Jeanie’s husband, George, had left her for his secretary six months ago. Such a cliché – your husband leaving you for his secretary. She couldn’t even get dumped with any originality. Not that Jeanie had any experience with originality. She was the most unoriginal person she knew. A housewife and mother to two children, Jeanie had moved timidly through her life, keeping just below the radar. She had never worked outside the home, other than to volunteer at her kids’ schools. She and George attended church regularly, and Jeanie was a member of several committees but never led any of them. She had a small circle of friends with whom she shopped and had coffee, but their idea of excitement was triple coupon weekend at Kroger.
Her life was simple. It was routine. She watched her children grow and sent them off into the world. Their daughter, Rhonda, called regularly to report on Jeanie and George’s new grandbaby, Tyler, and to exchange recipes. George, Jr., mowed their lawn once a week and trimmed his parents’ hedges every other Saturday. Their children were kind, hardworking and just as unremarkable as they were.
Her marriage to George was old but familiar. Looking back over the last 35 years, Jeanie often thought it kind of funny how two people who could finish each other’s sentences hardly ever spoke anymore. She would never admit this to anyone – well, maybe to her best friend, Shirl, but George running off with his secretary didn’t really surprise her at all. It hurt her very much but did not surprise her. It seemed a logical conclusion to the chain of events that had been playing out over the last couple of years.
George had never been a very exciting man. That’s why she married him. Exciting men were complicated and dangerous, and George was steady and predictable. He worked hard at the plant, came home, ate his dinner, watched a little of the ballgame and dozed in his chair. Once a year, on their anniversary, he would take Jeanie out to a nice steak dinner and during the summer they would spend his week’s vacation at the same cottage at the beach. Very often Jeanie would remind herself how lucky she was to have such a level-headed husband who took such good care of her and the children. But, some nights, she couldn’t help but look over at the lump snoring in bed beside her and feel a loneliness so deep it physically hurt.
For some time she had felt a dissatisfaction coming from George. A pulling away. They had never been very intimate, but now he rarely met her eyes when they talked, and he never put his hands on her at all anymore. So when she looked out her kitchen window that summer evening and saw her husband pulling into the driveway in a shiny new red Corvette, her heart felt heavy with expectation. The end was coming. Sure enough, a week later George asked her to put more starch in his shirts and wore cologne to work. He started coming home later and later, always with half-baked excuses about inventory.
The only person Jeanie told about any of this was Shirl.
“Hon, he’s havin’ an affair. You know that, right?” Shirl whispered into the phone. Shirl felt she knew what made most people tick and seemed to be an expert in matters of the heart. Also, she watched a lot of Dr. Phil.
Jeanie stood in the darkened kitchen by the dishwasher, hoping it and the drone of the ballgame would drown out her conversation.
“Yeah, I know it. I just don’t want to, I guess. Maybe it’s something else, though, Shirl. Maybe he’s got some horrible disease he’s afraid to tell me about. Cancer or his prostrate. Men his age have bad problems with their prostrates.”
“Nope.” Shirl was adamant. “It’s an affair. Just like Bea Pittman’s husband last year. Remember? I bet I know what’s going on. Mmm-hmm, I do. Look, I’ll pick you up at lunchtime tomorrow and show you.”
At noon the next day, Jeanie and Shirl sat in Shirl’s hot Buick at the very back of the plant’s gigantic parking lot, watching employees walk to and from their cars. Both women wore scarves around their heads and huge, dark sunglasses. They slid low in their seats. Shirl held her son’s old birdwatching binoculars up to her face and shook her head in disapproval.
“What, Shirl?” Jeanie asked anxiously. “Do you see George?”
“No, I see Barney Sykes’ enormous belly. Good lord. He’s really let himself go. Remember how cute he was in high school, Jeanie?”
“Shirl! I don’t care about Barney Sykes! Give me those things!” Jeanie grabbed the binoculars away from Shirl, forgetting about the strap still around her friend’s neck.
“Hey, watch it!”
“Well, quit spying on other people.” Jeanie said, fussing with the strap. “Here, duck your head for a second so I can get them off.” She didn’t see Shirl’s eyes widen in recognition and then fear.
“Oh, lord, Jeanie. Look at the doors.”
Jeanie finally freed the strap from around her friend’s neck and quickly drew the binoculars to her face. She gasped and swallowed hard. There was George, leaving the plant with a woman Jeanie had never seen before. The woman was tall, made taller by the patent leather fuschia pumps she wore. Her jeans and frilly blouse were too tight, and her flashy jewelry and heavy makeup looked garish in the noonday sun. As Jeanie watched, the woman threw back her bleached-blond head and laughed at something George had said. George gave her a goofy grin and then looked around nervously.
