The Garden, Chapter XIX

Charlie began his work the next day in a very good mood.  He expected to get a lot done on the three houses that were being remodeled for Carolyn and now he could tackle his side job with Lester and Chuck helping him.  Charlie had decided that these two men could very possibly be the nucleus of a crew of his own, once he decided that the time was right to create one.  They seemed to be skilled in multiple areas of construction, and he knew that if he had a team that could do carpentry, plumbing and electrical, he would be money ahead in the game.

Today Frank and Larry, the apprentice, would be at another house and Charlie intended to put in some time with them too.  If their skills were equal, or even close to, those of Lester and Chuck, he could potentially have a four-man crew that was ready made.  How Gerald Jackson had cobbled this team together Charlie had no idea, and what Mr. Jackson would do when, eventually, all or part of this team defected and went to work for Charlie he didn’t care in the least.

Mr. Jackson’s unwelcome presence was felt at the job sites for much of the first part of the day.  “Haven’t seen this much of him in the entire time before you showed up” Lester told Charlie.  “Maybe he likes you.”

“Yeah, and maybe pigs fly, too” Charlie replied.  “My guess is that he’s starting to get a little nervous.  Good.  It’ll help build a strong character in him.”

“More like build up a good head of steam that he’ll blow out his ass sometime soon.”

“Well, Lester, you may be right.  And that may happen sooner rather than later, so I’d recommend that you don’t stand behind him any more than you absolutely have to.”

“He’s so full of shit that I’ve been observing that precaution anyway” Lester replied.  They both laughed at their little jokes and then fell to on their work with gusto.

Near noon Jackson was at the main site and Charlie hated to leave to check on Frank and Larry.  He knew that he should however, so he spoke with Lester before he left.  “You know he’s going to try to play the boss when I leave” Charlie said.

“Sure as the Pope’s a Catholic” Lester replied.

“You feel OK dealing with him while I’m gone?”

“I’ve been wiping snotty noses on punk contractors longer than he’s been out of diapers” Lester said.  Work’s just a bit hard to get in the county right now’s the only reason I’ve stayed on with him.  It’s pretty much the same for the others, too.  I get the feeling you plan on gettin’ back into the game, and figure to hitch my wagon to you.  So the answer is ‘No.’  I ain’t the least bit worried about him.  You don’t seem to want to run him off just yet, so I’ll bow and scrape and make him feel important.  But I’ll stick with your schedule here, no matter what.”

“You do that Lester, and tell him to call Mrs. Preston or me if he leans on you too hard.  It won’t be long and he’ll be down the road somewhere, probably selling shoes at a Fred Meyer store.”

“Maybe I’ll go and buy some, just so’s he has to put ‘em on my feet.”

They both laughed again and Charlie left to check on the men at the other job site.  He called Carolyn before he left in order to let her know where to meet him if she should want a belated update on yesterday’s activities.  She replied by saying that she would be bringing sandwiches and other items for him and the crew.  Charlie guessed that she had been expecting his call.

As he drove to the second house Charlie thought about the evening before, and about Carolyn.  He had enjoyed himself more than he had in a very long while, and he was sure that she had enjoyed herself too.  He felt awkward, not having been in this situation for a good many years, but the hours since he stood in the parking lot had given him time to think about the issue more clearly.

Charlie knew that he was attracted to Carolyn, but didn’t have any plans to pursue it at this time.  His progress out of the state of depression that he had been mired in when he first began her bathroom remodel led hem now to dealing with a flurry of issues on all fronts, and the luxury of thinking seriously about a romantic relationship was something that he did not feel like he could pay proper attention to.

He knew that the interest was there though, on his part at least, and he believed that he had seen evidence that it might exist on Carolyn’s part too.  At least, he was sure that the potential was there.  Nevertheless, he believed that his balancing act with Jackson his return to form as a contractor, and the project of reconnecting with his son would require all of his attention, and that is where he intended to put it.

Charlie arrived at the Sieverson St. address before Carolyn did, and he found Frank changing the location of some electoral boxes in the ceiling while Larry was standing idly by, passing up tools that Frank could have carried with him in the first place.

“Hi Larry” he said.  “Whatcha doing?”

“Mostly standing here with my hands in my pockets, sir” Larry replied.

“Well, uh, why would that be, son?  I gave you and Frank a list of things that we need done over here, and it doesn’t look like you have made much progress towards doing them.”  Charlie looked up at the ceiling where the drywall was being cut to provide an opening for the new electrical box.  “And I don’t believe that this was on the list.”

“No sir” Larry replied timidly.  “It most certainly wasn’t there.  Mr. Jackson was here and told us to ignore that list and do what he wanted if we wanted to still be working next week.  I don’t know what else we could do, sir.  Frank didn’t either.”

Charlie felt his blood approach the boiling point but didn’t say a word until he got his anger under control.  “It’s OK, Larry.  You did the only thing that you could do.  It’s my fault, really.  Look, I want you to go into the bathroom and finish sanding the tape joints and mask off the windows.  You didn’t get to that yet, did you?”

“No sir.  Mr. Jackson was here early.”

“Uh huh.  OK.  Mrs. Preston will be here soon and I think she’s bringing some lunch for all of us, so you go get done what you can.”

Larry disappeared into the back of the house and Charlie called up to Frank.  “You can quit cutting that opening Frank.  Come on down and let’s put some tape over the cuts and get it ready to paint.”

“But Mr. Hamer” Frank began.  “Mr. Jackson said – – -.”

“Yes, I know.  You’ve been put into a very hard position and it’s my fault.  I’ll deal with Mr. Jackson; you just come on down and put some tape on these cuts.”

“Yes sir.  Right away,” and soon Frank was swinging down through the access hole into the attic that was located in the garage ceiling.  He looked perplexed, and Charlie walked over and clapped hand onto his shoulder.

“It’s OK, Frank.  You shouldn’t have been put into that position.  I’m going to spend the rest of the day here with you and larry, and we’ll get some work done, OK?”

“Yes sir.  Thank you” Frank said.

“Now why don’t you take a break.  I have Larry sanding in the bathroom and Mrs. Preston will be here soon.

“All right by me” Frank said, and went out to his truck to get his thermos of coffee.  He was closing the door to his truck when Carolyn pulled into the space in front of the house.  Charlie went out to greet her and help her bring in the two large baskets of things to eat.

Carolyn was all smiles, and Charlie noticed once again that she was a very attractive woman, even more so that he had thought before.  He smiled back, but with a reserve that she couldn’t help but noticing.

“Hi!” he said as he came up to where she was standing.

“Hi back” she replied, looking directly into his face.  “Why do I get the feeling that all’s not well?”

“Ah well, it looks like there’s no keeping secrets from you.  I hate to spoil a good meal, but we have a real problem with Jackson.  He’s confusing the younger guys, and I should point out that I didn’t help much in that matter.  This guy just may be more trouble than he’s worth.”

Carolyn picked up the lighter of the two baskets and pointed at the one she wanted Charlie to carry.  “Then let’s fire him” she said.

Charlie just looked at Carolyn for a moment and then reached for the basket.  “Just that easy?” he asked.

“Just that easy” Carolyn answered with the sweetest smile that she could produce.  “I hope you like chicken salad sandwiches.”

Charlie walked back toward the house carrying his load along side Carolyn.  “Uh, how are you going to meet payroll?”

“Remember that loan that you spoke of that could be used to cover until these units sold?”

“Uh huh”

“Well, it won’t be needed, because the units have sold.”

“Before completion?”

“Before completion.  The buyer insists on certain small changes in design – nothing very big, really – and wants the houses finished and ready to move into by the end of September, so there’s money in the bank.  Not all of it, of course, but enough.”

Charlie was stunned by the news.  “How in the world did you pull that off?”

“Charlie Hamer!  You know a magician never explains her tricks.”

Charlie walked with Carolyn into the garage, where a card table was set up as a place for the workers to put the plans for the job during the day.  Carolyn picked those drawings up and placed her basket there.  She indicated for Charlie to put his next to hers.

“Why don’t you get the men and let them get their fill?  Then we can talk.”

Charlie called Frank and Larry and they came, the latter being covered with a fine powdery layer of dust from his sanding.  Carolyn invited them to dig in.  She and Charlie took sandwiches and chips and bottles of water, then left to go sit in the children’s swing set that sat in the shade of a large maple tree in the backyard.

“OK, be mysterious” Charlie said as they began to eat their lunch.  “All I really care about is that we can cut ourselves loose from Jackson.  He’s become impossible to allow on the job.”

“Well, that’ll be no problem.  I have an escape clause in our contract that gives me the incontestable right to terminate the deal whenever I see fit.  I’m a careful girl, especially when I am on ground that I don’t fully understand, such as the construction end.”

Charlie took a bite of his sandwich and washed it down with a sip of water.  “I can’t tell you how glad I am for your caution.  So, let me bring you up to date on things as they stand now.”

Charlie explained in detail what needed to be done and how long it would take to do it.  He told her that Lester was a good and experienced worker and that he and Chuck were ready to jump ship right away.  “Frank and larry are young, but they work hard with proper guidance.  And this evening Lester and Chuck are going to team with me and knock out my side job.  Then, all of my attention can be focused on your work.”

“I like the sound of that very much, Charlie.  I will pay the workers this evening at four, and by next payday they will be your responsibility and the money will be in your account.  For convenience I recommend the same cost and terms of the contract that I’m canceling with Jackson.  If you see something in it that doesn’t seem right to you though, we can talk about that later.”

Charlie munched reflectively on his sandwich, looking off toward the city water tower that loomed into the sky several blocks to the south of where they were sitting.  Once again he took a sip of water and cleared his mouth.  He turned to her and said “I’m sure that the terms of that contract are more than fair.  Carolyn, you are an amazing person.  Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Not lately” she said with a chuckle.  “And not nearly often enough.”

“Well, you are.  This is going to change everything by 180 degrees.  It is my tradition to shake hands on a deal.”

“Oh, is this a macho thing?” she said with a laugh.  “Am I one of the guys now?”

“Nope.  I’m just a dumb carpenter, but I’m smart enough to see that you are definitely not just one of the guys!”

Carolyn smiled and extended her hand.  “Then let’s shake on it, Charlie.”

Charlie took her hand and held it for a moment, feeling a softness that he had not felt for a very long time.  Carolyn made no move to withdraw her hand.  After a moment that seemed much longer than a moment, Charlie gave her hand a shake and let go.  Carolyn permitted herself another smile while Charlie feared that a flush might have crept into his face.

He recovered quickly though and asked “So, will you give me the honor of giving Mr. Jackson the bum’s rush?”

“No way Charlie.  It’s one of the privileges of ownership.”

“Whatever you say.  You’re the boss” Charlie said with a slight bow.  “Now, I need another one of those sandwiches and one of those donuts, too, and then I have to get these kids back to work.  My new boss is a taskmaster!  Oh, and since Lester and Chuck will be with me tonight I can make the announcement formally to them if you would like.  And is it a good time for me to talk to Frank and Larry now?”

“Go ahead and do your deal with Lester and Chuck.  It’s your business now as far as I can see, but I would hold off with these two here.  They’re young, and Mr. Big Shot may try to make a stink.   I think he’ll go quietly enough when I make a few facts of life clear to him, but you can’t be too careful.  I’ll be back here at four and explain things to them.  Does that sound OK to you?”

“Sounds fine.  Now I’d better get these goldbricks back to work.”

They began to walk together back to the house.  Mid way Carolyn turned to Charlie and said “Oh, I forgot.  How did it go with the email last night?  If you don’t mind my asking, that is.”

“No, I don’t mind at all.  Maureen – that’s my wife’s name, if I haven’t told you that before – will allow me to visit with her and my son.  He’s quite a piano player.  I don’t really know why that wasn’t important to me before, but now I’m proud of how he used to be able to play.  Anyway, he’ll be in a piano recital in three weeks over in Gresham.  I’ll go and watch him play and then we’ll go to some place called the Iguana Feliz.  She says that Jack likes it there.  Maybe it’s where the kids hang out.”

“That’s nice.  So things are good with you two?”

“Me and Maureen, or me and Jack?”

“Well, both, I guess.”

“Charlie thought about an answer to that question until they got to the back door into the garage.  “Let me get the men back to work.  You hold that thought.”

Charlie and Carolyn found Frank and Larry finishing the last few bites of their lunch.  “Thank you very much Mrs. Preston” Frank said.  “I don’t usually eat this good.  My own cooking isn’t much to shout about.”

“Well you’re very welcome Frank.  You’re working hard for me and I like to show that I appreciate it.”

Frank was surprised that Carolyn knew his name, and pleased that she had complimented his work.  “We’ll get back to it now” he said.  “Thank you again.  Larry!  Let’s saddle up and get some work done.”

The two workers disappeared and Charlie asked Carolyn how she knew who was Frank and who was Larry.  “You told me that Larry was an apprentice and Frank spoke to me when I walked in.  I figured that the apprentice wouldn’t talk.  I guessed.”

“Remind me to never play cards with you” Charlie said.  Anyway, I don’t think you could call things ‘good’ between us.  Maureen made it abundantly clear that she has no interest in seeing me.  ‘I never expected to see you again’ she said, or something a lot like that.  She also said that jack was indifferent about the whole thing, that he didn’t care whether he saw me or didn’t see me.  She topped it all off by saying that if she becomes unhappy with the whole deal at any time, she would call it off right there.  No questions asked.”

“My goodness, Charlie.  That’s awful.  Was she always like that?”

“No.  Nothing like that.  Our last year was hard.  Well, it was awful.  But when we separated we were never nasty with each other.”

“I wonder what changed?” Carolyn mused.

“I don’t know.  I don’t know if anything changed, really.  The troubles and the separation and the divorce; they were all new to us.  We never dreamed that any such thing would ever happen.  Now it has happened.  Maybe those feelings were there underneath all along and now they’ve had time to simmer.  Or maybe the pressures and the pain have twisted her.  Heck, I couldn’t hold that against her if that’s the case.  Up to a few months ago I was convinced that she and Jack hated me and wanted me dead, and only my counselor and a few friends brought me to believe that maybe they don’t want that at all, although I still sometimes default to that when it’s quiet and I’m alone with my thoughts.  Maybe that’s one reason why I’m not alone with my thoughts all that much.”

They picked up the baskets and carried them back to her car.  There were still some sandwiches and other items in them, and Carolyn said that she would take them over to Lester and Chuck.  “I’d better take care of your crew” she said.  “All in the interests of good business.”

They put the baskets in the rear of her car and Carolyn got into the driver’s seat.  She lowered the window before starting it up and looked up at Charlie with obvious sympathy on her face.  “Charlie, you’re right.  Your wife and son have been through a meat grinder, just like you did.  All you can do is the best you can do.  I’m no counselor.  I’ve never had children either.  How many times have I said that to you?

So, there’s nothing I can say that will help you to untangle this situation.  I don’t know Maureen and I don’t know Jack.  But I think I know you, and you’re a good person.  Do your best.  Be honest.  Be yourself.  If that’s not good enough for them because of all the other stuff, then there’s nothing that you can do to change that.  But you’re good enough for the men here.  You’re good enough for your friends at your garden, and also for that waitress you told me about.  And you’re good enough for that disabled vet you live with.  And you’re good enough for me, Charlie.  You’re good enough for me.”

Charlie was speechless.  He waved at Carolyn as she raised the window and their eyes never strayed from each other.  She started the car and waved back, and then rolled away toward her other job where she would hand out some sandwiches and probably deliver a sweet and royal ass-kicking to a certain Mr. Gerald Jackson.

Charlie didn’t move for – well, he wasn’t keeping track of the time.  Finally Frank came up to him and asked what he wanted him to do next.  One more time Charlie thought “Well I’ll be go straight to hell!” and then walked away with Frank.  For the next three and half hours the three of them got a hurricane of work done in Carolyn’s remodel.

At four twenty in the afternoon Charlie, Lester and Chuck met at the job in Parker’s Landing.  The homeowner stared doubtfully at yellow-skinned, wiry Lester, but when he saw the three men begin to churn through the remodel he disappeared so that he would not get into their way.

“So, how did the afternoon go?” Charlie asked as he and Lester stuffed insulation into the spaces between the ceiling joists.

“Well, nothing much out of the ordinary” Lester replied.  “Mrs. Preston brought over some mighty good eats, but she said you guys got the best of them.”

“Yeah” Charlie quipped.  “She told us that she had to take special care of her good workers.  So, was Jackson there?”

“Yep.”

“Uh, was Jackson there when Mrs. Preston was there?”

“Yep.”

“Shit, Lester.  You aren’t exactly a library full of information!”

“Oh, so you want to hear about the part where she took him over to her car and waved some papers in his face?”

“Yeah, that’s the part I want to hear about.”

“And maybe the part where he got to yelling something about lawyers?”

“Yeah.  I’d like to hear that part too.”

“And I’ll bet you’d like to hear about the part where she started saying all kinds of stuff that sounded like Latin; you know, jurisprudence and rigor mortis and shit that sounded like that.  And maybe how he looked like he’d just been whacked in the balls with a number 36 Louisville Slugger; you know, the one that used to have Willy Mays’ signature on it?

Charlie burst out laughing and said “If it’s all right with you, you old goat, I would especially like to hear about that part.”

“Well, I don’t know nothin’ about that stuff.  I ain’t no eavesdropper.  I guess you’ll just have to ask Mrs. Preston herself.”

“Fair enough Lester.  Fair enough.  Now, we haven’t discussed this formally, but it looks like I’m going to need a foreman, and it looks like your old boss just may have ran out of work.”

“Yeah, if all of that happened just like I suppose it did, then I’m pretty sure need that I need some new source of work.  Me and Chuck would consider it an honor and a pleasure to work for you, Mr. Hamer.  Especially if you continue to work for Mrs. Preston.”

“Well, that’s my plan, Lester.  I’m just now getting back on my own two feet, as you know.  Once we get things under control for Mrs. Preston I’ll get all of the I’s dotted and T’s crossed on a new company, and I’ll review wages and so forth, and even see what I can do about some sort of benefits.”

“That would be a refreshing turn of events.  Did you talk to Frank and Larry?  They’re good people if you give them some direction.  They’re still a little green, but they’ll get there.”

“Yeah, I saw a little of that today.  Mrs. Preston was going to speak to them when she took their checks to them this afternoon.  I suppose they’ll stick with us,  but we’ll be OK even if they don’t.”

“Oh, I think they’ll stay, and you won’t regret keeping them Mr. Hamer.  The boys’ll work for you, and I will too.”

“I appreciate that, Lester.  But if you want to get on my good side I would like it if you could drop the ‘Sir’ and ‘Mr. Hamer’ stuff.  My friends call me Charlie.  My mother calls me Charlie.  Hell, my ex wife’s divorce attorney called me Charlie once or twice.  I’m sorta getting to where I like it.”

“Whatever you like, Mr. – – -, uh, Charlie.”

The three men worked most of the rest of the evening in silence, absorbed by their work and the desire to be finished with this job as quickly as possible.  Insulation was stuffed into walls as drywall was being screwed onto the ceiling, and then while the ceiling seams were being taped and the screw heads covered with mud drywall was being hung on the walls.  He homeowner marveled at their production and promised to have coffee and some hot pastries ready for them by eight the next morning.

Charlie said good bye to Lester and Chuck and drove home after stopping once again at the nearby Burgerville.   “I have got to get my diet under control” he thought.  “As soon as things settle down, I’m going to have to get a routine.” Both of the burgers and most of the fries were gone when Charlie arrived home.  Carrying the bag with his trash he entered the door and went inside.  Billy was sitting on the sofa reading when he stepped into the room.

“Some people live the life of Riley, while others have to work” he joked as he threw his trash into the can under the sink.”

“Yeah” Billy responded.  “Work is the plague of the leisured class.  I guess somebody’s got to do though.  Somebody’s got to pay my disability.  Uh, could you bring me a beer?”

“Can’t even get up to get his own beer!”  Charlie pulled two beers out of the refrigerator.  He sat in a chair next to the sofa and handed one of the beers to Billy.  “You want me to twist the cap for you and plump your pillow?”

“Would you?” Billy asked.  “And I got an itch right back here.”  Billy pointed toward his back.  Charlie unscrewed the cap of his own beer and threw it at Billy.

“What are you reading?”

“It’s a history of Poland.”

“Sure.  Uh huh.  And I’m the King of Poland.  Seriously, what you got there?”  Billy showed him the cover of the book and, indeed, it was a history of Poland.  “Well, I’ll be – – -.  Why a history of Poland?”

“Why not?  Well, it’s a long story.  I used to read a lot; loved history, too.  When I got to Iraq I found that it was mostly boring there.  There were times of pretty intense excitement, but mostly it was boring.  Guys would play cards or sit around and bullshit each other about what studs they were back home where the girls didn’t look like a bunch of walking potato sacks, but I wasn’t into that.  We could download books, or have them delivered to us if we like to feel the paper.  That’s what I liked.  Anyway, so i knew that I would be there for a while so I ordered ‘War and Peace.’”

“That’s a pretty big book, isn’t it?”

“It’s a little bit bigger than the Hardy Boys and a little bit smaller than Mount Everest.  Not much smaller though.  Anyway, one of the main characters is that Frenchy, Napoleon.  You know, the guy who liked to get his picture painted with his hand inside his jacket?  I always wondered if he was scratching fleas or something.”

“Yeah, I know about Napoleon.  Don’t know about any fleas though.”

“Well, I didn’t know much about him so when I finished War and Peace I got a biography of Napoleon.  You know, him and me both being soldiers and all.  Damned book was almost as long as War and Peace!  So, he kicked some royal butt, like, all of Europe.  And in the book it said that the Poles were his really big allies because they hoped that he’d make them a country again, and I thought ‘Wow, they weren’t a country?’  Then I got my ass half blown off and I didn’t do much reading after that until now.  The VA’s helping me get it together, and I’m reading again.  Did you know that Chopin was Polish?”

“Uh, no.  I guess I’ve never thought about Chopin at all.  Who the heck is he, anyway?”

“Who was he is the right question.  He was a composer.  You don’t know about Chopin?  Jeez, I live with a cretin!”

“Yeah, whatever.  So what about Chopin?”

“Well, he wrote about a million pieces of piano music when Napoleon was doing his thing and everybody in Europe liked to listen to them.  It was big here in the U.S. too.  And it was like whenever Polish people heard the music, it made them feel good about being Polish, and kept alive their hope that they would be a country again some day.”

“Looks like it worked” Charlie observed.

“Yeah, it does.  So I decided to find out how it all worked out.  The Russians were real shits and didn’t want it to happen.  The Germans didn’t want it either, or at least the Prussians didn’t.  There really wasn’t a country called Germany back then.”

“So, did Napoleon make Poland?”

“Nope.  He got tangled up with Russia and got his butt kicked.  You know, another composer you probably never heard of liked Napoleon at first but changed his mind.  You know about Beethoven?  He was writing a symphony in Napoleons honor, but when the Frenchy made himself Emperor of France and a bunch of other places, Beethoven said ‘screw you’ and dedicated the music to some other rich guy who supported him.”

“Yeah, I know Beethoven.  He’s the guy who wrote that ‘Dah Dah Dah DAH’ thing, right?

“Uh huh.  That was his Ninth Symphony.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that you were so much into music.  You always like it that much?”

“Yeah, pretty much.  I started listening to the classical stuff on Pop’s turntable.  He still had one of those and a bunch of old vinyl that he got from his father.  Shoot, I got no idea how old that stuff is.  I listen to that sort of music at night when I go to bed.  I have a timer set up and play some Chopin or Mozart, or Shubert, well, all kinds of stuff.  It helps me to settle down and cork off when I’m a little uptight, which has been most of the time since Iraq.  It’s good stuff.  You should try it.”

“Maybe I will.  I’m going to a piano recital soon, so maybe I should listen to some of the stuff that my son might play, just to get into the mood.”

“You know what your boy’s going to be playing?”

“Naw.  Maureen didn’t say.  Heck, you heard me read the email last night.  It was mostly like ‘screw you.  You can listen to your son play if you’d like but neither of us really care.’

Billy became more serious when Charlie said that.  “No man.  That’s not really what I heard at all.  I heard a woman who’s still hurting like hell and who’s worried for her son.”

“I know.  I know”  Charlie said.  “That wasn’t fair.  Damn!  I don’t know why I keep doing that!  There’s just something about whenever I hear anything about Maureen I go into this defensive mode.  I did it when her parents told me her answer to my message and now I’m doing it again.  I don’t get it.”

“Look man, you got chewed up and spit out by something easily as bad as I went through.  Hell, worse!  I can’t even imagine losing my daughter, if I had one.  Shit, I can’t imagine that one little bit.  You two went through hell together for, what, a year?  Yeah, a year together, and then you spent two years grinding yourself to a pulp.  You should probably cut her some slack, but you really only just started cutting some to yourself, so it could take a while.”

Charlie sat in his chair, nursing his beer and digesting what Billy had just said.  He was right, of course.  Somehow this young guy who nearly got blown to smithereens, lived alone in a dank cottage behind his parent’s house and was only just beginning to get his life back on track with the help of counseling and the right pharmaceuticals, always showed a wisdom that surprised Charlie.  He was right.  Again.  Charlie decided that he had to struggle to keep Maureen’s last three years in mind whenever he had dealings with her, and show a little grace.

“Well, I’d better get a shower and get into bed” he said.  I’ve got a side job that I may finish this weekend.  Oh, and I’m the general contractor in charge of Carolyn’s work now.  I’ve got a four man crew and a lot of work out in front of us.  Oh, and I think she likes me, man,”

“Just another day at the office, was it?”  Billy laughed.  “Shit, man.  How did all of that come about?  No, don’t tell me.  You have to get to bed and I do too.  Tell me about all of this tomorrow, if you get back before midnight.”

Billy got up from the sofa and put his empty bottle in the recycle bin outside the front door.  Charlie made a mental note to ask Billy to move that bin.  If Maureen did drive by to check the place out, which Charlie doubted she would do, he didn’t think a bin full of empty beer bottles was going to contribute much to the impression that he was hoping to make.

Charlie took his shower and got into bed.  He set his phone on the table next to his bed and typed in ‘Chopin.’  One of the options was ‘Best of Chopin’ and it would play for one hour, forty two minutes and 17 seconds.  Charlie started the music and dialed it down low.

As he lay there in the dark, listening to the piano music, he thought of a man long dead who dreamed of having his own country back.  Charlie thought of how his own travels  had brought him to where he now lay.  He thought of Lester and the crew, the old apartment, LuAnn, Gerald Jackson being handed his lunch by Carolyn, and about Carolyn.  And finally, just before sleep came and took him, about maybe getting his own son back the way Chopin wanted back his country.

The Garden, Chapter XVIII

Charlie arose the next morning rested and excited about his day.  He could have easily overindulged in Billy’s whiskey the night before.  The release that he had experienced when Billy sent his email to Maureen left him feeling giddy, and it was only because there remained only an inch or two of whiskey in Billy’s bottle that Charlie started his day without a very bad headache.  He realized that he had dodged a bullet, and quickly gathered up what he needed for the day and hit the road.

His first stop that day was at Leroy’s where he gave half of his remaining vegetables to LuAnn.  The place was very busy, so that Peggy had been called to help out.  Consequently, he had little opportunity to talk with his friend.  He took advantage however of what little he was given.

“I sent the email” he told her, and she gave him a pat on the back.

“That’s good, Charlie.  I’m glad you did.  Let me know if she writes back” and off she went.  When she came back to fill his mug again he said “I don’t know if she’ll even respond.”

“She will” LuAnn assured him, and then she was once again pulled away.

“Well, this isn’t helping much” Charlie thought.  He paid Peggy at the cash register, waved to LuAnn and departed from Leroy’s.  He then drove to D’Andra’s house in order to give her what remained of the vegetables.  He intended to put the sack on the doorstep, as it was still quite early.  Shelby, however, was exiting the house when he got there and was happy to receive the food.

“Man, you have no idea how much D’Andra loves this fresh food” he said.  “I intend to make a garden for her sometime, but we’ve just got way too much going on for that right now.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  I’m by myself and I can hardly get time to work this garden of mine.  I really appreciate how much your wife’s helped me, and I’ll be keeping the groceries coming for as long as they grow.”

“That’s a big win for me” Shelby said.  “I’ll put these in the kitchen, and then I have to run.  You have a good day.”

Charlie wished him a good day also and then drove to Parker’s Landing.  There was very little heavy work to be done at this job, other than hanging the drywall, so he was able to move right along.  He completed the subfloor and placed several electrical boxes in the walls and canister lights in the ceiling.  After wiring those boxes and canisters he left to grab a couple of burgers at the Burgerville on a corner a couple of blocks away and ate them as he drove to Carolyn’s job.

The shiny pickup truck was there when Charlie drove up, and Charlie was happy to see it.  “I looks like he’s not quitting today” Charlie thought, “at least not yet.”  He strapped on his tool belt and walked into the house.

It was quickly apparent that Gerald Jackson had arrived only just before Charlie.  He was at that moment chewing Lester out for following Charlie’s instructions instead of his own, and had been found tearing out the soffit in the kitchen.  “Good morning everyone” Charlie said in a booming voice, interrupting the ass-chewing that Lester was at that moment enduring.  “Oh, I guess it’s afternoon” he corrected himself.  “So good afternoon.  Ah, good.  I see you’ve gotten onto those changes for Mrs. Preston.  Jerry, you’ve got yourself a good crew here.  I’ve told Mrs. Preston that, too.  There are some things that she and I agree should be changed, but basically we’re pretty happy.”

“Well, what the hell is the soffit all about then?” Jackson asked, too flustered by his recent wrath being interrupted by a consultant who was now giving him compliments to notice that he had once again been called ‘Jerry.’

“Oh, that’s not a big deal.  I just noticed while I was in the attic that it was constructed with two by twos with one by four spacers.  Probably and oversight, and actually it would probably be OK in the long run if the drywall had been fastened with screws.  It won’t take long to fix, so Lester here and I are going to rebuild it with two by fours.  Shouldn’t take long at all.”

Charlie turned to Lester and asked “You have the men working on those other items?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Hamer.  Larry’s nearly got the box put into the wall to anchor the porch light and Chuck will have that larger drain pipe put in under the toilet pretty soon too.  Frank will be back from the store with that hot mud and we can have those patches in the bathroom, kitchen and master bath mudded and sanded and ready to paint by this afternoon.”

“Strong work, Lester.”  Charlie looked at an angry and confused Gerald Jackson and said “Yessir, Jerry.  You’ve got a good team here.  I’m going to enjoy working with them very much.  Lester, would you finish the demo on that soffit while I talk with Mr. Jackson?”

“You bet” Lester replied, and turned to his work.

“Maybe we should step out where it’s more quiet” he said to Jackson, and they walked into the garage.

“I was wondering who you had lined up to pour the driveway?” Charlie asked.

“I use A-Able” Jackson replied.

“Ah, yes.  They’re a good operation.  When is the pour scheduled?

“Well, it’s not on the schedule yet.  I want to get closer to finished before I have the driveway poured.  We don’t want the construction process to put any stains on the finished product and I want to wait until we have a better idea of when that time will be.”

“No, we don’t want to stain a new driveway.  That makes sense.  Have you made contact with them about the job?”

“No, not yet.  I don’t really think that’s necessary.  It’s never taken me more than a week or two to get them out in the past, so I don’t feel pushed at all.”

Charlie’s bullshit meter was running near redline.  “Uh-huh” he said.  “If you’ve got that under control, I’ll go and help Lester then.  Oh, and I was wondering.  What do you think of pulling Frank and Larry from here and putting them at the unit over on Sieverson tomorrow.  Lester and Chuck and I can bang away on this unit.  Killing two birds with one stone means a quicker payday.”

Jackson liked the thought of money, and so he acceded to Charlie’s idea right away.  They talked over a few more details with Charlie letting Jackson believe that he was in charge, and soon Charlie went back to work while Jackson drove off to do whatever it was that he did.  By the time Charlie got back into the house lester had torn down the soffit, and in very short order they had it replaced with a structure that was not likely to fall down on the owner’s head.

Charlie spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with the crew, and by four o’clock they had accomplished more even than Charlie had hoped they would.  “Lester, you guys have really picked it up today.  I’m impressed with your work.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hamer.  I don’t mind telling you that its because you’re here with us.  We aren’t used to that, working for Mr. Jackson and all.  If you stay out here with us, I’ll show you how much we can get done.”

“You know, I think you could.  Listen, I have another obligation to finish before I can devote full attention to this project.  I’ll make you a proposition.  You and Chuck help me this Saturday on my side job and I’ll pay you cash money when I get paid.  If I can insulate, hang drywall, tape it and get the first coat of mud on, I’ll be out of there in a week.  Then I could be here full time.”

“I’m OK with that” Lester said, “And I can speak for Chuck too.  But let me make a counter offer to you.  We could work over there tomorrow evening after work here, if that is OK with the homeowner, and then both Saturday and Sunday, too, if necessary.  I think that we could probably finish it off by then, if it’s only what you’ve told me that remains.”

“Lester, you have a deal.  Anything that might be left would  be just be pick-up stuff that I could knock out in a day or two after working here.  I’ll drive over there tonight and make sure that the customer is happy with that plan, and if he is I’ll be here at nine tomorrow morning.”

The two men shook hands and parted company.  Charlie returned to his truck to get Carolyn on the phone and bring her up to speed on the day’s activities.  He pulled out his phone and checked for any incoming emails.  There were none.  He punched in Carolyn’s number and she answered on the third ring.

“Hi Charlie.  I thought you might call about now.”

“Yeah.  Quitting time.  I thought you would like to get an update on the day’s progress.  Are you able to talk?”

“Not really.  I’m doing a walk-through on a project that I would like your opinion on.  Is there any chance that you could come by?”

“Uh, well, yes.  Sure.”  Charlie wanted to go talk with the homeowner at the Parker’s Landing job, but he felt more of an obligation and commitment to Carolyn.  “Where are you at?”

“11503 SE Hazelton St.  It’s in Parker’s Landing, right off of the intersection of 138th and Cornwall.  Charlie smiled and thought “Thank you, whoever,” and then said “Not a problem.  I have to make one very quick stop near there first.  I should be there in thirty minutes.  Will that be OK?”

“Sure.  I’ll drag out the walk-through.”

The homeowner was happy to hear that his job could be wrapped up by Sunday evening or Monday at the latest, and agreed to the plan right away.  They shook hands on the deal and then Charlie left to keep his appointment with Carolyn.  The address turned out to be an apartment building with sixteen units.  At first glance it seemed to be in decent shape, but Charlie knew how appearances could be misleading.  He saw Carolyn’s car parked among a cluster of three others in the far corner of the parking lot and he added his truck to the number there.  Carolyn and three men were just then leaving an upstairs unit, and when she saw Charlie she waved and called for him to come up.

The place seemed to be familiar to Charlie as he climbed up the stairs to meet them.  Introductions were made and Charlie’s name was once again recognized.  “I wonder if Carolyn is using my reputation as leverage?” Charlie thought, and then he put that idea aside and got down to work.

Charlie went off by himself and poked his head in apartments that were vacant and inspected the building in general.  The three suits that Carolyn had been with left soon after Charlie’s arrival and she waited in her car until he was finished  At last, he concluded that he had seen all that he needed to see and walked to Carolyn’s car.

“Do you want to go over this here, or at your place?”

“Actually, there’s a pretty decent Mexican place in the mall on the corner of 138th and Cornwall.  Would you like to discuss it over dinner?  I’m famished, and I’m buying.”

“I never turn down a free meal.  I’ll meet you there.”

Ten minutes later they were seated in a booth at Los Brunos with chips and salsa in front of them and margaritas on the way.  Carolyn cut directly to the chase, as she usually did.

“So, what’s the verdict on the structure?”

“I can vouch for the structure, because I built it” Charlie replied.  “It’s been a while, but I remembered while I was poking around in it.  I built them to last, and I saw no evidence of any major structural damage that has occurred since then.  There’s the usual wear and tear in the units that I could get into and I suppose it’s pretty much the same in the ones that I couldn’t.  How much do you want to put into this?  Cleaning it up is one thing and bringing it up to date is another thing entirely.”

For the next half hour they discussed the details of what Carolyn wished to do if she decided to acquire the building.  Her grasp of business impressed Charlie and he agreed after much talk, Combination Plate number 5 and two margaritas, that she could make a profit either by fixing it up and flipping it or by holding onto it for rental income.

After business it was small talk, and Charlie realized that he was very comfortable in the company of Carolyn.  “Why the heck haven’t I noticed this before?” he wondered.  They ordered flan for desert and then Carolyn excused herself from the table.  Charlie sat back in his seat and allowed pleasant thoughts to pass through his brain, thoughts that were interrupted when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket.

“Ah, maybe it’s Jason” he thought, and pulled his phone out to check.  It was indeed Jason, and the text message said “I’m sorry, but things are working out well for me at the hospital.  I think I’ll just stay with this gig.  Thanks for having a little faith in me.”  Charlie wasn’t entirely disappointed by the news.  With everything moving at breakneck speed at the moment, breaking in a rookie was not exactly what Charlie wanted to do.

While he had his phone out he flipped over to his email app and checked to see what had come in.  There were several new emails of no particular consequence and one that came from moha@gmail.com.  Charlie looked at the email address for a minute before he even began to think again, and when he did think he quickly discarded the idea of opening the message.  That would have to wait for later.

Charlie closed the app and put his phone back into his pocket, and then tried to regain the composure that he had been enjoying all evening.  When Carolyn returned he tried to reengage in the same easy manner as he had before she left, but he knew that he was failing miserably.  At last he decided that Carolyn cold not fail to notice his changed composure and he told her about the message.

“Carolyn” he said.  “I know you’ve noticed that I’m a little fidgety now, or you would pretty soon if you haven’t already.  I got an email earlier and I saw it while you were gone.  It’s from my ex-wife, and probably says something about whether I can see my son again.  I didn’t open it though.  This is now and that’s for later, but I wanted you to know.”

Charlie couldn’t read Carolyn’s face clearly, but he thought he could see hints of disappointment there.  Had he ruined what had been a very good evening?  But what was there to ruin?  This was a business relationship, wasn’t it?  Yes, this was a business relationship.  Carolyn is a very nice person who is also a very good businesswoman, and she recognizes Charlie’s potential for contributing to her business.  So why would she be disappointed?  He was just imagining that she was, and it was just him that was disappointed.

“Well, that’s good Charlie” She said.  “I hope that this gets you closer to where you want to go.  You can go ahead and open it if you want.  I guess I would be champing at the bit if I was in your shoes.”

Charlie did want to open it, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserved if he did.  Maureen and Jack were a subject that needed to be considered without distraction, and Charlie was feeling pretty distracted at the moment.  He had been enjoying himself this evening and didn’t want it to end; not just yet.  And he decided to tell Carolyn that.

“No, I don’t think that I will.  I’ve waited two years for this and I suppose that it will keep just a little while longer.  But thanks for your understanding.  Now, where were we?”

Charlie brought himself back to to Carolyn and the desert, which was excellent, and the overall satisfying day that this had been.  Carolyn seemed to be puzzled by his decision at first, but it finally occurred to her that Charlie had chosen to return to their evening rather than stop everything and attend to other business.  She felt complimented, and doubted that she could have done the same.

They were not at the restaurant much longer anyway.  With their desert finished and the bill paid – and that by Carolyn after some dispute – they arose from their booth and walked into the parking lot.  About half way to their cars Charlie slapped his forehead and let out a guffaw.

“What is it?” Carolyn asked.

“I haven’t said one word about your other job!” Charlie explained.  That’s what I called you about in the first place.”

Carolyn laughed at his chagrin and assured him that it was OK.  “Is there anything that won’t wait until tomorrow?” she asked.

“No, not really.  I just had some things to tell you that I think you’ll like.  What a dunderhead I am!”

Carolyn laughed again, and there was nothing in the laugh that agreed with Charlie’s self assessment.  “Then I’ll like it just as much tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll drop by the job at lunch and you can fill me in.  Now go find out about your son, Charlie, and thank someone that you have one.”

Charlie stood rooted to the spot.  Carolyn opened her car door, sat inside, and pulled on her safety belt.  She then started the car, looked at Charlie and laughed again.  She waved and he waved back weakly, and then she put the car into gear and drove away.

Charlie watched every one of these steps and after Carolyn’s car entered into the traffic on Cornwall he walked to his own vehicle on auto pilot.  He had been surprised by how the dinner had turned out.  “Hell” he thought.  “I’m surprised how the whole day has turned out!”  He had not run Gerald Jackson off, which he had known was a real possibility.  Lester and the crew seemed to be able to do good work when they were allowed to, and now he would get his remodel finished in three or four days so that he could concentrate on Carolyn’s work,

And then there was Carolyn.  She was a good boss, a smart businesswoman, and kind person who had given him a break.  He wanted to pay her back by using skills he hadn’t tested in two years, and he was determined to do that.  But, standing in that parking lot, Charlie felt something that he hadn’t felt in over forty years.  In the pit of his stomach, between the carne asada burrito and the margaritas that he had just consumed, was an unruly flight of butterflies as he thought of her.

Charlie opened the door and climbed into his truck, and then sat motionless behind the wheel as his mind continued to churn.  He was attracted to Carolyn!  The idea surprised him, and then he was surprised again by the fact that it did.  He had been married for most of the time since right after high school and, among his many faults, letting his mind wander to other women had not been one of them.  The two years since his separation from Maureen had not been ones in which he fit into the dating scene.  In fact, the only date that he had come close to making was the one that he narrowly avoided on the I-5 bridge.  Now, sitting in his truck, he felt an old impulse that had lain dormant for a very long time, and he was not immediately impressed with his prospects.

  “What on earth are you thinking of?” he asked himself.  “You’re one cripple living with another with nothing but your tools and your truck to your name, and you’re in the middle of trying to reconnect with your son through Maureen, who was the last woman that you disappointed .  What the hell’s wrong with you, Charlie Hamer?”

He jerked the safety belt across his lap and fired up the truck, determined to get his mind working straight again.  He accomplished that, sort of, and by the time that he returned to the cottage he had his focus back on Jack.  Billy was home but Charlie didn’t say anything when he entered through the front door.  He just pointed towards his phone and walked into his room.  Charlie sat on his bed and immediately punched to open the email.  “No point in putting things off” he thought.  He wasted no time in beginning to read.

“Charlie;” it began.  “It came as a considerable surprise to learn that you wished to get in touch with me.  I thought that I was finished with you and would never see you again, and then I set about to live into that reality.  As you know, when my parents told me about you trying to contact me I didn’t want to do that.  In fact, I still don’t.  Not really.  What I’ve been through, and what I am still going through, is hard to put to rest and writing to you just wakes it up again.

But what you wrote about wanting to reconnect with Jack has forced me to reconsider my position.  Jack seems to be doing fine.  His grades are good at school, and he is doing very well at the piano.  I have no more conflicts with him than I would expect, and none of them are major.  But he doesn’t have friends, and that, it seems, is by his own choice.  He says that things are better if he only has himself to worry about.

Well, that worries me.  I have therefore asked him if he is interested in being in contact with you.  I’ll tell you bluntly, he said that it didn’t matter one way or the other.  This surprised me.  I thought that he would say ‘no’ outright.  So, I’ll make you an offer.  Jack has a piano recital in three weeks in the auditorium at Mr. Hood Community College.  It will take place on Sunday, September 4, at 1 PM.  If you are serious about this, you can come to the recital and afterward we can have something to eat at the Iguana Feliz, a little taco place where we can sit down.  Jack likes it there.

I must be frank with you again Charlie.  I’m doing this for Jack only.  I appreciate what you did for us by giving us all that we’ll need for the rest of my life.  I will also tell you that I think you are a good person, and that I do not harbor resentment or ill will toward you.  But I have suffered more than I ever believed that I could suffer, and in fact I still do.  I believe that seeing you again is more likely to increase and prolong that pain that it is to do me any good.

So I guess that I’m saying that this is all conditional.  If it seems to be a benefit to Jack, then I am willing to endure what I can.  If it is a benefit to both you and Jack, so much the better.  But there is no way that I can see that this will be painless or easy for me, and if i detect any insincerity on your part, or even if I simply find that it is more than I can take, I will break it off instantly.

You may reply or not as you wish.  For my part, your presence or absence at the recital will be answer enough for me.

Charlie, I was pleased to hear that things are beginning to turn around for you.  I hope that it continues in that way.  I am getting by, and I guess that will have to be enough for now.  Maureen.

Charlie sat on the edge of his bed, reading and re-reading Maureen’s message.  He tried to analyze each word, weigh them for every nuance, read between the lines.  After at least fifteen minutes he realized that he would benefit from a second pair of eyes, and arose to share this message with Billy.

He emerged from his room and found Billy in the living room, tearing apart and cleaning his hunting rifles for the one hundredth time since he had met Charlie.  Billy put down the trigger housing, wiped his hands on a rag and asked “What’s up?”

Charlie sat down in a chair near Billy’s work station and said “I got a reply to my email.  I wonder if I could read it to you.  Get your opinion about it?”

“Sure, man.  Go ahead.”

Charlie read the email slowly; every word, and then sat back in his chair and exhaled deeply.  “What do you think about that?”

Billy didn’t respond right away, and the silence hung thick in the little cottage.  At last, Billy spoke up.  “Man, I think she’s bleeding all over the place.  You know her better than me though, so maybe I’m way off base there, but that’s how it sounds to me.”

Charlie sat and digested what Billy had said, which was very nearly what he thought too.  “Yeah” he finally said.  “I think you’re right.  Shit!  That really bothers me.”

“Why’s that?  You’re not responsible for her any more” Billy asked.

“Hell” Charlie replied.  “I never really was exactly ‘responsible’ for her.  She’s not a child.  But I feel like I’m the reason for her situation, and I can’t think of one damned thing that I can do about it.”

Silence returned to the cottage as the two men pondered Maureen’s message.  Charlie felt a rip tide of emotions, with his old hurt pulling him one way and a new, simple empathy for Maureen pulling him in another.  Billy broke the silence by asking Charlie if he wanted a beer.  Charlie shook his head ‘no’ and Billy got up to get one for himself.

“Well you know”Billy said as he twisted the cap off of his brew.  “You didn’t send her an email asking her to get remarried.  You asked her if you could begin to get to know your son, and she said ‘yes.’  That has to be a good thing.”

That thought worked to ease some of Charlie’s pain.  “Yeah, you’re right.  Man, what a minefield! I have to remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  You’re right.  I’m going to get to see my boy on September the – – -, oh shit!”

“What?” Billy asked as he sat down with the beer.

September the fourth.  That’s the weekend when we’re going hunting.”

Billy’s beer stopped half-way to his mouth and he put it back down on the table next to his rifle.  “Yeah” he said.  “That’s right.  It is.”

Disappointment was all over Billy’s face, and an agony of conflict gripped Charlie’s heart with iron claws.  “Shit!” he growled and rose up from his chair.  “Shit!  Shit!  Shit!  Shit!”

