Monday, November 19, 2007

The Sheriff Called

Shawna woke me last night from the dark, dreamless NyQuil induced sleep of the dead. I looked up at the ceiling; we have one of those clocks that projects the time in enormous red numbers on whatever surface you aim it at. We pointed at the ceiling-not sure why. It's not the ideal place if you happen to be an insomniac (I sleep fine; Shawna doesn't sleep nearly as soundly); there's nothing worse than lying in bed, trying desperately to fall asleep, and watching the minutes tick away directly above you. It was 2:23.

"That was the sheriff's office."

"What'd they want," I asked, barely awake.

"They asked to talk to you."

"Oh," I said, hoping beyond hope that they'd at least have the decency to wait until morning to come pick me up for whatever crime I'd committed.

"I told them that you weren't available."

Apparently she wanted them to wait until morning too.


"They said they found your car."

"WHAT?!?!" I asked, wide awake now. "Which car?"

"The Honda," she said. We've only had the thing three weeks or so. Thing was, it was right out front when I'd fallen asleep a few hours earlier. If I'd thought for a moment, I'd have realized that it couldn't be that car; we haven't yet registered it in our name.

"I asked them which Honda, 'cuz ours is still out front," she said. "They said it's a '96 green Honda Accord."

We sold that three years ago. To a girl who goes to church with us.

"Oh," I said. "Let's go back to sleep."

"I told them we haven't owned that car for awhile," she said. "They asked if I was sure. I told them that I was pretty sure. They said they'd get back to us."

You'd think law enforcement would have access to current Department of Motor Vehicles records.

She text messaged the girl who now owns the car. She replied a few minutes later that the car was fine. It hadn't been stolen; she'd left it in the church parking lot the evening before, and our diligent law enforcement agency "found" it for her a few hours later. They drove down to the church parking lot and picked it up, safe and intact, at 2:30 in the morning.

I told Shawna to come back to bed; she was standing at the bedroom window staring out at our cars, as if they were in increased danger. She came to bed; she lay there shaking-adrenaline pumping, for a few minutes. I fell asleep. This sleep wasn't dark and dreamless.

In the dream, I was reading a newspaper story that quoted me. The quote was something like:

"Ah don't rahtly know, t'be awnest witcha. Ah reckon that they'll get some of thar money-ah shore do hope so."

The story then pointed out, apparently to support the reporters' supposition that I'm unlearned and ignorant, that I did not know what colors were in the US flag; nor did I know that California and Mexico each had their own flag.

I woke up in a sweat, cursing Donald Trump vehemently (well, I sort of silently cursed him, minus expletives, as I don't curse).

The newspaper story was chronicling the rise and fall of the business that I'd been a partner in-well, really, it was chronicling the fall because that's what sells papers (and, perhaps, because it was my dream, and thoughts of that fall are what eat away at my sanity, day after day). It was telling about a project that we'd worked on, the project that was to be our crowning achievement. And it was telling how we'd ran out of money, and had to walk away from the project. It was telling the story of how we'd had to pursue legal action against the developer, who promised to pay us. And it was telling the story of thirty or so homeowners with partially completed homes, left in the lurch when that same developer who owed us money, filed bankruptcy, leaving them without the means to finish their homes.

And it was making me out to be the dummy who charged in like a fool, and caused the whole house of cards to collapse.

I can't recall, but I'd guess that if I'd searched for the byline on that newspaper story, it would have had my name in it. After all, it was my dream wasn't it?

But then, I'm telling the last chapter first, aren't I?

It really started back in 2002 when Dad, my brother-in-law and I went into business for ourselves. In hindsight it was foolhardy, if not downright stupid. We were each in debt personally, and none of us had any cash (about $4,000 to our names-collectively). Nor did we have any business (that is, we had no customers).

Dad had carried a California General Contractor's license for a little over twenty years, and had quite a bit of on-and-off building experience. We'd talked, half-jokingly, for a number of years, of starting our own home-building business, but had never progressed past the talking point. Then, suddenly, circumstances changed, and the stars were suddenly aligned. So we made the plunge.

Our first job was, strangely enough, installing linoleum on the top of four cash register stands in a newly remodeled grocery store. We bid it at $700. It cost us $900 to get a professional to come in and fix our mistakes.

Our second job was to tile a shower. We got smart and charged what the job was worth this time-$900. Three full weekends later, the shower was tiled (to a tile bill of about $400-leaving $500 to cover our combined labor for three weekends; as best I can figure, it worked out to about $4.50/hour for each of us). That paid for our new logo and business cards.

