When remembering became too painful, it might be time to forget.
For hours, from mid-afternoon til early evening, Tom Fedder walked the streets of the North End and beyond....mulling his son’s report of a visit to the other Fedder home. Over and over he berated himself for having believed that he could return to Tanner, take care of his business, and leave before anyone realized he was there. More to the point, why had he not foreseen the need to warn the boy about contact with the locals?
His mother’s property could have been sold from Highland City. Paul Corin had suggested that option not long after Betty Fedder’s passing. As the only one in Tanner who knew how to contact Mrs. Fedder’s son, Paul had offered to facilitate the transaction and save Tom the long trip. It had been Tom’s decision to return....not simply to sell the property, but to look through his mother’s things before they were sold off.
It had been forty years, a lifetime for some, since he had last set foot in his home town. In truth, those years had been a lifetime for him, the second of the two lives he had lived....each of them separate, self-contained, and tragically incomplete. For all those years he had labored to maintain that separation, to make sure that neither of those lives intruded on the other.
For the last thirty-eight years Tom's second lifetime had been lived in Highland City....as a ranch hand, then bartender, and finally clerking at the town’s most successful hardware store. Angus Ryan, the owner of Basin Hardware, had taken a liking to him. When he retired he offered Tom the opportunity to buy the business, while agreeing to carry a contract for the sale price.
A small business in a small town. It meant long hours and wearing many hats. Yet that same busyness had been Tom’s best defense against the demons he struggled to keep at bay. In the beginning, his aim had been to forgive and forget. With the passing of time he had become reasonably proficient at forgetting. Never once had he found a way to forgive himself.
Thankfully, after thirty-one years of self-imposed isolation, Annie Levant had come into his life. She was certainly not the noble, stately image of an Indian princess. She was instead short, broad, and a bit homely. She was also loving and devoted, and had never once questioned his past. What if their attachment had earned him the scornful label of "squaw man" among the town’s old timers? That had been a small price to pay for the comfort of Annie’s presence.
For five years she had been with Tom. Five years spent in the welcome comfort of his new family....laughing together, making plans, and doting on her young son. It felt as though he had been reborn. There had even been talk of another child....but in his late fifties Tom had not been willing to take on that challenge.
Annie Levant was not yet forty when the racking pneumonia claimed her. For the second time Tom Fedder’s world had imploded, crashing in on him. The first time he had run far and fast, losing himself in hard work and cheap booze. With Annie’s passing he again turned to the bottle for solace. For two months he had wallowed in a whiskey-induced stupor. That might have lasted forever if Rick had not stepped forward to rescue him.
The boy was fourteen at the time....a willing worker and good student, beginning high school and determined to earn his diploma. Suddenly, his mother was gone. For weeks he watched helplessly from the sidelines as Tom drank himself into oblivion, ignoring his business and his son. Until at last Rick decided to stand his ground. He had lost his own father, and then his mother. He was not about to give up on his last chance to have a family.
Their showdown had played out when Tom pushed his way past the boy toward the front door, heading for the shabby bars on Stumble Road.
“Where are you going?” Rick demanded to know.
For an instant Tom had been taken aback by the boy’s impertinent question. “To town, if it’s any of your damn business.”
“No you’re not.” The boy stepped past Tom and planted himself in the doorway. “You’re not going.”
“Look here, Mr. Tough Guy. You just try and stop me.”
An instant later the old man was startled to find himself lifted off his feet and deposited roughly on the sofa. When he tried to stand the boy pushed him down, yelling, "You stay right there."
Fighting through his tears Rick was struggling to find the right words. Wiping his cheeks with his sleeve, he glowered down into the old man’s face.
“You listen to me,” he demanded. “My mom’s gone. If you keep going downtown, I’ll lose you too. I know I will. Then I’ll be absolutely alone. And so will you. We’re all we have....you and me. There’s no one else. If that’s not enough to make you stay home, then I don’t know what else I can do."
He stepped back, ready to let his dad make his choice. It took a minute or two for it to show, but Tom had already decided. How could he walk away from the only person who cared enough to stand up to him? He reached up and pulled Rick down beside him. There, on the sofa the two men, one young, one old, sat with their heads on each other’s shoulder, crying without shame.
