Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Chapter 29

   Just before noon last Wednesday, a shadow darkened my office door and I looked up, startled to see Colin standing there, hands shoulder-high on the door frame, leaning in, looking at me intently. 
   “Hi, Maggie” he said, a tentative look on his face.
   “Hi,” I returned. What was he doing here? An errand from Monsignor Fitz?
   “Free for lunch?” he asked. I started to say no, but heard instead Elaine’s unusually loud voice quickly saying, “Yes, she’s free!”  Colin turned toward Elaine and smiled as she moved to the door, calendar in hand. Sticking her head inside in front of him, a little quieter now, she said, “Well, you are free, Boss. Not a thing on your calendar for at least two hours or so.” 

I gave her “the look,” and Elaine retreated to her own desk. “Guess I’m free, Professor Murphy,” I said resignedly, picking up my purse and walking up next to him. He was still smiling, and I walked past him to face Elaine. “I have my Blackberry if you need me.”

“Oh, we won’t need you, Boss. You just go and have a nice long lunch. Don’t worry about a thing. Have fun now, you two!” And with that, Elaine ushered us out into the hallway. Although my back was now to her, I was sure she was grinning widely as she watched us walk toward the stairs.

   “My truck’s out front, or we could walk? Thought we’d go to Gardski’s. I’m pretty hungry,” Colin said tentatively.
  “Gardski’s is fine. Haven’t been there in a while,” I replied cooly.
    We opted for a quicker trip in the truck as it was sunny, close to a hundred again with a little bit of hot dust kicking up in the dry wind, and Gardski’s was at least a half-mile up Broadway. I was a tad apprehensive about my freshly dry-cleaned linen suit as we approached the old brown pickup truck — at least I thought it was brown — it was hard to tell with the amount of dirt and grime covering the exterior. But climbing into his filthy vehicle, I was taken aback by the pristine condition of the interior, especially as opposed to the mud-caked outside. It even had modern air conditioning and seat belts, obviously not factory installed judging by the age of the truck. 
“Nice ride,” I said sincerely.
   “Thanks. Had it for a while.”

    A while, indeed, I thought. Must be from the early 60s, with its brown leather bench seat, chrome dash instruments and old radio. A vintage Chevy pickup. If he cleaned the exterior, I think it could have been used in the latest Chevrolet commercials touting durability.

   As we drove the few blocks down Broadway to the restaurant, we talked minimally of the weather and not much more. When we parked, he jumped out and started to walk around to my side, but I was already out and had closed my door before he could help. We walked silently to the restaurant’s front door.
   Gardski’s is a two-story European-style building with high-pitched gables and dark beams crisscrossing the light olive green exterior stucco walls. Sometime in the 1940s, it had been built as a fashionable residence on Lubbock’s main brick street. A wide stone porch now served for outdoor seating, and the living areas downstairs, as well as the upstairs bedrooms, had been converted into small, intimate dining rooms, complete with white tablecloths and decent china. A small bar was also upstairs.
  I was once again taken back 30 years, as this had been a favorite fancy-date destination, but then the restaurant was called the Brookshire Inn. Not much had changed except the name — the food was still unusual and delicious and the hospitality unmatched in the city. We settled into a small corner table in the front room and ordered. Colin evidently was hungry, as he asked for their biggest steak with all the trimmings. I love their spinach artichoke chicken, but opted for the lighter club sandwich on such a hot day.

   When the waiter left, Colin unexpectedly reached across and took my hand in his. I looked up in surprise, started to pull away, but the pain in his face made me change my mind.
   “I’m sorry I haven’t called. I had to go out of town. Jamie Chavez’s mother died and I went to help him take care of things.”

“Oh, Colin, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” I put my other hand out to him, and he took that one, too.
   “I wanted to call, but ... but I didn’t,” he said squeezing my hands and then letting go and sitting back. He looked away. “Hard thing to lose your mother.”

   I hadn’t wanted him to let go. In fact, I wanted to move around the table to comfort him. Instead, I looked at him compassionately and said simply, “Tell me.”
   He smiled a little and told me. Jamie had called him around four-thirty the morning after the Fourth, saying it looked pretty bad. His mother had gotten the terminal diagnosis just after Christmas but kept it to herself. When she was hospitalized in mid-June, she allowed the hospice worker to call him. They thought she had only five or six weeks left. When Jamie came, they moved her home so Jamie and hospice volunteers could tend to her around the clock.
   She worsened sooner than the doctors anticipated, and Jamie called Colin to help him figure out how to get his elderly grandparents to Idaho as quickly as possible. They live in Canyon, a mid-sized community ninety miles north of Lubbock and were unable to get to their daughter’s side by themselves — both are in their late 70s and speak only rudimentary English. Living on a small pension, they didn’t have the means to fly, nor the necessary skill sets, especially in this time of uncertainty and sorrow for them.

