Ken Copeland passed Mad Tom almost every morning, so he knew that the man was frighteningly accurate. Tom saw the things most people didn't notice about you, and his psychosis had eliminated any social barriers that would prevent him from saying them. Mad Tom would tell you if you got laid last night, if you were desperate, smug, rageful or self-satisfied. Some mornings, Ken avoided him, but more often he walked to the subway past Tom's corner, curious to know what Tom would say about him. Ken, after all, was a salesman, and you can't be in sales and be too sensitive. Ken could take whatever Mad Tom could dish out; the daily stroll became a contest of sorts. Ken would try to knit his face up to deceive Tom--trying to look sad, for example, the day after seducing a woman he had been working on for a long time. That day, Tom's surprising laughter was explosive; he held Ken's gaze for his whole traverse of the corner. "You got it," he sputtered, "you got it, and you want me to think you're sad." And he shook a finger at him.
On the morning of Ken's fortieth birthday, though, Mad Tom told him: "You're desperate, man. You'd better settle down." Ken had been experiencing an absence of feeling--an increasingly common thing lately. When Tom analyzed him, Ken had an epiphany: "He's right.... I must be depressed." He hadn't known he was desperate until Tom told him.
Ken recruited and placed software developers for a living; unlike most of the friends who had started at Psy Systems around the same time, nearly twenty years before, Ken never chose to get off the telephone and exclusively into management. He was known as the best recruiter who had ever worked at Psy, probably the best in the industry. His forcefulness and charm, coupled with his careful management of information, justified the reputation. He never lied to an applicant, but literally seduced him into a new job by doling out information about the new employer. No-one else had Ken's bravura or sense of timing.
For some time, he had clearly been off his feed. Ken dysfunctional was still a better recruiter than most others at the top of their game, but Ken couldn't hide anything from Lyle Doggett, aka Dog, his childhood friend and the founder of Psy.
One Thursday night, as was their ritual, the senior employees of Psy took the junior recruiters out to a sports bar and told them lies and war stories about the business. A significant number of these tales were about famous pranks played on each other by Psy employees; one of the most recent dealt with the time, a year or two before, Ken had brought a girlfriend into the office to spend a day with him on the pretext that she was an applicant for a recruiter position. That Thursday night, Ken made a promise which would become the best-known of Psy myths, but not for the reasons he intended.
Dog had been on him for days with his usual mixture of mischievousness and concern. All the men were jealous of Ken because he had been with more than 140 women in his life. The same honesty and charm which made him a great recruiter had made Ken a famous swordsman as well. When Ken felt low--a rare event in earlier years but becoming more common now--it was hard to feel too sorry for him; the cause, after all, might be nothing more than the escape of victim number 141 before the deed. But Dog, at the same time he felt jealous of Ken, loved him as well, and when Dog loved someone, he couldn't rest unless his friend was happy. Dog himself had spent years searching for the right woman, and had only married two years before. In love with his wife and with marriage, Dog insisted that the only cure for Ken's malaise was to dedicate his sword to the service of one lady, like a mediaeval knight.
It was not a new conversation, but for the first time Ken found himself seriously considering marriage as the solution to his depression. He was at a low point, an interregnum in his sexual affairs. For years, in addition to his usual assortment of brief encounters and one night stands, he had had three regular partners, with each of whom he was completely honest about his sexual adventurism. Two of these women had broken off with him recently, and for some reason he had not been successful in replacing them with anyone else interested in a stable, long term, nonexclusive relationship. The third partner, Keri, seemed increasingly bitter and distracted and he saw her much less frequently. He had an impression that he had to work harder these days to seduce someone, and he was increasingly seeing women who were likely to be dependent on him, or demanding, or to act in an unbalanced way. He felt that he was not as charming as he had been, and he knew that a quarter-sized male-pattern bald spot had formed on the crown of his black hair.
That Thursday night at Ryan's, Ken announced that he would describe an ideal bride, make the world manifest her, then meet, seduce and get engaged to her within a six week period. He would accomplish this using nothing more than his natural charm and some tricks of the trade known to all recruiters.
