Peter Fades Into the Background as His Secret Fame Rises

"Is It Always A Love Story?" Chapter 8

David Stone
In Chapter 8 from Is It Always A Love Story?, Peter succeeds at fading into the daily background, a practicing observer, as secret fame explodes

Chapter Eight


 

I pushed against the resistance of stiff bristles on a big wide broom with a long wooden handle and wheeled a gondola along the wooden block shop floors, removing trash, at Trico for five years. That routine was interrupted for a few months when I was flattered into trying a supervisory position. I hated it. Unhappiness mounted from the first day. Most experience can be useful, you can learn something, but bossing people closed more windows than it opened. 

I slipped them my notice during the depressing period when Trico started leaking jobs to Mexico, pissing off the union, betraying the country that enriched it, in my opinion. 

In my third year, I started making Christmas trips home, learning to juggle my evasions better annually. The one real dark spot spilled onto the screen the day Cal, Sr., died.

He died on the job, sort of. In the middle of an afternoon, an assembly line foreman taking a smoke break found him, facedown, on the men’s room floor. A heart attack slammed him as decisively as a lightning strike, choking life out of the man before the rest of his body got a chance to wear out.

“Fifty,” Cal told me at the funeral. “Fifty… Jesus…”

It was the worst kind of winter day in Buffalo. We’d left the mourners to go out to the parking lot for cigarettes.

A bright sun out of a deep blue sky did nothing to mitigate the dry cold. All the young trees stuck on the perimeter were bare. The wind whistled and clattered through them, unused to anyone listening. A recent warm spell, a couple of days, melted off any snow that might blur the edges.

“Too fucking young,” I agreed, shivering.

I’d rushed to buy my first suit, the day Cal, Sr., died, and it wasn’t as warm as I hoped. Little did my suit know, it would shortly be closeted for years, then resurrected for daily use.

With the first foot of earth frozen solid where it rolled down from an old oak near the top of the cemetery, the funeral director would have to wait for the spring thaw before breaking ground to lower Cal, Sr.’s, casket. In the meantime, he’d rest, as they say, in cold storage.

“There isn’t one good thing about it. If he’d been sick or something…” Cal paused, exhaling a mix of smoke and vapor into the cold. “He’ll miss out on everything he worked for. And my mom, what’s she going to do? She’s only fifty, too. She’ll have to go a lot of years alone.”

“Man, she’ll do okay,” I said for no particular reason, although it had occurred to me that Cal was concerning himself with everyone else. Maybe, next, he’d worry about my job status.

The most seriously affected of those still able to curse traffic jams on the Kensington Expressway might have been Cal. No longer able to live at home for free, he took a full-time job and quit college without the degree on which he’d based his plans. What changed everything about him, coloring it in a crooked way, was that Trico turned him down when he applied there first. To Cal, it felt like his father had been erased.

“They really are cutting back jobs. The windshield wiper business isn’t what it was, and, you know, they’re trying to move jobs to Mexico,” I said, trying to soften his frustration. “Maybe they really don’t have anything open.”

“Maybe they got a fucking quota,” Cal objected, “and they’ve already got all the black people they can stand.” He nodded, looking into some distant place I couldn’t see. “Maybe they’ve got a fucking quota.”

Cal and I did not intersect many times after that day. His job, managing a shoe department at Kleinhans, downtown, kept him on the morning shift, six days a week, and I was working all the time, breaking from my routine only on weekends.

Although Cal left messages about grabbing some beers after I clocked out, a couple of times, I depended for equilibrium on my dose of Johnny at 11:30, just after I got home. I’d make a cup of coffee and some basic grub and sit in front the television, enjoying the magic of connecting a community of millions that The Tonight Show figured out how to conjure, content with not having to interact with anyone. I thought I knew my limits. I might have been too careful, but it worked.

Every morning, I was rested and ready to go at 10:00. I sat at the small desk I picked up at a yard sale and wrote on lined paper with a Bic pen. To me now, it seems like an era of cave paintings, laboriously going through a physical process that was the best available at the time.

I let the first draft just drain out as quickly as I could get ink down on paper. Eventually, I learned not to be concerned with whatever mood I was in because, by the time any work was finished, I couldn’t distinguish what I wrote on good days from what I struggled with on tough days. Once I got into a story, each session started with a rewrite from the day before. Rewriting then meant scratching things out with the stroke of my Bic and jamming new phrases between lines or in the left margin. When I was finally happy with what I had, I got out my typewriter, tucked some carbon between two papers, and began fitting my story into editorial guidelines publishers showered on us as if they were guardians at the palace of proper literacy.

