Swag

Swag

by

Phillip McCollum

As the convention’s low-level hum of conversation and clatter carried through the black polyester curtains, Gerry flipped the strange device around in her hands. It wasn’t heavy and appeared to be made of cheap tin. Glossy orange paint flaked in spots and cracks formed a pattern of uneven tiles, reminding her of a gaudy bathroom floor in an upscale restaurant. It had a short handle in the back, presumably so that you could hold onto it with one hand, and for whatever reason, spin the gear around with the other. She noticed that a smaller gear was attached to the middle of the larger one. They didn’t appear to interlock in any way. She squeezed the toothed edge of the larger one and gave it a spin. The other gear twisted and clicked in the opposite direction. Tiny sparks of light began to ignite and pop and Gerry felt a warmth run through her hands.

Rose quickly clamped down on the apparatus, bringing it to an immediate stop.

“Not here,” she said. Her voice was emphatic and she peered over Gerry’s shoulder with suspicion even though they were the only two inside the makeshift room–one of several twelve-by-twelve curtain-lined squares that were set up by the convention staff so that vendors and customers could meet with some level of privacy.

“Oh,” Gerry said, looking at Rose with some surprise. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Rose replied. “It’s just that you really should wait to try it until you get home.”

Gerry continued to inspect it. “Well, thank you.”

“You have lots of questions, I’m sure. It’s a prototype of a new product,” Rose said. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “It’s going to change everything.”

Rose acted as if she had just handed Gerry the week’s winning lottery numbers. For a software company, this seemed like something outside of their purview.

“What is it?”

“It’s something better experienced than explained,” Rose said. “Just trust me.”

“Why are you giving it to me?” Gerry grew a little suspicious.

Rose looked at her as if she had asked why rain falls from the sky. “You’ve always been there for us, Gerry,” she said. “But for you, Cortega Systems wouldn’t be here–wouldn’t be anywhere. We almost went out of business, you know? But it’s been three years now since you helped us climb out of that hole and we’re market leader. I can hardly believe it. You went to bat for us when everyone thought you were crazy to do so.”

“It’s what I do.” Gerry smiled, reflecting appreciation.

She was good with the smile. It came easily to her. And while she was genuinely happy for Rose and Cortega, the seeds for their success weren’t planted due to a simple case of charity or friendship. Gerry never threw good money at bad product and she never got too close to anyone, let alone business partners. Her knack for picking winners had taken her from Baldwin Capital’s dim and mold-infested mailroom to a large corner office on the 13th floor with Chief Technology Officer imprinted on her nameplate. She remembered how proud her father had been every time she had received a promotion. Even on his deathbed, when she would try to awkwardly connect with him beyond work talk, he’d always redirect the conversation to her accomplishments and how it reminded him of the time he had made a big sale or gotten a one-up on someone jockeying for power in the office. He never cared about anything else she might have to say until she determined it needed to be the other way around–she had to care about what he wanted to hear.

In the case of Cortega, Gerry had seen their eventual success coming. She was an avid reader of trade journals and college alumni newsletters. It was something she’d learned by watching her father the few times he was around the house. Cortega had been snapping up sharp kids out of MIT and Stanford over the past seven years: kids who’d focused heavily on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and even quantum mechanics. The company obviously wasn’t focused on building the same old business analytics software as their competitors. Gerry wasn’t one to dig too deep into any one subject, but upon further investigation, she’d gotten that familiar feeling in her gut and that was enough to convince her Cortega was on a path to a breakthrough. Their software would lead Baldwin towards greater sales opportunities, and therefore, greater profits. Most of Gerry’s competitors had initially passed Cortega by because their proposed technology was unproven and the price tag was considerably high. For a time, Gerry had them all to herself, but now others saw their potential impact on the industry.

Rose gently pried the device from Gerry’s hands and placed it in a reusable swag bag along with a folded piece of paper. She handed the bag to Gerry, then her eyes narrowed.

“I don’t need to tell you this, of course, but do not lose this.”

Gerry flashed another congenial smile.

#

As she stepped into her hotel room, Gerry checked the calendar on her phone. It was just before seven o’clock and she was scheduled to attend a dinner in thirty minutes with the sales reps at Perseus, a cloud-based inventory systems company. She considered texting her assistant, telling him that she was feeling ill, but it wasn’t worth it. Gerry would only have to make it up at another time and things wouldn’t go any easier. Perseus was looking to secure a multi-year contract. They’d arranged a dog and pony show dinner for her and other Baldwin officers. It would be business as usual–they would order ten bottles of the most ridiculously expensive Burgundy wines and fawn over her, trying to get her to make regretful snap commitments.

