Saturday
Aug162014

Going Home - Chapter 1

GOING HOME can trigger pleasant memories and intimidating recollections. For Tom Fedder it produces only dread. For decades he has avoided any reason to revisit Tanner. Now a last visit is necessary. He plans an under-the-radar return to arrange the sale of his mother’s home, collect a few of her things, and make his escape to the relative safety of Highland City.

On his own he might have done that. But in the company of his Native-American step-son, Rick, those carefully-laid plans are doomed from the beginning. Once Rick makes contacts with the family his father has never mentioned, the old man’s “hurry up and leave” plans begin to unravel. Overnight, GOING HOME becomes more complicated than ever.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Going home. For some the possibility arouses pleasant thoughts of well-remembered good times. For others it may renew recollections of an adolescent coming-of-age---complete with enabling affirmations and humbling missteps. Then, there are those for whom “going home” is something less than a good idea.

For Tom Fedder, the prospect of going home produced only dread. For decades he had carefully avoided any reason to visit Tanner again. Now he had come face to face with the necessity of being there one last time. Why would he not have wanted to avoid that frightening possibility?

For the moment, however, it was time to set those concerns aside and close up shop for another day. Twisting the dead bolt, he locked the front door of the Basin Hardware Store. Before returning to the cramped office he paused to glance through the long front window, taking a moment to look up and down Highland Avenue, which did double-duty as the state highway in that part of town.

Though it was nearly eight-thirty the late-July daylight would be hanging on for at least another hour. It had been a warm day, but at four-thousand feet Highland City nights were cool in even the warmest weather. It was one of the things he liked about big-sky Montana summers.

The cash register drawers were locked in the small safe at the rear of the office by the time the footsteps approached from the warehouse. A moment later the office door opened and the young man stepped inside.

“Hope you don’t mind having your BLT toasted,” the youngster said as he handed a paper bag to Tom. “Sally had it all done before she even asked if it was okay.”

The youngster leaned against a file cabinet and pulled a hamburger from his own sack. At five foot-eight he was a head shorter than the older man. While Tom Fedder’s slender build accentuated his height, the boy was compact and stocky. Though he was told that girls considered him good looking, what most people noticed first about Rick Levant was his shiny black hair---straight and shoulder length, framing his Native American features.

“I’m so hungry I’ll eat anything,” Tom laughed. “With Gus off sick it’s been a long day.” He unwrapped his sandwich then looked over at the boy. “I appreciate your help today, Son. It would have been a tough go without you.”

It was more than an idle compliment. At Tom’s age, he had turned sixty-four just two months earlier, he was indeed grateful for Rick’s broad shoulders and strong back. When it came to unloading the weekly supply truck from Great Falls it was hard to beat an eager eighteen year old.

“No problem, Dad.” The boy was opening his second burger. “Besides, it beats the heck out of bucking hay bales out at Scott’s.”

“Yeah. That’s a tough way to make a dollar,” Tom agreed. He remembered well his first summer in the Basin, when he was still young enough to do that kind of work and thankful for the chance to earn a paycheck. 

“There’s not many places doing that by hand anymore,” he continued. “A few more years and all that will be history. That’s another reason for you to get signed up at the community college for the fall term. There’ll come a time when you can’t count on muscle power to earn a living.”

“There are lots of jobs around that don’t take a degree,” Rick insisted. They had been down this road before. The boy had heard every one of his dad’s arguments. Tom, on the other hand, knew all too well of his son’s desire to "get on with my life." “Besides," the boy added. "College is tough. There’s no guarantee I can even do it?

Wadding his dinner sack into a ball Tom dropped it in the waste basket. “Son, don’t go there again. Okay? I’m not buying that nonsense. Half the folks in town have told me at one time or another that it’s a waste of time, sending an Indian boy to college. You know the story---he’ll never stick it out, he can’t take the discipline and the hard work. Hell, lots of them just don’t believe an Indian is smart enough to cut it.”

Tom’s words were growing louder and his gaze was locked on Rick’s. He jabbed a finger in the boy’s direction as he offered his parting objection. “That’s a crock and you know it.

“Come on, Dad. I know that’s how you feel. And you might be right. But maybe you’re not. Maybe I can’t do it. Maybe there are good reasons why guys from the tribe don’t stick with it.”

Tom leaned back in his swivel chair. It was late and he was too tired for another of their periodic debates. Except, if Rick was willing to talk, which was not always the case, he had to stay with it. “Look, you’ve heard me say all this before. I don’t pretend to know about the cultural stuff those Indian kids bring with them from the reservation. It’s true, most of them don’t stay. But you’ll never convince me it’s because they aren’t smart enough. I'm guessing it has something to do with their schooling. God knows their reservation education isn’t always first class. But they’re not dumb.”

“That’s one thing I’m glad about,” Rick nodded. “Highland City has good schools. I’ve been lucky that way.”

“Exactly. You’ve never lived on the reservation. I suppose that means you’ve missed out on some things. But it might make it easier for you to deal with college.”

“Why couldn’t I just work here in the store?

Tom’s palm slammed down on the desk top. “Don’t you give me that crap. Just think about that for a minute. What if you thought the rest of your life was going to be spent right here---peddling nuts and bolts and garden hose to a bunch of fussy customers---tied to a desk and computer all day long. Is that your idea of living?”

A thin smile came to Rick’s face, hearing again the undisguised passion in the old man’s voice whenever they talked ofthe boy’s future. “That’s been your life,” the boy observed. “Has it been all that bad?”

For an instant it felt as though he had been caught in his own trap. Tom Fedder understood well enough that life in the high-basin country had been good to him, especially the last nineteen years as owner of Basin Hardware. Still, it was nothing at all like the life he had dreamed of forty years earlier and certainly not the road he had started down as a young man. Truth be told, he had been lucky enough to make the best of a bad situation. He realized that. Yet even now, after all that time, there were moments he caught himself wondering what he had missed, what might have been.

“It hasn’t been that bad, Son,” Tom said, returning to Rick’s question. “But I know it’s not the life you dream about. Besides, you know that I promised your mother you’d get the best start I could give you. To me that means college.” He was smiling to himself, remembering Annie Levant’s tortuous indecision about what would constitute an appropriate future for her only child.

Though it felt like a lifetime ago, it had been only four years. At thirty-nine Annie had spent her last days in the Intensive Care Unit of the Highland City Hospital waging a determined, but losing battle against a virulent strain of viral pneumonia. On the morning of her last day, as she grew weaker and more feverish, she had insisted that they decide young Rick’s future. Would he stay with Tom or be sent north to live with her brother in Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation.

In Tom’s mind the boy’s future had never been in doubt. The three of them had been together for nine years. Most people in town assumed that Tom and Annie were married, though they had never bothered to formalize their relationship. There were townspeople who took umbrage at the notion of a successful businessman keeping the company of an Indian woman. Tom knew that and had learned to ignore their off hand remarks and questioning stares. 

After nearly three decades of life lived alone, he had counted himself fortunate to find such a caring woman. The fact that she arrived with a nine year old son in tow only made it better, helping to fill yet another void in his long-solitary life.

By the time Tom Fedder entered Annie’s life she was thirty, working as an aide at the High Mountain Nursing Home. She had met Jean Levant, a young French-Canadian, on the reservation and followed him to Highland City, where they were married. Two years later Jean Levant disappeared, leaving Annie on her own with a year old son and few prospects. For eight years she had struggled to provide a home for Rick and herself, often wondering how they would survive.

Then, out of the blue, Tom Fedder had stepped forward. She had been in his hardware store a few times. He was friendly enough---always polite, with an easy grin. Yet how could she have guessed that quiet old man, he was fifty-four at the time, would be so taken with her soft ways and Rick’s shy smile?

When he asked her to dinner the first time, Annie assumed it would be a quiet evening at his home, away from the prying eyes of townsfolk. Perhaps he, like others in her past, expected the dinner invitation to include something in the way of other favors. At the time she had wondered how he would react to her refusal to play those games. In fact, their night together had been nothing like she expected. The three of them---Annie, Rick, and Tom---had dined at the nicest restaurant in town, at a front table, for everyone to see.

Annie, of course, understood the bemused whispers their relationship had generated, especially when Tom insisted that they be a family, living their life in the open as husband, wife, and son. He was old and not particularly imposing in a physical way, but there was no doubting his commitment to her and the boy.

In the end Annie Levant, tethered to her hospital bed by IV tubes and an oxygen hose, had managed to scrawl her shaky signature on the brief one sentence statement Tom had composed, stating her desire that Rick stay with him. The Nursing Supervisor witnessed Annie’s signature and Tom filed the paper away. He realized that her informal declaration would probably not stand up to a court challenge if her family chose to do that, but they had not.

With Annie’s blessing the boy and the old man had remained a family. Tom was "Dad.” Rick was his son. And now Tom was again playing his fatherly role. “I want you to plan on starting at the college this fall,” he told the boy. “You go one term. Give it your best shot. Then we’ll sit down and decide where we go from there. Is that fair?”

