Today I drove from Ontario, Oregon, to Pendleton, Oregon, on Interstate 84. Oh, I took a few detours here and there and almost drove myself mad listening to the old Garmin Nuvi chant, “Recalculating. Drive 400 feet and turn left, then turn right.” I started humming the Hokey-Pokey just to drown her out.
I passed along the wide and rushing Snake River for quite some distance, driven almost to distraction by the fact that I couldn’t stop and take pictures of it. Because I was on the interstate. Only emergency stopping on the interstate is permitted. My need to stop and take pictures was approaching emergency status when an exit to a state park appeared. I whipped the chili pepper (that’s what my friend, DeAnna, and I called my car when I first bought it almost 10 years ago) off the freeway and down a little road past a burnt-out motel to the entrance to Farewell Bend State Recreation Area on the Snake River’s Brownlee Reservoir. It’s called Farewell Bend because it was here that the settlers on the Oregon Trail left the river behind. It’s a beautiful area, and after the drive I took through the desert yesterday, I was glad to see so much water.
Of course, I have to confess, the main reason I whipped the chili pepper off the interstate was that I had gone about 30 minutes without seeing a rest area, and I needed one. I’ve become a bit fixated with rest areas on this trip. I’ve started taking pictures at each one. It’s become a theme of the trip. Can I make it to the next restroom? And now, just because I can, I’m stopping at every single one, even when I don’t need to.
Another frustration of driving the interstate is that you can’t stop and take pictures of interesting signs. There’s a big chunk of eastern Oregon that’s on Mountain Time. Signs announce this and instruct travelers to set their clocks one hour ahead. This is a total waste of time since one drives out of the Mountain Time Zone and back into the Pacific Time Zone in about 5 miles. I whizzed by another interesting sign just where the interstate crosses the Powder River. (And from somewhere in childhood memory, I heard a cowboy voice say, “Powder River, let ‘er rip!” This must be from a movie, but I have no idea which one.) Anyway, the sign said, “45th Parallel, halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.” Now, isn’t that nice to know?
Baker City sits snugged beneath some beautiful, rugged mountains with snowy tops. To the east, over in Idaho or right along the state line maybe, there are some even taller, more rugged, snowier mountains. I was glad I was ripping along the valley floor.
However, after Baker City, the interstate winds through some canyons and over some passes. And because it’s an interstate highway, it is thronged with semis and other kinds of heavy trucks. It makes me more than a little nervous to tear along at 65 mph on a curvy two-lane freeway beside a big truck that’s leaning my way. I was a little white-knuckled through the section near La Grande, but it was at that point that I started to see trees. Not just sagebrush and other little bushes, but actual, real trees. Pine trees, no less. And fir trees. I started to breathe a little easier. It felt like coming home. And then, the interstate winds down out of the mountains at a 6% downgrade, and those big ol’ trucks are all doing their best not to run away down the mountain. Yeah, that’s a little nerve-racking. I stopped at an overlook above Pendleton to take some pictures of the Umatilla River valley, where Pendleton lies.
I got into Pendleton early, about 1:30, and actually got into my room at the Best Western right away. I must say, the Best Westerns have been really good so far. They’re a lot nicer than they were 10 years or so ago, when Dennis and I were staying in them a lot.
I needed to do a little online research before setting out again, and glory be, my laptop worked! I think I’ve figured out the trick to it—it involves making my computer completely vulnerable to any low-skills hacker in the same building. But I’ll take the risk. Online, I went to a real estate page and found some properties for sale out in the country around Pendleton. Armed with addresses, I went back out to the car, put them in the Nuvi, and off we went. She got excited a few times when I didn’t go the way she wanted me to, and eventually, I turned her off and just wandered around, but I had a wonderful afternoon, looking at farms, driving down gravel roads around farms, making farmers in big pickup trucks wonder what the heck I was doing driving around their farms, then finding my way back to Pendleton via the back roads and Old Highway 30 (Nuvi wanted me to take the interstate again).
When I write a story (or a novel), I need to be able to see the place I’m writing about (unless I’m making it up entirely, for a fantasy story, say). You can do a lot on the internet now, see pictures and videos, and all that is great and helps, but it’s not the same as getting out there and seeing how the landscape looks yourself. How it smells. How the wind feels in your hair. The way the land makes you feel. And now I know how Chris Hanson, the character in “Hard to Love,” will feel as she drives out to her father’s farm about 5 miles outside of Pendleton. I know that she’ll appreciate the beauty of those golden and green fields even as she sees the bleakness of them. The way they go on and on, seemingly endlessly. She’ll remember what it was like to grow up there, on that farm, riding the schoolbus to high school in town. Some part of her will be nostalgic, but I know she’ll feel trapped there, under that wide, blue, November sky, and it won’t be because of the landscape. It’ll be because of the situation waiting for her in that old white farmhouse.
