Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 2

I had so much fun with this last night that I decided to post another chapter tonight.  Wondering what's going on?  Start at the beginning.


Chapter 2


As everyone stood for the obligatory handshake ritual, Stephen took the opportunity to size up his new clients.

The younger of the two men introduced himself to each person as "Brad Richards, Chief Visionary Officer of CouldBU.com," relishing the sound of his title more each time he said it. He appeared to be in his late 30s and was of medium height and build, with sun-bleached brown hair and the kind of sculpted muscles that came from hours spent in a gym developing each one for its maximum cosmetic impact. He wore a light-colored linen suit over a lime-green silk shirt, his sockless feet tucked into boat shoes that implied that he had just stepped off of his yacht to attend the meeting. Stephen looked at his bloodshot eyes and recognized from painful familiarity the after-effects of a late night of drinking.

Robert Miller, the other man, simply shook hands and sat back down, muttering, "I didn’t know there would be technical people here." He was an older, shinier version of Brad, the glow from his rings, watch, necklace, and balding head creating a halo effect in the morning sunlight that streamed through the conference room windows. The lack of hair on top of his head was balanced by an impressive fringe around the sides, pulled back in a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. His taste in clothing was somewhat more muted than Brad’s, with a deep red shirt and dark trousers covering his ample frame. Noting his apparent technophobia, Stephen swiftly redirected Frank and Mark to the other side of the table, replacing them with David and Ricky in the hopes that the artistic vibrations from David would prove more soothing to Robert’s jangled senses.

After everyone was settled, James stood and opened the meeting with the usual pleasantries and introductions, concluding by turning to Robert and saying, "You and I have already talked at length, but the rest of the team doesn’t know why you chose us. Would you mind explaining your selection process to them? I think that it would be," and here he shot a sidelong glance at Stephen, "helpful for them to hear how you decided to work with ADD."

Robert leaned forward and pressed his hands flat on the table as though about to stand, but changed his mind at the last moment and merely sat there, his palms pressed into the table and his elbows in the air as he leaned toward his listeners. "In my business, there’s a big difference between the A-list and the B-list. I’m getting too old to screw around with the B-list, so when Brad and I decided to do this, we agreed that we wanted the best. My assistant saw you," he waved a meaty hand at James, "and your partner on the cover of Wired magazine and I knew the minute that she showed it to me that you were my guys. Anyone who’s willing to put on a toga to promote his company is the kind of man I want on my team, because a great vision requires great visionaries. And when I skimmed the article and saw that you were involved with this Internet thing, that sealed it! I had Joyce set up a call right away. The rest, as my people say, is Kismet." He leaned back, basking in his own brilliance, and grinned around the room until he came to Frank, who was still baring his teeth in his customer-eating smile. Robert’s grin faltered and there was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence before James stood again.

"Well, we’re thrilled that you found us, Robert, and we look forward to fulfilling your vision. I’ll leave you now in the able hands of my team to talk about the details of the project." James sketched a quick bow, locked eyes with Jack for a moment, and glided out of the room. This sale was complete, but others beckoned.

While Stephen had heard of stranger selection processes, he was still mildly surprised to hear that ADD had taken a job like this. He looked over at Jack, who had clearly heard the tale already. Either I’m missing part of the story, or there’s a lot of money behind this, he thought. Bemused, he listened as Robert and Brad began to present their vision.

"CouldBU is my baby," Brad began. "I even came up with the name. C-O-U-L-D," he paused to emphasize the last two letters, "B-U. Dot com. Catchy, huh? The idea came to me one night while I was watching some reality show rerun on cable with my girlfriend. We were playing a game, where every time someone did something stupid we'd do a shot of Stoli. It occurred to me after about the seventh shot: people are hungry for stardom. They’ll do anything to be famous, including humiliating themselves in front of millions of strangers! This reality television craze shows that, right? These guys are making all kinds of money feeding people’s addiction to celebrity. They make new stars out of these normal people, and other normal people watch it religiously." He paused for a moment, frowning with a tremendous effort at thought. "I still don’t get all of it, because some of those singers really sucked." He shrugged. "But people watch anyway.

