Don Higgins sniffed at my pathetic resume and hired me based on nothing but a couple of questions, one of which was, “Married?”
“Yes, Sir. We have a baby…”
He stroked his mustache with manicured fingers and nodded. “Good enough.”
No one ever left Don’s store without feeling appreciated, and I felt it too. His blue eyes invited trust.
The next morning, I shook store manager Clem’s limp hand, secretly scoping out his position. Clem became my immediate supervisor, and soon we were competing for Higgins Electric and Plumbing bonuses.
Don never let anyone forget that he had served in the Navy. His yellow “Higgins Electric and Plumbing” attire conformed to his personal code of perfection. He brandished his cigarette like a saber, and folded his short sleeves exactly once, then again–to display an anchor tatooed on one stubby upper arm.
Don ran his store with the efficiency of a gunner’s mate, schooling us in selling everything from light fixtures to commodes. He inspired confidence, and in turn, our customers felt confident in his staff’s ability to interpret their dreams from scrolls of building plans.
Don’s morning meetings were legendary among his crew: Trainees endured hands-on instructions that included handling unruly customers:
“Grab one hand on his belt, right above his butt, like this. (Nervous laughter). “Then grab his collar with your other hand, and walk’em out!”
I reveled in my cool, indoor environment–remembering hot days carrying hod, swinging a hammer, and pulling green chain at a lumber mill. For several months I was living an attainable dream.
One early morning, Don unlocked the double glass doors for me and lit up a Pall Mall. I didn’t realize it, but something had been eating at Don: My wife and I had turned glasses upside down when liquor made the rounds at his company party.
Don had little patience for namby-pamby “religious,” people, and he needed to straighten me out.
He waded in swinging: “Son, you are your own god. You can’t depend on anyone but yourself. You make your own success in life.”
He jammed a thumb in his chest. “That’s how I live…”
I gazed through the window at his classic Datsun 240Z, spotless–the color of sweet, dark chocolate. Don was the paradigm of achievement. He came and went from the store at his leisure, and by 3 p.m. bourbon coalesced with his cologne. On his desk airline tickets accompanied brochures of island destinations, provoking his sales staff to envy.
I nodded dumbly during Don’s soliloquy. His employees were arriving, and he squashed his cigarette into a Higgins ashtray.
How would my life change, if I followed Don’s creed? I wondered.
After the weekend, I arrived at the store early again, and Don seemed distracted.
“Unbox those…” he barked, wrestling kitchen cabinets like they had boarded his vessel without permission.
Then Don hunched and grabbed his left arm. His island tan drained from his face and he stood silent, like a ship at dry dock.
“I gotta go…” he mumbled.
His words trailed off, and by the look on his face, he entertained very disturbing thoughts.
Don’s Datsun 240Z peeled out of the parking lot, and I never saw my boss alive again.
We kept the electrical and plumbing store open throughout the week of Don Higgins’ funeral, but sales drifted. Don Junior took over, and the future looked bleak for us employees. He planned to close the store altogether.
At the local Moose Lodge, Don Higgins lay in his casket, pasty-faced and draped with an American flag. A dour-looking funeral director concluded his memorial with, “The flag Don served will carry him into the next world…”
A gold-plated golf club lay across Don’s chest, for “swinging on the greens of heaven,” and the bar opened immediately.
No one discussed where Don might really be “golfing.”
Associates lowered Don Higgins into the cold earth, his creed and his dreams with him. His headstone might have borne the words,
You are your own god…
That’s how I live.
But God and I were the only ones who heard him say them.
The image of Don lying in palid repose, clutching his golden golf club, still plays a hole or two in my mind sometimes. Don Higgins, dead, impacted me far more than knowing him alive.
Words really do make their home in the chambers of the human heart. I can still hear the echo of a respected friend as he proclaimed to my young wife and me, “If you’re still married in a year, I’ll eat my hat.” His words might have planted doubts about our marriage at the time–but that was 44 years ago…
Just because we think it–doesn’t mean that we should say it.
As for Don Higgins, to this day, I wonder if his words touched a “nerve” in God’s heart–and drove the final nail into his own coffin.