Wednesday, July 14, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 21


    Of course the City's attorney had not bought his hopeful "discrimination" story. That was not so surprising.

    Moving beyond that disappointment, he had settled for some light-hearted teasing.... watching his sister deal with a new relational possibility.

                          Chapter 21

“Well, what did you expect the lady to say?” Sally looked up from the dinner casserole she was preparing. Wiping her hands on a dish towel she moved to the end of the breakfast bar, watching as Lane sank dejectedly into the sagging sofa.

“Did you really think she’d buy your silly idea.... putting homeless guys into empty houses?” They had hashed and rehashed all that before and still brother Lane seemed not to accept the truth of it

“She’s the City’s attorney," Sally continued. "Isn’t she? Did you expect her to go after the bankers and the real estate people? Besides, she’s not the one who makes the rules.

“Anyway, you told me yourself they’d never change anything,” she added. “You said those are the people who own the City government....‘Lock, stock, and barrel’ were your exact words. In that case, is she likely to bite the hand that feeds her? 

“Those people, the ones with the money, are doing their best to turn a bad deal into something good for themselves, something profitable. I’m pretty sure a bunch of broke and rowdy fellows from the Bluff, who can’t afford to pay rent, are not their idea of ‘something good.’”

Neither Erin Brock’s blunt rejection nor Sally’s unsympathetic appraisal had changed Lane’s mind. At that point, however, he was not interested in repeating the whole of his logic, not after his sister’s abrupt dismissal. 

“I really thought she’d at least consider it," he said. "To see if there was a way to have a trial run or something like that. If the people who would have to change their rules could see how it worked, you’d think that would make a difference.”

Wedging a pillow behind his head, Lane waved off the need for further explanation. “Anyway, it seems like I’m the only one who really cares that much. So let’s just forget it.” With that he closed his eyes and checked out.

No more that five minutes later his eyes blinked open with a new and different question. “We’re still having dinner here tonight, aren’t we? With Robert and Marla?”

“Of course we are. Why do you think I’m doing all this cooking?”

“Man. How does that guy rate? It seems like he’s becoming a regular customer.”

 “Don’t you give me that,” Sally countered. “You’re the one who invited him the first time. Remember? That wasn’t my idea.”

Lane was laughing at his sister’s undisguised defense. “You’re right,” he admitted. “But that was the first time. You’re the one who arranged for the second and third dinners. And tonight? I hear this is supposed to be his reward for installing heat tapes. Of course the way it’s turned out, he’s getting his dinner before he does the work. How smart is that?

“I’ve probably seen the guy one or two times all week. But the way you talk he manages to stop by here just about every day for some reason or another. I wonder why that is?”

At the sink Sally had been sidetracked by pleasant recollections of an earlier time. How long had it been....probably fifty years or more....since her little brother had last teased her about a ‘boy friend’? Still, though she rather enjoyed Lane’s mocking attention, it was important that he understood her version of the truth about Robert and her.

“Of course he’s stopped by a few times,” she said. “He’s had to measure for the heat tapes and be sure that everything is ready for that.” Which raised another question. “I gave him the money to buy the tapes. He’ll be installing them tomorrow. I’m pretty sure he’s hoping you will help. Can you do that?”

Pushing himself off the sofa, in a matter of five steps Lane was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter as Sally rinsed out a mixing bowl in the sink. “How the heck can I give him a hand when I’m off helping Marla clean the doctor’s office? If you’ll recall, that was your idea.”

“You’re right. It was,” she teased. “Though it didn’t seem to take much arm twisting. 

"Marla told me how surprised she was when you offered to help. ‘Right out of the blue,’ she said. About then she was grinning like a Cheshire cat. She couldn’t remember the last time a fellow had offered to lend a hand. Now, all of a sudden, you’re going to the food bank with her, then offering to help her with the doctor’s office.”

“Come on, Sis. You suggested I do that. It just seemed like I ought to lend a hand when I can. So I did. That’s all there is to it.”

“And you’re kind of looking forward to it.” She was trying to make contact with his downturned eyes. “Aren’t you? That’s why it took about two seconds for you to decide it was a good idea.”

“Come on. You made it sound like she could use the help.”

“Lane Tipton, don’t you be ducking the truth of it. She’s cleaned those offices by herself for months. It wasn’t about ‘needing’ the help. Though I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”

By then Lane was asking questions he found hard to answer. Why had he volunteered to help Marla? How many times had he warned himself not to get involved....ever. Still, the lady had doctored him when he was hurting, reluctantly perhaps, but effectively all the same. And what had he done in return? Not much, unless he stood to gain big points for pulling her little red wagon.

Returning to his original answer....he had offered to help because he owed the lady that much. Could that be considered ‘getting involved’?

From the kitchen Sally had noticed her brother’s obvious distraction. She knew him better than anyone, and had seen that look before. If he was unwilling to offer his thoughts she was not above asking.

“What is it? There’s something bothering you. I can tell. It’s no use sulking about it. Just tell me what it it.”

“It’s about money,” he said, realizing how surprising that must sound since he had no ‘money’ to speak of. “I’m just wondering how long we can afford to keep feeding Robert. I know you like him, and he’s helping out with the heat tapes and stuff. But it has to be expensive, all these meals and things. How long can we keep doing that?”

