Excerpt for Taking Chances by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Taking Chances

a novel by T. J. Silverio

Copyright 2017 T. J. Silverio

Smashwords Edition

ISBN 9781370515981

License Notes: Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Thank you for your support.

Chapter 1

In the time a butterfly takes to flap its wings everything in life can change - light and darkness falling in new places. For Alex Frasier, shadows invaded his world when two police officers knocked on his door to inform him that an accident had just taken his wife, mere blocks away from their home in suburban Philadelphia.

The cloying sweet smell of flowers permeated the funeral home as Alex greeted stunned friends the following evening. Despite the unseasonably warm spring temperatures, the room felt cold. His oldest friend Chad Willis had flown up from Macon to help him navigate the unexpected terrain.

In a moment between well-wishers, his thoughts drifted back to an evening, just days earlier, when the world still made sense. He and Sylvia were in the bedroom getting dressed for a dinner engagement.

“Do we have to do this?” she asked. “You know how much I hate these business affairs.”

“Don’t look at me. When the Old Man says be there, we’re there.”

“You know I don’t care for it when you call him that.”

“Okay then, your father claims this is an important potential customer. Need to make a good impression. Besides he likes to show you off.”

“He does not,” she said.

“Absolutely does. Thinks you’re the perfect accessory.”

“That’s not funny.”

He straightened his tie. “Sorry. But you have to admit, even though he could never picture you as part of the family business, he likes to have you around to charm the customers.”

“He can’t help it; he’s just old school. Besides, you spend your life there, that’s enough for both of us.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Okay, he still thinks a woman belongs in the kitchen or on a man’s arm,” she relied. “It’s just Papa’s particular take on life.”

“Probably all that pasta and spicy Italian sauce.”

“And two thousand years of tradition.” She zipped up her dress.

He looked at his watch. “Hey, we better get a move on.”

“What? Did your day timer go off?”

“Just don’t want to be late.”

“Late to you would mean not being early.” She kissed him on the cheek then entered her closet. “Stop pacing around. Go on down and get the car keys. I’ll be there in a jiffy.”

His eyes watered at the memory. Could that have been just three days ago? He realized someone was talking to him.

“…and we’re so sorry, Alex.” The face of Martha Simpson came into focus. “The whole Women’s Club wants you to know how much we thought of her.”

Martha moved on, replaced by another sad-face. “We’re so sorry. We miss her already.”

On and on the evening went. He noticed how bravely his daughter Sara was handling the situation. She looked so poised in her dark blue suit, patiently smiling despite the tears tracing her cheeks. His call to her at college to give her the shocking news was the most difficult conversation he thought he would ever have.

The line seemed endless, as did the sentiments. Eventually the evening drew to a merciful close.

An overcast sky bathed the scene in grays and shadows, matching his mood of gloom and sadness. A bright sun would have seemed out of place, irreparably cracking his already delicate façade.

The line of limos stretched around the block outside the Gothic cathedral. Inside, a sea of black filled the church as Antonio Colianni and his wife Maria walked behind the draped casket of their only daughter. Father Daniels stood at the front of the church faced with an impossible task - to speak words that would explain to this stricken man and his family how any god of mercy could take away something so precious, so necessary.

Alex held his daughter’s hand as they walked behind Sylvia’s mother and father up the aisle to the designated pew. He had lost his wife, a sad thing, and Sara at the vulnerable age of nineteen had lost her mother, equally sad, but no one who knew this family mistook the epicenter of the tragedy.

Antonio was a revered man, a shimmering jewel within the small but determined Italian community still clinging to the territory from 8th Street to 16th Street in south Philadelphia. He was adored for all he had done to keep the community vibrant, even though he no longer lived among them. Only one so beloved could have held their admiration even after abandoning the neighborhood to build his grand home on the mainline. He endowed scholarships to the St. Paul’s Catholic High School, was a big contributor to the annual Italian Festival, and continually used his influence in the corridors of city hall on behalf of his people. People who knew him respected him and were sad with him on this, the most awful day of his life.

On the right side of the church, halfway back, sat rows of men in business suits, many of whom owed their success to Antonio’s mentorship and guidance. Others were customers and competitors, honoring one of their own in his time of need. The Colianni medical supply business was relatively small when measured on the scale of the IBM’s and Motorola’s of the world, but in the Philadelphia area it was well-known and respected. A family business that the locals around the Italian Market pointed to with pride, “Local Boy Makes Good.”

The long day concluded with a gathering at the Colianni home where final condolences were offered. Alex arrived back at his house near ten, drained and numb. Sara went to change her clothes in her old room where she had taken up residence since the accident. He appreciated having her close by.

He walked through the living room, empty for the first time in days, amazed how orderly the place looked despite countless visits of neighbors and friends with casseroles and cakes. Evidently healing began with the chewing process. Then he remembered the trim figure of Angela silently, almost invisibly, bustling around managing things. His sister-in-law seemed to have appeared in the midst of the chaos to take care of things.

He collapsed into a chair in the kitchen. Glancing around, it felt as though Sylvia was just out for an errand and the house waited expectantly for her return.

As he had done each evening of his adult life, Alex thought about tomorrow. But his day timer was filled with things that no longer held any meaning for him. He gazed at the calendar on the refrigerator door. The rest of the month had various scribblings in Sylvia’s hand, events and appointments that would go unattended, reminders that would fall on silence. “April 2000” it announced. But now, what was tomorrow for?

Chapter 2

The date on the unread newspaper claimed two weeks had passed. Alex had lost track. This must be what the concept of time relativity is all about, he concluded. There existed a time before the accident - a time filled with the unnoticed rituals of daily life, a time for planning trips and dreaming about the future, the illusion of unchangeable sameness. And then there’s the time after, a period of extended blurriness. No need for days or hours. Just then - and now.

