Maura Finnegan cleared her throat, indicating to the rest of the board that the meeting was about to begin. Conversations were hastily concluded, papers were shuffled. A secretary silently refilled coffee and water cups. All eyes were now focused on Maura Finnegan.
To the casual observer, she seemed too young to be seated in the oversize chair at the head of the oblong table. Her complexion was fresh as a child's, luminous and free of obvious cosmetics. Her long red hair was pulled back into a severe French twist, and she wore no jewelry other than a plain watch. Although her teal suit was expertly cut, it, too, was simple.
"Good morning." She smiled, glancing around the table at the faces of men and women old enough to be her parents. There was a general murmur of greeting, brief return smiles before she looked down at the agenda before her.
Maura was exhausted, far too tired to lead the meeting. She had passed the entire night in a fruitless quest for sleep, paging through paperback novels, flicking past television channels, listening to the radio. Nothing seemed to soothe her. It had been that way for over a month now, ever since Roger had dumped her.
Someone was speaking.
Maura blinked and focused in the direction of the voice.
And again she thought of Roger.
He had seemed so perfect. Everyone who met him had invariably pulled her aside.
"What a great guy!"
When they first met, she had been intimidated by his overpowering air of success. He arrived in Milwaukee like a bolt of lightning, fresh and clean and wonderful. If not exactly handsome, he was indeed well-groomed, with an exceptionally fine set of teeth. She had noticed his teeth when they first met.
It had been at a Christmas party, a dull affair hosted by the advertising agency that handled her father's company. Later no one could remember why he was at the party, since no one could recall meeting him before the event, much less inviting him to the party.
With his blond hair combed straight back and wearing a black overcoat, he had walked directly to where she was seated, a handful of peanuts cupped in his hands. To her astonishment, he siphoned the peanuts into her lap.
"I wish they were emeralds," he whispered. "They would match your eyes."
She could not respond for two reasons. One was that everyone in the tinsel-festooned lobby was staring at them. The other was that she had seen a PBS special the week before, and a variation of the "wish they were emeralds" line had been uttered over seventy years before by playwright Charles MacArthur to Helen Hayes. She did not mention that she had seen the same show, for it was the meaning of his words that was so important. The line had worked on Helen Hayes, and it sure worked on Maura.
Their romance began at that moment, a whirlwind affair full of flowers and red wine and evenings spent by the roaring fireplace of her parents' home. She had felt so alone after the death of her father, following less than two years after her mother's death. In one fell swoop she had been robbed of her remaining family and forced into the uncomfortable position of running the family business.
And then came Roger. With little hesitation, she had allowed herself to be swept into his capable arms. Clever, strong Roger seemed a godsend.
Then an odd thing happened: People stopped commenting on what a great guy he was. She attributed it to jealousy. On the part of the women it was because their own mates could never hope to compare to Roger. With men, it was because Roger was effortlessly all they longed to be. Of course, that had to be the reason, simple and understandable jealousy.
Roger seemed to know everything, from the best restaurants to the finest wine. The waiters had even been impressed, she could tell, when he sipped a glass of burgundy and proclaimed it "a pretty little wine."
It didn't matter that she no longer saw most of her friends or that they spent more and more time alone, isolated from the rest of the world. Nor did it matter that he never introduced her to his own family or friends.
"I'm jealous of the time you spend with other people," he had said, and she, of course, felt the same way. Although he wanted her to meet his family, a large brood that seemed to have come straight from an idealistic sitcom, his brothers, all lawyers or doctors or architects, were always jetting around the world. His parents, old-fashioned -- his father was a retired judge, his mother president of the garden club -- stayed back east, but he had told them all about her, and they eagerly awaited meeting their boy's girlfriend.
Someone was still speaking at the meeting. Maura made all of the practiced motions of appearing to pay attention. Her green eyes seemed to flash with intelligence every few moments, but the reaction was to her own tortured thoughts, not to the actual speaker.
Although he was a man's man in every way, Roger had been free to show his soft side to women. Once she even saw a tear in the corner of his eye when they were watching The Pride of the Yankees. Later he claimed the moisture had been the result of new contact lenses, but Maura knew better. He was sensitive and tender, her Roger. The kind of man she had always dreamed of meeting. The kind of man she had always dreamed of marrying. Someone to help her with the company.
For in reality, Finnegan's Freeze-Dried Cabbage was not the moneymaker it once had been. By the time of his death, her own father, sidelined for the last six months, had no idea how bad things had become. Maura had seen all of the books, the black-and-white balance sheets that added up to a company on the brink of collapse, and hid the truth from her father.
He had established the company twenty years before, convinced that Finnegan's Freeze-Dried Cabbage would pave the way to a freeze-dried vegetable empire.
