tagNovels and NovellasSouthbound Ch. 01-02

Southbound Ch. 01-02


I won't go into detail about the flexible packaging industry. Suffice it to say it involves plastic packaging which you are all familiar with in your everyday lives. Not rigid plastic, but plastic film ... of all types. This story is a romance that involves the packaging business. I hope you enjoy it.

Originally edited by ErikThread and DaveT with my thanks. Additional fiddling was by me and any errors or omissions are my own.



Chapter 1 A Chill in the Air

There must be tens of thousands of us. There has to be. In all the flights I've taken in North America, I seldom recall seeing a familiar face. We're the nameless guys, often in wrinkled suits and loosened ties, carrying a briefcase or a laptop, or both. We stand in line to get our boarding passes, shuffle through security, sit in the waiting room (or lounge, if we've got enough points) and hope the damn plane is on time for once.

My name is Gordon Andrews, although my family and friends know me as Andy. I'm almost forty-three well-worn years old, tall at six-two, and reasonably fit at 205 pounds. I'm the sales manager for Flex-Tek, a flexible packaging convertor primarily aimed at the food industry. My sales staff covers the west coast of the U.S. and all of western Canada. Our plant is based in Langley, not far from Vancouver.

Yes, it's true I'm on the road at least two weeks out of four, but that's by choice. I want to be in touch with our customers and I want to know just how effective my sales guys and gals are as well. I also find I'm a lot happier on the road than I am when I'm at home.

I married Carla Mertens a year after I started work at Flex-Tek. I'm a college drop-out, a permanent undergraduate I call it. I wasn't ready for the college environment and it wasn't until I was nearly thirty that I realized how immature I was then. By my thirtieth birthday, I had married, fathered two sons, and acquired a mortgage. I started in customer service, moved into sales two years later, then was made manager of sales at the ripe old age of thirty-five. I'm not sure I'll go any further, but I'm not really upset about that. I'm happy with my job and I'm very well rewarded for my efforts. We are very successful in our chosen market segments.

Carla and I are mismatched. She's a foot shorter, to begin with, and not at all curious about the world we live in. She is, however, very attractive with a very nice, well maintained body. She dresses nicely and has a lovely smile when she chooses to show it. Over the years I've had a number of people comment on how good looking she is and what a nice person she was.

She barely glances at the newspaper and only picks up what is on the evening TV news. As a result, she's often baffled by events and misinterprets what she hears. She's not dumb, just uninterested and unaware. I long ago quit trying to educate her.

I'm her opposite. I'm an information sponge, always interested in what's going on and why things are the way they are. It's part of what makes me successful in my career. I really want to know what's important to our customers and I listen and attempt to understand how their businesses work. I try very hard to remember everything I'm told. To my credit, I've had a number of customers mention to my salesmen and my boss how they appreciate my interest and attention to their needs.

We started our family very early on in our marriage. Our eldest son, Neal, was born a year-and-a-half after we wed when I was twenty-one and Carla was only twenty. Our second son, Philip, was born thirty months later. Looking back on it now, I'm glad we started as soon as we did. It was tough for a while, trying to raise two boys and provide a nice home for them on one salary. Carla had a job when we married, but gave it up when she became pregnant with Neal. She never went back to work.

Neal is studying engineering at UBC. No surprise there. Like me, he's curious about many different things which led him in that direction. Unlike me at his age, he is extremely focussed and dedicated to his studies. He has a number of scholarship grants and bursaries to help the financial load. Since the commute is too much for him, he lives on campus.

Philip, or Phil as he prefers, is less studious and not quite as mature. He still lives at home and commutes to school. However, he is bright and is very much immersed in computers and computer design. He's also the athlete of the two. He plays golf as well as intramural hockey which he is passionate about. He plays defence and kills penalties when he isn't the one in the penalty box to begin with.

We're proud of both our boys. They're good citizens and do nothing that would embarrass us. At least, not that we know about. I'm pretty confident that both of them will succeed in the business world. They are different in personality and that's to be expected I suppose. Phil is the outgoing one while Neal is much quieter and more controlled. It's nice to be able to enjoy our children and not worry about them very much.

