Vicious Good

By Elena Mauli Shapiro

Philip was being celebrated: he had just been promoted to Creative Director.  Because of this, he was in a trendy downtown bar being served drinks by a young man with piercings in his face while music meant to flatter the intellectual ear swirled about the room, just below the conversations.  Every once in a while, someone would come up to him and clap him on the back and say congratulations.  He would smile and say thank you, and they would have a pleasant chat about the brilliant prospects of the agency and perhaps a few remarks about how the rainy season seemed to be lingering late this year.  After all, it was already April, and wasn’t this supposed to be California?

Philip had a firm handshake and beautiful teeth.  It would not have been unreasonable to use his smile in a toothpaste ad.

He scanned the room the moment he was left alone.  He wanted to talk to Karen.  Before he could locate her, Harlan Addison, one of the heads of the agency, shouted his name from across the room.

“Phil!  You’ve come a long way, eh?”

Philip smiled again as was expected of him, with a subliminal delay this time.  Addison tapped a fork against a glass in sonorous staccato, calling for everyone’s attention.  The room quieted down while Addison went on in his loud tenor, “I just wanted to say congratulations to Phil — one of the best damn copywriters this agency ever had.  You’ll certainly be one of the best creative directors too.”  He raised his glass, “Philip Schein: reliable, solid, true,” he declaimed with feeling, then laughed.  Everyone laughed with him.  Everyone was picturing a billboard advertising the product Philip Schein with a posed shot of him looking handsome and thoughtful, and those three words emblazoned in the blank space above his head.

Philip raised his glass and joined the collective toast.  As the room resumed its previous hum, he spotted Karen sidling her way out of the ladies’ room and began making his way to her through the dimmed crowd.  He nearly spilled his gin and tonic all over himself when yet another male hand smacked him across the shoulder blade, unnecessarily hard.

“Heeeeeeey, Philip Schein: only one thing’s better!”

Philip winced.  It was one of the creative directors he liked the least, referring to an ad he had written for a chocolate bar a long time ago, featuring the product partially unwrapped in a suggestive way against a satin-like background.  The caption read Striptease, and the copy on the bottom of the page featured the brand name of the chocolate followed by the assertion that Only one thing’s better.

The ad was the last one Philip had shown in a disastrous pitch meeting where the client hated everything that was brought out, but then lit up when he saw the spec board for Striptease.  The client had to have that one.  Of course, Philip now had to be known throughout the agency by that goddamn ad.

“Yeah, thanks,” Philip said shortly, and passed by, as the man woozily flashed him thumbs-up.

“Karen!  Help me.  They’re bringing up that ad again,” he whimpered when he finally got to her.

“Hey, don’t worry about it.  Come with me. I’m getting another drink.”

They sat at a recessed corner of the bar, as far away as they could get from other people and the speakers.  “So, how’s life from your new lofty creative director heights?”  Karen asked, once she’d taken a sip.

“Same shit as always.  You know I’ll always ask to work with you, don’t you?”

“Well, yes.  You’d write puke without me.”

Karen was the art director most in sync with the constant productizing stream in Philip’s head.  They had been organic together since their first collaboration seven years earlier.

“I was thinking about that conversation that we were having about office romances the other day,” Philip said, looking at her face flushed from alcohol.

“What about them?”

“I don’t think you ever said what you thought about them.”

She didn’t look at him as she replied, “I think they’re a bad idea.”

“You don’t think intelligent people could handle such a thing correctly?”

“Philip, it would be stupid.  I’m kind of a bitch and you’re kind of an asshole.”

He was taken aback.  He hadn’t expected to move in so fast from the hypothetical, only to be so sharply rebuffed.  Shouldn’t she at least be flattered?  There was nothing to do except laugh it off, as if she’d said something witty.  This wasn’t the time to say that though she was plumper and saltier than his usual type, no one understood him quite like her.  It was the time to submit to her clapping him on the back just like a man.

Part Two

The piece that had gotten Philip promoted was an advertisement for a chain of auto-body shops.  He and Karen had been given the rather onerous task of coming up with a billboard that might resonate with the female consumer.  Were they supposed to make it pink?  Were they supposed to say, we know you don’t know how your car works, but we respect you anyway?  It was a sticky proposition, but a solution came to Philip in a flash.  A caption:

We’ll baby
your baby.

