Where do you go when you've lost everything, your employment, worldly possessions, reputation, and even your self-respect?
Do you seek shelter and solace from an ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend or a best friend? Not if you have none of those.
Lack of time had prevented me from having more than a brief, passing relationship with the opposite sex, and marriage had never been a consideration. The friendships I had formed on my way to the top crumbled on my way down. My 'way to the top' took five years; my 'way down' took forty seconds.
"Clifford, Mr. Siegel wants to see you in his office," Miss Gloria Fletcher whispered in my ear, backing away before I turned to question her.
"Me?" I asked, whispering too. Miss Fletcher nodded.
Much later that night, I reflected on the ten seconds it took Miss Fletcher to whisper in my ear and the next thirty seconds it took me to walk past my fellow brokers. That's how it's done at Cutter, Crescent, and House; Miss Fletcher comes and whispers into your ear. I wondered if that was her only function in the company. Her presence on the floor was dreaded; her whisper in the ear was like the kiss of death; it announced to everyone that the broker being whispered to was being shown the door.
Mr. Siegel graciously handed my severance check to me and advised that I find another line of work, something outside the scrutiny of the Securities Exchange Commission.
I could have told him I had operated within company guidelines, but we both knew that wasn't exactly true. My methods had made the company a lot of money. Why couldn't he have let me off with a warning? That wasn't possible. The company was in trouble with the SEC and I was the scapegoat. Like I had seen many times before, I was out on my ear.
Why hadn't I seen this coming and prepared for it? The money had been good, but my expensive tastes had put me in debt. If I could avoid my creditors, the small severance check would barely get me through the month,
In the next few days, I saw my car being towed away, my ATM cards voided, and the utilities in my apartment turned off. The final straw was when my cell phone stopped working.
What to do? Where do you go when you've lost everything? You can't go home, can you?
My brother met me at the bus station. His handshake was powerful, making me recall the reason I had let my gym membership elapse; lack of time.
"What brings you back to Millville, Cliff?" Dave asked as he tossed my expensive luggage in the back of his truck, next to a can of gasoline. Was that a tone of sarcasm in his voice?
"Sorry I didn't make it to your wedding, Dave," I apologized, avoiding his question.
"That's okay. We understood you were busy. Say, that was a nice gift you sent."
I remembered asking the department secretary to shop for the gift, but she didn't tell me what she had selected for my brother and his new wife. What was the bride's name, anyway? Did I know her?
"I hear you had a kid!"
"It wasn't me. Tracy did all the work," Dave laughed, before adding, "Jerry's learning to crawl."
Dave is three years older than me and has always been my biggest supporter. When it came time for college he elected to stay at home and work, telling the folks to send me instead. At thirty-one, he looked fit and contented.
"Marriage seems to agree with you," I commented.
"We'll have you over as soon as you get settled. Tracy's dying to meet you and you'll get a kick out of Jerry. He's at the age when kids begin to recognize the difference between their uncle and the dog."
We were driving through our old neighborhood and Dave filled me in on the changes that had taken place. "The Petersons added on right before he got transferred to Cleveland. A couple named Newman moved in. You must remember the Harrison family? I'm still cutting their grass after all these years."
Dave and I started a landscaping business when we were young. He stuck with it; I went to college.
"How's business?" I asked, to be courteous.
"Couldn't be better, I keep three crews busy and that's mainly cutting grass, but the real money is in landscape design, stone walls, walks, arbors, that sort of thing. I'm doing more and more in Brentwood. Those people don't mind spending real money on a quality job."
"That's great, Dave. I'm glad you've got everything going your way."
We were pulling into the drive at our parent's house.
"What brings you to Millville? You didn't say."
If there was anyone I could level with, it was Dave. He was not only my older brother; he was probably my best friend in the world right now. "I'm between jobs, Dave. I decided to take some time to recharge my batteries and the old home town seemed a good place to do it."
He was handing me my luggage. I didn't expect him to carry it into the house but... "Aren't you coming inside?"
"We're a man short today. I've got to get back to work," he shouted, already backing his truck out of the drive. "Welcome home, Cliff, we'll be in touch."
That's the last I saw of Dave for three days. Was he staying away to let me get adjusted? Or had he surmised that I was going to be between jobs for a long time and was here to sponge off mom and dad until I could find a way to resurface in another city, under an assumed name?
Mom and Dad welcomed me with open arms, keeping their curiosity to themselves. Mom's question, "how long can you stay with us, Honey?" was the nearest they got to what you would call meddling.
