Raymond had settled into the Kolache apartment with a minimum of fuss and bother. Except for the cats.
The cats were banned from Margie and Raymond’s bedroom, of course. They objected by peeing on the bottom of the door, confirming Raymond’s opinion of cats.
The other place they were banned was the balcony, a space that Raymond claimed for his “office”. That worked fine for one, monstrous, mostly Siamese tom that refused to stay inside. Attempts to confine him resulted in slashed and bleeding cats.
Eventually, Raymond and Puma found a truce much along the lines of two church elders accidentally meeting in a liquor store forty miles from home. It was the truce of mutual invisibility. It was a truce of equals. Neither one of them liked cats.
Raymond’s mother-in-law, Natalia, joined him on the balcony in the afternoon. Margie was at work. Natalia brought Raymond and iced tea while she brought a cup of hot tea for herself.
Raymond was angrily tapping on a balky laptop. His work was clearly not going well.
“What has your knickers in a knot?” Natalia asked, not unkindly.
Natalia had never had a son, but she had been married and knew a little bit about men.
“Not going well?” Natalia asked.
Raymond pushed the laptop away. “Computers are not really my thing.” he said. “It seems like the deeper I get into this business the more I get stuck with the parts I hate.”
“I just find myself going around and around with these quotes.” Raymond said, shaking his head in disgust. “If I quote too high I won’t every get a job. If I quote too low I will lose my ass. Sorry, money.”
“You know,” Natalia said, “I used to be pretty good with computers. I wouldn’t mind giving your problem a shot.”
Raymond looked over at Natalia in surprise. This was the last thing he expected. She was sitting in a rocker, calmly sipping from her cup. He could see where Margie acquired her ability to radiate serenity.
“I thought you were into beads and making hookas and such.” Raymond said.
“That is what pays the bills today. I used to do scheduling and parts ordering for an oil drilling outfit in Wyoming, back in the day.” Natalia said. “Of course, your work is not much like oil drilling, so I would have to follow you around for a week to learn the work and to be able to decode your chicken scratches.”
“Are you sure you won’t mind?” Raymond asked.
“Frankly, Raymond, I am bored. I want to use my mind. I would consider it a great favor.” Natalia said with conviction.
While surprised by the turn of events, Margie had no desire to argue with her mother, especially if it helped Raymond be less agitated.
Natalia was the soul of decorum in the days she followed Raymond. Raymond would become involved in solving some urgent crisis. Afterward, looking around, he would find her chatting with his workers. At first he was concerned that she was getting in their way but he quickly noticed that his workers kept working while they talked. In fact, Natalia insisted on it. He overheard her tell one of his workers that she was there to learn and she learned three times as much when she could watch them work.
Because of her background in assembly, she quickly discerned that some of Raymond’s employees were much more productive than others. Natalia had an eye for detail. She noticed little things like how often the painters topped off the paint in their trays and how the detailers carried their tape.
After a week, Natalia took over the quoting. Raymond kept an eagle-eye on her at first but he figured out that she knew a heck of a lot more about cost estimating than he ever had the desire to know. She used a program that made each room a “visual”. Hours of wall-prep were based on Raymond’s notes on their composition and how degraded the surface was. She had adjustment factors based on how close the original and the new colors matched.
She wrote some macros to finesse the labor estimates for doorways and windows. Raymond had never heard of a “macro” before. Within a few days Natalia had written drop-down menus where she simply tallied up counts for tall windows, short windows and doorways and multiplied out standard times. Raymond had been calculating, poorly, the feet of trim in each opening.
Natalia still made trips out to the job sites. She was always picking up tidbits of information: How long it took to strip wallpaper, when it made sense to remove cabinets and when it made more sense to leave them in-place and paint around.
Raymond was forced to broach the subject of “loaning her out” as she became too successful.
“Natalia, I want to ask you a question that might piss you off. I want you to hear this in the best possible way.” Raymond started.
Natalia gave him a sharp look. “We are family now. Stop beating around the bush.” she commanded.
“I have a bunch of crews that have spun off from my business. They struggle with quoting. They are hell-on-wheels at slapping paint onto walls, but for most of them, book-work is as much fun as getting teeth pulled.” Raymond started. “Would you be willing to help them by quoting work for them?” Raymond finished, lamely.
“Will it help you?” was all Natalia asked.
“Yes it will. They pay me a small percentage of their gross so their winning more business would put money in my pocket. In OUR pockets.” Raymond said. “The other thing is, I don’t want them to low-ball to buy business and have them crash and burn.”
“I just want you to know that I don’t want to get too busy. In Wyoming I got frazzled when I had to work more than sixty hours a week.” Natalia said.
Raymond felt like he had just scratched off a winning lottery ticket. He knew that she had honed her skills and the program she used so she did all of the quotes for his business in less than four hours a week. She was not going to have any problems keeping up with his franchises for quite a while.
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