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.