When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
At the point in his life when he met Mara and her siblings, Walter had yet to integrate his ways of perceiving and the result was that it gave him unusual sensitivities but also created great weakness and contributed to his suffering. When Walter first met Sam, he could see beyond the form and the behavior that life had, so far, given him and he saw Sam’s goodness. What Sam saw, in Walter, is hard to know. That first meeting, Sam was following behind his mother, pacing the floor inside the family home with the heat turned down low, the rooms gray, appearing dark and muddy from the windows being covered with plastic and the curtains drawn shut, mother and son both wearing winter coats and stalking caps pulled over their ears to preserve body heat as well as money. In the background, there was an old color television set, turned on but quiet, and the picture was faded so badly that it might as well have been a black and white contraption. Their mother was slightly bent over, suffered from poor knees and bad leg veins, as well as suffering from life. She had a habit of repeating everything she said so that she said it twice, and her son followed in suit so that the recipient got it three times.
Sam was the youngest child, and a boy, and those two things brought with them certain advantages and disadvantages. He took the brunt of the verbal abuse, perhaps because he wasn’t the sexual object of his father’s secret desires and, thus, was treated with no ambivalence, just clear-cut disdain. Even as a baby, Sam took immediately to silence and, as he grew, people outside the family viewed him as weird. People outside the family with some education and a greater vocabulary, thought that, maybe, he was afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome. He mostly suffered behind that silence and that suffering became more acute when Jade joined the family and she and Mara drew close to each other; the understandable result of sharing a bedroom, being girls and near each other in age. As the girls grew close, the distance Sam felt, from people and life, grew greater. To Sam, it might have felt as if Mara had forgotten him but she never did and would become even more of an ally, whether he knew it or not, after Jade graduated from school and left the home.
Sam became a good tennis player but had to endure the public criticism and humiliation that his father rained down upon him whenever he lost a match. He did well with his grades but never had male friends, let alone female friends. In childhood pictures, you could see Sam hanging in the background, a look of sadness mixed with anticipation on his face, his sisters with their few friends, smiling and playing in front of him. Strong as a boy, he grew to be strong as a man, though slimly built and carrying a potbelly from his robust consumption of regular Pepsi and other soda. He walked with his body in a curve, of sorts, his left shoulder held a little forward of his right, his left arm partially extended, the left hand curled, kind of like a claw, and centered in front of his belly as if defending himself from incoming blows. The hair on his head was in frequent disarray and he had a noticeable gap between his upper front teeth, not unlike Ernest Borgnine, but he came across more like the character Dexter Morgan on the Showtime series. His fashion sense seemed to trend towards browns and oranges, sometimes pinks and greens, and he was seemingly oblivious to the judgment and opinions of others.
“He’s way ahead of me,” thought Walter, after he’d known him for a spell.
When their father finally abandoned them, Sam stared in the role that would be his for the next twenty years; that of surrogate spouse to his mother. The sisters grew. Jade left home as soon as she could. Mara left, came back, then left again but Sam stayed by his mother’s side until her death. Each working day, their mother would make Sam’s breakfast and, while he ate, she’d pack his lunch. Each evening, upon his return, they’d take their supper together and discuss their days.
Sam learned how to keep his mind off of the thoughts that could cause him trouble by making lists; if something was on the list, it took a certain priority and, also, took Sam’s thoughts. Sam’s thoughts went from the list to the task and then back, again, to the list.
“How’re things going?” Walter would, sometimes, ask.
Sam would reply in his halting speech pattern, “I’m not getting my projects done,” meaning his lists.
When Walter met Sam, it wasn’t long until he learned that he had to find a spot on one of his lists if he wanted to have a conversation with him that would last more than a few minutes. Sam kept a table in the hall between the living room and the kitchen and, on that hall table, he kept up to a half-dozen lists arranged side-by-side. It wasn’t uncommon for the same task to be on more than one list at the same time but rather than serving as a duplication of the commitment, it seemed more to serve as amplification. It was unusual for Sam to smile or laugh but on one occasion when Walter asked him about his progress and he went to the table and ran down the lists and noticed, seemingly for the first time, that the same task was listed more than once, he broke into a large smile, as if he’d been caught in a private joke that even he found humorous.
Sam and his mother, and to some extent the girls, took on a kind of gypsy behavior, gaining skill at minor shoplifting, and becoming expert at negotiating down the price of home improvements and car repairs by outright wearing down the opposition.
