Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Randy really did have a few things to do over at the Clark Construction office. He decided that heíd better get them out of the way and at least be around for the course of the morning to field any phone calls that might result from the word of Brentís death getting around. His grandfatherís passing really wouldnít affect the business much, as the people the company dealt with knew that Randy had more or less been managing things for a while and that Brentís health had been shaky. Still, there were going to be calls that Randy about had to be the one to deal with.
As it happened, he was there early enough to unlock the place, turn on the lights and get the coffeepot going. He settled in at his desk to review things and see if there was anything that absolutely had to be done before Wednesday.
He was just getting started when he heard the front door open. "Randy, are you here?" he heard Regina say.
"In my office," he replied.
After a moment Regina appeared in his office doorway, still peeling out of her heavy winter coat. She was a heavy-set woman in her forties, with nondescript brown hair and a matronly disposition. She had been Brentís bookkeeper since long before Randy started to work for the company, and became his office manager when her predecessor, Eloise, retired a while after Randy came aboard. If there was one key, pivotal employee in the whole business, she was it. She knew where everything was, what was happening, and had her finger on it. "So, are you doing all right?" she asked.
"Pretty well," Randy admitted. "Itís not like this was unexpected, but I suspect that the reality of having the responsibility dumped on me hasnít hit home yet. Brent has always been there to backstop me, no matter how little he was actually doing the last few years. Now, heís not. How about you?"
"Iíd guess about the same," she said. "Itís been hard to see him sliding downhill, but it was happening, and there wasnít much we could do but try to carry on. Itís just going to be hard to accept he wonít be coming in again. So, what do we do, now?"
"We keep on keeping on," Randy told her. "For the next few days Iíll still just be sort of managing the place like weíve done the past several years. My understanding is that the place is going to be in my name by the end of the week, so weíre just not going to do anything that would have demanded Brentís signature until then. Iíve been thinking about it, and I canít think of anything that we canít shove to the side for that long."
"I canít either, although Carlos may have something on that Phase III of the Three Pines ski lodge."
"Thereís nothing there I canít sign off on. Technically speaking, we probably ought to hold off until toward the end of the week. I could hold Norm Eaglebeak off that long if we had to, but I donít think itís necessary. Now, two things. Weíre probably going to get calls from customers, suppliers, maybe even other people in the industry offering sympathy. Due to family reasons I probably can only be around this morning and maybe for a while tomorrow morning. Iíll take what of those calls that I have to, but you may have to screen them for me. Either way, the message I want to get across is that nothing has changed as far as the company is concerned, weíre still here and will be carrying on the same way weíve been doing, so if Iím not here to tell someone that, try to get the message across. Make a list of people I should call back when Iím not here."
"Good," she replied. "I think that itís important that we show the continuity."
"Right, I do, too. Now, if Larry Warner should happen to call, I do want to talk to him."
"Larry?" she frowned.
"Just courtesy," he smiled. "I know we havenít always gotten along and weíre still going to be at each otherís throats when bid times roll around, but thereís no point in making a war out of it."
"What do you want to tell the employees? Iíve gotten some calls at home."
"Pretty much the same message. The funeral is at one tomorrow, but after that weíre still in business, we still have work on the books, and weíre going to get on it in the same schedule we had all along. You can tell everyone who calls I told you to say that. I want you to get hold of everyone we consider full-time, laid off or not, and tell them that weíre going to have a meeting at three on Wednesday, I guess out in the shop, since the office isnít big enough for it. Iím basically going to say the same thing, but add some details."
"Would you like to have some refreshments for that?"
"Might as well. Nothing fancy, coffee, pop, doughnuts, whatever you think. Oh, while Iím thinking about it, weíll be closed all tomorrow afternoon for the funeral, so you might want to think about updating the message on the answering machine."
"No, not really," he shook his head. "When you get right down to it, thatís probably all weíre really going to get done today and we might as well admit it. I wouldnít mind seeing Carlos when he gets in, and my door is going to be open today unless something really unexpected happens."
"Would you like me to set it up to move you over to Brentís office?"
Randy thought about it for a moment. Brentís office was bigger and more comfortable Ė but it was Brentís office and moving in there just didnít seem right, at least not yet.
