The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 1: The Cusp of Dreams
Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets
Bill and I were forty-five minutes into the interview when my voice, my insistent inner voice that at first had seemed barely audible, grew ever more shrill. By the end of the hour, it crushed his words, reducing them to pulp. The intonation rose to a fevered pitch, "Don’t hire Bill; Don’t hire Bill; Don’t hire Bill; Don’t hire Bill!" It had seemed clear right from the outset that nothing in his gestures, his conversation, his manners even so much as hinted at future success. Nothing! In sales, you’re forced to rely on your instincts. And with Bill, all markers pointed thumbs down. Under ordinary circumstances he never would have made the team. Not a chance. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bill was handsome; he had that going for him. He was a man in his late fifties or early sixties. His was a head of silver, curly hair. And tall, the guy was tall. He was slim, possessing a taut, muscular frame that as I would later discover belied his lack of physical stamina. Bill was tanned, bronzed to a golden hue. Perhaps the lines edging his face were caused by his addiction to cigarettes; even so, these creases defined, rather than ravaged. Bill was a dashing man.
His attire, however, was less than satisfactory. His khakis and his boat shoes were bad enough, but his flamboyant print knit shirt and a fabric belt sporting blue whales created a collision of styles: surfer dude incongruously blended with eastern preppie. Yes, that was the look. Anyone glancing at Bill had to know the guy would never cut it. Surely, even he knew that. Why was he wasting my time?
During the entire interview, I kept a kind of running balance sheet on Bill. And no question, he was falling short. The dude was clearly tripping the red line, the loss column for all you non-business types. One last chance, I reasoned; get him talking about work. I wanted to see what made him tick. Maybe, just maybe, he’d surprise me. If not, I’d at least have sufficient cause to send him walking.
"What do you hope to get from this job, anyway?" I asked.
Generally that was a throwaway. The candidates’ answers were predictable: money, success, cars, houses, pretty much the material trappings of life. Then there were the other hopes: money to get "settled;" certainly, a longing to find a partner.
Occasionally, the candidates’ eyes, their voices, their palms, their fingers hinted at their underlying passions, their hungers. For the men these undercurrents of desire were usually linked to financial success. With wealth they hoped to attract females to them like mares in heat to a stud. For the women these undercurrents of desire were driven by the hope that their beauty would inspire the lust of men, ensuring nights filled with passionate embraces. Later, of course, there would be the expectation of marriage and the possibility of a family. And for those girls, those ladies, whose fantasies were not to be, nevertheless, there remained the desperate longing for children.
Perhaps both sexes yearned for earnings sufficient to jettison the work-a-day grind. Certainly, fulfillment of the wishes of these men and women rested precariously on the cusp of dreams. My objective was to uncover the material hungers and subterranean longings, the conscious and subconscious. Together they opened windows on desire, providing me with pathways to motivating their success.
But Bill would discuss nothing of his material aspirations. Instead, he tossed me a wild pitch that bounced on the plate and landed with a dull thud at my feet.
"I hear you have a background in advertising," said he. "Have you read Reisman’s, The Lonely Crowd?"
"Sure," I said. I had glanced at the inside book flap. That counted, didn’t it? Who does he think I am? Some idiot? I, too, had been a liberal arts graduate. Certainly, I had taken the required smattering of sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, and literature courses. What of it?
"And Thorstein Veblen’s, The Theory of the Leisure Class?"
"Yeah," I lied, "what’s your point, Bill? What’s all that sociological crap from the fifties got to do with your career aspirations?"
As I said, I try to understand the passions, goals, and interests of the people I’m interviewing in order to evaluate their prospects. But Bill wasn’t making this easy. Instead of discussing topics characteristic of sales interviews, such as the number of customer calls, closing ratios, sales ranking, and volume of goods sold, Bill dived into the Marianna Trench of social theory. Not even I could expect to salvage anything from that terrain. So I redirected our conversation back to his employment history.
"Bill, tell me a little about your last job."
