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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rocket's Burger Shack, Story #6

[This is the sixth of ten stories set in an easily imaginable fast food restaurant I called Rocket's Burger Shack. For the five preceding stories, search "burger shack" on this blog, and they should turn up. Thanks for reading. For events coming up in and around Northport, scroll to the end of this post.]

A Man’s Potential©

      “For God’s sake, get the owners out of the house--for the whole day, if you can,” the man across the table reminded me over the files spread out between our paper cups of morning coffee. He was nervous, I could tell. “It’s deadly if they hang around!”

I wasn’t fazed by the implication that I needed him to tell me how to do my job because I’d already spotted him as a total loser. A man who used a “burger shack,” of all places, for his office? He needed a haircut, and I glanced out at the parking lot to see if I could spot which car was his. The ’99 Mercury Marquis, without a doubt, and he probably thought the hubcap he’d had to replace matched closely enough that no one would notice. Well, he was wrong. People notice things even when they don’t consciously register what they’re seeing. I’m successful because I know this, and he’s a loser because he doesn’t. Details are that important.

 I would have walked out right then except for Patricia, but she and I have been in business together for five years, and that’s longer than it sounds. For her, in fact, it’s a significant portion of her life. You have to understand, she’s only twenty-eight, very young to be a partner in a real estate firm. We met when we were both working for the firm that’s now our chief competition. Ours is the high-end market. When I started out in the business forty years ago, that was always where I wanted to be, and I make it a point to get what I want.

Knowing what you want is the first step. For instance, knowing I wanted Patricia as a partner didn’t take long at all. She’s young, she’s smart, she’s on the quiet side, very different from me in personality, and carrying just those few extra pounds that say “maternal,” whatever a woman’s age. She has soft edges where I glitter. We’re a great team. I knew we would be. We’re a little like good cop, bad cop, except it’s gentle cop, pushy cop or something. “You smoke ‘em out, and I’ll bear down on ‘em,” I say to her, and she laughs. I love to make her laugh. Her sounds, like her edges, are all soft and confidential in tone.

Frank Hayes. I remember I was wearing orange and red that day, an orange linen sheath and red silk jacket. I was dressed for the rest of my day, not coffee at the Burger Shack. Orange and red, mustard and red—if I do it, you can bet it works. Red is my signature color. Red dress or jacket or scarf—always something red. Even for funerals I add a subtle splash of crimson somewhere—earrings or a bracelet. It keeps people from relaxing around me. They’re always wondering what’s going to happen next. I like that.

      I was young like Patricia when I first got into real estate. I’d started out working sales in a downtown department store, part-time on the cosmetics counter in high school and then working up to manager of women’s wear two years after graduation. In case you don’t know the retail world, that was a meteoric rise. I got out, though, when chain discount stores came along. I could see that old-style department stores were doomed.

Here’s how I switched over. First I made a little personal inspection tour of the new discount place on the edge of town. What a nightmare! Acres of cheap merchandise, clerks and stock employees in ugly pastel smocks--even the managers wore dull black and white uniforms with stupid little black and white nametags. Not my world! I was driving back downtown that same day when I saw a billboard featuring the portrait of an attractive local female realtor. I signed up an hour later for night classes and made a complete transition in two years. I was twenty-two years old when I got my license.

That’s the way I like to live. Given any situation, I look at it from all the angles, assess it, and investigate all the alternatives. No hit and miss. I mean, who wants to miss, anyway? What’s the point of that?

One brief marriage. It didn’t take.

How do other women know they want to marry someone? What do they feel? After they’re married, do they feel the same as before or different? I felt so different, so alien, it was as if I’d put on someone else’s skin. I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land. But I thought the strangeness was only to be expected. Why wouldn’t it take time to get used to a strange new country? I kept thinking I would get used to the smell of his skin and the feel of his limbs and torso and that we would gradually blend together into something inevitable. My parents’ marriage had been pretty happy, from all I could ever tell, and they hadn’t known each other until they were in their late twenties.

I don’t know how it works for other people, though. I can’t even imagine it, and I’ve given up trying, because it didn’t work at all for me. Every day of my marriage, my life felt more alien to me than it had the day before. I felt lonelier with my husband, in our home, than I’d ever felt in my life alone in a room. And he was a perfectly nice man, too, not a monster. I can’t explain it.

Thank God I had work, and I was on every other weekend, working the office on Saturdays and office or open houses on Sundays. I got a lot of calls and a lot of referrals. So in that part of my life I was still myself and still on track.

There was one Saturday morning that stands out as my clearest married memory. I was leaving for work. I was going out the front door, and I stopped to take a deep breath and put on sunglasses. The sky was so clear and bright! Going out into the morning, I felt clear and bright myself. The alien skin dropped off at the doorway. Birds were singing, and the singing of those birds felt as if it was shivering forth from my own singing heart. I mean, I was flooded with happiness, and the sensation was overwhelming. I remember feeling that I was setting myself free, that I could almost fly! You don’t stop to doubt that kind of clarity. Obviously I had to get out of the marriage. I didn’t blame my husband or myself. He blamed me, but that was his problem. It was over.

