by Lela Fox
Chapter 1: MOVIN' ON UP
My résumé was up to date but a pure lie. On paper, I looked like a kick-ass advertising writer with a promising future. While everything else in my life went to hell, I oozed pride in climbing my twisted version of a career ladder, fighting, biting, and scrambling for new clients who would pay big bucks for the outrageous ideas of the remarkable Lela Fox. In the advertising world of Rockville, Tennessee, I was 1985’s rising star, and humility was not my strong point.
After I discovered my first husband Andy’s affair, our separation was immediate but the official divorce took another nine months. Not that it stopped me from moving forward with a series of drunken one-night stands... and hanging out with my lifelong BFFs: Guilt, Shame, and Remorse.
From my point of view, the real problem was the redheaded bitch Ella Perkins, my ex-husband’s girlfriend and now the part-time mother of my son, living with my man in my house. She made me sick with her impeccable organization, nutritious menus, and always-perfect life management.
On the flip side, I was single and struggling to be stable and sane. The struggle was rocky because my focus was off-kilter, my Bi-Polar was showing, and because vodka was my best friend.
On the outside, I looked like a million bucks, arriving at the monthly Marketing Association networking meeting in a new, bright-magenta suit. I wore a double-squirt of confidence like expensive perfume, sure that my legs looked awesome in black spike-heeled pumps and that my big-hair curls framed my face perfectly. I was kicking ass professionally, but always on the lookout for better opportunities. Lo and behold.
Over cocktails, I got a lead on a job at a young and growing company called 14-24.
“Why do they call it 14-24?” I asked, trying to act cordial, but cool and professionally uninterested.
The ad agency exec flashed a smile. “It’s their target audience. Ages fourteen through twenty-four. You know... the influencers.”
“Ah! Of course!” I chuckled as if I had known the answer all along.
“They’re doing the marketing and advertising in-house or I’d be knocking on their door myself. Thankfully, my position is pretty solid.”
“You’re James, right? At Sturbridge?” I reached out to shake his hand. “I’m Lela Fox. You’ll be hearing my name quite a bit, for a long time, and you can say you knew me when.”
James’ handshake was firm and his chuckle came with a toothy grin. “I’m James Webb. And it’s nice to meet a creative who has stayed humble.” His deep, brown eyes charmed me. And it looked like my own brand of charm had found a sucker.
So far so good on tonight’s alcohol consumption... or so I thought. I always seemed to overshoot the runway with cocktails at those networking meetings, so I had a standing babysitter, my buddy and ex-boss Marla Brown. Marla was the writer/creative director at the agency where I had interned a few years before. As I stumbled toward the bar for the fourth time, she elbowed me in the ribs. “Slow it down, Lela.”
I knew I could trust Marla, and that I couldn’t trust myself. At my first networking meeting, months ago, the open bar screamed my name repeatedly and I downed a half-dozen vodka-tonics in less than two hours. I stumbled to the fancy ladies room and threw up in the handicapped stall. Not cool, Lela. I washed my face, then, literally, showed my ass in the banquet line.
Marla had led me downstairs and called a cab. That night, we set up the babysitting arrangement and it seemed to be working. Each month, she elbowed me at just the right time and I’d left before the shit hit the fan. But her elbow was stronger that night and ten minutes after the servers whisked the plates away, she strongly suggested I get the hell out of Dodge. I guess I had gone two steps too far, maybe three, based on Marla’s frown and glaring eyes.
I left in a hurry, saying brief farewells to the ones with the power to help my career. That’s why they call it networking, right?
It was my son’s weekend with his dad, so I stopped at Applebee’s for another drink at the bar. To fit into the Friday-party crowd, I removed my business jacket, unbuttoned another button on my blouse, then paid for two drinks at once. It wasn’t a two-for-one happy hour; I ordered that way to save time. Bartenders are slow on Friday nights.
With the last gulp of my second drink, a good-looking man with slicked-back hair plopped onto the stool next to mine. “Can I buy you another?” he asked.
“Naw, I’ll just take the money.”
They say men study long and hard to perfect their pickup lines, but that was mine, and I used it repeatedly. Worked like a charm unless the man didn’t approve... in which case he could kiss my ass. I only took the money twice, but I put it in the tip jar. I do have some class.
