At the end of his third week in Medford Lane was back on the borrowed cell phone, preparing to make another round of calls. He had already decided to try the Mission House first, to learn the current status of their special project. Had Maureen heard from Cat Barrington? Certainly Mr. Barrington owed the lady at least a phone call, if only to explain the turn-down Lane fully expected,.
If Cat was unwilling to help, there was no way of knowing where Maureen would turn next, or if she would even try another approach. No matter what she decided, there was little more Lane could add to that part of the process. Having been away from Tanner for so long he had returned to knock on the one and only door he could think of. Any new ideas would have to be hers.
By then darker thoughts were intruding. Cat Barrington’s apparent lack of interest would not only doom Lane’s hopeful idea. It would, at the same time, erase the job possibility Maureen had hinted at. For days he had replayed pleasant mind pictures of a settled future that included both Marla and a steady paycheck. Now, even with the City’s contingent endorsement, everything hinged on someone stepping up to lend a financial hand.
“Any word from Cat?” Lane asked when Maureen was called to the Mission House phone. “Has he called yet?”
“Nope. He didn’t call.”
“Damn it. Even if he’s not going to help, he should at least phone you. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
About then Lane’s dour disappointment ran headlong into Maureen’s soft laughter. “I’m not saying this very well, am I?” she asked. “What I mean to say is that Mr. Barrington didn’t call. What he did was come by the Mission House. He just walked right in, looked me up, and introduced himself. Turns out that was a good thing, because I wouldn’t have known him from Adam.”
“Wow. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it was. We had a nice talk. He even drank our coffee. You know how bad that can be. Anyway, pretty soon he started getting real business-like....asking about numbers, wanting to know how our idea would ‘pencil out.’ I answered the best I could, then gave him a short tour of the place. You could say he got the full V.I.P. treatment.”
“And? What then? What did he say?”
“What did he say?” Maureen repeated. “Well, his exact words were ‘You know, Lane and I go back a long way. I didn’t think he would be steering me wrong. And I can see that he wasn’t.’” By then Maureen’s happy laughter was spilling out.
“I don’t know how you managed to do that,” she continued. “But you had totally sold him. When I told him the City Council was on board, assuming we could deal with the funding requirements, he didn’t bat an eye. All he said was, ‘Let’s do it then.’ Just like that, he had signed on.”
“Oh,” she remembered. “And there was something else, Mr. C.T. Barrington, the big shot, said it was good to see that you’re back in town.
“Anyway, the next night I asked our Board to approve the project. That took about ten minutes of explanation and two minutes of discussion. This morning I delivered our formal request to Erin Brock’s office. It will be on the Council’s agenda next Thursday. She’s certain it will pass. And if that happens it’s safe to say you’ll have created that job you were hoping for.”
“Are you serious.”
“You bet I am. After all, you’ll have been the one who made it happen. And once we get the City’s okay we’ll need you here to start with the planning. Could you call again next Friday. I’m sure we’ll know by then.”
Returning to the break room to refill his coffee, Lane was reveling in a sense of relief he had not experienced in a very long time. Could it be that things were actually coming together....that something was going to work out as planned, or at least as he hoped it would?
By then he was looking ahead to what would be his second call....to Sally, or more particularly to Marla, if she was home. A moment later his sister was on the line. Theirs was a brief exchange, before she set the phone down to summon Marla.
“Hello there, lady. How are you?” He had waited all week for the sound of her voice, and with it perhaps a hint of her special caring. That anxious wanting lasted for a second or two, until he heard Marla’s first harsh question.
“When are you coming home? How much longer is it?”
“Marla. Not again. Please. It won’t be much longer. I promise.”
As hard as it was, Lane stopped short. More than anything he wanted to tell her of what might be.... the good news that seemed to lie ahead. He wanted to tell her. But until Maureen confirmed that his grand idea was actually going to happen there was no reason to get Marla’s fragile hopes too high. Better to offer something more conditional, something more within his control.
“Things are going to get better,” he offered. “I promise.”
“How is that?” Marla asked, reluctant to settle for his vague encouragement. “I’m here in Tanner and you’re still there. That doesn’t feel better to me.”
Again, Lane choked back the words he wanted to speak. “Take my word for it. Things are looking up. They’re beginning to come together,” he insisted. “I can feel it.”
Then, returning to an earlier possibility, he was asking a startling new question. “In the meantime, why don’t you tell me what you want for Christmas. That’s something I’d like to know.”
It was enough to have her laughing out loud. “What in the world are you talking about?” she asked. “No one has asked me that in years.”
“Well, I’m asking. And it’s your turn to be answering. What do you want for Christmas?”
“Why are you being so silly.”
“It’s not silly. Are you saying you don’t want a Christmas present?” He paused to frame another possibility. “Or maybe you’re telling me that you haven’t been a good girl this year. Is that it? What do you suppose Santa would say....naughty or nice?”
“Lane. Will you stop being like that. All I want for Christmas is having you home. That would be the best present I can imagine.”
“And you’ll have that. I promise. That and more.”
It was a bit disorienting, his new, more hopeful vision of the road ahead. For the first time in years Lane was feeling like he might have a voice in his own future. For too long he had survived by playing the victim....telling himself that things happened ‘to’ him, that when a result could be judged good or bad he ought to expect the bad. From his perspective the good outcomes were reserved for others.
