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.”
Back then, it would have been really easy to say, “I hate my life.” But given how rich my parents were, it would have been not just ungrateful but obnoxious. And I was obnoxious enough as it was. When my parents were alive, I was the cliché of the little rich kid: bratty, imperious, just plain nasty, but also lonely and emotionally needy. I was and still am pretty sure I was the result of a drunken accident. Not wanted. An inconvenience. My parents were terrible at being parents. I had nannies, tutors, and companions until they shipped me off to school. And once that happened, I’d only see my parents when they flew me to wherever they were having fun, having flings, drinking much too much. Daddy was really smart, made piles of money in real estate and in finance. Mommy was an ornament. If they weren’t killed in that car crash, they surely would have divorced. I grew up with almost no one I could feel close. I had no sense of direction. When I got to the very prestigious boarding school they dumped me in, I was disobedient, disruptive in class, and nasty, convinced the school was a dumping ground for unwanted children or a prison. I was not popular. But after a while, things got better. what saved me from being a total slug was the brains I inherited from Daddy. Despite myself, I began reading everything I got my hands on, loved math, wrote poetry, and found myself in one advanced class after another. I graduated high school at 16 and went on to what can only be described as an exceptional college career. I graduated magna cum laude and was supposed to started on an advanced degree. But right after I graduated college – the very next week, in fact – Mommy and Daddy had their car accident. And things got very weird very fast. I needed to grow up fast. Daddy had named me not only as his sole heir but also head of all the businesses he owned, companies I knew nothing about. Most of the people involved in those companies – almost all overbearing men with loud voices – were lying bastards out to steal what they could from me. To them, I was this dumb, naïve kid, a nuisance who stood in the way of their getting whatever they wanted. In a few cases, “whatever they wanted” was me in bed with them. Some seemed fatherly, supportive, and helpful. They were the worst. My graduate school plans went out the window. And my personal life, what little there was of it, went to hell. No big deal. Men found me attractive enough; both my parent had been very good looking. But most of the boys I was in school with saw me as standoffish, stuck-up, and intimidating. I had better grades than any of them. And I pushed buttons too. Like it wasn’t smart of me to think I could attract boys by driving around in a Mercedes sports car. And I was a smarty pants who was a pretty good tennis player. So, I tended to end up with jerks conceited enough to think they were hot stuff. Some were pretty good looking and amusing but that was it. I dated one or another of them from time to time. Nothing serious. And that all stopped when I had to get my head around the situation my father left me in and make sure everything was as it should be. It all took longer than I ever expected. I had to learn stuff quickly and I did. But the business world wasn’t for me. Too many misogynists. Too much dumb stuff. I did not like being so tough. And I had to be a tough SOB from time to time. I turned everything into investments so I could do what I really wanted. And suddenly, there I was. I went back to school, got a Ph.D., got a job in a research company, met a guy at a conference and married him and started my own foundation. There’s a kid coming and I’m hoping we’ll be a better parent than the ones I had. Of course, it never hurts to have roughly one hundred million in the bank.
Randy is doing a lot better in life than he ever expected. He has a job he loves and pays well enough. He’s got a very nice family: a very nice and helpful wife. Two good little kids, two boys. Even a dog that never barks except when there is a problem. Like the time someone tried to break in. He’s a sculptor and he’s in some of the best galleries he could want. But despite all that, somethings always eating him. He has this sneaky feeling it is all going to collapse and he’ll end up on the street. His thinking is there is no reason he should be doing so well other than dumb luck. And easy come, easy go. His family growing up was poor and pretty much uneducated, at least about the art world. They still think what he does isn’t really real. “A flash-in-the-pan” is how his mother put it when the local newspaper did a full page on Randy and his work. “Don’t go getting some big ideas. When those fancy artsy types catch on, they’ll drop you like a hot brick.” Randy’s wife keeps telling him to ignore that kind of stuff. Still, it always got to him. He went to a shrink for a while. But the shrink didn’t get it. He told Randy to have faith in himself and, anyway, he had plenty of money in the bank and, if he needed to, he could always get a job teaching. Randy started doing a lot of staring out the window and making a lot of small, tortured sculptures. And for a while, Randy started staying away from his studio. He was on a road trip with his pal, Franky, when he got news about a new show. In Paris. A big deal. Just six months away. Half the pieces would be from inventory, Randy’s London gallery had already presold all but two of them. But four or five new major pieces would be needed. Suddenly, Randy was back in the saddle, making stuff; in the studio working away almost around the clock. He denies it but his wife swears he was singing and dancing when, one day, she came by with sandwiches for lunch. When someone said, “Sounds like fun afternoon,” she blushed, chuckled to herself, and agreed.
“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.”
“I’d be a whole lot happier if I were an auto mechanic.” Arno tells that to anyone after he’s had a bit of Bourbon. He invariably goes into all the reasons why. “What I do is a high wire act and the wire breaks more often than I like. There’s a lot of stress. And a lot of times when there are people coming to me with something bad and I can’t do a thing for them. I don’t know what’s worse, a patient dying on me – either on the table or after I’ve worked on them – or when I have to tell them, I can’t help them. A car, you junk it and get a new one if you can’t fix it.” But, in the end, that’s all a bunch of crap. Arno loves being a high wire act. He loves the danger. The idea almost no one else can do what he does. The gratitude he gets when he performs what some would call a miracle. Just think about what he does for fun. There’s the sky diving and the flying a stunt plane. And sailing across the Atlantic by himself on a 30-foot sailboat. And when he’s not complaining about not being an auto mechanic, he can be more that a bit of a pompous ass. When he gets a chance to go at a captive audience, like at a dinner party. Or when having a drink with his operating room crew, he loves to go on about a subject he thinks he knows a lot about. Some battle in the 100 years war. French painting in the mid-19th century. Is he impressed with himself? You bet. Was that why his third wife – and the two before her – left him? Could have been a bunch of reasons but that was probably one of them. We don’t know for sure. Arno is pretty mum about his private life when he wants to be. Every now and then, though, something surfaces. It usually involves a very bright, very intense, athletic woman, at least 20 or 25 years younger than Arno, someone who could almost be his daughter. Once it was someone his daughter’s age, her college roommate. These adventures usually end in a fiasco. As bright and clever as Arno is, he can be a jerk about this sort of stuff. It’s got him into trouble at work too. In the old days, even five years ago, he could get away with it. Even his wives usually looked the other way. The thinking was: this guy is so good at saving lives, we will have to forgive him his stupidities. Not anymore. He’s been warned and, lately, he seems to be settling on an older woman who may just terrify him. Not that she’s big and muscular. She keeps herself slim and trim but dresses fairly modestly. But she’s smarter than him and he knows it. She calls him an idiot when he behaves badly, tells him to knock it off when he starts pontificating, and otherwise sets him straight, when necessary, while telling him it is for his own good. And he knows that’s true. He also knows that if he were to be fired for some dumb behavior, he would be emotionally devastated, likely clinically depressed, even suicidal. “After all, how many years of practice do I have left? At my age, a ten-hour surgery almost kills me. It is physically a killer. And it just drains you. So, for the next couple of years, I better listen and do what I’m told. But it still pisses me off.”
