Jack Benz had weighed the intimidating possibilities for nearly a week, ever since the lady at Brown, Rounder, et al had told him that Eric Larson might be in Oklahoma City. Was that minimal bit of information enough to lead him to the right Eric Larson? And if so, who was Gloria? Most important of all, what had become of Cynthia?
Jack had lost a few hours sleep playing and replaying an imagined telephone face-off with Eric Larson, but now all that was behind him. It was time to act.
With a computer-generated map he had pinpointed the location of each of the three Eric Larsons listed in the Oklahoma City white pages. That initial screening appeared to eliminate one candidate. In all likelihood the attorney he was looking for did not live in a midtown, low-income housing project. That left just two possibilities.
He dialed the number for Eric Larson Number One and settled back on the couch. A moment later he had hit pay dirt, though it took a few tentative seconds to establish that fact.
“This is who?” He heard no hint of cordial civility in Eric Larson’s blunt question.
“Jack Benz, sir. You don’t know me. I’m calling from Tanner, Oregon.”
“Tanner?” Mr. Larson paused, apparently trying to place the name, while Jack wondered if he had reached the right Eric Larson. Then, “My God, you must be looking for Cynthia!”
With a momentary sigh of relief Jack plowed ahead. “I’m calling for the Southside High School Reunion Committee, Mr. Larson. We do periodic updates to be sure that our files are current. It appears that we’d lost track of Cindy....I mean Cynthia. I was asked to get a current address for her. It’s for our mailings and things like that.”
For seconds there was only silence. Was Eric Larson about to hang up on him? Was Jack’s last chance of finding Cindy Welton about to go up in smoke? Then, in a gruff, cross-examination tone, Mr. Larson was asking his own question. “How the hell did you get this number?”
“We had a form, sir, that Cynthia filled out years ago.” Jack was trying his best to sound matter-of-factly sincere. “It said that you were working for Brown, Rounder in San Francisco. The lady there told me you’d moved to Oklahoma City. I hope that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
“Did she also tell you that Cynthia and I are no longer together?”
Suddenly Jack was smiling to himself. “No longer together.” That was not the way people talked about someone who had died. That was the language of separation. It was clearly time for a little role playing.
“I’m sorry, Sir. The law office didn’t tell me anything about that. You’re saying this address isn’t where we can reach Cynthia?”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
Mr. Larson’s irritation was growing more apparent. There was no time for a drawn out conversation. “Could you tell me how I might reach her? We’d really like to have a current address for our mailings.”
Again there were long seconds of nervous waiting....wondering if Eric Larson was willing to continue.
Then finally, “Look, I don’t recall Cynthia ever talking about a high school reunion. I don’t think she’d be interested. Besides, I can’t be giving out her address to just anyone. I think I’ll have to pass on that.”
Jack leaned forward, tapping nervously on the coffee table as his hoped for connection seemed to be slipping away. “Mr. Larson, I hear what you’re saying and you’re absolutely right. In that case I’d like to ask a favor....actually two favors.
"Would you be willing to send my name and email address on to Cynthia? That way, if she wants to get in touch with us she can do that. If she doesn’t, well that’s her choice. Would you do that?”
“I suppose I could do that much. But I’m sure she won’t bother to answer.”
“That’s okay,” Jack replied. In those brief seconds he had settled on a new, hopefully effective back-up strategy. “The other thing is this. Please include in your note that Susan Carrol would like to hear from Cynthia. They were best friends back in school. It sounds like Susan would like to catch up with Cindy. That’s what we called her back then.”
“Why don’t you just give me Susan’s address? Or phone number. That way Cynthia could get in touch herself.”
That had Jack mumbling an exasperated oath under his breath. Why was Eric Larson asking questions faster than he could create answers? That must be what lawyers do.
“I’m afraid I don’t have Susan’s information,” Jack answered. “There’s just a note on Cynthia’s sheet saying that if we find her, let her know Susan wants to get in touch. I suppose the Reunion Committee secretary would take care of that.”
“I see.” It sounded as though Eric Larson had decided that the fastest way to end this unwelcome intrusion was to take Jack’s email address and agree to forward it to Cynthia.
A minute later their transaction was complete. Jack set the phone down and slumped back on the sofa. He had made a start. Now it was out of his hands.
Everything depended on the follow-through of a very unenthusiastic ex-husband, along with Cynthia Larson’s willingness to answer his request. All Jack could do was wait and hope.
I had planned to spend Wednesday morning rereading the chapter I was editing, returning to the scene where my lead character was first introduced to the mature and attractive woman with whom he was destined to share the next two-hundred pages.
Half an hour later that process had ground to a halt while I struggled to decide if my slightly befuddled hero was the kind who would respond to the woman’s innocent question with “Hell no.”
By some hopefully convincing coincidence I had caused the two of them to meet. Having established that contact the next step was to determine how they would communicate with one another? I had already illustrated my leading man’s willingness to share a mildly profane exchange with his drinking buddies. Now came his encounter with “her.”
She was an appealing, but proper woman, interesting to look at and clearly the appropriate age. That last part was important when writing with the AARP generation in mind.
And of course she was either widowed or divorced. Casting a seventy year-old spinster in what was about to become a somewhat-romantic role would only beg the question of why she had gone three score and ten without attracting a man.
Then, as I mentally reviewed the pros and cons of “Hell no,” the phone rang and there she was.
“Maria? Is something wrong?” What was that about, I wondered. She had seldom initiated a conversation when we were in the same room. Why would she be calling me at home?
“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong. I just wanted to talk to you. Are you coming to see your father today?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” Which was true. “But I could.” That was also true. “If you’ll set me a place for lunch I’ll be there.”
With that I set the phone aside and turned back to my notes. It took no more than ten seconds to realize that my aging hero, in even his most unguarded moments, was not the sort to resort to casual profanity in the company of a woman he had just met....especially one who might, in the course of the next twenty chapters, become his beloved. I scolded myself for having taken so long to know that, then walked to the bedroom to change clothes.
“It seems like you’re hanging around here more than you used to,” Dad observed as I walked him to the kitchen for lunch. Once there, he noted the place Maria had set for me.
“In fact it looks like someone was expecting you. I suppose this is my food budget paying to feed you again.”
“Hey, you know how much I appreciate your help,” I teased. “You’ve probably heard how hard things are for us starving writers.”
“It shouldn’t cost all that much to starve,” he answered, winking at Maria as she pulled his chair out for him. “Seems like you could manage that on your own.”
After lunch I waited in the living room while Maria walked Dad down the hall for his nap. When she returned she nodded toward the kitchen, where our conversation would not disturb the Old Man. Taking off her apron....which seemed to signify that she was on her own time....she sat down across the table from me.
“You seem kind of upbeat today,” I noted. “I hope that means you’re feeling better.”
“It does. I’ve been praying very hard and I think it’s working. I’ve also been thinking about something else....something I’ve tried for a long time to forget. But now I think it’s time for me to deal with it. For the first time I can remember I feel strong enough to do that. It’s still hard to think about, but I believe it’s time.”
“What is that?” I stopped, scolding myself for having taken the bait so eagerly. “What’s the ‘something else’ you’ve been thinking about?”
Maria fidgeted with her coffee cup for a few seconds before, without looking up, she said, “I told you about Luis and Arturo. But there’s more, a part that I haven’t told you about.”
"No way," I told myself. I was not about to get trapped in another round of her endless ‘God talk.’ I got to my feet, pushed my chair back under the table, and started for the front room.
“Look, whatever it is,” I said. “I’m glad it has you feeling better. That’s good. Now I have to go.”
“There was a baby.” Her words were barely audible behind me. Was she even speaking to me? “After I came to Tanner. A long time after that.”
I stopped short....ready to leave, but wanting to hear more. “You had another baby? Here?”
She nodded, looking for a moment like she might bolt and run. “It was a long time ago. More than twenty years.”
"Your baby....was it a boy or a girl?”
About then Maria’s head slumped forward into her hands. Not until I heard her sobbing did I realize how much my innocent question must have hurt. Still I asked again, “Was it a boy or a girl?”
“No se. I don’t know.”
“How could you not know that? Didn’t you see it or hold it?” Then it hit me. I tried to look into her down-turned eyes. ”Was it alive? Was it okay?”
Maybe her tears had cried themselves away. Or perhaps she simply needed to speak of the unspeakable with the only person she knew who might listen without judging. Reaching up, she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“It was a terrible mistake. I worked with him at the nursing home. He said that he loved me. But he never told me......”
“He never told you what?”
“That he had a wife. That he was married.”
“You had a baby....with a married man?” My incredulous question was loud, blunt, and not at all sensitive.
“Yes.” She continued in a choked whisper.
Getting to her feet Maria stepped to the sink, splashing her face with cold water, then drying with a towel. Clearly she was in distress, pushing herself to face what she would rather avoid. Yet I sensed her resolve as she carried on in the same halting voice, speaking of the man’s betrayal.
She ended her sad recital by recounting the man’s forceful insistence that she have an abortion. By then her words were nearly lost in quiet sobbing. “I would never do that,” she whimpered. “I couldn’t.”
I had never embraced the lady until that moment. She was still at the counter when I stepped up beside her, giving in to what must have been a reflex action. Her tears seemed to demand my comfort. How else could I validate her brave decision to relate what she would rather have kept secret?
A moment later I realized that I liked the warmth of her against me. Reluctantly, I pushed her away to arm’s length to ask my question.
“So what did you do? What happened to the baby?”
Her answer was a while coming. “They decided they wanted the baby....the man and his wife. They couldn’t have children. So they wanted his child.”
“Is that what you did?”
“I prayed about it.” She was nodding as she glanced up at me. “After all, it was his child too. It would have a real family with its own father. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
“So, how did that play out?” I asked.
I watched silently as Maria summoned the will to continue, explaining how....in a Tanner law office, with the man and his wife standing beside her, she had signed away the rights to her own child.
A few months later, just moments after birth, the hospital took her baby before she even saw it. “I had carried it with me for months,” she whispered. “For all that time I was its mother. And then it was gone. The next day I went home alone, feeling very empty.”
Where was her startling revelation leading? And why had it surfaced now? Was the timid presence of someone who cared, someone like me, enough to revive those memories?
“So what does all that have to do with today?” I asked. “What made you remember the baby now?”
“Remember!” There was fire in her eyes and serious irritation in her tone. “Do you think for a minute that I just remembered my own child? Like I had forgotten about it. Do you think I could do that?”
“But you’d never mentioned it.”
“It was out of my life,” Maria continued. “It’s always been ‘out of my life.’ I couldn’t dwell on it all the time. That would drive me crazy. But it feels like that might be changing. I was thinking about the God you described....the one who doesn’t punish us. It seems that if what you say is true I ought to know my baby.
“When you said I must be feeling better, that’s what you were seeing....the possibility of being with the little person I walked away from so long ago. I want to know my child. I want it with me, for at least a little bit.”
She turned back to me, more intense than ever. “I’ve read that the internet can help find lost people. Is that right? Can you do that with your computer?”
I nodded soberly, knowing it was time to add a touch of reality to Maria’s yearning. “First of all," I replied. "Are you sure that’s what you want? Your baby’s not a baby any more. It’s twenty-some years old. Does he or she even know that its real mother is out there somewhere, maybe looking to find them?”
“I have to find out. There’s no Arturo. There’s no Luis. The baby is the only part of me that’s left.” She was puckering up again, on the verge of tears. This time she pulled herself against my shoulder. “It’s all there is to prove I had a reason to be born.”
“Maria. Will you be serious. It’s not as bad as that. Why do you keep forgetting all the wonderful things you’ve done and are still doing.”
She was not ready to accept my justification. Instead she pushed me away and hurried back into the utility room. Seconds later the back door closed behind her. Fortunately, I had the good sense not to follow her.