Naked Vice Presidents
One of those days, I was walking with Maisey and Tanner down the beach, and Tanner broke into a burst of giggles. I touched the top of her mouse-brown head and asked, “What is it, sillygirl?”
“Look at that dopey dog!” she exclaimed. She pointed fifty feet landward, where a young couple rested beneath a rise of sand. On top of the rise, their chocolate Labrador was digging a hole, completely enveloped in the joy of his effort. He scooped the sand like a center hiking footballs, working his way down till there was nothing left of him but a wagging tail.
That was me, so wrapped up in the rush of my actions that I didn’t understand their relative unimportance. Lord knows, my distractions were compelling. McNeal’s product had absolutely no pre-existing market; the challenge of it sent a 24-hour rattle and hum through my business bones. It also kept me at work till late at night, and I stationed an electronic notepad on my nightstand, just in case some new idea should arrive in my dreams.
But it wasn’t just the challenge; it was the product. The physical world search engine was, even beyond its functional uses, a mesmerizing gizmo, possessing the addicting qualities of a good video game or (so I’ve heard) Internet porn. About once a week, McNeal would bring me a new photo-tour and I would cancel everything else on my agenda, bouncing along his cyberchrome streets like a ping-pong ball. Later, while standing on the actual, physical streets, I felt disoriented, wondering where all the familiar faces had gone, why the sun was on the wrong side of the sky.
One of my favorites was downtown Palo Alto, a natural sequel to the Stanford pilot. Like any urban setting, downtown PA was filled with all kinds of goofy oddities. I liked to pretend that these photographs were, in fact, ultra-realistic paintings, that even the most arcane detail carried some sort of conscious intent. My job? Interpret them for posterity.
In one photo, taken at the intersection of Ramona and University, you can look past the marquee of the Stanford Theater (an Astaire-Rogers double-bill) and find a young black man in dreadlocks, his figure neatly bisected by the corner of the building. He wears a dazzling African shirt of orange and brown stripes. His one visible eye carries a look of intense concentration, the muscles of his neck tense with effort. His left hand is flung back in a throwing motion, but the projectile is lost in the blur of his hand, his intended target blocked by the building. The rest of the story, then, is entirely up to the viewer. Is he chucking a pebble at a road sign? Playfully tossing his gum at a friend? Pitching a wadded-up sheet of paper to his little brother, who stands on the sidewalk with a cardboard tube for a bat? Or perhaps he’s hurling a pocketknife at a squad of ninjas who have chased him all the way from Redwood City? You see how far this goes.
There seemed to be at least one of these cryptic figures in each and every shot. I scanned them for hours, fishing for mythologies. (There was this one elderly woman walking her Shi-Tzu on Forest and High, dressed in a long pink coat and a despondent look. I’d give anything to ask her what was concerning her at that exact moment, what she was thinking as she heard a faint click and saw a man with a strange-looking camera.)
With this level of enthusiasm, I naturally wrote a superb prospectus. The subsequent meeting with our venture capitalists brought us enough cash to set a release date for the following February. McNeal’s immediate goals were to set up a statewide pilot program, due for demo capability on July 15, and to sign me up as Vice President of Marketing.
The name of the company was Panosys. I thought it sounded a little too much like Penises, but I did appreciate the etymology: “Pan” connoting both the panning motion of the camera and the Latin root for all-inclusiveness, and “sys” for systems. Whatever, everybody seemed to like it.
My next assignment was to come up with a job description for the VP position, which was primarily…
You couldn’t give a rat’s ass about any of this, could you? You want to know what I was doing about Frosty. Actually, you probably want to strangle me.
Frosty being such an elusive character, we made some creative arrangements regarding correspondence. I would write a letter once a week and send it to Jeremy, who would hold it for him at the Bel Canto. I sent three. I was about to mail the fourth, some time in early January, when I decided to wait till I could give him a better idea of when I would return. I never sent it.
Instead, I tunneled into a mound of marketing strategies and digital imagery that seemed all too real. Then I took a few brief moments to enjoy the fruits of my labor, planted my paws at the bottom of the hole, and did what came naturally – all the way to China, wagging my tail so the passers-by would know I was happy.
McNeal left his job in late January, and once he got his sizable claws into Panosys, things began to happen quickly. Our tech team was going full-bore, and I had the surreal pleasure of stealing Shanili from my old company. By the end of April we had begun the patent process, filed our service mark registration application, secured our domain name, and filed all the necessary licenses and DBAs. McNeal thought it was time for a party.
But not just any party. McNeal confided in me that he’d blown his final paycheck on the thing. The bachelor mansionette was loaded up with enough catered goodies for six Italian weddings, kegs of ale from six different microbreweries, a deadly rum punch whipped up by his housemate Isidra, and a sheet cake about a yard square, iced with a map of Silicon Valley. He had also rented out ten PCs so his guests could try out the photo-tours.
