Tuesday, September 21, 2021

CLOSING THE CIRCLE - Chapter 4

 

She had made semi-serious fun of his "most depressing pick-up line." Now she was offering her own 'first date' proposal...... to a high school track meet of all things.

It was a bit awkward, suggesting that his parents would like to meet the girl who had won their son's attention. That would mean escorting her into the 'not-so-impressive' depths of their Poverty Flats apartment complex. Was she ready for that?


    

               Chapter 4 


Whether or not it required ‘bravery’ on her part, Erin Woodman was true to her word. A few days later, when she spotted George sitting alone in the back of the Student Lounge, she ordered her iced tea, along with two chocolate-chip cookies, and plunked herself down across the table from him.

“Looks like you could use a sugar pick-me-up,” she said, sliding a wrapped cookie toward him. Glancing at his thick textbook, she added, “We can’t have all that Calculus stuff wearing out your brain.”

“And you’re guessing I couldn’t afford one myself. Is that it?”

“Come on. Don’t you play ‘poor boy’ with me. I just wanted to see how you’re doing. I haven’t seen you around for a couple days. Besides, it would have been rude, eating one of these in front of you.”

“I wouldn’t have minded that,” he replied as he unwrapped her offering and conducted his own taste test. “Wow. This is good.” 

He chewed slowly as his gaze locked on to hers. A moment later their matching smiles had grown wider, and chocolate chip cookies had been forgotten.

Then, blinking his eyes to break that unfamiliar, but pleasant spell, George forced himself to move ahead. “So how have you been? What’s been happening out in the Heights, with the upper crust?”

Erin winced a bit, but refused to take his ‘them vs us’ bait. “Things are going well, thank you.” She hesitated for an instant, before deciding to complete her thought. “Actually, I’m taking a break from my studies this afternoon....at least for a couple hours. I’m heading off to a track meet. Does that sound ‘upper crust’ enough for you?”

“A track meet? Is that your idea of sneaking off for the afternoon? Man, you Southsiders really know how to live it up.”

“This is about Danny. He’s our neighbor. It’s his first year as a runner. Apparently he’s not very good. But his mom can’t make it to the afternoon meets, so I told her I’d stop by to cheer for him. He’s really a sweet kid, and he needs to know that someone is raising a fuss about him. So that’s my job for the afternoon.”

“Sounds like a good thing you’re doing.”

Pausing to finish her cookie, Erin was grinning as she offered her surprising reply. “Actually, I was hoping the two of us could cheer him on. You and I. Remember, he’s not very good. He’ll probably need all the support he can get.”

“Me....and you?” It took a moment for that to sink in. “Are you sure? Danny is running at Southside High. Right? And you’d go there, where everyone knows you, with me?”

“That’s right. And then I’ll drive you home afterwards. You see, I’m hoping you can help me understand what’s going on at the track meet. I’ve never been to one before.”

Leaning back, George sensed it was time for a serious consideration of Erin’s surprising invitation. Apparently she was going out of her way to spend time with him. He was quite willing to accept that as a good idea. But surely, before long she would realize he was not a hopeful prospect for whatever she had in mind.

“Are you sure?” he finally asked. “Does spending the afternoon with someone like me strike you as a good use of your time? Seems like that would take more nerve than most girls have.”