The next day, after easing my hangover with a few glugs of Bailey’s in my coffee, I wrote a killer cover letter and scheduled a courier to deliver my résumé to 14-24 first thing Monday morning.
Their half-page ad in the Sunday classifieds described the company and the job opening in detail. They sought a writer of direct mail brochures to sell the company’s free, advertiser-sponsored educational magazines. For instance, the U.S. Army sponsored Careers, a slick publication for high schoolers.
I would write to the guidance counselors who distributed the magazine, convincing them to provide it at their school. If the counselors didn’t object to the advertising influence, the publication was an easy sale. According to the example in the ad, readership was in the hundreds of thousands, and Army recruitment was up among the subscribers. Everybody won.
And Careers was just one of the dozens of magazines.
As a local to Rockville, my sister Jennifer knew of 14-24 and the nationwide reputation they had built. TIME had featured them in the “Fastest Growing Companies” issue, she said, and the CEO made a “Top Influencer” list of some kind.
Though I was dressed to the nines, the job interview was casual, with a tall and scrawny older woman named Marilyn. I joked about how she was the polar opposite of the Monroe of Marilyns, with wispy dark hair and a sharp, crooked nose. The comment bordered on offensive because the 14-24 Marilyn was flat-out ugly. Not missing a beat, my tinkling laugh softened her frightened look. I guessed she thought it was a creative joke she wasn’t supposed to understand.
The 14-24 office was downtown on Marshall Square, a venue that overflowed with people day and night... all varieties of young, old, professionals, students, and families. Festivals began there, with a collection of bands on the outdoor stage, and the renowned weekend Farmer’s Markets bustled under the concrete canopy on the far end. Yep, Marshall Square was the hip place to be.
With a unique product and an aggressive sales team, 14-24 had grown like a virus, first occupying one floor in the Walnut Building, and now six floors. This quarter’s growth had expanded staff to an adjacent building, keeping the six floors in the Walnut tower for support departments like Marketing.
“You’ll find 14-24 to be a ‘melting pot for creativity,’ I’ve heard it called,” Marilyn said, “Most employees are creatives like you... writers, designers, or illustrators. Plus the casual dress code and lack of corporate nit-picking makes it a pretty chill job, so you’ll have to be self-motivated.”
“That is no problem, Marilyn. No grass grows under my feet.” She liked the phrase, she said, then we talked more about the specifics of the position. Direct mail pieces had been my specialty; I’d built a reputation on them. "Marilyn, I have the ideal work experience. I’ll dive right in, so just tell me when to start.”
Maybe it was my confidence, or the lies on my résumé, or the new funky shoes, but she hired me on the spot, and at a salary that beat my current pay by fifteen percent. I would start two weeks from Monday.
I stopped around the corner to use the phone. A cat and her litter of kittens curled into a corner of the phone booth and Momma Cat screamed at me, daring me to mess with her family. “Just making a call, Ms. Cat. I won’t give you any shit.”
Four quarters in hand, I called Mom and Daddy with the news. They had moved back to my hometown of Burgess, Tennessee after a few years in the Armpit of West Virginia, and they cheered me generously, saying all the right things. Daddy erupted with another one of his meaningless lines, ones that still brought a smile. “Hooray for our side!” he said, and “Never fear, Lela’s here!”
Daddy gushed about my success, saying he was “crazy-proud,” and that’s exactly what I needed to hear. I hungered for approval from my do-gooder parents and when it was due, they slathered me with praise. But when it came to the “other issues,” as they called them, they remained silent except to repeat their mantra: “You know how we feel about your drinking, Lela.”
I hung up happy. Today I had earned kudos for being a “responsible adult.” Then I wondered how many responsible days it would take to compensate for the past few weeks when I had been a useless drunk.
It doesn’t snow much in East Tennessee, but it did on the day I started at 14-24. I instantly thought of another big day in my life when it snowed at an inopportune time, my wedding day. It sucked. Hopefully, it’s not an omen like it was with Andy.
Though Rockville was a southern Tennessee town that shut down on snowy days, I felt obligated to show up to my new job, and show up on time. The hill leading to my apartment would be ice-packed in the morning, I feared, so I parked at the bottom before the storm hit and delivered Bo, my three-year-old son, to his dad’s, eliminating any complication on that front.
