The Garden, Chapter II

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Can I use it for a minute?”

“Sure”

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

“OK” Charlie said.  “Here we go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

The Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, this is my first year here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  She took it clean.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Take ten?” asked Monica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dickdoo?”  asked Monica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Passenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what are we doing here”  Chad asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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