Chapter 18

San Jose : 2005

Walter

Walter refused to be jealous of the business travelers in the San Jose airport. They were no different from him. Their suits, their maxed-out voicemail boxes, their key-locked laptops: all of these were just affects. Their lives were not really any more serious or full of genuine urgency than his. Capitalism could go on with or without them, too.

Walter had carried-on his bag and after exiting the terminal went straight to the sidewalk-facing car rental desk outside baggage claim. He stood on the short line. It was sunny and so warm that Walter had to remove both his jacket and sweater.

It had been snowing when Walter had driven to O’Hare Airport that morning: just some harmless flurries, but the forecasters were saying that there would be six inches of accumulation by tonight.

Walter used to pride himself on not being one of those idiots who acted surprised and put-out by the perfectly predictable seasonal changes that came to the American Midwest and Northeast every single December, January, February, and March. However, the moment that the wheels of Walter’s post-Thanksgiving return flight from Hong Kong had sanded into runway, the ice and wind chill and dirt-sloshed snow that had overtaken the metropolis in his absence had seemed to him the public face of the enemy in the critical decades-long war that, unbeknownst to him, he’d been badly losing.

For most of December, Walter had tried to use Sun Tzu tactics to combat his enemy. He had gotten it in his head that he could turn the ice on his roof against the snow on his driveway, and vice versa.

Loyola had some reliable-seeming local climate data online. Walter had dusted off his equation-writing skills and ran some numbers. He’d dug out a ten-year-old pad of graph paper from Jinny’s work stuff and drawn diagrams and graphs. He’d woken up between three and four in the morning every night (the exact time shifted parabolically in accordance with his calculations) to shoot salt onto his roof with a Respiatin-branded Nerf ball gun.

His neighbor’s fifteen-year-old son had come by one day and asked if he could shovel Walter’s driveway for fifteen bucks, and Walter had instead paid the boy $15 to climb up a ladder and pour a bucket of boiling water into Walter’s storm drain so that he could measure the resulting velocity and spread of melt.

The next morning, Walter’s driveway had been cleared—but the piles of snow to the sides of and the square shovel marks on the cleared driveway had indicated that it likely had not been Walter’s nightly roof-saltings that had done the trick.

As Walter had driven to the express courier box in a Naperville commercial strip to overnight his signed “Early Mutual Termination of Employment Agreement” to 220 South Wacker a few days after the covert shoveling operation, the sleet falling in back-slashes onto his windshield ( / / / / / / / / ) had seemed to him clear evidence of his enemy’s last gasp before its impending doom.

This had been the awesome state of mind that Walter had been in when he’d gotten Jim Valiant’s email five days after Christmas. The first time that Walter had read through Jim’s proposition, he actually hadn’t been sure that he, Walter, had not already become too divorced from his own competencies, too advanced in accepting the deteriorations of his age, to take on such a tricky task.

New Year’s had come and gone in a blur of obsessive-compulsive tinkering with his thermostat and heater.

Then, one early January morning Walter had woken up feeling like Dr. Walter Choo, senior manager of sales. Jim had pushed him back two weeks and another two weeks, and by the time Jim had called him up and said, “Oh, just come out and I’ll get something on the calendar, this is ridiculous,” Walter had put enough of himself back together to pack a good suitcase of clean, pressed clothes and all the necessary toiletries and get on a flight to California to see his old rep and unemployed daughter.

And suddenly Walter’s enemy was nowhere in sight. On a landscaped median in the distance, an armistice line of squat palm trees stood in passive fraternity with the breeze.

A beachy summer song came onto the radio as Walter motored down the highway in his rented sedan: a young man playing syncopated acoustic guitar and singing breezily to some girl who’d left him. Walter had heard the song many times before, on many a company car radio in the field with one of his reps, but the song had seemed odd and retro until now, with its combination of breezy melody and bittersweet situation. Here, surrounded by all the terracotta, bright orange, and yellow things that were ordinarily gray or beige in the Midwest, the song didn’t sound retro; it sounded like a powerful incantation to keep the slate-eyed ice goblins from the eastern five-sixths of the country away.

