For the record
Mary Alice Berringer sat with her friend, Aileen Smathers, on the porch of The Nutmeg Bakery Café in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. It was the first week of May, perfect weather to enjoy outdoor dining before the crush of Florida people hit the pretty valley seeking relief from hot summer temperatures.
Aileen and Mary Alice had been friends almost their whole lives, and now they were enduring widowhood together, too. It had never mattered that Mary Alice had co-founded Berringer Software Company with her late husband, Troy, and one of the richest women in North Carolina, and Aileen hadn’t worked outside her and her husband’s modest home since their children were born.
Physically, they couldn’t be more different, either. The white-haired Aileen was a quintessential “mama” type, medium height and huggably soft. Her figure suggested she was a fine home cook who enjoyed tasting her own cooking. Mary Alice was more like a stork, tall, all angles and planes, her hair chemically maintained in the natural copper red shade of her youth. Despite her usual command presence, Mary Alice’s vibrant personality normally became girlish and totally spontaneous anytime she was with Aileen.
“Oh, my, don’t that look good,” Aileen said as a nice-looking young man sat a Waldorf chicken salad with fresh fruit and poppy seed bread on the table in front of her.
“I’m sure it is,” Mary Alice murmured as she picked at a fillet of perfectly seared tuna on spring greens. She put her fork back down, sighed, patted her mouth with her napkin, and took a sip of iced tea.
Aileen’s wise eyes knew what the trouble was. She lost her husband more than five years ago, but for Mary Alice, the loss was fresh and still an open wound.
Mary Alice looked up to see Aileen’s eyes on her, and tried to smile but her eyes filled with tears. Aileen’s hand reached out across the table to grasp Mary Alice’s.
“I’m sorry, Aileen. I thought I was ready. Guess I’m not.”
“You just take all the time you need, honey. Would you like to leave?”
Mary Alice squeezed Aileen’s hand, then let go, twisted her neck around like an athlete, took in a deep breath and exhaled, then picked up her fork.
“Hell, no, Aileen, Troy would be embarrassed to see me acting like some little school girl. Let’s eat this good food.”
Aileen chuckled. “Well, in that case, I’m havin’ a big old piece of that coconut pie I saw in the case when we came in.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve eaten a dessert, Aileen, my system would problem go into shock. But you have that pie, and I’ll at least have a cup of that fancy coffee The Nutmeg’s so proud of.”
“Atta girl,” Aileen said.
Troy Llewellyn Berringer died in a bizarre car crash on a narrow mountain road six months earlier. He had just turned 70 years old. The years of mountain hiking, running a business with the love of his life, Mary Ann, and a commitment to diet and exercise kept Troy looking and feeling at least ten years younger. Same for Mary Ann, who, at 68, looked no older than mid-fifties.
They had been seriously thinking about selling the business and their home and becoming world-travelling nomads for a while.
“Why not?” Troy had said. We’re fit. We feel great. We’re sure as hell not ready for the porch and slippers routine.”
Their doctors told them that they were likely to live past one hundred, given the pristine state of their blood work and lifestyle. They laughed together about that and decided maybe it was time to sell the business and go play, especially since they didn’t have any heirs.
Well, there was Mary Alice’s nephew, Rory, and he wanted in the worst way to inherit the business from them, but neither Troy nor Mary Alice could quite see their high tech baby in Rory’s rough hands. And since their only daughter disappeared 25 years earlier, they felt like they would rather sell it to a well-managed corporation who would continue to run the business responsibly and retain their long-time employees. Either that or offer the employees a chance to buy themselves out.
The day of the accident, Troy called Mary Alice from his Rotary Club meeting in Waynesville to ask her to meet him at Patrick Condon’s office at 1:30 that afternoon. Pat was in his mid-nineties, but still came into the office almost every day to make sure the legal interests of his long-time clients like Berringer Software were taken care of.
Mary Alice remembered how excited Troy was when he called. “Hey, woman, you’ve got to meet me over at Pat’s office today at 1:30. He’s got the papers on an offer from a buyer for the business!”
“Really?” Mary Ann said. “Wow! How is this happening so fast? We haven’t even looked for a buyer.”
“I know, I know, but apparently somebody whispered in somebody else’s ear and Pat got a call. Can you be there?”
“Sure, Troy. You won’t have time to come back to the office first so we can go together?”
“Wish I could, sugar. I got a call from somebody I need to see between Rotary and Pat. Probably nothing, but I got to go.”
Mary Ann felt a familiar pain. Even after 25 years, every month or so they would get a call or letter from somebody saying they knew where Ann Mathis Berringer, their missing daughter, was. Sometimes the person making the contact was genuinely trying to be helpful, even though they were always mistaken, but most of the time it was some scurrilous scam artist out to make a buck on their suffering and loss. Either way, though, Troy would go to the ends of the earth to find the tiniest clue that might lead them to their daughter.
“Of course, my love. I understand. I’ll see you at Pat’s at 1:30.
And that’s the last time she ever heard her dear Troy’s voice.
“Mary Alice, where’d you go? Earth to Mary Alice.”
“Oh, Aileen! I’m sorry. I swear, it doesn’t take anything for me to drift off into a cloud of memory. I guess you’ve been there, too?”
“I sure have, darlin’. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish one of them clouds of mem’ry would just take me right on up to heaven so I could be with Jack again.”
Going on without Troy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Aileen. At least you have your girls and the grandchildren. Does that help at all?”
“Oh sure, and I’m thankful for them. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Still, when it comes time to shut the lights and turn back the covers, there’s no hand to pat mine and tell me, ‘Sweet dreams, Aileen.’”
The two old friends sat and looked at one another. Finally, Mary Alice said, “Yes, well, I sure do need Troy’s wisdom right now to know how to handle selling the business and how to handle Rory. It’s delicate. He’s been a little too helpful ever since Troy died. Feels like he’s trying to take me over, and the business, too.”
“I haven’t seen Rory in a long time. How old is he now?”
“He turned 50 last month.”
“Fifty! I can’t believe it. Did he ever get married?”
“No, he never did.”
“I don’t guess he’s likely to have any young ‘uns at this stage, then.”
Mary Alice chuckled. “No, I can’t imagine Rory being a daddy. He’s like a kid himself, in a lot of ways. More interested in his toys than other people. He tries to keep it quiet, but I know he’s a regular over at Cherokee, and he goes down to Biloxi frequently, and even Las Vegas several times a year.”
Aileen leaned forward and whispered. “He gambles?”
“Oh, yes. And that’s not all.”
Mary Alice signaled the server for the check. “He’s sneaky, Aileen. I shouldn’t be talking like this about family, but to tell you the truth, in my heart you’re the closest thing I’ve got to family, now, and I just have to tell somebody.”
“My word, Mary Alice, what is it?”
Mary Alice signed the check and waited until the server was out of earshot. “He’s pressuring me to make him CEO and give him 50% ownership of the company. He wants me to retire and let him run all the day-to-day operations of the business. Says I’ve ‘earned’ it.”
“Well, you have. That’s true.”
“That may be. But I don’t trust my nephew not to raid the company to pay for his fun, and run the business into the ground. I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen. I’d much rather sell the business to a reputable buyer like Troy and I planned; someone who will keep our employees and continue to grow the business.”
“Does Rory own any of the stock now?”
“No. Troy never felt comfortable with selling or giving away any of our stock. Rory’s always been on a salary with full benefits and a bonus schedule.”
“Does he do good work?”
“Well, okay,” Mary Alice sighed and reached for her purse, “but the hard truth is, if he wasn’t my late sister’s son, we would have run him off years ago. His job I more of a “make work” position than a necessary part of our operations.” She scraped her chair back and stood up. So did Aileen. “I need to get back to the office.”
The friends walked out to the gravel parking lot. They were parked side by side under a spreading oak tree. “I’m so sorry you’re having this trouble,” Aileen said.
Mary Alice smiled and hugged her. “This, too, shall pass. Thanks for listing. I promise to be more cheerful next time.”
“You call me if there’s anything I can do.”
“Will do. Say hi to those girls for me.”
“I surely will. And let’s get together again soon.”