Making Over Mike

If there ever was a day that called for the get-a-promotion suit, Amanda Connor figured, Monday was it. Especially this Monday. Unfortunately, at the moment she didn't have it. And at this rate, it looked like she wouldn't be getting it anytime soon, either.

"Melanie, if you're there, please pick up." Scrunching her cell phone between her ear and shoulder, Amanda steered one- handed through the crawl of cars surrounding her. Phoenix rush- hour traffic. At this time of morning, a few minutes before nine o'clock, it could more aptly be called rush-hour all-you- want parking.

Ahead, sunlight sparked from the bumper of a commuter- packed SUV, forcing her to squint. She groped in the console of her cluttered Tercel for her sunglasses, still listening to the chirpy sound of her friend's answering machine message.

"So at the sound of the beep...."

"C'mon, Mel," Amanda muttered, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. "Please be home. C'mon, c'mon—"

"'Lo?" came her friend's sleep-shuttered voice.

"You're there! Great. Listen, I need The Suit. The get- a-promotion suit. I meant to stop by last night, but there was a crisis with one of my clients—something about a glued-on seaweed facial and a misaligned chakra—and I didn't have time to—"

"Hold on, hold on," Melanie interrupted. "Give me a sec."

There was a thump—probably the sound of one of her two cats being 'encouraged' from the bed onto the floor—and then the whine of the radio being tuned to the alternative rock station Melanie used to wake up to. "As usual, I'm four steps behind you and halfway in dreamland. What's the matter?"

Amanda decided to cut to the chase. "I need The Suit. The get-a-promotion suit."

"What for?" Melanie yawned. "You own the company, kiddo. If you want a promotion, just give yourself one."

Sure. And then she'd snap her fingers, send her struggling start-up company, Aspirations, Inc., straight to the top of the most-successful-Phoenix-companies list, and retire in six short years at thirty-five, at which time she and the three assistants she employed would spend their days surfboarding in Maui.

As if.

Especially without the proven help of The Suit.

"Sure, I could give myself a promotion—but money can't buy the kind of publicity I can get if everything works out today. The Lotto, remember?"

A gasp. "Oh, Amanda, I'm so sorry! I completely forgot."

"That's okay." Her heart sank a little lower. "But my appointment with the Channel Six news execs is in—" Amanda braked to avoid a maniacal lane-changer in a dented Buick, then glanced at her wristwatch. "—approximately forty-four minutes, and I'd really feel better if The Suit was on my side."

"Today's really the day? The Life Coach Lotto day? I can't believe I spaced on remembering it."

Melanie sounded repentant. Amanda felt that way, halfway into mourning for her soon-to-be failed business. If even her best friend couldn't keep track of the publicity stunt she'd dreamed up to bolster business, how was the rest of the Valley Of The Sun supposed to remember it?

She nudged the cell phone with her chin, trying to alleviate the knot of tension that had begun forming in her shoulder. Her stomach tightened, as though protesting the whole doomed venture—that, or protesting the dry half bagel, scrambled egg white, and three-quarters of a cup of grapefruit juice Amanda had tried to pass off as breakfast this morning.

Ugh. She shuddered at the memory alone. Clearly, women's magazine diets had been invented by a bunch of masochists with anti-flavor fixations. And with, obviously, no stock invested in either of the mighty double-G's: Godiva and Ghirardhelli.

"Yes, today's the day," she said, shoving aside a sudden chocolate-donut fantasy, "and I really, really, really need the get-a-promotion suit. I'm only a couple of miles from your house right now. I can be there in less than—"

"I'm sorry, Amanda," Mel interrupted, probably recognizing the note of panic in her friend's voice and wanting to nip it in the bud. "I can't give it to you."

"It's just a loan, for Pete's sake! I'll trade you the meet-a-man miniskirt, if you want, but I've got to have that suit." She glanced down at the black-on-black pants, slim-cut shirt, and slide-on mules that comprised her late-to-work emergency wardrobe. Plain and moderately fashionable as the ensemble was, it just wouldn't do when meeting the press for her one big break. "Please!"

"No, I mean, I don't have it," Melanie explained. "I loaned it to Gemma to wear to dinner with Tom's boss last week. We figured any good karma that could help Tom's chances...."

"Sure. You're right." As a long-time believer in the powers of the expensive Prada pantsuit she and her two best friends had pooled their money to purchase—and loaned amongst themselves depending upon whose need was the greatest—Amanda nodded. "I hope it helped. Really, I do."

Shoving back a renewed sense of panic, she mentally recalculated her route. If she merged onto the eastbound freeway and encountered nothing worse than the usual gridlock, she could get to Gemma's, retrieve the suit, and still make it to the downtown Channel Six offices in time for her ten o'clock meeting.

"Actually," Melanie said, "Tom did get a raise, a promotion, and some new stock options. So the power of the suit," she lowered her voice into a dramatic, newscaster-worthy delivery, "remains unbroken."

Relieved, Amanda laughed. If she'd dieted like a crazy woman, living a non-fat, non-fun, mostly-air-and-eight-glasses- of-water-a-day existence to fit into that suit, only to discover it had somehow quit working...well, there was a reason temporary insanity was an accepted criminal defense.

"Okay, I'm off to Gemma's, then," she told Mel, using her knee to help steer onto the merge ramp without spilling her double latte. "Meet me tonight at Boondoggle's for a post-news post-mortem?"

"Come on, it won't be that bad. The Life Coach Lotto was a stellar idea. Besides, has The Suit failed any of us yet?" Amanda thought of the business loan she'd secured, the excellent assistants she'd hired for Aspirations, Inc., the newly-renovated office space she'd gotten at a discounted rate— all while dressed in the butter-colored, perfectly tailored Prada—and grinned.

"Nope," she admitted. "And so long as Gemma had a chance to dry-clean the thing and put it into high-security storage before the twins could get a hold of it and use it for treehouse curtains again, it won't fail me today, either." I hope.

"'Atta girl. See you tonight."

"Okay. Boondoggle's at seven."

With that, Amanda signed off and tossed her cell phone onto the passenger-side seat. It rolled amongst her briefcase, her spilling-over purse, a clipboarded Life Coach Lotto checklist dotted with Post-It notes, and the lonely, decidedly non-double- G, two-and-three-quarter-inch diameter apple her new diet allocated her for a mid-morning snack, then came to rest atop the gimmicky "coach's" baseball cap she'd brought along to wear while greeting her newest client—the winner of the Lotto.

Everything really was going to be okay, she reminded herself. She was skilled, resourceful, and determined. Those qualities had brought Amanda pretty far already, and they were about to bring her and Aspirations, Inc. even further. Just so long as Fate played fair, and didn't hand her some kind of loser for her first winning client, things would be absolutely perfect.

She hoped.

~ ~ ~

"Look at you! Since when did you become some kind of loser? I barely recognized you!"

The statement—issued in a strident, take-no-prisoners tone that Mike Cavaco recognized only too well—boomed inside the rolled-down window of his taxicab and straight into his brain.

"Since when," the voice's owner went on, "did you take to sleeping on the streets like this? For shame, Mike."

He winced and shoved the brim of his battered Suns cap high enough to see Myrna Winchester, his elderly next-door- neighbor, tsk-tsking from the shopping center space beside his cab. Behind her, crookedly parked and looking new as the day it rolled off the assembly line in 1967, waited her turquoise- colored Ford Mustang convertible—complete with fuzzy dice swinging from the rear-view mirror.

"I'm not sleeping in the streets," he pointed out, trying on a grin. "I'm sleeping behind the wheel." In demonstration, he yawned and stretched, like a man straight out of bed—a man groggy with the effects of too many celebratory post-game beers from last night, too little shut-eye, and more time on his hands than he wanted.

"At least you're not driving in that condition," Myrna said.

"No, I'm parked."

"I can see that. Mike, Mike, Mike. What's happened to you? You're not even a successful taxi-driver."

She looked sad to realize that fact, and the disappointment in her face got to him more than Mike wanted. Either that, or the root beer and nachos he'd downed for breakfast weren't sitting well with him.

"Have you had any fares at all today?"

Myrna's frown said she already knew he hadn't. Semi- affronted at her obvious lack of faith in the neighbor she'd known for the past four years, Mike tried to work his way into some righteous indignation on his own behalf. Nothing happened. He ran a hand thoughtfully over his dark, three-week-old beard, remembered all that had happened to him since April Fool's Day, and tried again.

Zilch.

"Geez, Myrna, cut me some slack here, will ya'? I'm only filling in with the taxicab gig. It's not like it's permanent or anything."

"Luckily for you." She sniffed, shifting her sack of groceries against her hip. Her blue-shadowed gaze swept over the jumbled interior of his assigned taxi, at the papers strewn on the floor of the backseat, the licorice whips slung over the two-way dispatcher's radio, and the stack of résumés and reference letters Mike unsuccessfully tried to hide beneath his elbow, then came to rest on his face.

Something in her expression, something tender and uncomfortably mushy, instantly put his guard up. But it was too late.

"Open the door, sonny," Myrtle said. "You've got a paying customer."

