After the Falls
It was just a brief glance, but I was startled, to say the least, when I thought I saw Henry Smith’s bald dome the other day. The head in question belonged to the third person ahead of me in line at the coffee stand in the lobby of Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle. I stared curiously at the back of the man as he moved forward with an easy gait that was familiar. There are a lot of bald men, I reasoned; why would I think of Henry Smith? But when he turned his head a bit, I recognized the bulbous nose, and I could see clearly that spot on the side of his mustache that would not grow because of the scar on his lip. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I tried to keep my eye on him while my order was filled, but he was getting on an elevator as I was handing over my money for a tall caffé latte and scone. I couldn’t follow him. I was at Starbucks for an interview and was not allowed beyond the lobby without being escorted. While I could swear I’d seen the man I’d once known as Henry Smith, I also knew he’d been dead for four years. Of that I was certain; I was a pallbearer at his funeral.
I am what people in the communications field call “voice talent.” That is, I have a good baritone voice, and I know how to use it to sell products. I do mostly voice-overs, but my appearance—tall, reasonably well built with good teeth and graying temples—is one that inspires trust and gives me the opportunity from time to time to work on camera. People believe what I have to say. In my business, that is the name of the game.
The Starbucks communications people had picked my head shot from a group of photos supplied by a talent agency. They’d asked for a demo tape, and the next thing you knew, I was on my way to Seattle. I wasn’t here to sell Starbucks coffee, although I hoped that opportunity would come eventually. Being a spokesperson for a national product was where the real money was. For now, though, Starbucks had brought me in from Columbus, Ohio to see how well I might do helping train their employees in proper layout and management of store displays. The company used the displays effectively to induce customers to take away other merchandise beyond the morning cup of coffee and favorite sweet roll.
I did the audition cold. They stuck me in front of a camera in their training store and rolled copy I’d never seen through a prompter. Evidently, they wanted to see how well I could make believable a message thrown at me on the fly. The producer told me I did well, and I noticed the smiles and head nods from the marketing and training people who had seen my performance. At lunch in the company cafeteria, I was told they wanted me to spend some time with the Vice President of Corporate Training. I was pleased, but while I was smiling, my eyes were darting among the tables in search of Henry Smith.
At the end of my meeting with the VP, she asked if I’d consider staying over another day. My audition had been scheduled for a quick out and back, but I wasn’t booked for any narrations in Columbus the next day, so I could stay. I was surprised when she told me that Starbucks was prepared to pay me my daily rate for the layover. She wanted me to be on-camera talent for the production shoot of one of the training modules, which, after editing, would be reviewed by the Executive Vice President who had developed the program. This, in effect, would be a final audition, and I was being paid for it. Very much appreciated on my part.
After a company driver left me at my hotel late in the afternoon, I had a couple of drinks in the bar and took a cab to one of the McCormick & Schmick’s restaurants for some Seattle seafood. Over a couple more drinks, I found myself once again scanning the room for familiar faces, knowing how stupid it was to think I’d see Henry Smith among the diners. I couldn’t get the earlier sighting out of my mind, though, unwilling to admit it was one of those strange circumstances, the notion that everybody has a twin someplace.
I worked hard the next day. Anyone who has been on camera for any length of time knows it’s not as glamorous as people think. There are the inevitable retakes from blown lines, missed timing on camera and boom mic moves, extraneous noises, and sometimes differences of opinion between the producer and director. I was impressed, though, that there was a full crew. No scrimping on the part of Starbucks. I was particularly impressed that a stylist was available to attend to my hair, makeup, and clothing. I was going to enjoy working for a first-class company like Starbucks.
Part way through the morning, while on a break as the video crew changed their setup, I discovered a company directory on a table next to a phone. I thumbed through it looking for Henry Smith’s name. As expected, there were quite a few Smiths. No Henry, but three with the initial H. I jotted down the extensions, and on the next break began to call them, not sure what I would possibly say to a Henry Smith who answered my call. I didn’t get to find out. Two of the H. Smiths were women. I got voice mail for the third who identified himself as Herman. So much for a dead Henry Smith who was working at Starbucks. Maybe the coffee giant wasn’t someone’s idea of heaven after all.
