Jonathan Ferrini is a San Diego published author who received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.
My Coffee Date with Death
It was Sunday evening and I returned home from a sailing trip joining a group of avid sailors from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where we fished for Marlin. It was my first time fishing for these magnificent fish, and I was fortunate to “hook” a large Marlin. It put up a valiant struggle, and with the help of the deck hands, we managed to pull the strikingly beautiful, blue marlin, onto the deck, only to watch the deck hands beat it about the head until dead, hanging it, and then photographing me alongside my “catch”. It was 12’ in length, and 300 pounds. Watching the deck hands behead the marlin, throwing the head overboard, and tossing it’s torso into the below deck cooler, sickened me. I imagined what the Marlin was thinking as it struggled to free itself from the hook, being dragged out of the water, struggling to breathe, then beaten to death. I decided to catch the next flight home. Returning home to my oceanfront condo, in beautiful San Diego, wasn’t like leaving paradise; it was returning to paradise. Upon arrival home at the airport, I noticed surgical masks being worn by airline personnel and travelers. Once I unpacked, I turned on the news, and heard the reports of the covid-19 pandemic. It didn’t startle me because I lived through other virus outbreaks, but judging from the urgency of the news reports, this virus was severe. I was wealthy, healthy, happy, and had no concerns in the world. The next two months changed my life forever. I owned and rented out restaurant business properties I accumulated over my career as a commercial real estate broker. I lived modestly, investing my large commissions in restaurant real estate with the goal of an early retirement. I grew up in the restaurant business, and felt comfortable owning restaurant property. I owned three successful “dive bars” popular with young people; owned a food court with a dozen immigrant restaurateurs thriving, and I owned two drive-thru restaurants leased by independent burger, and fried chicken operators. By the age of fifty, I was retired, and collecting large monthly rent checks which provided me with a very comfortable lifestyle; a spacious ocean view condo, a new Mercedes Benz GT-Class Coupe, and a fashionable wardrobe consisting of expensive Italian labels. I managed my properties from home while staring at the ocean waves, worked out with a personal trainer, adhered to my diet monitored by my nutritionist, and enjoyed visiting the bank monthly to deposit the rent checks. Life was good to me. I was single and never failed to find a beautiful date. Within days, counties throughout Southern California closed down the bars, and prohibited sit down seating in restaurants. My tenants began calling, pleading for rent abatement. They were “mom and pop” operators, decent, hard working immigrants, and I knew they couldn’t survive a prolonged pandemic, eventually having to close their restaurants. It broke my heart to see them lose their life savings. The cash flow from their rents was necessary to pay my mortgages, and was quickly drying up. I couldn’t help my tenants as I had my own financial struggles. I carried highly leveraged mortgages on my beachfront condo, and rental properties. Although I had strong banking relationships, I requested forbearance on the mortgages, but the banks were demanding their mortgage payments, and threatening foreclosure. Unless the bar and restaurant restrictions were immediately lifted, and my cash flow from the rental properties resumed, I would lose everything I had worked for my entire life. I wasn’t a heavy drinker or prescription medication taker, but over the next two weeks, I was growing anxious, couldn’t sleep, and decided to take some of my prescription “Valium” to sleep. The “Valium” was originally prescribed to alleviate my fear of flying. Taking the “Valium” to fall asleep worked. I awoke refreshed, but the nagging anxiety of losing my net worth returned quickly. I began taking “Valium” to get me through the morning, afternoon, and evening. I was taking larger dosages than prescribed, and the “Valium” was losing its effect on calming my nerves. I continually pondered, “How would I avoid financial ruin?” I was too old to get a job, and start over. I could wipe out my creditors and stall the foreclosures by filing for bankruptcy protection, but once the bankruptcy was concluded, my properties would be foreclosed upon, with only my remaining cash to survive upon. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself living “on the street”. I fell into a deep depression. On occasion, I’d indulge in a premium, single malt, scotch whiskey. Without thinking about the dangers of mixing booze and “Valium”, I began to wash the “Valium” down with a shot of whiskey which helped lessen the anxiety. I felt safe using “Valium”, but my increasing anxiety was compelling me to become careless with the mixing of the drug and alcohol. I came across some “shady” characters during my career. “Morty” was once such individual. He was a pharmacist whose pharmacist license was revoked by playing “fast and loose” with DEA regulations regarding the prescription of “controlled narcotics”. He became a drug dealer to the “stars.” I sold Morty a retail building when California permitted the opening of cannabis stores. He asked me to invest in his first cannabis store, but I declined, to my later regret. Over the years, he expanded his number of cannabis stores, and became a millionaire. Morty had a talent for retailing. His stores were beautiful, and the layouts were ingeniously designed to encourage sales just like the large retailers selling clothes or appliances. He only hired beautiful, young, female employees which helped sales. He would call me from time to time, complaining about the hoards of cash he was compelled to place in safe deposit boxes, because the federally chartered banks wouldn’t take deposits from cannabis stores as cannabis was illegal with the federal government. He could have deposited the cash into his personal accounts, although deposits of $10,000 or more were reported to the Treasury Department, triggering DEA scrutiny. Morty could make laborious, daily, $9,999 deposits into banks throughout the city, but he surmised this would also create DEA scrutiny. Morty didn’t trust foreign banks, and wouldn’t risk sending his cash fortune overseas. Morty expressed interest in funneling his legal profits into a successful restaurant business with franchise potential, but he was always too busy to pursue the matter further with me. We were friends, of sorts, so I decided to phone him, and tell him of my predicament. Morty always returned my calls promptly. He queried me like a physician on what drugs I was using. He ran me through the various Benzedrine’s, nicknamed “Bennies”, which are in the same family of “Valium”. He told me to try the following Benzedrine’s: “Klonopin”, “Ativan”, and “Xanax”. He remarked, “Ativan” was the most potent, and given to patients prior to surgery. “If these “Bennie’s don’t work, I’m sending you a single syringe of heroin, Ben. It will be preloaded. Keep it in the refrigerator, and use it only as a last resort. You’ll get a quick, euphoric, long lasting high. Check out a YouTube video on how and where to inject it. I only want you to inject half of it, understand?” “I’m not going to become a heroin “junkie, Morty!” “You’re already an addict, “booby”! I know the “Bennies” aren’t working for you, and the last resort for relief of your anxiety is heroin. I implore you not to use heroin, Ben! I can tell you stories of clients including lawyers, doctors, and celebrities who ended up homeless or dead from heroin. I’m also suggesting you “kick” the ‘Bennies”. If you continue to mix them with alcohol, you’ll overdose like Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, and Monroe. Please let me check you into a rehab clinic. I know one in Malibu. It’s like staying at a five star hotel. I can get the Medical Director on the phone right now, and have you checked in this evening. I’ll take you up there myself. In a month, you’ll be feeling like a “champ”, and this whole pandemic thing will be over. You’ll be thinking clearly, and find a way to dig yourself out of your financial woes. If you’re short of cash, I’ll pay for the rehab. You made me millions. It’s the least I can do”. “My credit cards are almost maxed out, I’m losing all my property to foreclosure, and I’m down to my last $50,000 in cash. My only option is filing for bankruptcy, and eventually, I’ll become homeless! I’d rather die, Morty!” “It’s really that bad, Ben?” “Worse!” “I’m also sending you a potent “joint” I sell only to my “VIP” clients. Cannabis is safer, and just might get you through these hard times. I “season” the cannabis with my own proprietary, narcotic, which gives the joint an added sedative effect, but only smoke half of the joint to see how your body reacts to it. I’m also sending you a vile of “Narcan”. When using your drugs, keep your phone nearby with the “Narcan”. If you’re struggling to breath, your heart slows, and you’re close to “blacking out”, dial 911, and tell them you’re overdosing from drugs. Stick the “Narcan” vial up your nose, press the trigger, and snort as hard as you can. My delivery “guy” will be at your place within the hour. All the meds will be marked with the recommended dosages.” “What do I owe you, Morty?” “It’s on me, Ben, but don’t call me again for pills or heroin. I’ll sell you cannabis but I won’t be responsible for your death from “Bennies” and heroin. Morty scared me, but I thought, “If I can calm my nerves with the drugs, maybe I can formulate a way of climbing out of my financial hole?” I was already thinking like a junkie. Within an hour, Morty’s delivery guy knocked. He wore a mask, said nothing, handed me a plane, paper bag, and split. I stared at the hypodermic needle already loaded and I placed it in the refrigerator. I decided to use it only if my anxiety was unbearable. I reached for the bottle of “Ativan”, emptied the prescribed dosage into my palm, and washed the pills down with a glass of expensive, single malt, scotch whiskey. An hour later, I felt nothing but a slight buzz. If “Ativan” was the strongest “Bennie”, and mixing it with booze didn’t calm me, I had to try the heroin. I was heading for the syringe of heroin when the phone rang. I answered, and yet another tenant was informing me she was closing her restaurant, and could no longer pay my rent. I hung up on her. I couldn’t take the stress anymore, and opened the refrigerator to retrieve the heroin. YouTube showed me “step by step” how to inject the heroin. I retreated to my lounge chair with the cell phone and “Narcan” in my lap. I was careful to inject only half of the syringe into my vein as Morty recommended. Within seconds of pressing down on the plunger of the syringe, a wave of euphoria swept over me from my head to my toes. I fell into a deep, dark sleep. I felt happy, and content. There was no “bright light” at the end of a tunnel, or voices of relatives calling for me. It was only silence and a feeling of contentment. It occurred to me that I may be clinically dead, and I was at peace with death. I was awoken from my bliss by my cell phone vibrating in my lap. The caller I.D. suggested it was my client, “Song.” I mumbled incoherently, “Hello” Song replied, “I’m sorry, did I wake you?” “No you didn’t, but you may have saved my life!” “Save your life? What do you mean?” “I was joking. How may I help you?” I pulled the syringe out of my arm. The heroin worked fast! I rented Song her first Korean restaurant in my food court ten years earlier. Song was thirty five years old, Korean, and possessed a strong work ethic. She was beautiful, ambitious, and single. She arrived in the U.S., penniless, worked hard within Korean restaurants, scraped, and saved enough money to open a first restaurant in my food court. It was an instant success. I was proud of her. Before long, she was pestering me to sell her my food court! I sold Song several restaurants over the years, mostly tired, old steak houses; she adroitly converted into steak and Korean fusion restaurants. They became instant hits. Song trusted my business acumen, and told me, “I made her lucky”. I never mixed business with “pleasure” and resisted her attempts to begin a romance. I looked after Song like a sister. Song was “hell bent” upon becoming a millionaire by establishing a chain of Korean-American fusion restaurants. She was prone to “get rich quick” investments which I talked her out of. My advice to her always, “Stick to what you know. There are no shortcuts to success.” Song was eager to share a business proposal with me on the telephone. It was another “get rich quick” scheme, the type of business proposal I never would have pursued, and cautioned her against. But given my approaching financial ruin, drug and alcohol induced impaired thinking; I’d listen to any opportunity which might save my ass. Song described a business man named “Mr. Kim”, who lived in Hong Kong, and was a multimillionaire with ties to the Chinese Government. He had eaten in Song’s restaurant on a recent business trip to Southern California, and was impressed with her restaurant menu, business acumen, and contacts with American businessmen. He wanted to be her financial backer in an ambitious five star restaurant expansion plan. I suggested a conference call with Mr. Kim as I had chased down many false leads in my career; anonymity with clients was always a “red flag” for me in business, and I needed to qualify Mr. Kim. Song insisted Mr. Kim wanted to meet personally, in Hong Kong, with all necessary parties present. The only information I could get out of Song was that Mr. Kim had $100,000,000 deposited within HSBC bank in Hong Kong. China had tamped down on money transfers out of Hong Kong. Mr. Kim believed if he substituted an American partner to his HSBC account, he could get the money wired out of Hong Kong, and into the United States. Song described my restaurant experience, and trust in my good judgment, which impressed Kim. Mr. Kim was prepared to place the $100,000,000 into a new corporation with me as President, including a lavish salary and equity. Song would be my Executive Vice President. Our business plan would include investing in new restaurants operated by celebrity chefs in major North American cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver. Song demanded we meet Mr. Kim in Hong Kong on Tuesday before travel restrictions were implemented by the government. It was Sunday night, so I needed to act quickly. I had never been to Hong Kong, and sitting at home during the pandemic watching my net worth evaporate, motivated me to get the hell out of the house and take a chance on a deal likely leading nowhere. Song agreed to provide all of the travel arrangements, including first class round trip airfare, and an evening stay at the first class, Hong Kong “Peninsula Hotel”. The meeting would take place at the private “Executive Lounge” within the Hong Kong International Airport. I instructed Song, “Send my travel documents and I’ll get to work!” I acquired many contacts through the years and could reach any celebrity chef through their agent. I also had a close working relationship with a partner of an international law firm in Southern California with an office in Hong Kong. I reached the attorney by cell phone, and he immediately placed me in touch with his counterpart in Hong Kong. I reached the Hong Kong attorney, Mr. Woo, on his private cell phone, and I described Mr. Kim to Mr. Woo, who, coincidently, was acquainted with Mr. Kim’s reputation, and believed he was legit. He told me transferring the money would be complicated, requiring a new US Corporation and bank account, naming me President and Chief Executive Officer of the new company with full and unequivocal authority. Mr. Woo was frank, suggesting he would have to “call in some favors at HSBC”, conveniently a client of his law firm. Mr. Woo agreed to attend the meeting at the Executive Lounge. I was growing more excited by the second! “Who would have thought a pandemic may enrich me beyond my wildest imagination?” I was following a popular, Australian, celebrity chef, with successful restaurants in Sydney and London. I knew he was eager to expand into the States. After considerable effort, I reached his agent who told me his client would coincidently be transferring flights at Honk Kong International the same day. It all came together! In years past, I would have approached this deal “as too good to be true”. I didn’t stop to ponder whether it was the heroin and booze which convinced me that I might actually pull this deal together, but it didn’t matter. I was desperate. I placed the remainder of the heroin in the refrigerator for my return home should the deal turn out to be “too good, to be true”. I pondered suicide if I returned home unsuccessful. Conversely, if I returned home victorious, I’d have Morty check me into rehab, get sober, and travel the world while managing the new corporation. As I began packing, it was too cumbersome to carry four bottles of “Bennies” in my pocket. I found a large plastic bottle, and emptied the contents of all four Benzedrine’s into the bottle. When I needed them, it would be easy to empty the pills into my palm, and it didn’t matter which pills I was taking, as they were all the “same” as I was concerned. I was in a deep sleep within the First Class Cabin on my flight to Hong Kong. I dreamt of my mom’s death from an overdose of booze and pills when I was fourteen. I was crying during my dream, as the announcement came over the speakers alerting us to our landing in Hong Kong. I awoke with trepidation as I did many a morning realizing I was running out of time to save my fortune. Needing to calm my nerves, I reached into my pocket, took out the bottle of pills, and washed down five assorted “Bennies” with a “Bloody Mary”. I never had been to Hong Kong, but the City looked beautiful from the air. In the distance, I could see the gleaming office towers and palatial homes nestled within the hills above the harbor. I packed light, quickly removed my bag from the overhead compartment, and departed the plane. Walking into the terminal, I realized this was my last chance for a “big score”. My instincts told me I’d roll “snake eyes” but I had to take one last chance to dig myself out of financial ruin. The pills and booze gave me a strong buzz, made me dizzy, and felt as if I might pass out. I attempted to sit, but fell on my ass, trying to stand, and regain my composure. Nobody departing the plane stopped to assist me, stepping around me, unwilling to come to the aid of another human being in distress. One of the stewards quickly arrived to assist me, telling me, in broken English, to “sit quietly, while he barked orders into his phone in Cantonese for medical assistance. It wasn’t long before a young, airport hostess arrived in a golf cart. Both of the airline employees, helped me to my feet, and carefully walked me to the golf cart. The young hostess driving the cart, introduced herself as “Tin Si”, and asked where she could deliver me. “I have an urgent appointment within the “Executive Lounge.” She was impressed by my mention of “The Executive Lounge”, and assured me in English, “I will escort you personally and safely to the Executive Lounge, reserved for First Class passengers, dignitaries, VIP’s, and replete with liquor, gourmet appetizers, showers, steam room, and masseuses. It’s very dignified and designed like a private club.” I was an hour early and Tin Si escorted me to a comfortable booth. My head was spinning and I had a terrible headache. “Your guests will be arriving shortly, Sir. I would normally offer you a cocktail, champagne, or a glass of wine while you wait, but instead, I will bring you a tall glass of water, mixed with green tea which will make you feel better. I suggest you drink as much water as possible before your meeting. I’ll also bring you aspirin and “Dramamine” if you feel dizzy.” Then, to my surprise, she reached for the zipper on my trousers, “Pardon me, Sir. Please allow me to adjust your zipper.” She tactfully placed a pressed linen napkin over my waist, placed her hand underneath the napkin, and gently pulled up my zipper. Despite wearing a $10,000 “Brioni”, navy, pin striped suit, I had committed a fashion faux pas, and would have embarrassed myself, and possibly killed the deal walking in with my zipper down. Tin Si was maybe, eighteen, petite, wore her hair short, suggesting to me she cut her hair herself, and exhibited extraordinary compassion and nurturing. She was likely a low paid employee, living within the low income neighborhoods of Hong Kong, but, she was my “Angel of Mercy”, assuring I made my appointment on time, and helped me to regain my composure to attend the meeting coherently. The water, green tea, aspirin, and “Dramamine” sobered me, and I prayed I could stay awake during the meeting! Tin Si returned to escort me to a private meeting room discretely located within the “Executive Lounge”. As I attempted to exit the booth, I became dizzy and almost fell, but for the quick action of Tin Si, who steadied me, she walked with me slowly with her arm around my shoulders into the private meeting room. I would have never made to the meeting without her kindness. Tin Si slowly led me to Queen Anne chairs placed around a table, and discretely assisted me to sit, pulling out my chair for me, and left quickly. Nobody at the meeting was the wiser. The attendees had already arrived, four in total. The lounge staff was extremely attentive, but something about them, gave me the impression they were working below their “station” in life, and they outnumbered the guests within the lounge 3:1. I dismissed my impression as drug induced paranoia. All of the attendees rose to greet me. I managed to stand briefly to shake hands, but quickly sat as the room spun inside my head. There was the distinguished and younger than anticipated, Mr. Kim, wearing an impeccably tailored suit, likely Seville Row, and red silk tie. His accent was distinctly Korean which gave me pause to consider his “close ties” with the Chinese government. He was refined, articulate, and jovial. Standing next to Kim was Song. The color “red” is considered a “lucky” color in Asia. She was a devotee of “Givenchy”, and her red, couture business suit, looked magnificent on her. The soles of her red pumps displayed the familiar red, “Christian Louboutin” red. I knew she only wore “Mikimoto” pearls, including a tennis bracelet, matching necklace, and, I presume, her jade earrings were purchased from her favorite jeweler, “Cartier”. Song clutched a black, alligator skin purse with the familiar “Bulgari” trademark, a coiled snake gold latch. Song looked like a princess. My attorney from Hong Kong, Mr. Woo, introduced himself, and my research about him revealed he was the son of a Samsung executive stationed in San Francisco. Mr. Woo, “Carter”, was a standout student at Berkeley High School, and an “All American pole vaulter”. He attended both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. I felt confidant Carter was able to put the deal together. He spoke without an accent suggesting to me he was born in the States. He wore the familiar, gray “Brooks Brothers” conservative business suit, button down white shirt, red and navy blue “repp” tie, and brown “brogue” shoes. The celebrity chef, “Renaldo”, was also present with his agent. He was cocky because his restaurants were all the rage, and was talking a television deal. Renaldo must have weighed 300 pounds, and wore his remaining hair in a terrible “pull over”. He wore a tropical shirt displaying his huge waistline, and smoked a cigar. Renaldo’s agent, “Sammy”, was a cocky, young Hollywood kid working for a top talent agency. His agent was tough, young, and seasoned. I suspect he was born into the entertainment industry. Sammy dressed, “business casual”, but fashionable. They lacked the social graces of Mr. Kim, Carter, and Song, remarking, “Let’s get down to business!” I said to myself, “It’s now or never.” I knew Carter’s presence would add the necessary legitimacy to Mr. Kim’s business pedigree and net worth, gaining Renaldo and his agent’s confidence. Mr. Kim got right to business with no “small talk”. He’d appoint me as President of a new corporation created by him. I would be provided with a power of attorney, and added as the sole beneficiary to the $100,000,000 bank account held at HSBC. Because it would be an American corporation with no mention of Mr. Kim, HSBC assured Carter; the money could be transferred out of Hong Kong and into a new HSBC bank account within the States. HSBC was also a client of Carter’s law firm, and the President of HSBC in Hong Kong, assured Carter, he was prepared to take the “heat”, if any, from the Chinese banking regulators. Carter’s law firm was prestigious and trusted within high level political circles in Hong Kong. Carter inferred bribes would be paid by HSBC to Chinese officials to get the money out of Hong Kong, as a last resort. Carter demanded that I would act independently without oversight of a Board of Directors. Mr. Kim replied, “We trust Ben’s judgment impeccably, I agree to your demand. The details of Ben’s lucrative compensation and equity package will be agreed upon quickly, and to Ben’s satisfaction. The new corporation will be named, “Lucky Dragon, Inc.” Our objective will be the creation of restaurants managed by “celebrity chefs” operating only out of premier hotel and casino properties throughout North America. We will begin in Las Vegas.” Renaldo appeared to be growing impatient. Naturally, he wanted to know what was in this deal for him. His agent assumed an aggressive posture, demanding, “Let’s turn the conversation to my client!” Mr. Kim addressed the cocky, young agent like a school boy, “Chef Renaldo’s deal regarding the creation, design, and management of the restaurants, will be negotiated separately at the conclusion of this meeting. Understand, however, Chef Renaldo’s operation of the restaurants won’t supersede nor interfere with Ben’s authority. Renaldo will be working for Ben, although Renaldo will have exclusive design, staffing, and menu authority. Chef Renaldo will receive a handsome salary and equity which we will discuss shortly.”
Renaldo and his agent appeared happy and remained silent. Over the course of my real estate career, I met many businesspeople and could develop a “sixth sense” about them. I didn’t trust Renaldo and his agent. Of course, the drugs and booze in my system may have made me paranoid. Carter agreed to have all the necessary legal documents for the transfer of the money, creation and management of “Lucky Dragon, Inc.” prepared within forty eight hours. At the conclusion of the meeting, we all shook hands. Mr. Kim commented, “It was a pleasure to meet with you. Please allow myself, Chef Renaldo, and his agent, to finish our separate negotiations. I wish you a pleasant trip home and look forward to our business venture.” I rose slowly from my chair, still woozy, and Song took me by the arm and escorted me and Carter out of the meeting room. The heavy walnut door to the private meeting room slammed shut. Carter shook my hand, saying, “I think it went well but it’s all up to HSBC”. “I’m suspicious Renaldo and his agent are negotiating a direct deal with Mr. Kim, cutting out Song and myself. Carter. ” “What gives you that impression, Ben?” “It’s the “smart move”. Mr. Kim has the money but only needs a popular chef to get started. When word of their partnership gets out, prime hotel and casino real estate properties will be presented to them without my assistance. He doesn’t need Song or me.” “Would you like me to continue with the contracts, Ben?” “Wait a few days; let’s see what happens?” “Very well, Ben. I’ll be in touch within seventy two hours. I wish you both a safe and pleasant trip home.” Carter departed. Song appeared melancholy and confused, “Why would Mr. Kim “go around us?” “Don’t be alarmed, Song. I didn’t trust the chef and his agent, but it’s Mr. Kim’s decision. He likes you and sought you out. I hope he will honor his proposal to you. We’ll know shortly.” “I trust your instincts, Ben, and I hope Mr. Kim will move forward with us.” She took my hand, and led me into a discrete corner of the Executive Lounge, out of sight of the help. Song whispered in my ear, “I want to show you something.” She removed from her exquisite, black alligator, Louis Vuitton wallet, a One Hundred Dollar bill, saying, “Examine this hundred, carefully.” I held it up to the light and saw the familiar watermarks. It appeared to be genuine. “What’s your point, Song?” “Compare it to one of yours, Ben.” I reached into my wallet, and removed a One hundred Dollar bill. We laid them side by side, turned them over, held both of the bills to the light, both revealing the familiar watermarks, and additional security features. “Look closely at the paper, Ben.” The paper looked familiar. “Close your eyes, Ben. Feel the texture of each bill.” The paper felt similar. Song whispered, “The bill I gave you to examine is counterfeit. It was printed by the “masters” of counterfeit currency, the North Koreans. There is an opportunity for us to launder millions of these into the States, through the new corporation. Restaurants and casinos are cash businesses and perfect to launder the counterfeit bills.” She placed the bill inside my coat pocket, saying, “Take it for a “test drive”. “Song, I didn’t sign up for a counterfeit money laundering enterprise. What the hell is going on?” “Mr. Kim gave me the bill. I realize the counterfeit money laundering might endanger our business enterprise, but Mr. Kim assured me our restaurant investment endeavor remains unchanged. The counterfeit currency is just a side endeavor, if you’re interested? Think it through, we can discuss later. Goodbye for now, I have to return to the meeting. ” A chill ran up my spine, and I shouted, “Get back here, Song!” She returned with a puzzled look on her face.
“I’ve cautioned you against “get quick rich schemes” but you’re dealing with counterfeit money which can land us in jail for the remainder of our lives. I don’t how you met Mr. Kim, but if he’s involved in this money laundering, you and I are out of this deal. Got it?” Song pouted like a little girl, “What should I do, Ben?” “Song, do you have any more counterfeit bills on your possession?” “No, Ben. Just the one I showed you.” “Run, don’t walk, to your flight, and get the hell out of Hong Kong! Let me give this some thought, but we won’t communicate with Mr. Kim again! I’ll be back in touch with you shortly!” “If you believe it’s best, I’ll follow your advice, Ben.” The euphoria of our meeting was deflating for me quickly. “How could I fall for such a ruse?” I was humiliated by involving a corporate law firm, and a world renowned celebrity chef within a counterfeit currency criminal conspiracy, but given my burning desire to dig myself out of my financial ruin, and my mind clouded by drugs and booze; I pondered the possibilities of laundering the counterfeit money through the new corporation. I had no alternative other than bankruptcy or suicide. Maybe I’d be killed in prison and avoid suicide? It occurred to me that I didn’t thank and tip Tin Si who was my “angel” in time of need. I looked about the room for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. I asked one of the waiters if he knew her whereabouts. “Tin Si brought me to the meeting in a golf cart. She served me at the booth. Can you find her?” “Don’t know her. There are many workers at airport!” My “angel” flew away never to be seen again, but I would always remain grateful to her. As I was exiting the executive lounge, a burly group of Asian and a Caucasian man entered the Executive lounge, heading straight towards the private meeting room. The Caucasian man was American judging from their conversation. It crossed my mind that perhaps I wasn’t the only “candidate” for the investment opportunity. On the other hand, their suits were wrinkled, and appeared purchased “off the rack”. I’d think they would show up dressed more professionally, if successful businessmen. I was becoming more suspicious, depressed, and disappointed by the minute. I got the hell out of the lounge quickly.
As I walked down the concourse to my gate, I passed a coffee shop named, “Dante’s Roasting Company”. It was busy and looked inviting. I entered and relished the opportunity to enjoy a fresh, warm cup of latte and reflect upon the meeting, and a strategy moving forward. Without the narcotics and booze clouding my judgment, the answer would be to walk away from the deal. I made my way to the counter, and, noticing a full bar, I asked for a double shot of “Kahlua” in my latté. The place was crowded and I had difficulty finding a seat. As I walked about, I caught the glance of a young woman who waved me towards a narrow place aside her on the sofa with a table upon which she had laid out books and a notepad. “Here’s a seat, Sir. You’re welcome to sit here.” I squeezed in. She was courteous and attractive. Her hair was long, black, and flowed down her shoulders, glistening like mirrors. I thought I caught a glimpse of myself in her shiny hair, and didn’t like what I saw. She wore a cashmere crew net sweater, navy blue pleated skirt, and a pair of fashionable, Gucci loafers. Her nails were beautifully manicured to a sharp point with red nail polish. She wore little makeup, and looked like an English boarding school student from an elite family. I removed my notepad from my briefcase, and began to review the notes from our meeting. I kept thumbing through the pages, to and fro, more skeptical of the deal with each passing minute, which caught the attention of the young woman, “Excuse me, Sir. Are you an attorney?” “No. I’m a real estate investor.” “Your focus, concentration, and attention to detail, reminded me of an attorney. I hope I didn’t insult you?” I noticed she had opened Julius Caesar’s, “The Gallic Wars”, and was taking copious notes. I asked, “Are you a professor?” “No, Sir. I’m a student”. “Post doc?” “Thank you for the compliment, Sir. I’m an undergraduate majoring in the classics with a minor in Latin. I’m 27 years old.” She looked older than an undergraduate, and was dressed more professionally than most students I’ve met. She reached out to shake my hand. Her grip was firm, and she stared deep into my eyes without blinking. “My name is Hecate, pleased to meet you, Sir.”
She had piecing, deep blue eyes, and wouldn’t let go of my hand until I gave her my name. There was something prescient about her, as if she “tapped into” my soul, knew my pain, and had known me my entire life. “I’m Ben, pleased to meet you, Hecate. You have a very unusual name. Where are you from?” “Here, there, a little bit of everywhere.” Hecate’s answer was ambiguous but I didn’t give it any further thought. Hecate impressed me because every kid of my business associates was a “STEM” major looking for a quick buck after graduation. Yet, Hecate was studying the classics. I admired her. “What brings you to Hong Kong and how did you come to major in the classics, Hecate?” “I’m in Hong Kong for a vacation break after final examinations. I was introduced to the classics by a professor I met in group therapy. “In group therapy?” What a curious response, I thought? “The professor took a liking to me, encouraged me to read the classics, and tutored me, believing it would be a therapeutic treatment to my addiction. These books, although written centuries ago, still have relevance, providing guidance to lost souls.” “What do you mean, “addiction”? “I was a heroin addict, meth freak, and alcoholic.” I was flabbergasted. This preppy young woman looked like a “poster girl for an Ivy League college catalogue.” “I’ve seen that look of confusion before, Ben. I’m not ashamed to tell you my story.” “I would like to hear it.” “I was an only child and my family lived a comfortable, middle class lifestyle. I took some film courses in university and developed a talent for sound mixing and editing. I managed to pick up gigs on sound stages and recording studios, making good money. Unfortunately, the music business doesn’t pair well with money. I was working long hours, meeting addicts, and before long, I was boozing, smoking pot, and chasing greater highs. I developed a meth addiction but the only drug which would satisfy my cravings was heroin. They found me unconscious in a public bathroom with a needle sticking out of my arm. I was on the “merry go round” of addiction, jail, rehab, and relapse. I lost my job, possessions, and became homeless. My family disowned me.”
If that wasn’t enough, this articulate, soft-spoken, collegiate, young woman, looked me in the eye, without blinking, and without emotion, saying, “In order to feed my habit, I’d take you on as a “trick”, beat, rob, or kill you to get your money!” A chill ran up my spine. I realized the drug addiction had aged her appearance and led her into doing unspeakable things. I wanted to know more. “How the hell did you go from addict to a student of the classics?” “I hit rock bottom. I found myself naked, on the edge of a high rise building, ready to jump to my death. I needed to stop the endless hunger for heroin, and the guilt associated with hurting my family, and those I robbed, beat, stole, and screwed for money. The professor of classics I met in group therapy saved my life by taking my cell phone call for help, talking me off the ledge, and turning me onto the classics after I completed rehab. The ancient lessons I learn from the classics keep me on the “straight and narrow”. From the first classical book I picked up, each page has provided ancient wisdom, and “battle strategies” which conquer compulsive behaviors, depression, sadness, and eliminating the need for drugs.” I was overwhelmed by Hecate’s story. “You should be proud of yourself, Hecate. What’s your plan moving forward?” “I’ve got two years to complete my Bachelor’s. I’ll move on to graduate school where I’ll earn my Master’s and PhD. I’d enjoy helping others who are suffering with addiction.” Hecate’s story sounded familiar, but I was in denial of my own drug addiction. I leaned back, took a deep breath, and reached into my pocket for my bottle of “Bennies” which I placed on the table in front of me. “If you don’t mind my asking, Ben, are you troubled?” I didn’t expect such a direct question from a young stranger. She looked me squarely in the eye, convincing me she knew my pain. “Why do you ask that, Hecate?” “You quickly reached into your pocket for your med’s. I recognize that behavior. Why are you taking a mixed bottle of meds?” I hurriedly reached for the bottle, spilling multiple tablets into my palm, and washed them down with the warm latté. “What are you taking, Ben?” “Valium”, “Xanax”, “Ativan”, and “Klonopin”. I was ashamed and lied “I have a fear of flying, and, sometimes, I take them just to relax.” “You’re embarrassed, Ben, but I know all those drugs aren’t necessary to alleviate your fear of flying. They’re all Benzedrine’s. I used to crush those tablets; crushing and snorting them created a quicker high, but soon, I needed a stronger and longer high. It led to a heroin addiction.” A frightening connection between Hecate’s drug addiction and mine became apparent. I remembered the half filled syringe of heroin waiting for me in my refrigerator, and concluded I may be heading for a heroin addiction. I was in denial, and couldn’t admit to her that I took a fix of heroin. Something told me Hecate had already assumed I took the “leap” into Heroin. “Ben, the drugs lessen the pain and anxiety, but, over time, they’ll cause you to make decisions you never thought possible. Your thinking will become cloudy. I never thought I’d have sex with a stranger in a public toilet in order to score a fix! Soon, you’ll be searching for the “quick buck” to pay for your “fix”, and it’s always the “quick buck”, which lands you in jail, and the drugs will kill you. You might also find yourself standing on the edge of a roof top ready to jump to your death. You have too much to live for, Ben. To paraphrase something I read in one of the classics, “One must walk through the cold winter of defeat before they may sprint through the warm springtime of victory.” Kick all of the drugs, and “winter” will be short for you, Ben.” “As you grow older, Hecate, you’ll discover its difficult being closer to the end of life rather than the beginning. There’s no time left for me to start over.” “I suspect the pandemic has turned your life upside down, Ben. However, traumatic events like a pandemic are tests of mankind’s resilience. Catastrophes’ force people to examine their lives, dig deep within their souls, discover their priorities, and choose to live or die. It’s not the first pandemic or catastrophe, nor will it be the last. I’ve witnessed many throughout the millennia; I meant to say, I’ve read about these challenges to mankind through the classics. Vaccines can kill the virus, medicines and ventilators can keep people alive, but nothing but the resilience of the human soul, and desire to live, can change your life for the better!” “Yeah kid, life is easy when you’re young, even after kicking a drug addiction. Try my shoes on for size in about thirty years. I may lose everything I’ve worked for due to this pandemic!” “You feel helpless, Ben, I’ve been there, but since getting sober, I great each day with joy and exuberance. I never dreamed I’d be wearing nice clothes and attending college. I can conquer any challenge sober. When you get back home, check yourself into rehab. You appear to be able to afford a first class rehabilitation clinic. Get sober. You’re life depends upon it.” Hecate looked me in the eyes again, without blinking, and said, “The path you’re on will kill you.” I was shaken up and needed to wash down some pills. ”Please excuse me; I need to visit the Men’s Room.” As I squeezed out of the booth, Hecate held my hand tightly, and stared deeply into my eyes admonishing me, “Get “clean” soon, Ben! You have plenty of living to do. I hope we don’t meet again, but if we do, the pleasure will be all mine.” My head was spinning, and I stumbled to the bathroom. I was shaken up by Hecate. I felt as though she was holding up a mirror for me to look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. All I could think about was downing my despair with more meds. I wish I had the heroin. I popped some pills, washed my face with cold water, and tried to regain my composure. When I returned from the bathroom, Hecate was gone but Caesar’s “Gallic War’s” was slipped discretely under my briefcase. Hecate highlighted for my attention, a liner note within the book’s cover, suggesting Caesar’s motivation for the military campaign was to “plunder territories with the goal of getting himself out of debt” to which I could relate. I barely mentioned my financial situation, so why would Hecate highlight this liner note for me, I pondered? As I left Dante’s, I headed toward my gate. I had about an hour before boarding. I was agitated by my meeting with Hecate and the counterfeit bill concerned me, I wanted rid of it. I spied a cozy bar conveniently located nearby my gate. I thought I’d sit, order a beer, and attempt to understand the day’s events. I was quivering from the last round of pills. The waiter approached. He was a Chinese man, exquisitely dressed in a black tuxedo, wearing white gloves; spoke with an impeccable English accent, and asked politely for my order, “How may I serve you, Sir?” “I’ll take the strongest beer on tap!” “We have a 9% “Demon” IPA, Sir.” “I’ll have it!” “My name is “Charles” Sir. May I arrange for your suit jacket to be pressed and your shoes polished while you enjoy your libration, Sir?”
“That won’t be necessary, Charles.” I reached inside my pocket, removed my bottle of drugs, and placed it on the table. I also removed the counterfeit $100 bill, and thought it would be an opportunity to “test drive” the counterfeit bill as Song suggested. At the other side of the lounge, a Chinese, teenage girl, sat at a grand piano, and like a virtuoso, played a beautiful piece I didn’t recognize. Charles returned with a tall, frosty, beer glass, the bottle of “Demon” IPA, and a crystal serving tray of assorted cheeses, olives, and English biscuits. He reached for the pressed, white linen napkin, gently laid it across my lap, and carefully poured my beer. He placed the snacks on the table, each within its own, exquisite, Chinese inspired, porcelain bowl. “What is the pianist playing, Charles?” “She’s playing “Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2”, Sir” “Do you know its significance?” Charles leaned into me, and whispered, ‘It’s a member of one of the classical funeral concertos. We’ve asked her not to include it, but she forgets. I apologize if it’s inappropriate; I’ll ask her to cease playing, Sir.” “It’s beautiful, Charles. Please don’t disturb the pianist.” “Very well, Sir. I’ll be nearby. Please summon me should you require my services.” I handed Charles the counterfeit $100, “Bring me the check and a book of matches, Charles.” “Yes, Sir!” I reached for the glass, and my hand trembled from the conversation with Hecate about death, and a funeral concerto agitated me further! I raised the glass to my lips and my hand continued to tremble. I glanced over at the long fuselage of the gleaming jetliner which would take me home. I imagined the comfortable first class cabin seat which awaited me, eager for that long, undisturbed, alcohol and pill combination, placing me into a deep sleep until the plane landed home. I was looking forward to that second fix of heroin in my refrigerator knowing the trip to Hong Kong was a failure. I took a sip of the beer, but I couldn’t get out of my mind the peculiar meeting with Hecate, and the piano concerto continued to increase my anxiety. I remember Hecate’s story of the perilous journey she took as an addict, and believed I was following the same path to destruction. It crossed my mind to begin planning my suicide! Charles returned with my change, and I was relieved the bill cleared. I handed him the $75 in change, and requested, “Please bring me one shot of single malt scotch whiskey. Keep the change. I need to visit the bathroom, and will be back, shortly.” “Of course, Sir. Thank you for your generosity.” “Charles, please give the young pianist $10 of the change.” “Yes, Sir. She will appreciate your generosity as well.” The bathroom was empty. I found an open stall, closed the door, lowered my pants, and began to relieve myself. As I sat, I rummaged through my carry on and found the plastic bag with Morty’s joint. I’d never smoked anything before, and decided to smoke the joint. I placed it to my lips, lit it, and took a deep drag. I coughed but felt immediate relaxation and contentment. I took several more drags, coughing after each, and felt more relaxed with each puff of the joint, finishing only half of it as Morty suggested. I flushed the remaining joint down the toilet, freshened up and returned to my table. As I sat, all of the colors, sounds, and smells of the airport were like experiencing a “Technicolor” movie, and I was completely at ease and content. “Maybe the joints were my solution after all?” Charles returned with my shot of whiskey, placing a clean, pressed, linen napkin on my lap. I heard a commotion, and saw a line of police officers running down the concourse towards the Executive Lounge. I looked over at my terminal and saw my boarding would be delayed thirty minutes. I asked Charles, “What’s the reason for all the cops?” Charles leaned into me and whispered, “There was a police undercover “sting” within the Executive Lounge with arrests, Sir. Have no concerns about the counterfeit bill, you’ll be permitted to board your plane. Please don’t return again to Hong Kong. I wish you a pleasant journey home.” It occurred to me that the airport was on “lock down” by police authorities, and the sting was a major police undercover operation. “Why am I permitted to leave, Charles?”
“We questioned your business associate, Song, before she boarded her plane. She satisfied us that both of you were not implicated, and we decided not to charge either of you. We investigated Song’s business success within the United States, and she has very strong banking ties with Hamni Bank whose President vouched for her legitimacy. I might add, Sir, she spoke very highly of your business ethics.” I remembered that it was the practice of the North Korean government to open legitimate businesses throughout the world as a way of getting much needed cash into their coffers. I suspected the $100,000,000 was likely the property of the North Korean government. I also remembered reading about the North Korean’s sophisticated counterfeiting techniques. I thought to myself, the guys in the bad suits, and the over abundance of help, were likely undercover cops. Mr. Kim was either complicit or not, but I didn’t want anything to do with him, and was grateful Song was shielded from criminal complicity. The day was beginning “to add up” to me. Without Song’s endorsement, I could have been arrested. I was eager to board my plane, and take off. The pressures of the day were affecting my health. My heart beat was slowing; I was struggling for breath, and I was slowly losing consciousness. I remembered Morty’s advice about taking the ’Narcan”. Morty’s “secret seasoning” of the joint must have included “Oxycodone”, a potent opiate. I feared falling into unconsciousness, emptied my travel case on to the floor, found the ‘Narcan” dispenser, stuck it up my nose, hit the plunger, and breathed deeply. Within seconds, my heart beat returned to normal and I regained consciousness, thankful to be alive. For the first time in weeks, my mind was clear. It must have been a side effect of the ‘Narcan”, and avoiding arrest. Charles came running to my aid but I politely waived him off, collected my possessions, and placed them back into my carryon. I thought about the syringe of heroin awaiting me in my refrigerator, my near arrest, and thoughts of suicide. I was jolted into taking responsibility for my addiction, getting sober, and felt confident about the future. I sprung into action with a flurry of text messages. I first texted my attorney, Carter, “Shady information concerning Mr. Kim came to my attention. Deals off! Inform all parties immediately. I recommend you erase any records of your meeting with Mr. Kim to protect yourself and your law firm. Notify Renaldo and his agent, as well. Song and I are out of the deal!” Carter replied, “Yes, Sir. Thank you for the intelligence on Mr. Kim, which I will convey to HSBC. I’m wishing you a pleasant trip home.” My next text was to Song, “I don’t have a good feeling about this deal, Song. We’re out! I instructed my attorney to cease all negotiations. You worked too long and hard to build your business, and you could lose it all. I recommend that you immediately destroy any computer on which you communicated with Mr. Kim, and that includes your cell phone. Furthermore, get in touch with your “Cloud” provider immediately, and instruct them to permanently erase any communication between you and Mr. Kim. I’ll be checking into a rehab center upon arrival home, I’ll text you the name. We can talk about an idea I have for a lucrative, restaurant, franchise opportunity incorporating your Korean American fusion recipes. I may have a legitimate investor interested in underwriting the deal.” Song immediately wrote back, “I’m already in the air and heading home, Ben. My restaurant manager has already broken the computer into small pieces and deposited the rubble into trash bins throughout the neighborhood. My “Cloud” provider has confirmed the “Kim” files have been permanently deleted. I’ll destroy and replace my cell phone the minute I land. Thank you for being my trusted friend all these years, Ben. I look forward to discussing our new business venture.” Song’s text message, made me feel useful, relevant, wanted, and loved. My low self esteem needed the boost, and it felt better than the high from the drugs. My final text was to Morty, “I’m leaving Hong Kong. Check me into rehab immediately upon arrival!” Morty’s reply was quick, “I’ll meet you at the terminal. I have you registered into the most lavish rehab center in Malibu. The Medical Director is “Chief of the Addiction Recovery Unit” at UCLA and will be there to greet you, and personally examine you. He’ll make you comfortable and get you on your way to sobriety. You’ll emerge a “new man” and ready to begin a new life, buddy.” “I have a lucrative, restaurant investment proposal in mind which will legitimately eliminate your necessity to hoard cash, Morty.” “I can’t wait to hear it, Ben. You’re already thinking clearly, brotha.” I was happy Song was on her way home. Song was a good friend. She didn’t have to vouch for me with the authorities but she did! Morty’s eagerness to help me get sober warmed my heart. I was lucky to have them as friends. They called my flight and I swiftly walked to the gate. I reached for my cell phone to swipe the barcode under the scanner, and I found my way to my comfortable First Class seat. The steward approached, and offered a flute of champagne which I placed on the pull down tray. I stared at the bubbles rising to the top of the flute and the bottle of pills clutched within my hand. The day’s events really unnerved me. A visit to beautiful Hong Kong, the specter of a multimillion dollar business enterprise, and the counterfeit bill just didn’t add up, but what was running through my thoughts like a “freight train , was the prophetic warning given to me by Hecate,
“Soon, you’ll be searching for the “quick buck” to pay for your “fix”, and it’s always the “quick buck”, which lands you in jail, and the drugs will kill you.” I was fortunate to have met Hecate who helped me confront my drug addiction. I summoned the steward, asking him to remove the flute of champagne, bring a Diet Coke, and place the bottle of pills in the trash. We were given the go ahead to lift off. I took a deep breath, finished the diet coke, and grateful, we weren’t implicated in a criminal conspiracy. We caught a break by being excused from the meeting by Mr. Kim who was certainly arrested with Renaldo and his agent. As the plane ascended high into the clouds, I felt it was a metaphor. Although my life reached rock bottom, I had nowhere to go but “up”! It felt good to have friends like Song and Morty, and I felt a refreshing new self esteem sweep over me. I reached inside my briefcase, and opened Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” As I opened the inside cover, I found a handwritten inscription, “Pleased to meet you, Hope you guess my name But what’s puzzling you Is the nature of my game?”
The ink appeared fresh causing me to ponder the message Hecate wrote to me, “Was she inferring Caesar was speaking to me from the pages of history, advising me to “press on” and fight the necessary “battles” to overcome my own “debts”, or, was it something more profound she was inferring?” I’ll never know the purpose of the inscription. I was simply grateful for the life saving message delivered to me in an airport coffee shop by a “stranger”. I was looking forward to rehab, and excited about structuring a lucrative, Korean-American fusion, restaurant franchise business together with Morty and Song. For the first time since hearing of the pandemic, I was confidant I would dig my way out of financial ruin, and live sober with a fabulous future ahead of me. The pills, alcohol, and stress of the day placed me into a deep sleep. I dreamt that I was the beautiful, Marlin, with a savage “hook” imbedded inside my mouth, struggling to free myself, and being reeled into a certain, horrible death; then, I heard Hecate’s awkward goodbye, “The pleasure will be all mine.”
I’ll be late for the Christmas party!
I live in a modest home, alone; I inherited from my mom. It’s in the small, cozy town of Arlington, Washington, which is about thirty minutes from the Boeing aircraft factory in Everett. My step father was the swing shift supervisor charged with the assembly of nose cones for jetliners at Boeing, and my mother worked within the payroll department. I was a tall, lanky, studious kid, lacking in athletic skills, with the acne inherited from dad which plagued me throughout school, and kept me from attracting girls. The only date I ever had was with a foreign exchange student at the Senior Prom, who dumped early in the evening to hang out with the “jocks”. Mom and dad were high school sweethearts and married after graduation from high school in the sixties. Rather than be separated by the draft, they both volunteered to join the Air Force who promised to station them together. My mom was an enlisted clerk-typist, and my father flew on “Huey” helicopters, rescuing downed pilots. Dad dreamed of becoming a Seattle firefighter, completed his examinations, and was scheduled for the next years training class after receiving his Honorable Discharge from the Air Force. Mom made it home but dad was killed in action. Mom loved dad, and spoke of him frequently. He was kind, gentlemanly, strong, smart, but she used to tell me about the awful jokes his crew told him because of his acne scars, “Holms, you don’t need a gun to scare away the “VC”, all they have to do is get a look at your ugly, scarred mug!” My dad loved his crew and never took their ribbing seriously. I was born about six months after mom arrived home, and was discharged from the Air Force. Mom was tough and smart. She immediately applied for a “VA” home loan, requiring no down payment, and found us a cute, comfortable, home in Arlington. My mom wanted the best for us. She only earned a high school diploma, and realized she needed more skills to land a well paying job. She took advantage of her “GI Bill” benefits taking bookkeeping courses at the local community college, while I was with her mother or in childcare. Mom started in the secretarial pool at Boeing, and was promoted quickly through the ranks, into the position of “Director of Payroll”, reporting to the CFO. Mom met my step father, Mel, who was a hard working, blue collar employee at Boeing with almost twenty years under his belt. Although Mel was short, stout, pudgy, and balding, mom was lonely, and Mel’s work ethic reminded her of dad, so they began dating, and later, decided to marry. Mel spent his days uncomfortably positioned within the nose cones of jetliners, soldering electrical components. I believe the cramped conditions caused him acute back pain, and the soldering fumes damaged his brain. He never missed a day of work, and accepted all the overtime that was available.
