I flopped into a chair at a corner table, glad the little bakery/coffee shop was almost empty. Today not even the aroma of maple bars, apple fritters, and fresh-baked bread could burn through my fog of doom and gloom.
"Hey, it's the middle of the afternoon. What're you doing here?" asked Joella, who was my next-door neighbor as well as a waitress here. She looked at me more closely as she set a cup of my usual French roast blend on the table. "Something wrong?"
"I thought the most traumatic event of the week was going to be my birthday." I fished a paper out of my purse and spun it across the table. "Wrong."
Joella grabbed for it, but it sailed right on by and landed under the only other occupied table. A guy in khaki pants and T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a sailboat picked it up. He read it as he walked over to my table.
Indignation joined my funk. "Hey, what're you doing? That's private!" I snatched my paper back.
Joella patted my shoulder. "Don't mind Fitz. He used to play a detective on TV. He's nosy about everything."
"I'm not nosy," the guy protested. "I'm just interested. And it pays off. I spotted a carjacking suspect in the Burger King parking lot a couple weeks ago, let the cops know, and right away they nailed him."
"That doesn't give you the right to read other people's private papers." I held the letter close to my chest.
He ignored my complaint and stuck out his hand. "I'm Keegan Fitzpatrick, usually known as Fitz. I live with my son on the Miss Nora over at the marina." He tapped the sailboat on his chest, which I now noted had " Matt's Sailboat Charters" arched over it, and " Sail into Adventure" below.
When I offered only a grumpy stare in return, Joella identified me.
"This is my landlady, Andi McConnell. She lives in the other half of the duplex. Don't mind her. She's a little irritable because she has a birthday coming up this weekend. She looks pretty good for ninety-seven, don't you think?"
He looked me over, speculating about what birthday it actually was, of course. I saved him the trouble.
"I'm going to be sixty, okay? The big six-o. Six decades. Sixty percent of a century: 21,900 days."
"You figured out the days?" Joella's tone was somewhere between appalled and incredulous.
"Does that include leap years?" Fitz inquired.
"I guess I forgot leap years."
"Then you'll have to add--"
"Doesn't matter anyway," he said. "Because sixty is prime time. Enjoy it."
"Right," Joella agreed.
Like she'd know. Joella is all of twenty, slim-thighed and sparkly eyed, with magazine-ad skin and bouncy blonde hair.
"So how old are you?" I challenged Fitz. Not that I cared, but I figured he may as well have a taste of his own nosiness.
"Sixty-three," he said cheerfully. "That's prime time too. Although I've never gotten around to figuring how many days it adds up to."
I had the feeling that when Fitz was ninety, he'd still be proclaiming prime time. On some days I might find that endearing. Not today, especially when he was slyly poking fun at me. But he did look reasonably well preserved. Gray hair thinning on top and a fairly weather-beaten face, but a trim physique and sharp blue eyes that looked as if they didn't miss much.
"And I'd say you have more to be irritable about than an upcoming birthday." He nodded toward the paper I was still clutching.
Joella's perky brows lifted, and I handed her the by-now somewhat scuffed and crumpled letter. She studied the words that were about to change my life.
"So the rumors that have been going around for so long were true," she murmured.
"Worse than true." For weeks rumors had rampaged around the corporate headquarters of Friends & Neighbors Insurance about an imminent merger with another company. The rumors had been much too kind. This was no merger; it was a shark attack. Corporate murder. Mass execution.
Okay, maybe that's a little melodramatic, but it was a disaster for most F&N employees. Certainly for me.
"They're closing down and letting everyone go?" Fitz asked.
"They let us leave early today, to absorb the shock, I guess. Friday's our last day. Free Fall Friday, everyone's calling it, because that's where it puts most of us. A few executives are being transferred to the new main office down in San Diego. And they're keeping a handful of people on here to wind things up and turn off the lights."
"I had my house in LA insured with Friends & Neighbors before I sold it," Fitz said. "They were a good outfit. Paid off right away the only time I had a claim with them."
"It's a nice letter," Joella offered. "A very polite letter."
I groaned. Joella is the sunniest, most even-tempered person I know. She always sees that proverbial silver lining. Me, if I can even scratch around and find the silver lining, I invariably spot the tarnish on it.
It's an odd relationship we have, I suppose, considering the difference in our ages. I feel almost fiercely motherly toward my daughter, Sarah, and fiercely grandmotherly toward her daughter, Rachel, who is only a couple years younger than Joella. But with Jo I feel more . . . what? Unlikely as it sounds, more sisterly. In fact, she's so mature and sensible and good-hearted that it sometimes feels as if she's taking me under her wing. Like the time I came down with some miserable flu thing, and she was right there with tissues and chicken soup. And she'll make a wonderful mother. Though I'm always careful not to say anything to influence the big decision she'll soon have to make in that area.
Sometimes I think Jo deserves a medal for her sunny attitude. Sometimes I'd like to turn her upside down and shake her and yell, "There's a bad side to everything. How come you can't ever see it?"
But she was right about this. It was a polite letter. All done in very proper corporatespeak. It assured me that the termination was in no way a reflection on my capabilities as an employee. This was simply a downsizing of personnel necessary for maximum efficiency in the restructuring of the newly merged companies.
"It's more polite than some firings I've had," Fitz said. "I didn't even know my last one was coming until I read in one of the trade papers that my character was about to be killed off. And it's not a bad severance deal, considering." He hadn't had that paper in his hands long, but those sharp eyes obviously hadn't missed a thing.
