A Christmas Storm
Chapter 1: Starting with an Ending
It was cold when I left home for work Monday morning. It took little time to drive to work because my office was close. In Atlanta, a fifteen or twenty minute commute is considered nothing. I pulled into a space and looked around. Usually, I was the first or one of the first to arrive. Today was no exception and I was the first.
Unlocking the door to the building, I went inside and made coffee. I went to my desk and turned things on to begin my work day. I was concerned. The company was in trouble and sales just weren’t occurring. Part of of it was our product line and sales force and part of it was the general malaise in the economy. While the economy had improved and our sales had a small uptick, it was well less than what was needed to get the company out of trouble.
I am an engineer so didn’t make sales calls. However, having met some of our salespeople and seen them in action, I felt it would be little worse if I made the calls.
My love life was doing no better than the company’s finances. I just couldn’t connect with the women I met. There seemed to be some interest but no one was striking a chord or even a note with me. I just didn’t fit the current morality. That was my ex-wife’s feeling when she left me and filed for divorce. I didn’t fight the divorce itself but fought to keep the possessions from before the one-year marriage that had been mine as mine. It took six months to hammer out a settlement that was fair but we were able to finalize the divorce and go about our separate lives. I hadn’t seen Marilyn again.
I kept the house that had been left me by my parents and the investments from their estates and my savings. It wasn’t rich man’s money but it meant that I could weather a long period of unemployment without my lifestyle, such as it was, being changed.
It was nine before the rest of the employees were in the office though not much work was being done even then. Gail Campbell came by my cubbyhole and said, “Todd, there is a meeting for everyone at ten. I don’t think it’s going to be good news.” Her usually pleasant face was troubled. “I don’t know what I will do if we close. It’s been tough financially since Carl left me.”
I nodded. “You might take longer to visit your parents?” I put a questioning note in my voice.
“No, I probably won’t be welcome. They have been marginally supportive though giving me the ‘I told you so’ routine when Carl left. However, once I filed the divorce proceedings, they, their friends, and my so-called friends from there have been cold at best. My parents did warn me about Carl’s stability and I had concerns as well. Up until a month before he left though, it had looked good. He just couldn’t handle misfortune. Losing his job really worked on his head though there wasn’t anything he could have done about it.”
I nodded. “Some people just handle misfortune better than others.”
“Todd, your divorce doesn’t seem to have affected you much.”
“It has, Gail. I just don’t make my issues public. My life is a bit lonely but it works for me. I managed to escape my marriage financially intact. Most of the money was from before its inception. Marilyn and I were truly incompatible. Being married brought our differences in values in front of us inescapably. Fortunately, we ended it before any damage was done to either of us. My church has been a lot of help emotionally.”
She nodded knowing that was true since we had touched on these issues when talking. She went on to warn others of the impending meeting. I reflected that we had talked about all of this during the almost year since we had become friends. I felt that Gail’s job here didn’t use her abilities nor pay her what she was worth. This situation may force her hand or really make life difficult for her.
At ten, I gathered with the rest for the meeting. It was short. Marvin Howard was our site’s senior manager. He said, “This will be short. I will try to answer your questions but I may not have much helpful information. I’m in the boat with you.
“You all know the company hasn’t been doing well for the last three years. It’s caught up with us here. This location is closing at noon today and everyone is being laid off. I have been told that we will reopen after the first of the year but I don’t believe it. There is no date nor plan for that event. While there will be some savings from closing this site, reopening and bringing people back brings the costs back, too. If you have accumulated vacation or sick leave, it will be paid in your last check due Friday. Separation notices have been prepared for each of us and are in the envelope, too. Your group insurance policy is paid through the end of the year. We will have to make plans after that through Cobra or obtain another policy. Cobra notices will be sent separately to all who have coverage.
“I wish each of you well. I will be conducting a job search over the holidays. I personally don’t think there is a future here.” There was some slight noise.
He continued, “I will explain my reasoning. This site was never a big winner in profitability but it made a little money or broken even every month from a year after it opened. We are being closed while money losing locations are being kept open. In my mind, that doesn’t bode well for this site being reopened nor for the company’s financial health in the longer term.
“Thank you for your hard work and I wish each of you good luck. Envelopes for your check stubs and notices are laid out on the table in alphabetical order. The amount shown on the stub will be deposited to your designated accounts on Friday as usual.”
With that, it was over. Though others had questions, I took my envelope and walked back to my cubbyhole and sat down. I checked my payroll stub. It looked accurate and included my personal time that had accumulated. I began to gather personal items and place them in my briefcase. I was never comfortable with the backpack setup that many people seemed to favor. Marilyn had complained that I was prematurely old. I have admitted to myself that I have always been somewhat old fashioned. It didn’t take long to load up. I had little in the way of personal possessions at the office. I had a perfectly good office at home for that as well as for real work. I packed and got ready to leave when Gail came by again.
She was crying. “Todd, what are you going to do?”
“Go home. I will get my resume up to date and start making contacts.”
She said, “It sounds like you have a plan. I wish I had a plan or had planned. I knew this was probably going to happen but did very little. Now, it’s upon me. At least, I had some time coming that I will get now.
“Would you mind helping me carry a box or two out to my car?”
“That’s not a problem, Gail. Are you ready?”
“I need one more minute. I have one box and have almost filled another.”
“Okay. I will carry my briefcase out and return to help you as long as you need my help.”
“Thank you, Todd.”
As she left, I thought about her. We had become friends and had a somewhat common point because of our divorces. I hoped she would be okay. I carried my briefcase out and put it in the trunk of my car. As I walked out, I thought that I would help her if the opportunity offered. Gail was good people.
I went back inside and carried a box to Gail’s car and set it at the back. I went back inside and carried another box out while she carried a plant and her keys. She unlocked the car and the trunk. I loaded the boxes while she placed the plant on the floor of the backseat. We went back inside. She had two more plants which we carried out and loaded. We went back inside and helped a few other people with their things. One of the older ladies who worked in my area was pretty broken up. I talked with her for a time calming her and helping her set aside her fears. She left for her home. We got everyone packed and said our good byes. I turned my key in to Marvin. We shook hands and offered each other luck.
I went out and Gail was waiting by my car. She said, “Todd, would you mind me following you to your place for the afternoon?” I looked curious. She continued, “One of my roommates has a guy who lives with her. I’m not comfortable around him when she isn’t there. He works a late shift so he will likely be there for some time.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. Follow me.” We got in our cars and headed out with her behind my car but not so close to me that it might be dangerous. Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into my drive and pulled into one side of the garage. She followed me into the driveway parking outside and to the other side to not block my car. I didn’t plan to go out but it was an example of how she had acted at the office, too. She got out and we walked into my house together through the garage.
Once inside, I turned the coffee back on to heat as I went through the kitchen directing her through it to the living room. I offered to take her coat. She gave me her coat to hang and sat down on the couch. I hung our coats in the closet and then said, “What would you like in your coffee?”
She smiled shyly. “Enough cream to make it half and half and a teaspoon of sugar.”
I nodded and fixed hers doctoring it to order. I poured mine and carried both cups into the great room.
“Gail, I understand being upset but it wasn’t that great a company anyway.” I smiled grimly. “Now, we all have to make plans for the little bit of year remaining and for the future after that.”
“You-you don’t think our office will reopen?”
“No. The company closed an office that was breaking even or making a profit while leaving money-losing locations open. To me, that’s a clear sign that it’s over here and for us. Even if the company survives, our site won’t reopen. Someone on high doesn’t like the location or some of its people.”
“Todd, do you have any idea why they would feel that way?”
“No. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter because we wouldn’t be able to change the situation. We just have to soldier on and worry about ourselves.”
“Todd, what are you going to do?”
“I will apply for unemployment tomorrow. Depending upon what is required for that, I will either stay in town or head to my brother’s home. Actually, I will stay here for a while anyway. I don’t want to be on top of him or have him on my case. His wife wants me married again.”
Gail said, “I may have to move back with my parents if they will permit it. My other roommate is marrying in January. She will finish moving in with her new husband right after Christmas. This is the last month on the lease and I was already in a quandary about what to do. I don’t want to live with my parents but may have no choice. My other roommate and I don’t really work well together particularly with her current guy. He wants a harem in my opinion. I’m not interested.”
“Well, Gail, I will give you a choice.” She looked up quickly.
“You can take one of the spare bedrooms here. If you would take over cleaning and cooking, it can even be rent-free. It will save your cash. I don’t need the money but I really hate housework and cooking.” I chuckled.
She giggled deeply. “I don’t mean to be cruel but I could tell about the housework. The house is clean but not ‘clean.’ I think I would like that. I’m a good cleaner and a great cook. That would take some serious financial pressure off me.”
“I would hope so. It would be good for me, too.”
“Okay, Todd, you have a deal. When do I start?”
“Your call. I’ll get you a key right now.”
“Todd, what do you have in the fridge? I will make us some lunch.”
I grinned. “Not much. I get delivery. There are a number of choices. I keep the menus in the kitchen. Other than coffee, it’s about all I use it for.”
