The Garden

Charlie Hamer pounded his fist into the dirt, which did nothing to assuage his frustration.  He had just pulled up the weed which had sprung up next to an onion that he had planted from seed.  The roots of the weed had become entangled with the roots of the onion, and both came up out of the damp, brown earth together.  To make matters worse, Charlie’s aim was off and instead of simply burying his knuckles in the dirt, he accidentally flattened an adjacent seedling which had committed no other crime than to be growing where Charlie’s fist came down.

“Damn it!” Charlie barked.  “Damn it!  Damn It!  Damn it!”   Charlie looked at the corpses of the two onions and then sat back in the dirt of the garden.  He put his head on his knees and quietly sobbed until tears and snot were running down his face and onto his hands and knees.

“Are you all right?” was the question that came from a voice nearby.  Charlie was reluctant to look up and acknowledge the voice.  He was not comfortable showing such emotion in public and had always striven to prevent crying where he could be seen.  Many times at weddings and funerals, or even watching a sappy movie on the television with his ex-wife Evie, Charlie would think about football games or Civil War campaigns or a complicated construction project that he had worked on in the past in order to deflect his mind from whatever was threatening to draw out his tears.  That stratagem had rarely worked, but he tried it anyway, so uncomfortable was he with showing emotion.  Now Charlie had no time to retrace in his mind the Battle of Chickamauga, so with barely repressed sobs he looked up in the direction from which the voice had come.

Standing at the edge of his 20’ X 20’ garden plot at the Muir Park Community Garden in Camas, Washington was the young woman who tended the plot just to the east of his own.  They had hardly spoken a dozen words in the two months that he had been working his plot that spring.  Charlie stared up at her with eyes blurred with tears.  He drew the sleeve of his loose, long-sleeved shirt across his nose, not caring two cents that he left a streak of glistening mucous that resembled a slug’s trail along that sleeve.

“No, I don’t suppose that I am all right.”  Charlie stated peevishly, already beginning to think about the landing of the Marines on the beach at Guadalcanal in August of 1942.  “This is not the way that I carry on when everything is just hunky-dory.”  Charlie saw the woman flinch, and her face turned a light shade of red.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to intrude” the woman said stiffly.  “I thought that you might be – – -, well, I’m just sorry.  That’s all.”

The woman turned away and walked across a four foot border path and back onto her own garden plot, her back ramrod straight and turned to Charlie.  Charlie sat, collecting himself, looking first at the onions that he had just murdered, and then at the back of the woman who had been stung by his pain-spawned outburst.  He then looked straight in front of him and saw the guy with the pot belly who tended the plot just to the north.

Pot-belly was a crusty geezer of at least sixty five years.  Charlie knew this because the old guy had spoken of receiving medicare benefits one day. His chatter had been bothering the hell out of Charlie as he tried to focus that day on building a trellis for the green beans that he hoped to grow.

“I’m going to get what I can out of the system before the goddam politicians bankrupt it” Pot Belly had declared with his usual absence of delicacy.  Charlie just nodded and continued with his trellis building.  The geezer didn’t really need a response; any breathing blob of protoplasm that could maintain homeostasis and wouldn’t turn its back on him was audience enough to keep the geezer going for far longer that Charlie would volunteer to listen.

“That’s a sweet little piece of ass that works the plot next to you” the geezer had said one day, and on this day the unending verbal wood rasp chaffed a little flesh off of Charlie.  The young woman was an adult; Charlie could see that clearly enough, but she didn’t look to be a lot of years older than his daughter would have now been.  The rasp that drew across the flesh over Charlie’s bruised and bleeding heart today drew a purulent wave of stinking emotional pus that oozed out of the wreckage that now rested there in his chest.

“I would prefer that you don’t speak of her, or any other woman within my hearing, in that manner to me” Charlie snapped.  Her ass is her business, and I’ll be content to look after my own.”  The geezer had looked surprised by Charlie’s outburst but was hardly chagrined.  He simply shrugged his shoulders and returned to building frames around his tomato plants.  On this day, geezer just looked at Charlie, shook his head a little, and turned back to his bed of beets and carrots.

Charlie felt bad about his response to the woman’s act of compassion.  He rose up from his sitting position and as he did so he stirred up the dust, which settled on his sleeve and highlighted the shot that had now soaked into the fabric.  Charlie scowled at the brown streak but realized that it would be useless to try to wipe it off, so he ignored it.  He walked over to the edge of the garden plot to within a few feet of where the woman was bent over, wresting weeds and grass from between corn shoots which had just emerged from the ground.

“Excuse me, Miss”  Charlie said.  “I believe that I owe you an apology.”

The woman continued to work at her weeds for enough additional seconds to convey that she had little interest in Charlie’s apology.  At last she straightened and turned to face him.  She said nothing as she looked at Charlie with an expressionless face.  Charlie became confused at her silence and began to look at his fingers and snot-stained sleeve as he shifted his weight from one foot to another.  The woman at last broke the silence.

“I believe that you said you owe me an apology.  You’re right.  You do.  You don’t have to give me one, but if it will make you feel better I would be willing to hear it.”

Charlie looked at her for a moment longer, tongue-tied and embarrassed.  He realized that she was right; he had made the offer and it was time to follow through.

“Oh, yes.  You’re right.  You were trying to be nice to me and I snapped at you.  You didn’t deserve that and I apologize for my bad temper.  Thank you for the concern that you showed to me.  I’ve had a nasty couple of years and I’ve lost the knack for behaving well with other people.  I have no right to take it out on you though.  I’ve just gotten off track with the social graces.”

Charlie looked back down at his fingers, digging some dirt out from under this thumbnail.  When he looked back up the woman’s expression had softened.  She said “Apology accepted, and I hope that your day gets better.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied softly.  His day wasn’t the problem; it was the last two years that were a weight that he could hardly carry anymore.

“My name’s Rachael”  the woman said.  “I don’t mean to pry, and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. but if it’s alright to ask, what was it that set you off over there?”

“I was pulling up a weed that had its roots already wrapped around an onion sprout.  I tried to pull the weed and ended up pulling both of them out of the ground.  I had forgotten how much work went into this gardening thing and how intentional it has to be.”

“Yes,” Rachael said,  “gardening isn’t done by accident.  Well, welcome to our little world; it can be a blessing and, when you lose a crop to cucumber beetles or tomato blight, a damned curse.”  Rachael chuckled at her own statement, as if the memory of past gardening failures and frustrations came to her mind as a joke more than an annoyance.  “I am not the best gardener in the world” she stated to Charlie.  “But what I know I would be happy to share with you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “I hate to be a bother, but I don’t doubt that I need all of the help that I can get.  Oh, by the way, my name’s Charlie Hamer and I now formally agree to take you up on your kind offer.  But maybe some other day.”

Rachael thrust forward her hand in a grand manner and Charlie took it and gave it a grave shake.  They then separated to return to their own gardens.  Charlie resumed plucking the weeds out of the dirt between his onion plants, but now more judiciously.  He was absorbed in his work and didn’t notice that the geezer from the adjacent plot had walked over and was standing nearby until the old guy cleared his throat.  Charlie looked up and wasn’t concerned whether displeasure showed on his face or did not.

“Excuse me for butting in” he began, “but I heard that you had a problem with pulling some of your weeds.  If you would like I could share a little trick with you.”  Charlie wanted mostly to be left alone, but he had already been rude once today and didn’t feel like repeating that performance.  “Oh, it looks like I need all of the help that I can get today,” he replied.

“OK, so here’s how it is.  These weeds come up right in the middle of what you want to keep and it’s impossible to get some of them out without harming the good stuff.”

“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.

“So I keep these little snips,” the old guy pulled what looked like a pair of outdoor scissors with a short, sharp blade, “and just clip the tops of the weeds every other day or so.  You can’t get rid of some weeds, but you can sure manage the little bastards.”

“What good will that do?” Charlie asked.  “The weed is still there, and still competing for nutrients with my onion.  My father taught me to get the weed by the roots once and then you’ll not have to do it again.”

“Your Dad was mostly right.  Sometimes, though, it isn’t feasible.  Like in your case here, for instance.  What you have to do in these circumstances is keep the weed from thriving.  The leaves feed the weed plant, and so if you keep it clipped and let the onion grow. The strong survive and the weak gets pushed aside.  You really are new to this, aren’t you?”

