I am an artist and illustrator. And these “episodes” are quick sketches of and stories about people that I meet or have met over the years. I do the drawings first, keeping them simple and spontaneous but (hopefully) sophisticated. They are with perhaps one or two exceptions, line drawings done with a fine-line pen. I started doing these drawings in business meetings. That expanded to doing them in waiting rooms or while traveling, as a way to remember the people I met, worked with, or just observed from afar. Once I’d done a number of these sketches, I began to wonder about the people they depict. What might they be really like on the inside? What are their dreams? Their fears? Their secrets? Since I did not know the people I was drawing (or because I did not know them well), I felt ill-at-ease about asking personal questions. And so, I began to create stories about these people, based on what I imagine their life is like. That way, each drawing became a kind of psychological adventure; I never knew, when I sat down to write, what I was going to find. Like the drawings themselves, the stories are not to scale or photographic. If there is any prevailing theme, it is this: people keep their inner world well-hidden and probably for damn good reason. A secondary theme: making stuff up is much more fun than reality. And in a way, that is the real truth in all this. If you would like to learn more about me or my work please send a note. Our email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Audrey always had big dreams and a mind her teenage spiritual advisor called, “…unfortunately a bit twisted.” Her father bought her a very nice digital camera when she was at the end of her junior year of high school. A birthday present. The idea was she would use it to shoot family pictures and nature. And maybe make a little money. Audrey did some of that. It is not clear how she got adolescent boys to pose nearly naked. But she did and those pictures landed her in counseling sessions with her family’s spiritual advisor, a lay preacher who was supposed to have good intentions but really didn’t and was also not what he claimed to be. He was no compassionate healer of those beset by the Dark One. He told Audrey her pictures were the work of the devil and she must pray with him to drive the evil from her mind. He also let his hands wander as they prayed and, during Audrey’s third prayer session with him, attempted to rape her. Audrey was a strong kid. She wrestled free. His pants were down and she kicked. Twice. As he lay, curled on the floor, screaming in pain, swearing to kill her, she ran home. Her parents weren’t there so she called her father at his job and told him what happened with the “helpful preacher.” His response was not what Audrey expected: “I know what happened. He called me. He told me how you tried to entice him to sin. You are a possessed child who needs treatment. I will be home soon. Go to your room and pray for your soul.” Years later, Audrey still can’t believe what her father said. “It was insane. How could my father say such things? He believed that creep over me. All I knew is I needed to get away and as fast as I could. I grabbed my camera, some clothes, and all the money I’d been saving for my school’s class trip. And I got the hell out of there. I don’t know how I knew how to disappear but I did. I know they looked for me and reported me to the police as a delinquent. But I had just turned 18 so that probably went nowhere. Anyway, I had a couple of friends downtown who had an apartment. I hid out there for a couple of weeks. I had the good sense to ditch my phone and not use any credit cards. Anyway, some guy I barely knew offered me a lift out of town to New York City. I couldn’t imagine doing something like that today. Getting in a car with a near stranger and heading halfway across country. But I had a little luck. He was a sweetie-pie. And, yes, we slept together but it was because I thought he was cute and I wanted to. It was my first time. He was very helpful about the whole thing. And when we got to New York, he put me in touch with a friend of his who said she’d put me up if I could help with the rent. Two days later, I was delivering pizza and getting tips. And two months later, I had a job as a receptionist at a small advertising agency. The owner kept hitting on me but it was no big deal. The women in the agency protected me. And somewhere along the way, I started taking pictures of odd things I saw. When I showed my photos to one of the art directors, he went nuts over them. He set me up with a photo agency. I made a lot of money for them, always working on the side as a freelancer while I kept my job as a receptionist at that little advertising agency. I always figured it would all come to end and I’d need a regular paycheck. I was just this little kid from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with no real training. I figured someone is going to find out what a fraud I was and send me home. But they never did. I got picked up by a photo agency and they got me a bunch of work. 426 And then there was that show about my photos that was on national news. The local paper where my parents live made a “local-girl-makes-good-in New-York-City” fuss about it. Front page. My parents saw it. And the newspaper helped them get in touch with me. Lots of recriminations. It turns out that spiritual adviser had hit on a couple of other girls after me and got caught. Went to jail. Bastard. Served him right. After I was on the phone with my parents, listening to their crap, how I should come home and everything will be just like it was, I had enough. I told them, ‘I had a life and they weren’t in it. Goodbye.” And I hung up. Somethings you just can’t fix.
