Chapter 1: Stitch & Bitch
“I’m walking the walk and doing all the right things! So how could I get fired? Why me? I mean… I’m six whole months sober! And it wasn’t even my fault! I didn’t do anything to deserve it!” I stabbed the embroidery needle through the linen fabric with more force than needed and huffed a frustrated sigh.
Murmurs from the thirty-plus women in the AA meeting seemed to challenge the “not my fault” statement. I insisted, “Seriously! Ask Jenny! It really wasn’t my fault!” I looked at my sponsor, sitting close beside me in the circle, but her unreadable expression didn’t support my point.
“And no matter how much I pray; I still can’t find a job.”
“How long have you looked for a job, Lela?” The question came from Jenny’s sponsor, Nancy, from the other side of the circle.
Of course I knew her question was the beginning of a lecture about patience, and that was a problem all around because I hadn’t had time to look for a job yet. Maybe she thought I was just a whining newcomer and her judgement pissed me off, so I snapped back, “It just happened two days ago!”
The entire circle of women laughed, and Nancy added, “Maybe you should look a little longer before you bitch about not finding a job.” That snarky phrase brought even more laughs.
“But what if there aren’t any jobs for a washed-up advertising writer? That’s my fear. And y’all, my rent is due… I’m in a world of hurt.”
“Your time is up, Lela.”
“But I’m not finished!”
“You actually went over. No matter how serious your issue, newcomers get a max of three minutes of stitching and bitching. So, pass the needlework to the left, please.”
“That’s another thing! I want to bitch about this stitch and bitch meeting! I thought it was funny at first, but you guys give me so much grief that I don’t even feel welcome here! And how can Jenny call this her home group? You guys are flat-out MEAN!”
Chuckles all around, even from Jenny. I clenched my jaw and thrust the embroidery hoop to the next woman, also with more force than needed. She gave me a look of pity and deftly picked up the needle. “Actually, I have only gratitude to share today, so thirty seconds will do.” Then she spouted some happy-ass news about something at work; something I cared about NOT ONE BIT.
I leaned to whisper to Jenny. “These women don’t believe I have real problems, Jenny, and I do! How can you stand this happy-butterflies-out-your-butt meeting?”
“Sounds like this would be a good day for you to just listen, hon. Listen and learn.”
I rolled my eyes. I only need to learn how to find a job… a job worthy of my advertising degree and decades of experience. After all, I deserve a certain level of respect as a professional, an award-winning writer.
As the embroidery hoop passed from woman to woman, each shared honest wisdom about how to live sober… because this meeting attracted women with long-term sobriety. Only a handful struggled with life the way I did. On good days I admired them but doubted I could ever be sober enough to just need thirty seconds of stitching. Yet I continued to come, every Wednesday before Jenny and I met at the Subway in Pompano Beach, home of the Goodyear blimp.
Getting fired was a smack in the face for me and I still felt buckets of anger toward Smyth Software in general and my boss Dale in particular. Plus, I guess I felt a touch of Shame for not standing up for myself, and for not seeing through his ploy to get me fired. Like ex-husband Stuart, Dale had made me look like a fool and I’d played right into his hands. Now I’d suffer without a reference from my most recent job.
“Actually, I’m double-screwed, Jenny. And I can’t let it go. My sense of peace is gone and I’m out of control of things.”
“What do you mean ‘again?’”
“Sorry… I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Quit making it worse, Jenny!”
“Your stack of notepads isn’t helping you sort through options?”
“Not this time.”
“You can’t put things in alphabetical order?”
“Hell, I can’t even recite the alphabet! Nothing has happened yet but nothing is listed on the job sites or in the classified ads. And the real problem hasn’t come yet. See, I drank through the technology revolution in the advertising business. I’m out of the loop and too old to offer a fresh perspective for fast-paced ad agencies.”
“Something will come around. Keep looking.”
Sarcastic and snippy, I said, “I’m glad you’re so sure of that, ma’am. Send some of that assurance my way, please, since you’re so in control of it.”
“Watch your mouth… Lela. All you need to do is keep walking the walk. You’ll get there.”
A growl of frustration shot through my lips. “You just don’t get it.”
“I get that you’re upset, I really do. But I can’t help you do this… I can’t make it go away for you. Why do you seem to expect meto fix the problem?”
“You always fix my problems.”
Jenny threw her head back and laughed – loud enough to draw the attention of other Subway customers. “You only THINK it’s me, Lela! All your progress in sobriety?” I nodded, hoping for a pat on the back. “All that progress has come from your own hard work.”
“Really. So keep working hard and you’ll continue to make progress. I’m sure of that and I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Maybe something will show up in the classified ads this Sunday.”
“Do you have your résumé ready?”
“The guts of it, and ready to customize for whatever job I’m shooting for.”
“A cover letter?”
“Ditto. Ready but for fill-in-the-blanks depending on where it’s going.”
