Hopeful dreams....50 years later
By ten-fifteen the reunion crowd was thinning out. Some were on their way to private parties. For others it was already past their bedtime. Tom Berry, however, was still on hand, standing beside the CD player, explaining to Esther Hoffman for the third time that he needed to know when she would be playing the last dance number.
“How do I know when that will be?” Esther grumbled. “When there’s no one dancing any more we’ll have had the last dance.”
“Come on, Esther. People want to know. Just announce, ‘This is the last dance.’ That's all you have to do.”
Esther’s frustration was showing. It had been a long day and a longer night. Without bothering to acknowledge Tom’s request she turned and walked off toward the bar. For a moment he considered hurrying after her. Instead he crossed the room to where Elly was saying goodbye to friends. She saw his approach and stepped up to meet him.
“Is it the last dance already?” she asked. “I didn’t hear Esther make an announcement or anything.”
“Esther doesn’t have a clue,” Tom growled. Taking her arm he tugged her toward the nearly-empty dance floor. “Let’s have a dance, you and I. We’ll call it our last dance and then we’ll go.” He was grinning at that pleasant prospect---leaving the stifling crowd behind them and having her to himself.
They danced their last dance, then returned to the head table to say their goodbyes. There was no hiding Esther’s surprise when Tom, on his way to retrieve Elly’s wrap, paused to explain that he would be taking her home.
Pulling Elly aside, Esther whispered, “You be careful. You’ve heard what the girls said about that old fool.”
Elly mustered what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine. We just want to visit a bit. That’s all. But before I go, I want to thank you for a wonderful reunion evening. I’ll admit I was a bit anxious at first. But it turned out just fine. I’m really surprised how many people I remembered.”
“Is this the one?” Tom asked when he returned to hand Elly a light-brown sweater. She nodded, took his arm, and together they started toward the door.
From the country club Tom drove through the Tanner Heights subdivision and down the long hill toward town, passing dozens of upscale homes spread over what had been small farmsteads and orchards in their school days. Cruising through the older parts of the south end, the narrow streets Elly remembered as a child had been transformed into two-lane, one-way thoroughfares---lined with dated two-story homes that now served as shops, offices, and clinics.
Moving north toward the center of the city Tom pulled to the curb to point out the recently-expanded Berry Funeral Home---a stately brick-front structure, with adjoining parking lot. Tall plantation-style columns framed the main entrance and formal, manicured gardens extended across the front of the property.
“We did our best to give the place the dignity people expect,” Tom explained. “It’s really quite a showplace. I’d love to show you around inside some day. So you can see how nice it is”
“I don’t think it’s the kind of place I want to visit.”
“Come on, Elly. Don’t think of it that way. It’s really quite a functional layout, a place where families can gather to pay their respects. We do everything we can to help them through a very difficult time.” He paused a moment before adding his matter-of-fact addendum. “It’s also very efficient.”
“Efficient? How is that dignified or respectful? How does that help a mourning family?”
“You mustn’t forget, Elly. It’s a business. To make a profit it has to be efficient.” Tom’s first impulse, the natural product of years spent defending his family’s choice of livelihood, was to better explain the realities of a business that few were interested in knowing about. On second thought he concluded that would not be the best use of his precious time with Elly.
They had driven only a few blocks further, deeper into the heart of the old downtown shopping area, when Tom again pulled to the curb and turned off the engine.
Before Elly had a chance to ask her question he was pointing through the dim half-light to the three-story commercial building across the street---a nondescript stucco structure, trimmed with darker bricks. On the ground floor were a pair of seedy-looking boutique shops and a third, boarded-up retail space. The upstairs offices and apartments showed no signs of life.
“Remember that? Tom asked hopefully. He waited a moment before explaining. ”It’s the old Kinney Department Store building. I’ll bet you’ve been there before. Probably did lots of shopping in that old building.”
