Campfires

“Man, it’s been ages since we did this, Dad.  I’m glad that you had this idea.”

Greg Shannon sat on the wooden bench seat of the stone camp table that had been built by the WPA men during the Great Depression, almost one hundred years earlier.  “I can’t believe that it’s been fifty years since we did this.”

“Fifty years at least” Roger Shannon replied.  You and Wally Graham were fifteen, I think, the last time we camped here.”  Roger sat down beside his son, extracted a bottle of beer from the ice chest that sat at their feet, twisted off the cap and took a long pull off of the cold brew.  “Damn, but this stuff tastes better here than anywhere else.”

“You say that all the time, Dad.  I don’t think it makes too much difference where you are.”

Roger chuckled and said “Yeah, son.  You may be right.”  He took another gulp of beer and looked across their campsite.  A narrow asphalt access road ran past campsite #36.  Across that road the ground quickly dropped ten or fifteen feet to the bed of the Sweetwater River.  The Sweetwater could just barely be called a creek, really.   Only when a thunderstorm rolled across that corner of the mountains, or when an infrequent snowpack melted, did the Sweetwater look in any way like a real river.  On this day it was low, as usual, as it trickled on it’s way to being absorbed by the thirsty earth long before it reached the sea.  Beyond the river stretched a narrow mountain valley, and beyond that the mountains continued to climb to a peak of 6,000 feet, the highest elevation in San Diego County.  The air was warm and dry, the scenery beautiful, and the whole place thick with memories of family camping trips long ago.

“No, Roger said softly; almost under his breath.  “It tastes better here.”

Greg looked at the same vista that so impacted his father.  He too looked at the riverbank, and thought of the creek that he loved to play in after his father had admonished Greg and his younger brother Jerry to stay out of it.  “Don’t you two get wet in that river!” he would sternly command.  “Yes Dad” they would reply, and then run and jump into the middle of that misnamed stream of water in the straightest line possible, as everyone involved knew that they would do.

That and a million other memories flooded into Greg’s mind as he looked in the same direction as his father.  And, like the older Shannon, he reached into the ice chest and withdrew a cold beer.  Taking a swig he drew his sleeve across his lips and said “Yeah.  They do taste pretty good up here.”

Greg and his father were traveling together alone for the first time in decades.  Greg’s mother, Roger’s wife of many years, had died in an automobile accident ten years earlier, and now Greg’s own wife had succumbed to a short and brutal struggle with pancreatic cancer.  The elder Shannon had been separated from his wife suddenly, without having had time to say goodbye to her.  He grieved, and then healed and began to get on with the rest of the time that was left to him.

Greg, on the other hand, had watched his wife wither, wracked equally  by the cancer and the treatment for it.  He had plenty of time to say goodbye.  Too much time.  By the time that death ended Eileen’s suffering Greg had felt like he had died several times himself.  He was glad for an end to her pain, and both sadness and relief did battle for primacy in his scarred and beaten heart.  Within two months of Eileen’s passing, and after spending many hours on the phone pouring out his hurt and loneliness to his father, Roger proposed this trip.

“Greg, I think you need a break; a change of pace.  You’ve spent too much time in hospital rooms and I’ve spent too much time in Gustavo’s Tequila Factory.  Why don’t you come down here and take me on a road trip?  I’m too old to drive that much by myself, but I would love to see some scenery go past my window once again.

Roger lived in a single-wide mobile home on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, and therefore had access to the best scenery in the world.  Some of it, anyway.  But he did love being on the road, and knew that his grieving son needed to get out of his cocoon.  “You drive down here and pick me up.  Your boy can run the clinic while you’re gone and we can just hang out.”

The truth was that Marty, Greg’s oldest son who followed in his father’s footsteps and successfully navigated dental school, had already been running the clinic in everything but name only.  “Yeah, Pops.  Do it!” Marty advised his dad.  “I think Grandpa’s right.  A change would probably be a good thing for you.  We’ll hold down the fort until you get back.”

So Greg, or Dr. Greg to his patients, took the next month and a half to clear his schedule.  Then, in the beginning of July, he backed his Ford Explorer out of the driveway in front of his home in Bismarck, North Dakota, and headed west on Interstate 94.  The trip usually required two days to travel a combination of Interstate highways and two lane roads, if you pushed it.

Greg decided to do it in three days.  Loneliness had become his constant companion these last four months and more, and while he looked forward to “rejoining the living” as his plainspoken father had put it, he wondered if he ever really could.  Loneliness had become his lot, and he was not sure that his loneliness wasn’t somehow the glue that held his sanity together.

Greg spent his first night in a sort of clean and definitely inexpensive motel in Deadwood, South Dakota.  The sign in the bathroom admonishing guests to not use motel linen to wipe down their motorcycles was mildly disconcerting, but the place was otherwise unremarkable.  Dinner that evening and breakfast the following morning were purchased at ‘The Shootout Bar and Grill’.  Both meals looked strangely alike; the burger steak in the evening and the sausage patties the next morning appeared to have been fried in the same grease.  “My doctor would crap in his pants if he saw me eating this” Greg thought.  “Oh well.  You only live once.”

His leisurely drive the next day brought him to Walsenberg, Colorado.  He upgraded his motel accommodations and meal opportunities, finding a very nice motel with a pool and a restaurant attached that offered meat that wasn’t fried, as well as green things to eat.  A breakfast of oatmeal and fruit was procured in the morning, after which he pointed his SUV west again, winding across southern Colorado and then dropping south into New Mexico.

He pulled onto the gravel driveway in front of Roger’s mobile home at about four in the afternoon.  Knowing the futility of knocking on the front door, Greg picked his way across the yard, avoiding cacti and spreading patches of goatheads, and walked around to the east-facing back porch, where he was almost certain that he would find his father.

He was not disappointed.  Resting in nylon lawn chairs were his father and a woman of similar age.  “That must be Rosie” he thought.  Roger had a mixed drink on the wooden table at his elbow and the woman had what appeared to be an iced tea.  In front of them, at a distance sufficient to separate them from any extra heat on this warm summer afternoon, was a hooded barbecue grill with aluminum foil covering the opening.  A small motor turned a rotisserie, and on top of the hood rested a metal dish containing pieces of hot dog and bologna and other meats.  There, the bits of meat would be kept warm until they could be speared with a toothpick and munched, as hours of relaxation and conversation passed by.  Greg had seen this picture hundreds of times at least, but this was the first time that any woman other than his mother had been in it.

“I knew I’d find you here” Greg announced as he rounded the corner of the mobile home.

“Where else would I be?” Roger responded without missing a beat.  He then rose up and greeted his son with a bear hug, and didn’t let go too quickly.  “Come on son.  I want you to meet Rosie.”

Rosamunda Elena Chavezguerrero rose up from her seat and, after introductions, shook Greg’s hand warmly, but only after he had extended his first.

“The chicken,” Roger pointed in the direction of the barbecue grill with his chin. “Will be done momentarily.  Rosie will then turn Henrietta there into the finest chicken enchiladas that you’ve ever eaten.”

“By that, I suppose, you mean that I had better have brought my own Tums.”

