Campfires

“Man, it’s been ages since we did this, Dad.  I’m glad that you had this idea.”

Greg Shannon sat on the wooden bench seat of the stone camp table that had been built by the WPA men during the Great Depression, almost one hundred years earlier.  “I can’t believe that it’s been fifty years since we did this.”

“Fifty years at least” Roger Shannon replied.  You and Wally Graham were fifteen, I think, the last time we camped here.”  Roger sat down beside his son, extracted a bottle of beer from the ice chest that sat at their feet, twisted off the cap and took a long pull off of the cold brew.  “Damn, but this stuff tastes better here than anywhere else.”

“You say that all the time, Dad.  I don’t think it makes too much difference where you are.”

Roger chuckled and said “Yeah, son.  You may be right.”  He took another gulp of beer and looked across their campsite.  A narrow asphalt access road ran past campsite #36.  Across that road the ground quickly dropped ten or fifteen feet to the bed of the Sweetwater River.  The Sweetwater could just barely be called a creek, really.   Only when a thunderstorm rolled across that corner of the mountains, or when an infrequent snowpack melted, did the Sweetwater look in any way like a real river.  On this day it was low, as usual, as it trickled on it’s way to being absorbed by the thirsty earth long before it reached the sea.  Beyond the river stretched a narrow mountain valley, and beyond that the mountains continued to climb to a peak of 6,000 feet, the highest elevation in San Diego County.  The air was warm and dry, the scenery beautiful, and the whole place thick with memories of family camping trips long ago.

“No, Roger said softly; almost under his breath.  “It tastes better here.”

Greg looked at the same vista that so impacted his father.  He too looked at the riverbank, and thought of the creek that he loved to play in after his father had admonished Greg and his younger brother Jerry to stay out of it.  “Don’t you two get wet in that river!” he would sternly command.  “Yes Dad” they would reply, and then run and jump into the middle of that misnamed stream of water in the straightest line possible, as everyone involved knew that they would do.

That and a million other memories flooded into Greg’s mind as he looked in the same direction as his father.  And, like the older Shannon, he reached into the ice chest and withdrew a cold beer.  Taking a swig he drew his sleeve across his lips and said “Yeah.  They do taste pretty good up here.”

Greg and his father were traveling together alone for the first time in decades.  Greg’s mother, Roger’s wife of many years, had died in an automobile accident ten years earlier, and now Greg’s own wife had succumbed to a short and brutal struggle with pancreatic cancer.  The elder Shannon had been separated from his wife suddenly, without having had time to say goodbye to her.  He grieved, and then healed and began to get on with the rest of the time that was left to him.

Greg, on the other hand, had watched his wife wither, wracked equally  by the cancer and the treatment for it.  He had plenty of time to say goodbye.  Too much time.  By the time that death ended Eileen’s suffering Greg had felt like he had died several times himself.  He was glad for an end to her pain, and both sadness and relief did battle for primacy in his scarred and beaten heart.  Within two months of Eileen’s passing, and after spending many hours on the phone pouring out his hurt and loneliness to his father, Roger proposed this trip.

“Greg, I think you need a break; a change of pace.  You’ve spent too much time in hospital rooms and I’ve spent too much time in Gustavo’s Tequila Factory.  Why don’t you come down here and take me on a road trip?  I’m too old to drive that much by myself, but I would love to see some scenery go past my window once again.

Roger lived in a single-wide mobile home on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, and therefore had access to the best scenery in the world.  Some of it, anyway.  But he did love being on the road, and knew that his grieving son needed to get out of his cocoon.  “You drive down here and pick me up.  Your boy can run the clinic while you’re gone and we can just hang out.”

The truth was that Marty, Greg’s oldest son who followed in his father’s footsteps and successfully navigated dental school, had already been running the clinic in everything but name only.  “Yeah, Pops.  Do it!” Marty advised his dad.  “I think Grandpa’s right.  A change would probably be a good thing for you.  We’ll hold down the fort until you get back.”

So Greg, or Dr. Greg to his patients, took the next month and a half to clear his schedule.  Then, in the beginning of July, he backed his Ford Explorer out of the driveway in front of his home in Bismarck, North Dakota, and headed west on Interstate 94.  The trip usually required two days to travel a combination of Interstate highways and two lane roads, if you pushed it.

Greg decided to do it in three days.  Loneliness had become his constant companion these last four months and more, and while he looked forward to “rejoining the living” as his plainspoken father had put it, he wondered if he ever really could.  Loneliness had become his lot, and he was not sure that his loneliness wasn’t somehow the glue that held his sanity together.

Greg spent his first night in a sort of clean and definitely inexpensive motel in Deadwood, South Dakota.  The sign in the bathroom admonishing guests to not use motel linen to wipe down their motorcycles was mildly disconcerting, but the place was otherwise unremarkable.  Dinner that evening and breakfast the following morning were purchased at ‘The Shootout Bar and Grill’.  Both meals looked strangely alike; the burger steak in the evening and the sausage patties the next morning appeared to have been fried in the same grease.  “My doctor would crap in his pants if he saw me eating this” Greg thought.  “Oh well.  You only live once.”

His leisurely drive the next day brought him to Walsenberg, Colorado.  He upgraded his motel accommodations and meal opportunities, finding a very nice motel with a pool and a restaurant attached that offered meat that wasn’t fried, as well as green things to eat.  A breakfast of oatmeal and fruit was procured in the morning, after which he pointed his SUV west again, winding across southern Colorado and then dropping south into New Mexico.

He pulled onto the gravel driveway in front of Roger’s mobile home at about four in the afternoon.  Knowing the futility of knocking on the front door, Greg picked his way across the yard, avoiding cacti and spreading patches of goatheads, and walked around to the east-facing back porch, where he was almost certain that he would find his father.

He was not disappointed.  Resting in nylon lawn chairs were his father and a woman of similar age.  “That must be Rosie” he thought.  Roger had a mixed drink on the wooden table at his elbow and the woman had what appeared to be an iced tea.  In front of them, at a distance sufficient to separate them from any extra heat on this warm summer afternoon, was a hooded barbecue grill with aluminum foil covering the opening.  A small motor turned a rotisserie, and on top of the hood rested a metal dish containing pieces of hot dog and bologna and other meats.  There, the bits of meat would be kept warm until they could be speared with a toothpick and munched, as hours of relaxation and conversation passed by.  Greg had seen this picture hundreds of times at least, but this was the first time that any woman other than his mother had been in it.

“I knew I’d find you here” Greg announced as he rounded the corner of the mobile home.

“Where else would I be?” Roger responded without missing a beat.  He then rose up and greeted his son with a bear hug, and didn’t let go too quickly.  “Come on son.  I want you to meet Rosie.”

Rosamunda Elena Chavezguerrero rose up from her seat and, after introductions, shook Greg’s hand warmly, but only after he had extended his first.

“The chicken,” Roger pointed in the direction of the barbecue grill with his chin. “Will be done momentarily.  Rosie will then turn Henrietta there into the finest chicken enchiladas that you’ve ever eaten.”

“By that, I suppose, you mean that I had better have brought my own Tums.”

“Oh, no” Roger protested.  “It’s not too hot.”

“I’ll bet.”

Memories of that meal lingered as the two Shannons crossed deserts and state lines for the next two days.  Greg discovered that Tucks pads would have been far more useful than the Tums that he consumed later that that evening.

Eventually they arrived at the Green Valley Falls Campground and now they had erected their tent, deployed their cots, and had packed all of their canned and packaged food items in the wooden camp pantry that was found in every campsite there.  The camp set up, they began to walk toward the falls area which was not too far away.

“So, tell me about Rosie, Dad.  What’s your relationship with her?”

I knew you’ve been dying to ask” Roger chuckled.  “Rosie and Ernesto were two of my favorite people in Taos.  I met Ernesto at Gustavo’s and we hit it off right away.  We tossed back a lot of drinks before we discovered that we both loved to garden.  Pretty soon I was at his place all the time, working in his garden with him and sharing meals from the produce that we grew, and spending long evenings sitting in the shade with him and Rosie and oftentimes with their family and friends.  They sort of adopted the lonely old Gringo.

I began to go to church with them; yes, don’t look so surprised!  They sort of became like family, and the family went to church.  So I went to church.  I guess I’m still a Methodist, if I’m anything at all, but I found the church to be a comfortable place.  You know, that building is over two hundred years old.

Generations have been born and died, all of whom were baptized there and later laid to rest out in the campo santo.  Sometimes when I’m there it feels like they’re still hanging around, sort of.  Still worshipping.  Nobody’s ever called me a religious guy, but I guess the closest I’ve ever come is right there in that old adobe church.

“So, where does Ernesto figure in here?” Greg asked.  “What does he think of Rosie cooking chicken enchiladas for you at your home?”

“Ernesto passed away two years ago.  He got the flu, then pneumonia.  The two diseases tag-teamed him and his organs all shut down.  His death hurt, sort of like your mother’s did.  Not with the same intensity, but it left a hole.  Of course, it left an even bigger hole in Rosie’s life.  She took it pretty hard, but her family and the church really came together around her.  I continued to tend Ernesto’s garden; in a way, it was like keeping a part of him alive for myself.

Rosie and her family were surprised by this, I think.  The Hispanic community up there is used to living side by side with us Gringos, but there’s little real mingling.  After a while though, Rosie saw that my affection for her husband was genuine and she appreciated that.  Plus, I grow a better garden than he did!  Anyway, we’ve come to enjoy each other’s company.”

The falls area was only a short distance form the campsite, a fact for which Roger was grateful.  Soon they stood before the slit through the boulders in which a narrowed-down Sweetwater River shot towards the forty-foot long, steep slide of rock down which the water raced toward a pool at its base.

“I can’t believe that Jerry and I would climb around on that pile of rocks and didn’t kill ourselves,” Greg said.

“I can’t believe it either,” Roger replied.  “Your mother was certain that one or both of you wouldn’t come back when I would turn you two loose.”

Greg stared at his father in surprise.  “Then why did you let us do it?”

“Well, I remembered my own growing up.  I did things at least that dangerous and some a lot worse.  I suspect that you have too.  I survived mine, and I thought that letting you two live was a better deal than worrying that every little thing would kill you.  So I rolled the dice.  Do you think that I did the right thing?”

Greg mulled it over as he imagined two ragamuffin boys prancing barefoot over the rocks and sliding along in the river current, and having the time of their lives.  “I guess it was probably a good thing,” he said.

Later that evening Roger cooked a simple meal on their gas camp stove.  The old stone camp stoves, also built by the WPA men so long ago, had finally crumbled under the stress of thousands of roaring campfires used to cook breakfasts and dinners, and to provide a center for storytelling and camp life on thousands of evenings.  The steel stove-on-a-pole contraptions that had replaced the old stone stoves had the aesthetic appeal of a razor blade easy chair, and the two men would have nothing to do with it.

After cleaning up they opened two beers and sat back to watch the sun go down in the west.  Roger was tired from the long drive west from Taos. Walking around the campground, while satisfying in that it limbered up his tired and cramped muscles and joints, had taken its toll.  Greg mostly felt peace from his walk down memory lane, and only narrowly avoided shucking off his shoes and shirt and getting into the water like he had done so many years ago.

Something was holding him back from real peace though.  Something seemed to be lurking beneath the banter and reminiscences that he shared with his father.  There was another shoe.  Just about as the sun slipped behind the low hill on the other side of the campground’s shower building, that shoe dropped.

“Greg, there’s something I’ve got to share with you.”

Damn!” Greg thought.  “I hate it when people say that.  Here it comes.”

“What is it, Dad”

Roger stared at the western horizon for a minute to two more, as if looking for the right words to come to him out of the fading light of the already-set sun.  Greg noticed the little shrug of his father’s shoulders as he gave up the search.

“I had a colonoscopy a couple of months ago.  Part of the ‘old man drill’.  Problem is, it showed that I have cancer growing up there.  They did a CT on me and found that it’s already in my liver, and in a couple of bones, too.”

Since Greg had felt that something was coming, he was not terribly surprised at the news.  “So how bad is it?”

“Well, they say that I’ve got maybe six months to a year.  It’s pretty far along. Nobody knows, really.”

Greg sat silently, trying to digest this new bad news.  His struggle with the death of his wife had exhausted him, and he now could feel no grief as he listened to his father tell of his own impending end.  He knew that the grief would come soon enough though.

“You’re not going to do chemo or anything like that, are you.”  Greg said it as a statement of fact, not as a question.

“Nope.  No point.  My sawbones recommended all of that shit, but he knows it’s worthless and didn’t argue with me too much. Rosie introduced me to a curandera; a traditional healing woman.  Many in the Hispanic community swear by her.  I’m giving her a shot.  She prays and mixes up some roots and bark and other stuff like that for me to drink.  Hey, it might work.  Who knows?”

The two men remained silent for a while, deep in their own thoughts while the beers in their hands grew warm.

“Dad, I thought that you invited me on this trip to help me deal with Eileen’s death.  I have to tell you that I feel a little bit screwed here.”

Roger was ready for that statement.  “I don’t really blame you, son.  But I wish that you would try to look at it differently.  I lost your mom in an instant.  She went to the store to get some groceries and she didn’t come back.  The sheriff and the coroner both told me that it would be better that I not see the body; that not much of it resembled the Rebecca that I had known.  I said goodbye to some ashes; to pictures, to a closet full of clothing that still smelled like her, but she was gone.  I could only say goodbye to memories.

And you have just watched death happen in slow motion.  I won’t describe that for you again; you know it well enough.  Hell, you know it a lot better than I do.  I saw it close enough when Ernesto was dying, but it was nothing like you went through.

Anyway, I thought that telling you here and in this way was like splitting the difference.  We’ve got the rest of this trip to enjoy and lots of time to say goodbye, but I’ll not have you watch it again.  I don’t want to add to the grief that you have already been feeling.  In fact, I hoped that somehow this would help to take some of it away.  If I’ve done this badly, I apologize for that.  I did it the best way that I know how though, and I did it this way because I love you very much.”

Greg sat silently, thinking about what his father had just told him.  There was a logic to it; that he couldn’t deny.  How could his father have told him in a better way that he was going to die soon?  Sitting in campsite #36 , where good memories of family camping trips were thicker than the bluejays that would flock to a piece of bread thrown on the ground, did seem like a good place to break such news.  Greg then thought about the generations of people who seemed to still linger in and around the Taos mission church that his father had spoken of.  Yeah, it was sort of like that here.  It seemed like a circle was somehow being closed.

“So, who’s going to take care of you Dad?  You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?  You know that I will come down in a heartbeat and stay to the end.”

Roger chuckled a moment at that.  “You mean commit suicide?  Naw, I’m not doing anything like that.  Rosie’s promised to look after me.  Her family will step up too.  They’re good people, son.  They have a soft heart for an old stray dog like me.  I’ll die in my own bed; the one I shared with your mother for more years than I care to count, and in my own home.  That’s a pretty good gift, I think.  I’m sort of looking forward to seeing your mother again, too.”

Greg let that sink in.  His father wanted to spend good time with him and spare him from a repeat of the ordeal that he had just endured with Eileen, and that felt good. He was surprised to hear his father speak of meeting Greg’s mother again though.

“Sounds to me like you’re thinking of heaven and stuff like that.”

“Well, Rosie and her family and the people we go to church with are pretty high on it, so what’s there to lose?  Yeah, I think about it some.  Heck, why not?  The idea of being with Rebecca again is kind of pleasant, don’t you think?  Maybe they’ve got good tequila up there too.  Ernesto and I could toss a few back again.  Your mom wouldn’t mind too much, I think.”

The two men sat quietly together as the gloom thickened in the east and overwhelmed the last glow of sunlight in the west.  Lanterns sprang to life in the camp sites that surrounded their own.  Roger’s ancient Coleman gas lantern sat on the thick table untouched.

Greg finished his beer and got up to relieve himself behind a tree.  He then retrieved a pint of bourbon from the back of the SUV.  Tonight called for something stronger than beer.  He returned to his chair, took a pull from the bottle and passed it over to his surprised father who didn’t know that Greg had brought such a treasure along.  Roger took an appreciative pull off of the bottle and then asked“You mad at me?”

Greg shook his head; an act that Roger could not have seen in the dark.  “No Pops.  I’m not mad.  That’d be kinda pointless.  I get what you are trying to do, and I guess there’s just no right way to do it.  I’m not made out of ice though.  This is pretty hard to swallow.  And speaking of swallows, don’t bogart that jug, OK?”

