A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story
“I… uh… I thought we’d be meeting with the brands committee.” Manny Kant said that. He gnawed at his lower lip.
The Big Boss lowered his girth into the chair at the end of the conference table. He took his time, and Manny accommodated him by breaking out in a sweat at the temples.
“Naw,” said the Big Boss. “I don’t need no ass kissin’, no blame shiftin’, no idea snatchin’, no duty skirtin’. Not today. Today I need an answer, so I come down myself to see what you got to say. What you got to say, boy?”
Manny swallowed hard. “Well, I, uh… I… uh…”
“Go ahead, boy, spit it out. I ain’t gonna bite you!” He laughed from deep in his belly and the laugh turned into a crackle in his throat and the crackle turned into a cough and the cough turned into a fit. When he was finally able to stop coughing his face was florid. He chuckled and shook it off and fished into his breast pocket for a cigarette. He coughed again with the first puff of smoke but he was able to contain it.
The Big Boss was big. He was a commanding presence, and, now that I’ve seen him, he’s even a commanding absence. He was fat and fleshy and pink, but there was a power in him, a strength of purpose and a physical strength buried beneath the fat. He wore a blue seersucker suit and a starched white cotton shirt and a red bow-tie, a letter-perfect son of the South. He was bald with just a fringe of white hair at the base of his scalp and his eyes were small and dark and beady. They were overwhelmed by the flesh of his face, like a pig’s eyes.
Manny presented a nice contrast. He wore an Armani suit in a dusky plum color and a collarless linen shirt open to the third button. His slick black hair was pulled back into a pony tail and he had a tiny little triangle of an imperial mustache beneath his lower lip. Indoors, in a conference room on the twenty-third floor of an office building, he wore opaque black sunglasses. Perhaps to calm himself, to take charge of the situation, he slowly removed them. His eyes were small and dark. And beady.
“Listen, boy,” said the Big Boss. “You ain’t got nothin’ to be a-scared of. You make your presentation. If I like it, you gonna walk outta here a wealthy man.”
Manny toyed with a button on his shirt. “And if you don’t like it…?”
The Big Boss smiled and it was an ugly, ugly smile. “Then you gonna walk outta here with space for a second boyfriend. If I may be so blunt in front of the–” he curled his lip “–lady.”
He was referring to Istvana, an extremely high-priced fashion model who has had her hips and her last name surgically removed. She was lounging languidly, half asleep, in the chair beside Manny’s. Her boredom and her indifference and her ennui lounged languidly with her. Beyond trim, beyond thin, she was emaciated. She was wearing a champagne-colored evening gown in the mid-morning and it concealed none of her assets, so that everyone who dared to look knows with certainty that Istvana has no assets. Her hair was a dusky, dishwater blonde and it fell about her head in greasy clumps. Her face was composed of sunken triangles, her skin pasty and gray. Her eyes were small and dark, the pupils tight little dots, and there were deep black circles beneath them.
The Big Boss remembered his upbringing. He said, “Would the lady care for a smoke?”
“I don’t zmoke,” Istvana replied, her accent thick, her voice low and seductive. “I zmolder…”
“That’s right!” said Manny. “That’s one of the pitches. Istvana sitting backwards on a chair, her elbows on the seat back, one hand holding up her head, one hand holding the cigarette. The headline is, ‘Silky, smoldering cool…’”
The Big Boss sucked on his lips until they smacked. “If you don’t mind my sayin’ so, the lady looks about half dead.”
Manny was nodding with delight. “You’ve got it! She’s the coolest. The absolute coolest model we could find.”
The Big Boss harrumphed but he didn’t actually say anything.
“What is it that we’re selling? Cigarettes? No. Cigarettes are poison, everybody knows that. Are we selling sex?”
“That’s what you smart boys keep tellin’ me I’m sellin’.”
“No. You can’t sell sex. Prostitutes sell sex. What you’re selling is the prospect of sex. The promise of sex. What you’re selling is an accessory that the buyer thinks will get him sex. All you’re really doing is taking his money in exchange for poison, but that’s why we have advertising, isn’t it?” Manny smiled and it was an ugly, ugly smile.
