It was just after noon on Monday when Lane arrived at the Tanner Bluffs Trailer Park. At Space #1 he climbed the front steps of Sally’s dated and dented single-wide trailer to knock on the door. Except for the clothes he was wearing, the army-surplus duffel bag on his shoulder contained the sum total of everything he owned.
Though he had been tempted to buy breakfast before leaving Medford that morning, he had decided to do without. It was that bit of self denial that accounted for the single ten dollar bill that graced his paper-thin wallet....along with an expired driver’s license, a laminated Social Security card, and the carefully folded IOU in the amount of fifty dollars, signed by Whitey Frissen the day before he skipped town more than three years earlier. Though it was absolutely worthless, on the face of it the scribbled note was Lane’s most substantial asset, something he was reluctant to part with.
A moment later, without a word of greeting, a beaming Sally Erickson pulled Lane through the door into a smothering embrace. Then, nudging him away to arm’s length, she ran a hand over his stubbled chin and gave him a short, but conspicuous once over.
“You haven’t shaved,” she said. “So I’m guessing you haven’t been hanging out in high society. And you sure haven’t put on any weight. You’re slim and trim, which is supposed to be healthy.”
“It might be,” Lane chuckled, reminding himself how much he had missed the company of someone who cared about him the way she did. ”It also means I’ve been hungry a lot. Turns out that’s a sure cure for weight gain.”
“In that case, you’re in luck. I was about to stir something up for lunch. Could I interest you in a bowl of Top Ramen? It’s not the tastiest thing going, but it’s hot and filling.”
Looking up, brother Lane was chewing his lip, unsure how to respond. Of course he was hungry. But what about Sally? Could she afford to be feeding him?
“First we have to get some things sorted out,” he said. “And put our cards on the table. It’s not your job to be feeding me, you know. I should be doing that myself. And I will, just as soon as I get settled in and figure out the lay of the land.”
Sally was tugging at his tattered jacket, pulling him across the tiny living room to the kitchen table.
“Will you stop talking like that?" she grumbled. "We’re family, remember? I’m doing exactly what you’d do for me if things were reversed. Now sit down and have some lunch. Then I’ll give you a tour of our spacious accommodations.”
With no reason to hurry, Lane lingered over his first warm meal since in three days. Then, while Sally cleaned up in the kitchen, he settled down on the sofa to take in the luxury of a midday newscast. Half an hour later his eyes blinked open to see Sally grinning at him from her recliner.
“It’s been a while since I sat down to watch the news,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I almost forgot how much I miss that. For the most part, taverns have nothing but ballgames on the tube.”
“I could tell how much you’ve missed it. You must have lasted all of five minutes. But don’t get too used to it. On a good day I get four channels. But if the wind is blowing the antenna shakes and the picture gets blurry. Anyway, that probably doesn’t matter if you can’t stay awake.”
“Hey, I needed a nap. That’s all. I got an early start this morning. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve been so warm and cozy. I’ve spent the last couple weeks in a corrugated-metal shed at the gravel pit. It was dry, but none too warm.”
Pushing herself out of her chair, Sally was ready with a new challenge. “Are you rested enough to go for a walk? It’s kind of a nice afternoon. And it’s probably been a while since you’ve had a guided tour of your old home town....at least this part of it. I thought I might show you around.”
“I just walked all the way from the interstate. So I’ve seen how some of it has changed. Anyway, I was up here just a couple years ago. That’s not so long.”
“But it’s been longer than that since you’ve seen the Bluffs,” Sally said. “And I guarantee you’ve never seen them the way they look now.” She offered her hand to help him off the sofa. “Come on, we need to stretch our legs. How about a walk up to the bridges and back? That’s not too far.”
Actually, their tour would begin on the front porch of her trailer, taking in the work-in-process that was the Tanner Bluffs Trailer Park.
“I don’t know how you do it, Sis,” Lane offered as he scanned the long curving lane that served as the trailer village’s main street. “You told me they don’t give you much for upkeep. But you’ve got the place looking pretty darn spiffy. There’s no trash around the trailers, everything seems to be in its place.” He paused for a soft mischievous laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Just thinking. That’s all. You’ve got eight trailers in here. And I do believe that as beat up as it is, yours is probably the best looking of the bunch.”
There was no humor in Sally’s reply, only a hint of the self-conscious pride he was not surprised to hear. “You know damn well,” she said. “We’re not the only ones who are struggling. Everyone of these folks has a sad story to tell. We’re all walking a hard road. But that doesn’t mean we have to act like losers. I keep the place looking good because I want folks to know thats the kind of person I am, even if I am broke.”
With a nudge toward the porch steps she started them on their way. “Now let me show you the new, and not-so-improved Tanner Bluffs.”
Her itinerary was not all that long, no more than seven or eight blocks from the trailer park....an easy stroll down River Street on a cool, but bright autumn afternoon. They rounded the boarded-up cannery building and, since there were no sidewalks in that once industrial area, started south along the edge of the pavement, on the river side of street.
