A Difficult Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carolyn continued to sit in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damned bucket seats” she whispered.

The Garden, Chapter VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’ll it be Dearie?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Charlie.  Charlie Hamer” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Heidi: In the Rear View Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Heidi: A Prequel

I’m sitting on the big wooden bench swing on the covered front porch of our house in Merrittville.  I just finished walking home from my last day of high school.  I am an adult now.  Educated.  Even though I won’t turn eighteen for two more weeks, everybody that I have seen since the end of our graduation ceremony has looked at me with different eyes.  There goes Charlie Brandt.  He’s an adult now.  At least, that’s how it feels.

I felt pretty good about myself when I handed that goofy flat hat to Mom and Dad and returned my gown at the window in the back of the school cafeteria.  Several of my friends said that they were going to hang out at the lake and invited me to come, and that’s what I wanted to do; what I still might do, really.  I don’t know.  I feel a little down now, and maybe I don’t want to be with people.  Or maybe that’s exactly what I should do.  Like I said, I don’t know.

When I walked away from my FORMER school I think that I might have been walking on an inch or two of air.  I stopped in the Qwik Mart and bought a pack of cigarettes.  Mr. Morris knew that I was not quite yet eighteen, but he also knew that I was a graduate and so he sold them to me.  Officer Czylenski, the deputy who patrols this part of town during the midweek, grew up half a block from my house and knows my family.  He won’t care either.

I smoked one of the cigarettes as I walked down the street and decided to take a different route home.  Well, no route really.  I just walked, feeling my freedom.  I walked past the junior high school that I had attended four years earlier, and then turned and walked towards the elementary school where I began this educational journey, and that’s when I walked past Heidi’s house.

Heidi was my first love, if you can call what an eleven year old kid in the sixth grade feels for a girl love.  That’s what I called it then, and I still think to this day that it might have been.  I have had two girlfriends since Heidi and I were together, and I hardly think about them at all.  I still think about Heidi though.  I wonder how she is doing.

Heidi was a very pretty girl and all of the guys tried to capture her attention and, if they were lucky, her heart.  I was awkward and shy, and it never occurred to me that I too could enter that sweepstakes.  I had an interest in the German language however and Heidi, who’s mother was German, grew up in a house where German and English were both spoken equally.  First we shared our mutual interest in language at school, and then I was invited to her house, and before long I found myself wanting to be with Heidi as much as I could.  To my surprise, she told me that she felt the same about me.

As I sit on the swing I think about Heidi. Eating rich German food at her house, our first kiss while walking through a canyon on the way to the store for her mother.  Our first clumsy dance at the recreation center one Friday night.  I can still smell the bread, feel my hand on her waist, taste that kiss.  Yes, I’m pretty sure that I loved Heidi.  Maybe it wasn’t the way Lancelot loved Guinevere, Romeo loved Juliet, or Mr. Darcy loved Miss Elizabeth Bennett, but it’s the way Charlie loved Heidi.  Still does, maybe.

It didn’t last though.  Heidi’s father had a lot of problems.  I don’t know much about it.  He came home from the war not quite right.  People said – – -, well, people said a lot of stuff.  I don’t know what is true.  What I know is that he went crazy one day and killed Heidi’s mother and then himself too.  Heidi saw it all.  She was taken in by her only living relation in the area; a woman who had more than her own share of issues.  Heidi moved away and I rarely saw her again, and never talked with her at all.

Today, years later, her house still stands vacant.  Heidi’s relative inherited the place and I don’t think she ever tried to sell it.  Nobody would have bought it anyway.  I don’t walk by that house much because I don’t usually have business in that direction.  I don’t even know why I walked there today.  It is literally falling apart, little by little.  I was shocked to see the windows broken, blackberries growing up through cracks in the foundation and gutters dangling from the eaves of the roof.  I don’t know if you could restore that house now even if you wanted to.

