I am an artist and illustrator. And these “episodes” are quick sketches of and stories about people that I meet or have met over the years. I do the drawings first, keeping them simple and spontaneous but (hopefully) sophisticated. They are with perhaps one or two exceptions, line drawings done with a fine-line pen. I started doing these drawings in business meetings. That expanded to doing them in waiting rooms or while traveling, as a way to remember the people I met, worked with, or just observed from afar. Once I’d done a number of these sketches, I began to wonder about the people they depict. What might they be really like on the inside? What are their dreams? Their fears? Their secrets? Since I did not know the people I was drawing (or because I did not know them well), I felt ill-at-ease about asking personal questions. And so, I began to create stories about these people, based on what I imagine their life is like. That way, each drawing became a kind of psychological adventure; I never knew, when I sat down to write, what I was going to find. Like the drawings themselves, the stories are not to scale or photographic. If there is any prevailing theme, it is this: people keep their inner world well-hidden and probably for damn good reason. A secondary theme: making stuff up is much more fun than reality. And in a way, that is the real truth in all this. If you would like to learn more about me or my work please send a note. Our email: email@example.com
Audrey always had big dreams and a mind her teenage spiritual advisor called, “…unfortunately a bit twisted.” Her father bought her a very nice digital camera when she was at the end of her junior year of high school. A birthday present. The idea was she would use it to shoot family pictures and nature. And maybe make a little money. Audrey did some of that. It is not clear how she got adolescent boys to pose nearly naked. But she did and those pictures landed her in counseling sessions with her family’s spiritual advisor, a lay preacher who was supposed to have good intentions but really didn’t and was also not what he claimed to be. He was no compassionate healer of those beset by the Dark One. He told Audrey her pictures were the work of the devil and she must pray with him to drive the evil from her mind. He also let his hands wander as they prayed and, during Audrey’s third prayer session with him, attempted to rape her. Audrey was a strong kid. She wrestled free. His pants were down and she kicked. Twice. As he lay, curled on the floor, screaming in pain, swearing to kill her, she ran home. Her parents weren’t there so she called her father at his job and told him what happened with the “helpful preacher.” His response was not what Audrey expected: “I know what happened. He called me. He told me how you tried to entice him to sin. You are a possessed child who needs treatment. I will be home soon. Go to your room and pray for your soul.” Years later, Audrey still can’t believe what her father said. “It was insane. How could my father say such things? He believed that creep over me. All I knew is I needed to get away and as fast as I could. I grabbed my camera, some clothes, and all the money I’d been saving for my school’s class trip. And I got the hell out of there. I don’t know how I knew how to disappear but I did. I know they looked for me and reported me to the police as a delinquent. But I had just turned 18 so that probably went nowhere. Anyway, I had a couple of friends downtown who had an apartment. I hid out there for a couple of weeks. I had the good sense to ditch my phone and not use any credit cards. Anyway, some guy I barely knew offered me a lift out of town to New York City. I couldn’t imagine doing something like that today. Getting in a car with a near stranger and heading halfway across country. But I had a little luck. He was a sweetie-pie. And, yes, we slept together but it was because I thought he was cute and I wanted to. It was my first time. He was very helpful about the whole thing. And when we got to New York, he put me in touch with a friend of his who said she’d put me up if I could help with the rent. Two days later, I was delivering pizza and getting tips. And two months later, I had a job as a receptionist at a small advertising agency. The owner kept hitting on me but it was no big deal. The women in the agency protected me. And somewhere along the way, I started taking pictures of odd things I saw. When I showed my photos to one of the art directors, he went nuts over them. He set me up with a photo agency. I made a lot of money for them, always working on the side as a freelancer while I kept my job as a receptionist at that little advertising agency. I always figured it would all come to end and I’d need a regular paycheck. I was just this little kid from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with no real training. I figured someone is going to find out what a fraud I was and send me home. But they never did. I got picked up by a photo agency and they got me a bunch of work. 426 And then there was that show about my photos that was on national news. The local paper where my parents live made a “local-girl-makes-good-in New-York-City” fuss about it. Front page. My parents saw it. And the newspaper helped them get in touch with me. Lots of recriminations. It turns out that spiritual adviser had hit on a couple of other girls after me and got caught. Went to jail. Bastard. Served him right. After I was on the phone with my parents, listening to their crap, how I should come home and everything will be just like it was, I had enough. I told them, ‘I had a life and they weren’t in it. Goodbye.” And I hung up. Somethings you just can’t fix.
About five years after that, I got married. A nice Jewish boy. His name is Peter. He had the same sort of tussle with his parents I had, sort of. They were pretty upset when he quit college. He said it was a waste of time for him. He got a job in metal working shop as a customer service and sales person. They specialized in ornamental and architectural metalwork. He says he was very good at it. I think he’s right about that. Peter still works for the same company, although now he’s the owner and it’s a multi-million-dollar business. They get business from all over the world. So, his parents ended up being pretty pleased with him. They ended up being pretty pleased with me as well. Not so much at first. They tried. I wasn’t Jewish which bothered them at first. And they sort of freaked out when I told them about my family and how I ran away from home and how I never went back. I told them the whole story. I’m not quite sure about what Peter’s family made of it all. One thing for sure, they right away got the idea I wasn’t anything like any other girl Peter brought home. And I was pretty self-sufficient. Peter said like it or not, this was it. And both his parents did their best to be nice. And after a while, they really were. They took me in. Peter’s father said, if I wanted, maybe he could try to maybe smooth things over with my parents. His thought was, ‘OK, your father made a dumb mistake, but he’s the one who got you started taking pictures. So, maybe there’s something there. Who knows?’ True enough. Petey’s father was very nice to make the offer. But I still said no. I figured my folks would not take very kindly to this smooth-talking, big-time lawyer who happened to be Jewish. And mostly, I didn’t really want anything to do with them. But I have to admit I changed my tune a bit when the first baby came. Then, I figured what the hell, blood is thicker than water and all that crap. The reunion was nice but strained. They knew I was and am still pissed. I can’t help it. They believed that bastard preacher over their own daughter. That ain’t right. I still get furious when I think about it. So, anyway, I tried. But, in the end, I don’t owe my father or my mother a thing. And they know enough now to keep their distance. Sometimes my feelings about it all it shows up in my work. A dark tinge in photos that are supposed to be warm and happy. It sneaks in and gives the photos a little twist that sets them apart. Even in the family pictures I do for private clients. Once in a while you can see that little zing in my commercial work when I don’t edit it out. Companies making political or public service ads seem to like it a lot. It’s supposed to give their advertising an “authentic” look. But it shows up especially in editorial and artistic work. No matter what, everyone seems to know things are never quite what they seem.