When Dennis was twelve years old, he saw his first porn movie. His eyes just about popped out of his head. This was a long time ago. It was a videocassette that his friend, Dexter, found in the back of a closet when Dexter’s older brother went back to college. When Dennis got over his first reaction to what had up until that moment had been beyond anything he might otherwise have imagined, he said, “I just figured out what I want to do for a living.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing, including Dexter’s sister, Maddy, and her friend, Grace. Dennis was a short and pudgy kid with curly hair and thick glasses. He was laughing too. He was always coming up with stuff like that, sort of self-deprecating but in a confident way. He liked getting laughs and did what he thought he had to do to get them.
It did not hurt that he was not only short, pudgy, and bespectacled, but also very cute, at least in the eyes of some young ladies, including Grace. Both being twelve at the time of the “the great porn video” as it became known, she kept this to herself. And for his part, Denny wouldn’t know what to do with Grace’s interest in him in any case.
Anyway, the story about Dennis’s “career plans” got around. Dennis was and is one of those people everyone likes. Kids started calling him “Porn King.” Dennis would do a little hip wiggle and everyone would laugh. Dennis was not exactly class clown, his grades and his presidency of the debating society precluded that. But he loved entertaining and the attention that went with it. With little or no musical ability, he started a band with a couple of friends. They called it the Porn Kings. They weren’t very good and Dennis was the worst. It was clear from the start; Dennis and the electric guitar were never to get along.
And it was all great fun until Dennis’s parent got wind of it. His father was president of his synagogue, a highly respected executive, a philanthropist, and a pillar of the community. In Dennis’s adolescent eyes, this made him a “sell-out.” Lovable and caring but nonetheless, a sell-out. From Dennis’s viewpoint, his mother was even worse. She constantly talked about making a good impression and doing the polite thing. So, when his parents sat him down and told him this “Porn King” or “Porn Kids” or whatever, was to stop and right now, Dennis went from a kid enjoying a long-running joke into his idea of a revolutionary. He had no choice, of course, but to do as they said. He was after all a semi-pubescent twelve-year-old facing down a bar mitzvah, an event he saw as something like a freight train coming down a track with no one at the controls. And Dennis was no fool. He knew his range of options as a junior high school kid was severely limited. no matter how bright and brash. Or how revolutionary he imagined himself.
Most of all, though, Dennis knew the future would be his if only he had the patience to wait. And the brains to keep his ideas to himself. He’d be a good boy. He would do an outstanding job with the bar mitzvah and his parents would be pleased. He would get good grades and limit his jokes to more “acceptable” subjects, and more or less behave himself.
His immediate goal was to spend more time with an English teacher. After that, it was to soften up his parents for a car when he turned sixteen, a birthday that was almost four years away. The English teacher was a “hottie” according to Dennis, a viewpoint he would not share with anyone, as much for her sake as for his. His real interest though was her encouragement with his writing and interest in literature. She said she saw something in his imagination and in the way he expressed himself in writing. He was also intrigued by her reading suggestions. She would mention books most kids his age knew nothing about. They covered an enormous range, some classics, some obscure and very contemporary. Some had sex in them. And foul language. Dennis didn’t care about that, except to make sure his parents didn’t get wind of anything not quite acceptable. Reading what his parents might see as smut would dampen his chances when it came to getting a car at sixteen. Dennis might look like a funny, innocent kid but as friend said on national television many years later, “Denny is always figuring about ten moves ahead of anyone else. When it comes to covering all the angles, I’ve never seen anyone better. And I’ve known him since we were kids.”
The bar mitzvah went off without a hitch. The rabbi said Dennis was one of the best. His Hebrew was flawless and he spoke it with real feeling. His parents were thrilled. As Dennis described it, “That day, maybe only that day, I could do no wrong. It was great.” And there were lots of presents, including a small pile of cash.
Afterward, there was a party with dancing and a fancy dinner at a country club. It was there when Grace, the girl who watched the porn video with Dennis and a few pals, pulled Dennis into a side room and gave him a kiss he would remember for the rest of his life.
It was something he kept to himself for years. He didn’t know what to make of it, at least not for a while. He really didn’t know Grace that well. She went to parochial school and, at the time, she stood a good six inches taller than Dennis. He knew if his parents found out about it, they would be mortified and definitely would have told him to stay away from her.
He didn’t get kissed like that again for some time. Four years to be exact. He would never admit it, even to himself, but well into his teens he was scared of having anything more than most superficial involvement with sex. He worried about his height and about being a little too pudgy. He worried he would do something stupid. He was terrified of being rejected or worse.
He had no idea what he’d do if he ever ran into Grace again. But there was no chance of that. When he asked about her, his pal Dexter said her family had moved clear across the country. And, anyway, she was going to go to a boarding school in Switzerland which his friend described as “a place for unruly girls.”
It never occurred to Dennis that most of the girls he knew or wanted to date were as scared of sex as he was. To him, they all seemed worldly-wise and totally disinterested in a him. That did not mean he stayed away from girls. Several were among his best friends. He was taking extra credit in creative writing and he was the only boy in the after-school class. He also joined his school’s Drama Club. He was just one of three boys who were members.