Since then I’ve kept my relationships with men on either a professional or a recreational basis, one or the other. By “recreational,” I don’t mean so much the sex as the contest. So, professional or recreational, two separate realms, both are contests, as far as I’m concerned. What can I say? It works for me. I love it!

      Now this man this morning, this Frank Hayes—thank God, I thought, I only had to deal with him on a professional basis, and that was bad enough! For some unknown reason Patricia had set up the meeting, and I had enough trust in her to give him a few more minutes to redeem the terrible first impression he’d made. He wouldn’t have had a second chance otherwise, and it wasn’t really a second chance, in the true sense, since it was Patricia, not Frank Hayes, who had earned it.

“How many years have I been doing this?” I queried rhetorically when Frank Hayes the loser tried telling me how to run the open house that I hadn’t yet agreed to have. I tapped out a rhythm on the shiny chrome napkin holder with a perfectly manicured fingernail.

      He looked away, annoyed and embarrassed. He combed his fingers nervously through the hair over his ear. Feeling cornered, he attacked. “How the hell do I know? I don’t know what you know! We just met! Don’t take it personally!”

      A rank amateur move. Exactly what I expected from him.

      “Don’t you take me personally,” I replied, emphasizing the pronouns without raising my voice. “And don’t get huffy when I remind you that I don’t need to be told the elementary basics of how to run an open house. You know my reputation, and that’s why you came to my office with your buyer. That’s what you told my partner. You told her what your buyer was looking for. I showed you the house. So, now...?”

      It’s far easier to let a man like Frank Hayes trip over whatever vague, secret guilt he’s accumulated over a life of awkward interactions with women--and they all have something that fits that general bill--than to accuse him openly of having a sexist attitude.

Hayes would have told the story like this: I was the listing agent, and he, Frank Hayes (who badly needed a haircut), said he had a potential buyer. He said the buyer (he didn’t say “potential”) needed to be moved off the dime, and he thought an open house, if it only brought in one other mildly interested party, might make the slowpoke realize he didn’t have a lifetime to make his decision. That would be his story. Naturally, I had other concerns. Was his so-called buyer qualified? Would this so-called buyer be acceptable to the neighbors? That is to say, had Frank Hayes done his homework, or was I pouring my valuable time down a rathole? Why would Patricia waste a minute of her time on Frank Hayes in the first place? It was that last question that kept me from walking out.

Patricia had talked to Hayes first before passing him along to me. She and I often pass clients and agents back and forth, depending on what I think of as their wattage requirements, since some people are more comfortable with her low-key approach, while others demand my high intensity. We trust each other enough not to have to spell out the reasons. But I couldn’t see yet why Patricia hadn’t just blown Frank Hayes off and sent him elsewhere.

“I need to check some numbers,” I told him briskly, “so let’s put this on the back burner for another week, shall we?”

He looked instantly more rumpled and scattered, both in clothes and manner.  “Patty thought,” he began and stopped. “Patty told me--.”

Oh, boy! Well, now it made sense! I would have been a great poker player, I’m not kidding, because when he said “Patty” the whole situation became clear, but I kept my expression neutral while mentally replaying a brief exchange Patricia and I had had in the office one Monday morning a few weeks back. I’d asked her the formula “How was your weekend?” question.

“Oh, you know, the usual,” she replied with a blush, turning her head aside.

“I don’t think so! No, you look....”

I moved closer to her, closed my eyes and inhaled slowly, deeply. “Ah!” Despite her morning shower freshness, I detected the smell of a man on her.

“Eva!” she protested, embarrassed.

I just told her not to lose her focus and turned away, dismissing the topic, because what else can you say? It was none of my business. If I minded at all, it was only because, first, she was going to be distracted, her mind not one hundred percent on work, and second, I had no idea who the man was, but she’d already slept with him, so it was too late for me to veto the arrangement if he was unacceptable.

 Patricia started changing in subtle ways. She didn’t lose the twelve pounds she’d obsessed about for so long, but she stopped obsessing about her weight. She was simultaneously more on edge and more relaxed, which doesn’t even make sense, but I don’t know any other way to express it. Maybe “on edge” isn’t the right expression. She seemed happier in her body and more aware of it and constantly alert mentally, regardless of how little sleep she’d had the night before. Never that concerned with her appearance before, she was dressing better and paying more attention to her hair and makeup.

I couldn’t fault her for looking better or for being happy. I had no problem with that. No, all that bothered me was my sense that her mind was somewhere else too much of the time. We were used to reading each other’s minds, sharing all our impressions and concerns, and that wasn’t happening now. The bottom line was that she didn’t feel like my partner any more.

And now, here was the reason, sitting across the table from me. Unbelievable! He hadn’t had much experience in real estate, I’d bet any money, and whatever he’d been doing before hadn’t worked out. Patricia, however, was in deep enough with him that she wanted to help his career so they could build a future together. I read it all in an instant, in the way he looked when he referred to her as “Patty.”