A second later Sally’s unsmiling reply signaled that she was setting sisterly love aside. “I can assure you that it has nothing to do with what ‘we’ can afford,” she offered in tones so chilling it had Lane shivering. “As long asI’ can afford it I will choose how I spend my own money, and who it is I feed. Is that clear?”

Then, with a deep, defusing breath she tried for a lighter moment. “Just so you know, Robert stopped by with some salmon steaks his ex-brother-in-law had brought back from the coast yesterday. Along with the wine he is bringing, and my casserole, they will be our main course tonight. It’s been a long time since we had something that nice. I hope that’s okay with you.”

At that point Lane was in retreat, looking to escape the reality of sister Sally's high ground and his own unseemly pettiness. Of course she was right. How could he doubt that? The choices were hers to make and she was making them with no apologies. He reached for her shoulders and pulled her into a tight brotherly hug. Sensing her startled surprise, he stood with his chin resting on the top of her head, looking out the kitchen window as he offered his bemused apology.

“Damn it, Sis,” he half whispered. “This old world is so screwed up these days. There are times when I don’t know which way is up. Of course you’re right....about your money and Robert. He’s a hell of a guy. I just hope you two can work it out.”

Stepping back, he held her at arm’s length to explain through his embarrassed grin, “And if you can talk him into waiting until the afternoon to do the heat-tape job, I’ll be ready to lend a hand after I’m through helping Marla. After all, if he’s doing her place too, it seems like I ought to be giving him a hand.”

Monday, July 12, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 20

    He was visiting the halls of power. Though his reception was not so surprising, it was definitely frustrating. Still, it was not the time to be giving up.

    She sensed his passion, and endured his rude replies, but her response was steeped in legalese.... as one would expect from a lawyer....especially one committed to the status quo.

                           Chapter 20

Having grown up in Tanner Lane had visited its City Hall a few times, including a pair of well-remembered traffic-court appearances, with his father at his side. Never once, however, had he seen the business side of city government....such as the City Council chambers or the next-door office of the Council’s General Counsel. It was Friday afternoon and that was about to change.

Like so many government facilities the post-war Tanner City Hall, new and shiny in his day, was struggling to meet the demands of the twenty-first century....where downsizing and consolidation were the norm. For the General Counsel that process had resulted in a smaller office....a pair of windowless rooms tucked away at the end of a twisting third-floor hallway.

There, in the cramped reception area, a graying, stern-faced woman glanced up from her computer to note Lane’s entrance....looking for a moment as though she was distressed by the interruption he represented.

“Yes,” she asked, eyeing him over the top of her frameless reading glasses.

The name plate on the front of the desk proclaimed that she was “Cary Whelan -- Office Manager,” which seemed to him a rather grandiose title for what appeared to be a one-person office.

“Is Mrs. Brock in? She asked me to come by at two o’clock.”

Swiveling her chair to face him, Carey Whelan began by setting things straight. “It’s Ms. Brock. And I don’t remember her mentioning a two o’clock appointment.” With that she turned back to her work.

“She told me that just this morning,” Lane explained, wondering if it was his casual, not-so-uptown appearance that had the lady on edge. Whatever the reason, he was not about to be dismissed so easily. “Maybe she forgot to tell you.”

With an audible sigh the woman stood to retrieve an appointment calendar from the top of a file cabinet. “I don’t see anything here. What was your name?”

“It was Lane Tipton. Still is. I met Ms. Brock this morning down by the fitness center. I’m sure .....”

“Tipton?,” the lady interrupted, holding up a hand, buying time as she leafed through a stack of notes on the corner of her desk. Finally, having retrieved the single yellow Post-it, she held it up for him to see. “It says Mr. Tipton wants to talk about ‘discrimination.’ Is that right?”

A moment later Ms. Whelan’s professional scowl had faded, swept away by the trace of a wondering grin. “She thought you might have been waiting there at the Job Market.”

Erin Brock had mentioned her meeting with him. What did that mean? “That’s right,” he nodded. “Do you suppose she’ll talk to me?”

Cary Whelan motioned him to a chair. Though it was not her place to be advising Erin’s clients, perhaps she ought to be sure he did not get his hopes too high.

“I expect she will. When people talk about discrimination that usually gets her attention. A part of her job is to keep the City out of trouble. But those laws are very complicated. So it’s hard to know what she can do, if anything. Right now though, she’s in the middle of a conference call. Hopefully it won’t last too long.”

Leaning back, Lane nodded his understanding. Finally it felt as though things might be going his way. Ms. Whelan seemed not to be the grouch he had feared at first. Not that she was the one he needed to impress. That would be Erin Brock....the one who hopefully had the answers and held the keys that could turn his distressing complaint into satisfying justice.


It was ten minutes later when Ms. Whelan stood, answering Lane’s questioning glance with a quick, “She’s off the phone.” Stepping to the Counsel’s office door, she knocked softly and pushed it open enough to poke her head inside.

Though he leaned forward to hear their muted exchange, Lane was left to wonder until Cary turned back, now wearing a smile, to say, “She’s ready. Come on in.”

Lane noticed the difference at once. It was a more relaxed Erin Brock he saw as she looked up from her desk....not the flushed and hurried woman he had met that morning, fresh from her work-out at the fitness center. More to the point, she was smiling as she pointed to the chair across the desk from her.