By the time he was fifteen, Dennis had formed an attachment or two. There was this one girl, Elinor, in the Creative Writing Club. She was also in his English Advanced Placement class. It seemed plain to Dennis she considered him an idiot. She never smiled when he tried to talk to her. When he expressed an opinion, she would ask where he got that idea, as if he had said one of the dumbest ideas in all of human history. She was also clearly the brightest kid in a class of very bright kids. There was this rumor about her asking to get full credit for French. It seems when she met with the head of the school’s French Department and two instructors, she spoke only French and refused to speak English. Her parents spoke French at home. Her mother grew up in France. They gave her the credit she wanted.
She wasn’t what you might call pretty but Dennis could not take his eyes off her. Most other kids thought her weird or “no fun.” They said she wore odd clothing – always dark stuff, long skirts or floppy pants. Her black hair covered her face. She did not hang out with any of the popular girls. When Dennis asked one of them about her, she said, “Elinor is always reading. She got out of gym with some doctor’s excuse. She never says anything except in class. The teachers all love her.” Dennis liked that she was different. He just didn’t know what to do or think about her. He tried to be friendly. He didn’t get much of a response. And so, he didn’t do anything. Not then, anyway.
Dennis turned sixteen during the summer vacation between his sophomore and junior year of high school. It was the summer his folks got him a car. They had to admit, he had been a very good boy. He got good grades, did what he was told for the most part, and made them proud. Instead of hanging out at his parent’s country club going nuts over girls at the swimming pool, he got a job writing a “High School Daze” column for the local newspaper. It didn’t pay much. But it was something. He had pitched the idea for the column on his own when he was in the middle of his freshman year and the editor bought it.
By the beginning of his junior year, Dennis had written at least thirty “High School Daze” columns for the local newspaper and interviewed dozens of people. He’d gotten a bit of a following and high marks from his editor. “Dennis, you are getting really good at writing and I happen to know you’ve increased our readership. Not bad for a sixteen-year-old punk!” In short, Dennis would continue writing for the paper during his junior year and, who knows, beyond. Right through college, it turned out, and until the paper folded.
So, a car. A job he liked and was good at. Dennis was feeling pretty good about himself. There were only two things bothering him. His father’s career concerns. And that girl, Elinor. Why did she think he was such a jerk?
His father was easy. He didn’t think the cub reporter idea was so hot. “This isn’t a career, right? Maybe next year you’ll get a job at the plant and learn about manufacturing management.” Dennis’s father said the same thing about the Drama Club. “You aren’t thinking about being an actor are you, Dennis? Not smart.” Dennis explained he had played just one small role and wasn’t very good at it. What he liked was making plays happen. All the financial stuff. And creating and managing the promotional program. “Nope, I like the business part. Figuring out what play will sell. The publicity, getting the tickets sold, making money for the Drama Club. That’s the part I like. Same thing with the newspaper.” Dennis didn’t say anything about dreading the idea of learning how to run a factory. One thing Dennis learned early in life: Don’t say anything about anything if you don’t know how the conversation is going to go.
And the Elinor issue turned out to be “no biggy” either. First chance he got as his junior year began, he asked her, “Why do you think I’m some kind of jerk?”
She looked surprised. “What are you talking about? Where’d you get that idea?”
“Well, when I try to even just say ‘hello,’ you look at me like ‘Go away.’”
“I do. I don’t mean to. I guess because I was reading or something and maybe that’s how I look. I shouldn’t. I like you. I like when you are around. I listen to what you say in class. It makes me think. So, if I did look annoyed, I’m sorry.” She gave him a little smile. And blushed.
Dennis was totally freaked out. All he could say was, “Oh, OK.”
That year they sat next to each other in Advanced Placement English. They sometimes talked after school. It wasn’t dating or anything like that. They shared an interest, books. A couple of times, they went to a museum together. Once, when a school play rehearsal ran long, Dennis drove her home in his car. But that was it. Anyway, Dennis was dating Henrietta, a girl his parents liked. She was pretty and bubbly. And very polite. As his parents saw it, Henrietta was the sort of girl Dennis should like. And one of his jobs in dating her was to help out her parents and convince her to go to college. She wanted no part of it. She wanted to go to secretarial school and get a job.
The last thing Dennis had in mind was to convince her to go to college. She was fun. She liked going out. She was a good kisser. She knew just how to twist her parents around her finger. While Dennis was pretty good about getting what he wanted from his parents, he was in awe of Henrietta’s ability in that area. She could get just what she wanted from her father. He was also in awe of her resistance to being serious about anything.
Certainly, she wasn’t serious about Dennis. She was dating other boys while she was dating him. He knew it and wasn’t bothered by it. It did not bother him much either when she dropped him. Dates with her were expensive. And, after a while, a little boring.
It was also a relief not to pretend to Henrietta’s parents – and to his own parents as well – about how he was convincing Henrietta to go to college. He always felt guilty about that. “What was I going to say? ‘I never even tried. But making out with Henrietta was fun.’”
His parents got it all wrong. They assumed the “breakup with Henrietta would leave Dennis heartbroken. Dennis went along with it. He told them, “it was hard but I will learn from it.” He did not say what he actually learned: Stay away from air-heads. Nor did he let on that on to no longer having to pretend about getting Henrietta to go to college, he would be able to spend more time and attention to his newspaper columns and to working with the Drama Club. And he did not let on it meant he could spend more time with Elinor.
Dennis knew his parents would not care for Elinor. She was too reserved. She was too intellectual. She was unconventional and very independent. And she was not Jewish. Some kind of Protestant. But since Dennis asked why she thought he was a jerk, they had become good friends. As the weather warmed towards the end of their junior year of high school, they’d go on rides in his car. Or sit after school and argue about a book or an author.
Another thing his parents got wrong; the idea Dennis was looking forward to spending the summer between is junior and senior year working in his father’s factory. To Dennis’s relief his father had left his job running the plant and taken a job with a large consulting firm. There had been some argument at the plant. The consulting firm had been after Dennis’s father for some time. There would be a lot more money coming in. When his father sat him down to explain the situation, he apologized about Dennis’s not being able to work at the plant during the summer. Dennis said he understood and would make do writing newspaper columns. He was getting very good at being taciturn.
