You spend your life looking for the Friend
When you find him
If you find him
Will you get that time back?Rumi
I hear you paint houses.Jimmy Hoffa
I prepared for Wendy’s funeral. I had scheduled it in time to catch flight home, back to the people I loved and who were still alive, and where I had a bed I felt I desperately needed and would have dreamed of, had I been sleeping well that week.
Three days before, I had unlocked Wendy’s phone and contacted her three closest friends and Mike, my former stepfather, and told them where I was holding her ceremony. Mike was fifteen years her senior, and had had graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering as valedictorian of LSU some time in the 1970’s, and had quickly become a senior manager at Exxon Platistics;, he hadn’t enjoyed working behind a desk or being indoors all day, and he never wanted kids and therefore never fretted about taking entrepreneurial risks, and he had become a custom home designer and builder when we lived together in the 80’s and then went bankrupt when interest rates exceeded 16% – to this day a record in America, and many investors went bankrupt back then. We hadn’t spoken in decades. He was a good man, and always had been.
Mike’s Catholic family was so large that several parish phone books are filled half way with his family name, Richard, pronounced in the Cajun accent as Ree-Chard, and they included many Michael Richards, especially in the towns and parishes along the River Road communities between Saint Francisiville and New Orleans. Wendy had joked that the Richards had a family tree with branches like a giant stately oak, and that she and I were a family stick, a straight line of single parent after single parent rather than the dozens and dozens of cousins Mike had grown up with. He once told me that he didn’t want to have children because alcoholism ran in his family, and he had seen so much of it that he didn’t want to risk passing his genes. His father had died of alcohol related illnesses and left him and his many siblings to care for their mother. When he arrived to help repair small things in Wendy’s home, I saw that he was still wearing his father’s gold watch, but I didn’t say anything about it, and he either didn’t notice Uncle Bob’s watch or didn’t give it as much thought as I had.
I lied, sort of, to the small army of retired people from the humane society who were helping with the estate sale. I said he had been my stepfather, just like I said as a kid to avoid questions. They lived together on and off for almost 15 years, but had never married and weren’t eligible for a common-law marriage because of their breaks every few years. It was a small lie, and I’m ok with small lies about words that mean different things to different people; to me, he had been my stepfather, or whatever word communicates the emotions felt from a complex situation.
I spoke with Mike for the repaired a few small things in Wendy’s home and touched up the paint here and there, from where dogs had chewed or peed or something. Mostly, we were staying busy and occupying ourselves while the volunteers took over. I learned that he had been happily married since I left Louisiana. I asked him what was different now than when he was with Wendy, and he replied from a place of love so obviously truthful that I couldn’t help but feel happy for him even though I felt sad. He said, without hesitating, and with a joyful sparkle in aging and wrinkled eyes still wet with tears for Wendy: the love for his wife’s little girl that he had adopted long ago. Caught in the moment, he pulled out his phone, shook it to get reception and laughed and said he had forgotten how bad the reception was. He scrolled through stored photos and showed me photos of his daughter’s recent wedding. His screen saver had been him dancing with her. He never called her his stepdaughter, he either said her name or called her his daughter. I felt happy for him, but I also felt a growing sadness that confused me at first, then I realized that a part in me must still be the little boy who had hoped for more from Mike. I didn’t tell him that, just as I didn’t tell him that shaking your phone doesn’t improve the reception.
“I thought about you the other day,” he said, randomly. “I saw the news about Kieth Partin. He was your uncle, right?”
I said yes,
“Wasn’t his father, too, when you were a kid?”
I said yes, then, to change the topic, I said, “I may have lost you a lot of business back then.”
Mike had gone bankrupt when I was 16, the year I asked a judge to emancipate me from both sides of my family. He had been distracted, and though he had always been kind, he was never very observant. Wendy once commented that she had bought a new coffee table and replaced it and he didn’t notice for several days, even though he had rested his Coke on it while watching LSU football. But he was a good man, and I may have cost him some of his business back then.
“I used tell people who called for Mr. Homes that they had the wrong number,” I confessed.
He had to think about it, and then he got it and we laughed together for a few precious moments. He had originally advertised his home design business in the Yellow Pages as Michael J. Richard, Custom Home Builder, (504) 555-6926; but, as he interest rates rose to over 16%, a historical high to this day. He couldn’t refinance his rental properties, and he couldn’t keep affording to loose money on them. Every penny had counted, and he condensed his add in the Yellow Pages, under the “contractors” category, to simply: MR Homes 504-555-6926.
I probably hadn’t lost him much business. The entire country had been in a recession then, and I don’t think the few people I told that Mr. Homes dind’t live there was nothing more than a drop in the bucket. He was worried every day, using his new and expensive gadget, the first of MacIntosh computers, to send AOL emails when I though a phone call would have been simpler, but he had said that he was sending patents back and forth between a lawyer, and the MacIntosh was much faster, eventually, after you took a while to log on. He had also been an inventor, but had lost a lot of money in that, too. Everyone had a lot going on back then, but it was water under the bridge.
“You know I wrote my own patents?” I told him in the form of a rhetorical question.
