Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Small Town Boys - Chapter 27

Winter 1993

“Mr. Hollenbeck, Mr. Brickner on line one,” said the tinny voice.

Donny grabbed the phone. “Thanks, uh, Lily,” he said, pushing a button. He got a dial tone. “The other line one,” said the voice.

“Oh, sorry.” This time he got the right one. “This is Donny,” he said, glaring at Eric who was smirking over the wide expanse of the new desk. “Yeah, sure, tomorrow at nine is fine. See you then.” He hung up. “Damn, another head-hunter. That’s three this week.” He leaned back cautiously, not sure how far the new chair would go.

“What’s this one offering?”

“Finance people. Problem is they’re all either really expensive or they don’t know shit about start-ups. This Brickner guy says he can find ‘just the one.’ Him and about five others.”

“You’re a real popular guy,” Eric said with a grin. “Who knows...your name and phone number is probably on every college’s computer science department bulletin board from here to Seattle.”

“Thanks a lot,” grunted Donny, but he couldn’t help returning the grin. He looked around his new office. The full-length windows were tinted to keep out the bright sunlight but still the room was filled with enough light to make the overhead fluorescents unnecessary. The office itself was five times bigger than the space he occupied at the old office over the dry cleaners, and the new solid wood desk, guest chairs, computer credenza, bookshelves, and conference table still left him enough room for the leather sofa, end tables, and standing lamps that were on backorder. The Cambridge White walls and cut-pile carpet were a far cry from the cubicle walls and tile floor. It was the third week in February and they had been in the office for almost four weeks, but there were still boxes to be unpacked. Lily had been hired a week ago.

“So,” Eric whispered, glancing out the open door, “How’s she working out?”

“She’s great,” Donny, getting up and closing the door. “She’s a little scary, though,” he said quietly. “She screens my calls and won’t let me place outgoing ones by myself. She schedules my appointments.”

“That’s what secretaries do, Donny.”

“Yeah, well.... She’s twice my age and makes half what I do.”

Eric laughed. “Get used to it. By the way, you know that line four doesn’t go through her desk. That’s a private number in case you want to give it out to, y’know, friends.”

Donny grunted. “Yeah, right.”

“Anyway, I came in here to tell you that the guard in the parking lot called. He noticed that your license plates expired last September.”

“Yeah, I know. I just haven’t gotten around to switching my plates.”

“That truck of yours will never pass the smog inspection.”

“Then I’ll get my dad to renew the plates in Ohio.”

“Donny, you live and work here. There’s probably a law that says you have to register it here.”

“Well, then....”

“Look, you can afford to buy a new car now. So do it. How many miles are on that thing?”

“Hey, I will when you do.”

Eric gave him a mock glare. “Sell my Malibu? Forget it. It’s gonna be a classic.”

“Yeah, right, like a ’76 Malibu is right up there with a ’57 Chevy.”

“C’mon, Donny. We can stop by the one of the dealerships while we’re on lunch. Get you something really sweet.”

“I don’t want something sweet,” Donny scowled. “Just basic transportation.”

“Fine, we’ll see if they have any old Vegas in stock.” Eric went to open the door. “Don’t forget we have a meeting this afternoon with Greg to nail down the HR plan. We can’t just hire some kid who wanders in off the street and let him start writing code.”

“Why not? That’s how you got me.”

“Smartass. Don’t forget to tell Lily about that meeting you scheduled for tomorrow.” He went back to his office. Donny picked up the phone and told Lily that Mr. Brickner was due at nine the next morning.

That Saturday he and Eric strolled through several car dealerships. He did it more out of curiosity than anything else; his truck was still in good shape, and if it wasn’t for the stringent California emission standards, he would have been happy to have kept it. But it was risky to be driving around with expired out-of-state plates, so when he saw a brand new 1993 Ford F150 with automatic transmission, AM/FM stereo, and air conditioning – three things his present truck lacked – he sat down with the eager young salesman who introduced himself as Kyle and looked like he was fresh out of the last Jason Priestly wannabe seminar. He was getting to the point where Kyle was about to cave on giving him the bumper upgrade for free when something out on the used car lot caught his eye.

It was a 1965 Mustang GT convertible, red with a white top and white interior. Donny said, “Excuse me for a second,” got up, and walked out to the lot, Kyle trailing after him like a puppy.

The car was in excellent condition. The top was new, without a wrinkle or dirt mark on it. The whitewall tires were fresh, and the interior was perfect. It even had factory air conditioning and an AM/FM radio. Donny sat behind the wheel and felt the shifter in his hand.

“She’s a beauty,” Kyle said helpfully. “Want to take it for a drive?” Donny glanced at Eric, and he nodded back knowingly.

The mufflers gave off a low rumble as Donny idled out of the lot and onto the street. He ran through the gears smoothly. The handling was tight. The salesman rode with him, but he had sense enough to keep his mouth shut as Donny drove. After about a half-hour of city streets, boulevards, and a stretch of freeway at sixty-five, Donny returned the car to the lot and led Kyle back to his little cubby of an office.

Eric was waiting for them. He nodded at Donny, who then turned to the salesman.

“Okay, what are you asking for it?”

Kyle pulled out a list. “I can let you have it for thirteen five. That’s not including your trade-in,” he said, trying to make it sound like it was a hell of a deal.

