101. Mina Peezler, Actuary

A lot of people find Mina maddening. Her manner reminds them of their worst grade school teacher, the one most likely to keep them after school for what always seemed to be the most minor infraction. And there is her voice. Grating and precise.

Ask her husband. “If you have a sense of humor, there is no one better. She gets you through hell and high water. But when she has that tone in her voice, watch out. And don’t let her catch you laughing when she uses it. For me, it happens about three times a day. Sometimes more. We share offices and in a lot cases, clients.”

Mina’s husband, Roger, couldn’t be more different. Mina is what you might call “by-the-book.” For her, events have a certain chance of happening or not. Her sentences are carefully constructed, uttered only after a few sentences, sometimes minutes, of analytic thought. And once uttered, are not subject to argument or modification. Her favorite phrase: “When you are right, you are right.” Mina is always right. Ask her.

When she makes one of her declarations, Roger just smiles and says “Yes, dear.” He knows better than to argue or even to say, “Are you sure?” He’s not a wimp. He is a lawyer. And a very good one. He avoids adversity and confrontation whenever possible and selects his arguments very carefully. That is one reason his clients and his partners call him “The Wizard.” He has settled all but the most intractable law suits, gotten criminal clients off with the lightest possible sentence, usually involving no jail time, and negotiated some of the craziest deals on record. His wife may deal with a black and white world. Roger’s world is every color of the rainbow.

Mina and Roger have two children. They had them in the first three years of their marriage, both to please Mina’s parents and because Mina wanted to “get it over with” as soon as possible. She believed infants and preschoolers are career wreckers; once toilet trained, able to feed themselves, and are in school, it is possible for a professional woman to go back to her career. It is one area where she admits she was wrong.  First, she loved being a mother. Second, both her husband and her made more than enough money to hire all the child-care help they needed. Third, she found her assumption that after they were toilet trained and in school, they would leave her free to pursue her career without hassle proved completely wrong. Mina always forgets: most people are not quite like her.

You’d think with parents so different; the two kids would have serious emotional problems. Not so. Gloria, the oldest, seems genuinely happy and amazingly level headed for a college sophomore. She majors in Art History with plans to go to law school. She wants to work in intellectual property, a goal so arcane and specific her friends would roll their eyes. Gloria said it sounded like loads of fun.

Roger, Jr. is on his school’s tennis team and taking advanced placement courses in Math and Physics. “Maybe a doctor or something. I’m a bit young to make plans but something in the sciences probably. Who knows?” Whenever Junior says something as indecisive sounding as that, Mina insists, “Of course you are going to medical school. Why wouldn’t you.” Junior says nothing. She should know he dreads the idea of being a doctor.

But that’s about as rebellious Junior ever got. Or as disruptive a thought as may have upset what Mina saw as a pleasingly placid and, most important of all, a predictable life. So, when Mina happened to walk in on her husband watching porn on his office computer screen, it was what you might call an event and then some.

He was totally absorbed and didn’t hear her behind him. She was just about to say something when she saw what he was watching.

Her eyes bulged. Literally. And she shouted. “ROGER!” He screamed and spun around in his chair.Then, she turned and left. She slammed the door behind her. Roger just sat there. He almost threw up. His heart was racing

He heard the car start and take off. She was gone for about an hour. He was still sitting just where he was when she had walked in to his office and saw what was on the screen. He hadn’t moved. He had no idea what was going to happen next or what he might do about it. Divorce? Counseling? Embarrassment? Shame?

But what happened next truly stunned him. Without getting into the details, let’s just say Mina and Roger are happier now than they ever have been. They laugh and giggle a lot more together. And their life together is not quite so humdrum or as predictable as it once was. When Mina saw what was on her husband’s computer monitor was not like anything either of them might have imagined.

96. Fran Shipley, Florist

“How might I help you?”

