Authors: Marybeth Whalen
To Curt, who reminds me
where to hang my wishes
I need your grace
To remind me
To find my own
Ivy Marshall didn’t have to pick up the phone to know who was
waiting to speak to her. Her father, Simon Copeland, had called to deliver bad news. She looked toward the ceiling at the buzzing fluorescent light hanging above her head, allowing a few empty seconds to tick by before glancing over at the phone. The light that indicated the waiting call was still blinking. She groaned aloud in her empty office and reached for the receiver. Not answering was only putting off the inevitable.
“Ivy?” Simon Copeland’s deep timbre was unmistakable. He had the voice of a radio announcer or politician. Instead he was a commercial real estate magnate, but in the recent economic downturn, not a very good one. His failure had surprised everyone, most of all him.
“I’m here, Dad,” she responded, not bothering to hide
the strain in her voice. They both knew what he was calling about; it had been coming for months.
“You kept me waiting long enough,” he harrumphed. There was a time when no one kept Simon Copeland waiting.
She was grateful they were not in front of each other so she was free to roll her eyes.
Just get on with it
, she wanted to say. Instead she chewed her lip, pulling away a stray piece of skin until she tasted blood, sharp and metallic. “Didn’t mean to,” she mumbled her lie.
Ignoring her, he launched into his (rehearsed, she suspected) speech. “As you know, we had our board meeting this morning.” His tone was official instead of parental. “And some unfortunate decisions were made that affect all of us.”
But me most of all
, she thought, but again, refrained from saying. “Okay.” Her voice was barely loud enough to hear.
“We’re closing the Asheville office,” he said, making it official.
“Yeah, I figured.” She closed her eyes, felt the tears stinging behind the lids.
There was a long silence. She could hear her father breathing, and her mind wandered back to her childhood when she used to hear him snoring behind her parents’ closed bedroom door before their marriage ended. She opened her eyes. That was a long time ago and certainly not relevant anymore.
“So what do we do next?” She blinked, clearing away the tears with a few rapid movements. That was all it took to clear her vision so she could see the new future that waited for her. She took a deep breath as she listened to her
father outline his plan for closing the Asheville branch of his company, for ending the job she’d held for nearly four years. It would take at least two months to wrap up their current projects and close down the office, giving the employees time to look for other jobs. That was some consolation.
Last night at dinner she’d told her husband, Elliott, she had a feeling that this would happen. He’d smiled as though it meant nothing, told her she worried too much and left the table abruptly. Maybe now he’d face reality. Without her income they wouldn’t be able to keep the house or be members at the club or participate in the church building campaign they’d recently committed to.
“I won’t make you tell the employees,” she heard her father saying. Their faces flashed in her mind as he spoke: Delores, who had worked there since the first day and kept them all straight. Pete, who was a nice guy more interested in skiing than working; he’d be fine. Beck, whose real name was Walter, but went by his last name because it just fit him better. Beck was no Walter. She’d miss the way his harmless flirtations always made her feel pretty even when her husband hardly noticed her.
She thought of Elliott’s late nights on the computer, and that nagging suspicion tried to work its way up her spine. No time for that now. She had to gather everyone in the conference room for her father to deliver the bad news via conference call, all standing together staring at the phone on the large table as Simon Copeland’s disconnected voice came out of it.
Tears filled her eyes—just yesterday Delores had been tittering about plans for a trip to Italy with her husband,
Bob. Ivy hoped she could still go. She should probably be the one to tell them. But she was a coward and her father was giving her the easy out. She took it gratefully.
They ended the call with the promise that she would call him back once everyone was gathered. “Ivy,” he said before they hung up. “This wasn’t anything you did. You were good at your job. This should be a beginning for you, not an ending.”
She rose from her desk, her eyes falling on a framed photo of her and Elliott taken at the party her best friend, April, had given them after they married. April was Elliott’s cousin but she made her allegiance to Ivy clear almost immediately, becoming the sister Ivy didn’t have, even though Ivy had a sister. When this was all over she’d call April, fill her in on everything. Then, maybe, if she felt up to it, she’d call Elliott.