Sitting here I think of the wreck that is Heidi’s house and I wonder if her life is a wreck as well.  I wouldn’t blame her if it is.  The few times I have seen her, she looks like an Auschwitz surviver; gaunt, with bowl-cut hair, and no smile.  No sign of warmth at all.  I wonder what her life is like.  I wonder if she ever laughs.  I wonder if she ever thinks of me.

I reach for the pack of cigarettes again but I don’t pull one out and light it.  I don’t really like to smoke; I just wanted to stretch my adult wings today.  I’ll throw these things away when I go inside.  In two weeks I’ll be eighteen.  I will join the Army like my dad did, and I will go to war like my dad did.  He got Germany and I’ll get Vietnam.  Some say that he got the best of that deal, but I don’t think that it matters much who shoots you or blows you up.

I don’t know if I will ever see Heidi again.  Heck, Wally Mather was buried last month.  He caught it at Dak To in Vietnam, and I’ll probably go there too, so I don’t know if I will ever see any of this again.  If I come back though, I will once again love my parents, this big house, this swing and the neighborhood that I see stretching out before me.  I really do love my life, and I still remember Heidi – the Heidi who I knew in the sixth and seventh grades – with a special fondness.   I hope that she finds happiness, although by all accounts that seems to be a slim hope indeed.  I hope that life gives her a good turn.  I hope my heart will quit hurting when I think about Heidi.  I’m never walking by that stinking house again.

The Garden, Chapter V

That afternoon Charlie was very close to being happy.  The conversation with LuAnn over breakfast, the gratitude shown to him by the homeowner at the bathroom project, and his time so far at the garden with Walt and Rachael was more human contact than Charlie had been indulged in for a very long time.  More important was the fact that this contact had caused pleasure instead of the pain that he was more familiar with.

Charlie and Rachael didn’t speak much as they removed the weeds from Charlie’s plot.  Charlie had already spoken more on this day than he had in the last week, and the exercise had left his mind fatigued.  He assumed that Rachael was decompressing from her day, which could have included children in situations as bad or worse than his own, and so he left her to her own thoughts.   In what seemed like no time at all they did meet in the middle, and Charlie wasn’t ready to end this pleasant moment so quickly.

“Well” Charlie said as they both reached laughingly for the last unlucky weed that poked its head above the ground next to a cucumber bed.  “We made short work of that project.”  Charlie wanted very much to remain with Rachael, even in silence, and so he asked “Would you like some help with your plot?”

Rachael smiled but declined Charlie’s offer.  “No, I think I’m done for the day.  My boyfriend has texted that he’s going to be in town early and would like to have dinner at his place.  I’ll have to do some shopping and get cleaned up before I go over there and help cook.”

Charlie received this news with mixed feelings.  He experienced satisfaction that his guess about Rachael’s life was so nearly accurate.  Tea, a cat, a book, a boyfriend; the picture was of a normal, healthy and thoroughly likable person.  Charlie felt what LuAnn would probably have called a blessing, in that Rachael was a person dealing with the hard things of life but who remained positive and even cheerful.  Charlie needed this in his life.

On the other hand, Charlie had to admit that a romantic chord had been minutely struck by the warm femininity of Rachael.  Charlie had noted what walt had been predictably quick to point out, and with little delicacy at that; Rachael was a beautiful person.  There was no thought in Charlie’s head that any sort of liaison could ever be established with Rachael.  Rather, he felt a loss of his youth and the time when such a relationship would have been possible.

“Oh,” Charlie replied.  “He has been traveling?”

“He’s a pilot” Rachael said.  “He’s in the Air Force but he will be resigning soon.  He’ll try to get on with an airline that flies out of Portland.  It’s hard to know exactly when he’ll be around, so it goes like this a lot.  I’ll see you around here though, and I’ll take you up on your offer some other time.”

“Make sure that you do” Charlie said, and waved good bye.

Standing alone in his garden, Charlie felt his old emptiness clawing back up from the sewer into which it had been flushed by the return to the living that Charlie had experienced over the last day.  Rachael was young and had a boyfriend who, as an Air Force pilot, was obviously a guy with a good head on his shoulders and an eye to his future.  Charlie could never again be in the place where this young couple were now.

