93. Sylvester Florian, Master Carver

A Lamb Led To Slaughter

Sylvester is not much for conversation. Not the talking kind of conversation anyway. People who know him understand he talks better with his hands than with his mouth. It started when he was very young. He didn’t say anything until he was almost two. There was a lot of anxiety about his lack of language. His parents were teachers and they had some very specific expectations. When Syl didn’t even babble, they were very worried. They brought in child psychiatrists and speech therapists. These “experts” were also perplexed. Syl seemed alert. He didn’t seem to have a hearing problem. He followed direction and seemed to understand words. He just didn’t talk. There were dire warnings. This could be some kind of mental deficiency. Back then there was no such thing as autism or attention disorder diagnoses. His parents began thinking about special schools or even institutionalization. Syl just kept doing his thing. He smiled now and again. Enjoyed his food. Waved his arms a lot. And really got going when he played with blocks or crayons. He stacked the blocks in ever higher and in more curious arrangements. He drew lines with his crayons. From about nine months on, he began drawing straight lines. At first, they were wiggly. But by the time he was a year-and-a-half, they were straight. He drew them parallel to one another with varying space between them. He made designs with his lines. But no talking. Until one day, he did. Whole sentences. No baby talk. He never said much. But what he did say was clear and to the point. Mostly questions he needed answers to. It was as if he was very busy and didn’t have time for small talk. He began to read in pre-school. Syl was an only child and his parents thought that he would talk more if he were with other kids. From about three-and-a-half on, he was always in some kind of class. Teachers would almost always describe Syl as “bright but appears to have difficulty with social interactions.” He was an early reader. He was a good speller, good at math. Just not good at “verbal skills.” He usually sat by himself during recess and did not like sports. He did not have any friends and after a try or two, his parents stopped arranging play-dates.

Sylvester was still a loner in junior high. He wasn’t interested in social events and rarely, if ever, talked to a girl. His guidance counselor, thinking that maybe Sylvester was gay asked him about it. Nope, Syl wasn’t gay. Syl said, “If I had anything to say to a girl, I’d say something. But I don’t. Not now. And anyway, most girls think my drawings are weird. They don’t think I’m normal.” But the gay thing kept coming up, especially since he found his first real friend, a kid named John Hegler. Like Syl, John was a loner and liked to draw. They met in seventh grade, sitting next to one another in science class. On the first day of school that year, while waiting for the class to start, John saw Syl drawing on a sheet of writing paper. There were some interesting shapes, mostly in three-point perspective. So, John opened one of his own note books and showed Syl pages with margins filled with drawings of elegant, fanciful lettering and drawings of people in different poses. So, instead of paying attention to the science teacher when class started, the two of them were showing one another’s drawings and began whispering and giggling. The science teacher was less than pleased, told them to be quiet, and to see him after class. He told them that they would no longer sit together in class and, if they didn’t behave, he’d boot them out of his class. Over the next few weeks, the friendship blossomed and turned into a competition. The two boys would go home after school and do a drawing to show one another the next morning. Pretty soon, they were doing more drawing than homework and teachers sent notes home for both boys. When John’s father saw what was going on, he was furious. He taught biochemistry at a local college so this behavior was a professional affront to him. He told John he was not to spend time with Syl and to focus on his studies. But, later, when he saw the quality of work the two boys were turning out, he had to admit, something special was going on and relented. He met with Syl’s parents and told them that the drawing competition was alright with him so long as the kids did their homework and got good grades. Syl and John thought this arrangement was great and hung out together, just about to the exclusion of everyone else. Which is how the “gay thing” came up again. There were a lot of comments, some teasing, and, finally, a bit of bullying. But it all ended when John’s family moved away. John’s father got a full-professorship at a major university over a thousand miles away. And the boys lost track of one another.

The first time Sheila saw Sylvester, she was bowled over. “He was gorgeous. Big and strong and suntanned. And so quiet and polite.” After high school Syl did not know what to do with himself. He was not interested in college, not then anyway. He had no idea he could earn a living with his drawing. So, he took a job in a lumber yard. He was already a big kid but he got even bigger and much stronger handling lumber and cement bags. He liked the work. No need for a lot of talk. No pressure. And he had access to scrap wood, all he wanted. He was eighteen when he graduated and going on twenty-three when Sheila met him. She was picking up supplies for the contractor who was redoing her kitchen. She was twenty-five at the time, “very hot” according to her associates, outgoing and adventurous, a free-lance video game creator and self-promoter with a thriving business. She recalls Syl being not just very good-looking but “interesting.” She figured a guy “shlepping stuff in a lumber yard” must be some sort of jerk. But for some reason, she saw someone who was distinctly not a jerk although definitely socially inept. And since all he could do was blush and mumble when she said “Hello,” Sheila wasted no time. “What’s your name?” His name seemed familiar. She’d seen it before. She couldn’t place where. She got his phone number. Her excuse was “In case I need help in the garden or something.” And that was that. Three days later, she recalled where she’d seen his name. There was an article in the local news about an art gallery show featuring some very odd-looking painted wood sculptures. They were made from scrap lumber by some guy working at a lumber yard and taking night courses. Sheila was thinking about maybe using similar shapes in a game she was developing. They would be large, could move at high speed, change shape, and spew something bad. “Oh, my God. That’s him!” This was around ten o’clock at night. She called him. No answer. Next morning, she called again. Still no answer. So, since she had a new list of stuff to get for her kitchen, she headed back to the lumber yard and asked for Syl. She had to wait before he appeared. He was covered with a fine gray powder. He’d been helping unload cement bags from a box car. He gave a funny sort of half grin and tried to wipe the dust from his face by way of apologizing for his appearance. And with considerable effort, he managed to say, “Hi.” Sheila said she tried to call him. He said he turns his phone off at night. He checked and gave another funny grin. “Still off. Forgot.” Sheila said, “That’s OK. Can we go for a drink tonight?” Syl explained that he had class. Sheila was not going to take “no” for an answer. “So, when does your class end?” Syl told her. “Where exactly is it?” Syl told her that too. “OK, I’ll be there. We can have a drink and I’ll drive you home.” Syl said, “OK.” He helped bring the stuff she bought to her car and waved goodbye as she left. He stood there in the lumber yard parking lot trying to figure out what the hell had just gone on. This beautiful woman had come in to pick up some trim and paint, asked for him, invited him out for drinks, and he had no idea who or what she was. Just recently, he said with a grin, “What choice did I have? It’s been that way all the years we were together.” Sheila was waiting for Syl as the class ended. As Syl came out into the hallway where Sheila was waiting, she grabbed his hand and said, “Let’s go.” She was not going to let this character get away.

Fifty years later, in London, Syl sat down next to an older fellow, sitting by himself on a park bench, and said, “Remember me. I’m Syl.” It was John Hegler, Syl’s first real boyhood friend. John took a look as if he were peering through time, gave a yelp, and said, “My God, it is you. Where have you been? What have you been doing? My God! It has been a long time. Do you still draw and stuff?” Syl said, “Yes, I still draw and stuff but I’ve been reading about you in the papers, Making plaques and memorial statuary for churches and universities. You invented a new typeface? That’s amazing. Just like back in school.” John said he had been very lucky. “I sort of fell into it in a way. You remember we moved out west. My father wanted me to go into the sciences like him. I majored in biochemistry in college. Even took a master’s degree. But I really wasn’t good at it. And I was doing typeface and other drawings the whole time. Anyway, I was dating a girl whose father owned a precision metalworking company, very high-end stuff and he offered me a job. I loved it. The girl dumped me but I kept the job. And they taught me everything I needed to know about crafting metal. Later on, I got a job in a shop making memorial plaques and grave markers. One thing led to another. I’m here in London to finish up a commission I started ten years ago. And what about you?” Syl explained he was a sculptor, mostly in wood, and was in London for a gallery opening of his stuff. And he told his whole story, about how he met Sheila, how she turned his life around, gave him three wonderful children, helped to make him successful and happy beyond his wildest hopes, and managed his career as a sought-after sculptor. “She died three years ago. I miss her terribly. But when she knew she had terminal cancer, she never stopped working, arranged things so I could go on. She even ordered me to find a new wife. I’ve been trying.” Syl was crying. “God, it is good to see you, John. Come to the gallery so I can show you my stuff.”