Having never been severed before, I was in no position to evaluate the deal, but I supposed it was fair enough. Not exactly one of those golden parachutes you hear about, but I'd get a lump-sum payment equal to four months' pay, and I could keep my company health insurance for six months. And--oh, happy day!--I'd also be receiving the company's quarterly newsletter, Security and You. If the company didn't see the irony in that, I did.
"You can get another job," Joella said. "You're hardworking and dependable, and you know a lot about insurance."
"So do the four hundred or so other people they're letting go. F&N is the second-largest employer in Vigland, right after the wood products mill. There'll be rioting in the streets when that many people start looking for work in a town this size."
"Lots of locals carpool and go into Olympia for jobs. Some even drive all the way up to Tacoma," Fitz said. "It could be a great new adventure. I wasn't too thrilled about moving up here from LA a few months ago, but it's turned out fine. I don't even get seasick anymore."
Just what I needed. Two sunnier-than-thou optimists. Couldn't either of them see that what I was most likely to wind up with was minimum wage at Greasy Burgers, Inc.?
"Yeah, but can I find something soon enough, or something that pays enough, to help Rachel with college?" I asked gloomily. Something that would also provide me with something more than a bread-and-water diet until I was old enough to qualify for Social Security?
"Who's Rachel? Not being nosy," Fitz added hastily. "Just interested."
"My granddaughter. She'll be starting college at the University of Florida this fall."
"Her parents can't afford to send her?" Fitz asked. "Or scholarships?"
"My daughter and her husband are divorced, and it's all Sarah can do to make ends meet. The ex-husband just remarried and has a new baby, so he's no help. But she's checking into scholarships and loans."
And why did I blurt all that out to Mr. Nosy?
"God can bring good out of the worst of situations," Joella said. "Maybe you'll find an even better job."
Joella P. Picault. The P was supposed to be for Pilar, but I suspected it really stood for Pollyanna. And yes, this was one of those times when I wanted to pick her up and shake her. And I could do it. Okay, I'm not exactly a powerhouse of lean muscle . . . there are those jiggly thighs. But I mow my own lawn, and I do it with a push-type mower, so my five-foot-six 134 pounds definitely outmuscles Joella's five-foot-one 120. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and pink cheeks, she looks like the girl on top in a high-school cheerleader pyramid. Albeit a considerably pregnant one.
"God doesn't care about my situation," I informed her firmly.
"How do you know? Did you ever talk to Him about it?"
I waved a hand dismissively. Joella and I don't really argue about God. I kind of think He exists, out there somewhere, but I'm not on Hi there, God, how're You doing? terms with Him, the way Joella seems to be.
"What about Jerry?" she asked.
I wasn't surprised that Fitz immediately cut in with, "Who's Jerry?"
"When I have time, I'll send you a cast list of everyone in the program of my life," I snapped.
"I'd appreciate that."
"He's the boyfriend," Joella explained. "He works at F&N too."
At my level of sixtyish, boyfriend seems a much too adolescent term, but I suppose it's as accurate as any.
"I haven't talked to him yet." I glanced at the ceramic rooster clock on the wall of the shop. "He'll probably call later."
I needed some commiseration time with Jerry. The downsizing at F&N would surely hit him hard. He'd been in line for a position as head of the finance department, if Mr. Findley ever retired, but this corporate change would sink that possibility. He wouldn't have Joella and Fitz's rose-colored-glasses view of the situation.
"Look, how about if I buy you one of the great new peach smoothies, and we'll talk about the job problem?" Fitz suggested.
I wasn't interested in discussing my job problems with a stranger, but the peach smoothie sounded appealing. I was just about to accept when my cell phone played that hard rock thing Rachel programmed in when she was here at Christmas. It always gives me a little jolt, but I haven't changed it because it reminds me of my granddaughter.
As if just thinking about Jerry a minute earlier had made a connection, his voice on the phone said, "Hi, Andi. Hey, I've got a little time and thought I'd run over for a minute. I need to talk to you."
"I'm down at the Sweet Breeze rereading my you're-fired-have-a-nice-day letter. Want to join me?"
"This is kind of private. I'd rather come to your house."
"Sure. I'll head on home. Want to barbecue burgers later?"
"No, I have some things to do."
"See you in a few minutes, then.
"Jerry," I said to Joella as I returned the phone to my purse. And to Fitz too, of course, since he seemed as interested in my phone call as he was in my correspondence.
Joella looked mildly disapproving as I headed for the door. She doesn't actually say anything against Jerry, but she tends to avoid him, and once she said that he seemed "a bit insensitive." I hadn't asked her to elaborate, but I think it had to do with a mean crack he made about an overweight woman when we were all at a neighborhood barbecue. I'm sure he didn't really mean anything by it. It's just that Jerry runs and works out, and his lean physique shows it, and he hasn't much sympathy for those who don't take such care of themselves. And Joella is prejudiced toward some guy, Dean somebody, at her church that she wants me to meet.
"I'll see you at home later," she called. "And don't forget, we are going to celebrate your birthday this weekend. I'll bring the cake."
"With sixty candles?" Fitz looked interested, as if he might like to be invited to the blaze.
"We'll think about the birthday." Given my coming unemployment, even hitting the big six-o had dropped a notch on my worry list. Although age and employment status were probably a combination problem. No matter what Fitz said, sixty is not prime time for finding a new job. "See you later."
"Maybe we can have that peach smoothie some other time," Fitz called.
I gave him a noncommittal wave.
"We're heading out on a charter trip tomorrow, but when we get back, I'll give you a tour of the Miss Nora, and you can meet my son."
Right. Like I'm going to rush over and give Nosy & Son, Inc., a chance to rummage around in more private details of my life.