“Then you’re prepared… what are you bitching about?”
“I have nobody to send my perfect cover letter to! Don’t you get it?!”
“First… keep your voice down. Second… do some research on how long people look for a job. I bet you’ll find that you’re not supposed to get a job in the first month of looking.”
“A month?! I can’t wait that long! I have bills!”
“Then get off your high horse and start bagging groceries! Go to the mall and fold clothes… anything, Lela! Why are you so against that?”
I put my head down, knowing I should do exactly as Jenny suggested, but I honestly believed it was beneath me. Quick comeback, Lela. Think! I said, “It would be so temporary… is that really fair to the grocery store? Or the clothing store?”
“That’s not the point. The point is you’re a snob. A job snob.”
I looked at my watch, trying to avoid this line of questioning. “Oh, shit! I’m going to be late for house arrest! I gotta go right now!”
“How convenient.” Jenny didn’t move, but I gathered my papers and jumped up in a frantic rush.
I kissed her left cheek. “See ya next week at the Stitch and Bitch!”
“Call me,” she yelled at my back as I flew out the door.
A job snob! How DARE she say that!? I’m just a down-to-earth alcoholic trying to find my way. I have a lot to offer and a talent sure to be an asset for any ad agency. As long as I realize it may take a while for my salary to reach the six figures it was before, I’ll be fine.
The right side of my brain argued with the left side, and I defended myself out loud. “It doesn’t matter how long ago I earned those awards! They’re still in the books. National superlatives don’t go away.”
A pause for another problem from the doubting side of my brain.
“No! It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since I’ve been a copywriter! Advertising is advertising. The basic rules don’t change.”
Another pause, another defense.
“Someone of my caliber can’t work for minimum wage. It’s unhealthy for me, likely to throw me into a deep Bi-Polar depression cave – can’t do that.”
You can prove your talent, Lela… it’s there waiting for you. I don’t know why I’d avoided putting my portfolio together for so long, but on that frantic ride home, I made a decision to use my anger for a good cause. Make that portfolio sing, Lela. Show ‘em what you’re worth.
Night had fallen as I unlocked the door to my apartment, and I heard the strange, distant buzz-ring of my GPS box, checking the whereabouts of my ankle bracelet. I’d barely made it home in time. Too close for comfort, Lela. That’s all you need now… to go back to jail for breaking probation.I said aloud, “Yeah… that would help you find a job, for sure. Then bagging groceries would sound pretty damn good.”
Chapter 2: Three Pictures
Giving myself only an hour more to feel sorry for myself, I took a deep breath and opened the closet door on the left side of my bedroom. Once again, I spotted the box labeled “Lela’s Portfolio” on the top shelf… and once again, I cussed the movers under my breath. Why would they put such a heavy box on the top shelf!? I’m going to hurt myself getting that down; I can see it coming.
I’d borrowed a folding step stool from Jenny for the specific purpose of getting that damn box down. It housed my credibility… a rich-leather binder with transparent sleeves… holding my best advertising work. Ad reprints, brochures and mailers, annual reports – all the projects that represented my talent. Separately, a VCR tape of my best TV spots and a cassette of production-rich radio spots presented multi-media experience.
I reasoned that the younger writers would have transferred things over to CDs, but I was old-school by necessity. I didn’t know how to upgrade, nor who could do it for me, nor did I have the money to pay for such luxuries. I just hoped a potential employer would appreciate quality work over presentation format. Fingers crossed.
Too many pieces crowded the portfolio; I knew that. Weeding it down would take some time, but I knew the work would speak for itself. Most of the ads and printed pieces had been designed by ex-husband Miller McKeown, and all the TV and videos had been directed by Augie Highfield, my best buddy, worst enemy, and one of the best directors in the Southeast.
Those two names, along with my own, were the cream of the crop in the creative field back in the day.
Yeah, until your drinking brought you down… until your clients couldn’t depend on you… until you beat your head against the wall and still couldn’t come up with an idea.
Of course, nobody in the West Palm Beach area knew of my reputation, neither the good part or the bad part, but the contents of that box would prove my excellence. My future absolutely depended on it.
Balancing on the stool, I reached to tip the bottom of the box up from the shelf. Oh, shit. It’s too lightweight! What happened? Is there another portfolio box I haven’t seen? The box, literally, fell into my hands. I stepped down from the stool and carried it to the bed, sitting beside it.
I shook it; a rustling sound and no more. I swear… I think it’s empty! How can that be?
I ripped the not-sticky-anymore tape and opened the flaps. In the bottom, one measly envelope… addressed to… nobody. It said, “Sorry for your loss.” What the hell?
Inside the envelope, three pictures.
1.) The leather binder licked with flames; a layer of firewood beneath it.
2.) The cassette tape and videotape; melted on top of the burning binder.
3.) Stuart holding a lighter; an evil grin on his red face.