It was as much job as inspiration because I was a horrible typist, my hands too clumsy, too eager to hit a key, any key. I believed I was born left-handed and ruined any hope for dexterity by imitating my older brothers’ preference for the right. Even in the age of touch surface keyboards, I didn’t get much better, just faster.

By the time my 100,000 word manuscript, My Fucked Up Life, So Far, got tucked into a box for mailing, I had over a dozen short stories finished, half of them published. Nobody else knew about it.

I made a conscious decision before submitting my first Buffalo story to use a fake name. “Pseudonym” is a chicken shit way of saying it. I didn’t want anyone to connect the everyday me with the stories. I didn’t want anyone I met to think I was jotting down mental notes all the time, but I also did not want to jinx my clarity by getting too close to the content.

My faked name came in handy when My Fucked Up Life, So Far became a huge best seller — with a different title my publisher demanded, of course. The day after I got my first, mindbogglingly large royalty check, I went into work exactly as I had the day before, only my socks and underwear changed. But I was floating on air.

That settled as I realized that my book’s success wasn’t from some exceptional gift planted and cultivated between my ears, but as much from dumb luck. Someone in my publishing house in New York connected with some reviewer who wielded unconscionable influence and click, click, click, the catchy title, which my editor came up with, got stuck in the literary traffic jam known commonly as “Best Sellers.” I was lucky. I read stuff superior to my own all the time. I certainly had no illusion that my first novel was evidence of any genius. It was evidence of a good work ethic and a talent yet to be matured.

Nothing I wrote after that found the same success, even though each succeeding book was better than the one before, but the first few, catching the tailwind, were at least moderate successes. Until I got restless, around book six, and started experimenting, reviewers generally liked me and readers fell into line at Barnes and Noble. But by then, I wasn’t a kid anymore, had money in the bank and never worried about the damage a bad review might bring. I learned to be happy with the feedback, happy that words I strung together in isolation, in that trance I entered every day, were eventually absorbed by somebody, quite a few of them.

Because there was no other way to explain paying my rent and picking out vegetables at Wegman’s, I went from job to job, each one a research project as well as a way to connect with people away from my typewriter. Writing can become, through its basic chemistry, extremely isolating, like practicing as a monk by meditating hours at a time. When you come back up out of that soup, everyone’s a stranger unless you find a way to shake it off. I shook it off by working real jobs.

The first thing I did, after Trico, was sell life insurance.

“You’re going to sell life insurance?” Marilyn, my girlfriend at the time, asked in disbelief. “You’re going to go around talking with people about death?”

The truth of being a life insurance representative is that it’s rarely about death. The job is all about prospecting, finding holes in the neighborhood that insurance is designed to fill. None of us came into the office early because we were usually out at night, pitching product, but when we got in, we talked sports and poked around for holes to fill. Despite its reputation for grimness, the job was pretty much like every other sales jobs. The major difference among any of them is whether you went out to sell or waited for prospects to come to you, the former being, by far, the more lucrative.

One clever guy on my team, Murray, did the obvious that nobody else found obvious before: he grabbed the noon edition of the Buffalo News every day, snatched it instantly from a vending machine across the street in front of the Howard Johnson’s, and whipping the paper open while still in the crosswalk, found the list of recent births and called every new parent for whom he could get a telephone number. It didn’t inhibit him at all that he regularly woke up napping mothers, in the days before caller ID and blocking. He plunged on like a fullback probing the line of scrimmage and powering through, using dexterity only when necessary. Energy and a thick skin made Murray our #1 selling rep. Another advantage he enjoyed was working mostly days while the rest of us were calling and visiting men, exhausted after working all day, who didn’t want much to do with us.

The rest of the crew consisted of a changing band of pluggers and enthusiasts, each tackling the assignment in a way that fit them, most failing. The turnover was appalling, especially if you hated seeing people lose their cojones and their jobs simultaneously as much as I did. Watching an adult male have his self-confidence boned out of him is a pain hard not to share. Few will admit it, but the pain rattles everyone nearby. The instability takes a week or two to rinse clear. I’ve had other sales jobs, but insurance was the worst for wrecking people.

Wrecking people… the uninitiated are stunned at how infrequently reps hand over death benefits. In two years as a rep, I handed over a check just once, and that happened only because my manager had a brainstorm that I might be able to convert the cash into a new sale, new insurance or an annuity for the remaining spouse were examples he proposed. I admit I never got up the head of steam needed to pull off that one, but it does stand out for how unusual it was, not unusual in the money-grubbing sense — that was a daily event, like draining the coffee urn — but in the actual contact with grief.

So, as I told Marilyn, who happened to be still hanging out with me when I quit insurance, “There isn’t much death in life insurance, fortunately. It’s just another sales job, like cars or sporting goods. You look for opportunities and try to sell into them. Whether the car drives well or the running shorts give you enough testicular swing time is somebody else’s problem.”

Explaining my take on things to Marilyn wasn’t easy because she didn’t know much about my writing and how it governed everything else. As far as she knew, it was my passionate hobby. I told her, at different times, that I wrote poetry — too private to share — and that I was taking an extension course in world history, both of which bought me the hours of privacy I needed. I’m not sure she ever completely believed what I told her, and it won’t surprise you that a rich relationship is impossible when one partner is always lying straight out from the center of his life.

The liar, of course, was me. The strange part about that was how much conviction I had about honesty in my written stories. My life split two ways. It was a weird kind of balance, but balance was what I needed to survive.

A grade school teacher in the city system, Marilyn was free all summer, and we arranged vacations so that we spent a week, sometimes two, in 24/7 contact. We traveled out of state or just got a cabin at Letchworth Park and knocked down days wandering trails, nights having dinner at the only sit-down restaurant in one of the little nearby towns and listening to the world transformed by dark before sleep consumed us. Marilyn and I went steady for around three years, exclusive for almost all of it, and under different circumstances, we’d have merged laundry hampers full-time somewhere in that bubble. When we never did, our attachments fragmented, unable to weave forward. Another guy came along, and she left me. I was lucky, really, it didn’t happen sooner.

I almost let it be different. I liked Marilyn and enjoyed the days and nights we spent together, but whenever I thought about a quick trip to the hardware store to cut her a key, I stopped. Everything about my life would have to change, and that change must be tectonic. Tectonic and unpredictable, both. I had no reliable view into what the castle would look like after I took down the walls.

Before sitting at the table to decide who cooked on which days, shopped for groceries, who cleaned what and how we’d split the bills, I’d have to tell her about the part of my life of which she and everyone else, except my publisher, was unaware. And that, I promised myself, I would never do. I couldn’t write as I did, if I daily had to merge my practice with a public life, not hold them apart in relative balance. Such things wrecked Kurt Vonnegut. He became a big star and a master bore in one big swoop. 

Edgar Degas, I learned much later, took a similar position, but painters are left no choice but to come out and stand tall beside their art. If you want to know how that turned out, I’ll spare you the research with this image: a blind, friendless painter, once considered a genius, wandering around Paris, not just ignored, but reviled, his art lost in a slurry of personal disgrace.

Perspective can piss you off with its at a distance presentation of your misjudgments. Easy enough to see how blind and unfair I was with Marilyn, but I’m in a different place now, as you may have gathered by my being free to tell this story. In the 1970s, I walked a deliberately tenuous tightrope. If I stuck with my construction, I was safe. If I didn’t, I might become nuts enough to let myself be flown off to some kind of Vietnam again.

I met Marilyn one Sunday afternoon when I was shaking the fog out, walking the road that skirts the golf course and meadows along the northern section of Delaware Park. The “let’s put cars everywhere” mindset of Robert Moses had led to splitting the park into unbalanced halves by crushing the Scajaquada Expressway straight through it.

Good thinking, wise city fathers, is the thought that was going through my head when I ran into Marilyn. Well, Marilyn ran into me. I walked into her.

“Jeez,” I said as I stumbled toward the grass, determined in a manly way to stay upright.

“Sorry, sorry,” she reacted. “Are you okay?”

I looked at her, putting my pieces together quickly. She was blonde, tallish, had short hair and was biting her lower lip, her eyes sprung open with concern.

“I’m sorry. I ran into you. When I’m running, I get lost in my thoughts sometimes. Usually, there’s nobody around to crash into.”

“It was probably my fault, too. I wasn’t paying attention. Honestly, I was wondering who the asshole was who thought up building an expressway down the middle of a park…”

I gestured at the traffic, only about fifty feet from us.

“Oh… What?”

“Long story. I’m okay, except my pride, of course. How about you?”

“I might have banged my knee a little.”

Marilyn looked down at her leg, trim and bare below dark blue running shorts. She was athlete thin, lean muscles curving her limbs.

“Should be okay,” she concluded, testing the joint by trotting in place.

I liked looking at her legs, the curiosity they stirred.

“Do you live around here?”

“What? In the park?”

“Yes. Do you live here in the park or do you just come here to run into people?”

She turned slightly away and looked back with a squint. She told me later that my jokes seemed a little crazy, in context.

“I live up there, near Hertel.”

She gestured toward Nottingham Terrace, a private school and expensive homes bordering the meadows.

“Well, listen, we have a lot in common. You run, and I wouldn’t do that unless I was being chased.”

“You look like you’re in decent shape,” Marilyn said, refusing to pick up the joke.

“I also don’t live anywhere near Hertel,” I added. “But we can still be friends.”

