A Kissing Fool

Once upon a time there lived Philip Joyce, a dad who kissed too much. He kissed his wife and three children whenever he arrived home from work. He kissed them every hour on weekends.

The children would try to avoid his persistent kisses. Philip understood their resistance to be part of a game they wanted him to play with them. With seven-year-old Lulu the game meant telling her that he really, really had a secret to share this time, their own little secret. No matter how many times he fooled her, she could not resist believing that his lips bore the promise of something magical to hear. All she had to do, he told her as he drew near, was stop what she was doing and close her eyes. That was when he placed his lips upon the tender pillow of her cheek before she turned away and growled, “Da-ad.”

With ten-year-old Samuel the game meant sitting beside him on the living room couch as he watched the seven o’clock television news. Eventually he would lean against Philip, weary from a day of schoolwork and tai kwan do class, and rest his head upon his father’s shoulder. Philip’s lips could then graze the soft warm curve of the top of his son’s ear before Samuel straightened up and stabbed his father with a side-long scowl.

Upstairs at the hallway computer, thirteen-year-old Robert would sit transfixed by images flitting and flashing upon the screen. Usually he would tolerate a moment’s pressing of Dad’s lips upon his head as his fingers incessantly clicked the video game controller while battling unknown opponents over the Internet. Sometimes he would duck and dodge his father’s attacks of affection until finally he had to issue a statement establishing a cease-fire: “Dad, no offense, but forget it.”

One night Philip’s wife, Charlotte, asked him to consider what was happening. It was at the end of that twenty-minute period they had alone together after feeding the children supper and sending them to their rooms to do homework or play quietly by themselves.

“Philip,” she said, “don’t you think the children are telling you something when they turn away from your kisses?”

“They’re just embarrassed,” he replied. “I would be a failure if I didn’t show them how to share affection freely.”

He headed upstairs to spend time with each of the children as their bedtimes approached.

Charlotte sighed and accepted Philip as the headstrong loving father that he was. She appreciated his attentiveness to his family. She understood that as much as their children might shun his company when he first offered it, they enjoyed having a father who wanted to be with them. And if she ever had any doubts about their affection for him when they spurned his kisses, she had only to recall how their reminiscing about their early childhood in countless “remember when” stories almost always meant remembering when their father came to their rooms before bedtime and made up some silly and sometimes seemingly pointless game on the spot, using a ball or a rolled-up pair of socks or a doll or whatever served the purpose. They remembered those games they used to play with him, play until they were too tired to do anything but go to sleep.

Unfortunately, at work they did not appreciate Philip’s displays of affection. At Great American Universal Life Insurance Company, Philip Joyce was known as The Fond Old Man and The Kissing Fool. Not that he was some “dirty” middle-aged Georgie Porgie who went around the office trying to smooch with all the women. The women at the office–that is, the secretaries–all loved the gracious attention he paid them. They loved the way that Philip Joyce, the most senior manager of the sales advisory department, would stop and ask about their families. They loved the way he touched their arm with warmth and caring when he greeted them or said goodbye. And they loved that he was a man who was not embarrassed to give them a kiss on the cheek every now and then when expressing his happiness to see them.

It was the top managers, both men and women, who disapproved of Philip Joyce’s behavior. They were the ones who dubbed him The Fond Old Man or the Kissing Fool. They did not object to his occasional kissing of the secretaries. His kisses at the annual Christmas party were quite acceptable. After all, ’twas the season to be jolly. Managers should allow employees to have a good time every now and then to foster good morale and an energetic staff answering client phone calls.

What bothered the top managers was the way Philip enjoyed just hanging around, doing nothing productive with the secretaries on too many occasions. This was especially true late Friday afternoons, when co-workers munched home-baked chocolate chip cookies from some secretary’s Tupperware container and chatted with one eye on the clock, waiting for the little hand to reach five so that they could begin the weekend. It was difficult enough, the top managers thought, to maintain a reliable and serious tone of dedication among the secretaries. The last thing Great American Universal Life Insurance Company needed was some nice-guy father-figure like Philip Joyce misleading employees to believe that all they really had to do was not worry and be happy.

