The First Chapter
Over Time is a work of fiction. The character "Errol Brick Denton," his players and assistant coaches are purely creations of the authorsï¿½ imagination, and are not intended to depict, nor were they based on, any coaches or players of the Green Bay Packers, living or dead.
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Pregame: Echoes of Autumn
As the 1960ï¿½s came to a close . . .
That letter was certainly determined to reach its destination, despite the best efforts of quite a number of people to delay it. It was posted on a September day that was memorable in the tiny Northeastern Wisconsin town of Brookstone both for the terrific thunderstorm that raged most of the evening, causing considerable property damage and street flooding, and for the death of the local college football hero, Mark Reid, that night on a rural highway ten miles from town.
About midnight the creek that bisected the town overflowed its banks and flooded several buildings including the U. S. Post Office. By morning, six inches of muddy water covered the floor of the building, and soaked the sacks of mail. The contents of those sacks were mostly the usual bills and advertising junk pieces--no great loss to anyone concerned. The problem lies in the fact that as the postmaster was cleaning out the mud that remained on the postal room floor, he had to pull away from the wall the rack of slots that included the post office box of a young man named Dan Wilson, at which point the single letter wedged in that box, postmarked the previous day, fell to the floor and became part of the slurry that was being swept out the back door and into the swollen creek.
This same letter attached itself to a candelabrum of fallen tree limbs before it reached the water and certain destruction. The next day these tree limbs were picked up and put in a flatbed truck by a work crew of Boy Scouts who were apparently pressed into service to earn their merit badges in trash collection. On the way to the dump, the letter came loose from the tangle of branches, and took flight on the freshening afternoon breeze. A half mile later, it was headed right back toward the creek, but the wind suddenly faded and dropped the letter in the back yard of one Ronald "Rookie" Bigelow who lived with his father, a unemployed logger who had been out of work so long he was apparently waiting for the trees he previously cut to grow back before he actively looked for another job. Rookie was a pale, lonely eight-year-old who spent a lot of time by himself exploring the creek banks, collecting the odds and ends that washed up and putting them in a hollow place he carved in an ancient, half-rotted stump. (In the wintertime he moved the collection indoors to a hollow place behind the equally rotted paneling in the living room wall). The local people didn't know much about the Bigelow family, and thought their ways were a bit strange. The Bigelows were not rumored to be dangerous, or crazy; they were just from out of state, which of course in this little tight-knit village was considered much worse.
Rookie knew that the storm would yield some wonderful prizes for his collection, and inspected the swollen creek banks with particular enthusiasm. Huh, there was something worth saving: an unopened letter. He dried it out on the bank, which took patience considering the sunshine was wetter than hotter that day. He never opened the letter, because it wasn't addressed to him. He wasn't even particularly curious: he was just satisfying that peculiar Midwestern instinct to put things by. Sealed for preservation in a plastic bag, the letter took its place in his collection, where it would remain for nearly twenty winters (as the years up there are called).
* * *
Twenty Years Later . . .
At that point, a yuppie couple, complete with a brand new Volvo and unrealistic ideas about being able to restore an old house, bought the Bigelow residence, which they thought was so dilapidated it must have historic significance. On TV they had seen this evidently neurotic but quite determined lady convert a Civil War era outhouse into a Victorian guest cottage in one afternoon. How hard could it be to fix up this place? They found the cache of treasures while they were ripping out the paneling in the living room, which turned out to be a two-week project in itself, and promptly threw them all away, except for the letter, which they dutifully took to the Brookstone Post Office.
At least the letter was now safely back in box 1966. Except that box now belonged to the local dentist. He was not amused at finding a mud-encrusted missive postmarked more than twenty years earlier, addressed to someone else, in his box. Dan Wilson, this is addressed to. I remember him. He used to live here. A Good Boy. Now a rich boy, I hear. Yes. Family owns that big company. My secretary will know where he is.
She did indeed know where Dan Wilson was and planned to send it out to him in the next day's mail. If she hadn't passed away in her sleep that night, that is. Sixty years of cheese blintzes and pork sausages take their toll on even the best of us.
The young girl from the temporary service who came in the next day to run the Dentist's office did not seem to want to advance the letter toward its destination. She picked it up gingerly, said, "Yuck," and tossed it in the waste basket before any of the "yuck" got under her pretty long red nails.
All would have been lost except for the crucial role played by the cleaning crew that worked at night in the dentistï¿½s building. Ernie Borowski, the sanitation executive in charge of waste basket removal, saw the letter addressed to the familiar name, on the top of the trash in the secretary's office, and was startled, to say the least, when he saw whom the letter was from. He knew there must have been some mistake in throwing this letter away. Ernie had gone to high school with Dan Wilson, and they played on the football team together, Dan riding high on waves of glory, Ernie riding the bench.
He snatched the letter and put it in the pocket of his overalls with the embroidered green patch that said, North Country Cleaning, a division of Wilson Industries. First thing in the morning, Ernie sent the letter back to his company's headquarters, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It took more than six more months before Dan Wilson actually saw the letter, but all that matters is, it found him.
* * *
A Beach Resort in Cancun, Mexico. The Same Actual Night Reliable Ernie Found The Letter . . .
Being the second wife of a former professional football star is not easy, and not just because her husband was fifteen years older than she and didn't like her music. He was forever telling stories about the Glory Years, years that she barely recollected. What was it that bonded her husband to these co-workers from a quarter century ago? Why were those days and those people never far from his mind? She tried to understand, but couldn't.
Lying in bed that night, they were about as far from football as possible; this was deliberate on her part. She could hear the Caribbean singing to her as it lapped the shore of their vacation villa. The night air was scented with the life of the sea. Tomorrow the tropical sun would bring them another perfect 85 degree day.
She had heard about the team's reunion planned for next September, and was already dreading it. A Southern girl, she preferred warm weather, and up there, in the frozen tundra of Green Bay, September might even mean snow. She was worried that reviving all the football memories would somehow take her husband back into the past, and away from her.
She didn't care for the snow, and was leery of the ghosts.
Her husband had taken two Tylenol before bed, and seemed to be sleeping peacefully. His body had taken a pounding through ten seasons in the NFL, and after he left the game, he never felt completely healthy again. The pain in his knees and his shoulder that he had endured to become a hero stayed with him to this day. He carried it with him, along with his two Super Bowl rings, wherever he went. The pain was the bargain he struck to get the rings, he told her. From the perspective of a second wife who wasn't there to soak up the glory, it may not have been worth it.