“Oh, hon. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to be right about this. I really didn’t.” Shirl took Jeanie’s hand and squeezed it.
“I know you didn’t.” Jeanie turned to Shirl, her eyes filling with tears. “I knew this was comin’. But how can he do it to me in broad daylight, Shirl? I’m just humiliated!”
Jeanie’s sobs finally came, and Shirl held her friend close.
“To tell you the truth, hon? I never did trust George. Any man who won’t sing the hymns in church is up to something.”
Jeanie chuckled quietly against Shirl’s neck. Then she giggled. Then she started bellylaughing uncontrollably. Shirl was puzzled but couldn’t help joining in.
“Oh, Shirl,” Jeanie said, wiping her eyes. “I’m so glad I have you.”
“I’m glad you have me, too, hon. We’ll get through this.”
Jeanie looked out the windshield at George. “He’s gonna leave me, isn’t he?”
Shirl met Jeanie’s eyes and took her hand again. “Yeah, Jeanie. He is.”
Jeanie nodded and blew her nose. “All those years.” She shook her head slowly as she pulled the binoculars from around her neck.
They were silent for a moment, looking off into the distance. Then Jeanie suddenly leaned forward and banged hard on the Buick’s dashboard. Shirl jumped.
“I can’t believe I’m being left for a woman who wears hot pink shoes!”
Shirl let out a guffaw and then covered her mouth quickly. Jeanie looked at her, and their laughter came again. They sat there at the back of the blazing hot parking lot, two women wearing brightly-covered scarves and big sunglasses in the front seat of a Buick, practically screaming with laughter.
* * *
Jeanie had to hand it to George. Although he had completely broken her heart, wrecked their marriage and tossed her whole world asunder, he did it quickly. Within a month, lawyers were seen, separation papers were signed and George had totally moved out of their pretty little house on Happy Home Avenue. Jeanie felt a lump rise in her throat every time she turned onto their street and saw that hateful street sign.
“Happy Home Avenue, my foot,” she always thought.
She was also grateful that he did not shack up with The Floosy, as she came to be known. Her real name was Barbara Jean, and apparently, she was a temporary secretary the plant had hired while George’s regular secretary, Amy, was out on maternity leave. George had conveniently neglected to tell Jeanie any of this. Anyway, George rented an apartment across town where a lot of bachelors lived, and began openly dating Barbara Jean.
As the weeks went by, Jeanie felt like she was living in a fish bowl, watching her life happen around her. The people she loved tried to reach her, to draw her out, to get her to talk about what had happened. But she felt numb. She did cry a few times: once over the sight of George’s empty closet with all its naked hangers, once over the full carton of half and half she had just bought for his coffee and once over their wedding portrait. But that was all. It seemed strange, but she had no more tears for George.
“Mama, I’m worried about you,” said Rhonda during one of their many phone conversations.
Rhonda called almost every day now and brought Jeanie’s grandchildren over several times a week. Such a good daughter. Poor George Jr. still mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges and even managed a few awkward hugs. He was too much like his father, she thought. Bottled up.
“It’s okay to be mad or sad or whatever you feel,” advised Rhonda. “I’m reading this book right now? About divorce? The author says you shouldn’t keep everything inside. You should talk to someone.”
“I really don’t have all that much to say, Rhonda, honey. I’m just sort of trying to go on with my life.”
“But that’s the point. You have no life since this thing with Daddy.”
No one could bring themselves to talk about what George had done. To say affair. But the kids weren’t cutting him any slack, either. Neither Rhonda or George Jr. had seen or spoken to their father since he left, although he had tried to contact both of them several times.
“No offense, Mama, but you kind of had no life before, either.”
“This book also says you should try something new. Something you were always curious about but never felt free to do.”
“Well, goodness. Like what?” Jeanie tried not to sound too flat.
“Like hanggliding. Or bungee jumping. Or, I don’t know, hiking.”
“Rhonda, I’ve never done any of those things in my life.”
Rhonda sighed. “Mama, that’s kinda the point.”
“Oh,” Jeanie mumbled and examined a hangnail. She heard some shouting in the background on Rhonda’s end. “What’s that ruckus?”
“The kids are jumpin’ on the couch again.”
“Are they? The precious things,” Jeanie cooed, smiling a little to herself.
“I gotta go. Think about what I said, Mama. I’ll bring this book when we come for dinner on Sunday.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Talk to you soon. Kisses to my babies.”
