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.”
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 presence....at 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 her....now 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 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 again....off 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.”