October 3rd, 1974. 6:00 PM
Most people who travel as much as I do consider chain hotels in big cities to be lacking in personality. If that means they’re clean and comfortable, I agree, as I was happy the one I was staying at in Cincinnati was particularly lacking in character.
Before my evening appointments, I barely had time to take a quick shower and make a call to the home office. I wasn’t checking up on them, as Sage had earlier accused me of doing; I was actually giving them the opportunity to check up on me. You see I own the company.
When most people find out that a rather lucrative bead-selling business is under my direction they have two questions: If I own it, why the heck am I simply working as a traveling salesman? And how in the world did I become the head of such a company? If I may, I’ll answer these questions in reverse order.
Helen Solange, my mother’s aunt, is solely responsible for my current position in life. No one was quite sure what Helen did during her young adulthood, although there were some rumors. When I was a child I was told she was a spy in Europe during World War I and that much of the information she was able to extract from the enemy helped save countless lives and also aided in ending several conflicts much earlier than had she not been involved. When I got older and it was obvious she had no interest in sharing the great wealth she had attained in her later years, the stories changed. From then on they were about her doing her part for the war effort on a more personal basis by lifting the spirits of the lowliest of troops.
Whatever the true story was, after the war my Great Aunt Helen had a few dollars stashed away. She also had a love of the exotic and dangerous, which she just couldn’t find in Seattle, Washington, where she had built a home. So Great Aunt Helen went off to see the world.
One must remember that in those days travel wasn’t as simple as calling an agent and booking a package containing your airfare, hotel accommodations, and an itinerary that laid out exactly what you would do, when you would do it, and how much it cost. No, back then the idea of travel wasn’t “sanitized for your protection” like the toilet seats in rented rooms are now. Great Aunt Helen hiked through jungles, trudged through deserts, and shook hands with indigenous peoples who, even if on the off chance they had seen a white person before, were very distrustful of – if not usually violent towards – westerners.
Ms. Solange, as she preferred to be called (and will forever be known as that’s how her name appears on her headstone), liked to relive her adventures and had amassed a souvenir collection like no other on earth; ceremonial masks, primitive weapons, saddles for riding a variety of animals, etc., soon filled her house so she had to build a bigger one. And this she did, time and again.
When the stock market took a dive in 1929, along with many others, Ms. Solange did not escape as easily as she did the Headhunters of the Congo seven years previous (that is, if you are willing to believe the stories). She was left with nothing but an urge to travel, an enormous, cluttered house, and several friends who remained extremely rich despite the condition of the rest of the country. She weighed her options and decided to sell her eccentric collection in order to finance more excursions. And she was quite surprised to find out how much her curios were worth.
Ms. Solange headed out into the world yet again, this time with a more marketable agenda; since she knew it would cost her money to ship her unique findings back to the States, she settled on one particular item to collect, thinking that it would boost her profits. This article, if you hadn’t already guessed, was beads. Beads made by trained craftsmen or near-stone-age primitives, it mattered not to Ms. Solange; she acquired as many as she could from any location in which she found herself. And to her surprise, there wasn’t a culture she stumbled upon that did not prize and, therefore, create beads. Precious gems, seashells, worthless stones, available or created metals, wood or bone; whatever materials were available, the local people adorned themselves with beads made from them.
Ms. Solange (or perhaps now I should refer to her as Great Aunt Solange again since she was my benefactor) more than simply funded her excursions - she built a fortune, an empire really, by taking what one culture thought beautiful and exhibiting it to another culture that felt the same.
My parents’ deaths preceded Ms. Solange’s. We weren’t at all close to the rest of the family, so I felt totally out of place at the reading of her will. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why I had made the trip from Louisiana in the first place. I was still in diapers the only time I had met the woman. I had no long-lost relative I was hoping to reunite with, and I expected to inherit very little. But since I was between employment opportunities, I decided to head to The Emerald City.
