‘A Big Idea’ — A Short Story
When I first discovered Harry’s fictional stories, I told you there were dozens. Since then, here’s what kept happening: I’d pick up a story, begin to read it, and realize I’d read it before – but with a different title. It turns out he wrote two or three versions of most of his stories. In the case of the story below, he had begun a fourth version – dated Feb. 2, 1997 – and filed it on his computer. For this blog, I chose his third version, apparently from the early ’90s, when he lived in Silver Spring, MD. The first, by the way, looks quite old, likely from the 1940s. With each version, Harry changed details and scenarios.
Times were tough. I’d been looking for a full-time job ever since I left the Army six months ago. I’d had my fill of flying helicopters in the Gulf War and did not want to do that anymore. It’s not that I didn’t like flying; it’s just that military life requires the kind of total commitment that I was not prepared to make. Something like getting married, I suspect, another commitment I was not prepared to make. Maybe someday, but not yet.
Anyway, evenings and weekends I’d been waiting on tables at Louie’s Place, while waiting for some responses to resumes I’d sent out. Waiting tables paid the rent and kept food on the table, but it was not exactly the lifetime career I wanted, either. So I was getting kind of desperate when I saw this ad in the Sunday paper; it looked like the perfect job for me.
Universal Advertising Agency, Inc. wants someone with the four “I’s” – INITIATIVE, IMAGINATION, INGENUITY AND IDEAS. Apply in person at the U.A.A. Bldg., Monday morning at 8:00 A.M.
So the following morning I took more care than usual in fixing my hair, which I’d allowed to grow almost shoulder length since I’d put away my uniform. I wore my navy blue blazer, with matching gray skirt and white silk blouse, put on the quietly colorful silk scarf, and hurried on over to the U.A.A. Building downtown to report for work. Well, about a hundred other people also showed up, and it struck me that quite a few of them were my age, in their mid-to-late twenties. Some of them looked to me like they had served at least one hitch in the Army, too, and maybe had also seen some action in Desert Storm.
One man, in particular, caught my eye. He had dark brown hair and grey-green eyes, the kind of eyes I wish I had, the kind of “how deep is the ocean” eyes that Irving Berlin must have had in mind when he wrote that marvelous love song. This man had an air of cool competence about him that set him apart, or maybe it was just his eyes that excited me. I was wondering if he, too, had fought in the Persian Gulf War, when a guy who looked like a retired Colonel, or maybe a drill sergeant, rounded us all up and put us in a little conference room about the size of the grand ballroom at the Hilton. B.B. (read Big Boss) Peckham himself addressed us. His picture had been in the papers often enough, a handsome former professional football player who had not yet gone to fat like some of them do after they stop playing. He had invested a big part of his multi-million dollar salary in U.A.A. and had made it into one of the most prestigious public relations firms in the country. Which goes to show that football players can be as brilliant in business as they are on the playing field. Some of them, anyway.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he spoke in a mellow baritone voice, “I won’t waste words. What we do here is produce and sell IDEAS. IDEAS, ladies and gentlemen, which provide the advertising lubricant that turns the wheels of progress.” He stopped to let the idea of IDEAS sink in a while before he continued. “I am prepared,” he went on, “to pay fifty thousand dollars a year as starting salary, with generous bonuses from time to time depending on performance, to the person or persons who qualify. In order to qualify, you must earn a thousand dollars as quickly as you can, hopefully in one week, certainly not more than two. Now wait,” he raised his hand to quiet a rising murmur, “hear me out. These are my rules. You start with nothing. No drawing money out of your savings; no gambling, no begging, borrowing, stealing, or accepting gifts. No investments in stocks and making a killing. Nothing illegal. No dangerous experiments. No pawning, mortgaging or selling personal possessions. You must prove that you earned the money, every dime of it, legitimately.
Now then, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you to display initiative, ingenuity and imagination. These are the attributes I stress to start with, though there are others, equally important, on which you will be judged, as well.” He tapped his forehead with his index finger. “The IDEAS are in here, ladies and gentlemen,” he continued, “all you have to do is bring them out. Those of you who wish to participate should fill out an employment application and leave it with my secretary before you go. Then, if you make any progress toward our goal, report to me personally a week from today. At that time I will evaluate your progress and decide how or whether to proceed. That is all, ladies and gentlemen. Good day and good luck.”
