Monday, August 29, 2011

Michael Baird

The People Who Sell Free Things
Fiction By Michael Baird

With his temple grays, R.J. Worthington could edit newspapers. Instead, he stands at the head of a table large enough to take over the world. The men around the table play golf and don't allow children in their cars. A large pie graph hangs on the wall. It's divided into three sections. They are labeled, 'water', 'dirt', and 'air'. The water and dirt slices make up the majority of the pie. The air portion is non-existent; that is a problem.

Worthington speaks to the back wall. "Johnson, yuppies go to these oxygen bars and pay for air, right?" Worthington's hiring requirement of being named Johnson phased out three years ago. Still, everyone responds. "Yes sir, yes they do." 
One of the walls in this room is essentially a massive window. Worthington walks to it and glares at the dancing air.  He smiles knowingly.  "Fortified air, Johnson, that's the future."
At that moment, a handful of people in spotless white uniforms enter the room and place a plate of dark brown gravy with a piece of crusty, white bread in front of each man. The men know not to touch, but they are all excited. A collective gravy dip marks a significant moment. 
Tom Jennings, Vice President of Customer Specialists, speaks up. "Sir, what's fortified air?"
Worthington smiles like his face is going to break. "I'm glad you asked, Johnson." He looks to the back door. "You can bring that in now."
Brooke Hatherly, Vice President of Product Design strides in carrying a six pack of 12 ounce cans covered in silver and blue swirls. Brooke's suit is pin-striped and his hair is tousled.  He used to model underwear. Last year, he completed three on-line chemistry classes.  
"Gentlemen, this is our newest product, 'Fortified Air'." Worthington turns to Brooke. "Johnson, tell these nitwits what you and those lab boys have been up to."
"Well sir, we used an air compressor to fill these cans. We call it 'Aero'."
The room murmurs in approval.
"Is that all?"
"Well no sir, we dropped a dab of lemon juice into every can."
The murmurs increase in volume.
Worthington presses his hands into the table. "Tomorrow, we begin marketing. The Today Show will run a story about the importance of breathing fortified air, such as 'Aero'." Looking at Brooke, he continues. "Johnson here will be our 'scientist'. Give us your pitch."

Brooke straightens himself and speaks with boyish charm. "Although vast improvements have been made, the air we breathe is still polluted. Fortified air, once a day, can increase your mood and metabolism. Some subjects have experienced weight loss."
Wilfred Johnson, Vice President of Not Getting Sued, speaks up. "Is that last part about the weight loss true?" 
"Yes, two people in our lab caught a whiff of the compressed air. That week, they lost 5 and 3 pounds respectively."
"Just from breathing in the air?  I mean were they doing anything else?" Wilfred asks.
"Yes they were, but it certainly didn't derail their efforts."           
Wilfred patted his sweaty head with a white handkerchief. "That might pose a problem. You could always say that it's not statistically significant."
"That won't work, Will."  A familiar voice rises from the corner. Adam Stephens wears his tennis outfit, complete with pristine short shorts. He's the only one permitted to do so. As Vice President of Getting Away With Lying, when he speaks, Worthington listens. He stands and extends a hand in Worthington's direction. "May I?" 
Worthington nods and speaks softly.  "The floor is always yours if you want it, Johnson."
Stephens continues. "People don't want to hear about something being statistically whatever. They want support. That's what we do here. We support health. So, we can say that 'Aero supports weight loss efforts'."
Wilfred Johnson nods in approval. The men turn to each other and nod. Shirt collars dig into thick necks.
Robert Johnson, Vice President of Something To Do With Consumers, is the oldest member of the board. He addresses Worthington. "Sir, these cans can't be closed.  Wouldn't people prefer bottles, to use over and over?"
Worthington's eyebrows rise. "And what will they do, when the air is out of the can?"
Johnson smiles. "They buy another one!"
The room fills with applause and joyous grumbling.  Worthington leans back in his massive chair. 
The men dip bread into hot, brown gravy.  

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