But he had been there once.  Charlie thought about the Maureen he had known when they were in high school.  Maureen was a senior and Charlie a junior when they met, and such distinctions were hugely important at that time of life.  Maureen was a very pretty girl; not a striking beauty but certainly attractive enough to catch the eye of more than a few boys at school.  She was aware of it too, as most attractive girls are.  A gaggle of goofy, awkward boys trying to show off and attract her attention was a regular part of Maureen’s daily existence.

Charlie was different however.  On the first day of school Maureen found him sitting next to  her in French class.  This was unusual, since most boys found French too effeminate to want to learn it, and if they had to take a language class it was usually Spanish or German.  Charlie explained later that he wanted to travel to France some day and had heard that French people responded more positively to tourists, and especially American ones, if they could speak some of the national language.

They talked together before class, then studied together in the library, and after Charlie’s drive to succeed in life had sufficiently impressed Maureen’s vigilant father, she was finally permitted to date Charlie.  The romance bloomed and was conducted in good order.  When Charlie asked Maureen’s father for permission to marry his daughter, he was more than happy to approve.  Charlie now thought about that tenderness that he had shared with Maureen as he watched Rachael strap her safety belt and drive away from the garden.  “I hope that he deserves her” Charlie thought, “and I hope that they’re both careful.”

Today, unlike the so-recent past, Charlie didn’t feel like giving into his demons.  He wanted companionship and he did not feel like going home to wrestle with those demons in silence and despair.  Unfortunately, his list of relational opportunities was short.  Charlie looked over at the plot where Walt was building a trellis for his green beans.  “Well” he thought.  “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  With a sigh and a deep breath Charlie walked over to Walt’s plot.

“Need any help?” he asked.

“Nope” Walt replied.  “But I wouldn’t mind if you gave me a little anyway.”

Vintage Walt” Charlie thought, and then he walked over to Walt’s plot.

“That’s a pretty little girlfriend you’ve got there” Walt said as they cut and nailed together the pieces of a trellis that would reach seven feet into the air.

“You must be seeing somebody that I’m not” replied Charlie.  “Rachael has a boyfriend already, and I suspect that he’s a lot younger and a whole lot prettier than either one of us.  She’s a good kid though, and I am glad that I can call her a friend.”  And then Charlie thought “She’s my only friend, as far as that goes.”

“Ah, that’s the way it goes” Walt answered.  “Nobody gives maturity and wisdom the respect they deserve anymore.”  Then Walt laughed and continued.  “They don’t give me any respect either.”

Charlie allowed himself a chuckle at that and busied himself tying strings first horizontally across the frame they had just built and then hanging strings vertically from the cross piece, making six inch squares of string that would allow the bean plants to climb and spread to their hearts’ content.  Walt was not accustomed to much company when he worked his garden and took full advantage of the opportunity.

“You know, Tom doesn’t like the idea of seven foot trellises at this garden.”  Tom was the chairman of the garden committee.  “He says that the shade will affect the plot to the east of mine.  That, of course, is a major crock of shit.  Stephanie – that’s who rents that plot – doesn’t care, so Tom an sit on it and swivel.”

“I know” Charlie responded.  “I’ve read the regulations.  They allow for five feet.  Is the extra two feet worth it?”

“You bet your ass it is.  That two feet will produce bags of beans and besides, I don’t like people telling me that I can’t do something just because they don’t like it.  If he asked me nicely I might – might – lop off a couple of feet, but throwing a rule book in my face isn’t going to get him anywhere with me.  He can screw himself.”

In an hour’s time the trellis was built and strung, and a big chunk of the plot was weeded too.  Charlie didn’t enjoy Walt’s company nearly as much as he did Rachael’s, but he found it vastly preferable to returning to the silence of his own apartment.  Walt, on the other hand, had accomplished all that he wished to for the day and was ready to leave the garden.

