He kept the buildings he bought and renovated. It left him cash poor. Borrowed to the Bone.
May 24, 2013
A VG Serial: Borrowed to the Bone
As the number of what had become known as see-through buildings grew to glut proportions in the Metroplex, Ben Tom’s construction work there ground to a halt. He was almost relieved because he now considered himself as making a living in Riverby through buying and selling collectibles, old cars and real estate. He chose to ignore that the Dallas construction business had always provided the bulk of the funds to finance his acquisitions.
Ben Tom’s optimism for his own future did not rub off on his father and brothers. He was standing in the middle of a desolate downtown street in what had once been Mesa, Texas, about twenty miles from Riverby, when a dented and scraped Chevy Luv pickup stopped in the desolate street. Ben Tom heard George Jones crooning through the open windows before the driver killed the engine.
The door creaked when Purcell Lawless opened it and faced his son. The wind was blowing hard out of the southeast and a tumbleweed almost as big as the little pickup stopped against the back bumper as if it were announcing a change in Ben Tom’s life.
Ben Tom already knew what this meant. He smiled. “Pop.”
“How did you find me way out here?”
“Wasn’t hard. I just asked for directions to buildings ready to fall down that were full of old junk.” Purcell lit a cigarette and nodded toward an abandoned building. “You already fill these up with crap?”
“You’re one to talk.” Ben Tom knew that his father was almost as addicted to junk as he was, and his quality of junk was much lower. “What are you doing here?”
“Penny told me where you might be. I’m just looking around. Ain’t no jobs in Dallas, figured I would kill some time around here a few days. I hear you got more work than you can possibly ever do.”
Ben pointed to the building Purcell had alluded to. “Take a look inside that old building you scoffed at.”
“What did it used to be?”
Ben Tom pointed at words engraved in stone just under the roof—Merchants and Planters State Bank.
Purcell pushed open the massive door and walked in ahead of his son. Signs of a long ago fire not evident from the outside showed inside. The roof had partially caved in and bent bars from a teller cage lay on the floor along with the leavings and dens of raccoons. “Suppose you paid good money for this wreck.”
Ben Tom pointed to a massive iron door that leaned against one outside wall. The iron handle shaped like a ship wheel identified it as the door to a vault. “That thing alone is worth more than I paid for the whole building.”
Purcell smirked. “If it ain’t old, heavy or worn out, you wouldn’t own it. My back still kills me from helping you haul all the heavy junk you bought over the years.”
Ben Tom was wary of his father’s arrival, but secretly relieved. Purcell was the only person that he could trust to do work almost as well as he could do it himself. And if he didn’t do it right, Ben Tom could make him do it over. Their roles had reversed years earlier. He had worried that Purcell might be broke and he looked as if he was.
Within a week, Purcell and Ben Tom had dragged up an old used trailer house and parked it at the end of the main drag in deserted Mesa. Purcell became the only resident of the ghost town. Mayor by acclamation, he said.
But he had been right about buildings full of junk. Six buildings with roofs were left in Mesa, and Ben Tom owned five of them and one without a roof. The missing-roof building had been part of a package deal.
Although he worried that his father would open up old wounds, maybe tell his new friends in Riverby about the lifestyle he had left behind in Dallas, taking care of Purcell filled another hole that had been gnawing at Ben Tom since he left his family behind in Dallas.
He had an itch to nurture others and he wanted it scratched. Besides, Purcell’s needs were minimal and his skills were good and sorely needed.
Purcell was second only to Penny when it came to influencing the hard-wired brain of Ben Tom Lawless. Penny’s wish was his command, but Purcell could sometimes curse, argue, and shame him away from foolish decisions and spur him to make good ones. Within a year, over Ben Tom’s illogical objections, Purcell had readied two buildings and rented them.
But each time a building was emptied, remodeled and rented, Ben Tom had to purchase another to hold the junk the rented one had held. His purchases now included property in most small towns within a fifty mile radius of Riverby. Main Street Bank’s portfolio of Lawless real estate loans was growing.
Ben Tom had also become a recognized community leader in Riverby. He helped to revitalize the small downtown square, helped in renovating historic buildings that belonged to the city or other people while his own buildings sat vacant. He even led the team that removed and restored historic brick streets. He was named Citizen of the Year at the Chamber of Commerce banquet.
Appointed to fill the unexpired term of a city council member who died, Ben Tom was urged to run for a permanent place on the council. But attending the meetings and poring over documents was not for him. Such things reminded him of his days of struggle in schools. He elected not to subject himself to possible ridicule and did not run in the next election.
Though he was gradually building a small empire of real estate holdings, antiques, and collectibles, cash was almost always short. Only the joint efforts of his new friend and accountant Tee Jessup and banker Mark Conley kept him out of serious trouble. Jessup kept the bank happy with financial data, and Conley kept loaning money.
Ben Tom continued to keep almost everything he acquired, selling only when forced to meet a payment he did not have cash for. But he grieved over the departure of any of his holdings like the death of a close relative.
The ’55 Ford he built from scratch now kept company with ten more antique autos, construction surplus materials, even scraps of lumber in his growing number of houses and buildings. When the buildings were all filled, he stored his less valuable treasures outside and left them to the elements rather than sell them.
The constant shortage and lack of everything in his youth drove him to accumulate more and more. The only wealth he recognized was something he could touch, feel and visualize using some vague date in the future in some obscure dreamscape. The only meaning cash had for him was to invest in more tangible assets he could admire, hold, renovate and restore.
Ben Tom had a dream. That dream included living in the restored-to-its-former-dignity house on the hill. In his dream, the surrounding acreage was filled with houses for each of his children and grandchildren, and now, his father. He was well on his way to achieving his dream of such a family empire when the local real estate market and housing followed the collapse of commercial real estate in Dallas.
But Ben Tom paid little attention to the swings of markets and accelerated his acquisition of rental properties as prices began to nosedive. When his real estate suffered a higher and higher vacancy rate, he framed it as a blessing that provided more storage for antiques. But dwindling rental income punished his cash flow, forcing him to borrow more from a banker that was more than eager to lend to such a talented entrepreneur and community leader.
Chapters of the serial are published on Friday.
You can learn more about Borrowed to the Bone and other titles by Jim H. Ainsworth on his Amazon Author Page.