They lined the round mahogany bar at Frankie’s Sports Pub like a display of exciting new releases in a bookstore. Men, and lots of them. Drinking and eating and talking back to the flickering television screens in front of them.
A titillating variety of males, appetizing as trays of decadent chocolates in a gourmet candy store. The type of flavorful truffles that were meant to be savored on the palette until the very end. And in my dating circles, there always was a sweet and quick ending. Long-term relationships were to be avoided, like day-old sushi and last season’s fashions.
Sitting at a nearby table and waiting for Sheila to return from the bathroom, I covertly studied the masculine lineup. Just when my imagination shifted into overdrive, my boss walked up to the bar and abruptly interrupted my daydream.
Aaron Ackworth founded Shine Advertising and Public Relations some forty years ago, and tonight’s party was his way of thanking the team for our latest client acquisition. The Frankie’s account, all fifty-six locations, was enough of a victory to mandate a celebration for the entire office. Aaron had personally recruited me from another agency, and I felt a strong sense of loyalty to the man who was a legend in the industry. A strong leader, he treated his employees fairly, and, almost as a protective father might watch over his children, he looked out for us. Clutching a bottle of Corona beer, Aaron melted back into the crowd. I returned my attention to the men encircling the bar and wondered what each of them might be like in bed. Slow, sensual, and teasing. Roughly passionate. Or something enjoyably between.
I studied the pair at the far end of the bar. Animated as they watched the game, they cheered for opposite teams. Both wore quality suits and sported salon haircuts, but one was GQ
cover material, while the other was more suited to Outdoor Life
. Blended into one, they would make the perfect man.
“Marry me, Jaxie,” someone whispered into my ear, the tickle of his breath jolting me from my reverie. Mark, a coworker and former fling, grinned down at me. This was probably the sixth or seventh time he’d proposed. The shock effect wore off weeks ago, after I learned that he proposed to everyone who broke up with him.
“You know I don’t believe in matrimony, Mark. But thanks for asking.”
He slid into Sheila’s vacant chair. “Helluva bash, huh? I love this job. Where else can two people work their asses off to strike gold with a new account and the entire office gets credit?”
Mark always thought he did more work on a project than anyone else did and that he alone was responsible for ninety-five percent of Shine’s client roster. His charm was the reason I broke my no-dating-coworkers rule, and his ego was the reason I reinstated it. But the breakup remained cordial. We are advertising and PR people. We love what we do. We’re clever. Thick-skinned. Always on the lookout for the next trend. And, above all else, we do what it takes to close the deal. Business is business and dating is business.
“For the record”---I raised an eyebrow at him---”we all worked our asses off to land Frankie’s.”
Before he could argue, Sheila returned to reclaim her chair. Mark kissed us both on the cheek and sauntered off in pursuit of more available prey.
“He ask you to marry him again?” my best friend said. Like me, she was a senior account executive for Shine.
I nodded. “Yep.”
She popped a pretzel into her mouth. “Gotta love his persistence.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, giving her a look. “About as much as you gotta love the city smog.”
Sheila’s dark golden eyes narrowed as she leaned close to talk over the noise. “Jax, you love everything about Atlanta. Smog included.”
I smiled. She was right. I wouldn’t trade my home for anything. Big-city living energized me. It was the massive buildings and constant movement, and the anonymity of living with four million neighbors. It was shopping at Nordstrom, barhopping in Buckhead, and ordering Chinese delivery at one o’clock in the morning. The theater and art, the live jazz, and the unique taste of boiled peanuts purchased from a street vendor.
From the homeless junkie begging for spare change to the extravagant five-star hotel, where scented toilet paper was folded for easy retrieval, a big city represented the entire gamut of humankind from one extreme to the other. And living in the midst of it induced the survivalist instinct. Just like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the first order of business upon arriving in Atlanta was food, water, and shelter. Then came safety. Park in well-lit areas, pay attention to your surroundings, and lock your dead bolts.
I was well versed in the third level of the pyramid: love, acceptance, and affection. My social life was jam-packed and I did okay in the esteem department, too. I was nowhere near the top of the pyramid, self-actualization, but I was having too much fun to worry about analyzing the meaning of life. My mother once had it all figured out and thought that life meant marriage and children and hard work. That theory left her abandoned and broke with stretch marks and a baby girl to raise. I had no desire to follow in her footsteps.
“You’re right,” I admitted to Sheila. “I wouldn’t trade living here for anything.”
Justin Connor, the vice president of market research, appeared at our table. “Hello, ladies. Enjoying the party?” He looked the way he always did, wearing a dark suit and white oxford button-down shirt. The only thing that changed from day to day was the color of his tie. If he wanted to get really wild, he’d wear one with subtle stripes.
“Absolutely,” Sheila said, raising her glass to him. “Any time someone else is picking up the tab, I enjoy the party.”
He smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “Care to dance, Jaxie? The band started playing upstairs.”
“No thanks. I, uh, didn’t wear my dancing shoes.” Although I would have enjoyed a dance, Justin was the last man I’d choose for a spin around the floor.
