Charlie called the home improvement store from Leroy’s, where he had once again gone for coffee. The flowers which inhabited his battered aluminum percolator were beginning to droop, but they still had a couple more days left in them, and Charlie decided that he was not yet ready to part company with the tiny bit of color that they brought to his drab, spartan apartment.
“Good morning, Mr. Hamer” said the third voice to deal with him on this call. “Yes sir” said that voice. “Your shower door is in. Just show your invoice at the loading dock and you’re good to go” Charlie thanked the third voice and disconnected the call.
“Well, you’re looking a good deal better today” LuAnn said as she approached Charlie with her coffee pot. “I hope that my eyes aren’t deceiving me.”
“Your eyes are working just fine” Charlie replied. “I am a good deal better today. I’m sorry about yesterday. I’ve got no right to lay my downer days on anybody else. It’s my problem, and I have to deal with it. I really do appreciate your caring thought. That means a lot to me.”
The business at Leroy’s was slower today than it had been the day before, and LuAnn took advantage of that to sit on a stool next to Charlie.
“Sweetie” she began. “You got nothing to be sorry about.” LuAnn filled his mug with coffee and continued. “You ain’t getting no breakfast today, are you?”
“No” Charlie said. “I ate at home. Bacon, eggs, and broccoli boiled to death. You really should put that on your menu.”
LuAnn made a face at Charlie and then continued speaking. “Now I ain’t no Sigman Frewd, but I want to give you some advice, if you’ll let me.” LuAnn hesitated for only a moment before continuing, apparently unconcerned about whether Charlie intended to let her give him some advice or not. “There’s nobody alive who never has a bad day. Heck, even Superman runs into a little kryptonite every now and then. Feeling down doesn’t mean you’re weak, and feeling down here at Leroy’s doesn’t make you unwanted or an embarrassment or anything else Feeling down shows that you are human, and if you could watch people every day, eight hours a day, the way that I do, you’d see one heck of a lot of people trying their hardest to deny that they’re human.
Oh, it’s not that you can only be human if you are broken down and hurting. All that being down is is one part of life. But there’s people coming in here that I’ve seen for more years than I would care to count, and to judge by their faces, ain’t a-one of them ever been fired, divorced or even just cheated on, lost a parent or somebody else; heck for them it’s just been peaches ’n cream to judge by their faces. Now what’s the odds of that, huh?”
Charlie didn’t have an answer to that, and LuAnn was called away before she could continue with her counseling session. Charlie sipped his coffee and waited for her to return. “I like that woman” he thought. “I really do like her. She’s the first person that I’ve known for a very long time who I just like to be around. Well, except for Rachael. Walt? Well, I don’t know about Walt.”
Charlie watched as LuAnn seated her customers, brought them menus, poured their coffee and generally bustled and clucked and took care of them like they were her own lost children. But, unable to allow a good moment to go unchallenged, his old cloud of self-doubt and unease returned. “Shit,” his demons laughed into his mind. “She’s not just nice to you, idiot. She’s like that with everybody. You’re nothing special, so get over yourself!” Charlie was struggling with that when LuAnn returned, having started her customers on their way to a fine American breakfast.
“Now where were we?” She asked as she glided back to the stool next to Charlie. He didn’t speak up right away, so LuAnn continued on her own. “Must-a been something to do with people not showing their troubles. Ah, yes. I remember. Almost nobody’s come in here and told me that they’re having a crappy day, and I know that somebody’s just got to have one of those every now and then.
Now that’s just too bad. I think that you should be able to share your load with other people. With some of ‘em anyway. It’s just not good to bottle it all up and stew on it. That stew will eat you a long time before you eat it! Dang, I wish that I could smoke in here. All of this philosophizing; I need a cigarette!”
Charlie chuckled at that, feeling the work of his demons held at bay by this worn but undefeated woman. “LuAnn” he said. “You’re like medicine. Look, I’ve been having a pretty lousy last couple of years. When I think back farther, I can see that a lot more years weren’t as good as I thought they were.