Lunch was catered on the set, so I didn’t have another opportunity to scan the cafeteria for ghosts. I did take time to check my voice mail in Columbus. There was a frantic call from a video producer at General Electric’s Aircraft Engine plant in Cincinnati asking for a revision to a narration track the next day. It was a rush-rush job for a Department of Defense proposal. GE was a long-time client of mine, so I wanted to accommodate their request. I called the guy and told him that my return from Seattle had a plane change in Cincinnati. If they wanted to pick me up at the airport and pay the penalty for the itinerary change, I’d be happy to do the revision and return to Columbus on a later flight.
I was standing outside the Cincinnati Airport waiting for my ride. I had checked my luggage through to Columbus, so all I had with me was my briefcase and raincoat. As I stood there thinking how nice it was to travel unencumbered this way, I glanced over at the people in line for taxis. My heart seemed to skip a beat. The man pouring himself into the open door of the closest taxi looked to me like Henry Smith. I was caught off guard and wasn’t certain it was Henry, but as the nose and the ragged mustache in the back seat of the taxi passed in front of me, I could tell that it was the same man I’d seen in Seattle. Maybe I’d had it all wrong. Maybe he didn’t work at Starbucks after all. Maybe, like me, he was a visitor, but one who’d been there often enough that he didn’t need an escort. Could he possibly have been on my flight and I hadn’t noticed him? Something wasn’t right. My life had taken a strange shift, and it had begun to frighten me.
Two days later I was in Columbus, seated in a recording booth reading a furniture spot. A basset hound was lying across my feet, her big ears spread out and resting gently on the floor. The dog belonged to the owner of the audio studio. He was one of those people who believed that leaving pets home alone would cause trauma. So, the dog had the run of the building, settling herself wherever she found a comfortable spot. My feet fit the bill, and that’s where she slept any time I was in house for a session.
I hated the type spots I was reading. They required that I speak very aggressively and rapidly. It was unnatural sounding, but that was the style the client wanted. Rather than enticing someone to buy, it seemed to me more an assault on the listeners’ ears, and I knew that on the tag line they would use a reverb to create an echo effect. The spots were beneath my talent, and I loathed them, but I also knew they had paid for my house over the years and that a percentage of the residuals—at my ex-wife’s request—had even been included in our divorce settlement. They were pure gold. Sometimes it bothered me to think of what a whore I’d become, but even with those feelings, I did the best job I could. I worked hard to make them seem important. That’s what I was doing when I read to the end of the second spot and looked up while turning the page of copy to the third. As I glanced at the audio engineer on the other side of the sound-proof window, the door to the control room opened, and in walked Henry Smith. I sat there dumbstruck as he leaned over and began talking to the engineer. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the engineer was waving him away, trying to get him out of the room.
Henry Smith stared directly at me for a moment then turned to leave as the engineer keyed his headset mic. “Come on, Tom, I’m still recording. Roll on into the third spot.”
“Who was that?”
“The guy that just came into the room.”
“I don’t know. Didn’t pay any attention. Told him to get the hell out of the room. I’m sick of Sue letting anybody come in here. I put the Session Light on, but she sits there doing her nails and lets people wander all over the place.”
“You don’t know who the guy was?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. I’ve got to record and mix five of these spots and get them out the door by the end of the day. Let’s just do what we’re getting paid for.”
I pulled the earphones off my head as I rose quickly, kicking the dog off my feet in the process. “I need a quick break.”
“Come on, Tom,” the engineer protested as I moved through his control room.
Sue was busy working on her nails as I walked up and asked her about the visitor.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said. “I was pretty busy though, so I guess someone could have come through.”
I hurried outside and looked up and down the street. No sign of Henry Smith. I felt like I was cracking up. Could I have imagined the whole thing? I popped an antacid tablet, hoping to control the discomfort in my chest. When I returned to the studio, I tried to talk to the audio engineer about it, but all he wanted to do was get the spots recorded. I put my headset on, the owner’s dog resettled herself across my feet, and I got back to selling furniture in my most aggressive voice.
When I think about dying, it’s never about the question of whether there’s a God. Or a heaven. I always wonder if I’ll have a chance to stop by the Havasu Falls at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They’re the one place on earth I want to visit. I’ve only seen pictures of this beautiful place, but I hope that on my way out of life, I’ll have a chance to stop off, if only for a moment.
