Thursday, March 23, 2006

Small Town Boys - Chapter 31

Autumn 1993

Marc arrived on his first day promptly at eight dressed in a conservative well-tailored suit and tie, his shoes polished to a military shine, and wearing wire-rimmed glasses. Donny offered him a cup of coffee and Eric showed him his new office. He nodded approvingly, booted up the new computer, and checked the phone.

“It works,” Eric said. “Line four is your private line; the intercom goes to your secretary. You’ll be sharing Lily with Donny until we get someone hired for you.”

Greg took him into his office. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to have you with us, Marc. Both Donny and Cathy will attest to that.”

“Thanks; I can’t tell you how glad I am not to be waiting on tables or rich gay men.” That got an appreciative laugh. “So, where would you like me to start?”

“Sit down with Cathy and let her show you what we’ve done. Get to know the place, then come up with some ideas, and once you’re comfortable, let’s sit down and you tell us where we go from here.”

Marc spent the rest of the day working with Cathy setting up spreadsheets and accounting structures, then began in earnest to go through all of the company finances and statements. At the end of the week he sat down with Greg, Eric, and Donny in Greg’s office and closed the door.

“So,” Greg said, “how’re we doing?”

Marc nodded soberly. “Not bad. For a bunch of guys who really didn’t know a whole hell of a lot about starting a business, you did pretty well.”

Greg looked around at his brother and Donny and shrugged. “Beginner’s luck.”

“Yeah, and you had a good business plan to start with, so that helped.”

Eric laughed. “What business plan? We just started selling stuff and writing software. It was more like dumb luck.”

Marc cocked his head in acknowledgement. “Sometimes that’s the best way. You hired good people and didn’t get all wrapped up in procedures and models and business theory. The trick is to know what you want to accomplish in the long term. A lot of companies have gone tits up by just planning to get through the next quarter.” He opened a large binder. “There are some areas of concern, but I think we can get them straightened out. For one thing, let’s not use the company checking account for personal purchases. The IRS frowns on that.” He looked up at Donny and Eric and grinned. “For instance, buying a car.” He held up his hand as Eric started to answer. “I know you paid it back, but still....” He flipped through the next section of the binder. “Your receivables look good; Cathy’s been great handling that, and I think we can save a lot of money in the payables if we take the discounts that most of your vendors offer.” He turned more pages, never looking up. Eric and Greg exchanged glances. “The investment plan looks solid and so does the options idea, but you’d better let someone who’s a tax attorney make sure that the employees understand the tax implications.”

Greg said, “We’ll get you a meeting with our attorney. He’s also my dad.”

“Great.” Marc plowed on through the book, pointing out things in production, receiving, benefits, and long-term capital investing that could be adjusted or implemented. Then he turned to the last section. He put his hands on the table, took off his glasses, and looked at them soberly. “Now we come to the last area. Sales.”

Donny waited around the office until the rest of the staff had gone home before he went into Marc’s office. It was the first time all week that he’d had the chance to sit down with him alone.

“Pretty interesting first week,” Donny said.

Marc was packing his briefcase. “Yeah,” he said quietly.

“Hey, you told ‘em what you found. It’s not like it’s your problem.”

Marc shrugged. “True. Just doing my job.”

“So,” Donny said, “you want to go get some dinner?”

“Sure,” Marc replied. “Follow me back to my place so I can change and we’ll go from there.”

“Sounds good.”

Donny followed him to his tidy little two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, but after Marc hung up his suit and got his shirt off, they took it from there into his bedroom. Fortunately, his roommate, a woman he’d gone to grad school with, was still at work. Afterwards, they ordered a pizza and sat on the couch in their underwear watching HBO.

“I can’t believe Bryce thought he could get away with it,” Donny said as he picked up a slice of pizza.

“Yeah,” replied Marc absently. “Hey, you know what? Let’s make it a rule: when we’re together outside of the office, let’s never talk shop, okay?”

Donny shrugged. “Sure. And when we’re in the office, let’s never talk about what we do when we’re together, okay?”

“Oh, yeah, that goes without saying,” agreed Marc. “Deal?”


The next morning Donny’s phone rang at nine o’clock. He was just getting out of the shower and still had his towel wrapped around him.


