Mary Ellen Nash, Horse Farm Girl

Full of surprises

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

91. Dennis Fenton, Restaurateur

“Always seemed to be headed for a cliff”

Things are nice and peaceful these days. There are hiccups now and again but nothing that a bit of planning and persistence wouldn’t cure. Dennis’s place has a great reputation and a very loyal clientele. He calls it a “joint,” his name for any restaurant or bar, regardless of how unprepossessing or fancy it may be. He began taking ownership of it fifteen years ago from his business partner and has always made sure that it delivers more for the money than any competitor. He has a few very expensive items on the menu. And there are two or three wines that are outrageous. But most everything else is very reasonably priced and top quality. Every couple of years, Dennis closes down for a couple of weeks and the joint gets a significant restoration and upgrading. It first opened fifty years ago and, back then, it was all dim lighting, dark woods, and white table clothes. These days, it’s evolved into mostly sleek, shiny surfaces which contrast with and highlight the dark wood paneling and old-time bar that remains. Most nights, Dennis is there greeting people, solving any problem that might arise, and running the place. Every once in a while, he lets his brother come in and run things. The place is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tuesday is quiet so they don’t open until four o’clock. They use Tuesday morning for business discussions, staff training, and trying out new dishes with everyone who works in the joint, from busboys on up. So, no one gets worn out. With a few exceptions, Dennis has a loyal staff. One reason is he pays more. Another is great benefits. In short, Dennis’s Restaurant and Bar is a well-run and successful joint. Of course, this was not always the case. When Dennis’s original business partner, Lana, bought it, it was on what seemed to be its last legs, a dinosaur among all the hip joints in its neighborhood. And, with a little less attention to detail, it might not be again. But not as long as Dennis is there. It’s important to remember: Dennis had a history of being considered aimless and a loser. And he claims he is always running scared; there were once people after him, he says. Not that long ago. And there may be again. He says he’s always looking over his shoulder. It’s a habit he learned young. Or so he says. As he tells it, he was pretty crazy as a kid. At fourteen, he robbed a jewelry store at gunpoint. He wore a mask and some clothes he had stolen off a clothesline. No one recognized him. He ditched the jewelry and kept the cash. He was never caught but says he figured they had to catch up with him sometime. Whether this story is true or not is hard to say. But, as one of the kids Dennis hung out with back then says, “Just another Dennis-tall-tale. Dennis just don’t run that fast.” Dennis likes to claim he had a very rough childhood, that he had to join a gang at an early age, was a chronic truant, and was almost sentenced to time in a juvenile facility. None of that is true. Despite Dennis’s claims otherwise, he grew up in a relatively affluent suburb in a privileged household with loving and attentive parents. His father owned a car dealership. His mother was a nurse. What does seem to be at least partly true is he wasn’t much of a student and spent a lot of time as a kid by himself, listening to rock-and-roll, and smoking weed when he could get it. He recalls how all his friends seem to know what they wanted to do when they grew up but he hadn’t a clue. He says, “It was like I was headed toward some sort of cliff and who-knows-what after I got there.” Also mostly true, the story about Dennis dropping out of high school and joining the US Marines. This disappointed his parents who had high hopes for him becoming the family’s first college graduate. His older brother had left school to take a job busing in restaurants and his younger sister was still in grade school. Based on his records and a medal he earned under fire, Dennis had a very successful and honorable tour of duty in the Marines. And he got to see a bit of the world. Stationed in Europe and in the Far East, Dennis learned something about cuisine and sex. He says he tried a lot of both. But one tour of duty was enough for him. The trouble was, once discharged, he still didn’t know what to do with himself. He was still headed for that cliff. He knew a return to school was not an option for him. But he was big and strong. And the Marines taught him how to do hard work. So, he took a job as waiter and bartender in a college bar. Which is where he says he met Melanie. She was about ten years older than Dennis and, recalling their first meeting, Dennis says, “She was absolutely amazing. Not beautiful but very hot. And very cool. I was just a jerk back then. But she must have seen something. When I think about it, she took over my world and changed my life.” She said she’d meet him after his shift and she did. He was a happy man. And from what she says, she was a very happy woman. “Dennis is gorgeous. He’s young. A little innocent. And he makes me very happy,” she said to a co-worker at her catering company. But whether all that Dennis claims about his relationship with Melanie is true isn’t clear. There’s no question though, she taught him plenty. She took him into her catering company and taught him how to run a business, to make customers happy, and to think about owning and running a restaurant. He claims she also taught him about “the fine art of lovemaking.” She only laughs when the subject comes up. “He’s a good kid. Will do any job, no matter how messy or hard. Strong. Good on his feet. And a quick learner. And maybe I helped him as much as he helped me.” Over time, their relationship became less intimate and more professional. She began dating an older man. He began seeing a co-worker named Deidre. Melanie didn’t think much of Deidre. “A bitch if there ever was one. I should have fired her ass out of here three days after I hired her.” Melanie admits there was a bit of jealousy involved. Deidre was and still is a doll and about 10 years younger than Melanie. Melanie says, “How was I supposed to compete with jailbait? But it was more ego than jealousy. The Dennis thing was getting a little old. I needed someone more my age.” The Dennis-Deidre wedding ceremony was casual and, apparently, so was their marriage. Deidre, it turns out, is what you might call a serial hook-up artist, always jumping in bed with someone she’s picked up.  It was all over about as fast as it had begun. He says they parted as friends; Deidre says otherwise. While Melanie wasn’t going to welcome him home, she kept him on as an employee of her catering business. Dennis had learned well and was her best worker. When he ran an assignment, it always turned out well. And over next five years, Melanie gave him more and more responsibility. And paid him well. Other than that, though, Dennis still saw himself as a loser with no clear direction in his life. His parents tried to seem otherwise but it was clear to him that they were disappointed in him. His sister was more tolerant. She was a great student, gave her parents the college graduate they had hoped for, went to law school, and joined one of those fancy law firms downtown. She couldn’t figure Dennis out. She knew he was smart enough and a hard worker. And she knew he had good friends who saw a lot of good in him. When they met, Melanie told her he was really good at his job. Melanie also said that she was planning to close down her catering business and retire. “So,” she said, “In about six months, Dennis would be out of a job unless he could figure out what to do next.” Even with that warning, Dennis refused to plan ahead. Or even to think about what he might want to do. When Melanie closed down, Dennis was stunned. He knew it was coming. He even knew the day when Melanie would close things up. But until it happened, he somehow didn’t think it was real. He spent the first day he was on his own sitting on a bench watching cars. Every day in the next month was similar to that first day. Dennis would get up, eat something for breakfast and walk around. Dennis couldn’t figure out what to do next. He was sitting on that same bench doing the same thing – watching traffic – when a woman in jeans and a sweater walked up, sat down next to him. Her name was Lana. She said, “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I need your help running a saloon I’m buying. Come on. Let me show it to you.” Dennis and Lana knew each other from some party that Dennis helped to cater. And they’d run into each other at one event or another over the past couple of years. But until that moment, she was just someone that Dennis knew sort of vaguely. He had a lot of casual acquaintances. So, when she asked him to look at her new saloon, he trailed along figuring he had nothing better to do. And, looking back, he had to admit, he was very glad he did. He liked the look of the place. He could see taking a date there. He could imagine working the bar or maybe being the host. He felt comfortable. He wasn’t so sure about Lana. He couldn’t figure her out then. And he still can’t after all the years he was in business with her. Lana’s gay so there’s no sex involved. And she is all business with him. They never spent time together outside of business. She seemed to have a lot of money but from where, who knows? He knows she’s older than him but can’t even figure how much older. She never showed interest in his personal life. Dennis met Lana’s partner once. It was quick “hello.” That’s it. A young woman dressed in black with very large sunglasses. And the one thing that really perplexed him was the deal Lana made with him. As part of his pay, he would get a chunk of the business. The longer he stayed and built the business up, the larger his chunk would be. And Lana wanted Dennis’s name on the door. She said, “If everything works out, you will own this place one day.” When he started to ask why, Lana said, “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.” One thing that Dennis did know was that, from the beginning, a good part of the clientele, especially late at night, was gay. At first, Dennis wasn’t too happy with that. It made him a little nervous somehow. But over time, he made some very close friends among that late-night crowd. One of them. George, introduced Dennis to his second and current wife. She’s George’s little sister. Talking with her late one night about his life so far, Dennis said Lana’s showing up at that park bench where he was sitting watching traffic was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Things got even better when Lana told Dennis she was selling him her remaining stake in the business. It would be over time so that she would always have some income. At first, she’d still come in and give Dennis or his brother a night off but, after a while, there’d be a month or two at a time when she would be gone. She and her partner were going to travel. And finally, without going into any detail, she announced would not be coming in at all. All she said was, “There’re reasons but I need to be out of town and gone.” When it comes to stuff with Lola, Dennis knows not to ask why. This was a couple of years back. Dennis has heard from Lana just a couple of times since then. About six months ago, a couple of men and a woman showed up asking for her. They looked like cops and they were. Federal agents. Dennis explained he hadn’t seen Lana or her partner in a while and the last message he’d gotten from them was a brief email asking him to shred and burn the contents of a box she’d left in the restaurant’s wine cellar. That was maybe a year ago. Yes, he did what she asked. No, he did not look at the contents. Yes, he did have an email address but the last note he’d sent to that address came back “Failure notice. Sorry, we were unable to deliver your message to the following address.” No, he hadn’t kept any of her emails. Dennis gave them the email address that he had for Lana. But he neglected to tell them, before she left, Lana had his bank set up a system for wiring money to a numbered account in Switzerland. After they left, he wondered whether he should have told them. Dennis talked it over with his wife. She said see the lawyer you use for your business. The lawyer’s reaction to his experience struck Dennis as odd. Maybe one question too many. “What do you mean there were three of them? What did they want” What did you say? You didn’t tell them where Lana might be, did you?” But he also tried to be reassuring, “No need to go out of your way. Maybe, if they come back, you can say you forgot about the wiring money thing. If they come back, you can tell them then. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it if you need my help.” It was only later that Dennis remembered his business’s lawyer was also Lana’s lawyer. For a while, Dennis wondered if his joint was being watched. But time went by. He had other things on his mind. There was another renovation to think about. The kids were getting ready for junior high. He missed the first story in the news. But he saw the follow-up story; the one on TV about how the FBI wanted to speak with a local woman and with a shot of the woman’s lawyer saying, “No comment. Lawyer-client privilege.” Dennis figured he better get his own lawyer, just in case

90. Sheldon Bender, DDS, Dental Surgeon

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

88. Mary Quillian, Bank Teller

“No worries.”

Mary doesn’t need to work. She hasn’t for some years now. She is not rich but has enough to take it easy if she wanted. She’s been a teller for almost twenty years. The pay isn’t great but there’s good health insurance and a very generous IRA. Mary likes that. It means she doesn’t have to worry. She’s old enough to start receiving Social Security payments. And then there’s her retirement money from being a school teacher for twenty-five years. But she lives on her teller’s salary, letting her income from her teacher’s retirement and Social Security pile up in a savings account. For some people, a teller’s job would be endless boredom. Not for Mary. She loves being a teller. She gets to meet all sorts of people. And it is quiet and peaceful. And balancing out at the end of her shift is like a little puzzle that she loves to solve. And most of all, it is worry free. Bank customers will sometimes ask, “How’s it going?” Mary always says the same thing, “It’s nice. No worries.” That’s true now. But it wasn’t always. And she is convinced that, no matter how placid things seem to be right now, everything could fall apart in an instant. Her friend, Grace once asked, “What’s to worry about?” Mary answered, “You never know.” A shallow, automatic answer? Perhaps. But not for Mary. Mary deeply believes and fears that anything might happen at any moment for no apparent reason at all. The thing is: it’s happened to her in the past. More than once. Maybe the first time was the car crash when she was four or five. Her mother was driving. Her father had been drafted. It was during the Korean War. Mary and her mother were headed for her mother’s parents to stay until Mary’s father came home. It was night time. It was dark. A car, coming towards them, drifted over the center line and Mary’s mother swerved, lost control, and hit the side of the road, tipping over.  Mary doesn’t remember much, except all the glass and blood. And her mother seemed to be asleep. They were three days in the hospital. And a month afterwards before Mary’s mother could get down the stairs without help for breakfast. They told her that she would never have another child. Another incident Mary remembers happened four years later. A man grabbed her as she walked home from school, pulled her in the back of a van and started to yank down her pants. She was so scared she started to pee. When that happened, he pushed her out of the van as fast as he pulled her in. She ran as faster than she ever imagined she could until she got home. She was safe. But she didn’t feel safe. Not really ever again. Her father had to walk her to school and back every day. And there was another car crash, this time when her family was going to stay with friends at a cabin on a lake. A car went through a red light, hit them just about where the rear tire is and spun their car around two or three times. No one was hurt. But Mary couldn’t stop crying. Every night, she would climb in bed and sob, “Why? Why? Why?”  It was as if a demon had it in for her. They sent her to a therapist. It didn’t help. He gave her the creeps. She had dreams about him pulling her pants down and, once in a while, wet her bed. The therapist was a nice, sympathetic man. After two sessions, he told Mary’s parents that time would be a better healer for her than him. And things did get better for a few years. But when Mary was fourteen, her father had a heart attack. At first, he was not expected to live. But he came home after two weeks in the hospital. He had another attack two years later and this one killed him. Mary and her father were very close and his loss hit her hard. It also cemented her view of the world. “Anything bad can happen at any time.” But Mary had to admit, good things can happen too. She graduated high school with good grades, got into a local college she loved, and was hired as a teacher right after graduation. She also met a young man who wanted to marry her. At first, she put him off. She was convinced something bad would happen if she were too happy. But there was something about him that got to her. And it made no sense. There were parts of him that were like her father. At the same time, there was something that reminded her of the man with the van and danger. They’ve been married now for forty years. He had a long and successful career as a contractor before retiring. But as happens to a lot of folks his age, he is showing signs of mental difficulty. Mary is not surprised. She knew demons would be back sooner or later. So, she won’t give up her bank job. Never, if it were up to her. There’s a security door. An armed guard. Bulletproof glass. It is safe there. No worries.

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.