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By Sabrina Stephens
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Sabrina Stephens
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, December 9 had been a completely unremarkable day at the bank. Leah Gibson, the bank's regional retail manager, had approved a real estate loan for one of the line lenders, had counseled one of the office managers about her unacceptable, flashback-to-the-eighties wardrobe, and had surprised the downtown office's vault teller with a cash count. The loan commitment letter was transmitted to the lender, the manager with the fluorescent pink poncho was sent home to change and the vault was in balance. When 5:00 came, Leah almost jumped for joy—she was on vacation until the following Monday, and she was leaving tomorrow morning with her posse of girlfriends for Manhattan for a long weekend. This annual trip was one of the highlights of her year. As excited as she was about tomorrow, though, she was just as completely unprepared, and the evening was going to be hectic. Leah had to pack, print her boarding pass, and take her dog to the kennel. Their flight left tomorrow morning at 9:40 a.m.
And God knows she needed a vacation. The credit crisis was in full swing, and banks were being closed down by the Feds. Customers were worried about the safety of their money, and bankers were terrified about losing their jobs. Huge Wall Street mainstays had closed their doors, and regional financial institutions were struggling to survive. The small community banks like Leah's employer, East Coast Bank, were caught up in the tsunami as well. Deposits were leaving, chasing the highest yield in the market, and loan demand had completely dried up. The drop in activity had already cost three area tellers and two loan assistants their jobs at East Coast. Other banks had given entire lending departments their pink slips. The city was already littered with career bankers, discarded and expendable in the wreckage of the economic crash. Most had turned their sights away from the Virginia coast for employment in the absence of any local jobs, willing to relocate in order to salvage a future in the industry. Others had reinvented themselves entirely or gone back to school to go in a new direction. Many remained unemployed, hoping for an end to the madness and a local position to avoid uprooting their lives. Banking was just not an enjoyable career right now.
Leah sighed out loud, hoping to expel the sudden heaviness in her chest. She was on vacation and needed to think happy thoughts. She wondered if Meg, Toni and Siobhan were ready to go, and she was now buoyed by the thought of her friends scurrying around like she was, double-checking their bags and making preparations with their families for the five-day absence. The close-knit group of women was her family after all.
Leah's mom had died on Easter five years ago after a four-year battle with breast cancer. Her dad had never really been in the picture, but he had died from cirrhosis a couple of years before her mom. Both of her parents were only children like she was, and the only living relative she had was a great-aunt who lived in the sticks and was so old she probably went to the school prom with Moses. Aunt Fiona was her Grandmother Belle's older sister. Grandmother Belle, or Gran Belle as she was affectionately called, was her mother's mom. When Gran Belle became a widow in 1981, she asked Aunt Fiona to move in with her. Leah knew her grandfather only from old photographs, but she had spent every summer and Christmas as a child visiting Gran Bell and Aunt Fiona. She and Aunt Fiona spent a lot of time together working in the garden, the orchard and the kitchen. The rural home was truly in the middle of nowhere, and every day was filled with work of some kind from sunrise to sundown. Wistfully, Leah tried to remember ever complaining. She couldn't. Even today, she considered the small mountain farm her childhood home.
Not that she would recognize it now, though. Since Gran Belle's death when Leah was in college, she had only been to visit Aunt Fiona a handful of times. Once Leah's banking career had taken off, there just never seemed to be enough time, or honestly, enough inclination to drive the almost seven hours to the northern foothills of North Carolina to visit her aging aunt. Leah did manage to send her a Christmas card each year and had sent her flowers for her birthday every year since Gran Belle had died. Aunt Fiona reciprocated, sending her a card for both her birthday and Christmas. Each one included an index card with a family recipe written on it in a legible, but shaky, penmanship that matched Aunt Fiona's signature and same one-word closing, "Enjoy!"
Leah chuckled at the thought of her cooking. She had not cooked a single meal since she was in college. She had filed the cards in her metal box of keepsakes, though. Maybe one day she would get married and have a daughter with whom she could share family recipes and domestic activities. More likely, the group of friends she considered her sisters would inherit the box and wonder why their quirky friend Leah kept a box of recipe cards when she didn't even own a decent set of cookware.
Once the suitcase was packed and placed at the door, Leah turned her attention to Pander, her beagle. Pander was pacing around the house, keenly aware that her usual routine was about to be disrupted. She narrowed her beady dog eyes at Leah and plopped down on the floor, whining and moping. Leah sat down on the couch and pulled the dog into her lap. She stroked her soft hair and nuzzled her neck. "I'll miss you too, Pander," Leah said softly. "I'll be back on Monday, and by then you won't even want to come home. You'll hook up with some handsome stud at the kennel and be content to get laid for the next five days. You'll have to remind me what that feels like," Leah said as she stood to take her canine hussy to her crate. Within minutes, she was out the door.
