points

The Bulletpoints of Valley Pete
by Leland Cheuk

  • Pete knows what the people in the office call him. Tool. Douche-bag. Sycophant. He’s heard it all before. As the head of global accounts, Pete is paid to ignore the prattle.

  • Despite his lack of tangible accomplishments and the fact that he’s worked for fifteen technology companies over the course of twenty years, Pete continues to be highly desired in The Valley. He has worked at several of the world’s most admired Internet brands, and he has been an especially good drinking buddy to a sizable network of executives who will not hesitate to vouch for Pete’s ability to “grow relationships.” When he inevitably has to search for a new employer, he targets the companies that aspire to be the last one for which he worked. Say you’re Google, for example. There are thousands of companies that want to be the next Google. If you show up on said company’s doorstep saying you just worked for Google, eyes luminesce with desire.
  • As he finishes his first year at this privately held multi-billion dollar (that’s valuation; revenues are undisclosed) cloud computing company, Pete’s enjoying the largest compensation package of his career; and yet, he feels he’s in trouble. He hasn’t built enough alliances here. He’s burned too many bridges in The Valley, which is a very small place. One of these days, someone he’s torched will walk through the glass doors downstairs and be his boss or peer, and he or she will possess a long memory. He, like anyone else, would prefer to have a reputation as an inspirational leader and people manager, a high-performing professional, a winning father, a supportive husband—an all-around quality guy. But like the companies for which he’s worked, in a final SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, change is more often driven by threats than opportunities.
  • During his twenty-five-year career, Pete has done many things of which he’s not proud:
    • The women. Mary, the buxom office manager with whom he had a three-year affair. The escorts in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore whose services were charged to his expense account. The boss he had on her knees in a London conference room. He has confessed nothing to his wife Jill. Why involve the children?
    • The enemies. Pete fabricates reasons to dismiss those he does not like. The senior manager who found out about him and Mary. The inquisitive peer who discovered that the receipts for Pete’s large client dinners hadn’t originated from establishments that sold food. The list goes on. Pete devotes entire fiscal quarters to destroying others whose objectives are counter to his own.
  • Steve, a vice president of U.S. accounts, walks glumly into Pete’s corner office with the view of the flanks of other, taller buildings closer to Highway 101. Steve drops into the open chair and recites his weekly status report with all the passion of a robot dog low on batteries. He is prompted by a stapled sheaf of papers pocked with a seemingly endless list of bulletpoints. Pete does not like Steve. He is tall, dark-browed, handsome, and unlike Pete, he does not need to dye his hair. Pete can already tell that some of the younger, more attractive female employees would be open to an affair with Steve, were he that type of man. Pete can tell Steve is that type of man. Because Pete is that type of man.
    • I’m worried I won’t hit my number, Steve says. My top rep left for a competitor, and he’ll take accounts with him.
    • Pete musters a shrug. When we ask you to hold a bag, we don’t ask you to hold it until something bad happens. That’s why we call them “quotas.”
  • Pete explains to his boss, the chief executive, that Steve and the reps he manages will not make their number this quarter, and that Steve should ultimately be held accountable.
    • The chief executive asks: aren’t you ultimately accountable?
  • Pete’s son Johnson is lithe and athletic. He excels at soccer, football, and basketball. When Johnson was in Pop Warner and youth soccer, Pete enjoyed being a spectator. In recent years, however, Pete has missed most of Johnson’s games. He blames business travel, but he’s the one who strategically extends his trips so that he flies back on Saturdays instead of Friday nights. The truth is: Pete can no longer look his son in the eye because he reminds Pete of all the affairs he’s kept secret from Johnson’s mother. Now that his son is in high school, Pete doesn’t enjoy waiting after games while he mingles with various friends. Many of them are attractive young women. Pete can easily imagine offering them internships at the company, summer jobs at minimum wage, just to have an excuse to swing by a lovely new intern’s cubicle.
  • Shiloh, Pete’s daughter, looks like her mother used to. Long brown hair, wiry, bow-legged, so tall for thirteen that she slouches. In kindergarten, she’d habitually spread her legs and touch herself. At first, Pete found this act curious, watching his daughter as one might watch leopards bound across a desert on television. Once, Shiloh began idly touching herself in front of houseguests, and Pete yelled at her to stop with an anger he didn’t fully understand. These days, Pete asserts no such authority over Shiloh. She mostly ignores him before flouring her face with makeup. She’s dating some pockmarked boy of South Indian descent with a ponytail and a harelip. Jill thinks he’s nice. Pete knows better, as he did when the kindergarten-version of Shiloh spread her legs. Boys are never nice.
  • Jill is unrecognizable to Pete. She’s twice the size she was when they first met. Twenty years ago, she was his assistant. Now, he’s secretly delighted that she prefers to skip office Christmas parties. When they have sex, he tries to remember what she looked like when she was thin. He never calls to mind any of the other women with whom he’s slept during their marriage. Jill is the mother of his children; their lovemaking is sacred.