Dog thoroughly approved. Ken seemed livelier than he had in a long time, the goal was marriage, and an added advantage of the whole affair was that Ken's use of recruiting techniques to find a bride would motivate and educate the young salespeople. Some bets were placed, and Ken was promised a premium if he accomplished all three goals--meet, bed and get engaged--two weeks or more under schedule. Dog, who did not bet, held the money and promised to be the arbiter of any ambiguities. For example, there was some fear that Ken was already secretly engaged to someone and would simply pretend to meet her now--which everyone believed Ken might do, not from malice but because it would be another famous Psy Systems prank.
Dog swore that he knew Ken was not engaged, and would know if Ken had already met a woman like the one he was about to describe.
Ken stood and holding up his tall glass of Anchor Steam, as if about to declaim a poem, said meditatively:
"The woman I marry should be someone I admire--someone like me, but tougher. Therefore, she should be a successful salesperson. Not a recruiter, because there is no recruiter better than me." (He had already had five beers.) "She will be a stockbroker--a profession in which they work twice as hard as we do, and under much higher pressure. She will earn a higher income than I do, so that I can retire when I feel like it and be supported in my accustomed lifestyle." He was silent long enough to down most of the contents of the glass, and capture the waitress as she passed.. He took her by the arm, facing the young recruiters with him, and said, "And she will look like young Sinead here." Sinead was a striking blond girl from Ireland, thin and wholesome looking, with sensuous lips but a vain and vacuous personality. At this, the young people burst into whistles and applause.
Dog knew that Sinead had gone home with Ken once or twice, behind her steady boyfriend's back.
Ken started his project the next day with most of the younger salespeople gathered around his cubicle in the Psy bullpen. He held up an alphabetic list of all the stock brokerages in New York City, then began calling them in order. He told each receptionist the same rueful story: a week before, he had been invited to join a group from the firm at a bar, and he had talked with a beautiful young blonde broker whose name he had forgotten. He was very eager to meet her again; did the receptionist recognize her from the description?
Receptionists have a boring job. They have been trained to deflect salespeople trying to sell the firm stationery, computers, and various services, and to detect competitors trying to trick them into giving out the employee directory. But not even the most hardened of receptionists saw anything threatening to the firm in Ken's desire to be reunited with the woman who had infatuated him in the bar. It was a romantic story, and one receptionist after another--including several men-- was sorry not to be able to provide an ending.
It took Ken less than three hours to make the world manifest his intended. On his eleventh phone call, a receptionist from the Kearn Compton firm said, "Oh, you must mean Donna Ray."
In ten more minutes of conversation, Ken elicited that Donna was beautiful, had recently broken up with her boyfriend, loved pink roses, drove a BMW and was one of the higher performing sales people in the office. Ken also learned that the firm's brokers all went out to Pedro O'Hara's, in the South Street Seaport, on Thursday nights to drink buckets of Coronitas.
The following Thursday night, Ken, Dog and the youngsters left work early, in order to establish themselves at the bar before the Kearn Compton group arrived. Ken tipped the bartender liberally for the first round of drinks and elicited a promise to point out the Kearn crowd when they arrived. Ken had no way of knowing if Donna would be with them, but if she did not show up, he would make friends with her co-workers, a natural way of earning an introduction to her. If she was there, Ken had a very high confidence in his own ability to charm any woman in a half hour of conversation. New York women trained to believe that any stranger is a psychotic killer relaxed easily with Ken because he exuded sincerity. It was not an act; one thing that made Ken so successful, in sales and with women, was that what you saw was what you got.
Like an acrobat not contented to perform only the act he has promised, but who constantly raises the rope and makes the net smaller, Ken had sent Donna pink roses that morning, signed "From ???" It was a completely unnecessary act of bravado; he had only to meet her tonight at Pedro's, talk her up and ask her out, and the flowers did not really raise the odds of success. Instead, they raised the level of risk; she might be disturbed or frightened by the gesture or conclude that he was strange or a phony. If the risk paid off, he might get her to bed and to an engagement much faster by positioning himself as the mystery man instead of as someone just encountered at Pedro's.
