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April 15, 2024

The Wallpaper Account

By Patrick Sweeney

I held the engaged nod and the set jaw for a fair interval but I took this assignment as an affront. Whitney fixed a guileless gaze on me and I adjusted mine to reciprocate. And all was swell. A bit more of this and we'd be altering reality.

The boss, Whitney, had designated me the youngish pup to serve as product liaison to "today's teens" for the Cyberwalls@ account. Headquarters was putting me in the field to learn how the target generation feels about some mildly three-dimensional wallpaper, a hologram field of subdued spaciness that judging from what was on the monitor wouldn't have given a seasoned stoner pause in my circles at their age.

"We're counting on you to pull this off." prompted another round of thoughtful kowtowing from a finite reserve. I was being mentored and I had cause to be grateful. Protegés survive the first year. Still, I half suspected that he wanted me to balk. I needed to close this fast, "How about a few sample rolls to take home so I'll know what to ask them."

"Got em right here as well as the video for our current campaign."

"That I've seen." My grimace wasn't entirely involuntary.

"Right answer. And yet it flourishes. We also have a pretty fair bundle of fan mail here. You can select your first contacts from among them."

Postcards, pastel envelopes and a thumb drive. Yikes! I was actually doing this. A market survey of enthusiastic teenage wallpaper fans. My tmj crackled underfoot.

"I don't want you underestimating this assignment." He continued, "I went to bat for you on this one. I told the directors that no one but Horace Caulie would do. This product has an ineffable appeal that registers despite our frankly inept handling of the account. We need to effebalize it. Get our client its proper market share. Come through for us and you'll be on the express track."

I'd need new business cards, Horace Caulie, Effebalizer.

Once home, I unfurled the cyberwalls samples under various natural and unnatural light sources. Nothing leapt out at me. Rather, everything did but not compellingly. This wallpaper has slightly next-generation holographic features, though it had been decades since holography had peaked.

Against a constantly-morphing grid, various objects burst forth then vanish into the foreground. There are a couple of steady rhythms but at any given time, one or two images are moving erratically. Every so often, the more jarring movements appear to gouge at the fabric. A few tableaux were blended together. Colored filter over the light source determined whether the blossoming flowers, warp-speed spacecraft or medieval fox hunt scene dominated. There was 18th Century precedent for that stunt. All this would be pretty weak tea as 2021 screen savers go. And yet, somehow, by virtue of its wallpaperhood, it sold pretty decently. Beanie babies once had traction, hyper-traction, so why not?

The bulk of the market was junior high school girls and sales, while widespread, tended to clump geographically. So, armed with some product fan mail, much clustered from central Indiana to Kentuckyward southern Ohio, I booked a flight to Cincinnati then started calling these kids.

The overtly paranoid respondents were less spooky than the ones who were without affect and didn't seem to grasp what I was saying despite the nicely composed missives on designer stationery that bore their signatures. These were thank-you notes for Christ's sake, some with little heart and flower decals affixed just so. I read one child's letter back to her, earning a furtive, "If that's my mail, what are you doing with it?"

"You sent it to me. Look I just want to talk about getting testimonials from you and your friends."

"You can't make me testify."

The unremarkable becoming the unspeakable in a blink and a half. I was in for one of those dark nights of the advertiser's soul. Were these bum leads a signal to start job-hunting? My mother did raise some quitters but I don't hang with them much, so I soldiered on until one 13-year-old Tina Jenks, resident of Mount Orab, Ohio came through. She ultimately warmed to my breathless account of the night's stymie fest and promised to look into availing the stray friend for a little "no-promises" chat..

"Well, let me know when your school day's over and I'll come around the front door, talk with your parents for a bit -- in fact, I should probably introduce myself to them now."

"Are you crazy? I'll call it off. They don't ever meet you, period! There's a duck pond on the Mount Orab town green. We often stop there after school. Enough folks around just unwinding that no one will think you're a perv for talking to us."

I appreciated that, but "Yikes! If we ended up offering to quote you or film you for an ad, we would, of course, need a parent or guardian's signature."

"Hire actors! Look, we're grateful for the product but no postergirl bullshit whatsoever."

"We'll meet...get a better understanding of each other."

"That we will."

No longer afraid of being bored to tears, I thought I'd spend the flight seeing what there was to learn about Mount Orab.

