The trucks drive by the Moscone Conference Center every three minutes, dragging roving billboards that market the latest biologic cure for psoriasis. Ten thousand men and women worth seven figures each wander through the fifty million dollar lobby. Nametags and histories and shared publications in specialty journals. Skin care consultants and pharmaceutical representatives and twenty year old girls with perfect nails and hair and skin and breasts handing out breath mints and tote bags and gels, creams and lotions in tiny bottles. Leaders of the industry smiling, their white coats left back at the office two thousand miles away, smiling at the pharmaceutical reps, smiling at the skin care consultants, smiling at the twenty year old girls with perfect nails and hair and skin and breasts. And the tiny bottles. Kiosks and tiny bottles of hand lotion, face cream, shampoos, sunscreen. Kiosks and twenty variations of face wash. Kiosks and books published by leaders of the industry and the pharmaceutical representatives are in line, waiting for their chance to tell the leaders of the industry about their latest atopic dermatitis, solar keratosis, pityriasis rosea and pruritus drug, lotion, gel, ointment or cream that will revolutionize the industry. Leaders of the industry and their white coats at home and they are smiling like seven deadly figures and money holds the building up as outside two blocks away half a million people protest the invasion of Iraq.
Russell is outside the Center, smoking a cigarette. He's dialing home again. No answer. Just the machine. The recording of Maya laughing. Saying: We're home. We just don't want to talk to you.
A row of fifteen police officers in black riot gear. The man at the end of the row drinks from a bottle of water. The sun burns everyone; it does not segregate. Twenty bicyclists with graffitied American flags ride by, followed by a truck pulling a billboard that shows a naked woman covering her breasts and groin. Ten thousand beautiful people in the Conference Center and then the dial tone on his cell phone and Russell lights another cigarette. His pants aren't ironed. He's tired and underpaid and trying to make it on the $40 per diem the school gives him for food and drinks.
He hasn't talked to Maya in two days. The phone rings nonstop at their apartment on the other side of the country. He's nervous and doesn't know where she is.
He's chief resident at a well-known hospital and knows half the pharm reps and they all smile at him and shake his hand and make promises he knows they will keep and he tells them he'll talk to his bosses, all leaders of industry, back home when the white coats are back on. His bosses would love to write a paper about how effective their lotion is, how their gel assures a clear up of hand dermatitis in less than six weeks, how their ointment minimizes itch while maximizing elasticity, how their light box clears up psoriatic flares for longer periods of time than their competitors.
But right now, he is outside the Center and he's smoking and he's ignoring his future, the ten thousand men and women who are all worth seven figures each and he's dialing the apartment's number one more time but Maya isn't answering.
He is at Ruby Skye with a few of the residents, other leaders of industry in training. They are all staying at the Hyatt across from the Center. Their bills paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. The residents are in training. Drinking on another drug company's bill. Eating filet mignon, lobster and sushi and drinking imported beers and wine. Smiling, they are all smiling. Gary, a first year, brings another plate of steaks to their table and a bottle of wine and they all cheer to the drug companies and the extra rare steak and they smile their beautiful smiles and they are so ready to move in to the seven-figure nation.
This is pointless, he thinks. Fucking steaks. He doesn't understand where she is, why she hasn't picked up the phone or called him back. He's drunk and eating rare steak and the other residents are smiling. The phone rings at home. And there is only dead silence.
Outside the club and the protesters are trying to take the street. The police make a line, an arbitrary demarcation. The lights of an all night coffee shop illuminates the intersection from the front window of Ruby Skye and the residents see nothing, nothing but steaks and free liquor. Plastic handcuffs and the protesters scatter, run from the police dressed in black uniforms. And inside, Russell imagines, more steak, more drinks.
The lights go out. The lights of the coffee shop go out. The men and women in black uniforms chase the protesters and the lights go out. Again the answering machine and nothing tastes right, nothing feels right. She's left him.
About the author:
A graduate of the MFA program at Naropa University, Vishal Khanna writes grants for dermatologists in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His fiction has been published in Mississippi Review Online, Fiction Warehouse, Punk Planet and Bombay Gin, among other places.