Sunday, February 27, 2022



      Chapter 20

Johnny Blanton peered up from his hospital bed, his gaze fixed on the silent tears that moistened daughter Darien’s eyes as she stood beside him. Biting his lip, he fussed with the I.V. tube taped to the back of his left hand, then adjusted the oxygen tube under his nose before observing, “You don’t like hospitals very much, do you, sweetheart?”

Her first response was a simple shake of her head. Then, “Not when I’m here to see you. Not when you’re like this.”

“You didn’t want to see me?”

“Of course I did. But not here. Not like this.”

He reached for her hand. “Honey, you have to remember. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this fix. I’ve gone through all this stuff before. I’m going to be just fine. I’m too ornery to be anything else.”

She was twenty-six years old. Yet only once in her entire life had Darien spent as many as three consecutive nights in the same house as her father. She had been a week old at the time. For as long as she could remember he had been part of her life, yet in a real sense she scarcely knew him.  Her mother had told stories of him. But the word pictures she painted were often conflicting, even contradictory. 

Now, on Monday afternoon, just forty-eight hours after his graduation-reception collapse, and still facing the most serious of consequences, Johnny appeared unwilling to talk about anything less than a satisfactory outcome. No wonder his daughter was frightened. 

“How can you be that way?” Darien asked. “Everyone else in the place is wigging out about what’s happened to you. And you’re joking about it.”

“I’m not joking, honey. It’s just the way I have to look at it. There’s not much else I can do, is there?”

Laying back on his pillow, Johnny was staring up at the ceiling. “Besides," he continued. "I’ve always been a little out of step with the rest of the parade, you know that. I can’t tell you exactly why that is. It’s just how I am. Maybe if I’d been more normal you could have grown up in a real home, with a real family.”

“Don’t be silly. If you were ‘more normal’ I wouldn’t even be here. Mom was your third wife. Remember? If there’d have been only one, the ‘normal’ way, there’d be no me.” Darien was grinning at her own spur-of-the moment logic. “So I’m glad you weren’t like everyone else.”

Sitting on the edge of his bed, she was looking down into his tired face. “Mom told me once that when things were going good for you two those was the best times she’d ever known.....and when things went bad, it hurt more than anything she could remember.”

“I guess I’ve always gone for the extremes,” Johnny nodded. “Middle-of-the-road mediocre was never my strong suit.”

“Did you ever wish it had been different? That you weren't so 'extreme'?”

“Yeah, I suppose there have been times.” He paused, quietly processing choices he had made over the years and how things might have worked out differently.

“And there were times when I really tried to be ‘normal' everyone else. But about the time I’d get settled down, something more interesting would pop up. And I’d be off again.”

That earned Darien's one word, one syllable response. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why couldn’t you stay with what you already knew was good? At least by the time you met Mom. If you’d have done that I’d have had a real father, like the other kids. 

"Instead, for a long time I’d only see you once a year. Later, it was not even that often. Until I came to Portland you might as well have been a stranger.”

“That was a lucky thing, wasn’t it?" Johnny replied. "Having you come back to Oregon. And I’m so glad you decided to look me up.” 

Indeed, given his parenting history and her mother’s lukewarm endorsement, Johnny had sometimes wondered why Darien had made the effort. “It would have been a shame to miss knowing you.”

“No chance.” She squeezed his hand. “I remember how bad it used to feel, hearing other kids talk about their dads. When I finally had a chance to know mine, I wasn’t going to let him slip away.”

Their conversation paused when a nurse arrived to hang a new bag of fluid from the rack above Johnny’s head, check out the plastic fittings, then take a moment to adjust his oxygen tube. When she left Darien was ready with a new question.

“Have you heard any more about whether they’ll let Miss Pierce see you? Did your call do any good?”

“You know, I haven’t heard a thing about that. But I’m glad you reminded me.” He was grinning as he considered the possibilities. “Why don’t you call her? See if she’d come with you tomorrow.”

“Will they let her in? They haven’t said it was okay.”

“I think it’s time to we found out, don’t you? Maybe we should force the issue a bit. I’ll bet they’re hoping the idea will just go away. I’d hate to see that happen.”

That had Darien squirming a bit, hearing her father suggest that they ignore the hospital regulations. “I don’t suppose they can kick you out for breaking their rules. Can they?”

“They might want to, but they won’t. Besides, I know this really good lawyer, or almost lawyer, who could straighten them out if they tried.”

By then Johnny was clearly warming to a new and promising challenge. “Please give Jan a call. It would really be good to see her again.”

Now it was Darien who was laughing. “I may have to review my notes from Professor Browne’s Legal Ethics class. I’m not sure what he would say about this.”

“I’ve met him, you know. Nice fellow. I’ll bet he’d say it was a great idea. But then I’d never ask you to go against your conscience.”

That brought her up short. Was her father being serious?

“Anyway,” he continued. “Just remember this is a purely medical issue we’re dealing with.” He winked and Darien had her answer. “It’s about the well-being of the patient, about keeping his spirits up.”


Jan Pierce was not expecting a phone call. She had resigned herself to not seeing Johnny Blanton until he was moved from the Intensive Care Unit.... if he recovered enough to make that move, and if he wanted to see her again. They had spent just one night together. Even if he was able to overcome his latest medical challenge, could their brief connection be reestablished?

Then on Tuesday morning, sooner than she had thought possible, Jan answered the phone call at her library desk. In a matter of seconds she was trying to make sense of what she was hearing. 

“That’s right,” Darien repeated. “He wants you to come to the hospital with me. This afternoon.”

“But they won’t let me see him,” Jan protested. “I’ve already asked about that.”

“We’re not going to ask again. We’re just going to walk in, the two of us.”

At that Jan’s thoughts turned to new questions. She had last seen Johnny Blanton lying unconscious on the floor at the graduation reception. What would she see now? “How is he?," she asked. "Does he even know you’re there?”

“Of course he does. He’s still hooked up to some machines, but he’s talking and joking, and getting mad at all their rules. Last night he wanted some real food, but they brought him jello. He was still raising a fuss about that when I left.”

Johnny was well enough to have visitors. That was good news. But Jan’s final question remained. “And he wants to see me? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Darien laughed. “In fact I’d say he’s rather insistent about that. I think the nurses would like you there too, just to quiet him down for a while.”

“And we’re going to walk right past the nurse’s station, straight to his room?”

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

And that was exactly what they did. Out of the elevator, around the corner and up the hall. At the busy control center a pair of nurses looked up long enough to recognize Darien, then returned to their work. The two of them walked on, listening anxiously for someone to challenge Jan’s presence and hearing nothing.

At the end of the hall Darien stopped in front of the last door. Peeking in to confirm that her father was alone, she turned back to Jan. “Why don’t you go in first. I’m going down to the cafeteria. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“What if he’s asleep?”

“He may be resting, but he’ll want to see you. Just let him know you’re there.”

In truth Jan was not sure what to make of Darien’s cheerful assistance. She had known the girl’s father less than twenty-four hours before his heart attack. And there she was, being smuggled into his hospital room, at his insistence. In her limited experience with men she had never felt so accepted. She liked that.

Inside the single-bed room the shades were drawn and the lights dimmed. Jan paused at the foot of the bed to take in the intimidating scene....the green monitor screen with its beeps and flashes, the I.V. rack hanging over the bed, and the slim, transparent tubes routed to the patient’s oxygen assist, all of it enveloped in distinctive hospital smells. 

With hesitant steps Jan shuffled around to the side of the bed, near Johnny’s head. She rested her hand on his arm, light enough to feel his warm skin without waking him. Except he was already awake.

At her touch Johnny’s eyes blinked open. “Well, hello there, stranger. Did you just get here?” The words were soft, his voice unsteady.

“Yes. Darien brought me. We walked right past the nurses.”

Johnny managed to capture her hand and pull her forward for a kiss on her forehead. “It’s good to see you,” he whispered. “Maybe the best medicine yet.”

“How do you feel?” 

There was no hiding Jan's concern. She glanced over her shoulder at the pulsating monitor that scrolled the wave-like rhythms of his heart across its screen. Nodding toward the animated image, she asked, “Does that mean you’re okay?”

“Yeah, it does. But if that wavy line goes flat, don’t bother to tell me. I don’t want to know about that.” He squeezed her hand, ready to move their conversation beyond his medical condition. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been worried about you.”

“Tell me, do you always have this effect on your guys?” Johnny joked weakly. “I’d known you for just one day....and now look at me.”

Jan had no ready answer. She was not accustomed to having ‘guys’ who found humor in such things. More to the point she was not used to having ‘guys’ at all. 

She had not been a cute baby and had never grown into that condition. From her perspective the only constant in her life had been weight, too much of it. She had never married. As far as she knew, no man had ever considered proposing. Over the years there had been a few liaisons, including one that lasted for several months, largely because she had been willing to settle for the minimal security it offered. 

Then, just days before, in the course of a single night the worn-out old man laying before her in his ICU bed had accepted her caring as something special. During the last few days, as she waited to know whether he would live or die, she had felt that caring grow.

“I’m afraid most of my guys have come and gone pretty fast,” Jan finally answered, returning to his question. “I’m expecting you to stick around for a while, a long while.” She took his hand and did not let go.

“I think I’d like that. You know, Darien likes you a lot. That’s a good sign. She’s an excellent judge of people.”

“I’m glad to have her endorsement. She’s a lovely lady, who cares very much about her father.” Jan broke into a smile. “She told me about your call to the Administrator. That was sweet of you. I hope it didn’t cause any trouble.”

“I hope it did. I don’t give a damn what he thinks. It’s the people down here on the floor....the nurses and aides....who do the work. As long as you’re not in their way they won’t mind you being here. Besides, in another few days I’ll be out of here and we can forget about all that.”

Dropping his hand, Jan stood and turned to the window, parting the blinds just a crack to look out. A long beam of bright sunlight stabbed across the foot of the bed. Then, closing the blind, she stepped back to the bed.

“Did I say something wrong?” Johnny asked. “What has you so down in the mouth?”

“I hadn’t thought about that. That’s all.”

“You hadn’t thought about what?”

“About you leaving. Going back home.” 

How could she have overlooked something as elementary as the two of them living fifty miles apart? There was no hiding the resignation in her words. 

