Serializing my newest novel follows a remark by my friend, writer and fellow Binghamton, New York, native, Roger K. Miller. As I've mentioned before, the risk of reading a serialized novel is that you have no guarantee that it will be finished. I've wasted a forest or two on books that started, then stalled forever. If this is unsettling, please blame Roger.
On the other hand, you can read any of his excellent, nostalgic stories by clicking the link with his name above or take a peak at my own stable of books already finished and tucked between covers.
The Naked Man in My Car
Fifty years later in New York City, I paced the lobby of a Sixth Avenue tower, unsure that Alexi would really be able to deliver Dick in time for our appointment in Jersey. With no place to sit and nothing to do but pace the lobby, the phrase “deliver Dick” played in my imagination until it became funny.
Elegance was being elbowed aside with the advance of lookalike glass towers, but here, a pianist lifted notes from pop tunes into the high marble lobby. So, here I was in midtown Manhattan, listing to glistening Gershwin, laughing privately over delivering Dick.
Advised that Dick was as predictable as a butterfly, I’d mapped a strategy with Alex to get him downstairs to the lobby in time to stuff him in my car and get into a tunnel under the Hudson.
How Dick became the executive in charge of sales for a billion dollar a year international software company was a mystery. More unreliable by reputation than any businessman I knew, he must have had either magical talents as a sales manager or some serious drinking cronies. I was pretty sure it was the former and eager to get him to meet my biggest customer — a company devoted to tricking consumers into believing they drank beverages of better quality than they did — to close a big, end of the quarter deal.
Brought in under the cover of “intern” at the company’s local office, Alexi was more a gofer, learning little about sales while relieving the staff of the hard knocks of fetching their own coffees from the Starbucks across Sixth Avenue and ordering sushi deliveries. I recruited him for a more substantial task.
“I’m downstairs now,” I told Alexi, using our cellphones like walkie-talkies as we maneuvered.
“He’s in the men’s room now, washing up. He came in a little rough this morning. He says to give him five minutes.”
Ten minutes later, I called Alexi again.
“Where is he?”
“We’re headed for the elevator, right now.”
“Make sure he gets on.”
I walked across the lobby to position myself where Dick couldn’t detour out a side entrance. His reputation plus the fact that I’d blasted him in front of others a week before made me more leery.
But he smiled when he hustled around the corner.
“There you are!” he said, extending his hand for a happy shake. “Do you mind if we make a quick stop? I need to buy a fresh shirt.”
Two things occurred to me. First, his badly wrinkled shirt did need replacement. He looked like he’d slept sitting up in a chair in a room with air-conditioning. And second, since he hadn’t brought along enough shirts for his New York visit, he’d planned to duck this meeting. But I got him. He wasn’t going anywhere without me and my sidekick, Alexi.
“Where to, Dick? We’ll have to hurry, but we can still make it.”
Never sure of the bridge and tunnel situation between Manhattan and New Jersey, I always set aside some cushion. I could risk letting Dick eat up some of it.
“There’s a men’s shop on Fifth Avenue, just down from Bergdorf, where I always go. I can just run in and grab a shirt.”
“Great, we can head straight out to New Jersey from there. Let’s go get my car out of the Hippodrome.”
A week ago, in my company’s crowded conference room near Times Square, Dick turned toward me after introducing himself and talking us all through his mission.
“What do you think?”
He had just run through an intentionally disarming ad lib, a contrite confession of the ills he found when he took the position and his determination to improve sales performance, firing his team up to rescue his company from the collapse Wall Street expected. Rumors they were being sold to bigger, steadier competitors played out all the time and missed getting more ink because the company was considered too dull and stodgy to grab readers’ attention.
A joke circulated, playing off the crimson color of their corporate logo. Customers abandoning ship emailed images of Visine, Johnson and Johnson’s eye care product, for which the marketing meme was, “Get the red out.” Its executives were generally considered to be either clueless or angling the company for sale. As businesses dropped off, a sale became less likely. Eventually, a fire sale of corporate assets put it out of its misery, but as we sat there, a few years of pumping green blood remained.
