100. Doris Clarkness, Sales Associate – Cosmetics

Doris tells everyone she loves her job. She isn’t kidding. You might not think so. She works in cosmetics at an upscale department store. Weekends and three days a week. She gets a salary and a commission. Doesn’t add up to much. Rent for an apartment she shares with two other women, food, an occasional night out at a movie, and bus fare.

For Doris it is more than enough. “I meet such interesting women. I could never be like them. They lead wonderful lives, know so much, are so good and kind to me. I could use more money. That would be nice but I am happy with what I have. I do what I want and no one tells me what to do.

And she is being absolutely honest when she says so. In a very real sense, it is beyond any job she could have hoped for. And for her, it is the height of glamor. And that part she really loves. She also loves helping the kind of people she imagines her customers are like.   She does not like trying to push customers into buying something they might not want or need. She hates her supervisors for making her do that. When they talk about sales goals, she gets anxious. So anxious that she sometimes goes into the ladies room to throw up. Despite all that, she always meets her goals.

Sometimes she goes well beyond what her managers expect from her. If asked how she does it, she always says, “I don’t know. People are nice to me, I guess.” There’s probably some truth in that. Over the years, Doris has attracted a loyal following of women and more than a few men who loved being waited on by her. When they come to the store, they call first to make sure Doris is there. And, if she’s waiting on someone else when they come to her counter, they quietly wait until it is their turn.

It’s not that she uses cosmetics much herself. What she knows comes from a short course she took, nothing very extensive. Here success, such as it is, comes from how she treats her customers. Obsequious, yes. Deferential. Of course. They love that. But it is more than that. There is something about Doris. When you talk to her, you get the feeling she is letting you in on some kind of secret, something between the two of you that no one else knows about.

But they never know exactly what that secret might be. Myra’s sister, Zora, is always saying something nasty about Doris’s job. “How you put up with all that crap and those awful customers is more than I can imagine.”

Doris just smiles. No one knows and she is not about to let on.

Doris’s childhood was not a good one. She was a middle child. Denton, her older brother, was not a nice person. Nor was her mother, a genuinely nasty, self-absorbed woman constantly bossed Doris around and screamed whenever Doris, who was a bit clumsy as a child, dropped or spilled anything. Things got worse as Doris got older. By the time Doris was ten, her mother, who worked as a hair dresser, saddled her with most of the household chores. As soon as she got home from school, Doris washed all the lady’s breakfast dishes, made the beds, and vacuumed the front room. Then, she started dinner. She did her homework only after she’d cleaned up from dinner.

Doris never said much. And it didn’t matter whether she did or not. Her mother constantly told her, “Shut up if you know what’s good for you.” Doris became even quieter, after her younger sister was born. Zora became her mother’s pet. Doris was expected to clean up after Zora and to remain absolutely silent when Zora was sleeping.

One morning, Doris’s father left for work and never showed up at his job. He just disappeared. He was the only one in the family who seemed to show any interest in her. He would sometimes comb her hair or rub her back. After he disappeared, Doris seemed to disappear as well. She could go for days without saying more than a word or two. No one paid much attention. Certainly not her mother. This was made very clear when her breasts began to show. She was twelve the first time Denton raped her. Soon, it became a regular event – as often as Denton was able to buy a condom from a friend at school or to steal one from their mother’s supply – until Denton had an accident.

Doris’s mother kept a pistol in an unlocked drawer in her bedroom. “In case my husband, that bastard, ever comes back,” she said. “None of the kids knew it was there. Denton must have been snooping, found it, and accidentally shot himself.”

Two years after that, Doris left home. She got a job in a bakery, finished high school, and moved out with little more than the clothes on her back. Her mother was furious. “Who was going to do all the housework and cooking?” But there was nothing she could do. Doris was no longer a child and had found a place to live with a few other girls her age.

Then, Doris got married. Norbert was a good deal older, an electrician who thought he was the luckiest man in the world. “You may not think she’s gorgeous but I do. And she’s young and knows how to cook. She’s quiet though. I wish she’d laugh more.” That’s how he described her to Willy, his business partner. When Doris wanted to enroll in a cosmetology school, Norbert happily footed the bill.

But there were a few clouds on the horizon. One of them was children. He wanted them. She did not. A side issue was sex. After the first year with Norbert, she became increasingly unenthusiastic. And then, there was religion. He was deeply religious. Doris went the church on Sunday only because he did and he disliked that.

He drowned two years after they were married. They were on vacation and were out in a canoe in the evening. It was almost dark. She said he leaned over and the canoe tipped. She hung on to the canoe and called for help. He never came up.

It was hard to say just what happened. Norbert was known to be a good swimmer. He had been on the swim team in high school and had been a lifeguard at a local country club. It seemed that he may have hit his head when the canoe tipped.

Shortly after that, Doris got the job at the department store. She didn’t seem to mourn Norbert very much. A couple of people thought she almost seemed relieved. They didn’t know she and Norbert’s partner, Willy, had been meeting at least once a week for extended lovemaking sessions. Doris was terrified Norbert would find out. His death eliminated that concern. And no one seemed the wiser. Or interested.

That is, until they found her father. In a shallow grave in the woods near Doris’s childhood home. The axe was still stuck in the back of his skull.

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.”

78. Herman Dillington, Regional Planner

“At least he was good at it.”

“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.