The attorney was asking questions. Where had it come from.....the sudden desire to help the lady, and the family they shared?
Paul Corin had promised to squeeze in Tom’s appointment at nine o’clock Tuesday morning, to discuss the payment of Linda Fedder's loan. It was closer to nine-thirty when the young legal assistant finally ushered Tom down the hall and into Paul’s office. Taking a seat he waited as the attorney completed the notes from his previous appointment.
Finally Paul set the thick folder on the counter behind him and looked up to greet Tom. “Thanks for your patience,” he nodded. “I wanted to get a couple things out of the way so we'd have time to talk without being rushed.”
“I’ve got lots of time,” Tom answered. “I’m just hoping you’ve got some good news about this loan thing. I’d really like to get on the road tomorrow morning.”
Pausing to drain his coffee cup, Mr. Corin was grinning when he looked back at Tom, apparently ready to offer what he considered good news.
“Well, to begin with, Ron Clifton was the one who handled Linda’s loan. So we caught a break there. But the reason I wanted us to have some extra time has to do with more than a loan balance.”
Paul Corin was shifting gears. It was not his normal practice, examining a client's reasons as a friend, rather than an attorney. He was about to make an exception
“I’ll tell you what," he began. "Let’s save the ‘how’ of getting her loan paid off for later. It turns out that won’t be a big deal. What I have in mind is another, more personal question, one that has to do with the ‘why’ of it. As in....why do you suppose paying off this loan of Linda’s is so important to you?”
His pointed question brought Tom up short. Did he owe his attorney such an answer? Certainly not. But a friend, especially one who seemed interested in helping him make the right choice for the right reasons? Perhaps so.
“It just seems like the right thing to do,” Tom answered. "If she loses the house the whole bunch of them will be out on the street....settling for God knows what?"
“That may be. But most people I know don’t spend eighteen-thousand dollars just because it’s the right thing to do.”
For a moment Paul was reminded how much their conversation was sounding like a court room cross-examination....more casual to be sure, but focused on the same search for unseen motives.
“Eighteen thousand? Is that how much she owes?”
“That’s it. Seventeen-nine and change. On her own she’ll never get it paid off. Ron knows that. That’s why he’s willing to bend a few rules to help us out. Besides, loan write-offs don’t look good on his own evaluation. In any case, it's a lot to pay for doing the right thing.”
“Look, Paul. We both know I'm the main reason she’s had to deal with all her hard times. So why shouldn't I be willing to lend a hand?”
“That’s a call for you to make. In fact, you’re the only one who can.” For an instant Tom thought he saw a glimmer of young Pauly Boy across the table, the wide-eyed grin and eager-to-please nod.
“I remember," Paul continued. "When I first heard that you’d left Tanner....and your family. I was in law school at the time. My mom told me and I didn’t believe her. That didn’t sound at all like you. I suppose you had your reasons. Only you know that....you and Linda.
"In any case, that’s the choice you made back then. Now you’ve got another choice to make, and just like before it’s all yours. It's not about getting advice from your attorney. I’d just like you to be sure you can live with whatever you decide.”
“I appreciate that. And I guarantee you I’ll be okay with this. Because it is the right thing to do.”
Paul took a moment to refill their cups. Then, lacing his hands behind his head, he leaned back in the heavy swivel chair to ask, "Did it ever occur to you that all Linda had to do was find herself another husband?
"She could have done that years ago. It would have made everything so much easier, for her and her family. She was a damn attractive lady. And bright too. She could have had her pick of lots of guys. Instead she stayed single. Never even had a boyfriend that I ever heard about.”
“What are you saying?”
“Just thinking out loud, that’s all. I was talking about your choices, the ones you made. But remember, she had choices too. Being on her own certainly made things harder for her. Yet that’s the choice she made. Why do you suppose that was?” Paul’s raised eyebrow grin was mirroring his question. “Kind of interesting, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Tom replied firmly, certain that Paul’s probing had nothing to do with the legal issues at hand.
“There’s no need to get upset. I just think it’s interesting. That’s all. Linda stayed single. And for a long time, so did you. I wonder why that was?” Paul’s subtle cross-examination continued. “In this day and age lots of divorced folks remarry in a matter of months.”
“What the hell are you driving at?”
“I’m just wondering," Paul answered. "That’s all. I was asking myself those questions when you first talked about giving Linda furniture from your mother's house. Maybe it’s an occupational thing of mine....asking questions all the time.
"Anyway, I wondered why neither of you went looking somewhere else for whatever it was you wanted? Did that mean something? Could it have been that neither of you changed what you wanted, or 'who' you wanted? At least not until you met the boy’s mother.”
“Come on, Paul.” Tom was on his feet, pacing across the room and back. “That was a lifetime ago.”
“I’m just telling you how it looked from my perspective. There I was, already wondering about all that and then bang, out of the clear blue, you’re telling me how hard it’s been for her and how that bothers you. I guess I just naturally wondered what that meant.”
Tom sat down, this time on the edge of his chair, leaning forward to make his point. “Don’t you think it ought to bother me? Especially since I had so much to do with her getting in that mess in the first place. God, it’s nothing to be proud of, you know.”
“I’m sure it’s probably normal to wonder about something like that,” Paul nodded. “But she’s been out of your life for forty years. Most guys would have forgotten about her by now.”
“If you’d have heard Bob Cannon unload on me the other night, you’d understand why I can’t do that.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Tom. Your feelings of regret are understandable, even admirable. But when you say you’re willing to spend major dollars to help make her life better, I find myself asking if some of those old feelings are still around. Could that be?”
“You’re reading way to much into this, Paul. Like you said, it’s been forty years. How could those feelings last that long. We don’t even know each other any more. I guarantee you she not only doesn’t like me, she doesn’t want me to be anywhere near her.”
“You know that for sure?”
“I do. And I can’t say I blame her. There are times I don’t much like my own company.” Tom stood and took his sweater from the back of his chair. It was time to leave. “Besides, it doesn’t sound to me like all this stuff should be part of your legal services.”
Paul walked around the desk to usher Tom to the door. “This is on the house. No charge. From an interested friend. If I read you right, you don’t have an abundance of those right now.”
“You mean ‘interested friends’?” Tom's laugh was soft and without humor. “I think you just swelled the ranks to a total of one. Two, if you count Rick.”
Paul paused in the open doorway. “Tom, I don’t know if you’re the kind to think about such things. But if you are, be honest with yourself. Okay? I know you didn’t come here to see Linda. But you’re here. And so is she. You already know that you want to help her. You might give some thought about why that is.”
Stepping aside to let Tom pass, Paul took a moment to return to the business at hand. “If you want to go ahead with this, and it sounds like you do, I’ve arranged for Ron Clifton to come by at three o’clock this afternoon. He’ll have all the paper work....everything we’ll need to complete the transaction. Can you be here then?”
“You bet. Does that mean we can wrap it up today?”
“That’s the plan,” Paul said. “I’ve told Ron that we can’t keep Highland City waiting.”
Tuesday lunch at the Orchard House was later than usual. While Rick waited, wondering why his dad’s meeting with Paul Corin was taking so long, Tom’s return had been sidetracked by a late-morning stroll through the North End's Pioneer Park. There, wandering aimlessly among the oaks, pulled along by Paul’s probing observations, he was trying to make sense of his own conflicted feelings.
There were so many pieces to consider, most of them converging on the most puzzling wonderment of all. Why, after all those years, was he suddenly concerned about Linda’s predicament?
For forty years, far more than half his life, he had done his best to avoid the distressing recollections of that first incarnation. Everything about that time ....Linda Cannon, the girl-next-door who had become his wife, their daughter Sue Ann, the family they had been, and the career he left behind ....all that had been ‘out of bounds’ in the new life he had created for himself.
With time he had successfully weaned himself from the recurring urges to dwell on that good time turned bad, the memories that offered only hurt and disgust. Or so he believed.
Then for reasons he still did not understand, Bob Cannon’s dramatic telling of Linda’s story had taken hold of him. Had he fallen victim to an unreasonable sympathy for the lady and her trials? Or was it nothing more than resurrected guilt that prompted his backsliding?
He could accept the reality of what he felt, the need to sympathize, the nagging guilt he was so sure he had outgrown. But were those enough to explain the unexpected need to act? He had not been willing to address that question in Paul Corin’s presence. There, in the warm quiet of the park, he could think of little else.
“Are you ready for lunch....a hamburger or something?,” Tom said as he walked from the pickup to where Rick sat on the back steps, feasting on a bowl of dark-red cherries.
“There’s nothing left inside to eat. I was thinking we could go out somewhere. But it looks like you’ve already found something."
From all appearances Rick was none too excited about his dad’s offer. “I’m not hungry,” he answered, spitting a pit into the metal bucket at the side of the steps. “Besides, these are really good. Until this week I’d never had them right off the tree.”
Taking a handful of cherries from Rick’s bowl, Tom asked, “Do you have anything going this afternoon?”
“Nah. There’s not much to do around here. I thought I might check out the library again. They probably have some magazines to read. Might go by the pool.”
Was the old man hearing hints of a Burt Dunn search in his son’s off-hand itinerary? “Don’t tell me you’re looking for your friend again. Is that necessary at this late date?”
“I’m not looking for anyone. Of course, if I ....”
Leaving that thought unspoken, Rick moved on to something more pertinent. “Thing is, Sandy’s tied up all day. I can’t see her until later. I told her I’d call around six o’clock. So until then I’ve got time to kill.”
Tom paused to note the boy’s undisguised directness. He was not asking for permission to see Sandy, simply declaring his intent. Naturally enough, his plans were leading Tom toward a new round of questions, which his son must have read in the old man’s wondering frown.
“I’m not taking the car,” Rick hurried to explain. “I’ll be walking. I thought we’d go over to Gilroy’s for a soda or something. It’ll be real low key. I just want to spend some time with her.”
“Just don’t keep her out too late. There’s no reason to upset her mother again.” By then Rick was shaking his head, wondering again why their conversations always returned to the same, uncomfortable place? “And, for God sakes, don’t forget, that’s my granddaughter you’re ....”
“Dad.” The boy’s interruption was loud and insistent. “I don’t want to hear all that again. Okay? We’ll be just fine.”
“I’m counting on that.”
“So, how about you? Do you have to see Mr. Corin again, or is that all done?”
“Three o’clock,” Tom nodded. “If everything goes according to plan that’ll be the end of it. We can leave bright and early in the morning. That’s another reason for you to get in early. We have a long drive tomorrow.”
“I’ll be ready,” Rick insisted. “Have you got anything else going this afternoon?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll have to see what turns up.”
In fact, Tom Fedder knew exactly where he would be for at least part of his afternoon. He had spent an hour that morning in the remembered quiet of Pioneer Park, mulling Paul Corin’s questions. Now, with Rick off on his own walkabout, Tom had another piece of his Tanner past in mind.
The county’s River Park, stretching along the river a few miles north of town, had been a place of refuge forty years before. On that fateful afternoon, fresh from his confrontation with Bob Cannon, he had paused there to face the toxic swirl of events that were about to cost him his family and future, even as he prayed for some way to avoid paying that price.
Sadly he had come up empty then. Could it be the answers he had not found there forty years before were waiting for him now?
He left the house with that destination in mind, though in fact he did not take the most direct route to River Park. Instead he made his way to Bluff Avenue, cruising slowly past the battered gray house, the one Linda Fedder now called the Asylum. As he had noted before, the place was smaller than he remembered and certainly more rundown.
There had been a time when that compact tract home was their safe harbor....the place where their children would grow up and their family would thrive. Now, though their daughter was grown, it seemed that no one had thrived. From all appearances their Bluff Avenue dream home had fared little better than the starry-eyed newlyweds.
Once past the house he hurried on. Ten minutes later he pulled off the Old Highway, under the overhead sign identifying River Park, and into the broad paved parking lot.
Not surprisingly the scene that greeted him had changed in the forty years since his last visit. The large, half buried boulders that lined the river bank in his youth had been replaced by sloping, landscaped lawns, crisscrossed by asphalt walking paths. One thing, however, remained unchanged. As before the gleaming white bandstand, a raised octagonal structure, was still the park’s centerpiece.
In the heat of the sunny afternoon, scattered family groups and young couples were seeking the cool refuge of shading oaks. For an instant he was captured by long-forgotten snippets of the times he and Linda had shared that same comfortable isolation from an intruding world.
Starting down the path toward the wide river Tom was struck by a new and unfamiliar understanding. For the first time in decades he was giving himself permission to think of her. Bittersweet memories, long denied, but never erased, were creeping back. His first thoughts of her, just two days before, had arrived as an unwelcome intrusion. Now he felt himself accepting their presence.
In one sense, of course, Linda had always been there....from their days as rough and tumble next-door playmates, to the heady moment she crashed into his adolescent life in a different way....the bratty neighbor girl who became the fulfillment of his schoolboy dreams?
They had been an unlikely pair. Tom, though good looking and athletic, was naturally quiet, even shy. Linda, on the other hand, was bold and brash, perfectly comfortable demonstrating her caring.
Before he even realized what was happening she had brought structure and purpose to his young life. For the first time he had begun to look ahead, considering his future....their future.
The pieces had come together slowly, moving them step by step toward a shared life-view. Their future had seemed so certain and full of possibilities. They would be together forever. The happy arrival of their first child was received as vindication of those hopes.
It had been a time of blue skies and silver linings....until that April afternoon in 1967 when those dreams collided head-on with a frightening new reality. In the course of a single hour the promise of their bright future had vanished, leaving Tom with what seemed to him like no future at all.
For thirty-one years, a span he still struggled to comprehend, he had struggled under the weight of self-imposed guilt. In time he had learned that busy days and enough drink could numb the morbid depression.
For decades he relied on those anesthetic props to keep him going. Without the support of a caring employer and the unexpected arrival of Annie Levant in his life, those dark nights might have lasted forever.
He still found it hard to understand why that unimposing Indian woman, with her gapped-tooth smile and squeaky laugh, had been the one to pull him beyond his demons.
Tolerating his black moods without question or judgment, she had accepted him for what she believed him to be....a good man in need of caring. When he was finally comfortable enough to offer his own caring, Annie Levant and her young son had been drawn to it like moths to a flame.
So why had fate, or God, or Whomever was at the controls, offered the teasing promise of a new and settled life, only to yank it away so abruptly?
Those brief years with Annie had been Tom’s ticket back to the world of the living....until for the second time much of what was good in his life had been swept away. The difference that time had been Rick. With the loss of Annie, the old man was left to be a father, the boy’s only parent.
For weeks he had railed against that obligation, all the way to Stumble Road and its sleazy bars. If Rick had not finally taken a stand he might still be there, or more likely dead. Instead, for the last four years, the two of them had managed to stay upright by leaning on one another.
Now, in the still-familiar quiet of River Park, on the grassy hillside overlooking the river, Tom Fedder once again felt himself under siege....as though the defenses that had held his first life at bay for so long were somehow crumbling.
Surprisingly, those new threats came not from those he had hurt and offended. Instead it was Rick, his own son, and Paul Corin, his trusted advisor, who were urging him to confront a new reality.
From the first day of their return to Tanner it seemed as though the boy had conspired with ‘them,’ breaking through his dad’s carefully constructed wall of silence to meet and know the enemy.
Now his old friend, Pauly Boy, was raising questions about Tom’s decision to do what he knew was the right thing. Paul’s legal advice had produced a successful sale of the Orchard House. Did that give him the right to question his client’s motives?.
For all those years Tom had been mired in a past framed by his own dreadful transgressions. Now, leaning against an ancient oak, watching young couples passing along the riverside path, he sensed that focus shifting.
Sue Ann, Sandy, even Linda seemed to have made a place for themselves in his thoughts. How would he deal with their presence? That was a matter for the future.