My new novel, FINDING HOPE, is now available in both e-book and trade paperback. You can order your copy by clicking on the book cover. In the meantime, enjoy this excerpt.
A clatter from the kitchen jarred me awake. Anthony’s side of the bed was empty. I looked across to the red numbers on the alarm clock—seven-fifteen.
"Oh, shit. I slept in."
I tossed the blankets aside and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. Then I remembered the note I’d left on the fridge last night. Sliding into my worn slippers and pulling on my robe, I stopped at the bathroom and then headed downstairs to face the music.
When I walked into the kitchen, all activity halted and heads turned. I stopped as well and stared back at the three faces turned toward me. "Good morning."
Several beats went by in silence before Anthony mumbled, "G’morning," and went back to his coffee-making. My first instinct was to take the measuring spoon from his hand and make coffee. But I couldn’t. I didn’t.
Gabriella spoke. "Nice note, Mom. Is this, like, a test or something?"
I stood and read the note I’d hung on the fridge:
Dear family, I quit. Effective immediately, I am no longer the cook, laundress, shopper, housekeeper, chauffeur, landscaper or resident problem-solver. Oh, I’m also not the banker or the ATM. I am, however, the instructor. Classes will begin tomorrow and seating is limited, so you should sign up early.
A cooking class will be conducted at five-thirty sharp. Bring your inquiring mind and appetite. A cook book will be available. On Saturday, I will offer two sessions—general housekeeping and laundry. Supplies will be provided. However, if you are attending the laundry session, please separate clothing into lights and darks and bring those with you. This class begins at nine a.m. in the basement.
Housekeeping will commence at ten, once you have mastered washing machine settings and drying times. Rubber gloves are recommended for those who have delicate skin or have had expensive manicures recently.
Other workshops, such as money-management, will be scheduled as needed and announcements will be posted. Don’t be late and get left out in the cold.
Janet R. DeMarco, Wife, Mother, Person (not necessarily in that order)
I opened the door and pulled the orange juice from the fridge, turned to face my stunned family and, to add to their confusion, took a swig directly from the carton—something I’d constantly told Michael not to do.
Gabby shook her head, Michael suppressed a smile, and Anthony glared at me.
"Mom, um, I need…" Gabby began.
Anthony caught her eye and, with a dark, warning look, shook his head ‘no.’ She swallowed the rest of her request with a gulp of juice.
I put two slices of bread into the toaster and set the butter and jelly on the table. Anthony, who’d succeeded in brewing a pot of coffee, poured a mug and extended it to me. "Coffee?"
"Thank you. I’d love some," I said, taking the cup of steaming liquid.
"Are you going to work today?" Michael asked.
"Yes, I am. It’s my last week and I want to help Uncle Teddy find a replacement."
"You’re quitting that, too?" Gabby asked, her eyes wide.
"Yes," was all I said in reply.
Anthony carried his coffee to the table as I rose to get my toast. We brushed past one another and I felt the chill. He was not happy. He was confused and trying to figure out what was going on with me. I smiled slightly, enjoying his dilemma.
Michael grabbed his backpack. "You need to move it, Gabs, if you want me to take you to school."
"I need a few minutes. And don’t call me Gabs." She looked at me, her mouth worked into a pout, then yelled for Michael to wait.
Typically, I would drop her off on my way to the office. Apparently, they were all thrown off kilter by my resignation.
Anthony put his cereal bowl and cup into the sink and turned. "So, um, are we having the lasagna for dinner tonight or what?"
"Oh, I forgot about that. Well, I guess we can reschedule our cooking class for tomorrow night. I’ll leave instructions for the garlic bread and salad, and the baking time for the lasagna. That should be simple enough, don’t you think?"
His jaw hung half-way to his knees, and the confusion in his eyes made him adorable. I wanted to tell him I was just kidding, but I wasn’t.
I put my plate and cup into the dishwasher and said, "Have a good day. I’ll see you tonight." I hurried upstairs to get dressed so I could go and deal with Teddy.
~ * ~
The song I hummed as I drove the few miles to DeMarco Construction wasn’t even registering in my brain. It was just a catchy, cheerful tune. I felt a strange power surge as I parked, slung my purse over my shoulder and entered the office. As soon as I stepped behind my desk, I was met with a barrage of requests and demands by two of the foremen and Teddy.
I held up both hands, palms out—the universal signal to STOP. I don’t think it was my outstretched palms, but probably the cold stare and pursed lips that silenced all three. "Teddy, you and I need to talk before I do anything else."
"But..." Mack said, leaning across the counter toward me.
I turned and locked eyes with him; he got the message, as did the other man. The two shook their heads and walked out of the office. Mack called over his shoulder, "I’ll come back when you’re not so busy."
Teddy ushered me into his office, where I chose to stand. "This won’t take long. I quit."
