Saturday
Aug162014

Second Chances - Chapter 1

 It was a Tanner High School reunion, their fiftieth. Clint and Gary Harris were there, more out of curiosity that anything. Certainly not in search of Second Chances. Yet sometimes those things happen. And though the Harris brothers were willing to take advantage of the possibilities, that would prove to easier said than done.

Though fifty years removed from their last meeting and Gary’s unexpected desertion, Claudia Hafner had every reason to doubt his intentions when they met on the  reunion dance floor. 

Elly Warren, on the other hand, was facing a different sort of doubt---the result of a hurtful betrayal and angry divorce. Meanwhile Tom Berry was nursing his own intentions of renewing his high school connection with Elly.

Before long, as Clint Harris and Tom Berry vie for Elly’s attention, and Gary Harris deals with unexpected obstacles in his efforts to win Claudia’s confidence, their determined pursuit turns ugly, even dangerous. And through it all, at every turn, there are Second Chances to be taken. 


 

CHAPTER 1

 It was a Monday like any other, a normal weekday morning in the Harris brothers’ modest, thoroughly male household. While Gary prepared breakfast, Clint was watching the early stock market reports. 

Once seated for their toast and eggs they were soon lost in the morning paper---quiet and uncommunicative. Over a second cup of coffee they chuckled together as Gary read aloud the Tanner Times’ coverage of a local state senator, a casual friend of theirs, who was scrambling to fend off allegations of sexual impropriety. Apparently his late night work sessions with the young legislative aide had become more public than expected.

Completing his share of the breakfast chores Clint Harris cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher, before walking out into the bright May morning. At the foot of the long driveway he collected the morning mail and leafed through the stack of envelopes as he strolled back to the house. On the back steps, he paused to open the last envelope.

“Hey brother, says here it’s that time again,” Clint announced as he returned to the kitchen. He glanced again at the embossed invitation, surveying the pertinent details before handing it across the table to his brother. Setting the sports page aside, Gary Harris ran his fingers over the raised black letters and read its brief message.

 

FIFTY YEARS LATER

The Tanner High School Class of 1955

 invites you to its 50 year reunion

 June 25, 2005

 Tanner Heights Country Club

 No host social hour - 6:30 PM

 Dinner - 7:30 PM

 Dancing to follow

 R. S. V. P.

 

“I saw Jess Atkins at the mall yesterday.” Gary slid the card back to Clint. “He told me that he’d got one of these. It seemed to us like it’s coming around awfully fast this time.”

“Isn’t that a fact,” Clint nodded, pausing a moment to process an unsummoned stream of recollections from their last reunion. “Just think. This one’s the big five-oh. It’s hard to imagine it’s been that long. No wonder I feel so damn old.”

“Yeah,” Gary said, looking over the top of his reading glasses. “I know what you mean. And you know for a fact it’s going to be a lot different this time. I’m not sure we’ll know how to act.”

“You bet it will be.” Actually, “different” scarcely described Clint’s thoughts of a reunion that did not include Karen. It would be all that and more---having to deal with everything on his own. She had always been the social half of their partnership, pushing him past his natural timidity. The prospect of facing a roomful of seldom seen acquaintances, without her comforting presence and support, was more intimidating than he cared to think about. 

“You know as well as I do,” Clint continued. “Karen was the one who remembered faces and did the introductions. I just kind of tagged along and grinned a lot. I’ll miss her doing that. Hell, I’ll miss everything about not having her there.” 

Of course he would miss her---the way he missed her every day. Why did it seem like each time he got beyond the sharp edges of that hurt something new---meeting an old friend of hers, an awkward moment at a family gathering, or something as innocent as a class reunion---would come along to remind him again?

“I know what you mean,” Gary agreed. “My Christy didn’t even go to school with those people, but she got to know a lot of the folks from our class. They’ll be asking about her. Like when did I lose her? How did it happen? That kind of stuff. I’d just as soon not have to put up with that.”

