In the Room

First-place winner

In the Room
Photo by Jason Stout

"Morning, Garven. Big day," Dan Rainey croaks as he enters the elevator. "Those boards ready to review?" Phlegm rattles deep beneath a tufted quilt of bagel-sized manboobs and an earthtone layer of Eddie Bauer winter-wear. The elevator ride will be the longest Rainey goes without a smoke all day. And yes that includes the shitter.

"Aye-aye," I chirp, to the practically audible eye rolling of the creative team standing behind us. See, me and Rainey have this annoyingly cute schtick where I refer to him as Captain, and we speak in nautical terms. Everybody hates it, especially me. But Rainey seems to like it. And Rainey is my creative director – so ... "Captain" it is.

Rainey lights up a cig immediately upon exiting the elevator at the 11th floor, "the graveyard," as we call it – final resting place of the agency's oldest and lamest accounts, and to my humiliation, my temporary home while the creative groups are reorganized. As he crosses the lobby, a cloud of crusty Marlboro firsthand smoke wafts two feet behind him. I dutifully follow in his warm-gray wake. Rainey effortlessly steers the pungent cloud like a balloon on a string, a balloon that gives the ad veteran's teeth the patina of used typewriter ribbon.

Removing his parka Rainey reveals a tragic tableau of fashion whims a decade past their glory. Wake up, dude, it's 1994. What the hell, Rainey is a lifer. Twenty-eight years in this joint – saw it on a cheesy break bulleting listing everybody's work anniversary, the day each soul was sold to this lame-ass relic of an advertising agency. Rainey's leads the 25-plus year category. May my dick shrivel up and fall off if I ever get anywhere near the five-year mark. But Rainey's from another era, the wholesome heyday of this overblown nostalgia factory, the Baker Bassett Company. He mindlessly trudges along. Proof that maybe nice guys don't finish last.

"I'll just grab the boards, Cap'n," I say.

"Steady as she goes."


At the coffee bar Rainey heads to the outer row of window offices, or "the ring of death," while I slouch toward the fluorescent glow of upholstered cubes known as "the veal pens." Here the low-level copywriters and art directors try to look busy, although nobody of any importance ever wanders through the pens, so it doesn't much matter. It's our home in the daringly boring 55-story tower on the edge of the Chicago River. Not the banks of the Chicago River, because the river is actually more like a canal, nothing natural about it. In fact, the city takes great pride in dying it neon green for St. Patrick's Day. Note to self: What the fuck am I doing in this ridiculous town, and not in New York, or London, or Barcelona?


I enter Rainey's smoky office, and place a stack of black poster boards along a chrome wall rail designed specifically for this purpose. Rainey nods. I begin, "It's called 'Museum.' See, girl wanders through a modern art museum in ... Amsterdam."

"Or Hawaii," Rainey interjects. It's a supposedly hilarious industry joke to inject exotic locations in your TV storyboards, as if you'll actually shoot some pitiful StarKist Tuna commercial on a beach in Bermuda.

I continue, "It's a gray, depressing day. Nice-looking girl, but maybe her hair is a little mussed, like she's hiding something," I point to the second frame of the illustrated storyboard. "She sees this guy, hot guy ..."


"But she's embarrassed about her looks, her skin."


I point, "She says to herself, 'I wish it were darker in here,' as she steals a glance at the guy. He doesn't even notice her."


"She says, 'I feel like there's more oil on my face than on the canvas.'" Rainey is nodding. "Cut to wipe of painted water scene, then the water becomes a real wash basin, high-end, like Pottery Barn."


"Her hands enter frame and cup the crystal water. Pull out to reveal the same girl. She looks confidently into the mirror, then down at a jar of Noxzema."


"Cut to next day, same museum, it's sunny – light is shining through majestic windows – girl's hair is pulled back. She looks at a painting, then spots the same hot guy. She shakes her hair a little, flirting, but when she looks back up, he's gone."


"Pull back to reveal he's right behind her, looking at the same painting. She turns around, they share a smile. Product shot, Noxzema on clean blue tile counter, then a wave of clear water washes into frame, wiping the tagline: Noxzema. Pure Confidence."

He's hooked. I've got him. Two weeks on this assignment, all creative teams competing, a "gang-bang," and I finally nailed it.

Rainey hesitates, but I know he knows we're sitting on the winner. The Creative Review Committee, the CRC, is noon tomorrow. It goes like this: I along with maybe 20 other creatives take turns presenting storyboards, spelling bee style, to a panel of execs. Then we sit silently in the Herman Miller chairs that line the gigantic room as the execs openly deliberate which ideas to present to the client and, more important, which to select as the "recco," the official agency recommendation to produce. Tomorrow "Museum" will be the recco.

