When I’m making sales, I’m jolly and jovial, buying rounds at the bar and laughing with strangers. I slap backs and knock back drinks with those who’ve fallen victim to my charm. I sing along to the songs I’ve known all my life. I nod as the regulars share stories I’ve heard too many times. I pay my tab and tip my server. I have one more before I leave.
I walk home in a gorgeous stupor, finding beauty in the stars, the mystery of shadows, amber shine of the wet streets. I hum or whistle, the merriment still rattling around in my head. I’m struck by childhood memories that have escaped me for decades. I wear the memories like a warm coat, even as my innocence no longer fits. I bask in the warmth of the spirits rushing through my bloodstream. The world is wonderful, alive and buzzing, my feet are light and nimble. I could walk all night.
By morning I’m rushed, frazzled. Yesterday’s sales have lost their luster. My head aches and the sun is merciless. It rips into my eyes, angry and punishing. I avoid the mirror. I honk at the cars in my path. It’s with heavy steps and a tugging dread that I enter the office. I am embarrassed by my own recollections. I am not the boy I once was but a man with a growing paunch, a hangover and deadlines to meet.
I need breakfast, more coffee. My phone continues to ding with reminders. Meetings lay ahead. I have a spreadsheet prepared, only it’s the wrong spreadsheet. My computer crashes. I sit in a seventy-two degree office and stew in my misery. My calls go ignored. My numbers plummet. Yesterday’s victories are forgotten.
I don’t close any sales the next day. Or the next. I don’t slap backs and tell jokes. I stare at the bubbles in my beer and wonder where it went wrong.
My father said a man’s character was all he had. Years ago, I realized he was wrong, that he was nothing short of a fool to work such long hours for such lousy pay. But he did it day after day after day. And his smile never ceased. The way he entered our home every night, beaten and filthy, weary but happy. How he kissed my mother and asked about our day. I thought he was a king.
A slap on my back interrupts my thoughts. A jovial smile, his laughter an echo of my own. I can’t put a name to the face. A man talking shop. The market and the economy. The forecasts for the year ahead. He ventures into politics and I nod excuse myself. I make my way outside where it’s spitting snow.
I call my son. His mother is short with me but I get through it. I tell them I want to visit—it doesn’t have to be Christmas, whatever works for them. It’s harder than I thought it would be, this call. She doesn’t make it easy. No one sounds thrilled. My son sounds like a stranger. I do my best. After the call, I turn back to the window, to the smiles and jokes and red-faced cheer.
I walk home quietly. Without the buzz, without the warm coat of nostalgia and memories. Flurries under the streetlight, my regrets clicking on the sidewalk. I didn’t make a sale, but I did make a call. I made a start. I look to the sky, hoping my father was wrong. Hoping he was right.
Hoping character is something you can find once it’s lost.
*In Response to the Writer’s Digest weekly prompt, Acting Out of Character