“Oh, no” Roger protested.  “It’s not too hot.”

“I’ll bet.”

Memories of that meal lingered as the two Shannons crossed deserts and state lines for the next two days.  Greg discovered that Tucks pads would have been far more useful than the Tums that he consumed later that that evening.

Eventually they arrived at the Green Valley Falls Campground and now they had erected their tent, deployed their cots, and had packed all of their canned and packaged food items in the wooden camp pantry that was found in every campsite there.  The camp set up, they began to walk toward the falls area which was not too far away.

“So, tell me about Rosie, Dad.  What’s your relationship with her?”

I knew you’ve been dying to ask” Roger chuckled.  “Rosie and Ernesto were two of my favorite people in Taos.  I met Ernesto at Gustavo’s and we hit it off right away.  We tossed back a lot of drinks before we discovered that we both loved to garden.  Pretty soon I was at his place all the time, working in his garden with him and sharing meals from the produce that we grew, and spending long evenings sitting in the shade with him and Rosie and oftentimes with their family and friends.  They sort of adopted the lonely old Gringo.

I began to go to church with them; yes, don’t look so surprised!  They sort of became like family, and the family went to church.  So I went to church.  I guess I’m still a Methodist, if I’m anything at all, but I found the church to be a comfortable place.  You know, that building is over two hundred years old.

Generations have been born and died, all of whom were baptized there and later laid to rest out in the campo santo.  Sometimes when I’m there it feels like they’re still hanging around, sort of.  Still worshipping.  Nobody’s ever called me a religious guy, but I guess the closest I’ve ever come is right there in that old adobe church.

“So, where does Ernesto figure in here?” Greg asked.  “What does he think of Rosie cooking chicken enchiladas for you at your home?”

“Ernesto passed away two years ago.  He got the flu, then pneumonia.  The two diseases tag-teamed him and his organs all shut down.  His death hurt, sort of like your mother’s did.  Not with the same intensity, but it left a hole.  Of course, it left an even bigger hole in Rosie’s life.  She took it pretty hard, but her family and the church really came together around her.  I continued to tend Ernesto’s garden; in a way, it was like keeping a part of him alive for myself.

Rosie and her family were surprised by this, I think.  The Hispanic community up there is used to living side by side with us Gringos, but there’s little real mingling.  After a while though, Rosie saw that my affection for her husband was genuine and she appreciated that.  Plus, I grow a better garden than he did!  Anyway, we’ve come to enjoy each other’s company.”

The falls area was only a short distance form the campsite, a fact for which Roger was grateful.  Soon they stood before the slit through the boulders in which a narrowed-down Sweetwater River shot towards the forty-foot long, steep slide of rock down which the water raced toward a pool at its base.

“I can’t believe that Jerry and I would climb around on that pile of rocks and didn’t kill ourselves,” Greg said.

“I can’t believe it either,” Roger replied.  “Your mother was certain that one or both of you wouldn’t come back when I would turn you two loose.”

Greg stared at his father in surprise.  “Then why did you let us do it?”

“Well, I remembered my own growing up.  I did things at least that dangerous and some a lot worse.  I suspect that you have too.  I survived mine, and I thought that letting you two live was a better deal than worrying that every little thing would kill you.  So I rolled the dice.  Do you think that I did the right thing?”

Greg mulled it over as he imagined two ragamuffin boys prancing barefoot over the rocks and sliding along in the river current, and having the time of their lives.  “I guess it was probably a good thing,” he said.

Later that evening Roger cooked a simple meal on their gas camp stove.  The old stone camp stoves, also built by the WPA men so long ago, had finally crumbled under the stress of thousands of roaring campfires used to cook breakfasts and dinners, and to provide a center for storytelling and camp life on thousands of evenings.  The steel stove-on-a-pole contraptions that had replaced the old stone stoves had the aesthetic appeal of a razor blade easy chair, and the two men would have nothing to do with it.

After cleaning up they opened two beers and sat back to watch the sun go down in the west.  Roger was tired from the long drive west from Taos. Walking around the campground, while satisfying in that it limbered up his tired and cramped muscles and joints, had taken its toll.  Greg mostly felt peace from his walk down memory lane, and only narrowly avoided shucking off his shoes and shirt and getting into the water like he had done so many years ago.

Something was holding him back from real peace though.  Something seemed to be lurking beneath the banter and reminiscences that he shared with his father.  There was another shoe.  Just about as the sun slipped behind the low hill on the other side of the campground’s shower building, that shoe dropped.

“Greg, there’s something I’ve got to share with you.”

Damn!” Greg thought.  “I hate it when people say that.  Here it comes.”

“What is it, Dad”

Roger stared at the western horizon for a minute to two more, as if looking for the right words to come to him out of the fading light of the already-set sun.  Greg noticed the little shrug of his father’s shoulders as he gave up the search.

“I had a colonoscopy a couple of months ago.  Part of the ‘old man drill’.  Problem is, it showed that I have cancer growing up there.  They did a CT on me and found that it’s already in my liver, and in a couple of bones, too.”

Since Greg had felt that something was coming, he was not terribly surprised at the news.  “So how bad is it?”

“Well, they say that I’ve got maybe six months to a year.  It’s pretty far along. Nobody knows, really.”

Greg sat silently, trying to digest this new bad news.  His struggle with the death of his wife had exhausted him, and he now could feel no grief as he listened to his father tell of his own impending end.  He knew that the grief would come soon enough though.

“You’re not going to do chemo or anything like that, are you.”  Greg said it as a statement of fact, not as a question.

“Nope.  No point.  My sawbones recommended all of that shit, but he knows it’s worthless and didn’t argue with me too much. Rosie introduced me to a curandera; a traditional healing woman.  Many in the Hispanic community swear by her.  I’m giving her a shot.  She prays and mixes up some roots and bark and other stuff like that for me to drink.  Hey, it might work.  Who knows?”

The two men remained silent for a while, deep in their own thoughts while the beers in their hands grew warm.

“Dad, I thought that you invited me on this trip to help me deal with Eileen’s death.  I have to tell you that I feel a little bit screwed here.”

Roger was ready for that statement.  “I don’t really blame you, son.  But I wish that you would try to look at it differently.  I lost your mom in an instant.  She went to the store to get some groceries and she didn’t come back.  The sheriff and the coroner both told me that it would be better that I not see the body; that not much of it resembled the Rebecca that I had known.  I said goodbye to some ashes; to pictures, to a closet full of clothing that still smelled like her, but she was gone.  I could only say goodbye to memories.

And you have just watched death happen in slow motion.  I won’t describe that for you again; you know it well enough.  Hell, you know it a lot better than I do.  I saw it close enough when Ernesto was dying, but it was nothing like you went through.

Anyway, I thought that telling you here and in this way was like splitting the difference.  We’ve got the rest of this trip to enjoy and lots of time to say goodbye, but I’ll not have you watch it again.  I don’t want to add to the grief that you have already been feeling.  In fact, I hoped that somehow this would help to take some of it away.  If I’ve done this badly, I apologize for that.  I did it the best way that I know how though, and I did it this way because I love you very much.”