Charlie looked down at his fingernails and twirled the mug of coffee, accidentally slopping some of it onto the counter. A thin stream of the hot liquid ran across the counter and dripped onto Charlie’s pant leg. “You see? I’ve been snakebitten” he said and cast a washed-out smile at his companion.
“I don’t see no snakes, Honey” she said. “All I saw was you playing with your coffee. Hey! We live and we do things. Sometimes those things work out for good and sometimes they don’t. Heck, most the time it’s things we got no control over that bite us. So why do we let those things rule our lives?”
The earnestness of LuAnn’s little speech worked magic on Charlie, and the heaviness that had begun to weigh down his spirit lifted again. “I’ve got to go,” he said, “but I’m going to think about what you’ve said. How much do I owe you for your consultation?”
“Just leave me a nice tip if you ever buy another breakfast in here, Cheapskate” She said with her warm, raspy laugh.
“If I ever make any money, you bet I will” Charlie replied with a smile. “Do I get a hug today?”
“Not on your life Dearie. Hugs are only for losers and stray dogs” she said with another laugh.
“Well, that’s me on both counts” Charlie said with a grin, and accepted LuAnn’s warm hug that was cut short by the cook’s cry of ‘Order Up.’ “I’ll see you later, when I’ve had a payday” Charlie said as LuAnn stepped back and headed toward the window where two large plates of food awaited here.
“You come back anytime, payday or no” LuAnn replied over her shoulder. Charlie waved and exited the cafe.
All the way to the store Charlie thought about his morning. It had begun well, but while sitting at the counter, the most innocent of acts; LuAnn simply being friendly with two customers whom she probably had served for years, had sent him back into his dark place. “Why was this happening?” Charlie wondered. Of course LuAnn would be friendly towards her customers. How was that any business of Charlie’s? And besides, tips flowed to the friendly waiter a lot more generously than they would to a sourpuss.
Why should Charlie begin to believe that LuAnn’s seeming concern for him was insincere just because she was able to be concerned with two customers at the same time as with him? It didn’t make sense, just like the thoughts that flitted through his mind as he drove across town of twisting the steering wheel and sending his truck into the grill of an oncoming dump truck didn’t make sense.
Since his evening on the bridge Charlie had decided that he didn’t want to die. Still, thoughts of his death and the ways in which that might happen always seemed to hover just barely beyond his active consciousness, showing themselves from time to time when Charlie was in danger of settling down into a good rhythm of life. Those thoughts were like a dull ache that you could almost forget was there, until you turn just the wrong way and it knifes you in the hip or knee or ankle or heart. “God” Charlie thought. “I hope that this goes away some day.”
When Charlie got to the store the shower door was indeed ready for him to pick up. Charlie tied the boxed door down with nylon ropes and called Carolyn to let her know that he was on the way. “Wonderful” she exclaimed when he told her that he was coming. “And did you get a chance to think about the kitchen?”
Charlie looked down at the stack of papers that rested on the seat of his truck, the papers that contained rough plans for the entire project. “Yes” he replied. I made a few drawings for you to look at.”
“Good. Good. I’ll see you when you get here.”
Warm thoughts of a new job with a better payday filled Charlie’s head, and he might have driven to Carolyn’s house a little faster than the maximum posted speed limit. He pulled up in front of the house and saw the front door open. Carolyn had obviously been waiting for his arrival, and that put Charlie into an even better mood.
“Good morning” Charlie called out as he emerged from the truck, and Carolyn returned his greeting. She walked down the path from the house to the street.
“Will you need help getting that inside?” she asked.
“Nah, no problem. I’ve got a dolly that will get it there easy enough.” Once Charlie got the box onto the dolly, which was a flat pallet on wheels, it was not hard to roll it up to the front door. “I can slide it down the hallway on these two towels” Charlie said, pointing to the towels that were draped over the top of the box. Two hours later, Carolyn was admiring her new, completed bathroom remodel.
