I’d rise at five-thirty in the morning, make a quick breakfast for Mike and see him off to whatever road job he’d been assigned, his attentively packed lunch bucket in hand. Next I readied myself and set out for the Volkswagen dealership, having found early morning the best time to accomplish bookworkno salesmen or phone call interruptions.
By now I was well versed in automotive accounting, and had developed a smooth system for handling the previous day’s business. Each office girl had a daily schedule of routine tasks to follow, with the finished work fitting into that of her co-workers like a well-defined jigsaw puzzle. I taught them the basics of how the accounting worked, and that speed was of the essence in producing a timely yet accurate financial statement. I’d also begun cross-training, so if someone called in sick, the paper flow would keep running smoothly. I found it interesting that the more the girls learned about each other’s jobs, including mine, the more their petty bickering stopped and appreciation and cooperation took hold. We became a team, working together toward a common goal.
Accounting figures were entered daily on a machine that resembled a comptometera foot-and-a-half square cube with rows of buttons neatly filling its top. It generated a duplicate NCR paper tape with numbers imprinted on it, the original of which was then mailed to the distributor in Portland to process and print out our journals, schedules and general ledger. The return-time was lengthy, and I racked my brain for a faster way to execute it.
One day I overheard a parts department employee tell a coworker that he was going to the bus depot to pick up a shipment from the distributor. "Excuse me, fellas," I interrupted their conversation. "If they ship parts by Greyhound to us, do they also accept shipments that way?"
"Sure." They replied in unison.
"Thanks!" I hurried to my office and called the manager of the data processing department in Portland. "If I ship our month-end tapes by Greyhound bus, could you get them picked up the next morning and begin processing?"
"Well, yes, we could. The parts runner can pick up the package for us. No problem."
So began my challenge to do the impossibleclose the books the first working day of each month. I couldn’t raise wages for the girls, but I did devise an incentive for two employees to remain at work with me on the closing day until everything had been entered—the data entry gal would get compensating time off and the title clerk a bonus of fifty cents per retail car sale, providing the accounting was done and ready to enter on all new and used transactions.
Next I had to persuade the sales managers to have every single car sale for the month turned in on the first working day, preferably no later than four in the afternoon. The first month was a battle, but we closed the books and packaged the tapes by eleven o’clock that night. Before leaving the dealership, I called home to check on Mike. He answered on the third ring. "Hello!"
"Hi. It’s me. You doing okay?"
"Yep, I’m fine. Been snacking on cheese and crackers, watching TV."
"Okay. I’m leaving work now for the bus depot to ship the accounting tapes, then head for home."
"Thanks for letting me know, I was getting concerned."
"See you when I get there."
"Bye." If he hadn’t sounded okay, I would have foregone the bus depot trip and rushed home to help him.
The Greyhound delivery worked. Our printouts of journals, schedules and general ledger were back in two days and delivered to my desk by the parts department runner. The office crew, now trained in reconciling their related schedules, got right to work. I noted all adjustments into the general ledger, then penciled numbers into a worksheet I had designed as a pro forma financial statement. As soon as Bob had studied and accepted it, the final tapethe one that would generate the actual documentwas sent posthaste to Portland.
At the end of that week, Bob burst into my office sporting a mile-wide smile, his elation palpable. "You’ve done us proud, young lady!" He waved what I recognized as the monthly newsletter from Mr. Halleran’s office. "Listen to this: ‘Two dealerships got their financial statements back by the fourth working day of the month.’ It lists us and Spokane, with a special notice that we are the two largest dealerships." He handed me the newsletter. "Congratulations! You’ve set a new standard."
"Thank you." I read the acknowledgement, allowing a little pride to take hold inside of me. I was comfortable here, with a job I’d learned to love and coworkers who were friendly. There were days I became so engrossed in the challenges of accounting that the thought of Mike lapsing into insulin trouble didn’t cross my mind for hours at a time. My heart fluttered with fear when it did hit me. I would grab the phone and, with chilled fingers, dial the number for the job shack on his current site. I’d let it ring at least ten times, hoping he was available and would answer. Sometimes he did, which would put my fears to rest. Other times he did not, because much of a road inspector’s day is spent outside, overseeing the construction activity. Those were the times I would have to trust God to watch over him, which was always easier said than done. For the most part our lives moved along with limited, and thankfully manageable, disruptions.
Not so for my job. The first unexpected change hit one day when Bob, the General Manager who gave me the opportunity to become an office manager, entered my office and closed the door. I knew something important was at hand.
"Well, I did it." He sat down and rolled his eyes to the ceiling and back.
"Did what?" I asked, expecting a humorous response.
"I took the plunge. I just signed the papers to buy the Volkswagen dealership in Everett."
I was stunned. "Congratulations." Thoughts of how the lack of his charismatic personality would affect the entire dealership flashed through my mind. "Can’t say I’m happy to hear that," I added. "We’ll all be sorry to see you leave."
"There’s more . . ." he said, wistfully. "I’d like you to come with me, manage the office, set up the bookkeeping. The fellow there now, Stan Slocum, is completely inept. The current dealer’s books are a mess, there is little to no organization. No wonder he doesn’t stay anywhere very long. I plan to replace him as soon as I take over. How about it? You’d have a much smaller office there, just you, a title clerk-data entry gal, and the receptionist-cashier."
My first thought was I owed him for the confidence he’d shown in me, yet I didn’t want the burden of starting from scratch and most likely having to train an office staff again. I knew what I had here and how hard I’d struggled to build it. Besides, Everett was a good distance north, too far to respond quickly if Mike needed my help. My answer came with a sense of guilt, "I think I’d like to stay here, Bob. But thank you so much for asking, for everything."
Bewilderment crossed his face. "I’m sorry to hear that. I thought with me and you and Ben, we could whip that dealership into shape in no time."
I interrupted, "Ben’s going with you?"
"Yes, he’s ready for a change. I do realize it would mean long hours of hard work for you all over again. I totally understand your choice, but please, think on it some more and let me know if you change your mind in the next few days. I’ll be leaving at the end of this week."
Totally understand? No, not quite. The part about returning to long hard hours he did get, but he couldn’t know of my minute-to-minute responsibility of caring for Mike when needed—of being available twenty-four hours a day like an urgent care nurse. I, alone, carried that knowledge.
I did not change my mind, and Bob moved north to his new adventure. The dealership ran almost as smoothly as before, albeit missing the bright personalities and management styles of Bob and Ben.
The actual dealership owner, J. M. Cowner, had returned from Mexico by that time and I once again served, infrequently, as his confidential secretarytyping letters to his various lady-friends and business contacts as he dictated to me in his upstairs private office. Through these letters, I learned of his plans to sell the dealership to two furniture-store owners from Oregon. He would say to me, on more than one occasion, "I can only do this because of your contributions to this companythe integrity and prompt timing of our financial statements, the fact that our yearly audits are now completed in only one day and pass with flying colors, and most especially, Helen, due to the professional rapport you’ve built with our bankers. You are truly a miracle in my life, and you shall be richly rewarded—and in this lifetime, too!" He would laugh heartily, but not as a dismissal of his declaration.
If compliments were cash, I would have been the wealthiest woman in Seattle. J.M. Cowner had become the best boss I’d ever had. A tall gentleman of retirement age but young at heart, he was honest to the core, with champagne tastes and an eye for the ladies.
His philosophy on employees was "turn ’em loose. If they don’t do the job, then they’re the wrong person for it, and I’ll have to try again." We said "so long" rather than "good bye" and J.M. Cowner slipped quietly into retirement, confidant in the sale of his dealership.
I, on the other hand, was leery of new owners taking over. I knew that managers were often the first to be replaced in such circumstances. The fondness for my job began to fade, having lost two favorite fellow-managers and now the dealership owner. I told myself things would be fine; that the new owners, introduced to me before Mr. Cowner left, would be kind and compatible. Their business methods might be different, but I could be adaptable. I would cooperate.
I spoke too soon. On that first day of the new ownership I arrived early as usual, parked my demo in the spot reserved for it on the flat, paved roof, and headed down the stairs to the showroom. I encountered a plethora of activity, quite unlike a usual morning, with unfamiliar young men moving file cabinets and storage boxes from the area behind the parts department, through the showroom, and into two large dumpsters sitting in the service driveway.
I stopped one of the young men hauling boxes past me by putting my hand on his arm. "What’s going on?"
"Just doin’ what we’re told, ma'am . . . dumping the old files." He turned away, continued on to a dumpster and threw in the box.