If he was at a loss for words, Ms. Brock was clearly not. With no preliminaries she cut right to the chase. “So, Mr. Tipton, tell me about this ‘discrimination’ you’re concerned about. I’ve been trying to imagine what that could be about.”

Discrimination,” he repeated under his breath. It was time for an explanation. Would she still be smiling after she heard his protest?

“Thanks so much for seeing me,” Lane began. “I know this is a bit out of the ordinary. But I didn’t know where else to turn.”

“About what?," she asked. "Why are you turning to me? And why now? You said it was something about discrimination. Is there something you think the City should be doing about it?”

“Yes, I think there is. You see, it’s about a lot of folks who aren’t getting a fair shake, who aren’t being treated right, even though there’s an obvious answer right there in plain sight.”

The Counselor was frowning, perhaps trying to guess where he was leading them. “I don’t think I understand. You believe that what you’re describing is some form of discrimination. Is that it?”

By then Lane’s gaze was focused on his own hands, folded in his lap. In truth, he was wishing he had a better answer....or any answer at all. 

“Look,” he said, glancing up at her. “I'll admit that I’m not sure that I know the legal definition of ‘discrimination.’ I can only tell you how it feels to me....that people are being treated badly because of who they are, or aren’t.

“You see, the guys I’m talking about are dealing with hard times. They’re living in tents down by the river, trying to get by on next to nothing. They’re out of work because there are no jobs. They’re struggling, even suffering. And yet, while they’re camping out on the Bluffs, there are perfectly good houses sitting empty all over town.

“I don’t know how the law books would describe that, but I know it’s not right. It needs to be fixed. And the people I’ve talked to tell me the City would have to be involved to do that.”

For the next two or three minutes, without further interruption, Erin Brock listened as Lane presented his passionate, if disjointed objections to the ‘going poor’ reality he knew first hand. Though her gaze remained fixed on him, her professionally-passive expression offered few hints of how she was reacting to his rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue. 

Finally, pausing for a deep breath, Lane realized he was repeating himself. He had said all he had to say and still there was no sign that she accepted his logic. With a silent raised-eyebrow question he was asking for her reply.

“Mr. Tipton. I can tell that you feel very strongly about this,” she began. “And I believe I can understand why you feel that way. However,.......”

He closed his eyes and slumped back in his char. “However,” seemed the word was invariably the harbinger of disappointment.

“However,” she continued. “Though the situation you describe may seem hurtful, or unfair, or simply is not illegal. You’re referring to what the law calls ‘property rights,’ the ability of a property owner to make choices about his or her do or not do certain things. 

"Of course, those rights are not absolute. There are legal limitations on how they may be exercised, but the basic concept is deeply embedded in every level of law. That means it’s not against the law for homeowners to decide against doing what you think they ought to do.

“What offends you so deeply cannot be legally defined as discrimination. There may be ways to persuade people to act differently. But there are no laws being broken if they decide not to do that, so long as their reasons are lawful.”

“Persuade them?," Lane countered, leaning forward in his chair.. "Are you crazy?” 

The lady had rendered her verdict, yet he was unwilling to give up without a parting shot. “You’re talking about people like bankers and real estate investors. They're the ones who own those homes. You know that. 

“They're the ones who make the rules. And you know they don’t give a damn about some poor guy sleeping in a tent on the Bluffs. They just don’t care. And I suppose it’s your job to see that it stays that way.” With that he was on his feet, starting for the door.

“Just one minute, Mr. Tipton.” Ms. Brock commanded as she stepped from behind her desk. “Do you think for a minute that I don’t see those men, the ones like you, lined up at the Job Market every morning? Do you think I don’t care about that? 

“I’m afraid you don’t understand the purpose of my job. I’m here to advise the Council, to be sure they follow the law. I do that by applying the laws as they are, not as you or I think they ought to be. I’m sorry, but that’s all I can do.”

The Counselor was apparently through stating her case. Certainly by then Lane was through listening. 

Slamming his palm on the top of a door-side file cabinet he offered a last, loud observation. “Hey, there’s no reason for you to be sorry. They pay you, probably a lot, to look after their interests. And that’s what you’re doing.” A moment later the door slammed behind him.

At her front office desk Cary Whelan turned to watch his boisterous retreat. From the sound of things there was probably nothing she could say to calm him down, but it seemed like she ought to try.

“Sounds like Erin didn’t have the answer you wanted,” she offered as he passed, wondering if her grim little smile could coax something in kind from him. “You realize, don’t you, that she can’t always do what she wants to. There’s a whole bunch of rules that have to be followed.”

With no hint of the smile Ms Whelan was hoping for, Lane settled for his own harsh parting. “I can see why folks say that you guys wouldn’t know what was right if it was standing in front of you.”

That was too much....and he seemed to know that. Pulling the outside door open, he paused to muster a sad grin. “Anyway, thanks for your help.”

Saturday, July 10, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 19

    There was no time for details or lengthy explanations. Instead, the moment called for a bit of shock.....a single, perhaps explosive word that would hopefully gain her attention.

    Sister Sally's critique was blunt and to the point. Brother Lane had lied to the lady....though he claimed to have simply omitted some. of the details.