"As long as you can put up with me," I answered, jokingly.
My brother brought his family over on Saturday night to meet the black sheep, me. I was a little relieved when it became apparent that I didn't know Tracy. She had moved to town a few years after I left. The kid was alert, but when they left, I didn't expect him to recognize me the next time we met.
I walked around to reacquaint myself with the town. Millville, as the name would imply, was located on a river that powered the machinery back in the days when fabric was produced there. The town had been a thriving community until the production of wool and cotton moved south and the mills stood empty. The town's population decreased steadily over the next century and some of the mill buildings were torn down. The town was all but forgotten when the company that employed my dad decided to move its electronics business into one of the mill buildings. That was twenty-five years ago and my dad still works for the same company. Other companies have followed suit, and that brought more people to our little town, more lawns for Dave to maintain.
After two weeks at home, I was becoming bored. The town was smaller than I remembered, and the people who recognized me, while friendly, had nothing in common with me.
One thing that set me off from the townspeople was my clothes. Three piece suits and Italian shoes just didn't fit in Millville. I had nothing else to wear, so I stopped going for walks. I began to feel sorry for myself.
And then the first of several telephone calls interrupted my already troubled existence. One of the credit card companies had found me; I put them off, but when the third call came for me, my parents suggested that I move to the basement.
Eventually they found out who was calling. "How bad is it, Cliff?" they wanted to know.
"In numbers, or the toll it's taking on my stomach? Are you asking how much I'm in debt, or how near I am to taking my own life?"
Dad and Mom handled this the same way they handled any family crisis. Downstairs bath clogged; call Dave. Car won't start; call Dave. Checkbook won't balance; call Dave. Number two son considering suicide; call Dave.
Big brother arrived, and when he asked, 'how bad is it?' I was forced to spell it out for him. Dave and I talked until midnight. Well, he did most of the talking, asking questions, which I willingly answered. He didn't criticize my behavior, although I'm sure he would have liked to beat some sense into me. It was good to have someone to pour my heart out to.
"Be ready at seven AM. We'll have breakfast," he said as he was leaving.
I agreed to have breakfast with him, although I can't remember the last time I ate anything that early. What else was there to talk about? I had told him everything. Wasn't he supposed to offer some suggestions?
"You're early," I complained, when he shook me the next morning. It was ten minutes before seven.
"Put these on," he said, throwing a shirt and pair of short pants on the bed. The shirt had 'Dave's Landscaping Service' on the back.
"Wear your fancy running shoes. I'll wait in the truck."
I didn't like this one bit. Landscaping with my brother was one of the reasons I had applied myself in college. This was his answer to my problems? Besides, his pants didn't fit me.
That was the second of May, two summers ago. By June, I had lost ten pounds and was working full time with Jesus. He was the boss of our two-man crew, but since he didn't have a driver's license, driving the truck fell to me. In July, when the immigration authorities caught up with Jesus, I was given a college kid as the second member of my crew.
Duane wasn't exactly a college kid yet. He was just out of high school and headed to college the third week of August. During the five weeks we worked together, we talked about college and girls, but nothing more personal. When he left for school, I considered us friends. He promised to write and tell me how he was doing in school. "Fuck school, tell me how you're doing with the girls," I joked.
"Will you still be here next summer?" Duane asked. "Maybe we can work together."
"I don't think so, Duane."
I was putting out feelers, looking for a firm that would take me on as a rookie. Dave was sending my pay directly to the credit card companies and although it would take forever to pay them off, we were making a solid dent in what I owed.
Landscaping had changed since Dave and I used to push our mowers down the block to mow the neighbors' lawns and wait around after we finished to be paid. For one thing, the mowing machines were much larger and a two-man crew required other equipment that filled a trailer and a truck to pull it from job to job. The lawns in Brentwood were larger than the old neighborhood and the customers were more particular about the impression their lawn made on their neighbors.
"You're doing great, Cliff," Dave complimented me, when I complained about having to work alone. I was working long hours, six days a week, and had no time for a personal life, not that my brother would give me any spending money to have one.
"The housewives are the worst. They watch me out of their windows and come running out if they even think I'm getting too close to their shrubbery or flowerbeds."
"I haven't heard any complaints. The ladies may just want to come outside and admire your physique. The labor has been good for your body and you'll soon be free and clear of debt. I'm sorry you got yourself in debt, but having someone I can trust has been a blessing for me."
"Am I really that close to being out of debt?"