Times had been tough for a good, long while.
That was Dale’s excuse to himself all along. It never did make him feel any better, and now Mr. Cromwell had called him in to the office on a Saturday night.
That never happened, either, and it couldn’t be good. In fact, it might be about as bad as anything Dale could imagine.
It had started small, and it had stayed that way. A little bit of wrong change here, a few misplaced parts there, an extra few dollars on every other paycheck … Dale had access to all parts of the business.
It all added up to about $100 a month, and Dale made sure it never went over $150.
And, even though Jane had lost her job three years before, Dale held out for another thirteen months after that. It was Christmas that finally got to him, when Sally wrote letter after letter to Santa and begged and pleaded Mom and Dad for a Chrissy doll. It was a silly little twenty-dollar toy, but they just couldn’t afford it.
And so, Dale found a way. But it was all alibis, and none of it was right.
His stomach roiled as he parked the car and walked into the back warehouse of the mom-and-pop hardware store. The place was dark except for the orange light streaming out of Cromwell’s office.
“That you, Dale?” The old man’s voice was gruff.
“Yes, sir. Coming.” Dale’s legs were shaky, and he thought he might vomit. He half expected there to be a police officer waiting for him at Cromwell’s desk.
The old man was alone, bent over his paper ledger, cigar hanging from one corner of his mouth.
“Sit down, Dale,” he said through the smoke, not bothering to look up.
“Now, I’ve been doing my yearly finance review, Dale,” Cromwell said, marking at the book with a ratty old pen.
“I know, sir.” Dale swallowed hard. Tears welled in his eyes.
“Things aren’t quite right, here.”
“I know, sir, but –“
Cromwell held up a hand, keeping his eyes on the book.
“Says here you’ve been working for me for fifteen years. Is that right?”
“Uh-huh. And you work what fifty, sixty hours a week?”
“Sounds about right.”
“And this is what I pay you?” Here, Cromwell finally looked up, holding a yellowed piece of paper with a number written on it — Dale’s monthly salary.
“Yes, that’s right, but –.”
“This has gone far enough!” Cromwell bellowed.
“I know, sir. I am so sorry. What can I — “
“Effective Monday, I’m limiting your hours to a strict forty-five per week. And expect your paychecks to go up, say, $200 per month.”
“What?” Dale was flabbergasted.
The old man was thumbing through his ledger again. “Look, Dale, times are tough … stressful. You’ve been a loyal employee, and you’re too valuable for me to risk you getting sick or just fed up. Now, I know you like your work, but this is the way things have to be.”
Dale waited for the punchline, for Cromwell to snap his trap, but nothing happened.
“Get on out of here now, Dale,” the boss said after several seconds. “You need to get home and tend to that family of yours. I’ll handle things from here.”
Dale stood, and breathed deep for the first time in many months.