I stopped him on the way back. "By whose orders?"
"The owner, ma'am. Mr. Tuller."
"Is he around here now?
"Yes, ma'am. He’s standin’ out there in the service department."
"Thanks." I stormed into service and found Tuller talking to someone I didn’t recognize, smiling and drinking coffee from a vending machine paper cup.
"Excuse me, Mr. Tuller?"
"Yes?" He turned toward me. "Helen, isn’t it?"
"Yes. Good morning." How do I tell my new boss he’s making a mistake? "Those boys throwing files away need to be stopped. They’re pitching sales records, which have to stay here for seven years in case the state or the feds pull an audit!"
"Well, as of today," he responded confidently, "those files belong to the previous owner. So it’s his problem." He smiled again.
That single comment showed me something about him that I didn’t care for. "They do need to be saved, somewhere, until Mr. Cowner can make arrangements to have them stored. I’m sure he’ll make it right with you. Please have the boys put everything back where they found it." Reluctantly, he walked with me to the dumpsters and instructed the boys to undo what they’d done. I thanked him, then noticed some of the filing cabinets were for JMC Leasing, which I knew Cowner had not included in the sale and which still had active accounts. I had the boys put the leasing company files into Cowner’s old Chevy pickup, still on the back lot.
Mike and I spent the following Sunday bringing the files home, unloading, and returning the pickup. I cleaned out my sewing room, set up an office and wrote an update to be mailed to Cowner, now back in Mexico. I would continue to manage the company as I’d done for the past three years.
Within Tuller’s first two months of ownership, his co-owner called it quits and moved back to Oregon.
My next insightful encounter with Tuller was early in the second month when he approached my desk to return the stack of statements and checks I had left for him to sign. He plopped the state sales tax return down in front of me and asked, "Is this amount for real?" The check was unsigned, still clipped on top of the paperwork.
"Yes," I answered. "It’s correct."
"Well …" He paused a moment. "It’s too high. Isn’t there some way you could fudge on it?" He grinned.
Clearly, he wanted me to misstate the amount of sales tax owing. Instinct governed my quick answer. "No. I won’t fudge on the tax returnnot with my name signed on it!" Was the man crazy, expecting me to submit a fraudulent tax return? Did he not realize these reports are subject to audit without notice by the state, whenever they decide to do so? No, probably not. He’s from Oregon. He’s not experienced with state sales tax.
He picked up the return and headed for the door, mumbling over his shoulder loud enough so I could hear, "This is ridiculous!"
"Welcome to Washington," I murmured in his direction. I didn’t know if he heard me or not, but right then, recalling his unwelcome request plus the rumor that he had been sued by a former employee of his furniture store and lost, I figured my stay in his employ wouldn’t be long. The next morning I found the tax return back on my desk with the check signed. He’d given in, but our conversations would be marked with tension from that day forward.
Within a few months, Tuller had developed a "Policy and Procedures Manual" for employees, which stated, among other things, that if any employee was involved in damage to a company vehicle, regardless of whose fault, his or her pay would be held until the repairs were fully completed and paid. It struck me as unfair, but shouldn’t concern me as I was very careful with my company demo.
Careful doesn’t always count. Consider the summer morning I was taking Mike downtown for a seminar on asphalt paving he was required to attend. I was driving a brand new rental cara bright turquoise VW Rabbitbecause my demo had been sold. We were stopped in traffic on I-5 near the James Street exit, a few feet behind a tall Greyhound bus, when a big old green Pontiac sedan came barreling down the on-ramp and smacked us in the rear, full speed ahead. BAM! The car lurched forward and kept rolling.
Instinctively, I thrust my foot to the brake pedal but touched nothingthe driver's seat had flown backwards upon impact. "Damn!" I reached for the lever to pull the seat forward. The safety belts restrained my movement, but somehow I got the seat repositioned enough to reach the brake. It was too latewe nudged its bumper just as the bus leapt forward, belching out a humongous sooty cloud of diesel exhaust. Now that the car was stopped, reality began to take hold. I turned to Mike. "Great! Now my paycheck will be held." The unfairness of the new owner's rules hit me as hard as the old Pontiac.
We were waving off that smelly haze when a state patrolman, who had been sitting in his car on the shoulder of I-5, parallel to us, tapped on the passenger side window. Mike rolled it down.