“Me neither.” Clint leaned back as Gary topped off his coffee cup. “I’m just hoping I can get lost in the crowd---maybe dodge those questions. That’s one thing I envy about fellows like Dwight, the guy down at the tire shop. He went to a real small school. Graduated with maybe forty kids. Knew everyone in the class.”

“That would have been different,” Gary nodded. “Lots better than the six hundred plus that we graduated with. There was a time I remembered quite a few of them. I could put names on quite a few of the faces, even if I never really knew them. I can’t do that any more.”

“Hey, that was the old days. Remember? There was one public high school for the whole town. Now there are what, five or six?”

Gary pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “I’ll bet they don’t have near the fun we did. Hang tight a minute. I want to show you something I came across the other day. You’ll see what I mean.” 

He walked down the hall to his room, returning a minute later to unfold a yellowed newspaper clipping on the table top for Clint to read. After fifty years in their mother’s scrapbook the bold headline, over a two column photo, was as eye catching as ever.

The grainy black and white picture was, perhaps by design, taken from too far away to reveal much detail. However, the pertinent facts could be found in the accompanying article.

  

 GENERAL TANNER FALLS FOR LOVE GODDESS

 

June 6, 1955) TANNER, OREGON - For now at least half the mystery has been solved. The sculpture which disappeared from the grounds of the Beyers Estate last week has resurfaced in a most unlikely manner. Sometime over the weekend the statue of city founder, General J. William Tanner, which has stood in front of Tanner High School for more than sixty years, was replaced by the missing Beyers sculpture of Aphrodite Reclining.

“It had to be the work of pranksters,” said Mayor William Brown. “Perhaps some of the less responsible members of this year’s graduating class.” Brown also noted that the whereabouts of the General Tanner statue was still unknown. 

”We have the City Police Department working on that,” the Mayor said. “In the meantime, for the Tuesday night graduation ceremonies the Aphrodite sculpture will be draped in canvas to avoid offending the public.”

 “Where’d you find this?” Clint laughed, turning the clipping to study the photo more closely. “I haven’t seen it in ages. Where was it?”

“In one of Mom’s scrapbooks. Christy had found it there a few years ago. She thought it ought to be saved for posterity.”

Clint ran a hand through his gray hair, reliving for a moment the anxious rush of that long ago escapade. “I still don’t know how we managed to pull that off. I suppose it must have been our fifteen minutes of fame. Even if the paper didn’t know we were the culprits.”

“Notice how they called it a ‘sculpture.’ I can still remember how old man Beyers insisted on that,” Gary recalled. “He always said it was a work of art, not a statue. I suppose he knew the difference. He didn’t have much else to do but count his money and collect sculptures.”

“I don’t know if she was a sculpture or a statue. I just remember that Miss Aphrodite got talked about a lot more than the General. Looked a hell of a lot better too.”

“But probably not as good as the old man’s daughter. Eh?” Gary teased. “Young Elly. She was a cute one. I can remember you having a thing about her clear back in grade school.”

“I guess it didn’t cost anything to dream a little. Did it? As long as you realized that she’d never waste her time on the likes of us. She saved her company for her country club friends.”

“That’s true. They were busy doing their high society stuff at the club, while we worked on our cars or terrorized Harold’s Drive -In.”

“Or drank beer at the Falls.”

For a moment Clint shut down, transported by still seductive thoughts he had not visited in years---evocative reflections of young faces, hopeful dreams, and remembered disappointments.

“You’ve got to give her credit though,” he said. “She was smart enough to know we didn’t have a thing to offer someone like her. I expect she learned that from her old man. Those uptown folks lived in a different world. Guys like us had to be realistic.”

Meanwhile, Gary was still wringing pleasant memories from the great sculpture heist. “Remember how we hauled that damn sculpture clear across Beyers’ back yard to the truck. I thought we were home free by then, until Kelly started raising a fuss. He had hold of her breast and he wouldn’t let go.” Gary shook his head. “It’s a wonder no one heard that racket. It had to be an all time classic prank and we did it with just the four of us.”

“Well, as I recall, we sure as heck weren’t ‘home free’ the next morning,” Clint said. “Not when Dad found the General standing in the garage next to the Plymouth? About then I had no idea what he’d do. He knew, of course, that it had to be a graduation thing. So I expected him to call the school to get it sorted out.”

“I think he might have done that,” Clint nodded. “It was Mom who convinced him not to be in such a hurry. She knew that if we got caught there’d be no graduation for us the next day.”

That brought Gary up short---long enough to remember with renewed affection his mother’s special gift to him. “Exactly. And since I’d already spent five years getting through high school Mom, bless her heart, wasn’t about to let anything interfere with getting us graduated.”

“So we graduated on Tuesday and got turned in on Wednesday. I guess things worked out okay.” Clint slid the clipping to the side and retrieved the reunion invitation. “Damn, I hope the Class of Fifty-Five is ready for a couple more old widowed guys.”

“It should be interesting. It’s always fun to see the people. At least the ones we know. We’ll find out who’s still alive. And maybe find out which of the ladies are single again.”

“You’d better be careful with that stuff,” Clint laughed. “You start messing around with some nice old lady, and some nice old husband is apt to take offense.”

“I’ll try to steer clear of the husbands.”

Clint folded the clipping and handed it back to Gary, mulling again the distressing certainty that Karen would not be there with him. She had been gone two years---long enough for the sense of loss to become more bearable. Still, times like this were enough to rekindle those hurtful feelings.

 

~~~

 

Three weeks later, on the far side of town, in the upscale suburbs of Tanner Heights, Ellen Beyers Warren was busy with a challenge of her own---a daunting pile of unopened moving boxes that half filled the family room of her new home. 

From the once proud Beyers Estate on the outskirts of Tanner to the sprawling ranch home on the fourth fairway of the Tanner Heights Country Club was less than a mile in distance. Ellen, everyone called her Elly, had taken a longer, less direct route---forty-six years and several thousand miles to be exact---a Southern California detour that had recently ended in a bitter divorce.

At that moment, however, her concerns were more immediate. She had returned to Tanner only days before, ready to begin a new life in her old home town. Now it seemed that her bold move was creating new questions at every turn. After all those years would she know anyone in Tanner? Would anyone remember her? Would she fit in?

As it turned out there would be no need for such concerns. Her return would not be the quiet, under-the-radar event she expected. The moving crew had finished their work earlier that morning, placing furniture throughout the house. Now Elly stood in the family room with her young niece, surveying the mountain of boxes and wondering where to begin. 

When they did not hear the doorbell ringing, Esther Hoffman pushed the front door open, stuck her head inside, and yelled in a shrill voice, “Anyone home?”

“Who is it?” Elly yelled back. She straightened up to extract a china vase from its newspaper wrapping. “We’re in the back.”

“Is that you, Elly?” The slender woman, tastefully clad in a casual pants suit, walked through the house to the family room. A moment later her puzzled frown had dissolved into a broad smile. “My God. It is you. I’d know you anywhere. Why you haven’t changed a bit,” She looked again and added. “Though I suppose your hair wasn’t that gray fifty years ago.”

Elly’s quizzical grin gave her away before she said a word. “I’m really sorry. It sounds like I should know you. And I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Of course you do. It’s me. Esther Hoffman. You know, Esther Wyatt.”

“Esther Wyatt?” Elly shook her head in disbelief, knowing she had just failed her first recognition test. “It is you. You still live here?” She set the vase on the counter and stepped forward to grasp Esther’s hand in both of hers. “I can’t believe it. How did you know I was here?”

“The club office gets a heads-up whenever someone moves into the Heights. Mainly so we can see if they want to join the country club. It took me a minute to remember the Warren name. But when I did, I was sure it must be you.” Esther nodded toward the attractive young woman who stood to the side, taking in their impromptu reunion. “Don’t tell me this beautiful young lady is your granddaughter.”

“Oh no. Mike and I never had any children. So there are no grandkids. This is Tricia, Don’s granddaughter. You remember my brother Don. Tricia’s here for a week or so to help me get settled.” Turning to the girl Elly explained, “Esther and I grew up together, honey, here in Tanner. We were Club Brats together.”

“Club Brats?” Tricia asked warily. 

“That’s right,” Elly laughed. “A bunch of us spent our summers and weekends at the country club. We called ourselves Club Brats. You haven’t seen the club yet. It’s just down the hill from here.” Then to Esther, “I suppose it’s pretty much the same. Isn’t it? Or has it changed like everything else?”

“It’s even better,” Esther answered. The grin that spread across her face was framed by long, nearly white hair. “Those were good times to be a kid, especially at the club. We swam every day, got great tans, and flirted with the boys.”

“Esther,” Elly exclaimed, shaking her head as she winked at Tricia. “You’re going to give her the wrong impression. I’m sure she can’t imagine her Aunt Elly flirting with anyone.” 

Aunt Elly was right of course. There was no way Tricia could create a convincing image of her great-aunt as a flirty teenager. True, she was still a pert little thing---attractive in a mature sort of way. But the wrinkles and the gray hair were more than Tricia could fit into the youthful portrait Esther was describing.

“Goodness, I haven’t thought of that in ages,” Elly said. It had been a juvenile and silly time. She remembered that much. Still, it was easy to recall how that close-knit clique of a dozen or so country club youngsters had considered themselves rather special. In those carefree teenage days it had been easy to think of themselves as different than, even a step or two above, their classmates. Being part of that select group had been a defining given in young Elly’s life.

“You know, your timing couldn’t be better,” Esther continued. “You’ve come back just in  time. Our class reunion, the big fifty, is next weekend. That was my other reason for coming over. I have an invitation for you. It was too late to put it in the mail, so you get yours special delivery.”

“Oh, please. I haven’t seen those people since we graduated.” Elly scanned the folded invitation Esther offered. “My Lord, that’s only six days from now. It may take me that long to find my clothes.”

“You’re going to go. Aren’t you, Aunt Elly?” Tricia asked. “I think that would be so cool. After fifty years.”

“Good heavens. I probably wouldn’t remember anyone there. I didn’t even recognize my best friend. Besides, you can be sure I’m way past being ‘cool’.” She was grinning at Esther, knowing that she would be there---yet aware that it would be a daunting prospect, jumping in with both feet so soon after her return.

In every way her homecoming was proving different than Elly Warren expected. She had left Tanner forty-six years earlier with no intention of ever returning, beyond an occasional visit with her parents. When they moved, not long after she left, there had never been a reason to come back. 

She had met Mike Warren in college. For forty-five years they had lived well---thriving in the heady world of Los Angeles high society. From all appearances it had been a successful marriage, though their closest friends understood that carefully crafted facade depended on Elly’s willingness to overlook her husband’s not- infrequent philandering.

Then one Sunday morning a year earlier Mike announced that he was leaving. The newest object of his affection was blonde, shapely, and thirty-three. What followed was a contentious and very public tug of war that ended in an equally contentious out of court settlement. When at last the dust had settled Elly remained comfortably ensconced in the couple’s Palos Verde home, living well on her generous cash settlement.

For months she had tried her best to live the life she had known for so long. In time, however, she learned that those long familiar patterns and places were not enough to overcome the lingering resentment. Former friends had chosen sides---too often leaving her on the outside. Finally, just eight weeks earlier, she awoke one morning knowing exactly what she would do. 

It had taken just four weeks for the big house to sell---for more than she had expected. Using the internet her broker found the fairway home in Tanner, not far from her childhood home. Days later Elly wired off five hundred ninety thousand dollars to close the deal, without ever having set foot in the place. She could hardly believe it herself. Although she would not recognize the town, which in her absence had become a city, Elly Beyers Warren was going home.

~~~

That evening, just up the hill from Elly Warren’s new home, scarcely three blocks away, Tom Berry lingered over the remains of his dinner and reveled in his sudden good fortune. The day before, during his lunch at the club, Esther Hoffman had given him the unexpected news---Elly Beyers was back in town.

Pushing the dinner dishes aside, Tom refilled his wine glass and shuffled back to the den. On the table beside his recliner was the yellow note pad with the phone number Esther had provided. It had been sitting there for more than twenty-four hours, waiting for him to summon the courage to call. Finally it was time. Draining the last of his wine, he slowly punched in the numbers.

The voice on the phone was a bit familiar, though Elly could not give it a name. “Who is this?” she asked.

“Who is this? Come on, lady. You couldn’t have forgotten so soon. Why it’s only been fifty years since we last talked.”

“Who is this?” she demanded again, more firmly this time. “I don’t have time for games.”

“Well, don’t get mad. It’s me, Tom Berry. A voice from your past.”

“Tom Berry?” She paused for a moment, trying to place the name. Then suddenly she remembered. “Why, Tom,” she said. “How are you? I am sorry. My memory is dreadful.”

“I’m just fine, Elly.” There was a trace of relief in his voice. She had nearly forgotten who he was. How could that be? “I got your phone number from Esther Hoffman. She’s on the reunion committee. I was calling to be sure that you’re planning to come join us on Saturday.“

“I suppose I’ll be there,” Elly said. “I saw Esther this morning. She mentioned it.”

For a second or two there was only awkward silence. Tom had hoped for a more encouraging response---perhaps something that reflected an interest in seeing him again. Apparently Elly was not ready for that kind of small talk. He cautioned himself against being too direct, then promptly ignored his own warning. “After all these years I’m looking forward to us getting acquainted again. I hope we can spend some time together Saturday night.”

“It will be good to see you, Tom.” For God sakes don’t sound too eager she told herself, remembering her own promise not to get involved. “Thanks again for calling. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you there.”

Tom hung up and settled back in his recliner. He had caught her by surprise. What else would explain her hurried terseness? He closed his eyes, allowing fifty year old memories to bubble to the surface. She had not remembered him, at least not at first. How could that be? They had been together for so long. Of course, there were a few schoolboy episodes he was hoping she had forgotten. But to have not remembered him at all? He would have never expected that. 

As a youngster Tom Berry had come of age in the affluent security of upper class Tanner. To be sure, growing up there had included a never-ending stream of jokes from his peers, something he had always assumed was standard fare for the offspring of a mortuary owner. Though he usually chose to ignore such remarks, his naturally hostile nature had spawned more than a few fights. From grade school through high school his classmates had learned to steer clear of Tom Berry’s unpredictable temper.

Yet for him there had been no better time than those carefree high school years. He was a star athlete and class leader. Girls found him attractive. At times it felt almost unfair, knowing how hard some boys struggled to win a girl’s attention. For him it had always been so easy.  

Tom and Elly. Elly and Tom. They had grown up together from the first grade. In junior high they occasionally dated---holding hands and exchanging first kisses. For almost two years in high school he had been her steady guy. Yet by the end of their junior year Elly had tired of his possessive, occasionally threatening behavior. That summer she discovered college boys and Tom was effectively relegated to the sidelines.

Now, on a late spring evening Tom sat in his den, fidgeting with his empty wine glass as he read the reunion invitation once again. For more than twenty-four hours Elly Beyers had been on his mind, lodged there like a familiar tune that refused to leave. More than once he had scolded himself for allowing her to gain such a hold on his thoughts. My God. She was nearly seventy years old---probably flabby and wrinkled---though she most certainly could not match the nearly three hundred pounds he carried on his bulky frame. 

In any case, it appeared that fate was offering him a second chance, a way to overcome the long ago disappointment of losing her. Elly Beyers, now Elly Warren, was back in Tanner. She would be at the reunion on Saturday night. Surely she had returned for a reason. Though she might not realize what that reason was, Tom was sure that he did. For now, he must begin by making sure she did not forget him again.