There were more palm trees planted on the concrete-ringed grass mounds in front of Walter’s chain business hotel.

Walter checked in and showered. It was almost noon by that time. He was supposed to meet Jim at one o’clock at Hot Pot City, an all-you-can-eat Chinese hot pot buffet in Milpitas.

On the way to lunch, Walter drove past the offices of one of the most valuable companies in the world. Its low-rise contempo-corporate exterior looked not much different from that of the Naperville Public Library. Maybe earthquake skittishness had prevented the high-tech giant’s executives from wanting to build taller and flashier, or maybe the building’s nondescript design was a statement that the power of the new economy was not in any physical monument but the tiny chips of metal that the company designed.

Hot Pot City was in a ten-year-old strip mall complex populated exclusively by Asian restaurants and stores, including a large Asian grocery store. Hot Pot City anchored one of the corners of the complex. Walter pulled into the mall lot and tried to find a decent parking spot. The mall was full of Asians and non-Asians of all ages, including an inordinate number of Chinese men Walter’s age who dressed and cut their hair exactly like him. Walter drove past two Chinese men walking together from their car to Hot Pot City: one of them was wearing a shirt that Walter owned in a different color and the other was wearing a pair of loafers that Walter had bought on sale at a factory outlet in Wisconsin last summer.

A nice spot opened up, and Walter pulled into it, coming hood-to-hood with a beautiful blue Mercedes with eleven-inch rims.

Jim Valiant would be thirty-five years old now. He had joined Fenniskrante in 1992 fresh out of Kansas State, where he’d double-majored in business and psychology. The son of a small-town kindergarten teacher and convenience store manager, Jim had been smart, hungry to learn, and extremely hard-working for his entire six-year tenure as a rep in Walter’s territory. Shorter than Walter by three inches at five-foot-seven, Jim had started losing his hair at twenty-five (and had not been Brad Pitt to start with), but he still had tracked well with single female nurses. Jim Valiant was one of those nice, sincere, smart white guys that Walter thought of as “Honorary Asians,” and, in fact, Jim had married a very pretty Filipino-American Kaiser formulary administrator at Stanford’s Memorial Church five years ago.

Walter opened the door to Hot Pot City to a salvo of sights, smells, and sounds that seemed curated to suit his exact predilections. Businessmen and engineers argued the finer points of market strategy over steaming pots of soup and foil-wrapped grills smoking with the charred pupae end-fat of short ribs. Young Filipina moms in jeans and tennies peeled boiled shrimp for their children and sipped at improvised soda fountain creations. Out-of-towners and other shameless value-optimizers loaded plates with prime cuts of beef and the biggest pieces of shellfish. One of the plate-loaders was Jim Valiant. Jim saw Walter and raised a plate of mussels and soft shell crabs to him in greeting.

They met each other halfway, by the salad bar, and Jim walked Walter to their table.

“Doc Choo, you made it! Good, good. How was your flight? Lunch is on GSK, of course, so load up freely, my friend,” Jim said.

“Not if I was a real doctor, it wouldn’t be,” Walter said.

“Ha-ha, some Prop 66A humor, I like it,” said Jim.

“Anyway, looks like you’ve got half the dollar value of the buffet right there, Jim,” Walter said.

“Well, if your style hasn’t changed since the old days, I knew I’d better get a bucket of the best,” Jim said. He hammed up a grin.

They reached their table. The gas was on under the pot, and Walter lifted the lid to check the soup: only tiny bubbles at the bottom of the pot.

“No boil yet, huh?” Jim said.

Walter replaced the lid.

“How’s Veronica?” Walter asked.

“Good!” Jim said, turning up the gas. “Good. She took the GMAT last month.”

“Veronica wants to go to B-school? Really?” Walter said.

“She’s thinking about it. She doesn’t really need to do it, but she really wants to leave Kaiser, and it’s the most diplomatic way to do it rather than jumping straight to a competitor.”

“That seems like a strange reason to get an MBA,” Walter said.

“And, obviously...” Jim grinned again. “I’m a pretty diplomatic guy, but I’m all for the jumping to a competitor thing.”

“And you didn’t need to get an MBA to do it,” Walter said.