That night I have a dream about the Havasu Falls: I am partly submerged in the water, lying on one of the flat rocks that rim the pool. The blue-green water is warm and calming, the air clean and refreshing. I lean back and look at the rocks above and the gentle waterfall that feeds the pool. Around me, the walls of the canyon whisper the secrets of the ages. I am at peace. If this is what it’s like to be dead, then I am ready to take that step.
When I awake and find myself in a cold bed, I can’t describe my disappointment. I am depressed all day, hiding in my condo, hoping the phone does not ring. But at the end of the day, it does. Starbucks wants me to come to Seattle, sign a contract, and spend a week on camera as talent for the first set of training videos.
My mood changes immediately. I am ecstatic. I can’t begin to calculate what a contract like this will do for my career, let alone my bank account. And who knows, it could even lead to that spokesman opportunity I covet more than anything. I fix myself a drink to celebrate. I’ve got to tell someone. Share my good news. But with whom? I think for a moment and can’t come up with anyone who would really want to know, except maybe Rachel. My ex-wife might hate my guts, but she knows how hard I’ve worked to reach this point in my career. If nothing else, she will appreciate the impact it will have on her monthly alimony.
Rachel is cold on the phone, but through the ice, I think I can hear the wheels of her calculator whirring. She congratulates me finally. “You’ve worked hard, so I hope you enjoy it.”
“Of course, I’ll enjoy it,” I say, suddenly irritated by her remark. “It’s a great place to work. In fact, if it wasn’t for being away from Linda, I might consider moving to Seattle.”
She laughs out loud. “Being away from Linda. That’s a good one, Tom. When’s the last time you saw your daughter? Do you even remember what grade she’s in?”
Now I’m angry. “She knows where I live and how to get in touch with me if she needs anything.”
“What about needing you, Tom? What about a girl just needing a father? Where does she get in touch to make that happen?”
I don’t say anything. I’m surfing the internet, looking at Seattle real estate prices.
“Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” I begin fixing myself another drink while I talk. “I just don’t want to have this conversation. I think I’ve given plenty of myself to you and Linda. You’ve never wanted for anything.”
“That’s not true, Tom. Should I make a list? How about love, companionship, emotional support when I left my career to start a family? How about being present to us? A check doesn’t take the place of any of that.”
There is a long pause while I take a drink.
“I called you, Rachel, because I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“I am happy, Tom. I always took a lot of pride in your accomplishments. I just hope one day that you’ll be happy for yourself, too. You don’t want to end up like Henry Smith with nobody at the end.”
“What the hell does Henry Smith have to do with any of this?”
“Think about it. Your drinking might be good place to start,” she says and hangs up.
Henry Smith again. Henry Smith. I hadn’t thought about the guy in four years, and suddenly he’s all over my life.
Henry and I had grown up together. I was as close to being a friend as he had. He was a bully at school and not a good student, and he was always in trouble with one or more of his teachers and the principal. For some reason, he never bullied me. We lived close to each other and would walk to and from school together. Henry’s father worked on the railroad and was not home much. When he was in town, he had a reputation as a drinker and a brawler. The scar on Henry’s lip, the one that prevented his mustache from growing fully, was the result of his father taking a switch to him and Henry fighting back. “Ain’t no one gonna treat me like that,” he told me. I can’t really say I hung around with Henry—my parents wouldn’t have allowed that—but we did spend some time together.
Henry surprised me when I was in college by giving out my name as a personal reference for a job selling farm chemicals. I got the call late one afternoon. I was totally surprised, stammering like a fool on the phone, and finally told the caller that I thought Henry was a hard worker and would put everything he had into the job. I was right. Henry did do well in that job and in a series of selling jobs after that.
That Henry, a man who did not get along well with others, would become a successful salesman would not seem to equate. To me, it did make sense. Where he wouldn’t be successful, I reasoned, would be in a team environment, working in a factory or in an office where he would have to interface with others. As a salesman, he was a lone wolf, and if he had enough of a gift of gab—which I thought he did—he could do OK.
