For two days, ever since his ‘soulmate’ conversation with Claudia, there had been no sign nor sight of Clint. He had not told Gary and Claudia he was leaving, so his absence took them by surprise. After dinner on Wednesday they checked out his park model, but he was not there.
While Gary assured himself over and over there was no reason to worry….he worried. Claudia noted her husband’s concern, but said nothing. If Clint had left to look for his so-called ‘soulmate’ there was no reason to upset Gary by rehashing the matter. Still they were both relieved when, seated at the patio table on Thursday afternoon, they looked up from their iced tea to see Clint’s dusty pickup pull up behind the Toad.
“Good to see you could find your way home,” Gary said while Claudia went inside to get a glass for Clint. “Where’d you disappear to?”
“Hey, are you playing house mother now? Do I need to sign out or get your written permission before I leave?”
It took a second or two for Gary to reply. “I suppose you’re right. Why the hell should we care what happens to you?”
A moment later Claudia returned to find the brothers staring silently in opposite directions. She handed the glass of tea to Clint and asked, “So where have you been?”
Nodding his thanks for the cooling drink, Clint asked, “Have you guys ever been down to Slab City?”
“Slab City?” Gary repeated, rejoining the conversation. “The golf guys were talking about that the other day. I don’t know much about it though.”
“It’s south of here. Down by the Salton Sea. It’s just a ragtag bunch of trailers, campers, and motor homes scattered out in the sagebrush. There’s even a few tents.”
“Sounds like quite a place. Something a guy wouldn’t want to miss. Was it worth a two day’s look?”
“Hey, don’t be knocking Slab City. There’s lots of stuff down there. They’ve got a library, a church, social center, even a night club. But the best part was their mountain.”
“A mountain? Next to the Salton Sea?”
“Well, it’s not a real mountain. It’s man-made. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s made out of all sorts of stuff and junk. It’s a gaudy thing, with every color in the rainbow. Anyway, if you put all that together you’ve got Slab City. Not exactly a pretty sight…. just a bunch of very free spirits.”
“And you’re one of those free spirits now?” Gary taunted. “Like them? Is that it?”
Clint laughed softly at his brother’s sarcasm. “I guess I’m free, if that means I’m not tied down to anything. But I didn’t go down there to socialize. I was just looking for someplace to unwind for a bit, to get away from the background noise.”
“Is that what we are? ‘Background noise’?” Gary seemed not to be flattered by Clint’s description.
“What’s got you on the prowl, brother? I didn’t say that. I just needed to get away for a while. That’s all.”
“And that includes getting away from us. Right?”
Finally Claudia had seen enough. “Boys,” she ordered. “Will you both calm down. It’s nothing worth getting upset about.”
For the next minute the three of them were quiet, unsure how to continue, until Gary broke the awkward silence with, “So what’s this I hear about Tanya Worth?”
There was no containing Clint’s grim little laugh. He winked at Claudia, then turned back to Gary. “So that’s what this is all about? Sounds like you’re ready to cut right to the chase, eh?”
He slid his chair around to face Gary. “I expect you’ve heard about all there is to hear. I’ve been thinking about that a lot the last couple of days. Feels like something I need to do.”
“Damn it, Clint. Just listen to what you’re saying.” Gary was on his feet, kicking tiny pebbles off the patio. “If you did find her, and that’s a big if, you’d probably be talking to a married woman---who you haven’t seen in fifty years, who didn’t give a damn about you even then. She probably has a husband and a family, and absolutely no feelings for you. What kind of deal is that?”
“You might be right,” Clint nodded. “Except for that last part. If she is my soulmate she does have feelings for me. Even if she doesn’t know it yet.”
Gary was not prepared to hear much more. He stepped closer to Clint’s chair. “Brother, do you have any idea how crazy that sounds? If you heard someone else saying those things you’d know for sure they’d gone over the edge. Are you sure you weren’t smoking something weird down there in your Slab City?”
“I think you’re calling me a wacko,” Clint chuckled. “But I’ll overlook that, because I respect your opinion. I always have. Even when you’re wrong.” He leaned back, stroking the stubble of a three day beard, looking for a way to end their dead end discussion.
