CRESCENT CITY, CA (June, 2016)
Sacramento to Crescent City, nearly four hundred miles.....following Highway 101 through the Napa-Sonoma wine country, over the rugged Coast Range mountains, and into the imposing, too-touristy domain of the towering Redwoods. By the time he reached Eureka Jerald had bumped into the Pacific Ocean, leaving a last hour and a half drive through the redwood-lined highway to Crescent City.
For much of that eight hour drive, including a fast-food lunch break, his mind churned with one scenario after another, all of them imagining the awkward introduction that awaited him. What would he be like, the one-time soldier who was about to receive perhaps the biggest surprise of his life? How would he react to the young man’s unexpected news?
Pulling off the highway just short of Crescent City Jerald took a moment to refer once more to the pair of computer-generated maps.....getting a lay of the land, orienting himself to the unfamiliar locale. It was not a large town, and the streets appeared uncomplicated. On the map George Casey’s shop was marked with a red star, just off the main thoroughfare. It would not be hard to find.
Minutes later, what Jerald found at that address was a narrow store, one door and one display window wide, mid-block in a string of dated, nearly identical retail spaces.....a boutique yarn store, a pawn shop, a pizza take-out place, and a pair of boarded-up storefronts with “For Rent” signs in their windows.
Taken together the stores shared the none-too-prosperous look of a 1960s, small-town shopping street. Making his destination easier to identify was the hand-printed banner that stretched across the front window of George’s Computer Infirmary, proclaiming IF IT CAN BE FIXED, WE CAN DO IT!
Pulling into a parking space directly in front of the shop Jerald unbuckled his seat belt and leaned back against the headrest, soaking up the unlikely fact that he was there.....a few short feet away from would likely be another first-ever paternal conversation. He was chuckling to himself as he reread the gaudy banner. Apparently his father was not above some serious self-promotion.
Out of the car and across the sidewalk to the front door, he took a second to peer through the front window, hoping to spot someone inside. All he could make out was a low table in front of the window and further back the long counter that stretched nearly the width of the room. With a last deep breath he pushed the door open, and was greeted by the jangling bell that announced his entrance.
From the cluttered work bench behind the counter a lone man looked up to ask, “Can I help you?”
That was all it took to leave Jerald effectively tongue-tied, with no ready response. He stopped short, taking in the sight of the man as he stood and stepped to the counter. In the young man’s eyes the fellow looked a bit like the soldier he had been.... compact and solid, his short hair tinged with a hint of gray.
“Can I help you?” the unsmiling man asked again. Once more he would be waiting for a reply. “You have some computer problem I can help you with?”
By then Jerald was scolding himself, knowing he must move ahead. Finally, nodding toward the window he noted, “The sign says you can fix anything. Is that really true?” Pausing, he wondered why he had begun with such a silly question.
“Just about.” The fellow’s soft laugh was a bit forced as he tried to make sense of his reluctant visitor. “Is that what you came for....to ask me that?”
A moment later a remembered question had captured George Casey’s attention. “Are you the one who called the other day? To see when I was open. Was that you?”
“Yeah,” Jerald nodded. “That was me.”
“And you said you couldn’t really tell me what you were calling about. Right? That you’d rather show me.”
“And here you are. But it looks like you’ve shown up empty handed. What kind of computer problem do you have? You said then that you couldn’t explain it.....and I don’t see that you have anything to show me. I’m not sure I understand.”
The time for pretending was over. Ready or not .....and Jerald was not at all sure he was ready.....it was time to come clean. “The thing is,” he began. “I never said I had a computer problem. I came this far, all the way from Sacramento, to show you something. That’s true. But it has nothing to do with a computer.”
“Hey, boy. I think you’ve lost me. All the way from Sacramento.....for what?”
George had more to say, more questions to ask, until Jerald, without a word of explanation, held out two folded pages and nodded for him to take them.
Making no effort to hide his obvious skepticism, George took the paper with a half-joking question of his own. “You’re not an undercover lawyer, are you? Serving me with some kind of legal papers.”
With a head-shaking grin Jerald stepped back to let his father find out for himself. In a matter of seconds, as George scanned first one page, then the other, it was apparent he was making some sort of connection.
For a moment it appeared that George Casey had something to say, or more likely some question to ask. He looked up to study the young man standing across the counter from him, then turned back to reread the brief, but telling messages.....the same ones Jerald had presented to his mother. Finally, without giving voice to his wondering, George turned and walked out the back door into the quiet of the alley.