It sounds like an ideal family, doesn't it? An attractive wife, two well-behaved sons, a house in the suburbs, and a great job. Most people would be content with that. I wish I were content. In the last two years Carla has not been the happy homemaker she once was. At first I thought she might be anticipating both boys being gone and her being alone. When I talked to her about my observations, she steadfastly denied there was any problem.

We discussed moving to a newer home. We'd been living in our current three bedroom split-level for eleven years at maybe it was time for a change. At first she was interested, then talked herself out of it when she thought of all the work and confusion involved in a move. Alternatively, I suggested some home renovations to upgrade our current home. No, that would just make a big mess. Plus, after all the horrible things that renovation contractors did on some of the reality TV shows, she wanted no part of that.

"So, tell me, Carla. What is it you do want? You're obviously not happy right now. What can I do to make your life better?"

She had no idea how to answer that question. I could see her mouth move as she tried to say something, but nothing came out. In the end, she just shook her head and said nothing. That was last month, and in the meantime, nothing had changed.

I was sitting in the Alaska Air lounge in Los Angeles, waiting for my flight, now delayed two hours and counting. I finished my report on the trip and e-mailed it to my boss, grateful that it was one less thing I had to do this coming weekend. When the flight finally got off the ground, I would be arriving in Vancouver at sometime around midnight, hopefully not delayed in customs, but with a further hour's drive to my home. Not an appealing prospect, but not the first time either.

As I helped myself to some snacks and another glass of wine, I noticed a familiar face. While the face might have been familiar, I couldn't quite grasp the name from my memory. I know I'd seen him before, and not that long ago. As I sat back in my seat, it came to me. His name was Gerry something and we were seatmates on a previous flight a couple of months ago. With nothing better to do and surprised at having discovered someone I recognized, I walked over and reintroduced myself.

"Hi, it's Gerry isn't it?" I tried tentatively.

"Yes ... Gerry Lowrie. Oh ... I remember you, but I'm sorry, the name escapes me."

"Andy Andrews. We were seatmates a while back ... on this same flight if I remember."

"It would be," he nodded. "This is a regular flight for me."

"Looks like we're going to be late getting home," I said idly.

"Yeah, the inbound Seattle flight is delayed I'm told. Nothing new."

"So, how are things with you? How's business?"

"Business is okay. The rest of my life has turned to shit."

I gave him a questioning look, letting him decided what to tell me.

"If it was the flight I'm thinking of, I got home to find the house empty and my wife and kids gone. She had left with them, all their possessions, some of mine, and most of the money in our bank accounts."

"Oh shit. That's bad. What happened?"

"Decided I didn't measure up any more. Filed for divorce and moved out while I was down here. Never said a word. Just up and left."

"You think there was another guy?"

"If there is, she's kept it well hidden," he sighed. "Right now, she's not talking to me, living with her parents. Any communication goes through her lawyer and all I'm getting is she's filing for irreconcilable differences. That tells me absolutely nothing. My lawyer says it's a done deal. We'll end up splitting things fifty-fifty, except it won't be fifty-fifty. She'll get the house and I'll get the mortgage. Throw in child support and alimony and I'll be living in a cardboard box and eating Top Ramen noodles."

"Jesus, it can't be that bad," I said.

"Damn near. The worst part is I don't even know why."

We talked some more before he changed the topic. He'd obviously had enough of talking about his troubles. We weren't seated near each other on the flight and it gave me plenty of time to think about my relationship with Carla. Were we headed down the same road as Gerry and his wife? It sounded like it. The more I thought about it the more I wondered if I should be taking precautions. Maybe I should do a little investigating on Carla's whereabouts during the days I was away. I had quite a bit of unused vacation time due me. Perhaps I could spend some of it keeping an eye on my wife.

On the other hand, shouldn't I talk to someone about her behaviour? If so, who? Perhaps her sister, Ruth? We always got along well. Maybe she could tell me what the problem was. What was the risk? If I asked her to keep a confidence, I was reasonably certain she would. Another decision to make.

