Dinner at the Asylum was always early, never later than five o’clock....wedged between Linda Fedder’s two jobs. Sue Ann usually arrived home from her night shift at the paper mill by eight in the morning. Most days she was up and around by mid-afternoon, having managed five or six hours of sleep, ready to prepare the evening meal with help from Bonnie, Sandy, and Gail.
On that Monday evening the others were already seated when Sue Ann set the macaroni and cheese in the center of the dining room table, along with a dish of vegetables and a plate of bread. Like most evenings, it would be the only time all day the five of them were together in one place, making it a natural forum for announcements and special instructions.
“Ron Pierce brought the application forms by the restaurant this morning,” Linda said between bites. “For the food court at the State Fair.”
Her information was directed at Sandy and Gail, who were pretending not to hear. “He’s sure he can get each of you forty hours that week if you turn them in by this Friday.”
“Grandma,” Sandy’s expressive whine was the first sign of resistance. “What about the concert on the last Saturday night? Everyone will be there. And we’ll be working. That’s not fair.”
Linda was laughing softly as she reached for another slice of bread. “Please, dear. Give your old Grandma some credit. That’s why Mr. Pierce wants your applications early, so he can schedule your hours for the first part of the Fair week. That way you’ll get forty hours of work and still have Saturday night off.”
If Sandy was willing to accept that compromise, Gail was showing signs of being a harder sell. “Do we really have to do this?” she grumbled. “Other kids go to the fair to have fun....to hang out and mess around. We’ll just be there to work.” Then, turning to Bonnie. “Please, Mom. Everyone will see us doing some dorky job, in some dorky uniform.”
“And that’s what bothers you, isn’t it?” Bonnie took the lead now, prepared to debate her daughter’s priorities. She had always considered herself a firm and caring mother, and nothing about her wheelchair confinement had changed that.
“We’ve gone over this a hundred times before. I’m glad your friends can spend money all week long. But you know very well you can’t afford to do that. If you want those fancy shoes you were talking about, you had better plan on earning some money.”
As often happened, Gail was prepared to take her case to a higher authority. “Grandma. It’s not fair. Why do we have to be the only ones working during the fair?”
Just as predictably, Linda refused to be drawn into their interfamily exchange. “Don’t you ‘Grandma’ me, young lady. You certainly won’t be the only ones working. Besides, you heard your mother. If you want something bad enough, you’ll have to earn it.”
Drawing a deep breath she reminded herself to stay calm. Then, as was her way when the girls’ complaints grew too insistent, she took her coffee and retreated to the back steps.
There, in the early-evening quiet, Linda sat looking out over the scruffy back yard as the tangle of troubling thoughts returned. There were times when it seemed that her trials, in one form or another, would never end. Who could blame the girls for their reluctance to accept the family’s situation? After all, they had heard the same depressing logic since childhood. In their teenage universe of affluent peers, the hurt she saw their eyes was the most natural of reactions.
Who wouldn’t be frustrated? She knew all the pertinent facts and she found them frustrating. Her two pay checks and Sue Ann’s one, along with Bonnie’s modest disability stipend, were scarcely enough to feed and clothe the five of them. There was no health insurance. The occasional medical surprise was sometimes enough to set the budget back for months.
Their home was in a state of disrepair that required constant expenditures....some modest, some not-so-modest. And always, there were the girls’ hopeful appeals for the right clothes and the right activities.
Taken together, the toxic blend of financial issues was enough to give anyone a headache. Yet year after year she had faced that litany of troubling problems with an unspoken assurance that they would not defeat her. Decades of coping, of dealing with the sad legacy of a hopeful start turned sour, had given her that confidence.
Now, however, there was a menacing new threat demanding her attention. If anything could bring them down, it would be that frightening new possibility....the one coming ever closer, the one she could no longer avoid.
Years before, when she accepted Bonnie into her household, Linda had not realized how expensive it would be to modify the Asylum to accommodate her paraplegic niece.
A bulky, electrically-operated hospital bed and wheelchair were obvious requirements, along with renovations to the bathroom and Bonnie’s bedroom. It had taken two days for the contractors to reinforce the ceiling and install the overhead grab bar Bonnie used to get in and out of bed. An outside ramp to the sidewalk took nearly a week, and more dollars, to construct. Finally, there was the used van, equipped with a power lift, that made the family mobile.
Those expenditures had to be made. It was the only way to make Bonnie part of the family. A home-equity loan had allowed them to have the work done. Now, after three years of late payments, penalties, and rate increases, the original fifteen-thousand dollar loan had ballooned to nearly eighteen thousand. And still there were months when Linda could not make the full three hundred and twenty dollar loan payment.
Ron Clifton, the bank’s local loan officer, was an old friend. For months he had lobbied the bank’s Loan Committee to give Linda some extra time. Finally, just two days earlier, he had been forced to tell her that he could not put off ‘a resolution’ any longer.
There were tears in her eyes when she asked Mr. Clifton what options she had. His response did nothing to make her feel better.
