The first thing you feel is the scald.
Before the automatic doors part, it barrels into the airport and clocks you in the kisser.
“Phoenix in July,” I sigh. “An infinite sprawling meth lab. The Fin de siècle of American anti-intellectual exceptionalism. A slight-of-hand orchestrated by the real estate industry’s inside joke division, cackling at the stupidity of a middle-class who paid ballooning prices to live so far from fresh water or shade.”
You can’t wrap your neurons around the omnipotence of the sun, which is why you must close your eyes, feel your skin moisten, crack and bristle at the awesome power of UV-drenched Vitamin D, and ask yourself if you like your sunstroke medium rare.
I duck into an onyx towncar, and let the elastic recoil of my lungs soak up the crisp climate control. The seat smells of Orange-Glo and incense. I glance to my left, and she’s waiting for me, in a razor-thin white cocktail dress so short it could pass as a hand towel, with black around the thighs.
She wears aviator sunglasses, her shoulder-length wheatfield hair twirled between her second and third fingers. Her name might be Katie. She looks like a Katie.
“Hi, I’m Katie,” she speaks. She rattles her head, slowly eases her sunglasses off the bridge of her nose, and licks her lips like LL Cool J after a powdered donut bender. “It’s hot, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” and my eyes lock with hers briefly, and I get a cool, refreshing splash of ocean water that tingles down the back of my neck. “I never get used to it.”
I’m upsettingly transfixed upon her face. It’s youthful, but cracked from an unspecified titration of sun and cigarettes. It’s smiling, but restless and concealing a desert melancholia you don’t ordinarily find outside a Queens of the Stone Age B-Side. She strikes me as complex. She probably is.
If God were to destroy Phoenix in the book of revelation, he’d probably whisk a poisonous wind into the home of every debutante and socialite in Scottsdale first, and that poisonous wind would carry with it a surround-soundtrack of Diplo and Skrillex. And He’d probably ease Katie into permasomnolence, too, and do it before she could finish her metamorphasis into the world’s pre-eminent sugar-coated dragon … which she’s most certainly more than halfway to becoming now. I’d heard about her from our CFO, who used to take routine sojourns out here to the desert where they’d alternate between sweaty tantric sadomasochism and developing a Fiscal Year Marketing Plan, for four days, mind you, on the company dime, and that sonuvabitch wouldn’t stop whispering about her moans and whimpers for weeks at a time … and a month later I’d catch wind of a fancy new title adorning her e-mail signature, and the fellas in the office got a rise out of it.
She brushes my three-buttoned blazer as we pull away from the terminal and asks, “Would you like some coke?” I tell her I quit years ago. She follows a single chuckle with a soft-T sound. “Yeah,” she says, bemused, as she winks and sniffles. “Me too.”
“So, I’ve been made aware that you’re a man who knows how to handle pressure. This Emerson Account,” she starts in. “Is everything on the up-and-up?”
“Of course,” I said. I pull out my Samsung Galaxy and show her some bullshit technicolor graphs I concocted that look like American Apparel shit all over a Quarterly Earnings Report. “You see this pie that looks like Pac-Man slurping Spaghetti?”
She inched closer to me, and the incense smell grew stronger, more floral, with subtle strawberry notes. “Yes.”
“That’s the percentage of our funds that closed above their 36-month high.”
“Wouldn’t you use a bar graph or a scatter plot to illustrate that?”
“It doesn’t look as impressive.”
“Graphs aren’t really built to ‘impress.'”
“I believe that’s all they were meant to do, unless they were meant to cause panic.” I gain steam. The car becomes increasingly warm. “You wouldn’t take the time to visually represent a set of data if you weren’t trying to solicit an emotional reaction. Otherwise, I’d just show you some numbers and tell you to tie off with me if you had questions.”
“What if all I want to see are numbers?”
“Then I would’ve just emailed you.”
“So you came here to impress me.”
“In a way,” I said, and I turned my phone off. “You’re what, 26? 27?”
“I’m 34,” she offered a half-hearted grin. “And it’s not polite to ask a woman her age straight away.”
“You’re a Vice President of International Marketing already. What’d you make … 150K last year after taxes?”
“220K. Before. I haven’t looked at a paycheck since I was an Intern at Excelsior Capital.”
“You see, I’m a little younger, and I’ve had the same job since I signed on here – merely a shadowy figure in Financial Operations. A nebulous unspecified V-Level blip who looks at crooked numbers all day and decides whether to buy, sell or hold our current array of properties.” I slow down. “The difference between you and I? I’m really fucking good at what I do. You’re really fucking good at getting promoted.”
“Well, I’m here to promote you.”
She smiles, but doesn’t have the slightest look of shock in her body. She expects good luck and good grace after every meal. She pisses rainbow sherbet. “To what?”
“To retirement.” I said. And then I took a deep breath, making sure to sound methodical without sucking the energy out the trunk of the car. “We’re dissolving our assets. I have determined we cannot continue to make any more money and so I want to pay you to leave since we will no longer have a company to run anymore since there won’t be a company. The good news, is, you’re free. The better news is, here’s $800,000. Severance. And a thank you for your hard work and strong moral compass. The best news is, here’s a killer letter of recommendation, in case for some reason you ever need to work again. Which you probably won’t.”
“But … but … I love this job.”
“I know you do. I know. Let’s grab a dinner and some wine over at Rustica and we can work out the particulars of your new career path. Sign some NDAs and EDCs and the like. Do you like Italian?”
“Yes, I love Italian. It’s not that White Trash Italian they sling over at Olive Garden is it?”
“Katie,” I said, as I fiddled with my AmEx Black like a fresh pack of cigarettes. “I’m giving you a golden ticket out of this soul-sucking cash-grab of a company. If you think your Last Supper’s going to be Fettuccine Alfredo then I’ve got a cross I could use some help with …”
“Good,” and she gazed deep into my glazed-over eyes and warmed me over. “Because I would totally fuck a man with the audacity to fire me and offer me almost seven figures to go away quietly. In fact, I still might. But not if he bought me the type of dinner ignorant, snaggletooth plebeians consider “Authentic Italian.” So it better be spec-fucking-tacular.” And she brushed the palm of her hand against my jaw.
“Don’t fuck this up.”
I snickered. I looked deep into her eyes. I told her to close them and to hold out her hand. She did. Grinning. Tossing her hair back. Licking her lips again. I sweated.
“Okay. Open them.”
And in her hand was an 18K gold band, seven years, four months and three days old. Inscribed on the inside was my name, and another name that was definitely not “Katie.”
“I won’t. Now … may I have my wedding ring back?”
And for the first time since I’d been in Phoenix, I felt cold.