    Besides, what did that minor offense matter when compared with her increasingly obvious personal reality?

            Chapter 19

Leaving Robert standing beside the Job Market wall, Lane hurried across the strip-mall parking lot hoping to intercept Ms. Erin Brock, General Counsel for the Tanner City Council, as she walked from the fitness center to her car. Though she was unaware of his pursuit, he had nearly caught up with her by the time she reached her upscale sedan. 

Calling out her name he noted the startled surprise in her eyes when she turned to face him. Blinking at the sight of the old man standing before her, the attractive, informally-stylish woman was suddenly a bit grim faced and wary.

Sensing her concern Lane tried for a less threatening posture. He raised his hands, with his open palms facing her, as he offered his apology. “I’m sorry, Ms. Brock. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I was just hoping we could talk for a minute.”

“About what?”

Taking a couple steps back, Lane was hoping the extra space would put her at ease. “Look, ma’am,” he began. “I know you work for the City Council. You told me that the other morning, when I gave you the letter you’d dropped. Do you remember that?”

Erin Brock took a moment to place the obviously nervous intruder in the context of that earlier meeting. Then, having apparently confirmed his veracity, she asked again. “And what is it you want to talk about?”

He had no more than a few seconds to address his ‘empty houses’ complaint. How could he make his point? He had considered that challenge during his walk to the Job Market, and settled on an approach he hoped would be dramatic enough to get her attention.

“Well,” Lane answered, returning to Ms. Brock’s question. “It’s about the City’s housing regulations ....and whether they’re being violated.” That was a stretch. He knew that.

“You see,” he continued. “It seems to me there’s some serious discrimination going on. At least that's what I would call it. I was hoping you might be able to help me understand if that’s true. It’s probably a complicated thing, with a bunch of rules I don’t understand.”

Ms. Brock was signaling her impatience. Glaring conspicuously at her watch she half-turned back to her car. 

“Discrimination, you say?,” she said cautiously. “You’re right, of course. That is a very complex subject. Not exactly a ‘parking lot’ kind of thing. ”

“I suppose not.” She was about to walk away. He had about ten seconds to rescue the moment. “But it seems to me a serious thing. And it might be happening right here in Tanner. Since I live here, it seems like my City government is where I ought to go to learn more about it. Am I wrong about that?”

Erin Brock was actively looking for a graceful escape from his irritating least until she replayed Lane's 'discrimination' claim. Finally, opening her purse, she retrieved a business card and handed it to Lane. 

“I’ll tell you what," she said. "Could you come by my office this afternoon? Say, two o’clock. I should have a few minutes then to hear about your concerns. Would that be okay?”

“Of course it would. I’d really appreciate that.” He was looking at the card, noting the address and doing his best not to laugh out loud. “I’ll see you then.”


The soup and sandwich lunch was on the table and Sally had pried Lane from his noontime newscast. Finally, having filled their glasses with ice water, she sat down, ready to ask her question.

“And the lady from the City is going to meet with you? Is that what you’re saying? She’s willing to talk about empty homes and why they should be used to house the homeless?”

She paused, expecting to hear Lane’s upbeat affirmation. At that moment, however, he was showing an unnatural interest in his Spam sandwich. 

“That is very surprising,” Sally continued. “I thought for sure that was something she’d try to dodge.”

By then his drawn-out silence was spawning new questions. “That is what you asked her about. Isn’t it?”

“Well, not exactly,” he replied. With a last bite of his sandwich he looked across at wearing a decidedly embarrassed grin. “You see, she doesn’t actually know that I want to talk about empty houses and homeless guys.”

“You mean you fibbed to her? You want the lady to be on your side and you’re starting off with lies. That doesn’t strike me as very smart.”

“I didn’t lie to her. I just didn’t tell her everything. I didn’t want to run her off before I had a chance to explain. And there wasn’t time for all that in the parking lot.” He paused for a moment, recalling how his simple "discrimination" reference had won Erin Brock’s immediate attention, as he had hoped it would. 

“She’s a smart lady,” he explained. “You can tell that just by talking to her. I have a hunch she’ll understand what I’m trying to say.”

“She may understand,” Sally nodded. “But that doesn’t mean she’ll agree, or be willing to help. I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you.”

“Come on, Sis. How will anything ever get changed if we start out by assuming it can’t happen?”

Together they took a moment to carry their dishes to the sink, before adjourning to the living room. There Sally was ready to try a new tack.

“Just remember what Robert said....the people who would have to change those rules are the same ones who gain the most by leaving things just like they are. I happen to think he’s exactly right about that.”

“Well of course you do.” Lane was wagging a playful finger at her. “That’s because you like him. Don’t you?”

“What does that mean? And what does it have to do with empty houses?”

Sally’s unconvincing scowl nearly had him laughing. “It means that you like him. That’s all.”

“Says who?”

“Says me. Because I know you. If you’ll remember I’m the one who knew you liked Ricky Wilson in the third grade, when he held your Barbie doll hostage for a kiss. You pretended that you hated him, but I knew better. You had a thing for Ricky. And now you like Robert.

“It’s so obvious,” Lane continued. “I’ve seen how you get all smiley when he’s around. And now you tell me he’s coming to dinner again tonight. For a 'heat-tape party'! God, that is so transparent.” 

