It's not like I'm Catholic, or even religious. But this time I'm awake when the Madonna appears, so I know it's not a dream.
I'm playing the harmonica every morning—took it up when I started the life coaching business after my father died—a sort of meditation on the day ahead. You have to be relaxed in order to play and watch for tension in your face, shoulders, eyes and mouth, so I play in front of the mirror. The other thing is you have to do whatever it takes to make the note come out right, which might be different from one day to the next. So I'm playing the intro to "Piano Man," when I smell that spicy-floral fragrance again, and get this impression of blueness. And I see her but not really, right there in my living room. It's like her edges are blurred; I can't look directly at her.
I set the harmonica on the glass-topped coffee table and say, "Mary?" But it comes out "Mmmmm." I feel as if she nods, although I can't say I really see it. Then she fades, but I can still see her outline, a sort of transparent indigo, hours later as I straighten the house, pick up my e-mails at my home office in the comer, and talk on the phone to my clients.
When I say I saw the Blessed Mother again, I mean it's not the first time. The first time was in a dream, though, and that's different. I was exhausted from my old job, what they call a good job, with pumps and a briefcase and $50 mascara, helping executives take benefits away from their employees. I never set out to do that, of course. Just the opposite. They'd tell me what they wanted to do, and I'd tell them why it was a bad decision; they'd say, yes, it's what we want to do, we need to cut some costs so we can keep our advisors' salaries competitive, and I'd go out and buy a new watch. I had a thing for watches; I had, like, dozens of them. I'd bring back a plan for my continued employment, and, incidentally, a few other people's livelihoods significantly messed with. I didn't know how to stop the cycle.
Until the first time she appeared right after Pilates mat class on Saturday morning. The class was my second in a row, after muscle fitness; plus I'd jogged to the club, swum a mile, and done some stationary biking before class. The instructor had turned off the lights, and I was still lying there on my mat, dozing off. I smelled something spicy-floral and saw a vision of overwhelming blue. Then this girl appeared, like a beautiful but pale Italian. And I saw her age from a teen to a little beyond my age, but not…deteriorate. It was like she bloomed, her eyes becoming wiser and more compassionate. She was just about to speak when someone turned on the lights again. 11:10. I'd been asleep for ten minutes.
On my way home, I heard myself thinking: some losses are necessary and inevitable and constructive. I didn't know what I meant. The loss of jobs, insurance, vacation days, retirement benefits? I'd dealt in all of them, and helped craft messages about how all this sacrifice would help us all survive and thrive, the greater good, etc. I thought it was just my own words revolving in my head, haunting me. I window-shopped my way home, then I got the voicemail message from the Kane County Sheriff. When I called back they said that my father killed himself in his car off Highway 45. At approximately 11:00 a.m., right when I had the dream.
He'd shot himself right through the brain, the brain with the tumor I hadn't known about that would have gotten him later, and more expensively. He'd left a note: "To my daughter who has enough to worry about, I will love you always, Your dad."
My therapist at the time said I shouldn't believe his love for me, that his dying, a hostile act, disproved it. A colleague I used to have lunch with intimated that it was my fault for not letting him know that he was more important to me than all my professional worries. Dad used to be a union steward in his job at the cereal mill, which after all made someone like me, a management consultant, his natural enemy. He used to complain about time and motion studies and such. But he always believed me when I said I was trying to make things better for everyone. "Yeah, the union wasn't always on the up and up, either," he'd say. "You think they're gonna protect you from getting screwed, but sometimes it turned out they were just waiting in line for a piece."
My best friend Matthew, from the marketing department of my old job—I met him when I laid him off, and he was a good sport about it after I bought him a drink—was the only one who said, "Look, he was a practical guy. He hated doctors and didn't want you to watch him die. If he was hostile, he was hostile about having a disease, and who can blame him for that? Plus, I mean, hello—brain tumor. He wasn't in his right mind."
I didn't know what to think about it, still don't. My dad always used to say, "I raised you from a pup," just to make me mad. What girl wants to be compared to a dog? I never understood him. He was a flag-waving Democrat who stopped voting back in the '70s and I was a snotty Lakefront liberal who campaigned for Progressives. But I understand one thing since he died, and that's you don't get a chance to explain it after it's over.
