Lucas peered into the small round mirror nailed to the wall, smoothing his hand over his firm, brown skin. The light from the desk lamp captured the cool, silver undertones of his face. He was curious about what Tracy said last week about a scandal before trailing off. She hadn’t wanted to touch the subject again, and he got a feeling she was actively avoiding him. Lucas went back to his laptop. If there was any such scandal at the magnitude Tracy had hinted, it would be archived.
There it was, an old article about fifteen years old from the business section of the Express-Times. Tom Allen’s name was highlighted on the page under an article titled Crescent Valley Factory Manager Who Stole From Company’s Coffers Gets Bigger Paycheck. Lucas eyes’ glued onto the screen as he read through the lengthy article:
“Old Funck, the single largest employer in Crescent Valley is involved in the largest embezzlement case of the year. The factory manager of the Old Funck, Tom Allen, confessed to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company after news leaked out from employees within the factory. Community observers, who wish to remain unknown, suggested the embezzled money was used to pay for expensive legal fees that assisted Allen to fight a continuing brutal legal battle against his wife for the custody of his small daughter Tracy. The short man of 42 would not divulge more except to profess that he was guilty. Ms. Allen refused any comment for this story. The owner of the Old Funck also refused any comment except to say he would not be pressing charges. Sources has leaked, however, that Tom has received a major raise and …”
Lucas sat back in his chair, heart pounding in his chest as bits and pieces from the past filtered into his consciousness. He wasn't surprised about the raise. That was typical Gramps in action. He had heard the company stories at every town event that Old Funck sponsored, about the august evening fire that broke out in Crescent and consumed the Mills Farming Complex, giving Gramps the chance to purchase the old farm from the previous owner.
Gramps had kept the workers, the majority of whom were black, from losing their jobs and transformed Old Funck into the first black-owned company in the town. The place has been a hub of black pride ever since, independent and dignified with more black families moving in every year. Gramps’ decision to give his employees a raise instead of firing them etched his character and Old Funck’s place in Crescent. Gramps’ treatment of Tom was no different.
He was more surprised he’d forgotten Tom and Tracy. He’d been only a few years old around the time of the case, but he remembered snippets of conversations and sidelong glances. That winter Tracy had enrolled into the same school with him. Tracy’s comment about ribbons wasn’t so unbelievable anymore. She used to sit in the seat right in front of him when she moved schools. His cheeks burned remembering his favorite pastime.
Occasionally he would pull out Tracy’s ribbons quietly from her head while she was hunched over the coloring sheets on her desk. He would slip them into his pocket where he planned to fashion them into an obstacle course for his collection of little toy cars to cross over. He normally didn’t though. They were very pretty bright yellows and pinks, and when he let them rest between his nose and the top of his pursed lips he could smell cinnamon and ginger from Tracy’s home-made shampoo.
That all ended when Tracy suddenly left his school before the end of the school year and didn’t return. Tom must have lost custody of Tracy. He would have expected to be more angry about finding out Tom’s embezzlement, but he wasn’t. Gramps had impeccable judgment of character, and Tom had given much more back to the company over the years than he had taken. Still, he suspected the scandal had more to do with Tracy’s avoidance of him.
It surprised him how quickly he’d grown accustomed to seeing her everyday. He had made several fake stops to the water cooler, and planned routes for the bathroom and copiers that always passed by her door just so he could peek in her office and see her. He’d partially joked about redesigning the office space to something similar to what he had at his internship, glass frames that replaced boring white walls, and blue carpeting that matched their idea for the logo.
Lucas laughed, thinking his main reason was so he could see her without the walls in the way. For the past week her door remained shut. Several times he’d stop in front of her door, raised his fist to knock, but then lost his courage and headed back to his office.
Lucas tapped out a beat with his fingers against the side of his laptop, feeling the hot air pulsing from the sides against the fine hairs on his hands. The screen flashed to signal the program had finished running the algorithms. With a couple of clicks, several graphs populated the computer screen.
Two severe spikes immediately caught Lucas’ attention. He keyed in some data points into the spreadsheet, confirming the match in the timing and amount of money he suspected left the company during the time of Tom's embezzlement. The line on the graph continued down for a few years before leveling with steady growth as expected. What didn't make sense was a steep incline in revenues in the last four years.
Lucas' stomach lurched, feeling physically sick at seeing the numbers. Sales were grossly overstated, the graph a mirror image of the first with the embezzlement. He scrolled through several screens, typing rapid-fire streams of numbers but they all told the same story. Lucas clutched his head in disbelief.
Only four employees had access to the books. Lucas shut his eyes tightly to bar out the thought that Tom was again stealing money from his grandfather. Or worse, like father like daughter. His limp hands fell to his sides. Who else would be dipping into the company’s money bag? Lucas looked up to his grandfather’s Wall of Values. Each of the three walls had a frame with the company’s values in gold lettering, Ethics, Integrity, and Stewardship.
Would Gramps survive this last betrayal?
Lucas’ eyes landed on a photo of his father. It was an old black and white Polaroid with frayed edges. His father sported a high top fade, his eyes staring intently at Lucas through big, thick glasses that covered his cheeks. It was one of those pictures taken from the many summers of working at the factory, his elbow resting on the wheel of a manual can sealer, not much older than Lucas was now in the heat of the hip-hop days.
Lucas couldn't help but notice the way his father's lips shied away from a smile but remained confident, complemented with thick eyebrows and a deep scouring of ridges of pleated skin on his forehead, with his index finger pressing against his temple, challenging Lucas to think.
Anger trickled through Lucas. It wasn't fair of his father to demand so much from him. He should have been here to take care of this, instead of dying in the Gulf War. Lucas remembered rare times in his childhood when Gramps memory permitted him a glimpse into the past. Misty long hours of his father working alongside Gramps. His father’s desire to come back home and continue in Gramps footsteps. He would have known what to do.
Lucas stood in his grandfather’s office leaning against the tiny window in the corner, trying to appear relax. Tom would be here any minute. This felt all wrong. At one time, he had secretly wished Tom was his father. If his notion of things was correct then all the efforts of the past several months would go down the drain.
Lucas’ bloodshot eyes darted to the door as Tom entered the room. The hot fresh scent of baked dough and cinnamon filled the air from the box in his hands. Tom placed the box on the desk peeling pack the handles and taking a deep whiff.
“Hmm, that’s the way we do it in Crescent.” Tom laughed, turning to Lucas and shaking his head in disapproval. “Look at ya, ain’t got a lick of sleep did ya? Young man these days don’t know how to do it right. Sit down, and I’ll make us some coffee.” Tom walked to the kitchen in the back, obviously familiar with the layout of the office.
“Now, what ya got for me?” Tom called out.
For a moment Lucas stared at Tom unable to say anything. He was trying to be as cool as he could be. He walked over to the desk and pulled out the sheets he had printed this morning.
“I finished adding the data into the system and ran some tests. There were some things I could not understand. I was hoping you could help me,” Lucas said.
Tom came back into the room, pouring two cups of coffee, handing one to Lucas. Lucas grabbed the cup, having the relief of having something in his hands to steady them. Tom started flipping through the charts hesitating at each chart Lucas had circled with a blood-red permanent marker, but saying nothing. Lucas itched to know what was going on in his head. He spoke cautiously.
“The graphs may seem different, since you’ve probably never used this system before. But it’s the same thing you would see on a balance sheet.” Lucas leaned in, his eyes transfixed on Tom’s face, watching for any telling sign of the truth.
He pointed and tapped his index finger at the last graph in red. “Maybe you can help me understand some things, like 1998 and the profits, and inventory numbers of the four recent years.”
Tom looked up at Lucas. His face contracted, he swallowed hard several times before he again lowered his head. Lucas sighed, looking away in disgust.
“Look here son, it’s not what you think,” Tom said.
“And what do I think? That you embezzled money from Gramps to fix your love-life?”
Tom’s fist hit the desk, sending some coffee spilling to the ground.
“Nah, I didn’t come up with that one. It’s all in here. This I can understand. ” Lucas plopped a copy of the news article about the embezzlement on the desk in front of Tom. He swiveled in his chair, his hands pulling at his hair and punching the air. “Why did you do it this time Tom? To pay for your new beach house? Or maybe it was for a more noble cause of putting Tracy through college? But why not just--” Lucas’ sentence cut off.