When their junior year of high school year was over, Elinor and Dennis kept up the friendship. All very casual. They spent a lot of time talking about the columns Dennis was writing for the local paper. Could they become a book? They went swimming once. They visited bookstores. They traded books. They were pals. Dennis even told her about that porn video he had seen years ago and how his junior high friends back then called him “Porn King.” Elinor laughed so hard, she had a coughing fit.
And the summer sort of breezed along. Until the first week of August. It was on a Tuesday. Dennis and Elinor were going to drive to a picnic spot they liked. Dennis picked her up at her house. About ten minutes into the trip, Elinor said, “Dennis, instead of going to the park, why don’t we go back have our picnic in my backyard. No one’s home. My parents are in France. I’ll make lemonade. We can sit out back. It’s quiet and cool.”
So, they turned around. When they got to Elinor’s house and he was parking out front, she said, “No, don’t park here. Pull in the driveway. Go right in the garage. The neighbors can be nosy.”
They went in the back door of the house. Elinor made lemonade. Then, she and Dennis went back outside. There was a nice table with an umbrella in the backyard and they sat there and talked. Dennis still remembers that table and umbrella, even now, after so many years. And how nice it was to sit there talking.
And, suddenly, in mid-sentence, Elinor said, “Dennis, I need to tell you something. My parents are in France because we are going to move there. In a week, I think. Maybe sooner. And I don’t think we’ll be back. Not ever.”
Dennis was stunned.
He was stunned even more by what she said next, “So, I’m thinking what we should do, while we have the chance, is to go upstairs to my room and make love. Do you think we should? I think we should.”
And they did. When Dennis left it was late in the afternoon. They kissed and cried.
They did not see one another again until Dennis walked into a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He was with one of his authors. They were going to discuss the budget for an upcoming book-tour, the possibility of an appearance on a late-night talk show, and an advance he was going to pitch on the author’s next book. They were old friends. The plan was to do some business, have one drink too many, and have some laughs. And there she was. Sitting at a table toward the back of the restaurant.
When Dennis saw Elinor in that restaurant on a very ordinary and early afternoon, it was like nothing else he had ever experienced. He still can’t describe how he felt or recall what they said to one another or to those who were with them. “I never felt that way until that moment and I haven’t ever felt that way since. It was like, kaboom, my whole world started to spin. With joy? With regret? I don’t really know. All I know is I was so happy to see her.”
Elinor didn’t see Dennis at first. She was in a deep conversation with the people at her table, an older man, and two young women. The older man happened to look up and saw a short, slightly chubby, balding man, maybe in his early fifties, wearing a dark suit, striped shirt, and tie, staring at their table. He gestured to Elinor who turned around, took one look, and made a sound sort like a squawk.
Elinor stood up so fast that her chair fell backwards and took a step toward Dennis, one hand outstretched. He reached out. Their hands barely touched. Dennis said, “It’s been so long. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Did you get my note? I taped it on the front door. I didn’t know what to think when you didn’t try to reach me. I thought that you didn’t want to see me anymore.”
“Note? No.” Dennis explained how he stopped by Elinor’s house as soon as he could the next day, to say “goodbye” again and find out how to reach her and found the house being emptied out by a storage company. There was no note and the furniture movers didn’t know where anyone was.
Elinor said her parents had plane tickets delivered to her just after Dennis left on that late afternoon so long ago. They were for the next morning. A car would pick her up at seven o’clock. She said she called Dennis’s house and spoke to Dennis’s mother, saying Dennis should call immediately. Dennis said his mother never said a word about Elinor’s call.
Thinking back, Dennis said it was the most emotional moment of his life, even more emotional than the trauma of when they found his drowned wife’s body on the beach. Elinor had a similar reaction. She said she thought she might faint.
But there were people with them. Dennis’s author and Elinor’s three people – He was a professor; the two young women were graduate students. Dennis and Elinor explained they were high school friends who had been close a long time ago. And as the two of them explained themselves, some practicalities began butting in. Elinor’s party was supposed to be getting ready to leave the restaurant. The waiters needed to clear their table for the next party. Elinor had a train for Boston to catch. She had a lecture to deliver that night in Cambridge. And the next day, she was expected to fly home to France. She had two sons to attend to. And the only thing Dennis could think of saying was, “I need to talk. I could be in Cambridge tomorrow. I went to college there.”
Elinor explained her every minute was scheduled until she caught her flight. And she had to catch that flight. So, they did the only thing they could at that moment; they exchanged emails, street addresses and phone numbers. They hugged one another, and promised to get in touch. And then, Elinor was off for her train and Dennis for his author’s lunch. The author recalls Dennis as being completely distracted and promising to get a larger than expected advance for the new book they were discussing.
This time Dennis and Elinor were able to stay in touch. Reams of emails. Phone calls. But they were both busy people with very different lives to live. Dennis was transitioning into more senior management roles in his literary agency. There were trips back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. There were movie deals. Even a videogame deal. Elinor was teaching three courses in Comparative Literature. And writing her second book on Mallarme. She talked about what she called a “disheveled personal life.” How she didn’t seem to get along with either of her two former husbands. About the affair she had with a graduate student.
This went on for three years. “It would be great to see you again” was a regular comment. But something always got in the way. Much later, both admitted they were terrified, she more than he. So much time had passed. They really hadn’t spent much time together when they were kids. And, as Elinor kept reminding Dennis, they really had been kids when last they were together. “I’m an old lady now. I’m not so easy to be with. You won’t like me. Do you realize how many years it’s been? We have careers. We’ve both had lives. I’ve been through divorces. It wasn’t always the husband’s fault.”
Until, Dennis sent an email, “Enough is enough. I am going to be in London for a deal. And then, I am taking the train over to Paris. And when I get there, we are going to have lunch. I don’t care what you have going on. If I have to, I’ll hang around until you have some time. And then, we are going to talk.”
They had a lovely lunch. They talked. And laughed. And talked. Until late afternoon. And the next day. It took a while. And Elinor was right – it took some adjusting. But they managed. The conversation they restarted during a chance encounter in a crowded Manhattan restaurant kept going. They are still talking. And they don’t plan on stopping.