“Ah, this is wonderful” Carolyn explained as she stood in the center of her new bathroom. “Everything is better than I even imagined. You really have a talent, you know.”
“Yes, I know” Charlie replied. “I’m happy that you like it. I’ve always wanted to do the best possible work. I figure the customer deserves it if they’re giving me their hard-earned money. I wouldn’t feel right doing any less.”
“Well, it shows.” Carolyn said. She took a few more looks at her new bathroom and then said “Come on to the kitchen. I’ll make some coffee and we can go over what you have thought of so far. I suppose that you’ve brought your own lunch again.”
Actually, Charlie had not. His own kitchen was bare and he was hoping that selling his ideas for Carolyn’s new kitchen would generate a draw. He would then be able to make a run to the grocery store. Charlie had been living from hand to mouth for a long time; this was not uncharted territory for him. Carolyn’s offer, which he would normally have refused before as a matter of course, seemed attractive to him today.
“Well no, I haven’t brought a lunch today. I planned on holding off on eating until dinner. Carolyn eyed him suspiciously, and Charlie knew that his thin frame was giving his lie away.
“How about I just make some sandwiches?” she asked, and Charlie nodded his assent. Soon, sandwiches were made, and chips and fruit and coffee were resting on the table before Charlie and Carolyn.
Charlie went to the truck as Carolyn began to prepare their lunch. He had his drawings on the table when they both sat down to eat. The gnawing in Charlie’s stomach made more pressing demands on his attention than Carolyn’s reaction to his drawings did, and so he dug in with more gusto that his lame excuse was supposed to lead Carolyn to believe. Carolyn was more interested in the drawings than her lunch, and Charlie hungrily eyed the half sandwich and chips that lay untouched on Carolyn’s plate. With difficulty he refrained from making a pitch for them.
Carolyn’s attention was invested entirely in Charlie’s drawings for what seemed like forever. Wheels were turning in her head. Charlie had finished eating, and now wished desperately to know where those wheels were headed.
Charlie studied Carolyn’s face with quick glimpses, not wanting to be obvious in his inspection. Carolyn was not what the social norms would call ‘attractive’, but Charlie could not exactly say why that would be. Her make up was at a minimum, and she seemed to not try to hide the tiny lines and proto-wrinkles that had begun to form at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
Her face was framed by light auburn hair which swept down across the right side, just to the side of her right eye, and rested slightly above the line of her jaw. That jaw continued down her face to meet its opposite at a petite chin, just below rather thinnish lips. When those lips parted Charlie could see twin rows of absolutely perfect teeth. “Good Orthodontist” Charlie thought.
Charlie’s thought turned involuntarily to his ex wife’s face. He could still remember every detail of it; the longish oval shape of it with long, almost black hair dropping past her shoulders. Maureen had big, round eyes that seemed eager to telegraph whatever emotion she was feeling at any given moment.
Those eyes had always captivated Charlie with their expressiveness; joy at their wedding, joy mixed with exhaustion at the births of first Stevie and then Josh, and then pain mixed with the need for comfort and the ache to be a comforter when they stood before the open grave of their dead daughter.
Charlie had been paralyzed by his own grief and was unable to respond to those eyes, and the need of the beautiful woman who owned them, and so now she was a memory living somewhere else; maybe in a neighborhood across town or on the other side of the moon for all he knew. How could he have done it differently? How could he have —-.
I like this” Carolyn said, breaking into Charlie’s thoughts. “You’ve got some good stuff here. I never expected that you would come back so quickly and with so much detail on the project. I like it very much. I would have told you more about my thoughts yesterday however if I would have had any idea that you would get onto it so quickly.
I want to take this wall,” she pointed at the outside wall, “and push it back so that it will share a wall with the garage. There’s a washer and dryer on the other side, and so there will be plumbing that can be shared, if that helps anything. I know that I’ll be giving up a good four feet of my front porch but that’s alright. I’d rather have the floor space in my kitchen than outside. Also, what I’m looking for is a nice look from the 1980’s.”