“Hey, that doesn’t take any special nerve. I told you before, I’m really not very brave.” There was no missing her flirty wink. “To tell you the truth it seemed like a good idea, that sounds a little better each time I see you. I’m thinking I might get used to it. ”


~~~


Truth to tell, for Erin Woodman the time she spent with George Casey required no bravery at all. For the first time ever she was in the company of a boy who seemed willing to allow their casual relationship to grow at its own natural pace. 

In the course of the next three weeks they would be together for another track meet and a couple movies....the first one Dutch Treat, the second paid by George from his hard-won weekend earnings.

It must have been that time spent together, and their growing connection, that prompted George’s bold  Friday afternoon request, when Erin dropped him off from school.

“Do you have a couple minutes?” he asked. “I’m hoping you’ll do me a favor.”

“Should I know what it is before I answer?” She was grinning the quirky grin he had come to enjoy. “A girl can’t be too careful, you know.”

“Hey, it’s not a trick question. The thing is, my folks have been hearing about this Erin girl lately. I know they would like to meet her....to see what all the fuss is about. Would you be willing to do that?”

It had the sound and feel of a new direction, a step beyond the path they had walked to that point. Small wonder it triggered new questions she had not allowed herself to consider before that moment. In her limited experience parents were usually judgmental. Hers certainly were. What about his? Would they be conducting their own interrogation in the guise of a casual introduction? Still, it ought to be done sometime. Why not now?

Simply climbing the stairs to the Casey’s second floor apartment had Erin sensing her own unsettling doubts. Everything about the aging complex was unkept and uncaring....even a bit sinister. What would it feel like in the place George called home?

“Erin. It’s so good to finally meet you,” Janice Casey gushed as she reached for the girl’s hand. 

The four of them, Janice and husband Jim, Erin and George, were standing in the still-open doorway as George made his introductions, then nudged Erin inside.

At once Mrs. Casey was on the defensive, making her predictable apologies. “Please excuse the clutter. There’s almost no storage here so things are stacked everywhere. Besides, it’s very hard to make these dumpy apartments presentable.Won’t you have a seat?”

By then Erin was blushing a bit, unsure how to respond. Glancing around she noted the 'dumpy apartment.’ There was no concealing that, though the ‘clutter’ Mrs. Casey spoke of was not so obvious. From all appearances George’s mother had managed to create a clean and cozy home from altogether unpromising ingredients.

It would be a brief visit, awkward in the way first meetings can be. Yet when Erin left that afternoon she was awash in warm feelings of having been accepted by a pair of caring parents who obviously wanted the best for their son. It was a comforting thing, that first opportunity to see and sense the setting in which George had become the young man she was coming to like....a lot.


   


Sunday, September 19, 2021

CLOSING THE CIRCLE - Chapter 3

 

Not surprisingly, her "I'll drive you home" offer had created a rather unsettling situation. What would she think of the humble 'Poverty Flats' neighborhood he called home?

It was something new and unfamiliar.....a quiet, but blunt conversation about "boys who wanted what she wouldn't give," and "Southside girls who wanted nothing to do with North End boys."




              Chapter 3


Following George’s directions Erin turned off the North Side Ring Road toward what was to her the largely unknown world of the North End, more particularly the most fabled north side enclave of all....Poverty Flats. She had heard of the place, of course. Everyone knew, or thought they knew, how distressing a place it was. 

But never once in all her seventeen years had she ever ventured so far into those intimidating environs....the ones her affluent Tanner Heights neighbors took snobbish pleasure in labeling the ‘Tanner Slums’

More to the point, she had no idea what to expect....since she had never seriously considered having to navigate that part of the city. Yet clearly, the further they went....block after block....the more depressing the dire surroundings became. 

Tiny rundown post-war homes, each with its scruffy single-car garage, lined the street, hugging both sides of the road. Depressing, unkept victims of landlord neglect, they stretched on for as far as they could see, their sullen march broken only by periodic enclaves of even scruffier looking apartment blocks....two-story warrens at the very bottom of the North End habitation scale. 

After a few minutes, as they approached one such apartment complex, George motioned for Erin to turn in. Their last minutes had been a quiet time, mainly because Erin could not think of a thing to say that was not likely to offend him. George, on the other hand, was sensing the need to explain what his new friend was seeing.

“It’s not much, is it?” he asked sheepishly. In all likelihood he did not expect her to answer, and she did not. ”We used to have a house out on the bluff. But after Dad got laid off at the carpet store we had to sell it. It was either that, or the bank would have foreclosed.”

“That’s terrible.” Erin whispered. “I’ve never known anyone who had that happen to them.”

“You would if you lived around here. You can bet that folks don’t live in dumps like these when things are going good for them.” 

He paused, sensing that he owed her the truth of the matter. “It gets pretty cozy. My sister, Ruth, has the second bedroom, and I sleep on the couch. Still, it’s not all bad. My step-dad turned sixty-two a couple months ago, and got his first Social Security check. That has him feeling pretty upbeat.”

Gathering his backpack from the floor, George reached for the door handle. “Anyway, thanks for the lift. You saved me a bunch of time and a long walk. The bus stop on this end of the route is way back at the highway. So it was a good thing you did....something you certainly didn’t have to do.”

“Well, you did miss your bus because of me. It seemed like I owed you.”

George’s door was opening when Erin reached for his arm. “Wait. Please,” she said softly. 

Pulling the door closed, he did as he was told....he waited, then waited some more. Finally, drawing a deep breath, she looked up from her folded hands, knowing what needed to be said, but unsure how to say it.

“I'm not sure I know how to do this,” she admitted. “I still don’t know why you were asking about me after I saw you in the Student Lounge.

