Sunday, January 23, 2022

BEST FRIENDS AND PROMISES - Chapter 3




 



                       Chapter 3


After Aaron’s brief mid-May visit with Johnny Blanton and Press Fletcher, life at the Peck’s Elm Street home returned to its predictable springtime routine. As the weather warmed Leona spent enjoyable hours in the back yard, tending her flowers and vegetables, while Aaron kept the lawn mowed and tried his best to keep up with her ever-growing “honey do” list.

For as long as they could remember, summer had been a family time. Their daughters, Mindy and Carol, had been raised on backyard picnics, camping weekends, and day trips to the coast and mountains. Over the years, as the girls became took on the demands of their own growing families, those Peck family get-togethers had become harder to manage on a regular basis. 

There were, however, two annual gatherings that remained a part of the clan’s annual calendar. Christmas dinner at Grandma Leona’s was the centerpiece of the family’s holiday. And mid-June, when school was out for the summer, was sure to include a long weekend at the beach. 

For those seaside occasions Leona rented a large house in one of the coastal resort areas....something large enough to accommodate the girls and their families. There, from Friday noon to Sunday evening the Peck family came together for fun, fellowship, and feasting.

For that summer’s outing Leona had found a two story, shingled-sided home just a block from the beach. Its worn exterior was weathered to a shiny silver hue, and the comfortably casual interior was roomy enough to offer something for everyone.

Video games for the youngsters would be going nonstop in the basement, and each night was sure to include a loud and lively pinochle game. For three hectic days everyone was immersed in busy, family-centered fun.

All day long couples and kids traipsed back and forth to the beach, dodging the unpredictable rain squalls, returning with shoes full of sand. On Saturday morning two carloads of aunts, uncles, and cousins drove off to check out the local outlet mall. 

At the heart of all that coming and going was Saturday lunch, the one time when everyone came together in one place. From the mall, the beach, and well-fought video games......they gathered for Grandma Leona’s crab and potato-salad meal, the undisputed highlight of their beach holiday. 

Tables were pushed together in the living room and covered with layers of newspaper. Everyone was seated and eager to begin when Carol and Mindy brought two heaping bowls of potato salad from the refrigerator. All was ready....except for Grandma Leona and her bucket of crab.

Mindy called for Grandma to join them, but her summons went unanswered. Carol slipped away from the table and walked to the kitchen. There was no sign of her mother. She started down the hallway to the bathroom, calling as she went. Still there was no response.

By then Mindy had joined her sister. “Why would she leave now?” she asked when they returned to the kitchen. “She knew it was time for lunch.”

“I don’t know. She’s just gone. And the crab’s not here either. I don’t understand.” 

Carol started through the utility room, toward the back steps. Then suddenly, she stopped short. “Mindy. Come here.” 

Mindy peered around the door jamb to where Carol was pointing. There, just beyond the clothes dryer, she saw their mother sitting on the floor.... back against the wall, her head buried in her hands. At first glance it was hard to tell if she was crying, hiding, or even conscious.

Carol’s surge of relief quickly gave way to undisguised concern. “Mom?” she said, bending low to raise her mother’s head. Leona pushed her hand away. “What is it, Mom? Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

When Leona finally looked up there were no tears in her eyes....only a sad, impassive gaze. Her face was one that showed its age. The lines, wrinkles, and crow’s feet were there to be seen. She had never tried to hide them. At that moment, however, her always vibrant blue eyes had been captured by a vacant, haunting stare.

Reaching down Mindy offered to help her mother to her feet, half afraid that she might again resist. Instead, Leona glanced up at Mindy, then Carol, and allowed herself to be pulled upright. A moment later she was ready to speak.

“I forgot.” It was a quiet whimper, barely audible. “I forgot all about it.”

“What did you forget, Mom? Why were you sitting back here?”

Suddenly Leona’s eyes blinked back to life. She straightened up and stepped back from Mindy. “I forgot the crab, silly,” she said, anxiously wringing her hands in the folds of her apron. “I forgot all about it. You know how your father likes his crab. And I forgot. What am I going to do?”

The girls had gathered their mother in a tight three-way embrace by the time Aaron came from the front room. “What’s wrong?" he asked. "Is Mom okay?” With a finger he raised his wife’s chin. “What is it, honey?”

Leona looked up into his face then turned away, fighting back the tears that wanted to escape. 

It was Mindy who answered her father’s question. “She forgot to buy the crab. That’s all. It’s no big deal. We’ll just have to go get the crab.” She pulled her mother’s head to her shoulder. “It’s not a problem, Mom. Give us a few minutes and we’ll be right back in business.”

It took no more than half an hour for Don and Hal, the girls’ husbands, to return with the missing crab....steamed, cleaned, and ready to eat. By then Leona was seated in her customary place at the head of the the long table. 

From all appearances she had moved beyond her frustrating memory lapse, although a joking aside from one of the grandchildren was enough to produce a moment of sullen dejection. That lasted only as long as it took Carol’s easy smile to transport her mother back to the warmth of the family table.


                 ~~~


Later that afternoon, after a round of sing-a-longs and board games, Leona was in the kitchen preparing popcorn with her granddaughters. Outside, on the front porch, Aaron stood looking west through the fog dampened daylight to where the broad street that ran in front of the house blended into the gray, ocean-bound horizon. 