“You might be able to get a sub-prime loan,” he explained. “But that’s not really an answer. You’d pay extra points and higher interest. Your payments would be even higher than now.”
Linda did not doubt his regret when he offered, “Perhaps you’d better see if you could sell the place. That would probably get you more than having the bank foreclose.”
There, seated on the back steps, she stared into her cold coffee, then glanced at her watch. It was five-forty. Time to be off to work. As she walked back through the dining room her worried frown was easily noticed by the others. Perhaps that was what prompted Sandy to offer her hopeful bit of news.
“Grandma, Gail and I made twelve dollars Saturday on the cherries we took to Rawlins Market. Mrs. Rawlins said they’d like some more. We’re going back to Ma Fedder’s on Wednesday.”
“Good for you two.”
That had Linda reminding herself how often it happened. About the time she was ready to give up on the girls, they stepped forward to show their true colors.
Tom Fedder and Rick spent Monday afternoon exploring the Orchard House and surrounding outbuildings. Moving from room to room, Tom was making a mental inventory of items he wanted to take back to Highland City. It was soon apparent their canopy-covered pickup could not possibly hold everything that caught his eye. By that evening he was seriously considering the possibility of renting a truck to transport their treasures. In that case, he and Rick would each drive a rig home.
That plan, however, failed to address what had become a more pertinent issue....what to do with Betty Fedder’s car? The ten-year old Audi sedan, which had been stored safely in the garage, had just thirty-thousand miles on the odometer. Judging by the thick layer of dust that covered its maroon finish it had not been driven for months, though the license-plate tags were still current. Not surprisingly, Rick had immediately staked his claim on ‘Grandma’s wheels.’
That evening the two of them had dinner at Gilroy’s, the North End’s most respectable dining establishment, located in the building that once housed the People’s Savings Bank. Back home after their meal they sat in the front room of the Orchard House, half-following a televised ball game. Actually, while Tom watched the game Rick was watching his dad, processing his own stream of questions, the ones their new surroundings were triggering.
In all their years together Tom had never once demonstrated a willingness to talk of his roots. There they were, sitting in the very house he had called home as a boy. Yet Rick, his avowed son, knew almost nothing of the old man’s boyhood, family, or home town. He had never been closer to his dad’s past....and still it remained a mystery.
On Tuesday morning Tom returned to Paul Corin’s office for an update on the property-auction plans. It was only twenty-four hours since their first talk, which seemed to him a very short time in which to process something so complicated.
“I think we’ve had a pretty good response,” Paul explained. “Four of the six prospects are definitely interested. They’ll be at the house Thursday afternoon for a walk through. One of the fellows who wasn’t interested suggested another investor in Tanner. I called him, and he plans to be here on Thursday."
“That would give us five possible bidders. Is that right? Will there be any more?”
“That’s all. Just those five.” Paul set his file folder on the side table and leaned back in his chair.
“We don’t want any last-minute bidders," he continued. "The process works best when everyone who enters a bid was there for the walk through. That way everyone hears the same information at the same time. They’ll all have heard the same answers to the same questions. It’s the best way I know to avoid problems.”
“So we can plan to see everyone at the house at three o’clock Thursday afternoon. Is that it?”
“They’ll be there. But I’d rather you and the boy were not. If anyone has questions, I want them talking to me.”
Tom was laughing to himself as he ticked off a mental list of things to be done to make the place ready for a public showing. “Sounds like we have some cleaning up to do in the next day or two. We’ve been stacking things all over the place, getting ready to pack.”
“I wouldn’t worry about the housekeeping. None of those folks care a thing about the house. Along with the orchard, it will probably be the first thing to go.” With that Paul stood and motioned Tom toward the front office. “You have time for a cup of coffee?”
“I suppose I have more time than anything.”
The unconvincing Starbuck’s knock-off was across the street, next to an antique mall. Tom passed on the more exotic offerings and settled for plain black coffee. Then, drinks in hand, they made their way to a booth on the back wall.
“I had a call this morning,” Paul said when they were seated. “It was something I thought you ought to know about it.”
“Ought to know what?”
“Someone noticed lights on at the Fedder place last night. Whoever it was called Bob Cannon. I suppose they knew that Bob was a shirt-tail relative of the Fedders. You know, being Linda’s brother.”
“Bob Cannon’s sure as hell no relative of mine,” Tom said firmly. “I don’t suppose he’d claim me either.”
“Probably not,” Paul nodded. “Anyway. Bob called me this morning. He wanted to know what was going on. I couldn’t very well lie to him. I told him you were in town for a few days, to settle some estate things.”
Sipping his coffee, Paul looked over his glasses at Tom, gauging his reaction. “So Bob knows you’re here. And I’d have to say he wasn’t real happy to hear about that.”
For the next few seconds Tom Fedder appeared to check out of their conversation. He had planned their Tanner trip with an eye toward avoiding the very confrontation Paul was hinting at.
Bob Cannon of all people. Why did it have to be him, the last person he had seen on that terrible departure day forty years before? They had come to blows in the course of that brief exchange. Was there a repeat performance looming in their future? If so, it would surely be a pitiful sight to behold.... two old men, each standing his ground, each unwilling to hear what the other had to say. There had to be a better way.
While Tom met with Paul Corin, Rick Levant was alone at the Orchard House....bored and house bound. They had been in Tanner nearly two days and still he had seen little more than the aging downtown core of the North End neighborhood. There must be more to see and other answers to be found. Having located a phone book in Grandma Fedder’s roll-top desk, it took only seconds to find the surprisingly simple answer to his first question.
There were two Fedder names in the Tanner listings. One was Betty Fedder on Kirby Street. That would be Grandma Fedder. The second was a Linda Fedder, on Bluff Avenue. He had never heard his dad or grandmother mention a Linda Fedder. Could there be a connection between the two?
Turning to the back of the phone book, Rick leafed through the green-edged pages of city maps. The Tanner maps, there were four of them, divided the town into quadrants, with a full page for each quarter. A detailed Street Directory was spread across the bottom of the pages.
There, in the tiniest of small print, were listed grid coordinates for each street. It took only a moment to find a listing for Bluff Avenue, then a few more seconds to locate it in the northwest quadrant of town. Remarkably, the map showed Bluff Avenue dead-ending at Redden Street, on the north edge of the Fedder orchard.
What did that mean, another Fedder family, right there in the North End....someone his dad had never mentioned? He had time for a short walk. It would not be far. No place in the North End was very far from the Orchard House. According to the map, from the Fedder orchard Bluff Avenue continued north for six blocks. Linda Fedder’s address, 580 N. Bluff, must be at the far end. Why not have a look?
It was a sunny morning, warm for ten o’clock. Rick walked up Kirby Street to Redden, then left to Bluff Avenue. It was an unremarkable-looking neighborhood of older homes....with scruffy lawns, minimal landscaping, and more than its share of derelict cars and pick-ups lining the streets and driveways. Looking north, toward the far end of the street, the even-numbered addresses were on his right. He crossed to the odd-numbered side, allowing him to approach the Fedder home inconspicuously, from across the street.
He noticed them from a block away....three youngsters, apparently teenagers, standing beside the red sports convertible in front of what must be 580, the Fedder home. Drawing closer, he could tell the two girls were not pleased with whatever the lone boy had to say. Seconds later, as he paused directly across the street from the three of them, the shorter girl’s complaints grew louder.
“She can’t go with you, Burt. She can’t leave.”
“Shut up, Gail.” The boy she called Burt moved closer to the girls. “You just go back to the house. Sandy’s coming with me.” He turned to Sandy, reaching for her arm.
Sandy Harden was quick enough to avoid his grasp, but not at all sure how to respond to his insistent demands. “Burt,” she protested, trying her best to sound defiant. “I can’t go with you. My mom won’t let me. Will you just leave.”
The three of them had yet to see Rick standing across the street, taking in their increasingly vocal exchange. For another few seconds he watched, noting the frightened reaction on the otherwise attractive face of the girl called Sandy. Then, stepping from the curb, he started across the street.
“You’re coming with me.” There was no subtlety in Burt’s demand. Clearly, he expected to be obeyed. Again he reached for Sandy’s arm. “Now get in the car.”
Gail was the first to see Rick coming toward them. Sandy and Burt, facing each other, had not. The first they knew of his presence was his hand resting lightly on Burt’s shoulder. Burt brushed it away and turned to face the intruder.
At six-two, he was nearly a head taller and perhaps forty pounds heavier than the young Indian. Predictably, his immediate reaction was a burst of blustery bravado. “What the hell do you want?”
Rick looked up, locking on the taller boy’s eyes, smiling a rather unfriendly smile. “I think she’s trying to say she doesn’t want to go with you.”
“But she is. Now get lost.”
Rick had the boy’s arm again, this time with a grip that would not be brushed aside. He edged closer, nearly chest to chest. “No she’s not.” The smile was gone. His words were soft, but his dark-eyed stare was penetrating. “So why don’t you just leave.”
Rick tensed, bracing himself for Burt’s reaction, assuming that someone that big and loud would not be backing down. A moment later he realized there would be no push back, no forcing the issue.
It may have been the boy’s steely Indian eyes, or his tightening grip. Whatever the reason, it was clear that Burt had no interest in pursuing the matter. He stepped toward the car, then paused to offer a last defiant question, “Are you sure you want to start this?”
“I’m not starting anything. Now go on.”
The girls stood riveted in silent wonder as he drove off down the street and the moment’s tension faded. Turning to study the newcomer, they were not sure what to make of the long haired, rather good-looking youngster. They had never seen him before. Why had he appeared just then? And what made him willing to stand up to Burt Dunn?
Meanwhile, Rick had his own questions. More than a few. They were standing in front of what must be Linda Fedder’s home. Perhaps it was home to one of them. What did that mean? There was no avoiding the questions. But was it his place to be looking for answers? Probably not.
Instead, he settled for a toothy smile in Sandy’s direction and a quiet, “Maybe you two should go inside.” With that he turned and started back down Bluff Avenue toward the Orchard House.