Since the heart attack, Big Al hasn’t been the same. He’s had two other heart attacks, just minor ones, a couple of years back. They took him off the road. No more hitting one club after another for months at a time. But he could still play and he was able to work local a couple of nights a week. There were more than a few folks who thought he was the best clarinet player around. And he could always sub in on saxophone if he was needed. But the last heart attack was no fun at all. He couldn’t walk without a cane and had trouble catching his breath. And finally, after a life in the back seat of cars, on buses, and on trains, he was home for good. His wife was not too happy at first. Al had no idea what was going on when he was away. But Sandra wasn’t sitting around the house being lonely, not since the kids were out on their own. And what was going on while Al was on the road was plenty. But by the time he had his heart attack, she had enough of what she thought of as “wild nights.” At first, it wasn’t too bad. He was a week in the hospital. And when he came home, she had to be a fulltime caregiver for him. Al couldn’t do much himself except stagger to the bathroom. And he wasn’t used to being at home anyway. He just assumed meals got cooked by someone, like when he was on the road. And laundry somehow got done. And never mind cleaning up. All he knew how to do was make music, get paid, and send money home. His band got booked by some creep in New York. The travel arrangements got taken care of. He made music. That was it. No one expected more of him than that. And he was happy. He’d get home every couple of months, spend time with Sandy and the kids. Visit with a few old friends. And then, he’d be off again, sort of like a stray cat that stops by every now and then for a bowl of milk. When he was on the road, he’d do as he pleased. A woman here. A woman there. Sleep half the day, until it was time to play. Drink too much. Smoke weed. Have a few laughs. If he sat down and thought about it, he’d agree in two seconds, this was not a good way to live. But when he was on stage in a noisy room, playing like there was nothing else in the whole world – that made it all worth it. But after he got out of the hospital, sitting at home in a chair, unable to do much, he thought about killing himself. They told him he’d get better. “You just have to take it a bit easier. You’ll be out and about before you know it.” That’s what the rehab guy said. Al wasn’t buying it. He sat around feeling sorry for himself until Sandy told him to get off his ass and start living again. This was a couple of months after he landed in the hospital. She sent the caregiver away and told Al he was well enough and had to start taking care of himself. She had a life to live and he did too. Al learned how to do things around the house. And he started taking walks. Not far at first. Shambling along with a cane. He probably didn’t need the cane but he liked the idea of walking with it and using it as a prop. Not as good as a clarinet. But good for laughs he figured. He’d step out in the street and drivers seeing this old fool with a cane would jam on the brakes. He’d wave it around if he had a conversation with someone. Or use it to point out things. Then, he picked up a few gigs and the cane became part of the act. He had this funny, old hat he wore too. And after a while, he was back to his old life, if a less strenuous version of it. Which is how he started fooling around with this little gal who took a shine to him. And that is how Sandy, when she found out, said she had enough and told him to get out. She was bluffing but it scared the hell out of him. He begged her to take him back. She did. But with certain stipulations. So, in his old age, Big Al stopped the crap and became what he called “a gooder person.” In saying that, he usually added, “It’s them damn stipulations what’s done it.”
“I’ve taught every damn grade from kindergarten – even pre-K – through twelve. And most of the kids I’ve taught end up being my friend. For the last ten years, I’ve taught senior year English. It’s more a writing course than anything else. I have a reading list but that’s just to make sure they’ve got their noses into something decent to read. They watch a lot of junk on the internet. And they get ideas from video games. That won’t do for me. And I make them write a story every week. Not more than say 500 words. I’ve had parents tell me that’s too hard for their kid. I tell them, ’Crap. It doesn’t have to be great literature or something. Just a story. About anything.’ I’ve had a kid write a story about a bug. A bug! Can you believe it. It gets swatted at the end. I loved it. If course there are some kids who just ain’t going to anything no matter what. That’s when I tell them about my life and all the crap I went through to survive. And what I know about jail. And about getting shot. And what happens when the cops get pissed off for some dumb thing you did. And they get the feeling I know what I’m talking about. And maybe I know a thing or two. But no matter what I say, some kids just don’t give a crap and ain’t going to listen. Funny, these are the ones who come back to visit year after year. They talk about being in Mrs. Wickham’s class. I always tell my students they should never come back after they finish my course. Most – especially to ones who put out the work and wanted to learn – I don’t ever see again. They know better. I want them to move on. But some of them still stay in touch, one way or another. They send me things or send me notes. Sometimes I get amazing things, like news about a prize or a scholarship they’ve won. A couple have sent me books they’ve written. You have no idea what that does to me.”
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.”
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.