“Donny, it’s Mom.”

He sat on his bed, his hair still dripping. “Hi. What’s up?” he said, trying to remember the last time his mother called him out of the blue on a Saturday morning.

“Well, I just had the strangest phone call from Ruthie Bigelow. She said she saw a picture of you in a magazine.”


“Yes! She was in the store and picked up one of those supermarket tabloids – you know how long it takes the checker sometimes – and there you were in a picture in some soap opera magazine with some actor, Lance... What did she say the name was? Lance something. She said it looked like you were having lunch or something with him.”

Donny thought fast and furiously. “Oh, wow,” was all he could come up with.

“Well, I told her I’d ask you.”

Donny took a deep breath. “Yeah, it was me. That’s Lance Michaels. He’s thinking about investing in the company and I – we took him to lunch. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No, but that’s wonderful. I’ll tell Ruthie.”


“Well, how’s everything going?”

“Great. Great. You want to talk to Danny? I think he’s up.”

“Oh, dear, I completely forgot about the time difference. No, I’ll call back later.”

“Okay, Mom.”

He dressed quickly, grabbed his keys, and drove to Ralph’s. He leafed through the tabloids until he found the picture in a spread of other soap opera stars called “Out and About.” It looked as if the picture had been taken from a long distance; the focus was fuzzy, and it caught him from the side as he sipped his tea. Donny was in profile and not in the best light, but it was clearly him. The caption was “Lance (Dusty) Michaels has lunch al fresco in Beverly Hills.” Neither of them was smiling, and Donny wondered at what exact moment the photo had been snapped. He shuddered at the idea that the editors might have meant something by labeling it “out and about,” but all the other stars seemed to be having happy heterosexual moments; pushing baby strollers in Central Park, standing in line for brunch at Five Points, and one of Susan Lucci hailing a cab outside a Broadway theatre. He bought the magazine and a bag of doughnuts.

Eric was in the kitchen. Donny wordlessly opened the tabloid, put it on the counter, and pointed to it.

“Holy shit,” said Eric.


“How’d you find out?”

“My mom called me. She got it from the town’s biggest gossip.”

“Holy shit.”

Danny came in dressed in a GI t-shirt and jeans. It was his turn to cut the lawn. He took a doughnut and looked at the picture. “Well, it could be worse,” he said. “It could say ‘Lance (Dusty) Michaels has lunch al fresco with his ex-boyfriend.’”

Eric poured some coffee and took a doughnut. “You ready to go?” he said to Donny.


“What’s up?” said Danny.

“Meeting with dad at the office.”

“On a Saturday?”


“Have fun.”

“We will,” said Eric. “We get to fire Bryce.”

On Monday morning Greg called a staff meeting and announced that Bryce had left the company and that he was temporarily assuming the duties of sales manager until a replacement could be brought on board. The rest of the staff, especially the sales group, was stunned. The door was closed so no one had noticed that Bryce’s office was empty; his desk cleaned off, his pictures, golf clubs, miniature bust of Ronald Reagan, and potted palm gone.

Irene followed Donny back to his office.

“What happened? Did he quit or what?”

Donny shook his head. “I really don’t think I should talk about it.”

Irene scowled at him. “You know I’m going to find out anyway, so you might as well tell me know and spare yourself my bad karma.”

Donny laughed in spite of himself. “If Greg says I can tell you, then I will.”

Irene turned on her heel and marched out of his office. In less than a minute she came back with Greg. She closed the door and glared at both of them. “I’ve worked here longer than anyone other than you and Eric, so I have a right to know.”

Greg nodded. “It’s called ‘stuffing the channel.’ We pay commission quarterly based on the quarterly sales. Right before the end of the quarter Bryce would get some of his favorite customers to over-order product, report them as sales, wait until his commission check was cut, then let the customers return what they didn’t want or need. Cathy didn’t catch it because we were paying on sales, and the returns didn’t show up against his commission because,” he shrugged, “no one thought to match up returns against the sales. We just took it back and resold it to someone else, and sometimes he’d make double commission on the same product.”

Irene cocked an eyebrow. “So how’d you bust him?”

