I’m what you call an optimist. Keep an open mind, I always say. And count your blessings.
So, after my photography business failed last winter, I woke up one morning and remembered the kid that sold us our water heater and thought, why not? I can do that as well as he does, better even. The gas company happened to be hiring, and here I am. It doesn’t bother me that I’m older than most of the sales staff. I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt. I’ve been around the block, you’d say, which makes me good at my job, because I know what it’s like to have to count your pennies and balance out competing demands. I’ve got four kids, and they all want something all the time. These guys and gals I work with are still wet behind the ears and figure the homeowner is going to go high-end if they’re pressured enough, but that’s not how people work, is it? People like a fair, honest deal.
Starting over in life is never easy. I tell the wife we’re going to be okay, we won’t lose the house, no one’s going to starve. The photography business wasn’t the first wall we ever hit. I used to work on an assembly line, then the company outsourced everything overseas right after our second was born. My wife was working as a paralegal in a big firm downtown, and my being unemployed hit her hard. It’s a scary thing, being the sole breadwinner. She hated her job, though she was good at it. The lawyers were creeps and she deserved better. I took a loan from my folks for the photography business because I always liked taking pictures and figured combining an interest with needing to make a living would work out great. And it did, for about a year and a half. We got overextended on our credit cards, and had to consolidate our debt, which helped, but at the end of the day there was more money going out than there was coming in, and I had to close shop. That was rougher on the wife than the first time.
One day, she calls and says to come get her. Her hands are numb, and she’s scared. I ran her over to the doctor and he squeezed her in. She checked out fine physically, but couldn’t work after that, or do much around the house. Good thing is the kids are more or less able to take care of themselves. They’re real troopers. Keep up on the chores. Even the youngest, at eight, does her share. She’s the best at cheering my wife up. What I’m saying is, my wife suffers from depression.
I’m happy to say I have a knack for selling furnaces and water heaters. I’m practical and mastered how to calculate how many BTU’s you need for the square footage you’ve got to heat. Where hot water is concerned, that’s a function of how people are in the house. A couple that is ecology-minded can get by on a forty-gallon tank. A family of four, I like to put them in a seventy-five or even a one-hundred-gallon tank. We don’t carry the on-demand water heaters; I wish we did. They’re the future, believe me. No more water sitting around in a tank, getting ready to rust out the bottom and flood the basement, though of course when that happens, it’s a chance go to make a sale.
Filling out paperwork is trickier. The first mistake I made had to do with how the furnace was going to be vented. I wrote a contract for a direct vent when the existing venting went up and out, not through the wall. Janet, the evil queen of Operations, wasn’t too nice about it. She has a reputation for telling it like it is and then some. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. She said the installer probably would have caught it when he got onsite but we don’t rely on probably. We do things right, okay? Okay, I say. Absolutely.
The next thing I flubbed was calculating the monthly payments. There’s an app in my phone that does it for me, but if you put in the wrong price or loan term, you get it wrong. Janet scrutinizes all contracts and sends them back like a boomerang if the littlest thing is off. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s money we’re talking about, and you don’t want to rip someone off, or worse, rip the company off.
Given Janet’s crusty exterior, it’s no surprise people don’t try to socialize with her. At lunch she sits alone with a crossword puzzle, and picks at whatever food she brought from home. If the cafeteria is crowded, you might have to steel yourself to join her table and get rewarded with a deep freeze. One day, it’s my turn to have nowhere to park it, so with my tray in hand, I mosey on over to the empty chair across from her.
“Is this seat taken?” I ask. She looks up over her smudged glasses and asks for an eight-letter word meaning dead.
“I knew that. I’m just testing you.”
“And if I didn’t pass?”
“You’d have to eat your lunch somewhere else.”
“That would be a crying shame. This meatloaf can’t wait.”
The cafeteria here is pretty darned good, I must say. Surprisingly so. They’re reasonably priced, too, but even so, given how tight my budget is these days, I usually do like Janet does and bring something from home. I make an exception when I see meatloaf on the menu. And barbecued chicken, though it’s messy and I tend to drop sauce on my tie.
I eat and don’t talk. Janet eats and doesn’t talk. She’s works on her puzzle.
I ask if she’s got anything special planned for the weekend since the weather looks like it’s going to be beautiful. She taps her pencil on the table and says, “No, not really.” She fills in some squares then says, “My son is supposed to stop by.”
“That’s nice. What does he do for a living?”
“Still weighing his options, eh? Ah, to be young again.”
“Come on now, Janet. You don’t look old enough to have a thirty-six-year-old son.”
