Dennis Berger, Agent

Just Kids

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.

97. Amanda Perry, Tour Guide

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.

96. Fran Shipley, Florist

“How might I help you?”

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

95. Lonny Driscoll, Fine Artist

Things are calmer now. Which makes Lonny jittery. Nothing serious, just a background jitteriness. It always happens after he finishes a picture or a project. Or after a gallery show closes. It’s like when the wind stops and everything is oddly still. And the feeling won’t leave him until he starts doing something new. Until a schedule sets in and there is something urgent. People don’t realize this about him. Or maybe they don’t realize this about people in creative fields generally. If he isn’t working on something, he gets itchy. It is sort of like a shark. Sharks need to keep moving or their drown. Lonny explains it by declaring himself “…a well-known nut case.” He’s been a “nut case’ as far back as he can remember. And certainly, as far back as his big sister, Carol, can remember. “I was two years ahead of him in school and the teachers loved me. I always sat up front. I always paid attention. I behaved. I got good grades. My homework was always neat and handed in on time. Teachers would say I must have a wonderful family to have a little girl who was so good. So, my little brother came as a rude shock to them, especially for the first-grade teacher who had expected another ‘exemplary’ Driscoll child. They had no idea.” Lonny could not sit still. He could not pay attention. He was messy. Never turned in any homework. Ended up staying after school a lot. Got the attention of guidance counselors. And to make matters worse, he seemed oblivious to it all. In his own world.