“Oh my, yes. Kinney’s was the ‘in’ place in those days.” A remembering smile crossed her face. “They carried lots of things that were popular with their Portland clientele. At least that’s what they told us. That was enough to impress us.”
“Well, last year I bought the Kinney building,” Tom announced proudly.
“But, why? It’s so old. And it’s in the wrong part of town. Lots of the shops along here are empty.”
“I know.” Tom was grinning, looking for all the world like someone who knew a secret. “That’s why I got such a good deal. I’m absolutely convinced this is the time to be buying. And it’s why I’m looking at another property right now, up in the next block.”
He studied her reaction, looking for some sign that she saw what he saw? Could she understand his vision? “Conrad Ryan and I are working on that one.”
Pausing to gather the right words to explain his grand plan, Tom was hoping that Elly had the imagination see the logic, even the genius of it.
“Actually, we’re not ready to announce it yet, but we’ve put together plans to revive these two blocks---right in the heart of the old town. There’s so much history here, with all these fine old buildings. When folks finally see the potential we're sure it would revitalize the whole downtown. That would be great, not to mention very profitable.”
“Aren’t you afraid of throwing good money after bad?” Could he make out her doubting frown in the near darkness?
“Elly. Every one needs a dream. Don’t you believe that? At our age it’s so easy to just drop out and vegetate. I found that out when I handed off the funeral home to the girls. I knew that I needed to be involved in something---and this is what I settled on.”
“It looks like a long shot to me.”
“It might be. But it feels right.” Peering through the near darkness Tom drew a deep breath and prepared to spring the newest, and possibly most contentious, part of his hopeful renovation scheme.
"Anyway, when I heard you’d come back home I was more certain than ever. You remember how the downtown used to be---and what it could be again.”
“I do have an idea of what it used to be,” Elly agreed. “But I’m not sure I know what it could become. Either way, what has that got to do with me?”
Tom was smiling to himself as he reached over to pat her hand. “That’s the other part of my plan---my dream. That you and I could do this together. That we could be a team on something like that.”
What did that mean, she asked herself. Was he serious? In the dim light she could make out little more than the hopeful grin that spread over his round face.
“Tom,” she said, “I think it’s time to be moving on.”
“Just don’t forget,” he nodded. “It’s something I’d like us to talk about later.”
With that he pulled back onto Main Street, heading toward the north end of town. A few blocks later he turned onto the Ring Road that funneled northbound traffic around the main business district. He had gone only a few blocks on that thoroughfare when he turned off on a narrow side street that led up a steep hill.
“This isn’t the way to River Park.”
“I know,” he answered. “First I have surprise for you. Then we’ll go on to the park.”
They followed the winding street up the steep incline, then turned left on the single lane that paralleled the brow of the hill. Sprawling homes, some of them cantilevered over the steep slope, lined the left side of the gravel road---looking out over the town. Between the homes they could see the lights of Tanner spread out before them, stretching all the way to the suburbs across the valley. Moments later they pulled into a large graveled parking area at the end of the road---where nothing stood between them and miles of twinkling lights.
“Do you remember this?” Tom asked, turning off the engine and headlights.
“I don’t think so. I’ve certainly never seen all those homes before. I’m sure they weren’t here fifty years ago. But the view is incredible.”
“Fifty years ago there wasn’t much of anything up here, except the reservoir. This was out in the boondocks. But the view was great even then. That’s what made it a favorite parking spot for the kids. You do remember that, don’t you?”
“The reservoir? Of course I remember that. Is it still here?”
“You bet. It’s just over the edge, beyond those trees.” By then Tom felt the need for a not-so-subtle prompt. “I was hoping you’d remember the good times we spent up here.”
Indeed, she did remember those times---the nights when as many as a dozen cars might crowd into the dirt-covered clearing. In rainy weather there was always a chance of getting stuck in an unseen mud hole, thereby becoming the talk of the school for a day or two.