He could always decide while talking to her to proceed without mentioning the roses, but now that he had put them in play, this would cause a loss of face with the young salespeople. Another grave danger was that Donna wouldn't really turn out to be pretty, despite the fact the receptionist thought she was. He had considered posing as a messenger and getting a look at her before really starting the game, but there wasn't time.
"That's the Kearn crowd," said Billy the bartender, and Ken actually felt his adrenaline flowing and his heart begin to beat as if he were in the second ten miles of a marathon. He turned and saw the usual assortment of stockbrokerish men approaching, but with them was a woman as beautiful as Sinead, whom he had used as a model for her. The highnecked blouse, the grey jacket, and her sad and remote expression immediately determined him on a strategy. He did not approach Donna but within twenty minutes was good friends with the man sitting next to her. Donna went to make a phone call and Ken turned up the electricity, awing young Andrew McDonough with Psy Systems war stories. As Donna returned--she had been gone twenty minutes--Ken asked, "My goodness, is that Donna Ray?" Andrew introduced him and forty-five minutes later, having given his seat to Ken, was down the other end of the bar with some other Kearn employees, admiring Ken's technique. Donna's only thought was that she was coming to the end of some dark months, and had met someone good-looking, charming, smart, self-deprecating and funny, whom she would certainly agree to see again.
Ken had made the Psy group promise to leave as soon as they saw him talking to Donna. Some of the young people had objected so strenuously that he had finally agreed that they could select one of their number to stay behind. As a result, there was a witness sitting nearby who could verify that Ken, when he had already charmed Donna Ray and there was absolutely no need to do more, had said:
"I have a confession to make."
"I sent you some pink roses today."
Donna didn't know how to take this; she was inclined to be troubled by it, except that she had been exposed to so much of Ken's charm and easygoing sincere humor that it was hard to be suspicious of him. "But how? I just met you...."
He said he had been in Pedro's a week or two before and sat near the Kearn group. He had called the receptionist to get her name and discovered she liked roses, so he had sent some. Donna even thought she remembered noticing him; he was a distinctive-looking man, with his wide shoulders and black hair.
With his usual sense of timing, he got up just then. "Donna, I have to leave now. When may I see you again?"
On Friday night, he took her to Lutece and ordered champagne. He made another date with her for Saturday. They had a few drinks and she invited him up. Their lovemaking was unusually distinct for Ken, because of the danger of the game. On Monday night, she told him he was rushing her and she needed to think. Ken knew he could have gone much more slowly and steadily without scaring her, but he didn't care. He was like a concert violinist who, all set to play the safe cadenza written by Paganini, improvises his own instead. He was the unstoppable Ken Copeland. All of the young recruiters adored him. They made their own more pedestrian phone calls to applicants with increased excitement, proud that they worked with the immortal Ken Copeland. Dog floated around the office as if on a cloud, happy that Ken was happy and that the group's morale was at a high.
Ken called Andrew McDonough at Kearn and ascertained that Donna spoke of him all day to anyone who would listen.
But she did not call him Tuesday or Wednesday and Ken's belief in his own power began to flag.
Ken knew that if he called Donna, the chances were greater than ever she would immediately agree to see him. This might just be a test of his resolution. But he was raising the bar again. Donna had to call him. If he was the first to pick up the phone, it would be a defeat, even if no-one knew but himself. Nonetheless, he didn't plan to wait longer than Thursday to call her.
Thursday was a black day at Psy. Ken started the day neurotic, convinced that everyone knew he was in a rare period of self-doubt. He attempted to simulate his own usual easy good cheer, and felt he wasn't convincing anyone. Then, he had his first fall-out in more than a year, and three young recruiters whom he managed had fall-outs the same day.
A fall-out occurred when an applicant accepted a job at one of Psy's clients, but didn't show up for work, or quit within a week or two. For the younger recruiters, a fall-out was usually evidence they hadn't done their job properly. An applicant was working with other recruiters and looking at other jobs without the Psy recruiter's knowledge. Or the Psy recruiter failed to describe the new employer or job properly, and the applicant discovered something which made him renege on the deal.
