(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)
And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
The cat showed absolutely no interest in following Cameron as he slid the door to the secret room closed behind him, plunging into the darkness after Dorothy and Martin, hoping to find Dr Kerr.
“It's like a large safe room,” Martin said, “and an old, crude one!” He sounded enthusiastic about the discovery – and curious.
“But where's Terry, then,” Cameron wondered, unable to get his flashlight to work, shaking it to get the batteries to reconnect. He'd given them the newer ones, keeping the rusted silvery one for himself.
There were three flashlights in the one kitchen drawer with some loose batteries and they'd worked fine when he tried them but right now, standing in the tunnel's darkness, his light flickered and died. Shafts of only moderately bright light cut through the gloom ahead of him as Martin, then Dorothy tried out their flashlights.
“No, it connects almost directly into this tunnel,” Dorothy said, sweeping her light back and forth, “running parallel to the wall.”
Martin, being short, scanned his beam up and down. “Ceiling's about seven feet.”
Considering the cemetery wall was forty feet from the house, Cameron was relieved to know the tunnel wasn't underneath the graveyard.
“Well, we have two directions we could explore,” Dorothy said, “so what's next? This one probably goes to the old farmhouse.”
Martin suggested heading that way first, turning right. Cameron continued shaking his flashlight.
When he looked up, it was bright enough he didn't need the flashlight so he just started following Martin and Dorothy but those weren't the two people he saw ahead of him. “What the...?”
There was the cemetery wall and Purdue's oak tree, not quite as big, and it was sunny out, a summer day.
One was an older woman hanging laundry on a clothesline, perhaps somebody's grandmother, her gray hair pulled back in a bun, an apron hanging over her neck to her knees, tied behind the waist.
Leaning against the tree, a boy sat cross-legged, his sandy brown hair unkempt, his head buried in a book, completely still. He wore a t-shirt striped with blues, greens and browns, and faded jeans.
Cameron looked at them, his mouth hanging open. “What happened to the tunnel?” More importantly, where'd this tunnel lead him to?
Behind him, he heard the slamming of a screen door; the woman groaned. Looking past Cameron, she apparently didn't notice him.
“Henry,” she scowled, “ever since you were a little boy, I told you...”
“I know, 'don't let the door slam' – sorry, Aunt Jane. Hey there, Tommy-Boy!”
Without looking up, the boy mumbled, “Hi, Dad.”
“Aunt Jane? Tommy?” Cameron nearly stumbled backwards, sure he was going to faint, and looked down at the battered old flashlight. “Either the tunnel's a worm-hole or this flashlight's a...” – he wasn't sure what.
The man – Henry, Tom Purdue's father – walked past, tall, handsome, broad-chested with muscular arms – everything his skinny, studious son was not– carrying a baseball in one hand, a well-worn catcher's mitt in the other.
His aunt explained she'd just gotten him a new orchestration book from the library, pointing with a clothes-pin in her hand.
Her nephew was wearing dark-striped dress pants and black shoes, a white shirt open at the collar, already rumpled beneath suspenders, his tie probably in the back seat of the car with the jacket.
“A what? He should be more active, not moping around reading all day.” He slammed the baseball into his catcher's mitt.
“Now, Henry, shush,” she whispered back at him, “he practiced the piano for an hour, we walked down to the store...”
“It's been a year since his mother died – he should be playing more.”
The old woman shook her head and went back to hanging some blouses on the line, her mouth bristling with clothes-pins. Her flowered-print gingham dress and clunky black shoes only reinforced her grandmotherly look.
“Hey, Tommy-Boy, how 'bout a game of catch?”
“No thanks, Dad,” Shaking his head, Tommy never looked up from his book.
“And he doesn't like me calling him 'Tommy-Boy' any more,” Hank continued, whispering. Cameron was sure the boy could hear them.
“Maybe it's because he's not six any more? The boy's growing up, Henry.”
A pair of robins sang in echoes, one from a branch above Tommy, the other from a tree inside the cemetery.
“He still misses his mother,” Jane added quietly.
“And you think I don't?”
“I didn't say that, Henry – I just meant it's different for a child.”
Henry kicked at the dirt with his shoe.
“I'm just saying he needs to be more active, go out and play – play baseball with some of the neighborhood boys.” He looked over at his son and frowned, shaking his head in frustration.
“Well, if you hadn't noticed, most of my neighbors aren't the playful type,” she said, pointing over beyond the cemetery wall.
Tommy's father didn't approve of his son's wanting to be a musician, either, something Cameron could relate to all too well.
“First it was piano lessons and now he wants to play the flute!”
“If he's playing in a band, at least he's playing with other children. The high school has a very good band.”
“Yes, Aunt Jane, but I meant playing sports... that's what boys should do.”
Resting his head back against the tree, Tommy frowned and rolled his eyes. The robins had quit singing, perhaps flying away.
“Why can't he play the trombone,” Henry continued, getting a little too loud.
This time, Tommy got up and went inside. “Excuse me,” he said, avoiding them both, “I have to use the bathroom.”
“At least if he played the trombone, it's more of a man's instrument.” Henry no longer bothered keeping his voice down. “All the flute players I've seen are girls.” Now Cameron rolled his eyes.
“Well, maybe it'll be a good way for him to meet a girl.” She bent down to pick up another blouse.
“So like my parents,” Cameron thought, turning away, wondering if they could hear him even if they apparently didn't see him, “always talking over me as if I weren't there and couldn't hear them” – the number of hurtful things he couldn't help hearing when they would argue, pretending to lower their voices to a whisper. He wondered about going inside and whispering a few helpful words to Tommy, if he could hear them, if they'd matter – “Yeah, like hearing a strange voice in the bathroom is going to help...”
He remembered a time just like this one when his father had argued about his taking music lessons, especially the violin. “If we got a piano, it would be a great piece of furniture. At least it would impress all our friends.” Not that Cameron would ever be able to practice when he wanted to.
Though Cameron hadn't met Tom yet – the adult Thomas Purdue, Dr Kerr's composer-friend – he was already feeling a kinship with him and that was without knowing how events would play out in the future. If he talked to him now, would Tommy consider it empathy or pity? Wouldn't he sound like just another condescending adult?
Not to mention how difficult it would be explaining this to Dr Purdue whenever he finally met him – or even if. Cameron suddenly remembered that Terry's missing now, too. “How do I get back?”
At least Cameron knew how it turned out: Tom Purdue would become a musician, eventually a composer, but at what cost? Would he and his father, here, continue this dance and grow further apart? Henry had continued talking, complaining now how lonely it was around the house with Tommy so quiet since his mother died.
“There's this girl at work, nice girl” – Cameron could tell by the glint in his eye she was more than “nice” – “we've been out a few times, thought I'd invite her over for dinner.”
“With your cooking? Unless maybe you want her to take pity on you...” Henry shrugged his shoulders with a playful grin. Something in her expression indicated her concern for Tommy meeting her this way.
On cue, Tommy came back, careful not to let the screen door slam. “Let's talk about this later,” Aunt Jane suggested.
After she thanked Tommy for not slamming the door, she told her nephew, “We'd walked down past the park and ran into Mrs. McArthur – the one who'd left her cake out in the rain? She had her cocker spaniel with her – Checkers, I think she calls it – and Tommy got along really well with it.”
“Yeah, she's kinda old but friendly,” Tommy confirmed, settling back with his book. Then, blushing, he added, “I mean, the dog...”
“I'm sure Mrs. McArthur is, too,” his father said, unsuccessfully hiding a smile.
“It's just that while we were talking, Mrs. McArthur and I, I was watching Tommy playing with the dog and thought...”
“Stop right there,” Henry said, turning suddenly stern, “we're not getting another dog.”
Aunt Jane reminded him that Spike had died long ago, several years, now.
“Well, maybe – if he goes out for sports.”
“He's told me boys in gym class pick on him, the bigger boys; he's embarrassed being chosen last for a team – unlikely anyone'll be interested in him trying out even if he wanted to.”
“Maybe there's a reason they pick on him: what if maybe they know?”
“Know what?” She stopped, holding a yellow dress.
He held his hand out in front of him, making a limp-wristed gesture. “What if he's, you know, one of those?”
Looking over to see if Tommy had noticed, she slapped Henry's hand away.
Tommy pretended not to notice, even if his father had his back to him, but Cameron knew he must have heard, like that time his own mother had tried to calm his father down, not that he could have gone to his father and told him himself – coming out to his mother was difficult enough. There were many hurtful things he'd overheard though he tried not to listen, like Tommy was trying not to listen now. But once you've heard them, it's difficult to forget the pain they caused.
