Lisa No Legs
A Short Story
A Short Story
Everyone in the room should have been, like the central characters in a Japanese tea ceremony, well steeped in the formal requirements of the moment. Phil noticed that indeed, on the surface, everything seemed calm and normal. Underneath his Armani jacket, though, a thin pool of hot, slippery sweat had formed; other lagoons of perspiration appeared in the palm of each hand as he settled himself into the conference room chair. His sense of unease was vague and peripheral, akin to an early morning fog waiting to thicken and overwhelm a coastline.
As head writer of the creative and content treatment compressed between his fingers, it was his task to make that morning's presentation to the prospective client. He had been through the motions of this task countless times in the past, on each occasion putting forth the distillation of his ideas for a promotional video which a would-be client wished to create for one of their new products. Today, as always, he would be expected to embrace the concepts contained within the proposal like a good parent, proudly claiming ownership of their lustrous brilliance, convincing the always dubious prospect that he and his fellow video production company associates were unquestionably the ones who could breath life into the upcoming sales campaign. The ideas were, after all, allegedly the output of his ostensibly hyperactive cerebral cortex. Under the circumstances though, he felt more like a father who, after abandoning his child on the day of its birth, returns for the youngster's high school graduation, worthy of claiming no more credit for his offspring's development than is due the repository of a good gene pool.
Phil squirmed from one side of his seat to the other, shifting weight from hip to hip, crossing and uncrossing his legs, in a series of unsuccessful attempts at looking casual and in control. Good posturing, he knew, would be poor compensation for his lack of preparation. Instead of fulfilling his customary duties in the days before this critical meeting, he had wandered about the corridors of the production company for which he worked in the sort of anguish that had, in recent months, become the defining characteristic of his persona. People increasingly noted his exceptional listlessness, his slight air of disconnection from the events around him, punctuated by periodic outbursts of visceral hostility. Some thought it just another of those dangerous, sullen moods he so often wandered through, dragging everyone else along with him. His humors of late were particularly rancid, however, and had spawned a new phrase around the office; people spoke of being "Phil-laid" whenever forced to be with him, a witticism that accurately conveyed the double image of being simultaneously eviscerated and sodomized by this gloomy man. Those closest to him, which could be numbered in the ones, namely his wife, feared the new tides of his internal stormy seas would this time well up in a tsunami that might engulf and drown all those within range, including himself.
"See Phil this morning?" one wag asked another just the day before. "I asked him how he was doing, and he went off on some tangent about, 'how do you think I'm doing when I live on a planet where I can't find a place to park a car whose monthly payments are enough to feed a small third world country for a year? How the hell you think I'm doing?' Man, does this guy ever lighten up?"
"Yeah, and how 'bout that little scene with Mike yesterday?" the other office conversationalist enjoined, recalling another historic confrontation between Phil and the company owner. "He's supposed to be working on the proposal for that computer chip outfit. It could be the biggest production we've ever done, if Phil would, and let me quote our fearless leader, 'get his head out of his colon and back in the clouds, where a thinking ad man's brain belongs!' Maybe he's really flipped this time, ya think?"
Who knew? For his part, Phil was mostly interested in the reruns of sitcoms played endlessly on those cable channels at the far end of the dial. His life, like the simple characters in the old black-and-white shows which induced his nightly alpha brain wave patterns, had become a chain of predictable, repetitive motions. Being a fairly competent ad man whose thoughts were primarily metaphorical, he was continually creating internal images that might help explain his mid-life predicament. My life is rather like a bicycle chain, he once told his wife, with one significant difference; unlike the chain of a bicycle which propels its vehicle forward towards a destination, the succession of events in his life was thrusting him further into middle age only. The life he had dreamed of as a young agency hotshot (had it been only twenty five years earlier?) was rapidly receding into that indistinct horizon known as "the past".
Had he been more familiar with the inner workings of his own psyche, as familiar, say, as he was with what made people respond powerfully to an advertising campaign for a product they neither needed nor wanted, Phil might have fully recognized the specters of his unfulfilled ambitions hanging in the air like limpid ghosts, their ectoplasm smothering the bit of remaining vitality out of his already greatly diminished daily existence.
Unfortunately, these days his mind operated like a vast, shallow reservoir, covering miles of ground, but doing so only a few inches deep. It had not always been so. A handful of years earlier, his intellect had had the qualities of a deep, clear mountain lake to which creatures came to drink from miles around. Having done little to nurture his gifts beyond scheming ways to increase his monthly bonus check, Phil's well-spring of cerebral and emotional richness had been sucked dry, leaving his insides brittle and barren.
Still, there were enough of his once precise instincts remaining on this morning, as he sat stupefied in the brightly lit conference room, for him to discern the atmosphere of imminent doom. He was, he realized with a waft of renewed nausea, but moments away from rising in defense of a proposal he had seen only minutes before while standing with his colleagues in front of the client's corporate headquarters prior to the meeting.
"Since you could not find it in you to write more than two tepid pages of general concept outline, I had Arlene here flesh it out over the weekend," Mike McLintock, his boss of fifteen years, had said with open contempt. "For Christ's sake, at least take a look at the goddamn thing before we go in there, will you Phil?"
