Volume III (Summer 2008)
ISSN 1934-4324

Nathan Holic

Originally from the Gulf Coast of Florida, Nathan Holic now teaches Composition and Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida, serving as the Comic Editor for The Florida Review, where he has been working to help to open the world of literary
magazines to graphic narratives and mixed-media fiction. His fiction has been published in The Mangrove Review, The Portland Review, Fiction Fix, The Cypress Dome, and Revelations, and has been nominated for The Best New American Voices.



On a cool Friday night in late September, Edward, shaky with the sort of desperation born of mid-life divorce, convinced the intern Sandra to join him at Orchard Uptown, split a bottle of wine, and discuss her contributions to the project he’d assigned her. Of course, he wasn’t interested in her creative work, in the portfolio book of logo designs she’d crafted for Insight Marketing’s proposed 25-year facelift, but rather in proving to himself that, while his divorce had left him insecure in his personal life and smarmy to old friends, he might still exude enough personality and desirability, now, in his mid-forties, to charm a new woman. That Sandra was twenty-two years his junior only reinforced his insecurities, but he had reason to believe she held some interest in him: at the office, she was the one who asked about his weekends and told him he looked so young, still. If not now, when would he ever meet someone new?

Because he had time to change clothes after work, Edward came to Orchard in khakis and a gray Insight Marketing button-down, a purposeful step down from his strict work-week business dress. He looked like many of the other men in the restaurant: stiff and unnatural in casual clothes, as if they didn’t belong outside of the office, as if they didn’t belong outside in real life. Sandra came in a lipstick-red jacket and black mini-skirt so tight that they might have been bonded to her body, and she floated in these tight clothes with more ease and comfort than most men his age felt even for their own bodies. She seemed to positively pulse with youth and energy, Edward thought, the red jacket appearing to drain all else in the restaurant to black and white. He hoped that this outfit was too suggestive for just a work-related dinner.

He unbuttoned his sleeves when they both sat at their high-top table in Orchard’s outdoor patio along Central, straining to look comfortable while doing so, but finding only difficulty in rolling up the very edges of the shirtsleeve; he’d roll it up and it would come loose and slither back down his forearm; this was a shirt that knew its place and would not surrender to “casual.”

When Sandra told him about the glut of traffic she’d encountered on her way here, he smiled no matter what she said, laughing constantly even when no joke was made, humorless nervous laughter, and then he admitted that he’d already had some drinks before she arrived. Laughed again, and felt his face go a red so deep that it nearly matched her jacket.

In these first moments of their evening together, Edward couldn’t quite gauge Sandra’s reactions: she wore a polite half-smile, a look that was not yet disinterested but also not committed, only unsure, as if she’d accidentally sat down in the wrong theater and was waiting through the movie’s first ten minutes to decide whether it was worth staying.

Edward stammered, mentioning the weather, the stock market, and the day’s top headlines from The Times all in a single sentence. He was unsure what to say, how to make casual conversation with a woman, because for the past several years, the only thing he’d ever talked about in any depth and with any feeling or success, had been marketing strategies.

* * *

At the office, there was never any mention between Edward and Sandra of Edward’s now-dissolved marriage, which had over many years descended into twin routines for the two partners, each set on its own trajectory in a direction opposite the other. They were bitter duelists, Edward and his wife, but they’d never stopped and turned to shoot after taking ten paces, just kept walking year after year until they were completely out of sight. Edward’s wife had become more and more interested in the Performing Arts Center several miles from home, volunteering to paint backdrops every Monday through Wednesday, volunteering time and money to erect large wooden boats or two-dimensional cabins on the stage, to carve and to sew and to slice; meanwhile, Edward himself had slowly transported the little details and duties of life with him from home to work, paying personal credit card bills online via his office computer, drinking his morning coffee and reading the newspaper at the first-floor café instead of his home kitchen or living room, clipping his fingernails over his office trashcan, polishing his shoes at his window as he watched the sun set over all the functional Mies van der Rohe black boxes that fit together to form the Chicago skyline. Pedestrians hurried through the streets below to Union Station to shoot back to the suburbs and to their families, but often, Edward stopped for dinner at one of several restaurants or sub shops before committing himself to his own evening travel. Sometimes, he’d spend less than two waking hours at home each day. One in the morning, one in the evening. Both of them spent mostly in the bathroom or rummaging through the closet.

At the office, neither was there any mention between Edward and Sandra of what sort of conversations generally had passed between Edward and his wife over the past few years leading up to the divorce: quick out-the-door insults, mostly, his wife pointing to Edward’s quickly graying hair and his ties as he left for the office and saying, When was the last time you went shopping? You do know that other people are going to see you today, right?

And there was certainly no mention of the mornings when Edward, waking earlier than his wife ever did, would turn over and find the bed empty, his wife sleeping on the living room couch with the television on; this was not, of course, an arrangement of anger or violence or utter hatred, but instead the effect of a woman who cared so little for her husband that she could watch late-night TV and never give a thought to the marriage, to Edward, to the bed they shared…she would simply fall asleep on the couch and rise in the morning after Edward had gone to the train station.

