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.


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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?