After Leah left the kennel, she stopped at the drug store and picked up a bag full of travel-size toiletries and headed back home to finish packing. When she was through, Leah printed off her boarding pass and put it into her purse. She placed her purse on the table at the door beside her suitcase. She smiled, satisfied that her preparations were complete, and she was ready to jet to the Big Apple. She looked at the clock in the den. It was 7:35 p.m.
She walked into the kitchen, pulled a mug out of the cabinet next to the sink, filled it with tap water and pulled a teabag out of the pantry. She warmed the water in the microwave, dropped the teabag into the water and retired to the den to watch television for a few minutes. As Leah settled into her oversized chair, the phone rang.
She smiled as she put her mug on the coaster, wondering which one of her friends needed something at this eleventh hour. "Hello," Leah answered with a smile in her voice.
"Leah?" said a decidedly male voice in her ear.
"Hi John," Leah replied, confused and concerned that the bank's regional president and her long-time mentor was calling her this late at home. "How are you?" she asked.
"I don't want you to go to New York, Leah," he blurted out.
"John ...," she said, then went silent, momentarily at a total loss for words.
She heard him sigh, but he didn't seem able to speak either. Fear rose in her throat, and she felt nauseous. After what felt like hours, Leah finally asked, "Why don't you want me to go to New York, John?"
He breathed deeply, obviously to steady himself then replied, "Because I don't want you to go spend a lot of money."
The words reverberated in her head, making her ears ring. She leaned back against the chair and asked woodenly, "Am I losing my job, John?"
"Leah, I'm so sorry ..." he mumbled, "The bank needs to cut costs and with your salary and your managerial role, your position has been eliminated."
"John, the reason I have this managerial role is because you promoted me because I was the number one retail lender in the entire bank for the last four years," she stated.
"I know ..." he said. "I'm sorry, Leah, so, so sorry."
Baloney, she thought. You were afraid to go to bat for me. "What happens now?" she asked.
"This change was not supposed to be announced until next Friday, but I just couldn't let you get on that plane," he said.
"I'm getting on that plane," Leah replied sharply. "Five days is not going to change this decision, is it?"
"No ..." he stammered. "But do you really want to spend money when you're going to be unemployed?"
"Yes, I do," Leah stated. "I'll deal with it when I get back since I may NEVER have the chance to go again."
"Oh, Leah, you'll find another job," he said almost patronizingly.
"Where, John?" she asked, stung by his cavalier response. "Do you know of a single bank hiring?"
His silence was the only answer she needed. "I've got to go, John. I need to get some sleep."
"I wish you wouldn't go, but I understand," he said. "I'm as devastated by this as you are."
"Uh, not quite or did you get your pink slip too?" Leah asked, almost angry at his comment. "As a matter-of-fact, did anybody else lose their job or was it just me?"
"Just you, this time," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen next."
"Oh, you'll be just fine," she said. "I'm glad you called me, though. I would have hated to get the news by e-mail or the grapevine, you know. Good night, John," she finished.
"Good night, Leah," he replied, and he hung up the phone.
Leah sat immobilized for what must have been a half of an hour. Her tea had gone cold, and the television spouted "blah, blah, blah" incoherently in her ears. She simply couldn't process that she had just lost her job, her career, and her income. She wasn't the type to cry hysterically, but she was afraid. She was unemployed in a shrinking business in a declining local market in a horrible economy. Holy shit ..., she thought.
She picked up the phone to call Siobhan but then changed her mind. She would tell them together tomorrow morning on the airplane on the way to New York; otherwise, the trip could be in jeopardy altogether. Siobhan's practical side would try to talk her out of going, Toni would want her to share her feelings, and Meg would just want to beat the crap out of John and every other male executive at East Coast Bank. Siobhan was a lawyer, Toni was a clinical psychiatrist and Meg was a pharmaceutical sales manager. They were her best friends, and they were as different from each other as three people could be.
