A Difficult Conversation

Carolyn Cleveland lay back in her car seat and exhaled a great sigh.  “I am dying for a good, hot bath” she said to Tyler, her husband, as he climbed into the driver’s seat, buckled in and turned the engine on.

“That makes two of us” Tyler said.  “I was ready for this to be over three days ago.  I have got to speak with the deacon board about putting a little more energy into the search for a youth pastor.”

“Why should they hurry up with that?” Carolyn asked.  “They’re getting all the work of two done for the price of one.  Three, if you count the associate pastor that they can’t find either.  My Friend Rosa told me that they have a saying in Mexico:  Why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?”

Tyler turned quickly and looked at his wife.  Carolyn felt his gaze, but looked out the passenger door window at the trees which lined the road.  The sun shone through the mostly bare branches and she could clearly see the lake where they had been leading a youth retreat for the last week.  It was early April but already warmer than would usually be expected.  Leaves were beginning to appear but not nearly enough to block the view.

“That’s a little cynical” Tyler said.  Carolyn seemed to press herself more deeply into the seat, and turned her head a fraction more towards the window.  “Not that I don’t think that myself, from time to time.” He added.

Carolyn did not respond, and Tyler drove on in his own thoughts.  At length he spoke, if only to break the awkward silence.

“I really do thank you for the work that you put in on this retreat.  I don’t think – no, I know – that I couldn’t have done this without you.”

Carolyn continued to sit in silence.

“Yeah, I’ll talk to Larry on the deacon board.  I have got to get some help so that you don’t have to do so much.”

Carolyn thought for a few minutes more and then turned her head so that she could look directly at her husband.  Tyler was thirty seven years old, handsome and very athletic.  Some of the women at church complimented her on catching such a ‘hunk’, and part of her enjoyed that recognition.  His work, however, had absorbed him, and that hunk tended to come home late, stay up working on a sermon, or be off somewhere counseling some member of the congregation, and only rarely home and fully paying attention to her.  Tyler’s remoteness to her had caused her to retaliate with remoteness of her own, and the part of her that loved and desired her husband wrestled with the part that was growing sick of it all.

“I don’t mind helping” Carolyn began.  “I just don’t like seeing you taken advantage of, and when you’re time is spent trying to do the impossible, then I’m being taken advantage of too.  If you’re not willing to be more careful with your time, I wish that you would be more careful with mine, is all.  I think we should get to be ‘WE’ a lot more.  Frankly, I’m getting jealous of the church.  I thought that I was your wife.  Now I’m not sure.”

Tyler didn’t respond immediately.  He knew that she was right, and he had struggled to balance his roles of pastor and husband.  It was at last crystal clear that he had not done an adequate job of that.

“I hear what you are saying” he said at last.  “It’s true.  I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, and I haven’t been able to decide which flame to put out.  I’m really sorry about how that’s played out in our marriage.”  Tyler sighed again, and it was now his turn to look out the window.

Carolyn saw that Tyler was truly upset by how the last six months without a youth pastor, or associate pastor for that matter. It had put a terrible strain on their marriage, and even caused him to question his position of pastor.  She reached out her mildly sunburned left arm and put a hand on Tyler’s shoulder.

“I know how much the ministry means to you, Hon.  I really do.  I feel a responsibility to help you too.  And I will help you.  I just wish that there was more room for us to be a couple.  Well, really, I just want for there to be more room in your life for me.”

“I know.  I know.  It’s just that, well, no.  I don’t mean that.  It’s just —-I mean.  I really love you and I love the ministry, or —- well, loved the ministry.  Aw, shit!  I’m just screwing this up!”

Tyler saw a turnout just ahead and pulled off of the road when he got there.  The car rolled to a halt.  Tyler set the handbrake and turned to face his wife, who caught him completely by surprise when she planted a big kiss right on his confused lips as he did so.

“Why Tyler Cleveland, I do not believe that I have ever heard you swear!” she said, laughing at the confusion and delight that she read on his face.  “Maybe that’s part of what I’m trying to say.  Could I have a little more ‘Aw shit’ and just a little less ‘Pastor Cleveland?’”

Tyler knew that his eyes were reddening but he regained his composure.  He leaned forward, over the console that separated the front seats of their car, put a hand on the pink flesh of Carolyn’s thigh just below the hem of her safari shorts, and muttered “Damned bucket seats,” as he kissed his wife, slowly this time.

“Careful, Romeo.  That’s some sensitive skin down there.”  Carolyn was laughing, joyful at this first romantic move toward her for quite a while that didn’t have the look of a marital obligation about it.

“Oh, pardon me” Tyler responded, and then began to pat the slightly sunburned thigh carefully, brushing it lightly with his fingertips.  Ideas flitted through Carolyn’s head.

“We’ve got a long way to go” she whispered with a low, husky voice.  “I’m looking forward to getting home.”

“Yes Ma’am” Tyler replied.  He released the brake and returned to the two lane forest road.  Tyler let his hand rest just above Carolyn’s knee and drove in what seemed to be perfect happiness.

In fact, it was not what it seemed.  A little further down the road Tyler began speaking again about the deacon board.

“Actually, Babe, there’s something that I want to ask you about.  I’m going to explain some hard things to the deacon board next week, but I’m a little concerned about one of the members.  Greg.  Greg Newman.  I don’t know what it is, exactly, but something’s just not right about him.  Or maybe I’m just making stuff up.”

Tyler stared straight ahead, but his grip on the steering wheel with his left hand, and the fingers of his right hand that had ceased caressing her knee gave away his unease.

“He and Elaine haven’t said or done anything really wrong; I mean, they’re always together at church and at other functions just like they’re ‘supposed’ to be’”  At this point Tyler raised his hand from Carolyn’s knee and used his first two fingers to make a quote sign regarding his word ‘supposed’.  He put his hand down, and it landed this time in the sensitive, sunburned area higher up on the leg and the stress he continued to feel was again communicated through his fingertips.

“But it all looks plastic; like, it’s all show.  And he seems to flirt with Pamela, our secretary.  I’m pretty sure that nothing’s going on between them because Pam’s told me that she is aware of it and feels uncomfortable around him.  I’m going to crack on the board a little to get me some help,” and at this point he turned to Carolyn “or I’ll resign my position,” and then he continued “but I can’t tackle that if a bigger problem exists with the board itself.  You and Elaine are friends, and I wouldn’t expect you to breach a trust, but I have to ask.  Have you noticed anything that could steer me one way or the other?”

Carolyn said “No”, and leaned back in her seat.  She closed her eyes and began to recall a conversation that she had with Elaine two months ago over coffee in her kitchen.

“Greg is going to the Bunny Ranch.”  Elaine blurted out that morning when Carolyn noticed that she looked like she had been crying.  “He drives over the state line into Nevada and goes to that whorehouse.  He finally admitted it”

“My Lord, Elaine.  That’s awful!”  Carolyn was shocked and saddened by what she had just heard, and was also speechless .  Elaine continued.

“He said that I wasn’t bad; just not ‘exciting’ enough for him.  ‘You’ve gained too much weight’ he said.  ‘You’ve let yourself go to seed.’  Well, I have put on a few pounds since having Ben and Jillian but I didn’t think that it was all that bad.”

Carolyn found her voice at last.  “That’s just crap Elaine.  You aren’t overweight at all.  You are a very attractive woman and he’s just, well, he’s just, oh my Lord in heaven.  He’s just full of shit.  He’s just making excuses to you to cover up his awful behavior.  But are you sure that he’s telling the truth?”

“Why would he lie about something so horrible?  No, I believe it all.  He has nothing to do with me anymore,and even if he tried, how would I know that he wasn’t just coming back from that place.  How would I know that he hadn’t just – hadn’t just-   Oh, Carolyn, what should I do?  I hate divorce.  I know how hard it would be on the kids.  And I know that what he is doing would have to come out in a contested divorce, which is what it would be with him.  I don’t – I just don’t -“

At this point Elaine dropped her cup of tea and began to sob with her face buried in her hands.  Her shuddering shoulders stooped forward as if they were carrying an immense weight.  Carolyn and no words for her friend, and therefore simply sat beside her and wrapped her in her arms, silently communicating her support.  Finally, Elaine looked up with red, swollen eyes and a trail of snot running across one cheek.

“Promise me you won’t say a word to anyone.  On, please.  Promise me.”

“I promise” Carolyn said.  “Not a word to nobody.”

“Oh, thank you.  Thank you” Elaine said, and after composing herself arose to return home to her nightmare.

Carolyn then opened her eyes and looked at her husband.  She thought about the pain the Elaine was enduring, and the all but inevitable disaster that loomed directly in her friend’s path.  She then thought of the overworked, distracted, tired but faithful husband sitting next to her.  With tears now in her own eyes Carolyn leaned over the console, placed a hand on Tyler’s denim-covered leg and kissed him gently on the neck.

“Damned bucket seats” she whispered.

The Garden, Chapter VI

Charlie awoke the next morning with what he  thought at first might be a hangover.  His gut felt tight and his head felt like there was a band around it with a screw increasing pressure by being ever-so-slowly tightened.  “Dang it, I should know not to drink too much after being away from alcohol for so long” he thought.  But in his heart Charlie knew that the discomfort that he felt had nothing to do with the couple of beers he had enjoyed the night before with Walt and his friends.  This unease was just a new manifestation of the hurt that had been Charlie’s unwanted companion for the last two years.

Charlie rubbed the gritty sleep from his eyes and the first thing that he saw was the flowers in his old coffee pot.  “Damned waste of a coffee pot” Charlie growled under his breath.  Rising from his sofa, Charlie walked across the tiny living room, picked up the pot and walked toward the kitchen.  “I’ll throw these weeds into the trash” he thought, but when he arrived at the trash can by the kitchen counter he couldn’t bring himself to throw them away.  “What the hell” Charlie thought.  “This pot makes crappy coffee anyway,” and so the flowers received their last minute reprieve.

Charlie fried some bacon, then fried some eggs, and then fried some potatoes.  All the while he wondered if he could fry broccoli.  He gave up on that plan however and peeled an orange.  This orange was the first piece of fresh fruit that Charlie had eaten in many months, although he didn’t think of that at the moment.  His stomach was probably surprised at this intrusion by something with nutritional value.

Charlie looked at the coffee pot again, and again nearly threw the flowers into the trash.  Once again however he denied the impulse and even returned the flowers to their spot on the table next to the television.  Charlie remembered what he had thought the night before:  “It’s not the flowers’ fault.”  And it wasn’t.  The thought helped to relieve some of the pressure around his head, just a little.

Still, Charlie needed coffee.  He knew that finding somewhere to get a cup of coffee would not be a much of a problem.  Coffee in the Northwest is like cheese in Wisconsin; you could buy cheese with your tires or appliances or anything else.  As Charlie locked the front door and walked toward his truck the solution to his coffee shortage leapt into his mind.  “I’ll get a cup at Leroy’s.”

The morning rush was in full swing when Charlie walked through the door of that tiny reflection of an earlier time.  Every table and every seat at the counter was taken.  Charlie had arrived a little bit later than he had the day before and the workers getting off from the night shift at the port and railroad yard, plus the commuters waiting for traffic to die down before tackling the interstate highway that crossed the bridge and flowed into every corner of Portland (a futile act, that was, and everyone knew it) had filled the place.

LuAnn was bouncing from table to table, chapped red hands filled with steaming plates of ham, eggs, waffles and every other good thing that you would expect to find at a truck stop or a small town greasy spoon cafe.  Charlie chuckled as he thought to himself “News flash Charlie.  This IS a small town greasy spoon cafe.”  LuAnn looked up as she deposited her load of dishes and turned to pick up another that had appeared on the window shelf between the dining area and the kitchen.

“Hello there” she said cheerily when her eyes landed upon Charlie’s.  “Sit anywhere.  We don’t stand on formality around here.”

Charlie quickly assessed that standing was all that was going to happen at that moment if he was to stay, and he opted not to do so.  He sought LuAnn’s attention in order to sign his departure.  She at last looked his way again and he subtly waved his hand, sweeping the room.  LuAnn could see in an instant what the problem was and signaled back for Charlie to come to the corner of the counter, closest to the kitchen window.  Charlie did as he was told while LuAnn brought the stool that she had sat on the day before.  She moved some newspapers and a small pile of menus to clear a place at the counter and placed the stool in front of the newly liberated space.

Charlie thanked her and sat down as LuAnn walked away to clean up a table that had just been vacated by a party of burly men who looked like they could unload a ship or a boxcar with their bare hands.  At length LuAnn got the table cleared, poured a few more cups of coffee, and returned to take Charlie’s order.

“What’ll it be Dearie?” she asked.

“Just coffee” Charlie responded somewhat sheepishly, embarrassed that he had caused her to make a fuss over him for only a cup of coffee.

“Glory be, Hon” LuAnn said with a broad smile as she reached for the nearby coffee pot. “I told you that you were a blessing!  I’ve been busier than a one legged man in a fanny kicking contest.  They must’ve put on a second shift at the port or somewhere.  I need a rest!”

LuAnn cackled a good natured laugh at her own metaphor, followed by the smoker’s cough which she buried politely in the crook of her elbow.  Then, after pouring a cup full of industrial grade coffee which was still better than anything Charlie had made at home, she went off to seat another couple of men and clear two more tables where customers were beginning to look restless and ready for their check.  At this point a middle-aged, overweight man with a florid face beneath his cook’s hat and a stained apron emerged from the kitchen in order to run the cash register and pour coffee refills for the customers sitting at the counter.

Charlie watched the rhythm of the cafe as he sipped his coffee and reflected on the business that he had once owned.  Hamer Properties and Construction was no giant, by the standards of the real giants of industry, but in Clark County, Washington it was a very prominent player on the commercial scene.  The company had begun in the same manner that many construction outfits do, as one man with two acquaintances who acted as independent contractors and paid their own taxes.

Charlie was a natural at building things and in fifteen years had built a company that employed forty three workers plus various independent contractors, and built single dwellings, small residential developments, and small to medium commercial projects.  Additionally, HP&C held rental and lease properties that provided an even inflow of cash during the ups and downs of the construction business cycle.  Yes, Charlie had done very well for himself.

But all of this empire building did not happen by spontaneous creation.  Charlie would rise before the sun, eat a breakfast prepared by Maureen, and get to the job site early and stay late.  Charlie did good work.  His customers were satisfied and his workers well treated.  The money flowed in, and although Charlie had little taste for newer and more expensive toys, the security that his bank account and investments provided was like a drug to him.  “How much is enough” John D. Rockefeller was once asked.  “Just a little more than I have” was the gazillionaire’s answer.  Charlie would have denied the wisdom of that quote if he had ever heard it, but if he was honest with himself he would admit that he was a lot more like Rockefeller than he was like Mother Teresa.

Maureen would have agreed with that assessment without hesitation.  Charlie had never been a bad husband to her or a bad father to the children.  In fact, he was reasonably good in both of those areas.  It was just that he was an absent husband and father too much of the time.  Maureen first learned to miss her husband.  Then, ominously, she learned to not miss him.

Charlie’s relations with the children were complicated.  He favored his Golden Girl, Stephanie, who was a tree-climber and fly fisher and wave rider; in short, a girl after his own heart.  With Jack however his relationship was less secure.  Charlie loved Jack and was proud of his obvious intelligence and musical ability.  Jack took piano lessons and was his teacher’s best pupil.  Jack could also pick up just about any other musical instrument and quickly begin to sort out the techniques necessary to tease a little music out of it.