Since that morning, nearly four years before, there had been no reason for Tom Fedder to confront his intemperance, until now. By early evening he had found his second bar. Or perhaps it was the third. There, in the quiet of a back booth, whiskey in hand, he confronted thoughts he had spend most of a lifetime trying to avoid. Coming back to sell the Orchard House had been a terrible mistake.
More to the point, in light of the boy's stumbling intrusion, Tom's course of action had become even more compelling. Completing the sale of the property and leaving town had become his highest priorities. Then, once back home, he would have to learn all over again how to forget. Perhaps with enough drink he could do that.
Rick had tried his best to stay awake until Tom returned, hoping to learn why the seemingly innocent disclosure of his Bluff Avenue exploration had triggered such a violent reaction....though in fact recollections of his dad’s earlier bar room episodes were enough to temper those hopes.
Sometime after midnight sleep overtook the boy's resolve. He did not realize the old man had returned, until he woke in the middle of the night to the sound of low, moaning sobs coming from down the hall.
The house was dark as Rick felt his way along the hallway to the front bedroom. There, faint shafts of light from the street filtered between drawn curtains, outlining the form of Tom Fedder stretched across what he remembered as his mother’s bed. At first he appeared to be asleep. Then, once again his body shook with the force of convulsive tears.
Tom did not hear Rick’s approach. His alcohol-numbed mind was not aware of the boy lying down beside him, pulling him closer. If he had been able to feel that presence, it would have been the first comfort he had known in hours. Perhaps that was what made sleep possible for both of them in only a matter of minutes.
The dark-walled bedroom was bathed in shaded daylight when Rick awoke. It took a moment to recognize his surroundings, then another few seconds to understand that he was alone on the bed. That upsetting realization brought him upright. Where was his dad? Was he gone again? Returning to his room, Rick pulled on his jeans and hurried out to the kitchen.
There was no sign of Tom there, though the coffee maker had been turned on. In the living room bright sunlight flooded through the open front door. Then he spotted him, beyond the thin mesh of the screen door, sitting at the top of the front steps. Returning to the kitchen, Rick filled a pair of coffee cups.
“Are you finally up?” Tom asked, taking the cup Rick offered. “I thought you might spend the day in bed.”
“What time is it?”
“Almost eight thirty.”
Rick sat down beside the old man, sipping his coffee, searching for words to frame his question. “You want to tell me about last night?”
“There’s nothing you need to know.”
Rick was chewing his lip, trying to capture his dad’s evasive gaze. “That’s not fair and you know it. Whatever it was, it was something I did, or said. I have a right to know what that was and why it was wrong. You owe me that much.”
The old man kneaded a fist in his hand, knowing there was no reason to blame the boy. It was his own self-loathing that had fueled his night-long binge. Where was the logic in blaming the one person who gave a damn what happened to him?
“Look. I was hoping we could take care of business and be gone before anyone knew we were here.” There was no humor in Tom’s grin, only the grim certainty of how wrong he had been. “It’s not your fault that it didn’t work out that way. I was wrong to lay that on you.”
“Why didn’t you want me to know?” Rick cocked his head in a wondering frown. “Why do you need to be hiding things from me. Is it some kind of legal thing? Are you in trouble?”
Tom was shaking his head. “There may have been a child support issue at one time. But not now. It’s nothing about the law.” He looked away, lost in the hurtful knowing of what it was. “It’s about family. That’s what it is. Family?”
“Most people I know don't try to hide from their family. Am I suppose to think they’re bad people? Is that it? I think I’ve met one of them. Maybe two. They didn’t seem like anyone I’d want to hide from.”
Standing, Tom stepped down to the sidewalk and shuffled slowly toward the street....lost in thoughts the boy's questions were triggering. He paused to kick at a green, husk-covered walnut, then turned and started back toward the porch.
“I don’t know who you saw,” he finally said. “I don’t know who lives there now. But if she was about your age, she might have been my granddaughter. If there was any talk about a grandmother, that might be my wife. My ex-wife.”
That quiet bit of information had clearly captured Rick’s attention. He edged forward on the step, waiting to hear more.
“A long time ago,” Tom continued. “Something more than forty years now....I left her, and my daughter. I left town. I left everything I had. I ran away. And I kept running all the way to Highland City.”
“And you’ve never been back? Until now?”
“Never had a reason to. In fact, I had quite a few reasons not to. After I left, until I met your mother, the only family I had were my Mom and Dad. They’d come to Highland City a couple times each year. After Dad passed, Mom kept coming. That’s when you saw her.”
They were quiet, processing the old man’s disclosure, until finally Rick returned to his most elemental question. “But why all the secrets? I don’t understand.”
Tom moved closer. “I owed you the truth, Son. That’s what you said, and you were right. That’s what I’ve done. I’m not going to lie or make excuses. I just can’t tell you more than that.”
He climbed the steps to the front door, then turned back for a moment. “Paul Corin will be here tomorrow afternoon with the people he hopes will bid on the place. He’d like us to be gone for that. So we’ll have to come up with something to do then.”
Rick nodded his understanding, still hoping for more details about the family Tom had run away from, but thankful for what his dad had offered.
“And Son,” Tom added, “about last night. I’m sorry. There was no reason to put you through that again.”
For years, their midsummer cherry picking expeditions had been a reliable way for Sandy and Gail to earn spending money. It was close at hand, a comfortable ten-minute walk from the Asylum to Ma Fedder’s orchard. Even in earlier days, when Ma Fedder sold the crop to contractors, she had always held back two or three trees for the girls to pick.
The orchard had been left unattended for years. The open spaces between the trees had gone to weeds and tall grass. The fruit they picked the prior Saturday had required closer than normal inspection. Mrs. Rawlins would not pay top dollar for wormy or rotted cherries. Still, it was a warm Wednesday morning and there were a few dollars to be earned.
The girls walked to the end of Bluff Avenue and started through the orchard. Walking along the overgrown path leading to Ma’s house they scanned the trees, looking for the most accessible concentrations of fruit. Ahead, on the outside wall of the work shed, tall A-frame ladders leaned against the eves. Inside the open-ended building they would find buckets and boxes.
The setting and preparation were routine, learned from dozens of such excursions. Everything was in place and they were ready to begin....until they heard the unexpected sound of something crashing against the wall inside the adjoining garage.
Stopping short, the girls were suddenly motionless, staring at each other. Obviously they were not alone. Forgetting about buckets and boxes, they stepped from the shed back into the bright sunlight.
Sandy glanced anxiously at Gail, with a questioning look that seemed to ask, “What should we do?” An instant later she answered her own question. Her voice was loud, though a bit shaky, when she called out, “Is someone in there?”
“Who is it?” the boy asked as he stepped through the garage door. While Tom was running an errand in Tanner, Rick had been looking through Grandpa Fedder’s old work bench, searching for antique tools. Stepping from the dark garage, he was squinting at the sunny brightness. A second later her spotted the girls. It was them, the ones he had met the day before at the other Fedder house.
“What are you doing here?” he asked brusquely.
“What are you doing here?” Gail countered, taking a step forward. For the moment Sandy appeared content to stay put, wondering why they were meeting him again. And why in that place?
“That’s Ma Fedder’s garage,” Gail declared. “You’re not supposed to be in there.”
By then Sandy was staring in wide-eyed puzzlement, wondering why she had not noticed it the first time they saw him. The dark skin. The shiny black hair that fell to his shoulders. He was good looking, in a different sort of way, except for the angry purple welt under his eye,
Before Rick could answer Gail’s complaint, Sandy had found her voice. “You’re an Indian,” she blurted. “Aren’t you?”
He laughed at that, wondering what to make of her bluntness. “It’s okay. I don’t take scalps.”
Covering her embarrassed grin with her hand, Sandy was ready with an apology. “I’m sorry. That was really rude.”
“It wasn’t rude at all. That’s what I am, an Indian. At least half of me is.”
He studied his unexpected visitors, reminding himself that his dad had said at least one of them might be his granddaughter. Could that be? “I saw you two yesterday, didn’t I?” he asked. “At the other Fedder house.”