At family gatherings or at reunions with old friends, when she’s had maybe a glass or two of white wine, Carol loves to remind everyone about her brother’s childhood antics. “It was one calamity after another. It made my mother crazy. And, of course, I thought it was great. He was the bad boy and I was the angel. I could do no wrong.” Lonny usually pretends this isn’t happening: He’s never liked being talked about. He dreaded having to sit there while his sister gleefully went on, trying to smile, and being mortally embarrassed the whole time. His childhood is a definite sore point for him. He could never figure out why he was so restless and distracted as a kid. But then, he can’t figure out why he does the artwork he’s done all his adult life. He usually works in what he calls a “series,” one composition after another on a similar topic. Or with a single medium. He tries not to mind when a gallerist or a museum curator comes by to see what he has been doing or to figure out a theme for an upcoming show. They ask questions he has trouble answering. “What does this work mean to you?” “How does it fit into the ongoing zeitgeist?” “What is the core essence of your work these days?” “Which work do you like best?” Stuff like that. This also happens at gallery openings, when potential buyers ask questions.  “What was your inspiration for this work?” is the most common question.  Lonny’s honest answer is usually not too satisfying. “Not sure. Lines seemed interesting. And so, I drew them.” Or even worse,” “I had this mess of paint I had left over and so I started doing stuff with it.” These sorts of answers were not what Lonny’s gallerists wanted to hear from him. After all, gallerists and curators are highly educated professionals who spend a lot of time and effort arranging successful shows and fanning buyers’ interest. He or she has to bring a patron into the artistic process to create excitement and interest in buying. The artist is supposed to help create some of this excitement and interest. It’s show business. And, when it comes to show business, Lonny just fades. It’s the same thing when Carol is having a good time telling school-boy stories about Lonny. “He once got up and walked out of a Biology class when we were in high school. Right in the middle of the class. Didn’t ask permission to leave. Just got up and left. Didn’t say a word. Lonny, what was going on in your head back then?” If Lonny hadn’t already drifted out of the room when Carol asked a question like that, he would just shrug his shoulders, grin, and say, “Who knows? Maybe the class was boring. Or I thought the class was over. Or I thought the class should have been over.” So, over time, Lonny came up with a way around the problem. He couldn’t just drift out of the room during a gallery opening. Or duck questions. He started making stuff up. “I couldn’t get a certain image out of my head. It was from when I was a child. I had this horrible experience, walking home from school. It was a very large dog. It wouldn’t stop following and growling at me.” Or: “I was thinking about some Goya prints I saw when I was in Spain with my first wife. They made me so sad. And she didn’t get it. So, I was mad. Doing these paintings brought it all back.” None of that stuff was true. But it created a legend. When his first wife heard about some of the stories he made up about her, she let him have it. He made up a couple of stories about his sister too. “She once woke me up in the morning with a sharp pin. I couldn’t stop shaking for days. So, I drew these funny shapes which reminded me of what I thought I saw when she stuck me. My sister has an evil streak.” This sort of thing was just what gallerists and curators wanted but Carol was no more thrilled by it than was Lonny’s first wife. “By the way,” Lonny says, “My first wife is perfectly nice. Her name is Gloria. The trouble with our marriage, she was a grown up and was an immature jerk. I was an idiot. After our divorce, she married a dentist and they have three wonderful kids.” He was often a jerk with women when he was young. This started right from puberty onward. He couldn’t believe it when he ended having sex after a high school dance. He decided there must be something wrong with the girl involved and wouldn’t speak to her the next day. Later on, he couldn’t believe it when a smart, talented, and good-looking art student – his first wife – said she would marry him. About three years into their marriage, Lonny got a teaching assignment at a very highly regarded women’s college. The course was “Life Drawing.” The college was in a small, isolated village, deep in the mountains. Lonny started out shlepping up there three days a week. Back then, Lonny had long, wavy hair and was much better looking than he imagined himself to be.  Several students expressed strong interest in a bit of fun with him. He had enough intelligence to stay well away from them but not from a secretary in the bursar’s office.  His three-day college teaching junkets turned into week-long and then two-week-long visits. Gloria caught on and put an end to the affair and to Lonny. Confronted with more than an entertaining fling with the college’s “nut case” visiting artist, the bursar’s secretary had a panic attack and booted Lonny out. About then, winter descended on the college’s small, mountain village. Lonny was stuck with a dreadful bunch of amateur art students and snow until spring. “Served me right. What I did was as dumb as it gets. But I got a lot of work done while I was in what amounted to Siberia.” What followed was a year or two of laying low and growing up, both as a person and as an artist. As usual, several women were involved. His sister, Carol, managed Lonny’s business, making sure he was paid for sales and related activities, introducing him to the internet, and making sure his bills were paid. After college, she had taken an MBA, joined a major accounting firm, and, later, been hired by a tech company. She worked her way up to corporate comptroller. She knew how to run things. In addition, Lonny had a very productive collaboration with a lesbian couple, a sculptor and her husband, a highly respected professor of fine art. It resulted in several lucrative joint exhibits as well as some much-needed formal education for Lonny. There was a lot Lonny missed by not going to college. History, English literature, composition, social sciences, and Art History among other things. But before Lonny’s first wife and all those women, there had been a high school student in study hall who caught his eye. Lonny found out she belonged to the school’s art club. Wanting to get to know her, Lonny joined the art club and, while he almost immediately lost interest in her, he found his life-long vocation, making drawings and paintings. A year later, Lonny left high school. He knew he would never get into college. And he did not want to anyway. The idea of more classes struck him as a very bad idea. He started out working in a supermarket. But a couple of months later, his father got him a job helping an architect with renderings. Lonny loved it. It took him about a week to get up to speed but, almost immediately, it was clear Lonny knew what he was doing with both pencil and drawing pen. About six months in, his boss told him he had a natural talent, bought him a cheap easel, a few brushes, two small canvas boards, four tubes of cheap acrylic paint, and half a dozen brushes. Lonny took them home and put them in his closet. A week later, his boss said, “Lonny, if you don’t bring me a painting you did with the stuff I gave you, I’m going to fire your ass out of here.” Maybe