"But, Jan… Look, how much will it take? I know you’ve gone above and beyond most of the time, and I owe you."
"Oh, you owe me plenty. Mostly for covering your sorry ass with Stella when she couldn’t find you."
"So, an extra hundred a week? Shorter hours? What?"
Teddy and I stood eye to eye. Teddy, unfortunately, took after his mother’s side of the family. He stood five foot seven. His mousy brown hair gave his hazel eyes a pale, foggy appearance. He looked nothing like his male cousins for whom the phrase ‘Italian stallion’ could have been coined.
"You’re not listening, Teddy. I quit. I will do this week’s payroll, mainly because I want my check and the very generous severance pay you’re giving me. I will call the newspaper and place an ad for a replacement, if you like."
Teddy dropped into the plush leather desk chair and ran his fingers through his limp hair. "You’re killing me, Jan."
I was not taken in by his drama. Teddy should have at least five Oscars on the shelf behind his desk for past performances.
"I want a life, and this isn’t it."
"What does Anthony think about all this?" he asked, as if the question was logical.
My jaw tensed, and warmth spread across my chest. "What difference does that make? I’m a big girl, Teddy, and I can make these decisions for myself. Anthony has nothing to say about it."
"This place won’t be the same without you, Jan."
"Yeah. It’ll be chaos without caffeine, swimming in dust bunnies."
"If this is about cleaning, I can hire a cleaning lady."
I let out an exasperated sigh. "It’s not about cleaning. It’s about me realizing I want more than this, and deciding I’m not willing to compromise any further. Now, if you want the payroll done for this week, I have to get to work. Do you want me to put an ad in the paper?"
"Yeah, fine. Whatever. You know, I expected more from you, Jan. After all, we’re family."
"And I could say the same," I replied before returning to my desk.
I nearly laughed when I looked up to see two pairs of eyes beneath yellow construction helmets peering through the window into my office, waiting to be invited back inside. I waved and, when the door opened, stated loudly, "One at a time."
~ * ~
When I called the newspaper, I had to fight the temptation to fill in all the unspoken duties of the job. I resisted, though, realizing that if I did that, no one in their right mind would apply. I ran to the bank to make a deposit into the payroll account, then returned to the office and cut the paychecks.
Teddy, who was usually gone by lunchtime, was still in his office, casting furtive glances at me every time I passed his open door.
At four o’clock, I took the checks in for his signature, handing him my paycheck and my severance check first. "These need your signature. If you feel this amount is unfair, we can talk about it."
"No, Jan, what? Unfair? I trust you. I just wish I could do something to get you to stay. I’ll miss you, you know."
I grinned. "Yeah, like you miss a toothache once the tooth’s been extracted? You’ll miss me the first time Stella calls here looking for you and the new girl doesn’t know enough to cover your ass."
"I can train her. After all, I trained you, didn’t I?" He rolled his eyes up and glanced at me.
I was too hurt to get angry. He’d nudged a spot that was raw and tender. Teddy had unwittingly hit the nail on the head. I felt like a trained seal. I moved through my days, from task to task, responding to commands and hoping for a spare sardine to be thrown my way. My vision blurred as tears brimmed in my eyes.
"Ah, jeez. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that to sound the way it did," Teddy said, his face flushed.
"Forget it. It’s not your fault. You can’t help being an ass. Thank you for giving me this job when I wanted one. If the new girl has any questions, I’ll answer what I can." I took the checks from his hand. "I’ll see you around."
I gathered my purse, my coffee mug that said ‘World’s Greatest Mom,’ and my spare umbrella and drove to the bank to deposit my checks.
I arrived home at five-fifteen to find Anthony standing in the kitchen reading my heating instructions for the lasagna. Gabby hunched over the sink and whined about not knowing how to make a salad.
"How can you not know how to make a salad?" Anthony grumbled. "You put vegetables in a bowl. Wait. You have to wash them first."
They looked up as I entered the kitchen. "You’re home early," I said to Anthony.
"Yeah, a little. So, um, how was your day?"
"You mean, did I quit? Yes, I did. Your cousin’s a real piece of work, you know."
"Did he say something he shouldn’t have? Did he insult you?" he asked in his best macho voice.
"No, at least not intentionally. You know Teddy wouldn’t do that. He tried to buy me out. I did get a nice little severance check. I think I’ll treat myself to something special, a day at the spa or some new clothes."
Gabby heard ‘spa’ and ‘clothes’ and jumped right in. "Ooh, Mom. They have a mother-daughter special running at the spa on Penrose. It’s two-for-one. I’d go with you. Then we can go shopping."
"I’m sure you would and we could, but I was thinking of a day just for myself."
Her face clouded and she scowled. She has her Uncle Teddy’s flair for drama. I’d decided this was a genetic imperfection in the DeMarco family that had no bias as to gender.
"What time is dinner?" I asked.
