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.
“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.”
Doris tells everyone she loves her job. She isn’t kidding. You might not think so. She works in cosmetics at an upscale department store. Weekends and three days a week. She gets a salary and a commission. Doesn’t add up to much. Rent for an apartment she shares with two other women, food, an occasional night out at a movie, and bus fare.
For Doris it is more than enough. “I meet such interesting women. I could never be like them. They lead wonderful lives, know so much, are so good and kind to me. I could use more money. That would be nice but I am happy with what I have. I do what I want and no one tells me what to do.
And she is being absolutely honest when she says so. In a very real sense, it is beyond any job she could have hoped for. And for her, it is the height of glamor. And that part she really loves. She also loves helping the kind of people she imagines her customers are like. She does not like trying to push customers into buying something they might not want or need. She hates her supervisors for making her do that. When they talk about sales goals, she gets anxious. So anxious that she sometimes goes into the ladies room to throw up. Despite all that, she always meets her goals.
Sometimes she goes well beyond what her managers expect from her. If asked how she does it, she always says, “I don’t know. People are nice to me, I guess.” There’s probably some truth in that. Over the years, Doris has attracted a loyal following of women and more than a few men who loved being waited on by her. When they come to the store, they call first to make sure Doris is there. And, if she’s waiting on someone else when they come to her counter, they quietly wait until it is their turn.
It’s not that she uses cosmetics much herself. What she knows comes from a short course she took, nothing very extensive. Here success, such as it is, comes from how she treats her customers. Obsequious, yes. Deferential. Of course. They love that. But it is more than that. There is something about Doris. When you talk to her, you get the feeling she is letting you in on some kind of secret, something between the two of you that no one else knows about.
But they never know exactly what that secret might be. Myra’s sister, Zora, is always saying something nasty about Doris’s job. “How you put up with all that crap and those awful customers is more than I can imagine.”
Doris just smiles. No one knows and she is not about to let on.
Doris’s childhood was not a good one. She was a middle child. Denton, her older brother, was not a nice person. Nor was her mother, a genuinely nasty, self-absorbed woman constantly bossed Doris around and screamed whenever Doris, who was a bit clumsy as a child, dropped or spilled anything. Things got worse as Doris got older. By the time Doris was ten, her mother, who worked as a hair dresser, saddled her with most of the household chores. As soon as she got home from school, Doris washed all the lady’s breakfast dishes, made the beds, and vacuumed the front room. Then, she started dinner. She did her homework only after she’d cleaned up from dinner.
Doris never said much. And it didn’t matter whether she did or not. Her mother constantly told her, “Shut up if you know what’s good for you.” Doris became even quieter, after her younger sister was born. Zora became her mother’s pet. Doris was expected to clean up after Zora and to remain absolutely silent when Zora was sleeping.
One morning, Doris’s father left for work and never showed up at his job. He just disappeared. He was the only one in the family who seemed to show any interest in her. He would sometimes comb her hair or rub her back. After he disappeared, Doris seemed to disappear as well. She could go for days without saying more than a word or two. No one paid much attention. Certainly not her mother. This was made very clear when her breasts began to show. She was twelve the first time Denton raped her. Soon, it became a regular event – as often as Denton was able to buy a condom from a friend at school or to steal one from their mother’s supply – until Denton had an accident.
Doris’s mother kept a pistol in an unlocked drawer in her bedroom. “In case my husband, that bastard, ever comes back,” she said. “None of the kids knew it was there. Denton must have been snooping, found it, and accidentally shot himself.”
Two years after that, Doris left home. She got a job in a bakery, finished high school, and moved out with little more than the clothes on her back. Her mother was furious. “Who was going to do all the housework and cooking?” But there was nothing she could do. Doris was no longer a child and had found a place to live with a few other girls her age.
Then, Doris got married. Norbert was a good deal older, an electrician who thought he was the luckiest man in the world. “You may not think she’s gorgeous but I do. And she’s young and knows how to cook. She’s quiet though. I wish she’d laugh more.” That’s how he described her to Willy, his business partner. When Doris wanted to enroll in a cosmetology school, Norbert happily footed the bill.
But there were a few clouds on the horizon. One of them was children. He wanted them. She did not. A side issue was sex. After the first year with Norbert, she became increasingly unenthusiastic. And then, there was religion. He was deeply religious. Doris went the church on Sunday only because he did and he disliked that.
