Saturday
Aug162014

Long Way Home - Chapter 1

We first met Clint and Gary, the widowed sixty-something Harris brothers, in Second Chances---as each of them stumbled toward what he hoped would be a lasting relationship. Now, in Long Way Home their hopeful pursuit continues---taking them far from Tanner, in very different directions, still seeking the promise of Second Chances.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

Gently Clint Harris pulled his brother from the wheelchair, steadying him long enough for the wave of dizziness to pass. Once Gary Harris’ world stopped spinning he let Clint steer him to the back steps of the home they shared. Grasping the hand rail with one hand, Gary leaned heavily against his brother and pulled himself up the first step. 

With brief stops on each step to calm the nauseating vertigo, their ascent continued until, after minutes of concentrated effort, Gary mounted the fourth and final step. There on the landing he stood gripping the hand rail, teetering just a bit as Clint positioned the wheelchair behind him. When at last he dropped wearily into the chair he as exhausted as Clint was relieved. 

“Damn, that was some work out,” Clint said as he wheeled his brother through the utility room and into the broad, homey kitchen. “How are you doing? You feel okay?”

“I can’t be doing too good when it takes that long to climb four steps.” Gary looked up at the short, gray haired woman who rested her hand on his shoulder. “I’m  afraid your guy has got the punies.”

“You’re feeling just like the doctor said you would.” Claudia Hafner’s caring smile had kept Gary going during his three day hospital stay. Hopefully it would be enough to ease his mind now. “My heavens, two concussions in one week. I’m just glad you’re back home in time to blow out seventy candles next week.”

“You’re not going to make me do that. Are you? We’ll burn the damn house down.”

“Come on, brother,” Clint joined in, nodding toward the petite woman standing beside him. “Elly has promised to bake the cake. I’ll probably have to buy out the store, but I’ll find enough candles. I guarantee it.”

Gary reached up to his shoulder for Claudia’s hand. “Clint’s always been jealous of me during the three months each year when I’m two years older than him, instead of just one.”

“Who would be jealous of someone who’s seventy years old? What the heck can you do at that age?”

“You be careful, brother, or I’ll have to tell you.”

“Boys,” Elly Warren interrupted. “Don’t forget that Gary is supposed to be resting.”

It took a few minutes for them to settle in. While Elly gathered the makings for a fresh pot of coffee, Clint carried Gary’s suitcase to his bedroom. Meanwhile Claudia had pushed Gary to the living room. There, next to the fireplace, she pulled a hassock up in front of his wheelchair. While the others were busy with their chores the two of them sat quietly, glad to be home again.

They had the look of a pair---Gary Harris and Claudia Hafner. In fact they had been a pair fifty years earlier, as seniors at Tanner High School. Their parting that year, shortly after graduation, had left Claudia broken---so bitter that she left Tanner for good. Their separation had been final and complete, until their fiftieth class reunion, just two and a half months earlier. 

On that June evening Gary Harris was abruptly shaken from the self imposed isolation he had maintained since the loss of his wife Christy two years before. Losing his life mate, after forty three years together, had left him disoriented and withdrawn. Not until his first glimpse of Claudia Hafner standing in the midst of the reunion crowd did that long-absent life spark return. After decades apart they were both pleasantly surprised to find their once persuasive attraction was still intact. 

Yet though she was flattered by Gary’s unexpected interest, Claudia had never forgotten the pain of his high school desertion. After half a century those wounds remained closer to the surface than she realized. In time, however, Gary’s attention had overcome her reluctance and their renewed relationship had flourished. Until, that is, Claudia’s son Dennis arrived on the scene.

From childhood Dennis had watched his mother cope with the effects of uncaring men in her life---her own father’s abandonment of his family, Gary’s sudden schoolboy desertion, and finally the crushing departure of Dennis’ father. The sight of his mother’s crying had left lasting scars on her son. He had vowed to protect his mother from predatory men and the pain they represented, beginning with the recently returned Gary Harris.

Dennis’ strident opposition had nipped the pair’s relationship in the bud. His summary instructions to Gary were unambiguous and harsh. “Old man, you get the hell out of my mother’s life--forever.”

On that afternoon, just weeks before, Gary watched in disbelief as Claudia appeared to endorse Dennis’ ultimatum. As fast as the promise of a future together had blossomed, it had died. In the course of that single brief encounter, Gary’s future had been turned upside down. His response was simple enough. He retreated---first to the quiet of his room, then to the bar at Hector’s Club. 

It was from his barstool at Hector’s that Gary ventured forth to help a woman resist the unwelcome advances of an overzealous admirer. In a matter of seconds Gary was unconscious---bound for the hospital, suffering from a serious concussion. Days later he came home, still fragile, but on the mend. Until, that is, he joined Clint in a search for Elly Warren, who had been abducted by Tom Berry.

Like Gary and Claudia, Tom Berry and Elly Warren had been a high school couple. Months before, Tom had greeted Elly’s return to Tanner as grounds for renewing that relationship. Elly, however, had spurned his advances---which brought out the worst in Tom Berry. As Clint Harris had observed at the time, “Tom is not a warm and cuddly guy.”