"Here’s the thing, though: there’s all these reality shows out there, but no one’s ever done it online. So I thought: what if we did a celebrity project on the Web? We could let people put up pictures and video of themselves singing and let other people vote on them, maybe get some former celebrities to judge them. We could even make fun of the ugly ones like that British guy does and vote people off the site.

"But then I had an even better idea: why stop at singers? I mean, there are plenty of other ways that people try to be famous. Hell, I’ve tried most of them myself: acting, writing, directing, modeling. Not everyone has my money -- or my looks -- so I realized that I could help them out by allowing them to try it all without moving to LA. Which is just as well, because we have all the waiters we need already!" He laughed heartily at his own joke, giving Robert the opportunity to jump in.

"Brad’s father and I go way back," he said, darting a look sideways at Kelvin as though afraid he would interrupt. Kelvin, who had barely moved for the past ten minutes, merely blinked slowly at him. "So Brad came to me with this idea looking for funding. I spent 30 years in the biz, and I know a golden opportunity when I see one. This one had gold mine written all over it, once we worked out how to get people to pay for it. I mean, this is perfect! In all my years as an agent, I always wondered if there was some way that we could make money off of these people before they were famous, because, let’s face it, there are a lot more unfamous people in the world than there are famous people, right? And then Genius-Boy over here just comes up with it, out of the blue! It’s brilliant!"

"So, how do you expect to make money?" Frank asked. He looked as though he would say more until he caught the look Jack shot across the table.

Robert, clearly nonplussed at being addressed directly by an engineer, paused to consider whether he had been insulted before answering, and Brad cut in, "Well, entry fees of course! That’s for the contestants. We’ll charge subscription fees for people who want to vote, too, so that we get the money coming in on both sides."

"So you expect that this site will fill the gaping hole left in normal people’s lives by the absence of another reality television program?" Frank asked.

"Exactly!" said Brad. "Only it’s better, because it’s online! It’s…" he paused dramatically, "interactive!"

Stephen cut in quickly before Frank offered a list of things with which Brad could interact. "Hey, I promised Keith that I wouldn’t keep you all in here too long, since I know you have important technical work on your other project to wrap up. If you need to get going, we’ll understand."

Frank, however, was enjoying himself. "No, it can wait. It’s much more important that we hear directly from our new clients, so that we can better realize their vision." He smiled disingenuously at Stephen, stopping just short of innocently batting his eyelids.

"Don’t some of the reality shows have web sites, too?" asked Mark, "For voting and learning about the contestants?"

"Yes, but then you have to watch TV and use your computer at the same time," Brad snorted. "That’s twice the work. Who wants to do that?"

"I do," said Mark.

"Me, too," said Kelvin.

"I do it all the time," said Ricky.

"I don’t own a TV," said Frank. "I think it rots your mind."

"See, you’re our target audience!" exclaimed Brad. "With a couple of million guys just like you, we’ll be rich!"

"Will you have model competitions, too?" asked Frank, "Because women are about the only thing I look at online."

"I hadn’t thought of that," Brad said slowly, "but you know what? It’s brilliant! Models, definitely!"

"All right," said Frank, mollified, "maybe this idea isn’t completely hamster-brained, after all." He turned and smiled at Stephen as though to say, See? I can be nice to the clients when I want to! Stephen rolled his eyes.

"Well, um, thank you," Brad replied. "I’m glad you like it."

Robert, finally recovered from his interaction with Frank, rejoined the conversation. "You should know, too, that we have the verbal support of several major record labels and studios. They’re all silent partners at this point, of course, because they don’t want to get burned again. I’ll tell you the same thing that I told them, though: this may sound like one of those crazy dot-com stories from the turn of the century, but this is different." He slapped a bejeweled hand on the conference table. "We’re not selling dog food by mail here. We’re selling dreams, and there are no shipping and handling charges on those! Hey, Brad, write that down. We need to use that in our next investor presentation."