"You folks okay?" he asked as the now-moving traffic found its way around us on both sides.
"Yes. Think so."
"Pull over in front of me . . ." He pointed toward the shoulder, then dashed back through the traffic to his car.
I turned on the signal, waiting for traffic to let me move over. No one did, and I quickly figured out that as hard as we were hit, the turn signals must have been smashed. "Why didn’t that officer direct traffic for us before he went back?"
Mike shrugged, brushing crumbs of glass from the shattered back window off his leather coat. "Well, at least we have a professional witness!" I finally made it to the shoulder, where the lady driver of the Pontiac was waiting with the patrolman, having walked back from where she stopped her car, several yards farther ahead. She was a tall, thin woman, with graying hair and a look of concern on her face. As soon as we exited the Rabbit, she came at me with outstretched arms.
"I’m so sorry, dear." She started to hug me.
"Don’t touch me!" I jerked away, still shaken by the shock of the crash.
The patrolman separated us politely, collected everyone’s information and shared it with us both. That done, he said we were free to leave, but we should file a report within twenty four hours with the Seattle Police Department.
I drove Mike to the county building, then on to the dealership and left the bashed-in Rabbit in the service entrance. I reported to Tuller what had happened, having decided by then that if he insisted on holding my paychecks he’d be in for an argumentI was not about to be punished for something that was not my fault!
Finally at my desk and ready to work, I felt a warm surge run down the back of my neck. I swiped the area with my hand. No blood. No cuts, but for the rest of the day I picked crumbs of auto glass out of my hair and from under the bodice of my dress. To my surprise, I was given a new demo that day and nothing was said about holding my future paychecks.
Three days later the pain camefrom the base of my skull to the middle of my shoulder blade on the right side. Excedrin didn’t help, and I had to twist my whole upper body to look to either side. I went to my doctor, who sent me to a neurologist and orthopedic specialist. I ended up wearing a wide foam cervical collar for eight weeks to hold up my head so some neck muscles that had been ripped could heal. The pain was intense, despite the prescriptions for narcotic-based pain pills the doctors ordered, but I endured. I refused to be an undependable employee, no matter the reason. Besides, we needed my paycheck to help cover expenses on the rental house—like the garage door the renter’s son had demolished by accidentally putting his car through it, and a kicked-in back door compliments of her other son. I understood then how teenagers could be a pain in the neck, of which I had already had enough.
When the cervical collar came off, my neck hurt far worse than before. A salesman at work recommended I call his attorney, which I did. He advised I needed to quit my job or he could not effect compensation for my pain and suffering, of which there was plenty for a long, long time. I couldn’t even look down to sign my name on a check when buying groceries without pain severe enough to cause the tears to run. But, thankfully, the medical costs were covered.
Rehabilitation came next. The physical therapist would hook me to a contraption that pulled my neck, while keeping it in line with my back, in an attempt to stretch the muscles that had shrunk when healing. He would leave the room for what seemed like hours, and I would lay there on the stainless steel table enduring the stretch-hold-release repetitions, hoping the therapist hadn’t forgotten about me. On one occasion my neck was pulled a bit too far, causing additional muscle spasms near my right shoulder blade that would continue for several years.
That constant pain, combined with the discomfort of twice weekly physical therapy, the frustration at work with new owners, managing the lease company from home, preparing for weekly church services, keeping tabs on our rental house, trying to locate a landscaper, tending to a dog short on human attention plus shouldering the responsibility of a diabetic husband with chronic shoulder pain and at risk for insulin reactions and occasional drunkenness took me to a state of burnout. I could not continue at that pace. I needed help. God, deliver me from these conditions. Please.
My prayer was answered the following week when Mr. Tuller called me into his office on Friday morning. "Helen," he began. "You undoubtedly know that our working relationship has been awkward at best, and I’m sure you realize that it can’t go on. I’ve hired someone to replace you. She’ll start on Monday."
"Okay . . ." A sense of deliverance came over me. "Can you tell me who it is? Someone I might know?" I’d made the acquaintance of many of my fellow VW office managers through phone calls and distributor seminars and, frankly, I was curious.
"Nettie Newell," he proudly announced, wearing a look of great satisfaction in his find.
"Oh, sure. I met Nettie once. She knows her stuff." I smiled. Indeed she knew car dealerships, and they knew Nettie. The stories of her bouncing from dealer to dealer without much notice were well-circulated. "Okay then, I’ll get things in order for her arrival. And I’ll let the girls know what to expect." I left his office with a sense of relief, a significant weight lifted from my shoulders.
I told my crew they’d be working with a new office manager come Monday. They were less than thrilled. I took that as a compliment, but maintained my loyalty to and concern for them by sharing stories of the incoming manager’s reputation for accepting jobs and then taking different ones without notice to the first. She did, I assured them, know how to run an automotive dealership office. The girls were extremely quiet for the rest of that day, keeping mostly to themselves. That afforded me time to realize that I had been fired. For the first time in my life, I’d been fired! I didn’t get a chance to quit. I told myself it didn’t matter, I had asked God for deliverance and He had replied.
On Saturday, Mike went target shooting with his gun friends, and I worked on my hobbies and church music. Sunday we did the church service, both of us in the loftme at the organ and Mike sitting in a choir pew.
I’d lured him to come with me after the last time I returned home to find him in insulin trouble, by planning to stop for breakfast following the service. I didn’t know then that he would fall asleep in the pew, his body leaning forward to the point I was afraid he’d fall onto the floor and cause a commotion. The pew was too far from the organ for me to reach without sliding off the bench, which I could not do because, being a liturgical church, my fingers were on the keys and my eyes on the music for most of the entire service. While he never fell off the pew, his occasional audible snorts did embarrass me. Some months later I gave notice and stopped volunteering as church organist.
When our Sunday dinner was over, I put the leftovers away and cleaned up the dishes while Mike settled himself in front of the television set. "What's on tonight?" I peeked into the living room on my way from the kitchen.
"Not sure," he answered, pulling the TV Schedule out from the Sunday paper. "Emergency! and probably Kojak or McCloud."
"Well, I'm going to take a hot soak in the tub, see if I can get some of this pain out of my neck."
"Should help." He continued searching the TV Schedule while I headed down the hall to the bathroom.
I turned the water on full force and aimed liquid soap at the base of the stream, squeezing in a healthy dose. The bubbles grew, higher and higher, covering most of the water's surface. A quick test of temperature with my toe let me know it was ready—hotter than warm. I stepped into the tub and slid down enough to submerge my neck. The muscles relaxed, bringing welcome relief, however temporary it might be. I could have fallen asleep in that tub, but when my fingers became waterlogged and the water lukewarm, I decided it was time to get out. In the midst of a hasty last-minute body wash, I thought I felt a lump in my right breast. I felt it again. Yes, there was no mistaking it for anything else. A large lump, I guessed the size of a golf ball, but not hard. A chill filled my body, my knees grew weak, my legs shaky. I grasped the tub edge securely and climbed out, wrapping myself in a towel. My Dear God, please don't let this be cancer. Not now.
The buzzards from the days of Mike’s accident flew back into my mind, squawking forth fears of the futurewhat if I had to have surgery and spend days in the hospital? There’d be no one to keep a cautious eye on Mike. If he slipped into an insulin reaction, who would know to help him? What damage would he cause while in it? What expenses might he incur? O God, is the loss of my job just now part of Your plan? Your timing?
When the shaking subsided and I had donned my nightie and warm robe, I ventured into the living room.
"Mike," I started, "I’m going to call the doctor in the morning."
He turned to face me. "What’s the matter?"
"I just found a lump in my breast. I know I can’t ignore it."
"Then you call him. We’ll do whatever it takes."
"I know." I sat on the sofa, pretending to take interest in the television show. I wanted to cry, but didn’t, and those buzzards circled in my brain, keeping me awake most of that night.
In the morning we headed for our jobs as usual. Mike said he’d come pick me up after work, as I would be saying goodbye to my demo that day. As was my habit, I got to work early, giving me time to imagine what I’d say to Nettie when she came to take over. I surmised that my day would be spent introducing her to the girls and other employees while showing her around the buildings and informing her where the office records were kept.
The office crew began arriving at eight o’clock, checking with me on the way to their desks to see if the new manager was there. Around ten o’clock, Tuller stuck his head in the doorway, smiled and asked, "Seen Nettie yet?"
"No, I haven’t."
"Okay. Well, I’m sure she’ll be here soon." He left.
The office work flowed on as usual in its scheduled routine. When the girls left for their morning break, I called my doctor’s office and made an appointment for the next day.
At eleven o’clock, Tuller again inquired, "Seen Nettie?"
Employee lunch breaks ensued, with girls coming and going either to eat or to cover one another’s duties. Nettie Newell did not arrive within that steady flow of customers and personnel, and soon it was two in the afternoon.
"Have you heard from Nettie?" Tuller questioned from the doorway around two-thirty.
"No." I couldn’t help hoping that maybe she took a different job, as was rumored about her in the past. I chuckled inside.
At three-thirty, Tuller called me into his office. She must finally be here, I thought. I rapped twice on his office door, then opened it and stepped inside. No Nettie in sight. Just Tuller, looking important behind his big, oversized desk.
"Come. Sit down." He motioned to a chair that faced his glass-topped slab of dark-stained walnut.
"What’s going on?" I asked. "Where’s Nettie?"
"Well, ah, Helen, there’s been a change of plans."
"Okay . . . how so?"
"Nettie just called. She won’t be coming. She took a job with the Volkswagen dealer in Tacoma."
I could hardly contain my glee. "Oh, so what now?"
"Well, we’ll just have to hang in there until I can find someone else."
Hang in there? To be fired? This presented an opportunity I could not resist! "You might try to locate Stan Slocum. I know he’s worked as office manager for Volkswagen dealerships, in fact, last I heard he was at the one in Everett." Shame on me. I knew that Bob intended to let the bungling Slocum go as soon as he took ownership of that store. Forgive me, God, but that would certainly serve this tax-fudging furniture man right.
Tuller’s face brightened. "Oh, great! I’ll give that a try."
"Am I done here, then? Shall I go back to work now?"
"Yes, Helen. Thanks."
"My pleasure." I left his opulent office and returned to my desk. I could hardly keep from laughing. Serves him right, Nettie not showing up because she took a different job. Good for her! This one happy moment in what would be the destruction of the routine-machine I had built made the whole situation easier to accept. I shared the news about Nettie not coming with the girls, and we enjoyed a hearty laugh together. I told them I’d be late the next morning, but didn’t explain why.
My doctor confirmed the suspicious lump and had his nurse make an appointment for me with a surgeon down the hall. Then he sent me for a mammogram, my first. That done, I drove to work with brain-buzzards on board, scaring me with their non-stop calls of negative possibilities ahead. Waiting a week to see the surgeon would not be an easy task.
A few days later, Tuller summoned me to his office again. I rapped politely on the door, then opened it to see Stan Slocum sitting in front of the desk. My heart swelled with thanksgiving. Justice was about to hit. Thank you, God.
"Come in, Helen. I believe you know Stan Slocum."
"Yes." I walked over to Stan and we shook hands. "Nice to see you again."
"Stan will be taking over the Office Manager’s job. You can spend a week showing him the ropes." Tuller’s confidence shone.
"Oh, that won’t be necessary." I turned to address Slocum. "You know the Volkswagen accounting and everything, so all I need to do is make introductions and show you where things areright, Stan?"
"Right." He agreed with me, having no other choice but to look like the incompetent fool he was in front of his new employer.
"Good." I returned my gaze to Tuller. "Today will be my last day." I had no intention of training my replacement while waiting to be fired. They deserved each other.
I introduced Stan to the office girls as well as the managers of the service, parts, and new and used car departments, then showed him where the accounting records were kept. I skipped the body shop tour as that was housed several blocks away.
The salesmen agreed to cover the phones and cashier duties during the noon hour that day so I could share a long lunch with all the office girls. It was a wonderful ninety minutes, and I thanked them for their loyalty, dependability and hard work.
Mike called shortly after we returned, so I alerted him to come pick me up after work. That afternoon I gathered my personal effects, returned my set of dealership keys to Tuller, and answered questions for Slocum.
As five o’clock drew near, I picked up my small box of belongings and waited inside the north end of the showroom for Mike. When his flare-yellow county truck pulled up outside, I was happy to hurry out and hop into it.
We headed for home, my sanctuary, where I’d be safe from the cruelties of the business world, but vulnerable to burgeoning apprehension over next week’s appointment with the surgeon.