Jeanie hung up the phone and picked up a dishtowel to wipe down a few spots she’d missed.
“Bungee jumping,” she declared into the empty kitchen. “Bungee jumping,” she tried again to see how it sounded. The refrigerator’s motor turning on was the only response.
Jeanie shook her head and threw the dishtowel back on the counter. “That girl is crazy,” she said and walked out of the kitchen.
* * *
Jeanie’s adventure began with the Ladies’ Circle meeting, held that month in Shirl’s living room. Jeanie, who was always on time for everything, happened to show up for the meeting ten minutes late, which gave the ladies some extra time to organize themselves for the big surprise.
“Remember, ladies,” instructed Shirl, “Jeanie doesn’t have the first clue about this. She’ll be really surprised and possibly even a little upset.”
A murmur went through the group. Shirl raised her arms and her voice to quiet them.
“But we must persevere! This is very important for Jeanie, and it’ll change her life. We all feel sure of that, right?”
The group agreed.
“One thing Jeanie Honeycutt needs is a life change, bless her heart,” said Wanda Robinson, munching on one of Shirl’s lemon cookies. “Lord knows, after what George did to her, runnin’ around with The Floosy in broad daylight and humiliating poor Jeanie, she needs all the help she can get. I heard George bought her a diamond ring, and how that tramp loves to show it off, too!”
Another murmur went through the group. Shirl walked slowly over to Wanda, who had begun talking to Lisa Rowe and didn’t see Shirl approach. Lisa abruptly stopped talking and quickly pointed towards the fuming Shirl. Wanda turned to see the angry woman towering over her, hands on her hips and looking her dead in the eyes. She timidly swallowed the bite of lemon cookie she had in her mouth.
“Wanda Robinson, that is exactly the type of comment we don’t need to hear once Jeanie gets here,” Shirl spit out through tight lips. She looked up to address the entire group, remembering what Jeanie’s daughter, Rhonda, had said to her during their phone conversation just the night before. “Jeanie needs positive energy, y’all. She needs our support and encouragement and kind words.” She looked to at Wanda again. “Not rumors and gossip.”
Just then Jeanie’s car pulled into the driveway. Every head turned to look out Shirl’s front window. They watched Jeanie check her hair and lipstick in her side mirror and hurridly make her way inside.
“Okay, y’all, this is it! Remember what I said,” Shirl instructed and then looked sideways at Wanda. “Better let me start.”
Jeanie walked through the doorway at the back of room, and every head almost simultaneously turned to look at her. She was greeted by an awkward silence.
“Hey, y’all,” she stammered, puzzled. “Um, sorry I’m late. There must have been a line everywhere I went today. Y’all ever have one of those days?”
Nervous laughter rippled through the group. Lisa Rowe guffawed, blanched and then started rummaging through her purse.
“So…” Jeanie looked at Shirl. “Have you started without me?”
Shirl rushed to her friend’s side and pulled her into the room. “No, of course not, hon! We were just chatting and having a little something to eat,” she managed and made a sweeping gesture at the group of ladies, not one of whom was doing either of those things. “Come on in and have a seat,” she continued. “We’re ready to start, aren’t we ladies?”
Affirmation rushed forth from the group, as the ladies continued to follow Jeanie’s every movement.
“All right, y’all,” Jeanie declared, setting her purse firmly down on the coffee table. “What in the world is going on? Did somebody die? Y’all are acting so strange!”
Complete silence fell upon the group. The ladies looked down at their hands, out the window or snuck glances at each other.
Jeanie put her hands on her hips and turned on her heel to look at Shirl.
“Shirl, I –“
“We’re sending you to Africa!” shouted Wanda, erupting like a steaming teapot, her face flushed and eyes wide.
The group gasped.
“Wanda!” yelled Shirl.
“What?” said Jeanie, looking very confused.
“I couldn’t help it, Shirl!” pleaded Wanda. “You know how bad I am at this!” She began to cry.
The noise level in the room began to rise.
“Never mind, Wanda,” sighed Shirl. “Just calm down. Everybody just settle down!”
“Shirl? What’s going on?” asked Jeanie in a small voice.
Shirl closed her eyes, took a deep breath and smoothed her hair. She then turned to Jeanie and smiled warmly.
“Hon, we have a wonderful surprise for you! It was really Rhonda’s idea. But we all chipped in, and we’re all so excited about givin’ it to you.”
Jeanie looked around at the ladies, her closest friends, who were all smiling and nodding at her.