“The committee asked me to come up with a brand to sell to kids,” Manny continued. “Not little kids. Joe Camel is an idiot; little kids don’t have five bucks a day to piss away on poison. What we wanted was a product targeted at teenage boys. Get them to smoke because they think smoking will get the girls to come across. That gets the girls to smoke, so they can be like the boys. Maybe three out of five are smart enough to listen to their bodies when they get sick. But the other two… Get them and you’ve got ‘em for at least ten years, maybe for life.”
“And you think this here… lady is gonna sell cigarettes to teenage boys?”
“It not just Istvana, it’s the whole concept. You’re skinny and you’re scared and you’re lonely. Your voice breaks half the time and your face is broken out half the time and there is no chance, no prayer, no hope whatever that any one of the geeky little girls you go to school with is going to drop her drawers for you. And then you flip the page of a magazine and there’s Istvana, the perfect woman for a teenage boy, the woman too lazy to say, ‘No.’ That’s half of it.”
The Big Boss did nothing to hide his skepticism. “And the other half…?”
“You’ve got to be cool, you’ve got to be cool, you’ve got to be cool. It’s the Teenage Imperative. So what does cool mean? Affected indifference, right? It’s not just aplomb, it’s a studied contempt for values because they are values. Who cares? Why bother? Burn, baby, burn… Cool is indifference to life. Cool is a way of rebelling against the people who want you to live by acting as if you’re unmoved by the thought of your own death. To be really cool is to make people believe that you don’t care if you die…”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything, boy?!” The Big Boss erupted in another coughing fit but he stopped it by an act of will.
“What…” Manny Kant asked slowly, “could be cooler… than a corpse?”
If in fact there are levels in hell, the Big Boss redeemed himself to a gentler torment by his look of horror.
Manny sailed three mock-up cigarette packs across the table, one for me, one for Istvana, who did not deign to notice, and one for the Big Boss, who looked but didn’t touch. I picked mine up and examined it closely. The package was printed in black ink, flat and buffed like black velvet, very rich. It was dominated by an enormous white skull-and-cross-bones, the death’s head symbol, the poison symbol. Printed over that in blood red ink that looked like it had been spray painted through a stencil was the brand name: “CORPSE”.
Manny waited ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds. He said, “The tag-line on every ad is, ‘Nothing’s cooler than a Corpse…’”
The Big Boss said nothing for a long moment. Finally he looked up and gestured toward me. “What’s he doing here?”
Took Manny by surprise. “Oh, he’s just my… assistant.” Untrue. I wrote about Manny a long time ago and he’s always been ticked about it. He’d invited me along because he was convinced this would be his day of triumph. He tried to regain the moment: “Silky, smoldering cool… Nothing’s cooler than a Corpse…”
The Big Boss looked down, his chin buried in his chins. His lips were pursed tight and his eyes were focused on nothing.
“The secret’s out,” Manny said. “It never was a secret anyway, but now the cover’s blown. What do you do when they say you’re selling death? If you’re cool, you throw it right back in their faces. Let’s sell death, damnit! Nothing’s cooler than a Corpse… And there’s Istvana. She doesn’t look half dead, she looks all dead. Nothing’s cooler than a Corpse…”
“There’s a… There’s a name for that. Isn’t there?”
“It’s called necrophilia, the love of the dead. What could be cooler than that?”
The Big Boss fished into his coat pocket for another cigarette. He took his time lighting it and pulled a big draft of smoke into his lungs. He held it and held it and I wondered if he was going to asphyxiate himself. He finally let it out in a long thin stream, coughing a little behind it. He said, “The motto of this company is ‘Veni, vidi, vici.’ The words were said by a man who got himself killed for his own hubris. You see, I had an education once in my life. I had a future, once, a long time ago…”
Manny bit at his lower lip. He said, “Am I… Am I a wealthy man?”
“You gonna make a lot a money, boy, but you ain’t never gonna be anything but poor.” He looked down at his hands. They were immaculate and manicured, but I know what he saw there. “I guess that goes for me, too, don’t it?”