by MATT WHELIHAN
Ed had sat through two days’ worth of speakers and breakout sessions at the hotel. He’d eaten the dry chicken and butter-slicked green beans served in tinfoil trays. He’d slept in the hotel bed with its pillows that gave too easily under the weight of his head. But now it was Sunday afternoon, and Art Worthington—the entire reason Ed had purchased a ticket for the entrepreneurial conference four months prior—was about to take the stage.
He went over the plan again: At the end of Art’s talk, he’d hustle to the front of the auditorium, a copy of Art’s book, Leap Before You Look: Why Risktakers Rule the World, in hand; He’d outlast the well-wishers and the selfie takers, waiting patiently for his opening; And when he saw that opening, he’d fill it with haste, lock eyes with the man and ask him to sign his book.
The autograph itself wasn’t important; it was the moment, that morsel of focused attention that the request would create. As Art took and uncapped the pen Ed handed him—yes, he had purposefully selected a pen with a cap in order to provide an additional, precious second—Ed would proceed with his Superman Pitch.
After that, it would be a landslide of activity. Art would be the catalyst, and Ed’s successful future would rush in to meet him.
Ed had managed to get a seat in the third row of the auditorium. It wasn’t quite as close as he would have liked, but he would make it work. Like Art said in his latest book, “When a plan starts to falter, don’t complain, maintain.”
So he would maintain.
Ed shifted a bit, wondering why they even bothered to put cushions on metal chairs; they didn’t do a damn thing to make his ass more comfortable. He thought of his wife Donna, gone for three years now, and how she used to tell him to stop fidgeting at weddings, funerals, trips to the movie theater.
“It’s like you’re always ready for it to end even when its just begun,” she’d say.
This time, Ed was ready for it to end. The sooner Art finished his talk, the sooner he could execute his plan.
“Excuse me,” a man in the seat next to Ed said. “Did you serve? I feel like a man who served always has a certain look about him.”
Ed turned to face the man, about his own age, also wearing white sneakers and a similar khaki pant and plaid shirt combo.
“That depends,” Ed said. “Does forty years of security work count as serving?”
The man laughed.
“You know what,” he said. “I bet you saw a whole lot more action than I did kicking around bases in Germany and Texas. So yeah, I’d say that counts. What brings you to this hullabaloo?”
“I’ve got a business idea,” Ed said. “But to be honest, I’m here for Art Worthington more than anything else.”
“Me too,” the man said. “All these sessions with their talk of data collection and demographic mapping, social media saturation points—I could care less. I run a landscaping crew, and Art’s books have been a life saver more than I’d like to admit. So what’s your business?”
Before Ed could answer, the lights in the auditorium dimmed. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” started to play over the sound system, and applause ruptured the moment.
Art Worthington jogged onto the stage, his perfect, crescent smile offering a master class on how to charm an audience. He was wearing a navy-blue suit and white shirt, but no tie. Ed knew the look; It was practically Art’s uniform, what he wore in his book jacket photos and press releases.
Art waved to the crowd, took a small bow, then grabbed a microphone from a man on the side of the stage. He made some “settle down” gestures with his hands, and the storm of clapping turned to a trickle.
Art held the microphone up to his mouth and scanned the audience.
“Let’s take some risks,” he said softly.
And then the reassuring smile and the deafening applause returned.
Ed felt himself rising from his chair with the rest of the audience. He placed the book down so he could clap freely.
“Please, please,” Art said. “Let’s save the standing ovations for the end!”
The crowd noise shifted to laughter, a few whoops, some whistles. Then, everyone was back in their seats.
Art started his talk, his tone careful and rhythmic.
Ed could have provided anyone there with an outline. He had spent hours watching Art speak on YouTube, clicking on his Ted Talks and company retreat keynotes, his interviews on MSNBC and guest lectures at colleges.
“Believe it or not, I was scared,” Art was saying. “That’s right. And I made lists of reasons why I wasn’t ready to follow my dreams, why I wasn’t ready to be my own manager. But do you know what was at heart of all those fears?”