She’s invariably standing there with hands clasped in front of her, looking flustered, frumpy, but friendly, and somehow very pink as you come in to Dora’s Florist Shop. You know immediately: this is a flower person. Fran happens to be a great sales person. Customers invariably leave her shop happy and smiling. She is very good at making them feel comfortable. And also, special. She is also very good at helping them find a flower arrangement or plant that they believe they selected on their own. “Never force a flower on someone. Let them force themselves on the flower.” Her flowers are, in one sense, children to her. Or maybe lovers. She cares for them and cares about them. But that doesn’t stop her from selling them and watching them leave her store, never seen by her again. “I am happy when I know they are going to a good home.”  And, as far as she knows or says she believes, they all go to good homes to do what flowers do – give and get pleasure. This has been Fran’s secret to a very nice living. In short, it is hard to know where her Pollyannaish viewpoint ends and something else – shrewdness perhaps but also sensuous joy – begins. She is not about to tell you either, if she knows herself. She was brought up to be modest and very discrete. An orphan at six, she was raised by her maternal grandmother and great-aunt, both of whom came from families that had been “in service” for generations but over time had accumulated wealth. As a child, Fran was always called “Francine,” a name she secretly hated. “Sounds like a petroleum product,” was how she described it. She never complained though. “Better to say nothing and smile,” was a lesson drilled into her. She learned it well. But there was another lesson that went with it. “What they shall not know, will never harm them,” was the way Gram said it. Fran married young, eighteen, right out of high school. She was naïve as a lamb. Her wedding ceremony was wonderfully romantic. Her wedding night was something she laughs to herself about, the rare times she thinks back on it. “What was he thinking? What was I thinking?” She never asks those questions aloud. And whatever he was thinking, she never let on how she felt to him. When asked, she always says, “It was sheer bliss.” She married the first boy who asked her, perhaps because she thought it rude to say ‘no.” She always says, “Of course we were in love. Madly.” But recently, when she had had a couple of glasses of wine with a friend, she admitted, “We got married because it was expected. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We were in the same high school class and the same Bible study group. And we were told that a man and a woman should be married. And so, we did.  It lasted about five years. Fortunately, there were no children. Not that there would have been. He had his own interests and who was I to stand in his way. And, of course, I had my own interests as well. He walked out into the woods one day with a pistol and shot himself.” Fran never gets emotional when describing the end of her marriage, other than allowing it was a sad time. She never cried and went about her daily life as if nothing had happened. Back then, she was just a part-time employee of the neighborhood florist shop she would one day own, expand, and help to flourish beyond her wildest expectations. And, except for the day of her husband’s funeral and another day spent on legal matters – including a visit from the police inquiring where and when her husband got the pistol – she never missed a day of work. Some reasoned she was putting up a brave front while keeping the emotional shock of a violent suicide deep inside. Others wondered whether there wasn’t something quite right with Fran. One or two harbored darker thoughts. “Didn’t she know her husband was suicidal?” “Did she put him up to it?” Or even, “Do you think she did it?” Fran closed up the apartment she had shared with her husband, moved back with her grandmother and great-aunt. In addition to continuing to work at the florist shop, she took on the task of caring for the two older women. Her great aunt, who was in mid-seventies, had begun to show signs of senility, and was in particular need of help. More than once, Fran said, “Perhaps it is just as well my marriage ended as I was needed at home” as a way to reconcile others and perhaps herself to the sudden end to her husband’s life. She also became active in her church, doing as she put it, “good deeds when and where they are needed.” One thing about his death she did not want to talk about was the pistol. She told the police she did not know her husband had it, when he got it, or where. That was not quite true. She also said, if her husband had been harboring suicidal or violent thoughts, it was news to her.  That too was not quite true. She knew all about the pistol. The day he came home with it, he threatened to use it to kill her. She wanted to keep a secret, not just because it would look bad for both her husband and herself but also because it would reveal the deep misunderstandings that contributed to, if not directly led to, her husband’s death. Men typically took one look at Fran and assumed she was the most asexual woman alive. They agreed that she was pleasant looking but somehow not “interesting.” Even in high school, there was something “grandmotherly” about her. In some measure, it was her clothes. Both men and women commented on them. “Who knows where she gets them. It’s like they are from another time. Maybe like something I’d see in an old photograph, back when women were supposed to be pure and virginal.” But the truth ended up being quite different. Fran had only a hazy idea what to expect on her wedding night. She had never been in bed with a man. Before their marriage, she and her future husband had shared only a chaste kiss, mostly for show in front of family. Most of what she knew about sex came from her own personal exploration and from her great aunt who explained “making the baby requires a man and woman to lie close together with their eyes tightly shut for modesty’s sake.” Some of what happened on her wedding night was more than just a surprise to Fran. But, on the whole, she liked it. Actually, she like it a lot and wanted a repeat as soon as possible. And on a regular basis. Her new husband had a different reaction. He was mortified by Fran’s unexpected enthusiasm for sex. Prior to that first night with Fran, he was almost as naïve as she was. He firmly believed that, for women, sex was an unpleasant, even disgusting burden. His pre-marital instruction had come from his pastor who explained, “You must perform copulation