Attempting to release the stifling heat from her body, Josie threw back the covers and heaved a sigh. Stuck in her languid, sweltering, hot-flashing body, she rolled out of bed, shucked off her damp pajamas, and dragged herself down the hall. Within a few moments, she stood in her kitchen, eyes closed, head stuck in her freezer.
Who would believe that at 2 a.m. on a below-freezing February morning in Chicago, I’d be standing here like this? Up until a minute ago, certainly not her. Hoping she was trapped in a nightmare, she willed herself to open her eyes. Wake up! But instead of pulling out of a deep slumber, she looked straight into the swirling curls of mist flowing over a low-cal frozen dinner four inches from her lips.
While waving freezer air toward her sweaty armpits, she surveyed the items before her. Healthy everything. See, I am sane. So what has led me to such a preposterous moment? But she knew. Same as always, her course of action was set as a result of last night’s Internet research.
Research: her instinctive course of action against the unknown.
In an attempt to find something—anything—short of hormone replacement therapy to help her through what she hoped was a brief perimenopausal stage, she’d clicked from one medical and holistic site to the next. One set of survey results reported that some women stuck their heads in the freezer for relief. Her initial reaction upon reading that finding had been, Not in a million years. But when this tsunami of a hot flash rolled into her forty-seven-year-old body, the idea rose to the forefront, and desperation led her straight to the kitchen. Much to her surprise, the bizarre procedure seemed to help. Or had the flash simply begun to subside already?
Always analyzing, Josie. Give it a rest. Who cares why? You feel better, and that’s the goal, she thought, her eyes landing on a small container of frozen yogurt tucked behind a bag of broccoli. But as she reached for it, a chill quaked her body. She closed the freezer door, crossed her arms over her bare chest, and quickly padded back toward her bedroom. Once the hot flash retreated, the reality of the cool temperature in her condo set in.
Even though she had no need to pinch pennies, she still tried to look after her dollars.The first thing she did when she moved into a new dwelling—an annual event—was swap out the thermostat for the latest and best energy-efficient model. During the winter, she programmed it to sixty-five during weekdays, then up to sixty-eight in the early evenings after she got home from work, and down to sixty-two at night. Summers, well… When the flashes began last July, she often found herself lowering the temperature a notch no matter what she’d programmed.
In the faint red glow of her bedside clock, she opened her dresser drawer and withdrew a powder blue cotton pajama set with three quarter-length sleeves. Counting the set of pajamas still on the floor, and in keeping with her lifelong motto to simplify, it was one of four identical sets, all pastel blue, all worn year round. Shivering, she scooped the soiled pj’s off the floor and scurried to the master bathroom. She turned on the light, ran warm water on a washcloth, and wiped her face and neck and then behind her ears. She gulped a glass of water, slipped on the clean pajamas, and smeared a dab of night cream over her cheeks, then laid the damp items over the top of the hamper to dry. “No sense risking mildew,” she heard her Grandmother Nancy say.
Grandmother Nancy had dealt with bountiful piles of laundry produced by seven children. “It doesn’t take long for damp things to sprout moldy wings,” she used to say in a singsongy voice. Josie smiled at the memory of one of her many sayings.
Once back in bed, she drew the flannel sheets up to her nose. “Freezer to flannel? Come on, body!” she chided, tired, yet now wide awake. Although occasional daytime hot flashes were annoying and embarrassing, the sleep deprivation these rampant night sweats caused was wearing her out. The last time she looked at the clock, it said 3:15 a.m.
Next thing she knew, her alarm was ringing. Five-thirty. Time to get up and work out.
To further boost her morning cardio workout and burn off the few M&M’s she’d nabbed from the small art deco bowl near her key hook, Josie walked down her building’s five flights of stairs. Anxious to gulp a blast of fresh air, she stepped out onto the sidewalk while tossing a “Good morning, Howard,” over her shoulder to the doorman. She sucked in her breath. The wind blustered, causing her to pull her scarf a little tighter around her neck.
When she’d contracted for the job in Chicago, she told the Realtor that proximity to her labor was primary. This move’s goal: as often as possible, leave the car behind. Despite the cold, she felt a renewed surge of gratefulness for that freedom. The last two years, both her Houston and Raleigh locations had kept her sitting in traffic too many hours a day. She needed exercise and more scenery than the exhaust pipe of the car in front of her. She set a brisk pace down the sidewalk, only slowing after she skidded on a small patch of ice and nearly lost her footing.
When Josie was growing up, her mother constantly asked her why she moved so quickly. “Where’s the fire? Walk like a lady, Josie.” She’d heard it a thousand times. But in all ways, Josie was a mover. She almost always walked a different route to work. Residing just under a mile from her current job, she’d explored nearly every city block between it and her condo—within the boundaries of reason and safety—by foot. But today after chugging only two blocks, and even though she’d pulled her scarf up twice, the tip of her nose was nearly numb. In these freezing conditions, she decided walking didn’t make sense, not with “L” stops only a short distance from both ends of her journey.
