Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fiction #72: James A. Conan

I Think I Can

The office was designed to be warm and inviting. Calming colours, soothing landscape paintings, and gentle lights. Shelves of academic books and framed diplomas adorned the walls, all to assure anyone who walked in that they'd be well looked after. None of it helped.

Dan had been nearly certain before he'd arrived that coming was a mistake, but the look on her face made it that much worse. “You are the last sort of person I'd ever expect to see in this office,” said Dr. Katherine Parker.

“That's a hell of a thing for a therapist to say to a patient,” he answered, surprised at the hurt from his voice. He was tougher than that.

“Prospective patient,” she said. “I gave you the appointment because Dr. Markham, another patient, told me you needed help and, frankly, that you weren't half as full of crap as your public persona made you seem.”

Dan couldn't help but smile. “That's Will looking out for me.”

“I'm surprised you wouldn't try and turn things around yourself. That's what you're always telling people to do in your books. And seminars. And corporate retreats.”

It was true. Dan was a motivational speaker. He had been for years. Dan the Man McCann's I Know I Can Program and its two sequels had sold three-quarters of a million print copies throughout the English speaking world, and nearly half that again in audiobook form. People often told him he was inspiring. He had believed it, until recently.

“My wife left me. She took my son with her.”

He watched her hostility visibly drop a notch. It was unprofessional, if understandable in this case, for a woman in her position to feel enmity toward someone on her couch. She viewed him as a hack, a cheap trick leading people astray from her purer, more scientific methods. “I'm sorry,” she said, with some contrition. “What happened?”

It was been a typical quiet night in Riverdale, the pretty, tree-lined neighbourhood of Toronto where Dan and Madison had lived for seven years. They put Alex, their five-year-old, to bed then Dan poured another drink from the bottle of Wild Turkey he kept in the kitchen drawer. The single malt visibly displayed in the dining room was for when company came, the Dirty Bird for his every day consumption. He sipped as he stared out the living room window at neighbourhood children throwing a Frisbee around in the park across the street. He basked in the rays of the evening sun, sloshed the ice around in his glass, and reflected that life was pretty good. Famous last words.

Madison had seemed distant, he’d realized afterwards, for almost two months, since his last speaking tour through the eastern US. They had been arguing more and more about the little things. It had been too late to do anything about it by the time he clued in as to why.

“So I decided the next book is going to be about Alex,” he said as he flopped down across from her, in the living room.

Her brow furrowed. “What?”

“Yeah. I gotta write what I know. The first book was about helping people get the job they want. Wrote it before I met you, when I first started working for George. The second was about—”

“Finding the perfect life with the perfect partner,” she said. She'd heard that phrase a thousand times at his seminars, when she'd come to be seen by his clients—living proof that he'd followed his own prescription. Her voice was hollow as she said it.

He pretended not to notice. Instead, he raised his glass, toasting her. “Right. And then, settling down and building a happy home.”

She drummed her fingers on the arm of the couch, across the room, no longer pretending to read the book in her lap. He was oblivious to her anger, half in the bag.

“So now book four, how to raise a kid. I mean, Alex is pretty perfect, we've done an amazing job, he's bright, he's cute, put the three of us on the cover together and it'll make us a—”

The book came sailing across the room, catching him square on the nose and knocking his drink from his hand. On its way to the floor the bourbon spilled straight down onto the crotch of his Dockers. The glass shattered on the hardwood, inches from the book.

He was too bewildered to react at first, just sitting there watching tears form in her eyes. After the longest minute of his life she stood. “How dare you!”

The best he could manage was, “What?”

“Eight years we've been married. I've done everything for you. Went to your stupid seminars, posed for your book covers, pretended we were this perfect couple so people would buy what you were selling. And it got us this.”

She waved her arms around her, gesturing at the interior of the expensive house in the nice neighbourhood that his success had helped buy them. Dan wished she'd been crazy, wildly hysterical. It would have made her seem unreasonable. It would have made her seem like the bad guy. Instead she was calm. Calm and angry and very sad.

