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.”