Bradford walked into the office with his head cocked severely to the side, holding his thin phone in place. "Yes . . . yes. Okay. I'll look the minute I sit down."
Palmer looked up. "Have you seen Randall's email?"
"I saw it at three-thirty this morning when he sent it."
"Yeah. It's a nice box."
"What's it for?" Palmer said. "It's just a box."
"Gimmie a half hour and I'll tell you why you need it," Bradford smirked. His confidence annoyed Palmer. He turned back to his computer screen and read Randall's email again. He looked at the attachments, photographs of the box from three angles. It was about four inches wide, three inches deep and an inch thick. It had a button closure and was painted a high gloss red enamel. The Asterisk & Company logo was on the top. It looked very well-made.
"He's ordered fifty thousand!" Palmer called back to Bradford.
"What? Where does it say that?"
"Second line to the bottom. You didn't read it all the way." Bradford didn't say anything. "Do you see it? 'Let's make this an essential item and move the entire fifty thousand units.' See where it says that?"
"He's never sold fifty thousand anything."
"Well we got little red boxes to sell, so ready, set go." Palmer went to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee while Bradford read the email and went to his cubicle to take the first shot at the copy. This little box thing might take some doing, he thought, but they'd sold pointless things before.
In about twenty minutes, the printer began to whir. "Read that would you?" Bradford called out from behind his cubicle walls.
Palmer went to the printer. "Hey, I thought you were all about the paperless world," he said.
"It's for you, bud. So you can write on it. Remember you said you hate reading copy on a screen?" Palmer shook his head and got up to take the page from the print tray.
He read, frowning. "There are times when the encumbrances of daily life seek containment." Palmer's eyebrows went up, but he read on. "A gentleman's pockets accumulate a dozen critical components. These are life's linchpins—the tiny objects on which everything seems to hang. The ball nut for your ‘65 Land Rover's carburetor; that rare steel penny you got in change; a piece to the device you're working on behind closed doors (patent pending). All these things require a home. Asterisk & Company have partnered with Germany's oldest maker of pocket boxes to produce a larger, more robust box, designed for the American trouser. Asterisk & Company's Pocket Boxes are designed to hold what's important . . . Until you're ready."
Palmer looked up at Bradford who had come out of his cubicle into the main office area. He was grinning. Palmer took a deep breath. The younger man's irrepressible confidence in his abilities masked a certain naiveté about the world. It made Palmer weary. It was something he tried to fend off with a back-down-to-earth practicality. "Pieces of carburetor? Magic pennies? Secret inventions?"
"The objects don't matter. It's not the objects."
"Yeah I got that, thank you. It's the potential of what goes in it that—"
"The items are aspirational."
"Look Brad, anything can be aspirational depending on who aspires. I'm saying the items need to be a little more relatable."
"And I'm saying the objects are symbols."
"So make them more relatable symbols."
"I got a steel penny in change once. Chick thought it was a dime."
"How about 'the key to your place on the lake.' Something like that."
"Well the good news is we don't have to pull the trigger on this so we got time to circle back before we take it to the next level." Palmer shuddered. Bradford's use of officespeak was another thing he found annoying. It was a red flag that Bradford was, indeed, stupid. DAMN! He silently cursed himself for thinking the words red flag. It was insidious—the cubicle lexicon. He took another deep breath.
"Just drop the Land Rover. Maybe the secret invention too."
"Okay but you gotta hit the ground and run with something better."
Palmer clicked through the images of the box. "This box is ideal for carrying weed. Or I guess in your case, Adderall."
"Randall is probably carrying a box full of German weed around right now."
"C'mon," Bradford snorted. "There's no way Randall smokes weed."
"You come on, Ponyboy. Randall smokes every day."
"Palmer—again—do not call me Ponyboy. It's weird. And Randall wouldn't do anything that would hurt the Asterisk & Company brand."
"Brad, Asterisk & Company is a brand built on telling successful businessmen they're rebels."
"So then call it a weed box. Who cares what they use it for?"
"No Brad. What you never seem to get is subtlety. You say it's a weed box without saying it's a weed box. Anyone who smokes weed already knows it's a weed box. They don't have to read between the lines."
"Whatever. If you don't like it, come up with something else. But you gotta beat the vintage Land Rover for an aspirational symbol of wealth, independence and refined-yet-rugged individuality. Because that's what it says. I didn't just pull it out of my ass. I didn't say Jeep or F-150 for a goddamn reason."