At the mention of Arlene's name, Phil's heart had immediately sunk. Young and as yet untempered by the fires of the competitive business world, Arlene was the latest on-staff producer to be hired, and Mike, a man with an imagination that extended no further than his penis or the outline for his company's next proposed ad campaign -- whichever he first found in his hand each morning -- had begun to increasingly rely upon Arlene as Phil sank ever deeper into his myopia. Had she not been like a newly born calf in Phil's eyes, wobbly and naive to the point of actually smiling sweetly at everyone throughout the entirety of the day, he would have hated her with the intensity he usually reserved for those clients who liked to improve upon his campaign ideas. As it was, he had been able to muster no more feeling towards her than a mild and distant curiosity, the sort of emotional engagement a botanist might feel for his favorite strain of moss or lichen. Phil stared at Arlene, as he had so often in recent weeks, slightly gap-jawed at the realization that such creatures of innocence still inhabit the earth, much less the advertising business.
Returning to relative consciousness, Phil had grabbed the now ten page proposal from Arlene's hand, and looked angrily at Mike before scanning the document.
"Shit. I can't believe this," he had begun, speaking as if Arlene were somewhere else, which was at that moment, his wish second only to the desire to be miles away himself.
"How many of these goddamn things has she written, anyway?" Before anyone could possibly have answered, he turned his question rhetorical. "None, that's how goddamn many." With a wild gesture towards Arlene that might as easily have been directed toward a nearby bush, he continued.
"What makes you think she's got enough experience...no, wait a minute...what makes you think she's good enough to put something this big together? And why didn't I have a chance to see it before now?"
Mike exhaled slowly while running the palm of one hand over his extensive midsection, a habit that always preceded an angry outburst. For his part, Mike had tolerated Phil's tirades more times than he would ever desire to recall. It had been worth it, Mike thought, up until about six months ago. People can put up with a lot of grief when a progenitor of misery was also the font of great financial success. Phil's creative juices had been at the heart of the company's award-winning and client-pleasing video marketing campaigns for over a decade. Lately though, Mike thought glumly, Phil had slipped off into a reality to which he alone had access. Even with Mike, and occasionally in front of clients, he had begun to vacillate between those bouts of sullen torpor and bursts of volcanic rage to which his co-workers had been randomly subjected for years. Anyone fitting the definition of "friend" had deserted him long ago, all unwilling to weather the winds of his inclement fulminations. Worst of all, he didn't seem to have the creative edge he once did. The most he appeared capable of offering at staff meetings in recent days was a fish-eyed look bracketed by intermittent expletives.
"The answer to your first question is that I don't need to explain to you or anyone else why I think she's good enough, asshole", Mike had retorted, gradually working himself up to the passionate tenor needed to do combat with Phil. Because he too was infamous for his paroxysms of verbal inanities, one of the most popular office sports was standing in the hallway outside Mike's office, listening to he and Phil ignite each other's ire.
"But just for the record", Mike continued more heatedly, "she's good enough because she's full of energy and ideas. Kind of like you used to be, Phil."
Phil had felt the blood burn its way through his cheeks and ears. For an instant, he entertained the dark vision of Mike writhing on the ground in pain, the prelude to an agonizing death caused by Phil's decision to methodically remove the pen from his top shirt pocket and insert it into one of Mike's wall-eyes, preferably the left one which never seemed to focus on anything. He tried to imagine precisely how much force would be required to firmly imbed the instrument deeply into his employer's frontal lobe. Or more accurately, he thought, the piece of protoplasm that passed for his bosses' brain, based on its shape and size, certainly not on its performance. Using that criterion, he thought wryly, Mike's gray matter was of little more use than an ordinary kitchen appliance; maybe less, since it wasn't capable of rudimentary functions, such as keeping perishables cold or producing a good piece of toast. Lobotomy-by-pen, he thought further; could start a new trend in relationship termination.
Unable to conjure the rancor necessary for a double murder, (although as harmless as a throw rug, Arlene would have to be strangled on the spot, eliminating the only witness to his justifiable homicide) Phil merely cocked his head to one side and loudly propelled air through both nostrils.
"As for your second question," Mike went on, "I tried calling you several times over the weekend. Do you ever check your goddamn voice mail?"
"I wasn't around this weekend." Phil's response sounded weak and silly to him, a stark contrast to the acidic malevolence he felt sitting in the well of his throat. If I were a snake, he silently conjured, I would inject you both with venom, then slowly swallow and digest the evidence of my crime. For a moment, he was distracted by thoughts of admiration for Mother Nature; how dispassionately and ingeniously she had equipped some of her denizens for the tasks of dispatching enemies or securing supper.
Sitting now with these myriad dismal reminiscences of that earlier encounter, awaiting the impending arrival of the client entourage, Phil wished he had been less consumed with the impulsive urgings of that pre-meeting encounter. Perhaps it would have been more fruitful had he instead paid closer attention to the contents of the mutated, mutilated proposal he now slowly laid on the table and pushed away from him, as if it were a bag containing a weeks' worth of biological contaminants from a hospital's operating theater. For there, staring back at him with unblinking mercilessness was the wellspring of the rapidly accumulating estuaries of perspiration gathering at telltale locations across his body.