But Jack didn’t work well with his hands.  Whenever he tried to work with his father on a project around the house Jack would inevitably cut a board too long or, worse yet, too short.  The cerebral wiring necessary to enable a worker to see a finished project even before it was begun just wasn’t there for Jack.  Charlie wasn’t angry with Jack about this, but inevitably Jack receded from the center of Charlie’s attention as he drove on towards the goal of more business and more money,

Charlie’s eyes began to redden at the thought of his son.  Maureen had surrounded the boy with love and attention, and his big sister treated him like a rock star.  Several of Stevie’s friends were caught up in her affection for her little brother and gave him more attention than a young boy usually expected from older girls.  Jack was never made to feel like a pest with his sister and her friends.  Charlie, however, withheld the whole-hearted attention that Jack, and for that matter the rest of the family, deserved.  Maureen dealt with it, Stevie rose above it, but Jack was injured by it.  Charlie by now had plenty of time to reflect on that fact, and reflecting on it this morning caused the tightness in his chest and pressure from the invisible band around his head to increase.

The cook returned to his kitchen to prepare the order for the men who had come in a few minutes earlier.  More customers were paying up and heading toward the door, and none were entering to take their place.  After a huge inhale, the cafe appeared to be making an exhale.  LuAnn cleared one of the tables and a couple of places at the counter, and then refilled Charlie’s cup.  She shoved a pile of dirty dishes a little further down the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee, then perched on the round counter stool next to Charlie.

“Well, how are you doing today, young man?” she began.  “Two days in a row makes you a regular – – -.”

LuAnn saw the redness in Charlie’s eyes and stopped in mid sentence.  “Is something wrong, Sugar?  Are you OK?”

Charlie sat on his stool and said nothing.  He focused on his breathing, thought about the D Day invasion, and then gave up on that diversion.

“Yes and no” Charlie said.  “There’s some things that get me down when I think about them, and I’m thinking about them today.  I try not to, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.  Anyway, I wouldn’t want to bother you with it.”  Charlie reached for a napkin and blew his nose.

LuAnn sat quietly by Charlie and blew on her coffee.  Charlie was glad that she didn’t say anything, and he was also glad that she was there.  The warmth generated by the nearness of a kind human being penetrated his skin in some mystic way and spread warmth to his frozen heart.  Shortly, the last customer sitting at the counter began the usual rustlings and movements that signaled readiness to pay up and leave.  LuAnn patted Charlie affectionately on his wrist, handed him another napkin, and left to begin cleaning up the now nearly empty cafe.

Charlie dabbed at his moist eyes with the napkin and blew his nose one more time.  He wanted be on his way to work, but his coffee mug had just been refilled.  Also, he was feeling a peace imparted to him by LuAnn and he hesitated to leave that.  For just a moment he thought about helping her to clean the tables.  The young homeless guy wasn’t here today, so the full load would fall on LuAnn and the cook.  “Naw” he thought.  “You’re not their daddy.”

At that thought he remembered Jack again, and the time when he really had been a daddy, or could have been one had he chosen to do so.  The pain boiled up before he even saw it coming, and it hit him broadside.  Charlie felt like he was going to lose it, so he put twice the cost for a cup of coffee on the counter and stood up.  LuAnn looked his way as the motion caught her eye and watched as Charlie walked across the cafe towards the door.

“Dearie” she said, and Charlie stopped and turned towards her.  “Forgive me for butting in.  You don’t have to carry what you’re carrying alone.  Any time you want to sit somewhere where nobody’s going to judge you, you come here.  I’ll make a place for you if I’m here.  I know what pain is, and I’m going to pray for you.”

Charlie had no idea how to answer that.  He thought of God as a pissed off white guy in the clouds looking for the next sinner that he would roast in hell.  That picture didn’t make for much of a refuge.  The simple sincerity of LuAnn’s words conveyed none of that image however.  They just tried to give comfort, and Charlie decided to accept it.  LuAnn walked over to Charlie and gave him a hug.  As she separated she reminded him “You have a place here.  You aren’t alone.”

Charlie didn’t trust his mouth so his eyes had to speak his thanks.  He nodded goodbye and walked to his truck.  Once seated in the cab he prepared for the torrent of sobs that would usually come at this time, but oddly they failed to materialize.  Charlie was confused by this and thought full-on about Jack, expecting that to trigger the usual response.  It did not.

As Charlie thought about his son he remembered his love of music, his quiet demeanor, his intelligence.  And he also remembered that Jack was alive.  It was Stevie who died, not Jack and not Maureen and not himself.  He had thought before that Jack might as well be dead to him but today, for reasons that he could not quite fathom, he understood clearly that Jack was not dead.  He was very much alive.  And he needed a father.  This thought brought considerable confusion the Charlie, and he put it in the back of his mind to chew on it later.  Now, he realized, he had work to do.

Charlie put the engine in gear and drove to the site where he was working on the bathroom job.  He arrived at the house and quickly perceived that the homeowner was waiting anxiously for his arrival.  Charlie looked at his watch and saw that he was not late, and so assumed that she had something on her agenda.  Charlie assumed right.

“I’m sorry, but I have to run” she said on her way out the door.  “I have a client that I have to meet earlier than I thought.  There’s coffee in the pot if you’d like some.  I hope to be back in an hour or two.”

Charlie said “OK” and entered the house.  The homeowner lived in a house of sixteen or seventeen hundred square feet, the usual ranch style, that was about thirty years old.  Charlie had noticed that everything in the house was dated; carpet, appliances, and especially the bathroom.  The homeowner was always well dressed – professionally so when she went out to meet with clients – and this seemed to be out of place in this somewhat dreary house.  He therefore assumed that she had recently purchased the home.  Charlie had never seen a husband there, but he had never really thought about what that might mean one way or the other.  The homeowner, Carole or Carolyn or something like that, was the only person he had made contact with there.

She was about thirty five or forty, and pleasant, at least as much as he had had any interaction with her at all.  Usually she was in an office that had once been a bedroom while he worked.  From time to time she would disappear, sometimes leaving Charlie to lock up when he left.  “She must sell something” Charlie thought.  “Probably real estate.  Everybody thinks that they can sell real estate.”

Charlie entered the house and looked in the kitchen.  He had drank all the coffee he needed at Leroy’s but thought that it might be rude to ignore the offer that had been made to him.  The coffee maker had a glass container that was about a quarter full, and Charlie poured some into a white china cup.  The coffee was less than boiling hot, so Charlie could sip some rather quickly.  “This is the good stuff!”  Charlie thought.  “I have got to get me one of these.”  Charlie quickly finished his coffee and fell to work on the bathroom project.

Charlie soon forgot about the homeowner and lost himself in his work.  When she returned to the house he didn’t hear her come in.  Therefore, when she saw the progress that had been made on her bathroom she exclaimed “Oh, that’s wonderful.”  Charlie was not expecting that and jumped at the sound of her voice.  Worse yet, he had at that moment been preparing to break wind, and when he jumped the fart got away from him.

Braacckk!  Charlie turned beet red and apologized for the fart, the odor of which was beginning to permeate the bathroom’s air.  The homeowner was apologizing at the same time, but soon smiled, then giggled, and then simply broke down in laughter.  The laughter was not malicious; was in fact infectious, and Charlie’s embarrassment quickly melted away and soon he, too was laughing.

The homeowner sat down on the bed as tears rolled down her face.  She continued to struggle, trying to apologize some more,but the effort was only partially successful.  Charlie, for his part, was glad to escape the embarrassing moment, and chose that time to also escape the now-fetid air of the bathroom.  He flipped on the wall switch that engaged the overhead vent and exited the room.

As Charlie left the bathroom a wave of air drafted out with him, which brought the homeowner back into control.  “I think it’s time to beat a retreat” she said.  Standing, she walked toward the bedroom door and said over her shoulder “I’m going to make some lunch.  Would you like something to eat?”

“Sure” Charlie replied.  It was nearing his lunch break anyway.  “I have my own lunch that I should eat today, but I would love another cup of your coffee.”

The homeowner accepted that proposal and soon had coffee beans grinding in the kitchen.  Charlie retrieved the salami and cheese and apple that he had in a cooler in the cab of the truck.  The day was getting warm, as spring was plodding towards the summer that eventually came to the Northwest, most of the time anyway.  “I’ll have to start putting some ice packs in my cooler soon” he thought.  Charlie returned to the kitchen to find two plates placed at the table and the air filled with the aroma of coffee.

“You can sit over there” the homeowner said while pointing towards one of the plates.  “I’ll have the coffee made in a few minutes.”

Charlie sat down and placed his meat, cheese and apple on the plate.  The plate  was unnecessary, but it looked like it was expected of him and so Charlie complied.  The homeowner got some blueberries and yogurt from the refrigerator and some sort of cereal in a glass container off of a shelf.  She made a bowl of cereal out of those ingredients and then poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table.

“Thank you for the coffee this morning” Charlie said as the homeowner sat down.  “I mostly drink industrial strength mud, so that was a – – – treat.”  Charlie almost said ‘blessing’, and didn’t know why he hesitated.

“You’re welcome” she answered.  “I didn’t have time for breakfast, so excuse me for digging in,” and then she began to spoon slightly indelicate amounts of the cereal into her mouth.

“Excuse me too” Charlie said before he dug into his own lunch.  “I’m terrible with names, and I have forgotten yours.”

“Oh,” she replied.  “I don’t know if I told you more than once.  I’m Carolyn.  Carolyn Hatcher.  And don’t feel bad.  I’ve forgotten yours.”

“Charlie.  Charlie Hamer” he replied.

“Charlie Hamer” Carolyn repeated.  “That sounds familiar.  Ah, I remember.  There was a company by that name.  Any connection there?”

“Yes, that was my company” Charlie replied.  He was obviously unwilling to speak much further about it though.  Carolyn recognized his reticence.

“Bad memory there?  OK.  I’ll drop it.”

Charlie appreciated the sensitivity and felt compelled to say so.  “Thank you.  It’s still a raw wound.  Yes, I used to own that company, but just now I don’t feel comfortable discussing it much.”

“OK.  But that explains why your work on my bathroom is so good.  I have to tell you again how much I appreciated the suggestions that you made to me on the redesign, and also how much I like the work that you are doing.  I’ve told Al Schaeffer a couple times now how pleased I am that he gave me your phone number.  I’m not an expert, but I would say that you are quite a craftsman.”

“I’ve tried to be that all of my life” Charlie replied, finding that he enjoyed the compliments that he was receiving.  “I think it was Michelangelo, or Rodin, or somebody like that who said that a sculptor sees the figure that is locked in the marble and then releases it with his chisel  I look at my work sort of like that.”

“It shows” Carolyn noted as she chewed a spoonful of the cereal.  Charlie looked a little embarrassed as he picked up a chunk of cheese.  Embarrassed but pleased.

“I’m glad that you like it” Charlie said.  I’ve always taken pride in my work.”

“Why did you get out of it then?” Carolyn asked, and then continued “Oh, I’m sorry.  I said that I would drop it and there, I’m at it again.  Please, forget that question.  Your business is your own.”

Charlie looked down and pushed a chunk of cheese around on his plate.  He had spoken openly of his history a little more than a week ago with Walt and Rachael, but he was still not comfortable with doing so on a regular basis.  Charlie was touched by Carolyn’s obvious sincerity however, and decided to tell some of his story to her.

“It’s OK.  There was a – a death in the family.”  Charlie’s voice tailed off until it was hard to hear.  “I still have trouble dealing with it.”

It was now Carolyn’s turn to blush, and she became tongue-tied as well.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to – – – .   Ah, I’ve always had a big mouth.  Just ignore me” she said.  She then got up and began to fuss with plates and the dishwasher and almost dropped the coffee pot.  Carolyn’s agitation surprised Charlie and brought him out of his funk.

“It’s all right” Charlie said.  “Really, it is.  I’m slow at getting used to talking about this but I have actually started to do so a little.  I’ve appreciated your kind words and love your coffee.  It would be OK with me if we hit the reset button and go back to you saying what good work I do.”  Charlie smiled at his own attempt to lighten the moment and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had been successful.  Carolyn settled down and finished her impromptu kitchen chores quickly.  She then walked back to the table and sat down.  “OK”  she said.  “Reset.”

Carolyn breathed a deep sign, and then sat for a moment collecting her thoughts.  At length she said “There’s something else that I would like to discuss with you though, and I hope that I haven’t mucked things up so much that it gets in the way.  I picked this house up on the cheap because I like the location and, frankly, it’s what I could afford.  It definitely needs work though, as you could tell from the bathroom.  This kitchen,” Carolyn nodded towards that room with her head, “needs help too, possibly more even than the bathroom did.  I’m not sure of exactly what, but it needs something.  A lot of something!  I have some ideas but I would be interested in your thoughts.  Maybe, if we make a plan that I like, you could fit it into your schedule?”

Charlie thought about that for no more than a minute.  “I don’t really have much of a schedule.  Because of my – situation – I have not been all that engaged.  Yeah, I think that I might be able to put something together; share a few ideas with you.  One thing though, and I’m a little embarrassed to say it.  I’m going to be raising my labor cost a little, I think.  I’ve been pretty close to the bone for a long time and I think that I should bump it up.  It won’t be much, but I think I should.”

“I think you should too” Carolyn replied.  When Al told me your rates I almost didn’t call you.  I never trust the low bid; it’s usually low for a good reason.  I’m not rich,” Carolyn smiled at that.  ‘Not yet anyway.  But I believe in fair value, and you do better work than what I’m paying you for on the bath.  And speaking of that, will you accept more for that job?  I feel like I should be wearing a mask if I’m going to be robbing you.”

Charlie thought about that.  He really could use the money.  Ultimately however he decided against it.  “No, but thank you for the offer.  A deal is a deal, and I’ll keep my end.  Maybe, if we come up with a kitchen plan however, I could draw an advance?”

“Deal” Carolyn said.  “Now I have a lot of T’s to cross for my client that I saw today.  Would it be alright if I sketch out what I have in mind tonight and share it with you tomorrow?”

“That would be fine” Charlie replied.  When I finish today I’ll take a few measurements and pictures on my phone.  I’ll draw up some ideas and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Excellent!” Carolyn said.  She gave a little wiggle in her chair, and then quickly regained her composure.  “Then I’ll let you get back to work.  I think the air’s cleared out in the bathroom.”  They both laughed at that and then went back to their respective occupations.

Charlie took his measurements and pictures that afternoon after wrapping up work for the day.  He felt certain that he could finish the tile tomorrow, and the new shower door would arrive then or the next day.  Charlie felt the old construction rhythm returning as his tape measure stretched and then snapped back, and in his mind he saw a new kitchen take shape.  He wanted to discuss details with Carolyn right then and there, but she had sequestered herself in her office and had only emerged from there once to make a cup of tea.  At length Charlie knocked on her door.

“I’m going now” he announced when she opened the door.  “I have all that I need to work with for now.  I’ll bring some drawings tomorrow.”  Carolyn smiled and said that she looked forward to seeing them, but he could see that she was thinking about her work.  “Must be a big deal” he thought, “or a big cluster bang.  I hope this doesn’t fall through.  I really would like to do a kitchen and I could use the money.”

