Jess Mercer
(© 2009 by the author)

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Part 1, 2, 3


Aaarh! There are times when I'd love to go out in the wild and let go with a primal scream. Not that it would accomplish anything other than making me feel a hell of a lot better. It certainly wouldn't go anywhere towards getting me out of the predicament I find myself in at the moment.

Two years ago, fresh out of college with dual degrees in business and the arts, I looked for ways to combine the two. After some diligent research, I found one market segment under-served, so I started a small business specializing in out-of-the ordinary, as well as rare antique Christmas decorations and dealing with specialty shops that cater to the carriage trade. It takes a lot of constant research, both on-line and by travel, to find things of rare beauty for each year's special Christmas offerings, but I get to indulge my love of the holiday and travel.

One afternoon a big rugged looking man comes to my office asking for employment as a decorator. Looking at him I have doubts, but the pictures he shows me are so beautiful and different from anything I've seen, I decide to expand and hire him on the spot. So now for those with the big bucks, who are having a special occasion or just want to outdo the neighbors, I have two specialists who, for a fat fee, will go into a person's home, coordinate the holiday decorations, make them up, then install them. While this creates some local interest, thus far most of my business consists of orders from specialty shops looking for the unusual.

Now in the first week of November and business beginning to pick up, it's just my luck that my computer operator walked into my office last week and quit. He's been offered a less demanding job at a far higher salary than I can afford to pay, so I can't blame him. I immediately contacted the two colleges in town that have computer departments, placed want ads in the daily paper, and inquired at the temporary help places with no success. It seems anyone with training, including some of the sharper high school kids, is being snapped up just as my man was. The one applicant I interviewed was completely lost when she looked at the system I use for orders, sales, and the special inventory and accounting system for custom work by my decorating crew. Even if she had been that interested, none of us have time to train her, so here I am with orders starting to pile up and my secretary and I can't keep up with all the ordinary aspects of the business, much less the computer work.

The last straw came this morning when my warehouseman turned in his running inventory sheet for the week and told me it will be another week before a shipment of golden fruits we use in our custom created wreaths and garlands comes in. I tell him to put the part-time help on creating stock items until then and I'll follow up on the delayed order. There's enough to do to keep them moderately busy for a few days at least.

I got back to my paperwork only to be interrupted just now by my secretary. "What is it this time, Joyce?"

"A young man to see you."

"I don't have the time," I snarl.

Bless her, she's accustomed to my moods and ignores them. "I think you NEED to see this one, Randy," she says with a smile, which tips me he must be very attractive. She does enjoy looking at handsome young men.

I sigh in resignation, but anything to keep her happy. "Okay, then, send him in."

Despite my mood, I'm immediately like the look and neat dress of the blond young man who walks into my office with the aid of crutches. I wave him to a chair in front of my desk.

"What can I do for you?"

"I'm Val Connar, a senior at Summerhill College; I saw your notice on the bulletin board for computer help. When I realized what type of business you run, I knew I would like to be a part of it. My mother ran a florist shop, so I'm no stranger to decorating."

"I've got plenty of help in that department. What I'm desperate for is someone to take over our computer operation."

"I'm majoring in fine art with a minor in computer science. I set up the spreadsheet for my mother's shop when I was a junior in high school so I believe I can handle your program."

I close my eyes in a moment of silent thanksgiving, then say, "I need someone full time. What about your class schedule?"

"I'm only taking nine hours this semester, so I have classes only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays."

"Then effectively you would be out four hours on those days, counting time for getting here from the campus?"

"Yes, sir."

"Come over to the work station and take a look at the programs I'm using." At this point I'm desperate enough to take anyone who will work.

He pulls himself up, literally, by grasping my desk, then placing his arms in the cuffs of his forearm crutches walks awkwardly across the room. I pull up another chair to my workstation and he drops down into it.

He recognizes my programs as quickly as I pull them up, even pointing to one of them and asking why I haven't upgraded. I tell him I hadn't been notified of an upgrade and I don't have time to read ads that come in the post once September arrives.

He asks if I want him to enter anything, so I hand him the latest inventory sheet and watch as his fingers fly over the keyboard. Most impressive, both in terms of speed and accuracy.

"Why haven't you found a job already? You're certainly better than most."

"Some don't want me because of my problem walking. The others didn't want to let me have time off for school. I quit my last job because the boss told me school was a waste of my time and if I didn't quit I'd get fired." He smiles. "I promised my mother I'd finish my degree, so I told him to stuff his job. Now I need to work to pay for my last semester."

I shake my head. "That has to be the dumbest thing an employer has ever done. I'd be encouraging you to continue your education."

"Then you're the type of man I'd like to work for."

I ask him to move back to his chair by my desk and while he's doing that I pour us mugs of coffee from the pot I keep going on top of the file cabinet. He takes it straight just as I do.

"I guess Joyce told you I'm Randolph Stanton. We all go by our given names here. Now, here's the situation ... ," I lay it out for him, and finish by apologizing for the low salary I can pay him, but with the promise of a bonus in mid January, when the customers usually pay their accounts. He looks a little disappointed, so I add, "If you like us enough to become permanent, I think we can work something out to your benefit. This is a new business, so we've got some growing to do before I can match the bigger outfits."

"I respect the way you've been totally honest with me. I'd like to work here, especially if you'll let me continue school."

"That's one of my demands. You will, and I repeat will, finish school."

"One other thing. Most of the time I use a wheelchair. Does that bother you?"

"As long as you're comfortable doing your work, I don't give a damn what you use."

He smiles broadly. "In that case, I'm ready to go to work. Where's my desk?"

"You mean you're ready now?" I can't believe this.

"Yes, sir."

"Call me Randy like everyone else, and forget the sir. You can also forget the tie and jacket. But if you're ready, you're hired. Your office is next to mine, so it'll be easy for you to call me if you run into any problems."

After he struggles up, he follows me to his office and sits down in front of the computer, switching it on. I yell for Joyce to bring in the stack of stuff that she's been trying to enter in between her other duties, tell him where the coffeepot and restroom are, and let him go to work. I tell Joyce to add him to the payroll immediately, like now, and give her a two thumbs-up when I pass her desk on the way back into my office, where I settle myself to other work.

An hour later, Joyce comes in asking me if I'm going to lunch or if I want her to bring me a sandwich when she returns from the deli where she usually grabs her lunch. I tell her what I want and ask if she'll do the same for Val, because of his problem walking.

When she returns from lunch and brings in my sandwich, I tell her to leave Val's on my desk as well and yell for him to join me at my desk. We'll eat together and talk over anything he might wish concerning business.

I can hardly believe it when he tells me that in just over an hour he's downloaded the upgrade of my main record keeping program and made headway inputting information that would have kept me here half the night.

"I'm really enjoying myself, sir. I hope I can take a few minutes sometime soon to look around in the warehouse to see what you're selling. I looked at your catalogue while the program was loading. You have some beautiful things."

"Let me know and I'll take you through. I don't bother with a display because most of our orders come in by computer or phone and the catalogue is enough. It will be good for you to have a general knowledge of our stock, so you can answer any questions that might come up if Joyce and I are busy. Oh, and if you plan to do any decorating at home, my employees get stuff we haven't used at cost."

"Thanks." He looks wistful for a moment. "But I guess this is as close to Christmas as I'll get this year."

"Why? I usually close the week before Christmas. Doesn't that give you enough time to get home for the holiday?"

He shakes his head sadly. "I'll have to spend it in a motel. My mother died last spring and I had to sell our house to pay her medical bills, so I've got nowhere to go when the dorm closes."

"I'm sorry, Val. I know it's going to be hard for you."

"I'll survive. Just like I did after the accident."

His tone dissuades me from asking, so I show him a set of designs one of the decorating crew and I have put together for a special job.

"Looks turn of the century."

He really does know this stuff. "Precisely. The owners have just finished restoring a huge old Victorian, and want everything in keeping with the period. They are one of the homes on a charity house tour this year."

"May I make a suggestion or two?"

"Please do."

He points out that a more liberal use of dried materials sprayed with a transparent pearlescent coating would give the arrangements an antique look. He also suggests that if we hire school kids in rural areas to gather things like dry hydrangea heads, goldenrod, cones from various conifers, and so on, we could create our own stock of items at less cost than buying them commercially. Preparing them would involve a minor cost on my part and also provide year 'round employment for a few of my better part-time help.

When he finishes, he looks at me seriously. "I hope I wasn't out of line, sir."

"Not at all. We have meetings to discuss every special job and everyone gets a chance to contribute. None of us have a lock on all the good ideas. I can already see your work in a florist shop is going to be valuable. Thanks, Val."

"Glad I could help, sir."

With Val taking care of the computer entries, I'm able to reduce the stack of paper on my desk by over half when Joyce sticks her head in the door to say she's leaving. I can't believe it's after five already. I finish up the item I'm working on and get ready to leave myself. As I close my office door, I notice the light is still on in Val's office. I look in to see him working steadily.

"Hey, Val, quitting time was half an hour ago. What are you doing?"

He turns with a smile. "Just finishing up today's entries, so I can give you a summary when I come in tomorrow."

"You don't have to impress me by putting in overtime on your first day for heaven's sake. There's nothing so vital it can't wait. Let's go so I can lock up."

"Sure thing, boss," he says with a grin.

The entry to our offices is two steps up from the sidewalk. Val holds tightly to the rail with one hand as he steps slowly down. When he's solidly on the walk, he looks at me. "If you like my work, it would sure be nice to have a ramp for my chair before long."

"I like your dedication already, so I'll have a couple of the guys on it tomorrow. They'll put it at the back door. That's closer to the parking."

"Thanks. I'll see you as soon as I'm out of class."

I slow my usual fast gait to match his as I walk around the building to our small parking lot. "You have a car?"

He points to an Oldsmobile Cutlass a couple of years older than my Buick Century, the only two cars left in the lot. "That's it. I hope I didn't take anyone's place."

"That's a place for customers. Park next to mine tomorrow. I'll have the guys paint your name on the curb where the guy before you parked."

"Thanks. Good night, Randy."

"See you."

First thing the next morning, I get my warehouse crew building the ramp and painting the parking space marker with his name and a handicapped emblem. I finish up all the current work and start on the stuff I've let pile up for later attention. It's almost noon when I get a phone call asking for an estimate on decorating another of the homes to be on the tour. I tell Joyce to send one of the guys on the decorating crew to the address for a look and start out the door to get lunch when I see Val pull into his parking space. Wondering if the guy stopped for lunch, I wait.