Charlie walked around the room repeating this expletive and several other, more colorful ones.  Billy sat quietly, finally taking a sip of his beer and running his finger along the barrel of his rifle.  At last he softly said “Charlie.”  Charlie, wrapped in his frustration, didn’t hear him, so he repeated it more loudly.  “Charlie!”

Charlie stopped walking in circles and answered “What?”

“Sit down, man.  You’re wearing out the carpet.”

Charlie sat.

“Look, bro.  It’s not like the end of the world here.  You gotta take care of business, man.  You gotta take care of your boy.”

“Yeah, I know” Charlie replied.  “But I can’t do that without disappointing you and Walt, and I’ve been doing too damned much disappointing of people who I care about for these last few years.

“Well” Billy said.  “Then you’re getting tired of life, ‘cause that just seems to be a part of living.  Look, man.  Your boy needs you.  That message comes through loud and clear.  What kind of a shit would I be if I whined about a hunting trip that I probably can’t even hobble through anyway instead of telling you to go and be with your boy?”

Charlie thought about that for moment and recognized the good sense in it.  “OK, I think you’re right.  Look, I’m going to make this thing right for you, I promise.”

“Dude, you already have.  For the last couple of weeks I’ve realized how lonely I was in this place.  I’m totally invested in getting back to school and moving forward, and I love how the improvements that you’ve already made on the place have cheered my folks up.  You can’t fix the whole world, brother, so be nice to yourself a little, OK?”

“OK, if you insist” Charlie answered.  “I think I will have that beer after all.”

Charlie got up and retrieved a beer and sat back down in his chair.  Billy had been thinking while he was gone and said “How ‘bout we just do a scout trip to the mountains the weekend before the season opens.  That’s the only time the game will let us see them anyway.  Just to see an elk again, or even a mulie, would be like heaven to me.”

“Yeah, I don’t see why we couldn’t do that.  You suppose Walt would be good with that?”

“Yeah, I expect he would.  He’s pretty much his own boss.  And his bullshit about killing something is just a bunch of crap anyway.  I know that he likes you – and I can’t say that about a large body of the population – and just wants to hang out in the woods with a couple of friends.  Walt talks a lot of tough guy crap but he’s really just a lonely old man.”

Charlie felt a rush of genuine affection for this young man with a wisdom that was beyond his years.  Perhaps nearly dying in a war gave that to you, or maybe he was just born with it.  Either way, Charlie knew that he had a friendship here that was worth the having.

“I like that idea” he said.  “I’ll have things at Carolyn’s job sites running smoothly by then, unless some other crazy shit comes up, and there’s a guy on that jack wagon general contractor’s team who’s worth something.  I think I can count on him if I’m gone a day or two.  We leave Friday morning and come back Sunday night, agreed?”

Absolutely.  I can’t wait.  Now, go and answer your email.”

Charlie rose and went into Billy’s room.  He woke up the desktop and pulled Maureen’s letter up on the screen.  Below, bottom right, was the curved arrow that signified ‘Reply.’  He clicked on it and pondered what to write for several minutes.  Finally he began.

“Dear Maureen;  Thank you for your quick reply.  I will most certainly be in attendance at the recital, and I can hardly wait to hear Jack play.  The thought of sharing a meal with you and Jack fills me with pleasant anticipation as well.  You are very kind to allow this to happen and I am grateful behind words.  I have heard you regarding your discomfort in this process, and will be open to anything that you need to say as we go through it.  I have no wish to increase your pain and will do everything that I can to avoid that.  I promise that I will be listening to you, and I will hear you.  Once again, thank you.

Charlie.

The Garden, Chapter XVII

“This is an amazing story” D’Andra said as Charlie finished telling of his visit home, the call from the Prentisses, and his status with Carolyn’s business.  Charlie smiled around a large bite of a soft, warm brownie.  He had already put in several hours at his remodel project this morning and was now engaged with D’Andra on his weekly session.  After that he would turn to address Carolyn’s situation. He had passed up breakfast because he knew that something good would be coming out of D’Andra’s oven as soon as he got there.  Salome, who had gotten used to Charlie by now, lay curled up in his lap, purring while he scratched her behind the ears.

“So your father was not at all the absent, inconsequential figure that you thought he was.  Perhaps he had a part in making you afraid to make connections with others, but it could be that your mother’s trust issues as a result of her disappointment heightened the effect of that inability.  You said that you got along with your mother well while you were in San Diego.  Was that the result of effort on your part?”

“Maybe a little in some places, but mostly the answer is no.  It just seemed to flow for the most part.  She is a little bit angry at Maureen for keeping her grandson from her, and that bothered me, but we were more like two broken people leaning on each other for support.”

“Hmm.  It doesn’t usually work that way, but could be.  I’ll just be blunt about this. Charlie, you’re doing better than a lot of people do when they’ve been in session for only as long as you have.  Heck, some people never do as well as you are doing.  I have a theory, for what it’s worth.  You were just ready for a change, and the time was right.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that your sister in law advised you to get out of your apartment, or that Rachael and, what was his name?”

“Walt” Charlie answered.

“Oh yes, Walt.  It was extremely fortuitous that they were there to give you your first support.  But most of this just falls on you, and I can hardly express how glad I am for you.  So, what are you going to do about Carolyn’s problem?

First thing will be to hire another crew while I pressure her general to improve his work without running him off.  Once I get a crew ready, I’ll send him packing and take over those responsibilities myself.  I called an old friend who’s doing well in his own business and he put me onto a young guy who sounds promising.  I trust my friend’s opinion, and the new guy will be available in two weeks.  By then I should have reconnected with some plumbing and electrical and other tradesmen that I used to know, and then I will accompany Carolyn when she gives her guy the bum’s rush.”

“Are you expecting confrontation?” D’andre asked.

“No, not really.  She won’t be vicious; it’s not her nature, as far as I can tell.  It’s just that she hired him, and she thinks it’s her duty to let him go.  She’s a pretty gutsy and remarkable person.”

“She sounds like she is.  OK.  Let’s move on to the main event.  You are going to respond to your ex-wife’s phone message, I presume?”

“Oh, yes.  No doubt.  I’m going to reply by email.  It just seems like speaking person to person, even on the phone, is just too personal after all that we’ve been through.  Besides, I can think and express myself better if I have the time to do it.  I’ve been turning over in my mind what I’m going to say, but I still don’t know exactly what that will be.  I do know one thing however.  Whatever I say, it will be the absolute truth.”

“That is a very good idea Charlie.  No matter the outcome, your best chance of making the most of this opportunity will be by being as honest as you can.  Any other strategy will usually backfire on you.”

Charlie chuckled at that.  “Yeah, that’s what my friend LuAnn told me yesterday morning, only she said that any lie would come around and bite me in the backside.  She didn’t use the word ‘backside,’ but you get the picture.”

“Yes, I do” D’Andra said with a chuckle of her own.

“And that’s not all that she said.  She also said that if I fall flat on my face, at least I won’t land with a lie in my mouth.”

“I have simply got to meet this woman!” D’andre exclaimed.  “Except that doing so would violate just about every principle of my profession.  Anyway, perhaps we can talk a little bit about what you want to say to Maureen.”

The two then entered a discussion that lasted for most of the rest of the hour.  Charlie decided that, whatever message he sent, it had to go out this evening.  Billy had a laptop which he could borrow, which would make it much easier to compose his message than doing so on his phone would be.  He called Billy and learned that he would be home all afternoon and evening.  “Good” he said.  “I should be home about five.”

After leaving D’Andra’s he drove to Carolyn’s house.  She was busy in her office when he arrived and they had a brief meeting in the kitchen.

“I’m going to stay home today” she said.  “I’m angry, and that’s not a good way to do business.  What can you tell me about finding a replacement?”

“Well, basically, I propose that I be your replacement.  I can do more for you with a hammer in my hand than I can by walking around with a clipboard and a title of consultant.”

“You must know that I wanted to hear exactly that.  So, go on.”

“I called a guy I know from before the accident; a good man, somebody I trust.  He’s swamped with work now but he knows somebody who’s new.  My friend; Manny Baca of Gomez, Baca and Sons.  Do you know of them?

“Yes, I’ve seen their signs around town.”

“Well, Manny Baca is as good as they come, but like I said, he’s busy.  He has referred me to a guy named Pavel Kolochek.  He says that this guy will give you an honest day’s work.  If Manny says so, it’s probably true.”

“I’m all good with that.  When can he start?”

“Not for a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, I’m rounding up some other subcontractors; plumbing, electrical, tile, and so forth.  It won’t take long.  I still have connections.  So I’m going to go back to the jobs.  If the general’s there, uh, what’s his name?  I think you said it was Jackson or something like that?”

“Yes.  Gerald Jackson, and he likes to make sure that you call him Gerald, too.  I don’t know if you’ll find him there.  I usually have to call him and set up an appointment.”

“It doesn’t matter too much if I see him or not” Charlie said with a smile.  “I think he’ll be making an appointment with me pretty soon if I don’t.”

Carolyn cracked a devilish smile and said “I’d like to be a fly on the wall when that meeting happens.”

“You can if you want.  You’re the boss.”

“No, I think I’ll lay low for now.  I think that would be for the better.  Well, I believe that I should put my nose to the grindstone and drum up some business for after these three jobs are done.  I’ve got some plans based on a timeline for when these jobs should be finished.  I’d like for you to look them over and tell me if they are realistic.”

“I’ll go over them tonight, after I – – -.”

“After what, Charlie?”

“Uh, well, I hate to mix personal stuff with business.  It’s a good duty that I have to do tonight though.  It won’t affect my work.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Do you need some time to take care of your business?  This can wait for a little bit.”

“No, that’s OK.  I’ll have time for both.”

Charlie sat and thought for a moment, and then spoke again.  “What it is, is that I’m composing an email to send to my ex wife.  As you know, I want to become involved with my son’s life again.  She has agreed to communicate with me, and I’m trying to decide what to say in what may be my one chance to set her mind at ease that I’m not trying to enter into her life or begin making legal claims or anything like that.  I just want to do the right thing by my son, even if I don’t fully know what the right thing is.”

Carolyn’s expression softened as she felt the impact of his words.  “Charlie, you take as much time as your need.  I never had a son.  I never had any child, so I never had a chance like you have now.  I won’t say any more about this.  I have no right to poke my nose into your business.  I think what you’re doing is the right thing to do and a brave thing at that.  You go and get to it.”

“Thank you” Charlie said after a moment.  “I appreciate that.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and cause a little trouble.”

“Go sir, and with my blessing!”

Charlie arose from his chair and said goodbye, and the  walked through the door and out to his truck.  His mind had shifted from thoughts of Jack back to thoughts of a contractor named Jackson, and how he would handle this character  he started the truck and looked back at the house, and saw that Carolyn was still standing in the door.  He waved to her and she waved back, and then he drove off toward the first house that they had visited the day before.

When he arrived at the job site he was pleasantly surprised to find a big, shiny Ford F350 with a short bed, one that couldn’t carry much that was needed for construction and obviously had never been intended to do so.  “That’ll be Mr. Jackson’s truck” Charlie thought.

Sure enough, Gerald Jackson was there.  He looked pleasant enough, and Charlie could see how a person could be put at ease by his air of confidence and competence.  Charlie knew better though.

“Hello” he said as he walked into the open garage where Jackson and two workers were standing.

“Hello” Jackson replied.  “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes, there is.  My name’s Charlie Hamer.  I’m a consultant for construction affairs for Carolyn Preston.  She’s hired me to act as liaison between her and the construction end of her business.  Are you Jerry Jackson?”

The man stiffened visibly and said “Gerald.  That’s Gerald Jackson.”

“Oh, pardon me.  My mistake.  Anyway, I wonder if you could show me around; get me up to speed on the progress here.”

“Carolyn didn’t say anything to me about any consultant.  What are you trying to pull here?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  She didn’t let you know?  Well, she’s a pretty busy lady, you know.  We could get her on the phone and let her explain my position and duties here, but the short version of that is that I inspect the work and keep her informed of it’s quality and progress.  It’s sort of like being a building inspector, you know.  Would you like to call her?”

“Yes, I would.  I’ll be back.”

Gerald Jackson stalked back to his truck and soon Charlie could see him on the phone.  He didn’t look all that happy.  “Crap” Charlie thought, “I hope she doesn’t run this shitbird off just yet. I guess I might find some subs on short notice, but I’d hate to have to worry about that at this point in time.”

Finally Jackson left his truck and returned to where Charlie was standing.  He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t look like he was pulling out, either.

“OK, you check out” he said.  “So what do you want to consult on first?”

“Charlie responded to the dig with a faint smile.  “Maybe you could show me around?  It would probably be best if I started by taking a look underneath the house.  I should also like to take a look in the attic.”  Charlie knew that Gerald Jackson was not going to crawl under any houses in his nice clothes and shiny shoes.

“I’ll have my foreman walk through the place with you” he said.  “Lester!”

He waved at an older man with a wiry build, a two day stubble on his face and a yellowish cast to his skin.  “Lester, this here’s Mr. Charlie Hamer.  He’s Mrs. Preston’s consultant for construction and he would like to be shown around.”  Disdain was thick in Jackson’s voice.

“Hamer?” Lester said.  “Charlie Hamer?”

“That’s right” Charlie replied.  “Charlie Hamer.  I’m here to observe construction activities for Mrs. Preston.”

“You the Charlie Hamer what used to build half of everything that got build in Clark County?”

“I stayed busy” Charlie answered with a grin.  “You’ve been working here in Vancouver for a while, I take it?”

“Yes sir” Lester responded.  “Word got around among the tradesmen ‘bout – – -, well, what I mean to say is that I just want to offer my condolences.  Us worker bees knew you as a fair man to work for.”

“Well thank you, Lester.  I appreciate that.  I really do.”  Charlie extended his hand and shook Lester’s gnarled paw.  Meanwhile, Gerald Jackson stood by with his jaw hanging open, completely ignored by both men.

“Would you be so good as to show me the plumbing and subfloor from underneath this unit?”

“It’d be a pleasure Mr. Hamer.”

Charlie thanked Jackson for his ‘help’ and walked away with Lester, leaving  the crestfallen contractor alone and ignored in the middle of an unpoured driveway.

Charlie spent another two hours with Lester, visiting all three properties in the process.  He really didn’t need to crawl under the houses again; that had been mostly a part of his plan for twisting Gerald Jackson’s tail and getting his attention.  He did compare notes with Lester however, and at the end of those two hours he had a set of lists divided into three parts that would need to be addressed before these projects could be called finished, and they were 1) that which was unacceptable and must be fixed, 2) that which with a few adjustments would be barely acceptable, and 3) that which remained to be completed, and done so properly.

“Lester” Charlie said at the end of his inspection tour.  “I would like for you to put your crew on these projects first.”  Charlie pointed to category number one.  “I’m guessing you know the difference between crap and industry standard?”

“Yes sir, that I do” Lester replied.  “And I do industry standard work when I’m allowed to.”

“Well, you’re allowed to now.  How many men do you have?”

“There’s four of us.  One’s an apprentice, but he’s pretty good.”

“OK.  I estimate this work should take two, maybe three days to finish.  A day and a half for most of it, and the rest just sanding and texturing some drywall.  When’s the driveway going to be poured?”

“I don’t know.  Mr. Jackson has not mentioned it to me.”

“Well, it’s been scheduled, hasn’t it?”

“If it has, I don’t know about it.

“Holy shit!”

“Mr. Jackson doesn’t tell us much more than we need to know, sir.  Speaking of Mr. Jackson, he told us to do other stuff besides what you’re saying.  Does a consultant trump a contractor?  And what the hell is the difference between a consultant and a contractor anyway?”

“The difference is that a consultant gets his hands dirty.  This one does anyway.  You and your men can get busy on the work that I’ve given you to do, and I’ll take care of Mr. Jackson.  I’ll be here some time after lunch tomorrow and you’ll have five men.  Maybe six, if I can get in touch with a guy who’s interested in the trades.

“I look forward to that.  It’ll be a pleasure to work with you, Mr. Hamer.”

“I feel the same, Lester.  See you tomorrow.”

Charlie parted company with Lester and drove to Carolyn’s house.  She would be busy, but he knew that she would want to hear the outcome of his trip to the job site.  He called her on the way to let her know he was coming.

“Charlie Hamer, you tell me everything that happened!” Carolyn said as she placed a cup of coffee on the table where he was seated.  Charlie recounted the entire scene, causing her laugh out loud at the part where he had called Mr. Jackson ‘Jerry,’ but her brow was knitted with concern by the time he had finished.

“What if Jackson pulls out his crew and my properties are left idle until you can get a new team?  I’ve got some real money invested in this and I could lose a lot of it if I have to wait for too long before it’s fit to sell.”

“I don’t think he’ll do that.  It’ll take him the rest of the week to realize that he’s no longer in charge, and the foreman of his crew remembers me and is comfortable working for me.  If necessary, we could take out a loan to make wages until the job’s done and sold.  The savings on what you’re paying Jackson might cover most of that anyway.”

Then Charlie remembered that it was Carolyn’s job and Carolyn’s money that he was talking about.  “I’m sorry” he said.  “I said ‘we.’  I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m afraid.  If you like that plan, and I think it is a good one – in fact, it’s what I would have done back in the day – then you could take a loan and blah, blah, blah.  Old habits die hard, and there was a time when I ran the show.  Please let me know if I step over any lines and start playing Big Shot Contractor again.”

“It’s OK Charlie.  I think it’s a good plan too.  You’re seeing things that I couldn’t possibly see for myself; not at this stage anyway, and I love it.  We’ll do what you suggest on the construction end of things and we can talk about any other aspects of the business whenever you’d like.  So, when should the work be completed?”

Well, the driveway on unit number one is an X factor.  I have no idea who Jackson’s using or even if he’s lined anybody up yet.  What sort of timeline did he give you?”

“He said by the end of September.”

Charlie nearly choked on a sip of his coffee.  “Two and a half months?  Uh-uh.  This’ll be done by the beginning of September if I have to pour the driveway myself.  Would you allow me to make a couple of calls while I’m here?”

“Sure Charlie.  Help yourself.  I have to get back to work, so you can let yourself out.  Beginning of September!  That changes things.”

Carolyn was smiling as she rose from the table.  Charlie watched her until she disappeared into her office at the end of the hall.  “That’s one very decent person” he thought, “and nobody should be taking advantage of her lack of knowledge about construction.  I’d like to fire the bastard right now, but I can still use him, so I won’t.”

He punched in the number to Jackson General Contracting and, predictably got a recorded message.  Charlie left a message of his own, telling Jackson that he had set the men to some new duties and that he would be on site tomorrow afternoon.  “You are still the general” Charlie said.  “I’m only there to assist and further the wishes of the owner.  I look forward to working with you.”  That was only partially a lie.  Charlie did look forward to working with him, especially the part where Carolyn tells him to hit the road and never look back.

After hanging up he dialed the number to Jason’s phone.  As with Jackson’s, he only got to leave a message.  “Hi Jason.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I’m beginning to work on a job tomorrow and you are welcome to come out if you wish.  It’s a hurry up job and I won’t be able to have you do much more than lift and carry for starters, but you have to start somewhere.  If you’re interested, that is.  Let me know one way or the other.  Hope you’re doing well.  Talk to you later.”

His business there finished, Charlie placed his coffee cup in Carolyn’s nice, new sink and left the house.  It had been a good, full day and he was going to the garden to finish pulling the weeds that had stormed back while he was in San Diego, and maybe even pick some vegetables while he was at it.  He was pleasantly surprised to see Rachael’s car parked in front of the garden and he rolled to a stop right behind it.

“Hi!” he called out when Rachael heard him open the gate.  “Long time, no see.”

“Hi back” she replied.  “How’ve you been?”

“If you’ll take time to take a break I’ll tell you.”

“Sure.  I have time for that.”

They sat in the chairs under the canopy and Charlie related the whole story of his trip, his job status, and lastly of his contact with the Prentisses and the email that he would soon be sending.

“That’s terribly exciting!” Rachael told him.  “I’m so happy about how this is working out for you.  If it’s OK to ask, what are you going to say to her?”

“Sure, it’s OK, but  I still haven’t decided.  The main point of this is to reconnect with Jack.  I don’t want Maureen to think that I want to pester her about restarting something that is over, but I don’t want her to feel like I think she’s nothing, either.  I mean, we were married for twenty two years, for crying out loud.  That should mean something, shouldn’t it?”

“I think so Charlie.  Twenty two years is a long time, and it wasn’t like you parted as enemies, if I remember correctly.”

“No, we didn’t.  But I don’t know what state her mind is in.  A couple of months ago I wouldn’t have been able to even talk to her or Jack.  What if she’s in that place now?  The wrong sentence; heck, the wrong word, and it could be over forever.  That’s a lot to think about.”

“Yes, it certainly is.  Hmmm.  You know what I think?”

Charlie shook his head that he didn’t know.

“I think you should tell her straight up that you are getting help and you are getting your life under control, and that you wish to engage in the responsibility that you have to be a father to Jack, to whatever degree that responsibility can be allowed.  You can also tell her that it is more than a responsibility; that it would be a privilege, and that you now feel capable of fulfilling those duties.  I don’t know, something like that.”

“Hmmm, that sounds good” Charlie said.  “OK, that’s it.  I’m not going to talk about this any more.  I’ve spoken with my friend LuAnn, with D’Andra and Carolyn, who’s my boss, about it, and now I’ve spoken with you.  I can’t analyze this thing to perfection; more like I might analyze it to extinction.  Time to pull the trigger.

Oh, and another thing.  I still want to visit your church sometime.  It’s just that right now I’ve got a dozen irons in the fire and I don’t really know if I can keep it all straight.  I wasn’t putting you on about that thought.  Really, I wasn’t.”

“Don’t worry about it Charlie” Rachael responded.  If you choose to come, make it on your own time and your own terms.  I pray for you all the time, but like I think I told you once before, I don’t need to put any notches on my spiritual belt.  You come whenever you want.”

Charlie thanked her for her understanding and then rose from his chair to tackle his garden, and for the next hour and a half he was buried in his work there.  At the end of it he threw a large pile of grass and weeds onto the compost heap and had picked a grocery bag full of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, peppers and onions.

Rachael had long since left, and he loaded his tools and vegetables into his truck and drove across town to Billy’s cottage.  Billy was home when Charlie arrived, and was astonished by the bounty that flowed out of Charlie’s shopping bag.

“You think your parents would like some of these?” Charlie asked.  “I would just like to keep a few to take to a couple of friends tomorrow.”

“You bet they’d like ‘em” Billy said.  “They love this stuff.  I do too, for that matter.  And Charlie, they are very happy about the stuff you are doing to fix this place up.”

“Oh, that really isn’t very much.  I have hardly had time to get started yet.”

“Doesn’t matter.  They’ve watched the place slip, little by little, since Dad blew out his knee a couple of years ago and caught pneumonia or something like that while he was in the hospital.  He was in there for two months, and when he got out he just didn’t have as much gas in the tank.  Dad used to keep this place and the main house in ship shape, and it bothers him a lot that he can’t do it any more.”

“Well, he ain’t seen nothing yet” Charlie replied.  “As soon as things settle down, which should be about when we get back from our trip, I’m going to put a little extra into this place, and I’ll take a look at the main house too, if some plans work out.”

“Oh, man.  Mom and Dad would love that!  OK, I’m going to run this stuff up to the house and then I’ll show you how to use my computer.  You haven’t used Apple, have you?”

“Nope.  It’s a complete mystery to me.”

