“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.”

Anonymous

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Inside a Secret Keeper’s Private World
Written by John Howard Prin, LADC   

Meet Brad, 41, employed, educated, married, father of three, and condemned to walking a tightrope between two opposing worlds daily.

Brad drives to work on Friday with a sleep hangover. He arrives at the offices of CorpTech and heads to his desk, carefully avoiding his boss’s office but managing to mumble hello to the office manager, Maryanne. He plasters on a smile in hopes of appearing convincing to her while concealing his red, puffy eyes behind his tinted eyeglasses. This morning, like most mornings, Brad’s inner world is chaotic. Two pressing thoughts disturb him, one the wrenching sense of regret about staying out till 3:30 a.m. at the casino and sneaking back into the house (where he slipped into bed next to his wife Nancy), the other a gnawing urge to win back the $700 he squandered at the craps table before the bank cancels his account for too many overdue loan repayments.

His desk is messy. His phone light is blinking. The proposal for CorpTech’s computer hardware customers sits piled where he left it yesterday when he ducked out a couple hours early to go ask his fishing buddy for some cash. That eighty bucks Dave floated me, wow! I parlayed it into $700! he tells himself. I was up and should’ve quit. But the damn bank wants a thousand repaid and I had to go for it.

Brad boots up his PC and resumes writing the proposal in-progress, a contract for the installation of leased computer peripherals. Making headway, he feels good about being productive and whistles quietly to himself. He enjoys the work flow, despite a few nasty yawns, then pauses to look up the phone number of a bill consolidator and dials the phone, but changes his mind and dials a familiar number instead. I wonder if Mom is happy about my paying for her lawn mower to get repaired?

His mother answers. After chit-chatting, she expresses surprise “that your $35 check bounced. With your salary, Brad, don’t you keep that kind of money in your account?”

If you only knew! Sorry, Mom, I don’t need to go there right now.

Brad makes up some glib quip and says he’ll call again later. Just then his boss pokes her head in the doorway. “’Morning, Brad. How’s that deadline coming?”

“Oh, uh, hi Kate. Uh, I’d say sometime shortly after lunch.”

She detects something about his sluggish, sleepy-eyed appearance that irks her. “Out late again, Brad? What adventure was it this time?”

He turns jovial, smiles. “Private business, just a little fun. Sorry about being such a big pain in the ass to this company, but I hope my consummate leasing expertise outweighs my foibles. And besides, you are the nicest, most understanding manager I’ve ever had. Working with you is sheer pleasure. So there. Two days ahead of schedule isn’t bad, is it?”

Kate smiles back, apparently tolerant of him enough to be pleased about his output. Spinning on her heel, she leaves. Whew, that was close! Brad grimaces, feeling a severe abdominal pain. Not another ulcer attack!

At lunchtime, Brad finds only coins in his pocket. He approaches Maryanne’s work area to ask for five dollars from the petty cash drawer. The office manager is not at her desk and nobody else is paying attention. He reaches for a note pad, scribbles an IOU, opens the petty cash drawer, and takes out a ten. Closing the drawer, he makes certain nobody is watching, and “just happens” to crumple up the note as he leaves.

An hour later, Brad is hammering away at the proposal back at his desk. He gets a bright idea, pauses to make a calculation, smiles broadly at the result, adds the information. Feeling productive again, he seems proud of himself. A half an hour later, he presses Print and sits back contentedly—pleased he has met the deadline.

Abruptly, pangs of worry deepen his brow. Oh boy, tomorrow is the twins’ birthday and I’ve promised to take them and Justin to Six Flags. I don’t have anywhere near the money I need! And my credit cards are maxed out. Nobody to borrow from. Now what? Frowning, he writes some numbers down on a pad, frantically trying to figure out a solution. What the hell’s wrong with me? A simple day out with Dad becomes a crisis? How did I get into this mess? He caves in, goes numb, stares at the computer screen, doubtful and depressed.

In a flash, he clicks on Internet Explorer and goes to one of his favorite sites—photos showing nude female models. For the moment he seems distracted from the ugly, urgent thought of disappointing his children, of looking bad and making excuses. Another sudden click of his mouse and he exits the site, shaking his head. What a pathetic hypocrite! Getting horny over young women hardly ten years older than my own daughters! What a jerk!

Brad rubs his eyes, yawns, exits the Net, and heads for the office commons where he retrieves his proposal from the printer. Walking to his boss’s corner office, he hands it to Kate. She skims it and smiles. “Very nice,” she coos. “I like the way your shrewd savvy with leasing terms has opened the door to hundreds more computer peripherals. Way to go!”

Brad basks in the glow of the compliment. “Just a little calculation I made on the fly.”

Kate reads on, gets more excited. “Boy, ‘upstairs’ is going to love it! A contract like this will boost the bottom line and get our division noticed!” He stifles a yawn, which catches her eye. She observes him remove his tinted glasses and rub his reddened eyes. “Is the job stressing you out? Why aren’t you getting enough sleep?”