At this point Charlie’s face melted into an involuntary scowl. “I know. I know” Carolyn said defensively. “Nobody likes that stuff now. But I do. I use to love being in the kitchen with my mother when I was young, and I want something that will remind me of those times.”
Charlie was professionally outraged at this suggestion. He was good at what he did, and he knew how to make a place look good. He was beginning to get his creative juices flowing again and now the first thing that a customer wanted was a look that ran counter to everything that he thought was proper to build.
As a consequence of this, Charlie began to raise objections. “But Carolyn. Oak is just not done anymore. That dark wood thing doesn’t work here; heck, it doesn’t work anywhere. You would need a lot more light to give that look any chance of success.”
“Then draw in some more lighting” Carolyn responded. “Put in a skylight.” I like wood. I like oak.”
“And I hope that you are not going to say the word ’linoleum,’” Charlie groused.
“No” Carolyn replied with just a hint of frost in her voice. “I’m not. I want tile. Earth tones. And wallpaper.”
Charlie had forgotten himself and how much he needed this job. Everyone has their likes and dislikes, and Charlie just happened to dislike the 1980’s look very, very much, and thought that creating such a kitchen was an embarrassment to his skills. “Let me guess,” he said with a not-too-veiled sarcasm in his voice. “You want avocado appliances.”
Charlie prattled on for a few minutes more, mixing more objections with more suggested alternatives, and capped off his argument with the warning that the kitchen would have to be done entirely over once again before she would ever be able to sell this house.
Carolyn listened silently until Charlie ran out of objections. “You make good points Charlie,” Carolyn began. “If I was doing this project to prepare a house for resale I would do exactly what you suggest. In fact, I may speak with you sometime soon about just such a project.”
Charlie was looking directly at Carolyn’s face, and saw that the curve of those jaws which were framed by that auburn hair now looked tight.
“At the moment however, I’m talking about a design for this house. My house. I really have no intention of reselling it any time soon, and will cross that bridge when I come to it. Are you going to be able to do this job for me without any further argument Charlie? If you will not be able to do that, then we should probably go on about our separate business.”
Charlie wanted to recast his argument in a more persuasive manner but the import of Carolyn’s final sentence hit him like a punch in the stomach. He realized that he had just taken a nip at the hand that offered to feed him. Charlie’s body sagged ever-so-slightly as he spoke with a tiredness in his voice that had been born of his last two dysfunctional years.
“I’m sorry. You’re right. It’s your place. I guess I’m a little rusty with people skills. But I’ve had – – -. No, you don’t need to hear my sob story. I would be glad to make the changes you suggest. Any changes.”
Charlie wanted to go on, but he doubted that he could complete another sentence without breaking down. He waved his hand at Carolyn, in that manner silently asking for a minute to compose himself. Charlie didn’t even try to think about a Civil War battle or anything like that. He just took a couple of deep breaths and stared at his empty plate. Carolyn sat quietly in her chair, giving Charlie the time that he had asked for. Finally she broke the silence.
“Charlie, you are a craftsman. That I can see. You’re also troubled by something. That I can see too. Your troubles are none of my business and I don’t intend to make them my business. But I have to ask you this, and forgive me if I’m being direct. I am willing to hire your skill because I am certain that you can do the work. What I have to know however is not if you are able to build what I want, but more importantly, are you going to be able to finish the job if you start it?.”
Charlie stared at Carolyn, looking as if he didn’t understand the question. The silence, and Carolyn’s direct and unwavering gaze, finally forced Charlie to deal with her question. “Well, of course I can” he began. “I finished the bathroom all right, didn’t I?” Charlie felt his ire building up again. This person wanted to build a kitchen in a style that was almost thirty years old and wasn’t any good back when it was popular. Now she was questioning his ability to finish a job.
“Well, Charlie” Carolyn said. “You’ve raised a red flag with me here. I don’t have any questions about your skill, buy you have me worried about your balance. One minute you’re challenging me on the style I want for my own house, and the next, and please pardon my expression here, you look like a whipped puppy. Now I can see you getting defensive again. This is a problem, or may be, and I don’t need a problem.
This project will be very important to me. It will involve having my kitchen torn up; useless for part of the time, and it will not be cheap. And I will want it to look exactly like I want it to look. I’ll be frank, Charlie. You are not a construction company, as far as I can tell. You are good; there’s no doubt about that. But if you flake out on me, I don’t see my back-up. There’s nobody behind you to put my kitchen back together. I have to trust you from start to finish Charlie, and right now you are making that hard for me to do.”
The air came spilling out of Charlie’s sails as Carolyn spoke. His eyes nervously flitted from Carolyn’s face to the drawings, then back to Carolyn. At last, they landed on the drawings and stayed there until she finished.
“I know you’ve had a hard time, Charlie, and I don’t want to add to your troubles” Carolyn concluded. “But I don’t want to make your troubles mine, either. I know that you have some real skills, and that they’re going to waste.
I would like to help you Charlie, and it isn’t for charity. I would like to see the quality you produced in the bathroom reproduced here in my kitchen. But I don’t want to be left holding the bag if you drop the ball. Charlie, I need to know that you will be steady enough to finish the work if I let you begin it.”
Charlie felt anger, fear, shame and the desire to be whole and productive doing battle within his soul, and the outcome was very much in doubt. An hour ago he had felt like the future was wide open to him, and his possibilities were limitless. Now the job was very much in question, and he had no other job to fall back on. This confident and obviously sharp woman was questioning Charlie’s stability, and he wasn’t certain that he had answers to her questions. Not good ones anyway.
Charlie wanted to pick up his drawings and run, but he knew that he couldn’t do that. His demons, who’s tormenting of him had recently been impeded by Charlie’s opening up to other people and the idea that he might be worth something after all, sensed an opportunity to regain lost ground and stormed back into Charlie’s mind like a professional football halfback through a high school offensive line. Even so, a small part of Charlie’s mind and soul, like some skinny defensive back on that high school team, remained standing and determined to make a tackle or get flattened while trying.
“I need to know that too” Charlie said softly. He paused, searching for the right words to say. They didn’t come easily. “I’ll finish the job if you will let me start it” he said at last. “Hell, I’m not doing anything else. Carolyn, I need this work. I’m not much good at begging, but I’m getting pretty close to that. I can’t blame you for being concerned,” Charlie looked up and at last made eye contact again. “I promise, absolutely, that I will build exactly what you want, down to the last cabinet and countertop. But if you don’t want to take a chance on me, I’ll understand.”
Carolyn remained silent after Charlie finished speaking. Charlie interpreted the silence to be the conclusion to their business relationship. He reached out and began to arrange and pick up his drawings in order to leave. Unexpectedly, Carolyn reached out and put her hand on Charlie’s wrist.
“Tell you what” she said. “You go home and redo these drawings. Don’t worry about the wood and tile and whatnot. Just give me some rough plans for moving that wall, putting the stove over there” – Carolyn pointed at a corner of the kitchen – and the sink and dishwasher over there. The fridge can stay where it is. And if you think that it will make it a better finished project, put in a skylight or two. We’ll talk about oak and tile and canisters with chickens on them to hold my coffee and flour and sugar later.
And Charlie, I wish that you would think about asking for some help. I mean professional help. Everyone has loads that they can’t carry sometimes and there’s nothing weak or wrong about asking for help. But that’s not my business, so I won’t say anything more about it. Charlie? Will you think about what I’ve said?”
Charlie was thinking a little bit about how much he needed this job, a little bit about how much he wanted this job, and a little bit about how easy it would be to drive straight to the bridge and stop this madness. But most of all he was thinking about how much he wanted to be gone from that kitchen table. “Yes,” he answered. “I’ll do that.” And with that Charlie picked up the drawings, put on his hat, and walked towards the door.