"Have your read The Sun Also Rises?"
"Yes, of course, Bill, but . . ."
Undaunted, Bill began blathering about authors and literature. First, he yakked about Hemmingway, then Mailer. The next thing I knew the guy was pontificating on Henry Miller, Truman Capote, and D. H. Lawrence. Even I could see that Bill’s passion was fiction, though by my account, his selection seemed a bit quirky. Sure, we had all liked to read once upon a time. But most of us grew up; took on responsibility; went into business. We shed our passion for literature, tossed it out as some tertiary byway. Most of us, except Bill, that is.
Bill must have gotten to me. He must have pried me loose a bit. Maybe we argued about the correct reading of Miller; what was he, pornographer or sensualist? Perhaps we explored the hidden underpinnings of Lawrence’s sexuality. But enough was enough. I glanced at my watch. We were one hundred minutes into the interview. By now my patience had worn thinner than an oxide layer in a silicon chip. What did any of Bill’s ramblings have to do with sales? I tried one last time.
"Bill, what would you characterize as your top three professional accomplishments?"
"Did I tell you I lived for more than twenty years in Seattle?"
And off Bill went, providing commentary on Seattle, the people, the personal freedoms, the beauty, even the ferries. There was a gleam in his eyes, an enthusiastic wave of his hands. Yet again, he demonstrated the gift of gab. These were important memories for Bill. Imagine. All this enthusiasm before the rest of us caught up, acknowledged Starbucks as the great national cultural institution it truly is, and gave due tribute to Bill Gates’ burgeoning empire. My Bill was prescient. He recognized the vast cultural horizon that beckoned along our northwestern shores.
But another fifteen minutes of Bill’s ramblings on Seattle and I was beyond calling it quits. That insistent voice, "Don’t hire Bill" finally drowned everything else out. "Thanks, Bill," I concluded, rising from my chair, "it was a pleasure meeting you."
"But . . . but, you haven’t talked about the position." His face was flushed. His left check twitched.
"Bill, you’ve had nearly two hours to discuss matters."
"Sue, I need this job." He gripped my arm, his voice edged in desperation, hardened by insistence. "Sue, I’ve got to have this job."
Reluctantly, I met his gaze, his pleading voice. Make no mistake; there was a knot in my stomach. But business objectives overrode personal emotions. I stuck with my game plan. Bill was trouble. He would be a dead weight. Gently, but firmly, I pushed him toward the doorway. I had to get him out of my suite before he dropped to his knees, begging.
But Bill was obstinate. There he was planted firmly before me. "We haven’t even touched upon my credentials."
"Bill, what do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past two hours? The only relevant information I have on you is based on your resume. It suggests that your sales experience consists almost entirely of selling literary textbooks. Your background is not appropriate to this position. I suggest you concentrate your job search on publishing houses and educational institutions."
"But my background is pertinent," he insisted. "I need this job; I want this job. Give me a chance, Sue. You won’t be disappointed."
No question, I knew Bill would disappoint. My mission now was to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Just close that door. "Bill," I said, as I shoved him into the hallway, "I’ll think about it. Thanks for coming." I thrust my head down. I refused eye contact. I ignored his plea for sympathy.
"I’ll have my references give you a call; let them be the judge of my abilities."
Five days later, I hired Bill. It wasn’t his references; it wasn’t even the discussion we had over the phone regarding his prior job experience. The simple truth was that I was desperate. I needed bodies to cover open territories. Amtech was being sued in a class action suit that pertained to a product liability claim. Every day it seemed an army of Blue Suits descended on our corporate headquarters in Dayton. Those guys with the green eyeshades were assessing the profitability of our division against the projected costs associated with our legal defense. The first dictate of the Tints was to cut commissions by half. A move, they insisted, that would help secure the company’s profitability. The fact that no capable person would agree to come on board in metro New York at the new starvation wages was irrelevant to the Honchos in Dayton. My job was to make it work. It was that simple. If I was unable to hire anyone under the current dictates, then maybe my region wasn’t meant to survive. What I needed now were grunts prepared to drone away on barely a wisp of a wage. Who would agree to these conditions? B I L L. So I hired him.