It was rare for me to be glib or quick with obscure jokes, which is how I knew I wanted to be with her, immediately. Marilyn always claimed that first flirtation floated by her like a forgettable spring breeze, but I thought she was lying. Most people will never tell the whole truth, when they know it makes them vulnerable, without a commensurate reward.

If she hadn’t caught the spark, we’d never have found our way through that awkward collision and the feeling around for connections while we walked the rest of the circuit around the park. We stayed on the closed road, taking the narrow path between ballfields, a golf course and the expressway. We got easy enough with each other to eat casual burgers with beer at a bar not far from her apartment, that evening. 

Marilyn was my first girlfriend to nearly match me in height. At 5’ 10”, she was only two inches shorter when we stood toe to toe, bare chests against each other. When she put on heels, a rarity because she hated them, our foreheads topped out on the same plateau. Blonde hair cut short made her seem even taller. An athlete, she stood straight too, nothing lost to a slouch. She was small breasted and narrow hipped, and she moved with grace and lightness, like oats at midsummer. 

Her personality was more crisp than her initial softness suggested. If you thought you could slip an offhand remark about, say, the skits on Saturday Night Live, she might stand you up straight with how bad it was that the comedy had to be fueled by drugs.

“Can’t they write a skit without being stoned?”

When I riffed critical on American education, she battled me, point for point.

“You’re on my playing field now, mister. Watch your step.”

She was right, of course. Her view was informed, mine abstract, and she usually won.

She was a little shy, the first time we had sex. After we got into it on my couch, I took her hand and led her into my bedroom.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, with a hitch.

“I haven’t done this in a while, so maybe you can help me along with some instructions.”

“Really…?

“Let’s see,” I said and finished unbuttoning her blouse. I’d gotten started on it in the living room. “There’s something in here I should take a look at, if I remember correctly.”

She stiffened enough that I called off the lighthearted back and forth that we’d relied on so far and reached over to turn off the light, leaving us with only what leaked in from the hallway.

“Runners’ bodies are beautiful things, especially yours…”

She was naked now, except for her socks, blue with little white dots. She was, also, nervous.

“Have you had a lot of experience with women runners?”

“Marilyn…”

“Yes?”

“It was a clumsy way to say how nice you look with your clothes off, but you seem to be having a little trouble relaxing.”

“I don’t do this everyday…”

“Really? You should. Maybe I can help you with that.”

I kissed her.

“Maybe…”

“Starting now…”

With her sitting on the bed watching, I undressed, one thing at a time, tossing my clothes aside on the floor.

“Ready?”

She looked at me and smiled.

“You sure are,” she said.

Unless something external knocked one of us off kilter, our sex lives merged easily with the rest of our times together until near the end. We got to like each other’s friends. She had many more than I did, and people got used to seeing us together at events, concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall, first night in the theatre district and her school’s programs. Marilyn’s friends and family, wondered when we’d get married or, at least, get a place together. Sometimes, they’d ask straight out.

“We’re just good friends,” I’d say.

Marilyn usually said nothing. What could she say? But that changed.

“It just seems like we’re spinning our wheels as a couple,” she told me.

It was more reflection than complaint. We sat across from each other in a booth at the Casa Di Pizza for a casual dinner. 

“Meaning what?”

That was evasive. I knew what and that it was coming eventually.

“Well, we’re not really going anywhere, are we?”

“Where do you think we should be going? I mean, is there something different you want?”

“We’ve been going together for a couple of years, Pete. My friends, my mother, everybody’s always asking when we’re going to take the next step. It’s not that I want marriage so much, but it’s like that Woody Allen movie where he says a relationship is like a ship, it has to go forward or it sinks.”

“Sorry. Give me a minute to adjust to the idea of getting relationship advice from a standup comedian, but what would marriage or living together get us that we don’t have now…”

The cool expression that swept her face surprised me.

“A commitment, Pete, a commitment,” she said, a little irritated.

“A commitment to what, exactly?” I asked too quickly.

The slide from there was slow but uninterrupted. At times, I sensed Marilyn was waiting for me to rescue us with a compromise. Only I knew that wasn’t going to happen, that it was never going to happen. I hated seeing how it hurt her when, bit by bit, our love affair flaked apart like dried out leaves. That was mitigated a bit by my knowing that I never mislead her. On one of our first dates, I told her I did not believe marriage was invented with me in mind and considered myself a damn poor candidate for fatherhood. Looking back now with insights I wish I had then, I can see that she might have passed that off as maneuvering by a man who preferred staying single until convinced otherwise, a strategy, a tactic with which the world was more flavored than I realized.

 

A complete chapter list can be found here.

Find Is It Always A Love Story and all of my other books on my Amazon Author Page.

 
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