At Sam’s, if you wanted a straw to drink from, you could choose from twenty-five or thirty with Wendy’s wrappers standing in a plastic cup on a shelf. Hot sauce, for your taco or burrito, was conveniently stored in Taco Bell packets offering three varieties of spiciness; several hundred packets kept in a Tupperware bowel in the pantry. Need a new liner for a trashcan? Pick from the several hundred plastic shopping bags that were liberated at the self-checkout line the day before.
“I got this nice wallet for free. I put it on the cash register belt at the store but the clerk forgot to ring it up,” said Sam, “I didn’t notice until I got home and looked at the receipt. I thought the bill was a little light.”
He was expert at retaining receipts and returning items just before the expiration of the store’s return policy, frequently coming out of the store with a duplicate of the returned product along with the original. It was puzzling, just how frequently large items would be left on the lowest rack of the shopping cart and failed to be rung up. Walter didn’t care enough to ask how all of the schemes worked but he did shake his head in frequent amusement.
Through high school and college, Sam never had a girlfriend. His sexuality surfaced once, when his mother busted him for looking at porn over the Internet. That time, Mara came to his defense, reinforcing to him that his urges were only natural. In his mid-twenties, he enlisted Mara’s help in setting up a Match.com account, focusing almost exclusively on blond, Barbie doll types but the first dates didn’t go too well and he never had a second.
He loved animals but, with his allergies, he never shared his home with a pet. For a while he was a frequent visitor at Mara’s house, stopping by to see the cats and asking the whereabouts of any furry critter that he couldn’t find. When Mara and Walter took their trips, Sam would offer to drop in and take care of the cats, giving them food and water, petting them and cleaning their litter pans. When a feral cat was found in his back yard one winter, he built it a shelter made from a large appliance cardboard box and filled with blankets to keep it warm and protected from the snow and ice. He’d check the box every morning, to see if the wild cat had visited.
He also shared his mother’s love of plants and birds and kept cut flowers on the dining room table and seed in the feeders.
What Sam really became good at was being frugal. He seldom ate out and, if he did, he’d only order appetizers or what he could purchase with a coupon or on special. He saved money by seldom bathing, rarely used deodorant, and wasn’t fond of visiting doctors or dentists. Those times when he visited Jade at her home, or when Jade would come to his lake cottage, there would be the usual conversations.
“Sam, you need a shower. Go do it,” she’d command.
He’d stare for a minute, and then obey.
“Sam, let’s go shopping. You need some new clothes,” she’d suggest.
He seemed pleased, by that.
By the age when most men are just getting started, having spent their money on foolish things like flashy cars, trips, parties and women, Sam had inherited the paid-off family home and had paid-off the lake cottage and both his new car and truck. In addition to his frugality, Sam became an expert at working the system, any system, and shaved every dime every time. He walked a fine line at the edge of the law, didn’t fit into society, and made his money in a way that’s common but not spoken of.
Walter, “What do you do for a living?”
Sam, “I’m kind of in the trades.”
“Carpenter?” asked Walter.
“No,” replied Sam, “I’m more like the second or third middleman.”
What he went on to explain was that he worked as a consultant, so to speak, for general contractors who would come to him to get bids on projects they were working on so that they could force the right price. For instance, a homeowner would need a new roof that, reasonably, might cost ten thousand dollars. Sam would round up three contractors and have them make preset bids, per the general contractor, which would inflate the price of the project but make things appear, to the homeowner, that an intelligent process had been followed and a fair price received. The project might end up costing twice what was reasonable and the general contractor would receive a kickback, and Sam would get his cut, and the losing subcontractors would know that they’d be brought in on future projects and make more money than they could by placing legal bids on their own.
“In a way, it’s like I’m the government,” Sam explained.
During the years that Walter and Mara were together, they usually included Sam in their plans, asking him to dinner or a garden tour, offering him the opportunity to travel to the Caribbean with them. Sam would spend days researching islands and countries, becoming expert in the details, but never seemed able to get the vacation time to go away.
Walter tried to help Sam out with projects, around his house or cottage, as often as he could but Sam often ended up deconstructing whatever Walter had constructed and then rebuilding to his own specifications once he had learned the method by watching Walter work.
There was a period of time, in the first year that Walter knew them, during which Sam looked and acted as if he was ready to explode. Uncomfortable and scared, their mother had threatened to find an apartment and move out. Mara was afraid that Sam would either kill their mother or kill himself.
“Did Sam ever own a gun,” Walter asked Mara, one day.
“Only a BB gun,” she said, and then, “Why?”