About five years after that, I got married. A nice Jewish boy. His name is Peter. He had the same sort of tussle with his parents I had, sort of. They were pretty upset when he quit college. He said it was a waste of time for him. He got a job in metal working shop as a customer service and sales person. They specialized in ornamental and architectural metalwork. He says he was very good at it. I think he’s right about that. Peter still works for the same company, although now he’s the owner and it’s a multi-million-dollar business. They get business from all over the world. So, his parents ended up being pretty pleased with him. They ended up being pretty pleased with me as well. Not so much at first. They tried. I wasn’t Jewish which bothered them at first. And they sort of freaked out when I told them about my family and how I ran away from home and how I never went back. I told them the whole story. I’m not quite sure about what Peter’s family made of it all. One thing for sure, they right away got the idea I wasn’t anything like any other girl Peter brought home. And I was pretty self-sufficient. Peter said like it or not, this was it. And both his parents did their best to be nice. And after a while, they really were. They took me in. Peter’s father said, if I wanted, maybe he could try to maybe smooth things over with my parents. His thought was, ‘OK, your father made a dumb mistake, but he’s the one who got you started taking pictures. So, maybe there’s something there. Who knows?’ True enough. Petey’s father was very nice to make the offer. But I still said no. I figured my folks would not take very kindly to this smooth-talking, big-time lawyer who happened to be Jewish. And mostly, I didn’t really want anything to do with them. But I have to admit I changed my tune a bit when the first baby came. Then, I figured what the hell, blood is thicker than water and all that crap. The reunion was nice but strained. They knew I was and am still pissed. I can’t help it. They believed that bastard preacher over their own daughter. That ain’t right. I still get furious when I think about it. So, anyway, I tried. But, in the end, I don’t owe my father or my mother a thing. And they know enough now to keep their distance. Sometimes my feelings about it all it shows up in my work. A dark tinge in photos that are supposed to be warm and happy. It sneaks in and gives the photos a little twist that sets them apart. Even in the family pictures I do for private clients. Once in a while you can see that little zing in my commercial work when I don’t edit it out. Companies making political or public service ads seem to like it a lot. It’s supposed to give their advertising an “authentic” look. But it shows up especially in editorial and artistic work. No matter what, everyone seems to know things are never quite what they seem.
Since the heart attack, Big Al hasn’t been the same. He’s had two other heart attacks, just minor ones, a couple of years back. They took him off the road. No more hitting one club after another for months at a time. But he could still play and he was able to work local a couple of nights a week. There were more than a few folks who thought he was the best clarinet player around. And he could always sub in on saxophone if he was needed. But the last heart attack was no fun at all. He couldn’t walk without a cane and had trouble catching his breath. And finally, after a life in the back seat of cars, on buses, and on trains, he was home for good. His wife was not too happy at first. Al had no idea what was going on when he was away. But Sandra wasn’t sitting around the house being lonely, not since the kids were out on their own. And what was going on while Al was on the road was plenty. But by the time he had his heart attack, she had enough of what she thought of as “wild nights.” At first, it wasn’t too bad. He was a week in the hospital. And when he came home, she had to be a fulltime caregiver for him. Al couldn’t do much himself except stagger to the bathroom. And he wasn’t used to being at home anyway. He just assumed meals got cooked by someone, like when he was on the road. And laundry somehow got done. And never mind cleaning up. All he knew how to do was make music, get paid, and send money home. His band got booked by some creep in New York. The travel arrangements got taken care of. He made music. That was it. No one expected more of him than that. And he was happy. He’d get home every couple of months, spend time with Sandy and the kids. Visit with a few old friends. And then, he’d be off again, sort of like a stray cat that stops by every now and then for a bowl of milk. When he was on the road, he’d do as he pleased. A woman here. A woman there. Sleep half the day, until it was time to play. Drink too much. Smoke weed. Have a few laughs. If he sat down and thought about it, he’d agree in two seconds, this was not a good way to live. But when he was on stage in a noisy room, playing like there was nothing else in the whole world – that made it all worth it. But after he got out of the hospital, sitting at home in a chair, unable to do much, he thought about killing himself. They told him he’d get better. “You just have to take it a bit easier. You’ll be out and about