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The photo album crackled with age as the page was turned. “This is it,” the widow said, tapping a ridged fingernail onto the edges of a black-and-white snapshot. “I know he’d want the world to remember him this way, in this moment.”
Josephine Sheehan placed her reporter’s notebook on her lap and leaned in close to the old woman, peering at the photo of Ira Needleman on his 1947 trek to the North Pole. His young face was frozen in triumph, frozen in time, and probably just plain frozen. His huge, toothy smile and iced-up goggles were all she could see of a slight man buried inside a fur parka, both arms raised in triumph against the vast white horizon, a U.S. fl ag flapping above the permafrost. It was a photo of a guy who’d made it to the top of the world, literally. No wonder his widow had chosen this photo to accompany his obituary.
“It’s a wonderful picture,” Josie said, smiling at Gloria Needleman.
“He was so young, and everything was ahead of him.” With a sigh, Mrs. Needleman gently peeled the photo from its yellowed page.
As she’d already told Josie, Ira would return to San Francisco just months after this photo was taken, where he’d meet Gloria and fall in love. They’d get married. They’d have kids and grandkids. Ira would run a successful Bay Area electrical supply company. He’d mentor four inner-city kids and pay for their college educations. He’d compete in his first triathlon at the age of seventy. The young man in the snow had just begun the grand adventure of his life.
The widow handed the photo to Josie, giggling. Josie waited patiently for Mrs. Needleman to bring her in on the joke.
Gloria shrugged and offered up a pensive smile. “My Ira had a very good time while he was here. He made the most of every day.” She patted Josie’s hand. “And when you get down to it, is there anything else a person can ask for?”
That’s when Josie had her epiphany.
Okay, maybe it was just an epiphanette. But at that moment, right there on Gloria Needleman’s plastic- covered couch, it dawned on her that if you lead a life chock-full of relationships and adventures and sorrows and celebrations, like Ira Needleman did, then the people you leave behind can focus on how you lived rather than the fact that you died.
But if you died before you had a chance to live? Josie knew there was nothing worse. In the news business they called it a “tragic death,” as opposed to a nontragic one. Josie herself had been known to use that phrase now and again in her obituary feature stories for the San Francisco Herald.
And suddenly it all became clear to her—if Josephine Sheehan, thirty-five, dropped dead right that second, her own newspaper would put her demise in the “tragic” category.
She’d never married. She didn’t use all her vacation days. She still rented. Josie didn’t do triathlons or biathlons or any athlons at all. And her most stable interpersonal relationships were with a too-hairy Labradoodle named Genghis and the women in her dog-walking group. Yes, she had parents and siblings and nieces and nephews, but no kids of her own.
And her love life? It was nothing but a series of starts and stops that hadn’t taken her anywhere. She’d had eleven boyfriends since college, six of whom had moved into her place only to move out again. Her sister once glibly suggested she install a turnstile at her front door. She’d been so offended by that remark that she got out her calculator and did the math. Bad move. It seemed her average relationship lasted 4.2 months, followed by 7.6 months of unattached limbo. In other words, one of her romances had the shelf life of a container of bacon bits. This would be information she didn’t plan to share with her sister, or anyone else, ever.
And right there, with Mrs. Needleman staring at her, Josie knew that if she died that day there would be several people more than willing to say that her life had sucked, but there wasn’t a single soul who could claim that Josephine Agnes Sheehan had sucked the marrow out of life.
Her vision began to swim.
“Are you all right, dear?” Mrs. Needleman’s voice had a charming warble to it. She put her hand on Josie’s knee and studied her face with concern. “Do you feel sick? Can I get you some water?”
Oh, man. Josie envisioned the headline on her obit, courtesy of the jokers on the copy desk:
SPINSTER EXPIRES; dog alerts neighbors to decaying body
“Should I call someone at the paper and tell them you’re not feeling well?”
And my God! What photo would be scrounged up for her obit? The picture of Josie at her sister’s wedding, in that bridesmaid’s dress her brother said made Josie look like an eggplant with boobs? Or the one from eighth grade, where Josie sported the Cyclops zit? Or how about the one of her stinking drunk in Cancún after college graduation, falling out of her beach chair, digging through the sand trying to locate the lime wedge that had fallen from her Corona bottle? Because really, those were the choices. Josie had never gone to the North Pole, and the world had recently learned that the permafrost was anything but, and now she couldn’t reach the top of the world unless she took a raft!
Josie began breathing too fast.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
She blinked at Mrs. Needleman, embarrassed. Josie needed love in her life. She needed deep, true connection—the kind of grand adventure that only seemed to happen to other people. And unless this eighty-four-year-old widow from Cayuga Terrace was some kind of mystical matchmaker, there wasn’t a damn thing she could possibly do for her.
“Thank you so much for your time.” Josie tucked the photo into the pages of her notebook and crammed everything into her bag, then stumbled to her feet. “You and your late husband shared a beautiful life together, and again, I’m sorry for your loss.” She headed for the door. “I’ll call to let you know the day we plan to run it.”
“Stop right there, Miss Sheehan.”
Gloria was fast for an old lady. When Josie turned, she was already right behind her. The woman examined Josie’s face with a fi erce curiosity that had nothing to do with the obit and everything to do with her odd behavior.
“I apologize,” Josie sputtered, letting her shoulders droop. “I just . . . I’m . . . look, I just figured out that I’m really, really late for something.”
Gloria’s pensive smile returned. She took one of Josie’s hands in both of hers and gave it a friendly squeeze. She looked Josie right in the eye. “I’ve always believed that if you’re breathing, it’s not too late.”
Josie laughed. That’s what her dog-walking friends always said, usually after they’d reamed her for stumbling into yet another going-nowhere relationship.
“Great. Thanks again.” Josie reached behind her and fumbled for the doorknob.
“Ask the universe for what you want, dear girl.” Mrs. Needleman’s face turned serious. “Be very precise in your request. Put it in writing and wait for it to come to you. It always does.”
Josie frowned. She’d seen that garbage on TV once—some woman claimed she wrote a list of all the qualities she wanted in a man and then met her soul mate in thirty days. Josie had laughed long and hard at that, seeing as how the universe couldn’t even get her order right at the Dairy Queen window.
“That’s very sweet, Mrs. Needleman. Thank you again.”
The friendly squeeze turned into a grip. The widow scanned Josie’s face, demanding her attention. In a voice that had lost all its charming warble, the widow said, “In your case, I suggest you do it before daybreak.”
Josie gritted her teeth while trying to smile politely.
The old lady wasn’t done. “And, I must be honest with you, I think it’s going to take great courage to embrace what you ask for.”
Josie yanked her hand away and retreated out the door. She backed out of the Needleman driveway, tires squealing, wondering what the old lady meant by that remark about courage. Plus, why the hell did everything—including her love life—have a deadline?
Josie was so disconcerted that she nearly caused the tragic deaths of several pedestrians.
Excerpted from Ain’t Too Proud to Beg by Susan Donovan.
Copyright © 2009 by Susan Donovan.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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