It was best known for being on the circuit of the Ben Ishmaels or Ishmaelites, the multi-racial, patchwork-religioned, semi-nomadic clan that moved into Midwest Indian territory in the late 18th Century to keep a reasonable distance from the slave states. Religious minorities, escaped slaves and indigenous peoples whose tribes had fragmented, this community of strays shared little doctrine beyond aversion to the status quo. A loose utopian culture with no real safe havens, it did manage a geographic niche for a fair while.

It's understood that they first settled Indianapolis, and by some accounts, Cincinnati then dispersed, some to Mount Orab. as the proper townsfolk violently displaced them. It's also widely held that this diaspora account is a myth challenging the historical fact that these wandering paupers grew listless and let their home base mutate into an urban ghetto.

Their disdain for property was considered unhealthy. As one relatively sympathetic wag put it, they were inadequately attuned to the wage-based economy. And their prescient embrace of racial blending was nothing more than coloring outside the lines.

All accounts of the community's flourishing and dissolution are wildly subjective but the thread they all seem to share is the misfortune of attracting the inordinate attention of eugenics pioneers who adopted them as poster children for weak blood, licentiousness, gypsy genes, social parasitism and much more high-minded gibberish.

Animist, Islamic, polygamous, anarchist, matriarchal, embodying a full spectrum of black, white, and red, they basically pooled together and winged it, outliers reaching a critical mass while forgetting to hire a public relations staff. It didn't help that the scriptures used Ishmaelite as a shorthand for Arab and the local settlers had adopted the moniker initially for the Shawnee, then for all heathen in general.

My route to the town green bore no trace of them. As they'd ultimately been subject to a policy of routine incarceration and compulsory sterilization in the larger towns, there was no begrudging them a low profile now. The "Indiana Plan" for combating the Ishmaelite scourge had eventually served as model for eugenics laws in 29 states. All 50 states had eugenics programs and antennae up for the Ishmaelites.

The dismantling of the Ishmaelite communities, finalized in the early 20th Century, left traces of the group scattered as far as the Great Lakes and the northeast. The urban back-to-nature commune of Philadelphia's MOVE organization was flagged as Ishmaelite descendants and mistreated accordingly. A dispute with police that started with littering and noise complaints culminated in a bomb dropped from a helicopter that killed 11 and razed much of the neighborhood. That was May 13, 1985, which still passes for modern history. It's as if some cabal remained dedicated through the ages to ensuring that the Ishmaelites would never have the critical mass for a casino.

Germany's Third Reich praised eugenics initiatives on the Ishmaelites as an early inspiration for addressing the "Jewish problem." That's actually what the Ishmaelites are best known for these days. The village of Mount Orab is now best known as a hotbed of white-bread biblical prophecy, the strain that Americanizes the scriptures but stops just short of claiming that Moses received the 10 commandments in Ohio.

The duck pond sustained more swans than geese and more geese than ducks. Birds and people passed from the dark shade of virgin forest remnants to bright sunlight and back again. For those inclined to pause there were mossy rock formations hewn slightly more benchlike than would occur in nature and lengths of lacquered log flanking the footpath. A pristine glen had just the stray trace of goose scat for authenticity.

Like all market trainees, I really wanted to direct commercials. Testimonials in this park cross-cutting ecstatically to the high-tech wallpaper itself for maximum ferocity was a guaranteed award winner. The quick cuts could be paced by Hendrix's "Machine Gun" spandexed, of course, into public domain if it turns out that Hendrix's family still had that marathon series of lawsuits going on.

"Adman! How'd you know Hendrix?" My reverie'd gotten me tapping up a Buddy Miles frenzy. Tina was a Mediterranean (Jenks?) fox cub with a denim jacket and hoop earrings.

"Same as you, parents"

"Parents, right ... But you're a suit."

"Nobody's born one. You gotta choose a career before a career chooses you. Otherwise, you'll go grey behind a checkout counter."

"Sounds like you've been doing some rationalizing. But you have a point. My mom and my stepdad are world class losers."

"You haven't lived long enough to judge. Fulfillment turns up in a lot of different places."

"How about slumped watching QVC for hours on end embittered cause it's already gotten you into so much debt?"

"You got me. Too bad I won't be meeting them."

"Don't even pretend to say that wistfully! I spared you the bourbon-brown drool. You talk to any adults and I tell them you tried to finger me. I have witnesses." She nodded and two more denim-sheathed adolescents emerged from the pastoral drift. "These are Bev and Lea."

Their hard stares were pure non-starter. I might have spoken earlier with a, "Lea Matthiesen?"

"What's it to you? Hey, Tina. I told you it wasn't smart to bring him here."

"The dude was asking around. Should I have left it to chance?"