Before her virgin ride last summer, Josie had made sure to memorize and follow the “L” safety instructions posted on the Internet. She learned where to locate both radio and call buttons in the cars and on the platforms and programmed emergency numbers into her cell phone. She stayed alert, toted her handbag and briefcase cross-body style, and kept her transit card handy so she didn’t have to rummage for it.
Immediately after swiping her card, she tucked it back into the slot in her handbag she reserved solely for that purpose. She zipped the bag closed and settled comfortably into her seat. Riding the “L” was second nature now. Relaxing, really. So simple, she thought, as she leaned back and recalled her first “L” adventure. She’d studied the maps and made sense of the different color-coded lines, and she possessed a steel-trap memory. During that first ride, her every move was calculated to make it appear as if she’d been riding the elevated system for years.
A big man stood just a few feet from Josie—the type of guy that might inspire caution in “L” riders. Although she couldn’t see his face, he reminded her of one of the people she’d encountered at a previous job.
In Atlanta, Josie had been in charge of notifying the employees being laid off, not a task regularly included in her consulting work. The first employee to receive her dismissal notice was Roger Elmquist, a physically daunting bruiser of a man.
“Roger,” Josie said the day she let him go, “I need to see you in my office, please.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He was always polite. Large in stature but quiet in voice. Good at his job, but his position was being eliminated. Bottom line. End of story.
Once she closed the door and asked him to take a seat, she got right to the point. “Roger, I’m sure you are aware that your company is streamlining operations. Sometimes through no fault of an employee—and such is the case with you—a position with a company becomes obsolete. I’ve called you in here to let you know that, unfortunately, this is your last day on the job.”
Roger looked at her as if he did not understand English. Josie had heard rumors of his penchant for karaoke, but she couldn’t picture the man in front of her at the mike.
“Human Resources has arranged for you to receive job counseling. I’m sure they’ll help you find just the right match for your skill set.” She stood and held out her hand. “Good luck, sir.”
Roger remained seated, eyebrows knit together. He stared at her outstretched palm.
He blinked, then looked up at her.
“Roger, they’re waiting for you in HR. You’re a good worker, and management here is giving you a great recommendation. I’m sure you’ll land on your feet.”
After a very long pause, Roger stood. He appeared shorter, smaller, his shoulders slumped. Without saying a word, he left.
The next day, Roger’s itsy-bitsy wife stormed into the building, wanting to see Josie. Josie could hear her yelling clear through the glass in the reception area.
“What do you mean I can’t see her? She crushed my Roger! He can’t even lift his head off the pillow this morning. What kind of a monster—what kind of a company—doesn’t give notice, or warning, and just upends a man like that? Do any of you even care that six years ago he tried to take his own life, he was so despairing? Of course not! All you know is your own power and greed!”
When she threatened to storm the place if Josie did not have the common decency to look her in the face and explain exactly why her Roger was treated that way, Josie started toward her office door. Some people, she thought, need a strong word about simmering down.
“Is that her?” the woman yelled, noticing Josie through the door. “I swear, if my Roger slides back into depression, I am going to hold you personally accountable!”
Before Josie even reached for the handle, a security officer appeared. First he tried to reason with the woman, explain that she needed to calm down. She made the mistake of drawing back her arm as if she was going to strike him. He grabbed her wrist and said, “Come with me. It’s time you leave before you get yourself in real trouble here.”
“Any trouble, sir,” she said, speaking through clenched teeth, “has been brought about by this company’s lack of common decency.” At that, the fight seemed to drain out of her, and she began to cry. She cried so hard they nearly had to carry her out. “You’ve sapped the life out of my Roger,” she said, sniffing. “You have no idea how hard he worked to build himself back up as a man after he lost his last job. And now you’ve gone and robbed him of his dignity again.”
Decency. Dignity.The words twirled in Josie’s head as she scanned passengers in her car.
That older woman to her right…Hmm. Might be on her way to a cleaning job. Or maybe to visit a sick sister in the hospital. Yes, that’s it. She wore a tired sadness around her eyes. Likely a widow, which gave her something in common with Josie. Although Josie had never married, she understood the responsibilities and nuances of an oldish woman living alone. What they probably didn’t have in common was that Josie liked it that way.
Josie’s body jerked slightly to the left. She glanced at the floor as a stream of murky winter-boot water shifted in the opposite direction.
How quickly life ebbs and flows when you’re off to the next station.