The characters in this story were born quite a few years ago, not long after my mother passed away. I wrote a short story called “Mama’s Day,” which was published in The Dead Mule of Southern Literature. The story was my way of honoring my mother. But a while back, I started thinking again about those characters and their story, as my own father’s situation began to change. I decided those characters had more to say about aging parents. Here’s the beginning of the story. I’m not putting it on the Short Stories page because that page is already too long and has to be reorganized this winter.
Hard to Love
Christine Hanson scanned the letter from her father’s estate lawyer and sighed. She picked up the phone to call her sister, but it rang in her hand. Chris checked the caller I.D. display. It was her sister, Candace.
“I was just about to call you,” Chris said. “Did you get a letter from Dad’s estate lawyer today?”
“I got mine yesterday, Sis. I talked to John about it last night.”
John was the middle child in the family, younger than Chris by two years. John was the reason she was known in the family as “Sis.” “Sissy” was as close as baby John had been able to get to “Chrissie,” which was what her mother had called her, and John’s version had stuck. John had also nicknamed his baby sister “Kid.” John had no nickname. His father, J.D. Willis, said nicknames made a boy soft—his boy would not be a Johnny.
Born in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, J.D. Willis’s parents had been illiterate, as was J.D. himself. None of J.D.’s brothers had full names. John Willis, Sr. had been unable to write his own name, so he’d wanted to make it easy on his boys, or so the family legend ran. J.D. had two older brothers, J.B. and J.C., and a younger brother who, for variety’s sake, was named J.Z. J.D. had wanted to name his son J.P, but, uncharacteristically, Louise Willis had put her size 5 foot down firmly on that point. “His name is John Paul,” she had said to her husband. “If you want to call him J. P., go ahead, but my son is going to have a proper name on his birth certificate.” In the end, he had simply been called by his first name.
“What does John think? What are we going to do?” Chris asked.
“John and I both think we shouldn’t do it,” Candy said.
“But if we don’t, Dad is going to be really mad at us.”
“Do you really think that matters now?”
Chris wasn’t close to her father, none of his children were, but she didn’t want an out-an-out war with him either. Ten years before, when their mother was in the end stages of Alzheimer’s syndrome, J.D. Willis had brought a “housekeeper” into the family home. Polly Ware had moved into the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse near Pendleton, Oregon, and hadn’t left when Louise Willis died a year later. She’d stayed on and on, working part-time as a waitress at a local coffee shop during the day and taking care of J.D. at night. Neither Chris nor Candy nor John liked to contemplate her home duties. She did very little housekeeping; that much was clear whenever any of them visited their family home. She was a hoarder who had gradually taken over every room in the house except for J.D.’s bedroom. Her junk cluttered the small rooms until there was no place for the kids to stay when they visited. They had taken to staying in a motel in town whenever they made a duty call on their father.
Chris knew, only because J.D. had told her once when he was drunk, that he had twice asked Polly to marry him. Both times, she’d refused. Nobody could blame her. J.D. was a seventy-six-year-old alcoholic whose body was rapidly aging under the abuse. He was severely arthritic and mostly confined to the house these days. After his wife’s death, he had sold off his farmland piece by piece, leaving only ten acres with the house and outbuildings. He had promised Polly that his money would be hers if she stayed and took care of him until he died. None of his three children knew exactly how much money there was because J.D kept that to himself, but they knew that for at least eight years, the money had been buried in coffee cans in the yard between the house and the barn. Two years ago, Polly had finally convinced J.D. to invest the cash with Edward Jones in some kind of annuity or trust account. Chris, Candy, and John were dumbfounded that the woman had managed it. J.D. was a late child of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and had memories of bank failures programmed into his mind by his elders. Their mother had never been able to convince her husband to trust a bank or open either savings or checking accounts. All of Louise Willis’s bill-paying had been done in cash, in person. J.D. wouldn’t have it any other way.
Polly had managed J.D. better than their mother ever did, convincing him to put in a second bathroom at the back of the house adjoining her bedroom so she didn’t have to share with him. Chris and Candy couldn’t blame her; J.D. wasn’t too good at hitting the hole after he got older, and when he got drunk, which was nearly every day, he often got sick. The only reason the bathroom was usable at all was because when he sobered up, he cleaned up after himself.