Though she had yet to nod her agreement, Sally was not arguing the point. “But that’s okay,” he added. “He’s a good guy. And besides, he likes you too.”

That was enough to set Sally wondering. What was her brother saying....his talk of Robert liking her? It was one thing to nurse her own silly notions of their intriguing new friend. In truth, she enjoyed replaying the pleasant snippets of their times together. But those were her feelings. How could Lane know that Robert had feelings of his own? 

Besides, what could come of that? At her age it paid to be realistic. Giving in to an occasional daydream might be acceptable. But there was certainly no need to be burdened by unrealistic expectations.

“How would you know that?” she asked, returning to her brother’s bold assertion. 

“How do I know he likes you? Is that what you’re asking? That’s easy. Because he does. I could tell by the way he was looking at you during the pinochle game the other night. Then, of course, he just happened to come calling yesterday, while I was off to the food bank and you were home alone.”

“Robert came looking for you. He thought you were here.” Sally was scowling again....chasing away Lane’s wishful conclusions, even though she was not sure she wanted to. “He certainly had no way of knowing I was alone. You’re grabbing at straws.”

“Maybe so,” he admitted. “But when a guy talks about crawling around under a trailer in the cold and damp to install heat tapes for a lady, I have to wonder. I mean, that’s not something a fellow would do for just anyone.” By then Lane was laughing at the thought of it.

“What’s so funny.”

“Just thinking. I’ll bet if we knew the truth of it, there’s probably something seriously symbolic about doing heat tapes for the lady you like. Don’t you suppose? Something more than just guarding against frozen pipes.”

Sally was blushing, flustered, and absolutely unsure how to respond. A few seconds later she was back in the kitchen, standing at the sink, asking herself what it meant. Of course Lane had read her feelings about Robert. That was to be expected. But could he also be right about Robert’s interest? By then she was ready to take their conversation in a different direction.

“I think Robert was hoping that you’d help him with the heat tape project,” she said. ”He was talking about doing Marla’s trailer too. Would you be willing to crawl under her trailer to lend a hand?” She was drying her hands as she bent low to look under the overhead cabinets into the living room, waiting for Lane’s reply.

“Why would I do that?” he asked. “It sounds like Robert’s already volunteered to do it? I wouldn't want to deprive him of his fun?”

“Well, it might be a symbolic thing, like you said.” Sally was wagging a teasing finger at him. “Marla told me a bit about your food-bank trip. I think she enjoyed the chance to get to know you better. And I’ll tell you what surprised her the most. She likes the way you stood up for your silly empty-houses idea.”

“She liked that?”

“I don’t know if she actually agrees. But she could tell you really cared about it. And that you’re willing to speak up for what you believed.” Sally paused to retrieve what she considered the clincher.

“Actually, what she said was ‘maybe that brother of yours just might be one of the few good guys.’ I think she meant that to be a compliment.”

“And you think I ought to fight Robert for the right to grub around under her trailer, just to prove I’m a good guy?” Lane was shaking his head. “Is that how this new age of chivalry works?”

“I’ll bet it would make an impression. At least I hope so. Because she’s a sweet lady who deserves that kind of attention.”

“Sally, you’re chasing that goofy logic of yours on one of your crazy matchmaking crusades. I pulled the lady’s squeaky old wagon around town. That’s the only time we’ve ever been alone together. How can you read anything into that?”

“But you were willing to help....and even look silly for her. That could be a sign. Right?” From the hallway, with one last bit of advice, Sally was ready to leave the scene.

“You think about that,” she said. “And if you really wanted to make points with her, you might offer to help her clean the doctor’s office on Saturday morning. I know she’d appreciate that.” 

Thursday, July 8, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 18

    She was under the weather, glad to be left alone, thankful for the peace and quiet. So how did the knock on the front door.... and the possibility of unwelcome company.... manage to perk her up like that?

    The odds were against him. Friday morning at the Job Market was not likely to result in a day's work. That was just fine with him. He had other things in mind.

                              Chapter 18

Stretched out on the living room sofa, Sally pulled the blanket up under her chin and tried to relax. For the first time all morning her stomach was calm and her throbbing headache seemed to be in retreat. What had begun as a very bad day was turning better. In part, she owed Lane for that. His offer to do the food-bank shopping had allowed for her badly-needed nap.

Now, with her eyes closed, she was chuckling to herself at Lane’s anxious uncertainty, wondering whether he ought to join Marla on that errand. She could tell he wanted to help. But an hour or more spent in Marla’s sometimes dubious company, was he ready for that? 

Still, Sally was forced to admit that it was a pleasing thing to see....watching as the two of them got acquainted. Each of them had struggled for too long with distressing loneliness and financial setbacks. Now, in her best matchmaking mode, she wondered if there might be enough common ground to sustain a connection.

Then, just as she settled back into her pillow there came a knock on the front door....once, then again. That was a surprise. No one ever knocked at her door. 

Her scruffy trailer, in an even scruffier trailer park, was unpromising enough to discourage even the boldest salesperson or solicitor. They were generally looking for more affluent prospects. True, Marla sometimes knocked once, before pushing the door open and coming inside. Lane, on the other hand, never bothered with even that formality. So who could it be, messing up her chance for an extended nap?

