It was just past ten o’clock that morning when Sandy and Gail returned to the Asylum from their aborted cherry-picking excursion. Sue Ann was at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables for a luncheon salad. A pan of fragrant brownies cooled on the stove top. With her meal preparations nearly complete she was tired and ready for bed.
The girls' quiet entrance caught her by surprise. She glanced at the kitchen clock and asked, "Is something wrong? You just left. Why are you back so soon?"
Before anyone answered Gail snatched a couple carrot halves and sat down at the round kitchen table. By then Sue Ann was picking up on Sandy's introspective silence. "What's wrong, honey? You look worried."
Sandy had no response, so Gail offered her own. "I think she has a thing for the new guy. The Indian."
"You met a boy from India?"
"Not India." Gail was still answering. "Indian. Like in cowboys and indians."
Sue Ann was not sure what to make of Gail's claim. Her inquiring frown was aimed at Sandy. "Where did you meet an Indian?"
Finally Sandy looked up, ready to join the conversation. She shook a playful finger at Gail and tried to explain. "He's only half Indian. Indian and French-Canadian he said. But he looks more like an Indian than anything."
"Goodness. Where did you learn all that?"Sue Ann asked. "I'm not sure what Gail means, that you 'have a thing' for him. But I think I'd like to hear about it."
"She's making a big deal out of nothing. He's just a guy we met. He's sort of aggravating. And kind of nice. That's all."
Gail was not about to let her cousin off that easily. "He chased Burt Dunn off yesterday, when Burt was being a pest," she continued, more than happy to provide the details Sandy was hoping to avoid. "Now he has a black eye, because Burt caught up with him."
Sue Ann was rapidly losing interest in her salad. She stepped away from the counter, drying her hands on her apron. "Sandy. What's this about Burt Dunn? What is he up to now? Did the boy get hurt because of you?"
An exasperated sigh signaled Sandy's frustration. "Burt was being a jerk. Because that's what he is. Besides, Rick, that's the Indian guy, says he's not afraid of Burt. I think I believe him."
Sue Ann took a seat at the table opposite Gail and motioned for Sandy to join them. "I really don't like the sound of this," she declared. "When boys get to fighting, especially over a girl, it can be serious. What do you know about this Rick person? Where did you meet him?"
"At Ma Fedder's."
"Now you really have me confused. What would an Indian boy be doing at Ma Fedder's?"
"The place is going to be sold. I guess he's helping get it ready." Sandy paused, unsure how to continue. What kind of reaction should she expect from her next question? "Mom. Who is Tom Fedder?"
Sue Ann was not sure she had heard her daughter correctly. Had she actuality said that name out loud, the one that must never be spoken? "You know very well who he is, or was. Where did that name come from?"
"From Rick," Sandy answered, a bit surprised by her mother's unexpectedly calm response. "He said Tom Fedder is his dad. Not his real dad. But that's what he calls him. They came from Montana to sell Ma Fedder's place."
"And what did Tom Fedder have to say about that?"
"He wasn't there. At least not outside, where we were."
"Montana?" Sue Ann asked softly. In earlier times she had sometimes wondered where his flight had taken him. Her mother was sure that Ma Fedder had known where he was, but there had never been a reason to ask her.
Betty Fedder had tried her best to stay on good terms with Linda, and be a doting grandmother to Sue Ann. There was no denying, however, that her son's desertion had stunted an otherwise amiable relationship. Their remaining link with the kindly old woman had been tenuous enough, without the added strain of questions about Tom's whereabouts.
"He lives in Montana?"
"That's what Rick said."
Staring across the room, Sue Ann was suddenly oblivious to the girls' presence. "Tom Fedder," she repeated silently. How long had it been since that name had crossed her mind?
She was forty-one years old. It had taken at least half those years to blunt the painful truth that her own father had abandoned her, and his wife. She had grown up hearing friends talk about their fathers, and families that included both a mother and a father. Even now, decades later, random memories of those times were enough to trigger remembered envy.
Her sole recollections of Tom Fedder's likeness had been gleaned from an old school annual and adolescent peeks at the photograph album her mother kept buried deep in her cedar chest.