Well, most of the people were groaning or swearing as they left the room, but at least a dozen or more of us, including the guy with the g-g eyes, just stood there looking at each other and thinking. The way I figured, what did I have to lose by trying? And anyway, maybe I could make a thousand bucks and get the job, too.
By the time I got home, I had a dozen ways figured out, but, just to be on the safe side, I bought a morning newspaper to look at the want ads and send out some more resumes. When you stop to think of it there are probably dozens of ways to make a thousand bucks and still stay within B.B. Peckham’s rules. For example, you could make some lucrative real estate deals that could net you more than a thousand in commissions, but it usually takes a long time to set them up, and besides, you need a real estate license to do it. Or you could be a bounty hunter and catch a criminal with a big reward on his head. You may not need a license to do that, but chances are good that you could get hurt. Or you could recover stolen jewelry or other merchandise for an insurance company and get a substantial fee as a reward. Or write a book like “Primary Colors” and make a million or more in royalties; or write a story, or a poem, or a screenplay, or a song or something and sell your creation to a publisher who could market it. Or act in a movie or on television if you were a famous personality.
Then there are dozens of promotion schemes. Bring a dance band to town and hire a hall and sell tickets. Or promote a play, or a bridge tournament, or a tennis match, or anything you could charge admission for; but you need to know the right people to do those things. Or you could sell lottery tickets or raffle tickets for a new car or something. Or you could go into the multi-level mail-order business; I’ve heard you could make $50,000 to $100,000 doing that over a two- or three-month period, though I’ve also heard that it may not be legal. The trouble is, all those things require an investment and all of them take time, and I did not have a lot of time or enough capital to invest, and besides, investments were against the rules. Sure, I could always find an oil well in my back yard, but I live in an apartment and don’t have a back yard. Or I could sell my eye to a rich blind man, or my kidney to a rich diabetic, or my whole body to an institution or my soul to the devil, for that matter, but all those things were against the rules, too.
In short, I just couldn’t think of a get-rich-quick scheme that would net me a thousand bucks in just one or two weeks. I didn’t sleep for two days thinking about it; I couldn’t think of anything else. I walked around in a kind of a daze, trying to dream up an IDEA. My friends all thought I was in love. Maybe I was, subconsciously, because I kept seeing a vision of that fellow with the g-g eyes in my mind, though I hadn’t spoken a word to him and didn’t even know his name.
On the third day, a small idea that had been growing in the back of my mind suddenly blossomed out and energized me. I had a car that was worth maybe six or seven thousand dollars. If I could sell it for ten thousand, which was obviously far more than I could reasonably expect to get for it, that would represent a legitimate profit. Of course, the only way to get that much for it would be to raffle it off; get a thousand people to buy raffle tickets at ten dollars each and you’ve got ten thousand dollars. I knew it was against the rules to sell my car, but what about a friend’s car? Or anyone else’s car? Or, to stretch my small idea even further, suppose I got one of the automobile dealers in the area to donate a car for a charitable purpose, say the proceeds to go to the neighborhood Senior Citizen Center that was desperately short of funds? And then, to carry the idea even further, suppose I got my boss, Louie, to agree to sell chances on the car to all the customers who came in for drinks and dinner every night, say for an additional five bucks a chance or three for ten bucks added on to their bills?
Well, actually, Louie liked the idea. With me working there, he said, he was rapidly becoming a senior citizen himself. Anyway, with his input, and his influence on the car dealer, we put the whole thing into effect with an insert in the dinner menu in time for the weekend crowd. Sunday night, when we counted the total take for the weekend, we had almost $2,000, which was still a far cry from our goal. We needed $8,000 for the dealer, $1,000 below his cost, he swore, which represented his contribution to the cause. Anything over that would go to the Senior Citizen Center. I was supposed to get ten percent of the total take, which represented the administrative expenses involved in setting up the raffle, printing the tickets, publicizing it, setting up a bank account, getting the charity tax-exempt number, keeping track of all transactions, setting up the books and the accounting system, and, in short, taking care of the myriad details involved in running the whole enterprise, including paying myself.