As Syl tells it when describing how he and Sheila got together, “I suppose I was like a lamb being led to slaughter. There was no saying ‘no’ to Sheila. Not then, not ever. The night Sheila met him after class, they found a bar just off campus and had a drink. Sheila asked a million questions, but made him feel comfortable, even relaxed which was a big deal for Syl back then. She said she would drive him home. And she did. But it wasn’t his home. It was hers. Later that week, Syl went back to his small apartment and collected his stuff.

Sheila’s videogame consulting business of was beyond anything Syl could imagine. And she had this large barn of a place. Syl had been using his parent’s basement as a studio. Sheila suggested he move everything into her place. He was intrigued and terrified, even mystified, by her. She was in so many ways his opposite. But somehow, they both knew that this was for keeps. Sheila said she should meet his parents. His mother had strong doubts. “Who is she and what does she want with my child?” But Sheila won over Syl’s father as soon as they met. He liked her hustle and brains. And he knew she was going to be the best thing that ever happened to his son. And, incidentally, he wanted his basement back. He was due for retirement and wanted the space as a place for a consulting business.

Once they had a chance to spend time with her, Sheila was a hit with Syl’s parents. She knew what she was doing when it came to winning people over. And she was an expert with parents. After all, hers had taught her well, if not intentionally. Her own father was a brilliant but cold and distant engineer who spent months away from home on projects in other countries. When he was home, he tried making up for lost time by plying Sheila with gifts and money. By the time she was ten, Sheila had figured him out: none of the love and affection that she wanted, but more than enough toys and stuff. Concluding that she should take what she could get, Sheila milked him for all he was worth. Her mother was a dangerous alcoholic who regularly crashed family cars and twice set the house on fire. The net result: Sheila knew how to judge others, survive, fit in, and thrive. Then, there was her own, “Pre-Syl” history. Growing up, she had many friends but none close. She graduated high school at fifteen and was on track to finish college in three years when she abruptly quit in the middle of her second year to do video games full-time. She was barely eighteen when she got married for the first time. The marriage fell apart in six months. “Seemed like a good idea at the time but I was a jerk. And so was he,” she said when telling Syl and his parents about her life. She went on, “Because of all that, I knew in an instant Syl is a wonderful person. The talent is a bonus.” Syl’s father was surprised when Sheila mentioned Syl’s sculptures. He assumed it was a passing phase, not to be taken too seriously. Without hesitation, Sheila said, “Your son is very talented and I am going to make him famous.”

Sheila more than kept her word on that point. She and Syl had been married about a year and their first child was on the way when Sheila arranged a studio visit by a major gallery. The first show was a year later and sold out before the opening. And Syl finally gave up his lumberyard job. He had kept it because he had friends there and he liked the work. But most of all, he felt he had to bring in money. He finally was forced to give it up when a load of lumber fell off a six-wheeler not been tied down properly. He was in the hospital for three days. At which point, Sheila put her foot down, worked out a deal so he could spend part of his time drawing storyboards for her and earning his way, and the rest of his time doing his own work. The deal served them well for the rest of their lives together. In the process, Sheila made a fortune on a game Syl helped to create and she was a source of ideas for some of his most iconic artwork. There was the “Mosaic” series of wall sculptures. It cemented his reputation. And the “Nightstone” series. It put him in several museums. And the “Fireball” series. It provoked a small riot.

Things are quieter now for Syl. The kids are grown. One is a teacher, married with two kids. The others were either in grad school or starting careers. Sheila and Syl’s parents are gone. Before she died, Sheila got Syl into carving old cedar tree trunks and limbs. He likes cedar’s grain and colors. And its smell fills his studio. So, in a way, she’s still working with him. And, as he told his boyhood friend, John, she ordered him to marry again. That hasn’t happened yet but he knows he better do what he is told. “I’m still the lamb being led to slaughter.”

92. Dave Bostick, Organic Farmer and Vegetarian

“Not what I expected, but not so bad. Not so bad at all.”

“The best thing about organic farming is having good meals all the time.” Dave is a true believer. It is quite a change for him. If you ran into him 25 years ago, you’d likely find him enjoying a very large steak in a very expensive restaurant in a very large city. Back then, he was a senior vice president heading the law department of one of the country’s leading financial services companies. It was a career his whole life had prepared him for. He was the oldest child of four. Dave was always a very good student, belonged to a “very respectable” fraternity in college, and took an MBA at a well-known business school, after getting a law degree at a top law school. His father was an executive in a large pharmaceutical company. His mother trained as a nurse after graduating from a “society” college.  She worked as a nurse for about a year until she married Dave’s father. After that, and until Dave was born, she volunteered at an old age home run by a local charity. Life for her after that was being a wife and mother, occasionally taking part in various golf club and charitable activities. In short, Dave’s childhood was not just privileged but also was singularly insular. His family lived in the right neighborhood, a gated community of large homes, each set in an acre or more of land. He went to a private boy’s school focused on athletics, good manners, and eventual admission into “the best” colleges. Dave’s family belonged to two local clubs, one a golf club, the other a “gentlemen’s luncheon club, ostensibly focusing on “doing good works.” They attended the right church (First Congregational or as they described it, “First Congo.”) As a kid, Dave never gave any of this a second thought. As Dave explains, “What the hell did I know? I thought everyone lived like my family. I didn’t know anything else.” Of course, every family has its “dirty little secrets.” Dave’s family was no exception. The most obvious was his mother’s fondness for strong gin Martinis. But she indulged in a second one only while on vacation, having dinner with friends. When she did, she got talkative and said a bit more than she might have otherwise. That’s when she might go into her husband’s family’s background, the other “dirty little secret.” “Don’t know if you may have noticed but George’s mother was of what some call ‘the Hebrew persuasion.’ They were in banking. Very rich. And into the arts.” Talking about it years later, Dave smiled and said, “For her, that was a big deal. Tres risqué. I remember how once or twice she’d go on to say how she was not at all prejudiced and was very open-minded. But when I first heard her tell the story, it opened my eyes a bit. I suppose they’ve slowly opened ever since.” Dave and his second wife were sitting on a long wooden bench on a porch looking out on fields of salad greens just peeking out from black soil. Both were wearing work clothes and Dave had on his favorite droopy hat. Given the first forty years of his life, this is not where you’d expect to find him. Or maybe you would. His private school years were successful. He did well academically and got a letter in lacrosse. He got into the college his parents had selected for him and was slated to major in American History. He met his first wife at a sixth-grade dance. He was struck dumb. Angelic. Beautiful. Beyond anything he could imagine. He just stood there grinning, so she introduced herself, “Hello, I am Julia. And what is your name?” They danced once, during which all he could do was blush, mumble and worry about his sweaty hands. He didn’t meet her again until his junior year in college. He recalls feeling at that second meeting about as socially inept as he did at that first encounter. She remembered him. He didn’t recognize her. But he immediately knew, this was a very singular moment. As before, all he could do was blush and mumble. She laughed. And, then, he laughed and then blurted out how he felt on first meeting her and still felt on their reunion. After graduation, they got married and began what should have been a long and happy life together. With a stipend from his parents, Dave took an MBA and, then, went to law school. Julia took an advanced degree in biochemistry. He was hired by a large financial services firm. Two years later, he was running their legal department. Dave and Julia had two kids. They were happy. Why not? They loved each other, had every advantage, and parents that loved and supported them. Dave had just been moved to his firm’s executive floor when his wife and his second child, a son, were killed instantly by a drunk driver speeding on the wrong side of a divided highway. “You know, it was like being shot in the head. Or waking up in another world. That was thirty years ago and I am still living it like it happened yesterday. I’ll never get over it.” Three days after the accident and even before his wife and son were buried, Dave went back to work. His daughter, then 15, stayed with his wife’s family. The firm’s CEO told him he shouldn’t be in the office. Dave’s reasoning: sticking with his normal routine would help him cope. It didn’t. He’d come in to his office, sit down at his desk, turn his chair around and look out the window. The CEO was right. Dave asked for a leave of absence. They gave him all the time he needed at full pay and suggested that he get help. “You mean mental help, like counseling? I should be ok. My wife’s parents and my daughter will be with me. It will be ok.” Dave spent the next three months trying to put his world back together. His daughter went back to school. His wife’s parents went back to their normal life. And after they left, Dave went back to work on a part-time basis, working from both home and office. But nothing was the same and, thinking back, Dave says, “It was all a blur and, then, suddenly, my daughter left for college and I was all alone in this big house.” But Dave wasn’t quite alone. He would get visits from women he knew from the neighborhood or from one of his clubs or the church. At first, he didn’t know what to make of them. They were mostly his wife’s friends. He knew their names and something about them – their children’s names and schools, what their husband did – but not much else. What he didn’t quite understand about most of them was, they saw in him what might happen to their husband, if they were not longer around. They wanted to take care of him. Or at least to give him some comfort. Baked goods, a meal to reheat, a book suggestion, just a “I can’t know what you’re going through but they say that time helps” sort of comment. Dave tried to seem appreciative and on one level he was. But he was still in shock, unable to deal with his feelings. So, he had a lot of trouble when one of these visitors offered more than baked goods. He was polite but made it clear that he wasn’t up for anything much more than small talk. Six months after the accident, Dave decided enough was enough and went back to the office full-time.  “You can’t feel sorry for yourself forever,” is the way he explained it. And he got right back into his job again. Doing it helped a lot. A least during the work day. At night and on weekends, though, he was still sitting alone in his big, dark house, staring blankly at the TV. Which is how Grace, a neighbor, found him when she let herself in by the unlocked side door after ringing the doorbell without rousing him. “Dave what are you doing? Are you OK?” He started to cry. “This house seems so dead. It’s closing in on me. I’ve got to get out of here. I miss her. I miss the kids. There’s nothing here without them.” Grace said, “I’ll be right back.” She got her husband and the three of them sat late into the night talking about Dave, how he was living, and what maybe he should do. Maybe he should see about dating. Maybe he should hang out at the golf club more. Dave wasn’t sure about any of that. Dave couldn’t imagine dating. What would he talk about? He never did well in social situations. Or at least that’s how he saw himself. But one of the things that seemed to make sense was Dave should talk to a real estate agent. Why knows? Maybe a smaller house? Maybe a condo? An apartment until a better idea came along? The agent Dave saw happened to be the wife of his minister. And she had what at first seemed like a very odd idea. “You have plenty of room and I have a couple that needs a place to stay for a while. My husband married them last month. So maybe you should meet them. Why not? Could be fun.” So, the next Saturday, he was sitting at this very stylish restaurant waiting for the couple to arrive. It wasn’t Dave’s sort of place. Dave called places like this “Fern Salons.” Salads, crusty bread, and twenty-three varieties of white wine were featured. Dave was ordering a beer when two women walked in and asked if he was Dave. His eyes must have bulged because the tall one said, “Oh, she didn’t mention that we were gay. Just like her. If it bothers you, we can split.” Dave was embarrassed by his reaction. But for some reason, for the first time in a long time, he felt good. And he said something that he would never have guessed he would say, “Oh, no. Please. Sit down. This could be fun.” And it was fun. And it was a life changer for Dave.  Doris and Nancy moved in three days later and the lights came on. The kitchen came alive. The two women made vegan casseroles and exotic salads. They baked bread. They made cakes and pies. And they knew how to make very good cocktails. Dave gave them the master bedroom, explaining they were just married and needed some privacy. He moved into his son’s room in the children’s wing of the house. So, it wasn’t the house. It was its emptiness. And now that it was filled, Dave began to come alive again. His daughter was thrilled. It was fun to be home again. But some of the neighbors were not so thrilled. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. Most didn’t get that Doris and Nancy were a couple and wondered whether Dave was “doing a two-fer.” They got even more worried when Dave started dating a gal he met downtown and began having her stay at his house every now and then. There were a lot of smutty jokes and a conference with Dave’s minister who explained, “It’s not what you might think and if I’m not concerned, you shouldn’t be either.” One neighbor from way down the street wasn’t so sure. “This could be some kind of cult. Or witchcraft!” He saw his lawyer who said, “Mind your business. Maybe I should meet Dave and find out his secret.” But then, one day, there was a “For Sale” sign up in front of Dave’s house. Doris, Nancy, and Dave had been talking. He wanted a new life. His daughter had finished college, was working as a biochemist, and had met a guy. Doris and Nancy wanted a vegan farm. And maybe a little restaurant. It would involve a move across country. Without really giving it much thought, he said, “We are going to do it. I’ve got the money and you have the muscle. I’m going to have fun.” It turned out it wasn’t quite as much fun as Dave had envisioned. There were a few unforeseen events that threw things off. First, Nancy got pregnant. That delayed things until the baby was born. How Nancy got pregnant was and remains a deep dark secret. But it led to a lot of jokey comments. “Nope! Wasn’t Dave. Unless he’s sneaky.” There was a onesie that said “This is not Dave’s kid” on its front. There were even t-shirts. Doris was in on the secret and she wasn’t saying either. Second, their plan went a bit off the rails. The idea was to use the internet to find possibilities, take a trip to see the options, select one, check out living situation, and buy. But the first farm they found and wanted to buy turned out to be a scam. The supposed “owner” was selling a place that wasn’t his to sell. Dave was quick to spot the problem; he didn’t run a large company’s legal department for nothing. He got the scam artist to draw up some documents, got him and his supposed attorney on tape, and had the authorities take care of the rest. But that meant they needed to find a place while they looked for a property that was legitimate. That turned out to be pretty easy. An old house that sat a mile or so out of town. And finally, it became glaringly clear that neither Nancy, Doris, nor Dave knew a thing about farming, let alone organic farming. Which is how Dave met his second wife. And how Dave became someone very different from what he was when he started out in life. Her name is Shoshana. She was running a small organic restaurant and truck farm with her son, Herman, and Herman’s wife. She knew how to cook and to raise vegetables but knew nothing about business. She was working hard and was slowly going bankrupt. Nancy and Doris discovered her restaurant on one of their trips to town. And after a couple visits, they decided they liked Shoshana and dragged Dave along for lunch. Dave and Shoshana are not what you might think of as an “obvious match.” Initially, they were both very skittish of one another. He was interested but worried that she would think him a stiff. She worried about what she called “the ethnic thing” and put on a “Jewish act.” She only knew six words of Yiddish but suddenly started using them whenever Dave showed up for lunch. But they had much more in common than they imagined. They grew up one town over from one another. They were both products of exclusive but different private schools. They both went to the same college, she graduating ten years later. But at the same time, they came from very different worlds. His was WASP and traditionally Christian, people who saw themselves as the pinnacle of society. Hers was Jewish, people who were typically excluded from his childhood world. And yet, when they settled down together, her background slowly absorbed his. There was this time when they were having a quiet breakfast and Dave said, “Stereotypes say I should be having your corn muffin and you should be having my bagel.” Over time, Nancy and Doris moved on, starting a bookkeeping service in the next town. It turned out that they liked the idea of farming more in theory than in reality. Shoshana’s son and his wife moved when he took a job in advertising. Dave’s daughter visited with her family every summer. And Dave, using what he learned over the years in a large firm, turned the restaurant and truck farm around, first hiring a farm manager who knew his stuff, then moving the restaurant to a larger place with more traffic and hiring a chef who could take the pressure off Shoshana and tweak the menu. Then, he hired a smart promotion company, got some national publicity, and a steady stream of business that grew over the years. “It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was a kid but, all-in-all, not so bad. Not so bad at all. Shoshana thinks I need a new hat but this one will do for a good while yet.”

