Bitter Cold

 

It was a bitter cold day in December. Temperatures were in the low twenties, unusual for central Texas.

Jim Culpepper was driving his Navigator, a big black behemoth, because it was spacious and had four wheel drive. He punched the temperature up slightly and dialed the heat to come up around the floorboards. He was on his way to his ranch and a little deer hunting. It was about the only relaxation he allowed himself and he almost always did this right at Christmas every year. And with the weather this cold the deer would be moving. Normally he would have flown his Mooney to the ranch, but not in this weather.

With no warning whatever the engine stopped. He was doing 80 but when the SUV had slowed to 30 he tried to angle it to the side of the road. It was very difficult to steer at this point and he barely managed to get off the road. He sat there somewhat stunned that this had happened. The wind buffeted the vehicle, but everything was silence.

He turned the key. Nothing. No lights, nothing. He vaguely remembered a recall notice on the main computer module several months back. He felt like swearing. Instead he picked up his cell phone from the module on the dash. It was still warm as he cradled it in his hand. He looked at it in dismay. Not only did it indicate no reception, there was not even roaming available. This time he did swear.

So far not a single car had passed him on the road. He knew there was a small town (237 people the sign said) about five miles up the road.

In the back of the Navigator was his rifle. And that was it. He had no luggage because he never took luggage. No need to because everything he needed was at the ranch house. He got out of the vehicle. It was bitter cold. He opened the hood to the smell of fried electronic components–he could see a box with melted plastic.

As he stood there realizing he was not quite in clothes suitable to this weather a pickup slowed down and stopped. “Can I help you?” The drawl was slow and sweet. He jumped in, pointed his keys at the Navigator and hit “lock”. Nothing. “Just a sec.” He jumped out and manually locked the Navigator for the first time ever.

The driver of the pickup dropped him off at the gas station. He thanked the driver and offered to give him something for his time and trouble. The driver shook his head and chuckled as he drove off.

Jim Culpepper was used to getting things done. In a big way. In any way. He got things done. He walked into the gas station.

He was immediately impressed. Everything was neat, clean and in order. Not your typical gas station and garage. He matter-of-factly explained what happened to his SUV. The owner moved over to his desk and asked, “What year did you say it was?” In seconds he was on the internet looking. In less than two minutes he told Jim that indeed the module was the likely problem, had been recalled, and that if he was at a dealership he would be free, but that out here it was going to run nearly $1000, plus installation…but that he would have to order it from Austin.

“How long is this going to take?” He was still a two hour drive from his ranch. With a few more keystrokes and peering at the screen he told Jim that if he ordered it right then and there the Lincoln Dealership could take it to the bus station and that it would be there in approximately three hours on the next bus to El Paso. And that it ought to only take a half hour or so to install.

Jim weighed his options. If he called his ranch manager, and if he reached him, he might be there in two and a half hours or so depending on a number of variables. And then two hours back. He decided to go ahead, order the part and wait for it to be fixed. “Go ahead and order the part. Let’s get’er fixed. I’ll wait.” A few key strokes later the part was ordered and, he hoped, on its way to the bus station.

“In the meanwhile, let’s go get your car,” suggested the gas station owner, who, by now, had introduced himself as Christopher, (“Chris for short, that’s what everyone around here calls me.”). Jim simply introduced himself as Jim. They walked into the shop where a tow-truck was parked. It was not new, but it was clearly in good shape, well cared for. Chris opened the garage doors as Jim got in. He looked at the shop. Neat as a pin. Snap-on tools. Tool boxes. Machines. Everything spic and span, the floor painted gray without a drop of oil on it. It was hard to impress him, but Jim was impressed.

They drove in silence and in cold until finally the cab started heating up. Chris was not much of a talker. He had the same drawl as the pickup driver that picked him up. Jim tended to be rather gifted in social situations, a gift that helped seal many deals. They drove past the dead car and did a U turn and pulled up in front of it. Both got out, but Jim didn’t really need to. Chris knew what he was doing and did not need any help. In no time they had the Navigator in the garage back at the gas station.

It was lunch time by now and when they parked the tow truck, Chris said, “Let’s go have a bite.” He locked the door and they started walking. Jim thought they were headed to a restaurant, something he had not noticed driving through the town before. In fact they walked two houses down to Chris’ house and walked in. Jim immediately felt uncomfortable.

Two kids were playing in the front room. Chris’ wife greeted Jim warmly, and without a word being said, surmised the situation, turned around and added a place setting to the table. Jim didn’t think that anyone ate at a table any more. He and his wife seldom did.

Everyone but Jim bowed his head. As soon as Chris started saying grace over the meal, Jim realized, belatedly what was going on and bowed his head too. He was not used to this either. The soup was delicious. The sandwich ample and tasty. Lunch was simple, but satisfying. In the chit chat during the meal not once had they asked him what he did. Jim was not big on displaying his wealth, but for people who knew what to look for, the signs were unmistakable—perfect teeth, manicured nails, Lucchese boots and a four hundred dollar belt for starters.

As he left the house with Chris, Jim could not help but notice that the home was cheery and warm but on the spare side. There was no clutter. The Christmas tree was smallish, the presents under it few. It was clear this was a contented home with happy kids and a devoted wife. Jim had certainly not experienced this–not as a child, and not as an adult. It made him wistful.