Since the heart attack, Big Al hasn’t been the same. He’s had two other heart attacks, just minor ones, a couple of years back. They took him off the road. No more hitting one club after another for months at a time. But he could still play and he was able to work local a couple of nights a week. There were more than a few folks who thought he was the best clarinet player around. And he could always sub in on saxophone if he was needed. But the last heart attack was no fun at all. He couldn’t walk without a cane and had trouble catching his breath. And finally, after a life in the back seat of cars, on buses, and on trains, he was home for good. His wife was not too happy at first. Al had no idea what was going on when he was away. But Sandra wasn’t sitting around the house being lonely, not since the kids were out on their own. And what was going on while Al was on the road was plenty. But by the time he had his heart attack, she had enough of what she thought of as “wild nights.” At first, it wasn’t too bad. He was a week in the hospital. And when he came home, she had to be a fulltime caregiver for him. Al couldn’t do much himself except stagger to the bathroom. And he wasn’t used to being at home anyway. He just assumed meals got cooked by someone, like when he was on the road. And laundry somehow got done. And never mind cleaning up. All he knew how to do was make music, get paid, and send money home. His band got booked by some creep in New York. The travel arrangements got taken care of. He made music. That was it. No one expected more of him than that. And he was happy. He’d get home every couple of months, spend time with Sandy and the kids. Visit with a few old friends. And then, he’d be off again, sort of like a stray cat that stops by every now and then for a bowl of milk. When he was on the road, he’d do as he pleased. A woman here. A woman there. Sleep half the day, until it was time to play. Drink too much. Smoke weed. Have a few laughs. If he sat down and thought about it, he’d agree in two seconds, this was not a good way to live. But when he was on stage in a noisy room, playing like there was nothing else in the whole world – that made it all worth it. But after he got out of the hospital, sitting at home in a chair, unable to do much, he thought about killing himself. They told him he’d get better. “You just have to take it a bit easier. You’ll be out and about before you know it.” That’s what the rehab guy said. Al wasn’t buying it. He sat around feeling sorry for himself until Sandy told him to get off his ass and start living again. This was a couple of months after he landed in the hospital. She sent the caregiver away and told Al he was well enough and had to start taking care of himself. She had a life to live and he did too. Al learned how to do things around the house. And he started taking walks. Not far at first. Shambling along with a cane. He probably didn’t need the cane but he liked the idea of walking with it and using it as a prop. Not as good as a clarinet. But good for laughs he figured. He’d step out in the street and drivers seeing this old fool with a cane would jam on the brakes. He’d wave it around if he had a conversation with someone. Or use it to point out things. Then, he picked up a few gigs and the cane became part of the act. He had this funny, old hat he wore too. And after a while, he was back to his old life, if a less strenuous version of it. Which is how he started fooling around with this little gal who took a shine to him. And that is how Sandy, when she found out, said she had enough and told him to get out. She was bluffing but it scared the hell out of him. He begged her to take him back. She did. But with certain stipulations. So, in his old age, Big Al stopped the crap and became what he called “a gooder person.” In saying that, he usually added, “It’s them damn stipulations what’s done it.”
Back then, it would have been really easy to say, “I hate my life.” But given how rich my parents were, it would have been not just ungrateful but obnoxious. And I was obnoxious enough as it was. When my parents were alive, I was the cliché of the little rich kid: bratty, imperious, just plain nasty, but also lonely and emotionally needy. I was and still am pretty sure I was the result of a drunken accident. Not wanted. An inconvenience. My parents were terrible at being parents. I had nannies, tutors, and companions until they shipped me off to school. And once that happened, I’d only see my parents when they flew me to wherever they were having fun, having flings, drinking much too much. Daddy was really smart, made piles of money in real estate and in finance. Mommy was an ornament. If they weren’t killed in that car crash, they surely would have divorced. I grew up with almost no one I could feel close. I had no sense of direction. When I got to the very prestigious boarding school they dumped me in, I was disobedient, disruptive in class, and nasty, convinced the school was a dumping ground for unwanted children or a prison. I was not popular. But after a while, things got better. what saved me from being a total slug was the brains I inherited from Daddy. Despite myself, I began reading everything I got my hands on, loved math, wrote poetry, and found myself in one advanced class after another. I graduated high school at 16 and went on to what can only be described as an exceptional college career. I graduated magna cum laude and was supposed to started on an advanced degree. But right after I graduated college – the very next week, in fact – Mommy and Daddy had their car accident. And things got very weird very fast. I needed to grow up fast. Daddy had named me not only as his sole heir but also head of all the businesses he owned, companies I knew nothing about. Most of the people involved in those companies – almost all overbearing men with loud voices – were lying bastards out to steal what they could from me. To them, I was this dumb, naïve kid, a nuisance who stood in the way of their getting whatever they wanted. In a few cases, “whatever they wanted” was me in bed with them. Some seemed fatherly, supportive, and helpful. They were the worst. My graduate school plans went out the window. And my personal life, what little there was of it, went to hell. No big deal. Men found me attractive enough; both my parent had been very good looking. But most of the boys I was in school with saw me as standoffish, stuck-up, and intimidating. I had better grades than any of them. And I pushed buttons too. Like it wasn’t smart of me to think I could attract boys by driving around in a Mercedes sports car. And I was a smarty pants who was a pretty good tennis player. So, I tended to end up with jerks conceited enough to think they were hot stuff. Some were pretty good looking and amusing but that was it. I dated one or another of them from time to time. Nothing serious. And that all stopped when I had to get my head around the situation my father left me in and make sure everything was as it should be. It all took longer than I ever expected. I had to learn stuff quickly and I did. But the business world wasn’t for me. Too many misogynists. Too much dumb stuff. I did not like being so tough. And I had to be a tough SOB from time to time. I turned everything into investments so I could do what I really wanted. And suddenly, there I was. I went back to school, got a Ph.D., got a job in a research company, met a guy at a conference and married him and started my own foundation. There’s a kid coming and I’m hoping we’ll be a better parent than the ones I had. Of course, it never hurts to have roughly one hundred million in the bank.
Randy is doing a lot better in life than he ever expected. He has a job he loves and pays well enough. He’s got a very nice family: a very nice and helpful wife. Two good little kids, two boys. Even a dog that never barks except when there is a problem. Like the time someone tried to break in. He’s a sculptor and he’s in some of the best galleries he could want. But despite all that, somethings always eating him. He has this sneaky feeling it is all going to collapse and he’ll end up on the street. His thinking is there is no reason he should be doing so well other than dumb luck. And easy come, easy go. His family growing up was poor and pretty much uneducated, at least about the art world. They still think what he does isn’t really real. “A flash-in-the-pan” is how his mother put it when the local newspaper did a full page on Randy and his work. “Don’t go getting some big ideas. When those fancy artsy types catch on, they’ll drop you like a hot brick.” Randy’s wife keeps telling him to ignore that kind of stuff. Still, it always got to him. He went to a shrink for a while. But the shrink didn’t get it. He told Randy to have faith in himself and, anyway, he had plenty of money in the bank and, if he needed to, he could always get a job teaching. Randy started doing a lot of staring out the window and making a lot of small, tortured sculptures. And for a while, Randy started staying away from his studio. He was on a road trip with his pal, Franky, when he got news about a new show. In Paris. A big deal. Just six months away. Half the pieces would be from inventory, Randy’s London gallery had already presold all but two of them. But four or five new major pieces would be needed. Suddenly, Randy was back in the saddle, making stuff; in the studio working away almost around the clock. He denies it but his wife swears he was singing and dancing when, one day, she came by with sandwiches for lunch. When someone said, “Sounds like fun afternoon,” she blushed, chuckled to herself, and agreed.
“I’ve taught every damn grade from kindergarten – even pre-K – through twelve. And most of the kids I’ve taught end up being my friend. For the last ten years, I’ve taught senior year English. It’s more a writing course than anything else. I have a reading list but that’s just to make sure they’ve got their noses into something decent to read. They watch a lot of junk on the internet. And they get ideas from video games. That won’t do for me. And I make them write a story every week. Not more than say 500 words. I’ve had parents tell me that’s too hard for their kid. I tell them, ’Crap. It doesn’t have to be great literature or something. Just a story. About anything.’ I’ve had a kid write a story about a bug. A bug! Can you believe it. It gets swatted at the end. I loved it. If course there are some kids who just ain’t going to anything no matter what. That’s when I tell them about my life and all the crap I went through to survive. And what I know about jail. And about getting shot. And what happens when the cops get pissed off for some dumb thing you did. And they get the feeling I know what I’m talking about. And maybe I know a thing or two. But no matter what I say, some kids just don’t give a crap and ain’t going to listen. Funny, these are the ones who come back to visit year after year. They talk about being in Mrs. Wickham’s class. I always tell my students they should never come back after they finish my course. Most – especially to ones who put out the work and wanted to learn – I don’t ever see again. They know better. I want them to move on. But some of them still stay in touch, one way or another. They send me things or send me notes. Sometimes I get amazing things, like news about a prize or a scholarship they’ve won. A couple have sent me books they’ve written. You have no idea what that does to me.”
“I’d be a whole lot happier if I were an auto mechanic.” Arno tells that to anyone after he’s had a bit of Bourbon. He invariably goes into all the reasons why. “What I do is a high wire act and the wire breaks more often than I like. There’s a lot of stress. And a lot of times when there are people coming to me with something bad and I can’t do a thing for them. I don’t know what’s worse, a patient dying on me – either on the table or after I’ve worked on them – or when I have to tell them, I can’t help them. A car, you junk it and get a new one if you can’t fix it.” But, in the end, that’s all a bunch of crap. Arno loves being a high wire act. He loves the danger. The idea almost no one else can do what he does. The gratitude he gets when he performs what some would call a miracle. Just think about what he does for fun. There’s the sky diving and the flying a stunt plane. And sailing across the Atlantic by himself on a 30-foot sailboat. And when he’s not complaining about not being an auto mechanic, he can be more that a bit of a pompous ass. When he gets a chance to go at a captive audience, like at a dinner party. Or when having a drink with his operating room crew, he loves to go on about a subject he thinks he knows a lot about. Some battle in the 100 years war. French painting in the mid-19th century. Is he impressed with himself? You bet. Was that why his third wife – and the two before her – left him? Could have been a bunch of reasons but that was probably one of them. We don’t know for sure. Arno is pretty mum about his private life when he wants to be. Every now and then, though, something surfaces. It usually involves a very bright, very intense, athletic woman, at least 20 or 25 years younger than Arno, someone who could almost be his daughter. Once it was someone his daughter’s age, her college roommate. These adventures usually end in a fiasco. As bright and clever as Arno is, he can be a jerk about this sort of stuff. It’s got him into trouble at work too. In the old days, even five years ago, he could get away with it. Even his wives usually looked the other way. The thinking was: this guy is so good at saving lives, we will have to forgive him his stupidities. Not anymore. He’s been warned and, lately, he seems to be settling on an older woman who may just terrify him. Not that she’s big and muscular. She keeps herself slim and trim but dresses fairly modestly. But she’s smarter than him and he knows it. She calls him an idiot when he behaves badly, tells him to knock it off when he starts pontificating, and otherwise sets him straight, when necessary, while telling him it is for his own good. And he knows that’s true. He also knows that if he were to be fired for some dumb behavior, he would be emotionally devastated, likely clinically depressed, even suicidal. “After all, how many years of practice do I have left? At my age, a ten-hour surgery almost kills me. It is physically a killer. And it just drains you. So, for the next couple of years, I better listen and do what I’m told. But it still pisses me off.”
When Dennis was twelve years old, he saw his first porn movie. His eyes just about popped out of his head. This was a long time ago. It was a videocassette that his friend, Dexter, found in the back of a closet when Dexter’s older brother went back to college. When Dennis got over his first reaction to what had up until that moment had been beyond anything he might otherwise have imagined, he said, “I just figured out what I want to do for a living.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing, including Dexter’s sister, Maddy, and her friend, Grace. Dennis was a short and pudgy kid with curly hair and thick glasses. He was laughing too. He was always coming up with stuff like that, sort of self-deprecating but in a confident way. He liked getting laughs and did what he thought he had to do to get them.
It did not hurt that he was not only short, pudgy, and bespectacled, but also very cute, at least in the eyes of some young ladies, including Grace. Both being twelve at the time of the “the great porn video” as it became known, she kept this to herself. And for his part, Denny wouldn’t know what to do with Grace’s interest in him in any case.
Anyway, the story about Dennis’s “career plans” got around. Dennis was and is one of those people everyone likes. Kids started calling him “Porn King.” Dennis would do a little hip wiggle and everyone would laugh. Dennis was not exactly class clown, his grades and his presidency of the debating society precluded that. But he loved entertaining and the attention that went with it. With little or no musical ability, he started a band with a couple of friends. They called it the Porn Kings. They weren’t very good and Dennis was the worst. It was clear from the start; Dennis and the electric guitar were never to get along.
And it was all great fun until Dennis’s parent got wind of it. His father was president of his synagogue, a highly respected executive, a philanthropist, and a pillar of the community. In Dennis’s adolescent eyes, this made him a “sell-out.” Lovable and caring but nonetheless, a sell-out. From Dennis’s viewpoint, his mother was even worse. She constantly talked about making a good impression and doing the polite thing. So, when his parents sat him down and told him this “Porn King” or “Porn Kids” or whatever, was to stop and right now, Dennis went from a kid enjoying a long-running joke into his idea of a revolutionary. He had no choice, of course, but to do as they said. He was after all a semi-pubescent twelve-year-old facing down a bar mitzvah, an event he saw as something like a freight train coming down a track with no one at the controls. And Dennis was no fool. He knew his range of options as a junior high school kid was severely limited. no matter how bright and brash. Or how revolutionary he imagined himself.
Most of all, though, Dennis knew the future would be his if only he had the patience to wait. And the brains to keep his ideas to himself. He’d be a good boy. He would do an outstanding job with the bar mitzvah and his parents would be pleased. He would get good grades and limit his jokes to more “acceptable” subjects, and more or less behave himself.
His immediate goal was to spend more time with an English teacher. After that, it was to soften up his parents for a car when he turned sixteen, a birthday that was almost four years away. The English teacher was a “hottie” according to Dennis, a viewpoint he would not share with anyone, as much for her sake as for his. His real interest though was her encouragement with his writing and interest in literature. She said she saw something in his imagination and in the way he expressed himself in writing. He was also intrigued by her reading suggestions. She would mention books most kids his age knew nothing about. They covered an enormous range, some classics, some obscure and very contemporary. Some had sex in them. And foul language. Dennis didn’t care about that, except to make sure his parents didn’t get wind of anything not quite acceptable. Reading what his parents might see as smut would dampen his chances when it came to getting a car at sixteen. Dennis might look like a funny, innocent kid but as friend said on national television many years later, “Denny is always figuring about ten moves ahead of anyone else. When it comes to covering all the angles, I’ve never seen anyone better. And I’ve known him since we were kids.”
The bar mitzvah went off without a hitch. The rabbi said Dennis was one of the best. His Hebrew was flawless and he spoke it with real feeling. His parents were thrilled. As Dennis described it, “That day, maybe only that day, I could do no wrong. It was great.” And there were lots of presents, including a small pile of cash.
Afterward, there was a party with dancing and a fancy dinner at a country club. It was there when Grace, the girl who watched the porn video with Dennis and a few pals, pulled Dennis into a side room and gave him a kiss he would remember for the rest of his life.
It was something he kept to himself for years. He didn’t know what to make of it, at least not for a while. He really didn’t know Grace that well. She went to parochial school and, at the time, she stood a good six inches taller than Dennis. He knew if his parents found out about it, they would be mortified and definitely would have told him to stay away from her.
He didn’t get kissed like that again for some time. Four years to be exact. He would never admit it, even to himself, but well into his teens he was scared of having anything more than most superficial involvement with sex. He worried about his height and about being a little too pudgy. He worried he would do something stupid. He was terrified of being rejected or worse.
He had no idea what he’d do if he ever ran into Grace again. But there was no chance of that. When he asked about her, his pal Dexter said her family had moved clear across the country. And, anyway, she was going to go to a boarding school in Switzerland which his friend described as “a place for unruly girls.”
It never occurred to Dennis that most of the girls he knew or wanted to date were as scared of sex as he was. To him, they all seemed worldly-wise and totally disinterested in a him. That did not mean he stayed away from girls. Several were among his best friends. He was taking extra credit in creative writing and he was the only boy in the after-school class. He also joined his school’s Drama Club. He was just one of three boys who were members.
By the time he was fifteen, Dennis had formed an attachment or two. There was this one girl, Elinor, in the Creative Writing Club. She was also in his English Advanced Placement class. It seemed plain to Dennis she considered him an idiot. She never smiled when he tried to talk to her. When he expressed an opinion, she would ask where he got that idea, as if he had said one of the dumbest ideas in all of human history. She was also clearly the brightest kid in a class of very bright kids. There was this rumor about her asking to get full credit for French. It seems when she met with the head of the school’s French Department and two instructors, she spoke only French and refused to speak English. Her parents spoke French at home. Her mother grew up in France. They gave her the credit she wanted.
She wasn’t what you might call pretty but Dennis could not take his eyes off her. Most other kids thought her weird or “no fun.” They said she wore odd clothing – always dark stuff, long skirts or floppy pants. Her black hair covered her face. She did not hang out with any of the popular girls. When Dennis asked one of them about her, she said, “Elinor is always reading. She got out of gym with some doctor’s excuse. She never says anything except in class. The teachers all love her.” Dennis liked that she was different. He just didn’t know what to do or think about her. He tried to be friendly. He didn’t get much of a response. And so, he didn’t do anything. Not then, anyway.
Dennis turned sixteen during the summer vacation between his sophomore and junior year of high school. It was the summer his folks got him a car. They had to admit, he had been a very good boy. He got good grades, did what he was told for the most part, and made them proud. Instead of hanging out at his parent’s country club going nuts over girls at the swimming pool, he got a job writing a “High School Daze” column for the local newspaper. It didn’t pay much. But it was something. He had pitched the idea for the column on his own when he was in the middle of his freshman year and the editor bought it.
By the beginning of his junior year, Dennis had written at least thirty “High School Daze” columns for the local newspaper and interviewed dozens of people. He’d gotten a bit of a following and high marks from his editor. “Dennis, you are getting really good at writing and I happen to know you’ve increased our readership. Not bad for a sixteen-year-old punk!” In short, Dennis would continue writing for the paper during his junior year and, who knows, beyond. Right through college, it turned out, and until the paper folded.
So, a car. A job he liked and was good at. Dennis was feeling pretty good about himself. There were only two things bothering him. His father’s career concerns. And that girl, Elinor. Why did she think he was such a jerk?
His father was easy. He didn’t think the cub reporter idea was so hot. “This isn’t a career, right? Maybe next year you’ll get a job at the plant and learn about manufacturing management.” Dennis’s father said the same thing about the Drama Club. “You aren’t thinking about being an actor are you, Dennis? Not smart.” Dennis explained he had played just one small role and wasn’t very good at it. What he liked was making plays happen. All the financial stuff. And creating and managing the promotional program. “Nope, I like the business part. Figuring out what play will sell. The publicity, getting the tickets sold, making money for the Drama Club. That’s the part I like. Same thing with the newspaper.” Dennis didn’t say anything about dreading the idea of learning how to run a factory. One thing Dennis learned early in life: Don’t say anything about anything if you don’t know how the conversation is going to go.
And the Elinor issue turned out to be “no biggy” either. First chance he got as his junior year began, he asked her, “Why do you think I’m some kind of jerk?”
She looked surprised. “What are you talking about? Where’d you get that idea?”
“Well, when I try to even just say ‘hello,’ you look at me like ‘Go away.’”
“I do. I don’t mean to. I guess because I was reading or something and maybe that’s how I look. I shouldn’t. I like you. I like when you are around. I listen to what you say in class. It makes me think. So, if I did look annoyed, I’m sorry.” She gave him a little smile. And blushed.
Dennis was totally freaked out. All he could say was, “Oh, OK.”
That year they sat next to each other in Advanced Placement English. They sometimes talked after school. It wasn’t dating or anything like that. They shared an interest, books. A couple of times, they went to a museum together. Once, when a school play rehearsal ran long, Dennis drove her home in his car. But that was it. Anyway, Dennis was dating Henrietta, a girl his parents liked. She was pretty and bubbly. And very polite. As his parents saw it, Henrietta was the sort of girl Dennis should like. And one of his jobs in dating her was to help out her parents and convince her to go to college. She wanted no part of it. She wanted to go to secretarial school and get a job.
The last thing Dennis had in mind was to convince her to go to college. She was fun. She liked going out. She was a good kisser. She knew just how to twist her parents around her finger. While Dennis was pretty good about getting what he wanted from his parents, he was in awe of Henrietta’s ability in that area. She could get just what she wanted from her father. He was also in awe of her resistance to being serious about anything.
Certainly, she wasn’t serious about Dennis. She was dating other boys while she was dating him. He knew it and wasn’t bothered by it. It did not bother him much either when she dropped him. Dates with her were expensive. And, after a while, a little boring.
It was also a relief not to pretend to Henrietta’s parents – and to his own parents as well – about how he was convincing Henrietta to go to college. He always felt guilty about that. “What was I going to say? ‘I never even tried. But making out with Henrietta was fun.’”
His parents got it all wrong. They assumed the “breakup with Henrietta would leave Dennis heartbroken. Dennis went along with it. He told them, “it was hard but I will learn from it.” He did not say what he actually learned: Stay away from air-heads. Nor did he let on that on to no longer having to pretend about getting Henrietta to go to college, he would be able to spend more time and attention to his newspaper columns and to working with the Drama Club. And he did not let on it meant he could spend more time with Elinor.
Dennis knew his parents would not care for Elinor. She was too reserved. She was too intellectual. She was unconventional and very independent. And she was not Jewish. Some kind of Protestant. But since Dennis asked why she thought he was a jerk, they had become good friends. As the weather warmed towards the end of their junior year of high school, they’d go on rides in his car. Or sit after school and argue about a book or an author.
Another thing his parents got wrong; the idea Dennis was looking forward to spending the summer between is junior and senior year working in his father’s factory. To Dennis’s relief his father had left his job running the plant and taken a job with a large consulting firm. There had been some argument at the plant. The consulting firm had been after Dennis’s father for some time. There would be a lot more money coming in. When his father sat him down to explain the situation, he apologized about Dennis’s not being able to work at the plant during the summer. Dennis said he understood and would make do writing newspaper columns. He was getting very good at being taciturn.
When their junior year of high school year was over, Elinor and Dennis kept up the friendship. All very casual. They spent a lot of time talking about the columns Dennis was writing for the local paper. Could they become a book? They went swimming once. They visited bookstores. They traded books. They were pals. Dennis even told her about that porn video he had seen years ago and how his junior high friends back then called him “Porn King.” Elinor laughed so hard, she had a coughing fit.
And the summer sort of breezed along. Until the first week of August. It was on a Tuesday. Dennis and Elinor were going to drive to a picnic spot they liked. Dennis picked her up at her house. About ten minutes into the trip, Elinor said, “Dennis, instead of going to the park, why don’t we go back have our picnic in my backyard. No one’s home. My parents are in France. I’ll make lemonade. We can sit out back. It’s quiet and cool.”
So, they turned around. When they got to Elinor’s house and he was parking out front, she said, “No, don’t park here. Pull in the driveway. Go right in the garage. The neighbors can be nosy.”
They went in the back door of the house. Elinor made lemonade. Then, she and Dennis went back outside. There was a nice table with an umbrella in the backyard and they sat there and talked. Dennis still remembers that table and umbrella, even now, after so many years. And how nice it was to sit there talking.