91. Dennis Fenton, Restaurateur

“Always seemed to be headed for a cliff”

Things are nice and peaceful these days. There are hiccups now and again but nothing that a bit of planning and persistence wouldn’t cure. Dennis’s place has a great reputation and a very loyal clientele. He calls it a “joint,” his name for any restaurant or bar, regardless of how unprepossessing or fancy it may be. He began taking ownership of it fifteen years ago from his business partner and has always made sure that it delivers more for the money than any competitor. He has a few very expensive items on the menu. And there are two or three wines that are outrageous. But most everything else is very reasonably priced and top quality. Every couple of years, Dennis closes down for a couple of weeks and the joint gets a significant restoration and upgrading. It first opened fifty years ago and, back then, it was all dim lighting, dark woods, and white table clothes. These days, it’s evolved into mostly sleek, shiny surfaces which contrast with and highlight the dark wood paneling and old-time bar that remains. Most nights, Dennis is there greeting people, solving any problem that might arise, and running the place. Every once in a while, he lets his brother come in and run things. The place is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday is quiet so they don’t open until four o’clock. They use Tuesday morning for business discussions, staff training, and trying out new dishes with everyone who works in the joint, from busboys on up. So, no one gets worn out. With a few exceptions, Dennis has a loyal staff. One reason is he pays more. Another is great benefits. In short, Dennis’s Restaurant and Bar is a well-run and successful joint. Of course, this was not always the case. When Dennis’s original business partner, Lana, bought it, it was on what seemed to be its last legs, a dinosaur among all the hip joints in its neighborhood. And, with a little less attention to detail, it might not be again. But not as long as Dennis is there. It’s important to remember: Dennis had a history of being considered aimless and a loser. And he claims he is always running scared; there were once people after him, he says. Not that long ago. And there may be again. He says he’s always looking over his shoulder. It’s a habit he learned young. Or so he says. As he tells it, he was pretty crazy as a kid. At fourteen, he robbed a jewelry store at gunpoint. He wore a mask and some clothes he had stolen off a clothesline. No one recognized him. He ditched the jewelry and kept the cash. He was never caught but says he figured they had to catch up with him sometime. Whether this story is true or not is hard to say. But, as one of the kids Dennis hung out with back then says, “Just another Dennis-tall-tale. Dennis just don’t run that fast.” Dennis likes to claim he had a very rough childhood, that he had to join a gang at an early age, was a chronic truant, and was almost sentenced to time in a juvenile facility. None of that is true. Despite Dennis’s claims otherwise, he grew up in a relatively affluent suburb in a privileged household with loving and attentive parents. His father owned a car dealership. His mother was a nurse. What does seem to be at least partly true is he wasn’t much of a student and spent a lot of time as a kid by himself, listening to rock-and-roll, and smoking weed when he could get it. He recalls how all his friends seem to know what they wanted to do when they grew up but he hadn’t a clue. He says, “It was like I was headed toward some sort of cliff and who-knows-what after I got there.” Also mostly true, the story about Dennis dropping out of high school and joining the US Marines. This disappointed his parents who had high hopes for him becoming the family’s first college graduate. His older brother had left school to take a job busing in restaurants and his younger sister was still in grade school. Based on his records and a medal he earned under fire, Dennis had a very successful and honorable tour of duty in the Marines. And he got to see a bit of the world. Stationed in Europe and in the Far East, Dennis learned something about cuisine and sex. He says he tried a lot of both. But one tour of duty was enough for him. The trouble was, once discharged, he still didn’t know what to do with himself. He was still headed for that cliff. He knew a return to school was not an option for him. But he was big and strong. And the Marines taught him how to do hard work. So, he took a job as waiter and bartender in a college bar. Which is where he says he met Melanie. She was about ten years older than Dennis and, recalling their first meeting, Dennis says, “She was absolutely amazing. Not beautiful but very hot. And very cool. I was just a jerk back then. But she must have seen something. When I think about it, she took over my world and changed my life.” She said she’d meet him after his shift and she did. He was a happy man. And from what she says, she was a very happy woman. “Dennis is gorgeous. He’s young. A little innocent. And he makes me very happy,” she said to a co-worker at her catering company. But whether all that Dennis claims about his relationship with Melanie is true isn’t clear. There’s no question though, she taught him plenty. She took him into her catering company and taught him how to run a business, to make customers happy, and to think about owning and running a restaurant. He claims she also taught him about “the fine art of lovemaking.” She only laughs when the subject comes up. “He’s a good kid. Will do any job, no matter how messy or hard. Strong. Good on his feet. And a quick learner. And maybe I helped him as much as he helped me.” Over time, their relationship became less intimate and more professional. She began dating an older man. He began seeing a co-worker named Deidre. Melanie didn’t think much of Deidre. “A bitch if there ever was one. I should have fired her ass out of here three days after I hired her.” Melanie admits there was a bit of jealousy involved. Deidre was and still is a doll and about 10 years younger than Melanie. Melanie says, “How was I supposed to compete with jailbait? But it was more ego than jealousy. The Dennis thing was getting a little old. I needed someone more my age.” The Dennis-Deidre wedding ceremony was casual and, apparently, so was their marriage. Deidre, it turns out, is what you might call a serial hook-up artist, always jumping in bed with someone she’s picked up.  It was all over about as fast as it had begun. He says they parted as friends; Deidre says otherwise. While Melanie wasn’t going to welcome him home, she kept him on as an employee of her catering business. Dennis had learned well and was her best worker. When he ran an assignment, it always turned out well. And over next five years, Melanie gave him more and more responsibility. And paid him well. Other than that, though, Dennis still saw himself as a loser with no clear direction in his life. His parents tried to seem otherwise but it was clear to him that they were disappointed in him. His sister was more tolerant. She was a great student, gave her parents the college graduate they had hoped for, went to law school, and joined one of those fancy law firms downtown. She couldn’t figure Dennis out. She knew he was smart enough and a hard worker. And she knew he had good friends who saw a lot of good in him. When they met, Melanie told her he was really good at his job. Melanie also said that she was planning to close down her catering business and retire. “So,” she said, “In about six months, Dennis would be out of a job unless he could figure out what to do next.” Even with that warning, Dennis refused to plan ahead. Or even to think about what he might want to do. When Melanie closed down, Dennis was stunned. He knew it was coming. He even knew the day when Melanie would close things up. But until it happened, he somehow didn’t think it was real. He spent the first day he was on his own sitting on a bench watching cars. Every day in the next month was similar to that first day. Dennis would get up, eat something for breakfast and walk around. Dennis couldn’t figure out what to do next. He was sitting on that same bench doing the same thing – watching traffic – when a woman in jeans and a sweater walked up, sat down next to him. Her name was Lana. She said, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I need your help running a saloon I’m buying. Come on. Let me show it to you.” Dennis and Lana knew each other from some party that Dennis helped to cater. And they’d run into each other at one event or another over the past couple of years. But until that moment, she was just someone that Dennis knew sort of vaguely. He had a lot of casual acquaintances. So, when she asked him to look at her new saloon, he trailed along figuring he had nothing better to do. And, looking back, he had to admit, he was very glad he did. He liked the look of the place. He could see taking a date there. He could imagine working the bar or maybe being the host. He felt comfortable. He wasn’t so sure about Lana. He couldn’t figure her out then. And he still can’t after all the years he was in business with her. Lana’s gay so there’s no sex involved. And she is all business with him. They never spent time together outside of business. She seemed to have a lot of money but from where, who knows? He knows she’s older than him but can’t even figure how much older. She never showed interest in his personal life. Dennis met Lana’s partner once. It was quick “hello.” That’s it. A young woman dressed in black with very large sunglasses. And the one thing that really perplexed him was the deal Lana made with him. As part of his pay, he would get a chunk of the business. The longer he stayed and built the business up, the larger his chunk would be. And Lana wanted Dennis’s name on the door. She said, “If everything works out, you will own this place one day.” When he started to ask why, Lana said, “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.” One thing that Dennis did know was that, from the beginning, a good part of the clientele, especially late at night, was gay. At first, Dennis wasn’t too happy with that. It made him a little nervous somehow. But over time, he made some very close friends among that late-night crowd. One of them. George, introduced Dennis to his second and current wife. She’s George’s little sister. Talking with her late one night about his life so far, Dennis said Lana’s showing up at that park bench where he was sitting watching traffic was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Things got even better when Lana told Dennis she was selling him her remaining stake in the business. It would be over time so that she would always have some income. At first, she’d still come in and give Dennis or his brother a night off but, after a while, there’d be a month or two at a time when she would be gone. She and her partner were going to travel. And finally, without going into any detail, she announced would not be coming in at all. All she said was, “There’re reasons but I need to be out of town and gone.” When it comes to stuff with Lola, Dennis knows not to ask why. This was a couple of years back. Dennis has heard from Lana just a couple of times since then. About six months ago, a couple of men and a woman showed up asking for her. They looked like cops and they were. Federal agents. Dennis explained he hadn’t seen Lana or her partner in a while and the last message he’d gotten from them was a brief email asking him to shred and burn the contents of a box she’d left in the restaurant’s wine cellar. That was maybe a year ago. Yes, he did what she asked. No, he did not look at the contents. Yes, he did have an email address but the last note he’d sent to that address came back “Failure notice. Sorry, we were unable to deliver your message to the following address.” No, he hadn’t kept any of her emails. Dennis gave them the email address that he had for Lana. But he neglected to tell them, before she left, Lana had his bank set up a system for wiring money to a numbered account in Switzerland. After they left, he wondered whether he should have told them. Dennis talked it over with his wife. She said see the lawyer you use for your business. The lawyer’s reaction to his experience struck Dennis as odd. Maybe one question too many. “What do you mean there were three of them? What did they want” What did you say? You didn’t tell them where Lana might be, did you?” But he also tried to be reassuring, “No need to go out of your way. Maybe, if they come back, you can say you forgot about the wiring money thing. If they come back, you can tell them then. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it if you need my help.” It was only later that Dennis remembered his business’s lawyer was also Lana’s lawyer. For a while, Dennis wondered if his joint was being watched. But time went by. He had other things on his mind. There was another renovation to think about. The kids were getting ready for junior high. He missed the first story in the news. But he saw the follow-up story; the one on TV about how the FBI wanted to speak with a local woman and with a shot of the woman’s lawyer saying, “No comment. Lawyer-client privilege.” Dennis figured he better get his own lawyer, just in case

