This segment takes us to the end of Chapter 8. One more chapter to go, which I think will end up broken into four sections over four nights. I will have the novel done no later than the end of this coming weekend.
Having started at Schneider & Sons late in the year, Kristy had not yet accrued enough vacation time to take the whole stretch from Christmas to New Years off. Even had this not been the case, she had generally found that week to be an ideal time for getting things done, since the number of other people taking vacation during those days reduced distractions and meetings to a minimum. And while thus far the experience of all four family members sharing the small bungalow had been surprisingly peaceful, after three days of close quarters, Kristy was looking forward to the eight hours comparative solitude which each work day promised.
It was, thus, with a certain eagerness that Kristy set her alarm Christmas night, and set off early the next morning for the office. Only the first row of the parking lot was full when she arrived. The fountain was still running in the corporate lake, but ice had advanced to within a dozen feet of it on every side. A singularly determined duck could be seen waddling across the ice to the open water.
Inside the halls were oddly silent. Kristy was the only person in on her row of offices. Out in the bay of cubes across the hall, she could hear someone in the IT section playing Punjabi dance tunes at full volume, secure in the knowledge that there was no one to disturb. Kristy paused for a moment in the doorway of her office, listening to the music and trying to imagine a Bollywood movie that featured its hero or heroine leading a dance number through the maze of cubes of a corporate headquarters nestled in the American midwest. Then she went inside and shut the door so that she could concentrate.
Immediately after New Years, she was scheduled to spend three days in Washington DC on LeadFirst training, and so these days between Christmas and New Years represented Kristy’s best chance to get line review materials finalized before she began the long slog of convincing leadership that she’d developed a sales and trade program that would both be attractive to the home improvement box stores and profitable for the Schneider line.
When she got home that night Pat and Katie were in the throws of disassembling the kitchen. Cardboard boxes from the move-in had been reassembled and stood in huddled clusters on the floor. The counter tops were piled high with dishes and gadgets. Mother and daughter were discussing spiritedly, though surprisingly cordially, the merits of various items — which should be packed and which would be needed during the renovation.
“I need at least one cookie sheet,” Katie objected, pulling one out of a box. “And the hand mixer.”
“The kitchen will be all torn up,” Pat said. “You won’t want to be baking.”
“We may have to live on take-out eaten off paper plates, but if the house is in chaos we need fresh baked cookies,” Katie replied.
“I still think you won’t want to be cooking in here, and no one is going to want to have to clean up.”
“Kristy,” Katie said. “Should we pack the coffee maker or leave it out.”
“Leave it out if you don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Kristy said, depositing her laptop bag on the dining room table and heading off to her room to change into casual clothes.
“See?” Katie said. “Sanity comes first. That goes for baking the same as coffee.”
“You see how you feel about it when this place is all lumber and sawdust,” Pat warned.
Paul arrived early the next morning and was already moving tools and wood into the kitchen as Kristy left for work. When she returned at six that night, the island stood complete — though the drawers and cabinet doors were as yet missing and the wood was unfinished — and Paul and Tom were busily engaged in pulling apart the wall cabinets. Kristy stopped to watch for several minutes but the two men were deeply immersed in their work and communicating in the sort of worker’s shorthand which made little sense to those not familiar with the task at hand.
Kristy left them to it, wiping the sawdust off her shoes on the rug someone had thoughtfully placed in the kitchen door, and passed through the dining room into the living room. Katie was curled up in one of the arm chairs with a can of beer, reading a book. Kristy deposited her laptop bag on the couch and sat down next to it. Her sister, contrary to usual practice, did not move or look up from her book.
“What’ve you got there?” Kristy asked.
Katie lifted the book so she should see the title: The Unsettling of America
“What is it? A novel or something?”
“It’s about farming and culture. By a guy called Wendell Berry,” Katie explained, with the short sentences of one who is trying to continue reading while conversing.
“What got you interested in that?”
“Paul was talking about it. Got it at the library.”
Kristy waited a moment to see if any more comment would be forthcoming from Katie, then got up and started towards her room to change. “Do I need to go pick something up for dinner?” she asked from the doorway.
“Mom went out to get sandwich fixings. I told Paul to feel free to join us if he wants to keep working. He and Dad are having a blast.”
Conversation at dinner centered around the kitchen. Paul and Tom discussed the ongoing removal of the old cabinets. After a time Katie broke in on this to ask how the finishing of the cabinets would be accomplished and whether a different finish was required for the wood counters than for the cabinets and drawers. Pat advised that they work through the job one wall at a time, rather than removing all the old cabinets at once, then doing all the building at once.
“It will be a lot easier if all the storage is not out at once,” she explained.
Katie opined, rather bluntly, that this was a stupid idea and would take longer — necessitating a much longer and more tactful explanation from Paul and Tom than would otherwise have been necessary, punctuated by Pat repeatedly saying, “I don’t know anything about building cabinets, I’m just telling you what people like.”
Finally Tom moved to change the subject entirely. “What about you, Kristy? How are things going over at Schneider & Sons? What are you working on?”
This was the sort of query Kristy would normally have brushed off with a, “Oh, you know. Just taking the chance to get some projects done where there’s no one around to interrupt me,” but this seemed an appropriate time not to stint detail, regardless of whether it proved of general interest.
“I’m trying to come up with a workable strategy in order to pitch line reviews to the big box retailers (Home Depot and Lowes) in a couple months. Schneider & Sons has always wanted to get the consumer tools line that I manage into the big retailers, but they’ve never been able to come up with a strategy that stays profitable, keeps our current retail partners (the specialty carpentry and woodworking retailers) and satisfies the big box stores.”
“Why is it different selling the products to Home Depot and Lowes than it is selling them to Woodcraft?” Paul asked. “They are the same products.”
“They have different selling strategies,” Kristy explained. “The specialty stores have staff that can make a feature-based sale and customers who are willing to pay a premium price for a premium product, so they’re willing to pay a relatively high wholesale price and sell our products at full MSRP. They seldom do discounts or promotions. Home Depot and Lowes are all about volume, and while we can count on the customer to understand that our products represent higher quality than the other products on their shelf, they don’t have staff who can explain the differences in detail and make a value sell. They also focus heavily on periodic discounts and promotions. Plus, for a product that’s going to sit on the shelf a long time and have slow inventory turns, they want a higher profit margin than on their other products. So they want a lower wholesale price than our other customers are willing to pay, and then they’re going to want trade dollars so that they can promote the products at price lower than our other customers charge. All that is going to disrupt our existing channel, so while the increase in volume would be great, and our total margin dollars might go up, my go to market plan has to account for blowback and still be profitable.”
“What are ‘trade dollars’?”
“If the retailer wants to do a promotion like putting the product on sale or featuring it in an advertising circular, they ask for the vendor to pay some or all of the cost. That money from the vendor is called ‘trade’. If you go into a Lowes or Home Depot, virtually everything that’s on an end cap or sitting on a pallet out in the middle of the aisle is something that the vendor paid trade dollars to have featured more prominently.”
“Wait,” said Paul. “Do you mean that they ask you for bribes in order to sell your products.”
“No, it’s not a bribe, it’s— They have only a limited number of products that they can feature prominently, rather than just on the shelf. And they have expenses they have to meet, like leases on the building and pay for their staff and so on. The vendors whose products get featured prominently stand to benefit the most from the retail relationship, so they ask those vendors to provide extra funds to help meet those expenses. In return, the vendor gets higher sales from the prominent placement. It benefits both.”
Paul seemed to find each explanation a further source of indignation. “And then, on top of that, they want to engage in predatory pricing and steal business from the stores that currently sell your products? Why would you even want to do business with them?”
“They’re not trying to steal business, exactly. I mean, sure, they’d be happy to have people buy from them instead of specialty stores (and the consumers would probably be happy to pay less), but mainly it’s just that the big box stores have a different kind of customer than the specialty retailers, and a different kind of business model, so they have different needs.”
“But surely there’s only one fair price for a product. The product itself is the same. Why would you charge two retailers different amounts, or let them charge their customers different amounts, for the same product?”
This was an objection to a principle so basic that Kristy was not at first sure how to answer it. “I don’t know. Different customers are just… different. Some are willing to pay more than others. By working through different retail channels we’re able to reach more customers at prices they can afford.”
“But it’s not honest,” Paul objected. “That’s not charging the fair and honest price.”
“The problem is,” Katie observed, as if this got to the heart of the matter, “that these are just big companies that only care about profit. In a more human economy, the price would be based on the real value of the product and everyone would charge the same.”
Kristy responded to these newfound convictions of Katie’s with a derisive snort.
“Would anyone like dessert?” Pat asked. “I bought an apple pie at the store. I could even warm it up for a few minutes. How about hot apple pie?”
Friday passed much as Thursday had. By the time Kristy got home from work all of the old cabinets had been removed and the skeletons of new ones had risen on one wall. The work continued on Saturday — Paul insisting that he was used to working six days a week and Tom saying he didn’t consider it work at all and was glad to help. Katie sat in the doorway alternately watching and reading her book, occasionally reading aloud sections which she thought were particularly interesting. Outside it had begun to snow, and the light which filtered in the windows was dim and blueish, the sort of light which made one glad to be inside, making the lights seem brighter and the heat warmer. When people say they love winter days, they often mean not the winter day itself but the sense of warmth and security that one feels when sitting inside and reflecting on the contract between one’s own surroundings and the weather outside. Kristy felt this warmth and security strongly as she sat in the dining room with her newspaper and her mug of coffee, listening to the work and talk in the kitchen, and reflecting that she had seldom felt so strongly the draw of family.
In the afternoon Pat received a call from the apartment complex she and Tom would be moving into in the new year, alerting her that their apartment was now empty and could be viewed. Pat was clearly eager to go, but hesitant about driving in the increasing snowstorm. Kristy, crossword completed, offered to take her, assuring her that the BMW did well in all driving conditions.
