THERE IT IS, IN BLACK AND WHITE
Do you remember those times……the handwritten notes scribbled in high-school annuals? Those witty quips may have come easy for some. Others of us struggled to write much of anything. Most of our efforts were short and a bit corny, a few were serious, even heartfelt.
No matter what we wrote, we never expected to be held accountable for those youthful comments ……especially not fifty years later. How could those adolescent declarations be considered proof of anything?
Today’s October Years serialization continues our excursion into the sometimes daunting world of Geriatric Adolescence.
Tom had arranged to pick up Elly at nine-thirty for their Fireman's Breakfast outing. He was out of bed early, especially for a Sunday morning. By nine o’clock he was at the dining room table....nursing his coffee, reading the front page of the newspaper for a third time, and checking his watch every two minutes. At nine-fifteen he finally gave up. Five minutes later he was at Elly’s front door. If he was going to wait he would rather wait there.
Predictably, once seated in her living room there would be more waiting. By nine thirty-five he had studied each piece of furniture and decor two or three times. Spotting a leather-bound photograph album under the coffee table, he leafed through the pages until a photo of friends gathered around a swimming pool earned his special attention.
The tanned, open-shirted fellow beside Elly must have been Mike Warren. Slender, with a too-cocky grin, he certainly looked the part of a Southern California mover and shaker. Slipping the album back in its place, Tom leaned back in the easy chair, checking his watch and growing more impatient by the minute. What was the hold up? It was time for them to be on their way.
Elly had spent the night in a fitful sleep, waking up too often to find her mind filled with foreboding questions about their breakfast date. Why had she accepted in the first place? She was not exactly sure, knowing only that it had nothing to do with wanting to. Rather, his request had been so sudden and unexpected there had not been time to create a reason to turn him down.
Each time she revisited those uneasy concerns she ended by assuring herself there was no rational reason for her lingering apprehension. After all, it was only a breakfast. There would be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people there---hardly the setting for more of Tom’s silly prodding about them and their future. Besides, she did want them to be friends. If only he would settle for that.
“I hope this breakfast isn’t too formal,” Elly said when she finally walked into the living room. “I tried to imagine what firemen wear to breakfast. I was sure it must be something casual.”
Tom studied her for a moment, smiling broadly as he admired her choice of loose fitting slacks and short-sleeved sweatshirt. “You look great,”
“You’re looking pretty spiffy yourself.” As he pulled his shirt lower over his belly, Elly collected her purse and started for the door. “Are we ready?”
The grade-school parking lot was nearly full when Tom pulled into a space in the back row. He held the door for her and together they started toward the covered porch that marked the gymnasium entrance. As they approached the ticket line, Tom heard his name called out. Spotting Brad and Esther Hoffman on the front steps, he nudged Elly in that direction.
“Well, hello there,” Tom said as they approached the pair. “I see you two are eating out this morning.”
“Good morning,” Esther replied. “Goodness, you two are out and about early.”
“There’s nothing official about it, but it’s our first date. I just kept asking until she said ‘yes.’” His arm was draped over Elly’s shoulder, pulling her closer.
Elly stiffened, unable to fend off Tom's casual, but powerful embrace. Instead she forced a smile and slipped her arm around his back. “We’re starting with first things first,” she laughed, poking a finger at his belly, hoping that her impromptu repartee appeared more lighthearted than it felt.
What must Esther be thinking, she wondered, watching the two of them hugging each other like that---and making jokes about it? “We have to keep him well fed, you know.”
By then Tom was all smiles, reveling in Elly’s show of affection. He drew her even closer as the four of them laughed at her disclaimer. At last his patience was being rewarded, exactly as he had hoped it would be---the way it was meant to be.
A moment later he looked up and raised his free hand, waving to the pair of men walking from the gym. “Good morning, Clint,” he shouted. “Hope you enjoyed your breakfast.”
There would be no response from Clint or Gary Harris. With a quick glance toward the apparently-happy couple Clint continued toward the pickup. In that moment Elly’s smile faded. She jerked herself away from Tom’s embrace. Without a parting word to their friends she started toward the ticket line.