“Never mind,” he replies. “Nothing that going home a little early wouldn’t take care of one of these days.”

“Why not today? You’ve earned it.”

He nods appreciatively, turns and leaves—suddenly wincing from another ulcer attack but shrewdly hiding it from her.

* * *

At Brad’s home in an upscale suburb of 3-car garages, his wife Nancy gets the mail and walks to the kitchen. She sees a collection notice from the bank among the envelopes, starts to open it, but notices it’s addressed only to him. Curious, she sets it aside and goes about her day, yet looks back at it and ponders.

“Hi, Mom!” shouts seven year-old Justin, who barges into the kitchen from T-ball practice.

She greets her son just as the phone rings. Answering it, she hears Brad.

“I’ll be leaving work a little late, Nanc’. Another bust-my-butt proposal for Kate. Can you hold dinner an hour or so?”

Nancy’s face falls. “Aw, you’ve been late twice this week already.”

“It’s gotta be in her hands before I leave, Honey. Sorry.”

Nancy glances at the wall calendar. “Did you forget? We’re due at church for the parenting seminar at 7:30.”

“Uhhh, oh yeah, that’s right. Um, how about no later than 6:15?”

She rolls her eyes. “OK, I guess we can wait till then. Only we’ll start eating, and not a minute later, whether you’re here or not.”

Justin interjects. “Tell Dad we’re supposed to go to the store first. He said we’d buy something special for Tiffany and Tamara.”

Nancy relays the message.

“Sorry,” Brad replies, “but tell Justin that work comes first. He and I can get them something tomorrow at Six Flags while they’re busy enjoying some ride.” There I go again, giving my kid the shaft.

This time she rolls her eyes to the ceiling. Before she can get another word out…

“Deal?” says Brad, hurriedly. “OK, I love you, honey. Bye.”

* * *

At a scenic overlook in a sunlit nature reserve, Brad sits glassy-eyed in his car, the only vehicle parked in the lot. His downcast mood contrasts starkly with the bright sunshine. Dozens of yards below a river meanders calmly. He stares out the windshield, barely focused on the trees or birds and other wildlife.

What has gotten into me? It can’t go on like this. I’m sick of making excuses and covering up. I’m sick of dodging creditors and sneaking out of the house at night. It’s gotten worse, not better. My whole life is a big lie. I’m lucky I’ve still got a job. Even that feels shaky. But it can’t keep on like this. I can’t put up with it. And neither can Nancy or the kids. It’s unfair to everybody. No sooner do I scrape enough dough together to make a loan payment, and another one’s due. Nancy must think I’m having an affair, always wondering why I’m gone somewhere or holding dinner for me or telling the kids I can’t make good on my promises.

On the passenger seat beside Brad are scattered several Instant Lottery scratch-off cards, each ripped and shredded. He hangs his head. His shoulders start to shake. He grabs the steering wheel.

Opening the car door, Brad walks to a nearby foot bridge spanning the river gorge. Shoulders humped, visibly oppressed, he almost staggers toward a lookout area on the bridge, where he stops and looks over the railing. Straight down he sees the gently flowing water. His eyes get watery and his lips tremble. He stifles sobs, looks straight down, sighs.

I’m better than all this! It can’t keep on like this! It can’t! The pressure is too great! There’s no way I can wiggle out of taking the kids to Six Flags, but…but there’s no way I can pay for snow cones let alone a whole day of rides. It’s not fair to the kids, not to Nancy, not to Kate or anybody. It only gets worse, never better! There has to be a way out! There has to!

The sunlight on the water glows with a golden, rosy soft haze, like an Impressionist’s painting or a photo on a travel calendar. Brad stares at the inviting water, his hands grip the railing. He leans over the railing, apparently for a better look, and stares…stares…stares…

* * *

Brad’s family is eating dinner at home. One of the ten year-old twins, Tiffany, stares down at her food, barely eating it. Her sister, Tamara, gazes out the patio screen door at the trees in their back yard “painted” by the golden, rosy glow of the sun.

“I don’t really care if we go tomorrow or not!” blurts Tiffany.

“I understand, Tiff,” says Nancy. “But of course you’re going, and Dad will see to it.”

“But he said the same thing last year,” chimes Tamara, “and we all know what happened then—‘sorry, too busy.’ Justin joins in. “I saw this bumper sticker that said, ‘No amount of success in the office can make up for failure in the home.’”

“Justin!” protests Nancy. “That’s your father you’re talking about!”

He shrugs. The twins share knowing looks. Through the patio screen door, the family hears a car driving into the driveway, quite fast. It stops and a door opens and slams shut.

“Here comes Mr. Future CEO now,” says Tiffany.

Nancy gives her an evil look.