I believe the back pain, fumes, and the many hours working in cramped conditions, changed him from the decent man my mom loved, into an angry monster. He would clock out after work, head to the tavern with his buddies, get drunk, head home, and often scold my mother for the food she had meticulously placed on the table hours earlier, which was no longer warm. He screamed at mom, “Why the hell isn’t my supper hot? “Mel, honey, I expected you home by six thirty. I’m not running a diner!” “What the hell did you say to me woman? Sitting all day on your ass, high atop headquarters, with all the big shots, put twenty pounds on you. I can’t stand the sight of you anymore!” Mom began crying. Mel approached mom with his fist clenched, “Don’t you ever disrespect my mother, you bastard! I’m going to teach you a lesson in manners!” “Why don’t you try and give me my first lesson, pimple punk!” I grabbed a fork, ready to leap from my seat at the dinner table and pummel Mel. Mom placed her hands firmly upon my shoulders preventing me to rise from the dinner table. “It’s all right, honey. Mel is just tired and hungry. Go sit in your recliner, Mel. I’ll reheat your meal and bring it to you on a tray.” Mel stumbled into the living room and fell into his recliner, falling asleep. “I hate that bastard, mom. You don’t have to take any more crap from him!” “It’s between Mel, and me, honey. You stay out of it. I don’t want anything jeopardizing your bright future.” Mom kissed me on the cheek, and retreated to the kitchen. Mel didn’t spare any contempt for his stepson, often hurling insults at me, “Why don’t I ever see you on a date? Is it that pimple scarred face frightening the girls away, or are you gay?” I never burdened mom by telling her about Mel’s insults, but I feared sooner or later, I’d have to defend mom from a beating. I don’t know why mom stayed with him. Mel and I seldom spoke with each other. I realized he was jealous knowing a white collar, well paid job, was waiting for me at Boeing as mom reported directly to the CFO. Mel would often look over my text books as I studied accounting, and sarcastically remark, “Text books are meant for the dunces at headquarters who could learn a thing or two from the men completing the hard work on the factory floor!” Mel accidently started a fire while soldering wires, the flames rose so quickly, it melted the nose cone into a closed coffin, where he burned to death. Rescue was impossible. It took a team of workers two hours just to open the melted sarcophagus and retrieve his charred body. Mom kept her feelings about the loss of Mel to herself. I suspect she was glad to be rid of him. I won a full academic scholarship to the nearby University of Washington where I majored in business administration and accounting. I enjoyed the natural beauty of Seattle and spent my weekends hiking and exploring the beautiful woods and mountains. The fragrance of the tall trees, fauna, and sparklingly streams made a lasting impression on me. I graduated with honors from U of W and my mother already had a junior auditor position lined up for me at Boeing. I was good with accounting and my mother pleaded with me to join Boeing, but I didn’t like the noise of the Boeing factory floor, smell of chemicals, barking loudspeakers, and the tight quarters the employees worked within. At my mom’s urging, I agreed to meet with her boss, the CFO of Boeing. He was a tall, slender, handsome, brilliant, aerospace engineer, much younger than I would have expected. He was also kind, considerate, but tested my ability to work with financial reports. I passed his testing with ease and humility. “Hutch’s Lumber Company”, was located in a nondescript, midrise office building with a commanding view of the port, where, from the President’s office, Mr. Hutchison could watch his lumber being loaded onto truck trailers, rail cars, and cargo ships destined for locations throughout the US, and the world for the construction of new homes and buildings. Mr. Hutchinson survived Iwo Jima, and, after discharge from the Marine’s, returned to his native Seattle. Armed only with a buzz saw, axe, and a flatbed lumber truck, he leased forest land suitable for cutting quality lumber, began cutting trees, and selling them to the mills. His timing was perfect as post WW2 America was experiencing a home building boom. He soon bought the land and many additional acres surrounding it, in addition to building his own milling operation, resulting in higher profits. Within a decade, Hutch’s Lumber Company was one of the largest employers in Seattle. Mr. Hutchinson had a reverence for the forest. He was always considerate to cut trees only in areas where the ecosystem wouldn’t be upset, and would plant saplings for future cutting. There wasn’t a name for it at the time, but he was the forerunner of “sustainability”. After I left the Boeing interview, and was awarded a job offer, I hit the freeway and found myself behind a bright red “Hutch’s Lumber Company” truck loaded with neatly stacked, freshly cut lumber. I was curious, and wanted to see what the lumber business was all about. Hutch’s Lumber Company was a prestigious company in Seattle, and I always admired their bright red flat bed trucks hauling neatly stacked lumber or recently felled trees. I followed the truck to its headquarters. I asked the guard at the gate if I could visit the employment office. It was refreshing to be free from the classroom, the confinement of an aerospace factory, and witness the hard working men and women, wearing overalls, gloves, silver hard hats, whistling, joking, and ribbing each other, as they cut, loaded, and performed their work outside in the lumber yard, rain or shine, warm or cold. I was told to wait outside a tiny, one room office with the door marked, “Employment”. Behind the door, I could make out the faint sound of a man “making time” with a woman on the telephone. I braced myself in my “Sears best” suit when I heard the phone slam and the door open. I was greeted by Nathan Andrew Hutchison, whose card read, “Personnel Department Chief”. Nathan was handsome, tall, blond, athletic, and was Mr. Hutchinson’s only son. Nathan invited me to sit, quickly reviewed my sparse resume, but his interest picked up when he read, “University of Washington graduate.” “Hello, fellow “Husky!” I graduated last year. Man, a double major in business and accounting; you took college seriously. I majored in “frat parties” and barely graduated. Why do you want to work here? There’s plenty of work for an “accounting” guy in the fancy, glass office towers in Seattle?” “I enjoy the forest and have a reverence for the beautiful trees, streams, and rivers of Seattle. I’ve always appreciated your company’s stewardship of the woods.” “What’s your ultimate goal, “Edgar Holms?” “I’d like to work my way into the accounting department and make a positive contribution to your company’s “bottom line”. “I like you Holms but my pop has a hard and fast rule about new hires which usually results in smart candidates like you turning and running.” “What’s that, Mr. Hutchison?” “You’re required to spend a year working alongside the “hard hats” out in the lumber yard. You’ll wear a hard hat, overalls, gloves, and load or ship lumber for one year. We pay well, offer great benefits, overtime, but it can be grueling work, especially when we’re up against a deadline, or it’s raining and cold. If your foreman gives you the “thumbs up” after twelve months, I’ll promote you into headquarters. You can start tomorrow, but I’ve got to run now for an early dinner date with a former Husky cheerleader. Want the job? I need your answer now.” “Thank you for the opportunity Mr. Hutchison. I’ll make you and the company proud!” “I’m confidant you will, Holms. The shift starts at 6:00 am. Get yourself a pair of steel toed work boots, leather gloves, metal helmet, and dress for the changing Seattle weather conditions. Tell the guard at the gate, you’re there to see the Foreman, Mr. Rogers. Good luck.” During my first six months, the work was grueling. Many a night, I’d skip dinner and go right to bed. I woke every morning at 4:30, grabbing my metal lunch box, lovingly prepared by mom the night before, and be out the door and on the freeway. Most days, the shift would extend hours after 4:00 pm quitting time, lasting late into the evening. The overtime was generous, and since I was living at home, my bank account was growing rapidly. I enjoyed my work. I developed camaraderie with the hard working, less educated workers with large families whose livelihood depended upon their jobs. They taught me “tricks of the trade” on loading wood, driving a forklift, maneuvering a diesel truck with a flatbed trailer within tight quarters, but most of all, how to stay safe. There was a twenty year veteran of the company who was killed when an unsecured pile of wood fell off the trailer and crushed him to death. We’d share stories at lunch, talk sports, and were a friendly team. I was always invited by the crew to join them for a beer at a nearby tavern after work, but I didn’t drink. They didn’t take offense when I declined their invitations. In six months, my muscles grew, and my acne disappeared. I felt like a man. The crew referred to Nathan Andrew Hutchinson as “NAH” behind his back, because it was short for “Never Ass Hole” when somebody expected a raise, bonus, or submitted an idea for improving efficiency in the yard. The crew considered him a lazy, no talent, example of nepotism, and didn’t respect him. I refrained from referencing Nathan with disrespect. The employees loved his father who started the company with only an ax, buzz saw, and a flatbed pickup truck. They enjoyed his surprise visits to the lumber yard to say “hello” to each crew member he knew by name. Mr. Hutchinson was in his nineties. He wasn’t a large man, hunched over from years of hard work, walking with a cane, and still had a full head of silver hair he combed back, likely with “old school” “Brylcreem” or “Vitalis”. He wore a neatly trimmed moustache and beard. Despite his age, he could still lend a hand, if necessary, including maneuvering the forklifts, and driving the lumber trucks towing trailers. He loved his business and his employees. Inventory was maintained through a series of different colors painted on one end of the cord of lumber. Each color identified the quality, destination, or price of the cord. I also noticed the delivery orders, and scheduling of trips in and out of the yard, were completed on a clipboard with pen or pencil. It was the early days of computers and spreadsheet software, but in my spare time, I was able to convert many of the paper systems into software systems which quickly organized, calculated, and stored the data which could be emailed throughout the company, saving time and increasing efficiency. We began marking each cord of woood with an ID # rather than paint, which permitted greater accuracy in tracking and inventory control. I was nearing my sixth month anniversary on the job, and the foreman, “Rogers” barked, “Kid, you’re wanted in the President’s office. Don’t worry about cleaning up. Mr. Hutchinson respects lumber dust, grease, and mud on hard working employees. I’ve been advising him of your innovations and he wants to promote you. Don’t worry, kid, I’ve known “Hutch” for thirty years, and he’s a fair, no nonsense man. Whatever he asks you, give it to him straight, he’ll respect you, and you may not have to see my ugly mug again.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rogers, I’m on my way.” “Kid, don’t forget your friends down here in the yard. Good luck, Edgar!” I entered the lobby of the non-descript office building which was in keeping with Mr. Hutchinson’s prudent business practices. I was met by his secretary, and escorted directly to Mr. Hutchinson’s office. She knocked twice on the heavy, double, walnut doors, “Who is it? What do you want? “I’m here to deliver Edgar Holms, Sir.” “Show him in!” I entered Mr. Hutchinson’s office, the nerve center of a $200m per year in annual sales company. It was a sparse office with floor to ceilings windows, revealing all of the business operations within the lumber yard. I noticed Mr. Hutchinson’s son, Nathan Andrew Hutchinson, was in the office, sipping on a whiskey or bourbon remarking, “Well done, Holms! You’re the first in the history of the company to be promoted so fast!” Mr. Hutchinson rose from behind his desk, shook my hand firmly with his large, bear like paw, revealing a life of hard work, “Take a seat, Edgar.” I noticed a hand carved motto within his magnificent, walnut, executive desk, “We help build the world!” “I want to thank you for your inventory control innovations and promote you immediately into accounting. My son, Eddy, runs the department, and you’ll be working closely with him, and on occasion, with both of us. My secretary will discuss your raise, 401k, bonus, and other perks with you. Take the rest of the day off but show up tomorrow in a suit. Congratulations, son. We’ll be seeing more of each other.” Nathan rose and walked me to the door, shook my hand, and said, “Congratulations, Holms”. He slammed the solid walnut double doors to the office, behind me. The secretary was an older woman and kind, “Congratulations, Edgar. You impressed Mr. Hutchinson. I’ve been working for him for over forty years, and he isn’t impressed easily. I’ll discuss your raise and other matters with you, tomorrow.”
As I waited for the elevator, I overheard Mr. Hutchinson yell at Nathan, “Why the hell can’t you emulate that kid? Get out of here and let me work!” When I hit the parking lot, I immediately called mom with the good news. She was proud of me as I could hear her silently cry. It was about a year after my hiring; mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. I was called into the office of the Boeing CFO for whom my mother faithfully worked. He told me, “Edgar, I personally arranged for your mother to be examined by the best cancer specialists in the Northwest. There’s nothing they can do for her but keep her comfortable. Brace yourself, they tell me she won’t last long. I apologize but I have to discuss some of your family business affairs with you. Mel had a meager death benefit insurance policy. Upon examination of the policy, he had changed the Beneficiary from your mother, to a “shady” bookie in Vegas, I suspect he owed money, so there won’t be any insurance proceeds coming to you. Mel also had a union pension due his wife and yourself, but he borrowed against it without your mother’s knowledge, and unfortunately, the pension will be kept as repayment by the union.” I want you to know that Boeing is paying all of the funeral expenses in recognition of her decades of hard work, but your mother instructed me to have her remains cremated, placed within an airtight box, and permanently welded into a discrete location inside one of our new airliners. It was your mom’s way of insuring she would be in constant motion around the world. I’ll make all of the arrangements when I hear of her passing. You’ll be invited to see her “seat” on the plane if that’s your wish.” Edgar, you’re mother was an extraordinary employee. She often told me how proud she was of you, and I’ll miss her dearly. I want you to know there will always be a challenging position here at Boeing should you want it. I know Hutch personally, and I’ll have to engage in a fistfight with the old bastard to tear you away from him, but I’ll take my “lumps”. Boeing has made arrangements to admit her, and cover all of the costs, into the finest hospice in the State. Your mother will live out her last days in luxury, like a “Queen”. I’m sorry for your loss, Edgar. Goodbye, and good luck, son.” Boeing admitted mom into to a beautiful hospice resembling a five star hotel with kind caregivers, and her window looked straight at Mount Rainier. Fresh flowers were sent every day with a kind note from her fellow employees, including her boss, and the President of Boeing. Her hospice suite was larger than our house. I’d visit her every day after work, leaving when she fell asleep, and on the weekends, until she became too exhausted to entertain me. The staff told me she stopped eating and death was near. The morphine kept her comfortable but her time to pass quickly arrived one evening. I held her hand, and mom gripped my hand like a vice as death appeared, but she managed to whisper, “You remind me of your father who would be proud of you. I love you, son.” Her grip softened when she died. I’ll never forget mom. I owe my work ethic to her, and my desire to take a chance with a blue collar company with a great crew of guys to my father. Hutch’s Lumber Company had an annual Christmas party at Mr. Hutchinson’s mountaintop, log cabin inspired, summer mansion, on Orcas Island just off Seattle, which included a commanding view of the harbor and islands beyond. On a clear day, you could see Canada. Everybody with the title “SVP” and above was required to attend, flown by private plane to the small airport on Orcas Island, and boarded vans delivering them to Mr. Hutchinson’s mansion at the end of a long, winding, narrow dirt road. Prominently parked in the premier spot underneath the flag pole displaying the American, State of Washington, and “Hutch’s Lumber Company” flags, was a 1950’s Ford pickup truck Mr. Hutchison still drove since he started the company. At the end of the Christmas party around 10:00 pm, everybody who didn’t make their own accommodations on the island, would board the vans, return to the Orcas airport, and be flown back to Seattle. In the ensuing five years, I worked within the accounting department, assembling profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and statements of cash flows. It was November and I hadn’t seen Mr. Hutchinson for weeks. I didn’t find it my place to ask where he was but hoped he was ok, but as soon as I saw Nathan move into his father’s office, I knew Mr. Hutchinson was ill or dead. Nobody in the company noticed except the secretary. I was summoned to Mr. Hutchinson’s office. The secretary was tearful as she was winding up the affairs within her office, “Hello, Edgar. It’s nice to see you again. I’m sorry you’ll be given some disturbing news by Mr. Hutchinson’s son.” She escorted me to the heavy, double, walnut doors, knocking twice, saying nothing. “If that’s Holms, bring him in. I know you’re upset, Phyllis. Take the remainder of the day off and regain your composure.” “Thank you, Mr. Hutchinson.” Phyllis gave me a hug, collected her purse, and proceeded to the elevator, wiping tears from her eyes. Nathan was sitting at his father desk, feet atop the carved inscription, and sipping bourbon or whiskey. “Take a seat, Holms. I have disappointing news for you. It’s been my father’s tradition every Thanksgiving; to drive his vintage, first pickup truck, upon which he painted “Hutch’s Lumber Company” on the door, up into the woods, where he would carefully pick out, and fell, the perfect Christmas tree. He always carried a sapling he would plant within its place. The tree was on a steep slope, and, as he laid the buzz saw into the tree, he slipped, and the buzz saw nipped his femoral artery. He wasn’t found for three days, but the search party said he bled out quickly and painlessly. I’ve kept it a secret because my father told me that upon his death, the company would stay open for business, with no ceremonies, and business as usual!” I wiped a tear from my eye, and felt like I lost a second father. I lowered my head, unable to say anything to assuage the loss of an icon and father to Nathan. “Edgar, my father spoke highly of your ambition, intelligence, and admittedly, used your talents to give me a swift kick in the ass which I needed. I knew I could never live up to your standards, and love for the business. I have more disappointing news which only you, corporate consul, and I are privy to. I trust you, Edgar, to keep this information confidential. “You can trust me to maintain the confidentiality of the information, Mr. Hutchinson.” “Effective January 2nd, Hutch’s Lumber Company will be owned by a Canadian lumber conglomerate. It was a difficult decision to sell but the price was too good to pass up, and the state and federal regulations are becoming too cumbersome for me to continue. All employees, including the executive staff, will be notified by email on December 30th, and provided two weeks’ severance pay. Sadly, our Christmas party will be our last, but it will be an opportunity to toast a company approaching its 100th anniversary, and its founder. The Governor has accepted our invitation and will provide a eulogy.” Nathan never gave a damn about the company and saw the sale as an early retirement. For years, I had been correcting his accounting mistakes, and completing the accounting work which was his responsibility for which he took credit, often placing it upon my desk at 4:30 pm on a Friday, and expecting it to be completed, first thing Monday morning. I thought about the awful timing of the announcement as loyal workers were looking forward to enjoying the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Many of the employees were approaching retirement age, and weren’t prepared for the loss of a salary, and other employees had young families to support. Two weeks’ severance pay was an insult to the employees who gave their hearts and souls to the company. “You’re terminated effective immediately, Edgar. I know you’ve accumulated an impressive company matched 401K. I suspect you’ll be landing another job with less stress, more pay, and prestige after the New Year. I’ll provide you with an excellent reference.” “Please accept my condolences on the loss of your father. He was a great man. I’ll miss Hutch’s Lumber Company.” “I grew up with the company, and suffered under the watchful eye of my father my entire life. He was a tough old bastard, and losing mom and my little sister in an automobile crash, made dad expect more from his only surviving son, who, frankly, could never live up to his expectations. After the loss of mom and my little sister, dad refrained from dating or marriage which might have brought him happiness. I miss him but in some ways don’t. I expect you at the Christmas party as I’ve planned to announce the passing of my father, and the sale of the company. If you’ll excuse me, I have to jump on a conference call with the corporate attorneys handling the sale. Don’t be late for the Christmas party!”
I was fired on a Thursday morning but choose to finish out my work day. This was the only Christmas party I looked forward to attending because it was in honor of Mr. Hutchinson, and an opportunity to pay homage to his wife and daughter. On Friday, I decided to take the Ferry from the Anacortes Ferry Terminal in Seattle, aboard the ferry for the hour and a half trip to Orcas Island, where I made arrangements for a cozy, “A” frame cabin, a mile up a dirt road near the entrance to Moran State Park. I’d wake to deer grazing in my yard, and a chorus of birds singing. I had a rental car waiting for me at the Orca’s ferry terminal where I would first stop at the small town market for groceries. As the ferry retreated from the landing towards Orcas Island, I pondered how I would miss the preparation of the balance sheets, profit and loss statements, statement of cash flows, and other accounting duties so essential to the company. I missed having the opportunity to share the news about the company with my mother, and receive her soothing assurances everything would “work out”, when the “going got tough”. I felt betrayed by Nathan, selling a company I grew to love, and notifying the employees of their termination over Christmas with a meager severance. It hurt me that he didn’t have the decency to acknowledge the recent loss of my mother. The specter of finding another satisfying job, seemed dauntless. I could call the CFO at Boeing and be hired, but Boeing would remind me of my loving mother and terrible Mel. Perhaps, I’d travel until I figured things out. I recalled the motto carved into Mr. Hutchinson’s desk, “We help build the world!” We did it with quality products, and reverence for the forest. I would truly miss the work, and a unique American company, now owned by a foreign conglomerate. I hoped they would treat the forest with reverence but I doubted it. After the Christmas party, I’d spend the remainder of the weekend on the island hiking, and reveling in the natural beauty of the streams, lakes, and rivers of the marvelous island. I would have dinner in the quaint town, or at the Rosario resort, and use the time to reflect upon my plans moving forward. I was alone in the world. My parents deceased, no siblings, immediate family, and unfortunately, no woman to share my grief and wonder of the Christmas holiday. The cabin was cozy and a perfect escape into nature from the turmoil which had befallen me as a son and a loyal employee. As I was preparing for the Christmas party, I resented having to fake Christmas cheer. I can’t change the inevitable trajectory of my lonely life. Most of all, I resent Nathan’s taking over his father’s beloved summer mansion, and using the party as an excuse to show off his motorized land and water “toys” including, Mr. Hutchinson’s valuable art collection, consisting of paintings, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and murals from “The Northwest School”, flourishing in Seattle during the 1930s-40s. Most of the collection was from the most famous artists of the period, known as "the big four": Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Their artwork became nationally recognized when Life Magazine published a 1953 feature article on them. It took decades for Mr. Hutchinson to assemble his prize art collection, and I knew it would break his heart to see the collection sold at auction. I hope he made arrangements within his Trust to bequeath the collection to the Seattle Art Museum or the University of Washington. It’s late afternoon and the two lane road is narrow and winding. Tall trees lining both sides of the narrow road provide a canopy of darkness, and there are no streetlights. Just a single yellow line down the middle of the road guides me to the Christmas party. The narrow road continues to twist and turn as the remaining day light grows dimmer. I turn on my headlights and drive slowly as the narrow road is unfamiliar. I struggle to keep my eyes on the yellow line, and I miss a hair pin turn, cross the yellow line into the oncoming lane. I hear a blaring horn similar to that of our lumber trucks; see the giant truck and trailer approach, warning me by flashing its headlights, and sounding its horn. It’s approaching closer by the second. I attempt to swerve back into my lane, but I’m blinded by the bright headlights of the lumber truck, and struck head on. The last thing I remember was seeing the terror on the truck driver’s face before he crashed into my car head on. I was in a dreamlike state, silent, and black. There was no bright light beckoning me, nor the familiar voices of loved ones calling for me. I was either unconsciousness or dead. I awoke from what appeared to be a “power nap” and had total amnesia regarding the crash. I couldn’t remember why I was parked alongside the road, looked at my watch, and knew I better get moving fast unless I wanted to be late for the Christmas party. I started the car, and entered the dark, lonely road, noticing thick, freshly laid, skid marks of a truck leading deep into the forest, out of sight, and shards of metal, glass, and plastic car parts. Evidently, there must have been a terrible accident. I continued my trek down the dark highway, struggling to follow the yellow line which would lead me to a dirt road with a sign marked, “Hutch’s Hideaway. Private Road.” “What the hell is that crossing the road?” As I look down the road, I see something or somebody crossing the narrow highway, stopping, and standing on the yellow line with a hand up motioning me to stop. I can’t tell if it’s a park ranger, hiker or a homeless person. I begin to slow the car, and as I get closer, it begins to look like an animal, but what the hell is an animal doing standing in the middle of the road with its hand up directing me to stop like a traffic cop? I click on my high beams, and sure enough, it’s a big brown bear standing on its two hind legs wearing a Christmas stocking hat, and waving me to a stop. Maybe it’s just a drunken member of a party on his way home? I stop the car and roll down the window. The bear leans in and says, “Hello, Sir. I’m “Paddy”. I’m late for the Christmas Party! Can you give me a lift?” Before I can answer, he opens the passenger door, and plops down next to me, closing the car door behind him. The stranger has a wild animal smell about him, and is so large, he causes my rental car to lean to one side as the car struggles to regain momentum, and head back down the road.
“I’m Edgar Holms. Where’s your party? I’ll drop you off as close as I can.” Paddy places his paw around the back of my seat, and I can’t help but notice his sharp claws which didn’t appear to be part of a costume. “I’m going to a company Christmas party and I can’t be late, Paddy.” “Why is punctuality so important, Edgar?” “It’s my bosses Christmas party including a eulogy read by the Governor for the passing of our founder, Mr. Hutchinson.” “Hutch died! What a great guy! He really loved the forest and cared about its welfare. All of us inhabitants admired him. I’m sorry to hear he died.” “I’m sorry for the loss, too, Paddy. I really don’t want to attend the party but owe it to Mr. Hutchinson to pay my last respects. The boss’s son wants all of the senior executives in attendance. It’s going to be a sad affair. His son sold Hutch’s Lumber Company and we’ve all been fired.” “So, don’t go! Stand up for yourself, and show some courage. Mr. Hutchinson knows you gave him 110% of your efforts, and you can visit his gravesite at a later time to pay your respects. You don’t owe his son anything. I know the location of the family burial plot where Hutch will be buried alongside his wife and daughter. It’s located near the most beautiful pristine lake you’ll ever see. In fact, we’ll pass by it. I come out of hibernation every year just to attend our Christmas Party because it’s a chance to laugh, sing, and eat with my friends. The Christmas party is the highlight of my year.” “My job was all I have, Paddy. I have no family, wife, job, and no future. I’m nothing without my job.” Paddy’s massive arm rested across my shoulder like a “coach” consoling a player. “You’re nothing? You’re human! You’re still young, and healthy. Take control of your destiny, and follow your instincts. Don’t do anything you don’t enjoy or be with people who don’t appreciate you! You’ve been given a free pass by life to start over! In about a mile, you’ll see a sign which says “Misty Campground”, pull in there and stop”. I think to myself, “I can drop Paddy at the camp ground and probably still make the party on time.” “Here’s the campground, Edgar, turn in here!” The sage remarks coming from a big brown bear with a Christmas stocking hat really “freaked me out”. I don’t know how old Paddy is but he seems wise like an old man. His persona is similar to the loving grandpa or uncle everyone wants. Most of all he is genuine. He knows what’s important to him, and for Paddy, it is living in the moment. He reminds me oddly, of Mr. Hutchinson. I slow my car and make the turn into the campground and stop. I turn to Paddy and hold out my hand to shake his massive paw, thank him for his sage advice, and wish him a Merry Christmas.