He got up from the couch, still so confused as to where this was coming from but not wanting her to look down on him.“Maddy, babe—”

“Don't you goddamn dare 'babe' me. I gave up my career to be here and raise your son and be a goddamn stay-at-home spokesmom for Dan the Man.” She said the name with a hate that threw him back a step. “And I was okay with it. I figured it would be a few years until Alex was in school full time, then I could work and you'd go on to something else and it would all be fine.” She put her hands to her temples, balling her fists, her eyes closed. “I am such a fucking idiot.”

He raised his arm, index finger pointed, trying to seem authoritative, to think of something to say that would put it all right and restore the his, normal world of three minutes ago. Instead, his hand went limp and fell to his side. “I don't understand."

“I know you don't!” she practically spat at him. “You and George and Reid and those other pricks you work with. So busy wrapped up in your own bullshit telling people how to live their lives that you don't realize how full of it you all are. Blind goddamn hypocrites, all of you.”

Then he started to get mad. “Those are my friends you're talking about. They're good guys and they have nothing to do with this.” The latter half of that statement was true, he reflected. The former, not so much.

“You're half right,” she sighed. “This is about you, not them. They're all dicks, but they stay wrapped up in their own little worlds and write and work and don't screw up their loved one's lives.” He knew she was wrong about that, but saying so wouldn't help, so he kept his mouth shut. “You have me and Alex. You brought us into this. You lie to everyone who reads you and listens to you and you lie to yourself.”

He was even more confused. “Maddy, hon, I know I take some liberties and the way I describe us is a little hyperbolic, but we've talked about that. It's just to sell the damn books. It's for us. I'm not perfect, and sure, I'm not here all the time, but I'm here when it matters.”

“That's the problem Dan. You spend so much time away from home selling people on your perfect family and perfect life and telling them they can have the same thing.” Her arms were crossed, tears running freely down her cheeks. “But you aren't here often enough to know, not really. When my mom died you were off on tour a week later. When Alex had to get his tonsils out he was scared to go in for the surgery, he kept asking for you, but you were away at some rented campsite up north teaching assholes at some investment firm the value of positive reinforcement and team building.” Her voice was strained, cracking.

Reason was beginning to cut through the bourbon fog in his brain. “Everything I do is to provide for the two of you. I'm not the man I pretend to be, I know it, but I'm not as far gone as that. I love you both.”

“Do you,” she sobbed, “or do you love the perfect wife and son you want us to be, the ones you write about? I was fine with it when it was just me. I was! I could live with it. It didn't bother me because I thought you saw our son for the beautiful boy he is, not some prop in the Dan McCann show.” Now she was getting hysterical. In eight years of marriage he'd never seen her this angry. “I won't let you use him. I won't let his selfish, idiot dad's stupid job screw up the rest of his life!” she yelled.

He was at a loss for words. He’d always considered himself a smart guy. People paid good money to listen to him talk, after all. Would they do that for a stupid person? The irony didn’t escape him that it was Madison, his professed reason for speaking to these people who thought him smart, that now struck him dumb.

For a moment they stood there in silence as he gaped at her, unable to speak. Her arms were still crossed over her chest, her body turned away. Then she said the words he was dreading, “Get out.”

“Maddy, I—”

“Get out Dan. You can get your stuff some other time, when Alex is at school or at a friend's or something. Anything. Just get out!”

And to his shame, he did. Dan the Man McCann, who always knew what everyone should do, how to fix any personal problem with the power of self-knowledge, just walked out. He grabbed his wallet and his car keys and headed for the door, hardly able to believe that his life had taken such a complete one-eighty in the span of three minutes. The Madison he'd married was gone, and instead this woman, full of what had to be a long-suppressed rage, stood silent in the centre of their living room, refusing to look at him.

As soon as he was out the door he made for his Jag. Old Brown Eyes, he called her. Vintage. His favourite toy. He scratched around the keyhole in the door, damaging the paint, but was too distracted to notice.