He drowned two years after they were married. They were on vacation and were out in a canoe in the evening. It was almost dark. She said he leaned over and the canoe tipped. She hung on to the canoe and called for help. He never came up.
It was hard to say just what happened. Norbert was known to be a good swimmer. He had been on the swim team in high school and had been a lifeguard at a local country club. It seemed that he may have hit his head when the canoe tipped.
Shortly after that, Doris got the job at the department store. She didn’t seem to mourn Norbert very much. A couple of people thought she almost seemed relieved. They didn’t know she and Norbert’s partner, Willy, had been meeting at least once a week for extended lovemaking sessions. Doris was terrified Norbert would find out. His death eliminated that concern. And no one seemed the wiser. Or interested.
That is, until they found her father. In a shallow grave in the woods near Doris’s childhood home. The axe was still stuck in the back of his skull.
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.
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.”
Things are nice and peaceful these days. There are hiccups now and again but nothing that a bit of planning and persistence wouldn’t cure. Dennis’s place has a great reputation and a very loyal clientele. He calls it a “joint,” his name for any restaurant or bar, regardless of how unprepossessing or fancy it may be. He began taking ownership of it fifteen years ago from his business partner and has always made sure that it delivers more for the money than any competitor. He has a few very expensive items on the menu. And there are two or three wines that are outrageous. But most everything else is very reasonably priced and top quality. Every couple of years, Dennis closes down for a couple of weeks and the joint gets a significant restoration and upgrading. It first opened fifty years ago and, back then, it was all dim lighting, dark woods, and white table clothes. These days, it’s evolved into mostly sleek, shiny surfaces which contrast with and highlight the dark wood paneling and old-time bar that remains. Most nights, Dennis is there greeting people, solving any problem that might arise, and running the place. Every once in a while, he lets his brother come in and run things. The place is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday is quiet so they don’t open until four o’clock. They use Tuesday morning for business discussions, staff training, and trying out new dishes with everyone who works in the joint, from busboys on up. So, no one gets worn out. With a few exceptions, Dennis has a loyal staff. One reason is he pays more. Another is great benefits. In short, Dennis’s Restaurant and Bar is a well-run and successful joint. Of course, this was not always the case. When Dennis’s original business partner, Lana, bought it, it was on what seemed to be its last legs, a dinosaur among all the hip joints in its neighborhood. And, with a little less attention to detail, it might not be again. But not as long as Dennis is there. It’s important to remember: Dennis had a history of being considered aimless and a loser. And he claims he is always running scared; there were once people after him, he says. Not that long ago. And there may be again. He says he’s always looking over his shoulder. It’s a habit he learned young. Or so he says. As he tells it, he was pretty crazy as a kid. At fourteen, he robbed a jewelry store at gunpoint. He wore a mask and some clothes he had stolen off a clothesline. No one recognized him. He ditched the jewelry and kept the cash. He was never caught but says he figured they had to catch up with him sometime. Whether this story is true or not is hard to say. But, as one of the kids Dennis hung out with back then says, “Just another Dennis-tall-tale. Dennis just don’t run that fast.” Dennis likes to claim he had a very rough childhood, that he had to join a gang at an early age, was a chronic truant, and was almost sentenced to time in a juvenile facility. None of that is true. Despite Dennis’s claims otherwise, he grew up in a relatively affluent suburb in a privileged household with loving and attentive parents. His father owned a car dealership. His mother was a nurse. What does seem to be at least partly true is he wasn’t much of a student and spent a lot of time as a kid by himself, listening to rock-and-roll, and smoking weed when he could get it. He recalls how all his friends seem to know what they wanted to do when they grew up but he hadn’t a clue. He says, “It was like I was headed toward some sort of cliff and who-knows-what after I got there.” Also mostly true, the story about Dennis dropping out of high school and joining the US Marines. This disappointed his parents who had high hopes for him becoming the family’s first college graduate. His older brother had left school to take a job busing in restaurants and his younger sister was still in grade school. Based on his records and a medal he earned under fire, Dennis had a very successful and honorable tour of duty in the Marines. And he got to see a bit of the world. Stationed in Europe and in the Far East, Dennis learned something about cuisine and sex. He says he tried a lot of both. But one tour of duty was enough for him. The trouble was, once discharged, he still didn’t know what to do with himself. He was still headed for that cliff. He knew a return to school was not an option for him. But he was big and strong. And