April 10, 2009

The Near Death Of A Salesman

The barbarians are coming.

He was in really good shape, except for the belly.  At home he could eat right, exercise, go to church, raise two sons and a daughter, but three out of seven days he was in a car or in a hotel.  Real life was on hold.  So the cheesesteaks, the corn chips, and the sodas belonged to a different reality, and when the doctor asked, "do you have a good diet?" he answered yes and he wasn't lying.

He didn't take any medications, the only thing he took was Lipitor and a blood pressure pill, that's it.  He had some Percocets for his back pain from a fall nine years ago, he got Xanax off the internet, he took one or two of those a day, but it was just to help him relax when he was traveling, he didn't really have a disorder so it didn't count.  Also Ambien.   He also had some Plavic or Plavix or something, but he didn't really need it, he only took it because his doctor didn't want him to get any more clots, but he hadn't had any clots for three years.  So.

Really, in real life, if he didn't have to work or travel, he wouldn't really need any of this stuff.  And this wasn't his real life, anyway, he was still planning his real life.  He was 47--  three years of youth left.  Three years to get his real life started.  Three years before he had to get depressed.

Drinking was part of that other reality, too.  He had a couple of drinks at business lunches, one or two before dinner, then some wine, a few more before bed; and yes, ok, he drank when he was at home too, a bottle of wine with dinner and a few vodkas with Letterman, but he was never sloppy, always in control.  He was sure his 12 year old son didn't know.  When the doc asked, "how much do you drink?" he truthfully responded wine with dinner.  The rest was not planned, he never thought, "I got to get some martinis into me."  So it didn't count. 

For twenty years, none of it counted.

And there were the women.  When he first met his then hot wife at a sales meeting, 20 years ago, they were young, making money, and sexually hungry.  They drank, they smoked, they were naked in hot tubs.  But after they had kids she "became" a prude; "became", in quotes, because he didn't actually remember the transformation; he just saw what she appeared to be, now.  The rest wasn't past, it was an alternate reality.  He hadn't forgotten that she had once tied for first in a bikini contest-- and what happened after; it was just a different reality. 

So yes, years on the road he had had some one night stands.  Come on.  They didn't count, they were not planned, he never thought, "I got to get some" and etc and etc.

Besides, the women he slept with were not as attractive as his wife.  But they looked at him like they knew he could dominate them, and that was enough.

II.

It wasn't that he didn't love his wife, or something.

His wife was a lot like him.  She was in sales and she could drink a good game, too.  But she had a more stable view of diet and so while he had the belly, she was still built.  But her face was gaunt: there comes a time in a woman's life when she has to choose between her butt and her face.  She chose.  Anyway, men didn't notice the faces of the women they wanted to sleep with, and certainly not the faces of the women they didn't want to sleep with. 

She never flirted, but it didn't matter.  The only salesman who wasn't trying to get her face down in Courtyard Marriott was her husband; the irony was that if he knew what other men wanted to do to her, it would have made him violently jealous and constantly erect.

But he didn't know-tice, because his wife wasn't real.  He didn't see his wife as a person with a past.  Or a future.  She was just part of his ongoing present.

Though he wasn't particularly interested in having sex with his wife, he was very interested in imagining sex with this wife.  His default masturbation fantasy was thoughts of his wife (20 years ago) in all sorts of sex with all sorts of people.  He didn't really want it to happen-- and he knew she would never, ever actually cheat on him-- but he couldn't help imagining it.  He tried to fantasize about other women, why not? but it always came back that adulterous slut in a bikini, or in white heels, or both.  His favorite fantasy was that they'd be on their honeymoon in Bermuda, he'd get drunk and pass out, and the couple they'd been having dinner with would take her out by the pool and work her over from both ends.

III.

