<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>> Since the accident on Tuesday Ray had had little, if any, sleep. As he and Joan were being driven by friends to the funeral, all he could do was to continue what he had been doing all week: re-living that awful day. The April weather was threatening: pewter skies overhead were giving way to more ruffled clouds and some mid-day darkness toward the west. He and Joan had hardly spoken- partly because they were both so distraught, and partly because he had not really let Joan know all there was to know about his business. Ray had done so well because of his ability to get along with the Teamsters and the Longshoremen who made up a large segment of his workforce. He asked no questions and dealt with them on a need-to-know basis. In fact, he settled for some contracts that were significantly better for the workers than other, bigger, warehouses had allowed. This earned him labor peace, and even a degree of loyalty. He actually had some real fans. In fact, late one evening Chiani Chiavone, one of the teamsters he had done a small favor for, pulled Ray aside and quietly said into his ear “Thanks for what you did for me, man. You’re the best. If you ever need any help – you know, the kind that’s hard to get – give me a call. Here’s my card.” he said as he raised his eyebrows, looked over his glasses, and slipped a small business card into Ray’s hand. As he took the card, Ray noticed a large pinky ring on Chiani’s left hand. Ray never turned down a gesture like that. He smiled, ruffled Chiani’s hair, and slipped the card into his pocket. Joan knew none of that side of the business. Ray had figured he could teach it to Nick bit by bit. All of that came crashing down last Tuesday. The day started out well enough. Ray had come up from their beach house on the Jersey shore where they had vacationed together as a family for spring break. Nick had come back on Monday, and Ray had taken an extra day at the shore to mull a decision about an offer he had to sell his company. He had many such offers, but had rejected each one on the hope that he could convince Nick to join him, and ultimately turn the business over to him. Now that Nick was actually coming on board, turning down the most recent offer was easy.As he sat down behind his large solid cherry wood desk, he looked, and felt successful. Medium height with a stocky build, his ruddy complexion was framed by thick, salt and pepper hair. He looked a good five to ten years younger than his 55 years of age. Ray remembered surveying his office. Built-in bookshelves were filled with leather bound versions of classic novels he had purchased one by one from the Franklin Press. He had never read any of them, but they looked great. And he thought he might start actually reading them as Nick took over more of the business. Big brass Stifle lamps were on his desk and the side table, and two large oil landscape paintings, one of the Jersey shore in a storm, and one of Vermont in the summertime, adorned the walls. “Mornin’, Mr. Bowers. Coffee?” Christine asked. She always perked up Ray’s mood, as she bounded into the office. Beams of sunshine streaming in through the window caught her long silky dark hair as she turned toward him, gently massaging her chewing gum. She was wearing the same outfit she usually wore: gray corduroy bell bottom slacks, a long sleeved black turtle neck under a button down shirt with the top two buttons opened. Her broad, slightly mischievous grin revealed very white, but slightly crooked teeth, which were curiously endearing. He nodded as he picked up the daily inventory report. Suddenly his mood turned sour. Once again they were short on the Philco TV sets. This was their biggest account. Lately, sets had gone missing, and the inventory count that Philco provided was higher than the number Continental got when they did their own count. “Christine!” He shouted out his open door. “What the hell is going on with this goddamn inventory?” He banged his fist on the desk for emphasis. Christine hustled back into the office, closely followed by Nick. “Nick’s here to see you. He asked yesterday for some time to discuss the inventory with you.”Nick was dressed in his usual manner, somewhat above the workers, but below the upper management: brown corduroy slacks, an orange hooded sweatshirt, and sneakers. The orange sweatshirt made him quite visible, and that is what he wanted. He figured that knowing he was out and about among the stacks, keeping an eye on time and motion of workers, forklifts, freight cars at the railroad siding, and other activity, just made everyone a little more accountable. Nick was ubiquitous. Nicks eyes followed Christine out the door as he laid a clipboard on Ray’s desk and turned it around for him to see. At least twelve sheets of inventory had been underlined, circled, and noted. Half of the notations were in Nick’s handwriting and the others were Christine’s. Ray was familiar with her left handed slant. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this, dad. Three weeks out of the last five we have had a manual count of the Philcos that is about 50 less than they say we have. I looked at every factor I could. Chrissie helped me a lot. We compared the weeks we were short to the weeks we weren’t and there was only one common factor: Josh Fox.” “Josh Fox? Who’s that?” “He’s the Operations Supervisor we hired a couple of months ago. Used to work across the river at Cherry Hill.” “What’s going on?” “Might be a simple as Josh’s not doing the math at the end of each night shift; and comparing our count to the Philco numbers. That’s what I did when I was in his boots. If there was a discrepancy I could deal with it then and there. He may just not be keeping close enough tabs on things. I’m not ready to say the TV’s are walkin’ off somehow.” Ray knew he needed to talk to Josh. He watched Nick’s orange sweatshirt heading briskly down to the floor. Ray knew that his son was a dedicated man after his own heart. He had no idea that would be his last conversation with his son. Until this point, Ray’s recollection of the day was bearable. But the rest of it became surreal and increasingly bizarre. He kept replaying the scene in his mind, but it wouldn’t go away. Ray had not been to Josh’s office before. It was a small space, sparsely furnished with Josh’s metal desk facing the door. Two folding chairs were placed in front of the desk facing Josh. Behind Josh the entire back wall of his office was Plexiglas looking out over the warehouse floor, from which much of the activity could be observed. “Mornin’ Josh” Ray said as he walked over to him with a business like smile and outstretched hand. Josh accepted it warily. You got a great view from here, don’t you?” “That’s why they call it The Control Room” he replied, trying to figure out why Ray was there. Ray was momentarily fascinated by the view and all of the activity. There were several workers just under the window. Off to the left side a railroad car was being loaded. Straight ahead was a huge scaffold, at least 30 feet high, in front of a large stack of crates containing Philco TVs. There was no one on it, and he wasn’t sure what it was doing there. He made a mental note to check it out. Josh, tell me about your inventory process. He began, hoping that Josh would volunteer that he had noticed the discrepancy, and would provide an explanation. As Josh began talking, Ray’s eye caught Nick’s orange sweatshirt as it came into view through the Plexiglas an animated conversation with Christine. Nick was looking straight at her, but her eyes were cast down. For a moment, he put his hand on her shoulder, and she put her hand on top of his. She moved back, and disappeared into the stacks, followed by Nick. A few minutes later he re-emerged by himself. “I’ve been really bothered by the shortage, Mr. Bowers.” Josh’s answer barged back into Ray’s consciousness. I’ve done a couple of things to . . . Ray’s recollection of what Josh said gets dimmer and dimmer, as he began to watch Nick, clipboard in hand, climb up the scaffold. Josh was going through his new check list of things he would be doing in the next week, when Ray really became transfixed. Nick was now on the top of the scaffold, his orange sweatshirt a bright contrast to the grey crates behind. Despite the absence of any safety rail, Nick seemed quite steady as he wrote on his clipboard. When the big Clark forklift, also orange in color, first entered the scene from the right, Ray’s mind immediately flashed back to the toy forklift Ray had given Nick as a little boy. He loved that little orange toy. Ray wondered why it had taken so long to convince Nick to come to work for him. At first it looked like the forklift was heading toward the railroad car being loaded on the left side of the floor, but it seemed to be moving very fast. Suddenly it veered to the right and headed directly toward the scaffold. Ray could only watch in horror as the silent movie unfolded before his eyes. When the forklift finally made contact, the scaffold immediately disintegrated. In Ray’s memory the rest of the scene is in slow motion. For a moment, Nick seemed suspended in space with no structure underneath him. He slowly pitched forward, his arms flailing at the air. He held onto his clipboard at first, but he finally let it go as he accelerated toward the cement floor. His head hit first, and the rest of his body, including the orange sweatshirt crumpled on top. Silently, workers rushed toward him. There was no motion to his body. A small pool of blood expanded out from the area where his head was covered by his orange sweatshirt. The forklift had come to rest nearby, and the operator ran over to the crowd around Nick. Ray actually could not remember much after that, although snippets of the scene continued to appear in the unwanted re-runs Ray had been enduring since. He remembered Christine throwing herself on Nick’s motionless body. Someone must have taken charge, because Ray had no idea who called the ambulance, nor of the resuscitative efforts of some in the crowd while they waited for help. He did remember the white plastic shroud being put over Nick’s body. Although he didn’t remember calling Joan, she did, and it was all she could do to drive in to pick him up, and go over to tell Julie what had happened. All of this ran through Ray’s mind yet another time as they drove toward the Creighton Funeral Home through gathering storms on that horrible Friday in April. He did the best he could to put it out of his mind as he and Joan entered the room.
