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.

Heidi (and Vivian)

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

Heidi changed all of that. Heidi was a new kid in our school, and in a school with maybe one hundred students in the sixth grade it was hard to stay anonymous. It would have been hard for Heidi to remain anonymous in a class of one thousand. Just as pretty as, well, you can provide whatever metaphor for pretty that suits you best. For me, she was just as pretty as a golden dawn, or a field of flowers, or a foggy morning at the beach, with a storm approaching and the waves crashing, and; well, I guess you get the point. I thought she was the definition of beauty itself, but I’ll allow myself to be content to say that Heidi was pretty.

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

I was always curious about my world. I wanted to know how we humans came to be what we are. I read about dinosaurs and cave men. I read the Bible

and even in the sixth grade, the archaeologists who dug up the history of humans in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and elsewhere. People were fascinating to me, and I wanted to know about them.

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

I told Heidi about this one day when we were seated next to each other at Linda Swann’s birthday party. To my surprise, Heidi was friendly to me and spoke about herself. Her mother was German and her father a mix of German, Irish and a bunch of other stuff. Heidi’s mother spoke German as a first language and Heidi was fluent in that language as well although she only spoke it at home. I think that Heidi was only that open with me because I was too shy to try to make her my girl friend. I just knew that things like that didn’t happen to me.

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

After a while I became aware that Heidi’s mother did not always need two more apples and a pound of butter; that it was just an excuse for us to walk together to the store, eventually holding hands after we got a block away from Heidi’s home. The neighbors, or course, knew all about the budding relationship, and word certainly got around. Heidi didn’t live in my neighborhood though, so it didn’t get to my mother who would not have approved.

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

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

Heidi took pity on me and asked if I would like to kiss her. I nodded, like a kid who was just asked if he wanted to go to Disneyland, and then stepped forward and pressed my lips against hers.

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

During this time I almost never saw Heidi’s father. He worked the night shift at a refinery thirty miles from their home and was usually sleeping during the day.

At least, that’s what they told me. In fact Heidi’s father drank a lot and was either drinking, asleep or passed out when i was there. He managed to do his job well enough, so he was never laid off, and his manager was also a veteran of the recent war, so he had pity on him.

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

Things didn’t. Heidi and I were close for almost a year and a half but one day in the middle of the seventh grade she didn’t show up at school. I called her as soon as I got home to see if she was sick but there was no answer. The first tingling of fear began to play around the base of my brain and I went to my mother to tell her that I was going to ride my bike to Heidi’s house to see how she was.

Mom had allowed herself to soften towards Heidi. “The only decent German I ever met” she would say. The look on Mom’s face cast a new and more dark shadow across my heart. She told me to sit down; that she had something to tell me. What followed was the news that Heidi’s father had gotten drunk, heard his wife speaking German, and then taken down a shotgun from a rack on the wall. He then blew his wife almost in two. After looking at the carnage that he had just created from a wife that he did, at some level, love, he reloaded the shotgun, placed it in his mouth and blew his head off. And Heidi watched the whole thing.

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

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

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

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

I wanted another soda and a bag of sunflower seeds so I walked across the park to the little store that still stood and did battle with the big supermarket that

had come to Sommerville, only six miles away. As I approached the store I saw two women walking out of the front door and a switch went on inside my head. It was Heidi and Vivian, but I could only barely recognize Heidi. The face was neither masculine nor feminine. If I had to pick any description at all I would have to go with bitter, although empty would place as a close second.

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

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

Good. Good I replied. I tried to talk to her but I could quickly see that such a project had little chance of success. I told Heidi that I would leave soon for the Army and then probably would be sent to Vietnam, and that I was taking pictures of friends. On an impulse I asked her if I could take her picture.

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

I do not intend to let things stand that way however. I’m lying on a bunk at the replacement battalion now, waiting for my name to be called so that I can board a plane and return home, free from Vietnam and free from the Army. I’ve kept Heidi’s picture and probably looked at it every day that I wasn’t in the field trying t stay alive. I asked my father to inquire about Heidi’s status and location, and he told me that she is now a clerk in some position at the train station in Merrifield, about twenty miles from home. Dad said that she was dressed nicely: “like a

proper young woman”, and no longer resembled the person that he saw in my picture. “That would scare children and sour milk” he had said. Dad also said that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. I’m going to look into that when I get home.