Greg sat silently, thinking about what his father had just told him.  There was a logic to it; that he couldn’t deny.  How could his father have told him in a better way that he was going to die soon?  Sitting in campsite #36 , where good memories of family camping trips were thicker than the bluejays that would flock to a piece of bread thrown on the ground, did seem like a good place to break such news.  Greg then thought about the generations of people who seemed to still linger in and around the Taos mission church that his father had spoken of.  Yeah, it was sort of like that here.  It seemed like a circle was somehow being closed.

“So, who’s going to take care of you Dad?  You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?  You know that I will come down in a heartbeat and stay to the end.”

Roger chuckled a moment at that.  “You mean commit suicide?  Naw, I’m not doing anything like that.  Rosie’s promised to look after me.  Her family will step up too.  They’re good people, son.  They have a soft heart for an old stray dog like me.  I’ll die in my own bed; the one I shared with your mother for more years than I care to count, and in my own home.  That’s a pretty good gift, I think.  I’m sort of looking forward to seeing your mother again, too.”

Greg let that sink in.  His father wanted to spend good time with him and spare him from a repeat of the ordeal that he had just endured with Eileen, and that felt good. He was surprised to hear his father speak of meeting Greg’s mother again though.

“Sounds to me like you’re thinking of heaven and stuff like that.”

“Well, Rosie and her family and the people we go to church with are pretty high on it, so what’s there to lose?  Yeah, I think about it some.  Heck, why not?  The idea of being with Rebecca again is kind of pleasant, don’t you think?  Maybe they’ve got good tequila up there too.  Ernesto and I could toss a few back again.  Your mom wouldn’t mind too much, I think.”

The two men sat quietly together as the gloom thickened in the east and overwhelmed the last glow of sunlight in the west.  Lanterns sprang to life in the camp sites that surrounded their own.  Roger’s ancient Coleman gas lantern sat on the thick table untouched.

Greg finished his beer and got up to relieve himself behind a tree.  He then retrieved a pint of bourbon from the back of the SUV.  Tonight called for something stronger than beer.  He returned to his chair, took a pull from the bottle and passed it over to his surprised father who didn’t know that Greg had brought such a treasure along.  Roger took an appreciative pull off of the bottle and then asked“You mad at me?”

Greg shook his head; an act that Roger could not have seen in the dark.  “No Pops.  I’m not mad.  That’d be kinda pointless.  I get what you are trying to do, and I guess there’s just no right way to do it.  I’m not made out of ice though.  This is pretty hard to swallow.  And speaking of swallows, don’t bogart that jug, OK?”

Roger passed the bourbon back to Greg, who gulped down a mouthful, and then continued.  “You’re probably right about this, Pop.  Hell, you’ve been right about a lot of things in my lifetime, now that I think of it.  I’m not staying away while you die though.  You can forget about that shit.  Marty doesn’t really need me to run the clinic any more.  I guess now’s as good a time to retire as any.  Maybe I’ll rent a place in Taos, so I can be close but you can keep your own space.  I can volunteer at a clinic, if they do that there, just to keep busy.  I’m going to be close, but I’ll stay out of your face.  And this is not negotiable.”

Roger reached for the bottle and took a swig.  That was not his plan, but he had to admit that he liked it.  “Fair enough” he said, closing the deal.

“Does Jerry know?” Greg asked.

“Maybe.  I suppose so.  I sent him a letter to the last address that I had, and it didn’t come back.  I guess that when it’s over he’ll come around to see if there’s anything left for him.”

“Will there be?”

“No.”

“Well, I don’t need any of it.  What are you going to do with it?  I know it’s a pretty penny.”

“Some’ll go to the church, I guess.  Some to the Humane Society.  The rest I’ll give the a Native American college fund.”

“The church, huh.  I think you’re a little deeper into this than you let on.”

“Yeah.  Maybe.  I guess so.  You might try it yourself.”

Greg thought again about Eileen, and how much he would like to see her again.  “Yeah, I wish that I could believe that.”

More than half of the bottle of bourbon was drained before the two men got up to go to sleep.  Roger wobbled a bit after sitting for so long.  Greg, who was far less accustomed to alcohol than was his father, wobbled a bit as well as he helped Roger to the shower building, where they emptied their bladders and washed their faces before turning in.

As they stretched out on their cots under the blankets that kept out the cool mountain air Roger spoke from his corner of the tent.  “You sleep well, son.  The sun’s gonna come up tomorrow and I’m still gonna to be alive.  Life was never anything but a gift, and I’m not called to give it back just yet.  And this is the last that I want to speak of it, on this trip at least.”

Soon after that the tent was filled with Roger’s soft snores.  Greg listened to his dad’s breathing and thought of his father’s coming death.  He remembered Eileen’s sufferings, and anticipated the next round of that struggle that he would soon have to watch.

“Church!” Greg thought.  “I hate you God!”  How is Dad turning to you now, when you’re about to snuff him out?  Eileen believed in you too, and her suffering was awful.  What are you, some kind of cosmic masochist?  Do you get your jollies screwing people over?  Who the hell would ever worship a God like you?

Greg went on in that manner deep into the night, talking to a God who he said that he didn’t believe in; wrestling with a God who he said wasn’t there.

In the morning, when the first light of hope began to pierce the eastern darkness, Greg finally understood that he really was talking to Somebody.  It was a conversation that would continue and, in time, would bear much good fruit until his own final nightfall.

HEIDI

Heidi (and Aunt Vivian)

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

Heidi changed all of that. Heidi was a new kid in our school, and in a school with no more than one hundred students in the sixth grade class it was hard to stay anonymous. It would have been hard for Heidi to remain anonymous in a class of one thousand. She was as pretty as, well, you can provide whatever metaphor for pretty that suits you best. For me, she was just as pretty as a golden dawn, or a field of flowers, or a foggy morning at the beach ,or; well, I guess you get the point. I thought she was the definition of beauty itself, but I’ll allow myself to be content to say that Heidi was pretty.

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

I was always curious about my world. I wanted to know how we humans came to be what we are. I read about dinosaurs and cave men. I read the Bible, and even in the sixth grade I would read about the archaeologists who dug up the history of humans in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and elsewhere. People were fascinating to me, and I wanted to know about them.

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

I told Heidi about my wish to learn German one day when we were seated next to each other at Linda Swann’s birthday party.  Heidi smiled at me and said that she spoke German. Her mother was German and her father a mix of German, Irish and a bunch of other stuff. Heidi’s mother spoke German as a first language and Heidi was fluent in that language too, although she only spoke it at home. I could hardly believe that she was so open and friendly with me.  “Probably because she knows that I’m too shy to try to make her my girl friend” I thought. I just knew that things like that didn’t happen to me.

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

After a while I figured out that Heidi’s mother did not always need two more apples or a pound of butter; that it was just an excuse to let us to walk together to the store. Eventually we began to hold hands after we got a block away from Heidi’s home. The neighbors, of course, knew all about the budding relationship, and word certainly got around. Heidi didn’t live in my neighborhood though, so it didn’t get to my mother.  She would not have approved of me becoming attached to a German.

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

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

Heidi waited patiently while I fumbled to find the right line.  “Uh, Heidi.  You know, you are really cool and, uh, I really like you a lot.”