at least once every month but no more than that as the only purpose of cleaving unto your wife is to produce children. And it should be done quickly so as not to arouse any baser instincts in your wife.” The pastor cautioned, “Raising such baser instincts might lead your wife to wonton excess, infidelity and even prostitution.” Before her marriage, Fran had heard much the same story and, like her husband, assumed it true. So, finding sex to be anything but a burden troubled her. At least initially. Within a couple of months of married life, she decided the “monthly duty” would not do. She wanted more and went about hoping for more in her usual manner, the way she sold flowers: never directly, always smile, be gentle, be persistently attentive, and let the customer choose. Her husband would have none of it. He was convinced something was wrong with Fran and began to worry about her fidelity. And worse. He became suspicious. “What was really going on at that florist shop? Who did she meet there?” He also worried about her boss, Dora, a woman whom, he suspected, may have decidedly immoral tendencies. She always seemed so friendly. He started keeping track of Fran’s comings and goings, insisting that Fran come home right after work and not go out unless he was with her. Fran put up with it all, smiling, being nice. Her husband started accusing Fran of immoral tendencies and when she sympathetically smiled and tried to reassure him, he insisted she confess her sins. She said, “But, Herbert, there is nothing to confess, I am a good and virtuous wife.” To him, this denial was as good as a confession. He went more than a little crazy. There was a lot of door slamming. He hit her more than once and showed little concern when she cried. The more he thought about her “immoral lustfulness,’ the more he wondered if his wife was possessed. He went to his pastor. The pastor had seen this sort of thing before and knew he must stamp it out quickly and for good. He cautioned Fran’s husband to be strong. “If she refuses to obey your requirements, don’t get upset, pray for her redemption, or leave the house and go for a long, vigorous walk to calm yourself. You must resist anger.” The pastor also agreed to counsel and, if necessary, to admonition Fran. But his visit with Fran did not go well. One reason – Fran had been talking to Dora at the flower shop. At the time, Dora had married and divorced once or twice and was considering a fourth. So, you could say, she knew something about men and marriage. Even more important, she had a very broad sense of humor and a wild, cackling laugh to go with it. Fran’s husband was right about one thing with Dora; she was having a decided influence on Fran and not in the way he might have wished. There were long periods at the store when they were between customers and Fran and Dora passed the time – while seeing everything was spotless, tending to their merchandise, and creating to-order bouquets and corsages – talking about anything that came to mind including each other’s lives. Normally, Fran was very secretive about her feelings and what was happening in her life. But with Dora, it seemed different. Fran had come to regard Dora as the big sister she never had. Little by little, she let things out.  Dora’s first reaction to Fran’s marriage situation: “Dump him and get a life, sweetie pie.” Fran said she couldn’t do that. It was against her religion. “And anyway, what would I tell my grandmother? She would be devastated.” Fran also wondered if the problem was all her fault. “Maybe there’s something wrong with me. My husband thinks so. Maybe he’s right. I have some kind of emotional abnormality.” Dora would have none of it. “You seem pretty sane to me. Just a normal, healthy woman. A little innocent for someone your age. But that’s all. I’m telling you, dump this guy before he drives you really nuts. Or worse.” Fran thought about it. When Fran told Dora about her husband waving a pistol and threatening to kill her unless she behaved, Dora said, “That’s it. Go to the cops.” The other reason the pastor’s visit went badly was it came right after Fran’s husband had come home with a pistol and threatened to shoot her. Fran had been brought up to be polite so she listened quietly as he admonished her for her shamefulness. When he was done, she thanked him for his visit. Later that day, when her husband showed up after work, she told him his pastor had visited. Sitting in a big easy chair with a book in her lap, she explained she listened to what the pastor had to say. “He is probably very well-meaning but I had to tell him, despite what he and you might think, I am not some sort of pervert or harlot. I’m not. I am a normal woman, not some sort of demon or something. No, I’m not.” Her husband stood over her for a minute, turned, and went to his desk for the pistol. Pointing it at her, he threatened to kill her. For some reason, Fran wasn’t scared. Fran had dealt with an irate customer or two at Dora’s shop. Her usual reaction was to wait patiently saying nothing, then smile, offer an apology, and suggest some way to make things right. But this was something different. Fran was offended and somehow resigned. She did not smile or try to temporize. In a very quiet and slightly shaky voice she said, “Herbert, if you are going to shoot me, do it. But it might be best if you shot yourself instead. In any case, if you keep behaving this way, I shall have to leave you.” Her husband didn’t seem to know what to say or do next. He just glared at Fran who had become quiet and composed. She even gave one of her slight smiles. After a second or two, Herbert turned, went to the hall closet and got his coat, put it on, jammed the pistol in a pocket, and left, slamming the front their apartment door behind him. Fran sat in the easy chair for a while. Then, she made a supper of macaroni and cheese and spent the evening reading the book that had been on her lap when her husband was threatening her. It was a romantic novel, the kind of book she had been told not to read. She became worried when Herbert did not return by bedtime. She knew exactly what must have happened when, next morning, a policeman came to her door. He explained that an early-morning dog-walker had come upon her husband’s body and called the police. When he apologized for having to bring her this terrible news, Fran smiled and said, “It’s all right. You have your duty.” She politely agreed to come to the hospital to identify her husband’s body just as soon as she called Dora, her employer, to say she would be at work a little late that day. She told the policeman she would dress