He paused and looked around the room.
“No, it wasn’t money. It wasn’t the market. It wasn’t whether my wife was going to feel neglected during those first couple of years when everything would be a madhouse. No. It was change. That’s what scared me the most. And that is why I had to leap before I looked.”
The cheering started again.
Art raised his voice in an attempt to be heard over the applause.
“Because if you sit around thinking about it, you will find reasons not to do it.”
The crowd grew louder, and Art was shouting to keep his voice above them.
“Leap! That’s it! Leap into that business! Just leap already!”
He smiled and nodded his head. He wandered the stage comfortably. It was where he belonged.
“Now let’s talk about how to do that,” he said.
The crowd quieted again, and Ed thought of his desk at home. His desk that was in the spare bedroom, right next to the closet where he had moved Donna’s clothes after deciding he couldn’t just get rid of them. He kept all three of Art’s books there, each one adorned with highlighted passages, post-it-note tabs, and marginalia. It was also where he kept Art’s monthly newsletters, the ones that included the “Art’s Push” column—the column where Art revealed which of his followers he had selected to “push” into that initial leap. That push meant seed money, a blurb on the website, and the all-important Art Worthington cosign.
For almost three years, Ed had read each of them, seeing nothing novel, knowing that his idea held an element of uniqueness that none of them did, knowing that his business would, quite simply, blow Art Worthington’s mind.
“And do you know what I said to him?” Art asked the crowd. “I said, ‘Do you wear water wings when you jump off a diving board?’ Of course not. So don’t waste time and capital on building safety nets that you will never need. Just leap.”
There was more applause.
The man next to Ed nudged him with his elbow.
“He’s got me going,” he said. “I’m heading straight to the bank after this. I’ve had that loan paperwork filled out for weeks. No more excuses. Un uh.”
“Art knows his stuff,” Ed said with a smile.
The man turned his attention back to the stage. Ed shifted his gaze to the book in his hands.
Was he ready?
The moment was coming on rapidly, poking at him, telling him there was still a chance to back out.
Ed ignored the doubts, or what Art called “the fences along the precipice,” and ran through the three characteristics of the Superman Pitch in his mind:
First, it had to be faster than a speeding bullet. Even the thirty-second barrage of an elevator pitch was too long according to Art. Ed had been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, and he’d gotten his pitch down to an appealing twelve seconds.
Speed would not be a problem.
Second, it had to be more powerful than a locomotive. That meant using words from Art’s list of Power Phrases, words that engaged a listener, striking them like an oncoming train.
Ed had spent weeks trying out different terms, recording himself with a webcam in order to see how the words sounded, how they hitwhen he listened back to them. After twenty-two different combinations, he had settled on “life-changing,” “first and only,” and “revitalize.”
Power was not a problem.
Finally, the pitch had to leap tall buildings in a single bound. That meant it could be no longer than a single sentence. More than one sentence meant that the initial leap had been weak and ill-planned, a kid playing at superhero before smacking into the side of a high-rise.
Ed had started with three sentences, and then he had twisted and tweaked, trimming away redundancies and unnecessary modifiers, finding ways to connect ideas with conjunctions and prepositions, appositives and asides. And then he had it.
He could do it in a single bound.
There was another swell of applause and Ed was back on his feet, the second standing ovation underway.
Art was thanking the crowd, waving, bowing, laughing like he’d never seen such a reception before. Ed turned to his right and pushed his way towards the center aisle. Two young women next to him grimaced as he squeezed past.
“Excuse you,” one said.
Ed didn’t respond. He had to escape the row and start for the front of the auditorium. If he waited any longer, his path to the stage may already be blocked by hangers-on.
“Hey, man, I’m trying to watch here,” the guy at the end of the aisle said as Ed stepped on his toes.
Then he was in the aisle, the applause still surrounding him, and it didn’t look good. A couple dozen audience members already stood at the foot of the stage waving to Art, asking for autographs, calling his name.
