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743
26 mins

Beats getting sued for slippery floors

Debt is always negative, no matter how positively you try to look at it. The “minus” sign in front of your bank balance is a dead giveaway, despite what you might think about leveraging or whatever. It’s even worse when it’s a credit card or a student loan, and you can’t even remember what you’ve bought or learned with it. Sure, the minimum repayments will eventually cancel it out, but by that time you will most likely have dentures and be peeing anywhere you damn well please.
That’s what I usually thought about my student loans and extensive collection of overdue credit card bills. Yet on that hot, fated May afternoon I was in high spirits, not because I was on depression meds, but because I had a plan. Squirming in high heels and trying to discreetly pull sweaty polyester out of my butt I, Isabella Maxwell, was about to meet my destiny. It was as clear as the big blue sky above me that I was destined to be discovered.
Being discovered was my long-cherished dream. I didn’t care what exactly I would be discovered for, as long as it meant a lot of money and at least fifteen minutes of fame. I’d always imagined it happening at the mall, or maybe a coffee shop. There I would be, laughing with my friends, young and carefree, throwing back my blond locks, when someone from “the industry” would happen to walk by. Something about me would stop them dead in their tracks and, after some small talk, they would offer me a contract for something amazing, definitely involving TV. They would say that I’m unique and special right in front of everybody, including Brad.
That dream became even more urgent after Brad broke up with me in February. We were high school sweethearts and had been dating for almost four years, so naturally I thought we were going to be together forever. I actually thought he was about to propose because he started to act all weird and nervous around me. Once, he went down on his knee in the parking lot and I screamed with excitement, but it turned out that his laces were loose, and I had to invent a story about a huge spider. Then a few days later, just before Valentine’s Day, he messaged me “changed Facebook status”. It wasn’t how I imagined a proposal, a bit too modern for me, but a bad proposal is still better than no proposal.
I logged onto Facebook with shaky fingers.
“Single.” Brad had changed his status to “single”.
I didn’t get it at first. I tried refreshing the screen a few times, until the tears turned the page into a swirl of blue and white. There had to be an explanation. Still crying, I pushed blindly at the phone buttons until I managed to dial his number.
“Sorry, babe,” Brad said. “It’s just that I’m about to graduate and get drafted by the NFL. You know that’s my dream.”
Brad was a football player in the same community college where I was studying for my liberal arts degree. He wasn’t quite quarterback material, but he was tall and fit, and had amazing cheekbones.
“But, but,” I cried. “It’s my dream too!”
“Look, babe, once I’m in the League, I’ll be dating actresses and supermodels. A girl next door just won’t cut it in celebrity circles, you know. I’m doing you a favor.”
It was over, but there was one more straw I had to grab. “But tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day!”
“Well, that’s the thing. Your birthday’s in a couple of weeks too. What’s the point of buying you two presents when we’re going to break up anyway?”
In hindsight, I have to admit that it was the most logical argument he’s ever made. Still, at the time it didn’t make sense to me.
“How can you do that, after all I’ve done for you? I did all your math homework for years!”
“Yeah,” he said, “and all I got was a C-plus average!”
The breakup cut me hard, so hard that I could barely concentrate on my own schoolwork. All I could think about was that I had to become famous so Brad would come crawling back to me, begging me to take him back. In my daydreams, I tormented him with rejection but inevitably took him back. What can I say, I was in love.
Unfortunately, time kept passing by and still no agents or directors came out of the blue to offer me any contracts. I couldn’t understand why, because I kept going to the mall and the campus, and even the trendiest, artsiest coffee shops, and I kept on laughing, maybe just a touch hysterical. I should have probably spent that time trying to develop some kind of talent, like acting or singing, but it didn’t occur to me that talent was a necessary component of being discovered. None of the people from Jersey Shore had any talent, and yet Snooki was on every magazine stand, sporting either a massive engagement ring, or a baby, or both. Plus, I was already an awesome writer - every story I wrote got published in the school paper and my friends and family loved them. Sure, I was the editor-in-chief of that paper, but back then I had no clue about conflict of interest. I also kept a personal journal and planned to turn my notes into a novel one day, kind of like a new Bridget Jones. It was guaranteed to be a huge hit.
Looking back, I was probably depressed. I spent most of my time wallowing and ate very little, sustaining myself mostly with Red Bulls. When I wasn’t dreaming of fame and fortune, I was stalking Brad on Facebook and Twitter, and Googling every possible combination of his name, nicknames, football team, and hometown. I also started obsessing over celebrity engagements and bump watches. It didn’t even matter whether I knew who the particular famous woman was, or why she was famous. I wanted to know whether she was engaged or pregnant, how many carats or how far along, whether it was a flawless diamond, a boy or a girl, and just how delighted was the fiancée or the expectant father. I stayed up late every night, unable to tear myself from promises that Jennifer Aniston had finally confirmed a pregnancy.
With all that drama in my life, it was only a matter of time before I lost my job waitressing at Applebee’s. My boss was a nice enough guy and ignored my tardiness for a while. He even bought my excuses of “horrible gastro” whenever I was late and “really horrible gastro” whenever I forgot to show up for my shift altogether. He finally had no choice when I dumped a bowl of French onion soup into a customer’s lap while trying to check my phone for updates. I had no excuse – the customer was expecting a Caesar salad.