I was off the road for the week and I had the opportunity to observe Carla more closely. I was at a loss to explain her sullenness. I could see no evidence that she wasn't healthy or that she was under pressure for some unknown reason. I wondered about her health. Had she been given a negative diagnosis by some doctor? Had she run up some debt that I didn't know about? What the hell would cause her to turn off me?

There was one other possibility, of course. My travel kept me away ten days of the month. With the boys being so independent and Carla home alone, maybe she was bored. Maybe she had taken a lover. I suggested she look for a job, or even volunteer work a few months ago, but she showed no interest whatsoever.

The mood around the house wasn't hostile. It was as if I didn't exist other than to be there. I had no role, no real function. I got up, made my own breakfast and went to work. I came home and Carla served Phil and me the evening meal. Most evenings, the only discussion that took place was between my son and me. After dinner, Phil would retreat to his room to study while Carla moved to the living room and turned on the TV. I could decide to join her or go to my office to do whatever. Not much of an existence when I thought about it.

On the weekends, it was gardening when that was necessary, or washing the cars, or various home handyman tasks. Carla would go off shopping for an hour or two, but never failed to come home with purchases. I never had any reason to suspect she was anywhere other than where she claimed.

We seldom went out to dinner any more. She didn't seem that interested. I know she visited with Ruth now and then, but I can't recall the last time anyone else came to our house to visit. When I thought about it, she had become very insular. I was the one who travelled and socialized regularly.

As far as making love, we hadn't done that in several months. We had indulged in some perfunctory sex a couple of weeks ago, but I got the impression she was going through the motions and little more. Something was seriously wrong with our marriage now that I tallied up all the recent evidence. Had she fallen out of love with me? Had I fallen out of love with her? I didn't think so ... yet. However, I had the feeling I was well on my way to that destination. Could I put a stop to this potential train wreck?

"Hi, Ruth, it's Andy."

"Hi, Andy, what can I do for you?"

"I was wondering if you and I could talk ... in confidence?"

"What about?"

"Uhhm ... it's kind of personal, but it's about Carla."

There was an uncomfortable silence before she replied.

"I'm sorry, Andy. I can't do that. I promised Carla."

"Promised Carla? Promised her what?"

"She's asked me to keep a confidence and I agreed. I don't want to break that confidence."

I was confused, but now beginning to get a sick feeling.

"This is about me, isn't it?" I demanded.

"Yes," she said quietly after another pause.

"Okay, Ruth, I guess that tells me what I want to know. Looks like I'm going to have a serious talk with Carla."

"Andy ... I'm sorry," she said. I could hear the regret in her voice.

"Yeah ... sure." I hung up, upset and on the border of being angry.

"Carla, I had a conversation with Ruth today. Is there something you want to tell me?"

I expected she would be completely caught off guard, but that wasn't the case. We were in the kitchen, finishing up the dinner dishes.

"I know. Ruth called me. You'd better sit down."

I didn't have to be too perceptive to understand I wasn't going to enjoy the next few minutes.

"Andy, I'm sorry, but I will be filing for divorce this week. I've discovered I'm no longer in love with you and now that the children are adults, I feel I can start a new life that might bring me more happiness."

"Is there someone else?"

"No ... I wouldn't do that to you. I've just come to the point where I don't see us carrying on in this loveless, pointless state. I know you're not happy either. You're on the road half the time and I'm sure part of that is to avoid me. I get the feeling that aside from cooking and cleaning, I won't be missed."

"That's not true," I said, almost pleading.

"It is true, and you know it," she insisted. "Half our lives are gone and I want something to look forward to other than another forty years of boredom."

"Boredom? Is that what our life together was? Boring?"

"In the last few years, yes. We don't have enough in common to make this marriage last. I've fulfilled my marital obligations to you and the children and I want a life of my own."

I sat silently, looking at her, trying to see even a hint of regret. I couldn't detect anything like that.

"So, what do you want from me?" I asked, starting to wonder just what I would be left with in the aftermath.

"Not much. I'll be living with Ruth for the time being until I can find a job. My lawyer has said he will ask for $2500 a month for support for three years. He tried to get me to push for more, but $2500 is fair, it think. You'll keep the house and I'll keep my car. You'll be responsible for Neal and Phil's expenses as well."

