The Garden, Chapter XXI

No dreams of Bertie haunted Charlie’s dreams that night, but echoes of the whiskey that he had consumed the evening before played the devil with his head the next morning.  He lay on the cot face-up, fully dressed still and with the blanket pulled up snugly around his neck.  The chill of the night air had not penetrated his covers enough to disturb his sleep but now, as he lay there waking up, he began to feel the cold.  His mouth felt like cotton balls.  “Must have been snoring and breathing through my mouth” he thought as he rolled onto his side and began to try to work up some saliva with his tongue.

He lay there a few more minutes until he realized that he would not be going back to sleep, and it would be a few more hours before it began to get warm again.  The sun had not yet appeared on the horizon but the light had advanced well past the faint glow of the first evidence of dawn.  “I’ll get a fire going and maybe get some coffee started” he thought, and pushed himself erect.

The fire took only a few minutes to get going and soon a boiling pan of water rested on the iron grate over the blaze.  Charlie had brought a jar of instant coffee which he intended to open momentarily.  Walt, however, emerged bleary eyed from the tent and quickly changed his plan.    “Damn” he said.  “I could hold my liquor a lot better when I was a lot younger.  My mouth’s dryer than a popcorn fart.  Ah, well done, Junior.  You got the water boiling, now Let Papa take over from here.”

Walt pulled a sack from the pantry which contained ground coffee.  He tilted the sack and began to empty some of the contents right into the boiling water.  “Hobo coffee” he explained.  “This is how my Grandpa used to make this stuff.  He lived on a farm a county or two away from Pierre, South Dakota.  Gramps didn’t cotton to change much.  “Worked fine for me when Teddy Roosevelt was president, so I guess it’ll work for me now that that bastard Johnson’s running the circus” I remember him saying.”

Billy emerged from the tent at this time, moving stiffly toward the fire.  It was obvious that the exertions he had made the day before had caused his damaged leg to tighten up.  Sleeping in a bag on a thin foam mat that had been rolled out onto the handpicked campground floor hadn’t helped it any either.  Walt asked Charlie for the bottle containing the last of the whiskey.  “Sorry Walt” Charlie told him.  “That old soldier has passed away.”  He walked to his pack and pulled out a fresh half pint of the same stock.  “We’ll have to open up his little brother.”

“You’re a gentleman and a scholar” Walt told him.   He opened the bottle and said “Hair of the dog” as he took a nip and then thrust the bottle towards Billy.  The young man accepted the bottle and took a nip of his own and then passed it to Charlie.  He accepted the bottle but declined to swallow any.

“It’ll take the edge off” Walt said.

“Naw, I’ll pass for now” Charlie replied.  “Probably put a drop into my coffee.”

In short order the coffee was boiling and Walt removed the pan from the stove.  “It’ll cool in a minute and the grounds will settle.  Most of them anyway.  You boys help yourselves.  I’ve gotta take a dump.  Leave me a little of the coffee, and you can leave me another swallow of that hooch, too.”

Walt walked away toward the bathroom and shower facilities on the far side of the campground.  Charlie waited only a minute or two before he carefully poured a tin cup full of coffee.  Billy extended a stained old mug toward him and Charlie filled that too.

“We’ll leave the dregs for Walt” Billy said.

“He’ll love that” Charlie replied.

“Oh, he won’t mind” Billy said wit a grin.  “You just save him a swallow of that fine, gentleman’s whiskey and all’ll be forgiven.  Say, we could get some breakfast going too.  You up for pulling a little K.P.?”

Charlie took a sip of the coffee, which turned out to be no worse than he got at Leroy’s, and considerably better than he had made for himself at the apartment.  “Dang, this is not bad!  How does he know all of that stuff?  Yeah, let’s cook some grits.”

With Billy taking lead, there was bacon and potatoes frying in two last iron skillets when Walt returned, looking a little better than he had when he left.  Walt eyed the dregs in the coffee pan and said “Thanks a pant load, guys.”

“It’s good for you.  It’s good training” Billy said.

“I should train my boot up your ass” Walt grumped.

Charlie handed the bottle Walt and said “Here.  Train some of this into your cup.”

“At least there’s one shitbird in this outfit that respects his elders” Walt said as he accepted the bottle.  “So what’s on the menu for breakfast?”

The men finally sat down at the thick wood and stone camp table and ate a breakfast that surpassed their previous one in Walla Walla, in quality if not quantity.  Billy put a kettle of water over the fire after Walt made another pan of coffee, and the water heated while they ate.  After finishing their meal and washing up with the hot water they stowed their supplies and began to make a plan.

“How’s the leg holding up?” Charlie asked Billy.

“It’s loosening up OK” Billy replied.  “Felt like I’d trashed it all over again first thing this morning, but it’s feeling pretty good now.”

“You think you can go as far as you did yesterday?”

“Yeah, no sweat.  Farther probably, if you bring that sweet chair.  I was thinking it would be nice to get up on a ridge if we can, where we can get a look at more territory.  Then we can use these.”  Billy reached into his pack and pulled out a set of binoculars.

“Zeiss!  Jeez, Billy.  You steal those from the Army?  I know you didn’t get them on what Uncle Sam was paying you!” Walt declared.

“No, I didn’t steal nothing” Billy protested.  “I prefer to call it ‘midnight requisition.’  Bedsides, they were just laying around, so I decided that the Army didn’t want them anymore.  Man, I thought that I would never get a chance to use these!”

“Well, all right.”  Walt exclaimed.  “Let’s saddle up and get this row on the shoad.”

They separated to get their packs in order.  Charlie took water, high energy snacks and assorted other possible trail necessities.  Walt and Billy did similarly, only they also slipped handguns into holsters that were hidden by their long camouflage shirts.

“What are you guys carrying?” Charlie asked.  “We’re not going out there to shoot anything, you know.”

“I’ve got a .44 Mag.  The most powerful handgun made” Walt said in a gravelly voice, imitating Clint Eastwood in the movie Dirty Harry.  “No, I don’t expect to shoot anything, but you never know when you might surprise a momma bear and her cubs, or a full-grown bear that thinks you look good for dinner.  This cannon might not stop a big one, but it’ll damn sure make him pay for his dinner.”

“I feel like a runt with only this .357 Mag”  Billy added.  “But it’ll give Yogi Bear even more to think about.  Although I think that he’d choke on your unsavory ass.”  He chucked a pine cone at Walt, who batted it out of the air with the back of his hand and reached, as if going for his sidearm.  Billy did likewise and Charlie said “Oh, shit.  I’m in the woods with John Wayne and Marshall Dillon.  God help me!”

“Give your soul to god” Walt said.  “‘Cause your ass belongs to me” and he squared off as if preparing for a duel.

“OK” Charlie said.  “You two are scaring me now.  Let’s get moving; I’ll feel safer out there with the bears.”