In truth she was not surprised to find a glitch in the “happily ever after” fantasy she had wished for Johnny and herself. She should have known it was too good to last. In her experience it had always been that way

“You’ll be there in Tanner,” she continued. “I’ll be up here. You can’t drive any more. I don’t drive at all. I have a job I can’t afford to leave.” She was shaking her head in apparent defeat. “I don’t see how that can work.”

“That would be hard, wouldn’t it?” Johnny’s expression was somber, yet his eyes were still sparkling. “Especially since my new heart doctor is here in Portland. I’ll probably need to see him on a regular basis for at least a few weeks. That’s usually how it works. That means a lot of bus trips and a lot of hassles. 

“Chances are he’ll want someone to stay with me at least part of the time, to see that I don’t over-do it. I’m not sure that Peck will be up to that.” By now his happy grin was completely contradicting his dire words. “It certainly does get complicated, doesn’t it?”

Jan Pierce was still learning the finer points of  communicating with Johnny Blanton. To take his words at face value was to risk missing the point, sometimes by a mile. Except for the fact that by then he was almost laughing out loud, she might not have understood what he was really saying.

“You need someone with you, at least some of the time. Right?” Her face was lighting up as his unorthodox logic struck home. “And if you were here in Portland, you wouldn’t have all those long bus trips. Would you?”

“What are you saying, woman? That I should stay at your place? Is that it? By God, that’s a great idea.” 

Johnny pulled her down to him. If the nurse who entered the room to check the chart at the foot of his bed saw their brief kiss, she said nothing. “Why didn’t I think of that?” he wondered out loud.

“Don’t you kid me. That’s exactly what you were thinking.”

“Oh my, am I that transparent? Anyway, it’s a good idea. Don’t you agree?”

“I think it’s perfect.” 

“For now though I’d better be going,” Jan said. “I saw Darien waiting outside. She wants some time with you. I’ll plan to come back tomorrow.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Laying there, looking up into her face, Johnny Blanton was the picture of medical vulnerability, with at best a problematic future. Yet the wires and tubes seemed not to have dimmed the mischievous glint in his eyes. 

If anything he had the manner, if not the look, of someone about to embark on new adventure. And from all appearances he was asking Jan to join him. How could she refuse?

She leaned down, beyond the nurse’s hearing, to whisper, “Would it be okay if I brought Helen when I come tomorrow?. She’ll want to see you, now that you’re doing so well.”

“Bring her along. We’ll have a party..”

Friday, February 25, 2022




                           Chapter 19

The hospital setting was a bit different than Aaron Peck remembered....perhaps more technologically sophisticated, with advanced electronics and upgraded analytical software. The atmosphere, however, was very much the same. 

Four years earlier, he had spent two of the longest nights of his life sitting at Johnny Blanton’s hospital bedside, praying that his friend would survive his latest heart attack. That episode had ended with the bypass surgery that offered Johnny the promise of a nearly normal life.

During that anxious time Darien had been away at college in New Mexico, still on the fringes of her father’s life. This time, after his collapse at her graduation reception, she was with him from the first hour of his latest ordeal. And Aaron, in the guise of Uncle Aaron, Johnny’s half-brother, was there too. For more than twenty-four hours they had taken turns sitting quietly beside the sedated patient, while the other catnapped or walked the long hallways 

By Sunday evening there was little change in Johnny’s condition. He was holding his own the doctor said, whatever that meant. Aaron was preparing to return to Tanner. There was nothing more he could do at the hospital. Darien had agreed to keep him posted. Beyond that, to Aaron’s surprise, she had also offered to call Jan Pierce.

“I don’t know her very well,” Darien said. “But I want her to know it’s okay for her to be worrying about Dad.”

“I think she’d appreciate that,” Aaron nodded. “I’ll try to get back here sometime in the middle of the week.”


Darien Blanton felt no particular embarrassment calling the woman she had first met while a student patron of the Law School library. She was, however, wondering what Miss Pierce knew of her father and his history. What sort of relationship did the friendly library-lady believe she had with Johnny Blanton? It was time to find out.

Jan Pierce answered the phone, asking herself who would be calling on a Sunday night, then praying that she was not about to hear some terrible news. Darien had scarcely identified herself before Jan was there with her questions. “Is he okay? Is he any better?”

Darien took a deep breath, giving the anxious librarian time to settle down. “He’s about the same. He hasn’t woke up yet. I think they’re giving him something to keep him asleep,” she answered, looking across the room to where he lay. “There are machines, wires, and tubes all over the place. It’s really something.”

For long seconds there was no response, until she asked, “Miss Pierce, are you there?”

“Please. It’s Jan. Just Jan.” At that moment Ms. Pierce was having a hard time finding the right words. “Darien, you know that I just met your father. I’m not sure he would make a big thing of that. But I liked it. I liked him.”

“He told me about it. He liked it too, and you.”

“I hope you don’t mind if I want to know how he’s doing. It’s important to me.”

“Miss Pierce....Jan, I don’t know how he’s going to be. I can tell you he’s lived a pretty hard life. He likes to say that he has lots of miles on him. I do know he’s kind of worn down.” Darien paused, knowing she owed this woman something more.

“There are some other things you should know too, if you think you’re going to like him. He has a heart of gold. But he’s always had a hard time settling down for very long. And when he moves on, people have been hurt sometimes. I know, because that happened to my mother.”