His son's homework was: give four examples of why FDR was a great President.  His son had started a paragraph on how FDR got the country out of the Depression.   But he knew that a lot of the things FDR had done had actually prolonged the Depression.  He tried to explain to his son that news, and even schoolteachers, sometimes had a "liberal bias" but it was hard to explain what "liberal" meant to a 12 year old.  And now he couldn't  remember the specific mistakes Rush had said FDR made, so he tried to intuit what John Kerry might have done.   "He raised taxes on the rich, but that meant they didn't have money to build factories and railroads, so everyone ended up being poorer."

He fantasized about having his own radio show.  He'd be perfect for afternoon drive.  He could do a Monday segment where he'd round up news from Asia and talk about how they were taking American jobs; and on Fridays he could lighter segment called "Hollywood's Hoes" on how it destroying traditional family values. 

"Didn't FDR defeat the Nazis?" the boy asked.

"No, actually, he almost lost to the Nazis.  He didn't want to use the bomb because he was against nuclear war, see?  He kept wanting to go through the UN, which at that time was called the League of Extraordinary Nations..  Meanwhile, the Germans got away with the Holocaust.   It was only after FDR died that Truman-- or Eisenhower, I can't remember-- did what had to be done."  He could also draw, and if he could just get some free time he could definitely do political cartoons.  He imagined drawing Berlin and all the people running around in a panic-- "Evakuate! Evakuate!  Roosevelt bin kaput!"

What would be better than a political cartoon would be to recreate that in a sketch, like for  SNLThat would be hilarious.  He'd play a worried Hitler who schemes to steal FDR's body to resurrect him.  Why not? He could act, he had great timing, he was pretty good looking, yeah he had the belly but if SNL tapped him he'd go hardcore to the gym so that wouldn't even be an issue. 

If he could just get some free time, he could write them a pitch.

IV.

And then he had a stroke.

That's what his wife called it, but could he be driving across Oklahoma if he had had a stroke?  His balance was off, and his right arm was definitely weaker, but he wasn't slurring his words (only a little)  and he wasn't paralyzed.

His wife had noticed these things that morning and tried to take him to the ER, but he said NO WAY.   Finally she forced him to phone his doctor, who quickly set them both straight:  "you do realize this is the fifth time this month you've had some odd physical problem?"  They played golf at the same course.  "You're somaticizing.  Take a Xanax.  Stop drinking."

She pestered him, this was "serious", not to be "ignored."  Yet she had a detached tone, she was talking towards him, not to him.  How serious could it be if she wasn't really worried?  He didn't know that after twenty years of marriage it's easy to misinterpret not caring as not worrying.

But it was odd how he wrote his name with small, scratchy movements; how he couldn't grip a fork the right way.  How he raised his arm tentatively and unnaturally as if his shoulder socket hurt badly, though it didn't hurt at all.  How it felt like it wasn't his arm at all.

He had a friend who was a doctor, one he could level with, one who'd be straight with him.  He'd call him, get some real answers.

Well, he wasn't actually a doctor, he was a psychiatrist, but so what?  He'd know a stroke, right?  He knew him from college, no, he knew his wife from college.  No, wait: his wife knew his wife from college.  He had never actually met the psychiatrist.  But so what?  The wives were close.

He left a message, the psychiatrist called him back.   "Look, I don't want to waste your time, but my wife has been nagging me, you know how that can be..."  He explained his symptoms, and was very careful not to leave out any of the psychological aspects, the stress, yes, even the drinking, he wanted the psychiatrist to understand the complete picture, the complete man, so he could give a reasoned assessment, and if the psychiatrist thought he was nuts, well, all right then.  He told even told him he had slept with a stripper in Kansas... could this be a guilt reaction?  He just wanted the shrink's honest opinion, man to man.

"Ummm," said the psychiatrist, "I'm pretty sure you're having a stroke."

V.

He sat down.  Of course it was a stroke.  He had known it all along, but he hadn't wanted to  admit it.

A stroke.  Oh my God, now what?  He hadn't died, but he knew the weakness would be permanent, and every moment he didn't get treatment was risk of more weakness, more infirmity. 

All those things he had dreamed about, all the things he had wanted to to-- a radio show, golf pro, the novel, losing weight, going back to school to become a lawyer-- all those things would never happen.

