Without giving too much away, today’s story is a brutal, razor-sharp satire of brand consumerism, institutional racism, the private prison complex, and well, you’ll see. Thrilled to share this killer dispatch from a fast-rising talent on the speculative fiction scene, Russell Nichols. Enjoy. -the ed.
The hijacker landed Amazon.
The letter bomber got Verizon.
But Nate Campbell wasn’t so lucky. He couldn’t find a sponsor to save his life.
“What can you do for us that other convicts can’t?” asked the rep from Home Depot.
“I’m thorough,” Nate said, his knee bouncing as he sat across from the suited man. “Always going above and beyond the call of duty, you know? And on the streets, I like interacting with people and I can talk to anybody: first-time homebuyers, do-it-yourselfers, contractors. Basically, I got social skills and I can get you that reach you’re looking for.”
The rep sat back, bridging his fingers. Nate thought to keep talking, to show the rep how effective he’d be if given a PR chip. But in the previous interview, reps from Target told him “less is more”—just before shooting down his bid for sponsorship—so instead he said nothing, surrendering to the background clamor of the Convicts Convention a.k.a. Con Con.
“Remind me again what you did, your offense.”
“I, um …” Nate wiped his palms on his slacks. “It was arson.”
The rep scrunched up his face. “You seem like a good guy, Mr. Campbell. But I’m afraid you’re not a good match for us. We’d rather not have our target demos associating us with fires, I’m sure you understand.”
“But I can represent fire proofing. I mean, you do sell fire resistant materials, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry.” The rep stood up, held out a hand to shake. “Good luck to you.”
Nate shook the man’s hand and left the booth. He hated this game, all the fake smiles and false hope, trying to sell himself on the off chance some company might recognize his value, make him their new pop-up adman. What was so wrong with him? It couldn’t be the crime. Criminals locked up for worse were gobbling up sponsors like free apple pie.
The axe murderer scored Equifax.
The extortionist linked up with Comcast.
The Ponzi scheme con artist had Spirit Airlines, but the company canceled a day before the sponsorship deadline, so he was sent back to whatever overcrowded, underground privately owned prison he crawled out of.
Moving through the convention mob, Nate tried not to think of his deadline tomorrow. The reps, he thought, would smell the depression on him, the desperation. Doomed man smell. But the reality was, Nate now had zero prospects. They all rejected him. Every last one on his list said he wasn’t a “good match,” which, considering his offense, he took as a personal dig.
The convention hall suddenly felt no bigger than a cell. Globs of sweat fell from under his arms. He needed air. He needed quiet. He needed the room to stop whizzing by, a blur of corporate logo holograms going round and round like he was in the middle of the Daytona 500.
In the restroom, Nate splashed water on his face and neck to get his wits back. He couldn’t panic. He had to hold it together to land a sponsor. But it was like the brands all conspired against him, made a pact to blackball him. He stared at his reflection, droplets of water falling down his cheeks. He practiced his smile a few times, patted his Caesar, took a deep breath and found that last ounce of strength.
“You got this,” he told himself.
Heading back to the party, Nate bumped into James, his second cellmate from corporate, a hustler, an identity thief who got caught selling fake bonds.
“Crazy Nate, I was looking for you. What’s the deal?”
“Nothing. Laying low.” Nate waved his hand at the booths and bright lights. “All this … schmoozing with the suits ain’t really my scene.”
“I hear that. But you gotta do what you gotta do, my nigga. Opportunity’s a-knocking and that bitch ain’t one to be stood up.”
Nate looked at James, who was all pearly whites at this point.
“You didn’t,” Nate said.
“I most definitely did.”
“Say hello to the newest pop-up adman for Wells Fargo.”
“Yo, that’s … congrats!” Nate tried to sound excited, but claws of envy ripped through his gut, making it feel artificial. So he dialed back. “That’s big-time, G.”
“Appreciate it. What about you, though?”
“Me?” Nate rubbed his throat. “Man, I been rethinking this whole situation.”
“I mean, getting out is one thing, but the remote control part—I don’t know about that.”
James flagged down a Pepsico serverbot for two shots of 100 percent pure spring water. He took one, handed one to Nate.
“Think about it,” Nate went on, “a random marketing agent—probably some exec’s kid, let’s be honest—gets to push a button and make you blurt out some company promo whenever. That’s some next-level slavery right there.”
James discarded both cups and the serverbot rolled away.
“I hear that,” James said, “but you ain’t gonna stand here and tell me you wouldn’t choose that over being locked up in corporate hell. How many interviews you had?”
Nate shrugged. “Campbell’s was my number one pick, what with my last name and, you know, soup is hot, so I figured they could play off the arson with some sort of ‘new flame’ campaign.”
“Sounds like you pitched your ass off. What’d they say?”
“They said I’m not a ‘good match.’”
“‘Good match.’” James smirked. “They got jokes.”
“Right. Thinking they slick.”
“Mmm.” James rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “What about Eckleburger?”
Nate looked over at the holographic sign of bespectacled eyes reflecting a tasty burger. “That bootleg burger joint?”
“Not bootleg,” James said. “It’s clean meat. Test-tube burgers.”