as quickly as possible but would like something for breakfast before leaving for the hospital. “And you look like you should have something to eat yourself, officer.” She made them both tea and toast. Later that day, the policeman told the detective writing up the suicide how nice the victim’s wife was. “So polite. So brave. Never shed a tear. Made tea before going to see the body. But, you know, a little too cool and collected, seems to me.” The detective agreed. He decided to visit Fran to get a better idea of what this young widow, barely married five years is all about. He showed up at Fran’s door a couple of days later around suppertime. She had been at the florist shop all day and was beginning to organize things so she could move back in with her grandmother and great-aunt. “My name’s Jimmy Ransome. I’m from the local police station. Might I come in and ask a few questions about your husband’s death. So sudden wasn’t it? How are you coping? Oh, and call me Jimmy. Everyone does.” Fran smiled. “Of course, come in. You’ve caught me in a mess. I am in the process of clearing out this apartment. With my poor husband gone, I’ll be moving back home.” She called herself “Francine “which she used sometimes to be more formal with strangers. And she referred to “Jimmy” as “Detective Ransome.” She offered to make tea, apologized for not having much in the way of cookies to have with the tea, and answered questions about her husband’s health, about anything unusual in his mental state, about her own mental state, about any money problems, about the state of her marriage, and about the gun. She answered all the detective’s questions in the same voice she used to serve a customer. She smiled, appeared to be helpful and patient, warm and friendly. She claimed to have been taken completely by surprise by her husband’s death. Suicide was nothing she imagined. She said their marriage was just fine. Both she and her husband were happy and content. He had a good job and she did too. And she said she knew nothing about the pistol. She also claimed, despite outward appearances, to be distraught and barely composed. She said she had been brought up to believe strong emotions are private matters. That last comment, at least, was true. While answering Jimmy’s questions, Fran made tea, found a few cookies, and laid it all out on her dining room table. And she asked him questions about his family. She commented on how his work must be sometimes very hard and sometimes dangerous. In the end, Jimmy thanked her for her time and for the tea and cookies and came away feeling Fran is either one of the more bizarre people he’d ever met or she was hiding something.  He also suspected, if there was something here, it was not something to concern him. He figured he would never run into Fran again. He was wrong. When Fran moved back into her childhood home, she found a situation different from when she left for married life. Her grandmother was suffering from congestive heart failure. And her great-aunt was increasingly senile and needed regular attention. It meant her job at the florist shop was the most restful part of the day. And the sanest. Dora was great company. She was also supportive and truly understanding. It helped a lot. But despite the two relatives at home and Dora’s friendship, Fran was very lonely. And that’s how things were until, five years after moving back into her childhood home, things again changed suddenly. She called the police immediately when her great-aunt seemed to have wandered off. An officer came by and took a lot of information including pictures of Fran’s great-aunt. They looked everywhere. Nothing. A week went by. Two. Nothing. Fran and her grandmother dreaded what they knew was coming. And it did a month later. A body had been found, trapped in the branches of a tree fallen in the local river, about twenty miles downstream. “She had been in the water all along, poor thing.” The officer her brought the news said. “She must have wandered down to the park along the river and fallen in.” He told them that a pathologist would confirm the identity but Fran and her grandmother immediately identified the rings and the bracelet found on the body. Beyond that and the pathologist’s report, there wasn’t much else identifiable. The policeman didn’t say anything about what some animals had done to the body. Fran knew better than to ask to see the remains. And her grandmother was too upset to ask anything. Two nights later, Fran’s grandmother had a massive heart attack. She was four days in intensive care and another week-and-a-half in the hospital. And, when she came home, she seemed much older than her seventy-nine years. A couple of weeks later, Jimmy Ransome asked to see his supervisor. One of Jimmy’s chores is to review all coroner’s reports and the minute he saw the one about the Shipley women in the river, he remembered Fran Shipley, the young woman whose husband had shot himself. How oddly cool and distant she seemed. How she served tea and cookies. How polite she was. How old-fashioned and virginal she seemed. The cookies, he recalled were cheap and stale but served as if they were just purchased from some expensive bakery, the sort of place his wife likes to go for a special treat. “Probably nothing but maybe not.” He asked to see his boss and told her the whole story. She said, “Jimmy, you are a paranoid nut. I don’t think there’s anything here to worry about.” “But, Gloria, I’m a detective. They pay me to be paranoid. If you don’t mind, when I get a minute, I am going to buzz by Ms. Shipley to offer my condolences.” As he describes the visit, “It was the same rigamarole all over again including the tea and the same damn cookies. She must have a lifetime supply for visiting policemen. I still can’t figure her out. She is polite but always steers the conversation where she wants. Which is in the middle of nowhere. I think if she was running a hot-and-cold running whore house in an upstairs room, she wouldn’t let on and no one she doesn’t want to know would ever know either. But, if she’s hiding something, I’d think it would be maybe something a little nutty. One thing is for sure, the odds of her tipping that old, senile lady into the drink are not high. I’m staying away.” Over the coming months, Fran’s grandmother began to get back to normal. She was up and down stairs. Out shopping. And feeling good. Fran could back to working full time at Dora’s florist shop. She had been working only 30 hours a week because her grandmother had needed a lot of attention when she got back from the hospital. Back working full time again, Fran struck Dora as