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It was a bad year for Dave. Work wasn’t going well. His marriage was so-so. He had two teenage children and he didn’t understand them: the way they dressed, the way they talked, their political views, their music.
That was the year he turned 45 years old. He was stunned with the thought that he was halfway to 90, an age he probably wouldn’t attain given the fact that the men in his family were prone to heart attacks. Dave’s father had died just last year, and his grief was mingled with the grim reality that now he was first in line to the grave. All his life there was somebody ahead of him in that line, but now Dave was first in line.
“I’m getting old,” he thought. “Life is slipping away.” He felt that somewhere inside him there was youth, vitality, and a zest for living, but he couldn’t get it to come out.
Then he lost his job. Dave sensed that something was wrong when Mr. Bealy came into his office. Bealy was the big boss, and the two men never spoke, except at the annual company picnic, and even then the conversation was strained. Bealy was an oily, slicked-back haircut atop five-feet-nine-inches of Protestant reserve. He had a thin, ratlike smile and a voice like a hacksaw. The word around the office was that he had once fired a secretary for dotting her i’s with little smiley faces. Bealy was all business.
“We gotta let you go, Dave,” he said matter-of-factly. Bealy talked about sagging profits, a lean corporate structure, a general slowdown in the industry. “Sorry to be the one to tell you,” he said.
So Dave went home for supper unemployed and broke the news to his family. The announcement did not unleash a tidal wave of sympathy. When Dave said he’d lost his job, his wife Marjorie said, “Well, you can always find another one.” His daughter said, “Well I’m not giving up my dance lessons!” His son fumed, “Way to go, Dad.” Dave looked at his family and thought: “To you I am a cash cow. Earn the money and bring it home — that’s all you care about.” He felt like his family did not understand him. They never asked: How are you? How are you feeling?
A week later Bealy called. There was a job opening at the company. It was an entry-level job, twice the work Dave used to do for about one-third the pay. Dave jumped at it. Marjorie and the kids celebrated his re-entry into the job market by going clothes shopping.
It was a small, unimportant job. Dave worked like a dog, but at least he was working. One bright spot was his new co-worker, Barbara. She had golden hair, dancing blue eyes, a light musical laugh, and the kind of face you’d expect to see smiling from under a fox hat on a winter outing as snowflakes drifted by. She was new in town and lonely. Dave advised her to find friends. She found Dave.
The two of them got along famously. They worked hard, coming in early and staying late to reorganize their little department. They devised a new and more efficient filing system. Dave enjoyed working with Barbara. She seemed to understand him. She cared about him. Every day she asked: “How are you? How are you feeling?”
One day Bealy marched into their little office. He congratulated Dave and Barbara on how efficiently they were running their department. He said he liked the new filing system they had devised. It was saving the company a lot of time and money. Dave said the filing system was Barbara’s idea. Barbara said it was Dave’s idea.
“Whoever’s idea it was,” said Bealy, “these are for you.” He handed one to each of them.
They were plane tickets to Kansas City. “The two of you leave next week,” said Bealy. “We want you to go to our Kansas City office and teach them your new filing system. You will be traveling and staying at the company’s expense, of course. And there’s a big bonus in it for both of you. Congratulations.” And he actually smiled. At least it was as much of a smile as anybody ever got out of Bealy. Then he turned and walked out of the room.
Barbara jumped into Dave’s arms and the two of them danced around their dingy little office, laughing and hooting. “Kansas City! A big bonus! Whoopee!”
When at last they stopped dancing, Dave didn’t let go of Barbara. And Barbara didn’t let go of Dave. They stood there, staring at each other. The light was playing with her butterscotch hair, and her eyes were like two pools of deep, blue water that beckoned to Dave. He felt like he was standing at the end of a diving board, looking down into the beautiful azure water, and he was starting to lose his balance, starting to fall.
When he was with Barbara, Dave felt the youth and the vitality and the zest for living that he always wanted to feel. When he was with Barbara, he felt so alive. When he was with his wife, Marjorie, he felt so married. Dave knew what was gonna happen in Kansas City. Barbara knew, too.