Loss is like sunburn. You may be caught by surprise when it happens, but once it sets in the pain takes over. It goes everywhere with you, present in every moment of your day and throughout the long empty nights. There’s no escaping, the ache is pervasive and persistent. In spite of well-intended suggestions and bromides, there is no cure, no mitigation, just endurance.

Your system reacts to the injury by trying to purge itself; blisters begin to appear, bursting with grief. Eventually the surface dries up and starts flaking off. Your whole protective layer has been peeled away. Everything feels raw.

Alex struggled to recognize what was left. His identity had been erased like an etch-a-sketch. In the mirror he saw little that was familiar. The features were still there, his wavy light brown hair, the small scar on his chin from falling in the creek as a kid, the slender but slightly crooked nose, some graying at the temples, all there. Features that had always been described as attractive and friendly, the blue-green eyes that stared back at him now were vacant and oddly unfocused.

Slowly through some awful grace, healing begins. A new membrane emerges, tender and pink, unprepared for much exposure. And whatever damage lies beneath the surface remains concealed. He wanted to stay covered up as well, hidden from view.

Sara had returned to classes at the university but stopped by with bagels and a concerned expression, suggesting it would be good for him to get out some. Losing her mother had made its mark on her, but she kindly worried about him. He studied her sad brown eyes and sandy blond hair, feeling a secret pride for having his hair shade sneak through the genetic maze dominated by the dark coloring of Sylvia and the Colianni family. But Sara possessed that same expression as her mother in the curve of her nose and the crinkle of her smile. He wondered why he had never noticed that before.

With her encouragement bordering on insistence, he agreed to return to work. He could find no concrete reason to do so except to ease Sara’s mind. There had been a time, not long ago, when work drew him like a magnet, taking great pride in the work he did as the finance manager for the family business. He had a knack for it. Just as a gifted golfer had a way of seeing the specific shape a shot required to find the green, Alex had a similar feel for what was needed financially along the complicated corridors of business. He understood the layered world of complex ledgers and financial statements as if they were clearly marked maps to his inner eye.

But like everything else in his life, that passion had now fallen away. He felt lost in a valley between two large mountains, with no energy to climb either. One side was carpeted with melancholy, robbing him of any interest in what the next moment offered. And the other side – draped with the curse of memory - haunted his dreams.

He drove the twenty minute route from Rosewood Park to the office in suburban Philadelphia, the same scenery he had passed for the past ten years since they followed Sylvia’s wish to move to the plush suburban development. The ride itself proved therapeutic, the tall green-leafed trees lining the streets seemed to serve as anchors in his suddenly structureless world.

Once at work he offered a brief hello to his surprised secretary Agnes. Despite the antique gold plaque on his door indicating that this office still belonged to Alex Frasier, a very different person was now entering the room; still broad-shouldered and trim at five-nine, with a small pouch beginning to gather around his middle, his middle-age slump Sylvia called it, but a suddenly fragile person struggling to find his way. He sat down in the high-back leather chair to reacquaint himself with his desk, as if seeing it for the first time. On the corner sat a picture, Sara and Sylvia smiling with their arms around him. He reached over, picked it up, stared for a moment, then opened the desk drawer and slid the memory away.

Agnes appeared at his door, mug of coffee in her hand. “Good to see you.”

He motioned her in. She set the coffee down on the stone coaster next to the blotter on his desk. “Thanks,” he muttered.

“Would you like to see the mail?”

“Not just yet. Let me sort through some stuff for a while.”

She left.

The rest of the day proceeded with awkward politeness, people trying to act normal in an abnormal situation. He appreciated the effort and struggled to put them at ease.

The next few days Alex went through the motions mostly out of habit, making decisions out of a routine long established, applying no real analysis. He heard the Old Man was missing. Antonio Colianni’s big office, the center of activity for the company, remained dark and empty. This made no impression on Alex; he was absent in his own way. Colianni, here or there, was the last thing on his mind.

The rhythm of business surged on like the tide, moving with unseen relentless force, regardless of the circumstances. He knew he should just turn things over to his staff. He had good people, but at the moment he resisted delegating, couldn’t bring himself to let go of anything else. He felt compelled to grasp onto whatever familiar controls still existed.

“I’ll just make the necessary corrections to the monthly summary,” his peppy second-in-command Amy said, after discreetly pointing out a few inconsistencies Alex had overlooked.

“No, I think I’d best attend to it.”

She set the sheets on his desk. “You sure?”

“Yes, thank you.”

His sense of trust had disappeared, a strange bookend to his indifference. Whatever logic of faith his previous life had taught him had been shattered by his wife’s sudden death. He held no confidence in the next moment. He obsessed about Sara, calling her apartment, checking in perhaps too often to see how she was doing.

“I’m fine, Dad, really.”

“Just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.”

“I know,” she replied. Then added, “I miss her too.”

The evenings seemed empty and the nights long and lonely. Chad Willis continued to call from Macon, providing moments of relief from the shadows inhabiting the house. Despite the thousand miles of separation, the invisible thread of friendship suddenly seemed more like a life-line.

They had remained close since being roommates in college, enjoying the comfortable bond of true friendship, picking up on the last sentence of their previous conversation no matter how long since they had spoken. Sylvia had never warmed to Chad. While he had built an impressive series of car dealerships across Georgia, she continued to refer to him as a used car salesman and considered his failed marriages and ‘southern airs’ indications of a questionable character. “He’s had more southern belles than Bret Butler,” he recalled her saying.

But he knew Alex better than anyone. And when Sylvia died, Chad was his rock, and particularly sensitive to what Sara was going through. Unlike her mother, Sara was very fond of “Uncle” Chad. During her junior year of high school, as she sorted through the litany of possible colleges to attend, Alex had persuaded Sylvia to allow Sara to accept Chad’s invitation to spend some time with him so she could visit the campuses in the south she had expressed interest in. She seemed to have had a wonderful time and while she decided to attend college right in Philadelphia, the bond she had established with Chad endured.