When he tried to back out of the driveway, he turned too sharply and ran straight into a pole. He realized what he'd done to Old Brown Eyes. Inside the house he'd been too stunned to feel anger. Now, the damage to his car brought it all to the surface. He beat at the steering wheel with his forearms, wrists, and balled fists, swearing as he went.

“Fuck shit goddamn bitch cunt kick me out of my own fucking house and wreck my fucking car!” and so on.

He wasn't sure if this went on for a minute or an hour, but when he looked up Madison was there staring at him through the open doorway. She was holding Alex. The perfect little blond-haired boy-child he called son. Alex had obviously been woken by the commotion. He wouldn't understand the situation; he’d only know that bad things were happening. Madison was still glaring at him as she closed the door. This seemed to Dan the final and most horrible injustice: that his son should suffer, uncomprehending, and should then have to wait to have his hurt tended to, because Madison was still in a rage. All I wanted, he thought, was to write a book about how much I loved our kid. It got me kicked out.

He heaved a great sigh and slouched over the steering wheel. Picking himself up after a moment, he realized his nose was still dripping blood and that his crotch reeked of cheap bourbon. Come to think of it, I've had a few drinks and driving, he looked in the rear view at his smashed bumper wrapped around the pole, probably isn't the best idea. He got out of the car.

The sun was almost down, but the tranquil park-side scene had been shattered along with Old Brown Eyes' rear window. Any neighbours or children in the park who hadn't heard Madison yelling had surely seen a certain half-drunk and bleeding motivational speaker get into his car and fail spectacularly at driving off into the sunset. There were more than a dozen pairs of eyes on him. Friends and neighbours and kids who would be gossiping about him the second he was out of their sight and, no doubt, for some time afterwards.

He started walking north, towards the main street—he could get a cab there. Get a cab and go ... somewhere.

 “So I grabbed a cab and headed for the Four Seasons in Yorkville.” Said Dan, when he'd finished his recollection.

“Didn't they turn that into condos three years ago?”

He shrugged. “Well I know that now. I'm staying with Will.”

“And have you had any contact with your wife since this happened?”

“It's been a week. I've tried. She keeps shutting me out. Not being able to see Alex is the worst part.” He paused in thought. “Not being able to work is a close second.”

“I don't follow you.” Said Dr. Parker.

“She took everything from me. Everything I based my career on was a lie. I can't help my clients get what they want when I've just lost everything I've ever worked for. George is going to kill me.”

“I see” said Dr. Parker. “Your wife, she mentioned this George as well as someone else, Reid. Another colleague?”

“Yeah. Reid Palowski. Goes by Reid Righteous.”

That got her attention. “The Positivity Guru down in Los Angeles? You two work together?”

“That's him. And yeah, we do, sort of. George recruited both of us to the agency, but we tour and speak separately. We're friends though. When he's not in the hospital that is. Poor guy's got more suicide attempts under his belt than anyone else in the self-help business. Trust me, that's saying something.”

Katherine wasn't sure how to process that, and decided to leave it be for now. “Are there any other motivational speakers working for this George?”

“Jeremiah St. James down in the Bible belt, and Ben Burst based in Miami.”

She shook her head. “An evangelist and a pick-up artist. I suppose George sets you up and sends you touring wherever he thinks you'll bring in the most money?”

“Pretty much.”

“Tell me about George.”

*

They had met at the Queen's Head in Cambridge. It had been a bad day for Dan. He was getting kicked out of Harvard. His scholarship had been revoked and he'd decided to enjoy the campus pub one more time.

There had been an incident the week before. The Crimson had just won; Dan and his friends had been in high spirits. They'd gotten shithouse drunk, stolen a bench from Riverbend Park, doused it in cheap vodka, and given it a Viking funeral by floating it down the Charles to the strains of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” The police had been called.

When Dan had been let out of the drunk tank the next morning he'd discovered a voicemail summoning him to a disciplinary hearing. In the space of a week he'd been expelled, lost his student visa and, along with it, the hopes of a doctorate in psychology from the Ivy League. He'd be going home to Canada a broke failure. He still had his bachelor's, but with the note on his expulsion affixed to his transcript he doubted he'd be able to get admitted to anywhere but the most backwater college.