Indeed, in the course of a riotous showdown at River Park Tom Berry had, in most uncuddly fashion, attacked Elly and knocked Gary on the head with his revolver. Moments later, as Clint stood looking down the barrel of Tom’s weapon, Elly’s single gunshot had disabled Tom, likely saving Clint’s life. It had been, by any measure, a surprising chain of events. 

For the second time in a week Gary was transported to the hospital, again with a concussion. By then Elly was insistent. Despite her son’s objections, Claudia Hafner must come to Tanner to be with Gary. He needed the support only her presence could provide. Surprisingly Claudia had agreed. 

So it was that three days earlier Gary regained consciousness to find Claudia at his side. She had been there ever since. Now, back in the Harris home, Gary sensed that things were returning to normal.

“I’m taking Elly to the mall,” Clint yelled from the kitchen. “We need some stuff for your welcome-home dinner.”

Gary’s reply was quiet, but heartfelt. “Please. No more jello.” 

There in the warmth of the fireplace, with eyes half closed, his thoughts turned to the fleeting images that paraded across his mind ---half-remembered snippets of helping Clint search for Elly, of finding her, then once again losing track of everything when Tom slammed the revolver against his head. 

Like every one of his previous replays, the final scene of that fragmented melodrama was that hazy instant in the hospital when his eyes blinked opened to see Claudia leaning over the edge of his bed. His first impulse had been to reach out and touch her face---to confirm she was not a trauma-induced hallucination. Before he could respond, she had pressed a finger to his lips and said in a soft whisper, “Hi there.” 

It was not the fresh face of his high school sweetheart smiling down at him. Her once brunette hair had turned gray. There were lines and wrinkles, gathered during their long years apart, in much the same way his own profile had changed. Still, once past her timid apprehension, Claudia’s blue eyes were sparkling like the teenager he had fallen for so long before.

Now, alone with her in the front room, Gary reached for her hand and placed it on his knee, with his hand on top of hers. “You know,” he said. “You’ve never told me why you came back---why you showed up at the hospital like you did. About then I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again.” 

At the time of his latest injury he had every reason to believe that Claudia, at Dennis’ urging, had walked out of his life forever. ”So what changed your mind?”

“It wasn’t about changing my mind. Not at all. When you were hurt the first time I wanted to be here. I just didn’t know how to tell Dennis. Then, when Elly called again the other night, I knew I had to come---even though Dennis would be disappointed.”

“What made this time different?”

“It was Elly,” Claudia nodded, remembering her friend’s stern pleading. “She told me how important it was for me to be here with you. I guess her explanation was kind of far out, but she was so sure about it. Most of all, I wanted to believe what she told me. So I had to come and find out for myself.”

“What was there about it that was so far out?” Gary leaned back in his wheelchair, drinking in the comfortable luxury of good company and the time to enjoy it.

“She said that I could get through to you, even though you were unconscious. That you’d know I was there.” As she spoke Claudia remembered the energizing certainty of Elly’s claim, so different from the timid doubt that had kept her from making her own choices. 

“At first it sounded sort of unlikely. But then I remembered when I was with my mother, during her last days. I was certain she could tell I was there. She never woke up to tell me that. But I  knew it just the same. That’s what made me think Elly might be right---that you’d know I was there.”

“So you ‘reached’ me, did you? Am I supposed to remember that? ‘Cause I’m afraid I don’t.”

There was a touch of embarrassment in her soft laugh. “I don’t know how it works. I just remember telling you over and over that I was there with you, and I wanted you to come back.”

“You ‘wanted me to come back.’ Wow. If I did hear that you can bet I paid attention.” He patted her hand as he asked, “You said you wanted ‘to believe the rest of what she told you.’ What was that about?”

Claudia paused again, a bit embarrassed and wondering if he would understand. “She told me that you needed me there with you. I could understand that you might ‘want’ me there. But until I talked with Elly it never dawned on me that you might ‘need’ me to be with you.”

“I could have told you that. In fact, I’m sure I have.”

“You have. But sometimes you say things like that just to make me feel good. But when Elly explained what she thought it meant, I realized I had to come. After all, except for my kids, there’s never been anyone who needed me. 

“You know how dramatic Elly can be,” Claudia continued. “She said there was no one else in the whole world who you needed like you needed me. I was the only one for the job, she said.” Her playful grin was pulling him along. “I wasn’t sure that’s true. But I liked the sound of it. I still do. It’s enough to make a person feel special.”

“As well it should. Don’t you doubt it for a second.” Gary said. He leaned back, eyes closed, to soak up her affirming presence. That, in concert with the feel-good aura of a powerful pain medication, made for an intoxicating blend. “I can tell you this. To open my eyes and see you right in front of me, smiling like that, was almost worth the knock on my head. If that’s what it took to get you back here, it was definitely worthwhile.”

“There should have been an easier way.”

 

 ~~~

 

 It took a day or two for the four of them to establish a routine of sorts. Claudia was spending her nights with Elly, returning each morning to the Harris home to do her part in nursing Gary back to health. Meanwhile Clint and Elly pursued their own activities.

By Friday afternoon the worst of Gary’s headaches and dizziness had passed. With his walker he moved around the house on his own. Clint and Elly were in town so he and Claudia had the house to themselves. In the living room, Claudia was reading and he was resting---asleep as far as she knew until, without opening his eyes he startled her with, “What are we going to do about us?” 

“What about us?”

“What do you suppose?” he asked. “I don’t want you running off again. I want us to be together.” 

“I’ve been wondering about that,” she replied. “I was thinking I could stay with Sarah. She’s just a few blocks away. I’m sure it would be okay with her. That way we could see each other every day.”

“I don’t see how that would work.” His eyes were open now, stern and serious. “In fact it wouldn’t work at all.”

“Why not. I thought you wanted us to be together.”

“I certainly do. But I don’t want a girl friend---someone who lives down the street.”

Claudia straightened up, ready to exercise her new found will. “Gary, my home in Lawrence is sixty miles away. That’s too far. I want to see you more that once a week.”

“I’m not saying this very well, am I?” Gary leaned forward in the recliner, his elbows on his knees. “What I mean is, I don’t want a girl friend, whether she lives in Lawrence, or in Tanner, or anywhere else.” He had spent two days thinking this through. Why was it so hard to say? “What I want is a wife.”

“You want what?”

“You heard me. I want a wife. And not just any wife. I want you to be my wife.”

Claudia was on her feet, pacing nervously to the front window and back. Stopping in front of him she asked, “Do you know what you’re saying? Have you thought this through? There are probably other ways, you know.”

“What do you mean, ‘other ways?’”

“Dorothy Grier, at my church, lives with Ernie. Most people thinks they’re married. But they’re not. It has something to do with getting more Social Security benefits. For her it works just fine.”

Gary took her hand and pulled her to the arm of his recliner. “Claudia Hafner, don’t you con me. You would never feel right about something like that. And neither would I.” 

He scolded himself for letting them get so far off course. “I’ve got a good pension. We both have Social Security. I’ve got some bucks from selling my house. When it comes to money we’d be just fine. Besides, getting married isn’t supposed to be a financial transaction.”

“And you would really marry me? Is that what you’re saying? Are you proposing?” He knew there would be tears at some point and at that moment Claudia did not disappoint. “Are you sure? It seems so final.”

“Yes I’m proposing. Yes I’m absolutely sure. And yes I expect it to be final. That’s the whole idea. The question I have for you is, how do you think Dennis would deal with it?” 

He sat quietly, letting his question register. Seconds passed and his apprehension grew as Claudia considered what had been an obstacle to their future together. 

Finally she looked up and asked again, “Are you sure?”

“About what Dennis will say?”

“No, silly. About us. About getting married.”

What followed was their first real kiss in over fifty years. Gary was pleasantly surprised at how much they had not forgotten in that time. When it was over Claudia was smiling through her tears.

“Yes. I’m sure,” he laughed.

“Then I’ll call Dennis tonight and let him know what we’ve decided.” 

Gary was concentrating on the firm confidence he heard in her voice, until her words finally registered. “Did you just say ‘yes?’” 

“Yes, I said ‘yes.’ And I hope Dennis will come to our wedding. If he decides not to we’ll just have to go on without him.” 

By the time Clint returned from his lawn mowing duties at the church Gary and Claudia were snuggled on the couch, beyond any need for conversation. At the sound of the kitchen door slamming Gary pushed himself to the edge of the couch, where Claudia held the walker for him. A moment later they stood facing each other. What began as matching grins soon morphed into broad smiles. By the time Clint poked his head around the corner of the dining room they were laughing out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Clint asked. “Someone tell a joke?”

“There’s no joke. And it’s not funny.” Gary draped an arm over Claudia’s shoulder and pulled her closer. “These are what you’d call happy laughs.”

“You have to be pretty happy to laugh like that.”

“How about very happy?” Claudia answered. “Or maybe very, very happy.”

“That sounds like a lot of happy. I know that a good steak can make Gary happy. But this looks like more than a ‘steak’ kind of happy.”

Claudia could not contain her secret any longer. “He asked me to marry him,” she said. “He asked me. And I said yes.”

“Good for you, brother. It must have been that rap on the head. Knocked some sense into you.” Hugging Claudia, Clint explained, “Sometimes he’s kind of slow to catch on. But if you give him enough time he almost always gets it right.”

“Hey, I’ve had it right from the beginning,” Gary objected. “It was just a matter of selling it to her.”

“So what’s the deal? Have you set a date?”

“Not yet. She just saidyes’ a half an hour ago.”

Clint understood at once it was not his place to be spreading their good news. “Claudia, you have to call Elly. She doesn’t want to hear about this from me.”