The afternoon I walked into my great-aunt’s lawyer’s office I regretted my decision almost immediately for I knew instantly why my parents had stayed away from the rest of the relatives. Even though they introduced themselves using “Aunt,” “Cousin,” and “Uncle,” there was nothing about them that made me think “family.” What a bunch of pompous snobs! They didn’t look at me when they shook my hand; rather they gazed at my suit – which was neither black nor new, or expensive. They also seemed put off by the fact that I didn’t feign mourning, as if somehow shedding crocodile tears for a woman I didn’t know would have made her look more favorably upon me when penning something written years before.
So as each name was read off the list, and the average inheritance was around two grand, I sat back and felt pretty happy; I’d probably get enough to help me through this tough time of late. Finally my name was mentioned.
“In my travels around this planet,” her lawyer read, “I have come across many local traditions and customs. Some I found beautiful and others I found shocking. But one thing they all had in common was a thread that kept their respective societies together. Therefore, I am a great believer in the importance of these customs. And so as my final request I will hold to one which I believe is unique to this great city that has been my place of rest between journeys. A person here is to give all of her beads to one individual after her passing. Since my beads are my business, the business shall also be left to just one: my great-nephew, Samuel.”
The relatives gasped in shock, disappointment, and downright hatred. The direction their gazes at me took went straight down their collective noses.
“I met you once, and though I’m sure you don’t remember,” the lawyer continued to read, “you didn’t spit up on me. That’s the nicest thing I can say about anyone in this family.”
So that was it. From that moment on, I was a businessman in charge of quite an impressive business.
* * *
I knew nothing about commerce, and even less about beads, but I decided to look at this newfound wealth as an opportunity rather than a gift. I tried, oh how I tried, to understand just what was going on with the daily comings and goings of people, orders, purchases, sales, taxes, advertising, and all the other things that I just couldn’t grasp. It made things far less easy that my mentor was one Mr. Hubert Hallingsworth (the third, no less).
Hubert Hallingsworth III, or Hubie Three as I called him whenever I wanted to raise his ire (which was pretty much every time I addressed him), ran the business matters of the company during Ms. Solange’s later life. He was none too happy that it fell upon him to groom me in both the tangibles and intangibles of running such a large venture. An exuberant Henry Higgins to my unpolished Eliza Doolittle he was not.
Hubie Three was a bespectacled man standing no more than 5’3” with badly hunched shoulders, causing him to look upwards when talking to almost anyone over the age of 13. When he shot a glance skyward at you, he always ran his tongue along his bottom lip in a quick, nervous gesture that gave the impression he was a mouse and you were a piece of cheese, and this little rodent of a man was sizing you up to see if you met the measure of his culinary standards
Exasperated by what he perceived to be my lack of interest in learning the business, which wasn’t the least bit true (I wanted to become skilled at anything I could, but found it impossible to be taught by such an unwilling teacher), he eventually decided I should accompany him on a buying excursion to the island of Bali. Now, we had other buyers penciled-in to take the trip, but Hubie Three was certain this would be a perfect introduction to the business for me. (Naturally, at first I thought this only an excuse for Hubie Three just wanting to enjoy a vacation to Bali on the company’s dime. But it didn’t take long for me to realize this man didn’t enjoy anything, no matter where it was or who was picking up the tab.)
The journey was a long one, and being accompanied by what had to be the world’s most annoying traveling companion didn’t help. What did make it better, however, was my uncanny ability to meet new people. Some have said I’ve a “gift of gab”, but in truth, it’s much simpler than that: I don’t gab. I’ve come to realize that an interesting conversation can be struck up with just about anyone as long as you’re willing to listen. I’ve never understood people who think telling a story they’re already familiar with is a better way to pass time and make friends rather than actually getting to know someone.
Hubie Three kept his pointed nose buried in various ledgers the entire time and seemed just as happy as I that our conversations were kept to the barest of minimums.
* * *
We eventually arrived at our destination: Southeast Asia, on one of the 13,000 islands that make up Indonesia. Bali is a paradise; there are no two ways about it. If you ever find yourself there – even if you’re standing next to Hubie Three, who will undoubtedly be complaining about something – you will be astounded that this place exists on the same planet as the place you came from. I have never seen so many shades of green, each brilliant, and both exciting and calming at the same time. And this was true for every other color of the spectrum: the reds, yellows, blues, and all combinations thereof dazzled the eye and awed the mind.
