It was hard to get Junior to pop for improvements, but Joe got two things out of him: a custom paint-job for the sign on the door, and an air-conditioning unit for the window. It was loud as a jet and dripped water and shuddered like it had the flu when it shut itself off, but it worked: you could store the dead in here. The door sign he wasn't happy about - the name change still needled him, and the painter drew little planets around the logo. Planets with rings.
"That's Saturn," Joe had said when he looked at the job. "Nice letters, but that's Saturn."
"It's outer space," the painter said. "It's atomic."
"Atomic isn't outer space. Atomic is atoms. They don't have rings."
The painter was a tiny fellow, hunched like a half-crushed pack of smokes. He'd done every office in this building for 30 years. Every hallway on every floor was his art gallery. He was good at the old style: blocky gold letters, trimmed in black. He drew a line, outlined the letters from templates, and worked fast. Joe had wondered whether guys in this line had any talent at all, or were just good at filling in spaces with a paintbrush.
"Have you seen any atoms?" the painter said.
"No, but those are planets, like you see in the magazines with rocket ships."
"Do you read those magazines? I do, young man. And do you know how those rocket ships get to the planets? Atomic power. It's the future. Ten years this building will run on atomic power. Twenty, she'll have her own pile in the basement. You'll have one in the trunk of your car."
Joe nodded. "I get your point."
"Anyhow, you want me to scrape it off, I will. No bother one way or the other. Just thought I'd try something different, advertise myself. Let folks know they can have something different."
"If anyone asks, I'll tell them you did it."
"I'd thank you kindly." He looked down at his box of paints and brushes. "I don't suppose you've heard anything about modernization. You being a tenant and all."
"There's been talk. Mostly stuff I hear down at the diner. Why?"
"Well, I know how this goes. This isn't my own building, you know. I do fourteen up and down. It's steady work - things go south, I get paid to scrape off the letters; things go up, I get paid to put on new ones. But I've lost two buildings this year to modernization. See -" he waved his hand down the corridor - "this all goes. The old walls get covered up, maybe they drop the ceiling and put in those flourescents, the doors get replaced with modern wood ones, and there's no call for painting letters. They got these pre-made letters, thick and white, and they got pins on one side. You can push them right into the door and there's your name, and when you take them out they don't hardly leave a mark. It's the new style. Some buildings can't afford it but the company that owns this one owns the other two that went modern, and I wouldn't be surprised if they take a swing at this place."
"I had no idea. Probably means the rents go up."
"Brother, do they. Knock out a few walls, lay down some carpet, and you can get in the lawyers and the accountants and the rest of them outfits." He smiled. "In the future they'll all be replaced by giant electronic brains, though, so the laugh will be on them. Well, let me know if you see me. I usually got someone to scrape off in this building once a week. Leases are coming up and they're not being renewed."
Joe went back to his office, shivering as he passed the air conditioner. He hadn't considered a move, and wondered if Junior would pay for a room in this building, or insist the operation find a home in another old office building. Might as well change the company name to Steam Promotions.
Too bad about the old guy.
An hour later the afternoon mail came through the slot. Joe was at his drafting table working on the monument account, trying to perfect a tombstone that was timeless but modern. Something sleek that also had a few traditional elements, Rock of Ages and all that. The mail was a good excuse to stand and crack his back, and he considered going downstairs for a cup of coffee and the afternoon paper. He picked up the mail on the way out, locked the office, headed down the hall and pushed the elevator button. He watched the hand above recount the progress of the car up to his floor, and wondered if it would be replaced by numbers.
He waved hello to the newsvendor, put down a nickel, got the paper, and entered the diner. It was half-full, mostly women, shoppers with bags and hatboxes. He sat at the counter and ordered coffee. The mail was the usual mail - a few checks for jobs, a trade journal, an inquiry from a men's store interested in a line of matches that would explain how they catered to the fat-man trade without actually saying their customers were fat. Stout to tall, we fit them all, Joe thought. Sure, I can do that. There was an envelope with a handwritten address, and he smiled when he saw the sender's name: Vernon, down in Atlanta, working for American Match. They sent each other examples of recent jobs. Friendly rivalry. They'd met a few years ago at a promotion trade show. Vernon was good, but he was more about design than execution. He had three guys under him to do the work.
Joe shook out the book and looked at it.
He'd eaten at Howard Johnsons on the road with his dad as a kid. He remember those places, that picture of the Pieman and the kid, the way he'd get excited when dad pulled into the parking lot: ice cream, 28 flavors. Like any kid he'd probably vowed to try them all, but he always had vanilla with chocolate syrup. Maybe no one ever tried all 28.
Now this. Motels. Look at that place. It's from the magazines the painter read. It had nothing to do with anything, but it said everything will look like this. Everything will be different.
Joe put down the match and stared at his coffee, wondering why he hadn't seen this coming. He'd seen examples, but this was a penny-business, mass-production, disposable, small-client. This business was cardboard and sulfur and maybe some clip-art and some hand-lettering if the client had a good year and wanted to show off. Or maybe that's what it was.
He picked up the matchbook and looked at it again.
Photographs. On matchbooks. Glossy. Full color.
Vernon sent a note.
"Expensive as hell but looks good doesn't it? I fired two artists this week. One I sent to camera school. Got a Brownie laying around? Yrs, Vern"