“But I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “I remember one time when you were right on the money. It was a Sunday afternoon, back home in Tanner….just the two of us. You were trying to convince me to ask Elly to be part of a double date, so you could take Claudia. And I was giving you all my reasons why that was a really dumb idea.”
Clint turned away, biting his lip, unwilling to look at his brother. “You got real emotional about that. You said that you had maybe one last chance to prove that you and Claudia Hafner could get back together. You also said you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you didn’t give it your best shot.” He glanced over his shoulder at Claudia, then Gary. “You remember that?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“Well, that’s where I am right now, brother. That’s how it feels. It may be wrong, even stupid. But I have to know.”
Elaine Newsome had never seen her father in such a dejected funk. Only weeks before it seemed that his move into Elly’s guest wing had resurrected Tom Berry’s naturally gregarious manner. Once again his family was enjoying the happy laughter and loud jokes that signaled the return of the family patriarch.
Then in a matter of days all that had vanished.... obliterated by a veil of stubborn silence. He had withdrawn from his own family. Though his daughters had no explanation for the dramatic change in their father’s behavior, Elly was sure she knew exactly what was behind the surly ‘new’ Tom Berry.
Whatever the reason, Elaine was hopeful that renewing her father’s involvement in the family business would improve his outlook. But that hopeful outcome depended on his willingness to at least discuss the possibility. To that end she had enlisted Elly’s help.
On Friday afternoon the three of them….Elaine, Elly, and Tom in his power chair, gathered around the table in Elly’s dining room to discuss Elaine’s idea. In truth Elaine and Elly were there to explore options and look for answers. Tom, on the other hand, was there because Elly had bolted the door leading back to his guest wing apartment, leaving him no other choice.
For the first few minutes the two women greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries. Then Elaine took a moment to spell out her hopes for their meeting. At that point their dialogue seemed to stall before it began….bogged down in Tom’s obstinate refusal to take part. He certainly had no intention of being part of their discussion about his future.
Again Elaine explained how helpful her father’s experience would be in dealing with the business issues she faced daily. And again she and Elly sat through Tom’s well rehearsed response.
“There’s nothing I could do that you can’t do better on your own.”
“Dad. You know more about the funeral-home business than I ever will.” Elaine’s frustration, fueled by similar conversations over the past weeks, was becoming more evident by the minute. ”I just don’t understand it. You’ve always wanted to help out before. Now you don’t. You just sit around all day, doing nothing. You’re going to waste.”
Tom reached over to pat Elaine’s shoulder. “Honey, you have to face facts. Your old Dad is used up. He’s not worth a thing to anyone.” For the first time he turned his unhappy smile toward Elly. “Going to waste is about all I can do.”
Elly was choking back her anger. Playing the victim was not a good fit for Tom. Yet on second thought, perhaps she knew how to put an end to that….a way to turn his upset into something more productive. Without bothering to reassess that notion she plunged ahead, ready to have her say. Her tone was soft and quiet when she said, “Tom, you know very well that we’re not being fair to Elaine.”
She looked across at him, wondering if he understood where she was taking them. “Your daughter doesn’t realize that you are really talking to me, letting me know how I made you feel. She has no idea what we, you and I, have gone through to get here.”
“That’s enough, Elly,” Tom commanded. “This has nothing to do with all that.”
“No, Tom. We can’t stop now. What Elaine is talking about, what she and the others are seeing, has everything to do with the baggage you and I are dragging behind us.” He had not seen her caring, heartfelt smile in a very long time.
“We owe it to her. We owe it to ourselves.”
With that Elly turned to Elaine. “You see, my dear, you might think of your father and me as a love story that didn’t work out.”
“Elly! For God sakes,” Tom protested. For a moment he looked as though he might pull his chair from the table and escape.
“It’s okay, Tom. Elaine needs to hear this. And I need to say it.” She shifted her chair to face the daughter. “You see, it started back in high school, a very long time ago. That was a good time. We agree on that.” Her smile had returned.