As always he had enjoyed their family holiday and the opportunity to reconnect with their extended family. Mindy and Carol lived in the Portland suburbs, no more than fifty miles from Tanner, but far enough to make an unhurried visit something of a rarity. A long and leisurely weekend together was something special.

By any measure their time together had been a success. Everyone they had invited was on hand. The weather had held off long enough for a couple of long beach walks. The kids had played their games and had their fun. In fact, as Aaron revisited the day’s activities, he was aware of only one unaccountable breach in an otherwise perfect day.

“I wonder what that was all about?” Aaron had not heard Mindy’s approach until her question pulled him back to the present. “I’ve never seen mom act like that,” she added. He was a bit surprised to hear how closely his daughter’s wondering mirrored his own.

Standing beside him at the porch railing, Mindy was shaking her head as she continued. “I’ve seen Mom forget things before. We all have. I guess that’s a part of what getting older is for her. But I’ve never seen her be so disappointed in herself, or go into hiding like that. She looked so hurt and confused.”

“That’s the part that makes no sense to me,” Aaron agreed. “As far as I know she remembered everything else. She didn’t forget the dinner. She didn’t forget that she was supposed to get the crab.

"The only thing she forgot was to actually go out and buy it.” His laugh was more puzzled than humorous. “And then she remembered that she’d forgot. What the hell does that mean?”

“Well, she seems to be over it now. I just hope she can relax and enjoy herself.”

Aaron’s gaze tracked off toward the darkening Pacific horizon and his thoughts turned, not for the first time, to subtle hints of a future he preferred not to imagine. 

It was true. Leona had become more forgetful. But then he too wrestled with misplaced car keys and unremembered names. After all, they were seventy-two years old. That was to be expected. 

Still, he felt no need to burden his daughters with the troublesome understanding that their mother’s most recent episode was not the first time he had watched her swept away in moments of confused frustration. 

He remembered other instances during the last few months when the behavior he expected from Leona seemed just beyond her reach. It had been a hurtful thing to watch, her instinctive understanding that things were not right. For months that growing vulnerability had been his secret. Now, for the first time the whole family had witnessed its impact.


                               ~~~


 At home again after their beach holiday the Pecks’ returned to a long-familiar round of activities. Leona spent her days cleaning their already clean home, gardening in the back yard, and reading in the comfortable shade of the patio. 

To Aaron’s way of thinking it was the garden where his wife best displayed her creative gifts. Each winter she spent long hours poring over seed and flower catalogs, searching for new varieties, colors, and combinations of plantings. Invariably the result was  something special....bringing vibrant life to an otherwise drab expanse of grass and garden. 

To be sure, summer was a good time in the Pecks’ satisfying retirement schedule. They were as busy and involved as they wanted to be, spending their time the way they chose. 

Still, though he could not name them, Aaron was increasingly aware of the gathering forces that threatened their good times. Those vague intuitions of what lay ahead made each summer evening spent on the patio with Leona, visiting quietly and admiring her floral handiwork, all the more more gratifying.







Friday, January 21, 2022

BEST FRIENDS AND PROMISES - Chapter 2


 





                            Chapter 2

Minutes after turning off the interstate at the second Lawrence exit, Aaron and Johnny were driving through the quiet westside suburb, following Aaron’s computer-generated map to the modest, two-story home of Press Fletcher’s son, Dan.    

Pulling into the driveway, they walked to the front porch, where Johnny rang the door bell. There was no answer and no sound from inside the house. For ten or fifteen seconds they waited. Then, as Johnny reached again for the buzzer, the door inched open.

Standing there beside Johnny, Aaron realized at once they had the wrong address. It had to be. The bent old man standing in the doorway was leaning heavily on a brown, shepherd’s-crook cane. Curly, uncombed gray hair fell over his ears. His jowls sagged and his eyes were puffy. Everything about him screamed “old and tired.”

“Press?” Johnny asked timidly. “Is that you?”

The gap-toothed grin that spread across Preston Fletcher’s wrinkled face was enough to give him away. He shuffled aside and motioned them into the house. 

“I guess you two weren’t lost after all," he observed. "I was beginning to wonder. Anyway, I’m glad you made it. Come on in.”

Once inside Aaron stepped back for a second to take in the present version of Press Fletcher. At closer range the effect was  even more startling. His stooped shoulders, protruding belly, scruffy hair, and cane suggested an oversized gnome. Clearly the years, and large doses of hard living, had conspired to reshape their once-dashing friend.

“Damn, I’m glad you two could make it,” Press gushed. He pumped Johnny’s hand with exaggerated enthusiasm, then stepped back to give his friends a more thorough once over. 

“Looks like the years have treated you two pretty well. That’s a good thing....because tonight we’re going to have ourselves some serious fun.”

“Just don’t be getting too wild on us,” Johnny cautioned. “I don’t suppose any of us can carry on the way we used to.”

“Speak for yourself,” Press countered. “I’ll be damned if I’m ready to slow down too much.”

