Sunday, January 24, 2021

Long Way Home - Chapter 10

 

      Revenge can be messy


Of course he was looking forward to their visit. After all, he knew her secret. With that better times were bound to await them.

Until, that is, she offered her deflating response.

Then, even as she tried to heal those relational wounds, another angry confrontation was taking shape.

Today’s October Years serialization, Chapter 10 of Long Way Home, continues our excursion into the sometimes daunting world of late-life relationships.



Chapter 10


It had been a most unholiday-like holiday, the worst Thanksgiving Day Elly Warren could remember. To her way of thinking there was little to celebrate. Yet twice in the course of her morning she had stopped to scold herself. With all the blessings she enjoyed how could she be so callous and ungrateful? 

Even her late morning phone visit with Tom had been something of a letdown. He would be spending the afternoon with his daughters and their families, though he promised to call when he got home. It sounded as though he had something to talk about. In the meantime she roasted a small turkey and ate alone. 

Later, returning the scarcely-touched bird to the kitchen, Elly sliced off a few pieces of white breast meat, enough for a sandwich or two. Then, pausing to consider salvaging more meat from the untidy carcass, she passed on that idea and consigned the remainder to the outside garbage barrel. 

A few minutes of clean-up time had the kitchen in order and she retreated to the comfort of her family-room recliner. There, with eyes closed, she tried to chase away the aggravating questions that sabotaged her hopes for a nap. Yet try as she might, the questions remained.

Was this the loneliness her mother had warned of....the price she would pay for having no children, no grandchildren? 

Years before, Valerie Beyers had warned her daughter that she would one day rue her decision to remain childless.....insisting that the choice Mike and Elly had made, to live without the inconvenient distraction of children, came with a price. Was this what she meant....Thanksgiving Day alone? And probably Christmas too. Over and over she probed for answers, until sleep finally erased the questions.

While Elly sulked, Tom Berry’s Thanksgiving Day was, by any measure, the complete validation of his campaign to become Elly’s house guest. Even if she did not classify him as such, that was his preferred way of thinking about his new living arrangement.    

In the beginning it had been the practical advantages that appealed to him....the promise of expanded freedom and independence. And of course it would be nice to have Elly close at hand. However, given their recent history, he had nurtured little hope for anything more than a casual, arms-length relationship.

All that was before Clint Harris had returned to the scene, letting slip enough sour-grape complaints to revive Tom’s dreams of winning Elly. She was within reach. Clint had as much as said so, based on her own words. 

It was easy enough to understand why Clint felt the need to leave town. Why would he stay to face the galling reality of Elly being with someone else?

On the way back to his guest-wing apartment, after Thanksgiving dinner with his family, Tom revisited that surprising new reality. While he reveled in a sense of renewed confidence Clint Harris was slinking off, blissfully unaware of how welcome his innocent disclosures had been. 

Perhaps he should feel bad about taking advantage of Clint’s slip up. At that moment, however, as he dwelled on the pleasant prospect of a future that included Elly Warren, Tom was not overly concerned about his rival’s feelings.

Once home his nurse, Lester, held the door to the guest apartment for Tom, then helped the big man remove his coat. “You know, Lester,” Tom said. “There’s no reason in the world for you to stay here this evening. It’s a holiday, for God sakes. Why don’t you take some time off. See that girl friend of yours.”  

“But Mr. Berry, my supervisor says I have to stay. ‘Twenty-four hours a day.’ That’s what he said.” Obviously Lester was uneasy being in the middle....the powerless one in a power struggle.

“Damn it, Lester,” Tom growled. “I’m the one who pays the bill. Now you just take off for a few hours. Be back in time to get me in bed. Nine o’clock. Understand?”

It was not Lester’s place to countermand a client, except in regard to medical issues. Time off, especially time off with pay, did not fit his definition of a medical issue. He walked out to his car and drove off toward town.

Meanwhile Tom maneuvered his power chair into the bathroom and ran a comb through his hair. Then, back at the small dining table, he poked the intercom ‘Talk’ key. Nothing happened. Apparently Elly had turned the system off at her end, which meant he must use his cell phone.

The sound of the ringing phone roused Elly from her nap. She sat up long enough to get her bearings, then walked to the kitchen counter and picked up the phone. 

“I’m glad this isn’t an emergency,” Tom joked when she answered. “You keep turning off the intercom.”

“That’s because you keep using it to visit.”

“Which has me wondering. Do you have time for a visit now? Face to face, I mean. Not on the intercom.”

“What time is it?” She squinted at the clock on the range. Six-twenty. She had been asleep for a couple of hours. “What do we have to visit about?”

“Come on, Elly. It’s a holiday. I’ve just had a wonderful meal with my family. It’s been a beautiful day. Can’t we just sit and talk for a while?”

Why not, she wondered. There had been no visiting in her holiday. There had been no human contact of any kind. “Give me a few minutes,” she said. “I’ll unlock the door.”

By the time Elly stopped to fix her hair, then walk the length of the long hall to unlock the dead bolt, Tom was parked impatiently on the other side of the door.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” he offered. “Have you had a good day?” 

“Pretty quiet.” She walked ahead of him toward the dining room.

They sat at the long table with his power chair slipped under one end. There, declining her offer of coffee, Tom leaned back with his hands laced behind his head. “I had a really good time with the girls," he began. "It was just what I needed. With the power chair, the van, and Lester....I can do most anything.”

“I'm glad.” Her smile seemed real. In truth she was glad that his move was working out so well .

“In fact there was only one thing missing,” Tom added with a mischievous wink.

If ever there was a time when Elly Warren was not prepared to deal with Tom’s aggravating allusions to their future together it was at that moment. She had just spent Thanksgiving alone, while the one promising relationship in her new Tanner life was disintegrating before her eyes. She had committed to Tom’s living arrangement in hopes of easing the guilt she could not ignore. And now it sounded as though he was getting cutesy again. 

“Please, Tom. Not now.”

“It’s okay, Elly.” He rested his hands on the table, probably feeling as confident as he looked. “There’s no need to hide it any more.”

“What are you talking about?”

 Tom was leaning forward, hoping to make a connection. “Clint told me everything....about us, about what you want. He was so upset about it that he’s leaving for California. When you told him that it was going to be us, you and me, he just didn’t want to stick around.”