“Marc went through the books, matched up sales, returns, commissions and invoices and found it. It’s pretty easy to spot if you know what to look for. We just weren’t looking for it. We called him into a meeting with us and my dad on Saturday morning, showed him the books, and after about five minutes of excuses, he admitted to it. We gave him a half-hour to clean out his office. The end.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” muttered Irene. “Anyone else in on it?”

“Not that we can tell. I’m having a meeting with the sales group in about ten minutes, so if you’ll excuse me....”

“Wait. How are you going to prevent it from happening again?”

“Effective immediately, we’re changing the commission structure to pay only when the final invoice is paid, not when the sale is made, and any returns other than defective product or legit exchanges will be charged against the commission. Starting the first of the year we’re switching over to a base-plus-bonus system, the bonus based on company performance not just individual sales. They’re all Marc’s ideas.” Greg opened the door. “Gotta go. I’m going to make sales exciting.” He mugged a grin and was gone.

Irene scowled at Donny. “I never did trust that prick. I hope he ends up cleaning out the grease trap at a Carl’s Junior.”

“He might have to,” said Donny. “We’re canceling his stock options and taking back all his commissions from this quarter. It won’t pay us back, but it will at least make him sorry he did it.”

“How much did he rip us off for?”

Donny went to his desk, sat down, and whispered. “About eighteen thousand bucks.”

Irene narrowed her eyes to slits. “A grease trap would be too good for him.

By the middle of November the changes to the financial system were already making a noticeable difference. Ordering was streamlined, accounts receivable collections picked up, and sales increased dramatically after a PC magazine gave Pelican 2.0 a good review. Three more distributors signed up, including a regional chain of office supply stores. Following an intense round of interviews that included Donny, Greg, Marc, and Allen, the new sales manager, Michelle Swainson, an MBA from Stanford and a former associate sales manager at Apple, was hired three weeks after Bryce’s departure. Five more investors, including an Oscar-winning director and his wife, joined the ranks, and at the quarterly board meeting on Friday, November 19, the first of the stock dividends were announced. After the meeting Greg walked into Donny’s office and handed him a slim envelope. “The board voted unanimously to give out bonuses a little early.”

Donny opened the envelope. “Holy shit,” he breathed.

“Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Donny stared at the check. Pay to the order of Donald F. Hollenbeck the sum of Fifty Thousand Dollars. “I don’t think it’s possible to spend it all in once place,” he said.

“Maybe now you can buy some decent shoes.”

Donny glanced down at his scuffed loafers. “Yeah.”

“Thanks for everything, Donny. Jim McGruder, Marc... This doesn’t begin to cover how much of a difference you’ve made,” Greg said.

“I didn’t....” Donny began, but Greg cut him off. “Knock off the humble bit, willya? You earned every cent of it. Take a little credit, dammit.”

Eric was standing in the door. “So, can we talk about buying the house now?”

Marc came by a few minutes later. “Congratulations, big man,” he said with a little grin. “Let me take you to dinner.”

Donny held up the check. “Maybe I should be taking you. I assume you had something to say about this?”

“Only that we could afford it. Besides, after I explain the hit it’s going to add to your income taxes, I should buy the dinner.”

Donny smiled. “Okay. This time meet me at my house.”

After stopping at the bank, Donny drove home. He didn’t notice the BMW parked in front of the house and it wasn’t until he was walking across the lawn to the mailbox that he saw that Mike was standing next to the car.

“I tried calling your office, but they said you’d already left. So, got any plans for dinner?” he said, giving Donny a hug.

“Uh, as a matter of fact, I do,” he said, “I’m going out with a friend.”

“Oh. Your friend?”


At that moment, Marc pulled up in his Nissan. “Hey, nice to see you again,” he said to Mike, offering a handshake.

Donny watched Mike as they shook hands. It took a moment for Mike to recognize Marc, but when he did his expression went from puzzlement to shock and then to the canned smile that every celebrity used when they’re recognized in public by a fan. It happened in a split-second, and Mike replied cheerfully, “Paul’s party, right? Hey, man, how are you?”

“That’s right. I’m Marc Griffin.”

“Well, great, Marc. Good to see you again.” Mike turned to Donny, his expression unreadable, but his cheerfulness was still in full mode. “So, you’re... uh, going out? I mean, to dinner?”