Julie noticed immediately as Ray and Joan walked in. Many others did also, and the volume in the room decreased, allowing Creighton’s canned music to re-assert itself. Something in a minor key from Gustav Mahler had replaced the Mozart. Julie just wanted to get this part over, so it seemed to take forever for her in-laws to sign the book and come toward her. It actually took about 20 minutes for the Bowers to make their way through the “Consolidated People” to get to Julie. She had so much to say, so much to ask, that her mind was swirling by the time they got to her. Nick had given up a job that was, admittedly, financially insecure, for one which was, as it turns out, physically perilous. Why hadn’t they known how dangerous this job would be? She felt as if Nick had been pushed into it without full understanding of all of the ramifications. Joan gave Julie a big hug. It was sincere, and it felt that way to Julie. Despite her misgivings about Joan, at this moment they shared a major loss. Ray also gave Julie a hug, but to her he seemed much more detached. Even as he whispered to Julie about his sorrow for her situation, and Jakes not having a father, she saw his eyes scanning the room. At that moment she had a thought that would bother her for the rest of her life: at least I won’t have to deal with this asshole now that Nick’s not around.
Rays over-stimulated mind was having trouble dealing with it all. What was obsessing him was what was this all about? There had never been such an accident at Consolidated. In fact, he had never heard of anything similar. Just as he and Joan approached Julie, he saw Josh Fox, the person he was with as he watched Nick die. In all of the incessant mental replays of that scene, he couldn’t help but notice that Josh was not similarly destroyed by what they were watching. All of that was rekindled when he saw Josh at the funeral. Ray noticed that Josh was not alone. He was with an older man. He made the connection at once. He knew this guy: Morrie Fox. Morrie was the owner of a small warehouse: Cherry Hill Moving and Storage. They were not a real competitor for Ray. They were mostly a residential operation. They had no commercial presence, nor did they have railroad siding or the ability to aid in distribution of products. But it was a small world, and people in warehousing, particularly Ray, knew people in warehousing. Even as he stood holding hands with his son’s widow, his tormented mind was struggling. Seeing Josh together with Morrie Fox, he made a connection. After spending what he thought was an appropriate amount of time with Julie, Ray went over to Josh. Questions were still festering in his mind about this guy. Nick’s last conversation with Ray was about Josh. “Meet my uncle Morrie” said Josh. “Morrie Fox? Cherry Hill Moving and Storage?” Morrie nodded. He was a man of medium height, but looked to be about 300 pounds. He was wearing a black suit that looked like he bought it when he weighed closer to 250. He was breathing heavily; had a thin bead of sweat filled the furrow between his eyebrows. His thinning hair was slicked back over his bald spot with the help of Vitalis to hold it in check. “Pleasure, Mr. Bowers. Josh speaks highly of you.” His attempt at a smile revealed his yellowed teeth with a wide gap in the middle. He was looking Ray over very carefully as he shifted from side to side. Sounds like you had a terrible week. Horrible accident! He said, shaking his head and looking down at the floor. As they continued the required small talk, Ray noticed that Morrie was beginning to sweat more. He was breathing more heavily, and his fetid breath was starting invade Ray’s space. There was something about Morrie that brought Ray out of his trance: didn’t seem quite right; caused a shot of adrenalin to go through Ray’s system. It helped Ray to have an excuse to politely conclude this conversation when he saw Christine approaching him. She looked very different; something was going on. She wouldn’t look directly at him as they shared an awkward embrace. “He was so wonderful to be around. He meant the world to me- to all of us. I can’t believe . . .” “Christine, I have no idea what well do . . .” She fumbled around in her purse and pulled out a note envelope with “Mr. Bowers” written on the front in her backhand script. She pressed it into his hand, turned away, and faded into the crowd. Ray put it away into his coat pocket.