So, Gerry, I saw that piece about you in Forbes. Top Forty in their Forties? Nice! Have you seen what Perseus has to offer? Let me just tell you….

As she threw her collection of swag onto the ground beside the minibar, a rank aroma wound its way into her nostrils. Walking the convention floor all day in a three-button pantsuit had left her desperate for a shower, but she had to make a choice–a quick shower and deal with reapplying makeup or unwind with her little ritual and just touch things up. Option number two sounded best.

She turned the deadbolt on the hotel door and drew the curtains closed. It wasn’t as if anyone would burst in or peep through the 27th-story window, but her self-consciousness defied all reason. With the down pillow folded and propped beneath her head, Gerry kicked off her shoes and took a deep breath. She put on a pair of headphones, hit play on her phone and began to sing along at the top of her lungs to Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me. A familiar image formed in her mind. She was on stage, a contestant on The Voice, posed before the bright lights, enraptured by the accompanying music. The song crescendoed as it approached the chorus, yet something wasn’t right. The longer she sang, the more embarrassed she grew which tightened the muscles around her larynx. She sensed harsh judgments from the hundreds of imaginary eyes peering out from the audience. As her confidence cracked, so did her voice.

Negative assessments hit her from all angles. How ridiculous I would look, she thought. She knew the crowd was seeing right through her–a woman in her mid-forties trying to live out silly, youthful fantasies.

Halfway through the first song, she paused the music and sat up. Her mind’s eye settled on an image of her father sitting uncomfortably in a chair during her first and only singing recital. His demanding eyes were those she had seen in the audience just now, but they had been multiplied there.

After several moments of holding court with her father’s phantasmic image, she fell back onto the bed and gazed at the ceiling. An orange-tinged imitation of a Michelangelo fresco covered it from end to end, reminding her of the strange device Rose had given her.

Gerry pushed herself off the bed and walked toward the bag of swag. She tipped it over, emptying its contents onto the floor. Buried beneath oversized t-shirts, hundreds of stickers and a dozen reusable water bottles was Cortega’s apparatus along with the folded note. She picked up the piece of paper, unfolded it, and read.

Gerry,

I know you’re probably reading this from your hotel room. It’s okay. I didn’t expect you to wait until you got home. Let me just advise a couple of things:

– Lay down when turning the gears. You don’t want to fall and hurt yourself.

– It only works once, so enjoy the moment.

Happy travels.

Rose

What this had to do with Cortega’s analytic systems, Gerry had no clue. Maybe they were looking to expand into a new field? Introduce some sort of virtual or augmented-reality aspect? That could be a boon to website hits; bring in more traffic from the millennial segment.

Maybe it was even more benign than that, though. Maybe it was just some sort of viral marketing scheme concocted by a group of college-aged interns. Who’s to say that these funny looking toys wouldn’t start showing up as stickers slapped onto the backs of street signs or wind their way into Internet memes.

Suddenly, the room felt entirely too quiet, so she turned on the television. A Married with Children rerun was playing–Al Bundy was berating his wife while his kids were sneaking cash from his wallet. She wasn’t really a fan of the dysfunctional family sitcom, but it served its purpose.

She picked up the device and took it back to the bed.  She laid down again and held it over her head, examining it a little more closely under the dim table lamp lighting. It didn’t look any different than before. It still appeared to be made of cheap, thin metal and was shabbily painted. There were no wires or batteries. As she had in the convention hall, Gerry gripped the handle and with her other hand, spun the large gear. Al’s voice carried on in the background.

You know, Peg, it would be nice if you could make us a hot meal every once in awhile.

Tiny sparks jumped again between the gaps in the cogs. What a family, Gerry thought as she stared at the device, captivated by the pattern beginning to form. As the wheels spun, they seemed to be picking up speed on their own volition. A vague notion formed in her head–a vision of those old hypnosis wheels that were popular in the early 20th century. The kind that you could order out of the back of MAD magazine. She giggled at the thought, and then Al’s daughter, Kelly, chimed in.

Dad, I’m going out with my new boyfriend, Spider. I’ll be back in a week.

The sparks turned into thin strands of electrical current. Bright light flashed in an indiscernible pattern. Gerry felt as if she were standing before a window, watching a violent lightning storm dancing in the distance. She tried to latch her attention onto the sounds of the sitcom, but her attention was being rapidly sucked into that swirling spiral pattern forming in front of her. As the flashes grew more intense, a wave of vertigo swept over her. She tried to let go of the handle, but the muscles in her hands squeezed down. She could feel her knuckles turning white. She wanted to shut out the world, look away, but even her own eyes seemed to align against her. Her mind twisted like one of the gears and a nauseating, low-frequency whir thrummed against her inner ear.

