Sister Sally was still letting the good news sink in. There was no denying their still-sparse future, but with Robert's new job things were definitely looking up.
It was six-thirty by the time Sally ushered Maureen, Marla, and Lane out of her trailer into the now-dark evening. When she returned to the sink to wash the cup and saucer remains of their evening Robert was beside her, dish towel in hand, to do his part. Like Sally he was still processing Maureen’s surprising disclosures....of Lane’s unlikely dream having come true and the jobs it promised for each of them.
Finally, drying her hands, Sally asked the first of her unanswered questions. “She didn’t talk about a salary, did she?”
“Nothing specific,” Robert was laughing to himself at how Sally quickly had focused on the financial implications of Maureen’s job offer. “But I’m assuming it will be minimum wage. It’s a shelter after all. It gets by on donations.”
“I suppose so.”
“But don’t you fret,” he said. “The way she talked there will be a paycheck every couple weeks. I’ll get up every day knowing I’ve got a job.
“Better yet, I’ll be doing something worthwhile. I know what those fellows are dealing with. I’m looking forward to lending a hand.
"As far as the size of the paycheck, that shouldn’t be a problem. You’re the one who says we can get by on whatever we have. Right? With a Mission House job, your Social Security, and mine beginning before long....we’ll be in fat city.”
“Well, maybe not ‘fat city,’ but it will be enough. We’ll do just fine.”
Minutes later Sally was straightening up the front room when Robert returned from the bedroom. Even before he sat down she was offering her quiet observation. “She’s quite a lady, isn’t she ....your Maureen friend? I’d heard you and Lane talk about her. I’m glad we finally had a chance to meet. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who makes her living helping so many people. You can tell that she really cares about those folks. When you consider how creepy some of them are that takes a special kind of person.”
Sally stopped short, laughing at Robert’s exaggerated frown. “I didn’t say you were creepy. But you’ve told me that some of those guys even give you the willies. In fact, that’s something I hadn’t thought about....having you down there every day, working around those people.”
“Come on, Sally. Those guys are just like the rest of us, doing their damnest to get along in an unfriendly world. Don’t forget, I’ve lived with them for a long time. I was one of them. I know what they’re dealing with.
“I know how much they appreciate a place like the Mission House, how much they count on it. It sounds to me like an ideal job. Best of all, I get to come back to a real home, and you, every night. That’s something I’ve been missing for a very long time. We won’t have all that much, but what we have is paid for, and we’ll have money coming in every month. That my idea of a real life. And I have you and your brother to thank for that.”
Robert paused for a moment, turning his thoughts back to brother Lane. “You could tell that Maureen really appreciated his help,” he said. “I think she’s still trying to understand how a scruffy, out-of-work guy like him could have dreamed up something like a new dormitory. And then help make it happen.
"You always said he was a dreamer. But he’d struck out so many times. That makes it all the more special to see things come together like they did.”
From the front porch of Sally’s trailer Lane and Marla had watched Maureen Kenyon drive off. Beyond the trailer-park’s string of flood lights the evening darkness had settled over the Bluff. Having sat through Maureen’s rambling presentation, Lane’s restless mind was churning with questions. He needed to be moving....to get the blood flowing again.
“Why don’t we grab our jackets and take a walk,” he suggested. “The rain’s holding off for now. I don’t know about you, but I need some thinking time to make sense of all this.”
Ten minutes later the two of them were strolling down a dimly lit River Street, along the top of the Bluff. Passing directly above Robert’s former penthouse, Lane was lost in thought.
So much had happened so quickly. He had returned to Tanner scarcely two months before, burdened with the weighty baggage of financial ruin and failed relationships....a conflicted past of good times gone bad. By then his personal history had become a jumbled collage of what had been lost and what had been learned.
Now, with Marla’s hand in his, he was reminding himself that it was different this time. He was older. Youthful vanities had faded. Inflated notions of what he deserved, of what he had a right to expect, had given way to a more-grounded understanding of what mattered most....even more than stroking his own ego.
Of course he had changed. Everyone does in time. But why so late in the game? Why had it taken most of a lifetime to learn that relying only on himself was not enough? Why had he allowed a parade of discordant elements....a crumbling career, failed relationships, and his own homelessness to take him so far off course?
Fortunately, those same miscues had sowed the unexpected understanding that he belonged with someone like Marla. What proof did he need of that, beyond the fact of their blossoming partnership?
“It’s almost too much to take in.” Marla too was trying to make sense of outcomes she did not fully understand. Lane’s unexpected return from Medford and Maureen’s startling revelations had combined to create the most surprising evening she could remember....while triggering questions she could not hold back.
“What is ‘too much?’” Lane asked as he pulled away from his own thoughts.
“Everything. Just think of it. Three hours ago I thought you were in Medford. I wanted you here, but I knew you’d be gone for at least a couple more weeks. Then bang....there you were, standing in my doorway. The next thing I know Maureen is telling us how you made your dream, and hers too, happen. By the time she was done you had a job and so did Robert. It’s everything we could have hoped for, and it happened so fast.”
Lane tugged her closer and draped an arm over her shoulder. “Just don’t be expecting too much from that job she talked about,” he cautioned. “We’re talking minimum wage, you know. And of course there won’t be any benefits. I still can’t afford to get sick. Neither of us can. But that’s nothing new.”
Marla had stopped, moving to the edge of the street. There, stepping up on the concrete curb she was nearly as tall as him. Through the trees and underbrush they could make out lights from the far bank reflecting off the fast-flowing river. She took his hand and looked into his eyes.
“Lane Tipton, I’ve told you before. The money part doesn’t matter. It never did. We’re smart enough to get by on whatever we have, as long as we can do it together.”
She was right about that, he told himself. For weeks they had been separated, living at opposite ends of the state. During that time there had been no in-depth discussions, no debating the pros and cons of their humble relationship. Now, though no formal vote had been taken, each of them was following their own wanting to the same undeniable truth. No wonder he welcomed the feel-good realization she spoke of.
“The ‘together’ part makes all the difference,” Lane agreed as he scanned the hillside for signs of the homeless habitation he knew was hidden there on the Bluff, between them and the river.
“I remember how empty I felt when my bankruptcy was final. I was so disappointed in myself. It was like I’d stepped into a big ole hole. It was hard to imagine that I’d ever climb out of it. But look at us now.
“Remember the ‘going poor’ your friend talked about?” he continued. “It feels like I have a whole new read on that. The fact that we’re poor hasn’t changed at all. But it doesn’t mean what it did the first time you mentioned that.”
“In what way?”
“Well, I’ve learned that going poor isn’t the end of the world. It’s being poor and all alone that hurts the most. That’s what sucks the hope right out of a guy.”
With a sweep on his hand he explained. “The guys living down there in the camps....the ones you don’t see too often, because they’re in hiding.... they’re sure that nobody cares about what they’re dealing with. Those are the ones I worry about. I know how that feels. Compared to them I’m the luckiest guy I know.
“Back in the good days, when I was still working, I would never have settled for what I have now. Or what I don’t have. I always believed it took all that stuff....the bank account, the credit cards, and all my toys....to make me happy. Turns out those weren’t the most important things, not even close.
“I don’t recommend ‘going poor.’ But if it has to happen I definitely want us to be there together. I may have to be satisfied with a minimum-wage job. But that’s okay. Together you and I can deal with going poor."