It was hard to know how long his sullen retreat might have lasted. Certainly longer than the two or three minutes it took for Jerald’s timid trek through the shop to the still-open back door. From there he saw the older man sitting on an empty packing box, his head in his hands.
“You okay?” Jerald asked, leaning against the wall next to the man.
“Is this stuff real?” George asked, deflecting the boy’s question with one of his own. “The dates? The name? Is it really her?”
By then Jerald had concluded it was time for their first real conversation. “It’s real. The date. The place in California, and the boy she called 'her little angel.' It’s all true, every bit of it. It's about Erin Woodman from Tanner ,Oregon.....and the baby a guy named George Casey helped her create.”
“But I thought.........." George mumbled. "Her old man was so adamant about it. He had everything arranged to be sure there would be no baby.”
“Maybe so,” Jerald nodded, now aware of how good it felt to be sharing his good news. “But he hadn’t counted on her running away. Turns out she was gone for several months.....until after I arrived and was put up for adoption."
“Until you......?” That brought George up short, dwelling on a surprising new realization. Peering up into the young man's face he was searching for the words to continue.
“Of course," he said softly. "Why didn’t I realize that? My God, this is too much. It's coming too fast.”
It took a few minutes longer, but finally George was on his feet, standing in front of the young man who it seemed was his son. With his hands on the young man’s shoulders he wondered if a long, heartfelt hug was in order. But truth be told, the old soldier’s emotional repertoire did not include something that bold.
Instead, Jerald reached out to drape an arm over his father’s shoulder and steer them back inside. “You’re right,” he said as they walked to the counter. “It is a lot. Anyway, I plan to stick around tomorrow. If you have time maybe we can cover some of that ground.”
“If I have time? Hell, I’ll have all day, and all night.”
“Good. So for now let’s see if I can give you an idea of what’s gone on so far. Some things for you to think about.”
Without waiting for George’s reply Jerald continued. “To begin with, when my mother, that’s Erin, left town her folks assumed she had gone off to hook up with you. As you can probably guess, they weren’t too happy about that. But instead she went to some kind of home, the one in San Jose, where she stayed until she had me. By then she knew she couldn’t take care of a kid, so an adoption was arranged. When she finally went back home, without you or a baby, her folks took that as a good thing.
“The next fall she went off to the university at Lawrence. I don’t think she ever declared a major or anything. She just wanted to get away from home. The way she makes it sound when she met a guy and got engaged her mom and dad were really happy. Actually, they thought she had made a good match.”
With a grinning wink Jerald seemed ready to endorse that opinion. “I don’t know a lot about computers,” he said. “Not like you. But I do know that the name ‘Thomas Conners’ seems to carry a lot of weight in those circles.”
“You mean the Thomas Conners, the software guy?”
“That’s him. He’s the one who plucked Erin out of school and made her his wife. No wonder the in-laws were happy about that. Eh?”
That had George pacing to the end of the counter and back. “I knew it all along,” he offered with minimal enthusiasm. “She was miles out of my league. The two of us could never have made it work. At least I had that part right.”
“That may be true,” Jerald replied. “It’s not my place to say. But before you follow that road too far you need to know that it didn’t last.....the Thomas and Erin thing. In fact, she told me it was the biggest mistake she ever made.”
“But why? The guy is a genius, with more money than anyone deserves. And she let him get away? Is that what you’re saying? Why would she do that?”
It was rather fun, Jerald had decided, stringing his father along like that. But in fairness he did owe him the truth. “I think Mom agrees that Thomas is really smart and very wealthy. But she also says he is a jerk. That was her exact words.... ‘the guy is a jerk.'”
“Wow. That is hard to believe. I don’t know what it means, but it’s hard to get my head around.”
George paused to retrieve the front door key from the corner of his work table. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I need to slow down and make sense of all this. Why don’t we close up this place and adjourn to the pub. Maybe a cold brew and some nachos will help me figure it out.”
“Sounds good to me.” Jerald was nearly to the door before he stopped short to offer one last bit of information.
“But before we go you ought to know that in her mind, Erin’s that is, there is some part of her life that’s been missing all along, the part she says would ‘close the circle.’ That’s what she calls it. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not sure I know what that means. But that’s what she said.”
George did not reply. Such talk was simply more of the ‘too much’ that was already threatening to weigh him down. It was definitely time for a break.
“Look,” he said. “I’d like to buy you a beer. Thing is, I know you’re my own son. But I don’t know if you’re legal or not.”
“I’m legal, and getting thirstier by the minute.”