My health was failing. That was the first thing. At times I am only as good as my medicine. What you take from each day and what you give there's a saying about this somewhere. But, my health was failing, and I found it harder and harder to believe in continuance. Which is a bad way to run a life, much less a business. The business was in trouble, too. That was the next thing.
A human being works about as well as any common cheese grater, that is to say, not very well at all. Spending too much time worrying about the simple mechanics of the body can take you from the path every time. If path you seek.
I was seeking only one path. To riches. I wanted as badly as I had ever wanted anything for this business thing to work out. I put all my money into it. I put all my time into it. When friends said, Joe, you gotta get out, you gotta start dating again, I smiled my rueful smile, promised them that I would try when things calmed down. Things never calm down. I didn't want them to calm down. I wanted to work my ass off and have it pay off in enough jack so that I could rest, rest atop the success I felt was my due.
There are worse ambitions. I've seen them. I don't make any apologies for my ambition. I only wanted to succeed so that I could not worry about succeeding anymore. This is an obvious formulation, perhaps. Perhaps you are smiling, wishing me ill. I am ill.
The first sign that things weren't right, mechanically, was a small thrum in my chest, like a bird's heart beating above my own. I could put my hand there and feel it. If I weren't alone all the time I could have had a witness to this odd body anomaly. I could have asked someone else to put their hand on my chest. Not that I doubted the evidence of my own senses. I am not neurotic, only unwell. I am not moonstruck.
Only unwell. In that "only" there is no salvation. To be unwell is to be outside the human ken. People say, "Well, at least you've got your health." You hear people say that. I don't have my health. And I don't have the riches that all my hard work was supposed to garner. Lemme tell you about that.
I am not a businessman. I don't have a businessman's head. What I have instead is drive, blind purpose. I thought I was led to think that this was, in America, the secret to success. It is not. I refute the American Dream. What I did, what I thought I was supposed to do, was to find a gap, a lacuna in the average person's lifestyle, something that was missing. I found that thing. It is not important here to describe the thing, to delineate exactly what I thought no, what I knew was missing from the average person's lifestyle. But, having found that thing, the next step was to find a way of providing it. I found that way.
I could provide the thing missing from people's lives. Does this not smell like a formula for accomplishment? It does. Even now, it does.
I then found people to surround myself with who could help me provide this thing. People smarter than me in business. I took this method from politics. If you look at the string of presidents we've had in recent times one thing stands out. They're not very smart guys. Why do we elect not very smart guys and spurn the intellectuals when we go looking for someone to captain this Gargantuan Ship called America? I don't know. But I do know that these not-so-smart guys surrounded themselves with smarter folks. They had and this is the modus operandi I was emulating brain trusts. I built a brain trust.
You know some of these people. Some of these people are in the news often. They are that smart. I will talk only about one in particular.
Her name was Anne Cooper. She graduated Harvard Summa Cum Laude. I think I know what this means. It means she's smart as a minister's horse. Anne is, also, it must be said, one of the most strikingly attractive women I've ever known. She is not beautiful, not classically beautiful. She is attractive. Something about the curve of her cheek, the slope of her nose, the tilt of her eyebrows, the curtain of her hair it all works together. She drew men the way the moon draws the sea. And she had many suitors.
Yet she rebuffed them all. She turned them back as if they were bill collectors.
Soon the talk was that she was my mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had no mistress. I had no time for a mistress. What needs I had I took care of myself. This is not uncommon in business, I believe. I worked 12, 14 hour days. I worked 16, 18 hour days. I slept and ate when I had time. This is called determination. Kindly put.
Then my health began to fail. This is when I first began to notice the small emergency system in my body setting off alarms. The thrum in the chest. The pain in my left bicep. The dull ache in my right side lower back. Headaches. Stomach problems.
You will say, there are doctors. You will say, for God's sake, did you not get yourself checked out, for you own peace of mind?
I did. Doctors. Who knows what they're thinking? I saw a handful of doctors. They were vague, all the tests inconclusive. I was told I had no threatening illness. I was told, without actually saying this, that it was all in my head. I was given Ativan. I was given Neurontin. I was given sleep drugs. Sometimes I remembered to take them, sometimes I had no time to remember them.
