Wednesday, August 31, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 9


            CHAPTER 9

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 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.

Monday, August 29, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 8


              CHAPTER 8

I had planned to pass on a Saturday visit with Dad, until he called to tell me the hearing aid he had dropped in his coffee earlier that week was ready at the repair service. After a few days of half- hearing he was anxious to have me pick it up. 

I came through the front door without knocking. Before I could say a word Dad announced, “Damn it, she’s gone quiet again. There’s no need for me to hear what she says if she won’t talk. I thought after your little visit with her last week she’d be in a better mood.”

“I can’t stay,” I said setting the hearing aid box on the TV tray next to his recliner. “But I’ll see if can find out what has her out of sorts.”

Maria was in the utility room folding a load of washing, apparently lost in her thoughts. I cleared my throat to get her attention and she jerked around to see me.

“What are you doing here? What do you want?” 

“Just checking to see if you’re okay. Dad’s worried about you again.”

She spread a towel on the dryer top, smoothing it with her hands. “I’m fine. Perfecta. Why should he be worried?”

“Because you’re all quiet again.” I was hoping for some reaction, but there was none at all. “Are you still upset about how everything is your fault? Is that it?”

Her grim little smirk matched her shrug. “Did you think you could just talk that away? That may work in your stories, but not in real life.”

No wonder the Old Man was so frustrated. We wanted to help the lady and all she had to offer was an attitude. 

“Come on, Maria," I protested. "How can you get on with your life when all you can think about is how that God of yours keeps pointing his finger at you....telling you that you’re the one to blame for everything? Damn it, it’s time for you to get real.”

Maria returned to her clothes folding and I started back to the front room to tell Dad he could leave the hearing aid in its box.

“Please,” she called behind me. “Wait just a minute.” She wiped her hands on her apron and nodded toward the back door. “Could we talk?”

I followed her outside into the late morning sunlight. It was only eleven-thirty, yet already warm enough to drive us into the shade next to the house. There, to my surprise, Maria began with an apology.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “There’s no reason for me to be upset with you or your father. There’s no one else who even cares. Why should I blame you for that? Besides, I should have known all along what to expect. There was no way to avoid that.”

“Avoid what?”

“The way things turned out....losing Luis and all that.” I think she had more to say, but the words seemed to catch in her throat.

“Maria!” My quiet words came easy, but my impatience was showing. The lady was being so unwilling to see anything beyond her perceived failings, the ones I could not begin to understand.

“It’s that ‘God thing’ again, isn’t it?” I asked. “About something that happened thirty years ago. Can’t you see? You’ve got to let it go.” 

“Mr. Postell.....”

“Carl,” I interrupted. “It’s Carl.”

“Listen, Carl. If I could ‘let go’ of it, if I could stop believing what you call ‘this God thing,’ I would do that. At least there are times when I would. It hurts to believe in Him like I do and know that He’s made these bad things happen to me. I know He could make it better. But He doesn’t. 

"How can I possibly get over that? Except that it can’t be by not believing in Him, because I do.” Her chin slumped to her chest and she paused to catch her breath.

By then I was shaking my head, absolutely certain that I had run out of answers....not so surprising since I had so few to begin with. I was, however, prepared to respond to one of her earlier questions. In fact, it seemed to me an appropriate way to end our conversation, before she led us off down some path I was hoping to avoid.

“The other day you asked me if I believed in God,” I said. “Well I do. But just so you know, the God that I can imagine is not at all like the God you talk about.” With that I started toward the porch, ready to check in on Dad before I left.

Before I reached the back door Maria’s question was loud and demanding behind me. “How is it different?” she asked. “What makes your God different than mine?”

“Look, I’m not even sure how to say it," I answered, turning to face her. "I’m not exactly a church kind-of-guy, you know. Let’s just say we have different ideas and let it go at that. Okay?”