During the brief service the weather had begun to deteriorate outside. Cold winds battered the poorly insulated windows of the chapel. As they left, the skies were ominous, and minor spitting of rain portended a deluge to come. Julie, Jake, and her mom hurriedly entered the black Lincoln Continental just behind the hearse for the procession to the cemetery. Ray and Joan got into the next car. Joan was quietly crying as she had been throughout. As the casket and flowers were being put into the hearse, Ray opened the note from Christine. Dear Mr. Bowers,I had to write you this note because I didn’t know if I could tell you directly. Nick meant the world to me, and all of us. Right now I am very confused and I don’t think I could face the warehouse. I have been talking to my sister in Boston who invited me to come and stay with her for a while. I think I’ll do that. I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone to take my place. Sorry. I’ll keep in touch. Christine: That started another rerun in Ray’s mind of Tuesday, this time beginning with the scene of Nick and Christine in the aisle beside the scaffold. What’s that? Joan asked.“Nothin’, honey. It’s a note from Christine. She just said she needs a little time off.” Ray tucked the note back in his pocket. A flash of lightening followed quickly by a clap of thunder brought him back to the moment. The rain was beginning in earnest, as the procession slowly pulled away. Out his side window, Ray saw Morrie Fox waddling toward a white panel truck, with Josh at his side, coats pulled up over their heads against the rain. They scrambled into the truck. The rain was intense, and it was dark, making it hard to read the logo on the side of the truck. For a moment, the windshield wipers out-wiped the deluge. A bright flash of lightening allowed him to make out “Morrie’s TV and Appliances” as they slowly rode by. <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Ray’s heart never got back into his work. Although he returned to the office on a Monday in early May, it was never the same. Christine, of course, was gone; replaced by a frumpy, middle aged assistant, Francine, who, although being very efficient, did nothing to lift his mood. Christine’s sudden departure, and his observations from the control room just prior to Nick’s death made him wonder if there may have been something going on between them, but that was a thought about his son that he didn’t really want to entertain.But it was on that Monday when the rest of it all fell into place. Ray had Francine bring him the employment record of the fork lift operator involved in Nick’s accident, which was very short. It turned out his former employer was none other than Morrie Fox, of Cherry Hill Moving and Storage. Morrie had given an excellent recommendation for him, despite the fact he had only been at Cherry Hill for six months. Why would he have changed jobs so soon? It wasn’t for any major increase in pay. A statement in the interview record said he wanted to be closer to family on this side of the river. The accident that killed Nick happened only a week after he started at Consolidated. At that moment Ray recalled the sign on the side of the van that Morrie got into at the end of Nick’s funeral and he understood everything. Morrie wasn’t just in the warehousing business. He was in the TV business as well. He was siphoning the TVs from Ray’s warehouse to sell at his store, and Nick was getting too close to figuring things out. Ray pounded his fist on the desk so hard it almost drew blood. Jaws clenched, he got up from his desk and walked over to the window. Swaying back and forth, hands thrust into his pockets, he stared intently into the distance, and stood there for several minutes. Slowly, his taut muscles relaxed, and his countenance changed. He walked back to the desk, deep in thought. Standing there, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Buried in a stack of old business cards he found the tattered card of Chiani Schiavone. The first small smile on his face since Nick’s funeral slowly emerged as he dialed Chiani’s number. “Chiani! Ray Bowers here. . . "