the Marines taught him how to do hard work. So, he took a job as waiter and bartender in a college bar. Which is where he says he met Melanie. She was about ten years older than Dennis and, recalling their first meeting, Dennis says, “She was absolutely amazing. Not beautiful but very hot. And very cool. I was just a jerk back then. But she must have seen something. When I think about it, she took over my world and changed my life.” She said she’d meet him after his shift and she did. He was a happy man. And from what she says, she was a very happy woman. “Dennis is gorgeous. He’s young. A little innocent. And he makes me very happy,” she said to a co-worker at her catering company. But whether all that Dennis claims about his relationship with Melanie is true isn’t clear. There’s no question though, she taught him plenty. She took him into her catering company and taught him how to run a business, to make customers happy, and to think about owning and running a restaurant. He claims she also taught him about “the fine art of lovemaking.” She only laughs when the subject comes up. “He’s a good kid. Will do any job, no matter how messy or hard. Strong. Good on his feet. And a quick learner. And maybe I helped him as much as he helped me.” Over time, their relationship became less intimate and more professional. She began dating an older man. He began seeing a co-worker named Deidre. Melanie didn’t think much of Deidre. “A bitch if there ever was one. I should have fired her ass out of here three days after I hired her.” Melanie admits there was a bit of jealousy involved. Deidre was and still is a doll and about 10 years younger than Melanie. Melanie says, “How was I supposed to compete with jailbait? But it was more ego than jealousy. The Dennis thing was getting a little old. I needed someone more my age.” The Dennis-Deidre wedding ceremony was casual and, apparently, so was their marriage. Deidre, it turns out, is what you might call a serial hook-up artist, always jumping in bed with someone she’s picked up. It was all over about as fast as it had begun. He says they parted as friends; Deidre says otherwise. While Melanie wasn’t going to welcome him home, she kept him on as an employee of her catering business. Dennis had learned well and was her best worker. When he ran an assignment, it always turned out well. And over next five years, Melanie gave him more and more responsibility. And paid him well. Other than that, though, Dennis still saw himself as a loser with no clear direction in his life. His parents tried to seem otherwise but it was clear to him that they were disappointed in him. His sister was more tolerant. She was a great student, gave her parents the college graduate they had hoped for, went to law school, and joined one of those fancy law firms downtown. She couldn’t figure Dennis out. She knew he was smart enough and a hard worker. And she knew he had good friends who saw a lot of good in him. When they met, Melanie told her he was really good at his job. Melanie also said that she was planning to close down her catering business and retire. “So,” she said, “In about six months, Dennis would be out of a job unless he could figure out what to do next.” Even with that warning, Dennis refused to plan ahead. Or even to think about what he might want to do. When Melanie closed down, Dennis was stunned. He knew it was coming. He even knew the day when Melanie would close things up. But until it happened, he somehow didn’t think it was real. He spent the first day he was on his own sitting on a bench watching cars. Every day in the next month was similar to that first day. Dennis would get up, eat something for breakfast and walk around. Dennis couldn’t figure out what to do next. He was sitting on that same bench doing the same thing – watching traffic – when a woman in jeans and a sweater walked up, sat down next to him. Her name was Lana. She said, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I need your help running a saloon I’m buying. Come on. Let me show it to you.” Dennis and Lana knew each other from some party that Dennis helped to cater. And they’d run into each other at one event or another over the past couple of years. But until that moment, she was just someone that Dennis knew sort of vaguely. He had a lot of casual acquaintances. So, when she asked him to look at her new saloon, he trailed along figuring he had nothing better to do. And, looking back, he had to admit, he was very glad he did. He liked the look of the place. He could see taking a date there. He could imagine working the bar or maybe being the host. He felt comfortable. He wasn’t so sure about Lana. He couldn’t figure her out then. And he still can’t after all the years he was in business with her. Lana’s gay so there’s no sex involved. And she is all business with him. They never spent time together outside of business. She seemed to have a lot of money but from where, who knows? He knows she’s older than him but can’t even figure how much older. She never showed interest in his personal life. Dennis met Lana’s partner once. It was quick “hello.” That’s it. A young woman dressed in black with very large sunglasses. And the one thing that really perplexed him was the deal Lana made with him. As part of his pay, he would get a chunk of the business. The longer he stayed and built the business up, the larger his chunk would be. And Lana wanted Dennis’s name on the door. She said, “If everything works out, you will own this place one day.” When