The apartment, all white walls and white carpeting, seemed bare and sterile to Kristy’s eyes, which had become accustomed to the wood and age of the bungalow. Her mother, however, saw only her plans. “I think the hutch will go here. And the sideboard over there. We’ll leave the couch in storage and just put the recliners in the living room here with the coffee table. There’s just room. It’s small, but it will be cozy, and we’ll find a house before long. I’m so glad to be near you girls,” Pat concluded. “This last week has been… Oh, Kristin, you can’t imagine how much it means to your father and me to be with you girls and have everyone getting along so wonderfully. We’re all so blessed.”
Pat and Katie were united in their determination to hold a New Year’s party. Pat, who (as she did every year) explained that she had watched the ball drop in Times Square on television every year since she was sixteen, procured a bottle of inexpensive sparkling wine, plastic champaign flutes, party hats emblazoned with the year, and noisemakers. Katie invited Paul, announced that the food would be Mexican, and forsook her own Little Kings slim cans to lay in a case of her father’s favored Budweiser longnecks and a case of Guinness in honor of Paul. Kristy urged Paul to bring his guitar, but he repeatedly demurred.
The New Year’s party, more than any other point during her parents’ stay, felt to Kristy like a throw back to her youth — more like a child living with her parents than an adult whose parents were visiting. Katie made delicious enchiladas and pork with green chili for dinner, Kristy mixed cocktails, and Paul drink beer and chatted with both of them, but once the lead-up to midnight on the East Coast began, the parents and the television became the centers of gravity for the evening. Tom dozed in his chair with a bottle of Bud in his hand, while Pat provided running commentary on the televised proceedings from Times Square. The ball dropped in New York, they switched to local programming for the last hour, and Pat bustled around distributing hats, noisemakers and champaign glasses as the moment approached.
The local countdown did not have the sense of its own limitations that New York’s did, and began with fully ten minutes to spare. As the numbers changed and the local anchor provided patter, Kristy found herself contemplating through the soft focus of her third Manhattan the last year and the changes it had brought: Katie, China, Schneider & Sons, the new house, Paul, her parents. She looked around at all those assembled with a feeling of warmth for all of them and upward-spiraling hopes for what the new year would bring.
At last the countdown began in earnest. Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight…
Pat pulled the cork from the bottle of sparkling wine and filled everyone’s glasses.
Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. Ten.
They were all on their feet.
Three. Two. One.
“Happy New Year!”
Pat gave a tremendous blow on her noisemaker horn, then turned and planted on New Year’s kiss on Tom. Kristy took a sip of sparkling wine, than received and returned her mother’s New Year’s hug. Then Pat led off:
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind?”
Tom’s deep, though slightly quavering voice joined Pat’s, and Kristy joined in too, though at a volume designed to keep her voice, of which she was not proud, from being distinguishable from the others. She waited to hear Paul’s strong bass join. At this thought, she turned to look, and saw Paul and Katie in the doorway to the dining room, kissing.
She stopped singing. Ceased to hear the song. Felt herself to be staring. Looked away. Looked back in time to see Paul’s hand reach up to gently stroke Katie’s hair.
Then the two seemed suddenly to feel the attention on them, and they separated abruptly, looking away from each other, flushing, yet uncontrollably smiling.
As Kristy worked to adjust her desires and imaginings based on the events of the last hour, she could have wished that she was not sharing a room and a bed with her sister. Katie, on the other hand, seemed to be in the stage of happiness which cannot easily be kept to oneself.
“Just think of all the things that have changed in the last year,” Katie said, lying on her back and looking up at the ceiling. “I finished my degree, moved out to California with you, moved back, met Paul.” She sighed contentedly. “Think how much will happen over the next year!”
Kristy climbed under the covers with her, turned off the light, and lay looking up into the darkness.
“Did you know Paul liked you before tonight?” Kristy asked after a moment, her desire to understand the parameters of her disappointment overcoming her reluctance to hear Katie talk about it.
“No. I mean, I hoped. We talked about things. And he seemed to understand me so well,” Katie said. If a sound could be said to glow, Katie’s voice did so. She continued, by the sound of it more for the sheer joy of reciting the events than with any consciousness that Kristy was listening. “He said, ‘Happy New Year!’ and hugged me. And then he said, ‘May I kiss you?’ I couldn’t talk, I just said, ‘Mmm hmm.’ And he kissed me, and it was such a light kiss I was afraid he was just giving me a New Years kiss and didn’t mean anything more than that. But I thought that if he was going to kiss me I would at least let him know how I felt. So I pulled him close and really kissed him. And he kissed me back. And I felt him stroking my hair, and pulling me close. And then it was all over so fast. I wish we could have had all night. But, of course, Mom and Dad were there, and that would be weird. But he gave me a hug and another quick kiss as he was leaving. Oh, Kristy, isn’t it wonderful?”
“Yes,” Kristy made herself say, before any hesitation could become noticeable. “I am very happy for you.”
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