[Previous stories in this 10-story cycle may be found in the following posts: #1:
Kelly; #3: the dog; #4:
Tiny Bob; #6: Eva. As always, thank you for reading.]
The Life He Didn’t Intend©
Wes didn’t fool himself about his
career. He would never be a high roller, but he wasn’t stupid, either, and he
moved enough product to stay in the game. He wasn’t at the bottom of the heap,
either, as anyone could see by the car he drove and the suits he wore. If
someone were to follow him home, he liked to think, his house and wife would
only enhance the picture. No, he had done all right for himself and his family.
His territory crossed the state line, and younger guys asked him for advice,
recognizing that he’d been around long enough to know the ropes but hadn’t
slowed down yet. The few grey hairs on his head gave him a mature,
been-around-the-block look. Success always looked precarious on a really young
guy, he thought, like the result of a lucky break that could turn south at any
moment. A mature, successful man, on the other hand, was someone to respect.
Packaging was a sexier field, too,
than it had been when he’d started, and he liked to take some of the credit for
that. Engineers came up with packaging itself, but it was out in the field,
selling, that you had to make the products sing to the customer, and it was
Wes’s generation still making that music. Send out a catalog, as lazier
marketing people did, and your audience might toss it in the garbage without a
second glance, or if they flipped through the pages they might miss the best
stuff. Even a website, the more recent buzz favored by new graduates in the
field, didn’t let customers get their hands on a package to see what it could
do. Wes had learned on the job, not in a classroom, and everything he knew came
from experience. Putting samples in the mail, for instance. That could
backfire. People might not see all the applications, or they might think some
competitor’s cheaper package that looked similar was just as good. No, a
salesman had to make contact person-to-person, demonstrate the product, put it
in the customer’s hand, let that customer see its value, and then get the
signature to close the deal. That was how selling worked, and Wes knew because
he’d worked it for almost two decades.
He wore a suit and tie on sales calls,
never forgetting that he would have “no second chance to make a first
impression,” but soon after shaking hands he asked if he might take off his
coat, and after tossing the coat over a chair back he loosened his tie, as
well, because you didn’t want to look too fancy in the plants he visited. You
wanted people to pay attention to you, to respect you, but you didn’t want to
come off as snooty. No, you wanted to be seen as a knowledgeable guy who knew
what he was talking about but still a regular guy, for all the experience and
expertise. That was the bull’s-eye of the target as far as Wes was concerned, and his career had worked out well.
Marriage, the other major
portion of a man’s life, had fallen short of expectations, but he couldn’t
really complain much there, either. Vicky still looked good. She had always
been a good mother, right from the start. And she had done a great job with the
house, he had to admit. It looked like something out of a magazine. Now that
their daughter was a senior in high school, she and her mother seemed almost
to tell, Wes felt almost like an interloper in the house when he was home. Oh,
Courtney fussed and fawned over him and played him like a violin to get what
she wanted, and Vicky was always eager to show him her new clothes or little
decorating changes she’d made in the house (some not so little, either, like
replacing all the living room furniture without consulting with him first), but
he had the impression more and more lately that Vicky, Courtney, and the house
were the real nuclear family. The three of them. Maybe that was normal after so
many years. He didn’t know. His wife and daughter loved to shop, and he paid
the bills, and wasn’t that how families worked? There were other, very
different arrangements in modern America, as he was well aware, but he had
always wanted a traditional family life. Otherwise, why bother? Coworkers and
partners he could find on the job, if that’s what he was looking for.
But no, on the job too he was a solo
act, and so his whole life package had worked out pretty well, no duplication
between home and work. He had the satisfaction of an interesting job, with
plenty of travel, and while he might find evenings long at home, he was never
bored on the road.
knew every mile of his territory and took a personal interest in the changes he
observed from one month or year to the next—new housing developments and
shopping centers, new industrial parks, older parts of towns growing shabbier,
some demolished. Sometimes these days, he noticed, ambitious schemes were
abandoned halfway through, left uncompleted, as if a small civilization had
vanished overnight. That always gave him an unsettled feeling, the sense that
he was lost in time though situated in space, but whichever way a town was
going, he noticed. Every newly vacant or newly built lot, every widened road or
new potholes, all the new billboards and signs and restaurants and other
businesses along his route, as well as the old ones, fading and slipping from
the height of their glory, all of it he took in with a keen eye. Houses and
stores, restaurants and factories appeared to him as large, complicated
packages for pieces of human life, and he thought almost every day about how
some worked better than others. There were classics that never went out of
style, while others became quickly obsolete when something better came along.
Driving from one sales call to another, pounding his beat, as it were, he was
always processing the world and learning from it.
He had seen changes in the workplace,
too. Most management positions in the kind of places he visited were still
mostly held by men like himself (“white males,” as the trade newsletters now
called them), but it wasn’t all white bread everywhere, and not all men,
either. There had always been women in the factories, on the floor. Seeing them
in offices, that was new, but it didn’t upset Wes at all, and he made a
smoother transition to the new reality than some of the older salesmen. Shaking
hands, he held a woman’s hand longer. He smiled more at a woman and in a
different way, and he held his shoulders straighter and sucked in his gut. But
these differences were only a variation on his basic, tried-and-true spiel.
Women in management were management, after all. He never called an executive
woman “Honey” or “Sweetie.” They were in that office to do the job. Fine. Sell
Then there was Eleanor Wilson. She was
no raving beauty. Comparing the two women, he decided instantly that Vicky was
far better looking, even without makeup. Still, there was something about
Eleanor, right from the start. Mrs. Wilson, in her mid-40’s when Wes first met
her, had inherited her husband’s company when the husband died unexpectedly of
coronary thrombosis. He’d been older than his wife but still young. Damn shame.
Rex Wilson had been a powerhouse. Stepping into his shoes, Eleanor Wilson was
at first nervous and uncertain in the front office, learning the ropes from the
old manager she planned to keep on as an operational partner, and she could
easily have left everything in his hands, right from the start. Most women
would have, Wes thought. Vicky would have, he was pretty sure, if she’d been in
Eleanor’s position. What made Eleanor different? Even now, he couldn’t figure
out if it was stubbornness or insecurity or some kind of steel in her character
that drove her to learn the business from the ground up and oversee every
aspect of it herself. It was a small company but not uncomplicated. Well,
whatever her reasons, everyone recognized her competence and her quickness in
Coming into her own, the new Eleanor
retained the nervous energy she’d had at their first meeting. Wes thought for a
while that it would subside once she got her life back on an even keel, but
gradually he accepted it as the way she was, whether part of her
personality—metabolism, maybe--or a response to losing her husband and having
to assume his responsibilities for both home and business. She had two young
children to raise, a boy and a girl. Could a woman raise children alone and be
relaxed? Maybe not.
He remembered that first time he met
with her in her husband’s old office, now suddenly hers. She hadn’t changed
anything yet in the room, so it still looked like Rex Wilson’s office. On the
desk were still the family portrait, school pictures of the kids, and a glamour
shot of Eleanor in a low-necked sheath with some kind of gauzy scarf thrown
over her bare shoulders. Her eyes in the photograph said “Come hither!” The
eyes of the woman behind the table glanced at her caller, and then shifted away
uncomfortably, nothing come-hither about her, and she was wearing one of those
awful pantsuits and playing nervously with a ballpoint pen. She looked down at
the pen, up at Wes, over and out the window and back down at the top of the
desk. Finally she tossed the pen down with a decisive gesture. It skidded
across the desk and teetered on the edge, where Wes caught it and handed it
back to her with a smile he meant to be reassuring.
“Maybe we should review your company’s
orders from last year,” he suggested gently, trying not to take initiative out
of her hands just yet.
She straightened up and looked him in
the eye. “I’ve reviewed them. I’ve reviewed every department in this company,
records and physical, on-the-floor operations. We have a problem.” Gaze steady
now, open hands held up with fingers outstretched, she took a deep breath.
“Your cartons aren’t up to the job. Not the ones we’ve been getting from you.
I’ve made some production changes, and the fans we’re making now are heavier.
They’re better quality.” She blushed slightly. (Doesn’t want to come right
out and say her husband’s product was crap
, Wes thought. That’s loyalty!
) “We’re getting too many complaints about deliveries in damaged
cartons. Torn, dented. A couple cartons came completely apart in handling, and
the fans fell out. Sorry, that will not work.”
So! The ball was in his court now.
Okay, Wes could handle this. He could handle any situation as long as he knew
what it was.
“You bet it won’t work! Boy, I see the
problem! I’m glad you told me what was happening instead of just switching
suppliers before I could do anything about it. Tell you what we’ll do.” He said
“the problem,” not “your problem” and “we” instead of “I” without even having
to think, pro that he was. “Give me until the end of the month, Mrs. Wilson.
Can you do that? If you have to buy from someone else for a couple of weeks, I
understand. But let me go back to the engineering boys and tell them what’s
happening. Maybe—could I take one of your new fans for them to work with? I’d
bring it back the next time I visit. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble
getting around this glitch. How about it?”
Naturally, she agreed. A few minutes
later they were touring the plant so he could see first-hand how the new fans
were manufactured. He and Mrs. Wilson talked about cost versus price and how
challenging it was to get the two far enough apart to make a profit without
either sacrificing quality or losing sales volume. Wes was amazed at how much
she already knew and how eagerly she approached every aspect of the business.
Later the conversation became more personal.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how long
have you been running the company now? Rex only died--?”
“He died early last winter, just
before Christmas. I gave myself the luxury of falling apart for a week, but I
couldn’t afford a permanent nervous breakdown. Not even with my sister as
backup babysitter. Businesses don’t run themselves, as you know. Well,
neither do families.”
By this time, they were having lunch
at Rocket’s Burger Shack, across the highway from the plant, bacon cheeseburger
and coffee for Wes, broiled chicken sandwich and ice tea for Eleanor. Funny the
things that stick in your memory, he thought, recalling that first lunch. Her
pantsuit was a kind of dull blue, almost grey, but the white blouse under the
dull jacket had a little ruffle at the neck. She’s still a woman, and she
hasn’t forgotten it, Wes thought suddenly. He admired both aspects of her, the
business woman in the office and the woman
across the table from him.
“It can’t be easy,” he said quietly,
searching her face for something but not having any idea what he was looking
for. “You’re doing a helluva job, too. Anyone can see that.”
She shrugged. “Thanks. Actually, it’s
really interesting. Maybe you wouldn’t think it would be. I mean, your job is
so different. You get to travel, and you meet different people all the time,
and you sell to all kinds of companies making all kinds of different products.
I’m just here, cranking out fans. But I understand now why Rex loved his work.
I can’t explain it.” She shook her head, smiling. “I feel like I’m part of the
world. Does that sound crazy?”
He couldn’t explain it any better than
she could, but he didn’t think it sounded crazy at all.
invited him to her home for a glass of wine at the end of the day, and he accepted,
expecting Chianti and chaos, clutter and pillow fights. But both children had
gone to stay overnight at their aunt’s house, and the atmosphere was tranquil.
The Riesling was nicely chilled, lights soft and low, and she had classical
music playing softly. He recognized the music as “classical”; a year later he
would recognize it as one of Bach’s partitas. There was no rush but no
hesitation, either. The evening surprised him only when he thought about it
then, his only “indiscretions” had been, so to speak, very discreet, casual on
both sides and rarely more than single nights. From that first night with
Eleanor—hell, maybe even starting at lunch, or why would he remember what
they’d ordered and what she’d been wearing?—it was a whole different ballgame.
When he held her in his arms, he felt as if he’d come home from a voyage of
many years, as if he’d always been looking forward to getting home to hold her,
and he knew she felt the same way. Wow. What next? He was out of his familiar
territory, in a whole new country, without a map or game plan. When he told her
that he and Vicky had been drifting apart for years, it seemed like one of the
truest things he’d ever said. He didn’t mean to deceive when he said he’d
already been thinking of divorcing Vicky and that she, Eleanor, would not be
“breaking up a marriage.” Had he really thought about divorce? He couldn’t
remember, but how could the idea not
have been there, somewhere, waiting? It wasn’t like he and Vicky had much
between them any more.
Vicky, and along with her there was Courtney, and
there was the house and friends and neighbors and Courtney’s school. He and
Vicky shared a history and an identity. What did you do with something that
complex? He didn’t know, and so he drifted along, waiting for the future to
become clear to him.
work life stayed the same, and so did his private life at one end of the road,
but across the state line, two hundred miles down the highway, a second private
life took shape. With his wife and daughter, he was the same husband and father
he’d always been. Meanwhile, he and Eleanor became a recognized couple in her
town, as he naturally became a surrogate father to her children. He had never
had a son of his own, and the girl reminded him of Courtney’s early years, a
time that would never return. At first he told Eleanor he was “thinking about
divorce,” then “talking about it” with his wife, then “waiting for the divorce
to become final.” Everything he told her along the way made so much sense to
him that he hardly doubted it himself, and she never doubted at all. Arranging
for the wedding license was the trickiest part, and he couldn’t have managed
without a lawyer friend who owed him a favor. At last they had their wedding,
in her living room, with her sister, brother-in-law and a few of her friends
present, and Wes moved in officially.
couldn’t have managed the juggling act without his sales job. Eleanor
understood that he didn’t want to come into the fan company, her “bailiwick,”
but wanted to stay in the business where he’d made his reputation. His
reputation. Funny word, funny idea. His reputation in both of his hometowns was
as a good salesman and a solid family man. Well, wasn’t he?
were the hardest. Even traveling salesmen didn’t work holidays, and weather
reports for the whole world were available anywhere, so a storm couldn’t be his
cover story unless there really was a storm. He had to invent a lot of car
trouble. Finally, taking matters into her own capable hands, Eleanor bought him
a new car for Christmas, a Lincoln town car! She hid it in the garage on
Christmas Eve, told him the garage door opener was broken and that he’d have to
park in the driveway. Then Fate broke out in a huge, ear-to-ear grin at his
expense, but before he could drive home to Vicky and call Eleanor with an
excuse for missing the holiday with her, a freak blizzard arrived, stranding
motorists, closing highways in five states, and he really was snowed in with
Eleanor and her kids over Christmas.
was their first Christmas Day together, long and lazy and warm and joyous. He
had to call Vicky, of course, to apologize for not being home, but she was
relieved that he was safe and made no fuss at all, saying that having Christmas
a couple of days later would be fine. Thank God for cell phones! He didn’t have
to worry that Vicky would call the number of the motel where he told her he was
staying and find out he wasn’t there. It was the perfect Christmas. He couldn’t
have planned it better.
the very beginning with Eleanor, in fact, he hadn’t had a plan at all. He
couldn’t see into the future even as far as spring, when Courtney would
graduate from high school. That was a special event he couldn’t miss.
Maybe—maybe after Courtney’s graduation he and Vicky really could divorce.
Would Vicky really mind all that much? Could he afford divorce? Would divorce
make his marriage to Eleanor legal? The questions made him uncomfortable, and
his mind veered off in another direction. He would buy Courtney a new laptop
computer for graduation, he decided. And tomorrow, if the wind died down, he
would take Jason and Rachel out tobogganing. He’d given them shiny new
toboggans for Christmas, and they were dying to try them out.