Trevor had worked for H & G Signs and Banners for exactly thirteen days. He was designated the chief designer. It wasn’t going well.
“What the hell is this?” The question was asked by Mr. Hendrik, the H in H & G and aka the Screamer. “You’re not in design school anymore. I’m not looking for fucking art. I want a sign. A fucking sign.” The pitch of his voice was rising to the point where Trevor thought that soon only dogs would hear the man. Then came a modulation—something raspy. Something low and ursine. “A sign that actual people can read. You know, with letters taken from the English alphabet. A sign that advertises a steak house: our client’s steak house. ‘Meat Me at Big John’s. There’s a Lot at Steak.’” While the Screamer continued, Trevor considered a revision: “Meat me at Big John’s, where the Steaks are high.” Maybe not.
Trevor had made the letters look just as though they were made from French fries. Clever, thought Trevor. Unreadable, thought the Screamer.
“I wrote that copy.” It was Lloyd Grotsky, Mr. G (aka Good Cop). Trevor thought Lloyd was okay—but the puns were lame. In Trevor’s lexicon, tedious. Much of Trevor’s CLIENTS ONLY: Should you plot it or wing it. PLUS: Meet our latest featured client! world was tedious. He was twenty-two and he was tired.
“And why would you try beige lettering on a brown background?” It was the Screamer, again, his voice testing the city’s noise bylaw. “Get me some red on this thing. And big letters. People driving by have only seconds to absorb this dorky slogan.”
“Hey. Wait a minute.” It was Mr. G. again. “I wrote that ‘dorky’ slogan. And the client loved it! Jeez.” And the good cop left the scene of the collision of wills.
“It’s not beige. It’s golden brown. And I was trying for some subtlety and some intellectual depth. Make people think a little, slow them down so that they remember that innovative slogan. Let the chips fall where they may.” (This was serious. Trevor found himself being tedious.)
“It’s steak, you idiot—fucking steak. Now fix this pile of shit.”
By 6:17 Trevor had a new concept. An image-bank photo of a juicy, cooked steak and the copy done in bright red Helvetica.
“Was that so hard, Rembrandt?” asked Mr. H.
Yes, thought Trevor. It was.
By 7:30, Trevor was in his basement bedroom, the same bedroom that had been his since at fourteen he’d decamped there from the main floor, leaving behind his parents and older brother (now the doctor). The fight over the steak house project had distracted Trevor. There was, he remembered, another assignment. Urgent. He fired up his laptop. He clicked on “New projects,” and up it came.
Project number: 1643
Client: Martins’ Storage Solutions Inc.
Product: Banner. Model 16A, two color.
Copy: Martins’—For All Your Space Needs.
And there was a note from Mr. H.: “Trevor, James Martins is coming in at seven Thursday morning. This ABSOLUTELY must be done and in my inbox by 6:30 a.m. Thursday. That’s as much time as I can get for you. 6:30. ABSOLUTELY.”
No problem, thought Trevor. He got himself a coffee, and he thought. He doodled. He paced. Nothing. Blank. He checked his emails. Twitter. Time passed. My mind is a black hole, he thought. But then he drifted back to Mr. H. calling him Rembrandt—as a put-down. Since when is being called Rembrandt an insult? And then he found the origins of an idea.
Trevor leaned forward in his chair. He opened a new document. He smiled. He went to work. And when he finished, he emailed the file to Mr. H. It was 9:22—hours to spare. Trevor was suddenly hungry. He was tired but oddly cheerful. Giddy. He hummed.
Mr. Martins was in and out of the office in fifteen minutes. The artwork for the banner had been projected onto the giant screen that dominated the boardroom.
“I like the colors,” Martins said. “Those reds really stand out. And while I’m not sure I get that little green creature where the apostrophe should be, you should leave it. It’s cool. Good font, by the way.” A quick sign-off of the artwork, and the project was sent off for production.
And Martins was gone.
The banner was done in three days, and as soon as it was hung on the outside of the head office on Water Street, the phone calls to Martins started.
“Beam me up, Scotty,” said one before hanging up.
“Is it true you’re opening a branch in Roswell?” asked another.
Jack Hillman, one of their best customers, called and said, “Glad to be in your orbit.”
And of course, The Sentinel, the local newspaper, called. It was managing editor, Edith Chambers.
“James, I never knew you had such a mischievous sense of humor. I’ll have a photographer out before noon.” And she did. It was a sunny day, and the banner shot was bold and clear: “Martians’: For All Your Space Needs.”
Trevor had checked when the banner was to be delivered. He didn’t go into the office that day. He ignored his phone until about four. There’d been seven “Missed Calls” and finally a message. Mr. H. didn’t scream. He sounded resigned.
“I don’t know whether you did that on purpose, but you’re through here. Got it? Done. Your personal property has already been packed up. We even washed your coffee mug. There’s also a check for two weeks. May I just point out that the cost of making a new banner is out of my pocket? Not yours.”
Trevor’s basement bedroom was dark, save for the light from the computer screen. There was an open document: Résumé. He got up and walked over to a position just below the basement window. He looked up. There were stars. Trevor very much wished to be on one.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” he said to the night sky, “I could use a little help down here.”
© Donald McMann
Donald McMann holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Wales: Trinity St. David, as well as an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Beginning in 2001, he served as a professor in the English department of MacEwan University. Before that, he worked as a communications practitioner, which involved everything from copywriting and editing to directing campaigns. Recently he retired from his position at the university to devote more time to his writing.