Mike raised his eyebrows. He nodded toward her pristine parked convertible. "You've got a perfectly good car right there."

"Pshaw. I fancy a ride, and you're here to give it. Now put those muscles of yours to good use, before I break my fingernails on this door."

"Yes, ma'am." Trying to match his demeanor to her no- nonsense one, Mike eased his way out from behind the taxi's steering wheel and stepped past Myrtle to open the driver's side rear door. He held out his hands for her grocery sack, and then propped his knee on the taxi's rear bench seat while bending over to slide the groceries inside for her.

Another 'tsk-tsk' from his neighbor alerted him to the fact that she'd spotted the butt-hugging rip in the rear of his favorite blue jeans. She'd probably lasered in on the insignificant mustard stain on the sleeve of his old gray T- shirt, too. Sheesh. For some people, nothing was ever perfect enough.

He levered himself back out and tipped his baseball cap.

"Your chariot awaits," Mike said, indicating the cracked vinyl seat just beyond his outswept arm.

Myrtle didn't duck her head fast enough to hide the smile that, for the briefest nanosecond, displaced her disapproving frown. But even if he hadn't glimpsed that smile, Mike would have known she cared. Because in the space of the next hour and a half, his convertible-loving neighbor somehow managed to find excuses for two trips downtown and one leisurely drive to a nearby park to feed the ducks—"Leave the meter running, sonny!"— before coming back to retrieve her car, and that was all he really needed to know that someone was in his corner.

It was nice. Really nice.

Especially considering how pathetically real his latest April Fool's Day joke had turned out to be.

And despite his best efforts to hide the fact behind monosyllabic grunted answers, grouchy tugs at his Suns cap, and a final, brief goodbye to Myrtle just before lunchtime, Mike appreciated it. If Myrtle had only been a restaurant owner needing to employ about a half-dozen of Phoenix's best former food service workers, things would have been just about perfect.

As it was, things were just...about as imperfect as you'd expect on an everyday, ordinary Monday.

~ ~ ~

And the Monday-ness of the day just kept rolling on, with the brief exception of several more 'urgent' fares from friends who had dug up the taxi company's number and specially requested a ride from 'that really great driver in number twenty-two.' The latest of those fares was in his cab right now, being driven the four whopping city blocks between the mall and the nearby CheapCuts hair emporium.

"This isn't a bad job, Mike," said Rico, the impending cut- ee and another victim of the April Fool's Day joke-that-wasn't. He bounced up and down on the cab's backseat until Mike shot him a warning glance, then in his reedy, nineteen-year-old's voice, added, "Sure beats slinging fries at a fast food joint."

"Everything beats slinging fries at a fast food joint."

Rico looked as though he'd just suggested Clearasil should be outlawed. Too late, Mike remembered where Rico had found his own temporary employment—a joint where the floors were always sticky, the burgers were always burned, and the scent of near-rancid frying oil was the closest thing to a culinary come-on.

"Hey, don't worry. We'll come up with something for the whole crew," Mike assured him. "You just wait."

Hopefully, Rico brightened up. "You've got something? Man, I knew you'd come through for us. I told everybody—"

"Not yet." Mike held up a hand, braking as he approached the turn-in for the shopping center that housed the CheapCuts. "It might take a little time, but—"

In the rear-view mirror, he saw Rico slump against the brown vinyl.

"—but things will work out. Just trust me, okay?"

"Okay," Rico said.

But in his eyes, Mike glimpsed the beginnings of doubt, and it just about killed him. He needed that like he needed blackouts on ESPN, a lifetime supply of Speedos, The Hair Club For Men, and another call from Heidi, the Swedish masseuse who'd dumped him when all the trouble had hit on April first. Namely, he didn't.

Hell. Were all of them starting to wonder? Or was it just Rico?

Either way, Mike couldn't do much more about it than he already had. His conscience was clear. Still, coming face to face with the reality of that doubt did things to him. Unprecedented things. And he didn't like it. The first thing he thought of to do about it, after he'd grudgingly collected Rico's two-fifty fare—all in quarters—was equally unprecedented. But that didn't stop him.

He actually cleaned up his temporary cab. Driven by the urge to accomplish something—something concrete, dammit!—Mike tidied and vacuumed and polished the six-year-old hunk of junk until it looked almost like a place somebody who didn't know him inside and out might want to take a ride. And that was where, tucked into the backseat cushions and squashed into the cigarette-butt-covered carpeted floor, Mike found the tickets.

All sixteen of them.

He had no idea what he was in for.

