It’s a quarter past two when I get the news that someone has died from consuming too much Fizz Fresh. In a sense, I knew this day would come. Fizz Fresh is the latest and greatest carbonated beverage on the market (with a taste somewhere between Coke and Fanta, if you can even stomach that) and our newest client. Considering its 250-calorie count and the 80 milligrams of caffeine per can, I figured some people out there would become addicted enough for there to be long-term health consequences. I didn’t figure that someone would try to see what happens if you drink fifty cans in one day. But here we are. One dead thirty-two-year-old later.
His name was Randall Mayes. We’ve known about him for a few weeks now. He started popping up in the news as the guy who dared himself to chug six cans of Fizz Fresh in two minutes, recorded a little video, and posted it all over social media. He’s made a few similar videos like that one in the past month, but none have blown up quite like the original. When my boss announces that Randall went into cardiac arrest at the forty-seventh can mark, all I can think is that he’d only been trying to cling onto those fifteen minutes of fame. Incidentally, this is the precise moment I remember I need to quit my fucking job.
Marketing is not my passion. It was my major in college, but in my mind it was more of a fallback than anything. I’d hoped to hit it big with my band. As pathetic as that sounds, we were pretty fantastic. Far and away the most popular band on campus. We’d have gigs every other week with great turnouts and even better original songs. Our band logo was slapped on the back of dozens of laptops and water bottles, our t-shirts on the backs of dozens of fans. It’s not out of the scope of believability to say we were a big deal.
We were close to a record deal, too, except our singer bailed on us at the last minute. He’d been accepted into medical school and couldn’t conceive of turning that down for an unsteady and entirely unpredictable career in the music industry. The label was mostly interested in his voice and wasn’t too keen on the idea of signing us without our greatest asset. They rescinded the offer.
I took it hard. Though I’d grown up playing guitar and writing music, after that day I never touched an instrument again. I think it was out of fear and apprehension, mostly, that I ended up taking the first job I could find as a marketing associate with a company that advertises for various brands of sodas, cookies, and candy bars. I’ve suffered through three years here, with coworkers who’ve fooled themselves into thinking that this industry is rewarding, that getting a ten-year-old hooked on sugar- and fat-filled bars of chocolate is a success. I’ve thought about leaving many times, even looked into other job opportunities, but none of them have ever promised me the feeling I get when I’d strum the last chord and the crowd would go wild.
As I’m scrolling through news articles about Randall, I think about those other jobs, about how spending my life advertising reusable straws or biodegradable toothbrushes wouldn’t be the worst thing I could do. Meanwhile, the rest of the marketing team is scrambling to restructure our new marketing campaign in the wake of the news. The manager, Frank, is running around the office, frantically grasping at clumps of hair on the sides of his head. Through the glass doors of his corner office, I notice Frank’s hands clutching his face and elbows digging into his desk.
I figure I should go and try to comfort him in some way. Something about the idea of not needing to interact with Frank if I switch career paths puts a smile on my face, but I wipe it off before I knock on his open door.
“Hey, Frank,” I say, handing him a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee. “How’s it going?”
“Why are people such morons, Ben?” he asks from behind his hands, shaking his head. “What kind of idiot doesn’t think drinking fifty cans of soda in a day would absolutely kill him?”
I shrug, sitting down in the empty chair across from him. “Don’t know.”
He finally looks up and grabs the coffee. “We’ll have to scrap our entire campaign objective. Focus more on the pros of drinking Fizz Fresh while maintaining that it needs to be drunk in moderation.”
I want to say that there are literally no pros to drinking Fizz Fresh, but I hold my tongue.
Frank glances at the clock and sighs. “There’s not much we can do for now. Still haven’t heard word from Fizz Corp about how they want us to go about this. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Start your weekend early. You’ll need a fresh and creative mind come Monday.”
I thank him and practically run out the door. Though hoping to flop right onto the couch and contemplate my entire life as soon as I open the door, I’m graced with the snoring of my roommate Harry, whose body is sprawled across the couch and covered by his comforter. I mute the Law & Order blaring from the speakers and sit down beside him. It’s a funny picture: me in my suit and tie and him in nothing but boxers and a wife beater. Harry was my roommate in college and the bassist in our band. Though heartbroken by the band’s dissolution, we both moved to the city and snagged jobs right after graduation, except I joined the corporate world and he landed a spot as a bartender for an expensive rooftop restaurant in the Upper East Side. He doesn’t consider that his “real” job, though. He’ll say that music is his only obligation, then try and guilt me into joining one of the new bands he starts up every few months.