Now the top managers couldn’t just fire Philip Joyce as soon as possible even though that’s exactly what they wanted to do. They had the authority to do so, of course. Exercising that authority, however, meant exposing Great American Universal Life–or GAUL as it was known by its lawyers too pressed for time to avoid using acronyms–to criminal charges that the company had dismissed Philip merely because he was one of the oldest employees they could replace with a low-salaried young eager-beaver. Not that Philip had threatened to sue for age discrimination. The GAUL legal staff had counseled the top managers, however, not to take the risk that Philip might make such a case. They advised them just to wait for the right set of events and exploit the opportunity.

The opportunity presented itself in the landmark year of 1999. It was the end of the twentieth century and the year that more and more businesses felt compelled to execute transactions over the Internet to be cost-effective and competitive in the twenty-first century.

For GAUL this cyber-Industrial Revolution meant, among other projects, eliminating as many jobs as possible in the sales advisory department. Sales advisory staff members fielded questions over the phone from agents concerning insurance regulations or policy provisions, researched the answers in manuals, and relayed the information back to the agents. With personal computers at their desks in branch offices or laptops exploiting wireless communication around the world, agents could access any sales advisory information from a new GAUL Website that served as a gateway to the company’s databases. GAUL could dismiss nearly the whole staff of twenty now required to provide sales advisory services. And most appealing to the GAUL managers, of course, was that among those they could terminate across-the-board without regard to age or any other basis for a discrimination lawsuit was Philip Joyce.

Philip might have been too care-free in his behavior at work, but he was no ignoramus. He had long known how the managers felt about him. There was a time when he had wanted to prove his value to the firm. He had tried being a top salesman and even polished his golf game to lower his handicap to single digits. Yet the relentless summer weekends of being expected to play golf with clients and the inescapable weekdays of being expected to chat with cohorts in the office about the weekend rounds of golf or recall with passion a televised professional sports event or assert how clever he had been in steering a client to buy a high-commission insurance product did not afford him the space to relax with the easy-going secretaries and mail delivery boys he had come to know and love at the firm. It did not allow him the time he wanted to spend time just lolling around with his family nor the moments he relished just being alone with his thoughts or in delicious thoughtless reverie. So he abandoned a sales career and settled in as a customer service and information manager. As he grew older, he hoped he would be called upon to be a mentor for entry-level customer service employees, imparting his knowledge as to how to handle sticky situations and thorny interpersonal issues. Yet his lack of diligently maintained up-to-date technical expertise on insurance regulations did not qualify him in the managers’ view to be a role model for anyone. Philip accepted their view because he really did not want to guide trainees, honing their knowledge of the company’s way to be a productive insurance clerk. He just wanted to help people, even if it were just one person, live each day as a loving human being. So Philip knew they categorized him as expendable. He just felt that when the need to strategize alternative plans presented itself, he would do what he had to do.

When the need did indeed arise shortly thereafter, Philip was prepared–not for the actual timing of his dismissal, but for his unrehearsed response to it. One sunny morning–the Friday after Thanksgiving–his immediate superior, a milky-skinned, fawning vice president fifteen years his junior, whose last name he could never manage to remember, met him at his desk as he arrived at work. He invited Philip to join him in the conference room. There Philip found himself in the company of a total of seven managers and a company lawyer, an uninspired troupe purposely consisting of four men and four women so that no disgruntled ex-employee could submit a claim of gender bias in the dismissal decision.

His immediate superior then recited a script he had memorized as the lawyer nodded grimly to the beat of each crafted word. They regretted to inform Philip that they no longer needed his services nor the services of almost all of his colleagues in the sales advisory area. The Internet database technology that the sales advisory staff had been using the past year was now available for sales agents around the world to retrieve information directly into their computers. Two or three sales advisory managers with expertise in ever-changing insurance regulations would remain. Philip did not possess that kind of expertise. In recognition of his valuable service over the years, though, The Firm would provide him a severance package of one-half year’s salary. He was to clear his belongings from the building today. And they asked that he keep this conversation confidential so that each member of his department could enter the room this morning without any preconceived notions that would make the ensuing discussion more difficult than it had to be. They awaited Philip’s immediate reaction, gauging his every eye movement and facial expression to determine how they would have to deal with him in the next few minutes before moving on in their early morning agenda to the next employee they had to fire.

