Product Placement, a story by Leslie Rider at Spillwords.com
DALL-E

Product Placement

Product Placement

written by: Leslie Rider

@writer317537

 

I straddled the top of two urinals in the men’s faculty bathroom in the art building. I pulled packing tape from a small roll with one hand. In the other, I held the QR code of my product. It led to an online print of my best painting from the previous year: a reimagined copy of the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer. It looked like the real thing, except that the subject was a pigeon. I placed the tape on the slip of paper and pushed it onto the wall. Then I jumped down and snuck out the window.
Outside, I stood on the window ledge of the second floor. Searching on my left for my extension ladder, my only source of escape, I found nothing. Someone must’ve taken it. A glance to my right confirmed I’d have a clear path to the ground if I fell. I jumped to the limb of the oak tree adjacent to me.
The branch held my weight as I moved toward the trunk. Then I descended the tree until my jeans got stuck on something. I reached to disconnect my trousers from the bark, but my hand slipped, and I face-planted, pantsless, into the grass. The backpack smacked me on the head before hitting the ground. Looking up I thought I saw a security guard approaching. Aw, crap! In my hoodie and underwear, I threw on my knapsack and high-tailed it to the hatchback parked close by.
Amy, my roommate, started the engine. “Did you find places to put your code?”
I buckled my seatbelt. “Yeah. I’m good.”
She stared at my legs. “What happened to your pants?”
“They were an offering to the tree god. Let’s go.”

***

“I can’t believe I’m doing this again,” I said to Mom on the phone. “I already applied for the scholarship last year. And won. Now I—”
“Did I tell you, Brianna? My Only Fans site now has three paying members. That’s up from two last month. Did I give you the code?”
Ugh, that site where people pay others to take off clothing and do whatever. I refused to visit Mom’s page, even though it seemed like she was having fun with it. “Yeah, but I don’t want access. It’s too weird.”
“Your father’s okay with it. He says it’ll help with expenses. Lord knows we need it. Hold on a sec.” Mom’s voice disappeared, like she was walking away from the phone. “I need to fix your father’s cereal.” She returned to full volume. “You know how stopped up he gets in the morning.”
I didn’t want to hear about that, either. “I got to go. Bye.”
“Good luck with the scholarship!”
I hung up and gave a loud huff. Then I took a bite of my donut.
Amy hurried into our room, wearing a towel she’d stolen from a hotel last year and smelling of soap. She must’ve had a shower. “Today’s the big day.”
I cracked open a can of soda. “Yeah,” I groaned.
She applied something moussey to her damp locks. “It’s ridiculous the art department makes you apply for scholarships every year. You won last time. Why should you have to do it again?” She shook her head. “The accounting department gives out awards that last a full four years.”
“I don’t mind the application. But the best product placement—”
“It sounds super cutthroat.”
I nodded and put on my coat. “You’re supposed to place your best piece in the ten most creative spots you can. Each year it gets worse. Everybody researches Dr. Waterhouse’s route to school and where he goes during the day. Then they put their products on billboards and road signs along that path. Or they’ll sneak in the art building and put them in locations where he’ll find it, like what I did with the QR codes, yesterday. He decides whose work had the most creative placements. That’s who wins.”
“I loved the places you chose last year.”
“Yeah. The best was on the back of Waterhouse’s chihuahua.” I shrugged. “He was fine when I put the dog jacket on him. That’s where I attached the picture of the product. But I had to shrink the image because the animal’s so small.”
“You think you’ll win again?”
I went to grab my soda, but it had disappeared. After a swivel to Amy, I watched her guzzle it down. “Dude, that’s mine.”
“Sorry.” She returned it to me. “Force of habit.”
“You accounting majors are a bunch of thieves.”
“The department calls it job training. They say new accountants must learn the science of creative bookkeeping.”
I threw my backpack over a shoulder. “Which involves—”
“Stealing.”
“Exactly.” I opened the door and waved to Amy.
“Good luck!”

***

I didn’t have a car like most students; I had to hoof it to the bus stop in my tattered shoes. I didn’t even have the cash for a new pair. Without that scholarship, I couldn’t attend college.
The exhaust from the bus as it pulled over made me cough. And the whoosh and squeak of the rickety doors flinging open suggested the vehicle was ancient. It promised a bumpy ride. I glanced at the advertisement on the side of the vehicle and found a sculpture of a metal tree, with the words Jenny Matthew’s Product ‘Tree’ for The Art Scholarship, Real World State University. 2023. This type of placement was old hat. I rolled my eyes and muttered, “lame.”
After paying the fare, I ambled toward the back, searching for a seat. So many people were on the bus. A woman in a leather jacket sat with a boy eating a candy bar. An old man held a bag with a picture of a tube of something on it and the words ‘Bryllcreem: A Little Dabll Do Ya’ in large letters. What the hell was that? Was it even a product?
I found a seat in the back by my friend Patty, an education student. She was on her feet, keeping an eye on the passengers.
“What’s up?” I said, planting my butt on the plastic seat.
She maintained her gaze on the others. “Not much.”
Over her coat, she wore a black sash with the gold letters SNCH. It stood for the School of Nursing, Childcare and Human Development, one of the branches of our university.
I glared at the sash and wrinkled my nose. “I thought you didn’t have to wear your snitch label outside of school.”
She sighed. “I need extra practice in telling children what to do because I suck at it. And if I practice, I’m supposed to wear the sash.”
An adolescent with a backpack stood up and took out a cell phone from his back pocket as the bus started moving.
“You with the phone,” Patty called to the boy. “Sit down. The bus is in transit.”
The kid turned around and threw her a look. “Shut up, snitch.”
She rolled her eyes and sat down. “See what I mean?”
“Have you thought about changing majors?” I asked.
“Yeah. I might switch to philosophy.”
“Not a bad idea. All they make you do is carry around a bucket and a sign asking for money.”
“But you’ve got to beg on the street for, like, six hours a day. Plus, the professors drive around town to make sure you’re panhandling.”
I scoffed. “It’s like they’re showing us what life is like once we graduate with our degrees.”

***

The route we took to school was also Dr. Waterhouse’s. This meant students’ products for the art scholarship were everywhere. Some I recognized immediately. Ben Rivers’ piece covering a speed sign. Amanda Cross’s in the window of a pancake house our professor often visited. The billboards no longer advertised Popeye’s Chicken and Clorox bleach. Ads for Keebler crackers and Dunkin Donuts coffee had disappeared. Now, college students’ artwork, like Nancy Jones’ ceramic bowl that everybody loved and Paul Uribe’s photograph of a sleeping cat, became larger than life on the giant placards.
A small girl in front of us pointed to a giant print of a painting depicting a scrawny, naked man sitting on a chair. That was an entry, too.
“Where are his clothes?” the child asked.
The woman turned her head to glance at the piece, and her eyes widened. She covered the kid’s face with her hand. “Don’t look at that.”

***

The products were everywhere on campus. I found a print of a ceramic vase hanging from a large maple tree above to a philosophy student begging for cash. A girl who I assumed was an accounting major was eyeing his bucket. A copy of a drawing for the scholarship looked out a building window like it was waiting for a prom date that would never come. Somebody attached their work to part of the sidewalk. Even though they’d placed a protective cover over it, the print still had so many footprints and scuff marks, you couldn’t tell what it was.
To my surprise, two boys were scanning the QR code to my product on the door of the art building as I entered. Wow. People were noticing my piece. In the second-floor hallway, I found three more male students scanning the code. Curious about what they thought of my work, I walked up to one kid eating potato chips and studying his phone.
“Hey,” I said, “you like what you see?”
He wore a toothy smile. “You bet. It’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.”
I’d never received such a compliment and jolted my head back. “Glad you like my art.”