I paused a moment to remember that there had been a time when I was “a church kind-of-guy.” When our children were young Sandra had insisted on that....certain that the kids would benefit from Sunday School and seeing their parents in church. It was not the kids’ favorite thing, or mine....but for several years we were in church most every Sunday.

Strangely, Sandra’s religious logic had grown more flexible over time, allowing us to “outgrow” church as the kids got older. By the time Trish was twelve or thirteen Sunday morning had reverted to its original status as a well-earned sleep-in-day.

Now looking back at Maria leaning against the backyard fence I was laughing to myself, aware of the startling irony. That nice lady was struggling with the deepest of faith questions....concerns that had apparently haunted her for decades. And there, in the very depths of her seeking, she was asking me of all people to elaborate on my notion of God. She deserved so much more than I had to offer.

“Maria, there’s nothing about what I believe that would help you. It’s just too different.”

“That’s what I’m asking. How is it different?”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, knowing that I was not at all sure, She nodded her affirmative so I took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.

“Okay, here’s the deal. You talk about a God who has rules for every step you take....who comes down hard on you when you break those rules. The God that makes sense to me gives us freedom to be ourselves. It has set the process of creation in motion, and gives each of us a part to play in that creating.

By then my unfamiliar role as a spiritual advisor was growing more uncomfortable by the second, but I needed to carry on. “What I think of as God has given every single thing that It creates exactly what it needs to become what it’s supposed to be.

"Having done that, It sends Its creation off to become that ‘something.’ That’s true for a tree, a flower, or an animal. They all use what they’ve been given to become what they’re meant to be. And it’s the same way for people. 

“That’s what I think we’re doing here,” I continued....hoping that I had not lost touch with her. “We’re ‘becoming.’ Part of our job is to learn what it is we’re supposed to be. That might be a caregiver, or a storyteller, or anything else. We have lots of choices to choose from. 

"But we shouldn’t forget that we’ve been given everything we need to become whatever that is.” I paused to read her reaction. She was giving me few clues so I added, “I guess that’s it.”

“That’s all? That's what God is like to you?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I paused, knowing there was at least one more piece to the puzzle. How would she accept that? “Except for one last thing....something that seems to be very different than the God you know.”

“What’s that?”

“Like I said before, I believe we always have a choice in the matter. We can even choose not to become what we’re intended to be. We all do that sometimes. 

"But when that happens I don’t believe it means that God has given up on us. The God I can imagine doesn’t forget about us, or get mad at us, or punish us because we took a wrong turn. He knows that everyone messes up, and He’s ready to help us when we try again. 

“It seems to me that’s very important.” I was ready to end this. “Because even when we forget about It, or Him, or Her....what I call God is always there to help us. We see Him all around us, all the the people me meet and the things we do.

“Anyway, that’s how God looks to me. But I don’t see how any of that can help you. Not if you can’t imagine a God who can forgive the times you went wrong. I wish you could do that, because Dad and I would really like to see you smiling again.”


That night, in the quiet of her apartment, Maria returned to thoughts of her afternoon visit with Carl Postell. For the second or third time she settled on his simplistic explanation of a God he claimed to know only in passing. Then, as before, her wondering turned from his stumbling words to the surprising realization of what he had not said. 

He liked her. She could tell that. In fact he made no effort to hide it. True he was old and not so good looking, but he wanted to help. He cared enough to want good things for her. Of course he was not the first Anglo to pay attention. Far from it. Yet this felt different than the others. As near as she could tell Carl Postell liked her for more than the promise of her body.

As she sat staring across the room her thoughts turned back to the God of her youth, the one she had tried to describe to Carl. That her understanding of the Divine was so different than his was not surprising. Even as a child, among her Latina friends in the close-knit Merced barrio, the empathetically stern teachings of El Padre Pablo, with his dark images of a judgmental and vindictive God, had set her apart.

As a teenager listening to El Pablo’s weekly harangues Maria had struggled to understand God’s place in the exciting new experiences of adolescence. 

