Sunday, July 31, 2022



  So you want to tell a story…….be a writer. Lots of us have dreamed that dream at one time or another.

     And hand in hand with that seductive possibility comes an all-important first question. What sort of story should you tell?

Today, as I continue my weekly visitation of earlier blog posts, I find myself wondering once more why and how my late-life storytelling efforts turned out the way they did. 

After all, the path I chose, what they call ‘the genre,’ was miles out of the mainstream……so commercially limiting. Yet those were the stories that came so naturally. Why was that?

Not only did that question arise from time to time……as the following post from several years ago illustrates, it literally became part of the story I was telling.



Over the years you and I have learned a thing or two about stereotypes, haven’t we? I can remember a time or two when I was troubled or embarrassed because I had misread or ignored stereotypical clues.…..reading something into a person or situation that was simply not there.

So it seems to me that here, in what I claim is a “writer’s blog,” is a fitting place to address my own stereotyping dilemma. Take a moment to consider the possibilities. What kind of stereotypes might be applied to someone like me? How about ‘old,’ or maybe ‘grouchy.’ I suppose I could relate to those.


But there are other stereotypical labels I am unwilling to accept for myself. For instance, perhaps you can imagine how I cringed when my first e-book publisher told me he had cataloged my story as “senior romance.” 

 “My God,” I grumbled. “What was he thinking?” There I was, seventy-some years old. Do they still call such tales “romance” at our age? And even if they did, what self-respecting old geezer would admit to writing “romance” novels? 

 I can assure you, these stories of mine do not resemble the paperbacks you see on the supermarket shelves….the ones picturing muscular Alpha Males cavorting across the book cover in a torn shirt, swooping up a swooning and seductive maiden in one arm. I guarantee, the tired old Beta Males whose stories I tell are not into “swooping up” anything or anyone.

 Instead, they and the appropriately mature ladies they pursue are stumbling toward the hopeful promise of a late-life connection, a way to share whatever it is their uncertain future holds. True, in the process they are apt to resurrect adolescent memories….ones they had filed away decades earlier and never expected to revisit. It was that new and altered reality of October/November life that long ago had me setting aside the “romance” label as descriptive of the tales I tell, and settling instead on  “relationship” stories.

 After all, in the course of our lifetime most of us have learned that relationships….whether casual or deeply personal….are the stuff of life. No matter what our age or intent, when relationships work we thrive. Beyond that, for my purposes relationships also make for a good story. 

 Having said that, I find myself face to face with another basic question….why should I be embarrassed about writing about something that everyone can relate to, whether they admit it or not? Would I be more authentic if instead I wrote vampire and zombie tales, spy thrillers or fantasy, or sinister who-dun-its….none of which have ever been part of my life?

 Each of us, based on our own experience, knows how complicated and intimidating the “relationship seeking” process can be. For the October/November friends I depict it is all that and more. 

  They and their world have changed dramatically since their youthful, first-time excursions into that exhilarating territory. Yet, though everything looks different through October eyes, some things remain the same. The world around them may have changed, but my seekers are still looking for the affirmation and hope they craved as teenagers.

Yet, even with a new, more acceptable label, it took a while for me to move beyond the self-induced embarrassment of writing relationship stories….to convince myself that relationship episodes are an elemental part of life….something that everyone understands. 

Granted, not all of our October/November friends who are alone are seeking a new relationship. For many, perhaps even most of those ‘loners,’ the continuing satisfaction of an earlier relationship is enough for them. And who would argue with that?

I, however, choose to focus on those who are still seeking. If I tell it well the resulting story about good people who find themselves alone and hoping for a relationship should be a good read. 

I understand, of course, that fiction is a favored form of escapism. We read a vivid fantasy, a murder mystery, or time-travel adventure to escape the ordinary….a perfectly valid reason. And truth to tell, the real-life relationship stories I tell, may sometimes take the escapist to the very space he or she is hoping to escape. 

In that case, I can probably write off that portion of a potential audience. As for the rest of fiction readers….how many are looking to curl up with an October Years relationship tale that is not on anyone’s best-seller list….especially one that addresses the kind of challenges that may clutter their own late-life space?

Pretty clever of me, eh? Staking my claim in the tiniest sliver of the whole darn market, telling stories that few have ever heard of or considered reading. Thankfully, I’ve learned to live with that, taking my satisfaction from the dozen or so paperbacks on my bookshelf. Still, not everyone agrees with that form of capitulation….as the following scene from the story I called ‘Becoming’ illustrates.

As Jack and I got to know each other better we naturally cultivated a curiosity about each other’s work. One of our earliest conversations about a story of mine took place on a Saturday afternoon at the Terrace, a busy pub not far from the local university. Jack had just finished reading the draft of my first novel-length story and was ready to register his opinion. As I recall it was a three-beer lunch, which may have accounted for his socially incorrect bluntness.

“I’ve read about people who claim they were called to be a writer,” he explained. “But what you’re doing with that calling of yours doesn’t make any sense at all. Of all the things there are to write about, why settle for a love story about old folks? Why not something more ……”

“Something more masculine.” I interjected, completing his thought. “More macho….with lots of action and bad guys, maybe a homicide or two. Stuff like that, eh?”

