A Perfect Dayby Richard Evans
Robert Harlan has three loves: his wife, his daughter, and his writing. But when his thirst for success causes him to lose focus on his happy family life, ambition begins to consume him. When a stranger appears with a mysterious message about the brevity of his future, he discovers the truth about himself: who he has become, what he has lost, and what it will… See more details below
Robert Harlan has three loves: his wife, his daughter, and his writing. But when his thirst for success causes him to lose focus on his happy family life, ambition begins to consume him. When a stranger appears with a mysterious message about the brevity of his future, he discovers the truth about himself: who he has become, what he has lost, and what it will take to find love again.
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Read an Excerpt
It’s Christmas night.
Outside my hotel window the world is snow. All is still and white or on the way to becoming so. Only the street lamps show signs of life, changing colors above barren streets that look more like tundra than asphalt. Even the rumbling, yellow snowplows that wake me from my thoughts cannot keep up with the storm.
This snowstorm seems as relentless as any I’ve seen in Salt Lake City. Salt Lakers are particularly proud of their blizzards, and every native has a story of winter—stories that usually begin, You call this a storm? and grow in the telling like battle tales shared by graying war veterans. It’s a peculiar character flaw to those of us from cold climates that we feel superior to those who have the sense to live elsewhere.
I remember a Christmas night, when I was a boy, when there was a great blizzard. My father was always through with Christmas weeks before it arrived, and by Christmas night he had already undressed our tree and dragged it out to the curb for the municipal pickup. A storm came that same night, chased by the plows, and the next morning the tree was buried beneath a five-foot snowbank. We forgot about the tree until April, when a thaw revealed an evergreen branch poking free from the melting snow. It was the same Christmas that my mother left us.
* * *
Tonight, from my seventh-story window I see a man in a parka and a bellman’s cap shoveling the walk in front of the hotel’s entrance. The snow returns nearly as fast as he clears it. Salt Lake’s own Sisyphus.
It’s a night to be home. A night to be gathered with loved ones around brick hearths and hot drinks warming the day’s memory. It is a night to bathe in the pleasant aftermath of the season’s joy. So why am I alone in a hotel when my wife, Allyson, and my daughter, Carson, are just minutes away?
I see a car below. It moves slowly up Main Street, its headlights cutting through the darkness. The car slides helplessly from side to side, its wipers blurring, its wheels spinning, correcting, grasping, connecting then slipping again. I imagine the driver of that car; blinded, afraid to stop, just as fearful to proceed. I empathize. Behind the wheel of my life I feel like that driver.
I couldn’t tell you my first wrong step. I’m not sure that I could tell you what I’d do differently. My mind is a queue of questions. Most of them are about the stranger. Why did the stranger come to me? Why did he speak of hope when my future, or what’s left of it, looks as barren as the winter landscape? Some might think that my story began with the stranger. But in truth it began long before I met him, back on a balmy June day eight years ago when Allyson, not yet my wife, went home to Oregon to see her father. This is strangely ironic to me, because it all began on a perfect day. And here it ends on the worst of days.
I should say begins to end. Because if the stranger is right—and I’ve learned that he’s always right—I have just six more days to live. Six days that I will live out alone, not because I want to, but because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps my loneliness is my penance. I hope God will see it that way, because there is not enough time to heal two hearts. There is not enough time to make right one broken promise. There is only time to remember what once was and should still be. My thoughts wander, first to the stranger then further back—back eight years to when Allyson went home to her father. Back to the beginning of my story. Back to a perfect day.
EIGHT YEARS EARLIER. JUNE 10, 1992.
Allyson Phelps closed her eyes as she rocked in the saddle to the swing of her Morgan’s gait. She rode with her father, Carson, who had grown quiet in the last hour, and the only sound they contributed to the mountain was the steady clop of hooves, the sharp metallic click of horseshoe against rock and the creaking of leather.
The trail they climbed was beaten and as familiar to the horses as to the riders. Without coaxing, they plodded along, scaling the top of a ridge that broke along a line of aspen and cedar. It was the hour before twilight, and the setting sun tinged the edges of the ragged peaks in pink and sage. The “pinking hour” Allyson always called it. Allyson shouted back to her father. “It’s been too long since we’ve gone riding together. When was the last time?”
