It started a little over three years ago, on a Thursday afternoon, when the boss called him in. Something told him the sky was about the fall. He reached into the small refrigerator he kept in the office and took a long shot of vodka.

“We’ve been going over the books,” the boss said. “I’d like an explanation.”

He tried lying, even though he was sure they knew. They did.

“That’s not true,” the boss said. “You took some money. Looks like about $25,000 worth.”

The rest of the meeting was a blur. He was fired, of course. There would be an audit. He would either make full restitution or he would go to jail. He might go to jail anyway. That was up to the management committee.

Somebody went with him as he packed his briefcase and left the building. He would come back over the weekend to pack up the rest of his things.

That night, he told his wife. She hadn’t know about their financial problems. They both cried. Then they went over their finances. He had walked out with a severance check. The next day, he converted it into a cashiers’ check and sent it to the company as partial restitution and proposed a payment plan for the rest. He was now officially broke.

“I had spent months living with the fear of getting caught, covering one lie with another until I couldn’t keep all the lies straight. That’s how I got caught.”

He packed up his office a few days later and left the company property for good. They were still auditing the books and would let him know about his offer for to repay the company in installments.

A week later, the word came: No payment plan. Pay now or else. He didn’t have the money and his credit was in shambles. Over the next 24 hours, the depression deepened.

Then a call came from a board member of his old company. The board member wanted a private meeting. He dreaded that meeting, but went to the board member’s hotel that night.

The board member didn’t mince words.

“Look, I don’t know if I want to really know what possessed you to be such a dumb son-of-a-bitch, but I have to know. I want to hear your side.”

He told the board member everything, laying out the lies, the deceit, the missing money, the works.

When he finished, the board member shook his head.

“You have to be one of the dumbest SOBs I’ve ever seen. If you were going to steal, why not go for big bucks? You ruined your life over a lousy twenty-five grand?”

He had no answer.

The board member reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope.

“This is a cashier’s check for $30,000. It should cover what you owe and give you a little left over to live on until you get back on your feet.”

He was stunned. Why?

“Damned if I know. Despite all this, I like you. You brought a lot of talent to our shop and did some good things. This is a loan, mind you. I expect to get every dime of it back. And I expect you to get help for your drinking problem. You leave tomorrow for the Betty Ford Clinic. Everything’s arranged.” He handed over another envelope with an airline ticket.

Does the board know about this?

“Hell no. This is my show. Nobody knows about it but you and me. Let’s keep it that way.”

They shook hands and he left. The next day, he was on a plane headed west to Betty Ford while his wife delivered the money to his old boss.

That was a little over three years ago. On December 27, 1996, he wrote a check for the final installment on a loan that was made on a handshake and which carried no interest.

It was over. After 39 months and 11 days of rebuilding his life and staying sober, a painful, but educational, part of his life was over.

Or so he thought. Two days after the new year started, his old boss called. Let’s have lunch and clear the air.

They met in Crystal City, just outside Washington. It was awkward at first.

“I understand you’re doing well,” his boss said.

“It’s been a long struggle, but I’ve got a good job and my life is back on track.”

They talked about the elections, about what has happened at the company since he left and about sports. When the check came, his old boss paid the bill. As they sipped coffee, he searched for the words.

“Look, I’ve wondered for a long time what I should or could say if we ever had a chance to talk. All I can really say is I’m sorry.”

His old boss put down his coffee cup, picked up his coat and started to leave. Then he turned back.

“Damned right you’re sorry. You should be. I should be telling you that I’m glad you’ve put your life back together, But I’m not going to bullshit you. I just found out recently how you got the money to pay off your debts to the company. If I had known at the time, I would have stopped it.”

Why?

“Because you got off too easy. You managed to weasel out of this without experiencing the pain you deserved. I trusted you. So did a lot of other people. You hurt me. You hurt the people who worked for you and you hurt your friends.”

He looked down at his coffee cup, not knowing what he could say. His old boss continued.

“You deserved to be publicly humiliated and you weren’t because one of my board members decided to step in and help you. I should have tossed your ass in jail and made sure that everyone in this town knew that you are a liar and a thief. But I can’t do that. All I can do is let you know that what you did does not deserve or receive any forgiveness from me. And I can promise you that someday, somehow, I will make sure that people find out what you really are.”

Then his old boss walked out, leaving him to down the last of his coffee alone. He sat at the table for a few minutes and then headed for the door. As he left, a number of people turned to their tablemates and wondered aloud why such a well-dressed, middle-aged man was crying.

–Doug Thompson
Washington, D.C.

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