In this slice of Americana, insurance claims adjuster Peggy Jorgensen thought she had undergone enough adjustments for one life. Then a stranger’s phone call turns her world on its head.
Relishing her 10:35 re-fill, Peggy adds cream from the break-room fridge and stirs her second mug. The room has a generous window to go with its goofy red cabinetry. Through it, she looks at a couple teenagers, maybe older. Holes in their clothes, boots, one with blue hair and the other with some of that piercing stuff in his face. She’s not sure what it’s called.
They’ve stopped for a smoke, probably on their way to Broadway, a couple blocks over. Their clothes suggest they’re angry, full of venom and crime. But they look happy.
After a moment, Peggy realizes the man on the right is actually a girl – her face is too smooth, her eyes now rather feline.
She must tape her chest or something.
She wonders what they’re doing with their lives – besides not going to work on a Thursday, not trying to calculate a percentage that’s important to some mid-level manager somewhere.
Beyond them, across the street, is the brick wall for one of those swanky Capitol Hill houses. Red brick with vines, and hedges across the top. The house itself can’t be seen from this break-room window, but she has glimpsed it from a different angle. It’s the first in a line of fine estates, probably with views of Lake Union over the neighbors and freeway below. Worth millions, she knows that.
Who owns them? Lawyers? Surgeons? First-generation Amazon or Microsoft? People – men – who’ve undoubtedly left their mark on the world.
Maybe for good. Maybe for ill.
What’s was the name of that cell-phone king who used to host the last President’s fundraisers over on Mercer Island?
But he did something big. One hopes he also donated cars to charity, money in the firefighters’ boots, computers to schools.
Others deserve a chance to leave their mark.
The young kids shuffle on, trailing blue smoke. Peggy didn’t realize she’s been standing here so long.
She returns to her cubicle, where a stapler sits precariously on a corner, pointed away from the 15-inch stack of claims on her desk. Dan. He knows she despises the sound of her heavy metal stapler going k-thunk on the gray carpet. The plastic ones are junk – the tops spring open and staples fly out every time one of them falls.
“Funny, Dan Man,” Peggy says, moving her tool to the desk top.
Snickers come from the next cubicle, accompanied by a creak of desk chair shifting.
The time is now 10:43. Did Peggy really waste eight minutes getting coffee, pondering the lives of the powerful and the droll?
She is adjusting her headset when her line rings.
“Good morning, this is Peggy Jorgenson. How can I help you?”
There’s a pause.
“Miss Jorgenson?” The male voice is hesitant. “Are you Janice’s mom?”
A cold, invisible knife enters Peggy’s chest, carving downward.
“Yes. Yes I am. What’s…”
There’s another pause before the shaky voice continues.
“It’s Janice. She fell.”
A light switch flips up, on.
“Can I help you?”
The woman asking this has frosted hair and the kind look of someone who has worked in the principal’s office for decades.
Peggy finally blinks and comes to Reality – a Reality in which she doesn’t know her coordinates or why someone is asking her questions.
She glances around.
“No, I, uh…” She sees comfortable chairs. “I think I just need to sit down a minute.”
“Okay,” the woman says, in a good Are you hurt, Pumpkin voice. Her gentle hands are on Peggy’s arm – she is roughly the same age – and she eases Peggy into one of the chairs. It is soft.
Coordinates? Peggy looks at the floor. I don’t think in coordinates…
A moment later, the kind woman’s back with a cup of water.
“Do you know a patient here?”
“You’re at the Hutch. Is there someone I can call?”
The Hutch. Public. God Almighty, snap out of it, Margaret!
“Uh, no. No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
The woman nods with a smile and leaves her be. Peggy digs her nails into her flank through the pants material – an old, fruitful habit – and drinks the water. It is cold. It tastes good, as this chamber seems warm, all of a sudden. She’s sitting in an olive-toned chair in a vast reception area. People come and go, some in scrubs and lab coats. The receptionist who helped her has returned to the wide reception desk where she works. Signs welcome people to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute.
She’s awake, now. Reality. Janice said she was going to come work here someday, after her Granny and Auntie May both succumbed to cancer in the same year.
Cancer. It should have a capital ‘C’, for it’s an animal with a proper name.
Did Janice make that comment, or was this a connection of Peggy’s design? She can’t remember.
