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.”

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.

89. Ricky and Norman, at the Health Food Store

“How have you been?”

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.

87. Ryan “Nikko” Shemanski, Vagrant

“What did I do wrong?”

“This is all my doing.” True or not, it is something Nikko firmly believes. People who spend any time with him hear that refrain over and over. Another thing Nikko says a lot: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I living like this? What did I do wrong? Am I being punished for something?” Nikko seems to think so. On the surface, Nikko had an uneventful, even privileged childhood. His father was a respected bank manager; his mother, a housewife who volunteered at the local hospital thrift shop. But the truth is Nikko’s childhood was one terrible event after another. The most memorable for Nikko was his sister Faith’s attempted suicide. Faith survived but insisted on leaving home after they discharged her from psychiatric evaluation, returning only when she had no other choice. Another memorable event for Nikko was his brother Rodney’s car crash. Roddy still limps badly from his injuries. And, then, there was his mother’s sudden death from falling down a set of stairs. And through it all, there were his father’s unpredictable episodes of extreme rage. One happened when Nikko was sitting out in the backyard with a couple of friends and his father came out with a belt and began whipping Nikko for leaving his room a mess. Another involved Nikko playing music his father thought too loud. And there was the time Nikko was doing homework with one of the girls in his class in the family dining room. Without warning, Nikko’s father came in screaming, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head on the table, called the young lady he was studying with a whore, and ripped up their homework. When talking about these things, Nikko will – by way of explaining his current situation – go on and on about people who did him in and destroyed his life. “They had it in for me. That’s for sure. What choice did I have?” By the time he was 13, Nikko was showing signs of trouble ahead. He became very quiet, avoided friendships, and went from being a good student to one that had to be held back. His guidance counselor recommended psychotherapy. The first referral did not work well. A middle-aged, former physical education teacher whose chief therapy was push-ups and admonitions to “straighten up and be a man” did not sit well with Nikko. In the middle of the first therapy session, Nikko got up, mumbled something about a bus being late, and left. The guidance counselor was very upset with Nikko about this “resistance” and against her better judgement referred Nikko to Mrs. Marsh, a new therapist who seemed too attractive to assign to adolescent boys. And that’s when Nikko seemed to have a bit of lucky. She was patient, cheery, and always had a piece of candy. Nikko loved her, not just because she was young and female and he was an adolescent boy, but because she listened, took him seriously, and seemed to understand him. His grades picked up. He seemed to have a penchant for math and was soon in an advanced placement class, learning calculus and differential equations. But he was still skittish about friendships. And was miserable at home, never knowing when his father might fly into a rage. After he graduated high school, he went to a local commuter college on a partial scholarship. After graduation, he got a job as a junior actuary which gave him the chance to move away from home. And for a while, things were more peaceful in his life than they had ever been. He was back seeing his favorite therapist, began having a bit of a social life, and was thinking about taking a vacation. But one night, his sister, Faith, called and asked to visit. She was still living at home and had just dropped out of junior college. She said she was depressed. Faith showed up looking a wreck. Underweight, unkempt, and strangely jumpy. She had a bruise on her left cheek. She went right to Nikko’s new couch sat down with her arms wrapped tightly around her, shivering and saying nothing. Nikko gave her one of his favorite donuts. After a while, she began to talk. And the more she talked, the angrier Nikko got. He began to understand what had gone on in his family home since Faith was five years old. She stayed for a month, maybe two before she went to live with a boyfriend. At least, that’s what Nikko thinks she did. Nikko says most of his memories from that time are hazy. Nonetheless, he claims to recall three things vividly. During the first week his sister stayed with him, his father showed up, demanding to take her home. There was a fight. Nikko says he remembers grabbing the old man, calling him a child molesting pervert, and pushing him out of the apartment. He also recalls how his father lost his balance, fell over a garbage can, and ended up sprawled on the sidewalk before getting up and storming off. A second thing Nikko remembers from that time is his father’s death – a heart attack they said. Nikko says he went to the memorial service but when people stood up and began describing his father as deeply religious, caring, and generous, Nikko couldn’t take it and left. And the last thing Nikko remembers about that time is cocaine. Back then, Faith was a serious user. Nikko tried it and liked it. And, Nikko says, everything came apart after that. He’s been on the streets now for maybe fifteen years.