“Darien. You mustn’t apologize for him. Please. I think I know him. How he is. He’s not likely to surprise me.”

“I just wanted you to know.”

“Thank you, dear. Please keep me posted. I’ll be saying my prayers.”


The apparent unfairness of Johnny Blanton’s latest setback had not been lost on Aaron. From the beginning it had been an elemental fact of Johnny’s life....he had never felt complete without the company of a woman. It was a condition that dated back at least to high school and undoubtedly accounted for his history of frequent, often-brief attachments. 

For the past few years, exiled to the sterile isolation of the Senior Complex, the companionship he craved so much had been absent. Sadly, he had never adapted to that unwelcome situation.

To his surprise it had taken a chance meeting with a portly librarian, over scotch-on-the-rocks of all things, to remedy his morbid aloneness. In the course of a single night he and Jan Pierce had made the connection that had eluded him for so long.

Now, just two days after their fortuitous meeting, that fledgling friendship was in jeopardy. At best, Johnny’s timing had never been too good, and now it seemed to be getting worse.

Even if he was able to overcome this latest reversal, what kind of future would he face? Was his fiercely guarded independence on the line? After his last heart surgery the doctor had pulled his driver’s license, leaving him reliant on the city transit system. What else could they limit?

On the bright side, after that earlier event Johnny had been able to remain in his own apartment, rather than the county’s Assisted Living unit. He had counted that as a victory. Yet there he was again, fighting the same battle to survive. And if he managed that, would it be at the price of his hard-won freedom? Or would the dreaded strictures of a care facility be part of Johnny Blanton’s future?

Back in his Tanner apartment on Sunday evening, exhausted by his long night at the hospital, Aaron stretched out on the sofa for a nap. But try as he might there was no escaping the hectic mind traffic that made relaxation impossible. 

His thoughts flitted back and forth between anxious concerns about Johnny’s condition and the guilt-laden dejection of having betrayed Leona. In the course of those insistent reflections came a new and unsettling realization. Never in all his life had he been so alone. Whatever was coming his way, he seemed destined to face it by himself.

Aaron Peck was not by nature a social being. Gossip and small talk turned him off. From the beginning of his partnership with Leona it was understood that parties and social gatherings were to be avoided, unless she was there to take the conversational lead. He was certain that in the course of their years together he must have spent the equivalent of several days standing quietly to the side, while she played her role as the family’s social representative. 

Since Leona’s move to the Davies Home, Aaron had made an effort to expand his interests and cultivate new ones. Afternoons spent in the reading room of the City Library were enjoyable enough, as were the extra hours he devoted to the church's ground crew. Yet, while those activities had helped fill a few idle hours, they had produced little in the way of new companionship.

An occasional weekend with Carol or Mindy helped maintain contact with his family. But in spite of those remaining connections, there was no escaping the frustrating truth. For as long as Aaron could remember he had relied on the presence of his closest friends. That had always meant Leona and Johnny. 

With Leona at his side he could have faced anything. When she retreated into her own world, Johnny had been there to help fill the void. But what if Johnny too was compromised? With his two staunchest allies gone, how would Aaron deal with his already bleak future? 


At lunch on Monday Aaron, for the first time in weeks, reverted to his earlier practice of talking to Leona as he fed her. There was so much to explain, so much he needed to share. Though he dreaded the thought of rehashing those things, it felt as though he must.

“Darien, she’s Johnny’s daughter, graduated from law school this weekend,” he told his wife in a quiet, lunch-table tone. Leona must have heard him, but did not look up from the napkin she gripped in her hand. “It was very nice. She’s a pretty girl. And smart too. You’d have liked all the ceremony and fancy stuff.”

He had decided before hand to begin his monologue on an upbeat note. Darien’s special day had fit that bill. Then, as tempting as it was to gloss over the news of Johnny’s heart attack, Aaron told Leona of his friend’s situation. The trepidation, of course, was in his telling, not her hearing.

“The outlook isn’t real good,” he explained. “He’s a tough old guy. But there must be a limit to how much he can take. I’m afraid this might be the time.” 

Reaching over to wipe Leona’s chin, Aaron was half laughing as he continued. “I remember you telling him once that a candle doesn’t last as long when you burn it from both ends. You remember that?” She was staring directly into his eyes, though it felt as though she was looking right through him.

“Anyway, Johnny thought that was pretty funny at the time. Thing is, it was probably more true than he realized, or was willing to admit.

“Still, I miss those times with him. When we’d get a little crazy....and act like kids for a while.” 

That was as truthful as Aaron knew how to be, though he realized he would not be making his point as bluntly to a comprehending Leona. At that. point he finished his coffee, carried their dishes to the counter, then returned to help her up.

Their walk to the day room was a well rehearsed stroll, one they took every time he came to lunch. His hand was on Leona’s elbow, guiding her through the hallway, around the ever present wheel chairs and across the open room to her favorite window seat. 

Once seated it was the traffic at the recently-installed bird feeder, located just outside her window, that attracted Leona's attention. But now, instead of turning away and leaving her there alone as he usually did, Aaron pulled a straight-backed chair from the nearby table and sat down beside her. 

The random coming and going of the birds provided the nearest thing to enjoyment he had seen on Leona’s face in ages. For several minutes he sat watching her, hoping to see her smile. When he reached out to take her hand she did not object to his touch, though there was no sign that it registered as an act of affection. If she had been able to notice such things, she might have seen the tears welling up in his eyes.

