A Perfect Dayby Richard Paul Evans
One of the world's most beloved authors returns with the story of a man who found everything he thought he was missing in the family he already had.
Robert Harlan has three loves in his life: his wife, Allyson, his daughter, Carson, and his writing. As a sales rep for a small radio station, he has hopes of one day leaving it all behind for a successful… See more details below
One of the world's most beloved authors returns with the story of a man who found everything he thought he was missing in the family he already had.
Robert Harlan has three loves in his life: his wife, Allyson, his daughter, Carson, and his writing. As a sales rep for a small radio station, he has hopes of one day leaving it all behind for a successful writing career. When he is unexpectedly laid off from his job, Allyson encourages him to pursue his dream of writing. He writes a novel entitled A Perfect Day, based on the last few months Allyson and her father spent together as he died of cancer.
The story becomes a huge success and Robert finds himself swept into a new world far from his wife and home. In time Robert loses track of the things he loves most...until he meets a stranger who begins telling him intimate details about his past, his present and, most important, the brevity of his future. Thinking that he has just months to live, Robert begins to discover the truth about himself; who he has become, what he has lost and what it will take to find love again.
A Perfect Day is a novel of love and awakening from one of the world's most beloved storytellers.
Author Biography: Richard Paul Evans is a number-one New York Times bestselling author. He lives with his family in Salt Lake City, Utah. A Perfect Day is his eighth novel.
- Gale Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Large Print
- Product dimensions:
- 6.38(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.23(d)
Read an Excerpt
Itís 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 Iíve seen in Salt Lake City. Salt Lakers are particularly proud of their blizzards, and every native has a story of winteróstories that usually begin, You call this a storm? and grow in the telling like battle tales shared by graying war veterans. Itís 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 bellmanís cap shoveling the walk in front of the hotelís entrance. The snow returns nearly as fast as he clears it. Salt Lakeís own Sisyphus.
Itís a night to be home. A night to be gathered with loved ones around brick hearths and hot drinks warming the dayís memory. It is a night to bathe in the pleasant aftermath of the seasonís 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 couldnít tell you my first wrong step. Iím not sure that I could tell you what Iíd 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 whatís 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 rightóand Iíve learned that heís always rightóI have just six more days to live. Six days that I will live out alone, not because I want to, but because itís 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 backóback 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 Morganís 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 ìpinking hourî Allyson always called it. Allyson shouted back to her father. ìItís been too long since weíve gone riding together. When was the last time?î
ìBeen two summers,î her father said without hesitation. ìLetís stop up ahead and let the horses rest.î
She rode thirty more yards, to a small clearing, then pulled back the reins. ìWhoa, Dolly.î She leaned forward and rubbed Dollyís neck above the shoulder. The bay was damp with sweat from their ride.
Her father tapped his horseís flanks with his stirrups and moved up alongside Allyson. ìIs this okay?î she asked.
He glanced around. ìItís perfect.î
They had stopped on a ridge overlooking the lush, velvet lap of the Rogue Valley. Godís 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 Allysonís friends at college this expanse of wilderness would have been a frightening place, but to her it was safe and nurturingóa 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 horsesí 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. ìCome sit with me, girlie.î
Allyson smiled. She was twenty-four-years old and would forever be ìgirlie.î 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 manís trespass was four hundred yards below them, only visible through the thick foliage to someone who knew what they were looking foróthe 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 trueóthat the land owned him.
ìItís good to be home again,î she said. ìSometimes I forget how gorgeous it is up here.î ìAlmost as pretty as you,î he said then added, ìPretty lonely too, sometimes.î
His loneliness always made her feel guilty. ìI wish youíd find someone.î
ìToo late for that,î he said. She felt traitorous to suggest such a thing to a man who still loved the only woman he had ever lovedóalmost twenty years after she had been buried.
ìI donít need nobody. I have you.î
She leaned into him. ìThanks for bringing me home for the weekend. Itís been a good day. Itís been a perfect day.î
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.
