The Garden, Chapter XIII

Two weeks after moving in with Billy, Charlie was beginning to feel like he had the beginnings of a handle on life.  The dismal apartment where for two years he had existed but not lived was now a memory.  The kitchen  remodel job at Carolyn’s house was progressing ahead of schedule, even though she had been far too busy of late to help him very much.  Instead, her nephew Luke had shown an interest in the construction arts and pitched in whenever he could.  Even though Luke knew nothing about Charlie’s craft, he was a smart and observant kid who could take instruction and turn it quickly into performance.

Charlie liked the young man and genuinely enjoyed sharing the work with him,  and he began to imagine what it would be like if it was Jack instead of Luke that he was working with.  Of course, Jack didn’t have the natural talent or interest that Luke seemed to possess, but then Charlie had never lavished the patient attention on Jack that he was currently bestowing on Luke.  Over the course of the past two weeks Charlie had become convinced that he should pay Luke something for his labor, and also that he must reach out to his own son and try to rebuild a relationship with him.

Carolyn would inspect Charlie’s work every chance that she could, and she learned from him in much the same manner as Luke did.  The design flaws in her bathroom which she nearly allowed when Charlie first began to work for her would never happen to her now, as she began to learn to look two and even three steps ahead.

“I’m sorry that I can’t spend more time here on the job with you,” she had once told him.  “I’m convinced that your end of this deal is where all of the fun is.”

When she said that Charlie looked down at the black thumbnail that was the result of an errant stroke of his framing axe. He also felt the ache in the bottom of his foot where he had stepped on an old ring-shanked drywall nail, and the throb in his shoulder where he had received his tetanus shot as a result of that nail.  “Yeah,” he replied as he inspected the blackened thumbnail.  “With a few obvious exceptions, this really is where the fun is.”

The outside wall of Carolyn’s house was now pushed four feet out and sealed on the outside.  This resulted in the house once again being secured from the outside world, and Charlie felt like at last he could breathe easier.  He had hated the thought of there being only one layer of polyvinyl sheeting between Carolyn and the world that he had come to know so well at the apartments.

Even though Luke was staying with her during this period, he was, after all, just a kid.  A big kid, yes, and a strong one, but just a kid all the same.  The determined evil that prowled through the darkened streets of Vancouver, even the streets far from the downtown apartment that he had so recently inhabited, was truly a match and even more than a match for one good-hearted teenage boy.  Charlie tried hard to make sure that Carolyn didn’t know about the nights when he had slept in the cab of his truck a few houses up the street from hers.

Today he was going to meet with D’Andra, and intended to share with her his plan to make an attempt to connect with Maureen.  He had given the idea a great deal of thought and had shared it with the guys at the Key and Lock.  Even Walt, who continued to hold to the opinion that this was a fool’s errand, agreed that with the help of a small miracle – “not that I believe in that crap,” he had added – there was a possibility that it might work.

But first he was going to have a good breakfast.  Billy liked to cook, and Charlie was beginning to put on a few pounds.  Today, however, he wanted to have his morning meal at Leroy’s, mostly in order to see how LuAnn was doing.  As he pulled up to a stop in a parking space near the restaurant, he noticed that he now felt like a visitor to the Vancouver downtown rather than a denizen of its streets.  He liked the change.

The place was busy when he entered and once again he saw Jason seated at his usual table by the kitchen door.  There were open stools at the counter, but Charlie went to see if he could share a table with the young man.

“Got room for another stray dog?” he asked.  Jason smiled and waved a hand at the chair opposite his own.  Charlie sat down, picked up a menu and asked “What’s good today?”

“Pretty much same old same old.” Jason replied.  “They don’t change the menu much around here, and if Tank’s cookin’, well, it’s Tank’s cookin’.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Charlie said.  At that moment Peggy burst through the door pushing an old aluminum cart loaded with condiments.  She looked harried, but came dutifully over to the table when she saw Charlie seated there.  She asked if he’d had time to look at the menu.

“I have,” Charlie replied.  “I’ll take the hamburger steak with hash browns and gravy.  Oh, and I am paying for my meal today.”

Charlie expected to get a rise out of Peggy with his snide comment, but he was disappointed.  Peggy gave a weak smile and went to stick his order onto the wheel in the kitchen window.

“Huh,” Charlie said to Jason.  “I thought that I’d get a little bit of a push-back from her with that one.  Do I look like I have money or something?”

“She’s probably still getting over the fact that I have money,” Jason replied.

Charlie looked at Jason with surprise and said “You do?”

“Yeah,” Jason laughed.  “I got a part-time job in housekeeping at Clark General Hospital,  It’s a float position with no benefits and no guaranteed hours, but somebody’s always sick or wants a day off, so I’m working about twenty five or thirty hours per week so far.”

“Wow, that’s great news,” Charlie said.  “How do you feel, being in the loop like that?”

“You mean, can I hack it?  Will the loser finally get it together?”

Charlie regretted his question instantly.  “No, I don’t mean that at all.  I’m just getting my own act back together, and I live with a guy who’s taking his own first steps too.  I just wondered how it’s working for you.  I didn’t mean any insult.”

“That’s OK, man.  It’s cool.  I was must monkeying with your head.  No offense taken.  And the answer is that it feels good.  I have to keep my mind focused on doing the job, and not getting sucked into all of the silly bullshit that people who’ve never really had it rough like to wallow in, but it’s worth it.  Peggy brings me refills now that I can pay for them, so that makes it all worth it.”