He became aware that he must be exuding a distinct and odious odor; his sweat was of the clammy variety associated with animal fear. It occurred to him that had his prehistoric ancestors been faced with this situation, they would have chosen flight over fight. He knew instinctively that dismembering a large beast in hand to hand combat would have been a less arduous and bloody task than the thirty minute assignment which stretched before him.
Hoping that perhaps somehow the words had magically rearranged themselves on the page, he read once more the opening lines of the proposal, wanting to be certain that his situation was as tenuous as he feared. Phil's lips moved as he scanned through the opening paragraphs, evidence of his whimsy that giving utterance to the verbiage on the paper would perhaps act as an incantation which could alter his predicament. When he reached the portion of the proposal where his wordsmithing ended and Arlene's artless craft began, another large stone of fear dropped slowly down through his chest into his stomach, working its way diligently towards the tangle of his intestinal track. Each time Phil reread Arlene's unforgivable marketing mortal sin, he pondered anew the latent benefits of bolting from the room, hopping into his car, hitting the interstate highway heading south, and never looking back. This option might have actually held promise had he not realized that for him to stand at this moment was to flirt with the distinct possibility of fainting. He envisioned the client entering the room as he lay unconsciously sprawled across the large conference room table, end up, face down, while all silently studied him like an animal who has just been bagged on safari.
How could the situation have degenerated to his feeling light-headed enough to lose consciousness? Could it really be the effects of the insignificant blather on this small piece of paper? Or should he have had more for breakfast than a mound of sugar swimming in a double espresso? The thought then came to him that there was tragically little difference between his early morning libations and the tome he held in his liquid fingers; both offered little sustenance or substance, each a pretender at fulfillment.
As he lowered the page, Phil tried to think the situation through once more; perhaps if he could grasp the sociological implications of his dilemma, he might devise a plan of escape; or at least a plausible excuse. His philosophical ruminations barely embarked upon, a flurry of clothing and briefcases, accompanied by the distinct aroma of Obsession, the perfume of choice for today's advancing corporate woman, punctured the room, consigning his attempt at developing a survival strategy to a still-born death. Here came "The Clients", Phil realized, always distinguishable by the slight sneer at the edge of their tightly pursed mouths whenever greeting a would-be vendor such as his worm-like self.
Leading the pack of predators as they entered the room was the personification of Phil's fear, the head of Unitel Corporation's marketing department, one Ms. Lisa Prowess; (he knew if she were the character in a short story, the author would be forced to give her another name; the reader would never accept such an obvious synchronism of name and primary personality characteristic. Implausability is the grist of real life, not fiction, he knew.)
Phil had met Lisa only once before, during the initial pitch he and Mike had made two weeks earlier; the encounter had been sufficient to convince him that Ms. Prowess precisely represented those estrogen-borne traits which sent spasms of flaccidness running through the groins of every man with whom she had a professional relationship. He suspected that whenever men within the department discussed the formidable Ms. Prowess, they tried bravely and vainly to avoid being subsumed by the aura of power so accurately conveyed via her last name. By using pedestrian pejoratives such as "bitch" and "ball buster", they hoped to break the spell of her control over them, to demean her stature, relegating her to the Cro-Magnon status of woman as mere child bearer; but in their heart-of-hearts, these men recognized that their sneering condemnations were mere noxious vapors, gaseous maledictions which did nothing to dispel the reality of the magnetism emitted by Ms. Lisa Prowess. She had long held the unchallenged, if unofficial, title of "Most Foreboding Middle Manager" within the company. Phil appreciated these realities without being privy to their details; their murky, ill-defined outline filled the room with a presence which made the promised agonies of the next few minutes that much more pronounced.
Lisa Prowess carried herself into the room with the élan of a Chief Executive Officer who has just digested several subordinates for breakfast. She was self-constructed with that curious blend of feminine allure and cool professionalism that Phil had never quit been able to define. He immediately conceded to women of her carefully crafted design as being essentially enigmatic. Although projecting an aura of unequivocal sexuality, each component of their demeanor includes the opaque message that they are not to be trivialized as simple objects of lasciviousness. Phil observed with appreciative wonderment the ability such women have to make him feel passionately carnal at the same instant they are broadcasting warnings of danger in extremis. This must be akin to what the male counterpart of the Black Widow spider feels, he thought, just prior to conjugation followed by decapitation.
Considerably more than the categorical representative of the genus Femme Fatale, Lisa Prowess was a indeed a singular presence. Somehow she managed to house eyes that were at once steely and mischievous. As well-manicured as she was puissant, she consistently evoked a heady mixture of intoxication and diffidence from her male associates.
With the unrehearsed elegance of a yearling, she tossed back the sprawl of shoulder-length red hair which had become one of her many hallmarks, fully revealing an inscrutable, tantalizing face; this, while pulling out the vacant chair next to Phil. As she sat, she motioned with imperial grandeur for all to roost. Jesus, thought Phil, why did she have to pick the place right next to me? As he considered the likelihood that she might take advantage of his proximity to inflict physical harm should he disenchant her with his presentation, she began speaking with the soft intonations of understated command that distinguishes those who are in charge from those who are not.