~ ~ ~

At the Channel Six offices, seated in a too-cushy chair between a freestanding southwestern bronze sculpture and a potted prickly pear cactus, Amanda received her third piece of bad, Monday-ish news of the day.

The first had been the mildly upsetting realization— discovered while retrieving her slightly-chewed Life Coach's cap from her basset hound Webster's bed and glimpsing an old dry- cleaning tag amidst his collection—that she'd forgotten to pick up the get-a-promotion suit from Melanie.

The second had been the more upsetting realization— discovered while changing in Gemma's toy-strewn, vaguely diaper- scented bedroom—that even the all-the-yummy-water-you-can-drink aspects of her new diet had been only marginally enough to whittle her hips into the smallish-sized Prada pantsuit. She'd vowed then and there to discover a drop-ten-pounds T-shirt, or die trying.

The third bit of bad news, just delivered by the Channel Six news 'lifestyles' producer, Evan Krantz, had beaten the other two hands-down, though.

"When you say, 'We don't have a winner," Amanda said, trying not to wreck her chances at this much-needed publicity by hyperventilating in the producer's office, "what exactly do you mean, Evan?"

"I mean, we don't have a winner."

"Don't have a winner who's telegenic, you mean? Someone who'll snag high ratings? What?"

"I mean, we don't have a winner. Period." He paused, fiddling with the stylus on his palm-PC in a way that made Amanda suspect Evan was actually playing some sort of game. On his computer, that is. And maybe with her, too.

Was this some kind of test? A think-on-your-feet quiz? Some kind of bizarre TV initiation thing, designed for media newbies like her?

Well, if it was, Amanda meant to knock his socks off.

"Nobody's turned in the winning Life Coach Lotto ticket?" she asked, just to get things straight from the beginning.

Evan shook his head. His palm-PC squeaked out a jubilant- sounding electronic accompaniment.

"That's impossible."

"I would have thought so, too," Evan said mildly. Chirp, chirp went his computer. "Apparently, it isn't."

"But we distributed thousands of those tickets. The In- And-Out Marts must have given away at least two thousand, all by themselves. The Lotto has been mentioned on the nightly news every day for the past month. People are crazy to win this thing, for Pete's sake!"

"Evidently not."

Amanda felt woozy. All her work had come down to this? A highly-publicized whopper of a failure? No. There had to be something she could do. But what?

From the doorway behind Evan's desk, a glasses-wearing man she recognized as one of the roving cameramen assigned to follow her and the Life Coach Lotto winner on their adventures poked his head inside the office.

"Evan, we're ready when you are," he said.

"Fine." Evan frowned, still not looking up. "We may be a few more minutes here."

A few more minutes. He probably meant that was all the time he'd need to dismiss Amanda, Aspirations, Inc., and every last one of her hopes of skyrocketing to the top of her field. Life coaching was a fairly new concept, to be sure. But Amanda believed strongly in its worth, and she wasn't ready to go down without a fight.

Desperately, she gulped the rest of her coffee—black, thanks, no sugar, no delicious, creamy cream—and while she waited for the caffeine to hit, Amanda looked around Evan's cluttered office, hoping for inspiration. Her gaze lit on the wall of news-broadcasting awards to her right, reminding her of exactly how popular the station was in the southwestern market. Each of those award plaques probably represented hundreds of viewers—hundreds of potential clients.

Hundreds of missed opportunities, if she didn't pull this off.

"I'm sorry this didn't work out." Evan paused. Waved his stylus over the palm-PC with enough body English to make his desk chair wobble. Smirked over what had to be a victory over LED space invaders. Finally looked up and appeared to realize Amanda was still there. "Don't worry about it, Amanda. I can use the crew for a roving report on price-gouging hot dog vendors I've had in mind."

He'd had a back-up plan? Right from the get-go?

hot dog back-up plan?

"No! Evan, no." Plastering on what she hoped was a confident smile, Amanda leaned forward...well, she attempted to lean forward, at least. The fact that the cushy chair made her legs dangle an inch above the ground might have made the gesture less than impressive. "I'm sure we can still make this work. The winner is out there, somewhere. We only have to—"

He shook his head. "The taping is set for today. In fact, as of—" Evan consulted his watch. "—seven minutes ago, it's behind schedule. Time is money, you know."

"I know. But publicity is golden, even for a popular station like yours. We could leverage this, ramp up the public's interest even higher."

"I'm listening." Grudgingly.

Encouraged, Amanda talked faster. "Think of it, Evan. A high-profile search. An intriguing public question. 'Who's the mystery Life Coach Lotto winner?' as the catch phrase of the month." Warming up now, she spread her arms in the air, unfurling an imaginary banner. "I can just see it, emblazoned on billboards, on commercial spots, on the sides of city buses—"

"On taxicabs," Evan put in, seeming to warm up to the idea.