The Garden, Chapter II

Charlie remained in the garden for less than an hour after having his conversation with Walt and Rachael.  He had just engaged in the longest and deepest interaction with another human being, much less two of them at once, than he had experienced in over a year.  To Charlie, it seemed like an eternity had passed since he had spoken of how he felt to anyone.  At first, as he returned to pulling weeds and gently scratching fertilizer around the tender seedlings that were poking hopefully through the dirt of his garden, Charlie felt embarrassed.  He had spoken of his failed marriage; his failed fatherhood, his failed business.  Worse than that he had cried, and right out in the open.  “What an idiot I looked like”  Charlie thought, and at one point scratched the soil so close to a bean sprout that he almost dislodged it from his bed.  Once again he felt the anger and frustration that he had felt earlier that afternoon, but he recalled that all that had accomplished was a crushed onion sprout, and made an effort to pull back from the hot edge of his anger.

Charlie looked up in the direction of Walt’s plot, and then over at Rachael’s.  Walt was mixing something in a green plastic bucket and Rachael was in a far corner of her plot, trying to dig out what Charlie guessed to be a large rock.  Neither of his neighbors were paying the least attention to Charlie, and that was just what he wanted.

At last Charlie finished all that he wanted to do that day and stood up to survey his accomplishments.  “The plot looks a lot better organized now than it did when I got here” Charlie said to himself.  Then he remembered the help and advise that he had received from his neighbors and amended his thought.  “Actually, my garden looks good because those two helped me.”

     Charlie picked up his tools and put them into a five gallon plastic bucket.  Neither of his neighbors looked up as Charlie carried the bucket out of the community garden and placed it in the bed of his Ford pickup truck.  Charlie leaned against the bed of his truck and looked directly at Walt and Rachael.

“That is one annoying, foul-mouthed piece of work” Charlie thought as he looked at Walt.  “And Rachael is a very sweet girl.  I’m really glad that they told me their stories.  I know that they were trying to help, at least I think that they were.  Anyway, it helped.  And they left me alone after we finished talking, which is just what I needed.  I think that in such a case as this normal people would say  thank you.”


Charlie pushed himself away from the bed of his truck, walked back through the gate in the chain link fence and straight to Rachael’s plot.  She was putting what she thought was the final touches on her project of exposing and expelling that rock from her garden.  It had turned out to be an impressive boulder.

“Can I help you with that?” Charlie asked as he approached the kneeling  woman.  Rachael looked up and responded without a moment’s hesitation.

“I would appreciate that very much.”  Rachael’s forehead was beaded with perspiration and streaked with wet dirt.  Her shirt was also soaked with sweat, and the moisture highlighted the curves of Rachael’s body.  Charlie noted those curves reflexively, and then jerked his eyes and attention back into the direction of the buried rock.  He made a mental estimation of the size of the monolith and guessed that still more might be buried.

“Wait here” Charlie said, and returned to his truck.  One of the tools in his bed  was a six foot steel wrecking bar that he had been using on a small job that morning.  Charlie lifted the heavy tool out of the bed of the truck and carried it back to Rachael’s plot.

“This will make things easier” Charlie said as he arrived, making sure this time that he kept his eyes on Rachael’s face or on the rock.  “Stand back a bit, if you will” he said.

When Rachael was a safe distance away Charlie raised the bar and brought it down with all his force at the edge of the rock.  As he had expected, there was more rock than had already been exposed.  The point of the tool collided with the subterranean edge of the rock and chips flew in all directions.

“That’s why I wanted you away from the rock”  Charlie said.

“I can certainly appreciate that” Rachael responded as she backed farther away from the rock.  “Don’t you think that you should be wearing some kind of eye protection?  You’re closer to the action than I am.”

Charlie thought about that for a moment.  It had been a while since he had warn a seat belt in his truck, or used goggles or gloves in his work.  It was as if he was daring life to screw with him more than it already had.  Maybe one great accident would happen and put him out of his misery.

“You’re right” he replied to Rachael.  “I’ve left my safety goggles at home.  I’ll be more careful though.  Can I borrow your excavator?”

Rachael looked down at the tool in her hand that had three sharp metal prongs.  “You mean this?”

“Yeah.  Can I use it for a minute?”


Rachael handed the tool to Charlie and in no time at all he had exposed the true edge of the boulder.  He rose up and stabbed at the dirt just outside of the rock’s margin and encountered no resistance.

“OK” Charlie said.  “Here we go.”

Charlie withdrew the wrecking bar and then plunged it with all of his strength into the soil adjacent to the rock, and the tool bit deep.  He grabbed the top of the heavy steel bar and put his weight into pulling it downward.  His end of the bar came down toward the ground and the buried end rose up, lifting the recently submerged rock out of its resting place.