And, suddenly, in mid-sentence, Elinor said, “Dennis, I need to tell you something. My parents are in France because we are going to move there. In a week, I think. Maybe sooner. And I don’t think we’ll be back. Not ever.”
Dennis was stunned.
He was stunned even more by what she said next, “So, I’m thinking what we should do, while we have the chance, is to go upstairs to my room and make love. Do you think we should? I think we should.”
And they did. When Dennis left it was late in the afternoon. They kissed and cried.
They did not see one another again until Dennis walked into a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He was with one of his authors. They were going to discuss the budget for an upcoming book-tour, the possibility of an appearance on a late-night talk show, and an advance he was going to pitch on the author’s next book. They were old friends. The plan was to do some business, have one drink too many, and have some laughs. And there she was. Sitting at a table toward the back of the restaurant.
When Dennis saw Elinor in that restaurant on a very ordinary and early afternoon, it was like nothing else he had ever experienced. He still can’t describe how he felt or recall what they said to one another or to those who were with them. “I never felt that way until that moment and I haven’t ever felt that way since. It was like, kaboom, my whole world started to spin. With joy? With regret? I don’t really know. All I know is I was so happy to see her.”
Elinor didn’t see Dennis at first. She was in a deep conversation with the people at her table, an older man, and two young women. The older man happened to look up and saw a short, slightly chubby, balding man, maybe in his early fifties, wearing a dark suit, striped shirt, and tie, staring at their table. He gestured to Elinor who turned around, took one look, and made a sound sort like a squawk.
Elinor stood up so fast that her chair fell backwards and took a step toward Dennis, one hand outstretched. He reached out. Their hands barely touched. Dennis said, “It’s been so long. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Did you get my note? I taped it on the front door. I didn’t know what to think when you didn’t try to reach me. I thought that you didn’t want to see me anymore.”
“Note? No.” Dennis explained how he stopped by Elinor’s house as soon as he could the next day, to say “goodbye” again and find out how to reach her and found the house being emptied out by a storage company. There was no note and the furniture movers didn’t know where anyone was.
Elinor said her parents had plane tickets delivered to her just after Dennis left on that late afternoon so long ago. They were for the next morning. A car would pick her up at seven o’clock. She said she called Dennis’s house and spoke to Dennis’s mother, saying Dennis should call immediately. Dennis said his mother never said a word about Elinor’s call.
Thinking back, Dennis said it was the most emotional moment of his life, even more emotional than the trauma of when they found his drowned wife’s body on the beach. Elinor had a similar reaction. She said she thought she might faint.
But there were people with them. Dennis’s author and Elinor’s three people – He was a professor; the two young women were graduate students. Dennis and Elinor explained they were high school friends who had been close a long time ago. And as the two of them explained themselves, some practicalities began butting in. Elinor’s party was supposed to be getting ready to leave the restaurant. The waiters needed to clear their table for the next party. Elinor had a train for Boston to catch. She had a lecture to deliver that night in Cambridge. And the next day, she was expected to fly home to France. She had two sons to attend to. And the only thing Dennis could think of saying was, “I need to talk. I could be in Cambridge tomorrow. I went to college there.”
Elinor explained her every minute was scheduled until she caught her flight. And she had to catch that flight. So, they did the only thing they could at that moment; they exchanged emails, street addresses and phone numbers. They hugged one another, and promised to get in touch. And then, Elinor was off for her train and Dennis for his author’s lunch. The author recalls Dennis as being completely distracted and promising to get a larger than expected advance for the new book they were discussing.
This time Dennis and Elinor were able to stay in touch. Reams of emails. Phone calls. But they were both busy people with very different lives to live. Dennis was transitioning into more senior management roles in his literary agency. There were trips back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. There were movie deals. Even a videogame deal. Elinor was teaching three courses in Comparative Literature. And writing her second book on Mallarme. She talked about what she called a “disheveled personal life.” How she didn’t seem to get along with either of her two former husbands. About the affair she had with a graduate student.
This went on for three years. “It would be great to see you again” was a regular comment. But something always got in the way. Much later, both admitted they were terrified, she more than he. So much time had passed. They really hadn’t spent much time together when they were kids. And, as Elinor kept reminding Dennis, they really had been kids when last they were together. “I’m an old lady now. I’m not so easy to be with. You won’t like me. Do you realize how many years it’s been? We have careers. We’ve both had lives. I’ve been through divorces. It wasn’t always the husband’s fault.”
Until, Dennis sent an email, “Enough is enough. I am going to be in London for a deal. And then, I am taking the train over to Paris. And when I get there, we are going to have lunch. I don’t care what you have going on. If I have to, I’ll hang around until you have some time. And then, we are going to talk.”
They had a lovely lunch. They talked. And laughed. And talked. Until late afternoon. And the next day. It took a while. And Elinor was right – it took some adjusting. But they managed. The conversation they restarted during a chance encounter in a crowded Manhattan restaurant kept going. They are still talking. And they don’t plan on stopping.
