by Paula Gail Benson
Not that I’m an expert. I’m just a thirteen year old guy trying to string enough words together for an eighth grade paper. I stupidly took the honors course on my Uncle Sage’s enthusiastic recommendation.
“Oh, man, Double Mack,” Uncle Sage told me, brushing back his shoulder length gray hair with his fingers, then shaking it out like Mufasa in The Lion King or maybe a feeble attempt at copying the moves of that model on Granny Mott’s romance novel covers. Fabio, I think she called him.
“I wish I’d been able to take economics at your age,” Uncle Sage had said. “That stuff’s the basis for living well.”
If that was so, I decided I’d be looking for a simpler lifestyle. Maybe the monastery at Mepkin Abbey, in Moncks Corner, near Charleston, would take me. I could handle gardening, bee keeping, managing guest retreats, and setting up the annual crèche festival in exchange for room and board.
Uncle Sage--being co-owner with my mom of the formerly twenty-four hour breakfast spot, Cinnamon and Sage--understood or at least encountered economic issues daily. The restaurant had to close down completely in March and reopened only on a limited basis by summer. Cutting back from twenty-four to ten hours a day meant a huge loss of revenue and staff, not to mention a greatly reduced menu. No more fifty varieties of waffles. I particularly missed Number Twenty-five, the Christmas Special, alternating quarters of red velvet and key lime served with raspberry syrup.
Today, I had a bigger problem than food or honors economics.
Our home was a two story dwelling, located one row back from the beach, built to accommodate four rental units, two upstairs and two down. We lived on the second floor--my mom, nineteen-year-old sister Shandeigh, and me on one side and my Granny Mott, my dad’s mom, on the other. In a good year, we kept a steady flow of renters on the lower level.
This had not been a good year. We had barely enough lodgers to put a dent in the taxes and insurance. So, when Mr. Fenster Landress asked to take both lower units for two weeks right before Christmas--well, it was a gift.
He did want some extra services--light housekeeping and a change of linens midway through his stay. Normally, we provided the basics to renters as a self-serve operation. But, we couldn’t afford to turn Mr. Landress down, considering he paid top seasonal rates and we really needed the money.
With mom and Shandeigh picking up shifts for laid off workers, I offered to do Mr. Landress’ cleaning. It gave me a break from Zoom classes and the paper, which had to describe a small business philosophy. Besides, I figured, how hard could the cleaning be? One uptight adult shouldn’t mess up too many towels and sheets. I never understood why he rented both units just for himself. Maybe he liked having the extra space.
I headed downstairs in the late morning, after hearing Mr. Landress slam the door as he headed out for his daily beach walk. I saw him striding toward the boardwalk, decked out in trench coat and, as best I could tell, a suit. He didn’t seem to have leisure wear.
What I didn’t expect to find in Mr. Landress’ rooms was a sealed envelope with the printed message: In Case of My Demise. Not hidden away, in a drawer or suitcase, but in plain view on the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining area. Right where I couldn’t miss seeing it.
I finished sweeping and dusting, dumped the used linens upstairs in the laundry room hamper, and then did a stupid thing: I went back to the counter, scooped up the envelope, and pocketed it in my leather jacket.
Grabbing my bike, I pumped the pedals as I headed toward Cinnamon and Sage. I breezed up the highway, passing by the city’s holiday street decorations that had been in place since well before Thanksgiving. I tried to keep my nerves steady and my breath even behind my facial mask. Hidden inside my jacket’s inner pocket, the envelope felt like it must be a Taser sinking its prongs into my chest as I rode toward the restaurant.
After securing my bike in the back hallway where the employees had cubbies to store their stuff and a peg board for their coats, I circled around to the front door. Mom always wanted us to use the main entrance if we were eating, not working.
Stepping into the entry area, I stopped to admire the tree decked out with gold and glass molded waffle ornaments, featuring breakfast dishes and ice cream waffle cones, as well as fifty porcelain ovals tied by ribbons to the tree’s branches. Granny Mott had painted each oval with one of the waffle varieties formerly on the menu. I noticed Number Twenty-five had a prominent spot.
