A pleasant afternoon at the Falls
It would be a special occasion..……an afternoon spent with the lady he had admired since grade school. Ten Falls State Park was as ruggedly beautiful as ever. Still, though he welcomed her company, it was hard to know what she had in mind.
They would exchange recollections of youthful Ten Falls adventures, rehash their recent reunion, and debate her reasons for “escaping” to Tanner.
Yet all the while the most nagging questions of all remained. Why had she invited him? What did she expect of him?
By late Sunday afternoon the Harris household had returned to what the bachelor brothers accepted as normal. Basking in the promise of a day trip with Elly, Clint was finally able to relax. He dozed off and on during the televised ball game, at least until the announcer’s excited commentary or Gary’s grumbling complaint was enough to rouse him again.
By then it was Gary who was finding it hard to concentrate. In his case, the distractions took the form of recurring ‘Claudia thoughts’---ones he could not chase away. By the time they had parted the day before Claudia’s surliness, the remains of his Friday- night naming miscue, had faded. Still he could not shake the nagging suspicion that she might be vulnerable to a relapse. They were making a bumpy, but promising start. It was not the time to be taking anything for granted.
The more he mulled that possibility, the more he wondered if he should call her. But was it too soon for that---just one day after they were last together?
He was reminded of their long-ago school days, when he would drive her home after school then hurry back to the house to call her fifteen minutes later. Surely at sixty-nine he was too old to be carrying on like a schoolboy.
So Gary resisted the urge to call until six-thirty that evening when, almost before he realized what he was doing, the phone was in his hand and he was punching in her number. Barbara answered and called her mother to the phone. Seconds later Claudia was on the line.
“Hi there, stranger,” Gary said. “I thought I ought to check in and see if you’re still speaking to me.”
“Of course I’m speaking to you.” The lilt in her voice took on a harder edge when she added, “As long as you can remember my name.”
“Ouch. That’s not funny.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Well first of all, Claudia Hafner, I called to tell you again that I had a great time Friday night. I know things got a little crazy at the end, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“That’s very sweet.”
Gary would have been hard pressed to describe the affirming impact of her soft words. It was exactly what he wanted to hear---and how he wanted to feel. “I think Elly had a good time too,” he continued. “She called to ask Clint to go up to the Falls with her later this week. It will be their first date on their own, without a chaperone.”
“I’m glad to hear they’re getting along so well.”
“Me too. It’s a good sign,” he agreed. “But my real question is about us and how we’re getting along. I’m hoping we could do something together next weekend if I came down to Lawrence.”
Claudia did not answer. Instead, Gary heard only the rustling of newspapers on her end of the line. “Here it is,” she finally said. “Do you like flea markets?”
“Flea markets?” he laughed. “Let me tell you, I’ve spent more hours, looking at more silly stuff, at more flea markets than you can imagine. Why, Christy was.....” He stopped short, hoping he had not created another crisis. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
It was Claudia’s turn to be laughing. “Don’t be silly. She was your wife. I would never say you shouldn’t talk about her. I just don’t want you calling me by her name.”
“Right. Thank you,” Gary stammered. “Anyway, I do like flea markets. Is that what you’d like to do?”
“I’m looking at an ad in the Lawrence paper. I remembered seeing it this morning. There’s a big sale at the fairgrounds next weekend, starting at noon on Friday. It goes 'til Sunday.”
“Would Friday work for you?”
“That would be best of all. We would get there ahead of the big weekend crowds.”
“And it means I’d see you a day sooner.” He paused, aware that his earlier anxieties had vanished. The fear of her possible rejection had given way to the pleasant anticipation of another day together. “What if I came by about eleven-thirty. We could have lunch, then go looking for treasures.”
A minute later Gary was back in the living room, rousing Clint from a light sleep to announce, “Great game, eh?” Clint threw a pillow at him and closed his eyes again.
Elly surveyed the street from her front porch, looking up and down the block while she waited for Clint’s arrival. It was just past one o’clock on Thursday afternoon and the last thing she wanted at that moment was one of Tom Berry’s surprise appearances. She had been looking forward to their Ten Falls excursion and was in no mood for a last minute interruption.
“It’s been ages since I’ve been to the Falls,” she said as Clint drove them through downtown Tanner. “I’ll bet it’s changed, like everything else.”
“Still has ten falls.”
“I thought so.”
They started east into the low foothills, toward the long spine of high mountains that stretched across the horizon. Elly settled back to take in the scenery and summon long-forgotten memories of earlier trips through that same countryside. Although her recollections of Ten Falls were a bit hazy, she remembered family picnics, hikes along the forested trails, wading in the creek, and best of all---the tingling excitement of standing directly behind the thundering waterfalls.
Though Ten Falls Park had long been a favorite destination for high-school couples, Tom had taken her there only once. That was not so surprising. Except for their day at Ten Falls and two or three afternoon outings to nearby Stanus Falls, his notion of the great outdoors had seldom extended beyond the golf course. On their one afternoon at the park, more than fifty years earlier, they had walked the seven-mile loop with another couple, taking in each of the ten falls. After that tiring excursion, Tom had never found a convincing reason to return.
Clint parked the pickup in the half-full parking lot and they started off toward the rustic lodge. By then they could hear the muffled roar of the main falls, little more than a city block away. He started off in that direction, until Elly took his hand and guided him toward the front steps of the main building. “Let’s sit here for a minute. I just want to take it all in.”
Tall, straight firs surrounded the clearing that extended down a long slope to where the otherwise-unremarkable creek tumbled nearly two hundred feet over the edge of a basalt ledge into the deep receiving pool. Elly was taking it all in. Her gaze tracked upward to the lacy tree tops, etched boldly against the blue sky, as she explained, “I can guarantee you, if I had found something this peaceful in Southern California, short of Yosemite, I might have never left.”
While Elly studied the natural beauty that surrounded them Clint was studying Elly, wondering if he ought to ask the question her quiet observation had triggered. “You know,” he finally said. “You’ve never told me why you came back to Tanner. It’s probably none of my business. But I’ll admit, I have wondered.”
Elly took a moment to retie a shoe lace while she assembled a response. “It’s rather simple, I suppose. My life in Los Angeles had fallen apart. There were too many bad memories. Too many friends that turned out not to be friends. I needed to get away. I suppose I wanted a simpler life.”
“And you knew that described Tanner. Right?”
Was he being sarcastic, she wondered. Did he understand that the same casual pace the locals joked about might be attractive to others? “I suppose it had something to do with Tanner being my home town," she continued. "I’d grown up here. There was a certain security in coming back to a place I already knew. Or thought I did.”
They fell silent as a group of noisy elementary-school students filed past on their way to the falls. At the end of that energized parade a pair of harried parent chaperones hurried the stragglers along.
“It was a surprising thing,” Elly added, “To find out that I didn’t know Tanner as well as I thought I did. My home town had changed so much. It’s bigger. It’s spread way out into the country. It’s not the place I remembered. Sometimes I’m not sure what’s real and what is only a memory.”
“What is real” Clint was asking himself. Even at his age there were times he wondered about that. Were his feel-good recollections of those heady school days faithful reproductions of what had been, or nothing more that nostalgic yearnings? And what about the present, sitting there beside the lady who had been his schoolboy dream? Was the tingle he felt real---or simply a remnant of adolescent fantasies he had never outgrown?
“Come on, lady,” he said, pulling himself back to the moment. “Let’s stretch our legs. We have some waterfalls to see.”
He helped Elly to her feet and together they started down the asphalt path toward the main falls. They paused a moment at the stone-fenced overlook, taking in their first view of the noisy cataract. Narrow and wispy, the plume of shiny white water tumbled off the abrupt ledge, gathering speed as it plunged toward the deep pool below. There, where water met water, tiny bits of rainbow colors flashed in the sun-bathed spray.
“It’s beautiful,” was the extent of Elly’s appraisal. “No matter how often you see it, no matter how long it's been, it’s always special.”
Clint took her hand and they started down the steep trail that hugged the canyon wall. At the bottom the path leveled out, turning sharply to take them under the cave-like overhang that created the falls. A moment later they were standing directly behind the falling water---feeling its spray, looking through it to where the creek gathered itself to hurry off into the verdant forest.
Continuing down the well-worn path, they were soon walking beside the now-calm stream as it flowed away from the great pool. There he steered Elly to the sturdy log foot-bridge that spanned the creek. Leaning against the bridge railing they looked back, taking in the spectacular sight of a modest mountain stream becoming a flamboyant waterfall.
Clint saw all that and appreciated the beauty of it. But in truth his thoughts had returned to Elly’s earlier impressions of Tanner and her place there. Without looking away, he said, “So coming back home has been a disappointment. Everything has changed so much. Is that what you’re saying?”
She watched a pair of floating leaves disappear under the bridge, while taking a moment to ask herself that same question. Had Tanner been a disappointment? Had it been the wrong choice?
“Not really,” she finally replied. “It’s not exactly disappointing---just different than I expected. I came back because I thought I knew the place. I simply didn’t realize how much it had changed.”
“What’s changed the most?”
“Everything. The town. Heavens, it’s a city now. The people too. They’re not like I remember.”
“Well. It’s been a long time. You can’t expect folks to stay the same.”
“I guess that’s what reunions show us. Don’t you think?” She recalled meeting Esther, Gwen, Tom, and all the others---after fifty years. “None of us are the same. I saw people I used to know. Some of them were once my best friends. But I don’t know them anymore. I don’t know the people they’ve become. It’s like we’ve been living in different worlds.
“But for one night they brought everyone back together, and we tried our best to turn them into the people we remembered from our school days....... wanting them to be who we thought they were back then. That’s all we could do.
"But after visiting with them a few minutes we ran out of ways to connect. We didn’t know anything about the persons they’ve become. They’re not the same. And neither are we. No wonder it was so confusing.”
By then Elly was laughing softly, still remembering their reunion night. “We had a room full of people---wrinkled, overweight, and gray haired. Some of them were half-blind. Some half-deaf. There were wives and husbands who weren’t with us back then. But they’d heard stories of who we used to be. Turned out we didn’t match those stories at all. No wonder the pieces didn’t fit together.”
“What does it matter?” Clint asked, ready for a dose of reality. “There’s no sense fighting it. Why not just pretend to be who they want you to be, the one they remember. When the reunion is over you can go back to being who you really are.”
“That sounds rather dishonest--or at least a bit compromising. What if I really wanted to know who they are now?”
“Come on. People don’t care about that. Most of them come to reunions to be seen, not to see.”
“That is so cynical,” Elly scolded. “Most of them want to see who’s there and how the people they remember have changed---who they have become.”
“Maybe you’re right. I’m probably too cynical. Maybe that’s why all that reunion stuff was wasted on me.”
Elly stepped back from the railing, ready to move on. “So the reunion, our fiftieth, was a big waste of time as far as you’re concerned,” she said over her shoulder as she started back to the main trail. “Is that it? I suppose you could have just as well have stayed home.”
“Don’t you be putting words in my mouth.” Clint hurried to catch up. “I showed up there expecting to be bored out of my mind. I was sure I’d be home by ten o’clock. You can bet I never expected to be dancing with Elly Beyers. No one in the place was more surprised than me when that happened.”
The trail was wide enough now for them to walk side by side as he mustered his gruffest growl. “A wasted reunion, my foot.”
Bright sunlight filtered through the canopy of alders and firs, casting bright splotches and dark shadows across the trail. Beside them, only yards away, the creek bounded noisily over the rocky stream bed, hurrying ahead toward the next waterfall. In that magic place---with so much to see, and hear, and feel---conversation was unnecessary.
Before long a series of concrete stairs led down to, then behind, the second waterfall. Once more they stood looking through the tumbling water to where the creek continued down the canyon. This time there was no deep receiving pool under the falls, only a jumble of huge, car-sized boulders absorbing the force of the falling torrent and shedding it off into the renewing stream.
“So, what were you hoping to gain by coming back to Tanner?” Clint was not sure what prompted his question, but he wanted to hear her answer.
“What did I want, beyond some peace and quiet?” Elly stepped aside to let a pair of hikers pass as she took a moment to disengage from the beauty surrounding them. “I’m not sure. I only know that at first I didn’t find it. After a week or so I was sure I had made a huge mistake.”
“Yes. I’d left everyone I knew behind in Los Angeles. I’d met a few people here, especially Esther and Gwen, but they weren’t at all like I remembered. They were almost strangers.”
“So why did you stay?” He sensed her readiness to move on, as though she was trying to walk away from his questions? Perhaps it was not his place to be asking such things.
They were several paces down the trail before Elly answered. Even then her quiet response was half lost in the sound of water crashing against the rocks. “I’d just bought a home. It made no sense to sell it so soon. Besides, where else could I go? I wasn’t going back to L.A. I’d just escaped from there.”
“Escaped? Was how it felt?”
“That’s exactly what it was.”
A few hundred yards beyond the second falls they came to a fork in the trail. The path to the left would take them up the north fork of the creek, a strenuous six-mile hike past eight more waterfalls. The trail to the right led back to the lodge, a walk of little more than half a mile. With a minimum of discussion they chose the shorter route and started up the not-so-gentle hill.
Ten minutes later the path finally leveled out. Just ahead was a wide bench, carved from a single log. With no prompting at all Elly plunked herself down in the pool of sunlight that bathed one end of the bench. By then her legs were quivering from the unfamiliar exertion.
Clint sat down beside her, closed his eyes, and turned his face to the sun. “Feels good, doesn’t it?” he said. “The sun, I mean. Not my legs.”
“I’m not in shape for too much of that,” she replied. “I nearly ran out of gas.”
Clint sat quietly, catching his breath, still focused on Elly’s “Escape from LA.” After a minute or two, when it appeared she was breathing easier, he was again fishing for answers. “Lots of folks our age move to a place that’s close to their kids. Some even move in with them, like Claudia. You can’t do that.”
Leaning back, she soaked up the soothing warmth. Her eyes were locked in a faraway stare when she finally explained. “That was the choice we had made---Mike and I. He thought children would be too confining for the way we lived. I agreed. So we settled on the good life, just the two of us.”
Her thoughts were tracking far beyond their sparse conversation. “One of the last things my mother told me was that some day I’d regret that decision---not having children and grandchildren.”
“Was she right?”
Elly was half laughing as she shifted her weight on the hard bench. “You’re a great one for questions, aren’t you? Especially about things I would rather forget.”
“I don’t mean to be prying.” Still his prying continued. “I just wondered if you’ve ever had second thoughts.”
“I suppose so---at least some times. If I see a woman at the store with grandchildren who are cute and well behaved, I may feel a touch of envy. Of course if the children are acting up and not behaving, I’m just as glad that I don’t have to deal with them.”
“When you have kids you get both parts. They can be angels or devils, sometimes at the same time. But you can’t have one without the other.”
“I’m not sure I had the patience to be a good mother. In any case, it doesn’t matter now.”
“That’s too bad though,” Clint said. “I couldn’t imagine our lives without Sam and Carrie. When they were growing up a lot of what we did was about them. And now there are grandchildren. I don’t get to see them too often, but when I do they really brighten up my day.”
“Where are your children?”
“Well, Sam’s in Sacramento. His son Sammy is seventeen and Dora is fifteen. Carrie, our daughter, is in Kansas City. She has three---John, Sid, and Connie. I don’t think I can remember their ages, but they’re all teenagers. Won’t be long before they’ll be starting their own families. That’ll be enough to make me feel even older.”
The remaining walk to the lodge was a gentle climb through a tall stand of Douglas firs. The trail was wider. They walked side by side---quiet now, stopping only to point out a strangely-misshaped tree or noisy, blue-plumed jays.
And all the while Clint nursed his unspoken question. What was Elly’s real reason for suggesting an afternoon together? It had to be something more than a pleasant walk in the woods. Whatever it was, her explanation would arrive when she was ready.