I coulda’ been something, Peg. Four touchdowns in a single game. Then I met you. Now I sell womens’ shoes.

Finally, Gerry’s hand released the device, but instead of dropping onto her, it floated in the air just above her chest. As she squeezed the comforter between her fingers, the TV’s canned laugh track was going off in the background like a machine gun.

She thought she might be able to roll off the blankets and onto the ground, but there was a dread weight across every inch of her body. Unable to fight the pressure any longer, Gerry released her grip and allowed herself to fall into the abyss.

#

The familiar vanilla scent of coneflowers entered Gerry’s nostrils. The sky above her head was almost the same shade as their pink petals.

She sat up and listened to the rapid-fire snaps of what sounded like audience applause morphing into the rhythm of cicadas. Her first thought wasn’t a concern with where she was or how she had arrived, but a single, focused memory. The one most tied to the smell of those coneflowers and the music of those tiny creatures with transparent wings.

Terre Haute, Indiana.

1978? 1979?

She had been hiding in a field.

Why?

She couldn’t quite pull the answer to that from her mind’s tight grip, but the feeling was undeniably the same as she had felt that very day–a blend of fear and giddiness. The kind of nervous elation that brings an otherwise unreproducible smile to a child’s face.

She remembered now.

Her and Father were playing hide-and-seek. Gerry couldn’t remember if he even knew that he was supposed to be looking for her. That happened a lot. She thought her instructions had always been clear. He seemed to acknowledge her from behind a newspaper or by giving her a thumbs up while he was talking on the phone, but often she would lay in the dirt as the sun slowly fell, waiting, poking at roly-polies with thin sticks and drawing patterns in the soil. Then she would sing her heart out in the middle of that field–every song she could remember, whether they be church hymns like Go Tell It On The Mountain or the Bee Gees.

But her throat felt parched at the moment. She didn’t feel much like singing.

She stood up and dusted herself off, appraising her clothing as she did so. On her impossibly small feet were a dusty pair of once-white, but now yellowed Nike Cortez tennis shoes with a red elongated checkmark running along the outsides. She was wearing Jordache jeans and a rainbow-striped tank-top.

Gerry tried to look across the field, but her head barely reached above the edge of the bloomed perennials. She stood on her tippy-toes to gain her bearings. Her old house was not only exactly where she’d expected it to be, but also looked exactly as it had in at that time. That was a little jarring since she had last seen it ten years ago, just two years after Father’s funeral. It had fallen into great disrepair: splintered wooden siding, the outer fieldstone wall having come down in parts, and almost all of the trees dead and gone due to a lack of water. Her mother had entered a period of rapid mental decline after Father’s death, so Gerry had sold the place quickly and cheaply, then moved her mother into an assisted living facility.

She turned slightly toward the tiny river which ran along the rear of their home. On the far end of the dock, she could see the top of her father’s Greek fisherman cap that he had picked up during one of his business travels. He was sitting with his back to her, facing the water.

Gerry broke into a run and was breathing hard by the time her shoes slapped against the wood planks. The rickety dock swayed gently beneath her feet just as she had expected it to.

“Dad!” she exclaimed. “You’re supposed to be looking for me!”

Her voice was youthful again, but she had an awareness that this wasn’t completely her. In fact, it seemed to her as if she was composed of two different identities, like those mythological creatures with multiple faces on each side of their head. She was both Gerry, accomplished businesswoman, and Gerry, the little girl who desperately wanted her father to pay attention.

What did they call this, she wondered. A lucid dream? Maybe that’s what Rose’s device was. A tool guaranteed to induce such things.

Her father remained motionless but for a tiny breeze whipping around the hairs sticking out of the back of his hat. Gerry saw that he was holding a fishing rod in one hand, its string pulled taut to the right, disappearing into the running currents.

Gerry frowned and her eyes narrowed. As long as they had lived on this beautiful stretch of land beside the river, she had never seen her father fish. It was always a little amusing to her that for a family who lived in such picturesque environs, Father and Mother were never ‘outdoorsy’ people. Mother rarely went outside unless required and when Father was home a few days out of the month, he spent much of the time working in his upstairs office, the door shut tight to the distractions of the outside world.

“Dad!” she shouted again. She crept up and laid a hand on his shoulder.

He turned and simply smiled as if he had heard her all along. She expected him to look as he had during those early years, and he sort of did, but there was an understated tiredness that revealed itself through sallow bags beneath his eyes and sticky, gummy lips. “Hi, honey. The fish are biting.”

“You don’t even fish,” she said.

He shook his head at her as if that were the silliest notion in the world.

“Nonsense. We all fish,” he said. “Sometimes, if we sit still long enough and pay attention, we even catch a few.” He leaned over and whispered. “Hey, do you think mom would be happy if I brought some home for dinner?”

Gerry thought about it for a second. “Probably not. She hates fish.”

That set her father to howling. He gripped his gut and teetered back and forth, nearly losing his fishing rod to the river before he quickly recovered it. He gave Gerry a funny look–a mix of relief and sudden fear as if he was going to lose everything he’d ever known in an instant. He must have realized he was scaring her a little because he straightened up and smiled at her again. It seemed like a shadow of a smile this time, though, like the crumbling wall and chipped house-paint. Still, his eyes had a strange sparkle in them that she’d never noticed before. A chaotic pattern of tiny stars flickering on and off in a manner that was sitting on the edge of her comprehension.

“Yeah. You’re right,” he said. He looked at the empty space next to him. “Come on, have a seat anyway,” he said. “We can always catch and release.”

If Gerry felt any reluctance, it quickly dissipated. A familiar smell of his Old Spice aftershave hovered like a cloud as she sat down beside him. His eyes never left her.

She kicked her feet back and forth. They dangled at least a foot above the waterline. “What are we doing here?” she asked.

Gerry inspected every ounce of his being, from the sunspots on the outside of his forearms to the gold wedding ring that seemed to have been grown over by his own flesh.

“You tell me,” he said, the grin still on his face.

Tell him? As if she had planned this dream?

“Why didn’t you come looking for me?” she asked. The question seemed to impose itself on her.

The sparkle in his eyes was mesmerizing. It wanted to hypnotize her, pull her away from such lines of questioning, but she refused to let it. Her father took a deep breath and looked to the tiny whitecaps forming on the river.

“I got busy,” he said.

“With what?” Gerry demanded. Before she realized, she was on her feet, her fists clenched. Her torso was tipped toward him as if she wanted to prevent him from packing up his gear and leaving.

“With absolutely nothing, honey. Absolutely nothing.” The clicking of cicadas picked up in the background. He grew animated again. “Hey! Come on, fish with your old man,” he said. He indicated toward a second pole sitting on the dock beside him, already baited with a slimy worm dancing and curling under the blood orange sun.

What was the harm, Gerry pondered. But something tugged at her from the inside. She turned back toward the fields from whence she came and saw the top of a little girl’s head moving, spinning in a circular pattern as her long pigtails flailed back and forth. Though the air was filled only with the song of insects, she sensed that little girl was a part of their music.

Gerry leaned in and hugged her father tightly as if he might float away. “No,” she whispered into his ear.

He pried her arms loose and craned his neck to face her. The sparkles in his eyes were still there, but now Gerry ignored them as if they were inconsequential specks of dust.

“No?” Her father laughed again with all of his might. Laughed until his eyes were flowing with tears, but then the laughter turned into something not so funny and he was sniveling at her feet now, bawling and choking on his own sobs. It scared Gerry and she found herself backing up. Her father had been the strongest person she’d ever known. Even behind his smile lay a steely, invulnerable resolve.

The moment she considered bolting back to the field, his outburst came to a complete stop. He reached out to her with a pleading hand. “No. Please,” he said. “You don’t have to fish, Gerry. I’m sorry you ever thought you had to fish.”

Those words sent a shockwave through her system. Her belly felt as if it might flutter away.

I don’t know, Al. Marcy isn’t going to like it if she finds out I was hanging out all night at The Jiggly Room.

Where the atmosphere had once felt thick and constraining, Gerry felt as if she were breathing freely again.

Ohhhhh Aaaalll….

Yes, Peg?

Al, come rub my feet.

Gerry opened her eyes. Michelangelo’s fresco sharpened into focus. Her head was pounding. She rubbed her temples, but her fingers felt gritty. She looked at them and there was a sort of glitter stuck to their tips.

She sat up and saw a small pile of the same sparkly powder fall from her blouse and onto the bed. Gerry looked over at the alarm clock: 7:45 PM.

“Shit!” she yelled. She grabbed her phone lying beside the clock. There were several missed calls and text messages from her assistant.

Where r u?

They’re waiting!

Gerry stared at the television screen. A shampoo commercial played. Though her eyes were directed that way, her thoughts were focused only on what she had just experienced. There was an unexplainable weight lifted from her chest. She turned to see her earphones laying tangled on the floral-print comforter. She grabbed them and walked toward her phone just as another text message made it vibrate.

Malcolm seems a little pissed ur not here.

Gerry popped her headphones into the jack, turned up Katy Perry’s Roar, and sang loud enough to drown out every dinging notification.

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