He wouldn't be able to finally read The Federalist Papers with his son, wouldn't be able to learn trigonometry to help him with his homework; he wouldn't be able to wake up at 5am every day with his eldest son and help him train.

The stroke had taken all that away from him.  All he'd be able to do now as live day to day.

VI.

That evening, too drunk to work on a cartoon, he stumbled into his daughter's room, sat on the bed.  It crunched, he pulled back the sheets, there lay a spiral notebook.  Poems, song lyrics, quotations.  Kids still did that?  He wondered why.  He used to do it, too, because his parents were too self-absorbed to notice him in any meaningful way, and no one else would listen.   He remembered his block capital letters: THERE IS NO PAIN YOU ARE RECEDING/OUT OF THE CORNER OF MY EYE. 

On one page was a song even he recognized as being by T-Pain, or one of those guys, and next to it another song he thought he might have seen performed on Letterman, or maybe it was a poem, and she had written out all the lyrics.  His eye caught two stanzas:


Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

VII.

Three weeks later he went in for an MRI.  Nothing.  Ha.  The psychiatrist was wrong, what did he expect from a psychiatrist.  No stroke, it was stress after all.

Now there was no reason he couldn't do all those things he had wanted to do. 

He suddenly felt restless, confused; his face became serious with thought.  Night had fallen, and he was still alive, still healthy.  What was going to happen to him now?







Comments

Kind of interesting to thin... (Below threshold)

April 10, 2009 4:54 PM | Posted by G. Day: | Reply

Kind of interesting to think that, with regards to the excessive self-involution you call narcissism and narcissistic injury, that anything that does not completely shatter the whole solipsistic delusion just reinforces it. "That which doesn't kill you..."

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I had a Barbarians at the G... (Below threshold)

April 10, 2009 7:38 PM | Posted by Jacques: | Reply

I had a Barbarians at the Gates moment yesterday. I read a story yesterday in the Smith College student newspaper that glorified, I kid you not, a 15-year old high school student who intentionally conceived a baby with her 18 year old (abusive) boyfriend. The mother talks about how this has made her strong, how terrible "older" parents are, and how she dresses her little boy in girl's clothes. No mention that statutory rape was involved. I guess she was empowered or something. Then there is a second article about an adult student who is appealing Smith's decision to kick her off campus because her husband had a gun, ammo, and a few pounds of marijuana in their on-campus "family-style" apartment. Read it. There is narcissism. Then there is *this* narcissism.

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The stroke had taken all... (Below threshold)

April 12, 2009 3:45 PM | Posted by anona: | Reply

The stroke had taken all that away from him. All he'd be able to do now is live day to day.

Which he, and me and many do. He was forced to realize it's a forever thing now. Time's up. Too late.

Thanks for the post. Time to think a bit, I think.

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This is like Kafka, only be... (Below threshold)

April 13, 2009 4:35 PM | Posted by Whatever: | Reply

This is like Kafka, only better.

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This is fantastic. I've be... (Below threshold)

April 14, 2009 4:12 PM | Posted by Kitchen: | Reply

This is fantastic. I've been looking at it again every day since you first posted it.

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Thank you so much for this,... (Below threshold)

April 16, 2009 4:39 AM | Posted by Drew in SF: | Reply

Thank you so much for this, I think it is amazing.

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... odd, not many comments ... (Below threshold)

April 18, 2009 12:11 PM | Posted by Tenn: | Reply

... odd, not many comments on this post, despite it being one of the best things you've written. Maybe it was too long? But it is worth the time. Well constructed character sketch of the middle American narcissist, I assume soon to be optioned for a TV series? 8-)

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Having read and re-read thi... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2009 5:03 PM | Posted by Derek: | Reply

Having read and re-read this post I get it all the way to the end and that is where I lose it. Any clarity or comments on the songs in the daughters books? Thanks.

