Peter Takes A Job Selling Insurances and Loses Marilyn

"Is It Always A Love Story?" Chapter 9

David Stone

In Chapter 9 from Is It Always A Love Story? Peter takes a new job selling life insurance and can't prevent losing Marilyn.

Chapter Nine


 

“No Marilyn, this year?” Marge asked when I carried my coffee cup into the kitchen for a refill.

Last Christmas, I introduced Marilyn to Tim, Marge and Dad. Mark was on a recruiting assignment for the Navy in Alabama, Sally grounded with a baby in Tidewater with Arnie on a cruise, and Bobby in town that week but tied up with in-laws and old friends still living in Binghamton. 

Marilyn and I slept in her apartment on Christmas Eve and got up early to drive out of a windy snow squall. We pulled into dry, but very cold Binghamton around noon.

“Is there a law that says we have to get out of this warm car?” I asked when Marilyn parked behind Marge’s car in the driveway.

“Did you pack a lunch?”

We were going back the same day, no matter how late it got. No overnights for me, not here and, as a result, no Bobby or his family.

“You’ll just have to settle for the legend,” I told Marilyn.

Marge knew I wasn’t bringing my girlfriend, this year. Her question was a conversation starter.

“Yeah, looks like that’s over.”

“Too bad. I liked her. More coffee?”

“Please.”

She lifted the carafe from the drip machine and brought it over.

“Everyone likes Marilyn,” I said as she poured. “How could you not? No downside with her.”

“So, what happened?”

“Honestly? Echoes of Maureen,” I said. “She didn’t think she had any future with me.”

“Was she right?”

Marge sat down with a coffee of her own.

“Sure. You know that. I’m not getting married. I’m not going to have kids. It’s not for me.”

My standard explanation was universally unacceptable. I assumed, then, that everyone expected me to “grow out of it,” as they say, grow out of the damage done by Mom and compounded by Ginny. It had, as the family narrative went, already cost me a great girl in Maureen and, now, added Marilyn to the list of casualties. 

They were right about everything, it turned out, except the optimistic idea that I’d grow out of it. “It” was here to stay. Mom’s abandoning us and the aftermath inflicted a disability more prevalent than is commonly recognized and, when all is said and done, more damaging. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t compensate, even heal in time. I could learn to love, another cliche that made me grimace, not because it was true but because behind it burned a deeper insight. Ginny, before hollowing me out, proved that. But I wasn’t at all persuaded I wanted whatever it was to be fixed. Was the possible reward worth the existential risk?

What for? So, I could be an All-American dad, a nine to five guy with football and family weekends to stretch out? It wasn’t what worked for me. I’d gotten a feel for something else. There was no kitchen table anywhere in the universe where I could entwine my fingers calmly and explain it. It was only then starting to come together with intuitive coherence.

“Are you sure about that?” Marge asked.

I interpreted that code as: You’ll grow out of it.

I can tell you safely now, I never did. I kept migrating, all my fucked up life.

 

Marilyn wasn’t the only person whose eyebrows lifted when I announced my transition from wiper blade industry janitor to life insurance salesman. It baffled people who were too polite to ask out loud why “any guy with so much on the ball doesn’t do more with his life?”

That might have been the beginning of the end for Marilyn and me, a signal that I was not going to change directions in any fathomable way.

“I thought I’d try something new,” I answered her honestly.

Her lips tightened.

The answer was clear to me, of course. I was off to plunge into some new research. I was sticking my head into the gut of America and looking around, sort of like a spy. Literary espionage, I called it, but only to myself.

My mission now, which I chose to accept, was feeling my way around the hidden universe of life insurance selling. It didn’t come to me from any remote source. Janitorial work had run its course as a place to hide. It was a little too cloistered inside the Trico plant. I didn’t meet enough people. So, with money as no object — I was making more than I knew what to do with from my books — I took the first offer I got after searching in the classifieds, unaware that selling life insurance was the one job almost anyone could land. 

The human turnover I watched in the next two years made me think of my uncle’s baler. Churning teeth gobbled rows of cut wheat and compressed them into bales that thumped to the earth off the ass end. Most were DOA. A more common description of the recruiting technique was, “They throw a lot of shit at the wall and hope some of it sticks.” I liked that description too. It was pertinent.

But I learned more in my time at Bankers Eighth Trust Life than I expected. After I got over the horror of watching adult men being reaped and discarded or thrown like shit at a wall, I began to see the foundation of something transforming us. It was nearly invisible. The brutal onslaught of professionalism and stoic careerists was right in my face, too close to see it well, but impossible to ignore.

Norton Samuels, who preferred Norty, but was commonly referred to as “Snortin' Norton,” usually out of his hearing, welcomed me into his office with a hearty handshake.

Norton was big, broad-shouldered and a little flabby, although he fought to tuck it in. He sported a mustache, popular at the time, on his fleshy face. He had that powerful, energized aura that leaders who never give up have, sort of like a bulldozer without an off switch.