ìAbout Robert ...î
She looked up. ìYes?î
ìIs he good to you?î
ìHeís really good to me. Didnít you think he was sweet to me when he was here last Christmas?î
ìHe seemed nice enough. But with your old man an armís length away, heíd be a fool not to be.î
ìHe treats me just as goodówhether youíre there to scare him or not.î She could tell that he wasnít satisfied. ìReally, Dad.î
ìYouíre sure you want to marry him?î
ìI do.î She turned to look at him. ìYouíve always said I could marry anyone I chose as long as he loves me as much as you do.î
ìItís a pretty high benchmark. But I think he comes close.î With one hand Allyson brushed her hair back from her face. ìDo you think Iím making a mistake?î
ìWould it change your mind if I thought you were?î
ìIt would bother me.î She looked at him anxiously. ìDoes that mean you do?î
His expression lightened. ìNo, honey. Robert seems to be a good kid. You know me. No oneís ever going to be good enough for my Al.î
ìI know.î Allyson suddenly smiled. ìDid I ever tell you why Nancy didnít get married?î
ìYou know, my roommate. You met her at Christmas. She came with Robert.î
ìOh, yeah. No, you didnít tell me.î
ìEvery summer Nancyís family rents a beach house in Baja. This last summer she took her fiancÈ, Spencer, along. They were out swimming in the ocean when she spotted a sharkís 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.î
ìHe left her in the water?î
ìYep, he did. She was so mad when she got back to the house she didnít 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 didnít have the brains to give him the boot, she deserved what she got.î
Carson shook his head. ìMaybe we need to plan a beach trip with Robert.î
Allyson laughed. ìRobert wouldnít run.î
ìYouíre sure of that?î
ìYouíve seen me mad. I can be scarier than any shark.î
ìCanít deny that, girlie.î
A whistling twilight breeze fluttered the trees around them. One of the horses whinnied and Carson glanced back at them. Then he said, ìWhen I asked Robert about his family, he didnít say much. Just that he was the youngest of four boys.î
ìI 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 doesnít like to talk about her. His father raised him but heís not close to him either.î
ìNot much of a family life.î
ìNo, itís not.î Allyson leaned her head back onto her fatherís shoulder. Her voice softened. ìBut Iím sure about him. At least as sure as I can be. I mean, itís a throw of the dice anyway, right? No one marries expecting it to fail. And even when itís good, who knows how long itís going to last? Like Robertís mother. Or Mom ...î She stopped. She never spoke of her mother without wondering how it would affect her father.
ìNo, you donít know,î Carson said, though more to himself. ìMaybe it is just a roll of the dice.î He looked suddenly uncomfortable. ìThose were hard days. For all of us.î ìI remember the night you came into my room with Aunt Denise and Pastor Claire. It was the worst moment of my life.î
ìOne of mine too,î 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. ìSo the date is still the eleventh of December?î
ìYes. Weíre threading the needle. Two days after graduation, two weeks before Christmas.î ìThen what are your plans?î
ìRob starts his new job in Salt Lake on the fifth. We fly out on the second.î
He shook his head. ìWrong state, sweetheart. ì
ìTell Bob thereís a radio station in Medford.î
ìDad, he hates to be called ëBob.í And Medford isnít exactly a hotbed of opportunity. This is a great opportunity for him. KBOX is the number one station in the Salt Lake market.î
ìThatís what he wants to do? Sell radio commercials?î
ìNo. What he really wants to do is write books. Romance novels.î
He frowned. ìYou mean the kind they sell at Kmart, with the long-haired men with their shirts all open ...î
Allyson laughed. ìNo.î
ìWhat does selling radio have to do with being a writer?î
ìNot much. Itís just something to pay the bills until heís able to get published. A friend of his older brother is the sales manager there. And theyíre going to let him write radio commercials for some of their advertisers.î While Carson digested the information, she added, ìWeíre getting a house.î
He turned to look at her. ìA house? So soon?î
ìRobís dad is helping us. Itís one of his rental properties. Heís selling it to us without interest, so itís the same price as renting an apartment. Itís 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 weíll have a guest room for you to stay with us. You can fly out whenever you want.î
ìI donít fly.î
ìWell, itís a long drive, so you better start.î She hit his knee playfully. ìYou amaze me, you know that? You used to ride bulls and yet youíre afraid to get on an airplane.î
ìBulls donít crash into mountains.î
ìNo, they crash into you.î
ìWrong state,î he repeated.