I am not a tour guide. I mean, I was a tour guide but that was a while back. And only because I didn’t know what else to do with myself when I was in my early twenties and supposed to have a job of some sort. I really had not education to speak of back then. Or at least I didn’t think I did. And I certainly didn’t have any professional training. Not any formal professional training at any rate. But I’d been around. My father was military. Flew planes for a while and then moved up the ranks to what he called ‘flying a desk.’ My mother drank. Not a lot at any one time. Never passed out or anything. Just enough as she used to say to get through the afternoon. We lived all over Europe and a lot of the Far East from time to time. My two brothers and I were pretty much on our own. School was sketchy at best. They had programs for dependents but they all sort of sucked. They never knew what to do with me. Every time Daddy was reassigned and it was a lot, there was a different school. And every time there was a different school, they were teaching something I had already learned or I had no idea what it was. And friends? Not really. I was always the new kid. But every one of the military kids was a new kid. We learned not to get too close to anyone. We could move tomorrow and never see them again. I remember just a few classmate’s names from my school years, none from the early grades and maybe half a dozen from when I was a teenager. I never did graduate high school. Not with the usual ceremony with the funny hat. Years later, when I wanted to get a college degree, I had to take a test to prove I wasn’t totally illiterate and then go to a junior college to make up credits. The kicker was: during my entire childhood, reading was my saving grace. I read anything I could get my hands on. Novels, textbooks, history books. Military training manuals. Anything. Whatever was at hand. I liked historical novels, some romantic novels – what you’d call ‘girlie books, books about different countries, and travel adventures. My mother was always worried that something would happen to me or to my brothers. We were usually living in foreign countries and were American nationals. She thought we would be kidnapped and held for ransom or worse. She wasn’t so worried when we were stationed in the States. But she was still worried. The good thing though – as long as we were in the house, we could do what we wanted or read what we wanted. My brothers played Monopoly endlessly. They combined five sets into one and a single game could go on for months. Every now and then, Mama would go on a tear about them not doing their homework or going their outside to play catch or ride a bike around the neighborhood. But she pretty much left me alone. I was reading. What harm in that? Mostly none. But I got into weird stuff, especially in junior high. In didn’t have a boyfriend but by the time I was fourteen, I’d read a lot about what to do with one if I had one. The other thing I did was, unlike my brothers, I always spent time with some of the locals. They usually found me a little strange and amusing. And I had the same view of them. So, it was fun. Almost by accident, I picked up more than a few languages: French, German, Japanese, Korean. I thought I was pretty sophisticated – a world traveler who had read a bunch of dirty books – except I was almost totally innocent. I found out just how innocent when my father retired from the Air Force, He was a colonel and it was clear he wasn’t going to go any higher. Suddenly, we were back in the United States living in a regular suburb, going to a regular school. Like no more moving. We were permanent. And I was a disaster. The thing about being always in transit is that you keep a certain sameness in your world, at least as best you can. It avoids getting disoriented. But landing at a large, suburban high school in the middle of my sophomore year blew all that away. None of the tricks I’d learned to avoid schoolwork and fitting in worked here. I mean I was totally lost. And American boys were nothing like the boys I’d run into overseas. To top it all off, my mother was in even worse shape than me. Daddy was home every night. No long deployments. There was no officer’s club when she didn’t want to cook. Restaurants were expensive. Daddy had gotten himself a job at a government agency, something to do with security so he couldn’t talk about work. And she knew no one. All the regimentation of life on a military base was gone. We were in our own country but felt a lot like strangers. My brothers, though, loved it, somehow fitting in as if nothing had changed. There were some bright spots for me. My teachers were amazed at my facility for language. At the time, I may have spoken four or five fluently, in addition to my native English – although with a slight midlands British accent. And they were equally amazed and sometimes appalled at the range of my reading. And some of the girls in my class were freaked out by my outfits, especially the stuff I got in Japan. So, all this overseas stuff might give you some idea why one of my first jobs was as a tour guide. But that’s only part of the story. I’m no beauty but I’m not too bad looking. Some say I am sort of sexy in an exotic way. Maybe. But standard-issue American boys tended to stay away. The word was, I scared them. That was fine with me for the most part. There were one or two cuties I could have gone for but they apparently didn’t go for this weird kid who wore odd clothing. Roger, on the other hand, was French, displaced and unhappy when he was sent to live with his mother and her new husband in the States, and, so, the two of us fell in with one another. We really didn’t know what to do with one another. But one thing led to another. When we finally made love (at his mother’s house; she was never home), we were aghast. What had we done? Fortunately, we knew enough to be careful. We had a long discussion and concluded we had gone too far, we shouldn’t do that again, and maybe we should try to stay away from one another to let things cool off a bit. And we did just that. For four days. We couldn’t stand it any longer. We were teenagers after all with no more self-control than squirrels. And over eighteen. Actually, I was a few months older than Roger. We thought we could keep our lovemaking a secret from everyone and perhaps we did. In both our cases, our parents were very busy. I know mine assumed that I was a totally innocent child who only knew about sex from the book my mother had given me when I was eleven or from hygiene classes at school. When they asked about Roger, I said we are friends and he is the only one around who speaks French with me. When June came around, Roger graduated. I did not. My scattershot education had left me with half-a-year credits short. So, I would need to finish up over the summer and into next fall. Roger, on the other hand, was headed for college. In Paris. He left in the middle of the summer. We promised to stay in touch by letter. The internet was a way off so it was hand-written letters. Our letters went back and forth fairly regularly but slowly, inevitably, they began to trail off. Roger’s courses were more challenging than he’d expected. I got an after-school job and was taking an extra load of courses, mostly sciences, so I could finally graduate high school. And after a while, that was that. Except for an occasional note, we drifted apart. I am sure he was having other relationships; I did not, at least not for some time. My facility for language landed me the job I mentioned at a travel agency, booking trips for people who wanted to travel abroad. The language part of it was minimal. I did it for a couple of years. Then, moved to New York City and got a job as a tour guide for Europeans visiting the States. I got to meet a lot of people and became very good at having very superficial relationships. I was hit on a lot. And every now and then, when the mood hit me, I’d have some sex with someone. It wasn’t a very satisfying way to live but I was making some money and could pretty much run my life the way I wanted. But I was going nowhere. And that made me a perfect candidate for something that changed everything. I got a call one evening from my father. He said he had told a colleague about me and it might be a good idea to meet with her. “Could I take a train down to Baltimore? Someone would meet me.” He would set up all the details. The whole thing was strange, starting with getting a phone call from my father. We had been a bit distant ever since he figured out what had been going on between Roger and me. He had not approved. He told me he was disappointed in me and