Literary Criticism & Political Commentary

The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 2: I Can Getcha Close

Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets

       “There I was at the top of this winding staircase.  A setting straight out of Gone With the Wind.  Picture it, Sue.  A wedding held in an antebellum mansion.  John and me.  Like we were characters in some Southern Gothic romance!  Only everything was a bit off kilter. We were in Brooklyn, not Atlanta.  And the gown?  It was from the 1950’s though the music was disco seventies.”

       It was a sunny, but cold January day.  Tina was driving her dilapidated Honda Civic toward our next sales call.  The gas gauge was tripping on empty; the tires were under-inflated; and, of course, no heat was circulating.  I was dressed like some hatless Cossack in a three-quarter-length coat, a scarf wrapped tightly around me, clutching the warmest of my winter gloves, and wearing leather knee-high boots.  But freezing, nonetheless.  Without a working defroster, we could barely see the road in front of us.  Every time I muttered “Un huh,” a cloud of moist air floated in front of me before it adhered like instant rubber cement to the windshield.

       Naturally, I imagined the worst.  A blowout!  We skid on ice.  Tina furiously pumps her brakes (no antilock devices on this baby); the vehicle veers toward the guardrail.  Then impact.  I see my body flying.  There is my husband, Tom, identifying me as the rescue squad pries me out of the vehicle with their “jaws of death” tin snips.  They desperately search for a pulse, to no avail.  My life now reduced to a statistic, just another day on the job.

       “So there I was,” continued Tina, “with my hand resting on the winding mahogany banister.  Ready to make my entrance.  Can’t you just see me?  With my empire bodice and one of those flowing trumpet skirts trailing some beaded fishtail.  It was tight, very tight, like it was painted on.  There I was, one fucking mermaid ready to swish on down.”

       “Sounds beautiful, Tina.  You think we need more gas?”

       “Oh, that gauge always reads empty.  I keep a running tab of the miles and gallons in my head.  Works like a charm.”

       “Un huh.  And you never run out of gas?”

       “Well maybe once—or twice—nothing monumental.”

       Tina, like her Civic, was just revving up.  As always, her mouth surpassed both the speeds and distances of any automobile traversing the Grand Central Parkway.  Like many of the residents of the five boroughs, her speech patterns were breathless, accelerating to a breakneck pace as her stories gained momentum.  Tina never enunciated.  Why bother?  I eventually caught up.

       “My accessories,” Tina continued, “were exquisite.  Ivory satin gloves.  My hair piled high in a French twist.  Tiara on top.  Beaded, but small.  Tasteful.”

       “Sounds lovely.”

      “It was.  In my arms I carried gardenias sprinkled with eucalyptus—kind of a nod to Berkeley.”

      Not one to wait for her audience, Tina barreled on, “So there I was at the top of the stairway planning this dramatic slink down. Gorgeous John was at the landing dressed in a morning suit.  Better than Rhett.  He glanced up at me.  I melted.  I took my first step and that was it.  Down I tumbled, ass over teakettle, all the way to the bottom.  The guests gasped.  They were horrified.  They expected my wedding, not my funeral.  Against all odds, I got up with a little help from John.  Dusted myself off, except for my pride.”

      “How terrible, Tina.  You did exchange vows, didn’t you?”

      “My gown was ripped along the left seam at the fishtail.  The train dragged as I walked, limped, actually.  I clutched John’s arm for support.  We made our way into the parlor trying to hide the blood stains.”

       “Blood stains? Tina, oh no!”

      “Yeah, they smeared across parts of my dress.  Not exactly the wedding scene I had in mind.”

       “How dreadful.  Tell me there’s a happy ending.”

       “Things were going pretty well till the vows.”

       “Don’t tell me . . . ”

      “John started stammering.  Believe me, the guy never stammered before.  Not once!   Then he lost his voice.  The minister offered to repeat John’s whispered vows so that everyone attending would be able to follow.”