She listened to the narcotic rhythm of the waves, and then fell into a deep sleep around midnight.
At 1 AM, she felt her husband stirring. She opened her eyes. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, tensed and anxious, overheated and damp, even though the night breeze blowing through the thin curtains was cool. "What's the matter, honey, is your stomach bothering you? I was worried about you and that spicy pork we had tonight."
"No, for some reason I thought it was already morning. I didn't want to be late to the stadium."
"Coach needs us all there, if we're going to win. I was afraid I'd oversleep. Can't let the guys down on a big day like today."
She leaned across the bed and hugged his still powerful shoulders.
"The season's over, dear. You can sleep as long as you want."
He turned around and looked at her, and his eyes widened as though he was finally awake and understood. The disappointment, the weight of years, shone clearly on his craggy profile.
"I wish I could have seen you play."
* * *
The First Quarter: Meeting the Opposition
Scottsdale, Arizona The Letter Is On Its Way.
Maneuvering smoothly through the early morning buzz of traffic, heading south on Scottsdale road to his office, Dan Wilson felt a heaviness, a growing gloom. Mental humidity. The reason for this condition eluded him. Dan had awakened to a sparkling April morning in the high desert country north of town where he lived. The winter rains had swept in a springtime of remarkably luxuriant desert vegetation. He was even driving the merriest of his three cars: a restored bright red '58 T-Bird that his grandfather had purchased the year he moved the family business to Arizona, where it had bloomed like a cactus rose. Dan had restored the shine and glory to the car and he kept it to commemorate the year.
At 42, he had been out of college exactly twenty years this summer, and in that time had prospered beyond his grandest expectations. He was CEO of a conglomeration of family-owned companies that had combined revenues of nearly $100 million annually. In two weeks he was to be feted at an awards ceremony as "CEO of the Year" by an organization of business executives in the Western states.
There was still this matter of the gloom however.
He speculated to himself that it may have been a delayed reaction to the finalization of his divorce from Victoria Elizabeth. But there had been few contentious issues involved, as they simply divided their major assets in half and she quickly moved back to the East Coast, where she was from and where she belonged. Dan was the type of person who closed chapters of his life and did not leave unresolved questions lingering around. He had learned this skill out of necessity the summer he graduated from college. More likely, Dan's feelings of apprehension that morning were related to his business. Wilson Industries and its ups and downs seldom left his thoughts. The downs were definitely winning lately.
He was now in the driveway of the 100,000 square foot office/warehouse complex that comprised his corporate headquarters, and very shortly he would have to convey an air of enthusiasm to the 125 employees who worked there, as he tried to do every morning; another thousand people were his responsibility at the company's other locations.
Well over six feet tall, and solidly built, he entered a room with the coiled energy of an athlete ready for an important game. He wore his thick dark blond hair somewhat longer than might be recommended for young executives by Forbes magazine, but that may have been a concession to the relaxed Southwest lifestyle. His eyes were a pale but focused blue. He had a lean face that suggested an ongoing regimen of exercise, and he usually wore an expression that seemed relaxed and yet ready for new adventures.
The lobby had an atrium that extended to the top of the three-story structure, affording an unobstructed view of all of the offices and conveying to the first time visitor a true sense of the intense activity going on. This was not a company where people spent leisurely days reading reports or taking three-hour lunches. The noise level was the first giveaway: it wasn't quite like the trading floor of the Chicago futures exchange, but it was close. These 125 people had to oversee seven different subsidiary companies in three different industries--food manufacturing, commercial cleaning, and broadcasting--with a total of 16 manufacturing, distribution or sales offices in four states.
The interior of the headquarters building was bold and modern; in the lobby, black leather couches sat on a rich, deep maroon carpet. The works of modern art that ascended the three stories almost looked too brash in their hues and themes, especially against the stark, white walls. Display cases illuminated the company's products along with newspaper clippings of some of the company's victories in the never ending battle for market share. The youthful receptionists that sat at the greeting desk had a cheerful efficiency about them as they directed phone calls and visitors throughout the complex. This was clearly an office where confident people worked.
Unlike some companies, where the boss' arrival caused a perceptible pickup in the seeming activity level, Dan's arrival that morning was merely the blending of one individual into a larger system.
By the time he had made it through a roughly 200 foot corridor to his office, four people had requested a meeting with him, he had greeted ten others who were rushing to meetings, and had been intercepted by his assistant, Marcy, a petite woman with a neat dark perm and large round glasses, who briefed him on the five crises that had occurred so far that day, and how she had solved them.
It was 8:10 AM on a typical day.
Dan Wilson's office, despite Marcy's heroic efforts to organize it, did not look like the inner sanctum of the CEO of a hundred million dollar corporation; it more closely resembled the bedroom of a hyperactive 14-year-old--the morning after a sleep over. The intimidation factor was zero. The furniture was a pleasant white washed oak, with a matching conference table. The "artwork" was mainly sports memorabilia--autographed footballs, baseballs, signed action photographs of great players of the last twenty-five years. The only intrusions on this carefully balanced athletic theme were framed photographs depicting the milestones in the company's history--placed there at Marcy's insistence so newcomers would know the CEO was a grown-up.
This was a Friday, and each Friday at 9AM he met with Charlie Travis, his Chief Financial Officer to discuss the past week's performance. This week Dan also planned to introduce his management team to the new Vice President of Marketing he had hired, Stuart Trent.
Charlie's actual name was Charlotte Ann Travis. She had a quiet, controlled, but high-wattage determination that made everyone else concentrate a little harder in order to keep pace with her. She held an advanced degree in finance from Wharton School, and was by far the most brilliant manager in a company where most of the people seldom found the need to turn the lights on in their offices after the sun went down.
Somewhere on the corporate assembly line where they shuttle the pretty ones into marketing and the drab ones into finance, there had been a major mix-up.
Charlie was a thirty-year-old blonde who dressed with the color and flair of a fashion magazine editor with a unusually large expense account. She had a tall, lithe frame. Her golden highlighted hair tumbled out in vibrant, loose curls and perfectly framed her lapis blue eyes and the high cheek bones of her face. She had a warm, reassuring smile--even when she was telling you that your divisional overhead was way out of line and you had better do something about it. Now.
