Midwest. Late 90’s.
It’s your first day on the job, your new job, where you are maybe a little suspicious of why you got this particular job when other, more qualified candidates certainly have to exist. Why did they pluck you out of a growing, yet relatively minor (but eerily similar) kind of job, and why has everybody got that tight-lipped awkward smile as you walk by and introduce yourself? But its the first day and the door closes behind you for the first time, and the constantly-nodding handlers have given you a moment to yourself. You run your hands along a big (but not Texas big), deeply stained and varnished desk and over the supple, expensive (but not Texas expensive) high wing-backed chair that is adjacent.
Every trace of the previous occupant has been scrubbed and polished and re-arranged out of this pristine chapel of sports and money, and you wonder what he did the first moment he had alone in this office. Did he feel as odd as you do at this moment? You think about the paycheck, and you think about the house your wife is currently decorating and the low interest rate that guy at the dealership gave you on a car that is just about Texas long and just about Texas black. You wonder about growing up just around the bend from here. Will knowing the names and recognizing the icons make it easier. Makes what easier? Makes what better or worse? Why would it matter?
You deserve the job. You’ve worked hard and learned the ropes and made the right moves at the right time and always had the money to back up the checks your white smile would write. Your handshake means your word, and when it hasn’t, your press release has had the right words to make up for it. You know better than anybody else that you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way.
The phone out at your secretary’s desk rings, sounding shallow and thin through the wall, and you worry for a second that the questions have already caught up with you, that you are going to have to cradle that phone receiver to your ear and start spinning tales and answering the voices that bark and snarl at you from the darkness. You worry that a snag has snagged and is holding up the proceedings, or that something untoward has actually been added, retroactively, to the vetting process and they are on their way with mics and cameras to physically lug you out of this lacquered and wood-paneled nirvana.
But that just seems silly. You inked the contract with your well-honed signature and all those lawyery folks and their fine toothed combs had nodded habitually and clucked over the stack of papers that signified this next and biggest stage of your life. You had smiled like you knew exactly what was going on. You shouldn’t have these worries. There shouldn’t be anything at all to worry about, really, in the great big shuddering grand scheme of things. But that phone just rang.
A couple of stacks of moderately important-looking paper, foreboding at the least, are arranged with a surgeon’s sharpness around that nameless piece of padded mat that always seems to sit in the middle of a desk this size. The first file folder your eyes pick out seems to yearn and call to you in a voice that sounds like your mother’s lullabies being poured out of a blue-labeled bottle onto gleamingly clear glacier ice. Your mouth is dry and you lick your lips involuntarily as your hands nervously pull and shake the Blue Bell Vanilla colored folder free from its stratum in the archeological cascade of bright white paper. Something had once been written on the tab, many somethings actually, all crossed out with no superseding heading etched over the scribbles. Oddly dirty and unprofessional, you think. Any office supply store would have a new batch of these for mere pennies, and what a better impression, what a better feeling it would have had, just not like this. Your mouth is still dry, and you wonder about whether the air conditioner has been running for too long and sucked all the moisture out of the room or if something else is happening but you just can’t put your finger on it. This graffiti harbinger of unrelenting doom on the tab of a file folder can’t actually be a real thing, you ask yourself.
Infinitesimal ants in Times New Roman march across the pages in the folder and wrap around and bunch into each other and, like monkeys at typewriters, try to bang out something with a basis in a reality you recognize. But by now the room is starting to spin, and you know that you are holding the greatest key to your forthcoming time here in your hands. You become aware that you have been holding your breath and you raggedly breathe in, and the phone rings again in the antechamber and your brain wonders how you know that word, where you first read it, and whether it should be hyphenated or not.
There is something behind the papers, something twice or thrice folded that seems like it matters in a way so as to render the papers fuzzy and out of focus. You deconstruct the simple half-and-half-again origami and the glossy feel and look of printed images open up in a rush in front of you. Artist renderings in a not quite pixelated but in absolutely no way real quality of a large building (but not Texas large, some portion of your brain cries out) with a curved gray roof. Interiors lit with all-over light that could never be adequately reproduced by technology we currently enjoy, shining upon row after row of money-sucking seats, clad in an office-building-low-pile-carpet approved shade of Old Gold, and a gleaming wooden rectangle in the middle. It is a sight to behold and you know that it shall be grown and built and marveled at just as the sun will rise in the east upon the morn. Paperclipped to the northeast corner of this religious manuscript, carelessly, as though only a last second remembrance hang it there by some unseen previous hand, a piece of paper, easily identified by a fund-raising guru of your ilk.
A check. A check there. A check with many zeroes. Many, many, many zeroes. So many zeroes that they congo line right off the edge and join up with the spinning room. Your tie feels tighter than you remember tying it earlier, and your mouth is still so dry. Your brain scorches to make sense of it. As though some one person could buy an edifice such as this with the simple act of writing a check. It was a tough job, a real tough job, to wade through all the backwater money tidal pools and scrimp and save to make something like this happen. It was why they had brought you here and congratulated you on all your successes, even though you couldn’t really name one right this second. You had done loads of really great things. I mean, even one of those monkeys at one of those typewriters could do this, cash a check and build a building that needed to be built. It just couldn’t be this easy. Why wouldn’t the previous guy have done it, done the easy thing and just deposited this check and paid the architect and whatever under-compensated interns he had slaving away at the computer to make these renderings?
Why was the sweat really flushing up on your skin and making you feel slightly nauseous? There had to be a reason you were here. A legitimate reason they brought you here with all the promises and the back slapping and all of those handshakes that mean what they were supposed to mean.
There was, in a scrawl that would become familiar to you over the next few years of your life, a MEMO on the check. The one that brought the sickly bile taste to the back of your throat. The one that would keep you up at night as you stared out of your beautifully decorated window treatments into the glorious (but not Texas glorious) star-lit blackness. The one that sealed the deal. A building as your defining character trait? A program as your defining character trait?
No, son. Your first action. The first thing you touched on your desk. The thing that fluttered out of your hand as you slumped back into that gorgeous leather wing-backed chair and landed face-up on the lusciously thick faux Persian rug, so you had to re-read that tiny MEMO line again when your secretary buzzed your intercom and told you that the mercilessly nodding handlers were back to take you to your next appointment. You reached to pick it up and tuck it away, not far enough, but away: