Stepping Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK Men!  Let’s Go!  Let’s Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OK Men!  “Let’s Go!”

The Garden, Chapter VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Teeth That Are Not Grinning.

“What is that place all about?” asked Billy Gilbert of his companion.  “What’s the story behind that house?”

“That’s where some people died a long time ago” replied Justin Smart.

“That” was a split-level house which was identical in most ways to the ticky-tacky suburban houses that stretched out into the distance in all directions with the regularity and identicality of tombstones in some great cemetery.  Extending from either side of the house were similar dwellings with neatly trimmed lawns and properly manicured hedges and shrubs, pressure-washed driveways and houses painted in soft grays and blues and off-whites.  Many porches had American flags poking out from the walls like medieval infantry waiting to receive a cavalry charge.  Here and there was a pink lawn flamingo or a garden gnome.

 

“I call B.S. on that” Billy declared.  “That house hasn’t even been there for ‘a long time.’ What really happened?  Somebody die there or something?

“No man.  Somebody died there before that house was built.  Or ‘Somebodys’ would be more accurate.  At least that’s what my Old Man told me.  There used to be a farm house there, and one day someone who lived there when crazy and shot everyone else that was in the house, and then shot himself.”

Billy thought about that for a minute while he stared at the house.  The paint on this house was the same as on all of the others, except that on this house it was faded and wrinkled, peeling and tearing away from the wood like old skin from a bad sunburn.  There were ragged holes in the outside walls that looked as if somebody had used it as a target for shotguns at close range.

 

Grass grew from cracks in the foundation and in the driveway.  A tumbleweed had blown up onto the porch and was wedged in the corner, near the knob-hole of the door that had long been nailed shut.  Everything about this home suggested disuse, or worse, dys-use; it did not seem to be merely neglected, but positively tormented..

An obscenity spray painted in bright blue just above where the tumbleweed rested actually provided an unexpected hint of color, or cheer, into a setting which seemed to suck color and/or cheer our of anything that came near it.

“So, what are you saying?  That this is some sort of story like ‘Poltergeist?’” Billy asked, and then vocalized “Do do Do do Do do Do do” like the theme from “Twilight Zone.”

Justin just shrugged his shoulders.  “I wouldn’t know man.  I didn’t see that movie.  And I ain’t suggesting nothing.  Pop just told me that somebody killed a lot of people in that old house and then killed himself.  They bulldozed that old house when they build this development and put this house right on top of the foundations of the old one.  People who lived here knew about the place and wouldn’t buy it, and people who moved here learned about it and they wouldn’t buy it either.  Now it really looks like shit and nobody will buy it for any price.”

“Yeah” Billy started.  ‘It do look like shit.  Looks like somebody wants to sell it though.”  Billy pointed to the ‘For Sale’ sign that still stood in what had once been a front lawn.  “Maybe that dude has high hopes of cutting a deal.”  Billy pointed to the sign which was now faded and hung from one chain, the other having rusted through and broken, probably during a wind storm, such as was common in that town on the Plains.

On the sign was a picture of the realtor who was offering the house.  His decades-old hair and clothing styles showed how many years had gone by since that house was built and offered for sale.  “I’ll bet that guy is retired by now” Billy said with a laugh.

The sun had long since dropped behind the row of poplar trees that defined the property line at the back of the house. Shadows were creeping across the front yard and had climbed past the bare feet and crawled up to the knees of the two boys.

“Come on, let’s go”  Justin said.  “This place gives me the creeps.”

“What” Billy exclaimed.  “Are you a-scared of ghosts?  Billy was new in town and always acted with a sort of bravado, as if he felt like he needed it to be accepted.    Justin had been born in this town and felt no such need.

“Scared?” Justin asked.  “You bet your ass I’m scared.  Nobody screws around with that place.  Come on; I’m walking.”

Justin began to walk down the sidewalk and soon Billy caught up with him.  “Baaawwk, bawk bawk baaawwk” Billy said, imitating the sound of a chicken.  “Come on, man.  You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?  Come on.  Let’s go back there and see if we can get inside.  Grow a pair, dude!”

Justin flared at Billy’s insult.  “Look man.  Why don’t you leave shit alone that you don’t know nothing about?  You want to screw around with that place?  Well, do it on your own time.”Justin turned and continued to walk down the sidewalk, into open sunlight and with the house to his back.

Billy ran past Justin and turned to face him.  “Look, man.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t know that place freaked you out so much.  Let’s just drop it, OK?  My bad.  Sheesh!”

Justin was truly upset, but knew that it really wasn’t Billy’s fault.  Any new kid in town could make the same mistake.  “Yeah, man.  Let’s drop it.  You’ll learn all about that place soon enough, but I don’t feel like talking about it now.”

Billy looked quizzically at Justin.  It was now his turn to shrug his shoulders.  The two boys resumed their walk down the sidewalk.  Billy was probably thinking about the mystery that was presented by this decaying bit of construction rotting in the middle of Suburban America.  Justin was thinking about the branch of his mother’s family that was wiped out in the place where that mouldering, brooding house sat.

The Pepperoni Bowl

Welcome, sports fans, to my annual NCAA college football rant.  With the exception of the Army/Navy game, the college football season is over and the postseason is only two weeks away.  On Saturday, December 17, the college bowl season will kick off with the New Mexico Lobos and the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners facing each other and the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.  After that will come the Hawai’i Bowl, the Las Vegas Bowl, the Raycom, AutoNation Cure, the Poinsettia and the Famous Potato Bowl’s, among others.  I call these the “Pepperoni Bowls,” for no good reason other than to poke a little fun at their averageness.  But don’t let that lead you to believe that I look down on those bowls.  In fact, quite to the contrary, I love those bowls.  In fact, I love them much better than the Snob Bowls that will be played later in the season.

There are many equally good reasons for my affection for those bowls, but the primus inter pares is that I love the kids who are playing in them.  With the exception of a few of the Power Five teams who have fallen upon hard times, you will see teams from North Carolina Central, Grambling, Appalachian State, Toledo, San Diego State, Houston, Univ. of Central Florida and Arkansas State, among a host of others, lining up on the field for what is one of the biggest days in their athletic lives.  These kids will play their guts out on that field, and for that I salute them.  This is what they signed up for.  The kid from Arkansas State knew that he would never play for a national championship, but he put his heart on the line every single day during the season in order to be chosen to represent the Sun Belt Conference.  And when Arkansas State lost to FCS opponent Central Arkansas and started out 0-4, their season looked like it was over, and over badly.  Instead, they rallied, put away one challenger after another and fought their way into their Pepperoni Bowl.  Do you think that those kids are one iota less pumped than someone from Alabama who has been a stud all his life, who’s path to the NFL is already in sight, and who’s academic performance is, well, not part of the conversation?

I have already heard the snot-nosed talking heads chattering about how we should do away with the Pepperoni Bowls and go to a 16 team playoff scheme for college football.  I really wonder why they are saying that.  It isn’t like any of those sycophants are going to be sitting in the stands while the Pepperoni Bowls are being played.  They will be in New York, or Los Angeles, or licking boots on some sideline in Columbus, Seattle, Tuscaloosa, or wherever the hell Clemson is.  Those worthy members of the chattering class won’t be in the stands watching the Pepperoni Bowls, and those stands will probably not be filled with fans either.

What will be in those stands however will be scouts from the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, and a lot of other NFL teams that truly suck and are looking for bargains to be found and drafted in the late rounds.  You know, the Dak Prescotts and people like that who come up to the bigs out of the Pepperoni Outlands and make a monumental impact on NFL teams’ performance?  A few scouts for the Seattles and New Englands and Dallas’ and Detroits will be there too.  How do you think that they stay on the top?

So that’s it.  A short speech for me, as it turns out.  I am as excited as I can be to be entering this wonderful time of the year.  Talented, motivated, gut-busting athletes will take this opportunity to show off their skills.  Fans may not fill the stands, but they will fill chairs in front rooms, sports bars and man caves, and they will watch and cheer for these blue collar kids who are saying “I can do this too.”  This, to me, is when it really counts, and I cannot say enough or be prouder of these kids who answer the puerile blathering of the talking heads by pouring their blood, sweat and hearts out onto the fields of the Pepperoni Bowls.  I’ll watch them over the Chosen Ones any day of the week.

A Difficult Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn continued to sit in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damned bucket seats” she whispered.

The Garden, Chapter VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’ll it be Dearie?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charlie.  Charlie Hamer” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Heidi: In the Rear View Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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