“You bastard,” Karen said. “Totally crass, but I’d totally take my car there anyway.”

She responded with an idea for a visual:

“That is vicious good,” Karen said.  “The shameless appeal to the whole nurturing thing.”

“And we didn’t even have to make it pink!”  Philip beamed.

For a moment, Karen was silent.  “Sometimes what we do makes me sick,” she said.  The tone in her voice made Philip unsure she was joking.

“So why do you do it?” he asked.

Karen looked at him intently, then shrugged.  “Meh,” she said, “I have no integrity, I guess.”

They made the visual happen via an old photographer friend of Karen’s and laid the ad out simply: Philip’s caption in white type in the lower left-hand corner, the name of the chain in big, stark black type on white below the image.  The client found the battered hand quite moving, the gingerly way it balanced the toy car on its blunt fingertips.  The photograph being black and white imbued it with a certain sadness that was not unwelcome, which in turn touched the CEO of a wealthy corporation looking for a new ad campaign. He saw the billboard when he was stuck in traffic and signed Philip’s agency. The agency, grateful for the influx of money, promoted Philip.

Philip had done well in life.  He drove an Audi sports car and lived in a beautiful apartment overlooking the ocean on the west side of the city.  What woman wouldn’t carefully consider the attentions of such a successful man?

*   *   *

Philip’s last girlfriend volunteered for a no-kill animal adoption agency.  She took in feline boarders when the shelter facilities were overwhelmed.  She usually had four or five cats in her one-bedroom apartment at any given time.  Often, the cats would sit at the foot of the bed to watch them make love.  Philip decided that since this clearly didn’t bother Marla, it didn’t bother him either.

After they were done and lay sated under the sheets, the cats would often leap up onto the bed and curl up on top of the comforter.  Oftentimes, the cats would nose around trying to find an opening to come cuddle under the covers with them.  This was where Philip drew the line.  Since many of the cats seemed to have a peculiar obsession with sniffing his bare feet, he was in no hurry to find out what other parts they might feel compelled to investigate.

Marla giggled at his reticence and gently scooted the cat away.  “Now now, Daddy doesn’t like that,” she would tell the spurned animal.

They watched the cat walk a few paces unfazed, and settle itself between their bodies.  “Naked cat cuddling is actually really nice,” Marla said.  “The fur is all soft and warm against the skin.”

Philip cringed.  “Well, Daddy has external genitalia, and your babies have claws.  There will be none of that.”

To make her laugh, Philip would spontaneously declaim advertising copy about each one of her cats, off the stream of his constant productizing.  He would do it in a deep declarative voice that sounded utterly unlike his natural speech, with each word crisply enunciated:

The Fuzz

• This super-soft cat is perfect for cuddling.  Ultra-fluff construction (70% pure fur) makes this model our lightest, yet still protected by a deep layer of subcutaneous fat.

• Spreads an attractive layer of hair over all your belongings.  These deposits are a perfect addition to your wardrobe, as the mid-intensity gray will contrast beautifully against any color.

• This low-maintenance model asks for nothing more than daily kibble refueling and a mere 8 hours a day of constant petting.

SPECIAL THIS WEEK ONLY: 15 LBS MODEL FOR THE PRICE OF 10 LBS.

Kitten Flash

• This sporty new model goes from zero to completely crazed in 3.2 seconds — this year’s most popular cat!

• Purr engines start up at first contact.

• Speeds comfortably across both carpeted and hardwood floors.  Steel-strong claws allow for both curtain and mesh-screen climbing.

• Power-cute mode ensures that no one can get mad at this model, ever.

Moist admiration flooded Marla’s eyes.  “How do you do that?”

“I don’t know.  Been doing it a long time.”

At this moment, an old tabby walked slowly into the bedroom, and hoisted itself creakily onto the bed.  Philip continued:

One-Paw-in-Grave

• This dependable model has a fifteen-year proven track record — a stalwart favorite that will never disappoint.  Reliable purr engines.

• No unnecessary or unpredictable motion: this model operates strictly in easily-charted axes between its rest spot and its refueling station.

• Deep Sleep Mode allows this cat complete non-reactivity to the loudest sounds.

• Distinctive odor sure to repel any intruders to your home.