he started to ask why, Lana said, “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.” One thing that Dennis did know was that, from the beginning, a good part of the clientele, especially late at night, was gay. At first, Dennis wasn’t too happy with that. It made him a little nervous somehow. But over time, he made some very close friends among that late-night crowd. One of them. George, introduced Dennis to his second and current wife. She’s George’s little sister. Talking with her late one night about his life so far, Dennis said Lana’s showing up at that park bench where he was sitting watching traffic was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Things got even better when Lana told Dennis she was selling him her remaining stake in the business. It would be over time so that she would always have some income. At first, she’d still come in and give Dennis or his brother a night off but, after a while, there’d be a month or two at a time when she would be gone. She and her partner were going to travel. And finally, without going into any detail, she announced would not be coming in at all. All she said was, “There’re reasons but I need to be out of town and gone.” When it comes to stuff with Lola, Dennis knows not to ask why. This was a couple of years back. Dennis has heard from Lana just a couple of times since then. About six months ago, a couple of men and a woman showed up asking for her. They looked like cops and they were. Federal agents. Dennis explained he hadn’t seen Lana or her partner in a while and the last message he’d gotten from them was a brief email asking him to shred and burn the contents of a box she’d left in the restaurant’s wine cellar. That was maybe a year ago. Yes, he did what she asked. No, he did not look at the contents. Yes, he did have an email address but the last note he’d sent to that address came back “Failure notice. Sorry, we were unable to deliver your message to the following address.” No, he hadn’t kept any of her emails. Dennis gave them the email address that he had for Lana. But he neglected to tell them, before she left, Lana had his bank set up a system for wiring money to a numbered account in Switzerland. After they left, he wondered whether he should have told them. Dennis talked it over with his wife. She said see the lawyer you use for your business. The lawyer’s reaction to his experience struck Dennis as odd. Maybe one question too many. “What do you mean there were three of them? What did they want” What did you say? You didn’t tell them where Lana might be, did you?” But he also tried to be reassuring, “No need to go out of your way. Maybe, if they come back, you can say you forgot about the wiring money thing. If they come back, you can tell them then. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it if you need my help.” It was only later that Dennis remembered his business’s lawyer was also Lana’s lawyer. For a while, Dennis wondered if his joint was being watched. But time went by. He had other things on his mind. There was another renovation to think about. The kids were getting ready for junior high. He missed the first story in the news. But he saw the follow-up story; the one on TV about how the FBI wanted to speak with a local woman and with a shot of the woman’s lawyer saying, “No comment. Lawyer-client privilege.” Dennis figured he better get his own lawyer, just in case
Leonard never talked about his job. Of course, that’s just what everyone wants to hear about. And, to make matters worse, Leonard never has much to say about anything. Or has anything he necessarily wants to share. His wife, Linda, called him “The Grunt.” And she made grunt jokes. Which was fine with him. He was crazy about her. They married right out of high school. He continued on in school, first at a junior college and then at a state college where he got a degree in Government. She went right to work after high school, as a receptionist. To make ends meet while he was in high school and, then, in college, Leonard worked in a hardware store. When he graduated college, he went right into the police academy, got his badge and went to work as a patrolman. He drove a cruiser for five years, dealing with accidents, speeders, drunks, random burglaries, and assorted human failings. As soon as he was eligible, he studied to become a detective. By the time he made detective, he and Linda had two kids and she was beginning to make a little money as a real estate agent. Things were good. After being ten years on the force, Leonard made detective-sergeant. He was also gaining a lot of respect as a very effective investigator. And an excellent interrogator. If you asked him why he was so good at it, he’d say, “Who knows? I just do the job.” And then, he’d give his secret away: “What do you think? What would make a big oaf like me with half a brain any good at this business?” And then, he’d just listen. And when you say something, he seems intensely interested and eager to hear more. More times than he can count, Leonard will patiently listen to a suspect until he’s got enough to bring charges without the suspect even knowing how it happened. Once he made sergeant, Leonard never wanted another promotion. Making captain would mean being an administrator. Not his thing. So, he settled into a job he loved and figured that’s where he’d be until retirement. He’d come home most nights in time to see the news and have a couple of pops, have dinner, and doze off watching sports or some movie on TV. All of