Lately her conversations with her husband had boiled down to the business of life—what groceries they were out of, what bills needed to be paid, when they were expected to be somewhere. She supposed that losing her job would qualify as part of the business of life. She studied the photo for a second, noting how happy they looked that summer, how love seemed to shimmer in the very air around them. When had the air stopped shimmering? When had they stopped smiling like that?
She turned away from the photo and left the room. As she closed her office door she could feel the picture shift on the wall like it always did, hanging crooked until she straightened it. Maybe this time, she thought as she walked away, she wouldn’t bother to fix it.
Ivy was nearly out the door, purse over her shoulder and car keys in hand. In light of the bad news her employees had just absorbed, she was attempting to leave work early, already anticipating a long soak in a warm bath as soon as she got home. She hadn’t been able to reach Elliott since her father’s call and had almost decided to freeze him out for the rest of the evening as punishment. Let him wonder.
“Ivy Marshall,” she heard Delores yell as she started to step out the door, “don’t you dare sneak off without a piece of your very own cake!”
Ivy froze in her tracks and grimaced before turning around with a fake smile to replace the grimace. She took a few steps back into the office, knowing her escape was hopeless under Delores’s eagle-eyed gaze.
“Oh … you’re having … cake? Now?” She’d hardly expected her employees to go on with the celebration of Delores’s birthday.
She entered the conference room where, just an hour ago, they’d all stood around with sober expressions and stared blankly at the phone as their jobs were ended without their consent. Now, instead of the phone sitting center stage on the conference table, the cake she’d baked for Delores was there. The cake, she noticed, had still managed to bring a bit of brightness to the room, magically dispelling the somber air. The sad faces were now smiling as they took bites of cake, the smell of flour and sugar and butter filling the room, making them all forget for a moment what had just taken place.
Beck smiled at her, his eyes crinkling as he did, the way she liked. He pointed at the cake with his plastic fork. “This is good stuff, Ivy.” He took another bite and continued talking to her with the cake filling his mouth. “You could go into cake baking as an alternate career.” If Elliott did that she would scold him for talking with his mouth full. But on Beck it was somehow … cute.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said. Her mind flitted back to Sunset Beach, North Carolina, and her aunt’s Seaside Bakery, where as a teen Ivy had learned to bake and decorate cakes. She could remember coming out of the bakery at the end of the day, the sunshine warm on her skin, the smell of ocean breeze mixing with the sweetness of confection. “You smell good enough to eat,” Michael used to say, lifting her off her feet and spinning her around.
She ignored Michael’s appearance in her mind, focusing instead on Beck and Delores and Pete and the temp they’d hired, who really didn’t have a job to lose since she could just get assigned somewhere new. Ivy smiled at her, the one person in the room she didn’t feel guilty about. Ivy couldn’t even remember the girl’s name.
She accepted a piece of cake from Delores, thinking that this was far from the scene she’d imagined when she’d baked the cake. Last night she’d listened to Bruce Springsteen in the kitchen while she worked and even danced a little bit as she slathered the yellow cake with white icing, creating little peaks and swirls with her spatula. She’d looked up to find Elliott watching her dance. “I like seeing you like this,” he’d said. Instead of responding, she had immediately stopped dancing, looking intently at the cake until he
walked away without another word between them. She’d noticed the disappointed look on his face but pretended she didn’t. Once upon a time, she would’ve reached for him, they would’ve danced together, and the cake would’ve been forgotten. For a moment, it seemed as if he also wished things could be that way again.
Now she forced herself to take a bite, chew, and swallow, the icing like glue in her mouth as everyone looked on. They were, she knew, waiting for her to say something that would make it all better, add some bit of humor or wisdom or perspective to this unfortunate situation that she didn’t possess as their fearless former leader. She even tried to think of a Bible verse she could quote, but it all just felt like platitudes. Instead she sucked the icing from her teeth and proclaimed the first word that came to mind, “Delicious!” But she didn’t taste a thing.