“OK.  You chill here and I’ll give this stuff to my folks.”

Billy grabbed about half of the bag’s contents and limped up the driveway, towards the main house.  “He’s not walking so well today” Charlie thought.  “I hope he just overworked it.  We’re so close to going hunting and I know that he’s looking forward to that.  I am too.  I don’t know about Walt.  Three days in the forest with guns?  Well, Billy knows him better than I do, so I’ll take his word for it.”

Billy finally returned and led Charlie into his bedroom.  A big Apple desktop with a large screen rested on a scarred desk that sat under one of the bedroom windows.  Billy pushed down on the mouse and soon the screen lit up.  Billy navigated it to the email function and quickly had it ready for Charlie to go to work.

“There you go.  Just call up ‘gmail’, sign on to your account, and you’re up and running.  If you find any features that blow your mind, call me.  I won’t read your message.  I promise.”

Charlie nodded and said “I thought you had a laptop.  This thing’s a Cadillac!”

“Yeah” Billy said.  “It’s my baby.  OK, you’re on your own.  I’ll give you some privacy.”

Billy stood up and walked through the bedroom door, closing it behind him. Charlie heard the ‘click’ of the door latch engaging and then he knew that the time had come.  He turned to the screen and typed Maureen’s email address into the correct slot.

“Hamer.  Hmmm, she still used my name in her email address.”  He thought of several good and bad reasons why she would do that, and finally forced himself to move on.

“Dear Maureen.”  Now he thought about the salutation.  He hadn’t called Maureen ‘Dear’ more than a couple of times during their entire marriage.  Did he have the right to call her ‘Dear’ now?”  What would she think about seeing him call her ‘Dear’ now, when he couldn’t when it counted?”

“Shit, Charlie” he growled to himself.  “You wanna get this thing done by Christmas?  Come on, don’t analyze ‘till you paralyze.”  Then, with a deep sigh, he dropped all of his emotional filters and began to write.

“Dear Maureen; Thank you for letting me communicate with you.  I know that this was not a part of our separation agreement, and it is by your kindness that I am allowed to write to you at all.  I truly appreciate that.

I will keep this message as brief as I can, because I do not want to take advantage of your generosity.  But before I get to the heart of my reason for writing, I would like to explain some things so that you know where I’m coming from.  After two years I finally began to see a counselor to get some help.  No, I can’t start there.  The way it really went is that by an amazing string of coincidences I became influenced by an odd but wonderful cast of people who, while mostly not knowing each other, guided me to see a counselor.  So, that’s what I did, and it has been one of the best things that I have ever done.

Maureen, with their help I can finally say that I am sorry that I was unable to deal with the horror of Stephanie’s loss.  I know that it’s too late for that to matter, but I want to say it anyway.  From the bottom of my heart I am sorry that i was not able to be a husband to you or a father to Jack when you both needed it the most.  I have paid for that flaw in my character, and paid big.  And I deserved it.  Now, all I can do is say that I’m sorry, so I am saying it.

The heart of my message however is that I believe that I should be involved in Jack’s life if that is possible.  I have learned things about my own father that I didn’t know, and I am sure that I was better off without him.  Still, I suffered in some ways from the lack of a father. I guess you and Jack have had to pay some for that one.  It is my thought that, if it is possible, I would like to offer my earnest desire to save Jack from a repeat of my experiences.  I would like for that legacy of pain to stop with me.

In this, I will be entirely in subjection to your will.  If you say no, then the door is closed.  If you say yes, I will accept your conditions.  I do not intend to declare some sort of parental right, or compete in any way in some sort of tug-of-war for Jack’s loyalty.  Even if I did want to do any of that, I know that I forfeited all of my claims two years ago and I will stand by our agreement.

I love Jack, Maureen, and I want to be a father in any way that I may be allowed to be.  As I have already said, I will accept any conditions.  I will be open to any oversight.  I will fall off of the map and never be heard from by you again, if that is your will.  But my wish, plainly stated, is to be a father to Jack in whatever capacity that I may be.  Once again, I recognize and affirm your 100% authority in all of my dealings with our son.

Well, that’s it, I guess.  The only other thing that I should say is that I am working steadily again, doing well and not living in that crummy apartment any more.  If Jack should ever spend time with me, it will be in a clean and semi-rural environment.

Maureen, I want you to know that I wish the best for you also.  I hope that you are doing well and I hope that even better will come along.  A couple of my friends say that they have been praying for me.  I don’t know much about that sort of thing, but if I find out that it’s real and it works, I will pray for you.

Thank you for reading this, if you have gotten this far and are still reading it.  If you find anything in this letter that you can agree with please let me know.  My phone number has not changed and you have my email address on this letter.  Oh, and my address is 10815 NE Burris Rd, if you want to drive by and make sure that I’m living in a place where you would let Jack visit.  I still drive the same Ford pickup, which you might see parked in front of the cottage in back.

Thank you for reading this message.  I hope, and I pray too, I guess, for the best for you.

Charlie.

Charlie read and re-read his letter, tweaked it here and changed it there, but at the end of things, that was what he decided to send.  Except that he couldn’t send it.  He got up and walked around the room.  He sat back down and re-read it again, and once again arose and this time walked out of the room.  Billy was slicing some cucumbers and making a salad when Charlie walked into the kitchen.

“You done, man?”

“Yeah, I’m done.  Thing is, I can’t decide whether to send it or not.”

“What, you forget your grammar or something?”

“No, man.  It’s fine.  Shit!  I just don’t know how she’ll receive it.  I mean what if she reads the first paragraph and deletes the whole damn thing?”

“So what if she does?  How much contact you got with her or your boy now, hmm??  You gonna lose any of that?  Hell no your not, ‘cause you ain’t got none anyway!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.  But this is my one chance to get some contact with him.  What if I’ve written a fucking masterpiece of futility and she flushes the whole thing down the toilet?”

“Uh-huh.  And what if I could shit gold and build my parents a mansion?  Look man.  I’m not dissing on your struggle.  I know it’s hard.  But you are not a flake, dude.  I know flakes and I know flaky, and you’re none of the above.”

“Ahhhh, shit!”  Charlie cried and beat on his head as he walked around the kitchen.  “I know you’re right.  I know all of that stuff.  I just can’t pull the trigger.”

“You want me to do it? Billy asked.

“Would you?” Charlie replied.

“Sure” Billy said.  “Here, let me pour you a shot of whiskey.”

Billy poured more than a shot into a drinking glass and handed it to Charlie.  “Now, you nurse this while Uncle Billy takes care of your weak ass.”

“Yeah, yeah.  You’re my hero.  Shut the fuck up and go send my email.”

Charlie took a sip of the cheap whiskey, shuddered, and decided that it was just what he needed.  Billy disappeared into his bedroom for only a moment and then reappeared.

“You done?” Charlie asked.

“Yep” Billy replied.

“You read it?”

“Nope.  That’s your business, not mine.

“Well then how the hell do you know if it’s any good?”

“That’s not my problem.  I’m sharing a small house with a wuss that won’t even send his own email.  That’s my problem.”

“Screw you” Charlie said.

Billy poured a glass of whiskey for himself, raised it to Charlie, and said “Screw you back.”

Charlie raised his glass and they drank to that.

The Garden, Chapter XVI

Charlie tried to relax as he crawled slowly across the garden on his hands and knees.  Walt had been faithful to his pledge to tend Charlie’s garden, but that seemed to extend only to watering and harvesting.  There was almost nothing ready to be picked and eaten, and a fine carpet of weeds had sprouted and begun their bid to take over his plot.  He was not too worried about his harvest though, since the vines and bushes were heavy with ripening tomatoes and cucumbers and so forth.  The weeds, however, demanded immediate attention, and Charlie got busy.

He had been scheduled to fly home Sunday afternoon but had changed his flight to Monday.  All day on Sunday he had waited for a call from the Prentisses informing him of Maureen’s change of heart and agreement to meet with him and discuss Jack, but that call never came.  “I’ll give it one more morning” he had said to his mother.

I think that’s pretty low of them to keep you in suspense” Elaine said to her son.  “They should at least let you know that they’re still trying.”

“I don’t know what they could tell me, Mom” he replied.  “They said that they would let me know if she changed her mind.  I guess she hasn’t done that yet.”

“Huh!” Elaine snorted.  “I really liked Maureen too, but my opinion of her is definitely going downhill.  I have rights too!  Why haven’t I seen my own grandson for two years now?  And what makes her so high and mighty that she can’t even talk to you, when you came all this way and are willing to talk to her?”

“Come on, Mom” Charlie replied.  “Give her a break, OK?  I’ve got a pretty good idea of what she’s gone through ‘cause I went there too.  I’ve had the benefit of some counseling and some pretty good friends.  We don’t know anything about Maureen’s situation.  Maybe she’s in worse shape than I was.

“Well, she’s not had to lift a finger, since you gave her everything you had, so I don’t know what she should be so depressed about.  She could at least show you some consideration for that.”

Charlie knew that it would do no good to continue with this conversation so he proposed to take Elaine shopping on his last day.  She was more than happy to go, and they spent many hours walking through stores as Elaine poked at and fingered the fabric of many items of clothing, ultimately buying a new sweater and a couple of blouses.

They ate in Old Town and in the afternoon, after a long day together, Charlie excused himself and took another long walk in the neighborhood.  Partly, he wanted to avoid further conversation concerning Maureen, but mostly he just wanted to soak up as much of the warm San Diego ambiance in his old neighborhood as he could.

Monday morning had arrived with no call from Maureen or from the Prentisses, so Charlie returned his car and took the shuttle to the airport.  He had a disappointing sandwich and a beer in the terminal as he waited for the one twenty five flight to Portland, which put him back in Vancouver by four thirty.  He called Carolyn from the cab of his truck and arranged to see her at nine the next morning, and then drove to Billy’s cottage to pick up his garden tools.

It was almost five thirty when he arrived at the garden.  Rachael had already left, if she had been there at all, and Walt was putting his tools away when Charlie drove up.

“Well, look what the cat drug in” he said cheerfully.  “Did you get yourself remarried down there?”

“Not hardly” Charlie replied.  “Never meant to, either.  You wanna hear about it?”

“No” Walt said.  “That’s personal stuff, and I don’t think you’d want to see me cry a tear for you.”

Charlie laughed and said “Actually, I’d tell you the story right now if I thought that I had half a chance to see such a thing.”

Walt laughed as well, and said “Special night at the Smelly Socks tonight.  Joe and Dom will be out of town this Thursday, and Ted on Wednesday, so we’re getting together early.  You going to make it?  You can tell us all about your sob story then, and the beer will keep us from running away.”

Charlie looked forward to drinking a few beers with these men who knew something more about hard times than did most of the people of his acquaintence.  His three days with family had been good; better in fact than he had expected them to be.  But these men knew what it was like to pass through the fire.  Charlie was anxious to share the current state of his quest with these good and trusted friends.  “You bet I’ll be there.”

After waving goodbye, Charlie fell to his knees and began to tear into the weeds, knowing that he had only an hour before he would want to be at the pub.  At the end of that hour he had almost two thirds of the plot weed free.  “That’s going to have to be enough for now” Charlie said to himself.  “I’ll get the rest tomorrow.”

The pub was crowded and noisy when Charlie arrived just before seven.  The Seattle Mariners baseball team was playing somebody somewhere, and the game was being televised.  With the Vancouver area dominated by media from nearby Oregon, the fan base was not what one would expect for the home state team.  Most of the Clark County contingent however seemed to be at the Key and Lock, and the cheering was loud and raucous.

“Hi guys” he shouted above the roar that must have accompanied an important play in the game.  “Do you think you could have picked a louder night?  It seems like a graveyard in here tonight!”

Ted, Billy and Dom held their hands to their ears and said ‘Huh?”  Speak up; I can’t hear you” in unison.

“You guys practiced that, didn’t you?” Charlie asked with a smile as he plopped down into his chair.  Greetings were given all around the table and the server’s attention was caught.  She knew what Charlie liked and soon a pint of cold beer was placed in front of him.

It was Billy’s turn to open the evening’s discussion, which was to proceed regardless of the noise coming from the crowd.  It was the usual “What will we talk about tonight, gentlemen?”  Everybody at the table knew about Charlie’s mission to San Diego, so all eyes turned automatically toward him.

What?” he asked.  “Do I look like I’ve done anything worth talking about?”

“No” Walt said.  “Not really.  Let me tell you a story about when I was working for the school system.”

“Pipe down” Joe said, tossing a pretzel at Walt, who tried to catch it in his mouth but failed.  Charle waited for the laughter to die down and then told his story.

“So you went to all that trouble” Walt said when Charlie had finished, “for nothing.”

“”No.  Absolutely not.  I don’t mean anything of the sort” Charlie replied.  “I haven’t been close to my family for years; heck, when I look back, I don’t believe that I ever really was close to them.  It was worth it if all that I accomplished was that.  I feel like some sort of lifeline was reestablished, and that’s a good thing.”

“Oh, so we aren’t family enough for you?’ Dom asked.  “And here I thought that Walt was your mother.”  Another pretzel flew across the table, toward Dom this time.

“Yeah, Walt’s good, but he can’t cook like Mom does” Charlie replied.  “And, I also know that my former in-laws don’t blame me for everything that happened.  When Maureen and I started dating, they were more like my family than my family was.  Mr. Prentiss was about the coolest dad that I knew, and it was a big relief to know that we could still be friends.

And speaking of fathers, I didn’t have any idea what a jackass my own father was.  It turns out that I really don’t remember anything that he did; things that I should be able to remember.  I’m pretty sure that my counselor will have a field day with that!”

“So, where will you go from here?” Billy asked.

“Well, it was disappointing at first, but I think that I’m OK with the situation now.  I mean, I still really want to renew my relationship with my son and all, but if I have to rely on my in-laws to keep some sort of connection until he’s eighteen, then I can go that route.  I’ll talk it over with my counselor and see what she says.”

At that moment a ring tone sounded in somebody’s pocket.  All hands reached down to see if they were the offending party.  Phones were to be kept off while the group was in session at the pub, and the price for breeching that regulation was that the offender had to buy the next round.  One by one, the phones were ceremonially extracted from pockets, beginning with Walt, then Dom, Billy, and then Charlie.

Charlie was not concerned because he specifically remembered checking for a message and then turning down his phone’s ringer before entering the pub.  He pulled his phone out and saw that a call had indeed come from “PRENTISS.”  He let his glance linger for only a moment before showing to the group that his phone was in silent mode.  The next one was Joe, and it was his phone that had been left on.

“Miss!  Miss!” Walt waved at the server to get her attention.  When she saw that it was Walt bawling at her she made certain to take several minutes longer than necessary to attend to their table, and Walt seemed like he enjoyed every minute of it.  When she finally came to take their orders Walt asked for a point of a good craft beer in place of his usual Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “When the beer’s on the house, the rules are all changed” he said with a big grin.

Charlie made a determined effort to put the phone call out of his head.  He would not have known about it at all if Joe had turned off the ringer on his phone, and his loyalty to this group of friends had deepened to the point where he would not slight them in order to jump right back to his quest.

“So, where were we before we were so rudely -“ and at this Ted raised his beer “- but deliciously interrupted?”

“I was just wrapping up my tale about the trip to San Diego” Charlie said.  “I’m going to be pouring my energy into ramrodding the work for Carolyn starting tomorrow and getting ready to go hunting with Billy here.  Other than that, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

“Well, all right then.  What pressing world problem shall we put on the right track next?’ asked moderator Billy.

Charlie excused himself early, claiming that he wanted to be fresh and rested when he started work the next morning.  He would be making an early inspection of the work under way on Carolyn’s three ongoing projects and then begin the conversion job in Parker’s Landing.  He knew that the conversion would be a rather straightforward job and could be quickly completed.  The interaction with Carolyn’s general contractor would require more delicacy.  It would do her no good to run him off and leave her projects hanging while Charlie tried to cobble together a crew to finish the work.

As he drove home, his mind was racing as to what the message would be that was at that moment resting in his phone.  He knew that the Prentisses retired early, and that there would probably be no use in returning the call at this hour.  Of course, they might be staying up late, expecting him to call back the instant that he saw they had tried to reach him.

  “I don’t know if I want to make myself look too eager” he thought.  “I don’t want anybody to think I’m holding my breath, waiting for Maureen to call.”

Then a wave of shame rolled over him.  “That’s exactly the attitude that I had before; always questioning her motives or thinking the worse about what she said and what I thought she was thinking.  I thought she was playing head games with me but it’s me that’s playing them now.”  All I want is to reconnect with Jack, and maybe help Maureen too, if she needs it.  Why am I being such an asshole?”

Charlie decided to call as soon as he got home, and that is what he did.  After he opened the door he walked straight to the tiny kitchen table and hit the ‘return call’ button.  As he had expected, the same message that he heard when had called in San Diego came on, inviting him to leave a message of his own.

“Hello.  This is Charlie, returning your call.  I’m sorry that I was out of touch earlier, but I’m eager to speak with you.  As you know, I rise early too.  Feel free to call me whenever you would like to.  Thank you, and I’ll speak with you tomorrow.”

“There” he thought, “it’s done.  Now I have to forget about it and get some sleep”

That was easier said than done.  Charlie undressed and took a shower, washing a day of travel and work in the garden, and thoughts of Jack and Maureen and his San Diego connections down the drain.  He had toweled off and was getting into bed when Billy came in the front door.  He sat on the edge of his bed, trying to force himself to climb under the sheet and put an end to the day.  After a few minutes of debate he decided that it was of no use.  He had to talk about this development with somebody, and Billy was going to have to listen to him.  He got up and walked out to the kitchen, where Billy was making a cup of tea.

“Hey man.  Guess what!” Billy said as he walked into the tiny room.

“Uh, I don’t know.  What?” Charlie asked.

“Walt wants to go hunting with us.  He said that he hasn’t killed anything in decades, and it would do him good to get back into practice.”

“Well, that isn’t exactly the sprit that I think of hunting in, but it certainly sounds like Walt.  Are you cool with it?”

“Yeah.  Hey, Walt’s really a pretty OK guy.  Rough around the edges to be sure, but he knows what it feels like to have walked through the fire, and that makes me pull closer to him than maybe some others do.  Shit, nothing that I experienced in Iraq comes close to the hell he walked through in ‘Nam.”

“He told about that” Charlie said.  “Getting hit with machine gun fire and seeing friends die.  I really can’t imagine what that was like.”

Billy looked at him for a few moments in silence, mulling what to say to Charlie’s comment.  At last he said “His wounds were only what got Walt sent home.  He saw a lot worse shit than that.  Hell, I’ve got nothing on him.  When he was over there – – -.”

Billy stopped, having realized that the beers that he had been drinking at the pub had lubricated his tongue a bit too much.  “Sorry man, I’m talking about stuff that I got no right to talk about.  Walt wants you to know about that, he can tell you himself.  And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring this topic up, too.  I just stepped way out of line there, and I feel bad about that.”

“Yeah man.  Sure.  No problem.  I’ve already forgotten it.  But hey, Ive got something to tell you, if you’re up to it.”

Billy was still obviously upset with himself for having touched on a subject that he should have never gone near.  “You know, Charlie.  I think I’d better take this tea into my room and get ready for bed.  I’ve had a bit too much to drink tonight and I got a slip in my grip.  Would that be OK?”

“Sure man.  That’s cool  It’s not really that important, anyway.  I’ll save it for tomorrow.  We both probably should get some shut-eye.”

With that Charlie went back to his room, closed the door and turned out the light, and then crawled into bed.  “Oh, great” he thought as he lay there.  “Now I’ve got the phone call and some mysterious past of Walt’s that’s even crazier than what I already knew buzzing in my brain!”  He lay on his bed pondering a thousand possibilities while listening to the night sounds on the other side of his screened window.  Eventually the crickets and cicadas won out over his wild thoughts, and fell fast asleep.

The next morning found him rested and ready to go.  The thoughts which had vexed him the previous night had been put to rest and a deep and dreamless sleep had prepared him for a new day.  Charlie was excited about taking his next step towards regaining his spurs in the construction trades by running Carolyn’s operation, and had actually forgotten about the Prentisses until the phone rang at seven o’clock sharp.

“Hello” Charlie answered.

“Hello Charlie” came the familiar voice of Warren Prentiss.  “How are you today, Son?”

“Oh, I’m fine sir.  Just getting ready to get to work.  I have a general contractor who probably needs to ge given a little incentive to improve his performance.  I probably should’t be looking forward to this as much as I am, but there it is,”

Warren Prentiss chuckled and replied “Ah, it makes me want to go back to work myself.  I envy you, I think.  Anyway, getting to the heart of the matter, I’ve finally heard back from Maureen.  She’s nervous about the idea, but Mrs. Prentiss and I assured her that you were getting yourself back on the right track, as near as we could tell anyway, and that there would be no harm in hearing you out.  She said that you can call her or send her an email.  Does that work for you?”

Charlie didn’t hesitate to respond.  “Yes sir.  That works just fine.  Give me a minute to get a pencil.”  He found one quickly and said “Shoot.”

“OK.  Her number is 503 774-2837, and her email address is moha@gmail.com.”

Charlie wrote that information down quickly and then said “Thank you sir.  I appreciate this more than I can say.  I’ll let you and Mrs. Prentiss know how this goes.”

“By all means, do so” Mr. Prentiss said.  “We’ll be hearing this from both sides and hoping for the best.  Now, I’ll let you get to work.”

“OK.  Thank you again, sir.  You and Mrs. Prentiss have a great day too.”

Charlie clicked off of his call and sat still in his chair for a minute, absorbing this news.  Maureen’s area code was 503, and that placed her somewhere in Oregon.  This made a visit with her and Jack much more easily doable if it should come to that, and he knew instantly that he would be sending and email, and that right soon, but not until he had a chance to talk with D’Andra the next day, and probably Billy too.

He also noticed that the first part of her email address was moha;  Mo Hamer.  She still used his last name and the nickname that he had come to believe she was not fond of.  Was she hanging on to some aspect of their marriage?  “I guess I won’t know the answer to that for a while, if ever” he thought.

Having decided on how he would proceed, Charlie gathered up his clipboard and writing tools, and a few other necessaries, and walked out to the truck.  He would get breakfast at Leroy’s this morning and hopefully see Jason.  He wanted to keep the young man updated as to the possibility of learning some of the construction trades, and thought that face time would be preferable to a phone call.  LuAnn, he expected, would not be back at work yet.

When he arrived at the restaurant he quickly learned that he was wrong on both counts.  Jason was nowhere to be seen and LuAnn was flitting about from table to table, seemingly as chipper as she had ever been.  Charlie was surprised by that, but after thinking about this thin but very tough lady he asked himself “Why should I expect anything else?”

LuAnn saw him and waved him over in the direction of the counter.  He did as he was told and perched on a stool at the far end, near the front window.  The place was not terribly busy, and soon LuAnn was standing next to him, waiting for him to stand up so that she could hug him.  He complied quickly and gladly, and after the hug she walked around to the other side of the counter, picked up the coffee pot and a mug and returned to Charlie.

“My goodness” he said to her as she filled the mug.  “I didn’t think I’d see you here yet.  How are you doing?”

“I guess I’m getting on OK” she replied.  “Sitting around an empty home wasn’t doing me any good, so I thought I’d get back to work.  I guess I love this old hash house more than I thought.”

“I’m pretty sure that I know what you mean” Charlie said, thinking back on the last two years when his work was his only grasp on sanity, and probably kept him alive.  “I didn’t enjoy my work the way you seem to, but it kept me focused on something besides what I was going through.”  Charlie lifted the mug to his lips and took a careful sep, and then said “But you didn’t really tell me how you’re doing.  You don’t have to if you’d rather not, but my question was asked because I really do care how you’re doing.”