The door to the garage opens and Brad rushes in. He sits at the table, smiles, now chipper and upbeat (no sign of the opposite down mood from standing on the bridge). The glum faces of his children greet him. “Hi, everybody! Sorry I’m late! Is there a funeral or something?”

“Late? What’s new?” mutters Tamara.

“Hey, if I didn’t stay late once in a while at work, we wouldn’t be eating like this every night, would we?” If they only knew!

Nancy puts her finger to her lips. “Honey, the less said the better, OK? Gobble down some salad. And, oh yes, that parents’ meeting starts in less than an hour.”

A whole set of sarcastic “looks” circulate around the table.

“Somebody needs parenting lessons, all right,” quips Tiffany.

Brad turns red. “Hold it! What is this? A conspiracy? My own kids taking cheap shots at Dad? Why should I bust my butt at work to come home to this?”

Nancy clears her throat. “It’s about Six Flags, Brad. Nobody’s sure if they’re really going on not.”

“Of course we’re going. Who said otherwise?”

Silence blankets the room. Nobody looks at anybody.

Nancy clears her throat. “Why don’t you finish while we clean up.” They all stand and scatter; Brad is left eating alone.

* * *

At church, while Nancy and the other seminar participants chat on break, Brad stands in the hallway talking on his cell phone. “…Sure, Mom, I’ll bring the kids by in the morning for a quick visit. That way you’ll get some special time with them. Ever since Dad died, you haven’t had much of a chance to get out and it’s up to others like us to drop by more often.” He takes a deep breath. “Oh, by the way, while I’m there we can drive to the ATM so you can withdraw the cash you’ll need next month from Dad’s annuity.”

“But it’s a week early, Brad. No need for that.”

“No problem.” He chuckles uncomfortably. “I could use an early installment of my executor fee to pay off that bounced check for your mower.”

“You can’t be serious! Are you that broke?”

“Mom, are you kidding? I’m only joking. Of course I’m not serious. Gee, don’t tell me you’re losing your sense of humor?”

“Well, all right then. It’ll be a treat to see the kids. So, what time…?”

Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m using my mother like this. Like she’s my moneybags. Some schmuck I am! …Then again, if any money is left over after Six Flags, I might find a couple hours to get over to the casino and win back….

* * *

Nancy is brushing her teeth at bedtime in the bathroom off their master bedroom. While Brad gets into his pajamas, she mentions the collection notice that came in the mail. “That’s the third or fourth one in as many months, Brad. Is there some kind of financial trouble I don’t know about?”

“It’s the bear market, dear. Our investments have been taking a horrible beating lately.”

“But it’s a collection notice from the bank. It’s not about our stocks or mutual funds.”

“I’ll look into it tomorrow,” he says, waving it off. What stocks or mutual funds? You must be dreaming!

“Tomorrow? You’ll be with the kids all day at Six Flags. At least I hope you will.”

He frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Is she on to me this time?

“It means they aren’t sure. And neither, frankly, am I.”

Another ulcer pang grips Brad. “I sure made it clear at dinner, didn’t I?” Even though I’m broke until I get to the ATM tomorrow!

“You backed out last year at the last minute, and now you’re acting strange again like you did then. Is it any wonder?”

Brad deliberately refuses to answer. He collects himself, walks over to her, gently puts his arms around her, embraces her in a quiet hug, and whispers, “Everything is OK. We’re going to have a fabulous ‘day with Dad’ tomorrow. You’ll have all the time you need setting up their birthday party for afterwards. I admit I’ve been edgy and hard to get along with lately. Please forgive me. Can we go to bed now and let it rest?” When I haul the kids in her van tomorrow, I hope she doesn’t find one of those lottery cards in the car.

Nancy rests her head on his strong shoulders, lets the tension escape from her system, and sags. “It gets to me at times. The way we live. Does it have to be this way? I guess I’m not sure if there’s something I’m doing wrong.”

Nothing, Nancy. Nothing at all, believe me.

They head for bed and turn out the light. Under the covers, they lie beside one another and kiss. In the dark, Brad looks straight up at the ceiling. Whew! I made it through another tough day! How many more like this can there be?

* * *

Brad’s inner life is no less chaotic than when he started the day. Pressing thoughts still disturb him as he tries to fall asleep. Tonight he will not sneak out to the casino because that risky strategy has worn thin and he can only use it when he’s very desperate. I’m very desperate right now! I still have a thousand bucks overdue and no way to pay it off. But the twins and Justin will have their fun tomorrow at least. Too bad about Nancy. She doesn’t deserve to go through what I’m putting her through—without having a clue about why. Oh well, nobody is knocking down the door yet for what I owe them, if that’s any consolation.

This was just one day in the life of a Secret Keeper, and tomorrow will bring the same for Brad and his loved ones—until he summons the courage to confront his Secret Self.