"But you were right about one thing. There have been other guys who asked those questions. And it seems like every time that happened I ended up wishing they hadn’t. When they found out that I wouldn’t go where they wanted to go, they couldn’t seem to deal with that.”

What was she asking? More to the point, how had he managed to find himself in such an unexpected place? What had a simple ride home, a favor he had not even asked for, taking such a strange turn?

Across the seat from him it was Erin’s turn to be waiting. Did she really believe he had a ready reply to her inexplicable revelation? Apparently so. Silently shrugging his shoulders, George finally gave voice to his unsettling confusion.

“You said you don’t know how to ‘do this.’ But I don’t understand. What is ‘this’?”

By then he had found the nerve to look into her face. “It’s is not rocket science, you know," he continued. "I asked about you because I was curious. I liked what I saw when you were sitting in the lounge. I suppose I asked for the same reasons all those other guys did. That shouldn’t be so hard to figure out. And I’ll admit you’re not the first girl I’ve wanted to know more about. 

"What is different this time....the part I’m still trying to get my head around....is this foxy looking Southside girl who is sitting beside me. She strikes me as the kind who doesn’t normally visit with guys from the North End, especially the Flats. 

"But it turned out she was actually willing to talk to me. That was pretty darn surprising, almost as shocking as having her offer to drive me home....even though I wasn’t so eager for her to  see where I live.”

Erin was fussing with her purse, pretending to look for something, avoiding the need to reply. It was new, and a bit disorienting....conversing so casually with someone, especially a boy, who spoke so bluntly, with no apparent need to impress for the sake of impressing. How should she respond to that? A few seconds later she had answered her own question. She would simply settle for the truth.

“You haven’t played these silly boy/girl games all that much, have you?” she asked. “If you’d have put up with some of the stuff I have, you would know why I appreciate the chance to visit with a guy who actually listens to what I’m saying, without pushing too hard. I’m kind of surprised how much I like that.”

Turning in his seat to face her, George was half-laughing as he offered his disclaimer. “First of all, I’ll take that as a compliment. And thank you for that. But I think that probably means that I come across as totally harmless. Right?

“After all, what makes you believe I’m not thinking the same things as those other guys? Maybe I’m just intimidated by all the stuff I’ve heard about Southside girls, the ones who won’t give a North End guy the time of day.”

“I don’t know where you’ve heard anything that stupid.”

“I guarantee, it’s out there. In fact, I think it’s what folks call 'conventional wisdom.'”

“Well, you can forget about that. The next time I see you in the Student Lounge I may come sit down with you. That might be enough to turn that so-called wisdom on its head.” Erin’s punctuating wink surprised even herself....though in fact it felt rather natural. 

“And what would your girlfriends think of that?”

“They can think whatever they want.” She was still grinning her smug little grin when she glanced at her watch. “Wow,” she exclaimed. “I’d better get going. I’m running late.”

Pushing the car door open, George was trying to assemble a proper parting. “Well, even it you aren’t  brave enough to sit with me, I’ll see you around. Thanks for the ride.”

   



Friday, September 17, 2021

CLOSING THE CIRCLE - Chapter 2

    George's not-so-bold approach was falling short, obviously no match for her unembarrassed bluntness......."That is seriously the most depressing pick-up line I have ever heard."        

    His initial surprise was compounded by her unexpected offer to drive him home..... "After all, I made you miss your bus."

    Her offer was welcome enough, until he paused to consider her likely reaction to the "Tanner Slums" he called home.



                          Chapter 2


Stepping back from his near collision with the orange sweatshirt, George moved away from the drinking fountain, blinking once or twice to confirm that it was her....the girl he had admired in the student lounge. Indeed it was, though he noted at once that the winning smile he had found so appealing was now absent, along with the laughter that had lightened her earlier mood.

Instead, what he saw was a hard-eyed scowl that was clearly not meant to lighten anyone’s mood. An instant later it appeared that she had something to say, which seemed to him like a good idea, since by then he was effectively tongue-tied.

“You were looking for me?” Erin Woodman asked. Her tone was decidedly cool....not at all in keeping with his ‘making the right first impression’ hopes. “What was that about?”

A quick glance into her unsmiling eyes had George turning his gaze to the floor. For a moment he was captured by cousin Chuck’s “be bold” advice. Yet another look into the girl's unsmiling. face had him awash in a wave of questioning doubts. Perhaps ‘bold’ ought to be put off for another time, when he was better prepared.

“Well? Are you going to tell me?” 

Erin’s impatient questions were drawing him back to the moment. Thankfully she had reverted to a more conversational tone when she continued.

“When I hear that someone is asking about me I naturally want to know what that’s about,” she explained in a more civil tone. “Seems like you can understand that....can’t you?”

“Come on, girl,” George finally countered with the only reason that came to his muddled mind. “You have guys checking you out all the time. You know that. Why would one more make any difference?” Shaking his head, he turned and started toward the outside door, with Erin right behind him.

“You wanted to know my name. Right? And Juanita told you, didn’t she? So now you know, and I’m standing right here. So there’s no need to go into hiding.”

What was her point, George asked himself. Was this the brave new world cousin Chuck had talked about....the place where boldness was likely to create better outcomes? 

At that moment he was wishing for a return to the social anonymity of North End High, where no one had paid much attention to what he thought, where such probing questions were left for others to answer.

Once outside the sidewalk led them through the shade next to the two-story building. There, stopping to lean against the concrete wall, George gathered his thoughts for a hopeful, but thoroughly unbold, explanation.

“Look,” he began. “This kind of stuff is probably second-nature to you. I suppose it happens all the time.” Pausing, he again looked up into her eyes, before turning away to carry on. 