Elly's thoughts tracked off to long-forgotten recollections of radio music drifting among the cars, playing the popular tunes of the day, while she wondered what they were doing in the other cars---behind the steamed up windows.
“As I recall,” she finally said. “It was a very frustrating mix of enjoying your company and making you behave yourself.”
“I seem to remember that.” Tom was chuckling to himself, pleased to know that she remembered too, especially his persistent pursuit of all things Elly Beyer. “Later on,” he continued. “I learned it had something to do with hormones. At the time we didn’t care much about the reasons. It just seemed natural.”
“As I remember, most of the girls were more concerned about your hands than your hormones.”
“I think they went together,” he grinned. “They were part of the same thing.”
“Not with me they weren’t.” He could hear the smug grin in Elly’s voice. “Were they?”
“No, Elly.” He shook his head. “Not with you.”
Tom started the car. Circling the parking area he drove past the row of homes and back down the hill. This time they followed the Ring Road north until it intersected with the old highway. A half mile beyond that junction he pulled into the well-signed River Park.
“The old park doesn’t look the same, does it?” He offered a hand as Elly stepped from the car.
“Heavens no. The parking lot is all paved. And it has lights too. Are those picnic tables under the trees?”
Tom nodded. He was grinning broadly, hearing exactly what he had hoped to hear. “When I was elected to the County Council, back in ninety-two, I made River Park one of my top priorities. It had been neglected for so long. I wanted it to be a show place. It had always been something special for me, so I wanted to see that it was treated right.”
“You certainly did dress it up. It must be something to see in the light of day.” Elly stood leaning against the car, taking it in. She pointed toward the grove of spreading oak trees, halfway up the slope that rose gently from the river. “Look. The bandstand is still there.”
“You bet it is. Not the same one, of course. Not the one from fifty years ago. But it looks exactly the same. That was the whole idea. It’s the center piece of the park.” He took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “As it should be.”
“What does that mean? Why should it be special?”
“Don’t you remember? That was our first kiss, our first real kiss---not just a peck. Right there on the bandstand steps.”
“It was?” she asked, wondering what that obscure recollection, whether true or not, had to do with anything.
“It sure was.” Tom was relaxed now, nearly on the verge of laughing out loud. “Come on. I’ll bet a walk along the river trail will help you remember.”
He led them down a wide asphalt path toward the river. Small lights, nearly at ground level, illuminated their way as they walked through the night.
“This is amazing,” Elly exclaimed. “Paved paths, with lights. It sure beats stumbling around in the dark the way we used to.”
“Does it make you think someone was looking ahead? Maybe wanting it to look just right for when you came back?”
She was still processing his unlikely question when they reached the end of the paved trail. There Tom took her arm and pulled her to a stop. In that faint light it was hard to tell if he was smiling or pleading?
“Elly. I’ve told you before how wonderful it is to have you back home.”
“Tom, you ....”
Gently, he placed his hand over her mouth.
“Please. Let me finish. I want you to hear this.” He paused, composing his thoughts. “You didn’t know it, because you weren’t here. But I’ve been bouncing around for years, trying to get my bearings. Things just got more and more confusing. There was no place for me at the funeral home. The girls had that under control.
"It seemed like there was nothing for me to be doing, nothing to look forward to. That’s why I got back into the real estate business.
“Then I heard that you were back in Tanner. There had been lots of times over the years when I wished you were here. But that was just day dreaming. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t a dream anymore. It was real.” In the dim half-light Elly felt his unseen stare.
“You see, for all those years, when I wished things were like they were back then, I always believed that first kiss on the bandstand was something special---something that was meant to be.”
A moment later Elly noted the reflected glint of tears in his eyes. His voice was shaky as he paused to look off toward the river. “I didn’t know how, but I always knew that you’d find your way back here. That you would realize that we were supposed to be together. I just knew that.“
He paused, trying to read her reaction. It was too dark to tell what she was thinking. “Look,” he said. “You’ve had a long day. Especially after a hectic move and all that. I’ve said enough for now. All I wanted was a chance to tell you what I’m thinking and how I feel.”