       “Really?  That was allowed?”

      “Well, I suppose.  Anyway, John bolted.  The guy fucking deserted me in front of everyone.  There I was in my ripped, blood-smeared gown, throbbing from head to toe.  And my man hightailed it out like some goddamn jackrabbit.”

       Tina wiped a tear or two from her eyes.  Gently, I touched her shoulder.  She shrugged me away, her anger taking hold.

      “You know he left town without so much as a word of apology.  Nothing.  Naturally, I returned all the gifts.  Except for the diamond ring and the thirty-five hundred-dollar check endorsed by his father.”

       “Good for you, Tina!”

       “Fucking A, I kept those.  That and the wedding dress.”

       “That blood smeared gown?”

       “Call it a memento.  The almost-coulda-happened-if-only-screw-you sort of memento.  Got a few of those cluttering the bottom drawer of my dresser.  Anyway, the check covered less then half the cost of our pathetic wedding.  When I hocked the ring, I nearly broke even.  But John wasn’t getting off that easy.  Not that bastard.  He was getting his share.  Got a buddy of mine to total John’s new Thunderbird.” 

       “Tina!”

      “Fair enough, wouldn’t you say?  John wrecked my life; I crushed his car.  And I must say, it felt pretty good watching the hunk of scrap carted off.”

       “I didn’t know.  I never realized.”

       “I managed.  Picked myself up and moved to Manhattan.  Found a sixth floor walkup near Gramercy Park.  Just an efficiency, a dive really, but at least it was my dive.”

       Tina’s pain lay exposed.  She drove on in silence.  I wanted to discuss our business at hand—customer calls, the status of accounts, Tina’s prospective closes for the month.   But I waited.

       What to say when you travel with a rep as she pours her heart out?  When I first started in this business, I was astonished at the personal, intensely private matters colleagues, customers, and acquaintances divulged.  Some of their darkest thoughts or their greatest dreams blurted out to a virtual stranger.  Maybe I’m painfully shy—I know I’m not the greatest communicator—but the things people say!

       The first month I was in sales, I had the worst kind of marketing job, door to door canvassing of accounts in New York.  I was representing a commodity, not even the best in the industry.  And in a sixty-story building, there might even be two or three of us selling office equipment—same stuff, same price range.  I knocked on stranger’s doors without introduction, “cold calling” a minimum of three hours a day.  The rest of the time was spent scheduling appointments, telemarketing, preparing proposals, contracts, and assorted paperwork.

       I made the decision to go into the business in the eighties to make money.  I never forgot the torment of those first few months.  Barely three weeks into the job, I was having dinner at home with Tom when suddenly the tears just streamed down.  Even though I had chosen sales, I wailed, “I can’t do this.  I can’t knock on doors of people I don’t know, who don’t know me, asking them to buy . . . I just can't.”  But, of course, I did and along the way I discovered in this business people say just about anything.

      Miraculously, I found myself getting used to—comfortable even—talking with strangers, hearing their life stories, guiding them toward big contracts.  What began as trauma, became routine.  Instead of dread and reticence, I looked forward with pleasure to the prospect of meeting new people, uncovering some of their most intimate stories, their most private feelings.  Suddenly, a life talking with strangers, negotiating closes, seeking opportunities—even in the midst of clawing adversity—no longer seemed quite so daunting or nearly so unpleasant.  Add to this some delightful surprises, unexpected vistas, contrasting points of view, not to mention the prospect of real money and . . . well . . . the job gained luster.  Still, I never got comfortable witnessing the tragic instances when life’s pain lay fully exposed, and there was nothing to be done.  When there was no way of ameliorating the circumstances or easing the distress.

       But in Tina’s case, things seemed different.  She always appeared to bounce back from adversity as if she had a bungee cord affixed to her girdle.  Tina may have sensed my concern.  Certainly, she hastened to sound upbeat.

        “Anyway, these days I’m with Kevin.  We’re thinking of buying a house.  The whole shebang.  Three bedrooms, three baths, basement, garage.  Kevin gets visitation with his kids on weekends.  Anyway, I need a pile of money to help make that down payment.

       “Sue,” Tina continued, as her voice dropped to a whisper, “between Kevin and me, well, I’m counting on this relationship.  And getting a house so the kids can visit, that’s monumental.  So like I’ve got major financial goals.  You can expect great things from me.”

       “And a car, what about a new car?”

       “That, too.  With a working heater and gas gauge!”

       We both laughed.

       Naturally, when you hire someone you want to believe things will work out.  You need to believe.  So I told myself things were different with Tina.  She was not like some of my other problem reps. Tina had well defined goals; she had remedies for her pain.  I judged Tina to be a survivor.  Together we could overcome her obstacles and bring her some happiness.  I sought to encourage her.

       “Tina,” I said, “you work hard and follow my advice and you’ll get that place in Connecticut.”  Then we hugged.  She promised.  And we went on our customer calls.  Sure enough, by day’s end we had visited five accounts and had three deals cooking.  It was a day spiced with hilarity and exhilaration.  I had no doubt.  Tina would succeed in her new job.

      Over the next two months, Tina made significant strides.  Accounts were developed; orders trickled in.  In an effort to increase both the size and number of these contracts, we traveled together.   Accompanying her on these calls was always an adventure.  To put it mildly, Tina was directionally challenged.  Which is to say she never used maps.  Instead, she approximated locations by significant events: a wedding, a bar mitzvah, family gatherings, boyfriends.  Mostly the boyfriends.   And with these landmarks as her guide, Tina managed to get us generally within a couple of spans of a football field of the intended destination, though not without mishaps and detours along the way. 

       Take the Kessler account.  There we were riding along in Tina’s tired Civic heading to our appointment when, suddenly, I became carsick.  Was I crazy?  Or were we driving in a swirl of figure eights?  While not generally prone to motion sickness, I quickly rolled down the passenger window.  Hung my head out the window like any old Bowser or Fido.  Begging for air, that’s what I was doing.  Even so, even in this lowly state, even then, I noticed the same images whirling by and by.  I interrupted Tina’s mile-a-minute gab.  God, did that broad ever shut up?

       “Tina,” I began.  “T i n a,” louder this time.  “T i n a,” my voice emphatic, just to get in a word edge wise.  “T i n a,” now a shout, “didn’t we just pass that water tower two minutes ago?  Are you sure you know how to get to the account?”

       “Maybe not,” came her offhand reply, “but I can getcha close.   Kessler should be just down the street from Sebastian’s apartment.  Sebastian’s place is the brick building over there.  God, what a great dancer!  I loved doing the merengue with him.  Sebastian and I often danced the night away.  What a bod he had.  What moves he made.  Hell, what a stud!”

       With hopes of ending the spinning, the whirling, the whizzing, I crashed into her orbit.  “Tina, T i n a,  T  i  n  a,” louder each time, “just get us there, please.”

       “Hey!  This looks like the right road.  Let’s try it.”

       I was no fool.  I knew what “Let’s try it” meant.  Invariably, the first street taken never got us there.   It seemed we circled ad infinitum.  I was on the verge of demanding we pull into a gas station to get directions or a map when, with a spin of the wheel, Tina suddenly swung up to the Kessler manufacturing building.

      “You see,” she beamed.  “O ye of little faith.  I told you we’d make it.”

      Then, of course, there was the Sanders account.  By now I was regularly taking Dramamine or wearing a scopolamine patch in preparation for the onset of vertigo that occurred during our outings together.  Thanks to the meds, I overcame the dizziness; still, nothing dispelled the anxiety I felt sitting in the passenger seat with Tina as my driver and navigator.  Just imagine.  We were traveling down Route 17, already late for our meeting.  I was getting nervous.  I hated keeping customers waiting.  It was all I could do to keep my foot from stomping on the accelerator.

       “You know,” Tina chattered, “Artie, this guy I dated for a while, lives not too far from here.  Met him on a blind date.  God, he was boring.  But what a car!  Red Lotus.  Should you marry a guy for his wheels?”  Despite everything, she got me laughing.

       But Artie or not, we were not having any luck today.   This time I was prepared to insist we pull over to look at a map, one that I now habitually carried with me while traveling with Tina.  However, next thing I knew, Tina yanked the car onto the shoulder.  She jumped out.  Damn, if she didn’t flag down a tractor-trailer!   Even more incredibly, the vehicle stopped.  But not before there was a screech of its tires, before I bit my lip anticipating a seven-car pileup, before I heard the blare of car horns.  Oblivious to the commotion, Tina sashayed over, swinging her hips.  Her actions naturally caused rubbernecking delays that stopped just short of collision.  Not that she noticed while she flirted with the driver.  I saw Tina gesture dramatically toward our vehicle.  I watched as her hips just kept on swaying.  Another ten minutes and Tina finally sauntered back.  I observed the driver giving her one last lustful glance, before tooting his horn and pulling his rig out onto Route 17.

       “What did I tell you,” she teased, as she stepped back into the car, “the Sanders building was only two intersections away.  I told you it was near Artie’s place!”

       Despite it all, I smiled.  Tina winked.  We matched grin for grin.  In unison we chimed, “I can always getcha close.”

       And close we got.  To Jerold’s place, Mike’s garage, Aunt Millie’s nursing home, Beth’s diner.  Whatever it took, who ever it was that served as Tina’s personal radar to get us there.  Always a detour, a spectacle, but there, nonetheless.

       Trouble was, now that I’d adjusted to Tina’s idiosyncratic prattle, her eccentric driving patterns, her flamboyant style, my purpose in riding with her had changed.  Tina’s performance had plummeted.  Our weekly rides were no longer recreational.  I was traveling with Tina to bolster her faltering sales.  “How’s everything coming, Tina?” I asked.  Hoping, ever hoping.

       “Better,” was her response.  “I’ve got a number of prospects that are ready to close.  By the way, Kevin and I just found a great house in Connecticut.  The price is a little steep, but we’re checking it out.”

       On what?  “Well, maybe if you have a good couple of months, you think?”

       Tina, never one to be fazed by reality, painted a rosy picture. “Actually, the Rogers account looks good for ten large; the Stillings Corporation should bring in another fifteen, and I’ve got lots of other stuff cooking.”

       Where?  In the glove compartment?  It wasn’t on her weekly reports.

       While Tina’s sales were clearly falling short, our rides together continued to amuse.  And although our outings were now mandated because of her sagging performance, nevertheless, the accounts we visited were promising.  There was no question that Tina appeared as focused as ever.  She maintained strong interpersonal contact.  She still had great closing skills.  But Tina’s strengths only compounded my worries.  If she was so good when I was out with her, how come she wasn’t selling on all the other days?  My suspicions multiplied.

       Then there was that day in May when we rode together.   There we were driving along the Palisades Parkway.  It was early afternoon.  We were on that beautiful, winding road, created when driving was meant to be pleasure, not congestion, blaring horns, and body counts.  I kept catching glimpses of the sparkling Hudson River screened through the green foliage.  It was one of those moments when you pinched yourself, giving yourself that extra jolt of pain that reminded you just how beautiful your surroundings were.  One of those moments.  I was distracted.  Not really paying much attention to Tina’s chatter.  Really, she never stopped.  But this time was different.  Tina was pitching headfirst into her love life.  Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, so were my ears.

       “You know, I joke about the guys, the dates.  But really, since John ditched me, only Carlton’s scorched my heart.  Crushed, mangled, and torched it, actually.  Have I told you about him?”