“It’s not like that for me. Where I come from I would never be talking to you like this. Even if I had known your name, someone like you wasn’t about to be talking with someone like me.”

“But here you are. And we’re talking, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, we are. And you can see where it’s going, can’t you?”

“Where is that?”

That had George shaking his head. It felt as though he was digging his own grave, and it was getting deeper by the minute. Why not show a little of Chuck’s boldness and end their silly charade?

“Erin Woodman.” He was tempted to reach out and touch her shoulder. Instead he slipped his hands into his pocket as he continued. “I’m a guy. And I like girls. At least I like to look at them, and sometimes wonder about them. Most of the time I try to be realistic. 

"But every once in a while I let myself reach a little higher on the shelf than I ought to. This was one of those times. So why don’t we just forget about it. Okay? I have a bus to catch, and you probably have things to do.”

The words had scarcely left his mouth when George looked across the lawn to see his bus pulling away from the curb, starting towards the North End. That was enough to have him biting his lip, knowing he would be waiting another forty minutes for the next one.

Erin, however, was putting her own spin on his dire disclaimer. In fact, she was grinning conspicuously as she noted, “That is seriously the most depressing pick-up line I have ever heard. Maybe that’s why Mary Kay was so surprised to hear it was you who was asking about me.”

“Mary Kay? Who’s that?”

“Mary Kay Spenser. She said she knew who you were, from back at North End High.”

“You know her? And she had something to say about me?” George stepped away, again eyeing the bus shelter. “I suppose she might know my name. But you can be sure she doesn’t know me at all. What would she know about the likes of me?

“Anyway,” he added as he walked away. “Like I said, I have to be going.”

“To wait for the next bus?” Although it appeared that George was prepared to give up his furtive quest, Erin showed no signs of backing off.

“George Casey,” she said. “You’ll be waiting for what, half an hour, for the next bus? Why don’t you let me drive you home. After all, I'm the reason you missed the last one. I don’t know much about the North End, but it can’t be more than a few minutes from here. Maybe that will give you time to answer my question.”

Buy the time they reached the curb next to the bus shelter, they had both turned silent. In truth, however, their unspoken questions were surprising similar. What was there, Erin wondered, so intriguing about the obviously intimidated, self-depreciating North Ender? 

At the same time, for his part, George was wondering why the boldness cousin Chuck had advocated felt so far out of reach. Minutes later, in Erin’s late-model Toyota, they were driving toward the North End, though their silent questions were racing ahead toward answers neither of them could imagine.


 


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

CLOSING THE CIRCLE - Chapter 1

 

                CLOSING THE CIRCLE

Adopted as an infant Jerald Rogers, now a young father himself, senses the phantom presence of his unknown birth parents, and a growing interest in finding them. 

He sets off on his search with no idea how many dormant, long-buried memories will be resurrected, how many lives will be impacted, and how many questions will be raised.


How would his adoptive parents react? Tom and Karen have been ‘Dad and Mom’ for as long as Jerald can remember. Will they resent his interest in knowing his birth parents?


And finally, what of those unknown birth parents, who parted ways before he was born? What would be their response....to the son who has never been part of their lives....and the possibility of meeting each other after all those years?


                                              ~~~~


George Casey was off to college. A new start in a new world. A chance to be the man he thought he could be.........but had always been afraid to let others see.     

Yet, when that moment arrived, the opportunity to put his resolve to the test......could he be that bold? What if she laughed at him? 



                      Chapter 1


TANNER, OR (Sept. 1992)

So what was it that triggered that surprising hint of interest….the tantalizing realization that he wanted to know more about her? It was a quiet September morning in 1992. George Casey was sitting alone in the Student Lounge studying his Chemistry notes, when he was distracted by a burst of laughter at the next table. 

He looked up to see the three of them, strangers to him, sharing a light-hearted moment. With no hint of intention his casual glance settled on her ….her eyes, her unguarded smile and unrestrained laughter. A moment later, to his surprise, she seemed to be returning his gaze. Though he had no idea what she might be thinking, in that brief instant he sensed an unexpected connection.

There was something about that first impression, so natural and unpretentious, that had him wanting to know more. That in turn would lead to a most unlikely, at least for the timid young man he was, course of action. 

A few minutes later, on his way to class, he spotted one of the girl’s table mates in the hallway….the mousey Hispanic one, who spoke with a hard-to-understand accent.

“Would you tell me her name?” he asked timidly as he tugged on her arm. “The girl you were sitting with in the lounge. The one with the blonde pony-tail. You know her don’t you?”

“You mean Erin? In the orange sweater? Of course I know her.”

“Yeah, that’s the one. So, what’s her name?”

“Who wants to know? And why should I tell you?”

With a shy, eye-rolling grin George allowed his frustration to be seen. It was not a natural thing for him, asking about such a classy, out-of-his-league girl. Still, he wanted to know. “Come on, girl. I just want............”

“I’m Juanita, not Girl.”

“Yeah. Okay. Look Juanita, I’m George…. George Casey. I’m new here. It’s just my second day of classes. I saw your friend in the lounge and thought maybe I’d like to meet her. You know, introduce myself….if she doesn’t already have a guy. That’s the way it worked in high school. I’m guessing it’s that way here at Tanner C. C.”

He paused, looking into the girl’s face for some sign that he had calmed her doubts. “Now, will you just tell me her name. I promise if she runs me off, I won’t cause a fuss.”

“You promise.” Juanita repeated. Apparently his quiet nod was enough to convince her. “Okay. It’s Erin….Erin Woodman. She and I had a lot of classes together at Tanner Southside High.”

“Just so you know,” George offered, “I went to North End High. I was sure I’d never seen her before. Now I know why. We were living in different worlds, on opposite sides of town. Anyway, thanks for your help.”