“Come on, Tom,” she said gruffly. “It’s time for breakfast.”
Tom took a second to bid the Hoffmans a hasty goodbye and hurried to catch up. Before he could renew their conversation Elly turned to face him. Her stare was hard and unsmiling. Her hands were gathered in front of her, as if to hold him away.
“That was a cheap shot,” she said coldly. “It was uncalled for.”
“What?” he laughed. “You mean Clint Harris? I just said ‘Good morning.’ I was being civil.”
“You were gloating. That’s not being civil.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Tom was grinning. “Well, maybe a little. I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better. Now let’s get something to eat.”
The breakfast was all that Elly expected. The scrambled eggs were cold, the pancakes half-cooked, and the bacon greasy. Still, the atmosphere was alive and friendly. Friends stopped to chat and children skittered around in the narrow aisles between the tables.
By the time their paper plates were empty Elly was in a better mood. “That was nice,” she said as they walked to the car. Twice she pushed Tom’s hand away when he tried to take hers. He did not try a third time.
“You know, it’s such a beautiful morning,” Tom observed. “I‘m thinking a surprise is in order.”
“A surprise? Sorry, but I’m a bit leery of your surprises.”
“Not this one. It’s harmless, I promise. In fact, I think you will enjoy it.”
“Tom. The invitation was just for breakfast. Remember? Nothing was said about anything else.” The uneasy tension churning in Elly’s stomach had nothing to do with greasy bacon.
“This won’t take more than a few minutes. And you will like it. I guarantee.”
Instead of starting off for the Heights, Tom turned north out of the school parking lot. Soon they were cruising slowly through downtown Tanner, then on through the scruffy neighborhoods of the north end. Once on the new Ring Road they were driving longside the river when Tom asked, “Remember this?”
“We came this way after the reunion. River Park is just up the road.”
“That’s right. That’s where we’re going. I wanted you to see it in the light of day.” His spirits were higher that ever, swept along on a wave of hopeful optimism. In only a few minutes Elly would see the undeniable truth for herself, spelled out in black and white. Certainly then she would understand.
From the broad parking lot River Park spread out before them, sloping to the river in a pleasant melding of large shade trees and green, freshly-mowed lawns. Halfway down the gentle hill, in a grove of spreading oaks, stood the bandstand---its stark whiteness exaggerated by the verdant surroundings.
Tom took a paper sack from behind the driver’s seat and together they walked up the asphalt path to the bandstand. Climbing the steps to the raised floor of the octagonal structure he leaned against the ornate railing and looked out through the trees to the river. For long seconds he appeared to be transported beyond her company, to an earlier, more affirming place.
“Do you remember those times, Elly?”
“Not again, Tom.” She was not about to endure another of his rambling recitals---reliving high-school episodes she could scarcely recall. “We’re not going back to the good old days.”
“You didn’t like those days?” If her stern refusal upset him, it did not register in his response. “They always seemed like the best of times to me.”
“That’s because you have such a vivid imagination. You keep remembering things I‘m sure never happened. And those that did seem to have meant something different to you than they did to me.”
“Are you suggesting I’d make those things up?” he laughed, still taking no apparent offense at her insinuations. “Do you really think I’d do that? You must believe me when I tell you how much we meant to each other. That’s the way it was---something we both accepted as very real.”
He motioned for her to sit down beside him on the top step. From the sack, which lay at his feet, he pulled out an ornately-bound scarlet and black high school annual. The scrolled title was embossed across the face of the book, spelling out The General’s Journal - 1953. He held it out to her, “Remember this?”
“Heavens yes,” Elly exclaimed in surprise. She had not seen one of those in years, or more likely decades. For a moment it dawned on her that she had not come across her own box of annuals in her unpacking. What could have happened to them? “It’s been years since I’ve seen one of these. It looks so dated.”
“It may look that way," Tom countered. "But I assure you it’s the real thing. In my home these don’t get relegated to some back corner of the closet.” He retrieved a second volume from the sack, one dated 1954. Then, taking the 1953 volume from Elly, he opened it to the last page and handed it back to her.