"I don't know," Rainey begins.

You don't know what?

"Maybe it's a little too ... borrowed interest."

You're a fucker.

"Why does it take so long to reveal ...?"

"That's the tension."

"Fifteen seconds with no product, and it's not even a product shot, it's ..."

"... a story."

"It's supposed to be about Noxzema. You saw the brief."

"Yes, pure ingredients, no 'oil-rebound' like other cleansers."

"Where is all that?"

"It's in there."

"Look. I like it," he says.


"I just ... it's different."


"Maybe some copy tweaking?"


"We don't have much time. I'll run it by Hannon."

Nathan Hannon? Bigger hack.

"Sounds great," I murmur as I walk toward the door.

"Garven," Rainey says. "Nice work, mate."




Lyn West, a sly thirtysomething aide-de-camp to juniors like me, sits in my cube, sighing dramatically as she peruses the week's edition of AdAge.

"Four-stars? For that schlocky Nike spot with the 'Instant Karma' soundtrack? Please. They'll bow down to anything Wieden and Kennedy spews out these days. Meanwhile John Lennon is rolling over in his grave, not that you're old enough to even know who he is."

"I know who John Lennon is," I grumble.

"Right. I forgot, you're one of those retro-geeks," Lyn says.

"Good morning to you, too. Who the fuck pissed in your cornflakes?"

"Sorry. It's Gleason. The bitch is moving me off McDonald's and on to ..."

"Don't say it."


"'We need some estrogen on this account,' she tells me. Please, I've got about as much maternal instinct as Charles Manson, not that you ..."

"I know who Charles Manson is. And look," I say, "I hate to ruin your little pity party, but I think I just sold the big Noxzema spot."

"Fucking-a!" she shouts.

"Hey, we're trying to run a family business here!" Steve Shuster snarks, peering over the top of our shared upholstered divider. "Seriously?"


"Nice job, rookie," he says. I like Shuster.

Lyn feigns disinterest, "Is this where I'm supposed to beg you for every last detail about how you sold it to Rainey?"

"Jealous much?"

"L'chaim," she chimes, "tell me all about it – tomorrow. I'm on an 11:30 flight to P&G. Luvs focus groups."

"My condolences. CRC at noon, so ..."

"I'll light a candle for you. A small, nicotine-filled candle." We laugh.

"Am I ... how should I ...?" I stutter.

"You look smashing," Lyn says. "You'll knock 'em dead. Just don't do that hands-in-pocket thing. Looks like you're playing with yourself."

"See. Who says you don't have maternal instincts?"

She leans in, and gives me a hug. A real hug. "Tomorrow. Three? Save me a drink. Or 10. Catch?"

"Catch," meaning the nautical themed bar on the ground floor of our building – 55 West Wacker Drive.

"Got that, Shuster?" she announces, rushing toward the lobby.

"I'll be there," his muffled voice replies through the coated poly-weave.


We are doing actual work, Shuster and me, brainstorming on Reebok, when Rainey wanders over.

What is a CD doing in the pens?

"Ahoy, mate. Permission to come aboard."

"Permission granted," I reply. Shuster slinks back to his cube, sparing both of us the indignity of witnessing my ass-kissing.

"So, Garven, about that spot ..."


"Hannon took a look at it," he continues.


"And he ... and we think. Well, there are a couple of other directions that make more sense given the current brief, and ..." He has this pained look, like a dad telling his kid his dog died. I feel like I've just had the wind knocked out of me. I turn away, then instantly back to face Rainey. I have to hear it. But he can't say the words. And as furious and betrayed as I feel, I just can't make him.

"Not this time?" I say.

"Next time, kiddo."

"Aye-aye, Cap'n," I respond, to the background sounds of Shuster's exaggerated gagging.

Rainey shuffles down the aisle, dragging behind him my chance for a four-star commercial shoot, an Effie, an Addy, or a Clio. Just like that.

"Fucking suits," Shuster says, poking his head over the divider.


Then he clears his throat loudly, and proudly lifts up a virgin bottle of Johnny Walker.

"Saving it for a rainy day," he says.

"You? A mensch?"

"Yeah. Just don't tell anybody," he replies, as we pull out the wax paper cups and plunge into the honey-colored elixir.


A two-ton wrecking ball mercilessly pounds my brain as I quickly shower the next morning. I'm hungover. I'm late. Big Noxzema meeting today. Not that I care. At the office I head straight to the mount room, where indentured future art directors, Steve Humble in this case, assemble storyboards with toxic spray adhesive. I launch into a fake conversation about the Smashing Pumpkins, but Steve cuts me off. "Go ahead," he says, nodding to the pile of Noxzema storyboards.

