Jason had managed to process and complete the five stacks of inch-thick folders left on his desk while he was away from the office by logging twenty long hours of overtime during his first week back at work. Working sixty hours had taken its toll on Jason, however. By seven o'clock on Friday evening Jason was exhausted and hungry. He grabbed the remaining stack of completed folders to drop them in Miriam Johnston's in-box on the way out of the office when his desk phone rang.
"Hey, Travis, what's up, Buddy?"
"Hey, Jason are you about finished for the day?"
"Yeah, I was just ready to leave and head to the bus stop. What's going on?"
"I'm getting hungry and wondering if you've eaten yet."
"No, I was just going to grab a sandwich at the grocery store near my home. Do you have something better in mind?"
"Do you feel like Mexican food? Paco and Pepe's Cocino has the best mole chicken enchiladas in town. I'll even buy."
"Paco and Pepe's sounds perfect but with the buses not running as often this time of night it's going to take me an hour to get there."
"I'm just a few blocks away from the office. I'll pick you up in front. I'll see you in ten minutes. Hang tight."
Jason ended the call, dropped the folders off, feeling a glow of accomplishment and walked out to the front of the building. Within a few minutes Travis pulled up. Jason climbed inside Travis's red Chevrolet Blazer and strapped himself in.
"Thanks for picking me up, Travis. This is a lot better than taking the bus and I'd never have made it to the restaurant before it closed."
"I was close by so it worked out for both of us."
Travis drove out of the downtown financial district and out to the suburbs to Paco and Pablo's Cocino. As soon as they walked in, the restaurant manager, Jesus came around the desk and greeted them.
The handsome, young entrepreneur shook Travis's hand. "Amigos, bienvenidos. Señor Hansen, it is good to see you again.
Travis smiled warmly. "It's great to see you, Jesus. This is my friend, and coworker, Jason."
Jesus smiled warmly and reached to shake Jason's hand. "Señor, Jason, it is good to meet you. Any amigo of Travis's is an amigo of mine. Please follow me. I'll give you a nice table in Ricardo's area."
Picking up two colorful menus he escorted Travis and Jason to a small booth.
"I know Ricardo will be taking good care of you this evening. Please enjoy your meal."
Travis smiled. "Thank you, Jesus, I'm sure he will be as good as always."
Jesus thanked them, turned, summoned a busboy and whispered in his ear. The busboy nodded, and quickly retrieved two glasses of water, bowls of warm tortilla chips and chunky salsa.
"Good evening, gentlemen. I am Miguel. Your waiter, Ricardo will be right with you. If you need anything please let me know. Enjoy."
As Miguel walked away Jason leaned over to Travis. "You carry some pull here, don't you?"
Travis snickered. "Not really. I've been coming here for quite a while."
A handsome Hispanic waiter approached the table. "Hola, Señor Hansen. It is so good to see you again. May I bring you gentlemen something to drink?"
"Hi Ricardo. It's good to see you again as well. Yes, please. I'm driving tonight so I would like a virgin strawberry frozen margarita, por favor."
"Si, Señor Hansen, and for your amigo?"
Ricardo looked directly into Jason's eyes and smiled.
"I'll have the same, Ricardo. Thank you."
"Dos virgin frozen strawberry margaritas. I will give you a chance to look at the menus and will return with your margaritas. I shall be right back."
Jason and Travis looked over the menu but each already knew what he wanted. Ricardo brought two large thirst-quenching frozen margaritas to the table, quickly took their order and hurried back to the kitchen. Within minutes he returned with two large plates of delectable, simmering mole chicken enchiladas covered with melted cheese, with refried beans and rice on the side. While Miguel refilled their water glasses Jason and Travis began to eat their tasty meals.
Travis sipped his luscious margarita. "Did you get the memo from human resources this morning?"
"I was so busy I didn't get a chance to look. What did it say?"
"Well I don't want to spoil our meal."
"No, that's fine. Nothing could spoil this delicious food."
'Well, the company is implementing new policies. They're making changes to overtime, changing lunch hours, and they are going to freeze wages."