Theoretically, therefore, if we really raised ten thousand dollars, I would get one thousand and the S.C.C. would get one thousand. My actual expenses, however, would run about two hundred or so, not counting the time I would spend on it, so my net would be somewhat less than the thousand I needed. But the gross was what counted toward my qualifying for the job, not the net.
Monday morning I reported to the U.A.A. Building, hoping I’d be the only one to show up. I was wrong. There were ten others, out of the original hundred or more who had shown up the week before. An older fellow whom I hadn’t noticed the week before seemed to be smiling a lot, as though he already had the job. Grey-green eyes was there, too, and on closer inspection his hair had a sort of reddish sheen to it. He was not exactly handsome; his nose looked like it had been broken once, though not badly, but he had a strong chin and lines of character around his eyes and his mouth that marked him as someone special. It seemed to me that he was looking me over, too, but what he saw was not nearly so special – just an average girl, dark brown hair, light brown eyes, five foot six without shoes, maybe a head shorter than he, 120 pounds reasonably well distributed in all the right places, maybe fifty-some pounds lighter than he, with the kind of face that is adequate enough for me but does not cause men to turn and whistle when I pass by. My father thinks I’m beautiful, but I suspect that he’s not entirely objective. Each of us, eleven by my count, four men and seven women, was ushered into B.B.’s private office one at a time. We all took between two and three minutes to brief him on our progress. Then we were all called in together.
“I congratulate all of you,” he said, steepling his fingers and looking at the ceiling. “The fact that you are here means that you have developed some IDEAS and are on the way to meeting my initial requirements.” He aimed his eyes at each of us. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “none of you has yet earned a thousand dollars. On the other hand, a few of you seem to have some very promising IDEAS, so I am inclined to give you one more week. Six of you are still in the running; I will read their names. Those whom I do not name have been eliminated. Mind you,” he added, “you should not be discouraged just because I have not endorsed your IDEAS. It’s simply that I do not believe they are viable for this Agency, but I wish you luck as you seek employment elsewhere. Now then,” he glanced at the sheet of paper in his hand, “the following people should report to me a week from today if …” he hesitated, cleared his throat, then went on, “if, that is, you mean to pursue this opportunity and if, that is, you continue to meet my requirements. They are Miss Daniels, Miss Konagher, Miss Santiago, Miss Walker, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Marker. You six,” he spread his hands, “please remain here a moment. The rest of you, those whose names I have not called, may go.”
The five who had not been named seemed more relieved than disappointed as they left. I was absurdly happy to see g-g eyes among those of us who stayed. B.B. waved a hand at us, taking us all in with his eyes. “Each of you seems to have a promising IDEA,” he said, “but it remains to be seen if you can bring it to fruition. If you can, I will expect you here next Monday morning. Until then, I wish you luck.”
Well, it was a discouraging week for me. From Monday night through Sunday night we collected only two thousand dollars more, giving us four thousand in all. While it seemed pretty certain that we would reach our goal in the next few weeks, since more and more of our patrons liked the idea and many of them bought three chances for ten bucks added to their bills, it was a case of too little too late. The only bright note was that word about our raffle was getting around on the restaurant circuit and a couple of Louie’s friendly competitors came in to talk to him about setting up similar arrangements. He referred them to me, which caused another small IDEA to start germinating in my mind. On the strength of it, I reported to U.A.A. Monday morning, even though I had not fully met B.B.’s requirements and expected to be rejected.
Only three of us showed up this time; g-g eyes, the older man and myself. We were escorted in to B.B.’s office together and seated in comfortable chairs in front of his billiard-table size desk.
“Since you are here,” B.B. said, eyeing each of us in turn, “I assume that you have met our requirements. So, why don’t each of you tell the rest of us exactly how you did it, beginning with you, Mr. Edwards?” That was the older guy, and I was beginning to feel as if I shouldn’t have come after all. I looked around to make sure where the exit was.