Based on his most recent conversation with Maureen that tide appeared to be turning. Between her good news and Marla’s undisguised attention, the promise of a new and more productive future was growing closer. Perhaps he, Lane Tipton, had suddenly become a lucky son-of-a-gun. Who would believe that?
Yet, it was too soon to be celebrating. It was important to keep his emotions in check. No matter how tempting it was, he must not jump the gun. Not until he knew for sure.
A few days later Lane would be reminded again how his fortunes had taken a turn for the better, especially when compared to a less fortunate friend. It was Wednesday evening and for the first time since his return he was taking in the familiar ambiance of Tracy’s Tavern in downtown Medford. Perched on a tall stool at the end of the long bar, he was making contact with friends he had not seen in months.
For years, as his life tumbled in a downward spiral....from happily married and gainfully employed to alone, lonely, and broke....Tracy’s bar had been one of the few constants in his life. His visit that evening felt a bit like a homecoming....a return to one of the few places that had welcomed him in even the worst of times.
To further cement Lane’s nostalgic return, Kevin Tatum was sitting there beside him. It was ‘Tat’ who had shared his breezy metal shed during the weeks before Lane’s escape to Tanner. If there was anyone to whom he owed a couple beers and an hour of his time, it was Tat.
“I thought you’d made a clean getaway,” Tat explained as the barmaid set a glass of draft before him. “Hell, you were gone for what....five or six weeks?”
“Something like that,” Lane nodded. “And I’ll be heading back to Tanner before long. I kind of got used to a warm house and soft bed. In fact, I recommend it. Beats hell out of a tin shack down by the tracks.”
“So, if it’s that good, why’d you’d come back?”
“It was all about dollar signs. Simple as that. Ron called to tell me the packing sheds were hiring. I couldn’t pass that up, especially not this time of year.” Draining his glass, Lane was ready with his own question. “How about you? You’re not spending the winter outside, are you?”
“God, no.” Tat answered. “I’d have headed south before I’d do that again. But instead I hooked up with Macon’s, the auto parts warehouse. I spend my nights there.”
“You’re a night watchman? Is that it?”
Tat was looking a bit embarrassed as he explained. “Hey, what can I say. It’s a job. I get a cot to sleep on in the office, and two meals a day at the McDonald’s down the street. It’s not much, just warm and dry. But on the other hand, it’s pretty easy. Basically, what I do is take care of Oscar. That’s it.”
“Oscar? Who’s Oscar?”
“Oscar is the meanest looking Rottweiler you’ve ever seen. He’s a real piece of work. Pure black, except for his big white teeth. He roams loose in the warehouse at night. I guarantee you, when he raises a fuss out there it’s enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
"Anyway, when that happens it wakes me up. At that point my job is to check things out, to see if someone is trying to break in. If that happens, I call the law.”
“How many times have you had to do that?”
“Never.” Tat leaned back as another beer was set before him. “Except for some cat that sometimes wanders into the warehouse I’ve never actually heard Oscar do his thing. When he starts barking the way he does, and growls his real-deep growl, it sounds like he’s looking for blood. When he goes off like that who would be dumb enough to stick around?”
“So how can you be sure he’s not looking for your blood?”
Kevin Tatum’s grin had grown wider. He could relate to Lane’s question. It was, in fact, the first thing he asked about when Tony Macon explained the ‘night job’ he was offering. It was Tony’s surprising answer, or more precisely Tony’s startling demonstration, that had convinced Tat.
Tony had been holding the intimidating animal by its collar as he led Tat out to the warehouse. There, from the shelf of a nondescript workbench he took down a large paper sack. A second later that vicious-looking ‘man-eater’ had dissolved into a bouncing, tail-wagging frenzy. He knew exactly what Tony was retrieving, and he wanted it for himself.
Dipping his hands into the sack, Tony withdrew a handful of dark-brown pellets. The sight of it was enough to reenergize the already frantic animal. By then there was literally no holding him back.
“It’s Kitty Mix,” Tony explained. “Stacy’s Kitty Mix. It’s the only thing he’ll eat. You can set every dog food known to man in front of old Oscar, and he’ll turn up his nose. But give him a sniff of Kitty Mix and he’s ready to chow down.
“The best part.” Tony was grinning by then. “Once he knows you’re the one who delivers his kitty candy, you’ve become his friend for life....or at least until you run out of Kitty Mix.”
Lane had nodded to the barmaid for a third round as Tat recounted his employment tale. “So now you’re a professional dog sitter.” he said.
“Yeah. It may not pay much, but it’s not too hard,” Tat nodded. “Actually, the most important part of the job is making sure we never run out of Kitty Mix. The first time I reach into that sack and come up empty, I’m going to be seriously worried. Oscar is not the kind of friend I’d want to disappoint.”
“Just be sure Tony has a good supply on hand.”
Tat had turned quiet, fussing with his glass, wanting to wring a deeper meaning from his employment dilemma. When he finally looked up he was grinning more at himself than Lane.
“Hell. I know it ain’t much of a job,” he said with an apologetic ring in his words. “I get a couple meals a day and a warm place to bed down. And I have time during the day for any work I can pick up. The thing is, it’s what I have to do. The unemployment benefits ran out a long time ago. What else is there?
“I suppose you're in the same fix as me,” Tat continued. “Coming all this way to spend your days in a packing shed probably wasn’t your first choice. But sometimes we have to do what we have to do.”
“You’ve got that right.” Lane paused for a moment, asking himself how many times he had wished Marla could accept that simple logic. Perhaps some day she too would understand.