Charlie waved good bye and said that he would lock the door behind him.  Once he got to the cab of his truck Charlie leaned back on the bench seat and blew out a long breath.  The prospect of Carolyn’s job was exciting; it would be the largest job that he had done since the divorce.  The increased pay would be a good thing too.  Yes, the day had turned out better than he had imagined it would when he woke up that morning.  Charlie thought about Jack, Stevie and Maureen, and although the thoughts reminded him of sadness they did not plunge him back into despair.  “Fine” Charlie thought.  “I’ll keep it that way, for now at least.  I’ll let their memories rest for the time being.”

And then Charlie’s mind turned to the garden.  Walt would almost certainly be there.  “Shit” Charlie thought.  “I think he lives there.”  Rachael might be there too, although it was a little early for her.  Charlie continued to debate his next move as he pulled from the curb and headed to the busy main street a few blocks away.

“Turn left and go to the garden, or turn right and go home.”  Charlie didn’t feel quite ready to go home so he turned left.  To his surprise Walt wasn’t there at all, but Rachael was.  The garden was still fairly damp, so he didn’t feel the need to water.  Instead, he pulled weeds with Rachael for an hour, telling her about the job prospect and letting her vent about some particularly difficult issues that she had to confront at work.  The hour passed quickly, and they parted company.

As Charlie drove back towards Vancouver he remembered that all he had to eat in his apartment was some bacon, a couple of eggs, lunch for tomorrow, and a head of broccoli.  “Well”, he thought, “I guess it’s eggs and bacon and broccoli.  I have got to spend more on my diet!”

The thought of cooking tonight seemed like a waste of time though.  Charlie was anxious to begin work on the kitchen plans, and so he stopped at the Top Burger, a throw-back hamburger stand where they still actually cooked the burger patties.  “I can just afford it” he thought to himself.  “I’ll ask for a draw if she likes my plan and we agree to the job.”  What he would do if she did not like the plan didn’t enter into his mind.   He ordered a couple of burgers and and order of fries and drove home so that he could get to work.

Once in his apartment it was all burgers and fries, rulers and calculator.  Charlie had very little paper in his apartment; mostly the backs of envelopes that he received in the mail from a variety of people seeking his non-existent business.  After an hour he drove to the nearest home improvement center to look at appliances, counter tops, lumber and flooring.  Charlie wanted to put a nice package together for Carolyn to consider.  He knew that she would have some of her own ideas, and he also knew that it would aggravate him to have to modify his work of art; it always had been that way.  She seemed businesslike however, and Charlie felt like he wanted to be able to work well with her on this project.  And it was, after all, her house.

Late that evening, with drawings on some better paper that he purchased at the store and price estimates on all of the components of the job, Charlie felt like he could relax.  The sadness that he had experienced that morning had vanished, and Charlie didn’t know if that was good or not.  “Do I have the right to feel good?  Am I forgetting about my family?  About Stevie?”  Charlie let his mind chew on these questions for only a short while.  At last he concluded that life might suck from time to time, but he was still alive and had the right to feel good.  “For tonight at least” Charlie thought, “I’m glad to be alive.”

With that thought Charlie took a shower, turned on the television, turned out the lights and fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.

 

 

Heidi: In the Rear View Mirror

Fourth down and two to go.  Merrillville High is playing Sommerville tonight and it is a big rivalry.  Neither team is going to State this year.  In fact, neither team is very good.  My son Jake is playing fullback though, so this is the most important game in the world for me.  Billy Squires is a pretty good quarterback and he’ll probably carry the ball.  We need this first down to keep possession of the ball and run out the clock, and Billy is going to need a block to spring him loose.  He’ll need a good fullback.  Jake is a good fullback.

I’m sitting on a hard bleacher seat watching Jake line up in the offensive backfield and I feel a sense of peace in the world.  Merrittville is not very good, like I said, but Jake is good, and the coaches up at State College have noticed him.  Jake is a senior, and the possibility of a football scholarship is very real.  I can’t tell you how much I hope Jake goes to State College and gets and education.  I don’t care if he is good enough to play in the pro’s, although God knows that he wants to do just that.  I’m just glad that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.

Vietnam was all that I had in my future when I graduated back in 1965.  Oh, sure, I could have gone to college and got a student deferment, but what then?  I would have graduated from any four year course in 1969 and the war was still going strong then.  I would have gotten drafted one way or the other.  I didn’t want to go to school anyway.  I’d just done thirteen years of school and that was all I had the stomach for, thank you.  Besides, in our little town it was still commonly accepted that serving your country during time of war was an obligation of citizenship.  Even though I could have come home in a box, like Wally Mather did, I would have preferred to be a dead hero than a live coward.  I’m not so sure that I look at it that way anymore, but that’s how I looked at it then.  It’s how nearly everyone else in Merrillville looked at it then too.

Yes!  First down!  Jake flattened a linebacker, and Billy Squires got six yards.  One and a half minutes and Merrittville will win bragging rights back from Sommerville.  “A Battle of Villes” they call it, and although it isn’t on any statewide sports writers’ radar, it’s darned important to us.

Susan is cheering lustily next to me.  Susan really loves her brother, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of that.  I liked my siblings well enough, but we fought and competed like most other brothers and sisters do.  Susan and Jake are not like that however.  They’re far from inseparable, but when they are together there is a warmth and respect that is noticeable to anybody who will look.  Jake is Susan’s dashing big brother, who helps her when she needs it and would protect her from any harm.  Susan is Jakes Little Sister; a designation which advertises “Do Not Mess With This Girl!”  Susan is also Nancy Dexter’s best friend.  That goes a long way with Jake.

I think – or I guess I should say I hope – that Jake and Susan learned to love and believe in each other because that is how my wife and I have tried to raise them.  It’s how we have tried to live together ourselves.  My family was pretty close, although there was always a tension between my parents that I couldn’t quite understand or put my finger on.  It had something to do with the war and their differing opinions about Germans, I think, but that seems really weird to me and I would never say that I figured it out.

My wife, though, had a much harder ride.  Her parents died when she was in junior high; I won’t share the details.  She went to live with a relative on the far side of town from me and I hardly saw her again during my school years, and when I did it was like seeing a caricature of the girl whom I had initially known.  She had been a very pretty girl at first but she later grew thin; gaunt, I would call it.  Her hair was cut then in some sort of home-done bowl shape, and she seemed to look vacant or, even worse, bitter.  And her aunt, with whom she went to live after her parents died, didn’t look any better.  In fact, I saw Vietcong charging my position on a bridge over the Saigon River during the Tet Offensive who looked more cheerful than her aunt.

I saw her one last time before I went into the Army.  Heidi and her aunt were coming out of a store that I was going into.  I said something to her in German, the language that we both were learning in the good early days, and she said something back.  I think that she allowed herself to enjoy that moment, but I couldn’t be sure.  I asked her if I could take her picture, since I was leaving in a week or two and – I have no idea why – she said that would be OK.  Her aunt wouldn’t let her be in a picture  by herself, and so she stood by her, looking like she would prefer to be sprayed by a skunk rather than be standing there allowing me to take her picture.

I kept that picture with me in Vietnam.  All of the other guys had pictures of wives and girlfriends – at least that’s what they said they were – and I thought that I shared a hut with nineteen Romeos.  All I had was a picture of two females, one young and one older, both of whom looked like they’d been weened on a pickle.

I knew that the girl had once had a good heart though.  In fact, she had been my first girlfriend, but that died when her parents did.  I never really got over her, and I was thrilled to read in a letter from my father one day that he had seen her working in a nearby town and that she looked good; nicely dressed, hair done well, and with the look of health about her.  I wrote back and asked if he saw a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand.  After a few weeks Dad’s next letter came.  He said “No.”

For the rest of my tour in Vietnam the memory of that girl and the relationship that we once had not only stayed with me, but actually grew.  When things got dicey I would think “I have to survive this and see if anything can be made from that relationship that I enjoyed so long ago.”  And I did survive.  Upon my return I made contact with the girl – now a young woman – and made it clear that I wanted to see if there was anything left of that old relationship that could be breathed back to life, and then I left her alone.

I went to State college three hour’s drive away and came home on holidays, and some weekends.  One weekend my dad gave me a note that said “Yes.  I would be willing to see what might remain there.  Coffee?  643-9927.”  I made the call, made the date, and after a period of three years in which we carefully explored what we wanted and expected out of life, I made the proposal.  She said “Yes.”

I’m amazed as I sit here on the bleachers that it has worked out so well.  When I was twenty two I still believed in fairy tale endings.  I know a little bit more about life now.  My wife was smart enough to get counseling to help her with the trauma of her childhood.  Dad helped me to understand that marriage and fairy tales have nothing to do with each other.  Our pastor has been a big help too.

We’ve had some tight spots where our individual sins have rubbed up against each other, but somehow my war experience in Vietnam and her even worse childhood experiences of a different kind right here in Merrillville have created in both of us a willingness to give up a little for the sake of a good marriage and a good family.  Every night I offer a prayer of thanks for this.

I hope my wife gets back in time for the final whistle.  Merrittville is about to take the victory formation and I know she’ll want to see it, but nature called and would not accept “No” for an answer.  The linemen are down in their three point stance.  Billy Squires is under center, and—-.

“Hurry Mom” Susan calls out.  “Hurry”.

I see Heidi jogging up the steps two at a time to get to her seat, which she does just in time.  The snap.  The kneel.  Fifteen seconds later, the whistle.  Merrillville has won their bragging rights for the next year.  Susan’s hero (and ours too, by the way) is celebrating with his teammates on the thirty yard line.  I lean over and kiss my wife.

 

Heidi: A Prequel

I’m sitting on the big wooden bench swing on the covered front porch of our house in Merrittville.  I just finished walking home from my last day of high school.  I am an adult now.  Educated.  Even though I won’t turn eighteen for two more weeks, everybody that I have seen since the end of our graduation ceremony has looked at me with different eyes.  There goes Charlie Brandt.  He’s an adult now.  At least, that’s how it feels.

I felt pretty good about myself when I handed that goofy flat hat to Mom and Dad and returned my gown at the window in the back of the school cafeteria.  Several of my friends said that they were going to hang out at the lake and invited me to come, and that’s what I wanted to do; what I still might do, really.  I don’t know.  I feel a little down now, and maybe I don’t want to be with people.  Or maybe that’s exactly what I should do.  Like I said, I don’t know.

When I walked away from my FORMER school I think that I might have been walking on an inch or two of air.  I stopped in the Qwik Mart and bought a pack of cigarettes.  Mr. Morris knew that I was not quite yet eighteen, but he also knew that I was a graduate and so he sold them to me.  Officer Czylenski, the deputy who patrols this part of town during the midweek, grew up half a block from my house and knows my family.  He won’t care either.

I smoked one of the cigarettes as I walked down the street and decided to take a different route home.  Well, no route really.  I just walked, feeling my freedom.  I walked past the junior high school that I had attended four years earlier, and then turned and walked towards the elementary school where I began this educational journey, and that’s when I walked past Heidi’s house.

Heidi was my first love, if you can call what an eleven year old kid in the sixth grade feels for a girl love.  That’s what I called it then, and I still think to this day that it might have been.  I have had two girlfriends since Heidi and I were together, and I hardly think about them at all.  I still think about Heidi though.  I wonder how she is doing.

Heidi was a very pretty girl and all of the guys tried to capture her attention and, if they were lucky, her heart.  I was awkward and shy, and it never occurred to me that I too could enter that sweepstakes.  I had an interest in the German language however and Heidi, who’s mother was German, grew up in a house where German and English were both spoken equally.  First we shared our mutual interest in language at school, and then I was invited to her house, and before long I found myself wanting to be with Heidi as much as I could.  To my surprise, she told me that she felt the same about me.

As I sit on the swing I think about Heidi. Eating rich German food at her house, our first kiss while walking through a canyon on the way to the store for her mother.  Our first clumsy dance at the recreation center one Friday night.  I can still smell the bread, feel my hand on her waist, taste that kiss.  Yes, I’m pretty sure that I loved Heidi.  Maybe it wasn’t the way Lancelot loved Guinevere, Romeo loved Juliet, or Mr. Darcy loved Miss Elizabeth Bennett, but it’s the way Charlie loved Heidi.  Still does, maybe.

It didn’t last though.  Heidi’s father had a lot of problems.  I don’t know much about it.  He came home from the war not quite right.  People said – – -, well, people said a lot of stuff.  I don’t know what is true.  What I know is that he went crazy one day and killed Heidi’s mother and then himself too.  Heidi saw it all.  She was taken in by her only living relation in the area; a woman who had more than her own share of issues.  Heidi moved away and I rarely saw her again, and never talked with her at all.

Today, years later, her house still stands vacant.  Heidi’s relative inherited the place and I don’t think she ever tried to sell it.  Nobody would have bought it anyway.  I don’t walk by that house much because I don’t usually have business in that direction.  I don’t even know why I walked there today.  It is literally falling apart, little by little.  I was shocked to see the windows broken, blackberries growing up through cracks in the foundation and gutters dangling from the eaves of the roof.  I don’t know if you could restore that house now even if you wanted to.

Sitting here I think of the wreck that is Heidi’s house and I wonder if her life is a wreck as well.  I wouldn’t blame her if it is.  The few times I have seen her, she looks like an Auschwitz surviver; gaunt, with bowl-cut hair, and no smile.  No sign of warmth at all.  I wonder what her life is like.  I wonder if she ever laughs.  I wonder if she ever thinks of me.

I reach for the pack of cigarettes again but I don’t pull one out and light it.  I don’t really like to smoke; I just wanted to stretch my adult wings today.  I’ll throw these things away when I go inside.  In two weeks I’ll be eighteen.  I will join the Army like my dad did, and I will go to war like my dad did.  He got Germany and I’ll get Vietnam.  Some say that he got the best of that deal, but I don’t think that it matters much who shoots you or blows you up.

I don’t know if I will ever see Heidi again.  Heck, Wally Mather was buried last month.  He caught it at Dak To in Vietnam, and I’ll probably go there too, so I don’t know if I will ever see any of this again.  If I come back though, I will once again love my parents, this big house, this swing and the neighborhood that I see stretching out before me.  I really do love my life, and I still remember Heidi – the Heidi who I knew in the sixth and seventh grades – with a special fondness.   I hope that she finds happiness, although by all accounts that seems to be a slim hope indeed.  I hope that life gives her a good turn.  I hope my heart will quit hurting when I think about Heidi.  I’m never walking by that stinking house again.

The Garden, Chapter V

That afternoon Charlie was very close to being happy.  The conversation with LuAnn over breakfast, the gratitude shown to him by the homeowner at the bathroom project, and his time so far at the garden with Walt and Rachael was more human contact than Charlie had been indulged in for a very long time.  More important was the fact that this contact had caused pleasure instead of the pain that he was more familiar with.

Charlie and Rachael didn’t speak much as they removed the weeds from Charlie’s plot.  Charlie had already spoken more on this day than he had in the last week, and the exercise had left his mind fatigued.  He assumed that Rachael was decompressing from her day, which could have included children in situations as bad or worse than his own, and so he left her to her own thoughts.   In what seemed like no time at all they did meet in the middle, and Charlie wasn’t ready to end this pleasant moment so quickly.