“You and me?” Elly was shaking her head. “What does that mean? Where did you get that idea?”

“Look, I know you wanted to keep it quiet for now. Clint didn’t really mean to tell me anything. It just kind of slipped out.” He reached across the table for her hand. “Elly, everything about this is right. It’s the right thing at the right time. If you’d marry me it would make things the way they were always meant to be.”

“Tom. You’re making no sense.” She was on her feet, pacing to the living room and back. “Are you saying that Clint said I wanted him gone....so I could be with you.  Is that what you heard?”

Tom was nodding as she spoke, grinning all the while. “That’s right. He didn’t say it in exactly those words, but that’s what he meant.”

Elly dropped heavily into her chair. If her first impulse was a surge of well-deserved anger that passed quickly, leaving only a weary, dejected frown. Why be upset with Tom for accepting what he wanted so badly to believe? Yet he must be made to understand the truth of it. “Tom. Please listen. I’m too old to be playing these silly games.”

“Silly games? What does that mean?”

“It means that Clint Harris is at it again. He went out of his way to make you believe something that’s not true.” 

“What? Why would he do that?” Tom’s spirits were sagging noticeably. “Are you saying he lied?”

There was no hiding her wry smile. Knowing why Clint had played his irksome charade was not enough to ease her upset. Was it really necessary for him to hurt Tom like that? 

She reached over and patted his hand. “You see Clint was not at all pleased when I told him you were moving here. In fact he was rather angry. I’m afraid this is his way of getting even with me.”

“He was that upset with you...and you still let me come?”

“He knows that was my choice to make. I thought it was the right one. And I still do.” 

“And Clint? What about him?”

She was wearing a troubled frown as she stared into her folded hands. “I don’t know. Right now I’m not sure I even care.” She looked up at him. “I’m sorry, Tom. I know this isn’t fair to you. But Clint lied to you. That’s exactly what he did.”


   ~~~


Clint Harris turned off the television and settled back in his recliner to consider a holiday that had simply not happened. From his perspective, in his present mood, words like ‘hollow’ and ‘empty’ seemed to best describe his Thanksgiving Day.

It was not meant to be a solitary holiday, he reminded himself. It was supposed to include family and friends, with visiting and good times. There had been none of that. After watching a football game that could not hold his attention he had feasted on his sliced-turkey TV dinner, then returned to the couch for a second nap. Now in the early-evening darkness he was determined to try for number three.

He had scarcely dozed off when the evening quiet was interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the porch. Someone at the front door almost always meant a stranger. No one else made the long walk around to the front of the house. He stood and started across the room. Before he reached the door, the bell rang once and the door pushed open. There, stepping boldly into the room, was Elly Warren. 

There was fire in her eyes and no hint of sociable salutations. Planting herself squarely in front of him, hands on her hips, she demanded to know, “How could you do that? That was the most callous, hurtful, sneaky thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Will you just calm down for a minute. What are you talking about?”

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about.”

“You think that was sneaky?” Clint could not contain his grin. She was acting so serious about something that struck him as funny. “I take it you’ve been talking to Tom.”

“Of course I have. And it’s certainly nothing to be laughing about.”

“That’s kind of surprising. I would have thought that after a few martinis you two would see the humor in it.”

“There were no martinis. There never have been. And you know it.”

His childish grin was winning out again, overcoming his best effort to match her seriousness. “I can’t imagine why you’re so upset. I was as honest as could be with Fat Tom. Maybe I did string him along just a bit. But it wasn’t like I lied to him.”

He motioned for Elly to take a seat on the couch but she declined....holding to her space in the middle of the room. 

“You certainly did lie to him," she answered. "It was untrue, all those things you told him. They were all lies. Every bit of it. And you did it on purpose. You did it because Tom is so gullible and you knew it would hurt me.”

“I assure you, Mrs. Warren, there’s nothing gullible about Tom Berry. Besides, what I told him was basically true. I just said it in a way he wanted to hear. It wasn’t a hard sell.

“As for hurting you.” He bit his lip, not wanting to say the words. “I suppose I should be ashamed of that. But at the time that’s what I wanted to do.”

If his quiet admission was meant as an olive branch Elly was not willing to accept it as that. “Do you know that he proposed to me? He really believed that’s what I wanted.”

“Wow. And you turned him down?” Clint realized at once his sarcastic question was not apt to improve her disposition. “Anyway, I could tell at the time how much he wanted to believe it.”

Was he looking for a fight or too preoccupied with his practical joke to see one coming? In either case Elly was not willing to settle for one of Clint Harris’ non-arguments. “What kind of man would do that? Do you have any idea how much you hurt Tom? How embarrassed he was?” 

“So I hurt Tom’s feelings. And I embarrassed him. Right?” 

He sat down on the edge of the sofa, looking up into her still-angry eyes. “He’s the guy who had every intention of killing me. He wanted me dead. Why would you be surprised to know that I’m not too worried about hurting his feelings?” He stopped, rapping his fist against his knee. “Besides, about then I was feeling kind of hurt myself.”

A hard-jawed scowl came to her face. “You were hurt. So you hurt back. Is that it? You do that, then you pack up and leave. You just run away, all the way to California. Is that how it works?”

Jabbing a finger in his direction, Elly continued. “You gave me a long lecture once, about running away. Remember? You said Tom Berry would never run the Harris boys out of town. It sounded very macho. And I believed it.” 

Her anger was fading....swept away by the mention of his leaving, nudging her toward a more productive ending to their standoff. “You told me all that and here you are, ready to leave.”

“You know damn well Tom Berry would never run me off.” Clint got to his feet and reached for Elly’s arm. With no hint of affection he turned her around and aimed her toward the front door. “I’d fight Tom every inch of the way, if I thought that would help.” 

He nudged her forward. “This is different though. You’re the one who made the choice. Probably even made the right one....at least for you. I’m just not interested in hanging around to see how it plays out.” With that he reached for the doorknob. 

“If it’s not Tom, I’m sure you’ll find some other guy at the club who’ll settle for being a part-time boyfriend....someone who won’t interfere with your shopping trips.” He opened the door and gently pushed her out to the porch.

“You can’t stay away forever,” she reminded him. “This is your home. You’ll have to come back sometime. What then?”

“To tell you the truth, right now I’m not looking that far ahead. Who knows, California might come to feel like home.”

Elly had come to state her case and vent her anger, to be sure that Clint understood she would not accept his shabby treatment of Tom. And there she was, on the verge of pleading for him to stay. It would have been easy to do. But it would have also signaled her capitulation.....a surrender of the independence she had promised herself. 

With no further argument she turned and started across the porch toward her car. Behind her she heard Clint’s parting, “Happy Thanksgiving.”


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


As always, dear reader, if you have friends or family who might enjoy a dose of Geriatric Adolescence I invite you to share our address (octoberyears.blogspot.com) with them. That is the best way I know to spread the word. The blog's right sidebar lists all the earlier chapters, beginning in October with Chapter 1 of the Second Chances story, so they can always start at the beginning.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Long Way Home - Chapter 9

 

      They did not see that coming


It was a most surprising phone call….an unexpected opportunity to turn the tables. Should he feel guilty about that?

Or what about the pair of septuagenarian honeymooners? Were they likely candidates for an uncover search assignment?

Today’s October Years serialization, Chapter 9 of Long Way Home, continues our excursion into the sometimes daunting world of late-life relationships.




 Chapter 9


The great motor-home adventure had begun. Gary Harris could scarcely contain his excitement as he and Claudia left Tanner on that overcast Wednesday morning. So what if the first leg of their journey would take them only as far as Lawrence, just sixty miles down the interstate? What really mattered was that they were on their way. He was finally on the road, living out his long-held vagabonding dream. Best of all, Claudia was with him. How could it get any better than that? 

She sat beside him in her own padded, wraparound captain’s chair, looking every bit as happy as her husband. In truth her smile was as much about his childlike anticipation as her own pleasant wondering of how their new life would play out.

Claudia Flynn Hafner Harris had spent most of her life as a single, working mother. She had retired from her County bookkeeping position at sixty-five with a pension and Social Security benefits....enough to fund a modest retirement living with her daughter, while still relying on the fiscal restraint that had served her so well through good times and bad.

Extended travel and snowbird winters in the Sun Belt had never been an option for her. At that moment, looking ahead to the new lifestyle Gary promised would be theirs, it was natural to wonder how she would adjust. Beyond that were unspoken doubts of how long her husband could maintain his enthusiasm for the nomadic life of a full-time RVer. Would he, as sometimes happened, lose interest when the newness wore off? Only time would tell.

A few friends had warned Claudia of the marital perils of living in such close quarters, especially since they had never been together under more normal conditions. She, and Gary too, had shrugged off those concerns. After all they were in love.... committed to each other’s happiness and determined to overcome such mundane obstacles.

Now the learning process had begun in earnest. At Lawrence they parked in Barbara’s driveway.... their first real-life experience as RVer’s. For three days their electricity was provided by a heavy extension cord stretching from the garage, and their water by a long garden hose. 

While Gary gained experience with the vehicle’s utility systems, Claudia too was learning about their new home. The cooking arrangements, on the two-burner propane stove with its tiny oven, would take time to master. On the other hand, their home’s plumbing limitations were discovered more quickly ....about as long as it took for water from the tiny ten gallon hot-water heater to turn cold....a frigid experience that reinforced the virtues of a three-minute shower.

A call from Lawrence to Dennis Hafner in San Jose had moved the Harris’ schedule ahead a day. Dennis and Cyndi were scheduled to leave Friday for a long weekend at Lake Tahoe. If Gary and Claudia arrived on Thursday, for Thanksgiving dinner, there would be time to visit before the Hafners headed off to the mountains.

With that in mind they left Lawrence after lunch on Saturday, driving south toward California. They stopped that afternoon at an RV park just off the freeway. The park’s inviting website had spelled out its many features. By all accounts it looked to be an ideal setting for their first experience at setting up the motor home in a real RV park. As it turned out, maneuvering the motor home and Toad through the sprawling park to their assigned pull-through space was the easy part.

Once parked Gary struggled for nearly an hour to connect their home to the park supplied utilities....water, sewer, electricity, and cable television. Twice his efforts came to a halt while he pulled the motor home a few feet forward so a critical hose could reach a necessary connection. Finally with the utilities hooked up, the slide-out was extended and they were ready to settle in. It was nearly dark when they finally collapsed on the living room sofa.

“God, I hope that gets easier with time,” Gary grumbled. “There are so many things to remember.”

Claudia was grinning at his exaggerated exasperation's she offered, “If you’re sure the propane is turned on, I’ll start some dinner.

“If I knew where to find a restaurant, I’d take you out to eat.”

“This is our kitchen,” she reminded him. “In our own home. I have to learn how it works. We certainly can’t afford to eat out every night.”


                                ~~~


Back in Tanner, it was midmorning when Clint answered the phone and was so surprised that he nearly forgot to say anything at all. “You say this is Tom?” he finally sputtered. “Tom Berry?”

“Yes. Tom Berry,” the deep voice repeated. “Probably not someone you expected to hear from, eh?” He paused, before explaining, “Anyway, let me get right to the point.”

“Okay.”

“Elly’s at the coast today with her girl friends. She won't be back 'til late afternoon.”

“Okay.”

“Lester, my regular nurse, is sick. The staffing agency sent me a substitute nurse....a real nice fellow, who doesn’t drive at all. Doesn’t even have a license. The funeral home has two services scheduled this morning so they can’t spare anyone to drive me.”

“Okay.” By then Clint was asking himself where this was leading .

“Look. Elly told me that if I ever needed help, and couldn’t find anyone else, to call you.”

“Elly said that?” 

“I’m not sure if she really meant it,” Tom admitted. “She probably thought I’d never do that. But I’m in a bind. So here I am.” 

Clint’s natural impulse was to hang up right there. What did he care about Tom Berry’s transportation problems? Before he could act on that notion Tom was moving ahead. “I have a therapy session this morning at the hospital’s outpatient center. I have my van, but no one to drive it. You see my problem?”

Though Tom’s problem was easy to understand, the somewhat dubious possibility taking shape in Clint’s mind was less obvious. Apparently Tom had not heard the latest about Clint’s emotional standoff with Elly....their contentious confrontation about the wisdom of Tom moving into her guest wing. 

If Tom was unaware of that, why not take advantage of an opportunity to turn the tables a bit? What would it hurt to give them both a taste of their own medicine? With that in mind, Clint turned his attention back to Tom’s situation. 

“It sounds like you need some help, eh? I suppose if that's what Elly told you I should probably lend a hand." He paused, mainly for effect. "But understand, this is not a favor I’m doing for her.”

“You’re not doing favors for her these days?” Tom chuckled. “That sounds like something new and different.”

“Let’s not go there. Okay?” 

“Now you really have me curious. I thought you were big on doing favors for Elly.”

“Come on, Tom. You know how she can be,” Clint lamented, doing his best to play the reluctant bearer of bad news. “She finally got you to suggest that you ought to move out to her place. Once you’d taken that bait there was no need to keep me around.” 

He paused, hoping that Tom was getting the full impact of his performance. “Matter of fact, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I owe either of you any favors.”

“She said that? That she wanted me to move here?”

“She hasn’t told you yet?” 

Clint switched the phone to his other ear and continued. “Look, maybe I shouldn’t be saying anything. When she told me she was kind of apologetic, like she was sorry to be hurting my feelings. Still it was a bummer, coming out of the blue like that.”

“What came out of the blue?”

“Damn it, Tom. This is embarrassing.” Clint was sailing now....sounding totally dejected, and certain that Tom was buying every word. “She wants you there with her. I guess she’s wanted that all along. But she wanted it to be your idea....so it wouldn’t look like she was feeling sorry for you.”

“Is that right?” For a few seconds Tom checked out, apparently mulling Clint’s quiet disclosure before offering, “I can’t tell you how often I wondered why she kept coming back to visit me at the nursing home.”

“Now you know.”

“And she said she wanted me here?” 

While Tom soaked up his unexpected good news, Clint was asking himself why it felt so good....the thought of aggravating them like that. Was it something he should feel guilty about? It was not like he was lying. If the words were not exactly Elly’s, the message they conveyed sounded much the same to him.

“Hey, look,” Clint concluded. “If she hasn’t told you yet, I shouldn’t be going on like this. Just forget I mentioned anything about it. Okay? Now what time is this appointment of yours?”

“You’ll drive me?” The surprise was evident in Tom’s voice. “I would really appreciate that.” A minute later Clint hung up the phone, absolutely certain that what had promised to be a long and boring day was about to become more interesting.

By the time Clint pulled into Elly’s driveway the replacement nurse was securing Tom’s power chair to the van’s lift platform. Minutes later Tom had been hoisted inside, behind the driver's seat

. With Clint at the wheel they started off on the crosstown drive to the therapist’s office. After their earlier phone exchange Clint was especially thankful for their quiet, conversation-free drive through town.

Not until they were on the way back home was Tom comfortable enough to ask another question. “So what are you up to now, Clint? Now that Gary’s gone?” Noting Clint’s puzzled frown he added, “Elly told me. She said they’d gone off to live in a motor home.”

Whether or not Tom’s question was prompted by a genuine interest, Clint accepted it an opportunity to reinforce his story. “That’s right,” he said. “They’ve gone to Southern California for a few months. I’m leaving Friday to catch up with them down there....to see if I can find some sunshine.”

“You’re leaving town?”

Slipping back into his downhearted, dejected-loser role, Clint answered over his shoulder, “Yeah. I was planning to stick around here. It looked like maybe Elly and I could get together.” He turned off Main Street and started up the hill toward the Heights. 

“Then you showed up. Next thing I know, there’s no place for me. So I thought I’d head south for a while. Gets kind of lonely in that big old house.” He was grinning to himself. Had Elly really said there was no place for him? Perhaps not in so many words, but he remembered it feeling that way.

Their parting that morning was a scene Tom Berry could never have imagined....one that he was not likely to forget. There in the middle of Elly’s driveway, next to the van, he reached up to shake Clint Harris’ hand. 

“I appreciate your help, Clint. All the best on your trip south.” He watched as Clint drove away, then steered his power chair toward the ramp. The whole time he was thinking of the beautiful irony of it all. 

No wonder Tom was feeling so elated. His rival, the one most responsible for what had become of him, was leaving the scene. Elly would be there with him. And best of all she wanted that as much as he did. Because he had not given up, everything was finally coming together. He had known the truth all along. Now Elly knew it too.


                                ~~~


For Gary and Claudia, on the road in their motor home, every day brought new places to see and new things to be learned. They spent one night in the California Redwoods and another in the Napa Valley wine country. On Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, they made their way through Oakland and the hectic East Bay traffic to an RV park near Milpitas.

With all the efficiency of seasoned travelers they hooked up the motor home and Claudia set about preparing an early meal. After dinner, while Gary finished doing the dishes, he suggested, “Why don’t you call Dennis and Cyndi. Let them know we’re in town.”

A few minutes later Claudia closed her cell phone and joined Gary in the ‘living room’ side of the living/dining room. “Dennis says we’re only fifteen minutes from their place. They’d like us to have dessert with them tonight....to get a head start on our visit. He’s coming over to lead us there.” 

Although they had seen Dennis and Cyndi at the wedding, just days before, Claudia was looking forward to a quiet visit, without the distractions of a family gathering. By the time Dennis led them through the middle-class suburbs to the their stuccoed, ranch-style home, Cyndi was waiting with coffee and cookies.

“You two are certainly getting around these days,” Claudia observed as they took a seat at the dining room table. “You were in Lawrence just a few days ago. Now it’s off to Tahoe for the weekend. Is it always so hectic around here?”

“You have to remember, Mom,” Dennis reminded her. “The Lawrence trip wasn’t on our schedule until the last minute.”

Gary decided not to read too much into Dennis’ observation. From all appearances Claudia’s son had accepted, or at least resigned himself to, their new status as husband and wife. Beyond that Gary was inclined to let Dennis think what he wanted. So, while Claudia, Dennis, and Cyndi gathered around the table to exchange family news Gary was in the front room, leafing through a photo album he found on the coffee table.

Almost at once he came to a pair of stiffly-posed enlargements of the couple’s two sons, John and Jerry. Each was in full military uniform....John as a Marine Sergeant, Jerry as an Army Warrant Officer. Walking to the dining-room doorway, Gary asked, “Where are your boys now?” 

“John’s back in Germany with his family,” Cyndi answered. There was no hiding her worried frown when she added, “At least for a while. But it sounds like he has another Iraq tour coming up.”

“It’s his career, you know,” Dennis explained. “He has to go where they send him.”

“Thankfully, Jerry is still in Washington, D. C..” 

Gary turned another page or two before coming to the picture of a striking young woman in a high-school cheerleading outfit. He held the picture up for Dennis to see. “Who is this?”

“That’s our daughter, Laura,” he said without a hint of the obvious pride he had for his sons. In fact it sounded as though he would rather not talk about Laura.

“She’s a real cutie.”

“She was back then. That’s what you might call a ‘before’ picture.” Dennis stood to retrieve the coffee carafe. “Fortunately, we don’t have an ‘after’ picture to show you. It wouldn’t be near as pretty.” He topped off their cups, then disappeared into the kitchen.

An awkward silence descended over the table. It was Claudia, who had heard enough of Laura’s story to want to know more, who finally asked, “Where is she now?”

“We don’t know.” Cyndi bit her lip, looking over her shoulder to be sure Dennis was not returning. “She just up and left with her boy friend. Eighteen years old and we don’t know where she is. She must be frightened to death. I know I am.” Her explanation stalled while she dried her eyes.

“Have you looked for her? She couldn’t just disappear.” Claudia cringed at the sound of her own words, knowing that sometimes pretty young women did ‘just disappear.’

“Dennis won’t even try. He’s totally given up on her. There was a big argument with her boyfriend. Dennis got so mad he hit the boy. After that Laura wouldn’t listen to anything. And Dennis wouldn’t talk. It was like they divorced each other....a father and his own daughter.”

“Have you heard anything from her?” Gary was finding it hard not to be drawn into their conversation.

“Just one letter. She didn’t say much, just that she was okay. I suppose she didn’t want me to worry. Of course one letter couldn’t stop that.”

It was her granddaughter they were talking about. Claudia could not imagine they had turned their backs on her without trying to learn more. “So what are you going to do?”

“Not a damn thing.” Dennis’ voice was firm and determined as he returned to his chair. “The girl made her own bed, with who knows how many men. Now she’ll have to lie in it. That’s the way it works.”

“Dennis,” his mother exclaimed. “You can’t mean that. She’s your daughter for heaven sakes. You mustn’t think those things about her.”

“Mom. You don’t have any idea what this is about.” 

Why did they insist on digging deeper and deeper, Dennis asked himself. He had tried his best to avoid the subject. Now he was having to tell his own mother of their daughter’s disgrace. What must Gary think of his new family? 

“I’ve given her every chance in the world to clean up her act. She’s just so damn head strong. God knows she was grounded for weeks on end.... and nothing changed.” 

As Dennis spelled out his litany of Laura’s failings Gary noted the younger man’s growing anger, so reminiscent of their own confrontation.... when Dennis had played the protective son, saving his mother from Gary’s selfish advances. 

“But you can’t just give up,” Claudia countered. “She may need you more than ever. And you’re turning away.”

Without warning they were jarred by the sound of Dennis’ hand slamming on the table top. “She’s had her chances. We’ve been more than fair. Now she has to deal with the consequences.”

“Don’t you love her?” Claudia’s question was little more than a timid whisper.

“It is not about love, Mom. Laura doesn’t want to be here. She’s made that clear. So let her be where she wants to be. It’s better for everyone.” He straightened up, wearing an unconvincing smile. “Now let’s talk about something else.”

Once again there was only silence, at least until Dennis asked if Gary would like to see his new toy ....a shiny, powerful snowmobile machine that he expected to be the star of their weekend in the mountains. When the two men filed out to the garage Claudia took advantage of their absence to warm up Cyndi’s coffee and return to her own questions.

“Cyndi. You can’t be giving up on Laura, are you?”

Her mother-in-law’s question and the concern it represented, only renewed the haunting images that had dominated Cyndi’s thoughts for weeks. No matter how hard she tried there was no pushing away the fearful possibilities. 

“What am I supposed to do, Mom?” she whimpered through her tears. “Dennis won’t budge. He’s so angry at her. I can’t go looking all by myself. I wouldn’t know where to  begin.”

Claudia moved her chair closer and pulled the younger woman to her shoulder, asking softly, “What if we tried? Maybe we could help.” .

A trace of questioning hope flashed in Cyndi’s eyes. “Would you?” Then, pausing to consider what that meant, “What could you do?”

“I’m not sure. But your new father-in-law is a very resourceful fellow and very determined. Perhaps he could think of something.”

Wiping at her tears Cyndi produced the first real smile Claudia had seen from her all night. “We don’t have much to go on. The one letter we have was postmarked in Ojai. That’s somewhere towards Los Angeles.”

“Oh my. Los Angeles is such a big place.  I’ve read that it goes on for miles and miles. But if it's south of here, that's the direction we're going. So maybe we could try.”

“Ojai is not all the way to Los Angeles. It sounded like she was living someplace in the mountains. It was hard to tell exactly. She called the place Freedom City. I don’t suppose it’s a city at all. But that’s the name she used.”

From her purse Claudia retrieved a pen and pad and wrote a note to herself. Then, hoping she was not about to trigger more crying, she asked, “What about the boy she went with?”

Apparently Cyndi was beyond the need for tears. For the first time since her nightmare had begun someone was willing to talk about helping Laura, without resorting to the judgmental anger that Dennis brought to the discussion. 

Still, though she was thankful for Claudia’s interest it was hard to shake the disappointing realization that her best hope might rest in the hands of a pair of aging honeymooners.

“The only name I ever heard was Mango,” Cyndi continued. “I’m sure it’s a nickname or maybe a gang name. She only brought him home once. Dennis took one look at him...with his long hair, and tattoos, and baggy clothes. That was enough to set him off. He was yelling, telling the boy to stay away from Laura. The boy got belligerent and pushed Dennis away. A second later Dennis was swinging at him.

“He only hit him on the shoulder, but Laura just came unglued. She grabbed the boy and they left. Two days later she was gone for good.” For an instant Cyndi was reliving that frightful scene, remembering how closely Laura’s angry sneer had mirrored her father’s.

A moment later the back door slammed shut and the men were heard approaching through the utility room. Cyndi rose, starting for the kitchen to refill the cookie plate. In the living room, sitting beside Claudia, Gary nodded toward Dennis. “Your son has some kind of snow machine out there. Does just about everything but fly.”

Dennis acknowledged Gary’s endorsement with a broad grin. “It’s the best there is. Goes anywhere and gets there fast.”

“Does Cyndi get to drive it too?” Claudia asked.

“Not likely,” Dennis chuckled. “It has way too much power. She and the other wives usually stay in the camper. They play cards and keep the coffee warm.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Long Way Home - Chapter 8


 Surprise!


Surprises come in many forms……producing delight or pain, elation or anger. Yet, though it may be tempting to avoid a particular reality, there comes a time when it must be faced.

The most distressing of surprises may be layered….one sad fact piled on another…..a weighty burden that can test any relationship.

Worst of all, perhaps, is a guilt-driven surprise ….and the reluctant need to face one’s own truth.



Chapter 8


Ignoring the persistent midmorning drizzle Clint was in the back yard, restacking the pile of firewood Gary had knocked over the first time he parked the motor home behind the garage. That chore had been on hold for days. Now, with Gary and Claudia gone, the opportunity to do something useful outdoors was more appealing than moping around inside the empty house. 

It was a little after eleven when he started back to the house, looking forward to dry clothes and a warm fireplace. Climbing the back steps he noticed Elly’s car in the driveway. That was a bit surprising. He had not expected to see her until their afternoon Hospital Foundation meeting.

He hung his cap in the utility room and went inside to find her at the kitchen counter, pouring him a cup of freshly brewed coffee. “You’re soaked,” she said. “You need some dry clothes.”

“That’s my first stop.” Without sitting he sipped his coffee and looked over the edge of his cup to ask, “What brings you over here now? I thought I’d see you at the hospital.”

“I had some time, so I came by.”

If Clint detected the hint of hesitation in Elly’s voice he did not let on. “If you’ll give me a few minutes to shower and change,” he said. “We can go over to the mall for a sandwich before the meeting.”

Without looking up she replied, “There’s no need for that. I’m not hungry.”

By then he was picking up her silent signals....no smile, no enthusiasm, no eye contact….only brooding quiet. “Is something wrong?” he asked. 

“Go on and change. Then we can talk.”

Pulling a chair from the table he sat down opposite her. “I can change later.” Bending low he tried to look into her down-turned eyes. “What is it, Elly?” In the next thirty seconds he repeated his question twice more. Each time she answered with the same pouting, lip-biting evasion. 

During the course of their sometimes-tumultuous relationship Clint had seen Elly Warren in most all of her moods---angry, sad, confused, and ecstatically happy. In all that time he had never witnessed the obvious torment he saw in her twisted frown. He asked his question one last time, then roughly pushed his chair away from the table. 

Standing, he peeled off his wet sweatshirt and threw it forcefully down the hallway. Random, angry thoughts flickered through his mind. He had no way of knowing what the problem was, but the longer her silent withdrawal dragged on the more threatening it became.

Finally, without looking up, Elly muttered softly, “It’s Tom.”

Clint returned to his chair, still trying to lock onto her eyes. “It’s Tom?” he mimicked. “What is about Tom? Why don’t your tell me. I’d really like to hear this.” By then an uneasy tenseness was churning in his gut. 

“He’s come back. He’s in town. In a nursing home, here in Tanner.”

“When did he get back?”

“A couple weeks ago.”

It was not the first time Elly had seen his harsh, intimidating glare. Once before she had watched in cold, stark fear as that same anger broke free---revealing a dark, vengeful side of her normally quiet friend. 

It was the night Tom Berry abducted her. When Clint finally cornered Tom he had pounded the big man mercilessly, far beyond the need to subdue him. There was no forgetting the sight of his unrestrained rage. She was certain that only her screaming pleas had stopped Clint from killing Tom that night. Now, from across the kitchen table, she again saw that look in his eyes. 

“And you’ve been seeing him.”.

Elly nodded, then looked away. “I saw him today.”

“And yesterday. And the day before. And lots of times before that. Right?” He was grabbing at straws, confident that her timid trepidation was not the result of a single visit. 

“Come on, Lady. Why don’t you tell me the whole story? Let’s get this over with right now.”

Her head jerked up. “This is not about getting anything ‘over with.’

“Well then, why don’t you tell me what it is about. I think I’d like to hear that.”

“I’ve seen Tom a few times,” she began. “He’s so sad, so hurt. He lives in a wheelchair....in a place full of old people, who just sit around and drool.” Her eyes were growing misty at the thought of it. “His life is ruined....and I did that to him.”

Clint leaned forward, elbows on the table top ....by then his cynical grin was matching his angry sarcasm. “You need to help me out here. I think we might be on to something. You’re telling me that Tom Berry’s quality of life has suffered, because you shot him. It that right?”

She could not bring herself to answer his spiteful question. Her head was in her hands, leaving Clint unsure whether she was crying or marshaling her own anger. At that moment he was not inclined to care which it was.

“I think I can see what has you upset,” he continued. “If you had just put the gun away and not fired at Tom he wouldn’t be in a wheelchair now. I’m sure that would make you feel better. Tom would be fine. And you wouldn’t have to feel so guilty. Right?”

There was no doubt now. She was crying...loud gasping sobs. She caught her breath long enough to protest, “It’s not like that at all.”

His palm slammed against the table top. Elly’s half-full cup skittered to the edge and crashed to the floor. She drew back, her hand covering her mouth. “It is like that,” he screamed. “If you hadn’t pulled the damn trigger Tom wouldn’t be in a wheelchair. You’d have him now and there’d be no need to feel guilty. Everything would be just fine.” 

With a deep breath Clint continued. “The fact that Tom had killed me wouldn’t really matter. He’d be the one to blame for that. And we both know that he wouldn’t worry about a little guilt.” He pushed himself away from the table, sending his chair banging against the wall, and stomped off to the living room.

It took a few seconds, but finally Elly willed herself to her feet. With deliberate, shuffling steps she followed after him. “Will you try to understand.” She was standing in front of the sofa, where Clint had planted himself. “Try to see how it is.”

“Oh, I see how it is. I should have guessed it before now. How could I have been so damn blind? You’ve been running around a lot lately....busy here, busy there. Even when you were around, your mind was somewhere else” 

“You don’t understand.”

“Then you help me understand. Okay? Explain it to me.”

“I do want to help Tom. You’re right about that. You’re right that I feel bad about hurting him. And I do think I owe him something. Because he confessed the way he did the District Attorney didn’t charge me or you.”

“Will you listen to what you’re saying, Elly. Do you really think you owe him something because he admitted doing what he did? Where’s the logic in that?”

“But he didn’t have to do that.” Again her tears won out, washing away her words until, “I’ve told you over and over that I want to be with you. That hasn’t changed at all. It’s what I want.”

That was enough to bring Clint up short. As badly as he wanted her to hear his complaint, he realized that his sarcastic prodding was not helping an already fragile situation. It was time to calm down, to find a more moderate response. 

“You’ll have to tell me how that’s going to work....the two of us together, while you’re spending all your time with Tom. I’m not sure I understand.”

“I know. It’s kind of complicated.” By then she sensed that ‘it’ was about to become even more complicated. “But there’s one other thing you should know.”

“You’re just full of news today. Aren’t you?” His edginess had returned.

She sat down on the sofa beside him, ready to say the words she had been dreading for days. “Tom is moving into my house, into the guest wing.”

Clint felt his breath drain away. His icy glare returned and he was on his feet, making for the kitchen. From there he turned and yelled. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“He’s moving to my house,” she repeated. “To the guest wing, with his own nurse. He won’t bother me at all, and it won’t change anything for us. We can come and go like we always do.” Her try for a reassuring smile failed to convince either of them.

“I don’t suppose you’d be surprised to hear I think that’s a seriously dumb idea.”

“Clint. He can’t go to his place. It’s full of stairs. With just a simple ramp he can get his power chair in and out of the guest wing. It’s all on one floor.”

“And your place is the only one that works, right? There’s no other place in the whole damn town where he could stay?”

“It’s the best place for him to be.”

There was no holding back the tide of sullen anger. “Elly, you’re the one who’s always insisted on saying what you mean. So let’s put our cards on the table, shall we? Just once have the guts to tell me the truth. I always figured that you and Tom would end up together. I told you that right from the start.”

“That’s not going to happen. You don’t understand at all.”

“Just calm down for a minute. I’m not blaming you. I’m probably not even mad at you. Tom played you like a fiddle, to get his way. That’s what he does. 

“I am, however, very disappointed in myself. I should have known better.” His hard stare quieted her budding protest. “Hey, it’s okay. After all, we had a couple of nights at the club. That should give you two something to laugh about.”

Finally, Elly had her fill of his sarcastic tirade. “Clint Harris, you just stop that kind of talk. I’m only doing what I think is right. I can’t ignore what I did to Tom. I do want to help him, but in a way that lets you and me have our time together. And you know very well I’d never laugh at you.”

“Why don’t you tell me about Saturday night then. Explain that one for me.” It was his turn to look away, unwilling to let her see the approaching tears. “Waking up with you on Sunday morning. What was that about? You knew all about Tom then. What was that supposed to mean?” 

She reached for his arm. He brushed her hand away. “It sounds to me like you’ve managed to find the best of both worlds,” he grumbled. “If things worked out the way you planned, you’d have an ‘at home’ guy and an ‘on the town’ guy. That’s damn clever of you.”

The sharp sting of her slap registered before he realized what it was. Her eyes were blazing and he half expected to feel another blow. “I never want to hear you talk like that again.”.

In that instant Clint realized that he had run out of answers. He had nothing more to say. With a mocking smile, he stood and effectively checked himself out of their spectacularly-unproductive conversation. “Right you are, Lady. As near as I can tell, you and Tom deserve each other. So, you go right ahead.”

“Clint, wait......”

“Shut up,”  he barked. “Your ‘on the town’ guy just quit. He’s been overmatched from the start. It’s time he reordered his priorities.” 

He left by the back door, slamming it hard enough to rattle the row of collector plates hanging beside the door. Elly waited to see if he would return. When she saw his pickup turn out of the driveway onto the street she gathered her purse and left.


                                ~~~


Saturday-morning visitors clogged the main hallway of the Credlan Nursing Home as Elly walked beside Tom Berry’s power chair toward the main entrance. Ahead of them Elaine Newsome, Tom’s oldest daughter, carried two suitcases of his personal effects. Their mini-parade marched through the front doors and down the long ramp to the covered parking area where Tom’s van, leased from a service in Portland, waited. Elaine set the suitcases inside and picked up the hand-held control box that was wired to the van by a long umbilical cord.

“This looked so easy at the dealership,” she explained, pressing the buttons to extend the platform from the van's open side door. “I hope I can remember how it works.” 

She was quite proud of herself when the metal deck slowly lowered to the ground. Seconds later Tom’s power chair was in place on the lift....wheels locked, waiting to be lifted inside the van. 

“That’s pretty slick.” The broad smile on Tom’s round face seemed to match the mood of his red-letter day. Just weeks before he had returned to Tanner as a captive....exiled to a dreary, dead-end life in the nursing home. Now, thanks to Elly’s generosity and Elaine’s hard work, he had a future, something to look forward to.  

Tom Berry understood that most people would have been hard pressed to consider his power chair confinement a sign of good fortune. But he was a realist, who understood that he had come very close to killing a man in a way that might have earned him serious prison time. On that dull November morning he was riding off from the confining sameness of nursing-home life to the promise of a new, if limited, future. Better yet, there in the van with him were the two most important women in his life.

“David finished the ramp last night, Dad.” Elaine half turned in the driver’s seat to be sure her father heard her. “It’s set off to the side, kind of behind the shrubs. I’m sure most people won’t even see it.” She looked over to Elly, sitting in the passenger seat. “I hope you think it’s okay. Not too conspicuous.”

Elly bounced back from her thoughts, “It looks just fine. How could anyone object?” 

In truth Elly was not at all interested in the construction aspects of their surreal drama. At that moment she was again struggling to understand how Tom’s casual reference to living in her guest wing had, in a matter of days, taken on a life of its own. There were times when it felt as though she had simply stepped aside, watching as Tom and Elaine orchestrated the whole move.

“I think you’ll like the apartment, Dad. We moved in a full sized refrigerator and a big-screen TV. It’s pretty cool.”

Minutes later they were driving through downtown Tanner, looking for all the world like any other soccer-mom van. “You’re awfully quiet, Elly,” Tom observed from the back of the van. “I hope you’re not worried about this. There’s certainly no reason you should be.”

“I’m not worried at all....just anxious to see how it all comes together.”

“It will come together just fine,” Elaine assured her. “The nurse is supposed to be there to meet us. The agency promised that they have enough staff to have someone with Dad all the time.”

“That is absolutely stupid,” Tom grumbled. “I don’t need someone there twenty-four hours a day. My God, it’ll feel like I’ve got a baby sitter.”

As she waited for the light to change Elaine looked back at her father. “We’ve promised Elly that you’ll have your own help,” she said sternly. “You won’t have to rely on her and she won’t have to worry about you. That’s the deal.” She glanced at Elly and winked. “If he doesn’t live up to that, you let me know. Okay?”

By then Elly was caught up in a more elemental question. There she was, helping a friend....repaying at least some of the guilt debt she owed Tom Berry. She had assumed she would feel good about that. So where was that satisfaction?

It was nearly twelve-thirty when the three of them, along with Lester, the slender, long-haired young man who would serve as Tom’s primary nurse, completed their tour of Tom’s new home.

The accommodations had been inspected.... including the mobile crane that would lift him in and out of bed and the newly installed intercom link to Elly’s kitchen, for use in case of an emergency. Finally, having covered a couple last-minute items with Elaine, Elly walked down the hall to the main house. Taking a moment to lock the dead bolt on the door from guest wing, she turned and headed directly to the living room couch.

There in the half-darkened room she closed her eyes, trying to make sense of her feelings, wondering why she felt so tired. It was nothing tangible....the vague sense that she had just steered her entire life one hundred-eighty degrees off course....but no less intimidating for that. Once more Tom Berry had imposed himself into her carefully constructed dreams of a new life in her home town, sending her off on a new, yet-to-be-determined, path

.     

                                ~~~


It was six-fifteen Monday evening. Clint had just finished the dinner dishes....if throwing his plastic TV-dinner tray in the trash counted for that. In the kitchen a large, two-sided road map of California was spread across the table, the Northern California side face up. 

He had told himself he was planning a vacation, a get away from the escalating craziness of life in Tanner. But so far he had found nothing that struck him as a vacation destination. He would, of course, be stopping in Sacramento to see his son Sam and his family. Beyond that, what looked interesting?

There was no shortage of options....Tahoe, San Francisco, the Napa Valley wine country, perhaps somewhere on the coast. The drawback, however, was plain to see. All of those possibilities seemed like places to visit with someone. For the first time in decades he would be traveling alone, on his own. So what did a ‘single guy’ vacation look like?

Without a break in his vacation thoughts he reached for the jangling telephone after the second ring. “Hello,” he answered. A second later his vacation concerns had been put on hold.

“Clint. It’s me, Elly.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“Do you have a minute?”

He had told himself a dozen times there would be no backing down. It was time to stand his ground, beginning with his stern reply. “A minute for what? I think we’ve pretty well covered everything.”

“I just wanted to see how you’re doing. What are you up to?”

“Right now I’m planning a trip. Checking out some places in California I’d like to see.”

“California?” He heard the surprise in her voice. “When are you going to California?”

“Next week. I have a doctor’s appointment on Friday. I’ll be leaving right after that.”

“A doctor’s appointment? Is anything wrong?”

Clint’s laugh was soft and none-too-friendly. “Hey, Lady. I really appreciate your concern. The thing is, I’m having my annual check up. That’s all.”

“How long will you be gone....to California?”

“Damn, you’re full of questions. Aren’t you?”

He heard nothing until, “I was thinking about the Foundation. You didn’t come to last week’s meeting. Will you be there next time?”

“I don’t think so.”

“How many meetings will you miss? We need you there.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he replied, still in his calm taking-care-of-business tone. “I may be gone a while. Why don’t you tell Bill Stanton to find someone to take my place. Okay?”

“What are you talking about? You have to be there. We need you. You keep us going.”

“You’ll do just fine without me. It’ll give Bill a chance to bring in some new blood. You know very well that some of the folks there would be in favor of that.”

It was time to end this. Elly was apparently out of conversation and he had nothing more to say. He was preparing his escape when she asked, “Do you have plans for Thanksgiving dinner? That’s next Thursday, you know.”

“Thanksgiving dinner?” What was that about? It took him a second to assemble a response. “There’s a sliced-turkey TV dinner in the freezer that I’ve set aside for the occasion. That sounds appropriate. Doesn’t it?”

No matter how hard he tried, there was no dismissing the warmth of her soft laugh when she teased, “I think I have a better offer for you.”

He reminded himself that he must not sound too interested. “I suppose you have an intimate little gathering in mind. Right? Just you and me....and Tom. That would be cozy. Wouldn’t it?”

It took a deep breath or two to reclaim the calm reply she wanted him to hear. “That’s not funny at all. I told you before that Tom doesn’t live in my house. He’s in the guest wing. It’s like he lives next door. We can have our own Thanksgiving dinner, just the two of us. It would be just like always.”

Clint felt the second thoughts gaining ground. Perhaps he had been overreacting. An instant later he was reminding himself that Elly had made her choice. Why should he be the one groveling, giving in so easily? 

“It seems to me we’ve moved beyond ‘just like always.’ You changed the rules, remember? That’s certainly your right. But the way it turned out doesn’t feel much like ‘always.’”

“Clint,” Elly pleaded. “I haven’t changed anything about us. I don’t want to change anything about us. It doesn’t have to be different. There’s no reason it should be.” 

She paused and, in that moment of silence, was shocked to hear Tom’s voice loud and clear on the intercom speaker. Why, she asked herself, does he continue to use that like a newfound toy?

“Elly,” the intercom blared. “Can I interest you in an after-dinner martini?”

She slammed the ‘off’ button on the intercom and put the phone back to her ear, just in time to hear the connection break and turn into a droning dial tone.