I met Dave years ago in Baltimore. Dave was impossible to miss. His skin was the color of buttermilk. He had bright orange hair and a heavily freckled face, and at a skinny six-foot-one, moved effortlessly and with a surprising grace. At 23, he was comfortable in a suit and tie. And though he could not get a date to save his life, he would describe his married life to-be in intimate detail to me in the breakroom at Simmons Burke as we wolfed down donuts and slurped coffee.
At the Monday sales meeting, Dave would sit quietly at the long conference table listening as the golden boys hatched their plans for market domination. Dave was a natural born salesman, but not “one of the guys.” With almost no effort at all, he sold the hell out of Xerox photocopiers to scores of local businesses.
As the company’s onsite trainer, I would motor around Baltimore in my clunky Toyota with the racing stripe on the side, getting lost, circling blocks endlessly before locating our customer companies. Sometimes, when Dave would allow himself a break in his sales calls, we would meet for lunch. I learned that he had a very specific plan for his life. He was saving up for a house and a family, and investing his sizable paychecks in the stock market.
Dave had it all figured out.
At Christmas, I received as a year-end bonus a Gwaltney 10-pound bone-in ham. Dave won Salesman of the Year — and an all-expense-paid trip to London for two.
A few days later he waved me into the breakroom and under the glare of the fluorescents lamented the lack of a woman in his life. Someone he might woo with a fab trip to England. Then he got an altogether different idea.
“Why don’t you come with me?” he asked. I was his best friend — something I didn’t even know.
“Hell, yeah,” I said immediately.
My excitement lit up the subsequent days. I spent two weeks actually enjoying the job. Everything just glowed.
But I never made it to London. And neither did Dave.
He didn’t show up at work — for a week. My phone calls weren’t answered. Erma, the beehive dooed woman who was our VP of Human Resources, would only say that Dave was ill. I knew little about his family and I wasn’t sure he had any other friends. One night when I could take it no longer, I went over to his house and rapped on the doors and windows, but to no avail.
Dave was gone.
The weeks ticked away. The calendar pages flipped up and whooshed off into the distance. Tumbleweeds blew across Dave’s desk (well, it caught some dust). In time I got on with the task of being undirected, at which I excelled, and forgot about Dave. Every so often I lamented the trip that was not to be.
I moved around the country — the Bay Area, L.A., Boston — working mostly in high tech as a copywriter.
A few years ago, I was back in Baltimore to visit family. It was a late March. I buttoned up my coat against a razor-sharp wind and strode into the public library for a little warmth, settled into a chair and picked up the closest book, a photo essay of the Caribbean.
A homeless man shuffled by in ripped jeans and disintegrating Reeboks trailing dirty laces, cocooned in a massive balloon-like coat, straining under the weight of a backpack slung over his shoulder.
I recognized Dave immediately. His trademark orange hair had become gray and wild, though still flecked with color. His face was cracked granite and white-whiskered, the irises of his eyes tinged in yellow. Still he was a wisp of a guy.
I stared over the top of my book, confused as Dave drifted by, toting the big pack, which I could see was filled to capacity, maybe with all those plans and dreams he’d had long ago — the family, house, stock portfolio — buried down among cans and bottles and who knew what else was in there. I imagined his “future,” the other, unlived one, pressed tightly into some inner pocket, pulsing with latent energy, threatening to blow the bag to pieces.
When he saw me I smiled. He squinted uncomprehendingly at me.
“Dave?” I said.
He didn’t respond, or even look at me.
“Dave? Do you remember me? Simmons Burke?”
His head slowly turned my way. He hesitated for a moment, thinking. Then he gathered himself up and hurried away across the room.
I took a few breaths. I went over to the librarian and asked her about him. She nodded, her look heavy. “We think schizophrenia,” she said. “He’s been coming here for years. Poor guy.”
How could that have happened?
But it did. Apparently, back in the almost-London days, Dave’s genes had tripped a ticking time bomb in him. I knew a little about the illness. It could hit perfectly healthy people in their teens and twenties.
I stared at my old orange friend and felt a gust of cold air blast through the London-shaped hole in me, the one I’d forgotten about it until now, obliterating the warmth of the library. My mind flitted back to the trip that was not to be, the mystery solved 25 years later.
To me, London will always be ruined. It’s no longer a world city to me but a place forever be tinged by nature’s injustice. That sad story was written plain as day on the face of the man over by the wall.
Dave was squatted down, examining a speck of dirt or something on the ground. Watching him, I wondered if he ever thought about London, if he remembered being Salesman of the Year or that he had once been a young man with a bright future.
There is a scene at the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan where we learn that many soldiers have given their lives to save a single man. The captain of the rescue team, himself about to die, whispers his last words to Ryan, the man who will return safely home to lead a normal life. “Earn this,” the captain says. “Earn it.”
Sitting there in the library, I imagined the old — or rather, the young — Dave standing beside me, drawing a final breath just like the captain, saying those same words to me.