Philip did not want to waste their time.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he stated, “I thank you for your candor. Goodbye.” With that he rose to leave.

The others in the room, especially the lawyer, were alarmed by this abrupt and apparently calculated behavior. They figured he had to be up to something. They quickly asked him whether there was anything more he wanted to say.

There wasn’t. Yet since they apparently needed to hear a few more words, he accommodated them. He said, “At Global American Universal Life, I have met warm, loving, wonderful people. Unfortunately, none of them are in this room.” He turned and walked out.

He spent the next hour or so circulating around the office to inform the secretaries and his sales advisory colleagues of what had just happened. He deemed the request by his former managers that he not say anything to be a politely disguised and ridiculous demand by people who now meant nothing to him.

After he finished his rounds enlightening his co-workers as to what was going to happen to them, there was a moment when they all looked at him, as if he could offer some added words of wisdom that could give them solace or courage or whatever it was that he seemed to possess. His first impulse was to give them the speech they wanted. Yet he knew it would just be some self-important oration by an older man who really had no clue as to what each of them needed to do for him- or herself.

So with the secretaries he shared hugs, brownies, and nodding acknowledgements that he would miss them, but that all things must pass. With his colleagues he commiserated and wished them luck, exchanging email addresses with those who returned to their desktop computers and began exploring Internet job searcher sites. With those still unable or unwilling to use the Internet, he traded phone numbers.

Having been dismissed on a Friday, Philip had the weekend to reflect on his feelings about his new life before having to tell his family why he was not leaving the house to catch the 8:11 train to The City Monday morning. He did so that Sunday night at supper, the night they would gather weekly for their one meal, their one and only regular gathering as a family. Tonight the meal was one of their favorites: left-over turkey, spicy rye stuffing, and home-made cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving.

“Charlotte. Children,” he began, “I have some extraordinary news for you.”

They all looked at him expectantly.

“I’ve been fired,” he announced with such finality and self-assurance that it seemed as if he were proud of the fact.

“And that you call ‘extraordinary?’” Charlotte said.

“Well it’s certainly not among my ordinary topics of dinner conversation.”

“What Mom means, Dad,” Robert said, “is that you’re making it sound like losing your job is a good thing.”

“Well I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I must say that I feel better than I’ve ever felt.”

“For now,” Charlotte retorted with a sharpness that made her children’s ears prick up. Philip’s eyes widened. “What happens when your little feeling of liberation wears off? How are we going to live? By just being nice and trusting people?”

He wanted to tell her that she just had to rise to the occasion with the faith she had always placed in him, but the sensible intelligence of her protest plunged him into silence for the remainder of the meal. He felt so thoroughly silenced and shut down that he did not even feel like kissing his children as their bedtimes approached.

Trudging up the stairs to bid Lulu and Samuel goodnight, he came upon Robert returning to his post-supper seat in front of the hallway computer to complete his schoolwork for the night. He gave his eldest son a customary pat on the shoulder, but as he turned to enter Lulu’s room, he noticed the word “Shawshank” in sky-blue letters across the top of the computer screen. Actually it was across the top of an illuminated rectangular panel occupying nearly three-quarters of the screen. It overlapped another illuminated panel bearing a word-processed document. The Shawshank panel displayed a picture of Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in prison garb seated against a stone wall at the end of a bare yard, Freeman listening sadly as Robbins spoke intently while staring into the dirt.

“Are you studying that movie in school?” Philip said.

“Nagh,” Robert replied. “I’m just taking a break from this book report.” He raised a paperback copy of Lord of the Flies above his head for his father to observe.

“Ah-h-h,” Philip responded. “That was one of the few required books for English class that I actually enjoyed reading.”

“Not me,” Robert replied. “Who cares about two packs of kids fighting each other on some island in the Pacific fifty-something years ago?”

“How about the action in the story? You love computer war games.”

“But that’s just it. It’s not a computer game. And the characters,” he said, dropping the book on the floor, “don’t even know what a computer is.”

