It seemed to be a family thing. While brother Lane struggled to stay afloat in Medford, Sally Erickson had been back in Tanner, dealing with the results of her own relational and financial rollercoaster.
In many ways Lane Tipton and his sister Sally, the only offspring of Axel and Marian Tipton, were a study in contrasts. By the time Lane graduated from Tanner Southside High School in 1969, Sally was already the married mother of two. When he moved to Medford, spreading his adolescent wings in search of the good life, Sally and husband Paul were knee deep in the unyielding reality of family obligations.
Sally and Paul Erickson had committed to a ‘forever’ relationship in high school and made that vision come true. Brother Lane too had set out to establish his own lasting connection with the ‘right’ woman....the one who would be his forever.
At least twice he thought he had found her. At least twice he had been wrong. He was in his forties, with two dramatic failures and a few near-misses behind him, before he finally gave up on that distressing dream. It seemed that perhaps for him the ‘right’ one did not exist.
Meanwhile Sally and Paul had carried on. By inclination and necessity she had always been a hard worker. Once their daughters were in school Sally had settled into what would become a thirty-year tenure with the Tanner Food Processing Company. Looking back, she considered her career there a modest success story....a steady climb from the cannery work floor to departmental foreman, supervisor, and finally Shift Manager.
While husband Paul bounced from job to job, never earning health or retirement benefits, they had relied on Sally’s cannery employment for both, as well as the savings plan that would help fund the retirement they dreamed of having.
However, what those Golden Year dreams had not taken into account was the turbulent chain of events that neither of them could have foreseen nor controlled.
In late 2006, for what it termed "competitive reasons," the cannery terminated its company-paid health insurance benefits. For weeks Paul and Sally had debated whether they could afford the self-paid option the company offered. It would be so expensive....such a strain on their budget.
Finally, it was decided they could not manage that luxury. Besides, age sixty-five, with its Medicare benefits, was not far off. They would take their chances and go without insurance until then.
Less than six months later, as the shock of Paul’s alarming lung-cancer diagnosis was sinking in, they would discover how 'unaffordable' it was to be uninsured.
By the fall of 2009 their home had been sold, their savings were depleted, and Sally’s company ‘pension plan’ had vanished in the sinkhole of the food processor’s corporate demise.
Meanwhile, as their financial walls crumbled around them, Sally watched helplessly as her life-mate slipped away....overwhelmed by a disease he could not escape. The weight of it was almost more than she could bear.
By the spring of 2012, having taken very different routes to reach that point, Lane and Sally found themselves in the same depressing space. He was alone in Medford. His meager savings were gone, and in the wake of his bankruptcy filing his ex-wives and children were no longer speaking to him.
Meanwhile, since Paul’s passing Sally had been just as alone in Tanner. Her two daughters were living in the San Francisco Bay area, far beyond the limits of casual visits.
Like her brother, her unemployment benefits had been exhausted, leaving only her monthly Social Security check, the one luxury Lane did not yet enjoy, to keep her afloat.
Then finally, after a long run of bad luck, Sally finally caught a break. The conglomerate that purchased the old cannery property, which was situated on a high bluff overlooking the river, had created a twelve-space trailer park on what had once been the cannery’s parking lot.
The idea was to offer low-cost trailer spaces, with an eye toward maintaining an everyday presence in the otherwise deserted and depressed neighborhood. Hopefully that would be enough to discourage the ‘street people,’ who camped under the nearby bridges and in riverside ‘jungles,’ from squatting in the vacant buildings.
Having run out of choices, Sally had signed on to manage the small park and keep an eye on the empty buildings. In exchange for those duties she received a rent-free trailer space and the company-paid phone line that allowed her to stay in touch with the local property manager.
With the last of her savings she had moved her dilapidated single-wide mobile home from an east-Tanner trailer park onto one of the newly-developed park spaces. There, beside the gaunt concrete walls of the old cannery, she set up housekeeping.
The Bluffs district, originally platted as “The Bluff Annex” in the 1880s, had been Tanner’s first concentration of industrial activity....a busy warren of mills, factories, canneries, and warehouses that stretched along the bluff overlooking the long wharfs that lined the river bank in those days.
In time, however, new technologies and improved transportation had spurred growth in the newer industrial areas that ringed the city’s outer edges. rendering the outdated river-front facilities obsolete. By the mid-twentieth century The Bluffs were home to little more than the Tanner Food Processing cannery, a couple lumber yards, and a dozen or more warehouses that survived as inexpensive storage space.