“Charlie” Carolyn said. He turned and looked at her. “I just want to say again that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. So, see you tomorrow, OK? Bring me something to look at tomorrow, if you are still up for it.”
Charlie nodded numbly, left the house and buckled himself into his truck. He knew that Carolyn was watching as he pulled away. He thought that she looked sadly, but he couldn’t really tell. He pulled away from the curb and was half a block away when he exploded.
“Fuck it” he screamed as he pounded on the steering wheel. “Fuck the job! Fuck the world! Fuck her! Fuck me! Shit! Damn it to hell! Charlie raved all the way to the busy street that led out of the neighborhood. He didn’t really know where he was going; he just drove on, spilling his anger and frustration all over the cab of the truck. By the time his thoughts returned to where he might be going he was half-way down the road that led to the garden.
“What do I care about a fucking garden!?!” Charlie asked himself, but as he thought about turning the truck around the image of Walt came into his mind. “Now there’s a son of a bitch who sees things the way that they really are” Charlie thought. “I’ll see if he’s there. Maybe he’ll spot me a few bucks and we’ll go get shitfaced at the Key and Lock.”
It was in this frame of mind that Charlie drove up in front of the garden. Walt wasn’t there, which prompted another explosive ‘Fuck!’ out of Charlie. He was about to drive away, but he saw that Rachael was there. Charlie wasn’t sure if he wanted any part of her goody two-shoes sweetness right at that moment, but with the loss of the company that Walt might have given him and no prospect of any other on the horizon, the loneliness that yawned open before him made Charlie turn off the truck motor and walk into the garden.
Rachael waved at him cheerfully when she heard the truck door close, and he waved back as best he could. “How are you doing?” she asked as he approached his plot. His anger and a growing fatigue combined to limit his response to a mumbled and thoroughly unconvincing “OK.”
Rachael wasn’t fooled. “Bad day, huh? I’m sorry. I hope you really are OK. You want some company, or would you rather I leave you alone?”
“Both” Charlie thought. But he knew he had to make a choice. “I’ll just take it out on a few weeds for now” he said. “Maybe we can talk a little later?”
“Sure” she said. “Take your time.” Rachael turned and resumed her work of erecting a trellis for her green beans.
Charlie settled down in the dirt and began to pull weeds. He had not brought his gloves or kneeling pad, so he simply buried his knees in the soil and saw the dirt piling up under his fingernails as he slowly and deliberately pulled out the weeds that never ceased to grow, no matter how many you pulled.
“Now what are you going to do?” Charlie asked himself. “The fridge’s empty and you’re broke. You’ve probably lost Carolyn’s job and you’ve got nothing else lined up. Rent’s due next week, but you can probably get an extension on that. Maybe I’ll eat at the Rescue Mission in Portland. Won’t be the first time. Too bad these seedlings aren’t producing fruit just yet, but that’ll be weeks away from now at least. Let’s face it, Buddy. You’re screwed.”
Charlie leaned back off of his knees and sat in the moist dirt, his hands resting on his dirty knees. He looked at Rachael, who’s back was turned to him. “She’s a nice kid” Charlie thought. “I wonder if she has time to listen to a broken down old shit like me. I guess I’ll find out.” Charlie pushed himself upright and walked over to Rachael’s plot. “Can I help you with that?” he asked.
“Sure, Charlie” she answered. “I’m running these strings horizontally between the uprights. If you would like, you could start cutting the vertical strings. I think six foot lengths would do the trick.”
Charlie began to measure and cut, while Rachael silently continued her work. “She knows damned good and well that I want to talk” Charlie thought, “and she’s giving me the space to do it when I’m ready. Yeah, she really is a good kid.” This was the first positive thought that Charlie’d had since he had left Carolyn’s kitchen table. This thought gave him the strength to begin to talk with her.