Edwards stood up, a small smile on his face. “Mr. Peckham,” he said, “the problem was elementary.” I could have socked him. “There are so many television shows that give away money and prizes that really, it was quite simple. I obtained passes for several such shows and made myself conspicuous enough to be selected as a participant. The rest was easy. I merely answered some childish questions or behaved foolishly, depending upon the program, and succeeded quite well. In fact, so far I have won twelve hundred dollars in cash and some nine hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise.” He looked at us, his smile broadening into a full-fledged smirk. “You know,” he added, “I never realized it before, but you could probably make a comfortable living just by taking advantage of all the offers available on television. In fact,” he went on with a quick glance at g-g eyes and me, “I mean to try doing just that. I’ve had an offer to appear on two shows and I plan to pursue a few others where the prospects of winning big money seem very promising. And,” he hesitated, his smile appearing a bit strained, “since I will be doing some traveling in preparing for these shows, I regret that I will be unable to accept a job here at this time.”
By the time he’d finished talking I was ready to duck out without being seen. B.B. was clearing his throat.
“Ahem,” he said. “Most ingenious. It takes a lively wit and a healthy imagination, Mr. Edwards, to do as well as you have done. But, since you are no longer interested in my offer, you may leave now with my congratulations and my thanks. And now,” his eyes shifting to the other man after Mr. Edwards left, “shall we hear from you, Mr. Marker?”
So that was his name, I thought, Mr. Marker. “My approach to the problem was somewhat different,” Marker remained seated, speaking in a low, husky voice. Good speaker, I thought, poised and self-confident. “I believe your desire was to have us earn a thousand dollars by selling an idea or a service of some kind,” he went on. “There are probably a great many good IDEAS floating around out there with no one interested in implementing them. And there are probably many more that are only being partially implemented, with an unlimited potential for further development. For example, no matter how many photographers there are in town, you have to book one six or eight months in advance to cover a wedding or an anniversary party or whatever. If you put an ad in the paper, you’d get a dozen calls a day to take pictures at special celebrations. I know because I put a note up on my supermarket bulletin board and got a dozen calls in just two days. Anyway, with today’s cameras and current photographic technology, you don’t have to be an expert to take good pictures. Anyone can do it. There are other things, such as party planning, which has become a profitable business for lots of people, or transferring old home movies to video tape. Anyone can do it with the kind of equipment that’s available today and the demand is so great that anyone can quickly get more orders than he could process in a year.”
I noticed, as he spoke, that B.B. was as captivated as I, not only by what he was saying, but by the way he said it, by his voice and his manner of speaking. A remarkable man, I thought, and if I were B.B. I’d hire him in a flash. “Anyway,” he went on looking directly at B.B., “the problem for me was to take an old but good IDEA and develop it to the point where it could be profitable for me – or at least profitable enough to meet your requirements. As it happens, a couple who lives in the same apartment building as I had a problem with planning a 50th-anniversary party for her parents. They, both of them, were simply too busy, with their jobs and three small children, and could not make all the necessary calls in time to hire a photographer. Well, I have a good camera and a good camcorder and, as I said, with today’s technology you don’t have to be a true professional photographer. So I agreed to photograph the affair for them. Without going into all the details, I wound up with a profit of almost $300. In addition, I have signed contracts for two weddings and another 50th-anniversary party, which will keep me busy for three of the next six weekends, with advance down-payments amounting to $750.” He paused for a moment, glancing quickly at me sitting next to him before turning his eyes back to B.B., as though to assess the impact of his words on us and awaiting some reaction before proceeding.
“Very commendable, yes, indeed, very commendable,” B.B. murmured. “And now,” he turned to me, “it’s your turn, Miss Daniels.”
I was stuck. “I really don’t belong here,” I said. “I didn’t earn a thousand dollars, not even a nickel, and …” I got up to go, “… I have to leave now to go look for a job.”
“Why, then, did you come at all?” he asked.