Anthony looked at my hand-scrawled instructions for the lasagna and the baking time for garlic bread. "Another half hour, I think."
"Good, I can’t wait to change out of these clothes and get comfortable." I headed through the living room to the stairs. "Oh," I called back, "I’ll set the table when I come back."
When I returned to the kitchen, the overly browned loaf of garlic bread sat atop the stove. The pan of lasagna steamed in the center of the table, and a salad had been placed to one side. Michael was putting the last of the silverware at each place.
"Dinner’s ready," Anthony said, sending bits of burned crust flying as he sliced the garlic bread.
I sat in my usual seat and filled my salad bowl. "Well, this is lovely. I’ll conduct the cooking class tomorrow evening, same time, same station. Salad?" I asked, passing the larger bowl to Gabby.
"Grrr-eat," she growled, taking the bowl. "I can hardly wait."
Anthony flashed his ‘that’ll be enough’ look, and she silenced, grabbing a large spoon and digging into the lasagna.
"Mom, I got an invitation today from West Virginia University. It says I should have a parent come with me to tour the campus. Can you go?" Michael asked.
"When is it?"
"It’s a week from Tuesday."
"Sure. I’d love to. I won’t have anything else to do that day," I responded, smiling. "Is that okay with you, Anthony, or did you want to go?"
Anthony filled his plate. "No, I’ll have to work."
"Okay. It should be fun. A little mother-son time."
Gabby looked up at me. "Oh, sure. You can go with Michael for a day, but you can’t take me to the spa with you."
"This is different and you know it. Pass me the bread, please." I refused to play into Gabby’s hand. Anthony smiled as he chewed.
I offered to load the dishwasher and clean up. "I didn’t resign from life. I’m willing to do my share."
No one argued.
I finished in the kitchen, then joined Anthony in front of the TV and watched three different episodes of "Law and Order."
When the news came on, I stood and stretched. "I’m going to take a nice hot bath."
The tub in our master bath is huge, and I can stretch my full length. After filling the tub and adding lavender bath salts, I eased into the steaming water. I felt my body silently voice an ‘aaahhh’ as I lay back and rested my head on a rolled towel.
Okay, Jan, I thought to myself, let’s talk. What’s happening?
Closing my eyes, I revisited the events of the past two days. I concluded that I felt underestimated, unappreciated and unfulfilled …too many ‘uns’ in my life.
I breathed in the scent of lavender and slid lower into the warm water, entering a semi-sleep state. I imagined what my life might have been like had I made different choices. I would’ve had a career, of that I was certain. I concluded it would have been something in the helping professions. I’m a good hand-holder and problem-solver. Just ask everyone in my family. They all look to me to solve their problems.
Marriage would have been in the picture. I like being married, having an ‘other’ to balance me out. Anthony does that, usually. He’s the hot blooded, quick to anger and quick to react, stereotypically Italian husband. I’ve always been the mild-mannered, thoughtful, peace-loving and forgiving one. Some would say it’s my English heritage. Some would say I have no backbone. I have had to learn to accommodate to fit into the DeMarco family—Italian on both sides for hundreds of years.
I would still have chosen to have children. I love the kids, miniatures of Anthony and me. I see much of myself in Michael’s personality, though he looks exactly like his father—curly, dark hair, bronze skin, a straight nose with the tiniest bump and perfectly straight teeth. Well, the teeth he got from Dr. Stewart, the orthodontist.
Gabriella has my ash brown hair, full mouth and slender build, but her father’s dark eyes and his flash of temper. She’s loud and boisterous, a DeMarco through and through, whereas Michael is soft-spoken and reserved.
I could have been a good teacher or a nurse, perhaps. I enrolled in accounting classes at the community college because my mother insisted I go to college, and I didn’t have a clue then what I wanted to be when I grew up. Maybe I still don’t.
Growing up happened quickly when my mother died, leaving me orphaned at eighteen. My father had died in an accident at the steel mill where he worked when I was a toddler. My great aunt and uncle took me in, and I lived with them while I finished my two-year degree program.
Then I met Anthony and my destiny was determined. I worked for Breckman Insurance, and Anthony came in to purchase car insurance for his new Camaro. I can still feel the way my heart slammed against my chest wall when he smiled. We had dinner the next night and, within a year, were planning our wedding.
I shuddered as I remembered meeting Mama DeMarco for the first time. I had a few strikes against me: I wasn’t Catholic, I wasn’t Italian and I was looking to take her son away from her. By the time our wedding date rolled around, I’d converted to Catholicism and learned to make my own spaghetti sauce. And I learned that you never take an Italian mother’s son away, even when you marry him. Angela DeMarco continues to make that clear at every turn.
I opened the drain with one toe and let some of the lukewarm water seep out, then closed it and turned on the hot water tap, refilling the tub. Okay, Jan, so if today is the first day of the rest of your life, what are you going to do?