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The Real Thing

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“No,” Stan says, speculative—which is when he's at his most convincing. For a long moment his mouth hangs open. He plants a finger on one of the frosty green Coke bottles. “You can see it.”

Her hand's slipped out from under her chin and she's leaning forward as his finger squiggles down the page. She takes another hit, hears him say “hey” in a little boy's voice, slight and slighted. “I don't think so.” That doesn't break the ad's pull on her, the mound of crushed ice she finds herself wishing she could bury her head in. Bright crimped bottle caps that, turned on their sides, would look like miniature suns.

“S-E-X.” Stan laughs through his nose and she passes the joint. “Hey, and the tag still works: it's the real thing.” He inhales, bringing the magazine to his face and affecting a squint. “It...says, 'choke on my Coke.'”

“Ha.” Not quite a word, not quite a laugh, it tickles on the way out. “How hard do we have to work to just get them to see what's there? And now here they are, searching for something that isn't.”

“Look at them,” Stan sighs, regarding the pair of bottles fondly. “Like a couple of babes lounging at the pool. This is the most obscene thing I have ever seen.”

“Well, I know that's not true.”

“They're not even wearing pants.”

Stan packs it in (his words), turning the light off before he goes to make a point or as some sort of hazy kindness. It doesn't occur to her to turn it back on. She lingers at the edge of all their creative clutter, the magazines strewn over the couch glossy as silverfish in Manhattan's brushed-off evening light. Smoke lazes in the air, the overripe smell of marijuana. Every time she swallows it's like she's gulping back her heart.

She needs her typewriter.

Closing the door softly, as if to preserve everything that took place behind it, Peggy slips into the hall. There's a churchlike silence. As she approaches her office, her steps click like the turning of a combination lock. A light flutters on in reception, and she stops. She listens to the front door squeak and then a flow of voices, the sound so natural it might have been there all along, like a tap left running. One's deftly commanded—its pauses sharp, threatening to skid into laughter. The other is coaxed as if from a deep reserve. Roger. Don.

They round the corner in step, Roger stopping short. His smile alights on her, incidentally, before finding Don. “Do you pay her to stick around until after you're gone? So it's less—“

“Roger,” Don says, striking a note of exhausted amusement. It's enough. She tries to gauge his drunkenness at a glance: his coat looks like it'd be more at ease slung over a stool, but his eyes are still sharp, haven't turned to bright chips of ice. She must be getting the same treatment because the first thing he asks is, “Where's Stan?”

She feels caught, despite herself. Everything she's seen and heard—done—in this office, and a look wrenches her with guilt. She lifts her chin. “I sent him home.”

“Good,” Roger says, thumping Don on the back. “Send him, too.”

“We're on our way out,” Don says. Though she should be watching him, reading in lofted eyebrows and a clipped smile the only apology he knows how to give, she catches Roger looking at him, his face older and more human with concern. His laugh lines go unused.

Peggy glances away, suddenly, acutely—the moment of inversion, her senses training on herself—aware that she's stoned. “I was working on Pops-Rite,” she volunteers, hesitating. It's her account—Don had handed it over saying he hoped it didn't turn the movies into work. She can't tell, sometimes, if what's between them is strong for all it's borne or very fragile. “If you have a minute?”

Don doesn't relax; that would mean allowing for the existence of a part of him not suited to friendly bullying in dark hallways. It would mean her knowing which of them is doing the bullying. What he does is shrug and tell Roger sorry with his eyes on her, his gaze kindling.

“Well, goodnight,” Roger sighs to the building at large. “If you're still here in the morning, I'm gonna start charging rent,” he warns as she opens the door to her office, resisting the urge to make sure Don's following.

She snaps on the lamp, and while Don shucks his coat and tosses it over the arm of her couch they both listen for Roger's retreating footsteps. “Are you waiting for him to walk into something?” Don murmurs, eyes skewing to the wall, and it's as if she's come out of the quiet and into his voice. “So,” he says, a hole in his smile where a cigarette belongs. He remedies that quickly, snagging one from his pocket and lighting up. “What's the problem?”

Peggy crosses to her desk, picks at the corner of one of the papers there. “Was it bad?” she asks plainly, looking up. Realizing too late she sounds like somebody afraid to face their own wound. The page is still curled against her fingernail.

He does something with his jaw that makes her imagine bones grinding, yanks his cigarette from his lips. “I thought you were working.”

She startles herself with a laugh. “Don. Talking to you is work.”

For an instant she can see that hit home, the misstep in expression, a lurch toward hurt. Then he busies himself with a glass and a bottle. Even in the lamp's glow he seems shadowed, stubble falling across his cheeks. She throws a help-yourself gesture at his back; he swings around just in time to miss it. “It wasn't anything Roger could make worse,” he says from the place the whiskey opens at the back of his throat. He shifts his hold on the glass, gaze dipping to take strict measure of what's left. Then his eyes settle on her.

“What?”

“I've never seen you like this,” he says. Appraising, the look he gives her weightless and revealing as a beam of light.

“Stan's told me you've done it with him,” she says, trying to fix him with something similar, a look to live up to.

He surrenders a smile, eyebrows rising and falling. “That was part of a classified operation.” A pause, his smile sealing up, voice going rigid. “It's very fashionable out in L.A.”

She remembers his stupid birthday party in that apartment. Everyone's drinks quivering from the music, Megan's bright plumage of friends. “Orville Redenbacher,” she says at last.

They watch it in the conference room, he for the first time and she for the hundredth: Orville Redenbacher of Valparaiso thrusting a jar of kernels at the camera, his nasal voice outpacing the popping corn with its patter. The two poppers side by side, one dislodging the lid with its bounty of popcorn.

“Well, if I was from Indiana, I certainly wouldn't advertise it.” Don ashes his cigarette, the movement neat. His eyes seek out hers, glimmer as he admits, “Illinois.”

“Do you like it?”

“Orville Redenbacher,” he repeats with a rueful, admiring shake of his head. “Give 'em a thousand years, what agency could've come up with him.”

“DDB.”

“...okay.”

“I know,” she bursts out, “we're competing with those glasses and that hair.”

“And bowtie.” He falls silent. When he speaks, his voice is heavy. “Authenticity.”

Peggy feels a sigh ease out into the office, their shared dark. She feels a smile taking shape. “How do you compete with that.”