“Aw, poor stinky kitty,” Marla cooed, and ran her hand down the animal’s back.

The cat buckled under Marla’s touch, keening slightly.  The animal had terribly shrunken kidneys, and would die of their failure soon.  Nobody would adopt this cat.  Marla would find its cold emaciated body somewhere in her apartment one day, and would have to dispose of it.

“You know who brought in that poor animal?” she asked.  “Some bitch who’s marrying some asshole who’s allergic to him.  She couldn’t even wait for him to die, and she didn’t have the spine to euthanize him.  Look at that poor baby.  He hurts so much.”

Philip could find nothing to say, watching the animal falter between them.  He hoped with all his might that it would not die immediately — that he would not have to watch Marla’s face as the animal collapsed and voided its bowel one last time, on her tidy but non-designer sheets.

Part Three

Not long after Karen told him she had no integrity, Philip wrote a block of copy for a magazine ad that he flung playfully across the table for Karen to read, hoping she would like it:

FOURTH OF JULY SALE!

This Saturday only, we offer up to 50% discounts on selected items in the store, ranging from women’s and men’s apparel to linens and bathrooms accessories!  So come on down and celebrate the birth of our beloved Capitalist Empire with random acts of ravenous consumerism!

“Well shit,” she said,  “what a subversive!  You’re going to destroy the machine from the inside.”

He wasn’t sure whether she was mocking the workings of the world, or mocking him specifically.  He didn’t generally like women who mocked him.  He took the copy back and started to redraft it as she benevolently watched over him.  “I like the new shade, by the way,” she remarked,

“What?”

“Your hair, it looks better darker like that.”

“What do you mean?” He tried his best to feign obtuseness.

“Come on, I can see that it changes color slightly every time you get it cut.  You have a fanciful stylist.”

“Ah.  Thanks, I guess?”

Philip was flustered.  He wondered who else noticed his dye job.  He was embarrassed to do such a thing, as a man, but he found it necessary.  To be gray at 44 was not acceptable in this profession where the appearance of vibrant youth was so important.  He recalled a creative director who went prematurely gray like him.  They called him Old Ironsides and laughed like this was funny.  He couldn’t remember the man’s name, but he didn’t stay long after that.  If he’d been a professor at a university, the early gray might have made him look distinguished.  Here at the agency, it was a liability.

“Oh, don’t worry, now,” Karen said gently, after a minute of silence in which they pretended to work.  “I won’t tell anybody and they won’t know because nobody pays attention around here anyhow.”

“Okay,” Philip said, at a loss.

“So what color was it?”

“What, the hair?”

“Yeah, before it went gray, what color was it?”

“It was a darker brown, almost black.”

He felt warm and vulnerable telling her that, as if he’d divulged something intimate to someone highly valued though, truly, such a detail probably meant nothing at all.

*   *   *

The first work that Philip and Karen did together was an ad campaign for a brand of whisky.  The two of them had a brief meeting during which Philip decided that he would like working with Karen; he enjoyed her caustic humor and she was not attractive enough to be distracting.  He was 37 and had already made a good name for himself.  She was nearly a decade younger and had just been promoted to art director.  She was green.  When she came to his office to work, she brought a picture for inspiration, an idea that Philip found sweet and frankly a bit womanly.

“I thought that this guy kind of looks like our demographic — or at least what our demographic thinks it looks like,” she said as she slid a print at him across the table.

Philip liked the picture immediately, despite the flecks and imperfections indicating that it had not been properly retouched.  There was something about the subject that compelled him.  Was it the man’s distant gaze?  He wasn’t sure.  Perhaps it had to do with the tightness of the clothing—the obvious strain of the man’s neck against the shirt collar?  Something about the sartorial tidiness and discomfort made Philip look over the picture in silence though he had been prepared to dismiss it.

 

“Where did you get this photo?” he asked.

Karen shrugged, “Just some old photographer friend of mine who’s always showing me his stuff.  He said the guy in this picture was drinking whisky in the shot, so I thought I’d bring it in.”

“It looks dated.”

“It is.  I think it was taken in the late sixties or early seventies.”

“Who’s the guy in the picture?”

“Just some guy he was friends with for a bit.  I think he was English.  He’s dead now.”

“What?  You brought me a dead Englishman?”