"Good morning, everyone. Nice to see you Mike, Phil, Arlene. You know my associates, Jim, Bob and Dave..." Hmm, the infamous office eunuchs, mused Phil. Mutterings around the table acknowledged Lisa's salutations without risking the consequences of interrupting her.
"Well then, let's get right down to the business at hand, shall we?" Nodding affirmations all around paid yet additional homage to Lisa's so far unchallenged role as chieftain of the gathered clan. Mike, who enjoyed a self-perception as one well accustomed to dealing with "women in business", made the first (and, as it turned out, last) move to take control of the assemblage. "As you know, Mr. Prowess, we have..."
"I'm certain you have a great deal to tell us, Mike," Lisa cut him off at the verb, "and we're quite anxious to hear the details of your creative treatment." Was it the regal "we" she used, wondered Phil? Or was she including her quizzical associates who arrayed themselves quietly as shadow creatures along the remaining length of table on Lisa's opposite side?
"Did you get all the information you needed from Bob here in order to write your creative treatment?" she inquired, gesturing towards one of her companions as one might point to a newly acquired puppy. For a moment, Phil thought she might actually reach over and pat Bob on the head.
Phil had known his employer long enough to recognize the faint hint of annoyance which glinted momentarily in his eyes. If Lisa Prowess noticed, she showed no inclination to seek rapprochement. Impressed with her extraordinary ability to mold others, less by intimidation than with the sheer understated energies of her personality, Phil watched Lisa Prowess with slightly open-mouthed regard; he was, therefore, caught completely off-guard by the sudden realization that her limpid gaze was aimed in his direction; her question had been put to him, not Mike. "And how is the Creative Director feeling this morning? Awake enough to be... creative, I hope."
Her icy self-control contrasted so sharply with the menacing warmth of her smile that Phil was unable to suppress an involuntary shiver. He felt rather like the time in sixth-grade when his teacher, Mrs. Blotchet, had caught him absent-mindedly stroking his genitals in a prepubescent game of pocket pool in the back of the classroom. Then, as now, he wished he possessed the power to make himself invisible. "Ahh, umm, yes Lisa, I think...you're going to find my...our...the proposal to be quite exciting."
Lisa Prowess continued to star at him, now in silence; her slight smile of condescension suspended the room in a freeze frame of time and space. She seemed to be looking at him -- no, looking through him -- as if he were apprenticing a great Chess master and had just made a transparent observation about the opening movement of the Queen's pawn. Phil had the odd sensation of being tissue thin. For a instant he held the image of himself as one of those cartoon characters who is run over by a steam roller. The absurd imagery gave way to a picture of someone striking a match and setting him afire; he saw himself dissolve in a flash of flame and smoke, a piece of human rice paper with less substance than a hologram. With feelings of such abiding inadequacy taking hold so early in the meeting, he wondered how great the odds were against his surviving the coming minutes with even a modicum of human dignity. Mercifully, Lisa broke the trance which enveloped the room. "I'm certain we're all going to be very pleased, Phil. Please begin."
Mystics use a variety of terms to describe what happened to Phil next. Some speak of having a unitive experience, others talk of a feeling of transcendence; still others allude to their moment of clarity. At the sound of Lisa's command and as suddenly as the stellar implosion that creates a black hole, Phil simultaneously came to several realizations. He knew he would not only survive this terrible moment; he would walk away from it thoroughly satisfied and at peace, perhaps triumphant as well. Although he wondered vaguely why he felt so deeply reassured, he knew the source of his serenity was likely to remain forever one of the mysteries of his existence. The oddest constituent of his enlightenment was the absolute prescience he felt regarding the remainder of the meeting; Phil knew he knew how it would unfold, without being able to invoke the details in any meaningful way. Most importantly of all, he sensed he was immersed in a situation of superb irony, circumstances within which currents of creative observation that had years earlier become dry, dusty stream beds, were being fully replenished by free-flowing torrents of fluid inspiration. God parted the Red Sea for Moses. Phil had the impression that, for him, the miracle of inundation was taking place.
Curiously, he was able to embrace his role as observer and participant without the slightest fear of injury. His anguish of the previous moments had been a baptism leading to the birth of a new being, one impervious to harm. Phil noted that his heart calmed to the slow, steady rhythms of an athlete in his prime. The perspiration which had been coalescing into molten pools secreted along his body miraculously evaporated, canteens of moisture unable to survive the burning clarity of his revelations. His mouth, a heretofore dry cavern devoid of saliva, became abruptly fluid, lubricated for the task of elucidation ahead. Had his blood pressure been monitored at that exact moment, the observing medical professional would have been astonished at its sudden plunge. This is going to be fun, thought Phil; no, more than fun. The remainder of the meeting promised to provide the sort of merriment which had been missing from his life for years. The precise reasons as to why this should be so continued to remain just at the edge of his consciousness, but he relished the prospect of participating in the drama about to materialize.
As the first modulations of his voice radiated with fresh self-assurance, reverberating from the far wall at the other end of the conference table, Phil could feel a shift of energies in the room. All these profound universes of change had taken place between the end of Lisa's last sentence, and the utterance he was just beginning, a subjective time lapse of perhaps two seconds or less.