So it was sometime in late May when, unemployed, half-starved and depressed, I glimpsed a sign of hope. I just found out that despite my best self-destruction efforts, I managed to graduate from Capitol Community College, so I was celebrating the news with a sixteen-hour TV marathon and a family-sized bag of Cheetos. It was then, somewhere between the reruns of Buffy and MASH, that I saw the commercial that would change my life forever.
It started with a stock-standard montage of an office skyscraper and a boardroom business meeting. I was about to flip the channel, when the boardroom window exploded, as three men clad in unidentifiable black uniforms and armor swung inside, sending the unsuspecting business folk into screaming fits.
The camera cut to the leader of the SWAT team, who took off his uniform and helmet, revealing a business suit and a perfectly coifed head of graying hair. I immediately recognized him as Mr. Hue, the famous playboy billionaire. The businessmen and women stopped screaming and started laughing, shaking his hand and exclaiming, “Mr. Hue!” and “You rascal!” The other two militants continued to stand guard.
Mr. Hue turned to the camera, which moved in for a close-up.
“I’m Mr. Hue,” he said. “You know me as the eccentric billionaire famous for crazy stunts, like going over the Victoria Falls in a barrel or hand feeding barracudas around my private island in the Caribbean.” There was a rapid and spectacular montage of the hooting Mr. Hue jumping out of planes, off bridges, and into oceans of every shade of blue and turquoise.
“But did you know,” said Mr. Hue, back in the shattered boardroom, “that I technically have a job as the CEO of Shizzle, Inc?” The montage resumed, now showing Mr. Hue surrounded by enthusiastic employees, talking and pointing awkwardly at business-looking documents.
“This job is very demanding,” Mr. Hue’s voice continued over footage of him in a hard hat, shaking hands with factory workers and pointing awkwardly at large blueprints. “It is only possible thanks to a dedicated team of personal assistants.”
A team of nearly identical beautiful blond women smiled together for the camera. The montage continued with them running to and fro with business-looking documents and large blueprints.
“As Shizzle, Inc continues to grow, so does my team,” said Mr. Hue, back in the boardroom, “and I am excited to announce the search for the ultimate Shizzle assistant!”
My pulse quickened, and my hand froze in the bottom of the Cheetos bag, where it was searching for crumbs.
“This nation-wide search will uncover the individual most deserving of making my coffee and answering my phone calls. Are you that special and talented person?”
“Yes!” I yelled at the screen and tossed the Cheetos bag.
“Are you ready to take on the world alongside the coolest and richest man in the southeastern states?”
“Yes!” I yelled with even more fervor.
He went on talking, something about terms and conditions, but I was no longer listening. I knew what I had to do.
*
Getting discovered would have been a lot cooler and easier than getting a job, but beggars can’t be choosers, I thought. That was my plan, by the way – I was going to beg Mr. Hue, beg like he’d never been begged before. The way I figured, once I became a personal assistant to the guy who is constantly on TV and surrounded by celebrities, I would get discovered in no time. I didn’t sleep until very late that night, updating my résumé, trying to put together a presentable outfit from my cheap and haphazard clothing collection, and grooming within an inch of my life.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who had the same bright idea. Somebody famous once said that most of success is simply showing up, and the next morning it looked like the whole southeastern US had done just that. When I arrived at Shizzle, Inc headquarters bright and early at ten am, a line of thousands of wannabes snaked all the way from the parking lot, along the building facade, up the massive front stairs, and into the gaping mouth of the entrance. I took my spot at the end and tried to estimate how long it would take Mr. Hue to interview all those people, but gave up after I realized that it would be a very, very long time.
To my surprise, however, the line started to move relatively quickly and after a couple of hours I was already out of the parking lot. The sun reached its zenith, mercilessly smothering me and other global warming non-believers. I took off my jacket and draped it carefully over my head, trying to protect my fair skin without messing up my attempt at an elegant French twist. I was thirsty and exhausted, but my heart was full of stupid, unwarranted hope.
It was a beautiful day. Nearby, birds were busy plucking bits of cheerfully pink insulation from the dumpster and carrying them off to make cozy homes for their young. They seemed committed to family life even without the engagement rings.
“Can you imagine a pigeon announcing to his pigeon girlfriend that he was going to fly off and start screwing pedigreed white doves?” I asked a pretty redhead in front of me. The redhead looked at me like I was crazy and returned to studying her notes. I didn’t have any notes, so I returned to studying my copy of Star.
The line slowed down around lunchtime. The redhead took a carefully wrapped sandwich from her insulated lunch bag, and I searched for loose M&Ms in the bottom of my purse. Then the line started moving again, even faster. When I finally reached the front doors, I saw why. Blocking the entry was a formidable group consisting of several security guards and an elegant middle-aged woman with a clipboard. The woman looked cool and sophisticated despite the heat, her dark hair arranged in a nest of wavy snake-like locks. The feminine look, however, did little to soften the steel edge in her eyes.
I watched in alarm as the middle-aged Medusa turned away most of the applicants on the spot. It seemed that only about one in fifty made it through the coveted doors. Coming closer, I could hear some of the exchanges.
“You can’t reject me just because I’m a man!” protested a skinny and very unmanly youth. “It’s unlawful discrimination!”
“It’s only discrimination if you are a woman,” Medusa said in a slight accent I couldn’t place, as the guards dragged the skinny youth away. “Next!”
Other wannabes just burst into tears after being told that they were too fat, too short, too ginger, or too “eww” to fetch Mr. Hue’s coffee. Suddenly I was no longer sure that coming down to Shizzle, Inc was a great or even a decent idea. I put my jacket back on and surveyed myself with the help of the phone camera. It was hopeless. My hair had defected despite the dozen pins and half can of hair spray. All my attempts at fixing the mess just made it look even more like a pigeon’s nest. My makeup was practically gone, washed away by the hours of sun and stress-induced sweating. When it came to my turn to be judged by Medusa, I’d already turned to stone from fear and dehydration.
She looked me over like I was a heifer at a state fair. I desperately tried to think of something smart to say, to show how special and talented I was, but it was hopeless. We stared at each other in silence.
“Okay,” she said finally and asked for my driver’s license.
Still speechless, I handed it to her. I could hear a low rumble of shock behind me. Medusa gave me back my license and waved me in. I stepped towards the doors and was almost knocked over by a pretty blond girl rushing out in tears. I recognized her as one of the candidates who managed to get in just minutes before. The sea of rejected and still waiting hopefuls engulfed her. Everyone was asking if she got the job, but the poor girl just wailed. She probably didn’t get it, I thought and walked inside.
It was the most impressive office lobby I’d ever seen, quite possibly the most impressive office lobby ever built. To start with, it was huge, easily large enough to park a mid-size passenger jet. It had a cathedral-like ceiling made entirely of glass panels in a spiraling design. The bright sunlight cascaded down onto the polished marble floors and reflected onto equally polished walls. Despite its humongous size, it contained hardly anything other than the reception desk and a few sculptures and plants.
“May I help you?” A woman’s voice snapped me from my reverie.
I approached the sleek reception desk. Behind it was an elegant logo of Shizzle, Inc and two impeccably groomed secretaries.
“I’m here for the interview. Isabella Maxwell,” I said and heard my voice echo in the background.
“Please have a seat,” one of the secretaries said and went over to the full-length double doors off to the side. I looked around. It was not clear exactly where I could sit, as the only items nearby appeared to be abstract art pieces supporting vases of white flowers. I took a chance and perched on the edge of what looked like a huge stretching cat.
The secretary reappeared from behind the massive doors.
“Mr. Hue will see you now.”
I jumped up and dropped my briefcase, reached down to pick it up, dropped my phone, then my sunglasses, and finally knocked over a vase. The heady scent of white gardenias filled the lobby. I shoved the phone and glasses into the briefcase and rushed towards the doors, mumbling “I’m so sorry!” over and over. I didn’t yet know that the water from the broken vase had already spread in the same direction.
I slipped on the puddle, my feet sliding forward, followed by the rest of my useless body. The secretary jumped aside with a surprised shriek as I skidded through the door and across the office, crashing into an impressive desk.
There was a grunt of what could have been either amusement or disapproval. I scrambled onto my knees and peeked over the huge mahogany slab. Mr. Hue was lounging back on a throne-like chair, his feet crossed on top of the desk, a very large Cuban cigar clamped between his perfectly white teeth. There was not a single crease in his gray Italian wool suit. He looked every bit the dazzling playboy billionaire, the owner of Shizzle, Inc.
“Hi,” I spoke in a barely audible whisper, rendered nearly speechless by the opulence of the office, his mere presence, and my comparative mousiness and general denseness. I felt behind me for a chair, unable to tear my gaze away from him.
“Fell me, me Miff Mawel, hot aches you infrared in a gob a whistle ink?” The cigar was obviously far too large to let him speak properly. He must have realized it as well, because he spat it on the floor and tried again, “Tell me, Ms. Maxwell, what makes you interested in a job at Shizzle, Inc?” He held onto his chin and fixed me with his gaze.
I did not expect this question, not in an interview. “Ahm, well, you know…” I looked around and blurted, “Your office looks amazing!”
He seemed pleased with my answer. “Yes. Indeed, it is the largest Shizzle office in the world.” He slowly recrossed his legs, giving me a close-up view of the gray wooly crotch of his trousers. Then, suddenly, he swung his legs off the desk and leaned forward. “What makes you think you are qualified to work here?”
I certainly did not expect that. I froze, like a deer in headlights. Or a cucumber that gets shoved all the way back in the fridge and then you find it a week later, and it’s all hard and gross. I tried to think of something, but the only thing that came to my jumbled and dehydrated brain was that he must’ve had his teeth professionally whitened, because you just can’t get results like that at home. I looked down and noticed that I was still clutching my briefcase. The résumé! I reached in and pulled out a single page of double-spaced Arial 14 text. I held it out to him with a shaky hand. He took it, and without so much as a glance threw it down on the floor, where it promptly caught fire from the still-lit cigar.
I froze again, unsure of what to do. Luckily, the secretary rushed in with an extinguisher and a mop and cleared away the mess. By the looks of it, that kind of thing happened regularly here.
“I don’t believe in formal qualifications,” Mr. Hue said finally. “I got none, but I got billions.”
I had nothing to say to that.
“What I want to know,” Mr. Hue continued, “is whether you have what I call character. Are you clever? Savvy? Have you graduated from a School of Hard Knocks?”
I thought back to my community college honors classes and the Harvard law degree that I did in my spare time. None of my qualifications came from the School of Hard Knocks. Also, I don’t actually have a law degree from Harvard. I mean, I do, but I printed it myself from a web template. But, like, on really nice paper, and I put it in a frame, so it looks all legit. Still, I had to admit to myself that I was indeed not qualified to work at Shizzle, Inc. My eyes welled with tears. I had to run away, as far away as I could from this perfection of rich mahogany and fine Italian clothing.
I jumped up, tripped over the leg of my chair and fell over for the second time in less than five minutes. This time, I did not have the strength to get up and just lay there until Mr. Hue walked over and stood above me.
“You seem to have a real knack for things.” He looked down at me, deep in thought, and then appeared to make a decision. “You’re hired!”
“What?” I couldn’t believe my ears. I scrambled up to face him, but he was already back on his throne.
“Beats getting sued for slippery floors,” he said to no one in particular. With that, he picked up a fluorescent pink marker from the desk, flicked off the top, and inhaled deeply.
“You start tomorrow.”

Harden The Funk Up, no doubt!

I don’t know how I managed to get back through the army of pissed-off applicants and find where I parked, but the next thing I knew, I was behind the wheel of my Beetle. It was vintage, of course, and yellow – quirky enough for a future Pulitzer winner. I was driving down a street I’d never seen before. It was empty, and the windows of most houses were boarded up. Tumbleweed rolled by. I felt a growing sense of unease, like someone was watching me. It was just like the beginning of one of Stephen King’s stories.
A wailing siren brought me all the way back to reality. The fuzz. Damn it. I pulled over and waited for the cop to stride over to my window. It took him a while, what with the swagger and all. I waited, watching a group of teenagers busily working on a car across the street. They seemed to be in the middle of changing its tires.
The cop dragged his nightstick over the side of the already dinged-up Beetle. Not a good sign. I rolled down the window and looked up at him. He was young and ridiculously good-looking ¬– dark hair, chiseled face and aviator sunglasses, your typical new police recruit. He stared back at me, not saying anything, but I could tell that he was probing my body from behind the cool shades. For a moment I thought he was going to ask me out.
“May I please see your license and registration, ma’am,” he said instead.
“Sure,” I tried to sound nonchalant as I handed them over. “What seems to be the problem, Officer?”
He studied my license without reply, then scribbled something in his notepad. “You live at 842 Primrose Place?”
I nodded.
“What brings you to this neighborhood?” He handed the documents back to me.
I was about to tell him about my autopilot driving but bit my tongue. The taste of blood forced my face into a grimace. His eyes narrowed. “Step out of the car, ma’am,” he ordered.
As soon as I was out of the car, he spun me around and pushed me against Beetle’s hot metal. His body pressed against mine and something hard, probably a gun, poked into the small of my back. His hands slowly, oh so very slowly, went down the sides of my waist, hips, and into my pockets. He pulled out a pack of gum and a few coins.
“A pretty young lady like you might want to be careful around these parts.” His whisper was hot in my ear. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but it scared me. I shut my eyes tightly and waited for what was certainly coming next. Instead, he released me.
“I will escort you back to your house. Follow me.” With that, he popped the gum into his mouth and pocketed my change.
I didn’t say anything, just watched him swagger back to his cruiser and jump in through the window, Dukes of Hazzard style. There was the unmistakable sound of breaking beer bottles.
I got back behind the wheel, turned on the ignition, and watched as one of the hard-working youths rolled a tire across the street. The car they worked on was now sitting on blocks. The hot cop turned on his flashing lights and siren, and sped off. I hit the gas and struggled to keep up, as we weaved in and out of traffic, mounted sidewalks, and ran red lights.
Thankfully, it was over in minutes, because my house turned out to be just a few blocks away. As I pulled over at the front, knocking over garbage cans, the cop threw the cruiser into reverse. Tires squealed as he slammed on the brakes and came to a dead stop next to my Beetle. I looked over at him, waiting to be further reprimanded, but he just motioned to his eyes with two fingers, then pointed one at me, as if to say “I’m watching you.” Then he slammed on the gas again and shot off in a cloud of smoke and burning rubber.
I sat behind the wheel, unable to move, unable to comprehend what had just happened. My gut told me that meeting the coolest man on Earth within an hour of getting the coolest job on Earth meant something besides an awesome coincidence. It was as strong and clear as knowing that your lucky numbers will one day win the state lottery jackpot.
*
I surveyed my shitty little house, delighting in the thought that sometime in the future, sometime very soon, I was going to move out of it and into something more suited to my self-image. It was old, but I doubt that it was a beauty even in its youth. The sagging roof seemed to weigh down the wooden porch, which itself was sinking into the piles of rotten leaves and scraggly azalea bushes. The lack of kerbside appeal continued once you passed the screeching front door and dingy hallway, revealing an oddly shaped living room utterly devoid of natural light, three small bedrooms, and a kitchen. The only distinguishing feature of the whole place was a cavernous basement with a dirt floor, the kind suited for cockfights or stowing away kidnapped victims. They say there is no place like home, but I’ve stayed in a Holiday Inn, and it’s much better than home – the sink doesn’t leak, and the sheets have hardly any stains on them at all.
The house was free, which greatly made up for its shortcomings in quality and ambiance. To be perfectly honest, I was actually squatting there with Tara. I thought it was okay – after all, everybody was doing it. The whole country was full of real estate that nobody wanted, and I’m pretty sure that on our street only Old Man and Married Couple paid either mortgage or rent. I even put the address on my driver’s license, and Tara thought it was cool.
Tara’s judgment of cool was highly questionable, though, considering that it sometimes led her to dubious decisions, like starting her own scented candle business. She was hard at work on it for months but had not yet sold a single candle, and the basement was full of stock. It wasn’t all that surprising – the candles smelled terrible, kind of like a mixture of cleaning chemicals and pee. They didn’t look good, either. Instead of glass jars, she poured them in pipes and even in pressure cookers, and instead of potpourri she mixed in nails and ball bearings. I guess it was to give candles an industrial look, but I personally wouldn’t buy one.
