You’ve got a great career ahead of you…
I pan my gaze across an ocean of neon lights, fast-talking business folk, and false promises. Hidden in the depths of my backpack: a single book, waiting patiently for the moment I escape.
“You’ve got a great career ahead of you,” she says. We stand on the corner of a carpeted trade show floor surrounded by the omnipresent ringing and dinging of a thousand slot machines. They vie for attention here as much as they do in an actual casino.
Here, they won’t siphon your money. Just your time and attention.
“Here” is a greasy place, embodied by parties “where deals are made” and middle-aged white-guy handshakes. The kind that glisten with sweat and squeeze just a bit too hard.
Behind me, those same guys circle the show floor like sharks sniffing for blood. Salesmen in too-big suits chase after sandals-and-socks wearing “entrepreneurs” who were gifted high ranking pseudo-jobs at casinos because they knew someone who knew an industry “power player.”
I snap back to the imminently ending conversation. She’s saying goodbye and wishing me the best. “Say hi to the rest of the team for me!”
“Sure thing, and it was SO great to see you!” I force a bright smile, making sure it reaches my eyes. She turns and wobbles away, shoes digging into the unforgivingly soft carpet. My face shifts from jovial to indifference-bordering-on-anger, and I walk in the opposite direction. I won’t say a damn thing to the team.
A slow 360-degree twirl bathes my eyes in an iridescent rainbow of company logos and marketing imagery hanging from displays on the ceiling. Funny how everyone always seems to have the latest and greatest gambling technology.
I carry on, slumped over. My lack of insoles shouts up my leg and into my lower back. And I’m only four hours into day one.
I meander through the labyrinth of glittery screens boasting scantily clad animated fever dream girls meant to entice “young people”—people like me, by the industry’s standards—into feeding the machine with a wad of Washingtons. I press the buttons, I pull the levers, I spin the reels. I wonder why these show-goers think they’re important. Is it because their livelihood depends on people pressing these buttons, pulling these levers, and spinning these reels?
A friend and former colleague stops me. He’s with a different company now, and he wants to show me some of the “fun” stuff they’ve been working on. I’ve seen it a million times before. Dragons intertwine on the screen as fiery symbols ignite the reels, ushering a big win bonus round or some shit like that. A gaggle of cartoonishly stylized babies busts open a pot of gold coins to celebrate a two-dollar win.
“This one’s really volatile,” my friend tells me, “Made for the bonus chasers.” A beer-league Greek God knock-off oversees this spin of the reels. The spin ends with no wins. The God smiles.
My friend’s genuine enthusiasm drains me.
This convention center collects a hoard of self-important people who make this show out to be the event of the century. It’s fruitless to remind them it happens every year.
My third go-around leaves me tired and shaky. I glance behind the black curtains that comprise the border of the show floor. Behind them, a sea of concrete pillars. A few rolling garbage bins. A forklift. Mostly, it’s empty space. Half the building consumed by “heavy-hitters,” the other half left to gather dust as the salespeople “make headway with potential leads.”
I venture back to my booth. “My company spent $4,000 for me to be here,” I think. Or maybe I whisper it to myself.
My department’s section of the booth is dim and empty. My sales colleagues are meeting with customers. They boss me around because they know I won’t refuse. This is the one week per year when they’re the superstars. This show is the time of year when they can write “I’m awesome” in the memo line of their commission checks.
“We need more fidget spinners on the table,” says the boss-baby-looking guy who called me an idiot just one day before for getting fidget spinners in the first place. He also told my boss to “buy that kid some new pants.” I unload the nearest box of fidget spinners onto the table. I find another box, slide into the coatroom, and dump its contents into his computer bag.
Two minutes later, I’m back at our booth. The fidget spinners are gone. I load more.
I order room service. Chicken noodle soup and french fries. The food comes to me on a metallic platter adorned with condiments and salt packets.
Belly full, I prop my bloated self up with a glob of pillows and crack open The Name Of The Wind. Kvothe regales me with his exploits and adventures. I pine for more stories like this. I long for my story to feel more like his. In a swirling mass of corporate jargon and unrealistic expectations, I struggle to stay afloat.
Nobody asks me what I want. They tell me what they need, and they expect it to be done. The Name Of The Wind asks nothing of me, and I feel a change broiling within. Long basking in the ease of young adult fantasy, I now crave challenge and complexity.
Ravenous, I read 200 pages in a single sitting, until my eyelids start to pull me to a world between sleep and waking. For a stretch, The Name Of The Wind makes me happy. I smile, drearily progressing through my bedtime routine, and imagine plucky, melancholy melodies resounding through a tavern as I fall asleep.
Alison walks up to me. “How are you doing?” She asks. Alison is the booth model assigned to my department. They’re necessary because they’re models, you see. And if you don’t have models for your booth, then what reason will all these casino owners have to visit your booth packed with gambling products?