I never really went back to work, although at first I intended to. I took a leave of absence—there was a lot to do. A lot of tasks, but also a lot of thinking. I cleaned up his trailer and moved in. In the process, I hired and fired seven therapists even though some of them probably helped me a fair amount. But reading poetry helps more. Rumi and Elizabeth Bishop, mostly. And I'm not religious, really I'm not, but the thinking became almost more like praying. Praying about how to live with this awareness that we're all just going to die. It seems so obvious, yet at the same time, so contrary to how people act and treat each other.
I didn't really think about the dream that much at the time, figuring I would have forgotten it entirely had this coincidental tragedy not occurred.
Then it turned out my dad had more money in his mattress than I had in my retirement account. So I had a decision to make. You know those people who always say that if they won the Lotto they'd keep their job and not make any major lifestyle changes? Well, that was never me, and I knew it. So I started this business to try to help people figure out how to live, crazy arrogant though that may sound.
Now I rarely leave my doublewide trailer at River Bluff Homestead Park Estates. I work from here, so I don't have to, so much, which is good, since I don't have a car. It's no mansion, but it does its job and somehow it blends with the environment. It's in a luxury trailer park, too, which is unusual. There are a few others, now, in places like Arizona, but this was the original right here in the exurbs of Chicago. People who haven't been to one still don't understand. But who wouldn't want to live in an actual private park? There's not really a river or a bluff, but there is a manmade lake—well, maybe you'd call it a pond—besides the trees and the barbecue pits, there's a swimming pool, mini-golf course and restaurant, a gas station, laundry and convenience store. Even a valet for dry-cleaning and packages, and a nail technician and hair stylist here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Dad used to say, "Everything I need is right here." There's a shelter for tornado warnings, so it's perfectly safe, and I keep up my insurance, so I don't worry about property damage, either. Everything's replaceable except your health and life, your time and integrity, is what I tell my clients.
The thing is, I like it here. It's Midwestern middle-class, and a good place to become middle-aged. The city is for young, aspiring, mobile people. Not downwardly mobile homebodies.
My neighbors figure I live off my inheritance, which I do, but I make a very good living. My dad was more active in the community: Chair of the Gardening and Landscaping Committee, tetherball champ, etc. My old business associates probably think I'm in a mental institution. I don't have much in common with the neighbors, and I don't wish to have anything to do with my former associates. My clients are my world.
The Park Estates management guy probably thinks I'm a phone sex operator, the headset my only visible means of potential support. I blush to say there are some similarities. Most of my clients are men, for one thing—I've always felt more comfortable with men—and they are looking for a connection they can't get anywhere else, someone unattached to the rest of their life, a little compartment where they can stick their tokens and receive sustenance. It's a well-known fact that most life coaches are women and most clients are men.
But I charge by the month, like a subscription, not by the minute. They get four forty-five minute calls for $800. That's my fee and I never waver. I read these coaching forums online and they say you can't charge that much, that no one will want to buy your services. Let them think that, I say. I only want ten clients at a time. That's two calls per day in a five-day week for $8000 a month. That probably sounds like an easy life, like some emeritus college professor. But just like that professor, I have skills and knowledge I worked hard to acquire and am compensated for the value I bring.
I use a pseudonym for my business. I have an 800 number and no one can trace my address. The only one who knows my true identity is the IRS—some people it doesn't pay to fool— and Matthew, who's not telling, which he figures gives him nagging rights. "The closet may feel safe, but it's stifling. The door is locked from the inside. There are chemicals in there that cause cancer."
When you think of it, the Mother of God had a good bit of explaining to do. Or rather, I guess she didn't explain, but neither did she hide. And, face it, that's what I was doing. I'd done it before, in other ways, worse ways, I liked to think, and I still was. "Shut up," is what I always tell Matthew.