He thought of his future, the career he'd planned out. Maybe I'll be able to open a practice in a strip mall in Scarborough. It turned his stomach. He cheered himself up by picturing Lucy van Pelt from the Peanuts comic strips. Other kids growing up on his street tried to open lemonade stands. He'd imitated Lucy and put up a sign reading “Psychiatric Help, 5 cents.” His parents had laughed, but it had been the start of something.

He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he barely noticed when the old man sat down beside him.

“Double gin and tonic. And a Red Bull.”

The order was odd enough that it caught Dan’s attention. The bartender, flummoxed, began pouring gin into a highball glass. “We don't serve energy drinks.”

The old man frowned. In profile, Dan thought, he looked like a silver-haired Clark Gable. “Then tell me where I can get some decent cocaine around here.”

The man noted the surprised looks on the faces of Dan and the bartender. “No?” he snorted. “What good are either of you then?” 

There were no other patrons at that hour. The bartender backed away and turned towards a shelf, pretending to wipe and straighten glasses. The old man looked to Dan. “These places are all the same—no good drugs and people look at you like you've gone nuts if you try to have a little fun.” He downed half his drink in one long pull. “George Hamilton.” He held out his hand. Dan took it with a raised eyebrow. “Not that one,” said George.

“Dan McCann.” The old man had an iron grip that Dan did his best to reciprocate.

“Great name son. Your daddy must've been a sharp one. Why the long face?”

“I could ask you the same.”

“Back in forty-eight, or maybe it was fifty-eight, I don't remember, I had my dissertation rejected by the Faculty of Psychology. They told me phrenology was dead. What do they know? Anyway, whenever I'm back in town for business I like to go take a long, reeking piss on William James Hall. Security interrupted me midstream this time so I ran in here. Figured I'd refill the tank and head back when the coast was clear. How about you?”

“I just got expelled.” Dan filled George in on the whole sordid incident, sensing a kindred spirit in the old loon.

“Ha. I like you, kiddo. You got spunk. Too much of the ol' joie de vivre for this place. Don't let it get you down. Anyway, you said you were on your way to a master’s?”

“And then a doctorate. I had the grades to keep going. Now I just have a big steaming pile of debt, no prospects, and a one way ticket back to Toronto.”

The old man tweaked the corner of his silver moustache with his thumb and index finger. “Canada huh? Untapped market if ever there was one. Practically the wild frontier when I was your age. But there's people up there and I suppose they'll buy my snake oil just as quick as they do down here. And you could cover the Northeast. What the hell. You seem clever, kid, and you got a name that says you were born to sell shit. I'm setting up a little business venture right now. How'd you like a job?”

“We met five minutes ago,” said Dan, at the same time asking himself why he was objecting. He didn’t know what George did, but his suit and his Rolex said that he did it successfully, and anything was better than going home empty-handed. The older man gestured to the still-alarmed bartender, who refilled their empty glasses and retreated to the storage room.

“Doesn't matter,” said George. “I got a good feeling about you, just like when I met a young J. Edgar Hoover for the first time. You've got a whiff of destiny about you.” George sniffed the air. “Or maybe just bourbon.”

“Never could drink American beer.”

“Me neither. Not since the war.”

“Which one?”

“Can't remember.”

“Well,” said Dan, downing his drink, “I suppose I'd better ask what you do.”

“Human Resources Management Solutions. Efficiency Consultations. Personal Enrichment Advisement. Corporate Team Building Seminars. Intellectual Capital Maximization. That's one of my favourites.”

“Come again?”?

“Motivational speaking, my boy. Easiest job in the world if you have half a brain in your head and the confidence God gave a third-rate politician. Nothing to it. Just work the buzzwords in. Say ‘dynamic’ a lot.”

“Oh,” said Dan, his heart sinking.

“C'mon now, no need to look so glum. You'll start as my assistant. I'll show you the ropes, and before long you'll be writing books, selling out hotels and convention centres, and having corporate bigwigs pay you to tell their employees how to be more like you.” George sipped his drink and cleared his throat. “Or you'll be a total failure and I'll fire you. Honestly, I don't know. But I need an assistant to get myself back on my feet now that I have investors. If the psych department here hates you, you can't be all bad. Whaddya say?”