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It all makes me wonder, wha... (Below threshold)

April 22, 2009 11:16 AM | Posted by Joseph Bergevin: | Reply

It all makes me wonder, what is the ultimate reward to be gained by seeking power? What is satisfying about it? People need food and shelter and safety. People need friends and family. All of the elements necessary for a happy life are within reach of anyone interested.

It must be about recognition and popularity, but what are the benefits of that? Being popular gets you access to more people, but do you really want to deal with those people? Most celebrities flee them.

It could be about money, but then why restrict your methods of obtaining it to entertainment? Go get an accounting degree or start a business. That's not appealing, though, as it's less visible. It doesn't get you exposure.

It has to be about popularity, but what does that get you? What do you do with it? Is it just an end in itself, like proving you can run a marathon? Does it afford one security in knowing that there is a reason for people to like you? Does it alleviate anxiety by insulating one from criticism?

It seems as if fame is a delusional goal. People somehow come to believe that fame is important, and expected of them. It's seen as achievable, and inability to achieve it as a personal failure, making them unworthy of full respect and appreciation. Fame isn't about getting rewards, but alleviating anxiety.

Per your barbarians reference, actually achieving fame would be disruptive. Whatever personal/emotional catharsis people are hoping for while they chase it would suddenly have to be evaluated at face value were it caught. What then?

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Great post, reminds me of R... (Below threshold)

May 6, 2009 11:24 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Great post, reminds me of Richard Ford or Phillip Roth's novels.

Would love to read one about the 20-something Gen Y delusion.

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Thanks for the Twitter remi... (Below threshold)

May 14, 2009 12:59 AM | Posted by Matthew Platte: | Reply

Thanks for the Twitter reminder, although hardly a day passes that I don't retell this story. Usually to myself but occasionally to others. Seems like with you poking around inside my head so much I'd hear you breathing or taking notes or something....

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You people are missing the ... (Below threshold)

May 14, 2009 7:55 AM | Posted by AndrewAtor: | Reply

You people are missing the point. You are your own last psychiatrist. No one else is going to fix the problem for you. You have to do it yourself. Every time you tell this story to someone else you are actually telling it to yourself, but you probably never thought it could be interpreted that way.

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i loved everything i read o... (Below threshold)

May 15, 2009 10:11 PM | Posted by kate: | Reply

i loved everything i read on your blog up to this post, and i'll probably like the rest, but i think i should tell you (and most of the other commenters?) that this is a totally lame, uninspired amalgamation of "flyover" stereotypes that evinces a huge amount of contempt for people who fit its protagonist's profile. gosh, you mean aging baby boomers have unfulfilling jobs and marriages and self-medicate with food and affairs and prescription drugs? nobody really needs you to point this out, and it's all just anthropology unless you're demonstrating that you think it's a tragedy when people suffer this way - regardless of how much fun it is to demonstrate that you'd never make the same mistakes. just ew. that said, i really do love most everything else.

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I've been reading this blog... (Below threshold)

June 17, 2009 1:10 AM | Posted, in reply to AndrewAtor's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

I've been reading this blog for quite some time now and you just blew my mind. I need to go in the corner and think :-p

But seriously, my favorite post you have done since the post about the receptors and the fountain of rum. I'm not really sure how much this would actually change things if more people read this essay, but I can tell you I can't imagine anyone reading this and moving on without at least a brief pause of some sort.

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Wow! You should've called t... (Below threshold)

July 19, 2010 3:10 PM | Posted by Alex-5: | Reply

Wow! You should've called the post: "Your Life" ('Your' - addressing to the reader).

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This post gave me the chill... (Below threshold)

November 2, 2010 12:38 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

This post gave me the chills. I'm 21 and I've played every character.

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''What was going to happen ... (Below threshold)

February 11, 2011 12:02 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

''What was going to happen to him now?''

What is he going to DO now?


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OK. I've read enough of you... (Below threshold)

September 16, 2011 6:51 PM | Posted by felp: | Reply

OK. I've read enough of your narcissism posts to get a general idea, but there is something I don't really get, How is it that you always blame MALE narcissism? In which way is female narcissism socially desirable?
I don't get it doc.

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