Her eyes shifted to a stately man wearing a plaid neck scarf. He somewhat resembled Victor. Tall. Lean. Strong jaw. Powerful presence. She studied his shoes, his haircut, his fingernails. This guy was richer than Victor, she thought. Likely a CEO. They briefly made eye contact, which she had not meant to happen, and he nodded at her. She nodded back, then averted her eyes. She was glad when he stood to get off at the next stop. After he departed, she swiveled and watched him walk down the platform. He even moved like Victor. Erect, shoulders squared, chin tucked to chest, military cadence. She leaned back to see around a couple of heads, unable to take her eyes off him, wondering what Victor was up to lately. If one person on this earth moved faster than she did, it was Victor.
She recalled the day she’d finally caught Victor on the phone to ask his opinion about a high-paying corporate job dangling in front of her. She wasn’t surprised by his answer.
“Pick something that keeps you in the lifestyle to which you are accustomed: fluid. It’s a big, wonderful country we live in, Jo. You’re a strong woman. Make sure you can always call your own shots. Why be another corporate clone?”
Who wouldn’t heed the voice of such a powerful father? She’d called her father Victor for so long that sometimes it seemed easy to forget he was her father, not just Victor Brooks, military lifer, man of convictions with the power to influence.
She watched the stranger until he disappeared when the train took off again. Movin’ on. Within forty-eight hours of Victor’s call-your-own shots pep talk, she had begun the process of incorporating and setting up shop as an independent systems analyst and consultant. Two weeks into her well-planned flurry of self-promotion, her sterling résumé and focus on the world of corporate insurance landed her first major client. Interesting, how the course of a life can take shape during such short encounters, like how a passing stranger can jog such memories. It seemed so very long ago that she flew to Denver to seal the deal and sign a year’s lease on an apartment. One year was how long she estimated that first contracted job would last. In fact, she finished three months ahead of schedule, which gave her the opportunity to take a class and score another software certification.
You’ve come a long way, baby, she thought as she recalled the worn, uneven floorboards and the banging water pipes in that first apartment, which was the last dwelling place she rented. From that day forward, she bought.With every annual move, she upsized her income as well as the value of her condo or town home. Shrewd research and negotiating skills proved each real estate investment a more luxurious accommodation than the last. She smiled at the satisfying fruits of her diligence.
But as the elevated train car rounded the last bend before her stop, she watched the skyline change and wondered if her next move, due to take place in only four months, might be the end of that grand roll. Not long after she’d signed on here in Chicago, the housing market tanked. It would be interesting to see where she landed next and what kind of hit she’d have to take. Then again, in some areas, housing was selling so far below market value that she still might make out. Seemed lots of folks were already looking for 2009 to end, and they weren’t even six weeks in. But wouldn’t it be just like her to land on her feet in the midst of an economic downturn? Victor would be proud.
The train lurched to a stop. Josie stepped out of the car and was once again reminded why she’d ridden today. The wind howled down the raised “L” platform. She hiked up her briefcase strap and held a gloved hand over her nose. A man frantically ran up the stairs toward her, coat flapping open, as if he’d been sitting at the table and just noticed he was late. Could be on his way to a shareholders’ meeting. Likely runs late every day, a habit his wife finally gave up trying to change. When they passed each other, she got a whiff of his cologne. Cheap.Too strong. Maybe he’s having an affair, and they woke up late.
She trudged down the slushy sidewalk, trying to expel the remnants of that guy’s fragrance from her sensory memory. It brought to mind a VP in Augusta she’d once invited in for drinks after a dinner date. He’d scrutinized her surroundings over the top of his wine glass.
“A bit stark,” he’d said, shifting his eyes to hers. “Don’t you think? I bet you’ll be happy to settle down one day, finally personalize a place and make it your own. I can’t imagine moving every year. What we put up with to make a decent living, right?”
She’d replied with a flat no, and that was the end of him. How she’d made such an error in judgment, she could not imagine.
She entered her work building, pulled her scarf from around her neck, and hopped on the elevator, which had just landed. Moving on and up has definite advantages, she thought, even though as a military child, it had at first been difficult to keep moving away from new friendships. But she’d soon realized that all that moving also offered its perks, and she’d quickly learned how to take advantage of them. Endlessly able to start over, she’d reinvent herself, try on new personas. The more moves, the better she became at leaving her old self and longings behind. At one base, she played the shy child, while keeping her nose stuck in a book. At the next, she was the tireless sojourner, off exploring and blazing new trails. “Follow me!” she’d shout. But whatever persona she tried on, she made sure to keep an emotional distance from those brave enough to attempt to make friends with her. Funny thing to ruminate on now, she
mused, since at the moment she was pressed against the back wall of the elevator while two more people squished their way inside.
Well, I was who I was, and I am who I am, she thought when she exited the elevator at her floor. She opened her coat and involuntarily shook like a dog trying to expel a spider off its back. She detested cramped elevator rides.
Hopefully, she thought as she removed her boots, swapping them for heels, the next place is warmer than Chicago.
Excerpted from Divine Appointments by Charlene Ann Baumbich Copyright © 2010 by Charlene Baumbich. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.