Chad’s voice sounded deep and resonant, his “lawyer voice” he called it, capable of swaying little old ladies to pay full sticker price for new sedans. “Maybe you need to get away for awhile, a change of scenery,” he suggested one evening. “Come on down here and enjoy some southern hospitality.”

“I just feel empty. Don’t think where my body is located matters much.”

“You have no idea the curative power of sweet tea. People claim it’s the bright sunshine and palm trees that accounts for our cordial disposition, but it’s really the sweet tea.” Chad paused. “I know this is hard to imagine, old buddy, but it’ll get better. After my last divorce, not that I’m comparing my indiscretions with your loss, mind you, but I’d lost my appetite for ‘bout everything. But it came back, full bodied. Just takes time.”

“I’ll take your word for it, but at the moment, nothing tastes very good.”

Alex wanted to work, to fall into the world of numbers. No one ever died in a pool of numbers, everything operated just as directed by the rules of logic and the equations of predictable outcomes. There would be no surprises.

But there was a surprise. Antonio Colianni’s office still stood vacant. No one had seen him since the funeral. Whispered conversations circulated that the sudden loss of his daughter had forced him to his bed. The senior staff met to address the immediate tasks of each day, but everyone anxiously waited for the Old Man to reappear.

Alex’s inquiries met with obtuse responses, so he approached Ira Mosher, Antonio’s close friend and although now semi-retired, still the financial icon of the firm.

“I don’t have to tell you how difficult it’s been,” Ira said. “For Antonio to lose his only daughter, must seem unimaginable to him. He worshipped her, his princess, and now…the light seems to have just gone out for him.” He paused. “How you holding up?”

“One day at a time,” Alex replied. “Can we talk to him?”

“I’ve been over to see him a couple of times. He doesn’t respond much. Doctors are calling it melancholic depression. They say it’s a sadness so profound it’s robbed him of his energy and his interest in most everything. Maria says he’s not eating, not even his sacred pasta. And he’s having trouble sleeping, constantly irritable…”

“That doesn’t sound much like him.”

“I guess that’s the illness at work. Anyway, they’re giving him a bunch of medications, hoping he’ll come out of it.”

“What about the business? What should we do?”

“We carry on. I’ll be spending more time in the office. You and the rest of the staff can keep things going.” He paused. “You up to it?”

“Don’t know. Guess we’ll find out.”

Chapter 3

Alex arrived home from work undecided about what to do for dinner. With a beer in hand he opened the sliding glass doors and stepped onto the patio, letting the warm air wash over him. Soon the hot weather would arrive. He thought about all the yard work he probably should be doing. He turned and went back into the house leaving behind the demands of the yard.

His stomach told him he was hungry, but he lacked appetite. While never much of a cook, he was a particular eater. Living alone presented many challenges, one of the severest residing in the culinary department. Frozen dinners and prepared entrées disappointed him. Gradually, out of desperation, and to the amusement of Sara, he was developing a limited repertoire of simple, mostly one-pot meals that satisfied him. He was staring into the refrigerator pondering his choices when the doorbell rang.

He opened the door, surprised to find Angela standing in the evening light. Sylvia’s younger brother Tony had deserted Angela three years ago. She remained a fringe member of the extended family mostly because Sylvia’s mother and father insisted on seeing their grandchildren. So Anthony and Marco were at all the gatherings and Angela sometimes along with them.

Generally reserved, she displayed a playful affection for Alex, claiming “us out-laws need to stick together,” that always annoyed Sylvia. But Alex felt flattered by her attention and claimed she just needed to be around people once Tony had been such an ass and gone off with his secretary, leaving Angela to raise the kids alone.

Tony’s bad behavior always stumped Alex. With Angela’s dark flowing hair, sultry features, and soulful eyes, what did he need to be chasing skirts for? And when she touched a piano, which unfortunately she rarely did, Alex felt transported to another world.

When Sylvia died Angela just appeared in the midst of the chaos and did the little things to make those difficult days more manageable for Alex and Sara. She quietly picked up around the house and coordinated the massive avalanche of food that showed up, all part of creating a space for the family to grieve. She seemed her best as a caregiver.

During those blurry days Angela had become an intermittent fixture then gradually faded from view. Alex hadn’t given it a thought, just gratefully accepted her assistance. Now, a month later, she was at his door.

“Hi, come on in.” He stuck his head outside as she passed by. “The kids with you?”

“Anthony’s at music lessons and Marco’s chasing a soccer ball around at practice.”

“So what’s up?”

“Just wanted to stop by, see how you’re doing.”

“I just came in myself. Got a beer going. Want one?”

“Boy, I could use one, but maybe some ice tea? Still have to pick the kids up.”

“Sure.” He went to the kitchen returning with his beer and a glass of ice tea. “It’s not sweetened. Do you want some sugar?”

“No, this is fine.” She took the glass and settled herself on the sofa. They clicked in silent toast. Alex sat in the chair next to the couch. “So what’s new?”

“Not much. Sorry to stop by unannounced. As I said, just wanted to see how you were doing…”

“And?” He noticed her hand shaking. “What’s wrong, Angela?”

She looked at him through shiny eyes. “We’re a pair aren’t we? Couple of sad cases.” She took a long sip. “The great Colianni family giveth and they taketh away. Now that Tony is living with that chippie, I’m persona non grata with the grandparents. Even the kids aren’t getting the attention they used to.” She rushed on. “Who the hell do they think is going to take care of them? Him? No way! His ‘father of the year’ days are long over.”

Alex was shocked. He had never heard her talk this way.

“Damn him!” She started crying.

Alex moved next to her on the sofa, took her glass and set it on the table. “Come on, talk to me. What’s the matter?”

She turned toward him burying her face in his shoulder. “Oh, Alex, I’m sorry. You have your own problems. You don’t need this.”