“Well, six years with you were better than any business school, Walter,” Jim said.

Walter felt a rush of saturation in his cheeks.

“Seriously, Doc, it’s true,” Jim said. “I’ve always wanted to tell you. And now that Fenniskrante has most retardedly screwed you over, I finally can.”

The top of the pot lid suddenly matted over with condensation. Walter lifted the lid, and revealed a pot of chicken stock at boil. Jim dropped some slices of beef, a few mussels, and a soft shell crab into the pot with expert chopsticks work. When Walter had met Jim thirteen years ago, the boy had barely been able to pick up a single noodle off his plate without a fork.

“Well, you were a great student,” Walter said.

“So, here’s the thing, Walter. GSK-California isn’t afraid of change. We are down with change. We weren’t sure if Prop 66A would pass; it did. The voters have spoken, as is their right. And we have to adapt. But we need fresh eyes for that, someone who doesn’t take our status quo way of doing things for granted. I’m one of the few folks with more than two years pharm sales experience outside GSK, so this is something I talked about with my veep even before November 2. Who can we bring on from outside the company that we can actually trust? You came to mind as the ideal type—Ph.D. in chemistry, twenty years experience, trained hundreds of top reps, you’ve been inside the Lugano lab!—but I told my veep, ‘Walter Choo would never leave Fenniskrante, never.’ But then—lo and behold!”

“So what are we talking about here, exactly, Jim?” Walter asked. “I trained you too well. You’ve never actually used the word ‘job’ yet.”

Jim laughed. “Well, it’s up to you. You want to do part-time, we can do part-time. You want to focus on Northern California, we can get people for the rest of the state. You want to be the person running the show, that spot is still open as of now. The veeps want the Prop 66A response development off their plate ASAP, I can tell you that much. There are some internals pitching decks tomorrow; there are a few other externals pitching decks. I know most of the names, and, I’m not unbiased, but in the humble opinion of yours truly you’re by far the most qualified candidate.”

Returning to his hotel room alone after what should have been an ego-inflating, bitterness-vindicating lunch, Walter instead felt more uneasy. He hadn’t worked with Jim in seven years. The younger man was obviously idealizing his former mentor’s abilities. And maybe Walter’s twenty years of glorified effort were enough for Kansas-small-town-boy-made-good Jim Valiant, but the hiring committee of executives and recruiters would be like Eric Mulrhony: they’d want charm from Walter, charm that he did not possess. He was a good salesman—not the best, not indispensible—just good. He didn’t want to be the guy who couldn’t accept that, who clung on to his own tiny moral victories long after they’d ceased being relevant.

Walter unpacked his laptop from its Identol-branded polyurethane casing and opened it, folding its screen back ninety degrees. He plugged the computer’s power cord into the outlet under the desk and pressed its power button on.

He double-clicked the shortcut to the presentation program. A welcome window opened with his five most recent decks: all sales training decks that he’d done last spring and summer, all saved in the folder C:\My_Documents\FNSK. Walter clicked on the New Document icon and saved his new deck as “GSK-Pitch” in a new folder in My_Documents, “GSK.”

Walter Choo had only ever sold drugs. Even if the research and data behind sales details had been sometimes questionable or thin, there had always been some germ of scientific truth to extrapolate from. Walter couldn’t sell himself the same way he’d sold Perpetua or Petrazin.

Except, that was it, wasn’t it? Walter was a drug. GSK-California had been hit with the nasty new bacterium of Prop 66A, and Walter was its cure.

Once Walter realized this, everything clicked. The shape of his presentation began to form and fill out in his mind faster than he could get it down on the slides, and he didn’t move from his computer for nearly five hours. When he printed the finished deck on the toaster-sized laser printer in the business center downstairs, bound it with a black clip, and skimmed through its fifty beautiful, brilliant pages, he knew with absolute certainty that it was the best work that he’d ever done.

***

Walter searched through the entire FM band three times, trying to find that acoustic beach song he’d heard the day before. He wanted that acoustic beach song. The incredible events of that afternoon at GSK’s offices in Redwood City were inducing an escalating, unwholesome ecstasy that he needed to anchor in something cool and Californian.

