by Arlen Donzi || Author's Links
"It's not just microphones we manufacture, Denise."
"Yeah, I know," she sighed, shoveling a bite from a waxy take-out carton atop her desk. "But to me you're a microphone guy." Denise's professional life as the buyer for a chain of music stores brought many men into her cramped workspace with offers, and most of them earned titles: Tape Guy, Cable Guy, Drum Head Guy, Guys on the Floor, Guys in Stock and Guys With Needs. They rarely distinguished themselves. She didn't give much thought to their individual characteristics. They came and went, replacing one another at a rate of about one every three months. And now, before her document-strewn desk stood a Microphone Guy, known according to his business card as Dieter Schrempp, Sales Director for Geiger Instruments.
"Geiger compressors and amplifiers would really fill a top-end niche in your store," suggested Schrempp with a pinch of a smile. "It's fine, fine equipment with very high customer recognition."
"Sorry, Microphone Guy," she said impatiently and continued to eat, "customer recognition and customer spending are two different things. I'm sure Mercedes Benz has a high customer recognition in China, but if the people can't buy, why stock it?"
"As a matter of fact, Mercedes Benz does a healthy business in the People's Republic and many other areas of Asia, but of course I understand you." Dieter's clipped tactics had a strange mellowing effect on his clients. Some thought they perceived a smug deadpan. Others, including the hard Denise, cocked their heads in wonder. "Dumb kraut."
For two years Dieter made the trip up the back stairs to sell microphones to Marty Falls Music. Each time, the low ceiling sagged lower and the piles of folders in the office's cluttered corners welled up higher. Each time, Denise met him with a mouthful of food and absolute, exhausted indifference.
"People walk in here to get stuff for their garage band or their church choir or their roller rink." She waved an arm over the piles. "They don't understand the high-end stuff."
"Okay, then. We have developed a new volt-adjusted, gated cardioid. May I show you?"
"No, my lunch is getting cold. Give me the usual cardioids, the 85's; I need 14 uptown, 10 downtown, 10 for Passaic and 12 for Farmingvale." She picked up the phone and began speaking to someone else.
Dieter blinked at her. His little sky-colored eyes, as pretty and delicate as a doll's, set behind resolutely funky wire-framed glasses, twitched once, twice. This was a careful man. He trimmed his blond crew cut every two weeks, wiped bitter-smelling Rosmarin Harwassar through it and used gel to spike it in a random pattern. For sales meetings and site visits like today's he wore a black leather car coat, a cobalt blue shirt, matching tie, pleated pants, and cowboy boots. His style of dress, he had learned, helped him relate to his clients. Details like these, though resting on the surface, mattered.
However, no dress code held him back as he traveled up and down the most coveted of Geiger sales territories: USQ2. The area included the Northeast from DC to Toronto and as far west as Pittsburgh. Other regions had their hot spots--the movie industry in USQ1, the Latins in USQ4--but every Geiger rep knew that USQ2 required the most energy, the best English and the biggest balls. Commissions ran high; Dieter easily outearned his USQ1, 3, 4 and 5 counterparts and, they remarked, he did not deserve it. He had no special qualifications to sell sound equipment, they groused. The guy never graduated school. His English was lousy. Everyone knew that Dieter had gotten lucky with the territory assignment, but they did not fully understand the far reach and gentle hand of his fortune. It had lifted him from dusty brown depths.
Two years earlier: Sonja had left Dieter and gone back to Marcus, her husband. So the dumped had installed himself on the floor of a room in Koln where he drank beer and watched football matches on TV during the day. Nights, if he had any money, he took a bus to Sonja and Marcus' neighborhood to stand under their back window and slam out a sonata on their garbage cans and the hood of their car. He kicked the bins over, smashed empty wine bottles and threw hard bread crusts over the fence at their darkened windows. Lights never flickered. Curtains never rustled. The last time he visited their street to flog defenseless cast-offs, a neighbor caught him in the headlights of her car. His dark shadow made a neat rectangle under the tangle of lumps and lines that formed the real Dieter. There he stood, clutching some empty frozen food trays in the beam. She strode right up.
"Why?" she bellowed. A sweet waft of alcohol swirled after the word. He couldn't answer, but pulled his glasses off (red, round and plastic back then) and rubbed his eyes with his fleshy palms. When he felt safe enough to pull his fat hands away from his face, the neighbor had gone.
Then, without warning, a recruiter from Geiger Instruments called. She had gotten his resumé from somewhere she could not recal, but she had a job offer that would take Mr. Schrempp to the States for ten months out of the year. This recruiter happened to be Marcus' sister, but Dieter would never know. It was the best thing.