Even now, decades later, she recalled teenage the night Juanita del Passo asked out loud if her late-night rendezvous with Miguel Perez ought to be part of her weekly confessional. 

Would El Padre know what they had done, she had wondered. Surely God knew. In that case, El Padre Pablo must also know. As usual their hushed, giggling girl talk had masked deeper questions ....about the God who El Padre had taught them to fear, the God of harsh judgments. 

Those lessons had been learned as a youngster at her mother’s side in the storefront chapel where El Padre Pablo gathered his small flock. They were a ragtag, disparate congregation, drawn from the fringes of the city’s main-stream parishes. There were some who called them a cult. 

Whether a cult or splinter group, they were, to a person, attracted by the charismatic intensity of Pablo himself. He was nearly sixty at the time, having spent more than half of those years serving parishioners whom the traditional Church, and its hierarchy, seemed to have forgotten.

There, in a world where the likes of Carl Postell and his Anglo universe seldom intruded, the rules Maria had absorbed as a child had come from the church, la interpreted by El Padre. 

At home her mother, who had joined El Padre early in his ministry, recited his stern warnings over and over, like soul-saving mantras. 

“God loves good little girls” she proclaimed. “Terrible things happen to bad girls. You cannot hide from God.” And worst of all....”If He turns his back on you the judgmental darkness will last beyond life, to Purgatory, even to Hell. You will wish you had never been born.”

Those harsh injunctions, couched in El Padre’s stern rhetoric, would never be fully outgrown. They were a part of her, buried deep in her psyche. She had grown up knowing a God who was always looking over her shoulder. Over the years her mother’s God had become Maria’s God.

Sleep was coming closer, pushing back those intruding memories, leaving Carl Postell at the center of her musings. She had not felt those stirrings in a very long time, the affirming attraction of someone liking her that much? 

In the next breath she was scolding herself, reinforcing the simple truth of it. There was no future in such feelings. She was a healthcare aide, for heaven sakes. He was so much more than that. Liking him could only end in disappointment.

A moment later her drowsy reflections brought her full circle, back to the crux of her dilemma. Since Luis’ passing, all those years before, she had been weighed down by Divine judgment....viewing life through the foreboding lens of a God she could never please or ever escape. In light of that it was no time to be dreaming frivolous dreams of an impossible relationship.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 7



Friday night at The Terrace was normally a loud and lively time, but something about that particular night was different. The place was quieter than usual. Jack had not been able to make it for dinner so we had met there at seven-thirty for a couple of beers. 

At first glance we wondered if we were in the right place. The front rooms were crowded, but eerily silent. The overhead television screens were dark. No one was moving around. A moment later we understood why.

At every table, in most every booth, people were hunched over backgammon boards. The only sounds to be heard were of rolling dice, disappointed groans, or jubilant relief. We had walked into the middle of the Capital City Backgammon Tournament. Although they were a quiet group, apparently “Gamers” drank a lot of beer, making the tournament a natural event for The Terrace to host.

Jack and I found one of the few open booths in a far corner of the back room, where the loser’s bracket was being played. By the time we were on our second beer we had thoroughly discussed how I might phase out an obnoxious bit player who had outlived his role in my new story. Actually, we had not completely resolved that sticky issue, though I had decided that neither of Jack’s suggestions.... homicide or suicide, would fit the story line I was so carefully crafting.

“Okay,” I said in hushed tones, lest we disturb the game in process in the next booth. “Enough of that. Tell me the latest on your Cindy Welton search. When you called the other night it sounded like you’d made some headway.”

Jack paused to sip the foamy head off his new brew. When he finally glanced up he did not have the look of someone who had made a breakthrough.

“I did find something new,” he nodded. “But near as I can tell it created an even bigger question.”

“How so?”

“I went through my notes on Cindy for the umpteenth time. I read every line out loud, looking for something I might have missed before. And in the process I managed to come up with a new lead.

"You see, her husband, Eric Larson, had graduated from law school at UC-Berkley. She had mentioned that on a form she’d filled out a long time ago for the Southside Reunion Committee.