My companion didn’t seem to notice any of this and wanted to get to our bungalow immediately to start making the game plan for meeting the various bead sellers we were there to buy from. This man has no soul, I thought, for in our only non-business conversation over the entire journey, he offered just one piece of information about himself: he had never been to this part of the world either.
Our accommodations were private and sparse. Hubie Three went on and on about what a good deal he had bartered for us, and I guess I should have been appreciative since technically it was my money we were spending. But really, it made no difference to me as I planned on spending very little time there. Truth be told, no sooner had I changed into clothes more suitable for the (perfect) weather than I made some excuse about stepping out very briefly, all the while having no intention of coming back for hours.
I found an interesting marketplace about a half-mile from where we were staying and thought it would be a good place to start some souvenir shopping. But as I soon realized I had no one to buy for, I decided to just enjoy the scenery, the people, and the culture.
The first thing I noticed about the people of Bali is their faces didn’t show the angst and stress like those I’d spent my life with in the United States. Their smiles were honest, yet in a way quite impish, in that they seemed so happy they wouldn’t have to leave what can only be described as the “Foyer of Heaven” as we visitors would eventually have to. As a matter of fact, I suddenly felt sorry for the luggage-ridden westerners waiting to board our single-engine plane after we disembarked.
I was admiring a booth displaying an array of fruits I had never seen before. The colors, shapes and sizes bore absolutely no resemblance to the apples, oranges, and bananas I was used to purchasing. I picked up a small, red something-or-other and was just wondering how one would go about eating it, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. When I turned, I was staring into the face of the oldest person I had ever seen in my life. The lines in her face were so deep, as if a spider had spun a web of invisible, yet indestructible silk over her features and was now residing on the back of her neck, pulling her skin taught. Her smile proudly displayed three yellow teeth. She put a reassuring hand on my chest as she started speaking in Balinese. (At least I thought it was Balinese because of our location. She could have been speaking Martian as far as I knew.) I had a book in my jacket pocket that, according to the cover, was the best English-to-Balinese dictionary a tourist could own, but her words were coming out so quickly, not only would it have been impossible for me to look them up, I was unsure of where one word ended and the next began.
At first her soliloquy seemed happy. Her crackling voice sounded uplifted, as if she were telling me something wonderful. Then her expression and tone became more serious, and she waved a crooked finger at me in warning. After that, the old woman made huge circling motions with her palms and the smile returned – as I’m sure did mine - for the “warning” part of her speech had taken me slightly aback. She then placed her palm over her eyes and tilted her head upward speaking to the heavens. Her tone was pleading, and again she placed a hand on my chest, this time to indicate her beseeching was on my account. The end of our encounter consisted of her clasping her hands together and speaking reassuringly in a few drawn out syllables.
Assuming I had been given some sort of reading by a cleric of a street-performance nature, I reached into my pocket and offered her a handful of coins. I had no idea whether I had made her day by presenting her with more wealth than she usually saw in a month, or insulting her by offering a pittance. But it mattered not because she only laughed, leaving me with the coins, utterly confused.
“She said you are about to acquire something extremely valuable,” said a voice to my left. I turned to see a young woman of about 20, a beautiful young woman, actually, dressed in an expensive-looking white blouse and skirt. Straight hair the color of onyx was tied back tightly into a ponytail, and her blue eyes sparkled, though they were shaded from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat. I was momentarily struck silent by her radiance, and this gave her a chance to continue the story in her lilting, British accent.
“But be warned. There are others who will wish to take it from you, and if that happens a curse shall befall you,” she continued.
“Really?” I answered. “Did she say what it was?”
“No, but she said as long as you keep it close you will be watched over and protected.”
“Did she mention by whom?”
“No, not exactly,” the young girl said, after biting her bottom lip and thinking for a second. “But, judging by her tone, I would have to say some of the more powerful gods or goddesses.”
“Well, then,” I said. “I’ll make sure I try to keep an eye out for it.” Then extending my hand I said, “I’m Samuel. Samuel Louviere.”
“And I am Sara Sangrayll,” she said shaking my hand, smiling vibrantly.
Totally captivated by Sara, and not wanting to simply thank her for the translation and let her be on her way, I did my best to keep the conversation going.
“So, obviously you speak Balinese.”
“A little. I didn’t have too much time to study it before our trip.” She turned and began walking slowly down the rows of tables that made up the marketplace. I had no option but to follow.
She laughed slightly, and I hoped she hadn’t sensed a slight bit of jealousy in my voice.
“Father and I,” she said, picking up a colorful scarf, spreading it out, then refolding it and laying it back on a table. “I’m taking a break from university. Father thought it would be nice for us to do a little traveling.”
“I see,” I answered. “Well, perhaps your knowledge of the language here might be helpful to me for the second time today. I was just thinking of getting some lunch, and any help I could get deciphering the menu would be greatly appreciated.”
“I accept your invitation, Mr. Louviere,” she said, considering it in less time than I had expected. So I offered my arm, she took it, and away we went to find a café.
* * *
“So, you’re into beads. How fascinating,” she said, sounding genuinely interested as we took our table. “My father has a strange attraction to beads as well.”
For a moment I pictured some stodgy old Englishman sitting at a mahogany desk, stringing together bright Swarovski crystals with the aid of a magnifying glass, then congratulating himself on completing a brightly colored ankle bracelet. I chuckled, but she didn’t seem to find anything funny.
“Of course, from a completely anthropological point of view,” she continued. “You see Father can make anything boring.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he has thousands of beads, all laid out nicely in glass cases, catalogued precisely, and numbered. He also has volumes of books with all sorts of cross-references in his quest to learn about the cultures and peoples who have created them. The sad part is I don’t believe he has the ability to find the beauty in any of them. Or in anything at all, for that matter.”
“I understand what you’re going through,” I said. “My business companion also has a way of squeezing any fun or wonder out of life. What do you say after lunch we make it our goal to avoid both of them?”
“Mr. Louviere, I find that offer irresistible. But there is one condition.”
“And what’s that?” I asked.
“That we not only avoid them, but do our best to pretend they never existed.” Her smile bordered on mischievous.
“That, Sara, is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.”
* * *
Three months earlier I had been sitting in my bachelor apartment in New Orleans feeling fortunate it was above a Dixieland jazz bar, and, therefore, every night between 9:00 and 2:00 I had free entertainment rising up through the floorboards and vents. And now such a short time later I was relatively wealthy in one of the most picturesque places on earth walking with a woman so beautiful she made everything around us seem pale by comparison. Life does have its surprises.
Sara and I walked for miles. She pointed out various temples and told me of their significance. When we were fortunate enough to witness a local ceremony, she explained what was happening and why. Her voice was light to the ears, but had weight from the heart. Whether she was telling me an historical fact or her favorite color, her words were the most interesting I’d ever heard. I was captivated by everything she had to say. When she laughed, a feeling came over me that I had never experienced. My lack of education, and the fact that my past was rather impoverished, seemed to intrigue her. There was nothing patronizing in her interest as I told stories of a life that had none of the opportunities of her own. In fact, at times she seemed envious of an existence that hadn’t had every aspect of it pre-planned. She seemed to have a longing for that kind of freedom.
Eventually the day came to an end so I walked her back to the villa she shared with her father. We promised to meet the next day in the same spot where the strange old woman had told me my future.
I don’t even remember the walk back. My head and heart were spinning too much for me to pay any more attention than necessary in finding my way.
* * *
“Father was absolutely livid!” She tried to stifle a rather unladylike laugh with the palm of one hand while grabbing my hand with the other. “He went on and on about all of the most dreadfully boring plans he had for us yesterday and all of the things he needed to show me and wasn’t able to.”
“I was put in my place, too,” I told her. “But I’m sure my business associate was glad I wasn’t with him. I think he thinks I cramp his style, or rather, his lack thereof.”
Again she laughed that undignified, yet beautiful, laugh.
“Well, let’s see how angry we can make them by disappearing today.”
“I would never disappoint a lady,” was my response. And off we went.
That day, like the one before, was perfect in every way except that it whisked by too quickly, as did the night.