LuAnn was silent for a moment, and then put her hand on Charlie’s arm.  “Charlie, I’m doing fine.  As fine as could be expected, anyway.  I miss Duane almost more than I can stand, but our two families have come together during tough times before, and we’re doing it now.  But people are always asking that question and not really wanting to hear the truth.  You surprised me Charlie, although I don’t suppose that I should have been surprised.  The answer is that I’m taking it day to day but I’m making it.  And I will make it.  And thank you for asking.  Thank you even more for meaning it.”  LuAnn wiped away a tear and then said “So, what’ll you be having today?”

Charllie placed his order and LuAnn returned to work.  He got up and went to the kitchen window and waved to Tank, then returned to his stool.  He wanted badly to speak of his trip to San Diego and his chance to make contact with Maureen, but she was busy and he felt like she might not be ready for that anyway.  He sat quietly instead, drinking his coffee and waiting for his breakfast.

His food arrived and his mug was refilled, and LuAnn had a break in the action.  She pulled up the stool behind the counter and began at last to visit with her friend.  “So” she asked.  “How did your visit to San Diego turn out?”

Charlie swallowed a mouthful of hash browns that he was chewing and answered.  “Do you want to talk about that?” he asked.  “With all that you’re going through, I’m surprised you have time for my stuff.”

“Of course I have time Dearie” she replied.  “Last thing I want to do is wallow in my own pity.  You said you care for me, and your life’s been no bed of roses lately, so I care for you too.  And besides, I’m really interested in your mission down there.”

“Well, it was about as good as it could be.  Actually, it went a lot better than I expected.  I had a great time with my family and I got in contact with Maureen’s parents.  They contacted her and she said that I could call or email.  And guess what!  Her area code is in Oregon, so she might not be too far from here.”

“That’s swell, Charlie.  So, you gonna do it?”

“Yes, that’s my plan.  I’m thinking that email is the best way to go.  Jumping right to speaking with her on the phone is a little bit more than I’m up to, I think.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.  That’s how I would do it anyway.  When are you going to do it?”

“After I speak with my counselor tomorrow.  I’m going to write my own message, but I’m looking for input from a couple of people.  In fact, I would like to know what you think about that.”

“About asking for advice, or asking about what to write?”

“Both, but mostly about what to right.  I would love to know your thoughts about that.”

“Well, hold that thought for a bit.  I’ve got to go earn my pay.  I’ll be back shortly.”

LuAnn left to seat a new customer and give some others their check.  Charlie sat waiting for her to return, and was beginning to feel a little pressure from the clock on the wall.  He still had plenty of time, he thought, but a wave of new customers could torpedo this chance to speak of his plan with LuAnn, and he hoped very much to hear her wisdom on the matter.  At last, she returned.

“OK.  So what are you going to say?”

“Hah, I haven’t a clue, and probably won’t until I get to writing.  What would you say if you were me, or I guess a better question would be what would you want to hear if you were Maureen?”

LuAnn didn’t take a second to answer that.  “The truth.  That’s my answer to both questions.  Tell her the truth.  And I’ve never been in her shoes; yours either for that matter, but I guess she’ll want to hear the truth.  Or deserves to hear it anyway.  Heck, I don’t believe that she would want to hear a lie, do you?”

Now, I know that sometimes a lie’s exactly what some people want to hear.  I can’t figure that one out, but I know it’s true.  But would you want to open up a conversation with your family with a lie?  Naw, I can’t see that.  That sort of thing always comes back to bite you in the butt.  You intentions are good Charlie.  Least ways, as far as I know they are.  So run with them.  Besides, if your mission isn’t successful and you fall on your face, at least you wont have a lie in your mouth when you land.”

Charlie thought about that for a moment and quickly recognized the wisdom in it.  “I think you’re dead right on.  LuAnn, I believe you missed your calling!”

“Oh no, I don’t think so.  In fact, I hear my calling calling right now.  Gotta go to work.”

LuAnn gave Charlie another pat on the arm and crossed over the tiny restaurant to fill water glasses and take orders and generally fuss over her customers with the care of a mother hen and the simple kindness of a friend.  “Duane was a very lucky man” Charlie said to himself.

Charlie finished his breakfast, left a twenty on the counter which covered the cost of the meal and included a generous tip, and returned to his truck.  Minutes later he was pulling up in front of Carolyn’s home, ready to begin earning his pay.  Carolyn was ready too.  She met him at the doorway, a leather pouch with files and other papers in it in her hand.

“Shall we get right to it?” she asked.

“Absolutely.  I’m tanned, rested and ready.  Your coach or mine?”

Carolyn chose the truck without a moment’s hesitation.  Quickly they buckled up and Charlie headed the truck towards her projects on the other side of the city.

“So, how did your trip go?” she asked.

Charlie filled her in on the details, much in the same manner as he had with LuAnn.  He omitted the part about The Prentiss’s call, and wondered why he did that.  Carolyn was obviously focused on the job at hand and didn’t pursue the thread of conversation too deeply.  “Park over there” she said finally, pointing to a space against the curb a quarter of a block in front of them.

Charlie did as he was instructed and the two exited his truck and entered a house that had a ‘FOR SALE’ sign pushed into the dry dirt that in better days had been a front lawn.  For the next three quarters of an hour Charlie slipped into construction mode as he inspected the work in progress.  He crawled underneath the house and up into the attic, and through every room in the place.  He would write on his clipboard, ask questions about this or that, and about what the general contractor had told her about the progress of the job so far.

When Charlie felt that he had gleaned all that he could at this site they drove to the two others, both of which were smaller scale operations.  Charlie repeated his inspection at the second house but found a team of plumbers at the third.  Out of courtesy he did not subject the house to his inspection protocol.  He did, however, introduce himself to the plumbers as a consultant to Carolyn, and asked a few questions, the answers to which he already knew.  At the end of the tour they returned to Charlie’s truck and began the return trip to her home.

All of this time Carolyn had refrained from asking him questions.  She could see that he had wheels turning in his head and left him alone while he did his work.  She was anxious to hear what he thought though, and the moment that he started the truck she decided that her patients had been extended for too long.

“Well?” she asked.

Charlie was silent until he navigated the truck onto a busy street and then replied.  “I’ve seen worse, but I’ve seen a lot better.  There’s corners being cut.  They’re subtle, but you can see it if you know what you’re looking for.  These houses should move for you well enough, but the new owners are going to be having problems in a little while.  If you plan on doing this long term, that could come back to haunt you.  It’s a digital world, and work of mouth has expanded exponentially on social media.  Short version?  I don’t think this guy’s giving you fair value.”

Carolyn’s face showed her disappointment, and Charlie continued to speak.  “I wouldn’t take that too hard, Carolyn.  You’re not a contractor.  How in the world could you be expected to be on top of all of the fine points of the trades?  That’s what a general contractor is supposed to do; be the experience that an owner doesn’t have.  He either doesn’t know his job or has decided to not do it.”

“So what should I do?  I feel like firing the bastard right now!”  Carolyn was visibly angry, which was something that Charlie had not seen yet.  She sat motionless, looking forward through the front window of his truck, but her body was rigid and the muscles of her jaw bunched as she considered the bad work currently underway and, what was worse, the bad work that she had already sold to innocent buyers.”

“That’s sort of what I would advise you to do, but just not right now.  If I’m not mistaken you’re making payments on these properties and won’t be able to get out from under that until the work’s done and their sold.  This guy’s a jerk, but him and his crew are all that you have right now.

So what I suggest is that you let me put my boot in his backside and get what we can out of him while I get in contact with some guys that I used to know back in the old days.  I don’t know who’s doing what right now, so I’ll make some calls.  How’s that sound to you?”

“That makes sense” she replied.  Charlie could tell that more was coming however.  “I’m putting my name on this business, and my name means something to me.  Charlie, I would like to expand your duties.  I would like for you to teach me some of what you know.  I’ll back off a bit from the acquisition end of my business and spend time learning how to see this stuff for myself.  I hate being at the mercy of creeps like that Jackson.  Would that be acceptable to you?”

Of course” Charlie answered.  “That is exactly what I would do if I was in your position.  I’m not going anywhere soon though, so let’s get these jobs sorted out and then get you moving forward again.”

“Well, I hope you’re not going anywhere but you never know.  If you get back together with your family I could see you moving somewhere where there were fewer ghosts.  I would hate to lose your expertise.”

Charlie was shocked by her statement.  He hadn’t told her of the Prentiss’ call.  She knew of his desire to reconnect with his son, but they had not spoken of that at length.  He was surprised that she had thought about this at all.  Charlie felt that he had to clear this issue up immediately.

“There’s not much chance of anything like that happening.  My two main focuses right now are my son and this job.  I must tell you, I haven’t felt the juices flowing like this for quite a while, and I like it.  I’m fully invested in getting your construction issues sorted out and your business set on a good foundation.  You helped me up when I was at rock bottom, and I won’t forget that.  I’m enjoying myself these days, and I’m not going anywhere.”

“Thank you Charlie.  I’m sorry that I suggested that you were.  And it’s none of my business anyway, really.  I’m just ticked off about getting snookered.  I don’t like being at somebody’s mercy when I can’t trust them.”

“I don’t either” Charlie responded.  I’ll be here, helping you all that I can, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”

They arrived at Carolyn’s house soon after this conversation and she invited Charlie in for lunch.  He declined her offer, reminding her that he had one last project of his own to finish before he could work exclusively for her, and that his customers deserved his attention.  “Of course they do.  So you go and give it to them.  I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“You bet” he answered.  She then exited his truck and walked up to the front door and entered her house.  “I wonder if she’s going to kick somebody’s ass” he thought.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if she does.  That wouldn’t be the best idea she’s ever had, but I wouldn’t blame her if she does.”

Charlie pulled over to the curb a couple of blocks away from her house and pulled out his phone.  He searched for a few moments until he found the website for Gomez, Baca and Sons; General Contracting, and then punched the number that was listed.  After a few rings he heard a voice say “Hello, can I help you?”

“Manny?  Is this Manny Baca?”

“Yes it is.  May I ask who’s calling?”

“Oh, sorry.  This is Charlie Hamer.  How’re you doing Manny?”

“Ai!  Charlie!  Hijo de su madre!  How’re you doing, man?”

“Pretty good.  Pretty good.  How’s the family?”

“Ah, growing up too quick.  No really, how’ve you been doing?  I heard about the crap you went through, at least some of it.  Are you really OK?”

“I’m getting there.  And I’m getting back into the game too.  It feels good.”

“Ai, man, I’m glad to hear it.  Well, what can I do you for?”

“I’ve got a situation.  I’m working as a consultant for a lady named Carolyn Prescott.  She’s flipping houses and has some pendejo named Jackson generalling her remodel work.  You heard of him?”

“Jackson.  Jackson.  Nope, can’t say that I have.  There’s a lot of new players out there Charlie; you know how it can be.  So, what’s the problem?”

“He’s a rip-off.  Putting lipstick on a pig.  He’s cutting corners and doing crap work with a nice cover on it.”

“Ah, cabrón.  Rape it and run, eh?”

“Exactly.  She’s called him on a few things but he’s pretty good at covering his shitty work just well enough to get paid for it.”

“Well, why don’t you general it for her?  You still got your license, no?”

“Yeah, I still got it.  I don’t know.  I got a few other irons in the fire.  I was wondering, are you busy right now?”

“Yeah.  I’m busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest.”

“Well, I’m glad and I’m disappointed about that.  You know anyone who’s worth squat that’s available?

“You might try some guy who’s new to the area.  He’s a Rusito named Pavel.  Let’s see, I have his name around here somewhere.  Hold on for a minute.”  After less than a minute Manny came back on the line.  “Kolochek.  Pavel Kolochek.  He’s new, like I said, but he does pretty good work.  I don’t know about letting him general a job, but he’d make a pretty good sub and would take a lot of heat off of you.  You want me to give you his number?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

Manny Baca gave Charlie the phone number and hung up after saying “It’s good to hear your voice amigo.  I’m glad to hear that you’re back.  Rosa and I have prayed for you.”

Thank you Manny.  It’s good to hear your voice too, and I am really glad to be back in the game.  Give my best to Rosa and the family.”

Charlie hung up and pulled away from the curb.  He turned his attention to driving safely and putting his energy into the remodel project before him.  As he pulled up in front of this last solo job, for a while at least, Charlie reflected that his life, all in all, had become something worth living again.  He felt like he wanted to thank somebody, but it would take a long time to get in touch with all of those people.  Instead, he decided that he would thank everyone by doing the best work that he possibly could, and jumped into it with energy and a big smile.

 

The Garden, Chapter XV

Charlie didn’t feel ready to start looking for Maureen yet, but his mother’s advice to do so won the day.  He didn’t know yet what he would say, or how he would even say ‘hello.’  But first things first.  At the moment he had no idea where Maureen was.  He knew where her parents lived however, or at least where they had lived two years earlier, and that was less than a mile from his mother’s house.  He  knew that his best hope was to start there.

Charlie remembered their phone number, for what reason he couldn’t say. Butterflies were doing barrel rolls in his stomach as his fingers punched the numbers into his mother’s land line telephone.  He almost held his breath as the phone on the other end began to ring, but he made a conscious effort to steady himself for the moment when somebody picked up his call.  That effort paid off, and Charlie was reasonably calm by the time he realized that nobody was going to answer.  Sure enough, a voice came on saying “You have reached 821-0733.  Nobody is available at this time to answer your call.  Please leave a message at the beep and we will return your call as soon as we can.”

Charlie debated for a moment whether or not to leave a message.  If he did so, he would hot have the flexibility of a live call in which to make his case.  Perhaps his call would be unwelcome but not immediately rejected, and his speaking to a live human on the other end would give him a chance to make a case for continuing the conversation that might otherwise be lost.  On the other hand, he was now anxious to begin the process, and delay was more distasteful to him than maneuvering for advantage with a possibly reluctant ex-in law was attractive, and so he took the plunge.

“Hello.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I am in town visiting my family, and if it is at all possible I would like to speak with you while I am here.  I know that this comes as a surprise to you, but I hope very much that you will agree to a phone call or a visit.  The phone number at my mother’s house is 227-4413, and my cell is 360-415-4253.  There is not a voice recorder on my mother’s phone, but I do have one on my cell.  I hope that I will be able to speak with you soon.  Good bye.”

“There, it’s done” Charlie thought.  “They will answer or they won’t.  It’s out of my hands now.”  He placed the telephone receiver in its cradle and walked down the hall and into the living room, where his mother waited.

“They weren’t home, I guess,” he told her.  “That is, if that is even still their number.  A lot of things can happen in two years.”

“I’ll bet that they’re still there,” Elaine said.  “Our generation didn’t move around like yours does.  I think they’ll get the message.  It’s what they’ll do with it that’s the real question to me.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Charlie said.  “I don’t really know what I would try next if they won’t talk to me.  I suppose I could get in contact with her lawyer and try that angle, but I doubt that she would help.  Some sort of professional rules or something like that.”

“We could try to find her on the internet,” Elane suggested.  “Those snooper websites can find anybody.  If you want to give them $7.95 after the first free month, that is.”

Charlie chuckled at that idea.  “Mom! he said.  “You surf the internet?”

“Why, sure!” she replied.  “Why should you youngsters have all the fun?  You can find just about anything you want to know on the Web.”

Charlie laughed outright at this response.  He could still see his mother hanging clothes on a clothesline in the back yard, putting his school lunch into a paper sack and watching soap operas on their old Magnavox television in the summertime when he was out of school and home at that hour.  Now, in her late seventies, she was instructing him on how to snoop on the internet, and for only &7.95 per month!  “You can find anybody,” she continued to say,  “plus their tax and police records too.”

“You’re amazing, Mom!” he told her.

“Naw, I’m not amazing,” she replied.  “I’m pretty damn good, but not really amazing.”

They sat in the living room and visited for an hour more before Charlie began to get restless.  His business was weighing on him, and he knew that only by discovering if Maureen’s parents were really still at that number and would answer his call could he remove that weight in its entirety.  Having at least made his first attempt he felt some relief, but knowing that any moment they might call made this business so much more real now.  At last, his mother noticed his fidgeting.

“Look, Charlie.  Why don’t you go and do something?  You’re nervous as a cat at the dog pound.  You gave them my number, right?”  Charlie nodded that he had.  “OK then.  I’ll stay here and answer if they call.  I can say that you had to step out for a minute and that you’ll be right back.  I would call you then and let you know.”

That sounded like a good idea, and Charlie decided to take a walk in his old neighborhood.  He exited through the front door and began to walk north, towards southern rim of Mission Valley.  Almost immediately he was in front of the house on the corner, where the Burtons had lived.  “I wonder if they are still alive?” he thought.  “I wonder what that little girl’s doing?  I wonder if Mom could find them on the internet?  I wonder why I can’t remember a thing like what Mom told me about them, and about Dad.?”

He walked on, burning up nervous energy, and soon saw the Henning’s house.  In front of that house, on the side of a lawn that had now gone to seed, was the stump of the pine tree that he had climbed to find refuge from his troubles one day long ago.  “Jeez, why can’t I remember that?”  he asked himself.  Charlie could remember climbing that tree many times, in spite of the Hennings always chasing him out when they caught him up there.  Why couldn’t he remember that one traumatic day?

Charlie walked past Bobby Crowe’s old house and wondered what happened to him.  “I remember plenty about him,” he thought.  “I’d probably kick his punk ass if I could find him now.”  Charlie was surprised at how the resentment that he had felt against his tormentor of four decades ago rose easily into his consciousness now that he stood here in front of the house where Bobby had once lived.  “It would be a good idea to not have Mom find him!”

Charlie continued walking and soon came to the recreation center which still occupied a full block in the neighborhood.  He went into the field where some kids were throwing a frisbee and sat on one of the concrete picnic tables that had replaced the old wooden ones from when he was young.  He was sitting there, remembering times both good and bad, when the cell phone in his shirt pocket began to ring.  He pulled it out of the pocket and looked at the screen.  “PRENTISS” it said.  Charlie’s heart leapt into his throat as he pushed the place on the screen that said “Accept This Call.”

“Hello,” Charlie said, and lamely, he thought.

“Hello,” came a voice.  “Is this Charlie?”

“Yes sir, it is,”  Charlie answered.  “How are you doing?”

“Well, I suppose I’m doing well enough.  Question is, how are you doing?”

“Pretty good, I think.  And Mrs. Prentiss?  How is she doing?”

“Same as always; an angel for putting up with me.  I have to tell you that I’m very surprised to get this call.  So I ask again, how are YOU doing?  Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything is fine sir.  I’m visiting my mother and family here for a few days.  I’m pretty busy up north but I wanted to come down here between projects.”  Charlie hesitated for just a moment at this point, and then continued.  “And, well, there is something in particular that I would like to discuss with you.”

Charlie paused for a moment, and Mr. Prentiss prompted him to continue.

“Well, this is the deal.  As you know, I had a very hard time dealing with Stevie’s accident.  I guess, really, that’s putting it too mildly.  Anyway, I finally realized that I needed help, and now I’m getting that help from a professional.  Because of that I’m getting back on my feet and I realize that even now, after all that has passed by me, there are still responsibilities that I have to my son and, who knows, maybe to your daughter as well.  I’m not trying to pick up where we left off, if that is what you’re thinking.  No, I’m trying to figure out what is the right thing to do in this situation and at this moment, and then finally do it.

Trouble is, I don’t really know what the right thing to do is.  Now, I always respected you, sir.  You always seemed to me to be the father who knew what to do.  So I was hoping that maybe I could talk with you while I’m here and ask you to help me figure this out.  If you would be willing to give me a few minutes, I would love to speak with you, and Mrs. Prentiss too, so that I can get a better idea of what helping would look like.”

After only a moment’s silence, Mr. Prentiss responded to Charlie’s request.  “We would love to speak with you Charlie.  Can you come over later on tonight?”

“You bet I can,” Charlie replied, knowing at the same time that Elaine had planned to have Clark and Emily and their families over for dinner that evening.  But it was her idea to have Charlie fast-track the process of reconnecting with the Prentisses, so he was certain that she would understand if he missed dinner with them that night.

“The only thing is that we will be with our Care Group from church until eight o’clock.  Can you come over at eight thirty?”

“Care Group?  Do you go to church now?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, yeah.  We started a couple of years ago, right after Steph – – -.  Well, right after the tough part set in.  It really didn’t have anything to do with your situation, but it was certainly in the nick of time.  Anyway, we get together and eat some wonderful food that everyone brings pot luck and we’re usually done by nine.  We could slip out and be home by eight thirty, if that would work.”

Charlie heard a murmur of conversation in the background and then Mr. Prentiss came back on the phone.  “On second thought, I suppose that you already have your own plans for this evening.  Why don’t we make it tomorrow morning for breakfast?  Maudie is already looking in the kitchen to make sure we have the fixings for pancakes and ham and the other stuff that she remembers you like.”

Mr. Prentiss’ response to Charlie’s call had relaxed his concerns completely.  He had feared that they would have considered him the author of their daughter’s misfortunes and shut the door in his face.  To his pleasant surprise they still seemed to like him and were open to communication with him.  Charlie wanted very much to press on with the main purpose of this visit to his home, but now he felt like there was space for him to connect with his own family as well.

“That sounds very good to me sir.  What time would you like for me to come over?”

“Oh, you know, I’m an early riser, so anytime after seven is fine with me.  Maudie usually has food on the table by seven thirty.  Does that sound OK?”

“Seven thirty is fine.  I’m an early riser too.  I’ll be there on the dot.”

“Bring your appetite.”

“Oh, I remember Mrs. Prentiss’ cooking.  I certainly will.  See you tomorrow then, sir.”

“You bet.  Oh, and Charlie.  It’s really been good to hear your voice.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with you tomorrow.”

Charlie pressed the disconnect button and continued to sit at the picnic table, processing the conversation that he had just concluded.  It was clear that Maureen’s parents did not harbor a grudge against him.  They could have easily held him somehow responsible for Stevie’s death and their daughter’s family meltdown, and they could have made a case against him for not taking care of his family; their daughter and grandson, after the accident.  But they did not seem to be inclined to do that.

Of course, this could be just a ruse; a friendly face designed to lure him to their house, where they could tear into him.  It wasn’t too long ago that he would have given serious thought to that possibility.  Today however, he was willing to accept Mr. Prentiss’ expression of good will as genuine and go to their house the next morning with hope for a good outcome.  “Heck,” he thought.  “Even if they do jump on me I can still try to do what I came for.”

Charlie sat at the table for a while longer, watching the frisbee throwers and some other kids shooting baskets in a court on the other side of the field.  Charlie had done those things here when he was young, but he was never really a part of the group of regulars at the rec center.  He had been too busy studying, delivering morning and evening paper routes, and working first as a laborer and then as a craftsman for a construction company in the summers, to spend much time playing.

The boys and girls his age would always be together, whether shooting baskets or playing wiffle ball or just sitting on the picnic tables smoking cigarettes.  They knew about each other’s lives and acted like some kind of surrogate family to each other, and he had never sought nor was ever invited to be a part of that family.

Bobby Crowe had been a part of that group, and that was one good reason not to want to join it.  Bobby had been a big kid for as long as Charlie had known him, and Charlie’s penchant for being more of a loner had tended to make him more of a target.  He had never been actually beaten up by Bobby, but the taunts, the shoves, the trippings and so forth were always a direct invitation to greater violence, and it was a challenge that Charlie had no interest in accepting.