Philip considered how he might engage his son’s interest in the book.

“What if Lord of the Flies were a computer game,” he asked Robert, “with character bios and multiple landscapes and strategies you had to devise to win the battles for the characters of your choice?”

Robert looked at him. “Who would want to make a computer game out of a book like this?”

“Maybe we would,” Philip replied. “You want to try?”

“You mean design another piece of ‘educational software?’ No thanks.”

“Forget about it having to be educational. Let’s just make it fun.”

“You’re going to help me get my book report done?”

“Probably–if you work with me.”

Robert shrugged his shoulders. “Okay.” He turned toward the computer monitor and with a click of the mouse brought up a window filled with white space. “What language do you want me to code this in?”

Philip placed his hand upon that of his son. “The programming comes later. Let’s just think through where we want our thoughts to take us.”

He lifted the keyboard and placed it atop the computer monitor to free up some desk space. Then on a piece of paper he pulled from the printer tray, he drew an irregular oval with an upside-down V in the middle.

“What’s that supposed to be?” Robert asked.

“The island in the story as I remember it. The peak in the center is that place where the leader of the savage hunters–what’s his name?” Philip knew it as well as the name of all the characters from not only having read the book, but from having watched the film several times. And he knew that Castle Rock was not in the middle of the island, but at one end.

“Jack,” Robert said.

“Right,” Philip replied. “Jack. And the name of his fortress . . .”

“Castle Rock,” Robert stated. “But you have it in the wrong place. And the shape of your island is all wrong.”

“Is it now. How would you draw it?”

Robert took the pencil, turned the paper over, and was about to begin drawing when suddenly he stopped. “It’s nothing without color,” he declared. He hopped out of his chair, slipped past the door to Lulu’s room that was slightly ajar, and returned with a pack of colored pencils.

“They’re mine!” came Lulu’s voice from the other side of the door.

“I’ll give it back when we’re done,” Robert shouted over his shoulder. He closed the door and glanced at his father. “Kids,” he said shaking his head. He proceeded to sketch a fish-shaped mass of land in turquoise with little dark blue squiggles for ocean waves surrounding it. Upon the little delta-shaped tip of the island’s tail he drew a jagged cinnamon-colored upcropping. “Now that’s a fortress. Unassailable except from an exposed path along the beach. The defenders could easily roll boulders on top of any trespassers.” He paused with a frown. “But you know what? I like your idea better. If I were Jack, I would have built the fort in the heart of the island. That way you could easily control where all the fresh water and fruit and shade and any meat there might be. But the savage guys could have been trapped on Castle Rock. If he was smart, Ralph could have laid siege to them. He could have picked them off one by one as they came down off that big rock along the path.”

He paused again, his expression suddenly brightening. “My teacher has it all wrong. That Golding guy who wrote the book had it all wrong. The savage guys were the smart ones. Not the civilized guys with all their ‘voices of reason.’ The savage guys got what they wanted. And if they hadn’t started that big fire instead of the little one that was such a bore to keep going, that navy guy in his ship never would have seen the smoke. They never would have gotten rescued.”

Philip smiled. “So why don’t you write about that for your report?”

“Write what?”

“What you just told me.”

“But it’s supposed to be about what actually happened in the book.”

“It will be. Except that probably unlike any other student in your class, you’ll be explaining how better it could have been.”

“But that’s now what she assigned. She wants all that book report stuff. You know: the symbolism, the theme . . .”

“So you’ll give it to her–while describing your alternative to what William Golding was trying to feed you.”

Robert frowned. “I don’t know. It’ll probably take me all night to write something like that.”

Philip nodded. “I’ll tell you what: if you write a paper convincing me that you read the book and that you have a more exciting way to tell the tale, I’ll allow you a day off from school to play as much computer as you want.”

Robert’s eyes brightened. “Can I use reviews I find on Google?”

Philip looked at him. “What’s ‘google?’”

“It’s a search engine on the Web that let’s you find anything under the sun in seconds.”