"Lisa, it's been a tremendously rewarding experience putting this proposal together for you. We were so fired up by the possibilities inherent in this campaign, that we broke with precedence, and worked on the proposal as a company-wide collaborative effort. Arlene, here, in fact, is the real genius behind what we've come up with. And so, I think it's only proper that she share with you the genesis of her creative approach. Then I can answer any questions you might have."
The brilliance of this maneuver made Phil nearly swoon for the second time that morning. Not only had he daintily removed himself from the hook, he had re-baited it with Arlene while appearing to be gracious and modest. Once again, the atmosphere in the room became heightened with the portent of immanent slaughter. Mike's expression took on the stony qualities of intended inscrutability which Phil recognized as the clear indicator of seething rage that roiled within his boss when situations were both out of his control and beyond his comprehension. Arlene's expression, written in the large letters of the innocent child, was one of dumbfounded pleasure and excitement. She perceived this as her moment in the sun, and a tiny surge of pity passed through Phil's heart as he considered the eagerness with which the lamb is led to slaughter in the full light of day. "Oh, really, Phil", Arlene sputtered, "I wasn't...you were...I mean, it was your idea; I just...fleshed it out a little."
Every move now hydraulically smooth, Phil turned slowly to face Lisa, a gesture of pretended deference. As their eyes met, they exchanged the glance of silent alliance that binds co-conspirators into a cohesive unit of treachery. She too was settling in to enjoy the dance of duplicity being choreographed on her behalf at Phil's behest. Leaning back in her chair, she cradled chin in hand, one finger extended to her cheekbone in the age-old posture of undiluted evaluation. There was no need for her to speak; she had temporarily relinquished authorship to Phil in the manner of a creative writing instructor who wishes to see how well a prized student can compose his first flight of fancy on paper.
With his quarry stalked into a blind ravine, Phil moved in for the next stunning blow, delivering a sweet soporific that could not have been more soothing had he fired it into Arlene's rump from a tranquilizer gun. "Now, Arlene, you're being much too modest. You spent a lot of time working on the proposal over the weekend, and I think it's only fair that you get what you deserve." Phil's thinly veiled double entendre caused everyone to shift in their chairs as if following a director's "action!" cue. All present pondered the subterranean implications of receiving one's own just deserts.
His prevision of the predation to come was infectious. The gathering was increasingly taking on the aura of a Roman amphitheater prior to the moment when the air would be split by the agonized screams of those being claimed as protein by ravished lions. Adding credence to this similitude, Lisa hungrily licked her lips before saying, "Phil's right, my dear. This is no time for false modesty. Please, let's get on with it. Time and money and all that, you know?" She winked at Phil in an exaggerated gesture of what seemed, at first glance, to be nothing more than disingenuous levity.
With that gesture, however, Phil took note of another momentous turning point in the morning's episodic melodrama. Not wishing to lose the recent gift of his composure, he refused to give the phenomenon complete conscious exposition. Only his loins registered a slight but unambiguous tremor, an involuntary consequence of the subtle sexual overtones which Phil suddenly realized were contained in the movement of Lisa's nictitating membrane in his direction. Or was this perception merely the treasonous voice of his male member, that appendage which had so often betrayed him with bad advice in times past? He had lost count of the occasions on which such urgings had led him into the sort of messy bogs where paleontologists find the fossils of animals with brains too small to save them from folly. Beware the Trojan Horse, thought Phil, turning his attentions fully to Arlene before his embryonic cupidity could betray him.
Arlene, meanwhile, looked pained and laborious in her indecision about whether to sit or stand. How curious it is, observed Phil as he dispassionately beheld her quandary, that our response to a situation is often the precise opposite of what the circumstances call for; in this case, Arlene was paralyzed by the need to perform. She could not force her voluntary nervous system to instruct her musculature to produce the simplest of movements. The deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, considered Phil.
After several agonizing moments in which those sitting close to Arlene considered helping her to her feet as if she were an invalid about to begin an intensive session of physical therapy, the young woman cleared her throat. This transfer of phlegm from lungs to esophagus seemed to break the logjam of her immobility. Her body slowly acknowledged the commands being sent to her legs by a feverish brain. Having mastered the necessary mechanics to successfully perform the feat of standing without assistance, it appeared that her overheated cerebellum was unable to forthrightly handle another function any time soon. She stood in a frozen imitation of the prey which has resigned itself to the predator. When the tension had once again risen to a palpable level beyond human tolerance, she picked up her copy of the proposal, and began to read aloud. Voice quivering with unbridled terror, Arlene resembled a child reading a composition in front of a gathering of derisive classmates.
Abruptly, Phil realized what had become of his multitude of symptoms when they had been dispelled by the miracle of his awakening moments ago; apparently, all his fear had been transmitted directly through the ether into Arlene, as if by means of an invisible catheter. Phil looked at her with the eyes of a soldier who, upon examining the recently deceased body of a fallen comrade, can muster no more compassionate a rejoinder than, "better you than me." Barely audible, Arlene began to read;
To produce a 5 to 8 minute video presentation which will be used to market the features and benefits of Unitel's new SZ670 data processor.