I shake him awake. He’s disoriented for a moment, but as soon as he notices me, the usual melancholy expression takes ahold of his face.
“What?” he whines, his voice cracking.
“Why aren’t you at work? Don’t you usually work the day shift on Fridays?”
Harry groans and slips further underneath the blanket. “I took a sick day.”
“You have a cold or some shit?”
“If a broken heart counts as an illness, then yes.”
I have to fight not to roll my eyes and burst into hysterics at the same time. Harry’s girlfriend of six years broke up with him three months ago, and he’s been having a tough time with it, to say the least. “This again?”
Harry sits up. “No, it’s not about—I mean, I guess it is about Natalie. Everything is, really. But not directly.” He exhales. “I finally worked up the courage to ask out that hot barista at Starbucks this morning. You know the one with the green eyes?”
I nod. “And she said no?”
“Yeah, a hard no. She was almost offended I even asked.”
“Well how’d you say it?”
“What d’you mean, how’d I say it? I asked if she wanted to get dinner with me tonight. All polite. And she just drops her smile immediately and says, ‘No, thanks,’ and hands me my coffee. I was so embarrassed, Ben. I just got on the first train back and called out sick.”
“That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?”
“You don’t know what it’s like for me all alone out here, okay? It’s like I’m wandering around blindly and people keep brushing past me and others are screaming into my ears and there’s all this, like, pressure… You wanna know the last time I successfully asked a girl out? Six years ago. I just don’t know how to do it anymore. It’s like they changed the rules while I was domesticated for all those years. It’s impossible.”
“Hmm,” I respond, not really wanting to indulge his desperation for pity.
He flops back onto the pillow. “Why’re you home early today?”
I don’t want to explain the situation to Harry, but it comes out of my mouth anyway. “Remember that guy who went viral after drinking six Fizzes in two minutes? He’s dead now. Tried to drink fifty cans in a day.”
“Oh, wow,” is all Harry says.
I lay my head on the back of the couch and sigh. “I’m seriously considering quitting.”
“I can’t work here forever. I need to fucking feel something, you know? Like I’m actually making a difference.”
“Everyone feels like that, Ben. You’re not special.” Harry shrugs the blanket off and makes to get up. “You’re coming to my gig tonight, right?”
I nod, closing my eyes. Harry recently formed a new band with a few of his fellow bartenders. I’ve only just given in to attending one of his gigs, mostly because he has trouble booking gigs at all, but when he does, they’re usually at some time between nine and five on Mondays through Fridays.
“You know, we could use a manager. Maybe your soda marketing skills are transferable,” Harry says.
“Would you pay me a comparable salary?”
“I’ll have to pass.”
Harry says half-heartedly as he’s walking toward his bedroom, over his shoulder, all nonchalant, “You know music was the only thing that ever made you feel something, man.” Then the door closes behind him.
I kill the rest of my afternoon touching up my resume and restraining myself from staring forlornly at the guitar case in the back of my closet, three years’ worth of dust piled upon it. I don’t want Harry’s half-assed, surface-level assessment of my feelings and deepest desires to be affecting me as much as it is. It’s got me looking into music-related marketing jobs, ones that align with my limited experience as a candy salesman. I’ve considered the idea before, but fleetingly, dismissively. In truth, I’ve always thought I’d be settling by doing that. Ben Dyson: couldn’t make it big as an artist, now doomed to represent successful ones for the rest of his life. But now, at the edge of my tolerance for the junk food industry, the idea doesn’t sound as daunting.
What is daunting, though, is going through sites full of jobs that sound more enjoyable than I know they actually will be. Occasionally, to distract myself, I look up Fizz Fresh and Randall Mayes as motivation to keep job-hunting. He’s got a GoFundMe page, with proceeds going toward his family; he’s left behind a wife and a two-year-old daughter. I’m stuck on the picture of him they’ve used as the icon. He’s with a friend, smiling and pointing at the camera, seemingly mid-laugh and genuinely humored. It sticks in my head while I’m showering, while I’m putting on clothes, while I’m driving to Harry’s show.