And so did Bealy. Leaving work that day Dave ran into Bealy in the hallway. He thanked him for the Kansas City assignment. Bealy looked knowingly at Dave with those steely gray eyes and said, “I have three words for you, Dave: wife; two kids.”
Their flight was scheduled to leave on a Sunday afternoon. Being with Barbara was all Dave could think about. She was a cupcake on the table of life and he was hungry. He was hungry to feel alive, to love deeply, to be appreciated and valued.
He rationalized it. He thought: “I have to be true to myself. I have to follow my heart. I’m a different man today than I was when I married Marjorie. I loved her when I married her. But I’ve changed. I now have dreams and expectations that she cannot possibly fulfill. All I want is to be happy. Is that such a crime, to be happy?”
Sunday morning Dave went to church with his family, as always. Dave felt uneasy in church. The minister had these weird, disconnected eyes. One eye could look straight ahead while the other eye was looking sideways. You were never quite sure where the guy was looking. That morning Dave felt that the minister was looking at him.
“My sermon for today is on the seventh commandment,” said the minister. Dave thought, “The seventh commandment, which one is that?” That’s the one about adultery.
Dave was hoping the Scripture lesson would be that story from the gospel of John, where they bring to Jesus a woman accused of adultery, and Jesus forgives her and sets her free.
No such luck. The Scripture lesson was the story of Joseph. You know the story. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, in Egypt, where he becomes a servant in the household of Potiphar, the captain of Pharoah’s Guard. Joseph’s organizational skills and strength of character do not go unnoticed, and before long Potiphar makes him administrator of his whole household. Joseph is the chief of staff. He is in charge of everything.
Something else that does not go unnoticed is Joseph’s good looks. Potiphar’s wife, who is used to having her way with slaves, keeps whispering to him: “Come to bed with me.” Joseph refuses. Repeatedly Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. Repeatedly he refuses. Finally, her latest proposal spurned, she twists the facts to make it appear that Joseph had tried to seduce her. Potiphar is outraged, and poor Joseph is thrown into prison.
The minister talked about the barrage of temptation to which Joseph was subjected, and how easy it would have been for him to rationalize, to put a muzzle on his conscience. But did Joseph rationalize? No. Joseph resisted the temptation, saying: “How can I do this wickedness and sin against God?” Dave was sure that the weird eye was looking right at him. After the sermon Dave tried to pray, but the words wouldn’t come.
That afternoon, his bags packed, Dave waited for Barbara to come and pick him up and give him a ride to the airport. Marjorie and his kids were shopping. Dave was alone, alone with his thoughts.
It was thrilling to be with Barbara. But he wondered: “What happens when the thrill of a new relationship is past? If I leave one woman, will I leave another? Will Barbara leave me?”
He looked at the houses in his neighborhood, studying one after another. He thought about his neighbors, their lives. The neighborhood, he realized, was like a fabric, all those little lives touching each other and depending on each other in small, interconnected ways. And just as all the neighbors were part of the fabric of the neighborhood, so all the neighborhoods were part of the fabric of the city. All the cities joined in a fabric that made up the state. The states were part of the fabric that made up the nation. Everything was connected.
And now he was going to tear one little thread out of the fabric. There would be one more divorce in the world. There would be two more kids who would come from a broken home. All his neighbors, when they heard about it, they would shake their heads and say, “Dave and Marjorie are splitting up? That’s too bad.” And their shoulders would slump just a little bit more, and they would feel that much more hopeless about the institution of marriage. Every rip in the social fabric, David realized, no matter how small, weakens the whole.
A voice inside of him said, “I just want to be happy. I have the right to be happy, Is it such a sin to spend my remaining years with someone I care about deeply and who cares about me?” Replied another voice, the voice of Joseph: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”
Barbara’s red sports car pulled up. She waved and smiled that 200-watt smile of hers. Dave walked down to the car. He stared into her cornflower blue eyes. He had that feeling again, the feeling that he was at the tip of a diving board, staring down into the deep blue water that was calling to him, beckoning him. He felt like he was losing his balance.
Barbara said, “Are you ready to do this?”
And Dave said ….