"You're just going to abandon them too?" I asked incredulously.

"No! Of course not," she said indignantly. "It's just that they will need a home and a base for now. Otherwise they're pretty self-sufficient. The registered education savings plan (RESP) will look after those costs. I'll be seeing them regularly."

"What else?" I asked.

"Nothing. I'll take my personal items with me and a couple of pieces of furniture that were in my family. I'm not trying to break you, Andy."

"Thanks," I said sullenly.

"Cheer up, Andy. You'll find someone else. You're a good looking guy and you have a good job. Some woman will latch onto you. Find one that's more like yourself, though. Someone you can share your life with, not exclude them like you did with me."

"Is that what you think I did ... exclude you?"

"Not on purpose, but you know that we didn't have a lot of common interests. After a while I got tired of trying to adapt and pretend I cared about your travels and the business people you dealt with."

I couldn't think of a thing to say at that point. She'd made herself clear. I bored her. We didn't have much of anything in common. So ... it was over.

I stood up and wandered over to the fridge and took out a beer.

"When are you planning to move out?" I asked as I opened the bottle.

"Ruth will help me starting tomorrow. It should only take two days to deal with everything. The lawyer said the papers will be served Thursday. They will be brought here after six. I don't intend to embarrass you publicly."

"Thanks for that," I grumbled.

"Cheer up, Andy. Who knows, a year or so from now you may be thanking me."

I shook my head. She was impossibly calm and controlled. How could it be this easy for her? This was the end of twenty-three years of marriage and it was like she'd decided to go to the mall for a couple of hours. No big deal. Like hell!

I was about to say something nasty when I realized it wasn't worth it. I was pissed, but I was going to keep myself under control for now. I may kick a hole in the wall with my boot when she wasn't here, but not yet. I shook my head in resignation once more and headed to my office. My sanctuary.

Chapter 2 Moving On

"Jesus, I'm sorry to hear that, Andy. That's got to hurt. I would never have dreamed Carla would just walk away like that."

I was talking to my boss, Leo Cornell, filling him in on my domestic situation.

"How are you going to be for money?" he asked.

I knew what he was thinking. He was wondering if Carla was going to hit me with all kinds of financial burdens and make my life even more miserable.

"That's the strange part, Leo. She only wants twenty-five hundred a month for support. She just wants out of the marriage. It's hard to believe I'm getting away so lightly."

"No kidding. Well, no matter what, I feel for you. It's got to hurt after all those years. What about the boys?"

"I'll look after them, as much as they need looking after. Neal's pretty well independent of us already and Phil's education is covered by our RESP. Other than feeding Phil's bottomless pit, he won't be a problem."

"So what's your plan ... as far as work goes?" he asked.

"I guess I'll stick to what I've been doing, Leo. Two weeks a month on the road. It's working for us, so why change?"

Leo was silent for a few moments, seeming lost in thought. At length, he spoke.

"Look Andy, this is off the record and completely confidential, so it can't leave this office. Can you agree to that?"

"Of course," I said immediately.

"We have an opportunity to acquire a small converting business in California. It's an operating business but is going nowhere presently. The current owner can't raise the money to modernize and is pretty much forced to sell. Because it's not very big, there isn't much interest in anyone acquiring it. However, with our strategy, it might fit us very well."

I could feel the wheels in my head turning rapidly. Was this a golden opportunity for Flex-Tek to solidify our position in the western U.S.?

"No one knows our strategy and our markets like you do. I'm thinking of forming a group to study this possibility. You, an accountant, and a manufacturing guy would make the decisions about whether this made economic and marketing sense."

This was exciting. An opportunity to expand and have a say in how we did it. New markets. New customers. New products. It couldn't get much better than this.

"I can't wait to get started, Leo. This is every peddlers dream, getting a chance to expand and do new things. Wait 'till I tell ..." My voice tapered off and I closed my eyes to hide the pain.

"It's okay, Andy. I understand. Just take some time to get adjusted to the idea. Nothing's going to happen until I hear back from the people in California. Why don't you take a few days off? I'll call you when I hear anything. In the meantime, just keep it to yourself, please."

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