before you know it.” That’s what the rehab guy said. Al wasn’t buying it. He sat around feeling sorry for himself until Sandy told him to get off his ass and start living again. This was a couple of months after he landed in the hospital. She sent the caregiver away and told Al he was well enough and had to start taking care of himself. She had a life to live and he did too. Al learned how to do things around the house. And he started taking walks. Not far at first. Shambling along with a cane. He probably didn’t need the cane but he liked the idea of walking with it and using it as a prop. Not as good as a clarinet. But good for laughs he figured. He’d step out in the street and drivers seeing this old fool with a cane would jam on the brakes. He’d wave it around if he had a conversation with someone. Or use it to point out things. Then, he picked up a few gigs and the cane became part of the act. He had this funny, old hat he wore too. And after a while, he was back to his old life, if a less strenuous version of it. Which is how he started fooling around with this little gal who took a shine to him. And that is how Sandy, when she found out, said she had enough and told him to get out. She was bluffing but it scared the hell out of him. He begged her to take him back. She did. But with certain stipulations. So, in his old age, Big Al stopped the crap and became what he called “a gooder person.” In saying that, he usually added, “It’s them damn stipulations what’s done it.”
Back then, it would have been really easy to say, “I hate my life.” But given how rich my parents were, it would have been not just ungrateful but obnoxious. And I was obnoxious enough as it was. When my parents were alive, I was the cliché of the little rich kid: bratty, imperious, just plain nasty, but also lonely and emotionally needy. I was and still am pretty sure I was the result of a drunken accident. Not wanted. An inconvenience. My parents were terrible at being parents. I had nannies, tutors, and companions until they shipped me off to school. And once that happened, I’d only see my parents when they flew me to wherever they were having fun, having flings, drinking much too much. Daddy was really smart, made piles of money in real estate and in finance. Mommy was an ornament. If they weren’t killed in that car crash, they surely would have divorced. I grew up with almost no one I could feel close. I had no sense of direction. When I got to the very prestigious boarding school they dumped me in, I was disobedient, disruptive in class, and nasty, convinced the school was a dumping ground for unwanted children or a prison. I was not popular. But after a while, things got better. what saved me from being a total slug was the brains I inherited from Daddy. Despite myself, I began reading everything I got my hands on, loved math, wrote poetry, and found myself in one advanced class after another. I graduated high school at 16 and went on to what can only be described as an exceptional college career. I graduated magna cum laude and was supposed to started on an advanced degree. But right after I graduated college – the very next week, in fact – Mommy and Daddy had their car accident. And things got very weird very fast. I needed to grow up fast. Daddy had named me not only as his sole heir but also head of all the businesses he owned, companies I knew nothing about. Most of the people involved in those companies – almost all overbearing men with loud voices – were lying bastards out to steal what they could from me. To them, I was this dumb, naïve kid, a nuisance who stood in the way of their getting whatever they wanted. In a few cases, “whatever they wanted” was me in bed with them. Some seemed fatherly, supportive, and helpful. They were the worst. My graduate school plans went out the window. And my personal life, what little there was of it, went to hell. No big deal. Men found me attractive enough; both my parent had been very good looking. But most of the boys I was in school with saw me as standoffish, stuck-up, and intimidating. I had better grades than any of them. And I pushed buttons too. Like it wasn’t smart of me to think I could attract boys by driving around in a Mercedes sports car. And I was a smarty pants who was a pretty good tennis player. So, I tended to end up with jerks conceited enough to think they were hot stuff. Some were pretty good looking and amusing but that was it. I dated one or another of them from time to time. Nothing serious. And that all stopped when I had to get my head around the situation my father left me in and make sure everything was as it should be. It all took longer than I ever expected. I had to learn stuff quickly and I did. But the business world wasn’t for me. Too many misogynists. Too much dumb stuff. I did not like being so tough. And I had to be a tough SOB from time to time. I turned everything into investments so I could do what I really wanted. And suddenly, there I was. I went back to school, got a Ph.D., got a job in a research company, met a guy at a conference and married him and started my own foundation. There’s a kid coming and I’m hoping we’ll be a better parent than the ones I had. Of course, it never hurts to have roughly one hundred million in the bank.