     “I really don’t want to get chummy with this guy” Charlie thought.  “Maybe he’ll just impart some wisdom and go away.”

“Yes, this is my first year here.”

“Well, then welcome to our community.  My name’s Walt, and I would be happy to give you some tips if you would like to hear them.  It looks like you’ve had at least a little experience though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  My father made me help him in the garden when I was a kid.  I hated it and hated vegetables, which is why he did it I think.  Dad was pretty good at growing things and a little bit of that rubbed off on me.  Not very much though, it seems.”

“Well, the let me share with you the little bit that I know.”

Walt proceeded to show Charlie how to build proper beds for planting tomatoes and cucumbers, how to protect bean seedlings from slugs and a dozen other techniques designed to coax clean food out of the dirt.  By the end of an hour Charlie had a respectable looking garden and the beginning of a new opinion of Walt.  The old guy was crusty, to be sure, and his language as earthy as the soil into which Charlie had just deposited beet and carrot seeds, but Charlie could see that Walt cared about him and his garden.  That human connection had been missing in Charlie’s life for – how long had it been?  More than a year now.  Charlie didn’t feel the need for a confession, but a kind ear was not a bad thing to have.

“What brought you back to gardening?” Walt asked.  “My Dad used to make me play the violin and I haven’t touched one of the damned things since the day I turned 18.”

Charlie hesitated.  He hadn’t talked about his life with anybody for a long time, and while his usual reticence to be open with anyone was still strong, the need for human contact had begun to grow in him.  At last Charlie decided to pull the curtain back, a little at least, and see what would come of it.

“Well, I’ve had a pretty shitty last couple of years” Charlie began.  “My wife ran off with my pickup truck and took my dog too.”  Charlie tried to smile at his little attempt at humor, with scant effect.

“Yeah” Walt replied.  “I hate it when that happens.  I’ll bet she held the title on your single wide too.”

“Yeah.  She took it clean.”

For another moment Charlie stared down at his feet.  Then, with a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders he looked up at Walt.  Tears were once again forming in his eyes and he had to clear his throat two or three times before he could speak clearly.  Finally he could begin.

“Well, my wife really has left me,” Charlie began.  He sniffed back a nose full of snot and coughed to clear his throat again.  “We didn’t have a dog, but we did have two kids; a girl and a boy.”  Charlie had to stop there once again and regain his control.  Thinking about some military action was just not going to draw his attention away from his grief, so he just studied the new bed that housed a tomato plant while he got his act back together.  Walt at last spoke to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“Yeah, I’ve heard from a friend that divorce is a bitch, especially when kids are involved.  I’ve never been in that situation, but I do believe that it’s tough.  Do you have visitation rights?  I know of some divorce lawyers who are really good at fighting for stuff like that.”

Charlie stared blankly at Walt for a moment, and then said “visitation is not a problem for me.  I can visit Stevie’s grave any time that I want.”

Walt stood in front of Charlie, still as a statue.  Charlie’s shoulders slumped forward and his head was down.  The sobs returned, but this time softly.  Charlie wasn’t trying to hold anything back, but he was simply exhausted from having carried this load for so long.  Walt put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder but said nothing, which was probably the best thing that he could have done.

 

The young woman, who had been listening to this while trying to not appear as if she was eavesdropping, now dropped all pretense.  She stood up, took off her gloves, and walked over to where the two men were standing.  Coming up to charlie she said “I’m sorry that I was listening to your story, but I’ve heard it anyway and I can see that you are hurting.  I can’t imagine the pain that you are feeling.  Would you let me give you a hug?”

Charlie wished desperately that there was someplace where he could hide.  The grief that he carried was like an anchor of lead and he was just tired as hell of carrying it.  Charlie had lived a solitary life for over a year and now the idea of the enfolding arms of a compassionate stranger were a gift that he had not expected, and one that he readily accepted.  She placed her arms around his shoulders and gave him a gentle embrace, which she held silently for what might have been two or three minutes.  Charlie’s sobs continued and he tried, with mixed success, to keep tears and snot off of her shoulder.  At last Charlie regained control and the young woman released her embrace and stepped back.

“My name is Monica” she said, “and if you would like to take a break from the garden and tell your story I would be happy hear it.  Sometimes it is good to pick the scab and let some of that stuff ooze out.  I will understand if that is not something that you want to do, but if you think it will help I will be glad to do it.”

“I think that she’s right” Walt chimed in.  “I’m in a PTSD group, and letting out the bad air is usually a good thing to do.  If you’re up to it of course.  We could take ten and go sit under the canopy.”

“Take ten?” asked Monica.

“Oh, you kids” Walt smiled.  “Take a ten minute break.  In the Army, when we were marching from one place to another, every so often the company commander would say “Take ten, hope for five, get two.”  He was talking about taking a rest, and ‘ten’ could really mean just about anything.”

The three of them walked out of the garden plots and over to a covered area that they called the canopy.  There were several plastic chairs and a rickety wooden bench that had been exposed to too many winters there.  They found seats and waited quietly as Charlie tried to get his thoughts together.  It was obviously a struggle, and after a short while Walt decided that the pump needed to be primed, so he began to speak.

“I don’t know anything about you’re problem, man, and I don’t want to turn this into a pity party.  I told you that I’m in a PTSD group, that means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in case you aren’t familiar with it – and I have seen that it sometimes helps to know that you’re not alone in this world of hurt.  Can I tell you a story?”

Charlie nodded in the affirmative, and Charlie began to speak.  “I’m sixty nine years old.  I wasn’t three months out of high school before I was drafted.  Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder and six months later I was pounding ground in The Nam.  I was 11B.  A grunt.  My paid vacation in the tropics took me to Dak To, Pleiku, and a hundred hilltops and villages and valleys with names and numbers that I’ve either forgotten or am still trying to forget.  I just wanted to survive my year and go home, but it didn’t go quite that smoothly.  Somehow I would always find myself in the hottest shit that was going down in-country, and usually when I least expected it.  I made some friends early on, but when my first buddy’s head exploded right next to me like a melon with a cherry bomb inside of it, and then another got gutted like a fish by a bouncing betty land mine, I quit making friends.  Oh, we covered each other’s asses all right, but I wasn’t making any more friends ‘cause I didn’t like seeing them die on me.  We went from one engagement to another; some that made the news but most that didn’t; some that made sense but most that didn’t.  Big or small, smart or stupid, they had one thing in common:  men got torn open.  Men bled and men died.

When I was taken out of the jungle and assigned to an armored unit that mostly secured a road from Saigon to the highlands I thought that maybe I would make it out of there in one piece.  At least we weren’t walking around in the bush looking for trouble.  Now I got to spend some time in an APC – oh, sorry.  I mean and armored personnel carrier – and sometimes I rode shotgun on a jeep.  The best thing to me, as I saw it was that I didn’t have to walk so goddam much, and sometimes had something metal to hide in.  In fact, my new posting made me feel like I was the hunter instead of the hunted.

We were on the road to Cu Chi one day and it seemed quiet.  I was sitting in the back of a jeep, manning the machine gun.  I can still remember that I was thinking ‘I could like this country, if they weren’t fucking shooting at me that is,’ when some VC bastard opened up on me as we passed by.  The little son of a bitch must have come up from a tunnel, because nobody saw him come up or go down.  I felt like a quarterback who got tackled by a 300 pound dickdoo.  I got knocked forward and landed on top of the passenger up front.  I thought that I couldn’t get a good breath because the wind had been knocked out of me.  I later found out that it was because the little fucker had walked a couple or three rounds up my back and blew out my left lung.”

“Dickdoo?”  asked Monica.

“Yeah.  One of those big linemen who’s bellies droop lower than their dicks do.”

“Oh”, Monica replied.  “Sorry I asked.”

Walt paid no attention to Monica, and at that point lifted the bottom of his tee shirt and pulled it over his head.  Fifty years after the fact the discolored, blotchy exit wounds still disfigured Walt’s belly and chest.  “Lucky for me he went from right to left.  The prick missed my right kidney and aorta, but he punctured my left lung and got my spleen.  Recovery was long and hard though, and I can’t be around kids because without a spleen, if anyone gets a cold I catch it.

The worst part for me was that when I got home I got shat on by just about everybody.  I grew up in Seattle, but Seattle wasn’t my home when I returned.  I still had to convalesce after they released me, first from the hospital and then from the Army.  Until my hair grew out and I was no longer identifiable as military, people spat at me and called me shit that you wouldn’t believe.  I was still so weak that I couldn’t murder the bed-wetting little sons of bitches with my bare hands, which I would have loved to do, so I dreamed of getting an M-16, putting it on full auto, and killing as many of the snot-nosed pukes as I could before the police took me out.

A smart doc at the VA hospital picked up on that and got me hooked up with a psychologist and a PTSD group; other guys who saw the same shit that I did and in some cases even worse.  I can’t tell you how much that helped.  I still have trouble with dreams and loud noises – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve aren’t my favorite days of the year – but mostly I can function OK now.”

Walt stopped speaking and looked at Charlie and Monica, who were standing in front of him speechless.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. ”You two never seen a bat-shit crazy Vietnam vet before?”

Charlie allowed a little chuckle a little at that, and Walt said “That’s better.  You’re not the only guy with a wood file up his ass, see?  So what’s your story?”

Charlie’s mind returned to his pain, but the knowledge that somebody was with him who knew what pain was made all the difference in the world.

“Well, two years ago my daughter died in a surfing accident.”  Charlie’s throat tightened up again, but after a moment or two it loosened back up.  “She was in cold water off of the Oregon coast.  It was good surf, and we think that she just stayed out in it too long, until the cold overwhelmed her suit.  Hell, we don’t really know to this day what happened.  They found her in a cove, pretty beat up by the waves bouncing her off of the rocks.  An autopsy couldn’t pinpoint a particular reason for her death.  It’s like the goddam ocean just rose up and took her.

After we buried Stevie – her name was Stephanie, after her grandmother – nothing could get back to right in our home.  Insignificant things became issues.  What was once just an annoyance became a crisis.  I can’t say that Maureen and I ever quit loving each other, but any return to normal seemed like a betrayal of Stevie.  Because it WASN’T normal.  It could never be normal again.  After a year we separated, and two months later Mo filed for divorce.  I didn’t fight the divorce.  I couldn’t.  I didn’t have the energy.  Hell, I didn’t care.  Jack, our son, was mad at the world but focused most of his anger at me, and I didn’t do much to help him out.  I couldn’t do much to help myself out.  Mo never tried to poison Jack’s relationship with me but she saw that it was over, for now anyway, so she took my son with her and moved out of state.

We settled the whole thing without a fight.  I liquidated my company, Hamer Properties & Construction – you might have seen some of our signs around the county. I gave her the whole damned enchilada.  The company went for a pretty penny; enough for her and Jack to be comfortable for the rest of their lives if they’re careful.  I do handyman work now and live in a studio downtown.  It’s all I need.  My family doesn’t live close to me, but they told me that I should get out of my cave, get some fresh air and meet people.  Well, this is out.  I guess this air is as fresh as any around here, and I decided to start with plants and work my way back up to people.”

The three gardeners sat silently after Charlie wrapped up his story.  It was warm, with hardly a breath of a breeze.  Charlie saw a snake slither between rows of a neighboring gardner’s spinach plants.  He pointed it out and Walt said “Ugh.  I hate snakes.”

“That’s a garter snake” Monica said.  “They eat slugs, among other things.  I’m glad he’s there.”

“Yeah?” said Walt.  “Well you didn’t have to put up with the fucking snakes that I did in Vietnam.  They called ‘em ‘step-and-a-half’s ‘cause that’s about as far as you would get after one of the sons of whores bit you before you were face-down in the jungle.”

“Well, if I see a step-and-a-half Walt, I’ll surely chop his damn head off” said Charlie with a chuckle, which, if the other two gardeners had known Charlie better, would have known that this chuckle was the first hint of a release from his pain that he had shown in many months.’’

Monica spoke up at this point and said “I have nothing like the stories you guys do.  My family is fine, and I’ve not had any major trauma.  I’m a Messianic Jew however, which is a Jew in all ways except that I believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”

“I don’t believe any of that hocus locus bullshit” said Walt.  “I never saw no God when young men were blowing each other to bloody goddam pieces in Vietnam.”

“I don’t care whether you believe it or not Walt.  I’m not trying to convert you.  I’m telling you what story I have to tell.  Will you allow me to do that?”

“OK, ok.  Fair enough” Walt replied.  “I guess I get a little cranky about all of that.  I’m sorry.  Go on.”

“Thank you Walt.  My family is Jewish but not religious.  It’s an ethnic thing.  I was raised Jewish with the understanding that I could decide for myself if I wanted to go fully into the faith or remain outside of it.  My parents never dreamed that I would choose to follow Jesus.  At first they were really pissed; I mean, Jews don’t do that.  I told them that I was exercising the freedom that they gave me, and they accepted that.  Eventually.  Sort of.

But it was hard.  Other Jews want nothing to do with me.  I am functionally cut off from the faith of my birth.  And Christians don’t really know what to do with me either.  I know that you don’t buy any of this Walt, and I don’t know what you believe or don’t believe Charlie, and that’s OK.  I’m not asking.  It’s none of my business and I don’t look to stick my nose in it.  But you guys were talking about being separated from friends or people you love, even society.  And traumatically too.  I’ve tasted that as well.  Not the seven course meal that you two have had to choke down, but I’ve tasted it.

Now I work for the City, providing counseling for abused and disturbed children.  I won’t share names or circumstances, but I’ve seen young lives that have been through meat grinders like you’ve described before they had tits or pimples.  That doesn’t make me an expert on experiencing pain, but I’m pretty familiar with trying to clean up after it, all the while knowing that I may not really do any lasting good at all.  My faith tells me that I have to try, and hope that Someone from outside the world that we see will do something that will bring a little healing to this screwed up place.”

All three sat in silence for a while longer, pondering what each had said.  At length Charlie stood up and said “Thank you both for listening to me, and for telling your stories too.  This pain has been killing my soul for a couple of years now, but maybe you two are the beginning of the fresh air that I was told that I needed.  I guess I should feed what is good in my life and pull as many weeds as I can.  The ones I can’t pull I’ll just have to manage.”

Monica stood and gave Charlie another hug.  “That sounds like a good plan.  And if you see a snake or two, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”  She gave Charlie a pat on the shoulder and then turned and walked back to her garden.

“I hate a fucking snake” growled Walt, but he had a ghost of a smile on his face as he turned and walked back to his own.

The Passenger

The sun had barely reached it’s zenith when Chad decided that it was time to return to civilization.  A tube tent had been his bedroom for the last three days;, a simple wire grate with its ends set on two flat stones over a fire his kitchen, and a nearby stand of bushes his bathroom.  Chad’s food supplies rested in his backpack, which hung from a tree limb by a thin nylon rope; hardly more than a string.  The elevation of the backpack offered protection from bears, and the thin rope protection from the squirrels that could clamber up and down a rope of  thicker caliber.

It was in all ways a comfortable camp and it had given Chad a place to unwind after an academic year of pre-med studies.  Chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology and a half dozen other courses that ended with ‘ology’ had filled his time and tested his intellectual capabilities for the past nine months.  The last few days had allowed him to replace those subjects with hiking, fishing, beginning to read “War and Peace” at last, and sleeping soundly in the tube tent with his head extended outside so that he could watch the stars put on their light show every night.

The camp’s comfort quickly vanished however when Chad, returning from a mountain creek where he had been fishing, discerned from afar two figures lounging in the middle of it.  He had been trying, without success, to fool some unsuspecting trout into thinking that the concoction of threads and ribbons and feathers which hid the hook that was attached to his line would make a good breakfast.  Chad hadn’t cared too much if the trout would bite or not, but in the event that it did, fresh trout would have been a welcome break from eating the freeze dried eggs and oatmeal with dried fruit which now would once again constitute his breakfast.  The fish were uncooperative, and as the sun rose and the best feeding times for the fish passed, Chad decided that it was his own feeding time.  He broke down the thin, segmented backpacking pole, replaced his lure in the fly case in his pocket, and began to walk back to his camp.

He was a good fifty yards from the camp when he saw the two men sitting there.  Some primal instinct warned Chad to not go any further.  He ducked quickly and quietly behind a cluster of boulders and watched as the two men sat on a fallen log at the edge of he camp.  The two men talked but Chad could not hear what was being said.  The way that the two men made themselves at home in his camp conveyed the sense that they considered it their own.  Chad’s aversion to going down into his camp grew with every second that he watched the two men.

One of the men was a burly brute, with shaggy black hair and a large beard.  He wore jeans and a plaid shirt that could barely conceal the size of his upper body.  His companion was a wiry character with short hair, tan pants, a Tee shirt and a down vest.  This second man had a nervous habit of jerking his head first one way, and then the other, swiveling like a monkey’s head, as if looking for approaching enemies up here at 7,500 feet

Chad stayed motionless behind the boulders, straining to hear any of their conversation that might carry in the still, thin air, and trying to convince himself that he was just being paranoid.  To the contrary, the sensation of peril increased and Chad became convinced that nothing good would happen if he arose and entered his desecrated camp.  He now reached down and patted his pocket, where the key to his Yamaha 250 cc off-road bike rested.  A moment of panic swept Chad as he felt pocket knife and fly case but no key, but when he dug his hand into the pocket the reassuring form of the key was felt.

Chad had parked his bike in a copse of trees well away from his camp.  He liked to ride far up into the remote areas of the mountains to establish his camps without the time consuming need of hiking in. He could then begin to enjoy camping with all of its activities, or lack of activities, for the greatest amount of time at the greatest distance from civilization.  Once he had made camp however, Chad did not want to see the bike, as it represented the civilization that he wanted to get away from.  “Yeah, it’s contradictory” he had thought, “but it’s the way I like it.”  Now he was glad that he did it that way.  “I hope that they didn’t see the tracks in the dust” Chad muttered to himself as he worked his way almost silently to where he had stashed the bike.

Chad heaved a big sigh of relief when he arrived at the spot where he had parked his bike and found it untouched.  After a quick look around to make sure that neither of the two men was close by Chad mounted the bike, inserted the key, pushed the starter button and was rolling downhill towards the train before the roar of the motor could begin to echo off of the surrounding bare rock peaks.

Chad’s heart was pounding as he hit the trail and pointed the bike downhill, towards civilization which lay many miles distant.  He looked in the rear view mirror, expecting to see the men running after him.  There was nobody in the mirror however, and with a sigh of relief Chad raised his eyes up, just in time to grab ahold of the brakes and swerve, barely missing the woman who was standing in the trail, right in front of him.  The bike nearly went off the trail and Chad nearly went off the bike.  They both came to a stop upright and the woman came running up to him.

“Please mister, get me out of here.  Oh, please, don’t leave me here alone” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice and tears ran down through the dirt on her face.  The thought that she might be with the two men flickered through Chad’s mind but he quickly discarded it.  The tears, the voice, the torn blouse and pants askew, and particularly her shoeless feet in the rough terrain convinced Chad that this girl was in trouble.

“OK.  Climb on the back” he said.  The girl quickly straddled the back of the bike’s seat and locked her arms around his waist.  Chad fired up the bike once again and they began to roll, this time at a more measured rate of speed, down the trail.

“What are you doing out here without shoes?” Chad asked over his shoulder, but the roar of the motorcycle’s engine combined with the wind whistling past their heads must have made it hard for her to hear, for she didn’t answer him.  She kept her grip around Chad’s waist and her head buried against his shoulders at the base of his neck.  After a few more tries at conversation Chad gave up and focused on getting hem both out of the forest.

After they had passed over several miles of trail, and were not very far from the parking lot at the National Forest campground that was the trailhead, Chad became aware of the girl tapping him on the shoulder.  He looked over his right shoulder and saw her arm extended, index finger pointing to a small trail – barely a path, really – leading to the right off of the main trail.  Chad was tempted to say “Aw, hell no.  I’m not going up there,” but by some impulse that he could never later explain he agreed, and turned off of the trail and up the path.

They didn’t go far.  Not two hundred yards up the path a small clearing in the trees opened up on the left.  There was a small pond at the far edge of this clearing and a two foot or so boulder resting in the middle.  “Stop here, please” the girl shouted in his ear.  Chad pulled over and brought the bike to a stop.  He did not, however, turn off the ignition.  The girl dismounted quickly and walked over to the rock, upon which she sat down.

Chad extended the bike’s kick stand and followed the girl.  She was seated on the rock, and as he approached he asked “Do you live around here?”

“Live around here?’  The girl repeated his question in a dreamy voice.  “No, I don’t live around here.  I don’t live – – around here.”

“Then what are we doing here”  Chad asked.

“I am looking for Cindy.  I know that she is close to us.  We are camping a little further up the road, but I know that she is here.”

“Camped?  You have a camp up there?  Well come on.  I’ll take you up there.  Cindy is probably up there.  We should get you both out of the forest.  It’s not safe here today”

“No, Cindy is here.” the girl said in a soft, dull voice once again.

Chad looked around and saw nobody, nor sign that anybody had been anywhere near there for quite a while.  “Look miss, I think you need some help.  Let’s go down the trail the rest of the way.  The rangers there can help you to find Cindy and get you some medical attention.  I want to help you, and maybe help Cindy too.  I think we’ve both had enough craziness out here for one day, and I want to get to the rangers and report those two goons who took over my camp back up the mountain and go home.”

“Two goons?” the woman said, her voice rising slightly and her already pale face blanching further under the tear-streaked dirt on her forehead and cheeks.  “Oh, two men!  I must go.  Please, I must go.”

“OK.  I’ll get the bike and come back for you” Chad said as he turned and trotted back to where the bike stood on its stand, idling.  Upon arrival Chad straddled the seat, gave it some gas and put the bike into gear.  He came about and looked towards the rock in the middle of the clearing, but to his amazement there was nobody there.  The boulder lay in its place in the middle of the glade but there was nobody to be seen there or anywhere else.

“Miss!”  Chad yelled.  There was no reply.  He turned off the bike motor and yelled again, “Miss!”

There was nothing but silence in response to his call.  He could hear the rustle of the leaves in the soft breeze that was blowing down off of the mountaintops and the gurgle of the stream which fed the pond across the clearing, but as he listened he also noticed the absence of any sound that might have been produce by any living creature other than the brush and trees.  There were no chirps of wren or squawk of bluejay, no hum of fly or bee.  The place was silent, and that silence was so profound that it raised the hair on the back of Chad’s neck and caused the sweat to once again begin to bead on his forehead and neck.

“To hell with this” Chad growled as fear once again rose up from his chest and settled in his  throat.  He twisted the handle to pour on the gas, and the rear tire sent a rooster tail of dirt and grass flying into the air behind him as he sped across the clearing, down the path and finally onto the trail that led him to civilization, now only a mile or two away.

Chad finally pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead and rolled over to the ranger station which stood beside it.  He rolled his bike to the station, shut off the engine, mounted the steps and crossed a wooden porch to where a customer service window was open.  The ranger behind the window smiled and said “How can I help you?”

Chad told him about the girl, saying that he feared she was in trouble.  The ranger listened in silence, and when Chad was finished he called for a second ranger to come over to the window with him.  “He’s seen Julia” he said as the second ranger approached.

“Julia?” Chad asked.  “You know her name?”

“Probably” the second ranger answered.  “Torn blouse?  Pants messed up?  Dirty face?  Wanting help getting out of the forest?”

“Yeah”  Chad said.  “What the hell is this?  What kind of freak show is going on here?”  Chad was beginning to feel anger replace the fear and confusion that had filled his day so far.  Was this some sort of monstrous joke that the locals enjoyed playing on visitors?

“Julia was a girl who went camping in those mountains with a friend two years back.  They were gone longer than they said that they would be, and when we went in to look for them we found her body about five miles up the trail, raped and strangled.  She’s been appearing to people ever since.”

An icy shiver crawled down Chad’s spine as he digested what had just been told to him.  “You’re shitting me, right?”  he asked.

“Nope” the ranger replied.  “I wouldn’t tell you such a wild-ass story if it wasn’t true.  We aren’t up here to monkey with the customers.  What I’ve just said is God’s truth.  I can give you a list of people who have seen the lady, and it isn’t a short one.  You’re the first one who has spent that much time with her though; who’s given her a ride.”

Chad stood still in front of the window, feet rooted to the porch and jaw hanging agape.  At last he regained his voice.

“So you’re telling me that I rode down that mountain with a ghost on my bike?  That’s bull shit.  She was as solid as you and me.  I felt her arms holding onto me and her head on my back.  I know when a person is riding on a bike with me.  She talked – a little anyway – and she pointed to where she wanted to go up a path.  Then she made me stop and said her friend was there, but I didn’t see anybody.  Then, when I turned my back she disappeared.  But she was friggin solid man.  She was friggin real!”

As Chad told this story the rangers’ interest picked up considerably.  At length one said “She guided you somewhere?”

“Yes” Chad replied.  “She took me to a clearing and said that her friend Cindy was there.  But there was nobody there.  And since I had split from my camp earlier because two sketchy-looking dudes had moved in on me while I was fishing – oh, I forgot to tell you all about that shit.  Two rough looking characters came into my camp while I was fishing and I really, and I mean really, didn’t like their look, so I left my gear and started down the trail.  Right then’s when I almost ran into the girl.”

The two rangers looked at each other for a moment, and then back at Chad.  At last one of them said “Would you be so kind as to come inside for a moment?” while the other was reaching for the telephone on the desk.

Six months later Chad was reading about the trial.  He had taken investigators to the clearing, where they had found the body of a murdered woman beside the stone that his rider had sat on.  The body turned out to be that of Cindy, the other camper.  Along with the body, forensic evidence was found that tied the murder to Robert and Leroy Paige, brothers who’d had minor brushes with the law and spent much of their time in a cabin a few miles away from the clearing where the murdered girl was found.  These two were the same men who had invaded Chad’s camp on that memorable day.

At length the two confessed to the crimes.  They explained that they raped and killed Cindy and buried her on the spot, and then took Julia further up the trail and repeated their crimes.  They were nearly seen by approaching hunters however and didn’t have time to bury Julia.  They expressed no remorse for their acts and were sentenced to life in prison.  Leroy committed suicide shortly after he arrived at one big, cold maximum security prison, and Robert sits snugly in another, never to see the free light of day again.

As to the girl?  She’s not been seen by anybody since the body of her friend was found and her killers were put away.  Chad decided that there was no point in returning to his camp to recover the gear that he had left.  It had probably been stolen, he reasoned, and even if it had not been it would be in poor repair by the time he could get back to it.  The truth however is that you couldn’t have lured Chad back up that trail for all of the money in the world

The Picnic, First Revision

  Phil lay in the dust by the side of a trail which ran up to Lookout Mountain.  The day was warm, but a soft breeze kept Phil cool as he lay in the shade cast by a canopy of chaparral.  To his left the mountain sloped downward, toward the east.  Phil could see the Laguna Mountains rising to 6,000 feet in that direction, but he couldn’t see them well.  His vision was blurry, as was his state of consciousness.  “Where am I”  he asked himself.  “Oh, yeah.  I’m on a hike.  Why am I laying here?”  Phil struggled to get his thoughts together and at last, with some effort, he recalled how the day began.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning when Phil and Sandy rolled to a stop at the Arroyo Seco picnic area seventy miles east of San Diego.  The parking lot was already filling up with cars as city dwellers fled the heat and humidity, spawned by a tropical storm somewhere off to the southwest.  The lowlands of southern California was trapped in that storm’s hot and sticky embrace, but the picnic area lay at 4,000 feet.  The air tended to cool as it rose up the sides of the mountains, bringing the blessing of that coolness to any who would make the tortuous drive on the serpentine two lane road that led there from the city.  Phil was apprehensive as he stopped the car, set the handbrake, and turned off the engine.

“Here we are.  The hike to where I planned our picnic is about two hours away, so we had better get started.”

Phil tried to sound cheerful, but he was almost certain that his falseness was showing through like a searchlight on a clear night.  He and Sandy had only been together for seven months after meeting in their eleventh grade science class at Grant High School.  Phil was painfully shy and nervous as hell when he asked Sandy to accompany him to a dance, and was surprised and relieved when she agreed to go with him.

“One thing I should tell you”  Phil told her.  “I don’t know how to dance.”

Sandy’s laugh was soft and musical, and projected reassurance rather than condemnation.  “Don’t worry about that.  I don’t know how to dance either.”

Over the next few months the relationship grew from two kids struggling to learn a few dance steps to a more-or-less committed thing.  Sandy didn’t go out with any other boy and Phil prayed that it would stay that way.  Phil was a complete novice at this boy friend/girl friend thing, and his lack of self confidence when it came to girls made him feel ill-suited to compete with other boys if any such competition should arise.

The couple were able to get together at school every day, and at least one and sometimes both weekend nights for dinner at a drive-in burger joint, followed by talking and necking on a dark and uninhabited road wherever such a road could be found.  Sometimes they would pay to park in a drive-in theater, where kissing in the back seat was more likely to take up the bulk of their time than paying attention to whatever Burt Lancaster or Tab Hunter was doing on the screen.

After five months of this routine Sandy became a little less eager to participate, and a remoteness crept into her response to Phil.  He thought he noticed it first at a party where Sandy talked more to his best friend, Matt, than she did with him.  Soon after the party Phil spoke with Matt about this.

“Hey Matt.  I gotta ask you something.  Are you interested in Sandy?  I’m not jumping on you or anything like that, but it just seemed like something went on at that party at Pat’s house.  I won’t get mad.  Really.  And if you two are interested in each other I’ll be okay.  I just gotta know.”

“No” Matt responded, and the surprised look on his face made Phil believe that his denial was sincere.  “I’m not interested in Sandy at all.  I mean, she’s pretty and all of that, but I’m busy with school working out for football practice that’s gonna start in two weeks, and I think that Darlene and I might start going out together soon.  I’ll tell you something though.  If you’re worried about Sandy looking at other guys, maybe you should think about whether you want to continue this or not.”

Phil was anything but a veteran at this sort of thing, but he instinctively knew that Matt was right about that.  Still, Sandy was his first girl friend.  Phil found that he really liked being in a relationship with a girl, especially this girl, and he was prepared to venture into some unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory if there was any way that this relationship could be saved.  That is, if there really was anything amiss with the relationship.  Maybe Phil was imagining all of this; with his inexperience, how would he know?  Without asking, that is.  That is what today’s picnic was going to be all about.

Phil’s daydreaming slowly faded and he once again became aware that he was lying in the dirt on the side of the trail.  Above him small, grayish brown birds twittered and flitted from branch to branch in the chaparral that rose up over him.  He was thirsty but his right arm didn’t seem to want to move so that he could grasp the canteen of water by his side.  His left arm seemed to be working, but he didn’t care enough to expend the energy that would be required to reach across his body.  Hmm.  Sandy started this day with him.  Where was she now?  Oh, yes.  She walked – – -, no, she ran down the path back towards the parking lot.  Why?  What did we forget”  Phil’s confused brain tried to sort this all out, and the process took him back to the parking lot at the picnic area.

Phil and Sandy exited the 1962 Mercury sedan and Phil lifted the trunk lid.  Inside were two packs of unequal size.  The larger one carried a sheet, food, two quart bottles of water and a fancy Swedish gas stove no bigger than the palm of your hand.  With the stove Phil planned to heat some water to make coffee.  Neither Sandy nor Phil drank coffee much but Phil was just beginning to like doing so more with his older brother.  He reasoned somehow that it would make him look more like an adult, and perhaps make a good impression.  The smaller pack contained more sandwiches, the coffee, sun protection and other such gear.  Swinging their packs onto their shoulders, the two began their walk to where, a couple of hours later, they were to have their lunch and a long conversation.

The two young people were not far along the trail when Sandy asked “Where exactly are we going to eat this lunch.  Have you really ever been up here?”

Phil chuckled, a little nervously he thought, and replied “We’ll go an hour or so up this trail.  When we get to a valley up there we’ll cross the valley and then climb part way up another mountainside.  There’s no trail up the side of that mountain but it is pretty clear of undergrowth and isn’t too difficult of a climb.  There’s a level place among some boulders.  I found this place hiking with my Dad a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite places in these hills.”

“How hard is the climb?”  Sandy asked.

“It’s not all that hard” Phil replied.  “The hike we took coming up the east side of the mountains from the desert was a lot harder.  It’s not much of a challenge for either of us.  Let me know if you get tired though.”

“I’m tired now” Sandy laughed, but she was a very athletic young woman and Phil suspected that she could keep up with him wherever they went.

They reached the top of the first climb in an hour, as predicted.  The trail had been bounded on one side by chaparral, a mix of twisted, thorny, drought-resistant plants that had grown tall and in some place had arched all the way over their heads because of a series of rainy years.  It now opened up as they reached and passed along the western edge of a mountain valley.

“We’ll climb part-way up there” Phil said, pointing to a peak which rose from the east side of the valley and poked a little higher into the cloud-dotted blue sky that did its neighbors.  “If you look about a third of the way up the hill, just above that tree that was split by a lightening strike, you can see where we’re going to eat.”

“I don’t see where you’re talking about” Sandy complained.

“In that cluster of rocks” Phil answered, pointing the rocks out.  He stood close to Sandy, putting one hand on her waist and pointing at the rocks so that she could sight along his arm and extended second finger.  Sandy’s nearness; the smell of her hair and the ease with which he could be near her were exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  “This is what I want” he thought one moment, and “this is what I may be losing” was the thought that quickly followed.

Phil regrouped.  “Like I said, there’s not a trail from here, but the terrain is pretty easy.  There’s not much chaparral on the side of that hill but the valley can be pretty marshy because the Cuyapaipe River begins up here.  We’ll stay in the upper part of the valley where it is the driest, and then cut back so that we can reach the rocks.

“You’re the leader” Sandy said.  Was there a strain in her voice?  Did she intend to let Phil lead anything for long?  The questions sat like something bitter in the pit of his stomach.  “Lead on.”

They stepped off of the trail and onto the grassy floor of the valley near the north end, and indeed it was fairly dry there.  The warm sun and dry air, the valley floor strewn with wildflowers, and the beauty of the mountain should have been a thing to make one’s heart glad.  Instead, Phil was not feeling good at all.  He knew that a very difficult conversation needed to take place and he struggled over when and how to begin it.  He had planned to broach the topic at some time during their lunch but he simply couldn’t carry the weight of this thing any longer.

“There’s something that I’ve been wanting to talk about.” Phil began.  He could see Sandy’s body tense out of the side of his eye as he stepped carefully over clumps of grass, avoiding scattered marshy patches.  Phil was trying to collect his thoughts but they stubbornly refused to stay collected, so he pressed on.

“I’ve begun to get the feeling that you don’t like me as much now as you did a couple of months ago.  Is that how it is?”  Sandy seemed to be surprised by the directness of the question, and in fact Phil was too.

I don’t know” Sandy replied.  “I don’t think that I do, but I still like you a lot.”

Phil kept a poker face while that arrow tore through his heart.  He had been right, and now it was in the open and there could be no going back.

“Is it because you’re attracted to Matt?” Phil asked.

“No, not at all” Sandy said, but Phil did not see the same surprise that he had seen in Matt’s face when he asked his friend the same question.  Phil still had his doubts after her answer to that last question but he pressed on.

“Maybe it’s your Dad.  I know that he doesn’t approve of me, or at least not very much.”  Phil remember how he had been given the third degree like a petty hoodlum when he showed up at Sandy’s house on their first date.

“So, young man.  You want to take my daughter to a dance.  Will there be adults at this dance or will it just be kids at a house somewhere?” the father had asked.

     “It’s at a recreation center, sir.”  Phil replied.  “There will be Parks and Recreation leaders there the whole time.”

     “Hmm.  All right.  So what about you, son.  What are your plans?  College?  Career?”

     “Uhh, I’m not sure sir” Phil stammered.  “I’ve always wanted to fly, and my brother told me that my grades are good enough to get into helicopter training in the Army.  I might do that.”

     “I don’t see how that will happen” Sandy’s father said.  “You have to be an officer to be a pilot and your have to have a college degree to be an officer.  

     “Well sir, my brother told me – – oh, I’m sorry.  My brother just got out of the Army last month.  Anyway, he told me that helicopter pilots can be  warrant officers, which is something like less than an officer but more than a sergeant or whatever those guys are called.  Anyway, with my grades I could qualify and go to Alabama for nine months and come out flying.”

     “Helicopter pilots are in a pretty dangerous position, aren’t they?  The Viet Cong like to shot them down as quickly as they can.”  Sandy’s father seemed to like that idea.

     At that point Sandy swept into the room looking like an angel from heaven and rescued Phil from the hot seat.  Sandy kissed her father on the cheek and said “Good night Dad.  We’ll be back by 10:00.”

     “See that you do” he growled, looking directly at Phil.  

Back on the valley floor Sandy shook her head, more convincingly this time than the last, and said “No, it has nothing to do with my father.  He’s usually either at work in his office at the shipbuilding company or in his office at home.  He’s all worried when I stray from the house but otherwise hardly knows that I’m there at all.  He told me that warrant officer was good enough for him and I haven’t heard anything more about it.

Phil processed that answer as they walked along.  Warrant officer was good enough for Sandy’s father, but was it good enough for Sandy?  The two walked in silence for a short distance as each tried to organize their thoughts.  At last, Phil could not wait any longer.

“So what is going on?  I want to know if something’s wrong that I am able to change or fix.”

Sandy remained silent for several more steps and then began to speak in slow, measured words.  “There’s nobody else that I’m really interested in.  Really.  And I don’t care if my dad likes you or not.  I honestly do still like you, but I’m just not sure about where we are or where we’re going.  And I don’t really know how you feel about me either.”

Sandy returned to silence as they walked, and now neither of them were nearly so careful about avoiding the marshy spots on the valley floor.  Phil stepped into one and growled ‘Shit!” at which Sandy laughed a little.  Phil felt his face flushing and knew that he was turning red.  He had never sworn in front of Sandy before but he was feeling the strain and losing his control just a little.

“You see, that’s what I’m getting at” Sandy continued.  “You are always the same person.  There’s never a change.  You pick me up.  We eat at the drive-in. We make out somewhere.  We go home.  Always the same.  Always controlled.  I like all of that stuff but I want something else.  I know that there’s more to you than just that stuff but you don’t share it with me.  At least I think that there’s more to you, but how would I know?  At last, you finally stepped into some water and said ‘shit’.  Guess what.  If I stepped into water I would probably say ‘shit’ too!  Or maybe more than that.  I have said it before, you know.  I’ll bet that you have too.  I’ve lived for 16 years where everything is proper and runs according to a schedule and rules and guidelines, and I don’t want to do that with you.”

They returned to walking in silence again.  Phil was more careful about where he stepped now and Sandy was wondering if she had just stepped into something a great deal different than water.  Phil was glad that he was not competing with Matt or anybody else and Sandy was glad that this conversation had at last begun.  They were approaching the eastern edge of the valley when Phil picked up the thread again.

“Well, I do like to make out with you.  You’re a beautiful girl, and sometimes I can hardly believe that it’s me kissing you.  It just becomes the only thing that I want to do.  Maybe I have a lack of imagination about what to do with you because I’m so happy just to be with you at all.”

Sandy stopped in mid stride.  She turned to Phil, put her hands on her hips and said “Why is it that this is the first time that I’ve heard that?  I’ve wanted to hear you say something like that to me for the last half year.  Was it so hard to say that?”

Phil knew that Sandy was right, but how could he know that he should say such things?  Phil’s father and mother lived a sort of cold war, sharing a house but inhabiting separate worlds; separate bedrooms, separate budgets, separate vacations, and separateness in every other aspect of their lives.  They went dancing and to dinner with friends, but that façade came off as soon as they got home.  If Sandy would have known Phil’s parents better she would have had a much more clear view of his confusion in the matter of expressing affection.

Sandy began to walk again, a little faster than before as her own confusion and anger was beginning to creep toward the light.  Phil caught up quickly but Sandy began to speak again before Phil could get out a word.

“And then there’s another thing.  When we were eating lunch at school that guy, Paul What’s-His-Name, was fresh with me and you didn’t seem to mind.  It looked to me like you were afraid and he could just say anything to me that he wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that bothered me.  I don’t want to pick your fights for you, but I felt insulted and alone when that happened.  I would like to know that you would defend me.”

Phil felt the pain of that accusation tear through his heart and mind.  Paul Duggar was a big oafish kid and a bully, and he had made advances towards Sandy right in Phil’s face.  Phil had laughed a little and then walked away with Sandy towards where some other kids that he knew were standing, and the number of those friends persuaded Paul to leave after another grating remark or two.

The memory of that day stung, but the worse part was that Phil had not the least fear of Paul Duggar.  Phil had been bullied in the sixth grade and had persuaded his father to pay for karate lessons.  By good fortune Phil had ended up with an instructor who trained him well.  His teacher also advised Phil to keep his training a secret from his friends.  “When the upstart defeats the old gunfighter, the new gunfighters all want to pick a fight with him to earn their reputation.  Train hard.  Stay quiet.  Use what you know only when you have to, or you’ll have to be using it all the time.

Phil had lived by that teaching, but now he knew that a page had to be turned and a new strategy was called for.  He thought back on that day and knew that he could have laid Paul out with three or maybe four blows.  Perhaps it was time to share this side of himself with Sandy.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t more assertive that day” Phil said lamely.  “I wasn’t afraid of Paul; I just didn’t want to get into a fight then and there.  If I thought that you were in any danger I would have done whatever was necessary to protect you.  I will never let anything hurt you.  Never.”

They walked along in silence again for a while.  Phil was making a list of things that he wanted to tell Sandy, and what Sandy was thinking Phil couldn’t tell.  Her jaw seemed tight, as if the Paul episode still was eating at her, but Phil wasn’t sure.  They arrived at the eastern edge of the valley and began their climb towards the boulders.  They were picking their way through the rocks and chaparral that was scattered about when Phil spoke again.

“So I haven’t told you how I feel about you.  Okay.  You’re right.  I’m new at all of this and honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing or should be doing most of the time.  So, let me tell you now.  I look forward to every minute that I can be with you, and I feel sick when I think that I’m losing you.  If you don’t want me to kiss you so much, then I won’t.  If you want me to stand on my head instead, I will.  Just being near you will be enough for me as long as I know that you are happy being near me.  But if that won’t work, then we should break up now so that I won’t bother you or look like a fool, which is how I’ve been feeling.  That is not what I want to do, but if it is what you want, we should do it.”

There.  Phil had said it.  He couldn’t believe that he had got it out without his voice cracking, and he hoped that Sandy wouldn’t take him up on it, but there it was, right out on the table.  They would have to deal with it now, for better or for worse.  Sandy looked like she was glad to have the issue laid bare too.  The tightness around her jaws softened and Phil even thought he saw a little moisture fill the eye closest to him.

“This is what I’ve been missing” said Sandy.  “We’ve been acting so much like my parents.  Pick me up.  Eat.  Make out.  Go home.  It’s like a broken record.  I don’t want you to be my knight in shining armor but I would like to feel safe when I’m with you, and I don’t want to just follow the same old script.  Surprise me sometimes.  Take me out to a nice restaurant, or just grill me some hot dogs in your back yard and tell me that I’m special to you while we sit on that big bench swing that your dad built and eat them.  And the next time that we’re making out while some stupid movie is playing, try to get into my pants or something.  “I’m not looking for ‘out of control’, but I’m tired of everything being so tame and predictable.”

Sandy was a little out of breath after such a long speech, and was more than a little surprised at what had just come out of her mouth.  Phil had stopped dead in his tracks with his mouth hanging open, frozen by both his elation and the shock that he felt from what he had just heard.

“You would let me get into your pants?”  he asked in amazement.

“No.  Of course not.  Don’t be silly.  But I wouldn’t hate you for trying, as long as you weren’t being a jerk about it.  At least I’d know that you want to get in them.  We can then talk about anything more than that later.”

Phil put out his hand, acting as if he was reaching for Sandy’s belt.  She laughed as she slapped his hand away.  “I said later.  A whole lot later.”

Phil laughed too, just beginning to believe that this was going to end a lot better than he had dared to hope that it would.  They had reached the place where the picnic was to be had and Sandy’s laughter was singing a love song in Phil’s ears as they climbed up over the first layer of rocks.  That was when Phil saw the rattlesnake that was warming itself in the sun.  Sandy was unaware of the snake and her head was not two feet away from it when it coiled in preparation to strike.  There was nothing that Phil could do other than thrust his arm between Sandy’s neck and the snake, and he did that without thinking.

The serpent struck in less than the blink of an eye and buried its fangs deep into Phil’s bicep.  He shook his arm furiously until the snake let go and wriggled swiftly into the small stand of chaparral that was nearby, leaving a shaken Sandy and a bitten Phil in its wake.

“Oh God!  Oh God!  You’re bitten” Sandy kept repeating.  Phil stared numbly at the twin punctures on his arm that were oozing blood, frozen with fear.  Sandy’s cries became louder and more hysterical, and the sound brought phil back to something like his senses.

Phil’s father had grown up in Oklahoma and knew a lot about rattlesnakes, including how to hike in the mountains without getting crosswise with one.  One lesson his dad had omitted from Phil’s education was how to remain watchful for snakes while negotiating with a beautiful girl about getting into her pants, even if only in jest.  Phil had forgotten to tap the rock with the head of the steel hatchet that he wore in its canvas cover on his belt.  The sound would alert any snake in the rocks that Phil was coming, and the snake would return the favor.  “The snake will let you know that he’s there if you will let him know first” his father had said.  “And that will work out best for the both of you.”

Sandy was losing it pretty badly, and Phil went to her, wrapped his arms around her and held her close.  “It’s okay.  It’s okay Baby” Phil kept repeating, although he could not for the life of him figure out how it could possibly be okay.  “Calm down now.  We’re going to be all right.  We have to think about this now.”  Sandy’s sobbing diminished, and soon she looked up at the snakebitten boy who was comforting her, and began to control her fear.

“You really were bitten, weren’t you?” she asked.  Phil stared at the damaged arm that was just then beginning to throb.  “Yes” he replied with a calmness born of shock.  “I believe that I was.”

Sandy’s tears began to flow again but Phil just held her close to keep her from falling apart.  Her jaw worked, but few words came out.  “Are you going to die?” she finally croaked in barely a whisper.

Phil didn’t answer right away because he didn’t know the answer.  His father had told him that tourniquets and sucking out the poison were mostly Hollywood horseshit.  “The best thing to do is get to a doctor fast” he had told him.  Phil knew that such a plan was not going to happen, and the first shiver of panic crawled down his spine.  Bile crept up into his throat and he almost threw up from the fear.  The look on Sandy’s face however, and seeing the concern and compassion that she felt for him, settled him down.  He remembered more of his father’s teaching and one possibility rose to the top.

“My father told me that sometimes rattlers will give you a dry bite, where they don’t inject venom.  All we can do now is start back to the parking lot and hope that this snake was in a good mood today.”

  Oh, yeah.  the snake.  Phil looked down at his right arm as he lay in the shaded dirt of the trail.  The arm was already puffy, bruised, and numb.  And it also hurt like hell.  “How can an arm be numb and hurt at the same time?” Phil asked himself.  He moved the arm an inch or two and dug his fingers into the dirt.  Sure enough, he couldn’t feel the ground underneath arm or fingers, but he could certainly feel the fiery pain that enveloped the entire appendage.

     Phil’s head was resting on a pillow.  “Odd” he thought.  “A pillow out here.”  Then he remembered that Sandy had taken off her pack and used it to cushion his head.  Phil smiled at the thought of using a pack full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some socks and a scarf as a pillow.  His vision had been blurry for a long time and now his breath was getting a little harder to come by.  Phil looked down the trail where Sandy had disappeared – – – how long ago?  Phil hadn’t the least idea.  Maybe she’d be back in five minutes with help, or maybe she only left five minutes ago.  There wasn’t one damned thing that Phil could do about it one way or the other, so he lay his head back down on his makeshift pillow and drifted off into memory again.

Sandy began to cry again and Phil was not doing so well himself.  He hugged her once again, being careful not to bleed on her clothes.  Sandy controlled her own fear and stepped back from Phil’s embrace.  “Come on.  We have to get you to a doctor.  You leave your pack here.  I’ll take mine and let’s get going.  I don’t think that we’re going to have a picnic here today after all.”

They set off down the hillside, towards the valley.  By the time they got to the margin of the valley a purple blotch had grown around the bites on Phil’s arm, and the pain was becoming fierce.  “It looks like the snake was not in a good mood” Phil told Sandy.  “I don’t know how long I’m going to stay standing.  We’ll go straight across the valley.  I want to get you to the trail and I’m not going to worry much about getting my shoes wet doing it.

They walked quickly side by side across the grassy valley floor.  Phil wondered how far he would get before the effects of the venom would lead to weakness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and possibly death.  He wanted desperately to make it to the trail on the west side of the valley.  Once there, Sandy could follow it straight to the parking lot and safety.

Phil thought about dying and once again panic began to rise in his throat.  Half-way across the valley he bent forward and threw up the remains of his breakfast.  “Was that fear?” he wondered, “or the effects of the venom.”  Phil had not thought about death and dying any more than any other seventeen year old kid had, but now it was a distinct possibility.  In some odd way the fear did not immobilize him.  The bite was a fact; Phil couldn’t change that.  He had to get Sandy to the trail, and anything else would be extra credit.  Life, death, heaven and hell were not in his hands, so all he could do was put one foot in front of the other for as long as that was possible.  The rest would have to take care of itself.

Sandy tried at first to keep up idle chatter as they walked, whether to distract Phil from their desperate situation or distract herself wasn’t clear to Phil.  Eventually however, when Phil began to stumble more as they passed through the soggy clumps of marsh grass and shallow pools of clear water, Sandy focused all of her attention on supporting Phil.

“Come on.  We can do this” she told Phil as the trail finally came into view.  “We’re almost there.  Let’s just keep this going.  And by the way, I want you to know that I believe that you weren’t afraid of Paul.  If you weren’t afraid of a goddam snake I guess you can handle Paul.  I apologize for that.”  Phil smiled weakly, but didn’t speak.  It was becoming clear to him that he was not going to make it down the side of the mountain.  They stumbled onto the trail and Sandy gave a little whoop, but Phil simply plodded forward.

Phil didn’t know how far they had walked on that trail before it finally became clear that he had gone as far as he could.  “I can’t go on any more” he said.  Sandy tried to urge him on but he held up his left hand.  “No Babe.  I’m sorry.  I can’t do it.  This is it.  This is as far as I can go.  I’m going to have to lay down right here and let you go on the rest of the way.  Here.  Help me to lay down.”

“No” Sandy quavered.  “Don’t give up.  You can do this.”

“I’m sorry Babe.  I can’t.  And I’m not giving up on you or anything else.  You can travel faster without me.  You run the rest of the way and get help.  Ill stay here, resting, and wait for you to come back.  This is the only plan that I can see that has a ghost of a chance.  Now help me to lay down and go.  Quickly!”

Sandy looked like she wanted to argue, but it was obvious that this really was the best plan.  “Okay.  You can use my pack for a pillow and lay here in the shade.”  Sandy helped Phil to stretch out in the dirt.  She lifted his head and put her pack under it, and then leaned over and kissed Phil twice and said “I love you, Phillip Coltrane.  You wait for me because I’m coming back, and I’ll be really pissed off at you if you don’t.”

Sandy then rose up and shot down the trail at a full sprint.  She quickly disappeared around a curve, and Phil wondered if he would ever see her again.

  “It must have been a while since Sandy left” Phil thought.  “The shadow from the chaparral is nearly half way across the path now.  How long does it take for the sun to move that far in the sky?  Hell, I don’t know.  It’s still midday though, and that’s good.  In the evening the tarantulas come out to hunt.  I know.  I’ve seen then on this trail in the evening.  God, I hate spiders.  Especially big, hairy ones.  Ah, no sweat.  I won’t be alive this evening.  The ants will already be cleaning up my mess.  Spiders are worse than snakes.  Screw snakes anyway.  Maybe a big, fat spider will eat that bastard who bit me.  Maybe – – – huh!  I’ll be damned.  That looks like two men in some kind of uniforms standing over me.  Sandy.

 

 

Notes From Santa Fe

Today is the last full day at St. John College in Santa Fe.  It has been much like the others:  great discussion in the workshop and equally great conversation with my fellow travelers over coffee in the cafeteria.  I will be glad to return home tomorrow so that I can begin to digest all of the input that I have received and start writing again.

What has been as pleasant to me as the learning is the rain that has fallen.  Rain is nothing new where I live in the Northwest, but here rain is a special event!  It has rained every day that we have been here and today we had a soaking rain in addition to the deluge that is the more common form.  Ditches and dry washes have running water in them and the ground is becoming saturated.

The grasses and weeds are greening up and yellow flowers already adorn one little plant that appears everywhere.  Pine, cedar, birch and cottonwood are a rich green and their aroma pervades the campus.  I have little doubt that the drier areas downstream and at lower elevation are enjoying the underground flow of these waters as they work their way slowly towards the Rio Grande Valley.  

I’ll miss Santa Fe after I leave tomorrow, but it’s not going anywhere.  Ah’ll be bock!

At The Knee Of The Master

One Santa Fe note which I neglected to post yesterday involves twenty minutes that I had the privilege to spend with author and teacher Suzanne Wolfe.  Let me explain the experience in this manner.  Suppose you are a young sprinter and got to spend twenty minutes with Usain Bolt, or perhaps you are a high school quarterback and did the same with Tom Brady (during his four-game suspension, heh heh).  Maybe you’re a young physicist and sit with Steven Hawking, or a rookie CIA agent and get to learn from – but wait.  I can’t mention her name or she’ll have to kill me. That is what it was like to sit at a picnic bench on a patio in the Santa Fe afternoon for twenty minutes with Suzanne Wolfe.

I had with me my manuscript of a story about a boy and a girl and a snake; no, it wasn’t Adam and Eve (or was it?), and Ms. Wolfe had already made numerous editorial marks and comments on it.  Now, I had the chance to explore each of those comments, or at least the most important ones, and learn how Point of View and Word Choice and Major Dramatic Crisis works in such a story.  Three days ago I didn’t even know that the above-mentioned categories existed!  Now Ms. Wolfe was explaining their meaning, their importance, and suggesting ways to bend and shape my story into a more pleasing and coherent product.

I realize that I may never become a great writer, which might save me from dying of cirrhosis in a Paris hospital from drinking too much Spanish wine.  I do, however, have the opportunity to become a better writer than I am how, if I want to put in the hard work.  That is a gift and an offer that I can’t refuse.

The Birds And The Bees

When you travel from the Pacific Northwest to the desert Southwest it becomes readily apparent that you are in a different world.  Landscapes choked with trees and undergrowth give way to vistas of brown earth, red and black rocks and hillsides dotted with individual trees, if that.  Gentle rains that last all day or longer in the Northwest become sheets of water that blow sideways for thirty minutes, accompanied by celestial artillery in the Southwest.  The best of differences is the food.  Dinners that revolve around the pasture, the forest and the sea move over and make way for beans and corn and squash, and green and red chili and all sorts of meats cooked slowly in same.

Differences in wildlife are subtle but can be seen if you look for them.  Lizards might be seen warming their cold blood on a rock in the sun, their little heads darting first one way and then the other as the lizard tries to find an unwary bug for his next meal while watching out to prevent providing the same service to a hungry road runner.  In the evening a tarantula hawk, a huge black wasp with orange wings skims just above the surface of the ground in search of his favorite snack; fresh tarantula (or any other large spider).

The most dramatic sign of wildlife involved just that, a sign taped to the inside of our dorm door which said, in paraphrase: “Please do not block the door open.  This allows the entrance into our dorm of snakes and other creatures with four, six, eight and many more legs that you would not like to wake up sharing your bed with.”  There are few dull moments in Santa Fe.

Rain

It rained today in New Mexico.  That doesn’t happen as much here as it does in a great many other places.  The desiccated land rests patiently; it has no option to do otherwise, for the miserly sky to grant it the blessing of life-giving rain.  Stubborn plants, from weeds to great trees, plot their strategies for survival here; a quick flowering and release of seeds for one and deep and wide roots for another, in order to make the most of what the sky will give them.

With the coming of the waters the land is quick to send its thanks to the relenting sky.  The air is redolent of the smells of tree, shrub and weed as each one provides its own fragrance.  The land itself; the dirt and rocks, adds its aromatic notes to this olfactory orchestra, providing rich notes of earth and fertility to those of the plants in this symphony of smells.

Soon, too soon for many in this parched land, the clouds will blow away.  The earth will dry.  Dust will blow and rocks will rest where they lie, waiting for the next torrent to inch them farther down the hillside.  Plants will either wither after producing seeds, their work finished, or slow down their rhythm, relying on water stored in root, stem and leaf, or deep in the earth itself, waiting for the next gift of water from the stingy sky.