“That’s enough for me” he said, and perhaps he noticed the look of disappointment on Charlie’s face.  “Say, I’m getting together with a couple of guys tonight at the Smelly Socks.  You feel like coming along and hoisting some suds?”

“The Smelly Socks?” Charlie asked.

“Oh.  Sorry.  I mean the Key and Lock.  It’s a pub on the east side of Vancouver.  We sort of gave it our own name.  Anyway, on Thursday nights a couple of guys and I get together and have a few drinks.  You’re welcome to come if you’d like.”

“Charlie thought about that for a moment.  “We sort of gave it our own name” Walt had said.  “More likely Walt gave it that name” Charlie thought.  Charlie remembered the pub that he had sat in almost a week ago.  He had wondered on that evening if it was possible that Walt was in there, and he couldn’t avoid the memory that he had wanted Walt to be there.  Now he had a chance to make that wish a reality.

“Yeah.  I think I can do that.”  he said.  “What time?”

“We get there around six thirty.  You really going to come?”

“Maybe” Charlie said, backtracking just a little bit.  “If I don’t have anything else to do.”  Charlie laughed silently to himself as he pondered the departure from reality that his statement represented.  Charlie then gathered his tools and stashed them in the bed of his truck.  The gloves and goggles once again reminded him of the safety belt, and he imagined that Rachael was looking as he buckled himself into his seat.  “Oh great” he thought.  “Now I have a mother again.”

Charlie returned his tools to the shed and then drove to his apartment.  A crowd of people were on the lawn in front of the building which included the mother and kids whom he had seen several days earlier.  He nodded in her direction and gave a little wave.  She waved back, looking embarrassed in front of the others who noticed this exchange, and Charlie plunged into the building and down the hallway to his apartment.

Inside it was the same as always; silent and dark.  Today however it was stuffy, since Charlie had lowered the window.  He opened it again and then turned his attention to getting ready for the evening.  The refrigerator was empty, he remembered, and his entire wardrobe needed washing.  “Shoot” he thought, and looked at the clock in the kitchen.  “Five thirty.  I can eat or I can go dirty; one or the other.”

Charlie opted to go clean.  Taking a chance on the apartment laundry room being functional and available, he removed his clothes and stuffed everything he had into two trash bags and, wearing a bathrobe, went to the laundry room.  To his surprise and relief the room was empty and the machines all seemed to be working.  He stuffed his clothes into the washer and then returned to his apartment.  Charlie knew that he had forty minutes to wait for the wash cycle to complete, and then about fifteen minutes to wait for the dryer (if it wasn’t busy by then).  He would be late, no matter what, but that was OK.  He expected that the party would start without him just fine.

And it did.  Walt was at the Key and Lock early so that he could secure a table, and also in order that he could get going on his first beer.  He ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, reasoning that the price was right and that he didn’t need any froo-froo craft stuff.  “A beer’s a beer” he said, and none dared contradict his statement.  In short order four other men showed up and ordered their drinks, and the night was on.

Charlie arrived at nearly seven o’clock, hungry but cleanly dressed in clothes still warm from the dryer.  He could hear his party before he could see them.  The unmistakable voice of Walt rang out above the rock music coming out of speakers hung from the ceiling and the white noise of the crowd.

“I don’t give a damn how much of an asshole Saddam Hussein was.  He kept those other crazy bastards under control, and after thousands of good men died we’re in deeper shit over there than we ever were before!”

“Yeah” Charlie thought.  “That has to be Walt.

It was indeed Walt.  Charlie walked in the direction of the voice and soon spotted Walt and his companions.  Upon seeing Charlie, Walt pointed at him and laughed out loud.  “Well I’ll be damned.  Made a liar out of me twice in one day.  Gentlemen,” he looked at his companions and said, “this is the loser I said might be joining us tonight.  I see it and so I have to believe it.”

“I must be getting used to Walt” Charlie thought.  He took no offense at this rough greeting and actually smiled.   “Yeah Walt.  I told you today that I just do it to piss you off.”  Walt laughed at that and made introductions.  The server took Charlie’s order and returned with a cold mug of pale ale and a plate of nachos.  Walt returned to his debate.

“Ted here thinks the Iraq War was justified and I think he’s wrong as hell.  what do you think?” Walt asked Charlie.

“Uh, I don’t know” Charlie responded.  I didn’t follow it much.  I was busy 24/7 with my business and didn’t pay a lot of attention.  I’ll let you guys solve this problem.”

“Look” Ted began.  “We were locking horns with Saddam Hussein already.  He gassed the Kurds and then he shot at our planes.  Then the 9/11 attacks happened and right after that people in high places started receiving letters filled with anthrax.”

“Yeah” Walt interjected.  “So what?  That anthrax came from somebody over here.”

“But we didn’t know that”  Ted responded.  “Saddam was developing anthrax.  We knew that.  He had already used chemical weapons on the Iranians and the Kurds, so there was no reason to believe that he wouldn’t use them on us.  And every western intelligence agency said that he was working on building a nuke.  Hell, even the Russians said that.  If Bush hadn’t gone into Iraq and another attack had occurred the country would have been yelling for his scalp, and you would be too.”

“Bullshit” Walt thundered.  “Bush wanted Saddam’s hide because he tried to kill Daddy Bush.  That was just using American soldiers for his own personal revenge.”

“Maybe so” Ted allowed.  “All the same, it’s not smart to try to assassinate the father of the American Commander in Chief, wouldn’t you say?”

And so it went.  As the evening passed and more beer went down the hatch, Charlie got to know the others at the table.  Ted was thirty two years old and a veteran of the war in Iraq.  Joe was in his forties and was not a veteran.  Billy, also thirty two, was a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan and Dom, who was of indeterminate age, was a veteran who didn’t talk about where he had served or what he had done there.  Nobody asked, either.

Charlie sat quietly between Billy and Dom, mostly listening to the conversation.  He learned that Ted, Billy and Dom were members of a counseling group for post traumatic stress disorder with Charlie that was operated by the local VA hospital.  Each of them carried scars from their war experiences and had suffered from the raw experience of returning to ‘normal’ life.  They sought to unload as much of that weight in counseling as they could.  Joe availed himself of counseling in the private market for some unspecified issue which had troubled his life.  He was a friend of Ted’s and fit in well with these guys who had trouble fitting in at all.

These men said nothing that night about their counseling experience.  Walt later explained that those sessions were something almost sacred.  What was said there stayed there, and therefore anything and everything could be said there freely.  They could sit at that table for hours, putting away more and more of their favorite adult beverages, and never speak of what was said in their counseling sessions.  Everything else though was fair game.  It was Joe who opened up the next argument.

“It’s hard to win a war against people who are so sure that they have god on their side that they’ll blow themselves up to make that god happy.”

Walt groaned out loud.  “God!  Why did humanity ever curse itself with this god fantasy?  How many people have to die before we throw religion into the trash where it belongs?”

“I thought there were no atheists in foxholes” Ted said.  “Were you an atheist when you were in Vietnam?”

“I didn’t think about it much one way or the other to begin with, but after seeing Dickey Baldwin’s brains and guts splattered against a sandbagged wall I decided that no god would allow that to happen, or if there was one, he must be one miserable son of a bitch.

“But it wasn’t God who dropped a rocket on Dickey” said Dom.  “It was the Viet Cong.”

“Yeah, but any god worth believing in would have stopped the Cong from shooting that rocket” Walt said.

“LBJ could have stopped the Cong from firing that rocket by not putting our soldiers over there”  Ted chimed in.  “I would be a lot more pissed at LBJ than I would be at God.  Any God that I would believe in – and I do believe in Him – would have to be one who lets me make my own choices.  Sometimes though, I make bad choices.  Then I or somebody else has to pay for them.  LBJ made choices.  That Cong made choices.  You made choices.  Hell, Dickey made choices.  Sometimes those choices get us into trouble.  God’s trying to get us out of trouble.  Paid a pretty high price too.  But He’s not going to do it by removing our freedom to make choices.”