I kept up with his career through the phone calls I kept getting telling me Henry had listed me as a personal reference. We ran into each other from time to time and shared a beer or two but never socialized. I knew that he’d married and had a couple of kids, but I never met his family, or he mine. I was surprised then when four years ago his wife called me out of the blue. She identified herself and told me that Henry was in the hospital. “He shouted me out of the room the last time I was there. Won’t let the kids come to see him. He’s meaner than a snake. I left him last year ‘cause I couldn’t stand it anymore. The drinking and abuse just wore me out. You’re the only person I’ve ever heard him say a good word about. Will you go see him?”
When I walked though his hospital room door, Henry turned his head away. I hardly recognized his small, shriveled body surrounded by all the tubes and monitors. I hadn’t asked what was wrong with him, and his wife didn’t say, but it was obvious that he was dying.
“Anything you need?” I asked.
He shook his head, still not looking at me. There was an awkward pause, and I could hear his labored breathing above the hum of the monitoring equipment.
“I’ve thrown it all away,” he said finally and gasped.
I thought he’d taken his last breath; the gasp was so intense. I reached down and took his hand, and he turned to look at me. “Nobody gives a damn about me.” He was struggling to breathe. “Don’t care if I live or die. I’ve thrown it all away,” he gurgled.
The long delay between breaths frightened me, and, on impulse, I bent over and kissed him on top of his bald head.
When I looked at him again, there were tears in his eyes, and then he turned away. I waited for a moment, squeezed his hand, and left. Two days later Henry’s wife called and asked if I’d be a pallbearer at his funeral.
My wife comparing me to Henry Smith is upsetting. I haven’t thrown my life away like he did. It’s obvious to me that her reaction is just sour grapes. Regardless of how she thinks of our relationship, I still put the split of our marriage more on her than me. She’s the one who felt the need to move out.
It takes me a while to pack. Wardrobe is important to someone who will be on camera. Starbucks is paying me a daily wardrobe allowance, but, in return, they will expect a good selection that is well maintained. I pick out suits, sports coats, slacks, shirts, and matching ties. I pack everything in heavy-duty garment bags, so the wardrobe should travel well. The stylist will take care of any wrinkles after a combination of clothing has been selected for each day’s shoot.
That night is the most restless I can remember. I never sleep well the night before a trip. Probably a fear that I will oversleep and miss my flight. This is more than that, though. Probably too much booze causing the heartburn. I toss and turn, my mind flashing with images from my life. My ex-wife and daughter are part of them, and so are my parents. Even pets. When I finally sleep, the dreams are rambling. Mostly I am seated in a sound booth reading copy, but when the words come out of my mouth, instead of sounds, they are pictures: Disconnected pictures. All recognizable but unrelated. And through all of them, floats Henry Smith. He and I are linked.
We are youngsters again in school, playing basketball, one game of H-O-R-S-E after the other. We are young men playing Frisbee on the beach, tan and happy, laughing as we check out the beautiful girls in their bikinis. And we are middle-aged men playing golf and watching baseball games with a beer in our hands. In all the scenes, Henry and I are together doing things we never did. And we are happy.
When I awake, I am exhausted from a night of recreating with Henry Smith. But I am also expectant, anticipating a new phase of my life. I drag myself onto my flight and can’t believe my good fortune. The plane is only half full, and I have an entire row to myself. After takeoff, I stretch out and try to read the first script Starbucks has faxed to me, but I am too tired. Soon I’m asleep. I have a sense of my body lifting and moving in flight. The breezes of the universe hold and caress me, float me through the heavens. Then I am descending slowly, and I know my destination: my special place, Havasu Falls. I am in the warm blue-green water, splashing and laughing. I float until I reach the bottom of the falls, then I stand and let the water cascade over my body, taking with it all stress and pain. With a feeling of total contentment, I move effortlessly to the flat rocks and recline, turning my face up to the warm sun. When I awake, the sun is streaming through the window of the plane onto my face. I blink in its brightness and turn away from the window into the face of Henry Smith, who is seated next to me. He smiles and takes my hand. He squeezes it gently, and I am not afraid. I know I will go with him.
About the Author
Wayne Rapp has written two books and numerous short stories, essays, and nonfiction pieces for publication. His story, “In the Time of Marvel and Confusion,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His creative writing has twice been honored with Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council.