Smiling up at him Elly took his hand in both of hers. “Tom. What you’re remembering was a long time ago. We were just kids then. We’re not kids anymore.”
She hesitated, knowing it was not the time to explain more fully. “But you’re right. I am tired. I do need some time to settle in and see where my life is going.”
Tom was absolutely certain the right way to end their evening together was a repeat of the special kiss he remembered so well. He also realized that Elly was not ready for that. That would have to wait for another time. For now he offered her his arm as they walked silently back to the car.
At Clint Harris’ modest home, beyond the Southern Pacific tracks that divided Tanner, Sunday morning was starting later than usual. That was not surprising, since Saturday night’s post-reunion festivities had lasted far beyond the brothers’ normal bedtime.
Half a dozen members of the 1955 class had gathered at Davy’s Dive, where over a few beers they revisited well-remembered high school escapades. Swapping lies and telling jokes, they had relived school-boy triumphs, real and imagined, before moving on to what had become a more natural pastime---bragging on their grandchildren.
In truth, both brothers considered that late-night gathering at Davy’s well worth a few hours lost sleep, though it did mean that Gary’s breakfast was not on the table until after nine that morning.
“Damn. I haven’t had that much beer in a while,” Gary moaned as he handed Clint his plate. “I’d almost forgot how the morning-after feels.”
“You had your share all right,” Clint nodded. “But you couldn’t keep up with Perry.”
“Well who could. No need to wonder where that gut of his comes from. He must weigh two-fifty.”
Gary topped off their coffee then sat down. “I’ll tell you what. The best part of the whole doings was listening to Bob Rawlins talk about his grandson. You have to admit, he’s one proud grandpa.”
“He should be. The kid’s really good. Might be a Division One player.”
“Yeah. He’s good. But the fun part was watching Bob bust his buttons telling about the boy. Hell, old Bob never got more than a few minutes playing time in school. He was usually on the bench. Last night he was front and center. It was his turn to stand tall.”
Gary took a minute to finish his scrambled eggs before asking, “So tell me, brother. As a long-time judge of class reunions, how did this one stack up?”
“I’m not sure what qualifies me as an expert,” Clint replied. “But I thought it was pretty good. It seemed like we had a good turnout for fifty years. Though it was a little shocking to see how fast we’re dying off.”
He paused to consider that sad fact. “I was thinking about Jay Black. Just a few months ago he was running around and raising hell. Remember? We saw him down at the bowling alley. Now he’s gone. It’s hard to get your mind around something like that---so quick and so final.”
For a few minutes they were quiet, turning to the remains of their meal, struggling to comprehend the reality of their friend’s swift and permanent departure. Finally it was Gary who broke the silence, hoping for a more upbeat mood. “So how about the folks who were there? I thought it was a good group.”
“Yeah, it was,” Clint agreed. “Except some of them were really showing their age.”
“Hey. We’re closing in on seventy. Aren’t we entitled to look it?”
“Of course we are. But you saw Roy Mellon. Man, he looked ninety.”
“He’s probably been up against some hard times. Probably some health problems. You never know.”
“He should have taken care of himself.”
“Well, who knows what we’re born with?” Gary countered. “It’s kind of spooky when you think about it. Just think, the face I had as a kid was already programmed to look like this when I got to be sixty-nine. There isn’t much I could do about it, except be thankful that I’m still around at sixty-nine.”
“You mean you can’t blame anyone for all those wrinkles?”
“I could. But it wouldn’t change a thing. I’d still look like this. Kind of depressing. Isn’t it?” Gary was laughing at the certainty of it---sidetracked for a moment by ‘aging’ thoughts he normally chose to push aside.
Day to day, as long as he was feeling good, those sometimes-morbid concerns seldom crossed his mind. On the other hand, a fifty-year reunion was apt to be an effective reminder.