"Not now," he said. "We need to paw through his stuff, see what needs to get saved and what doesnít, but thereís no rush on that and I wouldnít mind if it takes a while. I donít really want to move over there, anyway. Letís think about it a little. Ken and Carlos keep griping that they need more room for the drafting operation, and that might solve that problem and keep us from thinking of it as Brentís office. I might just stay here, or move over to the drafting shop. But letís kick it around after Wednesday; itís not a priority issue."
"If weíre going to do that, we probably ought to do it before construction season really gets rolling. That much moving could cause a real disruption."
"Yeah, but that doesnít have to mean today. Letís just think about it, weíll run it by Ken and Carlos and Rod, and maybe a few other people."
"All right," she said. "Randy, itís probably a good idea to use that space constructively rather than just keep it as Brentís office. Weíre all going to have to remind ourselves that he isnít around anymore, and itís going to take a while. I think I like your idea of moving the drafting office in there, that solves two problems in a constructive way."
"Well, thatís what weíre about," he grinned. "Being constructive. The coffee ought to be about done by now."
"Good," she said, then paused for a second. "Randy?" she said softly.
"I know things have been building toward this and that youíve had some difficulties getting ready for it. But Iíve worked with you enough to know that you are ready for it, and I think you can handle it."
"Good," he said. "Thatís important to me. You and the other people who work for Clark Construction are going to have to believe that, or itís not going to work. We can handle the Larry Warners and Norm Eaglebeaks. We know how to do that. Our people, though, well, theyíre going to have to believe it, too."
* * *
It was a busy morning, busier than Randy had anticipated, but the topic was just what he had anticipated Ė sympathy calls and visits. He tried to get the message across that really nothing much had changed, that Clark Construction was still in business and planned to stay that way. He got universally good response, which was to be expected, but how some of it would play out in the long run was a question that he at least didnít have to confront today.
Fortunately, it died down a little as the morning went along, so at noon he was able to tell Regina, "I guess itíll be all right if I head on out. Iím going to head over to my Dadís and do what has to be done there. Iíll be on my cell if you really need me, and unless something comes up Iím planning on being in tomorrow morning. Iíve got lawyer stuff on Wednesday morning, but Iíll try to at least check in here before I head out for it."
"Hang in there," Regina told him. "Weíll get along here somehow."
With that, there wasnít much that Randy could do but head for his parentsí house, no matter how much he would rather have done something else. He got in his pickup, drove across town and up Point Drive, realizing on the final leg that his father was right behind him, presumably on the way from his office at Clark Plywood. In front of the house, Randy pulled to one side to let his father get into the garage, then parked outside and walked in the still open garage door. "So, how was your morning?" Ryan asked as he got out of the car.
"Busier than I expected," Randy admitted. "A lot of phone calls."
"Yeah, I had a few, too," his father admitted. "I didnít get a lot done, but I didnít expect to get much done, either. Letís try to keep this civil. Joel was pretty low key last night, for Joel anyway."
The two of them headed inside. "I was wondering if you were going to show up, and when," Linda said when she saw them. "Iíll call Ruth and tell her youíre here and lunch is ready."
Randy would have been happy to just stay in the kitchen and exchange pleasantries with his mother, but realized that was just putting off the inevitable. He headed on into the living room, where there was a nice fire in the fireplace. Both Rachel and Joel were there, leafing through magazines and looking bored.
"So, how are you doing today?" Ryan asked.
"A little on the bored side, with everyone but Linda and Rachel gone," Joel said. "Iím surprised you werenít here."
"We had things to do," Ryan said. "Dad was a well-known person in this town, and I had to take a number of phone calls about it."
"Same thing over at Clark Construction," Randy said. "I was on the phone most of the morning."
"Yeah, we should have held off an extra day," Joel said. "I had things I should have done this morning too. Iíve got a very complex project Iím going to have to put off for several days."
"Well, itís part of how things have to get done in a small town," Ryan said defensively, getting Joelís point that if he could put aside his business, they could too.
"What kind of project is it?" Randy asked, trying to deflect the criticism and change the subject a little.
"Itís a mortgage package," Joel said. "The venture capital business is a little slow in Silicon Valley right now, so Iíve had to get into some other things. The mortgage market is hot right now, Iím getting involved with it."
Ryan shook his head. "I more or less understood that it was a little bit sluggish."
"In some areas it is," Joel said. "But the government is pushing home ownership and offering some interesting incentives for mortgaging high-risk first time home buyers."
"Sounds like something you could burn your fingers on pretty badly," Ryan said, deciding that the fire in the fireplace needed another log. "I mean, high-risk mortgage holders are high risk for a reason."
"Well, true," Joel said. "But if itís managed right, the risk isnít all that high. Sure, youíre going to get some defaults, but the way the housing market is in California right now if a buyer defaults you get the home back for essentially nothing and get to sell it all over again at full price. And there are going to be defaults, especially when some of those people with low-rate adjustable mortgages hit that big balloon payment at the end of five years and have to refinance at a higher rate. Now, we know that, so what we do is get a batch of high risk mortgages, bundle them together with some lower risk ones, then you can sell the whole bundle to one of the big outfits at a more favorable rate. It takes being quick on your feet, but thereís some money to be made there."
"It sounds good, at least as long as the economy is good," Ryan said. "And I can tell you from our sales figures that thereís a lot of housing under construction. But if thereís anything Iíve learned, itís when thereís a boom thereís going to be a bust along sooner or later, and you have to be ready for that to happen."
"I donít see a bust coming along any time soon," Joel replied. "The administration wants to keep the markets pumped up so that all the big guys will keep the political cash flowing. As long as thatís happening, I figure itís time to jump on the bandwagon."
"Itís beyond my reckoning," Randy frowned, not totally understanding what Joel was saying, but it sounded pretty speculative to him. In fact, it sounded downright sleazy to him, which as far as he was concerned made it right down Joelís alley. Expecting people to default on loans and reaping the rewards sounded like just the sort of thing that Joel would do. "Iím glad all I have to do is build the things. Weíve got a lot of houses and cottages on the books for this year, but we donít do developments so itís all a relatively minor part of the business. I donít have to worry about financing them, thatís what the bank is for."
"You might want to think about getting into developments," Joel said. "Thereís money to be made there."
"Not around here, I think," Randy said. "Granted, Brent did some speculating on homes from time to time over the years, but he preferred to know that the home was sold before he started digging footers."
"Well, if either of you have any loose change, you might want to consider letting me see what I can do with it," Joel said. "There are some killings to be made out there."
"It might be something to think about, but Iíd have to look into it," Ryan said. "I really donít understand that kind of finance that well. I donít mind doing some investing, but I prefer to do it in an area that I understand. With the way fuel prices are going crazy, people are looking at alternatives, and in the last year or so weíre putting a lot of attention into that. Some of our people over at the plant have convinced me to put together a wood pelletizing mill. In the long run I donít know how viable thatís going to be as a fuel source, but it is energy using a renewable source that we have a lot of investment and experience with."
"Might be that it flops," Joel smirked. "Iíll admit that fuel prices are high and theyíre going to go through the roof, but most of that is coming from Arabs wanting to gouge us for every cent they can. As soon as alternative processes get to the point where theyíre cheaper than petrochemicals, just watch the price of oil go down to be competitive."
When push came right down to shove, Randy had to agree that Joel may have had at least some of a point on that in the short run. But, he also felt that in the long run oil prices were going to trend upward, and in this climate heating was always going to be a concern. Heíd been a little negative with his father about it when the idea had come up a couple years before, but also agreed that there was a small-scale market there and that a relatively small-scale pilot plant to explore the idea might not be such a bad idea. Besides, Clark Construction had built the building and so far things seemed to be showing signs of working out. It was working out so well, in fact, that his father and his people over at Clark Plywood had been looking into building a bigger plant, possibly in the old and now empty Jerusalem Paper plant down at Rochester. Brent had been involved in that discussion because of his interest in Clark Plywood, and Randy had been drawn into the discussion. Whether it happened was something that was going to have to be decided in the next few months.
It actually was an interesting discussion in a way, more so than Randy had been expecting, and for a while it seemed worthwhile to pick Joelís brain a little, at least through Joelís arrogance. He didnít quite come out and say it, but left the general impression that anything that happened around Spearfish Lake was strictly small potatoes and not where the action was Ė not anything that he could have any real interest in.
Rachel didnít have much to say all through the discussion, seeming to think that it was Joelís ball to carry. Dave and Ruth showed up along about that time with Mike and Abby, and everyone broke for lunch. Afterwards, the three kids wound up playing on the enclosed front porch, while the men repaired to the living room to renew their discussion. Not surprisingly, it soon drifted back to alternative energy despite Joelís repeated disdainful remarks about any part of the business that didnít involve high finance or playing the edge of the market. Randy hardly noticed that Ruth and Rachel left shortly after lunch, and wasnít sure where they were going or the announced reason why, whatever the real reason actually was.
Over the course of the discussion, Dave revealed that theyíd been working with alternative energy on the dairy farm, using the methane gas from processed manure as a fuel source. Though any discussion involving manure seemed beneath contempt for Joel, both Ryan and Randy thought they got something useful out of the discussion. "There are obvious opportunities in alternative energy," Ryan summed up. "And in the long run some of them are going to make a lot of sense. Iíve always felt that weíre not getting the best use out of the trees that we harvest, and I think thereís some potential there that will keep people warm and the company going."
"Yeah, but the problem with working with local people in this economy is that youíre working with local people, so youíre paying the high dollar," Joel pointed out. "The trick in manufacturing, or in business in general, is to keep your costs down. Hell, thereís absolutely nothing you guys are doing that you can outsource to someplace like China or India to save a buck. Because of that, youíre always going to be limited in your potential."
"Actually, itís one of the good points," Ryan pointed out. "It gives everybody a level playing field, especially since the shipping costs are so high. Itís one place that the Chinese canít undersell us, at least partly because they donít have the forests that we have. We do have a renewable resource that will be there in the long run. Randy, the other night I was complaining about Wayne Clarkís personal life, which was a mess. But he sure had a good eye for the long run for his business practices and forest management, and his principles still work for us today."
"Who cares about the long run?" Joel snorted. "In the long run, we are all dead. The future is going to have to take care of itself. We have to survive in the current market. You can talk all you want to about alternative energy twenty years in the future, but thatís then. This is now. I can take that money youíre pissing away into things like wood pellets and turn it into real money in the mortgage market."
"And again, what happens when that market collapses?" Ryan said. "Youíre building a whole market based on the assumption that people will fail. Not all of them, but enough of them to give you a small advantage. When things go sour, and they will, then the whole house of cards could come tumbling down. Thatís part of the reason weíre looking at the wood pellets. Itís diversification. Like I said earlier, our sales are good right now because there are a lot of housing starts, which means that thereís a good demand for things like particle board and chipboard. When the housing market collapses, then our sales are going to drop. Probably not die, but drop. When that happens, people are still going to have to stay warm, and there should be enough of them who want to burn cheap wood rather than expensive oil to keep us going. Bad times will come, Joel. They always do. We need to do what we can in the good times so weíre ready to be ready for the bad times. Anything else is crappy management."
"Right," Randy agreed. "Thereís always going to be something out there to build. It may not be as much as we want, but we ought to be able to keep going when that happens. When your financial market collapses you could find yourself eating a lot of nothing."
"You guys just donít get it," Joel shook his head. "Yeah, thereís going to be some bad times coming, but Iíll tell you this. The government we have is going to keep the financial markets alive no matter whether people are eating or not. Thatís the real power of this country; weíve got a government that knows where their bread is buttered. Itís not the little guy in the steel mill or the wood mill that they care about. They could give a crap about him, since itís not the little guy who butters the politicianís bread. Itís the big guys in the financial markets that are driving the politicians, and the government isnít going to let them fail."
"I almost hate to point this out," Randy said, getting more than a little tired of Joelís attitude despite what he was learning out of the discussion. "But when it comes to financial markets, youíre not a big guy. Youíre one of the little guys, too Ė tiny, in fact. Donít think that when a crunch comes that the big guys will bail you out, because theyíll cut off your water without any notice to keep their own asses afloat. When that time comes, youíd better be ready to have yourself a fallback position, because youíre going to be out on the street with everyone else."
"Not going to happen," Joel replied arrogantly. "Yeah, Iím taking some risks but I think Iíll know when to bail out. Iím putting some reserve money into some things that will continue to provide a return. Safe things, like real estate. Thereís always going to be a demand for a place for people to live."
"But in a condition like that, if no one can afford to buy a house, then the value is going to go down," Ryan stoically pointed out. "California real estate is the most overvalued in the country."
"It is high value, because California is a good place to live," Joel replied. "People are always going to want to be in California. Yeah, weíve had some burps in Silicon Valley, but electronics are always going to come back, and real estate will come back with it. Yeah, there is some playing of the angles involved in the mortgage market, but the venture capital market should be opening up here again soon, and Iíd really rather be dealing with that, anyway. You have to be ready to change with the times, and take advantage of the deals that are out there."