“I like you too, Taylor.”

I waited for her to say more, but she just stood there looking more beautiful than – – – well, we’ve already been there.  She was just so pretty!

“Well, I, uh.  I guess I could call you a friend.”

“Why, sure Taylor.  I think you’re my friend.”

“Uh, yeah. Well, I like you a lot, you know, and you’re a friend; maybe my best friend really, and you’re, well.”

My heart was about to explode.  To this day I remember how much I wanted to say what was on my mind and how much I dreaded what her answer might be.  At last, desire trumped dread and I gasped out my question through a constricted throat.

“Well, I was thinking that maybe you’d like, I mean if you’d want – oh, I mean would you be my girlfriend?”

There.  It was out.  There was no taking it back now.  I steeled myself for rejection and prepared to put the best face on it.

“Sure Taylor.  You’re a nice guy.  I like you.  I would like to be your girlfriend.”

Whether from gratitude or relief, my heart almost stopped beating.  As Heidi’s words began to soak into my brain I realized that this agreement needed to be formalized by an action.

“Can I kiss you?” I asked, with a feeling of assurance that I would have considered impossible only five minutes earlier.  Heidi nodded her assent, and then I stepped forward and pressed my lips against hers.

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

During this time I rarely saw Heidi’s father. He worked the night shift at a refinery thirty miles from their home and was usually sleeping during the day.  At least, that’s what they told me. Years later I learned that Heidi’s father drank a lot, and usually was in his room either drinking, asleep, or passed out when I was there. He managed to do his job well enough though, so he was never laid off.  His manager was also a veteran of the recent war, so he took pity on him.

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

Things didn’t go back to normal. Heidi and I would get together as much as we possibly could be for almost a year and a half , but one day at the beginning of the eighth grade she didn’t show up at school. I called her as soon as I got home to see if she was sick , but there was no answer. Fear began to play around the base of my brain and I went to my mother to tell her that I was going to ride my bike to Heidi’s house to see how she was.

Mom had softened towards Heidi.  Heidi and I would study together at our old, round dining room table, and sometimes she would help my mother in the kitchen or in some other way.  “The only decent German I ever met” Mom would say. The look on Mom’s face that day cast a  dark shadow across my heart. She told me to sit down; that she had something to tell me.

What followed was the news that Heidi’s father had gotten drunk, heard his wife speaking German, and then took down a shotgun from a rack on the wall and  blew his wife almost in two. Then, probably after realizing what he had just done, he reloaded the shotgun, placed it in his mouth and blew his own head off.  Heidi watched the whole thing.

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

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

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

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

I wanted more film and another soda and a bag of sunflower seeds, so I walked across the park to the little store that still stood and did battle with the big supermarket that had come to Sommerville, only six miles away. As I approached the store I saw two women walking out of the front door and a switch went on inside my head. It was Heidi and Vivian, but I could only barely recognize Heidi. The face was neither masculine nor feminine, and it was nearly without expression at all.  If I was to try to describe what I saw in her face I would probably go with bitter, although empty would place a close second.

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

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

“Good,” I replied. “I’m good.  How have you been?  I haven’t seen you for such a long time.”

“Yes” she replied.  “It has been a long time.”

Just that.  A statement, more than a conversation.  I tried again.

“I’ve just graduated and now I am going to join the Army.  Maybe they’ll send me to Germany”  That was just whistling past the graveyard.  Everybody knew that I would probably soon be in Vietnam.  Heidi looked like she wanted to respond, but Aunt Vivian signaled her impatience with a sigh and a shuffling of the feet.  I could feel that this interview was nearly over.

“I’m taking pictures of friends and the old town so that I can take them with me when I go into the service.  Would you let me take a picture of you?”

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

Sure enough, almost  year to the day after my graduation from high school, I was checked into the replacement battalion in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.  I was a pretty decent auto mechanic, as were most of the boys in my rural town.  I was therefore trained further in gasoline and diesel mechanics and then assigned to an infantry unit near Pleiku.  I worked in the motor pool, keeping everything from jeeps and trucks to tanks running until there was just no use left in them.  Pleiku was in the Central Highlands area of the country, where it was more comfortable than down in the steamy lowlands closer to the sea.  All things being equal, it wasn’t bad duty.

I put Heidi’s picture, that ragged picture of a girl who scarcely resembled my Heidi in any way, inside the door of a metal locker next to my bunk.  When things were boring which, surprisingly, was more often than you would expect in a war, I would sometimes get drunk or smoke a joint or both, and stare at that picture.  My daydreams would go to the pretty girl who taught me German and kissed me in a canyon, but it was devilish hard to see that girl in the curling black and white picture.

One day I was engaged in staring at it and my friend John Henry, an African American guy two or three years older than me, pulled a beer out of the refrigerator that we had “requisitioned” from a convoy of supplies going out towards a forward area, and sat down on my footlocker.

“Man,” he began.  “You know you’re my friend.  You know that, right?”

“Yeah man” I replied.  “I know that.  What’ up?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say this to just anyone.  I mean, we’re tight and all, and I can say things to you that I wouldn’t say to any of the other guys.  You dig?”

“Yeah.  Sure.  We’re cool.  C’mon man, spit it out.  What’re you trying to say to me?”

“Well, it’s just that picture.  That your girl friend back in the real world?”

“Was.  Once.  Hasn’t been for a long time.  I really did like her then.  Don’t think I ever really stopped liking her.  The day I took that picture was the first time I’d seen her in, oh, gotta be four years.  Why you wanna know?”

“Well, man.”  John began to chuckle.  “I just gotta say.”  The laughter began to well up out of John’s big, broad chest.  “Man, that girl’s so ugly she’s gotta pull the sheets up over her head at night so that sleep can sneak up on her!”

John couldn’t hold back any longer.  He laughed until tears began to roll down his dark cheeks.  At first I bristled, but John and I were close. We had shared many “momma jokes” at the enlisted men’s club where a lot of people didn’t know us.  Many of our jokes were so raunchy and deftly delivered that the other guys who heard us thought that a fight was about to break out.   At last, I began to laugh too.

Soon afterward we were sitting in some lawn chairs on top of our company water tower, sucking down beers and sharing joints and talking about home and our girlfriends; his present and mine past.  I told him Heidi’s story.  When I was finished he put his hand on my shoulder and said “That’s tough man.  Real tough.  I’ll cut her some slack for that.  And you’re a good man for being able to look past her troubles.”

We smoked all of our weed and killed off our beers while we gazed out over the green carpeted hills that surrounded our camp and stretched away to the horizon in all directions.  After a while John began to chuckle again.  “She still ugly, man.”

I’m lying on a bunk at the replacement battalion now, waiting for my name to be called so that I can board a plane and return home, free from Vietnam and free from the Army.  For three years I have looked at Heidi’s photo, and at last I think that I’ve been able to find the beautiful girl I once knew looking out through the haunted and expressionless eyes of that tragically changed young woman.  “There she is,” I think to myself, “and I would like to see if she can come out.”