But, I would make my expectations known. Bill would toe the mark. He would succeed, despite the company’s policies and his own limitations. In calling him up, I managed my warmest tone, "Congratulations, Bill, you’re hired."
"That’s great," came his enthusiastic reply. "When do I start?"
"Listen, Bill, damn it! Dress like a professional. No casual clothing; I expect to see you in a business suit when we make sales calls after next week’s training."
Bill never did wear a proper suit. His "business casual" jackets blended noisily with khakis while his knit short-sleeve shirts prevailed over Oxford button-downs. Grudgingly, I accepted Bill’s dress. Perhaps, it was the most that I could realistically hope for. His failure to conform appeared to be grounded in either personal obstinacy or dire financial need. In any case, I chose not to inquire too deeply into the causes. Instead, I adjusted my sights to a more pragmatic plane, trying to ensure Bill mastered the basics. Because of his limitations, I narrowed these skills down to three key areas: performing the necessary research on the companies, handling calls appropriately, and achieving his financial quotas. Unfortunately, like his dress, Bill’s selling strategy fell short in every category.
Traveling on sales calls with Bill became a dreaded experience. Research on his accounts was rarely done. Proposals were haphazard. Recommendations to the client were always askew. To his credit, however, he was clean and well shaven. His ancient, gold Dodge Aspen, which had gone through several lives, was, nevertheless, immaculate. While occasionally his hand might tremble or his breath smell faintly of cigarettes, there was no obvious indication of either physical disabilities or substance abuse that might predict his poor performance.
Bill’s strength, such as it was, was his deportment. Bill was engaging. His smile, his touch, his chattiness won customers over, particularly the women with whom he maintained a gentle flirtation. Nevertheless, the steps to the sale eluded Bill. Despite his flare with customers, the dollars barely trickled in. Try as I might to enlighten, Bill proved oblivious to method, systems, and instruction.
Thus, our travels together invariably resulted in my losing my temper because of Bill’s failure to master the basics. The Brevlin Corporation was a case in point, though, to be sure, Bill’s initial greeting, to the company President and his female Director of Marketing, was acceptable enough.
"It’s a pleasure to finally meet both of you," he said, adding, "I noticed your inspirational posters on fly fishing. Beautiful pictures. Notice the wrist action on that gentleman. I’ve actually fished some of the best waters in Washington State and Oregon."
And off he went. The customers were delighted. Turns out their evenings were frequently spent fly-casting in a neighborhood schoolyard. Bill’s manner was warm and easy, their response, enthusiastic.
So they talked. They discussed fluid motions that would make their fishing rods a seamless extension of their body so as to ensure the best casting of a line. They chatted about which western ranches offered the most exciting packages. They compared weekend seminars on how to hone their skills. Trouble was, in all their enthusiastic patter on fly-casting, business was jettisoned. With an effort at sounding relaxed while imagining my hands throttling Bill’s throat, I commented, "Bill, maybe you would like to review some of the highlights of our proposal?"
All three looked up at me with a start. Selling, production, and profitability obviously had been relegated to the trash bin while the pleasures of angling took precedence. Reluctantly, all three were led back on course, but the cost for this unwanted diversion away from their passions to the business plan was a less lucrative contract than Bill and I had envisioned. Had I not been present, it was doubtful that our proposal would ever have been broached.
After wrapping business up, Bill and I walked to the parking lot. That was when I lost it. "Bill you nearly cost me that fucking account. If you ever do that again, your ass is out of here." Bill’s face turned chalk-white. His body doubled over from a hacking cough. His right hand trembled, clenching and unclenching a fist. Then he collapsed. I wanted to kill him, yet there I was bending over. "Bill, is everything O.K.? Would you like me to get you some water? Is there anything I can do?"