While Press and Johnny renewed their long-interrupted acquaintance Aaron stepped aside, struggling to reconcile Press’ bold words with the bent old man standing before him. Their friend’s appearance may have changed since their last visit, but his priorities and life view appeared to have remained firmly intact.

Dispensing with further formalities, Press motioned the two of them toward the long sofa. He pulled a straight-back chair closer and a moment later leaned forward to inspect Aaron’s silver wedding band. “My God, Peck. Are you and Leona still together?”

“Of course.”

“Good for you. Though I can’t imagine why she’s put up with you all these years.” Then, jabbing a finger in Johnny’s direction, “I don’t suppose you’re tied down like that, are you?”

“No way,” Johnny answered. “It took a while, but I finally got over that. When I found out the third time wasn’t the charm I just gave up on the whole idea.”

Press was laughing again. “God, I hope we can keep Peck out of trouble tonight. I’d hate to have Leona on my case again.”

“I’ll try to behave myself,” Aaron nodded.

“We’ll see. I’m betting we can stir up a little action.” Press Fletcher was grinning now, solidly in his element....talking a good game, ready to close the sale.

“I’ve been here before, you know. For a little podunk town it has some pretty lively places. They’ll have good music. And the single ladies are usually friendly.”

“Do you suppose they’ll be looking for old fossils like us?” Johnny asked.

“You just wait and see. I’m guessing this is your night to get lucky.” Press’ face lit up as he reached out to slap Johnny on the shoulder.


                                ~~~


It was nearly five-thirty when Dan Fletcher walked from the garage, through the house, to the living room....where his father sat visiting with his guests. At first glance the son appeared to be forty-something, slender and good looking....a faithful approximation of his father as a younger man.

“I’m glad to meet you fellows,” Dan said, shaking hands with Aaron and Johnny. “I know the old man’s been looking forward to seeing you two again.” 

He patted his father’s shoulder and sat down on the sofa. “If you fellows want to order out for pizza tonight, there’s a number on the refrigerator door. I’ll be gone, so you’ll have the place to yourself.”

“I don’t know how he does it,” Press said, making no effort to suppress his easy laughter. “I’ve been here two days, and Dan’s been gone both nights.”

 “Come on, Dad. It’s not like I’m doing the town or anything. I’ve been at Stephanie’s.”

“I’ve never met this Stephanie person.” Press was not about to let his son off that easily. “But she must be a night person. Seems like it’s nearly daylight when the garage door wakes me up.”

By then Johnny and Aaron were exchanging knowing glances, remembering how well their friend’s description of his son had once fit the father. Could such things be inherited?

“Don’t you believe everything this old guy tells you,” Dan protested. “Anyway, you fellows make yourselves at home. The place is yours for the night.”

As Dan stood Press reached for his arm. “Not tonight, son. We won’t be staying home. We’re heading downtown. After all, it’s our reunion, our big night out. That’s what these fellows came for.... to see a bit of Lawrence night life.”

“A bit of night life?” Dan paused to look from one old face to another. “How the hell is that going to work?”

“We’re going out. That’s all. We’re heading downtown, to see what’s happening. That’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. Don’t worry, Aaron has his car.”

Pulling a chair up to the sofa, Dan sat down next to his father....directly in front of Aaron and Johnny. “So you folks are out to see the town. Probably looking for some action. Right?”

“I think we’re old enough to do that,” Press interjected. “Don’t you fellows agree?”

Dan paused to consider his father’s words before looking back to Aaron and Johnny. “Look, I don’t know you two. I have no reason to be looking out for you. So what you do is your own business.

“But I do know this old guy.” He nodded towards his father. “I know what he’s dealing with. And I do care what happens to him.”

“Come on, Dan,” Press pleaded. “There’s no need to be so damn dramatic. I haven’t seen these two rascals in twenty years. We’re certainly due for a good time....actually overdue. We owe it to ourselves.”

“You mean like the ‘good time’ you had last winter....when you ended up in Intensive Care? Is that the kind of good time you’re looking for?”

“Don’t be silly. I know perfectly well how to take care of myself.”

“Well of course you do. Except that sometimes you forget. Sometimes you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.” 

Again Dan turned to their visitors. “You fellows go right ahead and do the town. Take this old guy with you if you like. Have yourselves a good time. But before you go, you need to understand a few things. Stuff he probably won’t tell you.

“First of all, Dad is seriously diabetic. With a heart that runs at about half strength. His body doesn’t tolerate alcohol very well. And if he eats too much of the wrong things, or not enough of the right things, he can get messed up pretty fast.”

By then Press Fletcher had pushed himself out of his chair. Leaning heavily on his cane he shuffled to the front window, away from the others' prying eyes.

“Dad is supposed to monitor his blood sugar every couple of hours," Dan continued. "Sometimes he forgets to do that, especially if he’s having a good time. 

"Most days he has to give himself two or three insulin injections. If he waits too long and gets too weak he can’t do that himself. In that case, he’ll be hoping you will do it for him. As for the heart thing ....he may just pass out on you, and let you figure out what’s gone wrong.”

Dan stood and looked over at his reclusive father. “That about covers it. Doesn’t it, Dad?” Then, starting toward the kitchen, “You fellows enjoy your evening.”

