Death in a Family Business
1 / Thursday evening
As I stood in Otto Jonker’s basement, watching him awkwardly fumble for the right words, I was struck by how big he was—like 6-foot-2, 250-pound big. A red-faced guy with a booming laugh that seemed forced. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt and cracked a couple windows so the October night would cool the room, but he was sweating anyway, wiping his forehead periodically with a blue-and-white hanky from a back pocket. Watching him pace, I thought he was working on a heart attack.
Otto wouldn’t even talk about the business and why he needed Dad and the others to come save his ass until he’d blasted the quadraphonic sound system and demonstrated the Super Betamax video player, which Sony had begun to ship.
He’d insisted on holding the orientation meeting at his house rather than at the store. Watching him prance from the wet bar to the giant projection TV, I thought that showing off his house was Otto’s way to let Dad and the others know he wasn’t a total loser. No, he was a good provider, giving his family a gigantic modern house and filling it with toys.
I could see Dad trying to be polite while growing impatient, his expression of friendly interest becoming tight as he waited for Otto to get down to business.
Of course, I didn’t care how much time Otto wasted. I was pretty much along for the ride. Dad said he thought I could be helpful, but I think he mostly wanted me for company, a father-son bonding opportunity. After all, we hadn’t spent a whole lot of time together during the last ten years or so.
Dad’s impatience finally overrode his restraint, and he said something in a low tone to Otto, who instantly turned off the sound from the four speakers—cutting off the realistic roar of a freight train as it seemed to chug around all four corners of the knotty-pine paneled rec room. The room was suddenly quiet enough I could hear Otto say, “I suppose we should get started. Everyone got something to drink?” He shot a glance at Christine, his wife, as if she might be slacking off as hostess, and began again, this time with an embarrassed giggle. “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve called you here for this meeting.”
No one was wondering. I’d overheard Dad’s end of the conversation last week when Otto phoned to say his business—Jonker Appliance & TV in Pittsfield—was in a bad way and could he come out and look at the situation? Why Dad? The two of them had been roommates a couple times at some management seminars, and Dad ran a thriving two-store appliance-TV business north of Boston, Lovell & Son Appliance/TV. Dad thought Otto had to be desperate to reach out to him.
“He sounded like a drowning man going down for the third time,” Dad told Mom when he hung up.
“And he thinks I know something he doesn’t.”
“You probably do,” Mom said with a smile.
Perched on a high bar stool next to him was Joanne McQuilkin, one of Dad’s dealer friends who was almost as tall as Otto. She was dressed in a conservative pants suit that, I couldn’t help noticing, showed nothing of her figure. As soon as I realized my mind wandering in this direction, I had to wonder: Why am I looking for the figure of a woman old enough to be my mother? I thought I caught Dad checking out Joanne’s ass. The way they’d stood together earlier, drinks in hand, suggested a closer relationship than retailing colleagues, but what did I know?
Joanne had her long graying blond hair tied back in a careless bun and she seemed to be wearing no makeup except pale lipstick. When she and I had walked downstairs to Otto’s rec room an hour before, she remarked that she was sorry to hear about my restaurant. “I still remember the meal you served us two years ago when my son and I were visiting Northeastern and Tufts.” She gave me a smile and added, “It was a rigatoni, followed by a wonderful tiramisu for dessert.” It gave me a warm feeling that she could recall it; the tiramisu was one of Si Accomodi’s specialties. “Your Dad says you’re living at home?”
“For the time being.” I nodded, but kept my head down so she couldn’t see me struggle to keep my face neutral.
“Do you have any plans?” She inspected me like a teacher with a new student.
“I’ve renewed my student pilot’s license and Dad’s going to help me get a full license.” Of course, that wasn’t what she was asking. She wanted to know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. As if I knew.
“Do you want to work as a pilot? Fly big jets?” She sounded interested.
“Pilot jobs are tough to get. I’m considering my options.”
With a dismissive wave, Joanne rejected that as the bullshit answer it was. “Tommy, do you want to start another restaurant? Or do something else?”