“Oh, just wondering,” he had answered. It was during the stressful time in Sam and his Mother’s arrangement.
Once, when Sam was dropping Mara and Walter off at the airport, the traffic cop pissed Sam off and he accelerated his car and almost ran the man over before Walter pulled the wheel, turning the car just in time. The cop had his back to them and never knew how close he came to being flattened. Once, late at night at the cottage, there was a knock at the door and the police were there, having received a report that someone fitting Sam’s description and driving a similar blue truck had caused some damage at a local supermarket in response to the store not having a product he wanted.
“It was all a misunderstanding, my word against hers,” he had said, smiling after the cops left.
Relief finally came, as it often does, with the death of their mother. The lid that had kept the steam from being let off was lifted and Sam began to flourish, in his way, and appeared to be a happier person. He fell in love, telling Mara and Walter where he and his love were in their relationship.
“We’re at Level 3,” he said one day.
“Have you slept with her?” Walter asked.
“That’s Level 6,” said Sam, shaking his head no.
Mara, Walter, and Sam were at the cottage one day. Sam had been down at the shoreline, working as usual, raking free reeds from the water. Mara and Walter had been on the balcony, talking as usual. When evening rolled around, the three met at the grill.
“What do you guys talk about?” Sam asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You two always seem to be able to talk. We run out of things to say and then it just gets quiet,” he said.
“Just talk naturally.”
“Give me some ideas. I’ll make a list and practice,” he had said.
As Mara and Walter prepared for their winter in Mexico, Sam had asked if Mara wouldn’t mind if his girlfriend moved into Mara’s home while she was gone.
“No way,” was his sister’s response.
That option being closed, Sam abandoned most of his old life and sunk both his time and his money into remodeling the family home, preparing it for his new life.
He told Walter, “She’s the one.”
“Must be at Level 6,” thought Walter.
And, indeed, they were and Mara was happy for him, the child whom was most abused.
Three months before his girlfriend’s lease was up, Sam constructed a budget for her, reviewed it with her, and asked her to move into his home. She declined but promised that she would when the lease was up, and she did. Once there, she never left and their family home became her home, her pride and joy. They began hosting parties, inviting her family and friends and moving on from the life, and the family, that Sam had come from.
As Sam’s and his girl’s comfort grew, they no longer searched for what to say, him teasing her about her weight and she telling him what he could do to make her happy, short of stopping the teasing. Each working day, his lover would make Sam’s breakfast and, while he ate, she’d pack his lunch. Each evening, upon his return, they’d take their supper together and discuss their days. He continued adding projects to his lists and she would change those projects, altering the makeup of the yard of her home from natural rocks, trees, perennials and annuals, to grass, cement retaining walls and poured concrete patios. Her mind saw completed projects and relaxation. Little did she know that Sam’s projects never ended, his subconscious knowing that he didn’t want to face that which Mara was facing. He needed the distractions.
Over the course of the time that Walter knew him, Sam became a drinking man, choosing pricey bottles of wine and good liquor as his favorites. Perhaps it was the influence of his lover or, perhaps, he was in transition.
One day, Sam witnessed an abnormally difficult afternoon with Mara, and he had pulled Walter aside to talk.
“I can’t be around her when she drinks,” Sam said to Walter, referring to Mara, “Besides, she only needs me when she’s in a crisis.”
Sam stopped talking to Mara. He stopped dropping by to see the cats. He never had time to talk to her on the phone.
He had his life to live, and rightly so.
The two times that Mara consented to go into rehab, both over holiday weeks, Walter had taken her, making certain that Sam had known but Sam had neither visited her nor inquired after her, perhaps afraid that in doing either, he might come one step closer to something that he didn’t want to see.
“He never talks to me anymore,” Mara said, feeling sad.
“I know,” Walter agreed.
“Is he happy?” she asked.
“I was over there, helping him move some furniture, and they got into a disagreement about where a piece should go,” he told her, “he wanted the chair positioned so that you could look out of the window and she didn’t. She wouldn’t change her mind and he stood right where he was but starting turning in circles, like a dog chasing it’s tail, making two or three turns, his mouth opening like he wanted to say something but no words coming out, and then we put the chair where she wanted it.”
The last time Walter and I talked, he told me that when he was leaving town, he was in a taxi on his way to the airport and they pulled up along Sam at a stoplight. Sam was trying to pull a short hair out of the backside of his earlobe, using his thumb and middle finger, and was having no success, unaware that he was being watched, as if he was invisible within the protective cover of his car.