When she sat down in the boardroom that morning, she had a thick stack of financial reports to hand out, and a knot growing in her stomach. It is not easy to so often have to be the bearer of bad news. She smiled bravely at Dan as she took her seat.
"How is the Dallas facility recovering from the fire?" Dan inquired.
"Everything's back on line, but you can't easily replace the loss in customer confidence. For nearly three months we couldn't supply our distributors there...they aren't exactly rushing back to us."
"Do we have a figure on lost revenues in that region?" Dan asked.
"Four and a half million," Charlie, heavily.
Dan put his hands behind his head, leaned back, with a pained expression. A few frayed wires had taken Wilson Industries out of a major market for almost four months, and the grocery store customer is notoriously flighty. Dan Wilson was not at all accustomed to bad luck.
"What else?" "Dwight reports that our Broadcasting Division is finally at breakeven."
Dan's sigh was one of immense relief. Ever since he had bought this foundering radio and TV company three years ago, all it did was continue to founder. It had accumulated losses totaling nearly $6 million despite the company spending money to increase the broadcasting power, and therefore the market area, of two of the stations. Dan had originally thought that diversifying into broadcasting would moderate Wilson Industries' gyrating earnings. But they paid too much for the stations, and the interest on the money they borrowed to finance the acquisition ate up the stations' earnings, and then some.
Dan brought Stuart Trent into the conference room and introduced him to Charlie. Stuart was perhaps 5'8". His hair was graying in a graceful manner and he had a healthy tan. He had been hired as a result of a chance meeting with Dan in the locker room of Phoenix Country Club, a downtown magnet for decorous business networking. At 45, he had a resume that made corporate headhunters' eyes pop. He had attended the right schools, earned a marketing degree with high honors, worked as brand manager at strong organizations like Colgate-Palmolive and Pepsi-Cola, was a member of the right clubs, and served on just enough charitable boards to appear warm and caring without doing so much that it looked like he didn't have time for his real job. All a headhunter had to do was wind this boy up and send him out on an interview, then wait for the fee to be delivered in the mail. Stuart Trent was perfect.
Charlie had instant reservations about him. He looked to be an obvious power seeker. She thought Dan had hired him without interviewing enough other candidates--actually any other candidates in that intuitive and maddening "Dan" way of decision making. She had worked with too many of these smooth operators like Stuart back in her apprenticeship on Wall Street. They were great at interviewing and acquiring positions, but once they were hired and their company Lexus arrived, they relaxed and did little or nothing of consequence from then on except identify which backsides needed a tender little kiss now and again. The catacombs of large corporations were perfect places to store people like Stuart, but at a company the size of Wilson Industries, each link in the management chain was vital.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Trent's hand being thrust into hers. Even Charlie would have to agree that he had a powerhouse smile and quite an electric handshake. "Dan tells me you are greatly responsible for the company's success. I look forward to your financial guidance."
Charlie knew she was being conned: marketing people come to work each day for the sole purpose of spending as much of the company's money as they can. They hate the idea of a financial person like Charlie watching over them.
They selected seats at the conference table.
Stuart looked into each of their faces in turn. "If you were to choose a word or phrase that is associated with our company, what would it be?"
"Honoring a proud tradition," Dan said.
"I was going to say that," Charlie said in mock frustration.
"I know you were. That's right out of our mission statement we wrote when we were doing the annual plan."
"I'll go with 'from America's heartland'," she said.
"Interesting....," Stuart said, thoughtfully stroking his chin. "You see what your responses tell us...we are tethered too much to the past. That's why I have decided to introduce bold new themes and two additional brand names.ï¿½
If more people had been in the room, there would have been murmuring. With this few, there was just one or two soft murms.
Stuart seemed extraordinarily pleased with himself. He continued: "Our key theme will be to connect with the urban culture. The alienated, angry, urban youth of today does not want to buy the same cookies or soft drinks that Beaver Cleaver or Opie had after they got home from school in 1960. These kids don't go to school half the time. What they want are products that sympathize with their alienation from empty middle-class values. They want streetwise snacks. Cookies that crunch back. And we're going to give them what they want. Success in advertising comes down to who makes the most noise.ï¿½
Stuart got up from his chair, " My mentor at the first ad agency I worked for told it to me this way, ï¿½Advertising is like boxing: if you hit the customer between the eyes enough times, eventually he'll fallï¿½.ï¿½
A pause for emphasis and then he said, ï¿½Yes, eventually heï¿½ll fall. I'll elaborate on all this at our next meeting; this was just a preview. Thank you." His next pause seemed to be for applause.
Then Stuart turned to Charlie, "I was wondering if I could meet with you late this afternoon in your office," he asked. "I really wanted to get my arms around the financial picture of the company. Perhaps you could have your secretary make me a copy of the last three years' profit and loss statements and balance sheets, along with the five-year forecast. Dan said you just finished the forecast recently."
"Sure, I guess so. Give me until about 4:30, then I'm free," she said. Charlie had never seen a marketing guy who wanted to delve into the numbers part of business with this much zest. Even so, she wasn't quite ready to concede that Dan might possibly have picked another winner.
In Charlotte Ann Travis' years with the company, she had seen Dan pick many winners, develop a winning management style, and using revenue growth as the measure of success, always win. She wondered if that was why he never seemed too broken up when his marriage ended: who needs Victoria when you have victory for a mistress.
The company tended to view itself as far superior to any of its competitors, which were not taken terribly seriously. Dan seldom reacted to a sales downturn by cutting overhead costs, and never by cutting staff. He usually just vigorously attacked a slumping market with more advertising or price concessions. He also was completely enamored with growth: he wanted the company to double in size every three years. He equated size with permanence, building an enterprise that wouldn't go away, that could withstand any storm. An immortal enterprise. As the company grew larger, it was difficult to keep up that rate of growth. It entailed making expensive acquisitions of smaller competitors or frequent introductions of new products, which was also expensive. It entailed assuming greater and greater risks.
As a result, the company's profits fluctuated wildly: in the last five years from a high of $19 million to a low of a $15 million loss. The company was frequently strapped for cash and periodically borrowed heavily from the patient financial institutions that stuck with the company because Dan's strategic gambits always seemed to turn out all right--eventually.
* * *
Stuart Trent popped his head into Charlie's office at 4:30 on the dot. "Ready or not, here I am," he said.
