Saturday, May 14, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 2, Part 3


Two weeks later a major ice storm hit. No one went anywhere for two days. Power lines snapped leaving many people miserable and in the dark, and four people were killed in storm-related traffic accidents. Donny, stuck in the house without anything to do, found himself looking through the collection of Christmas cards his parents had received. One was from his uncle in Whittier, California. It pictured the whole family – Uncle Ron, Aunt Barbara, and his cousins Jeff and Sally – sitting on their terrace under a palm tree in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, all tanned and fit, smiling at the camera. The note inside said, “Come see us!” When the phone lines were working again, Donny called his uncle. They talked for a while, and when they hung up, Donny had an open invitation to come out and stay in their little guest cottage behind the garage for as long as he wanted. Donny collected his paycheck from the construction company, took a thousand dollars out of savings, bought new tires for his truck, and packed as much clothing as he could get in two of Danny’s old camp duffel bags. He told his parents and his boss that he’d be back in a month or so. His parents didn’t say much, other than to have a good time and drive carefully, and his boss said he’d have a job waiting for him when he got back. He went south on I-75 to Dayton, then west on 70 through Indiana, Illinois and then on 40 – old Route 66 – through Missouri. He spent the night in Springfield. It was still cold, but the sky wasn’t as gray.

Two days later it was 75 degrees when he arrived at his uncle’s house in Whittier. He’d stopped at a nearby self-serve car wash to empty out the litter of McDonald’s bags and cups and hose off the road dirt. He got directions from a convenience store clerk and parked in front of the house. He’d arrived in time for drinks on the patio and Barbara’s famous enchilada dinner. They spent the evening catching up on family news – Jeff was in college in Portland, Sally was in the Peace Corps – then Uncle Ron took him out to the “casita.” It was a small apartment with a bedroom, galley kitchen, tiny bath with shower, and living room attached to the back of the garage under a huge eucalyptus tree. The sound of the pool filter pump came through the wall, but other than that, it was quiet and isolated. Donny thanked his uncle, dumped his duffels on the floor, and went to sleep to the sound of tree frogs.

After a week of playing tourist, including Disneyland and Universal Studios, and making himself useful around the house, Donny began to scan through the paper looking for a job. The want ads in the Times went for column after column, but most of the jobs seemed directed at highly skilled technical openings, minimum wage, or sales. He made a series of calls, filled out applications, and waited. He got a few responses and interviewed at several places, and finally received an offer from a little company that sold software to schools. The owner, an intense and highly-caffeinated woman of indeterminate age, hired him based on his “friendly” phone skills, and, apparently, his looks – she was recently divorced and had a collection of photos of a well-built blond boy flexing in a posing thong in her office. (She said it was her son.) But after three days of ulcer-inducing work on a phone bank sitting next to four women who cowered whenever the owner barked an order, Donny quit, scoured the paper again, and sent out more letters.

Three weeks passed. He got form-letter rejections and a couple of calls for interviews that turned out to be telemarketing, but nothing panned out, and he felt a rising sense of frustration. Ron and Barbara were glad to have him – he was a built-in housesitter when they went to Hawaii for a week, and he painted their kitchen – but Donny had never gone this long without doing something. Construction crew work was out since he didn’t speak Spanish and most of the men doing the work were illegal immigrants. He thought about enrolling in classes at the local college, and even toyed with the idea of going back to Ohio… or Chicago. He found Scott’s number in directory information and dialed it. But when the machine picked up, he couldn’t think of anything to say and hung up. He went to bed that night, dreamed of Scott, and woke up with a pounding erection. He pulled out his maps and charted a course back to Ohio via Chicago. Between the time he left L.A. and got to Illinois, he’d think of something to say.

That afternoon he was folding laundry and packing his duffels when the phone rang. It was for him. Greg McKay from McKay-Gemini was calling in response to the application he’d submitted two weeks ago. Donny wracked his brain trying to remember, and then it clicked: they made parts and pieces for computers and had listed an opening for “entry-level” positions. Greg said he was sorry he’d taken so long to get back to him; was he still interested?