happy but needing a bit of excitement. Fran was a little surprised when Dora suggested she should attend this year’s annual florist show. It would be three days and four nights away from home in a fancy hotel. And maybe another day to see the sights. “A great chance to meet people, show some of our stuff, and have a little fun. It’s a lot of work but also a really good time. And I’ve talked to your grandmother about it. I’ll watch out for her while you’re away. So, don’t give me any trouble. You are going.” Dora’s prediction was correct and then some. There was a lot more to do than Fran might have guessed. Getting the hotel reservations and plane tickets was the easy part. She had to design a display table, put together sales materials, arrange for everything to be shipped to the show and made sure it was set up correctly. When she finally arrived at her hotel, she was a wreck. She had never traveled on her own before. She had no idea how to deal with a lot of the people she met. Some were very rude. Others – like the funny, little man in the seat next to her on the plane – didn’t seem very sociable. When she asked how he was and how he was enjoying the plane ride, he gave her a funny look and got out some business papers to work on. Fran had been taught that it was rude not to speak to those nearby, to “exchange pleasantries” and to make “polite small talk.” She did not quite know what to do when, late in the day, after she had settled into her hotel room, “freshened up,” and stopped down in the exhibit hall to check on her display table and materials, a man with a big smile said, “Hello.” Her grandmother had told her to be polite but distant with strange men if they accosted her. And this man had definitely accosted her. Flustered, she gave one of her usual “customer” smiles and said, “How might I help you, sir.” He smiled. “Well, you seem an interesting person and you have a very nice display table, a lot nicer than mine, so I thought I’d say ‘Howdy’ is all. I see from your name tag your name is Fran. Mine is Stan. And we are both florists. And we are both alone at this big convention so why not have dinner together and talk about each other’s businesses. Beats eating alone in the room with the TV and a movie I wouldn’t watch otherwise which is what I usually do. And, who knows, we may learn something from each other.” From Fran’s perspective, politeness made it almost impossible to say no to this man. After all, he seemed courteous and had made a friendly invitation. But everything she had been taught from girlhood onward caused her to say, “Oh, I really couldn’t.” To which Stan said, “Oh, sure you could. I do not bite.” As Fran admitted to herself about a week later, this was an almost-word-for-word fantasy of what she imagined might happen at this convention. She had to admit Stan could have had three heads and made funny-duck noises and she would have said ‘Yes.” And she did. Stan suggested that they go to their respective rooms, change for dinner, and meet in in the lobby in forty-five minutes. He would make reservations. They had a wonderful time. Stan suggested a drink. She said that she shouldn’t. He ordered her a wine spritzer. She sipped at it. He ordered her another. They talked about their jobs and the business they were in and a little about their personal lives. Stan told Fran about his wife – a marketing executive – and his kids. She told him about her grandmother and that she had been married but is now single. She did not mention her husband’s suicide or her great-aunt’s drowning. And she asked why Stan had come up to her of all people and asked her to dinner. He said, “I usually find someone to have dinner with at these things, at least for one of the nights. Mostly with one or two gals but not always. I asked you for a couple of reasons. You seemed a bit lost and in need of a friend. And you seemed safe.” She smiled one of the smiles she gives customers and waited for him to go on. “I didn’t think I’d get into trouble with you. You seemed so proper. But since you asked, I’m not so sure now. And this dinner has been more fun than I’ve had in a while. My wife is always telling me to get into a little trouble; it would be good for me. But I never have.” Fran didn’t say a word. She had no idea what to think. Stan said, “What about dessert?” Fran said, “Oh, no. I couldn’t.” Stan said, “The chocolate bombe is what we’ll get. We’ll split it.” Fran ate all of hers and some of his. They both thanked the other for a delightful evening, hoped to see one another next day, shook hands, and said goodnight. Fran had not felt the way she felt that night for a long time. Perhaps never.  Fran did not see Stan the next day. She went to lectures in the morning, ate a box lunch with others convention attendees, and answered questions at her display table all afternoon. There was a cocktail hour at five. She went but didn’t stay. When she got back to her room, she changed and freshened up, ordered dinner, and settled down to an evening of television. She was feeling a very funny feeling – not just because Stan might have left the convention without so much as a goodbye after their “lovely evening” – but also because of a sense of regret and of guilt. Fran had hoped for more but also felt, if she got more, she would be taking something not hers. She turned on the TV and watched whatever was on without really looking. She must have dozed off when she heard something. A note had been slipped under the door. It was from Stan. An apology. He had hoped to see her but was called away by business. He was back now and wanted to have dinner with her tomorrow. Fran’s first thought was to turn him down. He was married. This was wrong. But she couldn’t. So, she hatched a plan. She would join him for dinner, thank him for his kind attention, wish he and his wife the best, and get up and leave when the meal was done. Of course, none of that happened. When Fran got back home, Dora had a feeling something was different. Fran was still the frumpy, flustered Fran she’d always been but different somehow – brighter, more relaxed, or maybe more enthusiastic about her work. Dora couldn’t tell exactly what it was. But it helped her to clinch a very big decision. A week or two later, Dora said, “Franny, I want to retire. How about I sell you the store at a very good price.” Fran ran into Stan two years later. By accident. At an airport. It was one of those rushed, between-flights reunions – ten minutes at most – not much more than “How have you been. We must get together. There is so much to tell you.” They touched hands goodbye. And never saw one another again.