   Colin would bring them — he didn’t have classes just now. Jamie had protested, but Colin had said, “Do you need me, son?”  When the answer was a simple “yes,” he’d made some quick arrangements and headed to Canyon. He picked them up in a rented full-sized sedan — his truck obviously not suitable for this trip. Knowing a parishioner who owned several of Lubbock’s largest car rental facilities and who would, of course, do anything for Father Sean’s brother, allowed Colin to lease the car long before normal business hours. He arrived in Canyon early that morning.

   They drove straight through, stopping only for food, fuel and restrooms, the grateful grandparents—abuelos—taking turns napping comfortably in the large back seat, or praying fervently for their only daughter, worn rosaries constantly moving in their hands. The speedometer showed a steady pace of about 15 miles over the legal limit, but if the grandparents noticed, they understood the urgency of their journey and didn’t protest. Although Colin’s Spanish was much better than their English, conversation was limited since each was preoccupied with their own thoughts.
   Heading north through Amarillo, then across a sliver of the Oklahoma panhandle, they easily reached southeastern Colorado. Colin couldn’t remember if the Caprock made as dramatic a showing this far up on the plains as it did in West Texas. Maybe someday he would drive up here and find out.
   Their journey took them north, northwest up to Interstate 70. Making a left turn, they headed for Denver, and in early evening turned north again to Cheyenne. He knew the route through southern Wyoming was a lot less up-and-down than traveling straight west from Denver to Salt Lake City. They stopped for a late dinner at the Crossroads Cafe in Cheyenne, a clean, mid-sized truck stop Colin was familiar with. When they entered, heads turned toward the unlikely trio of travelers.
   Jamie’s grandmother was a tiny woman with the smallest hands Colin had ever seen on an adult. She was slim, plainly attired in an inexpensive print dress with a shawl draped over her thin shoulders despite the heat. Her gray hair was pulled back and piled in a bun, slightly askew from the trip. Standing, she was only as tall as Colin’s elbow. At six feet, three inches, he said he felt like a giant with a china doll, tiny and frail. When she sat in the booth, her feet didn’t come close to reaching the floor.

   Her husband’s feet touched, but only with the help of the thick heels on his snakeskin boots—he wasn’t much taller than his esposa. He wore his best jeans and a Wrangler-style shirt with pearlized snaps. His dark weathered face under the straw cowboy hat revealed decades of hard outdoor labor.
   When they settled in to order, other diners lost interest and returned to their own meals. Along with their hearty dinner entrées, Colin suggested the fried pickles, assuring them there were none better in the entire country.

  When the cheeky, heavily made-up waitress brought out the order of half a dozen warm sliced pickles with crisp brown crusts, Jamie’s grandfather gathered the courage to try one, declaring it as “No es mala ... no es mala,” but his wife wrinkled her nose, stubbornly refusing to even taste the “evil-looking unnatural things” while crossing herself several times.

   The waitress indignantly turned on her heel and marched back to the kitchen in a huff, obviously insulted. They could hear her loudly relating the “unbelievable behavior of those stupid Texans” to the cook, who peered out at them menacingly through the small order-up window. Although restrained, the men had their first laugh since the beginning of their journey. Jamie’s grandmother was calmly devouring her chicken-fried steak, feet swinging, seemingly oblivious to it all.

   As it grew dark, they followed Interstate 80, part of which was the old Oregon Trail. Colin had been here before and was sorry his passengers couldn’t see the amazing landscape as they crisscrossed rivers and drove through fascinating rock formations. There was one stretch, he remembered, where huge 50-foot boulders looked as though God had been playing on a beach, dripping gigantic globs of wet red sand into softly molded piles resembling make-believe castles.

   Driving along in the dark, Jamie’s grandparents slept, and Colin thought about Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, which, according to signs, were directly to their north now. He’d been through that area twice, the first time as a young FBI agent. The assignment had gone terribly wrong and one of his fellow agents had been killed before they “got their man.” Colin had never experienced the death of someone close to him before, and although he knew he was not to blame, he was surprised at the intensity of his feelings. He had requested, and received, an extended leave of absence.

  After gathering his hiking gear, he’d spent the next few weeks exploring Yellowstone and the mountains high up around Jackson Hole. Living off the land for most of the hike, he had serious discussions with “the big man” about the nature of life and living, right and wrong, good and evil. Sean had joined him for one weeklong leg of the journey, and they’d grown even closer, the young priest and the young government agent exploring their spirituality in the face of the world’s reality.

   Colin had come back to the agency with a new determination – and a newfound inner strength that had served him well during many subsequent assignments and missions, and deaths.

   Much of the reminiscing, the geography and spiritual journey he left out of his accounting to Maggie. When the Gardski’s waiter appeared with their food, Colin seemed surprised and stopped his narration. They ate in silence – automatically and without tasting.

    “You speak Spanish?” I asked matter-of-factly after several bites.
   Without looking up from his plate, he replied in the same manner, “Comes in handy working in Southern California and Arizona.”
   I was curious, but now wasn’t the time.

   After a few more bites to quiet his hunger, he continued the story. By dawn’s light, he and Jamie’s grandparents were skirting the northeastern corner of Utah and driving into Idaho, north of the great salt lakes. They’d ended their journey in Blackfoot, Idaho, population just over 11,000 – billed as the Potato Capital of the World. Situated between the western edge of the Salt River Mountain Range and the eastern edge of the Snake River Plain, Colin immediately saw a resemblance to Llano Estacado ... endless flat fields of potatoes could easily be mistaken for endless flat fields of cotton.  Not only was Blackfoot the agricultural center of east Idaho’s potato industry, but it was home to the Idaho Potato Museum. Colin didn’t think he would visit it this trip.
    After taking the grandparents to Jamie’s home, Colin had checked into the nearby Super 8 Motel of Blackfoot, complete with complementary Super Starter Breakfast and a modest price. After some much-needed sleep, he remained on the periphery of the small family to give whatever assistance he could.

   Jamie’s mother had lingered for a full three days after their arrival, accepting Last Rites from her parish priest and spending a little time alone with each of her family members and close friends before she died peacefully in her son’s arms.

   “Jamie was devastated,” Colin said. “He immediately bolted the house and ran down the street. I followed and caught up with him a few blocks away at the high school football field. He was so angry. Angry with God, with the world, with himself for not realizing she was ill.”
   I said gently, “Everybody grieves in their own way. And sometimes, especially if it’s the first time they lose someone close, they act out because they don’t know how to act. My boys ... they grieved so differently from each other for their father. I tried to help, but I was grieving, too. It’s a hard thing to go through, but necessary. I’m glad you were there for him.”
   “I am, too, but maybe Sean should have been there instead of me.”
   “But he didn’t call Sean ... Father Sean ... did he? He called you. He needed you.”

“Maybe. Anyway, I planned to stay only through the memorial service but then there were so many details to take care of ... it seemed appropriate for me to be there for the boy. He was still so lost. His mother had been his whole world. Maybe it did help that I was there.”
   “I’m sure it did, Colin. It was an amazing thing to do.” 
He quickly shrugged off the compliment, not even aware I had twice now called him Colin instead of Cailean. I thought he was thinking instead of his brother and of their large family, which always had and always would be there for each other. How fortunate he and Sean were.

    Jamie’s mother had asked to be cremated and have her ashes rest in the cemetery at the small church in Canyon where she grew up.

   Wanting to get away from the memories and return to Texas, Jamie had said, “There’s nothing left for me here now.”  I knew exactly what that felt like, twice over. 
   So he gathered what he wanted to keep of his mother’s possessions and arranged with friends to sell their small house and most of the furnishings.

   Early yesterday, Colin, Jamie and Jamie’s grieving grandparents caravanned back through the Rockies — a little slower this time — to the modest home in Canyon. Jamie was still up there with them, waiting to return to Lubbock in another month for the fall semester, his senior year.

   To his amazement, the first thing Colin had wanted to do when he returned was talk to Maggie. He’d learned long ago to trust his instincts, and sitting there with her he knew he’d been right. The burden had been lightened in the telling.
   “When he gets back,” I said tentatively, “I’m willing to talk with him ... I, um, I lost both my parents when I was about his age.”
     “Maggie, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

“It’s not something you would know. But I can tell you it’s hard, just starting out in life to be independent, to be on your own, and then all of a sudden you have to be on your own. There’s no one at home to run to if things don’t go right, or if you get scared.”

Now it was Colin’s turn to take her hand and share the pain.
   “I don’t know how I would have gotten though it without Sharon and Carol. They were lifesavers. And Sharon’s parents, too.” I looked away, remembering. After a few moments, I shook my head and took back my hand, saying, “So, I do know what he’s going through, and if he’d like some reassurance that it will get easier, I’m your man ... or woman.” I smiled bravely. 

He gained a new respect for this interesting woman who was, as his brother had said, not his type.

   When he dropped me off back at the office, he asked to see me again. “I’ll phone you later in the week,” he said, and I smiled, already looking forward to the call. Guess he does like me a little, I thought quietly as I walked up the stairs. Good ... because I like him more every time I see him.

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