We worked hard on The Product. The Product was what was going to feed us and clothe us and allow us to walk in the light. Research and Development, we had one of those. Development meant developing The Product. It went well. We rolled with optimism and pride. I began to shop for warehouse space. We would need warehouse space to store and ship The Product. I spent time with real estate people. I was enjoying this part of the process because, all the time, in my mind, I could see The Product. I could see its potential and I could see the relief and gratitude with which it would be greeted.
I began to use terms like the marketplace. We were carving out a space in the marketplace. Soon, we would be sold along with groceries and fossil fuels. The Product was that necessary. We were positioning ourselves in the marketplace.
The long and short of it is that the business, what I called The Corporation, with mock humility, tanked big time. It was a spectacular flop. I had overestimated the desire, the need for The Product. Apparently and I couldn't see this tree for the forest The Product was just as easily obtained and more cheaply by combining two (or in some cases three) simple, common other products. Apparently, people had been doing this for years. The perceived gap in lifestyle was no gap at all. Oh, we had a few good months at the start, when initial orders came, which we thought presaged a coming tidal wave. We engaged our advertising department and our ads were seen by millions, those millions tied to their televisions in the peak hours. We spent money on advertising because that was how things were done. That money seems like ghost money, play money, to me now. It's gone and there is nothing to show for it. After a few months that were not as robust as our opening months, after a few more when we began to fear that we would never get another order, after throwing more money into advertising in the foolish belief that if folks knew what we offered, understood what we offered, we would be golden, and after nearly a half year when we bled money, it all came down on us. I say us. It all came down on me, an unambiguous collapsing house of cards. I had never been so alone as when I was alone, late at night, my failure pooling around my ankles like bilge water.
I began whittling down the brain trust until it was only a few cells. Finally, there was only myself and Anne Cooper, in a small office, 1/16th the size of our original space. And we had nothing to do.
And so, in the interest of full disclosure, as the politicos also say with zero sincerity, Anne Cooper and I undressed each other and let out our financial frustrations on each other's tender bodies. She had a tender body, all soft declivities and outrageous curves. And mine the body that was betraying me at every turn betrayed me further. It was an ignominy that I prefer to let lie. I do not wish to dwell on this part of the story, if story it is. Anne Cooper moved on, also. It may have had nothing to do with the exanimate business, nothing to do with my failure at that critical, physical juncture. It ended before it really began, with a separation as quick and clean as the drop of a guillotine blade. Anne Cooper moved on and I have not seen her since.
After the glorious ambition, after the golden dream, after declaring bankruptcy a process still going on, seemingly without me, in dark paneled rooms with large glossy tables, at desks and computer terminals, in banks, I imagine I began to look for work. This was during one of those periods in our country when work was hard to come by. Not that I blame much of this on outside factors.
Failing is as American as success, at least as American as success. But we don't call ourselves a country of failures. It's bad PR.
Finally, I found a job in a bookstore. Anyone can work in a bookstore. Their staffs are notoriously clueless, shaggy, and neurotic. Heteroclites and dreamers and folks looking for a stopgap on the way to artistic nirvana. I fit in quickly. It wasn't difficult.
And I began dating one of my co-workers, a young woman 17 years my junior, named Gretchen. Gretchen has a large face, a sweet manner and a loving disposition. We have quiet dinners at home. We see movies, the occasional play. We talk about anything but books. Neither of us read.
And my health. It hasn't improved much. Some nights when I lie down in my bed nights away from Gretchen at my insistence I truly believe I will not wake up. I will die in my sleep. This feels right to me. This feels just. I close my eyes and comprehend the conclusion of my simple life. Can you understand that?
Once I made the mistake of telling Gretchen about some phantom chest pains that were recurring and she became over-emotional and doting and full of fresh protective intensity. She was all over me, her ministrations born of some innate and deeply loving manner, something probably in her genes. How does someone come to care so much about another person? She hovered, soothed, worried, petted. She fretted for me, over me.
Sweet Gretchen mothered me.
Like I needed that.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Corey Mesler. All rights reserved.