Corporate StrategiesBy Bruce Douglas ReevesA Subversive Story
1. The Meeting
He didn’t intend to go to the meeting. Those monthly sessions were all alike: too many overpriced drinks while people bitched about either the jobs they had or the jobs they wanted, then watery filet of sole and a speaker proclaiming yet again that PR Professionals must work with management, partners in achieving quantifiable objectives, followed by more booze, swapping of business cards, and the Muni ride home. Alone.
However, Freakface Frank hovered in Alec’s office doorway that morning, squinted over file folders and clippings scattered across the desk between them, and asked if he should authorize the two hundred and fifty bucks to renew Alec’s PR association membership. Alec’s glance ricocheted to the baby blue flier he’d got in the mail to announce the speaker at this month’s meeting. He’d tacked it next to several dusty org charts above his P.C. and had forgotten about it.
– As a matter of fact, I’m going to a meeting tonight, he lied. – About utilizing matrix management between client and consultant to generate more effective P.R. strategies. (He didn’t point out that this avoided the question: more effective than what? Fortunately, logic wasn’t Freakface Frank’s strong point.)
Freakface nodded and said he’d see that Alec’s membership was paid. Alec knew that, now, if he didn’t go to the goddamned meeting the old man would be sure to cross-examine him the next day. As bosses went, Freakface Frank was tolerable, except that he kept trying to prove that he was in charge—of some-fucking-thing.
The evening turned out worse than Alec expected: during cocktails, every man, woman, and ape who inched up to him hoped to pry a job lead out of his spongy brain. The young ones vibrated like tuning forks with anxiety over getting started in their careers; the older ones were dark-eyed with desperation to land someplace, any place, either because they’d been laid off or were terrified they were about to be. The only way Alec could endure the stampede of resumes on the hoof was from behind a shield of Bloody Marys.
Alec got only a vague impression of the consultant’s talk, but he couldn’t avoid her red power suit or the faddish phrases zipping past his head: coherent dotted-line power structures… value-added matrix positioning… strategic non-defensive synergies… conceptualizing of multi-pronged, integrated, many-faceted, demographically targeted empowerment…. By the final handshakes and trading of business cards, he was balanced on the edge of bleary-eyed paralysis. He didn’t remember to rip his name tag off his lapel until he was half way up Kearny Street. Then he realized that instead of heading to the Muni, he’d staggered into North Beach. Neon tits and asses twinkling around him, a skinny hoarse-voiced barker urged him to come in and ogle the nude dancers performing hardcore sex acts.
– Alone? he asked. They do it alone?
– What d'you wanna do? Get on stage with 'em?
Alec gave him the finger and lurched on past. He didn’t like either the guy’s attitude or his green crewcut. Stumbling past tourists gawking at the posters in front of Finocchio’s and sipping cappuccinos on Enrico’s terrace, Alec squatted on broken concrete steps that replaced the sidewalk as the street vaulted Telegraph Hill and watched the city revolve like a Ferris wheel in front of him. During the day, in one of those granite-faced shafts of shattered dreams, he watched new high rises gradually block his view of the world. With masochistic pleasure, he saw old buildings knocked down, new girders jammed together, and prefabricated skins fastened to perforated steel skeletons until another shadow reached toward his window.
A taxi, Alec decided. He’d never get home without a taxi.
Trying to stand, he fell into a pleading position on the rough, sloping pavement. Shit, he thought, there go my pants. And, kneeling before the tail lights of cars plunging down the hill, he vomited. The sole, of course. He was undone by over-priced, under-cooked institutional fodder. He hadn’t been feeling great even before he let himself be bullied into an evening of batter-dipped fish and merry megatrends. His career—and income—had run up against a multi-faceted, fine-tuned corporate roadblock.
He’d already decided that if Freakface Frank didn’t notice his worth, he’d quit and hole up in a cheap room in Mazatlan, writing an Oscar-worthy screenplay. Some afternoons, he filled his P.C. screen with titles for his epic: Love Under the Cactus, Tarantulas and Tits, The Snake in the Grass. But now he knelt on the corrugated sidewalk above Broadway, not praying but needing to piss and wondering if he had enough cash in his pocket to finance a taxi ride. The street in front of him looked steep enough to leap from. He saw himself flying over the oil-slick precipice, then impaled on the Transamerica pyramid’s illuminated spike.
– The motel manager was caught, a woman in a fake leopard skin coat told her companion, striding recklessly along Broadway’s cracked pavement toward Columbus Avenue, – pouring acid in the pool. While people were in it!