As he heard the few words of the proposal which he had contributed, Phil returned to his favorite preoccupation, himself. So very Phil-like those first few words, he thought after hearing the brief "objective". It was pointed, precise, and predictable, just the way clients always liked proposals to begin. Belaboring the obvious, he knew after years of doing so, was one of the most commendable practices within the marketing and advertising world, which made great commotion about originality while always embracing the predictable. Arlene read on, gaining a bit of composure and modulation as she warmed to her task.
Because the new SZ670 data processor's main sales feature is the increased speed with which it allows the end user to utilize his or her computer, we recommend that we create a dramatization which illustrates the comparisons between two users -- one who enjoys the advantages of the SZ670 and one who doesn't.
Still vintage Phil, Phil thought, despite the run-on sentence structure. The Frankenstein of Arlene's creation was about to show its first bolts and sutures. Phil could empathically feel the muscles in Arlene's neck and upper back tighten in a vise grip along her entire vertebral structure. Pain radiated like canals of poison through her head, he knew, as she began to read the ideas she had grafted onto his original work. Her fear was born of an ignorance of what was to come. Had she realized what the next few minutes held for her, she would have collapsed in a paroxysm of symptoms requiring immediate hospitalization. She read on.
The part of the non-SZ670 user will be played by a male actor, who will be portrayed as today's typical office computer user -- dressed for success and ready to take on the day's tasks in his in-basket.
The part of the SZ670 user will be played by a female actress. She will also personify today's typical, upwardly mobile woman in business. That is, she will be competent, yet sexy. She knows how, in other words, to use all her gifts -- from her brain to her delightful, fully feminine figure.
Many of the survivors of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, say they vividly remember the moment just before the explosion. Many recall a great stillness, as if everyone had halted their conversations and taken a in-breath together, while birds stopped singing, dogs ceased to bark, and everyone looked skyward before the flash of primal energy that consumed their city.
Such was the moment at hand in the conference room. An eternity of silent anticipation metamorphosed within each person present. Phil was certain he heard glass breaking in another room; or was it a baby crying in the distance? These were but psychological phantoms, the feeble offerings of Phil's mind as it searched for some way to frame the pending detonation.
Had there been time to consider the history which led to this crossroads of human emotion, Phil was probably the best equipped person in the room to appreciate the severity of the seismic pressures of centuries of oppression about to be unleashed. In the manner of a mother teaching her child not to play with snakes, his wife had schooled him repeatedly in how to avoid being bitten by the issue of sexual exploitation in the market place.
As a catch phrase, "women in business" had become a ubiquitous term in the English speaking world of the late 20th Century. One's particular perspective of the phenomenon depended entirely on the biological plumbing and culturation of the definer. Many men, perhaps most (especially those in business themselves) thought of "women in business" as a burdensome nightmare from which they might awaken some morning, discovering once again a world where men were men and women brought condiments into the room with questions such as, "coffee or tea, sir? One lump or two?"
Phil believed that even the most liberal of males secretly harbored this fantasy. They might vehemently deny it were they confronted with such an accusation, but in bawdy gatherings of male bonding, the idea was likely to be touted at least once as a tendril which guaranteed the connection of male camaraderie and companionship, if not necessarily a topic for serious conversation.
At the other end of evolution-according-to-Phil, females of the Homo Sapien variety were generally divided into two warring camps; those who militantly held to their right to draw as much blood in the marketplace as any of their male counterparts, and those who thought that if God had intended women to work for a living, he would not have given the nation the Republican Party.
To be certain, membership in the latter group of woman did not suggest an automatic alliance with conservative men. The eons of female deference to their male masters may still have existed in Third World enclaves, but it been effectively eradicated from the mainstream of First World life. Regardless of their stripes, as liberated wielders of power in commerce, or supposed toadies who followed the literal interpretations of scripture, women were increasingly in agreement that their new status was far preferable to the days when bras were set aflame in public. Women had been making steady, if grudgingly granted gains in the capitalist system since at least the mid 1970s. As a result, many men found themselves suffering under the regime of a female supervisor (such as Lisa Prowess) or female business owner. Alliances were fragile but real. An elaborate set of unwritten edicts had become part of the cultural lore regarding this first time sociological occurrence. One's testosterone might secretly boil in the midst of the loss of the hunter's dominance, but one learned to do what one must in order to survive, believed Phil.
He had come to understand each of these subtle legislation's and became a master practitioner at the bar of pretended equality in the workplace. The depth of his comprehension regarding the taboo of perceived sexism was at the heart of his angst earlier that day. For he had dreaded the consequences of reading aloud Arlene's naive role modeling to the quintessential business woman, Ms. Lisa Prowess. Said dread was also the fodder for his epiphany upon realizing he could turn the conference tables, as it were, crafting the ultimately insulting situation for a woman like Lisa, while positing himself as a sympathetic comrade in arms.
And now the over-ripe fruit had fallen from the tree; a woman in business had suggested to another woman in business that women in business were still, effectively, mere objects of sexuality. It was as if, with one sentence, Arlene had attempted to negate all feminist advances of the past four decades, and had done so before one of the high priestesses of equality.