There’s a lot of things about her daughter’s lifestyle that she can’t – or refuses to – recall with clarity. Things that made her sigh and reach for the Excedrin.
Some of Janice’s friends. Kids, yes, but so unfocused. The ones who would maybe go to school – college – like if they couldn’t figure out something better to do.
Or that Garfield High boyfriend, David, who had his sights set on Medical School. Janice complained that he was a bit on the dull side. Peggy got dull. Sometimes, that seemed to blend okay with straight ‘A’s, politeness, basketball bench-warmer, non-partying, going places.
Where was David now? Why did Janice have to see him as dull?
Why couldn’t she prefer David to Raul, the Rake of Rock and Rope?
Strolling through REI one time, alone. Handling carabiners, the strength of that hard, dyed metal. Or the slick coolness of the rope. Different colors for different lengths. Thick enough?
A sales associate came over, offering assistance. Peggy looked up at the poster of the gal hanging by rope from the side of a mountain. She tried to imagine the view looking up, half gray, half sky. She leaned against a book stand, politely declining the offer of help.
That day, and a few thousand other times, Peggy pinned the blame on Duncan, her ex and Janice’s dad. He put on the show of devoted father and good husband for a while, until Janice’s third birthday. Things were okay between Husband and Wife, even with Wife’s problems downstairs. “Childbirth can be a little unkind to us gals,” her doctor had told her more than once. Yes, things were okay enough, since Peggy was early into expecting Number 2.
She’d returned home with Janice after pre-school and found a note taped to the TV, where Duncan declared he was bailing. Tampa was calling. The sun. A promotion. ‘Bikinis’ and ‘pool-side drinks’, Peggy filled in for him.
Right away, she switched Janice from pre-school to daycare, asked Max to increase her hours and phoned her mom. Grandma was needed, a lot more.
Figuring out how to tell Janice that her dad wouldn’t be coming home for dinner, again…that was the hard part.
Maybe that’s why she miscarried Number 2 – before she was showing, thank God.
The sympathy from friends and other moms she knew via preschool, that was all nice. Homemade lasagnas, wine, chocolate, macaroni-and-cheese the girl would love. She wrote a lot of thank-you e-mails and tried not to feel like a panhandler of the parenting world. And she ate a lot of that food cold, between tasks. When it was clear the mortgage was just too large, she accepted defeat. An apartment.
She sometimes returned to a childhood fantasy she’d had – of a robed Arabian princess standing watch on a perch as her father’s army mustered in the late-afternoon wind, defeated and preparing to leave.
Maybe there was just too much nasty stuff inside her – the abandonment, Duncan, the horrible schedule, the worries that aged her quickly. Maybe it all just ate up the second baby. So much bad stuff that it had congealed into a kind of monster, and it had to feed on something.
And she had to fend for herself when faced with Janice’s questions and baleful looks. She had to explain a lot after Janice would get off the phone with her dad from across the country.
“I want to see dolphins. Can we go to Flordah? What’s a job?”
Peggy is on a bridge over Interstate 5, the great river that rips through downtown. She’s walking somewhere, maybe back to work. The river is noisy and windy.
The soldiers, in black and red, ignore the dust as they line up in neat columns, preparing to put on a good show in defeat. She, as princess, can do nothing but stand proud and firm, the symbol for which they had fought. A horn blows, and they march by below her.
Peggy looks over the wall, down to the tan surface of the roadway below. It doesn’t seem far – 40 feet, maybe 50. But she imagines actually falling, hitting her forehead on that pavement. The sensation of a beer delivery truck’s curved metal front – it would have to be red – striking her with foreign mercy. The impossible and the necessary at once, delivering a transition to the next world.
The soldiers in black narrow their eyes and bow their heads against a gust of hot wind.
Dizziness overtakes Peggy, and she closes her eyes.
When she opens them, fighting off nausea, she sees her hands are white-knuckling the cement wall – the one between her and a quick, forever fall.
No finger holds. Just an edge.
At SeaTac, the blue shirts of all the TSA workers looked so soft that she wanted to touch one and make sure there was a body underneath, not just cool smoke. She listened to the click-click of women in boots and realized that, unlike her, they had somewhere to go in a hurry. Schedules, pie charts, a sale to make or an ante to up. All Peggy had was a few guidelines, and a Sunset magazine.