“Jeez, that’s the Rock of Gibraltar!” Rachael exclaimed.  At this point Walt, who had been watching the whole thing, came over to give his two cents’ worth.

“That’s one big-ass rock” Walt stated matter-of-factly.

“No shit Dick Tracy.  Where did you get your first clue?” Charlie replied dryly.

Walt didn’t respond at all to Charlie’s remark.  Instead, he looked directly at Rachael, his eyes resting on her sweaty shirt a good deal longer than had Charlie’s, Finally he said “Let’s get this friggin’ boulder out of the ground.  Watcha say?”

Charlie and Rachael agreed, and while Rachael pushed down the end of the wrecking bar Charlie and Walt thrust their hands under the rock and rolled it up and out of its resting place.  At last the boulder lay on the path between Rachael’s plot and the chain link fence that surrounded the whole garden area.

“Let’s leave it here for now”  Charlie suggested.  “I have a sledge hammer, and I’ll return tomorrow and break this beast into some more manageable pieces.”

“Sounds fine to me” said Walt.  “Heavy son of a bitch!”

“I’m grateful for the help you’ve given me already” she said to Charlie, and then looked over at Walt.  “Both of you.  I don’t want to impose on you any more.”

“No worries, the pleasure will be mine” Charlie replied.  “I like the work, and it will be a challenge.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t mind at all” Charlie chimed in with a hint of a smirk.  He was ignored by both Rachael and Charlie.

Charlie looked at the rock for a moment, and then looked up at his two gardening companions.  “I want to thank you two for the help you gave me this afternoon.  I’m – – -“  Charlie fumbled for words.  “I’m, well, uh, oh.  Well, shit!”  Charlie hissed.  His emotions were rushing in all directions and he thought that he was about to cry again, which made him even more tongue-tied.

“It’s OK” Rachael said.  “You don’t have to explain anything.”  She rested her hand on Charlie’s shoulder.  “Let’s just call this a good day and leave it at that.”

Charlie looked at Rachael through moist eyes and just nodded.  At this point Walt chimed in with “Yeah.  We don’t need any more blubbering.”  Charlie looked over with embarrassment but Walt cracked a big grin and gave him a good natured thump on his back.

Charlie grinned sheepishly, wiped his eyes, and then nodded to both of them.  He turned and walked back to his truck.  As he fired up the engine and pulled away from the side of the street Charlie felt a swell of emotion.  His family had urged him to get out of his apartment for some reason, any reason, other than work or going to the store. Charlie did as they had asked and he had not expected for it to result in anything like the human interaction that he had just encountered.  The dirt and the plants were supposed to give his hands and his mind something new to do, and indeed that had accomplished that.  Interaction  with not just beans and onions but with two living, breathing human beings had come as a complete surprise.

Charlie thought more about his two gardening companions as he drove away.  Walt was a cretin.  There was no doubt in Charlie’s mind about that.  The foul language and obvious appreciation of Rachael’s femininity were offensive to Charlie.  Walt had been willing to help Charlie with his plant beds and his story though, and he had spoken of his trauma with what appeared to Charlie to be an intent to help, and not just an opportunity to whine.  From what he had told them, he had as good a reason to whine as anybody could, too.

Rachael was the opposite of Walt.  Her kindness and decency were obvious, and he couldn’t help but think that Stevie might have been a lot like her.  His mind drifted to helping Rachael with the buried rock, and he thought about the safety goggles resting in a drawer in his apartment.  Then he thought about the safety belt lying on the bench seat next to him.  Charlie couldn’t say exactly why, but he felt the urge to put it on.  He pulled off of the main drag and stopped his truck by the curb of a residential street.  He picked up one end of the belt with his right hand and reached down with is left to get the end resting on the floor by the door.  Charlie clicked the belt into place and noticed that it lay lump across his lap.  “Humm.  I guess I’ve lost a little weight” he thought to himself.  With a pull on the free end of the strap he cinched up the belt and then, feeling odd with his belt on but strangely secure nonetheless, Charlie returned to the busy street and proceeded to drive home.

The brick complex where Charlie lived was Section VIII housing.  All of Charlie’s neighbors were low income, as he was.  He never interacted with anybody and they left him alone, except for one time when his small apartment had been broken into.  Charlie had nothing worth stealing, but the intruders took his cheap television anyway.  They left the rabbit ear antenna however, so Charlie bought another little TV set at the local thrift store when he had the money.  Nobody broke into his apartment after that.  Word probably got around that the eccentric guy in apartment C didn’t have anything worth the trouble.

On this day Charlie parked on the street.  He exited his truck and walked up the sidewalk to the entrance of the complex.  A Hispanic woman was sitting on the porch watching three small children play on the postage stamp sized lawn.

“Buenos tardes” Charlie said, having picked up a little Spanish from some of his employees when he was a big shot contractor and property developer.  charlie had always been more interested in a person’s abilities than any other personal factor, and so on many occasions had interacted with employees for whom Spanish was their first, or perhaps only, language.  He hadn’t used that language for some little while though, and the words felt both awkward yet somehow comfortable at the same time.  The woman who had never seen the crazy Gringo hermit speak to anyone before, was surprised by his greeting.

“Buenos tardes” she replied.  “Como estás?”

“Bien, gracias” Charlie replied.  He walked past her and entered the building, as the Latina watched him in stunned surprise.

Charlie walked down the hall to the back of the building and shoved the key into the lock on the door.  Most of the other doors had at least two locks on them but Charlie was comfortable with only one.  He had nothing worth stealing and hadn’t really cared for a while now if somebody did burglarize his home.  Maybe they would do their dirty work at night and shoot him in the process.  So much the better.

Charlie opened the door and stepped inside his apartment.  It was a small unit with a living room, bathroom, kitchen and closet.  A sofa bed rested on one side of the living room, but Charlie never bothered to pull the bed out.  A pillow, a sheet and a blanket on the sofa were all he needed.  He passed through that room and into the kitchen, where he extracted a sauce pan from a cupboard.

“What’ll it be tonight?” he thought.  “Beef stew, beef stew, or beef stew?”  Charlie pulled a big pot of stew out of the refrigerator and set it on the little countertop.  He then ladled a large helping of stew into the pan and began to heat it up.  While it was heating Charlie washed his hands and then turned on the television.  Some sitcom was on and young and attractive actors were playing the part of neurotic city dwellers as usual.  Charlie barely paid attention.  He returned to the kitchen and stirred the stew until it was evenly warm, then filled a bowl with it and returned to his sofa, where he would eat his dinner and stare blankly at the television, again, as usual.

Charlie ate his stew and watched the marginal acting and listened to the inane dialogue, but for the first time in a long while it did nothing to dull his senses until fatigue would place him in a fretful sleep.  His mind kept returning to Walt helping him build up a bed for his onions, the rock that the three of them had dug out of the ground, and Rachael’s warm hug.  Human contact was something that Charlie was out of practice on, and the reintroduction of that contact had the effect of softly jarring charlie out of the rut into which his seemingly empty life had settled.


Working with others to accomplish some difficult task had been a sharp but pleasant change from his solitary life.  Hearing other people tell of the difficulties in their lives without trying to minimize the difficulties in his own was also a refreshment to Charlie’s soul.  The real, personal contact though; the working side by side with Walt and the simple, compassionate hug from Rachael, had fed some portion of the being that was Charlie Hamer, a portion that hadn’t even realized that it was hungry.

Tonight, as Charlie watched the familiar actors play the familiar characters as they wrestled with ridiculous non-problems, all to the predictable canned laughter of an audience that probably wasn’t even really there at the filming, brought no comfort.  To the contrary, he was disgusted with the show, and with his own routine.  He turned the sound off, but kept the video portion on.  Baby steps.  Outside the window Charlie heard a conversation, now that the noise had been muted in his own apartment.

“Don’t come around me” a male voice was saying.  You got nothing to say to me and I got nothing to say that you’re gonna want to hear.”

“Why you bein’ like that”  a female voice asked petulantly.  “I done nothing wrong to you.”

“You been acting like you’re my girl and then you got seen making time with Joey.  I’m gonna kick Joey’s ass when I see him, but you – – I just don’t wanna see your face.”

“Joey’s nothing but a friend” the female voice explained.  “I known Joey for a long time.  We’re just friends.”

“Yeah.  You’re just friends al right.  Max seen your heels sticking up from the back seat of Joey’s car.  Pretty good friends it looks to me.  Now leave me alone.”

And on it went.  This was not an unusual conversation at Charlie’s residence, but it was the first time that Charlie had paid attention to it.  He half expected to hear a slap, but eventually the accused stomped away while the cuckolded ex-boyfriend shouted further threats against Joey at her back.  “Flippin’ idiots” Charlie thought.  Then he thought about himself.  “But here I am sitting in front of a TV with the sound turned off in this dump.  Who’s the idiot?  At least they’re acting like they’re alive.”

     Charlie stood up, turned off the television, and flipped on a light switch.  The bare and dingy room was the same that Charlie had looked at for the last year, but tonight he noticed its state of uncare.  Charlie was disturbed by the dirt that he was living in, and that fact surprised Him.  Why should he care?  Scrubbing the floor wouldn’t bring back Stevie, or Mo or Jack for that matter.  He had lost the ability to care, or so he had thought.  Now, that ability was beginning to come back, like feeling into a leg that has gone to sleep because its circulation had been cut off.

Charlie felt like he should clean up, or at least start to.  “Why?” he asked himself.  “Because Walt or Rachael might come over” was the answer.  “That’s just crazy talk, fool.  Nobody’s coming over here.  They don’t know where I live, they have absolutely no reason to come over here, and I haven’t’ invited them to come here in the first place.  And I won’t invite them.  This ‘caring’ thing is dangerous, and nothing good’s going to come from it.  Get ahold of yourself, Charlie.”

But Charlie could only maintain a fragile hold on himself at best.  He kept imagining Walt enjoying a beer with other veterans at the VFW hall, or Rachael out of her sweaty clothes, curled up with a cat and a book and a cup of tea.  As Charlie looked around the apartment he was filled not with disgust, but rather disappointment that his life had come to this.  What made him most uneasy was the thought that maybe, maybe, he could and should do better.

“Aw, screw it” Charlie muttered as he gave in to the impulse to clean something up.  He gathered his blanket, the two old sheets that had sat in a laundry basket for the last six months, his bath and dish towels, and his small collection of clothes and stuffed them into trash bags.  The laundry room at his complex was probably busy, if it was even working that night, so Charlie threw his laundry into the cab of his truck and headed uptown towards a laundromat that he had used from time to time.

At the laundromat he started his clothing with a healthy amount of bleach added to each washing machine.  Charlie sat down, but his nerves quickly had him fidgeting in his seat.  An attempt to read a home improvement magazine that was nine months old was a complete failure.  At last he put the magazine down, stood up and walked out of through the door.

The sidewalk was busy on C Street.  Vancouver’s downtown was beginning to grow after decades of decline.  New restaurants and bakeries and stores and watering holes were drawing people out of the suburbs and down to the new/old hub of town.  Some of that renewal was spreading uptown, and the street was hopping on this night.  Charlie had walked these sidewalks a lot the last year, but without thinking at all about his surroundings.  He knew what he needed and drove there, walking to and from whichever store carried his needs, and then back to his truck with scarcely a thought of the other life occupying that area.  Tonight however Charlie watched the cars pass by, and customers leaving a restaurants and going elsewhere to continue the evening’s celebration of life.


One block towards the true downtown was The Barrel of Suds, a new pub that was drawing a large crowd.  Charlie wondered if it was possible that Walt was in there. He did not especially like Walt or covet his company, but he found himself thinking that Walt might be propped in a corner lifting beers and generally annoying anyone who would sit close to him.  Charlie tried to look through the windows but tables on the inside were right up against the wall, and he would have to stare past customers seated on the other side of the glass in order to see inside.

“Crap” Charlie muttered.  “I don’t even LIKE the guy.  What do I care if he IS in there.”

“What was that?” a young woman asked him.

“Oh, nothing” Charlie answered, feeling his face turn red.  “Oh great” he thought.   “Now people hear me talking to myself.  Get a grip, Charlie.  Charlie began walking again, but as he passed the corner of the business he stopped dead in his tracks.  “Oh what the hell” he silently surrendered.  He then turned and walked back to and through the doors of the pub.

Inside, the place was a noisy hive.  Music was playing through speakers in corners of the the ceiling and a hockey game was on the huge screen in the main room to the right.  Charlie looked around that room, just in case Walt or even Rachael was to be found in there.  Of course, they were not.  Looking forward Charlie saw the bar through a doorway, and walked over to where an empty stool sat idle, waiting for a customer.  Charlie plopped down on that stool and began to look around this portion of the establishment.  Nearly everybody was young, twenties or thirties or so, and Charlie realized that he was far more likely to see Rachael in a place like this than he was to see Walt.

“What can I get you?” came a voice, and Charlie turned back to the bar.  In front of him stood an attractive young woman with a black outfit that featured a very short dress.  She had a blonde pony tail and an ornate tattoo on her right shoulder that Charlie couldn’t quite make out in the dim light.  Charlie was momentarily flustered, and the girl, who was a veteran at her profession, waited for Charlie to regain his composure.  “Yes, I would like a beer” Charlie finally answered, feeling the color rise in his face again.

“Take your pick” the young woman said, as she pointed to a chalk board with at least twenty different beers written on it.  “Those are on tap.  We have all of the usual bottled suspects here too.”

“I’m new at this” Charlie replied.  “I’ll accept your recommendation.”

The bartender stepped back and studied Charlie for a moment, and then said  I think you should start with a pale ale.”  She walked away and soon returned with a mug full of cold, amber fluid with the thinnest hint of a head.  “This one’s not too hoppy.  Let me know if you don’t like it, and I’ll get you a different one.  On the house.”

Charlie thanked her and assured her that this beer would be fine, and indeed it was.  It had been a long while since Charlie had tasted a cold beer, and his first sip of brew slid across his teeth and rested on his tongue.  “I could get used to this” Charlie thought.

He now turned and studied the room that he was seated in.  Booths and tables lined the windowless wall across from the bar and it seemed as if every seat was taken in that direction.  One both featured four young men arguing about the merits of the Portland Trailblazers  in the upcoming season.  Closer to him was a table with two young men and a woman of similar age.  Their conversation was less boisterous, but they had to speak up to be heard.  As a result of this Charlie heard them say “Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and some other names, and he surmised that they must be talking about philosophy or philosophers.  At another table sat a guy who was probably in his late forties, close to Charlie’s age, with unnaturally black hair and a couple of gold chains to match his gold rings, talking earnestly with a much younger woman who had obviously had one or two drinks too many.  “Shit” Charlie thought.  “Does that tired old routine still work?  I guess so.”

     Charlie enjoyed his beer and the noise and energy of the “Barrel” for a while, but the energy and fullness of those lives around him began to contrast to sharply with the coldness and emptiness of his own.  He downed the last of his beer and left a tip on the counter for the bartender.  He didn’t stay around to see if she picked it up or if the woman sitting next to him at the counter would help herself first.  He told himself that he didn’t really care.

Charlie felt relieved when he returned to the sidewalk outside of the Barrel of Suds.  The one glass of beer had put a little buzz on Charlie and the cool air against his face felt good.  It was too early to return to his washing chores, and so he continued down C Street.  A jazz band was playing in a club across the street and Charlie considered going there.  He didn’t have a lot of money however, and chose to just walk and enjoy the cool of the evening.

Down at the end of C street, many blocks in front of where Charlie was walking, lay the pedestrian pathway to the great, steel and concrete bridge that crossed the Columbia River.  Charlie had walked across that bridge several times in the last year, and each time he had considered leaping over the steel rail and into the cold and fast-moving waters of the river below.  If he did this at night, nobody would see him and the watery embrace of that river would usher him into a world where there was hopefully no pain

Charlie had thought hard about what the result of such an act would be.  Some people thought that there was an afterlife, where all of this life’s pains would be taken away.  Others thought that when a person’s life would end, they would come back again, and possibly as something else;  a cricket perhaps, or a cow or a prophet, according to how you had lived.  Still others believed that there would be nothing.  Annihilation.  A cessation of all that made life good or made life hell.  The latter sounded best to Charlie, although there was also the entrancing idea of a reunion with his dead daughter in some place called heaven.  Of course, there was the uncomfortable view, held by some, that those who commit suicide go to a definitely uncomfortable place called hell.

Charlie doubted that.  “Why would somebody escaping one hell just be sent to another?” Charlie reasoned.  It didn’t seem fair, but then, what the hell had been fair in his life lately?  These thoughts and many others just like them had haunted Charlie’s mind on those cold, numb nights that he had stared sightlessly at a television screen or lay on his sofa with his face toward the open window, hoping that somebody would come through that window with a gun or knife and take the decision out of his hands.  At this moment the bridge, the red lights of which could be seen in the distance, did not look like an answer to Charlie’s pain.  He didn’t know what DID look like an answer, but he knew thought, at this moment at least, that the bridge was not it.

Charlie then realized that he had been standing at a street corner for a while, staring at the red lights of the bridge in the distance.  It was probably time to return to his laundry.  He turned and strolled back to the laundromat, feeling no dramatic release from his usually constant state of pain, but with the definite feeling that to some small degree the sharp point of desperation’s knife had been removed from his back.

When Charlie returned to the laundromat his washing was done.  He removed his laundry and put it into dryers, thumbed in the change necessary to run the machines, and then sat down to await the completion of the process.  He felt entirely different than he had when he began the wash cycle.  His nervous fidgets were gone and in their place was an earnest desire to retrieve and fold his warm, dry and clean laundry and return to his apartment.  Sink, stove and refrigerator needed to be scrubbed and cleaned.  Floors needed to be mopped and carpet vacuumed.  Walls needed scrubbing and toilet – yes, toilet – needed attention.

Charlie knew that he didn’t have all of the supplies that he would need to really do that was was needed, but he was at lest ready to get the job started. When he took an advance on a small bathroom remodel job that he would start on the morrow he could buy the rest of what he needed, and maybe another beer from the pretty bartender at the Barrel of Suds.  He didn’t have to start the job until 10:00 the next morning, which meant that Charlie could work late into the night, cleaning up his apartment and making a statement about his soul as well.  It was time to get busy.

Charlie folded his laundry and stuffed it into the plastic trash bags.  On his way home he passed the Barrel and wondered if the young people discussing philosophy had come to any conclusions.  He wondered if the young woman being wooed by Mr. Mid Life Crisis had escaped his web.  He then wondered if Mr. Mid Life Crisis knew that he, too, was trapped in a web; as much prisoner as weaver?

“So now I’m a philosopher” Charlie said out loud in the cab of his truck, unafraid of anybody overhearing him.  Charlie laughed at the thought, but soon the memory of Stevie’s body, ghastly pale and bruised and puffed up by her hours floating in the cold North Pacific waters, rose up in his head and the paralyzing fingers of despair once again penetrated his chest and squeezed his heart until the pain of it made Charlie quit wanting to breathe.

Charlie turned off of C Street onto 12th Avenue.  Once again he thought of the old bridge as a friend who offered him an answer to his pain.  “Come to Me.  I know what you feel and I won’t judge you.  A step up.  A little jump over the rail.  A fall through space of only twenty or thirty yards.  That’s all it will take.  I’ll enfold you and usher you into a place of peace.  There will be fear, as you struggle to breathe, but when you accept that you can’t, darkness and then the absence of pain will greet you, embrace you and introduce you to peace.  Come to me, my child, and I will give you rest.”

The return of his pain hit Charlie like a hammer.  What had he been thinking?  There was no easy way out of this! “OK, so I met one old shit with potty mouth and a pot belly, and a pretty young woman with evidence of a living, beating human heart.  They live in their world, and I have no good way out of mine.  This is crap.  What does a few bags of clean clothes mean to me?  I’ve screwed up.  I didn’t keep my daughter safe.  I couldn’t comfort my wife.  I had no answers for my son.  I’m a big, fat failure.  No, Walt would say it right; I’m a big fat fucking failure.  Jumping off of the bridge would be a gift to Mo and Jack and the rest of the world, and a release for me.  What the hell am I waiting for?”

Charlie prepared to take a left turn at the next cross street and head for the bridge.  Hope had toyed with him that night, and then pulled the prize out of his reach.  Charlie was through with it all.  Halfway up 12th however Charlie had to stop to allow a family to cross the street.  A middle aged man with a similarly aged wife, two obvious teenage sons and a girl of six or seven years were crossing the street.  They were dressed in their best clothes and walking towards the broad stone stairway that led upward to the large wooden front doors of Saint James Cathedral, an old and impressive church building that seemed out of place in the Vancouver downtown neighborhood that included condos and coffee shops and trendy meeting places.

Charlie watched as the man waved his thanks for Charlie’s having given them right of way.  “Yeah, you’re all Mister Polite now.  Wait until your god takes away one of your sons or your daughter” Charlie growled in his mind.  “You’ll want to get right behind me on that bridge.”

Charlie couldn’t take his eyes off of the family however.  They finished walking across the street and climbed the stairs.  The man pulled open the door and held it for his family as they passed inside.  Charlie continued to stare at the doors through which they had passed until the honk from the vehicle behind his reminded him that he was stopped in the middle of the street.  Impulsively, Charlie pulled into one of the parking slots at the side of the street, and as the impatient motorist passed behind him Charlie sat with the engine idling, debating whether to continue on to the bridge or to go home once again and lie through another empty and miserable night.

Charlie couldn’t remember later how long he sat there.  Two young men and then a single older man mounted the stairs and passed through the big wooden doors of the cathedral.  Charlie watched as the light poured out of the doorway each time a person pulled it open.  The light, like a beacon, penetrated the darkness and projected a sense of warmth and hope into the evening gloom.  Eventually, Charlie exited the truck and walked to the bottom of the stone stairway.  Looking up he saw the brick building soaring high over his head.  Everything directed his attention upwards, as he knew from his college days that cathedrals were supposed to do.  In college he had to learn that as a dry fact in an art history class.  Now he actually felt it.  His attention was drawn upwards and away from the roiling waters a few blocks away, and out of the cold, dark grave where the ashes of Stevie rested a few miles in the opposite direction.

It was almost as if Charlie was not thinking at all, when he mounted the stairs and pushed his way through the thick wooden doors.  Charlie stepped into the warm, nearly silent interior of the cathedral.  There was hardly anyone there other than the family he had previously seen earlier and the party of two young men that had entered before him.  Perhaps the single man was an official of the church, for he was out of his view.  The family was seated near the front of the church, an elderly woman near the middle and the two young men in the corner of the last row.

Charlie stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do next, or even why he was there in the first place.  He looked straight ahead and saw what he assumed is where the person delivering the sermon would stand.  Charlie had only the most scant knowledge about churches and how they were organized, so he didn’t know if it was a pastor or a parson or a priest or whatever else that had the job.  That place was behind a railing and signs advised non-pastors or whatever to not enter that space.

A bank of what seemed to be a couple dozen candles stood in front of the railing and three or four of them were lit.  Charlie didn’t know why, but the warm light of the flickering candles was a comfort to his soul.  He looked beyond the railing and saw that there were niches in the walls there that contained statues of Jesus and somebody else, maybe an angel or something.  Paintings adorned the walls there and a few lamp stands with more substantial candles were placed here and there.  The rest of the interior walls of the cathedral also sported paintings of various religious subjects.  Charlie sat down on the wooden pew in the rear of the building and began to examine the art work from a distance.

As he scanned the room Charlie noticed a row of paintings in identical ornate frames, each with a Roman numeral over it.  The painting closest to him was numbered VIII, and in it Jesus was depicted having fallen to the ground.  The cross was weighing him down, a couple of figures are jeering at him, and a Roman soldier is prodding him to rise up and continue on his way to his death.  Charlie’s interest had been piqued, and he walked across the large room to where picture number I hung, and then walked slowly from one picture to the other, seeing the story of the crucifixion of Jesus from his condemnation to the giving of his tortured and lifeless body to the women who would clean him up and bury him.

  “I guess I’m not the only guy who can have a bad day.” Charlie thought as he stared at the dead body of Jesus.  Mary, Jesus’ mother, was in shock and only beginning to grieve.  “That was a good painter.  That’s how Mo looked when they brought us to Stevie’s body.”  Charlie looked more closely at the body of Jesus and noticed that the painter or painters had not been very faithful to reality in one respect.  Jesus’ wounds showed little if any blood at all.  In fact, it looked like he could have been sleeping, except for the look of sorrow on his face.  Stevie had been beaten up badly by rocks and waves, and possibly nibbles from some fish.

Charlie stood in front of that picture for a little while longer.  In some strange way, knowing that he was not alone in his suffering made a difference.  Sure, Walt and Rachael knew a thing or two about suffering also, but this guy really took it in the shorts.  And if Charlie remembered the story correctly, Jesus had done nothing to deserve what he had gotten, in the same manner that he had not deserved to lose his daughter, his family, and everything else that he once had.

Charlie breathed a sigh of relief as he realized that the claw of desperation had loosened its grip on his heart.  He was not ready to find a pub somewhere and go dancing, but no thought of the bridge and the river troubled his mind either.  Charlie sat down on the wooden pew once again and noticed that several more people had entered while he was focused on the paintings.  It was obvious now that a service was about to begin, and although Charlie appreciated the small measure of peace that he felt here and wanted to see if there was more to be found, he was not ready to be in the middle of a full-blown Catholic mass.  After an older couple walked past him, Charlie stood up and walked down the aisle and out through the wooden door, and into the Vancouver night.

Charlie drove the few blocks that separated him from his apartment with no deviation toward the bridge.  He carried his laundry from the truck into the apartment and put it on the sofa.  As he looked around the apartment he saw that the dirt and grime that had gathered on walls, windows, door handles and everything in general had not gone anywhere.  Charlie felt the urge to clean things up return to him.  Walking through an arch into the tiny kitchen Charlie looked under the sink and found two old sponges and some cleaning products.  he looked at the stained and dirty sink and said “Let’s get some of this shit cleaned up.”


The Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, this is my first year here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  She took it clean.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Take ten?” asked Monica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dickdoo?”  asked Monica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Passenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what are we doing here”  Chad asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Picnic, First Revision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How hard is the climb?”  Sandy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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