At the reception stand, Mom told a group of five it would take a few minutes to prepare a table. Seeing everyone masked, even the kids, was so weird.
Mom pointed for me to take a booth in the back. I followed her instructions, passing by the counter where Uncle Sage and Shandeigh conferred. Uncle Sage wore his Santa “ho, ho, ho” face mask, where the clear plastic covering over Santa’s wide-open mouth revealed Uncle Sage’s lips. Shandeigh, in a white mask dotted with tiny gold stars, plead her case to advertise her latest waffle creation as the week’s featured item.
“Hey, Double Mack,” Uncle Sage called, motioning me over.
“Just ‘Mack’ will do,” Mom told him as she went to clean off the customers’ table. Usually, Mom overlooked what Granny Mott called Uncle Sage’s “boisterous jocularity.” But today, Mom’s voice held a simmering intensity that indicated she was ready to snap. Probably not a good time for me to tell her I’d swiped a letter from the boarder’s room.
“Okay, Moan-nah,” Uncle Sage said, putting heavy emphasis on the “moan.” He motioned for me to come closer. “Call it, heads or tails.”
“Tails, I guess.”
Uncle Sage tossed the coin, caught it, and looked at the result. “Heads. Sorry, Shandeigh. Maybe next week.”
Okay, now I’d made my sister mad. But, I had to talk with someone and I didn’t think Uncle Sage was an option.
When Shandeigh came to my table, pad in hand, she said, “You’re having the egg nog waffle.”
I winced. “Is it any good?”
Shandeigh fixed me with her laser stare. “It’s my recipe. If you hadn’t called the toss wrong, it would have been this week’s featured item. Now, I have to encourage an overwhelming number of folks to order it to get Uncle Sage to promote it.”
I almost pointed out that Uncle Sage didn’t actually show her how the coin landed, but I decided not to encourage a toss redo. “Can I also have hot chocolate with marshmallows?”
“Suit yourself.” She flipped her pad shut and headed to the kitchen.
When she returned with my chocolate, after taking orders at the table with five and getting a few more willing to try her egg nog waffles, she was in a slightly better mood.
“Thanks,” I said for the chocolate. “We need to talk.”
“I don’t have time to deal with your economics drama now. Later, after work.”
Shandeigh juggled serving at Cinnamon and Sage with her next to last semester in the baking and pastry arts program at Horry Georgetown Tech. She wanted to start her own bakery after graduation. I figured she’d be running an international company in ten years. Maybe getting a job with her would be my ticket to avoiding economic challenges, but for now I needed guidance about our boarder.
“Not the course. It’s this.” I took out the envelope from my jacket and laid it on the table.
“What is it?” she asked, squinting as if she hadn’t worn her contacts.
“I found it this morning when I cleaned Mr. Landress’ rooms. It says, ‘In Case of My Demise.’”
Her eyes widened. “Was he dead?” she whispered.
I shook my head. “He was walking on the beach.”
“Why did you take the envelope?”
I kept asking myself that on the ride over. “I don’t know. I guess I thought if it disappeared the problem would too.”
Shandeigh, who read murder mysteries like Granny Mott read romance, gave me her scrutinizing eyes. “You may have made it worse. Your finger prints are on it now, if we ever have to hand it over to the police. What does the message say?”
“The envelope’s sealed. I didn’t open it.”
“Could make the situation better.” She shifted her shoulders. “Or worse. Let’s consider what we may be dealing with. He’s a loner. Maybe he’s depressed and decided to come to the beach to end it all.” She closed her eyes. “OMG, if he took his life in our rental, we’d have a tough time leasing it again.”
Not to mention, we’d be the ones to discover a dead body. But, I didn’t sense he was ready to end it all. “He doesn’t seem depressed. Just distant.”
She opened her eyes, staring at me. “So he wants to leave a message behind in case he dies suspiciously.”
“If he dies at all.”
Mom walked across the dining room. She looked in my direction after hearing me say “dies.”
“Everything all right?” she asked.
I took off my mask to cover the envelope. “Fine,” I answered. The syllable came out as a croak.
Mom looked unconvinced, but, noticing customers waiting, continued to the reception stand.