Off the sofa, toward the door....moving slowly.... Sally was still grumbling at someone’s thoughtless intrusion as she tugged on the door knob. An instant later she broke into a weak, but obviously genuine smile.

“Good morning, Robert,” she said, making no effort to hide her surprise. “What brings you calling so early in the day?”

He stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, bundled up against the cold. “I’m on my way to the Mission House. Maureen has a project for me. I stopped to see if Lane would be able to lend a hand.”

Pulling her housecoat tighter, Sally’s reply was interrupted by a sudden awareness. “It’s freezing out here,” she said. “Come inside. I’ll bet you haven’t been warm all morning, have you?”

Robert stepped into the tiny, but toasty living room while Sally explained, “Lane’s not here. He went to the food bank with Marla. Have a seat, please. Take a few minutes to get warmed up. There’s some coffee going. Let me get you a cup.”

One sip, then another. He sat holding the warm cup in both his cold hands. “Look,” he finally said. “I shouldn’t have barged in on you like this. It looks like I might have woke you up. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“You didn’t. I was just a little slow getting up and around this morning. But I don’t mind. In fact, it’s kind of nice to have company for a change.”

“And Lane is off shopping with Marla?” That was enough to earn Robert's mischievous grin. “That’s kind of surprising. I’ve watched them at dinner and during our card games. I thought I’d noticed something of a chill there, like it was an arm’s length sort of thing. Near as I could tell they both seemed a little hesitant.”

“Well, the truth is he was doing me a favor. But who knows? Maybe it’s just a matter of them getting to know each other.”

“I suppose that’s possible. Though I’ve never heard Lane say he was in a big hurry to try that again.” 

Setting his cup on the end table, Robert was ready to make another point. “By the way, I wanted to thank you for a really good time the other night. It was the best evening I’ve had in a long time. Good company. A great meal. Good fun. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“A good meal? Are you serious? It was Mac and cheese for heaven sakes. And hot dogs.”

“Hey, don’t knock it,” he laughed. “Everything about it was first class. I suppose if I was appropriately grateful I’d offer to return the favor. But I’m afraid my penthouse wouldn’t measure up.”

“That’s not necessary. You’re certainly welcome to stop by anytime. Remember that when it gets really cold.” 

Sally paused, reflecting on her unsubtle invitation. Was she being too obvious? After all, she hardly knew him....though of course he was Lane’s friend. Then, setting that formality aside, she turned to her own low-keyed observation.

“As for my brother, I know he can get kind of silly when he goes off on one of his causes, like that ‘empty house’ thing.”

“He did get caught up in that, didn’t he?”

“Yes he did,” Sally nodded. “But that’s the way he is. I remember his first wife calling him Crusader Rabbit. It seems like he can’t help it. He has this fixation on making things right.”

“I think I could tell that,” Robert nodded. “Especially when he was talking about the woman he met at the fitness center....the one who’s involved with the City Council in some way or another. He’s met her once, for all of ten seconds, and now he’s ready to go asking for her help.

“That’s where we’re different, he and I. I know all about the stuff he’s talking about. I’ve lived that life up close and personal. But his Crusader Rabbit approach just isn’t me. I guess everyone has their own way of dealing with things. 

"Sounding off, trying to change a system that doesn’t give a damn what I think, has never appealed to me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have my own way of doing things.”

A moment later Sally had taken Robert’s claim as an invitation to her question. “And what is that....your way of doing things?”

Picking up their cups, Robert was off to the kitchen to empty the last of the coffee pot....half a cup for her, half a cup for himself. 

“My thing?” he repeated as he returned her cup. “I suppose it’s about helping out. Making myself useful when that’s all I have to offer. In fact, I guess that’s the other reason I’m here this morning.”

“The other reason? You mean besides seeing Lane?” He must have heard the wary wondering in her voice. What did he mean, she wondered....'the other reason?'

“Yeah. It was something more than just seeing Lane.” 

His intense, slightly-mysterious tone was drawing Sally in, until with a quiet grin he explained. “I owe you for a couple very nice meals. More than that, I’ve had the chance to visit and socialize....that’s something I’ve missed more than I realized. I really enjoyed that part of it. Which in turn got me thinking about your frozen pipes.”

“My frozen pipes?”


Perhaps by then Sally was creating her own answers, reasons why Robert’s visit might be about “more than just seeing Lane.” If so, she was probably concentrating on something more personal than ‘frozen pipes.’

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she replied.

“Like I said the other night, I don’t have the tools to fix your pipes if they break again. And since people are saying this winter could be a hard one, frozen pipes just might happen again. I can’t fix them. But what I can do is install what they call ‘heat tapes’ on the pipes, to keep them from freezing in the first place.”

“You can? I’ve never heard of ‘heat tapes.’ Is that hard to do....or too expensive?”

“It’s really easy. You wrap the heat tape around the pipe. Then, when the weather turns cold you just plug it in to an electrical outlet and keeps your pipes from freezing in even the coldest Tanner weather.”

“And you could do that?”

Robert was telling himself to slow down. He mustn’t be overselling what he could do. Because in fact, his grand idea came with one embarrassing caveat. 

“The thing is," he continued. "There’s no way I could come up with the dollars to buy the tapes. Especially if you want to do both your place and Marla’s. But once we have the tapes I could do it all in an afternoon.”