Ed wanted to yell at them, tell them to give the man a chance to catch his breath.
His steps were flustered and shortened by the expanding mob. The applause was starting to decline, and Ed was losing hope as he found himself pressed up against a bald man in a corduroy blazer. He could hear the doors opening in the back of the auditorium and the thick droning of hundreds of conversations as people started to exit. He was at least five rows of bodies away from Art, and he could see no clear passage to the stage.
Ed watched Art genuflect and lift a book and a pen from a woman’s hands. As he signed the book, he turned his attention to another man and laughed at something he said.
Ed couldn’t believe it. That guy had rushed to nab a spot along the stage just so he could make a wisecrack? There were people who neededto see Art here.
He would maintain.
Ed wedged a shoulder between the man in the corduroy blazer and a younger guy dressed like he had taken Art’s jacket photo to a tailor and demanded that the look be duplicated.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the younger guy said to him. “There’s nowhere to squeeze into up here.”
Ed leaned his body forward some more.
“You’re going to need to back up,” the guy added.
The man in the corduroy blazer seemed to agree, eying Ed with a face that suggested he had just smelled something horrible.
And then Ed’s hand accidently brushed the leg of a woman in front of the younger guy. At least he thought it was her leg.
The woman groaned and spun around.
“What the hell was that?” she said, moving her gaze between the three men standing behind her.
But then it happened. Art rose from his knee, flashed a final smile and headed for the side of the stage. Ed lifted his book in the air in an attempt to get Art’s attention, but the man was already gone.
Ed stopped waving the book as the thick, leaden weight of disappointment pressed down on him.
“Not even an apology?” the woman in front of him was saying.
But Ed didn’t hear her. He was already moving.
He was thinking about something Art had said in his second book: “You don’t need backup plans when your plan has options.”
And Ed’s plan had options.
He had known since registering for the conference that his chances of being the first to the stage were slim. That’s when he considered where else he could intercept Art, and it dawned on him: Art would have to leave the building eventually.
But Ed also knew that the hotel had multiple exits. He could choose one and hope for a bit of serendipity, but like Art had said in a recent Ted Talk, “Fate, coincidence, luck: those are the fuel of the ill prepared.” So Ed made sure he was prepared.
Two days before the conference started, he had checked into the hotel and requested a room facing the parking lot. He established a post at the room’s window and waited for Art to arrive.
He was expecting a taxi, maybe even a limo, but a day after starting his stakeout, he was surprised to see that Art had driven himself to the hotel. He stepped out of one of those slick, new electric cars, making it easy to identify. Ed had made a note of the color and model, and with that his additional option had been born.
Ed sped up a bit as he got to the lobby, tripping on a thick rug there and nearly losing his balance. He knew Donna would have told him to slow down, that she would have reminded him about how clumsy he was and all the bruises he had accumulated over the years because of it. But he kept up his rushed pace.
In the parking lot, it only took a few glances to find the car. As he approached, he debated the best means of waiting. After all, it could be hours before Art emerged from the hotel, and he didn’t want to be mistaken for a loiterer or, god forbid, some kind of car thief.
He made his way to a small cement island with a young tree planted in the middle. From there, he could keep an eye on the car.
Ed lowered himself onto some woodchips and eased his back up against the tree. After he had settled, he opened his copy of Leap Before You Lookand started to re-read chapter seven, the chapter that covered the Superman Pitch.
He scanned several pages, but he was too exhausted for it to make much difference. The day had been trying and the warmth of the sun was doing its best to remind him of this fact.
He started to doze, and Donna was there, her smile challenging Art’s for most charming. It was that day shortly after Ed had retired. That day just a few weeks before she had passed. That day she told Ed that he had a million-dollar business idea and that she knew he could do it. That day that she told him she’d gotten him something to help him get started. That day she had handed him Leap Before You Look.
The sound of a car door shutting woke him. There was a moment of confusion as he stared at the book in his lap, the book still open to chapter seven, but then he lifted his eyes and saw Art’s car. Its reverse lights were lit and the vehicle was slowly backing from its parking spot.