McKay-Gemini was in an inauspicious office suite over a dry-cleaning shop in a strip mall in Culver City. Donny parked his truck next to a beat-up Chevy Malibu wagon and went up the narrow stairs that smelled of stale smoke and laundry chemicals. He pushed open the door and found himself standing in front of the reception desk. A young Asian woman was sitting at the desk, talking on the phone. She was holding a baby in her arms, and without too much effort Donny could see that the child was breast-feeding. Donny tried not to look too surprised. The woman looked up at him, smiled, and nodded in the direction of a chair, and Donny sat. When she finished the call, she shifted the baby, smiled again at Donny, and asked if she could help him. Donny told her that he had an appointment with Greg. “Oh, right,” she said. She stood up, still holding the baby, and looked over the partition behind her. “Hey, Greg,” she said, “he’s here.”

Greg came out from behind the partition. He was tall and lean with long brown hair and a mustache. He didn’t seem to be much older than Donny – perhaps twenty-two at the most. He was wearing faded jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, and Donny felt overdressed in his khakis and dress shirt and tie. They shook hands and Greg led him down a narrow hall. “Give you the tour first before we sit down…let you get an idea of what we’re up to.” He opened the door to a huge storage room lined with industrial shelving. It looked like the stacks at the university library, but instead of books, there were hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of all shapes and sizes, all labeled in some elaborate code. Some of the shelves were eight rows high, and step stools and rolling stepladders lined the aisles.

“What we do here,” said Greg, “is sell parts to computer makers. Not the big dogs like IBM, or Apple, or Hewlett-Packard, but little companies or for people that build their own. We buy the stuff from various manufacturers, store it here, and then, when someone wants it, ship it out to them. Saves them from having to hunt down parts from all over hell-and-gone, and we sell them cheaper than if they did it on their own.”

Greg closed the door and Donny followed him down another hall, past several small offices. People were working quietly; some on the phone, several typing on computers. The offices were decorated apparently according to the taste of the occupant: one was covered with wall-to-wall cartoon figures, another was lined with license plates from all over the world, still another with Dallas Cowboys memorabilia. “These are the sales offices. We do a lot of work on the phone.” They passed another office. Unlike the others, this one was a shambles of paper, books, boxes, and a pile of computer parts. A mountain bike leaned against the desk. A young man was sitting at one terminal typing furiously. Rock music was blasting from a portable radio. Greg knocked on the open door. The young man glanced over his shoulder then back to the screen. “Yeah, Greg, what’s up?”

“Eric, this is Don Hollenbeck, the guy I told you about. Don, this is Eric. He runs operations. He’s also my brother.”

Eric hit a couple of keys and the screen went blank. He swiveled around in his chair and stood up. He had an athletic build, short hair, and wore wire-rimmed glasses. He was wearing jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. They shook hands. “So, getting the nickel tour?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Welcome to the madhouse.”

“Eric’s working on writing some software for us – inventory tracking, purchasing, customer records, that sort of stuff. We do it all by hand now, but pretty soon we’ll have it all on the computer.”

“We sell the stuff…might as well use it,” said Eric. “Nice to meet you, Don. Hope you like the place.” They shook hands again, and Eric grinned at him, then glanced at Greg and nodded. Greg nodded back.

“Same here,” Donny said, wondering a little what that was all about.

They left Eric’s office and went up the hall. Once out of earshot, Greg said, “He may not look like it, but he’s a genius with computers. Knows everything from parts and pieces to writing software. He’s the real brains behind the place…I just run it.”

“So he started the company?”

“We did in our dad’s basement.”

They returned to the front office. Two women were working at desks behind the reception partition. “Cathy and Linda – accounting and purchasing respectively. And you met Irene out front, and her son Ethan.” Donny nodded at the women, then followed Greg into his office. Greg closed the door and they sat down.