Jason shook his head in revulsion. "Last month they sent a memo out telling about how net profits had increased more than twelve percent over last year. It's not like they are hurting financially. They don't care about us employees at all, do they? If I didn't need the money I'd quit tomorrow. All they care about is maximizing corporate profits."
Travis agreed. "I'm seriously thinking about leaving the company."
Travis nodded. "I took the job when I moved to the city because I needed the money. The company wasn't that bad at the time but it has changed. It's very stressful now. Besides, sorting receipts and statements is not what I want to do for the rest of my life."
"What would you do instead?"
"Maybe I'd find another office job. I don't know, or..."
Travis hesitated and rearranged the rice and beans on his plate.
Jason watched Travis, waiting for him to continue. "Or?"
Travis sat his fork down and took another sip of his margarita. "Jason, you lived at the ranch for two weeks. What do you think of that lifestyle?"
"I loved it. The guys were great and the food was delicious. I loved working outdoors with the animals and in the greenhouse, watching things grow. I didn't have to worry about processing boring files, getting stressed out every time Stromberg walks into my cubicle, and it seems healthier. It was also peaceful compared to the noisy city. Is that what you're thinking of doing, going back to the ranch?"
"I'm thinking about it, yes but to be honest, I'd feel guilty about quitting and leaving you to deal with even more work and stress."
Jason took a bite of his spicy enchilada and chewed it in silence, marveling at the delicate blend of spices blending with a hint of chocolate. He recalled the first time he met Travis. Jason's first day at the office was stressful as most new jobs first days are. Travis worked in the cubicle next to Jason's and was quick to introduce himself. He made it a priority to help Jason get accustomed to his new job duties and to make his job easier for him in anyway he could. He'd always been there to lend a hand so Jason could make the right decisions with his work. The office would be a cold and unfriendly, if not unbearable place if it weren't for Travis.
Jason put down his fork and looked up at Travis. "If you decided to go, when would you leave?"
"Possibly in the next couple weeks. I need to talk with Uncle Rick about it."
"I bet Uncle Rick and the guys would appreciate you being around to help. Since Wes went into the hospital, the guys have had to work twice as hard to keep up with things. Wes did a lot around there."
Travis dipped some chips in the salsa. "I think you may be right. I'll call Uncle Rick and talk about it with him when I get home."
After the delicious meal but declining dessert, Travis and Jason paid their bill and gave generous tips to Miguel and Ricardo for their excellent service. Upon leaving, Jesus approached them.
"Señors Travis and Jason, thank you so very much for coming to see us. Please come see us again soon. And Señor Jason, please do not wait too long for Travis to bring you. You are welcome anytime and we will remember you. Hasta luego."
Travis drove Jason home to his apartment and promised to let him know the next day how the phone conversation with Uncle Rick went. They bid their farewells and Jason retired to his drab apartment for the night. It had been a long, tiring workday and he was ready to relax for the night. Jason turned on the T.V., flipped through the stations and settled for watching a mindless, monotonous sitcom. It wasn't long before he drifted into a deep sleep. Soon he was dreaming he was at the ranch, helping Daniel, Cody, and Erik load bales of hay onto a flatbed truck. As odd as dreams can be, Cody was on the ground lifting two of the heavy bales at a time up to Erik, Jason, and Daniel, who were on the bed of the truck. Cody gave a giggle as he effortlessly lifted both bales up to the brothers and Jason who strained with each bale. Erik and Daniel each gave Cody a perturbed look and rang a strange bell that was intended to make Cody stop giggling. Where did that nonsensical bell come from and why does it keep ringing? Jason suddenly woke from his dream and realized the bell was coming from the telephone. He staggered over to the phone and answered it in a daze.
"Jason, it's Travis. Sorry to call you so late."
"Oh, hi, Travis. It's ok. I was just watching T.V. and fell asleep. What's going on?"
"I just got off the phone with Uncle Rick and he wants you to call him as soon as you can."
"Okay, I'll give him a call after work tomorrow."
"No, he means tonight, Jason."