Still, I admired Tara for her entrepreneurial spirit. It inspired me to start a couple of my own businesses, like the one where I called the customer service number on the back of every food package and complained about the quality of their products. I had refund checks and coupons waiting for me in the mailbox almost every day. Another one was applying for credit cards with introductory zero interest rates on balance transfers and shuffling around my debt. Mastercard sponsored my independence from Dad, which truly was priceless.
Anyway, Tara was not making her candles that day, but only because she’d been sick all week. I was getting worried about her because she even stopped smoking weed.
“Hey Tara, how are you feeling?” I tried to sound cheerful as I walked in and dropped my bag and jacket onto the already cluttered hallway floor.
“Not sure.” Her weak voice drifted from the couch. “I can’t feel my legs.”
I rushed into the living room. She was shockingly pale, and her eyes were rimmed with red. I sighed with relief. At least she was smoking again, and it sounded like some good shit.
“What’s that?” I nodded in the direction of a half-gallon Ziploc baggie on the coffee table. “Strawberry Paralysis?”
“No, it’s new,” she said and offered me the pipe. “Margaret Thatcher. Want some?”
“Maybe later.” I know it sounds bad, but we only smoked weed because neither one of us was old enough to buy alcohol. “So, are you feeling better?”
“Yeah, heaps,” she said, although she didn’t look it. Tara was a pretty girl, but she detested personal grooming, which in her opinion was wasting water and destroying the ozone layer. Her short black hair was greasy and stood up on end as if she’d got licked by a friendly cow. She had way too many holes in her ears, chewed her nails, and dressed like a boy. I was pretty sure she was a lesbian, although I stuck to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She was also the coolest chick I’d ever known, spoke her mind, and had the kind of balls I admired in the West Coast rappers.
Tara took a drag, held it in, then let it out without a single cough. She was sick. I mean, she was so cool, it was sick. Slang just gets confusing sometimes.
“How are ya?” she said, packing another bowl.
“Oh my God!” I shrieked and jumped about wildly. “I almost forgot, I got a job! I got the job – at Shizzle, Inc!”
“For shizzle?” She sat up straight, which was unusual for her. “You mean the global conglomerate of value creation processes?”
“Yes, the very one!” I plopped onto the couch next to her. “I start tomorrow!”
She didn’t say anything, just stared wildly at her baggie of Margaret Thatcher.
“What’s wrong?” I was confused. It was unlike her not to offer me a celebratory toke of the pipe.
“Nothing,” she got up. “I need to make more candles.” And just like that, she left, which was actually pretty normal for her. I made a mental note to tell her about Mr. Hue and Hot Cop some other time.
I sighed, went to my own bedroom and stared at myself in the mirrored closet doors. Blues started creeping in, replacing my earlier excitement. The girl in the mirror looked utterly incapable of holding down either a job at a major corporation or the attention of a ridiculously hot cop. Her hair was too blond, her breasts too large, and her lips too pouty. There was nothing even remotely original or quirky about her. I sighed again and flopped onto the bed.
My cell phone burst into a rendition of DMX’s “Party Up”, which meant that it was Harden. Harden was my other best friend, the one responsible for introducing me to all things rap.
“Yo, Slim Whitey, what up!” I said into the phone, feeling instantly better. Harden, a.k.a. Slim Whitey, was a cool dude to hang around. He was an aspiring DJ, and I had no doubt that he was going to succeed one day, even though his tastes in music ran a bit old-school. But then, if it weren't for him, I would have never known how cool Outkast were before they went mainstream.
“What up, Izz,” said Slim Whitey. “By the way, it’s not Slim anymore. Changed my name, yo.”
“Again?” Harden had been constantly changing his name ever since I met him, which was in elementary school. Everyone called him “Hard-on” and I knew that it was bad even before I understood why. His attempts to explain the Old English origin of his name as “the valley of hares” just earned him another nickname, Rabbit. Nobody ever dared to touch him because he was so big, but he was an easy target for jokes.
“Yeah,” Harden said. “I had to. Can’t be too careful with copyright infringement these days. Homeboy would have me iced, yo. Did you see his last video?” Eminem was Harden’s idol.
“Which one?” I asked.
“The one where he’s yelling and throwing gang signs, then shit explodes and peeps die.”
“You gonna have to be more specific,” I said.
“Anyway,” he said. “I found this website that makes up rap names - it’s the shiznit!”
“Oh yeah? So what are you called now?”
“Check this out,” Harden suddenly became serious. “Which one do you like better – Harden Dawg, Har Den, Jiggy Hard, or Harden The Funk Up?”
Jiggy Hard was an ironic name for someone who was as jiggly soft as Harden, both literally and figuratively. The boy even saved orphaned baby birds and cried when they eventually died. Of course, I wasn’t going to say that.
“Harden The Funk Up, no doubt!” I said instead. “That’s cool, man!”
“Better than Bubba Sparxx, right?” He sounded pleased. He was really just a sweet kid.
“So what’s Harden The Funk Up up to tonight?” I asked.
“Now, check this out!” Harden roared. “I got me a paying gig on the Wess Saide, you dig!”
“That’s bitchin! Congrats, Slim! I mean, Harden The Funk Up!”
“Thanks,” he said. “Wanna come represent?”
“You betcha! Text me the address,” I said. “I gotta go get m’self purdy!”