90. Sheldon Bender, DDS, Dental Surgeon


Everyone calls Shelly one of the most boring people on earth. It’s said with a lot of affection though. On a superficial level, he’s very likable. He always says the same thing when he meets you. It doesn’t matter whether you see him in his dental office for a root canal or in the bagel store on Sunday morning. Young or old, man or woman, he always says the same thing, “Heighdy Ho, sailor.” It comes with a big grin and maybe, if you’re unlucky, a very corny joke. “I can row a boat. Canoe?” After that, not much. Maybe some vague comments about the weather or a sports team. “Hot enough for you?” “How about those Bills?” It is not that he is uneducated or uninformed. Or brain-dead. If asked a specific question about most topics, even some of the most arcane, he will indicate more than a passing awareness, even if it is to say, “That’s a topic not up my alley. I read something about it though.”  And then he’ll describe what he read. Some say he knows about a lot of stuff but not a lot about any one thing. “It’s like he just takes stuff in and files it away without thinking about it.” But that’s not true about everything. He is a whiz at dentistry and teaches it at the local dental school. And for some reason, in his sophomore year in college, he took a shine to geology. Ask him about it and he starts off, “We called it ‘rocks’ in school. I still read up on it every chance I get.” Then, he goes on and on about the local geology until you start getting desperate to find an excuse to get away. That’s almost impossible when you see him for a difficulty dental procedure. You sit in the chair, all numbed up or half conscious, maybe with half a dozen instruments in your mouth, and, as he works, he goes on and on about sedimentary rock. Or about tectonic plates. And if you are bored out of your mind, Shelly hasn’t a clue. He is that way now and was that way as a kid. In grade school he was a very good kid. Never got into trouble. Did extra credit in class. Never was late with homework. His penmanship was a sight to behold. Every letter perfect. The only class in which he did not excel was Phys Ed. He was awkward and a slow runner. He did his best but anyone could see his heart wasn’t in it. It was the only “C” he ever got in school. Fortunately, they did not grade his love life. His closest approximation of a relationship in high school was with a girl, named Nancy. She was probably his only friend in those years. They were just pals. She made him feel comfortable and got him to laugh and he helped her with her advanced placement chemistry. They never went on a “real date” or even kissed. They only touched by accident. And if they did, Shelly got very flustered. If there was anything more to it – on her part or his – beyond a genuine fondness and friendship, nothing ever happened. And after high school graduation, they went their separate ways and lost track of one another. The internet did not exist then. And so it went, right through college and dental school. Nothing serious. Which is odd because more than a few women have classified him as “gorgeous.” And more than a few tried their luck with him both in high school and college. Other than Nancy, they invariably gave up after spending more than a bit of time with him. For example, one college classmate said, “He is the ultimate nerd. I think he is amazingly shy. Or something is wrong with his head.” Then, there was a gal in dental school who made a valiant effort. Her assessment after three dates, all at her instigation: “Totally cute and nice but he made me crazy. He is a social klutz without an original thought in his head about anything except dentistry. And sex! Forget it.” Whether Shelly was happy with all this is unclear. His parents, however, were thrilled. He was their only child and they had some interesting views. They had always warned him about women who, they claimed, invariably wanted to take him away from his family, undermine his moral strength, and lead him to indecency. They constantly told him, “Do not give in.” And they might mention they prayed for his soul, surrounded as he was by what they saw as “constant temptation.” Who knows what might have happened if Sheilah hadn’t set her eye on him? This was when he was already a practicing dentist with a large patient list. Her chiropractor office was down the hall from his office. They bumped into one another two or three times a week. She invited him for coffee, for a drink, out to dinner, and, before he knew it, he was engaged and married. Not that he minded.  Finding a nice girl and getting married was something he wanted to do. He just didn’t know how. In a lot of ways, he was a terrific husband. Makes money. Attentive and helpful. They had two daughters right away. Sheilah would always say, “Shelly’s a character. That’s for sure. Amusing in his own way. But maybe a little dull.” And then she would laugh. But dull, it turns out, was what Sheilah wanted in a husband. She was from a broken home. Her father was into booze and women. Her mother was into trouble. Shoplifting, theft, and fraud. When Shelly hired a new dental assistant, Sheilah gave her a look-over and said, “With any other husband, that chick would be trouble. With Shelly, no sweat.” And for a while, she was right. If Shelly noticed Carla, he didn’t let on. Patients noticed her though, especially the men. “Shelly, where’d you get the hottie. She is something.” Shelly blushed and said, “She is an excellent assistant. Maybe the best I ever had.” The problem was Carla liked a little adventure, knew what she was doing, and Shelly was a sitting duck. She had come to this country as a six-year-old and thrived. But not without some difficulty along the way. She got married right out of high school He was abusive. She moved out and divorced him. She hooked up with an older man who helped put her through college and dental assistant school. When that relationship ended, she decided to avoid dating and relationships for a while. Which is just about the time she started working for Shelly. It was after about six month’s working for him when she began to sense, maybe he’s beginning to get ideas. This freaked her out at first. For her, one of the best things about working for Shelly – other than he was a great dentist, an excellent teacher, and a good boss – was he never hit on her. But now, suddenly, he was over-solicitous and smiled at her for no apparent reason. She was both annoyed and intrigued. She told her sister, “I could nail this guy if I wanted.” But of course, she was wildly optimistic. Even if he were interested, nothing was going to happen. Shelly was Shelly, still dealing deep down with all the stuff his parents had pounded into his head. And, most of all, he was terrified of Sheilah. What would she say? Would she leave him? Would she scream, even throw things? Divorce him and take his money? He did not understand Sheilah. She doted on him, knew him better than he knew himself, and might have been secretly pleased if he were to have a flirtation with another woman. “It’d prove he’s human after all!” Sheilah always knew how to take a joke and she and Shelly each knew they had something special together. They were in it for the long run. So, if anything could, that made Sheilah’s accident even more horrendous. A car went through a red light at very high speed, right into her car, bursting open the gas tank. When they put out the fire, her car was a burnt-out hulk. There wasn’t much of her to bury. Shelley’s daughters say they cannot forget how Shelley looked after the funeral, sitting alone, rocking slowly back and forth, staring at a wall in a dim room. Not the most demonstrative of men, Sheilah was his whole world. The two girls did what they could for him. They coaxed him back into his dental practice. They made sure his house was clean. They did some cooking. They took him out to dinner. They worried about his mental health; he seemed so numb. But one was in dental school and the other had a job as a financial analyst. And they had personal lives of their own. So, Nancy’s turning up was a stroke of luck. When she made an appointment for root canal, she wondered whether this Sheldon Bender was that odd but cute boy she knew in high school. “He was very sweet, very good looking. He laughed at my jokes, but seemed to live in a world of his own. You know, now that I know better, I think I was a little crazy about him back then. He didn’t recognize her at first. She was already in the chair when he walked in. He introduced himself and went to pull up some x-rays on a screen. But was a bit startled by an odd dragon ring she was wearing. It seemed familiar somehow. Looking at it, he felt an odd twitch. A memory of a teenage longing? He had no idea what to do with that feeling – not then and not now. “I know that ring. But where?” But this woman, she was a stranger, one more root canal in a career filled with them. He said, “Hello, I’m Dr. Bender. They say you need root canal. Open wide and let’s take a look.” It was sort of a thunderclap. “Sheldon, is that you? My God, you haven’t changed a bit. What are you doing with yourself these days? Remember how I used to get you to laugh? Back in high school? You were such a nerd. God, I’ve missed you.” At which point, Shelly started to cry. He couldn’t stop. It was not anything that he had allowed himself ever before. He suddenly had so much to tell this woman from so long ago. They got around to the root canal, but not that day.

