On Sunday morning, in the company of Joseph Ferry and his eighteen wheeler, along with a load of irrigation pipe bound from Tacoma to Sacramento, Lane made his way south to Medford, near the Oregon-California border. Though they were riding together the four-hour ride was largely a solitary time. Busy traffic sounds and the muffled roar of the rig’s massive diesel engine limited the opportunity for casual conversation. From Lane’s perspective that was just as well. He had other things on his mind.
A few years earlier, when the job-killing recession first took hold and sales jobs were drying up, he had briefly wondered if a new career as a long-haul truck driver was a practical way to stay afloat. A few weeks of driving school might have earned him a Commercial License and a shot at driving for a second or third trier trucking outfit.
In the end he decided against going in debt for the dubious opportunity to spend day after boring day stuck behind a steering wheel, hurrying through country he had no interest in seeing toward a place he did not want to go.
Now, after a few highway hours with Joseph, he realized that those long hours on the road were not only boring, but exhausting. That was enough to confirm his earlier decision. Still, though it was not a practical career path for him, when it came to finding an affordable way to return to Medford, Joseph’s company was more than welcome.
The next day, for the first time in months, Lane was gainfully employed, at least on a semi-permanent basis. It felt as though for at least a few weeks the natural order of things had been restored.
The packing-shed work was, in fact, more hypnotic than hard. For long hours he stood beside the slow-moving conveyer belt, sorting the passing fruit, sometimes apples, more often pears, into one of four trays....destined for the company’s good, better, or best holiday gift boxes, or the trash barrel.
Once settled into the mind-numbing routine he managed to survive the two-hour stints between breaks by reminding himself of the dollars stacking up in his mental piggy bank.
His first evenings at the Carroll home were quiet and casual times. He dined with Ron and Cindy, watched the news with them, and perhaps a ball game with Ron, before retreating to his basement sanctuary. During the months he had spent on the fringes of their household the previous spring Lane had made a point of not intruding on their private time. Now a hot shower, an engrossing book, and a good night’s sleep was enough to have him ready for the early-morning walk to the packing shed.
By the end of his first week Lane was getting acquainted with some of his work mates. High on that list of new buddies was Billy Farrow. Though young Mr. Farrow was not particularly friendly and they had little in common, there was one important thing to recommend his company. A substantial part of Billy’s modest paycheck went to pay for his cell phone and its unlimited minutes. After hearing of that undeniable asset, Lane had made it a point to know Billy better.
On Friday afternoon, during their last break, Lane stepped out into the quiet of the upstairs hallway. With Billy’s borrowed phone in hand he paused, wishing again that Marla had a phone, so he would not have to call her on Sally’s phone. Still, he reminded himself, it was better than no phone at all.
“Hi, Sis,” he said when Sally answered. “It’s me. How’s it going?”
“We’re doing pretty well,” Sally answered. “Though we have one lady who spends a lot of time moping around. There are days it seems like she’s only half here.”
“That’s mainly why I called. Could you get her over to the phone? I need to talk to her.”
“I would if she was here. She and Brenda went downtown an hour or so ago. I don’t know when she’ll be back.”
Lane was pacing, grumbling at his bad luck, having called when Marla was gone. Then, before he signed off he recalled another piece of business. “Sally. From your phone book can you look up the number for Mission House? I need to get in touch with Maureen Kenyon.”
A moment later, he was taking notes as his sister repeated the number. With that Lane was ready to move on. “I’ve got to hurry,” he said. “I have to get back to work. But you need to tell Robert that he should settle in with your for good. I won’t be coming back to your place.”
“You have other plans?”
“I hope so.”
“But you’re still coming back to Tanner?”
“Of course I am.” That stopped him for a few seconds, wondering why she would be asking that. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “It’s just that Marla’s not so sure you intend to come back. She’s wondering if this was just your way of making an escape.”
“But I’ve told her over and over .....”
“I know,” Sally interrupted. “But you left, didn’t you. One phone call and you were gone. What was she supposed to think?
“Look, I have to go. Please tell her I called. Tell her I miss her. Tell her I .......” He paused, knowing that was not a message to be delivered second hand. “Tell her I’ll call again. It sounds like I need to straighten that lady out a bit.”
With the last two minutes of his break time Lane checked in with Maureen Kenyon. There too the good news he hoped to hear had yet to arrive.
“I haven’t heard a thing. Not from Ms. Brock or Mr. Barrington,” Maureen said. “If you’ll give me your phone number I’ll call you if I get some word from either of them.”
