The truth of it was undeniable. My vision of the future that awaited Nell and me was so different than hers. In the course of our forty-three year marriage we had moved nine times, the last six to meet the itinerant requirements of my second career. In Nell’s mind that was apparently enough to earn her dream of a quiet and settled retirement in Tanner....surrounded by friends, our church family, and the pursuits she loved. Never once had she anticipated my notions of a nomadic motor-home retirement.
Just three years before there had been no containing her grateful thanks when I was hired for what we agreed would be my last assignment....in Cameron, just fifteen miles from Tanner. We would be ‘going home’ to live in Tanner. More than four decades earlier, fresh out of college, our life together had begun there. Now, by an unexpected stroke of good fortune we were returning to our home town.
In her excitement Nell had wasted no time spreading the word. The ink on my contract with the Cameron City Council had scarcely dried before she was on the phone with Barbara Jenkins. They had been best friends in the third grade, and in Nell’s mind that bond had always remained.
“First of all,” Nell had exclaimed.” You’ll have to help us find a home. We don’t know Tanner any more. I don’t even know what part of town we want to live in. It’s changed so much. We’ve seen parts of it when Dan went to the State Capital for meetings. But we’ve never had any reason to look around very closely.”
“I guarantee you,” came Barbara’s laughing reply. “The best neighborhoods in town are places you probably remember as farms and orchards. After all, you've been gone nearly twenty years.”
“Then you’ll have to be our tour guide.”
Thankfully, Barbara had been willing to take on that assignment. Having lost her husband the year before, she too was ready to renew their long interrupted friendship. “It will be so much fun,” she gushed. “I’ll have to let Gail and Mary Sue know you’re coming. It’ll be like old times.”
“Are they still around?” Nell had felt herself swept along by Barbara’s contagious feel-good talk. “Didn’t Mary Sue have a stroke or something a few years back? I thought I’d heard something about that.”
“It was a heart thing,” Barbara answered. “She got a pacemaker. Seems to be fine now. She comes to the Bingo games each week at the Senior Center.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” By then Nell was looking for something more upbeat. “Anyway, we’ll have a lot of catching up to do. Best of all, it will be our last move. In just a few weeks the ‘Dan and Nell Road Show’ will have settled down for the last time. I can’t wait for the chance to stay put.
“I’m not sure I remember how it feels,” she added. “Just think, I’ll have a garden that I won’t have to leave behind just when it’s looking good. I remember people talking about the Tanner Garden Club’s summer garden tour. Maybe some day I can have something nice enough to be included in that.”
And indeed, in her eyes the last three years had been the best of times. While I commuted to work in Cameron, Nell was busy renewing old friendships, making new ones, and returning to the comfortable confines of our original church home.
Her calendar was full of favored pursuits....the garden club, a weekly bridge outing, the women’s group at church, and Thursday afternoon Bingo at the Senior Center. By the time I retired, just weeks before, life in Tanner had settled into the comfortable busyness she longed for. Until, that is, I stepped forward with my own unwelcome surprise.
For decades she had followed me from town to town, approaching each move with trepidation, leaving each one with regret. For all that time she would have sworn that no one knew her heart’s desire better than I did. How could I have not understood how much she longed to settle down and sink our roots deeper?
Friday’s dinner was later than usual, scheduled to mesh with Kathy’s after-work commute from the coast, where she had spent her first days at the Newport nursing home. Not surprisingly, once the five of us were seated around the dinner table, our conversation turned to her new job.
“I like it,” was her first reaction. “It’s a quality organization. I’d worked for them once before, in their Santa Monica facility. I’m pretty sure that helped me get this assignment. I had some history with them. That usually helps.”
“It does, if it’s a good history,” I interjected. I had some idea of how that process worked.
“You’re right. Anyway, I like it. Everything except having to live over there all week and, of course, the long drive back and forth.”
I knew without asking that the prospect of having his lady friend spending all week, every week, so far from home was a problem for Gary. So I was not surprised to hear him register his complaint. “You could have taken the other job, the one here in town, out at the North End. That way you’d be home every night.”
All of us had heard an earlier version of their contentious debate, when Kathy was deciding which job offer to accept. This time, however, instead of replaying that verbal duel, she was willing to settle for a low-keyed recital of her logic.
“Yeah, the North End place was nice,” she nodded. “I had a good visit with the owner. But they only have the one facility, and it doesn’t earn enough to keep it properly maintained. They just can’t keep up. A chain like Premier is pretty much state-of-the-art, with lots more on-site support.
"Besides, once I’m through my probationary period I can apply for openings in any of their other places, like the ones here in the valley. It’s not so convenient right now. But in the long run I’m sure it’s for the best. What I really want is a chance to work at their Credlan Home here in Tanner.”
“So you’ll probably be commuting for a while. Is that it?” I asked. I had more to say, but on second thought it was not my place to be critiquing her choices, so I returned to my meal.