“Nonsense. I’m happy you dropped by. So what gives?”

She tried to quiet herself. “Why does life have to be so messed up?”

He rubbed her shoulder.

She lifted her head. “It’s just so unfair.”

The ringing phone suddenly cut through the awkward moment. “Probably just some telemarketer. I’ll just ignore it,” he said.

“No, get it,” she replied. “It’ll give me a chance to pull myself together.”

Alex went into the kitchen and picked up the phone. A recorded message began to play in his ear. He hung up and slowly walked back into the family room grabbing the box of tissues off the refrigerator as he went.

Angela was still sitting on the sofa, her cheek shiny with tears. His mind raced to find words to console her.

He sat next to her, handing her a tissue. “Come on, it can’t be that bad. You have two great kids….”

She picked her head up, pushing her hair away from her face. “Thank you.” She wiped the tears from her cheek. “I just don’t know how much more of this I can take. Life really sucks at the moment.”

He had always known her to be poised and refined. This behavior seemed such a dramatic departure for her. “I wish there was something I could do to help.”

“I’m just so miserable,” she said. “Tony’s being an asshole about the divorce and the kids hate me, and there’s never enough money…my life is pretty ugly. You’d think there would be some sort of justice. He ran off taking all the money, leaving us to fend for ourselves, and he still gets to dictate everything.”

“I guess I just didn’t realize how bad it had gotten.”

“After three years of haggling it’s still not settled. Every time he says he’ll do something…he never comes through. And the lawyers! They’re scum!”

“Expensive scum I imagine.”

She smiled a bit for the first time. “Yeah, very expensive. Every time I go in it’s something else, another delay, another reason to cut the child support. That bastard cries poor-mouth to the judge while he tools around in a new sports car. And he gets away with it. Men!”

“Whoa, don’t lump us all in that category,” he said with a smile. “But you have every right to be angry.”

“I keep asking myself, how can this be happening?” Angela said. “How could he throw everything we had away? Everything he promised? How can people treat each other this way?” She took a deep breath. “No one deserves this; no one should have their hearts torn open by betrayal.” She dabbed the corner of her eye. “And to make things worse, I’m made to feel like it’s my fault.”

“Your fault?”

“Yeah, to friends and family, I’m the bad guy. What have I done to mess up this wonderful life? And I agreed of course, at first, once I got over denying such deceit was even possible. I thought, okay, what can I do, how can I negotiate his love back? What can I change, or do differently? I debased myself in that attempt, which makes me only hate myself more.”

She crumpled the tissue up in her hand. “Those eyes, those goddamn eyes, they held such tenderness, and promised so much, and now they look at me coldly and speak with such harshness. It’s like I’ve been dumped into another dimension. Who is this person?”

Angela looked up at Alex. “So yes, I’m angry. But they tell me that’s just the next phase. I suppose I’ve become just a cliché. But if the final step is acceptance, I won’t go there. I will never accept what he’s done, what he’s doing. Life is shit. And he’s shit.”

Suddenly she stood up. “And I need to go before I make an even bigger fool of myself.” She dabbed her eyes. “I guess I just needed someone to vent to.”

Alex got to his feet. “Anytime. Just wish I had known.”

“That’s the Colianni way, ever the bright faces, right?”

“True enough,” Alex replied. “Whenever there’s a family drama, I’d ask Sylvia why no one ever talked about it. Everything just kept going on as usual.”

“And God forbid anyone say something bad about the anointed one – the son, mister heir apparent. But now even that seems to be changing, ever since….” She hesitated.

“Yeah, it’s strange, the Old Man seems to have completely disappeared.”

She turned back toward the sofa and picked up her purse, pushed her hair from her face. “Let me get going before I start blubbering again.” She looked at Alex. “Sorry, I’ve really embarrassed myself. But thanks for listening.”

He put his hands on her shoulders. “Angela, things have been pretty difficult for me, and you’ve been a wonderful friend, done so much for Sara and me. I want you to know how much I appreciate it.”

“Give Sara my best.” She went to the door and out into the dim evening light. “Goodnight, Alex. Take care of yourself.”

He watched her walk to her car. As she pulled away, he leaned against the door jam, letting out a sigh. “You’re right about one thing,” he said out loud. “Life sure sucks.”

Angela Russo never had a chance. Once Maria Colianni’s only son Tony focused his charm on her, his attention overwhelmed her innocence. He romanced her with the intensity of an all court press, and in doing so, fulfilled one of Angela’s two childhood dreams. The nightmare waited until after the wedding pictures settled into the album.

Brought up in a deeply religious, conservative environment, she was inexperienced in many things, including the intricacies of serious relationships. Even at twenty-seven, her sheltered life provided no preparation for the whirlwind of Tony’s courtship. Her father owned a small construction firm in Wilmington, Delaware, where she had attended Padua High School for girls, and then went on to St. Mary’s College to study music.

She had dated from time to time, but nothing serious. Her love had been reserved for her passion, music. Since she was eight years old she’d spent all her time practicing the piano. She excelled at it, dreaming of one day playing on a grand concert stage. She loved the thrill of the keys dancing under her fingers. Seating in front of the keyboard was the one area of her life where she felt in control and free to express the feelings that stirred inside. She was, however, less enamored with the pressure of competition.

Although disciplined and relentless in her practice, absorbing concerto after concerto into her slim young fingers, Angela shrank from the stress and tension of the endless competitions that most of the other young pianists she encountered thrived on. The soft elegant images that colored the fantasy in her head stood in stark contrast to the hard cold reality of the life of an aspiring concert pianist. She won several small events at the edges of the fiercely contested world of prodigies, but experienced numbing fright in the big, more intense settings. She managed to get through but never enjoyed the ordeal. Eventually, in her late teens, much to the disappointment of her father, she let it go, gave up that dream, and decided instead to become a music teacher, rather than a performer.