Our owners, my bosses, looked at me. I’d fostered our relationship with Dick’s company. “A big fish in a small pond,” as one of my bosses put it. We’d made a lot of money from the partnership, but things were getting sketchy, drifting along on a falling wave dissolving uncertainly. Declining sales and an incoherent, constantly changing direction had customers, partners and employees throwing up their hands in disgust.
“I think your company’s all over the fucking place,” I answered, agitated after waiting to speak up, chewing my thoughts over and over in my mind. “We’re lucky if the strategy we’re trying to follow with your sales guys is the same or sometimes even similar from one quarter to the next. Forget about year to year. We never even know who’s going to be in charge and where the products are going. Everybody thinks your company’s positioning itself for sale, but nobody dares to buy it.”
Dick drew back a little, faked unconvincing surprise. Mike and Todd, two of our three owners, smiled behind his back. Bluntness is what they expected from me. I was free to say what they couldn’t, the unofficial loose cannon and hot head with a reputation too valuable to ignore. After letting the wounds settle a little, Mike and Todd could apologize privately, passing off whatever I said as well-intended, if painful.
“He really cares,” Mike would explain. “He just gets a little emotional. You know, he cares.”
Mike was right. I did. I cared about making the money I was making, more than I ever expected after spending most of my working life doing good deeds with nonprofits.
Employees are always tools, some more valued and effective than others. So many businesses are so sloppy and confused about why they unlock their doors in the morning, the truth is not widely acknowledged. Our company was a somewhat raucous, but unpretentious family operation. Truth was not so far from the surface. Our owners made sure I had money in the bank, and I did my part of pulling money in. A well-paid tool is a happy, effective tool, after all.
On the other hand, the fact that I felt like an observer from outer space in my pinstriped suit gave me a kind of immunity. No matter how concrete it seems, the whole universe of sales and marketing is virtual. Nothing’s as it appears to be. Lubricated with money, the machines stay on course, keeping the players busy on the road to nowhere special.
Dick in the front seat and Alexi in the back, I drove up Sixth Avenue to 58th Street, making the right turn toward Fifth.
“What are those signs on the light poles?” Alexi asked.
“Plaques they put up a long time ago to honor other countries in our hemisphere,” I said. “The used to call this the ‘Avenue of the Americas,’ but now that every other country, except our lap dogs in London, hates us, they’re letting the signs deteriorate to stay consistent with our international reputation.”
The Bush administration was now a universal joke, too painful to be taken seriously.
Alexi said, “Oh.”
Ahead, construction scaffolding for renovations on the Plaza mangled the street. I tucked my car into an opening I believed I could get away with near the corner. Across Fifth, filled with buses, cars, cabs, clusters of people, you could see the peculiar glass container for the Apple store and, to the right, FAO Schwartz, little one soaring, big one failing.
“Dick, if a cop comes and I have to move, I’ll be circling. Stay right here and watch for me.”
“Okay. I won’t be five minutes. I’ll come right back,” he promised as he hurried out the door.
I checked my watch. We had a little cushion left, which I expected to sacrifice to midtown traffic when we got moving again.
“How are you doing back there, Alexi?”
“I’m good,” he said.
Alexi had the back seat all to himself.
We talked for a while about his jobs before coming to New York, none of which prepared him for sales. A contact must have leaned on someone inside to create his internship. His useless internship, which fed him a little income while allowing the commissioned staff to pass more time on their asses talking about business they’d otherwise be conducting.
“Where the fuck is he?” I wondered aloud, a half-hour later.
“I don’t know. He said five minutes.”
“Some fucking five minutes. Do you think he might’ve booked on us, caught the bus from here or something?”
“He left his briefcase,” Alexi pointed out. It was still on the floor in front of the passenger seat. “He’s gotta come back.”
I called Mike who was meeting us in New Jersey.
“We’re running a little late. You might have to sweet talk them until we get there.”
“We lost Dick.” I suppressed a laugh. “Temporarily. Long story. He said he needed five minutes to run in and buy a shirt, a half-hour ago. As soon as he reappears, we’ll get rolling, but as of now, it looks like we’ll be a little late. How late depends on Dick.”
I didn’t muzzle my laughter, this time.
“Fuck,” Mike said. “Keep me informed, all right? Let’s just hope he doesn’t fuck things up completely. If he does, we’ll give him his dick in a bag, see how that works out for him.”
“Keep me posted.”
Fifteen minutes later, Dick hustled toward us, emerging from deep within the shadows under the scaffolding, a shopping bag at his side.
“They closed the store on me,” he explained. “I had to go into Bergdorf and find something.”
“How long has it been since you went in the shop that closed?”
“Five, six years, since back when I worked for IBM, right over there on Madison.” He pointed at the General Motors Building, where IBM had never been. “Great shirt shop.”
“Things change fast in New York.”
I made it through midtown traffic and down 35th Street much more quickly than expected.
“Clear sailing into the tunnel,” I told Mike. “GPS says we’ll be close to a half-hour late, but I can make up some time on the thruway.”
“Fuck,” Mike said.
He was already on the road, twenty-five miles ahead of us.
“I’m slowing down,” he added, “so we’ll arrive near the same time and look a little less like assholes.”
“Good deal. See you there.”
I hated the Lincoln Tunnel. I hated the Holland Tunnel too, but the Lincoln’s reputation was tainted with colossal, claustrophobic traffic jams, square, lusterless towers overhead, and pollution the Holland couldn’t hope to muster. At one junction, eight lanes with hungry drivers surging toward New Jersey are required to merge into a single trail before dipping into dense, bus-fueled carbon monoxide under the Hudson. This assumes traffic is actually moving, a condition certainly not guaranteed.
But, prayers answered, the flow into the tunnel was smooth today. In minutes, we popped out into the ridiculous helix whirling cars toward Jersey City, Weehawken and Hoboken.
“We just might make it, guys.”
Neither passenger responded. Dick started dialing on his cellphone as soon as we cleared the tunnel, and Alex stared at the awesome site of Manhattan, a cosmos in itself, crammed on that narrow island across the river, looking something like a realist’s Oz.
A few minutes of bliss were shattered by flashing signs closing off the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike, shunting us toward the Meadowlands without explanation.
“What’s up?” Dick asked, turning away from a call.
“Thruway’s closed. How the hell do we get to the shore from here?”
“Don’t ask me,” he shrugged.
“Me either,” Alexi agreed.
“Lucky to have a GPS,” I realized.
I quickly punched in the destination I’d been to before and a metallic woman’s voice began issuing stern, steely directions.
“Reminds me of my first wife,” I said, but neither Alexi nor Dick got it or didn’t think it was funny if they did. Stiffs, I thought.
My GPS ordered us onto the Garden State Parkway and racing south.
I called Mike.
“You’re not going to believe this.”
“They closed the entrance to the Thruway. We circled around to the Garden State and we’re clear sailing now. My GPS says we’ll be about a half-hour late, but I’m going to fly and make up some time on the road. You pay the fine if I get stopped.”
“Don’t get stopped. You’re late enough already.”
“I am at that.”
“Drive carefully, buddy,” Mike said, calming. “Just get here safe. I’ll think of something to keep the assholes out here occupied. Where’s my karaoke machine when I need it?”
“Keep smokin’, Mike. See you soon.”
Hanging up the phone, it hit me that I’d gone several miles on autopilot, paying little attention to anything but my call. I must’ve been in a bubble to avoid hitting something at seventy miles an hour. Or one of those alternate personalities I was beginning to suspect had grabbed the wheel as needed, then shrunk back through the membrane. Life was speckled with inexplicable bouts of weirdness only fools thought they could explain.