“I really messed up, Babe.” His voice was reduced to a quiet whimper, and he could not bring himself to look at her. “I should have stopped. But I didn’t.” 

He looked up to find her staring out the window, with no apparent interest in his painful confession. Bitting his lip, he carried on. “I wish I could blame her, but I can’t. It was me. I was too weak.”

Aaron stood and stepped to the window, hoping to intercept Leona’s gaze. She seemed to take no notice of his presence. He paused to wonder again what could have happened to all the things that had made her who she was....the sparkling eyes and silly sense of humor, the gentle soul that wanted only to please. Did any of that remain? Was it gone, or simply out of reach?

Studying her face, he tried to imagine the smooth, youthful profile that had captured his heart as a college boy. Of course there was no way she could be who she was then, any more than she could respond to the favor he had come to ask. Still, though she could not answer, he must speak the truth out loud. 

“I’m so sorry, Honey.” He swallowed hard. “I never meant to hurt you. I know I can be stronger. I haven’t forgot my promise.” Then, one last deep breath and on to the heart of his visit. “Please forgive me, Sweetheart. Please.”


It was just past noon on Wednesday. Surely Aaron must be home from his Portland weekend, though Beverly Weathers had not heard from him. She had thought of calling him the day before, but put it off. After all, if he was not interested enough to call why should she?

So why was she sitting in her car, in the parking lot of Sarah Davies’ care home, more disappointed in herself than Aaron Peck? Why not leave well enough alone? There must be other ways to deal with her loneliness. Was it necessary to be forcing herself on him? Suddenly she turned away from her galling upset. Aaron was coming down the front steps, walking toward the street.

Beverly stepped from the car and leaned against the closed door. “Hello there, stranger,” she shouted as he reached the sidewalk. Noting his startled glance, she started toward him. A moment later they met in the center of the parking lot.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Not a thing. I just let my curiosity got the best of me. That’s all. I hadn’t heard from you. I wasn’t sure you’d come back from  Portland.”

“I got back okay. Came home Sunday.”

“You don’t sound too excited about it,” she said. “Wasn’t it a good time? Your friend's daughter graduated. Right?”

“Yeah, she did.” He nodded. “That was nice. But then Johnny had another heart attack, on Saturday. Right after the graduation ceremony.”

“He what?” she gasped. “A heart attack? How is he?”

“I talked to Darien last night. She’s his daughter. He’s awake now. Still on oxygen and I.V.s, but he’s alert and talking. So things are looking a lot better than they did at first.”

“That’s something to be thankful for.”

“He must be getting better. Darien said he was already raising a little hell.” Aaron was grinning at the thought of it. ”He always feels better when he can do that.”

“What do you mean.”

“Johnny has a new girl friend. He met her Friday night. The next day, at the reception, he keeled over. When he woke up, which must have been Sunday night, he was worried that he’d lost her before they even got started.”

“And he was upset about that?”

“The thing is, because his lady friend isn’t family they won’t let her see him in the ICU. Hospital rules, you know. Johnny got steamed about that. He used Darien’s cell phone to call the hospital Administrator, the boss man. 

"He called from his room, while he was still hooked up to their machines. Claimed the lady was his fiancee. He threatened to sue the hospital if they kept her away.”

“Heavens. Is he always that angry”? she asked. “That can’t be so good after a heart attack.”

“He wasn’t angry at all. He was just having fun. And hoping to see his new lady.”

“Did it work?”

“I haven’t heard.”

In the course of their conversation they had worked their way back to Beverly’s car. Now she asked, “Can I drive you home? I don’t have anything else going.”

Minutes later, at the curb in front of Aaron’s apartment, neither of them was ready to go their separate ways. In fact, Aaron had questions of his own to ask. “How are you doing? Still winging it on your own?”

“Almost,” she said with a wink. “I had lunch with a gentleman friend yesterday. That felt like I was breaking out a bit.”

“My, that was bold.”

“Henry worked for Ronald at the agency. He’s a nice fellow. He was concerned about how I’m doing. God knows, I don’t have a surplus of friends.”

“Is that the guy I met that night at the buffet? That was Harry, wasn’t it?”

“It was Henry. Henry Reynolds. I forgot you’d met him. He’s the one.”

“I suppose he’s looking to help perk you up a bit. Eh?” Aaron snickered. “That might be just what you need.”

“Don’t be silly. It’s only been four weeks. That’s way too soon to be ’perked up’.

“But you know, in one sense you actually lost Ronald months before that.” Aaron paused to wonder is his unorthodox observation would offend her. “After the drawn out process you went through, I’m not sure what would be too soon.”

“Well I know. And it is. It’s way too soon.”

“Anyway, if you need a wise old father figure to pass judgment on your new suitors, you just give me a call. Okay?”

Their conversation was moving beyond Aaron’s comfort zone. His few misspent hours with Helen had reinforced the need for constant vigilance. If he could be sidetracked by Helen’s company, the need to be on guard in Beverly’s comfortable presence was all the greater. 

With that in mind, his challenge was simple enough. Learn to enjoy Beverly’s friendship and company, while avoiding situations that might put his already suspect will power at risk. He repeated those instructions to himself, hoping to reinforce the truth they represented. Then, in the next moment he proceeded to ignore his own warning.