“You’re always purdy,” I heard him say as I was hanging up. Such a sweet kid.
It took me an hour to get ready, most of which was spent picking up clothes from the floor and the side of the bed I didn’t sleep on, then throwing them back down. Nothing quite suited the momentous occasion. It was ridiculous, not having the money to buy clothes that made me look like I had no money. I finally settled on a ripped up pair of jeans, a black t-shirt, and a gray hoodie.
I chose Snoop Dogg’s money anthem for the ride over, to get myself out of the broke-ass funk and to celebrate the new job. It took some careful knee driving to get the iPod into the cassette deck adaptor and the adaptor into Beetle’s ancient audio system, but it was worth it. I sang along to Snoop’s masterplan, feeling equally righteous about my own earning prospects.
Beetle tried to ruin the mood by introducing a new sound into the usual cacophony of misfiring pistons, but I just turned the music up. Unfortunately, the smooth beats could not mask the screech of metal dragging along the pavement, or the shower of sparks trailing behind me. I pulled over, wrestled the offending automotive part from under the body and examined it in the dying light. I could not discern if it was essential or not, but the motor kept running when I separated it from the mothership, and there was no sign of leaking oil, or at least no more than usual. Just in case, I tossed the part into the trunk and drove off, thinking that the new job could not have come a moment too soon.
When I finally got to the place, Harden The Funk Up was in full swing. I could hear “Block Rockin’ Beats” rocking the house all the way from the parking lot. When I stepped inside, however, the house was far from rocking. It was a sad little venue, which belonged to someone called Billy, as proclaimed by the neon sign over the door. Inside it was dark and hot, with just a few dejected patrons on cheap aluminum stools around the bar. Behind the bar, a middle-aged bartender moved about leisurely. Old street signs and other miscellaneous dusty crap were hanging from the ceiling. It was ugly, but not Coyote Ugly.
In the corner opposite the bar was Harden with all his equipment, looking cool in a pair of professional cans and a giant neon safety vest. He’d been getting ready for this for a while, and most of his money went into purchasing turntables, speakers, and flashing lights. Unlike me, Harden had a well-paying job hacking into corporate computer systems. Not to steal, or anything, just to test the firewalls and virus protection, but it paid a ton.
I waved my hands in front of Harden, trying to get his attention. He broke into a huge grin and pulled one of the cans away from his ear.
“Thanks for coming!” he yelled over the music.
“Wouldn’t miss it! What’s with the vest?”
“Cool, huh? Got it from my dad.” Harden got a lot of things from his dad, including his fat genes. The two of them haven’t been able to hug properly since Harden was a little kid.
I was about to ask why he chose the vest for his debutant appearance when the bartender came up. He was a mousy little man, but he looked massively pissed off.
“What’s this noise?” he screamed over the music. The noise at that moment was something from The Bloody Beetroots.
Harden looked worried, so I decided to do a bit of PR.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” I yelled. “Nice little place you got here!”
“Who are you?” the bartender yelled in my face.
I decided not to let his rudeness get to me. “Just a fan,” I yelled back enthusiastically. “Out on the town, ready to bust some moves.” I busted a move to demonstrate my point.
The bartender looked me up and down, then shoved me aside and screamed at Harden, “Turn that shit down!”
“Hey!” I yelled at his back. “That’s no way to treat your clientele! Ever heard that the customer is king?”
The bartender turned his ugly little face to me. “No!” he spat. “Never heard this here shit, either! Turn it down and put on somethin’ decent or you’re outta here!”
Harden obligingly turned the music down. Everyone in the place was looking at us.
“What’s decent, oldies but goldies?” I asked.
“You got a mouth on you, little girl,” the bartender stuck a creased finger with a thick stained nail into my face. “Better watch it, if you know what’s good for you!”
Since I was several inches taller than him, it should’ve been funny. Instead, I felt the angry beast inside me rise and shake its chain.
“You know what’s good for you?” I asked.
Then, before I knew what my own hands were doing, the angry beast took the bartender by the bony shoulders, turned him around and shoved him towards the bar. “Doing your job!”
I completely miscalculated the effect my angry push would have on the feather-light maître d’. He surged forward, stumbled, and toppled down to shocked gasps from everyone, including me.
*
“I’m so sorry,” I said for the thousandth time, helping Harden load his stuff into his mom’s van. “I have no idea what came over me! I had no idea that was Billy himself!”
“That’s okay,” Harden said, although he looked close to tears.
“Plus,” I said, madly grasping at straws, “it’s not like that was your target market.”
“No,” Harden sighed. “It’s just so hard to break into the field. I was hoping to get a referral or something. Plus, you never know, somebody from the industry could be in the audience.”
I seriously doubted anyone from “the industry” was among Billy’s redneck patrons, but my heart sank. Harden and I shared the same dream and I had just cut him at the knees.
Then I remembered my own news. “You know what? I just got a job with Shizzle, Inc and betcha I can get you a corporate gig! How would a corporate gig sound?”
“Shizzle, Inc?” Harden’s face lit up. “They do the most incredible staff parties! That’s like, legendary, Izz!”
“Aight, consider it done,” I said, even though I had no idea how it was going to get done. Sometimes you just have to believe the unbelievable, the point most recently proven by my new and amazing job.
I hugged him goodbye. “Do you want to…” Harden suddenly looked tense, “…you know, maybe celebrate? I can get wine coolers, or whatever you want. If you want to?” Harden just turned twenty-one, which was yet another reason why he was so cool.