95. Lonny Driscoll, Fine Artist

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.”

93. Sylvester Florian, Master Carver

A Lamb Led To Slaughter

Sylvester is not much for conversation. Not the talking kind of conversation anyway. People who know him understand he talks better with his hands than with his mouth. It started when he was very young. He didn’t say anything until he was almost two. There was a lot of anxiety about his lack of language. His parents were teachers and they had some very specific expectations. When Syl didn’t even babble, they were very worried. They brought in child psychiatrists and speech therapists. These “experts” were also perplexed. Syl seemed alert. He didn’t seem to have a hearing problem. He followed direction and seemed to understand words. He just didn’t talk. There were dire warnings. This could be some kind of mental deficiency. Back then there was no such thing as autism or attention disorder diagnoses. His parents began thinking about special schools or even institutionalization. Syl just kept doing his thing. He smiled now and again. Enjoyed his food. Waved his arms a lot. And really got going when he played with blocks or crayons. He stacked the blocks in ever higher and in more curious arrangements. He drew lines with his crayons. From about nine months on, he began drawing straight lines. At first, they were wiggly. But by the time he was a year-and-a-half, they were straight. He drew them parallel to one another with varying space between them. He made designs with his lines. But no talking. Until one day, he did. Whole sentences. No baby talk. He never said much. But what he did say was clear and to the point. Mostly questions he needed answers to. It was as if he was very busy and didn’t have time for small talk. He began to read in pre-school. Syl was an only child and his parents thought that he would talk more if he were with other kids. From about three-and-a-half on, he was always in some kind of class. Teachers would almost always describe Syl as “bright but appears to have difficulty with social interactions.” He was an early reader. He was a good speller, good at math. Just not good at “verbal skills.” He usually sat by himself during recess and did not like sports. He did not have any friends and after a try or two, his parents stopped arranging play-dates.

Sylvester was still a loner in junior high. He wasn’t interested in social events and rarely, if ever, talked to a girl. His guidance counselor, thinking that maybe Sylvester was gay asked him about it. Nope, Syl wasn’t gay. Syl said, “If I had anything to say to a girl, I’d say something. But I don’t. Not now. And anyway, most girls think my drawings are weird. They don’t think I’m normal.” But the gay thing kept coming up, especially since he found his first real friend, a kid named John Hegler. Like Syl, John was a loner and liked to draw. They met in seventh grade, sitting next to one another in science class. On the first day of school that year, while waiting for the class to start, John saw Syl drawing on a sheet of writing paper. There were some interesting shapes, mostly in three-point perspective. So, John opened one of his own note books and showed Syl pages with margins filled with drawings of elegant, fanciful lettering and drawings of people in different poses. So, instead of paying attention to the science teacher when class started, the two of them were showing one another’s drawings and began whispering and giggling. The science teacher was less than pleased, told them to be quiet, and to see him after class. He told them that they would no longer sit together in class and, if they didn’t behave, he’d boot them out of his class. Over the next few weeks, the friendship blossomed and turned into a competition. The two boys would go home after school and do a drawing to show one another the next morning. Pretty soon, they were doing more drawing than homework and teachers sent notes home for both boys. When John’s father saw what was going on, he was furious. He taught biochemistry at a local college so this behavior was a professional affront to him. He told John he was not to spend time with Syl and to focus on his studies. But, later, when he saw the quality of work the two boys were turning out, he had to admit, something special was going on and relented. He met with Syl’s parents and told them that the drawing competition was alright with him so long as the kids did their homework and got good grades. Syl and John thought this arrangement was great and hung out together, just about to the exclusion of everyone else. Which is how the “gay thing” came up again. There were a lot of comments, some teasing, and, finally, a bit of bullying. But it all ended when John’s family moved away. John’s father got a full-professorship at a major university over a thousand miles away. And the boys lost track of one another.