All eyes, except Arlene's, were fixed on Lisa Prowess, her face contorted into a tightened mask of rage. Perhaps this is the way the surface of Mount St. Helen's looked, considered Phil, just before it spewed several square miles of dirt into the upper atmosphere in May 1980. Lisa sprang to her feet, a great feline leaping at its victim on the Serengeti Plains of Free Enterprise.
"Not only do I find it personally distasteful, young lady, that you should think it necessary for a woman to be portrayed as needing any more than her professional competence in the work place," Lisa hissed between taut lips, " but as a professional woman, I am astonished...shocked...dismayed...and goddamned angry as hell that you, a woman yourself...albeit it young and inexperienced...should harbor such illusory stereotypes about woman! We no longer need to show our legs...or any other portion of out anatomy...in order to do as well, or better than, our male counterparts!"
While impressed that she had managed this succinct diatribe within a single breath, Phil suspected she was practiced at delivering such erudite orations. Turning to look at Arlene, he thought he might have to leap across the table and slap her firmly on the back in order to re-start her breathing. Her face fixed firmly in horror, Arlene's eyes looked downward, bulging from their sockets as if she were caught in the vacuum of deep space.
Would she respond meekly to Lisa's tirade? Would she sit down in subdued silence, letting one of the more sagacious males from her office determine the appropriate follow up to Lisa's pronouncement? Or would her head simply explode, the result of the accumulating pressures of terminal embarrassment, spraying the surroundings with brains and blood?
What actually happened next surprised Phil, who considered himself a hardened veteran who was inured to the vagaries of the advertising and marketing business. As a flood of tears began flowing profusely from her still-protruding eyes, Arlene raised her head and with a voice whose smoothness contrasted with the rest of her lack of poise, said softly, "How long has it been since you've taken a close look at yourself, Miss Prowess?" Clutching the sodden and crumpled papers of the proposal in one hand, she raised them high above her head as if they had become helium filled and might carry her to the ceiling.
Her whispered delivery began to gain volume and cadence. "I mean, my God, you were my inspiration for this! Look at yourself, why don't you. You are...". She lowered the page containing the defamatory statement so that she could read it verbatim again. "...You are 'competent, yet sexy.' And it's you who knows how to 'use all her gifts -- from her brain to her delightful, fully feminine figure.'"
Arlene first lowered the disheveled document to the table, then her disheveled self to the chair, and sobbed quietly without restraint. Mike had hidden his face in his hands, slumping in his chair with the body language of one who has just received a terminal diagnosis. Phil considered the likelihood that his boss might require cardio pulmonary resuscitation sometime before noon that day, and swore a silent oath it wouldn't be his mouth which would affix itself across Mike's gaping, flaccid maw should the emergency arise. All others at the table tried to pretend that unoccupied portions of the room held their interest. Everyone except Phil and Lisa.
What distinguishes the great actresses of the stage from the merely proficient ones is their ability to control all aspects of their outward bearing. The audience, while under the spell of these mavens of melodrama, sees only what they are permitted to observe. Although she must have felt as if she had been bludgeoned by a truncheon, the only telltale symptom of distress Phil could detect in Lisa was a slight irregularity and shallowness to her breathing. She stood as poised as a Madonna, the tips of her fingers slightly in contact with the table top, her torso balanced evenly over both of her exceptionally long legs. Phil looked down and noticed how smooth they appeared under her stockings.
All available air was siphoned from the room as Lisa drew in a loud breath. Debate would ensue for weeks afterwards whether her pursed lips represented a wry smile or merely a banal, frozen tic of contempt. With the menacing understatement of a headmistress, she softly crooned, "You have a great deal to learn, Arlene, and I'm certain that this mornings painful, public lesson will not be one that you will soon forget. In view of your inexperience and probable good intentions, I think it only fair that I accept your unintended blunder as a clumsy attempt at a compliment."
Phil took a deep, exhilarating breath of his own that penetrated to the bottom of his lungs. This, he thought, was the privilege of witnessing an accomplished artisan at close range. Had he been laying on the scaffolding next to Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine chapel, he could not have been more profoundly in awe of the stalwart genius unfolding only a few feet away from him. He was momentarily seized by an impulse to fling himself at Lisa's feet and, while wrapped around her legs, to beg her to permit him an apprenticeship under her tutelage. Only the thinnest of social membranes separated him from performance of this unseemly act. Had Lisa turned her attentions to him at that moment, he would have dissolved like salt sprinkled into the sea. As it was, she continued to fix her stare squarely on her antagonist, preparing to dispatch Arlene with one final, deftly dealt blow.
With the same ethereal grace she had exhibited when entering the room, Lisa descended without a sound into her chair. An animal at home in her lair, thought Phil, every movement calculated to mesmerize and disengage. Placing one hand on the polished surface of the table, she began to drum her fingernails. Phil looked at her hand and, for the first time, noticed that he nails were manicured in a manner that must have required hours of meticulous grooming. Completing his imagery of her as savage beast, he imagined her cleaning herself with a few slow strokes of her own tongue. He quickly banished these imaginings, fearful that the small beads of sweat appearing on his upper lip might be harbingers of a return to his pre-enlightenment condition of bodily dew.