My whole body frozen in shock, the pictures fell through my fingers and onto the bed, face up. I stared at them, drilled my eyes into their detail. How could he do this? Now I have no future in advertising. I’m completely and totally screwed. How did he know the worst possible thing to do to me… the ideal way to hurt me?
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and upper lip; it had appeared though it was plenty cool inside. More thoughts. This simply isn’t happening. It’s a hallucination, a horrible dream. Minutes passed before I could fathom the reality. I’m doomed. Fuck you, Stuart. Fuck you very much.
I didn’t think I’d ever be too upset to cry… too blown away to be upset… too awed to believe in the horror of what had happened.
I walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge, then drew a blank. What was I looking for? I looked in the pantry, hoping to give myself a clue… then figured it out. I’ve come for a beer. I NEED a beer, a hundred beers, a thousand! A fifth of vodka and a truckload of lime… and a gun.
Jenny was livid when she heard the news, and more livid when I told her about my robot-walk to the fridge. “Don’t you let that sonofabitch make you drink! He’s the loser, not you! Let him drink… and rot in hell, for that matter. But don’t you dare let him win, Lela Fox. No way. Never. Got it?”
“But Jenny… now I can’t get any advertising job! Something I’ve done all my life and now I have nothing to show for it!”
“I’m going to make you rephrase that, you know.”
“How? Your little teaching trick won’t work this time. Without a portfolio, I have no job. No history despite a life-long career−”
“You didn’t do it all your life.
“And why did you stop writing?” Jenny drew her words out in multiple syllables, forcing me to answer logically and honestly.
“Yeah-yeah… because I drank my freelance business away.”
“And before that?”
“I got mad and quit my job.”
“And that’s called…” The rise in her voice went off the scale.
“Dammit! Wreckage of the past. But Jenny, don’t be so−”
“So what? Real? Practical?”
She laughed. “That’s my job, Lela. Here’s the truth: your problem is temporary.”
“Burning my credibility in a fireplace is pretty damn permanent, Jenny!”
“Make more credibility… a new portfolio.”
“HA! Right. Create twenty years of award-winning work for make-believe clients… get it printed, produced, hire the models. You’re crazy.”
“Find an understanding employer.”
“That’s just ridiculous! Can’t you see the magnitude of−”
“Offer to start on a contract basis, to prove yourself. Just tell the truth and you may get the sympathy vote.” I stopped. Could that work? How competitive is the job market right now? Jenny continued, “Make a video… tongue in cheek… saying how friendly the divorce was, tell the truth but be creative. I mean… you two… you can’t make that shit up. It’s a soap opera!”
“As the Portfolio Turns…”
“Perfect! I’ll help you.”
“I could make it even funnier with cheap and cheesy production… on purpose, ya know?”
“Now you’re talking!”
“And I could do a magazine ad saying the same thing. And use the pictures of the binder on fire.”
“Be mega-creative… with no client to make changes that ruin it.”
“I think this just might work, Jen.”
“I think you’re right!” After a pause, we both cracked up laughing. I laughed chock-full of ideas and hope, and Jenny laughed, she said later, because I so easily transformed from gloom to glee.
“Jenny, I can do it. I can!”
“And remember, the Sunday classifieds are coming. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a small agency needs a kickass copywriter. The boss is a woman…”
“A recently divorced woman…”
“Who got screwed in the divorce…” Our laughter tinkled through the line.
My mind reeled with ideas. “This is going to work. If nothing else, it will be fun. And I can say I tried.”
“Because that sonofabitch can’t keep you down.”
“Hell no! I’m smarter than he is, Jenny. He’s evil, but I’m smart.”
“Absolutely. You need to get your ideas on paper, Ms. Writer. Now.”
I worked until two in the morning, creating a script for a slap-your-knee hilarious skit. To myself: “Tomorrow, I’ll shop for props and make some calls. I need it ready to go ASAP.”
My prop-shopping list, carefully written on a yellow pad, led me on adventure through Delray Beach and further into the depths of West Palm.
Like I’d done in Rockville when I produced commercial for a living, I created a little pouch for receipts; I returned all props unless they were destroyed during the shoot.
-plastic wedding bands
-fake moustache (handlebar)
-ugly bouquet of flowers
-false eyelashes, bigger is better
-ugly wedding or prom dress
-men’s silky bow tie
-weird men’s hat – top hat?
-bandit face mask
-a joke lighter or fireplace matches
-toy fire fighter’s helmet
Jenny would play the dastardly villain Stuart Weinstein and I’d be the naïve bride, batting her eyelashes and immersed in the sweet smell of the fake flowers. Cruel tricks along the way – like he trips me, etc. Then he sets fire to a stack of paper and I run in like a firefighter to douse it. In the end, I stab him with the toy sword, and tie his hands to his feet.
Final scene: I stand over Stuart in victory, my foot on his back as he lays crying and screaming.
"Yeah, that'll work!"
END OF SAMPLE