Early in the morning, bundled in layers, I slipped and slid down the hill on my butt, sliding toward my Chevy Monza at an alarming speed. Fingernails grasping the back tire stopped my slide. I struggled to get the snow off the windshield and windows, working up a sweat. “I guess I wore too many layers,” I said to the silence. Inside, the car started, and I shivered as it warmed up.
My thoughts were in great conflict: happy for the job, determined to be there, and scared to go. I had never driven in the snow. Debating, I thought about walking back home, but bravery won and I put the car in gear. Here we go. Though not Catholic and not religious, I crossed myself. You probably did it backward, dumbass. But you’re bigger than this silly fear, so just go! Go!
It was iffy getting there, but once I got to the I-40 East ramp through town, the roads were clear. The city rarely needed snow plows, but it seemed all four of them had been busy; they’d plowed the ramps to downtown, too. With only one terrifying moment turning left, I arrived to park in the garage as instructed. But the garage echoed noisily; it was 100 percent empty on the ground floor.
Now even more terrified, I took the first available space.
Walking the two blocks to the Walnut Building proved eerie. Empty streets. A blustery wind blowing snow against the base of Marshall Square’s vintage brick buildings. The sound of my breath through two layers of scarf, the magic of billowing white clouds that disappeared in an instant. And the odd, clunky squeak of snow crunching under my boots.
Rounding the corner, my fear swelled. I worried the building would be locked. But the revolving door circled easily, offering warmth and a resting place after my wondrous walk in the elements. The lobby wasn’t empty as I’d expected; a smattering of people milled about and a small group sat on the navy leather sofas.
Nobody looked my way as I stepped into the open elevator. In the familiar hum going up, I braced myself for making a noble first impression, whispering my parent’s encouragement speech from high school: “You are invincible. You are beautiful. You are capable.” I repeated it three times on the way to the fifth floor.
The elevator door opened. Silence and an empty set of office cubicles welcomed me. Only one rack of fluorescent lights glowed; the rest were a cold dull-gray, darker than silence.
Where do I go? Marilyn’s office? I took a few steps toward her corner, then stopped. Perplexed for a pause, I decided the logical choice was to call out. “Hello? Is anybody here?”
A voice from the far end answered. “Hark! Who goes there?”
I smiled at the corny joke. “I’m new and don’t know where to go.”
“Where are you?”
“Which back corner?”
A few more echoes of Marco-Polo and a man in a TSU sweatshirt and jeans rounded the corner. Wow. He looked at me with intensely green eyes. An instant smile spread on his face and there was a note of flirt to his greeting. “Hey there.”
“This is my first day of work. I’m Lela Fox.”
“Bless your heart! What a terrible day to start a new job!” He introduced himself. “Phillip Johnson, nice to meet’cha.” Phillip led me to the coffee pot.
“I’m not even sure where to put my stuff yet.”
“Why not sit here in the atrium for a while... grab a few of our publications and read. I mean, to see what we’re about. Congrats on the new job. What is your position?”
Don’t do it, Lela, don’t do it! But I couldn’t stop myself. “My position? Usually missionary.”
Phillip made a noise that combined a laugh and a snort. Then his eyes bore into mine as he laughed outright.
There you go again... being nervous and saying the stupidest, most inappropriate things possible. “Sorry, Phillip. It didn’t sound so bad in my head.” I looked down and felt my face getting hot. The nervous buzz between my ears roared. “So much for a good first impression, huh?”
“Oh, it’s a first impression all right!” he answered, still laughing. “Lela Fox, the new smartass employee. You’ll fit in perfectly around here.” Another peal of laughter made him wipe a tear from the corner of his eye. I could have laughed along with him but decided silence was the best way to save face.
My silence seemed to make Phillip uncomfortable. Either that or he was just ready to end the conversation and get back to work. “Well... I’ll let you get to reading, Lela, and it might be a day-long wait. See, you might be the only one who shows up. A snow day is like a day off around here.”
Through a smile, I said, “I hated to take a day off on my first day if you know what I mean.” As my smile turned into a laugh, the tension that had built with my silence broke.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“But will Marilyn be here?”
“Yeah, maybe Marilyn. She may think you’ll come... and, you did! So she may show up. Either way, just chill. If you need me, just yell ‘Marco.’”
