Saturday
Aug162014

Best Friends and Promises - Chapter 1

Age and illness threaten to rob Aaron Peck of the tried and true companionship he has relied on for so long. While his best friend, Johnny Blanton, views life from the ICU Aaron’s wife, Leona, is retreating behind an impenetrable veil of dementia. In time she will no longer remember the matrimonial promises that Aaron cannot forget. 

Yet, as he considers the emptiness of life without Leona and Johnny he finds both comfort and distress in the presence of Beverly Weather’s affirming presence.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

“Come on, Peck, It would be just like old times.” Johnny Blanton was wound up tight, doing his best to make a sale. “It’s been way too long since we had a chance to kick back and get a little crazy. God, we haven’t seen Press in twenty-five 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 drag a five dollar bill from in front of Aaron and hand it to her. “Keep the change, honey,” he said with a wink before returning to his pitch.

“Of course we’re up to it, Peck. 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 protested. “But when my mind and body don’t agree, it’s usually my body that’s telling the truth. I can’t pretend that I’m not a kid anymore.” He brushed a peanut shell off the front of his sweater and grinned back at his determined friend.

Sitting there at Davey’s Dive, in a back booth, 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 continued, “I don’t suppose Leona would be too thrilled about me having a night out with you and Press. She’s always said you 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 class 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 Johnny's flexible logic when he was on the track of a happening. He had been stagnating in his cramped little apartment of his for months, waiting for something that would break the monotony. Finally he had detected a promising possibility on the horizon. 

“Peck, can’t you see what’s at stake here?” Johnny had apparently turned serious. “Press doesn’t get out here very often. Who knows when, or if, we’ll see him again. This might be our last chance---ever. You know that’s the way it can be at our age. I’ll bet if Leona understood that, she’d see right away how important it would be for you to visit Press one last time.”

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

“There’s no need for me to do that. Once she sees how much you want that last chance to be 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.”  Aaron slid out of the booth, 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 last heart attack. Losing that independence, and having to rely on friends or public transportation, 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 it 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. “I was talking with Johnny today.”

Leona did not look up from her book. “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 to spend some time with him.” 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.”

“Don’t you ‘Honey’ me. For as long as I can remember it’s been like that.” It had been a while since Aaron had 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 overtaken by a momentary wave of exasperated resignation. For his part, as much as he wanted his wife to hear his reasoning, Aaron concluded  the additional details would be better left until the morning. “

With a deep breath 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 trying 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’s 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. “Ole Press was always a cool one. There weren’t many like him around. God, he had a way with the ladies, even as a kid. He must have been born with it.”

“Yeah. He had the touch all right. There were a few times when he even managed to fix me up with a date.” Aaron 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.” Aaron paused for a moment, recalling how he had managed to overcome that unfortunate circumstance. “That’s just the way it was, 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, improved Aaron Peck?”

“Well, maybe '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 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. “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. Most 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 been 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 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, 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.”