Randy is doing a lot better in life than he ever expected. He has a job he loves and pays well enough. He’s got a very nice family: a very nice and helpful wife. Two good little kids, two boys. Even a dog that never barks except when there is a problem. Like the time someone tried to break in. He’s a sculptor and he’s in some of the best galleries he could want. But despite all that, somethings always eating him. He has this sneaky feeling it is all going to collapse and he’ll end up on the street. His thinking is there is no reason he should be doing so well other than dumb luck. And easy come, easy go. His family growing up was poor and pretty much uneducated, at least about the art world. They still think what he does isn’t really real. “A flash-in-the-pan” is how his mother put it when the local newspaper did a full page on Randy and his work. “Don’t go getting some big ideas. When those fancy artsy types catch on, they’ll drop you like a hot brick.” Randy’s wife keeps telling him to ignore that kind of stuff. Still, it always got to him. He went to a shrink for a while. But the shrink didn’t get it. He told Randy to have faith in himself and, anyway, he had plenty of money in the bank and, if he needed to, he could always get a job teaching. Randy started doing a lot of staring out the window and making a lot of small, tortured sculptures. And for a while, Randy started staying away from his studio. He was on a road trip with his pal, Franky, when he got news about a new show. In Paris. A big deal. Just six months away. Half the pieces would be from inventory, Randy’s London gallery had already presold all but two of them. But four or five new major pieces would be needed. Suddenly, Randy was back in the saddle, making stuff; in the studio working away almost around the clock. He denies it but his wife swears he was singing and dancing when, one day, she came by with sandwiches for lunch. When someone said, “Sounds like fun afternoon,” she blushed, chuckled to herself, and agreed.
“I’ve taught every damn grade from kindergarten – even pre-K – through twelve. And most of the kids I’ve taught end up being my friend. For the last ten years, I’ve taught senior year English. It’s more a writing course than anything else. I have a reading list but that’s just to make sure they’ve got their noses into something decent to read. They watch a lot of junk on the internet. And they get ideas from video games. That won’t do for me. And I make them write a story every week. Not more than say 500 words. I’ve had parents tell me that’s too hard for their kid. I tell them, ’Crap. It doesn’t have to be great literature or something. Just a story. About anything.’ I’ve had a kid write a story about a bug. A bug! Can you believe it. It gets swatted at the end. I loved it. If course there are some kids who just ain’t going to anything no matter what. That’s when I tell them about my life and all the crap I went through to survive. And what I know about jail. And about getting shot. And what happens when the cops get pissed off for some dumb thing you did. And they get the feeling I know what I’m talking about. And maybe I know a thing or two. But no matter what I say, some kids just don’t give a crap and ain’t going to listen. Funny, these are the ones who come back to visit year after year. They talk about being in Mrs. Wickham’s class. I always tell my students they should never come back after they finish my course. Most – especially to ones who put out the work and wanted to learn – I don’t ever see again. They know better. I want them to move on. But some of them still stay in touch, one way or another. They send me things or send me notes. Sometimes I get amazing things, like news about a prize or a scholarship they’ve won. A couple have sent me books they’ve written. You have no idea what that does to me.”