But sometimes I think he's right; I should come out, lay my burden down. Say: I live in River Bluff Homestead Park Estates and I'm proud! Merge my identities. It takes a lot of energy to hide. But I'm just not ready. It makes me think of that late night comedian who died, the one with the hilarious motivational speaker character who lived in a van down by the river.
And I don't want to be a hilarious character.
"Would you rather be a tragic character?" Matthew likes to ask.
"Shut up," I tell him. He knows I already think I am; it's not a fair question.
So that night I invite him for dinner to tell him about the Mary sighting. I imagine it makes my neighbors happy to think I have a date. Matt could be a gigolo, I guess; he's vain enough about his looks. But I wouldn't be a part of his clientele, if you know what I mean.
The Park Estates restaurant has excellent takeout. We have Caesar salad, lasagna, and garlic bread. "The Virgin appeared again," I say.
"During nap time? Or were you into your dad's vodka cabinet again. Or—I know—post-vodka nap time!"
"None of the above, you heathen. I was sitting right here playing the harmonica."
"And there she was in the air." I look for her outline, but all I see is the outline of an outline, the kind you have to have seen something once to see again. It won't do any good to point it out.
"Well, she's got some kind of regular program playing at trailer parks, I'm thinking. Isn't there some schedule up on her official fan web site? Maybe you ought to link it to yours."
"Why, why do I tell you anything? I have no vested interest in this whole Mary thing. I'm not some lapsed Catholic, like you. I'm not even a lapsed Protestant."
"No, you're a practicing neo-pseudo-Buddhist whose liturgy is Sufi poetry and harmonica playing. But it's all the same mumbo-jumbo. It's good for the masses, keeps them scared and moral. Smart people don't need religion."
"I saw her. I didn't wish her or imagine her."
"If your mom were still alive and calling you six times a day, you wouldn't need Jesus' mom to come visit. Just saying."
My mother died when I was twelve. Of course I miss her, or I miss missing her, at least.
I sigh. "Cannoli!" Dessert is the nearest Matthew will get to a religious experience, at least with me in the room.
Matthew sleeps over, as usual, on the futon in the living area. It's a long drive and he's in no hurry, what with not having a job. I hope—pray?—that she reveals herself to him, the outline getting clearer, confirming my sanity or finding me company in my hallucinations.
I'd set my alarm to vibrate at 3:00 a.m. for a client in Belgium, so as not to wake up Sleeping Beauty. I pull my robe over my pajamas and slip on my headset over my ears and wait for the call to come in.
"It's early there, no?"
"Yes. How are you, Mr. Curias?"
Mr. Curias is an accountant for a cell phone company who is convinced he won't be allowed to advance because he is so good at his job.
I stay quiet.
"Are you there?"
"Yes. Go on."
"I feel stymied." A long pause.
I stay quiet. I can stand quiet longer than most people.
Finally, a word we can use. "Say more about that.…"
On his way out Matthew says, "It's okay not to be okay with living in a trailer park. And not believing in the Lord our Savior. Or, alternatively, believing in the Lord our Savior."
I wave goodbye and give him the finger.
"Is your boyfriend rich?"
I'm on my way to the laundry, the basket propped on my hip when I see her. She is pretty, sitting on the steps of the trailer next door. Pretty in the way most not very pretty young girls are, pale and delicate, but a little asymmetrical: a crooked tooth, one eye bigger than the other. And entirely too unspoiled, like cream so fresh it won't whip.
"He's not my boyfriend." But is he rich? He made $200,000 a year in his old job, but he's probably more than half that in debt, not even counting his mortgage. I asked him if he wanted help finding a job, and he said no. The debt scenario is even trickier. If he ever wants to work on that, getting out of debt is one of my spec-i-al-i-ties, but without an opening there's not much I can do.
"Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason. He looks rich is all." Her eyes go all dreamy and half close. "Like Jude Law."
I notice that under her white knit peasant blouse, her belly bends unmistakably; the child is with child.
She snaps open her grayish-blue eyes. "Not that you should judge people by how they look."
"But we all do, don't we?" I tell my clients not to confuse how things are with how they ought to be, to hold them in their mind as separate. And mind the gap.
