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 detail to me in the breakroom at Simmons Burke as we wolfed down donuts and slurped bad coffee.
Dave would sit quietly at the long conference table at Monday morning sales meetings as the golden boys hatched their plans for market domination. He was a natural born salesman, but not “one of the guys.” With almost no effort at all, he could sell the hell out of Xerox photocopiers.
As the company’s onsite trainer, I would often tail him, motoring around Baltimore in my clunky Toyota with the racing stripe on the side, getting lost, circling blocks endlessly before finally 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.
He had it all figured out.
At Christmas that year, 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 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 without pause.
My excitement lit up the subsequent days. I spent two weeks actually enjoying the job. Everything 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 were met with no response. 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, 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 vortex. 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 communications.
A few years ago, I found myself back in Baltimore to visit family. It was a cold March afternoon. I buttoned up my coat against a razor-sharp wind and marched into the public library, 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. He was cocooned in a massive balloon-like coat, straining under the weight of a huge 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. He was still slender.
I stared over the top of my book, confused. He 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, the house, the stock portfolio — buried down among the cans and bottles and who knew what else that was in there. I imagined his other future, the 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 and offered my warmest hello. 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 as he considered my words. He hesitated for a moment, thinking. Then he gathered himself up and hurried away to the other side of the room.
I took a few breaths. I went over and asked the librarian about him. She nodded. “My guess is schizophrenia,” she said. “He’s been coming here for years. Poor guy.”
Apparently, back in the almost-London days, Dave’s genes had tripped a time bomb in him. That Dave, the one I knew, was long gone. The illness, I knew, 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 until now, obliterating the warm feel of the library. My mind flitted back to the trip that was not to be, the mystery now solved after 25 years.
To me, London will always be ruined. It’s no longer a world city to me but a place that will 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, who is about to die himself, 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 deep breath just like the captain, saying those same words.