More baleful stares all around. Lea was a straw blonde who registered a bit like an under-developed photo. Bev was slighter than her comrades with a dusky complexion and frizzy red hair. Red hair complemented the entire range of Ishmaelite skin tones so frequently that they were also known as the reds. Little Orphan Annie's big red tuft had cued a woeful history to savvy readers when her strip debuted in 1924. I flashed on a news chyron, "Former child star, Annie Bennett Warbucks, found bludgeoned to death in her Palm Beach mansion. Pool boy held for questioning."

The sun was yolking onto the horizon. Bev and Lea eased into the shadows, flanking me in the process. Fledgling vampires? Bacchantes? feminist avengers? This tender little focus group was creeping me out. I'd have made a dash for it if they didn't look more scared than me. Rather than make a total ass of myself, I decided there would likely be some X-File fever behind all this strange behavior and it might just yield a decent angle.

"Look, mister ..." Bev had stepped halfway into the light, "We just wanted you people to know that we really appreciate your product and that if you get it into stores, it'll get sold. You can make an ad campaign if you want but don't make it too embarrassing."

"Or too good." Tina chimed in.

"Word of mouth alone will not keep a wallpaper line on the market."

"It will for this one."

"That's not how the world runs. Are you afraid of losing cachet?"

"We're afraid you'll fuck things up. And if you do, you'll have blood on your hands."

"Where do you get off with that nonsense?"

"Our blood and the blood of potential customers. And the Cyberwalls Company will fold within a year. And you could end up the wrong kind of famous."

"Suppose," Tina interjected, "we told you there was a tremendously appealing feature to this product. One its designers never dreamed of. The hitch being all who know it are sworn to secrecy. You have no stake in this secret. Second guess us on it because you're worldly and we're junior high school kids. Get responsible adults involved, you do a tremendous amount of harm.

"There wouldn't be mass graves, maybe just the stray items in the local newspapers. Later, there'd be a curious little squib in the business section about a product recall following or being followed by a statistical anomaly. Others may not ever detect a pattern, or they may take a while. But you'd know. That, and of course, the steady stream of runaways. I'm sorry if that jeopardizes your career advancement."

That trusty adolescent flair for drama. A cornerstone of Madison Avenue. I would steer them to the light. "Tell you what." I fired up the laptop, "I'm drawing up a contract stating that 'Project Effable,' the strictly controlled disclosure of unanticipated properties in the Cyberwalls line of wallpaper products is the intellectual property of the parties present. This trade secret may not be divulged without the express written consent of all signatories. I, Horace Caulie, am duly appointed to represent JPT Group in this matter so any violation of this contract on my part leaves my employer culpable."

Bev broke the silence, "Tina, any words you need to look up?"

"Naw. He's being straight with us. The only angle he's working is that if he were partial owner of the idea, we wouldn't be able to sell this hot, provocative concept to his competitors. Which means that he expects to allay our concerns now that we stand to profit from it. It would be nice if he could completely let go of the profit angle, but we're stuck with him."

I beamed sheepishly. Dag, when she comes of age, she'll have an internship and a mentor waiting for her. "I'm printing four copies. We'll sign them all and each keep theirs someplace safe."

They went into a huddle. It occurred to me that the signature of a minor may not be legally binding without a guardian's co-signature. It hadn't popped up at the time. I wasn't about to mention it now.

The huddle broke then they had a round of hugs. After the signing ceremony complete with souvenir JPT pens, Tina stepped forward, "I'm taking you home."

"What about your folks?"

"My stepfather's happy houring for the next few hours and moms for a few more. C'mon, this is how you're gonna learn all about your magical wallpaper."

We parked a block away, approached her backyard separately along a screen of cropped hedges, climbed a ladder onto her roof and clambered to her bedroom window. "Pay attention. This is the way you're leaving and there may not be much light."

Was I about to "get lucky," or even appear to, with a 13-year-old? Is there still any place far enough south for that to be a bright idea. Tina parked me in a folding chair and started up again, "Ground rules. No matter what happens, sit still and keep quiet. If anything goes wrong, I'll say 'parakeet.' Otherwise, not a peep from you. You are a mute parakeet!"

She partitioned my corner with a dressing screen and replaced the overhead light with a high wattage gooseneck at her desk and a tiffany knock-off on her dresser. The tacky felt of the partition contributed to the sense that this was an opera box for a private showing. A cross-fire of full-length mirrors kitty-cornered on the otherwise unblocked cyberwall left one wedge of the room in a blind spot; from the door to my rear panel.