Jason suddenly overcame his drowsiness. "Oh, what's going on?"
"Some things have happened and he wants to talk to you tonight. Would you please give him a call after we hang up?"
"Sure, Travis. I have the number right here. I'll call as soon as we hang up."
"Thanks, Jason. I'll talk to you soon. Bye for now."
As promised, Jason immediately called Uncle Rick. "Hi Uncle Rick, it's Jason. Travis said you wanted me to call right away. It sounds important."
"Thanks for the quick call, Jason. As you know I spoke with Travis. He's thinking about quitting his job and asked about the possibility of moving here to the ranch."
"Yes, he mentioned that at dinner tonight."
"Travis also told me if he decided to quit he would feel bad about you having to take the brunt of the work and dealing with the added stress."
"Travis has always looked after me at work and has been a good friend. "
"That he is, Jason. He also suggested to me that you might want to also move here."
"Uncle Rick, I can't think of anything I'd enjoy more."
"There is one other thing, Jason. I had a meeting with Doctor Hinton and Wes' sister, Vera."
"How is Wes doing?"
"Not so good, I'm afraid. The aneurysm triggered a stroke and Wes is pretty much incapacitated. He's going to need to have 24-hour care and physical therapy, which means either Vera takes him home to Belmont and he goes to therapy there as a day patient while she looks after him or she can put him in a convalescent home. Either way, he won't be coming back to the ranch."
"Is he able to talk?"
"Well, yes but the entire left side of his body is paralyzed and he slurs his words. He understands his physical condition and what his options are."
Jason shook his head in amazement. "Poor Wes. He was so active and did so much. He may have a hard time adjusting to his new reality. I guess we never know about those things, do we?"
"No, we never know. We just have to keep moving forward and remember to take time to enjoy life."
"Are you guys keeping up with the work around the ranch?"
"That's something I want to talk to you about, and what I just spoke to Travis about. We've been keeping up with the work since Wes went in the hospital. Thank goodness Erik is here and he's doing his part. But we have some bumper crops to harvest this year and soon Erik and Cody will be going back to school full-time. We are going to be hurting. I asked Travis if he would like to come live and work here at the ranch. He said he would like that but needs to have some time to think about it. Jason, I want to ask you the same thing. Would you like to come live and work here at the ranch? Before you answer, I need to tell you there are more reasons for me to ask you this than the fact we need the extra hands. You had a big impact on Daniel, Cody, and the rest of us. We feel you are part of this family now."
"Well, I feel the same and I know how close we became. Is there more?"
"Yes, Cody and Daniel have been moping around here since you left. Erik has also been down. Cody has told me a few times that you're not supposed to be in the city. You're supposed to be here at the ranch." Uncle Rick chuckled. "Well, you know, Cody knows all."
Jason laughed. "I sure do, Uncle Rick. There is something special about Cody. He's a wonderful boy. Uncle Rick, I would love to move to the ranch. All of you guys are great and I really like it there. I'm just not sure how to make the change. I mean, I rent a furnished apartment so it's not like I have a lot to take with me but I'd need to give a month's notice to the apartment manager and at work I'd need to give a couple week's notice. I also have some pretty high truck payments. I don't know how I could make those without this job."
There was silence on the line for a few seconds until Uncle Rick spoke. "Jason, I'll tell you something. Your presence at the ranch means a lot to everyone, including me. Let me ask you a couple questions. First, did you pay first and last month's rent when you signed the rental agreement for the apartment?
"Yes, I remember it was tough coming up with two months rent but I did it."
"Good. That means you just have to give your 30-day notice and not worry about another month's rent."
"I forgot about that. Yes, I could do that."
"Second, how many truck payments do you have until it's paid off?"
"Well I've made some extra payments and I only have six more to go."
"Jason, if you accept our invitation to move here, I'll pay off the loan on your truck so that won't be a factor in your decision. How does that sound?"
"Uncle Rick, I can't ask you to do that."
"You didn't. I offered it as part of the deal. I told Travis to take the weekend to think it over and let me know what he decides. Will you also think it over and get back to me when you make a decision?"
