Robert Colton stood in the dining room of his well-appointed home, gazing though the arched opening into the living-room. The Christmas tree sparkled. Its lights dancing off the shining, shredded wrapping paper strewn underneath, the aftermath of the opening of presents. The scrumptious aroma of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie drifted through the house, teasing the stomachs of its inhabitants. Robert’s mind was not on the scene before him. He was reflecting on his current state of affairs. The last few years had been a roller-coaster ride for his pest-control business. When the housing bubble was on the rise, his company was hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for new termite bonds. Then the bubble burst, and the steady stream of new houses, ready to be protected from wood destroying pests, slowed to a trickle, and then a drip. As the economy worsened, and loyal customers had to tighten their belts, renewing those termite bonds, and keeping the roaches at bay kept getting pushed further down the list of priorities. Still, with a good business sense, he had managed to keep the company, that he had inherited from his father, prosperous. He thought about the two young men, having a beer by the fireplace. He couldn’t be prouder of both of them. Mark, his son, had followed him into the family business. Wade, his son-in-law, was a Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He walked across the room and joined in the conversation. Mark, soon to be a dad for the first time, was expressing his anxiety about being able to provide for the baby he and his wife Jennifer, were expecting in March. Wade, just home from his second tour in Afghanistan, was happy to be sharing the holiday with his wife Hannah, and their five-year-old daughter, Emma. While he was glad that this was his last tour to the Middle East, he still harbored a tinge of bitterness at ending the war with the job unfinished. He couldn’t help feeling that a tour in Iraq and two to Afghanistan, amounted to nothing more than missed birthdays, Christmases and anniversaries wasted. Iraq wasn’t secure, the Taliban would regain control of Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda still posed a threat to world peace.
“Thank you for the Video Barbie, and the Razor chalk scooter, and the Nabi, Pawpaw.” “You’re welcome sweetie.” Emma bounced across the room, and twirled the skirt of her black velvet and plaid taffeta Christmas dress. Her blond curls, tumbling around her head, gave her an angelic look. As she danced around the living room playing with her new toys, she embodied all the innocence and hope that makes children her age so precious. Robert loved doting on his granddaughter and in spite of the half-hearted objections from his daughter and son-in-law, he spoiled her shamelessly. This year however, the satisfaction he got from generously giving to his children and grandchild was tinged with remorse. Even through the recession, he was able to hang on to all of his employees. By improving the efficiency of his business, he was able to maintain the salaries and benefits for his workers, and still provide a quality service at a decent price for his customers. It had been a difficult balance to maintain. Every ounce of fat had been cut. Every waste eliminated. But now, with the November elections, came a new hurdle to scale. The impending repeal of the Bush Era tax cuts and the looming expenses of the Affordable Care Act would hit his company hard. He could water down his chemicals and double his prices, but his conscience told him that would drive away business instead of increasing revenue. And in the process he would irreparably damage the sterling reputation that his father had earned and passed on to him. He spent hours with his accountants desperately searching for another way, but it was clear he had no choice. So on the first day of December, it was with a lead heavy heart and a lump in his throat that Robert called all sixty of his employees into his office one by one and told them that in January he would have to let eleven of them go. “Damn” he though to himself, “these are good people and they don’t deserve this”. Now he was left with the impossible task of choosing who to fire. Many of his employees had been with him for years. He had been invited to their weddings, then their children’s weddings. They came to him for advice. He thought of them as family.
He cared about his employees and tried to help them out whenever he could. So when Mike, one of his technicians came to him a year ago, and asked him for help with his sister, Robert didn’t think twice about it. Angie was twenty years old with three children. When she found herself pregnant at sixteen, she dropped out of high school and never completed her GED. Her life was spent with various men who were happy to father children, but had no desire to be fathers to them. Her family had made it clear that they would be willing to help her find a job and get on her feet, but her dead-beat baby daddies were not welcome. The thought of keeping a schedule and following someone else’s rules did not appeal to her, it was much easier to find a sugar-daddy to pay her bills. When her last boyfriend was sent to jail for armed robbery, leaving her alone with no employable skills and three mouths to feed, she was finally willing to accept her family’s help. She moved in with Mike and his wife and agreed to meet with Robert. After an hour-long interview it was obvious that Angie lacked the skills to work in the office, but Robert wanted to help so he offered her a job as a housekeeper. Though his wife, Kate, insisted that she didn’t need help around the house, she agreed to give Angie a chance. Angie was to work from nine to four on weekdays, and have weekends and holidays off. Her duties were basic housekeeping and laundry but no cooking. Her pay would be twelve dollars an hour. A little below the average salary for a housekeeper, but Angie could bring the baby with her to work, and Robert and Kate agreed to pay the daycare expenses for the other two. Angie and Kate were a case study in personality contrasts. Kate had always taken pride in her home. She liked things neat and orderly. The beds were always made and you’d never find a pile of dirty dishes in her kitchen. Angie took no pride in her work. Kate tried to instruct her in proper housekeeping techniques, but Angie insisted on taking shortcuts. Kate would often find her watching TV in the rec-room while a basket of laundry needed folding in the wash room. Kate was more than happy to give Angie time off to be with her children when they were sick, but it was odd how a trip to the doctor usually included a side trip to the beauty parlor or nail salon. Then there was the habit Angie had of dropping, not so subtle hints, for clothes and toys for her kids. It was not unusual for Robert to come home and find Kate mopping, vacuuming or finishing up something that Angie should have done. So they were absolutely dumbfounded when in October, with all the righteous indignation she could muster, Angie approached them and demanded a raise. When Robert pointed out that with her work ethic and skills she would have a hard time finding a job anywhere else, let alone one that provided childcare, Angie announced, without a shred of shame, ” When Obama gets elected next month, I won’t have to worry about getting a job. The government will pay for my food, rent, and medical care.” Then she turned, stormed out the door and returned only to collect her last paycheck.
Arliss Jackson’s modest home sat on an acre of land on the perimeter of a National Forest. The perfect place for a man who loved to hunt and fish. Arliss and his wife, Nicole, had begun saving for a down payment as soon as they were married. Fifteen years ago, they bought the land and had a house built on it. Arliss had considered himself lucky. He knew several men, many of whom were in construction or middle management positions, who had lost their jobs. So far, thanks to the keen business sense of his boss, his company had managed to avoid layoffs, but now that was changing. He had begun working during the summer for Colton Pest Control, back when he was still in high school. Though he was grooming Robert to take over the business, Old Man Colton was still calling the shots and he liked to hire local teenagers to clean up the trucks and the yard, and do other odd jobs around the office. The old man saw something he liked in Arliss’s attitude and work ethic, so he made him a deal. If Arliss would keep his grades up, and work to obtain some scholarships, Old Man Colton would pay the difference for his college degree. So Arliss worked hard and studied hard, and when he graduated college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Entomology, Robert, who had now taken over the business, hired him as a manager. Robert knew it would be helpful to have someone in the office who could help him navigate the numerous and sometimes incomprehensible labyrinth of EPA regulations that governed the pest control business. Arliss enjoyed his job. He felt a satisfaction in providing a beneficial service. One that protected property and helped prevent the spread of disease. He felt a loyalty to Colton Pest Control and to the Colton family who had been more than generous. When Arliss’s son Levi was born, he had a congenital heart defect that required surgery and a lengthy hospital stay. Robert told him to take all the time he needed to be with his son and Nicole. He even offered to cover any medical expenses the insurance didn’t. And when they were finally able to bring Levi home from the hospital, Robert and Kate came to the house with a spaghetti dinner and casseroles for the freezer. Arliss understood better than any of the other employees, just how heartbroken Robert was to have to let some people go. Robert was sure to let everyone know how pleased he was with their work, and that who would stay and who would go would be determined purely by the economics of the situation. Arliss couldn’t shake the foreboding feeling that because he was one of the highest paid employees and worked mostly in the office and not out in the field, that he would be one of the first to go.
Arliss stood in his driveway watching the multicolored lights blinking cheerfully along the eaves of his house. They almost seemed to be mocking his apprehensive feeling. He walked through the front door and was greeted by the comforting, cinnamon smell of glazed ham, roasted asparagus and Nicole’s famous pecan pie. He stepped into the living-room. The lights from the Christmas tree danced on the shining tinsel, defying the mood that Arliss was in. He looked across the room at Levi who was hooking up a two-year old X-box 360 to the new flat screen TV. This year Nicole did something she swore she’d never do. She got up at three o’clock in the morning to brave a Black Friday Doorbuster sale. Her reward was an incredible deal on the TV. It wasn’t supposed to be the only gift, but with the uncertainty of the new year, it seemed sensible to have one gift that everyone could enjoy, rather than spending twice as much on gifts for everybody. “I’m sorry son about the lean Christmas. I know how much you wanted a new rifle.” “That’s OK dad” replied Levi, “I can work this summer and buy one myself.” Levi shared his father’s passion for the outdoors. In the fourteen years since his heart surgery, Levi had grown into a healthy, handsome young man. He was quarterback for the Freshman football team and was active in his church youth group. He made good grades. Kind and respectful, he was the kind of son that would make any father proud. It’s why Arliss ached inside, that he couldn’t give his son more.
“Dinner’s ready!” Nicole called from the dinning room. As they gathered around the table Arliss’s mood lightened. The tempting spread on the table before him made him glad to be hungry. As the family gathered hands to say grace, Arliss realized how grateful he was to have such a dutiful son and the love of his wife.
The smell of turkey, dressing and all the trimmings rose up from the kitchen to the small room of the homeless shelter that Angie shared with her three children. The last two months hadn’t gone as she had hoped. She had applied for food stamps and TANF and any other assistance she thought she could qualify for. She was sure that the government would take care of her and her children so she wouldn’t have to worry about taking a job and finding childcare. The assistance, that she was able to obtain, provided subsistence. Not nearly the lifestyle she thought she should be provided, so she spent her days going to various charities to try to improve her position. Mike was furious with her for walking away from the job that Robert Colton had given her. She threw away a chance to gain some self-respect and be a good example for her children. While her brother and his wife were ready to let Angie be responsible for herself, they were worried about what would become of the children, so after much deliberation they offered Angie and alternative. They offered to adopt the three kids and raise them as their own. Angie would have to sign over custody and though she would be allowed visitation, she would have no legal rights or responsibility to them. Not wanting to believe that Mike was offering her a better life for her kids, she lashed out at him. “Do you know how much they will cut my benefits without the kids?” she yelled. “ I need those kids to get my money!” And so, with all her desperation and wounded pride, she gathered up her children and their meager possessions and left without a thank you or good-bye. She wandered the streets for a couple of days, finally winding up at the Our Savior’s Mercy homeless shelter. She did not contact her brother or anyone else. Mike searched for her, because he didn’t want Angie to be alone for Christmas, but he could not find her.
After Christmas dinner was served and the dishes put away, Arliss, Nicole and Levi gathered at Our Savior’s Mercy church as they had for the past ten years. The church held a toy drive every year and the employees of Colton Pest Control were always one of their largest donors. Robert liked to make a contest out of the annual event and agreed to match one to one every toy his employees brought in. After the toys were sorted and bagged according to age and gender, the congregation would meet every Christmas evening and distribute the toys. The church ran a large homeless shelter and provided toys for many needy families in the area. The need this year was overwhelming, and with so many having to take lower paying jobs, the donations were down. The group set out eager to bring a toy to a child that they knew would not otherwise have one. After visiting house after house in the poorer parts of town, the group wound up at the homeless shelter. They knocked on the door to Angie’s room. She opened the door and the sight that greeted the church group was cheerless. A picture of a Christmas tree that was colored by Angie’s four-year-old daughter was taped to the window. It was the only decoration in the room. The two pajamaed children sat on a bed, an eager look on their faces. Nicole gave the girl a knock off Barbie doll, and gave the three-year-old boy a football. She handed Angie an age appropriate stuffed animal for the baby. The kids seemed somewhat disappointed in what they were given, and Angie was livid. “I waited in line for six hours to register and this is all you have for my children?” “I’m sorry,” Nicole, explained, “ times are hard and we had barely enough toys to go around this year.”
“I don’t want to hear your sob story.” Angie shot back. “Those rich bastards like that Robert Colton can surely afford to buy some decent toys for less fortunate kids like mine.” “If he paid his fair share then maybe I could get more money and I could afford to buy my kids some toys myself.” Nicole choked back the tears and stepped out into the hall where other members of the congregation were gathering after handing out their toys. As they walked back to the van, she said to the pastor’s wife, “I used to get so much joy out of handing out the toys, but women like that just make me feel used.” The pastor’s wife tried to cheer her up. “ I know it’s discouraging, but remember we do it to show others Christ’s love for us.” The van pulled up to the church and the members of the congregation returned to their vehicles. As the members bade each other good night Arliss called out “Merry Christmas!” He got in the driver’s seat, started the truck and said to Nicole, “I try to say that to everyone.” Nicole replied, “You should, while you still can”