Tina set about spreading a layer of open newspapers between the foot of the bed and the dresser. Just like a parakeet cage.

A traditionally armored New Yorker sitting in a blind corner of a suburban devil bunny child's room in the service of a project that had stunk since its insipid incipience while she raced against some vague parental deadline setting out papers to protect the carpet from great gouts of ..."I'm feeling snookered here!" I snarled from my felt-lined cubby hole.

"You have nothing to fear from me. If you're feeling a little spooked, hold that thought so you can draw on it later to understand how much trust we've placed in you. Now put a sock in it." I took comfort in the note of terror in her voice. Having me cornered was clearly not part of what was coursing through her mind right then.

At length, a car whinnied on the approach. It could have been the next driveway over until the headlight beams backwashed into my space and settled there. Perpendicular parking? "What the fuck is going on?" I hissed.

"Leave by the window or stay silent."

Downstairs, keys were flung onto a counter and skittered into a sink. An adult male was boisterously whistling "Bicycle Built for Two". Bit of the old soft shoe coming up the steps until a thud and "Crimminy!" Tina trained the gooseneck onto the cyberwalls and stepped into the spotlight.

The door opened quietly. Pops stumbled out of the blind spot. Pops was another time's definition of dapper with a houndstooth three-piece, a tidy moustache, and a morose grin. His mumbled incantation took a moment to decipher, "Hebebybeby hebeby!"

Tina shimmied out of her flannel shirt in front of the hologram. Her jeans started working off her hips. Attractive kid and all, but way unripe. "Hebebybeb." Pops' fly creaked open and Pops popped out. Tina was equally rigid. I fingered the brass knuckles on my keychain, sworn to absolutely nothing.

Tina resumed grinding her thighs together with a big girl pout, "There are no birds whatsoever here, Pops." She stole me a glance, " No birds."

"Hebngvdwozbleaagh." Pops heaved spurts of macerated happy hour cuisine. He staggered backwards, his erection dripping beige vomit like a honeycomb. He had kept it all on the newspapers. Strong tidiness instinct. Pops mumbled, "Good night, Tina." and stared at his zipper ruefully before deciding not to hazard it. He scrabbled at the door for a while before it yanked him into the hallway.

"Bye Bye."

"Bye Bye."

Put 'eros' in front of a mirror and you get 'sore'. I'd always attributed that to the Christian infestation of the English language. Now with the air redolent of bile and pastrami and rye and rye, I wasn't so sure. So, put a drunk pederast in front of shimmery wallpaper and you get yourself a geyser.

Tina donned an opaque nightshirt in a teddy bear motif and a fluffy pink robe before addressing me, "Yup, you guessed it. Booze and sexual arousal and cyberwalls are a combustible mix. He won't make the connection. They never do. "

She bent over to gather the newspapers, "Hey, parakeet! Your ass must be stiff by now. Hand me a trash can liner from the box behind you. So, how ya planning to market the 'pops stopper'?"

"I see what you mean about word of mouth but ..."

"But responsible adults, the psychiatric community, social workers should know about this? Pops is a psychiatric social worker. Busts his ass crisis counseling an impossible case load. He deserves a few pops and some young crumpet at the end of the day. And he's got the education to bring up cultures more refined than ours where everyone knew that intergenerational love was the sweetest."

"How much of this aversion therapy does it take to make these visits stop?"

"Varies. The shame is catching up on Pops. He was pretty meek tonight. When it's rage, take Lea's mom, she's always sure she'll manage to raise a few welts before she spews. Both of Bev's parents stopped after just a few times and they were doing every goddamn thing to her."

"Word of mouth between kids with this kind of secret. Is that an effective way to get help where it's needed?"

"How many states have you received mail from? Dramatic young girls with 'enthusiasms' to share network like a cabal. Look, I'm not fool enough to work at extracting a promise from an adman. I've seen longer haikus than that contract of yours. The rest is up to you. We have friends, you probably did too, who disappeared into the runaway populations in the shadows of our glamour cities because they had no safety at home."

"I did actually. A few."

It didn't go well for any of them. Child molesters, imperialists, and marketers share an ethic; it's there and it's weaker than you, so fuck it. I'd wandered into this field drawn by the prospect of amusing clever people with zippy campaigns while staying truthful about worthy products. I'd had a sense that there would be the stray minefield moments.