Press Fletcher stood motionless, staring blankly out into the front yard, unwilling to face his friends. For long seconds no one knew what to say. Not surprisingly it was Johnny Blanton who finally broke their impasse. 

Stepping up beside Press, he draped an arm over his friend's shoulder. “You okay?”

Without turning,  Press shook his head. “Damn kid. He makes it sound so much worse than it really is. A few beers would do me good. Help me relax. Besides, you fellows came all this way to have a good time. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“I’ll tell you what, old buddy,” Johnny said. “Maybe Peck and I didn’t explain this well enough. We came down here to see you. To visit. 

"The fact is, we’re probably a lot like you. We like to remember all the hell we used to raise. But we can’t do much of that anymore.” As he spoke, Johnny realized that he had never before allowed himself to say those words out loud.

“The point is,” Aaron added, joining his friends at the window, “We can all recall what pistols we used to be. That’s who we were, big as life. But tonight we don’t need to prove that to anyone. If we had a quiet dinner, with the stuff you’re supposed to eat, that would be just fine. We have lots to talk about. Lots of catching up to do.”

“Are you sure that would be okay? You wouldn’t be too disappointed?”

Finally Press Fletcher turned to face them, his craggy face was pinched into a dejected scowl. “Damn, I’m glad no one told us back then how it would be at this age. You know....about being sick, and puny, and all that. Seems like that would have taken all the fun out of it.“


                                 ~~~


Later that evening a heavy quiet captured their thoughts as Aaron and Johnny started up the interstate towards Tanner....weighing still-warm memories of a pleasant evening spent with an old friend against the cold reality of the persons he, and they, had become. They were twenty minutes from Lawrence before Johnny finally brought them back to the present. 

“Damn. I wish we hadn’t seen Press looking like that. He’s so old and broke down. Can’t hardly get around. I’d much rather remember the old Press, the one we knew back then, all full of piss and vinegar.”

“Yeah. It was pretty sad,” Aaron agreed. “Not only that, except for a bunch of old school stuff and telling lies about our grandkids, we really didn’t have all that much to talk about.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Johnny added. “I’m really glad Dan talked us out of going downtown.”

Aaron had to laugh at that. “That would have been embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Sure as hell we’d have been a pitiful sight.”

Johnny laced his hands behind his head. “It makes you think, doesn’t it? Nothing’s the same any more. Getting old changes everything.”

“Yeah," Aaron answered. "I suppose that's right. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. Everything’s changed. Especially us. I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  It’s what we have to expect. But when you look back to who we were, or thought we were, it’s still kind of hard to take.”

It was just after ten o’clock when Aaron, having dropped Johnny off, pulled into the garage of his Elm Street home. Even before he reached the back door, it opened and Leona appeared.

“I thought I heard something out here,” she said from the doorway. “Is anything wrong? You’re home early. I thought you were spending the night in Lawrence. Maybe two, you said. I figured that once you fellows got going, there was no telling when you’d run down.”

“That’s probably your answer right there. We never ‘got going’.” 

Aaron followed her inside, dropping his overnight bag in the hallway and taking off his coat. “Press is so darn old and messed up he can hardly get around. Has diabetes and a bad heart. We ended up settling for a quiet dinner and a nice visit.”

Leona was reading the weariness in his eyes. Turning off the already-muted television she asked, “Are you sorry you went?”

It had the sound of a simple, straight forward question, though in fact it was not simple at all. It had been an upsetting ordeal....watching their old friend deal with ill health and the effects of age, seeing how he struggled to resist the irresistible. Was Aaron sorry he had gone? Would it have been better not to see how the years had treated Preston Fletcher? 

“I’m not sorry,” he finally answered. “It was good to visit with him again, to remember all the good times we had. The thing is, the more we talked about the old days the easier it was to believe  those war stories we were telling each other. 

"When you’ve spent a lifetime stretching the truth the way we sometimes do, you’re apt to end up with a whole new truth. But when you take a step back, you can see that a lot of that stuff was just illusion. We talked like that’s who we used to be. But that wasn’t really us, even in the best of times. And I guarantee you, that’s not who we are now.”

Leona rolled her eyes. “And here I was, thinking you two had gone off to do the town and have some fun. It sounds like you spent the whole time thinking dark thoughts. What fun was that?”

“We did have a good time. Had some fun. Some laughs.”

“But there was a lot of the other stuff too. Wasn’t there?”

“Yeah, there was. And I think I know why it struck me the way it did. Johnny and I have been around each other all along....from 'then' to 'now.' We’ve watched each other change as we got older, just like you and I have. 

"The changes were gradual, so we hardly noticed them. Seeing Press for the first time, after so long, was a heck of a shock. He’d changed so much. I suppose he must have thought the same thing, looking at us.”

“So you admit that you’re getting older,” Leona laughed. “Maybe  you’ll believe me now.”

“Of course I’m getting older. I feel that every day.” About then Aaron was drawn back to thoughts of Press standing at the window, turning away from them, wanting to hide the person he had become. 

“What was so sad was watching Press trying to pretend he's not the guy he is. No matter how hard he wanted to avoid it, there was no getting past what his body told him was true.”