I sat in the atrium of the refurbished Art Deco building and read the variety of magazines 14-24 published. I scanned a dozen, impressed by the quality of the editorial content. Even an untrained eye would recognize well-written articles, outstanding page design, and top-notch printing.
I began to understand what my role would be. The magazine Table Manners, sponsored by Seagram brands, featured articles helping restaurant servers increase their tip. To “sell” that magazine, I would address ads and letters to restaurant owners.
Around two o’clock, the marketing people began a parade, stumbling in one-by-one. Lauren was the first to arrive. Until Marilyn hired me, Lauren was one of only two copywriters in the department. And she was a redhead. Another one! I fought the comparison to my ex-husband’s damn girlfriend.
As Lauren grabbed papers from a stack in the corner of her office, she said, “Here are brochures and stuff we’ve done in the past. Did you see Table Manners out there?”
“This is the brochure for the smalls. We did another version for the large franchises.” Again, the quality of the pieces and creative approach was impressive.
More staffers arrived. I met an art director, Porgie, also a redhead. What’s up with the redheads?
Porgie was a sassy, petite woman with purple frames on oversized glasses. She looked like the consummate creative person, complete with spiral-permed hair and no makeup. Her chime of a laugh seemed friendly, but I stopped short when hearing her hateful self-introduction. “I’ll try to get along with you, Lela, but I’m difficult.” Wow. What a brazen remark. Better keep your eye on her.
Fifteen minutes later, Lauren introduced me to the other two art directors as they arrived in the same elevator. “This is Brenda and Jay. Direct eye contact was obviously hard for the shy and tall Jay; he offered only a weak wave and a heartbeat of eye contact.
In complete contrast, Brenda wore a beaming smile atop an ample body and gushed about the info she had gathered for me to review. An instantly likable woman, a few years older but with a young and cheerful demeanor. Brenda would be a good friend; I knew it immediately and I looked forward to becoming a cohort with the bouncy blonde.
Marilyn was last to arrive, around three o’clock. In her fluster, she seemed surprised I was there. In a panic, she announced, loudly, “A meeting in the conference room to meet our new writer!” said while unwrapping from layers of coat, scarf, mittens, and boots. Her face was red from the cold and the tip of her sharp nose glowed like Rudolph’s.
The ultra-casual meeting included plenty of laughter, furthering my feelings of having the right job, in the right place. At the request of my new coworkers, I “presented” my professional experience and strengths. Then they asked the more-personal stuff, interested to know the age of my son, my hometown, and hobbies.
I felt an aura of respect professionally and personally, and a boatload of excitement about the opportunity in front of me. Fitting in wasn’t a typical feeling for me, though I faked it well. And I’d had a lot of practice, beginning with the day of my first drink. I’d been a slave ever since. But this was the time for a new start, I hoped. A chance to fit in with normal sober people and be a sober, stable citizen.
After the meeting, Marilyn set me up in an office with a view of the square. Wow! A window! Brenda’s office was across the hall from mine; our desks faced each other. At least once an hour, I caught her eye and made a funny face or stuck my tongue out at her, just being silly. She replied with the same silliness.
On the third day of work, a large project landed on my desk with Brenda as my assigned partner. The two of us sat down for a brainstorming session, promising an open mind on both ends. She breezed through the meeting, kind and happy; my anxiety evaporated quickly.
The two of us joked about our role in creating junk mail, the hated mailbox clutter, and laughed at the way mailing lists twisted names and addresses. Her last name was Bebing. Right: Brenda Bebing, definitely an odd name, and always misspelled, she said.
Her face reacted in a sudden flash of memory. “In fact, I have a file... it’s all the junk mail where my name is wrong.” She flipped through a folder in her bottom drawer, handing me random pieces. “Oh! Here it is! The best one ever... Babbas Bean.” I cracked up; we both did.
“That’s perfect! The name fits you better than plain ol’ Brenda! So, like it or not, that will be my new name for you, girl!” She blushed crimson but didn’t tell me no, so From that point forward, I called her Babbas Bean.
I also believed she was the best art director of the bunch. Babbas Bean never let an opportunity to be creative pass her by; low budgets seemed to bring out even more determination. I had the same attitude and our mutual respect created a loud, unspoken affection.
Babbas Bean’s ingenuity came in handy in many situations, some beyond the scope of marketing. Like when she came through with my first date, a lunch date just a few days later.