89. Ricky and Norman, at the Health Food Store

“How have you been?”

They met at a party about a dozen years ago. Ricky brought a date, Ginny. She was the one that started the conversation. They were talking with a group of people, including a short guy, Norman, maybe ten years older than Ricky. When Norman mentioned he worked in a health food store and was a committed vegetarian. Ginny wanted to know all about it. She thought being a vegetarian was cool and said she was thinking about becoming one herself. Back then, Ricky thought too much concern about food was a bunch of crap. And anyway, he was a steak man. But because Ginny was interested, he went along with it and listened to what Norman had to say. Ginny wanted to hear more but, after ten or fifteen minutes or so, Norman had to excuse himself, saying, “There’s a couple of friends I have to leave with, but here’s my store’s card. Stop by. The salads are great.” And that was that. Ricky forgot all about Norman and his health food, especially since, about a month later, Ginny got transferred across the country. They exchanged emails for a while. That petered out with one last email when Ginny announced she was getting married. Ricky didn’t date much after that. It wasn’t that he was madly in love with her. But she was good company and seemed to enjoy making love with him. But that last email was the beginning of a long rough patch for him. His job was tenuous. He had to admit that he hated the company he was working for. “A bunch of low-lifes.” And he seemed to be low on energy for some reason. He wasn’t sleeping well either. His mother suggested he see the family doctor. “And, heaven sakes, get a girlfriend. It’s time you got married.” He went to the doctor. He had a physical. The doctor pronounced Ricky to be in great shape, at least physically. But admitted that his mental state needed some perking up. “You’re in excellent health, Ricky. I should be so healthy. Just get out more. Go for walks. Meet new people. That usually helps with some of the young people I see.” So, every weekend, Ricky would go on a long hike, sometimes on a trail up in the hills, sometime just around the city. He felt better. Met a few new people. Went on a few dates. Nothing serious. He switched jobs too. And that helped a lot. His mother decided to fix him up with a couple of gals his age that she knew. Mostly, that did not go well. Somewhere along the way, he ran into Norman. Norman was sitting on a bench in a park, having an intense discussion with some guy. Ricky didn’t recognize Norman and almost passed on by. Norman had shaved his head and had a ring in his ear. But Norman recognized Ricky. And seemed thrilled to see him again. “Ricky, how are you? Where’s that gorgeous gal you were with? What have you been doing?” One question after another. Ricky was a bit freaked out. Embarrassed that he hadn’t recognized Norman. Even more embarrassed that Norman seemed to remember so much about him. And more than confused about why Norman was treating him like an old friend. After all they may spent maybe ten minutes with one another. And that was in a group of people at yet another boring party. And three years ago.  “Come sit down and tell me how you’ve been.” Ricky was not used to this kind of attention. It made him nervous and on guard. Anyway, they exchanged emails, and Ricky agreed to visit Norman at his health food store. “Come on Saturday, before noon. It’s not so busy then.” But work got in the way and Ricky had to postpone. But when he did make it, it was late in the afternoon. And the store turned out to be a lot different than he had imagined. He expected one of these old-time stores full of unpleasant looking grains and seeds owned by a couple of old hippies. He had a vivid image of unpasteurized peanut butter in huge jars with weird, homemade labels. Instead, he found a clean, modern, even elegant, store and restaurant, serving great sandwiches on homemade bread, some amazing pasta dishes, and wild salads. And there was wine and beer. There weren’t any hippies. Most of the customers seemed to be trim and well-dressed in what you might call “fashion forward” clothes. Some of the women were knock-outs but seemed somehow a bit odd. But the biggest surprise: Norman owned the place. It turned out that this bald, little guy was something of a big deal in his world. A trend-setter. All of which made Ricky in his old jeans, hiking boots, and faded t-shirt feel very out-of-place. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Seeing him getting ready to turn around and leave, Norman got upset. “Where you going? You just got here. I was hoping I could offer you a sandwich or a drink.” “Not my scene,” Ricky said on his way out. “I’ll send you a note.” Ricky did not send a note. Norman held off getting in touch.  Whatever had bothered Ricky about his store, Norman wanted to give Ricky a little time to get over it. So, after a couple week, he sent an email, “Come to dinner. I won’t bite.” Ricky thought it would be rude to say “no” so he would and they set a date. A Saturday night a couple of weeks down the road. When Ricky showed up Norman took him to a little vegetable garden he had behind the store. They both remember the weather was gorgeous. High summer. There was a nice glass and wrought iron table set for dinner in the middle of the garden. And at the far end of the garden, a rough stone bench. Ricky had put on some nicer clothes. He hadn’t been sure who would be there and didn’t want to look a slob. He brought a decent bottle of wine too. After half a bottle of wine or maybe more and some hors d’oeuvres, they started to talk.  Norman said, “You know, I have a pretty nice life but I think yours is not so nice. You dating anyone?” Ricky explained that he really hadn’t wanted to date after he and Ginny split. Hadn’t met the right girl. Or maybe he just didn’t feel up to it. “Hard to explain. I’ve sort of become a loner.” Ricky didn’t usual talk about this sort of stuff. But the second glass or so of wine seemed to have gotten to him. They walked around the garden for a bit and ended up sitting next to one another on that stone bench at the back of the garden. “Ginny and I weren’t really all that serious but she was good company. I don’t think I’ve met anyone like her since she moved away. It’s weird, I guess. Who knows? Maybe I’m asexual. Or don’t have the usual amount of hormones. My mother fixed me up with two or three gals. It was a disaster. They were nice enough kids but I just couldn’t get turned on. They bored me and I clearly bored them. One more of them and I’d be headed for a monastery.” Which is when Norman leaned over and kissed Ricky. Right on the lips. A real kiss. Ricky felt something like an electric shock go through him. He was stunned. Never dawned on him that Norman might be gay. And when Norman did it again, Ricky almost fainted. He wanted to get up and run. “Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing? Stop that.” That’s what he was thinking. But he someone wasn’t able to say anything. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t believe what was going on. But when Norman kissed him again, a third time, Ricky kissed back. And since that moment, he and Norman have never stopped kissing one another. And so, started a life that Ricky could never have imagined. And sometimes still can’t.