for the first time in his life – at the age of eighteen – Lonny paid attention and got serious. He went home and, instead of going out and fooling around with a couple of friends, he went to work. He made two paintings that night. Still lifes of a tea set he swiped from his mother’s cupboard. The next morning, his boss said, “Lonny, these are not too crappy. But you should think about getting some training. You could be good, despite yourself.” Lonny began learning his trade by taking studio courses at a local junior college. He vividly recalls signing up for a class for the first time. “It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it: there I was, in a school, talking to some faculty person, paying money, and getting a class schedule. Definitely weird.” If he couldn’t believe he had actually enrolled in a class, he also couldn’t believe, at the end of his first class, he would be looking forward to the next class. The only problem was the other people in the class. The class met for three hours, twice a week. The instructor would set up a still life with pots and pans, a variety of crockery, and household utensils. The students’ task was to make a still-life based on all this stuff.  All this struck Lonny as pretty silly. He made what he thought was a goof of the whole thing, painting a semi-abstraction of the instructor’s pots and pans. He had no idea what he was doing and had no intention of being serious. His classmates complained, “Your painting doesn’t look like it is supposed to look. You left a lot of stuff out. Those colors aren’t the right ones.” Lonny just laughed and said, “So what? I paint the way I want.” One or two said it wasn’t right to make fun. And more than one or two got really annoyed when the instructor praised Lonny. “Really interesting work. Where’d you get the idea to paint like that? I hope you are going to continue in this class and we’ll see what other stuff you can do.”  Most of the students were older men, retirees, who tried hard to make very realistic paintings. They decided Lonny was just a smart-ass kid who was one of those guys who make “those awful modern paintings because they don’t want to do the work to make a good painting.” But there was also a woman in the class – in her mid-forties. She liked Lonny’s work, took him under her wing, and encouraged him. And she was interested in more than Lonny’s artwork. One night, after class, she took Lonny home with her and gave him lessons in life beyond anything his still innocent mind could have imagined. So, this relatively pedestrian class proved an eye-opener for Lonny in more ways than one. Six months later, a major art school had Lonny enrolled in a special program with a full scholarship. Shortly after arriving, he was linked up with an international art gallery. And for the next ten years, he was their golden boy. In the middle of this period was when he married to his first wife and, all too quickly, found himself divorced. His breakup with his first wife put a crimp in things for a while. He felt terrible that he had betrayed her. But it was temporary and the work he made afterwards set him and his reputation in a new direction, figuratively and literally. He was on a fellowship in Italy when he met his second wife, Gianna. “This, he loves to say, “is a woman with a bizarre sense of humor. She is the most intelligent and sophisticated person I have ever met. And a total knockout. What she sees in me is one of the great mysteries of my life.” He always says this as a joke but he isn’t kidding. Like most folks who create things from essentially nothing, who depend on an innate hard-to-explain something – something mysterious even to themselves – he has serious doubts about himself and, more to the point, about the worth of his talent and the worthiness of the praise his work receives. Lonny only talks about it when he’s had a couple of drinks and then, only with a few close friends who are, like him, in the arts. Some of them had been to therapists when these doubts got in the way of their performance. “Someday, people are going to catch on and the jig will be up. We’re all a bunch of hopeless frauds.” When Lonny says this sort of thing and Gianna is around, she laughs and tells him, “As long as you do the cooking, I think I’ll keep you.” She is an economist and makes money trading obscure financial instruments. But she knows what Lonny does is as much a high-wire act as is her penchant for making what others see as risky investments. “He starts out with a big white space – a canvas or sheet of paper – and a loaded brush or pen. And who the hell knows what’s going to happen next? But, somehow, something good almost always does.”  When their kids got old enough to draw, Lonny wouldn’t let them. “This is a business I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When I look back, I shouldn’t be here. It’s a complete fluke. Pick another way to make a living.” Ciara, the oldest, ended up a successful set designer. Henry, two years younger than Ciara, is an attorney but has what Lonny calls “…a scary tendency to draw stuff.” Henry talks about quitting his job in a big-time Swiss law firm and ‘doing a Gaugin.’” It is something Lonny doesn’t think is so funny. “He thinks this business is fun. He couldn’t be more wrong.” Recently, Lonny gave a long interview to a reporter from one of those glossy art periodicals. It was titled “Looking Back: Lonny Driscoll at 84.” It could have been a warning to anyone thinking of a creative career but it was really aimed at Henry. “I was lucky, Lonny was quoted as saying. “If it weren’t for Gianna and my big sister, I’d probably been dead years ago or maybe working in a grocery store, stocking shelves. Every one tells me how privileged I am to work at something I love – to be able to share what’s in my inner soul – or some such crap. They don’t get it. This is a line of work I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is completely insecure, lonely, and – on top of that – boring. People are incredibly cheap when it comes to buying artwork. Most ask if I could do something for them for free. After all, they say, doing artwork is so much fun. And they look at you like some kind of freak or trained monkey. ‘Do something creative.’ You are supposed to be some kind of late-stage hippy or something. Like you get inspirations from meditation or maybe drugs. Coming up with new stuff all the time is no piece of cake. People think it’s all ‘inspiration.’  It ain’t. I never have inspirations. I just pick up a brush and start working. Like the man said, ‘If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you end up with nothing.’ I may have some Bourbon a couple of times a week before dinner but I never ever tried drugs. You can’t do good work loaded. At least, I can’t. And yoga or meditation is just a waste of time. Religious crap. Simple fact is I do what I do because I can’t do anything else. If I could, I would. And don’t think you can do this stuff as a sideline. Some people do. I tried it. Doesn’t work for me. And probably not for others when it comes right down to it. So, don’t even try. This is a killer business. Stay out of it.” But, in the same article, Lonny was also quoted as saying, “I just finished a new series of drawings I’m really excited about them. The funny thing is they look a lot like the stuff I used to do in high school, back when I didn’t know any better. Some collector bought the lot. I’m getting itchy sitting around now. I’m ready to do something new. I’ve just came across some old oil color tubes I’d forgotten about. Maybe I’ll do something with them. Who knows? I’m not done yet.”