“I’d be a whole lot happier if I were an auto mechanic.” Arno tells that to anyone after he’s had a bit of Bourbon. He invariably goes into all the reasons why. “What I do is a high wire act and the wire breaks more often than I like. There’s a lot of stress. And a lot of times when there are people coming to me with something bad and I can’t do a thing for them. I don’t know what’s worse, a patient dying on me – either on the table or after I’ve worked on them – or when I have to tell them, I can’t help them. A car, you junk it and get a new one if you can’t fix it.” But, in the end, that’s all a bunch of crap. Arno loves being a high wire act. He loves the danger. The idea almost no one else can do what he does. The gratitude he gets when he performs what some would call a miracle. Just think about what he does for fun. There’s the sky diving and the flying a stunt plane. And sailing across the Atlantic by himself on a 30-foot sailboat. And when he’s not complaining about not being an auto mechanic, he can be more that a bit of a pompous ass. When he gets a chance to go at a captive audience, like at a dinner party. Or when having a drink with his operating room crew, he loves to go on about a subject he thinks he knows a lot about. Some battle in the 100 years war. French painting in the mid-19th century. Is he impressed with himself? You bet. Was that why his third wife – and the two before her – left him? Could have been a bunch of reasons but that was probably one of them. We don’t know for sure. Arno is pretty mum about his private life when he wants to be. Every now and then, though, something surfaces. It usually involves a very bright, very intense, athletic woman, at least 20 or 25 years younger than Arno, someone who could almost be his daughter. Once it was someone his daughter’s age, her college roommate. These adventures usually end in a fiasco. As bright and clever as Arno is, he can be a jerk about this sort of stuff. It’s got him into trouble at work too. In the old days, even five years ago, he could get away with it. Even his wives usually looked the other way. The thinking was: this guy is so good at saving lives, we will have to forgive him his stupidities. Not anymore. He’s been warned and, lately, he seems to be settling on an older woman who may just terrify him. Not that she’s big and muscular. She keeps herself slim and trim but dresses fairly modestly. But she’s smarter than him and he knows it. She calls him an idiot when he behaves badly, tells him to knock it off when he starts pontificating, and otherwise sets him straight, when necessary, while telling him it is for his own good. And he knows that’s true. He also knows that if he were to be fired for some dumb behavior, he would be emotionally devastated, likely clinically depressed, even suicidal. “After all, how many years of practice do I have left? At my age, a ten-hour surgery almost kills me. It is physically a killer. And it just drains you. So, for the next couple of years, I better listen and do what I’m told. But it still pisses me off.”
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.”
They met at a party about a dozen years ago. Ricky brought a date, Ginny. She was the one that started the conversation. They were talking with a group of people, including a short guy, Norman, maybe ten years older than Ricky. When Norman mentioned he worked in a health food store and was a committed vegetarian. Ginny wanted to know all about it. She thought being a vegetarian was cool and said she was thinking about becoming one herself. Back then, Ricky thought too much concern about food was a bunch of crap. And anyway, he was a steak man. But because Ginny was interested, he went along with it and listened to what Norman had to say. Ginny wanted to hear more but, after ten or fifteen minutes or so, Norman had to excuse himself, saying, “There’s a couple of friends I have to leave with, but here’s my store’s card. Stop by. The salads are great.” And that was that. Ricky forgot all about Norman and his health food, especially since, about a month later, Ginny got transferred across the country. They exchanged emails for a while. That petered out with one last email when Ginny announced she was getting married. Ricky didn’t date much after that. It wasn’t that he was madly in love with her. But she was good company and seemed to enjoy making love with him. But that last email was the beginning of a long rough patch for him. His job was tenuous. He had to admit that he hated the company he was working for. “A bunch of low-lifes.” And he seemed to be low on energy for some reason. He wasn’t sleeping well either. His mother suggested he see the family doctor. “And, heaven sakes, get a girlfriend. It’s time you got married.” He went to the doctor. He had a physical. The doctor pronounced Ricky to be in great shape, at least physically. But admitted that his mental state needed some perking up. “You’re in excellent health, Ricky. I should be so healthy. Just get out more. Go for walks. Meet new people. That usually helps with some of the young people I see.” So, every weekend, Ricky would go on a long hike, sometimes on a trail up in the hills, sometime just