88. Mary Quillian, Bank Teller

“No worries.”

Mary doesn’t need to work. She hasn’t for some years now. She is not rich but has enough to take it easy if she wanted. She’s been a teller for almost twenty years. The pay isn’t great but there’s good health insurance and a very generous IRA. Mary likes that. It means she doesn’t have to worry. She’s old enough to start receiving Social Security payments. And then there’s her retirement money from being a school teacher for twenty-five years. But she lives on her teller’s salary, letting her income from her teacher’s retirement and Social Security pile up in a savings account. For some people, a teller’s job would be endless boredom. Not for Mary. She loves being a teller. She gets to meet all sorts of people. And it is quiet and peaceful. And balancing out at the end of her shift is like a little puzzle that she loves to solve. And most of all, it is worry free. Bank customers will sometimes ask, “How’s it going?” Mary always says the same thing, “It’s nice. No worries.” That’s true now. But it wasn’t always. And she is convinced that, no matter how placid things seem to be right now, everything could fall apart in an instant. Her friend, Grace once asked, “What’s to worry about?” Mary answered, “You never know.” A shallow, automatic answer? Perhaps. But not for Mary. Mary deeply believes and fears that anything might happen at any moment for no apparent reason at all. The thing is: it’s happened to her in the past. More than once. Maybe the first time was the car crash when she was four or five. Her mother was driving. Her father had been drafted. It was during the Korean War. Mary and her mother were headed for her mother’s parents to stay until Mary’s father came home. It was night time. It was dark. A car, coming towards them, drifted over the center line and Mary’s mother swerved, lost control, and hit the side of the road, tipping over.  Mary doesn’t remember much, except all the glass and blood. And her mother seemed to be asleep. They were three days in the hospital. And a month afterwards before Mary’s mother could get down the stairs without help for breakfast. They told her that she would never have another child. Another incident Mary remembers happened four years later. A man grabbed her as she walked home from school, pulled her in the back of a van and started to yank down her pants. She was so scared she started to pee. When that happened, he pushed her out of the van as fast as he pulled her in. She ran as faster than she ever imagined she could until she got home. She was safe. But she didn’t feel safe. Not really ever again. Her father had to walk her to school and back every day. And there was another car crash, this time when her family was going to stay with friends at a cabin on a lake. A car went through a red light, hit them just about where the rear tire is and spun their car around two or three times. No one was hurt. But Mary couldn’t stop crying. Every night, she would climb in bed and sob, “Why? Why? Why?”  It was as if a demon had it in for her. They sent her to a therapist. It didn’t help. He gave her the creeps. She had dreams about him pulling her pants down and, once in a while, wet her bed. The therapist was a nice, sympathetic man. After two sessions, he told Mary’s parents that time would be a better healer for her than him. And things did get better for a few years. But when Mary was fourteen, her father had a heart attack. At first, he was not expected to live. But he came home after two weeks in the hospital. He had another attack two years later and this one killed him. Mary and her father were very close and his loss hit her hard. It also cemented her view of the world. “Anything bad can happen at any time.” But Mary had to admit, good things can happen too. She graduated high school with good grades, got into a local college she loved, and was hired as a teacher right after graduation. She also met a young man who wanted to marry her. At first, she put him off. She was convinced something bad would happen if she were too happy. But there was something about him that got to her. And it made no sense. There were parts of him that were like her father. At the same time, there was something that reminded her of the man with the van and danger. They’ve been married now for forty years. He had a long and successful career as a contractor before retiring. But as happens to a lot of folks his age, he is showing signs of mental difficulty. Mary is not surprised. She knew demons would be back sooner or later. So, she won’t give up her bank job. Never, if it were up to her. There’s a security door. An armed guard. Bulletproof glass. It is safe there. No worries.

87. Ryan “Nikko” Shemanski, Vagrant

“What did I do wrong?”

“This is all my doing.” True or not, it is something Nikko firmly believes. People who spend any time with him hear that refrain over and over. Another thing Nikko says a lot: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I living like this? What did I do wrong? Am I being punished for something?” Nikko seems to think so. On the surface, Nikko had an uneventful, even privileged childhood. His father was a respected bank manager; his mother, a housewife who volunteered at the local hospital thrift shop. But the truth is Nikko’s childhood was one terrible event after another. The most memorable for Nikko was his sister Faith’s attempted suicide. Faith survived but insisted on leaving home after they discharged her from psychiatric evaluation, returning only when she had no other choice. Another memorable event for Nikko was his brother Rodney’s car crash. Roddy still limps badly from his injuries. And, then, there was his mother’s sudden death from falling down a set of stairs. And through it all, there were his father’s unpredictable episodes of extreme rage. One happened when Nikko was sitting out in the backyard with a couple of friends and his father came out with a belt and began whipping Nikko for leaving his room a mess. Another involved Nikko playing music his father thought too loud. And there was the time Nikko was doing homework with one of the girls in his class in the family dining room. Without warning, Nikko’s father came in screaming, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head on the table, called the young lady he was studying with a whore, and ripped up their homework. When talking about these things, Nikko will – by way of explaining his current situation – go on and on about people who did him in and destroyed his life. “They had it in for me. That’s for sure. What choice did I have?” By the time he was 13, Nikko was showing signs of trouble ahead. He became very quiet, avoided friendships, and went from being a good student to one that had to be held back. His guidance counselor recommended psychotherapy. The first referral did not work well. A middle-aged, former physical education teacher whose chief therapy was push-ups and admonitions to “straighten up and be a man” did not sit well with Nikko. In the middle of the first therapy session, Nikko got up, mumbled something about a bus being late, and left. The guidance counselor was very upset with Nikko about this “resistance” and against her better judgement referred Nikko to Mrs. Marsh, a new therapist who seemed too attractive to assign to adolescent boys. And that’s when Nikko seemed to have a bit of lucky. She was patient, cheery, and always had a piece of candy. Nikko loved her, not just because she was young and female and he was an adolescent boy, but because she listened, took him seriously, and seemed to understand him. His grades picked up. He seemed to have a penchant for math and was soon in an advanced placement class, learning calculus and differential equations. But he was still skittish about friendships. And was miserable at home, never knowing when his father might fly into a rage. After he graduated high school, he went to a local commuter college on a partial scholarship. After graduation, he got a job as a junior actuary which gave him the chance to move away from home. And for a while, things were more peaceful in his life than they had ever been. He was back seeing his favorite therapist, began having a bit of a social life, and was thinking about taking a vacation. But one night, his sister, Faith, called and asked to visit. She was still living at home and had just dropped out of junior college. She said she was depressed. Faith showed up looking a wreck. Underweight, unkempt, and strangely jumpy. She had a bruise on her left cheek. She went right to Nikko’s new couch sat down with her arms wrapped tightly around her, shivering and saying nothing. Nikko gave her one of his favorite donuts. After a while, she began to talk. And the more she talked, the angrier Nikko got. He began to understand what had gone on in his family home since Faith was five years old. She stayed for a month, maybe two before she went to live with a boyfriend. At least, that’s what Nikko thinks she did. Nikko says most of his memories from that time are hazy. Nonetheless, he claims to recall three things vividly. During the first week his sister stayed with him, his father showed up, demanding to take her home. There was a fight. Nikko says he remembers grabbing the old man, calling him a child molesting pervert, and pushing him out of the apartment. He also recalls how his father lost his balance, fell over a garbage can, and ended up sprawled on the sidewalk before getting up and storming off. A second thing Nikko remembers from that time is his father’s death – a heart attack they said. Nikko says he went to the memorial service but when people stood up and began describing his father as deeply religious, caring, and generous, Nikko couldn’t take it and left. And the last thing Nikko remembers about that time is cocaine. Back then, Faith was a serious user. Nikko tried it and liked it. And, Nikko says, everything came apart after that. He’s been on the streets now for maybe fifteen years.