Tom’s muscular arm snaked out and grabbed Lucas by the his shirtfront pulling him out of his chair and over the desk, his face almost pressed against the surface of the desk. Tom’s eyes was bulging, lips pursed over his clenched jaw. Lucas gasped for air, grabbing the edge of the desk with one hand and trying to loosen Tom’s grip with the other.
“You piece of... I would wring your neck right now if it wasn’t for your grandfather… your grandfather…” Slowly Tom’s fists opened.
Lucas took the opportunity to rip himself away, sprawling back into the chair behind him. Several small white buttons from his shirt scattered to the floor. He watched Tom turned to the side and methodically pick up his coat and hat from where he was sitting earlier. Without saying a word he turned to leave. For the first time Lucas noticed Tracy standing by the open door.
Tom stopped on his way out to look up at his daughter. “Pack everything you own from here and meet me in the truck in fifteen minutes.”
As soon as Tom was out of sight, Tracy stalked into the room. “How could you talk down to Dad like that? You think your stupid numbers mean everything.”
“You were in on this too?” Lucas asked incredulously.
“I’ve been helping Dad with the accounting since the backlog back in December. It didn’t take long to see that the numbers on the balance sheet didn’t add up.”
“Great. We can all see the proof. So what’s the problem? Am I supposed to act like this hasn’t been happening?” Lucas was still massaging his neck.
“My dad has dedicated his whole life to this company and this is what he gets in return from a spoiled brat who thinks he runs everything." As she talked, tracks of tears ran down Tracy’s face. "And how can you talk about my mom and dad's marriage so casually? Who do you think you are?”
Lucas watched her use the back of her hands to wipe away the tears and then walked out, chest heaving and back straight as a rod.
Lucas entered through the door, the mesh screen banging against it. It was a pretty little private nursing home, painted baby blue on the outside with a white fence around it. Soothing earth tones and cool greens greeted him, as did the nurse attending the care of his grandfather.
“Mr. Range. How are you this day?” said the middle-aged woman. The way she called him that made him feel much older than he was.
“Hey, Betty. Can you show me where the real Mr. Range is?” Lucas said. Betty hesitated a moment before pointing him to the left. “First left and then a quick right to the patio outside. Now you let me know if you need anything while you’re here.”
“Sure will.” Lucas passed his hands through the sweat on his neck, using his shirt to pat himself dry as he followed Betty’s pointing finger down the hall. He was surprised to see Gramps standing by the grill tongs in hand, garbed in white Bermuda shorts, bright orange t-shirt, and beach hat. The smell of cumin, coriander, and oregano grounded with other spices mingled with fresh salmon and white smoke slithering up from the grill. Gramps couldn’t have looked any better. “Lucas, glad you could make it!” Gramps bursted out.
“You knew I was coming today?” Lucas asked.
“It was about time. Called at the office this morning, but you weren't there. Ain’t much place you can hide in Crescent Valley.” Gramps pointed to the small beach table and chairs in the corner, and then to the white box on the ground. “Take a seat and I’ll bring you some salmon. The condiments are in the cooler.”
“Gramps, uhh, when did you get better? I mean I’m happy to see you well. I just thought your recovery was going much slower than expected,” said Lucas.
Gramps swatted his hands in the air to dismiss any doubt to his good health. “The body is an amazing piece of machine son. Ain’t nothing some rest, sunshine, and love can’t cure.”
“Love?” Lucas ducked his head, remembering the conversation he had with Tom about abandoning Gramps. Tom was right.
“Don’t worry about that. Go make yourself useful and grab some beer and more ice from the fridge.” Lucas obeyed Gramps instructions, heading back inside.
Seeing Gramps this well was almost a shock to his system. He had decided to pay a visit on a whim, needing someone to talk to. The office was a ghost town these days with both Tom and Tracy gone. He’d found himself going to the factory floor seeking human contact, but the spiteful eyes of the floor workers provided no comfort. Going back home to Gramp’s large empty house hadn’t helped either.
It suddenly felt weird to be here. In his mind he had imagined talking to Gramps while he slept, sharing the weight of his thoughts and mistakes without burdening him with the reality of the hell he’d created at the factory. Lucas walked back onto the patio carrying a keg of Coors Light. He searched his mind for a light topic to talk about. “How long you been feeling this well Gramps?”