At the office, conversation between Edward and the intern Sandra focused exclusively on one of two subjects: Edward’s expertise, or Sandra’s ambition.

Edward, a Senior Account Executive who had long ago proved his worth to Insight Marketing, had a reputation around the office for being always able to correctly foresee whether a particular marketing idea (be it a full campaign, a single ad, or even just an image and logo makeover) would work for a particular company, and convincing this client that the idea was right for them. This was an often overlooked aspect of marketing, Edward told Sandra many times: some clients were hesitant to put their complete trust into Insight, and so an Account Executive couldn’t be concerned only with creating a flashy advertisement, but also with knowing whether the client would be confident and comfortable with this advertisement.

So many people want to just use logic, statistics, in their presentations, Edward had told Sandra once during an office luncheon. So many people want to just point to focus groups and demographics spreadsheets, and tell a client that these numbers correctly predict that this advertisement will be successful.

That’s not what the client wants? Sandra asked.

Listen. It’s like I always say, Edward said. There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Sandra smiled. She wasn’t eating the catered food on her plate, was only watching Edward as he spoke.

And Edward, emboldened, continued: Clients don’t care that you can put together a spreadsheet. They want to know that you care about their company. It’s the quality of the relationship that inspires the client’s confidence.

Interesting, she said.

Most people, Edward said, can’t even decide what to buy their spouses for Christmas. Think about it. Think of all the people who rush out and buy something expensive, but don’t take the time to find something appropriate. Gifts like automatic massagers and motorized shoe buffers and digital picture frames. It takes keen observation and insight to find something perfect. And that’s our job. All day long, we decide our clients’ Christmas presents. Which campaign will make them happiest?

And Sandra the intern ate these things up, these analogies and bits of wisdom, sometimes even taking notes while he spoke.

(Edward had another saying about the advertising technique of “pulsing,” when a company would bombard the air waves with advertisements when an event approached. Five radio ads in week one for the Phil Collins concert, perhaps. Ten ads in week two. And by week three, they came during every commercial break. Pulsing is like a dead man walking, Edward told her. Pleading with people to please please believe that this is a good product, quantity over quality, but all the while, everyone just hears desperation, the sad reality of an advertising job botched, and the cold inevitability of a long walk to the electric chair.)

I don’t know how you come up with this stuff, she said.

So many years, he always said.

I don’t know how you decide, just by looking at something, whether it’ll work or not.

Isn’t easy, he said. Stick around awhile, and you’ll pick up on it.

* * *

It means a lot that you’d meet me tonight, Edward said eventually. They had a bottle of wine between them now, making it a bit easier for him to speak, though he’d already finished his second glass and she’d barely touched her first.

Well, you’re helping me, Sandra said. So. I should be thanking you.

She always had the right things to say, this young intern, a first-semester senior at Northwestern who listened politely and attentively in the office, frequently gracing Edward with the sort of smiles that could freeze him in mid-sentence. And she was smart in a way that sometimes scared Edward, very nearly threatening his own expertise: Sandra knew things that had taken Edward over a decade in the industry to learn, and she would ask surprisingly deep, probing questions. Is this ad subscribing to White’s Law of Reader Interest? she asked once, softly, to which Edward could only breathe deep, suppress the sudden desire to hug her, and say Yes, yes, an excellent observation! But Sandra also stopped just short of becoming a know-it-all. Instead, she just seemed…smart. Wise, even. Ambitious, yes, but somehow also destined for greatness. Frequently, she spoke of weekends spent in Denver or New Hampshire or Tampa, for conferences, for vacations, for family visits, for interviews, as if continental air travel was just as simple as a quick drive to the gas station. She dressed better than the other women in the office, not cut from the same dreary cloth of routine but instead sparkling in every new outfit she wore, and—like a model in a catalogue—proud to be wearing what she was wearing. She would leave in mere months from this internship, no doubt for loftier opportunities and more financially and physically desirable men, and Edward intended to make his move now not simply because he again needed the validation of a woman in his life, but because he sensed that Sandra was a young prize who would only grow more and more smart and beautiful, but very soon she would drift out of his reach forever.

No, Edward said. Thank you. Really, trust me. This makes my night.


It isn’t often I go out for drinks these days, is all I mean. Life gets boring when you get old.

You’re not that old. I keep telling you that.

And nice of you to say so, too, Edward said. He considered running his hand to the top of the table, could even see in his mind an image of his fingers floating over the white tablecloth and meeting—with grace, with a soft beauty—Sandra’s own fingers, which rested atop her portfolio notebook. And once there was this touch, fingers pressed together and then intertwined, anything might be possible. But years—decades—had passed since Edward had even tried to flirt with a woman. His marriage had ended not because of an affair, but because of growing indifference, and now he wondered what might be the best first step. The wine was a good start, yes, and already he trembled lightly with the knowledge that his words slipped more easily.

Can we look at my designs? Sandra asked him.

Oh. Right, Edward said.

She opened her portfolio notebook carefully, and he almost spilled his cabernet when he leaned forward with clumsy haste to examine each of the logos she’d crafted in her spare time.

Nice, that first one, he said. But too Microsoft. Too modern.