“How much would it take?” Sally too was taking a mental step back, telling herself she should have known there would be a glitch. Why was it always about money....not enough money?

“I’d have to go under the trailers to see how much exposed pipe there is,” he continued. “These places are pretty small. It shouldn’t take too much tape. Probably thirty or forty dollars would do it.”

Sally was doing the mental math....calculating costs, weighing his estimate against the previous winter’s plumbing costs. 

“Forty dollars," she said. "To save what might be a two hundred dollar repair bill, for each trailer? That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. In fact, it’s so darn good that I’m thinking we ought to throw in something extra.”

That was enough to bring a question to Robert’s face. An instant later she was providing her own answer. “By this weekend our pantry will be restocked. We’ll have everything we’d need for a really special ‘heat tape’ party. Something even better than Mac and cheese and hot dogs. Would that make it easier to go crawling around under the trailer?”

“Wow.” He was nodding his approval. “Heat tapes and dinner, along with another night of TV and pinochle. With maybe a chance to win this time. That sounds like a deal to me.

“I’ll tell you what,” he added. “I’ve got a few bucks stashed away. Why don’t I invest in a bottle of nice Oregon wine. It’ll be the cheap kind. But it’s still pretty good. That would make it a real party, wouldn’t it?”


“What the heck are you doing out here?” Robert asked as Lane approached the Job Market wall. It was seven forty-five Friday morning, the first time all week Lane had ventured out so early. “I thought you’d given up on the Market. I hope you’re not expecting to get hired. Things have pretty well dried up. I’m about ready to give up on it for today.”

“It’s not about work. Not today,” Lane replied, reminding himself that he had come looking for an even more-unexpected outcome. For two days he had played and replayed his unlikely scheme, wondering if there was some way he could possibly pull it off. Sometime in the middle of a sleepless night he had decided he must try.

“I’m hoping to see that lady I was telling you about the other day. The one who’s the lawyer for the City Council. I want to talk to her. I know she comes to the fitness center some mornings.”

 “Are you still on that ‘empty house’ kick?” Robert’s half-laughing question was punctuated with an eye-rolling sigh. “Man, don’t you realize you’re not going to get anywhere riding that horse? Especially with someone from the City Hall. Remember, they’re the ones who made the rules you don’t like.”

“That means they’re the ones who can change them. Right?”

“But they won’t. You’re forgetting who they work for, who they answer to. If you think it through.......” Robert stopped short, captured by the sight of her coming out of the fitness center, walking toward her car.

A second later Lane saw her too. Without waiting to hear the last of Robert’s wisdom, he was half-running across the parking lot to intercept her.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

GOING POOR - Chapter 17


    It would be something of a discovery process.....pulling his red wagon behind him as he learned the ins and outs of food-bank and food-stamp shopping.

    Meanwhile Marla was posing her own hard questions.... asking what would become of him if he could not accept and 'settle for' his undoubted reality.


                           Chapter 17

On High Street Marla and Lane turned north for the final three blocks of their trek. For her the walk was an all-too-familiar routine. The food bank and the discount supermarket, where she and Sally shopped, were just two blocks apart. She liked to joke that her slightly-unorthodox ‘food wagon’ knew the route by heart.

Truth to tell, that now-normal routine of food-bank boxes, and food-stamp funded grocery shopping, was a relatively-recent addition to Marla's senior lifestyle. Actually, she could pinpoint the exact date when everything in her life had changed, including her shopping habits. 

Ironically, it had been years earlier on what the downtown merchants called “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving. On that morning Marla and a friend had joined the throng of shoppers that descended on the East Side Mall, lured by gaudy sales and super discounts.

Sadly, her husband Eric had spent that same morning departing Tanner in the company of  Sharon Downing, one of their long-time friends from the mixed-couples bowling league. Before the day was over Marla would learn that Eric and Sharon had for some time been ‘mixing’ in ways beyond what most bowling leagues required.

Though she had not spoken to Eric since that fateful day, they had corresponded through their son Tim long enough to finalize her last piece of ‘Eric’ business. 

Though it had been accomplished with Eric in absentia, the resulting divorce was no less real for that. While some women considered their divorce settlement a windfall, by then the couple’s savings were exhausted. In the end she had won her freedom, a rundown single-wide trailer, and little else.

“Here we are,” Marla announced as she started across the half-full parking lot in front of a nondescript warehouse building. “Welcome to the Tanner Food Bank.”

Once inside the unadorned, minimally-furnished reception area the two of them took their place at the end of the long bench that hugged the front wall. There Lane was introduced to ‘food bank shopping,’ which he soon learned always began with a wait. One by one those ahead of them were called to the front desk to have their paperwork confirmed, before proceeding through the open doorway into a back room, where they would pick up their order.

A few minutes later it was their turn. “Hi Cherri,” Marla said when they stepped to the counter. The gray-haired matron looked up from a stack of paperwork to recognize her. 

“Sally called, didn’t she?," Marla asked. "To say that her brother was coming with me to pick up her box? She hoped that would be okay, because she’s really under the weather today.”

That sent Cherri pawing through the notes that cluttered her desktop. “And you’re her brother?” she asked when she finally captured the right slip of paper. “You’re Lane? Lane Tipton? Do you have some ID?”

“That’s me,” Lane answered as he fished for his wallet, with its expired driver’s license. 