“I have an idea,” he offered. “I’m going to Portland tomorrow afternoon to check on Johnny. Would you like to come along? You could meet him. And we could see if they’ve let Jan, that’s his lady friend, see him.”

“How would that work? I’m not family....and I’m nobody’s fiancee....would they let me in to see him?”

“As far as they know I’m Aaron’s half-brother. In that case, there’s no reason you can’t be my wife. That will get you in.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2022



Chapter 18

A hint of daylight was filtering through the drawn blinds as Aaron’s eyes blinked open. He lay there in the dim quiet....struggling to sort out the unfamiliar surroundings....wondering what to make of the warm leg resting against his own. 

A moment later the disparate pieces had come together. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, ready to make his escape, then stopped to let the spinning room catch up with him.

His sudden movement drew Helen from her fitful sleep. She rubbed her eyes and squinted at the red digital numbers of the bedside clock. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“I have to leave.”

“It’s only five-thirty.”

“I have to go.”

Helen rolled to her side and propped her head on her hand. Aaron’s face was unseen in the darkness, but she could hear the panic in his voice. 

“Why? Why do you have to leave now?”

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be here.” His words tumbled out in a sad, little-boy whimper. “I never should have come.”

With an audible sigh, Helen slumped back on her pillow. “Aaron, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel so bad.”

His chin fell to his chest and he shook his head, which only served to renew the dizziness. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I’m the one who should have known better. You were married. You know what that means.”

“Yes, I know.” 

Helen knew too that she was not willing to help him damn their night together. She was not willing to deny what had felt so right. 

“Aaron, I don’t mean to get too personal, but how long has it been since your wife could show you how much she loves you, beyond a smile or something like that?”

He knew the answer at once. But how to say it.... how to admit the truth of it. “It’s been a long time,” he finally answered. “But that’s no excuse. I’ve always known she does. I’ve known that for more than fifty years.”

“And now you’re beating yourself up for last night. Is that really necessary?” 

A moment later Helen was introducing a new consideration. “Aaron, you know that Jan and Johnny might never speak to us again if you woke them up at this hour. It’s too early.” Reaching over she tugged on his shoulder. “Why don’t you lay down and get a little more sleep. We can sort this out in the morning.” 

Aaron laid back and focused on the pale window light until the whirling vertigo subsided. Helen reached for his hand, but he pulled it away. Instead he vowed to concentrate on the forgiveness he must ask of Leona. Sleep came before forgiveness.


The bedroom was bathed in morning light when the ringing phone roused Helen and Aaron from their groggy sleep. Both were wide awake by the time she located the phone on the bedside table.

“It’s almost eight-thirty,” Jan Pierce announced calmly. With the phone to her ear, she was laughing at Johnny’s fumbling efforts to fill the coffee maker. “Do you two plan to sleep all day?” She paused, then asked, “He’s still there, isn’t he?”

“He’s here.” A moment later Helen hung up and threw the covers back. Sitting on the edge of the bed she announced over her shoulder, “Breakfast will be ready in fifteen minutes.”

Aaron scarcely acknowledged her words. He had not said a word and was apparently not ready to be part of any conversation. Slipping on a robe she walked around the bed to sit beside him. For an instant his earlier questions returned. Why would this pleasant woman care what he was feeling?

“I’m sorry, Aaron,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you....or make you feel so bad.”

“I told you before, it’s not your fault.” He was tuning her out. The warm possibilities of the night before had grown cold. 

“Aaron, you’re married. I know that. So I’m not supposed to like you. I know that too. But I think I do.” He looked away, but she continued. “What happened last night has never happened before. I certainly didn’t expect it. But I’m not sorry. Not a bit.”

That was enough. More than enough. Aaron rolled out of bed and retrieved his clothes from the floor. “That’s all,” he commanded. “No more. Let’s go downstairs.”

For the next half hour the three of them....Helen, Jan, and Johnny....sat at Jan’s dining table, carefully sidestepping Aaron’s surly silence. Johnny’s initial efforts to make light of his friend’s conversational reluctance had been met with little more than an icy glare. Rather than try again, they carried on without him. 

In the end Aaron’s gloomy withdrawal infected all of them. As the two men prepared to leave Johnny managed a few private parting words with Jan, including a promise to see her at the graduation ceremony that evening. By the time they completed their hastily-made plans Aaron was in the parking lot, waiting in the car.


For reasons Johnny Blanton was still at a loss to understand, their drive from Jan’s apartment to their motel began in stony silence....not so surprising in light of how Aaron’s stoic quiet had already cast a pall over the best morning Johnny had known in years.

They were stopped at a red light when the questions finally spilled out. “What the hell has got you like this?’ Johnny asked. “Was she that bad? Jan said she liked you.” There was no answer. Aaron’s gaze was fixed on the street ahead. 

“Come on, Peck. If she gave you a hard time you’ve got to forget it. It’s nothing to get so upset about.”

Minutes later they climbed the outside stairs to their motel room. Once inside Johnny draped his coat over a chair and turned to ask once more, “Are you going to be pissed off all day? That’s a hell of a way to help me celebrate Darien’s graduation.”