He worked alongside Henk, a gregarious Swissman who had gone to college at Penn State and knew Americans so well he used expressions like "no ifs ands or buts" and "it's all about me, me, me." They met for the first time at Mu Ping, a New York City restaurant featuring in unique meats or, as Henk put it, "zoo on the menu." Specials included roast moose, snake tartare, venison burger, mountain goat patties, French sparrows kebab, roasted roe, roebuck flank and ox veal burger. It was a big night of client entertainment with four recording studio managers sitting at jade-inlaid tables on rattan mats. They took their shoes off.
Studio manager Rajit paused halfway through his ostrich egg appetizer to begin a story with: "speaking of wart hog…" He told a tale of a singer who booked four weeks at his place to record backing tracks for herself. During the course of her regular day, a masseuse, a nutritionist and one of three different lovers would visit and she would excuse herself, sometimes for hours. In the evening she went to dinner with her husband, a much older and much uglier record executive well known to all at the table.
A clatter of exclamations followed the tale. "She sounds like my girlfriend," blurted Dieter with his first words of the evening. The brisk laughter around the table sagged and the guys threw quick glances at Henk. One reached for his drink.
"Really? Sounds like your girlfriend? I'd love to hear her sing sometime," Henk deadpanned. Dieter blinked, clients chuckled, levity was restored.
During the drive back to the hotel, Henk tried to tip his coworker to the nuances of American business dinners.
"You can't just sit there closing your eyes up and down," he admonished in loud English. "You have to start talking to these or you'll never have success."
"And work on your goddamn accent! You sound like Hicksville. Something like that. You gotta talk, that's the only way."
"Yes, tanks." Dieter said it like a soldier. He said it and the blinks came along hard and fast like they'd come to man trying to swallow a cup of dry salt. He turned his hurting face toward the window to watch the city's gray buildings and all its purposeful citizens moving between them. He tried to think of something, even one thing, that he could say to these people. He groped around for words important enough that they might form with a rumble at the back of his throat, spring across his tongue and through his teeth on their way out into the world.
He never located those moving words, but with Henk's coaching Dieter became the straight man as the pair went drinking, eating, hoteling and selling their way up and down the East Coast. He had finally joined a winning team. He'd succeeded in spite of Sonja, and only thought of her for a few seconds each night before drifting to sleep. Dieter was happy.
Then Henk got sick. It began with dizziness. Getting out of a cab, rising to shake hands with a meeting latecomer. He saw halos, headaches came like ax blows and he forgot people's names. One time during a client dinner he left Dieter smiling stiffly at two mail-order guys for a half-hour because he heard a ringing in his ears that interrupted the conversation. Doctors at the HMO found nothing but a specialist in Munich reported the presence of a tumor that had pressed Henk's brain aside for at least a year in its need to grow and had now succeeded, too large to remove. Dieter wondered if Henk might soon die, as the gossip predicted; but he did not call. Instead he printed out key documents from Henk's laptop computer and mailed them to the hospital in Germany in case the man with a ladle-full of cancer behind his eye wanted to relive his sales successes. A few weeks later Geiger sent a card that announced the passing of Henk Heimmen in cool gray lettering. The card listed no family members to console. Henk had been alone, and after he left Dieter alone too, the unresolved Sonja situation returned to haunt USQ2's sole sales rep.
A person should have roots, a connection to life. A person should be able to bask in the beautiful light of these important bonds, choose a soulmate and live in harmony. Nothing should block this partnership, because this state, this status, means everything. It is sacred! Yes, love. Poor Henk, he had no one. He had not made these connections, but Dieter the Lucky one had.
When he left Koln, he had not realized--had not seen the enormity of the situation--but now he understood. He saw everything. The importance loomed like an air balloon. Forces had interrupted his treasured bond with Sonja. The connection had broken. Who else could repair it? Dieter Schrempp could. To restore the proper status quo he must get Sonja back. They had to live together as they had in the past when he felt happiest, when they both felt happiest. He took a big strong breath of conviction into his lungs and filled them until they hardened. The first and most important step in such a process: communication with darling Sonja.
Well, he could not call her. She would never speak to him on the phone, but he recalled the effect of a note on the cute girls in school he and complimented himself on the idea--he could write her a letter. He bought some beautiful stationery, and he bought some more. Nights found him hunched at the hotel desk spinning a fever of handwritten concepts, an unraveling story of true love and all its aspects. Dieter had many ideas and had found a method to successfully communicate them to her. He saw his way, with a letter that would be the turning point. He saw the far-off future when the two of them would look back on the 32-page masterpiece as a crowning moment of clarity. Someday they would reminisce about the whole thing and smile.