Mary Ellen Nash, Horse Farm Girl

Full of surprises

Mary Ellen is small. Until she was thirteen, she was well under five feet. Which was a good thing at ten-years-old since her immediate plan, then, was to pursue a career as a jockey. An unusual aspiration, you say? Not for Mary Ellen. She grew up around horse racing. Her childhood was spent in and out of stables at her mother’s breeding farm. Her closest friends from the time she was a toddler until she left for boarding school were the men and women who worked with horses and the horses they cared for, trained, and raced. Back then, she really didn’t know other children and, but for the one or two men who worked at her mother’s breeding farm from time to time, she really didn’t know any human males. Her mother had gotten divorced when Mary Ellen was three years old and her father hadn’t been around much before that anyway. Apparently, the marriage started downhill when Mary Ellen was under a year old. The rock bottom was when Mary Ellen’s mother caught her father with another man in the back barn. She got a shotgun and chased the two of them off. The upshot was, other than her mother, when she was a child, Mary Ellen had closer relationships with horses than with people. She fed them, groomed them, talked to them, and rode them almost before she could walk. When she was still an infant her mother would take Mary Ellen in her arms and go for a ride. As soon as Mary Ellen was four, she spent more and more time in the stables, helping out with feed and mucking out the stalls. Her mother started home-schooling her at that age as well. So, until she was eleven, Mary Ellen was a solitary child with no friends. The only children she ever saw were relatives who would occasionally visit on weekends. But these visits were invariably strained and a bit artificial. Her mother’s relatives thought horses were dirty and, while visiting, made their children sit quietly in the family room. So, it was a rude shock when Mary Ellen’s mother decided Mary Ellen should go away to boarding school. Mary Ellen laughs about it now. But she cried a good deal when the time came to leave the only world she had known until then. She describes her first couple of months at Chappel’s School for Young Ladies as “dreadful” and the rest of her stay at that school as “plain awful.” Chappel’s caters to a very upscale and cosmopolitan clientele. Its pupils come from around the world and from very wealthy families. Mary Ellen’s mother had inherited a small fortune and the farm always turned a nice profit. But by the standards of the usual Chappel student, Mary Ellen was a “poverty case.” And a hillbilly to boot. When she describes those first months at Chappel’s as dreadful, it’s pretty clear Mary Ellen isn’t exaggerating. She knew how to be around horses, not people. And she was scared. She’d never been away from home. She missed the routine of the breeding farm. She had no idea what the other pupils were talking about when they went on about trips to Europe, dances, boys, things like organic food, conservation, or social issues. Most of these kids had brothers and sisters too. Mary Ellen was an only child. “I might as well have been from Mars.” She complained bitterly to her mother who was unbending. “I taught you well and you should have no trouble getting good grades.” That might have been true if the curriculum focused on Animal Husbandry. But Mary Ellen didn’t know a word of French and hadn’t read any of the books the other girls had read. And while she knew a lot about horse breeding based on books her mother gave to her and her own direct observation of stallions “covering” mares, she knew nothing about how to act around boys and much more than some vague commentary about sex. (“Don’t do it.”) She never told her mother about being groped by a stable hand when she was nine. She wasn’t sure what to call what he did or how she felt while he did it. And how she felt when she left him writhing on the ground after she gave a very hard kick when he pulled his pants down. But she hoped that wasn’t what her classmates were talking about when they giggled about sex. Then, there was the whole thing about clothes. All she had when she arrived at school were her stable and riding clothes all of which had a distinctive scent. She could deal with physical bullying. She may have been small but she was strong and could handle herself. But she had never been psychologically teased before and it got to her. They started to call her “The Runt,” “Shrimpola,” and “Mary Manure.” Mary Ellen couldn’t do anything about her height. She actually loved being small. “Not big and clunky like those other lumpy lugs.” But, on a trip home on a weekend, she dragged her bitterly complaining mother to town and got a completely new wardrobe. The clothes she selected were not much more fashionable than her regular “stable” clothes. Her mother insisted on having the final say on every selection and her taste and sense of propriety clearly had been formed in another time. And perhaps, as Mary Ellen saw it, on another planet. But, at least, the clothes selected did not smell like the stable. And that helped. Mary Ellen had to admit wearing riding boots to class at a fancy girls’ boarding school was a bit silly. Mary Ellen was too small to do well at the field sports that were so important at Chappel’s. No soccer or lacrosse for her. But her small and chunky form was just right for modern dance and she went at it with gusto. She made friends with the dance instructor and one or two of the other girls in the dance class. She also did well academically. So, by the Thanksgiving break, Mary was beginning to enjoy herself, that is, until the week after everyone came back from Thanksgiving holiday. That’s when the school bully and two of her buddies caught Mary Ellen taking a walk behind the school’s administration building. It’s an isolated area. And private. There are no windows and a lot of trees on that side of the administration building. It’s also out-of-bounds for students. The girls figured they’d give Mary Ellen good beating for being where she shouldn’t and for “being weird.” And, at first, it looked like they were going to do it when Mary Ellen landed her first punch. And then a very hard kick. Mary Ellen did not come out of the incident without a scratch but the other young ladies fared far worse. They went to the school director, claimed Mary Ellen had attacked them without warning, and left them bloodied and bruised. These were three big girls, members of the senior lacrosse team. And one was smore busted up than the next. But one of them was the daughter of the school’s major benefactor, a well-known litigator. The school director had law suits dancing in her head and decided Mary Ellen should get hauled in to explain herself.  