He growled. "It’s nothing. Just a bit of dizziness. It’ll pass."
"Bill, you fainted. This is serious. You really ought to see a doctor."
"I tell you it’s nothing." Bill’s voice was curt, preempting any further discussion.
As for the Brevlin account, it was symptomatic of Bill’s customer calls: dollars running away, and prospects lost because of his failure to engage the customer in business instead of flights of fancy. Bill’s lack of organization, his refusal to give attention to detail, his inability to present Amtech’s benefits to the customer or close the most interested prospect threatened every sale. His actions forced me to travel with him weekly, rather than monthly, in order to maintain key accounts. Bill was "broken," missing critical functioning skills to enable him to perform this job, or any job, daily. Nevertheless, I needed him and his pathetic numbers, that is, at least until the business was more stable. So we traveled together like an unhappy domestic couple, arguing, bickering, insisting. Never in the course of our sales calls did we appear to listen or gain wisdom from one another. We were totally incompatible.
And yet, despite his professional failings, there were personal qualities about Bill that I grew to appreciate. Unlike the younger generation of salespeople I worked with, he generally refrained from disclosing the intimate, and almost certainly messy, details of his personal life. That was not to say that we never discussed family matters. I knew his wife’s name was Maryanne. They had been married for more than thirty years. They had two children, Tyler and Jana, who were in their twenties and presently still living with Bill and Maryanne. That much I knew. Despite my cardinal rule of not becoming personally involved in the lives of my sales force, I found myself drawn in, speculating, based on tidbits.
Then one day he told me. It was one of those rare afternoons when, despite Bill’s best efforts to sabotage our deals, we had managed to close an order or two. We celebrated by eating gyros at a park in Jersey, not far from the banks of the Hudson. Bill had chosen the location; I had selected the food. The sky was a radiant blue. The temperature was mild, not too hot, perfect for sitting outside. One of those days. There we were, sitting on a grassy bank surrounded by trees overlooking a pond. A day when tensions were eased. We were almost chummy.
"So do you miss Seattle?"
"Then why leave? For all this?" I said with a wave of my hand. We laughed.
"Sue, I blew it. And not just once. I tossed away jobs like so much confetti. Money was plentiful then. Looking back now, I realize the sixties was madness. Life was wild. I drank at the trough of desire, which in those days meant alcohol, drugs, and women. These were pleasures that seemed to come without price tags. I traveled a lot. Week after week, alone on the road. Maryanne at home with the kids. I dreaded returning on weekends."
"Oh, Bill . . . "
"We lost the house, you know. Maryanne packed up the kids and moved us to the other end of town. She got a job, but that didn’t prevent our descent. There were more moves and worse neighborhoods. Things became unbearable. We were a family crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. But it was only when Tyler’s and Jana’s futures seemed to be evaporating, then, and only then, did Maryanne serve me with papers. That’s when I hit bottom. Though I must say, Maryanne’s actions forced me into rehab. I didn’t want to lose her and the kids. I quit the booze and stopped chasing women. Ever since then I’ve tried to fly right. But today jobs are tougher to come by. Let me tell you, Sue, it’s hard clawing your way back up."
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because this time, I’ve got to get it right. Maryanne’s relatives live in Jersey. They bailed us out. This time I can’t screw up. My family’s depending on me. I owe them this."
That was the first and last time Bill mentioned anything intimate about his circumstances. Occasionally, he spoke of two friends, Peter and Jonathan, who lived out in Seattle. It was clear his weekly telephone calls to his buddies meant a great deal to him. These guys discussed everything. What was I to think? Bill’s ties to these men seemed so incredibly close. Closer than any my husband, Tom, enjoyed. It made me wonder. Certainly, he liked the women, no question. But the men? I dismissed such thoughts. Anyway, it was none of my business. The personal lives of my sales reps were not something that I was inclined to examine too closely.