87. Ryan “Nikko” Shemanski, Vagrant

“Not my fault.”

“This is all my doing.” True or not, it is something Nikko firmly believes. People who spend any time with him hear that refrain over and over. Another thing Nikko says a lot: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I living like this? What did I do wrong? Am I being punished for something?” Nikko seems to think so. On the surface, Nikko had an uneventful, even privileged childhood. His father was a respected bank manager; his mother, a housewife who volunteered at the local hospital thrift shop. But the truth is Nikko’s childhood was one terrible event after another. The most memorable for Nikko was his sister Faith’s attempted suicide. Faith survived but insisted on leaving home after they discharged her from psychiatric evaluation, returning only when she had no other choice. Another memorable event for Nikko was his brother Rodney’s car crash. Roddy still limps badly from his injuries. And, then, there was his mother’s sudden death from falling down a set of stairs. And through it all, there were his father’s unpredictable episodes of extreme rage. One happened when Nikko was sitting out in the backyard with a couple of friends and his father came out with a belt and began whipping Nikko for leaving his room a mess. Another involved Nikko playing music his father thought too loud. And there was the time Nikko was doing homework with one of the girls in his class in the family dining room. Without warning, Nikko’s father came in screaming, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head on the table, called the young lady he was studying with a whore, and ripped up their homework. When talking about these things, Nikko will – by way of explaining his current situation – go on and on about people who did him in and destroyed his life. “They had it in for me. That’s for sure. What choice did I have?” By the time he was 13, Nikko was showing signs of trouble ahead. He became very quiet, avoided friendships, and went from being a good student to one that had to be held back. His guidance counselor recommended psychotherapy. The first referral did not work well. A middle-aged, former physical education teacher whose chief therapy was push-ups and admonitions to “straighten up and be a man” did not sit well with Nikko. In the middle of the first therapy session, Nikko got up, mumbled something about a bus being late, and left. The guidance counselor was very upset with Nikko about this “resistance” and against her better judgement referred Nikko to Mrs. Marsh, a new therapist who seemed too attractive to assign to adolescent boys. And that’s when Nikko seemed to have a bit of lucky. She was patient, cheery, and always had a piece of candy. Nikko loved her, not just because she was young and female and he was an adolescent boy, but because she listened, took him seriously, and seemed to understand him. His grades picked up. He seemed to have a penchant for math and was soon in an advanced placement class, learning calculus and differential equations. But he was still skittish about friendships. And was miserable at home, never knowing when his father might fly into a rage. After he graduated high school, he went to a local commuter college on a partial scholarship. After graduation, he got a job as a junior actuary which gave him the chance to move away from home. And for a while, things were more peaceful in his life than they had ever been. He was back seeing his favorite therapist, began having a bit of a social life, and was thinking about taking a vacation. But one night, his sister, Faith, called and asked to visit. She was still living at home and had just dropped out of junior college. She said she was depressed. Faith showed up looking a wreck. Underweight, unkempt, and strangely jumpy. She had a bruise on her left cheek. She went right to Nikko’s new couch sat down with her arms wrapped tightly around her, shivering and saying nothing. Nikko gave her one of his favorite donuts. After a while, she began to talk. And the more she talked, the angrier Nikko got. He began to understand what had gone on in his family home since Faith was five years old. She stayed for a month, maybe two before she went to live with a boyfriend. At least, that’s what Nikko thinks she did. Nikko says most of his memories from that time are hazy. Nonetheless, he claims to recall three things vividly. During the first week his sister stayed with him, his father showed up, demanding to take her home. There was a fight. Nikko says he remembers grabbing the old man, calling him a child molesting pervert, and pushing him out of the apartment. He also recalls how his father lost his balance, fell over a garbage can, and ended up sprawled on the sidewalk before getting up and storming off. A second thing Nikko remembers from that time is his father’s death – a heart attack they said. Nikko says he went to the memorial service but when people stood up and began describing his father as deeply religious, caring, and generous, Nikko couldn’t take it and left. And the last thing Nikko remembers about that time is cocaine. Back then, Faith was a serious user. Nikko tried it and liked it. And, Nikko says, everything came apart after that. He’s been on the streets now for maybe fifteen years.

86. Meera Rossiter, EVP

“Tough.”

Meera was the third child of immigrants from the New Delhi area. Her parents had come separately as college students to the American Midwest, met at a campus social event, became friends, drifted apart, but three years later met again, this time at a graduate school symposium for foreign students. A year and a half later, they got married and graduated, both ceremonies on the same day, he in computer science, she in medicine. Meera was their third and last child, all daughters. She was never like her sisters. Or anyone else in her family. Her two sisters were obedient, respectful, traditionally feminine, quiet, studious, and disinterested in sports. Not Meera. She was always noisy and rambunctious. In high school, she stood out as a gifted lacrosse player, captain of her team. Unlike her sisters, Meera was casual about her studies, always leaving things to the last minute, getting good grades but only with the least amount of effort necessary. And her behavior drove her parents nuts. While her sisters were always “proper,” Meera snuck out on dates; tried cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana; and listened to music her parents considered tasteless and probably immoral. When they let her (or when she snuck out), she wore clothes that appalled everyone in her family. Definitely a handful. But she also knew how to get her way, partly because she was all things her father had yearned to be as a boy. He had always been an obedient son. But also, because Meera had a thing for technology. It started when she got her hands on her first computer game. She wasn’t supposed to have it. She pirated it and played it when she was supposed to be studying. It took her two tries to beat the game consistently. Then, bored with playing it, she took its programming apart, figured out what made it tick, and, in the process, taught herself to be a game developer. It just came to her. Her father couldn’t believe it. “This is not supposed to happen. It took me years to be a programmer.” Her mother was convinced that this was the beginning of the end for Meera. “What man would marry such as her?” But of course, it was anything but the end. Meera began picking up freelance jobs on the internet. Who knew she was a fourteen-year-old brat without any formal training? Then, she got a full-time job with a game development boutique, that is, until they figured out that she was too young to work without parental permission. But by then, she had applied for and been granted early admission to college with a dual major in finance and computer sciences. And she quickly learned that while she could handle the academics, she had no idea what to do about college social life. She got badly drunk at a sorority rush party. She went on a few disastrous dates and learned a few lessons that 16-year-old kids shouldn’t have to learn so soon. Her solution was to do well in class, take on freelance game development projects, and keep to herself. After two years of this, she was so lonely she was on the verge of dropping out of school. That is, until she saw this shy, goofy, disheveled kid coming across campus, hauling a cello case on his back. It seemed two sizes too big for him. Meera thought him cuter than any puppy she’d ever seen. She didn’t waste time. She stood right in his path until he, oblivious to what was going on, almost crashed into her. His name: Norwood T. Rossiter IV, “Nobby” to his friends. Brilliant and even more talented than Meera in his own way, he was otherwise almost her exact opposite. Very shy. Very quiet. Totally disorganized. Incurably shaggy. Illiterate in anything technological. Focused on music written 300 years ago and ignorant of music that Meera loved. And able to count founding fathers as ancestors, Nobby’s family was bemused by Meera and figured it wouldn’t last. On hearing about Nobby, Meera’s family ordered her home where she was to stay in her room until she came to her senses. It had never dawned on them that, unlike her dutiful sisters, Meera would fall for a non-Desi. Or that she would not give him up. Meera never did what she was told. And this time was no different. Now, three children and a very large house in Palo Alto later, it is seven-thirty in the morning and Meera is getting into an outrageously long stretch-limo and looking tough, dressed in one of her “killer” suits. There’s a meeting of her company’s executive committee, during which she will once again get her way, despite several nasty individuals who – like Meera’s parents – have no idea what they are in for. The nanny will see that the kids get to school. Nobby gets home tomorrow from his most recent European tour. Lately, he’s been getting rave reviews for his Prokofiev Cello Concerto, a piece that has been called, “rarely performed and deservedly so.”