  • On the way to his office, Pete eyes Steve leaning against a cubicle wall, laughing with a dark-haired woman in her late-twenties whose crossed arms fail to hide that 1) she is well-endowed, and 2) she might be attracted to Steve. Pete finds a cubicle floor map and searches for the girl’s name. Maeve Garner. Lovely.
  • Alone in his office, Pete daydreams about piloting a hang glider over The Valley, above the office parks and strip malls, above the playground where the kids at the nearby daycare center recess. When he was a child, Pete loved all things airborne. Planes. Space Shuttles. Superheroes. In his daydream, the children below point at him with admiration. Look at the man in the suit who can fly. They aspire to be him one day. The phone rings, and reverie vanishes. It’s Pete’s assistant, saying he’s five minutes late to his bi-weekly staff meeting. He dials-in, greets employees on three continents, and presents a single slide with bulletpoints that urge his team to stay focused on the following:
    • Innovation
    • Efficiency
    • And most importantly, transformation
  • While fielding questions from his staff, Pete mimics an oratory cadence that resembles Hollywood biopics about great speakers (Malcolm X, he especially liked). He utters a variety of inaccuracies that he is unlikely to recall should he ever be asked to account for his answers in an executive team meeting or a court of law. After he hangs up, Pete feels drained. He removes his headset, goes to the window, and stares out at the office park across the street, searching futilely for his reflection in the glass of other buildings. That company is likely selling enterprise cloud services as well, and years from now, another large company will likely be selling yet another type of service targeted for other large companies. Every few months, Pete wants to quit, but the math quickly dissuades him. Jill doesn’t work, and he promised to pay for college for both children. He has to hang on for at least another decade. He’ll be fifty-eight then. When did his work begin to mean so little? He started his career as a junior sales manager making hardly any salary at all, existing only to inflate the commissions of the sales executive who hired him. His boss had hit his number twenty-four quarters in a row, and once he missed his number, he got fired, and Pete was promoted and given a modest compensation bump. Pete used to appreciate the heights to which he’d risen. Now, here on the seventh floor, Pete feels, somehow, that he’s been at sea level for quite some time.
  • Pete conjures a reason to visit the account management wing so he can swing by Maeve Garner’s cubicle. Her hair looks tousled. Her face is flushed. Her gym bag is on her desk. She’s wearing form-fitting running clothes the color of slate. Of course. Women like her go on runs. Jill doesn’t run. Men like Pete never run. Men like Pete stroll. Men like Pete are followed.
    • Maeve says hi. From her peppy tone, Pete surmises that no one has called him a tool, douche-bag, or sycophant in her presence. Unless she’s a very good actor. Which she has to be for her job. Maybe she’s managing him like a needy account.
    • Where do you run, Pete asks?
      • By the lake.
        • Me too. We should run together.
  • On the way home, Pete stops by a sporting goods store and purchases a pair of running shoes and shorts.
  • Maeve says she’s a slow runner, but Pete is surprised he can keep up. His performance buoys his spirits. As they trot around the man-made lake, Pete tries to ignore the budding blisters caused by his new shoes. He also tries to avoid eye-feasting on Maeve’s long, twig-like limbs, her narrow, blemish-free face, and her high cheekbones that billow like tiny sails. She has the perfect nose: in profile, an elegantly upended question mark. Pete asks a lot of questions, offers as little information about himself as possible, and definitely, absolutely, doesn’t, under any circumstances, mention his family.
    • Maeve is twenty-eight.
    • Used to work as a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company.
    • Currently single. Her boyfriend recently left her after five years.
    • Favorite musician is David Byrne. Pete tells her that, as an undergraduate, he saw Byrne and the Talking Heads play for three hours at Madison Square Garden in the late-80’s. He went to no such concert and has no idea whether such a show existed. In fact, he can’t name a Talking Heads song.
    • After the run, Pete and Maeve glisten from exertion. When they pass by Steve in the lobby, Pete is the first to say hello.
  • Pete takes his family to a beginner hang gliding lesson in nearby Milpitas, a town of 70,000 advantageously located at the intersection of the commuter highways 237, 680, and 880. Milpitas is the home of several thriving multi-billion dollar multinationals as well as the slowly dying computer hardware manufacturers that thrived in the 1980s.
    • Inside the converted warehouse space, Johnson can’t stop texting, and Shiloh has the gall to bring the Indian kid. Jill complains she’s too big for the simulator. That’s nonsense, the guide says. Pete remains silent.
    • Pete straps into the harness, and the fan blows wind through his hair. He glides over digital foothills, but he imagines flying over The Valley, his office park, the daycare center. He waves to pointing spectators below. Maeve is among them.
  • Pete and Maeve run three times a week. She is funny, charming, intelligent, and perhaps most importantly, full of very specific life goals. She’s saving money to travel to Southeast Asia. She plans to apply to the Peace Corps. One day, she wants to write a memoir about her experiences. To her, the company is merely a mediocre, stopover town. The concepts of unfulfilled potential and regrettable acts you can’t undo are strangers Maeve has no intention of ever meeting. Pete would be proud if Shiloh grew to be as brave and outspoken as Maeve. Later, when he is in the company gym’s locker room, changing back into his work clothes, the mere act of bending over to untie his running shoes makes Pete lightheaded enough to necessitate his sitting. He feels like the mediocre, stopover town.
  • Jill notices that Pete has lost ten pounds. He tells her that he runs the treadmill during lunch.
    • When you get to our age, you have to do more to keep the pounds off, Pete adds.
    • Jill stares hard at him.
  • Pete knows that he and Maeve should stop running together. He has been through this enough times at enough companies to know where this is heading. Maeve has not asked once about Pete’s family, though Pete has not removed his wedding ring. He estimates that he is a gift or two away from her bed. After watching Johnson win Most Valuable Player in the district soccer playoffs on Saturday, Pete is so proud of his son he can hardly breathe. He decides then and there that this running with Maeve must stop. Monday comes, and he schedules phantom meetings during the noon hour all week. He emails Maeve that their jogs are no-can-dos because it’s near the end of the quarter. By Thursday, Pete has cleared his schedule, and he and Maeve are circling the lake again, beneath gliding, watching gulls.
  • Pete goes on a hang gliding lesson alone. In the simulator, he flies off a large false hill. He imagines that he is flying over verdant and bosky New Hampshire, over the house where he grew up. It has green shutters, white shingles, and a large yard near a marsh and a reservoir. In the air, he misses his parents. Before they died nearly a decade ago, his parents had been schoolteachers, married forty years without infidelity. They used to frequently ask what Pete really wanted to do with his life, even after he became a vice president. When he and Jill had Johnson, Pete was supposed to start a company that helped make quality K-12 schooling more affordable. But the longer you do sales successfully, the more exponential the compensation grows, and the harder it becomes to abandon the life of a career salesman. Pete misses being seen as someone with potential. One day, while his head is down, scrambling to make his number, his career will end. He won’t know it, at first. He’ll think it’s just a bump in the road, and he’ll catch on elsewhere. But when he interviews, Pete will be looked at like his first boss was looked at. Too old. Too high-priced. Too long since he worked at that Fortune 500. His references, retired. His Rolodex (the junior reps call it “network” now), worthless. As he brings his glider down, Pete plans to tell Maeve that, one day, she will miss being seen as someone with potential. By the time he lands, Pete decides he will tell Maeve no such thing.
  • When Pete strolls into work, he sees Steve laughing at the entrance of Maeve’s cubicle. Pete steps into the chief executive’s office and explains that he will have to put Steve on a performance plan. The chief executive rises from his desk. Like Pete, he looks the part. Tall, broad-shouldered, served in the Army, and he didn’t just serve in the Army, he played football; and he didn’t just play football, he played quarterback. But he hasn’t been CEO before, and it has been two years, and they’ve fallen short of growth targets so the pressure is on from the investors. When the chief executive asks Pete to shut the door, Pete knows he’s in trouble.
  • The following morning, Pete is on a performance plan. The chief executive has heard that Pete is more concerned with flirting with “the AM girls” than hitting his number.
  • After telling Jill that he needs to spend a Saturday morning in the office, Pete meets Maeve for a hang gliding lesson. While Pete is in the harness, his simulator screen blacks out, and the fans stop. Instead of feeling like he’s flying, Pete just feels like he’s dangling. He imagines his parents below, waiting to receive him. He assures Maeve that her flight will be more fun. At the end of the lesson, Pete invites her to a David Byrne concert in San Francisco, the tickets for which he had his secretary purchase.
    • You’re married.
      • But I adore you.
    • You should know better.
      • Pete looks down at his shoes. For some reason, even though it’s a Saturday, he expects to see his shiny leather wing tips instead of the fashion-deaf, insole-stuffed sneakers he’s wearing. Even as he is, in fact, contrite, Pete also knows that he must appear as contrite as possible.
    • I’m sorry, Maeve says. We should know better. I’ve been here before. It’s something I want to change. Friends?
      • No point, Pete thinks.
      • Friends, Pete says.
    • Maeve hugs Pete, lightly, in a friendly way, like he’s made of papier maché.
      • Take your wife to the show, she says.
  • On Monday, Pete sees Steve doing calf stretches on Maeve’s cubicle wall. He’s in running shorts. Even odds or better that they sleep together, Pete thinks. The walls of Pete’s office are still bare. He hasn’t even hung his framed diplomas from Stanford and Northwestern or the family portrait in which Pete appears to be the steeple of their modest chapel. He empties his desk drawers and puts the frames in a box. While staring down at the playground, he phones the executive recruitment agency. As Pete is being transferred to his headhunter, he daydreams of flying out over his home and above the children in his best suit, his shiniest dress shoes. The children point at him with admiration. They aspire to be him one day. The headhunter picks up.
    • What can I do for you?
      • I need to make a change.

Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP Publishing, 2015). He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies including one from the MacDowell Colony, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, and elsewhere. His first story collection LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS is forthcoming in 2017. He lives in Brooklyn.

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