Another Question of Viability
by JACKIE DELAMATRE
Samuel Feinstein was in The Office. Brown leather padded walls, an auction-purchased Heisman trophy, an actual banana tree sprouting bunches, a British flag floating from the ceiling, a group portrait of all the Ford models of 1983 with their signatures drifting somewhere below their waists, and hanging above the Roccoco desk, a portrait of George Washington in gilded frame because The Office’s owner had determined through a kind of PI for genetics that they were close relations (only eight generations removed).
“Please take a seat,” said the owner of The Office.
Samuel took a seat. The leather squeaked under his weight.
“I have some questions for you about your viability.”
Viability. The vocabulary of death. He hadn’t worked at the best branding firm in the world for two years not to understand how one’s choice of words meant everything.
“It’s this Transnistria account that’s bothering me. You’ve had how long for this account, son?” asked The Office owner, Mr. Rohrersire, the original Brander himself, responsible for nearly every chain restaurant’s brand in the country, every hotel, for at least 95% of the graphics and words gracing every rest stop highway sign in the USofA, three-time winner of the McNally-Sommers First Prize in Commercial Diction and two-time sweeper of the Grand Prix in the International Capitalistic Logo Imagineering Contest. Mr. R squinted his eyes in as regal a way as he could. He did not like dirtying his hands in this business of hiring and firing but here was an early protégée who he’d entrusted with a significant account, an emerging country no less, and he could not leave this to HR or even his underlings. He should’ve kept him in New Water Products (Individual, Bottled) where there was money to be made but not a nation hanging in the balance.
“Sir, I’ve had three months, one week, and four days.”
“That’s a long time, don’t you think?”
“I think so, yes, sir. That is a long time.”
“Especially considering, don’t you think, that this was a one-month project and at the one-month mark you assured me that it would be done within the two-month mark?” Mr. Rohrershire knew the answer.
(But did his protégée, Samuel Feinstein, Stanton graduate, secretly aspiring novelist, recently dumped by Tennis-playing Samantha ostensibly due to his extended travels in the outback of the former Soviet territory for his work at a branding firm no less, so embarrassing, to Samantha at least who wondered why, if he were going to devote his life to poverty, he hadn’t gone into the newspaper business like the other English majors, the other former James Rudolph Barnesians (an eponymy they’d earned through their hand-picked selection by the most notoriously mentor-happy professor-writer on campus) who were now racking up awards for war reporting not painstakingly sketching potential flags for disputed countries established solely to aide drug and human trafficking? He was helping these post-Soviet illegal organ traders (for that salary?) not busting them like all of their friends especially Nathaniel Westwood, Pulitzer Prize nominee who also by chance, liked to play Tennis. She’d always thought he had potential, Samantha had said, blonde hair pendulum-swinging, the door closing that night, and now it was the only thing left playing in his head, even as Mr. Rohrershire his mentor, white hair from the top of his head, to his eyebrows, to his thick moustache down, discussed with him his Viability.
And how was his novel going, Samuel could ask himself. Another question of Viability. Another stagnating, deadline-pushing example of the way his potential had burst, running down the drains of his future.)
“Samuel,” said Mr. Rohrershire whose protégée would not cease staring into his hands and nodding his head, “You know that I like your work. Remember that first account, the tennis shoes? All you had was that measly B-list Cicely Swanson celebrity endorsement and you made those shoes the hottest thing since Vitamin Water (one of mine, of course).” Should he go over to him, Mr. R thought? Pat him on the back? Should he say something kind? No, he had to stay on track or he would never be able to look Eileen in HR in the too-close eyes again. “You have true talent, son, but there is not room in this company for a man who drags his feet. Our work is too important to the functioning of this society and other emerging ones! I truly believe,” he was moving full force into one of his speeches, knee jerk, so much easier than new words, “that when the history books are written, it will become clear to many that one of the signs of the advanced state of our culture will be the excellence of our Branding. It will be considered in the same esteem as tools for the Neanderthals or theatre for the Greeks: a marker of the promise and inventiveness of mankind!”
Samuel Feinstein was feeling sick.
Mr. R punctuated the speech: “Is this, son, how you feel about Branding too?”
This was the heart of the matter. Samuel hesitated, his first mistake. He was like this with words: too deliberate. He had written several drafts of his first attempt to ask a girl out, sophomore year of high school, Forestville, Indiana, Midwestern United States. That had been his primal experience with words. Since that, the words had begun to move farther and farther away from him, representing things, ideas, thoughts he hadn’t even had or wanted to have. This account, for instance. How could he continue to feel close to words when he was bending them to benefit the monstrous acts of a former-Soviet human-trafficking nation? Words were ripping free of their ballast.