What to do? He was going to be bad for business, and that meant he was bad for Patricia--or “Patty,” as he called her. I tried the name out that way in my mind. It sounded like her, soft and sweet and dear. It made you want to smile and reach out to touch her neck or brush back a wisp of her hair. Oh, this was bad! How bad, I couldn’t be sure, but bad enough and maybe worse.

Whether he had an incurably lazy streak or secretly hated women or was the kind to ingratiate himself and then take advantage—I didn’t know yet. He could be a con man or an embezzler or just what he seemed, a pathetic guy with flop sweat, bringing up the rear of the wannabe brigade, but whatever he turned out to be, I saw heartbreak down the road for Patricia, and heartbreak in the office would not be good for business. Let me clarify. Heartbreak and divorce may account for half the new listings we get, but that’s not heartbreak in the office. Big difference.

My big advantage was that Frank Hayes had to try to impress me. That’s what this meeting was all about. The question was, how far would he go? That is, could I lead him so far there would be no turning back? Better for Patricia’s heart to break now than a year from now, I reasoned. Let it break now, and a year from now it will be like Frank Hayes never happened.

“Frank!” I said suddenly, interrupting him before he could embarrass himself further. I knew my tone was right when I saw hope light his face. “I know, Frank,” I went on sympathetically. “You want to move your prospect to sign a sales agreement. We all want that, if he’s good for the price.” Forestalling an objection I went on, borrowing Patricia’s motherly, encouraging tone. “It’s just a matter of when to push and when to step back. If he thinks you’re too eager, he gets suspicious, worried, and we don’t want that.”

I gave him my best imitation-Patricia smile, and Frank Hayes smiled back, confident that he’d gotten his foot in the door. Now he thought we were on the same side. First battle won.

      It was like being married, I thought, but without the promises and the life sentence. Once I slipped into the skin of the role, I didn’t even have to think about what to do next. Instinctively I looked down at the table, as if I were suddenly shy. Then I looked up, caught my bottom lip between my teeth, and smiled again, more tentatively.

      “Frank? Do you have time for another cup of coffee? If we’re going to work together, don’t you think it would help to get to know each other?”

      He stood up and reached for my coffee cup, and I touched the back of his hand lightly but firmly and left my fingertips there for the count of three, looking up at him the whole time, then pulled back with feigned reluctance, trailing my fingers the length of his. Yes, I saw the sudden alarm in his eyes. I was old enough to be his mother, after all, besides being the partner of the woman whose bed he was sharing. But we both knew he wouldn’t say no. Desire had nothing to do with it. The man was fighting for his survival, and he was too desperate to weigh one danger against another.

      What can I say? It’s a hard world. I have a good thing going, and who knows how much better it can get, if no one messes it up? I can give Patricia more than Frank Hayes could ever hope to give her. Someday she’ll thank me.

*** *** *** *** *** ***

 Leelanau Notes and Reminders

Here are a few events coming up in northern Leelanau County:

“Branching Out – Exploring Off-Broadway”
Concert by the Leelanau Children’s Choir and Youth Ensemble, Friday, June 15, 7:30 p.m. Tickets available in Northport at Dog Ears Books, 106 Waukazoo St.

“Around the Lake” (North Lake Leelanau) Garden Tour. Wednesday, June 27, 11-5. I have four tickets available at Dog Ears Books. Price goes up from $10 to $12 on the day of the tour.

Northport Women’s Club Home Tour. Wednesday, July 11, 9:30-4:30. Tickets available in Northport at Dolls and More, 102 Nagonaba St.

Annual Fly-In, Woolsey Airport, will be earlier this year, so note the date: Saturday, July 28. Northport Promise Barn Sale will be the same day, across the road.

Northport Dog Parade will be on Saturday, August 11. Dog Ears Books will be doing registration again this year, but don’t ask me for forms yet, and I don’t yet know this year’s theme, either. When I know, you’ll see it on the calendar (right-hand column) of this blog.

Obviously, this list hardly exhausts summer offerings, but besides my bookstore events, these are some of the big dates on my calendar.


Dawn said...

At first I thought they were plotting a murder or a robbery. How do you think these things up anyway! I know....sometimes it just happens but you have a whole string of good stories going. Nice work!

P. J. Grath said...

Plotting crime? That's funny, Dawn. I think Eva wants visible success she can take credit for in public, so crime would not be in her line. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Kathy said...

I liked it! Even though it is often really challenging to slow down enough to read fiction on line. Do you get challenged like that?

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, I do indeed find it difficult to read anything very long on a screen. Much prefer to hold a book or magazine. So I appreciate all the more your reading my story online. Thank you! said...

It's hard to know who's the more desperate character, Eva or Frank. They're both willing to do whatever it takes to have success. I think it's Eva: he's an innocent, unsure of what he's doing; she's hard and manipulative -- and able to justify her betrayal of Patricia.

So, the characters are not at all what they seem at first... Well done!

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, you will find a similar shifting, I think, between the two main characters in the #9 story, recently posted. --On a totally different subject, I like seeing that picture of you in your bookstore!