Rick had tested his dad’s stubborn resolve before. He understood there was nothing to be gained by arguing the point. For a few minutes he wondered whether the situation called for sulking or anger. Before he could decide his dad was offering a new reason to stay the course.

Tom ushered the boy out to the main store area, turning off the office lights as they left. He checked the side door to be sure it was locked, then led them to the front door. There, in the fading daylight that filtered in from the street, he turned to Rick. “It’s what, five or six weeks before school starts?”

"Something like that. Why?” 

“I was thinking we might have time for a little vacation. Maybe get away for a while.” On the surface the idea may have sounded routine. In fact, in all the nine years he had spent with Tom Fedder, Rick had never heard the old man speak of a vacation. There had been summer hikes into the high-country fishing lakes, enjoyable outings for both father and son, but hardly something to be called a vacation.

“What do you mean? What kind of vacation?”

“I suppose you’d call it a working vacation,” Tom replied. It was his mother’s passing, just four months earlier, that made the trip necessary. Though it was by no means a vacation he was looking forward to, it had to be done. “I got a letter a couple days ago from Grandma’s attorney in Tanner. The legal work on her estate has been wrapped up. I need to go back there and sell her place, and bring some of her things back here. It shouldn’t take long. But I need to be there to get it done.”

“And I’m going with you?” the boy asked hopefully. “I’m finally going to Oregon?”

For as long as he could remember, Rick had heard enticing snippets of Tom Fedder’s past---his youthful recollections of awkward moments, lessons learned, and the like. Though the old man had never provided much detail, the setting was always the same---his boyhood home in Oregon. For all those years Rick had looked forward to Grandma Fedder’s twice yearly visits. Yet, as much as he enjoyed the time spent with her, he sometimes wondered why she had always come to visit them, while they had never once traveled to her home in Oregon.

“Does that mean I get to see the ocean?”

Tom knew at once he should have anticipated that question. The boy had first posed it years before, when Tom had pointed out Oregon on a map. The long coastline, where the map’s green mountains met the blue ocean, had immediately captured Rick’s attention. Going to Oregon meant seeing the ocean.

“You bet. We’ll see the ocean. I promise.”

For weeks, as he considered the need to return to Tanner, Tom’s mounting apprehension had been fueled by the same recurring questions. Could he complete his estate transactions without stirring up any extracurricular unpleasantness? From his perspective the stakes were high. A misstep could easily undermine the well-rehearsed rationalizations that kept the distressing reality of his first lifetime at bay. Worse than that was the risk of damaging the carefully-constructed framework that made his second incarnation livable. With luck they would take care of business, see the ocean, and hurry home to Highland City in a matter of days, without creating any unnecessary side issues.

 

~  


“Grandma. Can Gail and I go pick cherries at Ma Fedder’s this afternoon?” Sandy Harden’s question was directed at the slender gray-haired woman standing at the kitchen range, stirring scrambled eggs. “Rawlins Market said they'd buy a couple boxes. Would that be all right?”

Truth be told, Sandy Harden was not a big fan of picking cherries. At eighteen she was certain she had outgrown such adolescent chores years before. But the canneries were not hiring and spending money was hard to come by. Her cousin, Gail Cannon, was seventeen and even less excited at the prospect of manual labor, but just as desperate for some money of her own. That would be enough to win her cooperation.

Linda Fedder, she was ‘Grandma’ to Sandy and Gail, was more than happy to see her young charges express an interest in earning a few extra dollars. Life at the Asylum, Linda’s pet name for the blended Fedder/Cannon household, required every dollar her clan could scrape together. It had been that way for forty years. The next forty promised more of the same.

The well worn three-bedroom house on Bluff Street that bore her somewhat affectionate label was at least sixty years old. It had been among the first postwar homes built in Tanner, part of a compact subdivision built along the western edge of the old North End neighborhood. The area showed its age, the Asylum more than most homes. Except for an urgent, debt financed investment a few years earlier, there had never been funds available to address more than the most urgent roof and plumbing repairs. While the neighbors made their own judgments about the home’s state of disrepair, its five inhabitants no longer noticed such things.

“Sue Ann,” Linda called down the hallway. “Could you stay with Bonnie if the girls go cherry picking this afternoon?” Linda’s daughter, Sue Ann Fedder Harden, stepped from the home’s one bathroom with a towel wrapped around her still dripping head, pausing to mentally leaf through her day’s schedule. Then, poking her head into the bedroom at the end of the hall, “Gail, honey, if you can stay with your Mom later this afternoon, I’ll go to town then. That way I can be here with her while you kids go picking. Will that work?”  

With that matter settled Sue Ann returned to the bathroom. On the surface their few seconds of negotiated accommodation may have seemed a complicated thing. For the parties involved such compromise and cooperation were simply a necessary part of life at the Asylum.

It was Saturday. Linda Fedder would not be working her regular seven to four weekday shift as Assistant Manager at Gilroy’s, the town’s busiest restaurant. The weekend, however, brought no such relief from her seven day a week job---clerking from six to nine each night at a north-side convenience store.

For twelve years, ever since her ex-husband had skipped town in the company of the minister’s wife, Sue Ann had worked at the sprawling paper mill just south of town---the last four years on the all-night graveyard shift. During the school year Sandy and Gail meshed their high-school class schedules with Linda and Sue Ann to deal with the family’s most labor-intensive obligation---caring for the fifth member of the household, Bonnie Cannon, who was Linda’s niece, Sue Ann’s cousin, and Gail’s mother.

For most of Gail’s seventeen years she and her mother had lived across town, near the south-end freeway interchange. With no apparent need for a man in her life Bonnie had operated her own beauty shop, while thriving as an independent, tough-loving single mother.

That state of affairs had ended three and a half years before, when a horrific automobile accident claimed the life of Bonnie’s mother, Terrie. Bonnie had escaped with her life, but was left paralyzed from the waist down. For years prior to the accident, Linda Fedder and her sister, Terrie, had barely spoken to each other. Bonnie had grown up in the same town as her Aunt Linda and cousin Sue Ann, yet they had remained strangers.

For days after the accident Linda had struggled with her options, trying to understand what she owed her sister's family. In the end she made the only choice she could. Bonnie and Gail moved into the Asylum, with Linda, Sue Ann and Sandy. They had nowhere else to go.

From that point on Bonnie’s care had become a family affair. In time the icy gulf between Linda and Bonnie melted---partly of necessity, partly the result of a growing respect for each other. From the wreckage of broken bodies and shattered relationships they had salvaged a chaotic, but functional family.

“It sounds like we have everything covered for today,” Linda said, putting the last of the dirty dishes into the nearly full sink. “Is that right?” The girls nodded their agreement. “Okay. Now then, why don’t you two get Bonnie up?”

"Getting Bonnie up" was, in fact, a carefully choreographed exercise requiring the skilled assistance of one or more strong helpers and the concentrated efforts of Bonnie herself. To be sure, there were more technologically advanced ways of transferring a patient from bed to wheelchair and back. Those other options were also very expensive. The Fedder household relied on the low-budget approach---strong backs and a determined patient.

Finally, with her Saturday as organized as it was likely to become, Linda Fedder poured herself the last of the coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. She savored those infrequent spells of quiet, when for a minute or two there were no immediate demands, no expectation that "Grandma will take care of that.” The kids were older now. Hopefully that meant her restful interludes might become more frequent.

During those occasional breaks she was sometimes visited by pleasant thoughts of a better time, a time before those trials, when the future looked more hopeful. Invariably it took only seconds for those Pollyannish daydreams to give way to harsh recollections of the day when her youthful hopes had been washed away by waves of hurtful reality.

There had been a time when she allowed herself to dwell on those toxic memories, soaking up the justified hatred they allowed. In time, however, she had learned that those flashes of unbridled anger hurt only herself. Setting aside the consuming need to blame was the only way to free herself from its disabling grip.

When she viewed her world from that perspective Linda Fedder was actually thankful for how well things had turned out. Her neighbors, and the North End at large, could make their jokes about the threadbare and sometimes unruly Fedder clan. She, on the other hand, was rather proud of how well her brood had weathered their storms.

A moment later the present returned to intrude on her reverie. “Mom, why don’t you go back to your room and take a nap. You look bushed.” Sue Ann rested a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “Bonnie will do the ironing and I’m taking the washing down to the Laundromat to dry. I’ll be back before the girls leave for Ma Fedder’s. It’s your day off. You don’t have to work until six. If you don’t catch up on your sleep now it’ll be another week before you can.”

Linda reached up to pat Sue Ann’s hand. They were good girls---her Sue Ann and sister Terrie’s Bonnie. In spite of their own personal traumas, they had been instrumental in helping maintain the fragile balance that made the Asylum a productive, if slightly unorthodox, venture.