Alec watched their four legs pump away from him like De Chirico machines, their voices fading before the woman’s friend (husband? lover?) responded, so he never knew how her acidic tale concluded. Wading into the shadows beside the corner building, above concrete steps that descended to a door cut at an angle because of the hill, Alec unzipped his trousers and exploded a canary-colored waterfall against peeling boards. A nimbus of pink corruption sat over the city as he groaned and waited to be arrested. A sigh of relief oozing out of him like air from a leaky tire, he faced the night, a middle-aged corporate survivor.
At work, he fired off brilliantly implausible statements based on the company line of the moment, but his own life had no easy answers, no doctrine to follow before 8:00 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m. His weekday existence had turned into an obstacle course of meetings: to define policy, subdivide responsibility, benchmark core competencies, apportion and leverage blame, plan other meetings. He was in the grip of the middle-management vise – a sour grape in a wine press. Long ago, Joyless Joyce had warned Alec – she was his first wife, the barefoot one who saw herself as a free spirit, especially once she was liberated from him – that his stay in the corridors of power wouldn’t be temporary.
– When they get hold of you, sweetie, they don’t let you go until you’re sucked dry.
Joyless Joyce thought that Alec was too passive, but Nutty Nadine complained of his violence. Wife number two was so afraid of him that she had a judge slap a restraining order against him. If he even walked on the same side of the street as Nadine, the cops could pop him in the poky. Even after their divorce, she still chewed over fantasies of revenge.
– You ruined my life! she wailed in front of the judge, but looking at Alec.
He felt rotten that he’d made Nutty Nadine unhappy, but it was too late, now. Even Rio Rita, his some-time girl friend, had kicked him out, tired of his waffling about the future. Future? Who had promised them a future? Omens hit Alec on the head like bricks hot from a kiln, wrinkles and age spots blossomed like cancers on his face and brow, and his hairline jumped back with savage spite. It was time to mend his ways, write that script for Sean Penn, find that perfect woman, be good.
Somebody or something tugged at his jacket. Pivoting on the sloping pavement, Alec confronted the top of a small gray head. Then a withered face peered up at him: an old Chinese woman with a metallic cap of hair sheared off like iron filings at her earlobes and a mug like a dried apricot. Her cheekbones pushed like cliffs from the corrugated skin below purple-black pools in which tiny eyes swam like desperate fish. She shoved a ragged piece of paper into his fist.
– No! Whatever it is, I don’t want any.
This apple doll-faced woman challenged him with an irrational power that made sweat blossom on his forehead and palms. She pointed at a small child beside her. Was she trying to sell the kid? He glanced at the thin blue paper, deciphering by the greenish glow of a neon sign a scrawled number and street name.
The old Chinese woman’s bony finger pointed at the paper, then at the kid and herself. Puzzle pieces clicked together in Alec’s groggy head. She couldn’t read English and didn’t know how to get wherever she was supposed to be with that round-faced child. She couldn’t even ask for help. A crude pantomime and an angry, pleading expression were the best she could do.
– Shit. I don’t know, it’s that way, I guess. Alec pointed up Broadway’s tilting, gaudy canyon, toward the darker, narrower cliffs of Stockton Street.
Scowling, she tried to drag Alec in that direction. She wanted him to take her to the address. Nothing less would satisfy her.
– Just to the corner, he said, trying not to make contact with her angry eyes. – Then you’re on your own.
He picked up the kid, a girl no more than three or four in thin trousers and polyester jacket—never had he seen anyone with such a perfectly round, expressionless face—and staggered to the Broadway-Stockton corner. In her dark trousers and short, embroidered jacket, the old woman kept up with him, although her legs were half the length of his.
- That way, he repeated, putting the kid on the pavement and pointing up Stockton, where the street sloped steeply and the rancid perfumes of Chinatown collided with the garlic aromas of the old Italian neighborhood.
She shoved the paper at Alec again and went through the routine of pointing first to herself and then to the kid. He couldn’t imagine why she’d chosen him, but it was clear she expected him to deliver them to the door. Her voice shrieked at him like a quarrelsome tea kettle, but he understood how desperate and vulnerable she must feel. PR people recognize desperation.
Alec darted across the street, the girl in his arms, a thirty pound leech clinging to his coat, and the old woman shuffling with quick tiny steps, screeching and waving the piece of paper.
– Lady, I’m on your side. Shut up, okay?