“Why would anyone want to be like me?”

“You got a degree from Harvard, on scholarship. You told me so.”

Dan nodded. “A bachelor's. On a partial scholarship,” he admitted.

“Whatever. We can sell you as a self-made success story. Once you take the job as my assistant—no, my junior partner—and help me make some money, that is. Daniel McCann, entrepreneurial pioneer in the field of Intellectual Capital Maximization. Dynamic young go-getter.” He laughed. “See, it's just that easy.”

“How could it possibly be that easy?”

George sighed contentedly and smiled. “Because this is America, sonny, and Americans are never satisfied. This is one of the best places on Earth to live. People die by the boatful just trying to get here to work. But it's never enough; we always gotta have the bigger house, the nicer car, the hotter wife, and make more money than our neighbours. You get the idea. Tell people they can have that stuff if they do what you say and they'll believe it because they want to believe it. It's been that way as long as I've been around.”

The old man's words rang true. “How old are you anyway?” Dan asked.

George smiled. “Immortal, for all intents and purposes. I was in Egypt with Carter when he found Tut's tomb. The old wise men in Cairo said the same curse that killed Lord Carnarvon gave me his life force.” The old man's eyes grew manic, and he made a fist in front of his face as he pronounced the last part, which Dan found unsettling.

“And you've been doing this awhile?”

“Sure have.”

“So why are you trying to start a new business now?”

“Did a little spell in St. Claire's.”

Dan was apprehensive all over again. “The insane asylum?”

“The very same. Five years. My old business partners at Speakers United had me committed. Said I was a liability. Then they took all my best ideas and moved on without me. Look, I'll be honest with you son, I forget things. I'm a head case, a curmudgeon, and an on-again/off-again drug addict for the past sixty years or so, but I know what I'm doing. What's more I just conned a whole bunch of old ladies in Beacon Hill out of their dead husbands' money to fund this little venture, so you may as well come along.” 

It wasn't that Dan didn't have reservations. He had enough reservations to fill every seat in every restaurant in Boston. But he couldn't shake himself free of George's magnetism. The man's sheer force of personality was overwhelming. Dan wanted that for himself. After all, here was a man who, though undoubtedly crazy, had clearly been through things much worse than being expelled from Harvard. He couldn't have been as old as he claimed, but he was at least in his seventies, and still full of the stuff of life, determined, and eager to take the world by the throat. The job offer had its allure. It was too good to be true.

“So is this the part where you say you just need some money from me to make this all happen?” said Dan. “A few thousand maybe? Or whatever I've got on me?”

“You think I'm a con man?”

“You just said you were.”

“The Beacon Hill set? Please. They got a fair exchange for their filthy lucre.” He thrust his pelvis towards the bar, winked, and gave Dan a knowing look. The younger man struggled to keep his lunch down. “No, the only thing you need to do if you want this job is meet me in New York in two weeks or so. My card.”

He handed Dan a crisp, white business card. It read George Ulysses Hamilton Esq. CEO, Real Unlimited, with a Manhattan address and phone number.

“You a lawyer?” asked Dan.

“Did a law degree at Dartmouth after I left this dump. Never passed the bar though.”

“Real Unlimited?”

George shrugged. “We'll just be calling it 'The Agency' most of the time.”

“It doesn't say what we do.”

“Doesn't have to. Unlimited says we have boundless potential, and so does anyone who hires us. Real says we're bona fide. That's all people need to know. Now, you going to take the job or what?”

Dan spent a long moment making up his mind. It was rather sudden, and more than a little suspect. But, he reasoned, he could always back out later if it went south. And, being honest with himself about his situation, if he didn't find something to do soon he was going to have to move back in with his parents when he got home to Toronto. That clinched it. “I'm in.”