He opens both the front and rear doors on his Olds and gets a folding wheelchair out of the back, then hoists himself into it and closes the doors. I'm surprised to see both his legs have been amputated just above the knees. He wheels himself over, then smiles.

"I didn't think you'd have the ramp this soon."

"Hey, a reasonable request gets action around here," I say half jokingly. "Did you get any lunch?"

"Didn't have time. Class ran a little longer than usual."

"Then come on. There's a place down the street where I always eat."

"I left a lot of work piled up."

"The boss is happy, so no sweat. Besides, I like to take new employees out to eat when they first start. The way things are going I may not have another opportunity any time soon."

"Thanks." He turns his chair.

"Need a push?"

"I can take care of myself, " he snaps, letting me know I've committed a faux pas. Then he smiles up at me. "Sorry, didn't mean to snap. I'm used to this. I only need help on high curbs or steps."

"Whatever." I walk along side and tell him about wanting him to attend a possible meeting with the decorating crew this afternoon. "I have a feeling your input will be valuable."

"Glad to help any way I can."

Over our lunch he mentions that he has a small library of books on architectural styles and furnishings, and several on types of Christmas decorations in various periods. Most are for historical restorations like Williamsburg, but a few cover later periods. He tells me he'll be glad to keep them in his office for reference. If I didn't already know, I would have known right then that Joyce was right in saying I needed to see this young man.

Cary is so late getting back from looking over the potential job and discussing it with the owner of the house, I schedule the meeting for the first thing tomorrow.

I sleep a little late, so I arrive at the office just ten minutes before everyone else. Val's car pulls in next to mine just as I get out. He rolls the window down and calls, "Need your help if you don't mind. I brought those books along."

I walk over and see at least a dozen books stacked on the passenger seat. "No need for you to carry them. Just stack 'em in my lap and I'll let you push us in." Which is exactly what I do.

The one shelf for books in his office is too high for him to reach, so I put the books on his desk, remembering a low bookcase in Joyce's workroom. It's used mostly to hold junk, so I tell him to wait while I get it.

"Perfect," he says, and places the books in the order he wants.

Half an hour later, Val and Cary are seated in my office to work on the estimate for the decorating job. Cary lays out two dozen pictures he's taken of the interior and printed out from his digital camera. "Gonna be a bitch, boss," he says. "Classic Revival, as you can see, and the interior is formal as hell. She wants something totally different."

Cary and I brainstorm for a few minutes, then Val says, "Try Della Robbia. It fits and it isn't used often."

"Della, what?" Cary asks.

"Della Robbia. It uses a lot of fruits and ribbon. Could work in some cupids, too, but we can use gold angels since it's Christmas."

"Don't remember ever seeing none," Cary replies.

"Let me get the book and I'll show you." Val wheels himself out rapidly.

"That guy's something," Cary says to me.

"Damn right he is. He's a computer whiz and is getting a degree in art. Going to bother you working with him?"

"No way. I've been running out of ideas lately. I can make up anything he can give me a design for. Shame the kid's got no legs. I damn sure wouldn't be as cheerful as he is."

Val returns and flips opens the book he's brought in. "Here," he says to Cary.

"Yeah, I know what you mean now. I've seen a similar picture, but never thought about using it. It'll go great in that house. Let me make up a small piece to see what it takes to get it right. Can you come to the workroom and keep track of what I use? Danny's out on a job."

Val looks at me.

"We'll both go. I want you to show Cary the pearlescent paint while we're there. I stopped at the wholesalers on the way in and got a can," I tell him.

It's not until then that I remember the workroom is part of the warehouse and three steps up. When we're at the steps, Val looks at me questioningly. I nod at Cary and we lift his chair to the entry. Cary takes the weight easily; he's built more like a professional weight lifter than a decorator and I try to stay fit.

With Val's guidance Cary and I pull the materials from inventory and take them back to the workbench Cary has appropriated as his own. He's put everything he could possibly need at hand, and raises hell if anyone else touches it. But he's so skilled that within an half-hour he holds up the finished wreath for approval. Val makes one suggestion leaving me amazed that Cary hasn't exploded. He has a strong aversion to even suggestions; heaven only knows what he'd be like if someone offered criticism.

When he's made the change, Cary grins at Val. "Man, you're something else. That's exactly what this piece needed."

It is a beautiful piece of work, but far too ornate for my tastes which run to the traditional. However, I've learned well that the customer is always right, taste or no.

Val looks at Cary and shakes his head. "I've never seen anyone do such beautiful work so swiftly. You're fantastic, Cary."

Cary grins modestly, but I know he's thrilled at this compliment from a new comer.

"Okay, guys, back to the office. This one is going to take a hell of a lot of time to work an estimate for. You have the measurements, Cary?"

"Don't I always? Look, boss, you're gonna have to build a ramp here for Val. I'm gonna need his help if we land this one. Danny's good at the usual stuff, but he ain't gonna be worth shit at this."

I smile and say, "If that's what it takes," but I'm stunned. Despite his talent, Cary has never worked well with anyone. He tolerates Danny, grumbling all the while under his breath, but that's about all I can say.

Four and a half hours and three pots of coffee later, Val finally turns from his computer and hands Cary the last page of the printout. "Based on what you used in the wreath, this is a list of what you'll need for the entire job, Cary. I've checked against inventory and have an order to go to the manufacturer the minute you tell me we've got the contract. He has everything we need in stock and can truck it in next day."

Cary's mouth drops open. "You can do all that just by messin' with your computer?"

Val grins. "You've got it in your hand." He hands me another sheet of paper. "Here are the costs of what it will take according to Cary's figures. I hope you're gonna soak 'em for this."

I look at it and my eyes widen. "You're damn right I am, especially if you wind up helping Cary instead of doing your job."

"Won't be that much. Cary knows what he's doing, but I'll help him work out some variations so it doesn't get repetitious."

One look at Cary's face tells me he's looking forward to Val's help. I look at my watch. " Damn, guys, it's seven-thirty. Let's go get something to eat."

The least I can do is pay for their dinners, so I order steaks all around. Cary actually smiles at me when I suggest it and Val looks surprised.

Though courteous and pleasant enough to deal with potential customers, Cary is usually rather sullen and abrupt at all other times. Handsome is one word I would never use to describe his rugged features. So I'm amazed at the pleasant way he banters with Val over our dinner. Val has a sharp wit and always a perfect come-back. Cary actually chuckles a few times, a first as far as I know.

I look up to see Cary at my office door about ten the next morning. "Sorry to be late, boss, but I stopped off at the library and looked up some of that stuff Val was talking about last night. He in yet?"

I'm almost afraid to answer, knowing the contempt Cary has for college students. "He has classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He comes in about one."

"He's a college kid?"

I nod. "Gets his degree in the spring."

"Damn! I sure hope you can keep him on. He's got some real smarts we can use around here."

I grin in relief. "Tell me something I don't know. It's up to him, but I'll do my best."

"Make damn sure you do. I can work with that guy and I ain't never seen anybody come up with cost figures fast as he done. Hell, he's worth a lot more than I know you can pay him."

"I'll give you no argument there. If we get this job, you and Val can look for a nice bonus."

He nods. "Good. I may need it."

That afternoon the laughter I hear from Val's office is so uproarious I slip next door to see what's going on. Cary is holding one of the Val's books open to a full page illustration of the famous Manikin Piss. "We ought ta get one of these, paint it gold, and set it in one of them Della Robbia wreaths. The kid can pee the punch in their glasses," he says between roars of laughter.

Val is just sitting there wiping his eyes from laughing so hard. He composes himself long enough to say, "I thought you had some taste, man. That is tacky!"

Cary grins. "Bet they'd love it. Hell, all that money don't mean they got any taste. By the time I finish this job I'm gonna puke. A little is okay, but a whole house full is too damn much of this crap."

"Remember your bonus depends on our getting this contract," I say, snickering to myself.

"Then I'll try to control my gag reflex," Cary fires back in an unusual show of wit.

Joyce is sitting at her desk staring at Val's office door with an open mouth when I start to pass by. "Was that really Cary laughing?" She asks.

I can only shake my head. "Believe it or not."

"I don't. That Val is something else if he can make Cary laugh."

"He's even asked Val to help him on the job."

She clutches at her heart dramatically. "Our Cary? Never! Oh, God, I think I'm dying."

"Get used to it. Val is shaking this place up."

She shakes her head in disbelief and turns back to her computer keyboard.

When I open the door the next morning, Val behind me, the phone is ringing. I answer and listen for a moment, then hang up and hi-five Val. "We got it! The profit from this one will give us the best year yet."

"Cary's going to be wild when he hears this. Mind if I tell him?"

"Go ahead. I think I saw him driving in."

The workspace and warehouse is about thirty feet from the office building, but I clearly hear Cary scream, "Holy shit! And after what Randy quoted them! Damn, guy, we gotta get busy. Go get that order in now."

Val comes back grinning from ear to ear. "Guess you heard Cary."

"Along with half the town. Get that order processed. They're sending the contract back by messenger."

I have to turn regular orders over to Joyce and spend a lot of time with Cary and Val working on the project. Despite the pressure Cary doesn't snarl at anyone, but stays, for him, cheerful. I do take note of the fact that every time he looks at Val he smiles a little. Why is beyond me. His only justifiable complaint is using artificial greenery. I know well real evergreens and fruits would look better, but for the amount of time the decorations have to remain up, no real materials will last. The large spreading flower arrangements will be real, a sop to Cary's pride. I suggested shopping them out to a good florist, but Cary flung a fit, saying he and Val would do them even if they had to work after hours. Even with Val and me helping Cary, we barely make the due date and I had to refuse a couple of smaller contracts because of lack of personnel and workspace.

The specified day arrives. It takes two of our trucks to deliver the decorations, and I go along with two others to help Cary install them. Val has come in with his legs on, for Cary has insisted he come along to supervise, another first for Cary.

We're all whipped by the time we've finished, but the owner is delighted and fulsome in her praise of our work. When she unexpectedly hands me a check for the full amount of the contract before I leave, I find the strength to smile as I thank her.

The day before I close for the holidays, Val and Cary pull in the lot together in Val's Olds. Cary's usually grim features are set in a broad smile as he whispers something to Val, who responds with a grin and says something back.

"What was that all about?" I ask, as I unlock the door.

"Oh, nothing," Cary replies. "I was showing Val a few special web sites last night, and he liked what he saw." He looks down at Val and grins again. As I push the door open I overhear Cary whisper to him, "You're a hell of a lot better looking than any of those dudes." I can tell I wasn't supposed to hear that, so I'm smart enough to keep my mouth shut though I'd love to know what it's all about.

We spend the day finishing up some smaller stuff, then I close for the holidays. I'll check the answering machine daily for emergencies, but as we don't have walk-in trade, we usually have nothing to do the week before Christmas Day. I think to ask Val what he's doing for the holidays. I live alone, so I'll be glad to have him stay with me while the dorm is closed.

He thanks me when I ask, then tells me, "I'm spending them with Cary. He has nowhere to go, so we'll party together."

That afternoon as we're all leaving, Cary surprises me with an invitation to his apartment for drinks and dinner on Christmas Eve.

I've nothing special to do, so I'm a little early to his apartment. I've never been there before, so I'm stunned at the beauty of his place. The Christmas decorations are traditional, all live materials as I had known they'd be, but I'm more impressed with the imagination Cary and, I suspect, Val used to keep them different from the same old.

"Val, I know you said you do some photography, so I hope you're going to take shots of all this."

He grins. "I already have, soon as Cary got finished. But why do you want a set?"

"The way things went this year, we made a hell of a lot more on custom work than we did with the wholesaling. I'd like to use them in a brochure to advertise that side of the business. What do you guys think of making custom work our main business?"

Cary grunts. "That means using more of that fake stuff, but I know it's necessary 'cause of the way they keep extending the season. Some of the stuff you got from that new supplier looked almost real, though."

"There'll probably still be a few smaller jobs you can use live materials for."

"Then you'd better hire a couple of extra guys. Danny and I sure can't do all of it and," he smiles at Val, "I know damn well you ain't gonna let me drag this guy away from his computer."

"You know it, but he can still help you work out ideas. You work together so well, I want you start coming up with new ones for next year."

I see them grin at each other. "Already ahead of you, boss. Cary's building a file from pictures in magazines and notes and pictures he made on tours. I think he's been on at least a half dozen tours here and other places," Val comments.

"All I got is sore feet," Cary grumbles. "I can do most of the stuff I saw without thinking."

"Bull! I saw some of those sketches you made." Val looks at me. "One of the places was ordinary as could be, but Cary made a sketch from the picture, added some stuff and made it unbelievable."

Cary shrugs. "Just playing around. Your ideas were pretty good, too. Specially those you got from that house tour you went on with me."

"You went on a tour?" Knowing he couldn't very well use his chair in the crowd, I'm surprised Val could negotiate as much walking as is usually involved on one of those tours.

"Yeah. Cary made me go. Damn good thing he's big, cause he had to carry me up some steps a couple of times."

Cary grins at him. "Told you it was a better workout than lifting weights in the gym."

"I hope we'll get a chance to get pictures of your work in a magazine like House and Garden or House Beautiful. What you've done here is worthy of that."

Cary laughs. "Hell, boss, nothing here's that special. It's just that I could use all my ideas and Val's 'cause it's my place and I don't have to please nobody but my buddy and me."

I don't miss the look of tenderness he gives Val and wonder if Cary is going soft. He's never shared his private life with anyone that's why the invitation was such a shock to me.

I'm not certain who cooked our dinner, but it's superb. Val and Cary constantly snip at each other teasingly, keeping me laughing so much I can hardly eat. I'm glad I accepted their invitation because I'm seeing a Cary I never dreamed existed. My real shock comes over our after dinner coffee. They both look at each other, then at me.

"Brace yourself, boss," Cary says. "We've got something to tell you."

My heart sinks. I'm instantly afraid that they've been softening me up for the news that they're quitting.


"I know this is going to come as a big shock, but ..." Cary looks at Val. I look at Val and see him grin. "Val's moving in with me," Cary finishes.

"You're kidding!"

"No way. He finally told me he's gay and he loves me." Cary smiles and reaches over to stroke Val's stumps. "Best Christmas present I ever had. This guy's got it all."




Part 2




I remain closed the week after Christmas, but ask my four main people and a high school kid who serves as a 'gopher' to come in and join me in doing the inventory so Val and I can close out the business year. Thanks to the big contracts and Val's precise ordering system, we've precious little to count. In three days the work is completed and I plan for us all to take off until after New Years, but a panic call from a valued client wanting something unusual for a New Year's Eve party cancels that. I'm about to refuse the contract when Val, Cary, and Danny, who are in my office having coffee and have overheard the conversation, wave frantically at me to get my attention and tell me to go for it.


Cary remembers something I bought too cheaply to refuse at a close out of a commercial Christmas supply business. Those items have remained in the back of the warehouse unused. "Hey, boss. Remember those stupid animated Santa and elf figures you bought? Let's go with a Passing to the New Year theme and use 'em. I know Joyce makes some of her own clothes, so let her make up some kind of robe for the Santa so he'll look like Father Time, and put a diaper on the elf for the Baby New Year."


"That's kind hackneyed isn't it? I mean you see that stuff every year."


"Yeah, I guess. But hell, so's everything else for New Years."


"No, wait a minute," Val says. "What if they're the centerpiece of the decorations? Put the Father Time figure in a grandfather's clock and at midnight have him pop out and hand a new calendar to the baby who comes out of a cradle set in an arrangement of greens at the same time."


"Yeah. I saw a plastic grandfather's clock not long ago that's just about right for the figures you got. I can antique the clock so it looks like real wood," Danny adds.


"Your client go for tacky?" Cary asks me.


"No way. Very conservative."


Cary grabs a pad and pencil and does a sketch that surprises me at its imagination and beauty. "How's this?"


"Amazing, Cary. I hate to throw a damper on this, but I think you're gonna need some more animation for what you've got in mind."


"Got that covered," Val says. "Guy in one of my computer classes at school used to work for the guy you got that stuff from. He told me he scrounged up a big box of parts and junk that didn't sell. The kind of stuff they used to use, because he likes to tinker around with computer controlled animation. Want me to give him a call?"


"Where does he live?"


"Over in Parksley. He can be here in about an half hour if he's interested. Cary and I will wait for him and tell him what we want and see if he can do it."


"Get on it." I tell him.


"Oh, damn! My student directory is at home."


Cary jumps up. "I'm gone. Be back in a minute, babe. You go get them figures and put 'em on my bench, Danny. Go get that clock, too."


"You think you can come up with the robes and stuff for the figures, Joyce?" I ask.


"After making doll clothes for my little granddaughter it'll be a snap," she says.


Val, Joyce, and I go to work finishing up the end of year reports. When Danny comes back and shows me the clock, I almost fall out of my chair. Cheap and tacky doesn't begin to describe it. "Damn, Danny, Cary's gonna kill you. How're you going to make that look presentable?"


He grins. "Wait and see. If the kid says it'll work I'll have it looking good by tomorrow morning."


"You'd better be a magician."


A kid strolls in an hour later and greets Val. "Hi, guy, what's up?"


After the young man is introduced by Val, we all follow him and Cary to the shop while he explains what he wants to Ted.


"No sweat. I did one before does what you want while I was working for Action Figures. This is their stuff so I know how to handle it."


"You have the parts you need?" I ask.


"Yes, sir. I can have it working by tomorrow evening."


"Okay. Give Val your figure; he'll call you soon as we get the contract. I'll pay your travel today whether we get it or not. Val, work up a bid fast and I'll take it by and see what she thinks soon as we leave here. We've got only two days, you know. I'll give you a call at home if she's buys it so you can let Ted know and place the order for flowers."


"Yeah, babe, live stuff this time. I'll help you work out what we'll need," Cary adds with a grin.


I have two days of surprises. First, my client is delighted with Cary's ideas and tells me to get started immediately, not even asking the cost. The next morning, Ted shows up and spends the morning adding the motors and parts needed to make Cary's idea work, going so far as to have the clock, which is a basic electric clock, set off all the action at midnight. By mid-afternoon Danny shows me the clock, which I would never have recognized. It looks almost like the real thing in miniature.


When Ted finishes installing the things he couldn't while Danny was painting the clock, he offers a great suggestion. "I know you didn't pay near what these figures actually cost, but you should hang on to 'em and use 'em again in the future. It's no trouble to make them look different, so you can rent them out to keep the cost down."


"Good thinking, but none of my people know how to do what you did."


"I plan to remain in the area after I finish school, so I'll be glad to give you a hand on a  part-time basis when you need it."


"Thanks, you've done good work. Tell Val and Joyce to add your name, specialty, and phone to our list."


New Year's Eve day we're all at the client's doing the arrangements for the party. The animated display is surrounded by the champagne glasses to be used when it's midnight. She's tickled when Cary demonstrates the animation and sets the clock by hers so it will go off precisely on time.


I was delighted when the local paper gave our work for the Christmas tour six full pages in their Home supplement on Sunday, but with the addition of another full page of our New Year's decorations, future bookings for holidays and other special occasions begin to pour in.


After the December statements are paid and Val has finished our profit and loss statement, I treat my full-time people to dinner in a private room at a restaurant convenient to all of us. Before I get to hand out bonus checks Cary raises the question.


"Randy, was you serious about what you said before we closed for the holiday?"


"What was that?"


"About expanding the custom work?"


"I thought about it a lot over the holidays and it looks like a good move, but it'll take some money I don't have right now."


He smiles and looks at the others. When they nod at him, he stands up and turns back to me. "Boss, we've all talked on and off about the idea, so here's what we've got in mind. Val tells us you incorporated when you opened, but you hold all the stock."


"That's true. I did it to try to protect my initial investment."


"We know you got them bonus checks in your pocket and you worked them out fair like you always do."


"I try, but I sometimes worry about it."


Cary smiles. "I ain't never had no complaint and we figure you don't keep as much for yourself as you give us." I look at Val ready to bust his chops for telling the other employees my business, but he grins as Cary continues. "What we want you to do is use that bonus money to expand the business and give us the value in stock."


Val grins. "I convinced them that if the business keeps going like it's started they'll get more from dividends than they'll get in bonuses."


"Yeah. We know it's gonna take time, but we figure it'll be worth it," Cary adds.


"I don't know what to say, guys." I really don't, this is so unexpected.


"Just get us some work and make money, Boss." With that, Cary sits down.


My lawyer, Val and I have a few meetings and the deal is set. Despite his complaint that he'll stay too busy in the workshop to use it, Cary gets a nicely decorated office to use in consulting with clients; Val is officially named business manager; and Joyce gets the title of office manager, something she's been all along. The titles are for the use of new people we bring in as needed and do not, thank goodness, affect the way we all work together as a team when big jobs come up.


Cary reminds me Valentine's is coming up and he needs more help, as does Danny who has the title of warehouse manager. When I ask him if he knows anyone he'd like to hire, he says he'll get back to me.


A few days later Cary knocks on my office door and walks in, shutting it behind him. "Got a minute, boss?"


"What's up?"


"Got a kid outside I want you to see. He used to work at Flowers Unlimited in Washington until he got hurt in an accident. He does a great job cause I saw his work at a convention a couple of years ago. He ain't pretty to look at, hell, neither am I, but that ain't no reason he can't do real creative work for us if you'll give him a chance."


I hope, because Flowers Unlimited is one of the most prestigious floral decorators, as they prefer to be known, in the country. "I don't know what all the secrecy is about, but bring him in, Cary."


When Cary does, I see a tall dark haired young man who looks perhaps a year or two younger than myself. It's when he turns I understand. The left side of his face is bisected by a cruelly disfiguring scar running from temple to chin, and what remains of his left hand is a thumb and two fingers.


I fight to keep a neutral expression as Cary introduces him. "This is Tim Walton, Randy. Tim, Randy Stanton, the boss."


I stand and shake his hand. "Cary says you do excellent work, so I know already you're good. You sure you want to work for a small outfit like ours?"


"Absolutely, sir. I've missed it."


"I wish I could pay you what I know you must be used to, but we're growing and I put everything I can back into the business. Would you accept twelve an hour until we see how you're going to work out?"


"Do I get any stock with that? Cary told me you have stock sharing."


"Not at first. The stock sharing is new and came from the end of year bonuses of my full time people. They will have to decide whether to include you at the end of this year."


He looks disappointed. "I see. I really want to get back into the business and this is the first time anybody's given me an interview since I got hurt. I know how I look, so …"


"Tim, I don't give a damn how you look, only how you perform. Sit down and let's talk. Cary, pour us some coffee if you don't mind. I want you in on this, too."


After we're all set with coffee, I lay out my plans and ask Tim if he's familiar with the specialty decoration side of the business. He says he was assistant purchasing agent for the gift department at Flowers and names a few European manufacturers I've never heard of.


"Tim, your first job will be to get catalogues from those people and make a sample selection of things for me to see. If I like them and think they'll sell, that'll become part of your job."


The right side of his face draws up in a grimaced approximation of a smile. "I'd like that."


"Good. I want you to meet our business manager." I reach for my phone, but Cary jumps up. "I'll get Val, boss."


I know he wants to fill Val in, so I don't object. The moment he sees Val in his chair, Tim looks relieved and accepts Val's warm greeting. Cary tells me to let Tim use his office since he's in the shop most of the time anyway.


After Cary takes Tim to his office, Val looks at me. "Thanks, Randy."


"For what?"


"Giving another poor guy like me a chance."


"Poor guy, my ass! You saved my butt last fall and don't you forget it. I don't give a damn how Tim looks as long as he works out like Cary says he will."


"I hope he does. Cary really needs the help."


"Yeah. I hope you and him come up with something new for Valentine's."


"We're trying. Cary asked Tim to stay with us until he finds a place. We'll see what kind of ideas he has tonight when we get home."


"Do that." I grin at him. "Coffee break's over, so back to work, flunky."


Val sticks his tongue out at me and wheels back to his office.


The next morning Val has classes so it's Cary who comes to my office. "Think you can get that kid helped us out New Years, boss? Tim got a great idea ought to go with the younger set."


"Like what?" 


Cary shakes his head. "Naa. Want you to see it in action, boss. If you don't think it's cute, I'll pay the kid out of my own pocket."


"No need for that, Cary. Val has Ted's number and he's at the same school, so Val probably sees him. It's almost time for classes to break, so call Val on his cell phone and tell him if he sees Ted to have him drop by to see you after school."


A couple of afternoons later my phone rings, it's Cary asking me to come out to the shop. He, Val, Tim, and Ted are waiting. Cary has done a large rough looking basic Valentine's arrangement of red anthuriums, their heart shape and colour appropriate for the season, but these are ready for the trash. On one end of the arrangement hovers a gold cupid holding the usual bow with arrow. On the other end are a young man and woman holding hands. Cary grins as Tim pushes a button. Cupid slowly draws back his bow and suddenly the tiny arrow flies straight into the seat of the young man's pants. He immediately bends and kisses the girl.


It takes a while for me to stop laughing. "Damn it, Cary, I might of known when you asked for Ted. Tim, it's cute as can be, but I just wonder if we'll have a party to decorate where something that big will fit in."


"I hope so. When Cary told me you had those animated figures I thought you should be using them for special events if you had somebody knew how to make them work." He smiles at Ted. "This guy really does."


"Hope this goes, Randy. It's sure to get us another page in the paper for originality," Val says.


We get a contract to do the Junior League Valentine dance at the country club. The cupid animation will work perfectly there, so I turn Cary and Tim loose on it. Cary happily reports that Tim is so good with using his injured hand he's almost as fast as he is.


Val's prediction is accurate. The paper does give us full credit for the decorations and pictures the cupid arrangement with glowing comments about the fact that it's animated. Lamenting only that once Cupid fires his arrow, it must physically be reloaded. Cary is howling with laughter when he and Tim come in from removing it the morning after the dance.


"The manager said he had to lock it in a closet 'cause a bunch of the guys got a little looped and kept playing with it. Told me one guy said if he'd caught Cupid drawing back the bow when he was dating he'd of busted his damn arm."


With Valentine over we settle in to more mundane stuff. Val stays busy in the office now that Cary has Tim to help him and Danny. Tim is the first one other than Val that Cary's ever let share his workbench.


A week or so later, Tim knocks at my office door then comes in. "Have some things for you to see, Randy." He hands me a lengthy list of Christmas ornaments and five catalogues. I move over to the sofa and he goes through the catalogues with me, telling me which of the specialty stores I serve will be interested in each item, wisely not assigning an item to more than one store in a geographic area.


"Super job, Tim. I see only one item I have doubts about, and I think you've underestimated sales a good bit. There are a few other things I spotted in the catalogues I want to consider as well. Get with Val on the sales figures and I'll get back to you after I have a chance to look over the catalogues."


"Thanks, Randy. I was afraid I might not have read your market correctly."


"Naaa. You know your stuff, so start preparing orders."


"Will do."


As with any florist, we're swamped at Easter, then comes June and big weddings. I keep all of my part-time help on the run and hire a few more to help Tim on the jobs Cary passes to him. The first week of July I call a planning meeting of the crew and we start to discuss Christmas themes for the custom division. I'm already receiving inquiries and few early contracts, several from out of town.


Tim's catalogue is ready to go out to the specialty stores we serve and an early mailing to a few select customers causes the orders to start pouring in to his department. He's done such a great job of selecting items that appeal to the upper strata of society he's already had to reorder several items. Talking with him one afternoon I can see he's about to get behind in his work, despite two part-time helpers who fill and pack the orders.


"Tim, you're doing a great job for us, and your division of the business has grown much faster than I anticipated. Do you know anyone you'd like to have as a full time assistant?"


"I don't need anyone, honest, Randy. I just got a little behind when I was helping Cary plan a few things."


"Stop right there. I know what kind of hours you've been putting in lately and it's not fair to you. You proved yourself to me and the others long ago. I'm getting you some help if I can find anyone, but I'd like it to be someone you can work with easily."


He gives me his one-sided smile. "Someone who won't run when they see me?"


"Crap. No one quit when you joined us except those two part-time people who found full time jobs. You know anyone or do I have to start looking?"


"If you're serious about someone full time, I have a friend still works for Flowers Unlimited I'd like to have working with me."


"If he's good I can't come close to matching what he's probably making there."


"I've told him what I started at and he's interested."


I shake my head, guy's gotta be a loser. "Why?"


"I've told him how great the people are here and how we all work as a team but how you let us use our own ideas and initiative and don't jump on us if we screw up at times."


"Is he as multi-talented as you? That's what I really need because you know how the work load shifts around here."


"He is. He's good with a computer, too."


"Val will appreciate that."


"There's something else you should know."




He looks at me closely. "I wouldn't say anything, but Cary told me about Val and him. Luke was the only one didn't desert me after the accident and we continued to live together until it was obvious I wasn't going to find another job in the area. He begged me to stay, but I couldn't live off him like that." I see tears. "I love him so much, Randy."


"I'm sorry things worked out badly for you guys, but maybe this is your chance to be together again. I'd like to interview Luke if he's willing to make the trip."


"God, I was hoping you'd say that! Thanks, Randy. I'll call him tonight. Could you interview him on Saturday?"


"Absolutely. You can tell him I want to see him at work on a few arrangements of different styles and hear some ideas that would be usable in custom work. I may have Cary sit in on that."


"Nothing there that will bother Luke. You won't be sorry, I promise."


When I arrive at my office Saturday morning, there's a nice convertible already in the lot. I watch Tim and his friend get out and I'm stunned. Luke looks like and moves as sensuously as one of the Chippendales, but he's definitely all man. Seeing the two of them together, beauty and the beast flashes through my head, then I slap myself mentally for having such a thought about a fine man like Tim.


We start walking toward the shop/warehouse just as Cary's car pulls in. I see him do a double take, too. Cary opens the shop door and leads Luke to his bench. I nod at Cary.


"Okay." Cary set two brass vases on the bench. "Let's see what you'd do for two altar vases not to cost more than twenty-five bucks total. I'll get you some old stuff to work with."


I might have known Cary would start rough. There's no one in the place likes to do altar flowers on a tight budget.


"How big is the altar?" Luke asks as Cary takes flowers and greens that would soon be discarded from the cooler.


"You got about twenty-four inches on each side to fill."


Luke starts work swiftly. He uses three large cream Fuji mums in a right triangle and fills in lightly with purple statice and plenty of huckleberry. The second vase is a mirror image, all done in twenty minutes. Sure it's standard, but it looks nice and even with all my experience and the limitations Cary gave him, I couldn't do that well so quickly.


Cary speaks first. "Shit, man, ya done that with sixteen bucks worth of stuff."


Luke looks relieved. "I wasn't sure what your prices run here. I'm a little over twenty-five by Washington prices."


"You satisfied, Cary? I ask.


"Damn right. Fast and good."


"Have you any Christmas ideas, Luke?"


"Several I never got to use." He begins to describe them as Cary sketches swiftly.


"Like these?" Cary asks, passing Luke the pad.


"Exactly, but these are better."


"I added a few things. Now you know why Randy runs this place like he does; everybody's ideas count." Cary looks at me. "The rest is yours, Boss. I'm out of here, but if ya let him get away I'll kill ya."


"I will, too," Tim says.


Half an hour later Tim has a new assistant and informs me that after lunch they're going apartment hunting. I treated them to lunch delighted to have Luke, not because he makes Tim happy, but because he's everything professionally Tim said he was. I have to chuckle at the thought of Joyce's expression when Luke walks through the door the first time he comes to work in two weeks.


The Wednesday after Luke joins us I call another Christmas planning session. Luke is the last to say something. "I know I'm new and I don't know your clientele, Randy, but at the market earlier this year the talk was of making this the year for traditional decoration. I know you like to innovate, but Flowers is going traditional in a big way for this one."


"Thank God!" Cary yells. "I'm sick o' that sophisticated shit; don't look nothing like Christmas."


"Your place was gorgeous last year, Cary. Val, show Tim and Luke the pictures you made and see what they think."


We all reach consensus quickly. Old fashioned trees and garlands, one or two  'cutesy' children's trees, and a special thematic tree or two will be our features. With the others help, Cary makes up orders for Val to place.


Tim drops by my office. "Randy, Val showed Luke and me a bunch of pictures and looked at those I had. You might get some extra business if you put out an illustrated brochure to your corporate clients."


"Good thinking. Get Luke and Val on it with you. They can do the computer set up and I'll take a look after, but I'll leave Val responsible 'cause it's advertising and we don't do much."


I must be doing something right, because the next day I'm presented with a tri-fold brochure done on Val's color printer that looks as professional as any ad agency could produce, copy included. The Christmas tree Val and Cary had at home last Christmas is the cover picture and as gorgeous as I remember. Printed on slick paper, this brochure will be a knock out. I okay it and help Val draw up a selected mailing list to receive it when it's mailed in early October.


September is traditionally slow, so the crew all turn to, on cleaning out and making room for the influx of Christmas material which has already begun to trickle in. Val and Luke maintain the most accurate inventory I've ever seen in a business like mine. We have a few run of the mill party jobs and were it not for the fact that Tim and Cary have my best part time people making up Christmas stuff from artificial greens I'd have to lay them off for a few weeks.


Tim comes by the office one afternoon. "Randy, I know this is asking a lot, but could I bring a young man by for a few minutes Friday after he gets out of school?"


"Sure. Things are slow right now, so I'll have time to talk with him. What's this all about?"


"I'll let him explain it."




I'm not prepared to see a high school kid in a chair when Tim wheels him into my office.


"Randy, this is Jerry Wilson."


The kid struggles, but manages to raise his arm enough for me to shake his limp hand.


"Thanks for seeing me, sir."


"My pleasure, Jerry. What can I do for you?"


"I guess maybe it was a joke 'cause I can't do much of anything, but the junior class made me chairman of the decorating committee for the Halloween dance. I want something that looks great, you know, a lot better than crepe paper streamers and punkins and that stuff."


"What sort of budget do you have, son?"


"Five hundred dollars."


"Where is it being held?"


"The gym at school."


Damn! I went to that school and I know well that five hundred won't be enough to make even a tiny showing in that cavern. I look at Tim and see him nodding at me.


"Let me talk to my people and see what they suggest, but I'm afraid your budget is awfully low for what I suspect you want."


"Please, sir. I know it's not much to a firm as upscale as this one, but this is the first time the class ever asked me to do something and I want to show 'em I can."


"I'll meet with my people and Tim can let you know if we decide we can help you."


He smiles. "Thanks, sir. It'll blow their minds if I can tell them I got Stanton Creations to decorate."


Monday morning I gather the crew in my office and Tim explains. "I know this isn't a charity, but Jerry lives in the same building as Luke and me, so we've gotten to know him. He has some type of degenerative condition and probably won't live to finish high school. That's why we want to help him have one big success to look back on. Randy, Luke and I will each give a week's salary to the kid's budget and work on our own outside business hours if you'll go along with us on this."


"I know we'll have some flowers and stuff past sale date that'll still look good for one night; there'll be some left from that wedding, too, if they'll work in. We can use all that for most of the work," Luke adds.


"This can be written off as good will, Randy, so you won't lose anything, and it'll be good advertising to people who don't really know us. I mean it's not like we're the usual retail operation where people pass by and buy flowers on impulse," Val adds.


I hold up my hands, palms out. "Okay, you guys, I surrender. Other than that wedding, we haven't anything big going, so it's not going to make that much difference. What's the theme, Tim?"


"I talked Jerry into a harvest barn-dance setting, so the kids can wear jeans. They'll start out with a couple of square dances then move on to the stuff kids that age like. He says the maintenance people will build a barn-like stage of old wood for a background for the band, so Luke and I will use lots of corn in shocks, pumpkins, some mums, and stuff like that. I talked with Ted and he'll build us a big harvest moon that starts out as a new moon then gets fuller over a couple of hours until it's the only light in the gym."


"Did you get the school's approval?"


"Not yet. When we've worked this out I'll contact the principal and teachers sponsoring the junior class," Luke says.


"How do the rest of you feel about this?" I ask.


"Go with it, boss," Cary says. The others agree.



Wednesday afternoon Jerry comes in accompanied by his principal and two teachers, introducing them to me.


"Jerry says Stanton's is decorating for our dance. If he's kidding me I'll kill him for wasting my time," the principal says by way of greeting.


"Please have a seat and let me call in the people who have planned this."


Tim, Luke, and Cary come in quickly and Tim lays out several sketches of the proposed decorations and explains the theme. The principal and teachers look delighted until the principal says, "I don't pretend to know anything about your business, Mr. Stanton, but there's no way you can do anything this elaborate for five hundred dollars."


"It can't have escaped you that some of us are not physically perfect, either. We're doing it for Jerry and five hundred will cover the basics. The rest we're doing as a contribution to your school. All we ask is that Jerry receive full credit for the planning and that Stanton Creations gets favorable mention in any publicity that might result," Tim says.


"No question about that," the principal says.


Luke looks at the teachers in charge of the dance. "Are any of the students on the decorating committee from farm families?"


"I know of two," one teacher says.


"A lot of this is going to depend on their getting the corn for us. It'll take quite a bit."


"I'll have the entire decorating group help. I'm sure one of their fathers will bring it to the gym in his big truck."


"Excellent. We'll need at least two days to set everything up except for the flowers." Luke turns to the principal. "We will not be responsible for clearing the decorations out after the dance other than for the things we're lending such as containers and the moon."


"The students and maintenance can do that."




The afternoon of the dance I go by the school to take a look at what the guys have done. If it wasn't so light I'd swear I was in a barnyard. There's a split rail fence around the dance floor and they've even found an old wooden horse trough and a pitcher pump and put it just below the 'barn' bandstand. A recirculating pump keeps water flowing from the pump into the trough which is surrounded by lush greenery just as it would be in real life. There are a few tall pine trees around the walls. The moon hangs above the 'barn.'


"Mr. Stanton!" I hear a voice call. It's Jerry. He looks so excited he's tearful. "Thank you so much, Mr. Stanton. Nobody's gonna believe this tonight. We've kept it a secret and Billy's dad and his friends have a band that plays square dances. They're coming to play the first few and teach us how to dance like that."


"I'm happy you like what my men have done, Jerry. Did the dance committee give you any grief over the theme?"


"At first, but some of them have been to parties you've decorated for, so when I told them who was doing it, it was fine. Some of 'em are still here. Let me call 'em." He struggles to get two fingers in his mouth then gives a shrill whistle.


Five kids come running up. "What is it?" A husky boy asks.


"Some of you didn't believe Stanton's was doing all this. Well, here's Mr. Stanton," he says proudly.


"Wow, man. My mom's not going to believe you really did this. She laughed when I told her who Jerry said he got."


"Yeah. My mom said you would never do anything dinky as a school dance," a beautiful girl says.


I smile at Jerry. "We don't ordinarily, but you have a very persuasive chairman."


He grins. "Chair man is right 'cause I'm in it."


The beautiful girl bends over and kisses him. "And you're gonna save me a dance tonight."


Jerry blushes. 'Aaaw, I can't dance."


"I'll show you, you can," she says. "We want you and your nice men to come tonight, Mr. Stanton."


"I don't know about that, but you young people enjoy it."


I do drop by the gym about ten-thirty that evening, surprised to find the square dance band still playing, most of the kids dancing, apparently having a ball. "What happened?" I ask one of the teachers who came with Jerry to my office.


"I wouldn't have believed it, Mr. Stanton. The kids are having the time of their lives and refused to let the band stop as planned." She points to the moon which is now full and quite bright. "The moon is a stroke of genius; the kids can't get over it. The last dance is coming up, please stay and watch what the kids on the committee have planned."


After a brief break, the band starts a slow number. I see the lovely girl from that afternoon push Jerry's chair to the middle of the floor and take his hand, moving slowly and gracefully around his chair as though he were twirling her, then still holding his hands sways before him in a modified dance step. Other students begin to move to the floor until all are dancing.


When the music ends, the husky boy jumps up on the bandstand and grabs the microphone. "A lot of you people asked who planned this dance and got it together. Well, you saw the chairman of the dance committee start this last dance with Darlene. Let's give Jerry a big hand for doing a great job."


The applause is deafening and Jerry is crimson when the spotlight picks him out.

The teacher I've been talking with takes my arm. "Thank you, Mr. Stanton. Your kindness has given Jerry something he'll always remember. He's such a sweet boy and he's been shut out of nearly every activity because of his condition. His parents are here, I want you to meet them."


She leads me over to the other side of the gym where an older couple are about to push Jerry to the door.


"Hi, Mr. Stanton. I'm glad you came," Jerry says. "This is my mom and dad."


I can tell the poor kid is exhausted. "We've got to get Jerry home," his father says. "He's exhausted and it's past time for his meds, but may I call you at home tomorrow or Sunday?"


"Please do. I'm glad things went so well tonight."


Mr. Wilson comes by my house late Sunday afternoon, his face streaked with tears. He hugs me, then sits down. "I'm sorry, Mr. Stanton, but I had to do that." He looks up at me, tears flowing again. "Jerry passed away last night. Until the very last he couldn't stop talking about how wonderful you and your people were to him and how many of the kids at school told him it was the best dance they'd ever been to." A quiet sob escapes and he wipes his eyes. "They asked him to be in charge of the Junior-Senior dance in May, and he was thrilled."


"I'm so sorry. Jerry was a fine young man."


"Thank you. We've known all along he probably wouldn't live to finish school, but it's no easier to take." He stands. "His mother and I will never forget the kindness everyone here showed a very sick young man."


"There are several of us here who would like to attend the service. Would you let us know?"


"It'll be at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Tuesday afternoon at 2. It's going to be a simple service."


"In that case, would you allow us to make the pall out of our respect?"


"I wish I could say yes, but we can't afford it. Jerry's illness has taken nearly everything we have."


"No charge. It's our way of remembering him."


"How can I refuse. Thank you seems so inadequate after all you've already done, but thank you, and God bless you and your people, Mr. Stanton."


As soon as my people come in, I herd them into my office. I can tell from the expressions on Tim's and Luke's faces they already know, but Cary is incredulous. "But he was laughing and looking forward to the dance when I left Friday afternoon," he says.


"None of us knew how sick that poor kid was," I tell him. "I've told Mr. Wilson we'll make the pall out of our respect for Jerry. Keep it simple and tasteful, but I want something he would have liked. You have any ideas, Tim? You seem to have known him better than anyone else."


"Luke and I were going to ask you, Randy. We came up with this because Jerry had a small orchid plant in his bedroom window and he asked us how to make it grow better. It's in bud, and he wanted to see it bloom so bad."


Tim passes me a sketch that knocks me out. Most people want lavish displays, but this is all huckleberry and fern, with four cattleyas forming the center with a single row of phalaenopsis reaching to each end of the pall.


"All white orchids, boss. We don't think it needs anything else."


"It's beautiful, guys. Order what you need. The funeral is tomorrow afternoon."


I don't know who Tim and Luke had to murder, but the cattleyas are the largest I've ever laid my eyes on and the butterfly orchids seem in constant motion leading the eye to the center cross formed by the four cattleyas and a small amount of baby's breath. There's none of the usual joking when I go in the shop to see it, just a respectful quiet.


"It's even more beautiful than I imagined it would be. Thank you guys." I tell them.


"We've voted, boss, and we all want to go and sit together," Cary says. 'Joyce wants to go with us."


"I'll call her part-time helper to come in. I want to go with you, too."


The small church is already filled when we get there a full half-hour before the service is to begin and adults and schoolmates of Jerry's are standing outside where the sexton is busily setting up a speaker system. We're about to find a place to stand when the funeral director comes up and asks if we're from Stanton's. Then he leads us to a pew directly behind the one reserved for Jerry's family. The moment we're seated, I see Tim nudge Luke and nod toward the casket. On a small table at the head is a small purple butterfly orchid with one flower fully open. I know immediately this was Jerry's. It seems miraculous that it's bloomed for this moment.


Jerry's parents are seated and I see them look at the pall. Mrs. Wilson begins to cry softly and Mr. Wilson turns so he can look at us. "It's so beautiful, Jerry would have loved it," is all he can say before the minister begins the service.


There are scriptures, prayers, and a few hymns. No eulogy beyond a brief comment about rising over adversity and contributing what he could to his family and school, then it's over. There is total silence as we leave the church, a number of his classmates, male and female, wiping tears. I tell my people to go home and I'll go close the shop for the rest of the day.


We spend the rest of the week catching up for our busy season has begun. I desperately need more part-time help, but I have no response from the state employment commission office or the ad I put in the paper. Thursday afternoon, Mike, our part-time 'gopher,' comes to my office, a school kid who looks to be his age with him.


"Mr. Stanton, you still need some help?"


"Desperately, Mike."


"Jimmy wants to help out here. I gotta go 'cause Cary's yelling for me."


"Come in, Jimmy. Why would you want to work with us?"


"'Cause you were so good to Jerry, and Mike says there ain't a better place to work anywhere. I don't know much, but I'm willing to learn if you can use a guy like me."


"I know you're too young to have any real experience, but the closer Christmas gets the more frantic it's going to become around here. Mike's going to need some help moving things and getting out supplies for my staff. Can you work afternoons and weekends until the week before Christmas?"


"Yes, sir, but I guess you better see this." He pulls his right hand from his pocket, but there's no hand, his arm ending at the wrist.


I nod. "Mike tell you one of my best designers has only one arm?"


"Yes, sir. That's why I asked him to bring me here. I can't find a job nowhere else."


"No one here is going to care a bit about your arm, Jimmy, and you've got enough stump to be very useful. Still interested?"


He breaks into a broad smile. "Yes, sir."


He accepts what I'm able to pay and I tell him to come back tomorrow in jeans and ready to work.


The new issue of Florists World blows my mind. It contains a four-page article titled 'What next from Stanton?' We're described as innovators in the business and the article details how I've quietly built a first class operation. It lauds our stock share plan as unheard of in the industry, and ends by asking, 'What next from Stanton?'" When I recover enough, I take the journal into Val's office.


"What do you know about this?" I ask holding it out.


He grins. "We didn't tell you, Randy, but a guy from Flowers Unlimited scouted us out a few weeks ago trying to hire all of us away from you. Cary and Tim threatened to pound his ass in the ground and kicked him out." His grin gets wider. "I won't tell you what Luke told him to do, but it's not anatomically possible. They're apparently losing people because of management problems. I guess he may have put the word out about us, because when World called me soliciting an ad, I told them we didn't need one, but I did take a small help wanted ad. I hope we get some response, cause we're going at top speed right now and can't keep up."


"I'm glad you placed the ad, Val. I did hire another 'gopher' to help Mike. He'll be in after school tomorrow."


"Good. Hire another if you can, 'cause Tim's training Mike hard as he can. Mike can already do basic stuff."


"Good Lord, I can't believe I've been that out of touch. When he comes in, ask Jimmy if he knows anyone else would like to work through Christmas."


By sheer luck and the ad, I assemble enough semi-professional help and another kid old enough to drive one of my vans to help out Jimmy so we're able to cover all our contracts with our usual high standard.


Val has managed collections well enough that I'm able to give my temporary help small bonuses when we close for Christmas and we've achieved enviable name recognition in the industry. At our meeting in late January, the original group votes Tim and Luke into the stock plan and vote Mike a nice bonus for the way he's used his training. Jimmy has demonstrated his skills, so we ask him to stay on year round.


Once more I have an urge to scream "Aaarh!" this time over our need to find new and larger quarters for our operation. 


Indeed, what next for Stanton?


Part 3




With the help of a realtor specializing in commercial properties, I finally locate a shell building in the city's new business park that I think will work well for the badly needed expansion of Stanton Creations. It's no further from the city center than we are now and the neighborhood is far more attractive than the old manufacturing district where I started my business because of low rent.

Of course I won't commit myself until my core employees see the building and comment, so on a day there's little going on in the shop I take Val, Cary, Danny, Tim, Luke, and Joyce to look it over.

"Damn, boss, ya think we need this much room?" Cary asks.

"It is a little large, but we can now combine everything under one roof and divide the space out according to what you guys think you'll need for each of your divisions."

"Can we afford this, Val?" Tim asks.

"Absolutely. There'll be some savings in fact, because the building's new, has the latest in security, fire protection, heating and cooling, and an ample loading platform out back which you will appreciate, Danny. You can have a room next to the loading dock for finished stuff and a larger stockroom, too."

"I sure need that. It was crowded before, but with the stuff Tim orders I'm really cramped for space. Now maybe Randy can expand the wholesale side if he wants."

"Sure would save me from having to reorder so often," Tim says then turns to me. "Got catalogues coming in already and I think you're going to find some really good things you'll want to add to our catalogue this year."

"And maybe go after more commercial business this year. I've already had some calls from banks and corporate offices about our doing decorations for them come Christmas," Luke adds.

"Whoa, guys. Your ideas are great, but this is about moving the business, not expansion. I know you're excited over the amount of room we'll have but it's not going to come cheap. Anybody see any other advantages to moving out here?"

"Yeah," Cary growls. "With that nice bunch of specialty shops along the highway out front, women won't be as hesitant about coming to the place to discuss decorating with me. That's why I was out so much last year; they don't feel comfortable coming to where we are now, or so a couple of 'em told me."

"I know I'll feel a lot safer, Randy," Joyce adds. "The businesses already here are mostly wholesalers and the shops out on the road have a number of women employees, too. It's certainly nicer surroundings than we're in."

It's not quite spring yet; I shiver in the chill. "Okay, guys, I'm cold and I know you are, too; let's go back to the shop and have a meeting about this."

"Ya mean we get to help you decide?" Luke asks in surprise. "It's your business."

I smile. "Not entirely. You guys hold stock and you're the ones bringing in the increase in business so it's your decision, too."

"Geez! Flowers Unlimited was never like this."

The moment we're back at the shop, Joyce puts on the big coffeepot and we gather in my office. "Okay, guys, here's what I'd like you to do. Danny, work out how much space you'll need for stock and how much for finished work. Work with Tim on the size of a separate storeroom for his stuff. You'd best put that next to the loading dock, too. You've got the back quarter of the building to play with.

"Cary, you and Luke work out what you'll need for work area and put in plenty of space for temporary help. Make sure there's room for more permanent people to have space if we expand that much. And don't forget the coolers for fresh materials, as well as arrangements waiting to be delivered."

"You mean I'll get new ones? Hallelujah! The old one is so near shot it sees more repairmen than flowers. I'd sure love a walk-in."

"I'm not promising anything, but work out the space for one even if I can't afford it right away."

"Val, you and Joyce and I will work out office space. I want a nice reception area, a conference room, and restrooms."

"There aren't any places to eat around here, Randy, so let's add in a unit kitchen and small lounge area where we can eat if we want," Joyce says.

Their excitement is really building. "Nothing is hanging fire right now and I've got copies of the open floor space with the dimensions of the building for you to plan on. Let's meet tomorrow afternoon if that gives you enough time."

After everyone has left except Val, I ask, "Think it's doable, Val?"

He grins. "Yeah. Your accountant says we're in 'A Number 1' shape for a loan if you need it and I expect you will if things take off on the expansion."

"Damn! Just when I thought I could quit worrying for a while and squeeze an increase in salaries for you guys."

"You're a great guy, Randy, but Cary and I have been talking and everybody knows the sooner we grow the sooner the value of the stock rises. It's not like we're paid minimum, we can all get by without any pain."

"What the hell did I do to get such a wonderful group of people like you guys?"

"Honesty, fairness, and specially taking a chance on guys like me who don't get a chance to show what we can do despite handicaps."

"What handicaps?" I ask without thinking.

Val's smile reaches from ear to ear as he nods several times. "That's what I mean."

"How's Jimmy working out?"

"Cary's happy cause he's still training Mike, says he's doing basic work unsupervised now. He turned Jimmy over to Danny and I think he's going to be asking you for somebody to help Jimmy very soon."

The next afternoon we meet in the shop where I can lay out the full-scale floor plan of the building on a table. Since Cary is gifted at drawing, I ask him to draw in the floor space requirements everyone has brought in. When he's finished, I'm surprised that even with no limitations on what each could request there's some room left over.

"What about this?" I ask pointing to the unclaimed space.

"What about moving the offices all to one side and using some of the front for a small showroom of Cary's permanent work and Tim's specialty items," Luke offers. "We ought to be getting more people coming in instead of depending so much on the catalogues. Tim's and Cary's offices should be close so they can show people stuff but be only a few steps from their offices if they need to discuss things with the clients."

"I don't mind Tim using my office cause I'm not in it much," Cary says, "but his part of the business is growing so fast he's gonna need his own space. And I got a feeling Val's gonna need an assistant, too."

Tim smiles appreciatively.

"'Kay. See how that works on the floor plan, Cary." He erases a few lines and redraws the plan.

It all looks good to me. "Joyce, copy this and give everybody a copy. You guys think about this tonight, make any changes you want, and let me know tomorrow. When you're all happy, we'll go for it. I want us to move soon as the June wedding rush is over, so I'll have to get a building contractor fast.

"Now comes the hard part. Val and the accountant tell me we're in good shape for a loan. That means bonuses at the end of the year and increases in pay aren't likely to happen for a while. It's your money, guys, so be sure you want us to go ahead with this."

"Look, Randy, Val and I have talked about this and we understand that. We're behind you cause any increase in business is good for us, too. What about the rest of you guys?"

"Right on, Cary," Luke says. "Tim and I feel the same."

"Me, too," Joyce says.

Danny has remained quiet. Cary looks at him. "What about it, Danny? You ain't said nothing."

"I ... well I was sort of hoping for a little extra money." Then he smiles. "Jean and me have got a baby on the way."

After the congratulations have been offered, I look at Val, knowing Danny is paid slightly less than any of the others because most of his work is so general. Val nods at me.

"I'm making a unilateral decision here, Danny, but I think we can afford to give you a raise. You're going to be working a lot harder once we start expanding."

The others immediately smile and nod in agreement. Danny looks pleased. "Then I'm in," he says.

"Boss, I can save you a little bit of money if you'll let me and Tim and Luke do all the decorating of the offices and front areas instead of hiring a decorator if that's what you got in mind. I've been around town enough to know good painters and all that. We know what looks good and will show off our stuff to the best better than they will." Cary says. "We got enough people to do the moving, too; you'll just have to rent a big truck. That'll save paying a moving service and we can put stuff where we want it in the new building when we move it. It'll take a little longer that way, but I'm betting it'll save time overall."

I know Cary's color sense is excellent, so I agree. "Excellent idea, Cary, thanks. That'll help a lot." In fact, what it will save will almost cover the raise I'm giving Danny.

I rent the new building with an option to buy, then find a contractor to build the interior walls as Cary has drawn them on the floor plan. He makes one or two good suggestions, which I approve, then my people start preparing for the Easter rush.

One afternoon a week after Easter, Joyce comes in my office, shutting the door behind her. "There's a guy outside asking to see you, Randy. Here's his card, shall I show him in or say you're busy?"

This is a clear sign Joyce doesn't like him. His card indicates he's sales manager for Flowers Unlimited. I'm curious, so I shrug. "Let him in."

I assess him as he walks in. Though he's well dressed and professional in appearance, he radiates arrogance and looks around my cluttered office as if he's lowering himself to be here.

"Mr. Stanton, I'm Henry Jeffers," he says barely touching my outstretched hand.

"What can I do for you?" I ask without offering him a seat.

"The reports in Florist World indicate you're expanding your operation. If so, you need a good salesman. I can double your present sales."

"You're planning on leaving Flowers Unlimited?"

"Yes. They're moving toward a group approach to operations and I believe in clear-cut lines of demarcation between areas. People should stick to their specialties and not cross lines into areas they know nothing about. I don't tell the creative people what they should be making and I don't like them telling me what I should be pushing at any given time."

"Then you would be very unhappy here, even if I had an opening. Ours is a team approach to every facet of the business. I appreciate your coming in, but I do not anticipate a need for additional sales personnel in the near future."

He looks at me coldly. "Not surprising considering the chaos I noted in your shop when I passed the door." With that, he walks out.

Chaos, hell! The guys are recouping from the Easter rush, and why would he be snooping around anyway. I pick up the phone and ask Tim and Luke to come in.

"What's up, Randy?" Tim asks immediately on entering.

"You guys know an egotistical asshole from Flowers by the name of Jeffers?"

Luke slaps his forehead. "Don't tell me he was here! Damned if you didn't name him right; he's as full of shit as they come. Supposed to be a real hot-shot, but he doesn't turn half the business he claims he does. He tries to take credit for most of the other guys' work."

"You need a salesman?" Tim asks.

"If you keep expanding our specialties we will. Know anyone familiar with the business?"

"I sure do. Marc worked a little as my salesman at Flowers and he could sell ice to Eskimos during a blizzard, but Flowers don't want him calling on big accounts."

"Why? Bad attitude or something?"

"Naa. He's gay and Flowers doesn't like gays meeting the public. What really bugs them is he's a hip displacement; he had cancer when he was six years old and depends on crutches. A lot of the time in the shop he just hops around. Jeffers told him he didn't look professional. Without the authority to fire him, he stuck Marc in an office job he hates."

"Does Jeffers make those decisions at Flowers?"

"Where sales are concerned. The bosses don't bother to get their asses from behind their desks, so they don't know what goes on down stairs."

"No damn wonder they're in difficulty."

Tim grins. "Yeah. Want me to give Marc a call?"

"You think you'll have enough increase in sales to make his salary?"

"If he's on the road selling I know we will."

I shake my head for I haven't seen enough in the way of new and unique specialty items to warrant this much expansion and I won't lower the standards I've set, but I'm certain Tim won't lead me astray on this. "Give him a call at home and see if he's interested. I'll give him an interview anyway."

"You won't be sorry, boss. He won't sell until he knows the stock thoroughly, so he'll want a couple of weeks to familiarize himself with the inventory before he goes on the road. Then he'll push hell out of it."

"I've got so many irons in the fire with the new building and all I'll make this strictly your baby, Tim. I want you to sit in on the interview if he comes."

His grin is broad. "I won't let you down, Randy. Thanks."

The next week the new issue of Florists World comes out loaded with suggestions for June weddings, including some large ads from Flowers Unlimited. I thumb through the journal then turn to the letters out of curiosity. "What the hell!" I scream after I read the lead one.

Joyce comes flying in my office. "What's wrong, Randy?"

"Take a look at this shit!" I hand her the journal and yell for Tim and Luke to come into my office.

Poor Joyce's face has gone white when she slams the magazine down on my desk, speechless. She's just begun to splutter when Tim and Luke charge in.

"What?" They both say at the same time.

I show them the letter which says Stanton Creations is so haphazardly run and unimaginative we must have used work by other firms to win our awards, that our stock sharing is defrauding our employees. The writer implies that I'm laying off able-bodied people and replacing them with cripples I can pay slave wages because nobody else wants them. Further that we're in financial difficulty when my hiring the writer would have increased sales enough to bring us out of the red.

Tim throws the magazine across the office and yells, "That asshole Jeffers! I might have known! I'm calling Marc tonight and telling him to get his butt down here."

"Damn right. I'm sure as hell glad you got me out of that place," Luke says.

By now I've calmed enough to say, "We're going to have to find someway to repair the damage this will do us, guys, but I'm not having our sales or any other figures made public. Any suggestions?"

"Yeah," Tim snaps. "I'm going to look for more specialty items for Marc to push when he gets here. Cary, Luke, and me are going to come up with more new ideas, too. A few more awards and a write up in that rag about our new building will show Jeffers up for the lying sonofabitch he is."

Luke smiles. "Wish I could have the fun of watching his highness when he's looking for a job after Flowers bites the dust." He bends down and picks up Florists World with a grin. "Put plugs in your ears, Joyce, less you want to hear Cary scream when I show him this."

"Try to keep him from destroying the shop; we've still got to use it for a couple of months." Knowing Cary's temper, I can't help but smile over what's sure to happen.

And it does! Even with the doors and windows closed against the cold I can clearly hear Cary swearing as, I expect, can half the city. When I hear a repeated crashing I go to the rear door to see Cary kicking a large metal trashcan around the lot with all his considerable strength. Joyce joins me and giggles at the sight.

"Cary's finally lost it," she says.

"Yep. Nothing to do but let him get it out of his system. Thank God he's not working on anything just now or half our stock would be scattered all over the place."

The next morning Val reports with a grin that he had to put a very drunk Cary to bed the previous evening and we'd all best tread lightly around him today. Our spirits are all raised when my phone begins to ring with messages of support from business friends and associates of mine in other cities.

Luckily in June we have four huge high-society weddings. Cary, Tim, and Luke work hard make each one spectacular, yet different enough to entice Florist World into sending a writer and photographer down to do an article. In the same issue that the article about our wedding work appears, I note under business news that Flowers Unlimited has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is reorganizing.