Alison is nice. I’ve told her multiple times I have nothing for her to do other than collect business cards or reload the fidget spinners. I apologize again for the lack of excitement she’ll inevitably endure over the next two and a half days. She takes it in stride. “They pay me either way,” she says. She hands me a small stack of cards and I slot them into my little folio, which I carry around because I am a professional.
Those business cards are on a one-way trip to the single-stream recycling plant. And the people who handed them to Alison certainly expected their contact info to reach the desk of our CEO. I pretend to feel sad for them as I dump their cardstock identities into the recycling. Maybe they’ll become a Starbucks cup.
“This game isn’t loading.” Our content lead can’t hide the shimmer of gleeful disappointment in his eyes. “How come it’s not working?” I can tell he’s happy to blame me, a writer, for this malfunctioning mix of math, code, and art.
“Well, you gave me the latest links to those games yesterday, and those are the links I uploaded to this device.” I tell him. “If the game doesn’t work, it means you gave me the wrong link or your game is faulty.”
“It should be working, though.”
“If you had given me the right link, maybe it would be.”
He storms off. Apparently, the sixth and nowhere-near-final installment of this leprechaun game is crucial to his next meeting. Pin your problems on someone else, buddy.
Two hours later, our sales lead wanders into the whitewashed meeting room I reserved for an interview. The reporter has a camera and a microphone in hand, ready to go.
“You didn’t tell me this was gonna be a video,” blurts the interview subject. The reporter blinks. I prepared for this. I show him a screenshot of the very email chain in which I informed him of this video interview and to which he responded: “Sounds great, looking forward to it.”
I see righteousness flee his eyeballs. Anger rushes in for an instant to replace it, then makes way for a poor attempt to recover from his screw-up. “Just messing with you,” he says, squaring his shoulders happily. He’s thrilled with his lie. I am too, but only because I caught him mid-complacency and forced him to perform verbal gymnastics to cover for his own idiocy.
He answers the questions and hits the talking points. Sounds of the show floor bleed into the thin-walled meeting room and the cheap leather chair squeaks as he shifts in his seat.
My boss and my senior team members will think this interview is a game-changer. Something that will set us apart. In two years, the same man will respond to the same questions with the same answers. “This one’s a game-changer,” they’ll say. And we’ll continue the game until someone finds out I’m faking it and fires me.
I have a great career ahead of me, though.
I tell my boss and one trustworthy coworker not to bother contacting me this evening. I have plans.
I walk through the labyrinthine show floor and hitch a cab to my hotel. I stock up on Chinese food and venture to my room. The Name of the Wind rests on my nightstand. A chunk of pages is starting to look worn. The sort of worn that only a well-loved book can be. The wear and tear of use, the slow degrading of something I love because I wring out of it every drop of joy I can.
When I finish the book, all of its pages will look darkened, warped, and used. I will display it on my favorites shelf just like that for years to come, its cracked and weather spine poking out between special editions of other stories I’ve loved.
Tonight, I read 400 pages. I am up far too late, but the story is far too good. I sense a transformation. My eagerness to read has returned after years of being tempered by society’s expectations, responsibilities at work, and a lingering uncertainty that I wasn’t truly enjoying the material I so often engaged with.
The Name of the Wind is different. It is what I need in this moment. When this one passes, I’ll seek other moments. I know I will find them, but for now, this one will do. In this moment, I begin to grasp the parts of myself I’ve locked away for the benefit of others. I understand for a glorious instant that my identity isn’t tied to a dead-end job.
Haggard, pale faces haunt the aisles between loud, clanging machines. Feet shuffle across the carpet, collecting static and frizzing once-gelled hairdos. Croaky whispers recount last night’s escapades, the deal-making parties to which I was (thankfully) not invited.
Hungover ghosts float between the booths from meeting to meeting. It’s a forced slog. A deathly procession.
I scroll through my texts. Last night, I ignored a few invites to “team dinners” that would surely have degraded into benders bursting with peer pressure and unsolicited career advice.
The crowds disperse over the hours, and the very important business people catch their early flights home. I count the 15-minute increments until I can leave. I have to pack up the fidget spinners and ship them back to my office. It’s a highly important task only befitting a marketing associate.
The show floor closes, the slot machines go dark, and the union workers file in to disassemble the hodgepodge of machinery, cheap furniture, and electrical equipment. I weave and bob, careful to stay out of their way as they haul 1500-pound money-suckers into crates six times my size. I shove the fidget spinners into a box and steal some duct tape to secure the package. I address it, set it somewhere I hope the trade show team will find it, and leave.
On my flight home, I read about Kvothe, who kills kings and performs beautiful songs for thousands. I wonder briefly if I consume so much because I’m terrified to create. I contemplate what would happen if I applied myself to a passion. I close the book, brush off the thought and let the motion-sickness pill lull me into an uneasy mid-flight sleep. I don’t need to create when I have a job that lends me such valuable opportunities. After all, I have a great career ahead of me.