"Pfft." Palmer shooed Bradford away. "Give me half an hour to fix this and don't drink all the coffee."
Bradford's phone pinged. "Text from Randall. Says he sent two boxes by international next-day."
"Two days ago."
"Click on tracking. Maybe it's—"
"I did. The box is downstairs."
"So go get it. I have to edit this horribly contrived copy of yours."
Bradford went down the hallway to the stairs. A minute later he returned to Palmer's desk with the box, pulled out an Asterisk & Company pocketknife and began slashing at the taped flaps. He cut open the bubble wrap, extracted the boxes, and set them on Palmer's desk. Bradford closed the pocketknife on his thumb. "Goddam sonofabitch!" He stuck his thumb in his mouth.
"Brad, your mom and dad are still alive, right?"
Bradford was taken aback. "Well yeah. Why?"
"I'm just wondering who to call when you open up a vein with that thing. Ever sharpen it?"
"It doesn't need sharpening. Asterisk & Company knives never have to be shar—"
Palmer picked up one of the red boxes. "Solid. And heavy too. Can I see your pathetically dull knife please?"
"See or use?" He handed it to Palmer who opened it carefully and jammed the tip several times into the box's lid. "Hey!" Bradford protested.
"Doesn't scratch. Wow." Palmer opened the lid then slammed it closed on the edge of his desk. "Really over-engineered. That's the Germans for ya."
"It's a vault. A pocket vault."
Palmer's eyes lit up. "Hey! That's very good Brad. A pocket vaauult." He drew out the word. "Wallet vault . . . personal strongbox . . . pocket safe."
"I guess we can work the well-made, bomb-proof angle."
"Yeah but only in passing. Sell the fantasy and they'll buy the widget."
"That's what I was doing! What fantasy did you have in mind?"
"Brad, that's up to you."
"I had the ball nut for a '65 Rover but you didn't like it so now it's your turn."
"Okay. So what's the one thing in the world that you want to put in that box?"
"I need to think about it."
"No. Without thinking. Quick! What's the one thing?"
"A pine cone from my grandmother's house."
"Wow, I was not expecting that. It's almost like you had a soul."
"Yeah. Well, it's something I can't have."
"There's a strip mall there now. Specifically, a vape shop."
Palmer grimaced. "So for you this empty box is perhaps more significant. A placeholder. Symbolic of the missing thing."
"Yeah. It's deeper than material aspiration."
"So then bring that into it. Mix your aspirational objects with memory and desire. We have to link them to the thing."
"I get it."
"Sell them a thing to protect and keep safe their desire."
"Palmie, I got it. Gimmie the copy." But Palmer wasn't paying attention. He was staring at the skylight in their little upstairs office. "What would you put in it?" Bradford asked. "Is there something absent in your life that this box would be a placeholder for?"
Palmer didn't answer or look at the boxes on his desk. He kept staring at the skylight.
"So? Is there one special desire you'd put in a box?"
Palmer kept silent, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. "Desire is universal and it lives in the human heart. The fiction that this box is a vessel of its keeping—it's pure bullshit. That's the copywriter's job."
Bradford blinked hard and shook his head as though shaking off a moment of dizziness. "Okay, this is getting a little heavy. We're writing ad copy for gadgets. The people that buy this stuff aren't gonna be looking into it that deep."
Palmer's eyes dropped from the skylight to the red boxes on his desk. His face held an achingly sad expression.
"Palmie. Buddy. Are you okay?"
Palmer's eyes rolled up to Bradford. "Ditch the fucking Land Rover and make human desire synonymous with the goddam box, Brad. It's obscene. It's a goddamn obscenity, but that's your job today. We got shit to sell here. Make it synonymous. Submit the copy to the client then go home and—just do whatever. Pine away for grandma's pinecones. Whatever." His voice had a hard, bitter edge and he scowled, pushing the boxes to the edge of his desk.
"Hey man. I didn't mean to upset—"
"These are yours. Put whatever you want in them." Bradford left the boxes on Palmer's desk and went to his cubicle with the page of copy.
Later when he went to the printer, the boxes were still at the edge of Palmer's desk. In the last hour, Palmer had not moved. His eyes were red and he wore the same sad expression, staring up through the skylight above his desk.