I sent a letter to my father a few months ago, and asked him to inquire about Heidi’s status and location.  He replied that she is now a clerk in some sort of position at the train station in Merrifield, about twenty miles from home. Dad wrote that she was dressed nicely, “like a proper young woman,” and no longer resembled the person that he saw in my picture. “That would scare children and turn milk sour” he had said when he saw it. Dad also said that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. I believe that I’ll pay her a visit when I get home.

The Garden, Chapter IX

Good morning, Mr. Hamer.  How are you doing today?”

D’Andra Chummley stood in the door that she had opened as Charlie prepared to give it a second knock.   Charlie gave the most relaxed, carefree, and entirely false reply of “Fine.  I’m doing fine today” that he could manage.

“Please, come in and make yourself comfortable.”

D’Andra swept her hand across a large room that contained a variety of chairs and a love seat.

“Would you like a cup of coffee or tea?  And I have some cinnamon rolls coming out of the oven in a few minutes, if you would like a little mid-morning snack.”

“Yes” Charlie answered.  “I would love a cup of coffee.”  Charlie had eaten breakfast at Leroy’s, leaving a very generous tip for LuAnn, and he really didn’t feel like eating any more this morning.  Besides, his stomach was generating acid by the bucketful in anticipation of what trial might lie before him.  His impulse towards being polite overshadowed this unwelcoming feeling in his gut however, so he replied “Those cinnamon rolls smell wonderful.  I would love to have one.”

“One or two; take your pick.  Go ahead and have a seat.  I’ll be right with you.”

Charlie stepped into the main room of what looked like a guest cottage, or a granny flat, that sat behind the victorian house in which D’Andra and her husband lived.  Ample windows let in a generous amount of light on what was a bright spring day.  He selected a spot on the end of the love seat that was farthest from the chair that he presumed D’Andra would soon occupy and dropped into it.

“Do you take cream and sugar, Mr. Hamer?” came D’Andra’s voice from the tiny kitchen that lay beyond a door on the other side of the living room.

“No” he replied.  “Black is fine with me.”  Then he felt self-conscious.  D’andre Chummily was very dark skinned, and Charlie instantly wondered if she would take that comment as being improper.  “Oh shit” he thought.  “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

D’Andra came out of the kitchen carrying two mugs and a pot of tea wrapped in a blue and white tea cozy.  She effortlessly placed the pot and the empty mug on a table next to a chair even farther away from Charlie than the one he had expected her to occupy, and then brought his mug of coffee to him without spilling a drop.  She appeared to be oblivious to Charlie’s remark and his concern about it, which helped him to relax.

“Well done” he said, trying to regain his relaxed presentation.

“I waited tables while I was in school, so it’s no new trick.  The rolls are out of the oven and will be ready in about ten minutes.”

D’Andra sat in the chair and poured a mug full of tea.  She was probably in her early forty’s, by Charlie’s estimation, and slightly full in figure, which seemed to work very well for her.  She put her mug down, sat back comfortably in her chair, smoothed her ankle-length tan skirt and said “Now to business.  My husband and I do not think that it would be best to trade services.  We should probably keep the focus on you, and not share that focus with our kitchen sink.”

Before Charlie’s face could show any disappointment D’Andra continued.  “I would like to help you though, if I can, so I am prepared to offer you the first three visits pro bono.”

Charlie gave her a blank look.

That means ‘one the house’ Charlie.  After three weeks we can look at your situation and work out what you can afford.  My usual rate is $130 per visit, but it’s my business and I get to set the price anywhere I want to.”

Charlie knew how that worked and agreed to the plan.  He knew that he could pay full price right now, but he was wrestling with the new idea of stewarding his money more carefully.  He was grateful for the chance to ease into this new pattern.

“That sounds fine” he said.  “More than generous, actually, and I appreciate it very much.”

“Good. So what do you say we get started?  We’ll take a break in a couple of minutes when the rolls are ready.”

Charlie agreed to that, and tensed as he anticipated the questions that he expected to soon follow.

“So, Mr. Hamer.  Or Charlie.  Can I call you Charlie?”  He nodded his assent.  D’andre took a sip of her tea and set it down.  “Tell me about yourself Charlie.”

Charlie didn’t know where to begin, so he stated the obvious.  “Well, I’m 49 years old, single, I live alone, work just enough to get by, and really, haven’t had a life for quite a while now.  I haven’t really wanted one.”

“OK” D’Andra said.  “I can see how you might want something different than that.  Let me ask you this; what change would you like to make?”

“Oh, I’m not sure I know.”  Charlie began to think about that question and D’Andra said “Take your time Charlie.  The best way to get to where you’re going is to know where that place is.”

Charlie fidgeted in his chair for what felt like forever and finally said “I just want to be happy again.”

“That’s a good goal.  I want to help you reach it.  So you want to be happy again.  Can you tell me what happiness looked like the last time that you saw it?”

“Uh, I got a good job coming up, and I spent a good evening with some guys that I just met.  That made me feel pretty good”  Charlie said, and then stopped and stared at D’Andra.

“Well, that’s good Charlie.  It’s good to have work and friends.  I was thinking about more than that though.  When did you feel good about life?  What would you like to be doing that makes you feel happy twenty four hours a day?  I’m going to let you think about that while I go get us some rolls.”

D’andra arose from her chair while Charlie sat on the love seat and stared out the window.  He saw the old concrete path that he had walked on to get to the cottage from the sidewalk.  “I’d rather walk away on that path and drive away than go back into this” Charlie thought.  “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

D’Andra returned with two saucers, a pair of warm cinnamon rolls on each one with butter melting on top and running down the sides.  “Here you are Charlie.  We’ll talk more in a little while.  You just enjoy those rolls for now.  Oh, you haven’t touched your coffee.  Did you change your mind?”

“No” Charlie responded.  “I always let it cool before I drink it.”  That wasn’t true, but it got him out of explaining his agitation and distraction.  He took a sip and noted that it was very good coffee.  He then accepted his plate of rolls and decided that he would eat them and like it.  It turned out that wasn’t so hard to do.

“These are delicious!” Charlie exclaimed.

“Thank you.  My grandmother taught me how to make these.  Oh, and I forgot to ask; are you allergic to cats?  I have my guard cat who wanders in and out from time to time.  If it’s a problem I’ll keep her out.”

“No” Charlie replied.  “I like cats.  Haven’t had one for a long time but I used to like them when I was a kid.”

“All right.  I’ll let Salome have the run of the house, as usual.”

They talked about grandmothers and cats for a few minutes while they enjoyed their food and drinks.  Then D’Andra took the empty dishes into the kitchen and returned to her chair.

“Now Charlie” she began.  “Let’s begin with being happy.  You mentioned a few recent instances that you remember  when you were happy.  I would like for you to think about your life – the whole one, from childhood to now – and think about when you were happiest and how it felt.  If that is what you would want to return to, I would like for you to share it with me.  If it has become something else, then I would like to hear about that.”

Charlie tried to follow her instructions but almost instantly hit a barrier of pain.  “Have I ever been happy, or was I only fooling myself?” he thought.  He wrestled with his thoughts silently,and D’Andra waited patiently for his response.  She was not pushing him.  All of the talk of grandmothers and cinnamon rolls and cats and home had awoken in Charlie a yearning for something that he knew he might have missed in life.  At last he began to talk, still unsure of what he would say.