She was teaching in a Catholic middle school when Tony swept into her life. He began hanging around with her older brother and one evening at the Italian Festival he surprised her by asking her to dance. He whirled her around till she became dizzy, a state that endured for the next several months as he frequently sought her company. Her family took to him immediately, falling under his spell as quickly as she did, and not unaware of his well-to-do family in Philadelphia. When he began formally asking her out, they were more than pleased. He had the ability to make everyone feel comfortable, flattering her mother and even engaging her usually stern father. To much anticipation and rejoicing, the prospect of marriage loomed in the wings.

Though naïve, she did recognize they were very different people. She, shy and reserved, while he totally outgoing and a bit of a showoff. She noticed there was also a dark side of Tony that displayed itself every so often when things didn’t go his way. But that facet of his personality seemed minor as Angela succumbed to a tidal wave of activity and attention. When he finally proposed she found herself strangely conflicted. But swept away in the well wishes and delight of her family, she accepted. This must be love, she told herself, and the proper thing to do.

Her parents gave them a grand piano as a wedding gift. And his father helped them buy a house big enough to properly display it. They settled down in West Chester, close enough for her to continue teaching in Wilmington, and for him to commute into Philadelphia. It seemed like a fairy tale come true.

Tony’s father loved to listen to Angela play the piano, sitting quietly while she entertained him with melodies of old Italian lullabies. She grew quite fond of the old man, and he of her. And several years later, after two miscarriages, the first grandchild further solidified her position in both families.

During this time tension grew within the marriage. Their differences began to create problems. When they were dating he would tease her through her hesitancy, but after they were married, when she held back, he bullied her into submission, into doing things she was uncomfortable with, socially, recreationally, and sexually, without a bit of understanding or subtlety. In addition, he didn’t like classical music. The passion of her life was shoved aside as he insisted she not play the piano when he was in the house. She managed to play once in a while when he was away, or when they visited his parents, but the joy was gone. Playing the piano became a symbol of her previous life, foreign and detached, out of tune with her new married existence.

Chapter 4

As time passed his wife’s absence still surprised him. Sometimes Alex woke in the dead of night and reached over to touch her sleeping body. Wondering if his snoring had disturbed her slumber, confusing the empty space with her having taken refuge in the den to sleep. Then the threads of reality flooded into his head chasing away dreams and any possibility of rest.

Sara demonstrated a resilient pragmatic approach similar to her mother’s, suggesting they clean out the closets. “It’s time,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “She would want us to move on.”

He wondered where one so young found such courage?

“I know you’re right,” he told her. “I just can’t do it yet.”

She relented, insisting they would have to do it eventually.

Eventually - another word holding no current meaning for him. The closets could wait. The hardest housekeeping chore remained in his head.

The absence of the Old Man in the office still left Alex dazed. During the months that had elapsed since the terrible accident, Alex had thought several times about visiting him, each time allowing other matters to postpone the trip. The routine pattern of family gatherings at the Colianni home had been suspended, perhaps forever, but Alex wanted to see for himself what had happened to this man who had been such a strong force in the firm and in Alex’s life.

Although Antonio was relatively short in stature, Alex viewed him as a giant of a man, commanding respect and loyalty through a mixture of insightful vision for the business and compassion for the people he surrounded himself with to carry out the work. The employees treated the business as their own and honored the trust the Old Man bestowed upon them.

When Alex finally mustered the courage to go, the visit proved depressing. His mother-in-law Maria escorted him to the grand sun room that ran across the back of the majestic Colianni home.

“Thank you for coming over,” she said as they walked. “Seeing a familiar face might get him to brighten. He’s so sad all the time.”

“I can understand that. I haven’t felt much like a party boy myself.”

She put her hand on his arm. “Yes, I know. It’s been hard for all of us. Maybe a little business conversation will stir him up.”

Alex tapped the folder under his arm. “I brought the latest figures.”

“How’s my Sara doing?”

“She says she’s doing fine. Been able to distract herself with all the activities on campus.”

“I’m glad. Tell her to come see us.”

Afternoon sunlight bathed the room in a golden glow highlighting the southwest colors in the ceramic tile floor. Alex saw the Old Man sitting quietly in a chair, looking out the window at the manicured garden.

Maria went to him and kissed his forehead. “Look who’s here to see you.”

The Old Man’s gaze moved to Alex.

He sat down in a white wicker chair across from the Old Man. “Thought you might like an update on what’s going on at the office.”

No change occurred in the Old Man’s expression. A cluster of medicine bottles sat on the table and a series of framed pictures of Sylvia dominated the coffee table. Alex’s heart jumped to this throat. There were pictures of her at every age, including one of her looking radiant in her wedding gown. He tried to look away. “I, ah, brought the monthly summary for you to look at.” He pulled out the papers and handed them to Antonio.

The Old Man took the papers and laid them in his lap without looking at the numbers.

Alex studied his face. The usual intense gaze seemed slack and unfocused. The laser-like energy, normally gathering every tidbit of information to bring to bear on a business problem, dissipated in a flittering of his hands in his lap.

“Can I do anything for you?” Alex asked.

The Old Man looked at him and then turned back to the gardens. “What is there to do?”

Alex looked at Maria. Her eyes were moist as she gently ran her hand through her husband’s hair.

Alex took the papers back and sat waiting for the Old Man to say something else. Minutes passed in silence leaving Alex feeling out of place, almost claustrophobic. Finally he stood up. “Maybe I should come back another day.”

He left the house shaken. He couldn’t square the picture of that sad old man sitting in the chair with the vibrant leader he so respected.

Later he tried to describe the feeling to Ira. “I don’t know. He seemed bored and anxious at the same time. It was weird being with him like that. And all those prescription bottles. I just had to get out of there.”

“And all those pictures of Sylvia. It’s like a shrine,” added Ira. “That had to be difficult for you.”