Shandeigh had been considering the possibilities. “Maybe he’s concerned about being the victim of a staged accident.” She looked off into space, as if mentally ticking off all the murder strategies she’d read. “Or, maybe he’s paid someone to kill him because he can’t bring himself to do it. He could be leaving a message to convince the insurance company he wasn’t complicit.”
“Are you really sure you want to be a baker instead of a cop or lawyer?”
“Shandeigh,” Uncle Sage called from the kitchen. “You want to come mix your special recipe?”
“On my way,” she answered, then looked back to me. “One thing is certain. You’ve got to return the envelope to his room.”
After the egg nog waffle, which turned out to be surprisingly good, and a second cup of chocolate with extra marshmallows, I’d built up my courage to return home. I donned my mask and pocketed the envelope. As I pedaled back, I worked out a plan for re-entering the rental.
Coasting into the family driveway, I noticed a tall man with shaggy dark hair eyeing our residence from across the street. Dressed all in black--slacks, polo shirt, and trench coat--he leaned against a column on the porch of Seaside Sundries, which Granny Mott compared to her father’s neighborhood store, because it tried to be all inclusive, stocking the stuff folks forgot (like sun screen or flotation devices) or decided they couldn’t live without (like soda or ice cream) for a day at the beach. The shop occupied a first floor portion of the condo building that blocked our view of the ocean. The family joke had always been with one good hurricane we’d be beachfront property.
I locked my bike in the storage closet. By the time I made it to the internal stair case, the man had disappeared. I took the steps two at a time and knocked on Granny’s door.
“Come in,” she called.
Mom worried about her being so trusting. When I unlocked the door and entered, I found Granny sitting in her sturdy, padded rocker, knitting needles in hand, her yarn caddy propped open on the floor beside her, and a narrow table on the other side holding a reading lamp, pile of romance novels, and the TV remote. On the wall, her sixty-five inch screen showed a Hallmark Christmas movie with the sound muted.
“Did you check me out in your video viewer, Gran?” I asked. “I might have been an ax murderer.”
“I’d recognize an ax murderer’s knock,” she assured me with a smile. “And, yes, I checked you out to make sure someone wasn’t holding you hostage to gain access.”
“You and Shandeigh need to go into the writing business.”
“I dare say we could make a go of it. What can I do for you?”
“Do you still have those extra pine cones I decorated as mini-Christmas trees for the scout project?”
“In the hall closet. Why do you need them?”
“To brighten up the place for Mr. Landress. It doesn’t look much like Christmas down there.”
“What a terrific idea from a thoughtful boy!” She pondered for a moment. “Wonder if there are some other decorations you can take down there?”
I didn’t want to be loaded down with stuff so I could get in and out fast, using the decorated pine cones as my cover to replace the envelope. “Maybe I should see how he reacts to these first,” I told Granny. “I think he likes his space uncluttered.” Finding the box I needed, I pulled a couple of the prickly, decorated giant cones out and was rewarded with a sprinkling of glitter.
“You’re more like your father every day,” she said as I took the cones and headed toward the door. I passed by photos of my dad and granddad side-by-side in frames on the wall. Both wearing military uniforms. They had each been special ops, Dad in Afghanistan and Pop Pop in the Gulf War. Neither came back from their last missions--listed as MIAs--but Granny Mott kept the faith.
“Thanks, Gran,” I called as I left, making sure the door was locked behind me.
“We need to offer him Christmas dinner,” I heard her yell from inside.
I just hoped Mr. Landress remained alive that long. Replacing my mask, I headed downstairs and reached the door to the rental unit when a voice from behind startled me, making me drop the cones. I turned to find the man in black directly behind me.
“Sorry,” he said.
“No problem.” As I stooped to pick up the cones, the sealed envelope fluttered from my pocket, landing next to the man’s shiny patent oxfords. Up close, I could tell his wardrobe was more upscale than it appeared from a distance. I glanced at his face and found him watching, particularly looking at the handwritten words on the envelope. I grabbed it and shoved it back in my pocket before retrieving the cones. “Something I can help you with?” I asked as I stood.
The man pointed to the metal sign attached to the corner of the upper floor of our residence. “Do you have any openings?”
“You’d have to check with the management company,” I told him. I didn’t mention the management company was Mom.
“Okay. Thanks.” The man stared at me, which made me nervous.
A car pulled to a stop on the road. I turned to see Giorgio, a local Uber driver, opening the back door of his Tahoe for Rhonda and Fonda Collingwood, two sixtyish sisters who lived in one of the elegant, long established private homes on North Ocean Boulevard. Giorgio would bring them here so they could walk the portion of the beach from our house to the pier, where Giorgio would be waiting to take them home.
“Hello!” They waved consecutively as they exited, then adjusted their sunglasses and totes before heading toward the sand.
The man in black clapped a hand on my shoulder, almost making me drop the pine cones again. “Take care of yourself,” he said before hailing Giorgio. “Hey, if you’re available, I could use a ride.” He sprinted toward the Uber.
I barely took stock of the situation when the door to the rental opened and Mr. Landress peered out.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I just thought you might enjoy some Christmas decorations,” I replied.
Mr. Landress gave the cones a scrutinizing look. “How much?”
“No charge. Actually, they come with the rental. We meant to have them out before you arrived.”
Mr. Landress reached for the cones. “You make these yourself?”
“Yeah. For a scout project.”
“Nice work. Thanks for thinking of me.” He closed the door.
Well, that had been a bust. And, now it was time to return for the Zoom economics class. Right after lunch, when it was most tempting to nap.
Today, Mr. Karlsson explained cost benefit analysis. “Think of our own time honored tradition of the ‘early bird special.’ If four people dine at your restaurant between four and six in the afternoon and spend approximately twelve dollars each, you earn forty-eight dollars. Let’s say the food itself costs two bucks a meal. You netted forty bucks. If you offer the same meals for seven bucks, you’ll only earn five bucks each meal. But, if you now attract ten diners between four and six, you net fifty bucks. As long as you don’t need more staff, that early-bird special increased profits twenty-five percent.”
I rested my head on my desk. In earlier classes, we’d discussed how compromises required giving up something you counted upon, but could be beneficial if the sacrifice gave you a greater earning power. There were lots of different business applications. I wondered if Uncle Sage’s making Shandeigh show her egg nog waffles were selling before he promoted them was kind of like a compromise. And then, there were the Collingsworth sisters, who could have afforded to drive most places, but provided some regular income for Giorgio by patronizing his Uber during these times when people weren’t traveling.
I must have dozed off as I was contemplating compromise.
“McElhannon McKinley Mott.” Mr. Karlsson called me by my full name. Well, he left off the third, but it probably meant I was in trouble.
“Sorry, sir.” When I shook my head to clear it, I realized I’d drooled on my iPad. I heard my classmates giggling.
“It’s not that we blame you for snoozing off,” Mr. Karlsson said. “It’s just your snoring was a getting a bit loud.”
The laughter made me too embarrassed to answer.
“Let’s call it a day,” Mr. Karlsson continued. “Mack, please stay online with me.”
Good grief. This day had been a bust.
“Listen, Mack,” Mr. Karlsson said when we were alone. “I sense you’re a little uptight about the paper.”
“I promise to work harder.”
“You know, economics is more working smarter than working harder. May I make a suggestion?”
“Don’t let economics terminology throw you. It may seem a different language, but it’s basic common sense. Think about a ‘win-win strategy.’ If I make you feel better about yourself, then you might be willing to spend money on my product. Similarly, the reverse. If your spirits are boosted by buying my product, you may be willing to pay more for it and recommend it to your friends. See what I mean?”
“Think about it. See you next class. And, Mack? Don’t stress.”
What Mr. Karlsson said made sense, but it always increased my anxiety when people told me not to stress.
I finished up my classes for the day, then did some research for the paper. I googled win-win strategy and linked it with economics. I found a few connections.
“How’s it going?”
I’d been concentrating so hard, I hadn’t heard Gran enter. And, I should have noticed because she brought a plate of fresh baked red and green sprinkled sugar cookies, hot out of the oven.
“Not so great. I just don’t get economics.”
She nodded. “Sounds difficult. Can you make any personal applications?”