"When I came across that bit of information it dawned on me that the law school probably has an alumni office. Most colleges do. And if it did, maybe they could help.”

“Sounds damn resourceful,” I nodded. Once more I was impressed at how many ways my friend had to find lost classmates. “And they knew right where he was, eh?” 

He was shaking his head. “Nah. I called them yesterday. It turns out they didn’t have a clue....or if they did they couldn’t tell me about it. It seems they have rules against giving out personal information.”

“Bummer. So what did you do?”

“I went to Plan B. I begged and I groveled. I told the sweet young thing who answered my call that Eric and I had been undergraduate roommates. I was calling him Rick by then. I explained how anxious I was to reconnect with him. You know, like finding a lost brother. But I couldn’t do that unless someone was willing to help me out. Just a simple address would do the trick.”

“I know how convincing you can be,” I teased, “At least when you’re talking me into buying the next round. I’ll bet she broke right down and gave you exactly what you needed. Right?”

“Not exactly,” Jack answered. “But I do think she bought my story. She went through her spiel again....about their policy and all that. By then I thought I was dead in the water, until she had one last suggestion.”

“Which was?” I leaned forward to hear his soft disclosure.

“Which was Mr. Larson’s law firm, the one he worked for, or used to work for. She said it was Brown, Rounder and about half a dozen other names, in South San Francisco. Anyway, she kind of wondered out loud if they’d be able to help me. I don’t think she was supposed to give me that name, but she did.”

“And the law firm, you called them?”

“Oh yes. And it started out with more of the same.” By then Jack was rolling his eyes. “You’d better believe, if I had been looking for anyone else I’d have told them to just forget it. I didn’t need the hassle.” 

“But it wasn’tanyone else,’” I prodded. “It was Cindy Welton. So what did you do?”

“I asked to talk to their Human Resources department. By then my story was even better. I damn near choked up just talking about good old Rick. 

"Anyway, I think I finally wore the lady down. She pulled up a computer screen that showed that Eric Larson was in Oklahoma City. She wouldn’t give me an address. They have rules, you know. But she told me the city. Finally, it felt like I was winning, until ....”

“Until what?”

Jack drained his glass, looking more frustrated than ever. “Until I told her I was sure I could find Rick and Cynthia if they were in Oklahoma City.”

From across the room a sudden, startling yell punctuated the climax of a tense backgammon game. The combatants were on their grumbling, the other offering high fives and ordering another round. As the impromptu celebration faded, I motioned for Jack to carry on.

“Well, all of a sudden that nice lady I was talking to sounded a bit deflated. ‘Eric and Cynthia?,’ she asked. ‘Is that who you’re looking for? Then perhaps this isn’t your Eric Larson after all. The address I have is for Eric and Gloria Larson, not Cynthia.’”

“You were chasing the wrong guy?” 

“That’s what I thought when I hung up....that the lady had steered me to the wrong Eric Larson.” Jack leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. “But the more I think about it, the more I’m not so sure. 

"What are the odds of a law office having two guys with the same name, unless they’re father and son? And I’m sure she would’ve mentioned that. So I’m thinking there might be only one Eric Larson.... and he lives in Oklahoma City with Gloria, whoever that is.”

I was laughing by then, though Jack saw no humor in his latest mystery. “What if that Eric guy has a new wife?” he asked. “Does that mean Cindy is gone? That she’s passed?”

“Could be. We’re getting to that age, aren’t we? It happens all the time.”

“I know that. But couples split up too.” That hopeful thought seemed to bring a smile to Jack’s lips. “Just think, Carl,” he said. “What if she’s out there all alone, as single as can be?”

“And waiting for you to show up and save her? How likely is that?” It was time to nudge Jack back to reality. “You said before that the Larsons were married for thirty years or more. Why would they split after all that time?”

Jack peeked at me over the top of his beer glass. “You tell me, Mister Know-it-all. Do you know of any couples who went their separate ways after thirty some years? I know of at least one other time that happened." With a snarky grin he was pointing directly at me.

My friend had a point. I waved for another last round of beers. Meanwhile, in the adjoining booth some kind of competitive dispute had turned loud and contentious. 

Was the dice roll a five or a six? That seemed to be the question. Apparently the game’s outcome was on the line. I had no idea that rational adults could get so worked up over a board game. Predictably it was Greta, the always-smiling waitress, who was finally able to arbitrate an amiable truce. 

With that bit of drama apparently settled I leaned forward to ask Jack, “So what are you going to do?”

“I have to call the guy, this Eric Larson, to find out about Cindy, or Cynthia. To see if he’s the right Eric Larson.”

“You’re just going to dial him up and ask what happen to her. Is that it?  Is she dead or alive? Did she change her name to Gloria, or what? Does that sound like the beginning of a promising conversation?”

“I’ve already got that figured out. I’ll tell him it’s for the alumni records....for the Class of Sixty-Four. Surely he could understand that.”

I did not bother to answer. Jack had an opportunistic wind at his back, pushing him where he wanted to go. Nothing I had to say was going to change his course.

“I’m getting close, Carl. I can feel it. I have to see this through. I have to call him.”

What was it that made Jack think he had the right to call a complete stranger, asking about the man’s wife....former or otherwise? He made it sound like his interest in Cindy Welton excused that sort of intrusion, as though he was entitled. 

As he had just reminded me, I had spent thirty-six years as a husband. And I knew that I would have been seriously upset to think that some head-case like Jack was asking about my wife. 

“You be careful,” I cautioned. “You don’t need a pissed off husband on your case, even a pissed off ex-husband....especially one who’s an attorney.”

“I’ve thought about that too. But I’m sure I can make it work.”

“Just take care.”

“I will.” Then, with his silly beer drinking grin in place, Jack asked, “Tell me, Carl. In the stories you tell do the guys get mixed up in this kind of predicament? You know, having to dodge irate husbands.” 

“Come on, Benz. I write about old old as us, even older. They’re way past having to deal with jealous husbands. Guys our age are too smart for that.” 

“I suppose you’re right.” His grin gave way to loud laughter.


Minutes later, as we prepared to leave, Jack managed to stir things up one last time. “By the way,” he said. “I got an email the other night....a follow-up on a search I was doing. I will admit it was a bit surprising to have her asking about you. That's never happened before. And you’ll never guess who it was.”

“Probably not. But since you can’t wait to tell me I won’t be guessing for long.”

“Does the name Marnie Lambert ring a bell?”

“Marnie Lambert? Are you serious?”

“Serious as can be. Except her name is Gray now, Marnie Gray. Anyway, at the end of her note she asked if I had an e-mail address for you.’”

“And you said what?”

“I haven’t answered her yet. I’d just tracked her down the other day, in Boise. She moved there in the last year or two, and it took a while for me to catch up with her. I just know that she wants your address. What do you think?”

“She’s married. Right?”

“She was two years ago. I suppose she still is.”

“So why would she want my address?”

“Who knows.” Jack was edging out of the booth, ready to leave. “You know better than me that she was never the bashful kind. Chances are she’ll tell you herself. Do you mind if I give her your email address?”

What could it hurt, I was asking myself?  It might be fun to hear what she’s up to. “Sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”

Marnie Lambert. My God, how long had it been since that name had crossed my mind? And what about the surge of conflicting emotions, triggered by nothing more than the mention of it? What did that mean? 

Outside, on the sidewalk, I paused a moment to remember those hectic weeks with Marnie. It had been a whirlwind sort of thing....coming in a rush and ending nearly as fast. But while it lasted the timid kid I had been back then was caught up in something that felt larger than life, too good to walk away from, and too intense to sustain. 

That was the Marnie Lambert I had known in our junior year of high school, just before Sandra and I got together. As I started to the car I was wondering who that “wild and crazy” girl had become.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

BECOMING - Chapter 6

              CHAPTER 6

When Jack and I got together for lunch the next Friday he arrived with a new and thoroughly disturbing twist to his already-irrational Cindy Welton story. 

In his role as class historian he had made it his job to track missing classmates, no matter how far they had strayed. But now it seemed that he had inexplicably lost track of Cynthia Larson and her husband, Eric. They were no longer at the last address he had for them and every one of his attempts to find them somewhere else had come up empty. For all practical purposes, the  Larsons had disappeared. 

“You couldn’t find anything?” I asked. “You’d think a guy like that, an attorney, wouldn’t just vanish.”

“The people-search service hasn’t turned up anything so far," Jack answered, before pausing to drain his glass. "I’ve even asked them to run a trace of death records for the western states. I can’t imagine what else it could be.”

“And you’re hoping the guy has kicked the bucket. Is that it?”

“That’s not what I meant.” 

It sounded to me like Jack would not have been upset to learn that the object of his obsession had unexpectedly become a grieving widow. 

“Their old home address has a new owner listed on the property-tax filings," he noted. "I confirmed that much when I was down south. They’ve definitely moved. At first I was sure I could come up with a new address. But I haven’t. I don’t like that. Her of all people. I’d feel a lot better knowing where she is.”

“What would you do if you knew? You haven’t seen her in forever. She’s sure as hell not missing you.”

“I just want to know, that’s all. There’s a reunion coming up in a couple of years. I want to be sure she gets an invitation.”

“Come on, Benz," I said, trying to reel him back to solid ground. "What would you need an address for that? She’s never been to a reunion....not once in all these years. Why would she start now? Do you think she’d come all the way back to Tanner just because you’ve got this looney thing for her?”

“Don’t be crazy. She doesn’t know anything about that.” Jack looked away, fidgeting with his empty glass. “I told you before, you’re the only one who knows that. Anyway, it just feels like I should know where she is.”   

That afternoon turned out to be perhaps our shortest lunch ever. All around us rowdy college students were warming up for the weekend. In our dour little corner of the back room Jack was simply not able to be part of the fun....all because he could not find someone who had no idea she was even lost. 

Once outside, I watched him walk off toward the State office building. By then I was absolutely convinced that a productive afternoon at the office was not in his cards.


My Saturday stop at Dad’s may have looked like a random “I’m in the neighborhood” sort of visit. I knew better than that. The Old Man must have guessed it too. I knew Maria would be there, and he knew that I knew. 

I interrupted his late-morning Gunsmoke fix long enough for us to exchange a few harmless barbs. That lasted until he caught me looking over his shoulder toward the kitchen. There was no sign of her there, leading me to wonder if I had picked the wrong day.

“I think she’s back in the bedroom,” Dad offered, enjoying my momentary surprise. 

My mission that morning was simple enough. I was determined to break through Maria’s grim silence....what seemed to be the dark fruit of her terrible loss thirty years before. No matter how sympathetic we tried to be, for a week and a half she had been moping around. By then Dad and I agreed on one thing....we wanted the old Maria back. 

When that lady first arrived on the scene I had pegged her as quiet and self-contained, even shy. But having watched her at work with Dad I knew better now. Though her manner was casual, it was easy to see how focused she was as she cared for him. Her eyes....dark and expressive, confirmed her full attention and demanded his. 

It was quite a sight, watching Maria’s sweet smile reel in the Old Man, turning his grumbles to meek submission. More than once I envied the attention he was receiving.

I had witnessed a lifetime of Sandra’s caring.... from the sweet, compliant schoolgirl I had fallen in love with, to the hard and insistent woman she had become. 

Where she would push ahead with all the subtlety of a steamroller, Maria simply looked Dad in the eye, whispered something soft and quiet, and made him want to go where she was leading. That was the Maria I wanted back....for Dad’s sake, of course.

I walked down the hall and stood silently in the bedroom doorway, watching as she made the bed. She looked up and saw me there, but said nothing. 

“Are you still speaking to me?” I asked.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” She turned to pull the sheet tight and tuck in the blankets.

“Look, we need to talk.” I tried for my most exasperated frown, but that made no difference. She was not looking in my direction.

Then, fluffing a pillow, she asked, “Why?” 

“Why do you suppose? You’ve been in the dumps for too long.  You have a couple of old guys here who would like to perk you up, if they could.” Finally I caught her eye. “We want her back....the Maria we used to know. That’s all.”

She walked around the end of the bed and planted herself squarely in front of me. Her dark eyes flashed and I braced myself for her attack.

Instead she lowered her head and asked, “Is that how you think it works? That I can change everything just because that’s what you want? You don’t understand at all, do you?”

“Would you like to tell me about it?” 

“About what?”

“About those things you say I don’t understand.” We were face to face, eye to eye. “You’re probably right. I don’t understand. But I’d like to.” 

Without a word Maria moved to Dad’s dresser, arranging things in the top drawer, or perhaps just escaping my gaze. It felt as though my audience was over so I turned and started toward the door.

“Mr. Postell,” Maria called behind me.

“I’ve told you before. It’s Carl. Not Mr. Postell.”

She seemed not to notice my objection. “Could you stay for a few minutes after lunch, while I put your father down for his nap?”


Forty-five minutes later Dad had been tucked into bed as Maria eased the screen door shut behind her and walked to the back fence, next to where I stood. It took a moment for me to realize what was different. She had taken off the full-length blue apron she always wore. In a plain gray dress, out of uniform, it was easier to recognize her as a woman instead of a servant.

I waited for her to speak, but she did not. After a few seconds I asked, “Was there something you wanted to talk about, or tell me? You asked me to stay.” 

At last she was ready. “You said you wanted to know,” she began. “Did you mean that?”

“Yeah. I did. If it’s something you’d like to talk about.” If this was a bad idea I wanted to know that up front. 

“Look," I continued. "You lost your son. Everyone knows how that must hurt. But that was a long time ago. Most folks are able to move on at some point. It seems like you haven’t done that. Like the memories are still too real. 

"Then there’s the other part....about it being your fault. That doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s like you’re beating yourself up for something you had no control over.”

The sparkle had returned to her eyes. My simple question could not have caused that transformation. In fact, the truth was more elemental than that. “And you really do want to know?” she asked again. “It’s hard to imagine that anyone would care what happened to me.”

“Well I do. I’d like to know....if it would help you to talk about it.”

Maria's eyes were closed as she reached for the right words. Then, looking up, “I asked you once before if you believed in God. Do you remember that?”

“Yeah, I do,”

“You remember, or you believe?”

“Both, I guess.”

“The God you know about....does He punish you if you ignore Him, or turn away? Is that what you believe?”

For a moment my mind went blank. I was looking for words I had never used before. In truth I had no idea where to find them. I caught myself wondering how her God might judge me for even pretending to answer such a question. 

“Maria," I finally replied. "What do I know about how God works? When I think about God I guess I think about love. That’s what people say, isn’t it? ‘God is love.’ Whatever He is, He’s about love, not punishment.”

“Not at all?”

“Come on, lady. You’re asking the wrong guy. When I do something really stupid I can beat myself up pretty good. It’s like I’m judging myself. That part I know about. But God’s judgment.....I’m not so sure.”

My stumbling response was raising a question of my own. “Do you really think your God is punishing you, making bad things happen? Is that it?” A moment later she was nodding, apparently not ready to say the words out loud. 

“Maria, look at all the good things you do. If anything you’re probably earning angel wings, not punishment. How can you possibly believe He’s trying to punish you? ”

Brushing something from the front of her dress, Maria whispered, “‘Mi madre.’ It was my mother. She was the one who told me about God’s judgement on my baby....on Luis. She was sure something terrible would happen if I didn’t marry Arturo.” 

“Who is Arturo?”

“Arturo Flores. He was the boy’s father.” She shuffled slowly across the patio and back, seeming to collect her thoughts. 

“I was only seventeen,” she began without looking up at me. “I was living with my mother in Merced when my cousin Juanita and I quit school and went to work in Fresno, in the packing sheds.

"That’s where I met Arturo, at work. He was from Los Angeles. He was so good looking ....always laughing and flirting. Oh, he was such a flirt. I liked him from the very first. 

“One night he asked me to go to the street dance with him.” Maria was clearly more at ease now, caught up in her story. “We danced and held hands. He walked me back to the boarding house, gave me a little kiss on the cheek and left. It was wonderful. When I got upstairs Juanita wanted to know about everything that happened. I remember that so well. It was the first time anyone had been envious of me. I liked the way that felt. 

“Anyway, we went out a few more times, Arturo and me. Then one night we skipped the street dance and spent the night in his trailer. We did that a few more times and then.....” 

With an audible sigh she looked away. “And then I was pregnant. I had just turned eighteen and I was pregnant. I didn’t know what to do.”

“What about Arturo? What did he say?”

Again Maria looked away. “‘Nada.’ Nothing,” she mumbled. “He didn’t know.”

“Why not? Why didn’t you tell him?”

“When I realized what had happened I went back to Merced, to my Mother’s. I told her. I can still remember how embarrassed I was. But I needed help. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“And what did she tell you? Was it something about God’s judgement?”

Maria’s laugh was so unexpected it startled me. “She asked if Arturo planned to marry me. That was her first question. It was her only question. She wasn’t upset at what I’d done, or disappointed.

"She didn’t scold me at all. She just asked, ‘Will he marry you? Will the baby have a father?’ That was the most important thing to her. It was the only thing. There must be a proper father. God would demand that.”

I had no idea what had given Maria’s mother the right to be speaking on God’s behalf. More to the point, I had little interest in asking about that. Instead I settled for a less threatening question.  “And what did you tell your mother?”

“How could I have known if Arturo would marry me? He’d said he loved me, but we’d never talked about being married. But I had to tell Mother that he would. What else could I say? She was so sure that my baby needed a father to have God’s blessing, to keep His judgment from the child and me.”

“How could you lay that kind of guilt on the kid, before it was even born? What kind of God would do that?”

Again Maria turned away from the bluntness of my question. Seconds later she was back, trying to explain. “That was the God I had learned about from El Padre Pablo. 

"My mother had joined Pablo’s little chapel before I was born. What I knew about God I had learned from the two of them. Every week Pablo told us the same story, in many different ways. ‘God will have His way and those who cannot accept His way will pay the price.’

“I had heard that since I was a little girl,” Maria continued. “Then, when I went back to Fresno a couple weeks later I learned that God, the one who wanted to punish me, had taken Arturo away. He was gone and I was left to wonder why I had ever been born.”

Until then I had never touched Maria, never laid a finger on her. At that moment her hurt moved me beyond detached listening. I reached out, rested my hand on her shoulder to ask, “How did God take Arturo?”

“I’m not sure.” Her voice was soft, without conviction. “He was gone. That’s all. Juanita told me that his sweetheart had called from Los Angeles. She wanted him to come back to her. Anyway, whatever the reason, he was gone. That’s all I knew.”

Maria’s eyes were growing misty as she remembered. “A few days after that Juanita left for Oakland to live with a girl friend. I never saw her again. By then I was absolutely alone. I took the bus back to Merced, to be with Mother.”

    She paused for a moment, remembering. “I tried to forget Arturo. But I couldn’t. By the time little Luis was two years old he looked just like his father. It seemed like I saw Arturo every day. And then, after just a few short years later......Luis was gone too.”  

    I thought Maria had more to say but she was slipping away from me, lost in her hurt. She walked slowly back toward the apartment and a second later the screen door closed behind her.