The fast food chain wasn’t even on Nate’s radar. He’d been there once or maybe twice but couldn’t get past the concept of eating meatless meat grown in a lab, in vitro. Plus, it turned out, Eckleburger’s founder was a real-life racist.
“Ain’t no way in hell they sponsoring me,” Nate said.
“Why not though?”
Nate laughed. “Why not? The CEO flat out said, ‘We can’t let these niggers take over.’”
“But ol’ boy stepped down. And his views don’t reflect—”
“He said, ‘I’m a doctor and I know for a fact Black people are scientifically inferior.’”
“But check it, now they dealing with all that backlash, right? Full damage-control mode. What better move than to rehab a Black convict with a PR chip?”
Nate shook his head. “I’d be the biggest sellout in history.”
“You’d be a soldier.”
“How you figure?”
James looked around, then leaned in. “Niggas be all talk these days, yapping at the mouth, acting like they about this and that. But that’s all it is: acting. Phony as fuck.” He put a hand on Nate’s shoulder and pointed to the Eckleburger sign. “But this here? This ain’t acting. This is activism. This is you flipping the script from the inside.”
Nate stared at the sign, those big eyes staring back at him.
“And on top of that,” James said, “nobody wants a cold burger, so they could take advantage of your record, too.”
Nate nodded. “I could pitch my ‘new flame’ campaign.”
“Boom,” James said. “The light is green, my nigga, all you gotta do is go.”
“Yeah. Okay. Good looking out,” Nate said and started walking off.
“Hold up, hold up.” James pointed to a loose button on Nate’s Salvation Army suit jacket. “You out here unraveling and shit.”
Nate looked down in horror. How did he not see that? How long was it hanging there? Did the company reps notice? Is this loose button why he wasn’t a ‘good match’?
James took off his jacket. “Use mine’s.”
“I owe you one, G.”
“You straight,” he said. “Just pitch like your life depends on it.”
Nate moved through the horde, headed toward those big bespectacled eyes over the lettering that said ECKLEBURGER: It Looks Good In You. At the booth, the rep was on the phone and held up a finger for Nate to wait. Nate practiced the pitch in his head, arranging and rearranging the words to find the perfect order, while his heart tried to break out of his chest. This was insane. He had been grilled by arson investigators, been through trials, been on 23-hour lockdown during a blackout in corporate, but Nate couldn’t remember ever being more nervous, feeling more pressure than he did right now.
Soon as the rep was off the phone, Nate spoke up. “Hello, I know I’m not on your list, but I was hoping for a chance … since you’re free.”
The rep smiled, motioning for Nate to sit. “What’s your name, son?”
Nate shook the man’s hand. “Nate. Nate Campbell.”
“Alright, Mr. Nate Campbell. Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself.”
Nate took a second to breathe. “First, let me say I’m a big fan of your test-tube burgers. When I was out, I used to eat there once a week, at least. Couldn’t believe it wasn’t real meat.”
“That’s music to our ears. What were you in for?”
“I was in a bad way and burned down my house for insurance.”
“Ah, that’s a classic.”
“Um, it was a mistake,” Nate said, “but I’m ready to redeem myself.”
“We’re in the midst of rebranding ourselves. You may have heard our former CEO said some things that, um, don’t reflect the views of the company at large.”
“I heard something about that, but see, I’m of the belief that people can change.”
The rep leaned forward. “Tell me: What can you do for us that other convicts can’t?”
Nate smiled. This was the question he’d been waiting for, and this time he was ready.
“Picture this,” he said, standing up. “I’m out and I’ve got a PR chip from Eckleburger implanted. I’m walking around, telling people about your special lab and the menu and nearest locations. And they know I’m a pop-up adman, so of course they ask me what I did and I tell them I got locked up for arson.” Nate lifted his hands. “But I’ve risen from the ashes! With Eckleburger , I found a new flame—a true love for hot and juicy meatless burgers, a love for the taste of science, a love that ignites the soul, both mine and yours. Eckleburger: It Looks Good In You.”
The rep sat back, bridging his fingers.
Nate held his breath as he sat back down, the bustling world of Con Con fading back in.
“Congratulations,” the rep said.
Nate put a hand to his chest, breathing out all the stress that had built up to this moment.
But as the rep stood, it became clear that he wasn’t looking at Nate or talking to Nate. The rep then extended his hand to someone behind Nate.
“On behalf of Eckleburger,” the rep said, “we’d be honored to sponsor you, Mr. Godfrey.”
Standing there shaking the man’s hand was James.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” James said. “I can’t believe this. My God. I’m free!”
Nate jumped up between them. “What the hell is this?”
James put his hands up. “Look, Nate, don’t get crazy, alright? It was a trial. I had to pitch the company to another brother, to prove I had what it took. Nothing person—”
He didn’t even finish his sentence before Nate lunged at him. But the fight didn’t get far. Security rushed over to drag Nate away and remove him from the convention hall.
The identity thief won Eckleburger.
But Nate Campbell wasn’t so lucky. He was transported back to corporate with other convicts who failed to secure sponsors. He would reflect on everything he could have said and done differently. He would try again at the next Con Con and the one after that and on and on, practicing until his pitch was perfect.