Ed scrambled to his feet as best he could, noticing that some of the woodchips had stuck to the seat of his pants. His legs wobbled a bit, not as awake as the rest of him. He tried to run, but it was more of a stagger. As he neared Art’s car, he waved the book and his free hand above his head. He knew he had to leap.
The car squeaked to halt a few inches from Ed, it’s body rocking from the abrupt stop. Art sprang from the driver’s seat.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Worthington,” Ed said. “It’s just, I, I wanted to—”
He had to get it together. He had to shake off the last remnants of an abrupt return to consciousness. He had to slow his heart rate, his breathing, his serious need to take a leak.
He thought of the dream the car door had taken him from.
“Twelve seconds,” he said.
“What are you rambling about?” Art asked.
“My Superman Pitch. It will only take twelve seconds of your time.”
He took a wheezing breath.
“And then I think you will be more than ready to give me your push.”
Art smiled. It wasn’t as perfect as his stage smile, but it was still a major improvement over the expression he had worn when stepping from the car.
“There’s got to be a better way to get my attention,” Art said, “but I can’t fault your initiative. A lot of younger guys could learn something from you.”
Ed was awake now, the compliment jolting him, cracking the shell on a supply of adrenaline.
“Okay,” Art said. “Go for it.”
Ed cleared his throat and put his book down on the trunk of Art’s car.
“I have a life-changing service that is the first and only of its kind, one that will revitalize your living space without the work of remodeling, and all I need to do is adjust your blinds.”
Art’s mouth sat slightly ajar, his brow scrunched.
“I’ve got a tag line too,” Ed said. “Let me shine some light on your subjects.”
Art closed his mouth, but his brow stayed creased.
“Whoa,” he mumbled. “So what you’re saying is that you want people to pay youto adjust their blinds? I’m pretty sure people can do that themselves, right?”
“Of course,” Ed said. “People know how to operate blinds, but they don’t know how to set them up correctly for a specific space. We hear all about feng shui and all that nonsense, but people never think about their blinds. I mean they’re willing to drop two-hundred, three-hundred dollars for a single window in some cases, so why wouldn’t they want them perfect?
“And I’ve got an eye for blinds. I’ve spent years working in security booths and tiny offices just figuring out how to get the blinds right where they need to be. It makes a huge difference when the length and tilt is just right. It… it revitalizes a space. Even a small, functional space like the ones I worked in.”
Art stared at Ed. Then, he started to laugh.
“Carol sent you, didn’t she?” he said, his smile back in place. “I should have known. Adjusting blinds! My god!”
There was more crisp laughter, a sigh, and an “Oh, man.”
“No one sent me,” Ed said. “This is my pitch. This is my business. What’d you think?”
Art stepped closer to the open driver’s side door.
“Look mister,” he said. “I’m sorry. I really am. That’s just a terrible idea. No one would pay for that. And there is no way I’d fund that, no way I could put my name on that.”
He climbed into the car and fastened his seatbelt.
“I’m sorry. Really,” he said before closing the door.
Ed moved out of the way. Art finished reversing and shifted into drive. As he pulled forward, Ed watched his copy of Leap Before You Lookslide off the trunk and land on the blacktop.
He moved slowly over to where the book had fallen. When he reached for it, he could see Art’s photo looking up at him from the back cover. He tucked the book under his arm and headed back toward the hotel entrance.
He had one more night in the hotel, and he already knew how he’d spend it: reviewing chapter seven, finding more apt power phrases, cutting his Superman Pitch down to ten seconds, and checking to see where Art was scheduled to speak next.
He would maintain.
Matt Whelihan is an assistant professor of English at Wilmington University. His work has appeared in publications such as Slice, Cleaver, Midwestern Gothic, and New Plains Review. In 2017, he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contest, and his story “Eighteen Dead Water Buffalo” was nominated for the 2018 Pushscart Prize. He lives in the Philadelphia area.