As the years went by, Charlie had come to this playground less as his other activities occupied more of his attention.  The summers of intense physical work with the construction team had filled out Charlie’s previously thin frame and he had become quite muscular.  Bobby Crowe, who came into contact with Charlie less and less anyway, was a punk but he wasn’t stupid.  Well, not too stupid.  Their brief encounters at school or in the neighborhood became much more neutral events than before.  Charlie had thought from time to time about evening the score, but that seemed to be a pointless act compared with the more positive things in his life, and after he met Maureen there was no room in his mind for Bobby Crowe.

After a while Charlie’s mind returned to the present.  He had family coming to his mother’s house soon and she did not know yet if Charlie would even be there.  He punched her phone number into his cell and she answered on the first ring.

“Hey Mom,” he said.  “Looks like I’m going to the Prentiss’ house tomorrow for breakfast so I’ll be home soon.  What’s for dinner?”

“Oh, they called you on your phone!” she replied.  “Tacos.  So how did it go?”

“Better than I had hoped for.  Mr. Prentiss sounded friendly, and I think that he meant it.”

“So, does Maureen live here?  Is she going to be there too?”

“I don’t know, Mom.  He didn’t mention Maureen, I think.  Not much anyway, if he did at all.  No, I don’t think that she’ll be there.  We didn’t discuss a whole lot,  which is OK by me.  I don’t really like talking on the telephone anyway.”

“OK.  I can take a hint.  I’ll get off the phone.  The kids are going to be over in about an hour, and we’ll be eating right away.”

Charlie laughed at his mother’s quip and said ‘good bye.’  Tacos.  That called for beer and iced tea, depending upon one’s age and preference.  He remembered that Moe’s Liquors once stood on the corner of First St. and Washington, but there wasn’t the smallest likelihood that it still existed.  He had seen a small market on his walk, and he retraced his steps to that market and purchased two six packs of Coronas and a box of tea bags.  These he carried the short distance back to his mother’s house.

Elaine was in the kitchen when he returned.  He quickly put the beer into the refrigerator and placed a large pan of water on to make a pitcher of tea.  He then busied himself helping his mother to cut, chop and cook all of the ingredients necessary for a taco feast.  They were finished and Charlie had time to open a Corona and sit down before the first of the crowd arrived.  Soon after that, the Hamer home was bursting with family, from Elaine down to the several grandchildren, the oldest of whom was pregnant with her first child.

Charlie and his brother and sister gave affectionate hugs, an occurrence which surprised them somewhat.  Charlie was new to this hugging thing, and it would take some getting used to.  Introductions were made to grandchildren and before too long the dining room was filled with the happy babble of a family enjoying a vast meal and a reservoir brimming with fondness and joy.

Perhaps the happiest person in the room was Juliette Hamer, the ‘earth muffin’ wife of Clark who had suggested to Charlie that he should get outside of his apartment and reconnect with the soil.

“That was good advice,” he had told her at a moment when his mouth was empty of taco.  “In addition to growing some good and free food, I’ve met some people who have been a big help to me.”

“Who’s taking care of it while you’re loafing down here?” Emily asked.

“A very odd piece of work named Walt,” Charlie replied  “He’s a crusty old Vietnam vet who you wouldn’t want you children to be around, yet he works his own plot and mine too while I’m gone so that he can give the food to the county food bank.  I don’t think you would like him very much; not at first anyway, but he’s one of the best people that I know.”

“And just how many people DO you know?” Clark asked .

“Oh, let’s see.”  Charlie began counting on his fingers.  “I guess twelve people who I talk with much at all.”

Clark looked impressed with that number.  “That’s a heck of an improvement over the last time we saw you up in Washington.”

“You have no idea,” Charlie told him.  “Really, you don’t.  There’s no way that you could.”

He then looked directly at Juliette.  “And your advice came at the time when I needed it the most.  A couple of my new friends are religious people, and they talk about blessings.  Well, I haven’t had a lot of those the past few years but it looks like my luck is changing.  Or maybe it isn’t luck.  Anyway, it all started with your suggestion that I get into the dirt, and so I think that if anything or anyone has been blessing me lately, it’s you who’s leading the parade.”

The people sitting around the scratched old family table were silent for a moment, and then Clark raised his beer in preparation for a toast to Charlie’s rebirth into the ranks of the living.  Charlie saw that move coming and waved it off.

“No, man.  Don’t raise your beer to me.  Raise it to that lovely woman you’re married to.”  And with that Charlie lifted his beer in the direction of Juliette.  Four beers, two iced teas, and a mix of sodas and glasses of milk were lifted in the direction of a surprised and embarrassed Juliette Hamer.

Clark leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek before looking back at Charlie and saying softly “Bravo.  Well done little brother.  Can I toast you now?”

The toast was received and soon the room was once again filled with the happy chatter of family eating too much food and making up for too long of an absence.  Elaine Hamer sat back in her chair from time to time and looked at her brood.  This much joy had not visited her dining room, or any other part of her house, for a very long time.  In fact, she was not sure if she had ever seen it there before.  Several times she sat silent, not because she had nothing to say but because she feared that her voice would tremble if she dared to try and say it.

After dinner and the clean-up, which was performed by Clark and Charlie and the eldest son of Emily, the family spent some more time together before parting to return to their lives.  Charlie talked with his mother for a short while longer and then retired to his room.

Lying on his old twin bed in the darkness he wondered how much of the life that he had lived in this house was locked away from his memory.  He had not lain in this bed for – how many years?  It had been a lot of them.  Now he lay here after spending an evening with his family that was unlike any he could remember, and the glow of this evening accompanied him into a deep and untroubled sleep.

Charlie’s internal alarm clock went off well before seven thirty the next morning.  Elaine continued to sleep and Charlie knew that a good meal awaited him at the Prentiss residence, so he dressed quickly and silently and began to walk the mile or so towards the Prentiss’ home.

Charlie had walked this path many times before, usually taking as long as possible to walk Maureen home from his house.  He thought about those times while he strode down the sidewalk, not nostalgically glorifying them, but simply reflecting on how things were so much simpler then, and what he would do differently if he could replay those days again.  He slowed his pace so that he could arrive on the front porch of the Prentiss’ at seven thirty, sharp, which is exactly what he did.

“Come in, son,” Mr. Prentiss said when he opened the front door.  Charlie did as he was asked, and shook the hand that was extended to him.  “We’re very glad to see you.  Maudie!” he shouted over his shoulder.  “Charlie’s here.”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” came a voice from the kitchen.  “See if he wants some coffee.”

Charlie said that he would love some coffee and before Mr. Prentiss could move to get it Maude Prentiss came out of the kitchen with a steaming pot of coffee and three cups.  She placed those items on the table and gave Charlie a long hug.  This was more than Charlie had expected or hoped for, and he had to fight to keep his composure.

Warren Prentiss refused to talk business until after breakfast, and soon all three were busy packing away a small mountain of pancakes and ham and eggs and fruit.  “I’m going to be big as a house if I keep this stuff up” Charlie thought as he wiped his fingers with a napkin and placed it on his empty plate.  The Prentisses were also finished, and Warren Prentiss suggested that they clear the table later and get down to business in the living room.  Maude and Charlie agreed and soon they were seated in comfortable chairs in that room that still looked nearly the same as Charlie remembered it.  Without wasting any time, Charlie launched into the reason for his visit.

“Like I said yesterday, I’m trying to make some things right that I dropped the ball on when Stevie died.  I can’t say that I know exactly what making things right  looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t look anything like the last few years of my life, so I’m asking other people, healthier people, for help in doing it.”

“Well, you look like you’re off to a good start,” Maude said.  “I have to say that the picture of you that Maureen gave us was a whole lot different than what I am seeing now.”

“Maureen’s picture was probably pretty accurate,” Charlie replied.  “It’s only been a couple of months since I began to climb up out of a dark place, and I’ve been very lucky to have met some good people who have helped me on my way.”

“I’m not sure that luck has anything to do with it,” Warren said.  “But continue.”

“Well, I’m seeing a counselor.  A professional.  She’s really one of the smartest and most kind people who I’ve ever met.  Anyway, she suggested that I try to get in contact with Maureen in order to find out if there was a way to be a father to Jack, given the circumstances.  Another friend suggested that, without trying to write a fairy tale ending to my story, Maureen and I might have a need to help each other in some way to move on with our own separate lives.

I expect that Maureen is doing all right; she always was a stronger person through all of this than I was, but that’s basically what this visit is all about, and I wanted to get your advise and opinion on it.  I would also like to ask you to find out for me if Maureen is interested in any of this.

Warren and Maude Prentiss were quiet for a minute after Charlie quit speaking.  Warren seemed to be picking at a splinter in his though, wrinkled hand while Maude raised the now-cold cup of coffee to her lips and drained the last sip.  They looked at each other quickly, and then Warren  looked back at Charlie and answered him.

“Well, we spoke with Maureen last night and she said that she has no desire to see you.”

Charlie’s heart dropped into the soles of his feet.  He had known that this was a possibility, but hearing it straight and direct was like getting hit in the chest by a truck.  As he pondered what this refusal might mean to him Warren continued.

“We told her that you would be coming over here today and that we were going to share a meal with you.  You had always been welcome in our house before and unless you gave us some reason to change that policy you would continue to be welcome here.

I also told her what you said yesterday about getting help with your troubles, and that you were interested in being a presence in Jack’s life it it seemed like he needed it.  I’ll tell you now that I told her that I agreed with you on that idea.   Anyway, she said ‘no.’  I asked her if she would keep an open mind about the idea, for now anyway, and allow me to speak with her again after we met with you and could make our own assessment of the sincerity of your intentions.  She agreed to do that.”

Charlie was stunned by the frankness of Warren Prentiss.  He had always been a very direct sort of person, but Charlie had forgotten how he could cut right through the clutter and get to the heart of a matter.  As he reflected on this Warren continued to speak.

“Charlie, I’ve only spent an hour with you but I feel like you are on the right track.  I didn’t see you when you and Maureen were going through the aftermath of Stephanie’s accident, but I trust my daughter’s account of things and I like the path that you seem to have chosen.  Being smart enough to ask for help, even if it seems like you’re shutting the barn door after the horses have gotten out, is something that a lot of people won’t do, and it says a lot, to me at least, that you’re doing it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Charlie said.  “It means a lot to me that you feel that way.  I knew that Maureen might respond like that so it doesn’t really surprise me much.  I’m very disappointed, but not surprised,  I would appreciate it very much if you would just tell her that I am more sorry than I can express for how I wasn’t equipped to be there for her and Jack when I had the chance, and that my only intention now was to be a help if I could in any way.”

“Now hold your horses, Charlie,”  Warren said.  “I wasn’t quite finished.  Maureen said that she has no desire to see you right now.  She didn’t say anything about later, though.  You’ve sort of dropped in out of the blue, you know, and it might take a while for the idea of you being alive again to sink in.”

  “Being alive again,” Charlie thought.  “Yeah, that pretty much describes it.  Or maybe even being fully alive for the first time.”

“I told her that you would come over here and that I would see what I thought about you, and that I would speak to here again after I do that and tell her what I think.  Well, I’m going to do what I said I would do, and I’m going to tell her that I think you’re making an honest attempt to “do the right thing” as you say, even if you don’t know what that right thing is.  I’ll also tell her that I believe she should at least speak with you and give you a chance.”

Charlie’s thoughts were flying in at least a dozen different directions and it was hard for him to think, and he told Warren of that.  “I’m feeling kinda tongue-tied, Dad” he said, relapsing to the title that he had used long ago when addressing Maureen’s father.  “I appreciate what you’ve just said.  God knows I can’t thank you enough for that.  On some level I can’t even believe that I’m sitting here and that you’re talking to me at all, while on another I’m not surprised that Maureen might slam the door and close out this part of both of our lives.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  I will tell you one thing though, and you can share this with Maureen if you think it’s wise to do so.

This is the last time that I will bother her.  If she does not want to speak with me after your next contact with her, I won’t make a pest out of myself.  There’ll be no stalking ex-husband or any of that stuff.  If she wants this to end once and for all time; if she’s got her life going in a good direction and does not need me being a distraction to hold her back, it will end right here.  If she wants anything else, whatever that might be, I will be eager to pursue it.  Your word, sir will be the final word for me.”

Warren and Maude sat still and quiet after Charlie quit speaking, and the three of them sat motionless and in their own thoughts for what seemed like an eternity.  What Maureen’s parents might be thinking Charlie had no idea, and he wasn’t trying to guess.  His own thoughts were of Jack and Maureen; what he owed to Jack, at least, and to himself.  He thought of D’Andra and her wise, kind listening and advice.  He also thought of Billy, who knew a wound when he saw one and what to do with it.  Finally he decided that his business here was finished, and that any further lingering would be an imposition and an intrusion.

“Well, sir.  Ma’am.  I think it’s probably time for me to go.  I thank you for the breakfast,”  he looked directly at Maude.  “You know that I always thought you cooked the best meals in San Diego.  I also thank you for your kindness towards me.  I couldn’t complain if it had turned out otherwise.  And I thank you for your willingness to speak to Maureen in behalf of my attempt to help Jack, and maybe her and even myself too.  Please let her know that I only want the best for them both, even if that means that I disappear again forever.”

Warren was not able to say anything in return.  He extended his hand and pulled Charlie into a bear hug.  When he let go Maude took her turn, and she found her voice.”

Charlie, like we’ve already told you, you will always be welcome in this house.  When you get home, call us from time to time, or write to us even.  We don’t do any of that fancy electronic stuff.  Let us know how you’re getting on, and how we can pray for you.  No matter how this all works out, we will always be your friends, and you can always consider this your second home.”

With that, Maude gave Charlie a hug and then let him go.  His eyes lingered on this amazing couple for a few moments longer before he nodded to each and turned toward the door.  Without looking back, for fear that he would begin to cry like a baby, he stepped through the door and out into the warmth of a San Diego summer day.

Charlie had no idea how long he walked before he finally returned to his mother’s house.  He remembered walking along Park Boulevard, past the museums and art gallery in Balboa Park, over the high bridge that had the unfortunate name of ‘suicide bridge’ when he was young because of the many people who had found it a convenient place to put an end to their earthly troubles.  He remembered his own appointment with the middle of a bridge, and as he looked down at the traffic flowing under him far below he thought about how foreign that thought now seemed to him.

He turned at Cedar and walked the long, straight street back to his mother’s home.  She was sitting in her chair, pretending to have been reading, while Charlie knew that she had been gazing out the window, waiting for him.  He said hello and went to the refrigerator to get one of the last two beers that remained from the night before.  He opened the brew and sat down on the sofa opposite where his mother sat waiting.

“Well, how did it go?” she asked, point-blank.

Charlie took a long swig from the beer and then replied.  “It’s complicated.  The Prentisses are just like I remember them.  They’re on my side, I think, although of course they’re on Maureen’s side too.  Maureen doesn’t want to talk to me though.  Maybe not now, or maybe not ever.  I don’t know for sure.”

Charlie took another swig of beer and sat back into the sofa.  Elaine, as usual, wanted more details.  “So, how is Maureen doing?  Where does she live?  Why won’t she talk to you?  What all did the Prentisses say?”

“You know Mom, they didn’t say anything at all about Maureen.  I hadn’t thought about that before, but they didn’t.  I think they did that on purpose.  If Maureen wants to talk to me, she can tell me all of that stuff.  The Prentisses just talked about me and them and what I’m trying to do.”

“Well, I think that’s a shame,” Elaine said.  “They should have told you more about her.”

“I don’t think so Mom.  I think they did just the right thing.  They’re going to speak to her again and if she’s still opposed to the idea, I’ve promised to stay clear of her life.  And Jack’s too.  Under those circumstances, I think that they were on the right track.”

Elaine fluttered over that idea for a while but Charlie’s obvious contentment with it eventually smoothed her ruffled feathers.  Charlie talked his mother into joining hem in his rented car to drive around and see the city that had changed so much since he had lived there.  From Hillcrest to Alpine, and then back to Del Mar on the coast they drove and talked of anything that entered their heads.  Charlie stopped for ice cream cones here and donuts there, which Elaine loved, and ended with a dinner at a seafood place in Point Loma.

It was evening when they returned, and Elaine soon excused herself and retired to bed.  Charlie had the last beer while sitting in the back yard and watching what few stars could shine through the light pollution of San Diego at night.  His phone was in his shirt pocket, where he could instantly reach it should it ring.  It didn’t ring.

Finally Charlie went inside, took a long shower and stretched out on the bed.  It was a warm, humid night, but he chose to shut the vent that allowed cooled air into his room.  He opened the two windows and lay on top of his bed, listening to the crickets outside his window and distant traffic noise.  The emotional exertion that he had expended this day crept upon him and before he had lain on his bed for ten full minutes he fell into a dreamless and restful slumber.

The Garden, Chapter XIV

Charlie glanced out the window of the Boeing 737 as it flew past Long Beach, California.  He had brought a book, thinking that he might kindle an interest in reading on the two and a half hour flight from Portland to San Diego.  That plan didn’t work out however.  He had never been much of a reader before and it didn’t look like that was going to change any time soon.  The book remained in his lap as he flew south, back to the town where he was born and where he hoped to continue stitching his life back together.  His mind was free to roam as he sat back as far as the seat would allow, and he used that freedom to review the past three weeks.

The memorial service for Duane had been harder on him than he expected.  LuAnn looked drawn, and more frail than her normally thin frame usually looked.  Her eyes were red, as if her tears had tattooed her grief into her flesh.  The smoker’s cough was worse, suggesting long hours of finding solace in those packs of death instead of sleeping.  Charlie had expected LuAnn to be above grief such as he had felt after losing Stevie.  Why she should be any more impervious to the effects of losing a loved one than he had been, he couldn’t say.

LuAnn was surprised to see him there at the church, and when she did she put her arms around his neck and her head against his shoulder, gently sobbing and unwilling to let go for several minutes.  Perhaps it was because she knew about Charlie’s own dance with death, and she felt a kinship with a fellow sufferer.

All that Charlie felt at first was awkwardness,  This was something that he had never been able to do in his life, and his impulse was to disengage from the embrace and leave the church as quickly as possible.  That is what he would have done at any time before the last two months.

 

On this day however, he had memories of his conversations with LuAnn, with D’Andra, with Rachael and Billy.  Charlie knew that it was important that he stand and offer consolation to his friend, even if he had no way of knowing if he was doing anything the right way or the wrong way,  so he stood and held LuAnn’s thin and softly shaking body against his own.

He thought of the weight and health that he had added to his own body the past few months and wished that he could simply transfer some of that to LuAnn if only he could hold her long enough.  And perhaps something like that did happen.  When at last LuAnn released her grip around his neck and stepped back away from him she had ceased to sob or tremble.

“Now I know how you were feeling, Charlie.  I think I understand you better now than I ever did before,” she told him.

“You probably do,” he replied.  “And so you should also know that we can recover from it, with a little help from others.  Whatever you need, and whenever you need it, just call on me.  Remember.  Whatever it is.”

Other friends and family then surrounded LuAnn and she went to sit in the front of the church.  Charlie went to the back row and took his place between Jason and Tank.  Jason openly expressed his discomfort at being surrounded by a bunch of people who believed in fairy tales.  Tank was a little bit more comfortable, although he was Catholic and felt awkward in a Protestant church.

 

“In my community, Latino and Catholic were like saying the same thing” Tank told him.  “This here, it’s kinda like the same as being in a Catholic church, but at the same time it’s all different too.”

“So, how did you come by the name of Tank?” Charlie asked before the service started.

“Well, I was always bigger than the other kids in my neighborhood, and they began to call me ‘El Tanque.’”

Charlie looked at Tank uncomprehendingly.

“”El Tanque” he repeated.  “You know, The Tank.  Like a Sherman tank.  Well, it just sorta stuck.  You know what?  I like it.  Who’s gonna mess around with a guy named El Tanque?”

Charlie acknowledged the wisdom of that, and soon the service began.  Jason fidgeted and looked like he might bolt at any minute, while Tank sometimes said something softly in Spanish and did that crossing thing that Catholics do between head and chest and their two shoulders.

Charlie’s attention, though, was mostly on the speaker.  He guessed that he was a priest or pastor, or whatever they called him, and he listened carefully as that person spoke of a victory over death, of a place where Duane was whole and without pain in his leg and things like that.  He spoke of death not being final, but instead being the beginning of a new life, and how God was present here in this world of suffering and there in the next world where suffering ceased to exist, and was tying the two together and making all things make sense in the end.

Charlie thought of Stevie not as the pale, battered corpse that he had been called to view in the Clasp County Morgue, or the body thumping up against a pier in the middle of the Columbia River imploring him to jump and join her.  No, if this man was right, Stevie was now an even happier and more perfect model of a beautiful person than the one that he had previously adored, and was only waiting until he could join her in his own natural time.  That picture gave Charlie a chill, and he wished desperately that this message was the truth.

  “I’lll have to bounce this off of the guys at the Key and Lock,”  Charlie told himself.  He knew what Walt would think of it, and was pretty sure that Billy would not be sold on that idea either.  Dom, Ted and Joe however might have another point of view.

  “Rachael!” he thought.  “I’ll have to speak to her about this.  She’s more into this stuff than anyone I know.  I’ll see how she views this idea.”

But he didn’t get a chance to do that before his trip to San Diego.  Now that he had decided to make that trip he applied himself with even more energy than usual to the task of completing his remodel job for Carolyn.  He was on the job at precisely nine in the morning and worked with little more than a lunch break if there was enough to do in a single day.  At the end of two weeks after the memorial service he was dusting tile and countertops, adjusting the level on the gas range, and giving the cabinet doors their last swing open and shut to ensure smooth motion and balance.  Carolyn was very pleased with his work.

“Charlie, this is better than I ever imagined that it could be,” she said as she took her first walk through the completed project.  “This is exactly what I wanted.  I feel as if Mom could walk through that door at any moment.”

“I’m glad that you like it,” Charlie replied.  “And that’s not just blowing smoke.  I really do appreciate that you took a chance on me when I didn’t look like such a good horse to bet on.  Your confidence in me gave me back some confidence in myself, and that was worth more than the pay itself.  Well, maybe by only a little bit.”

Carolyn just looked at Charlie for a moment, wondering where that thought had come from.  She had worked with Charlie for nearly a month, off and on, and he was not given to expressing thoughts like that.  Charlie could sense her puzzlement.

“I learned about that stuff from my counselor,” he said with a laugh.  “I don’t usually think up smart stuff like that on my own.”

Carolyn laughed with him and assured him that her confidence had been amply repaid.

“And speaking of pay,” she said, “here’s your final draw.”  She handed him a check which signified her satisfaction that the job was finished.

Charlie thanked her and said “You know, I’m a little bit sad that this is finished.  I have really enjoyed working with Luke and you, and this was the first job that I’ve had in a while that was actually fun again.  I hope that it can stay like that for me now.  I’m guessing that it will.”

“I hope so too,” Carolyn said.  “And while were on the subject, do you have any other work lined up now?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “I’m converting a garage into a family room over in Parker’s Landing.  I’ll start in maybe two weeks.”

“Oh,” Carolyn responded.  “Well, the reason I asked is because I want to make you a proposition.  Have you got time to sit down for a few minutes?”

Charlie agreed and sat at his usual place at the table, which now rested closer to the dining area window and farther away from sink and stove.  Carolyn sat down opposite him and launched directly into the topic which she had in mind.

“I’ve told you a little about my work Charlie, how I purchase houses and renovate them to a level such that I can make a good profit and still give the buyer a good home.”  Charlie nodded and Carolyn continued.  “And I’ve also told you that I am not entirely satisfied with the general contractor whom I usually use for this work.  Since I began helping you on this project I’m beginning to notice how he cuts corners, does some things ‘good enough,’ and simply doesn’t pay attention to details.  Not the way that you do anyway.  When I all him out on something, I get a look that I don’t like.  Oh, he does what I tell him, but there’s no real respect for the work, as far as I can see, and there’s no respect for me either, I think.

So what I’m thinking is that I would like to replace him, and if you would be interested, I would like to hire you.  If you would like to general the whole deal, that would be great.  If you would rather work alone, and just do some of my work, that would be OK too.  Either way, I would like for you to still work for me in some capacity.  I trust your work and I appreciate the way you respect me.  As a woman, and still relatively new to the business that I’m in, both of those things  mean a lot to me.”

Charlie didn’t take long to accept Carolyn’s offer.  He could fulfill his obligations to the remodel at Parker’s Landing easily enough while preparing to take over the construction end of Carolyn’s business.  He would begin immediately as a consultant, supervising the work that was already underway, which would release Carolyn to find more houses which showed promise of being acquired and profitably resold.

“There is one thing though,” Charlie said.  “Next week I will be flying to San Diego for the weekend, and maybe a little bit longer if needed.  It is very important to me that I make this trip.  Once I return I should have no distractions other than a short hunting trip in August.  I’m taking a friend who’s got a disability, so it won’t be a long one.”

Carolyn smiled broadly at him when she answered.  “You enjoy your trip to San Diego, and it just figures that you’re taking a disabled guy on a hunting trip.  You know, you really have a heart for other people Charlie, and it shows all over you.”

Charlie blushed at this unexpected praise and replied “You may not have thought that about me for most of my life.”

“Well, maybe you’re right.  But this model of Charlie Hamer is the only one that I know, and this is what I see.”

They spoke further about Charlie’s new position, which was to begin immediately and with pay, and Charlie told her of Jason.  “He’s a guy who has been homeless, I think, since he got out of the Army.  Or nearly that long.  He’s now getting his life back together too.”  And then he asked her approval of giving him a chance on her work.  Carolyn just laughed and said “Oh, yeah.  This guy who never had a heart for people!  Of course you can give him a chance on my work.”

At last Charlie stood to leave.  He loved the feelings that he had experienced here in this kitchen with this sharp and compassionate person.  But it was time to attend to other things.  Charlie walked to the door and promised to be ready in the morning to begin supervision of the work of her contractor.  At the doorway Carolyn stood until he had cleared the storm door and was prepared to close it, and then spoke once again to him.

“Oh, and Charlie.”

“Yes’” he replied.

“I just want to thank you for sleeping in your truck while the exterior wall was open.  That was very sweet of you and I felt very protected.”

Charlie’s jaw dropped and he turned bright crimson as he realized that he hadn’t been nearly as clever as he had thought.  He recovered quickly though and said with an embarrassed smile “Well, I had to keep you safe so that I could get paid.”  They both laughed and Charlie drove away feeling something like ecstasy.

That feeling of elation had not entirely worn off as the day arrived for Charlie to board the plane to San diego.  He had expected that he would be nervous about flying to his old home to begin the process of trying to renew contact with Maureen and Jack, but the nerves were not nearly what he had expected.  The events of the last three months had made a huge difference on Charlie, and he viewed the journey that he was now on with a mix of anxiety and excitement, in what ration and proportion he wasn’t entirely sure.

As the airplane began to make its descent toward Lindbergh Field he decided that excitement was winning the contest.  Beach communities passed underneath him and now he could see the greatly changed skyline of downtown San Diego.  His heart began to beat just a little faster, and when the wheels touched the ground an unexpected sensation of being home greeted him.

Charlie’s mother had offered to pick him up at the airport but he had declined.  “No, Mom.  I’ll want my own wheels,” he had told her, and she was too excited about having her son visiting as if from among the dead to offer any resistance.  It didn’t take twenty minutes for him to be in a car and driving up the hill towards the Hillcrest neighborhood, and home.

Elaine Hamer was on the front porch waiting for Charlie before the car rolled to a stop two houses down the street from her residence.  Charlie knew that she would be sitting in a chair in front of the big picture window and watching for him, and so he wasn’t surprised at her greeting.

“Hi Mom,” he said as if he was just getting home from school.  Mrs. Hamer couldn’t say anything back; she just softly clapped her hands again and again as he walked up the flagstone path from the sidewalk to the house and mounted the stares to the porch.  When he arrived at the top she threw both hands into the air and wrapped her arms around her son.

Charlie had begun to learn the art of the hug and was able to return her embrace, which lasted longer than all of their previous embraces combined, he thought.  At length she commented that he must be hungry, which in fact he was. She ushered him into his old home for a lunch that would have satisfied three Charlie Hamers.

Finally, after eating and stowing his suitcase in his old bedroom, he sat down in the living room and began to get down to the point of his trip.

“So, Mom,” he began.  “I’m going to take this first day easy and relax right here.  I might take a walk in the neighborhood, or if you have any small repairs that are needed I could probably take care of them.  But tomorrow I’m going to start trying to find Maureen and Jack.  Have you been in touch with them at all, or with their parents?”

“No,” I haven’t seen Maureen or Jack in years, and I’m frankly unhappy about that.  I liked Maureen, and Jack is my grandson, after all.  I would have thought that I would get a little consideration”

Charlie was surprised to learn that there was another casualty in this affair; that there was another bleeding wound.  He considered carefully what to say next.

“Well, Mom, I think you have a right to be upset.  But I don’t believe that anything was done as an intentional slight to you.  Maureen liked you too, and her withdrawing from contact with you just shows how hurt she was by this whole thing.  Maybe if I can start a little healing, things can loosen up and you can reconnect too.”

And then an idea that Charlie hadn’t expected occurred to him.  “You know, Mom, this affair was probably as hard on Maureen as Dad leaving us was on you.  Maybe it was even harder for her, since at least all of us were still alive.  Do you think that’s possible?”

Elaine quit rocking her chair.  There was no expression on her face that Charlie could read.  She simply stared out the window for what seemed like several minutes, but was actually much less than that.  Finally, she began to rock her chair again slightly, and then looked at her son.

“Yes, I suppose that is possible.  Very possible.  I hadn’t thought of it in that context, but it could be.  The circumstances were very different though, so I would have to think about that.”

“How so, Mom.  How were they different?”

Charlie and his mother had never discussed his father before; he had never asked and she had never brought up his name.  In fact, Charlie realized, he didn’t even know his father’s name!  Mrs. Hamer thought a minute more and then spoke to Charlie on this topic for the first time.

“Everything that happened to your family was an accident, son.  Stephanie’s death was not your fault.  It wasn’t her fault either, and it damn sure wasn’t Maureen’s fault.  Sometimes when you roll life’s dice you get sevens and sometimes you get snake eyes.  Like the saying goes; ‘shit happens.’  Well, it happened to you.  I’ll not criticize how you handled it either, since I haven’t walked an inch in your shoes, much less a mile.  I guess I handled my grief a little better, but like I said, mine was different.  What went on in our house was no accident.”

Elaine quit speaking and stared back out the big window.  Charlie sat quietly on the sofa.  It was the same sofa that he would lie on as a child when he was sick.  He would watch the television and sleep, and wait until his body began to heal enough for him to keep down chicken with rice soup and Jello with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks in it.  He thought of that healing, and how he hoped that it would be replayed here once again. Elaine continued to look out the window, and at last Charlie prompted her to continue.

“So,” he said softly.  “So how was it different, Mom?  If you want to tell me, that is.”

Elaine looked back at her son, and in a low and soft but clear voice and with dry eyes began to speak.  “I kicked him out of the house.”

Charlie was shocked.  “I thought that he left to play the high roller,” he said.

“Oh, he was a high roller all right,” Elaine replied.  “He made good money.  Always did.  And he could flash a big wad any time that he liked.  But he was a player too.  He wasn’t satisfied with having a wife and a family and a home, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with keeping it a secret from me either.  He was not usually mean, but he really didn’t care about us at all.  We gave him a veneer of respectability, but I got tired of being used as a prop on his stage.”

Charlie was shocked to learn this about his father.  He didn’t know why he was shocked, exactly, but this was not the picture that he had expected.  He wondered what else he had wrong, and pressed his mother for more information.

“I was asked by my counsellor – oh, yes.  I’m seeing a professional who’s helping me to get my life back together.  So I was asked about my relationship with my father, and I realized that I don’t remember anything about him, really.  She thinks it might be good for me to know something about him; it might help me to get myself sorted out.  If you don’t mind talking about it, could you share some memories with me?”

Well, I suppose that I don’t mind.  Not really,” she said.  “But I don’t get any pleasure out of it.  Your father usually ignored you and the other kids, but you most of all.  You were the youngest and I think he was tired of kids by the time that you came along.  You also had an independent streak that irked him.  He always wanted to be the star of the show, even if he didn’t have a show worth watching, and you didn’t worship him enough, I guess.  He would push you to do things that you didn’t want to do.”

Things like what, Mom?”

“Well, I do you remember Bobby Crowe?”  Charlie nodded in the affirmative.  “You remember how he used to bully you?  Well, your father knew that you were not an aggressive kid and he said that he was going to “make a man out of you.”  So he took you up to the playground one day when he saw Bobby there and told you to go stand up to him.”

“Shit, I don’t remember anything like that!”

“Well, it happened.  You didn’t want any part of it but he wasn’t going to let you leave until you stood up to Bobby.”

“So what happened?  I don’t remember ever getting into a fight with Bobby.  He pushed me around until I graduated from high school, but I don’t remember a fight.”

“That’s because there wasn’t one.  Your brother, Clark, saw what was going on and came home and told me.  I went up to the playground and intervened.  While he was explaining himself to me you slipped away and climbed up in the big pine tree that grew in front of the Hennings’ house and stayed there until nightfall.”

Charlie declared that he did not remember any such thing.

“Well it’s all true,” she said.  “Chet always insisted on having dinner at four thirty in the afternoon, and when you didn’t come home until nearly dark he was mad, but I told him that if he said one word to you, well, let’s just say that he was in our bedroom pouting when you got home.

And then there was the time in the back yard.  We had guests over for a barbecue.  You remember the Burtons who lived on the corner?”

“Again, Charlie shook his head in the negative.”

“Well, they moved when you were seven or so.  Anyway, he was fiddling around with Mrs. Burton then, or maybe he hadn’t gotten that far yet and was still trying to impress her.  Anyway, you and Clark and Emily and their little girl, I can’t remember her name, were playing in the yard while Chet was cooking.  You threw a dirt clod up into the air for some silly but innocent reason and it came down on that little girl’s head.  It didn’t hurt her really, there was no blood or even a bump, but it scared her and she started to squeal like an angry tomcat.  Chet took off his belt and lowered your pants right there in front of everybody and whipped you until you nearly passed out.  You don’t remember that either?”

Charlie shook his head again to signify that he did not remember, and he now began to wonder how much more he had suppressed, and what D’Andra would make of this.  His mother began to talk again though and interrupted his thought.

“I didn’t know what I would do if I left him.  I had no skill that I could use in the labor force.  A lot of women were in that position back then.  I felt powerless, and as much a victim as you were.  I thought that I just had to be quiet and take it.  That day though, I began to wake up.

On that day I finally told him that that was enough.  I pulled your pants back up and took you into the house, and I made you a dinner in there.  He was really mad at me that night, and I thought that he might start in on me too.  He had been drinking that day and continued to do so into the night.  I think he passed out before he could get to that point though, and he forgot the whole thing by the next day.

Mr. Burton finally learned about the affair and they left that house on the corner.  I don’t know if they divorced, but they probably did.  Mr. Burton was a pretty big man, but your father moved in higher circles and knew people, so he simply came over one day and cussed Chet out and we never saw that family again.”

Charlie’s head was spinning by all of this information that was entirely new to him, and he pressed on to learn more about this man who was a total stranger to him.

“So, how did his leaving come about?” he asked.

“Well like I said, he didn’t just leave.  I kicked his ass out of the house.  I almost kicked it right out the door.  By the time that you were finishing elementary school I had had enough.  He was usually careful enough to not do anything that would show up on a police blotter but I had no guarantee that we were safe, so I went to our friends, the Turpins, the Essexes, and the O’Leerys, and I borrowed enough money to hire a good divorce lawyer.  In no time he had Chet out the front door with nothing but his clothes.

Our friends were more than happy to help.  They had watched him over the years and knew that he was trouble.  He could be a charmer when he wanted to, and we had friends, but making friends and keeping friends was two different things.  Soon enough they could see his true colors.  They swore under oath about the things they had witnessed, and this house, and those exceedingly ‘generous’ alimony and child support checks?”  My lawyer wrung them out of his cheap hide, and the judge smiled when he dropped the gavel on him.”

Elaine then turned her head and looked back out the window.  There was a glitter in her eye and her jaw was set so that Charlie doubted that he could open it with his wrecking bar.

“So I’m really confused now about something, Mom.  After he left I would sometimes see you sad, and I didn’t know what in the world I could do about it.  I thought you were sad because it was an anniversary or a birthday or something.  What was that really all about?”

“You were actually right about those times.  They were anniversaries and so forth; days that were special to me.”

“But, with all of that history, why did they make you sad?”

Elaine turned and looked directly at Charlie and said “On those days I remembered the dreams that I had when Chet and I first met and married.  I remembered how a girl from a poor family of Okies who fled the dust bowl and came to California met her Prince Charming.  He would come into a restaurant where I was working my first and only job on his lunch break.  I remembered moving into my first home of my own, my first dance, my first sex.  Oh, yes.  Don’t look so scandalized.  How do you think you got here?

I thought that I had moved into my best daydream, but it was not long after you were born that I learned that I’d moved into my worst nightmare.  I remembered the day we met, our first date, when he proposed to me and when we married.  His birthday, your birthday, and Clark’s and Emily’s.  Each one of those days had once been a blessing to my heart, and later became a bitter epitaph to my dead dreams of how it was supposed to be.”

Charlie was stunned and sat in silence as he tried to process all that he had just heard.  He had believed that his father had been a non-factor in his life and now had learned that he had been a terror to him.  He had believed too that his mother was abandoned and lonely.  Instead, she was the victorious survivor who cherished her freedom from the oppressive hand of this faceless father of his.

“So Mom, I’ve been feeling guilty lately because I never could help you when I saw you were down.  I’m thinking now that you were down, but in a lot different way than I thought you were.  I don’t know now if there was any way that I could have helped.  Was there any way?”

“I probably was in a different state than you could have imagined, and I suppose that I could have used a hug back then, but I didn’t know how to ask for one.  I had pretty much given up on sentimental stuff by then and felt like I had nothing to offer to anyone.

Fact of the matter, I’ve felt bad myself for a good many years because I was never able to be there for you.  You would get hurt, by your own doing or at your father’s hand, or get picked on by that damned Bobby Crowe, and I could clean you up and put a band aid on the worst of it, but I could never give you a hug, or even think of a word to say to you that would help.

I was so bound up in my own troubles that I couldn’t find a soft shoulder for you, and as time passed, my anger and bitterness about how life had turned out for me seemed to grow instead of wane.  By the time you met Maureen I felt like I was your nanny more than I was you mother, and that by my own choice.  Clark and Emily had grown up and moved out as quickly as they could by then and there was only us, and when you met her, she and her family took that responsibility off of my shoulders it seemed.

And I was glad to give it up.  I loved you and Clark and Emily.  I celebrated your victories and suffered for you all when you stumbled, but I didn’t know how on earth to connect with you on any more than the most superficial level.  I have friends, true enough, but it’s still like that.  We give each other enough support to keep a friendship alive but not much more than that.

That is not the girl that I used to be.  What I became was the result of being pressed and squeezed and deformed by my fifteen years with Chet.  I could protect you from him, but I couldn’t give you much more than that, and for that I am truly sorry.”

Elaine sat back in her rocking chair but did not allow herself to relax.  The jaw was still set, the spine rigid and straight, her chest rising and falling with short, shallow breaths, as if trying to vent off the anger that her story had dredged up from a vault of painful memories.

Charlie sat equally still, trying to begin to sort this new information that was exploding into his brain.  He didn’t need D’Andra to realize that his inability to extend comfort to other hurting people did not arise from his father.  It was his mother, who was a victim herself, and who’s wounds had locked her heart in an iron cage for which no key could be found, that had modeled this aloofness.

Now, as she approached her eighth decade of life, she had opened up to Charlie and allowed some of that hurt to ooze out onto the old, familiar living room floor; a floor that Charlie once played on, and where he had stretched out on a rug watching the television with Maureen, whispering things in her ear that would make her giggle and punch him lightly on the shoulder.  He thought of LuAnn, who had just lost her husband and was pouring out her grief to God and to family and friends, and who opened her heart to receive comfort in return and regain her balance.

Elaine Hamer never had those blessings; didn’t know how it all worked.  Charlie hadn’t either, until recently at any rate.  But as he looked at his mother he felt the beginnings of a caring response such as he had never experience towards her in his life.  He thought of Rachael and her damaged eye, Jason and Billy struggling to live and move on with the trauma of what they had experienced in war, and LuAnn, and it was as if a tide of human caring had at last ceased its ebb and slowly began to flow in his life.

He had no idea how it would be accepted, but he decided that he would not try to staunch that flow.  This was not a time to think of Civil War battles or problems in matching drywall to plaster.  Charlie looked at his mother, sitting proud yet wounded in her chair, lonely and still a victim of the disappointment that she had experienced in her life.

“Mom, would you let me hold you now?” he asked.

She stared at Charlie as if she didn’t understand his words.

“I know.  We don’t do this sort of thing; either of us.  It’s weird for me too.  But if it’s OK, I would like to hug you.  I’ll keep it short, if your like, but I wish you would let me.”

Charlie could see emotions playing behind the eyes of his mother, and he could only guess at what they could be.  He rose up from his place on the sofa and walked half-way to the chair where his mother was sitting and stood there.

She looked at him and said “We’ve hugged before.  We did on the porch, just today.”

“Yes, I know,” he said.  “That was ‘hello.’  This one would be ‘I know that you’re hurting.  This one would be ‘I want to help you carry the load.’  This one would be ‘I love you, regardless of our history.’”

Elaine sat for a minute longer and then, slowly and almost mechanically, she rose up and walked the few feet to where her son stood.  He wrapped his arms around his mother and pulled her gently against his chest.

And then, little by little, he felt the beginning of a melting, like springtime on a snowfield.  The spine softened and the head lowered onto Charlie’s shoulder.  No words were said; not a muscle moved, but two souls shifted with a power that could shake mountains.

After a long embrace Elaine let go and returned to her chair.  Charlie stood still for a moment longer, and then returned to his place on the sofa.  Elaine was rocking her chair again but the motion was more fluid and easy, a rocking of the cradle as opposed to a burning of nervous energy.  Charlie could see the change and wondered if a change could also be seen in him as well.  At last Elaine spoke to her son.

“Charlie, I know that you were going to wait until tomorrow to start looking for Maureen and Jack, but I suggest that you start right away.  I’ve been wound up tight as a drum for most of my life and it looks like I’ve shared that curse with you.  You’ve come here with a good mission in mind.  An important mission.  I suggest that you get busy with it now.”

The Garden, Chapter XIII

Two weeks after moving in with Billy, Charlie was beginning to feel like he had the beginnings of a handle on life.  The dismal apartment where for two years he had existed but not lived was now a memory.  The kitchen  remodel job at Carolyn’s house was progressing ahead of schedule, even though she had been far too busy of late to help him very much.  Instead, her nephew Luke had shown an interest in the construction arts and pitched in whenever he could.  Even though Luke knew nothing about Charlie’s craft, he was a smart and observant kid who could take instruction and turn it quickly into performance.

Charlie liked the young man and genuinely enjoyed sharing the work with him,  and he began to imagine what it would be like if it was Jack instead of Luke that he was working with.  Of course, Jack didn’t have the natural talent or interest that Luke seemed to possess, but then Charlie had never lavished the patient attention on Jack that he was currently bestowing on Luke.  Over the course of the past two weeks Charlie had become convinced that he should pay Luke something for his labor, and also that he must reach out to his own son and try to rebuild a relationship with him.

Carolyn would inspect Charlie’s work every chance that she could, and she learned from him in much the same manner as Luke did.  The design flaws in her bathroom which she nearly allowed when Charlie first began to work for her would never happen to her now, as she began to learn to look two and even three steps ahead.

“I’m sorry that I can’t spend more time here on the job with you,” she had once told him.  “I’m convinced that your end of this deal is where all of the fun is.”

When she said that Charlie looked down at the black thumbnail that was the result of an errant stroke of his framing axe. He also felt the ache in the bottom of his foot where he had stepped on an old ring-shanked drywall nail, and the throb in his shoulder where he had received his tetanus shot as a result of that nail.  “Yeah,” he replied as he inspected the blackened thumbnail.  “With a few obvious exceptions, this really is where the fun is.”

The outside wall of Carolyn’s house was now pushed four feet out and sealed on the outside.  This resulted in the house once again being secured from the outside world, and Charlie felt like at last he could breathe easier.  He had hated the thought of there being only one layer of polyvinyl sheeting between Carolyn and the world that he had come to know so well at the apartments.

Even though Luke was staying with her during this period, he was, after all, just a kid.  A big kid, yes, and a strong one, but just a kid all the same.  The determined evil that prowled through the darkened streets of Vancouver, even the streets far from the downtown apartment that he had so recently inhabited, was truly a match and even more than a match for one good-hearted teenage boy.  Charlie tried hard to make sure that Carolyn didn’t know about the nights when he had slept in the cab of his truck a few houses up the street from hers.

Today he was going to meet with D’Andra, and intended to share with her his plan to make an attempt to connect with Maureen.  He had given the idea a great deal of thought and had shared it with the guys at the Key and Lock.  Even Walt, who continued to hold to the opinion that this was a fool’s errand, agreed that with the help of a small miracle – “not that I believe in that crap,” he had added – there was a possibility that it might work.

But first he was going to have a good breakfast.  Billy liked to cook, and Charlie was beginning to put on a few pounds.  Today, however, he wanted to have his morning meal at Leroy’s, mostly in order to see how LuAnn was doing.  As he pulled up to a stop in a parking space near the restaurant, he noticed that he now felt like a visitor to the Vancouver downtown rather than a denizen of its streets.  He liked the change.

The place was busy when he entered and once again he saw Jason seated at his usual table by the kitchen door.  There were open stools at the counter, but Charlie went to see if he could share a table with the young man.

“Got room for another stray dog?” he asked.  Jason smiled and waved a hand at the chair opposite his own.  Charlie sat down, picked up a menu and asked “What’s good today?”

“Pretty much same old same old.” Jason replied.  “They don’t change the menu much around here, and if Tank’s cookin’, well, it’s Tank’s cookin’.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Charlie said.  At that moment Peggy burst through the door pushing an old aluminum cart loaded with condiments.  She looked harried, but came dutifully over to the table when she saw Charlie seated there.  She asked if he’d had time to look at the menu.

“I have,” Charlie replied.  “I’ll take the hamburger steak with hash browns and gravy.  Oh, and I am paying for my meal today.”

Charlie expected to get a rise out of Peggy with his snide comment, but he was disappointed.  Peggy gave a weak smile and went to stick his order onto the wheel in the kitchen window.

“Huh,” Charlie said to Jason.  “I thought that I’d get a little bit of a push-back from her with that one.  Do I look like I have money or something?”

“She’s probably still getting over the fact that I have money,” Jason replied.

Charlie looked at Jason with surprise and said “You do?”

“Yeah,” Jason laughed.  “I got a part-time job in housekeeping at Clark General Hospital,  It’s a float position with no benefits and no guaranteed hours, but somebody’s always sick or wants a day off, so I’m working about twenty five or thirty hours per week so far.”

“Wow, that’s great news,” Charlie said.  “How do you feel, being in the loop like that?”

“You mean, can I hack it?  Will the loser finally get it together?”

Charlie regretted his question instantly.  “No, I don’t mean that at all.  I’m just getting my own act back together, and I live with a guy who’s taking his own first steps too.  I just wondered how it’s working for you.  I didn’t mean any insult.”

“That’s OK, man.  It’s cool.  I was must monkeying with your head.  No offense taken.  And the answer is that it feels good.  I have to keep my mind focused on doing the job, and not getting sucked into all of the silly bullshit that people who’ve never really had it rough like to wallow in, but it’s worth it.  Peggy brings me refills now that I can pay for them, so that makes it all worth it.”

Indeed, Peggy was at that moment bringing Charlie an empty mug and a pot full of coffee.  She placed the mug in front of him and filled it, then refilled Jason’s half-empty mug.  Charlie had to suppress a laugh as Peggy spoke with them like regular customers and Jason acted like he was a captain of industry.

They continued to chat about each other’s work situations and the quality of grease that tended to pool in their plates here at Leroy’s until Peggy brought Charlie his food.  For the next few minutes after that, silence reigned at the table.

At last Charlie scraped up the last bit of gravy with a crust of toast and pushed away the plate.  He drained his coffee and barely suppressed a low belch.  Jason was sipping his coffee and resting in his chair, letting his meal begin to digest.  He looked completely at ease with the world, and that is how Charlie felt too.  At length Charlie began the conversation again.

“So, where is LuAnn?  Is she out today taking care of Duane?  He’s had his operation, hasn’t he?”

Jason’s face clouded over and he sat a little straighter in his chair.  “Haven’t you heard, man?”

“Heard what?” Charlie asked.  “Did she retire or something?”

“No, man.  Duane died.  He died on the operating table.”

Charlie sat speechless in his chair.  His mind quickly drew up images of a worried LuAnn, telling him about her fears but certain that things would be all right.

 

“Shit, man,” he said.  “That’s awful!  What happened?  LuAnn thought they would be OK.”

“Yeah, she did” Jason replied.  “That’s usually when life rears up and bites you in the ass, isn’t it?  The surgery went fine, as far as anyone knows, but an artery or something just blew up in his brain.  BAM!  Alive to room temperature in sixty seconds.  She’s a good egg, too.  This really sucks.”

Charlie was speechless for a minute, and then asked “Well, how is she doing?  Does anybody know?”  He tried to get his mind to grapple with the bad news.  When Stevie had died, he remembered, friends and business acquaintances had brought over meals and done chores and errands for them.  That was the only healthy response that Charlie could now think of offering, not that his cooking would be a good thing for anybody.  Finally he asked “Is anybody doing anything to help her?”

“I don’t really know,” Jason replied.  “There’s a tip jar by the door, and regular customers are putting money into it to help her out.  You could ask Peggy though.  she was closer to LuAnn that I ever was.”

Charlie sat silently in his chair, thinking about LuAnn’s good-natured attitude and the warmth that she had extended to him when he began to visit many weeks before.  She always had a quick laugh and a wise opinion whenever he would talk to her about his troubles.  Now it was her turn to be in the fire.  What could he do or say to her?  He couldn’t even comfort his own wife, so what could he say to this casual friend?   Charlie was wrestling with these thoughts when Peggy came to refill his cup.

“Peggy,” he said.  “I just heard about LuAnn’s husband.  Can you tell me how she’s doing, or if she needs anything?”

Peggy seemed to be surprised at Charlie speaking to her in such a familiar and ernest fashion.  Her look of surprise quickly faded though and she responded to his question with what looked to Charlie like genuine compassion.

“LuAnn’s a strong woman.  She’s doing fine; or at least as fine as you could expect.  She and Duane have family, and they are helping a lot.”

“I would like to help if there’s any way that I can,” Charlie said, while wondering what on earth he could possibly do.

“Well,” Peggy began.  “She and Duane went to the Peter and Paul Luthern Church.  You know, the one about two blocks on the other side of the courthouse from here.”

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

“They’re holding a memorial service there this Saturday.  Duane was a deacon or an elder or whatever they call it there, and so they would probably be able to tell you if they need anything.  Or you could just go to the service.  I think LuAnn would like to see you there.  She was pretty fond of you,”  Peggy then turned her eyes towards Jason and added “and you too.”

She then turned away to resume her service to the hungry patrons of Leroy’s, and left Charlie staring mutely at Jason.  At length, Jason broke the silence.

“I was going to go to the service already.  Tank told me about it yesterday.  I don’t spend much time in churches.  Like, never.  LuAnn is real, though.  You know, she’s never looked at me like I was a worm, or had some damned disease.  I think of her like she’s family or something.”

Charlie knew that he had to leave soon in order to be on time for his appointment with D’Andra.  He suddenly wanted to know more about Jason; what he knew about LuAnn, what he had going on in his life.  At last Charlie shared a completely random thought that had only that moment entered into his head.

“You ever do any construction?”  It only took Jason a moment to reply.

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

“Good,” Charlie replied.  “That means you don’t have any bad habits to unlearn.  Would you have any interest in trying out the construction trade?”

“Shit, I don’t know.  Is it anything like work?”

“Hell yes it’s work.”  Charlie then showed Jason his damaged thumb.  “Construction will treat you bad sometimes, but it’ll love you if you love it.”

Jason was not sure how to respond to that.  “So, what?  Are you offering me a job?”

“Well, no.  Not exactly,” Charlie replied.  “I just want to know if you would be interested if I did.  The person I’m working for now is already taking a chance on damaged goods by using me, and I wouldn’t expect her to take another.  I’ll be done with the project that I’m on in a few weeks though, and I could use an extra hand going forward.  Nobody else out there is as good as I am though, so training a new helper from scratch makes all of the sense in the world to me.  What do you think?”

Jason mulled that thought for a few moments and then asked “Are you going to bust my balls if I go for this?”

“You bet your ass,” Charlie replied.  “I can’t have some cull dogging it and trashing my work.  But I understand that you don’t have any experience at this kind of work and I’m OK with that.  I’ll demand that you do things right, but I’ll show you how to do those things, and for the most part I’ll consider it my own failure if you don’t get it right the first time.  Or the second time too, for that matter.  This stuff doesn’t just come to you by magic.  I guess I’m saying; or really I’m asking, would you like to give construction a shot under another guy who’s had the shit kicked out of him by life and knows how that can feel?”

It didn’t take Jason more than a minute to consider Charlie’s proposal, and he said “Your offer is intriguing.  Let me make a counter offer.  I’ll keep my job at the hospital, but I’ll mostly take the off-hour shifts.  You know, the night shift and weekends and so forth.  If I find that construction suits me, I’ll back away from the hospital, but if construction isn’t my cup of tea I’ll still have my hospital gig.”

“That makes sense to me,” Charlie replied.  “Do you have a phone, or some way that we can stay in touch?”

Jason answered in the affirmative and they exchanged phone numbers.  Peggy quickly noticed that the wo men were ready to leave and brought the checks to their table.

“There’s no way that you’re going to let me pay for this, is there?” Charlie asked.

“Not on your life,” Jason answered.  “But I wish that you would let me pay for yours.”

Charlie thought about Jason’s offer, and then about all of the time that he had recently spent disconnected from the world, just as Jason had been.  He had descended into a dark pit where he would not allow anyone to intrude, nor from which he would make any effort to escape.  He looked at Jason and saw a dim shadow of himself.

Charlie liked this young man who, like himself, was only beginning to rebuild a life.  He had hated himself for two years, and was disgusted with his failure to attend to the things that really mattered.  But this young man; this dim shadow, this metaphor for himself, was also emerging from his own dark place and was a very likable person.  He was worth taking a chance on.  he had something to offer to the world that the world would be the loser to ignore.  Could it be that this description fit Charlie the same as it did Jason?

And now this wounded, broken fellow traveller had just asked if he could do Charlie a favor.  He had asked Charlie if he could “bless” him, to borrow LuAnn’s terminology.  In some dim, disorganized way, Charlie understood that something important was happening here.  The course of the rest of his life, and perhaps Jason’s too, could turn on the answer, and the answer was clear to him.

“Yeah.  Sure,” he replied. “There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but nobody’s said anything about there not being a free breakfast.  How ‘bout I cover the tip?”

The two men agreed to that arrangement and put their money on the table.  In keeping with his promise to LuAnn, Charlie left a generous tip for Peggy.  They got up from the table together and Charlie headed for the door while Jason walked into the kitchen.  “Probably still needs to work for a few meals” Charlie thought.  “That’s good.  Shows responsibility.  Yeah, I think Jason could work out.  If he wants to, that is.”

By now Charlie was coming very close to being late fort his appointment with D’Andra.  He climbed into his truck and made the short trip to her cottage in less than five minutes.  He parked the truck and picked up a sack of vegetables that he had picked from the garden.  “There’s no way that I can compete with what comes out of her oven,” Charlie thought, “but I can at least try.”

He knocked on the door and it was quickly opened by D’Andra.  “Hello, Charlie,” she said with her warm and pleasing smile.  “Please, come in.”

Charlie was prepared to hand D’Andra the bag of cucumbers and squash and green beans, with a couple of onions thrown in, and hoped that he would receive a little praise for his gardening expertise.  And indeed that did come.  Eventually.  But before he could hand over the sack his nose was assaulted, in the best sense of the word, by a smell that he remembered from his childhood.

“Oh. My. Goodness!” he said.  “You’ve been baking bread!”

“I certainly have,” she replied.  “It’s a family tradition to bake our own bread and it’s our family recipe.  I’d tell you what’s in it – – -.”  D’andre paused at that point, and Charlie picked up the thread seamlessly.

“But you’d have to kill me?”

“Something like that,” she said, the smile not changing really, but somehow seeming even warmer than before.  At last her eyes fell on the sack that Charlie cradled in his arms.  “What have you got there?” she asked.

Charlie remembered his gift and extended the sack to D’Andra.  “Here.  This is for you.  I grew this in the garden that I’ve been telling you about.”

As she looked into the sack her eyes lit up and her smile erupted even larger than it already was.  “Oh, Charlie.  That is the nicest gift that I could ever imagine.  We had a truck patch behind our house when I was growing up and I loved the foods that my mother and older sister, and sometimes my aunt Clarissa would make out of what we would grow.  Believe me, Charlie.  I will enjoy this produce every bit as much as I enjoy the things that come out of my oven.  And they’ll be better for me, too” she said with a laugh.  “Now come on in and sit down.  We’re having home baked white bread, toasted or not as you prefer, with jam and butter and coffee.  Does that sound OK?”

“That sounds like heaven,” Charlie replied as D’Andra carried the sackful of produce into the kitchen.  Instead of sitting down, Charlie followed D’Andra.

“When I was a boy, we used to go up to College Avenue, to a bakery that was about two blocks from our house.  Mr. and Mrs. Metzler owned that bakery, and they lived in a house on the opposite side of the alley, behind our place.  The Metzlers were Seventh Day Adventist, I think, because the bakery was closed on Saturdays but open for business on Sunday.

At 10:00 in the morning they would bring the day’s bread out of the ovens and place it on the racks to cool.  My brother and sometimes the other kids in the neighborhood and I would show up at 10:15 and buy loaves of it while they were still warm.  We sat down on the curb right outside of the bakery and pulled off handfuls of warm bread and washed it down with sodas.  Those are some of my best memories.”

“Well, I hope this bread gives you some warm memories too.  Here, put some butter and jam on this toast, and pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Charlie did as he was told and then sat down in his usual spot on the love seat.  Salome the cat was nowhere to be seen, so he placed his small plate with buttered and jammed toast on the table next to it and found a coaster for his coffee.  D’andra joined him shortly with two pieces of toast of her own, but hers was spread much more thinly than was Charlie’s.

“Oh,” he said.  “It looks like I made a pig of myself here.”

“No, it looks more like you made yourself at home, which is what I would like for you to do.”

“Well,” he responded.  “Then don’t be surprised if I make another trip to your kitchen.”

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

Charlie still had a stomach full of the best grease that Tank could cook, and knew that seconds on D’Andra’s bread was unlikely.  “There’s no harm in setting the stage, just in case” he told himself.  At length, D’Andra put her plate of toast on the table and sat back in her chair.

“Well, Charlie.  What are we going to talk about today?  Have you made a decision about trying to contact Maureen?”

“Yes, I actually have.  But there’s something new that I would like to discuss first.”

“You’re in charge,” she said.  “What is it?”

I got some pretty sad news today.  Pretty sad.  You know my friend LuAnn, whom I have spoken of?”  Charlie went on to explain the details of Duane’s death, as best he knew them.

“So, how did it make you feel when you heard about it?”

“You know, my first impulse was to eat my breakfast as quickly as I could and leave; just get away from that scene as fast as I could.”

“Sort of like when your mother would be depressed when you were a child?”

“Yeah, sorta like that.  I was really sad for LuAnn.  I remembered how fondly she spoke of him, and how she once told me “I don’t know what I would do if something ever happened to him,” or something like that.  I just knew the sadness that she was feeling, and I wanted to run from that sadness.  I didn’t know what to do with it.”

“And did you run?”

“No, I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  LuAnn was a friend and a kind voice when I was really at the bottom.  I can’t express how much her kindness meant to me; still does mean to me.  Well, I couldn’t just throw her under the bus.

Trouble is, I don’t know what to do.  How do I help her?  I think she’ll be OK financially, and she has family and friends, so what in the world could I ever do?”

D’Andra took a small bite from her toast and chewed it slowly, and then took a sip of coffee.  At last she said “Maybe she could tell you what you can do.”

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

“Maybe she could communicate to you, one way or another, how it is that you can help her.  Sometimes people want to talk about their loved one, and all you have to do is listen.  Other times people don’t want to talk at all, but they dread being alone.  In those cases just being a friend and sharing someone’s space with them is what they want.

Some people want a shoulder to cry on.  I know how uneasy that would make you, Charlie, but maybe that is what you would need to do to help your friend.  The problem is that you can’t know unless you make contact with her.  Is there any way that you can do that?”

“Yes, there is,” Charlie replied.  “There will be a memorial service this Saturday at a little church not too far from here.  Peter and Paul Lutheran, I think Peggy said.”

“Oh, yes.  I know where that is.  Corner of 13th and Knox.”

“Well, I’m thinking of going, but I don’t have a lot of experience at being in churches.  I’ve asked Rachael if I can go to hers sometime, but I haven’t really gotten around to it yet.  I just don’t know how I’m supposed to act in a church.”

“I think the key is to not act at all, Charlie.  Just bring who you are and don’t give two thoughts about any sort of show that you’re supposed to put on.  Your friend sounds like she will let you know if there’s anything that she needs.  Other than that, you just being there will probably be the best thing that you can do for her, right now at lease.  Besides, you’ll know her at least, so you won’t exactly be there alone in the church.”

“No, I wouldn’t be alone,” he agreed.  “Jason, a recently homeless guy who I’ve eaten with at Leroy’s said that he’ll be there.  And I’ll bet Tank, the cook, will be there too.  I don’t know him really, but I’d know his hash browns and gravy anywhere.”

“Good.  That settles it.  You know, Charlie, I believe that I can see something important here.  This feeling of wanting to be present for your friend, and actually stepping up to do it, is what you were not able to do for your wife and son.  And really, couldn’t do for your mother either.  How do you feel about that?  Does it feel like something’s changed, or maybe shifted there?”

Charlie thought about that for a while.  In his concern for LuAnn he had nearly forgotten about the trauma of his daughter’s death and the effect that it had on his family; the events that were the reason for his meeting with D’Andra in the first place.  Now he thought about Maureen and Jack, suffering in silence while he dealt with his own grief – or didn’t deal with it – in his own cocoon.  The same way that he had dealt with his own father’s desertion and his mother’s loneliness.

“You know, something has changed.  I can’t just turn my back and walk away.  ‘I don’t know what to say or do’ just isn’t a good enough answer, even if it’s the damned truth.  Uh, pardon my language.”

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

“So, this is where I got stuck with my family; I couldn’t help them because I couldn’t help myself.  Just like I couldn’t help my mother.  But, why couldn’t I help my mom?  It’s not like I really cared one way or the other if my father stayed or left.”

“Really, Charlie?  Is that true?  Can you remember your relationship with your father before he left?”

Charlie thought hard about that, and at length he answered “No, I can’t say that I do.  It’s like I said; he didn’t do much with me, so I didn’t have any real connection with him.”

“Well, I know that this will sound a little wierd, but try to go along with me.  Do you remember not-doing things with your father?  I mean, did you ask him to play catch with you, and he said “No”?  Or do you remember waiting for him to come home when you got A’s on your report card?  Or F’s?  Do you remember a birthday party where he didn’t show up?  Or when he did?  What, exactly, do you remember about your father?”

“Oh, I remember a lot,” Charlie began.  “I remember him being at the dinner table – – – .”  Charlie’s mind wandered at this point, as he tried to dredge up a memory of his dad.  After a few moments of silence D’Andra spoke again.

“Do you remember him being there on specific occasions, or do you remember that he was sort of generally there around that time?”

“Well, I remember—-. I remember the night that, – – -.  Uh, I remember spilling my milk once.  He grabbed me by the collar and made me go to my room.”

“That’s it?  You remember once that you spilled your milk at the table and your father got upset?”

Charlie thought hard about his relationship with his father, certain that a flood of specific memories would soon erupt out of his clogged brain, and that he would then share them with D’Andra, but the flood never came.  After a few minutes of this Charlie just looked a D’Andra with a puzzled expression on his face and finally said “You know what?  You’re right.  I don’t remember diddle about my dad.  I don’t even remember what he looked like.  I’ve always had an image of him in my mind, on the few occasions when I would think of him at all, but that could just as well have been a mannikin at the Sears store down at the mall.”

Charlie fell silent again, and D’Andra was silent too.  He picked up his piece of toast, which was quite cold by now, and munched on it absently as he let the idea sink in that he had no true picture of his father in his mind, and hadn’t had any such picture for a very long time.  D’andre was obviously giving him space to ponder this revelation, and Charlie was using this time to begin to try to sort things out.

It was at this moment that Salome decided to make her entrance.  She jumped towards the back of the love seat from behind and overshot the landing, which caused her to slide over the back and tumble, a ball of fur and claws, onto the cushion right next to Charlie.

“Ah!” Charlie cried, and jumped up out of the seat.  D’andre jumped as well when Charlie reacted to the unstable flying feline.  Salome, the center of the commotion, decided that two startled humans watching such an undignified performance was no place for a cat to loiter and took off running towards an open doorway into a back room.

Charlie looked down and saw that his half-eaten toast with butter and jam lay face down on the hardwood floor, right next to what he suspected was a very expensive area rug.

“Oh, good grief!  Excuse me!  Here, let me clean this up.”

As he reached down to pick up the toast D’Andra began to giggle, and soon it swelled into a belly laugh that was infectious.  Charlie soon was laughing too.  D’andre brought some paper towels and a squirt bottle out of the kitchen and quickly cleaned up the mess while both of them still laughed.

“I guess I should write a textbook and advise students to never let a cranky old cat without front claws have free rein in a house when you are in a session,” she told Charlie.

“On the other hand, I don’t know of anything that can loosen you up more quickly,” he replied.

At last they sat down and returned to business.  “I think this is important Charlie, but I want to move on now.  I would like for you to think about your father though.  Think of anything you can remember about him, and most of all think of anything you can remember about how you felt when he left.  Will you do that?”

“I’ll certainly give it my best shot,” Charlie said.

“Good.  Now, what about Maureen and Jack?”

Charlie shared with D’Andra the advice that he had received from Rachael and LuAnn and the guys at the Key and Lock, and especially from Billy.  “I was especially impressed with Billy’s thoughts,”  he said.  “I think it’s possible that there’s still a job that it’s my duty to perform.  No, not a job really.  More like, well, I don’t know.  Like a responsibility.  No, it’s not that either.”

Charlie told D’Andra about the fingers in the arteries, while she listened intently.  When he finished she softly said “Yes.  Exactly!  You tell that young man that I couldn’t say it any better than he did.  On second thought, I don’t even know if I could say it that good.  It’s neither a job nor a responsibility.  It’s more like a will to act on behalf of someone who is in some way a part of your soul.  A part of your soul that is incomplete; it’s wounded and bleeding, so to speak, and by acting to stop the bleeding from somebody else’s wound, somebody who you love, or even once loved, you are stopping the bleeding in your own wound”

D’Andra was beginning to get excited, or as close to excited as Charlie had ever seen her.  “And by addressing Maureen’s wound you help with your own healing, and in the process you offer Maureen the opportunity to help in her own healing by helping you.  Yes.  Excellent.  Charlie, I have worked very hard to learn ways to help people, but your Billy sounds like a natural.  So what do you intend to do?”

“I don’t exactly know,” Charlie replied.  “In less than two months billy will begin attending classes at the college.  I’m taking him hunting before that, and I’ll be on my job for another couple of weeks or so.  I think that between ending my job and taking Billy hunting I’ll have a couple of idle weeks.  Of course, I’ll have to be looking for work, but I think I’ll take a weekend, or maybe three or four days, and fly to San Diego.  I’ll visit my mother – I know that she isn’t expecting that – and I’ll call my former in-laws from her house.  I hope they will allow me to speak to them.  Maybe they will give a message to Maureen.”

“Mmmm.  That sounds like a workable plan” D’Andra said, and then sat silently.  After a moment or two she continued speaking.  “I think that is a very good plan, and I would say ‘get to it.’  I wish that I could call them for you and tell them how hard you are working at getting your experiences into a proper perspective and making things right, but I guess that would run counter to just about every accepted practice in my field.

Well, Charlie.  It looks like the time has flown past us again.  Just to recap though, I think your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and be with a hurting friend is wonderful.  This LuAnn must be a remarkable woman.  Certainly, she is a lucky one to enjoy your friendship.  Also, I would like for you to spend some time remembering all that you can about your father.  There are some locked doors there, I think, that would benefit from being opened to let a little air in.

Lastly, I’m already excited about your trip to San Diego.  Perhaps you can learn some things about your father from your mother, if she will talk about him.  But most important is the chance to complete some business with your wife and son.  Even if Maureen is not interested in your help or being in contact with you, you will be reaching out; doing your part.  I think that will be very important as you go forward.

Now, let me wrap up the bread.  No! Don’t even try to argue.  If you don’t want it, take it to that excellent young man that you’re living with.  No ten loaves of bread could make us even for those beautiful vegetables that you brought me.  Shelby loves them too, but he grew up in the city and doesn’t know the first thing about growing vegetables.  I hope that we can get around to putting in a garden some day.”

Charlie dutifully took his bread and bid D’Andra good bye.  As she closed the door behind him he walked in a haze to his truck.  The shock of hearing about Duane’s death was jarring enough by itself, but the possibility that his own father had more of an impact on his life, both by his presence and later by his absence, was a thought that truly shook his mind.

But he would have to think about that later.  Carolyn would be waiting for him to come as soon as possible to begin putting her new kitchen back together.  The external walls were once again secured, and although Luke was now free to return to his normal activities he chose to stay on and help every day that Charlie was working.  Charlie enjoyed the company of both Carolyn and Luke, and must now clear his mind of distractions so that he could devote all of his attention to his work and to these two new and unexpected friends.