On our travels Bill and I discussed writers and fiction. His views were penetrating. I began to enjoy these conversations. Bill’s love of language reawakened my nascent passion for literature. Most of the particulars escape me now. I do remember that Anaïs Nin represented the ideal modern woman for Bill.
"She exudes sexuality and femininity," he commented. "Isn’t it tragic that contemporary society has obliterated her kind? With all the violence, the insufferable noise of our daily existence, the endless shuffle of events, the explicit plots of today’s writers, all my muses have died."
Bill emitted a deep sigh. For him, the death of the romantic soul in today’s culture was a personal affront. It was as if the planet were denying him the very air he breathed.
And then, of course, he started lending me books. First came The Stories of John Cheever.
"But I don’t have time," I protested.
"These are short stories, Sue. Who needs time?"
So I read; I fell in love. With Cheever, naturally. With the frayed, but simmering emotions of the post-World War II, affluent New Yorkers. With the weary, suburban commuters making their way back from the city. The more privileged among them managed to escape to a weekend home or a summer vacation. I traveled with them, voyeur that I was, peering into their lives, glancing with interest at their darkest moments, their illicit passions, their grave misfortunes. I watched couples sipping their highballs, a ritual signaling of the cocktail hour. I shared the dullness of their daily routine. I felt their pain. I reveled in Cheever’s prose, in his narrative. I was a woman embracing the deepest of passions, though these were composed only of ink on paper.
Next, Bill introduced me to Harold Brodkey’s Stories In An Almost Classical Mode. Again I protested.
"I don’t have time, Bill."
"Read them in the car while you wait for reps."
So I read Brodkey and, once again, fell in love. I inhaled the sweaty-sweet aromas of male adolescence as young men groped sullenly, yearningly, lustfully toward manhood. I was smitten. After Cheever, after Brodkey, whatever Bill gave me, I read, even if we were barely on speaking terms. Man after man, book after book.
Of course, throughout this period, I tried to keep Bill on course. For his sake, for Maryanne’s, for mine. I did my best. During our travels together, I always brought the subject matter back to sales presentations, accounts, and prospects to be closed, hoping against hope, that this instruction might salvage his numbers.
But things weren’t working out. They steadily worsened. In the car, Bill now smoked cigarette after cigarette. He coughed constantly. He always seemed short of breath. One day Bill pulled to the side of the road complaining of lightheadedness.
"Bill, you need to see a doctor."
"Don’t tell me what to do."
Then there were his sales, or lack thereof. I was forced to acknowledge that, every day Bill remained on the payroll, he was costing me money. I simply couldn’t continue to carry him. The guy couldn’t close. He couldn’t focus. He never went for the jugular. He was talk, all talk. I was the one bringing in his business. In fact, I could have brought in more dollars without him. Each time Bill was left alone to call on prospects, money flushed down the drain. Because of him, I was neglecting the other reps. That resulted in more dollars lost. "Face it," I told myself, "business is business. Bill just isn’t cutting it."
So I made a point of having lunch with him at McDonalds. We were in one of those soulless strip malls; the kind I knew Bill hated. I could see he was uncomfortable. We were in the smoking section, and there he was puffing away. His fingers rapped nervously on the table.
"Bill, we’ve got a problem here. Your numbers are terrible."
"Bill," softer this time, "it’s been eight months."
"Sue," he replied, "I’m telling you they’ll get better."
"Bill, I’m putting you on probation. You’ve got three months to turn around your business. I can’t carry you any longer. Your lousy numbers are bringing down the performance of my entire region."
"I told you things will improve."
"That’s what I’m counting on. I know you can do it."
Weeks passed. Bill refused to ride with me. Finally, I insisted. We agreed to meet at a rest stop alongside the Jersey Turnpike that Friday. Bill never showed. I waited as my watch ticked twenty minutes past the appointed hour. Then I called his office.
"Where the hell are you?"
"I’ve been ill for a few days now, can’t talk," he said, his voice barely a whisper.