around the city. He felt better. Met a few new people. Went on a few dates. Nothing serious. He switched jobs too. And that helped a lot. His mother decided to fix him up with a couple of gals his age that she knew. Mostly, that did not go well. Somewhere along the way, he ran into Norman. Norman was sitting on a bench in a park, having an intense discussion with some guy. Ricky didn’t recognize Norman and almost passed on by. Norman had shaved his head and had a ring in his ear. But Norman recognized Ricky. And seemed thrilled to see him again. “Ricky, how are you? Where’s that gorgeous gal you were with? What have you been doing?” One question after another. Ricky was a bit freaked out. Embarrassed that he hadn’t recognized Norman. Even more embarrassed that Norman seemed to remember so much about him. And more than confused about why Norman was treating him like an old friend. After all they may spent maybe ten minutes with one another. And that was in a group of people at yet another boring party. And three years ago. “Come sit down and tell me how you’ve been.” Ricky was not used to this kind of attention. It made him nervous and on guard. Anyway, they exchanged emails, and Ricky agreed to visit Norman at his health food store. “Come on Saturday, before noon. It’s not so busy then.” But work got in the way and Ricky had to postpone. But when he did make it, it was late in the afternoon. And the store turned out to be a lot different than he had imagined. He expected one of these old-time stores full of unpleasant looking grains and seeds owned by a couple of old hippies. He had a vivid image of unpasteurized peanut butter in huge jars with weird, homemade labels. Instead, he found a clean, modern, even elegant, store and restaurant, serving great sandwiches on homemade bread, some amazing pasta dishes, and wild salads. And there was wine and beer. There weren’t any hippies. Most of the customers seemed to be trim and well-dressed in what you might call “fashion forward” clothes. Some of the women were knock-outs but seemed somehow a bit odd. But the biggest surprise: Norman owned the place. It turned out that this bald, little guy was something of a big deal in his world. A trend-setter. All of which made Ricky in his old jeans, hiking boots, and faded t-shirt feel very out-of-place. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Seeing him getting ready to turn around and leave, Norman got upset. “Where you going? You just got here. I was hoping I could offer you a sandwich or a drink.” “Not my scene,” Ricky said on his way out. “I’ll send you a note.” Ricky did not send a note. Norman held off getting in touch. Whatever had bothered Ricky about his store, Norman wanted to give Ricky a little time to get over it. So, after a couple week, he sent an email, “Come to dinner. I won’t bite.” Ricky thought it would be rude to say “no” so he would and they set a date. A Saturday night a couple of weeks down the road. When Ricky showed up Norman took him to a little vegetable garden he had behind the store. They both remember the weather was gorgeous. High summer. There was a nice glass and wrought iron table set for dinner in the middle of the garden. And at the far end of the garden, a rough stone bench. Ricky had put on some nicer clothes. He hadn’t been sure who would be there and didn’t want to look a slob. He brought a decent bottle of wine too. After half a bottle of wine or maybe more and some hors d’oeuvres, they started to talk. Norman said, “You know, I have a pretty nice life but I think yours is not so nice. You dating anyone?” Ricky explained that he really hadn’t wanted to date after he and Ginny split. Hadn’t met the right girl. Or maybe he just didn’t feel up to it. “Hard to explain. I’ve sort of become a loner.” Ricky didn’t usual talk about this sort of stuff. But the second glass or so of wine seemed to have gotten to him. They walked around the garden for a bit and ended up sitting next to one another on that stone bench at the back of the garden. “Ginny and I weren’t really all that serious but she was good company. I don’t think I’ve met anyone like her since she moved away. It’s weird, I guess. Who knows? Maybe I’m asexual. Or don’t have the usual amount of hormones. My mother fixed me up with two or three gals. It was a disaster. They were nice enough kids but I just couldn’t get turned on. They bored me and I clearly bored them. One more of them and I’d be headed for a monastery.” Which is when Norman leaned over and kissed Ricky. Right on the lips. A real kiss. Ricky felt something like an electric shock go through him. He was stunned. Never dawned on him that Norman might be gay. And when Norman did it again, Ricky almost fainted. He wanted to get up and run. “Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing? Stop that.” That’s what he was thinking. But he someone wasn’t able to say anything. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t believe what was going on. But when Norman kissed him again, a third time, Ricky kissed back. And since that moment, he and Norman have never stopped kissing one another. And so, started a life that Ricky could never have imagined. And sometimes still can’t.