The meeting continued for some time as they discussed the details of the project: schedule, travel requirements, and lodging arrangements. Brad would be their primary creative contact, with Robert checking in occasionally from his house in Malibu to ensure the purity of the vision. To Stephen’s relief, they agreed that the entire ADD project team did not need to stay in LA for the duration of the project. "But," added Brad, "I'm sure that you'll want to start talking to our boys as soon as possible. They'll need you to tell them what you want them to do, since they've never done anything like this before."

"I'm sorry," said Stephen, "your boys? I thought that we were building this for you."

"Oh, you are! We just want you to let our team tag along and help out so they can learn how your product works and take over after you're gone." Brad beamed as though this, too, had been his brilliant idea. "That way, you can finish faster!"

Stephen glanced toward Jack, who was suddenly engrossed in following the flight path of an invisible fly on the other side of the room. "Are you saying that, on top of managing my own team, I'll also be responsible for a group of people on the other side of the country who have no accountability to me, no experience with our software, and have never built something like this before? And you expect that this will make things easier?"

"Exactly."

As Jack nervously fingered his ear, Stephen wondered if he could get across the table in one leap. Turning back to Brad and Robert, he bared his teeth in a grimace that would have done Frank proud and said in a choked voice, "What a great idea."

***

As he boarded the train to ride home that night, Stephen considered pinning a note to his jacket that said, "Wake me when we get to Natick," just to be safe. Thinking about this new project and how he was going to tell Jenny about it kept him wide awake, though. He had sworn to cut down on the travel now that they had Sarah, and he wasn’t sure how excited she would be about a project on the opposite side of the country, full-time or otherwise.

He needn’t have worried. In fact, when he arrived home he wasn’t even sure that he would have been missed if he had left that day. He opened the door to a clanging symphony of pots and pans, evidence that his mother was busy making dinner. Slipping past the kitchen, he went directly into the living room where he found Jenny feeding Sarah. He leaned down to kiss her on the head. "Evening, beautiful."

Jennifer lifted her head and offered him a tired smile. "That’s nice of you to say, considering I’m as big as a barn and smell like a dairy."

Nine months had taught Stephen not to rise to the bait, and three weeks of living in tight quarters had finally shown him the best escape: misdirection. "Mmm. How’s Sarah?"

Jennifer looked down at their feasting daughter and her eyes lost focus. "Perfect, of course. Who’d have thought that something so small could have taken up so much space?"

Again, Stephen refused to fall into the trap. Pregnancy had taken its toll on both of them, and he had learned through painful experience that there were simply no right responses to these comments. Jennifer had been a dancer when they met at Boston College ten years ago, and while even then she had known that her future lay behind the stage rather than on it, she had taken great pride in her dancer’s figure. And while she longed for children, she was horrified by what carrying one did to her once-lithe form. The swelling, the puffiness, the sudden disappearance of her ankles, all had felt like a betrayal by her body, a point she had made quite clear for the past eight months.

Stephen knew now that all she really wanted was silent commiseration. Key word: silent. He winced inwardly as he catalogued his early mistakes and her reactions:

"It’s OK, honey, you’ll get your figure back." One day of crying, followed by two days of silence.

"I don’t think you look fat." Accusations of being a liar, followed by speculation over what else he might be lying about, followed by crying.

"I think pregnant women are beautiful." Open scoffing, followed by a thoughtful silence, followed in turn by the suggestion that he had impregnated other women and was hiding families all over the country, and what was he really doing on all those "business trips?" Then more crying and a long phone call to her mother.

"I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the dishwasher." This had seemed like the perfect evasion, based upon the theory that she wouldn’t repeat the entire diatribe again, but had proved to be another near-fatal miscalculation. Not only did she loudly repeat everything verbatim, she followed it with a suggestion that someone who really loved her would be a better listener. Then she cried.

Eventually, he had settled on a strategy of nodding sympathetically, giving a little sigh of shared pain, and offering to rub her feet. This usually worked, except on the days when she didn’t want him to touch her, explained by a muttered comment about "look where it got us the last time." At these times he pretended to hear his cell phone vibrating and fled the room.

Now, though, the pain seemed to have been worth the reward for Jennifer. She exuded contentment and joy, and even her complaints about the stretch marks that only she could see seemed to come more from habit than anything else. Motherhood suited her.