"See a doctor, for God’s sake." But there was no reply from Bill, just the dull click of the receiver.
Another three days passed. I was angry Bill hadn’t called, so I dialed his number.
"Hello?" I said.
"Yes?" A woman replied.
"Why, Yes. May I help you?"
Why was Maryanne picking up Bill’s business line? "Maryanne, this is Sue, Bill’s manager. Is he available?" Why hadn’t he called? We were supposed to go on the road together. He knew his numbers were lousy. What in God’s name was he up to?
"Sue, this is terribly awkward. I know we’ve never met. I’m sorry to be telling you this over the phone, but Bill died two days ago." Emotion choked Maryanne’s voice. Each word was carefully measured, as if drawn from a respirator.
"Oh my God, Maryanne. I’m so sorry. His death seems so sudden. What happened? He said he was sick, but I had no idea."
"Yes, it was quite a shock to all of us." I heard the quiver in her voice, seeping through the receiver.
"Have you made arrangements for the funeral? If it’s not a private gathering, I’d like to attend."
"How kind of you. It’s to be held on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My son, Tyler, will provide you with directions."
I got the directions. I arranged for a bouquet to be sent. I notified corporate of Bill’s death. I wanted to make sure the family received all the benefits they were entitled to. But I performed these gestures as if on autopilot. The remainder of the week, I kept reviewing my interactions with Bill, looking for clues that foreshadowed his death. Instead, I raised only more questions. What the hell happened? Did Bill have a stroke? A heart attack? What? And, of course, I kept replaying our last meeting, that day I placed him on probation. I thought of our last conversation. I recalled that day in the park when Bill stressed how important it was that he succeed at Amtech. The guy was desperate to make things work. What if my actions precipitated his death? Were there other factors that mitigated my responsibility? If so, I couldn’t discover them. Naturally, with hours and hours of these thoughts piled one on top of the other, I was tense; I grew nervous; I became nauseated. And now, I’m headed south on the Jersey Turnpike to attend Bill’s funeral.
My husband, Tom, says no man approaching forty likes to attend funerals because it’s his mortality reflected by that casket. How fortunate for Tom that this weekend he was in California attending a convention. Still, how could male angst possibly compare to what I was feeling? Murderer. The word propagated over and over. I had Bill’s blood on my hands and, for the life of me, I couldn’t wash it off.
I arrived early to the funeral. The chapel proved easy to find. It was small, a single-story structure chiseled out of blocks of limestone and illuminated by swatches of stained glass. The chapel was picturesque, a remnant of an earlier age. It exuded a beauty I knew Bill would find compelling. I entered through the varnished oak doors, not knowing what to expect. Inside, light filtered through the colored, glass windows into the dank surroundings. Gradually, my eyes adjusted as I slowly made my way across the stone floors toward a few people gathered at the rear of the chapel. And with each step, my apprehension grew.
I approached an attractive woman in her late fifties. She was tall and slim; her silver cropped hair was simply, but stylishly arranged. I guessed her to be Maryanne. Our eyes made contact, her words both warm and faltering as she extended her hand. "Sue, how thoughtful of you to come. The flowers you sent were just beautiful."
Maryanne introduced me to her children. Tyler looked to be about twenty-five, while I guessed Jana to be twenty.
"It’s a pleasure to meet you," Tyler said.
"How nice that you could make it," Jana added.
I am embarrassed to say that my first, most striking impression of Tyler and Jana was how attractive and personable they both were. Eminently employable.
And then, I felt relief. For I had arrived, half expecting their accusations that I was responsible for the death of their father, for their dire economic straits, for their ruin. Instead, I was the recipient of their thoughtful kindness during this day, a day lead weighted with grief.
"Let me introduce you to my brother, Charles, and his wife, Ruth," said Maryanne, gesturing to the elderly couple at her side.
We shook hands; they were pleasant. "Is Bill’s family here?" I asked. The question was innocent enough. What did I know of Bill’s relatives? If Maryanne was uncomfortable responding, I couldn’t tell.