Leona stood behind Aaron’s recliner, messaging his shoulders, hoping to retrieve him from his sad thoughts. “You know what, old guy? You’re exactly the right age for me.....and it’s good to have you home early.”

“It’s good to be home. Maybe I’ll have time for a nap before bedtime.”


Wednesday, January 19, 2022

BEST FRIENDS AND PROMISES - Chapter 1


 



              Chapter 1


“Come on, Peck, It'll be great. Just like old times.” Johnny Blanton was wound up, intent on selling his hopeful idea. 

“It’s been way too long since we had a night on the town....a chance to kick back and get a little crazy. God, we haven’t seen Press in twenty years. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. He’ll only be in Lawrence for a week. We need to get down there for at least one night. Two would be better.” 

“I hear what you’re saying,” Aaron Peck nodded. “It would be good to see him again. But a night on the town? I’m not sure any of us are up to that.”

The barmaid set a fresh round of beers in front of them, prompting Johnny to reach across the table and drag a five dollar bill from in front of Aaron.

“Keep the change, honey,” he said with a wink before returning to his pitch.

“What do you mean, 'We're not up to it'? Of course we are. Seventy-two is sure as heck not too old to have some fun. Especially when your mind’s not a day over forty.”

“Look, I don’t know about you,” Aaron continued. Pausing to brush a peanut shell off the front of his sweater, he was reaching for the words to explain his logic. “But when my mind and body don’t agree, it’s usually my body that’s telling the truth. I can’t pretend I’m a kid. I don't do 'nights on the town' anymore.” 

Sitting there in a back booth at Davey’s Dive, across the table from each other, the two of them had the look of a mismatched pair. As always Aaron was clean shaven and well-groomed.... wearing a coordinated outfit of freshly pressed slacks, sport shirt, and unbuttoned cardigan.

Johnny Blanton, on the other hand, had probably worn the same jeans and sweatshirt for three or four days. They had certainly never been ironed, any more than his hair had been combed. As usual, the obvious difference in their appearance and manner said more about the caring presence of Aaron’s wife Leona, and the absence of anyone to oversee Johnny’s wardrobe or lifestyle.  

“Anyway,” Aaron added, “I don’t suppose Leona would be too thrilled about me having a night out with you and Press. She’s always said that you two were a bad influence on me. Which is true. 

"And when it comes to Press....you can probably guess what she thinks of him. Hell, the first time she ever met him, at our five-year reunion, he tried to corner her in the janitor’s closet.”

“Come on, he didn’t mean anything by that.”

“He knew damn well she was married.”

“Well of course he did. But he didn’t know she was married to you. It was a case of mistaken identity.”

“Mistaken identity?” Aaron had to laugh at that, reminding himself there were no limits to his friend's flexible logic when he was on the trail of a happening. 

Johnny had been stagnating in his cramped little apartment for months, waiting for something that would break the monotony. Now, having detected a promising possibility, he was not about to let up. 

“Peck, can’t you see what’s at stake here?” Johnny countered, apparently turning serious. “Press doesn’t get out here very often any more. Who knows when, or if, we’ll ever see him again.

"This might be our last chance to spend some time with him....ever. You know that’s how it can be at our age. I’ll bet if Leona understood that, she’d know right away how important it was for you to see him one last time.”

“Then maybe you’d better explain that to her.” Aaron finished his beer, preparing to end their late afternoon visit.

“There’s no need for me to do that," Johnny answered   "Once she sees how much you want that last visit with old Press, she’ll probably insist that you go.”

“Don’t you con me. Leona’s not about to get all choked up about a ‘last meeting’ with Press Fletcher. You know that.”  

Sliding out of the booth Aaron stood, ready for a compromise. “But I’ll see what she says. Okay? Now, I have to get going. You need a ride?”

It had been a bitter pill for Johnny Blanton to swallow....surrendering his driver’s license after his latest heart attack. Losing that independence, and having to rely on friends or public transportation to get around, had been a hard thing. There had been a time when he considered the sad-faced riders staring from a passing city bus to be second-class citizens. He was not at all comfortable finding himself in their company.

“Just drop me off at the corner,” Johnny suggested as they neared his apartment. “And call me when you know what Leona says....if she’ll let you off the leash for a day or two. You know we’d have a great time. I’ll bet that would do you good. You’ve been due for a chance to loosen up a bit.” 


                              ~~~            


It was late that night, as he and Leona lay reading in bed, when Aaron finally convinced himself it was time to act. He laid his open book face down on his chest and cleared his throat to say, “I was talking with Johnny today.”

Leona did not look up from her story. “You said the two of you had stopped at Davey’s.”

“Yeah, we did. Had a nice visit. Turns out he had some news about Press Fletcher.”

“Oh, my. Is he still alive?”

“Yeah, he’s alive. Matter of fact, he’s coming out here next week.”

Leona was not smiling when she turned to him, looking over the top of her reading glasses. “And Johnny Blanton is campaigning for a night out with the boys. Right? That sounds like a ‘Johnny’ sort of thing. And Press too.”

“Well sure, we’d like to spend some time with Press. It’s been a long time. He doesn’t get out here very often. Who knows, it could be our last chance for a visit.” Aaron flinched a bit at having resorted to Johnny’s lame logic.

“That would be a shame.” Leona returned to her book.

“That’s a fine way to talk.”

This time she dropped her book loudly on the night stand and took off her glasses. Fluffing her pillow, she appeared ready to tune him out. When she finally looked back over her shoulder, she was smiling grimly. 

“I understand what you’re up to, Aaron. You don’t have to go through all this nonsense for my benefit. Just tell me when the big night will be. I’ll arrange to go to the movies with Sarah. You fellows can have the house to yourselves.”

Perhaps Leona assumed she had achieved closure. In fact, she had only complicated Aaron’s dilemma. 

“That’s just it, dear. He’s not coming here to Tanner. He’ll be at his son’s place in Lawrence. He wants us to go down there for a night, or maybe two.”

A second later Leona was sitting up, shaking her head. “Lawrence? Why am I not surprised?”

“Come on, Honey. It’s only an hour away. It’s not like we’d be leaving the state or anything.”

“Don’t you ‘Honey’ me. For as long as I can remember it’s been like that.” It had been a while since Aaron last heard that particular complaint. Clearly she was still up to the task. 

“Starting back when Carol was a baby,” she continued. “You and Johnny rode off to Baja on your stupid motorbikes. Only Johnny couldn’t afford one. So you bought it for him. Then there was that dumb moose-hunting trip to Canada. You paid for that too. And the golf tournaments in California. Whenever you got tired of being a husband and father you were taking off somewhere with Johnny Blanton. I don’t suppose you’ll ever outgrow that.” 

She may have had more to say, but her words were apparently overtaken by a momentary wave of exasperated resignation. For his part, as much as he wanted his wife to hear his reasoning, Aaron had concluded additional details would be better left until the morning. 

With a deep sigh Leona turned away and reached over to turn out the light. For a long, silent minute they lay side by side in the darkness, each of them wondering if anything had been decided. Finally she reached for his hand.

“You just be careful, you old fool. And for Heaven sakes, remind Johnny that he’s not a kid anymore.” 

How many times in their fifty years of marriage had she tried to make that point? How many times had either Johnny or Aaron, listened? 

“And don’t drink too much. You’ll be driving. Remember?”

“Honey, we’re just going for a visit, to catch up on old times.”

“I know all about you three and your visits.” She was trying to scold, though the hard-edged caution she wanted him to hear was lost in her caring. “You’ll end up buying all the beer, then try to keep up with Johnny....though we both know that’s impossible.”

“Come on, babe.” Aaron tugged on the blanket to recapture his share. “I’m not a kid any more. I know how to act.”

“Maybe so, but you’ll be with Johnny and Press. And they’ll be acting like kids.” Leona rolled over, ready to check out. “Let’s go to sleep.”


                         ~~~    


Tanner to Lawrence, a one-hour drive....sixty minutes laced with the promise of a night or two lived beyond what had become the bland sameness of their everyday lives. Had the years changed anything, Aaron wondered. Would keeping up with Press Fletcher be the same daunting challenge it had been in times past? Even if it was, Johnny was bound to try his best.

They were fifteen minutes down the interstate before Johnny’s remembering unexpectedly turned verbal. “Old Press always was a cool one. There weren’t many guys like him. God, he had a way with the ladies, even as a kid. He must have been born with it.”

“Yeah," Aaron nodded. "He had the touch all right. There were a few times when he even managed to fix me up with a date.” 

He let those memories rattle around in his head for moment, tracking back to the beginning of his friendship with Johnny. 

“You remember how I was then, back in the ninth grade. I was a gawky kid. I stuttered. Had terminal acne. And there I was, just beginning to understand why I liked girls.”

“I knew you’d eventually figure that part out.”

“Hey, that’s who I was back then. That was the Aaron Peck everyone knew. What girl was going to get excited about being around me? Without you and Press to get me dates I’d have probably ended up being a hermit.” 

Pausing for a moment, Aaron recalled how he had managed to avoid that unfortunate outcome. “That’s just the way it was back then," he said. "At least until I had a chance to start over.”

“Start over?”

“Sure.” Aaron nodded. “It wasn’t a plan or anything. It just worked out that way. I went off to college, where no one knew anything about me. I didn’t have to deal with all that baggage I’d packed around through junior high and high school....all the stuff that made the old Aaron who he was.”

“So you reinvented yourself. Was that it? You became the new and improved Aaron Peck?”

“Well, maybe a little 'new.' Probably not all that 'improved.' The thing is, I didn’t have to live down anyone’s notion of who I was. I was starting from scratch....making first impressions for the second time.”

“And that seemed to work, eh? That ‘new’ you.”

Aaron was grinning at the thought of it. “Do you think a girl like Leona would have paid any attention to me in high school? Not a chance. You remember how it was back then. By the eighth or ninth grade everyone had been given a label of some kind. Once they pinned that on you, there was no getting rid of it. 

“Think back to our last reunion, fifty years after we’d graduated. There were lots of folks there who still remembered us by those old labels. As far as they knew, that’s still who we were.”

“So what kind of bad stuff could they say about you back then? “Johnny asked. “Besides the fact that you ran around with me?”

“That, and a few other vices I’d picked up along the way. Anyway, I went off to college and bingo.... I met this very classy and really cute girl who had never heard all that stuff about me. Turns out she liked me the way I was, without ever knowing who I used to be.”

“So you’re a fan of starting over?”

“Actually, it happens all the time. Lots of guys don’t marry their high school sweethearts. Which is probably a good thing. Instead, they go off to college, or work, or the service. They go places where those old labels don’t mean a damn thing. Instead of being who everyone else thinks they are, they can be themselves. Believe me. It works.”


                                  ~~~


They drove on in silence, caught up in the shared wonder of how easy it was for old men to think such young thoughts. To the casual observer they had the look of graying maturity. Yet in one form or another they had been thinking those “young thoughts” since junior high school.  

Their alliance had begun in the eighth grade. By high school they had become inseparable. During those adolescent years, Preston Fletcher had been their closest ally. Like them he was a loner, with a rebellious streak that rivaled Johnny’s. He and Johnny were alike in other ways. They both played sports, but preferred good times....something with an edge....like drinking beer and looking for girls who did the same.

Yet even at that early age Aaron and Johnny were different in every conceivable way. While Aaron had generally made the honor roll, Johnny never bothered to try. Beyond the ever-present need to maintain his athletic eligibility, the academic elements of his education had seldom been a priority.

Even now, more than fifty years later, those differences remained. Aaron was the quiet one.... analytical, deliberate, and socially indifferent. Johnny Blanton, on the other hand, was the outgoing partner....everyone’s friend, quick with a quip, and possessed of a maddening tendency to act before he thought.

There were times when it was hard to tell what Aaron was thinking. With Johnny there was never any doubt. Yet for all those years, especially in pursuit of some out-of-the-ordinary happening, they had been a team.

That afternoon, wheeling down the interstate, as he replayed Johnny’s vision of a “night on the town,” Aaron had to smile at the irony of it. There they were, seventy-two years old, decades removed from their heady schoolboy days, yet still looking for “something with an edge.”

“This is going to be so great,” Johnny proclaimed for the third time. “It’s been ages since we’ve had a real night out. I’ll bet we’re all due for the chance to unwind a bit, maybe get a little crazy.”

“And you think we’re up to that?”

“I know for sure I am. And you know that Press is always ready for a good time. I just hope we can keep him under control.”


Saturday, January 15, 2022

OCTOBER BOLD - Chapter 32

    There had been cross-country flights and frustrating dialogue......weeks of intensive searching for a way to overcome their own timidity. Was there a way to move beyond their stubborn stand off?

    How could he have known that her bank account ......the cause of his greatest distress......might provide the answer each of them was seeking?
 


                        Chapter 32


It had been a most unexpected conversation, with twists and turns that caught Angie Bateman totally off guard. Marian had been back from Indian Falls just two days when she invited Angie to join her for after-dinner drinks at the mansion Angie called ‘The Big House.’

“Where did you find the nerve to fly off to Iowa like that?” Angie had asked. “That doesn’t sound like you at all.” 

She had listened with undisguised surprise as Marian explained her vision of a future that included David....what it might look like and the challenges it was bound to include. At every turn Angie was reading the mischievous glint in Marian’s eyes.

“Are you sure?” Angie asked a second time. “What if it doesn’t work out? What if he changes his mind, or can’t bring himself to accept your bank account? Would you be able to handle that?”

Marian paused to replay her friend’s questions. Why should she be surprised, she asked herself. They were, after all, the same ones she had asked herself in the beginning. David too had doubted her self-proclaimed boldness. And now Angie was expressing that same disbelief.

“If it doesn’t work I’ll move on,” she replied, trying for a calmness she did not feel. “At least I’ll know I gave it a try. But I’m not worried about that, because I believe that David and I will do just fine. Remember, it’s only October. We still have November and December waiting out there for us.“

“October? What does that mean?”

“I’ll explain later. The thing is, I want us to make the most of the time we have together. And when we can’t do that any more, I want us to be there for each other, to deal with whatever we’re facing. It took me a long time to figure that out. Now that I have, I’m ready to move ahead.”


     ~~~


And ‘move ahead’ was exactly what Marian and David did, beginning with her suggested two day ‘planning session’ in Denver....their first extended time alone together. As she had envisioned from the start it was a time for exploring their options and getting to know each other. Which of those challenges was responsible for their two day stay stretching into five days would be hard to say. 

Still, in spite of the romantic limitations of healing ribs, by the time the two of them flew off in their separate directions they were definitely on the same page. 

Their elaborate family-visitation tour was originally projected to depart by year’s end, but it would be mid-January before the doctor signed off on David’s travel plans. A week later he and Marian were in Lawrence, down the interstate from Tanner, shopping for their new home on a massive RV sales lot.

It would be one of the biggest challenges of all for David....learning to maneuver and maintain the shiny new forty-foot long, double slide-out motor home. Though Marian wrote the six-figure check without batting an eye, nothing would persuade her to drive it. There were, after all, limits to her boldness. The very next day she signed a second check....for the small sedan they would tow behind the motor home.

Thus began David’s steep and sometimes frustrating learning curve. More than once he paused to mentally compare their impressive new home on wheels to the rickety Catfish Express....the eighteen-year old, twenty-seven foot motor home that was still parked behind his Indian Falls barn.

By the end of February the pair had visited each of their children, beginning with Marian’s daughters and grandchildren, who were scattered from San Jose to Los Angeles. The two of them would remember those days as a series of awkward introductions and heart-felt partings. Best of all had been the long day spent with all the daughters and grandchildren at Disneyland.

Bringing David’s sons and seven grandchildren together would be a different matter. From Little Rock, Shreveport, and Oklahoma City the families gathered at David’s favorite east-Texas catfish lake. There, for a long weekend, they fished and played cards, while Marian was getting acquainted with his extended family. Before that holiday was over her Pacific-salmon taste buds had been introduced to a striking new adventure....the sweet and soft delight of fried catfish.

Then, in mid-April, having spent three months on the road visiting family and seeing the sights, David was preparing to spring yet another surprise. He had pulled off the highway just outside Branson, Missouri when Marian looked up from her map book.

“Why are we stopping here?” she asked.

There was a twinkle in his eye when he turned to explain. “If you must know, I’m waiting for an apology.”

“For what? What did I do?”

“What did you do?” David was biting his lip, holding back the laughter that wanted to escape. “How about those snide remarks you made about Branson when I first suggested we stop there? You called it ‘Hicksville.’ Remember?”

“I wasn’t being snide. I just didn’t believe it was my kind of place.”

“But you ended up liking it, didn’t you?” He was assembling the evidence to make his case. “We spent three nights there and saw half a dozen shows....everything from Golden Oldies to old-time country. And every time you were absolutely certain that you’d hate it....that it would be too ‘hokey,’ with too much ‘twang.’ Yet by the end of the show you were laughing and clapping as much as anyone.”

“Well, it was fun....in a hokey kind of way.”

“I’m glad you’re willing to admit that.” 

He paused, caught up for a moment in lessons learned in the course of their months on the road. “It’s been a learning process, hasn’t it?” he continued with a remembering look. “I suppose it’s a matter of doing new and different things. Like the philharmonic-orchestra concert you dragged me to in Dallas last month.”

“I remember watching you enjoy that,” Marian replied. “A little bit of culture didn’t hurt you at all, did it?”

“Probably not. Though what I remember most were the violinists. There they were, dressed up in their ties and tails, and all I could think of was what a hell of a hoe-down they could play if they’d just loosen up a bit.”

Marian snickered at his down-home observation, then steered them toward their most recent travel-adventure decision. “I’ll bet you will enjoy Maui just as much. I know that I’m looking forward to that. We need some rest and relaxation time, don’t we?”

“I expect so,” David answered as he reached into the console for the cell phone. “But in the meantime I’m hoping we can arrange a date for this weekend.”

“What kind of date?”

“You’ll see.” Poking in a phone number, he elaborated. “If it works out like I hope, we’ll be going back to our roots. Wouldn’t that be fun?” 

A moment later his call was being answered. “Hey, Jason. How are things in beautiful downtown Indian Falls?”

“Where the heck are you?” Jason asked. “I tried to call you a couple days ago. Never did track you down.”

“We’ve been in Branson for a few days. Didn’t have the phone turned on. Since neither of us knows how to retrieve missed calls, we were basically out of reach. 

"Anyway, we had a great time. Turns out Marian absolutely loves Branson.” He flinched as her feigned punch landed on his shoulder. “She didn’t want to leave.”

“Wow. I wouldn’t have expected that. Do you suppose it’s a Tanner thing?”

“Might be.” It was time to move on to the business at hand. “Anyway, I called to see if you and Connie could get away for the weekend. Would that be possible?”

“To do what....where?” Jason knew David well enough to insist on the details before committing. “What do you have in mind?”

“In a word it’s ‘Nashville.’ How does that sound?” He noted Marian’s grinning surprise. “We were there once before, you know. Do you remember that? I had no idea at the time where a Saturday night on the town might take me. Now that I know, I’d like to finish my dance with this lady.”

Squeezing Marian’s hand, he added, “I’m calling to see if you two would like to join us.”

“My God,” Jason replied. “For an old farm boy you really are a romantic, aren’t you? And given the circumstances, chances are we could do that. I’ll talk it over with Connie tonight and get back to you with the details. Leave your phone on.”

Ending the call, David slipped the phone back into the console. Leaning over to give Marian a peck on the cheek he asked, “What do you think? Is a Saturday night in Nashville your idea of October bold?”



THE END


With that we wrap up another Tanner Chronicles story. Thanks to you who have stayed the course.

And a special thanks to those who have asked to have a friend added to our email lists.....sending the daily chapters to new readers. We welcome the chance to spread the word a little wider. It is easy to do..... simply 'Reply' to the email telling of this post, or send me an email at (octoberyears@gmail.com). Include their name and or alias, and an email address and we'll add them to our email list.

Having wrapped up October Bold I plan to begin the next story in a few days. BestFriends and Promises follows a handful of October--November folks as they confront some of the challenges that come with that time of life. (Many of you have visited those challenges up close and personal.)

Finally, for those who are so inclined, I would appreciate your thoughts and comments about October Bold. Would you dare to be that bold?

Here's to a better 2022.


Gil