“Tell me a story, Uncle John!”
“A story eh?” My pal Loop Lonagan got in big trouble telling stories to Jim Kren’s little girl. “Y’know, Princess, in this case, maybe discretion’s the better part of valor.”
“But I always get a bedtime story. I can’t sleep without a bedtime story. Please, Uncle John! Pleeeeeeeeeze!”
How can a guy turn this kid down? “Okay Princess, just lay back and pretend you’re sleepy.”
“Make it a Christmas story!”
“Hmmm.” After a moment, one occurs to me—one I can steal. “Okay Princess, here goes. There’s this bright guy I know. Immigrant entrepreneur. I mean, Princess, he comes to this country and founds a startup company.”
“I know what it means.”
“It’s high tech. Agricultural analytics. Starts it during the dot-com crash around the turn of the century. Despite the lousy economy, it takes off big-time, goes public and makes me and the other investors real happy.
“His two sons work for him to build up the business. They’re his key employees and make fair salaries. The company adds a mobile app, enhanced AI, and thrives right through the 2008 recession. Years later, it’s still strong. Stock keeps going up-and-up.”
“That’s not a Christmas story, Uncle John! That’s business stuff. You sound just like my daddy.”
“Hold onto your red fur hat—I’m just getting warmed up. Papa loves those boys more than anything—wants them to run the company when he retires. Lost his wife years ago and these two are all he cares about.
“Now let’s look at the younger son. He knows he’s gonna inherit a lot of stock some day and can’t want to get his hands on it. He feels trapped and longs to run his own life while he’s still young. So on Christmas in 2006, he announces he wants his inheritance—right now. Like most kids that age, he’s full of himself—not seeing things from his fathers point of view, maybe not considering all the ramifications of what he says. But it’s kinda like telling the old man, ‘I wish you were already dead so I had your money.’”
“That’s not nice.”
“No it’s not and it gets worse. The young buck’s not interested in the company at all. Not planning to stick around. Just wants to cash out and enjoy life.”
“This is a bad boy, Uncle John.”
“Ah Princess, don’t be so hasty to judge. You don’t know what’s really in his heart. Now the company’s listed on Nasdaq, and Papa still owns 40% of the shares. He says to himself in his broken English, ‘That what they want? Okay! Is Christmas!’ There’s a family trust set up, so he simply transfers his stock—all of it to the two boys.
“Right away, the young colt sells his stock on the open market. With all that loose cash, he feels rich. So he moves to Vegas. Lives the wild life. Gambling all night. Show girls. Maserati. Yacht. Private jet. Hangs around with movie stars. And lots of foolish investments that don’t pay off. He never calls or writes home. Doesn’t visit the next Christmas.
“Now the older brother is still working at the company. But as you might have guessed by now, the old man is really the brains of the outfit. The shareholders—especially that big VC firm that owns a lot of stock with a seat on the board—they all want to keep Papa running the company. The board of directors votes to keeps him on as CEO, with a fat salary—bigger than he ever paid himself.
“Now I want you to notice something: That move wrankles the older brother. He secretly wants to run the show, but there’s nothing he can do about it. So he hoards his shares and bides his time. He stays at his job, working harder and harder, trying to prove himself. Doesn’t like it that his father’s salary is coming out of his share of the company. Can’t wait for the old geezer to croak so he can slide into that big desk.”
“Ugh! How horrible! This brother is worse than the other one!”
“Right Princess. Pappy doesn’t have a clue what’s cranking through this guy’s mind. The kid works hard. He’s dependable. Therefore, he must be a fine boy, right? But he’s so secretive—so sour—never smiles—and for some reason that Pops doesn’t understand, the other one still holds a soft spot in his aging heart.
Back to the younger buck: By the second year, this kid’s portfolio takes a dive, and at the same time, he’s going through money like water. Kid starts looking for work. After all, he was a big executive at a successful company. Impressive LinkedIn resume and all. But now it’s the great recession of 2008 and all he can get are temporary consulting jobs. He forms a startup company, crunching numbers for big investment houses and actually raises some capital. But not enough. Goes belly up within the year. Figures he’s a failure and he’s ashamed to let his father know how bad things are turning out for him. So he doesn’t visit the family that Christmas either.
“By the third year, he’s broke, can’t pay the rent, and gets evicted from his hotel suite. Most of that year, he’s living in his car and scrounging food, feeling mighty low.
“Don’t cry, Princess.”
She sniffs. “This is a terrible Christmas story.”
“Wait and see. Finally, the kid hits rock bottom and comes to his senses. I mean—hey—he’s starving to death. He decides to go home. Even newbies at his dad’s company make a decent living. He’ll confess everything to his father—his failure, his waste—he’ll apologize and beg for a part-time job. Nothing special—maybe an internship or some low-level gig on probation—something like that. He knows it’s more than he deserves.
“Out of the blue, Papa sends him an invite to Christmas dinner and a plane ticket that year, so he texts that he’ll come. Spends the whole flight practicing his confession.
“On Christmas Eve, the old man gets restless; hires a limo and goes out to make a few preparations. Phones his secretary with special instructions. Stops at Mens Wearhouse and lotsa other places. Gets to O’Hare and hangs around for hours. I mean, this guy hasn’t even heard from his boy in three years! When the kid finally walks out the concourse, Papa runs to him, throws his arms around him, hugs him tenderly, tells him he’s glad he’s home. The kid hasn’t changed clothes in a year. Stinks to make your eyes sting. No luggage. Papa leads his son to the limo, arm over his shoulders, and tells his boy he loves him.
“In the back of the limo, the boy stammers out his practiced confession, tears streaming down his face, but his father will have none of it. ‘Stop—no more!’ he shouts. If there’s anything this kid ever learned, it’s to obey his father’s commands. Papa breaks out two tumblers and a bottle of Drambuie and leads the conversation into fond recollections and good times. Does most of the talking and the kid can’t help but laugh at some of the memories.
“Limo stops at the Union League Club and they take in a steam and swim and shower. The kid opens his locker to find a new shirt, jeans, sport jacket, shoes—the works. He can hardly believe it and again stammers out his confession.
‘Enough already! I not hear it!’ says his father, and the old man’s word is always final.
“When they get home, the place is full of Papa’s close friends and dear customers—maybe 300 people. A twelve foot tree sparkles with a million lights. A live band pumps out Christmas music. The aroma of good food fills the house. A caterer lays out an amazing number of enormous turkeys with stuffing and potatoes with gravy, and cranberry sauce, wine and all the trimmings. All that food takes up the big table in Papa’s baronial dining room and they set up a buffet line. People enjoy their meal milling around, indulging in lively conversation. When everybody eats their fill, out comes the pumpkin and mincemeat pies, ice cream, coffee, and brandy. The band leads the crowd singing carols. Take it from me: this is a great party! I for one, enjoyed every minute of it.
“Now the older brother works late at the office that night, as usual. One of the guests notices him out front, pacing in the snow. Papa runs out to him—doesn’t even stop to put on his coat. Begs the boy to come in and join the party. But the kid spits out words in anger: ‘I work for you day and night! I never refuse to do anything you say! Do you ever throw a party for me? But when this worthless bum—this son of yours—shows up, after squandering your money on women and gambling—you celebrate like some kind of idiot, disgracing us in front of all our friends and customers!’
“Papa hugs him and speaks softly to him in his native dialect. ‘On you I depend always. You are good boy. You own all my company stock. But your brother is home! After three years he come home! We must celebrate! Is like he come back from dead!’
“But the older brother won’t be consoled. He curses and shouts, ‘He should be dead,’ and gets in his car and drives off.”
I smile at Princess. She doesn’t look sleepy at all.
“What happens then?” she says.
I sigh. “The old man—Uncle Ludditis, in case you hadn’t guessed already—he eventually retires and opens that bar he always dreamed about. Rents me the back room for my magazine. The older brother takes over as CEO and forces the younger one out.
“Uncle John! That can’t be the way it turns out! It’s not fair!”
“Why not? Those are the consequences of their decisions. The older one holds onto his 20% share of the company so he finally runs that show, a rich miser living alone. The younger one learns from his mistakes, finds employment elsewhere, marries a good woman, raises two wonderful children.
“And Princess, their father loves them both deeply, no matter what. His love is all he has left to give and he’s not stingy with it. Close your eyes now. Merry Christmas.”
Story credit: Jesus Christ, The Parable of the Prodigal Son –Luke 15:11-32
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