“Ugh! That would get old.”
“It does. That’s why I just hired you.”
She suddenly giggled again. “Should I get one of those little ‘French maid’ outfits?”
I smiled. “If you do, I’ll watch you clean and cook very carefully.”
I went into my office. This was a big, old house. It had a den, a living room, dining room, four bedrooms, and an office room in addition to an eat-in kitchen and three baths. Five years ago when my parents died and I moved back, I renovated it updating and refinishing most of it. As a result, there was a modern heating and cooling system. The house was now well-insulated with modern appliances. It worked for me. Anyway, I went into my office and pulled a key from the desk drawer. Gail had followed me. “Gail, this is one room that you don’t have to do anything much at all. It’s my office and radio room. I do care for it.”
“It is cleaner.” She took the key and wandered around looking at the walls. I had a number of certificates and plaques on the walls from my ham radio efforts.
She said, “What are all these?”
I said, “I’m a ham, an amateur radio operator. I enjoy it and talk to people all over the world. There are some awards and certificates that you can get. These are some of mine.”
She pointed. “What is this one with the ‘doomsday’ and ‘end of the world’ on it?”
I smiled. “You remember all the hoopla about the end of the world supposedly predicted by the Mayan calendar in 2012?” She nodded. “An amateur club in Brazos, Texas, decided to commemorate that possibility with a special event station. If you paid a small fee and made contacts, you could get a certificate. I did that. The main station transmitted on the two days before, the day of the ‘end, ‘ and said that, ‘After that, it was doubtful.’ It was fun. I had a good time that week and weekend. Of course, the world didn’t end. It won’t now.”
She smiled at me. “I believe you’re right. Let’s look at your refrigerator and figure out lunch.”
We left my office and went into the kitchen. Much to my lack of surprise, she found nothing to cook. I said, “Pick a menu and I will order. If you will make a list, we can go shopping. I guess I need a few things.”
She grinned. “Actually, you need a lot of things.”
I smiled back.
We ordered lunch and she started a list. Our food arrived and, while we ate, she questioned me about my eating preferences.
Finally, I said, “Gail, the only thing I know I don’t like is liver. Other than that, I’m pretty open. As you can see, I like ethnic foods from the different menus.”
She grinned. “I will make you some real ethnic food so you will know the difference.”
“Works for me.”
After lunch, she moved her office loads with my help into the bedroom she chose. She said, “I need to get my stuff from my old apartment. If you will follow me, we might be able to get everything in one load.”
I said, “Sure. Should I use my car or my pickup?” She looked at me curiously. “It’s in the big shed in back. You can have half of the garage, too. I have an extra opener for it.”
“Thanks. The pickup would really help. I have a few pieces of furniture that are mine that I would prefer not to abandon. If you have some boxes, we could use them to make it easier.”
“We should walk out to the shed. I keep my truck there, along with tools and other things. It’s pretty big.”
We went out the back door and she saw my shed. It was actually an old barn. It seemed as big as the house. Gail was surprised since it didn’t show from the road. I said, “Dad bought this property as a recreational farm while my mother was pregnant with me. My brother and I played here any time they came out from the city. Now, the city has grown up around it. It used to have over eighty acres but, when my folks died, I had to sell off the excess acreage to buy out my brother’s share and to renovate the house. I own it without debt. It’s a great place.” We went in a people door and I flipped on the lights. Inside was an older truck and tools plus another radio station. “Anything you need to store can be stored here. If you want to use your bedroom furniture, we can move the furniture from your room in here.”
Her eyes were big. “It’s almost as big as the house.” She thought for a moment as she looked around. “How much land to you still have?”
“A bit over five acres. It’s enough and most of it is natural. It makes a nice buffer.” I heard a cat’s meow. “Oh, yes. I do have a roommate. I hope you like or at least can tolerate cats. Voltage lives on the property. There are cat doors for him so he comes and goes.
“Come here, boy. Voltage, come see me.”
Voltage came up to me and rubbed across my leg. Gail stooped down. “He’s beautiful and so big. Hello, Voltage.” She held her hand out to be smelled. He sniffed at it and then purred. She stretched further and scratched behind his ears. “You’re a pretty and a big guy, Voltage. Will you let me stay here? I promise to see that you’re fed.” She grinned up at me. Voltage continued to purr.
I opened the big door and cranked the pickup. It fired up immediately with a soft roar. It wasn’t fancy but was clean and well-maintained. I waved her into the passenger side and drove around to the front, parked, and went to the garage door opening it with the key pad. I took the extra opener and tested it. The battery was still good and I handed it to her. “I’m ready when you are.”