It wasn’t hard to sell Matt on the idea of coming out for a couple of weeks, especially with the chance it might turn into a real job. He’d spent the last three years in Dallas working for a killer design firm which had jumped on the Web side of things at exactly the right time. He’d left them a few months before to do his own thing, so he had the experience and he had the time. Even better, he was excited and grateful to help me out. I thought it might be a month’s worth of work helping me out overall, but given that it was early December I figured we’d do two weeks then and reserve two more weeks for a second trip after the new year. He’d be paid pretty handsomely.
In the past, Matt had gotten in some trouble when it came to people. Like I said, he could go a bit off the rails. Most of my friends back in Austin understood what I liked about him — his high energy, quick with his wit. But he had a flaw, common among us nerdlings, that he rarely censored himself, and he could be abrasive. One by one, he’d alienated most of my better friends. They liked him, they simply didn’t think it was worth taking the chance that it might be one of the bad times.
The truth was I loved him like a brother. He was the only person I’d kept in my life from the bulletin-board days, and we’d been through each other’s times, good and bad. Except for Matt’s effect on my other friends, he’d only ever been a positive force in my life. He was clever and he could always make me laugh. Worst case, even if he couldn’t get along with the rest of the team at Kroll, I’d be able to get some structure from him about how professional Web projects were planned and executed.
Really, all I needed was a bit of confidence. I needed an old friend.
Within a week I was picking him up at the airport.
“Goddamn,” he said when he finally pulled away from our hug. Matt was nearly a head taller than me, long-faced and lean, bushy brown hair puffing out around his maniacally grinning face. “I’m so glad to be off that goddamn plane.”
“I’m glad to see you, too.”
He grabbed one of his two bags and started walking off, then he stopped. Looking back at the other bag, he frowned and said, “Uh, like, could you get that one?”
“Oh! Shit, sorry. Sure.”
Once we got to my place, I began to talk about the situation at work and the job that needed doing. He held up his hand.
“Tomorrow,” he said with a smile. “It’ll all happen tomorrow. Hey, ah, do you have anything to eat? I’m a little light.”
“Well, after I quit my job and moved to Colorado, the chick I was with up there turned out to be, you know.”
“I don’t think I do.”
“Dude, you know. You know. Anyway, I drove back to Dallas with this other girl, this stripper, and I was like, ‘Fuck me, this girl is H-A-W-T — hot.’ But she was no good, gave me herpes. Herpes, man.” Suddenly I thought he was going to cry. “My cock looked like a cob of Indian corn for two weeks.”
“Yeah. Then I had to get over that and everything, so this deal here is perfect. But I don’t get paid until after I’m done, you know, so I’m a little light in the cash pants right now.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Yeah, sure — that sucks, man, I had no idea.”
So I got dinner for us. All in all, we had a terrific evening. In the light of the energy and enthusiasm of my oldest, best friend, I began to relax.
The next morning on our short drive into work, he asked, “How much are you making? I mean, not in a year, but with stock and everything, for however long you think you’re going to be here.”
I had to think about it. “I really don’t know,” I said. “You know I never had a good relationship with money. I don’t like letting it motivate me. I mean, I know people out here who’ve made a lot, but it’s just what happened, you know?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Throw a rock out the window and you’ll hit a bunch of people who feel strongly that they’re going to be rich soon, but really it’s a whole lot of timing and luck. I don’t think it’s anything you can helpfully plan for. I never thought I’d make even as much as I’m making now, so I get up every day and I think I’m pretty lucky. I’m happy. I know that feeling won’t last forever, but I want to hang on to it for a while.”
“But what do you want? How much do you think you’re going to get?”
“Mmm. What would make me satisfied? By the time all is said and done, I’d be happy with a quarter of a million dollars. It’s not that I have no ambition, it’s that anything more than that is like free money. I don’t want to be one of those guys who ever one time loses sleep that he didn’t hit the jackpot. You do or you don’t, and the only control you have is to keep yourself in the game.”
“I’m with you,” Matt said, staring forward.
When we got to my desk, I said, “So let me tell you what we’ve got.”
“First,” he said, “here’s the deal. Anyone asks you what I do, what do you say?”
“No. That’s not it. I am an Internet Strategist, get it?”
“Um, you mean like how a weatherman is, I don’t know, a meteorology prognostication consultant?”
“As long as we get done what we need to get done, sure.”
“Okay. I—” Matt’s phone rang. “I’m here,” he told it. “No, thanks, I just needed some advice. I’m in a situation.” He looked off into space, holding me back with one upraised finger.
“I can wait,” I told him. He stood and walked slowly toward the reception area, mumbling into the receiver. He came back with a grin.
“Okay,” he said. “I have everything I need.”
“Sure,” I said. “Now, here’s the site design I’ve got so far—”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t need to see it.”
An alarm had begun ringing in my head — had been ringing since last night, only I’d been ignoring it. I sat up straight in my chair.
“We’re going to do this,” he said, smiling, “the right way.”
“Hello,” a voice said behind him. It was Mary. “Who’s this?” she asked.
Matt turned to her, beaming charm, shaking her hand. “Hi,” he said. She smiled.
“This is an old friend of mine,” I told her. “His name’s Matt. He’s here to help get the site off the ground faster. Matt, this is Mary. She runs the place.”
Matt shot a scowl at me, then turned back to Mary with a smile.
“I’m an Internet Strategist,” he said. “I’m out from Dallas for a few weeks — maybe longer, who knows. I’ve worked with a bunch of big names, but I’m happy to see what problems you’ve got here, see if I can help.”
“Huh,” she said. “You know, I’m from Texas as well.”
“Really? No wonder things seem so awesome here.” Matt turned back to me. “We Texas people gotta stick together.” Then to her, he said, “Where’s your office?”
“I’m over here.”
“Do you have a minute so I can ask you a couple of simple questions?”
“Sure,” she said, and they went off together, Matt closing her heavy wooden door behind them.
“What just happened?” I said to the air, even though I knew.