Those who were aware of The Bluffs’ history and the area’s boarded-up decay, were no doubt pleased that downtown traffic had long before been routed away from the harsh reality the aging industrial area represented.
Yet for the city’s homeless population The Bluffs, with its vacant buildings and brush-covered river banks, all within walking of the busy Mission House homeless shelter and other essential services they required, was a distinct blessing. It had become something of a magnet....home to much of the region’s highly-mobile indigent population.
Though over the years there had been moments of self pity....feeling sorry for her sad state of affairs....Sally Erickson was in fact rather proud of how well she had managed to weather her distressing life-storms.
To her way of thinking she had managed to make something like lemonade from the lemons that had come her way. Sometimes she even paused to remember that she was still better off than her brother. For his part, Lane was not above reminding his sister of that sad fact, as he did once again in the course of his Saturday morning phone call.
It took a few seconds for Sally to recognize the ringing of the telephone for what it was. There were few close friends in her new life, and even fewer who had her new phone number. The line had been installed to allow contact with the property manager....to report suspected squatters and other concerns.
Though there was a certain comfort in ‘being connected,’ she had never stopped to consider its social advantages. What were the chances of someone calling just to talk to her....the way brother Lane did on that October morning?
“Hello there, stranger,” Sally said as she settled into the well-worn recliner, across the narrow living room from the equally-worn sofa. With the phone to her ear she paused for a moment to offer a silent thanks that he had not lost her new number.
Then, with a teasing laugh, she asked, “Are you back in the telephone business? The last time you called you were using some tavern’s private line. Did that get you get you in hot water?”
Lane flinched a bit at that, remembering how much he disliked those moments when his sister’s questions focused on his unfortunate circumstances.
“Not too much. I figured Tony owed me that. God knows, I’d bought enough of his beer. Anyway, I’m here at Darren’s place this morning. He’s got one of those unlimited minutes plans, which makes it the same as free.”
“So how are you doing? Have you been working at all? If I remember right the last time you called you were retrieving shopping carts for the Merchants’ Association, and living in someone’s garage.”
“I worked myself out of a job.” He was laughing to himself, wondering why she would remember something like that.
“A place like Medford only has so many shopping carts. It took about two weeks to round up the lost and stolen ones, at least the ones I could find. It earned me a few bucks, but then I was out of work again. As for the garage, that worked out pretty well, until I got evicted.”
“You got evicted from a garage? That sounds like a first.”
“I should have seen it coming,” Lane admitted. “Ron had been talking about getting a car for his wife. When he finally did, there wasn’t room for me and the Honda. The Honda won out.”
“So where are you staying now? Have you come up with a new answer?”
That had him turning quiet, offering no hint of his normally upbeat banter. That was unlike him. For years he had endured hardship and hard times without complaint, without asking for help.... relying on his characteristic optimism and an exaggerated bravado to mask the hurt.
But now, as his silence continued, Sally was inclined to believe something different was at work this time. In that case it might take her own probing to learn more.
“Lane. You have to tell me. Does it feel like you’ve run out of options? Is that it?” She paused, wondering how to pry the truth from him. “Come on. I understand how that feels. I’ve been there. Remember?”
His reply arrived in a hushed near-whisper, tinged with a hesitant resignation she had seldom heard from him.
“Yeah,” he said. “It kind of feels like I’ve hit the wall. I can't find any work around here. There are a couple dozen guys going for every job that comes up. An old fossil like me doesn’t stand a chance.
“The only ones hiring now are the orchards. They’re pruning this time of year, and looking for young bucks who can run up and down a ladder a hundred miles an hour. I can’t do that anymore.” By then Lane was scolding himself for sounding so down in the dumps. Still, he owed her the truth.
“The thing is,” he continued. “The few shelters in town are turning guys away. They don’t have any room. There aren’t enough beds to go around. Winter’s coming on and I’m fresh out of ideas.”
“So?” Sally voiced her one word question and waited.
“So? What does that mean?”
“It means I’m wondering what you’re going to do. You can’t do nothing.”
By then neither of them wanted to be the first to say what must be said. Without another word being spoken they each realized where their sparse dialogue was taking them.
Sally understood her brother’s reluctance to sound like he was giving up. Yet, if he could not say what needed saying, she would have to do that herself.
“Listen to me, brother. How many times have I told you that you ought to come back to Tanner. Why not do that now? Stay with me until you get things sorted out. I’ve got room for that. It’s not fancy, but it beats the heck out of staying in some camp on the Bluffs.”
“Sal, don’t you kid me. You don’t have room. You’re still in the same single wide, aren’t you, the one you had in the other park?”
“That’s right. They set it up for me here.” She was ready to offer what would probably sound like the sales pitch she offered to prospective renters.
“I’ll bet you’d like it here. We have eight of our spaces filled now. It’s like a little neighborhood. I make a point of keeping it spruced up. I put out some flowers this summer. This time of year I’m raking leaves. That’s something you could help with. Anyway, it’s pretty nice....even if the folks who live here are just as broke as us.”
“But you still don’t have room for another body bouncing around your trailer. I can’t be imposing like that.”
Brother Lane was raising his predictable objections. That was not so surprising. Sally's challenge was to make him listen to reason.
“Don’t be silly," she chided. "You wouldn’t be imposing at all. In fact, I think I’d appreciate some company for a change. Chances are I’d feel more comfortable with a man around the place. Who knows what kind of guys are poking around here at night?”
“And you expect me to scare them off?” The thought of that had him laughing. “That’s not too likely. Besides, how are you ever going to get acquainted with any of those guys with little brother hanging around.? I might end up scaring off the wrong one.”
“Don’t you fret about that. You won’t find any fellows buzzing around this old girl. At least none that I’d be interested in meeting. Don’t forget. I know what the real thing is like. Why would I ever settle for second best?”
Lane was looking to move beyond his sister’s half-joking relational distress. As much as he hated to admit it, there were more practical considerations to be addressed. “If I did move in,” he said. “I’d expect to help out with expenses. Once I found some kind of work, that is.”
“That would work.” On second thought, Sally realized she must not be creating unrealistic expectations. She owed him the truth.
“But don’t be getting your hopes up about finding a job. At least not right away. It’s probably a lot like Medford. Work is hard to come by up here. It’s that way all over.
“We have what they call the Job Market,” she explained. “It’s just down the street from the Mission House. Do you remember the long concrete building at the foot of the first bridge. Actually, it was the only bridge when we were kids. Anyway, I think the place was originally a furniture store, with a warehouse on the far end.”
“Sure, I remember that. It was Claxton’s, wasn’t it? Donnie Knox worked there for a while.”
“That’s the one,” Sally replied. Switching the phone to her other ear, she pushed herself out of the recliner to stroll through the living room to the kitchen....a matter of three or four steps. It was hardly enough to be considered exercise, but at least she was moving, stretching her legs.
“What they did,” she continued. “Was tear down the store part of the building and put in a little strip mall, just a few shops. I’m not sure what’s inside the warehouse now. But on the outside, along the west wall, the side facing the main drag, is where guys gather each morning looking for work. They line up along the wall, next to the parking lot, all the way down to the shops.
“The outfits that are looking for day help, mostly farms and plant nurseries, drive by to choose the fellows they want. They just load them in their bus, or in the back of a pickup, and drive off. I’ve gone by there some mornings when they’ve taken nearly everyone who wanted to work. At least everyone except....how do I say it?”
“Everyone but the old farts like me,” Lane interrupted, finishing her thought.
“I suppose that’s what I mean. Anyway, I don’t want you to get your hopes up about finding work up here.”
“Don’t you worry about that. I could find something. I always have.”
By then Sally was smiling to herself, remembering her brother as a child, when the neighborhood kids teased him for invariably being drawn to the bright side of every dark problem, always expecting happy endings.
That was the Lane she had known all her life.... the one their own mother called ‘the dreamer,’ who found positive possibilities where others could not. And there he was, a lifetime later, still choosing to see the good side of a bad situation.
Now, however, Lane was returning to a more practical side of their dilemma. “I’m still not sure you have room for me. I remember how small your place is.”
“That’s just silly. It’s not spacious, but there’s plenty of room for two of us. There’s a couch in the second bedroom.” She paused to offer a laughing caveat. “In fact there’s not much room for anything else in there. But at least you’d have a warm place to sleep. It’s certainly better than a garage.
“You’ll just have to remember to pick up after yourself. That part hasn’t changed. This place of mine may not be pretty, but I like to keep it clean and presentable.”
“You always have. No matter where you were living.”
“Well, I can’t always have everything I want. But that’s no reason to get sloppy.”
“And you’re sure it would be okay?” Lane’s hesitancy seemed to be melting. “Having a house guest. For a while.”
“Will you stop that,” Sally answered, trying for a scolding gruffness he was sure to see through. “This is your big sister talking, so pay attention. Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? You don’t have a better option. You said so yourself. This is where you belong right now. So get yourself up here. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” Lane answered, adding an audible, reluctant sigh. “I’m pretty sure I can get a ride to Tanner with a trucker buddy of mine. I won’t have a phone with me, so give me your address and I’ll find you.”