“But then when I came back to Tanner last summer, after forty- some years, things got kind of confused. In fact they got out of hand. We found out that our love story was broken. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just wasn’t the same after all that time.”
She paused to consider her words. “And before it was over, your father was hurt and, in a different way, I was hurt too.”
Tom was quiet now….hearing in Elly’s quiet explanation the tortured truth he had not been able to offer Elaine and the others. No matter how much he had wanted them to know, he had never found the words or the will, to let his hurt and disgrace be seen by his own children.
“Then, your father came back to Tanner, to the nursing home,” Elly continued. “He was certain that I would never speak to him again. But he was wrong. I’m not sure he believes it yet, but I do care about him and what he’s going through. That’s why I asked him to come live here.”
“That was the nicest thing you could have done,” Elaine interrupted. “I know he appreciates that. Right, Daddy?”
Tom simply nodded, so Elly added, “It was the right thing to do. I know that. And I think your father knows the price I paid for making that choice.” Though Elaine did not understand that obscure reference, she sensed that Elly’s sad pout might be a prelude to tears.
A moment later Elly cleared her throat and turned back to Tom. “Our love story can’t happen. And perhaps you blame me for that. But that’s no reason to turn your back on these lovely people who want to help you. They need you back. And you need them.”
Tom was squirming a bit. He glanced over at Elaine, trying to read her reaction to Elly’s very sanitized version of his failed love mission. Was she disappointed in her father? If so, it did not show.
“She’s right, Dad,” Elaine implored. “We have to go on from here, all of us. It has nothing to do with feeling sorry for you. It’s about you helping us.”
Elly stood and pushed her chair back under the table. “I apologize for being in a hurry, but I have a meeting at the Club. I need to be going.”
She walked around the table to stand behind Tom’s power chair, with her hands on his shoulders. “You are so lucky, Tom, to have these girls who need you and want to help. It would be a shame to let them down.”
“Thank you, Elly,” Elaine said, grinning at her father. “I think he knows how lucky he is to have a friend like you.” Elaine turned to lead the way down the hall toward the guest wing.
Tom maneuvered his power chair away from the table. Stopping beside Elly he reached for her hand. “I really didn’t know how to tell them. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand. In fact, I wasn’t sure that I understood.” He squeezed her hand, then motored on to catch up with Elaine.
By Friday evening Claudia had finalized the couple’s Christmas plans. Dennis and Cyndi were looking forward to hosting Christmas in their San Jose home. The whole clan would be together for three days, leaving Gary and Claudia plenty of time to get back to Indio for the park’s gala New Year’s Eve celebration. A call to Barbara in Lawrence confirmed that she and Connie would drive down from Oregon for the long weekend, making it a real family holiday.
For their own Christmas travels Gary and Claudia would leave the Tanner Hilton at the Sanderson Park and make the trip to San Jose in the Toad. Starting a day early would allow for a stop at Ojai….and Freedom City.
With those arrangements made, there remained one last piece of business for Claudia to deal with. Their original Christmas itinerary had included Tanner and spending time with Elly. They needed to inform her of their change in plans, now that Tanner was no longer part of the their holiday travels. Claudia had called earlier on Saturday morning but Elly had not been home. Now, shortly after lunch, she tried again.
This time Elly answered after the first ring. “It’s so good to hear from you,” she said when Claudia identified herself. “I’ve been hoping you’d call.”
“I’m sorry it took so long,” Claudia admitted. “ had said I would be in touch when we caught up with Clint. So I knew I owed you a call.”
“You did track him down?” Claudia was sure she could hear the relief in Elly’s voice. “Where was he, if I may ask?”
“He’d stopped at Sacramento to see Sam. Then he drove down to Big Sur, on the coast.”
“Mike and I used to go there. We stayed in Carmel sometimes during the golf tournament. It’s a lovely place.”
“I think Clint went there to be alone. To have some time to think.”
“I know the feeling.” There was a long pause before she asked, “Is he okay?”
“If you mean, does he have everything figured out, I’d say probably not. But he seems to be working on it.” Claudia was not prepared to explain Clint’s soulmate distractions. In fact, it seemed a good time to change the subject.