“Well, yes, sure, I guess, sir. But I’ve always thought technology might surpass language as the marker or perhaps a melding of technology and language. Robotics maybe? Voice automation? Have you heard of the Singularity?”
His death knell. “Samuel,” Mr. R gave him the serious look. “I’m afraid you no longer have any Viability with Rohrershire and Rohrershire, Inc.”
“No!” He was awake now. If nothing else, he needed the money. It wasn’t much but if he stuck with it, it would be. And if he wasn’t going to be a novelist, he at least needed a rising salary. “No, I mean, one more chance, Mr. Rohrershire. I’ll get it right this time. I’m just going through a tough time.” Clichés, he knew Mr. R would not like. He thought of being fired, sitting at home with his writing scraps downgraded now to post-it notes, scribbles in the dark so he couldn’t see them and judge sharply, and his memories of college glory – how his obsession with words had finally served him well. “My Viability is revivable. Mine was a momentary lapse in a long arch of a career that will bring much glory to R and R. I have been researching historically successful national brandings, and I have almost found the formula for direct consumer indications.”
Mr. R perked up, his egg-white eyebrows raising his forehead. “You’re speaking my language now, boy.”
“Iceland, for instance. It has recently seen a meteoric rise in popularity. And why is that? A version of Celebrity Sponsorship in fact. Bjork has inadvertently become the poster girl. Music videos, exotic look, sexy ingénue. And really Iceland and Greenland are the first instances of intentional touristic branding I’ve found. Name the green country Iceland and you avoid the tourists and vice versa.” He was grasping at straws. He glanced at Mr. R. Surprisingly, it seemed to be working.
“Uh huh, uh huh.”
“And we should really keep our eyes on Israel which is currently planning to center its entire tourist campaign around its Breakfasts.”
“Shakshuka, hummus, buffets, yep. Targeting 18 to 25 year old American males. It’s the word on the international branding street.”
Mr. Rohrershire laughed. “That’s good stuff, son, good stuff. I see that you’re doing some background work there.” He fidgeted in his seat, thinking of Eileen in HR. Oh fuck her, the old windbag. “Maybe this kind of job does require longer. OK, one more week, one more week, now that you have that background, that research. But this is no dissertation! Don’t overdo it in the library stacks, son. Let’s buckle down now and get the job done, shall we?”
“We shall, Mr. R. Mr. Rohrershire.”
Samuel Feinstein felt an infusion of adrenaline in his blood. A much-needed spike. A fight or flight response; he had fought for this job. Yes, he was going to make it. He left The Office, pawing first at the brown leather padding on the door, glancing back with a smile to see Mr. R glowing with paternal pride, a restoration of their previous relationship, a relationship Samuel Feinstein was guilty of pursuing with many men due to the (hackneyed psychology is often the truest) lack of father in his own life.
He opened the door and strode out into the fresh, energized air of the carpeted cubicle park. He would make this account legendary, one for the history books, especially if Mr. R was right, if Branding was the crown of our civilization. He felt newly-purposed. Before he had been flailing about, searching for something to believe in, but of course, Mr. R was right. He was part of something greater than himself.
He walked to his own office, the kind of glassed-in affair only the middle-aged ladder-climbers had, feeling like he had gotten back on track. He waved to his co-workers as if they were co-eds in his Dining Club watching him ascend a platform to accept an award. He was ready to prove that his admittance to Stanton, his potential, had not been for naught.
Which was exactly when he caught a glimpse of Blonde. Just a patch of golden hair. He sucked in his breath. His eyes followed the strands as they inched along above the cubicle walls. Samantha? He imagined it was true. Samantha would soon emerge and tell him she had faith: he would be famous some day. For what? Maybe not for the novel, which he had lost interest in, it was true, ever since college when the Barnesian Cult and their secret meetings (the way you were tapped, the in-built friends) had held the appeal moreso than the actual writing. Maybe this time she would see the merit of this R and R mission: the branding of the world. It was like Mr. R always said: the world doesn’t exist until we brand it. He would devote his life to making the world exist. What better purpose could there be? And she would buy it. He waited for the owner of the hair to emerge from behind the cubicles. He held his breath. The reunion was imminent.
“Pastry?” came a voice.
But it was not to be. For it was only Tanya, the gum-smacking mother of four, making the rounds with the morning’s pastries. Dyed blonde hair no less – in charge of the Hair Dye accounts for over 20 years now. And just like that, the much-needed spike, the purpose, switched its direction and began to shoot straight down into his vital organs, making him squirm from the pressure on his intestines.
Jackie Delamatre is a writer living in Brooklyn. Another Question of Viability is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, entitled Neodynamix.
Selected images by Dasha Gaian.
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