which left Laura a little bored. It was fine when the kids were young but not so fine now the oldest, a girl, was starting law school and their little boy was in the Coast Guard. It helped that her days were busy. Her real estate career had blossomed beyond her wildest dreams. And she was meeting people she could never have imagined meeting, especially since she got involved with a residential design firm. That’s where she met Ricky, the brother of one of the women she worked with. It was one of those things that people fall into when they let themselves. They had almost nothing in common – she, a cop’s wife with limited education; he, a divorced architect and single parent with degrees in Art History from a big-name university and a graduate degree in Architecture from a school in Italy. Both of them knew that this was a bad idea. But there wasn’t a lot of hesitation or soul-searching for either of them. So, one minute they were exchanging pleasantries in a parking lot. And the next minute they were headed for a hotel room. And when the door to that hotel room door closed behind them, they couldn’t take their hands off one another. This was going on more or less constantly for about six months without Leonard having a clue. Laura figured that Leonard must know. After all, he’s a detective. And a good one. Despite the attraction she felt for Ricky, she loved and admired Leonard. And so, as the romance went on and deepened, she started feeling more and more guilty. One evening, she couldn’t stand it anymore and confessed. It was the same way a lot of people confessed to Leonard. She talked. He never said a word until she finished. When she was done, he said he wasn’t surprised. He explained that while he’d suspected nothing specific, he had noticed how cheery she seemed recently. It wasn’t like her. And then, he said, he understood and he forgave her. He loved her. And so, that was that. She and Ricky tapered off. Leonard tried to pay a lot more attention at home. He retired two years later, after which he and Laura decided to divorce. It was time.
Daisy has a smooth-as-glass façade. She works hard at it. She spends hours on her appearance. Has her hair cut and styled at a chic boutique. Wears designer clothes. Works out and eats an almost starvation, mostly vegetarian diet; meditates religiously; and is very careful about her personal hygiene. She turns up at the hottest clubs, is always in attendance at every major social event. She is also highly organized and very good at her job which is talking knowledgably about contemporary art and selling very expensive artwork to very rich collectors. Don’t let Daisy’s air of sophistication, her apparent self-assurance, or her social skills fool you. And very definitely don’t let her very busy social life lead you to the wrong conclusion. At 28, she has, until two months ago, lived at home with her divorced mother. While she will greet you with apparent pleasure, give you a sparkly big smile and a hug, it is all a ruse. She is terrified of strangers and, in particular, of men she finds attractive. And, for that matter, she is terrified of women she finds attractive as well. She wishes it were somehow different. As she reluctantly admits after glass or three of Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, her “real” life feels empty. She does not have and, in truth, never has had anything more than a superficial relationship with anyone. And it has to be said, she makes sure it stays that way. Her dates are invariably gay, charming and fun but social props. Or they are self-absorbed hustlers – men who she quite rightly observes are only interested in one thing: “Scoring Miss Daisy.” Or much older men, usually family friends. When she is with girlfriends, she complains bitterly about not finding “the right guy” or about how all men are such pigs. She got that last line from her mother who, after fleeing a marriage to a well-connected but alcoholic man, let herself go for years, cloistering herself and Daisy in a dark house, licking her wounds and filling Daisy with warnings about getting too close to others. So, leaving home for college was a shock, sometimes plain scary, for Daisy. That’s when she developed her smooth-as-glass façade. Always charming and warm, but distant. Her way to take part in the world but to avoid any real involvement in it. And up until recently it worked pretty well. That is until her mother turned everything upside down by getting over her anger and bitterness, fixing herself up, getting out of the house, taking art lessons, and meeting Charlie. He’s fifteen years younger than Daisy’s mother, A polite, thoughtful, and helpful man. A fair tennis player. A moderately successful realtor. Not bad looking either. When Daisy’s mother told her what was up, Daisy went a little nut. It didn’t help that when Daisy’s initial reaction was speechless shock, her mother laughed. “What’s the big deal, Daisy? I’m still young and Charlie is hot.” The next day Daisy said to herself, “Time to move out and get a place of my own.” When she told her mother about her decision, her mother said, “About time.” Charlie, being a realtor and helpful by inclination, found her a great place. She’s worked hard to decorate it in a style that reflects how she wants to be seen. When she isn’t off to some social event, Daisy comes home, makes a few calls to clients in other time zones, reads professional art periodicals, and sits on her post-modern couch waiting for something to happen, what she cannot imagine.