"Bill’s parents died years ago."
"Oh, how terrible. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize."
Much to my surprise, Maryanne filled in some of the details of Bill’s early life. None of it was pleasant. The family had lived near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His father was constantly changing jobs. He was a drinker; they were always on the move. Bill’s brother and sister, according to Maryanne, bore the brunt of the suffering. "Bill," she said, "was the lucky one." His good fortune delivered in the form of a college scholarship. While at the university, Bill and Maryanne met. Four years later they wed. "The Haywards," according to Maryanne, "were never very close. We lost touch over the years. Certainly, we tried contacting his brother and sister for the funeral, but they moved away, without so much as a word. Their neighbors couldn’t even provide a forwarding address."
Given what little Bill had told me of his troubled personal life and the details now offered by Maryanne of his childhood, it wasn’t hard speculating on the rest. Was Bill’s mother also a drinker? Maryanne never said. Still, I saw her snatching gulps of whiskey, her bottle tucked away in a cupboard filled with broken cups and empty promises. Certainly, I imagined Bill’s father as the angry and abusive one. It wasn’t hard to see him hitting the children, his rage silenced only through drunken stupor. A father whose temper, unsatisfactory work performance, and absenteeism cost him several jobs. There were undoubtedly debts and clandestine moves to flee creditors. Bill’s childhood was probably spent on the run. So much damage done. Three children, who as adults bore permanent scars. No wonder Bill just never got things right. No wonder.
Possibly Maryanne read my thoughts. "You know," she managed with only the faintest trace of bitterness, "we lived well once. We were like other families. We had a nice house, great neighbors, we entertained . . . ." Her voice trailed off, her eyes darting toward the floor.
I tried moving our conversation to safer ground. Turning to Bill’s children, I asked, innocently enough, "How about you, Tyler? What do you and Jana do for a living?"
I never claimed to be diplomatic. Certainly, this funeral had me stressed. Still, today it seemed I jumped from faux pas to faux pas with all the ease of a gazelle bounding toward buckshot. Turned out, Tyler and Jana worked in retail for minimum wage. Neither had gone to college, nor was this even a remote consideration these days, given the families focus on meeting central New Jersey’s high monthly rent payments. I was astonished. To think, Bill, my reader, my inspired romantic, who eschewed fast food and strip malls, bore the weight of his children’s consignment to retail infernos.
But it was Tyler’s frank admission that the family shared one car that left me speechless. Why hadn’t I noticed? How could I have been that stupid? To think the Dodge Aspen was used not only for Bill’s sales calls but also as a means of transporting every member of the family to a different job, every day of the workweek. Their lives were scarcely one step above homelessness. Yet, somehow, here they were trying to survive with dignity and grace. Never had Bill come close to divulging the fragile fabric of his daily life.
What to say. Really, what could I say? Today, it seemed, nothing was appropriate. But curiosity got the better of me, so I asked, "And the cause of death?"
"We have the preliminary results back from the autopsy," Tyler replied. "Dad died of acute appendicitis."
Appendicitis! They must have gotten it wrong. The diagnosis couldn’t possibly be accurate. Bill was a smoker. I heard his cough. I witnessed his dizzy spells. Clearly he had lung cancer. Or perhaps emphysema, maybe even a stroke. Yes, a stroke could kill him. Perhaps Bill died of alcoholism? Maybe kidney failure? His death must have been due to acute alcohol poisoning. Face it, Bill drank himself to death. He couldn’t take the pressure of failing both in his job and with respect to his family. That alone would have killed him. I could come up with any number of possible scenarios for Bill’s death, but appendicitis was not one of them. Not even close. Nobody in the modern, Western world dies of appendicitis. How could anyone endure that sort of pain and not do something? What could Bill have been thinking as he lay at home dying? Didn’t he call a doctor? Even Bill couldn’t have ignored such pain.