Standing there, in the middle of the director’s office, being glared at, while the three other girls sat in cushioned chairs trying to look hurt and innocent, Mary Ellen got the same feeling she had when she once faced down a spooked stallion. Or when she kicked that stable hand. Scared at first but not for long. The director started in, “Is what these girls say true? You did that to them? How could you? This behavior is definitely not Chappel and we won’t stand for it.” Mary Ellen got very red in the face. She was tongue tied for just a second and then something happened. It was as if she had suddenly become someone else. One-minute feeling and looking helpless and vulnerable. The next minute anything but. “You think that a runt like me could do that to them? Look at them. Look at me. I’m the Shrimpolo. Too small for sports. Any one of them could send me to the hospital. You ask them what happened. And why.” Mary Ellen couldn’t believe she said all that. She had no idea where it all came from. But she was enjoying being at school for the first time. So, instead of expelling her, the director said she would give Mary Ellen a warning letter for her file, told her to behave herself, and sent the other girls to the school nurse. The long Christmas holiday came and went. Mary Ellen kept up her modern dance and continued to do well academically. But she was still pretty much an outsider. There was a dance with a nearby boys’ school. Mary Ellen wore one of the dresses her mother has specifically selected for “dress up.” She knew it was ghastly but it was all she had. None of the boys wanted to dance with a short and solidly-built girl who didn’t seem very friendly and was wearing this “weird dress.” About a week after the dance, someone asked, “Are you gay?” Mary Ellen, still naïve about such things, had no idea what they were talking about. She said, “I’m happy sometimes.” When she figured it out, she didn’t know what to think. That very week, perhaps by coincidence, the new dance instructor put a hand up Mary Ellen’s skirt. What Mary Ellen knew about sex at that stage of her life had remained limited. She had been essentially cloistered on the horse farm for most of her life. She knew about horse breeding and the mechanics of sex but nothing otherwise, except for the one experience with the stable hand when she was nine. When the dance instructor put her hand up her skirt, Mary Ellen felt the same sensation she had when the stable hand groped her. But much more so. It scared her. She twisted the instructor’s hand until the instructor cried out. After that, Mary Ellen made sure that she was never alone in dance class. At the end of the school year, Mary Ellen was back at the horse farm dealing with the onset of early adulthood. She didn’t want anything more to do with Chappel’s School for Young Ladies. She talked her mother into enrolling her into another school, one more relaxed, where she could keep a pony and one that was co-ed. The summer between the two schools, Mary Ellen “earned her keep,” as her mother put it, by working in the stables. Messy work but Mary Ellen loved it. No one much to bother her. Plenty of time to go riding. And it was work she had done since she was five. Her only disappointment: she had hoped to have a pre-teen growth spurt. Her mother did not help things in this area by saying things like, “I’d have expected you to have developed breasts by now. You look like a boy.” But Mary Ellen didn’t help things either by having her hair cut short. So, in the fall, when she arrived at her new school, pony in tow, people didn’t know what to think. Definitely a girl but looking a lot like a 10-year old boy. This wasn’t important to Mary Ellen a year or two ago. But it was very important for a young lady of twelve going on thirteen. And Mary Ellen had gotten her wish; unlike Chappel’s, this new school was co-ed. And Mary Ellen wanted very much to be seen as a girl. Despite that though, she fell in with a bunch of guys who were serious video gamers. Up until she saw these boys playing, she’d never seen a video game, let alone played one. But she very quickly got very good at it. Within weeks, she was the best player in the school. Some of the other girls were appalled. Others were envious. Mary Ellen also made friends with students who, like her, came to school with a pony. This group, unlike the video-gamers, included both girls and boys, including some of the most popular and sophisticated kids in the school. At first, they didn’t know what to make of Mary Ellen. Videogame nerd but knows more about horses and riding than anyone they had ever met. In the end, they all decided that Mary Ellen was “really nice” and “fun.” One of the boys developed a crush on her, something she wasn’t sure how to handle. The first time he tried to kiss her, she was stunned. Speechless. Unresponsive. But the second time, she kissed back, maybe more enthusiastically than he was expecting. She may have been more surprised than him. Over the course of the school year, there were one or two other boys as well. This was all new for Mary Ellen as were the breasts she finally developed. She still played videogames but the video-gamers who had originally seen her as “sort of a boy” began to treat her differently. They didn’t swear as much around her. High-fives were definitely different. When she was home again for the summer, her mother’s reaction was, “Well, getting to be a proper young lady. We’ll have to keep a close idea on you.”  She put Mary Ellen back to work mucking out stables for the summer. In her spare time, Mary Ellen still rode a lot but she also began taking books out of the local library and tried writing. When she went back to school in the fall, she took her pony again but also some nicer clothes. Some of the girls had taught her how to dress. She let her hair grow. No more little boy look. And she wasn’t so sure about a career as a jockey anymore. She would have to see. Her attitude toward coursework changed as well. She slacked off for a while. Her grades dropped. Then, she shifted focus from things like Biology and Chemistry to History and French. When it came time to graduate, Mary Ellen wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with herself. But her mother insisted she go to the state agricultural school. Her mother’s idea was; Mary Ellen would get the expertise she’d need to manage the family horse farm and, later on, to take care of her mother in old age. After one semester, Mary Ellen had a different idea. There was a lot of yelling and screaming when Mary Ellen announced she was switching colleges to major in French Literature. She had stayed in touch with a boy from boarding school. He was from Switzerland. He talked about the special pleasures of French culture and life in France. He also talked about joining him at his college. Mary Ellen made all the arrangements on her own without telling her mother until the last moment. She wanted it all to be definitive and a fait accompli. She also noticed she showed a very independent and decisive streak in moments that demanded action. There was the time in the Chappel director’s office when she defended herself against her assailants’ lies. At the time, she couldn’t believe she had the nerve to speak up like that. Then, there was the time that boy kissed her and she kissed back. More than once and with an enthusiasm that surprised both him and her. And now this! Standing up to her mother and getting what she wanted. She got her way. She took classes with the boy from Switzerland, made love with him, went on summer vacation in Europe with him, broke up with him, switched out of French Literature into European History and, then, Government. She didn’t know exactly where she was headed but she had the feeling she was getting close. The summer before her senior year in college, she worked as an intern in the governor’s office. That set her thinking about law school. But her mother fell and broke her hip while running across a paddock to help a stable hand who had just been kicked by a jittery horse. So, Mary Ellen quit school and came home to take over. This was a month before she was supposed to graduate. She ran things for a year. Then, she made arrangements for a manager to take over day-to-day operations and went back to school to finish things up and graduate. But that year away from college told her a few things: horses weren’t where her future was, she was a pretty good manager, she had good instincts, and was capable of decisive action. She wasn’t sure law school would be in her future but she was giving it a good, hard look. When her mother was back on her feet, Mary Ellen took a long trip, ostensibly checking out law schools, but also visiting friends, sightseeing, and just mooching about, sizing the world up. Along the way, she met someone who could be pretty serious. He didn’t know it yet. But, soon enough, he would. Mary Ellen was just getting started.