Navigating a renegade corner of Chinatown that infiltrated the narrow buildings of North Beach, they passed boarded vegetable stalls and meat markets in which withered ducks and dead chickens dangled behind spotty windows. At last, Alec found the street and turned uphill. Scowling, the old hag jogged after him. (She made him think of the witches in fairy tales who command younger sons to undertake absurd tasks that might lead them to their fortunes. Would he be so lucky?) The kid whimpered into his pinstriped blue lapel. Stopping at a street lamp, he checked the paper, then pointed to a wooden firetrap wedged between a couple of two-story brick buildings. A singsong rush of colliding tones assailed his groggy brain, then her claw snatched the paper out of his fist and waved it at him.
– Yeah, he said, pointing first at the page and then at the door.
Thrusting the child into her arms, Alec backed away, but she clutched his sleeve again, then hit at the red enamel of the door with her palm until it opened a crack and two eyes appeared in the shadows. Apparently, this was the right place, because he heard much rapid conversation in Cantonese. Then, into a shard of light cast by the corner street lamp emerged the most beautiful face he’d ever seen, a delicately featured young woman with dark eyes and a helmet of polished black hair. Scarlet lips bowed in a faint smile, she considered him as he stood speechless at the spectacle of her perfection. Then the old woman and kid vanished into the house, the door closed, and he was alone on the sidewalk. Nobody said Thank you, Drop dead, or anything else, but he realized that he was insane with love for that face. The old harridan and child had been put on earth to guide Alec to this place at this time.
He stumbled up the stoop, raised his fist, ready to batter down the door with his bare knuckles, but his arm froze. What could he say? He wasn’t worthy of that glorious creature. He was only a lonely semi-sober corporate hack who knew not a word of Cantonese.
Miserably, Alec rolled down the hill to Columbus Avenue and into a newly fashionable old time saloon with black and white tiles on the floor and electric fans clinging like giant moths to the ceiling. Propping himself against the bar, he demanded a Bass ale. Despite the scholarly air of the bartender’s moustache and wire-framed eyeglasses, dark hair coiled from a well-muscled chest above a half-open shirt and his hands revealed a history of physical toil.
Still mourning his lost love, Alec hoisted the drooling glass and glanced into the mirror behind the bar, where a familiar face trembled above the bottles – not his own wretched mask, but the chilly features of Ms. Matrix Planning, herself, consultant extraordinare, whose speech drove him to drink. He raised his glass to her.
– Cheers! And Peachy Paradigms! You were brilliant. Every word a laser beam. You pulled it all together for me. I actually saw the synergies in what you said. They were there in front of me, gnashing their teeth.
She glared at his reflection, then her expression shifted gears as smoothly as a Porsche, sliding from disdainful to offended. The hairy-chested bartender goggled at them from behind his spectacles, afraid perhaps that Ms. Megatrend and Alec would start hurling glassware.
– What’re you drinking? Alec reached for his wallet.
– I’m waiting for someone, her profile replied.
Through a blue cigarette smoke mist, Alec stared at her Easter Island perfection: - But what are you drinking? he insisted. - I want to show my appreciation for the superb lecture this evening.
The bartender, knowing which side his tip was buttered on, leaned forward, eyeglasses sliding over his short nose toward his moustache: – Beefeaters.
– Another. For each of us.
Four-Eyes shared a smirk of complicity with Alec as his scarred hand poured the two drinks.
– To meetings! Alec lifted his ale like the Statue of Liberty’s torch. – And to speakers who make meetings meaningful. By the way, do you know why the panda bear has a spike on his wrist? It’s the punch line of a very funny story. If only I could remember it.
The consultant looked toward the door, slid off the barstool, and walked away, not even glancing in Alec’s direction. Her scarlet skirt slithered and whispered forbidden messages as her legs maneuvered within its sleek fabric.
– Wait! Alec hollered at her red suit. – I call this meeting to order! I want to hear more about megatrends firing on all cylinders and value-added synergy between restructured corporate goals. We’ll have our own meeting right here. He slapped the bar in front of him, stinging his palm on the hard, dark wood. – We’ll whisper about matrix lines and organizational flow charts and sing of achieving business objectives by influencing key audiences!
But he was talking to the empty haze hovering beneath the gold light bulbs. The quorum for this meeting had vanished as quickly as his promised future. His eyes filled with tears, but it must have been the cigarette smoke.
2. The Crazy Man Outside Alec’s Window
The crazy man outside Alec’s office window was cursing passersby again.