“Anyway, the reason I called is that our Christmas plans have changed. We won’t be going back to Tanner after all. We’ll be in San Jose. I think Clint may be going to Sam’s in Sacramento.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I was looking forward to hearing about your adventures. I suppose it’ll be rather lonely around here.”
“We wanted to see you too. But with gas prices the way they are it would just about break the budget.” Again their awkward pause stretched into long seconds before Claudia asked, “So, how are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine. I went shopping with the girls yesterday, in Portland.” She laughed softly at the thought of it. “It felt like we were teenagers again. We laughed and giggled. Told stupid jokes. It felt good, like the old days.”
“Sounds like you enjoyed that.”
“I did.” Her confident tone was ebbing. “But then it was over and I came home to an empty house. There I was all alone again, feeling sorry for myself.”
“Isn’t Tom there?”
“Oh, yes. He’s just on the other side of the big door. The one I keep locked.”
“Wouldn’t he be some company for you?”
“Actually we’re getting along a little better these days. But you know very well Tom’s company isn’t what I want.”
“Aren’t there any single fellows at your club. Clint seemed to think you could find plenty of company there.”
“He did, did he? I’m sure he has no idea how wrong he is about that. There are some nice fellows there. I think I’ve met them all....but there’s no one I would consider my type.”
They were quiet again as Claudia searched for a way to end their depressing dialogue. Suddenly, Elly’s excited declaration rescued them from their silence. “I just had an idea.”
“What was that?”
There was a new lilt in Elly’s voice. “Ever since Mike left, my brother Don has been telling me I ought to spend some time with his family in Sacramento.”
“Yes” Claudia saw through Elly’s renewed enthusiasm at once, but was not willing to fill in the blanks for her friend.
“That would work, you know. If Clint’s going to be at Sam’s for the holidays, I could see him there.”
“Perhaps so,” Claudia agreed. “I have to warn you though. He’s been pretty hard to pin down lately. He’s here for a day or two at a time, then off somewhere else for two or three days. I can’t promise he’ll even get to Sam’s.”
“Would you tell him I’ll be at Don’s?” Elly was pleading now. “He’s in the phone book….Donald Beyers. Clint could find it. Would you do that?”
To Elly’s surprise her anxious question produced no answer at all. By then Claudia had decided against placing herself in the middle of a Clint and Elly interchange. They would have to sort that out on their own....an unlikely prospect given Clint’s new soulmate leanings. Instead, reflecting on an earlier conversation with Elly, Claudia bluntly changed the subject.
“Do you remember, when Gary was in the hospital? You went on and on about how he needed me there.”
“Of course I remember. It was true too.”
“Yes, it was,” Claudia said. “But when you first mentioned it I had a hard time believing it could be like that. As far as I knew I’d always been the one who was ‘needing.’ Not him.”
She paused to switch the phone to the other ear. “So how about you? Do you ever feel yourself needing? Because what I’m hearing right now sounds like an Elly Warren who ‘needs.’ In fact, I think she is ‘needing’ a lot and I’m not sure she even realizes that.”
At once, Elly was forming her denial, ready to repel Claudia’s unflattering assertion. What gave her the right to make such a judgment? To ‘need’ would mean giving something, or someone, more influence over her life and choices than she was willing to grant.
Seconds later she set her own judgments aside to reconsider Claudia’s right to be offering her insights. Not only was the lady wise and intuitive, she was the most honest friend she had....the only one who cared enough to speak the hard truth.
“I suppose I know that,” Elly finally replied. “But I don’t like to admit it. I’d like to believe that I don’t ‘need’ anything, or anybody. Not after the way it hurt to ‘need’ Mike.”
“I think that’s worth knowing,” Claudia offered. “Don’t you? It might help you sort things out. ” It was time to end this. They were inching toward ground that Elly must cover on her own.
“Elly, I have to go. Please don’t get your hopes up about Clint being in Sacramento. But whether we’re home or in San Jose we’ll have our phone on. So please stay in touch.”