But that was all the cleaning he did, or that was possible to do, because every room was full of cardboard boxes and stacks of papers, and piles of unrelated items. On the kitchen table, for instance, knitted scarves and unopened boxes of tea sat next to a manila folder of old bills on top of Louise Willis’s disused pressure canner. The table was unusable; J.D. and Polly ate on TV trays in the living room. All the bedrooms were crammed to the ceilings, with paths to and from the doors. The living room was only slightly better. That was where J.D. spent the majority of his time, stretched out on the hide-a-bed sofa with a heating pad under his back, watching old Westerns on a big, bulky TV set. Polly’s boxes lined the walls on either side of the wood-burning stove that heated the house. John warned his father over and over about the fire danger, but J.D. never listened. That was typical of J.D. Willis. He never listened to anyone; he did as he pleased. He had been the boss in his own home when his wife was alive and his children in school, and nobody had dared argue with him. Now, it seemed he had abdicated nearly all control to the woman who shared his home.
Five years ago, after Polly had refused a second time to marry J.D., he’d signed the house over to his three children, giving it to them outright so that they wouldn’t have to pay any probate fees or inheritance taxes on the property, with the stipulation that he could continue to live in it and would maintain it until his death. That was his sole bequest to them, and while the house wasn’t worth much after years of neglect, not nearly as much as the amount in real dollars he had promised Polly, it was their family home and still meant something to them because of their memories of their mother.
But now, everything had changed. All three of J.D.’s kids had received a letter from the estate lawyer J.D. had used when he’d deeded the house to his children. They were being notified that now J.D. wanted to give the house to Polly. It felt like a slap in the face to Chris, like being completely disowned by her father. But did she want to battle him over it? She wasn’t sure.
“What do you think, Sis?” Candy broke in on Chris’s attempt to make sense of the thing in her own mind.
“Do we really want to fight with Dad about it, Kid? The house would probably be more trouble than it’s worth to clean up and fix up after we got Polly out of it. And then what do we do with it? Rent it out? Leave it sitting empty? What’s the point, really, of hanging onto it?”
“Because Dad gave it to us first,” Candy said fiercely. “Why should that woman get everything? She’s already getting all Dad’s money, and is that fair? We put up with him for 18 years of our lives, the mean old bastard, and he made Mama’s life miserable for the thirty-odd years they were married. Wouldn’t give her a damn thing, not even a word of thanks, and made her work like a slave. You know that better than I do, you’re the one who’s always told me what he was like when I was little. I was too young to see it for a long time, although I saw plenty when I was the only one left at home. Now you want to let him give Mama’s house to that woman?”
“No,” Chris said, weary already. “I don’t want her to get Mama’s house. I just don’t want to fight with Dad about it.”
“There won’t be a fight,” Candy said. “If he needs our signatures to give the house to Polly, all we have to do is not sign the papers.”
“Are you sure?” Chris was doubtful. She didn’t remember the details of the paperwork they’d signed five years ago.
“Pretty sure. John is going to contact the lawyer and ask some questions. Like what happens if we don’t sign, or even if two of us signed and one didn’t. And if Dad could sue us. Things like that.”
“I hate this, Kid,” Chris said. “I don’t want Polly to get the house, but I don’t want Dad mad at us, either. But I’ll go along with whatever you and John want to do. I think we need to stand together, whatever course of action we take.”
“I do too. I’ll let John know how you feel about it then.”
“No,” Chris said. “Let me call him myself. We haven’t talked in a while. I’d like to hear his voice.”
“Be prepared. He was really mad when we spoke yesterday. You might hear some language you won’t like.”
Chris told her sister to pass along her love to her brother-in-law, Fred, and her niece and nephew, Carly and Joe, and hung up the phone. Carly was in college in Seattle, in a pre-med program, and Joe was a police officer in the small town of Carson Grove in Washington State, where the Coopers had lived for years. Fred drove truck all over the West, and Candy worked in a beauty salon. They had a settled, comfortable life, even though Fred wasn’t home a great deal.
Chris’s life was as unlike her sister’s as it could be. The marriage she’d thought was so strong had fallen apart only three years after her mother’s death. Evan had simply told her one day that he wanted a divorce. He hadn’t had an affair; he just didn’t want to be married to her anymore. They had no children to complicate matters. They had tried, but Chris was unable to conceive naturally. They’d tried fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilization, but after one very expensive failed attempt, Evan had decided that the ends didn’t justify the means, or the cost, and he had not wanted to adopt.
Chris had always been self-supporting, although she didn’t earn as much teaching high school history as Evan did in his tenured position at Portland Community College. He taught history and political science. They had been married for twelve years when he left her, and within three years, he had married again. Evan and his second wife, a young, part-time mathematics instructor at PCC, now had two children under the age of six.
Chris had been angry at first, had felt discarded because of a faulty womb, but she’d had time to get over her hurt and frustration. She had hoped for a new relationship as well, but she’d found that a single woman in her late forties wasn’t exactly in high demand. Men her age were “upgrading” to younger women. As she aged into her fifties, the only men who found her attractive, it seemed, were the ones old enough to have one foot in the grave, like her father, and who were looking for companions and caretakers. If they had money and were sexually functional, they were looking for younger women. The whole social scene had discouraged and finally sickened her, and she’d given up on finding anyone who could appreciate her for who she was. Instead, she’d thrown herself into her teaching, enjoying those students who were interested in the time and attention she had to give. She’d taught many students over the years who had won university scholarships because of their work in her advanced placement program, and she was proud of her work.
She hadn’t turned into a stay-at-home, either. Every summer, she took a month-long trip to a different location, sometimes within the U.S., and sometimes overseas. She had twice participated in a home exchange, allowing a German family and then a Swedish couple to live in her suburban Portland home for a month while she lived in theirs, in Cologne and Stockholm, respectively. On long weekends, she might fly into Chicago or Atlanta or New Orleans for a quick get-away to shop, visit museums, and experience new restaurants. She enjoyed her trips and had met interesting people with whom she corresponded via email and Facebook, but she had stopped looking for a man to share her life with. It was far easier that way. She was, if not exactly happy, content with her life as it was.
Now this. Chris’s relationship with her father had never been easy. With a man like J.D. Willis, no relationship would be easy. He was a chauvinist pig, to use outdated terms that exactly expressed his relationship to any women in his life. Except, inexplicably, to Polly Ware.
Polly was fifty-something when she came to live in J.D. Willis’s house and take care of Louise, after the Alzheimer’s symptoms had progressed to the point that she could no longer be trusted at home alone. J.D. had found Polly at the tavern, where she was having a girls’ night out with some of her friends. She was fairly new in town at the time and had just taken a job at a local diner. Polly had been a waitress for years, but she mentioned to J.D. over a whiskey shot and beer chaser that she had once helped a neighbor take care of her husband who had terminal cancer. She could move in, sure she would, and help J.D. with his poor wife. And after the poor wife had died, Polly had taken over, cooking for J.D. and cleaning the house, until her junk had filled it to the point where cleaning was impossible, and her cooking had been reduced to heating up frozen dinners in the microwave.
Physically, Polly resembled Chris’s mother. She was short, round, and red-haired. Who knew what her original hair color had been; what came out of the bottle was red. That was probably what attracted J.D. in the first place. He’d always had a weakness for red-headed women. He usually had no trouble with their equally fiery temperaments; he was man enough to master any woman, no matter the color of her hair or personality. But J.D. in his seventies wasn’t the J.D. he’d once been. That was the only way Chris could explain the 180 degree turn her father had made, from autocrat to yes-man in the space of a few years.
J.D. hadn’t let Louise have a dog, or a pet of any kind. Polly filled the house with ailing cats and an old, decrepit mongrel who had bladder problems and had to be let out every hour. J.D. would haul himself up off the sofa to let the dog in and out while Polly was at work. When the dog finally died, Candy thought their father had actually mourned the animal. Chris didn’t believe J.D. would ever mourn an animal. He’d shown little sign of mourning his wife of over thirty years when she died.
J.D. would never buy a new anything if the old one still worked, but when Polly wanted a new TV for her bedroom, a microwave, a toaster oven, a bathroom, thousands of dollars of J.D.’s money from the sale of his land, she got it.
Chris refused to dwell on the tactics Polly might use to get what she wanted. At least their father had never shown signs of physical abuse. J.D. might not be the man he once was, the tall, straight figure who strode across his land like a god, but he wouldn’t let any woman beat him. Chris was convinced of that. No, Polly was a wheedler, a whiner, a poor-pitiful-me. Chris had no doubt that she worked on J.D. constantly for whatever it was she wanted, until it was easier just to give in to shut her up.
Louise Willis had been nothing like Polly. Louise never gainsaid her husband. Chris had wished so many times that she would, but all of Louise’s church training said that wives were to be submissive to their husbands. If J.D. said no, that was the end of it.
Now Polly wanted the house, and unless the three siblings stopped her, she’d get it, along with J.D.’s money, and probably every keepsake left in the house.