Things are calmer now. Which makes Lonny jittery. Nothing serious, just a background jitteriness. It always happens after he finishes a picture or a project. Or after a gallery show closes. It’s like when the wind stops and everything is oddly still. And the feeling won’t leave him until he starts doing something new. Until a schedule sets in and there is something urgent. People don’t realize this about him. Or maybe they don’t realize this about people in creative fields generally. If he isn’t working on something, he gets itchy. It is sort of like a shark. Sharks need to keep moving or their drown. Lonny explains it by declaring himself “…a well-known nut case.” He’s been a “nut case’ as far back as he can remember. And certainly, as far back as his big sister, Carol, can remember. “I was two years ahead of him in school and the teachers loved me. I always sat up front. I always paid attention. I behaved. I got good grades. My homework was always neat and handed in on time. Teachers would say I must have a wonderful family to have a little girl who was so good. So, my little brother came as a rude shock to them, especially for the first-grade teacher who had expected another ‘exemplary’ Driscoll child. They had no idea.” Lonny could not sit still. He could not pay attention. He was messy. Never turned in any homework. Ended up staying after school a lot. Got the attention of guidance counselors. And to make matters worse, he seemed oblivious to it all. In his own world.
At family gatherings or at reunions with old friends, when she’s had maybe a glass or two of white wine, Carol loves to remind everyone about her brother’s childhood antics. “It was one calamity after another. It made my mother crazy. And, of course, I thought it was great. He was the bad boy and I was the angel. I could do no wrong.” Lonny usually pretends this isn’t happening: He’s never liked being talked about. He dreaded having to sit there while his sister gleefully went on, trying to smile, and being mortally embarrassed the whole time. His childhood is a definite sore point for him. He could never figure out why he was so restless and distracted as a kid. But then, he can’t figure out why he does the artwork he’s done all his adult life. He usually works in what he calls a “series,” one composition after another on a similar topic. Or with a single medium. He tries not to mind when a gallerist or a museum curator comes by to see what he has been doing or to figure out a theme for an upcoming show. They ask questions he has trouble answering. “What does this work mean to you?” “How does it fit into the ongoing zeitgeist?” “What is the core essence of your work these days?” “Which work do you like best?” Stuff like that. This also happens at gallery openings, when potential buyers ask questions. “What was your inspiration for this work?” is the most common question. Lonny’s honest answer is usually not too satisfying. “Not sure. Lines seemed interesting. And so, I drew them.” Or even worse,” “I had this mess of paint I had left over and so I started doing stuff with it.” These sorts of answers were not what Lonny’s gallerists wanted to hear from him. After all, gallerists and curators are highly educated professionals who spend a lot of time and effort arranging successful shows and fanning buyers’ interest. He or she has to bring a patron into the artistic process to create excitement and interest in buying. The artist is supposed to help create some of this excitement and interest. It’s show business. And, when it comes to show business, Lonny just fades. It’s the same thing when Carol is having a good time telling school-boy stories about Lonny. “He once got up and walked out of a Biology class when we were in high school. Right in the middle of the class. Didn’t ask permission to leave. Just got up and left. Didn’t say a word. Lonny, what was going on in your head back then?” If Lonny hadn’t already drifted out of the room when Carol asked a question like that, he would just shrug his shoulders, grin, and say, “Who knows? Maybe the class was boring. Or I thought the class was over. Or I thought the class should have been over.” So, over time, Lonny came up with a way around the problem. He couldn’t just drift out of the room during a gallery opening. Or duck questions. He started making stuff up. “I couldn’t get a certain image out of my head. It was from when I was a child. I had this horrible experience, walking home from school. It was a very large dog. It wouldn’t stop following and growling at me.” Or: “I was thinking about some Goya prints I saw when I was in Spain with my first wife. They made me so sad. And she didn’t get it. So, I was mad. Doing these paintings brought it all back.” None of that stuff was true. But it created a legend. When his first wife heard about some of the stories he made up about her, she let him have it. He made up a couple of stories about his sister too. “She once woke me up in the morning with a sharp pin. I couldn’t stop shaking for days. So, I drew these funny shapes which reminded me of what I thought I saw when she stuck me. My sister has an evil streak.” This sort of thing was just what gallerists and curators wanted but Carol was no more thrilled by it than was Lonny’s first wife. “By the way,” Lonny says, “My first wife is perfectly nice. Her name is Gloria. The trouble with our marriage, she was a grown up and was an immature jerk. I was an idiot. After our divorce, she married a dentist and they have three wonderful kids.” He was often a jerk with women when he was young. This started right from puberty onward. He couldn’t believe it when he ended having sex after a high school dance. He decided there must be something wrong with the girl involved and wouldn’t speak to her the next day. Later on, he couldn’t believe it when a smart, talented, and good-looking art student – his first wife – said she would marry him. About three years into their marriage, Lonny got a teaching assignment at a very highly regarded women’s college. The course was “Life Drawing.” The college was in a small, isolated village, deep in the mountains. Lonny started out shlepping up there three days a week. Back then, Lonny had long, wavy hair and was much better looking than he imagined himself to be. Several students expressed strong interest in a bit of fun with him. He had enough intelligence to stay well away from them but not from a secretary in the bursar’s office. His three-day college teaching junkets turned into week-long and then two-week-long visits. Gloria caught on and put an end to the affair and to Lonny. Confronted with more than an entertaining fling with the college’s “nut case” visiting artist, the bursar’s secretary had a panic attack and booted Lonny out. About then, winter descended on the college’s small, mountain village. Lonny was stuck with a dreadful bunch of amateur art students and snow until spring. “Served me right. What I did was as dumb as it gets. But I got a lot of work done while I was in what amounted to Siberia.” What followed was a year or two of laying low and growing up, both as a person and as an artist. As usual, several women were involved. His sister, Carol, managed Lonny’s business, making sure he was paid for sales and related activities, introducing him to the internet, and making sure his bills were paid. After college, she had taken an MBA, joined a major accounting firm, and, later, been hired by a tech company. She worked her way up to corporate comptroller. She knew how to run things. In addition, Lonny had a very productive collaboration with a lesbian couple, a sculptor and her husband, a highly respected professor of fine art. It resulted in several lucrative joint exhibits as well as some much-needed formal education for Lonny. There was a lot Lonny missed by not going to college. History, English literature, composition, social sciences, and Art History among other things. But before Lonny’s first wife and all those women, there had been a high school student in study hall who caught his eye. Lonny found out she belonged to the school’s art club. Wanting to get to know her, Lonny joined the art club and, while he almost immediately lost interest in her, he found his life-long vocation, making drawings and paintings. A year later, Lonny left high school. He knew he would never get into college. And he did not want to