When she spoke again, it was in the crisp, unhurried manner with which a superior dismisses her subordinates. "Nonetheless, I think it best we dispense with hearing the rest of your proposal today. However, I expect you to expunge the sexist references from your proposal, and we'll meet back here again day after tomorrow, at 8 AM, to consider your full... amended...presentation."
The relief felt by everyone, except Arlene, was palpable. Small rumblings of agreement were muttered around the table, and Mike fairly burbled with enthusiastic acquiescence. "You're quire right, Lisa. We can make the necessary changes right away, and have a fresh proposal ready for you in 48 hours."
An electric thrill of excitement passed through Phil as Lisa slowly crossed her legs, and turned her attentions once again to him. Smooth, long, perfectly sculptured legs, he heard a voice say in his head. Slightly raising one eyebrow, she leaned forward as if preparing to share a confidence with him. Lowering her voice, she ran her eyes up and down Phil's body with the appraising scrutiny of one who is deciding whether or not to purchase a new garment. An apt analogy, realized Phil; had he gone but slightly more limp, he might have easily been placed on a hanger and hung in a nearby closet.
Bringing her eyes back to his, she leaned closer still, reached out, and placed her hand on top of his extended forearm. Every tiny hair on his flesh rose with the resultant chill. Noting his reaction with evident satisfaction, she spoke again. "Perhaps you should stop being so modest yourself, Phil. I'd be willing to bet that there's more of you in this first draft than you're taking credit for. Isn't that so?"
Had he ever been in more danger than he was at this moment, he could not recall it. Lisa was unaccustomed to being disagreed with; yet, to do so would place him back where he had begun the morning. No, no, in much more compromising a posture than that; for in addition to having to admit his authorship of the sin of sexism, he would be admitting to shifting blame to his guileless co-worker. Yet, was there an alternative to these unappealing options which he had not yet considered?
In the same fashion as his earlier regeneration, realization sprang full born into his consciousness. Every lurid detail of the current situation exploded into crystalline clarity in the center of his forehead; could it be that his entire existence had been a preparation for this single moment of salacious truth? He knew the exact answer Lisa anticipated, and fully embraced its consequences. The erstwhile elusive source of irony contained in the day's events was at last laid bare, revealing itself to be no more complex that an elementary school math equation. One plus one was, as always, about to yield the magic number of two. "I guess there's not much point in trying to get anything by you, Lisa."
His response had oozed forth as a low rumble, forcing the others present to move imperceptibly closer so they might share this intimacy. One exception was Arlene, whose weeping ceased as if on command at the conclusion of Phil's sentence. A rancid expression of unabashed hatred spread across her countenance, a desert storm clouding her soft features with the imprint of newly acquired cynicism.
Phil and Lisa Prowess were unaware of these varied reactions; all others had ceased to exist except themselves. Should Phil have noticed Arlene, he would have dismissed her as easily as a playwright who, upon complete utilization of a character, peremptorily drops her from the last scene in his play.
"Please, accept my apology, and my assurance, that we never meant to demean the status of women in the proposed video", Phil purred to Lisa. "As you have so eloquently pointed out, today's professional woman need no longer be portrayed by means of the old stereotypes. You have my personal commitment that the woman in our proposal will represent your product with all the dignity and asexuality today's professional women deserve."
With an audacity reminiscent of his sordid youth, Phil ended his recitation with an exaggerated wink, the shadow of Lisa's earlier gesture. This, combined with his cryptic comment about just deserts, his second of the morning, should have been enough to insure him a terrible fate. Yet he felt not a hint of fear. Honed to surgical sharpness, his instincts assured him he was providing Lisa with the titillation and thinly disguised artifice she desired. As if to confirm these insights, as she slowly pulled her arm back and sat upright, Phil became aware that her breathing had become more rapid and irregular; each breath seemed to have its origins in her upper frame rather than in the diaphragm. This created the odd effect of an unevenly heaving chest moving back and forth within inches of Phil's hands. Her breasts seemed to be responding to an invisible tidal force, two identical waves swelling sporadically to full crescendo before crashing against the rocky shore of her clothing, then falling back into the ocean of her body.
Summoning every scintilla of remaining will, Phil forced his eyes away from this wonder of human oceanography. His was the Herculean task of concentration required by one who has vowed to read a good book while standing in the midst of a great battlefield where two armies are fully engaged.
Lisa's tongue, activated once more, spread a thin sheen of moisture over both lips. If she were to had him a sword commanding that he throw himself upon it, he would have flung himself at the blade with enthusiasm. Instead, her fingers extended towards him holding a business card which had materialized as if by slight of hand. "I have absolute faith in your abilities, Philip, and I want to help you in any what I can."
Phil reached for the card reverentially, the holy wafer of his fantasies. Holding the sacred icon closer, he scanned its contents. On the back, he saw a single phone number written in ink. "That's my home number, Phil. I have the next couple of days off, so I won't be in the office. Let's get together and work on this. I'll expect to hear from you tonight."
Lisa Prowess unfolded her legs and stood. Scanning the room once, she made a final evaluation of each attendee. Then walking briskly to the door, entourage in tow, she disappeared down the hallway, the soft hint of derisive laughter floating back over her shoulder.