– What're you doing to fight the shit in this country? He flung his arms like guided missiles at secretaries and executives rushing between hectic taxis and manic bicycle messengers, pursuing them into the intersection, his voice rising on the wind: – Sheep! You're sheepwalkers! Being led to slaughter!
His message flattened against Alec’s sixth floor window, words sprawling against the glass like the slime monster in a sci fi flick. The big-bellied Latino window washers on their movable platform, forearms burned by fog and sun, gave the miserable bastard the finger. They peered in at Alec, laughing silently. But why should they take the crazy man seriously? He didn't threaten them.
Every morning, Alec looked for the crazy guy. He had amazing stamina, roaming the financial district, shouting to everyone he passed that the world was shit, the country was shit, corporations were shit, they were shit. His thin face was ravaged by the elements, but his gray-streaked beard was neatly trimmed. His clean clothes—worn leather jacket, chinos, white shirt—distinguished him from panhandlers and street people. He wasn’t asking for anything, unlike the toothless man with the harmonica or the woman holding the grubby baby or the one-legged vet: he was giving. Even in the rain, his angry phrases billowed out from under a battered umbrella. The city was choked with angry, frightened people who shuffled along the windy sidewalks: from a young Black man who limped in gutters while arguing with invisible adversaries to a white-haired crone rustling down the street in a costume of paper bags. When I lose my job, Alec wondered, will I add my own madness to the insane symphony of the city?
Alec quit his previous job over a matter of principle. His wife at the time (now living in Santa Barbara with a man who buys and sells malls) warned him not to be foolish. For a while, Alec told himself that hunger proved his moral superiority, but soon it drove him to re-invent both his resume and his life. After all, it was reassuring to belong to an organization in which thousands of employees formed a gigantic pattern: a series of charts with boxes connected in exquisite precision; some people lurked above him, others prowled on the same plane of incompetence, and scores more crept among ever-shifting warrens of cubicles below him.
The crazy man, however, didn't belong. He was a loner, deliberately making a wedge of himself, thrusting himself into and between other people's lives. The gang in the office accused the fellow of madness, but Alec never said a word against him, although the man’s angry syllables distracted him until he feared that the frenzied, rebellious words would insinuate themselves into his reports and press releases, undermining his corporate future, such as it was. His colleagues had been known to criticize the company (as they heated lunches in the staff room microwave or swallowed salad specials and iced tea in Financial District refuges), but none of them would ever prowl the intersection shouting their views of injustice and corruption.
Restless Ruth worked behind a veneered door several offices away from Alec’s. Frequently, they met over coffee or had secret conversations via intercom. Restless Ruth was still idealistic. Alec often thought about her intelligent blue eyes when his mind strayed from the data in front of him, but their relationship was neither romantic nor sexual. They pretended that they were the office rebels. The truth was that they were committed to survival, although Restless Ruth, too, admired the crazy man.
Their boss was a middle-aged, once-promising assistant vice president who was furious that after surviving two decades of corporate wars he hadn't risen higher. Neither Alec nor Restless Ruth ever talked about the crazy man with him. Freakface Frank was busy maneuvering for a V.P. desk about to be vacated by a hotshot leaving to start his own PR agency. Everyone in the department was betting on who'd win. If Freakface Frank lost once again, would he join the crazy man outside: a tall, rusty-haired arc of anger, remembering the glory days when he held human lives in his fist, now hurling obscenities at his former colleagues as they raced from subway entrance to revolving door?
Alec never thought he'd be one of the herd stampeding into an air-conditioned corral every morning, bran muffin and Styrofoam coffee cup clutched in his pale hand. He had envisioned himself as a picaresque hero from old novels and movies. When he was growing up, he went for a drive with his parents every Sunday afternoon. If they passed a sunburned hobo thumbing a ride on the rough gravel shoulder of the road, his father always said: – There goes a retired insurance man.
Alec didn't know if his Dad thought that men in his line were more likely to end up as bums or if it was his way of being funny, but he got the idea that it would be nice to wander the world unencumbered by material possessions, with only the changing sky for a roof and the earth under his feet. His father didn't live to retire, but Alec liked the notion of his Dad trudging along the side roads of the state, rolled blanket and bulgy bundle across his shoulders, frayed red bandanna in hip pocket, faded baseball cap on his bald head. Since he didn't do it, Alec sometimes thought, maybe I should do it for him.