Roger passed the bourbon back to Greg, who gulped down a mouthful, and then continued.  “You’re probably right about this, Pop.  Hell, you’ve been right about a lot of things in my lifetime, now that I think of it.  I’m not staying away while you die though.  You can forget about that shit.  Marty doesn’t really need me to run the clinic any more.  I guess now’s as good a time to retire as any.  Maybe I’ll rent a place in Taos, so I can be close but you can keep your own space.  I can volunteer at a clinic, if they do that there, just to keep busy.  I’m going to be close, but I’ll stay out of your face.  And this is not negotiable.”

Roger reached for the bottle and took a swig.  That was not his plan, but he had to admit that he liked it.  “Fair enough” he said, closing the deal.

“Does Jerry know?” Greg asked.

“Maybe.  I suppose so.  I sent him a letter to the last address that I had, and it didn’t come back.  I guess that when it’s over he’ll come around to see if there’s anything left for him.”

“Will there be?”

“No.”

“Well, I don’t need any of it.  What are you going to do with it?  I know it’s a pretty penny.”

“Some’ll go to the church, I guess.  Some to the Humane Society.  The rest I’ll give the a Native American college fund.”

“The church, huh.  I think you’re a little deeper into this than you let on.”

“Yeah.  Maybe.  I guess so.  You might try it yourself.”

Greg thought again about Eileen, and how much he would like to see her again.  “Yeah, I wish that I could believe that.”

More than half of the bottle of bourbon was drained before the two men got up to go to sleep.  Roger wobbled a bit after sitting for so long.  Greg, who was far less accustomed to alcohol than was his father, wobbled a bit as well as he helped Roger to the shower building, where they emptied their bladders and washed their faces before turning in.

As they stretched out on their cots under the blankets that kept out the cool mountain air Roger spoke from his corner of the tent.  “You sleep well, son.  The sun’s gonna come up tomorrow and I’m still gonna to be alive.  Life was never anything but a gift, and I’m not called to give it back just yet.  And this is the last that I want to speak of it, on this trip at least.”

Soon after that the tent was filled with Roger’s soft snores.  Greg listened to his dad’s breathing and thought of his father’s coming death.  He remembered Eileen’s sufferings, and anticipated the next round of that struggle that he would soon have to watch.

“Church!” Greg thought.  “I hate you God!”  How is Dad turning to you now, when you’re about to snuff him out?  Eileen believed in you too, and her suffering was awful.  What are you, some kind of cosmic masochist?  Do you get your jollies screwing people over?  Who the hell would ever worship a God like you?

Greg went on in that manner deep into the night, talking to a God who he said that he didn’t believe in; wrestling with a God who he said wasn’t there.

In the morning, when the first light of hope began to pierce the eastern darkness, Greg finally understood that he really was talking to Somebody.  It was a conversation that would continue and, in time, would bear much good fruit until his own final nightfall.

HEIDI

Heidi (and Aunt Vivian)

My first crush happened when I was in the sixth grade. I had been envious of my older brother Brad, who was comfortable with girls and always seemed to be the confident boyfriend of one pretty girl after another. I would wish that Barbara was my girlfriend instead of Brad’s, or Claudia, or Roselynn (whom we called ‘Rosie’) too, but there was never any chance that something so far-fetched could happen. Brad was five years older than me and his girlfriends, naturally, were  nearly that much older than me too. I could drool. I could fantasize. But never was I foolish enough to actually hope.

Heidi changed all of that. Heidi was a new kid in our school, and in a school with no more than one hundred students in the sixth grade class it was hard to stay anonymous. It would have been hard for Heidi to remain anonymous in a class of one thousand. She was as pretty as, well, you can provide whatever metaphor for pretty that suits you best. For me, she was just as pretty as a golden dawn, or a field of flowers, or a foggy morning at the beach ,or; well, I guess you get the point. I thought she was the definition of beauty itself, but I’ll allow myself to be content to say that Heidi was pretty.

We sat across the table from each other in Mrs. Parrish’s class. Heidi was quiet and reserved, and didn’t seek the spotlight in the classroom or on the playground. She was really smart and had a good heart, and after a couple of months she was friends with all of the girls and admired by all of the boys. The popular boys, Don Lewis, Frank Mathers and Lefty Wilson, all made a play for Heidi. She was kind and never rebuffed them in a public or haughty way, but she never did indicate any sort of preference for their presence or attention. With me however, it was a different story.

I was always curious about my world. I wanted to know how we humans came to be what we are. I read about dinosaurs and cave men. I read the Bible, and even in the sixth grade I would read about the archaeologists who dug up the history of humans in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and elsewhere. People were fascinating to me, and I wanted to know about them.

I also wanted to learn German. My father fought in Germany in World War II and stayed there, off and on, for ten years after war was over. I was born in 1948 and was in Germany for two two-year periods. Father loved Germany; loved the food, the beer, and the people and culture.  Once they stopped shooting at him, that is. Mother was entirely different though. Her father had died in the trenches of World War I when she was an infant, and two of her brothers from another father had died in the latest war, one on the beach in Normandy and another in the water off of the Philippines. Mother hated the Germans and, I think, hated my father a little for taking her there.  She did all that she could to keep me from learning German or anything good about Germany

I told Heidi about my wish to learn German one day when we were seated next to each other at Linda Swann’s birthday party.  Heidi smiled at me and said that she spoke German. Her mother was German and her father a mix of German, Irish and a bunch of other stuff. Heidi’s mother spoke German as a first language and Heidi was fluent in that language too, although she only spoke it at home. I could hardly believe that she was so open and friendly with me.  “Probably because she knows that I’m too shy to try to make her my girl friend” I thought. I just knew that things like that didn’t happen to me.

With Heidi though it did. I went to her house where she only let me speak German. Heidi and her mother were lenient taskmasters though. They let me fudge a lot, and it took longer than it should have for me to begin to get the hang of the language. That worked for me however. My lessons stretched on for months, and during that time I would help Heidi and her mother in the kitchen, or pick vegetables with her in the back yard garden.  Sometimes we would walk to the neighborhood store to buy flour or salt or any little thing that Heidi’s mother needed.

After a while I figured out that Heidi’s mother did not always need two more apples or a pound of butter; that it was just an excuse to let us to walk together to the store. Eventually we began to hold hands after we got a block away from Heidi’s home. The neighbors, of course, knew all about the budding relationship, and word certainly got around. Heidi didn’t live in my neighborhood though, so it didn’t get to my mother.  She would not have approved of me becoming attached to a German.

My first kiss was on one of those walks. We decided to take a short cut through a canyon, and as we walked down the trail through tall brush I hatched my plan. My heart was pounding as we reached the bottom of the canyon and turned onto another path which led gradually upward and out of the far end of the canyon.

I stopped walking, and after Heidi became aware of that she stopped too, and turned and faced me. I had practiced a lot of lines that I saw Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart deliver in movies; lines that had always melted the girls’ hearts.  They all seemed silly now, and stuck to the roof of my mouth like a spoonful of peanut butter. I just stood in front of Heidi and looked confused and lost and in the worse possible condition of puppy love.

Heidi waited patiently while I fumbled to find the right line.  “Uh, Heidi.  You know, you are really cool and, uh, I really like you a lot.”

“I like you too, Taylor.”

I waited for her to say more, but she just stood there looking more beautiful than – – – well, we’ve already been there.  She was just so pretty!

“Well, I, uh.  I guess I could call you a friend.”

“Why, sure Taylor.  I think you’re my friend.”

“Uh, yeah. Well, I like you a lot, you know, and you’re a friend; maybe my best friend really, and you’re, well.”

My heart was about to explode.  To this day I remember how much I wanted to say what was on my mind and how much I dreaded what her answer might be.  At last, desire trumped dread and I gasped out my question through a constricted throat.

“Well, I was thinking that maybe you’d like, I mean if you’d want – oh, I mean would you be my girlfriend?”

There.  It was out.  There was no taking it back now.  I steeled myself for rejection and prepared to put the best face on it.

“Sure Taylor.  You’re a nice guy.  I like you.  I would like to be your girlfriend.”

Whether from gratitude or relief, my heart almost stopped beating.  As Heidi’s words began to soak into my brain I realized that this agreement needed to be formalized by an action.

“Can I kiss you?” I asked, with a feeling of assurance that I would have considered impossible only five minutes earlier.  Heidi nodded her assent, and then I stepped forward and pressed my lips against hers.

The act had less actual passion than a handshake, but we learned over the next few months how to get more out of the effort. At her house or mine, in the canyon, and anywhere else that we could get five minutes of privacy, we would embrace and practice the art of kissing until we felt like we were becoming accomplished at it.

During this time I rarely saw Heidi’s father. He worked the night shift at a refinery thirty miles from their home and was usually sleeping during the day.  At least, that’s what they told me. Years later I learned that Heidi’s father drank a lot, and usually was in his room either drinking, asleep, or passed out when I was there. He managed to do his job well enough though, so he was never laid off.  His manager was also a veteran of the recent war, so he took pity on him.

Heidi’s father came home from the war with more than a wife. People said he was different when he returned; he spooked easily, would jump at the slightest noise, and seemed to look around with suspicion at his surroundings. Sometimes he was the life of the party, but other times he was withdrawn and seemed afraid to step out of his house, or even his bedroom. A lot of men came home from the war changed, physically and emotionally or both, but people didn’t know what to make of that back then.  The people around him ignored it as much as they could and hoped that things would eventually go back to normal.

Things didn’t go back to normal. Heidi and I would get together as much as we possibly could be for almost a year and a half , but one day at the beginning of the eighth grade she didn’t show up at school. I called her as soon as I got home to see if she was sick , but there was no answer. Fear began to play around the base of my brain and I went to my mother to tell her that I was going to ride my bike to Heidi’s house to see how she was.

Mom had softened towards Heidi.  Heidi and I would study together at our old, round dining room table, and sometimes she would help my mother in the kitchen or in some other way.  “The only decent German I ever met” Mom would say. The look on Mom’s face that day cast a  dark shadow across my heart. She told me to sit down; that she had something to tell me.

What followed was the news that Heidi’s father had gotten drunk, heard his wife speaking German, and then took down a shotgun from a rack on the wall and  blew his wife almost in two. Then, probably after realizing what he had just done, he reloaded the shotgun, placed it in his mouth and blew his own head off.  Heidi watched the whole thing.

The only family that Heidi had in her town was her aunt Vivian. Vivian had lived a difficult life herself. She had beaten an abusive husband to death with a claw hammer and got off on all charges only because of the large hunting knife found in the cold, dead hand of her newly deceased husband when the police arrived.  Leroy, that was her husband’s name, was a pain in everybody’s ass anyway, so the law gave Vivian the benefit of the doubt.

Vivian never trusted men again though, and the event at Heidi’s house only confirmed her in her assessment of the masculine gender. She took Heidi in and set out to protect her from any repeat of the heartache that both of them had already endured. Heidi’s beautiful long hair, with that little flip curl on the ends that I loved to see as she walked toward me, didn’t last the first day at Aunt Vivian’s house. Any effort by me to make contact with Heidi met with a stone wall. Heidi called me once but I wasn’t at home. My mother told me about it; said that the call was cut short, and it never happened again.

Heidi changed schools, attending instead a school at Lebanon, some twenty five miles away from our town. I never saw her in our town again and nobody else claimed to have seen her either. Vivian lived near the edge of town and they must have shopped and done any other business in the surrounding towns or in Lewisburg, the city 80 miles away. It was as if Heidi had fallen off of the map.

Heidi did emerge from the black hole into which she had dropped one time. It was one week after I graduated from the twelfth grade, and I had already enlisted in the Army. I was to leave in a week to take the long bus ride to my basic training center, and several of my friends and I were sitting on the picnic benches at the town park, smoking and talking and spinning dreams. I wanted pictures of my friends to take with me, and had used almost a whole roll of 110 black and white film.

I wanted more film and another soda and a bag of sunflower seeds, so I walked across the park to the little store that still stood and did battle with the big supermarket that had come to Sommerville, only six miles away. As I approached the store I saw two women walking out of the front door and a switch went on inside my head. It was Heidi and Vivian, but I could only barely recognize Heidi. The face was neither masculine nor feminine, and it was nearly without expression at all.  If I was to try to describe what I saw in her face I would probably go with bitter, although empty would place a close second.

“Guten tag” I said, and she stopped and slowly turned. Vivian turned also, and eyed me the way that one would eye something dead along side of the road.

“Guten tag” she replied. “Wie geht es ihnen?”

“Good,” I replied. “I’m good.  How have you been?  I haven’t seen you for such a long time.”

“Yes” she replied.  “It has been a long time.”

Just that.  A statement, more than a conversation.  I tried again.

“I’ve just graduated and now I am going to join the Army.  Maybe they’ll send me to Germany”  That was just whistling past the graveyard.  Everybody knew that I would probably soon be in Vietnam.  Heidi looked like she wanted to respond, but Aunt Vivian signaled her impatience with a sigh and a shuffling of the feet.  I could feel that this interview was nearly over.

“I’m taking pictures of friends and the old town so that I can take them with me when I go into the service.  Would you let me take a picture of you?”

To my surprise she agreed.  Aunt Vivian would not move from her side though, and in fact entwined her arm in Heidi’s in such a way that made it look like Heidi was holding onto her.  Vivian’s look gave me the impression that she was wondering why it was taking me so long to get to Vietnam and get my ass shot off.  Heidi didn’t look much happier, although I allowed that she was maybe simply out of practice with that feeling.  I snapped the picture and they turned and left without another word.  I was left without words as well, and stood speechless as I watched them disappear around a corner.  That was the last time that I saw Heidi.

Sure enough, almost  year to the day after my graduation from high school, I was checked into the replacement battalion in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.  I was a pretty decent auto mechanic, as were most of the boys in my rural town.  I was therefore trained further in gasoline and diesel mechanics and then assigned to an infantry unit near Pleiku.  I worked in the motor pool, keeping everything from jeeps and trucks to tanks running until there was just no use left in them.  Pleiku was in the Central Highlands area of the country, where it was more comfortable than down in the steamy lowlands closer to the sea.  All things being equal, it wasn’t bad duty.

I put Heidi’s picture, that ragged picture of a girl who scarcely resembled my Heidi in any way, inside the door of a metal locker next to my bunk.  When things were boring which, surprisingly, was more often than you would expect in a war, I would sometimes get drunk or smoke a joint or both, and stare at that picture.  My daydreams would go to the pretty girl who taught me German and kissed me in a canyon, but it was devilish hard to see that girl in the curling black and white picture.

One day I was engaged in staring at it and my friend John Henry, an African American guy two or three years older than me, pulled a beer out of the refrigerator that we had “requisitioned” from a convoy of supplies going out towards a forward area, and sat down on my footlocker.

“Man,” he began.  “You know you’re my friend.  You know that, right?”

“Yeah man” I replied.  “I know that.  What’ up?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say this to just anyone.  I mean, we’re tight and all, and I can say things to you that I wouldn’t say to any of the other guys.  You dig?”

“Yeah.  Sure.  We’re cool.  C’mon man, spit it out.  What’re you trying to say to me?”

“Well, it’s just that picture.  That your girl friend back in the real world?”

“Was.  Once.  Hasn’t been for a long time.  I really did like her then.  Don’t think I ever really stopped liking her.  The day I took that picture was the first time I’d seen her in, oh, gotta be four years.  Why you wanna know?”

“Well, man.”  John began to chuckle.  “I just gotta say.”  The laughter began to well up out of John’s big, broad chest.  “Man, that girl’s so ugly she’s gotta pull the sheets up over her head at night so that sleep can sneak up on her!”

John couldn’t hold back any longer.  He laughed until tears began to roll down his dark cheeks.  At first I bristled, but John and I were close. We had shared many “momma jokes” at the enlisted men’s club where a lot of people didn’t know us.  Many of our jokes were so raunchy and deftly delivered that the other guys who heard us thought that a fight was about to break out.   At last, I began to laugh too.

Soon afterward we were sitting in some lawn chairs on top of our company water tower, sucking down beers and sharing joints and talking about home and our girlfriends; his present and mine past.  I told him Heidi’s story.  When I was finished he put his hand on my shoulder and said “That’s tough man.  Real tough.  I’ll cut her some slack for that.  And you’re a good man for being able to look past her troubles.”