You could be the best recruiter in the world--you could be Ken Copeland--and you would still have an occasional fall-out, a pathological liar who took a job to hold it open as a back-up. No matter how carefully you qualified your applicant, no matter how much of a psychologist you were, you'd still get cheated and have a fall-out once a year or so.
Ken was distressed that his annual fall-out had happened on this particular Thursday, when Donna hadn't called. It was like a malevolent meteorite smashing into his backyard-- a very bad omen. Every offer a client made to a Psy applicant was written on a large whiteboard on the bullpen wall. When the applicant accepted, a checkmark was put next to the applicant's name. An applicant rejecting the job or falling out, was indicated by an X. It fell to Ken to erase four check marks and replace them with X's.
Dog, usually manic, fell into his depressive phase. So many fall-outs in one day meant that no-one was doing the job; they were all so involved in the Ken-Donna romance that no recruiting was getting done. Worse, he was beginning to have doubts about whether Ken's rush at Donna was healthy behavior. He took Ken out for lunch in the Chinese restaurant around the corner and asked him:
"Does this mean, if you married her, you'd give up Keri and the other women?"
"I don't know," Ken said. He didn't want to talk about Donna because he wasn't sure it was a happening thing. But Dog, manic even when depressed, wouldn't let him be silent.
"I don't even know if it would be necessary," Ken said after repeated questions. "Maybe Donna will want an open relationship. Stranger things have happened."
"Suppose she doesn't? Would you sneak around behind her back?"
"I might," Ken said. It was too late to take the words back, but he was convinced that their magical impact was that she would never call.
Dog covered him in abuse. Was he getting married just to win six thousand dollars? It was an awful lot of trouble to go through, especially since the divorce was likely to cost more than six grand.
"I would wait a year," Ken said.
"I would be faithful for a year after the wedding," Ken said. "Then I'd see."
"You're a dopey shitbird," Dog said.
They went back to the office but an hour later, Dog was very troubled and made Ken take a walk with him.
"You're not teaching the youngsters good habits," he said.
"Dog, what the fuck are you talking about? I can't teach them any habits at all if I'm not on the phone. Lets go back to the office and I'll get back on the phone."
"This is not a close," Dog said. "Its a cram."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"This isn't the way I taught you to make deals eighteen years ago. You're not closing Donna, you're cramming her into the job. The job of being your wife. Your applicants always end up with the whole picture. But if you propose to Donna and she accepts it will be in ignorance of all the relevant facts."
"You dopy shit," said Ken.
"I'm serious. You could take it slower. You're in such a fucking rush to show the kids how big your balls are. You're doing this all wrong."
"Go eat a bag of shit and bark at the moon," Ken said. "Donna's not an applicant. She's a woman."
"The Ken Copeland I know doesn't treat women that way. You could sleep with ten times as many as you already do if you lied to them. I never saw you lie to anyone before. What happened to 'what you see is what you get'?"
Ken thought he saw: "You moron. You're in love with her."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"You must have taken a big fucking shine to this girl in Pedro's. Now you're her defender. You were totally hyped up about this bet. Now you can't live with it. Fuck you."
He was so mad at Dog he went home early, cracked a beer, and slipped "Bull Durham" in the VCR. Just before five o'clock, the phone rang. It was Donna, calling from her office.
"I called you at work but Mr. Doggett got on and said you weren't feeling well. He seems like a very nice man."
"He isn't," Ken said. "He's a lecherous, tight-fisted dweeb with a microscopic pecker. I wouldn't have anything to do with him if he didn't pay me the big bucks."
"I've been doing some serious thinking. I missed you this week but I had to think."
"I need to know how you really feel about me."
"I think you're the most exciting woman I've met in a long time." It was the truth, but not as important a truth to the speaker as it was to the listener. A salesman sells himself first. The woman Ken was speaking to at a given moment was always the most exciting woman, especially if he could smell her perfume and was looking into her eyes.
"Things are going so fast. I need to know this is not a routine or a scam."
"I really like you," Ken said, which was also true and didn't seem to him inconsistent with the way he was treating her, since it gave her pleasure.