“Yeah. That’s it. Make your guys younger, with a thing for loose women. Something to hold the reader’s interest. I mean, reading about an old guy and an old gal trying to get it going again, that’s not exactly mainstream is it?”

“You’ve got that right.” I tried to make light of his observation, though it didn’t feel light at all. “The couple publishers who read that story seem to agree on that. They were absolutely unanimous in their disinterest. So what can I say? I'm telling the story I want to tell. That’s all.”

“But why? People read stories to get away from ordinary stuff.” Jack was serious now, wanting me to hear his logic. “Just think about what sells. It’s mysteries and whodunits. It’s tracking down a killer or a cheating husband. It’s about terrorists, and undercover agents who have to find the bad guy before he destroys the world. At the very least there’s a good chase scene. And, of course, some really steamy sex. Then at the end, on the last page, the guy and the lady get together. 

“That’s what real stories are about,” he continued. “About suspense, and action, and mystery. They’re sure as hell not about some seventy-year-old guy deciding that a seventy-year-old lady is his soulmate.”

To be sure, Jack’s objections were not new. My dad had registered those same complaints, although his exact language was a bit more colorful. 

In any case there I was, obsessed with the liberating freedom of telling my stories, even when those same questions intruded from time to time….should I spend my time exploring the low-key relationship tales that flowed so naturally, or should I write the suspenseful action stories that Jack and the Old Man advocated? Of course, there was no evidence to suggest that I could do either one well enough to succeed. But that aside, should I focus on the stories I wanted to tell, or turn to something more commercially viable? 

“Tell me Jack,” I finally asked. “How many homicides and spies have you come across in your lifetime? How many times have you been forced to save the world from destruction?” I did not wait for his answer. “Why would I tell a story like that? It has nothing to do with me.”

“But this stuff of yours is so damn ordinary.” Jack was struggling to understand. For a moment I wondered if he was about to suggest a four-beer lunch. “Why would I want to read about something that’s going on around me every day?”

“Come on," I replied. "This isn’t literature, you know. I’m just telling stories about ordinary people and some of their special times. They don’t always end happily-ever-after, but it feels like they’re real. And most of all, they’re the stories I want to tell.” 

“But can’t you see? They’re 'love' stories for God sakes.” Jack was ready to play his trump card. 

“Women write love stories. Everyone knows that. Besides, real love stories are about young folks. That’s what all those little old ladies want to read about….young love. It’s what they want to remember and dream about. The people in your stories are too damn old.”

About then we fell quiet. All around us the busy pub crowd carried on. The overhead television screens were showing their ball games. Blustery college guys were trying their best to impress anxious college girls. The place was absolutely alive, yet I had managed to bore Jack into silent submission.

“You know,” I finally said, hoping to resurrect our conversation, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. When that relational stuff happens again at our age some of it must be like the first time around. You do remember that, don’t you….when we were kids and it was all about hormones?”

“Just barely.”

“But the second time around, or maybe the third, is bound to be different. Sure, parts of it may feel like coming-of-age all over again. That’s the ‘geriatric adolescence’ I sometimes mention. But at our age each of those folks brings along all sorts of baggage. They’ve spent a lifetime creating their own experiences, making their own memories. There are probably some highs they’d like to feel again….and some lows they’re hoping to avoid.”

“You mean they’re hoping to get it right this time?” Jack was shaking his head again, certain that he knew better than that. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”

“Come on, those folks aren’t thinking about the odds. They’re looking for something they want.” 

I decided not to ask Jack what qualified him as an expert on “getting things right.” I knew something of his history, enough to render his judgments suspect. “Near as I can tell,” I added. “Lots of folks do have those feelings. If I tell my stories in a believable way, maybe some readers will see something of themselves in what I’m writing.”

“And you know how to do that?” 

“I keep trying. Look, I used to apologize for telling stories no one wanted to read. I’m pretty well over that. I just keep doing what feels right and try to do it better.” 

With that I drained the last of my beer and stalled a bit while Jack, my wage-earning buddy, dug in his wallet for the tip.

Saturday, July 30, 2022



                            Chapter 38

With their burgers and shakes in hand Antonio led Delaney past the inside tables to the courtyard patio in back of the Shake Shack. There, at a table against the back fence, the girl managed a bite or two before she set her burger aside and returned to her questions.

“Well, are you going to tell me? You said if I waited until lunch you would.”

“What’s to tell?" Antonio answered. "Marco and I had a little talk. That’s all.”

 “That’s BS and you know it,” Delaney complained. Was he going back on his word, she wondered? If so, she was not about to settle for that. “That was not a conversation I saw. It wasn’t the two of you talking. It was you talking and him listening. That’s what it was.

“Antonio Calle, you just saved me from something seriously scary. I’ll admit that I had no idea you could do that, but I appreciate it very much. On top of that, I hear that I’m your girl friend now. So now I’m wondering how I’m supposed to repay you. “

“Repay me? What does that mean?”

Delaney was laughing at the sight of his questioning frown. Though big, pushy guys might not intimidate him at all, it seemed that her blatant attention had him running for cover. 

“It means," she continued. "If I was still one of those brassy Venice Beach broads, the ones I know pretty well, I’d probably be thanking you with a big ole wet kiss.”

The boy's jaw dropped as he surveyed the adjoining tables to see if anyone was listening. “A what?” he asked softly.

“You heard me.” Reaching across the table she patted his hand. “But that’s only if you’re willing to help me understand why Marco bailed out like he did. He seems to be a pretty intimidating guy.” 

Pausing, Delaney was reminding herself that she had not told Antonio of her earlier Marco episode. “He’s big," she nodded. "And I think he’s used to having his way. But he was flat out afraid of little ole Antonio Calle. I could see that in his eyes.”

The girl was pushing him toward a place he had tried his best to avoid. More to the point, Antonio was not at all sure how to explain the inexplicable moment when his life had been turned upside down....changed forever by a slightly-embarrassing and totally-unexpected chain of unintended consequences.

“Why is that something you need to know?” he asked. “It really doesn’t amount to much.”

This time she kept hold of his hand, forcing him to face her insistent interest. “Because I want to know you better. There are people out there saying you’re my boyfriend. By the time school starts everyone in the place will know that. 

“Yet it feels like you’re keeping a secret. Whatever it is, it’s an important part of who you are. I saw how the other kids were watching you when we walked away. Whatever Marco saw when he looked back at you, they were seeing that too.”

“And you want to know what that is? For a kiss?” Antonio was grinning, perhaps imagining that first-of-a-kind trade. “My whole life story for just one kiss?”

“Maybe two, if you’re story’s good enough.”

“And if I added a few extra frills....would that be good enough for three?” 

When he finally looked up at her he had apparently turned serious. The tables next to them were empty now, so he leaned forward to ask his one favor. “You’d have to promise not to laugh.”

“You mean it’s funny?” That struck her as a strange possibility. “Do you think I’d laugh at something like that?”

“It was never funny to me,” he said. “Not ever. But I know a few guys who were laughing out loud, at least at first.”

Glancing around the patio, without focusing on anything particular, Antonio was wishing instead for a way to avoid what came next. Yet, the longer he stalled, the more impatient his curious friend was becoming.

“Well,” Delaney finally demanded. “Are you going to tell me?”

He was nodding even before he said a thing. Pushing his empty glass to the side he took a deep breath and asked, “Do you remember the other day at my place? Back in the TV room? You were asking about my martial-arts stuff. The outfit, the trophies, the belts.”

With nothing more than an affirming nod from Delaney he continued. “The thing is, I’ve been taking those classes for a long time. In the beginning it was my mom’s idea. There wasn’t a dad around to look after me, and I was kind of a puny kid. She thought I needed something like that. Anyway, over time I got pretty good at it. I learned some things, won some junior competitions, earned a few belts.”

“That must have made the guys take notice, eh? Was that what had them steering clear of you?”

“Not really. That was still in middle school, I was learning junior-level stuff. Not many of the guys knew anything about it. Besides, one of the first things they taught us in class was not to show off or act like a tough guy. 

“Thing is, like I told you before, it’s basically an exhibition sport. We never actually hit anyone very hard, except when the instructor is wearing his big ole pads. We’re taught that it’s a ‘discipline,’ one that includes a lot of self control....over our emotions and our actions. It’s not about beating up anyone. 

“So anyway, I kept getting better. Then in the ninth grade I won a regional competition in Portland. It must have been a slow-news day here in town, because that got written up in the Tanner Times.”

“And that’s what had Marco backing off?” Delaney asked. “He must have known that you could deal with him.”

“Nah. That wasn’t it. A few guys told me they’d read about it. But a big dude like Marco wasn’t going to be put off by that. We were still in middle school and little guy like me wasn’t going to scare anyone, no matter what the papers wrote.” 

Antonio’s grin was giving way to a broad smile as he prepared for what came next. “Then in the spring of my sophomore year at Southside High, I turned out for track. I’ve always been kind of fast, so I wanted to be a sprinter....though it turned out I wasn’t fast enough.

“Anyway, we had an away meet in Lawrence. We traveled  down there on a school bus, the boys’ and girls’ teams together. After the meet we showered, then headed back to the bus for the trip home. 

"I was coming out of the dressing room when one of the seniors, Eric Branwell, got on my case. I was a rookie, a lowly sophomore. He was looking for someone to carry his gear to the bus, while he hung out with some chick from the girls’ team.”

“And you told him to stuff it?” Delaney was still intent on getting to the good part.

“Not exactly,” Antonio replied. “Eric was a big guy, our best shot putter and discus thrower. He was carrying a twelve pound shot and two or three discuses in his duffle bag. It weighed a ton. I picked it up, felt how heavy it was, then set it back down and walked off to the bus.

“Well, that had Eric moving pretty damn fast for such a big guy. He wasn’t going to have some rookie show him up in front of the girls. He caught up with me, grabbed my shoulder, and kind of pushed me up against the bus. It hurt a little bit and sort of pissed me off. But most of all it surprised the hell out of me. Before I even realized what I was doing, I was pushing back.”

Delaney was leaning forward, trying to imagine Antonio standing up to a husky shot putter. It was hard to picture her mild-mannered friend in that role, until she replayed a similar stand-off with Marco, scarcely an hour before. “Did you show him what you could do?”

“Not exactly,” he answered for the second time, grinning more than ever. “At least not on purpose. You see, my instructor has always been big on kicks as a way to defend yourself. He thinks they’re safer than using your hands, because you don’t have to get as close to the other guy. 

“What he teaches is a side kick, where we slam the top of our foot into the outside of a guy’s knee. Do it right and it slows him down real fast. You can do the same thing aiming for the hip and get the same results. I’ve always been good at that. It seems to come naturally for me. I usually get high scores for my kicks.”

A loud sigh signaled Delaney’s impatience with his drawn-out explanation. She wanted to get to the action, to what actually happened.

“So,” he continued. “There was Eric, holding me by my shoulder....trying to make his point. I slipped away for a second and when I turned back he was coming at me. I can still remember the look in his eyes. He was mad as hell, ready to make an example of me. And right then I did exactly what I’d been taught to do. There was no stopping to think about it. I just aimed for his hip and kicked.”

“Did that stop him?”

Antonio was laughing, not at the humor of it, but remembering again the next few moments. “Yeah. It stopped him. But not the way I expected. You see, he saw the kick coming and he turned away from it. I suppose it was an instinctive thing. 

“Anyway, if he had turned to the right I’d have nailed him square on the butt. He’d have felt it, but wouldn’t have done much damage. But he didn’t turn to the right. He turned to the left. So instead of hitting his hip, my kick caught him square in the crotch. It was a good kick too. The judges would have liked it a lot. But a second later, there was Eric on his knees, moaning, about to cry.”

“You kicked him in the.....the......?”

Delaney's struggling question had him laughing. Nodding his affirmative reply, he planted his elbows on the table, ready to end his explanation. “Long story short, Eric was hurt pretty bad. The guys were laughing about it for a few days, but in fact it was kind of a serious thing.

“He was in the hospital for a couple days, while they figured out if there was a rupture, or just a bruise. It turned out to be a really bad bruise, the kind that takes a long time to heal. There were even rumors going around school that the doctors had told him he might never be able to have kids. Turned out that probably wasn’t true, but it had a lot of guys thinking.

“In the end Eric ended up missing three or four meets and never did get back to full strength. He didn’t even qualify for the state meet, where everyone expected him to do real well. 

“So,” Antonio said, ready to end his uncomfortable disclosure. “There was Eric Branwell, this big time stud who’d been messed up pretty bad. And every kid in the whole school knew who’d done that.”

“But it was an accident,” Delaney offered. “You didn’t mean to do that.”

“Of course not. It surprised me as much as him. Except it hurt him a lot more.”

Antonio paused, before turning to the last piece of his story. “Then a couple months later I earned my Black Belt....first degree of course. The paper had a picture of my coach presenting it to me. After what had happened to Eric the guys seemed to pay more attention to that bit of news. ”

“So that’s what had Marco running for cover,” Delaney said. “It must feel pretty good to know that he can’t hurt you....and you can hurt him, if you want to.”

There she was again....still thinking her ‘Bruce Lee’ thoughts, not understanding the reality of it. 

“Don’t kid yourself,” he replied. “Marco is a tough dude. And he’s sure as heck big enough to hurt me. If he ever got hold of me, or hit me real good, I’d be in big trouble.

“The thing is though, I do know how to protect myself. More than that, Marco and the others have some idea of what might happen if it ever came to that. In fact, I suppose that’s been my secret weapon. The guys know what could happen, because they’ve seen it happen before.”

Never before had Antonio offered so much detail to anyone. His mother had been told, of course. She worked at Southside High. Once she started hearing the colorful rumors there was no way to avoid telling her. In the end, without ever intending to hurt or intimidate anyone, his split-second, totally-instinctive reaction had spawned a reputation he had never gone looking for. 

“When it was all said and done,” he continued. “I’d learned that what I’ve been taught can do real damage. Which means I have to be careful how I use it. 

“Anyway, after that ‘Eric’ escapade none of the guys at school wanted to find out if I could do it again. Every time I’d win a competition or earn a higher belt word seemed to get around, even if it wasn’t in the paper. All that, after what happened to Eric, had folks kind of backing off....leaving me alone. That was okay with me, because I’ve never had a lot of close friends anyway.”

Standing, Antonio pulled Delaney off the patio bench and nudged her toward the door. Once outside he paused to elaborate. “And you can bet I’ve never had a girlfriend either. You need to know that. I don’t want you thinking I’m going to hold you to some silly ‘boyfriend’ thing, just because I wanted Marco to believe it. Okay?” 

“So I just got demoted. Is that it?” she asked, trying to look hurt. “Now I’m an ex-girlfriend. That didn’t last long. I was hoping I might have some say in that. Seems like my opinion ought to count for something.”

“Come on. You’re a California girl. Remember?” He wanted her to hear the hint of humor he was not sure he felt. “You know all about guys. You’re certainly not the kind to settle for some geeky Tanner guy who walks everywhere.”

“If you knew more about California girls," Delaney countered. "You’d know they’re the kind who like to decide those things for themselves. They choose their own boyfriends. Though sometimes they have to wait until the guy finally tells them the whole story.” 

It had taken longer than expected, but Delaney had finally pried the truth from him. With that accomplished, they started back up the hill toward the Padgett home. 

Walking hand in hand she was taking time to consider a last piece of unfinished business....seeing that Antonio received his promised reward. She must have found a way to make that happen. By the time they reached her grandparents’ home he had claimed his kisses, times two, or maybe more.

Thursday, July 28, 2022




                       Chapter 37

Meanwhile, back in the Padgett home in Tanner Heights, Delaney was remembering exactly when the gut-churning trepidation she felt had first made itself known. And she knew why. For nearly two weeks she had sidestepped all thoughts of registering for school. 

Her uncharacteristic anxiety had nothing to do with the normal ‘new-kid-in-school’ concerns....the unknowns that sometimes accompanied new settings, new teachers, and new classmates. Instead it was the one known in her pending Tanner Southside High enrollment that had her so upset. His name was Martin Copeland. His friends called him Marco. She called him ‘trouble.’

It was mid-morning when her grandmother dropped the girl off at Southside High, then hurried on to her downtown hair appointment. Delaney carried a note from her mother, explaining that she was working in Newport and would stop by on Friday afternoon to sign any necessary papers and pay her daughter’s fees. 

Antonio Calle, her only other ally in all of Tanner, had talked of meeting her at the school if he finished his mowing job in time....offering the semi-promise of a milkshake lunch if they made contact. Otherwise, she would be on her own for the long walk to her grandparents’ home. 

In the meantime Delaney was scheduled to meet with a counselor to review her California transcript, comparing those credits with Oregon’s graduation guidelines. Once those calculations were complete, she expected the process of choosing the classes she needed for the fall term to be an easy matter.

For the next hour....from one office to another and one classroom to the next....she paused from time to time to note passing students and scan the random groups that gathered in the hallways. Marco had mentioned that, like her, he would be enrolling as a senior. In that case it was his day to be registering. Was he already there, or would she be lucky enough to make her getaway without meeting him?

For the umpteenth time she scolded herself for giving in to the fear she sensed. She had replayed her failings so many times....remembering how much of her assumed California schoolgirl self-confidence had been a matter of having others on hand to look out for her. Now, settling into her new Tanner life, without those allies surrounding her, she had never felt more vulnerable

With a last stop at the front office to confirm that everything was in order, and promising once more that her mother would stop by on Friday, Delaney returned to the glass-enclosed entry hall. She paused for a moment to look out toward the street, hoping to see Antonio waiting there for her. He was nowhere in sight. 

Once outside she scanned the sidewalk in both directions. Apparently he had not been able to get away from work. That  would mean a long walk home, alone. Or so she thought.

Approaching from behind, Marco’s tight grip had captured Delaney’s arm before she ever saw him. Turning to see who it was, she tried to pull her arm free. His hold, however, was too tight. Rather than pull her to a stop the husky skateboarder pushed her ahead of him toward his black coupe, parked a few yards up the street from the school entrance.

“So you’ve made it official, eh?” the boy said, still propelling her toward the car. “I was hoping I’d see you today. I figured there were some things you needed to understand. Especially since we’ll be seeing each other every day.”

“Will you let go?” 

The girl was trying to break his grip and stop their advance....while accomplishing neither. All around them students were coming and going, seeming to pay no attention to Marco’s aggressive insistence. “You can’t do this right here in front of the school.”

“Sure I can. Now if you’ll just get in the car we’ll find ourselves someplace quiet, away from all these distractions....where we can have some time to ourselves.”

“I’m not going with you, Marco.” She was leaning against the car door as he tried to open it. “I know about guys like you. I’m a California girl. Remember?”

Giving her arm an extra twist, Marco shoved her beyond the door, then reached out to pull it open. “I told you before, California girl. Once you get to know me, you’re going to like me. 

“More than that, you’re going to keep on liking me as long as I want you to. You understand? Right now we’re going to get the hell out of here and find a place where we can get acquainted. And this time there’s no smart-ass old man around to stop us.”

Stay calm, Delaney told herself. There were people all around them. Surely someone would see what was happening. Someone would come to help her. Yet the longer she waited, the harder it was to ‘stay calm.’ 

Then, before she could resist, Marco had pushed her down into the passenger seat. Standing in the open door, he was glaring down into her wide-eyed fear, wearing a grin so menacing it gave her shivers. “We won’t be long,” he promised. “You’ll be home in time for lunch.”

Then, s he was backing away to close the door, Marco sensed the pressure of a hand on his shoulder. Turning, his first impulse was to brush it away, until Antonio Calle’s gaze locked on his. 

If Antonio had been six inches taller they would have been standing nose to nose. From Delaney’s perspective it had the look of a mismatch. Marco was taller, bulkier, and more menacing by far. Yet to her surprise, he seemed to be the one looking for a way out.

“You know what, Marco?” Antonio said, more matter-of-factly than she expected. “I’ve been telling my girl friend that Southside guys are really easy to get along with....that no one’s going to hassle her. And here you are, making me look like a liar. I have to tell you, I don’t appreciate that.”

Glancing down at Delaney, whose trembling fear had turned to shocked surprise, Antonio added a final flourish. “Hey, I know she’s cute. I expect the other guys will notice that too. So maybe you could do me a favor.”

“What’s that?” Marco muttered with minimal enthusiasm.

“Why don’t you kind of spread the word that she’s spoken for. Let the guy’s know that she’s Antonio’s lady. Okay? That way we can avoid any misunderstandings.” 

Nudging Marco aside, Antonio reached down to take Delaney’s hand and pull her out of the car. Finally, with an exaggerated grin he patted a still-shaken Marco on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you again, old buddy. You take care.”


Hand in hand the pair of them stepped up to the sidewalk. A few steps later Antonio tugged on her shoulder, turning her to face him. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Delaney’s reply was little more than a stunned, silent nod, so he continued. “I told you before. Some of these guys are bad news. We have that kind here in Tanner, just like you did in California.”

“You think I went looking for him? I was hoping he wouldn’t be here.”

“Funny how that works, isn’t it? The bad pennies always seem to show up. And sometimes they’re hard to get rid of.” 

Antonio had her arm, steering her down the sidewalk in front of the school, past the curious stares of wondering onlookers. “Anyway, are you ready for that burger and milkshake?”

They had walked nearly a block beyond the school before Delaney tugged on Antonio’s arm, pulling him to a stop, ready to ask her questions. “Will you tell me what the hell that was about?”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on. I’m a California girl. Remember? I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve seen guys go at it....lots of times. They push and shove, and get all macho. They talk trash and try to pysch each other out. That’s how guys are. I know that.”

“And you’re sorry that you didn’t get to see a lot of pushing," Antonio countered. "Or hear a bunch of trash. Is that what you’re saying?” He started off again, leading them through the well-maintained residential area toward the Shake Shack.

“Don’t you play innocent with me, Mr. Calle.

Still, Delaney's scolding tone was not enough to hide her disbelieving surprise. “You didn’t have to push him. You didn’t even raise your voice. I was watching him. I saw what happened. Before you’d even said a word, you’d already scared the hell out of him. It was like you gave him the evil eye or something and he just sort of melted.”

No matter how often she replayed that moment, it was hard to understand. It had been nothing at all like the loud and blustery face-offs she remembered watching. Either Marco was all bluff, or she had seriously misread her lawn-mowing friend. In either case, those long seconds of adrenalin-fed fear, before Antonio arrived on the scene, had left her shaky and full of questions.

“We’d better get a move on,” Antonio said as he steered them down the next side street. “I’m ready for lunch.” Then, pausing to make eye contact, “By the way, welcome to Southside High. You’ve done the paperwork, haven’t you? That makes you one of the good guys.”

“Don’t you be changing the subject either, Antonio Calle.” Delaney’s finger was stabbing at his chest. “There are things I want to know. That dude was flat out afraid of you. Is he the only one? Or is everyone afraid of you?”

“Are you afraid of me?”

“I don’t think so,” she answered. “Should I be? Anyway, I  want to know what’s going on. You just ran Marco off with nothing more than a stare. That’s all it took. And then you told him I was your girl friend. If that makes you my boy friend, it seems like I ought to know why he ran like that. Don’t you think?”

“Hold on,” Antonio was laughing softly, more embarrassed than anything. “That ‘girl friend’ thing. That was meant to be kind of like an insurance policy. That’s all. Hopefully it will keep those crazy Southside guys from hitting on you.”

“What if it’s someone I want to know better?” Could he tell she was teasing? “Maybe someone I want to have ‘hitting on me.’ I guess I’ll never know, will I? Because you’ve already run him off.”

“Wow. I hadn’t thought of that.” 

For a moment Antonio seemed to turn serious. “Things were happening kind of fast. I guess there wasn’t time to think it through. But anyway, it’s done. So at least for now you’re probably stuck with me. 

“Unless, of course, you’d rather have me tell Marco that I’m out of the picture....that he can go ahead and do his thing. I suppose I could do that.”

The morning had turned pleasantly warm. It was a good time to be walking. Better yet, it felt good to be so wonderfully at ease, suddenly free of her dark ‘Marco’ thoughts. Perhaps Tanner Southside was going to work out after all. Especially if she could pry a few more answers out of Antonio.

Taking his hand Delaney was ready to offer her own hopeful compromise. “That’s okay. I can probably live with being ‘stuck’ with you. In fact, I think I might like that, at least for now.

“If, that is, you’re ready to tell me why Marco acted like he did. I know it’s something about you. If everyone in the whole school hears that I’m your designated girl friend, don’t you think I deserve to know what the rest of them know?”

“I’ll tell you what, girlfriend. That sounds like a burger and milkshake conversation. Can you wait that long?”

Tuesday, July 26, 2022


                          Chapter 36

From the pickup I watched as Rick and Evie, walking hand in hand, trudged reluctantly toward the Caine ranch house....though their body language signaled that they would rather be somewhere else at that moment. 

Then, just before they reached the steps, the front door opened and a man, then a woman, stepped out on the porch. The youngsters stopped short. For what must have been a tense few seconds the four of them stood staring at each other. 

From my vantage point the signs were not hopeful. I was watching the tall fellow, who I assumed must be Taylor Caine. Though he had not said a word, his hard-set jaw and stony glare were not hard to read....even from a distance. 

I was waiting for him to make his move when suddenly the woman, Evie’s mother, hurried down the steps to pull the girl into a long, close embrace. Then, stepping back, Mrs. Caine took Evie’s arm and without so much as a nod in Rick’s direction led the four of them inside.

I had already decided I would stick around a while, long enough to see if the young couple, or perhaps just Rick, needed a ride. I got out of the pickup to stretch my legs, walking around the rig a time or two. Finally, after perhaps ten minutes I decided that whatever was happening inside, it seemed the youngsters would be staying. In that case it was time for me to be on my way. 

Then, as I reached for the cab door, I looked up to see a tall, arrow-straight cowboy coming down the front steps. With his thumbs hooked carelessly in his jean pockets he was striding toward me, looking for all the world like a middle-aged Gary Cooper. As he drew closer his steely gaze again caught my attention. 

This was Taylor Caine, I told myself, the fellow who was used to having his way. Did he have some kind of outback High Noon showdown in mind?

I remember thinking that he probably wore that tan, sweat-stained Stetson in the shower and to bed too. It looked to be a part of him. Leaning back against the front fender I braced myself. He had yet to say a word and already I was intimidated, at least until he thrust out his hand to introduce himself.

 “Taylor Caine,” he said matter-of-factly. “The youngsters tell me there’s no reason for you to hang around. I expect they’ll be staying here. And for that I owe you my thanks.”

“You do?” In my surprise, thoughts of a classier reply completely escaped me.

“Yeah, I do. The girl says you bailed them out of a tight spot. I appreciate that.”

“Well, it was easy to see they were down and out, and pretty damn hungry. Beyond feeding them I didn’t do that much. Just listened a little and tried to make it a bit easier for them. In any case, I’m glad they’re staying. They told me some of their story. Seemed to me this is where they belong.” I reached for the pickup door. 

To my surprise, Taylor Caine was actually grinning as he replied. “I can imagine they must have been a sorry sight.” 

Kicking at a rock, he looked back to the house as he continued. “Anyway, I suppose you’re right about them belonging here. At least the wife thinks so, and she’s usually a good judge of such things.

“I’ll tell you one thing though.” He was no longer grinning. “I’m glad they waited until this afternoon to come back. If that impertinent young punk had showed his face around here last night, while I was still on the prowl, chances are I’d have run him out of the county with buckshot in his butt. I don’t suppose I can do that now.”

Pausing, Taylor Caine looked up at me to ask, “You have any kids?”``

“We have one,” I nodded. “A daughter.”

“That’s us too. One little girl, stuck out here in what’s mostly a man’s world. God knows, we’ve tried to get her ready for something better. We sent her off to a good school in Las Vegas. She’s traveled some with her mother, to see how the rest of the world does things.

“We always figured that she’d end up in Vegas, maybe Reno, someplace like that, with some fellow who could make a good home for her. Instead, she’s telling us she’d rather be right here on the ranch, with that half-baked young twerp. I could probably try to talk her out of that, but she’s just as stubborn as her mother. Besides, they’re already married.”

“You’ve got to admit,” I said cautiously. “That ‘young twerp’ took good care of her. At least the best he could. Even when he hated doing what he had to do.” 

I don’t think Taylor Caine was looking for my input. In fact, I was a bit uncomfortable defending the boy’s impulsive choices. Yet, except for his new bride, there was no one else standing up for him. 

“It was his idea, you know,” I said. “To come back here. I could tell that it galled him a lot, knowing he couldn’t make things right on his own. But in the end he decided to do what was best for her.”

“Yeah,” Taylor nodded. “I guess in a way that doesn’t surprise me. I keep five full-time wranglers on the payroll. It takes that many to run this place. Hell, we’ve got eight thousand acres, five hundred head of brood stock, and a dozen wheel lines to look after. We’re haying pretty much full time from June to October. 

"Anyway, young Rick is the sharpest of the bunch, by a mile. He’s a hard worker who doesn’t need me looking over his shoulder. At least not until it came to my daughter.

“That’s what caught me by surprise. When I first figured it out I couldn’t believe she’d fallen for a near-broke cowboy. Hell, she’s grown up around those kind. I thought she’d have better sense. By the time I’d cashed him out and sent him on his way, she was ready to go right after him. Can you beat that?”

“I suppose that’s young love, eh?” I was looking for his reaction to my rather orthodox defense of Rick’s actions. “You’ve been there yourself, haven’t you? As I recall, at least for me, thinking ahead was not a particularly high priority at the time.”

“I suppose you’re right about that,” he laughed.

His easy going admission surprised me a bit. I had Taylor Caine pegged as someone who said what he meant, straight out....not the kind to throw his words around loosely. In that case, perhaps I was hearing a softer underside I had not noticed before.

“I have to tell you though,” he continued. “To have her sneak off like that, with a boy we hardly knew, that was tough. At least she had sense enough to leave her mother a note, so we knew what she was up to. 

“But we still didn’t know what the hell to do. Was I supposed to send the law after him? How could I do that when Evie had already made her choice? Yet at the same time, there was no way for us not to worry. 

“I’m pretty sure the wife and I have never spent a worse night.” Mr. Caine was frowning at the thought of it. “And it didn’t get any better this morning. Her note said she’d be fine. But how the hell could we know that? 

"We were getting kind of frantic....just sitting there, waiting for a phone call or something. Then, a few minutes ago, you drove up and there she was, big as life. We had our little girl back home.”

By then Taylor Caine’s soft account of a father’s worry was resurrecting my own recollections of Kathy’s long ago escape to Los Angeles. True, she had been older than Evie at the time, and we did know where she was....for whatever that mattered. Still, our little girl had gone off on her own. I remembered how long it took for us to feel comfortable about that.

“She was safe as could be the whole time,” I reminded him. I didn’t expect my meager input to help much, but it needed saying. “The kid was broke and pretty much out of options. But he was doing everything he could to take care of her.”

“I guess so,” he offered. “Like I said, they’re hitched.”

By then I was seeing hints a different Taylor Caine. The lanky cowboy, who prided himself in facing life head on and pushing back when that was called for, was showing signs of an unexpected apparent acceptance of a reality he could not change. Was he ready to dispute the reality of their marriage, I wondered. 

A second later Taylor Cain provided his own answer. “My first thought was to find out what I could to have that undone. You know, annulled or something like that. But you only have to listen to her to know that wouldn’t work. We’d just drive her away again.”

“So what are you going to do?” I asked, backing away from the pickup, nodding toward the house. “She’s in there right now, with her husband. Seems like whatever your answer is, it had better show up pretty soon.”

About then, as the tall cowboy stepped up beside me, I realized my hunch was right. I was indeed witnessing a gentler, less-intimidating version of the rock-hard cowboy I had first met.

“I suppose there’s lots of things we could try to do,” he said. “But in the end, it’s probably not our call to make.” He paused, perhaps considering his unfamiliar role in their family drama. For one so used to calling the shots it must have been hard to step aside while his daughter of all people, decided for herself what her future would be.

“The thing is,” he continued. “I’m the third generation on this spread. My granddad was the first of the Caines out here. It’s sometimes bothered me that I’d be the last. 

"We didn’t have a son. We assumed that Evie would want to live somewhere more civilized. We could afford to make that easy for her. So for the past few years the wife and I have talked all around the idea of selling out. That’s a hard thing to think about, but it’s always been there waiting for us.

“Now, this cocky kid comes waltzing out of the bunkhouse and steps right into the middle of all that. He’s a first-rate cowboy and damn-good farm hand. He’s bright....not schooled, but smart. And he’s goofy about our daughter, who just happens to be his wife.”

Taylor was quiet for a moment, gazing off across the nearest alfalfa field, perhaps dwelling on the surprising fact that he had just become a father-in-law. “Anyway,” he finally said. “If they really want to stay here, like Evie says they do, I may have to rethink some things....about the ranch and our own future, stuff like that. 

“The kid is part of the family now. It would take some serious training, but he could learn what needs to be learned. In that case it just might be that the Caine line could hang on here a little longer.”

“I don’t suppose that would be a bad thing,” I said. “A fourth generation? Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” 

By then I was inching back toward the pickup. Though Taylor Caine had some serious choices to make, they were not my choices or any of my business. It was time for me to be on my way.

“However it works out,” I said. “I wish you the best.” 

“I thank you for that,” he nodded, extending his hand as I pulled the door open to climb inside. 

“I’ll tell you one thing.” His gaze was focused somewhere over my shoulder. “Having those kids take off like that kind of put things in perspective. The wife has tried for years to convince me that as important as it is, it’s not the ranch that matters most. 

“She kept telling me there are other things worth more than a prize bull or a good hay crop. Fact is, it wasn’t until last night, after Evie ran off, that I finally understood what she was saying. 

By then I could see that all those plans we’ve talked about....the things we wanted for ourselves ....they don’t really matter all that much. Turns out they’re second best. Because in the end, when it’s all said and done, nothing matters more than family. That’s the truth of it. Family matters.”


I drove off toward Ely that afternoon following the bluest of blue highways through broad sagebrush deserts and mountain-ringed valleys. Truth be told, by then my thoughts had moved beyond the stark beauty of the Nevada outback. Instead, for mile after dreary mile I felt myself sinking deeper into the truth of Taylor Caine’s hard-learned wisdom.

To hear him tell it, that tough old cowboy had created a plan years before....a vision of how he would deal with what lay ahead for him and his family. That was, after all, the accepted wisdom....  envision what lays ahead and fashion a productive way to prosper in, or at least cope with, that future. 

The approach itself was tried and true, offering the best chance of a productive outcome. Unless, of course, like Taylor Caine the planner was forced to admit that his carefully crafted plan no longer fit his new situation....that it had become the right answer to the wrong question.

I’ll admit that I was impressed by how, when faced with unexpected new circumstances, my outback friend had so quickly realized that his basic assumptions about the future of Caine Ranch needed to be revisited. He had been planning for events that might no longer be in play. Though it seemed that a new set of conditions had arrived out of the blue, Taylor Caine had instinctively understood the need to plot a new course. 

In a real sense, the future of the Caine Ranch seemed to rest on his ability to adapt. Could he be flexible enough to accept Rick and Evie as part of that future? To hear him tell it, his newly evolving plan would have to be constructed on that understanding.

As I mulled that linkage....of assumptions and the plans that flow from them....startling new question began to surface. Could it be that my retirement dream, the one I had nurtured for so long, was built on imperfect assumptions? More to the point, was any future that Nell could not accept for herself a viable future for me?

She had not bought into my nomadic notions, and never would. Yet from the beginning, when I weighed her stubborn resistance against my eager wanting, I had decided my dream mattered more than hers

By the time I approached the outback town of Ely I was asking myself why Taylor Caine’s understanding of what really mattered was so much more compelling than my own. 

It would take a while for a satisfactory answer to reveal itself. When it finally did, I found myself face to face with the same truth that old cowboy had accepted as his own. Individual dreams, even the ones that mattered most, mean little when compared to how much family matters.