anyway. The idea of more classes struck him as a very bad idea. He started out working in a supermarket. But a couple of months later, his father got him a job helping an architect with renderings. Lonny loved it. It took him about a week to get up to speed but, almost immediately, it was clear Lonny knew what he was doing with both pencil and drawing pen. About six months in, his boss told him he had a natural talent, bought him a cheap easel, a few brushes, two small canvas boards, four tubes of cheap acrylic paint, and half a dozen brushes. Lonny took them home and put them in his closet. A week later, his boss said, “Lonny, if you don’t bring me a painting you did with the stuff I gave you, I’m going to fire your ass out of here.” Maybe for the first time in his life – at the age of eighteen – Lonny paid attention and got serious. He went home and, instead of going out and fooling around with a couple of friends, he went to work. He made two paintings that night. Still lifes of a tea set he swiped from his mother’s cupboard. The next morning, his boss said, “Lonny, these are not too crappy. But you should think about getting some training. You could be good, despite yourself.” Lonny began learning his trade by taking studio courses at a local junior college. He vividly recalls signing up for a class for the first time. “It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it: there I was, in a school, talking to some faculty person, paying money, and getting a class schedule. Definitely weird.” If he couldn’t believe he had actually enrolled in a class, he also couldn’t believe, at the end of his first class, he would be looking forward to the next class. The only problem was the other people in the class. The class met for three hours, twice a week. The instructor would set up a still life with pots and pans, a variety of crockery, and household utensils. The students’ task was to make a still-life based on all this stuff. All this struck Lonny as pretty silly. He made what he thought was a goof of the whole thing, painting a semi-abstraction of the instructor’s pots and pans. He had no idea what he was doing and had no intention of being serious. His classmates complained, “Your painting doesn’t look like it is supposed to look. You left a lot of stuff out. Those colors aren’t the right ones.” Lonny just laughed and said, “So what? I paint the way I want.” One or two said it wasn’t right to make fun. And more than one or two got really annoyed when the instructor praised Lonny. “Really interesting work. Where’d you get the idea to paint like that? I hope you are going to continue in this class and we’ll see what other stuff you can do.” Most of the students were older men, retirees, who tried hard to make very realistic paintings. They decided Lonny was just a smart-ass kid who was one of those guys who make “those awful modern paintings because they don’t want to do the work to make a good painting.” But there was also a woman in the class – in her mid-forties. She liked Lonny’s work, took him under her wing, and encouraged him. And she was interested in more than Lonny’s artwork. One night, after class, she took Lonny home with her and gave him lessons in life beyond anything his still innocent mind could have imagined. So, this relatively pedestrian class proved an eye-opener for Lonny in more ways than one. Six months later, a major art school had Lonny enrolled in a special program with a full scholarship. Shortly after arriving, he was linked up with an international art gallery. And for the next ten years, he was their golden boy. In the middle of this period was when he married to his first wife and, all too quickly, found himself divorced. His breakup with his first wife put a crimp in things for a while. He felt terrible that he had betrayed her. But it was temporary and the work he made afterwards set him and his reputation in a new direction, figuratively and literally. He was on a fellowship in Italy when he met his second wife, Gianna. “This, he loves to say, “is a woman with a bizarre sense of humor. She is the most intelligent and sophisticated person I have ever met. And a total knockout. What she sees in me is one of the great mysteries of my life.” He always says this as a joke but he isn’t kidding. Like most folks who create things from essentially nothing, who depend on an innate hard-to-explain something – something mysterious even to themselves – he has serious doubts about himself and, more to the point, about the worth of his talent and the worthiness of the praise his work receives. Lonny only talks about it when he’s had a couple of drinks and then, only with a few close friends who are, like him, in the arts. Some of them had been to therapists when these doubts got in the way of their performance. “Someday, people are going to catch on and the jig will be up. We’re all a bunch of hopeless frauds.” When Lonny says this sort of thing and Gianna is around, she laughs and tells him, “As long as you do the cooking, I think I’ll keep you.” She is an economist and makes money trading obscure financial instruments. But she knows what Lonny does is as much a high-wire act as is her penchant for making what others see as risky investments. “He starts out with a big white space – a canvas or sheet of paper – and a loaded brush or pen. And who the hell knows what’s going to happen next? But, somehow, something good almost always does.” When their kids got old enough to draw, Lonny wouldn’t let them. “This is a business I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When I look back, I shouldn’t be here. It’s a complete fluke. Pick another way to make a living.” Ciara, the oldest, ended up a successful set designer. Henry, two years younger than Ciara, is an attorney but has what Lonny calls “…a scary tendency to draw stuff.” Henry talks about quitting his job in a big-time Swiss law firm and ‘doing a Gaugin.’” It is something Lonny doesn’t think is so funny. “He thinks this business is fun. He couldn’t be more wrong.” Recently, Lonny gave a long interview to a reporter from one of those glossy art periodicals. It was titled “Looking Back: Lonny Driscoll at 84.” It could have been a warning to anyone thinking of a creative career but it was really aimed at Henry. “I was lucky, Lonny was quoted as saying. “If it weren’t for Gianna and my big sister, I’d probably been dead years ago or maybe working in a grocery store, stocking shelves. Every one tells me how privileged I am to work at something I love – to be able to share what’s in my inner soul – or some such crap. They don’t get it. This is a line of work I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is completely insecure, lonely, and – on top of that – boring. People are incredibly cheap when it comes to buying artwork. Most ask if I could do something for them for free. After all, they say, doing artwork is so much fun. And they look at you like some kind of freak or trained monkey. ‘Do something creative.’ You are supposed to be some kind of late-stage hippy or something. Like you get inspirations from meditation or maybe drugs. Coming up with new stuff all the time is no piece of cake. People think it’s all ‘inspiration.’ It ain’t. I never have inspirations. I just pick up a brush and start working. Like the man said, ‘If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you end up with nothing.’ I may have some Bourbon a couple of times a week before dinner but I never ever tried drugs. You can’t do good work loaded. At least, I can’t. And yoga or meditation is just a waste of time. Religious crap. Simple fact is I do what I do because I can’t do anything else. If I could, I would. And don’t think you can do this stuff as a sideline. Some people do. I tried it. Doesn’t work for me. And probably not for others when it comes right down to it. So, don’t even try. This is a killer business. Stay out of it.” But, in the same article, Lonny was also quoted as saying, “I just finished a new series of drawings I’m really excited about them. The funny thing is they look a lot like the stuff I used to do in high school, back when I didn’t know any better. Some collector bought the lot. I’m getting itchy sitting around now. I’m ready to do something new. I’ve just came across some old oil color tubes I’d forgotten about. Maybe I’ll do something with them. Who knows? I’m not done yet.”