There on the inside of the back cover she recognized her own handwriting, and the page-long ramblings of Elly Beyers as a high school sophomore. She scanned the paragraphs, allowing her own writings to trigger long-dormant memories. Reading on, she tried to bring the disparate images into focus, to decipher the elaborate word pictures of that young life in the process of becoming.
“God. That was such a long time ago,” she said softly.
“Yes it was,” he agreed. “But it was also very real at the time. Just look at the last sentence. See what you said then.”
Elly read, then reread, her closing. “We have had such fun together. And it is only going to get better. Love, Elly”.
She did, of course, remember those heady days---the ones filled with new feelings and exciting first- time experiences. She remembered the country-club princess who had written those lines, and realized that at the time she had meant every word of her bold declaration.
Then, before she had a chance to answer Tom’s implied questions, he handed her the 1954 annual, again opened to the back page. There she read the litany of their junior year together---detecting a new maturity in her rendering. Obviously her feelings for him were deeper, though some things had been left conspicuously unsaid.
Reading on she searched for hints of the growing tension that had invaded their relationship. By the time of that writing she had experienced first hand the fear of his veiled threats and possessive jealousy, too often the precursor of intimidating anger. Before that summer was over it would take the presence of her new boyfriend, a husky sophomore at the local university, to ease that apprehension.
Again Elly was cringing as she read her final words. “Tom, you are one of a kind. You have been so good for me, for so long. Love and kisses, Elly.”
She set the book down and for a moment sat looking off through the trees, trying to remember how much those urgent musings had meant then, and aware of how little they meant now.
“Well?” Tom’s question mirrored his asking frown. She had seen it all---her own thoughts, in her own handwriting. How could she deny that?
“What do you want me to say?” What could she say that would pacify him? “It was such a long time ago. We were so young.”
“But we knew exactly what we felt,” he countered. “You saw it right there. And you meant every word of it. You didn’t have your fingers crossed when you wrote it.”
“Tom, that was fifty years ago.”
“Don’t you understand.” He was on his feet, standing at the foot of the steps, looking directly into her face. “The persons we are now began back then. What you wrote then was the first step towards today. Those feelings you wrote about, they’re part of who we are now.”
“But we’ve changed. I’m not the person I was then.” Elly got to her feet and stepped down to the sidewalk, ready to start back to the car. “It’s time to go.”
Reaching out for her shoulder, Tom forcibly halted her retreat. For a frightened moment she felt her breath being sucked away. She tried to brush his hand away, but his tight grip remained.
His lips were pressed together and Elly sensed the anger in his harsh stare. In that instant she could not imagine what he might do next. Then slowly he took notice of her reaction. His grip relaxed. His chin dropped to his chest and his eyes were on the verge of tearing up.
“Please, Elly,” he pleaded. “Can’t you see how real it was? We were everything for each other. We knew that we belonged together.”
The fierce adrenaline surge had subsided, leaving Elly shaking quietly as she revisited frightened memories she had tried to deny. In all their years together Tom had never struck her, though there had been moments when that possibility seemed close at hand. Now, for a brief moment, that debilitating anxiety had resurfaced.
Like all of Tom’s classmates, Elly had understood the threat of his explosive temper. In the beginning she had assumed that his caring made her immune to those outbursts. In time she had learned that it did not.
In spite of Esther’s emphatic tales of how Tom had treated his wives, Elly had wanted to believe that he had outgrown that frightening behavior……making the cold hostility she had just witnessed more unsettling than she wanted to admit. Finally, without looking back, she started toward the parking lot.
Once settled in the car, Tom sat staring glumly at the steering wheel until Elly offered, “You say that I loved you then. And I suppose I did.” He perked up at her unexpected words. “At least I thought I did. But what I felt back then has changed over time. I was married for more than forty years. I certainly didn’t love you then. And I don’t love you now.”
“But you did---once.” He sat upright, with the look of new hope in his eyes. “You just said so. And you could again.”
“No, Tom. Not now. Not ever.” It was a caring voice, but firm. “Now please take me home.”