We smoked all of our weed and killed off our beers while we gazed out over the green carpeted hills that surrounded our camp and stretched away to the horizon in all directions.  After a while John began to chuckle again.  “She still ugly, man.”

I’m lying on a bunk at the replacement battalion now, waiting for my name to be called so that I can board a plane and return home, free from Vietnam and free from the Army.  For three years I have looked at Heidi’s photo, and at last I think that I’ve been able to find the beautiful girl I once knew looking out through the haunted and expressionless eyes of that tragically changed young woman.  “There she is,” I think to myself, “and I would like to see if she can come out.”

I sent a letter to my father a few months ago, and asked him to inquire about Heidi’s status and location.  He replied that she is now a clerk in some sort of position at the train station in Merrifield, about twenty miles from home. Dad wrote that she was dressed nicely, “like a proper young woman,” and no longer resembled the person that he saw in my picture. “That would scare children and turn milk sour” he had said when he saw it. Dad also said that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. I believe that I’ll pay her a visit when I get home.

The Garden, Chapter IX

Good morning, Mr. Hamer.  How are you doing today?”

D’Andra Chummley stood in the door that she had opened as Charlie prepared to give it a second knock.   Charlie gave the most relaxed, carefree, and entirely false reply of “Fine.  I’m doing fine today” that he could manage.

“Please, come in and make yourself comfortable.”

D’Andra swept her hand across a large room that contained a variety of chairs and a love seat.

“Would you like a cup of coffee or tea?  And I have some cinnamon rolls coming out of the oven in a few minutes, if you would like a little mid-morning snack.”

“Yes” Charlie answered.  “I would love a cup of coffee.”  Charlie had eaten breakfast at Leroy’s, leaving a very generous tip for LuAnn, and he really didn’t feel like eating any more this morning.  Besides, his stomach was generating acid by the bucketful in anticipation of what trial might lie before him.  His impulse towards being polite overshadowed this unwelcoming feeling in his gut however, so he replied “Those cinnamon rolls smell wonderful.  I would love to have one.”

“One or two; take your pick.  Go ahead and have a seat.  I’ll be right with you.”

Charlie stepped into the main room of what looked like a guest cottage, or a granny flat, that sat behind the victorian house in which D’Andra and her husband lived.  Ample windows let in a generous amount of light on what was a bright spring day.  He selected a spot on the end of the love seat that was farthest from the chair that he presumed D’Andra would soon occupy and dropped into it.

“Do you take cream and sugar, Mr. Hamer?” came D’Andra’s voice from the tiny kitchen that lay beyond a door on the other side of the living room.

“No” he replied.  “Black is fine with me.”  Then he felt self-conscious.  D’andre Chummily was very dark skinned, and Charlie instantly wondered if she would take that comment as being improper.  “Oh shit” he thought.  “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

D’Andra came out of the kitchen carrying two mugs and a pot of tea wrapped in a blue and white tea cozy.  She effortlessly placed the pot and the empty mug on a table next to a chair even farther away from Charlie than the one he had expected her to occupy, and then brought his mug of coffee to him without spilling a drop.  She appeared to be oblivious to Charlie’s remark and his concern about it, which helped him to relax.

“Well done” he said, trying to regain his relaxed presentation.

“I waited tables while I was in school, so it’s no new trick.  The rolls are out of the oven and will be ready in about ten minutes.”

D’Andra sat in the chair and poured a mug full of tea.  She was probably in her early forty’s, by Charlie’s estimation, and slightly full in figure, which seemed to work very well for her.  She put her mug down, sat back comfortably in her chair, smoothed her ankle-length tan skirt and said “Now to business.  My husband and I do not think that it would be best to trade services.  We should probably keep the focus on you, and not share that focus with our kitchen sink.”

Before Charlie’s face could show any disappointment D’Andra continued.  “I would like to help you though, if I can, so I am prepared to offer you the first three visits pro bono.”

Charlie gave her a blank look.

That means ‘one the house’ Charlie.  After three weeks we can look at your situation and work out what you can afford.  My usual rate is $130 per visit, but it’s my business and I get to set the price anywhere I want to.”

Charlie knew how that worked and agreed to the plan.  He knew that he could pay full price right now, but he was wrestling with the new idea of stewarding his money more carefully.  He was grateful for the chance to ease into this new pattern.

“That sounds fine” he said.  “More than generous, actually, and I appreciate it very much.”

“Good. So what do you say we get started?  We’ll take a break in a couple of minutes when the rolls are ready.”

Charlie agreed to that, and tensed as he anticipated the questions that he expected to soon follow.

“So, Mr. Hamer.  Or Charlie.  Can I call you Charlie?”  He nodded his assent.  D’andre took a sip of her tea and set it down.  “Tell me about yourself Charlie.”

Charlie didn’t know where to begin, so he stated the obvious.  “Well, I’m 49 years old, single, I live alone, work just enough to get by, and really, haven’t had a life for quite a while now.  I haven’t really wanted one.”

“OK” D’Andra said.  “I can see how you might want something different than that.  Let me ask you this; what change would you like to make?”

“Oh, I’m not sure I know.”  Charlie began to think about that question and D’Andra said “Take your time Charlie.  The best way to get to where you’re going is to know where that place is.”

Charlie fidgeted in his chair for what felt like forever and finally said “I just want to be happy again.”

“That’s a good goal.  I want to help you reach it.  So you want to be happy again.  Can you tell me what happiness looked like the last time that you saw it?”

“Uh, I got a good job coming up, and I spent a good evening with some guys that I just met.  That made me feel pretty good”  Charlie said, and then stopped and stared at D’Andra.

“Well, that’s good Charlie.  It’s good to have work and friends.  I was thinking about more than that though.  When did you feel good about life?  What would you like to be doing that makes you feel happy twenty four hours a day?  I’m going to let you think about that while I go get us some rolls.”

D’andra arose from her chair while Charlie sat on the love seat and stared out the window.  He saw the old concrete path that he had walked on to get to the cottage from the sidewalk.  “I’d rather walk away on that path and drive away than go back into this” Charlie thought.  “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

D’Andra returned with two saucers, a pair of warm cinnamon rolls on each one with butter melting on top and running down the sides.  “Here you are Charlie.  We’ll talk more in a little while.  You just enjoy those rolls for now.  Oh, you haven’t touched your coffee.  Did you change your mind?”

“No” Charlie responded.  “I always let it cool before I drink it.”  That wasn’t true, but it got him out of explaining his agitation and distraction.  He took a sip and noted that it was very good coffee.  He then accepted his plate of rolls and decided that he would eat them and like it.  It turned out that wasn’t so hard to do.

“These are delicious!” Charlie exclaimed.

“Thank you.  My grandmother taught me how to make these.  Oh, and I forgot to ask; are you allergic to cats?  I have my guard cat who wanders in and out from time to time.  If it’s a problem I’ll keep her out.”

“No” Charlie replied.  “I like cats.  Haven’t had one for a long time but I used to like them when I was a kid.”

“All right.  I’ll let Salome have the run of the house, as usual.”

They talked about grandmothers and cats for a few minutes while they enjoyed their food and drinks.  Then D’Andra took the empty dishes into the kitchen and returned to her chair.

“Now Charlie” she began.  “Let’s begin with being happy.  You mentioned a few recent instances that you remember  when you were happy.  I would like for you to think about your life – the whole one, from childhood to now – and think about when you were happiest and how it felt.  If that is what you would want to return to, I would like for you to share it with me.  If it has become something else, then I would like to hear about that.”

Charlie tried to follow her instructions but almost instantly hit a barrier of pain.  “Have I ever been happy, or was I only fooling myself?” he thought.  He wrestled with his thoughts silently,and D’Andra waited patiently for his response.  She was not pushing him.  All of the talk of grandmothers and cinnamon rolls and cats and home had awoken in Charlie a yearning for something that he knew he might have missed in life.  At last he began to talk, still unsure of what he would say.

“I want to feel like I did when I had my family.  I want to drive down the street and not think of driving into oncoming traffic.  I want to be able to set a goal that I really look forward to accomplishing.  I guess I want to sleep at night, get up ready for the next day, enjoy my work, have friends, and go to bed the next night tired but content.”  He then paused, surprised at some of what had just come out of his mouth.

“All of that is a very good goal to have Charlie.  I want to touch on something else first.  Do you often have thoughts about suicide?”

“Crap” he thought.  “I knew I shouldn’t have said that.  She’s going to think I’m crazy.  Hell, maybe I AM crazy.”

“Yeah.  Sometimes.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“Well, no.  Not tried exactly, but I came pretty close a few weeks ago.”

“Do you think of different ways to do it?”

“You mean do I plan it?  No.  It’s just like a dull feeling hiding out underneath a headache that suddenly pops out and says ‘do this, or do that’.  And it’s not like a real voice; it’s just an idea that pops into my head.”

“Do you feel like you will go through with one of those urges?”

Charlie thought for a minute before answering.  “No, I really don’t.  Now now, anyway.  I have a few things going my way just now and I hope to build on them.”

“That’s good, Charlie.  I hope that you can build on them too.  Maybe we can talk about those things later.  Now, I would like to get back to how you would describe being happy.  You said that you had a family.  Could you tell me about that?”

No, he couldn’t.  Charlie tried to get his thoughts together on that subject but he failed.  The last time that he had opened up about his family was in the garden with Walt and Rachael, and it almost sent him over the rail.  After a few minutes D’Andra came to his rescue.

“It’s OK Charlie.  We can talk about that some other day maybe.  Can you tell me anything about your childhood?  Were there happy times then?”

“Yes, there were some good times then.  I was always comfortable at home.  Mom didn’t have to work because my father paid a pretty big alimony and child support, and the checks always came on time.  I did well in school and had a lot of friends there.  That was where I met – -.  That was where I met my wife – – -.”

Charlie stopped talking and D’Andra quickly said “That’s OK Charlie.  You don’t have to go there.  What about your father?  When did he leave the family, if I may ask?”

“He left when I was nine years old.  He was a big shot at a bank and he got tired of us, I guess.  Mom never did talk much about him, and certainly never talked trash about him.  I guess he wasn’t abusive, or anything like that.  He just got tired of us and moved on I suppose.”

“Were you angry with him for doing that?”

“No, not really.  He wasn’t that involved with us when I was really young and I didn’t miss him when he left.  I would see Mom crying though; sometimes when the checks would come and sometimes for no reason that I knew of.  Maybe it was their anniversary or his birthday or something.  I never really knew and I never asked.”

“How did you react to that?  Did it make you uncomfortable?  Were you able to comfort your mother?”

“I guess I wasn’t much help to her.  I’ve never liked to be around people when they cry, and I hate it when I cry.  I have this stupid little thing I do to try to stop it when I do.  I try to imagine some famous battle that I’ve read about; who’s army went here, and who attacked there.  It never works, but I try it anyway.  I guess I should have tried to comfort Mom but I didn’t know what to do, so I’d just stand there until I could find a way to sneak out.”

Charlie stopped talking as Salome the cat walked into the room and jumped up onto the love seat.  She sat a respectable distance from Charlie, offering her sleek coat for a pet, but making sure that he would have to reach out to do it.  A cat’s dignity must be maintained at all times.  Charlie obliged and reached out to scratch Salome behind her ears.  She rewarded him with a purr.  Charlie then spoke again.

“I liked being at school.  I guess I was happiest there.  And that’s where I met Maureen.”  Charlie gulped and felt his eyes moisten.  “My wife.  She was very pretty.  My Mom was pretty too, and Maureen was even prettier.  She was one year older than me but we shared some classes and she was really smart and not at all flighty and, well, you know, not a teeny bopper at all.  We would take turns studying at each other’s houses.  She loved being with my Mom and I know that Mom loved having her around, and I really enjoyed being at her house.  Her mother could cook like Betty Crocker and her Dad was really cool.

He was always home by four or, at the latest, four-thirty.  He liked to talk and play dominoes and listen to the college football and basketball games.  But mostly he loved to sit with us for company, or sometimes by himself in some swings in the back yard.  When we were with him out there he would smoke his pipe and tell us non-gory stories about the War or growing up in the south of Texas or, well, just about anything.  He was a great storyteller.  And when we weren’t outside with him he would sit and smoke and watch the sun go down.

On warm evenings he and Mo’s Mom would stay out until after dark.  We could hardly hear them talk but we could see the pipe flare when he took a draw on it, or the flash of a match when he reloaded it.  I think that’s probably the happiest memory that I have.  Mo loved that guy, and I think that I might have have loved him too.”

Charlie had to stop.  The tears had overflowed his eyes and had begun to roll down his cheek.  He looked at D’Andra and cracked a weak smile.  “You know anything about the battle of Waterloo?”

D’Andra smiled warmly at him and said “No, not really.  Maybe we’ll cover that next week.  Feel free to use the tissue on the table, and we’ll just say that maybe you do have a little allergy to Salome.”

“Yeah.  Blame it on the cat.!”  Charlie grabbed a couple of tissues and wiped his eyes, then returned to scratching Salome’s ears.  “It’s really hard to talk about Mo.  It’s hard to talk about Stephanie and Jack too.”

“Are those your children?”

“Used to be.  Jack’s with Maureen somewhere.  I have no idea where.”

“And Stephanie?”

Charlie sat silent for a few seconds, and then the tears flowed, then the sobs, until finally his body shook as his beaten and scarred heart broke once again.  Salome was made nervous by this and abandoned her place on the love seat.  D’andre stood up and walked over to take the cat’s place.

She put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder to let him know that she was there, that she understood his pain, that it was right to cry.  She said nothing, but just handed him tissues as he began to wipe up the snot and tears.  At last Charlie regained control and D’Andra returned to her chair.

“Stephanie is dead” he said at last.  “She died in an accident.  She said she was going surfing and I knew that the place where she was going was unpredictable, but she was fearless and just blew me off.  And I let her go.  And she died.  Now Mo and Jack hate me for it and I don’t blame them.  I hate myself too.”  Charlie looked at D’Andra through red and swollen eyes.  “That’s why it’s hard to speak of happiness and my family.  I thought we were happy, but I screwed the whole thing up and now I don’t really know what happy looks like.  I don’t even know if I deserve happy.”

D’Andra waited until he was finished talking and then said “Charlie, thank you for sharing that with me.  You’ve done an impressive thing, really.  People are usually not able to go as deeply into their problem on their first visit as you have just done.  That tells me that you are willing to dig and go wherever you must to find what you are looking for.  I respect your courage.  You’ve gone deep, and that’s what you have to do to get things straightened out..

I would like to share a couple of things with you now.  I’m certain that you can find a way to return to happiness, whatever that will look like in your case.  It will take time, but you will be able to do this, and I will be glad to help.  Charlie, you’re a good person, as near as I can tell, and we’ll sort this all out if that is your desire.  I would very much like to see you next week, if that would be OK with you.”

“Yes” Charlie replied.  “I think that I would like that.”

“All right.  Are you OK now?”

Charlie assured her that he was fully recovered and arose from the love seat.

“Would you like to take some of those cinnamon rolls home?  I’ll blow up big as a house if I eat them all.”

Charlie nodded his agreement and waited as D’Andra disappeared into the kitchen.  Soon she reappeared with a foil-wrapped parcel that must have contained six rolls at least.  She gave them to Charlie and then walked him to the door.

“Remember Charlie,” she said as he stood in the doorway.  “You are a good person and you deserve to be happy.  You’re just stuck in a very hard place.  We can get you unstuck, and we WILL get you unstuck, OK?”

Charlie nodded and said “OK,” and then walked onto the old concrete path and toward the sidewalk.  Soon he was sitting in the cab of his truck, feeling tired and numb after the emotional roller coaster ride that he had just been on.  For the last two years even thinking about his family had been so painful that he walled those memories off and sought refuge in the numbness of a meaningless and mechanical existence.  Talking about his family for the first time in those two years had resulted in him nearly following through on one of his many suicide fantasies.

Now he had spoken of his family again, and he wondered if that would lead to the same aftershock.  He didn’t feel bad now, but he hadn’t felt the effect of his last experience until three days later.  “I’m different now” Charlie thought.  “I like Billy, and I like Rachael.  And LuAnn too.  Heck, I even like old Walt, sort of.  And they like me.  They would care if I killed myself.  I have to think this through.  I think I’ll do that at the garden.”