“Knock it off.”
I don’t say anything after that, just clean my plate like a good boy and go back to work.
That night I’m met at home by Kim, my twelve-year-old, who says she made dinner, they all already ate, and she saved me a plate. I’m bone tired. The last customer I called on was a real pain. Plus, I had to get into their crawl space to see if we could run new ductwork. The company gives me a sporty pair of coveralls to put on but even so, I’m not a fan of spiders and other creepy crawlies. The guy had clearance, but he just didn’t know if he wasn’t to convert from electric, even after I tell him how much money he’ll save. I don’t mention any of this to Kim. I just let her take my briefcase, which she really gets a kick out of for some reason and say I’m hungry as a bear.
“Mom didn’t come down again,” she says. She has her mother’s eyes, only the worry they show is minor compared to Lisa’s.
“Did you bring her something to eat?”
“Yeah. She didn’t want it.”
“Okay, hon. I’ll just pop in and say hi. Leave the dishes for me.”
On my way upstairs the sound of music coming from Barret’s room makes me want to bang my head against the wall. He’s fourteen, our eldest, and grew a Teflon shield in the last year that protects him from parental requests, comments, punishments, everything. But I knock on the door, go in, turn down the volume, say hi, how was school today, and tell him to please use his headphones. They weren’t cheap, but I don’t say that. He hates it when I talk about money.
Lisa is in her bathrobe, propped up in bed with the lights out, watching television. Her tastes recently changed from home improvement shows to animal documentaries. When I ask why she doesn’t like the house shows anymore she said it’s because she hates ours and we’ll never have the money to fix it up. I knew she wasn’t crazy about our place, but I didn’t think she downright hated it. Okay, it’s not brand new, the windows leak air and the carpet’s a sight, but the bedrooms are big, which helps since the younger girls need to share, the lawn is deep and nicely shaded in summer, and the living room has a great big brick fireplace, perfect for hanging stockings. The kitchen’s not great. It’s small and dark and the appliances are about thirty years old but one thing at a time, I always say. This gig with the gas company is going to work out just fine.
I sit down on the bed next to her and it takes a little minute for her eyes to find my face. She turns off the volume and asks how my day was and how many furnaces I sold.
“Two. And about to close on a water heater,” I say. She gives me a zombie thumbs-up.
“You didn’t eat,” I say.
“Those pills kill my appetite.”
“Are you taking them?”
“Lisa. Are you taking your antidepressant medication?”
My tone of voice gets her attention. No Teflon shield for her.
“There’s no point,” she says. When she reaches for the remote control lying by her side, I take it and hold it out of reach.
“This is the point. You, here in this room, letting Kim do your job. Come on, sweetheart, things are getting better, why can’t you see that?”
She looks at me and I don’t quite recognize her for a second. But it’s the Lisa I know, and love returns to the world behind her eyes.
“Come downstairs. Keep me company while I eat. Maybe you’ll have something, too. I could fix you a sandwich,” I say.
“I’m not hungry. You go. I’ll be down in a bit.”
But she never shows up. I knew she wouldn’t. I eat, do the dishes, check in on Tracy and Jill, ages nine and eight. They’re lounging in their bunk bed, playing on their Gameboys. “Lights out in ten minutes,” I tell them. After a brief protest I say I’ll make it fifteen if they promise to brush their teeth without squawking about it. Tracy heads off down the hall for the bathroom. When she’s gone, Jill looks down at me from the top bunk and asks, “Dad, when’s Mom going to be normal again?” I don’t make up anything like I used to, I just say she’s doing better every day and I bet by the time school lets out for the year she’ll be back to her old self. My words bring comfort because I’m a good liar and Jill has a young, honest heart where lies haven’t dug in and soured her on everything.
That night I drop off pretty quick as usual, but I wake up later and find Lisa’s side of the bed empty. I wait to see if she’s in the bathroom but she’s not. I get up and pull on my bathrobe and go downstairs quiet as a mouse to find her sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, smoking a cigarette. I didn’t know she’d started again, so I ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing.
“What’s it look like?” she asks.
“Put that out.”
To my surprise, she does, using a little saucer she got from the dish drainer.
I reach out and she removes the cigarette pack from the pocket of her bathrobe and gives it to me. I put them in my own pocket, to throw them away in the morning, in the bin outside so the kids don’t see them in the waste basket.