        ~~~


It was not such an unusual thing, the unsubtle hint of intimidation George was sensing during his first few days in the new, more grown-up universe of Tanner Community College. After all, as his cousin Chuck had suggested, he was stepping out of high school into a new, very different world. 

If George, the oldest child and only son of insular, sixty-something parents, had a mentor in the course of those often confusing adolescent years it would have been Chuck Wilson, his father’s nephew. 

In George’s young eyes his cousin, a sophomore at nearby Oregon State University, was worldly, wise, and experienced in ways he could only dream of being. Among Chuck’s most memorable bits of wisdom, delivered shortly after George graduated from North End High and was looking forward to his first term at the local community college, was his insistence that high school and college were altogether different experiences.

“Trust me,” Chuck had urged. “You will absolutely love the chance to start over again. That’s what college does, you know. You’ll be showing up with a totally clean slate. Except for a few former classmates from North End, no one there will know a thing about the ‘old’ you. 

“It’s your chance to step up and be the guy you’ve always thought you could be….but were afraid to let others see. Once you realize that, you can be bolder than you’ve ever been. Just let yourself be the new George Casey. It will be great. You’ll see.”

About then his world-wise cousin must have noticed George’s doubting frown. “Come on, Georgie boy,” Chuck urged. “You went to school with the same bunch of kids for years and years. At least lot of them.

“And every one of them had their own opinion of George Casey, didn’t they? Odds are along the way you picked up a few labels, ones you could never shake. It’s like those labels became a part of you. Right?”

Now, revisiting their back-porch conversation, George recalled again how sound Chuck’s logic seemed to have been. From the first grade, in class, in sports, in any sort of social situation, he had watched from the sidelines, playing the quiet, unassuming role his classmates had come to accept as the real George.

Now, almost before he realized it, there he was mentally rehearsing an introduction to that Woodman girl, hoping against hope she had never heard the so-called truth about the North End high-schooler he had been. That bold possibility might, of course, be a stretch, but it seemed worth a try.

But when, and where? Whatever his strategy for capturing Erin Woodman’s attention, the situation called for something more than a casual, spur-of-the-moment approach. The odds of having a second chance to create the proper first impression were slim. In that case, he needed to take his time and think it through.

At least that was George’s plan.......until after his last class that afternoon, he started out to the bus stop. He paused a moment at the end of the hallway for a drink from the wall-mounted fountain. Then, straightening up, he turned and walked smack-dab into that vaguely familiar orange sweatshirt.













Friday, September 10, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 39

                           

Sister Sally was still letting the good news sink in. There was no denying their still-sparse future, but with Robert's new job things were definitely looking up.

Their 'Going Poor' journey was playing out for both couples. Important lessons had been learned along the way, helping them realize that going poor was not the end of the world. It was being poor, and alone, that hurt the most.



                        Chapter 39


It was six-thirty by the time Sally ushered Maureen, Marla, and Lane out of her trailer into the now-dark evening. When she returned to the sink to wash the cup and saucer remains of their evening Robert was beside her, dish towel in hand, to do his part. Like Sally he was still processing Maureen’s surprising disclosures....of Lane’s unlikely dream having come true and the jobs it promised for each of them.

Finally, drying her hands, Sally asked the first of her unanswered questions. “She didn’t talk about a salary, did she?”

“Nothing specific,” Robert was laughing to himself at how Sally quickly had focused on the financial implications of Maureen’s job offer. “But I’m assuming it will be minimum wage. It’s a shelter after all. It gets by on donations.”

“I suppose so.”

“But don’t you fret,” he said. “The way she talked there will be a paycheck every couple  weeks. I’ll get up every day knowing I’ve got a job. 

“Better yet, I’ll be doing something worthwhile. I know what those fellows are dealing with. I’m looking forward to lending a hand. 

"As far as the size of the paycheck, that shouldn’t be a problem. You’re the one who says we can get by on whatever we have. Right? With a Mission House job, your Social Security, and mine beginning before long....we’ll be in fat city.”

“Well, maybe not ‘fat city,’ but it will be enough. We’ll do just fine.”

Minutes later Sally was straightening up the front room when Robert returned from the bedroom. Even before he sat down she was offering her quiet observation. “She’s quite a lady, isn’t she ....your Maureen friend? I’d heard you and Lane talk about her. I’m glad we finally had a chance to meet. I wasn’t sure what to expect. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who makes her living helping so many people. You can tell that she really cares about those folks. When you consider how creepy some of them are that takes a special kind of person.”

Sally stopped short, laughing at Robert’s exaggerated frown. “I didn’t say you were creepy. But you’ve told me that some of those guys even give you the willies. In fact, that’s something I hadn’t thought about....having you down there every day, working around those people.”

“Come on, Sally. Those guys are just like the rest of us, doing their damnest to get along in an unfriendly world. Don’t forget, I’ve lived with them for a long time. I was one of them. I know what they’re dealing with.

“I know how much they appreciate a place like the Mission House, how much they count on it. It sounds to me like an ideal job. Best of all, I get to come back to a real home, and you, every night. That’s something I’ve been missing for a very long time. We won’t have all that much, but what we have is paid for, and we’ll have money coming in every month. That my idea of a real life. And I have you and your brother to thank for that.”

Robert paused for a moment, turning his thoughts back to brother Lane. “You could tell that Maureen really appreciated his help,” he said. “I think she’s still trying to understand how a scruffy, out-of-work guy like him could have dreamed up something like a new dormitory. And then help make it happen. 