“It’s kind of a strange surprise, actually,” continued Shirl. “It’s something none of us would have thought of, but once Rhonda told us about it, we all think it’s just the thing to get you out of this rut.
“I think I better sit down,” Jeanie said weakly.
“Sit here!” demanded Wanda, falling all over herself to offer her seat on the sofa.
“Thank you, Wanda.” said Shirl, rolling her eyes.
Jeanie seated herself gingerly on the sofa. Lisa offered her a glass of iced tea.
“We all know how sad you are, Jeanie. And we all love you so much. We hope you’ll accept this gift from us with…what was it Rhonda said? Oh yes, an open heart and mind.”
“Just spit it out, Shirl,” snapped Jeanie.
“Okay, okay,” Shirl took a deep breath and braced herself. “What Wanda said is true. We’ve all chipped in and bought you an all-expenses paid trip to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro!”
Shirl ended her big reveal with a flourish, and heads once again turned towards Jeanie, eagerly awaiting her reaction.
“Oh…my…lord…” Jeanie murmured, feeling faint.
“The trip is in three months. You’ll fly into a place called DAR and then take a shuttle to the, um, base camp, I think it’s called. Then you’ll get together with five other folks who are climbing the mountain, too. It takes 7 days, and when you reach the top you’ll be at the highest point in the world! Whaddya think?”
The ladies leaned in. Jeanie looked at them.
“I think you’re all crazy!”
The ice rattled in her glass as she shot up from the sofa and grabbed her purse.
“Now, now, Jeanie,” began Shirl, making her ways towards Jeanie with her hands held protectively up, much like she would approach a wild animal. “We’d thought you’d react this way at first –“
“Well, you were right! This is crazy, Shirl! Ladies! I can’t go to Africa, and I certainly can’t climb any mountain!”
“Why not?” asked Lisa, seeming truly perplexed.
“Well, for starters, Lisa, I don’t have a passport.”
“My nephew can help you with that!” declared Mary Beth Jenkins. “He works at the post office where they do that stuff.”
Jeanie was unmoved. “Okay, well, I don’t have any boots or clothes for Africa! And I’m sure I’ll need a bunch of fancy equipment to do it, too.”
“My Lance said for you to come on down to the store, and he’ll get you all set. Give you 20% off, too,” offered Faye Hartman, whose husband managed a large athletic equipment superstore.
Jeanie started to look nervous. “I can’t climb a mountain!” she stammered. “I can barely climb the three flights of stairs at Belk!”
“Tell her about Kevin, Shirl.” said Mary Beth with a wry grin.
“Kevin is your new physical trainer at A New You! You know, that ladies’ gym downtown? We all went down and met him last weekend. He specializes in helping mature ladies get back into shape. He said he could have you ready in no time.”
A murmur of appreciation rose up from the group. Shirl smiled at the ladies knowingly.
“He’s real nice, and he has a nice tan and gorgeous blond hair and the bluest eyes you ever seen. Why, we all thought—“
Jeanie suddenly whipped around to face the gushing Shirl, her jaw clenched and her voice low.
“You know I can’t do this. You know I’m not ready for anything like this.”
Shirl locked eyes with Jeanie, clenched her own jaw and lowered her voice as well.
“I don’t know any such thing, Jeanie Honeycutt.”
They stared at each other in fuming silence. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the room as everyone in the group watched the two friends stand off like two bulls, neither one willing to back down. It was Jeanie who finally broke, whipping back around to face the group again. Her body shook and her face was red as she spoke in a voice thick with approaching tears.
“I am not going to Africa or climbing Mt. Kili-whatsit, and that’s that!”
* * *
Her first training session with Kevin did not go well, as Jeanie was very out of shape. But Kevin was patient and kind and never made her feel embarrassed about her body. She wished she could admire his tan, his blue eyes and his gorgeous blond hair more, but her attention was held mostly by screaming muscles.
“Kevin, dear, I don’t think I’m going to be ready to climb anything in three months,” she complained, timidly stepping on the treadmill one day.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Honeycutt,” said Kevin reassuringly and flashed her one of his brilliant smiles as he began programming the machine. “You won’t be ready at the end of this month. You won’t quite be ready at the end of next month. But by the time you leave for Africa in three months, you’ll be more than ready for Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
She began a brisk walk on the treadmill, which Kevin steadily increased to a slow jog. As she huffed and puffed, Jeanie tried to think of something other than what she was doing. An image of George and Barbara Jean popped up, and she pushed it away immediately. She decided to think about Bea Pittman.