"I could fall in love with you very easily. I've been hurt before, really badly. And I don't think I have an infinite ability to keep trying again. So I want to ask you something."
"Call me tomorrow and make a date with me for the weekend. If you're not serious, don't call. If you don't call, I will get over it. If you call me tomorrow, I'm going to assume you mean what you say. I'll let my feelings go down whatever road they will. Don't do that to me unless you're willing to go down that road too. I mean it. Think about it overnight and decide if you want that." The last three sentences were uttered in a breathless rush and she hung up the phone, afraid to let him speak.
He wanted to think but he knew if he stopped to think, he was lost. The salesman in him, the pleaser, knew exactly what Donna hoped for. He immediately dialed her office. The receptionist he had grilled to get her name and preferences answered--a good omen. She put him on hold, then came back on. She was his ally, and in a way, Donna's, but only by doing what she thought Donna wanted, not what Donna said. "She was leaving and I grabbed her for you." Ken was sure that Donna had told her to say she had already left.
"I told you to call me tomorrow."
"This is tomorrow," Ken said.
He made a date to meet her in an hour at Pedro's, then called the office and told Dog, "Collect the gang and be at Pedro's in an hour."
"I'm meeting Donna and I'm going to pop the question."
He had time to think while he showered and shaved. Now he wondered if he should have let her go. It would have been more honest. He should never have made the bet, or looked for Donna Ray in the world. But how do you tell the man about to plunge the kayak down the class V whitewater to stop and turn around? Its not physically possible. The only sop he could offer his conscience was the insubstantial but ever-renewing excuse of the master salesman selling himself: I can make it true. I will love her. I will be faithful. She will not regret it. He didn't know how. But he almost had confidence in his own indomitable will.
Years ago, when his policeman father was still alive, his mother had given Ken her engagement ring. By the time Ken Sr. suffered his lymphoma, both parents had given up hope their son would ever be married, but his mother had never asked for the ring back. He found it in the locked desk drawer and slipped it in his pocket. It was a modest ring, with garnets and a small diamond, but what it lacked in value would more than be offset by the sentiment attached to it, once he told her the story. The advance remorse he was feeling for his own behavior died away a little, supplanted by the interest of the situation. He felt no plan could have been more advantageous than this wholly improvised scenario. He was at the top of the wave; his immediate return phone call a few minutes before had bought him immense credibility with her. He had not responded to her with the whining of an ordinary mortal: "Donna, don't rush things, don't put me on the spot, let's play it out." If he had invited her back to Lutece or another fancy restaurant a week in advance, she would have had time to daydream that a proposal was in the offing, and to rehearse her own speech telling him she needed time to think. She would be completely blindsided by a proposal in Pedro O'Hara's, and there was every prospect she would accept him on the spot.
When he saw her in the bar, he realized he did not know anything about her. She was older and more experienced than Sinead, thirty to Sinead's twenty; her face had more character than Sinead's vapid face. She had very large, beautiful eyes, and a certain gravity he appreciated in women. His longtime friend and lover Samantha had had it almost in excess. He felt that Donna was steady, that once you won her to your side you could count on her. She towered above the other Kearn salespeople by sheer force of her character and they all knew it. Their lovemaking the weekend before had been a shock to him; he had been so careful to stay away from women who might fall in love with him that he had long forgotten how exciting it was to make love to someone who was infatuated with you. He understood that love was a feedback system. It was simple vanity, the vanity of the master salesperson, to be in love with someone because they loved you. Or might.
He exchanged a few pleasantries with Andrew and the other Kearners. Donna watched his face with her huge eyes, steadily and calmly. She had lost all of the nervous excitement she had displayed on the phone. She trusted him and was ready for anything.
"Let's ditch these dweebs," he said smiling, and drew her away by both her hands to a table. Unknown to Donna, Dog and the Psy crew left the bar and drifted over to the tables on either side of them. They watched the TV, murmured inaudibly to each other, and were careful not to pay overt attention to Ken and Donna. It was an old routine.
"I have a few questions for you."
"Shoot," she said.
"Alive. Divorced. Mom lives in Bay Ridge. Dad is in Florida."
"What kind of a name is Ray?"
"Aha," she said, blushing. "Its Raefino. I'm Italian. When I started selling stocks I took the name Ray."
"Aha," said Ken smiling. "I'm Coppolino. When I started recruiting, Dog--Mr. Doggett to you--made me take the name Copeland."
" Yes. Are you registered to vote?"
"Well, lets call the whole thing off."
"Let's not and say we did. Brothers and sisters?"
It took Donna a moment to answer. "I have a younger sister. She's sick though. She's in the hospital a lot. I don't really like to talk about her."
This was the hardest moment. He didn't know whether to pick it up or leave it. Anything he said might seem artificial. "You don't have to."
Donna was looking past him at the river, which was doing that Impressionistic thing in the early twilight.
"The river didn't used to be so beautiful," he said, "but in the last century they hired Monet to come over and redo it. He was at the height of his water lilies period." That earned a smile.
"Can I talk to you about something serious?" she asked after a few moments. They were holding hands and he thought she was clutching him quite tightly.
"I've decided to leave Kearn."
"I've been admitted to social work school at NYU. I got in last year, but I deferred until January. They won't defer me any more and I had to make up my mind. This has something to do with my sister. I want to work with people like her."
Ken was speechless. He wanted to say, "But...But..." He wanted to say, "But you're the Ken Copeland of Kearn. You're the salesperson everyone else aspires to be. The one with the mastery of the information. You're the girl on top of the wave, the one with the poise and the intelligence to go on selling, and closing, when everyone else quits. You can't quit sales. You have that quality, the wu or the wa, and how can you quit it when it will never quit you?"
But he saw it was all nonsense. She hadn't imparted that to him. He had given it to her but it wasn't her. It was the dream-Donna.
So he let her go on talking but a little while later, he was in the men's room, wetting his forehead with a paper towel.
He had a vision in which she inhabited his apartment, his bachelor pad where so many women had passed, and her combs and bras and bobby pins were in every corner. Her cold cream and contact lens solution. Her little socks under the pillow. Every night when he came home she was already there. With thick books on "Case Management" and "The Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis." With no money coming in. She had mentioned she had enough saved, so he would not be expected to pay the tuition. Or maybe he would, as a sign of love. Then she would graduate, and take a job for twenty-five thousand a year-- she who made four hundred thousand. And she would work with people who drooled and slobbered, who were fat, smelly and drugged, or who were smelly and elderly and festooned with dripping IV's and wires. And then every once in a while a phone call would come, and they would rush out at three in the morning to an emergency room to meet the mongoloid or drug-addicted or MS-stricken or AIDS-suffering or suicidal sister.
Dog came in when he had been hiding in the bathroom above fifteen minutes.
"She's quitting sales and going to social work school."
"So? Would it matter to you if she worked at all? You make enough money. If you make enough for her to stay home, you make enough for her to be a social worker." Dog's wife had given up sales to stay home and have children.
"You don't understand."
Dog did that eyebrow thing.
"I can't be married to a social worker."
They were silent together because Dog, who loved Ken, saw that the Donna deal had ended. He had always known when to argue with Ken and when not.
But Dog grew alarmed when Ken said, "I'm going home."
"You're not going back out? You're going to leave her sitting there?"
"I made a mistake," Ken said. "What am I going to do now? Lie to her?"
"You're going to let her down easy," Dog said, with the old authority he rarely had to exercise over Ken any more. "You're going to go finish out the evening. You can't just walk away."
"I don't know what else to do. I'm ruined," Ken whined. "I have to go home."
"If you leave her there, don't come in tomorrow. I mean it. She doesn't deserve this."
"You take her home," Ken said. But he went back out to Donna. She knew something had changed, but couldn't figure out what. He took her home, then never called her again. She left him one message, which he never returned, and then she wondered about him for years. Dog thought about calling Donna to apologize, but she did not know him and he would not have known what to say.
The ring went back into the desk drawer and Ken paid his co-workers six thousand dollars.
It became the most important of Psy Systems myths, and the first one told when the subject of conversation was Ken Copeland.