“Well” Charlie said as they both reached laughingly for the last unlucky weed that poked its head above the ground next to a cucumber bed.  “We made short work of that project.”  Charlie wanted very much to remain with Rachael, even in silence, and so he asked “Would you like some help with your plot?”

Rachael smiled but declined Charlie’s offer.  “No, I think I’m done for the day.  My boyfriend has texted that he’s going to be in town early and would like to have dinner at his place.  I’ll have to do some shopping and get cleaned up before I go over there and help cook.”

Charlie received this news with mixed feelings.  He experienced satisfaction that his guess about Rachael’s life was so nearly accurate.  Tea, a cat, a book, a boyfriend; the picture was of a normal, healthy and thoroughly likable person.  Charlie felt what LuAnn would probably have called a blessing, in that Rachael was a person dealing with the hard things of life but who remained positive and even cheerful.  Charlie needed this in his life.

On the other hand, Charlie had to admit that a romantic chord had been minutely struck by the warm femininity of Rachael.  Charlie had noted what walt had been predictably quick to point out, and with little delicacy at that; Rachael was a beautiful person.  There was no thought in Charlie’s head that any sort of liaison could ever be established with Rachael.  Rather, he felt a loss of his youth and the time when such a relationship would have been possible.

“Oh,” Charlie replied.  “He has been traveling?”

“He’s a pilot” Rachael said.  “He’s in the Air Force but he will be resigning soon.  He’ll try to get on with an airline that flies out of Portland.  It’s hard to know exactly when he’ll be around, so it goes like this a lot.  I’ll see you around here though, and I’ll take you up on your offer some other time.”

“Make sure that you do” Charlie said, and waved good bye.

Standing alone in his garden, Charlie felt his old emptiness clawing back up from the sewer into which it had been flushed by the return to the living that Charlie had experienced over the last day.  Rachael was young and had a boyfriend who, as an Air Force pilot, was obviously a guy with a good head on his shoulders and an eye to his future.  Charlie could never again be in the place where this young couple were now.

But he had been there once.  Charlie thought about the Maureen he had known when they were in high school.  Maureen was a senior and Charlie a junior when they met, and such distinctions were hugely important at that time of life.  Maureen was a very pretty girl; not a striking beauty but certainly attractive enough to catch the eye of more than a few boys at school.  She was aware of it too, as most attractive girls are.  A gaggle of goofy, awkward boys trying to show off and attract her attention was a regular part of Maureen’s daily existence.

Charlie was different however.  On the first day of school Maureen found him sitting next to  her in French class.  This was unusual, since most boys found French too effeminate to want to learn it, and if they had to take a language class it was usually Spanish or German.  Charlie explained later that he wanted to travel to France some day and had heard that French people responded more positively to tourists, and especially American ones, if they could speak some of the national language.

They talked together before class, then studied together in the library, and after Charlie’s drive to succeed in life had sufficiently impressed Maureen’s vigilant father, she was finally permitted to date Charlie.  The romance bloomed and was conducted in good order.  When Charlie asked Maureen’s father for permission to marry his daughter, he was more than happy to approve.  Charlie now thought about that tenderness that he had shared with Maureen as he watched Rachael strap her safety belt and drive away from the garden.  “I hope that he deserves her” Charlie thought, “and I hope that they’re both careful.”

Today, unlike the so-recent past, Charlie didn’t feel like giving into his demons.  He wanted companionship and he did not feel like going home to wrestle with those demons in silence and despair.  Unfortunately, his list of relational opportunities was short.  Charlie looked over at the plot where Walt was building a trellis for his green beans.  “Well” he thought.  “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  With a sigh and a deep breath Charlie walked over to Walt’s plot.

“Need any help?” he asked.

“Nope” Walt replied.  “But I wouldn’t mind if you gave me a little anyway.”

Vintage Walt” Charlie thought, and then he walked over to Walt’s plot.

“That’s a pretty little girlfriend you’ve got there” Walt said as they cut and nailed together the pieces of a trellis that would reach seven feet into the air.

“You must be seeing somebody that I’m not” replied Charlie.  “Rachael has a boyfriend already, and I suspect that he’s a lot younger and a whole lot prettier than either one of us.  She’s a good kid though, and I am glad that I can call her a friend.”  And then Charlie thought “She’s my only friend, as far as that goes.”

“Ah, that’s the way it goes” Walt answered.  “Nobody gives maturity and wisdom the respect they deserve anymore.”  Then Walt laughed and continued.  “They don’t give me any respect either.”

Charlie allowed himself a chuckle at that and busied himself tying strings first horizontally across the frame they had just built and then hanging strings vertically from the cross piece, making six inch squares of string that would allow the bean plants to climb and spread to their hearts’ content.  Walt was not accustomed to much company when he worked his garden and took full advantage of the opportunity.

“You know, Tom doesn’t like the idea of seven foot trellises at this garden.”  Tom was the chairman of the garden committee.  “He says that the shade will affect the plot to the east of mine.  That, of course, is a major crock of shit.  Stephanie – that’s who rents that plot – doesn’t care, so Tom an sit on it and swivel.”

“I know” Charlie responded.  “I’ve read the regulations.  They allow for five feet.  Is the extra two feet worth it?”

“You bet your ass it is.  That two feet will produce bags of beans and besides, I don’t like people telling me that I can’t do something just because they don’t like it.  If he asked me nicely I might – might – lop off a couple of feet, but throwing a rule book in my face isn’t going to get him anywhere with me.  He can screw himself.”

In an hour’s time the trellis was built and strung, and a big chunk of the plot was weeded too.  Charlie didn’t enjoy Walt’s company nearly as much as he did Rachael’s, but he found it vastly preferable to returning to the silence of his own apartment.  Walt, on the other hand, had accomplished all that he wished to for the day and was ready to leave the garden.

“That’s enough for me” he said, and perhaps he noticed the look of disappointment on Charlie’s face.  “Say, I’m getting together with a couple of guys tonight at the Smelly Socks.  You feel like coming along and hoisting some suds?”

“The Smelly Socks?” Charlie asked.

“Oh.  Sorry.  I mean the Key and Lock.  It’s a pub on the east side of Vancouver.  We sort of gave it our own name.  Anyway, on Thursday nights a couple of guys and I get together and have a few drinks.  You’re welcome to come if you’d like.”

“Charlie thought about that for a moment.  “We sort of gave it our own name” Walt had said.  “More likely Walt gave it that name” Charlie thought.  Charlie remembered the pub that he had sat in almost a week ago.  He had wondered on that evening if it was possible that Walt was in there, and he couldn’t avoid the memory that he had wanted Walt to be there.  Now he had a chance to make that wish a reality.

“Yeah.  I think I can do that.”  he said.  “What time?”

“We get there around six thirty.  You really going to come?”

“Maybe” Charlie said, backtracking just a little bit.  “If I don’t have anything else to do.”  Charlie laughed silently to himself as he pondered the departure from reality that his statement represented.  Charlie then gathered his tools and stashed them in the bed of his truck.  The gloves and goggles once again reminded him of the safety belt, and he imagined that Rachael was looking as he buckled himself into his seat.  “Oh great” he thought.  “Now I have a mother again.”

Charlie returned his tools to the shed and then drove to his apartment.  A crowd of people were on the lawn in front of the building which included the mother and kids whom he had seen several days earlier.  He nodded in her direction and gave a little wave.  She waved back, looking embarrassed in front of the others who noticed this exchange, and Charlie plunged into the building and down the hallway to his apartment.

Inside it was the same as always; silent and dark.  Today however it was stuffy, since Charlie had lowered the window.  He opened it again and then turned his attention to getting ready for the evening.  The refrigerator was empty, he remembered, and his entire wardrobe needed washing.  “Shoot” he thought, and looked at the clock in the kitchen.  “Five thirty.  I can eat or I can go dirty; one or the other.”

Charlie opted to go clean.  Taking a chance on the apartment laundry room being functional and available, he removed his clothes and stuffed everything he had into two trash bags and, wearing a bathrobe, went to the laundry room.  To his surprise and relief the room was empty and the machines all seemed to be working.  He stuffed his clothes into the washer and then returned to his apartment.  Charlie knew that he had forty minutes to wait for the wash cycle to complete, and then about fifteen minutes to wait for the dryer (if it wasn’t busy by then).  He would be late, no matter what, but that was OK.  He expected that the party would start without him just fine.

And it did.  Walt was at the Key and Lock early so that he could secure a table, and also in order that he could get going on his first beer.  He ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, reasoning that the price was right and that he didn’t need any froo-froo craft stuff.  “A beer’s a beer” he said, and none dared contradict his statement.  In short order four other men showed up and ordered their drinks, and the night was on.

Charlie arrived at nearly seven o’clock, hungry but cleanly dressed in clothes still warm from the dryer.  He could hear his party before he could see them.  The unmistakable voice of Walt rang out above the rock music coming out of speakers hung from the ceiling and the white noise of the crowd.

“I don’t give a damn how much of an asshole Saddam Hussein was.  He kept those other crazy bastards under control, and after thousands of good men died we’re in deeper shit over there than we ever were before!”

“Yeah” Charlie thought.  “That has to be Walt.

It was indeed Walt.  Charlie walked in the direction of the voice and soon spotted Walt and his companions.  Upon seeing Charlie, Walt pointed at him and laughed out loud.  “Well I’ll be damned.  Made a liar out of me twice in one day.  Gentlemen,” he looked at his companions and said, “this is the loser I said might be joining us tonight.  I see it and so I have to believe it.”

“I must be getting used to Walt” Charlie thought.  He took no offense at this rough greeting and actually smiled.   “Yeah Walt.  I told you today that I just do it to piss you off.”  Walt laughed at that and made introductions.  The server took Charlie’s order and returned with a cold mug of pale ale and a plate of nachos.  Walt returned to his debate.

“Ted here thinks the Iraq War was justified and I think he’s wrong as hell.  what do you think?” Walt asked Charlie.

“Uh, I don’t know” Charlie responded.  I didn’t follow it much.  I was busy 24/7 with my business and didn’t pay a lot of attention.  I’ll let you guys solve this problem.”

“Look” Ted began.  “We were locking horns with Saddam Hussein already.  He gassed the Kurds and then he shot at our planes.  Then the 9/11 attacks happened and right after that people in high places started receiving letters filled with anthrax.”

“Yeah” Walt interjected.  “So what?  That anthrax came from somebody over here.”

“But we didn’t know that”  Ted responded.  “Saddam was developing anthrax.  We knew that.  He had already used chemical weapons on the Iranians and the Kurds, so there was no reason to believe that he wouldn’t use them on us.  And every western intelligence agency said that he was working on building a nuke.  Hell, even the Russians said that.  If Bush hadn’t gone into Iraq and another attack had occurred the country would have been yelling for his scalp, and you would be too.”

“Bullshit” Walt thundered.  “Bush wanted Saddam’s hide because he tried to kill Daddy Bush.  That was just using American soldiers for his own personal revenge.”

“Maybe so” Ted allowed.  “All the same, it’s not smart to try to assassinate the father of the American Commander in Chief, wouldn’t you say?”

And so it went.  As the evening passed and more beer went down the hatch, Charlie got to know the others at the table.  Ted was thirty two years old and a veteran of the war in Iraq.  Joe was in his forties and was not a veteran.  Billy, also thirty two, was a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan and Dom, who was of indeterminate age, was a veteran who didn’t talk about where he had served or what he had done there.  Nobody asked, either.

Charlie sat quietly between Billy and Dom, mostly listening to the conversation.  He learned that Ted, Billy and Dom were members of a counseling group for post traumatic stress disorder with Charlie that was operated by the local VA hospital.  Each of them carried scars from their war experiences and had suffered from the raw experience of returning to ‘normal’ life.  They sought to unload as much of that weight in counseling as they could.  Joe availed himself of counseling in the private market for some unspecified issue which had troubled his life.  He was a friend of Ted’s and fit in well with these guys who had trouble fitting in at all.

These men said nothing that night about their counseling experience.  Walt later explained that those sessions were something almost sacred.  What was said there stayed there, and therefore anything and everything could be said there freely.  They could sit at that table for hours, putting away more and more of their favorite adult beverages, and never speak of what was said in their counseling sessions.  Everything else though was fair game.  It was Joe who opened up the next argument.

“It’s hard to win a war against people who are so sure that they have god on their side that they’ll blow themselves up to make that god happy.”

Walt groaned out loud.  “God!  Why did humanity ever curse itself with this god fantasy?  How many people have to die before we throw religion into the trash where it belongs?”

“I thought there were no atheists in foxholes” Ted said.  “Were you an atheist when you were in Vietnam?”

“I didn’t think about it much one way or the other to begin with, but after seeing Dickey Baldwin’s brains and guts splattered against a sandbagged wall I decided that no god would allow that to happen, or if there was one, he must be one miserable son of a bitch.

“But it wasn’t God who dropped a rocket on Dickey” said Dom.  “It was the Viet Cong.”

“Yeah, but any god worth believing in would have stopped the Cong from shooting that rocket” Walt said.

“LBJ could have stopped the Cong from firing that rocket by not putting our soldiers over there”  Ted chimed in.  “I would be a lot more pissed at LBJ than I would be at God.  Any God that I would believe in – and I do believe in Him – would have to be one who lets me make my own choices.  Sometimes though, I make bad choices.  Then I or somebody else has to pay for them.  LBJ made choices.  That Cong made choices.  You made choices.  Hell, Dickey made choices.  Sometimes those choices get us into trouble.  God’s trying to get us out of trouble.  Paid a pretty high price too.  But He’s not going to do it by removing our freedom to make choices.”

“Oh, so god comes down and tells you all of this bullshit over coffee in the morning I suppose” Walt said.

“As a matter of fact He does” Dom replied.  “He makes one heck of a pour-over too.  A lot better than that seal piss that you brew up when we go fishing.”

The table erupted into laughter and high fives were given.  When the laughter died down Billy picked up the conversation once again.  “I don’t really know if I believe in god or not.  I probably don’t.  I was raised Catholic but I’ve seen so much death and pain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hell, you can see it here, or in South Chicago, or any emergency room in any city.  I have trouble believing that god would allow this much pain.  At some point he should just say ‘Enough, children.  Play nicely.’  I would be fine with the pain if it was only the assholes of the world who took it in the shorts, but a lot of the time it isn’t them who suffer.  I’ve seen dead kids.  Kids with their legs blown off.  Who the hell did they piss off and why?  No, I don’t think any god that I would want to believe in would let stuff like that happen.  I’m not saying that I know.  That’s just what I think at this time.

Well, now, let’s think some more about it” Dom interjected.  “How are you going to know there’s something wrong if it doesn’t hurt?  My uncle Louie has diabetes and he can’t feel his feet.  If he gets a cut or a blister on his foot it doesn’t hurt.  If he doesn’t check his feet every day, he could have a problem that could cost him a foot or even a leg.  Pain would be a good thing for him.”

Ted picked up that thread.  “Yeah.  My wife’s aunt had some sort of female cancer, I don’t know what kind really.  Anyway, it didn’t hurt and so she didn’t know that it was there.  By the time that they found it on a routine checkup it had spread all over and killed her within six months.  That is, unless it was the drugs that they gave her that killed her.  So you’re saying that the pain that is caused by people who make bad choices, even when it falls on people who had no part in making that choice or even people who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, is allowed by God in order to remind us that we screwed things up and he’s trying to fix it but it isn’t put back together yet.”