“Yeah,” said Marc, who either by design or by habit matched the cheery tone. “We’re doing a little celebrating.”

“Oh? What’s the celebration?”

Marc looked at Donny, who said, “Oh, uh, I got my bonus from the company today.”

Mike nodded vigorously. “Well, that’s great, Donny. Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” Donny looked quickly at Marc. “Marc’s the new VP of finance at the company. Been there, what, about six weeks now? Really making a difference.”

“Well, that’s great,” Mike said again, this time sounding a little hollow.

“Say,” Marc said, “you want to join us? We’re just going over to a little place I know that has great Italian food. You’re more than welcome to come along.”

Mike put up his hands. “Oh, no, thanks.... I wouldn’t want to intrude. You kids go on and have a great time.” He started to go back to his car. “I just wanted to stop by and let you know I was back in town. Got a little place Marty’s renting for me in the valley until I close the deal on the house in Idyllwild. Hey, you still up for a weekend there? Both of you?”

Donny shrugged. “Sure, that’d be great.”

Mike opened the door. “Okay. I’ll be in touch. Hey, nice to, uh, see you again, Marc.” He got in and closed the door before Marc could say, “Same here.” They watched him drive off, then Donny said, “Think I laid it on a little thick with telling him exactly who you were?”

Marc smiled a little. “Think I laid it on with asking him along?”

“He’ll get over it.

They had a quiet dinner and talked about nothing to do with work, then came back to the house. Marc stayed the night.

The phone rang at 1:45.


“Donny. ‘S me. Mike.” He was very drunk.

“Oh shit,” Donny whispered. In the dim light he could see Marc stirring, sitting up, and mouthing “what’s wrong?” Donny motioned to him to go back to sleep.

“Donny donny donny” Mike said in a sing-song voice. There was background noise; wind in trees.

“What is it, Mike.”

“Zee luh yoo?”


“D’zee luh yoo! Luvvv yooo?”

“Jesus, Mike, go to sleep.”

“Can’t zleep. Wanna know ‘f he luvs you. Or ‘z just like to have that rock-hard cock o’ yours bangin’ his fuckin’ brains out.” The wind noise picked up and in the distance a police siren wailed.

“I’m hanging up now, Mike.”

“No, wait! Lissen a sec. Please.”

Donny sighed. Marc was still sitting up, watching, listening. “I’m listening.”

“God, Donny, I really screwed up.” He sounded more sober now, his voice not as trembling. He took a couple of deep breaths. “Jesus, I really know how t’ fuck things up. I really want to make up.”

“Yeah, well next time try it without quoting back your lines from the soap opera.”


“At Paul’s. All that shit about trying your damnedest.”

There was a long pause. Then, “Oh my god.”

“Yeah. Look, Mike. I’m...” Donny looked at Marc. “I’m sorry, too. But....”


“G’night, Mike. I’ll talk to you later.”

Another pause. “’Kay.”

After Donny put the phone back he lay back down and pulled Marc to him, spooning him, holding his back to his chest.

“What did he want?” whispered Marc.

“To know if you love me.”

Marc sighed softly. “Okay,” he murmured.

Sunday afternoon Donny was folding socks. The phone rang. It was Mike. This time he was sober.

“Can we talk?”


“It’ll take me about a half-hour to get there, so....”

“Marc’s not here.”

“Okay. See you in a few.”

He showed up wearing faded jeans and a Michigan State t-shirt to match. Danny, sitting at the dining room table going over tech manuals from work, barely acknowledged Mike. Donny offered him a beer.

“Actually, you got a Coke?”

They sat on the patio.

“Sorry about the other night,” Mike said apologetically. “I just....”

“It’s been a while, but I’m used to it,” Donny replied.

Mike closed his eyes. “This has been one crazy fucked up year. Up and down, the TV show, the movie, the soap, all this crap, all these people, now the house....” He let out a sigh. “And the worst part is that I lost something that really meant a lot to me.”

“Mike, if I really meant that much to you....”

“I know, I know, I wouldn’ta dropped off the face of the earth. I know all that. But you don’t know what I was up against. I can’t take a shit in this town – or anywhere – without clearing it with some assistant producer or PR asshole tagging along. Shit, that time I took you to lunch it ended up in fucking soap magazine.”