“Okay,” Cherri nodded without looking up. “You go with Marla. Tony will get the two of you fixed up?”

With that it was on to step two of Lane’s food-bank initiation. More to the point, he was about to learn that being a qualified recipient did not make one a ‘shopper’ in the way he had always shopped for groceries.

“A pair of singles?” Tony asked with a broad, undisguised smile in Marla’s direction. Then to Lane, “And you’re playing Sally this morning. Is that it?”

“That’s right,” Lane replied, waiting for further instructions. 

A second later he realized that he would not be the one selecting items off the well-stocked shelves. Instead, he watched the half-dozen helpers as they scurried up and down the multi-shelved aisles, filling cardboard boxes with a wide array of foodstuffs. Each box was filled with items selected by volunteers from the current inventory of basic foodstuffs, and sized to fit the client’s family.

Regulars like Marla knew they would have the opportunity to request suitable changes and substitutions to the products offered. Monitoring the exact contents of Sally’s food box, she requested a couple of changes. 

A few painless minutes later their orders had been filled……one large box for each of them. Then, with Marla in the lead Lane wheeled their wagon, now loaded with a pair of full-to-the-brim boxes, back across the parking lot to the sidewalk.

“Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Marla asked as they bundled up again to fend off the sunny chill. “They’re good folks. That’s why we like to deal with the Tuesday crew. They make it quick, easy, and a bit flexible.”

“And your supermarket is just up the street from here?” Lane asked. “I think that’s what Sally was telling me? If that’s right why don’t we do them both in one trip?”

Marla’s embarrassed grin was signaling her disclaimer. “First of all, I suppose ‘supermarket’ is stretching things a bit. They call themselves a ‘discount grocer.’ Actually it looks more like a warehouse. 

"You never know from one time to the next what you’ll find there. It will be whatever they could buy cheap that week. But whatever it is, they have the lowest prices in town. That’s enough to make them our ‘supermarket.’

“Thing is, shopping there depends on having food stamps. Though, of course, they aren’t really ‘stamps’ anymore. We have what looks like an ATM card. It works just like stamps, and keeps a running balance of our account. But since we’ve pretty much drained our accounts by this time of the month we have to wait until the first of next week, when their computer adds another month’s worth of stamps to our accounts.

“Besides,” Marla was grinning as she nodded at the wagon Lane was pulling behind him. “Our transportation system can handle only two boxes at a time.”

For the next few minutes, until they turned off High Street to retrace their steps back toward the Bluff, the only sound accompanying their trek was the high-pitched squeak of rusty wagon wheels.

By then Lane was ready to offer his own impressions of food banks and discount grocers. “It must be tough,” he said, switching the wagon handle to his other hand. “Having to count on all that stuff to keep going. I know it has been hard for Sally....being alone, getting by on next to nothing, depending on food stamps and food banks. No one ever told us it would be like this, did they?”

A few paces later Marla offered her reply. “That really bothers you, doesn’t it?”

“What bothers me?”

“Living like you are now. Knowing how different it used to be. Remembering how you expected it to be at this stage of the game.”

 They paused at the crosswalk, waiting for a car to pass, while Lane replayed her question. “Of course it bothers me.” he finally said. “It would bother anyone. I spent a good part of my life painting a picture of how I thought things would be by now. I suppose I had some ideas of what I deserved, and what I’d have.

“So why wouldn’t I be disappointed in how it’s turned out? You can bet I had something better than this in mind.” 

Easing the wagon off the curb he offered a question of his own. “How about you? You’re living in a trailer park, struggling to get by. Pulling your wagon all over town. Is this your idea of a happy ending? Something you’re willing to settle for?”

“What does that mean....'settle for'?”

“I guess it means accepting less than you expected, less than you think you deserve. It’s about ‘settling for’ what’s not enough.”

“Who decides what’s ‘enough’?” Marla countered. “And why do you let it upset you like that....knowing that ‘what is’ turned out to be less than what you wanted? Wouldn't it be a lot less stressful to just accept what is, and learn how to deal with that.”

That challenging possibility must have set Lane thinking. They were nearing the end of the block before he managed his sputtering response. 

“Are you saying this is how it ends? Is this what a happy ending looks like? That I ought to sit back and accept the fact that I’m a failure, sponging off my sister? That’s insane. Who in their right mind would settle for this?”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Marla insisted. “I’m just wondering how you’ll ever be happy if things don’t work out like you want. You know darn well that for a lot of us this is how things are going to be from now on. It’s our new normal. 

“Heck, there may come a time when we look back on this as the good old days, even though it feels terrible right now. And if that’s so, where will that leave you? Will you just keep on being miserable about what you haven’t done and don’t have?”

A moment later Lane’s soft “I don’t know” was nearly drowned out by the squeaking wagon wheels. “I suppose I don’t like to dwell on that.”

“Well, I can’t speak for you.” Marla stepped out across the street, confident that she had just won the high ground. “But if I ever come across a chance for that ‘happy ending,’ I hope I won’t let the small food stamps and being broke....stand in my way.”

“Why would you worry about that when you hate men? Seems like that will make a happy ending pretty hard to come by.”

“I told you before, I don’t hate men. I just don’t trust them. So for me any happy ending would probably include a guy I can trust."