"I've got everything you requested," Charlie replied, without actually inviting him in. She was buried in projects to complete by the end of the day, which for her was usually 8 PM, and was hoping that Stuart would just pick up the neatly piled financial reports on the chair and run along. But she also didn't want to appear rude to the newcomer.
Stuart made himself at home on the couch, surveyed the watercolors of famous golf links on three of the walls, then put the reports in his lap and opened the top one, the company's first quarter operating results. They were close to what Stuart had expected: a steep decline in revenues and profits from the previous year.
Charlie said, "You had obviously put a lot of thought into our strategic direction. But tripling the number of brands and advertising campaigns to support them....I don't know. It sounds expensive."
"Three times the brands means three times the shelf space in the stores. There's so much similarity in consumer products today that it all comes down to giving the shopper more opportunities to buy yours instead of the other guy's."
"I suppose that's correct." She elected to save her best argument for another day. "So....how are you adjusting to living in Phoenix?"
"I'm leasing a house for the time being until I see what neighborhood I want to live in. I really don't care for the desert, to tell you the truth. Too barren. I'm a city boy. I need the night life to survive." He appeared on the verge of asking her out, then talked himself out of it--for now. "One thing I could use is some advice on a money management firm locally. I have always used Atlantic Sterling Trust, swear by them, but they aren't out here, and I like to be able to talk to someone in person about what they're doing with my money."
"I'm not familiar with Atlantic Sterling, but I can recommend the Verde Fund Management Group. They've put me into some great small cap growth stocks of companies in the Southwest."
"I'll check them out." Stuart was thumbing through the company's balance sheet for March 31. "I had a couple of questions about the financial end of things here."
"All right." She reluctantly assumed a listening position, and made herself smile.
"These may seem like elementary questions, so forgive me but, umm, I wanted to know about the long term notes payable financing for the company. Where does that funding come from?"
"It's shown in the footnotes to the financial statements at the end of the report. The notes are held by a private financing group in Chicago. They are renewed every three years, usually just rolled over. We have a terrific relationship with them."
"The notes are at 12.5%; why don't you just use conventional bank financing? The rates are cheaper than that now."
"Because banks go into a panic whenever you miss a payment. We're in a cyclical business, and because we grow so fast, we have periods when there isn't a couple of million dollars sitting around to make a scheduled debt payment. The Chicago group realizes this and never gives us any trouble about an extension. Which is good because the notes are secured by 30% of the common shares in the company."
"I hope you don't think these questions are none of my business. But I need a handle on the financial strength of the company before I can give you a proper budget for the marketing campaign I am planning. I don't want to do more than is financially feasible, and make your job harder than it is. I was hoping you and I could be friends as well as colleagues.ï¿½
Stuart continued before Charlie could frame a--most likely negative--response. "It looks like I picked the right company; I was considering two other offers, you know." He paused long enough to make sure that point was emphasized. ï¿½I'll let you get back to work. Thanks."
"Thank you, Stuart." Charlie continued to be amazed that Stuart took an actual interest in the financial aspects of business.
As Stuart strolled down the corridor, he thought, She's never heard of Atlantic Sterling Trust. She will.
* * *
Gerald "Gerry" Krauss was a man of enormous appetites. It took considerable effort for him to hoist his 285 pound bulk up from the soft folds of the cream leather executive chair in the office of the company he owned in the building he owned. Once on his feet, he moved with surprising grace, and usually with remarkable speed: he had been in a hurry to conquer the world since he was in his teens.
It was a gloriously clear day in LA and the view from his 23rd story Century City office suite in Peregrine Center was worth taking time away from a billion dollar business empire to enjoy. He had spent many pleasant evenings up there watching the sun set, relaxing over some incredible vintage of burgundy, and plotting the takeover and dismantling of some poor foolï¿½s company. Fine wine and warfare. Life doesn't get much better than that.
Krauss and a small number of others like him had reshaped the American business landscape in their own image during the 1980's. They ushered in a whole new era, actually: an age where the power and money flowed to the venture capitalists who put money into the company rather than to the people who created and built the company. And the faster Krauss and his kind could turn over the investment, the more successful they became. Effort and imagination were no longer needed to make money; money made money.
Kraussï¿½ hunger for investments seemed to mirror his consumption of food: he had gained 70 pounds and $875 million in net worth since the decade of the '80's began.
He was a genius at downsizing companies once he got involved with them, cutting staff and reducing operating costs. He could spot unproductive overhead hiding in any forgotten corner of a company, and move quickly to exterminate it.
Along with the constant hum of the air conditioning--Gerry kept his office at a meat locker temperature because he was prone to perspiring heavily--there was a faint swishing sound of woolen trouser legs slapping together as he walked the floors of his 1000 square foot office. It was a comfortable place indeed. He had a L-shaped sectional sofa that folded out into a queen sized bed. A side door led to a shower, sauna and massage room.
He was restless that day: there was nothing happening on the deal front, which was a tragedy worse than an empty refrigerator. He was going to have to flog his lethargic subordinates into action, get something going.
For all his wealth, Gerry was a man of simple tastes. He never bothered with expensive clothes. He rotated the nearly identical five dark hued suits he wore until they became shiny and even a little frayed. Then, he went out and bought five identical new ones. In any event, his consumption was conspicuous enough around his waist.
He never attended the summer parties at the wealthy beach colonies, although invitations to many such things were stacked neatly like cordwood in a corner of his office, for others to notice. Being desired was enough for Gerry. He was married, but he really didn't see the lady much. He mostly just sent her checks.
On his laptop computer, which he carried with him everywhere, he had programmed the complete listing of his corporate holdings, stocks in public companies, and real estate investments. In the evening, right before he retired for the night, he calculated his net worth down to the nearest $1,000, made a printout of the results and put it under his pillow. This ritual allowed him to sleep with great content, and awaken with great desire.
Gerry was the son of a well-regarded neighborhood grocer on the outskirts of Toledo, Ohio, and on the fringes of prosperity. His father's only son amid a giggly brood of four daughters, Gerry was taught the family business at a very early age. After grammar school let out he would follow his father around the store, observing everything that went on. He learned how to keep from being fooled when a distributor brought in fruit that was half good quality and half on the verge of spoilage. He learned that negotiation is primarily a matter of nerve rather than intelligence; someone has to be the first to back down.
Gerry was the best student a father ever had to tutor. He had a natural head for the care and feeding of the bottom line. While still of junior high school age young Gerry advised his father to buy heavily from the meat wholesaler because he had a feeling the good summer weather would hold and there would be more picnics and barbecues than usual. Sure enough, that July the temperature stuck at 90 degrees for three straight weeks.
Like most earnest young men would be, Gerry was proud to have his father rely on his opinion, but he was by no means a carbon copy of "the old man." In the recesses of his mind, he was ashamed of his squatty family and their relentlessly cheerful work ethic. They never seemed to get ahead. Where was the reward for this tireless effort? He cringed when he saw the way his mother had to fawn over the bratty children that came into the store with their elegant suburban mothers. His family seemed so clannish to him the way they cleaved to ï¿½the neighborhood' and the same boring people who wandered in and out of their lives each week.
When he entered his senior year of high school, Gerry was allowed to run the store for longer and longer periods, while his father Henry rewarded himself with the sweet luxury of time off and travel. The first thing Gerry did was phase out his sisters from the day-to-day operations of the business.
Gerry reveled in the feeling of command, and he wasn't at all bashful of telling employees many years older than he what to do and how to do it. He implemented sweeping changes. Lifelong friends of his father's who supplied produce were replaced with larger, multi-state wholesalers that had better variety and faster delivery. The lighting was modernized to make the food look colorful and attractive. He knocked out walls, widened the aisles and doubled the size of the store. He gradually retired the dumpy Slavic women who had worked forever in the checkout lines, with attractive girls who didn't mind fraternizing with the boss. Without an hour spent in business school, Gerry had accurately foreseen the nationwide trend toward supermarkets in the 1960ï¿½s and the demise of the corner grocer.
No one could argue with the results Gerry achieved. The business thrived to the point that they were able to open a second, and then a third location. Cash flow went from a dribble to a rush. Gerry withdrew enough out of the business to pay off the mortgage on his parent's home and bought them a new Cadillac, which according to his mother was almost as big as their first house.
A young man longing to escape the narrow confines of his heritage needs to have a road stake. This was accomplished in the summer of his twenty-first year when his father and mother were on an extended trip through Europe and the Mediterranean, seeing the Old Country (Gerry thought he had grown up in the Old Country). His father had granted his son complete authority over the financial and operational aspects of the business.
While lying in bed one night, he had spun this elaborate fantasy of moving to California to start his own venture capital company. To an enterprising young Midwesterner like Gerry, California had a mythic quality to it. Warm sun, hot girls glistening with sun tan oil and a sizzling economy--all the things northern Ohio had precious little of.
So Gerry sold the family business while his father was gone. And Gerry had his road stake.
Thirty years and $1 billion later, there was only one certain remedy for Gerry's boredom. He plugged the modem into his laptop, which put him on-line to the firm's voice mail link. It was time for Gerry to rouse the slumbering slackers whom he overpaid every month, and thrash some productivity out of them. He typed in the command to send the message to each analyst's electronic mail box.
"Nap time is over everybody. I want some good acquisition ideas on my desk now! And the potential venture capital deals you've been sending me are lousy, useless, crap. You can do better than that. If not, I'm sure I can find some other MBA computer jockeys who would love to have your salaries. And paid vacations in the Caribbean. And company sports cars. I am a generous man, but not a patient man. So get to work."
* * *
Dan Wilson had just begun to open his mail, a task he usually neglected until after 5:00 when things quieted down. When he saw THE LETTER in the stack, at first there wasn't a hint of recognition. He saw that it was postmarked nearly 20 years ago, in Wisconsin; it was also marked by earth, and water, and time. He noticed that it had been sent to his post office box in college, and he mainly was curious how it could have possibly found its way to his office in faraway Arizona. A yellow sticky note was attached, from a Wilson employee in Wisconsin, "I found this in a wastebasket in a doctor's office. Thought you might want it." Ernie Borowski didnï¿½t sign his name to the note, thinking Dan wouldnï¿½t remember him from high school. Ernie was wrong, Dan was the sort who remembered.
Then a feeling hit Dan that was not too different from an electric shock; the address was in Mark Reid's handwriting and he could barely make out the name M. Reid on the torn upper left corner. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to open it. He sat there for several minutes holding the envelope in his hands. He saw that the letter had been posted the day of the night Mark died. The letter could answer lingering questions, it might banish that twisting feeling he got in his stomach whenever he thought of his college days. But a kind of fear he had seldom known would not let him tear open the paper. To be so paralyzed was a particular discomfort to a man who approached life headlong.
He would have to try again later. He put the letter in the leather pocket of his briefcase and tightly closed it, snapping the metal latches with a certain amount of authority.
* * *
For twenty years, at precisely 1:00 every Saturday afternoon, no matter the season, Kelly McCluskey left her small neat cottage in Brookstone Village and walked 1 1/3 miles through the middle of a park on the southern edge of the campus of Brookstone College. She carried with her a bouquet of yellow sweetheart roses.
In winter, she was often the only person leaving footprints in the snowy ground. The worst weather was no deterrent; she was nothing if not faithful. Even on the dismal days so far below zero that the snow squeaks when you walk on it. Kelly found solace in the gloom of the far-north winter, the darker the better.
Because this day in April happened to have dour, threatening skies, the park was nearly deserted. The wind had a serrated edge. The children who frequented the park would often pause from their games as Kelly passed by and speculate as to the reason this "old" lady was marching so determinedly through their fields of play. She could be at least as old as a teacher. Way too old for play.
It wasn't expected to rain for several hours, but Kelly wore a yellow rain slicker because she habitually prepared for the worst. Her dark, shiny hair was pulled back tightly and bound in a pony tail. She wore very little makeup; her face was youthful, freckled, though creased by a few weary lines. Through diligent effort, she was clearly still in her physical prime twenty years after graduation, though perhaps just slightly too thin.
The final 1000 yards of her weekly trek through the wilderness of the past required a steep ascent to a plateau, on the top of which was perched an unused portion of the park surrounded by a metal fence that the harsh winters had battered to a 45 degree angle. Rusting and faded "Keep out-Danger" signs were periodically displayed. A narrow gate with a padlock was the only way in.
Kelly took a key from her coat pocket and worked the padlock open. The gate's hinges groaned when she disturbed them, like those of an untended, forgotten cemetery. She struggled against the iron, and then was inside, safe and gloriously alone.
The wooden benches were warped, half-rotted. On opposite sides of her, the two pipe metal H's were still there, though not exactly straight and up to regulation. A rusted sign said: We me T Bro on eld Ho o h NI KS.
Nature had long ago begun reclaiming the paved asphalt track that wound around the center of the structure in a large oval, but its outline was still visible. You could still climb the concrete steps; from up top the entire college campus was visible. From that vista on a December night the lights of the small village glistening on the snow created a lasting image of classic Christmas. Kelly chose not to climb; an unlucky person could fall and get trapped up there forever.
Kelly still heard the echoes, no matter how many times she returned. It never got to be an obligation; it remained a privilege, a tribute to the departed. She never saw rust or rubble. She saw young people crowded in the stands on sparkling fall afternoons, red-cheeked from the first chill warning of winter (and from the rum they brought with them in their flasks). She heard tailgate parties with unjustifiable predictions of victory no matter what the odds. In college, from her hard-earned vantage point on the sidelines, she could never fail to be swept into a kind of reverie by the sight of the team taking the field like a cavalry charge with its colors flying.
Kelly found herself in the north end zone. The chalk lines had not existed there for a long, long time. She just knew she was there, at the spot where The Catch was made by the amazing player who led his team to the conference championship with a miracle touchdown reception. The flashes of memory that paraded before her were certainly more real than anything that had happened to her since.
She stepped out of the end zone, off the field of play. That plot of earth belonged to Mark, and Mark only.
She had told the story of The Catch no more than two or three thousand times over the years; if you had at least one working ear and lived within a 75 mile radius of Brookstone, Kelly McCluskey was going to tell you the entire saga of how the Brookstone Nighthawks drove the length of the field with 2 minutes left to win the most important game in the history of the college. How the perennial pathetic team that rarely had a winning season rose up to smite the opposition and win the conference title for the one and only time, before going back to sleep, perhaps forever.
Her memories of that night had not washed out to sepia tones like most everyone else's; they retained the color and depth of life.
When Mark caught the pass, Kelly was standing only a few feet beyond the back line of the end zone, holding the hand of another cheerleader so tightly that her nails cut the girl's wrist.
The game had been a brutal contest, played just after Thanksgiving, that broke down several times into fighting between the teams, against a seemingly much better opponent, the Ravens. They were a rugged unbeaten crew from a community college on the opposite shores of Lake Michigan, the sons of fathers who were still tethered to the factories and the mills. In the middle of the third quarter of the game, it started to snow, those soft, friendly large flakes of the first snowfall, which were never as cold or sharp as the ones that fell in February. By the fourth quarter, the visibility was so poor that the players had to feel their way downfield, not see it. Brookstone gained an advantage from the weather: Dan Wilson could always sense where his star receiver was; he didn't need to be able to see him. He knew Mark was there, ready to win for him.
With the home team Nighthawks, in their green uniforms with gold trim, behind by six points, fourth down and 10 from the Ravens (clad in black and red) thirty yard line, with 14 seconds left on the clock, quarterback Dan Wilson had released the ball at the last possible instant before being mauled by the Ravens' enormous linemen. He let out an agonized groan when he hit the hard ground under their tremendous weight. Kelly strained to follow the flight of the ball against the snow and the stadium lights, diffused by the moisture in the air. It was a perfect, tight spiral--highly unusual for the mediocre quarterback Mark was forced to be teamed with, Kelly would usually interject into the story.
Mark was 6ï¿½2ï¿½ and 170 pounds. He had long unruly black hair that hung out defiantly from under his helmet. He was not physically attractive in the usual big-man-on-campus way. He had a hawk-like nose, deep-set keen eyes and a strong, stubborn chin. His hands seemed too big for his slight frame.
Mark was a gold streak of invincible energy going down the field, brighter than the snow. The other team never touched him. The ball and Mark merged into one as he leaped across the goal line, and at that moment in her young life, the light of athletic perfection burned into her memory as though she had looked directly into the sun. She had been allowed to briefly exist inside an epic, a tale worthy of retelling. Down the path of years, she would never forget, and she would keep the story always alive.
Blinking back to the present, on the edge of what had once been the end zone, Kelly tenderly placed the roses on the field and began the long trek back from the brink of glory and to her life of being director of a charitable foundation called Second Life that assisted the jobless, the homeless and the generally hopeless, to rebuild their lives. It was endowed by the Mark Reid Memorial Fund, which Kelly organized the year after he died.
On the other side of campus, a new stadium had been built the year after The Catch, so great was the enthusiasm generated by that championship team. The new venue has the shiny amenities that spectators now demand, and accommodated nearly 15,000 more people. Often, when the team plays now, it is only half-filled, for the team seldom wins half its games.
Mark gave her yellow sweetheart roses the night he proposed. Graduation night.
* * *
Watching a sports event on TV at the Central Division Bar & Grill just north of the downtown business district in Phoenix, Arizona, could be just as intense an experience as attending the game in person. The owners of the bar were Midwest expatriates, and they had cleverly designed it to cater to a clientele of fellow refugees from the cold country--Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. During autumn, when pro football was in full swing, the bar showed all the games involving the four Midwest-based Central Divisions teams on big screen TVs, and on Sundays the place was full enough to flout the fire code. The large, high-ceilinged room was divided into four distinct sections--Viking, Lion, Bear and Packer. On rare occasions, a few Tampa Bay fans would show up, so a table (with two chairs) was set aside for them. It was easy for the patrons to tell where they belonged: memorabilia hung from the walls--important cultural artifacts like pennants, game programs, jerseys, action photos of star players, and the room was decorated in the teamsï¿½ colors. Each team's enthusiasts would gather in their own area, and lustily root for their favorites, and of course bombard the enemies with catcalls and boos. A Minnesota Viking fan was not at all welcome in the designated "Bear" area, for example. Stick with your own kind.
Fashion was an important aspect of being a bar regular. One did not want to appear unless adorned in NFL licensed shirts, sweat pants and hats; extra large appeared to be the most popular size. Many years hence archaeologists will excavate these sports bars and draw the erroneous conclusion that everyone in late 20th Century America was an exercise fanatic--they wore athletic clothes everywhere. These people were a race of Spartans.
A sign near the entrance said, Warning To The Surgeon General: Consumption of Alcohol Is One of the Great Pleasures of Life, So Mind Your Own Damn Business. The Central Division was a place where you could still have one, two, or six beers with lunch and not be heaped with scorn from the sanctimonious. Anyone caught attempting to smuggle tofu or some odious vegetable platter into the place would have been shot on sight.
To say Mike Thornton was a regular at the Central Division was as obvious as saying that Phoenix can get warm in July. When he made his grand entrance, usually at around 5:01 in the evening, the pace of drink orders automatically increased. Mike was everyone else's excuse to party, a catalyst to cheer.
He knew many of the people in the bar, especially the younger and loveliest waitresses, by name. Mike was a tall man, equal in stature to Dan, but his face looked to be formed from rough, ruddy clay, with a chin or two to spare, his full head of hair a perfect shade of carrot, combed back from his forehead but only partially trained. His mouth seemed always to be trying to form a mirthful expression, even in times of crisis. His voice could be heard from quite a distance--here was one performer who seldom needed a microphone.
He preferred casual (cheap) clothes with a heavy elastic content around the waist. His weight fluctuated with the seasons: in the spring and fall he ate a tremendous amount; in winter and summer somewhat more.
Mike's status as a prosperous attorney was betrayed only by his $10,000 platinum wristwatch and a gold ring studded with diamonds, heavy enough to be a paperweight, which he purchased for himself on his 40th birthday, because he never thought for a moment he'd last that long.
When he was growing up, Mikeï¿½s parents had owned a seasonal fishing resort near Brookstone College, Thornton Lodge at Crescent Lake. The lodge was never a terrific money maker, and his mom and dad couldnï¿½t afford to send him to the pricey, private, Brookstone College, so Mike cheerfully applied for the radio sports announcer job as well as the ï¿½athletic equipment supervisorï¿½ (jock laundry) position. He was hired for both, and his ticket to college was punched. The talented generalist is always in demand.
His wit was considered professional caliber by many who heard his broadcasts. Senior year, he had a difficult career choice to make, whether to be a stand-up comic or follow through with the degree he had been studying for.
The vote was close, but he chose to go ahead and become a corporate lawyer.
Dan was especially glad that Mike chose to finish law school, because he couldnï¿½t see himself having to ask a comedian for legal advice later in life. And Mike was willing to follow Dan anywhere, do anything for him, knowing that a quarterback who never wanted to punt on fourth down and seven would certainly need a good lawyer one day.
Mike had never married, though he seldom lacked female companionship. For unknown reasons, women flocked to him, though his relationships tended to be short-lived and shallow. His ex-girlfriends without exception reported him to be a gentleman who was kind, generous, enjoyable to be with--but also distracted, as though the date was merely an interlude while Mike waited for some unexpressed wish to come true.
On that night in May, the football season coming in September was just a wistful, distant dream. There were still sports to be seen on the TV screens, though: a basketball playoff game between the Phoenix Suns and Golden State started at 6 PM. So, the fans gathered in their colorful plumage, watched basketball, and talked football.
Mike was of course already in his seat when Dan arrived at 7:00. They often met at the bar after work to discuss Wilson Industriesï¿½ business and attempt to unwind. Mike was chief legal counsel for Dan's company, although he still maintained a small private practice as well. With the problems Wilson Industries was having, Mike had a specific mission for tonight: cheer Dan up. Mike and Dan had met in college when Mike was in charge of cleaning the team's uniforms, and Mike continued to try to tidy things up for Dan whenever he could. Now, though, he charged Dan $15,000 a month.
Mike was concerned with how physically drained his buddy looked; it was going to be hard work trying to have fun. "How goes the cookie wars?" asked Mike, already knowing the answer.
Without having to be asked, a waitress brought two Budweiser drafts in frosty mugs to the table. She was thanked profusely. Although it was only late spring on the calendar, the thermometer was ready to bust the century mark any day.
"Didn't Charlie send you the monthly management reports? It goes not well."
"Yes, a courier did drop off a heavy package of dry and dreary financial analysis and predictions of doom sent by the overly tense Miss Travis, which I pondered weak and weary. I'm surprised she hasn't suffered a nervous breakdown by now. She dwells on the thunderstorm, I look forward to the rainbow. I don't think she likes me too much."
"She thinks you goof off and are way overpaid. She signs your checks."
"Just because I sit in a bar sometimes, it doesn't mean I'm not thinking about business. I require a relaxed environment to do my best work."
Dan took a deep cold swallow. "Too many negative things have struck us at once. I can tell the senior staff is getting spooked. We've hit rocky periods before. But never so much at once...the fire...the surge in commodity prices...then that guy who works in Gil's group got hurt on the job and sued....the food research guys have gone way over budget on that new packaging technology...the broadcasting division has to fight like tigers for every advertising dollar. It goes on and on." Dan stopped talking long enough to sigh. "Sometimes I think I don't want to play this game anymore, this CEO stuff. It gets hard to breathe.."
"Too late for a career change now. You're the leader. You didn't get to choose your job. It chose you. And you are not alone in your struggles, my son. The problem with being a person in your position is that the minute you leave the house in the morning, you become potential red meat for all the predators. A brief example: I'm in the process of defending this poor guy who was fined $25,000 for urinating in a Federally Protected Wetlands Area. At the time, he thought he was just pissing in a swamp. He was driving through a deserted area, and had to go...."
"I don't think the world is designed for you and me anymore."
Mike gave the "V" for victory sign to the bartender. It meant: bring two more ï¿½Budsï¿½ here, with alacrity.
"Did I tell you about the lawsuit we were served with today?" Mike asked.
"No." The beers arrived.
"We're being sued by Countrywide Beverage, for trademark infringement. They claim our 'King Lemon' lemonade character is a copy of their 'Mister Lemon, King of Taste'"
"That's ridiculous. Mister Lemon is a little roly-poly out-of-shape yellow guy in a lawnchair. King Lemon sits proudly on his horse, his lance at the ready, drinking his delicious and pure lemonade between battles. And they aren't even actively marketing Mister Lemon anymore."
"Oh, yeah. I forgot. You designed King Lemon. Kind of proud of the chap, I guess. The thing is, we can beat this, for sure. They're clearly in the wrong. But the legal fees will be in excess of $150,000. Countrywide is a three billion dollar corporation. They have lawyers on staff just to invent lawsuits to bother smaller companies like ours. It kind of a hobby with them."
"Do whatever you have to." Dan finished off the glass and started watching the game on the screen above his head.
