The Garden, Chapter IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How d’you want the eggs?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charlie” he replied.  “And yours?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The eagle shits on you?”  Charlie queried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heidi (and Vivian)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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