She still recalled one particular image....a slender, good-looking young man, standing on the porch of their new home, with an arm around his smiling, very pregnant wife. It was not a mental likeness Sue Ann could hold for long. In only seconds that dated image of domestic tranquility would be overwhelmed by alternating surges of anger and longing.
And now he was apparently right there, in Tanner. But why? Had Tom Fedder come back to open old wounds? If so, what about her mother? How would she react to his unwelcome intrusion?
The girls had retreated from the kitchen, so Sue Ann walked down the hall to their room. She knocked and without waiting for an answer, pushed the door open to find them sitting cross legged on Sandy's bed. At the sight of her their hushed conversation ended abruptly.
"What do you want?" Sandy asked.
"I want you to remember this. Until we know what's going on, your grandmother mustn't know about him being here. Do you understand?"
It had been years since Sue Ann last heard her mother's angry diatribe on the subject of Tom Fedder. There was no need to lead her down that path again, at least until they knew where it led.
It had been a busy day, sorting through the last of Betty Fedder's things, deciding what to take home and what to leave behind. After a leisurely dinner at Gilroy's, Tom and Rick had just sat down in the living room to watch the last innings of the televised ball game. A minute later the front door bell rang.
Tom pushed himself out of his mother's recliner and walked across the room. Switching on the porch light, he pulled the door open.
The man facing him through the screen door was short and on the heavy side. The puffy cheeks, sagging jowls, and deep creases around his mouth were accentuated by harsh shadows, giving his face the look of an overripe pumpkin. He may have been Tom's age. If so, he had not aged well.
"Yes." Tom said. "Can I help you?"
The man stood eyeing him with intense, and for Tom, uncomfortable scrutiny. Again he tried to make contact. "Can I help you?"
"You don't remember me, do you?" The words were hard and clipped.
"I'm afraid you're right about that." Then he realized that he did recognize that voice. The sight of his visitor did not register, but the voice did. A second glance confirmed a match. "You're Bob. Bob Cannon."
"That's right. And let me tell you up front, this is not a social call. I heard you were here. I figured if no one else was going to do it, it must be my job to tell you to get the hell out of Tanner."
"I kind of expected a greeting committee of some sort," Tom said. Pushing the screen door open he motioned the man inside. "Have a seat."
Rick nodded as Bob looked his way. Then, declining Tom's offer, their visitor continued. "I won't be here that long. Like I said, it's not a social call."
If Tom was put off by the man's openly hostile bluster, he was not about to let it show. "So what are you up to? Did you come to yell at me? Or do you plan to start swinging again?"
Bob Cannon made a largely-futile effort of suck in his belly and stand taller. "I hope that won't be necessary. What I'm here to do is make sure you stay the hell away from Linda."
"Then I'd say we're on the same page. I have no intention of seeing her. But I do have to stick around for a few days. We're in the process of selling this place, you know."
"Paul Corin said you were working on something."
"We are. In the meantime, I plan to lay low, to steer clear of her. I can't imagine she'd want to see me anyway."
Bob Cannon had planned to make his demands and leave. The longer they talked, the more he was inclined to make sure Tom Fedder understood the true impact of his long ago transgression.
"I'll tell you something," he said. "There are a whole lot of things you probably can't imagine. To begin with, you can't imagine how much hurt and grief you caused, and how many lives you ruined.
"For all these years Linda's done nothing but pay for ever knowing you." His eyes had narrowed to thin slits. Veins bulged in his neck. "She's worked herself sick. Two, sometimes three, jobs at a time. She's been worn out all the time. Can you imagine a life that's been all lows, with never a high?"
"Look. I know what I did," Tom countered. "I've never been proud of that. But I didn't start out to hurt anyone."
Stepping closer, Bob was looking up into Tom's face. "It doesn't matter what you meant to do. It's what you did. You made her life nothing but hell."
For a moment Tom assumed his visitor was done. He was not.
"About the time things started getting better,” Bob continued. “Sue Ann got divorced and moved back with Linda. Then a few years ago Terrie was gone, and Linda took in her daughter and granddaughter. That meant there were five mouths to feed. Every time the lady turned around she got dumped on. It seems like it'll never end."
"Hold on." Tom was motioning for Bob to slow down. "Let me get this straight. Terrie's gone? And her daughter, what's that about?"
"That's Bonnie. Terrie's girl. She was paralyzed in the same accident that killed her mom. So now, on top of everything else, Linda spends most of the time she's not working playing nursemaid to Bonnie."
For a few seconds Tom seemed to check out of their intruder's distressing recital. There was so much, coming so fast. "And you say Sue Ann's divorced."
"Yeah. She married a real bum. Only lasted a couple years. Then she went back to live with Linda. At least she's there to help Linda keep things going."
"Sue Ann" Tom’s eyes closed as he repeated the name to himself. He had not heard it spoken out loud in decades. The recollections that remained were of a bright, giggling face, never simply a name. Shaking his head, he struggled for words. "Damn it, Bob. I had no idea she was dealing with all that stuff. I just didn't know."
"Well, I guarantee you that's not all." By then Bob Cannon was a bit surprised to find himself enjoying the unexpected opportunity to heap his sister's hurt on the one most responsible for her predicament.
"Both Sue Ann and Bonnie have young daughters....Sandy and Gail. They're in the same boat as the others, growing up poor, with not much in the way of a future."
He paused, wondering if he ought to explain Linda's latest and most threatening challenge. A moment later he had answered his own question. Why not let Tom Fedder hear the whole truth?
"Then, about the time you think it couldn't get worse, it has."
"It's the house....such as it is. It's pretty run down. But it's the only place they have, the five of them. Now it looks like she'll lose that too."
"How could that be? It should have been paid off years ago."
"It was," Bob nodded. This was getting harder. As much as he wanted Tom to feel the weight of Linda's trials, he took no pleasure in recounting his sister's troubles. "When Bonnie moved in, Linda had to fix the place up. To make it work for someone in a wheelchair. That, along with a van that had a lift."
"That's right. I told you, Bonnie's paralyzed from the waist down. She needs lots of special stuff to get by there. It had to be done. So Linda did a refinancing loan to pay for all that."
Again Bob paused, willing himself to carry on. "She's never been able to keep up on the payments. And now the bank is talking foreclosure."
"Wasn't there an insurance settlement or something?"
"Terrie had no insurance," Bob replied. "How could she have afforded that? The kid who who hit her was uninsured."
"And there was nothing else?"
"The wife and I have tried to help out when we could. But that's never enough. Like I said, Linda's been on her own forever....going from one mess to another." His anger was rushing ahead of his words, bringing him to an awkward halt.
Rubbing his forehead, Tom tried to find the right words. There was no elegant way to say what he was feeling. "Damn. That's just awful."
By then Bob Cannon was on his way to the door. "Of course it's awful," he said over his shoulder. "For Linda, it's always been awful. In fact that pretty much describes her life. It's been awful."
He turned to jab a finger in Tom's direction. "And you know exactly who's to blame for that.
“I'll tell you what, Tom Fedder. You've done enough damage already. There's no need for her to know that you're around. I'm not sure if she could deal with that. You understand what I'm saying?"
"I hear you, Bob. I can only say that I've paid a terrible price too. I've never been able to forgive myself. I never will."
Shaking his head, Tom passed for a long, deep breath, then continued. "I had no idea how hard it's been for her. I promise you, I'll stay out of her way. In another few days I'll be gone for good."
As Bob Cannon started down the front steps Rick pushed himself deeper into the softness of the sofa, watching as Tom closed the door and returned to the recliner. There, with his head cradled in his hands, the old man retreated into his thoughts.
The boy was full of anxious questions he was not sure he should be asking. For years his dad's early life had been out of sight, little more than a subject of idle curiosity.
Now, in the course of three days, surprising and sometimes disturbing bits of that past had been exposed. Layer by layer, like an onion being peeled, a new picture of Tom Fedder was emerging. It seemed the resulting portrait bore little resemblance to the man he knew.
The girls he had met. The house on Bluff Avenue. The woman they called Grandma, who was apparently Tom Fedder's former wife. It seemed that each day had produced some surprising new revelation....some new piece of the puzzle. And now, for the first time, he had heard the blame for all the family's misfortunes laid squarely at his dad's feet.
How could one man, especially the kindly man who had treated his mother and him so well, be the cause of the depressing reality their visitor had spelled out? That seemed so patently unfair. Yet Tom had done nothing at all to deflect the man's angry accusations.
Turning off the television, Rick cleared his throat. "Are you going to help me out, Dad? So I can understand what's going on?"
It took a few seconds for Tom to settle back in the recliner and open his eyes. "I told you before, son. It's family." There was no spark in his voice, only dull resignation. "It's a screwed up mess. That's what it is. And it's all about family."
"Dad. I'm not used to you lying to me. We both know it's not that simple. Who was that guy? You called him Bob. Where does he fit it?"
"His name is Bob Cannon. His sister was my wife."
"His sister is Sandy's grandma. Right?"
Tom looked up, startled by the boy's seemingly casual question. "Whoa. What are you talking about?, he asked. "Who is Sandy? Seems like Bob said something about a Sandy. Didn't he?"
"She's the girl I met before. The one you said might be your granddaughter. You told me then that her grandma might be your ex-wife."
"So how did you manage to get on a first name basis with her?"
Rick felt his stomach tighten. How would his dad respond to this? "I told you. I saw her yesterday, at her grandma's place. Then I saw her again this morning, and we talked for a while."
"I thought I told you to stay away from those people. Did you think I was kidding or something?"
"Dad, she and her cousin, that's Gail, came over here to pick cherries. They do that every year. We talked for a bit, in the back yard. I couldn't very well run them off, could I?" For the first time a smile came to his lips. “They were nice. Especially Sandy."
Tom was not at all interested in the girls' social graces. He had other questions in mind. "You talked about me. Right?" The anger was flooding back, blending with a deeper, unnamed fear to pinch the muscles in the small of his back.
"Not much. Just your name. Why you're here."
"She'd heard my name before, hadn't she? This Sandy person."
"Yeah. She didn't say so. But I think she had."
Tom was up and pacing, too nervous to sit, unsure what to do. "Damn it, Son. You can't be talking to those people. It only makes things worse."
Rick followed the old man out the front door to the dimly-lit porch. "Dad, they know you're here. It's no secret."
Tugging on Tom's shoulder, the boy pulled him around. "For as long as I've known you I've been proud that you're my dad. The people I know look up to you. This stuff I'm hearing now, it doesn’t seem like it’s about the guy I know. And it's a lot more complicated than I expected."
"I guarantee you, it's a lot more complicated than I expected."
"Can you help me understand it?"
Tom leaned against the porch railing, fussing with the crease of his wrinkled trousers. "Look," he said without looking up. "This is not the kind of stuff a fellow brags about. I knew when I left here, way back then, that there would be a lot of angry people.
"You heard Bob. I realize he was going out of his way to be dramatic. But you could tell the hurt has lasted a long time. I guess I'm not surprised at that."
He paused to replay his brother-in-law's damning list of offenses. "I'm not sure I know how to deal with all that, so I can see why it would be hard for you. That's why I want to get our business done and move on."
That was not enough to erase the boy's questions. "I don't think I've ever seen you back down before. What makes this different?"
"I told you before. It's about family. That magnifies the feelings. Remember how we felt when we lost your mother? Something like that leaves a hole that's emptier than any other kind of empty."
"But how could your leaving Tanner do all the things he talked about? How could he be so bitter after all this time?" Rick walked to the foot of the steps and stood looking up at his dad.
"Son, what I did was take something good and loving, and tear it to pieces." He had not remembered how uncomfortable it was to say that. "That's what hurt so many people. I still hurts them. And me too. It made them hate me in a way you can't hate a stranger. It made me hate myself."
"Because." The weariness was etched in Tom's Fedder's face. "Just because."