Siobhan Mauldin-Haas was an attorney, and she was married to an architect. She had three kids—all boys. She had worked her way through school at Georgetown, both undergrad and law, and graduated near the top of her class. She had numerous, lucrative job offers in the District, but decided instead to move back to the Virginia coast to practice law with her brother. Mauldin & Mauldin handled criminal and family cases. Her brother, Gil, handled the criminals and Siobhan represented the families, or what was left of them by the time they paid her a visit. The firm was very successful and therefore, so was Siobhan. She was level-headed, incredibly bright and well-rounded. She had a great marriage to Robert, and they had a common love of history, architecture and pottery—all the things that would have put most people in a coma. Their boys—13, 11, and 8—were interested too, and they managed to take the coolest trips as a big, happy family to go visit ancient ruins, dig for artifacts or tour landmark buildings. The rest of the crew dubbed Siobhan their "phone-a-friend" go-to, especially for useless trivia. She stored more crap in her gray matter than anyone could use in several lifetimes.
Toni Dalton was a single mother with a lovely, sweet 8-year-old daughter, Lucy. She lived with her mother who, for the most part, was unassuming and easy-going. Toni worked crazy hours at the local hospital on the seventh floor—the cancer ward. She dealt with death and dying on a daily basis and the devastation the awful disease often left for the survivors. Somehow, though, she managed to have a healthier, happier outlook than anybody Leah knew. Toni was a beauty too. She was the hunk magnet everywhere they went together, but she rarely dated. She, instead, devoted her precious free time to her daughter except every other weekend when her daughter was with her father, Toni's ex-husband. He was dubbed "The Bastard" by her friends because he just couldn't keep his little penis in his pants when he was married. Toni was civil to him, though, for their daughter's sake. She also had the satisfaction of knowing she had cleaned his clock royally in the equitable distribution phase of their divorce, thanks to Siobhan's keen mind and a plethora of incriminating photos.
Meg McConnell was a hoot. She was a regional sales manager for one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. She was aggressive, confident and persuasive—all the personality traits that made her so good at what she did. Meg was a "zero bullshit" kind of woman and if a thought entered her fiery Irish brain, it exited her mouth when she was in her tight circle of friends. She was brutally honest and fiercely protective of "her clan." Meg was rarely critical, but almost always on target and insightful with her casual observations. She was an outstanding golfer and had graduated from UVA after a free ride on scholarship. Ten years later, she still played from the championship tees and routinely crushed the men she played. Meg never boasted, though. She was surprisingly professional and diplomatic, and by the time she and the other golfers, almost exclusively male clients, retired to the clubhouse, she had them eating out of her hand. Not that she was interested in any of them. Meg's long-time "roommate," Courtney, was her only love. They had been together for over 10 years, but they had completely different friends. They were perfectly secure in their relationship and were never jealous of each other or the other's friends. Courtney preferred the bookstore geeks and coffee; Meg preferred her working girlfriends and Miller Lite. The lifestyle was definitely unconventional, but it certainly worked well for them.
Leah wondered how to break the news to her friends. She didn't want them to feel sorry for her, but this situation was too big not to ask for some kind of help. God, she thought, what am I going to do? The market simply had no banking jobs and the future looked bleak as the economy appeared to be continuing to deteriorate.
She had always defined herself as a banker after all, having been in the industry for the decade since she graduated from college. Leah had been a superstar at East Coast Bank, but her reputation was solid throughout the entire banking community in the region. She had been courted often by institutions of every size in the market, but had stayed at East Coast because she was loyal to the bank. Until tonight, she thought the bank was loyal to her too. Now, for the first time in her adult existence, she was NOT a banker. And what do you do about that, Leah? She couldn't just move down the street, rent an office and hang out a sign that said Bank of Leah, "Get Your Loan Here!" Who are you now?
Leah looked at the clock—8:32. She needed sleep. Instead, she stood up, went to the door, picked up her keys and walked out the door to her car. She drove east on Laskin Road, straight toward the Atlantic Ocean. She grabbed a cup of coffee at the Starbucks and turned left onto Atlantic Avenue, parked at the King Neptune Statue and got out into the crisp December air.
The boardwalk at Virginia Beach was deserted and thankfully, Leah was alone with her dark thoughts and churning guts to try to clear her head. As calm as the night looked above, the sea sounded angry, waves crashing violently but rhythmically on the shore in front of her. Emotion bubbled slowly into her chest, and she breathed heavily. She felt ... what? Anger simmered low inside her, and fear and desperation bounced around in her head. The feeling that engulfed her, though, the one that overwhelmed her suddenly and completely was sadness, and she felt herself crumbling. As she collapsed in a heap on the boardwalk, she sobbed audibly as her tears flowed, hot and salty against her face. Leah cried uncontrollably, not only for the loss of the professional career she had built and loved, but more for the sudden end of the only way of life she had ever known as an adult.
Excerpted from CANNED GOOD by Sabrina Stephens. Copyright © 2013 Sabrina Stephens. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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