Philip sighed. Given the benefit of Robert applying himself in this exercise and, since losing his job, his own diminished respect for obeying customary rules, he figured this was no time for being a purist about schoolwork. “As long as you use the best sources,” Philip said, “list them for me to inspect myself, and write everything in your own words.”

“Deal,” Robert stated, turning his attention once again to the computer screen.

Philip was not totally comfortable with the potential plagiarism and his child’s highly questionable absence from class to which he had just agreed, but it felt…all right. Free. Free in a way he enjoyed tasting for the first time.

“Hey, Dad,” Robert said without taking his eyes off the bright window at the center of his screen now filling with the rainbow-colored letters of the word “Google.” “You should check this site out for finding a job and see where it takes you.”

Philip accepted his son’s suggestion. He had no idea as to the depth of that acceptance. That night he could not sleep–not from worry over his uncertain future, but from the excitement of possibilities he could not yet define, possibilities which meant that indeed he was not a middle-aged man who reached a dead end in his career. He was as young as he would allow himself to attempt, as young as his son had invited him to be.

So in the wee hours of the morning he paused and listened to Charlotte’s sweet breathing in slumber. Then he planted the most tender of kisses upon her forehead, slipped out of bed, and assumed his son’s accustomed position seated before the hallway computer. He turned it on and dialed up access to google.com. Admittedly he was put off at first by the apparent silliness of the site name. But then again, weren’t many of the names of landmarks in this strange new Internet world purposely unconventional, quirky, or plain old-fashioned eye- and ear-catching? Yahoo. Askjeeves. Motley Fool. What did he expect–whatyoualreadyknow.com?

Not at all. He had come here tonight to have an open mind. To see what there was to discover. He surfed wave after wave of illuminated Web pages, an unending ocean of gaily colored texts and photographs and glittering, flickering, ever-changing banner advertisements for stock investment or trading services, on-line gambling, and alluring female “escorts.” Yet along this whole broad way of brightly lit cyberspace he felt no warmth, nothing that would compel him to linger at a site instead of just loading and leaving with an electronic shopping cart of credit-card purchased items.

At that moment a sleepy Lulu came out of her room, rubbing an eye with the back of her hand.

“Hi, lovey,” he said softly, leaning towards her to deliver his accustomed kiss.

“No,” she said definitively, turning her face away and shielding it with her hands.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“You’re going to smother me.”

“No I wasn’t,” he replied gently. “I just wanted to kiss you.”

“That’s what I meant. You were going to smother me with one of your kisses again.”

Philip sat back and considered what he was being told. “Is that what you feel I do to you?”

“All the time, Dad.”

This saddened him. “I’m sorry I made you feel that way,” he said. “You mean you’ve never wanted me to kiss you?”

“Sometimes I do. Like when one of my friends says something mean to me in front of everybody at school, and I just want to sink into a hole. Then I love your kisses when I come home. But sometimes I just don’t feel like being kissed. I just want things quiet without being stared at. You know what I mean?”

He did. He understood now that his kissing with all his good intentions was more a release, a comfort that he needed to enjoy, than an expressed appreciation of the person he was kissing. He said, “I guess there is such a thing as kissing you too much.”

“What are you doing?” she asked, pointing to the computer screen.

He lingered a moment in a fond appreciation of a child who had just taught him something profound with the unaffected authority that only a child could assume. He turned back to the work before him. “I’m looking for a Web site where people can feel good being there.”

“Is it going to be fun?” she asked, drawing closer to the computer screen.

“I should hope so. What do you think would make it fun?”

“It has to have lots of colors.”

“That it will, my love.”

“But they have to be red and green mostly.”

“Okay, red and green it is.”

Suddenly Samuel popped out of his room behind them.

“Hello, sport!” Philip cried. “Welcome to the party.”

“Shopping for Christmas?” Samuel said, peering at the computer screen as he approached. His face glowed in the monitor’s pale blue light.

“We’re making stuff for Christmas!” Lulu exclaimed.

“Actually,” Philip clarified, “we’re trying to come up with a possible Web site for consumers.”

“Where parents buy kids fun stuff,” Lulu asserted.

“Like what?” Samuel said.

“Like…” Lulu’s eyes rolled up slightly, her blue pupils bright pricks of light in the computer screen glow, darting from side to side as if scanning the toy store shelves of her imagination. “Like Santa Claus hug pillows!”

“‘Hug pillows?’ That’s dumb,” Samuel pronounced. “Only babies would want that.”

Philip intervened. “Don’t rush to any judgments, Samuel. People of all ages love something to hug.”

“And all of you should be hugging your pillows in your own beds,” Charlotte Joyce interjected. Wrapped in a white terry robe, she entered the hallway from the master bedroom. “Philip, I assume you have an explanation as to why you have the whole family up at three in the morning.”

Philip stared at her, totally lacking any explanation. “Well, I guess they’re helping me find a new job.”

“Don’t you think you’re the one to conduct your job search, not your children?”

“I’m not asking–”

“Come on, Mom,” Lulu said. “Help us help Dad. It’s going to be fun.”

Charlotte sighed. “I suppose it’s a waste of time to try to make you go to bed, isn’t it.”

Lulu and Samuel nodded vigorously.

The door to Robert’s room opened, and he stepped into view, a white blanket draped over his head like a ghostly shroud.

“I have a big social studies test first thing in the morning,” he stated, “and I’m doing bad enough in the class as it is. Depriving me of sleep is not going to help.”

“Don’t worry about the test,” Philip counseled. “I’m sure you’re doing the best you can.”

“That’s not what you say when you see my test grades. You stopped my allowance after the last report card.”

Philip considered his son a moment. “Well maybe I need to reconsider your talents. How would you like to help us with our little social studies test?”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re trying to come up with a Website that will appeal to people. I want to start a new business selling affectionate collectibles over the Internet.”

“What the hell is an ‘affectionate collectible?’”

“Kissing Santa dolls and pillows for this season. And whatever else we may come up with.”

“You really think it will sell?”

“We won’t know unless we try,” Charlotte replied.

“Toy companies have had their Xmas stuff on sites and store shelves for weeks,” Robert said. “No one knows you. And even if they did, don’t you think you’re a little late getting your thing to market?”

“We have no choice,” Philip replied. “Do you think the Internet can help us get the word out quickly enough?”

“No problem,” Robert responded. “A few mouse-clicks and a Web-surfer will be at your electronic doorstep. The question is this: how fast can you get people to want to check out your site?”

“Mom and I will worry about that. You just focus on the Website design.”

Robert leered as he regarded his father with a calculating eye. “You’ll reinstate my allowance?”

Philip had anticipated this challenge. “I’ll pay you triple your allowance. Even more depending on how well we do.”

Robert’s eyes widened for a moment, but then he quickly dimmed his expression, cloaking himself once again in an air of adolescent indifference. “Cool,” he said, nodding as Philip moved out of the chair and he lowered himself into his hallowed seat before the computer.

So the rest of the Joyces went back to bed while like Santa himself, Robert toiled through the night. When Philip, Charlotte, Samuel, and Lulu awoke the next morning and returned to the hallway, they found him slumped over the keyboard, his forehead resting upon his crossed arms, his shoulders rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation of sleep.

Philip tapped a computer key and the dissolving cloak of the screen-saver revealed santathekissingfool.com, a site which offered “Kissing Fools” for “the home”, “travel”, and “the office”. A red bed pillow with white trim represented “the home.” An ever-jolly rosy-cheeked Santa on either side greeted anyone ready to rest his weary head. A Santa finger puppet was the “travel” item. A Santa couch bolster–a full-body-length reclining Santa with head propped upon his palm like a posing fashion model–was the furnishing of choice for “the office” of the distinctive fun-loving executive.

That week Philip contacted one thousand secretaries at GAUL. Not only were they willing to help him sell, distribute, and manufacture the Kissing Fools, they insisted on doing it for free. Some of Philip’s former secretaries knit a sample lot of one hundred pairs of Kissing Santa’s Helpers for the fingers and toes. Samuel slipped a few on the toes of his tai kwan do classmates at the end of class much to the chagrin of his austere instructor and the amused curiosity of mothers arriving to pick up their children. Lulu gave them as gift finger-warmers to piano teachers at her music academy, who subsequently ordered more to buy for all of their clients.