“The closer you can make it to yourself, the greater that possibility that something will click.” She put down the plate. “Remember a few years ago when I was feeling blah? Every time I passed by a place, I only remembered the times I’d shared there with people no longer here.” She sighed, then gave me a smile. “I had to make a mental shift. Find my own reason for joy, not just what I’d shared with someone else.”
I didn’t have an answer. I felt bad I hadn’t noticed her being down.
She watched me. “You know, what my father, your great-grandfather said about running a store?”
“No. I remember you worked there.”
“Both a character building and humbling experience.” She laughed. “I could find endless ways to mess up, but Dad kept me on because he said people liked seeing my smile and my taking an interest in their lives.”
“That’s like what Mr. Karlsson called a ‘win-win’ strategy. Making someone feel better could encourage them to spend more.”
Gran laughed. “Perhaps. Dad never mentioned how much money he lost because I measured in the customers’ favor so they would benefit from my mistakes. I guess he figured the good will kept them coming back.” She paused before continuing. “My Dad had three rules for store keeping.”
“What were they?”
“First, make it personal. If you care about what you are selling, you can find something to do with it if no one buys it. Mom and I sure got enough presents from the extra inventory. Second, find a benefit no matter how your sales go. As long as you learn something in the process, it won’t be a total loss. And, finally, figure out how to stay in the game, even if you have to change your expectations.”
“Wow. He sounds like a smart guy.”
Her eyes twinkled. “I always thought so. Maybe a few of his genes passed down to you.”
“Thanks, Gran. Do you mind if I share these cookies with Mr. Landress?”
She held the back of her hand to her forehead and gave a dramatic sigh. “I suppose I can make more.”
“If you sprinkle some flour over your face, I’ll believe your struggle.”
She gave me a pouty lipped frown. “You must get the smart aleck from your mother’s side. Back to the kitchen.” She waved her hand as she departed.
I hid away a few cookies for a later snack, then put the rest on a paper plate that I covered with green cellophane and took downstairs. A frazzled Mr. Landress opened the door.
“What is it?”
“My grandmother made some Christmas cookies. I thought you might like some.”
He seemed stunned by the idea. “That’s . . . very kind.” He reached for the plate.
“Mr. Landress,” I hurried to speak, hoping to avoid the door being closed in my face, “could I come in, please? I have something I need to tell you. I’m not very proud of myself, but I have to be honest.”
He gave me an appraising look before making a stiff nod. “You’d better come in. The doorway is no place for confessions.”
“Thanks.” I stepped inside, then turned back to face him.
“Let’s have a seat.” He motioned toward the living room, sat on the couch, and placed the cookies on the coffee table.
I perched on a chair and pulled the envelope from my pocket. “I took this from the counter when I did the housekeeping. It was stupid. I just hoped if it went missing, you wouldn’t think about . . .” There was no good way to say it. “. . . well, about not being here. Like I said, it was stupid and I’m sorry.”
Mr. Landress reached for the envelope. He held it in his hands for a moment before turning it over. “You didn’t open it?”
“No, sir. It wasn’t my business.”
Mr. Landress’ dark eyes seemed to be boring holes in mine. “But, you showed it to someone.”
How could he know? “Just my sister. She told me I had to bring it back to you.”
His eyes narrowed. “No one else?”
I thought for a moment before remembering my previous botched attempt at returning the envelope. “Oh, Gosh. I dropped it on the porch and the man in black saw it.”
“The man in black?”
“High end clothing. He’d been watching our building from across the street and came over to ask if the rental was available.”
“You’re sure that’s all he wanted?”
The longer this day got the less sure I was of anything. “Mr. Landress, if you’re in trouble in any way, I know my family would do all we could to help you. My granddad and dad were military heroes and my family’s respected in the community. People would listen if we asked.” I looked at the envelope in his hands. “Maybe that’s why I took your letter. I didn’t want you to have to feel alone.”
He was silent for a moment before putting the envelope on the table. “What’s your name, son?”
“Mack Mott. Well, really McElhannon McKinley Mott, the third, to be formal, although my uncle calls me ‘Double Mack’ to irritate my mom.” I paused. “Too much information.”
He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Mack Mott. What do you know about me, besides that I’m your tenant?”
I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, too, sir, and not much.” I didn’t want to say we were grateful his check hadn’t bounced.
“Have you heard of a prodigal son?”
“Well, I’m a prodigal father.”
“Okay.” I had no idea what he meant and he could tell.
The tiniest crack of a smile creased his lip. “Ever heard of a company called K Southers?”
“Who hasn’t?” I whistled the five-note intro to their TV slogan. “‘It’s not suit that makes the fellow, but the fellow who makes the suit.’”
He chuckled. “K Southers was my mother. She thought it clever to have advertising that directed attention from the fact a female designed the line. But, she always considered herself one of the fellows. Anyway, the motto’s served us well. At least during my tenure running the company. My son joined the business last year and he’s got all these new ideas, like us offering a monthly clothing box to subscribers. They select their preferences and sizes, then each month decide if they want to keep what we send them.”
I thought about my great-grandfather’s rules about learning what works and staying in the game. “How are sales?”
“Through the roof! Especially this year with Covid making everyone shop from home.”
“So, that’s good--right?” I could tell from his expression it wasn’t.
He reached for the cookies and folded back the green cellophane. “Smells like your grandmother’s a good cook.”
“The best. Only, I think these are from frozen cookie dough. Somebody in the neighborhood was selling them for a school project. She may have added the sugar on top.”
“Good call. Especially for the holidays.” He took one and put the plate back on the table. After tasting the cookie, he said, “Very good.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“Mack, you’ve made me face something I need to do. Something I realized after making the list I sealed in this envelope.” He finished the cookie before continuing. “I was jealous of my son’s success and began to wonder if I was any value to the company. So, I completed all the paperwork to turn the business over to him, then took off for the beach.” He pointed to the old fashioned television in the corner of the room. We hadn’t been able to afford an update and were glad it still operated. “Watching one of those Christmas movies on the cable channel, I heard a mother tell her daughter to make a list of all the achievements she wanted to be remembered for in life. I decided to make my own list.” He picked up the envelope and handed it to me. “I’d like you to read it. Tell me what you think.”
Carefully, I opened the seal and unfolded the paper inside. After reading it, I looked at him and smiled. “That really says it all.”
“Good.” He stood, putting his hands in his pockets. “Now, to tell my son. I got a voice message that he’s at the beach looking for me and suspect he’s the man in black you met. I’d just like to show him that I can track him as well as he can track me.”
“So you have the upper hand in giving your presentation?” I thought I remembered that creating an advantage in business. When he nodded, I told him, “Let me make a couple of phone calls. I think I can find out where he’s staying.”
Again, I took the internal stair case two steps at a time. After I told her what had happened, Granny Mott called Rhonda and Fonda Collingswood, who gave us Giorgio’s number. In a half hour, his Uber arrived to take Mr. Landress to his son’s hotel.
That evening after dinner, Mom gathered Granny Mott, Shandeigh, and me all together and said she wanted to know why Mr. Landress had extended his stay for two more weeks.
“He said his son would be joining him, thanks to a little talk he had with you, Mack. Care to give us more details?”
I told them about the day’s events, including struggling with the economics class as well as finding, taking, and returning the envelope. I got some questioning looks, but nobody yelled at me.
“What was in the envelope?” Shandeigh wanted to know.
“Mr. Landress wrote that he left a folder with an obituary and funeral preparations in his office, but he wanted his family to remember him for three things.”
“What were they?” Granny Mott asked.
“Being a good man for his family. Making a positive difference in people’s lives. And, looking for new hope each day.”
For a moment, we all were silent. Then, it hit me. “It’s like a sound business philosophy, really, don’t you think?” I asked.
We all laughed so hard, which felt really wonderful.
Granny Mott said, “With all the economic strategies you’ve encountered today, I guess you won’t have any difficulty writing your paper.”
“Not as long as you keep me supplied with cookies.”
We all laughed again, talking about supply and demand and whether we should use some of the rent money to replace the old-style televisions with large screens for our renters or maybe even offer breakfast service.
But, best of all, Mom called Uncle Sage and told him there would be two featured waffles promoted next week: Shandeigh’s egg nog specialty and my favorite Christmas Number Twenty-five.