“Yeah” Dom replied.  “That’s pretty much it.  We have a problem and we don’t have a way to fix it by ourselves, so even if I don’t personally feel the pain, and instead I see a starving child, that reminds me that something’s rotten.  Then I have the option to feed that child and make the world a little better, or shine it on and make the world a little worse.  God uses our choices in a lot of ways, and  pain in the world serves to keep me from getting too comfortable with things the way they are.”

“Well, that’s just horse shit” Walt declared.  I can see well enough that things are wrong without a bunch of psalm-singing Bible thumpers having to tell me.  I see people who don’t have good food to eat and so I grow it for them.  No god calls me up while I’m eating breakfast and tells me that I ought to do that.  I have free will and I make my own choice, and I chose to feed people.  The ones who don’t piss me off anyway.  And I don’t need no god to make me do it.

Dom, in his slow and thoughtful speech, stepped in again.  “But Walt, why do you feel that it’s wrong that people don’t have enough to eat in the first place?  If the universe is ruled by the laws of physics – and we won’t even start talking about where those laws came from – then what makes it wrong that somebody you don’t know, or somebody that you DO know for that matter, eats his fill or dies of starvation?  Is it wrong that a rock rolls down a hill and breaks in two at the bottom?  Is it wrong that a tree is shattered by lightening?  Is it wrong that a lion cub is killed by a male lion who takes over the pride from that cub’s vanquished father?  Something makes even your unbelieving old ass know that a starving child is wrong.  I believe that something is God.”

“So you’re saying that I’m obeying a god that I don’t even believe in” Walt asked.

“Yep.  That pretty much says it.” Dom replied.

“Horse shit” Walt declared again, and then he looked at Charlie.  “I haven’t heard a peep out of you tonight.  What do you think about all of this?”

Charlie gulped at suddenly being on the spot in such an intense conversation.  His mouth went dry, and he took a long pull on his mug of beer to wet his tongue.  He finally put down his mug and replied.

“I don’t know much about religion, and I don’t care about it much either.  It wasn’t big in my house when I grew up.  After my Dad left, Mom began to go to church but I didn’t have any time for it.  I always thought that it was OK for people who needed a crutch or something, but I always intended to make it on my own two feet.  And I always hated it when people would try to scare me with hell and the devil and all of that.  I thought that a guy in a red suit with a tail and a pitchfork was a pretty sorry attempt to scare me anyway.  Sitting on a cloud and playing the harp forever doesn’t sound like eternal good times either.  It all sounded pretty childish to me; like a fairy tale or something.  So I guess I just don’t know enough about it or care enough about it to give you much of an answer.  Besides, I got Socrates over here – Charlie pointed across his chest towards Billy – and Plato next to me over here – and he pointed across his chest the other way towards Dom – so why would I want to say anything at all?”

The table was silent for a moment and then Walt burst out laughing.  “A fine answer, young man!”  he declared, and Billy and Dom pounded Charlie on the back while they too laughed and then ordered another round of beers, paying for Charlie’s.  From that point the conversation turned more into a one-on-one scenario, with the men talking to their neighbors or across the table.  Charlie found Dom to be a very thoughtful and likable person, but it was Billy that he was most comfortable with and with whom he talked the most, when he talked at all.  About sports or politics or the news of the day, Charlie knew little.  He had tuned out of life some time ago and those topics were not on his radar of late.  Billy was a hunter though, and that was something that Charlie had once enjoyed.

Charlie also learned that Billy lived on a disability payment after having his right leg and foot badly injured in Afghanistan.  He could get around well enough but he was usually experiencing pain in that extremity.  Billy tried to go back to school and learn a trade, but the trauma that he had suffered in his military service made it hard to concentrate.  He planned to try again now that he was on medication and was being helped by the counseling that he and these other guys were receiving.  Charlie also learned that Billy lived in a small cottage at the back of his parents’ property, and that it was in need of repairs that neither Billy nor his parents could afford to make.

Charlie thought about Walt, hard-bitten and crusty as anyone he had ever known, and carrying his own load of whatever emotional garbage weighed him down, and yet still pouring himself into growing food so that poor people could eat.  If Walt could do that, why couldn’t Charlie do something like it?  At length he decided that he could, in fact, do just that.

“Would you like for me to take a look at your place?” Charlie asked Billy.  “I’m pretty good with that sort of thing and I would be happy to at least see what your problems are and what it would take to fix them.”  Billy was reluctant to accept what he called ‘charity’, but Charlie was persuasive, somewhat to his own surprise, and at length Billy agreed and let Charlie write his phone number on a napkin.  Charlie didn’t carry his phone with him much of the time and didn’t know that one of this group’s rules was that they leave their phones home when they come together at the Smelly Socks.  Charlie felt a closeness to Billy that surprised him, and as the evening progressed he found that simple conversation on a variety of topics became more and more easy to maintain.

It was almost 9:30 when Charlie looked up at the clock behind the bar.  He had never been one for late night activities and excused himself from the circle of men.  Charlie didn’t want to leave, and envied the others who expressed warm good-bye’s to him and then continued with their evening.

Charlie made his way to his truck and then drove the few miles to his apartment in silence.  He had never thought about his apartment much since he had moved into it.  It was simply a place to exist while he trudged through what passed for a life.  Tonight, after enjoying the closest thing to camaraderie that he had since the death of his daughter, the specter of spending the night in what amounted to a tomb for the living produced a vague sense of dread in him.

  “Come on, Charlie” he thought as he drove through the city streets, preferring that route to the freeway because it would take him longer to get home.  “You’ve got to sleep somewhere, and one place is as good as another.  Just do what you have always done; walk through the door, remove your clothes, lay down, and be still until dawn, sleeping as much as you can along the way.”

Upon arriving at his apartment Charlie remembered that he still had nothing to eat in his kitchen.  He had eaten breakfast at Leroy’s that morning, had beer and nachos at the Key and Lock, and could not justify another restaurant breakfast the next morning.  There was a new grocery store not far from his apartment; one of the organic hippty dippty places that rich people, health food nuts and Portland hipsters shopped at.  Charlie decided that he should purchase a few things to get him over until the next afternoon, and drove the five blocks to the store.

The Western State L&S wasn’t really a cooperative store, but it looked like one.  Organic this and non-GMO that was everywhere.  Tie-dyed shawls and incense in infinite variety were sold next to aisles which carried pills, powders and potions of every conceivable variety of vitamin, mineral, and whatever other substance was needed to address every possible bodily and spiritual need.  Charlie looked with awe at this array of what he thought of as fluff as he walked to the meat cooler, where he was surprised to find, between the turkey bacon and vegetarian bacon a package of bacon that really came from a pig.  From the produce section he selected potatoes, apples and oranges, and, just for a change of pace, Charlie picked up a head of broccoli.  “I guess somebody eats this stuff, and maybe I should try a little of it too” he thought.  Some cheese and deli meat rounded out Charlie’s food needs for the next day.

As Charlie began to cross the store to go through the check-out he saw, tucked into a corner, several shelves with flowers on them.  The color was what caught Charlie’s eye and he stopped in his tracks.  “Flowers” he thought.  “When was the last time that I bought flowers?”  And then he remembered that it was when they put flowers on Stevie’s casket.  “Fuck a bunch of flowers” he growled and walked towards the check-out.

But as Charlie stood in line and waited for his turn to pay, the flowers stayed in the corner of his vision.  “It wasn’t the flowers’ fault that Stevie died” he thought.  “The flowers we bought then could have just as easily been for a wedding, or an anniversary.  They’re pretty, and I like the color.  Ah, to hell with it!”  

Charlie surrendered to the growing urge to buy some flowers and take them into the sepulcher that was his apartment.  In the past any thought of flowers would only fuel his despair, as he remembered the pile of flowers that had rested on Stevie’s casket.  Tonight the flowers were not fingers that pointed back to the worst time in Charlie’s life.  Tonight they were just flowers.  Bits of color arranged to give a little pleasure to the eye and, maybe even a bit of a scent, and nothing more.  Charlie wheeled and walked back to the racks of flowers.

He picked out an inexpensive bunch that had a little white, a little pink, and a little red in it.  It didn’t come in a vase, but Charlie already knew what he was going to do about that.  He then walked back to the check-out area, paid for his purchases and drove home.  This time he parked his truck and walked straight to his apartment, stepping over a puddle of liquid on the front porch that he was pretty certain that he didn’t want to walk through.  He entered his apartment, put his bacon and broccoli in the refrigerator, cut the stems of his flowers a little bit shorter and then put the flowers in his coffee pot.

    “It’s a better flower pot than it is a coffee pot” Charlie thought.  He turned on the television, like he usually did, and turned off the lights before undressing and stretching out on the sofa.  Tonight however he had a pot of flowers on the small table at the side of the T V set.  In the darkness he couldn’t see the colors, but he knew that they were there and it made a difference.

As he lay in the dark, feeling the cool air come in through the open window, he thought about his day.  LuAnn at Leroy’s had shown him kindness and spoken to him of blessings.  The homeowner where he was working showed him gratitude, and repaid him for simply being ethical and alerting her to a design flaw.  Rachael had trusted him and shared her time and self with him, and Walt had introduced him to an evening of being normal, hanging out with other guys dealing with pain just as real and deep as was his own.

Tonight Charlie sensed a well-being that was new to him.  He was striving for nothing and hiding from nothing.  He would get a good night’s sleep and finish his job tomorrow or maybe the next day.  He would see what he could do to help Billy and he had a coffee pot full of flowers sitting on his little table, and he loved knowing that they were there.  Tonight, Charlie went to sleep a happy man for the first time in longer than he could remember.

The Garden, Chapter IV

Charlie began the next morning early and hungry.  He rarely needed an alarm, as he had always awoken early, eager to begin what the day would bring to him.  Lately, he had begun his days only because he couldn’t make the decision to end them.  Nevertheless, he still usually began them early.  Today Charlie woke up  earlier than usual; the sun only beginning to shove daylight westward before it as it began to creep towards the horizon from it’s hiding place in the east.

Charlie arose from his sofa and got dressed.  “I’ll have to replace that pair of pants” he thought as he pulled some jeans out of the laundry basket that still sat in a corner since his evening at the laundromat.  He thought about fishing his pants out of the dumpster and giving them a good washing, but quickly dismissed the thought.  The foulness resting in that trash bag and the pain which had produced it were things that Charlie would be happy to leave well behind him.

Charlie realized that he was hungry – really hungry.  It had been a while since food went into his stomach, and his stomach was letting him know of it’s displeasure with that state of affairs.  He poked around in the refrigerator and found two eggs and little else.  In a cupboard was the half-empty box of instant oatmeal packets.  On the stove, in the coffee pot, was the day-old remnants of yesterday’s coffee, which had been nasty when it was fresh and had only gone downhill from there.  Charlie made a face at the thought of anything that he had available and decided to look for something better outside the cold walls of his apartment.

As he turned to leave the kitchen and ultimately the apartment he sensed, maybe for the first time in a very long while, that his home didn’t need to be so cold.  The open window was letting cool, damp air in, as it had been doing for most of spring.  Walking over to the window, Charlie gave it a pull downward.  It didn’t budge.  “Nothing good happens without work” Charlie remembered hearing somewhere, and he gave the reluctant window a good yank.  After breaking free from its accustomed resting place the window slid downward, coming to a stop against the bottom sill.  “That’s better.  Now for some breakfast.”

Charlie had just been paid a couple of days ago but it was not a large amount of money, so he knew that he should be careful with his small pool of cash.  Leroy’s Downtown Cafe was only four blocks away from his apartment and was affordable, so Charlie fired up the engine of his truck and prepared to drive there.  Then, thinking about the nearness of the cafe and the earliness of the hour, he decided that he would walk instead.  He turned the engine off, returned to his apartment to get a jacket, and then began to walk the short distance that separated him from his morning meal.

Leroy’s was a tiny cafe on Main Street that had been slinging hash since the shipyard workers built the liberty ships that helped win World War II, and maybe longer.  The entire cafe was only a few feet wider than Charlie’s garden plot, with a row of tables running along the wall to his left and the counter along the right.  The place was already busy.  Most of the tables hosted men going to work at the port or the railroad yard.  At one table sat an elderly couple who might have been eating here since those liberty ships rolled down the ways, and in the back sat a youngish-looking man who appeared to be homeless at a table near the swinging door which led to the kitchen.  He had a steaming cup of coffee and a plate of eggs and bacon and hash brown potatoes in front of him, and Charlie wondered if some act of kindness had produced breakfast for this throw-away bit of humanity.

Charlie’s mind wandered to the homeless man who had spoken to him the evening before.  “It’s just that life is precious.  Warn’t yours to throw away” he had said, and “Death be a part of the drill – – – you aren’t the first boy, black or white, what life’s put a big-ass whuppin’ alongside yo big melon haid.”  Charlie knew that he had heard some wisdom there, and wished that he could buy that derelict sage a breakfast.

Two stools were open at the counter and he sat on the one closest to the door.  A plastic-covered menu was tucked behind the napkin holder at the back of the counter.  Charlie plucked it out and scanned the breakfast offerings, which were pretty standard.  The waitress, a middle age woman on the thin side, with chapped, red hands, lines produced by age, care and hard work beginning to crease her face, and a gravely voice that spoke of too many cigarettes, came to take his order.

“What’ll it be junior?” she asked.  Charlie wondered about the “junior” thing.  She was probably close to his age.

“I’ll have sausage and eggs and potatoes.”

“How d’you want the eggs?” she asked.

“Just keep ‘em off the floor” Charlie thought.  “Over hard” he then answered.  Best to cook the snot out of those things and kill anything growing in them.

The waitress didn’t ask what kind of toast he wanted, and Charlie suspected that it came only in white, white and white.  He was right.  In little more than ten minutes a steaming plate of food appeared on the shelf of the window that separated the dining area from the kitchen.  The waitress, exchanging banter with the regular customers, poured a refill into the mug of the homeless man in the back and then brought the plate down to where Charlie sat.

He was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, and wolfed it down with gusto.  The coffee kept coming and Charlie was grateful for the improvement that it represented over the hog swill that he routinely boiled up in his own kitchen.

“I haven’t seen you in here before, honey.”  The waitress was standing in front of Charlie and talking to him.  Several of the other customers had hurried off to begin their morning shift and the cafe had emptied considerably.  “You new in the neighborhood?”

Charlie had grown rusty at the art of making small talk, and wasn’t prepared for this.  He stumbled over his words for a moment and finally answered “No, I’ve lived a few blocks away for a couple of years.  I usually eat at home.”

The waitress eyed Charlie’s thin frame; the way his shirt hung on his shoulders.  “Looks like you could do with a little more eating out then” she said, and then laughed her hoarse smoker’s laugh, followed by a short, barking cough.  “How about I throw in a donut for you?  On the house.”

Charlie’s immediate reaction was annoyance.  He could take care of himself, thank you.  But the kindness in that damaged voice and the gentle friendliness that radiated from her own thin body and face tempered that thought.

“Sure” he replied.  “As long as you let me buy one for you.  You could use a few pounds yourself.”

The waitress’ jaw dropped a fraction of an inch and then she laughed with a warmth that could still shine through the years of insult that the cigarettes had imposed on her larynx.

“What’s your name, honey?” she asked as she brought Charlie his donut and her own on a separate plate.

“Charlie” he replied.  “And yours?”

“LuAnn.  You’ll have to excuse our informality around here.  If you like eating on a production line you’ll have to go somewhere else.  We’re sort of like a family here.  Maybe not exactly a “Leave It To Beaver” family, but we get on as best we can.”

Charlie was quiet for a moment.  This random interaction with another human was pushing his comfort zone.  LuAnn was open and friendly though, and did not seem to be poised to pry or judge, and so Charlie relaxed his guard ever so slightly.

“I don’t have much of a family, Leave It To Beaver or otherwise.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that” LuAnn said.  “I hope there’s nothing too bad behind it.  Life can be a trial sometimes.  But it can be a blessing too.  That’s how I look at it anyway.”

“I haven’t seen a lot of the blessing part lately” Charlie said.  “How has it been a blessing to you?”  It’s none of my business and all, and don’t answer if you think I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong.  I just don’t know if I could pick out a blessing if I saw one in a crowd.”

LuAnn looked like she grasped at last that she was sitting with a lonely, troubled man.  “Wait a minute” she said, and then went to grab a high stool.  She placed the stool across the counter from Charlie, poured herself a cup of coffee, and then sat down.  ‘It’s good to take a load off of my feet” she said.  “Them poor old dogs down there are barking.”   LuAnn laughed at her own metaphor and Charlie had to grin as well.

“Well, let me see where I should start.  My old man Duane is home right now.  He’s pretty well crippled up from having a big roll of paper get away from a forklift and almost crush his leg.  You’d think that paper would be light, huh?  Not a big, tightly wound roll of it, I’ll tell you.  The doctors saved his leg, but it doesn’t work so well anymore.  We had good coverage through the Union and the company didn’t want a big lawsuit, so our basic needs are pretty well taken are of.  I could be a widow, or he could be completely laid up, but we’re neither of those things.  That’s a blessing.

“And over there.” LuAnn nodded in the direction of the homeless-looking man in the back.  “I won’t mention names or relationships because a person’s entitled to their privacy, but he served in the Army in Iraq.  From the outside he looks like he came back in one piece, but something got left over there.  I got no idea what he seen over there, but he just somehow couldn’t fit the pieces back together when he got home.  He’ll go in the back in a while and do a little work; scrub up some pots or mop the floor and such.  Ain’t like he’s an employee though.  We don’t know if he’ll be here tomorrow.  But all the same, he got home, or most of him did anyway, and there isn’t a mean bone in his body.  If you ask him for that old coat he’s wearing, he’ll take it off and give it to you.  And the folks at the V.A. have a counseling program that he goes to sometimes.  We hope that it helps, and we just keep thinking of him as sort of family too.”  He’s a blessing to us, in his own way.

LuAnn stopped speaking for a moment and her gaze rested on the disheveled figure at the back table.  “What is he, or rather who is he?” Charlie wondered.  “LuAnn’s son, or the son of Leroy?  Maybe he’s just one of the many throwaway people who could be seen sleeping in a doorway or bumming a cup of coffee at a downtown church on Sundays.  Well, he’s somebody’s son, and he’s lucky to have this ‘family.’”

The door behind Charlie opened and closed and three men in dirty work clothes came in and took their seats around a table.

“Shift change” LuAnn said.  “Gotta go to work.”  Then she added  “You know what?  You are a blessing to me today.  I missed out on my cigarette break but I got a free donut and a chance to sit down out of it.”

“Those cigarettes will kill you, you know” Charlie told her.

“Yeah?  Well, something will kill me sooner or later.  Might as well be them as anything else.  Been nice talking with you.  You come on back, you hear?”

LuAnn went around the counter with the glass coffee pot in hand and advanced to the table which hosted her new customers.  “‘Morning boys” she said as she began to fill their mugs with coffee.  “What’ll it be today?”

Charlie finished his donut and drained his mug of coffee.  He laid a generous tip under the lip of the plate and waved at LuAnn as he walked over to and out through the door.  Outside the cafe the sidewalks were bustling with people going to work or home after a long shift at night.  Charlie walked to his truck, climbed in and started the engine.  He drove to the shed and secured the tools that he would need that day, and as he dug for the keyhole saw that he would need for making cuts in the drywall that he would be applying he saw his gloves in the bottom of a box.

The gloves made Charlie think of the rock that he had promised to break up, and that in turn reminded hm of the safety goggles that rested in a drawer back in his apartment.  He stowed as many of his tools in the cab of the truck as would fit and then returned for the goggles.  Leaving tools in the bed of his truck, even for only as long as it would take to enter his apartment and return, invited theft.  Having secured the goggles Charlie returned to the truck, and this time he looked down on the seat and saw the safety belt.  “This is getting to be a habit” he chuckled to himself, and snapped the two ends of the belt together.

Charlie went about his work that day with the same efficiency that he always did, but today he did so with a little more energy, and enjoyed a little more satisfaction with what he had accomplished.  He pointed out to the homeowner a design flaw that would have the shower door hitting the toilet if it was opened all the way, and offered to either move the toilet or order a different design of shower door, as she chose.  He told her that he would do these changes at no additional cost, although it would take an extra day or two to make whatever adjustments that she desired.

The grateful homeowner thanked Charlie profusely for pointing out what would have been a very messy problem after the job was finished, and she showed her appreciation by paying Charlie half of what remained to be paid to him for the job.  By the end of the day, the bathroom was ready for tile and the installation of the toilet, sink and cabinet.  Charlie would return the shower door that the homeowner had picked out and replace it with the one that would actually work in her bathroom.

Charlie gathered his tools and loaded them into the truck, and and after returning the shower door and ordering the new one he headed straightway towards the garden.  To his relief, nobody was there.  Charlie exited the truck with his goggles and gloves, grabbed his sledge hammer from the cab of the truck, and went through the gate and into the garden.  He went first to his garden and saw with satisfaction that all of his plants had survived the several days that it had been since he had last been there.  Finally, he walked over to where the boulder still lay.

“I should just roll this beast to the fence” he thought, but quickly gave up that plan.  It was just to damned big.  Besides, he had promised that he would break the rock into pieces, and that was exactly what he was going to do.  Putting on the goggles and gloves, Charlie picked up the hammer and gave it a good swing.  The ten pound steel head of the hammer came down and a couple of rock chips few off into the air.  Otherwise, the rock looked untouched.

“Hrummph,” Charlie grunted.  “Gonna be a tough bastard, aren’t you!” Charlie swung again, and again chips flew, one right past his ear.  The rock remained otherwise unaffected.  Charlie felt some competitive juices begin to flow.  “Oh, so that’s how it is eh?”  he addressed the rock.  “It’s just you and me now!”

Charlie swung away again and again, banging into the rock and gouging chips and eventually larger pieces from the stubborn stone. He was so focused on his mission that he didn’t hear the tires of a van pull up onto the gravel just outside the gate.  Charlie was completely unaware of the arrival of Walt until he caught movement in the corner of his eye.  He looked up just as Walt was approaching him.

“Well, I’ll be damned.  I’ll be washed, ironed and starched.  I didn’t believe that you would would really do it”  Walt said as he walked up the path carrying a bucket full of tools.  “Welcome back, Pilgrim” he said with a John Wayne accent.

Charlie almost bristled at this vote of non-confidence, , but he couldn’t ignore the reality that, now that Walt was there, he was actually a little bit glad to see him.  And it HAD been several days since he had made his offer, and only last night he had come close to fulfilling Walt’s prophecy completely.

“Yeah”  Charlie responded.  “I did it just to piss you off.  And really; ‘washed, ironed and starched?’”

“I read that in a book somewhere.  Can’t remember where.  Anyway, like I said, welcome back.  Rachael will be glad to see you.  She kept saying that you would come back and I kept saying that she’s crazy.  I still think she’s crazy, even if she was right this time.”  Walt laughed at that and walked over to his plot, where he fell to working on something and ignored Charlie for the time being.

Charlie didn’t pay much attention to Walt either.  Instead, he went back to attacking the rock with renewed vigor.  The pressure from Charlie’s assault was beginning to take its toll on the rock, and shortly after Walt left him Charlie gave it a good whack and a large chunk fell away from the body of the stone.

“Hah!” Charlie roared out.  “Hah! Hah! Hah!  Take that you big, hard, S.O.B.”  He jumped around the rock, waving his sledge like a lance in a war dance.  Walt looked over at him and then came over to have a look.

“Well done, young man.  That’s whittling it down to size.  You want me to take a crack at it and give you a break?”

To be honest, Charlie didn’t want a rest, but the look on Walt’s face was somewhat like that of a little boy who wanted to play too.

“Sure.  Help yourself.  That big bugger is wearing me out” Charlie lied.

Walt began to wail away at the rock, with less force than Charlie could muster and with less effect, but nevertheless with more energy that Charlie would have expected from such an old guy.  In fact, Charlie began to be glad for the break.  He pulled up a chair from under the canopy and sat while Walt swung away at the rock.  Walt managed to separate several large flakes from the rock before he turned the project back over to Charlie.  Walt took up Charlie’s place in the chair and began to talk while Charlie kept at the rock.

“I was going to water for you until you came back,  If you came back, that is.  You’ve got a good start to a respectable garden there.  I’d hate to let it go to waste.  You tell me if you get tired of taking care of it.  It won’t be much trouble to add it to my own.”

Charlie wanted to say something nasty in response, but bit his tongue and simply kept pounding at the rock.

“You’ll produce a lot of groceries in that dirt; more than you can eat.  I’ll know what to do with them if you’re just going to let it go to pot.  I grow most of this stuff for the food bank.  They get all sorts of canned stuff and boxed stuff, but nobody else is bringing stuff like this.”  Walt swept his hand across the garden.  The idea of Walt giving food to people who needed it surprised Charlie, but he kept up his hammering.

“A lot of people don’t want fresh vegetables” Walt continued.  Charlie could sense that Walt didn’t always need two people to have a conversation.  “But some people do.  Some were raised eating good food and simply can’t afford it.  A box of junk can be cheaper than a bag of carrots.  I tell ya.  When I take a box load of produce into the food bank it’s gone by the next day.  All of it.”

Charlie finally put down the hammer for a minute and addressed Walt’s revelation.  “I’m surprised that you are so involved in other people’s problems Walt.  I thought you just took care of yourself and let everyone else take a flying f—-.”  Charlie pronounced the ‘F’ in his final word but didn’t complete the profanity.

“Yeah.  Pretty much I don’t give a flying fuck what somebody thinks about me.  Or what ANYBODY thinks about me, for that matter.  What you see is what you get.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t give one if I want to though.  Shit, I came over and helped your sorry ass in the garden, didn’t I?”

Charlie grinned at that.  “Yes, I suppose you did.  And thanks again for that, by the way.”

“Don’t mention it.  I feed stray dogs too.  No, man,” Walt continued, “I grew up in Seattle and we had plenty to eat, but my father always made us finish all of our dinner or there’d be the devil to pay.  ‘I’ve seen people starving in China, eating the garbage that we’d throw away’ he was always saying.  And he did see it, too.  He was in World War II and served in the Pacific.  He was a Squid; a Swabbie.  That’s why I joined the Army.  It was my little rebellion.  Pop had been in the Navy, so I would go into the Army.  I can’t remember all of the times that I crouched in some stinking fucking shithole while the Cong threw all of the shit in Ho Chi Minh’s arsenal at me, and thought about Pop floating through his war with three hot meals a day and a clean bunk to sleep on.”  Walt chuckled at the thought.

“Anyway, while I was there I saw what Pop had talked about.  One day I was eating a hard boiled egg.  Now I only liked the yolk, and so I peeled the egg and then pulled off the white part and dropped it on the ground.  A Vietnamese woman saw that and picked the egg white up.  She looked my right in the eye and asked if she could have it.  I said yes, of course.  She brushed off some of the sand and dirt and ate it right down.  I swear that the look in her eyes said ‘You miserable, spoiled bastard.’  I felt like a turd in the punchbowl.  I bought all of the hard boiled eggs that vendor had and gave ‘em to her, and she thanked me for them like I had given her the ability to shit gold.  I’ll never forget that look in her eyes though.

And you know what?  She was right.  We piss away more stuff in one year than most of the people in the world will see in their entire lifetimes, and that bothers me a lot.  I’m not a rich man now, but I do all right and still do better than most people in the world.  I get a partial disability from the fed because of the wounds I got in The ‘Nam, a pension from twenty five years as a janitor with the school district, and some Social Security.  The eagle shits on me a little, but it’s enough for me to get by OK.”

“The eagle shits on you?”  Charlie queried.

“Yeah.  That’s what we called payday from the Gubmint when I was in the Army.  I guess it just stuck with me.  A lot did.  I’m still trying to get rid of some of it.  Anyway, I’m good at growing food, and that’s one thing that I can do to help.”

Charlie returned to pounding on the rock as Walt continued talking about the garden, politics, the price of rice in China, and whatever came to his mind.  After a few minutes Charlie brought the hammer down and the rock split nearly in half.  Walt bounded out of the chair and gave Charlie a high five.  Charlie was breathing heavy from his exertions and said nothing.  After looking at the broken rock for a minute he looked up at Walt and said “They let you work around kids?”

Walt didn’t miss a beat.  “Yeah.  Hard to figure, huh?  I cant stand the little shits, so I did as much of my work as I could when they were in class.  Early on, one smart-mouthed prick almost got my mop handle shoved up his ass and broke off, and I did my best to avoid ‘em after that.”

Charlie constructed a mental image of that exchange and laughed out loud at it.  Walt chuckled too, satisfied that he had gotten a rise out of old sourpuss Charlie.

“You going to do any more on that rock?” Walt asked, and Charlie nodded in the affirmative.

“This bigger piece should be split again, and then I’ll call it good.”

A few more swings of the sledge produced the split that Charlie desired.  He and Walt carried the now-manageable rock pieces to a pile next to the fence and congratulated each other.  Charlie then returned to his plot and began to pull up weeds that had sprouted since he’d last been there.  He was fully engaged in that task and hadn’t noticed that Rachael had arrived at the garden.

“Thank you for taking care of that rock for me” she said, and Charlie jumped a little, startled out of his thoughts by her voice.

Charlie stood and replied “Oh, it was nothing.  I enjoyed taking out my aggression on it.  And Walt helped too.”  Rachael looked in Walt’s direction with doubt showing all over her face.  “I suppose you didn’t think that I would return either.”

“No, not at all.  Walt suggested that, and I disagreed completely.  I was quite certain that you would do what you said that you would.

Charlie felt a little glow in his soul at hearing those words.  With Walt he had shared victory over the stubborn rock.  Much male grunting and sweating and many physical blows had gone into conquering that foe.  From Rachael he now heard affirmation; he had said that he would do something and she had believed him.  She took him at his word, and he had rewarded her trust. This was something that he had not felt in a while.  In fact, he couldn’t remember when he had really felt it before.  Certainly, he had followed through on promises before, but it had never had the impact upon his mind then like it did now.  Perhaps Charlie needed to have a reevaluation of much of the life that he had once taken for granted before he would be able to clearly experience the feeling of a promise made and a promise kept.

Charlie’s thoughts had led to a pause in the conversation, and he clumsily tried to reignite it.  “So, are you get getting here from work?”

“Yes.  It’s been a long day.  I’m looking forward to getting my fingers into the dirt.”