“Isn’t his outfit great?”

At this moment, Philip’s secretary rang him on the intercom, and announced that Lizzie was on the phone for him.  He sighed.  Lizzie was getting on his last nerve.  He said tersely to the secretary, “Tell her I’m in a meeting.  Tell her not to call here again, please.”

He disconnected without waiting for a reply, and saw that Karen was looking at him with puzzlement.  “Just some woman,” he explained.  “Not business related.”

“Ah.”

For a moment, they stared at each other.  Philip couldn’t read Karen’s facial expression.  It seemed that she was measuring him somehow, as if he’d said something pivotal though he didn’t know precisely what.

“Did you taste the product in question?” he asked, to break the silence.

“No.  I don’t drink hard liquor.”

“Well, the product’s not bad.  Let me show you some of the ideas I came up with over the weekend.”

He reached beneath the desk and popped his black briefcase open.  He pulled his folder out and they began to work.  The chemistry between them was good and the ideas flowed.  He discovered that her bringing pictures in for inspiration was actually a habit of hers; she did it often.  It seemed to work for them both.  Sometimes he liked the pictures that she brought in so well that he asked if he might have a copy.  She always obliged him.  Sometimes he recommended the old photographer friend of hers to do the product shots for the ads that went through.

Philip still had the dead Englishman in his things somewhere, though if he had to find the print in the bric-a-brac that was moved from his small former office to his new, large Creative Director corner office (with two windows), he wouldn’t even know where to look.

Part Four

The thing with Marla ended badly.

She called him in the middle of the afternoon crying over the phone, sobbing that Nemo was dead.

“Nemo?” Philip said, suddenly yanked up from his productizing stream, which was currently flowing on about a diaper (fitted snug ultra-absorbent soft mesh which won’t cause a rash on Baby’s tender skin affordably priced and a holy miracle among miracles, Consumer, you simply must have this diaper).

“The cat, Philip, the one with kidney failure.  Please come right now.”

“Okay,” he said, and hung up.  He told his secretary to cancel his four o’ clock meeting and left.

When he got to Marla’s apartment, she was kneeling in the middle of the living room floor with tears still pouring down her face.  The dead cat was stretched across the carpet next to her, with one of its forepaws reaching.  The animal was stiff and shrunken, its eyes already sinking into its head.

I just found him like this coming home from work,” she hiccupped.  “Isn’t it weird?  He looks like he was in mid-step when he died, like he was going somewhere.  Isn’t it weird?  I thought he might die in his sleep but he didn’t.  Philip — look — he was trying to go somewhere—”

She interrupted herself, and looked up at Philip like a lost child, breathing fast and hard like she was going to scream.  Philip went to her and knelt down.  He held her and she buried her face in the crook of his neck.  He could feel the wet heat of her streaming eyes there as he gently rubbed her back.

“I can’t even touch him,” Marla sobbed.  “I know I’m supposed to dispose of his body but I can’t even touch it — oh — Philip—”

“Shhh, don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll take the cat.  Don’t worry.  It’ll be fine.”

“Oh thank you,” she groaned, and kissed him warmly right below the earlobe, for several seconds.

Philip’s eyes widened in surprise — not at the kiss nor at his immediate stirrings of arousal at this kiss, but at the fact that he had just promised to dispose of a dead cat for his girlfriend.  He hadn’t the slightest clue what to do with a dead cat.  Was there a crematorium such a thing could be taken to?  What words would he look under in the yellow pages?  Deceased Domestic Animal Disposal Services?  He had never advertised anything like that before.

She clung to his neck and looked into his face.  “Why are you wearing a suit today?”

“Oh, I had a meeting this afternoon.  I canceled it.”

“You look good,” she said sadly.

Philip helped Marla up and away from the dead cat.  He sat her down next to him on the couch, where she immediately crawled onto his lap.  He gathered her in his arms and tipped her back into a deep kiss.  She reached for him and hooked her finger into his shirt collar, to loosen his red silk tie.

The tie was untied and his shirt unbuttoned.  Marla’s sweater was off and Philip was reaching deftly for the hook on the back of her bra while she urgently unfastened his belt — at this moment a key turned in the front door lock.  Philip only had the time to take his hand off Marla’s back before a man was in the room, staring at them both with a florid red creeping up his neck.  The man looked younger than Philip — probably around Marla’s age — and did not look happy.

“What the fucking fuck!” the man said.

“Excuse me?  Who are you?” Philip said, without bothering to close his shirt over his bare chest.

Marla was now on all fours on the floor, scrambling for her sweater.

“I’m her fucking husband, is who I am.”

“What?”

Both men looked at Marla while she clothed herself.  Philip was surprised that she had stopped crying, when now seemed just about the optimal time for a complete nervous breakdown.

“Nemo is dead,” she told her husband.  “Since when do you come around unannounced anyway?”

“Since you told me you wanted to work things out, is when.”  The husband looked over the dead cat on the floor, then up at Philip, the red now fully abloom over his entire face.  “What the fuck does he drive,” he said, “an Audi?”

Philip opened his mouth and closed it again.  The man turned to his wife, “I’m guessing those expensive-looking earrings you said were on clearance were from him, yeah?”

Without speaking, Marla got up and went into the bedroom.  Philip slowly buttoned his shirt.  He wanted to say that he didn’t want the earrings back, that she should keep them, but since the husband’s apoplectic color made him look dangerous, he kept his mouth shut.  The earrings had been a spur-of-the-moment romantic gesture.  He had seen them in the shop window and known that Marla would like them, since her favorite color was purple.  They were beautifully facetted tear-shaped amethysts, dangling from small white gold hoops channel set with tiny diamonds.  They had been on clearance: $300 down from $600 — for the clarity of the stones and the quality of the workmanship, it was a steal.  He had written copy for jewelry before and knew a good product when he saw one.

Her elated smile as she had clipped them onto her earlobes had filled him with joy.

She came back into the living room with the earrings cupped in the palm of her left hand like delicate live creatures that she was careful not to crush.  There was nothing for him to do except upturn his own hand in order to receive his spurned gift.  As she gave him the amethysts, he saw that she had fetched something else from her jewelry box: a plain yellow gold band that now encircled the ring finger of her left hand.  It filled him with nausea.  There was nothing for him to do but leave, gripping the earrings in his fist.  Nothing to do but fling the earrings loose into the glove compartment of his car, registering annoyance that Marla had not bothered returning them in the black velvet box they came in.  Nothing to do but reach into the inner pocket of his suit for his cell phone, call his secretary to tell her that the emergency that came up had resolved itself, and that he would have his afternoon meeting after all.  He told her to apologize to the client for the inconvenience of his mixed messages.

Part Five

It had been long enough now that Philip could bear to root around the glove compartment of his sleek, fog-colored sports car to dig out those earrings.  He hoped Karen would like them.  He would present them to her at their next meeting — he knew he needed a grander gesture than asking her out to overcome her resistance.  It had to work; it was such a new and thrilling idea, to know a woman as fully as he knew her from working with her all this time, and only then make love to her.  It seemed quaint and sweet, like those extended periods of courtship depicted in the Victorian novels he’d last read in college literature courses.  He smirked at the notion that maybe he’d even marry her eventually, just like in such books.  Imagine such a thing!  And yet—

Why not?

When Karen swept into his office, she brought a fresh blast of rain scent in with her.  She ruffled her matted hair roughly with her hands to lift it off her scalp, like a dog attempting to shake the water off.  “I can’t believe this fucking weather,” she said. “Ridiculous.  Forty-one out of the last 46 days, rain.  This is bullshit.”

“Hello, Karen,” he answered.

The softness in his voice made her glance at him suspiciously.  She looked around at the room his secretary had carefully decorated for him, complete with a large bouquet of fresh and varied flowers on the cabinet near the door, and said flatly, “Wow.  They really gave you a fabulous office, Philip.  That’s wonderful.”

“Thanks.  Please sit.”

She sat in the plush leather chair across his desk, while he leaned against the tabletop, his leg nearly touching hers.  As she settled into the chair, her thigh brushed against him.  Neither of them startled at the graze; neither of them said “Oh, sorry;” neither of them avoided eye contact.  Philip took this as a good sign, so he pulled the new little velvet box he’d gotten for the occasion out of his pocket.  “Karen,” he said, “I really wanted to talk to you about this office romance thing.”