"You always said he was a dreamer. But he’d struck out so many times. That makes it all the more special to see things come together like they did.”


        ~~~


From the front porch of Sally’s trailer Lane and Marla had watched Maureen Kenyon drive off. Beyond the trailer-park’s string of flood lights the evening darkness had settled over the Bluff. Having sat through Maureen’s rambling presentation, Lane’s restless mind was churning with questions. He needed to be moving....to get the blood flowing again.

“Why don’t we grab our jackets and take a walk,” he suggested. “The rain’s holding off for now. I don’t know about you, but I need some thinking time to make sense of all this.”

Ten minutes later the two of them were strolling down a dimly lit River Street, along the top of the Bluff. Passing directly above Robert’s former penthouse, Lane was lost in thought. 

So much had happened so quickly. He had returned to Tanner scarcely two months before, burdened with the weighty baggage of financial ruin and failed relationships....a conflicted past of good times gone bad. By then his personal history had become a jumbled collage of what had been lost and what had been learned.

Now, with Marla’s hand in his, he was reminding himself that it was different this time. He was older. Youthful vanities had faded. Inflated notions of what he deserved, of what he had a right to expect, had given way to a more-grounded understanding of what mattered most....even more than stroking his own ego.

Of course he had changed. Everyone does in time. But why so late in the game? Why had it taken most of a lifetime to learn that relying only on himself was not enough? Why had he allowed a parade of discordant elements....a crumbling career, failed relationships, and his own homelessness to take him so far off course? 

Fortunately, those same miscues had sowed the unexpected understanding that he belonged with someone like Marla. What proof did he need of that, beyond the fact of their blossoming partnership?

“It’s almost too much to take in.” Marla too was trying to make sense of outcomes she did not fully understand. Lane’s unexpected return from Medford and Maureen’s startling revelations had combined to create the most surprising evening she could remember....while triggering questions she could not hold back.

“What is ‘too much?’” Lane asked as he pulled away from his own thoughts.

“Everything. Just think of it. Three hours ago I thought you were in Medford. I wanted you here, but I knew you’d be gone for at least a couple more weeks. Then bang....there you were, standing in my doorway. The next thing I know Maureen is telling us how you made your dream, and hers too, happen. By the time she was done you had a job and so did Robert. It’s everything we could have hoped for, and it happened so fast.”

Lane tugged her closer and draped an arm over her shoulder. “Just don’t be expecting too much from that job she talked about,” he cautioned. “We’re talking minimum wage, you know. And of course there won’t be any benefits. I still can’t afford to get sick. Neither of us can. But that’s nothing new.”

Marla had stopped, moving to the edge of the street. There, stepping up on the concrete curb she was nearly as tall as him. Through the trees and underbrush they could make out lights from the far bank reflecting off the fast-flowing river. She took his hand and looked into his eyes. 

“Lane Tipton, I’ve told you before. The money part doesn’t matter. It never did. We’re smart enough to get by on whatever we have, as long as we can do it together.”

She was right about that, he told himself. For weeks they had been separated, living at opposite ends of the state. During that time there had been no in-depth discussions, no debating the pros and cons of their humble relationship. Now, though no formal vote had been taken, each of them was following their own wanting to the same undeniable truth. No wonder he welcomed the feel-good realization she spoke of.

“The ‘together’ part makes all the difference,” Lane agreed as he scanned the hillside for signs of the homeless habitation he knew was hidden there on the Bluff, between them and the river. 

“I remember how empty I felt when my bankruptcy was final. I was so disappointed in myself. It was like I’d stepped into a big ole hole. It was hard to imagine that I’d ever climb out of it. But look at us now.

“Remember the ‘going poor’ your friend talked about?” he continued. “It feels like I have a whole new read on that. The fact that we’re poor hasn’t changed at all. But it doesn’t mean what it did the first time you mentioned that.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I’ve learned that going poor isn’t the end of the world. It’s being poor and all alone that hurts the most. That’s what sucks the hope right out of a guy.” 

With a sweep on his hand he explained. “The guys living down there in the camps....the ones you don’t see too often, because they’re in hiding.... they’re sure that nobody cares about what they’re dealing with. Those are the ones I worry about. I know how that feels. Compared to them I’m the luckiest guy I know. 

“Back in the good days, when I was still working, I would never have settled for what I have now. Or what I don’t have. I always believed it took all that stuff....the bank account, the credit cards, and all my toys....to make me happy. Turns out those weren’t the most important things, not even close.

“I don’t recommend ‘going poor.’ But if it has to happen I definitely want us to be there together. I may have to be satisfied with a minimum-wage job. But that’s okay. Together you and I can deal with going poor."   


             THE END


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 38

It was a daunting task, reintroducing himself to the town's leading money man, more than forty years since their last contact. Though he had caught Cat Barrington cold, he seemed willing to hear Lane's idea.

Apparently 'good intentions' can have a long shelf life. How else could a schoolboy's willingness to lend a hand, without expecting payment, be repaid so generously, with interest?
 




                               Chapter 38


Just minutes before, the four of them....Sally, Robert, Marla, and Lane....had welcomed Maureen Kenyon into Sally’s humble trailer. From the beginning at least three of them had wondered why she was there and what she had to say.

Now, even after her not-so-brief introduction, those questions remained. To further muddy the waters, Maureen seemed to be suggesting that Lane, of all people, was the key to the Mission House’s distressing financial dilemma and its possibility of expansion. No one understood better than Lane himself how unlikely that sounded. Still, he must try to explain.

