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'....like 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 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..”