“Oh my God! Sorry Harden, where are my manners? Of course we should celebrate, that was your first gig!”
“Kinda,” he said and looked down. “Anyway, I’m glad you came. You’ve been MIA too long, Izz.”
I hugged him again, and he held me longer that time. I breathed in his aftershave and thanked God that there was at least one guy who wouldn’t dump me to serve his ambitions.
I drove home, and Harden rocked up five minutes later with a load of beer and wine coolers in every flavor. He also brought in his equipment and set it up in the living room, starting the party off with Far East Movement.
“What’s going on?” Tara emerged from the basement to see what all the ruckus was about.
“Getting slizzered!” I sang along with the band and handed Tara a beer.
We drank, danced, smoked weed and yelled along to the words of the songs that had words – we just yelled “Woo!” to those that didn’t. I danced on the coffee table and jumped up and down on the couch until my legs gave out. I remember Harden forcing me to drink water and take aspirin, then covering me with a comforter when I face-planted on the couch. After that, I don’t remember anything.

I’m a derby driver.

I was late on my first day at Shizzle, Inc. I overslept, I was hungover, and I could not find anything to wear. Literally. We got robbed overnight, the side effect of living in a lawless neighborhood and being drunk and stoned into a coma. The thieves took almost everything, including our clothes, dishes, and Margaret Thatcher. Thankfully, they didn’t notice my bag in the hallway, where it was hidden by a pile of trash. Tara was mad as hell and kept muttering something about boobies and traps into her cornflakes, which she had to eat out of the box.
By the time I finished making something resembling a dress out of a tablecloth and Tara’s supply of rope and duct tape, it was nearly ten in the morning. I found a pair of black shoes even the thieves did not want, painted the scuff marks with a marker, then jumped into the car and tore off down the street. I was secretly hoping that Hot Cop would stop me for speeding, but alas, no. He was probably sleeping off his own hangover.
I practically flew into the parking lot of Shizzle, Inc, hitting the brakes while turning the wheel hard to the left. Beetle objected with every rusty joint, but spun neatly into a tight space between two exec-looking Benzies, only slightly scratching one of them. I scrambled out, bumped the edge of my door into the other Benz, slammed the door shut in righteous anger, spun around and nearly knocked over Mr. Hue.
He was just standing there, looking even more glorious than before. This time, for no apparent reason, he was wearing a white captain’s uniform with gold buttons. Another massive cigar was sticking out of his mouth, like a smoking tailpipe. Two tall, handsome, and super-fit bodyguards in black suits flanked him. They looked like identical twins, except one was even better looking than the other. I froze in my tracks and tried to smooth down my skirt, ashamed of being late and of the thought that, given a chance, I would totally do either one of the bodyguards.
“Hi?” I finally managed. I wanted to say something about “horrible, horrible gastro”, but I just couldn’t do it in front of the two hotties.
Mr. Hue didn’t say anything, just kept looking at me with those piercing, all-knowing blue eyes. He puffed on the cigar, then took it out of his mouth and held it out with two fingers. A massive diamond sparkled on his outstretched pinkie. He let the cigar drop, then slowly ground it into the pavement with the toe of his sleek white patent shoe. I squirmed.
“Ms. Maxwell, isn’t it?” he squinted at me. You’d think a billionaire could afford a pair of sunglasses. He would look good in a pair of aviators, come to think of it.
I nodded and swallowed hard. Here we go, I thought, fired before I even make it in on the first day.
“Nice to see you upright.” His voice was authoritatively stern. He looked me up and down. “Gucci?”
I looked down in confusion. He had to be talking about my dress. “Ah, no…it’s an up-and-coming boutique designer. Very exclusive.” I cocked a hip and jammed a hand into my side the way starlets do on the red carpet.
“Oh.” He seemed a tiny bit impressed. “I could not help noticing your driving skills this morning. Is that your car?” He lifted his chin in the direction of Beetle.
I looked back at my dinged-up yellow piece of crap. “Oh, that…Nah, that’s just a derby car I was driving last night. In a derby. I’m a derby driver.” I’m not a bad liar on an average day, but that morning I was on fire, fueled by fear and adrenaline. “Yeah, it don’t look like much, but this baby packs a mean punch. Got twenty-five…hundred…horses under the hood. Nitrous…something. You know, the works.”
As if in protest, Beetle’s tailpipe coughed up a pathetic wisp of gray smoke.
Mr. Hue smirked. “I got a Bugatti Veyron in my garage, bet that would leave you in my dust.”
I tried to casually put my hands in my pockets, but there weren’t any, so I anchored my hands on my hips and looked him square in the eye.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I wouldn’t bet on it. This one here is modified to bejesus, and it ain’t even street legal.” I spat on the ground for further effect.
Mr. Hue considered that for a moment. “Walk with me,” he said and took off across the parking lot in the general direction of the drainage ditch. The bodyguards and I tried to keep up.
“You didn’t answer my question yesterday,” Mr. Hue said. “Why do you want to work for Shizzle, Inc?”
I almost blurted out “To get on TV!” but stopped myself just in time. I had a feeling that, despite taking place in the parking lot, the discussion was somehow significant to my budding career. I tried to buy some time by pretending to catch my breath, which was not such a stretch.
“I want to make a difference,” I said finally.
Mr. Hue slowed down. “A real difference?”
“Yes,” I said, sensing that I was on the right track. “A very real difference.”
Mr. Hue stopped. “I knew it!” he exclaimed. “You’re the Shizzle type!”