93. Sylvester Florian, Master Carver

A Lamb Led To Slaughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

92. Dave Bostick, Organic Farmer and Vegetarian

“Not what I expected, but not so bad. Not so bad at all.”

“The best thing about organic farming is having good meals all the time.” Dave is a true believer. It is quite a change for him. If you ran into him 25 years ago, you’d likely find him enjoying a very large steak in a very expensive restaurant in a very large city. Back then, he was a senior vice president heading the law department of one of the country’s leading financial services companies. It was a career his whole life had prepared him for. He was the oldest child of four. Dave was always a very good student, belonged to a “very respectable” fraternity in college, and took an MBA at a well-known business school, after getting a law degree at a top law school. His father was an executive in a large pharmaceutical company. His mother trained as a nurse after graduating from a “society” college.  She worked as a nurse for about a year until she married Dave’s father. After that, and until Dave was born, she volunteered at an old age home run by a local charity. Life for her after that was being a wife and mother, occasionally taking part in various golf club and charitable activities. In short, Dave’s childhood was not just privileged but also was singularly insular. His family lived in the right neighborhood, a gated community of large homes, each set in an acre or more of land. He went to a private boy’s school focused on athletics, good manners, and eventual admission into “the best” colleges. Dave’s family belonged to two local clubs, one a golf club, the other a “gentlemen’s luncheon club, ostensibly focusing on “doing good works.” They attended the right church (First Congregational or as they described it, “First Congo.”) As a kid, Dave never gave any of this a second thought. As Dave explains, “What the hell did I know? I thought everyone lived like my family. I didn’t know anything else.” Of course, every family has its “dirty little secrets.” Dave’s family was no exception. The most obvious was his mother’s fondness for strong gin Martinis. But she indulged in a second one only while on vacation, having dinner with friends. When she did, she got talkative and said a bit more than she might have otherwise. That’s when she might go into her husband’s family’s background, the other “dirty little secret.” “Don’t know if you may have noticed but George’s mother was of what some call ‘the Hebrew persuasion.’ They were in banking. Very rich. And into the arts.” Talking about it years later, Dave smiled and said, “For her, that was a big deal. Tres risqué. I remember how once or twice she’d go on to say how she was not at all prejudiced and was very open-minded. But when I first heard her tell the story, it opened my eyes a bit. I suppose they’ve slowly opened ever since.” Dave and his second wife were sitting on a long wooden bench on a porch looking out on fields of salad greens just peeking out from black soil. Both were wearing work clothes and Dave had on his favorite droopy hat. Given the first forty years of his life, this is not where you’d expect to find him. Or maybe you would. His private school years were successful. He did well academically and got a letter in lacrosse. He got into the college his parents had selected for him and was slated to major in American History. He met his first wife at a sixth-grade dance. He was struck dumb. Angelic. Beautiful. Beyond anything he could imagine. He just stood there grinning, so she introduced herself, “Hello, I am Julia. And what is your name?” They danced once, during which all he could do was blush, mumble and worry about his sweaty hands. He didn’t meet her again until his junior year in college. He recalls feeling at that second meeting about as socially inept as he did at that first encounter. She remembered him. He didn’t recognize her. But he immediately knew, this was a very singular moment. As before, all he could do was blush and mumble. She laughed. And, then, he laughed and then blurted out how he felt on first meeting her and still felt on their reunion. After graduation, they got married and began what should have been a long and happy life together. With a stipend from his parents, Dave took an MBA and, then, went to law school. Julia took an advanced degree in biochemistry. He was hired by a large financial services firm. Two years later, he was running their legal department. Dave and Julia had two kids. They were happy. Why not? They loved each other, had every advantage, and parents that loved and supported them. Dave had just been moved to his firm’s executive floor when his wife and his second child, a son, were killed instantly by a drunk driver speeding on the wrong side of a divided highway. “You know, it was like being shot in the head. Or waking up in another world. That was thirty years ago and I am still living it like it happened yesterday. I’ll never get over it.” Three days after the accident and even before his wife and son were buried, Dave went back to work. His daughter, then 15, stayed with his wife’s family. The firm’s CEO told him he shouldn’t be in the office. Dave’s reasoning: sticking with his normal routine would help him cope. It didn’t. He’d come in to his office, sit down at his desk, turn his chair around and look out the window. The CEO was right. Dave asked for a leave of absence. They gave him all the time he needed at full pay and suggested that he get help. “You mean mental help, like counseling? I should be ok. My wife’s parents and my daughter will be with me. It will be ok.” Dave spent the next three months trying to put his world back together. His daughter went back to school. His wife’s parents went back to their normal life. And after they left, Dave went back to work on a part-time basis, working from both home and office. But nothing was the same and, thinking back, Dave says, “It was all a blur and, then, suddenly, my daughter left for college and I was all alone in this big house.” But Dave wasn’t quite alone. He would get visits from women he knew from the neighborhood or from one of his clubs or the church. At first, he didn’t know what to make of them. They were mostly his wife’s friends. He knew their names and something about them – their children’s names and schools, what their husband did – but not much else. What he didn’t quite understand about most of them was, they saw in him what might happen to their husband, if they were not longer around. They wanted to take care of him. Or at least to give him some comfort. Baked goods, a meal to reheat, a book suggestion, just a “I can’t know what you’re going through but they say that time helps” sort of comment. Dave tried to seem appreciative and on one level he was. But he was still in shock, unable to deal with his feelings. So, he had a lot of trouble when one of these visitors offered more than baked goods. He was polite but made it clear that he wasn’t up for anything much more than small talk. Six months after the accident, Dave decided enough was enough and went back to the office full-time.  “You can’t feel sorry for yourself forever,” is the way he explained it. And he got right back into his job again. Doing it helped a lot. A least during the work day. At night and on weekends, though, he was still sitting alone in his big, dark house, staring blankly at the TV. Which is how Grace, a neighbor, found him when she let herself in by the unlocked side door after ringing the doorbell without rousing him. “Dave what are you doing? Are you OK?” He started to cry. “This house seems so dead. It’s closing in on me. I’ve got to get out of here. I miss her. I miss the kids. There’s nothing here without them.” Grace said, “I’ll be right back.” She got her husband and the three of them sat late into the night talking about Dave, how he was living, and what maybe he should do. Maybe he should see about dating. Maybe he should hang out at the golf club more. Dave wasn’t sure about any of that. Dave couldn’t imagine dating. What would he talk about? He never did well in social situations. Or at least that’s how he saw himself. But one of the things that seemed to make sense was Dave should talk to a real estate agent. Why knows? Maybe a smaller house? Maybe a condo? An apartment until a better idea came along? The agent Dave saw happened to be the wife of his minister. And she had what at first seemed like a very odd idea. “You have plenty of room and I have a couple that needs a place to stay for a while. My husband married them last month. So maybe you should meet them. Why not? Could be fun.” So, the next Saturday, he was sitting at this very stylish restaurant waiting for the couple to arrive. It wasn’t Dave’s sort of place. Dave called places like this “Fern Salons.” Salads, crusty bread, and twenty-three varieties of white wine were featured. Dave was ordering a beer when two women walked in and asked if he was Dave. His eyes must have bulged because the tall one said, “Oh, she didn’t mention that we were gay. Just like her. If it bothers you, we can split.” Dave was embarrassed by his reaction. But for some reason, for the first time in a long time, he felt good. And he said something that he would never have guessed he would say, “Oh, no. Please. Sit down. This could be fun.” And it was fun. And it was a life changer for Dave.  Doris and Nancy moved in three days later and the lights came on. The kitchen came alive. The two women made vegan casseroles and exotic salads. They baked bread. They made cakes and pies. And they knew how to make very good cocktails. Dave gave them the master bedroom, explaining they were just married and needed some privacy. He moved into his son’s room in the children’s wing of the house. So, it wasn’t the house. It was its emptiness. And now that it was filled, Dave began to come alive again. His daughter was thrilled. It was fun to be home again. But some of the neighbors were not so thrilled. They couldn’t figure out what was going on. Most didn’t get that Doris and Nancy were a couple and wondered whether Dave was “doing a two-fer.” They got even more worried when Dave started dating a gal he met downtown and began having her stay at his house every now and then. There were a lot of smutty jokes and a conference with Dave’s minister who explained, “It’s not what you might think and if I’m not concerned, you shouldn’t be either.” One neighbor from way down the street wasn’t so sure. “This could be some kind of cult. Or witchcraft!” He saw his lawyer who said, “Mind your business. Maybe I should meet Dave and find out his secret.” But then, one day, there was a “For Sale” sign up in front of Dave’s house. Doris, Nancy, and Dave had been talking. He wanted a new life. His daughter had finished college, was working as a biochemist, and had met a guy. Doris and Nancy wanted a vegan farm. And maybe a little restaurant. It would involve a move across country. Without really giving it much thought, he said, “We are going to do it. I’ve got the money and you have the muscle. I’m going to have fun.” It turned out it wasn’t quite as much fun as Dave had envisioned. There were a few unforeseen events that threw things off. First, Nancy got pregnant. That delayed things until the baby was born. How Nancy got pregnant was and remains a deep dark secret. But it led to a lot of jokey comments. “Nope! Wasn’t Dave. Unless he’s sneaky.” There was a onesie that said “This is not Dave’s kid” on its front. There were even t-shirts. Doris was in on the secret and she wasn’t saying either. Second, their plan went a bit off the rails. The idea was to use the internet to find possibilities, take a trip to see the options, select one, check out living situation, and buy. But the first farm they found and wanted to buy turned out to be a scam. The supposed “owner” was selling a place that wasn’t his to sell. Dave was quick to spot the problem; he didn’t run a large company’s legal department for nothing. He got the scam artist to draw up some documents, got him and his supposed attorney on tape, and had the authorities take care of the rest. But that meant they needed to find a place while they looked for a property that was legitimate. That turned out to be pretty easy. An old house that sat a mile or so out of town. And finally, it became glaringly clear that neither Nancy, Doris, nor Dave knew a thing about farming, let alone organic farming. Which is how Dave met his second wife. And how Dave became someone very different from what he was when he started out in life. Her name is Shoshana. She was running a small organic restaurant and truck farm with her son, Herman, and Herman’s wife. She knew how to cook and to raise vegetables but knew nothing about business. She was working hard and was slowly going bankrupt. Nancy and Doris discovered her restaurant on one of their trips to town. And after a couple visits, they decided they liked Shoshana and dragged Dave along for lunch. Dave and Shoshana are not what you might think of as an “obvious match.” Initially, they were both very skittish of one another. He was interested but worried that she would think him a stiff. She worried about what she called “the ethnic thing” and put on a “Jewish act.” She only knew six words of Yiddish but suddenly started using them whenever Dave showed up for lunch. But they had much more in common than they imagined. They grew up one town over from one another. They were both products of exclusive but different private schools. They both went to the same college, she graduating ten years later. But at the same time, they came from very different worlds. His was WASP and traditionally Christian, people who saw themselves as the pinnacle of society. Hers was Jewish, people who were typically excluded from his childhood world. And yet, when they settled down together, her background slowly absorbed his. There was this time when they were having a quiet breakfast and Dave said, “Stereotypes say I should be having your corn muffin and you should be having my bagel.” Over time, Nancy and Doris moved on, starting a bookkeeping service in the next town. It turned out that they liked the idea of farming more in theory than in reality. Shoshana’s son and his wife moved when he took a job in advertising. Dave’s daughter visited with her family every summer. And Dave, using what he learned over the years in a large firm, turned the restaurant and truck farm around, first hiring a farm manager who knew his stuff, then moving the restaurant to a larger place with more traffic and hiring a chef who could take the pressure off Shoshana and tweak the menu. Then, he hired a smart promotion company, got some national publicity, and a steady stream of business that grew over the years. “It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was a kid but, all-in-all, not so bad. Not so bad at all. Shoshana thinks I need a new hat but this one will do for a good while yet.”