I sit down and take a few deep breaths. I tell her I’m sorry her life didn’t work out the way she wanted. I say I’m sorry she felt so rotten about everything she had to quit working and then found out what a lousy provider I am. I tell her I made a mistake thinking I could run a photography business. The only thing I ever seemed any good at was putting cars together on the line, but we know what happened to that. I don’t mention how good her salary was, or what it feels like to think she threw it away because she was unhappy. People do all kinds of things when they’re unhappy, like get up every day, go to work, and talk to prospects on the phone who treat you like an idiot or worse. I tell her I need her on my side and remind her that we’re in this together. I tell her I love her, always have and always will. But I can’t do this alone. I just can’t.
“I know. I’m sorry,” she says and I see that she truly means it. I tell her we should turn in now because I have to be up in a couple of hours with a full day of sales calls to make.
Friday goes by. I get my first commission check and it’s not bad. When I get home, Lisa’s dressed and at the kitchen table with a magazine while Kim makes dinner. I tell Kim to stop what she’s doing and we’ll call in for a pizza. She puts the pan she was using to boil water in the sink. When the pizzas come—one plain cheese, one with extra pepperoni—we eat in the dining room like a normal family. About nine minutes later, the kids take their plates out and disappear. I ask Lisa if there’s any wine in the house and she says I know there’s not. “Hang on just a sec,” I say. I go to the garage and from my car, I get the bottle I bought on the way home.
Lisa loves wine, I love wine, and we gave it up when the money put us in a stranglehold.
We drink and the mood lifts. We’re cheerful and light and talk about nothing much. We hear the kids upstairs doing this and that, then they’re all downstairs in the family room, arguing about what movie to put in and watch. Seeing us the way we’re supposed to be lets them be the way they’re supposed to be.
I pour us some more, lift my glass, and toast to our future. Lisa doesn’t lift her glass. She says she wishes things could always be like this.
“That’s the plan,” I say.
“Plans never work.”
“Sure, they do.”
She doesn’t have to say anymore. I know what she’s talking about. Of all the things we said we’d do, having kids and buying this house are the only things we can tick off the list. I say we’re still young, there’s lot of time.
“Time has a way of running out,” she says and then weeps.
“Honey, don’t. The kids.”
She takes herself upstairs as quiet as she can and I’m pretty sure the kids don’t notice. She stays in bed the next day, and all day on Sunday, and on Monday before I leave for work, I call her doctor and say things can’t go on like this. He asks if I think I can get in for an office visit. “I don’t know,” I say, “but I’ll try.” He asks if she’s eating, and I say barely. Is she bathing? Dressing? I say not for a couple of days now. He says a different approach might be called for, one involving an in-residence option. He wants me to check our insurance and get back to him.
I hate leaving her like that, but I have no choice. The kids get home around three-thirty and know to call me right away with an update. I call, too, every chance I get.
I’m wiped out but soldier on. A customer from the week before decides to go with the higher-priced furnace; another backs out of the deal for the water heater I spend a good half hour praising. I write up the furnace contract and run it over to Janet’s desk but she’s not there. Early lunch, probably, and since my appetite bells are ringing, I head to the cafeteria with the bologna sandwich Kim made me. She put a nice pickle in the container, too, bless her.
There are lots of places to sit but I go to Janet’s table. I don’t feel like eating alone today. She’s got her crossword puzzle out but she’s just staring at it. At her elbow is a full cup of coffee. I can tell she hasn’t had any because there’s no lipstick mark on the rim. I say, “Hey, there,” and take a seat. She says nothing. Okay, I think, have it your way.
And then I see a tear in her eye. At first, I think maybe she’s got spring allergies but no, it’s a tear, all right.
“So, how was your weekend?” I ask.
“That good, eh?” I ask.
She stares at me. Her face looks hard and crumpled at the same time.
“My son’s an addict,” she said.
“Got out of rehab, came by to say hi. Shot up in the powder room. OD’d. They took him to the ER. He’s okay, for now.”
“Nothing good about it. He’ll never quit using. It’s just who he is. I tell myself I’m used to it, but I’m not. Every time is like the first time.”
My pickle looks sour. I don’t eat it.
She says he’s been arrested, gone to jail, even did a stint in rehab that wiped out her saving. She’s done everything she can. Nothing works. One day, they won’t be able to revive him and that’ll be the end of it, but not for her. It’ll never end for her.
Janet wipes her eyes. She stares at her puzzle.
“I’m real sorry,” I say.
She puts her hand around her coffee cup and doesn’t lift if off the table.
“Sometimes life strips you right down to the bone. Know what I mean?” she asks.
“No, not really.”
But I do.
Right down to the bone.