I practically radiated relief.
“You never know where you might spot a Shizzle type,” Mr. Hue went on. “I usually find them in exclusive bars, luxury resorts or private golf clubs, but every now and then one just walks in, like you did. You probably don’t even know you’re special, but you are.”
I wanted to say that I’d always felt like I was special and just waiting to be discovered, and that maybe one day there would be a movie made about my life – but he pushed on.
“Are you an ideas kind of person?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to sound persuasive. “I have lots of ideas.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Can you tell me about one of them?”
I panicked. I did have lots of ideas, all the time, but lately most of them were about how to get Brad back. While they were all really innovative, I had a feeling that Mr. Hue was talking about the kind of ideas that result in profits, and not in marriages and babies.
“Well,” I said, “there are so many, it’s hard to pick one!”
“Okay,” Mr. Hue said, “pick the most profitable one.”
Damn it, I knew he’d say that. I was about to tell him how I was planning to score a large diamond ring, but then I remembered a story my Dad told us countless times.
“I once had this idea for Velcro, but I didn’t have money for a patent, and then Velcro invented it.”
“Wow,” Mr. Hue said. “You are full of surprises, Ms. Maxwell, and it’s very hard to surprise me.” He fell silent, and I held my breath. Suddenly he grabbed me by the shoulders and looked deeply into my eyes.
“I was going to start you at the bottom, working your way up through the janitorial positions and such, but you have already proven yourself beyond my wildest expectations. I shall take you under my wing.”
*
Mr. Hue made a sharp u-turn and headed back to headquarters. “As my protégé, it’s imperative that you see all branches of the business. We’ll start by visiting the factory.”
It was all happening too fast. Once again, I struggled to keep up. “What, like, now?” God, being around him was exhausting. I had no clue that working was so strenuous.
We walked through the lobby, were greeted by security guys standing at attention, and got into the elevator. A young guy with a takeout coffee, who was already in the elevator, jumped out as if it was on fire. The twin bodyguards followed us in, and one of them pressed the button for the top level. “Is the factory in this building?” I asked, confused.
Mr. Hue just smiled enigmatically, and we rode up in silence. When the doors finally opened, we were on the roof, and I was staring straight at an Apache helicopter. Holy shit. It looked brand new and was equipped with all the standard missiles and rocket pods, plus what looked like a custom after-sale job.
“Hellfire?” I nodded towards the extra pod, incredulous.
“Yes.” He choked with emotion. “Fitted with a thermobaric warhead. You have to be prepared for anything these days.”
There was no pilot, and I expected one of the bodyguards to get behind the controls, but Mr. Hue dismissed both of them with a curt nod. Once I climbed into the passenger seat, I saw that there was no space for them anyway – the entire cargo area was replaced by the kind of speakers you would expect at a Skrillex concert.
Mr. Hue climbed in and started to flip switches. The instrument panel lit up, the rotor blades came to life, and a blast of “Rock the Casbah” from the back deafened me. Mr. Hue put on his harness and headphones, and I hastily did the same. Even with the headphones on, the roar was unbearable. I turned to close the door, but there wasn’t one. I pulled harder at the straps of my harness.
“Ready?” Mr. Hue winked at me, then reached into a compartment and pulled out a book. Choppers for Dummies. On the cover, it had a cute cartoon of a cross-eyed stick man waving from a helicopter cockpit.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I screamed over the noise. He waved me off authoritatively, and I heard his voice in my headphones, “Worry not, Ms. Maxwell, I am a qualified pilot.” He rustled through the book. “I just need to do a pre-flight check.”
I thought back to my law degree and tried to remember if the website had any templates for pilot’s licenses.
“Tower. This is Big Bad D-O-G, S-H-I-double Z-L-E, you know me, fo shizzle my dizzle. Clear for takeoff. Confirm, over.”
“Big Bad Dog, you are clear.” A tired voice crackled through the static. “And may I remind you to use the standard language only?”
“Roger, tower. Big Bad D-O-G is set, over and out. And it ain’t nothin’ but a chicken wang!” He winked at me and the chopper suddenly lunged forward.
For a moment, it looked like we were going to take out the bodyguards, but they ducked down in a practiced fashion. We headed for the elevator shaft, but at the last moment the chopper shot straight up, twisting like a corkscrew. I screamed as the speakers concurred that “the sharif don’t like it”. No, not one little bit.
I managed to catch a glimpse of Mr. Hue, who was erratically poking at the control panel buttons and jerking levers. He had his tongue out and looked like a kid trying to fit a square peg through a round hole. I screamed again as we lurched to the left in a wide arc, but couldn’t help noticing the view before me. It was magnificent, an endless sea of parking lots filled with cars of all colors. My leg dangled out, and I clutched at the harness with white-knuckled fingers.
Suddenly we were going down in roller coaster fashion, and I squeezed my eyes shut. My life flashed before me, or at least the good bits, and then we half-crashed, half-landed on something. The rotors slowed down, and I risked opening my eyes. We were not dead, just on the roof of another building. I unbuckled my harness with trembling fingers and staggered out. I could see the Shizzle, Inc headquarters a few hundred feet away.
I turned to Mr. Hue, who was lighting another cigar. “We could have walked here,” I said in a shaky voice.
“Nonsense, my dear child,” he laughed huskily. “This ride was tax deductible, and walking isn’t.” With that, he turned towards the exit, where another pair of genetically engineered bodyguards awaited us.
*



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