He works for the same company as me, so I see him at sales meetings and the occasional Sunday night get-together over drinks and a baseball game on TV. Otto is a gruff, funny man with a perpetually dispeptic air, someone who’ll swiftly puncture any balloon of hope that drifts within range. His remarks can be harsh but they’re rarely cruel—he usually knows what he’s puncturing and why it deserves to be punctured.
I’m not sure I have all (or even any of) the details right in what follows, but I’m sure the gist is correct.
His wife died, I believe, a few years ago. This is storyteller’s memory—I don’t retain details, only that his story started with her disappearing. Any way you lose a loved one tears at the heart and that damage is what I remember.
This left him with a son and daughter, both around college age. His wife’s mother was also living with them when she passed and what can you do? He kept shouldering that weight along with the kids.
The son started having trouble in school and dropped out, is looking for work but not finding much. In the meantime, he has to see his friends and play videogames and all those important things so…
And then the daughter finished school and spent six months looking for a job, finally grabbing something part-time that had at least the hope of leading to something longer-term. She couldn’t afford anywhere on her own so she settled home too.
Our commissions have dropped in half the last several years, a combination of the economy and internal pressures from the company. So Otto finally started demanding something toward the rent from the daughter and mother-in-law. He also announced he was selling the second car—the kids could divide the remaining one to run errands (including taking him to and from work) as the price of having a car available to them.
The next time I saw him, a few months later, I asked if things had gotten easier and he laughed out loud. His father and mother had gotten overextended with credit cards and the price of everything rising (fixed income, you know how it is) and everything just got out of hand – until they lost their house.
So, of course, they moved in with him.
And, of course, they needed a car to get around, to do the things they needed to do. So Otto kept the second car (luckily he hadn’t sold it in those few weeks where he seemed to have a plan) for them—they were nice enough to actually offer something toward the rent. He was intermittently getting a little help from the others, after their solemn promises those few months earlier.
I didn’t see Otto for several months after that. A few days ago, I was told he went into the hospital. Yesterday, one of the other salesman, who knows him better, told me he was refusing treatment, even refusing tests. ‘It’s like he wants to die,’ he told me.
So as you read this, I’ll be sitting in Otto’s store, minding it while he fades away. It’s scary how common the details of his story are, how familiar the terminology of decay, defeat and brutality. How many steps did it take to incrementally accept this everyday grinding-down?
This not only isn’t the way people’s lives should go, it’s actually hard to conceive of a set of circumstances that would cause a sane person to choose the world that’s developed around us.
And if I’m waiting for a better world to come, who’s going to bring it?