All three laughed and began to hike down the same road that they had travelled on the day before.  The sun soon began to rise in the sky, warming the air and beating down on their heads.  The hangover that Charlie thought he might have dodged began to rise with the heat and exertion, and soon he was wishing that he had some aspirin, another swallow of the whiskey, or a head transplant.  “It’ll pass” he muttered to himself more loudly than he thought he had.

“What’s that?” Walt asked.

“Ah, just mu head.  It feels like I’ve got Mel Gibson running away from Tina Turner in it.”

“You’re a wuss” Walt laughed.

“So you’re doing just fine I suppose?” Charlie asked.

“Don’t listen to him” Billy interjected.  “I heard him praying to the porcelain god last night.  He just blew all of his liquor out.  Old Vietnam dudes never could hold their sauce, especially the 173rd.”

“Oh, look who’s talking.  They sent you 25th Div pansies to a country where there ain’t no alcohol ‘cause they knew you couldn’t handle it and fight a real man’s war.”

“Real man’s war, shit!” Billy laughed.  “Half of the people in Vietnam liked you guys.  All of those fuckers in Iraq hated us.  Besides, I got your ‘real man’s war’ hangin’.  You want him, you just come a-sangin’.”

“Holy shit, shut up you two.  Your heads may not feel like they’re about to explode, but mine does.”

“Oh, make no mistake about it” Billy said, and then the two veterans pointed at each other and said in unison “His does too.”

They spoke a little less after that and continued to walk down the road.  Billy rested from time to time, but surprisingly he seemed to be less affected by the exertions today than he had been the day before.  “It’s the trail candy” he explained, showing them a bottle of Tylenol that he had in his pocket.

“Hey, don’t bogart that shit!” Walt said.  “Pass a little of it over to me.”

“I thought your head didn’t hurt” Billy said.

“Fuck that.  I’m sixty nine years old and tromping around in the woods.  My head’s fine, but my body’s hurting.  You need to learn a little respect.”

“You earn it and I’ll give it” Billy said with a smirk as he handed over the pain killer.

“Are you ladies ever going to shut up?” Charlie asked.  “Give me some of those.”  After taking a couple of the tablets and washing them down with some water he pointed to the place about  fifty yards up the road from where they stood.  “You want to go back to the same spot we were at yesterday?”

“No” Billy replied.  I was thinking about trying for that ridge up there.”

He pointed to a low, forested ridge that ran parallel to higher hills on the other side of the valley where they had looked for wildlife the day before.

“That looks like two, maybe three hundred feet” Walt said.  Maybe one and half klicks away.  Are you sure, young man?”

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good today.”  He then looked at Charlie and finally admitted “Except for the zombie apocalypse that’s going on between my ears.  I’ll let you know when I feel like I’m approaching my limits.”

“Why Walt!  I do believe that you actually care about Billy, or are my ears deceiving me?” Charlie exclaimed.

“Fuck your ears” Walt shot back.  “I just don’t want to have to carry his heavy ass back.”

“Don’t try to shit a shitter, man” Billy said.  “You’d just leave me out here and you know it.”

“Arggghh!” Charlie groaned.  “Let’s get going!  Only walking seems to shut you two up.”

Walt and Billy both threw pebbles at Charlie and as they prepared to begin talking again they heard a shot in the distance.  “Huh!  Some bastard’s getting an early start” Walt opined.

“Or maybe sighting his piece” Billy offered.

They began walking and in a few minutes heard another shot.  “I just hope they stay wherever they are” Charlie said.  “This camo may not have been the best thing to wear.”

“Shit” Billy replied.  “You could be wearing an orange construction barrel and those crazy bastards would shoot at you anyway.  ‘Bout all we can do is keep our eyes and ears open and our fingers crossed.”

They became more silent as they stepped off of the road and onto the valley floor.  There was no path here and the ground, which looked flat from a distance, was in fact made irregular by clumps of grass, prairie dog holes and occasional rocks that were nearly buried in the valley floor.  The change in terrain offered little challenge to Walt and Charlie, but Billy had to walk carefully,and this slowed them down.  Neither Walt nor Charlie commented on this.  Billy was determined to wring the most out of their experience that he could.  Charlie respected this, and he thought it looked like Walt did too.

After a slow transit of the valley they reached the base of the rise which led to the ridge from which they hoped to get a look at some wildlife.  With Billy’s binoculars they knew that they would see it if it was there.

“I have to take five” Billy said, and Charlie broke out the chair.  He and Walt sat on a fallen tree while billy gave his leg a rest.  They chattered softly while they waited for Billy to recover sufficiently to make the next climb towards the top.

“I can make it up to that ridge” he said.  “The fallen timber will be a problem though.  I don’t step over stuff as good as I used to.  I’ll have to go around things instead of over them.  You guys can go ahead, if you get tired of waiting for me.  Just drop some bread crumbs.”

“Aw, shut up, gimp” Walt said.  “I ain’t leaving nobody behind.  Never did, never will.”

Charlie sat silently and thought about his two companions.  Walt was more than thirty years older than Billy and unrelated, but the two interacted as if they were brothers.  They bickered and insulted each other in ways that would make anybody who didn’t know them worry that a fist fight was imminent.  But the connection between these two men, forged in the fires of hellish combat and tempered by their common struggle to come to grips with a world that couldn’t begin to understand what they had experienced or how hard they must work in order to be able to fit back into that world, was a bond that was stronger than the metal that had ripped through both of their bodies.

Walt had returned to a society where many had spat at him and wished that he would have died in the jungles of Vietnam.  Billy had returned to a new society that politely said “Thank you for your service,” and then quickly forgot that he existed, hurt and struggling to regain his balance.  It’s possible that the second was worse than the first.

Charlie thought of his own struggle; how he had looked upon the battered and lifeless body of his beloved daughter, lost everything that he had, including his will to live, and only stayed alive by the – what, providential? – intervention of a cranky borderline sociopath veteran, a Jewish Christian young woman, an overworked waitress in a downtown greasy spoon restaurant, and a soft-spoken counselor with great kitchen skills and laser beam insights into the heart of the matter.  Charlie felt like he owed these people more than they could ever know.

“All right” Walt finally said as he stood up.  “Let’s get – – – Shit!”

Standing ten feet to the side of Walt was a man in the green and khaki uniform of a game warden, who had moved up on them without making the slightest sound or giving away his presence in any manner.  Walt’s hand instinctively moved towards the weapon that he had concealed under his camo shirt.

“Please don’t do that, sir” the warden said, placing his hand on the butt of his own sidearm.

“What the fuck do you mean, sneaking up on people?” Walt growled at the agent.  The agent replied by simply repeating his request.

“Sir, please move your hand away from your side.”

Billy rose up out of his chair to take a stand beside his friend.  The warden clearly did not like this development and said “I’m going to need for both of you to keep your hands where I can see them, and I’m going to need for you all to sit down on that log.”