86. Meera Rossiter, EVP

“Tough.”

Meera was the third child of immigrants from the New Delhi area. Her parents had come separately as college students to the American Midwest, met at a campus social event, became friends, drifted apart, but three years later met again, this time at a graduate school symposium for foreign students. A year and a half later, they got married and graduated, both ceremonies on the same day, he in computer science, she in medicine. Meera was their third and last child, all daughters. She was never like her sisters. Or anyone else in her family. Her two sisters were obedient, respectful, traditionally feminine, quiet, studious, and disinterested in sports. Not Meera. She was always noisy and rambunctious. In high school, she stood out as a gifted lacrosse player, captain of her team. Unlike her sisters, Meera was casual about her studies, always leaving things to the last minute, getting good grades but only with the least amount of effort necessary. And her behavior drove her parents nuts. While her sisters were always “proper,” Meera snuck out on dates; tried cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana; and listened to music her parents considered tasteless and probably immoral. When they let her (or when she snuck out), she wore clothes that appalled everyone in her family. Definitely a handful. But she also knew how to get her way, partly because she was all things her father had yearned to be as a boy. He had always been an obedient son. But also, because Meera had a thing for technology. It started when she got her hands on her first computer game. She wasn’t supposed to have it. She pirated it and played it when she was supposed to be studying. It took her two tries to beat the game consistently. Then, bored with playing it, she took its programming apart, figured out what made it tick, and, in the process, taught herself to be a game developer. It just came to her. Her father couldn’t believe it. “This is not supposed to happen. It took me years to be a programmer.” Her mother was convinced that this was the beginning of the end for Meera. “What man would marry such as her?” But of course, it was anything but the end. Meera began picking up freelance jobs on the internet. Who knew she was a fourteen-year-old brat without any formal training? Then, she got a full-time job with a game development boutique, that is, until they figured out that she was too young to work without parental permission. But by then, she had applied for and been granted early admission to college with a dual major in finance and computer sciences. And she quickly learned that while she could handle the academics, she had no idea what to do about college social life. She got badly drunk at a sorority rush party. She went on a few disastrous dates and learned a few lessons that 16-year-old kids shouldn’t have to learn so soon. Her solution was to do well in class, take on freelance game development projects, and keep to herself. After two years of this, she was so lonely she was on the verge of dropping out of school. That is, until she saw this shy, goofy, disheveled kid coming across campus, hauling a cello case on his back. It seemed two sizes too big for him. Meera thought him cuter than any puppy she’d ever seen. She didn’t waste time. She stood right in his path until he, oblivious to what was going on, almost crashed into her. His name: Norwood T. Rossiter IV, “Nobby” to his friends. Brilliant and even more talented than Meera in his own way, he was otherwise almost her exact opposite. Very shy. Very quiet. Totally disorganized. Incurably shaggy. Illiterate in anything technological. Focused on music written 300 years ago and ignorant of music that Meera loved. And able to count founding fathers as ancestors, Nobby’s family was bemused by Meera and figured it wouldn’t last. On hearing about Nobby, Meera’s family ordered her home where she was to stay in her room until she came to her senses. It had never dawned on them that, unlike her dutiful sisters, Meera would fall for a non-Desi. Or that she would not give him up. Meera never did what she was told. And this time was no different. Now, three children and a very large house in Palo Alto later, it is seven-thirty in the morning and Meera is getting into an outrageously long stretch-limo and looking tough, dressed in one of her “killer” suits. There’s a meeting of her company’s executive committee, during which she will once again get her way, despite several nasty individuals who – like Meera’s parents – have no idea what they are in for. The nanny will see that the kids get to school. Nobby gets home tomorrow from his most recent European tour. Lately, he’s been getting rave reviews for his Prokofiev Cello Concerto, a piece that has been called, “rarely performed and deservedly so.”

85. Leonard Delgado, Detective

A Good Listener

Leonard never talked about his job. Of course, that’s just what everyone wants to hear about. And, to make matters worse, Leonard never has much to say about anything. Or has anything he necessarily wants to share. His wife, Linda, called him “The Grunt.” And she made grunt jokes. Which was fine with him. He was crazy about her. They married right out of high school. He continued on in school, first at a junior college and then at a state college where he got a degree in Government. She went right to work after high school, as a receptionist. To make ends meet while he was in high school and, then, in college, Leonard worked in a hardware store. When he graduated college, he went right into the police academy, got his badge and went to work as a patrolman. He drove a cruiser for five years, dealing with accidents, speeders, drunks, random burglaries, and assorted human failings. As soon as he was eligible, he studied to become a detective. By the time he made detective, he and Linda had two kids and she was beginning to make a little money as a real estate agent. Things were good. After being ten years on the force, Leonard made detective-sergeant. He was also gaining a lot of respect as a very effective investigator. And an excellent interrogator. If you asked him why he was so good at it, he’d say, “Who knows? I just do the job.” And then, he’d give his secret away: “What do you think? What would make a big oaf like me with half a brain any good at this business?” And then, he’d just listen.  And when you say something, he seems intensely interested and eager to hear more. More times than he can count, Leonard will patiently listen to a suspect until he’s got enough to bring charges without the suspect even knowing how it happened. Once he made sergeant, Leonard never wanted another promotion. Making captain would mean being an administrator. Not his thing. So, he settled into a job he loved and figured that’s where he’d be until retirement. He’d come home most nights in time to see the news and have a couple of pops, have dinner, and doze off watching sports or some movie on TV. All of which left Laura a little bored. It was fine when the kids were young but not so fine now the oldest, a girl, was starting law school and their little boy was in the Coast Guard. It helped that her days were busy. Her real estate career had blossomed beyond her wildest dreams. And she was meeting people she could never have imagined meeting, especially since she got involved with a residential design firm. That’s where she met Ricky, the brother of one of the women she worked with. It was one of those things that people fall into when they let themselves. They had almost nothing in common – she, a cop’s wife with limited education; he, a divorced architect and single parent with degrees in Art History from a big-name university and a graduate degree in Architecture from a school in Italy. Both of them knew that this was a bad idea. But there wasn’t a lot of hesitation or soul-searching for either of them. So, one minute they were exchanging pleasantries in a parking lot. And the next minute they were headed for a hotel room. And when the door to that hotel room door closed behind them, they couldn’t take their hands off one another. This was going on more or less constantly for about six months without Leonard having a clue. Laura figured that Leonard must know. After all, he’s a detective. And a good one. Despite the attraction she felt for Ricky, she loved and admired Leonard. And so, as the romance went on and deepened, she started feeling more and more guilty. One evening, she couldn’t stand it anymore and confessed. It was the same way a lot of people confessed to Leonard. She talked. He never said a word until she finished. When she was done, he said he wasn’t surprised. He explained that while he’d suspected nothing specific, he had noticed how cheery she seemed recently. It wasn’t like her. And then, he said, he understood and he forgave her. He loved her. And so, that was that. She and Ricky tapered off. Leonard tried to pay a lot more attention at home. He retired two years later, after which he and Laura decided to divorce. It was time.

84. Juanita Gorney, Content Creator

Juanita loves making an entrance. She’s shameless about it. And depending on the circumstance, it can involve a floppy, over-the-top outfit that can only be described as almost clown-like or, on the other hand, as ultimately soignée. Or it may be a knock-out all black sheath, bright red shoes, even more brilliant red lipstick, and black eye shadow. Or it can be as simple as a pratfall entrance into a crowded room, amplified by a flying Champagne glass. In short, Juanita come across as a bit of a character. She’s been called frivolous, an exhibitionist, superficial, an airhead. But, despite those bad reviews, there happens to be a very serious person behind it all. And also, a very serious marketing effort. Juanita makes a very nice living by playing the role that she has purposefully carved out for herself. She writes and stars in a weekly podcast that has close to half a million subscribers. She uses it to promote herself and her particular viewpoints on feminism, style, business, self-promotion, and sex, among other topics. She also appears on television as an expert on “self-branding” and business building. Then, there are lectures, seminars, and, most important of all, product endorsements. She claims that it all started for her when she got fired from her job at a high-tech gaming company. She got that job right out of grad school. Back then, she claims, she was a “mousy little thing,” a “geeky tech-nerd” with a talent for game development and programming, a penchant for hip-hop music, and a fascination with witchcraft. She had graduated high school a year ahead of her class and gone through college in three years. It was always clear that she was pretty smart. What was less clear was how shy and naïve she was back then. If she were interested in a boy (which was often), she would never let on. Too scared and socially inept. She says, back then, the idea of being attractive gave her the creeps. In fact, she says, “I made an effort to be as unattractive as possible. And apparently, I was pretty good at it, wearing these strange, baggy, usually all-black get-ups that made me look even skinnier than I really was. And I was pretty skinny when I was a kid.” She kept this up during and after college and also in grad school. “In a way,” she says, “‘the look’ helped to get me that first tech job. It marked me as a “true geek.” It also kept her a social outcast. That and a tendency not to look anyone in the eye and to mumble. And then, suddenly one day, it all went up in smoke. It turns out she wasn’t fired. She was attacked. Violently. An attempted rape. It happened in a company meditation room. On a workday. At mid-day. Initially overpowered, she fought back, kicked free, and ran screaming, out through the office, her clothes ripped, bleeding from her nose from being punched half unconscious. She made it to her car and was gone. She never went back. There was a hefty settlement. She brooded for a year, went back to live with her parents for a while, and, then, pulled herself together. It took time. How she went from spending days looking out the window in her childhood room to now is difficult to piece together. She got some counseling. She decided to change her look from weird to sort of “normal” which for her initially meant a sweat suit and high-fashion running shoes. She got some freelance jobs. She met a man, Paul, about ten years older than her. At some point, she says, she decided she’d been living an extended childhood before the attack and became an adult in the weeks and months after it happened. That’s when she started to write about growing up and anything else that struck her. Her therapist had suggested it. Paul encouraged it. At first, it was just for herself. But she started a blog. And one thing seemed to lead to another. Thinking back, she was very pleased with herself having fought off her attacker. “I guess I’m tougher than I’d have guessed.” And she found she liked being an adult. So, she wrote about all that. After a couple of years together, she and Paul broke up. She wrote about that. She met Andy and that was it. He was fun. And caring. And inventive. The blog turned into her now-famous podcast series, the lecture tours, the seminars, the TV appearances, and the endorsements. And who knows what else. There are going to be children.

82. Sheila McKluskey, On Vacation

“The Flower Lady”

Twenty-five years after graduating business school, Sheila was between jobs. She had left one job to take another. But there was some sort of delay in when her new job would start. So, she did something she hadn’t done since graduation. She took a vacation. Not that Sheila could not have taken a vacation before. She just couldn’t get herself to do it. As she would readily admit, during much of her business career, she had been a bit of a workaholic and very much a control freak. And an anxiety junkie.  “No one can figure out how to do my job. So, if I take time off, there’s just going to be double work and a big hassle when I get back. It’s just not worth it. And, anyway, I’d just worry all the time.”  But somehow, being between jobs, things seemed different. So, after sitting around her apartment for two days, she packed a bag, got a cab, headed for the airport, and grabbed the first plane she could to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Sheila had no idea. Her friend, Christine, had been there and had what she called an “interesting time.” Sheila wasn’t sure what Christine’s “interesting time” might have been. Christine had always struck her as a bit odd and. anyway, didn’t seem too keen to explain.  It turned out that Sheila had a terrific time in San Francisco. Not that she did anything much except wander and just look around. Sheila was like an invisible, visiting Martian, looking but not really touching. And after three weeks, she headed home, called her new job and told them that she needed to start as soon as possible. She had had about all the vacation she could stand. Or so she thought. Six months in to her new job, she quit. And, when they asked whether she was going to another company, she said, “No. Not going anywhere else. Nope. Nowhere else.” Everyone told her she was nuts. She had a great job. They loved her at her new company. And quitting seemed so self-destructive and out-of-character for her. Her friends and her human resource director pointed out, if you leave a job after six months, there’s no severance or anything. And it’s something hard to explain to anyone who might think about hiring you in the future. Her boss suggested that she take a couple of weeks off, get a physical, maybe see a therapist, and come back to start again. And like everyone else, her boss, who was genuinely concerned, asked, “What are you going to do?” But Sheila knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going on vacation. This time for good.  Over the years, she had built up a decent pile of money. She had no obligations. No family. She did some figuring and budgeting and realized that she really didn’t need to work anymore, if she didn’t want to work anymore. And she didn’t. First off, she went to France. Paris. She liked it. She did pretty much what she’d done in San Francisco. She wandered around. Talked to hardly anyone. Came back three weeks later. Headed to Houston. Left after two weeks. Then, she went to Montreal. She met a man there. Stayed for two months. That, Sheila would agree, was “interesting.” But unusual for her. And never repeated. For the most part, wherever she went, she remained an invisible, visiting Martian, just wandering and looking. One vacation after another. But on one trip – her last trip, it turned out – something happened. She wouldn’t say what. But when she got back, she bought a house in a small town in Vermont. It was a sight-unseen, all cash sale. Locals thought her, “Friendly enough but not very talky.” After a while, she got to be known as the “flower lady,” because every spring and all through the summer and early fall she would wander around collecting wildflowers in an old basket. And then, one day, they didn’t see her for a while. Eventually, they found her and her basket where she had sat down to rest during one of her flower-gathering walks. Her eyes were closed. Done with wandering and looking.

81. Jane Slocum, Art Director

“Get your head out of the clouds, Simcha.”

Jane can be a rough customer. She has a clear idea of what she wants for her magazine’s style and look. And she drives hard to get it. The results, so far, have been good. Subscriptions and advertising revenue are up dramatically since she came on board. When asked about this, she credits the magazine’s editor and publisher. She claims that her “vision” is merely a reflection of theirs. But everyone involved agrees; Jane is something special. Before becoming the art director of what had been a respected but slowly sinking magazine, Jane had been a successful advertising executive, making significant contribution to her agency’s bottom line. She did not do that by being a smooth talker. She was often brutally honest and challenging in creative and client meetings. But also, compellingly persuasive. The main thing is she knew how to develop an idea and to put together a creative team that delivered the goods. But just when things were going really well, Jane quit. She was going to be a movie producer. The few people who knew her well weren’t too surprised. Jane always a little restless, always looking for something more exciting. She admitted then and admits today, it was a crazy idea. It started out poorly and seemed headed toward getting worse much sooner than later. So, it was lucky that the magazine job happened when it did. At the time, she was at the edge of being middle-aged and was beginning to realize that she was no longer as rough-and-tough as she was when she started out. She had obligations, a family, a mortgage. Most important though, she concluded that being a magazine art director is who she is. Which is funny because, starting out, it would have been the last job she could have imagined for herself. But she’s good at it and has a lot of fun doing it. It also happens to be a world away from what she was growing up. Back then, her name was Simcha. She was an only child of a deeply religious, immigrant family. Her father owned a small dry-cleaning shop and did a bit of tailoring. Her mother was a housewife. Neither knew a lot of English. Their hope for their daughter – maybe to marry an accountant or, if she got lucky, a dentist. “Dentists do very well, Simcha. Don’t forget that.” They were thinking a nice house near a synagogue and grandchildren. Simcha was not thinking that way at all. By the time she was fourteen, she was running a typing service for her classmates and saving for college. Her parents did not think much of this idea. Neither had finished high school, her father to go to work, her mother to take care of her own mother. “Men don’t marry women who are too smart,” her mother said. Her father agreed. “Get your head out of the clouds, Simcha. This college business is not for you.” Simcha finished high school near the top of her class, started a business services company, and began taking courses at a local junior college. She did very well. Two years later, she got a full scholarship to one of the best colleges in the country, sold her business services company for more money than her father made in a decade, and – after finishing her college coursework ahead of schedule –graduated at the top of her college class and got into advertising. Five years after that, she married Forrest Slocum and her first name wasn’t Simcha anymore; it was “Jane.” Her parents did not go to the wedding. Later on, they didn’t want to see Jane’s first child, a boy. Or her second. They knew she worked at some kind of business in a “fancy office with fancy people, doing who knows what?” They never met her husband and, anyway, didn’t think much of him. “Some husband he must be if his wife has to work. Some lazy bum.” On the job, Jane is all business. So, you wouldn’t think she’d care about what her parents thought. But it kills her. She knocked herself out to get away from their world. But now tries to bring them into hers. Or, at least, to share her life with them. It’s finally beginning to dawn on her, though, it’s a waste of time. “You are dead to us. You wouldn’t listen. And it won’t end up good, what you are doing. This I know.” That was the last conversation Jane ever had with her mother. Her father hasn’t answered the phone in years. Now that the kids are older, Jane figures, she’ll have to sit them down and do some explaining.