Charlie drove to his apartment and put the rolls in the refrigerator, then to his storage to retrieve his gardening tools, gloves and eye protection.  “Just in case I have to break up a rock” he told himself.  He then drove to the garden, and as he did so the impulse to swerve into oncoming traffic was still there.  “I guess it doesn’t go away by magic” he thought.

Charlie pulled up in front of the garden and quickly saw that it was empty.  It was, after all, only a little past noon.  He studied his plot and saw that the plants needed water, but that they were growing nicely.  So were the weeds.  He watered and then knelt down and, with an old screwdriver, began to dig the weeds out to their roots.  “That’s what D’Andra is going to have to do with me” he thought.  “We’re going to find out if there’s any vegetable in me, or if I’m all weed.”

He stayed immersed in his work and thoughts for over two hours.  In that time he fully weeded his plot and, finding Walt’s plot to be in good shape – “That old fart really must live here” he thought – he went to Rachel’s and began to dig out the weeds in hers.  The sun was warm on his back, and he noted that his thoughts were not a torment.  “I really think that this is sort of like being happy” he thought.  “I’ll have to tell D’Andra about this.”

Charlie noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up to see Rachael walking towards her car.  “Must have forgotten something” he thought.  He couldn’t wait to tell her about his hour with D’Andra so he called out to here.

“Rachael.  Hey, Rachael!”

Rachael stopped and stood still.  It seemed to Charlie as if she was undecided as to whether to keep walking or turn back towards where he stood.  At length she slowly turned and began to walk toward him.  Charlie was entirely focused on what he wanted to say and did not notice the reluctance communicated by her slow shuffle in his direction.  At last, as she reached the edge of her plot, Rachael looked up so that Charlie could clearly see the deep black and purple bruise that wrapped around her left eye.

“Rachael!” he spluttered.  “What on earth happened to you?  Are you all right?”

“Yes Charlie.  I’m all right.  Thank you for asking.  It looks like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“What?  What do you mean?  What happened?  Was this some kind of accident?”

“No, it wasn’t an accident.  It’s one of the hazards of my job.”

As the meaning of that began to sink in, Charlie felt the heat of anger beginning to rise up within him.  “You mean somebody hit you?”

“Yes.  It happened at work yesterday.  I was talking with a young man who showed no obvious signs of agitation.  We weren’t talking about anything too deep, but he is a very angry boy who doesn’t need much reason to lash out at authority.  I can usually read the signs and anticipate when things might be at the edge of violence.  Not this time though.  The kid threw a wicked punch that I never saw coming.  Almost knocked me out.”

“Well, that little son of a bitch!” Charlie exploded.  “He’s not still alive, is he?  Why wasn’t someone there to stop such a thing?”

“Someone was, but nobody can always know when something like this is going to happen.  Max, my security guy, had him down in a minute, but the damage was done by then.”

“Well, I hope he took the little prick down hard.  Sorry about my French, but it really jerks my chain that somebody you’re trying to help would hit you.  Shit!  I’d like to get my hands on him.”

“What good would that do Charlie?  He’s a kid who’s been hit over the head at least once a day every day of his life.  I can’t give you the details, of course, but he has had an awful start at being alive, and I wouldn’t put a high bet on his future being any better.”

“Do you feel OK?  How is your vision?  Does the eye hurt?  Come on, let’s go sit under the gazebo.”

“I’m OK charlie.  Yeah, it still hurts.  It happened yesterday.  It took twenty four hours for my eye to get this black and my doctor said that it would be sore for a few days.   My vision’s a little blurry too, but it’s getting better.  No bones were broken, and the eye is structurally OK.  I’ll be good as new soon, and maybe a little more careful next time.”

They walked over to the gazebo and sat in the plastic chairs underneath it.  A gentle wind blew around them, cooling off both Charlie’s sweaty body and the warmth of Rachael’s inflamed face.  Charlie began to rant about the boy again but Rachael gently intervened.

“I appreciate your concern Charlie.  I really do.  It’s sweet of you and I’ll always remember it.  But you should remember this too.  The boy is used to people being angry at him.  You adding one more voice to the chorus wouldn’t accomplish much with him.  What he doesn’t expect is kindness.  That is the only effective defense against the anger that drives him.  I’m not angry with him and if you can find it within yourself to do so, I would consider it a personal favor if you would try to not be angry with him either.”

Charlie was momentarily silenced by Rachael’s  humble request, but quickly found his voice.  “You’re an amazing woman” he spluttered at last.  “How on earth can you not be angry with him and want to hit him back?”

“It’s because of my faith Charlie.  The boy has never been loved.  Not by anyone on earth that is.  He’s been beaten, cheated, put down and shoved to the margins since the day that he was born, and nobody has ever told him that they loved him.”

“That sort of a kid!” Charlie interjected.  “Who could blame them?”

“But God loves him Charlie.  The boy’s made in God’s image too, and God loves his creation.  God wants me to love him too, and I wish that I could love him, but I can’t.  The closest that I can come to that is to forgive him; and I do forgive him.  And once you have forgiven somebody, it’s hard to be angry with them anymore.”

Charlie just stared at Rachael.  He tried to understand what she had just said:  “He’s made in God’s image.  Well, her god must be a sorry little shit then,” he thought.  Then the thought of her being exposed to the boy again occurred to him.  That was her job, wasn’t it?

“Do you have to be in a room with this kid again?”

“No.  When a client acts out like this our contact is broken off.  He will be dealt with by other people, and I don’t know where or how.  I hope that they won’t just throw him away.”

“I don’t believe this.  You really do still care about this punk, even after what he did.  What kind of a saint are you?”

“Well, not much of one.  It isn’t easy to forgive him.  I don’t exactly relish looking like I just went 10 rounds with Muhammad Ali.  And I don’t really look forward to seeing my boyfriend tonight.  We planned to go out to dinner and, well, to tell you the truth, I think he intends to propose to me tonight.  He went to see my father without him or Dad telling me anything about it.  My little brother is a blabbermouth though and he told me that they spent a lot of time together down in Dad’s workshop.  He thinks he’s clever, but I would have been suspicious for other reasons anyway.  My little brother ratted him out but good, and that sealed it for me.

So no.  Forgiving that kid wasn’t easy.  But it wasn’t easy for Jesus to take the beating and torture that he did and still say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  If Jesus could forgive his tormentors for the whipping, slapping, spitting, thorns in his head, nails in his hands and feet, and his undeserved death, then I can forgive that kid for one punch in the face.”

Again, Charlie could only sit in silent amazement.  He had heard the men at the Key and Lock discuss God, or the absence of any god, in an abstract and almost philosophical way.  Each made good points and counterpoints.  Here he sat with a young woman with a very nasty bruise on her face who lived her argument rather than only speaking it over a pint of beer.  Charlie didn’t know what to say next, and it seemed as if Rachael did not want to talk about it any more either.

Then Charlie saw the tears beginning to form in Rachael’s eyes, and then the first quiver that appeared in her lower lip.  Those signs of hurt and fear increased until Rachael was not-so-quietly crying in her chair.  Charlie felt helpless as he watched Rachael sob softly, head down, shoulders bent forward and shaking.

“Do something, you horse’s ass!” Charlie’s mind shouted at him.  “Do something for once!”  But what?  He could never offer comfort when his mother would cry out of her loneliness and abandonment.  Maureen and Jack needed his comfort and he had been unable to give any.  Now they hated him for that.  He had nothing to give then and he had no idea what to give now, and so Rachael, a remarkable girl who had befriended him when he was in his misery, sat alone in a chair, still in pain from the punch, with one of the biggest days of her life marred by a huge black eye.  Her sense of safety was shattered and she had said that her god was calling for her to just let it go.  “Do something, you sorry bastard!  Quit being a damned bump on a log.  This girl needs a friend right now.  GET YOUR MISERABLE ASS UP!”

Charlie stood up.

“Come here Rachael”

He reached down and took the hands which rested limply on her kneew.

“Come here.  Come on.”

He lifted Rachael’s arms gently and she arose, yielding gratefully to the call of a compassionate friend.  Charlie let go of Rachael’s hands and enfolded her in his arms, holding her against his chest.  She laid her head against his shoulder and let the tears that she had tried to hold back flow down her face and onto his shirt.  Charlie didn’t say anything; “It’s all right” was such obvious bullshit, so he silently held Rachael as she clung to him and let the fear and grief flow out.

Slowly, the sobs lessened and Rachael’s breathing evened.  Charlie still had not said a word, which he decided was the right thing to do.  Rachael was accepting his comfort without reservation.  He had intended a polite “shoulder’s only hug” but Rachael would have none of that.  So Charlie stood still and silent, holding Rachael in the first embrace that he could remember for, what?  How long hd it been?

“Well well.  What do we have here?  You two lovebirds wanna break it up before I get sick?  I’ve got some gardening to do!”

Walt!

Rachael stepped back reluctantly, and Charlie reluctantly allowed her to do so.

“Whoa now.  I didn’t know you two had moved so fast” Walt said with a big, leering grin as he moved towards them.  “You could find a more private place to – – -.  What the hell happened to you darling?”

Walt’s impolite banter stopped the instant that he saw Rachael’s bruised face.  “Who hit you, girl?  Tell me who it was and I’ll kill the son of a bitch!”

Walt looked pissed; truly pissed.   He approached Rachael and inspected her face the way a medic would assess a war wound.  Charlie could see the genuine concern in Walt’s face and it surprised him.  It seemed that Walt was more than just cuss and bluster.

“I’m OK, Walt” Rachael said as she wiped tears and snot on a shirt sleeve.  “It was not as bad as it looks.  Just a hazard of my profession.”

Walt dug into a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which he thrust towards Rachael.  Rachael eyed the proffered piece of cloth with suspicion, and Walt said “It’s OK.  It’s clean.  I was going to use it to wipe off sweat, or maybe tie off an arterial bleed.  You can never be too ready for the unexpected.”

Walt chuckled as he said that, and so did Rachael.  She reached out and accepted the handkerchief.

“Thanks Walt.  I guess I need that pretty badly.”

“Oh, you’re still pretty enough” Walt replied.  “But come on.  Tell me what happened.  You got a bad boyfriend or something who needs fucking up?”

Rachael chuckled again.  “No, he wouldn’t dare.  I can take him and he knows it.  It’s a work thing Walt.  Somebody caught me by surprise and I didn’t see this coming.”

“What the hell you do for a living girl?  Roller derby?  You know, I used to have the hots for a chick on the L. A. Thunderbirds.  She was – – -, well, I guess we’ll let that go.”

“I work with people who are not in a good place.  You know, people who are not having their best day.  Who sometimes never have a good day.”

“Oh, you mean you try to straighten out crazy shitbirds like me!  Well, my hat’s off to you.  Tough work.  I guess you’re not going to tell me who it was so that I can rip his head off and screw him in the windpipe then.”

“No, I probably should’t do that Walt.  That might be a violation of some professional ethic or other.”  Rachael looked into Charlie’s face and then back to Walt.  “That person already knows more about pain than I’ve ever felt.  He’s somebody else’s case now.  Oh, I hate just calling him a ‘case’!  But anyway, I won’t be seeing him again, or at least not for a long, long time.”

“Huh!” Walt snorted.  “Well, if you say so.  I’d still like to pop the slimy little turd one time, just to let him know that somebody cares about men who hit women, but I’ll keep my nose out of it.  Just for you.”

“Thank you Walt.  Your concern means a lot to me.  I guess I needed a little more help today than I thought.  I really do appreciate you.”

At this moment Rachael stepped over to Walt and gave him a big hug.  Walt immediately turned red as a beet, and Charlie stifled a laugh.  He suspected that half of Rachael’s impulse was to set Walt back on his heels, but the other half was genuine, as was plain to see.

Rachael gave Walt a brief but sincere embrace and then stepped away.  Her smile threatened to shame the disfiguring bruise into fleeing.  Walt spluttered in confusion and then muttered “I’d still like to throttle the little peckertrack.”  It was obvious however that his grizzled heart had been softened by Rachael’s appreciation of him.

“Well shoot, Walt.  I don’t know how much you have to do here” Charlie said.  “I didn’t see too many weeds in your plot.”  He turned then to Rachael and said “And yours i’ve nearly weeded already.  Why don’t we team up and get what’s left done.  I feel like being dirty today!”

This was agreed to and the unlikely trio fell to watering and fertilizing and pulling weeds and sharing tips and laughs;  all of the things one must do to make their garden grow well.

Trump, Clinton and Me

During the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the period between November 8 of that year and January 20, 2017, and since that day, much of the nation and nearly all of social media have been convulsed by passions expressed by those exultant or outraged over the results of the vote.  It has gotten to the point that I watch and listen to very little broadcast news and have greatly limited my time on Facebook.  To that extent, the election has proven to be a blessing for me.

The negativity that has been poured out upon President Trump, as well as the negativity which poured out of Candidate Trump and also the negativity that was poured out at and by Candidate Clinton, has caused me to stop in my tracks and consider what my participation in that negativity says about myself (other than that I can write a sentence longer than could William Faulkner), and that is; to what extent do I channel my own inner Trump and/or Sec. Clinton?

Consider the negatives expressed by and at each one.  Mr. Trump said things about people from other countries, races and religions that painted them negatively and with a broad brush.  He also spoke of relating to women in a way that is, well, ungentlemanly.  On many occasions Trump called people who disagreed with him “Bad People.”  He tends to be arrogant and has been called “Narcissistic” by people smarter than me who know big words and what they mean.

Secretary Clinton on the other hand has been called arrogant, a liar, careless, greedy and incompetent.  For her part she labeled a large part of the electorate who supported her opponent a “Basketful of Deplorables.”

The list of negative and hostile words and actions could go on for a long time, but I believe that I’ve written enough to present the picture.  What I would like to do now is step back from the fray and take a look in the mirror.  What do I see?  Certainly, a saint bathed in glowing light riding on a white horse, right?

Or maybe I see somebody who has painted people other than myself with a broad brush from time to time too.  Maybe I see someone who has been (and occasionally still is) arrogant.  Perhaps the person looking back at me from the mirror can be condescending and demeaning to women, is greedy, and sometimes incompetent.  Perhaps I think of those who oppose me as bad, deplorable people.  Maybe in some ways I’m not all that different than Secretary Clinton or President Trump.

As we  begin a new administration in Washington D.C. our media; news, social and other, is flooded with attacks on the President’s character by people who, to one degree or another, share the same faults, or at least I do.

What does that mean in the context of following the actions of the new president and speaking out when his policies or character are at variance with what I would call right or proper?  Will I simply stay quiet until my outer behavior and inner voices are perfect?  Should I move out of my glass house and continue lobbing stones or stay inside that glass house and keep my mouth shut?

I will no neither.  And both.  When I disagree with the president on a policy or when he acts in some verifiable way that demonstrates poor character I will throw not stones but a pebble, and that with the intention of getting his attention rather than making it hurt for my own pleasure.  At the same time I will strive to live in a glass house, keeping the walls clean and transparent so that my own behavior can be inspected and cleanliness verified and failings pointed out.

I will neither move into the sty so that I can throw much and stones nor stay in the house with my mouth shut.  Simply put, I will respond to this, and any, president with measured and non-malevolent criticism while acknowledging my own weaknesses and striving to clean them up, as I urge my president to do likewise.

The Garden, Chapter VIII

Charlie’s stomach was rumbling when he stepped into Leroy’s Caffe.  He hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before and decided to take LuAnn up on her offer of charity.  Charlie didn’t come to this decision easily; he had almost always paid his own way.  For more than a year however Charlie had lived from hand to mouth, and some meals had been shared with homeless people at the Rescue Mission or Union Gospel Mission in downtown Portland.  Others had been found at Imago Dei Community and other Portland churches, and a few churches in Vancouver as well.  Charlie hated to beg, but he had learned how to do it.

His heart dropped when he walked through the door.  The place was packed.  Every table and every seat at the counter was taken, and a small group of customers was waiting for a place to sit down.  Charlie had learned how to beg, all right, but not in front of an audience of paying customers.  This was not going well at all.

And then it got worse.  Out through the door that led to the kitchen came a young woman, maybe in her late twenties or early thirties.  She was plump, with a round red face and her hair hanging down in ringlets, like the Campbell’s Soup girl.  She grabbed two arms full of plates, balancing them impossibly, and went to deposit them on the table in front of four customers who were vocal in their admiration of her performance.

 

Charlie was starving, but there was no way that he would speak of his need to a total stranger.  He saw the young homeless man hunched over a large plate of food at his familiar table near the door to the kitchen and was at the point of cursing his luck and then leaving.  At that moment LuAnn burst out through the door and began to bring plates of food to the customers seated at the counter.

It took LuAnn a minute to see Charlie standing there and she waved at him when their eyes met.  Charlie waved back limply, and when LuAnn signaled for him to come to the end of the counter he obeyed sheepishly.

“Good morning, young man.  Are you here for your cup of coffee?” she asked with her usual cheer.

“Well, un, actually I was wondering if, well, you know, if your offer of a breakfast on credit was still good?” Charlie replied.

LuAnn didn’t miss a beat.  “It certainly is.  I don’t make offers lightly.”

Her face never changed; no betraying squint of the eyes or moment’s hesitation.  It was as if she had expected this all along, or at least was ready for it at any time.  That response went a long way to making Charlie feel better about his situation.

“You have a problem with sharing a table with Jason?”  she asked, and pointed to the empty hair opposite where the young homeless man was eating.

“The bum’s corner,” Charlie thought, and then he replied “No ma’am.  No problem at all.”

LuAnn led him to the table and said “You’ve got company Jason.”

Jason looked up from his plate and waved a hand at the empty chair.  “Be my guest” he said, showing a mouthful of half-chewed sausage and potatoes.

Charlie sat down in the chair and LuAnn asked what he wanted to eat.  “I’ll take the same as Jason” he said.

“Good choice” LuAnn replied, and left to take his order into the kitchen.

Charlie sat quietly at the table and looked first at Jason, and then around the room.  The cafe was packed like he had never seen it, and Charlie surmised that the new woman had been called in to help LuAnn.  A mug of hot coffee quickly appeared on the table in front of him, brought by that new waitress.  Charlie looked up and said “Thank you,” but the woman didn’t make eye contact with him.  Instead, she glided away to check on the well-being of a neighboring table of paying customers.

“Oh,” Charlie thought.  “This really is the bum’s corner.”  His pride said “Get the hell out of here” while his stomach said “Screw her.  This is just temporary.  Stay put and eat.”  Charlie felt his face turning red as he fought to tamp down his anger.

“Yeah, she’s not too keen on our type” Jason said, shocking Charlie out of his thoughts.  “That’s Leroy’s granddaughter.  The old boy isn’t here much any more and she doesn’t like the idea that we’re welshing off of what she thinks is her money.  I’m guessing LuAnn’s fronting you this breakfast, right?”

Charlie nodded his head, surprised that Jason was talking with him in such an open and rational manner.  He had sat next to plenty of homeless guys at the places in Portland and they were not usually talkative.  At least not with anyone that Charlie could see.  Jason sounded as rational as Walt or Rachael or any of the group at the Key and Lock.

“Yeah” he answered.  “I’m between jobs and decided to take her up on an offer.”  For some reason, Charlie wanted to make sure that Jason knew that this wasn’t his normal pattern.  “I’ll probably pay her back tomorrow.”

“I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” Jason sing-songed, sounding like Wimpy on the Popeye cartoons, and then he cracked a friendly smile and said “Hey, that’s your business.  I ain’t judging nobody.  LuAnn and Tank – that’s the cook’s name – they’re good people.  They got a heart.  They always help if they can.  I’m gonna pay ‘em back too.  Maybe not tomorrow, but someday.”

“LuAnn said that you do some work for them” Charlie said, and then wondered if he had betrayed a confidence.

“Yeah” Jason replied, not skipping a beat.  “I work in the kitchen sometimes to even up my bill.  I like kitchen work.  Pulled a lot of KP in the Army.  I especially like it in winter, when it’s cold outside.  Maybe not so much in the summer.”

“Well, I’m not worth squat in the kitchen” Charlie said.  “I’ll just have to leave her a big tip some morning.  I can work with a lot of tools, but a sink and stove are not two of them.

Jason then began to chatter on about something, but LuAnn appeared with a large, hot plate heaped with sausage and eggs and hash brown potatoes and toast, and then she laid down a bowl of country gravy.  “You’re going to need some gas in your tank to go out and conquer the world” she said with a smile.  She left and returned with her coffee pot and topped off both of their mugs.

Charlie was still admiring the small mountain of food in front of him when Jason broke into his reverie once again.  “LuAnn and Tank love to pile it up like that for us stray dogs when Peggy’s around.  It just pisses her off all the more.  Well,” Jason pushed himself away fro the table and picked up his mug of coffee.  “I have to go earn my breakfast.”

Charlie said “goodbye” and watched Jason disappear through the door into the kitchen.  He then returned his attention to his breakfast, and was soon sopping up the last of the gravy with his last triangular piece of toast.  LuAnn flashed two smiles for every one of Peggy’s frowns, and soon he was sitting very comfortably in front of several empty dishes with a very full belly.  “Panza llena, corazon content” a Mexican worker in his old company used to say; “Full stomach, happy heart.”  Charlie agreed.

The cafe was still doing a roaring business and so Charlie decided that he should leave and vacate the table.  He rose and walked to the door, waving to LuAnn and then to Peggy as he did so.  Peggy was clearly not impressed.  He would have liked to thank LuAnn more, but she had no time for that.  He had intended to make some phone calls at the table but decided that it would be better to leave and make them from the cab of his truck.  When he reached the cab he pulled his phone out and entered Carolyn’s number.  After three rings she answered.

“Hi Carolyn, this is Charlie.  How are you today?”  They got through the pleasantries and then Charlie got down to business.  “I’ve done the rework on the plans that you wanted and I think that I’ve captured the feel that you’re looking for.  Can I bring these over to you?”

Carolyn agreed to see Charlie in an hour and a half and then hung up.  Next he  pulled out the card that contained the phone number of Evergreen Counseling.  He expected that he would have to think more about this, but to his surprise he punched in the number without a second thought.  After several rings, and just as Charlie began to expect that his call would go to voice mail, he heard somebody pick up on the other end.

“Hello” came a voice on the line.  Charlie answered awkwardly.  “Hello.  Un, my name’s Charlie.  Is this Evergreen Counseling?”

“Yes.  This is Evergreen Counseling.  I am D’Andra Chummley.  Did you say your name is Charlie?”

“Yes.  Charlie Hamer.  I was given your number by Rachael – – -.”  Charlie stopped.  He realized that he didn’t know Rachael’s last name.  “By a person named Rachael who has a garden plot next to mine.  She works with troubled kids in Portland.”

“Of course.  Rachael.  Wonderful person.  If she hasn’t shared her last name with you, I’ll leave that for her to do when and if she wants to.  What brings you to be calling me, Mr. Hamer?”

“Well, un, I think I need you services.  I’m kinda, well, I’m sort of messed up in my thinking.  I mean, I’m bothered by some stuff that I can’t let go of, or maybe it won’t let go of me.  But it’s not like, un well, oh hell, maybe it IS like I’m not in control.  Really, Mrs. Chummley, I need to talk with someone and get some things straightened out.  Rachael said that you are good at that.”

“I would be happy to help you any way that I can Mr. Hamer.  When could we get together?  I am not terribly busy right now, so it should be easy and very much at your convenience.”

“Well, I need to discuss something else first.  I’m between jobs, and I am not rolling in money right now.”  Charlie chose not to add that he had just eaten a charity breakfast.  “Rachael said that perhaps you might need some services that I can offer.  I am a contractor, and can do just about anything that a house needs to have done.  Would you be willing to trade services?”

There was silence for a moment, then at last D’Andra spoke again.  “I will speak to my husband about that.  We do indeed need some work done on our house, but he would have to be consulted first.”  D’Andra paused another moment and then added “Perhaps we could have one introduction session.  You could bring me some references and I will speak to my husband.  Would that be acceptable, Mr. Hamer?”

Charlie agreed to that deal and promised to be at the Chummley’s house at 10:00 the next morning.  Then, with a little more than an hour to kill and very little gasoline in the tank of his truck, Charlie pulled out the diagrams and plans that he had redrawn, looking for anything that might need more fine tuning.  He found several very small items and was busy erasing and rewriting when he at last looked at his watch and saw that he had fifteen minutes to get to Carolyn’s house.

“Crap!” Charlie shouted.  He fired up the motor and pulled into traffic on Main Street.  Carolyn did not live too far away, but Charlie felt like he had left her house the day before on thin ice.  He didn’t want to push his luck today.  Traffic was light however, and Charlie pulled up and parked in front of her house with a good 30 seconds to spare.  He used those thirty seconds to put his papers in order, take in and exhale a deep breath, and try to get the butterflies in his stomach flying in formation.  At length he exited his truck and walked up the cement path that led to the front porch.  Carolyn was in the open door, waiting for him.

“Good morning Charlie.  How are you doing today?” she asked.

“Pretty good, I think” he answered.  “And yourself?  How are you?”

“Fine, Charlie.  I’m doing just fine.  Come on in and show me what you’ve got.”

“Formal” Charlie thought.  “Damned formal.  This could go south in a heartbeat.  Oh, God, please don’t let me screw up now.”

Carolyn waved Charlie to his usual position at the kitchen table and asked if he would like some coffee and something to eat.  “I would love a cup of your coffee” he responded.  “But I just had breakfast a few hours ago.  I’m fine, thank you,”

Carolyn poured a cup of coffee and placed it in front of Charlie.  She then asked “What have you got for me today?”

The coffee had become cold long before Charlie finished drinking it.  Carolyn was reserved at first, but as she reviewed the plans, diagrams and drawings she warmed to the task at hand.  She asked pointed questions – good questions, Charlie thought – and Charlie answered with either solutions or an honest “I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about that.”  Carolyn accepted that openness and honesty and after more than an hour sat upright and faced Charlie squarely.

“Charlie” she began.  “This is good.  I believe that you have gotten the idea that I wish to pursue in this remodel.  I’ve pointed out some issues that I’m a little unclear on and I think that I can trust you to clear them up for me.”  She paused at that moment, cleared her throat, and then continued.  “Now we get to the crunch.  How much would this cost me?”

Charlie sat still as a stone but his insides were shaking.  “I could do this for $35 thousand” he replied.

Now it was Carolyn’s turn to sit still and look at Charlie.  “Oh shoot” he thought.  “Did I bid too high”  I thought I was still on the low side.  I’ll come down if I have to, but that’s still not going to leave me very much.”  Charlie was about to break the silence with his offer to come down on the bid when Carolyn spoke again.

“Charlie, I told you that I wanted you to be fair with yourself.  At least I think that I did.  Is that the bid that I would get from another contractor?”

That caught Charlie by surprise.  “Just a minute” he said, and did some recalculations in his head.  Carolyn waited patiently as he worked and reworked those numbers in silence.  At last he said “$45 thousand would be closer to what you would see from most contractors, at least it was two years ago.  I’m not aware of prices going up dramatically since then, unless you want to go really designer on the project.”

Carolyn nodded as she heard Charlie speak.  She was not visibly shaken by the number that Charlie had given to her and at length she said “That sounds like a fair bid Charlie, and I am inclined to accept.  Just to be fair though, I have two concerns to clear up first.  The first is that you work alone.  I don’t want the job to drag along until next year.  I want to know if you will be able to complete it in a timely manner.”

Charlie waited to hear the next concern but the ensuing silence made it clear that Carolyn wanted an answer to her first before she proceeded.  “This won’t be a problem” he said.  “Nothing in the process will require more than one person.  I can use some jacks and braces to help with the tough, heavy work, and the cost will actually be less than paying wages for a second set of hands.  No, there will be no delays on that account.  I’m expecting this to take up to two months from demolition to completion.  Other contractors may tell you less, but this is based on my experience.  There’s the unexpected in ever job though, and that’s just a law of nature.”

“OK Charlie.  I appreciate that.  I had hoped for a little quicker job but you’re right; contractors promise the moon but rarely deliver.  Present company excepted, of course” she added with a smile.  “I’m satisfied with that.  Now I want to get to my second concern, and that deals with what I said yesterday.  Charlie, are you feeling personally stable enough to complete this job?  This will involve a lot of disruption of my life and home, and the answer to that question is something that I need to know.”

Charlie had known that question was coming and was glad that it had arrived.  He reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew the stiff paper card that said “Evergreen Counseling” and laid it on the table.

“Yes, I have thought about it.  I have an appointment with this person tomorrow, and we are going to begin to help me get some things straightened out.  A friend of mine who counsels children recommended her, and I trust my friend’s judgment.  In fact, I was going to ask you for a favor.  I may be paying for her time by trading for remodel help in her home, and I wondered if I could use you as a reference?”

Carolyn looked the card over and then handed it back to Charlie.  He couldn’t read her face, and began to fear that she might tell him to hit the road, which would be hard to do at that time since he was pretty sure that he didn’t have enough gas in the truck to drive back home.

“Charlie, I think that’s wonderful.  I’m glad that you’re taking this step.  A lot of people wouldn’t do it.  They’re too proud or too stupid or something, but they wouldn’t take the chance.  Of course you can use me as a reference.  Here, let me give you my card.”

Carolyn dug in her purse but couldn’t find what she was looking for.  “Wait a minute.  I’ll get one out of the office.”

Charlie waited while Carolyn retreated to her office in search of a card.  He was glad to get the referral, but still hadn’t heard what he needed the most: if he got the job.  At last Carolyn returned and took her seat opposite him at the table.  She pushed her card over to him and said “Here it is Charlie.  Tell this person that she can call me anytime for a reference.  And you can also tell her that I get first dibbs on your work.  Charlie, I want you to do my kitchen.”

The words sunk in slowly.  Carolyn continued to talk about details of the job, most importantly payment, which would begin today, but Charlie only barely heard her.  Inside he felt as if a couple of pieces of his life had just come together.  He had been at the end of his resources before, and had parked his truck and walked until he could borrow or beg a few dollars to get to another job.  He had been hungry before, and spent dull and unfeeling days between the end of one job and the beginning of another.

Today felt different.  This was not the beginning of another hand-to-mouth job intended, more than anything else, to kill empty time.  Charlie wanted to begin to live again, and maybe do a better job of it this time around.  LuAnn, with her generosity, had fed Charlie’s empty belly and his soul this morning .  Now, Carolyn Mason and D’Andra Chummley had offered to help feed his soul even more.

Emotions swirled inside Charlie, and once again he felt the tears begin to rise to the surface.  He was afraid that this show of weakness would shake the confidence in him that Carolyn had just expressed but instead, when he looked up, he saw tears in Carolyn’s eyes too.  He also noticed that she had pulled her checkbook out of her purse and was writing a figure that had more than two zeros after it.  She tore out the check and pushed it across the table to Charlie.

“That’s a first draw.  I know that you’ll need to get plans filed and then approved, and then demolition.  When you need to start buying materials let me know.  We can go look at appliances and cabinets and tiles and such any time next week.  I’ll be very busy for the rest of this one.”

Charlie looked at the check that lay before him as if he couldn’t believe that it was there.  Without further conversation, no start date, indeed not even approval from the county permit office yet, Carolyn had just written him a check.  The penniless state in which he existed when he drove up in front of her house had been wiped away by a check that this surprising woman had just pushed across the table.  He looked at her mutely, trying to take it all in.

“I trust you Charlie.  My late husband would call me an idiot, but I trust you.  Now you can pay your counselor so that I won’t have to compete for your time.”

Charlie made no attempt to hide his tears.  Unlike so many others that he had cried in the last two years these felt healthy and clean.  He placed his fingers over the check and drew it toward himself.  Four thousand dollars was written on the long line in the middle.  Four thousand dollars more than he currently possessed.  More money, actually, than he had seen for a very long time.

Charlie excused himself and then blew his nose on a paper towel that Carolyn had used for a napkin for his coffee.  Then, with drying eyes, he looked directly into Carolyn’s and said “Thank you.  Very much.  You have no idea how much I want to earn this money.  I’m going to go now.  I have to file some papers at the permit office.  That process could take as long as six weeks, but I think that it will take a lot less.  I want to get on it right away so that we can get going on the project.

Carolyn reached into her purse once again, this time withdrawing a key.  “Here Charlie.  You can come and go as you need.  I am always up and dressed by nine o’clock and I want the house to be quiet by five, unless there are special circumstances.  Call before you come over, but if I don’t answer feel free to come anyway.  Now I have got work to do also.  I have to earn some money to replace all of those dead presidents that I just gave you.”

She said that last sentence with a warm smile, and Charlie knew that it was meant as a jest, even if it was true.  He rose, thanked her again, gathered the check and his plans and walked to the door.  He turned, wanting to say something else, but nothing came to mind.  Carolyn understood his need however and said “Go ahead and do what you need to do Charlie.  I want my kitchen.”

Charlie exited the house and climbed back into his truck.  On this day, when he was half a block away from Carolyn’s house, it was cries of exultation that streamed from Charlie’s lips instead of curses.  His bank had a branch no more than a mile away and he drove straight there.  He deposited the check, keeping a few hundred dollars in his wallet.  He filled his gas tank at the first station that he could find, and then drove to the county permit office to begin the process of getting local government approval.

 

By one in the afternoon he had done what he could for the day and went to the store to stock his kitchen.  After bringing in his groceries and making himself a bowl of soup and a couple of sandwiches, he saw the napkin with Billy’s phone number on the corner of the kitchen counter.

“Oh, yeah” he thought.  “I promised to give Billy a call.  I’ll do it now.”  He sat in his chair, his window open and letting the late spring air come into his apartment.  “With what I’m making on this job I’ll probably have to move out of here” he thought, and the thought gave him little comfort.  This apartment had been a tomb for the last year and a half, but it had done what it had to do.  “I won’t miss it, but I don’t hate it either.”  He entertained these thoughts as he punched the numbers that had been written on the napkin into his phone.  At last, the sound of a ring tone came through his phone, followed by a voice which he assumed was Billy’s saying “Hello.”

 

“Hey Billy” he began.  “This is Charlie.  You got time to talk?”

“Yeah” Billy replied.  “Walt told me last night that you’d be calling.  How ya doing Man?”

“Good.  Good.  I’ve had a lot on my plate lately and would remember and then forget to call you” Charlie said, lying through his teeth.  “The truth is that I straight-up forgot about you” he thought.  “You still up for me taking a look at your place?”

“Yeah.  That would be great.  It’s no big thing if you’re busy and can’t fit it in, but if you have time there’s some stuff that really needs work, and I don’t know how to do it.”

“Well, I’m getting permitted on a new job and that could take a couple of weeks.  Say, I know that you were at the tavern last night.  Any chance that you are you going to be there tonight?”

“Yeah.  It’s not going to be a formal group night.  We bumped that up to Wednesday for this week.  Just Dom and Joe and me are going to have a couple of beers.  You want to come along?”

“I think I will” Charlie said without hesitation.  “In fact, I’m not really doing anything now, so how ‘bout I come over and give your place a look-see, and then we can go to the tavern together?”

“That sounds good” Billy said.  “I’ll pick the place up a little.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it.  I’m not bringing a camera crew from HGTV with me.”

Billy laughed at that and said “OK, I’ll leave the mess where it lies.  Let me give you my address.”

Soon Charlie was on his way to Billy’s house.  He lived only a short distance from the tavern, and in only a little while Charlie was pulling up the long driveway that circled around Billy’s parents’ house to end at the small cottage out back.  Billy opened the door as Charlie pulled up and came to a halt.

“So you found me.  Good for you!  Come on in.”

Charlie eyed the outside of the house as he approached the front door.  The siding looked intact but it was badly in need of paint.  He tried to put his mind back onto Billy instead of the house.

“How ‘bout a cup of coffee?” Billy asked as Charlie entered, shook Billy’s hand and sat in the chair Billy had waved at.

“I’ll have one if you are” he replied.  Again his eyes began to survey the room that he sat in.  A bubble had puffed up in an upper corner of the room; evidence of a leak somewhere in the roof.  The carpet was old but clean and still in pretty good shape.  The plug of the one table lamp in the room hung loosely from an outlet that had seen too many years.  Charlie was making a mental list when Billy returned with the steaming mug of coffee.

“Man, you make a decent cup of Joe” Charlie exclaimed after taking a sip.  He had expected hog swill such as he made in his own apartment.

“The joint’s a dump, but I have to have good coffee” Billy explained a little bit proudly.

“I have to learn your secret” Charlie said.  “The stuff I make is like drinking paint thinner.  How do you do it?”

“I grind my own beans.  I ground some just before you got here.  And then I do a pour-over.  Best damned way to make a cup of coffee.”

Charlie agreed and asked Billy to show him the setup, and while they played around in the kitchen with Billy’s coffee system Charlie learned more about this young man who he found so easy to like.  Billy had been a good student and had hoped to be a teacher before he joined the Army a few years after the terrorist attack on September 1, 2001.  He had seen plenty of combat, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, where he was injured by a roadside bomb.  He now had trouble walking long distances, and carrying heavy loads caused that leg to ache after a short while.

His worse disability however was his reduced ability to concentrate.  Before combat he could study for hours, or even days straight, and perform at the top of his classes on examination.  Now, his mind and memory were still sharp, but his ability to focus on a task had been greatly diminished.  Studying for a test had become a test of endurance itself, and things that he knew simply wouldn’t come out of his head the way that they used to, and that frustrated Billy all the more, adding to the problem.

Now, after joining and staying with the counseling group with Joe and Dom and the others, and taking medications to slow down the riot in his head, Billy was getting himself ready to give school another go, this time in a two year program to become a radiology technologist.  The community college in Vancouver had a program in that field and Billy’s veteran status gave him a leg up on landing a slot in a pool with many applicants and only a few slots.

“I’m really excited” he told Charlie.  “It pays good, it’s indoors, and it’s helping people.  I’ve found that I really like helping people when I can.  Right now though, I’m living on just a little disability that I have coming in from the Army and can only barely help myself.  The folks help as much as they can, but they don’t have much either.”

“Thats good news about the school, Billy” Charlie said.  “I wish you a lot of success.  When do you start?”

“Fall.  three months to go, and a few days left over.”

“You should probably do everything that you need to get done before then.  They’ll keep you busy, I’ll bet.”

“Well, there’s not much that I have to do,” Billy waved at the walls of the house.  “Except kept this from falling in on my head.  I would love to go hunting again, but I can’t really make it happen with my leg,  That’s something that really pisses me off.  Maybe after I graduate it’ll feel better.  I still get some therapy at the VA hospital.”

“You like to hunt?” Charlie asked.  “I do too.  Or I used to before I, well, ran into some tough times of my own.  If I had a gun I would love to give hunting a shot.  No pun intended.”

Billy looked at Charlie for a minute, apparently wrestling with a thought.  Finally he said “I have some guns Charlie.  I don’t have much else, but I have some guns.  You want to see them?”

“Yeah, I’d love to!”

Billy led Charlie into his bedroom and in the closet, behind a row of shirts and a few pants, was a locked rack with two modern rifles and one black powder piece.  “Holy crap,” Charlie exclaimed.  “These are beautiful.  What are they?”

“Winchester 370 on the left.  Remington 798 in the middle, and that beauty on the right is my Hawken flintlock.”  Billy reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring of keys.  He then unlocked the rack.  “Try them out” he said.

For the next half hour all thoughts of home improvements fled as the two men sighted down the barrels, opened and closed the bolt mechanisms, and ran their fingers appreciatively over the smooth wood and steel of the hunting rifles.  Charlie was fascinated by the flintlock, and images of Daniel Boone played in his head as he turned the gun over in his hands, pulled back the hammer, and allowed a vision to grow in his mind.

“Billy, elk season starts on August 1 over on the east side of the state, or at least it used to.  If my work will allow it, you want to go see if we can fill our freezers?”

A light gleamed in Billy’s eye, but he was struggling to say ‘yes’.  “You know that I can’t go very far, and rough terrain is not my friend.  I wouldn’t be much of a partner on a hunt.”

“That’s OK Man.  I know about your problem.  We can do what you can do and not any more.  The odds have never been all that good that I would bag an elk anyway, but it sure would be fun to sit in the brush and try, wouldn’t it?”

Billy thought that over and agreed that it would be nice to get into the woods in whatever capacity the he could, and agreed that if Charlie could go, he would be thrilled to tag along with him.

“Great,“ Charlie said.  “We’ll have to go into the woods nearby and sight these in, and I don’t know jack about black powder.  This’ll be good.  Yeah.  I’m looking forward to it.  Now, we better take a look at this house.”

Billy put the rifles back into the rack and locked them up, then they both walked around the house inside and out.  Charlie crawled into the attic to try and find the source of the leak but, predictably, he was not successful.  “I’ll have to get up there when it’s raining to find it” he told Billy.  After an hour and a half he had a pretty long list of things that should be done to the house, and a shorter list of things that should be done sooner rather than later.

“I can’t pay for a tenth of that” Billy protested when he saw the list.  “That’s like a major remodel.”

“Not to worry” Charlie replied.  “I an do some of this pretty cheap.  In fact, I might have some materials left over on my job that we can plug in here and there.  The building is sound enough, and we just have to get you through two more years, right?”

Embarrassment at his current financial state of affairs and hope of getting some of the defects in his house played across Billy’s face simultaneously, and Charlie was happy that he could be a part of increasing the hope and decreasing the embarrassment.

By now it was getting close to time to go and meet the other men at the Dirty Socks.  Billy set the lock on his front door and they climbed into Charlie’s truck to meet the others at the tavern.  Charlie was feeling hungry again; “It’s funny how easily I get hungry when I can afford to eat” he thought, and looked forward to some pub grub and a pint of beer.

The two men chattered about hunting and construction and even a little – a very little – about the difficulties that they faced in life.  By the time they got to the tavern they both felt like they had found somebody they could lean on.

 

Stepping Out

Private First Class Joseph Sommers tried to squat down as he waited for the helicopters that would shuttle him and the rest of his company into action.  He could have taken his pack off and sat on it, but he didn’t want to take a chance on delaying the process when the choppers finally arrived.  This was Joe’s first mission since arriving in Vietnam and he knew that he was going to screw something up; all of the veterans had made certain that he knew that.  Joe just didn’t want it to happen first thing.  Since he couldn’t squat without the risk of the weight of the pack pulling him over onto his backside, Joe just stood silently and smoked while he waited.

Joe tried to take his mind off of the action that lay before him by remembering his home in San Diego.  Home hadn’t been kind to Joe.  For reasons that he could never understand he had been picked out by the other kids in the neighborhood to be bullied.  Hardly a month would go by without him being beaten up at school or at the neighborhood park or just walking back from violin lessons,

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers,” someone would yell and soon his violin case would be in the bushes, his sheet music scattered to the wind, and Joe lying on the sidewalk with his mouth or nose bleeding.

This situation persisted throughout Joe’s school years, and in his heart and mind visions of revenge had wrestled with the message of forgiveness that he heard preached and taught at the East San Diego Christian Church every Sunday.  Joe’s head would pray for the strength to forgive the kids who made his life hell, while his heart prayed that God would send lightening or plague or any other catastrophe to blast his tormentors to a hell of their own.

In time Joe began to believe that for some reason that he would never know he deserved what he was given.  He would try to fight back, but it was as if he knew that he would be beaten once again before he even started and it would be better to get it over with quickly rather than prolong – and maybe worsen – the inevitable.

At last Joe graduated from high school.   “The world is open to you all” some speaker was saying.  “You only have to step out and take your place in it.”  “Take my place in it” Joe thought as he sat listening under the gray June sky.  “What the hell is my place in it?  A punching bag?  Maybe it IS a punching bag.  I never had the balls to really stand up and fight back, and I’m just as big as most of those kids are who slapped and hit and spit on me.  Maybe the world really is open to me, and then again maybe that speaker is full of shit and I have this coming to me and nothing’s going to change.”

Joe mulled these thoughts for two weeks after graduation.  He stayed at home, not wishing to face the kids that he might run into at the park or the beach or, well, just about anywhere.  All that time his mind seethed over the import of what he had heard at graduation.  Was the world truly open to Joe, or was he just a punching bag.  It couldn’t be both.

At last Joe’s eighteenth birthday came.  Joe’s parents asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday and the answer to that question came to Joe like an epiphany.  “I want to join the Army.  Today.”

Joe’s mother stood in stunned silence.  “Are you crazy?” she blurted out at last.  “Have you noticed that there’s a war going on?”

“Yes Mom” Joe replied.  “Dad fought in a war and now it’s my turn to go too.”

“You’re darned right your father fought in a war, and I waited every day to see if two officers were going to walk up onto the porch and ring the doorbell and tell me that my husband was dead.  Now you want me to do it again with you.  What in the hell is the matter with you men?”

Joe’s mother sat down and began to cry.  His father tried to comfort her, but she seemed to be as mad at him as she was at Joe.  Joe was sorry to have hurt his mother.  She had been his greatest comfort during the awful times of his childhood and he felt the sting of having caused her this pain.  She would have been especially grieved if she knew that her outburst had confirmed Joe in his decision, and convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

“What in the hell is the matter with you men?” she had asked.  “Men.”  She had used the word “Men” and included him in that group.  Here was what he sought.  He would not be “Miss Sommers” or the human punching bag for one more day.  Joe would be a man, even if he got himself killed trying.

After Joe’s mother accepted that she could do nothing to prevent Joe’s departure his father asked if they could drive him to the recruiter’s office downtown.  “No Dad.  I want to take the bus.  I want to do this myself, from the beginning to the end.”  Joe remembered his father telling him of taking a train from a town in Missouri to a naval training center somewhere on the Great Lakes in the 1930’s.  Joe would only take the Number Seven bus down University Avenue and then down Park Boulevard into downtown San Diego, but he was going to do it on his own.

The Park lay in the direction opposite University Avenue, but Joe chose to walk through that park on the beginning of his journey.  Matt and Chad and Reuben and a couple of girls who would have never thought of letting Joe know their names were sitting on a picnic bench underneath a scruffy pine tree as he walked by.

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers” Joe heard for the thousandth time.  Among the catcalls and insults Joe heard the question “Where you going to, Missy?”

Joe stopped directly in front of them and said “I’m going to join the Army.  If any of you ladies want to go with me, step up.”

“They don’t let sissies join the Army” Matt replied with his usual idiotic sneer.

“Then why don’t you get up off of your ugly ass and come down with me and see for yourself?  Maybe you could even join too.  I’m sure that they have room in boot camp for two more.  Hell, all of you can come.  Come on!  Let’s see how brave you are when people are shooting at you.”

The laughter stopped for a minute.  “Perhaps that thought is sinking into their microscopic brains” Joe thought.  Before they could begin their derision again Joe continued speaking.  “I have more important things to do than piss away a morning with you.  Anyone with a set of balls on them can come and get on a bus with me.”  Joe then slowly, as impudently as he could manage, turned his back on them and walked away, leaving several very confused ex-tormentors sitting on their bench.

Joe thought about that day as he stood at the edge of the LZ (Landing Zone), but his daydream abruptly ended when he heard the Wop Wop Wop of the approaching helicopters.  “Saddle up, gentlemen” Corporal Zincker said with a calm voice.

Joe was anything but calm.  He had been assigned to his unit four months after finishing Advanced Infantry Training at a fort in Texas.  When he arrived at Camp Charlie, somewhere near Pleiku in central Vietnam, he was given the usual treatment dished out to FNG’s (pronounced F’nG’s, and meaning Fucking New Guys).  “Don’t get me killed, FNG.  I’m rotating home in two months.”  “Oh shit.  Are we getting another FNG?” and so on.

Joe knew that new guys were replacing buddies who had rotated home, been wounded or killed.  A veteran who had befriended him in Texas had told him what to expect and advised him to “not get yourself killed, and the guys will come around in time.”  That was a better deal than he had at home.  The guys never came around there.

“OK Men!  Let’s Go!  Let’s Go!”

The chopper had touched down and Joe’s squad moved quickly to take their places behind the door gunner who sat behind his M60 machine gun.  All kidding and FNG stuff was over now.  Soon this helicopter and a lot of others would come to within a foot or two of the ground and men would jump out into a world where bullets and bombs and other gadgets of war would define their lives for as long as they could hang onto them.

“I don’t have to be here” Joe thought as the helicopter lifted off and another took its place.  Joe remembered that when he first arrived in-country the previous company clerk had just been wounded by a sniper and had been shipped, or ‘medivaced’, to a hospital in Japan.  Joe knew how to type, so he was assigned to replace the clerk.

“But sir” Joe had argued with his Commanding Officer.  “I didn’t sign up to be a clerk.  Why do I have to do this?”

“Because you’re government property, Sommers, and you will do what the government tells you to do’ was the CO’s reply.  “I’m the government, and I’m telling you to put your ass in front of that typewriter and start clerking, and if you give me any more shit I can add latrine duty to your chores.”

Joe didn’t savor the idea of latrine duty,  and so he ground his teeth day after day as the men went out on missions while he stayed behind and typed morning reports.  At last, a replacement Admin Specialist arrived and Joe Sommers found his name on a list of men going out on the next mission.

Sitting in a row on that chopper, Joe was both exhilarated and terrified.  This journey was very nearly over.  For almost nineteen years, life had tried to beat him into submission and had failed.  Joe Sommers was not willing to be a punching bag.  He was not willing to be a company clerk.  Joe Sommers would be a man, even if it killed him.

They were below treetop level now and Joe knew that the call to “un-ass” would come in a moment.  “This is a hot LZ gentlemen.  We don’t want to linger” a chopper crewman hollered over the roar of the engines and blades.  The gunner cut loose with a burst from the 60, spraying the tall grass and brush in front of him with hot death for anyone who dared to poke their heads up.

Joe had been placed so that he would be the third person out of the chopper.  That way the squad leader and one veteran would lead him, and the ten guys behind him would kick him in the ass if he screwed anything up.  Joe knew that’s just the way that they did it, and he was glad that it was that way.  He would either survive this and then deal with the “World that is open to you all,” or he would die on his feet facing his enemy.  Either way was fine with him.

“OK Men!  “Let’s Go!”

The Garden, Chapter VII

Charlie called the home improvement store from Leroy’s, where he had once again gone for coffee.  The flowers which inhabited his battered aluminum percolator were beginning to droop, but they still had a couple more days left in them, and Charlie decided that he was not yet ready to part company with the tiny bit of color that they brought to his drab, spartan apartment.

“Good morning, Mr. Hamer” said the third voice to deal with him on this call.  “Yes sir” said that voice.  “Your shower door is in.  Just show your invoice at the loading dock and you’re good to go”  Charlie thanked the third voice and disconnected the call.

“Well, you’re looking a good deal better today” LuAnn said as she approached Charlie with her coffee pot.  “I hope that my eyes aren’t deceiving me.”

“Your eyes are working just fine” Charlie replied.  “I am a good deal better today.  I’m sorry about yesterday.  I’ve got no right to lay my downer days on anybody else.  It’s my problem, and I have to deal with it.  I really do appreciate your caring thought.  That means a lot to me.”

The business at Leroy’s was slower today than it had been the day before, and LuAnn took advantage of that to sit on a stool next to Charlie.

“Sweetie” she began.  “You got nothing to be sorry about.”  LuAnn filled his mug with coffee and continued.  “You ain’t getting no breakfast today, are you?”

“No”  Charlie said.  “I ate at home.  Bacon, eggs, and broccoli boiled to death.  You really should put that on your menu.”

LuAnn made a face at Charlie and then continued speaking.  “Now I ain’t no Sigman Frewd, but I want to give you some advice, if you’ll let me.”  LuAnn hesitated for only a moment before continuing, apparently unconcerned about whether Charlie intended to let her give him some advice or not.  “There’s nobody alive who never has a bad day.  Heck, even Superman runs into a little kryptonite every now and then.  Feeling down doesn’t mean you’re weak, and feeling down here at Leroy’s doesn’t make you unwanted or an embarrassment or anything else  Feeling down shows that you are human, and if you could watch people every day, eight hours a day, the way that I do, you’d see one heck of a lot of people trying their hardest to deny that they’re human.

Oh, it’s not that you can only be human if you are broken down and hurting.  All that being down is is one part of life.  But there’s people coming in here that I’ve seen for more years than I would care to count, and to judge by their faces, ain’t a-one of them ever been fired, divorced or even just cheated on, lost a parent or somebody else; heck for them it’s just been peaches ’n cream to judge by their faces.  Now what’s the odds of that, huh?”

Charlie didn’t have an answer to that, and LuAnn was called away before she could continue with her counseling session.  Charlie sipped his coffee and waited for her to return.  “I like that woman” he thought.  “I really do like her.  She’s the first person that I’ve known for a very long time who I just like to be around.  Well, except for Rachael.  Walt?  Well, I don’t know about Walt.”

Charlie watched as LuAnn seated her customers, brought them menus, poured their coffee and generally bustled and clucked and took care of them like they were her own lost children.  But, unable to allow a good moment to go unchallenged, his old cloud of self-doubt and unease returned.  “Shit,” his demons laughed into his mind.   “She’s not just nice to you, idiot.  She’s like that with everybody.  You’re nothing special, so get over yourself!”   Charlie was struggling with that when LuAnn returned, having started her customers on their way to a fine American breakfast.

“Now where were we?” She asked as she glided back to the stool next to Charlie.  He didn’t speak up right away, so LuAnn continued on her own.  “Must-a been something to do with people not showing their troubles.  Ah, yes.  I remember.  Almost nobody’s come in here and told me that they’re having a crappy day, and I know that somebody’s just got to have one of those every now and then.

Now that’s just too bad.  I think that you should be able to share your load with other people.  With some of ‘em anyway.  It’s just not good to bottle it all up and stew on it.  That stew will eat you a long time before you eat it!  Dang, I wish that I could smoke in here.  All of this philosophizing; I need a cigarette!”

Charlie chuckled at that, feeling the work of his demons held at bay by this worn but undefeated woman.  “LuAnn” he said.  “You’re like medicine.  Look, I’ve been having a pretty lousy last couple of years.  When I think back farther, I can see that a lot more years weren’t as good as I thought they were.

 

Charlie looked down at his fingernails and twirled the mug of coffee, accidentally slopping some of it onto the counter.  A thin stream of the hot liquid ran across the counter and dripped onto Charlie’s pant leg.  “You see?  I’ve been snakebitten” he said and cast a washed-out smile at his companion.

“I don’t see no snakes, Honey” she said.  “All I saw was you playing with your coffee.  Hey!  We live and we do things.  Sometimes those things work out for good and sometimes they don’t.  Heck, most the time it’s things we got no control over that bite us.  So why do we let those things rule our lives?”

The earnestness of LuAnn’s little speech worked magic on Charlie, and the heaviness that had begun to weigh down his spirit lifted again.  “I’ve got to go,” he said, “but I’m going to think about what you’ve said.  How much do I owe you for your consultation?”

“Just leave me a nice tip if you ever buy another breakfast in here, Cheapskate” She said with her warm, raspy laugh.

“If I ever make any money, you bet I will” Charlie replied with a smile.  “Do I get a hug today?”

“Not on your life Dearie.  Hugs are only for losers and stray dogs” she said with another laugh.

“Well, that’s me on both counts” Charlie said with a grin, and accepted LuAnn’s warm hug that was cut short by the cook’s cry of ‘Order Up.’  “I’ll see you later, when I’ve had a payday” Charlie said as LuAnn stepped back and headed toward the window where two large plates of food awaited here.

“You come back anytime, payday or no” LuAnn replied over her shoulder.  Charlie waved and exited the cafe.

All the way to the store Charlie thought about his morning.  It had begun well, but while sitting at the counter, the most innocent of acts; LuAnn simply being friendly with two customers whom she probably had served for years, had sent him back into his dark place.  “Why was this happening?” Charlie wondered.  Of course LuAnn would be friendly towards her customers.  How was that any business of Charlie’s?  And besides, tips flowed to the friendly waiter a lot more generously than they would to a sourpuss.

Why should Charlie begin to believe that LuAnn’s seeming concern for him was insincere just because she was able to be concerned with two customers at the same time as with him?  It didn’t make sense, just like the thoughts that flitted through his mind as he drove across town of twisting the steering wheel and sending his truck into the grill of an oncoming dump truck didn’t make sense.

Since his evening on the bridge Charlie had decided that he didn’t want to die.  Still, thoughts of his death and the ways in which that might happen always seemed to hover just barely beyond his active consciousness, showing themselves from time to time when Charlie was in danger of settling down into a good rhythm of life.  Those thoughts were like a dull ache that you could almost forget was there, until you turn just the wrong way and it knifes you in the hip or knee or ankle or heart.  “God” Charlie thought.  “I hope that this goes away some day.”

When Charlie got to the store the shower door was indeed ready for him to pick up.  Charlie tied the boxed door down with nylon ropes and called Carolyn to let her know that he was on the way.  “Wonderful” she exclaimed when he told her that he was coming.  “And did you get a chance to think about the kitchen?”

Charlie looked down at the stack of papers that rested on the seat of his truck, the papers that contained rough plans for the entire project.  “Yes” he replied.  I made a few drawings for you to look at.”

“Good.  Good.  I’ll see you when you get here.”

Warm thoughts of a new job with a better payday filled Charlie’s head, and he might have driven to Carolyn’s house a little faster than the maximum posted speed limit.  He pulled up in front of the house and saw the front door open.  Carolyn had obviously been waiting for his arrival, and that put Charlie into an even better mood.

“Good morning” Charlie called out as he emerged from the truck, and Carolyn returned his greeting.  She walked down the path from the house to the street.

“Will you need help getting that inside?” she asked.

“Nah, no problem.  I’ve got a dolly that will get it there easy enough.”  Once Charlie got the box onto the dolly, which was a flat pallet on wheels, it was not hard to roll it up to the front door.  “I can slide it down the hallway on these two towels” Charlie said, pointing to the towels that were draped over the top of the box.  Two hours later, Carolyn was admiring her new, completed bathroom remodel.

“Ah, this is wonderful” Carolyn explained as she stood in the center of her new bathroom.  “Everything is better than I even imagined.  You really have a talent, you know.”

“Yes, I know” Charlie replied.  “I’m happy that you like it.  I’ve always wanted to do the best possible work.  I figure the customer deserves it if they’re giving me their hard-earned money.  I wouldn’t feel right doing any less.”

“Well, it shows.”  Carolyn said.  She took a few more looks at her new bathroom and then said “Come on to the kitchen.  I’ll make some coffee and we can go over what you have thought of so far.  I suppose that you’ve brought your own lunch again.”

Actually, Charlie had not.  His own kitchen was bare and he was hoping that selling his ideas for Carolyn’s new kitchen would generate a draw.  He would then be able to make a run to the grocery store.  Charlie had been living from hand to mouth for a long time; this was not uncharted territory for him.  Carolyn’s offer, which he would normally have refused before as a matter of course, seemed attractive to him today.

“Well no, I haven’t brought a lunch today.  I planned on holding off on eating until dinner.  Carolyn eyed him suspiciously, and Charlie knew that his thin frame was giving his lie away.

“How about I just make some sandwiches?” she asked, and Charlie nodded his assent.  Soon, sandwiches were made, and chips and fruit and coffee were resting on the table before Charlie and Carolyn.

Charlie went to the truck as Carolyn began to prepare their lunch.  He had his drawings on the table when they both sat down to eat.  The gnawing in Charlie’s stomach made more pressing demands on his attention than Carolyn’s reaction to his drawings did, and so he dug in with more gusto that his lame excuse was supposed to lead Carolyn to believe.  Carolyn was more interested in the drawings than her lunch, and Charlie hungrily eyed the half sandwich and chips that lay untouched on Carolyn’s plate.  With difficulty he refrained from making a pitch for them.

Carolyn’s attention was invested entirely in Charlie’s drawings for what seemed like forever.  Wheels were turning in her head.  Charlie had finished eating, and now wished desperately to know where those wheels were headed.

Charlie studied Carolyn’s face with quick glimpses, not wanting to be obvious in his inspection.  Carolyn was not what the social norms would call ‘attractive’, but Charlie could not exactly say why that would be.  Her make up was at a minimum, and she seemed to not try to hide the tiny lines and proto-wrinkles that had begun to form at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

Her face was framed by light auburn hair which swept down across the right side, just to the side of her right eye, and rested slightly above the line of her jaw.  That jaw continued down her face to meet its opposite at a petite chin, just below rather thinnish lips.  When those lips parted Charlie could see twin rows of absolutely perfect teeth.  “Good Orthodontist” Charlie thought.

Charlie’s thought turned involuntarily to his ex wife’s face.  He could still remember every detail of it; the longish oval shape of it with long, almost black hair dropping past her shoulders.  Maureen had big, round eyes that seemed eager to telegraph whatever emotion she was feeling at any given moment.

Those eyes had always captivated Charlie with their expressiveness; joy at their wedding, joy mixed with exhaustion at the births of first Stevie and then Josh, and then pain mixed with the need for comfort and the ache to be a comforter when they stood before the open grave of their dead daughter.

Charlie had been paralyzed by his own grief and was unable to respond to those eyes, and the need of the beautiful woman who owned them, and so now she was a memory living somewhere else; maybe in a neighborhood across town or on the other side of the moon for all he knew.  How could he have done it differently?  How could he have —-.

I like this” Carolyn said, breaking into Charlie’s thoughts.  “You’ve got some good stuff here.  I never expected that you would come back so quickly and with so much detail on the project.  I like it very much.  I would have told you more about my thoughts yesterday however if I would have had any idea that you would get onto it so quickly.

I want to take this wall,” she pointed at the outside wall, “and push it back so that it will share a wall with the garage.  There’s a washer and dryer on the other side, and so there will be plumbing that can be shared, if that helps anything.  I know that I’ll be giving up a good four feet of my front porch but that’s alright.  I’d rather have the floor space in my kitchen than outside.  Also, what I’m looking for is a nice look from the 1980’s.”

At this point Charlie’s face melted into an involuntary scowl.  “I know.  I know” Carolyn said defensively.  “Nobody likes that stuff now.  But I do.  I use to love being in the kitchen with my mother when I was young, and I want something that will remind me of those times.”

Charlie was professionally outraged at this suggestion.  He was good at what he did, and he knew how to make a place look good.  He was beginning to get his creative juices flowing again and now the first thing that a customer wanted was a look that ran counter to everything that he thought was proper to build.

As a consequence of this, Charlie began to raise objections.  “But Carolyn.  Oak is just not done anymore.  That dark wood thing doesn’t work here; heck, it doesn’t work anywhere.  You would need a lot more light to give that look any chance of success.”

“Then draw in some more lighting” Carolyn responded.  “Put in a skylight.”  I like wood.  I like oak.”

 

“And I hope that you are not going to say the word ’linoleum,’” Charlie groused.

“No” Carolyn replied with just a hint of frost in her voice.  “I’m not.  I want tile.  Earth tones.  And wallpaper.”

Charlie had forgotten himself and how much he needed this job.  Everyone has their likes and dislikes, and Charlie just happened to dislike the 1980’s look very, very much, and thought that creating such a kitchen was an embarrassment to his skills.  “Let me guess,” he said with a not-too-veiled sarcasm in his voice.  “You want avocado appliances.”

Charlie prattled on for a few minutes more, mixing more objections with more suggested alternatives, and capped off his argument with the warning that the kitchen would have to be done entirely over once again before she would ever be able to sell this house.

Carolyn listened silently until Charlie ran out of objections.  “You make good points Charlie,” Carolyn began.  “If I was doing this project to prepare a house for resale I would do exactly what you suggest.  In fact, I may speak with you sometime soon about just such a project.”

Charlie was looking directly at Carolyn’s face, and saw that the curve of those jaws which were framed by that auburn hair now looked tight.

“At the moment however, I’m talking about a design for this house.  My house.  I really have no intention of reselling it any time soon, and will cross that bridge when I come to it.  Are you going to be able to do this job for me without any further argument Charlie?  If you will not be able to do that, then we should probably go on about our separate business.”

Charlie wanted to recast his argument in a more persuasive manner but the import of Carolyn’s final sentence hit him like a punch in the stomach.  He realized that he had just taken a nip at the hand that offered to feed him.  Charlie’s body sagged ever-so-slightly as he spoke with a tiredness in his voice that had been born of his last two dysfunctional years.

“I’m sorry.  You’re right.  It’s your place.  I guess I’m a little rusty with people skills.  But I’ve had – – -.  No, you don’t need to hear my sob story.  I would be glad to make the changes you suggest.  Any changes.”

Charlie wanted to go on, but he doubted that he could complete another sentence without breaking down.  He waved his hand at Carolyn, in that manner silently asking for a minute to compose himself.  Charlie didn’t even try to think about a Civil War battle or anything like that.  He just took a couple of deep breaths and stared at his empty plate.  Carolyn sat quietly in her chair, giving Charlie the time that he had asked for.  Finally she broke the silence.

“Charlie, you are a craftsman.  That I can see.  You’re also troubled by something.  That I can see too.  Your troubles are none of my business and I don’t intend to make them my business.  But I have to ask you this, and forgive me if I’m being direct.  I am willing to hire your skill because I am certain that you can do the work.  What I have to know however is not if you are able to build what I want, but more importantly, are you going to be able to finish the job if you start it?.”

Charlie stared at Carolyn, looking as if he didn’t understand the question.  The silence, and Carolyn’s direct and unwavering gaze, finally forced Charlie to deal with her question.  “Well, of course I can” he began.  “I finished the bathroom all right, didn’t I?”  Charlie felt his ire building up again.  This person wanted to build a kitchen in a style that was almost thirty years old and wasn’t any good back when it was popular.  Now she was questioning his ability to finish a job.

“Well, Charlie” Carolyn said.  “You’ve raised a red flag with me here.  I don’t have any questions about your skill, buy you have me worried about your balance.  One minute you’re challenging me on the style I want for my own house, and the next, and please pardon my expression here, you look like a whipped puppy.  Now I can see you getting defensive again.  This is a problem, or may be, and I don’t need a problem.

This project will be very important to me.  It will involve having my kitchen torn up; useless for part of the time, and it will not be cheap.  And I will want it to look exactly like I want it to look.  I’ll be frank, Charlie.  You are not a construction company, as far as I can tell.  You are good; there’s no doubt about that.  But if you flake out on me, I don’t see my back-up.  There’s nobody behind you to put my kitchen back together.  I have to trust you from start to finish Charlie, and right now you are making that hard for me to do.”

The air came spilling out of Charlie’s sails as Carolyn spoke.  His eyes nervously flitted from Carolyn’s face to the drawings, then back to Carolyn.  At last, they landed on the drawings and stayed there until she finished.

“I know you’ve had a hard time, Charlie, and I don’t want to add to your troubles” Carolyn concluded.  “But I don’t want to make your troubles mine, either.  I know that you have some real skills, and that they’re going to waste.

I would like to help you Charlie, and it isn’t for charity.  I would like to see the quality you produced in the bathroom reproduced here in my kitchen.  But I don’t want to be left holding the bag if you drop the ball.  Charlie, I need to know that you will be steady enough to finish the work if I let you begin it.”

Charlie felt anger, fear, shame and the desire to be whole and productive doing battle within his soul, and the outcome was very much in doubt.  An hour ago he had felt like the future was wide open to him, and his possibilities were limitless.  Now the job was very much in question, and he had no other job to fall back on.  This confident and obviously sharp woman was questioning Charlie’s stability, and he wasn’t certain that he had answers to her questions.  Not good ones anyway.

Charlie wanted to pick up his drawings and run, but he knew that he couldn’t do that.  His demons, who’s tormenting of him had recently been impeded  by Charlie’s opening up to other people and the idea that he might be worth something after all, sensed an opportunity to regain lost ground and stormed back into Charlie’s mind like a professional football halfback through a high school offensive line.  Even so, a small part of Charlie’s mind and soul, like some  skinny defensive back on that high school team, remained standing and determined to make a tackle or get flattened while trying.

“I need to know that too” Charlie said softly.  He paused, searching for the right words to say.  They didn’t come easily.  “I’ll finish the job if you will let me start it” he said at last.  “Hell, I’m not doing anything else.  Carolyn, I need this work.  I’m not much good at begging, but I’m getting pretty close to that.  I can’t blame you for being concerned,” Charlie looked up and at last made eye contact again.  “I promise, absolutely, that I will build exactly what you want, down to the last cabinet and countertop.  But if you don’t want to take a chance on me, I’ll understand.”

Carolyn remained silent after Charlie finished speaking.  Charlie interpreted the silence to be the conclusion to their business relationship.  He reached out and began to arrange and pick up his drawings in order to leave.  Unexpectedly, Carolyn reached out and put her hand on Charlie’s wrist.

“Tell you what” she said.  “You go home and redo these drawings.  Don’t worry about the wood and tile and whatnot.  Just give me some rough plans for moving that wall, putting the stove over there”  – Carolyn pointed at a corner of the kitchen – and the sink and dishwasher over there.  The fridge can stay where it is.  And if you think that it will make it a better finished project, put in a skylight or two.  We’ll talk about oak and tile and canisters with chickens on them to hold my coffee and flour and sugar later.

And Charlie, I wish that you would think about asking for some help.  I mean professional help.  Everyone has loads that they can’t carry sometimes and there’s nothing weak or wrong about asking for help.  But that’s not my business, so I won’t say anything more about it.  Charlie?  Will you think about what I’ve said?”

Charlie was thinking a little bit about how much he needed this job, a little bit about how much he wanted this job, and a little bit about how easy it would be to drive straight to the bridge and stop this madness.  But most of all he was thinking about how much he wanted to be gone from that kitchen table. “Yes,” he answered.  “I’ll do that.”  And with that Charlie picked up the drawings, put on his hat, and walked towards the door.

“Charlie” Carolyn said.  He turned and looked at her.  “I just want to say again that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.  So, see you tomorrow, OK?  Bring me something to look at tomorrow, if you are still up for it.”

Charlie nodded numbly, left the house and buckled himself into his truck.  He knew that Carolyn was watching as he pulled away.  He thought that she looked  sadly, but he couldn’t really tell.  He pulled away from the curb and was half a block away when he exploded.

“Fuck it” he screamed as he pounded on the steering wheel. “Fuck the job!  Fuck the world!  Fuck her!  Fuck me!  Shit!  Damn it to hell!  Charlie raved all the way to the busy street that led out of the neighborhood.  He didn’t really know where he was going; he just drove on, spilling his anger and frustration all over the cab of the truck.  By the time his thoughts returned to where he might be going he was half-way down the road that led to the garden.

“What do I care about a fucking garden!?!” Charlie asked himself, but as he thought about turning the truck around the image of Walt came into his mind.  “Now there’s a son of a bitch who sees things the way that they really are” Charlie thought.  “I’ll see if he’s there.  Maybe he’ll spot me a few bucks and we’ll go get shitfaced at the Key and Lock.”

It was in this frame of mind that Charlie drove up in front of the garden.  Walt wasn’t there, which prompted another explosive ‘Fuck!’ out of Charlie.  He was about to drive away, but he saw that Rachael was there.  Charlie wasn’t sure if he wanted any part of her goody two-shoes sweetness right at that moment, but with the loss of the company that Walt might have given him and no prospect of any other on the horizon, the loneliness that yawned open before him made Charlie turn off the truck motor and walk into the garden.

Rachael waved at him cheerfully when she heard the truck door close, and he waved back as best he could.  “How are you doing?” she asked as he approached his plot.  His anger and a growing fatigue combined to limit his response to a mumbled and thoroughly unconvincing “OK.”

Rachael wasn’t fooled.  “Bad day, huh?  I’m sorry.  I hope you really are OK.  You want some company, or would you rather I leave you alone?”

“Both” Charlie thought.  But he knew he had to make a choice.  “I’ll just take it out on a few weeds for now” he said.  “Maybe we can talk a little later?”

“Sure” she said.  “Take your time.”  Rachael turned and resumed her work of erecting a trellis for her green beans.

Charlie settled down in the dirt and began to pull weeds.  He had not brought his gloves or kneeling pad, so he simply buried his knees in the soil and saw the dirt piling up under his fingernails as he slowly and deliberately pulled out the weeds that never ceased to grow, no matter how many you pulled.

 

“Now what are you going to do?” Charlie asked himself.  “The fridge’s empty and you’re broke.  You’ve probably lost Carolyn’s job and you’ve got nothing else lined up.  Rent’s due next week, but you can probably get an extension on that.  Maybe I’ll eat at the Rescue Mission in Portland.  Won’t be the first time.  Too bad these seedlings aren’t producing fruit just yet, but that’ll be weeks away from now at least.  Let’s face it, Buddy.  You’re screwed.”

Charlie leaned back off of his knees and sat in the moist dirt, his hands resting on his dirty knees.  He looked at Rachael, who’s back was turned to him.  “She’s  a nice kid” Charlie thought.  “I wonder if she has time to listen to a broken down old shit like me.  I guess I’ll find out.”  Charlie pushed himself upright and walked over to Rachael’s plot.  “Can I help you with that?” he asked.

“Sure, Charlie” she answered.  “I’m running these strings horizontally between the uprights.  If you would like, you could start cutting the vertical strings.  I think six foot lengths would do the trick.”

Charlie began to measure and cut, while Rachael silently continued her work.  “She knows damned good and well that I want to talk” Charlie thought, “and she’s giving me the space to do it when I’m ready.  Yeah, she really is a good kid.”  This was the first positive thought that Charlie’d had since he had left Carolyn’s kitchen table.  This thought gave him the strength to begin to talk with her.

“Rachael, you counsel kids that are messed up, don’t you?”

“Well, I don’t think that I would put it quite like that” she replied, “but yeah, that’s sort of what I do.”

“I’m sorry if I’m a bit weak on social graces” Charlie said.  “But I think that I need to talk with somebody who counsels messed up adults.  You know anybody like that?”

Rachael stopped tying her string and stood up.  “I know a few Charlie.  Mostly over in Portland, but there’s a few who practice on this side of the river, if that matters to you”

“Well, yes it does” Charlie replied.  “I don’t go over to Portland more than I have to.  Traffic’ll make you crazy.”  Charlie laughed at his own joke; he felt crazy already.  It took Rachael a moment to pick up on his dry humor, and then she smiled too.

“Do you be more comfortable with a male or a female?” Rachael asked.

“I don’t really care” Charlie said, and then he thought about the issue more deeply.  A guy might be thinking ‘man up, wimp.  Grow a pair.  Why are you being such a baby?’  Of course, a counselor wouldn’t think any such a thing, but another man listening to Charlie’s problem might make him fear, rightly or wrongly, that he was thinking just that, and Charlie couldn’t stand that idea.

“On second thought” Charlie said.  “Make it a woman, if you know somebody who’s good at it.  I’m not trying to run home to my Momma, but I just think that I would be more comfortable with a woman.  Or at least less judged.  Aw, hell.  I don’t know what I think.  Am I making any sense at all?”

“You’re making perfect sense Charlie” Rachael said as she put a hand on his arm.  “I’ve known that you are struggling more than you let on, and I am so happy that you have made this decision.  Let me see if I can find a card.”

Rachael looked in the small purse that she kept in her back pocket but didn’t find what she was looking for.  “Wait here.  I know that I have one in the car.” Charlie watched Rachael walk to her car while he stood by the trellis holding a length of string.  Before she could return however a van rolled up and parked behind Rachael’s car.

“Oh, shit” Charlie mumbled as Walt emerged from the van.  He had forgotten that he had initially hoped that Walt would be here when he arrived earlier.  Now Walt was here, and Charlie was less than enthusiastic about that fact.

 

“Hey, Buddy.  How you doing?” Walt hollered as he waved.

“I’ve been better”  Charlie responded, deciding to be honest.

“Oh, stepped in a little shit, have we?”  Walt asked with a grin as he walked up the path towards his plot.

“I don’t know about ‘we’” Charlie replied.  “I sure as hell have though.”

Walt laughed.  I know how it feels.  I’ve been stepping in shit damn near every day of my life.  Oh, hey!  Did you ever get in touch with Billy?  He told me last week that you were going to call him.  I know that the kid needs more help than he lets on, although he’d say something bad about my mother if he knew that I had mentioned it.”

“Oh, crap!” Charlie thought.  He had completely forgotten that he had  written down Billy’s phone number and promised to take a look at the structural problems at his residence.  “No, I haven’t had time.  Things have been a little crazy busy, but I think they may settle down a bit.  I’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Hey man, you don’t have to make excuses to me.  Ain’t none of my business.  I just wondered is all.  We’re getting together tonight if you want to come along.  It ain’t Thursday, but were doing it anyway.”

Charlie thought about the empty wallet in his back pocket and the dinner that he wasn’t going to have tonight.  “No, I can’t make it tonight.  I have to work on some plans for a job I’m bidding.  Tell Billy I’ll call him tomorrow, OK?”

“Yeah, I’ll let him know.  Well, the weeds are calling.”

And with that Walt walked away towards his plot and got to work.  At that moment Rachael returned with a stiff, glossy card in her hand.

“Here’s her card” she said.  “Just one thing more Charlie.  How do you feel about Black people?”

“I don’t really know” Charlie answered.  “I don’t really know any Black people.  I don’t think it makes any difference to me one way or the other.  I’ve worked alongside Hispanic people and it never made any difference to me, so I suppose It won’t make any difference if she’s Black or Asian or from Mars.  Shoot, I just want somebody who’ll help me to get my head screwed on straight.  I don’t intend to ask her to marry me.”

Rachael laughed at that and said “That will be a great comfort to her husband.  D’andra is a very good counsellor, and one of the nicest people that I know.”

“Thanks” Charlie replied.  “I’ll give her a call soon.  I don’t have the money to see her now.  I suppose this will be pretty expensive, huh?”

“I don’t know what her rates are Charlie.  I never talked with her about that.  You could call and see if you can work something out.  She and Shelby – that’s her husband – have just bought a beautiful but old house downtown.  They might be willing to barter for services.  I don’t think she would mind if you asked.”

Charlie promised to do that and then returned to cutting and, threading and tying the vertical strings to Rachael’s trellis.  In short order Rachael had a ten foot long trellis that was five feet high, with a checkerboard of strings in six inch squares that were ready to receive the growing tendrils of a row of green bean seedlings.

Rachael had mostly been quiet while they finished their task, but finally broke the silence.  “Charlie” she said as she turned to face him.  “I would be willing to cover your first visit with D’Andra.

Charlie prepared to object but Rachael held up her hand and continued.  “You can pay me back.  This isn’t charity, although I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was.  No, Charlie.  This is offering to help.  A loan, if you have to look at it that way.  I am doing OK financially, and this would not hurt me one bit.  I would really like to see you get started, and I would consider it a favor if you would accept my offer.”

Charlie had never accepted charity and was prepared to tell Rachael as much, but Rachael spoke again before Charlie could refuse.  “Don’t answer me now, Charlie.  Think about it.  There’s no pressure, and I won’t mention this again.  Please, just think about it.”

Charlie agreed to think about it, and then declared that it was time to finish up and go home.  Rachael said ‘good bye,’ but not one more word about her offer.  Charlie walked over to Walt’s plot and repeated his request that Walt tell Billy that he would call him the next morning.  Walt agreed to deliver the message, and Charlie returned to his truck, started the motor, and drove slowly to his home.

As soon as he got home Charlie stripped and got into the shower.  He stood there for a long time as the warm water washed the dirt and sweat away.  He thought about the day as he stood there, and the warm water at last began to wash away some of his frustration as well.  When he finished showering he toweled off and got into clean clothes, and then sat down at his table with writing equipment and tried to focus on a 1980’s kitchen.

“Oak”, he thought.  “Tile.  Earth tones, of course.  Wallpaper?  Ugh!  Maybe she’ll let that go, but I won’t force the issue one way or the other.  I’ll recommend paint, but we’ll see.  Black appliances.  Where the hell am I going to get those?  Whatever.  What about an appliance garage?”  But his heart wasn’t really in the project.  At last he put his pencil down and dug the card that Rachael had given him out of the pocket of his dirty pants that now lay on the bathroom floor.

‘Evergreen Counseling’ was written on the card in bold letters.  At the bottom, on the left side, was written ‘D’Andra Chummley’, followed by a phone number.  Charlie turned the card over and over in his hands as he thought about Carolyn and her job, Rachael and her offer, and himself; broke, hungry, and in need of help.

Charlie’s stomach growled it’s complaint about being neglected that evening and his mind turned to the homeless fellow that he had seen sitting at Leroy’s on his first visit there.  The young man was willing to accept a hand, and to the extent of his ability, was willing to work for his food.

“Am I so much higher and mightier than that guy?” Charlie asked himself, and then he promptly answered “Hell no.  Not one damned bit.”

Charlie decided at that moment that he would call D’Andra Chummley at his first opportunity the next day.  His mind drifted back to Leroy’s and the charity offered to the young vagabond who had little in the way of means.  “Maybe they have enough charity for two penniless vagabonds” he thought.

With the possibility of a meal on the installment plan and some professional help with getting his head together playing in his mind, Charlie felt a release from the futility, disappointment and anger that had filled his day.  Ignoring the noises coming from his stomach Charlie fell to with the pencil and ruler and paper, and spent the next couple of hours drawing up the best 1980’s kitchen that he could think of.