“And I’m going to need for you to kiss my ass and telll the world that you like it” replied a thoroughly incensed Walt.  Billy then began to edge off to his right, increasing the distance between him and Walt and making it harder for the warden to cover  both men.

Charlie knew that this was getting way out of control and would, in all likelihood, end badly.  “Walt! Billy!  This guy’s a game warden” he said.  “He’s out here doing his job.”

“I don’t know who the fuck he is and I don’t care who the fuck he is” Walt replied.  “He just sneaks up on us with his hand on his gun.  he can just fuck himself and go wherever the hell he came from, as far as I’m concerned.”

The warden’s face, which already looked hard as flint, seemed to ratchet a notch even tighter.  “What the hell should I do” Charlie asked himself, and then a thought squeezed into his nearly paralyzed mind.

“Wait, everybody.  Just wait one minute, OK?”  He looked at the warden and asked “This is about the shots that we heard, what” – he turned and asked Walt and Billy – “about an hour ago?”

The warden never moved his eyes off Billy and Walt, nor shifted his hand away from the butt of his gun.  He answered, saying “Yes, there were shots reported.  They were reported to be heard somewhere around here.  You are somewhere around here.  That makes me wonder about you.  Makes me want to see your hands clear of your body, too.”

“Walt,” Charlie implored.  “Billy.  You guys have heard a shot or two before.  Where do you think those came from?  For Christ’s sake, you talk military all the time, so military this.  What can you tell the warden about those shots?”

“The two veterans’ attention on the warden seemed to waver just a bit.  Billy looked at Walt and slightly shrugged his shoulders.  “There weren’t this many trees in the whole damned country of Iraq” he said.  “My guess is that way” and he nodded his head toward the left, up an extension of the valley that they had just crossed.

“Plenty of trees in Vietnam” Walt said, keeping his eyes on the warden.  “But you’re right.  To the southwest.  Can’t tell the distance or direction of fire.  Too many echoes in the valley.”

“What type of weapon, Walt?” Charlie asked.  “Could you tell what kind of weapon was being used?”

“Billy answered before Walt could.  “Small caliber, probably a long gun.  That was the first one, anyway.  Couldn’t tell about the second; muffled by something.

The warden saw Charlie’s attempt to engage his friends in something other than a wild west shoot out, and saw his two potential adversaries responding to Charlie’s intervention.  He decided to follow up with his own questions.

“You men military?” he asked.  Walt and Billy nodded in the affirmative.

“Then you know that a warden approaching a party of men who are probably armed in an area where poaching is almost certainly going on will be quiet and cannot afford to be careless, right?”

“Of course that’s right!” Charlie exclaimed.  “The second shot.  That was a hand gun, if I was to make a guess.  A small caliber rifle that will make less noise was used to injury the prey and the coup de grace was administered with a large caliber hand gun.  The sound of that will carry even less distance than the rifle.  That’s how it works, isn’t it warden?”

“That’s about the way of it” said the warden.

“And we’re here with a couple of handguns” Charlie continued.  Guys, it  makes sense.  This man’s only doing his job and trying to not get himself killed in the process.  Don’t you think we should help him do this?  I can’t stand a damned poacher anyway.”

Walt and Billy looked at each other for a moment.  It was Billy who finally said “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  He looked back at the warden and asked “How do you want to do this?”

The warden did not look like he had relaxed very much.  He began to give instructions to Billy.  “You will carefully lift your shirt.  I will remove your weapon and examine it to see if it has been recently fired.  If that is not the case then I have no further need to impose upon your time and we can all go on about our business.

Billy nodded his assent and reached slowly for the edge of his camp shirt.

“One at a time” instructed the warden.

Charlie could see a ‘fuck you’ formed on Walt’s lips, but to his relief the phrase was not expressed.  Billy slowly raised his shirt and the warden walked carefully over to him and extracted the gun.  He opened the cylinder and saw that it contained a full load of live rounds.  He smelled the weapon and looked for new powder residue.  Billy kept a clean weapon, and it was quickly obvious to the expert eyes of the warden that this weapon had not been recently fired.

“Now you, sir” the warden said to Walt.

“Come on, Walt” Billy said.  “We got this thing all wrong.  Let’s everybody go home happy today, OK?”

Walt relaxed slightly but visibly.  He moved to raise his shirt, a little too quick for the warden’s comfort, and exposed the .44.  The warden repeated the process and determined that this weapon had not been fired either.

“Thank you for your cooperation, gentlemen” he said at last.  “That’s a magnificent weapon you have there, sir” he said to Walt.  “So you say that you heard those shots to the southwest?”

“That’s right” Billy said.  “Isn’t it Walt?  What d’you say, maybe a klick?

“No more’n that” Walt replied.  “And if they’re skinning a buck, they’re probably still there or not far away.”

“More likely a doe, the bastards” Billy said.  “Poachers aren’t usually picky.”

“Well, thank you for your cooperation” the warden said to them.  “I’m sorry for disturbing your day.  I think I’ll see if I can pay our friends a visit now.  Military, eh”  What branch?”

“Army” they answered in unison.

“173rd Airborne” Walt said.  Vietnam.

“25th Div” Billy echoed.  “Mosul, Iraq.”

“2nd Armored” the warden said.  “Tiger Brigade.  Gulf war.”

“The Tiger Brigade!  You boys kicked some serious ass” Billy noted after giving a low whistle.  “Tank warfare.  That would be sweet.  You can see the bastard that’s trying to kill you.”

“It has its ups and downs” the warden said.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“Would you like a little back-up?” Walt asked.  He was beginning to get a clearer view of what had just happened, and what almost just happened.

 

“No thank you, gentlemen” he answered.  “I do this thing best when I do it my own way.”  He then turned to walk away but after a few steps stopped and turned back to face the men and said “Since you’re only out here to see the game, I spotted a nice elk bull with a couple of cows off a bit to the north of west.  You climb up that ridge, you should be able to see them if you have a decent set of field glasses.”  Billy held up his Zeiss binoculars.  “Yeah, you should see them just fine with those.  You all have a very nice day now.”

The warden disappeared into the forest and left the three men staring silently.  At last Charlie exhaled loudly and sat back down on the log.  He looked at his hands, which were trembling, and then looked up at the two men who stared silently at him.

“What’s the matter,” he asked.  “Haven’t you ever seen a guy who has nearly shit his pants before?  What the hell’s the matter with you two?  That was a U.S. Fucking Fish and Wildlife guy, or a Washington State Fucking Fish and Wildlife guy, and you wanna play Gunsmoke with him?  Shit!  Even if you win, the President or the Governor or whoever is that guy’s boss will bring the full weight of the establishment on top of your asses, or just take you out here and shoot you and feed you to the fish.”

“When I was in combat some guys really did shit their pants – – -“ Walt began to say, but Charlie cut him off.