Maryanne’s soft voice interjected as if reading my thoughts, "We tried to take Bill to the emergency room. He said it was only a virus. He refused to go. He insisted, ‘no one goes to a doctor because of a common cold,’ that’s what he said."
"Maryanne, I’m so sorry, so terribly sorry."
As I spoke, I reached with both my hands to grasp her cold right hand. I tried to breathe some warmth and vitality into her body. I attempted to say through my actions, "You’re not alone." But of course she is, we all are. "What the hell was he trying to accomplish?" I asked myself. "No one could ignore such pain. He had to know he was very sick and needed to see a doctor. Surely he knew he was covered under the company’s new medical plan? Or did he? Was he just trying to save money? Was this his only way out? Dying to make amends for his sins? Or was this just another one of his catastrophes? He’s left his family with a terrible burden of guilt. How could he?"
I tried to move our conversation to safer ground. "Do you think other people are having trouble finding the chapel? I hope they’re not lost."
Maryanne cleared her throat. "No, actually, everyone’s here. We may begin any time now. I had hoped that Bill’s friends, Peter and Jonathan, would come. I know they’re devastated, but neither can afford the plane fare from Seattle. They called yesterday to say they wouldn’t be able to attend . . . . So hard to believe this is all happening. It’s all so tragic, so utterly tragic. I’ve invited a few members of my family here . . . . I just couldn’t do this alone."
As I greeted the handful of mourners, I realized that Maryanne had gathered together a few relatives to join her at the church so Bill would not be buried by strangers. I realized that I was the only colleague, friend, or acquaintance of Bill’s to be present. I felt enormous pity for Maryanne. She was trying desperately to salvage some dignity from Bill’s misguided life. Despite his many improprieties, she sought to lend grace to today’s funeral. Even so, couldn’t she have convinced just one friend of Bill’s to be here today? Yes, Bill had his failings, his omissions, his mistakes, but surely he deserved better. Still, maybe Maryanne did all that she could. Surely, that was enough?
The rest of the funeral was a bit of a blur. It was short, poignant, heart rending. A member of chapel’s choir sang some Schubert lieder, favorites of Bill’s, that moved me to tears. That was all. There was no gathering at his grave, his burial apparently delayed because of the autopsy.
Afterward, I walked over to Maryanne. I struggled for something kind to say. "Such a beautiful, moving ceremony."
There were tears in her eyes. "I hope I’ve done this properly. For Bill’s sake. Oh, I hope so . . . "
"Everything’s perfect," I insisted quietly. "Bill knows, Maryanne. He knows what you’ve done. He’ll rest in peace." What else could I possibly have said?
All the same, I left the funeral thinking, what a pathetic end to a wasted life. Still, I reminded myself that Bill’s family forgave him; they grieved for him. I clung to the belief that their love would help restore their lives. Let there be a ray of hope in all of this. For them, for Bill, for me.
A week after the funeral, Jonathan called. "Sue, Peter and I need a favor of you." Just like that. As if we knew one another. Without thinking, I replied, "Sure." He asked me to lay a dozen red roses on Bill’s grave. "Yes," he said, "we were once Bill’s lovers. He talked so highly of you, Sue. We’re hoping you’ll help us." No wonder Maryanne had insisted on leaving Seattle. Who could blame her? Who, indeed? Clearly, she had no intention of sharing Bill.
Still, there was Jonathan’s and Peter’s loss to consider. Weren’t they entitled to acknowledge their grief? Certainly, it seemed Bill would have welcomed their gesture. How could I refuse their request? Nevertheless, when I spoke to Tyler, I omitted a few crucial details, asking only "May I put some roses on Bill’s grave once the headstone’s in place?"
"Of course," he said.
Six weeks later, I visited Bill’s gravesite. There I laid a dozen long stemmed, red roses against his headstone. I touched a finger to my lips, then pressed the stone slab. Imaging Bill standing by my side, I whispered, "Cusp of dreams, Bill." Then, with feet of granite, I trod a weary path back to my car, driving the long road home.