“I don’t have a phone,” Lane explained. “I’ll call you next week, probably Thursday or Friday, to see if you’ve heard anything.”
With Lane’s departure, life in the trailer park had turned quiet for Marla. She was struggling with the loss of her new normal....as if her earlier five nights spent with Lane had qualified as a new lifestyle.
Next door Sally and Robert were in the process of forming their own ‘normal.’ Robert had recovered from his near-pneumonia, and in the process had graduated from the front sofa to the welcoming comfort of Sally’s bedroom.
By Tuesday morning he was strong enough for a return to his hillside penthouse, a final tour to be sure there was nothing of value left in his recently vacated home. A half an hour later, when he returned to the trailer, Sally met him at the door, asking what he had found.
“Was your jacket still there?” she asked. “Or anything else you’d left behind?”
“Nah. I didn’t expect to find it. Out on the Bluff, if you’re not around to keep an eye on things they have a way of disappearing.”
“I’m sorry. We’ll have to find something at the thrift shop. You’ll certainly need a decent coat for winter.”
By then Robert had turned quiet, drawn into his own thoughts. “What is it?” Sally asked. “Are you remembering how much you miss your penthouse?”
Looking up, he was shaking his head. “Not at all,” he said. “I was just thinking about the guys there, the ones who are holed up there now. I’d seen one of them before. The other one must be new in town.
"But the penthouse is their home now. And they were feeling pretty darn good about that. It’s the best place either of them has had for a while. The one guy was bragging that they’re ready for winter now. They’re dry and reasonably warm. Seemed to him like they couldn’t ask for more.”
“I suppose they both know fellows who aren’t that lucky.”
“Exactly,” Robert nodded. “But I didn’t have the heart to tell them what ‘lucky’ really looks like. When you hit the jackpot, like I have, there’s a warm trailer, enough to eat every day, and a TV that gets four channels on a good day.” He reached for her hand. “Not to mention the best company a guy could hope for.”
“Why, thank you, sir. I will certainly second that. It’s been a long time between ‘good company.’ I don’t ever want to be in that place again.”
He pulled her to his shoulder and planted a kiss on her forehead. “That’s exactly what I was thinking on my way back from the Bluff....how good it was to wake up like I did this morning, with you lying there beside me. When I look at what we’ve got....a few dinky paychecks, your Social Security, some food stamps and a food bank....it may not look like much, but it’s the best deal I’ve had in a very long time. Even better than the penthouse.
Meanwhile Marla, in Sally’s perfectly-descriptive words, continued to ‘mope’ around. There were days when she could scarcely manage the few steps to Sally’s next-door trailer. When she did, she was bound to be something less than good company.
At the same time, Robert and Sally were becoming a couple. Their trailer had become a happier place....home to an abundance of laughs, smiles, and caring. Though the pantry was nearly bare and the money jar was running on empty, they accepted that as enough. It was their new-found connection, the spark that each of them had needed so badly for so long, that made the difference.
While her friends were coming together, Marla was left to bemoan the nagging absence of the one who was not there. From her perspective recent events had only accentuated the emerging contrast, the unfairness of it. Though she scolded herself for feeling that way, there was no denying her envy of what Sally and Robert were creating. There were days she dreaded going next door. Watching them together simply hurt too much.
Since Eric’s depressing departure, Marla had survived on a small pension, an even smaller office-cleaning income, food stamps, and the food bank. In the course of that time her expectations and lifestyle had contracted to fit her circumstances. They had to. As she learned to live that new life, she found it suited her. Having ‘more’ had become ‘less’ important.
Then, in a surprising turn of events, ‘he’ had stumbled into her life. The trust deficit she had nursed for so long had been overcome, cautiously at first, but no less real for that. In time her own timid disinterest and Lane’s stubborn resistance had been swept aside, leaving the common ground on which to build a relationship.
True, in some ways they were still strangers, still in the process of learning about each other. Yet there were moments when it seemed like she had known him forever. He liked her. She could tell. Their lovemaking had been natural and right. Except for his maddening preoccupation with earning a paycheck everything about him was right. But what did that matter? He was gone. He had been away for twelve days. The longer she waited the more she wondered, until wondering gave way to doubt.
On Saturday afternoon, the end of his second week in Medford, Lane was again outside the break room with Billy Farrow’s phone in hand. He had two calls in mind. The first would be to sister Sally. Hopefully, after the prior week’s bad timing, he would be able to get through to Marla. And sure enough he did. Perhaps his luck was turning.
