Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Long Way Home - Chapter 14

           Would he find the answers there?


Big Sur had been his sanctuary once before….a solitary place he had retreated to fifty years earlier, hoping to make sense of an all-too-brief intrusion into his already awkward teenage routine.

Now he sensed that same need for answers he had yet to find. Perhaps an afternoon in that rugged, oceanside wilderness would provide the clarity he was seeking.

Those answers would be illusive….until the used-book store display caught his eye. There was little to recommend the thin, well-worn volume….except perhaps its title….Where Is Your Soulmate? Was that a sign, meant for him?




                                                      Chapter 14

It was late that afternoon before Gary and Claudia were finally settled in at Sanderson’s Sunland Park. By RV-park standards theirs was a spacious space that included a covered patio,  outdoor table and chairs, and tiny storage shed. With everything hooked up and stowed away they were ready for an exploratory stroll through the park. 

The official park map had the look of a oversized maze. Indeed, walking the tangle of crisscrossing lanes and unexpected cul-de-sacs felt exactly like that. Without their map Claudia was not at all sure they would have found their way back to the Tanner Hilton.

After a stop at the park office to arrange for mail delivery, they went looking for the tennis courts and the park’s two swimming pools. In front of the spacious multipurpose center they paused to study the posted social and activity schedule. It seemed there were enough special-interest events…..crafts clubs, hobby groups, game nights, and exercise classes…..to fill every waking hour. Inside the center Gary peeked into the well-equipped exercise room, wondering if it was too late in life to become a fitness freak.

Later, with dinner out of the way, there were two phone calls to be made before they could relax for the evening. It was time to let Dennis and Cyndi know of their visit with Laura, at least as much as they were willing to tell. Then a call to Clint would let him know they had arrived safely.

Claudia made the first call to Cyndi. Though it was only a few minutes long....it was an intense, emotional exchange filled with Cyndi’s eager questions, Claudia’s cautious answers, and Cyndi’s tearful, but happy reaction. By the time she hung up Claudia had explained as much of Laura’s situation as she could without setting up Cyndi and Dennis for a terrible disappointment. Then, with that piece of business taken care of, she handed the cell phone to Gary.

It was early evening, just before seven, so Gary was not surprised when no one answered at the Harris home. Clint must be at Elly’s. Claudia retrieved that number from her purse and Gary dialed again.

“Hello.” Elly answered. 

“Hello yourself,” Gary replied. “How are things in wet and rainy Tanner?”

“I beg your pardon. We didn’t have a drop of rain today.”

“Did you need sunscreen, like we did?”

“No. We didn’t need sunscreen.” Though she had recognized Gary’s voice at once, it was his lighthearted greeting had her on edge....wondering if he had heard the most recent news from Tanner, of Clint’s defection.

A second later Gary confirmed her suspicions. “Look, I’m just calling to let Clint know we made it in good shape. We’re in Indio, all set up....ready to live like the locals, at least the local snowbirds.”

“Gary.” There was no playful lilt in her voice. “It sounds like you haven’t heard. I thought you’d have probably talked to Clint by now.”

“What haven’t we heard?” He flashed a puzzled frown in Claudia’s direction. “What are you talking about?”

“About Clint and me.”

Phone in hand, Gary walked to the sofa and sat down. “Okay, Elly,” he continued in playful frustration, mostly for Claudia’s benefit. “What is it this time? What about you and Clint?”

It was clear he did not know. And Elly was not prepared for a lengthy, blow by blow description of their falling out. But how else could she explain? “Gary, Clint’s not here. He’s not in Tanner. As far as I know he’s in California. In fact I thought he was probably with you by now.”

“You thought he was with us.” he repeated for Claudia. “What makes you think he was coming to California?”

“That’s where he said he was going. He left here the day after Thanksgiving.”

“Thanksgiving?” he echoed. “That was days ago.”

“Have you tried his cell phone?”

“No, but I will.” Though he was not sure how to ask, there was no denying his next question. “It’s none of my business, Elly. But I take it there’s a reason why he’s down here somewhere and you’re up there. Am I right?”

For long seconds Gary heard only the soft static hum of the phone connection. Had she hung up? Then he heard Elly clear her throat. “You’re going to find out anyway,” she finally said. “I’m sure you won’t like it any more than your brother.”

“I won’t like what?”

“Tom came back to Tanner, to a nursing home.”

“Tom came back to a nursing home,” he repeated for Claudia. “In Tanner?” 