“You probably can’t talk about your work, can you?”  Charlie asked.

“No” she replied, “I can’t.  And to be honest with you I don’t want to.  It isn’t all gloom and doom, and there are times when I really get to celebrate kids getting victory over some really awful things.  But even then, they couldn’t be getting victory over something unless they were down in an awful mess.  I’m not complaining; this is my choice to pursue this profession, but it can be a pretty heavy weight sometimes, so I’m glad to put it down and do something fun, like play in good clean dirt.”

“Yeah, I guess I know a little about carrying a weight” Charlie said.  He thought about telling Rachael about the bridge the night before, and how her voice and face, and that rock, pulled him back from the edge. Then his demons began to clutch at him one more time, and he struggled to shrug them off.  “I’m glad that I have this to come to also.  Changing the subject, do you have a cat?”

Rachael was startled by that but then laughed.  “Why, yes.  I do have a cat.  Why do you ask?”

“No particular reason” Charlie answered.  “Well, actually, I was imagining you and Walt relaxing.  Relaxing is not something that I do well.  I could just see Walt sitting at a bar alone, or with some crusty friends like himself, lifting a beer, and I saw you with a cat in your lap and cup of tea, reading a book.  I was just letting my mind wander.”

Charlie thought of himself with a book and a cat and a cup of tea.  The idea made him chuckle, but the chuckle died and early death.  His mind turned to the cold, cheerless apartment in which he existed but didn’t live.  The demons of his shattered life crawled back from behind the screen where they had been pushed by the rock and his promise to break it up.  They were not shouting of his hopelessness in the same manner as they had been the night before as he leaned over the railing of the bridge.  Instead there was the unmistakable hiss of the lying serpent of pain that they had hung around Charlie’s neck like a lead weight; a hiss that said “Relax?  Hope?  Peace?  Normal?  Who are you kidding?  Who the hell do you think you are to deserve those things?”

Rachael saw the smile vanish from Charlie’s face and her instincts, bred of her hours counseling children in traumatic situations, kicked in without having been consciously summoned.

“Charlie, I don’t know what you’re feeling now.  I can’t know it.  I can’t get into your head, or be you.  What I can see though is that you have a good and kind heart, and something doesn’t want you to know that.  I’m not trying to be your shrink here, and I don’t mean to pry.  You’re struggling with a lot of stuff but you don’t have to let the stuff win.  You don’t need to relax like I do or like Walt or anyone else does. You should just cut yourself a little slack and find something to do like to do and do it for no other reason.  You can’t turn your mind off, but you can turn it to something good.”

Charlie’s eyes were becoming moist and he thought “Oh, shit.  Not again!”  Then he said “That’s not easy to do.  It’s like anything that I try to do that’s healthy causes the memory of my – situation – to just rise up lie a wave and drown me.  I feel even worse than before.  It’s sort of like trying to move forward only confirms my failure.”

“Well, that’s a big, fat lie, Charlie” Rachael said softly but emphatically.  Charlie flushed as she said it.  “Not that you feel that way.  It would be more surprising if you didn’t.  It’s the thought itself that’s a lie.  Either you’re lying to yourself or someone else is, but its a lie all the same.  You’re not as guilty as you think you should be and you deserve a rest from all of that baggage you’ve been carrying.

Oh, shoot.  Look at me.  It’s like I’m still at work!  I’m sorry Charlie.  Like I said, I don’t mean to pry and I’m not your counselor, although I think one would do you a lot of good.  You’re a nice person, whether you can accept that or not, and you don’t deserve the beating that you been giving yourself.

That’s it.  Session’s over.  Thank you for taking care of that rock for me.  I’d like to return the favor and help you with these weeds.”  Rachael looked around Charlie’s plot at the fresh crop of weeds that had popped up in the several days since he had last been to the garden.  “You’re bringing down our property value” she said with a smile.

Charlie was tempted to decline Rachael’s offer, but something in the simple kindness of her bearing and the truth that inhabited her words drove his demons back behind their screen, where they could lurk and plot their revenge for this, their setback.  “I would be grateful for the help” Charlie said.  Rachael reached out and touched Charlie’s elbow with the very lightest brush of her fingertips and smiled, saying “I’ll start in that corner.”

The human warmth of that touch reminded Charlie dimly of something he might have felt long ago.  Was it when his mother had lifted him up after a fall, brushed the dirt off of him and kissed a reddening knee?  Or was it the memory of Maureen, when she tried to comfort him with a touch as he stood back many feet away from the hole in the lawn of the cemetery where his daughter was being lowered to rest?  He had not been able to walk up to the grave, to look within and see the casket; the dirt being replaced over it.  Maureen had touched him, and he felt the tenderness of it, but it had been like cool drink of water intended for a thirsty man which had instead been thrown onto a grease fire.

Charlie had not reacted well then, and the memory of that was one of the demons that even now sought to worm its way back into the open and take another pound of flesh our or Charlie’s heart.

Charlie shook that thought off.  Rachael’s touch was only of kindness; one human in a good place comforting one human who was not.  Charlie chose to accept the comfort.  Smiling, he turned to the opposite corner and said over his shoulder in Rachael’s direction “I’ll meet you in the middle.”

The Garden, Chapter III

The next morning dawned cold and gray in Vancouver Washington. Inside Apartment C it was cold and gray as well. Charlie emerged from the condition that he called sleep with a headache and no will to move off of the sofa. Neither did he want to go back to sleep. His dreams had been haunted by visions of Stevie riding horseback and playing soccer, Jack at the piano recital and Maureen coming home from work and wrinkling her nose in mock disgust at the perfectly delicious lasagna that he was pulling out of the oven. As is the nature of all dreams there was little cohesion, just a series of disconnected snippets of a life that Charlie could now hardly believe he had once lived.

At last the images of his dreams faded to obscurity and Charlie arose, dressed and got busy filling his mind with something other than painful dreams. He had been tormented by his dreams off and on after Stevie died and as his life melted down, but they had been stilled of late by the numb pseudo-existence into which Charlie had settled. Work, eat, stare at the television, sleep, work again. Not much room in that routine for dreams. This morning, in the aftermath of the unexpected dreams from a happier time, Charlie wished for a return to his numbness. Even his occasional bad dreams failed to cause him the pain that these unwelcome good ones did.

The only food Charlie had in the apartment to was some instant oatmeal and a couple of sausage patties that he had cooked several days ago. He gnawed on the cold patties, unconcerned by their tastelessness and the cold, gray grease that was congealed on the bottom of the unappealing discs. While the water boiled for his oatmeal. A cheap aluminum coffee pot was bubbling on the stove, turning the cheapest coffee he could fine into the bitter brew that Charlie would drink. It was not unlike the bitter life that he now lived. Charlie’s kitchen was a good deal cleaner this morning than it had been for a long time, but it felt to Charlie more like a rebuke than a victory.

“What business do I have with hope?” he asked himself. “All that brings is memories, and memories haven’t been my good friends lately.”

But what was the alternative to hope? The bridge? Charlie shuddered as he thought again of the bridge and how close he had come to taking a final step off of it the night before. Even now he thought of it as possibly the best of a very limited number of realistic options for whatever remained of his life.

The spartan breakfast completed, Charlie placed his bowl and cup in the sink and turned out the light. The remains of the coffee would sit in the pot until evening, when he would reheat it and drink it to the last bitter dregs.

Charlie still owned a few of his once vast set of tools; things necessary to do the small jobs that earned the little that he needed. He kept these in a storage shed near his apartment that he rented by the month. It was to this shed that he drove and extracted the tools that he would need to cut a fiberglass bathtub out from where it rested against a wall. He would also remove the toilet, sink and cabinets, and prepare the room to be put back together. Charlie had once loved doing remodel work. Now it was just a payday.

None of the tools that he needed included the ten pound sledge hammer that rested next to the wall. Charlie remembered the rock that at this moment was resting on the path next to Rachael’s garden plot however, and his promise to break it into manageable pieces. He didn’t feel much interest in that rock right now; in fact, he didn’t give a shit about the garden at all. He regretted that he had ever begun the garden or promised to break up the rock. Still, he had said that he would, so he grabbed the sledge and placed it in the bed of his truck. “Perhaps I’ll need it for something else today” he justified as he rolled away towards the job and the diversion from painful thoughts that he hoped it would provide.

Today however Charlie was only partially successful. Demolition requires less concentration than does construction and Charlie’s mind perversely refused to be quiet. “I’ll be back tomorrow and break up this rock” Charlie had promised. Then Charlie remembered another promise: “I, Maureen Prentiss, take you Charlie Hamer, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—-“ Maureen had made a promise too. And then that other promise: “Don’t worry Dad. I’m good at this. I’ll be home by dinner.” Yeah, Charlie knew a lot about promises.

Charlie had sawn through the tub and was now trying to remove it in small pieces, one of which stubbornly refused to come out without a struggle. “It must be one of those screw-type nails” Charlie thought, “or somebody put some glue on it before they drove it in.” He picked up his crowbar and placed the curved end as nearly under the offending nail as possible and gave it a full-bodied jerk downward. The nail came out, and the crowbar came down hard with Charlie’s fingers between it and the floor.

“Shit! Damn it! Son of a Bitch!” Charlie howled as the pain crescendoed and a little blood began to seep out of his damaged knuckles. The homeowner was away and Charlie was glad that she had not heard his outburst. He thought of Walt and how he wouldn’t have cared whether she was there or not. “Maybe Walt’s onto something” Charlie muttered softly.

Charlie then went to his truck to retrieve his first aid kit. The bleeding from the abrasions on his knuckles was not bad, but he didn’t want to get blood on the walls or on his clothes, and infection would not help anything either. He poured a little alcohol on the knuckles, making not a sound as the sting set in immediately, and then placed bandages over his wounds. The design on the bandages was “Hello Kitty.” Charlie couldn’t remember where he had gotten those and he

wasn’t inclined to plumb his memory too deeply in order to solve the mystery. He wasn’t sure that he would like the answer.

“You should wear goggles or something” Rachael had told him and now he remembered that warning, and how he had buckled his seatbelt as a result. Today he had driven to work with belt unbuckled as usual, and worked without gloves, and now he had paid for that laxity. “Know-it-all!” he hurled at her memory, but Rachael’s simple human concern for him had moved him once before to take the prudent step of buckling his belt. The memory of that compassion softened Charlie’s thoughts again toward this odd girl who was into religion and growing food and comforting old stray dogs like himself. He looked in the cab of his truck for the gloves that could have avoided the blood, if not the pain, but they were not to be found. They were probably somewhere in the storage shed. “I’d better get those before I screw with that rock” Charlie thought, although later he would forget that resolution.

The day ended with the bathroom cleared of all old fixtures, cleaned up top to bottom and a low step built from wall to wall where a tiled walk-in shower was to replace the cheap, stained tub. The homeowner gave Charlie an advance to cover the next day’s purchase of construction materials and part of his pay. Charlie liked it that way; clean and easy with no loose ends, as he saw it.

Charlie wanted to go home now; not because he enjoyed himself there or even because he was hungry. It was just what he did. He didn’t want to think about much, and he didn’t have to think about much of anything there. He would have to cook something that he would pick up at the store on the way home, but that didn’t require much thought. Maybe fry some hamburgers, boil some potatoes and heat some frozen corn; that sort of thing. Charlie couldn’t remember the last time that he had eaten anything green.

But he had promised to break that damned rock. Charlie put his tools into the back of his truck and climbed into the cab. He started the engine and reluctantly pointed the truck in the direction of the garden. The traffic wasn’t bad and before very much time had passed he came to a stop in a church parking lot across the street from the garden. Walt was there (“Doesn’t that old bastard have a home?”) but not Rachael.

The rock was there too. Big as a house, it looked. Yesterday’s mud had dried, and the formerly wet, brown soil was now a gray covering over two thirds of the thing. Charlie didn’t feel like listening to Walt today, and didn’t want to be seen by Rachael without gloves and goggles. In fact, the more he thought about it as he sat in the cab of his truck, the more he realized that he didn’t want to see Rachael at all.

Charlie was surprised at that and pondered it for a while. She was a nice kid and all, but what did she have in common with him? Young, optimistic, probably had a good boyfriend who wanted to be her partner for life, or would have one soon enough. It was not like he had any sort of romantic notions towards Rachael. Charlie wouldn’t have believed that such a capacity remained inside of him, if he chose to think about it at all. It was just that Rachael represented many of the good things that Charlie could no longer claim to have access to. Rachael represented a fullness of life that highlighted the emptiness of life that was Charlie Hamer. The very idea of Rachael caused Charlie pain in the same manner that his good dreams had caused him pain the night before.

Even watching old Walt caused Charlie’s emptiness to grow. He was not an attractive fellow but he had cut his own deal with life. He cursed and leered at Rachael and didn’t show as much as one soft edge, but he seemed content to proceed with life as it came to him. It didn’t seem to Charlie that Walt cared a lot about life, but he didn’t hate it either. Charlie decided that he was not ready to

deal with Walt or the rock or Rachael. They all stirred up thoughts and feelings that he was trying to avoid. He started up the engine and drove to the shed, then to a store for that night’s meal, and finally home. His safety belt lay unbuckled on the seat beside him.

Arriving home, Charlie exited his truck and walked up to the front door of his apartment. The mother who had been sitting on the porch yesterday was nowhere to be seen, but Charlie probably wouldn’t have seen her even if she had been seated at her previous post. He entered his apartment and set to preparing something to eat. It was the predicted fried hamburger patties, but only with a can of blackeyed peas to go along with them. He cooked the burgers and then began to eat the unseasoned meat out of the skillet. He ate half of the peas and then left the mess where it lay.

Charlie plopped in front of the television again with the volume turned low and stared at the moving images, trying to get his mind to quiet down. He tried to resume the numb equilibrium that he had achieved over the past year. It hadn’t been much, but it had helped him to keep his sanity. The effort was in vain.

No arguments came through the open window tonight; only cool air as the clouds which had parted late in the morning came back to reclaim mastery over the Vancouver skies. Afternoon bled into evening and Charlie fetched his blanket to keep out the chill, dank air. Closing the window did not occur to him.
Wrapped up in his blanket sleep overcame him, and Charlie slept with his head lolling against the side wing of his chair. The images on the television screen flickered all night, making little sound and entertaining nobody.

In the morning Charlie was stiff and utterly unready for the day. The television was still on and Charlie turned it off. Now the apartment was still and silent, without color or motion or anything like life. Charlie saw that it was nearly nine o’clock and was surprised that he had slept so late. Hell, he was surprised that

he had slept at all. There had been no repeat of his dreams. No visitations from his lost family had come to him in the night. For this he was both pleased and at the same time saddened even further. He picked up his phone and called the homeowner where he was working and said that he was not feeling well. He wouldn’t be coming in today, and hoped that he could make it tomorrow.

“I hope that I can make it tomorrow” Charlie had said. “I hope I can make it UNTIL tomorrow is more like it” is what he thought. Charlie sat in his chair nursing those and similar thoughts for much of the rest of the day. Hunger grew, but he had no energy to make something to eat. He found no joy in eating, and it just took more energy to fix something and eat it than it was worth, so he sat in his chair and did nothing, trying to make his mind stop its brooding on things lost.