On the plane, in-between articles, she put on a compliant show while the guy in the middle seat talked her ear off about…something. It wasn’t until she hit the ladies room, afterward, that she realized her blouse wasn’t buttoned properly and her lilac bra was showing. It hardly mattered, but she corrected it and moved on.
Another plane, turned toward sunset. A pudgy man in a suit smiled at her. The mustard pretzels were good.
In the hotel bar, Peggy looks up from her second vodka-tonic to see the man from the plane. He’s watching her with a new drink. They exchange grins and then he’s on the stool next to hers.
“Drowning your sorrows,” the man asks. He smiles easily.
She looks at her drink, her second. The lime wedge is still firm.
“I was never very good at drinking.”
The man is pudgy and is losing his hair, but he is company.
“Well, we all have aspirations, don’t we?”
This makes her laugh. Her first laughter in a while. The first time a man – other than Dan Man Stapler Thief – has made her laugh in a long time.
Reciprocating joy, being an easy mark – they don’t seem like bad things, right now.
“What’s your name?”
“Uh, Keith. I’m Keith.”
“Are you gentle, Keith?”
“Yes,” he says, blushing. “I try to be.”
She smiles and nods. Another sip. Inhibitions…letting go of them.
She writes her 3-digit room number on a cocktail napkin and slides it over to him.
“When you’re ready.”
It drizzled overnight and a fat drop of rainwater fell from an awning and splattered on the little opening to her covered mocha. It was ironic. The odds of that water drop making it into her drink from that height at that moment when she walked into the Sheriff’s Office – pretty astounding. Yet, it had. She tasted it. A moment of cool blandness in her mocha. The only thing she’d care to remember about an abominable morning spent filling out forms.
She wasn’t hung-over, at least. Keith was a gentleman, twice. A hot bath afterward. Sleep. Dreams she elects not to revisit. The phone ringing. Soft sheets and pillow. Weeping. And then forms.
Now, Peggy walks down the hall with the Deputy from the phone. Pretty gal with red hair. Much too young to have kids herself. How do they train her for a job like this?
Peggy’s wearing jeans and sneakers with a fleece jacket. It seemed like appropriate Northern-California-grieving-mother stuff.
“Are you sure,” the cop asks her politely.
No, I can’t. It can’t be, she thinks. And she nods.
Inside a small room, on a table, lies a slender form under a white sheet.
A man is here, a towering goateed guy who probably had to duck the doorframe behind him, coming from the other side.
The cop closes the door over behind Peggy.
The man looks at Peggy and slowly pulls back the sheet.
A thin, perfect, lavender-hued statue lies underneath. Face up. Eyes closed. Small mouth. Little ski-slope nose. Old scar on her chin (from falling off the bar-stool as a kindergartener). Otherwise…markless.
Peggy feels her whole face quivering, the warm sea closing in. She fights it, clenching her teeth to keep composed.
Janice’s hair is crinkly against her scalp when Peggy touches it. Pulled back, of course, in a ponytail. Always, in a ponytail that stuck out the gap in the back of the cap. Janice may have asked her once, what was Janice afraid of. Was there some deep betrayal at stake, if she showed better hair?
The man pulled back the sheet only to the shoulders.
Peggy looks at her form – so slender – and wonders if that was more out of politeness, standard procedure or consideration. Will she see the horrible cause of death on her body? What does happen when a woman – a girl – falls hundreds of feet and hits the ground?
Outside. Cool. Drizzle. A bright sun somewhere.
Down the steps.
Everything you have. Out. Gone. With the tears and snot, with the years of trying and the love.
The deputy is beside you, slowly offering a kitchen towel.
She tells you how very sorry she is.
Breathe in, breathe out.
You take the towel – it must be from the break room – and wipe your face.
Some clarity returns.
Standing on curb and woodchips next to a building’s front steps. In Northern California. Because your daughter’s dead. Hand on a wood-capped railing. Mopping your face. No such correction for the steaming boxwood.
“Thank you,” Peggy says. “I guess I’m not the first blubbering mess you’ve seen.”
The deputy gives her a flat expression. “I’ve had practice.”
The sky is broad and proud as Peggy drives up the curving roads to the park, and the destination within. It’s another gorgeous day here in the Interior. In her mind, she’s always imagined it to be sunny and cool, as no climber stories – from Janice or otherwise – ever surfaced in which it was raining, snowing, or too hot. Were they perpetuating a bubble of perfection? She was curious, at least. Those Everest climbers seem to relish in how difficult the conditions are.