But freeze-dried cabbage had never really caught on. As a side dish it tasted like salty wood shavings. Their biggest clients now were dry soup and sauce manufacturers, who buried the product safely under other ingredients. Unless a new use for Finnegan's Freeze-Dried Cabbage could be found, it was only a matter of time before the business went under.
The company had inched forward with her father at the helm, but with Maura it had stalled. It had been her dad's forceful personality that had propelled Finnegan's Freeze-Dried, not the product.
Maura, at the age of twenty-seven, did not have that winning personality. Instead, she had a business degree from Notre Dame and, for the past year and a half, Roger.
Without Roger, she was absolutely nothing.
Her hand clenched, and she squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, forcing the tears to go away. Not now. She couldn't cry now. Later, back home, she could again close the door and give way to her grief. But not at a business meeting.
The small slip of paper in her hand was damp from her moist grasp. It didn't matter that the ink had been smeared. She knew the sum total penned by her secretary, knew the numbers with a scalding accuracy.
In a neat, precise hand, it said "Final Account -- Overdraft $98,872."
Only five weeks before, Maura had confided in Roger, showing him the company books, allowing him to go over the figures at his leisure. He was a financial adviser, a term etched on his business card. If anyone was in need of financial advice, it was Maura and Finnegan's Freeze-Dried.
Roger had an idea. He would save the company. But in order to do so, he would have to be given complete autonomy. No one should be told of their plans, of his authority. Otherwise, the mere hint of financial distress would destroy the company. Creditors who had been polite would become demanding, and the law was on the creditor's side.
"Let me handle this," he had said, chucking her under her chin.
It had been so easy, such a relief.
As the days passed, Roger seemed less and less available. His four daily phone calls dwindled to three, then two, then one every other day until finally they stopped altogether. It had only then become clear -- Roger left her as soon as he realized the company was on the verge of collapse. He had not wanted Maura. He had wanted her company.
Unfortunately, both the company and Maura were utter failures.
And now he was gone. Not only had Roger left Maura, he had left Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin as well. He had vanished into thin air, taking with him the remaining balance of the company accounts -- including the overdraft of nearly one hundred thousand dollars.
Earlier that morning she had called Harvard in hopes of tracking him down through their alumni office. Nobody going by the name of Roger Parker had been in the class he had claimed as his own. Indeed, nobody with his name and major from his alleged hometown had ever attended Harvard.
It was only after the woman at the alumni office had commented on the name of Roger's hometown that Maura realized why it had seemed so familiar. He had claimed to be from Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
"Isn't that where Orson Welles set War of the Worlds?"
Of course, it was. For whatever Roger claimed to have done or been or lived could invariably be traced to a scene in a movie or play. His was a life of pure fiction, and Maura had been all too willing to believe every line.
She jumped, aware that the boardroom had been quiet. They were staring at her again, all of the executives of Finnegan's Freeze-Dried. Soon they would all know what had happened, what she had done.
With a forced smile she looked at the man standing at the head of the table. He was the marketing director of Finnegan's Freeze-Dried Cabbage, ready to present the results of his newest project. It was yet another effort in their never-ending search for new uses for dried cabbage flakes.
"...and the testers were also quite thrilled with the range and variety of our product," he concluded.
Who cares, she almost shouted. In another week there would be no product, there would be no company. Instead she took a deep breath and nodded for him to continue.
Peter Jones had no idea that his job of twenty years was in jeopardy. He had two kids in college and a big mortgage. Like everyone else at the table, he had not been shown the complete financial report.
She recalled that when she was a child, Peter Jones used to laugh out loud at the outfit her parents made her wear every St. Patrick's Day, the green-and-white shamrock number still moldering in the suburban Whitefish Bay house, awaiting a Finnegan granddaughter to commence a second generation of torment.
Concentrate, she told herself. Make everyone think you have a grip on the situation. Act interested in Peter Jones's report.
"Excuse me," she interrupted.
Peter Jones paused. He still viewed her as the carrot-topped kid in the green step dancing getup.
"Peter? Could you please clarify that last statement?" Maura tried to curb the edge to her voice.
"Of course, Maura."
Poor guy, she thought. She had to think of something. She had to come up with a way to save the company, to save these people's jobs.
Roger had left after betraying her, but the truth was that by believing Roger when she had so desperately wanted to, she herself had betrayed the employees. In the end she alone was accountable.
Peter Jones continued. "You see, we have hired the very best recipe testers in the nation. They have created several dozen delightful items, all using liberal amounts of Finnegan's Freeze-Dried, of course. We will create an entire advertising campaign employing my new recipes."
"May we hear a sample of the menu?" Maura was pleased with herself. She had been paying attention. She sounded interested.