Golden State stole the ball two straight times and scored on authoritative slam dunks. Uneasiness crept into the bar like a fog. The Suns looked as befuddled as Wilson Industries' brain trust.
"Dan, Dan. Dan. You know the company's simply going through growing pains. You've taken a so-so little food company and turned it into something that's on the verge of greatness. Let Charlie sit alone in her townhouse and fret. I don't see any reason our success won't continue. It's the fourth quarter, we're down by six. But Dan has a play in mind. He always has a play in mind."
Dan shook his head and looked gloomily into his glass. Mike decided to hurriedly change the subject. "Did I ever tell you about my theory on how sports bars are perfect places to study the tribal nature of mankind?"
"No, I don't think so; but I suspect I'm about to."
"The theory goes as follows: mankind is born with a instinct to belong to a tribe, and to seek the company of others in the tribe, while strictly excluding those that don't belong. I'll show you." Mike and Dan's table sat on the edge of the Green Bay Packer section, perilously close to Bear Territory. These two tribes had been at war for nearly 75 years. At the next table sat the Belk brothers, Stan and Chris, recently relocated from the sout' side of Chicago. Mike enjoyed tormenting them. "Hey, Belks. What's up for the football season this year? Give us a prediction. Feel free to use all ten fingers for the calculations."
Stan responded, "Uh, it's Mike the Mouth, and his probï¿½ly only friend. I'll tell ya about football this year. Bears rule. The Packers suck, just like every year. You Packer fans suck. Lambeau Field sucks. Your cheese smells. Green and gold are crappy colors. You got nothin' to look forward to but last place and old age. I hate you Packer fans."
Mike's volume rose perceptibly; he could tell that the people at the nearby tables were starting to listen to him. Mike never passed up a chance to entertain. "There you have it. My first exhibit. The Chicago Bear Fan. Their blue and orange attire is meant to tell us that we aren't welcome in their tribe's territory. They think their tribe is superior in every way. Bears fans are proud, strong, brave, and are slowly developing conversational skills."
Chris said, ï¿½Thornton, I heard theyï¿½re thinkinï¿½ of puttinï¿½ artificial turf in Lambeau Field.ï¿½
ï¿½Never happen, ï¿½ said Mike.
ï¿½Itï¿½s true. They had to do something to keep your cheerleaders from grazing.ï¿½
Mike laughed. ï¿½Score one for your side. Enjoy the feeling while it lasts, Belks. Because we Packer fans know the glory years will come again. We endure season after season of frustration, and come back anxious for more. We sit in a frozen stadium in December and call ourselves blessed. We have unshakable belief in our team. And even if none of the above were true, we still have fantastic tailgate parties with by far the best drinks. I can taste those bloody bull shots now."
Dan, sliding easily into the role of straight man, said, "Tell me then, Mr. Thornton, while you're explaining the meaning of life, at least the key elements, why do people bond to a certain team?"
"They get to belong. When you have a team, you're never cold or lonely again. And what's more, victory creates energy. It's like an atomic reaction: hoping to win is converted to energy through the actual winning event. And our team lets us take that energy home with us to power up our own lives. It's quite miraculous, this victory reaction.
"So, Let's lift a glass to our team: may we love them forever." This took a moment: proper beer toasts with Mike Thornton require deep draws. "And may we need them forever."
The basketball game gave way to a commercial break, which featured an advertisement for yet another televised figure skating event. Mike looked up at the screen and winced, saying, "The grace and incredible artistry of figure skating always brings one thing to mind: how many more months until Monday Night Football?"
"Yeah, football," cried a Belk, raising a hammer-like fist.
Others in the bar quickly joined in, a forceful chant erupting, "Football! Football!," as though the mere mention of the word had fired up the dormant barbarian blood. And with that, Mike's performance was concluded, a smile of wicked satisfaction dominating his face. He took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
"Do you ever wonder how Kelly's doing?" Dan asked.
Mike backed his chair away from the table and put his hands up to protect his face. "Watch out for the blast from the past, it comes out of nowhere and it's a frigid one. I haven't heard you mention her in ten, twelve years. This was a good thing."
"I got a letter from Mark today."
Mike had to ponder that one a few seconds. "Unless Federal Express opened a satellite office in Heaven, I don't see how that's possible."
"It's a letter sent to me the day before he died. It's been lost for 20 years. Just floating around
Mike immediately felt as uneasy about the letter as Dan did. Mike had laughed his way through college; the days after Mark died were the only times he cried. Mike's ability to function in the world depended upon being able to view life as a never-ending party. Tragedy threw his timing off. "What was in the letter?"
"I don't know. I couldn't quite get up the courage to open it. It's sitting in my briefcase in the car."
"Good. I don't really want to know. There's no use re-living that whole period. It's long ago. Nothing we can do about it now." Mike's jowls quivered as he violently shook his head.
"You know I've never set foot on the campus since then, even though I go back home for meetings at least six times a year."
"No, don't start in with me with that pop psychology about needing 'closure'. Death is the ultimate closure. We were young. Nothing could have prepared us for something like that happening. So we did the reasonable thing and left and tried to forget about it. Got on with our lives. That's the difference: Kelly never could get on with hers."
"Did we really ever get over it?" Dan asked emphatically. "We'll never stop wondering how that could have happened. He knew those roads as well as anyone. The storm wasn't that bad. I drove back to campus from your parentsï¿½ cottage, after Mark didn't show up at our kick off party. I had no trouble at all. He was a good driver. A person like that doesn't just...die. There was no sense to it. I think we should have done more."
"Making sure that Mark would be remembered. He was the greatest player the school ever had. He would have set records in the pros that would still be standing now. He had the desire."
"I don't think you have to worry about thatï¿½his being remembered. I was back to Brookstone two summers ago. I still own the resort my parents built; a guy name of Rookie Bigelow manages it for me, a strange dude, but he works hard. I checked on what Kelly was doing now. She's built a virtual monument to Mark--she runs a charitable foundation named after him. It's a big deal. They receive government grants, have a big staff. They help homeless people, or unemployed people, or something. It's kind of weird. I never thought she'd end up being a social worker. A social climber maybe, but not a social worker."
"So you've talked to her."
Mike hesitated. "Not exactly in words. I went to the building where her office is. But I couldn't go inside for some reason. You know. I thought that after all this time...I just wanted to make sure she was OK. I saw her at her desk, through the window. She looked good. Real good."
So the envelope remained in the briefcase.
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