Again there was a long silence. “Yes, in Tanner. But there was no way he could live there. It wasn’t working out at all. So I asked him to come stay at my place, in the guest wing.”

A moment later Gary was again repeating Elly’s words, because he could not believe he had heard them correctly the first time. “Let me be sure I have this right. You asked Tom to move in with you? Is that what you’re saying?”

His angry sarcasm sounded so much like Clint’s, promising a confrontation she was not willing to face. “Not with me. In my guest wing.”  

Gary stopped to compose a response, but there was no way to get past his angry surprise. “You knew exactly how Clint felt,” he said as calmly as he could manage. “And you chose Fat Tom instead.” There was more he wanted to say, but the words would not come. Instead he slammed the phone into Claudia’s hand, stood, and stomped out the side door to the patio .

For an instant Claudia was not sure whether Gary had hung up or simply passed Elly on to her. She put the phone to her ear and heard nothing. “Are you there, Elly?” she asked.

“Claudia?” It was Elly’s turn to be confused. “What happened to Gary?”

“I think he’s too upset to talk right now.”

“It sounds like I’ve managed to run off both the Harris brothers.” Her sardonic laugh had Claudia frowning. “I must have the knack for sure. Just about every one I know is mad at me.”

There was a moment of silence followed by Claudia’s quiet question. “Are you mad at yourself?”

How was it, Elly wondered, that her quiet friend could, in a few simple words, get straight to the heart of the matter? How could she have known the one question Elly was hoping to avoid? 

“Claudia, maybe you can understand, even if Clint and Gary can’t. I asked Tom to stay in the guest wing, because I thought I owed him that. There’s absolutely nothing between us.”

“I believe that.”

“Well, Clint didn’t. I tried to explain it to him.” She felt herself relaxing, glad to finally find someone who understood. “I told him that everything would be just like before. We could do our things together. Have our dates. Nothing had to change.”

“You know what the problem is. Don’t you?” 

“The problem is Clint Harris. He wouldn’t listen. He’s just so stubborn....so set in his ways.”

“Elly, I’m sure there’s more to it than that.” Was she about to offend her friend? “You want a boyfriend....to do things with. Clint wants more than that. He’s not looking for a girlfriend. He wants someone to be with him all the time.”

Claudia paused, wondering if she had the right to make her point, then continued. “It may be one of those times when no one is right or wrong. You want different things, that’s all. If that’s really how it is then I suppose things have worked out the best for both of you.”

“It doesn’t feel that way at all. The ‘best way’ shouldn’t feel so empty. I didn’t want him to leave. I wish he was here now.”

Claudia was ready to check out. Those were issues for Elly to resolve. And Clint too. Until they did that, what could anyone else do to help? “Elly, I’m always here if you want to talk. We’ll get in touch with Clint. We'd like to know where he is.”

“Would you call me after you talk to him? Just so I know he’s okay.”

“I’ll get back to you.” 

Claudia ended the call, stood, and walked to the open side door. Outside, under the awning, Gary looked up at her from his lounge chair.

“Can you beat that?” he growled. “She went for old Fat Tom. All I can say is they deserve each other.”

She stepped down to the concrete pad and pulled a chair away from the picnic table. “Elly doesn’t have any feelings for Tom. But she does seem to feel responsible for the way things turned out.... responsible and guilty.”

“I don’t care why she did it,” came Gary’s defiant reply. “There’s no way in hell Clint could settle for that. It’s not natural.”

“Are you going to call Clint?” she asked. “We ought to find out where he is.”


                                ~~~


Early Wednesday morning in Sacramento, Clint joined Sam’s family for their goodbyes. It had been a pleasant visit. Yet even the welcome diversion of time spent with his grandchildren had not produced the peace of mind he hoped to find, or brought him any closer to knowing what had become of his dreams. 

In the course of a few short months his quiet, settled life had been transformed. Once-established bachelor routines had been swept away by his pursuit of Elly Warren....in a capricious cycle of exhilarating highs and depressing lows. With that possibility now out of reach he had come south, hoping to forget his loss. So far it seemed that forgetting was the one thing he could not remember to do.

The seductive lure of quiet contemplation, escaping the distracting background noise, was growing stronger. He needed time to understand his hurt and move beyond it. Leaving Sacramento that morning he headed west toward the Bay Area, recalling the first time he had felt that need to retreat, to seek calm reflection in the midst of chaos. 

It had been a time not unlike the present, when he had come face to face with a nagging urge to turn away from the world in an effort to make sense of conflicting life choices.