“Well, sir,” I responded, “I had an IDEA, just a little IDEA. My IDEA was that no one else would earn a thousand bucks, either, and that I’d be the only one to show up, so naturally, you’d hire me. After all, you need someone and while I didn’t meet your requirements, not exactly, anyway, wellll … I need a job and I’m willing to work.” He didn’t say anything, just looked at me for a long moment. So did Mr. Marker, and it seemed to me that those grey-green eyes were glowing with – what? Sympathy? Pity? Scorn?
“I see,” he said, finally. “But what do you mean exactly when you say ‘not exactly’?”
“What I meant,” I said, “was that I have not yet earned a thousand dollars, although I’m on the way. It may take another few weeks, but it will happen.”
“Why don’t you tell us about it?” he said.
So I did, and while I was talking, explaining about the raffle, another IDEA occurred to me. It just lit up like a light bulb in my mind full blown, so to speak, and I presented it off the top of my head as though it had been carefully prepared in advance. “If I were representing U.A.A.,” I said, “I could go out and organize a few dozen restaurants, who knows, maybe half the restaurants in town, to participate in a joint raffle for all kinds of charitable purposes. And, with this Agency as a sponsor, so to speak, we could put out the kind of appropriate advertising and publicity that would generate a great deal of public interest and guarantee a lot of ticket sales. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised, with the kind of volume we could generate, that we’d be able to raffle off a car a week, maybe even two a week. And I’ll bet every automobile dealer in town would be knocking on our door, anxious to contribute cars to the charitable cause of the week. We wouldn’t have to go looking for them. They’d come to us. And the restaurants, too, would come knocking at our door, to say nothing of all the bars and night clubs. Even the charities would come to us with proposals for fund-raising projects.” I paused to take a deep breath. B.B. was looking at me, a broad smile on his face, and when I looked at Marker, sitting next to me, those grey-green eyes were positively glowing again. With what? Admiration? Astonishment? Approval?
“Miss Daniels,” I was so engrossed in those deep-ocean-grey-green eyes that it took a few seconds before it registered on me that B.B. was speaking. “As I mentioned when I spoke to you last week,” he said, “there are other important qualities that I look for in my employees. One of them is what I like to think of as perseverance – the strength of will to keep on trying, not to give up, even when the odds seems to be against you. You must be familiar with the old adage that genius is one-tenth inspiration and nine-tenths perspiration? That’s what I mean by perseverance, and that, Miss Daniels, is what I like about you. You did not give up simply because you did not fully meet my requirements. You kept trying. I like that and I want you to come and work for me. Your first assignment will be to follow up on the proposal you just made, and you will have all the resources of this Agency at your disposal.”
He shifted his gaze to look directly at Marker. “Mr. Marker,” he said, “you obviously fulfilled my requirement to earn a thousand dollars. The question is, can you relate your efforts to this Agency? Can you see a role for this Agency in the business you have entered upon, in the same way that Miss Daniels outlined with respect to her efforts?”
“To be honest,” Marker responded, “I hadn’t really thought about it until Miss Daniels started talking about her ‘small’ IDEA.” His grey-green eyes flickered toward me and back to B.B. again. “It sounded like a big IDEA to me,” he said, “and she started me thinking,” he added, “and yes, I can see this Agency setting up a separate unit to photograph special events, such as anniversary celebrations, birthday parties, and so forth.”
That started me thinking. “Yes, indeed,” I chimed in. “I can see this Agency setting up a whole separate division, an organization to plan and make all the arrangements such as catering, photographing, videotaping, etcetera, etcetera; in short, to do everything necessary for a celebration of almost any occasion. Take all the work out of party planning for the sponsor, so to speak. Enjoy yourself, folks, and leave the party to us.”
“Another attribute I insist upon,” said B.B., “is enthusiasm, and you, Miss Daniels have an abundance of that. Perhaps some of it will rub off on Mr. Marker as you work together on these projects. I would like you both to report for work in my Creative Department, shall we say next Monday morning?”
I don’t know how his secretary knew we were finished, but at that moment she came in and escorted us to the outer office. We stood there looking at each other for a moment.
“I’m Roger,” he said simply.
“I’m Rita,” I replied.
“R and R,” he mused. “Goes well together, don’t you think?” Those grey-green eyes were glowing again, but I couldn’t read anything into them at all – not yet, anyway.
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman