A Question of War and Peace, Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4

    Jake stepped past Paul and began to walk toward where Dee Dee and I stood.  The look on his face was unlike anything that I have ever seen before or since.  It was without expression; stolid, impassive eyes that did not flicker to the right or the left.  There was no redness of an agitated face, no pursing of angry lips, no flaring of the nostrils.
    Jake did not stalk as he walked past Paul.  His steps were even, as if he was taking a stroll along a path by the Russian River.  There was no exaggerated rise and fall of the chest; no evidence of anticipated aggression of any kind.  Yet in those eyes I saw the hawk.  I have not adequately described it.  There was a hunger to be seen there; an intention to clutch, to tear, to feed. 
    My blood ran cold as he walked toward us.  I took an involuntary step backwards, as if pushed by a force that emanated from my transformed roommate.  It seemed like I was the only one who perceived the change however.  Paul growled something into Jake’s ear as he passed by; something that I couldn’t hear.  Jake made no response whatsoever.  Then, as he walked by one of Paul’s friends, that unfortunate person launched a fist in an attempt to land a sucker punch.  
    Jake moved like a cobra.  He brought his left arm up to block the blow, then grabbed the forearm and did a twist that brought his back towards us.  He seemed to be holding his assailant’s wrist and arm with his two hands, but I couldn’t tell for sure since his body was blocking our view.  He gave a powerful jerk with his shoulders and I heard at least one ‘POP’ just before Paul’s friend fell to his knees, shrieking in agony.
    Paul took a step forward, but Jake had let go of his victim and assumed some sort of karate-looking pose.  Paul stopped in his tracks and studied the situation.  It was still 3 against 1, but the still, cold, baleful stare of Jake’s eyes seemed to unsettle him.
    “Come on guys,” he said to his friends.  “Help Cary up.  Let’s get him looked at.”  His friends picked up the injured Cary, who could only hold his seemingly lifeless right arm.  Paul stared at Jake and finally said “This ain’t over.  You owe me, and I intend to get paid.”  His friends walked past him, and with one last glare Paul turned and followed them.
    Jake watched them leave, then turned and walked past us without saying a word.  Dee Dee started to say something as he walked by but she caught herself.  He walked through the gate and onto our patio, and then disappeared into our apartment.
    Dee Dee looked at me with amazement still on her face.  “What did we just see?” she asked.
    “I don’t know for sure,”  I answered.  “Jake has been in the war.  He told me that he has been in Vietnam and he hinted that he’s been in other places too.  He didn’t say much about it, but it didn’t sound like it was fun.”
    “What was he?  Some kind of Green Beret?”
    “I don’t know.  He really hasn’t described it much at all.  He just said that he was there.  Have you ever seen anyone do what he just did?”
    “Joe, I don’t even know what it was that he just did.  I think that my visit is over though.  I’m going to get my purse and go back to Berkeley.  Do you think that you’re safe being in there with him?”
    “Oh, yeah.  I think so.  He’s never been mad at me before, and I don’t intend to make him mad at me now.”
    “If you say so.  I want you to be careful though.”
    We walked back into the apartment to retrieve Dee Dee’s purse.  When we entered we saw Jake in the kitchen.  He was facing away from us and had peeled off his wet shirt.  He was drinking a large glass of the white wine, and when he heard us enter he turned to face us.  Dee Dee and I both noticed the discolored scar of rumpled skin which lay in a large patch on his left lower side.  “I’m sorry about the show…,” he began, but then he followed our gaze to his scar.  “Oh, yeah.  That.  Shit!  I’m losing it.  I’m losing it all.”  He then grabbed his shirt and walked into his room, closing the door with exaggerated care and silence.
    Dee Dee looked at me again, and this time she said, “This guy is dangerous.  Joe, this guy is a loose cannon.  I don’t think it’s safe to be around him.  I think that you should move out.”
    It took a moment for me to respond.  My wits were nearly as rattled as those of my sister.  At last I said, “I’m right in the middle of a rough semester, Sis.  I can’t move out now.  I simply don’t have the liberty to do that.”
    “Well then, you be careful.  You stay away from him.  That guy’s not safe.  He’s not normal.”
    I went to the kitchen counter and retrieved her purse.  I moved slowly, giving myself time to think about all that had just happened.  Paul was a bully.  The cat was a helpless victim.  Lisa had tried to help the cat and got pushed down in a sexually humiliating manner for her effort.  Dee Dee had stood the bully down and Jake had rescued the cat.
     So far, it was mostly a win for the good guys.  It was only Jake’s transformation into a cold machine of violence that altered the picture.  I could guess that Jake had seen some hard things, and that he was inclined to…, to what?  A hyper-defensive philosophy?  Sort of like a good defense…. No, not a good defense; a crushing offense is the best defense?  I remembered him saying that he was tired of being the hawk but not inclined to ever be the mouse.  Boy, did he mean it!
    “Don’t worry,” I said to Dee Dee.  “He’s not dangerous.  He’s not dangerous to me anyway.”
    “The hell he isn’t.”
    “No.  Trust me.  He’s different, but he’s not out of control.  I’ll be okay.  Here.  Here’s your purse.  I guess you’ll want to be going now.”
    Dee Dee looked at me skeptically.  I told her once again that I would be fine, and I walked with her to her car and gave her a hug.  After one more admonition to be careful she returned the hug, stepped into her car, and drove off toward Highway 101 and the road back to Berkeley.
    I returned to our apartment and found it silent.  Jake had gone into his room when Dee Dee and I were there, and I assumed that he was still behind that closed door.  Dave was gone and I was heartily grateful for that.  I grabbed the bottle of red wine and sat on the sofa.  In one long gulp I finished off what was in the bottle, set the empty on the coffee table, and then began to evaluate what I had just seen.
    Jake had done nothing, nor said anything, to provoke Paul.  Rescuing the cat was against Paul’s intentions, but it was not a direct challenge nor an insult meant to precipitate a fight.  Jake made no appearance of wanting to cause trouble.  In fact, he was slow to leave the patio in the first place and only entered the pool after Lisa had been thrown down and Dee Dee had stepped into harm’s way, defending herself with words about the state penal code that I didn’t even know were true or not.  Jake had clearly been a reluctant participant in this whole affair from the start.
    And yet, when he did become involved he showed no fear of Paul.  In fact, he looked at Paul as if he was a mouse in the field.  But it was his disarming - literally as well as figuratively - of the guy who they called Cary, that burned a hole in my mind.  Jake didn’t even appear to have been looking at him, yet when Cary made his move, Jake acted faster than a cat, and had one or more parts of Cary’s hand and arm dislocated or broken - or both - before anyone could blink an eye.
    “Maybe Dee Dee’s right,” I thought.  “Maybe Jake’s a loose cannon.  What do I really know about him?”  Almost nothing, was my obvious answer.  I knew that he was 25 years old, had been in the military, had no contact with his family, and had made no sort of attempt to engage on a personal basis with anybody that I knew of, with the marginal exception of myself.  I didn’t believe that Dee Dee was right in her concerns about Jake, but I wasn’t sure that she was wrong either.  I decided that it was time to find out.  I arose and went to knock on Jake’s door. 
    I tapped timidly on his door at first.  After a minute without a response I knocked again; this time more assertively.  “Jake,” I said.  “You in there?”  No answer.  I knocked once again and waited another minute.  Still, there was only silence behind the door.  “Jake, I know you want to be left alone, but I really think that we should talk.”  Just give me a couple of minutes, okay?  Then I’ll leave you alone.”  The silence continued, so I gave up and turned to walk away, and when I did I saw Jake standing a few feet away from me.
    I must have come off of the floor.  Jake actually allowed the beginning of a smile play at the corner of his lips.  “Sorry about that,” he said.  “You turned around before I could back up and make some sort of noise.”
    “Shit!” I said.  “You’re gonna give me a heart attack.”
    “I hope not, but I’ve seen stranger things.”
    “I didn’t know that you had left your room.  Damn, man.  You’re like a cat.  Look, could we talk about some things?  I know that you want to keep to yourself, and I feel awkward invading your space, but there’s some stuff that I think I should know, or at least should ask about.”
    Jake stood silently for a moment, and I expected for him to refuse my request.  At the end of that moment he gave a small sigh and said, “Okay.  Let’s go and sit on the other side of the wall.”
    I don’t know if it was his agreeing to my request for a frank conversation or his sigh that most surprised me.  I agreed quickly to go to the wall, and grabbed the bottle of white wine on the way out.  The wine was no longer cold, but I could have hardly cared less about that.
    We went around the end of the wall and sat where we had previously watched the hunting hawk drop out of the sky onto the unsuspecting mouse.  We were both quiet at first.  I listened to see if I could hear the road noise through the trees.  Many of the leaves had now fallen off of the branches and twigs, but the sound that was like the wind could still be heard from that direction.  Unseen channels was what Jake had called it, or something like that.  “Screw unseen channels,” I decided.  “I’m going to get to the point about all of this.”
    “Jake, I want you to know that I hate prying into your business.  I wouldn’t think of doing that, except that today has been really weird, and I have questions that I think deserve to be asked.  Whether or not you answer them is your business, but I gotta ask them anyway.”
    Jake picked up some pebbles and began to slowly toss them out into the field.  “Okay,” he said.  “Ask away.”
    I took a deep breath and exhaled, and then took a gulp of the wine.  “Oh, boy,” I said.  “Where do I start?  Well, I’ll start with this:  Where did you learn to…?  No, that’s not where I should start.  Why don’t you…?  Shit, that’s not right either.  Give me a minute.”

I took another drink of the wine and drew one more deep breath. At last I heaved that breath out in a great sigh and got right to the point. “Jake. Why are you so damned different?”

A Question of War and Peace Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3

    As the month of October proceeded we dwellers of the two apartment buildings settled down into our own unique rhythms.  Some units were all party, all of the time.  Other units housed serious students who were rarely seen under the best of times and virtually unseen once the noise levels began to rise.  A good many athletes resided in our midst too.  Four wrestlers lived above my unit, A3, who never joined our parties because of their obsessive attention to their weight.  The basketball players in a corner unit of my block - Block A - were notorious for their social appetites.  Three or four members of the women’s volleyball team lived in a unit in Block B.  We were never quite sure of their actual number because they kept themselves even more separate from the jungle than the serious students did.
    Within our apartment, Jake and I were more quiet than most.  Dave was more interested in studying Kathy Pierson than anything else, and was frequently somewhere else with her.  Jake continued to be nearly invisible.  He would either be in his room or at the library, or simply out of the unit and out of sight.  I knew that he would take long runs throughout the county, but I hadn’t asked where else he went, and he didn’t volunteer that information.
    I had buckled down and was taking my semester seriously, although I still jumped in when a party would erupt by the pool.  The fall weather was plenty warm; warm enough to continue to sit with my back against the wall and smoke an occasional joint.  When I did so I would often look north towards the cottonwoods that lined the creek.  The sound of traffic being channeled through those trees, and the hawks that I would now notice as they circled in the sky in search of an unwary field mouse, would always remind me of Jake’s story of predators and prey.  It made me think about where I fit into that spectrum.  That was a mental exercise which I did not care for.
    One weekend I was on the phone with my family in San Diego while Jake was making his breakfast.  I had only recently gotten out of bed, while he had already been up for quite some time.  That was a fact made clear by the sweat that soaked his tee shirt.  He tried not to appear to be listening to our conversation - my end of the conversation at least - but the kitchen and living room were virtually one room.  There was no way that he could avoid hearing what I was saying.
    I get along well with my family, so our conversations are always filled with laughter as we poke fun at one another, and it was so on this day.  My father is a pastor at the church that we attended when I was growing up, and although he was not entirely happy with some of the life choices that I was making - growing marijuana in the back yard and telling him that it was tomato plants had once marked a low point in our relationship - he was mostly supportive of me, and I had no reason to doubt his love.
    My mother was the model of the mother hen.  She was the disciplinary force in the house.  She rarely went in for corporal punishment, but when she expressed her disappointment with us it was usually enough to gain our repentance for any transgressions.  She observed the model of previous generations of mothers; cooking and cleaning and making the house warm and welcoming to all who came into it.  When we were sick she was our nurse.  When we were really sick or hurt, she was our doctor, unless and until she determined that we needed a real one.  In a word, she was Mom.
    Diane, my sister, was two years older than me.  Her middle name was Davis, after my mother’s maiden name, so we called her Dee Dee.  She had achieved a Bachelor’s Degree in History from San Diego State and was now in her second year of law at Berkeley.  It was her description of Northern California that led me to choose Sonoma State for my four year degree in Biology.
    After I hung up the phone with my parents I asked Jake if it would bother him if I called my sister.  I don’t know why I thought that he would care, but Jake’s differentness was such that I found myself frequently unsure of how to act around him, and this morning he was acting more different than usual.  What was particularly strange was that he was taking so long to eat and clean up the kitchen and return to his room.  He seemed to be pointedly lingering, and this put me a little on edge, so I thought it best to ask.
    “Sure,” he replied.  “Don’t mind me.  I’ll be done here pretty soon.”
 I decided that he could stay or leave as suited his mood and put through the call.  Dee Dee picked up on the third ring.  We chatted for a while and she asked if I would like to visit her in Berkeley the next weekend.  I told her that I would love to, but that I had a massively important paper to write and didn’t feel like I could afford to take the time.
    “You’re a Biology major,” she said as she laughed.  “You science guys don’t write papers.”
    “Well, maybe you should explain that to Professor Johns,” I replied.     “I don’t suppose it’s going to be a book like you History nerds have to write, but it seems big enough to me.  It’s important, too.  Thirty percent of my grade.  I’m afraid that I couldn’t take off a whole weekend, at least not now, to come down there.
    “Then what about me coming up to see you?  Just for a couple of hours, then I’ll get out of your hair.  I promise.”
    I agreed to that, and after hanging up I sat in the sofa and played back in my mind the conversations that I had just had.  I had completely forgotten that Jake was there and was startled when he sat down in a chair opposite from where I sat on the sofa.  He had a cup of coffee, and stared at me for a moment before he spoke.  “You’re close to your family, aren’t you?”
    “Yeah, pretty close,” I answered.  “We’ve had our ups and downs, but I guess that I think of them as friends as well as being Dad and Mom and Sis.”
    “Hmm,” Jake murmured, and just stared at me as if he was looking through me.  I got a little nervous after a while and to break the silence I added, “My sister is going to come up here next Saturday for a visit.  Maybe you’ll get to meet here.”
    “Hmm,” he said again, and after a second or two he continued, saying    “Yeah, maybe I will.  Is she older or younger than you?”
    “Older.  She graduated from San Diego State two years ago and is at Berkeley.”
    “And you like each other enough to travel and visit?”  Then he answered his own question, saying,  “Well, that’s obvious I guess, or she wouldn’t be coming here to visit.”
    “Yeah, we like each other.  The whole family does, although my younger brother Dennis pushes a little hard sometimes.  My sister never blew me off for being two years younger than her, although she was pretty popular and always had a lot of things to do with kids older than me.  The cool thing was that a lot of her friends got used to me being around, and most of them were re-e-elly cute.”
    “She must be pretty smart to be at Berkeley.  What is she studying?”
    “Law.  Wants to be a lawyer.  Smart?  Yeah, she’s smart.  Smarter than me, and that’s for sure.  Don’t you dare tell her that I said so though.  It kind of pisses me off, even though she doesn’t rub my nose in it.  Yeah.  We like each other.”
    Jake returned to staring through me, and once again I asked a question to break the silence.  “How about you?  How do you get along with your family?”
    He smiled and took a sip of his coffee.  Then he put the cup down and said, “I get along with my family just fine.  I don’t know where they are, and I don’t suppose that they know where I am.  I don’t see how our relationship could get any better than that.”  With that he arose from his chair and, without saying another word, went to his room and closed his door.
    By Saturday I was truly struggling with the paper that was due the coming Friday.  In the laboratory I was a natural at performing acts of chemistry, mixing this and diluting that and titrating out the other.  In the classroom however, wrestling with the theory of chemical reactions and discussing competing theories and evaluating research protocols made my head spin.  Building a framework to conduct biochemical experiments that could generate reliable and meaningful results was a challenge to me.  I knew that I could do it, but it was work.  Hard work.  It didn’t come easy and natural, as it seemed to do for some other students.
    When Dee Dee arrived at 11 in the morning I was ready to put my books down.  She gave me a sisterly hug and we quickly fell to family topics, which was a break that I was grateful for.  We chatted about everything and nothing for about an hour, and were about to go for lunch to a nearby bar and grill popular with students when Jake entered through the front door which we had left open for air circulation on this Indian summer day.
    “Hello,” Jake said to Dee Dee.
    “Hello,” she answered.
    “Jake, I would like to introduce you to my sister, Diane.  We call her Dee Dee.”
    Dee Dee arose and extended her hand.  Jake was carrying a bag of groceries in each arm, and Dee Dee quickly drew her hand back with a look of embarrassment on her face.       “Hi,” he said.  “I’m Jake.  Do you call yourself Dee Dee, or do you prefer Diane?”
    “I don’t much care,” she replied.  “Everyone seems to prefer Dee Dee, so that’s all right with me.  Just don’t call me late for dinner.”
    Jake laughed as if that was the first time that he had heard that one.  “Then Dee Dee it is,” he said.  “And I don’t know about dinner, but could I interest you two in lunch?”
    Dee Dee and I looked at each other for a moment before answering.  I had already described Jake’s nearly sociopathic reserve and Dee Dee was a very perceptive person.  The Jake who had just walked into the room was not the Jake that she had expected that she might see.  He maintained the initiative and resumed speaking.  “I’ll take that as a ….”
    “Yes,” Dee Dee said.  “I’d love to have some lunch.  What’s on the menu?”
    “Spaghetti Bolognese with garlic bread and salad,” he replied.  We stared at him without speaking, and after a moment he smiled and said, “Well, maybe it’s more like Spaghetti a la Jake, but the salad and garlic bread are as advertised.  Would either of you like a glass of burgundy?  Or Riesling?  I’ve got a cold bottle.”
    Dee Dee and I looked at each other again.  I shrugged my shoulders, having no words to explain this new and convivial version of Jake.  “Riesling,” Dee Dee quickly said, and added, “Do you want some help in the kitchen?”
    “No,” he replied.  “I work best alone.  You two go on with your visit.  You can go out by the pool if you want some privacy.  There was nobody out there a few minutes ago.”
    “No, I think I’ll stay indoors,” she replied.  “I burn too easily.”
    “Wise woman,” Jake said.  “Go on with your visit then.  I’ll have this whipped up in no time.”
    We sat on the sofa and tried to resume our visit, but words didn’t come easily at first.  I was confused by this version of Jake, and Dee Dee was confused by the contradiction between what she saw and what she had heard from me.  In a few moments he brought over a glass of cold Riesling for Dee Dee and one of burgundy for me, and then returned to his work in the kitchen. 
    We quickly recovered our composure, aided by the wine, and resumed our visit.  Jake worked efficiently and soon the smells of a meat sauce and garlic bread filled the apartment.  In a little over 45 minutes Jake asked, “Do you want to eat in here or out on the patio?  The patio was shaded and cool, and we opted to eat there.  Jake and I carried the table outside and set up the chairs, and then we took our plates loaded with lunch and sat down outside to eat.
    Initially it was Dee Dee and I who spoke.  Jake calmly ate his lunch and said a word here and a word there, but mostly he listened to us.  When we were finished I pushed my chair back and put my legs up over the corner of the table.  Dee Dee promptly popped me in the back of my head in response.  “Cretin!” she cried.  “Maybe you don’t care if you look like you were raised in a barn, but I do.”
    “It’s not the first time he’s seen it,” I replied as I pointed at Jake.
    “It’s the last time that he’ll see it while I’m sitting here,” she said, and then threw a soiled napkin at me.  I swatted it back at her, but put my feet down.
    Jake laughed as he poured another glass of white wine for Dee Dee, and then filled my glass and his with the red.  “I can see that you guys really do like each other.” he said.
    “Oh, I put up with him,” Dee Dee replied.
    “I’m the best thing that ever happened to you,” I replied.  “I’ve kept you from becoming a total nerd.”  She threw the napkin again and this time hit me in the ear.
    “Children, children.  Play nice,” Jake said, and we all laughed again.
    “So, Joe tells me that you are studying law,” Jake said as order returned to the table.
    “Yes, that’s true,” she replied.
    “Do you plan to practice criminal or some other law?”
    “Criminal.”
    “Prosecution or defense?”
    “I don’t know.  I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
    “Really?  I would think that a criminal law student would already be motivated by a desire to put the predators in jail or defend the prey from injustice.”
    Dee Dee did not appear to be ruffled by this line of questioning, but I was a little uncomfortable with it after having heard his theory about predators and prey.
    “I’m motivated by the law,” she replied, “which I understand to be compatible with both desires.”
    Jake made a facial expression that suggested doubt.  “But in the end, don’t most attorneys come to believe that either every accused person is guilty and needs only to be exposed, or that every accused person is an innocent victim of powerful forces and a corrupt system?”
    “I don’t know,” she replied.  “I am not acquainted with most attorneys, and in any case I don’t intend to allow myself to be informed by other people, including ‘most attorneys,’ as to how I should view my anticipated profession.  My own thoughts on the matter should be sufficient for me.”
    “Fair enough,” Jake replied.
    “I think I’ll clear the table,” I said.  The turn that this conversation had taken was uncomfortable for me, knowing that Dee Dee’s sharp mind would not back down to difficult questions, and not knowing where Jake intended to go with it.  “This is all too heavy for me on a full stomach.”  As I got to work they went back to their conversation.
    “I don’t mean to be critical,” Jake said, “and forgive me if my social skills are underdeveloped.  I’m sure that Joe told you that I’m not exactly a Toastmaster.”
    “He said that you’re quiet.”
    Jake chuckled and said, “That’s a diplomatic way to describe it.  You may make a good lawyer after all.   Anyway, perhaps you can tell me what has led you to pursue the practice of law and your unusual, if you will let me put it that way, view of that practice?
    “I believe that I can.  Growing up, we were taught that every person has worth.  Our father is a pastor, and his interpretation of God’s word is that all men, and women, are created in His image.  It’s that “All men are created equal” thing that’s in our Declaration of Independence, but so few of us actually believe.  Well, my dad believes it and I believe it too.”
    “Hmm.  You get your even-handed opinion from a pastor.  That’s interesting.  I have often found it to be true that most pastors tend to have and teach a more black and white and less nuanced sort of outlook.”
    “Once again, I wasn’t brought up by most pastors.  I was brought up by my father, and he did teach us about black and white.  Black and white certainly exist.  He also pointed out that on a black and white television screen there are 256 shades of gray in between those extremes, and they are what make any picture seen there worth viewing.  Among people there are shades of gray too, and a whole lot more than 256 of them.  This leaves us with black and white as distinct possibilities among us imperfect human beings, but with the myriad shades of gray more likely to complete the picture of any particular person or situation.  It’s in these shades of gray that we usually find the truth, and as an attorney it’s going to be among those shades of gray that I’ll spend most of my time searching for it.”
    Jake sat back in his chair, stroked his chin with the fingers of his right hand, and stared silently at Dee Dee.  I was familiar with that stare, but Dee Dee wasn’t.  She didn’t seem to be unsettled by it however.  Instead, she took a sip of her wine and sat still and equally silent, waiting for him to arrange whatever thoughts he was engaging.  At last he spoke again.
    “That’s impressive.  I don’t think that I’ve ever heard anything like that.  And, is that all that fuels your even-handed approach to the law?”
    “It provides the foundation, but it’s also supported by a lot of reading and simply watching life.”
    “Reading?  What sort of reading do you do?”
    “The list is nearly endless.  Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Whitaker Chambers, Frank Norris; I read a lot, and it all leads me to see the law as being primarily about justice.  The law can embrace punishment and restitution and a lot of other things, but it is about justice first and foremost, and justice can’t be done unless we get at the truth.  I don’t suppose I’ll be a judge any time soon, if ever, and I can’t very well be a juror if I’m the attorney, but as an attorney I can work my butt off to make sure that truth comes out, the law is followed, and justice is served in every situation.”
    “That’s admirable.  Really, I do believe that it is.  I have to disagree on one point however.  I have seen instances when the law and justice are diametrically opposed realities, with truth serving the oppressor more than the victim.  For instance, I remember a situation where . . . .”
    At that moment we heard a cry come from the other side of the patio fence and a female voice saying “Paul, you bastard!” followed by a male laugh.  Dee Dee arose and I joined her as she exited the patio through a gate and entered the pool area to see what was going on.  Jake remained rooted to his chair as we left the patio.  We quickly saw a guy who I only knew as Paul, and three of his friends were laughing and looking into the pool.  Lisa Diggs had run over to the other side of the pool.  We looked into the water and saw that Tom, a stray cat that lived in the vicinity of our dumpster, was paddling towards the side where Lisa was heading.
    Paul wasted little time.  He walked to where he could stand between Lisa and the edge of the pool, where the cat was attempting to climb out.  He pushed the cat none too gently with his foot back into the water, and Lisa hit him on the shoulder.  “Paul, you son of a bitch.  You let that cat out of the water.”
    “That cat’s a pain in everyone’s ass,” Paul retorted.  “Let it drown.”
    “I wish that you would drown!” Lisa shot back, and hit Paul on the shoulder again.  He then put a hand on each of Lisa’s breasts and shoved her back forcefully, causing her to stumble and fall on her backside.
    Dee Dee didn’t waste a second.  She walked over to where Paul stood and looked up into his leering face.  He was about 6 feet 2 or 3 inches and weighed at least 220 pounds, and he loomed menacingly over the slight figure of the young woman who faced him.  “You will move out of the way this instant,” she said to him.
    “Yeah?  And why would I do that?” he asked with a punk sneer.
    “Because you are already in violation of California Penal Code section 597, which addresses animal cruelty, and section 243.4 which covers sexual battery.  You pushed that woman purposefully in her breasts, just like you’re thinking of doing to me right now.  If you follow through with that idea you’ll add another charge to a growing list, and I promise you that I will press those charges.  I suppose that you could 6 months to a year on each one.”
    “Oh, so you’re a lawyer or something?” he replied with his sneer still in place.
    “Not yet, but I know were to find a few, and I know enough about the law that you’ll land in stir if you don’t move your worthless ass, and move it soon.”
    The large bully was beginning to lose the stare-down with Dee Dee when he heard a soft splash behind him.  He turned to see what caused it and saw Jake stepping into the pool and swimming to where the cat was now crossing to the other side, away from Paul but toward his friends.  Jake never looked at Paul.  He caught up with Tom and secured the frightened feline, who seemed content to be cradled in Jake’s arms.  He then returned to the shallow end and climbed up out of the water.  
    Still looking only forward, he walked to where Lisa was now standing with a red face filled with anger.  “Is this your pet?” he asked, knowing that it wasn’t.
    “It is now,” Lisa replied.  She took Tom from Jake’s arms and glared at Paul one more time, then turned and left the pool area.
    Dee Dee had nothing more to say, so she turned and walked back to where I was standing with a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.  Jake began to walk back as well but Paul stepped in front of him and blocked his path.  “Is your girlfriend going to save you now too?” he asked.
    Jake stared at him with that silent, searching look that I had become familiar with; a stare that might have been that of a hawk spying a field mouse from on high.  Then he said, “I’ve heard that you played JC football.  Defensive Back, right?  Now you go to a school that doesn’t even have a football team.  You had an injury, I suppose, or maybe you’re too stupid to keep your grades up.  It’s no matter.  Either way, if you’re stupid enough to make me have to defend myself, I’ll add to your list of injuries in ways that you don’t even want to think of.  Now, the next thing that I’m going to do is go inside and dry myself off.  If you would like to do something that would make me change my plans, now is the time to jump to it.  Otherwise, get the fuck out of my way and think of yourself as lucky.

A Question of War and Peace Chapter 5

Chapter 5

    “Hah!,” Jake said as he tossed another pebble.  “Do you want the long version, or the short?”
    “Let’s start with the short version,” I replied.  “Just the nouns and verbs.  We’ll get to the clauses and modifiers later.”
    “Okay,” he replied, and he stared at the cottonwood trees while he gathered his thoughts.  After a few moments he began to speak again.  “Here’s the thumbnail.  My childhood was not happy.  I learned that a bullet was never far from my head, no matter what I did.  I learned how to dodge most of those bullets by keeping to myself, staying invisible, and preparing myself for self-defense when necessary.  I’m trying to modify that now.  It’s hard, and it sucks.  Next question?”
    I waited for him to continue, but he sat silent and merely looked at me.  When I didn’t speak right away he returned his gaze to the field in front of us and resumed idly chucking pebbles into the grass.  I soon realized that he was finished speaking, unless I dug further.
    “That’s not a thumbnail; it’s a fingernail paring at best.  Could I get a little more please?  How about the childhood part?  Half the people I know had some tough times growing up.  What exactly was hard about yours?”
    Jake looked at me again, then flicked a pebble up into the air.  He caught it and chucked it into the field in one fluid motion, and then he began to speak.  “Did your father ever beat you up?  Did he whip you with a belt?”
    “No,” I replied.  “My parents didn’t go in for corporal punishment.”
    “Hrumpf,” he snorted.  “How detached that sounds.  ‘Go in for corporal punishment.’  Well, Father was not so delicate.  He didn’t ‘go in for corporal punishment’ either.  He preferred to beat the shit out of me.  From as early as I can remember, Father would beat me for any and everything that I did.  He’d beat me like Ginger Baker beats the drums.”
    “I’m sorry,” I said before he could go further with his story.  “I don’t mean to pry.”
    “Well, you asked, and I’m going to tell you.  I got beat for things I did and beat for things that I did not do.  Father used a belt mostly.  My mother used the flat of her hand - again - mostly.  I thought that it was just part of life.  My mother was not so bad early on, but as I got older she got worse, until she sort of began to disappear.  I think that she slowly cracked under the strain.”
    “Holy shit!  That sucks,” I said.
    “I told you that it did.  Mother tried to shield me at first, but like I said, she cracked.  After a while I expected it from both sides whenever she was around.”
    “Well, what was the deal?” I asked.  “That’s not normal.  You figured that out, right?  Like, what was the problem?”
    “I don’t know what a psychologist would call it, but Father wasn’t right in the head.  He was in World War II and Korea, but I don’t think that he was in combat.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t in combat.  I don’t really know what it was all about.  It just was the way it was.”
    “So, how did you cope with that?”
    “I suppose that’s the point of this whole story, isn’t it?  One day when I was 10 years old I was playing catch with some friends.  I chucked a baseball and my friend Tommy Fletcher couldn’t catch it.  The ball went off of his glove and through a window in Mr. Steinhoffer’s garage.  That didn’t end well for me.”
    “What happened?”
    “Father paid for the window, and then I paid for the cost of repairs and for his inconvenience.  Do you know what a web belt is?”
    I shook my head that I did not know what a web belt is.
    “It’s a belt like they issue in the military.  About 2 inches wide or so.  Made out of canvas.  Father used to take pleasure in picking his belts when he was to whip me.  The thin leather ones would sting like a whip.  They’d cut, too.  The web belt; well, it was like a cannon as compared to a BB gun.  On this occasion he wrote the names of my friends on that belt and then told me that it was my friends who were giving me my beating, and not him.  He then laid into my butt until his arm was tired.”
    I sat there as still as a rock.  “That’s barbaric!” I spluttered at last.  “That’s fucking Neanderthal!”
    “Yeah?  Well, that was just another day in my life,” he replied.  “A bad day, as compared with the others, but otherwise not so very different from the rest.”
    “Oh no!  There’s no way that I would ….”
    “There’s no way that you would what?” he interrupted.  I was 10 years old, dammit, and this was no so out of the ordinary.  So what the hell would you have done?”
    He spoke softly, but with a steel about his eyes and in the set of his mouth.  I don’t remember sensing anger, but there was a hint of scorn, as of someone hearing empty words from a source who has no idea what they’re saying.  I took my cue and swallowed my protestations.  “Okay,” I said.  “Go on.”
    “Well, I learned something that day; that hour.  Hell, I learned something the very minute that he quit tearing my butt to shreds.  No, I have to back up one more time.  The thought came to me when I had passed beyond pain, and was only aware of the belt coming down on my butt again and again.  I learned that a bullet was never more than an inch away from my head, or that a runaway train was never more than a car length away from hitting me.  I knew with iron certainty that I couldn’t prevent the bullet from hitting me every time; nobody can do that.  I could dodge a hundred bullets and step out of the way of a hundred trains, but number one hundred and one is going to get me.  But I also learned - and this is most important - that I wasn’t suffering because I was bad.  I knew that I wasn’t less because disaster finally hit me.  It wasn’t my fault that it hit me.  It was going to hit me sooner or later, no matter what.  It doesn’t matter if it’s my fault or not; in fact, it usually wasn’t my fault.  All I could do is try to limit how many times it hits me.
    I shuddered as I heard this.  “Oh, man, I’m sorry,” I said.  “You shouldn’t have had to go through that.”
    “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” he replied, and I shuddered again.  “Like I said, you can only limit it; you can’t avoid it altogether.  I remembered my friends’ names on the belt, and I learned that friends were a distraction.  If I’m screwing around with them, I’m not looking for the train.  If I was paying attention I could see the train most of the time.  It was a matter of survival.  So I quit playing with friends and began to pay close attention to myself and my surroundings, and it worked.”
    “Worked?” I asked.  “How did it work?  You were 10 years old and you gave up friends?  You gave up playing?”
    “Absolutely.  Playing was a distraction.  A big distraction.  If I’m thinking about my fingers on the ball, with Tommy in front of me and me slinging the ball like Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle trying to throw out a runner trying to score from second base, then I’m not thinking about Mr. Steinhoffer’s window behind Tommy.  That could be costly to me.”
    “Shoot, I did both.  I played and thought of both.”
    “You didn’t have as much on the line as I did.  Anyway, I learned to quit being distracted by friends and playing and frivolous things like that, and I learned other things too.”
    “Other things, like what for instance?”
    “Like staying busy, and making myself useful to the point of being necessary.”
    “How did that work?”
    “Like this.  Father always had a small garden.  I took it over - slowly, of course - and eventually used most of the back yard for it.  I grew enough that mother cut down her food budget considerably.  We had fruit trees too.  I learned how to prune and water and fertilize them.  We had fresh and frozen and preserved fruits and vegetables all year.  Father and mother liked that, which reduced the frequency of the beatings, but it served another purpose too.”
    “Which was?”
    “Which was that I went door to door in my neighborhood selling the surplus of that produce.  I would make a buck at one house, two bucks at another, and by the end of fall I would have earned a nice little stash.  I also began to take over the front lawn, mowing and landscaping.  Then I learned how to properly wash the car, change the oil, do a tune up.  Father liked that too.  He liked not having to do it himself.  I exported those skills to the neighborhood along with my vegetables.  By the time I was 15 years old I had saved $1,000.  For a 15 year old kid in 1967, that was some pretty good scratch!”
    “That’s some pretty good scratch right now,” I replied.  “So, what did your friends think of all this?”
    “I quit having friends.”
    “Yeah, but you had them before.  How did they handle you shining them on?  Didn’t they have questions?”
    “Not really.  Not too much.  It was a complicated transition at first, but all of this happened in summer.  There were some complications in the fall when I went back to school however.  I wasn’t part of the crowd any more, and that led to some problems.  You know how friendly the playground can be to an outsider.”
    I gave a low whistle and answered, “Yeah.  Lord of the Flies.”
    “Yep.  Lord of the Flies.  It was pretty uncomfortable at first.  Nothing like what I was getting at home, but the punches still hurt, and the pranks were still humiliating.  Hell, I could take a punch easier than I could take getting tripped in front of the girls.”
    “Oh man.  You were in hell.”
    “Yes.  Yes I was in hell.  I committed myself to getting out of hell though.  I started to work out.  I did push ups.  I did pull ups.  I tied a rope onto a tree branch in the back yard and worked until I could pull myself up, hand over hand.  Then I worked until I could pull myself up 9 times in a row.  I could never get to 10 times.  I did squats holding an anvil that Father had in the garage, and curls with a length of steel chain.  I invented exercises and worked every muscle in my body.”
    “Did all of that training earn you respect?”
    “Yes, sort of.  That and karate earned me respect.  I was earning enough money that I could pay for karate lessons three times per week.  Father didn’t care, as long as he wasn’t paying for it.  I practiced and I practiced.  I climbed the rope, lifted the chains, squatted with the anvil, ran endlessly.  I did it all.  I kept my focus sharp, too.  No distractions.  No playing.  No flirting.  No horsing around.  It all paid off eventually.”
    “So, you had to kick someone’s ass?”
    “No.  Not really.  Not right away.”
    “So, how did it pay off?”
    “One day one of the nastiest bullies and his pack cornered me behind some bungalows.  I’d never seen so many of them in one place at one time.  They started into their usual routine of pushes and insults, slaps and so forth.  If you’ve ever been bullied, you know what I’m talking about.”
    I shook my head that I had never been in that situation.
    “Well anyway, I challenged them.”
    “You chose them all out?”
    “No.  I challenged them to keep up with me in a workout the next recess.”
    “And they accepted?”
    “Not at first, but I ridiculed them and told them point blank that they couldn’t keep up with me.  I told them that I was stronger than them, faster than them and smarter than them.  I told them, in front of all of their sycophants and hangers-on that they were afraid to compete with me.  They couldn’t ignore that; not when it was thrown down in front of their friends.”
    “Uh-huh.  So, how did it go?”
    “Exactly as I expected it to go.  The next recess they showed up.  They had to.  I ran them once around the playground and then did 20 pull ups on a high bar.  Most couldn’t do 20.  Then I ran them around the playground again, but faster this time.  When we came to the monkey bars, or what I guess they call the jungle gym now, I did elevated push ups, sit ups, dips, and exercises that I invented myself.  They couldn’t equal anything that I did.  Then I took off running around the playground again, but this time at a sprint.  They all fell out, and I just ran laughing.”
    “I suppose that earned you some respect.”
    “It did with some.  With others however, I had to explain one-on-one that if I could outperform them in every area of strength, then they should imagine what I could do if it came to a fight.  Of course, I had only just begun to learn karate.  At that time I probably couldn’t have taken on most of them in a street fight, but they didn’t know that.”
    “So I suppose that bought you some peace?”
    “Yeah, it did.  I wanted to learn more though, to make myself better prepared to defend myself.  I learned who were the best teachers locally and studied karate and other forms of martial arts under them over the years.  I only had to use those lessons one time on a bully, and that came several years after my elementary school trials.”
    “Wow,” I said after taking a minute to digest all that Jake had told me.  “I can’t imagine how lonely that felt.”
    “No,” he shot back.  “What you can’t imagine is how much the beatings had hurt.  My new framework for navigating a treacherous life was a bliss by comparison.”
    “But, no social contact with people….”
    “And no contact on my butt from that belt, or the back of Father’s hand.  Uh-uh, the trade was a good one.  Besides, I had plenty of business contact with my customers.  I kept one eye on my work and one eye on my academic studies, and the other eye on the horizon looking for incoming trouble.  In that way I ducked most of the grief that would have come for me otherwise.”
    “Most of it?  How much more did you have to take?”
    “Father would go into moods where he just had to take it out on someone.  Mother wouldn’t allow it to happen to her, but by the time that I was 15 she wasn’t home much any more.  She found other places to be and things to do, and other people to do them with. I’ll not say much more about that.  My older brother was long gone, in the merchant marine I was told.  My sister was two years older than me and she got pregnant and married a senior at high school.  She dropped out and he was drafted when he graduated, and after his training they moved somewhere; I don’t know where.”
    “So, that just left you and your dad?”
    “Yes, but he was never my dad.  I never had a dad.  No Daddy, no Pop or Pops, not even an Old Man.  I just had Father.  Biology was responsible for that and there was no way that I could avoid it.  Anyway, yeah.  Me and him, mostly.”
    “So, did he continue to beat you up when you were in high school?”
    “I was 15 years old the last time that he tried.  By then I was fully fit and had over 4 years of martial arts training.  He never tried again.”
    “Holy shit.  You clocked your Old Man?  I’m sorry man.  I know that I’ve already said that, but it’s true.  That kind of history would jack up anyone’s mind.”
    “Thanks, but I don’t think of my mind as being jacked up.  No.  It’s focused.  I’ve avoided other people’s problems and minded my own business.  It’s worked out for me pretty well.”
     “So, what about after you graduated?  What came next?”
    “I graduated at 17.  I really applied myself in the 5th and 6th grades, and two months into the 7th I was moved up one.  When I graduated I went straight into the Army.  I needed Father’s signature for that, which he gladly gave.  It was the last time that I saw him.”
    “What did you do in the Army?”
 Jake looked thoughtfully at me for a minute before resuming his story, and then he said, “The Army noticed my ability to defend myself and to not be seen by others if I didn’t want to be seen.  They developed several other skills in addition to those, and I won’t speak any more about what I did.  It is sufficient to say that I used my skills.”
    “Oh, uh, yeah.  I’m sorry.  We don’t have to go there.”
    “And we won’t.”
    “So, what are you doing now?  I mean, what are you planning to do after you graduate from here?”
    “Construction and real estate.  This state is going to grow like a weed, and I intend to cash in on it.  I need some business training; you know, business law, accounting, management, all of that stuff.  Also, I have to begin to learn how to navigate social interactions in a healthy manner.  It was my refuge to avoid social contact as a child, and it was part of my job to do the same for nearly 6 years in the Army.  Now I have to change that in order to function competently in the social world.  That’s why I’ve taken an apartment with two other guys instead of renting my own studio.  Have you noticed how well I’m doing?”
    He uttered a sardonic chuckle and flipped another two pebbles into the field.  He then fell silent, and I knew that he was at the end of his story.  I wasn’t finished with my investigation however, especially of one specific question.  “You were really unhappy with what happened today.  I saw you rescue an animal and defend yourself, which seemed like the right and logical things to do.  Why did that make you so angry?”
    “Why did that make me angry?” Jake repeated my question.  He shook the pebbles which remained in his hand as if he were shaking dice before throwing them.  At last he allowed the pebbles to drop from his hand and spoke again.
    “Saving the cat was a natural thing for me to do.  I’ve come to value animal contact more highly than I have human.  Defending myself was an automatic act.  I don’t reflect on that much one way or the other.  What affected me was that when I strove to let my guard down a little; to let myself care what Paul had done to Lisa, I became angry that your sister had stepped up to defend that girl while I sat in a chair debating.  By the time that I allowed myself to consider joining the human race, the human race had gotten tired of waiting for me and passed me by.  
    “I didn’t like the way that I looked and I didn’t like the way that I felt, and I didn’t know what to do with how I felt.  For me, that was a lot of ‘I don’t knows,’ and that is a position that I have tried to never be in.  I was angry with myself.”
    “Hmm.  And when you took off your shirt and we saw that scar or whatever it is.  You didn’t look too happy about that either.”
    “It goes with the rest of the story.  I got that scar in the line of duty.  I got careless one day.  I missed some signs of trouble and I paid for it.  I don’t show that scar to people, just as I have avoided more than superficial contact with people.  It’s a sign that I can be beaten, and I have not allowed my enemies to even consider the possibility that I can be beaten.  Believe me, I have never found an upside to showing that. 
    “When I allowed myself to care about Lisa’s mistreatment, I thought about all of the other times when I have seen people being mistreated and I stayed out of it because it was not my business.  That exposed a flaw in my life, and I can’t allow flaws.  They can be fatal.  So after what happened at the pool I returned to the apartment and tried to return into my mental safe space.  I didn’t plan to do that really.  It was a simple autonomic reaction.”
    “It wasn’t that big of a deal to us,” I said.  “It wasn’t like we were judging you for what you did or didn’t do.  Actually, I liked it that you saved the cat, and I loved it that you clocked that punk Cary.”
    “I know that you weren’t judging me.  I was judging myself.  You and your sister saw my physical flaw that I received as a result of my loss of focus some years ago.  It made me feel weak.  It made me feel vulnerable.  It made me feel like a bullet or a train was about to crash into me, or maybe both a bullet and a train at the same time.  It was a powerful feeling and it unsettled me, and I didn’t handle it well.  This will be a long process I’m afraid, and I don’t know yet how it will work out.”  
    I now realized that Jake was finished talking.  I could see by the way that his gaze turned back out to the cottonwood trees that he had nothing more to add, and that was fine with me.  I raised the bottle of wine, but thought twice about drinking and finally handed the bottle over to him.  “Here,” I said.  “You probably need this more right now than I do.”
    He looked at me and said with a face that looked like moulded steel.  “I don’t need anything.”  Then that rigid face broke into something that looked close to a good-natured smile.  “But what does need have to do with it?”  He then took the bottle out of my hand and took a gulp of wine.

A QUESTION OF WAR AND PEACE, CHAPTER 2

     The first month of the new semester passed quickly for me.  I enjoyed the social life of the apartments and the school, and I was challenged by the difficulty of several of my subjects from almost the first day.  I had dreams of a career in marine research, but wasn’t sure yet if I wanted to go in the direction of biology or oceanography.  All that I knew was that I wanted to do post graduate work at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, and that only the highest of grades would be acceptable when I tried to get into that school.
     It was October now, and although the days were still warm, the chill of the coming fall could be felt in the early morning air.  I got up early one Saturday and peddled my bicycle into Santa Rosa, which lay seven miles to the north.  I had not yet visited the local metropolis, and felt like it was time to give it a look while I gave my brain a rest.  I was about three miles north of the college on Petaluma Hill Road when I saw a jogger coming toward me.  As the distance between us closed I recognized that it was Jake.  He said nothing, as usual.  I waved at him and he nodded his head in reply.  As we passed each other I noticed that he was running almost as fast as I was riding.  Considering that we were on a level grade, that was a pretty good clip.
     I returned to Rohnert Park early in the afternoon.  As I crossed over Codding Creek and cleared the row of cottonwood trees that lined that creek from the hills to my left to Highway 101, a little more than a mile distant to my right, I saw a figure sitting on the ground with his back against the cinder block wall that separated the pool area from an open field.  Even from this distance I could tell that the person resting there was Jake.
     I stashed my bike in my bedroom, rolled a joint, and went outside to see if he was still there, and found that he was.  Without asking if he wanted company I sat down next to him and lit the joint.  He never made a motion of invitation to me, but neither did he look displeased at my interruption of his meditations.  With Jake, that was a normal response.  I offered the joint to him and he declined it with a simple shake of the head.
     His reserve did not bother me any more.  He had been neither friendly nor unfriendly toward me during the last month.  He was more like neutral.  My own personality is one that leads me to believe that most people will like me sooner or later unless they are weird, and in that case they’ll let me know and I’ll leave them alone.  I know now that this view does not represent reality, but I’m still hardwired that way as a default, and have to make an effort to not slip back into my old habit.
     Other people - most of them, anyway - are not wired in the same manner.  I knew that Jake was rubbing some people the wrong way, and that bothered me.  It bothered me even more that it did not seem to bother him.  Dave, our roommate, was one of those people.  I figured that now was a good time and place to address that issue and try to head off an uncomfortable collision.
     “You don’t smoke dope at all, do you?” I asked, trying to open a conversation.
     “No, I don’t.”
     “How do you feel about others smoking it?  Just about everybody in the complex does, you know.”
     “That’s their business,” he replied.  “It hardly affects me at all.  I’ve been around it before.  Weed, and stuff a lot stronger than that, was used all around me most of the last few years.  I don’t even think about it anymore, and I have no interest in using it.”
     Jake continued to stare out across the field, looking north toward the cottonwood trees.  The creek was little more than a string of puddles and marshy ground marching toward the west at this time of the year.  The trees drank deeply of the stream which flowed inch by halting inch in the subsoil beneath those marshes and puddles. 
     I took another hit of the joint and then launched into what I wanted to discuss.  “Jake, I’ve never known anyone quite like you.  Nobody else says that they have either.  Some people think that you’re rude and stuck-up.  That’s not what I think,” I quickly stated, “but it’s something that I’ve heard.  I thought that I should let you know that; that people are talking.”
     Jake smiled a little, then looked down and picked up some pebbles off of the ground.  After a minute he said, “Most people aren’t really talking about me.  Most people don’t know that I exist.  A few do know that I exist but have a lot of things to think about that are more interesting than a weird guy who doesn’t say much.  The very few who remain, I think that I can manage.”
     Silence settled between us.  I had no idea what to say next.  I was trying to warn Jake that he was creating some ill will, in spite of what he thought, and now he had just blown me off.  I was tempted to call it a lost cause, rise up from the ground and return to the apartment when Jake broke the awkward silence.
     “Have you noticed the sound that’s coming from the trees?” he asked.
     “Say what?” I asked.
     “That sound,” he repeated, and pointed toward the trees.  “Listen.  You hear it?”
     I thought that he was crazy.  I was trying to warn him of possible trouble and he was talking about some damn trees or something.  I told him that I hadn’t heard any sounds, but I then focused my hearing in that direction.  I became aware of a soft sound like that which might have been produced by wind among the branches and leaves.  “Yeah, I hear it now,” I said.  “So?”
     “What does it sound like to you?”
     “The wind, I guess.”
     “Look closely at the trees.  The branches aren’t moving.  Heck, the leaves aren’t even moving, as far as I can see from here.”
     I did as he asked and, sure enough, there was hardly so much as a quiver of a leaf in the nearly motionless warm air of the early afternoon.  “Yeah, you’re right.  So, what is that supposed to mean?” I asked.
     “It’s not a great revelation,” Jake replied.  “It’s just a curious thing.  It sounds like wind, but no wind is blowing.  Things aren’t always what they appear to be.  The fact is that the sound you’re hearing is traffic on Highway 101.”
     “I doubt that,” I said.  “The highway’s too far away.”
     “Yeah, it’s weird.  Still, in some way the trees act like a sort of conductor of the traffic noise.  Or maybe it’s the wet creek bed creating a pipeline of higher humidity just above it, with improved sound conductivity through the moisture in the air.  Maybe it’s both, or maybe it’s neither.  I’m not sure at all.  If you move a hundred yards further away from the creek you can’t hear it at all.  You have to be this close or closer to hear it. And if you move closer it gets more strange; the sound of wind racing through the trees and not so much as a quiver in a single leaf.”
     I took another hit off of the joint, and after exhaling asked, “So, what does it prove?”
     “Prove?  It proves nothing.  Nothing at all.  What it does, however, is illustrates that there are pathways by which you can hear or otherwise perceive things that are not obvious, or might not make sense on the surface.  For much of my life I’ve spent far more time listening and looking than I have speaking.  That’s the reason that I was given two ears and two eyes but only one mouth, I suppose.  I’ve made it a rule of life to be very aware of my surroundings at all times, and I see and hear things that a lot of other people don’t.  I therefore have a pretty good idea what people, including our roommate Dave, are saying, even if they haven’t said a word to me.  Sometimes especially if they haven’t said a word to me.
     “Pathways?  What sort of pathways?  Like, how do you really know what Dave’s saying if he isn’t saying it to you and you don’t really talk to anyone else?”
     “I’ve taken years to learn how to do it.  It would probably take even longer to explain how it works.  It’s not voodoo though.  It’s more a matter of focus and filter; being attentive to what I need to hear and know and filtering out what is just white noise.
     “Man,” I said.  “I have got no idea what the hell you’re talking about.  How does sound traveling some crazy way through a bunch of trees, or whatever, tell you about what people are saying?  And how did you say that it travels through trees?  Wet air or whatever?”
     Jake smiled again as he looked at the trees.  “Hell if I know,” he said.  “I only know that it does; not how it does.  Joe, as much as possible I try to work with what I know.  I constantly try to add to that body of information - what I know that is - and try to rely as little as possible on what I can only guess.  I trust my guesses, as far as I can, but they’re just educated guesses and inherently fallible. That’s why I try to observe as much as I can so that I can know as much as I can and rely on that knowledge as much as I can.  That is an activity that keeps my mind pretty busy, which is one reason why I’m not very social.  So, that sound? I can only guess about that sound, so I’ll only run so far with it.  It makes for a good example however.  That’s the only reason that I mentioned it.”
     My joint was burning low and I was very relaxed, if thoroughly confused.  I automatically offered him the joint one more time and then, realizing my mistake, I pulled it back.  Jake had already spoken to me today more than he had in the entire past month, and I found myself growing increasingly curious about him.  After listening to the sound in the trees a little longer I continued the conversation.
     “Have you had any thoughts about joining our parties in the unit or around the pool?  I know that you don’t smoke weed at all, but I’ve seen you drink a little beer.  If you just hung around a little bit I think that most of the talk that I’ve been hearing would go away.  I don’t mean to pry into your business, so don’t feel like you have to answer me, but if you would loosen up just a little I think that it would go a long way.”
     “I’ve already loosened up, as you call it,” he replied.  “I just did, for your sake.  I have a wall to my back and a field in front of me.  I can see nearly anything that could come at me.  That gives me the space to loosen up a little.”
     “No, I mean mingle a little.  Have a little fun.”
     “Fun’s never been my friend.  Fun distracts.  Fun shakes your focus.  Fun will get you killed.”
     “Oh, man.  I couldn’t be like that.  I have to have a little fun.”
     “A little fun can come back and bite you,” he replied.
     “How’s that?  I think having no fun would be a lot worse than an occasional bite.”
     Jake was quiet now for more than a moment.  He looked down at the dirt, then up at the trees.  It seemed to me that he was listening to the car noise that sounded like wind; listening for it to tell him what to say to me next.  At last he spoke up.  “Have you seen any mice in that field in front of us?” he asked.
     “No,” I replied as I looked out into the field.  “I haven’t been looking for mice.  What’s that got to do with anything?”
     After another long pause, Jake took a deep breath and exhaled, and then he said, “Joe, I’ve found that life is more like a war than it’s like a party.  There is an enemy or a circumstance or even an simple accident that is waiting just around the corner, waiting for you to get lazy and lose your focus.  Then, it’s going to take you out.”
     “Damn, man.  That’s dark.”
     “Yeah, maybe.  But it’s true.  I don’t let that be the sum of my life; sometimes I act against that rule, and when I do I know that I’ll have nobody to blame if it bites me in the butt.  But it’s one of my most important guiding principles, and it’s kept me out of more shit than I can relate in one conversation.”
     “I don’t buy it,” I said.  “I’ve never been in a war, but I wouldn’t describe my life as being in one.”
     “Hmm.  Well, I have been in a war.  Been in a couple of them, to be more accurate.  Vietnam you’ve heard of, of course.  I’ve been there.  I’ve been in a couple of other places too, and you haven’t heard about them.  In those places, that joint that you’re smoking?  That joint could get you killed.  The reality that I understand is that your joint will knock your focus off kilter, and that could get you in a world of shit or maybe killed.  In the places that I’ve been, and I’m not just talking about Vietnam, you could pay for losing your focus, maybe with your life.  Back here in the Real World, you may not believe that it’s the same as it is over there.  You don’t believe that it’s possible.  You’re lulled to sleep by your fun, then you aren’t ready when the shit hits the fan.  That’s what puts your ass truly in a sling, my friend.  Yeah, you don’t realize it, but you’re right smack dab in the middle a war.  We all are.”
     “I ain’t in no war,” I replied.  “I’m a lover, not a fighter.  This joint isn’t putting me in any risk unless you’re a cop.  That’s just a bunch of paranoid hooey.”
     Jake then turned and looked at me with an intensity that almost knocked me sober.     “Tell me,” he asked.  “Does that weed sharpen your senses or does it dull them?”
     “Well, it certainly enhances my senses of humor and taste.  It helps my creativity too.”
     “But what about your sight?” he asked.  “Your hearing?  Touch?  Smell?  Does it help them?  Does it analyze unexpected changes that those senses can detect?  Does it sort that information into risk scenarios and move you to react quickly if necessary?”
     “No.  Shit no, but ….” I began, but Jake was on a roll.
     “Does that joint enhance your basic instinct?  Your fight or flight? By that I mean are you more attuned to who and/or what is around you because you smoked it?  Do you know when someone’s staring at you in a crowd, or does the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you’re walking alone, yet you know that someone or something’s watching you, following you, hunting you?”
     “No man.  Life’s not like that.  Life’s not some sort of law of the jungle.  Shit, you’re creeping me out! I wouldn’t want to live in any sort of world that’s like that.”
 “Well, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you but that’s just what you’re doing.  Life is exactly like that.  I learned that early.  Your life is like that too, to one degree or another, but you don’t know it. Yet. You just haven’t been standing in the wrong place when the hammer’s come down.  When it does come down you’ll be wondering ‘how the hell did that happen?’  Well, I’ve trained myself to look for that damned hammer, and I’ve seen it and dodged it more times than I can count.  I may still get squashed some day, but I’ll know that I did everything that I could to avoid it.”
      “Holy shit!  That’s really dark.”
      “No, not really.  It’s neither dark nor light.  It just is.  Joe, we don’t live a nursery rhyme life.  None of us do.  But it’s not all dark.  I relax and enjoy life.  I just do it in a different manner than most others do.  I have different points of reference for danger/not-danger than most other people, but I also have different areas where, as you say, I loosen up.  This ‘being different’ sometimes draws negative attention from the few people who notice me at all, but I’m used to that.  To the vast majority of the crowd I’m invisible.  By next semester nobody will think twice about me.  They won’t even see me.  I’m cool with that.”
      Jake then stopped speaking and stared off into the sky.  I finished my joint, and was finished with this conversation too.  He was just paranoid, and I decided that I didn’t need to spend any more time on this project.  I moved to get up but he put his hand on my knee.  “Wait,” he said.  “See that bird that’s circling over by the trees?”
      I squinted into the deep blue in the direction that Jake was pointing and quickly found the bird that he was pointing at.  “Yeah, I see it,” I said.
      “That’s a red shouldered hawk.  He’s been circling for a while, but now mostly staying in one tight area.  Watch him with me for a little while, would you?”
      I rested back against the wall without speaking and fixed my eyes upon the bird.  His flight pattern was limited to a small circle, and he kept gliding back and forth, barely moving his wings.  I soon began to lose interest and my gaze began to wander.  Then Jake slapped my knee and said, “There.  Watch closely.”  The bird suddenly folded its wings and plummeted to the earth.  A moment later he rose from the field and flew off to the west.  Even from this distance I could see that the hawk clutched something in its talons.
      “The mice that you can’t see?” he said.  “Well, the hawk can see some of them.  He sees the ones who get relaxed; who forget that they have their own personal war going on.  Now that mouse is going to be the hawk’s lunch.  You speak of dark.  Well, it’s pretty dark for that mouse right now, but pretty light for the hawk.  I’m like the hawk, as much as I can be.  I try to be the hawk if I have any choice in the matter, but I’ll tell you the truth;  I get tired of being a hawk.  As God is my witness, I truly do get tired of it.  But I never get tired of not becoming the mouse.  Never.”
      I stared speechless at the bird as it receded from my view.  I was too stoned to process the words that Jake had just spoken to me, and I knew that he was aware of that fact.  He let out a low chuckle at that moment - the first thing that had resembled a laugh that I had heard from him that day - and then he stood up.  He offered me his hand to help me to my feet, and I took advantage of his offer.
      “So I think that I will continue pursuing the qualities of hawkness.  You can choose what you wish.  I rarely meddle in anyone else’s business.  But even a hawk gets to relax when the hunt is over and the fledglings are fed.  Let’s go and have one of those beers that you are so obsessed with drinking.  You ARE 21 years old, aren’t you?

A Question of War and Peace, Chapter 1

     I met Jake Cross in an apartment in Rohnert Park, California, in September of 1975.  I had finished my second year and Mira Costa Community College in Southern California and was beginning my junior year at Sonoma State College.  The College View Apartments complex was a short walk away from the campus, cheaper than the dorms and populated almost exclusively by other students.  It was, in all respects, perfect.
     Jake had been the first to enquire about our particular unit and, for fifteen more dollars each month, had acquired the single-occupant bedroom.  I shared a slightly larger two-person bedroom with Dave Fisher.  Dave was also a junior college grad, a former linebacker on his school’s football team, and generally considered by all to be crazy as a loon.
     I didn’t see Jake for the first three days that I was ensconced in the apartment.  I knew that he was there because I sometimes heard him early in the morning stirring in the kitchen.  The door to his room was always closed, and when he had left his room I simply missed his going and coming.  David said that he saw Jake twice during that period, and that he had said little more than ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ to him.
     On the fourth day I finally met Jake.  It was Monday, classes had began, and I was seated on the sofa smoking a joint when the door opened.  I expected to see Dave and Kathy, the freshman from Redding, California, whom he had already hooked up with.  Instead, someone else came through the door.
     “Hello,” he said, and began to walk past me.
     “Hello,” I replied.  “You must be my mystery roommate.  My name’s Joe.”
     He stopped, appearing to be reluctant to do so, and then said, “My name’s Jake.”
     The man standing in front of me was about six feet tall.  He wore khaki pants and a blue work shirt, the kind that you could get at J C Penny’s.  He was clean shaven, unlike many of the students who lived in our apartments, and had brown hair trimmed high and tight; military style.  His shoulders were slightly more broad than most of the students and his waist was lean without looking thin.  He was a little older than most, and his overall appearance was that of a cop.  I stared at my joint and then back at him, and he laughed.
     “It’s no sweat,” he said as he pointed at my joint.  “Ain’t none of my business.”
     “Oh, well, you never know.  I’m glad to finally meet you.”
     I began to rise and extend my hand in greeting, but he said, “Nice to meet you Joe,” and walked back to his room and closed the door.
     I saw Jake more as the weeks dragged on.  We all found our individual rhythms as students and roommates; rhythms which overlapped from time to time.  Jake continued to say little, if anything at all, when our paths crossed.  My first impression was that he was rude and a snob.  Dave suggested that he might have to jack our standoffish roommate up before the semester was over.  I began to think that if this was going to be the atmosphere in my apartment, then perhaps I ought to see about moving somewhere else.
     It was the Friday of the third week that I finally said more than a few words at one time to Jake.  I was returning from a chemistry class at about 5 PM and my nose was assaulted the moment that I walked into the apartment by the not-unpleasant odor of something that was cooking.  Jake was standing in the kitchen stirring that something in a large pot, and I said “Hi Jake,” fully expecting the usual reply of two or three words.
     “Hello Joe,” he replied.  He tasted some of whatever he was cooking in the pot, chewed speculatively, and then a smile spread across his face.  “Dinner is served.  You hungry?” he asked.
     I was caught off guard by Jake’s friendly overture, but the fact was that I really was hungry and had nothing but some bread and deli meat in the fridge.  One more sandwich to go with my beer was all that I had to look forward to.  Almost without thinking I replied that I indeed was hungry and asked, “What’s on the menu?”
     “Beans,” he replied.
     “Beans?”
     “Yep.  Beans and ham hock.
     I put my book bag down on the sofa and walked into our tiny kitchen.  Jake stepped away from the pot to give me room to approach it.  The pot was about three quarters full of plump, brown beans.  Small bits of what I took to be onion floated among the beans, and right in the middle of the pot was a large bone with what appeared to be some sort of thick rind around it.
     “Help yourself to a bowl,” he said.  “Make sure that you dig some ham out of that hock, too.”
     Unsure of this strange food, I took about half a bowl and one small piece of the ham.  Jake filled a bowl for himself and we sat down at our small apartment-sized table.  As we waited for the beans to cool down he began to speak.  “Joe, I just want to make something clear before we go further into the semester.  I’m not a very social person.  It’s not that I don’t like people, or that I think that I’m superior to them or anything like that.  I’ve just been a loner for a lot of years, and usually try to keep to myself and mind my own business.  People sometimes think that I’m judging them because I’m usually silent and watching my surroundings, but that’s not what’s going on.  I really hope that you and Dave are okay with this.”
     “Sure,” I said.  “That’s cool, and I hope that our noise doesn’t bother you.”  In the short while that we had been living together in the apartment, there had already been one party in our unit and several in the pool area just outside of Jake’s window.
     “Yeah, no problem with noise,” he replied.  “I’m pretty used to noise, and I have ear protection anyway.  Try your beans.”
     I sensed that his invitation to eat was a way of saying that this conversation was over.  I put a spoonful of the beans into my mouth and was surprised at how tasty they were.  I started shoveling more into my mouth and asked rhetorically, “Where have these been all of my life?”
     “I grew up on them,” Jake said.  “Nineteen cents per pound for the beans, a quarter a pound for the hocks.  A little onion and garlic, salt and pepper, and your have several meals on the cheap.  That’s how I like it.  Help yourself to more if you’d like.  I’ll put the rest away when it cools.
     He then got up and washed his bowl and spoon while I refilled my own bowl.  I sat down and went at the beans with gusto.  Jake finished cleaning up and headed toward his room.  Before he disappeared through the door however he turned and said, “Just a couple more things.  Help yourself whenever there’s a pot in the fridge, only leave some pocket change in a bowl on the counter.  It’s cheap, like I said, but I’m not rich.  Tell Dave that he’s welcome to them too, with the same provision.  Also, apologize to Dave for me.”
     “Apologize?” I asked.  “For what?”
     “Those beans are a gift that keeps on giving.  You’ll find out what I mean in good time.  In fact, one of you might want to plan on sleeping on the sofa tonight.”

FINDING OUR WAY

FINDING OUR WAY

“Here we are,” Larry said as he steered his Plymouth station wagon into the parking lot.

“Where in the heck is here?” Willy asked.

“Lake Merwin.  It’s part of a series of reservoirs that were built during the Depression.  This is one of my favorite places on earth.”  He pulled into a parking space, set the brake, and turned off the engine.  “Come on.  Let’s get out so that you can get a good look at this place.”

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Reunion, First Revision

Bert Laver climbed the last one hundred feet of the way to his destination almost on hands and knees.  The place where he was going to was no more than four thousand feet above sea level, but he was almost forty years older than he had been the last time that he visited this place.  The pack full of camping gear, added to the extra years and extra pounds that he was carrying, resulted in a very tired and profusely sweating Bert who finally rose up over the lip in the barely-distinguishable trail to arrive at his destination.

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