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.