After little more than a block Sally paused at a low concrete wall overlooking the small creek that gushed from under the street to tumble down the hillside to the river.
“I didn’t know there was a creek in this part of town,” Lane said. “Where does that come from?”
“Lots of people don’t realize it’s even here,” Sally nodded. “These days most of it is buried in big concrete culverts. Back when we were kids a lot of it was still out in the open. It was a good-sized stream that ran all the way through town. I can remember when it used to flood some of the streets.”
She took a moment to point out a pair of men passing below them on the riverside path that wound through the trees and underbrush no more than twenty or thirty yards from where they stood.
“There’s no telling how many fellows are living along the Bluffs. I’m sure there must be dozens. They’re in camps all along this stretch of the river ....in tents and under tarps.”
“I’ll bet you’re right. We had places like that in Medford. But they weren’t concentrated in one place like they are here .”
They had walked another few yards up the street before Sally was ready to expand on her ‘homeless’ observation.
“Of course it can be a nuisance, having all those guys hanging around. When winter sets in and it’s wet and cold they’ll be breaking into the empty buildings, looking for a place to get out of the rain. And of course, no matter what the weather, you’ll find a few of them passed out on cheap wine down in the park and under the bridges, ”
They continued up River Street toward the bulky concrete bridge ramps that arched over the street a few blocks ahead. “It’s kind of interesting,” Sally continued. “The way the social-service people, the agencies that help the homeless folks, have grown up in this part of town. That’s been going on for a long time, because this is where their clients are.
“The Mission House is the main one. It’s just a block beyond the bridges, over on the main drag. It’s been there forever. I remember it from back when we were kids. I didn’t realize it then, but it’s been a lifeline for all that time.
These days, when so many people need help, I’ve heard they have to limit folks to three or four nights a month. That gets them a decent meal, a hot shower, and a warm bed. It must be a Godsend for the guys living in tents along the river.
“And there are a couple thrift shops too....one at the Mission House and another up the street from there. And finally, there’s the Job Market I was telling you about.
“Put all that together and you’ve got a minimal support system for folks who need all the help they can get. In the good old days there was a fairly-decent low-income housing program for folks, especially families that were struggling. But the funding for that has dried up, so we don’t hear much about it anymore.”
Minutes later, as they started back down River Street toward the trailer, Lane was processing a new question. Though he was reluctant to broach the subject, he needed to know more about his sister’s situation. Since she was not likely to volunteer such details, how else would he know?
“How about you?” he asked. “Do you use any of those support services?”
Sally quickened her pace, stepping out ahead of him. By the time he caught up with her she was ready to answer to his blunt question.
“Once a month I go to the food bank, over on High Street. Marla and I go together. She’s my next door neighbor....and my best friend. We use her little red wagon to carry our boxes home.
“We get lots of stares, and a few laughs....the sight of two old ladies pulling their wagon down the sidewalk. But it works just fine. We’re a couple of independent old broads. When you consider our circumstances we have to be. Still, it would be a lot harder to get by without the food bank. I really appreciate what they do.”
Lane was grinning at the mind-picture of his sister pulling a little red wagon down the sidewalk. “That sounds like something I could do....pulling the wagon. I learned how to do that when I was a kid. It’s probably one of those things you never forget. That might be one way I could do my part.”
“That would be nice. But I don’t want you feeling sorry for me. I get my Social Security check every month, and food stamps too. When you put all that together with free rent, a free phone, and the discount supermarket where we shop, there will always be enough for the two of us. So, don’t you worry about that.”
Back at the trailer Lane hung his jacket over a chair back and turned to his sister. “Sal, I don’t know how I can repay you, but I’m going to try.
"I really believe there’s something good waiting to happen up here. I can feel it. There had to be a reason why Medford wasn’t working any more. When I finally figure that out I’ll be fine. By then I’ll owe you big time.”
“I don’t understand how you can be that way,” Sally said, handing him a cup of still warm coffee.
“Be what way?”
“How you can always be so sure that something good is waiting to happen. You were like that as a kid. It’s what made you Momma’s ‘little dreamer.’
“But these days, the way things are, I’m not sure you can count on those dreams coming true. Instead we have to keep plugging along, doing what we have to do to get by.”
Starting down the narrow hallway to her bedroom, Sally turned to offer one last observation. “In the meantime, you can expect to be meeting Marla before long. I hope you’ll be able to tell she’s a nice lady. Because she is.
“But you’ll have to take what she says with a grain of salt. There are a couple fellows here in the park who are absolutely convinced that she hates men. But she doesn’t. She just doesn’t trust them. Her husband ran off with another woman and Marla’s not likely to forget that.”
“Not to worry, Sis. I’ve been through those wars. Remember? I’m sure as heck not looking for a rerun. I’m probably just as gun-shy as your friend.”