“I want to feel like I did when I had my family.  I want to drive down the street and not think of driving into oncoming traffic.  I want to be able to set a goal that I really look forward to accomplishing.  I guess I want to sleep at night, get up ready for the next day, enjoy my work, have friends, and go to bed the next night tired but content.”  He then paused, surprised at some of what had just come out of his mouth.

“All of that is a very good goal to have Charlie.  I want to touch on something else first.  Do you often have thoughts about suicide?”

“Crap” he thought.  “I knew I shouldn’t have said that.  She’s going to think I’m crazy.  Hell, maybe I AM crazy.”

“Yeah.  Sometimes.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“Well, no.  Not tried exactly, but I came pretty close a few weeks ago.”

“Do you think of different ways to do it?”

“You mean do I plan it?  No.  It’s just like a dull feeling hiding out underneath a headache that suddenly pops out and says ‘do this, or do that’.  And it’s not like a real voice; it’s just an idea that pops into my head.”

“Do you feel like you will go through with one of those urges?”

Charlie thought for a minute before answering.  “No, I really don’t.  Now now, anyway.  I have a few things going my way just now and I hope to build on them.”

“That’s good, Charlie.  I hope that you can build on them too.  Maybe we can talk about those things later.  Now, I would like to get back to how you would describe being happy.  You said that you had a family.  Could you tell me about that?”

No, he couldn’t.  Charlie tried to get his thoughts together on that subject but he failed.  The last time that he had opened up about his family was in the garden with Walt and Rachael, and it almost sent him over the rail.  After a few minutes D’Andra came to his rescue.

“It’s OK Charlie.  We can talk about that some other day maybe.  Can you tell me anything about your childhood?  Were there happy times then?”

“Yes, there were some good times then.  I was always comfortable at home.  Mom didn’t have to work because my father paid a pretty big alimony and child support, and the checks always came on time.  I did well in school and had a lot of friends there.  That was where I met – -.  That was where I met my wife – – -.”

Charlie stopped talking and D’Andra quickly said “That’s OK Charlie.  You don’t have to go there.  What about your father?  When did he leave the family, if I may ask?”

“He left when I was nine years old.  He was a big shot at a bank and he got tired of us, I guess.  Mom never did talk much about him, and certainly never talked trash about him.  I guess he wasn’t abusive, or anything like that.  He just got tired of us and moved on I suppose.”

“Were you angry with him for doing that?”

“No, not really.  He wasn’t that involved with us when I was really young and I didn’t miss him when he left.  I would see Mom crying though; sometimes when the checks would come and sometimes for no reason that I knew of.  Maybe it was their anniversary or his birthday or something.  I never really knew and I never asked.”

“How did you react to that?  Did it make you uncomfortable?  Were you able to comfort your mother?”

“I guess I wasn’t much help to her.  I’ve never liked to be around people when they cry, and I hate it when I cry.  I have this stupid little thing I do to try to stop it when I do.  I try to imagine some famous battle that I’ve read about; who’s army went here, and who attacked there.  It never works, but I try it anyway.  I guess I should have tried to comfort Mom but I didn’t know what to do, so I’d just stand there until I could find a way to sneak out.”

Charlie stopped talking as Salome the cat walked into the room and jumped up onto the love seat.  She sat a respectable distance from Charlie, offering her sleek coat for a pet, but making sure that he would have to reach out to do it.  A cat’s dignity must be maintained at all times.  Charlie obliged and reached out to scratch Salome behind her ears.  She rewarded him with a purr.  Charlie then spoke again.

“I liked being at school.  I guess I was happiest there.  And that’s where I met Maureen.”  Charlie gulped and felt his eyes moisten.  “My wife.  She was very pretty.  My Mom was pretty too, and Maureen was even prettier.  She was one year older than me but we shared some classes and she was really smart and not at all flighty and, well, you know, not a teeny bopper at all.  We would take turns studying at each other’s houses.  She loved being with my Mom and I know that Mom loved having her around, and I really enjoyed being at her house.  Her mother could cook like Betty Crocker and her Dad was really cool.

He was always home by four or, at the latest, four-thirty.  He liked to talk and play dominoes and listen to the college football and basketball games.  But mostly he loved to sit with us for company, or sometimes by himself in some swings in the back yard.  When we were with him out there he would smoke his pipe and tell us non-gory stories about the War or growing up in the south of Texas or, well, just about anything.  He was a great storyteller.  And when we weren’t outside with him he would sit and smoke and watch the sun go down.

On warm evenings he and Mo’s Mom would stay out until after dark.  We could hardly hear them talk but we could see the pipe flare when he took a draw on it, or the flash of a match when he reloaded it.  I think that’s probably the happiest memory that I have.  Mo loved that guy, and I think that I might have have loved him too.”

Charlie had to stop.  The tears had overflowed his eyes and had begun to roll down his cheek.  He looked at D’Andra and cracked a weak smile.  “You know anything about the battle of Waterloo?”

D’Andra smiled warmly at him and said “No, not really.  Maybe we’ll cover that next week.  Feel free to use the tissue on the table, and we’ll just say that maybe you do have a little allergy to Salome.”

“Yeah.  Blame it on the cat.!”  Charlie grabbed a couple of tissues and wiped his eyes, then returned to scratching Salome’s ears.  “It’s really hard to talk about Mo.  It’s hard to talk about Stephanie and Jack too.”

“Are those your children?”

“Used to be.  Jack’s with Maureen somewhere.  I have no idea where.”

“And Stephanie?”

Charlie sat silent for a few seconds, and then the tears flowed, then the sobs, until finally his body shook as his beaten and scarred heart broke once again.  Salome was made nervous by this and abandoned her place on the love seat.  D’andre stood up and walked over to take the cat’s place.

She put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder to let him know that she was there, that she understood his pain, that it was right to cry.  She said nothing, but just handed him tissues as he began to wipe up the snot and tears.  At last Charlie regained control and D’Andra returned to her chair.

“Stephanie is dead” he said at last.  “She died in an accident.  She said she was going surfing and I knew that the place where she was going was unpredictable, but she was fearless and just blew me off.  And I let her go.  And she died.  Now Mo and Jack hate me for it and I don’t blame them.  I hate myself too.”  Charlie looked at D’Andra through red and swollen eyes.  “That’s why it’s hard to speak of happiness and my family.  I thought we were happy, but I screwed the whole thing up and now I don’t really know what happy looks like.  I don’t even know if I deserve happy.”

D’Andra waited until he was finished talking and then said “Charlie, thank you for sharing that with me.  You’ve done an impressive thing, really.  People are usually not able to go as deeply into their problem on their first visit as you have just done.  That tells me that you are willing to dig and go wherever you must to find what you are looking for.  I respect your courage.  You’ve gone deep, and that’s what you have to do to get things straightened out..

I would like to share a couple of things with you now.  I’m certain that you can find a way to return to happiness, whatever that will look like in your case.  It will take time, but you will be able to do this, and I will be glad to help.  Charlie, you’re a good person, as near as I can tell, and we’ll sort this all out if that is your desire.  I would very much like to see you next week, if that would be OK with you.”

“Yes” Charlie replied.  “I think that I would like that.”

“All right.  Are you OK now?”

Charlie assured her that he was fully recovered and arose from the love seat.

“Would you like to take some of those cinnamon rolls home?  I’ll blow up big as a house if I eat them all.”

Charlie nodded his agreement and waited as D’Andra disappeared into the kitchen.  Soon she reappeared with a foil-wrapped parcel that must have contained six rolls at least.  She gave them to Charlie and then walked him to the door.

“Remember Charlie,” she said as he stood in the doorway.  “You are a good person and you deserve to be happy.  You’re just stuck in a very hard place.  We can get you unstuck, and we WILL get you unstuck, OK?”

Charlie nodded and said “OK,” and then walked onto the old concrete path and toward the sidewalk.  Soon he was sitting in the cab of his truck, feeling tired and numb after the emotional roller coaster ride that he had just been on.  For the last two years even thinking about his family had been so painful that he walled those memories off and sought refuge in the numbness of a meaningless and mechanical existence.  Talking about his family for the first time in those two years had resulted in him nearly following through on one of his many suicide fantasies.

Now he had spoken of his family again, and he wondered if that would lead to the same aftershock.  He didn’t feel bad now, but he hadn’t felt the effect of his last experience until three days later.  “I’m different now” Charlie thought.  “I like Billy, and I like Rachael.  And LuAnn too.  Heck, I even like old Walt, sort of.  And they like me.  They would care if I killed myself.  I have to think this through.  I think I’ll do that at the garden.”

Charlie drove to his apartment and put the rolls in the refrigerator, then to his storage to retrieve his gardening tools, gloves and eye protection.  “Just in case I have to break up a rock” he told himself.  He then drove to the garden, and as he did so the impulse to swerve into oncoming traffic was still there.  “I guess it doesn’t go away by magic” he thought.

Charlie pulled up in front of the garden and quickly saw that it was empty.  It was, after all, only a little past noon.  He studied his plot and saw that the plants needed water, but that they were growing nicely.  So were the weeds.  He watered and then knelt down and, with an old screwdriver, began to dig the weeds out to their roots.  “That’s what D’Andra is going to have to do with me” he thought.  “We’re going to find out if there’s any vegetable in me, or if I’m all weed.”

He stayed immersed in his work and thoughts for over two hours.  In that time he fully weeded his plot and, finding Walt’s plot to be in good shape – “That old fart really must live here” he thought – he went to Rachel’s and began to dig out the weeds in hers.  The sun was warm on his back, and he noted that his thoughts were not a torment.  “I really think that this is sort of like being happy” he thought.  “I’ll have to tell D’Andra about this.”

Charlie noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and looked up to see Rachael walking towards her car.  “Must have forgotten something” he thought.  He couldn’t wait to tell her about his hour with D’Andra so he called out to here.

“Rachael.  Hey, Rachael!”

Rachael stopped and stood still.  It seemed to Charlie as if she was undecided as to whether to keep walking or turn back towards where he stood.  At length she slowly turned and began to walk toward him.  Charlie was entirely focused on what he wanted to say and did not notice the reluctance communicated by her slow shuffle in his direction.  At last, as she reached the edge of her plot, Rachael looked up so that Charlie could clearly see the deep black and purple bruise that wrapped around her left eye.

“Rachael!” he spluttered.  “What on earth happened to you?  Are you all right?”

“Yes Charlie.  I’m all right.  Thank you for asking.  It looks like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“What?  What do you mean?  What happened?  Was this some kind of accident?”

“No, it wasn’t an accident.  It’s one of the hazards of my job.”

As the meaning of that began to sink in, Charlie felt the heat of anger beginning to rise up within him.  “You mean somebody hit you?”

“Yes.  It happened at work yesterday.  I was talking with a young man who showed no obvious signs of agitation.  We weren’t talking about anything too deep, but he is a very angry boy who doesn’t need much reason to lash out at authority.  I can usually read the signs and anticipate when things might be at the edge of violence.  Not this time though.  The kid threw a wicked punch that I never saw coming.  Almost knocked me out.”

“Well, that little son of a bitch!” Charlie exploded.  “He’s not still alive, is he?  Why wasn’t someone there to stop such a thing?”

“Someone was, but nobody can always know when something like this is going to happen.  Max, my security guy, had him down in a minute, but the damage was done by then.”

“Well, I hope he took the little prick down hard.  Sorry about my French, but it really jerks my chain that somebody you’re trying to help would hit you.  Shit!  I’d like to get my hands on him.”

“What good would that do Charlie?  He’s a kid who’s been hit over the head at least once a day every day of his life.  I can’t give you the details, of course, but he has had an awful start at being alive, and I wouldn’t put a high bet on his future being any better.”

“Do you feel OK?  How is your vision?  Does the eye hurt?  Come on, let’s go sit under the gazebo.”

“I’m OK charlie.  Yeah, it still hurts.  It happened yesterday.  It took twenty four hours for my eye to get this black and my doctor said that it would be sore for a few days.   My vision’s a little blurry too, but it’s getting better.  No bones were broken, and the eye is structurally OK.  I’ll be good as new soon, and maybe a little more careful next time.”

They walked over to the gazebo and sat in the plastic chairs underneath it.  A gentle wind blew around them, cooling off both Charlie’s sweaty body and the warmth of Rachael’s inflamed face.  Charlie began to rant about the boy again but Rachael gently intervened.

“I appreciate your concern Charlie.  I really do.  It’s sweet of you and I’ll always remember it.  But you should remember this too.  The boy is used to people being angry at him.  You adding one more voice to the chorus wouldn’t accomplish much with him.  What he doesn’t expect is kindness.  That is the only effective defense against the anger that drives him.  I’m not angry with him and if you can find it within yourself to do so, I would consider it a personal favor if you would try to not be angry with him either.”

Charlie was momentarily silenced by Rachael’s  humble request, but quickly found his voice.  “You’re an amazing woman” he spluttered at last.  “How on earth can you not be angry with him and want to hit him back?”

“It’s because of my faith Charlie.  The boy has never been loved.  Not by anyone on earth that is.  He’s been beaten, cheated, put down and shoved to the margins since the day that he was born, and nobody has ever told him that they loved him.”

“That sort of a kid!” Charlie interjected.  “Who could blame them?”

“But God loves him Charlie.  The boy’s made in God’s image too, and God loves his creation.  God wants me to love him too, and I wish that I could love him, but I can’t.  The closest that I can come to that is to forgive him; and I do forgive him.  And once you have forgiven somebody, it’s hard to be angry with them anymore.”

Charlie just stared at Rachael.  He tried to understand what she had just said:  “He’s made in God’s image.  Well, her god must be a sorry little shit then,” he thought.  Then the thought of her being exposed to the boy again occurred to him.  That was her job, wasn’t it?

“Do you have to be in a room with this kid again?”

“No.  When a client acts out like this our contact is broken off.  He will be dealt with by other people, and I don’t know where or how.  I hope that they won’t just throw him away.”