Jeanie had stormed out of the Ladies’ Circle Meeting that day, vowing to herself never to speak to any of them again. Especially Shirl. She was so mad at Shirl she could spit nails. She called Rhonda that night to tell her exactly what she thought of her all expenses paid African hiking trip. The conversation did not go well. It was the first fight mother and daughter had ever had. Jeanie slammed the receiver down and stomped out of her kitchen and into her living room. She marched herself over to the sofa and put both hands on the back of it, squeezing the cushions in outrage and frustration.
“They have no idea what I’m going through,” she thought. “And this stupid trip proves it. How can they think this is a good idea? How dare they try to make me do it!”
Just then the phone rang.
“Darn that Rhonda!” she declared to the sofa and then stomped back to the kitchen and yanked the receiver off the wall.
“You listen here, young lady! I’m still your mama, and –“
“Jeanie?” said a small voice on the other end. “Jeanie, this is Bea Pittman.”
“Is this a bad time, Jeanie? I’ll be glad to call back.”
Jeanie exhaled and closed her eyes. She put her hand to her forehead and leaned against the door to the broom closet.
“Oh, my lord, Bea, I’m so sorry. I’m havin’ a tiff with Rhonda, and I thought you were her. Please excuse me.”
“Are you fighting about the trip to Africa?”
“How’d you know about that?”
“Mary Beth Jenkins told my sister Lucy and Lucy told me.”
Jeanie cringed. “So I guess my little show at Circle Meeting is all over town by now.”
Bea chuckled. “Sorry to say it probably is, Jeanie dear. But don’t worry. Something else’ll come along to take you out of the spotlight, I’m sure.”
“I’m so embarrassed.”
“Hey, I heard the Methodist minister might be gay. That’ll get everyone’s attention for sure,” laughed Bea.
Jeanie laughed too, in spite of herself. “I’m so tired of being at the center of the rumor mill, Bea. First George and now this Africa trip. When does it ever end?”
“Well, I think it comes and goes for a while until it just stays gone. I hardly hear any whispering about me and Don anymore, and it’s been about a year since he moved out. There was some talk after his girlfriend took off with his brand new Porsche, but that’s died down now. Thank God.”
Jeanie thought of George and his stupid little red Corvette convertible. She imagined a cackling Barbara Jean, bleached-blond hair flying in the wind, speeding away in it, never to be heard from again.
“Jeanie? Are you still there?”
Jeanie snapped back to reality. “I’m so sorry, Bea. Where are my manners? Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes, there is. You can go to Africa for me.”
“Do what?” Jeanie was stunned.
“Go to Africa, Jeanie. Make the trip. Do the climb. This is the chance of a lifetime.”
“Listen, Bea, I know you mean well, but –“
“Jeanie Honeycutt, you listen to me,” Bea raised her voice, surprising Jeanie into silence. “Don’t you shut me out. I know exactly what you’re doing, ‘cause I’ve done it myself, and it only made me more lonely. More sad. And more old. Now, you’re going to have to deal with George’s affair eventually and it might as well be now.”
Fear and vulnerability overwhelmed Jeanie. She felt like she had just walked naked into a public place.
Bea’s voice softened. “Listen, Jeanie, honey. What happened with George is not your fault. You had no control over it. But you do have control of what you do now. If you stay in that house day after day, doing the same things, seeing the same people, thinking the same thoughts…well, it won’t be good, Jeanie. It’s called Depression, and it’s no fun, believe me.”
A picture of Bea flashed through Jeanie’s mind. Overweight. Pale. Sad.
Bea continued, “Hon, I wish to God someone had dragged me out of my funk before it got really bad. Before I couldn’t even get out of bed anymore. Your friends love you, Jeanie, and they want to help.”
“But, Bea, you’re okay now, right? I mean, eventually things will go back to normal, I’ll get on with my life, and it’ll be fine.”
“That’s what I thought, too.”
There was a pause. Jeanie watched a bird eat from the feeder outside her kitchen window. She caught her reflection in the glass and sighed.
“Okay, Bea. I’ll do it. I’ll go.”
They said their goodbyes and hung up the phone. Betty looked at her reflection again. She imagined an enormous mountain in the middle of a dense jungle inhabited by various fanged and poisonous animals. Horrid animals with hot pink pumps and shiny red Corvettes.
“Damn him,” whispered Jeanie to no one. “Damn him straight to hell.”
She pursed her lips and banged a fist on the edge of the gleaming kitchen sink. Then she marched off to look for George, Jr.’s old sleeping bag.