About two hours in, as the house began to fill up, a blues band called the eDawgs cranked up from the dining room. When they started into “Hey Bartender,” McNeal pulled me onto the dance floor. He’s no Arthur Murray graduate, but he did have a knack for taking me into spins, telegraphing his moves with his long fingers. For a girl of my generation, a guy who can lead at all is priceless.
I didn’t mind, either, when we stayed around for the slow song, “Angel from Montgomery.” He held me like a gentleman, one arm around my waist, the other cupping my fingers like a good poker hand. Despite my best efforts, I was feeling charmed.
“Are you enjoying yourself, marketing goddess?”
“God am I. Whoever knew a bunch of geeks could have so much fun?”
“The fun is just starting,” he said. “Once our guests drift off to Interstate 280, my vice presidents and I are going to get butt nekkid, jump into the hot tub, smoke large cigars from countries that produce excellent shortstops, and sip from huge snifters of brandy. Care to join us?”
“I like just about every part of that, but do I really want to get naked in front of the executive committee?”
“Consider it a team-building thing.”
“Easy for you. You can hide all your goodies under the water.”
“Well, don’t say I’m not a thoughtful man. I sent Shanili out yesterday to get you a bathing suit. I also asked her to join us so you won’t feel like the only tuna in a tankful of sharks.”
I had to smile. “Aren’t you the thoughtful one?”
“For those who deserve the thought, yes. Speaking of, I hope you enjoyed the roses.”
“Yeah. I was up in Eugene on business, so I drove over to Hirshfield to look you up. You were off on some road trip, so I had to leave the flowers with your pet bull. That kid with the snake was much too easily bought off. If he had so much as looked at me cross-eyed, I’da slipped him another twenty.”
“Jeremy! I knew it. But… well, I hate to be picky, McNeal, but why didn’t you leave a card?”
McNeal cocked his head to one side, looking off toward the band, then let loose that shy smile. “I don’t know. I guess it seemed beside the point.”
He took me into a slow spin, then braced his front leg and lowered me into a dip.
“To let you know that someone cared about you.”
He brought me back up, and we stopped to listen to the end of the song. The drummer lifted a backing harmony, suspended it like a bird on a wire, then slipped it back by steps to resolve at a comfortable third (my afternoons in the Bel Canto listening room had paid off).
“Well… thanks,” I said, and breathed.
“I gotta go,” McNeal said. “Papken Der Torossian has not been properly buttered up. I know we have his money already, but it never hurts.” He walked away, shooting his words with a thumb-and-finger pistol.
“Brandy… cigars… nude men…”
The rest of the party was fairly unremarkable. A couple of cops showed up, but just to get somebody’s car out of the neighbor’s driveway. I suppose hot-tubbing with five naked vice presidents was nothing ordinary, but it was actually quite civilized. I was roundly scandalized, however, when Shanili shucked her clothes as casually as Huck Finn at the swimming hole. The VP’s were a little cowed, as well, not having noticed before how busty my assistant truly was. My obvious discomfort caused her to burst out laughing.
“Oh do not look at me like that, Sandra Lowiltry. If you had not noticed this thing before, yours is one of the few cultures in which public bathing is considered anything more than what it is. There is no trouble to be skinny-dipping with friends, is there?”
The other cause of discomfort was McNeal, whose bod was a bit more appealing than I had imagined. His chest was covered by a smattering of fine, dark hair, and his pecs kept flexing every time he made a gesture or passed a cigar. I worked hard not to look like I was trying to get a peek under the water (which I was, of course), finding some helpful distraction in a sky absolutely packed with stars. The hill next to the house cut out most of the light pollution, making it easy to spot my favorite constellation, Canis Major, a tall-torsoed doggie nipping at Orion’s heels.
Once the executive council had dried off and said goodnight, McNeal and I conducted a preliminary cleanup, roaming around in bathrobes, picking up enough half-empty cups to hydrate the entire Boston Marathon. I was just about done with the dining room when I happened on a piece of art that I’d noticed several times before. It was a series of concentric hardwood slabs, edges cut with the shapes of jigsaw puzzle-pieces. The outer ring was trimmed in a band of gold paint. I was about to ask McNeal about it when he appeared at my shoulder.
“That one was a real bitch. I was never very good with a jigsaw. At the time, however, I was determined to throw myself into the biggest challenge I could find. Whatever gave me the most trouble – that’s what I wanted. I had to be incredibly careful. One bad stroke, one false move, and I’d cut through a knot and the whole thing would be…”
He wasn’t looking at the sculpture anymore but a mile past it, some far-off ridgetop where an owl coasted the pines like a feathered eclipse. McNeal swallowed and kept on, his words unnaturally clear and precise.
“I made this when I got back from Alaska, after… Rochelle. I had to re-train my mind. I had to find something else, something close-up, something to focus my energies. I’ve thought about doing a bronze cast someday, but I haven’t really…”
This time he stopped because of me, the way I was looking at him. I placed a hand on either lapel of his red bathrobe and climbed my way to his dear, sad face, chanting, “McNeal… Would you…? Would you…?”
Photo by MJV