Aaron slammed the door loud enough to startle them both. “Will you give it a rest?” he demanded. “All I want is some peace and quiet.”

Johnny was unwilling to settle for that. “Not while you’re in this foul mood. I know how you are. You won’t be fit company until you get over it. So just tell me what the hell happened and we can move on.”

“You know exactly what happened. You put me right in the middle of where I didn’t belong.” 

Aaron spoke the words, and knew at once they were not true. His unexpected response to Helen’s attention had been his own doing, a weakness born in a part of him that could not resist the promise of holding her. For months he had assured himself he was past those yearnings. Now he understood he was not.

“No one forced you into anything, Peck," Johnny insisted. "If she was that hard to get along with, you should have bailed out. Just left”

By then Aaron realized it was time for the truth. His best friend deserved that much. “She wasn’t ‘that hard to get along with.’ Not at all.” He knew he should be ashamed of the grin that was leaking out. “Actually, she was nice, very nice. And I think she liked me.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“You know damn well what the problem is. I should have known better. Instead, I just caved in. I can’t imagine why a classy lady like that would have given me a second look, but she did. And I let her. In fact, I liked it.”  

He stopped short, turning away from those damning thoughts. “Can’t you see? I let Leona down big time. It was like I wasn’t thinking about her at all.”

“Good God, Peck. You’ve got to get past that. If you don’t like what you did, then don’t do it again. But don’t be so damn hard on yourself.”

“Maybe that works for you. And look what you have to show for it. Three ex-wives and a bunch of near misses. Damn it, can’t you see? I’m a married man. I have a wife. I can’t be acting like that.” For a moment Aaron shut down, unwilling to continue. 

“So you think you’re above all that,” came Johnny’s quiet reply. “Is that it? You’ve lived like a monk for God knows how long. Your own wife, who I love dearly, doesn’t even know she loves you. And she sure as hell can’t show you that she does? What do you expect from yourself? What makes you think you’re immune to a few drinks and a nice woman?”

“I’m supposed to know enough to stay away from that. That’s what I have to do. I have to keep my promise to Leona?”

Their dialog was rapidly moving beyond Johnny Blanton’s understanding of the human condition, or at least his condition. After months of involuntary isolation, and long past expecting to find a caring woman in his life, Jan Pierce had materialized out of thin air. 

In the course of one vodka-driven night they had reached the common ground each was seeking. He had found a woman who understood who he was, and still wanted to be with him. She was a sweet, loving soul who too often stressed about what she called her “weight problem.” Small wonder she welcomed Johnny’s refusal to see any problem at all.


“Why didn’t you remind me to bring a tie?” Aaron asked, straightening the double-windsor knot he had laboriously created for Johnny. “How could I forget that?” It was nearly two-thirty, time to be getting ready for Darien’s graduation.

“You’ll be just fine in a shirt and sweater.” Johnny turned to the mirror on the back wall, smoothing the wispy gray halo of hair that circled his nearly bald head. In truth, he was not a fan of such dress up. But for Darien, on her special day, he was happy to make an exception.

Aaron laughed softly at Johnny’s unpracticed primping. “That’s about as pretty as you’re going to get. I think she’ll approve.”

At the back counter, beside the sink, Johnny opened his battered suitcase and took out the heavy package, wrapped in green paper. 

“Don’t want to forget her present.” He held it up for Aaron to see. “You think the wrapping paper looks okay? It’s from Christmas. It was the only thing Mrs. Perkins had.”

“It will do just fine.”

“Have you figured out what you’re going to do after the graduation?” Johnny asked cautiously, hoping not to reignite Aaron’s still simmering complaint. 

“If you want, I can probably spend the night at Jan’s and get a bus home in the morning. That way you could head back tonight.” He glanced across to his friend, trying to gauge his reaction. “Unless you’ve changed your mind.”

“I haven’t changed my mind. I’ll drop you off at her place, then head on home,” Aaron answered, looking up from his suitcase packing. “I just hope Jan doesn’t bring her friend to the graduation.”

“Why would she? I think everyone knows how you feel. No one wants a repeat of the way you carried on this morning.”


At Darien’s apartment Doug let them in. “She’s in the bathroom,” he explained. “Been there for as least an hour.”

At that moment Darien emerged from the hallway. “It wasn’t even half an hour,” she teased. “Honestly, you men exaggerate so much.” She stopped and turned slowly around, showing off her new graduation outfit.

“My, you do look nice, honey.” Truth to tell, Johnny Blanton had never seen this version of his a slinky black dress, with minimal, but effective makeup and loosely curled hair that fell to her shoulders. 

“And they’re going to cover all that up with a stupid black gown,” Doug complained.

It seemed to be the right time for Johnny to offer his gift, which he held out to Darien. “Here honey. This is for you.” For an instant she was wide eyed and speechless. As she reached for the package her father warned her, “Two hands, Babe. It’s kind of heavy.” 

“Dad, you shouldn’t have done this. It wasn’t necessary at all.”

The silly, embarrassed grin would not leave his lips. “On a day like this? It certainly is. I just hope you can use them.”

Setting the heavy package on the table, she unwrapped the reference books.  A second later she was laughing as she pointed to Doug. “I’ll bet you had a little birdie tell you just what I needed. That is so sweet.”

“I’d never have known,” Johnny admitted. “I needed some inside information.”

Darien had no qualms about giving Doug credit for his help in selecting her gift. She also understood her father’s long-standing collaboration with Aaron Peck. To mention Aaron’s probable role as financier would only embarrass both of them. Wrapping Johnny in a tight hug she glanced over his shoulder and with a knowing wink mouthed her “Thank you” to Aaron.

“That is so cool,” she repeated. A kiss on Doug’s cheek completed her thanks. “Now, I think we’d better get going. I have to be there in time for the line up.” Then, turning back to Johnny, “Are you spending another night up here?”

“I think I might.”

“Will you be able to find something to do for the evening?” she asked. “I was wondering about that last night. Did you guys go right back to the motel?”

“Not exactly.” It was a bit embarrassing, providing such details for his own daughter. Who was the parent and who was the child in their timid exchange? “We found some good company. Had a nice evening.”

Darien appeared ready to drop the subject, when suddenly her eyes lit up. “I saw you sitting with Miss Pierce at the reception. The library lady.” Her mischievous grin had returned. “Was she your good company?”

“Goodness girl. Do I need written permission to socialize with a friendly Librarian? She’s a nice lady, who happens to enjoy civilized conversation. What more can I say?”

“Why am I not surprised?” Darien laughed. “I just hope I can keep a straight face if I see her tonight.” Chosing her best coat from the closet she turned to Aaron. “How about you? Did you find some good company too? Someone suitable for a married man?”

Aaron was not prepared for her question. He had no answer. He did blush a bit as he followed Johnny to the front door. He had come to Portland to see this lovely young lady graduate. With that business completed he would be ready to return home.


Like most graduations, the Law School's afternoon ceremonies were a matter of sitting through long waits and tedious speeches to arrive at the climatic moment when Darien Blanton walked across the stage to receive her diploma. Her name was called. Johnny let out a piercing yell and jabbed an elbow in Aaron’s ribs. “That’s her,” he yelled. “That’s her.” Seconds later his proud moment had passed.

Afterwards, in the large foyer outside the auditorium, Johnny and Aaron were waiting for Darien to join them when Jan Pierce pulled Aaron aside. “Johnny says you’re not coming over tonight. Is that right?”

“Yeah. I can’t. I have to go home.”

She edged closer to let him hear her whisper. “Helen really wants to see you again. You know that, don’t you? She's not sure what to do.”

With his hands on Jan’s shoulders, Aaron looked down into her face. “Look, Helen’s a very nice lady. This isn’t about her. It’s about me and my wife. That’s where I need to be.”

“I understand. I just wanted you to know how she feels.”

Aaron nodded and started back to where Johnny was waiting, then stopped and turned back to her. “Jan, you take good care of that old guy. Okay? He likes you a lot. I hope you both get something good out of it. And make sure he takes his heart meds. He forgets that sometimes.”

Jan Pierce smiled and walked away. Moments later Darien appeared through the crowd. Aaron took a minute for his congratulations and good byes, then started toward the coat rack. There, just as he had found his jacket among all the others, he heard the piercing scream.

It was an involuntary reaction, the surge of panic Aaron felt as the frightful premonition gripped him. Near the main entry, where he had left Johnny and Darien only seconds before, a noisy crowd was gathering. 

Elbowing his way through the onlookers, he found Darien kneeling over the still form of her father, pleading frantically. “Daddy. Please. Wake up. Open your eyes.”

Aaron dropped to his knees beside her. “What happened?”

“He must have fainted. He just kind of slumped down.” 

Before she could finish, the two of them were joined by a third person. “I’m Dr. Barron,” the young man said. “Do you know what happened?”

“It’s probably his heart,” Aaron offered. “He’s had problems before. A triple bypass.” 

As Aaron spoke Dr. Barron was already checking Johnny’s vital signs. “Someone call an ambulance,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll start CPR. Let’s see if we can get him through this.”

Aaron stood to back away. The ambulance had already been called. There was nothing to do but wait. Around them, faculty members were urging the crowd to move along, to give them some room.

Finally Dr. Barron looked up, smiling grimly. “He seems to be responding. I’ll help him along until the EMTs get here.”

Standing aside to watch the doctor, Aaron was suddenly aware that he was flanked by clinging women. Darien had hold of his right arm....biting her lip, struggling to hold back her tears. “It happened so fast,” she said. “I just turned around and he was on the floor.”

At his left shoulder Jan Pierce could do little more than grip Aaron’s arm as she watched the tired looking old man stretched out on the floor before them.

Finally the remaining onlookers were hustled aside to make way for the first-aid team. Aaron and his two ladies huddled closer together, watching the doctor talk with an EMT, while the other technician taped a plastic oxygen mask over Johnny’s face.

Again Darien turned to Aaron and for the first time noticed Miss Pierce standing next to him. Without a word she reached over and took Jan’s hand.

In a matter of minutes Johnny had been strapped on a gurney, ready to be wheeled to the waiting ambulance. With Darien on his arm, Aaron started to follow when he felt Jan tugging on his sleeve.

“They probably won’t let me see him,” she said. “At least not at first. I’m not family or anything.” She handed Aaron a folded piece of paper with her phone number scrawled across it. “Please call me when you know something.” Looking over to Darien she added, “I’ll be praying.”