew it, but he tried to be funny anyway: “That fast, huh? Well, she’s a total bitch, Jason. Just your type. Get out of here.”
“I think your little friend in the Lee jeans meant that as a compliment,” said the woman.
The sex was quite excellent, for drunken sex. There was all the spicy rum of anonymity poured into the syrupy intimacy mixer of knowing one has finally found one’s counterpart. It grew sweeter and sweeter until the moment of ecstacy beyond nakedness, the climax of truth beyond truth, and then… oh god, there is no god; that is profoundly unfair, not that fairness has ever been real, and then…
Jason collapsed on the bed like a gut-shot deer as the heart of the universe opened below him. It tore through his puny human mind like a chainsaw through a rabbit. Yet he somehow found the guts to look up into his woman’s eyes. He expected to see a smirk of triumph. He wanted to see it, in fact, to confirm the limits of evil, to safely quarantine it in the confines of the Female. But instead he saw the mirror image of his own bottomless terror.
They disappeared for two days. Their smartphones rang and rang, bewildered calls from coworkers who had never known either of them to miss a trick. But they just lay there in a puddle of comradely despair, rising only to open another bottle of Scotch or piss some of it out.
On the third day they wandered into the bar. When Tom saw them he gave them an amused look. Jason was wearing no shirt under his suitcoat. The woman was still wearing a custom-made slip under her custom-made skirt, but a torn loop from the slip hung down to the floor, where she lightly tripped on it at every other step.
“Christ,” said Tom. “What the fuck did you do to each other? Still trying to one-up each other? Because I’m not sure who looks like the bear mauled them the most times. You both win, I—”
Jason grabbed him roughly by the arm and stared at him, trembling lip and empty eyes. “You’re the only person left that we give a shit about. So please listen. Shut off your goddamn mind. You can’t understand things too much… please don’t ever try to understand things too much, for your wife’s sake, Tom, for your kids.” He shook Tom’s arm weakly. “If you understand it all, everything around you just turns into nothing…”
He sat there gaping. Then he jumped up as though he’d heard a distant alarm. He left his whole stack of money on the bar. He grabbed his woman and they swayed out into the traffic on LaSalle like they were walking into a wheat field, and Tom never saw them again.