“Rachael, you counsel kids that are messed up, don’t you?”
“Well, I don’t think that I would put it quite like that” she replied, “but yeah, that’s sort of what I do.”
“I’m sorry if I’m a bit weak on social graces” Charlie said. “But I think that I need to talk with somebody who counsels messed up adults. You know anybody like that?”
Rachael stopped tying her string and stood up. “I know a few Charlie. Mostly over in Portland, but there’s a few who practice on this side of the river, if that matters to you”
“Well, yes it does” Charlie replied. “I don’t go over to Portland more than I have to. Traffic’ll make you crazy.” Charlie laughed at his own joke; he felt crazy already. It took Rachael a moment to pick up on his dry humor, and then she smiled too.
“Do you be more comfortable with a male or a female?” Rachael asked.
“I don’t really care” Charlie said, and then he thought about the issue more deeply. A guy might be thinking ‘man up, wimp. Grow a pair. Why are you being such a baby?’ Of course, a counselor wouldn’t think any such a thing, but another man listening to Charlie’s problem might make him fear, rightly or wrongly, that he was thinking just that, and Charlie couldn’t stand that idea.
“On second thought” Charlie said. “Make it a woman, if you know somebody who’s good at it. I’m not trying to run home to my Momma, but I just think that I would be more comfortable with a woman. Or at least less judged. Aw, hell. I don’t know what I think. Am I making any sense at all?”
“You’re making perfect sense Charlie” Rachael said as she put a hand on his arm. “I’ve known that you are struggling more than you let on, and I am so happy that you have made this decision. Let me see if I can find a card.”
Rachael looked in the small purse that she kept in her back pocket but didn’t find what she was looking for. “Wait here. I know that I have one in the car.” Charlie watched Rachael walk to her car while he stood by the trellis holding a length of string. Before she could return however a van rolled up and parked behind Rachael’s car.
“Oh, shit” Charlie mumbled as Walt emerged from the van. He had forgotten that he had initially hoped that Walt would be here when he arrived earlier. Now Walt was here, and Charlie was less than enthusiastic about that fact.
“Hey, Buddy. How you doing?” Walt hollered as he waved.
“I’ve been better” Charlie responded, deciding to be honest.
“Oh, stepped in a little shit, have we?” Walt asked with a grin as he walked up the path towards his plot.
“I don’t know about ‘we’” Charlie replied. “I sure as hell have though.”
Walt laughed. I know how it feels. I’ve been stepping in shit damn near every day of my life. Oh, hey! Did you ever get in touch with Billy? He told me last week that you were going to call him. I know that the kid needs more help than he lets on, although he’d say something bad about my mother if he knew that I had mentioned it.”
“Oh, crap!” Charlie thought. He had completely forgotten that he had written down Billy’s phone number and promised to take a look at the structural problems at his residence. “No, I haven’t had time. Things have been a little crazy busy, but I think they may settle down a bit. I’ll call him tomorrow.”
“Hey man, you don’t have to make excuses to me. Ain’t none of my business. I just wondered is all. We’re getting together tonight if you want to come along. It ain’t Thursday, but were doing it anyway.”
Charlie thought about the empty wallet in his back pocket and the dinner that he wasn’t going to have tonight. “No, I can’t make it tonight. I have to work on some plans for a job I’m bidding. Tell Billy I’ll call him tomorrow, OK?”
“Yeah, I’ll let him know. Well, the weeds are calling.”
And with that Walt walked away towards his plot and got to work. At that moment Rachael returned with a stiff, glossy card in her hand.
“Here’s her card” she said. “Just one thing more Charlie. How do you feel about Black people?”
“I don’t really know” Charlie answered. “I don’t really know any Black people. I don’t think it makes any difference to me one way or the other. I’ve worked alongside Hispanic people and it never made any difference to me, so I suppose It won’t make any difference if she’s Black or Asian or from Mars. Shoot, I just want somebody who’ll help me to get my head screwed on straight. I don’t intend to ask her to marry me.”