He dropped the customer copy of Denise's order on her desk without a word to hie the meeting's end and stepped out into the shrill afternoon sun. In the rental he sat gazing at two large envelopes; one would soon carry the finished letter to Koln, but which would it be? A tough decision. The plain white one made clear his seriousness, but the one with the red stripe hinted at the urgent contents. As he turned the car's ignition he noticed Denise leaving Marty Falls Music. She walked out to the edge of the parking lot and turned right to follow along the eight lanes of rush hour traffic. A brisk walk would certainly clear his own head, he thought, training the china-blue eyes on her form. How good it would feel to stretch his legs with long hard steps against the noisy backdrop of Junction Avenue, stride over concrete, dirt, garbage and weeds gone dormant for the winter. But instead he reckoned that a woman who spent most of her day in dust and heat might like a ride.
"Hey there," he called through the open window.
Denise squinted into the rental and reacted in a way he hadn't imagined possible: she smiled as big as a mountaintop.
"Thanks Microphone Guy," she said and hopped in. "The bus stop is just on the corner of Whitefir Road."
"Well, I'm going all the way back into the city, so if you want to ride further…" he suggested.
They talked about dogs. They talked about beer. They talked about their teenage record collections. They sang a little to the radio. In the brittle orangey light, Denise reminded him of Sonja. Her smile of friendly curves and her unruly, gray-dappled curls brought a feeling of home and he breathed easy sitting next to her.
"How good," he thought. Denise's laughter and easy gestures surprised him. She sat chatting in his car as if they were friends. He saw an opportunity.
"I have an idea," he said, suddenly inspired. "You can do this a favor for me. Open my briefcase and read something for me there. I have written a letter and I need to know which would be the proper envelope to send."
She removed a sheaf of papers from a manila folder marked "My Letter" and scrunched her face just a bit.
He snapped off the radio so she would feel the true impact of his masterpiece, and they proceeded in silence. Denise sighed loudly. Nothing's ever free, she reminded herself, and now the ride home had a price. She swept her eyes obediently over the paragraphs as she had in school, retaining nothing while her thoughts fled the scene. Everyone wanted something. Everyone's charity had its motivation. Microphone Guy's deceptively kind offer to drive her home had tricked her. Outside of the office, she'd let her guard down and here she sat compensating for her error by having to proofread some pile of chicken scratch for this dolt. As she read the document with more focus, its meaning penetrated. She brought it closer to her face to understand concepts ranging from love to madness outlined with tables and diagrams. Plans to live together and revive something, somewhere soared and flowed from one page to the next. Now her eyes skimmed top to bottom. She devoured every mark on the page as if she were looking for some particular combination of words. Her curly head jerked up just as they pulled into the turnaround of her condo. A finger marked the place, some pages in, where she'd stopped reading. This careful finger released the sheets of pretty stationery and reached for the door handle.
"It's just on the right please."
Following the cul-de-sac curve he steered the car and put it in park. The sun had gone down on the November afternoon, and Dieter looked forward to the cold. He was eager for a dark blue season whose days came and went with barely a variation. Only a winter so bitterly chilled that one needed to wear everything just to pick up the newspaper would satisfy him this year. Oslo had this kind of cold, Kursk and even Koln, but not Farmingvale. He wanted to go home. "So, how do you think I should post it--in the plain white one or the stripes?" he asked. "Which one is the most best-suited?"
"I don't know," she began,
"Yes, yes," he encouraged, "this is my very important letter. More than ever. Please."
The woman beside him curved her shoulders together for protection and closed the file without looking at him. She realized it was time to respond, to give him the thing he wanted, some kind of advice.
"You want to know about the envelope, but it's just that all that writing… It's not going to matter. You know?"
"What do you mean?"
"The envelope doesn't matter. Only the letter matters." He turned to look out the window, but it had grown foggy and he didn't want to wipe it with his leather sleeve. That would be bad.
"You're right. So, so right. Only the letter matters. I just have to send."
She pushed her eyelids together and opened the car door to a burst of night air. The slim packet of sunny warmth they'd generated with jokes and singing slipped out instantly.
"I guess winter's here," she murmured.
She dropped the "My Letter" file on the seat of the rental and got out.
"6 weeks is the usual delivery on those 85s, right? Will it be 6 weeks, Microphone Guy?"
"Yes, 6 weeks. Possibly 8. Everything will be changed then."
A tiny bit of steam came out of Dieter's nose. He blinked once, twice, three times and drove off into the night dreaming of winter's cold.
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