In the fall of 1992, the boyfriend and I packed our meager belongings into the back of my Honda Civic and left Northern California for what we thought would be the land of milk and honey - Wisconsin.
As it turned out, Wisconsin was the land of dirty snow and no money.
Sean took several different jobs - landscaper, snow plow driver, sushi cook, hockey card factory worker. I had one - Receptionist Administrative Assistant Copy Writer AR/AP Clerk and General Store Merchandiser for the J. Edwards Glove Company.
The company started on a little side street in the 1940's. In the 1960's, the man who would become my boss took over. When I went to work there, he was no less than 80 years old. Every day, he walked through the door of the small storefront in a well pressed suit, his hair carefully combed and his shoes highly shined. He would give me a small salute and a gruff "Morning!" before making his way to the back.
"Good morning, Mr. Process."
Everyone called him Mr. Process, from the men on the loading dock who carried in the big deerskin hides, to the women who stitched them together with Kevlar thread. If a person came in for a meeting, be it a vendor or client, they asked for 'Mr. Process'. I imagined his wife, sitting across the table at breakfast, saying, "Would you like more coffee, Mr. Process?". Or his grandchildren, clamboring into his lap, "Won't you tell us again of your time in the Great War, Mr. Process?"
He commanded respect, but he did it without intimidation or meanness. He was soft spoken and gentle, and treated me and all his employees with great kindness.
Which made me feel even worse about stealing from him.
We were poor. We were poor, but we weren't poor poor. We were the kind of fortunate poor, with easy access to help in the form of the boyfriend's parents. Each week, they'd take us out for Friday fish fry at Trim B's, where I'd carefully wrap fried cheese curds in a napkin and slip them into my purse. His father would hand us their gas card and we'd fill the tank of my Civic, then buy milk and Funyons and cigarettes from the convenience store.
Just the staples.
When Mr. Process put me in charge of the small cash box for the retail store, it was like giving the keys to the liqour cabinet to an alcoholic. I resisted for a few days, then thought, 'Just five bucks. I'll pay it back next week.' But, of course, I didn't pay it back, and in fact took another five dollars. And another, each week. Sometimes ten.
The front of the store was plate glass, and I could look across the street to the Pierce Manufacturing Company. Pierce made (and presumably still makes) fire engines. It is a long and laborious process, and when they finally roll a finished truck out the doors - red and pristine and absolutely gleaming, even on a sunless winter day - it is an extraordinary sight. The workers line the long drive as the big doors open, and as the engine slowly makes its way down the line, they begin to clap. Soon, they are clapping wildly, and yelling, and back slapping. The engine wails and flashes its lights, echoing their jubilation, their pride. I watched this production one morning, a five dollar bill crumpled and sweaty and limp in my fist.
I had taken a total of maybe fifty dollars before Mr. Process fired me.
He sat me down and his gentle manner told me, "I'm so sorry, I have to lay you off." He said he was laying me off, but I knew I was being fired. He never said anything about the money.
Years later, I sat across from a priest, making my first confession. I had a lifetime of sins to choose from, but it was the transgression against Mr. Process and the J. Edwards Glove Company that came out first. The priest suggested a letter and a check to the company, or, if I was not comfortable with that, a donation to a charity. True to form, I took the easy way out.
Nearly twenty years has passed since we lived in Wisconsin. The J. Edwards Glove Company has been sold and moved to Chicago. Mr. Process, no doubt, has moved on from this life. And save a conversation with an old priest in a small room, this story has never been told. It is all I can do now, the telling, to ask forgiveness for a transgression that has long weighed heavy on my heart.
Mr. Process, forgive me.
2 weeks ago