His appetite Charlie could ignore, but not his bladder or bowels. By five in the afternoon charlie had to take a dump. “Maybe I’ll just sit here and shit my pants” Charlie thought. “Nobody is here to tell me I can’t.” The image of Walt came to mind; vulgar, uninhibited, not caring what anybody thought of him. Walt would shit his pants if he felt like it. “I can too. Or maybe this is when I go off the bridge. How about that? With this brick in my ass I’ll probably sink like a stone.”

The bridge once again captured Charlie’s mind, and he forgot about his bowels and what lurked within them. He simply could not go on this way any more. Anything that looked like hope, or peace, or comfort, was just a fading memory or a mirage. It was similar to people who had lost the use of their legs. Memories of dancing, climbing a tree, or running along a beach were sources of torment rather than comfort. Rachael could go home, make a cup of tea and read a book. Maybe her Bible. Walt could sit in a bar, hoist a mug of beer and leer at the young women. Charlie didn’t really know if either of them did those things but he imagined that they could, and he imagined – no, he knew – that he had nothing like that sort of freedom in his life.

Pain was his lot. Pain was his now. Pain was his tomorrow. Numbness was only an illusion. Pain had lain incubating under the cover of a false numbness and now this illusion had been torn off to expose the raw, suppurating wound that was Charlie’s life. It was stupid, thinking that he could ignore this hungry and devastating truth; like putting one of his “Hello Kitty” bandage strips over a leper’s sore. No matter what he did, the pain lived. It was all that Charlie could ever hope to feel, and there was only one way to put an end to it.

Charlie pushed himself up out of his chair and almost leapt for the door. Now that he had realized there was no other answer he longed to get to the highest point on the bridge, near the middle of the wide Columbia River and get it over with. The north end of the bridge was only three or four blocks from his apartment, and he made his way through the last gloom of the evening in only a couple of minutes. A light drizzle had begun and it was cold, even though this was a spring day. Once Charlie stepped onto the bridge the southbound traffic was only a few feet from his left ear, and the noise should have been almost deafening, but Charlie didn’t really hear it. He walked on with urgency, eager to get to the place that he had imagined hundreds of times before. Thousands of times maybe.

Charlie almost ran the last fifty yards that separated him from that gateway to peace through which he had made up his mind to cast himself, and at last he arrived. Night was almost fully upon him, and the river was a silver ribbon flowing beneath his feet and off into the west. Directly below him the water was shadowed by the gloom underneath the bridge and could be heard churning around the concrete piers that supported the middle span of the bridge.

Charlie leaned over the rail, and as he did so he saw images come to him out of the dark. Stevie came first, bubbling with life and shining her ebullient soul light into all dark corners that dared come into contact with her world. Then

Maureen, who had stood by him as he built a company, and who he had stood next to and spoke comfort to as first Stevie came into the world, and then Jack.

And then Jack. The sad eyed boy who preferred the piano to playing football. The boy who wanted to be like Dad and would hang out around Dad, but who was not good with a hammer or the rowdy play of classmates at school or the other kids at the neighborhood park. Charlie had always been busy, and didn’t spend a lot of time with Jack. Not nearly as much as he should have. Jack looked back from the swirling water and spat at him.

“Why wasn’t I good enough for you?” he accused “Why did I have to be something that I am not? Why couldn’t you spend some time with me? What did I ever do to you that made you turn your back on me? Why couldn’t you answer my questions? WHY DID YOU LET STEVIE DIE?”

There it was! From the mouths of babes. “Why did you let Stevie die?” “Well, why did I?” Charlie asked himself. Jack’s face Stevie’s returned, but it didn’t stay his vibrant and lovely Stevie for long. Gashes appeared across cheek and forehead. The beautiful, roundish face that he had loved morphed into the bloated, pale blue face that he had identified at the morgue as being that of his dead daughter. The full lips that had seemed always to be framing a smile now formed a blue slit, one corner torn where fish, or possibly crabs, had made a meal. Those cold, dead lips parted and spoke: “Come on Dad. I’ve been waiting for you for two years. Why do you leave me looking like this? Come and join me and I will be young and beautiful again. I will be your daughter again.”

Charlie leaned further over the rail, stretching his head downwards toward the dead daughter whom he could now see from head to toe. She was whole, blue and bloated, and bumping up against the concrete pier. “Come to me Dad. I need you. You weren’t there for me before, so come to me now. I need you now more than I needed you then.”

“Yes” hissed a second voice. “Do something right for once in your life.” It was Maureen. Her face glowed in the ripples of the river, and it pulled him further over the rail as if it was a magnet. “You said that you would be a husband and a father, but what were you really? A failure! A failure! A failure who wouldn’t save his own daughter! All of your money! All of your success! What was it good for? Jump. Jump, you bastard. Jump, damn you, and save your daughter!”

Charlie could hardly breathe, and decided that there was no point in breathing anyway. He would have scant need of breath in a couple of moments. Charlie coiled the muscles in his legs, reading himself to spring over the rail, and as he did his one last thought before he left the world was how a rock tied around his leg would guarantee success, and a guarantee of success was something that was important to someone who was usually a failure. The image of a rock formed instantly in Charlie’s mind, tied by a short rope to his ankle, but on the end of that rope was the rock that currently lay on the path next to Rachael’s plot at the garden. He stopped at the very moment of his leap at the thought of that rock.

“Come on Dad” Stevie cried out from her watery place against the side of the pier. “Yes” sneered Maureen from her shimmering manifestation in the waters below him. Are you going to fail again? Jump, coward!” Now even Jack had joined into the chorus. Charlie couldn’t see him but he heard him. “Won’t you help Stevie? Won’t you finally try to make me happy? Die Dad. Die!”

Charlie edged back again toward the rail, but as he looked over it this time he saw the rock; the rock he had promised Rachael he would break up. Then he heard Rachael ask him to keep his word. “You said that you would do it, and I certainly can’t. I trusted you then and I still do. I could ask Walt, but I would rather not. He makes me uncomfortable. I need your help Charlie.”

Stevie, Maureen and Jack began to hurl threats and curses at Rachael, who vanished into the darkness. Charlie pushed back from the rail, nearly fainting from the extremity of his anguish, and fell backwards, coming to rest against a steel girder. The spell, or whatever it had been, was broken. Now there was just a middle aged man sliding down the steel girder to wind up seated on the concrete walkway that lay a girder’s width outside of the traffic, coming to rest on his butt and sitting in the large pile of shit that now filled his underwear.

Charlie was dazed, only dimly aware of the malodorous pile of feces in which he was resting or the urine which drenched the front of his pants. The voices though were gone; silent, for the moment at least. He sat there staring into the pitch dark night sky, and felt something snap in his heart. The tears began again but not in response to some physical pain or even some thought of deeds; deeds undone or done wrongly. Charlie felt something like a steel band that had been getting tighter and tighter around his chest for the last two years finally release, and he felt as if he could truly fill his lungs with clean air again.

That sense of release, and an approximation of peace that accompanied it, swept into Charlie’s heart and mind and produced an unstoppable torrent of tears. These were healing tears though. There was at least a hint of joy and hope in those tears. Stevie was still dead. Maureen lived in another state and could be even at that moment in the arms of another lover, and Jack still thought that his father was a loser and a failure, but Charlie still had a purpose even if it was only breaking up that rock, and at least one person who cared if he lived or died and in fact even needed him, even if for such a small reason. That, it seemed, would be enough to get him through one more night.

Charlie sat back against the girder and let the tears flow. In a way, he was sad that he was still alive. The hard battle still lay before him, and he had no idea if he had the strength to win it. In some way however, a way hard for him to

explain, he was glad that he still lived to fight that battle. As the tears began to slow their progress down his face Charlie kept seeing the rock that could have carried him to the bottom of the river, but instead seemed to have brought him back up to the top.

“Man, you look like shit” came a voice out of the night that cut through Charlie’s reverie like truth through a lie. “You smell like it too. You just try to jump?” The voice belonged to a black guy of indeterminate age, homeless by the look of him. Charlie wasn’t in a mood to judge anybody and had no energy left to fuel any lies.

“Yeah. Looks like I don’t have the balls to do it though.”

“Well, I don’t know nuffin’’ ‘bout your balls, but I’d say you made a good choice.”

“How the fuck would you know” asked Charlie, using rare profanity.

“It’s just that life is precious. Warn’t yours to throw away. You chose to stay alive. You smarter ’n you look.”

Charlie stared at this apparition with a mixture of amazement and annoyance. “Where the hell did you come from?”

“I was watchin’ to see if you were goin’ to do the deed. You ain’t the first loser I watched off hisself, here or somewhere else. I sure did think you was goin’, too! How come you didn’t pull the trigger?”

Charlie just continued to stare at this interloper onto the scene of his crisis. At last he said “Look. I’m not having the best night of my life. In fact, I’ve had a pretty screwed up last couple of years. If you don’t mind I’d like to be left alone right now.”

“Yeah, I s’pose that’s so” the black guy replied. “In fact, bad as you stink, I s’pose leaving you alone is good advice. Hah! And they say that I stink! Hoo boy Dog, you sure done got me beat by a mile. Before I go I’m gonna tell you

something though. White as you are, all them good cards done fell into your hand. What you sniveling about? Somebody walk out on you? Somebody rip you off? Somebody die? Shit, that stuff happens every day of the week. Ain’t nuffin’ new, and ain’t no big deal. Death be part of the drill Bro, and you ain’t the first boy, black or white, what life’s put a big-ass whuppin’ right alongside yo big melon haid. Won’t be the last neither. So I recommend that you jump yo punk white ass off this bridge or get on home and clean up. You smell like the Devil hisself.

Charlie wanted to argue but he was tired. Besides, he knew that he really did smell like shit! He leaned forward to grab the rail and then, instead of pulling himself over it, he pulled himself upright, stabilizing himself in order to walk back to the north side of the bridge and back to life. Charlie turned to deliver another criticism to the homeless man but saw the back of that worthy gentleman walking away from him, already a dim figure heading towards the south side of the river.

Charlie regrouped and look one last time over the railing. Below there was nothing but water which Charlie could not see. The water, as the current divided around the one hundred year old pier and then continued, reunited, on it’s way to the sea some seventy miles to the west, could only be heard. Faces filled neither the evening sky nor the darkened river. No homeless black man stood on the pathway dispensing rough wisdom. Only a tired, broken, very smelly white guy stood on that pathway and looked in the darkened direction in which the river flowed.

Maybe that was a metaphor for his life, Charlie thought. Standing on the brink of suicide, staring into a future obscured by darkness, while covered with shit. “Yeah, that pretty much describes me” Charlie thought. The major question of course was where did he go from here? Charlie looked one last time over the rail, thinking that the water below might be very hospitable to fish and seals and

other creatures of the water, but it was not especially friendly to humans. Then he looked back at the lights of Vancouver and saw life, pulsing and optimistic, and he reflected on how little that description resembled himself. And then Charlie caught a good wiff of his own aroma.

That was shit. No dodging around that odor! That turd that Charlie should have expelled hours ago had blown out into his shorts when he was about to take a nose dive into the Columbia. The faces he had seen and the voices that he had heard were very likely not real, he now believed, but log he had dropped in his underwear would not admit to second guessing. Charlie had a lot to think about; to process. But right now what he wanted to do the most was get the stinky soiled clothes off of his body.

Walking home completely under the radar was not possible, but to Charlie’s relief only a few people passed him along the way. He didn’t look back to see their reactions to the stench that followed him like a banner. In fact, by the time charlie got home he was proud of that stink. “That’s the price I paid to stay alive one more night” he thought. “I could have jumped and not given it a second thought. But I did give it a second thought and then a third, and at the end of things I smell like shit, but I smell alive. That will have to be enough for now.”

Charlie arrived at his apartment complex and walked his fragrant ass right up to his door, grossing out several apartment dwellers who were close enough to smell him on his way. He unlocked his door, walked into the bathroom and then stripped off his soiled clothing which he then stuffed into a trash bag. He started the shower and didn’t wait for the warm water to come. Cold, warm, it didn’t matter. The water would wash him clean of his filth no matter the temperature, and Charlie wanted to be clean more than anything he could think of. The cold water hit him and he flinched, but as it slowly warmed up Charlie turned again and again, first front and then back and then front again.

The cleansing water washed over him, and then the soap bubbled as he scrubbed himself again and again, washing shit and sweat and tears and mountains of grief off of himself. Of course, there were more mountains of grief left to take their place, but for tonight, this night, it was enough to lift ever so slightly the pall of guilt and dread that had held Charlie down for more time than he wished to remember.

After finishing the shower Charlie toweled down and got into some clean clothes. He carried the trash bag full of shitty clothes outside and pitched it into the big dumpster in the back of the parking lot. A vision of the homeless man who he had met on the bridge diving in this dumpster crossed his mind and he smiled at the vision of him opening THAT bag. Charlie then returned to his apartment and dug into the refrigerator. A pound of bacon and some eggs remained from what he had purchased earlier in the day. Charlie cooked up two eggs and half of the bacon and wolfed the whole thing down with gusto.

After eating Charlie looked over at the television but decided not to turn it on. “Ain’t nothing but shit to look at” he reasoned to himself, “and I’ve been covered with enough of that for one night.” Instead, Charlie washed the day’s dishes and then sat in the chair in his silent living room. He had no interest in the television, and jumping off of any bridges would have to wait for another, more desperate night. “I’ll take a walk” he decided, and stepped out into the damp air of the Vancouver night.

Charlie walked along the sidewalk toward the light of downtown, drawn to the life that he knew throbbed among the businesses which clustered there. Along the way he became aware of the life that went on behind the windows and doors of the few downtown houses that hadn’t been converted into offices for lawyers, architects and bail bondsmen. As Charlie walked along the streets, he saw the light pour out of those windows. Inside the houses people could sometimes be

seen through those windows. On window showed an elderly couple watching the television and having a glass of wine, or maybe some other drink. In another, two small children were wrestling with their father on a sofa, while a mother held her infant and looked upon her brood with a big smile. The serenity that Charlie saw through those windows and the love; yes, the love, were not a rebuke to him tonight like they would have been only a few hours earlier. In fact, he took comfort from it.

Charlie came to the Catholic cathedral and stood outside, watching as people came for the evening mass. He stood in the shadows, not inclined to enter himself but once again feeling comfort as he watched the people walking up the stairway and into the building. Charlie didn’t enter the cathedral tonight but was glad that it was there and was offering comfort to those who chose to enter therein, or even watch from a distance.

After standing in the shadows for a while Charlie moved on, past O’Tarnahan’s Irish Pub, past Luigi’s Pizza and Suds, past the Guild Theater. Within all of these establishments was life, and Charlie felt no animosity toward them for it. He was tempted to enter some of those establishments but didn’t feel quite ready for that much stimulation. Instead, he turned and walked back to his apartment. Inside, the apartment was clean, his old, fouled clothes were outside in the dumpster, and there was little to do but go to sleep.

And that is what Charlie did. Stretching out on the sofa by the window Charlie felt the warmth of his blanket as a contrast to the cool and damp night air. Outside the window Charlie could hear the rain begin to fall. Tonight however, the rain did not seem to be a reflection of the emptiness of his heart falling upon the travesty that was his soul. Tonight it was just rain. Water falling out of the sky, refreshing the plants growing in the good earth. Probably good for his garden. Charlie decided to go see if that was the case when he finished work

tomorrow, just before he fell into a deep and, for the first time in a long while, refreshing sleep.