Her cell phone rang just as she was finally making her escape from the office. She pulled out of the parking lot, past the large blue-and-white For Sale sign in front of the building. It had been the first indication of what was coming, though she hadn’t realized it at the time. At first her dad had told her he was merely looking for another place to house the office, but she’d noticed him pulling at his ear as he spoke, a clear sign he was lying. She hadn’t lived with the man since she was sixteen years old, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t read him. Still, she’d gone along with the lie, not wanting … what? To rock the boat? To catch him in a lie? To deal with the real issue?
Her mother’s number popped up on her smartphone screen, along with a photo she’d chosen to represent her mom—Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, her own little joke that had gone right over her mother’s head. “I don’t even like
Gone with the Wind
!” she’d said. Ivy had bit back a smile as she’d pictured her mother saying “Fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll think about that another day!” Even if she didn’t see it, her mother was the quintessential Southern belle. Margot Copeland clung tenaciously to the Southern way, which included daughters answering the family matriarch’s phone call in a timely mannuh.
Talking to both her parents on the same day was a rare event. She guessed her mother had heard about her dad’s decision and was calling to check on her. In spite of their rather bitter divorce years ago, somehow her mom still kept track of her father’s every move. Ivy suspected she had a mole planted inside his company and had said as much to her father. He’d laughed and agreed but seemed mostly unfazed by Margot’s continued interest. The sad part was, her mother could spy on her father all she wanted—all she was going to watch was a man moving on with his life as fast as he could. But perhaps the business falling apart would slow him down.
“Hey, Mom, I guess you heard?” she answered the line.
Her mom drew in a loud breath. “Well, now, how did you hear?”
Ivy held the phone out and looked at it quizzically, then put it back to her ear. This wasn’t going to be a quick conversation. She would drive in a big circle while she chatted with her mom. She turned away from home, her warm bath
and good book getting farther and farther away. “Umm, Dad called and told me? Just a few hours ago?”
“Well, now, how would he know?”
Ivy frowned. Clearly they were talking about two different things. “Mom, how would Dad know what? I’m talking about him closing down the company.”
“He’s closing down the company?” Margot shouted in her ear. “Why am I just now hearing about this?” This time when Ivy pulled the phone away, it wasn’t out of confusion but an intense desire to protect her eardrums.
. He’s closing down my company, my office, not the entire operation.”
Though that might not be far behind
, she thought but didn’t say.
A beat of silence followed as Ivy took another wrong turn, meandering down a street that hosted a line of retail shops and funky apartment buildings, one of those parts of Asheville she always told herself she’d visit “when she had time.” In five years of living there, she’d never once had the time. Her father’s news hit her all over again. Perhaps now she would. Though, ironically, now she wouldn’t have the money to spend in those shops.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” her mom said. But Margot Copeland was not one to extend sympathy for long, much as Ivy needed it. Instead she plunged headlong into a familiar theme, taking the opportunity as Ivy expected she would. “So, does that mean you’ll have to come home now? Forget your little mountain adventure?” Her mother had a way of saying the word
with such disdain; she made her feelings clear, even as she sounded harmless.
She was glad that Elliott was nowhere near, that he
couldn’t hear this. She’d told him her parents had stopped asking her to come home, that they’d forgiven him and all was well. He’d probably known she was lying but he’d gone along with it.
“Not sure what I’m gonna do, Mom,” she said, trying to sound as bright and chipper as possible. She worked hard to sound happy whenever she talked to her mom. No sense giving off even the slightest hint of weakness. Her mom was like a wolf—she knew when to move in for the kill. That was the thing about Southern belles; they seemed sweet and innocent, but that was part of the ploy to disarm you entirely. She changed the subject. “So if you didn’t call about the Asheville office, why did you call?”
The excitement returned to her mother’s voice, any remnants of sympathy for Ivy’s plight completely erased as she gushed, her entire speech marked by exclamation points. “It’s the most wonderful thing! Your sister is being proposed to on national TV! Tomorrow morning! You simply have to watch!”