“Oh no, man.  I don’t want to hear any more fucking war stories just now, OK?”

Charlie began to shake more violently.  Billy approached him tentatively and knelt down next to him.  “Charlie” he began.  “You’re right.  We screwed up.  That guy came out of nowhere and spooked Walt.  Me too, to tell the truth.  He had a piece on him and seemed to be  threatening us, or it looked that way to both of us.  So we reacted.  Didn’t react well, I guess, but we reacted.  I’m sorry.

Look, this is the load that I’m carrying.  Walt is carrying his own, and I won’t try to describe his.  It’s hard to let it go.  ‘Kill or be killed.’  I know that you’ve heard that phrase.  With us, it means more than it does for others; for people who haven’t been where we’ve been.  It really means that you have to make somebody be dead or they’ll make you be dead.  I’m working hard to put that behind me.  Walt is too.  But it never really goes away.  You try to put that animal in a cage.  I try to put that animal in a cage every day.  But you can’t kill it.  It just won’t die.”

Charlie wrestled to get his shakes under control, and at last he looked at his two friends and said “OK.  I guess I just learned a little about your problems today.  I have my own shit to deal with, like I don’t like to even see the ocean since Stevie died, or see much of anything from my old life.  I guess I didn’t realize how deep your pain runs.  I’m sorry I popped off, but jeez, fellows, next time could you pick on a smaller guy that’s packing only a slingshot?”

“We’ll try” Billy said with the first chuckle that anyone had managed since the confrontation had begun.  “Just for you.  Now, let’s go see if we can find that bull and his harem.”

The three men began to pick their way through the forest obstacles as they made their way up the hill to the ridge.  Walt’s estimate was pretty close, and from a height of about three hundred feet above the valley floor they had a commanding view of that valley in three directions.  Two low ranges of scrub and tree covered hills split that valley into three wide spokes as if of a wheel radiating from a hub that was their place on the west end of the ridge.

Billy was gassed by the time they reached that point.  Charlie quickly opened up the chair for him and he plopped unceremoniously into it and popped a couple of Tylenol tablets into his mouth.

“Don’t take too much of that” Charlie said.  “It’s hard on your liver.”

“Thanks Mom” Billy replied.  “It’s my damned leg that’s my first concern at this present time.  Here” he handed the binoculars to Walt.  “See if you can see anything down there.”

Walt began to scan the valley floor in the direction that the warden said he had seen the elk, but without luck.  He scanned more to the south, looking for the warden, but knew that he wasn’t likely to see him.  “Crafty son of a bitch” he muttered.”

“What’s that?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, nothing.  I was just trying to see which way Ranger Rick was going.  The man knows how to move in the woods pretty good.  That’s impressive, for a Tanker.”

“I’ll bet he grew up here” Billy said, “or somewhere a lot like here.  I followed some tanks in Iraq.  Big suckers.   Bigger than those cracker boxes you followed in The Nam.  The guys pushing those things had steel balls.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that” Walt allowed.  “I hung with the guys from the 11th Armored Cav.  Crazy sons of bitches, and always ready for a fight.”

Charlie was thoroughly tired of hearing war stories by this point in the day, but he didn’t want to complain about it.  He had already chewed his two friends out and didn’t want to continue down that road.  ‘Let me have a peek” he finally said, not being able to think of anything else to say.  Walt handed him the binoculars and Charlie began to scan the valley.

He, too, began by looking for the warden.  That one man was going up the valley somewhere looking for a party of at least one armed man and probably more that was engaged in an illegal activity and would not fare well if he, or they, were caught.  Charlie felt a chill of dread for the warden and a deep admiration for his commitment to his job.  “Godspeed, officer what’s your name” he thought, and then he saw movement out of the right side of his field of view.

“Hey guys” Charlie said, pointing without putting down the glasses.  “A quarter of the way up the side of the first foothill of that mountain with two peaks.”

He passed the glasses quickly to Billy, who found the two peaks and then scanned down to the foothills and found the clearing in the thick woods.  “Yeah!  I see them!  Yeah!  Good eye, Charlie.”

“Gimme an look” pleaded Walt, and Billy passed the glasses over to him.  It took only a minute for Walt to find the clearing and then the elk that had moved fully into it.  “Son of a bitch, ain’t he something?” Walt asked.  “That’s one hell of a bull.  Shit, man, I don’t know if I could shoot his ass; good looking character like that.”

Walt became aware of the silence and put down the binoculars.  Charlie and Billy were looking at him with frank amazement all over their faces.  “What?” he asked.  “What’re you two apes looking at?”

“Why, Walt.  I believe that you are showing compassion” Charlie said.  “I’m not sure I know how to handle that.”

“Don’t get carried away” Walt said.  “I get hungry, I’m shooting him faster than white of rice.”

“Forget that, man” Billy said.  “I just saw you give a shit about something.  What day is this?  Yeah, Seventh of September.  I’m putting this in my journal.”

“You can put it up your ass” Walt growled, and returned to looking through the glasses.

“Hey, come on, Bogie.  Lemme look” Billy said as he picked up a stick and poked Walt in the ribs with it. Walt handed the binoculars to Billy, saying “Here.  Play with these so that you won’t play with yourself.”

Billy studied the clearing off in the distance and made occasional sounds of admiration.  At last he handed the binoculars to Charlie and said “Here.  They’re about out of sight.”

Charlie picked up the animals, which were near an edge of the clearing.  The bull raised his head and bellowed at the cows, who crowded around him and passed into the cover of the forest.  The regal elk gave the area one last close look, and then seemed to look directly back at Charlie over the many hundreds of yards that separated the two species, before moving with a stately grace into the covering forest.  After a minute of staring at where the elk had disappeared, Charlie put down the glasses.

“Son of a bitch” he said.  “I wouldn’t shoot him either.  That guy’s been through the wars, and I wouldn’t be the guy to take him out!”

After giving Billy time to rest, they began to trace their way back down the hill.  the ankle motion necessary to go downhill was harder on Billy than the ascent had been, and by the time that they reached the valley floor he was hobbling badly.

“You going to make it?” Walt asked, and he was not joking this time.

“I’ll make it” Billy replied through gritted teeth.  I just can’t say how long that’ll take me.”

“Well, there’s no hurry” Charlie said.  “You have a seat on that log and let’s have a bit to eat.”  He passed out some energy bars and then pulled out the half pint bottle of whiskey.  “Oh, look what I found” he said. “Maybe this will help things along.”

All three took a pull off of the bottle. Walt handed it back to Charlie, who  stashed it in his pack and they chatted while the snacks and whiskey did their work.  After a short while Billy emerged from his chair, more through determination than being actually prepared for more exertion, and said “Let’s get home.  I think I need some real food.”

It was early evening when the three men returned to camp.  Billy sat in his chair while Walt and Charlie packed away their gear in the back of the van.

“Still no way that I can drive?” Charlie asked.

“Up yours” Walt responded predictably.

“OK.  Let’s get the hell out of hear.”

They drove out of the forest, crossing over gravel and paved roads until they at last gained the state highway that led to the town of Colville.  The Acorn Saloon provided thick steaks and mashed potatoes and gravy and mug after mug of strong coffee.

“We should be home in six hours” Walt said as they paid up and returned to the van with a thermos full of the Acorn’s hot coffee.  “Unless I decide to drive to great little whorehouse that I know about in Yakima”

“Yeah.  Right.  Whatever” Billy said.  “Just get me home first.  Then you can go screw yourself for all I care.”

Walt laughed as he fired his van up and pulled out of the parking lot onto the pavement and then down U.S. Highway 395 toward Spokane, and beyond that back home to Vancouver.

The Garden, Chapter XX

Walt’s van pulled into the Burnt Hills Creek campground at a little past three in the afternoon.  Neither Walt nor Billy felt like sitting in the middle of the bench seat of Charlie’s truck, so it was agreed that Walt’s van took that issue off the table.  Billy and Charlie squabbled like high school students over who would get the front passenger seat and Walt had to settle the issue with a round of Rock, Paper and Scissors.  Charlie’s scissors fell to Billy’s rock, and so he crawled while grumbling good-naturedly into the back seat.

They drove east through the Columbia River Gorge and Walt never stopped talking about any and every topic.  “Can you believe how stupid that bastard Trump is, and how much time he spends golfing?  I thought he said that he was going to drain the swamp  Hell!  He’s the biggest fucking gator IN the swamp.”

“Wait a minute Walt” Billy interrupted.  “I believe that I’ve spent the last three years listening to you rant about Obama.  What’s it going to be here?”

“They’re both liars and thieves, so I’m not being inconsistent.  Didn’t Obammy just take four hundred thousand dollars for schmoozing with a bunch of bankers?”

“Come on, Walt” Billy objected.  Don’t start in on that ‘Obammy’ thing with me, OK?  We’re all pretty loose here but I don’t want to listen to that.  Let’s just leave the race thing out of this, all right?”

“OK, OK.  I didn’t mean to offend your sensitive ears.  You know that skin color doesn’t mean jack shit to me.  I’d vote for Condi Rice in a heartbeat.  That woman’s smarter’n a whip and kicks butt like a linebacker.  You remember when that shithead running Sudan tried to screw with her?”

“She smarter than you, Walt?” Charlie asked, getting in a rare word sideways.

“Don’t get carried away with this” Walt replied with a laugh.  “There’s one or two people as smart as me, I’ll allow, but there ain’t none smarter.  She plays a mean piano, too.”

On and on it went virtually non-stop as the three friends rolled along the broad Columbia River and then left it as they diverted east towards Walla Walla.  Billy had visited that agricultural city in Eastern Washington as a high school wrestler and had fallen in love with it.  “I’m moving here some day when get my shit together” Billy said as they approached the city limits.

“I think you’re shit’s pretty nearly together already” Charlie said.  “You get that program done and whatever license or certification you need and you’re going to do just fine.”

They stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the west side of town.  Although it was at least four times the size of Leroy’s little shoebox cafe, the grease was the same.  The waitresses all seemed to be cut from the same cloth as LuAnn too.  Chatty, good natured and obviously fond of their own cafe’s cooking, they bustled around the room dispensing smiles, country wisdom, and heaping plates of food.

“This stuff’s as good as it gets” Walt said, followed by a satisfied belch that almost echoed across the room.  “So damned greasy you don’t have to waste energy chewing.  It just sort of sli-i-i-des down the old gullet.”

Within the hour they were on the road again, headed toward Spokane and the Colville National Forest north of there.  Walt drove along, just five miles above the speed limit while nursing one of the bottles of Pabst that he had brought along in the cooler that was by his side.

“Shit, Walt.  What’re you doing?” Charlie asked when Walt fished the beer out of the ice and twisted off the cap.  “That is a major bust!”

“No worries” Walt replied.  “I’ve been doing this for fifty years and ain’t been busted yet.”

“Yeah” Charlie countered.  “But it’s one hell of a bust if you do.”

“Luxury tax” was all that Walt said in reply.

“I know” Billy said to Charlie.  “It’s crazy.  But what the hell do you expect?  He’s crazy.”

“Holy shit” was all that Charlie could say.

“We’ll get there” Billy said, in a minimally successful attempt to reassure Charlie.  “I don’t know how the old goat does it, but he does it.”

“The old goat does it because the old goat knows what he can do and what he can’t do, so you children just mind your own business and let Old Walt get you to where you’re going without any more back talk.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance that I’d get to drive back” Charlie ventured to guess.

“No chance in hell” was the expected reply.  “My van, I drive.”

They paid for a space at the campground, surprised at how full it was until Walt pointed out that many of the hunters who wold be out in the woods the next weekend were here to scout, same as they were.

“Half of them will be snot-slinging hammered too” he told them.  “It’s probably better that we won’t be out there in the woods with them.  I just might snap and take a few of them out if they got to shooting my way.”

“Yes Walt, I believe that you would” Billy added.  “Thing is, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same thing.  I grew to dislike being shot at while I was in Iraq.”

Charlie listened to these two veterans as they talked and began to get a better understanding of the bond that existed between them.  These men had learned to exist and even normalize their lives in some of the worse situations that humans could create.  Walt had found a groove that he could live in and Billy was still in that process, and with all of Walt’s rough edges and Billy’s struggles to bring his mind into focus, Charlie had to admire these deeply wounded men who had met life at such a grinding level and emerged injured but erect.

Charlie’s own struggles had been real and desperate, if of a different nature than Walt’s and Billy’s.  He felt validated though by these men who knew of his circumstances and considered them to be on a level with their own.  The bullets that penetrated his soul were as real as the ones that had torn through Walt’s body, and the two warriors acknowledged that fact.  “I believe that I love these guys” Charlie thought, and then chuckled as he pictured telling them that.  “That’d freak Walt out but good!”

They parked in their space and quickly set up camp.  Billy and Walt would share a tent while Charlie slept on a cot in the open air.  The wooden pantry was soon stocked with food and other supplies and a pile of wood was stacked next to the sone and steel camp stove.  “Probably built by the CCC during the Depression” Walt opined.  “My daddy might have built it.”

Camp duties secured, the three men struck off down a Forest Service road into the wilderness that would be crawling with hunters a week from now.  Charlie carried a pack with water, snacks, and a collapsible chair that was only slightly larger than a rolled-up umbrella but opened into a very comfortable instrument of relaxation.  This was part of his plan for accommodating Billy, who was having trouble dealing with his injured pride more than his injured leg.

“Shit, man” he growled.  “I feel like I’m you grandmother or something.”

“Hey, I told you that I was going to make allowances for your physical capabilities when I suggested this trip” Charlie replied.  “There’s nothing here that wasn’t part of the plan.  What you went through?  I’m just glad that you’re here and only need a chair to rest in from time to time.  Me carrying this chair ain’t nothing compared to what you carried over there.  Ain’t nothing compared to what you’ve carried since you came back, either.  So pipe down and let’s take a walk.”

And so they walked.  Charlie would have loved to go several miles up the road before diverting to the woods, but Billy would never manage that long of a walk.  They rested twice before they reached a mile and a half, and at that point found terrain that would lead them into the woods without requiring much climbing or, what was worse, walking downhill.

They rested two more times before they found an area of brush and trees that made a serviceable blind.  After Charlie set up Billy’s chair, all three made themselves comfortable and then spoke in low tones or not at all as they watched for any sign of wildlife.

This quest met with minimal success.  In the short time that they had before they had to head back to camp a hunting bobcat came into view and a group of mule deer were spotted crossing the valley at a distance in front of them.  No elk showed up to make their day, and soon it was time to begin their return trip if they wanted to get back to camp before dark.

The return took longer because Billy was getting tired and sore.  He chafed at having to stop and rest, but Charlie and Walt paid no attention to the inconvenience of it.  Walt’s chatter would draw Billy out of his mood, and as soon as he felt rested they would continue.  About an hour before sundown they returned to camp, built a fire in the stove and heated up some soup and beans.

Billy sat in his chair and swallowed a couple of Ibuprofen tablets to ease the pain in his damaged leg.  “Why don’t you get some Oxy for that pain, boy?” Walt asked as he threw some freeze dried beef stroganoff into a pot of boiling water.  “That stuff you’re popping won’t do any more than take the edge off of your pain.”

“I did Oxy, Walt.  I liked it too much” Billy replied.  “I could get hooked on that stuff easy as pie.  Nope.  A little pain now is better than a bigger one down the road.”

“What do you think, Charlie?” Walt asked.  “Why should Billy-boy here hurt when he has as good a reason as anybody I know to justify a prescription?”

“Well I don’t know” Charlie replied.  “My hurt the last few years hasn’t been physical, so I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

“That hasn’t stopped Walt” Billy said with a smile.

“Screw you” Walt replied.  “Yeah, Charlie, you’re probably right about that.  They make a different medication for your sort of problems.”

As Walt said that he drew a half pint of rotgut bourbon out of his pack, took a swig, then passed it to Charlie who poured some of it into a mug.

“Oh, too good to drink after me, eh?” Walt chided.

“I don’t think you want to catch my HIV” Charlie responded, and passed the bottle to Billy.  He also picked up a mug and said “I don’t want what either one of you skanky characters have” and poured a mugful of his own, then handed the bottle back to Walt.

The three men ate their dinner while sitting in the dark around the glowing remains of their cooking fire.  The sky was clear and a half moon poured pale light down onto them.  Dozens of lanterns glowed in the surrounding camp sites.  It was quiet in the campground.  Dinners had been finished and children mostly put to bed.  As the whiskey was consumed the conversation became oddly more quiet, as the men began to discuss the things that dogged their lives.

“This time next week I’ll be getting ready to hear my boy play the piano” Charlie said.  “You know, I don’t really remember ever hearing him play, other than practicing on the piano that was in our living room.  Hell, I hardly remember even that.  I didn’t think music amounted to much.  ‘Jack has to learn how to make a living’ I told Maureen when she twisted my arm into buying the piano.  ‘Jack is an eight year old boy’ I remember her telling me.  ‘I don’t think he’ll have to carry his own weight just yet.’

“You know what?  Maureen was right  One hundred percent.  I can’t believe what an ass I was.  It’s just that I always believed that since I had to take care of myself from an early age, I should teach Jack to be the same as me.”

“Well” Walt said.  “There’s really no harm in that.  A guy does have to pay his own way after all.  Unless he’s a bottom feeding bum, anyway.  You wanted your boy to become somebody.  There’s no shame in that.”

“Yeah” Charlie replied.  “You’re right.  Partly, anyway.  But I guess I could have let him be a kid for a while.  And I suppose that I could have let him be something other than a little model of me.  If he chose to become a musician or anything else other than a construction worker, where’s the harm in that?  He could be anything that he wanted and he’d still be my boy.  Why the hell didn’t I think that was good enough?

“You’re right about that” Billy said.  “But hey, better late than never, no?  If he grows up reasonably happy and well adjusted, and he has a relationship with his father, I think that could be all that you could hope for.  So what are you going to say to him when you see him?”

Charlie sat glumly in his chair, looking at the dying embers in the stove.  He took another sip of the whiskey and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.  At last he looked up and said “I haven’t got a clue.  Not one damned clue.  I’ve imagined all sorts of scenes; I hug him and tell him that I’m sorry.  I give him a high five and tell him he’s the next Chopin.  I shit my pants and trip over my shoelaces.  Hell, I don’t know what I’ll say to him.  I don’t know what I’ll say to his mother either.”

Walt began to speak, saying ‘Well, you could tell her to get – – -“

Billy held up his hand near Walt’s face.  Walt was surprised by that, and when Billy slowly shook his head signaling ‘no,’ Walt settled silently back into his chair and took another pull on the nearly depleted whiskey bottle.

“I want to tell her that I’m sorry, and not just to make myself feel better.  I really am sorry.   I want to tell her that she deserved better than she got.  I want to tell her that I was too busted up to think straight.  I want to tell her that hurting her and Jack was the last thing that I wanted to do, and it tore me up so bad that I almost killed myself one night on the I-5 Bridge, and only some stupid promise that I’d made to do something for somebody, and maybe some act of a god I don’t even think I believe in, is all that kept me from doing it.”

Charlie sat back deeper into his chair and looked up at the star-strewn sky.  He drained the last of his whiskey, and Billy and Walt sat silently as he collected his thoughts.  At last he finished with “I’m not going to say any of that shit though.  I should, but I won’t.  Not that night, anyway.  I’m going to tell Jack that he played wonderfully, whether he does or not.  I’m going to tell Maureen that it was good to see her, even if seeing her is hard as hell.  And then I’ll just have to play the rest by ear.”

“Charlie looked straight at Billy, and then at Walt.  “This is going to hurt like all the fires of hell, guys, but it has to be done.  And for the first time in my life I’m going to do the hard thing.  And Walt, I’m a little wobbly, so if you would be so kind as to rummage in my pack you’ll find a pint of better stuff than that rat piss you just fed us.”

Walt finished the last few drops in his bottle and walked surprisingly well to the camp table where Charlie’s pack rested.  He dug around and found a bottle with the cap covered in red wax.  “Oh, Mr. High Pockets is sharing his Maker’s Pride.  Well done, Junior.  That’s what I call respecting your elders.”

He handed the bottle to Charlie, who cut through the wax with his pocket knife and pulled the stopper out of the neck of the bottle.  He took a pull of the whiskey and sighed, saying ‘Now that’s a better sort of brew,” and passed the bottle to Billy.

Mugs were forgotten at this point, and the bottle was now passed freely from hand to hand.  “So,” Charlie said.  “You start school in two weeks.  How’re you feeling about that?”

Billy took a slug and passed the bottle.  “I feel like a bowl of Jello” he said.  “Everyone in that classroom will be younger than me and able to do stuff that scares the shit out of me right now.  They’re all just continuing what they already know how to do, while I’ll be trying to remember how to do the school thing.  Or learning how to do it all over again would be more like the truth.”

“You’ll do fine, Billy” Charlie said.  “You’ve already learned the hard stuff in life. Now you’re going to do something a lot easier.  I think you’ll blow everybody in that program away.”

Billy sat silently for a couple of minutes, looking at the stove that was now growing cold.  At last he said “Funny choice of words.  ‘Blown away,’ I mean.  I’ll be the only one in the program who actually was nearly blown away.  There’ll be kids there who are driving nice cars, have cute boyfriends and girlfriends, and who hit the hipster places downtown if they’re old enough.  They know how to be cool.  I know how to clear a building of guys with AK 47s and RPG launchers.  Guys who want to take my ass out.

These kids party and socialize and get laid every other night by somebody new, and I got taken out like a sackful of garbage and placed on the curb by my girlfriend. I joined the Army in order to get killed in battle and couldn’t even do that, and now I’m damaged goods.  Yeah, I’m looking forward to moving on, but it’s not like I’m going to be tiptoeing through the tulips while I do it.  I think that getting home each day after school and unloading on you,” he pointed towards Charlie, “and getting together with you and the other guys,” he now pointed at Walt, “will be the only things that will keep me sane for the next two years.”

The bottle came around to Charlie and he took another sip, while silence reigned over their camp.  After a few minutes Charlie said “Billy, I can’t tell you how it’ll be.  I got no idea.  It might be just like you say it will.  But then again you’ve never done this before, right?  I mean, you’ve never gone into a classroom full of people who’ve never had to make a more important decision than whether they should buy Nike’s or Adidas.

You’ve seen how rough things can really be.  You’ve seen shit exploding all around you.  You’ve seen parts of good guys and parts of bad guys sprayed all over the streets.  Shit, I’ve never seen anything like that!  You’ve had to strap on your gear in the morning, going out and knowing that you or one of your buddies or, shit, maybe all of you won’t be coming back to camp that evening.  Mann, these kids don’t know any of that stuff.  They’ve never had to shoot a kid or a woman before they could explode a bomb vest and kill you and all of your comrades.  Compared to that this will be a cakewalk; a stroll in the park.  Hell, you’re laying around the shack telling me about Chopin and Polish history and Napoleon after seeing the shit that you saw.  You’ll do just fine.

And I don’t think that you should think about the other students at all, really.  Hell, they’ll probably turn out to be decent, normal people, just like us.”  Walt snorted at that idea.  “Hell, man.  They’ll probably have their own good points and their own baggage.  Maybe you’re just seeing images in your mind that you’re getting from movies or gossip magazines.  Those other students are kids who haven’t seen the shit that you have, I’ll wager, but are otherwise not all that different from you,” Charlie pointed at Billy with the neck of the bottle.  He then took a swig and pointed the bottle back toward himself and continued speaking. “Or from me, for that matter.  Now Walt; that’s a different story.”

They chuckled and Charlie handed the bottle to Billy.  Walt, however, didn’t make a sound.  He sat motionless in his chair, a dim figure in the dark.  Charlie and Billy shared laughter and insults and tossed pebbles and twigs at each other, forgetting for the moment that Walt was there with them.  After a few minutes, when Billy passed the jug to Walt, the scarred old veteran cleared his throat and said “I have a story to tell you.”

Charlie continued to joke, but as Billy became silent, Charlie realized that this moment deserved a more restrained attitude.  He quieted down and said “Sorry Walt.  Go ahead.  I’m listening.”

Walt took a chug of bourbon, scarcely reacting to the fiery stuff as it slid down his throat, and began to speak.  “There used to be a guy that I worked with at the school.  He was one annoying bastard, I’ll tell you.  It didn’t matter what story you would tell; he’d always act like he could tell you a better one.  ‘I hit a grand slam in the World Series’ you’d say, and he’d say ‘Well, that’s nothing.  I hit two grand slams.’  Or maybe you’d say I shot down a space ship at Roswell and killed a dozen blood sucking aliens,’ and he’d say ‘That’s nothing.  I shot down the space ship that was carrying Elvis away, and he performed in Las Vegas for 10 more years.’  It didn’t matter what you’d say.  He’d just come back with that goddam ‘That’s nothing.’  Made me want to strangle the son of a bitch.”

Walt took another sip, and even he was visibly impaired by now from all of the alcohol that had been consumed.  “But I have to say, and I feel embarrassed to say it, but your stories are nothing.  You two have had a tough go of it, I’ll grant you that.  It’s the only reason that I’m sitting with you tonight, to tell you the truth.  I ain’t got much time for anybody who hasn’t been kicked in the nuts once or twice by life.

Anyway, you both know that I spent time in The Nam back in the Sixties.  It sucked.  Big time.  Not as bad in some ways as it was for you, Billy.  I mean, a quarter of the people over there liked us, a quarter hated us, and the other half didn’t give a flying fuck one way or the other.  I think that they just about all hated you guys in Iraq.

We needed to get information from the V.C., the same as they needed to get information out of us, so prisoners were a good thing to capture.  Now, we had ROE’s; that is, rules of engagement.  That meant that we weren’t supposed to do all of the ugly shit that they did to us.  I’ll give you three guesses how much attention we paid to our ROE’s, and the first two don’t count.

Well, our G2 guys had their own way of interrogating Charlie.  Oh, that’s what we called the Viet Cong back then.  No reflection on you, Charlie.  Anyway, they would take them up in a chopper and hang them out the door a couple of thousand feet off the deck.  About half of the VC still wouldn’t talk even then, so they pitched their asses out the door.  The other half – the smart half – would talk.  Then about half of them got pitched out the door just on general principle.  You’d look up and it’d be raining Cong, soon to turn from being bad guys to being good guys.

Well, Charlie had his ways of asking questions too.  You’ve all heard about bamboo slivers under the fingernails and all that happy shit.  Well, in the jungle those kinds of things were just thought of as being playful.  It got worse than that.  A lot worse.

We would put some guys in forward listening posts at night.  They would be out there in front of the wire, hunkered down in a hole and trying to be silent and invisible.  If Charlie came sneaking in, trying to catch us by surprise, they would trigger a flare that would alert the guard detail.  Pretty soon a shower of flares would be turning night into day while Huey gunships were turning the jungle into chopped salad with rockets and mini guns.

One night all was quiet, but when a squad went out in the morning to relieve the forward guys they found one of the holes empty.  We sent out patrols trying to pick up his trail, and put Bird Dogs into the air hoping to see Charlie if he got careless, which he seldom did.  He didn’t get careless this time, either.

We figured that Bertie – that was the guy’s name – was just shit out of luck and if he was lucky he’d end up spending the rest of the war in the Hanoi Hilton or some place just like it.  But he wasn’t lucky.  A week later I was on a routine patrol out in the bush.  After a while of being out there the guy walking point came back and said something to our lieutenant.  He looked like he’d seen a ghost, and our lieutenant looked like he wanted to kill someone.

He gave us the order to spread out, and we did.  We walked slowly through the thick brush on either side of the trail.  The guys on the right wing couldn’t see the guy on the left.  After several yards we could see a wide spot in the the trail and in the middle of it was Bertie.

He was tied to a post, and a bamboo cage that fit tight around his neck just under his jaw had been attached over his head.  Inside the cage was a big-ass Vietnamese rat, and it was probably hungry when they put it in there.

Well, most of what could be eaten on Bertie’s head was gone.  It was like a bloody skull on the body of a man we used to know that was tied to that post.  I just stood there flat-footed and stared at what was left of Bertie and that’s when the shit hit the fan.

Charlie had placed Bertie there knowing that we would be knocked off our guard by it, and he blew some real smoke up our asses just as soon as we saw him.  Four guys died right then and there; one of them being our lieutenant.  The rest of us found cover and started blazing away while the radioman called for support.  We couldn’t see Charlie but we knew where he probably was, and started putting fire in the direction of those positions.

It was while this was going on that I looked at Bertie again and I’ll be damned if he didn’t move!  I thought ‘Holy Shit!  He’s still alive!’  Well, that thought chilled me right down to the marrow in my bones.  I sorta forgot about Charlie then; I couldn’t take my eyes off Bertie.

Like, what could they do for him?  They couldn’t grow him a new head.  Even if we got him out alive, he would be a freak who could never walk down a sidewalk again.  Hell, he’d make Freddy Kreuger shit his pants.

Bertie wasn’t a close friend of mine, but we had covered each other’s asses a lot, so I figured that it was time for me to cover Bertie’s one last time.  I was a pretty good shot; not sniper good, but pretty damned good.  I took my time and took good aim, bullets flying all around me and mortars dropping, too.  I squeezed off a round that hit Bertie flush in the chest.  I’m pretty sure that my first shot killed him, but I set up for one more and I put that one right through his bloody skull.

I don’t really remember much more of what happened that day.  We were dropping Willie Peter on them – that’s White Phosphorus – and pouring fire into their positions, like I said, but I don’t know how much effect it was having.  We were dropping one by one and I was thinking that I wouldn’t get out of there alive when the Cobras arrived and began to give them hell from the air.  I guess the Cong, or what was left of them anyway, slipped away through the brush or down into tunnels or something.  Anyway, they were just suddenly gone.

The brass made us walk back to our base camp.  I think they wanted to wear us out a little bit; you know, walk off some of what we’d just seen.  And I suppose it worked, sort of.  We all got a shit, shower and shave when we got back and they gave us a few beers each and told us to stay in our hooches that night. They didn’t want us to go to the EM Club and get properly fucked up and then unload on the first guy who said something wrong to us.

After that, we didn’t take much in the way of prisoners.  The drill was that if Charlie came out of the brush with his hands up and saying ‘Chu Hoi,’ that meant that he wanted to give himself up and we were supposed to take him to G2.  Well, we mostly just wasted the sons of bitches and let them rot where they fell.

Pretty soon the brass figured out that we were too fucked up in the head to keep us together any longer, so they split up our unit and farmed most of us out to other assignments in The Nam.  The guys who were short timers; they just went ahead an shipped them out to isolated areas in the far East where they could try to fix their heads a little before they cut them loose on society back home.  I don’t think that it helped much, though.

I got reassigned to convoy duty, and I told you about that already.  A couple of bullets later I was in a hospital in Vung Tau, then in Japan, and finally home in Seattle.  And that, my friends, is my story.”

Walt took a tug on the bottle and passed it to Charlie, but he didn’t take it.  Billy, who had heard much of the story before, nudged Charlie and said “If you don’t want a drink, pass it over to me.”  Charlie took the bottle and without drinking from it passed it on to Billy.  At last he said “Walt, I wish that you would tell me that you’re bullshitting me.”

Walt shook his head and just said “ Uh uh.”

Charlie looked at Billy and said “I think I need that drink now.”

The bottle was returned to Charlie and this time he took a long drink.  By now all three men were deep in the effects of all of the liquor that they had consumed, but in an odd way it felt as if Walt’s story had pushed them into something that looked like sobriety.

“Gentlemen” Walt said.  “We live in a fucked up world, and there ain’t no two ways about it.”  He looked at Billy and said “You’re young and got help early.  You’ve got a chance to put your shit behind you and make a life for yourself.  Yeah, you’re a gimp and will probably always be one, but you can be a productive gimp.  Might find a woman who’ll put up with your gamey young ass and make a family.

And you,” he pointed towards Charlie, “haven’t left any body parts of yourself in a jungle or a desert somewhere.  You had a bad turn, sure as shit.  But looks like you can come back from it.  Looks that way to me anyway.  You go and see your son.  You tell him you’ve been through hell.  Maybe tell him you know that he’s been through it too.  Heck, maybe your wife’ll take you back, too, if she isn’t riding some other guy by now.

Point is, you both got lives, if you want ‘em.  Billy, you’ve made more progress than I could believe possible, and Charlie, you aren’t the guy I met last spring sniveling in the garden.  Me?  I’m a guy who killed a living skeleton in a place called Hell.  I see that bastard Bertie all the time.  I don’t have to be asleep either.  Been that way since the day it happened and will be until the day I die.”

They sat silently in their chairs after Walt finished speaking.  A third of the bottle remained and Charlie plugged it.  They were through for this night.  Walt at last spoke up with the voice that Charlie was used to hearing.  “Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’ve had enough of such stories for one night.  I’m turning in.”  He rose up out of his chair and walked in a more or less straight line to the tent.  Soon after that Billy was out of his chair; said ‘good night,’ and wobbled after Walt.

Charlie stayed in his chair and soon fell fast asleep.  His alcohol-addled mind was filled with dreams of Carolyn, his dead daughter, Rachael and her black eye, Jack at the piano and a living skeleton tied to a post.  At some point in the night he woke up with a sore neck and left his chair for the more comfortable surface of his cot.  “I’m going to feel like royal shit tomorrow” he thought as he pulled the covers over himself and buried his head in his pillow.  Once again the picture of Bertie tied to a post invaded his mind.  “I feel like royal shit right now.”

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.