The first time Sheila saw Sylvester, she was bowled over. “He was gorgeous. Big and strong and suntanned. And so quiet and polite.” After high school Syl did not know what to do with himself. He was not interested in college, not then anyway. He had no idea he could earn a living with his drawing. So, he took a job in a lumber yard. He was already a big kid but he got even bigger and much stronger handling lumber and cement bags. He liked the work. No need for a lot of talk. No pressure. And he had access to scrap wood, all he wanted. He was eighteen when he graduated and going on twenty-three when Sheila met him. She was picking up supplies for the contractor who was redoing her kitchen. She was twenty-five at the time, “very hot” according to her associates, outgoing and adventurous, a free-lance video game creator and self-promoter with a thriving business. She recalls Syl being not just very good-looking but “interesting.” She figured a guy “shlepping stuff in a lumber yard” must be some sort of jerk. But for some reason, she saw someone who was distinctly not a jerk although definitely socially inept. And since all he could do was blush and mumble when she said “Hello,” Sheila wasted no time. “What’s your name?” His name seemed familiar. She’d seen it before. She couldn’t place where. She got his phone number. Her excuse was “In case I need help in the garden or something.” And that was that. Three days later, she recalled where she’d seen his name. There was an article in the local news about an art gallery show featuring some very odd-looking painted wood sculptures. They were made from scrap lumber by some guy working at a lumber yard and taking night courses. Sheila was thinking about maybe using similar shapes in a game she was developing. They would be large, could move at high speed, change shape, and spew something bad. “Oh, my God. That’s him!” This was around ten o’clock at night. She called him. No answer. Next morning, she called again. Still no answer. So, since she had a new list of stuff to get for her kitchen, she headed back to the lumber yard and asked for Syl. She had to wait before he appeared. He was covered with a fine gray powder. He’d been helping unload cement bags from a box car. He gave a funny sort of half grin and tried to wipe the dust from his face by way of apologizing for his appearance. And with considerable effort, he managed to say, “Hi.” Sheila said she tried to call him. He said he turns his phone off at night. He checked and gave another funny grin. “Still off. Forgot.” Sheila said, “That’s OK. Can we go for a drink tonight?” Syl explained that he had class. Sheila was not going to take “no” for an answer. “So, when does your class end?” Syl told her. “Where exactly is it?” Syl told her that too. “OK, I’ll be there. We can have a drink and I’ll drive you home.” Syl said, “OK.” He helped bring the stuff she bought to her car and waved goodbye as she left. He stood there in the lumber yard parking lot trying to figure out what the hell had just gone on. This beautiful woman had come in to pick up some trim and paint, asked for him, invited him out for drinks, and he had no idea who or what she was. Just recently, he said with a grin, “What choice did I have? It’s been that way all the years we were together.” Sheila was waiting for Syl as the class ended. As Syl came out into the hallway where Sheila was waiting, she grabbed his hand and said, “Let’s go.” She was not going to let this character get away.

Fifty years later, in London, Syl sat down next to an older fellow, sitting by himself on a park bench, and said, “Remember me. I’m Syl.” It was John Hegler, Syl’s first real boyhood friend. John took a look as if he were peering through time, gave a yelp, and said, “My God, it is you. Where have you been? What have you been doing? My God! It has been a long time. Do you still draw and stuff?” Syl said, “Yes, I still draw and stuff but I’ve been reading about you in the papers, Making plaques and memorial statuary for churches and universities. You invented a new typeface? That’s amazing. Just like back in school.” John said he had been very lucky. “I sort of fell into it in a way. You remember we moved out west. My father wanted me to go into the sciences like him. I majored in biochemistry in college. Even took a master’s degree. But I really wasn’t good at it. And I was doing typeface and other drawings the whole time. Anyway, I was dating a girl whose father owned a precision metalworking company, very high-end stuff and he offered me a job. I loved it. The girl dumped me but I kept the job. And they taught me everything I needed to know about crafting metal. Later on, I got a job in a shop making memorial plaques and grave markers. One thing led to another. I’m here in London to finish up a commission I started ten years ago. And what about you?” Syl explained he was a sculptor, mostly in wood, and was in London for a gallery opening of his stuff. And he told his whole story, about how he met Sheila, how she turned his life around, gave him three wonderful children, helped to make him successful and happy beyond his wildest hopes, and managed his career as a sought-after sculptor. “She died three years ago. I miss her terribly. But when she knew she had terminal cancer, she never stopped working, arranged things so I could go on. She even ordered me to find a new wife. I’ve been trying.” Syl was crying. “God, it is good to see you, John. Come to the gallery so I can show you my stuff.”