"I guess. I guess it's worse when we don't admit it."
"So." I feel grateful for the grace she's given me and give her some back. "When's your baby due?"
"November. Thanks for asking."
"Well, good luck."
"Yeah, you, too."
"The girl next door is pregnant," I tell Matthew on the phone later. "I wonder how she got that way."
He sputters in response, then says, "Well, let's see. I can guess it wasn't by having sex with another girl. A toilet seat seems unlikely. And it could have been, but probably not, artificial insemination. I'm guessing a gay man didn't do it. It must have been what breeders do, that so-called natural thing…"
"Well, it could have been incest or date rape, or…stranger rape."
"That falls under the category, sorry to say. You can be perverse and still be completely natural, n'est ce pas? Besides, why would you not assume young love or lust?"
"I'm trying not to assume so much, anymore, I guess. Actually, she sounded interested in you."
"So much for not assuming. What'd she say: 'I want that man that left your trailer this morning?'"
Well, here's that opening… "She asked if you were rich. Like you're my Sugar Daddy."
"Sugar Daddy—I'm two years younger than you."
"A year and four months."
"Maybe she wants to sue me for paternity! And you said…"
"Well, she also referred to you as my boyfriend, so I corrected her. Matthew, if you ever want to talk about money, you know that's one of the things I do."
"Financial planning? Your talents are without end…"
"No. I help people transform their attitudes toward money."
"What's wrong with my attitude toward money?"
"What do you think is?"
"Nothing. Now if you'll excuse me, there's a bill collector on line two. Say hi to Paula Jones."
Never try to coach your friends. If I had any colleagues I trusted, I'd refer him, but I wasn't sure there was anyone who could help if he didn't want it.
The next time I see her, the girl, not the Lady, I am sitting on the deck of the still empty and covered swimming pool, writing in my journal.
She is wearing a black hooded windbreaker that looks too big for her, except in the stomach. "Can I play your harmonica?" she asks. She nods toward it on the glass-topped table next to my lounge chair.
Someone else playing your harmonica is a rather disgusting thought, you have to stick the thing all the way into your mouth, so I stall for time. "Have you played before?"
"Yes. I used to play all the time."
"Where'd you learn?"
"Your dad taught me. He lent me his harmonica, too."
Well, who knew? I hand it over. She plays "Amazing Grace," haltingly at first, then fluidly.
"Hey. You want to keep it?" I could find some other form of morning meditation. Do yoga or something like a normal person.
"Thanks! What's your name?"
I am about to ask her name but she jumps up and goes inside.
I tell Matthew, and he says, "Don't feed them or they might follow you home." And then: "Aren't there no-kill shelters you can send unwed mothers to?" And then: "You're lonely out there, aren't you, Pammie? But that's another one of your secrets."
I hang up. We have that kind of relationship.
That night I dream that Matthew and I are making love. When we wake up, in the dream, I realize the pregnant girl is our daughter and we are excited about becoming grandparents.
When I tell Matthew I had a dream he says, "Ugh. No one ever wants to hear anyone else's dream."
"Well I just thought since you were in it…"
"Really? What did I do?"
"Forget it—you didn't want to hear." I was embarrassed all of a sudden, anyway.
"Well, then I won't tell you my news."
"I met someone."
"You met someone! Who did you meet?"
"Get out! No. Come over and tell me all about it. I'll live vicariously through you."
"Tomorrow," he says. "I'm busy tonight."
Matthew and I never talked about this stuff. I wasn't dating since I moved here, and even before that I was sort of off dating. It was hard to meet men—you had to make a big effort. In my younger days there were girls who fooled around with men from work, but it seldom worked out. The guy usually moved on and the girl had to see them in the corridor talking about his fiancée. Or the girl would move on and the guy would stalk her or subtly get her in some kind of trouble at work. People even made remarks about Matthew and me, but I just insisted we were friends. I wanted to say "Hello, he's gay!" but I never did. We don't talk about that, either.