Pulling his chair a bit closer to the couch, he took a moment to glance from one expectant face to another before settling on Marla’s perplexed frown. He sensed the urge to reassure her. But that was not the role Maureen had assigned him. Instead, it was time to help them understand.

“Like Maureen said,” he began. “We had the city’s tentative okay to go ahead with the project....to add dormitory rooms across the alley. Erin Brock was a big help in making that happen. But without access to some serious funding the City’s approval wouldn’t be enough. And of course the necessary dollars would have to be private money. No government was going to put their resources into something like we had in mind.

“To make matters worse, I’d been away from Tanner for forty-some years. Who the heck did I know who would be willing to help out on that scale. I thought about that for a while and came up with just one candidate. It was absolutely the longest of long shots. But it was my only choice, so that’s where I went.”

Lane was grinning at his sister, wondering if she had guessed who he was talking about. “You see, I had this really far out hunch. You’ve probably all heard of Cat Barrington. He’s a big man in town....a very successful guy any way you measure it. 

"The thing is, Cat and I go back a long way together....all the way back to grade school. We were never the best friends or anything like that. But we’d always got along.”

Sally was nodding by then, chuckling at the thought of it. “That was back at Riverview Elementary,” she interjected as she remembered. “Cat was a nerdy little kid in those days. Used to get picked on a lot. I remember that in grade school Lane might have been the closest thing to a friend he had.”

“Maybe so,” Lane nodded, returning to his story. “Anyway, like everyone else, I’d heard about how well Cat had done for himself. Actually, what he’d done was carry on what his dad had started. I knew that he owned a few businesses and a lot of real estate, like his old man. 

“I hadn’t seen him in ages, but when Maureen explained how our project would depend on getting some serious financial help, I decided I’d give it a try. The odds weren’t good, of course. But the worse he could do was say ‘no.’ So I decided to call on Mr. Barrington and hope that he’d at least talk to me. And he did.” 

“Did he say he’d help Mission House?” Robert asked. “I’ve never met the guy, but when people talk about him he comes off sounding like a real hard-nose. Not the kind to be doing handouts.”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Lane continued, shaking his head at the thought of it. “I was kind of anxious about going to his office. Of course, he knew right away that I’d come looking for something. Apparently he gets a lot of that. In fact, I asked him straight out if it sometimes felt like the only reason people wanted to talk to him was to pick his pockets. He kind of grinned and said there were times when it seemed like that.

“Anyway, there I was, coming to ask the great Cat Barrington if he’d be willing to help us. Before I said a word I could see his antenna go up. But that didn’t seem to turn him off. We started off talking about the times we'd spent together as kids at Cub Scout camp, about some of the guys we knew back then. Then, all of sudden he looked up and asked me point blank, "Tell me, what the hell is this about?’

“So I tried to explain....about how so many folks need help....and how it seems there are folks, like him, who could afford to help make things better.

"Then I got to the hardest part, telling him that even though the City seemed to be behind us, it was going to take more than that. Finally I just told him flat out, that he was the only person I knew who might be able to offer the kind of help we were looking for.

Pausing to assemble his thoughts, Lane was shaking his head, remembering his own surprise at Cat Barrington's reaction.

“About then I was wondering if he was going to throw me out. But he didn’t. He was actually smiling when he asked how much it would take. I had to tell him I had no idea. The building we were looking at was a warehouse, an empty warehouse. So there was the cost of the building, plus whatever renovation and upgrading the Mission House needed to do.

“By then I wasn’t holding out much hope. I couldn’t even answer his most basic questions. Though I couldn’t tell him how much it would be, I knew it would be expensive. But then, when he looked up he was grinning again. He told me that he’d heard good things about that ‘Kenyon lady,’ which sounded hopeful. Then, before he could say more his phone rang.

“Next thing I knew Cat was in the middle of some business conversation. He took a couple seconds to tell me he’d check out my Mission House idea and get back to me. I left, intending to get back to him. But then, a few days later I was off to Medford, to the packing sheds. So I haven’t talked to him since. But apparently Maureen has.”


         ~~~


By then Maureen Kenyon sensed their stares turning back to her. There was no need for further background. It was time to spring her surprise.... which would, in fact, turn out to be more than one surprise. 

“As you well know,” she began. “This economy has been hard on lots of people, as well as places like the Mission House. There is so much to be done, more than we can possibly do. I suppose I’d still be moaning about that if our friend ‘The Dreamer’ hadn’t come along when he did.

“It was absolutely amazing how it played out. Lane started the process by planting the seed of an idea. He got me excited about it, then introduced Erin Brock and Cat Barrington to what he had in mind. Having done all that, what did he do? Why he ran off to Medford. 

"My best salesman had flown the coop. At that point I had no idea how things would turn out. The best I could do for him was assure him that if everything came together the way we hoped, it would be his job to make it happen.”

By then Maureen was talking directly to Marla. “And it seemed like that’s all it took. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, he’d gone to Medford to earn a decent paycheck. When he heard me talking about the possibility of a job here in Tanner he perked right up.

“So here’s what happened while he was off at the packing sheds. This is the part that Lane’s been waiting for, because he hasn’t heard about it either. 

“To begin with, Cat Barrington came calling. I spent an hour or so showing him around the Mission House....what we do now and how much more we could do with the additional space. It was a very productive visit. He was asking questions, wanting to know more. 

"Like one of you said, I expected him to be a real hard-nose guy. In fact, he was very nice.....but very thorough. I could tell he had paid attention to what Lane had told him. He told me up front that Lane had always treated him right....'Never tried to get in my pockets,'....was the way he said it. That seemed to mean a lot to Cat.”

Maureen paused, chewing her lip, aiming her stern, no-nonsense glare in Lane’s direction. “Still, in the end, Cat decided not to buy the warehouse.”

“I thought you told me he was on board.” Lane inched forward in his chair, ready to take exception. “That’s what you said.”

Maureen was reading Lane’s disappointment. Rather than string him along any further she hurried on. “Actually, as it turned out what he did was trade for it. In fact, I’m told it took three investors, trading three separate properties and one business, to finally get the warehouse in Cat’s hands. 

"This week the Mission House board signed the papers....the ones that will allow Cat to claim a rather sizable charitable deduction for contributing not only the building, but also the funds necessary to do the renovations....including a new, enlarged kitchen.”

“A kitchen?” Lane asked. “That was never part of the plan.”

“That’s because you weren’t the only dreamer working on this project.” 

There was no holding back Maureen’s happy grin. “The building that Cat used to start his three-way trade had been a restaurant. The kitchen equipment was old, not exactly state-of-the-art....but a lot better than the antiques we use at the Mission House. 

"So he insisted that the kitchen gear be part of the trade. He did that on his own. And he was so proud of pulling it off. Anyway, in another few days our ‘new’ kitchen will be arriving. Before long our old kitchen will be outfitted with new ‘used’ fixtures.

“Then finally, to top things off, Cat arranged for what he called a ‘consortium’ of local businesses to help underwrite the increase in our operating expenses. I’ve heard rumors that he ‘persuaded’  them to contribute, though I’m not sure I want to know how he did that.”

At that point Marla signaled her impatience with a loud sigh. She had heard more than she wanted to hear about Mission House, and almost nothing about Lane’s employment prospects. “Did you say there’s a job in all that for Lane?” she finally asked. “A real full-time job?”

“Oh yes, Lane’s job. That is an important consideration, isn’t it?” That had Maureen turning serious. “And I can assure you it’s still there. In fact, we hardly got off the ground before the darn thing had grown.”

“What does that mean?” Marla asked.

“Well, as you may know, the Mission House is open from seven in the morning until we lock the doors at ten o’clock each night. There is a Night Clerk on duty overnight, but he’s mainly there for security and emergencies. Altogether we have the staff in place to cover all the functions of what I’m calling the ‘Streetside’ operations....the existing day room, kitchen, showers, and sleeping rooms. ....overseeing all that amounts to a full-time job. That’s what I do.....along with my night-shift supervisor.

“But now we’ll be adding the ‘Backside’....the new dormitory and day room across the alley. We’ll need additional staffing for that, as well as on-site supervision. Then, when Lane picked up on that....the need for additional supervision....he had another of his ideas. 

“We’ll want that Backside supervision on board for fifteen hours a day, just like the Streetside. That means we’re talking about two people, who can share what has to be done. Fortunately Cat Barrington had foreseen that need, along with part-time coverage on the weekends. He had built all that into the budget he and I put together.”

Maureen took a moment to scan her audience, asking herself if they could see where she was leading them. That in turn had Lane turning away, avoiding Maureen’s glance, uneasy at being singled out the way he was about to be. 

Finally Maureen turned back to Marla. “So yes, we have that job for Lane. Actually we’ll have what I’m calling a ‘Lane job’ and a ‘Robert job.’ That was Lane’s latest suggestion, that the two of them share that supervision, splitting the fifteen hours any way they want, as long as one of them is always on hand. 

“I happen to think that was one of his best ideas,” Maureen continued. “By the time we’re up and operating the Backside my workload will have grown too. So having the two of them on board will take a huge load off me and my team.”

It was Robert who had raised his hand, calling for an explanation. “You mean Lane lobbied to have a second job included. Are you sure that’s necessary. I’m not looking to be a charity case, you know.”

Maureen was trying for an unsmiling, matter-of-fact reply. “Then don’t take the job,” she said calmly. “I assure you, it has nothing to do with charity. I’ll need to to fill that position with someone. Lane thought you’d be a natural. I happened to agree.”

“Wow.” Robert had sunk back on the sofa, digesting his unexpected promotion to full  employment. He was still shaking his head as he turned to Lane. “Are you sure, old buddy? Does this really make sense?” 

“It makes perfect sense” Lane replied, coming to his own defense. “To begin with, getting the renovation done will be a complicated deal. You’ve got a ton of construction experience. Lots more than me. We’ll need to use licensed plumbers to install the restrooms and showers in the warehouse. Even though you can’t do that work yourself, you’d be the perfect one to see that we’re getting what we want.

“And now that Maureen’s talking about a new kitchen there’s bound to be some serious plumbing there for you to oversee. All in alI I think it’s a great fit. And I’m absolutely sure the work will suit us better than planting trees and pruning shrubs.”

Half laughing at Robert’s bemused frown, Lane offered his trump card. “Besides, we’ve got these not-so-helpless ladies to keep happy. I’m thinking that each of them probably wants the same thing....a steady paycheck and having us out from under foot at least part of the day.”

“I suppose you’ve got that right,” Robert nodded. “But who would have thought it would turn out like this?” Turning to Maureen he asked, “And you’re sure it’s a go. It’s actually going to happen?”

“Oh, it’s going to happen,” she answered. “In fact, it’s going to be the two of you, along with that Cat Barrington fellow, who will make it happen.

“Look,” Maureen continued, turning to the ladies. “As near as I can tell the four of you are in fact two couples. Right? Two couples trying to get by. We all know that can be a challenge in the best of times. And these are not the best of times. 

“From the beginning I promised myself that if anything came of Lane’s crazy idea, I’d ask him to help with the renovation and later, with the supervision. When he suggested bringing Robert on board, that solved my last staffing shortfall. I’m absolutely certain it’s the right thing for all of us.”