They were quiet again. Then Allyson said, ìIím going to miss you, Dad.î
He looked forward. ìMe too.î After a moment he said, ìYou know things werenít always that great between me and your mom. Sometimes weíd 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.î
ìWhy are you telling me this?î
ìI donít want you to take unrealistic expectations into your marriage. Just because the boat rocks, doesnít mean itís time to jump overboard. The relationship will change. All relationships change through time. But thatís not always a bad thing. In fact some of the best things to happen to our marriage were the changes. Itís part of the growing process.î He looked forward again and he sighed.
ìYou look tired, Dad. Are you feeling all right?î
ìI havenít been sleeping well lately. Maybe itís time to head on back. What time is our dinner?î
ìI made our reservation for nine. Thatís not too late, is it?î
ìYou mean for an old guy like me?î
ìThatís not what I meant.î
He reached over the side of the rock and lifted the knapsack he had brought from the horse.
ìBefore we go I want to show you something.î
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. ìWhat have you got there?î
ìSomething Iíve been working on for about twenty years.î 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 fatherís wild scrawl.
ìItís your life book. It has your genealogy, letters from Mom and me, your birth announcement, your high school graduation program, thoughts about thingsóand my thoughts about you. Itís time for you to take it.î
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, ìDad, this is wonderful. I didnít know you were doing this ...î She suddenly paused at an aged page with a small note written on lined paper and a photograph taped to its bottom. ìOh, my ...î
ìThatís the first love note I ever wrote to your mother.î
Allyson read it softly aloud.
To my heart, Alise,
Wherever you are, wherever you go, I love you and always will.
ìYou have a poetic heart.î She ran her finger across the black-and-white photograph of a young woman that was taped to the bottom of the letter. ìIs this Mom?î
ìShe was about your age when that was taken.î
ìWe look alike, donít we? Doris Day hairdo aside.î
ìYou always wondered where you got your good looks.î
ìIíve never wondered.î She began turning pages again until she stopped at a leaf with her motherís funeral program. Next to it there was a picture of herself as a small girl dressed for her motherís wake. Her father looked young in the picture, she thought. It made him seem only that much more remarkable to her.
ìHow did you go on after losing the love of your life?î
ìI had you. Failure wasnít an option.î
ìYouíve always been there for me. I donít know how Iíd live without you.î
He smiled, but his eyes revealed deep sadness. Then he said, ìWell, girlie, we need to talk about that.î
Allysonís heart skipped at his words, and she moved back from him to look into his face. ìWhat?î
He didnít answer for what seemed a long time to her. ìI donít think Iím going to be able to make your wedding.î
She looked at him as if anticipating the punch line of a joke. ìWhat are you saying?î
His lips tightened and his brow furrowed in deep creases. ìI guess thereís no good way to put this.î He scratched his head the way he did when he was troubled. ìI have cancer, Al. Pretty bad cancer.î
Allysonís mouth opened, but no sound escaped.
ìItís pancreatic cancer. The doctors say that thereís nothing they can do. Iíd even try some of that chemo hocus-pocus if it could get me to your wedding, but the doctors donít think I have that long.î
ìHow long?î she asked. Panic rose in her voice.
ìWith treatment they say I only have three to four months.î
ìThree months ...î Numbness spread throughout her entire body, making it difficult to continue. ì... And without?î
ìThey give me two.î
She began to cry. ìNo.î Then she erupted angrily. ìYou donít even look sick. Weíve just spent the whole afternoon riding ...î
Carson put his arm around her. ìIt hasnít gotten me yet, girlie. But it will. They tell me pancreatic cancer is that way. It sneaks up on you. The truth is I didnít feel a thing. I only found out about it because my eyes were turning yellow. They say itís the most fatal of all the cancers.î He looked back at her. ìTruth is I kind of expected it to be coming along.î
Allyson stopped crying briefly and looked at him, confused by what he had just said. ìWhy would you expect something like this?î
ìOn 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.î He pointed to a small scar. ìThatís 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 couldnít believe that God would do this.î Carson looked out over the land around them then continued in a softer voice. ìWhen 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 motheróand that I would never touch alcohol again.î
Allyson was stunned. ìYou used to drink?î
Carson chuckled. ìOh yes, girlie, I used to drink,î he said, the tone of his voice implying the understatement. ì... Like a sailor on a weekend pass. Thatís 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 donít like to be wrongóthink they could wrap up the universe in a handkerchief. But I knew better. God had accepted my deal. I started AA that night. Havenít touched a drop in almost twenty years. Believe me it wasnít easy. There were nights I went outside and howled at the moon. But then Iíd look at you and Iíd remember why.î He rubbed her knee. ìI donít think itís 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.î
ìHow can you be so calm about this?î
ìTruth is Iím scared. íCourse Iím scared. Any man who says heís not afraid of dying is a liar or an idiot. Or both.î
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. ìHoney, we can see this two ways. We can be upset that Iím being taken out of the game or we can be grateful that I got to play the extra innings.î He took her face in his hands and lifted it until she was looking into his eyes. ìYou have no idea how much Iíve loved watching you grow up. Or how proud I am of the woman youíve become. Frankly, Iím grateful for the extra innings.î He turned away so she wouldnít see the tears welling in his eyes.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. ìThatís why you wanted me to come home this weekend?î He nodded slowly, his gaze lost in the valley before them. ìItís the last chapter of our story, girlie. I wanted one last perfect day.î
Allyson didnít return to finish the summer semester. She spent the next two months at her fatherís 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 fatherís 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 wouldnít allow it. She couldnít explain why she didnít want me there, but she didnít have to. I think I understood. She couldnít 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 Allysonís sake he hired an attorney who brought to the house the papers to complete Carsonís will, and they crossed the tís and dotted the iís, 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 werenít there; usually to her mother.
I canít 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 fatherís 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 schoolówhich was almost reason enough for me to go elsewhere. I donít know how best to describe my father. The simplest noun seems adequate. Flint. Old and hard and sharp. I donít ever remember calling him Father or Pa or Dad like my friends called their fathers. Itís 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 didnít hear it from him. He saw the kind of action a man doesnít talk about lest he unearth something heíd 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. Iíve 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 couldnít 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 Chuckís 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 womenís 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 couldnít 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 wasnít 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 didnít lessen the pain any. I told her that I hated her. I might have even told her that I was glad she was leaving. Iíve 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 didnít. And Chuck never left.
Looking back I realize that I spent much of my life seeking Chuckís 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 Allysonís 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 donít 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 wasnít herself. It was like talking to a stranger, and from her voice I knew that Carsonís 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 Iíd 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. Sheíd 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 taxiís meter read nine seventy-five. Through the open car window I handed the driver a folded ten-dollar bill. ìKeep the change.î
ìGee, thanks,î the driver said sarcastically, stashing the bill in his front pocket. The taxiís 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.
ìYou must be Robert.î
She reached out and touched my arm affectionately. ìIím Allysonís Aunt Denise.î
Allyson had spoken of her many times. Allyson was very close to her. She had become Allysonís 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.
ìIíve heard much about you,î I said. ìAllyson thinks the world of you.î
She smiled. ìAllyson is my sweetheart. Please come in.î
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, Allysonís roommate. I turned back to Aunt Denise.
ìIs he still ...?î
In the land of the dying sentences go unfinished.
She nodded. ìHeís still with us.î
ìDo you know where Allyson is?î
ìSheís with her father. Down the hallway.î
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 Allysonís father. Nothing was the same now.
ìHow is he?î I asked.
ìHeís still hanging in there. The nurse told us that he was going to die yesterday. But heís a tough old bird. Heís holding on.î
ìIs Ally alone with him?î
She nodded. ìSheís been in there for nearly six hours. I checked on her about an hour ago.î
ìHow is she?î
She frowned. ìNot well. She asked if I had heard from you.î
ìWhich room is it?î
She pointed. ìThe room at the end.î
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 wasnít 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 papaís 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 fatherís 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 ìNot yet,î 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 Phelpsís 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.
ìSir, Iím Robert. Allysonís fiancÈ.î He showed no reaction and I had second thoughts about continuing. But I went on. ìI know that Allyson loves you very much. Sheís told me so. I know how you love her. Sheís told me how youíve always been there for her.î
My eyes began to water. ìI know thatís what youíre doing now. Youíre holding on for her. But with all due respect, you donít have to anymore. You donít know me that well, but I love your daughter too. I love her with all my heart. I think sheís the most amazing woman Iíve ever known. And I promise that whatever life brings, Iíll do my best to take care of her. Iíll never leave her. You have my word.î
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. ìWhat?î I said. ìI didnít understand ...î
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 fatherís 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. ìHeís gone,î she said. ìMy daddyís gone.î
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