"Of course, Maura. We have managed to employ cabbage in every aspect of this menu, from drinks to dessert. To begin with, there will be a new cocktail this fall -- sure to be a rage among all the upwardly mobile individuals in the nation. Forget the margarita, throw away the Beaujolais. The new drink of choice will be Absolut Finnegan's."
"We have contacted the vodka company, and they are a bit reluctant to join forces at this precise moment. But I assure you, once they taste the sophisticated blend of pureed Finnegan's Freeze-Dried Cabbage and their vodka, they will be absolutely..."
"Cabbage and vodka?" Maura's exhausted panic suddenly gave way to a manic urge to giggle. She felt like a mourner at a funeral who recalls the most riotous joke ever told. The rest of her life was a shambles. She eventually had to tell everyone assembled that she had single-handedly destroyed the company, that they would all soon be jobless, yet all she could do was think of how funny freeze-dried cabbage seemed. "Equal parts cabbage and vodka? Just like that?"
Peter Jones straightened his spine. "We serve it in a hurricane glass with a sliver of raw potato on the rim."
Maura managed to transform her guffaw into a sneeze. "Bless yous" rounded the table.
She averted her eyes as she spoke. "How does it taste, Peter?"
"Well." He took a fortifying breath. "It is rather sophisticated. One of the kitchen testers who created the recipe likened it to some of the great but unlikely combinations in culinary history. Who would ever imagine pate -- made from duck and goose livers -- could taste so sublime? Or that sauerkraut and corned beef could make a Reuben?"
He pressed forward. "Our first idea was to ignite the cocktail. A flaming drink is always impressive. But the whole kitchen smelled like a tenement."
"I see." Maura bit her lip and noticed other board members were suddenly staring directly ahead. It was often hard to discuss Finnegan's Freeze-Dried Cabbage with a straight face.
"So we serve it chilled over shaved ice. It is a bracing drink with a nice kick to it." Jones began paging through his notebook. "Let's see, we have brunch dishes, such as Creamed Cabbage on Toast Points and Eggs Benedict Finnegan. Then there are your piquant dishes, perfect for every occasion -- the Homestyle Cabbage Dijon, Crepes à la Cabbage, and so forth. Desserts include Chocolate-Dipped Cabbage Fondue and Emerald Cabbage Sorbet."
At that moment Maura was startled, and relieved, by a tap on her shoulder. Her secretary, with a concerned look on her face, passed a typed message.
"Maura -- sorry to interrupt. There is an overseas call from Dublin on the line with urgent legal information. Will you take it now or return the call?"
Legal information. Her heart sank. Had word spread already of their disaster? Were the sharks circling -- from Dublin, no less?
Maura smiled as she stood. Whatever the call was about, it couldn't really make much of a difference. Unless a sudden miracle occurred, everyone would soon know Maura Finnegan had managed to destroy everything that had been entrusted to her.
She simply didn't care anymore, about cabbage or recipes or presiding over the meeting or the crumbled slip of paper she left behind on the table. "I'm sorry, Peter. There is a matter of great urgency I must attend to. But could you please continue?"
The expressions on the other board members' faces were of repressed mirth mingled with tedium. Thank God they don't know, she thought as she left. Please let me think of something.
The miracle arrived in the form of an echoing long-distance phone call.
Within a matter of hours, Maura was informed that she was sole heir to a town house and furniture factory in Dublin. More calls, confirmations, and frantic cross-Atlantic faxes arrived from a solicitor's office, from two Irish banks and a government official.
The estimated worth of the estate allowed her to take out an emergency loan to keep Finnegan's Freeze-Dried afloat for at least another month. It was, indeed, a miracle, a brief reprieve. Although this wasn't really the best time to fly to Ireland to claim her inheritance, it would be worth it if the sale of the properties provided enough money to save Finnegan's Freeze-Dried.
By the following week, Maura Finnegan had sent an interoffice memo to the staff concerning her departure. Peter Jones was informed that he would be temporary head of Finnegan's Freeze-Dried, and he was clearly delighted.
Luggage was brought up from her parents' basement. Telephone calls were made to friends and business associates. Everything had been arranged swiftly and efficiently, handled with the dispassionate care of a well-oiled assembly line.
Maura saw the journey as a final stab at redemption. Her round-trip ticket had been paid for by the bank. It was an Aer Lingus standby, the modem day equivalent of steerage. Just as her ancestors had traveled to a New World, she, too, was on a voyage -- her maiden voyage -- to a new world -- a new life.
But she was not returning to the land of her ancestors in triumph. The irony was not lost on Maura that in venturing to Ireland she was attempting to win the exact thing millions of immigrants had sought in the New World.
She was seeking a second chance.
Copyright © 1997 by Judith O'Brien