“I don’t believe this.  You really do still care about this punk, even after what he did.  What kind of a saint are you?”

“Well, not much of one.  It isn’t easy to forgive him.  I don’t exactly relish looking like I just went 10 rounds with Muhammad Ali.  And I don’t really look forward to seeing my boyfriend tonight.  We planned to go out to dinner and, well, to tell you the truth, I think he intends to propose to me tonight.  He went to see my father without him or Dad telling me anything about it.  My little brother is a blabbermouth though and he told me that they spent a lot of time together down in Dad’s workshop.  He thinks he’s clever, but I would have been suspicious for other reasons anyway.  My little brother ratted him out but good, and that sealed it for me.

So no.  Forgiving that kid wasn’t easy.  But it wasn’t easy for Jesus to take the beating and torture that he did and still say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  If Jesus could forgive his tormentors for the whipping, slapping, spitting, thorns in his head, nails in his hands and feet, and his undeserved death, then I can forgive that kid for one punch in the face.”

Again, Charlie could only sit in silent amazement.  He had heard the men at the Key and Lock discuss God, or the absence of any god, in an abstract and almost philosophical way.  Each made good points and counterpoints.  Here he sat with a young woman with a very nasty bruise on her face who lived her argument rather than only speaking it over a pint of beer.  Charlie didn’t know what to say next, and it seemed as if Rachael did not want to talk about it any more either.

Then Charlie saw the tears beginning to form in Rachael’s eyes, and then the first quiver that appeared in her lower lip.  Those signs of hurt and fear increased until Rachael was not-so-quietly crying in her chair.  Charlie felt helpless as he watched Rachael sob softly, head down, shoulders bent forward and shaking.

“Do something, you horse’s ass!” Charlie’s mind shouted at him.  “Do something for once!”  But what?  He could never offer comfort when his mother would cry out of her loneliness and abandonment.  Maureen and Jack needed his comfort and he had been unable to give any.  Now they hated him for that.  He had nothing to give then and he had no idea what to give now, and so Rachael, a remarkable girl who had befriended him when he was in his misery, sat alone in a chair, still in pain from the punch, with one of the biggest days of her life marred by a huge black eye.  Her sense of safety was shattered and she had said that her god was calling for her to just let it go.  “Do something, you sorry bastard!  Quit being a damned bump on a log.  This girl needs a friend right now.  GET YOUR MISERABLE ASS UP!”

Charlie stood up.

“Come here Rachael”

He reached down and took the hands which rested limply on her kneew.

“Come here.  Come on.”

He lifted Rachael’s arms gently and she arose, yielding gratefully to the call of a compassionate friend.  Charlie let go of Rachael’s hands and enfolded her in his arms, holding her against his chest.  She laid her head against his shoulder and let the tears that she had tried to hold back flow down her face and onto his shirt.  Charlie didn’t say anything; “It’s all right” was such obvious bullshit, so he silently held Rachael as she clung to him and let the fear and grief flow out.

Slowly, the sobs lessened and Rachael’s breathing evened.  Charlie still had not said a word, which he decided was the right thing to do.  Rachael was accepting his comfort without reservation.  He had intended a polite “shoulder’s only hug” but Rachael would have none of that.  So Charlie stood still and silent, holding Rachael in the first embrace that he could remember for, what?  How long hd it been?

“Well well.  What do we have here?  You two lovebirds wanna break it up before I get sick?  I’ve got some gardening to do!”

Walt!

Rachael stepped back reluctantly, and Charlie reluctantly allowed her to do so.

“Whoa now.  I didn’t know you two had moved so fast” Walt said with a big, leering grin as he moved towards them.  “You could find a more private place to – – -.  What the hell happened to you darling?”

Walt’s impolite banter stopped the instant that he saw Rachael’s bruised face.  “Who hit you, girl?  Tell me who it was and I’ll kill the son of a bitch!”

Walt looked pissed; truly pissed.   He approached Rachael and inspected her face the way a medic would assess a war wound.  Charlie could see the genuine concern in Walt’s face and it surprised him.  It seemed that Walt was more than just cuss and bluster.

“I’m OK, Walt” Rachael said as she wiped tears and snot on a shirt sleeve.  “It was not as bad as it looks.  Just a hazard of my profession.”

Walt dug into a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which he thrust towards Rachael.  Rachael eyed the proffered piece of cloth with suspicion, and Walt said “It’s OK.  It’s clean.  I was going to use it to wipe off sweat, or maybe tie off an arterial bleed.  You can never be too ready for the unexpected.”

Walt chuckled as he said that, and so did Rachael.  She reached out and accepted the handkerchief.

“Thanks Walt.  I guess I need that pretty badly.”

“Oh, you’re still pretty enough” Walt replied.  “But come on.  Tell me what happened.  You got a bad boyfriend or something who needs fucking up?”

Rachael chuckled again.  “No, he wouldn’t dare.  I can take him and he knows it.  It’s a work thing Walt.  Somebody caught me by surprise and I didn’t see this coming.”

“What the hell you do for a living girl?  Roller derby?  You know, I used to have the hots for a chick on the L. A. Thunderbirds.  She was – – -, well, I guess we’ll let that go.”

“I work with people who are not in a good place.  You know, people who are not having their best day.  Who sometimes never have a good day.”

“Oh, you mean you try to straighten out crazy shitbirds like me!  Well, my hat’s off to you.  Tough work.  I guess you’re not going to tell me who it was so that I can rip his head off and screw him in the windpipe then.”

“No, I probably should’t do that Walt.  That might be a violation of some professional ethic or other.”  Rachael looked into Charlie’s face and then back to Walt.  “That person already knows more about pain than I’ve ever felt.  He’s somebody else’s case now.  Oh, I hate just calling him a ‘case’!  But anyway, I won’t be seeing him again, or at least not for a long, long time.”

“Huh!” Walt snorted.  “Well, if you say so.  I’d still like to pop the slimy little turd one time, just to let him know that somebody cares about men who hit women, but I’ll keep my nose out of it.  Just for you.”

“Thank you Walt.  Your concern means a lot to me.  I guess I needed a little more help today than I thought.  I really do appreciate you.”

At this moment Rachael stepped over to Walt and gave him a big hug.  Walt immediately turned red as a beet, and Charlie stifled a laugh.  He suspected that half of Rachael’s impulse was to set Walt back on his heels, but the other half was genuine, as was plain to see.

Rachael gave Walt a brief but sincere embrace and then stepped away.  Her smile threatened to shame the disfiguring bruise into fleeing.  Walt spluttered in confusion and then muttered “I’d still like to throttle the little peckertrack.”  It was obvious however that his grizzled heart had been softened by Rachael’s appreciation of him.

“Well shoot, Walt.  I don’t know how much you have to do here” Charlie said.  “I didn’t see too many weeds in your plot.”  He turned then to Rachael and said “And yours i’ve nearly weeded already.  Why don’t we team up and get what’s left done.  I feel like being dirty today!”

This was agreed to and the unlikely trio fell to watering and fertilizing and pulling weeds and sharing tips and laughs;  all of the things one must do to make their garden grow well.