When the granite towers of the climbing mecca come into view, Peggy pulls over for a minute. They are breathtaking, for sure. Silent, still sentinels among the spruce and the blue. She can understand – from a safe distance – how they inspire a kind of religion. At least they’re real.
She parks where she can and hikes it in.
Imagining the Arab princess’ slipper-shod feet stepping down to the ground where so many of her guardians lay dead – hacked or skewered, and still – Peggy pushes on. It seems like miles. It must be miles. Moss, fern, branches, wooden steps, rocks…
Then, a clearing. Tents, people, gear. There’s a network of trails, but a broad one clearly pushes on, towards the goal.
Soon, she’s at a second site. It’s a hive of human activity – music from a radio, people laughing, someone strumming a guitar, the clinking of equipment, jokes.
Faces turn toward her. She has stopped in the middle of the campsite, looking up, and people have noticed.
Her age. Her dress – jeans and sneakers. Her lack of gear. Her lack of camera and bottled water. It must be pretty obvious who she is.
“Hi,” a man says. Tall with a scruffy beard, blue tank top. So young.
“Are you,” he asks. Is he embarrassed to say it? To get her name wrong? Janice’s name?
“Peggy Jorgenson,” she answers, without looking at the man.
In her periphery, she sees him nod and follow her gaze up. She walks forward, approaching the last trees before the Earth turns sharply upward.
It is beautiful, and menacing. The granite wall.
For God’s sake, how did a career in cancer research get overshadowed by this?
Colored specks crawl upward, here and there. Many are on ropes, it looks like.
Something peculiar comes into focus. Peggy wonders if this is it – Janice’s mark on the world. The tree closest to the rock wall is missing a branch; a pale, orange stump sits in its place, the wood splintered.
Janice slipping. Janice screaming. Janice falling. Air rushing by. Dreams and regrets rushing by. Rock. Janice striking rock. Janice bouncing out, like a doll. Janice’s body snapping off this tree branch. Janice’s body rolling to a stop. A crumpled heap.
Peggy closes her eyes, fighting the urge to vomit again. Fighting an urge to cry before this young man who wouldn’t, can’t understand.
“I don’t know what to do with you Disciples of Rock,” she says to the young man.
She imagines him clenching his teeth to retort, ready to tell her off. If. If only her daughter, a Disciple of Rock, hadn’t just lost a battle with the mountain.
“Sometimes,” she says, opening her eyes, “I wish I could put on all that fancy crap and try it. To feel what you guys feel.” She looks at the man, and she feels herself smirking. “Then Reality sets in.”
Peggy shrugs and turns around.
Near her feet is a divot in the pine needles and earth. It could be the spot where Janice hit. Shouldn’t it be ringed with stones and candles, or something?
Nudging a squashed pine cone with her foot, Peggy realizes that it would only be a matter of time, before someone’s boot stepped in the hallowed spot on the way to the wall. And then another boot and another, and the mark where her daughter may have hit the ground would become less obvious, and then just more ground between climber and goal.
That is the way of things.
Duncan, Janice’s dad. How does she tell him?
The imaginary princess. How does she mount her camel, defeated?
Janice. What piece of gear did she put on first?
A lovely, dark-haired girl is approaching the rock and passes Peggy.
Like a flash, an urge to plead with this girl and remind her she has people who care about her…it burns up. Gone. Blue sky, breeze, rock above.
Some guy is strumming his damned guitar again.
Back in the car, Peggy drops into the driver’s seat. Her purse flops over in the passenger seat, with her lipstick and work badge falling out. The lipstick is a nice burgundy color, though she isn’t sure it ever does anything for her. On the phone, she’s a voice.
Among the rental’s floor mat gray, her blue badge gives her title as ‘Claims Adjuster.’
At seeing this, she exhales – until there’s no air left.
‘Claims.’ Pretty enough. Smart enough. Good enough to do something worthwhile. A faraway princess observing honorable defeat. Combatting cancer with science. Reaching new heights of…
And that other word.
‘Adjuster.’ Parent. Advocate. Combatant. Worker. Wife. Mom. Adjuster.
Adjust. Adjust. Adjust.