I arrive at the venue about half an hour early. It’s a pub so generic I feel like I’ve stepped into it dozens of times, despite having never come here in my life. It’s got wooden-paneled walls and a nice beer and vodka smell combination oozing from the cracks. In total, there are fourteen people inside. I order a drink and try not to dwell too much on the second-hand embarrassment that’s nuzzled itself in the back of my mind. I walk over to where Harry’s setting up with the rest of his bandmates. They all look at least twenty years older than him, which wouldn’t be too bad if the band’s name wasn’t Eternal Youth.
“Ready for the big show, man?” Harry asks, patting me on the shoulder. “We’ve got some great covers for you.”
“Covers? I thought you said you were working on an album.”
“Yeah, but honestly, the crowd loves the covers. They kind of zone out during the originals, especially when Tyler goes into his four-minute guitar solos.” He shrugs and turns away.
They’re on for two hours, but it feels like an eternity. At first I think it’s a prank, that the singer has to know he’s singing in the wrong key. But he continues this into the second song, and the third, and all the rest. With each passing song, the embarrassment in the back of my head grows exponentially until I’m nearly blinded by it. Not only is the lead singer alternating between sharp and flat notes, but the drummer’s struggling to maintain the rhythm and the guitarist’s missing every third note in a riff. Harry sounds fine except for his inability to recognize the chaos all around him.
By the time they finish their penultimate song, I’m exhausted. I don’t think I can fake another smile or give another empty thumbs-up, nor do I think I can sit through this eight-minute train wreck. This fatigue is made all the worse when Harry opens up his mouth.
“Here’s our last song of the night, folks. One special surprise, though. I want to bring up my buddy, Ben. Come on up here, Ben.” And Harry’s looking straight at me, extending his hand as if I’m supposed to take it.
I shake my head no. Forcefully.
Harry puts a hand over the microphone and turns to me. “Seriously, Ben. Get the hell up here. Don’t embarrass me.”
I could punch him in the face. Instead, by the force of some higher being that wants me to humiliate myself beyond repair, I trek up to the stage. The Eternal Youth singer takes a bow, clasps his hands together, and waves while walking off. Maybe two claps from the audience.
“What song?” I ask Harry.
“‘American Pie,’ dude. Classic closer.”
And then I’m singing along to the least entertaining instrumental of this song that’s ever existed. A few people sing along with me during the chorus, but for the most part, it’s just my timid, reluctant voice over a smashing together of sounds. I can’t stop looking over at Harry, who seems genuinely excited about the crowd interaction, and I could cry. He took the band’s breakup harder than any of us, even harder than I had. I should’ve seen it in the way he’s always writing down lyrics and mindlessly strumming his guitar at the dinner table and starting up a new band every other month. But I never realized that at the root of it all was his flicker of hope that hasn’t yet blown out. And it’s perhaps this realization that blows mine out for good.
Pushing unhealthy snacks on the American people may not be the most glamorous line of work, but it’s at least a step above playing alongside the musically ungifted. At least in the office, blissful ignorance won’t be clouding my eyes and disheveling any sense I have of reality. I won’t be constantly searching for some dream that in the end will never come to fruition. And maybe I’d rather work alongside Frank than delusion. It certainly pays better.
I feel bile rising in the back of my throat. I don’t know if it’s because of this performance or because I have to return to work on Monday. I swallow it as we ring in the last chorus. I’m usually honest with Harry but tonight I can’t bring myself to confess my abhorrence of his band. I just pat him on the back, thank him for letting me come up with them, and order us a few drinks.
We spend the rest of the night in the pub and I get to know a bit more about Harry’s forty-year-old friends. After a few beers, something out of the corner of my eye captures my attention. I have to triple-blink to confirm that it’s not Randall Mayes, just another thirtysomething man who’s laughing at a joke his friends are telling, a huge smile remaining on his face even after he’s stopped chuckling. Part of me wishes it’s Randall, though I don’t know what I’d do if it were. Maybe I’d say something about how chasing fame is more fatal than Fizz Fresh. But more likely, I wouldn’t say anything. He’s the moron who tried to drink fifty cans in twenty-four hours.