Back home after the Fireman’s Breakfast, with half an hour to kill before church, the Harris brothers adjourned to the living room to read the paper and surf the Sunday morning television offerings. In a matter of minutes Clint understood that he was in no mood for relaxation. Try as he might, the sports page and funny papers provided no escape from his insistent questions.
The restless agitation that had his gut churning had little to do with Tom Berry’s taunting greeting at the Fireman’s Breakfast. Everyone knew Tom was full of bluster. That was nothing new. On the few occasions when their paths had crossed, Clint had always been able to laugh off Tom’s exaggerated bravado. The big man had a ugly temper---that too was common knowledge. But nothing he could say was likely to ruffle Clint’s feathers.
Elly Warren, however, was a different matter. She had not said a word during Tom’s parking lot performance. Clint was not even sure she had seen him. But he had certainly seen her. The sight of them standing together continued to gnaw at him---Elly with her arm around old Fat Tom, her laughing smile as she looked up at him. It was the image of a woman happy to be exactly where she was and pleased with the company she was keeping.
Later that morning, as they drove to church, Gary picked up on Clint’s moody silence and guessed at once what was weighing on his brother’s mind. “Hey, guy,” he said. “You can’t let Tom’s big mouth get you down. You know he’s nothing but hot air.”
“I don’t give a damn what Tom says.” Clint grumbled. “Though of course there have been times when I wanted to shut him up.” He paused, scolding himself for thinking such thoughts on the way to church. Laughing to himself he wondered if Tom Berry could be a trial---sent to test his patience, try his faith, and teach him restraint.
After church the brothers hurried through a light lunch before settling in to watch an early ball game. Their Sunday afternoons were generally ruled by a well-established routine. There would be a game or two on television, perhaps a movie, and always a nap. But not that day.
Clint had scarcely settled into his recliner before the realization took hold. A leisurely afternoon in front of the tube was not what he wanted. Minutes later Gary looked up from his paper to notice that he was alone. Then, from the backyard, he heard the dull crackle of splitting wood.
In the low lean-to behind the Harris garage were two neat stacks of tamarack-pine firewood. One had been split the summer before and left undercover to dry. Now well seasoned, it would be used in the steel fireplace insert during the coming winter. The second, smaller stack was wood they were splitting now. It would age over the winter, to be burned next year.
To the side of the lean-to was a chaotic pile of pine rounds---eighteen inches long, up to twenty four inches in diameter……the remains of a three-cord load that had been delivered in late May. In the course of the summer those rounds would be quartered with a sledge hammer and mall, then split by ax into fireplace-sized pieces.
The brothers had no rigid timetable for working their way through the pile of rounds. In years past the two of them had made their splitting and stacking routine last two or three months. It was good exercise---swinging the sledge or ax, the kind of work that created a satisfying tiredness after an hour or so. When necessary it was also an effective way to channel, and hopefully chase away, unsummoned aggression.
On that Sunday afternoon Clint was not concerned about the aerobic benefits of swinging his ax. His intention was more basic than that---to drain away the mounting tension that gripped him, to become so tired that he no longer cared.
Every few minutes he paused to remind himself that he was swinging too hard, to the point of risking a broken ax handle. Though the day was only moderately warm, sweat streamed down his face and soaked his tee shirt. He was breathing heavily and his arms ached. In truth he was glad to see his brother approaching with a glass of ice water.
“Come on, guy,” Gary cautioned. “You don’t have to finish the whole damn pile in one afternoon. You keep this up and you’re going to bust a gusset.” He handed Clint the glass and motioned for him to take a break. Clint found an upright log round, sat down, and drank thirstily.
“Feels kind of good. I needed to burn off some energy.”
“Bull. You know damn well that ‘burning energy’ isn’t going to help what’s bothering you. If you’ve got something to say to Elly Warren you ought to call her and tell her about it. You’re not going to sort out those things back here, beating a log to death.”
“Who said I had something to say to her?”
“Well, if you don’t, you should have. Remember, I saw her too, with old Fatso.”
Getting to his feet Clint handed the empty glass to Gary and pulled on his leather gloves. “I told you from the start that she and Tom would end up together. I may not like it, but I knew that’s how it would be. They were together in the beginning. They’ll be together in the end. I guess they probably deserve each other.”
“You don’t believe that. No one deserves Tom Berry.”
“Probably not. But she has him just the same."
Picking up his ax, Clint's attention had returned to the truth of it. "What really bothers me is that I let myself think it could end some other way. I should’ve known better than that.” He squared up to the standing log quarter. With a hard swing he sent the split pieces flying against the wood pile.
Toxic anger had recaptured his thoughts, directed mainly at himself. If he was so sure it would end that way, why had he allowed himself to imagine some other outcome? How could a sixty-eight year old guy, who should have learned better decades before, fall into that kind of trap? That was kid’s stuff. A moment later his exaggerated swing missed the target completely, burying the ax head deep in the chopping block.
Before long he had again fallen into the hypnotic rhythm of his work---swinging, stacking, and retrieving a new round. Outside distractions had been pushed aside as his mind slipped into a numbing blankness, exactly where he wanted to be. Then without warning Gary once again appeared at his side, this time holding the telephone in his hand.
“It’s for you,” Gary said. Without a sound he mouthed “Elly.”
Clint’s initial reaction was to push the phone away. He had nothing to say. And if he did, he was in no mood to say it. Gary pushed back and for a second or two they were caught up in a reverse tug of war, each of them pushing the other away.
Finally Clint grabbed Gary’s wrist and asked loudly, “Why?”
“Because she called, you lunkhead.” Gary’s answer was just as loud. “Now shut up and talk to her.” Slamming the phone into Clint’s hand he turned and stomped off toward the house.
“Hello,” came the electronic voice from the phone. “Are you there?”
Clint placed the phone to his ear. “I’m here.”
She could hear his heavy breathing. “You don’t sound too happy about it. Would you rather I hadn’t called?”
For an instant he wished he had the courage to hang up, though he knew he would not. At last he asked, “So why did you?”
“Well, I have two things I wanted us to talk about.” Her voice was firm now. “I’ll make it quick. Okay?”
“First,” she said. “I don’t know what you think you saw this morning at the Firemen’s Breakfast. I do know what Tom wanted you to see. And he knows that I didn’t appreciate that. In any case, I think you have it all wrong.”
“Look, it’s not my place to wonder about what you two do.” Clint was trying his best to sound indifferent. “You don’t have to explain anything to me. That’s your business.”
Ignoring his disclaimer, Elly plowed ahead. “I’ll tell you what. That was number one. Let’s move on to number two.”
Slow down, she told herself. Give him time to digest the idea. “I was thinking the other day that it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Ten Falls Park. And I was wondering if you’d like to go up there with me some time.”
“Me? With you?” New questions were bubbling to the surface, adding fresh and confusing layers of uncertainty---notions that had no place in the thoughts he had been thinking of her. Was she simply being nice or did she really want to spend some time with him? And what did she mean, ‘You have it all wrong’?
“Yes silly, with you.....if you’d be willing to do that. In that case we could dispense with number one until later.”
“I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.”
“Let me backtrack for a minute,” Elly said. “Gwen and I are going to the coast for a couple days. I’ll be back home on Wednesday. On Thursday afternoon I would like us, you and me, to drive up to the Falls. Would you do that, with me?”
To the Falls? With Elly? Clint was struggling to take it in. It was coming so fast. Minutes before he had been trying to erase her from his mind. Now she was saying that he had it all wrong---that she wanted to spend an afternoon with him at the Falls. He was not used to such emotional gymnastics.
“Clint? Are you still there?” she said into the silence. “I didn’t mean to scare you off.”
“I’m here. And I’m not scared, just kind of surprised.” In truth, "shocked" would have been a better choice of words.
“What time would you like to go on Thursday?”
The arrangements took only a few seconds. With that Clint hung up the phone and stuffed it in his back pocket. Gathering his tools he headed for the house, still shaking his head at the sudden, mood changing chain of events.