Karen stared at the beautiful, glittering earrings in the tiny open maw of the gift box.  Her expression looked something like grief, but sometimes women looked like that when they were about to say yes.  But she said nothing.  She stood up.  She was right against him.  She had unexpected momentum, as if she had it in her mind to leave.  He caught her waist with his arm and pulled her close.  She did not push him away, but stayed stiff against him.  He felt her heave a deep sigh.  She looked up at him with moist, glimmering eyes.

“Philip,” she said in a ragged voice, “you’re not serious.”

What?  This was not right.

She was still in his arms when she asked him, “I mean, what’s the thought process here?”

“The…  Isn’t this sort of thing supposed to be about feelings and not thought process?”

It was so strange the way she remained unyielding, and yet did not step away from him.  Then, slowly, she did, leaving his arms empty.

“But — why not?” he said.

“I told you already, you’re kind of an asshole.”

He’d thought her calling him that had been a display of gruff masculine affection meant to keep them as friends — to keep herself from getting hurt— not that she really thought this of him.  “You mean that?”

“Look, you’re not unusual for this agency.  But do I really have to point out that your last conquest was married?”

“Who told you that?”

She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut.  She breathed in hard.  Philip was stunned.  How had this gotten around?  He didn’t even remember confiding in anybody.  “It wasn’t like that,” he said dimly.  “I didn’t know.”

“Look, forget about the married girl, but…”

Karen spoke wearily, but when she opened her eyes to look at Philip once again, her voice quavered with anger, “you think it’s completely okay to sleep with the woman who worked with you on the ad that got you promoted, who herself got passed over for promotion?  This is okay in your world?  God — this agency!”  She nearly hissed the last word, making Philip reel.  He was not just one of those guys at the agency!  He was not.  Otherwise, why would Karen have ever liked him?  Why would she have noticed that his hair changed color slightly every time he got it cut?

He wanted to ask her, but she was gone out of the room before he could get his voice back.

*   *   *

Immediately after work that day, Philip went alone to a bar — not a trendy one with music meant to flatter the intellectual ear, but a quiet dark one where people went to drink and not dance and not talk.  He sat at the counter and asked the barkeep for a vodka.

“What kind?” the man asked, plucking a glass to fill from a gleaming row.

Philip decided on Absolut, since it was the brand with the most famous ad campaign.  A good campaign, too.  He respected such succinct and effective work.

“On the rocks?” the man asked.

“No, just straight, please.”

When Philip took the first heated sip, his brain vividly summoned up the image of the dead Englishman sitting tidily in his chair with his glass of whisky — the first picture Karen had brought him.  He was not drinking alone, he decided — he was drinking with the dead Englishman in the tight three-piece suit.  They were soul brothers.  They understood one another.

Philip’s eyes lost focus and the clear medicinal liquid in his glass became blurry.  He gave a small pained laugh.  “Absolut Asshole,” he whispered to himself, and sucked down his liquor with his eyes shut to better feel the burn down his gullet.

Back outside with his belly warmed up, he decided that he didn’t feel so bad after all.  The sun was setting and the day was warm — it had stopped raining for a spell.  The clouds were pink and lovely.  He walked down the street looking up at the line that the buildings cut against the sky.  He passed a church, and at the moment he did so, a flock of small birds arched gracefully above the cross at the apex of the roof, silhouetted starkly against the orange light of the slipping sun.  The graphic composition of the moment cut his breath for a second—the light and the cross and the perfectly shaped flock of fluttering birds moved him and he heard his brain make a click like the shutter of a camera.  What a great visual!  He thought of an ad—

Across the top of the frame would be typeset the words:

Reliable                                              Solid                                                    True

And perhaps in a discreet white font, right below the fluid sweep of birds:

(grace)

And beneath the visual, the slogan declaimed:

The Church:

A proud tradition of making everything more difficult than it needs to be, for 2,000 years.

He snickered at this, at what he had done to this beautiful moment.  He was good at what he did, whatever it was.  He was a sad drunk today but the defeat would fade.  He and Karen made good ads together.  Surely they would make more?

In Phillip’s warm and fuzzy brain, the dead Englishman smiled at him, but his smile faded quickly.  Then the dead Englishman, from within his flecked photograph that had not been properly retouched, slowly raised his glass and toasted Philip Schein, like so:

(Photos by Hans Mauli)