A/N: The Corona Virus didn't happen in this story timeline.
Sleepless in South County
A consistent line of people showed up at Waldron's Funeral Home for Dennis Fulford's service. The guy operated the SC Diner for nearly forty years and he was known by just about everybody in town across multiple generations.
Arlie stood in the receiving line with his older brother Max and his older sister Mollie greeting mourners kind enough to pay their respects. The three siblings were grateful for the outpouring of support and the graciousness of those offering their remembrances.
Dennis Fulford was both widowed and divorced, his first wife (Agnes) deceased and his second wife (Arlie's mom Melissa) since remarried, declining the opportunity to attend the service. Arlie's half-siblings Lisa and Lenny (his mom's children from her first marriage) were also no shows.
"Dad would have shown up for Melissa's funeral if she had gone first," Max remarked with annoyance during a break receiving guests. He sure did look sharp in his Marine Dress Uniform. "Your mom could have done the same for him."
"I'm not my mother's keeper," Arlie replied in a deadpan delivery, having learned long ago not to get caught in the middle of combined family strife.
"They could have done it for the three of us," Mollie sighed, hurt by the snubs but Arlie was more forgiving, the role (mediator) he often played in this family.
Max was ten and Mollie was nine when their mother died. Their widowed Dad married local CNA Melissa Devino less than a year later and she brought her two children, also ages ten and nine, into the marriage.
"She liked his cooking," was Max's explanation when Arlie asked how their Dad got together with his mom.
"That's not all she liked," Mollie had said in a somewhat scandalous tone.
"Why'd our mother leave your father?" Arlie once asked Lisa.
"That's none of our business," was his half-sister's response.
It would be several years before Arlie learned the not so secret dirty little truth that Lisa and Lenny's married mother had an affair with Max and Mollie's widowed father which is what ended her marriage, brought the four siblings under one roof, and caused plenty of mixed loyalties, emotional dysfunction, and buried resentment among all concerned.
Arlie listened to Lisa's repeated bitterness about moving out of her nice twenty year old ranch home in one of the nicer neighborhoods and into Dennis Fulford's drafty ninety year old former farm house on Valley View Road (the Old State Road 661) a half mile from the diner.
Arlie understood that each of the siblings had a different take on the situation. Mollie, for instance, was much more romantic about the families coming together.
"We were the Bobbsey Twins," she'd tell Arlie when reminiscing about the early days when Lisa and Lenny moved in, always with a sense of sentimentality in her voice. "It was easy to tell us apart, of course. Me and Max with our dark hair and features, Lisa and Lenny both blonde and skinny."
"You're the mutt of both," Max would kid Arlie with a grin.
Arlie was born a few years after the two families merged, the only one of the five siblings to have both parents in common. It didn't take brain surgery for Arlie to figure out that there were two tribes within the house - the Fulfords and the Devinos.
"More like the Hatfields and the McCoys," Lenny remarked more than once.
The problem for Arlie was that he never knew which tribe he belonged to. Lisa and Lenny disappeared to see their "real" father who left the South County Police Department after the divorce, selling the Devino house and becoming a State Police officer at the Bourne Barracks near Cape Cod.
Max and Mollie took Lenny and Lisa's absences as abandonment.
"It's not my fault their mom died," Lenny would tell Arlie when the youngest passed along such feedback.
"I have a right to see my real dad," Lisa defensively argued.
Arlie understood that reality but he couldn't understand why it had to be an either/or proposition. He liked all four of his siblings (they were technically his half siblings even as Max and Molly were step-siblings to Lisa and Lenny).
There were natural rivalries and allegiances among them - each usually siding with their natural born parent when there were disagreements between the two adults. That left Arlie in a no win situation and he rarely took sides during various family squabbles and arguments knowing someone would be offended (included one of his parents!).
Nobody took him seriously anyway.
"You're just a kid," was the most common disclaimer whenever Arlie made the mistake of getting involved in some spat. When it got really heated, he would be told "you're too young to understand."
Arlie was probably the least surprised of the five siblings when his mother announced that she was leaving his father. Lisa and Lenny didn't want to admit that their mother was a two-time loser in the marriage department while Max and Mollie hated to see their father being alone again. Each had their own excuse for the breakup.
"Well, Dad worked endlessly every day but Sunday keeping the diner going," Mollie reasoned.
"My mom worked long hours as a CNA at the South County Nursing Home," Lisa argued.
Arlie agreed that the stress of both jobs certainly was a major reason for the marriage ending but he also knew (although he'd never say it to his siblings) that the various problems that came with raising teenagers (especially step kids) certainly didn't help matters, with all the sibling rivalries, tributes, factions and confrontations happening on a daily basis. Arlie lost count of the number of fights that frequently took place, either between various siblings or with one or both of the parents.
"It was a no win situation for everybody involved," Lenny told Arlie soon after the break up. "Especially for you."
Arlie's mother never told him why she wanted out of her second marriage, something he held against her. Max was already out of the house, having joined the Marines and Mollie moved in with her boyfriend. Lenny soon joined the Navy and Lisa decided to go live with her father.
Arlie and his mother moved into a small apartment not far from the nursing home. Arlie's mother took his father to court to settle the custody conflict regarding seven year old Arlie. The judge awarded the mother full custody with visitation rights going to his father during school vacations and alternate holidays.
Arlie would have been okay with that arrangement if his mother hadn't decided to move to North Carolina to be closer to her parents, making Arlie the biggest loser paying the biggest price for his mother leaving his father and that created a whole new set of resentments, bitterness and challenges.
All of that was twenty years ago, though, as Arlie stood in the receiving line with his two half siblings ten feet from the coffin that contained their father's remains.
Arlie had been eyeing the people coming into the parlor to pay tribute to their dad, most stopping by the poster board with various photos of Dennis Fulford captured through the years, reading the cards attached to the flowers, and stopping at the coffin to say a quick prayer or offer a moment of silence.
Arlie wasn't sure who he was expecting to see enter the parlor until he saw her – Willow Malden - and suddenly he knew he had come full circle.