“I tried hard not to look.” Alex paused. “Maria said the doctors were disappointed that he’s not responding to the medications.”

“Seems like they try one for a while, then watch. If he gets better they give him more. If not, they add another.”

“Well, the situation is clearly distressing her.”

Ira said, “Yes, the other night she told me she thinks the doctors are as lost as her poor Antonio.”

At the office everyone operated as if their leader was just on an extended vacation, even though he had never actually taken anything more than short periods of vacation interlaced with frequent calls into the office. But the senior staff pulled together as best they could. And Ira provided intermittent helpful guidance.

In early October Maria began appearing at the office, sitting in on staff meetings and listening to reports. A woman of mature build but intense brown eyes, she took in everything without comment. Her sudden presence made everyone a bit edgy.

She appeared at the door of Alex’s office after one of the staff meetings.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

Alex rose and offered her a seat. “Fine.” He picked up a spreadsheet from his desk. “These are the figures I mentioned at the staff meeting…”

“I don’t want to look at those right now. I want to know how you’re getting along.”

He tried to hide his surprise at seeing her sitting in his office, and the even greater surprise she had expressed interested in his well-being. “I don’t know. The sun comes up every day. Everything is back to normal, except…”

“Except nothing is the same.”


“I talked to Sara yesterday. She’s worried. Said you’re not eating well, or doing much of anything except work.”

“And just what am I supposed to be doing?” he blurted, more loudly than he intended. “I’m sorry.”

“Alex, this is very difficult, I know.” After a moment she added, “I’ve lost a daughter…and maybe a husband…” He could see her eyes glistening. “I don’t want to lose the business too. We need to keep everything going properly until he’s ready to…” She choked up.

He came around the desk and put his arm around her shoulder. “I know, I know.”

She composed herself. “I think we need to get Tony more involved in what’s going on.”

Alex didn’t suppress his surprise. “Tony?”

A stern look came across her face. “Yes, Tony.” Her eyes were perfectly dry now. “No matter what happens, he is going to be the head of this company. If my husband recovers, fine. If not, then Tony will assume control - with me.”

“I understand. It’s just that…”

She cut him off. “My son will do just fine. Your job is to help him. So I need for you to pull yourself together.”

He should have known. Her sudden concern for him represented her pragmatic need to have him help Tony. A lot may have changed but some things are always the same.

“I understand.”

“Thank you.” She got up and left the office.

Later at home Alex sat in the den staring at the bubbles in his warming beer and reflected on the conversation with Maria and what had happened to the Old Man. So much had occurred in such a short period of time. When Sylvia died, darkness swept over Alex like the dust cloud from a huge volcano, burying his thirst for work.

Gradually, he found his interest in the world of numbers rekindled, like some sort of grittiness finally being removed from his eyes. Now when Amy brought him the reports he genuinely listened to her reasoned comments, looking attentively at the stylishly written notations in the margins.

But the rest of his life remained in limbo. The sad memory of the Old Man sitting quietly in his chair was forcing Alex to confront some of the meatier issues, things he had successfully pushed to the side for a long time. He remembered classes way back in college debating the exact nature of life - sages had tried to name it, poets and artists struggled to capture the essence in words and images. These musings never appealed to him, and the whole concept still appeared murky and beyond comprehension. But this he now knew for certain - one moment a person radiates life and warmth. Then suddenly death invades – and the light goes out - and that person is gone. Dust to dust.

The persistent image of the Old Man fidgeting with unseeing and uncaring eyes made Alex wonder if maybe the spark could depart prematurely, long before the end of mortal life. Perhaps such a fate had come to Antonio Colianni. A good part of his life-force seemed to have accompanied the spirit of his beloved daughter, leaving behind a shell of a man, caught in a limbo between meaningless life and awaited death. Alex could see that possibility, as clearly as the empty chair across from him.

He thought hard about it, stared into the cold darkness. And despite his own sadness, he realized he did not feel called there. He missed her, missed ‘them’ together, and he didn’t know exactly how he was going to manage the emptiness he felt. But he knew at that moment, deep down, there was still life to be lived. It may be more fragile and more temporary than he had ever thought before, but still precious.

Chapter 5

On paper business is business, and every business exhibits similar characteristics. But a family business, in subtle but important ways, wanders outside the lines of logic. A familial code sometimes transcending all rational thought.

One manifestation of this phenomenon is the degree to which family members exhibit patience for each other’s foibles – a characteristic outsiders sometimes think stretches imagination and even good judgment. The blood rushing through the veins of kin carries not only similarities in DNA but a particular binding agent able to hold sometimes unlikely characters in close association.

Alex’s own family experience was quite different. In small-town Pennsylvania he grew up with his brother and parents - far removed from any wider family. Grandparents were seen once a year, uncles and aunts were talked about like colorful characters in a story, but held no real-life quality. He knew he had cousins but would hardly recognize any of them if they showed up on his doorstep.

When he first started dating Sylvia and she drew him into the orbit of the Colianni clan, he witnessed for the first time the close kinship of a large extended family. He was forced to learn the intricacies of relatives - uncles and aunts and countless cousins – who held regular roles in the complicated family melodrama constantly being played out on-stage and unfolding in a variety of households in the Philadelphia area and beyond.

In addition there existed a structured and subtle formality that had been absent in his family: an old world quality of deference, veiled references and unspoken allegiances – all woven into the family relationships like the secret codes in a mystery novel. The Colianni family was foreign territory to Alex, a landscape often salted with hidden landmines.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the triangle of Sylvia, her mother and her brother Tony. Alex accepted that he would never fully understand the strange juxtaposition of these relationships. He just attempted to find safe ground to inhabit, trying to be accepted and avoid confrontation.

Alex most admired the Old Man. Antonio Colianni appeared to float above the drama, radiating humor and love along with the same dynamic force he brought to the business. Certain facts appeared self evident. Sylvia, his only daughter, held the starring role as his princess, probably from the moment of her birth. And when Sara came along she inherited a similar rank and nearly as much adoration. A marvelous site to behold - the Old Man melting into the doting grandfather whenever Sara entered his presence.

Alex remembered musing to Sylvia after one of the many family gatherings, “I should take a video of him around Sara and bring it to one of the staff meetings. No one would believe it was him. You’ve always been his princess. And now your daughter has assumed the role.”

“Our daughter.”

“Technically true. But in your father’s mind, Sara is all yours. I’m merely an inconvenient biological necessity.”

Another perplexing relationship existed between the Old Man and his former daughter-in-law Angela. He seemed genuinely fond of her and appreciated her amazing talent and stewardship of his grandchildren. Yet his son had cast her aside, creating an awkward situation. Here again he managed to rise above the tension, embracing Angela in spite of Maria’s not very subtle disapproval.

Succession planning for the Colianni family business had never been a topic of conversation. Certainly, someday, someday way off in the future, everyone acknowledged Tony as heir to take over the company. The Old Man wasn’t getting any younger, despite his incredible energy and drive. Someday, everyone expected Tony would grow into the job, at least grow up enough to do the job. But that was for someday. In the meantime, everyone reluctantly accepted his insincere efforts to play at being a businessman, ignoring his inadequacies and steering clear of his tantrums.

Alex remembered a short conversation with the Old Man about that very subject, the ‘what will happen someday’ topic, wondering out loud what would happen if “someone got hit by a truck,” and the need to prepare for that possibility. He also recalled the Old Man’s amused reaction.

“Let’s not distract ourselves,” he had counseled. “If we don’t stay focused on business, a truck will be the least of our worries.”

Alex had accepted this advice as the Old Man deftly navigated the turbulent waters of the business according to his explicit and often ingenious plan. But chaos seemed to have a way of stepping around the best assumptions. Losing his only daughter wasn’t part of the plan. And now it was taking its toll. Not gradually, but with the suddenness of thunder breaking glass.

As the color of the trees waned and Tony assumed the helm, Alex quickly perceived the desperate straits Tony found himself in. Unprepared to take over so soon, or so suddenly, he was forced to assume a role he had demonstrated neither talent nor passion for, either of which would have served the business suitably well, given the other personnel assets in place.

Alex clearly saw the dilemma as Tony looked around the landscape of the enterprise in search of comrades to help him through the maze. Most of the senior staff had been condescending in one way or another, and junior staff people were bruised by previous encounters. So Alex was not totally surprised when Tony reached out to an old friend, someone he had confidence in, at least around a pool table or at the bar, if not in the trenches of business warfare. He brought into the firm a longtime friend from college, Kevin Lassiter.

For his part, Alex committed to doing whatever he could to keep the business successful and support Tony in his new challenge. He would continue the role he knew best, being the good soldier.

Alex’s relationship with Tony had always been cordial, but stiff. Being married to his dear sister, as well as in the confidence of his father, Alex occupied an awkward position. Tension existed without needing a cause.

Now Tony was in charge and that strain promised to play out.

Tony did not wait long to impose his forceful manner. After a couple of months he decreed that the pace of business was accelerating, claiming the decisions and methods employed by the business needed to accelerate accordingly. Having been accustomed to the thoughtful and considered methods of the Old Man, this sudden change in approach caught the staff by surprise.

“This is a time of great importance,” Tony announced at a senior staff meeting. “We stand on the precipice of opportunity. We can either go forward embracing our future – reaping the benefits that await us. Or we can step back, letting others assume our rightful place. In order to achieve our potential, we will need to do things better and more quickly.” He turned to Kevin, “Pass those around.”

After the three-page document reached each person’s hands, he continued. “To meet the challenges of this exciting time we will need to alter some of our practices. You will notice that at the top of each page is our new slogan: Cash is king. This will become our most sought-after commodity. Cash helps us reduce costs – not needing to borrow from banks - and it also provides the funds necessary to upgrade our equipment and become involved in acquisitions. These are all important elements in our overall business strategy.”

He did have a way with words, Alex thought. Hope he’s also thought through how the business is going to live up to that promise. He looked around the room as each department leader studied the document, interpreting how the new initiatives would play out in his particular area.

The rest of the meeting revolved around the details of the policies Tony had just laid out. Over the next several weeks the aggressive new tactics listed, and many more not listed, were put in place in the areas of marketing and operations – areas Tony was somewhat familiar with. But some splashed over the boundaries into the accounting world as well. These Alex viewed with a closer eye.

Soon it became apparent that numbers held little value for Tony except as a measuring stick to display the success of his initiatives. One of his targets was inventory.

“We’re going to ‘write down’ some of these slow moving items,” he explained to the staff. “Kevin says that will drive up the turnover ratio.”

Marketing director Stan Ferguson leaned toward Alex and whispered, “What’s that mean?”

“Declaring that some items no longer have financial value,” Alex replied. Then to Tony he said, “We’ll need to make arrangements to remove those items from the warehouse.”

Tony smiled. “I didn’t say we’re getting rid of them, just doing a…” he looked over to Kevin Lassiter.

“Asset revaluation.”

“That’s it, just doing an asset revaluation.”

Alex tried to understand the logic. “But inventory isn’t an asset class you can…”

“Alex, please, you can debate the finer points of financial gamesmanship with Kevin later. All I know is we need to reduce the drag of some of this inventory on our cash flow.”

Alex fell into silence. More and more Tony appeared to be depending on Kevin to support his efforts. Like many products of the modern finance education world, Lassiter seemed very accomplished with spreadsheets and could creatively manipulate computer models to generate numbers supporting most any view of the world. Finance as a video game. In Alex’s mind, the only things standing between these artists of pseudo-finance and serious trouble were seasoned professionals like himself in responsible positions who understood accounting practices and the rules governing the fiduciary responsibilities of financial reports. It was one thing to play out elaborate game theory using sophisticated models in business school, but quite something else to properly represent the actual value of a company’s worth and income to stakeholders and governmental agencies.