he and my mother were hurt by my behavior. I think he was also upset by my apparent aimlessness. After finally graduating high school, I was pretty emphatic about not going to college. I told him I was done with school and, if I wanted to study something, I’d do it on my own. I never told my parents about the courses I took at night. There was a three- or four-year period when we didn’t speak at all. I’m not sure they knew where I lived or what I did for a living. The point for me was to be independent. They didn’t give me much attention when I was growing up and I suspect I was pretty mad at them about that. I let them know I was moving to New York. And, after I moved, I would visit at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And sometimes at Easter. It was good to see my brothers. Beyond telling them I worked as a tour guide for a European company, I didn’t say much about my life. I suspected they would think I was some sort of aimless drifter, at best, and a wanton whore, at worst. And I didn’t tell them about taking some time off and getting a degree at Columbia. Screw that! Anyway, I worked out a time for an appointment with this woman he wanted me to meet, got tickets for the Acela in the mail and a form for recording travel-related expenses, and directions. It came by some kind of special courier. All very organized and a bit inscrutable. Just as promised there was a driver dressed in a dark suit and a red tie with a blue button in his lapel button waiting for me in the main lobby of the station. In thinking about it, he must have had a photo of me because he saw me before I saw him. He called me “ma’am” and introduced himself as Johnson, took my bag, and asked me to follow him to the car, a dark sedan, maybe a Ford. We got on a highway and drove to a very large and black, government building, somewhere between Baltimore and Washington. There’s not a lot I can say about the rest except having a feeling which must be sort of like the out-of-body experience you hear about. I was definitely creeped out. The woman I was to meet was pleasant enough, about twenty years older than me. She turned out to be a sort of concierge, arranging my filling out forms and meeting with maybe ten or fifteen people over the two days I was there. But they put me up in a very nice hotel with an even nicer restaurant. I was told to enjoy myself. And I did. One of the best shrimp cocktails I ever had. A very nice steak. And flan for dessert. I had just a sip of the martini I ordered with the shrimp and drank only half a glass of the wine I ordered. I was to be picked up the next morning at eight-thirty so I had coffee in my room for breakfast. I spent the whole of the next day in that large and black building, all of it in one room, meeting one person after another. They brought lunch in. And at the end of the day, I was on the train, back to New York, feeling turned inside out, and thinking only about getting out of these damn clothes and into a hot shower. A week later, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell was that all about?” Whatever it was, I had been told I was being interviewed for a job with a high-security government agency and not to tell anyone about my visit to that black building or whom I had met. I did as I was told. One thing for sure, they were dead serious. At the time, I was dating a really nice guy. He wanted to know where I’d been. I’d told him not to worry but I might be gone for a day or two. When I got back, he asked again. I said I was with my parents. A family matter had come up and I needed to be with them. He wasn’t buying any of it. “Was it your mother? Is she alright? Or your father? Everything OK?” And the vaguer I got, the more insistent he was. And that was when our otherwise rather nice relationship slipped downhill. It was one of those petulant, “Fine. I won’t ask anymore. I was just concerned.” followed by a long silence, followed in turn by no calls for a week. And when he did call, it was too late. We saw one another just once or twice afterwards. And then, only to wave at a distance. A chance sighting on a busy street in midtown New York City at rush hour. As for the folks in the large, black building, they didn’t call either. Not for a while anyway. So, there I was, back on the job, licking my wounds from a failed relationship, caused by what appeared to be a failed job interview, if that was what it was. Until there was a registered-return-receipt-requested envelope with a request for a meeting at some law firm in Rockefeller Center. It was a small office, no receptionist or waiting room. You rang a bell, gave your name on an intercom and were told to stand in front of a peep-hole before they let you in. That’s the very moment when I started working at the best and most all-consuming job of my life. I have to say I never looked back. And, of course, I can’t talk about it except to say it has taken me all over the world. Including Paris, where I met up with my high school love, Roger. It was great. And not so great. It taught me a couple of things. People change. Roger certainly did. He’d gotten married and he and his wife had a couple of kids by the time we met again. A paunchy, balding man with a worried look. He’d joined his parents in government service. They were diplomats. He was something in transportation. An administrator. Who knows how he sized me up. I told him I was a tour guide. We had a lovely lunch. Some laughs. A few unspoken regrets. A hug goodbye. It was a wistful look at a path not taken. Everybody who meets up with an old love, classmate, or friend has those feelings. But maybe not everyone has the stinging revelation I had. Not right away but a day or two later, getting off a plane in Warsaw. An almost staggering sense of sadness. I was lonely. There were so many people I knew and had lost. My parents were gone by then. I hadn’t seen my brothers in years. My relationships with men – and with women for that matter – were superficial at best. Mostly, I’d kept that way on purpose. In my line of work, you get a little paranoid. But of course, I wasn’t being celibate. If I were into that sort of thing, I could go into some of the more memorable one-night stands I’ve indulged in over the years. Don’t give me a look: sometimes you get a little lonely. You meet a guy in a restaurant or hotel bar. Sometimes it was great fun. Sometimes not. And sometimes it was really stupid. But mostly it was empty. And when it finally dawned on me how empty it all was, I decided it had to stop. And maybe more important, I decided to be a little less paranoid. And to think about my age and my future. About then, one of my old college teachers, a professor named Richmond, sent a note about how he was retiring and wanted me to attend his retirement dinner. So, I took a train up to New York to attend. It was very pleasant. There were one or two people I knew at the dinner. From my own experience, Dr. Richmond was a terrific teacher. Apparently, based on those celebrating his retirement, others had a similar experience. He had a very large following. He asked me to join him for lunch, maybe in the next month or so if it were convenient. He had some things to tell me. We ate at a restaurant somewhere in Bronxville. A cozy little place serving better than average French food. During the lunch, Dr. Richmond told me it was him, not my father, who had set up my initial interview in the large, black building. Back then, Richmond was a recruiter. My father was just a convenient conduit. An innocuous way to make an introduction. Why Dr. Richmond needed to haul me up to New York for what seemed an unnecessary but still rather pleasant lunch I am not sure. But after the lunch, we stayed in touch, emailing back and forth. I wondered whether he had something more in mind but there was never really a hint of anything, even though he was a widower – by that time for a few years. He died a couple of years later. I went to the memorial service and to the reception afterward. I met someone there. He was about ten years younger than me. It was an almost immediate attraction. It took me by surprise. Him as well. Two months later, we married. Two years afterwards, I retired. I figured I had enough of doing stuff I couldn’t talk about with anyone outside my agency. And another year beyond that, I found myself divorced and alone. Whose fault? Probably mine. It seems I really am a tour guide in a way – there with you during the trip, but gone once the trip is over. For the past few years, I’ve been living in a small town in New Mexico. The land is desolate and inhospitable. It seems to suit me.
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.