“Okay,” he said, dropping his hand. “But you two should get up there before all the food is gone. The teriyaki chicken is delicious.”
“Well, then. See you later.”
“Sure,” I said and, as soon as he moved on, rolled my eyes and stuck a finger in my mouth like I wanted to puke.
Sheila shot a frown my way. “The man just wanted to dance. Cut him some slack.”
“You dance with him, then.”
“He didn’t ask me,” she countered.
“He’s socially challenged.”
“What are you talking about? Half the women in our office would jump at the chance to dance with him.”
“Hello?” I said. “Can you say boring?”
She shrugged. “You don’t like him because he’s not eye candy.”
I shrugged back. “Can’t tell if he’s candy or not, through those ugly glasses and all the bean-counter suits.”
“Well, maybe”---she smiled slyly---”you should remove the specs and the clothes to find out. That man is hot for you, woman!”
“Give me a break.”
“Well, besides his not being your usual spray-tanned, muscle-bound pretty boy, I think the real reason you avoid Justin is because you’re afraid you might actually like him. A settle-down-with kind of like.”
“That’s ridiculous. I have no intention of settling down with any man. I mean, look where it got my mother. Even my grandmother got dumped, or so I’m told, and that was way before divorce was an acceptable part of society. The women in my family aren’t blessed with good man-choosing genes.”
“Maybe not, but at least you could spend some time to get to know Justin. The only guys you hook up with are the ones you know you’ll dump soon. After you’ve had your fun and want to move on to something new. Which typically takes”---she studied the ceiling to think---“about three weeks.”
“So it would be better to do it your way?” I said. “Date a guy long enough to get to know him, but go out with two or three other ones at the same time?”
“I’m not actually with them all at the same time,” she countered.
I raised my glass in a toast. “Good point.”
We finished the bowl of pretzels and debated whether to go upstairs for some real food.
“I still think you should get to know our marketing VP a little better,” Sheila said. “You might be pleasantly surprised.”
I was about to remind her that I didn’t date coworkers, boring or otherwise, when her eyes moved to a spot over my shoulder. I turned to see Aaron approaching.
He stopped at our table. “Jaxie, do you have a minute?”
We moved outside, onto a covered balcony with a view of Buckhead’s busy streets, and when the door shut behind us, the decibel level dropped to a muffled hum. We walked to the railing and admired a mesmerizing spread of lights.
He pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket. “Mind if I light up?”
I studied the flow of headlights and taillights, the city’s pulsing arteries and veins, while my boss tended to his Cohiba Cuban. Using a cutter, he clipped off one end and, with a monogrammed torch lighter, puffed a few times to get it going.
“At the board meeting this morning,” he said through a mouthful of smoke, “the partners approved my nomination for our annual pro bono project.”
I nodded, wondering where the conversation was headed and why he had singled me out. Our firm was one of the few in the country that did a pro bono marketing and public relations campaign each year. The effort produced a great tax write-off and invaluable publicity for Shine. Previous pro bono projects ranged from a national organ donation awareness campaign to a series of radio and television spots encouraging people to vote.
“We are going to save a small town,” he continued, exhaling a cloud of rich smoke into the night. I stifled a cough when some of it hit my nose. “Rumton has been slowly deteriorating for years and years, and now it’s in real trouble. Farming has dried up. The downtown district is deserted. Kids have grown up and gotten the hell out of Dodge. The population is dwindling and, basically, the town is broke. The remaining few hundred residents can barely afford to keep their roads maintained and their school operational. If nothing is done, there won’t be anything left to call a town.”
“Rumton? Where is that?”
“On the South Carolina coast,” he said, studying my face. “And we are going to figure out a way to revitalize it.”
“Um, that’s great. It sounds like a worthwhile project,” I said, feeling a nervous twitch flare up in my left eyelid. “But what does any of this have to do with me?”
A chunk of ash fell from the end of his cigar and landed between our feet. Almost immediately, a gust of wind nudged it off the edge of the balcony, and it disappeared into the darkness.
“You are going to head up the project, Jaxie.”
“Me? Head up the project?” I was too busy to lead a pro bono project. “You mean from our office, right? We’ll send out a few interns, and I’ll be their guidance contact?”
He chuckled before rolling the cigar between his fingers and taking another pull. “Well, yes, you’ll get your two interns. But they’ll be working from the office as your support staff. You’re going to Rumton. For a month, or maybe more. You’ll be there however long it takes to scope things out and devise a plan.”
Concrete moved beneath my feet and the air thinned. I was stunned. I gripped the railing for support. He was sending me to a backwoods town in the middle of nowhere for a month or more? The muscle in my eyelid spasmodically danced for a full three seconds.
“I grew up there, Jaxie. It used to be a thriving town full of friendly folks. Lots of farmland. Beautiful oak trees and scenic watering holes. And Rumton has beautiful views of the marsh, even if it is landlocked.”
“Aaron, I, uh ... I don’t really, uh, do small towns.”