       This was new.  “I don’t think so,” I replied.

       “Well,” she bubbled, “he was gorgeous.  The most handsome man I'd even seen.  Tall, slim, over six feet with jet black hair and slate blue eyes.  God and what a body!  An Adonis, that’s what he was.  Every movement of his was athletic wizardry.  I loved to just watch him, see those gorgeous limbs of his in action; gaze at the purposefulness of his long, powerful strides.  And his hands!  The most beautiful, gentle, searching, expressive hands a woman could want.  No man has ever touched me the way he did.  Not John, not even Kevin.  His hands supercharged my body.  We ignited in passion.  Sex was great.  No, excuse me, fucking fantastic.

       “But with all that heat, I never stopped to notice.  To realize that maybe things were askew.  Who could blame me?  With all that passion, longing, and tension.  From that first moment.  So it never occurred to me to wonder why it was six months before we kissed.  Or why another six slipped by before we had sex.  Between our jobs, his travel, well, it was not as if we were together every day.  Maybe we met twice a week.  I never asked myself why I came home so horny.  In those days I could have fucked a crystal doorknob.  And as for cold showers?  Maybe they work for guys, but it was strictly Valium and warm baths for me.

       “Anyway, Carlton was a high-muckety-muck in the publishing trade.  Second or third in line to run Penguin’s U.S. operations.  Not exactly running in my crowd,” Tina said with a snort.  “We were an item for almost two years.  Together,” a snarl escaped, “if you call it that.  That was some time ago.”  Sigh, “Feels like yesterday.

       “I saw him last week.  At a gallery opening.  With one of those tall, blond, leggy models.  Damn her!  I almost slipped a few ludes in her Chardonnay.  Anyway, back to the sex.  Somehow it always came back to the sex.  Never had I had such luxuriating fucks.  Hours in bed.  Touching, lovemaking, champagne breakfasts.  Then it stopped.”  Tina winced as she spoke, a shiver running down her spine.   “You know, I counted the times we were in the sack.  Seven, eight?  A dozen max.  The more he pulled away, the deeper my nails dug.

       “One time Carlton took me to meet his family, back when marriage was a serious topic of discussion.  They lived off Fifth Avenue, not too far from the Mark Hotel.  Say in the seventies?  Imagine an entire home, five floors worth, in the priciest part of Manhattan.  The place was dark, Victorian.  It reeked of old money.  Hadn’t been structurally renovated in over seventy years.  There was a courtyard, even a rooftop garden.

       “I spent the longest weekend of my life there.  That family was nothing but men.  No spouses, even Carlton’s mother was absent, having died years ago.  His father was in his seventies.  The old clubby type.  Carlton’s two brothers were cultured, artsy.  There were lots of early musical instruments on the walls.  The artwork was priceless: an original Botticeli, Degas; I even saw a Picasso.  I’m no connoisseur, but an art thief would have had a field day in that home.  Hell, what do I know?

       “I was trying so hard to hold on then.  What a fool!  Can you imagine if we’d actually tied the knot?” Tina laughed sharply.  “Can you see the headlines in the New York Post?  LOWLY BROOKLYNITE MARRIES UPPER EAST SIDER—TRASH WEDS  CLASS!   We never got around to discussing kids.  Reality check, Asshole!  Telltale signs that things aren’t progressing according to plan.

       “The family,” Tina continued, “you know, none of them slept.”

       “What?” I said, startled out of a rapt silenceYou think you’ve heard everything.  That you know people and the lives they live.  Not even close.  “What do you mean, Tina?”