"Sure! Whatever you want. I'm telling you, this could work."

"Hmmm. But once you find the winner, won't interest wane?"

Evan had actually put down his palm-PC. She was getting somewhere!

"Are you kidding?" Of course he wasn't kidding. Her mind gridlocked, and Amanda cast about desperately for more ammunition. "There's nothing the public likes better than a good rags-to-riches story. Or a remarkable makeover. Or, right now, reality TV. With this Life Coach Lotto gig, we've got all three."

"My daughter's a sucker for that Real World stuff on MTV," Evan mused. "And my wife can't get enough of those people on Fashion Emergency. You know...."

"It could work," she assured him, remembering all the planning meetings they'd held to set up the Life Coach Lotto. "It will work. Those are exactly the demographics you need to reach. You told me so yourself."

"I don't know...."

"You'll see." Forging ahead despite his lingering reluctance, Amanda gave a nonchalant wave—and played her trump card, the angle that had gotten her in the door at Channel Six in the first place. "With my exclusive Life Coach plan, I can turn anyone into a well-rounded, perfectly-balanced example of twenty-first century success. In just thirty days."

"Anyone?"

"You bet." I think.

"Even someone like that?" Wearing a crafty expression, Evan pointed out the window. The nearly floor-to-ceiling glass area encompassed most of the wall behind Amanda, and through it the busy streets of downtown Phoenix were visible in all their late-April glory.

She swiveled in her chair. Outside, the man Evan had indicated stood on the sidewalk beside an incongruously shiny taxicab, a fistful of papers in his hand, squinting up at what had to be the imposing Channel Six sign on the building. Even from this distance, Amanda could see that his Suns cap, bleach- spotted T-shirt, ripped blue jeans, and ancient sneakers were hardly dress-for-success material.

Neither was his shaggy beard, what she could glimpse of his dark hair, or the scowl on his face. A less experienced observer might have stopped there, but Amanda also registered the slightly rounded set of his shoulders—indicating either depression, a lack of enthusiasm, or both, she figured—and the pugnacious set of his jaw—indicating that whoever the man was, he'd probably deck anybody who dared to point out either one. Yup. That guy would be a tough case, all right.

"Sure!" Amanda said crazily, pushed beyond her usual sensible limits by the desperation of the situation—and the very real danger that she and all three of the assistants she employed would find themselves out on the streets if this Life Coach Lotto stunt didn't push Aspirations, Inc. to the top of the heap. "Even a guy like that. In fact, why don't I go get him, and we can get started with—"

"Oh, no," Evan interrupted. "We can't just drag in any old schmo of the street. If there's to be any hope of making the Life Coach segment a regularly-occurring feature on the Channel Six nightly news, the winner must be genuine."

Thank God. Her gamble had paid off.

Amanda hadn't believed Evan would actually take her up on her offer to make over the first ordinary Joe who came along. That certainty had been the only thing that allowed her to make such a reckless offer in the first place.

That, and the fact that the taxicab guy had already disappeared from sight.

"If you say so, Evan," she told him, inserting as much reluctance into the statement as she could.

What she hoped for in a Life Coach Lotto winner—what she prayed for—was a nice, semi-professional, college-educated person who was temporarily in a career-and-life slump. Someone with potential. A willingness to grow and change. And a handily telegenic, sympathetic, and allover charming personality that would gain viewers' allegiance...and ease Amanda's way into a ton of new clients. The last thing she needed was a grouchy-looking taxi driver who seemed as though he'd as soon crush the television cameras with his bare hands as smile for them.

Whew. Disaster averted.

Mentally congratulating herself on her quick thinking, Amanda smoothed her hand over the tailored jacket of the get-a- promotion suit. She began gathering her things. "In that case," she said, "I'll just get together with my publicist, and we'll see what we can dream up for those banners we talked about. I'd be happy to make an appearance on tonight's newscast, if you'd like, to jump-start the 'Who's the mystery Life Coach Lotto winner?' campaign."

"Hmmm. That's not a bad idea. What do you say—"

His statement was cut short by a burst of noise from the Channel Six reception area outside Evan's office. It sounded suspiciously like...a whoop?

Evan turned his head toward the sound. Listened. "But on second thought, I don't think that will be necessary," he finished.

An instant later, Amanda discovered why not.

"Evan! Mr. Krantz!" the receptionist shouted. "You're not going to believe this, but...we've got ourselves a winner!"

(end of excerpt)

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