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.”
“The best thing about organic farming is having good meals all the time.” Dave is a true believer. It is quite a change for him. If you ran into him 25 years ago, you’d likely find him enjoying a very large steak in a very expensive restaurant in a very large city. Back then, he was a senior vice president heading the law department of one of the country’s leading financial services companies. It was a career his whole life had prepared him for. He was the oldest child of four. Dave was always a very good student, belonged to a “very respectable” fraternity in college, and took an MBA at a well-known business school, after getting a law degree at a top law school. His father was an executive in a large pharmaceutical company. His mother trained as a nurse after graduating from a “society” college. She worked as a nurse for about a year until she married Dave’s father. After that, and until Dave was born, she volunteered at an old age home run by a local charity. Life for her after that was being a wife and mother, occasionally taking part in various golf club and charitable activities. In short, Dave’s childhood was not just privileged but also was singularly insular. His family lived in the right neighborhood, a gated community of large homes, each set in an acre or more of land. He went to a private boy’s school focused on athletics, good manners, and eventual admission into “the best” colleges. Dave’s family belonged to two local clubs, one a golf club, the other a “gentlemen’s luncheon club, ostensibly focusing on “doing good works.” They attended the right church (First Congregational or as they described it, “First Congo.”) As a kid, Dave never gave any of this a second thought. As Dave explains, “What the hell did I know? I thought everyone lived like my family. I didn’t know anything else.” Of course, every family has its “dirty little secrets.” Dave’s family was no exception. The most obvious was his mother’s fondness for strong gin Martinis. But she indulged in a second one only while on vacation, having dinner with friends. When she did, she got talkative and said a bit more than she might have otherwise. That’s when she might go into her husband’s family’s background, the other “dirty little secret.” “Don’t know if you may have noticed but George’s mother was of what some call ‘the Hebrew persuasion.’ They were in banking. Very rich. And into the arts.” Talking about it years later, Dave smiled and said, “For her, that was a big deal. Tres risqué. I remember how once or twice she’d go on to say how she was not at all prejudiced and was very open-minded. But when I first heard her tell the story, it opened my eyes a bit. I suppose they’ve slowly opened ever since.” Dave and his second wife were sitting on a long wooden bench on a porch looking out on fields of salad greens just peeking out from black soil. Both were wearing work clothes and Dave had on his favorite droopy hat. Given the first forty years of his life, this is not where you’d expect to find him. Or maybe you would. His private school years were successful. He did well academically and got a letter in lacrosse. He got into the college his parents had selected for him and was slated to major in American History. He met his first wife at a sixth-grade dance. He was struck dumb. Angelic. Beautiful. Beyond anything he could imagine. He just stood there grinning, so she introduced herself, “Hello, I am Julia. And what is your name?” They danced once, during which all he could do was blush, mumble and worry about his sweaty hands. He didn’t meet her again until his junior year in college. He recalls feeling at that second meeting about as socially inept as he did at that first encounter. She remembered him. He didn’t recognize her. But he immediately knew, this was a very singular moment. As before, all he could do was blush and mumble. She laughed. And, then, he laughed and then blurted out how he felt on first meeting her and still felt on their reunion. After graduation, they got married and began what should have been a long and happy life together. With a stipend from his parents, Dave took an MBA and, then, went to law school. Julia took an advanced degree in biochemistry. He was hired by a large financial services firm. Two years later, he was running their legal department. Dave and Julia had two kids. They were happy. Why not? They loved each other, had every advantage, and parents that loved and supported them. Dave had just been moved to his firm’s executive floor when his wife and his second child, a son, were killed instantly by a drunk driver speeding on the wrong side of a divided highway. “You know, it was like being shot in the head. Or waking up in another world. That was thirty years ago and I am still living it like it happened yesterday. I’ll never get over it.” Three days after the accident and even before his wife and son were buried, Dave went back to work. His daughter, then 15, stayed with his wife’s family. The firm’s CEO told him he shouldn’t be in the office. Dave’s reasoning: sticking with his normal routine would help him cope. It didn’t. He’d come in to his office, sit down at his desk, turn his chair around and look out the window. The CEO was right. Dave asked for a leave of absence. They gave him all the time he needed at full pay and suggested that he get help. “You mean mental help, like counseling? I should be ok. My wife’s parents and my daughter will be with me. It will be ok.” Dave spent the next three months trying to put his world back together. His daughter went back to school. His wife’s parents went back to their normal life. And after they left, Dave went back to work on a part-time basis, working from both home and office. But nothing was the same and, thinking back, Dave says, “It was all a blur and, then, suddenly, my daughter left for college and I was all alone in this big house.” But Dave wasn’t quite alone. He would get visits from women he knew from the neighborhood or from one of his clubs or the church. At first, he didn’t know what to make of them. They were mostly his wife’s friends. He knew their names and something about them – their children’s names and schools, what their husband did – but not much else. What he didn’t quite understand about most of them was, they saw in him what might happen to their husband, if they were not longer around. They wanted to take care of him. Or at least to give him some comfort. Baked goods, a meal to reheat, a book suggestion, just a “I can’t know what you’re going through but they say that time helps” sort of comment. Dave tried to seem appreciative and on one level he was. But he was still in shock, unable to deal with his feelings. So, he had a lot of trouble when one of these visitors offered more than baked goods. He was polite but made it clear that he wasn’t up for anything much more than small talk. Six months after the accident, Dave decided enough was enough and went back to the office full-time. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself forever,” is the way he explained it. And he got right back into his job again. Doing it helped a lot. A least during the work day. At night and on weekends, though, he was still sitting alone in his big, dark house, staring blankly at the TV. Which is how Grace, a neighbor, found him when she let herself in by the unlocked side door after ringing the doorbell without rousing him. “Dave what are you doing? Are you OK?” He started to cry. “This house seems so dead. It’s closing in on me. I’ve got to get out of here. I miss her. I miss the kids. There’s nothing here without them.” Grace said, “I’ll be right back.” She got her husband and the three of them sat late into the night talking about Dave, how he was living, and what maybe he should do. Maybe he should see about dating. Maybe he should hang out at the golf club more. Dave wasn’t sure about any of that. Dave couldn’t imagine dating. What would he talk about? He never did well in social situations. Or at least that’s how he saw himself. But one of the things that seemed to make sense was Dave should talk to a real estate agent. Why knows? Maybe a smaller house? Maybe a condo? An apartment until a better idea came along? The agent Dave saw happened to be the wife of his minister. And she had what at first seemed like a very odd idea. “You have plenty of room and I have a couple that needs a place to stay for a while. My husband married them last month. So maybe you should meet them. Why not? Could be fun.” So, the next Saturday, he was sitting at this very stylish restaurant waiting for the couple to arrive. It wasn’t Dave’s sort of place. Dave called places like this “Fern Salons.” Salads, crusty bread, and twenty-three varieties of white wine were featured. Dave was ordering a beer when two women walked in and asked if he was Dave. His eyes must have bulged because the tall one said, “Oh, she didn’t mention that we were gay. Just like her. If it bothers you, we can split.” Dave was embarrassed by his reaction. But for some reason, for the first time in a long time, he felt good. And he said something that he would never have guessed he would say, “Oh, no. Please. Sit down. This could be fun.” And it was fun. And it was a life changer for Dave. Doris and Nancy moved in three days later and the lights came on. The kitchen came alive. The two women made vegan casseroles and exotic salads. They baked bread. They made cakes and pies. And they knew how to make very good cocktails. Dave gave them the master bedroom, explaining they were just married and needed some privacy. He moved into his son’s room in the children’s wing of the house. So, it wasn’t the house. It was its emptiness. And now that it was filled, Dave began to come alive again. His daughter was thrilled. It was fun to be home again. But some of the neighbors were not so thrilled. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. Most didn’t get that Doris and Nancy were a couple and wondered whether Dave was “doing a two-fer.” They got even more worried when Dave started dating a gal he met downtown and began having her stay at his house every now and then. There were a lot of smutty jokes and a conference with Dave’s minister who explained, “It’s not what you might think and if I’m not concerned, you shouldn’t be either.” One neighbor from way down the street wasn’t so sure. “This could be some kind of cult. Or witchcraft!” He saw his lawyer who said, “Mind your business. Maybe I should meet Dave and find out his secret.” But then, one day, there was a “For Sale” sign up in front of Dave’s house. Doris, Nancy, and Dave had been talking. He wanted a new life. His daughter had finished college, was working as a biochemist, and had met a guy. Doris and Nancy wanted a vegan farm. And maybe a little restaurant. It would involve a move across country. Without really giving it much thought, he said, “We are going to do it. I’ve got the money and you have the muscle. I’m going to have fun.” It turned out it wasn’t quite as much fun as Dave had envisioned. There were a few unforeseen events that threw things off. First, Nancy got pregnant. That delayed things until the baby was born. How Nancy got pregnant was and remains a deep dark secret. But it led to a lot of jokey comments. “Nope! Wasn’t Dave. Unless he’s sneaky.” There was a onesie that said “This is not Dave’s kid” on its front. There were even t-shirts. Doris was in on the secret and she wasn’t saying either. Second, their plan went a bit off the rails. The idea was to use the internet to find possibilities, take a trip to see the options, select one, check out living situation, and buy. But the first farm they found and wanted to buy turned out to be a scam. The supposed “owner” was selling a place that wasn’t his to sell. Dave was quick to spot the problem; he didn’t run a large company’s legal department for nothing. He got the scam artist to draw up some documents, got him and his supposed attorney on tape, and had the authorities take care of the rest. But that meant they needed to find a place while they looked for a property that was legitimate. That turned out to be pretty easy. An old house that sat a mile or so out of town. And finally, it became glaringly clear that neither Nancy, Doris, nor Dave knew a thing about farming, let alone organic farming. Which is how Dave met his second wife. And how Dave became someone very different from what he was when he started out in life. Her name is Shoshana. She was running a small organic restaurant and truck farm with her son, Herman, and Herman’s wife. She knew how to cook and to raise vegetables but knew nothing about business. She was working hard and was slowly going bankrupt. Nancy and Doris discovered her restaurant on one of their trips to town. And after a couple visits, they decided they liked Shoshana and dragged Dave along for lunch. Dave and Shoshana are not what you might think of as an “obvious match.” Initially, they were both very skittish of one another. He was interested but worried that she would think him a stiff. She worried about what she called “the ethnic thing” and put on a “Jewish act.” She only knew six words of Yiddish but suddenly started using them whenever Dave showed up for lunch. But they had much more in common than they imagined. They grew up one town over from one another. They were both products of exclusive but different private schools. They both went to the same college, she graduating ten years later. But at the same time, they came from very different worlds. His was WASP and traditionally Christian, people who saw themselves as the pinnacle of society. Hers was Jewish, people who were typically excluded from his childhood world. And yet, when they settled down together, her background slowly absorbed his. There was this time when they were having a quiet breakfast and Dave said, “Stereotypes say I should be having your corn muffin and you should be having my bagel.” Over time, Nancy and Doris moved on, starting a bookkeeping service in the next town. It turned out that they liked the idea of farming more in theory than in reality. Shoshana’s son and his wife moved when he took a job in advertising. Dave’s daughter visited with her family every summer. And Dave, using what he learned over the years in a large firm, turned the restaurant and truck farm around, first hiring a farm manager who knew his stuff, then moving the restaurant to a larger place with more traffic and hiring a chef who could take the pressure off Shoshana and tweak the menu. Then, he hired a smart promotion company, got some national publicity, and a steady stream of business that grew over the years. “It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was a kid but, all-in-all, not so bad. Not so bad at all. Shoshana thinks I need a new hat but this one will do for a good while yet.”