As they walked Chris explained that everyone knew his routine and that if anyone wanted gas they could put their credit card in at the pump and get it. In the two minutes it took to walk back to the gas station it was clear that everyone in town knew Chris. They bumped their horn, or raised their hand above the steering wheel. And he knew them.

When they got back to the station, Jim noticed a small sign behind the register. It said, “We Do Taxes”.

“Well, Mr. Culpepper, you need your taxes done? Or an audit, maybe?”

Jim was startled by the voice, and even more startled by the fact Chris knew his last name somehow. He had never uttered his last name once.

He went on, “I have followed Upshur Oil and a number of your other companies for a long time. I studied at UT. Passed by your headquarters often. I started working for an accounting firm, and became a CPA.” Jim’s one eyebrow arched with incredulity. “I was sent out on audits. The Internet came along and it is amazing how much information you can dig up without people being aware of it. But my first love has always been mechanics. When I had saved up enough I moved back here, home. Opened this gas station. I do the taxes for half the folks here in town. We live simply. I’ve invested wisely. And in my spare time I follow a couple dozen stocks and a couple dozen companies. Besides yours, that is.”

Jim stumbled backwards into the chair. “And..” he said, hoping Chris would continue.

“And, I happen to believe that you are being robbed blind from within. Your management and marketing team is corrupt to the core. You are on the verge of bankruptcy and you probably don’t know it.” Chris watched Jim turn pasty.

When he gained his composure somewhat, Jim asked, “Would you mind telling me why you think we are in such bad shape?”

Chris walked over to the counter and sat behind the computer. “OK, drag up a chair. This won’t take too long.” He then proceeded to introduce Mr. James P. Culpepper to a world he knew existed but had never been demonstrated to him with more expertise. Chris hopped between several companies that he subscribed to that did performance studies, between public company records, stockholders meetings, insider tips, recent expenditures, and quickly pointed out a series of small discrepancies that pointed to only one big thing—the company was being milked and bilked on the inside.

Jim was breathing hard. His face was flushed. If what Chris was pointing out was true (and it seemed plausible), he was on the verge of catastrophe. He was livid. All he had worked for, fought for, longed for was presently sitting inside a white porcelain bowl with someone else’s hand on handle.

“Is there any one person on your management team you trust implicitly?” Chris asked. Jim thought a moment and nodded his head tentatively. “I think you know what you have to do,” Chris motioned to the phone. He got up just as the Greyhound Bus drove up. He walked outside as the driver tossed him a package. He headed in to the garage to replace the computer module on the Navigator. He glanced through the window into the office and could see (not to mention hear) Jim become the executive for which he had a become famous—he was issuing orders to someone, lock the building, lock every single executive office, not one person was to come and go, and turn off every damn computer in the damn  building so it could not be accessed from a remote location. He was hot. White hot.

“Your car’s ready, Jim.” Chris handed him the keys.

“What firm did you work for in Austin, Chris?”

Chris named a small but well known firm.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Well, let’s see. He sat at his computer and typed out an invoice. $987 for the module. $72.50 to install it. $75 for the tow.”

Jim handed him a credit card. Chris swiped it on the side of the computer, the printer spat out a receipt. Jim signed it. He then looked at Chris. He was not sure quite how to say this. “Thanks. I owe you.”

He backed out of the garage and turned and drove straight back to Austin. When his cell phone had a single bar on it he made a call to directory assistance and got the number of the firm Chris had once worked for. He talked with one of the principals and told him he needed his services right NOW and he didn’t care how much he was charged on account of the fact it was Christmas Eve.

The next day, Christmas, was equally blustery and bitterly cold. Jim headed back out the same highway as he had the day before. He was in the same Navigator. It was performing well. He, however, had had nearly no sleep.

He passed the gas station, buttoned up for Christmas Day, turned and drove up to the house where he had had lunch. Chris noticed him pull up. He came out his door about the same time Jim got out of his monstrous Navigator.

“You were on the right track, Chris. Not exactly right, but mostly right. I know it seems trite to say this, but breaking down on the highway yesterday turns out to be one of the more beneficial things that has ever happened to me. If I thought you would take it, I would offer you a job. Again, thanks.” He proffered his hand, shook Chris’ firmly.  Jim pulled out an envelope. “A little something for you and the little lady.”

Chris looked Jim in the eye and said, “Look, thanks but no thanks. You owe me nothing. Seriously.”

Jim was not about to be turned down. He stood there, grimly gripping the envelope, arm extended. They stood that way for nearly a minute. At just the same time they both started laughing. Chris shook his head, but Jim tucked the envelope into his jacket pocket anyway.

As Jim turned to go back to his car he nearly chocked with emotion. He had come close to losing everything. As he strapped himself in, he looked at the simple house, and gave a short jab of a wave to Chris, still standing there.

Chris removed the envelope from his pocket and handed it to his wife as he entered his home. Somewhat curious, she had watched the exchange through the window and wondered what this was all about. Looking quizzically at him, she slid her finger under the flap and opened it. Chris nearly missed her as she fell into a dead faint.

One of the kids picked up the fallen check, looked at it, and said, “Daddy, how much is …one… and then, let’s see, one two ……five zeros?”

Chris laughed out loud.

The totally unexpected had happened. It was Christmas.

 

(Another Christmas story. Have no idea when I wrote it).