Two days later Marc is brought into my office by Tim. Marc is darkly handsome, well dressed, and soft of speech. I'm scarcely aware of his missing right leg or his use of crutches.

"Look at this, Randy," Tim exclaims, holding out a handful of catalogues. "Stuff I didn't know about. Marc brought 'em."

Marc smiles. "I was told to junk 'em. Flowers can't order any of that stuff because all the suppliers have put 'em on a cash only basis. Tim, Luke, and I talked a lot last night when I got here and I sure hope you can still use me, Mr. Stanton."

"Have a seat and let me explain what I can offer. Being on the road doesn't bother you?"

"On the contrary, I like it. Nothing like getting paid to see the country. That's why I like to drive instead of fly."

"You're not afraid to fly, are you?"

"Not at all, if I need to, but I hate driving rented cars. Mine has been modified slightly for my comfort on long trips."

"You do know we don't go for mass marketing of specialty products?"

"Tim told me; it's a smart move. I think I'm acquainted with some of the outlets you'll want to consider. Two of them will be delighted to switch to you."

We work out the details of his employment then Tim takes him around to meet the others.

I leave Marc strictly to Tim for development, hoping this gamble works out. I'll give this project to Tim, because he finds a number of superb products in the catalogues Marc brought with him and I agree to his request to place large orders. To save us a lot of work, he requests shipment after the scheduled date for our move to the new building.

The third week of July, Cary, Tim, and Luke take everyone over to the new building. I've kept up with progress but given Cary a free hand with the decorating. Even after a long association with his work, I'm astounded by the beauty of the public spaces and the offices. Joyce is absolutely speechless when she sees the beauty of the reception area, her office, and the ladies room.

Danny is ecstatic over his storage space, and Cary proudly shows me the large workroom. The walk-in cooler, thought not equipped with refrigeration equipment as yet, is double the size I can foresee us ever needing.

"No need to squeeze stuff together, boss. We'll save what we've been losing through bruising," he says when I question. He's right and I should have known it.

"Okay, guys, we shut down completely next week for the move. What about extra help?"

Cary grins. "Taken care of. Mike's recruited that big kid from the dance committee, and he's gotten another member of the football team who wants to earn a few extra bucks."

"Damn, Randy, you just hire me and I can't help a bit since I'm on crutches," Marc complains.

"You're gonna be a big help, Marc," Cary says.


"You're gonna plant your ass on the floor and pack stuff as we take it from the shelves, then pass it back when we get to the new place. I sure hope you've got some jeans."

Marc grins. "Great! Can't let you guys down and it'll give me a chance to learn the inventory."

When the move starts, I'm amused to see Marc packing everything from Cary's workbench into one big box which Cary tapes shut and puts his name on in big black letters. Some things never change.

The kids Mike found work as hard as everyone else and Val's having let inventory go down drastically hastens the process, so by the end of the week, we're all moved. By way of saying thanks, I engage the private room at the restaurant we all like and treat them all to dinner on Friday night, including the boys. They seem to enjoy it, but two of the boys are unhappy that I refuse to let them order a beer because of their age.

Monday a well dressed Marc comes in carrying a briefcase. "Tim's got my first calls lined up. Anything I should know before I take off?"

"Can't think of a thing. Thanks again for your help with the move. Be sure to keep mileage and expense records for Val."

"Got the forms in here," he pats his briefcase. "I'll call in if necessary, but plan on seeing me back sometime Friday." His smile vanishes. "I really appreciate your giving me a chance, Randy."

I grin at him. "Prove it with a stack of orders."

"I know I'm getting a small salary and not totally dependent on straight commission, but I'll do my best."

"That's all I can ask. Have at it."

Marc doesn't call in and by the end of the week I can see Tim's looking a little worried. "Mind my joining you when Marc comes in?" he asks Thursday night.

"Not at all. It's your department he's working for. I'll call you the minute he comes in."

Friday afternoon about three Tim comes in my office with an anxious look. "He just pulled in the lot."

"How'd it go?" Tim demands the moment Marc swings in the door with a sober expression.

"Good and bad," Marc replies dropping down in a chair with a heavy sigh.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I had to fight to see a few buyers because they thought I was still with Flowers. Then when they found out who I represented they were afraid we couldn't deliver because of that damned letter." He shakes his head. "I'm afraid we've lost one customer, but," his smile broadens as he opens his briefcase, "I got four new ones who like the idea of being exclusive outlets for our stuff without duplicate coverage showing up in their areas." He passes Tim a handful of order forms. "Didn't get a chance to cover all the outlets you had lined up for me. I'll try to catch them next week."

Tim's paying him no attention, busily flipping through the order forms. At last he passes them to me. "Damn, man, how'd you do it?"

Marc shrugs. "Just doing my job. I did have to buy several buyers lunch, and one or two are pissed because I wouldn't give them an exclusive on the entire line because you have other customers in the area."

"They took what you offered them, didn't they?" I ask.

"Without question. Got nice orders from them, too."

I look over the totals and can't believe what I see. In five days work, he's made more than enough to cover his base salary for the month, most of his travel expense, and a nice commission as well. I get up and go over to shake his hand. "Tim said you could sell damn near anything and I believe it. Great work, Marc."

"Thanks, Randy. Hope I can keep this momentum up."

"It's seasonal, but you know that. I think we can keep you busy in the off season. I'll put you on straight salary for those periods."

He smiles. "You're as great as Tim told me you were. Thanks for hiring me to do what I like best."

"Anybody give you static because of your leg?" Tim asks.

"Yeah. The head buyer for Décor Plus is a devotee. She tried to make moves on me." Marc grins again. "Made her unhappy when I told her I'm gay, but she didn't hold it against me. Look at her order."

That's when I look again. Marc's busted down the door I've been trying to open ever since I started carrying specialty items. "Marc, if Jeffers ever shows up here again and makes remarks about cripples I'm gonna kill him. Your leg got you in where I've failed for over two years."

"Maybe having just one is good once in a while," he says still grinning. "Sometimes saves me having to wait for tables in restaurants, too. Guess they feel sorry for a one legged guy."

"You and Tim sure take it in stride."

"Hey, there're two ways to go, either be bitter as hell or have some fun. I like to find buyers who are devs, easy to charm them into big orders. Always used to piss Jeffers off when I got an order he couldn't. That's why he was after firing my ass."

I have to smile. "Just don't oversell them."

"Not a chance. I know most of their markets as well as they do. I like the stores that brag about their seasonal sales. I can immediately estimate what their leftover inventories are and it won't be our stuff. I want 'em begging for more the next year."

"You're a rare man, Marc. I'm glad Tim got you to join us."

"Not half as glad as I am to be here. This is the way a business like yours should be run. I'm kind of beat, so if that's all I'm out of here for some rest."

"You going to take a couple of days next week to set up your office?" Tim asks.

"Naa. Do it when I'm not in a selling season. Won't need it until then anyway. Have things ready so I can take off Monday morning."

"Sure will, buddy. Luke and I will see you at home tonight."

"He's staying with you guys?" I ask Tim after Marc has gone.

"Yeah. He says he only needs a bedroom on weekends and a place to leave his clothes. He'll find a flat once he's finished the Christmas sales and going to be here for a while. Luke and I don't mind and he's paying us a little rent." He holds out his hand for the orders. "I'll pull this stuff together over the weekend so I can estimate what I need to order. He's already sold more than I've ordered of several items."

"Go for it. I'm sure lucky in having you bringing in guys like Luke and Marc."

"Naa. We're lucky Flowers wanted to shut out our crippled asses and we found you. This is the place to be."

"Then go back to work and make us some money, guy; bills are piling up," I tell him with a wink.

With the new help I had hoped to cut back on the hours I put in, but find myself burning the midnight oil. Marc is selling so much Tim is hard put to keep up his inventory and Luke's bringing in more commercial contracts; one from a large department store wanting to rent our animated figures, so Ted joins us full time to take care of that. Cary is screaming for more help with the custom home business. The result? I'm frantically looking for more help when on the first of October I get a call from a magazine for amputees asking for an interview.

I try to refuse but they're so insistent I permit them a brief one, then switch the reporter over to Tim for an amputee employee's viewpoint. A month later I get a copy of Just One Chance in the mail. I open it to the article, startled to find Tim has supplied them with pictures of me, him, Marc, Val, and Jimmy. I only vaguely remember asking the reporter 'What disabled?' not realizing what he meant until I had handed him off to Tim. The article is entitled: The Way It Should Be and lauds my employing amputees. It emphasizes the contributions I mentioned each has made to the success of Stanton Creations.

Resumes and inquiries immediately begin to come in from amputees. I gladly set up interviews hoping a few will ease my now critical shortage of help. Within a week I've got a leg amp computer whiz helping overwhelmed Val. An arm amp, skillful with his hook and with some experience in shipping, is helping Danny. Wonder of wonders, a leg amp with floral experience equal to Tim's shows up and goes to work immediately. All he asked was a workbench low enough for him to work from his chair. I have to refuse several others because they don't have the skills we need and no one has time to train them.

I do hire one kid just graduated from high school as a general helper to fill in as gopher when Jimmy's in school. He lives in a little country village a few miles out of town and commutes, driving so well I put him to driving one of our delivery vans when needed.

Jimmy brings me Donny, the husky football player from the high school, and three of his equally as big friends to work part-time at everything from installing Cary's custom work to helping anyone else needing husky able-bodied guys to climb ladders.

By the week of Christmas we're all near dead from exhaustion, so I hire a caterer for our Christmas party the day we close for the holiday. As the party is winding down Cary says, "Boss, I thought you flipped your lid gettin' such a big place as this, but there ain't an inch we didn't use."

"I've noticed. How's the walk-in cooler working?"

"We wouldn't of ever made it without it." He pulls me to one side. "You know, I was kinda freaked out when all these guys missing arms and legs started showing up, but they done turned out to be the best workers I ever seen."

"Well, you did freak out over Val pretty quick," I say with a smile.

His rugged face splits with his grin. "Yeah, and the honeymoon ain't over yet. We're expecting you Christmas Eve for dinner."

When it's all over and I'm locking the door, I scream once more, not Aaarh but Yee haw!



Posted: 06/05/09