Alec didn't suppose that the crazy man's childhood ambition was to harangue business people about the injustices of the capitalist system, but there he was again, striding into the intersection six stories below Alec’s office, as if driving the anxious pedestrians across the pavement: John Wayne forcing the reluctant cattle toward the Red River of personal liberty and salvation.
– He's angrier even than usual!
The man excited Restless Ruth. She once dreamed of careening around the world as a journalist, pouring the facts about each crisis that came along into millions of otherwise empty heads. For a while, she worked for a small east coast newspaper, but when she moved to San Francisco the only way she could survive was with a corporate job. She told herself that this betrayal of her dream was temporary, but a couple of years ago she realized that she couldn't afford to return to the uncertain career of investigative journalism.
Restless Ruth and Alec went to lunch together, slipping through deeply shadowed concrete canyons to a postmodern Chinese restaurant for dim sum. Over pork bows and won ton, they confided secrets to each other and whispered treason. Alec admitted to Restless Ruth that when he was unemployed he watched TV soaps, fantasizing about the young females who populated those fictional worlds. She confessed that she imagined making love with the window cleaners, as their platform ascended the building’s thirty floors.
One night, after working late, Alec and Restless Ruth wandered several blocks to an Italian cafe. As they hiked the hill toward North Beach, a girl no older than thirteen stepped into their path, thrusting a cardboard carton filled with bright boxes of candy at them. Glaring with expressionless eyes, she recited in a robot-like monotone the reasons why they should buy her candy. Her unstoppable words fell like corpses from her lips, piling on the pavement. Horrified by her blank eyes and dead voice, Alec and Restless Ruth stared at this woman-child until she cut off the flow of words, challenging them, hating them. Thrusting paper bills at her, Alec collected boxes of candy, then fled up the street with Restless Ruth. Before they reached the restaurant, he shoved the candy into a trash can with the slogan EVERY LITTER BIT COUNTS fading on its battered side.
In the cafe, a thick-waisted Italian woman dripped perspiration as she slid minestrone, veal, and steaming vegetables onto the red and white checked cloth in front of them. Restless Ruth brushed auburn hair back from her face, her gray eyes avoiding the waitress’s gaze. Alec and Ruth discussed the press kit they’d worked overtime to finish and Freakface Frank, who wouldn't appreciate their extra effort. They speculated about which people were destined to be downsized out of the company. They talked about the window cleaners who had the perfect view of their world: observing all, yet seeing nothing.
When Alec and Restless Ruth left the cafe, the streets were empty. A bag lady was curled precariously on a granite window ledge, one of the few in the city not people-proofed with iron spikes. Her pale, toothless face had closed in on itself like a sea anemone digesting a particle of food. She slept soundly, despite the slicing cold of the fog and the rattle and rumble of underground Muni trains. Across the street, in front of a bank, four old men in the worn, dirty uniforms of their un-life played golf with a single club and several Styrofoam cups. With drunken delight, they pranced over the mottled pavement, each in turn swinging the club at a dented coffee cup. Restless Ruth and Alec watched their oddly graceful, silent sport until the Muni coach came.
– Just ten hours! she said, as the rubber-lipped coach doors snapped shut in front of her. Then, from behind the scratched and fingerprinted window, she dumbly mouthed the rest of the sentence: – Until we're back at work!
Ten hours, Alec thought, as he walked up the hill to his apartment: until he’d see and hear the crazy man again scolding commuters as they marched to their offices, until he’d see Restless Ruth pouring her first cup of coffee from the bulbous staff room pot into her mug with the defaced corporate logo. They would joke about surviving the rest of the week and act like conspirators, but without a plot. And if Freakface Frank stepped into the room, they’d stop talking mid-sentence. Alec knew how it'd go, the day that’d start in ten hours. Why did he have to live it? Wasn't there a short cut to get him painlessly to the other side of tomorrow?
Yellow lights glowed from apartments on either side of him, spilling lemony puddles on the cracked pavement. Fog settled onto the flat-roofed buildings like a net over a school of fish. He glanced through narrow steel bars into a basement window and saw by the sulfur-colored light of a floor lamp a thin, bearded man talking intently to a woman shivering in a dark coat.
It was him: the orator, the crazy man from the corner outside the building where Alec worked. He was gesturing to the woman with almost the same vigor as when he waved his arms at the morning crowds, his narrow jaw and dark eyebrows moving up and down like the features of a marionette. Did he never stop? Was his life nothing but talking, talking, talking? When did he listen? Maybe he didn't need to listen. Maybe that was everyone else’s responsibility: to listen.