“Been two summers,” her father said without hesitation. “Let’s stop up ahead and let the horses rest.”
She rode thirty more yards, to a small clearing, then pulled back the reins. “Whoa, Dolly.” She leaned forward and rubbed Dolly’s neck above the shoulder. The bay was damp with sweat from their ride.
Her father tapped his horse’s flanks with his stirrups and moved up alongside Allyson. “Is this okay?” she asked.
He glanced around. “It’s perfect.”
They had stopped on a ridge overlooking the lush, velvet lap of the Rogue Valley. God’s backyard, her father called this country, and as a child and full of faith she had fully expected to run into God someday out wandering His back forty.
To some of Allyson’s friends at college this expanse of wilderness would have been a frightening place, but to her it was safe and nurturing—a place she could run to when the world outside became too complex. It was a place that had opened its arms to her when her mother, who had no business dying, died out of turn. In such country it was possible to believe that no one ever really died, they just came here.
They dismounted and Carson took the horses’ reins and led them over to a blue spruce, where he tethered the straps to one of its limbs. He took from his saddlebag a small knapsack then found a flat-topped granite boulder half-buried in the mountainside and brushed the dirt from it with his hands. “Come sit with me, girlie.”
Allyson smiled. She was twenty-four-years old and would forever be “girlie.” She walked over and sat down next to him. She pulled her knees up against her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs.
From where they sat the only sign of man’s trespass was four hundred yards below them, only visible through the thick foliage to someone who knew what they were looking for—the weathered obelisks and crosses of an overgrown pioneer cemetery, choked and dying itself. Allyson, like her father, had been raised in this country and while she had left it behind for school, he belonged to it still and always would. He owned more than a thousand acres of the raw land, but she knew that the opposite was true—that the land owned him.
“It’s good to be home again,” she said. “Sometimes I forget how gorgeous it is up here.” “Almost as pretty as you,” he said then added, “Pretty lonely too, sometimes.”
His loneliness always made her feel guilty. “I wish you’d find someone.”
“Too late for that,” he said. She felt traitorous to suggest such a thing to a man who still loved the only woman he had ever loved—almost twenty years after she had been buried.
“I don’t need nobody. I have you.”
She leaned into him. “Thanks for bringing me home for the weekend. It’s been a good day. It’s been a perfect day.”
He nodded in agreement, though his eyes, sometimes as deep and dark as a well of ink, held sadness. The steady rush of the Rogue River rose from the valley below them.
“About Robert ...”
She looked up. “Yes?”
“Is he good to you?”
“He’s really good to me. Didn’t you think he was sweet to me when he was here last Christmas?”
“He seemed nice enough. But with your old man an arm’s length away, he’d be a fool not to be.”
“He treats me just as good—whether you’re there to scare him or not.” She could tell that he wasn’t satisfied. “Really, Dad.”
“You’re sure you want to marry him?”
“I do.” She turned to look at him. “You’ve always said I could marry anyone I chose as long as he loves me as much as you do.”
“It’s a pretty high benchmark. But I think he comes close.” With one hand Allyson brushed her hair back from her face. “Do you think I’m making a mistake?”
“Would it change your mind if I thought you were?”
“It would bother me.” She looked at him anxiously. “Does that mean you do?”
His expression lightened. “No, honey. Robert seems to be a good kid. You know me. No one’s ever going to be good enough for my Al.”
“I know.” Allyson suddenly smiled. “Did I ever tell you why Nancy didn’t get married?”
“You know, my roommate. You met her at Christmas. She came with Robert.”
“Oh, yeah. No, you didn’t tell me.”
“Every summer Nancy’s family rents a beach house in Baja. This last summer she took her fiancé, Spencer, along. They were out swimming in the ocean when she spotted a shark’s dorsal fin. She screamed and they both started swimming for shore, but when she got to where she could touch the sand, a wave hit her and knocked her over. She yelled for Spencer to help her and he stopped and looked at her but then he got scared and ran back to the beach house without her.”
“He left her in the water?”
“Yep, he did. She was so mad when she got back to the house she didn’t speak to him for the rest of the week. He tried to apologize, but really, what could he say? It was kind of a defining moment. Her dad told her that if she didn’t have the brains to give him the boot, she deserved what she got.”
Carson shook his head. “Maybe we need to plan a beach trip with Robert.”
Allyson laughed. “Robert wouldn’t run.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“You’ve seen me mad. I can be scarier than any shark.”
“Can’t deny that, girlie.”
A whistling twilight breeze fluttered the trees around them. One of the horses whinnied and Carson glanced back at them. Then he said, “When I asked Robert about his family, he didn’t say much. Just that he was the youngest of four boys.”
“I know. I thought it was odd that we had dated for almost six months and he had never mentioned his parents. But now I understand why. His mother left them when Rob was in middle school. Rob doesn’t like to talk about her. His father raised him but he’s not close to him either.”
“Not much of a family life.”
“No, it’s not.” Allyson leaned her head back onto her father’s shoulder. Her voice softened. “But I’m sure about him. At least as sure as I can be. I mean, it’s a throw of the dice anyway, right? No one marries expecting it to fail. And even when it’s good, who knows how long it’s going to last? Like Robert’s mother. Or Mom ...” She stopped. She never spoke of her mother without wondering how it would affect her father.
“No, you don’t know,” Carson said, though more to himself. “Maybe it is just a roll of the dice.” He looked suddenly uncomfortable. “Those were hard days. For all of us.” “I remember the night you came into my room with Aunt Denise and Pastor Claire. It was the worst moment of my life.”
“One of mine too,” Carson said softly. He seemed especially troubled by the recollection, the memory rubbing across his heart like sandpaper. For a moment they were both silent. Then he cleared his throat. “So the date is still the eleventh of December?”
“Yes. We’re threading the needle. Two days after graduation, two weeks before Christmas.” “Then what are your plans?”
“Rob starts his new job in Salt Lake on the fifth. We fly out on the second.”
He shook his head. “Wrong state, sweetheart. “
“Tell Bob there’s a radio station in Medford.”
“Dad, he hates to be called ‘Bob.’ And Medford isn’t exactly a hotbed of opportunity. This is a great opportunity for him. KBOX is the number one station in the Salt Lake market.”
“That’s what he wants to do? Sell radio commercials?”
“No. What he really wants to do is write books. Romance novels.”
He frowned. “You mean the kind they sell at Kmart, with the long-haired men with their shirts all open ...”
Allyson laughed. “No.”
“What does selling radio have to do with being a writer?”
“Not much. It’s just something to pay the bills until he’s able to get published. A friend of his older brother is the sales manager there. And they’re going to let him write radio commercials for some of their advertisers.” While Carson digested the information, she added, “We’re getting a house.”
He turned to look at her. “A house? So soon?”
“Rob’s dad is helping us. It’s one of his rental properties. He’s selling it to us without interest, so it’s the same price as renting an apartment. It’s a Tudor in a beautiful little community south of Salt Lake with horse property. It has a fence around it. It reminds me a little of Ashland. And we’ll have a guest room for you to stay with us. You can fly out whenever you want.”
“I don’t fly.”
“Well, it’s a long drive, so you better start.” She hit his knee playfully. “You amaze me, you know that? You used to ride bulls and yet you’re afraid to get on an airplane.”
“Bulls don’t crash into mountains.”
“No, they crash into you.”
“Wrong state,” he repeated.
They were quiet again. Then Allyson said, “I’m going to miss you, Dad.”
He looked forward. “Me too.” After a moment he said, “You know things weren’t always that great between me and your mom. Sometimes we’d get into it like cats and dogs. When we lived in that little apartment in Medford the neighbors would call the manager to complain about the ruckus.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I don’t want you to take unrealistic expectations into your marriage. Just because the boat rocks, doesn’t mean it’s time to jump overboard. The relationship will change. All relationships change through time. But that’s not always a bad thing. In fact some of the best things to happen to our marriage were the changes. It’s part of the growing process.” He looked forward again and he sighed.
“You look tired, Dad. Are you feeling all right?”
“I haven’t been sleeping well lately. Maybe it’s time to head on back. What time is our dinner?”
“I made our reservation for nine. That’s not too late, is it?”
“You mean for an old guy like me?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He reached over the side of the rock and lifted the knapsack he had brought from the horse.
“Before we go I want to show you something.”
He took from the pack a thick leather-bound binder overflowing with pages. Its cover was burnished with a flourish and its leather was aged with time and wear. Allyson looked at the book curiously. Though she did not remember seeing it, something about it seemed familiar to her. “What have you got there?”
“Something I’ve been working on for about twenty years.” He pulled back the cover. Inside the binder were pages of different sizes and gauges, uneven and dog-eared. The first page was parchment marked with her father’s wild scrawl.
“It’s your life book. It has your genealogy, letters from Mom and me, your birth announcement, your high school graduation program, thoughts about things—and my thoughts about you. It’s time for you to take it.”
Allyson took the book in her lap. She gently turned through its leaves, as if it were a sacred relic. Each page contained a piece of the puzzle of who she had become. Without looking up she said, “Dad, this is wonderful. I didn’t know you were doing this ...” She suddenly paused at an aged page with a small note written on lined paper and a photograph taped to its bottom. “Oh, my ...”
“That’s the first love note I ever wrote to your mother.”
Allyson read it softly aloud.
To my heart, Alise,
Wherever you are, wherever you go, I love you and always will.
“You have a poetic heart.” She ran her finger across the black-and-white photograph of a young woman that was taped to the bottom of the letter. “Is this Mom?”
“She was about your age when that was taken.”
“We look alike, don’t we? Doris Day hairdo aside.”
“You always wondered where you got your good looks.”
“I’ve never wondered.” She began turning pages again until she stopped at a leaf with her mother’s funeral program. Next to it there was a picture of herself as a small girl dressed for her mother’s wake. Her father looked young in the picture, she thought. It made him seem only that much more remarkable to her.
“How did you go on after losing the love of your life?”
“I had you. Failure wasn’t an option.”
“You’ve always been there for me. I don’t know how I’d live without you.”
He smiled, but his eyes revealed deep sadness. Then he said, “Well, girlie, we need to talk about that.”
Allyson’s heart skipped at his words, and she moved back from him to look into his face. “What?”
He didn’t answer for what seemed a long time to her. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make your wedding.”
She looked at him as if anticipating the punch line of a joke. “What are you saying?”
His lips tightened and his brow furrowed in deep creases. “I guess there’s no good way to put this.” He scratched his head the way he did when he was troubled. “I have cancer, Al. Pretty bad cancer.”
Allyson’s mouth opened, but no sound escaped.
“It’s pancreatic cancer. The doctors say that there’s nothing they can do. I’d even try some of that chemo hocus-pocus if it could get me to your wedding, but the doctors don’t think I have that long.”
“How long?” she asked. Panic rose in her voice.
“With treatment they say I only have three to four months.”
“Three months ...” Numbness spread throughout her entire body, making it difficult to continue. “... And without?”
“They give me two.”
She began to cry. “No.” Then she erupted angrily. “You don’t even look sick. We’ve just spent the whole afternoon riding ...”
Carson put his arm around her. “It hasn’t gotten me yet, girlie. But it will. They tell me pancreatic cancer is that way. It sneaks up on you. The truth is I didn’t feel a thing. I only found out about it because my eyes were turning yellow. They say it’s the most fatal of all the cancers.” He looked back at her. “Truth is I kind of expected it to be coming along.”
Allyson stopped crying briefly and looked at him, confused by what he had just said. “Why would you expect something like this?”
“On account of something that happened a while back. About six weeks after Mom died I was diagnosed with cancer. Had a big tumor growing inside my neck.” He pointed to a small scar. “That’s where they tested it. I was already in a world of hurt with her loss and wondering how I was going to raise you alone when whammo, the rest of the wave hits. I about lost my faith over it. I couldn’t believe that God would do this.” Carson looked out over the land around them then continued in a softer voice. “When I was done being angry with God, I made Him a promise. I told Him that if He would let me live to see you grown and married off that I would do everything I could to fill the gap left by your mother—and that I would never touch alcohol again.”
Allyson was stunned. “You used to drink?”
