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.”

85. Leonard Delgado, Detective

A Good Listener

Leonard never talked about his job. Of course, that’s just what everyone wants to hear about. And, to make matters worse, Leonard never has much to say about anything. Or has anything he necessarily wants to share. His wife, Linda, called him “The Grunt.” And she made grunt jokes. Which was fine with him. He was crazy about her. They married right out of high school. He continued on in school, first at a junior college and then at a state college where he got a degree in Government. She went right to work after high school, as a receptionist. To make ends meet while he was in high school and, then, in college, Leonard worked in a hardware store. When he graduated college, he went right into the police academy, got his badge and went to work as a patrolman. He drove a cruiser for five years, dealing with accidents, speeders, drunks, random burglaries, and assorted human failings. As soon as he was eligible, he studied to become a detective. By the time he made detective, he and Linda had two kids and she was beginning to make a little money as a real estate agent. Things were good. After being ten years on the force, Leonard made detective-sergeant. He was also gaining a lot of respect as a very effective investigator. And an excellent interrogator. If you asked him why he was so good at it, he’d say, “Who knows? I just do the job.” And then, he’d give his secret away: “What do you think? What would make a big oaf like me with half a brain any good at this business?” And then, he’d just listen.  And when you say something, he seems intensely interested and eager to hear more. More times than he can count, Leonard will patiently listen to a suspect until he’s got enough to bring charges without the suspect even knowing how it happened. Once he made sergeant, Leonard never wanted another promotion. Making captain would mean being an administrator. Not his thing. So, he settled into a job he loved and figured that’s where he’d be until retirement. He’d come home most nights in time to see the news and have a couple of pops, have dinner, and doze off watching sports or some movie on TV. All of which left Laura a little bored. It was fine when the kids were young but not so fine now the oldest, a girl, was starting law school and their little boy was in the Coast Guard. It helped that her days were busy. Her real estate career had blossomed beyond her wildest dreams. And she was meeting people she could never have imagined meeting, especially since she got involved with a residential design firm. That’s where she met Ricky, the brother of one of the women she worked with. It was one of those things that people fall into when they let themselves. They had almost nothing in common – she, a cop’s wife with limited education; he, a divorced architect and single parent with degrees in Art History from a big-name university and a graduate degree in Architecture from a school in Italy. Both of them knew that this was a bad idea. But there wasn’t a lot of hesitation or soul-searching for either of them. So, one minute they were exchanging pleasantries in a parking lot. And the next minute they were headed for a hotel room. And when the door to that hotel room door closed behind them, they couldn’t take their hands off one another. This was going on more or less constantly for about six months without Leonard having a clue. Laura figured that Leonard must know. After all, he’s a detective. And a good one. Despite the attraction she felt for Ricky, she loved and admired Leonard. And so, as the romance went on and deepened, she started feeling more and more guilty. One evening, she couldn’t stand it anymore and confessed. It was the same way a lot of people confessed to Leonard. She talked. He never said a word until she finished. When she was done, he said he wasn’t surprised. He explained that while he’d suspected nothing specific, he had noticed how cheery she seemed recently. It wasn’t like her. And then, he said, he understood and he forgave her. He loved her. And so, that was that. She and Ricky tapered off. Leonard tried to pay a lot more attention at home. He retired two years later, after which he and Laura decided to divorce. It was time.

84. Juanita Gorney, Content Creator

Juanita loves making an entrance. She’s shameless about it. And depending on the circumstance, it can involve a floppy, over-the-top outfit that can only be described as almost clown-like or, on the other hand, as ultimately soignée. Or it may be a knock-out all black sheath, bright red shoes, even more brilliant red lipstick, and black eye shadow. Or it can be as simple as a pratfall entrance into a crowded room, amplified by a flying Champagne glass. In short, Juanita come across as a bit of a character. She’s been called frivolous, an exhibitionist, superficial, an airhead. But, despite those bad reviews, there happens to be a very serious person behind it all. And also, a very serious marketing effort. Juanita makes a very nice living by playing the role that she has purposefully carved out for herself. She writes and stars in a weekly podcast that has close to half a million subscribers. She uses it to promote herself and her particular viewpoints on feminism, style, business, self-promotion, and sex, among other topics. She also appears on television as an expert on “self-branding” and business building. Then, there are lectures, seminars, and, most important of all, product endorsements. She claims that it all started for her when she got fired from her job at a high-tech gaming company. She got that job right out of grad school. Back then, she claims, she was a “mousy little thing,” a “geeky tech-nerd” with a talent for game development and programming, a penchant for hip-hop music, and a fascination with witchcraft. She had graduated high school a year ahead of her class and gone through college in three years. It was always clear that she was pretty smart. What was less clear was how shy and naïve she was back then. If she were interested in a boy (which was often), she would never let on. Too scared and socially inept. She says, back then, the idea of being attractive gave her the creeps. In fact, she says, “I made an effort to be as unattractive as possible. And apparently, I was pretty good at it, wearing these strange, baggy, usually all-black get-ups that made me look even skinnier than I really was. And I was pretty skinny when I was a kid.” She kept this up during and after college and also in grad school. “In a way,” she says, “‘the look’ helped to get me that first tech job. It marked me as a “true geek.” It also kept her a social outcast. That and a tendency not to look anyone in the eye and to mumble. And then, suddenly one day, it all went up in smoke. It turns out she wasn’t fired. She was attacked. Violently. An attempted rape. It happened in a company meditation room. On a workday. At mid-day. Initially overpowered, she fought back, kicked free, and ran screaming, out through the office, her clothes ripped, bleeding from her nose from being punched half unconscious. She made it to her car and was gone. She never went back. There was a hefty settlement. She brooded for a year, went back to live with her parents for a while, and, then, pulled herself together. It took time. How she went from spending days looking out the window in her childhood room to now is difficult to piece together. She got some counseling. She decided to change her look from weird to sort of “normal” which for her initially meant a sweat suit and high-fashion running shoes. She got some freelance jobs. She met a man, Paul, about ten years older than her. At some point, she says, she decided she’d been living an extended childhood before the attack and became an adult in the weeks and months after it happened. That’s when she started to write about growing up and anything else that struck her. Her therapist had suggested it. Paul encouraged it. At first, it was just for herself. But she started a blog. And one thing seemed to lead to another. Thinking back, she was very pleased with herself having fought off her attacker. “I guess I’m tougher than I’d have guessed.” And she found she liked being an adult. So, she wrote about all that. After a couple of years together, she and Paul broke up. She wrote about that. She met Andy and that was it. He was fun. And caring. And inventive. The blog turned into her now-famous podcast series, the lecture tours, the seminars, the TV appearances, and the endorsements. And who knows what else. There are going to be children.