       “They lay,” she responded, “like museum pieces, scattered throughout the living room.  In chairs, sofas, even a recliner.  Books in hand, classical music played, they talked, occasionally.  They dozed, a sort of twilight sleep.  Both nights.  Can you beat that?  I’d never seen anything like it.  So what were my options?  I tried to do the same.  There I was, prone on a couch.  Carleton was propped up in a chair some five feet away.  But he might as well have been stranded in the northern reaches of ice-bound Canada.  No fucking was going to happen that night.  So there we were, all of us, huddled together in that living room.  Cozy, real cozy.  I lay awake listening to everyone’s breathing.  No one ever walked upstairs to sleep.  Come to think of it, I never even saw bedrooms.  I’m sure they were up there, but I never saw them.

       “Sue, life grants me only small consolations.  And this one’s truly pitiful.  The bitch, the model, she’s not getting any either, that I assure you.  Sex, I mean.  That family’s fucking asexual.”  Tina tossed her head, as if to fling away a stray tear or two.  “Can you believe it?  Best stuff I’ve ever had, and the guy goes cold turkey.  A man I’m crazy about, and yet I toss him.”

       “Toss him?”

       “I broke up with Carleton.  Can you believe it?  June 14th, 1987, that was the day.  Five months, twelve hours, and thirty-six seconds after the sex stopped, I split.  I couldn’t take it.  No sex, no sleeping together, no touching.  Drove me wild.  I screamed; I cried; I begged.  Finally, I walked.  And that was it; my great love quashed.”  Tina brushed away her tears.  “Of course, we got back together again.  But what’s reconciliation without cock?  I thought I was going mad.  Being with him and not having dick.  It made me crazy.  I left before I did something terrible.”  Angrily, Tina wiped away her tears.

       By then it was late afternoon.  Silently, Tina drove me back to my car.  Not even the blare of the radio to dull the edge.  As I got out of her Honda, I said goodbye.  Tina nodded absent-mindedly.  You think you’ve heard everything and then . . . .

       Tina quit four weeks later.  Her resignation was fortunate, really.  I had begun to go through her reports and had some evidence that she may have been falsifying customer contacts.  My next step would have required calling those individuals to discover if Tina had actually visited them and made the presentations she was claiming.  If her weekly call sheets were doctored, then I would have had to dismiss her.  In any case, her lack of sales told me she was not working her territory.  I knew I was going to have to put her on probation.  Even so, I was disappointed when she left.  I found myself missing the time spent on the road with her. Somehow traveling with the other reps never had the pizzazz of riding with Tina.

       Four months later, I bumped into Tina while attending a trade show.  There she was, working the Mirac Tool and Die booth.  The very company she had represented, and supposedly resigned from, when I hired her.  We chatted.  Not surprisingly, Tina and Kevin had split, though Tina was renting the house in Connecticut.  Yes, it had an option to buy clause.  Yes, she hoped to exercise it at the end of the year.  “If my luck holds, if things go right.  Cross your fingers, Sue.”

       And I couldn’t help noticing Tina’s joking repartee with her colleagues.  No strain, no rupture.  No indication of any tension in their relationships.  Suddenly, I understood.  She had never left Mirac.  Tina was a bigamist.  A fucking two-timer!  Who the hell did she think she was working for both companies simultaneously?  All for a little down payment.

       Our eyes met.  She must have guessed what I was thinking.  She squeezed my hand.  She knew I was onto her scam!  A formal inquiry into her employment history would prove my conjecture and get her fired from Mirac.

       “I’m so close,” Tina whispered.  “So very close.  You can help this time, Sue.  Let it ride.  Please, I beg you.”   I gazed back noncommittally and slowly walked away.

       In the end, I put aside considerations of personal revenge and lost revenue.   And I tell you, it wasn’t easy.  I’m not one to let people take advantage of me.  I usually made them pay dearly for their treachery.  However, this time I thought of Tina’s broken dreams and her foolish deceptions.  And for what?  A mortgage.  Thirty years lived from payment to payment, more faithful than lovers, more constant than family, more burdensome than hopeful.  A life sentence masquerading as a property deed.  And so, I let it ride.  After all, she was that close.


DIANA SHEETS








THE CUSP OF DREAMS