Gramps hesitated, clearing his throat and then, “ A couple of weeks now.”
“ A couple weeks? But just three days ago you needed your medicine change so you could breathe right, ” Lucas said in confusion.
“ Not quite,” Gramps said, “ I had to get my medicine change because I ran out, and my lung capacity was good enough that I could switch to a drug with less side effects.”
Lucas shoved the beers into the cooler, dumping the pack of ice on top and in between. He was sure what he’d said was the report he’d received. Seeing his face grow even darker in confusion, Gramp’s motioned for one of the beers and for Lucas to sit down, sitting in the chair across from him.
“Truth is Lucas, I've been well for more than a month now. I needed the rest and didn’t realize how hard I was driving myself before lending in the hospital.” Gramps looked straight at Lucas. “But the bigger reason was I wanted to stay away from the Old Funck while you were around. A man needs room to make mistakes, and I haven’t done that for you in the past.”
“Everyone had these expectations of me. I felt like I was suffocating,” Lucas said.
Gramps nodded. “Ever since your father died in that war, I became obsessed with the factory. It was the only piece of him I had left, besides you. ” It felt good to Lucas to hear Gramps finally talk about his father openly. “Then I realized how much you hated the Old Funck. I stopped paying attention to things I should have, like my heart palpitations way before the accident.”
Lucas shook his head. “It’s hell down there, I messed up everything.”
“It’s not all your fault. I never give you a chance to earn the respect of our people. It wouldn’t have mattered if you got control of the company now or after I die,” Gramps said.
Hearing Gramps talk about dying give Lucas chills, especially so soon after his recovery. Lucas didn’t realize he’d physically shuddered until hearing Gramp’s chuckle. “Don’t worry about me Lucas, it ain’t the Lord’s plan for me to go anywhere just yet. Now, about the hell you caused?”
Lucas averted his eyes from Gramps, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “There were some complications with the books.”
“If by that you mean the fudge in the numbers four years ago I know about that too,” Gramps sighed, “I know because I ordered Tom to do it.”
“What?” said Lucas.
“That’s the year the financial authorities beefed up their system and required audits of all companies past a certain size. The Old Funk was too old, too many things wrong with it. The regulatory fees alone would have driven us right into bankruptcy.”
“I thought Tom had embezzled money again. And I- I-”
“You were trying to protect me?” Gramps interjected.
“But doesn’t our values mean anything?” Lucas asked.
“Everyone makes difficult decisions Lucas,” Gramps’ shoulders slumped, his voice tired. "Lying to keep the company open saved many jobs and kept families in their houses. Maybe it was wrong, but it felt like the right thing to do.”
“But how do you know?” Lucas said. His stomach made a loud rumbling sound. He’d forgotten he hadn’t eaten before driving here.
“Like a hungry man’s stomach won’t lie to him with it’s grumblings,” Gramps laughed and jumped back up to the grill, placing salmon on the plates stacked by the cooler.
“Gramps, if you feel like you do about the Allens, then why haven't they been allowed to own stock in the company?” Lucas asked.
“ Tom’s job pays well and the topic hasn’t come up. This business is intended to stay in the family,” Gramps said, “What do you have in mind?”
“I have some ideas,” Lucas said. “ Not just for Tom, but for other employees to get ownership in the company. Ways to keep control in the family and push innovation.”
“Is that what you think we should do?” asked Gramps.
“I mean, I can put together a plan and you tell me if what’s you want an--” Lucas begin. Gramps stopped Lucas with an incredibly strong hand on his shoulder.
“Son, I’ll answer any questions you have about management. But I won’t tell you what I think or whether it’s the right decision,” Gramps pushed out a short breath.
Lucas looked shocked, not sure he was hearing Gramps correctly. Until now, nothing ever got done without Gramp’s approval.
“Empowerment, Lucas, is a wonderful thing. Freedom like no other,” Gramps said.
Gramps popped a large grape into his mouth and relaxed back in his chair. Gramps didn’t look like he was about to throw on a suit anytime soon. Surprised, Lucas cradled his drink between his hands. He wasn’t sure who was set free, him or Gramps.
Claudia Jean admits to being an old soul.