I dive in. Hannon, of course, dick. Same overcranked non-sequitur mood boards. Richard Bruch, good for you, duder. Delton's Martha Stewart spoof, surely a straw dog, nice cojones for including that, bossman. And a new spot, "Art Gallery" – it's Rainey's.

My jaw drops as I inspect the frames. Girl walks into art gallery, notices a hot dude, he ignores her, she is shy, embarrassed, her skin. Cut to artistic treatment of product, cut to wash sequence, return to gallery – it's an opening night party, nice touch, Captain. Girl spots same hot guy, and beckons him with a flirty look. He disappears, she is crestfallen. Until she sees that he has reappeared right behind her. The look of love. Product shot. Tagline. Ho-ly. Fuck.


"Haircut appointment, meeting rehearsal, CRC, then ..." Rainey's secretary recites as I fume outside Rainey's door. I stomp back to my cube just and lurch toward my beeping phone.

"Welcome to the cesspool, kid," Lyn drones, responding to my barrage of frantic messages.

"I ... we have to ... what if ..." I stammer.

"Happens all the time. Don't get your Dockers in a wad. See you at three. And kiddo ... don't be a hero."

I hang up. On cue, Shuster enters my cube with a wad of forged taxi receipts. We dash upstairs to the cashier's office to claim our booty, then hop the el train to the off-the-track betting lounge uptown. Hold all our calls, please.


We're two drinks in when Lyn arrives, "Ask me anything about toddlers' nether regions," she deadpans.

She grabs a rum and Diet Coke, slice of lime, plus a round of shots, and the war stories begin. Lyn recounts the focus group highlights: the woman whose baby's diaper fell off while they were on a roller coaster. What the hell was a baby doing on a roller coaster? He was 4, Lyn continues, and shares even raunchier details. Silly, tipsy, punchy, we laugh with obnoxious gusto, like a scene from one of our own ridiculous commercials.

I almost fail to notice Rainey entering Catch with the smug look of victory and a supporting cast of codgers. Almost. The geezers creak toward the bar in a sloppy chevron, with Rainey at the apex. I half expect them to hoist the old dude onto their arthritic shoulders.

"Garven," he smiles.


"Gentlemen, what's the occasion?" Lyn calls out.

"Rainey sold the big one!" Barker responds.

"Better than buying the farm, I guess," Lyn jokes. The old dudes laugh. I scowl at her, and she just shrugs. Rainey orders the lifers a round of double Maker's Marks straight-up.


As the lifers lift their glasses, I dramatically clear my throat. Lyn telegraphs a cease-and-desist sign, which I ignore.

"You stole my spot," I say.

"I beg your pardon?" Rainey replies.

"'Art Gallery,' Captain," I seethe. "That was mine."

"What in the world are you talking about, Garven?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake, you cannot be serious."

"Gentlemen ..." Shuster interjects.

"No, I want to hear this," Rainey says, "we all do," acknowledging his feeble fan club.

"Monday morning, I show you a spot, frame-for-mother-fucking-frame ..."

"The mouth on this kid," Rainey jokes.

"... that exact spot."

Seconds stretch into a slow-motion montage: Lyn shushing me, Shuster calming me, old dudes scoffing at me. Rainey bides his time.

"Can you believe this kid?" he chuckles. "He thinks 'cause he was 'in the room' when I described the spot, it's his." The lifers guffaw. "Look, if it'll make you feel better, kid, I'll let you cover the voiceover session."

"You are a desperate old liar," I hiss.

Rainey takes a sip of his Maker's Mark, and calmly leans toward me. Our faces almost touch. Vomit. I can see his cardboard teeth, his transparent skin, the gnarly gin blossoms on his cheeks. In his eyes I see the sparkle of bloodlust, the last flicker of life from an aging warrior. He gazes directly into my eyes, and now it's the gentle father look. I'm not having it. He pauses, and the edges of his lips buoy up like two ends of a canoe on Lake Michigan. He's ready to pounce.

"I'm going out of town next week," he grins, "big shoot in L.A. Maybe you and your ladyfriend would like my Cubs tickets."


Rainey joins his cronies as I stand with a lump in my throat, feeling like a 5-year-old who's just had his bare ass paddled.

"Here ya' go, kid," bartender says, eyes downcast, "on the house." He hands me a Maker's Mark, straight-up, and gives me a knowing wink. Drink-in-hand I slouch back to our rebel table.

"Free drink's a free drink," Shuster says. Lyn shares a supportive smile as I instinctively down the whiskey.

From the back of the room the lifers' wheezy laughs trail off and then settle like dustballs along the handsome granite columns that line the sparkling lobby of the Baker Bassett Company.

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