“I know. My mom called me about it.”

“Y’see? So when I told the people at the company in Santa Fe I wanted to fly you up for a weekend, Marty and his little cocksucker of a press agent went fuckin’ ballistic. Even Stuart didn’t want you to come up.” Mike chuckled cynically. “He had his own reasons for that, I’m sure.”

“Yeah,” agreed Donny.

Mike waved it off. “He never touched me again. He tried, but.... I just told him that I needed to concentrate on the work and – well, he found some well-hung local talent to hang around with in Santa Fe. But as soon as the shoot was done I told Marty I was coming back here and pick up with you.” Mike looked at Donny for a moment. “Funny thing. The day after I told him that, I got the call from the casting director of the soap. It was like some vast conspiracy to keep me out of L.A.”

Donny lit a cigarette. It gave him a moment to wonder how much of this was true and how much of it was just Mike’s way of trying to ease his guilt. Or was he just trying to get laid? The night at Paul’s left Donny no doubt then that Mike was just horny and hoping that what worked on TV would work in real life. Now, sitting on the patio with Eric in the garage working on his bike and Danny inside, going into the bedroom was out of the question even if Donny was interested. For the record, he noted, he was not.

“So, anyway,” Mike continued, “now that I’m back I just... I want to see where we stand.”

Donny shrugged. “Hey, we can be friends. I still like you, Mike,” he said, showing him a small grin to assure him. “But we’ve both moved on. You’ve got your career to think about. And I’ve got mine.”

“And you’ve got Marc.”

“Well, we’re not boyfriends. I mean, we’re friends, but we’re not...”

“Not lovers.”

“Not really. We work together and...”

“And play together,” said Mike. “I get it.” He lit a cigarette. “Y’know, I kinda had the feeling you’d end up with him.”

“Oh, yeah? How so?”

Mike fanned the smoke away and shrugged. “Just could tell. He never took his eyes off you at Paul’s. He was watching you the whole time. He even cut in line at the buffet table so he could stand next to you. It was kinda cute, in a way.”

“Didn’t know that.”

“Oh, yeah. So...he’s your VP of finance. I always thought he was a hustler or something.”

“He went to Stanford and he’s got an MBA,” Donny said, somewhat defensively. “In his first week he busted the sales manager for ripping us off for almost twenty thousand bucks, he’s streamlined the ordering system, and we’re on our way to a record year in sales. We have five investors, including some names you’d recognize. And the reason Marc and I were going out to dinner the other night was to celebrate my bonus.”

“Bonus or boner?” Mike said, and when Donny glared he held up his hand. “I’m sorry, that was rude. Just being a smartass. Look, I’m really happy for you. That’s great. I wish you all the luck in the world. You’ve really landed on your feet.” He chuckled. “Too late to get you to go in halfsies with me on the place in Idyllwild?”

“Eric and me are talking about buying this place.”

“Really? You and him together?”

“Sure, why not?”

Mike looked around. “This is a nice place. Not a bad idea to invest in a piece of property.”


Mike finished his cigarette. “So.” He looked at Donny and held him in his gaze for a few moments. “Okay.” He got up. “I’ll.... let you get back to whatever it was that you were doing.”

“Folding my laundry.”

Mike laughed. “Yeah, I gotta do mine, too. Hey, even a ‘big star’ has to have clean underwear.”

Donny walked him out to his car. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, handing Donny a card with his new phone number on it. He touched Donny’s chest and drew his finger down his breastbone. “And for what it’s worth...I still love you. That’ll never go away.”

“Yeah, well...” Donny stammered, suddenly feeling an overwhelming urge to embrace him. Instead he blinked quickly, patted Mike on the shoulder and said, “Keep in touch.”

Donny walked back into the house through the garage. Eric had his bike on the rack as he adjusted the derailleur gears. “So,” Eric said casually, “how’s Mike?”


Eric looked at Donny carefully. “You guys get things worked out?”

“Yeah. Just friends.”

“Ah.” Eric picked up a crescent wrench and fiddled with the adjustment. “I guess that’s for the best.”

“Yeah,” agreed Donny. He headed for the door. “For the best. But tell me something.”

“What,” said Eric as turned the wrench.

“How come it feels so shitty?”

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