I thought modern was good.

Modern? No. Modern says flash-in-the-pan. Modern says, I’m here today but I’ll be gone tomorrow.

So modern is bad?

For our company, modern is no good. But it looks nice, at least.

She smiled and swished her wine around, but she didn’t take a sip.

Modern. Had he said that? Was that a good critique? He could do better. It was, after all, his expertise that she craved. In the office, it was his expertise that made him appealing, attractive even.

Second logo, he said. Not so good. Can’t shrink without losing detail. You have to consider that sort of thing. We’ll place this logo on letterhead as well as full-page print ads.

He continued in this manner, pinpointing the failings of each design and gaining more confidence the longer he spoke. Fifteen years of industry wisdom had emboldened him. This was the beauty of the internship concept, he thought. Here he was, acting as mentor to some aspiring professional. And in this moment, he felt suddenly strong and impressive.

Toss this one out. Toss it out. The edges, these sharp corners, both of them, look as if they might cut you.

Insight Marketing is a company, Edward said, that wants to maintain a friendly tone for its clients. Warm. Personable. What are they looking for, Sandra? The clients, I mean. When they see our logo, what do they want? You see, we want to exude confidence, but we need the clients…we need the people…in order to survive. They need to know that we need them.

Yes, but doesn’t that sound desperate?

No, it’s the sharp corners that are desperate. Trying too hard to be cutting edge. That’s a logo that looks good on paper, maybe looks good for a little while. Months. A year or so. But it’s got no staying power. I mean, look at my shirt.

What about it?

A white dress shirt. Clean. Solid. Professional. My wife used to make fun of me when I wouldn’t buy trendy stuff like her friends wore, but this shirt says longevity. It’s longevity, not trendiness, that exudes power and confidence.

Sandra nodded, but her mouth was open as if she’d formulated a response, but couldn’t articulate it. Usually, at the office, when Edward made these sorts of comments, Sandra melted and asked for more. Maybe, Edward thought, he hadn’t been convincing enough.

This next logo has potential, he said. Not perfect. It’s not there, yet, but it has the right mood.

That was my least favorite, Sandra said.

Sometimes we surprise ourselves.

No, I just needed to make one more to sort of round out the portfolio, so I looked through the fonts and picked one. Random.

That, Edward said and pointed as he spoke, is a logo that isn’t going anywhere. It feels like a column. A support beam. It feels like stability. When I look at this “I,” I think…I believe it. There’s pride in here, but it’s wide open, you see. Like it wants someone else. The clients, I mean. It’s ready for someone else to embrace.

It’s so simple, though.

Yes. But there’s so much here, Sandra. It’s perfect.

Expertise, Edward thought. His world was right again. Everything about the night, he decided, felt like late summer should: crisp air, wine, a woman enjoying his conversation, the slightest breeze rippling the surface of the lake across the street. He stared deeper into the designs, found new criticisms to make. And while he finished his second glass of wine, she took a phone call and in the instant that she said Hello, her voice was piqued with such joy that Edward realized how far she’d fallen into absolute seriousness and concentration while listening to him speak.

No, no, she said into the phone. Next May.

Edward took another sip of his cabernet.

Tonight? I can’t, no.

Edward looked off into the distance, and yes, the world did seem right.

That’s right. We’re going to Mayor’s. Dana’s driving.

And then she told someone on the other end that she wouldn’t be much longer.

Off someplace tonight? he asked, hoping that her answer would be no.

Oh, you know how it is, she said and shrugged, placing the phone back into her purse.

Well, he said.

Friday nights, she said. Wild.

Edward swallowed and tried to breathe naturally.

And you? she asked. Plans?

Oh, he said.

I’m having wine with a woman I very much admire, he wanted to say, but that was too hokey. That depends, he wanted to say, on whether you’ll stay here with me…but that sounded like something from a soap opera. He wanted to say nothing. He wanted to touch her hand. He wanted to switch the conversation from marketing to…to…movies, or sports, or music…or social activities. All the things about which Edward knew nothing anymore. He wanted to charm her, but if not charm her, to beg her to consider a man who knew the life she was embarking upon, a man who could warn her and save her from a life consumed by career. He could protect her. He could protect all that was good about her and she would never change into what he’d become, she would never grow old.

I don’t know, he said finally.

Hmm, she said, but not with the same curiosity he thought he’d detected when they’d both sat down thirty minutes prior. Now, instead, he noticed Sandra looking blankly into the lake across the street, lost in the cold glimmer of seasonal change.

And the certainty of the evening was now complete. This skirt, this tight red jacket, none of it was meant for him. He would go home to an empty suburban townhouse tonight, he realized, while she would spend her night at a real bar somewhere. It was that word “modern,” wasn’t it, that had marked him? That had immediately confirmed for her the absurdity of whatever arrangement he’d worked so hard to imagine? Only old men would criticize something as “modern,” he thought, and he wanted to ask her if that’s what it had been, but he knew that he’d already blown it, this chance here at Orchard, so he flipped back through her portfolio notebook and spent the next several minutes telling her with sickening, pulsing desperation why he was wrong, why he wanted to give “modern” a chance.