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.
“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.”
Doris tells everyone she loves her job. She isn’t kidding. You might not think so. She works in cosmetics at an upscale department store. Weekends and three days a week. She gets a salary and a commission. Doesn’t add up to much. Rent for an apartment she shares with two other women, food, an occasional night out at a movie, and bus fare.
For Doris it is more than enough. “I meet such interesting women. I could never be like them. They lead wonderful lives, know so much, are so good and kind to me. I could use more money. That would be nice but I am happy with what I have. I do what I want and no one tells me what to do.
And she is being absolutely honest when she says so. In a very real sense, it is beyond any job she could have hoped for. And for her, it is the height of glamor. And that part she really loves. She also loves helping the kind of people she imagines her customers are like. She does not like trying to push customers into buying something they might not want or need. She hates her supervisors for making her do that. When they talk about sales goals, she gets anxious. So anxious that she sometimes goes into the ladies room to throw up. Despite all that, she always meets her goals.
Sometimes she goes well beyond what her managers expect from her. If asked how she does it, she always says, “I don’t know. People are nice to me, I guess.” There’s probably some truth in that. Over the years, Doris has attracted a loyal following of women and more than a few men who loved being waited on by her. When they come to the store, they call first to make sure Doris is there. And, if she’s waiting on someone else when they come to her counter, they quietly wait until it is their turn.
It’s not that she uses cosmetics much herself. What she knows comes from a short course she took, nothing very extensive. Here success, such as it is, comes from how she treats her customers. Obsequious, yes. Deferential. Of course. They love that. But it is more than that. There is something about Doris. When you talk to her, you get the feeling she is letting you in on some kind of secret, something between the two of you that no one else knows about.
But they never know exactly what that secret might be. Myra’s sister, Zora, is always saying something nasty about Doris’s job. “How you put up with all that crap and those awful customers is more than I can imagine.”
Doris just smiles. No one knows and she is not about to let on.
Doris’s childhood was not a good one. She was a middle child. Denton, her older brother, was not a nice person. Nor was her mother, a genuinely nasty, self-absorbed woman constantly bossed Doris around and screamed whenever Doris, who was a bit clumsy as a child, dropped or spilled anything. Things got worse as Doris got older. By the time Doris was ten, her mother, who worked as a hair dresser, saddled her with most of the household chores. As soon as she got home from school, Doris washed all the lady’s breakfast dishes, made the beds, and vacuumed the front room. Then, she started dinner. She did her homework only after she’d cleaned up from dinner.
Doris never said much. And it didn’t matter whether she did or not. Her mother constantly told her, “Shut up if you know what’s good for you.” Doris became even quieter, after her younger sister was born. Zora became her mother’s pet. Doris was expected to clean up after Zora and to remain absolutely silent when Zora was sleeping.
One morning, Doris’s father left for work and never showed up at his job. He just disappeared. He was the only one in the family who seemed to show any interest in her. He would sometimes comb her hair or rub her back. After he disappeared, Doris seemed to disappear as well. She could go for days without saying more than a word or two. No one paid much attention. Certainly not her mother. This was made very clear when her breasts began to show. She was twelve the first time Denton raped her. Soon, it became a regular event – as often as Denton was able to buy a condom from a friend at school or to steal one from their mother’s supply – until Denton had an accident.
Doris’s mother kept a pistol in an unlocked drawer in her bedroom. “In case my husband, that bastard, ever comes back,” she said. “None of the kids knew it was there. Denton must have been snooping, found it, and accidentally shot himself.”
Two years after that, Doris left home. She got a job in a bakery, finished high school, and moved out with little more than the clothes on her back. Her mother was furious. “Who was going to do all the housework and cooking?” But there was nothing she could do. Doris was no longer a child and had found a place to live with a few other girls her age.
Then, Doris got married. Norbert was a good deal older, an electrician who thought he was the luckiest man in the world. “You may not think she’s gorgeous but I do. And she’s young and knows how to cook. She’s quiet though. I wish she’d laugh more.” That’s how he described her to Willy, his business partner. When Doris wanted to enroll in a cosmetology school, Norbert happily footed the bill.
But there were a few clouds on the horizon. One of them was children. He wanted them. She did not. A side issue was sex. After the first year with Norbert, she became increasingly unenthusiastic. And then, there was religion. He was deeply religious. Doris went the church on Sunday only because he did and he disliked that.
He drowned two years after they were married. They were on vacation and were out in a canoe in the evening. It was almost dark. She said he leaned over and the canoe tipped. She hung on to the canoe and called for help. He never came up.
It was hard to say just what happened. Norbert was known to be a good swimmer. He had been on the swim team in high school and had been a lifeguard at a local country club. It seemed that he may have hit his head when the canoe tipped.
Shortly after that, Doris got the job at the department store. She didn’t seem to mourn Norbert very much. A couple of people thought she almost seemed relieved. They didn’t know she and Norbert’s partner, Willy, had been meeting at least once a week for extended lovemaking sessions. Doris was terrified Norbert would find out. His death eliminated that concern. And no one seemed the wiser. Or interested.
That is, until they found her father. In a shallow grave in the woods near Doris’s childhood home. The axe was still stuck in the back of his skull.
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.”
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.”
In more ways that she could realize, she is her father’s son. As a girl, even in her teenage years, she loved being with him. They played tennis. They camped in the roughest conditions. Later, she went her father’s alma mater. And then, into her father’s profession, chemical engineering. Along the way, he always encouraged her to do one better than he did. She never let him down. After getting a master’s in chemical engineering, Mags took a job with an international chemical company and quickly moved up the ranks, not only nailing a couple of patents but also showing unusual leadership and sales skills. Even when it came to a husband, she excelled in her father’s eyes. Ronnie is tall, good-looking, good company, and a great doubles partner. But even better, he is very smart. Who could ask for anything more? Before meeting Mags, Ronnie took a law degree and became a partner in a very prestigious law firm. His clients have included some of the most socially prominent people in the country and – in more than a few instances – the corporations that account for their wealth. And that has been a bit of a problem. In that circle, Mags is supposed to be a “proper wife,” a complement to and an ornament for her husband, an expert at charming small talk, a good mother, and an even better hostess. She is not supposed to have muscles, is definitely not supposed to drink beer with the boys, or to laugh too loudly. Or swear. Or tell amazingly filthy jokes. Or, even worse, to flirt. Mags gets enormous amusement from her flirting. She loves how it drives the women in her husband’s client circle insane. And how it drives their husbands even crazier as they realize that Mag’s flirting is just her way of making fun of them. It used to be far worse but, after Ronnie asked her to cut it out, Mags took on a more “corporate” demeanor and “behaved like a lady.” She even stopped making snide comments about conservative politics. But just lately, things have taken a bit of a different turn. First, her mother died and her father went into a deep depression. Then, Ronnie’s father broke his hip. Next, Mags got a big promotion. It meant that as an EVP she is being groomed to be President and CEO of her company. And finally, Ronnie announced that he hated his job, couldn’t stand his clients, and wanted to start a woodworking company. To which, Marjorie said, “You mean we can finally stop the bullshit with those awful clients of yours and have a real life?” Ronnie’s answer was, “Yes, yes, and yes.” They put a bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator and had a little party, all by themselves. She knows it will not be easy. As a lawyer, Ronnie made a ton of money; woodworking is not quite as lucrative. So, their income will come down a bit. She knows that her new job will mean a lot of time on the road. And she expects that their two boy-crazy, prep-school daughters will a bit upset about some of the changes ahead. But those camping trips with her father – sleeping in a tent in the middle of Maine winters – prepared Mags for anything. Maybe those two little overly-delicate girls needed a bit of that sort of experience themselves.