“Well, I guess you’re wondering what we’re looking for here,” said Greg, picking up a file and opening it. Donny could see it was his application letter.

“Yeah…I’m not exactly a computer person.”

“I wasn’t either,” said Greg. “Before I did this I was working in sales, and before that I was a cart wrangler at K-Mart – in high school. I went to UCLA and majored in business. But Eric started this little business a couple of years ago when he was in high school, selling parts and shit to his buddies who were building computers from kits, and he had a real knack for putting them together. He just didn’t know jack about business. So I helped him, and the next thing you know, here we are.” He glanced around the office. “Ain’t exactly IBM, but…. What I’m looking for are people who are willing to learn about the business and pitch in, not just a bunch of computer nerds. You don’t have a whole lot of experience…”

“Yeah, I know,” said Donny apologetically.

Greg held up his hand, “Neither did I when I got into this. But look around. This computer business is going to take off. Hell, it already has – we got a late start. I figure in the next three years – by 1995 – everybody and his brother is going to want to get in on it. By 2000, who knows? All we gotta do is go along for the ride and use common sense. It’s gonna be like TV was in the 1950’s. We just need smart people with the common sense and balls to take the chance. Eric and I have already taken the chance…now we just need people to help us hold on to our balls, so to speak.” Greg grinned. “And besides, unless I’m completely off-base, aren’t you one of the Hollenbeck twins from Sugar Ridge Junior High?”

Donny blinked. “How’d you know that?”

“We grew up in Pemberville. My family moved out here when I was sixteen. Eric and I played football against you and your brother.” It came to Donny like a flash. In spite of Greg’s long hair and mustache and Eric’s short hair and glasses, they were identical twins.

“Holy shit,” Donny breathed.

“That’s right,” said Greg, laughing. “How about that for amazing coincidences? I almost crapped when I read your letter.”

“I remember you guys. Wide receivers, right?”

Greg nodded. “I was on the right, Eric was on the left. We were too light to do anything but run like hell.”

“You don’t look alike…I mean, you do, but...”

“We never went in for that dressing alike and same haircut crap. We’re pretty different in spite of genetics. You don’t still look like your brother now, do you?”

“No. For one thing, he’s in the Air Force.”

Greg grimaced. “Well, we didn’t go that far.”

The phone buzzed. “Hang on a second,” he said and grabbed the receiver. He listened for a moment, said “yeah” a couple of times, concluded with “all right,” and hung up. “Hey, let’s get some lunch, okay?”

“Fine with me,” said Donny.

A moment later Eric appeared at the office door, and they went to a Denny’s down the street. Eric sat across from Donny and let Greg do all the talking. Now he could see the similarities in their facial features and the gestures, and although Eric was larger in size with a strong chest and wide shoulders, they were definitely twins. “Here’s the deal. We need people to help in all sorts of areas, like purchasing, receiving, deliveries, packing, hell, even answering the phone when Irene’s out. Pay is fifteen bucks an hour. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, especially here in La-la Land, but after sixty days we’ll get you on health insurance and we’re working on a profit-sharing plan. We’ll pay overtime, too, and work out vacations. Basically, if you get your work done, you can take off whenever you want…hell, I do.” He slipped into California surfer-speak. “We’re just a bunch of real mellow dudes, man.” They all laughed. “Oh, and if you want to take classes like at UCLA or wherever, we’ll work that out. We’ll also pay for a gym membership at the local Gold’s so you don’t get outta shape sitting behind a desk all day. So, how about it?”

Donny did some quick figuring in his head. Fifteen dollars an hour was almost three times what he earned back home doing ass-breaking construction work. This would be nothing compared to that. And he liked Greg and Eric…they weren’t trying to impress him with their business skills – they were just a couple of guys. It sounded like fun. Donny grinned at them and said, “So, when do I start?”

Chapter Guide



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