“And did the drawings; I still have your engineering pencils,” I said, lost in thought and speaking mindlessly. “Sarah Blakely had someone help her with her patent, but she did most of the work herself. About $5,000 turned into a few billion. And she didn’t need investors, so she still owns 100% of Spanx; live and learn. She got lucky. You set a good example, Mike, and then I got lucky. Life’s funny.”
We were both silent for a few moments, and he thought what I said was remarkable.
“And,” I continued as I realized something for the first time, “You were the one who told me about the provisional patents in 1996. I had almost forgotten about that. I wouldn’t have risked it without that bill. Thank you; it made the difference.”
Mike had talked about Hanger Helpers a lot my last two years of high school. He had solved his problem of “angel wings” on his shirts, the two bumps that poke up on the backs of shirts hung to dry on a hanger that didn’t quite reach the shoulder seams. He was tall and thin, nicknamed “Blade” in high school and college, but he had relatively broad shoulders and didn’t want angel wings, and he prototyped a few extenders and got rid of his wings and thought he could make a million dollars selling them. He spent $12,000 on a patent attorney to do the patent drawings and file the paperwork, and became so excited that he drew engineering drawings and sent them to a mold maker who charged him $90,000 for the mold and enough plastic Hanger Helpers to sell on an infomercial or, hopefully, through WalMart or some other store that already sold hangers.
The patents were weak, and two years later the patent office had found a similar idea that negated a few details that Mike had drawn and would have to be redone for another $90,000; and WalMart had told him they weren’t interested without a patent or large warehouse of inventory, and he never paid for an infomercial and when I left Louisiana he still had boxes of Hanger Helpers filling one of the bedrooms in the big house he had invested in and designed and built, but that wasn’t selling because of the 16% interest rates. In less than a decade, Mike had gone from being the top graduate at LSU and well paid manager at Exxon to being bankrupt and destitute and depressed and living with Wendy and me; it was a rough few years for him.
He said he wished provisional patents and the internet had been around when he had lost his money, because he could have done most of the work himself and saved a lot of heartache. We chatted about Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx and America’s first self made female billionaire, who had been working minimum wage jobs until she decide to patent a better pair of panty hose. Wendy had used Spanx, like most women in America, and Mike and I agreed that perhaps he should have focused on solving her frustrations instead of his; I felt badly about being sarcastic, but I was tired and I often spoke without thinking when I’m tired.
He asked what I was doing for a living lately, and so much about Sarah’s history. The last he had heard, I had left Louisiana and was going to work as an engineer. I said that I had, briefly, but like him I didn’t enjoy working behind a desk, and I didn’t want to have a boss – I had had enough of that in the army. I learned that I was slightly disabled, barely noticeable to my 25 year old body that always seemed sore from wrestling practice, and that the VA had offered me free healthcare; with that off my mind, I focused on inventing things that would help other people with similar injuries.
I said that I had learned from him in 1996 that a new law had been made, the provisional patents, that allowed small inventors to compete with big companies by allowing a one-year hold on patents for only $100, allowing time to improve a design or seek investors. I had invented a few bone-healing implants, perhaps solving the frustration I felt at my own failed surgeries, and I learned how to patent them and raise money from investors and to facilitate teams so they we all succeed, like I had learned from my platoon sergeant and LT in the infantry. We sold the companies and their patents to larger companies with many engineers sitting behind desks, some of them probably wondering how to free themselves and spend more time doing things they loved. I got lucky, I said.
I said I was now a faculty at USD for engineering and entrepreneurship – it a small lie, because I was adjunct faculty and considered staff, not tenured – and that you can’t teach an entrepreneurship mindset, but you can discuss case studies and simply ask, “Why not you?” again and again. And I told him that I led a project based learning class called User Centered Design, and that User Centered Design was a part of entrepreneurship because you practiced iterating ideas until more users thought it was a good idea. Mike related: few people had his problem of Angel Wings, because most people used a clothes dryer and then hung dry shirts on hangers. User Centered Design was like teaching single males to invent Spanx.
I felt, but did not say, that perhaps if he had focused less on his problems and more on other people’s, he may have been more successful; I was tired, and parts of me were surfacing that seemed harsh, bitter, and regretful. Fortunately, I also felt a lot of love for Mike resurfacing. He had always been a kind man, and I really did believe that a lot of my success and happiness stemmed from him. I told him that.
He cried and so did I, and we embraced silently for a few moments, and I, still holding him, told him that he had been a good man, and that Wendy would have been happy to know he was there. I told him how much we both had loved his mother, Mrs. Richard we had called, and that if I knew how to love, it was because of his mom, and that Wendy had kept the rosary Mrs. Richard had given her only a few short years ago; Mrs. Richard had passed away at age 96, but I hadn’t heard until after the funeral, and I was sorry for his loss. We briefly sobbed in sync, then stood back and laughed it off and returned to chatting about Wendy, and he asked if I remembered her joking about our family being a stick. Of course I did, but I let him tell it, anyway.
I never mentioned that he had left Wendy for one of her neighbors with two older children and a baby girl, and that Wendy had begun drinking soon after. Some secrets are ok, and every word I told him was truthful.
He left and I began to feel overwhelmed. I changed focus, and began to walk around Wendy’s house and think about what would I share with Hope when I got home.