It was still one of the main reasons Cameron and his father rarely talked to each other even now, years later; why, after graduation, he was living with Terry instead of going back home. His father wouldn't accept him, probably laughed when he couldn't find a job, but Terry acted more like family to him.
Bustling back to the dress, picking up more clothes-pins, Aunt Jane tried to change the subject as unnoticeably as she could, thinking perhaps talking about work might distract Henry and be something less divisive.
“Has there been any more talk at the office about your being promoted,” sounding proud he wasn't doing just manual labor.
There was a pause while he stole a glance over toward his son, his voice a bit lower, a little secretive. “They're talking about maybe transferring me out to the new office in Pittsburgh.”
Jane's jaw dropped. “And when were you going to tell me, Henry Purdue?” her voice hoarse. “Have you told Tommy yet?”
Henry, kicking the dirt with his shoe, smacked the ball into his mitt.
“Nobody's told me anything, yet – well, not definite. Didn't want to say something, at least until they've made up their minds.”
From somewhere in the cemetery, Cameron could hear the cooing of a dove, and waited, like the dove, for a response. Henry hadn't noticed that Aunt Jane's eyes had started welling up with tears.
“It would be a good chance, you know, like starting over, no memories,” Henry said, shrugging his shoulders, “no sad associations. And it's not like Tommy has a lot of friends he'd miss, right? I'll put a sign up at work to sell her piano,” he added. “A friend said it could be worth something.”
The dove cooed but again got no response. Aunt Jane just stood there.
Henry, embarrassed by her silence, turned away from her, calling over to Tommy. “Time we leave, get back home for dinner.”
Jane reached down, suddenly an older-looking woman than before, and gathered up her laundry basket and clothes-pins, ready to go inside.
“Dad, could we wait a few more minutes? I'd really like to finish this chapter on the clarinet – it's really confusing.”
“Look! I said I want to leave now – put the damn book down!”
“I'm going in to check the meat loaf, it should be done soon – I've put a few potatoes in to bake. Why don't you stay and have dinner, here? There's plenty to go around.”
Henry looked at her and frowned, then turned to his son. “Well, Tommy?”
“Stay and finish those clarinets...”
“Thanks, Aunt Jane!”
Carrying her laundry things toward the backdoor, Aunt Jane took one last glance over the clothesline before hurrying into the house, asking Henry to follow her and help get things ready for dinner.
He would have known it was a summons, not a request she'd made, but he put off following her in.
There was an awkward silence while he stared at his son who kept reading his book, avoiding his father's disapproving eyes.
Slapping the baseball into his mitt wasn't helping Henry dissipate his frustration.
Cameron remembered many similar awkward moments where he and his father tried to avoid each other, not breaking their self-imposed silence. What did it mean, his standing here, invisible, witness to another's childhood anxieties? From some nearby tree, he could hear the robin begin to sing again but it wasn't helping to ease the tension.
The only way Cameron could escape such moments with his dad was to excuse himself to go practice, avoiding the confrontation. It always seemed, then, any possible conversation between them would become a confrontation.
That time his father made it clear he'd pay for college but after that, adding very drily, “you're on your own.” And he was never to bring home any “boyfriends,” not even for dinner. His selection of a psychology degree in college was an attempt to pursue something his father might approve, but now what?
“Dinner's almost ready – come and wash up,” Aunt Jane called from the window.
It occurred to Cameron he was a part of this scene but had no idea how to get out of it.
Should he follow them inside and continue observing them or would he miss some possible way of reconnecting with the tunnel?
Henry continued staring at the boy, pounding the ball into his mitt.
Wait, the flashlight! “Maybe if it worked...?”
Jane opened the back door and called again, “Well, you coming or not?”
Cameron impatiently slapped the old flashlight against his palm one more time, hoping maybe the batteries would reconnect and... what – open up a path back to the tunnel like walking on a moonbeam? Or click his heels together and say “No place like... Tom Purdue's home?” But he's already there, just a different century.
What if this flashlight were some time-travel device Purdue has for some reason... and what reason exactly could that be? It was so old, was it Aunt Jane's when Tom was a child?
Tommy stood up and folded the book in his arms, then walked silently past his dad – past Cameron – into the house.
Cameron heard Martin and Dorothy calling to him.
“Well, you coming or not?”
They were about ten feet down the tunnel.
“We don't have all day!”
“Yeah...” He hurried after them.
What the hell...?
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, October 10th]
The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.
©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.