As Syl tells it when describing how he and Sheila got together, “I suppose I was like a lamb being led to slaughter. There was no saying ‘no’ to Sheila. Not then, not ever. The night Sheila met him after class, they found a bar just off campus and had a drink. Sheila asked a million questions, but made him feel comfortable, even relaxed which was a big deal for Syl back then. She said she would drive him home. And she did. But it wasn’t his home. It was hers. Later that week, Syl went back to his small apartment and collected his stuff.

Sheila’s videogame consulting business of was beyond anything Syl could imagine. And she had this large barn of a place. Syl had been using his parent’s basement as a studio. Sheila suggested he move everything into her place. He was intrigued and terrified, even mystified, by her. She was in so many ways his opposite. But somehow, they both knew that this was for keeps. Sheila said she should meet his parents. His mother had strong doubts. “Who is she and what does she want with my child?” But Sheila won over Syl’s father as soon as they met. He liked her hustle and brains. And he knew she was going to be the best thing that ever happened to his son. And, incidentally, he wanted his basement back. He was due for retirement and wanted the space as a place for a consulting business.

Once they had a chance to spend time with her, Sheila was a hit with Syl’s parents. She knew what she was doing when it came to winning people over. And she was an expert with parents. After all, hers had taught her well, if not intentionally. Her own father was a brilliant but cold and distant engineer who spent months away from home on projects in other countries. When he was home, he tried making up for lost time by plying Sheila with gifts and money. By the time she was ten, Sheila had figured him out: none of the love and affection that she wanted, but more than enough toys and stuff. Concluding that she should take what she could get, Sheila milked him for all he was worth. Her mother was a dangerous alcoholic who regularly crashed family cars and twice set the house on fire. The net result: Sheila knew how to judge others, survive, fit in, and thrive. Then, there was her own, “Pre-Syl” history. Growing up, she had many friends but none close. She graduated high school at fifteen and was on track to finish college in three years when she abruptly quit in the middle of her second year to do video games full-time. She was barely eighteen when she got married for the first time. The marriage fell apart in six months. “Seemed like a good idea at the time but I was a jerk. And so was he,” she said when telling Syl and his parents about her life. She went on, “Because of all that, I knew in an instant Syl is a wonderful person. The talent is a bonus.” Syl’s father was surprised when Sheila mentioned Syl’s sculptures. He assumed it was a passing phase, not to be taken too seriously. Without hesitation, Sheila said, “Your son is very talented and I am going to make him famous.”

Sheila more than kept her word on that point. She and Syl had been married about a year and their first child was on the way when Sheila arranged a studio visit by a major gallery. The first show was a year later and sold out before the opening. And Syl finally gave up his lumberyard job. He had kept it because he had friends there and he liked the work. But most of all, he felt he had to bring in money. He finally was forced to give it up when a load of lumber fell off a six-wheeler not been tied down properly. He was in the hospital for three days. At which point, Sheila put her foot down, worked out a deal so he could spend part of his time drawing storyboards for her and earning his way, and the rest of his time doing his own work. The deal served them well for the rest of their lives together. In the process, Sheila made a fortune on a game Syl helped to create and she was a source of ideas for some of his most iconic artwork. There was the “Mosaic” series of wall sculptures. It cemented his reputation. And the “Nightstone” series. It put him in several museums. And the “Fireball” series. It provoked a small riot.

Things are quieter now for Syl. The kids are grown. One is a teacher, married with two kids. The others were either in grad school or starting careers. Sheila and Syl’s parents are gone. Before she died, Sheila got Syl into carving old cedar tree trunks and limbs. He likes cedar’s grain and colors. And its smell fills his studio. So, in a way, she’s still working with him. And, as he told his boyhood friend, John, she ordered him to marry again. That hasn’t happened yet but he knows he better do what he is told. “I’m still the lamb being led to slaughter.”