Robert was the family cyber-sentinel, surveying the Internet chatrooms and bulletin boards for people who might seek the perfect gift at the site he had just registered on the Internet. ‘Twas nearly a month before Christmas and all through the Net, not a cyber-surfer was stirring at santathekissingfool.com, not even the electronic mice of computer super-users seasoned in accessing e-commerce sites to complete purchases or just window-shop. Robert knew they were fed up with having to type and fill in Web page order form after Web page order form. They were tired of being enlisted as data entry clerks for dot-com billionaires.

So he decided to give them a choice: a set of choice buttons. They could mouse-click a dot on the screen either to fill in forms on the Website and pay a shipping charge or pick up the merchandise at distribution center where they could also receive hot chocolate, brownies, and free finger-puppets of various Kissing Fool characters.

The response to santathekissingfool.com with its unique merchandise delivery choice? The first day brought thirty thousand page-views and hundreds of orders for Fools of various sizes: a thousand ten-dollar “handle-helds”, five hundred twenty-dollar “laptop” Snuggle Buddy’s, and a hundred forty-dollar Hug Buddy’s. Family and friends of the Joyces and the families and friends of friends around the nation organized and staffed their garages or toolsheds as Kissing Cottage distribution centers. They reported of jovial crowds who lingered after their purchases for the tasty beverage, the sweet goodies, and the re-telling of the increasingly embroidered tale of how a fired insurance company executive took a shot at a new way of living by appealing to people’s need for affection. Word of mouth, especially emails, circled the globe, proclaiming santathekissingfool.com as the new-born king of Christmas gift sites. Sales grew ten-fold in the next two weeks and then ten-fold again during the frenzied last ten shopping days before Christmas. After Christmas the demand for Kissing Fools just kept growing. People returned the reduced-price neckties and the gold-plated earrings and all the other gifts they had politely accepted from family members, but inwardly regretted, and demanded money back to buy the Kissing Fools.

It was not long before The Fools drew the attention of Amazing.com, the famed Internet vendor of books, toys, consumer electronics, and countless items offered on its on-line auction site. Philip learned of this interest during a phone call he received one morning in January from Brass Brothers, Amazing’s investment banker. Brass Brothers informed Philip that having assessed the phenomenal popularity of the Kissing Fools, which could help fill a gap of furnishings and personal accessories in Amazing’s product line, they had made an acquisition recommendation that their client had just instructed them to act upon. Amazing.com was offering twenty million dollars of its publicly traded AMZG common stock to buy santathekissingfool.com.

Philip stood stunned for several moments by the refrigerator with the phone receiver in his hand. He was struck not so much by the amount of the offering–though it was certainly stupefying in the newfound economic freedom it would afford him–—as by the timing of this Godsend of a phone call. The Joyces were at a point of exhaustion from trying to keep up with the ever-growing number of Kissing Fool orders. Philip was often so tired by the end of the day that he even forgot to go to his children’s rooms to bid them good night.

So Philip accepted the Amazing bid for his company. When he informed his family of their good fortune at supper, Charlotte cried in disbelief. Robert leered, promptly observing that he no longer had to bother with school. Samuel left the table to subscribe to on-line investment newsletters, and Lulu returned to the table with a geography textbook to show her father illustrations of black-green German forests and Japanese cherry orchards blooming pink as cotton candy. She declared, “Let’s go to Tahiti!”

Philip put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and assured her that this was indeed real and that in a few months they could just relax and enjoy it all. He made it clear to Robert that he had years to go in his formal education. He directed Samuel not to bother with electronically delivered investment advice from unknown sources: they would sit on cash until they found a trusted advisor to help them diversify their holdings. And to Lulu, he responded, “Maybe not Tahiti, love, but we will definitely make a time and place to celebrate.”