Jason thought for a moment. "Alright, that's fair enough. I'll think about it, Uncle Rick. Would it be convenient to call you Monday evening?"
"Yes, that's fine. Think about it and let me know. I'll be expecting your call sometime Monday evening, ok?"
Jason asked Uncle Rick to say hi to Brandon, Henry, and Wes. He asked him to give hugs to Daniel, Erik, and Cody as well and to take one for himself before he ended the call.
As promised Jason called Travis back. He explained the conversation and asked how Travis' call went.
"Well, they need help up there and I told him I was sure considering moving up to the ranch to help them but I'd have to clear stuff up at work first."
Jason smiled. "It sounds like we're in the same boat, my friend. Let's talk again Monday after work."
They agreed to talk again on Monday and said goodnight.
Jason had a lot to think about during the next few days but he was too tired to focus on it tonight. He would have to weigh his options in the morning. He shut the lights off and climbed under the covers. The next two days sped by in a blur of questions, plans, considerations and thoughts about the future.
Jason arrived at the office at his usual time on Monday morning and began the workday reviewing messages. He answered several pending questions and noticed a message from Mr. Stromberg asking him to meet at 4:30 P.M. Promptly at 4:30 P.M. Jason showed up at Mr. Stromberg's office.
"Come in, Peterson. Have a seat."
Jason walked in and sat in one of the chairs in front of Mr. Stromberg's desk.
Mr. Stromberg opened a manila file, took out a bound report, set it on his desk and opened it. "Jason, this is the third quarter corporate financial statement released last Wednesday. The statement of retained earnings indicates an increase in profit from the previous quarters. However, to further maximize profits several recommendations were included in the statement and corporate is mandating we follow those recommendations at our level. Some of the recommendations affect employees such as you and your teammates. First, any pay for required overtime work will be included in your scheduled hourly pay. Effective today, there will be no additional pay for overtime. Second, effective next Monday we'll no longer have lunch hours. Lunch breaks will be a maximum of 30 minutes. Third, hourly wages will remain at current levels without increases for the next 36 months or until further notice. Additionally, the corporation will be downsizing. We'll be experiencing layoffs over the course of the next two months. Layoffs will be determined by productivity and efficiency. The most efficient and productive employees will get to retain their jobs. Those who don't cut the grade will be laid off. Finally, there is one more item."
Mr. Stromberg opened the manila folder and pulled out a form, placing it in front of Jason.
"Employees are asked to sign this waiver."
Jason picked up the long form covered with fine print and started reading it.
"That's just a standard document, nothing to be concerned about. All employees are being asked to sign it and it's mostly mumbo jumbo that won't affect your wage, hours or job. It's just a standard form. Just go ahead, sign and date that and we're done."
Jason was angry to hear the recommendations Mr. Stromberg read to him and he was even more bothered by Mr. Stromberg's insistence that he sign the document without reading it. He had taken a contract law university course and this was enough to cause a big red flag to pop up in his mind. He set the pen down on the desk.
"Thanks but I'll need to read this over before I sign anything. I'll bring it back tomorrow morning."
Mr. Stromberg became angry. "I need you to sign that now, Jason. I was instructed to have all employees sign them by the end of the day."
"Mr. Stromberg, sorry but I'm not going to sign anything without thoroughly reading it. I'll read it tonight and bring it back first thing in the morning. Goodnight."
Jason folded the document and walked out of the office before Stromberg could react. He went to his cubicle, grabbed his keys, wallet and left the building. On his way home, he thought about the strange conversation he just had with his boss. The more he thought about the recommendations, the angrier he became. As Jason walked up to the door of his apartment he heard the phone inside ringing. He quickly unlocked the door and ran to the phone.
"Hello, oh hey, Travis. What's going on?"
"Hey, Jason, did you meet with Stromberg this afternoon?"
"Yeah, I did. Did you?"
"I'm supposed to go in there first thing tomorrow morning. What's it about?"
"It was pretty much what you had told me about at dinner the other night. They are stopping all overtime pay, cutting lunches to 30 minutes, and freezing wages."