We were sitting on the beach, and I had just poured the last two glasses of wine from a bottle she had stolen from her father, when the sun began to rise. It was as if God’s own spotlight was illuminating a beautiful ingénue who held the lead in some ethereal production. The points of light still visible in the sky made up the audience and the breaking waves their applause. The play was undoubtedly titled The Most Beautiful Girl that Ever Was, and Act I, Scene I opened with a kiss.
“I do believe I love you, Samuel Louviere,” was the first line of dialogue.
“I love you, too, Sara,” was the last…though the play continued.
* * *
Hubie Three was going on and on when I arrived back at the bungalow shortly before noon – though about what, I had no idea. His words made less sense to me than the cawing of any crow, except for the last seven: “And wipe that smile off your face!” They only seemed to make me happier, which in turn made him less so.
“I’m going to sleep, Hubie,” I told him. “Wake me by 3:00 if you’re here.” Then I realized that I was his boss so amended my request: “If you’re not around, be back here at 3:00 to wake me. I have an appointment.”
With that I left him chattering and went to my room.
It was well before 3:00, however, when I was awoken, although it wasn’t by Hubie. Someone was knocking rather fiercely on the screen door.
“Sam! Sam! Sam!” was the only word being said, and it seemed to be coming from a child…a child who just wouldn’t stop.
Groggily I checked my watch; it was just after 2:00. I figured it must be a messenger sent by Hubie Three to tell me I had to be at some meeting or other, so my first thought was to put the pillow over my ears and hope he would go away. He didn’t.
At the door I found a dark-skinned child of about eight. “Sam! Sam! Sam!” he continued. When he saw me, it changed to, “Sam?” He was waving an envelope over his head.
After taking the envelope and tipping him, I looked at the letter. My name was typewritten on the envelope. I thought it must have been from Hubie, though I hoped it was from Sara. After I opened it, however, I wished it had been from Hubie.
“Dear Sam,” it read. “So sorry, but plans have changed. I had to leave with Father this morning. It was so nice getting to know you. Sara.”
I couldn’t believe it. This couldn’t be from her. It wasn’t even signed. Her name was typewritten just like the rest of the text. I wondered, was it from her father?
I immediately threw a shirt on and ran off to her villa only to find it being cleaned by several servants. There was no sign of anyone staying there. I tried to speak to a young woman changing the linens, but as she spoke no English and I spoke no Balinese, it was a hopeless waste of time. I then ran off to the small airport, but Sara and her father were nowhere to be found.
Having lived in a city known for hosting intoxicated out-of-towners, I had been in a scrape or two in my life. But no punch to the solar plexus had ever knocked the wind out of me like that letter had. It was as if breathing, standing, even existing were complete wastes of time. I had come to believe that my life leading up to Sara was a worthless preamble, and everything I had to look forward to in the future would be even more meaningless.
I went back to my bungalow and spent the rest of the trip quite drunk.
* * *
After we returned, spending time in an office seemed as frustrating as living in a prison cell – like a life sentence without even the hope of a hangman to end it soon. Occasionally I’d toyed with the idea of hiring a private investigator to track Sara down so I could again tell her I loved her, but I never went through with it. Perhaps the letter was from her, and not her father. What if she really didn’t want to see me again? The thought of being a burden to her was more than I could bear.
So, needing to get out, I told Hubie he was still in charge of the company, and I decided on going to a region far from Seattle. I grabbed the leather display case that once belonged to my great-aunt and made a living off of my “gift of gab.” The decision, in part, was a lie I was telling myself. Every day I wasn’t at the office was a day Sara might have tried to contact me with a phone call or letter, and the reason I didn’t receive it was because I was over a thousand miles away. This was ludicrous, of course, and I knew it, for if she wanted to contact me, she could through the main office, and they would forward her communication to me immediately.
So, here I am, so many months later, in Cincinnati, Ohio, just having hung up the phone, getting ready to go out once again. As usual, the first thing I asked was whether there were any personal phone messages or letters for me. And, in keeping with tradition, the answer was no.
02/09/2006 © 2001 - 2006 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd