Tuesday
Aug192014

Becoming - Chapter 1

To be sixty-something and still in the process of "becoming." Is that how it works? Carl Postell believes it is. His thirty-six year marriage has ended. He has traded a successful accounting career for a pair of part-time jobs---and the time to pursue his dream of being a writer. Then he meets her---Maria Ruiz, his aging father’s caregiver---and soon finds his literary aspirations overwhelmed by surprising new distractions.

As the unofficial historian of the Class of Sixty-Four, Carl’s friend Jack Benz has his own reasons to locate Cynthia Larson, the one-time Prom Queen and social diva who has inexplicably become Jack’s obsession. Though she had never paid attention to the likes of him, there is an unexpected urgency in his need to find her.

They are four tired and lonely souls. Each of them has spent a lifetime becoming who they are. Yet even in their October Years they find themselves in a “becoming” mode, continuing their life journey from one circumstance to another---still Becoming.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

How could I have known it would play out the way it did, let alone end in such dramatic fashion? At my age, given my history, who would have expected something that good? I certainly had no idea of what lay ahead that morning on the phone with Sandra, as we revisited our never-ending, always dead-end, dialogue.

“Sandra, I know she’s our only granddaughter. And you know that I love her. She knows I love her. That’s not the point. You’re talking about three weeks of writing camp, at eight-hundred dollars a week. How could I possibly afford that?”

“There must be a way,” she answered. I had lived with that lady for thirty-six years and still, four years after our divorce was final, her grating whine was as irritating as ever, even over the telephone. And she was not through. “You know very well that Trish and Don can’t swing that much on their own.”

“Look, if her parents can’t come up with the money then Edie will have to do without writing camp this summer.” I knew that Sandra was not listening to my disclaimer, but it needed saying anyway. “She’ll be just fine. Those camps are nothing but a glorified play time anyway.

 “Carl, you know very well we always found the money to send Tony and Trish to camp.” It was a favorite tactic of hers, appealing to my sense of history. “Why does Edie have to miss out on that?”

“Don’t go there, Sandra,” I countered. “Our kids went to camp because you wanted them out of your hair for a couple weeks. Besides, I was making enough to afford it. We never once asked someone else to foot the bill.”

That was a part of our shared history my ex-wife seldom mentioned---the circumstances that had made our affluent lifestyle possible. Even in the best of times she had never appreciated how fortunate we were. Now, four years after the fact, she was still forgetting that part.

“But all that’s changed now,” I reminded her. “Grandpa Carl doesn’t make big bucks any more. Actually the truth is even more depressing than that. I gave everything I had to you, and you’ve spent most of it.”

“That’s not fair and you know it. What did I know about taking care of money?”

I stifled the urge to critique Sandra's financial-management skills. The occasion called for something more constructive than that. “Anyway,” I said, switching the phone to my other ear, “if Trish and Don can’t swing the cost of camp I guess Edie will have to do without. Unless, of course, you plan to fund it yourself.”

“You know I would if I could. But things are rather tight right now.”

“I’ll bet they are.” Playing a victim did not suit Sandra Postell ---a reality I had reminded her of more than once. “Sandra, we had the least contentious divorce settlement in history. I gave you everything there was to give. Every damn thing, with no argument and no hassles. I signed it all over to you.” I hoped she was still listening. “I warned you then to take care of that nest egg, because that’s all there was. There wouldn’t be any more.”

“I suppose I thought you could help out if things got really bad.” The whine returned when she added, “It does seem like you could do more.”

“Come on, lady. I took early Social Security, even though it pays me less. I tend bar when I can catch a shift---and work at the book store a few hours a week. Add that all up and it doesn’t come close to the CPA paychecks you were used to. It’s enough for me to get by, but that’s about all. The rest of the time I’m writing. So far that hasn’t made me a dime. So you’d better take care of what you have left. There’s no more in sight.”

“At least until your dad goes.” 

“Until dad goes,” I repeated to myself. I had heard that line before. It had become a hopeful bone for her to chew on, a favorite fallback position when all else failed. “I’ve told you before, Sandra. Don’t be counting on that. He’s so mad at me right now that he’ll probably leave it all to the county dog shelter.”

“But Carl ...”

“That's enough, Sandra. We’ve been through all this before. You’re sixty-two years old. You have lots of years ahead of you, probably longer than your bank account will last. And you sure as hell can’t count on the Old Man’s money. You thought I was kidding when I said you ought to get together with that Keith guy. I wasn’t joking. It’s the only way I know for you to have what you want.”

“I guess I was hoping,” I could scarcely hear her soft words. “That maybe you and I would be getting back together sometime.”

“Sandra, please. That’s not going to happen.”

She drew a deep breath, ready to let her angry frustration have its voice. “All because of your stupid stories. Thirty-six years of a good marriage gone just like that, along with everything we had--- just so you can write stuff that no one buys.”

She had that part right. My late-life career change had not been a rousing success, though the urge to be telling my stories remained as seductive as ever. If I had not made the break when I did, four years before at age fifty-nine, I would certainly have spent the rest of my life regretting my timid reluctance. 

Sandra had not accepted my rationale at the time---and never changed her mind. She called at least once a month to remind me that the accounting partnership was still interested in my services. In the course of those conversations she continued to drop unsubtle hints that we should be back together again. I had no interest in promoting either of those possibilities. 

“Look, Sandra, I have to go. I have things to do. I’m sure that Edie will get by just fine without her writing camp. She’s a bright kid. She’ll be okay.”

I hung up and leaned back, wondering again how things had become so complicated. In the beginning I had expected my retreat to the cloistered life of a storyteller to simplify things. The dream itself was simple enough. Its impact on our lives had not been simple at all. Still, though I had little to show for four years of hard work. I was as sure as ever that I had made the right choice.

 

~~~

 

The Old Man’s healthcare aide answered the doorbell and ushered me inside. It was late morning and already warm, the way late-August mornings can be in the Willamette Valley. After cussing the Saturday morning traffic all the way across town I was ready for something to eat. I had slept in and skipped breakfast. Hopefully I was in time for lunch. My own cupboard was nearly bare and I was sick of Top Ramen. By then I was counting on Maria’s soup and toast to be a welcome change. 

As usual George Postell, my dad, was seated in his big cloth-covered recliner, the kind that raised to help him stand up. He was a small man, gray haired and stooped, who once on his feet shuffled around his apartment with the help of a four-legged cane. Sitting there with a sweater draped over his shoulders he looked to be all of his eighty-six years. A hard life, especially one that includes serious disappointment, will do that.

As usual my visit would begin with our predictable pre-meal skirmish ---loud arguments and passionate rebuttals. As always we would replow old ground just enough to stir things up, without ever growing new answers. Our dialogue, whether about politics, religion or something from the newspaper, was in fact a well-disguised form of play---a highlight of Dad’s normally quiet week. In the face of his long days alone, our few minutes of spirited dueling were some of the best fun he had.

After years of playful head-butting neither of us had ever convinced the other he was wrong---not because of my logic or his, but because accepting the other’s arguments would have felt too much like giving in. 

“Glad to see you could spare the time,” he grumbled as I pulled a chair up beside his recliner. “It’s been a while since you’ve darkened my door. I suppose you’ve been too busy, eh? Locked away in that dingy cave of yours, writing your silly stories, and forgetting all about your old man.” 

By then I was seeing the bemused grin he reserved for his wayward son, his only offspring. “Damn it, boy. You could be doing so much better than that.”

“Why should you care? I’m doing exactly what I want, you know that. It’s my life. Besides, I don’t take a dime from you.”

“Don’t you kid me. You’re just waiting for me to kick off so you can come into some serious money.” As always, he wished that I was more respectful of his seven-figure brokerage account, funded by the sale of the Postell family farm more than a decade before. I knew there were times when my apparent disinterest in his money upset him. Though, of course, there were times when I was actually more interested than I let on.

“What the hell do I want with your money? I’ve got everything I need. I don’t want your help!” 

His grin had become a grimace and he was squinting as he continued. “At least not right now. But one day you will. Just look at you. You’re sixty-three years old. You could be living the good life---with your accountant’s retirement and social security, playing with the grandkids. Instead you gave everything to her. Pretty soon she’ll have frittered it all away. She’ll be left to live on nothing but a dinky little Social Security check.”

“I guess she’ll have to learn to do without.”

“I expect it will come to that,” he agreed. “She called me yesterday. Sandra did. To see if I’d pay for your granddaughter’s summer camp.”

The Old Man shook his head, probably recalling again how his dreams for me had gone so wrong. “Did I understand Sandra right?” he asked. “Edith wants to be a writer, like her grandpa. Is that right? Damn. She’s a bright kid. I can’t believe you’ve become her idea of a role model.”

Dad was a smart guy. His body was worn out, but his mind was still sharp. It was a rare thing when I could poke a hole in his logic, though I would have never admited that in range of his hearing. More than once I had tried to imagine what he could have become if he had not been a Postell, tied to the family and its farm.

Most folks in Dad’s condition would have been in a nursing home, or at least an assisted-living place---like the one across the road from his independent-living apartment. Independent Living. It had been the label that had sold him. I remember that morning, walking through the sprawling grounds of the Tanner East-Side Living Center, listening as he repeated the names to himself, comparing one to the other---first “Independent Living," then “Assisted Living." One sounded so descriptive of the person he believed himself to be. The other reeked of a weakness he would not accept as his.

Perhaps he did stretch the “Independent Living” definition a bit. But once his chair pushed him to his feet he could shuffle around the apartment with his cane. It was slow going, and though he never told me, I knew he had fallen a few times. Still, with the emergency call-device hanging around his neck and the local Meals on Wheels program, he was able to take care of himself---microwaving his dinners, managing his own personal hygiene, and looking forward to Maria’s visits every Wednesday and Saturday. She was his caregiver, and except for me, his last reliable link to companionship and caring.

From the beginning I had assumed that one day the Old Man would move across the street to an assisted-living apartment, maybe even down the block to the nursing-home unit. That seemed to me the logical progression---the path I expected his future would take. For his part he had no such plans. He would “kick off” there, in his own place, before any further move was necessary. He was more than willing to forego those last stops on the itinerary that others had planned for him.