As we raced down the Garden State, I pulled up my strategy of tucking myself in between other speeders in the fast lane, using them as buffers between my car and the cops. They’d get the guy in front of me or behind me while I sailed through. Thirty years after my last ticket and many hours spent over the speed limit, I was convinced my strategy worked. Luckily, today’s buffers flew, escorting me unawares. My GPS ETA kept ticking down.
An impressive highlight easing the monotony of the road was Dick’s string of cellphone calls, directing sales traffic, sinking into tactics, cajoling, cheerfully congratulating. The man was a machine with many gears, each fluidly engaging or disengaging no matter what came before or after. Dick went from passing gear to reverse without blowing up his mental transmission.
When we eased off the highway, through the automated tolls and entered the endless suburbia of unmatched small businesses and chugging traffic that seemed to occupy most of New Jersey, Dick put his phone away.
“Can you make a quick stop at the next gas station — or anything?”
“I need to put this shirt on.”
He raised his Bergdorf bag to illustrate.
My immediate thought was that he planned to run inside, find a restroom and change, but Dick had a more efficient idea. As soon as I pulled into a generic gas station, he kicked Alexi out of the back seat and jumped in.
“Keep going,” he ordered. “Up front, Alexi,” he added because his intern was standing still, too perplexed to continue unaided.
I should add here that, although he was in his mid-twenties, Alexi was babyfaced enough to pass for ten years younger. This made me think of a joke. Come on, honey, I almost said. Come on up here and sit beside me.
Dizzyingly, as we merged back into traffic, Dick began to disrobe. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt.
“Praise the lord,” I said. “None of my in-laws live anywhere near here.”
Here I was, driving along in heavy traffic, a naked, middle-aged man in my back seat and a nervous teenager grinning next to me in front. Explain that one.
Before the security guard waved us into the parking lot in front of the administration building, Dick secured his tie without a mirror and looked about like you’d expect an executive to look first thing in the morning. Halloween is way to overt. Business apparel is costume enough to hide any anomaly.
A receptionist looked up and smiled as we burst through the door.
“They’re waiting for you!”
She pointed down a hall to our left.
In a conference room with the tech team, Mike wrapped up an anecdote by flinging his long arms wide in an exaggerated gesture of amazement. Mike had the warmest personality of any hyper-aggressive man I knew — and I knew a lot of them, then —magnetic and disarming.
“Glad you could make it,” he said, looking at Dick and me. “Your customer’s been wondering if you guys stopped off for dinner and a beer on the way.”
Laughter was universal.
I introduced Dick, who was able to impress them just by his title, lucky for him since he was a trippy maniac underneath his suit. Before we were done, he flipped on the magic switch, helping us cut a fast deal for tens of thousands of dollars with more in the implied pipe, and we all headed home like old buddies after a softball game.
Layers upon layers, I was something like a thousand miles from Kansas that day, as far as Dorothy was from sold out concerts at the Palace on Broadway, a long distance gone. I’d piled so much on myself I could barely see me in a mirror.
After dropping off Dick at a Hertz where he rented a car for rushing to an evening meeting in Philadelphia, Alexi and I rode back as darkness gathered against rush hour into New York. We talked little because we had even less in common. Guys like me have few places where they belong. The rest is just show.
I was preoccupied. Jodi was waiting for me at the vet hospital, holding our beloved cat in her lap, eager to carry him home after three days in the hospital. I was eager to see both of them.
By the time I parked in front, I’d have spent an hour honing in, searching without a spiritual GPS for the hungry adventurer tucked inside me, echoing my routine of eleven years.
“How’d it go?” she asked after briefing me on what the vet told her.
“It’s a carnival, but we made a lot of money today. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s so crazy.”
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