“Thanks for coming over to the phone,” he said when Marla took the wireless phone Sally handed her. “I was afraid you’d decided not to talk to me.”
“Don’t be silly. I was hoping you’d call again. I’m sorry I missed you the first time.” By then she was at the far end of the hallway, away from Sally and Robert. “I wanted to hear about Medford, how it’s going. I guess I was wondering......”
“You were wondering what?”
Marla stopped short, leaving him to make sense of her sudden silence. When she finally returned, her voice was hushed and hesitant. “I was wondering if Medford was beginning to feel like home again. You know, a place where you might want to stay.”
“Where’d you get that crazy idea? It sounds like something Sally said last week....asking me if I was coming back. Who the heck is hatching that silly stuff?”
Setting aside her whimpering timidity, Marla was ready to take exception to his not-so-flattering labels. “Well, you were certainly in a big hurry to get away. In fact, I’d say you were eager. Then, once you got there we didn’t hear a thing from you. What was I supposed to think?”
“Will you just stop and listen to what you’re saying? You’re right. I was in a hurry....to be making some money for a change. As for calling you, I’d already promised Ron I wouldn’t be running up his phone bill. I had to wait ‘til I met a guy at work with cell-phone minutes to spare.”
He moved a bit further down the hallway, to where he was less likely to be overheard. “Marla, you wouldn’t believe how lonely it is down here.”
“You have friends there, don’t you? You’re staying with that Ron fellow.”
“Yes I am. And I’m darn glad it worked out that way. But I hope you understand that it’s not the same as being there with you.” He stopped short, dwelling on that undeniable truth before moving on to the heart of the matter.
“Ron and Cindy are good people and I really appreciate their help. It’s the only way I could make this pay. They’re the reason I have nearly seven-hundred bucks stashed in my suitcase. If I keep getting an extra day of overtime for the next few weeks that will add up to a serious nest egg by the time I’m done. That’s money I can bring back to Tanner. ”
“I’d rather have you here than seven-hundred dollars.”
“Come on, lady. We have to be practical. We need those dollars.”
“We need those dollars,” Marla repeated to herself. At least he was talking about the two of them. She liked that.
“Anyway, Ron and Cindy have been a big help,” Lane continued. “But they have their own lives to live. Part of my deal with them, just like the last time I was there, is to stay out of their way. Last night I got so bored that I snuck off to a movie. I can’t even tell you what I saw. I just remember that it was a real bummer to be there alone.”
He let that truth sink in. After years of living in his own ‘alone’ space it was a bit surprising....the returning realization of how hard that was. At that moment, however, it was the ‘why’ of it he wanted Marla to understand. There were better ways to express those feelings, but for now he must rely on mere words.
“I miss you, Marla,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to. So please don’t get sidetracked by those silly ideas of yours. It’s just a few weeks more. We can do it. By then I’ll be back in Tanner with some bucks in the bank, enough to see us through the winter.”
Her reply was tinged with tears and hard to hear. “Thank you.”
“For telling me what I wanted to hear.”
Punching the cell phone to end his call, Lane checked his watch and did the mental math. He had four minutes before he was due on the belt.... enough time to try Maureen Kenyon’s number.
“Are you home already?” Maureen asked when she heard who it was. “Hold on a second while I get to my office.”
Glancing again at his watch, Lane waited nervously for Maureen to make her way through the reception area to her window fronted cubicle. “When did you get back?” she asked as she closed the door behind her.
“I’m not back. I’m calling from Medford. I’ve only got a couple minutes, but I thought I’d check in to see if you’ve heard anything.”
“Not as much as I hoped. It’s been two weeks, you know.” Leafing through a manilla file she located the page she was looking for. “I haven’t heard a thing from Mr. Barrington. But Erin Brock called. The City Council hasn’t made any decision yet. They won’t vote on it until we make a formal request.”
“I suppose that’s how they do it,” Lane said.
“Actually, I think she was trying to tell me that it’s a go....whenever we’re ready to ask, and have the funding in place."
Maureen was reminding herself not to forget Erin Brock’s compliments. “By the way, you must have made an impression. Your friend, Ms. Brock, was full of nice things to say about you. I didn’t hear any reservations on her part. She’s sure the Council will support us. That’s assuming, of course, we have the funding issues covered. That’s why I’m so anxious to hear from Mr. Barrington. I just hope he hasn’t bailed on us.”
Lane was on his way down the stairs to the packing shed floor. Just ahead, Billy was holding out a hand, ready to retrieve his phone. “I’ll call again towards the end of the week. Hopefully you’ll have heard from Cat by then.”