He studied me, and the reflection of the glowing cigar tip twinkled in his irises. “Have you ever spent any time in a small town?”
“I went camping once, when my mother made me join the Girl Scouts. A park near Stone Mountain, for a week. I came home with chiggers and poison ivy.”
He laughed, as though ruining my life was no big deal. “It will be good for you to get out of Atlanta for a spell. Of course, the firm pays all your travel expenses, including mileage, and you even get a per diem for meals. Think of the money you’ll save.”
I didn’t want the extra money if it meant weeks of torture. In fact, I’d pay to not go. I wondered if he could see the movement in my eyelid.
“You’re one of our best, Jaxie. Saving this town means a lot to me, and I wouldn’t trust it to anyone else,” he said.
“What about Mark?”
“Mark is working the Procter and Gamble project. Disposable dog-grooming cloths and paw wipes.”
“What about Lizzy?”
“You know she’s pregnant,” he said. “With twins. As I recall, you chipped in for the double-wide stroller.”
“I’m sure Rumton has some great doctors,” I mumbled.
He frowned around the cigar. “Rumton has one doctor. She’s retired, so people have to drive to another town when they get sick.”
“Sheila?” I tried vainly, with only a hint of guilt at suggesting my best friend.
“Sheila was the lead on last year’s pro bono. And besides, she’s already knee-deep in the spec campaign for Pepsi’s new low-sugar cola.” He removed the cigar from his mouth and held my eyes with his. “It’s your turn, Jaxie. I want you to leave as soon as possible. Next week, to be exact. My aunt Millie still lives in Rumton; she’ll be happy to show you around. In fact, you can stay with her. She’ll be thrilled to have some company. I’ve already spoken to the town mayor, and you have his full support.”
I studied the woven straps of my Casadei slides and wiggled my toes inside them, wondering if one could get a pedicure in Rumton. Probably not. A town with a few hundred people wouldn’t have a nail salon, much less a massaging spa pedicure chair like the one I relaxed in every two weeks.
Why me? I made a name for myself in the advertising world with sharp wit and sophistication, and now I was expected to extol the joys of the simple life? But my fate was sealed. The best I could hope for was to slap together a plan and be home in two weeks.
“I’d hate to impose on your aunt, Aaron. I should probably just stay in a hotel.”
“Rumton doesn’t have a hotel,” he said.
He shook his head. No. “You’ll like Millie. I’ll give her a call in the morning.”
“Sure, okay,” I said. “Thank you.” For a big, fat nothing.
“Besides, you’ll get a better feel for the area if you stay in Rumton and get to know the people. Stir the pot, so to speak, and try to find a hook we can use to appeal to investors and developers.” He chuckled, as though it was all crystal clear. “You know that the market value of property is simply what somebody is willing to spend on it. Put that brilliant creative streak of yours into action and figure out how to make Rumton property more desirable.”
Feeling as if I was being punished for no good reason, I wondered if I should update my re;sume; and look for a new job. The idea, though satisfying in a vengeful way, dissolved immediately. It would be ridiculous to give up such a great job because of my distaste for one assignment.
He eyed me over the top of wire-rimmed eyeglasses. “There’s a lot riding on this, Jaxie. Not just for me personally but for small towns across America. Rumton is not the only town in trouble. We want to show people that a dying town in rural America can be saved with a little ingenuity.”
He stuck the cigar in his mouth and gripped my shoulders in an attempt to summon enthusiasm. “This could be huge. I’m talking coverage in Advertising Age
and the Wall Street Journal
. Maybe even a documentary to air on one of the cable networks!”
Dread blurred my vision as Buckhead’s colorful buildings went out of focus. I sucked in the pungent cigar smoke, accepting my fate, and tried to think of some positives. Long seconds passed, nothing came to mind.
Releasing my shoulders and giving me an encouraging pat on the back, Aaron told me how much confidence he had in me. Then he was gone, leaving a lingering cloud of cigar smoke. I wanted to run after him, grab his arm, and plead with him not to send me away. But Aaron was a straightforward and decisive multimillionaire, a powerful executive accustomed to getting his way. One did not run after the man and grab the sleeve of his custom-tailored Italian suit unless one wanted to be fired.
Rubbing my eye to stop the annoying twitch---but carefully so as not to dislodge a contact lens---I followed him back into Frankie’s. The good thing about being single with no kids or pets was that I remained mobile. When I wanted to take off on vacation, I simply notified my landlord and bribed the doorman to water my plants. But the bad thing about being single with no kids or pets was that my boss knew I was mobile, too. It wasn’t fair.
Since Sheila had designated herself driver for the evening, I designated myself drinker and retrieved a double Absolut Vodka on the rocks, not bothering with the fruit. My glass of cabernet wine was no longer going to do the trick.
Drink in hand, I dropped into a chair and told Sheila my fate.
Unsympathetic, she laughed loudly. “I’m just glad it’s you and not me!”
I shot her the finger.
Copyright © 2006 by T. Lynn Ocean