Donny looked at Eric. Eric pulled a folded piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and spoke up for the first time. “While you guys were out joyriding, I called a friend of mine at the DMV who faxed over the latest Kelly Blue Book listing on that Mustang.” He put the paper on the desk and pointed to some numbers. “What you’re asking is about three grand over the average retail listing for it. That’s retail, not wholesale, and that’s giving it all the points for being in excellent condition and having A/C. So even if we throw in something for your profit and add on a little for washing and waxing, you’re still asking way too much for it. My guess is you probably gave the seller eight for it.”

“Well, it is a classic,” Kyle said, looking back and forth between Eric and Donny.

“It’s a used car that’s almost thirty years old,” said Eric. “It may be in great shape, but are you telling me you’re gonna ask that much for a ‘65 Barracuda? Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll give you five hundred over the Kelly price, give us whatever you want for the trade, and we’ll write you out a check for it right now. Otherwise....” He stood up. “Do we have a deal?”

Kyle shuffled the almost-completed sales contract on the pickup. “What about the F150?”

“Nah, I don’t want another truck,” said Donny nonchalantly.

Kyle looked at them again and said softly, “You guys a couple?”

“Just business partners,” replied Eric.

“Well, I’ll have to talk to my manager....”

“Fine,” said Eric. “You’ve got five minutes.” He looked at his watch. “You guys got a Coke machine around here?”

Kyle left. Eric sat down and smiled at Donny. “He’ll come back with twelve, we’ll stick to our guns and end up writing a check for ten, including the trade.”

“You’re vicious at this,” said Donny.


An hour later Donny picked up the keys to the Mustang. Eric stood next to him. “Basic transportation, huh.” Donny just smiled, put the top down, and drove home. It was a little chilly, but it didn’t matter.

The next Monday Donny dialed Mike’s number. The phone rang ten times and the machine didn’t pick up. The next morning he tried from work. This time he got a recording: “We’re sorry, but the number you have reached is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again. If you believe you have reached this recording in error --.” He stared at the phone for a few moments until Lily buzzed through a call from Bettie. That night after work he drove by Mike’s house. There were no lights on and the drapes were pulled shut. Leaves were piled up against the garage door.

By the first week of March Eric had a full staff of five software engineers in place: three were recent graduates from UCLA, one was a “retired” software designer from Palo Alto named Sky who bore a startling resemblance to Jimmy Buffett and dressed in pretty much the same manner, and Eleanor, who was two years out of the University of Colorado and defied every geek stereotype: she was female, she was pretty, and she didn’t speak in code. The UCLA guys – Steve, Brany, and Diego – were practically interchangeable. They all shared a large office with desks and terminals against the walls and a central conference table that was perpetually covered in paper and empty pizza boxes.

Eric’s office adjoined the “war room,” as he called it, and he spent much of his time in there with the team working on the new version and customizations. It soon became apparent that this was now the power center of the company. Bryce was the first to learn this. He came into the war room one morning and reeled off a list of customizations that a medical supply company in Bakersfield was asking for. Sky, as the elder statesman of the group, looked at Bryce and the list he’d left on the table and politely told him that they would take it under advisement.

Bryce nodded and said, “Well, the thing is, it’s not something we can just take under advisement. They’re expecting a finished copy in ten days.” Bryce turned to leave and Sky replied, “Bullshit.”

Bryce froze and turned around. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said ‘bullshit.’ Try and listen better the next time.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is you don’t come marching in here and slap something down on the table like you’re ordering at the drive-through at McDonald’s, and you sure as hell don’t promise a customer something when you don’t know whether or not we can deliver it. Now if you want something like that, you go through Eric and consult with us, okay, before you tell them we can do it.”

The door to Eric’s office was open; the stereo was playing Aqualung. “Hey, Eric,” Bryce called out.

Eric appeared in the doorway. “What’s going on?”

Sky handed him the list without a word but he gave Bryce a withering glare. Eric looked it over quickly and handed it back to Sky.

“He’s right, Bryce. It all goes through me. We’ll get it done, but leave these guys alone.” He turned and went back into his office.

Donny heard about this on Friday night after dinner. He was cleaning up the kitchen with Eric. “Bryce is a prick,” Eric said, “but you can’t argue with the results.”

“No shit,” replied Donny. “We’ve got a hundred thousand dollar backlog for the month already.”

“I know,” Eric said. “Jesus, it’s just been nuts. Good nuts, though. And it keeps Greg busy, which is always good.” He put the saucepan away and shook out the drying rag. “Hey, you know what I haven’t done in a long time?”

“Gotten laid?”

“Well, yeah, that, but been to the beach. You wanna go tomorrow? Put the top down on your ‘Stang and beach-boy it?”

It was a partly cloudy day and still cool, but the beach was clean and the surf was rolling in. They found a nice spot near where they had sat the year before when Danny had visited and watched the surfers in their wetsuits paddle out where the waves started. Eric unfolded a beach lounger and pulled off his shirt.

“I’d almost forgotten we lived near the ocean,” he said. He adjusted his baseball cap to shade his eyes. “So, can I ask you something?” he said to Donny, who was applying sunscreen to his shoulders.


“Heard from Mike?”



“Not since Christmas. His phone’s turned off, too.”

It occurred to Donny that it had been almost exactly a year ago and at this very spot where he had first met Mike; where they’d sat and talked and then driven back to his house. He fingered the gold neck chain.

Finally Eric said gently, “That’s a bitch.”

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