Walter was about to give up on the song and settle for the oldies station when he found it.

“Yes!” he said, pounding the driver’s window with the fat outer end of his fist.

Walter thought that he could feel his serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine reuptake being seriously inhibited as he turned up the volume. He reached into the paper bag in the passenger’s seat and pulled out the fast food roast-beef-and-cheddar sandwich that he’d bought for lunch after leaving GSK. He tasted the warm salty meat and soft bread of the sandwich with a dulling, disorienting three-second delay. Walter balled up the empty wax wrapper, dropped it in the bag, sucked liquid cheese off his thumb, and banged on the steering wheel along with the song.

They had loved him. They wanted him to head up their entire Prop 66A strategy for California. He was going to start in one month.

Walter drove past a series of billboards and hills full of houses and then the city, San Francisco, pulled into view. His GPS told him to move to the left lane for his exit.

Next to Chicago’s unimpeachable lineup of American classics, San Francisco’s skyline had always seemed inadequate to Walter: stubbornly, hopelessly piecemeal and off. Was it fickle and self-serving of him to now find its collection of unpretentious skyscrapers and knobby peaks effortlessly charming?

Walter drove down the exit ramp and onto a street of warehouses. His GPS told him to drive straight and cross under the highway.

A few minutes later Walter was in Marin’s neighborhood looking for parking. A good spot opened up in front of a house with a faded “YES on Prop 66A” sign in its window, and Walter pulled into it, chuckling at how life came together sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.

Walter rang his daughter’s buzzer and the gate and front door vibrated open. He climbed the stairs to the second floor and knocked on her door. Charlie opened it.

“So Marin tells me that some serious congratulations are in order, Walter,” Charlie said.

“Oh, no, no,” Walter said. “It’s just a job. Hopefully I didn’t oversell myself today.”

Charlie opened the door all the way and stood aside. Walter walked into the apartment, and Marin simultaneously walked into the living room from the kitchen, pouring red wine into a wine glass. She handed Walter the filled glass.

“I thought a celebratory drink was in order,” Marin said. “I can’t believe you’re going to be moving here! Hold on, let me get more glasses.” She went back into the kitchen.

“Mare, do you want to get out that extra wedge of Mt. Tam, too?” Charlie said. He followed her into the other room.

Walter’s daughter had redecorated since he’d last been inside her apartment. There was a beautiful new couch, a large white chrome bookcase, a large flatscreen TV, and two C-shaped red coffee tables. He hoped that Charlie hadn’t bought all of this stuff for Marin. On the wall above the couch were two paintings: Walter sipped at his wine and walked over the couch to look at them. They were strange: one was of a farm and village, painted in a rough style in very bright colors, with a bottle of efavirenz in the upper-left-hand corner; the other was of the Virgin Mary, with a bottle of saquinavir where Mary’s face should have been. Efavirenz and saquinavir were two HIV medications, but they were never used together because efavirenz dramatically lowered blood levels of saquinavir, rendering it ineffective.

Walter was no art expert, but something wasn’t right about these paintings. The style and the subject of the paintings didn’t seem like his daughter’s taste. Efavirenz and saquinavir together definitely wasn’t right.

Marin and Charlie came back into the living room with full wine glasses talking up their cheese. They saw what Walter was looking at.

“Oh yeah, so about those paintings...” Marin said. She gave him a weird smile.

“These drugs don’t go together,” Walter said, pointing with one index finger at the bottle of saquinavir then at the bottle of efavirenz.

“What?” said Marin.

“You can’t take these drugs together,” Walter said. “Who painted these?”

“An HIV-positive person,” Charlie said.

“Then he should know: you can’t take these drugs together,” Walter said. “It’s just not right.”

“It doesn’t mean...” Charlie said to Marin. “I mean, the guy is like ninety pounds. I mean, we know he’s really... Weren’t you there almost every night when Garcia was putting the altar together?”

“Oh my god,” Marin said. She sat down on the couch. She looked with wide, frightened eyes at Walter, and then at Charlie, a flower of realization blooming painfully into her face. “I think his name is really Mel.”

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