Late Spring, 1958
Never again would Roger Hilton give his heart so freely.
At least, that's what he kept telling himself as the miles unraveled behind him. His tires strummed a low traveling note that had been sustained over almost all his waking hours for the past three days.
The first two of those days formed a black hole in his memory. All he knew for sure was that he filled his car's gas tank five times in those two days and that he spent the first night sleeping curled up in the back seat beside some river. When he woke the next morning, he had no clue where he'd stopped. After driving for an hour down several dirt roads, he found a community store and discovered he was about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.Once he got his bearings, he drove back to his mother's house, cleaned up, then set out for Riverbend.
But I'm not really running away. Not really. He remembered telling himself that the first two days.
Now, closing on Riverbend, he cruised with one arm crooked on the window ledge, wind riffling his hair through the open window. He also closed on the truth.
If I hadn't been coming here, I'd have found someplace just as far away. He flicked the beginning of a tear from his eye.
As if that simple action set loose a reaction, tear followed tear, filling up his eyes and overflowing down his cheeks until seeing became almost impossible. The windshield blurred as if viewed underwater. Both hands on the wheel, Roger pulled the '57 Chevy off the road for the third time.Once stopped, he lowered his head until it rested on the steering wheel.
Sobs erupted from his throat, one after another. In between, he muttered, "Rachel, Rachel. Why?" His voice choked on each word. For a full five minutes, this went on. When the current bout with tears ended, Roger sat for a few more minutes, slouched against the car door. As the wetness dried on his cheeks, as it had dried so many times over the past few days, he accosted God. Why did You let this happen, God? I thought You'd given me the perfect mate. She seemed so right for me. Then You took her away. Why, God?What did I do to cause You to hate me?First you take away Dad, now this.It's just more than I can stand.
Since leaving Brownwood, visions of his fiancée handing the diamond back to him kept flashing before his eyes. He'd loved her forever. Nearly every time he thought of her, he had to pull over and either fight back the tears or give in to them.
After several more minutes of staring out the windshield, Roger drove on. I've got to stop this. It won't do for me to break down in the middle of talking to Mr. Price.
Since the age of 10, Roger's goal in life had been to be more successful in politics than his dad. Harold Price, the County Coordinator for his Party, knew Roger's dad from twenty years before, back when Price had first started out in politics. There had been a time when Roger's dad stood up for Price in a particularly contentious meeting of the Party. Price's politics had nothing to do with the conflict. His appointment had simply provided the forum for a long-time political opponent of Roger's dad's to threaten to derail the deal, out of spite. The man never forgave Roger's dad for facing him down. And Price never forgot what was done for him.
Price was pleased when Roger talked to him about possibly getting his backing to run for a county official's job. Several days ago, Price had called Roger to let him know the County Tax Assessor position would be open in the fall--and to let Roger know he was Price's choice to run for the job.
Roger's joy overflowed. He all but bounced around the room as he told Rachel.
Then she clobbered him. He didn't even know she had a boyfriend before, much less that the boyfriend was back in town.
But that's behind me, he reflected again, sitting up behind the wheel and checking his face in the rearview mirror. I have to keep telling myself that. Maybe I'll begin to believe it.
He'd already found a place to stay in Riverbend, so convinced was he about living there. Right after Price talked with him the first time, Roger rented a small apartment over a garage. Three rooms and a bath, it had just enough space for him.
And Rachel, I thought.
Biting his lip, he drove on to the apartment. Half an hour later, he sat in Mr. Price's office, composed and attentive.
"I'm really glad you decided to make the run for the Assessor's job, Roger."Price sat behind his dark wood desk, studying the younger man, the rich warmth of the fresh coffee in their cups wafting between them. Mr. Price was in his early fifties, the prime of his life. A full head of graying hair showed his experience in the world of politics. His voice came from deep within his chest, and his hazel eyes carried a wealth of wisdom. "When you first contacted me about running, I'll confess I was surprised. Maybe even shocked. After what happened to your father,..." He shook his head, his eyes filling with the sorrow of that memory. In a moment, he went on. "You realize you have to be a resident of the county for at least three months before you can declare your candidacy."
"Yes, Sir. That's why I'm here so far before the race." Roger did his best to project sincerity, competence, and a willingness to learn; all those things he thought the man in front of him would want to see in a young man getting his start in politics. "I thought six months in the area would look good to the voters before I declared myself."
"Smart. Yes, I think that's a good idea." Price's nodding agreement turned into an expression of concern after a moment."I understood you to say you were married when we talked before. I see you're not wearing a wedding band."
"I said I was engaged and would be married by this fall." Roger struggled for a few seconds against tears."But my fiancée changed her mind."
"Oh, that's too bad. I'm sorry."
Roger nodded his thanks and remained silent, as did the older man. He tried and failed to read Price's expression as his eyes touched the older man's and slid away.
"It was my feeling that being married, bringing a wife into the office with you, would help take voters' minds off your being so young." A fleeting smile softened the remark. "Give you an image of stability despite your years, so to speak."
Sitting forward with intensity, Roger spoke from his heart. "Mr. Price, I believe I can convince the voters of my maturity and ability, even without a wife. Being unencumbered, I'll spend more of my time serving the citizens of the county. Sure I'm young, but that means I'm also more teachable, and will bring ideas for improvement of services to the job. It also means I'll be able to pick up the skills necessary to do a good job quickly.Maybe more quickly than my opponent."
Price studied him for a moment longer. Then a more genuine smile crinkled up the corners of his eyes. "You do make good points, Roger. I'll give you that. Especially the last one. If the other party runs who I think they will, that will be a strong selling point." He lapsed back into silence for another couple of minutes. "Okay. You still have my support."
"Thank you, Mr. Price," Roger replied with every bit of relief he felt."I won't disappoint you."
Price rose and extended his hand, signaling the meeting was over. As when he had first met Price, Roger felt surprise that the other man wasn't seven feet tall. "Keep your nose clean, Roger. Don't talk to anyone about running in the fall. Let me tell you when to do that. Do you have a job yet?"
"Yes, Sir. Well, at least I think so. I'm going over to Hampton's Department Store after I leave here and see about a job he advertised."
"Hampton? Yes, he's a good man. Doesn't always vote the right way, but a good man. All right. I'll be in touch. Make sure my secretary knows how to get hold of you."
Roger hovered somewhere about ten feet above the sidewalk all the way to his car.