To him the entire credibility of any firm rested on the quality of the financial roots buried beneath the giant trees of commerce. Poorly laid-out root systems provided a shallow foundation that could topple in the stiff winds of corporate weather. And worse yet, poorly conceived practices could act like menacing rot within the roots, silently weakening the structure. Perfectly healthy-looking trees could be on their way to collapse due to internal decay.

Often there was a thin edge between a proposed business practice that sounded good in the colorful offices of the marketing teams - and the dry unromantic realm of accepted accounting practices. As the new millennium began, the assault on the bastions of credibility was becoming fiercer as more and more executives felt pressured to continuously drive up company value and emboldened by the increasing power of computers.

Alex had been taught that the best defense was a carefully designed and rigorously followed financial protocol, a system protecting the company from unwarranted trouble. Where others found dullness, he saw elegance. What others claimed was staid and overly rigid, he maintained was critically important to the ultimate health of the system.

Now he felt certain that these new tactics Tony was implementing could undermine that well established system.

He tried to practice what he had learned in business school but also what he had been taught by his mentor Ira Mosher, the first financial officer of the Colianni business. Ira had also been the first non-family board member. He had patiently instructed Alex on the subtle ethics of accounting and guided him through the labyrinth of the root system of the then rapidly growing company. As Ira began spending less time in the business, a sort of gradual retirement, the Old Man had come to view Alex as his eventual replacement. This made Alex both humble and proud.

Being brought into the firm through his marriage to Sylvia left Alex with the vague feeling he was viewed as an imposter. Wooing the boss’ daughter represented the classic path into a family business. But in the matters of importance he felt he had gradually demonstrated over the years, at least to Ira and the Old Man, that he deserved the role.

As he witnessed Kevin Lassiter become more and more ensconced in the financial affairs of the firm, he concluded this might not be a sentiment shared by Tony. He decided he should consult Ira. After lunch one day when he knew Ira was in, he went to his office. He wasn’t there. His secretary Jeanne pointed toward Tony’s office. Then Alex heard raised voices, muffled but angry, coming from the closed door. He started back toward his office when the door flew open and Ira rushed out, his face crimson. He went directly into his office and slammed the door.

Alex distracted himself with busy work for an hour then went back to see Ira. Jeanne had a concerned look on her face, but waved him in.

“You okay?” Alex asked from the doorway.

“Twenty minutes ago I thought I was going to have a stroke, but I guess I’m okay now.” He let out a deep sigh. “What can I do for you?”

“I had intended to talk to you about Kevin, but this may not be the right time.”

“What about him?”

Alex shared his concern about the inventory revaluation and how involved Lassiter was becoming in the financial side of the business. “I guess I’m a little confused,” he concluded.

“You and me both,” said Ira. “Looks like the kid is going off in his own direction.”

“You’ve seen the way Kevin operates. Don’t you think that could get to be a problem?”

“Could be? Probably will be. But I for one don’t have the energy to fight with Tony anymore.” Ira smirked. “As he put it, not very subtly, without the Old Man around, and with his mother’s absolute support, he’s pretty much free to do what he wants. Lord save us.”

“What should we do?”

“Let’s just keep an eye on him, see if we can keep him out of trouble.”

Chapter 6

The expanse of ocean stretched to the horizon, grey water mingling with the overcast sky forming a seamless vapor. The smell of salt tickled Alex’s nose, a fresh scent but tinged with the decay of crabs and sea weed repeating the cycle of life and death in the grains of sand beneath his feet.

Out of the mist a row of shadows emerged, waves marching silently toward the shore, cresting with foam, dull and pale for lack of sunlight. Suddenly three pelicans swooped along the edge of the wave, bellies almost touching the surf, disappearing back into the mist like old ships lost in the fog. The scene carried an eerie tone, reminding Alex of what was once beautiful… now dark and foreboding.

His friend Chad had insisted he go away for a couple of days. “The change in scenery will do you good, old buddy. If you won’t come down here at least get out of town. Blow the stink off, as my mother used to say.”

At that point the idea had appealed to him. So he drove down and checked into a small hotel on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, a resort town on the Delaware shore where they had honeymooned and often vacationed as a family over the years. On a balmy weekend in late February getting a room right on the ocean proved a simple task. After he settled in and put his clothes neatly in the drawers, he crossed the boardwalk and walked out to the sparsely populated beach where the moisture from the mist quickly coated his face.

A series of scenes came to mind, scenes of summer weekends at the beach getting away from the heat of the city and the pressures of daily life. Sylvia liked the Delaware shore better than the Jersey shore even though the drive was a bit longer. She felt it was less crowded and she had plenty of space to stretch out on a blanket and lie in the warm sun reading a book.

When Sara was little, she would splash in the surf, running toward the incoming waves before retreating in giggles as the foamy water chased after her. Later, as she grew older, she claimed her independence.

“Dad, I can go by myself. I’m not a little girl anymore. You don’t need to be with me.”

Alex looked to Sylvia.

“You stay on the boardwalk young lady,” Sylvia said.

So Sara would get lost for hours in the arcades along the boardwalk. These were good memories, lazy days spent in playful board games, quiet walks and good seafood. Jake’s Seafood was Sylvia’s favorite restaurant. She claimed these were the best crab cakes she had ever tasted. “That hint of mustard really brings the sweet crab to life,” he recalled her telling the waitress. Sara preferred the little Italian place around the corner where they served delicious stromboli.

On some remote level he realized those “idyllic” days were never as wonderful as his mind replayed them. When he forced himself to poke through the nostalgia he knew actual life with Sylvia had never been as serene or as peaceful as he chose to recollect.

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