Carson chuckled. “Oh yes, girlie, I used to drink,” he said, the tone of his voice implying the understatement. “... Like a sailor on a weekend pass. That’s one of the reasons your mother and I fought so much. A week after my promise, I went back to the doctors. There was no sign of cancer. I remember my doctor looking at one X-ray and then the other as if it were a prank. Some of the doctors tried to explain it away as a misdiagnosis. Doctors don’t like to be wrong—think they could wrap up the universe in a handkerchief. But I knew better. God had accepted my deal. I started AA that night. Haven’t touched a drop in almost twenty years. Believe me it wasn’t easy. There were nights I went outside and howled at the moon. But then I’d look at you and I’d remember why.” He rubbed her knee. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the symptoms came just a few days after you told me you were engaged. The way I see it, the Lord fulfilled His part of the bargain.”
“How can you be so calm about this?”
“Truth is I’m scared. ’Course I’m scared. Any man who says he’s not afraid of dying is a liar or an idiot. Or both.”
Allyson lowered her head and began to sob. Carson ran his hand over the back of her head, through her hair, bringing her head against his chest. “Honey, we can see this two ways. We can be upset that I’m being taken out of the game or we can be grateful that I got to play the extra innings.” He took her face in his hands and lifted it until she was looking into his eyes. “You have no idea how much I’ve loved watching you grow up. Or how proud I am of the woman you’ve become. Frankly, I’m grateful for the extra innings.” He turned away so she wouldn’t see the tears welling in his eyes.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “That’s why you wanted me to come home this weekend?” He nodded slowly, his gaze lost in the valley before them. “It’s the last chapter of our story, girlie. I wanted one last perfect day.”
Allyson didn’t return to finish the summer semester. She spent the next two months at her father’s side, at first busying herself with cooking and caring for the house and yard, then, as the cancer became more debilitating, caring just for him. Within three weeks he was having trouble walking and became bedridden. Allyson rarely left him. She even slept on a cot in the same bedroom. I called her every day during this time. I could feel her father’s deterioration through her voice, as if life was draining from her as well, and I suppose it was.
I pled with her to let me come and be with her, but she wouldn’t allow it. She couldn’t explain why she didn’t want me there, but she didn’t have to. I think I understood. She couldn’t mix the two men in her life any more than she could simultaneously entertain thoughts of the wedding and funeral. It would be too much for anyone. She finally asked me to stop asking and promised that she would let me know when it was the right time for me to fly out.
Carson knew that his death would be difficult for Allyson, too difficult perhaps, so he did what he could to protect her. He made all the funeral arrangements himself, choosing a casket, writing his funeral program and his own obituary (which turned out to be as understated as he was) and paying for services in advance. As much as he hated lawyers, for Allyson’s sake he hired an attorney who brought to the house the papers to complete Carson’s will, and they crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, with Allyson physically in attendance and emotionally a universe away.
As the cancer progressed, her father was given new drugs, one of which caused hallucinations. Every few nights Allyson would wake to find him sitting up in bed talking to people who weren’t there; usually to her mother.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her, and I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.
On September 9, almost three months to the day since she had learned of her father’s cancer, Allyson called. It was time, she said. Her father was dying.
I had met Allyson at the University of Utah in an English literature class. I was working on my masters and was employed as an aide in the class. The first time I saw her I knew that I was in the right place.
Allyson came to Utah on an academic scholarship. I had come to the U because of the help with tuition I received since my father was a professor at the school—which was almost reason enough for me to go elsewhere. I don’t know how best to describe my father. The simplest noun seems adequate. Flint. Old and hard and sharp. I don’t ever remember calling him Father or Pa or Dad like my friends called their fathers. It’s always been sir or, as I grew older, Chuck.
Charles (Chuck) Harlan had run away from home at the age of seventeen and joined the military during the last years of World War II. He had seen combat in the Navy. But I didn’t hear it from him. He saw the kind of action a man doesn’t talk about lest he unearth something he’d spent years burying. I blame those years for who he was. I have to blame something.
He married late in life to Irene Mason, a woman fifteen years younger than him. She was also from a military family. She was a staunchly religious woman who bore four sons in five years. She died at the age of thirty-four in childbirth with her last son. Me.
Chuck remarried four years later to a woman he met in the administration building at the university. Colleen Dunn. I’ve always considered Colleen my mother. Colleen was also younger than Chuck, ten years or so, but the gap in age was the subtlest of their differences. When I was old enough to understand the contrast in their personalities I was astonished that the two of them had ever come together. Truly, love is blind. Or maybe just stupid. They couldn’t have been more mismatched.
In the words of her friends, Colleen was a party waiting to happen. She was a large woman with an extra chin or two and a lap that could hold four boys and often did. What I remember most about her is that she liked to laugh. She sometimes drank too much, nothing hard, dessert wine or sherry and she never drank alone. Unlike Chuck’s first wife, she went to church only for us children. I knew her feelings about church but still considered her closer to God than Chuck. Though Chuck never missed a church service, he lacked the graces of faith my mother held in abundance: love, gentleness and mercy. It was as if religion was simply an extension of the military world he had left: a world of rules. Chuck was big on rules. He ruled the home with an iron Bible.
Every now and then it would come down on one of us. One afternoon he caught Stan, my oldest brother, looking at pictures in the women’s undergarment section of a department store catalogue. Even though Stan was only eleven at the time, Chuck whipped him with his belt so severely that Stan couldn’t walk. He crawled to his bedroom, where he remained until the next morning. In the end, Colleen stayed with us for nine years: probably eight and a half years longer than she would have had there not been us boys. She stayed as long as she could to protect us from Chuck. The day she told me she was leaving I suppose that I wasn’t all that surprised. Even at the age of thirteen I realized that if there ever had ever been a connection between Chuck and Colleen, it had long been severed. Her laughter was gone. I suppose she went to find it. Right or wrong it didn’t lessen the pain any. I told her that I hated her. I might have even told her that I was glad she was leaving. I’ve always regretted those words and hoped she knew them for the bald-faced lie they were. In my heart I wished that she would take me with her. But she didn’t. And Chuck never left.
Looking back I realize that I spent much of my life seeking Chuck’s approval. But I learned not to expect it. It would be like waiting for a train after its route had been cancelled. I was both amazed by and envious of Allyson’s relationship with her father. What a difference a father can make. Allyson was confident and independent. I was insecure and fearful. To this day I don’t know what drew her to me.
I flew in to Portland, where I waited nearly three hours for a commuter flight into the small Medford airport. My thoughts were bent on Allyson and what I was walking into. I had called from the Portland airport and spoken briefly to her, but she wasn’t herself. It was like talking to a stranger, and from her voice I knew that Carson’s death was very close.
The taxi left me in the dirt-and-rock driveway that led to the Phelps residence. The hills of Ashland were a quilt of color, unlike my first trip to her home, last Christmas, when all was snow. Though the land was even more spectacular than Allyson had described it, her home was nothing like what I’d expected. It looked as if a trailer had taken root in the fertile Rogue Valley soil and grown rooms and steps and a porch with a mosquito screen.
Carson was a handyman and he liked to fiddle with things, his residence being his most frequent victim. Allyson told me that the house had changed form every year for as long as she could remember. She grew up thinking that people just lived that way. She’d come home from school to find her fa-ther, hammer in hand, knocking out a wall or building an addition. He had been that way up until the last few months, when his sickness had sapped his strength as well as his ambition. But still he talked about the guest room he was going to build when he felt good enough to get out of bed. They both knew it would never happen, but it was a pleasant fiction all the same.
The taxi’s meter read nine seventy-five. Through the open car window I handed the driver a folded ten-dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
“Gee, thanks,” the driver said sarcastically, stashing the bill in his front pocket. The taxi’s back tires spun as the driver reversed out of the drive. I slung my duffel over my shoulder, climbed the wooden stairs of the front porch and knocked on the door. An elderly woman opened the door and welcomed me in. She was short and broad-hipped, with silver hair. She wore a pink hand-knit sweater. Her smile and her eyes were pleasant but appropriate for the circumstances. I could see the family resemblance.
“You must be Robert.”
She reached out and touched my arm affectionately. “I’m Allyson’s Aunt Denise.”
Allyson had spoken of her many times. Allyson was very close to her. She had become Allyson’s surrogate mother after her own mother had passed away. I had not met her last December only because she had gone on an east coast trip with a few of her friends.
“I’ve heard much about you,” I said. “Allyson thinks the world of you.”
She smiled. “Allyson is my sweetheart. Please come in.”
I stepped into the house, onto the umber shag carpet. I looked around for Allyson. There were a dozen or so people congregated inside, strangers, standing or sitting, speaking in somber tones like people in a hospital waiting room. In the center of the room was a coffee table with a plate of sugar cookies and a pot of coffee. The only person I recognized was Nancy, Allyson’s roommate. I turned back to Aunt Denise.
“Is he still ...?”
In the land of the dying sentences go unfinished.
She nodded. “He’s still with us.”
“Do you know where Allyson is?”
“She’s with her father. Down the hallway.”
At that time Nancy crossed the room. I set down my bag, and without a word she put her arms around me in the way people do when words are not enough. Nancy had been here last Christmas when I flew out to meet Allyson’s father. Nothing was the same now.
“How is he?” I asked.
“He’s still hanging in there. The nurse told us that he was going to die yesterday. But he’s a tough old bird. He’s holding on.”
“Is Ally alone with him?”
She nodded. “She’s been in there for nearly six hours. I checked on her about an hour ago.”
“How is she?”
She frowned. “Not well. She asked if I had heard from you.”
“Which room is it?”
She pointed. “The room at the end.”
I anxiously walked down the shadowy hallway, my footsteps falling softly in the corridor. I opened the door just enough to look in. The room was dark, illuminated only by the light stealing in from the partially opened blinds above the bed. When my eyes had adjusted, I saw Allyson curled up on the bed next to her father. It wasn’t hard to imagine that this had happened a million times before, on dark nights when a thunderstorm shook the mountain; a little girl crawling into the safety and warmth of her papa’s bed.
She looked up at me. Her eyes were dark but not dull, as there was a peculiar energy in them. I tried to read in her face an invitation or dismissal but saw neither, for she looked at me not as if I were a stranger to the home, but as if she were.
I stepped inside, gently closing the door behind me. Allyson stood up and walked over to me. I put my arms around her and held her in the shadows, her soft face nuzzling against my neck. It seemed, for a while, that only the two of us were in the room; then Carson suddenly groaned and Allyson immediately returned to her father’s side. I sat down on a chair at the side of the bed to wait.
The last time I had seen her father he was a mountain of a man, rugged and large as the land he lived on. He was a man who could be thrown by a bull, stepped on and walk away with nothing but a few cuss words. This man in the bed was more desert than mountain. The cancer had left him frail and helpless. I wondered if he even knew that I was there.
For the next hour Allyson and I sat quietly by the bed. Carson was quiet, though he mumbled from time to time and once he looked toward the ceiling and said what sounded like “Not yet,” and I followed his gaze, almost expecting to see some personage of another world suspended in the air. But still he showed no sign of dying. It was apparent to me that he was holding on. I knew why. And I realized that I was to play a role in Carson Phelps’s passing.
An hour and forty minutes later, when Allyson left to use the bathroom, I took my chance to speak to him. Though I spoke softly, my voice seemed loud and misplaced in the silent room, like a stone thrown into a well.
“Sir, I’m Robert. Allyson’s fiancé.” He showed no reaction and I had second thoughts about continuing. But I went on. “I know that Allyson loves you very much. She’s told me so. I know how you love her. She’s told me how you’ve always been there for her.”
My eyes began to water. “I know that’s what you’re doing now. You’re holding on for her. But with all due respect, you don’t have to anymore. You don’t know me that well, but I love your daughter too. I love her with all my heart. I think she’s the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. And I promise that whatever life brings, I’ll do my best to take care of her. I’ll never leave her. You have my word.”
When I finished there was only silence. I leaned back in my chair and the room fell again into shadow. For the next few moments Carson was as still as the room. Then his eyes opened and flitted toward me and he said something unintelligible, as much a gasp as speech.
I leaned forward. “What?” I said. “I didn’t understand ...”
Again silence. His eyes closed. I sat back in my chair.
Allyson came back into the room. She sat on the bed and again took her father’s hand in hers. And then his eyes opened. For a minute he looked at her and she gazed back at him. A single tear rolled down the side of his face. Then he gasped twice and was gone. For a moment all was still. Then Allyson began to shake, as the reality of his death enveloped her. I quickly went to her, as if to stop her from being swept away with her father. I held her body against mine, my hand around her head pulling it into my shoulder. “He’s gone,” she said. “My daddy’s gone.”
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