I decide to knock on the pregnant girl's door. I've seen her presumed mother, a woman who is probably younger than me but who I like to think looks older. My fantasy is that she's a hostess at a supper club on the highway. She doesn't seem quite unfashionable enough to be the coffee shop type, nor sleazy enough to be a cocktail waitress. I wonder what kind of health care benefits she has, and hope the girl is covered for her prenatal care and labor and delivery. And what about the baby? Unless she's giving it up for adoption. Do people still do that? I am holding all my harmonica reference works in my arms. I don't know if the girl has them, or needs them, but they go with the instrument—I don't need them anymore.
No one comes to the door. I set the books down on the porch and go back to prepare for my next client's call. But I think about the girl. I wonder what subjects she likes in school and what she plans to do when the baby comes.
I talk to the COO from Manhattan and the entrepreneur from Houston. We don't talk about business strategy as much as you might think. We talk about ways of being, mostly. "How did your body feel when you made that decision? Was there any tightness? Where?" I try to help them reconfigure their nervous systems. I wonder if it's like being a sports coach, strategy is the obvious thing, but being is more important. I never went out for sports, and probably neither did these guys. That's probably why they need me now, and probably why I need them, too. How did I learn to do this? I just took whatever I did in my old job and did the opposite. I don't even know if I expected it to work, at first, I was just desperate. I had to try to reverse all those years of doing what I finally decided was wrong. I threw away all my business suits and pantyhose and ordered an entire wardrobe from a company called Shhhh with the slogan, "You won't even know you have it on."
When Matthew gets here, brandishing a bottle of champagne, he says, "Her name is Wanda."
"The girl next door?" I am still thinking about her.
"Well, she usually plays more of a vamp."
"Her…type. As an actor."
"I told you last night. I met an actor. So yes, she acts."
"You're seeing a woman!"
"Do you have amnesia?"
"I thought you met a guy."
"What—for you, you mean?
"Matthew you're dating a woman? Since when?"
"I told you I just met her."
"But you said an actor!"
"That's just the PC term for actress, right? So they don't sound like bimbos."
"But I thought you liked men!"
"Who told you that?"
"No one, I just assumed…"
"Why? Because I'm fit and well-groomed?"
He was that.
No way. Well, only in that annoying, perceptive way, not in a tactful, gentle way.
"Witty, like that renowned gay spy, Bond, James, Bond?"
"Because I never evinced any interest in your fair bones?"
Damn, I'm a narcissist.
"You're my favorite person in the world. But you make all this money and have this great business, and you live on nothing, and I have no job and this financial problem. It seemed like a bad match."
"What kind of friend am I not to have known this basic thing about you? What kind of coach am I?" What kind of daughter was I not to know my dad had a gun and wasn't afraid to use it? Or coached harmonica, for that matter. I want my mother. And I burst into tears. The thing is, I haven't cried since about 1990. I really thought I couldn't, although I sometimes told myself that maybe I was so developed I didn't need to.
"Pam! You're a good friend. A great friend." He folds me into his arms.
"Sleep in my bed tonight."
I see the doubt flash across his face.
"I'm lonely. I promise I'll be good."
I expect it to be hard to sleep that way, all my latent gay Matthew fantasies fueling my new straight Matthew ones, but at least it's a distraction from all the other things I could be thinking about, how little I really know. I manage to sleep a little.
I wake up and he's still sleeping. I don't know what'll happen with Matthew, but I have things to do.
I tiptoe to my computer and pull up my website. I insert a paragraph in my bio with a link to the River Bluff Homestead Park Estates website: "Where I call home." It's a niche, a creche, a place to crash, as good as any. Later I'll talk to my neighbors. Someone here needs coaching. I'll discount my fee, barter, do pro bono, whatever. Come out and stay out.
Notes from the Author
I've been in various professional helping roles my entire career, and always felt ambivalent about taking those on given my own blind spots, as well as those of my colleagues. At the same time, I adamantly believe that everyone has a responsibility to be as helpful as possible both to others and to ourselves. This story dramatizes my ambivalence and my belief. As to the setting, my father briefly owned a trailer home he rented out and I always feared ending up living in it, reminiscent of Chris Farley's motivational speaker character in his van "down by the river."