She was generous to show any interest when I was sure she didn’t give a shit. I put my hand out, palm up, and told her, “If you have any suggestions, I’m wide open.”
“I’ll think about it.” She sounded as if she would seriously consider it, too, which surprised me.
Now Joanne was sitting on the bar stool, following Otto’s constant pacing with her eyes as the other two dealers, Dan Wald and Nick Carvainis, settled into the fake leather couch across the room. Dad pulled the other bar stool over next to Joanne as Otto continued his agitated pacing in front of the TV screen. Once he had everybody’s attention, Otto told Christine to hand out the folders as he began to explain the background information he’d prepared: First-half financial statements (“I’m waiting for third-quarter figures”); employee records, which were names, titles, and years of employment (“I couldn’t get the payroll stuff together fast enough”); newspaper ads from the store and its competitors (“Just to show you what I’m up against”).
When Otto’s briefing ran down, Dad let the others ask their questions first. Dan, who’d come out of the service side of the business before buying the busy appliance store he now owned, asked a few questions about the service operation. Otto assured us that he had a cracker-jack service manager and boasted that Jonker Appliance & TV service was the best in town.
I watched Nick run his fingers down a row of numbers as he asked about third-quarter results. Otto said he’d talked to his accountant just that afternoon and the accountant had promised to deliver a profit/loss statement and balance sheet tomorrow afternoon. In other words, he didn’t answer.
Joanne wanted to know about customer relations. Nobody’s eyebrows went up when Otto said they were terrific, but by that time, even I could feel the skepticism in the room. “They buy all their appliances and consumer electronics from us. I have three generations in a family buying from us,” Otto said with a straight face.
When Dad’s turn came around he asked what Otto thought his three biggest problems were. Otto gave a helpless shrug and pulled out his hanky to wipe his face. Several seconds ticked by in silence, then he muttered, “Well, Tom, obviously there’s more money going out than coming in.” Dad started to say something, but Otto held up his hand and said in a louder voice, “I know, I know. That’s too goddamn simple. It’s just that I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t even know where to start.” He made me think of a man in a minefield, afraid to move forward, afraid to move back, and bewildered by how he got there. His head swung back and forth as if looking for answers in our faces.
Dad said, “Well, that’s why we’re here.”
But what did I know? I sure didn’t know that by the end of the weekend there’d be a death in the family business.
2 / Friday morning
The next morning I woke to the steam of Dad’s shower billowing into our hotel room. I blinked blearily while he moved around the room in his usual full-speed-ahead morning mode. I was still adjusting to the concept of morning after years of late nights in the restaurant, but Dad had always been a caffeine-optional early riser. That’s us, I thought, Tommy and Tom, just like night and day. Literally.
When I came out of the bathroom to dress, Dad was on the phone. “I heard there’s a storm moving in. Could you check—” Giving the airport ground service its marching orders. Dad was always double- and triple-checking the Cessna. He’d told me yesterday’s flight in had been smooth and easy, but there always seemed to be something to check.
I picked up my pace so Dad and I could get downstairs to breakfast and I could jump-start my system with a couple cups of black coffee.
After a pedestrian breakfast together in the Hilton dining room, Dad, Nick, Joanne, Dan, and I walked the two blocks to Jonker’s store, right on the dot for our eight o’clock appointment. We were starting our day two hours before the store opened; Dad said we needed the time to start digging into the business before customers arrived to, quote, distract the staff, unquote. He set a brisk pace along North Street to stay warm in the October air.
As we walked, I looked up and couldn’t help but think it was another good day to fly, even if the Weather Channel said it would be clouding up with rain after midnight. I noticed, as I’d noticed on the drive yesterday, the reds and golds of the oaks, maples, and birches on the hills around town. It was peak leaf-peeping season, and somebody had to twist a couple arms for us to secure rooms at the Hilton and even then Nick and Dan shared a room as did Dad and I—which sure as hell wasn’t my choice.