The second round of courtship for this job application process had included a form asking which types of products or companies I'd balk at promoting. The genial HR person let slip that listing a couple would indicate that I was a straight shooter, but like doubling up on moderate drinking, a long list could do me much harm. I was allowed to take it home and made a fairly robust evening of it. Of all the items I agonized over, there was nothing within a mile of home decoration.

Tina pressed on, "So you understand. How terrifying is bagging the pitch compared to living with that? Completely your call. And right now, you're far scarier than Pops. Here's something else to keep to yourself. Runaway homecoming parties. We get our friends off the street and throw a little celebration with certain traditions observed, such as remodeling their rooms.

Your product, of course. And launching the new space with a slumber party. We've just had a handful so far, but they've been from sea to shining sea. By the way, could you see that the price stays low as it's kids doing the buying. Oh, and drop this bag in the garbage on your way out."

Whitney took me to an expense account steakhouse where he'd reserved a small private room for my presentation. He ordered lamb chops with baby vegetables. I opted for the grilled half-chicken. I may have visibly startled when he requested a pitcher of martinis. Knowing how Whitney sometimes lunches, I'd called the Cyberwalls plant from Mount Orab to have some modified prototypes fed-exed. Citing the video camera's limitations with holograms, I requested the equivalent of a still photo for each sample. This, theoretically, would spare us the special effects, but I had them include actual samples as it would be pretty strange to do otherwise. But a pitcher of martinis?

"This is a fairly bold concept." I set out, "It could take some digesting. Maybe we should drink slowly for the business part of this meal."

"Not to worry."

Over the first round of martinis, I launched. "Well, you see ..."

"Never start with 'you see'. It sounds like you're cushioning a fall."

I gave him a "duly noted" smile so I could savor the thought bubble, o0O "Well you see, boss, I promised these fetching li'l mall rats that I'd withhold information from you. I've even signed a contract sharing copyright on our little secret."

My mentor had never shared that surly expression before . Good one too. Reading my mind?

"Well, all right, I want full responsibility for this account. I'm not saying that I should be promoted to account manager. I'd rather that someone with whom I have mutual trust, I was hoping you, would have the title and just get a full accounting of what I'm doing and why. I don't need to share the box seats or the chef's table with the clients. I don't even need to meet them."

"Why should I want to be mounted on the prow of your ship?"

"I misspoke."

"How many pitches you want? This ain't baseball! And you haven't given me the effable yet."

"The effable is we agree that this commodity is thriving despite all the zippity doo dah our creative talent has foisted on it. The effable is that heartland teenyboppers, backbone of our consumer culture, are saying in one voice, 'Just let us know that it's available and don't embarrass us in the process.' The effable is that we're at the outer fringes of the soft sell and it's scary. The effable is that there's a lot of merchandise ill-suited to merchandising and if we can, in a controlled experiment, nudge this one along without any trace of pandering, maybe companies that are uneasy about their advertising campaign's lack of subtlety will be looking to us."

"I'm low."

"So you are ... Correctably." He monitored my pour until it reached the rim.

"So what constitutes this dignified niche marketing of yours?"

"30 second spots, sparely used and limited to young adult time slots. The wallpaper supplies its own animation. The logo scrolls across the screen right to left then diagonally then pulsing. Hendrix's 'Machine Gun,' an intergenerational classic ..."

"The sweetest kind."

"Prost. Playing quietly, commandingly quiet. I've learned that the Hendrix family has ironed out licensing arrangements for his musical estate. Not aware of any other loose ends. Then there's the 'available at' screen. Period."

"Pass those samples over."

I reached into the pouch and -- oops, seriously oops -- came up with the real samples. Could hardly shovel them back in at that point.

Whitney scanned them with just a trace of a gurgle, " Oddly enough, I have a good feeling about this. These don't look like much of anything. But it has been a resilient product. Don't bring up this methodology with anyone else. We're just attuned to the zeitgeist." The scared shitless, how-long-can-this-reprieve-possibly-last, Ishmaelite refugee zeitgeist.

Another gurgle, a bit more robust. He shot me an evil sideways glare like he wanted the conversation over fast. I had been assured that those experiencing the effect made no causal connection, but that was some glare. He forced a smile and fidgeted, "You may just be onto something. I'll be giving my level of involvement some thought. Either way, I like out of the box."

I thought it best not to try mirroring the jovial grimace that followed. He seemed to be grasping for a way to excuse himself but not sure that he wanted to leave. Assuming this account scores me an office, I could reasonably keep a fat swatch of this career-launching squigglyscape on my office wall, "Top you off?"

Article © Patrick Sweeney. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-01-31
Image(s) are public domain.
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