Another eruption of racket from the kitchen startled the baby, who jumped and flung out her tiny hands. She let out a tiny whimper before settling down to business again. "Can you please ask your mother to keep the noise down?" Jennifer hissed. "I’m trying to get Sarah to sleep."

"I’ll see what I can do," Stephen replied, shedding his coat and bag on a nearby chair as he retreated to the kitchen. Already, bedtime was taking on a sacred aura, the entrance to that magical time when baby slept and parents could be grownups again. It was not to be threatened.

In the kitchen, Stephen's mother Margaret was happily humming to herself as she made enough steak, sausage, potatoes, and peas for ten people. He snaked out an arm and gave her a quick hug and a peck on the cheek as he passed on the way to the refrigerator for a glass of milk.

"Hi, Mom. Any chance you could keep dinner somewhere below 100 decibels? Jenny’s trying to get the baby to sleep."

Margaret’s accent, a blend of Irish brogue and Boston drawl, was indescribable to those who hadn’t heard it and indecipherable to those who hadn’t grown up with it. "A happy house is a noisy house, son. Little Sarah is going to have to get used to it sooner or later."

"Fine, Mom, but can we give her a week or two longer before we start the training?" Stephen pleaded.

"I’m doing my best, but it’s hard. How am I supposed to cook a proper meal without knocking around a bit? And I can’t keep using the same skillet over and over again." She began to heap food onto his plate, and Stephen was surprised to discover how hungry he was.

"You could bring some of the rest of the pots back down from the attic," he suggested as he snatched a piece of meat from the plate. "I think we have some time before Sarah can injure herself with them."

Margaret had arrived a day before Jennifer and Sarah came home from the hospital to "baby-proof the house." As far as Stephen could tell, this consisted primarily of taking everything that he used on a daily basis, placing it in a Ziploc bag, and hiding it on a high shelf. It took him three days to find his razor, which, since it had been in the medicine cabinet before Margaret arrived, posed little threat to a newborn in Stephen’s mind.

"You can never be too safe where babies are concerned. Did I ever tell you about my friend Donna’s baby? Took a plastic fork and stuck it right through her ear, the poor dear. They had to put four earrings in there to cover up the holes."

Stephen paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. "Wait. Wasn’t she thirteen when she did that, and wasn’t it at camp? And I’m pretty sure that her girlfriend did it with a sewing needle."

"Which just goes to show that you can never stop watching over your babies." As usual, Margaret’s point was untarnished by the facts of the matter. "Now, is there anything else I can do before I leave today? Do you have enough to eat?"

"We have enough food now to last for the next couple of weeks, thanks to you. Give us a chance to eat through that before you make any more, and maybe by then we’ll be ready for some more noise."

"You’re a good husband, Stephen, and you’ll be a good father. The Lord knows your father, the Heaven-condemned spawn of a she-dog," -- Margaret had found her own way to deal with the language moratorium -- "was never around to help with you boys, but I managed." The strain of not adding more color to that statement showed in her eyes.

"Thank you for holding back, Mom, I know it’s difficult."

"I’d do anything for Jenny, Stephen, but you and I both know that this wasn’t her idea. It was hers." Stephen had never understood why his mother refused to refer to his mother-in-law by name, though he suspected it had to do with the old country tradition of not naming the devil, lest he appear.

"It’s OK, Mom, she’s coming tomorrow anyway. You can say her name."

"I’d rather not, dear. Sit down and eat. You’re too skinny."

Later that evening, after Stephen’s mother had returned to her house in South Boston, he and Jennifer sat in the living room and talked. She was feeding Sarah again, and while she made the appropriate noises at the right intervals, he got the feeling she wasn’t really listening to him as he told her about the new project, how Jack had promised only one week of travel per month, and his own thoughts on how it would play out. Finally, he broke the news that he would need to fly to LA the next week for the kickoff meeting.

"That’s fine, honey," she said dreamily when he finally ran out of words, "Mom can stay with us for another week and help out. Sarah and I will be fine. By the way, do you think that three weeks old is too early to start talking? I’m sure that she tried to say ‘Mommy’ today while she was nursing.



Continue to Chapter 3

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