The store’s front door was locked, the inside dark. I’d expected to see big old Otto bouncing up and down like a kid doing the pee dance, eager to welcome us into his domain. He was excited enough last night.
Based on Otto’s rec room performance, I thought he was scared shitless. I’d recognized that fear in my bathroom mirror. A tightness around the eyes—eyes shifting from side to side, looking for aid from somewhere, anywhere; tongue licking lips that insisted on cracking, dry throat making it hard to speak easily. Or think clearly.
My analysis, which I didn’t bother to share with Dad: Otto was in over his head and was afraid to do anything. He relaxed toward evening’s end, as if absorbing Dad’s confidence. As the meeting broke up, Otto announced in his booming voice, “If anybody knows what to do about things, it’s you guys! You guys are the best!”
Standing outside Otto’s store, the window displays looked jumbled and junky to my eyes. Stepping closer and cupping my hands to shut out the sun, I could see the so-called white goods on one side of the entrance: almond and white refrigerators, washers, dryers, dishwashers, microwave ovens, and ranges. Jammed together on the other side were the electronics, the brown goods: television sets in wood-grain vinyl, console stereos in particleboard printed to look like walnut, hi-fi equipment, videocassette recorders. It looked as if Otto wanted to showcase every single goddamn item the store sold right up front.
Very different from our stores. Dad put one high-end refrigerator in one window and the store’s biggest color TV console in the other. Put a spotlight on them. Have a tiny tent card to identify the brand, model, a couple key features. But no price. “You want the price of this beautiful piece of merchandise, you come into the store,” Dad told me once. “You want to tell people subliminally there’s no hard sell. Shop here and you’ll be treated with the same respect as we treat the products.”
I thought the explanation was one of those justifications Dad made up on the spot to impress me, then a high-school senior. Fast-forward to my time with Gina at the restaurant, however, and I realized that presentation actually meant a lot, if not everything. Gina liked to say, “People eat with their eyes first.” Too bad more of them didn’t open their wallets and come back with friends after seeing her artistically arranged entrées. One of these days I’ll remember to tell Dad he was right. Display worked for Lovell’s appliances, even if it couldn’t keep Si Accomodi in business.
Thinking Otto was hiding somewhere in the back, Dad pounded on the front door hard enough to make the little “Open at 10:00” sign on the other side of the glass shake on its string.
Nothing happened. No light clicked on at the back. No movement inside. Nothing. If something didn’t happen soon, a cop would come along to shoo us away, no matter how respectable we looked in our dress shirts, suit jackets, and polished shoes. Store’s closed! Come back during store hours.
“What is this?” Nick said, narrowing his eyes and raising a fist. “I drive all the way from Scranton for this, and Otto oversleeps?”
Joanne swiveled her head to check out the area and told us, “There’s a pay phone across the street. We can call his house and find out what’s happening.”
Dad agreed, “Good idea,” and started across.
Although North Street appeared to be the town’s main shopping drag, it was so early and so empty we could jaywalk without dodging a single car. The tobacco shop/newsstand with the phone was a hole-in-the-wall, not big enough for all of us, so I hung back. The pay phone was on the wall by the door and the others crowded around Dad, leaving no room for even a skinny customer to squeeze past. Finally wide awake after my coffee kicked in, I thought they should have more consideration for the poor old guy behind the counter who saw all this prospective business evaporate into one phone call.
They dialed and I read the October 3rd headlines on the local paper: “President Ronald Reagan Signs the Goldwater-Nichols Act into Law,” “Apparent Attempt Made to Kill Rajiv Gandhi,” “Faculty at BCC Votes No Confidence in Daube.”
I didn’t give a damn about the Goldwater-Nichols Act, Indian politics, or Berkshire Community College, so I walked to the curb to look up and down North Street. At one time, it must have been a thriving commercial street in a prosperous New England mill town. Now it looked sad and, well, tacky. There were a couple of once-grand movie theaters with empty marquees. The Woolworth’s display windows were covered with sheets of plywood. A men’s clothing store looked as if it was hanging on, but it also looked as if half the retail spaces along the street were out of business. A bank two blocks down did appear to be a going concern. A non-profit state housing office took up a large store across the street. I could see a Goodwill Industries sign up the street. Jonker’s, the clothing shop, the bank, and Goodwill were the few enterprises that showed any life.