I’d been assigned to his team after sitting for a multiple choice personality test, during which I practiced my skills for acting out as a fictional character. I tugged on the pressed suit I hadn’t worn since Cal, Sr.’s, funeral and continuing the performance in an interview with Earl, the agency’s managing partner.

As soon as Norton let go of my hand and gestured me into a chair, he leaned way back in his own, cocked his head and asked, “So, you’ve been working as a janitor…?” with deliberate disbelief.

“Mr. Clean, that’s me…with hair.”

I wasn’t ready to give an inch until I better understood the territory.

“But you’re a veteran, right? You were over in Nam?”

The war had come to its disastrous close only a few months before, the wound still raw in some places, but not in Norton’s office. For him, it had always been the right, American thing to do, and vets were always welcome. He was one of those guys who, thirty years later, still claimed that we won something or other in Southeast Asia.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” I said. “I got out alive.”

He looked at me, expectant.

“It’s behind me.” I flicked my hand beside me ear. “I don’t talk about it.”

I guessed at the cliche-fueled calculations whirring behind his forehead: the emotionally damaged vet staggers home, works a bum job to get by, trying to hide his feelings behind a routine…

“You’re not married…?”

“I’ve been able to resist the temptation.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Great girlfriend. She’s a school teacher — Marilyn. She’d like to, you know, but I’m not into it, not yet, anyway.”

“Good for you. What are you, 26? Fuck around for a while yet. You’ll have plenty of time to sleep next to the same pussy every night, later on. Sometimes, I wish I waited, but what the hell? I got a great wife — you’ll meet her — and three terrific kids. I’m glad I traded it in for what I got now. But…” He smiled, nodding, “I wouldn’t have minded a few more strange pokes before I settled down. Ah, too late to worry about that now. Had breakfast…?”

“Yeah, before I came in, I…”

“So, let’s go across the street for some eggs. I’m buying.”

It was the most peculiar thing with the sales managers I’ve known, most of them anyway: they lack the gift that makes for great sales people. They don’t listen to anything worth a shit.

“Poor listeners?” Marilyn asked when I was sharing an anecdote or two.

“That’s how a cultivated person would say it.”

Norton was quick and direct with the nitty-gritty, not so much about selling but about workplace dynamics. In the 1970s, our organization was transitioning from an older idea of insurance as a service with a lot of paperwork and accounting to one that floated on a sea of intangible sales opportunities, seeding the concept of insurance as investment. Some genius realized that, once intangibles got into play, you could sell almost anything as long as you had a catchy name for it because, as the world turns, you weren't really selling anything but symbols. Symbols could stand in for anything.

My new boss saw sales as more esteemed than the fading conventions. He was committed to what he believed was the cutting edge of the insurance business, a marketplace once bogged down by actuaries and pluggers going door to door, now being set free by new style “insurance men.” If you referred to yourself as an agent, he scowled.

“Wouldn’t you rather be successful?” he repeated.

“Sure.”

“This country was built by salespeople,” he confided, “not order takers.”

To Norton, a passionate patriot, it was an honorable profession. It went right to the heart of our national pride. I doubt the concept, that salespeople built America, originated with him, but it got inside him like a progressive virus, like syphilis with nicer symptoms.

Within our agency, the dichotomies were distinct and rubbed raw by the swaggering that earned Norton his Snortin’ designation. In those days, I should mention, snorting referred to bulls, not coke heads.

Earl divided our agency into four teams, two populated with representatives, like me, and two offering desks for the traditional debit agents who took pride in having drummed life insurance into community consciousness. Debit agents were transitioning too, escorting families from a system where they plunked down a dime or so a week for endowment policies that built savings to insuring Dad’s income in the event of his “premature demise” — and paying in advance instead of in installments.

Debit agents wove themselves into Buffalo’s immigrant communities, going door to door with collection books, part of the neighborhood, like the grocer and the pharmacist. Collecting, they took time to gossip and exchange family news before walking up the sidewalk to the next building where they’d repeat the process. 

Neighborhoods were becoming quaint ideas in the 1970s. I remember how easily it fit when Carole King sang, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” It felt like they didn’t and changes came too fast. Kids especially seemed eager to get out into the broader arenas of American culture, yanking up roots and making the feast ever more movable. 

With neighborhoods disappearing, so went the fabric-threading need for the likes of local groceries, shoe repair shops and debit agents. What happened to them was symptomatic of what was happening all across America. It wasn’t as if nobody saw it coming. Vance Packard covered it in bestsellers. Most seemed happy with moving on, breaking ground, shedding routines as the American way. Some nostalgia lingered for front porches and sidewalks, but the suburbs sucked in escapees like they were sliding down a chute. What was once the core of the nation became its embarrassment.

Norton found debit agents distasteful, human anachronisms that couldn’t go away soon enough. Animosity floated around like a backward air freshener, in spite of Earl’s efforts to neutralize it. After all, he was overseeing the vaporization of debit agents. Unlike Norton, he found no pleasure in ramping up the discomfort.

“You know what he said tonight?”

I’d met Marilyn at a bar in her neighborhood after work, for beers. I was having a burger too, but she’d already eaten. It was late for dinner, nine or so, and in making time for me, she’d probably also grabbed a nap.

“What did he come up with this time?”

“He went out with me on an appointment and helped me close a sale, a pretty good one, too. So, we get back in my car, and as we’re driving away, he says, ‘What a fuckin’ country, huh, Pete? What a fuckin’ country… You go out and work for one hour and earn a hundred bucks. What a fuckin’ country…’”

“What a fuckin’ country” was so common, I learned, it was an inside the agency joke.

Leaving a toilet stall, one of the guys, Marty, saw me washing my hands. He tugged at his belt. “What a fuckin’ country, huh? You have bacon and eggs and take a shit in the same hour. You can’t do that in Soviet Russia.”

“What a fuckin’ country,” I agreed.

Another time, more tense, one of the new guys had a noisy confrontation in Norton’s office before steaming off for good.

Murray, who could get away with it because his sales exceeded the rest of ours by a mile, looked up from his desk.

“What a fuckin’ country,” he said. “You start a new job and get your ass canned in the first week, no money coming your way. What a fuckin’ country, huh, Pete?”

I didn’t echo him because I was still new and unestablished.

“So, why do you want to work for a guy like that?” Marilyn asked. 

“I didn’t pick my manager. I got assigned.”

Marilyn knew something was missing. You could see it in her face. It was as if she stepped back while staying exactly in place.

What if I said, “Look, Marilyn, I’m only fooling around here. I’ve got more money than I ever expected to have, safe and sound in the bank. I need the job as way to sink my teeth into the world and learn…?” What if? What if she realized I’d been deceiving her about my life for a couple of years, and she’d been spreading her thighs and sharing her secrets with a partly fictional character all that time? Given how kind, open and trusting as she was, I imagined she’d feel betrayed. She’d be right.

I always reached the same conclusion — that there was no way I could ever tell her the truth. The make-believe had gone on too long, and my secret life was so well hidden, she would never figure it out on her own. That was the main reason I never stepped out of the shadows, even when I no longer felt as much need to separate things. I knew it would hurt her, more so than breaking up did because it left her able to move on without having her universe flipped on its back.

She called me on a Saturday morning. We had vague plans for doing something later, vague because we almost always did something on Saturdays but hadn’t wrapped an event around it yet.

“Good morning, honey, how are you today?”

“Really, really tired,” she answered.

“How come? Tough time sleeping…?”

“Impossible time sleeping. It’s been a few days… Listen, I have to tell you something. You’re not going to like it.”

“Try me.”

“I have to break up with you,” she said.

“Why?”

“There are a lot of whys, Pete. The main one is that I’ve met someone else, a guy at school I’ve known for a while. You probably met him… but anyway, I need to make a change.”

“A change…?”

“You know I do. We’ve talked about it so many times.”

We hadn’t talked about it much because I dodged the conversation whenever I could. Other than letting her get away, I had no solution. I wasn’t going to tell her the truth, and without the truth, no change was going to get her what she needed.

“I’m sorry, Marilyn. I wish things were different… I don’t know what to say, except I wish you wouldn’t.”

I waited, leaving the door open for her to poke some blame through, but Marilyn was above the petty stuff. No assigning blame with her. It was just a sad moment.

“You say, ‘Good-bye,’ to your family for me, okay?”

“Okay.”

We saw each other a couple more times, to exchange clothes and personal stuff, toothbrushes and records, we’d left in each other’s apartment, and I ran into her about six months later at a singles bars on Elmwood.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” I shouted into her ear, getting above the rock music.

“Pete! Hi!”

She wrapped her arms around me. That should have felt good, but my heart broke in a way I wanted to avoid.

“So, what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

“Trying to avoid guys like you…”

“Touché.”

“Just teasing…”

“It’s great to see you. How’s school?”

“The kids are worse every year, but we keep pushing them along the conveyor. How about you? Still selling insurance…?”

“What a fuckin’ country, huh, Marilyn? You work some place a year and a half and want to get out as soon as possible.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s next?”

“Hmm… I always wanted to be Ambassador to France.”

“Parlez-vous français?”

“I’m not sure. Around ten, I think…”

She laughed, at ease with my not so funny, but unexpected jokes.

We ended our conversation before the sea level rose enough to float us, both of us seeming to know when it was time to back away.

“My family was right,” I told her in a note I mailed the next day. “I lost the best girl I’m ever going to find.”

Marylin never wrote back, although someone called and hung up when I answered a couple of days later. If it was her, she made a smart decision.

What a fuckin’ country, huh?

 

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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