We were in business!

We picked up a remodel job in a nearby city. The homeowner wanted to remove a number of walls, install a brand new kitchen (maple cabinetry, granite counters, recessed lighting-the "Architectural Digest" package). We quoted somewhere around $17,000. I think, in hindsight, if we'd finished the project, the cabinetry alone would have cost us $17,000. We didn't, though. Somewhere between removing the various walls, and installing a 38' long engineering beam in the ceiling, with ceiling and walls exposed, insulation removed, and electrical wires hanging like spaghetti from the ceiling (all to the tune of about $6,000 worth of billing-unpaid), the owner found out that his bank loan wasn't going to happen. He had a total of $11,000 to complete this project that we'd already started, and he decided he didn't want to pay us the $6,000 that we'd not yet billed.

This was my introduction to the world of small business. Small business, in my experience, is not glamorous; it's not even very fun most of the time. It's hand-to-mouth; you eat what you make. You sometimes chase checks to the bank. You borrow a nice suit and tie, and a respectable vehicle, from a friend, so that you can present a decent image to some prospective customer who likely wouldn't pay you a dime if they knew that your checking account had $27 in it. You meet customers at their home-and tell them it's a "value-added" service, when in reality, it's because your office doubles as your garage.

And when a customer decides he doesn't want to pay you for work you've already completed, you come home, and realize that you have two children who probably won't eat tomorrow if you don't get some money from someone. So you call that customer, and you grit your teeth, and you, in the steeliest tone you can muster, explain all the state contractor's codes, and the various penalties for non-payment, and you reference all the court cases you can find (and some that you've made up, to boot) in which non-paying customers are punished severely by our prudent justice system. And you explain how, if there's not a check waiting first thing in the morning, you'll drive down to the building department, and tell them about this guy who's doing a major remodel without a building permit.

And then you hate yourself. But you cry and laugh all the same as you hang up the phone, because he tells you, with fear and resignation in his voice, that first thing in the morning, there'll be a check waiting.

I slept well that night, for the first time in a few months. Our first real payday was tomorrow; tomorrow it would all begin to pay off.

We laughed and joked on the way to pick up the check. Just as he'd said, the check was waiting. We took it to the bank, hoping there were funds to cover it. It was good. We almost laughed out loud standing there in the bank.

For the first time since we'd opened the business checking account, we sat down that night to do the books with smiles on our faces.

We jumped in, mentally tallying up our individual paychecks. We joked as we organized various receipts and invoices. Then we started tallying them up. By the time the Accounts Payable were fully tallied, none of us were smiling. Mother, I think, might have been crying softly. It didn't leave more than $400 or so to go around. Our first paycheck since we'd been in business, and the three of us (no other real income between us, to speak of) had to find a way to split $400.

"Paul, what are we going to do?" Mother asked Dad, as I recall.

"God will take care of us Becky," he told her. "He always has."

And He did. He always has.

There's more to the story; I'll tell it, perhaps, over the next few weeks. It really is an interesting story. And while I KNOW it doesn't seem to relate AT ALL with my dream from last night, it will all come together-including why I don't like Donald Trump. But I realize now that I'd have avoided a little heartache if, in all my reading, I'd spent some time reading the best business book ever written:

"But don't begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first getting estimates and then checking to see if there is enough money to pay the bills? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of funds. And then how everyone would laugh at you! They would say, `There's the person who started that building and ran out of money before it was finished!'

-Luke 14:28-30 (NLT)

I imagine a few people laughed at us and said things like, "There are those guys who started that construction project, and lost money on it! They've not had a paycheck in four months!" I know that, lying in bed that sleepless night, after learning that I would have to scramble to find some cash, I berated myself. I lay there, heart beating a hole in my chest, fear holding the sleep at bay, wondering how Shawna could still love me, how she could ever stay with a person who couldn't adequately provide for his family.

She knew. She could tell what was going through my mind. She pulled me close and held me. And I cried, ashamed of myself. And she told me not to worry, that she loved me, and that it would all be OK.

And it was.

-to be continued...


Anonymous said...

Was it really THAT BAD? I don't remember it being that bad. God Has provided. Keep telling the story.
Love Mother

SheGazelle said...

This story captivates me for a few reasons: a)The company I work for was involved with the same project, b)since you are kind of related to us your story interests me, and c)I serve the same God.
Continue telling the story.
God sure is good.