Perhaps my innocent question set Kathy wondering. Had I made it sound like Nell and I were worried about how long we would have guests in our basement apartment? If so, it seemed she wanted to beat us to the punch.
“It’s not a long term thing, you know....having us downstairs. We don’t want that to be a problem. Just as soon as.....”
“Whoa there, young lady.” I was ready to nip her half-embarrassed apology in the bud. “No one said anything about that being a problem. You’re family. Remember? That’s what we’re here for.”
“Please let me finish,” Kathy pleaded. “I don’t want you guys worrying.
“As soon as Gary lands a job we’ll be out of your hair, to a place of our own. We didn’t come back to be permanent house guests. Besides, as soon as I get my first paycheck we can start paying for all these meals you’ve been serving us. That should help.”
“We don’t want your money,” Nell said, finally joining the conversation. “That’s not necessary at all.”
“Yes it is. We’re not going to sponge off you guys when we can pay our way. Or at least part of it.”
Using Kathy’s disclaimer as a spring board, I turned to Gary. “So how is the job hunt going? Delaney said you’d gone to Portland again this morning. Are you finding any possibilities up there?”
“Not really. I thought I’d hit on something last night, when I was online. That’s why I drove up there again this morning. The ad made it sound pretty interesting. But when I actually talked to the guy all he wanted was someone to do transcriptions and modify canned programs when a customer wanted that.”
“You can’t do that?” I asked.
“Of course I can. With my eyes closed, in my sleep. But there was no design work involved, nothing creative at all. It would have been nothing more than entry-level stuff.”
For the last minute Kathy had been a passive onlooker. Now she was back with her own question. “Could you have got the job? If you’d wanted it.”
“Probably. He had some other applications, guys he’d talked to. But he could tell I had the skills, and I think he liked me. But it just wasn’t.....”
“So why didn’t you go for it?” she interrupted. “It might have been a start, something to carry us over until you found something better.”
Gary was squirming. A frustrated flush reddened his cheeks as he replayed Kathy’s blunt questions.
“Come on, girl. I’m looking for something that gives me a chance to do what I can do, not something as basic as transcriptions. Damn it, I’m a professional. Why would I settle for that? I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am.”
“And where are you?” I asked. “Besides being an unemployed professional.” I stopped short, knowing at once that was too much, no matter how good it felt to say it.
Before I had time to apologize Kathy pushed her plate aside and leaned forward, hoping to calm what had unexpectedly become a tense and very uncalm moment.
“Honey,” she said, patting Gary’s arm. “Everyone knows what you can do, if you have a chance. But in times like this, when we need a second paycheck so bad, maybe you should settle for something less, at least until we can get back on our feet.”
The two of them were talking in circles, growing more anxious with each revolution, spiraling toward a dead end that promised no constructive conclusion. It was not Nell’s idea of a proper dinnertime conversation, so I was not surprised when she stepped in to change the subject.
“Was I the only one who noticed that Delaney seemed to have made a new friend this afternoon?” Nell asked, aiming a forced smile in her granddaughter’s direction.
“Grandma,” the girl whined.
Kathy blinked a time or two, frowning at her mother’s abrupt change of course. Then, picking up on Nell’s intent, she set her cup down to ask. “Who was that, honey? You didn’t say anything about a friend. I thought you’d been home all day.”
“I was. Grandma’s talking about the lawn-mower guy.”
That was enough to earn Gary’s attention, along with his own bit of unsubtle wisdom. “Damn it, girl. You know better than that. You can’t be getting all friendly with some hired guy you’ve never seen before.”
He was stabbing a finger across the table at Delaney. “Don’t kid yourself. Tanner guys are no different than that low-life bunch you hung out with in Venice.”
Nell’s pasty smile had vanished. For the first time Gary felt the full force of her grim stare. “His name is Antonio,” she explained. “Not ‘the mower guy’. It’s Antonio Calle. He just graduated from high school. Very nice and very bright. And he’s certainly not a ‘low-life.’ Last year he won a state-wide science competition, something to do with computers.”
“He’s bright, alright,” I chimed in. “He already has a college scholarship. And he had his picture in the paper a few months back for winning some kind of statewide martial-arts thing. He’s a nice young man who happens to be smart. I’d say he’s an all-around good guy.”
That brought Delaney back to the conversation. “Really? A scholarship? A science thing? That’s kind of surprising. He seemed like a normal guy. Didn’t sound geeky at all.”
“Geeky? My, that doesn’t sound too complimentary,” Nell offered.
“Actually, some of us consider ‘geeky’ a compliment,” Gary said, with something like a grin. “There aren’t too many of us around.”
“Anyway,” the girl explained. “He was nice enough. But we only talked for just a couple minutes. He had to get back to work. He didn’t want Grandpa getting upset with him.” She was grinning, perhaps remembering the boy’s parting words.