Twenty-five years after graduating business school, Sheila was between jobs. She had left one job to take another. But there was some sort of delay in when her new job would start. So, she did something she hadn’t done since graduation. She took a vacation. Not that Sheila could not have taken a vacation before. She just couldn’t get herself to do it. As she would readily admit, during much of her business career, she had been a bit of a workaholic and very much a control freak. And an anxiety junkie. “No one can figure out how to do my job. So, if I take time off, there’s just going to be double work and a big hassle when I get back. It’s just not worth it. And, anyway, I’d just worry all the time.” But somehow, being between jobs, things seemed different. So, after sitting around her apartment for two days, she packed a bag, got a cab, headed for the airport, and grabbed the first plane she could to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Sheila had no idea. Her friend, Christine, had been there and had what she called an “interesting time.” Sheila wasn’t sure what Christine’s “interesting time” might have been. Christine had always struck her as a bit odd and. anyway, didn’t seem too keen to explain. It turned out that Sheila had a terrific time in San Francisco. Not that she did anything much except wander and just look around. Sheila was like an invisible, visiting Martian, looking but not really touching. And after three weeks, she headed home, called her new job and told them that she needed to start as soon as possible. She had had about all the vacation she could stand. Or so she thought. Six months in to her new job, she quit. And, when they asked whether she was going to another company, she said, “No. Not going anywhere else. Nope. Nowhere else.” Everyone told her she was nuts. She had a great job. They loved her at her new company. And quitting seemed so self-destructive and out-of-character for her. Her friends and her human resource director pointed out, if you leave a job after six months, there’s no severance or anything. And it’s something hard to explain to anyone who might think about hiring you in the future. Her boss suggested that she take a couple of weeks off, get a physical, maybe see a therapist, and come back to start again. And like everyone else, her boss, who was genuinely concerned, asked, “What are you going to do?” But Sheila knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going on vacation. This time for good. Over the years, she had built up a decent pile of money. She had no obligations. No family. She did some figuring and budgeting and realized that she really didn’t need to work anymore, if she didn’t want to work anymore. And she didn’t. First off, she went to France. Paris. She liked it. She did pretty much what she’d done in San Francisco. She wandered around. Talked to hardly anyone. Came back three weeks later. Headed to Houston. Left after two weeks. Then, she went to Montreal. She met a man there. Stayed for two months. That, Sheila would agree, was “interesting.” But unusual for her. And never repeated. For the most part, wherever she went, she remained an invisible, visiting Martian, just wandering and looking. One vacation after another. But on one trip – her last trip, it turned out – something happened. She wouldn’t say what. But when she got back, she bought a house in a small town in Vermont. It was a sight-unseen, all cash sale. Locals thought her, “Friendly enough but not very talky.” After a while, she got to be known as the “flower lady,” because every spring and all through the summer and early fall she would wander around collecting wildflowers in an old basket. And then, one day, they didn’t see her for a while. Eventually, they found her and her basket where she had sat down to rest during one of her flower-gathering walks. Her eyes were closed. Done with wandering and looking.
“This has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world.” That’s what Roger, Herman’s cousin concluded after Herman described what he did for a living. “It’s just a lot of crazy people and spending time and effort trying to do stuff that ain’t never going to happen.” To which Herman kind of smiled with half-closed eyes and whispered, “Yup.” Herman reacted that way to a lot of things. It was easier that way. Herman is a big guy, one of those people who doesn’t say much and who seem to be somewhere else a lot of the time. Anyway, that conversation was five years ago. Herman hasn’t seen Roger since because their talk happened about a week before it all went off the rails. Back then, Herman was Director of a 50-person regional planning department for a large midwestern state. His department dealt with issues like the location of a new shopping center, the impact of diverting a small creek on a wetland area. Or evaluating the effect of a new public works project on traffic flow. He got the job through political connections. And it suited him. He never got rattled when people got all hot and bothered, screaming and yelling, threatening law suits, or worse during planning meetings or public hearings. And within his department, he was a respected leader. Things could get stressful but the job was secure enough and if it didn’t pay all that well, there were a lot of benefits. He had a nice home, a wife, and two kids. In his community, he was somebody. But the thing about Herman is that while he might seem to be somewhere else when you talk with him, he really is in a way. That’s because, deep down, he sees himself as a complete fraud, his whole career built on good luck and deception. Others in his department had advanced degrees in economics, design, sociology and urban planning. There’s even a Ph.D. in anthropology. They deserved to be there. A Physical Education major in college, Herman never took a course in regional planning or anything related to it. He didn’t graduate either. Flunked out. Herman got his job through his childhood friendship with his state’s governor and on his ability to get on with people. His previous jobs were in sales. As he saw it, he was nothing but a faker and glad-hander. A pretender. And he went through every day fully expecting to be exposed and chased out of the building. So, when some irregularities in his expense accounts and a few ill-considered acceptances of gifts – including a paid vacation for his family – came to light, he figured his best bet was to resign before he became an embarrassment. Which he did. And which led him into a deep depression. He couldn’t see his way forward. He couldn’t see himself going back to selling stuff. And he expected that his career in regional planning was over. He was terrified. Even suicidal. But a few weeks after he resigned, he got a phone call. It was from a large, highly respected architectural and urban planning consulting firm. They needed a front man, someone who knew how to attract and manage clients. They had their eye on him for years. They knew all about him and his background. It took a big chunk of his adult life, but, right then and there, Herman was beginning to understand that if he were a fraud, at least he was good at it.