91. Dennis Fenton, Restaurateur

“Always seemed to be headed for a cliff”

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

90. Sheldon Bender, DDS, Dental Surgeon

Everyone calls Shelly one of the most boring people on earth. It’s said with a lot of affection though. On a superficial level, he’s very likable. He always says the same thing when he meets you. It doesn’t matter whether you see him in his dental office for a root canal or in the bagel store on Sunday morning. Young or old, man or woman, he always says the same thing, “Heighdy Ho, sailor.” It comes with a big grin and maybe, if you’re unlucky, a very corny joke. “I can row a boat. Canoe?” After that, not much. Maybe some vague comments about the weather or a sports team. “Hot enough for you?” “How about those Bills?” It is not that he is uneducated or uninformed. Or brain-dead. If asked a specific question about most topics, even some of the most arcane, he will indicate more than a passing awareness, even if it is to say, “That’s a topic not up my alley. I read something about it though.”  And then he’ll describe what he read. Some say he knows about a lot of stuff but not a lot about any one thing. “It’s like he just takes stuff in and files it away without thinking about it.” But that’s not true about everything. He is a whiz at dentistry and teaches it at the local dental school. And for some reason, in his sophomore year in college, he took a shine to geology. Ask him about it and he starts off, “We called it ‘rocks’ in school. I still read up on it every chance I get.” Then, he goes on and on about the local geology until you start getting desperate to find an excuse to get away. That’s almost impossible when you see him for a difficulty dental procedure. You sit in the chair, all numbed up or half conscious, maybe with half a dozen instruments in your mouth, and, as he works, he goes on and on about sedimentary rock. Or about tectonic plates. And if you are bored out of your mind, Shelly hasn’t a clue. He is that way now and was that way as a kid. In grade school he was a very good kid. Never got into trouble. Did extra credit in class. Never was late with homework. His penmanship was a sight to behold. Every letter perfect. The only class in which he did not excel was Phys Ed. He was awkward and a slow runner. He did his best but anyone could see his heart wasn’t in it. It was the only “C” he ever got in school. Fortunately, they did not grade his love life. His closest approximation of a relationship in high school was with a girl, named Nancy. She was probably his only friend in those years. They were just pals. She made him feel comfortable and got him to laugh and he helped her with her advanced placement chemistry. They never went on a “real date” or even kissed. They only touched by accident. And if they did, Shelly got very flustered. If there was anything more to it – on her part or his – beyond a genuine fondness and friendship, nothing ever happened. And after high school graduation, they went their separate ways and lost track of one another. The internet did not exist then. And so it went, right through college and dental school. Nothing serious. Which is odd because more than a few women have classified him as “gorgeous.” And more than a few tried their luck with him both in high school and college. Other than Nancy, they invariably gave up after spending more than a bit of time with him. For example, one college classmate said, “He is the ultimate nerd. I think he is amazingly shy. Or something is wrong with his head.” Then, there was a gal in dental school who made a valiant effort. Her assessment after three dates, all at her instigation: “Totally cute and nice but he made me crazy. He is a social klutz without an original thought in his head about anything except dentistry. And sex! Forget it.” Whether Shelly was happy with all this is unclear. His parents, however, were thrilled. He was their only child and they had some interesting views. They had always warned him about women who, they claimed, invariably wanted to take him away from his family, undermine his moral strength, and lead him to indecency. They constantly told him, “Do not give in.” And they might mention they prayed for his soul, surrounded as he was by what they saw as “constant temptation.” Who knows what might have happened if Sheilah hadn’t set her eye on him? This was when he was already a practicing dentist with a large patient list. Her chiropractor office was down the hall from his office. They bumped into one another two or three times a week. She invited him for coffee, for a drink, out to dinner, and, before he knew it, he was engaged and married. Not that he minded.  Finding a nice girl and getting married was something he wanted to do. He just didn’t know how. In a lot of ways, he was a terrific husband. Makes money. Attentive and helpful. They had two daughters right away. Sheilah would always say, “Shelly’s a character. That’s for sure. Amusing in his own way. But maybe a little dull.” And then she would laugh. But dull, it turns out, was what Sheilah wanted in a husband. She was from a broken home. Her father was into booze and women. Her mother was into trouble. Shoplifting, theft, and fraud. When Shelly hired a new dental assistant, Sheilah gave her a look-over and said, “With any other husband, that chick would be trouble. With Shelly, no sweat.” And for a while, she was right. If Shelly noticed Carla, he didn’t let on. Patients noticed her though, especially the men. “Shelly, where’d you get the hottie. She is something.” Shelly blushed and said, “She is an excellent assistant. Maybe the best I ever had.” The problem was Carla liked a little adventure, knew what she was doing, and Shelly was a sitting duck. She had come to this country as a six-year-old and thrived. But not without some difficulty along the way. She got married right out of high school He was abusive. She moved out and divorced him. She hooked up with an older man who helped put her through college and dental assistant school. When that relationship ended, she decided to avoid dating and relationships for a while. Which is just about the time she started working for Shelly. It was after about six month’s working for him when she began to sense, maybe he’s beginning to get ideas. This freaked her out at first. For her, one of the best things about working for Shelly – other than he was a great dentist, an excellent teacher, and a good boss – was he never hit on her. But now, suddenly, he was over-solicitous and smiled at her for no apparent reason. She was both annoyed and intrigued. She told her sister, “I could nail this guy if I wanted.” But of course, she was wildly optimistic. Even if he were interested, nothing was going to happen. Shelly was Shelly, still dealing deep down with all the stuff his parents had pounded into his head. And, most of all, he was terrified of Sheilah. What would she say? Would she leave him? Would she scream, even throw things? Divorce him and take his money? He did not understand Sheilah. She doted on him, knew him better than he knew himself, and might have been secretly pleased if he were to have a flirtation with another woman. “It’d prove he’s human after all!” Sheilah always knew how to take a joke and she and Shelly each knew they had something special together. They were in it for the long run. So, if anything could, that made Sheilah’s accident even more horrendous. A car went through a red light at very high speed, right into her car, bursting open the gas tank. When they put out the fire, her car was a burnt-out hulk. There wasn’t much of her to bury. Shelley’s daughters say they cannot forget how Shelley looked after the funeral, sitting alone, rocking slowly back and forth, staring at a wall in a dim room. Not the most demonstrative of men, Sheilah was his whole world. The two girls did what they could for him. They coaxed him back into his dental practice. They made sure his house was clean. They did some cooking. They took him out to dinner. They worried about his mental health; he seemed so numb. But one was in dental school and the other had a job as a financial analyst. And they had personal lives of their own. So, Nancy’s turning up was a stroke of luck. When she made an appointment for root canal, she wondered whether this Sheldon Bender was that odd but cute boy she knew in high school. “He was very sweet, very good looking. He laughed at my jokes, but seemed to live in a world of his own. You know, now that I know better, I think I was a little crazy about him back then. He didn’t recognize her at first. She was already in the chair when he walked in. He introduced himself and went to pull up some x-rays on a screen. But was a bit startled by an odd dragon ring she was wearing. It seemed familiar somehow. Looking at it, he felt an odd twitch. A memory of a teenage longing? He had no idea what to do with that feeling – not then and not now. “I know that ring. But where?” But this woman, she was a stranger, one more root canal in a career filled with them. He said, “Hello, I’m Dr. Bender. They say you need root canal. Open wide and let’s take a look.” It was sort of a thunderclap. “Sheldon, is that you? My God, you haven’t changed a bit. What are you doing with yourself these days? Remember how I used to get you to laugh? Back in high school? You were such a nerd. God, I’ve missed you.” At which point, Shelly started to cry. He couldn’t stop. It was not anything that he had allowed himself ever before. He suddenly had so much to tell this woman from so long ago. They got around to the root canal, but not that day.