“Glad to hear it. Welcome to the team.” The two men shook hands again, leaning against the bar, grinning at each other. “Your first official act as my assistant will be to memorize that phone number and swallow that business card. Then, help me deal with this mess.”

George pointed out the pub's front window. In the street was campus security, accompanied by two cop cruisers. “They've tracked me down. Bartender's nowhere to be seen. Probably finked on me.”

Dan blinked in confusion. “Why did they call the cops if all you did was piss on the psych building? They could have just written you up like they do with all the drunken freshmen.”

George's eyes darted from side to side, and he reached into his tan overcoat. “I may have introduced them to Matilda here.” He produced a revolver. “Play along, kiddo. I know how to get out of here unseen, but you'll have to buy me some time.”

Before Dan could argue with this ludicrous new demand being made of him, four uniformed police officers walked through the door. In one swift movement, George spun around behind Dan, grabbed him by the throat with one hand, and put the revolver's muzzle to his temple with the other. “You pig's get any closer and I'll blow the kid's brains out!”

The four cops froze. “Get back! Away!” George yelled, extending his gun arm and putting two rounds into the wall above the door frame for good measure. They retreated back outside amidst shouts of “Jesus Christ!”

“The old kook's got a hostage!”

“Call tactical!”

Once the police left the bar George had relaxed his grip. Dan fell to the floor, his ears ringing and his crotch somewhat damper than he'd have liked.

“You alright, son?”

“No” was all Dan could manage.

“Well you better get used to it. Rule one of working for me: There will on certain occasions be shooting involved. Long as you don't rat me out I can promise you'll always be on the right side of it.”

“’Kay,” said Dan, still dazed.

“Rule two: We never drink in a place without a back door.”

Dan, still on the floor, thought about it for a second. “I don't think you'd need rule two if you got rid of rule one.”

“I make the rules, kid, not you,” said George. “Now, I'm going to scoot before SWAT shows up. When they question you, we never met before. You know my name is George, the bartender probably told them that, but nothing else. Right?”

“Right.”

“Good. Sorry about this next part. Have to make it look real.”

“What?” was all Dan had time to say, before the butt of George's revolver struck his head and he was out cold.

“So his name is George Hamilton?”

“Yeah.”

“But he looks like Clark Gable?”

“That's your takeaway from all this?” 

Dr. Parker shuffled the pages of note paper on her lap. It was a gesture she affected when preparing to state the obvious.

“Assuming everything you've just said is true--”

“I'm afraid so.” He said.

“Then tabling the rest of George's behaviour for a moment, my takeaway is that you took a job you thought was morally questionable from a man who recognized your desperation and used it to abuse and manipulated you.”

Dan thought that over. “Most of my corporate clients do the same.”

She had her rebuttal ready. “And that's what ended them up in your program in the first place. Or, like you, on my couch. You made a decision to act amorally for financial gain, and based your entire life off of the perceived rewards. Now the facade's broken and you're in therapy.”

“So what do I do?” He asked, starting to panic.
She adjusted the rims of her glasses. “Try telling the truth. Start with yourself. Then your wife. Then maybe your clients.”

He scoffed. “I've seen your fees. If I start being honest with them I'll never be able to afford to be honest with you.”

Tucking her notes into her desk drawer, she smiled, seeing dollar signs. The two of them had that much in common. “Then it's my professional opinion that too much honesty isn't always the best thing. Start small. We wouldn't want to overwhelm you. Not when we have so much ground left to cover.”

*

James A. Conan is a Toronto based writer. He studied Politics and International Development at Trent University before coming to the conclusion that Liberal Arts degrees are for chumps. Since then he’s been a retail clerk, landscaper, auctioneer, staffer for a major provincial political party, and general jack of all trades to make ends meet. He currently works as a Line Cook at Eulalie’s Corner Store in Toronto. He is the author of one unpublished novel and several short stories, published and pending publication. He is also an Editorial Assistant at Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, an online speculative fiction magazine.

1 comment:

  1. I met James at a recent family event and found him interesting. I decided to look up some of his work. Nice story, well-written with a nice twist.

    James (JC-Rocks.com)

    ReplyDelete