Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I Needed a Billboard

This story has been on my mind for a few weeks. It's an old one that keeps coming to mind. This was the first time I ever remember getting clear direction from God when I asked for guidance....

In 1998, my ex-husband Byron and I purchased a Chevron convenience store in a rural area about an hour south of where we lived at the time. It had always been Byron's dream to own his own business, and I reluctantly went along for the ride.

We really should not have been approved for the loan; we had zero start-up capital and had to finance the down payment with a small personal loan. Our credit was impeccable, though, and we were approved for an SBA-backed loan. I was terrified, but I got caught up in the excitement despite myself.

We sold gas and groceries and had a grill that served delicious hamburgers and various fried foods. We employed three people full time and four part time. We had no idea what we were doing, though Byron had previously managed an Exxon.

Bumps in the Road
We very quickly ran into some serious snags, the worst being a mandatory EPA upgrade of our gas tanks (the tanks below the ground, not the pumps). This would cost thousands of dollars, and we simply didn't have it. We had no choice but to borrow the money from our gas supplier, and we had to turn over a few cents for every gallon that we sold. This left us with literally no profit on our gas sales, and we actually lost money because there were at least a couple of drive-offs each week.

We also lost quite a bit of money on the grill because the demand was pretty low, and it required an extra employee during grill hours. Still, when we threatened to close it, the locals boycotted our store because they wanted the OPTION to buy a burger now and then, even if they rarely did.

The worst problem seemed to be employee thefts, though we never could prove it and therefore never had the courage to terminate anyone. Besides, had we fired these longstanding employees, it would have alienated our customers, their friends. The shortages from the register slowed down when we adopted a required receipt policy, but the loss of products was a constant problem.

One weekend, we went out of town and left the store in the care of the employees. When we came back, the entire alcohol cooler was empty, but the alcohol sales were only a little higher than normal. That cost us another couple thousand dollars that we didn't have.

All of this time, we were commuting an hour each way, and Byron had to be there at 6:30 in the morning. I was working a full-time job in the city and working at least three shifts a week at the store. I also did all the books in the evenings when I was not working at the store. Oh, and I was also taking care of 18-month-old Ethan, who was a busy and adorable toddler.

I was so busy and so stressed out that I was constantly sick, and I got so thin that even I thought I was too skinny. I had tonsillitis, strep throat, ear infections, and an embarrassing breakout of impetigo on my face (a yucky skin infection).

Mom and Dad Come to the Rescue
A few months into the ordeal, my parents were visiting from LaGrange, about four hours away. I fell into my mother's arms and wept. I told her I couldn't take the stress any longer. There were just too many shifts to cover, and we couldn't be there all the time to watch the employees.

My parents, who were retired, talked it over and decided to come work in the store with us. I felt bad to let them do it, but I don't know how we would have survived without them. Dad ran the grill during the day and did the heavy cleaning in the evenings. Mom ran the register at the store, looked after Ethan while I worked, and did almost all the cooking and laundry. Mom and Dad stayed with us all week and then went home to LaGrange each weekend.

We had finally moved closer to the store. We rented out our house in the city, and the five of us lived in a two-bedroom, single-wide trailer that was literally older than I was. (I was 28 at the time.) I'll tell more in a future post about our experiences in the trailer; we actually enjoyed living there, so far out in the country.

Having Mom and Dad there definitely made life easier, but we were still losing money. Also, we paid them more than the average wage for a convenience store worker; we definitely wanted to make it worth their time. But it was a strain on our already tight budget.

This was a very dark period in my life, and had I had more time to think--and had I not had beautiful Ethan--I might have been suicidal. The pressure of paying our vendors, buying sufficient stock, and praying that the payroll checks wouldn't bounce (sometimes they did) was almost too much to bear. The worst part of it was wondering which of the employees was stealing from us. All of them professed to love us and always made over Ethan when we brought him in. So how could they steal from us? Did they think that there was so much money coming through that we wouldn't miss it? Did they realize we couldn't pay our personal bills and had a hard time putting food on our table?

I was still commuting over two hours a day during the week because I had kept my transcription job in the city. That job was the one bright spot in my life because I had so many loving, supportive friends there, and when I was transcribing urology records, I could forget about all my problems. But I was more tired than I ever thought possible. I was always desperate to stay awake on the drive because Ethan was strapped into the backseat. I would slap myself repeatedly until my eyes watered. If it was cold, I'd put my hand out the window until it was numb, and then I'd hold my frigid hand against my belly. I'm sure God kept us alive more than once.

I never talked to God much during that time, though I did go to church every other Sunday when I was not working. There was no time to think, no time to spend with precious Ethan, and no time to spend with my husband. How I wish I could get that year of Ethan's life back!