No wonder Otto had been so antsy last night. His town was dying around him.
3 / Friday morning
Nick, Dan, and Joanne hustled out of the tobacco shop behind Dad, who was shaking his head. “What?” they wanted to know. “What’d she say?” Dad seemed stunned, the others distressed. Dad stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and we circled him like players around the coach. He took a deep breath to compose himself and told us the story.
Wendy, Otto’s daughter, had answered the phone. We hadn’t met her last night because she was a student at Clark University in Worcester and had arrived at the house only after the meeting broke up.
Not long after we left, Otto rumbled away on his Harley to blow off steam—she said he did that when he felt stressed—and he’d gotten into some kind of accident. The police rang the bell around four in the morning and woke her and her mom with the news. They’d both gone to the hospital. Wendy didn’t know how badly Otto was injured, but it was serious.
Her mother was so distraught, she didn’t think to call any of us. But around dawn she remembered Dad and the rest of us were supposed to be at the store, so she sent Wendy back home to wait for Dad’s call. (At this point, I wondered: Why not send Wendy to wait for us at the store? But I guess if my father was clinging to life in a hospital bed, my mind would be fuzzy too.)
When Dad stopped, Nick asked, “What should we do now?”
“The store’s still in trouble.” Dad had become abnormally calm. He was shifting into Focus Mode, in which nothing could—should—distract him. I’d seen it before. One time, our Cessna’s engine began running ragged and I thought we might wind up ditching in some farmer’s field—if we were lucky. But Dad, at the controls, shifted into Focus Mode and concentrated on exactly what should be done, and did it (add carburetor heat, drop to a lower altitude, look for a spot to land). To my relief, the engine caught and we were able to fly on. It was as if Dad instantly ordered a mental to-do list, and began working on one item after another. “We have to save the store,” he pronounced. “If we don’t turn this store around, and fast, Otto and Christine will be out on the street.”
That seemed extreme. The store must be in worse shape than anybody imagined. I hadn’t studied Otto’s financials, but Dad had; he was still working at our room’s desk when I fell asleep last night and he sure could sniff out trouble.
“What, leave Christine all alone at the hospital? We should be with her, see what’s happening with Otto,” said Joanne.
Dad thought for a second. “Good point. You and Tommy go. Make sure she’s all right. Let her know we’re going ahead with the analysis.”
“See if she’s got a key to the store,” said Nick.
Dad shook that off. “Service manager’s due any minute. Wendy told me. He’ll let us in.”
As Joanne and I walked back to the hotel parking garage, I offered to drive. She said, with a raised eyebrow, “I thought you flew up here with Tom.”
I told her he’d flown up alone after flying to a meeting on Long Island earlier in the day. I’d have gladly gone along to put in another couple hours at the controls, but I had a whole different kind of meeting in Boston yesterday morning. A showdown in Bean Town: me and my lawyer versus Gina and her lawyer. That’s how come I was driving Dad’s Buick back and forth across Massachusetts.
“I . . . I heard about your restaurant, but I didn’t realize you were in the middle of a divorce. That sounds absolutely miserable.” Joanne made ordinary words resonate with kindness and concern.
I didn’t know what to say. Bitch about the unfairness of it all? Tell her I’d learned a good lesson, that hard work isn’t always rewarded? But I didn’t want to whine, sound like a loser. Dad wasn’t a loser, and he didn’t raise his only child to be a loser.
“Well.” To deflect any more of Joanne’s sympathy, I put on a cheerful face and shrugged to imply I was putting it all behind me. “I guess it was a good learning experience.” That’s what Dad said about almost anything—bad or good. He also liked to say: That which does not kill me makes me stronger. To which I wanted to say: Just try to keep that in mind when life is beating the crap out of you.