Rachael laughed at that and said “That will be a great comfort to her husband. D’andra is a very good counsellor, and one of the nicest people that I know.”
“Thanks” Charlie replied. “I’ll give her a call soon. I don’t have the money to see her now. I suppose this will be pretty expensive, huh?”
“I don’t know what her rates are Charlie. I never talked with her about that. You could call and see if you can work something out. She and Shelby – that’s her husband – have just bought a beautiful but old house downtown. They might be willing to barter for services. I don’t think she would mind if you asked.”
Charlie promised to do that and then returned to cutting and, threading and tying the vertical strings to Rachael’s trellis. In short order Rachael had a ten foot long trellis that was five feet high, with a checkerboard of strings in six inch squares that were ready to receive the growing tendrils of a row of green bean seedlings.
Rachael had mostly been quiet while they finished their task, but finally broke the silence. “Charlie” she said as she turned to face him. “I would be willing to cover your first visit with D’Andra.
Charlie prepared to object but Rachael held up her hand and continued. “You can pay me back. This isn’t charity, although I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was. No, Charlie. This is offering to help. A loan, if you have to look at it that way. I am doing OK financially, and this would not hurt me one bit. I would really like to see you get started, and I would consider it a favor if you would accept my offer.”
Charlie had never accepted charity and was prepared to tell Rachael as much, but Rachael spoke again before Charlie could refuse. “Don’t answer me now, Charlie. Think about it. There’s no pressure, and I won’t mention this again. Please, just think about it.”
Charlie agreed to think about it, and then declared that it was time to finish up and go home. Rachael said ‘good bye,’ but not one more word about her offer. Charlie walked over to Walt’s plot and repeated his request that Walt tell Billy that he would call him the next morning. Walt agreed to deliver the message, and Charlie returned to his truck, started the motor, and drove slowly to his home.
As soon as he got home Charlie stripped and got into the shower. He stood there for a long time as the warm water washed the dirt and sweat away. He thought about the day as he stood there, and the warm water at last began to wash away some of his frustration as well. When he finished showering he toweled off and got into clean clothes, and then sat down at his table with writing equipment and tried to focus on a 1980’s kitchen.
“Oak”, he thought. “Tile. Earth tones, of course. Wallpaper? Ugh! Maybe she’ll let that go, but I won’t force the issue one way or the other. I’ll recommend paint, but we’ll see. Black appliances. Where the hell am I going to get those? Whatever. What about an appliance garage?” But his heart wasn’t really in the project. At last he put his pencil down and dug the card that Rachael had given him out of the pocket of his dirty pants that now lay on the bathroom floor.
‘Evergreen Counseling’ was written on the card in bold letters. At the bottom, on the left side, was written ‘D’Andra Chummley’, followed by a phone number. Charlie turned the card over and over in his hands as he thought about Carolyn and her job, Rachael and her offer, and himself; broke, hungry, and in need of help.
Charlie’s stomach growled it’s complaint about being neglected that evening and his mind turned to the homeless fellow that he had seen sitting at Leroy’s on his first visit there. The young man was willing to accept a hand, and to the extent of his ability, was willing to work for his food.
“Am I so much higher and mightier than that guy?” Charlie asked himself, and then he promptly answered “Hell no. Not one damned bit.”
Charlie decided at that moment that he would call D’Andra Chummley at his first opportunity the next day. His mind drifted back to Leroy’s and the charity offered to the young vagabond who had little in the way of means. “Maybe they have enough charity for two penniless vagabonds” he thought.
With the possibility of a meal on the installment plan and some professional help with getting his head together playing in his mind, Charlie felt a release from the futility, disappointment and anger that had filled his day. Ignoring the noises coming from his stomach Charlie fell to with the pencil and ruler and paper, and spent the next couple of hours drawing up the best 1980’s kitchen that he could think of.