The Beginning of the End
After about a year, everything fell apart. Byron couldn't take the pressure of managing the store, and he returned to full-time police work. I had to quit my beloved transcription job and run the store. I hired a consultant and prepared to follow through with all of his suggestions, including closing the grill and firing all our employees (except my parents, of course).

One of our employees was a young lady who was my age, but she looked and acted much older. (I'll call her Wendy, though that is not her real name.) She'd had a hard life, and her eyes were always sad; you could see the defeat in the slump of her shoulders. I agonized over firing her. She was a single mom and had a young son to support.

The only times I ever saw her eyes brighten was when her grandparents came into the store. I am not sure what her family history was, but they had raised her. They were kind and loving people, and the whole town loved them.

A Heartbreaking Calamity
A couple weeks after I took over the store, during Wendy's shift, there was a horrific accident on the country highway in front of our store. Both occupants of one car were killed on impact. We all ran out of the building to the scene of the accident. Wendy was inconsolable when she realized it was her grandparents' car.

A friend took Wendy away, and I finished her shift. Everyone in the small town was shaken, and there were many tears. I wondered where Wendy was, and whether she was okay.

When I locked up the store at 11:00 and headed for home, I found Wendy around the corner from the scene of the accident. She was sitting on the hood of her car and staring. She seemed too drained to even cry. She said only one word: "Why?"

I wished I had an answer for her. I sat next to her on the hood of her car and wept. I wanted to put my arms around her, but I didn't know how she would react. I wanted to tell her some soothing, comforting word from God, but I had nothing to offer at that moment.

Finally, I asked if I could give her a ride home, but she said no, she just wanted to sit here for awhile. She assured me she would be okay, and I reluctantly drove away. In the car on the short drive to the trailer, I cried out to God. I talked to him as I would to my mother.

"I can' take this any more, God. I know you said you'd never put more on me than I can bear, but I don't think I can bear any more. What should I do? How can I fire everyone now?"

I heard nothing. "I need a sign, God. But how will I hear you? How can you even tell me what to do? I never recognize your voice. What I need is a billboard. Something I can't possibly miss. Will you do that for me?"

On the dirt road to our trailer, I looked up at the dazzling stars on the inky canopy of the sky, and I felt a peace I couldn't explain. I didn't know what the answer would be, but I knew God was going to answer me. I knew he would be with me, and everything would be alright.

The Billboard Arrives
It was only a few days later that the billboard arrived... in the form of two government officials from the state alcoholic beverage commission. They were responding to a tip that our store was too close to the neighboring school, and they were measuring. They delivered the news as soon as they finished: our store was only 997 yards from the school, three yards short of the required 1000 yard distance. We would have to suspend all alcohol sales for at least three months until we could get approval from the town council and apply for a new license. This was how the previous owners had obtained a license, and the exception was not transferable. They had not disclosed the information to us, and this was the result.

I was filled with a sense of awe rather than dread. I knew immediately that this was my sign. Since alcohol comprised at least 60% of our gross profit, I knew there was no way we could survive for three months without it.

We immediately closed the store and made an appointment with a bankruptcy lawyer. Since we had not incorporated, our personal debts were mixed in with the store note and various other debts. Ten years of good credit were gone like a whiff of smoke.

Peace At Last
Throughout the process of closing the store, going through bankruptcy court, and looking for another job, I never lost the sense of peace I'd found on that starry night. I knew God cared about me and had a plan for me, and I knew now that the only thing in life that really mattered was spending time with my family.

I was thankful to have just one job with a steady paycheck, and I was thankful to move back into our home in the city. I was thankful to take care of my own child, now two years old. If I could go back in time, I'm sure I would not have chosen that path. Still, I learned that I have an inner strength I never suspected. More importantly, I learned that God never stopped loving me even when I didn't have time for him, and he was faithful to deliver me when I finally reached out to him.


Melissa Irwin said...

Wow....I enjoyed reading every word. Thank you again for sharing so much of your life and your faith!

Sarah said...

I was afraid it would be too long, but it was hard to figure out what to take out!

Mindy said...

Oh man do I remember those burgers, they were to die for! My memories of Mitchell and I staying out there with y'all are vague but one really sticks out in my mind. When he would bully me or give me a hard time, I would write it all down so that I could tell my parents when we got back and they could punish him for all of the horrible things: "Mitchell hit my arm", "Mitchell called me stupid 2 times", "Mitchell told me to to shut up!". Lol I think by the time I got home I was so excited to see my parents that I forgot all about it.

Sarah said...

That's hilarious, Mindy. You must have been pretty young back then! I had forgotten that you guys stayed with us, but it's coming back to me now. That year was such a blur for me. Besides, my memory's starting to go anyway.


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