Sunday, June 24, 2012
Burger Shack Story #7
[Previous stories in this 10-story cycle may be found in the following posts: #1: Mallory; #2: Kelly; #3: the dog; #4: Becky; #5: 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 like sisters.
Truth 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.
He 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 ‘em!
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 acquiring it.
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.
She 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 afterward.
Until 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.
Still, there was 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.
His 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.
He 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?
Holidays 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.
It 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.
From 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.