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.”

     

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