As the boring freeway miles passed, his thoughts wandered to a mind-place he had not visited in a very long time. There, to his surprise, he found among the jumble of long-forgotten memories an unexpected comfort. After all, he had confronted those same demons before and found a productive answer. Surely he could do that again.

It had been the fall of 1956 when Pvt. Clint Harris first drove through Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea on his way to the raw and awesome world of Big Sur. His military training at nearby Ft. Ord was nearly complete. In a matter of weeks he would be posted to an assignment on the east coast. 

Before that, however, there would be a two week furlough....an opportunity to pursue an elusive, altogether unlikely possibility. For days his thoughts had been held hostage by a single question. Was the slim chance of winning his dream worth the risk of a disappointing, even embarrassing, rejection? 

Tanya Worth had left Tanner Southside High at the end of their junior year. Only once in the eleven years she and Clint had been classmates had she shown the slightest interest in him....one time, for perhaps five minutes. 

Yet that immeasurably small bit of his sixty-eight years had remained a defining moment. The memory of Tanya’s unexpected attention, and the meaning he had assigned to it, had been indelibly imprinted in some seldom-visited corner of his mind.

As a young Private at Ft. Ord, nearly two years after last setting eyes on her, thoughts of Tanya Worth had resurfaced, arriving unsummoned in the form of full-blown daydreams....fanciful fantasies of her feelings for him and his own bold acceptance of her affection.

For days....in training classes, in quiet night times, even in the drudgery of KP....Tanya Worth had been his constant companion. Almost before he realized what was happening, for reasons he had never understood, the brief adolescent moment the two of them shared had blossomed into a compelling obsession, pleasant to think of, impossible to define in rational terms. 

It had been those ‘Tanya thoughts’ that had nudged him from the military babel of Ft. Ord to the soulful quiet of nearby Big Sur. There, in the brooding isolation of the rugged headlands, he had spent long hours pondering stubborn questions he had never faced before. 

Had there been some special meaning in those well-remembered junior-high moments spent with Tanya? Had it happened for a reason? Was their chance meeting really a matter of chance, or something more? And finally, the most important question of all....was he meant to reconnect with Tanya Worth?

Those youthful Big Sur hours, spent on a grassy knoll high above the crashing Pacific surf, had yielded the closest thing to an answer he would find. After scolding himself for ever hosting such improbable notions, he had come away convinced that the matter called for common sense, not seductive day dreams. 

Instead of pursuing the fantasy of a waiting and welcoming Tanya Worth he had returned to Tanner for his two week leave, investing his time in getting drunk and raising a little hell with his high-school buddies. In time those compellingTanya thoughts’ had retreated, perhaps waiting to resurface in the future.

Now, after a four-hour drive from Sam’s Sacramento home, Clint had returned to the scene of those earlier days....hoping for the same solace he had found there before. His first stop was in Salinas, at one time his back door to Ft. Ord, to find a budget motel and a quick lunch. 

He considered the possibility of a stroll through the downtown shopping area and perhaps a nap. But on second thought, why squander the afternoon? His destination was less than an hour’s drive away. Why wait until tomorrow? 

Big Sur State Park was a few miles down the coastal highway from Carmel....a spectacular drive across high headlands that dropped precipitously toward the churning Pacific surf. The park itself provided access to cliff-top paths, wide vistas, and secluded clearings....the kind that matched his desire to withdraw from prying eyes.

The wide boulder that Clint chose for his meditation seat that afternoon was above the well-traveled path, shielded by shrubs, unseen by passing hikers. The wild, thrashing surf was out of sight below the steep cliff, though its unceasing rumble provided a soothing backdrop. Once there it took an hour or more to subdue the busy mind-chatter that dominated his thoughts. By then subtle hints of his real purpose were coming into focus.

On a conscious level, he had come to contemplate his life in a post-Elly Warren world. That, of course, meant moving beyond the insistent thoughts of her and their time together. Yet, try as he might, she would not be pushed aside. It seemed his meditations only cemented her hold on his attention. By the end of that first afternoon he understood that the answers he hoped for would take longer than expected.

Returning to his Salinas room, Clint took a few minutes to freshen up for dinner. He had passed a decent looking restaurant a few blocks down the street so he started walking in that direction. 

It was a decidedly-downscale neighborhood, filled with once-fashionable shops that were now home to a new generation of less-affluent businesses ....pawn shops, second-hand emporiums, and used-book stores, like the one just two doors down from the restaurant. He was in need of something to read, so he slowed to check out its window display.

