My old man died at 10:30 at night in the Mountain Time Zone, he died after midnight my time. I wasn’t home. My mother couldn’t get ahold of me. I was out with some people from work and I didn’t find out he was dead until 7 the next morning. Out of frustration she’d left a message for me at the office. I was hung over when I called her back, by the time I said goodbye,my hangover was gone. My boss made me a reservation to fly home. By 11 that morning I was in the air.
On the plane, I thought about him, God dammit, I’d been anticipating his death for 20 years, worrying about him dropping dead every day since I was 14 years old.
The old man had his first heart attack at 39 and it was a bad one. In 1959 doctors didn’t know shit about heart attacks or how to care for the victims. Looking back on his treatment regime is like reading something from the dark ages. Things a medieval barber, a hair cutter, practicing medicine as a sideline would prescribe…”stay in bed, don’t exert yourself. No exercise, no walking, just rest…oh, you might want to try this diet, eat nothing but shrimp or eat just red meat and no vegetables...eat vegetables and no red meat.”
It drove Dad crazy and after a month he got out of bed and went back to work, he said to hell with the diet and ate what he wanted. He did quit smoking, he cut back on his drinking, no more beer, no more whiskey. He drank brandy and the only reason he drank it was his doctor told him, brandy is made from grapes and not grain, so it was “better” for him. The old man did like his brandy once he got used to it, he drank it straight with a water chaser. He washed down his nitroglycerine pills with it. He had constant angina and popped those pills like candy, all day every day.I sat in my seat, looking out the window of the airplane. I thought about how the hell Dad had made it for 20 years with a blown out heart? It was a miracle. The old bastard was tough, most guys, I think, would have given up. He didn’t.
About two and a half years ago, he called me. We talked every week, but this call was different. He was running a Ford dealership and the owner dropped dead from a heart attack. For a guy with a bad heart, it didn’t scare him. He wanted to talk about opportunity. He owned a small piece of the store and Ford wanted to finance the balance for him. I said, “Go ahead, do it.” He said, “I’ll do it if you’ll come in as my partner and I’ll teach you the business.” I flew out and we talked.
The deal he proposed was kind a of shitty opening offer from him. He and Mom would own 51%, 49% would be split equally between my brother, my sisters and I. We were sitting in his office, from his desk we could see the showroom, from the large side windows we could see the lot. He put me behind his desk while we talked. He started talking and I listened. “You look good behind the desk.” He was softening me up. “You grew up around this business.” I looked at the old man and didn’t say a word. I wanted to force him to keep talking. Dad was the rare sales guy who listened rather than talked all the time. If I didn’t say anything, he’d have to keep talking. He didn’t like it. I waited him out and he got frustrated with me. He stopped talking and said, “Well?”
“Your deal sucks Dad.”
“Why do you say that, son? I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for you.” He waited. I stood up. I looked out the window.
“That F 250, the red one in the 2nd row, what have you got in it?”
“Yeah, the red dually with the crew cab.” I said.
“A hair over 10,000.”
“What will you sell it for?”
“It’s priced at 14,999.”
“Not what I asked Dad, what will you sell it for?”
He cracked a little smile and said, “I need to make at least two thousand on it.”
“So you’d sell it for 12 grand and be happy with 20% on the deal, right?”
“Not particularly happy, but if I had to, I’d do it.”
“If I took your deal, you and Mom would get a check for $1020.00 gross, less sales commission and associated costs. I’d get 245 bucks less costs for doing all the god damned work and I’d have to write 3 checks for the same amount to my brother and sisters for doing nothing right?” He didn’t answer. “Multiply that times 200 units a month. You and mom are driving around the country in your motor home with a fat bank account. My brother is selling stocks and bonds, he’s getting a check and the girls are cashing checks that magically fall from heaven every quarter, meanwhile I’ working my ass off seven days a week doing everything from running the place to shoveling the fucking snow off used cars in the winter and I’m doing it just to keep everybody else in this deal happy. It doesn’t sound like a good deal to me.”
“You’re pretty quick with the numbers, where’d you learn that?” The old man grinned. ”You’d get a get a salary on top of the partnership, you know.”
“And what would that be Dad?”
“Good money, we can negotiate it and you’d get your partnership percentage.”
“You think everything is negotiable, don’t you?.”
The old man sat back in his chair and laughed, “You’re tough, how did you get so damn tough anyway?”
“I’m tough? Look who’s talking. I didn’t spend half my life sitting around car stores listening to you and not learn anything.”
“You’re saying you’re just like your old man then?”
“Nope, I’m better than you are.”
“Why’s that?” He lost his grin, he had a healthy ego. Probably the reason he was still working 60 hours a week with a time bomb in his chest.
“I’m more creative than you are. Look, you need me to get this deal done and you think you can get me to do it by appealing to my innate sense of fairness and love for my family, but you’re wrong. It’s going to take more than that daddy. So let's stop the bullshit and get down to it, maybe we both want something to happen, so let’s see if we can come to an agreement or an arrangement or whatever the hell you want to call what we’re trying to get done.” I stopped talking and sat back down in his chair.
“How much bigger a percentage do you want?”
“I want control. In the beginning you and I control this place, when you and Mom ride off in the sunset in that oak lined bus of yours I want the control, no I’ll need the control, you’ll still get your 51%. But I’m the boss, because after you croak and you will croak whether its next week, next year or ten or 20 years from now. I can’t have the family lining up with mom and controlling the store. If I’m going to change my entire life, go into a business that I promised myself I’d stay as far away from as possible, I won’t do it without controlling my own future and I refuse to go through negotiations with my family every time I need to hire a new parts runner, a god damned lot boy or change a sign, which is exactly what would happen, once you check out for good.”
The old man looked hurt, but I knew it was bullshit. He knew I was right. “It’s almost 6, let’s go to your club and you can have a nice brandy, you come up with something better and we can talk more later.” He agreed. We had drinks and went back to the house.
We never got the deal done, I was the asshole I guess. Everybody was pissed at me. There was anger between my brother and sisters and I. My mother was on their side. The old man could have done what ever he wanted and for the first time in my life I saw him waiver and take the easy way out.I said fuck it and went back to Boston.
The old man sold the store for the widow, he signed a contract to teach the new owner how to run it. Then he and mom got in their motor home and drove away. Now he’s dead.
I'm eating a dry sandwich on the plane, wondering if I had agreed to the deal with him, would he still be alive? I doubt it. I’m not going to beat myself up.
I’m numb. I’m not feeling much of anything. Mentally I’m in neutral and I hate to feel this way, but I’m not even sad. Shock, maybe. I don’t think I’m in shock. I’m not tired, I stayed out too late last night, drank too much. I feel good physically, but I feel nothing emotionally. For 5 days I went through the motions. My father’s friends cried, I didn’t, my family cried, I didn’t. I carried the family. People remarked how strong I was. Maybe I was, but I didn’t feel strong. I didn't feel anything.
Years have gone by since the day my old man died. I revisit it in my head on a regular basis. I didn’t cry over his death for a long time. One day, almost two years later, I did cry, it happened as I was driving home from work. I had tears running down my face for the entire commute. I haven’t any idea what triggered it, but it happened.
For a long time I was worried there was something wrong with me. Later, I asked a psychologist about it. He told me it was okay as everyone processes their grief in different ways. I think about him everyday, I miss him, I laugh about him and tell stories and I've dreamt about him. But I'm not sad, I don't think I ever have been.