Read an Excerpt
Truth or Consequences
The three manila files on Olivia’s dining-room table have been opened and closed so many times that the edges are stained with coffee, several varieties of pasta sauce, more than a few red-wine streaks, and the dark imprints of each one of her tiny fingers.
Before she grabs them this time she brushes her hands along her well-worn navy bathrobe, leaving a long white trail of pretzel salt down both sides. When she glances at herself in the hall mirror on the way to her favorite living-room chair, she laughs out loud, because the dark bathrobe that grazes her ankles and leaves her large white fluffy slippers exposed makes her look like a human-size blue penguin.
If Olivia Bayer could change one thing about herself, even this late in the game, it would be her stumpy legs. Forget about the bad knee, her inability to qualify for LASIK eye surgery, or the twenty other physical tragedies that manifest themselves pretty much 24/7. She wants gams long enough to let her reach the top shelf.
Tonight the top shelf is the least of her worries. Olivia hasn’t even met the three women whose words are waiting for her inside the thin files, but she has a veteran’s suspicion that this is not going to be a walk in the park. A naked run through a land-mined street is more like it.
“Come on, Phyllis,” she says to the gorgeous tan cocker spaniel sitting in the doorway. Phyllis would follow her mistress to the ends of the earth—and she does. “We’ve got work to do.”
She grabs the silver half-glasses that are held together by three rubber bands, pulls down the reading light above her head, turns it on, takes a breath to steady her thoughts, and picks up the first file:
It’s not like this happens every day. I’m sorry, okay? What gets me angry is people who don’t do what in the hell they say they’re going to do. Waiting for someone else to do something. Crooked lines that should be straight. I don’t have much time in my life to sit down and think about things like this. Obviously I’m also mad at the economy or this would never have happened.
As Olivia moves to the next file, she reaches down and runs her palm across Phyllis’s calm back. The three pieces of paper inside are written in handwriting so large and bold, and with a hand that pressed so hard, she sees holes when she holds the pages up to the light:
I’m really pissed at my mother, for starters. Why now? It doesn’t take a genius to know my brothers make me furious, and if there is a step beyond furious they push me there, too. Cheapskates. Deadlines. Empty wine bottles. The Vietnam War. Is this the kind of thing you mean?
Olivia can’t bring herself to move beyond page one in this file. She almost fears the file might rise up and slap the living hell out of her all by itself.
The third file, the last file, has been her favorite since the beginning of this interesting mess. When she’s not in her bathrobe, Olivia calls the mess “a challenge,” but here, in her home, it’s a mess. At least this file, with its five pages of lovely cursive writing, offers a glimmer of hope. Either that or the writer has this kind of exercise already figured out:
. . . so maybe it’s just that sometimes you simply forget and go too far. You know? Whoever you are, I bet you know—especially if you’re a woman. But that’s avoiding the question. I get that. So: Loud music, obviously. Men who cheat. Fad diets. Those things get me angry.
This isn’t bad for starters. Olivia quickly reads through the other pages again until she comes to something she must have missed. How could this be? Is she reading this correctly or does she need new glasses again? Is all hope lost?
. . . that doesn’t give people younger than us the right to disobey us, to cross the lines we have drawn, to disrespect our generation. Sometimes these things work both ways. Sometimes someone has to make a stand.
She drops the third file into her lap with the other two and then pushes them all to the floor. She watches as they land on top of one another like large playing cards.
Olivia’s done this so many times it would be impossible for her to count. Years and years of files. Years and years of the faces and then the blinding reality of the failures mixed in with the successes—sometimes too few successes.
And now this.
These three files and these three women and this chance—one last chance to take a moment, a series of moments, perhaps a lifetime of moments, and create a miracle. How many miracles are left? How many more times can Olivia risk it before her own miracle card expires? She thinks about all the years of white lies when she gave someone an extra chance, tried something no one had ever thought of trying before, scorched her own heart yet again when her professional skills came so close to crossing the boundary—a boundary that these three women in the files have obviously crossed. Is it even possible for a person to bring one kind of life to an end and finally start out in a new direction?
If only she knew the answers to her own questions.
Olivia hesitates before she touches the files again, and she makes what every colleague would call a rash decision. Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s way past time. Retirement is waving its frightening hands in front of her face, and Dr. Olivia Bayer so wants to open up her secret bag of tricks and do something she has always dreamed of doing. This could be her last chance. But can she take that chance and make a real difference in the lives of these women? These women have been pushed over the edge, and what woman hasn’t been pushed over the edge the way they have? She’s already in trouble, and this pile of folders is like a blinking neon sign that is screaming, “Danger . . . danger!”
Then she bends down and randomly grabs the file with the blue dot on it. The blue dot and, yes, the red one and the green one, too, will have a name and a face tomorrow night.
She opens the file and her eyes land on the last paragraph. The blue dot is the smallest file, the one that has but a single page of writing, and she seizes one sentence.
“It’s not like I even have a choice.”
“Me, either,” she whispers to Phyllis, and then closes her eyes. With her eyes closed, she misses that absolutely glorious moment when day finally surrenders and the dark line of night marches swiftly across the horizon.