"Well, we expected that."
"There is more, Travis. They are going to start layoffs. The layoffs will be done like a competition almost. The least productive and efficient get booted."
"Wow, do you know what it's going to be like working with people fighting against workers for their jobs?"
"Stromberg also gave me something to sign. He practically shoved the pen in my face after telling me it was all standard stuff and not to worry about it."
"Did you sign it?"
"No way. I grabbed it and walked out."
"Well, first he was lying. How could everyone be required to sign it by the end of the day when some employees haven't been given the form yet? What does it say?"
"I have it here. Hold a second and I'll read it."
Jason set down the phone, took the document from his pocket, unfolded it and started reading it while Travis waited on the line. After reading the document he picked up the phone.
"Travis, are you still there?"
"I'm here. What does it say?"
"It's bad. It's a waiver stating that we forfeit our rights to litigate the corporation over wages, safety issues, disputes of labor, and benefits. It states any contention is to be arbitrated by an arbitrator selected by the corporation. By signing this we also forfeit our privacy rights allowing the corporation to conduct searches of our vehicles, homes, and selves if it is perceived any potential crime or malfeasance has been committed. Additionally names and contact information of our families, friends, and associates will be provided and the corporation has the right to contact and question them."
"They can't do that, can they?"
"Not legally, no. I'm pretty sure this is against the labor laws but they also realize no employee of theirs has the money to hire lawyers and pay for court costs to fight it. The company has the resources and the lawyers to fight this for years, so, yeah, they can get away with doing this."
"What are you going to do about that, Jason? Are you going to sign it?"
"I learned enough in my college contract law course to know better than to sign this thing. I would suggest you think about it long and hard before you do, Travis."
There was a moment of silence on the phone.
"Travis, are you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm here. I was just thinking. I don't want any part of a corporation that treats its people like that. Jason, it's time to give Uncle Rick a call."
"I'm thinking the same thing. These corporate guys only care about stuffing their wallets and Stromberg is just one of their minions. I'm not going to sign any waiver or settle for their garbage. After reading that waiver, I'm done with them. Yes, we should make our calls to Uncle Rick."
"Let's make it a conference call and we can both talk to him at the same time."
"Okay, good idea."
Jason arranged for the conference call to the ranch. Uncle Rick answered the phone. He was glad they called him as he requested. They took turns explaining to Uncle Rick the events of the day and their decision to quit their jobs and move to the ranch. They would both hand in their notices to quit first thing in the morning. Jason could also give his notice of termination to his landlord and be moved out by noon on Thursday. Travis would need a few days more to pack his things up. It was agreed Jason would be at the ranch Thursday evening and Travis would arrive Sunday. Uncle Rick agreed with their decision to leave the company as soon as they could. All three were excited about the big move.
The next morning Travis and Jason arrived at the office, walked into Mr. Stromberg's office and gave their resignations to his secretary. Their notices were officially two-week notices with the next two weeks to be used as vacation days. Neither Jason nor Travis had any personal items at their desk so they left the building before their co-workers arrived. They each drove to their homes, gave notices to their landlords and began packing their things for the big move to the ranch.
The rest of the week went quickly for Jason. He busily packed his things, called the utility and phone companies to close his accounts, contacted his friends to tell them goodbye, and filled his truck up with gas for the long road trip to the ranch. Just after 10:00 A.M. on Thursday, Jason placed the last box in his truck and strapped everything down. He was excited to get on the road and start his new life. As he turned onto the highway and saw the city in his rear-view mirror he thought about the choice he had made.
"Well, Jason you're doing it. You're making a big change in your life. Is it the right choice? Have you given up the one chance at succeeding or have you backed out of a dead end? I'll soon find out. At least I'll feel like I'm part of a family again."
He pushed the cassette tape into the player and sang along to Jefferson Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now".
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Thank you to my anonymous S.L. friend and to Mark for your much appreciated help with this chapter.
I welcome any respectful comments. If you enjoy this story please send me an email and tell me what you think about the story. Thanks!