That celebration took place at home since they still had a business to run until the sale of their company closed in two months. They bought a VCR for each member of the family and then proceeded to Flockluster Video where they plucked their favorite movies off the shelves after purchasing all the candy in the store, including the display carousels. All weekend they watched videos and munched snacks. Sometimes they watched movies and television shows in separate rooms; sometimes together in changing groups, such as when Robert joined Samuel to laugh hilariously at the antics on Seinfeld. Charlotte cuddled with Samuel upon her bed to cheer the triumph of The Karate Kid. Philip sobbed with Lulu as a teary-eyed Dorothy bid farewell to the Scarecrow at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

The children returned to their friends and their work at school, and Philip and Charlotte returned to managing the continued blooming sales of The Fools. January and February passed, and Amazing.com learned and took control of santathekissingfool.com. Philip received one hundred thousand shares of Amazing’s stock, the most actively traded NASDAQ security. It hovered at the then commonly stratospheric Internet price of two hundred dollars per share.

Philip received one hundred certificates representing one thousand shares each. He found them to be very pretty pieces of paper. The word “Amazing” was emblazoned across the top of the certificate in jagged purple lightning bolt letters flecked with gold sparkles followed by “.com” in gold. The subtle background printed on the whole certificate appeared at first to be a vast garden in full bloom. It was actually row after row of green store shelves stocked with vases of gorgeous flowers. Further examination revealed that every other row of shelves held the myriad of books, toys, and consumer electronics available on Amazing.com purchase or auction sites.

Probably, Philip thought, the next printing of certificates would offer the Fools on display. And when he considered this prospect–the reduction of all that he and his family had created to just another super-duper-department store item, he lost any interest he might have possessed for becoming a consultant to Amazing or building another business from scratch.

To the undoubted glee of his on-line discount broker, Glee*trade, Philip sold all of his Amazing shares at a considerable discount–—one million dollars–—just so that he could get the trade done without having to think about it anymore. With nineteen million dollars cash in the bank, Philip wondered what he would do next.

Some possibilities were made all too clear to him. Foundations and charities besieged him with solicitations for support. He gave money to some, his volunteer time to others as an advisory board member or kitchen crew participant for various community service projects. But it never seemed to be enough for these organizations. They kept asking more and more of him. Their good intentions and never-ending requests for help paved a road to a hell where there could be no satisfaction, where nothing could ever feel complete. It was as if his contributions were taken for granted and of questionable lasting significance.

He knew that there were so many worthy undertakings that could benefit from his caring and his capital, especially in public education, a field so ripe with possibilities and yet so uncultivated. He dreamed of starting a school where a malcontent like Robert could not only enjoy attending, but be inspired to teach, to share with others his technical skills, his ironic insights, and the new experience of school as a place where students could feel like beneficiaries instead of inmates. A school where Samuel would learn to put down his books and read between the lines to discover where life offered its unpredictable and most lasting lessons.

Yes, this Joyce School would be his next endeavor. Yet he had no idea where to begin. It would probably begin as the Kissing Fools had begun, with Robert in front of a computer. At this moment on a spring evening, however, as he sank onto the living room couch beside Lulu, who was watching Rugrats on television, he did not want to think about business plans or objectives or tactics. He just wanted to rest for a while, for the first time in a long while, before the next responsibility commanded his attention.

The Rugrats episode featured the hero’s father, Stu Pickles, who had just invented yet another contraption in the basement that malfunctioned and blew up. Philip considered that for the rest of his life maybe he too would be Stu Pickles, a dad who never had to leave the house to go to a job and whose work consisted of creating toys with grandiose, unfulfilled expectations.

He should be happy with what he had achieved, Charlotte kept telling Philip when she would find him in this kind of mood. Plenty of men would give anything to have the life he now had. Yet he could not help but look upon his good fortune as just that: dumb luck spurring the necessary amount of diligence, a big wave that he had caught just right for the ride of his life, but that would never rise for him again.

“Hey, Dad,” Lulu said. She had been observing him. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, love. Your Dad is just tired.”

“You look like you just lost your best friend.”

“Nagh,” he replied. “Just wanting more than I have at the moment. It’ll pass.”

She considered his response. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure.”

Lulu beckoned him to lean toward her so that his ear was level with her lips.

He did so.

“Now close your eyes.”

When he did that as well, she gently placed her lips upon his cheek and deposited the sweetest of kisses.

* * *

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