Saturday, June 26, 2010


High Calling Blogs gave us a Group Writing Project on Bosses. And I knew immediately whom I would write about: Dennis, my first boss.

My first job was at the local mall where, while half-heartedly filling out applications for fast food joints and clothing stores that were far too hip for plain-Jane me, I happened across a bookstore chain. My thought at the time was that if I could handle the bright orange d├ęcor (my least favorite color), working with books would be a more-than-acceptable way to earn money. My unfashionable clothing would work there, too. Even as a teenager I looked too much like a librarian or a teacher—which may explain how I was hired at the bookstore.

The man who interviewed me had bright blue eyes, salt-and pepper hair, and a quiet way about him that a sly smirk in his expression seemed to belie. For some reason I have never fathomed beyond my “I love books” shrug when asked why I wanted to work there, he hired me—a seventeen-year-old with no experience doing anything but babysitting.

On my first evening of work, the assistant manager, a heavy-set woman with gorgeous green eyes named Karen, trained me on the cash register. As I settled behind the island of registers at the front of the store, my new boss, Dennis, walked out of the store at 5:30 on the dot, briefcase tucked under his arm. After he left, Karen informed me that Dennis was gay. My first reaction was, “Well, I don't have to worry about being hit-on, I guess.” Karen smiled.

But somehow, despite Dennis' lifestyle and my Christian beliefs, we got along swimmingly. When Dennis brought wickedly delicious mall food back to his office, he never failed to wave it under my nose and say, “Good stuff, Maynard,” after the Malt-O-Meal commercial popular at the time. I started doing the same to him during my lunch breaks. Within weeks, we were calling each other “Maynard” on a regular basis. It stuck...for years.

A few years later, when Dennis was promoted to a larger store in the next town, he asked me to transfer there too within a few months. In this larger store, I was given “keys” as a Senior Sales Clerk and was taught how to close down the store, balance the registers, and put all the money in the safe at night before locking up.

Through my senior year of high school and most of my college years I continued to work for Dennis. We teased each other, watched The Wizard of Oz at his house, attended The Rocky Horror Picture Show together after work, had rubber band fights in the store when it was empty of customers. (Don't look at me: Dennis started it!)

Then Dennis gave us the news: he had been offered a new job at a prestigious downtown bookstore run by the only major West Coast publishing firm. My Mormon co-worker and I watched Dennis get drunk at his going-away party, drinking potent Long Island Iced Teas while we wisely stuck with cranberry juice. We tumbled Dennis into the cab he had ordered to pick him up at 1:00 AM, reporting to us the next morning that he remembered nothing after 4:00 PM. Not even almost being assaulted by a group of sailors, a story which we embellished for his benefit in the days to come. He called us often from his new job, “checking in,” he said, but in reality, he missed us.

After I graduated from college, I stopped by the downtown bookstore to see Dennis' new digs. He took me on the grand tour, explaining the vast differences between a “real bookstore” versus a “mall bookstore.” Before the days of Barnes and Noble and Borders, the bookstore Dennis managed was the largest non-university bookstore in San Diego. Customers traveled all the way from Los Angeles to drop $500 on books in an afternoon. At the end of the tour, Dennis offered me a job (“Wanna work here, Maynard?”)—which I immediately took to pay off my student loans before starting grad school.

After receiving my Master's in English but unable to find a teaching position, Dennis hired me back at the downtown bookstore. Then Dennis told us that he was HIV-positive, diffusing the staff's tension by bragging about all the milkshakes he was ordered to consume to gain extra weight—waving them under my nose as usual (”Don't you wish you could have some, Maynard?”) But within two months, Dennis' HIV became full-blown AIDS, and he quit working. And within weeks he was hospitalized with pneumonia. I had just discovered that I was expecting a baby, and on the phone Dennis joked with me about both of us being sick (“Are you barfing chunks, Maynard? Me, too!”)—the last time we spoke. One of our co-workers talked to him about eternity and seemed confident that Dennis made things right with God the day before he died.

Wordlessly I ran out of the store into the downtown San Diego streets smelling of exhaust and sea salt when Tom, our new manager, gave us the news that Dennis was gone. I leaned my back against a chain-link fence surrounding a construction site on Ash Street, watching the sparkle of the bay and missing Dennis so much that the sobs wouldn't, couldn't stop. It was October 11, 1991. On the night that we turned back the clocks to Standard Time from Daylight Savings, we gathered at Tom's house to watch The Wizard of Oz in honor of Dennis—the only memorial service he allowed us. We told stories about Dennis, alternately laughing and crying, celebrating his quirkiness, his sense of fun, and his drunken run-in with those sailors.

I still think of Dennis often although he died nearly twenty years ago. There isn't anyone like Maynard—like Dennis. I still see him, waggling his eyebrows like a vaudeville villain, waving onion rings beneath my nose, thwapping me on the back of the neck with a rubber band while I was on the phone with a customer...and hiring me to work for him four times in eight years.


Jane D. said...

Sounds like you lost one heck of a good friend there Susanne. I suspect he might just be waiting in heaven for you with elastic bands at the ready.

Susanne Barrett said...

I think so, too, Jane. I'll be waiting for that thwap on the back of the neck as soon as I walk through the pearly gates--I'm sure he'll be ducked down just inside, aiming a rubber band right at me. It will be my first heavenly experience. ;)

Anonymous said...

Susanne- First of all I so appreciate your grace in the acceptance of this man as he is, gay and all. I think this makes your story (and you!) so much more authentic; Dennis is portrayed as a man, a good friend, a joker, a very good manager - and he is loved and missed. He obviously had a significant impact on you and the direction your life took, as a book-lover. Great job. I was right there with you, leaning on the fence, sobbing for a lost friend.

I loved the Wizard of Oz memorial service, too!

Amy Sullivan said...

Susanne, a fellow bookstore worker...great story on Dennis. I enjoyed getting to know him a little through you.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

What a beautiful tribute to Dennis. I loved hearing about the progression of your friendship and your understanding of him as a person.
Thank you for sharing the story. It touched me.


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