“But you know what? Even though she’d changed a lot I recognized Claudia the second I saw her. She looked different. But something was the same. I’m not sure I can explain it, but I knew it was her.”
“I thought she looked sort of scared at first, " Clint noted. Like she might turn around and walk out. At least until you tracked her down.”
“Of course she was nervous. She hadn’t been around those folks for fifty years. That would have to be intimidating. Seeing me right off the bat only made it worse.”
“I thought you two had hit it off pretty good at first,” Clint said. “She was with you for dinner. But after she danced with you I never saw her again.”
“She caught up with some old girl friends. Near as I could tell they were having a great time. At least they were loud. I wanted to see her before we left, but she’d already gone.”
So, does it feel like something to build on?”
“Something to build on?” Gary repeated to himself. Was that how it felt? It might have been different if he had known he would see her there. At least there would have been time to better prepare his defenses---a way to stand up to her unexpected charges. Instead, the element of surprise had been hers. Now on the morning after, in light of his poor showing, was he ready to claim there was ‘something to build on’?
“I don’t know,” he offered. “At first it seemed like there might be. I thought she was glad to see me, until she gave me an earful about what a louse I’d been and how I’d hurt her. By the time she walked away I wasn’t feeling too hopeful.”
“You didn’t ask her to dance again, did you?”
“Are you kidding? I sure as hell didn’t need to hear all that stuff again.”
“I suppose it’s just as well,” Clint said, hoping to offer some degree of consolation. “It’s a long drive to Lawrence. Nothing you’d want to do on a regular basis.”
“I guess that’s true.” Gary rubbed his chin as a grin came to his lips. “Still, it was nice to see her again.”
A moment later Clint was at the kitchen counter, ready for his part of the morning’s chores---gathering plates, bowls, and cups to fill the dishwasher.
Above the clanking of dishes Gary was ready to take them in a different direction. “Haven’t heard you say much about Elly Beyers. Why do you suppose that is?”
“It’s Elly Warren,” Clint reminded him. “And what is there to say? Some outlaw blackmailed me into dancing with her. So I did. And that’s that.”
“Come on, brother. I’m not blind. You looked happy enough out there with her. And for two dances, I might add.”
“It was fine once I got over the butterflies. Though I’m sure my first impression left something to be desired.”
“It looked like she was enjoying herself.”
“I suppose what you saw was her laughing at me.”
Clint was grinning at the thought of those embarrassing first moments. Did he remember correctly? Had she actually scolded him for being intimidated, and in the next breath tell him she was glad he had asked her to dance? “I can tell you one thing. She’s a very straight-forward kind of lady. Says what’s on her mind.”
Gary was laughing to himself, unwilling to let Clint off the hook so easily. The spark he detected in his brother’s response had been absent far too long, ever since Karen’s passing nearly two years before.
“You liked it,” Gary declared. “Didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I suppose I did. But it was just a couple of dances, that’s all. Besides, she spent most of the night being cozy with old fat Tom. They left together. So you can bet that was my last dance with Elly.”
“Hey. She lives here now. You’ll probably see her around.”
“Oh. I’ll see her all right,” Clint said. “Bill Stanton told me last night that Elly had agreed to help out on the Hospital Foundation fund drive. She’ll be on the Executive Committee, like me. We meet every other week, so I’ll see her then.”
“There you are. You’ll see her every couple of weeks and get to know her. Who knows where that can lead.”
Clint was shaking his head. He closed the dishwasher door, pushed the buttons to start the machine, then dried this hands. “Mark my words," he said. "It won’t take long for Elly Warren to hook up with her country club friends. That’s Esther, Tom, and all the others. You know damn well there’s no place for me in that crowd.”
“I suppose time will tell,” Gary nodded. “For now we’d better get ready for church. I just hope the choir isn’t too loud this morning. My head’s not up to too much racket.”
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