Peering through the streaky glass he spotted it at once. It was the first book he saw. In that brief second his search was over. It was a well-worn volume....blue, thin, and hard bound, with no dust cover. Its title was spelled out in faded gold letters....Where Is Your Soulmate? 

He stopped in his tracks. Was it a sign....the way that title, with its mention of a soulmate, grabbed his attention? Or was it simply superstitious nonsense? 

Without answering his own question he stepped into the bookstore. Minutes later he emerged with his new book, again asking himself if there was something mysterious at work in that seemingly innocent transaction.

Except for his tendency to linger over breakfast with his morning newspaper, mealtimes for Clint Harris were seldom extended events. His natural inclination was to finish his meal and move on. That evening would prove to be an exception. 

Twenty minutes after his dishes had been cleared away the waitress pointedly noted that she needed his table. He looked up with an embarrassed grin, slipped a napkin into the book to mark his place, and dug in his wallet for a larger than normal tip.

Back in his room Clint watched the last few minutes of the local news. Then, stacking his two pillows against the flimsy headboard, he stretched out on the bed preparing to learn more about soulmates. 

Only when he felt the hard lump under his hip did he think to retrieve the cell phone from his belt. Before setting it on the side table he paused to check for missed messages. A few minutes later he was dialing Gary’s number and waiting for an answer.

“Hi there, brother,” he said when Gary answered. “My phone is telling me you left a message. What’s going on? Have you found an RV place yet?”

“Where the hell are you?” Gary replied, dispensing with formalities. “Elly says you’re in California.”

“You talked to her, eh? Why’d you do that?”

“Why do you think? We were looking for you. You weren’t at home. It seemed like you were probably at her place. Turned out you weren’t.” Gary felt the anger welling up again. “She told me you’d headed south.”

“Did she tell you why?”

“Yeah, she told me.”

“And?”

“And I gave the phone to Claudia. Anything I had to say was probably better left unsaid.”

“That’s about all you could do,” Clint agreed. Did he sound as convincing as he hoped, or at least more than he felt?

“So, where are you now? Are you planning to come down here, to Indio?”

“You’re in Indio? Are you settled in for a while?”

“Yeah. It’s a nice place. I suppose we’ll stay here for a few months. Where are you?”

“I’m in Salinas. I plan to spend a couple of days up here. Actually, out at Big Sur, on the coast. I’ve got some things to sort out. Then I’ll head south. Probably get down there by the weekend.”

“Hey look,” Gary said, scolding himself for what would surely sound too sentimental. “You take care of yourself. Okay? Don’t let that stuff get you down.”

“Don’t you worry," Clint answered. "I’m doing fine. Things played out kind of like I thought they would. So it wasn’t really much of a shock.” There was no need to say more.

“Anything we can do?”

“There is, now that you mention it. Is there any place around there where I can rent a room for a week or two?” Clint was glad he had thought of that. Their cramped motor home would not be a good fit for the three of them.

“I don’t know what’s available. This is the busy season. I suppose most places are booked.” Gary said, before pulling the phone from his ear as Claudia whispered to him. 

“That’s right. Claudia just reminded me. There are a couple of park models here at Sunland Park that are available on a monthly basis. There’s a sign about that in the office.”

“A park model? What’s that?”

“It’s kind of like an oversized travel trailer. Fixed to the site. It say’s they’re furnished, but I suppose it’s pretty basic stuff, nothing fancy.”

“I sure as hell don’t need anything fancy. Why don’t you check it out for me. If it’s not too steep I’d rent one for a month. Let me know.”

With that business taken care of, Clint set his cell phone on the night stand and stretched out again, ready to return to the world of soulmates.

He finished his book that night, all one hundred-ten pages. The next morning he began a second reading. By noon he had returned to the thoughtful seclusion of his Big Sur retreat, intent on continuing his study of life choices. In a matter of hours he sensed his energies being drawn in a new and wholly unexpected direction. 

A day later, on the third afternoon, Clint returned from Big Sur more confused than ever. The urgent questions that had drawn him there had faded. In their place were intriguing new thoughts. 

He lay on the bed in the half light, lost in the immediacy of new priorities. Hurtful thoughts of life without Elly Warren had given way to quiet, intense wondering about soulmates. More particularly, those questions had become centered on the person who might be his own soulmate....the one destined to be with him. According to his book she was the one he must find, the one who could make him whole again.


1 comment: