To his sister's chagrin he had invited his friend to dinner, leaving her to wonder how she could pull that off, given her sparse pantry and cramped trailer.
It was scarcely noon and already Lane’s Monday was badly in need of a pick-me-up. Chances were a McBurger would have helped improve his mood. But the sad fact that he had only a single dollar bill in his wallet was enough to settle that ‘poor me’ complaint. He would have to settle for saltines and coffee once he got to Sally’s.
There was no escaping the depressing truth of it. His morning had started off on a hopeful note.... with the possibility, if not the promise, of a productive visit to the Employment Office. It was distressing to realize how wrong he had been about that.
His nostalgic return to The Hill and Keltran Street had only served to magnify his sense of how much had been lost over the years....how far he had fallen short. Yet, what weighed him down the most was the haunting paradox of empty townhouses in the midst of such need.
While the Mission House teemed with unfortunate souls living in tents, the row of hillside homes he passed that morning had only reinforced the belief that better possibilities were at hand, yet out of reach.
Leaving the Mission House he started down River Street towards the trailer park, replaying his unsettling conversation with Maureen as he walked. Her well-intentioned insights had not set well with him....especially her blunt suggestion that his ‘in control’ assumptions were too often a fantasy.
By the time he came to the second bridge he was determined to regain at least a hint of control....to act on a new choice, a new possibility. A few blocks later, where the underground stream emerged to tumble down to the river, he stopped at the edge of the street. Through the underbrush he could make out the end of a weathered warehouse structure. Somewhere along that wall was Robert’s makeshift Penthouse.
“Hey, Robert,” he yelled, hoping to find his friend at home. “Are you there? It’s me, Lane.”
“Yo,” came a muffled reply. “Just a minute.” Emerging from his tent Robert followed the narrow trail through a tangle of berry vines toward a clearing next to the creek. “What up?” he asked as he stepped out into the open. “What’s going on?”
“I was just thinking,” Lane said. “They say tonight’s going to be another cold one. What if you got ready for it with a nice hot dinner, up at our trailer? That would warm you up a little before a long chilly night in the Penthouse.”
“Are you sure? Does your sister know about that?”
Lane was half laughing to himself. There he was, exercising some of his lost control, making his own choices, and about to surprise Sally at the same time. “You just come on up, say four-thirty or five. We won’t be eating fancy, but it’ll be warm and filling.”
“You’re sure it’s okay?” There was no hiding Robert’s wary wondering. “I don’t want to show up and find out she doesn’t want me around.”
“You just be there. Everything will be fine.” With that Lane turned and started up the street toward the trailer park.
There, he told himself. He had chosen a course of action and acted on it. Who could say he was not in control? Next came the matter of telling Sally. Hopefully she would not jerk that control away with her own veto.
“You what?” Sally asked in startled disbelief. She set the towel she was folding back on the kitchen counter and in a matter of three steps stalked to the living room, where Lane sat on the sofa surfing the four channels their roof-top antenna received.
Raising his hand to quiet her protest, he punched the remote to quiet the TV and leaned forward to offer his defense.
“Hey, it’s no big deal. I invited Robert to dinner. That’s all. It’s getting cold out there. He’s already fighting a cold. What he needs is a chance to warm up.
“Besides, after pruning shrubs and planting trees together it feels like the two of us are in this together. He’s a good guy. You know that. How can I leave him out there on the Bluff, while I’m living the good life up here?”
lt took only a cursory glance to realize his rationale had not answered his sister’s most pressing question, leaving her ask, “And what do you suppose I’m going to feed him?”
“The same thing you’re going to feed me. You haven’t heard me complaining have you?”
Two steps closer and Sally sat down in the scruffy arm chair across from the sofa. “You know," she said. "We fed him pretty well last time he was here. But that was kind of a special deal. This is bound to be a letdown. Do you really think he’ll be impressed with Top Ramen and carrot sticks, with maybe a slice of toast? What will he think of that?”
“Sally, you’ve met the guy. In fact, I thought you two hit it off pretty well. And you know he’s not expecting anything fancy. He’s been eating God knows what out there in his tent. His idea of eating out is washing dishes at the Mission House in exchange for a warm meal. So don’t you worry. He’ll like whatever you fix.”
By then Sally was sensing the shock of it. After months of social isolation she was being asked to play hostess for the second time in just two weeks.
There had been a time when that was standard fare for her and Paul. But that was years before, literally a different lifetime. Since losing her husband, visitors had rarely been part of her life. The thought of returning to that role was hard to get her mind around.
She had expected her tree planting send-off for Lane and Robert to be a one-time thing. So why was her brother lobbying for a repeat performance? What made him think she was willing to make her humble home a social venue?
“Lane, will you just look at this place of ours,” she said, casting a quick glance around the cramped and cluttered room. “The furniture is junk. Most of it should have been thrown out years ago. And it’s all scrunched together. There’s not even room for a third or fourth person at the table unless we pull it out into the middle of the room.”
Leaning back, Lane was wondering what button he had pushed. Why the sudden grumbling about the furniture and dining space? It had worked just fine for the four of them just a week earlier. Now it was no longer suitable. What had changed so suddenly?
He was on his feet, leaning against the long defunct phonograph console. “Are you listening at all,” he asked. “Robert’s been here before. He knows what it’s like. He enjoyed himself the first time. I happen to know that, because he told me so.
"Besides, this is like the Ritz to him. It’s roomy and it’s warm. All you have to do is stir up the Top Ramen, throw in a few carrot sticks, and everything will be just fine.”
By the time Lane switched off the obnoxious game show he had been half watching, Sally had retreated to her bedroom. Stretched out on the sofa, he was giving thanks for her apparent capitulation. Apparently he had made his case for Robert’s return. That felt like a win for ‘being in control.’
With that minor victory behind him he settled back for what promised to be a quiet nap. When Sally slipped out the front door a few minutes later, the sound of her stealthy departure did not disturb him at all.
Her return, however, was a different matter. Without knowing if Lane was asleep or not, she slammed the front door behind her and announced in a voice loud enough to guarantee he was awake. “Okay, smarty. Two can play that game.”
He opened one eye long enough to confirm that it was her making the racket, and not some snippet of an unfinished dream. “What are you fussing about now?," he asked. "I hope it’s something worthwhile.” With that he pulled the pillow, the one with no pillow case, over his head.
A second later Sally grabbed the pillow and deposited it unceremoniously on the floor. “I’m just saying you’re not the only one who can play Good Samaritan.”
She was standing over him as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes....with the displeasure of his rude awakening spread across his face. Rather than wait for his next question, she proceeded with her own answers.
“I just invited Marla to join us tonight, for our dinner with Robert.”
“Why would you do that? You weren’t sure there was enough to feed three of us. And God knows, your scruffy little trailer wasn’t good enough for socializing. That’s basically what you said.
"So how are you going to deal with that? And why the heck would you invite the one lady in the whole park who would just as soon spend an evening without Robert and me around. Damn it, Sis, you’ve really messed things up now.”
Raising a hand to halt her brother’s objection, Sally was prepared to offer her own rationale. “What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t very well leave her sitting alone next door while we’re having company. She may not be the most sociable gal on the block, but there’s no need to treat her like an outcast. Besides, I could tell she thought it was a good idea.”
Parking herself in the armchair opposite Lane, she was ready to offer the good news that would hopefully win his approval.
“Anyway, while we were at it, Marla and I did some menu planning. The Top Ramen is out. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you too much. Instead, between the two of us we managed to come up with Mac and Cheese, carrot sticks, and get this....hot dogs.
"I have the franks. She has the buns. Put all that together and we’ll have enough for a real feast.... a kind of party. Not only that, Marla picked up some day-old donuts yesterday. So we’ll have dessert too. You can’t beat that?”
Lane’s first impulse might have been to debate the way his sister had commandeered his ‘in control’ moment....taking his low-key invitation to Robert and turning it into ‘a kind of party.’ What did in mean, spending another night in the company of her friend Marla, the one who “Didn’t trust him and his kind. Not a bit.”?
Yet there was another variable to factor into his social calculation. It was a pleasing thing to see how Sally’s humble vision of a Mac, cheese, and hot dog dinner had her so excited.
How long had it been since he had seen his sister so energized? Her upbeat exuberance was definitely more than a matter of menu options. She was dwelling on the social possibilities of a houseful of people, especially in a home where four was a crowd.
That had always been Sally’s way. Even as children, while Lane was perfectly comfortable being off by himself, reading or building something, she was most at home in a social setting....sharing the latest gossip, immersed in silly girl talk. Even then the attraction was not so much about an exchange of information or opinion as the interpersonal connections she so enjoyed.
It had been the same when she and Paul entertained. Little more than a week before, for the first time in years, she had again played hostess. And here she was, looking forward to another congenial evening of good company.