“Oh, so god comes down and tells you all of this bullshit over coffee in the morning I suppose” Walt said.

“As a matter of fact He does” Dom replied.  “He makes one heck of a pour-over too.  A lot better than that seal piss that you brew up when we go fishing.”

The table erupted into laughter and high fives were given.  When the laughter died down Billy picked up the conversation once again.  “I don’t really know if I believe in god or not.  I probably don’t.  I was raised Catholic but I’ve seen so much death and pain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hell, you can see it here, or in South Chicago, or any emergency room in any city.  I have trouble believing that god would allow this much pain.  At some point he should just say ‘Enough, children.  Play nicely.’  I would be fine with the pain if it was only the assholes of the world who took it in the shorts, but a lot of the time it isn’t them who suffer.  I’ve seen dead kids.  Kids with their legs blown off.  Who the hell did they piss off and why?  No, I don’t think any god that I would want to believe in would let stuff like that happen.  I’m not saying that I know.  That’s just what I think at this time.

Well, now, let’s think some more about it” Dom interjected.  “How are you going to know there’s something wrong if it doesn’t hurt?  My uncle Louie has diabetes and he can’t feel his feet.  If he gets a cut or a blister on his foot it doesn’t hurt.  If he doesn’t check his feet every day, he could have a problem that could cost him a foot or even a leg.  Pain would be a good thing for him.”

Ted picked up that thread.  “Yeah.  My wife’s aunt had some sort of female cancer, I don’t know what kind really.  Anyway, it didn’t hurt and so she didn’t know that it was there.  By the time that they found it on a routine checkup it had spread all over and killed her within six months.  That is, unless it was the drugs that they gave her that killed her.  So you’re saying that the pain that is caused by people who make bad choices, even when it falls on people who had no part in making that choice or even people who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, is allowed by God in order to remind us that we screwed things up and he’s trying to fix it but it isn’t put back together yet.”

“Yeah” Dom replied.  “That’s pretty much it.  We have a problem and we don’t have a way to fix it by ourselves, so even if I don’t personally feel the pain, and instead I see a starving child, that reminds me that something’s rotten.  Then I have the option to feed that child and make the world a little better, or shine it on and make the world a little worse.  God uses our choices in a lot of ways, and  pain in the world serves to keep me from getting too comfortable with things the way they are.”

“Well, that’s just horse shit” Walt declared.  I can see well enough that things are wrong without a bunch of psalm-singing Bible thumpers having to tell me.  I see people who don’t have good food to eat and so I grow it for them.  No god calls me up while I’m eating breakfast and tells me that I ought to do that.  I have free will and I make my own choice, and I chose to feed people.  The ones who don’t piss me off anyway.  And I don’t need no god to make me do it.

Dom, in his slow and thoughtful speech, stepped in again.  “But Walt, why do you feel that it’s wrong that people don’t have enough to eat in the first place?  If the universe is ruled by the laws of physics – and we won’t even start talking about where those laws came from – then what makes it wrong that somebody you don’t know, or somebody that you DO know for that matter, eats his fill or dies of starvation?  Is it wrong that a rock rolls down a hill and breaks in two at the bottom?  Is it wrong that a tree is shattered by lightening?  Is it wrong that a lion cub is killed by a male lion who takes over the pride from that cub’s vanquished father?  Something makes even your unbelieving old ass know that a starving child is wrong.  I believe that something is God.”

“So you’re saying that I’m obeying a god that I don’t even believe in” Walt asked.

“Yep.  That pretty much says it.” Dom replied.

“Horse shit” Walt declared again, and then he looked at Charlie.  “I haven’t heard a peep out of you tonight.  What do you think about all of this?”

Charlie gulped at suddenly being on the spot in such an intense conversation.  His mouth went dry, and he took a long pull on his mug of beer to wet his tongue.  He finally put down his mug and replied.

“I don’t know much about religion, and I don’t care about it much either.  It wasn’t big in my house when I grew up.  After my Dad left, Mom began to go to church but I didn’t have any time for it.  I always thought that it was OK for people who needed a crutch or something, but I always intended to make it on my own two feet.  And I always hated it when people would try to scare me with hell and the devil and all of that.  I thought that a guy in a red suit with a tail and a pitchfork was a pretty sorry attempt to scare me anyway.  Sitting on a cloud and playing the harp forever doesn’t sound like eternal good times either.  It all sounded pretty childish to me; like a fairy tale or something.  So I guess I just don’t know enough about it or care enough about it to give you much of an answer.  Besides, I got Socrates over here – Charlie pointed across his chest towards Billy – and Plato next to me over here – and he pointed across his chest the other way towards Dom – so why would I want to say anything at all?”

The table was silent for a moment and then Walt burst out laughing.  “A fine answer, young man!”  he declared, and Billy and Dom pounded Charlie on the back while they too laughed and then ordered another round of beers, paying for Charlie’s.  From that point the conversation turned more into a one-on-one scenario, with the men talking to their neighbors or across the table.  Charlie found Dom to be a very thoughtful and likable person, but it was Billy that he was most comfortable with and with whom he talked the most, when he talked at all.  About sports or politics or the news of the day, Charlie knew little.  He had tuned out of life some time ago and those topics were not on his radar of late.  Billy was a hunter though, and that was something that Charlie had once enjoyed.

Charlie also learned that Billy lived on a disability payment after having his right leg and foot badly injured in Afghanistan.  He could get around well enough but he was usually experiencing pain in that extremity.  Billy tried to go back to school and learn a trade, but the trauma that he had suffered in his military service made it hard to concentrate.  He planned to try again now that he was on medication and was being helped by the counseling that he and these other guys were receiving.  Charlie also learned that Billy lived in a small cottage at the back of his parents’ property, and that it was in need of repairs that neither Billy nor his parents could afford to make.

Charlie thought about Walt, hard-bitten and crusty as anyone he had ever known, and carrying his own load of whatever emotional garbage weighed him down, and yet still pouring himself into growing food so that poor people could eat.  If Walt could do that, why couldn’t Charlie do something like it?  At length he decided that he could, in fact, do just that.

“Would you like for me to take a look at your place?” Charlie asked Billy.  “I’m pretty good with that sort of thing and I would be happy to at least see what your problems are and what it would take to fix them.”  Billy was reluctant to accept what he called ‘charity’, but Charlie was persuasive, somewhat to his own surprise, and at length Billy agreed and let Charlie write his phone number on a napkin.  Charlie didn’t carry his phone with him much of the time and didn’t know that one of this group’s rules was that they leave their phones home when they come together at the Smelly Socks.  Charlie felt a closeness to Billy that surprised him, and as the evening progressed he found that simple conversation on a variety of topics became more and more easy to maintain.

It was almost 9:30 when Charlie looked up at the clock behind the bar.  He had never been one for late night activities and excused himself from the circle of men.  Charlie didn’t want to leave, and envied the others who expressed warm good-bye’s to him and then continued with their evening.

Charlie made his way to his truck and then drove the few miles to his apartment in silence.  He had never thought about his apartment much since he had moved into it.  It was simply a place to exist while he trudged through what passed for a life.  Tonight, after enjoying the closest thing to camaraderie that he had since the death of his daughter, the specter of spending the night in what amounted to a tomb for the living produced a vague sense of dread in him.

  “Come on, Charlie” he thought as he drove through the city streets, preferring that route to the freeway because it would take him longer to get home.  “You’ve got to sleep somewhere, and one place is as good as another.  Just do what you have always done; walk through the door, remove your clothes, lay down, and be still until dawn, sleeping as much as you can along the way.”

Upon arriving at his apartment Charlie remembered that he still had nothing to eat in his kitchen.  He had eaten breakfast at Leroy’s that morning, had beer and nachos at the Key and Lock, and could not justify another restaurant breakfast the next morning.  There was a new grocery store not far from his apartment; one of the organic hippty dippty places that rich people, health food nuts and Portland hipsters shopped at.  Charlie decided that he should purchase a few things to get him over until the next afternoon, and drove the five blocks to the store.

The Western State L&S wasn’t really a cooperative store, but it looked like one.  Organic this and non-GMO that was everywhere.  Tie-dyed shawls and incense in infinite variety were sold next to aisles which carried pills, powders and potions of every conceivable variety of vitamin, mineral, and whatever other substance was needed to address every possible bodily and spiritual need.  Charlie looked with awe at this array of what he thought of as fluff as he walked to the meat cooler, where he was surprised to find, between the turkey bacon and vegetarian bacon a package of bacon that really came from a pig.  From the produce section he selected potatoes, apples and oranges, and, just for a change of pace, Charlie picked up a head of broccoli.  “I guess somebody eats this stuff, and maybe I should try a little of it too” he thought.  Some cheese and deli meat rounded out Charlie’s food needs for the next day.

As Charlie began to cross the store to go through the check-out he saw, tucked into a corner, several shelves with flowers on them.  The color was what caught Charlie’s eye and he stopped in his tracks.  “Flowers” he thought.  “When was the last time that I bought flowers?”  And then he remembered that it was when they put flowers on Stevie’s casket.  “Fuck a bunch of flowers” he growled and walked towards the check-out.

But as Charlie stood in line and waited for his turn to pay, the flowers stayed in the corner of his vision.  “It wasn’t the flowers’ fault that Stevie died” he thought.  “The flowers we bought then could have just as easily been for a wedding, or an anniversary.  They’re pretty, and I like the color.  Ah, to hell with it!”  

Charlie surrendered to the growing urge to buy some flowers and take them into the sepulcher that was his apartment.  In the past any thought of flowers would only fuel his despair, as he remembered the pile of flowers that had rested on Stevie’s casket.  Tonight the flowers were not fingers that pointed back to the worst time in Charlie’s life.  Tonight they were just flowers.  Bits of color arranged to give a little pleasure to the eye and, maybe even a bit of a scent, and nothing more.  Charlie wheeled and walked back to the racks of flowers.

He picked out an inexpensive bunch that had a little white, a little pink, and a little red in it.  It didn’t come in a vase, but Charlie already knew what he was going to do about that.  He then walked back to the check-out area, paid for his purchases and drove home.  This time he parked his truck and walked straight to his apartment, stepping over a puddle of liquid on the front porch that he was pretty certain that he didn’t want to walk through.  He entered his apartment, put his bacon and broccoli in the refrigerator, cut the stems of his flowers a little bit shorter and then put the flowers in his coffee pot.

    “It’s a better flower pot than it is a coffee pot” Charlie thought.  He turned on the television, like he usually did, and turned off the lights before undressing and stretching out on the sofa.  Tonight however he had a pot of flowers on the small table at the side of the T V set.  In the darkness he couldn’t see the colors, but he knew that they were there and it made a difference.

As he lay in the dark, feeling the cool air come in through the open window, he thought about his day.  LuAnn at Leroy’s had shown him kindness and spoken to him of blessings.  The homeowner where he was working showed him gratitude, and repaid him for simply being ethical and alerting her to a design flaw.  Rachael had trusted him and shared her time and self with him, and Walt had introduced him to an evening of being normal, hanging out with other guys dealing with pain just as real and deep as was his own.

Tonight Charlie sensed a well-being that was new to him.  He was striving for nothing and hiding from nothing.  He would get a good night’s sleep and finish his job tomorrow or maybe the next day.  He would see what he could do to help Billy and he had a coffee pot full of flowers sitting on his little table, and he loved knowing that they were there.  Tonight, Charlie went to sleep a happy man for the first time in longer than he could remember.