“Turn off the engine and the lights and let’s wait here, Edgar”. It crosses my mind that I might be set up for a carjacking, beating, or killing. As the minutes slowly tick by, the campground gets darker, colder and still. The silence is uncomfortable but punctuated by the cries of wolves in the distance who sound like they must be at their own “party”. The moonlight provides about the same amount of luminosity as a dying light bulb. I suddenly hear a heavy pounce atop my car. It must be a big animal! And then, I hear that familiar growl of a wolf! Suddenly, standing on my hood, and staring directly at me with steely blue eyes, is the fiercest black and grey wolf you can imagine. It must be 150 pounds with sharp, razor like teeth I’ve only seen on sharks. The wolf is coiled tightly like a spring ready to pounce, and leap through my window ripping me apart. Will Paddy protect me or is Paddy an accomplice? Just as I prepare for my inevitable death, I hear Paddy say, “Cool it Cody! He’s our ride to the Christmas party”. Cody “unwinds” from his fierce coil, loses the ferocity, and runs alongside to the rear passenger door. Paddy reaches around and opens the rear door for his wolf friend. Cody leaps inside, happy to get out of the cold, and closing the door behind him with his jaw locked tightly around the door handle. “Edgar, meet Cody. Cody, meet Edgar who has graciously agreed to provide us a ride to the Christmas party.” The wolf simply uttered a soft growl as to say, “thank you”. “Edgar, follow this dirt road until you see the sign “Caves” and turn in there”. “If you say so, Paddy, but I’m afraid I may be straying far and will be late for my party.” Cody sat upright in the backset. “Sorry about scarring you, Edgar. We wolves have a bad “rap” and I have to be more mindful to be mellow. Most people think of wolves as “loners”. Yeah, we like our freedom, but we really value friends, and I can’t wait to see them at the Christmas Party”. “I’m a loner too, Cody.” “Being a loner means you value freedom, or you lack trust in people, or yourself. It’s about “balance”. Trust your instincts and you’ll find the “balance” which makes you happy. The Christmas Party is my yearly opportunity to have fun and be with my friends. It’s our balance, right, Paddy?” “I’ll second that statement!” As we drive slowly and carefully along the dirt road through the dark forest for miles, we pass a glistening still lake. It’s the cleanest, clearest mirror you can imagine. I’m reminded Hutch will soon be reunited with his loving wife and daughter nearby. I see the moon and stars reflecting off the pristine lake and out of nowhere, a comet streaks across the mirrored lake as if to guide us to the party. At this moment, and for the first time I ever remember, I feel no fear, no loneliness, regret, pain, anger, loss, or necessity to attend Mr. Hutchinson’s Christmas party. I feel true friendship and camaraderie with Paddy and Cody. We are “one” with a common purpose. Getting to their Christmas party! We arrive at a dead end on the road with a sign reading, “Caution- Do Not Enter The Caves”. I turn off the motor and notice a narrow entrance to the cave inside a granite mountain. I can see it is a tight fit and very dark inside. Paddy opened his door, and ran to the mouth of the cave, shouting, “I’ll see you fellows inside.” Paddy squeezes inside, and out of sight. It was a tight fit to get his big butt inside the mouth of the cave, but Paddy was successful. Cody exits the car and approaches my door. “It’s your turn, Edgar. You’re welcome to join us or continue to your party, but I assure you, you’ll miss the time of your life at our party”. “How do I get inside the cave, Cody? It looks too tight and I’m claustrophobic.” “Don’t worry. I’ll be right behind you”. I squeeze into the tight opening to the cave, and crawl through the dark, damp, musty, tunnel with many twists and turns. I have no fear knowing my friends are in front and behind me, and suspect something extraordinary awaits me at the other end. As I continue to crawl, just in the distance, I see a pinpoint of warm, glowing, yellow light, and the closer I crawl towards the light, I notice the familiar, sweet fragrance of fireplace kindling, home cooking, baked goodies, laughter, and song. I haven’t experienced this much happiness since I was a child. Suddenly, I feel a push from behind and a tender pull by my collar, and I fall out of the mouth of the cave, and into the Christmas Party! As I get up off the floor, and dust myself off, the first thing I see is a toy train circling the cave, and atop each train car, is a bunny rabbit enjoying the ride. The cave is warm, spacious, and lit by yellow, orange, and red flames, from a massive fireplace adorned with Christmas stockings, ribbons, and Christmas bulbs. Everywhere I look there are tables covered by Christmas inspired linen, with cakes, cookies, candies, and refreshments. Paddy has already stationed himself at an upright piano and pounds out, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas; it’s the best time of the year.” Adjacent to the piano is a grandiose Christmas tree. It must be twelve feet high. It’s thick, green, healthy and so tall, hummingbirds, and blue birds, dutifully carry colorful bulbs and ribbons to each branch. Even the tree looks like it’s having a great time! It was the type of tree Mr. Hutchinson would have chosen for his home, and it was his custom, to carve his initial, “H” into the base of the tree. To my surprise, I saw the familiar “H” carved into the base. It was Mr. Hutchinson’s last act before he died. I was happy his Christmas tree made it to this fabulous party. It would have made him happy. A “12-Point” Buck wearing a bow tie, is moving throughout the cave, offering guests a variety of tasty drinks, gracefully hanging from each of his 12-Point antlers. Across the other side of the cave, I see a beautiful swan. Not the “leading lady” of “Swan Lake”, but the “understudy” waiting for her big break. I watch the beautiful swan move throughout the party alone, appearing uncomfortable or self conscious, the same way I feel when I’m at parties. The swan catches my glance and I quickly turn away embarrassed that I was staring. As I turn back to see where the Swan went, and staring me right in the face, the beautiful swan stands before me. “Hello, I’m Priscilla. I saw you from across the room and want to tell you how impressively dressed you are. I’m so happy you came to the party”. “I’m happy to meet you Priscilla and apologize for staring at you. My name is Edgar. You look like a prima ballerina.” “No need to apologize for staring at me, Edgar. Swans have this “ballerina” mystique, it’s one of the reasons I don’t like parties. I’m also very self conscious about this “band” attached to my leg”. Priscilla gracefully lifts her leg, revealing a black, plastic, tracking band which annoyingly flashes a yellow light. “I’m just not comfortable in crowds but this year I made the resolution that I would come to the party, socialize, and not care what anybody thought of this atrocious band!” Priscilla was elegant, kind, and when she spoke to me, it felt like high school again, just before meeting a new girlfriend. “Why is that band attached to your leg?” “The naturalists, who study the woods, and provide veterinary care to the animals, attached a tracking device to monitor my “migration patterns”. It’s ironic because I never migrate!” “Would you prefer not to wear it, Priscilla? “Oh, that would be such a wonderful Christmas present, except nobody here has an opposable thumb.” “Allow me, my dear.” I reached down with both hands, firmly grasping the plastic band, and broke it apart! I threw the band to the floor, crushing it with my foot, forever extinguishing the flashing yellow light. Priscilla leaned in towards me, wrapped her long neck around mine, and gently pecked my cheek. I never felt more masculine, confidant, courageous, and admired by a woman in my life! Just at that moment, a “conga line” of wolves, bears, mountain lions, raccoons, and deer dance by us. Pricilla and I share a laugh and she suggests, “After that “parade”, we both need a breather. Let’s sit here.” We sit together in a plush leather sofa enjoying the merriment. Across the cave, I see Cody and a pretty red fox are off alone, in a cozy corner of the cave, enjoying each other’s company. The twelve point buck approaches and offers us a Christmas drink. “For the gentleman and lady, I suggest the drinks at the top right and left points of my antlers.” Priscilla gracefully extends her long neck, and with her beak, carefully retrieves the warm scented drinks. With each sip of the tasty, warm, “hard” eggnog, I become “one with the moment” we discussed in the car. The “moment” is the company of a loving, beautiful friend. The music, happiness, and good cheer continue to unfold for our pleasure. With each sip of the eggnog, I become happier and more content with my life than at any time I recall. A euphoric sensation begins at my toes, and moves up my body, and into my head. I’m getting sleepy and close my eyes as the room begins to spin like a slow moving merry-go-round. Priscilla’s loving wing comforts me as my head falls into its loving embrace. I close my eyes and fall into a deep sleep. Although I’m asleep, and as if dreaming, I hear, “Beep, beep, beep…” “Get me Epinephrine with a cardiac needle, nurse.” “No response, flat line, doctor”. “Hand me the paddles. Clear!” “No response, flat line, doctor”. “Let’s call the time of death. 12:01 am. December 25th. What did the police report say about the accident, nurse”? “He swerved to avoid hitting an animal crossing the road, and ran head on into a lumber truck coming the opposite way. The patient was killed on impact. The logger didn’t suffer a scratch, and is very remorseful although he wasn’t negligent. He’s waiting outside for news about the patient. He’s a Hutch’s Lumber Company driver”. “Was it a dear darting across the road, nurse”?
“No, the Trooper saw bear tracks and thinks it was a bear crossing the road”. “I guess this poor bastard won’t make it to his Christmas Party! I’ll give the bad news to the driver.” “Orderly, “bag” him and take him to the morgue”. “Yes, nurse.” The orderly was a very large man who gently wrapped my body in a clean white sheet, and placed it on the gurney for delivery to the morgue. He seemed very familiar and kind. I noticed as he was pushing the gurney, his large hands resembled bear paws. The orderly reached the morgue, and gently wheeled my body into the refrigerated crypt remarking, “Mercy, me! I’ve seen a lot of banged up dead humans before, but none with a smile ear to ear like this guy! I wonder what he was thinking about before he died?” I fell permanently, into a, peaceful, forever happy, darkness.