“That was us,” Sandy nodded. “You ran Burt Dunn off.” She was leaning forward, staring conspicuously at his wound. “My girl friend said she saw Burt beat up an Indian guy yesterday, at the pool. That was you, wasn’t it?”
“You’re friend had it wrong.” Rick motioned them toward the shade in front of the garage. “Nobody ‘beat me up.’ I did run into your friend Burt again. That’s true. Him and his buddies. It was no big deal. I expect I’ll have a chance to meet him again.”
“But what are you doing here?” Gail was ready to move beyond Sandy’s questions. “You can’t just go rummaging around in there.”
“Yeah, I can. The place is being sold. We’re gathering up the stuff we want to keep.”
“But Ma Fedder’s gone.” Sandy was having trouble fitting the pieces together. “Who would be selling it?”
“My dad’s selling it. She left the place to him.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Because he’s her son,” Rick said. “As far as I know he’s the only family she had. At least the closest family.”
Sandy was clearly struggling to make the connection. “How could Ma Fedder have a son who’s an Indian?” Her skeptical frown mirrored her question.
“You’re full of wondering, aren’t you?”
“Wondering?” Sandy repeated. “What does that mean?”
“There you go again. Do you do anything besides ask questions?”
She started to explain, then stopped short, reaching for his name and realizing she did not know what it was. “Help me out, please. What’s your name?”
“Look, Rick. This is very confusing. Everyone knows something has to happen with Ma’s place. They say it’s worth a lot. People have been wondering who would end up with it.”
“Are you a Fedder?”
“No. But my Mom is. Or was.”
“Did she think she’d get the place?”
“Of course not.” What was his point, she wondered. “We just didn’t know who would. Are you a Fedder?”
Shaking his head, Rick was aware of how much he was enjoying their rapid-fire exchange. “Nope. I’m a Levant. That’s French. My real dad was French-Canadian.
"My dad, the one I live with now, is the Fedder. But he’s not an Indian.” Pausing, he wondered how she would react to what came next? “My dad is Tom Fedder.”
“Tom Fedder?” Clearly the name meant something to Sandy. “How old is this Tom Fedder?”
“Still wondering, eh?” Rick laughed.
It was a nice laugh, she decided, that came with an nice smile. And by now she wanted to know more. "Did he used to live here in North End, this Tom Fedder of your?"
“There’s not much to do in this town, is there?” he countered, seeming to ignore her inquiry. “Just hang around and ask questions. I’m not sure you’d make it in my town.”
“Where’s your town?”
“See. Another question. Don’t you do answers?” He looked over at Gail to ask, “Does she always get worked up like this?”
“Listen here, Rick Levant.” Sandy was on the offensive again, though Rick was laughing at her obvious irritation. “That is your name, isn’t it? Why can’t you just answer my questions? Was Tom Fedder from here? And where's your town? Those are not big secrets, are they?”
She was a testy one, that slender brunette, more cute than pretty, but definitely nice to look at. He had not seen her smile, but if she did, he was sure it would be worth the wait. Now however, his hesitation seemed to have signaled the end of her patience. Grabbing Gail’s arm, Sandy pulled her toward the orchard path.
“Just a minute,” Rick yelled after them. They stopped and looked back. “I’ll make you a trade. My town for your name.”
“Why not? I know it’s Sandy. But Sandy what?”
Sandy glanced over at Gail. Did he really need to know her name? Of course, she already knew his. Besides, what could it hurt? “It’s Harden. Sandy Harden.”
“How do you do, Sandy Harden.” He stepped closer. Then to Gail, “And you?”
Gail could not hide her embarrassed grin. “I’m Gail. Gail Cannon.”
“I’m glad to meet both of you.”
“Now then, you owe us an answer.” Sandy’s emerging smile was even nicer than he expected.
“That’s right,” Rick nodded. “I owe you. My town is no place you’ve ever heard of. It’s called Highland City. It’s in Montana. That’s a long way from here. Now you know. And by the way, as I understand it, Tom Fedder used to live here. Right here in this house.” With that he turned and disappeared into the garage.
The girls waited for a few seconds to see if he had more to say. Then, with a shrug, Sandy led them back toward the orchard. Without exchanging a word they had decided that cherry picking could wait for another day.