***

In my painting class, two friends, Valerie and Chris, were finishing up the last project of the quarter: an advertisement for a product we used every day.
Valerie placed a dollop of white paint on her picture of a package of toilet paper. “The student art for the scholarship this year is the worst. And it’s everywhere.”
“Good thing you live on campus,” I said setting up my aluminum easel. “I saw it on billboards and road signs, too.”
Valerie scoffed. “Right now, I’d pay good money to see an ad of something besides some crummy art piece.”
Chris mixed white with a several drops of vermillion, creating a nauseating pink for a Pepto-Bismol ad on her canvas. “You miss those Starbucks signs all over campus?” She picked up the medicine that was the model for her piece and took a swig.
“Hell yeah,” Valerie said, leaning in to work on the lettering on her painting. “I’d rather see a thousand ads for coffee than all that crap outside.” She turned to me. “What places did you put your product this year?”
“It’s pretty much all over the art building. You know that QR code on the front door and in the halls—”
“That’s your piece?” Valerie asked and stared at me with a slack jaw.
“Yeah. If you click on it, you’ll see my reimagined Vermeer.”
She shook her head. “That’s not what it sends you to. At least not on my phone.”
“Where does it go?”
“To some site with an old lady in a thong.”
No!
I ran out to the nearest code. There must’ve been seven or eight guys scanning it to get access. I asked one of them wearing a jersey and wide grin to show me his screen. There, as plain as day, was my mother’s Only Fans site.
Dammit, Mom!
Immediately I shooed the onlookers away and yanked the slip of paper with the link to my mother’s site from the wall. I needed to get rid of all these codes. I began to mentally list the places I’d put them. On the front entrance. Two spots on the first-floor hallway. Two on the second floor. One in the student restroom. Another in the faculty—
I sprinted to the men’s faculty bathroom, the last place I’d put the QR code. The last thing I wanted was to go inside. But I had to. I held in a breath and burst through the door. There, I found two professors. One of them was washing his hands. The other, Dr. Waterhouse, was holding up his phone to scan the code.
He swiveled around and looked me in the eye. “What are you doing in here, Brianna?”
“I’m sorry.” I walked over to the QR code and jerked it off the wall. “This was supposed to be a link to my piece for the Creativity in Product Placement Scholarship.” I hung my head. “But it’s not. It’s a link to something else.”
He folded his arms. “What does it connect to?”
I sighed. “It’s unrelated to my work.”
“Let me see.” He held out a hand, and, with hesitation, I placed the slip into his palm.
He scanned the code, examined the site, and gave a faint smile. “Who is this older woman?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Fine. But if this was supposed to be your product, you’ll be disqualified.”
“Yeah. I know.”
He wandered out the door, still looking at his screen.

***

I returned to class and handed in my painting of a cookie box. It was mostly done. But even if it wasn’t, it didn’t matter. I was no longer in the running. Which meant I wouldn’t be able to return in the fall.
As I trudged down the hall, I collected the last of the QR codes, recovering what little shred of dignity my family still had. Then my thoughts turned to finding a job. I listed several possibilities in my head as I continued to the bus stop, but a phone call interrupted me. It was Mom. A quick inhale prepared me to apologize to her.
“Hi, Mom. I—”
“Oh my God, Brianna! Listen to this: I’ve made over a thousand dollars today through my site. I must’ve gotten at least sixty new subscribers. And everyone’s paying for the works. If it keeps going this way, we’ll be raking in the dough!”
What the—
“How much is the tuition for your college?”
“Ten thousand a semester.”
“Assuming I continue to get more customers, I could get you the tuition for next semester in a couple of months.”
If I wanted Mom to earn that type of cash for the long term, I needed to photocopy the slips of paper and put them in the other buildings on campus. I turned around and headed to the library. After all, I wanted to return next year. And, evidently, product placement is everything.

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