3. Corporate Lust
Alec had a new boss. Same company, same job, new person to bemoan his performance. He still was amazed that he’d persuaded anyone to hire him and was convinced that the Corporate Powers would discover their mistake. Any day, he might be stabbed in the back, blown away, right-sized out, sacrificed to correct a workforce imbalance, disemployed and transitioned, made a “save” to the company, and end up in the Tenderloin, boozing with the winos and bag ladies who were his natural compatriots. Now, he had a female boss to deal with, as if to underline the fact that sex also was driving him nuts. Work and sex had entwined themselves around him like the strands of a rope around his neck. Whatever gesture he made, however he struggled, the noose would tighten, and he’d be finished.
Alec had promised himself to reform, no more booze, no more making a joke of everything, but he hadn’t counted on Awesome Adele. He hadn’t known that women such as this existed in corporations. When he met with her for the first time in her plushly carpeted corner office, trying to explain what he did for the company, he was stunned by her cool features and tall, formidable figure, but was too busy wondering what it would be like to report to her to think of her as a female. He was no chauvinist. He knew that a woman’s abilities could equal or surpass those of a man, and that hers undoubtedly were superior to his.
Her honey-colored hair was swirled into a tidy French Twist at the back of her Junoesque head and her powerful, broad-shouldered body was encased in a suit that cost as much as Alec earned in a month. He promised the deities that he’d write brilliant reports for this woman, demonstrate his business initiative, and construct PR strategies to prove the company was on the side of the angels. She would be thrilled that he was on her team. Her performance was dependent, in part, upon his, so he didn’t dare let either of them down.
Alec reminded himself that he’d never been attracted to these statuesque goddesses. Truthfully, he hadn’t encountered many and those usually on the muscular arms of equally impressive males, but he didn’t think it was hypocrisy when he protested that he preferred smaller, dark-haired women. Both of his wives had been exquisitely rodent-like creatures. Even his fantasies centered on fuzzy little dark beauties—more accessible, although half-crazy, child-women. So why was he staring across a walnut-veneered conference table, daydreaming about pressing his spotty face between her breasts? The wheel turned, the dice were thrown, the Tarot spoke: he was doomed to die of frustration, a victim of corporate gamesmanship.
Perhaps if Alec had been living with a woman the pain wouldn’t have been so acute, but six months before Awesome Adele took over his work life, he moved out of Rio Rita’s flat for the third and final time and was living alone in a studio apartment so small that he only had space for a TV tray instead of a table. He was so embarrassed by his tiny apartment that he couldn’t find courage to ask a woman up to it. His existence, once again, verged dangerously near celibacy. Except in his mind.
Walking down Montgomery Street, riding the 55 Sacramento bus morning and evening, sitting in a Kearny Street cafe, jogging on the Marina, Alec found himself staring at scissoring legs, trembling thighs, heaving bosoms. And the female secretaries, receptionists, copy writers, and attorneys in the office: Alec imagined himself with them on the new photocopy machine, reproducing images of corporate lust. Desperation drove him back to Rio Rita. They debated the possibility of living together again, thrashing out their mutual attraction and antagonism, but they couldn’t ignore the fact that they never could expect a peaceful life together.
– You exhaust me, Rio Rita cried, pushing Alec into the street. – And I’m sick of your goddamn nicknames!
Emotional and sexual despair compelled Alec to eye Awesome Adele with increasing interest. Yes, she was his supervisor; yes, she was a vice president; but behind her Hermes accessories lurked human needs. He’d picked up gossip that she, too, was at a crisis in her personal life. Gorgeous George, the man she’d lived with for several years, wanted to free himself from her. Art Director of a small North Beach ad agency, he didn’t appreciate that Awesome Adele made ten times his salary, not counting stock options. So Alec began to imagine that soon she, too, would be ready for uncorporate adventures.
Adele’s alternating business-like reserve and unexpected bursts of camaraderie were both confusing and provocative. Several times, she implied that he wasn’t performing as he should be, but didn’t give him specific examples of where he was lax or inadequate. Then she leaned forward, tawny hair framing her magnificent forehead, and whispered about the flow of creative juices. Or did he imagine that part? He reminded himself that this was his superior sitting across from him, with the power to incinerate his corporate career. He took refuge in reminiscences about his former lives as hippie, poet, political activist, cab driver, and muckraking journalist.
Awesome Adele was fascinated by Alec’s tales of his radical past. When he told her that he’d lived for three months with homeless men in Seattle to write an expose of how society discards its workers, she murmured that she envied his daring. She couldn’t get enough of his adventures as a cabdriver braving San Francisco’s hills and lowlife. And had he really labored in a Santa Clara Valley fruit cannery and belonged to the Teamsters? How exciting, she whispered, how real.
After work, one foggy autumn evening, Awesome Adele risked scandal by drinking with Alec in the subterranean bar beneath their building. Over glasses of Zinfandel, surrounded by junior execs and young financial wizards, they pretended to confide in each other. Five feet ten, Amazonian in her beauty, on the corporate fast track, Awesome Adele seemed, incredibly, to be attracted to Alec, a balding, mid-level hack. Or was he dreaming again?
She invited Alec home to meet Gorgeous George.
– I’m really unconventional, Awesome Adele assured Alec. – Wait ‘til you see where I live.
In a taxi, they rode out to the place she shared with Gorgeous George, the frustrated Art Director. On the way, they discussed office politics and whether or not their lives were better before they pursued corporate success. Unbelievably, these were questions she took seriously. Was it possible, Alec wondered, to be both tough and clueless? Dumped by the Pakistani cabby at the base of a precipitous flight of gray wood steps hanging to the front of a warehouse-like building, she led him up to a massive, battered door.
– This is it! she exclaimed proudly. – What did I tell you? Isn’t it awful? Georgie was here first, then I moved in. It’s even worse inside!
Flinging open the scarred door, she revealed a huge space in which gaudy posters and vast oil canvases cluttered industrial strength walls. Wire mobiles dangled like pterodactyl skeletons from the plank ceiling and dusty Mesozoic sculptures lurked in the shadows. A green leather sofa like a mountain range sprawled beneath a skylight, several variegated cats shedding over its slopes. Awesome Adele twitched with excitement as she led Alec into her free-spirited lover’s lair.
– Georgie seems to be out, she said, disclosing a stainless steel kitchen behind a teak partition. – Wanta drink?
When Alec shook his head, she led him up a circular wrought iron staircase to a balcony cantilevered above the kitchen. Their lovemaking may not have been perfection, but it was intense enough for Alec to know that he’d regret it.
Afterwards, they lay on the bed, staring at steel beams holding up the roof, and free-associated about a score or two of disconnected subjects and Alec realized, yet again, that Adele knew more about almost anything than he did. Except real life. He could still impress her with his descriptions of real life, but he’d lost interest in his own tales of grit and grime. Maybe she expected him to pay for her favors with Homeric sagas of his sordid history, but he was too uncertain about the future to lose himself in the past. He knew he’d pay, all right, but in a much more telling way.
The next day, Awesome Adele was predictably cold towards Alec, but he told himself that he was neither surprised nor worried by her behavior. A week later, she mentioned, while they juggled Styrofoam cups in the staff room, that Gorgeous George had moved out of the Russian hill loft. At least temporarily. Since the place originally had been his, she felt strange staying on after he was gone, but she intended to find another place for herself. Eventually.
– I’m not there much, anyway, she admitted, with a disconcerting little smile.
That was it. No hints that Alec should go home again with her, not even an implication that she’d like an invitation to discover his living conditions.
When Alec’s performance evaluation came due, Awesome Adele gave him a barely satisfactory rating, indicating that despite talent he wasn’t sufficiently engaged in his work.
– Needs to show more initiative, she wrote. – Should be more willing to assume responsibility.
Furious, Alec carried the report to her office, ready to challenge her.(He’d been counting on the raise attached to a superior ranking.) She told him that she didn’t have time now, but he could send her a memo.
Business veered for the worse, sales fell away like layers of dead skin, budgets were plucked apart like flesh from chicken bones, and everyone stalked through Corporate Headquarters with gray, tragic expressions. Rumors floated down from the executive floor, shrouding the hearts of underlings with fear. Certain departments, knowledgeable sources suggested, were targeted for elimination, others for drastic trimming. Each time Alec looked across a desk or conference room table at Awesome Adele, he expected to see her magnificent teeth in a lethal smile: – Sorry, Alec, you don’t need to come into the office tomorrow.
One evening, when Alec met her walking to the elevator, she told him that he didn’t have the right attitude about work. He seemed too distracted, she said, too vague.
– In the corporate world, you’ve got to look as if you know where you’re going.
– Even if its only to the john?
– Even if it’s down the toilet.
This was, Alec assumed, a tip off to his corporate future, if not to his fate with her.
– Incidentally, she added, pressing the elevator button, – I’ve turned in my resignation. I’ve got a better offer.
Alec started to follow her into the elevator, but the doors snapped shut.
Was he surprised? But a more important question was how this event would mangle his future. Alec enjoyed a regular salary, pitiful as it was in relation to San Francisco’s cost of living, and was accustomed to wearing semi-decent clothing and mingling with the bright, pretty people of the financial district. It was a turn-on to pretend that he was part, even tenuously, of the world in which these vigorous women and men prowled. Here, he’d learned, nothing was left to chance. When Awesome Adele abandoned the company would his future be dropped in the sewer on her way out? Would he go back to driving a cab, back to paying off hotel doormen and praying for a fare to the airport, back to long nights cruising the city’s dark streets? He was too old to be bohemian, too soft and balding to make a good rebel. All he wanted was a regular income and a woman to love.
Alec sat in the damp cupboard he called home and wondered how he’d reached forty, sitting here on the San Andreas Fault, with no money, no lover, and no future. He kept picturing Awesome Adele’s strawberry shortcake flesh and corporate brain. He couldn’t, in truth, blame her for anything. He should’ve known. Screwing her had been like screwing the company, and you don’t fuck a corporation without getting fucked back.
Maybe he was a bum at heart: one of those freaks he saw sleeping in doorways. As if to prove his conviction, Alec grew a beard and let his skimpy hair reach his collar. Awesome Adele would’ve cautioned Alec about his appearance, but his new supervisor, a middle-aged corporation man whose sluggish career reflected his own lack of intention, didn’t care enough to either reprimand or warn him.
Alec discovered Awesome Adele in Macy’s basement, where he’d gone to buy a pan. They stood on each side of a small cluster of shoppers watching a plump woman in a polka dot apron demonstrate a new pasta maker. Awesome Adele didn’t recognize Alec as she edged around the brightly lit display table after the demo. For a moment, he was offended, then he remembered his new hirsute appearance. She looked the same, only sharper, as if she’d refined her image, perfected the hard edge that accented her creamy beauty.
When she left Macy’s, Alec followed her, walking quickly to keep up with her long-legged stride. Almost running, he pursued her across Union Square, past a pair of gilded half-naked mimes, up Powell Street and into an art gallery, cornering her at last between a Dali watercolor and a Miro lithograph.
– You owe me, he said.
– What? Alec? she replied, recognizing him. Her features shifted, leaving a trail of abandoned emotions in the air between them.
– You owe me, Alec repeated.
– Were you fired? She looked up and down his rumpled, hairy figure, as if answering her own question.
– Not yet, but it’s coming. I’ll be erased. Dissolved. I won’t exist, any more.
– Just because your expectations don’t—
– Expectations! I never had expectations.
Lunging forward, his hands on each side of her broad shoulders, Alec pinned her to the grass cloth-covered wall, between the two expensively framed pictures, breathing the stench of failure into her face. With two manicured fingers, she pushed him away and strolled out of the gallery, pausing at the front desk to pluck a glossy catalogue from a silver basket.
As the frigid days skidded past, Alec stalked like a werewolf through corporate corridors, belching and farting at meetings, growling at fellow wage-slaves. He knew he was doomed but no longer cared. Whatever he lusted after, it wasn’t power. Not even money. Freedom, perhaps. However, he was damned if he’d give them the satisfaction of seeing him quit.
And fire him they did, quickly, mercilessly. Cost-cutting was the official explanation, but Alec knew better. With his last paycheck in hand, he returned to Rio Rita, hoping for comfort, but she was involved with a dentist who regularly took her sailing on the bay.
He was free. Free of the corporation, free of all relationships.
That night, Alec returned to the financial district’s narrow streets and alleys, gazing into deserted lobbies and up at dark windows, occasionally glimpsing half-real figures among the shadows. Beneath these tall buildings, the remains of Gold Rush sailing ships rotted in the mud, where they’d been abandoned by desperate fortune seekers. Beneath these unsubstantial streets, the hopes of men who sailed around the Horn and crossed the Rockies moldered and decayed.
Standing straddle-legged in front of the main entrance to Corporate Headquarters, he pissed on the brass-trimmed revolving door. As he turned away from the building, tucking himself in and zipping his trousers, he saw an old wino eyeing him suspiciously.
- I used to work in this building, he explained.
© Bruce Douglas Reeves 2011