Indeed, Peggy was at that moment bringing Charlie an empty mug and a pot full of coffee.  She placed the mug in front of him and filled it, then refilled Jason’s half-empty mug.  Charlie had to suppress a laugh as Peggy spoke with them like regular customers and Jason acted like he was a captain of industry.

They continued to chat about each other’s work situations and the quality of grease that tended to pool in their plates here at Leroy’s until Peggy brought Charlie his food.  For the next few minutes after that, silence reigned at the table.

At last Charlie scraped up the last bit of gravy with a crust of toast and pushed away the plate.  He drained his coffee and barely suppressed a low belch.  Jason was sipping his coffee and resting in his chair, letting his meal begin to digest.  He looked completely at ease with the world, and that is how Charlie felt too.  At length Charlie began the conversation again.

“So, where is LuAnn?  Is she out today taking care of Duane?  He’s had his operation, hasn’t he?”

Jason’s face clouded over and he sat a little straighter in his chair.  “Haven’t you heard, man?”

“Heard what?” Charlie asked.  “Did she retire or something?”

“No, man.  Duane died.  He died on the operating table.”

Charlie sat speechless in his chair.  His mind quickly drew up images of a worried LuAnn, telling him about her fears but certain that things would be all right.

 

“Shit, man,” he said.  “That’s awful!  What happened?  LuAnn thought they would be OK.”

“Yeah, she did” Jason replied.  “That’s usually when life rears up and bites you in the ass, isn’t it?  The surgery went fine, as far as anyone knows, but an artery or something just blew up in his brain.  BAM!  Alive to room temperature in sixty seconds.  She’s a good egg, too.  This really sucks.”

Charlie was speechless for a minute, and then asked “Well, how is she doing?  Does anybody know?”  He tried to get his mind to grapple with the bad news.  When Stevie had died, he remembered, friends and business acquaintances had brought over meals and done chores and errands for them.  That was the only healthy response that Charlie could now think of offering, not that his cooking would be a good thing for anybody.  Finally he asked “Is anybody doing anything to help her?”

“I don’t really know,” Jason replied.  “There’s a tip jar by the door, and regular customers are putting money into it to help her out.  You could ask Peggy though.  she was closer to LuAnn that I ever was.”

Charlie sat silently in his chair, thinking about LuAnn’s good-natured attitude and the warmth that she had extended to him when he began to visit many weeks before.  She always had a quick laugh and a wise opinion whenever he would talk to her about his troubles.  Now it was her turn to be in the fire.  What could he do or say to her?  He couldn’t even comfort his own wife, so what could he say to this casual friend?   Charlie was wrestling with these thoughts when Peggy came to refill his cup.

“Peggy,” he said.  “I just heard about LuAnn’s husband.  Can you tell me how she’s doing, or if she needs anything?”

Peggy seemed to be surprised at Charlie speaking to her in such a familiar and ernest fashion.  Her look of surprise quickly faded though and she responded to his question with what looked to Charlie like genuine compassion.

“LuAnn’s a strong woman.  She’s doing fine; or at least as fine as you could expect.  She and Duane have family, and they are helping a lot.”

“I would like to help if there’s any way that I can,” Charlie said, while wondering what on earth he could possibly do.

“Well,” Peggy began.  “She and Duane went to the Peter and Paul Luthern Church.  You know, the one about two blocks on the other side of the courthouse from here.”

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

“They’re holding a memorial service there this Saturday.  Duane was a deacon or an elder or whatever they call it there, and so they would probably be able to tell you if they need anything.  Or you could just go to the service.  I think LuAnn would like to see you there.  She was pretty fond of you,”  Peggy then turned her eyes towards Jason and added “and you too.”

She then turned away to resume her service to the hungry patrons of Leroy’s, and left Charlie staring mutely at Jason.  At length, Jason broke the silence.

“I was going to go to the service already.  Tank told me about it yesterday.  I don’t spend much time in churches.  Like, never.  LuAnn is real, though.  You know, she’s never looked at me like I was a worm, or had some damned disease.  I think of her like she’s family or something.”

Charlie knew that he had to leave soon in order to be on time for his appointment with D’Andra.  He suddenly wanted to know more about Jason; what he knew about LuAnn, what he had going on in his life.  At last Charlie shared a completely random thought that had only that moment entered into his head.

“You ever do any construction?”  It only took Jason a moment to reply.

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

“Good,” Charlie replied.  “That means you don’t have any bad habits to unlearn.  Would you have any interest in trying out the construction trade?”

“Shit, I don’t know.  Is it anything like work?”

“Hell yes it’s work.”  Charlie then showed Jason his damaged thumb.  “Construction will treat you bad sometimes, but it’ll love you if you love it.”

Jason was not sure how to respond to that.  “So, what?  Are you offering me a job?”

“Well, no.  Not exactly,” Charlie replied.  “I just want to know if you would be interested if I did.  The person I’m working for now is already taking a chance on damaged goods by using me, and I wouldn’t expect her to take another.  I’ll be done with the project that I’m on in a few weeks though, and I could use an extra hand going forward.  Nobody else out there is as good as I am though, so training a new helper from scratch makes all of the sense in the world to me.  What do you think?”

Jason mulled that thought for a few moments and then asked “Are you going to bust my balls if I go for this?”

“You bet your ass,” Charlie replied.  “I can’t have some cull dogging it and trashing my work.  But I understand that you don’t have any experience at this kind of work and I’m OK with that.  I’ll demand that you do things right, but I’ll show you how to do those things, and for the most part I’ll consider it my own failure if you don’t get it right the first time.  Or the second time too, for that matter.  This stuff doesn’t just come to you by magic.  I guess I’m saying; or really I’m asking, would you like to give construction a shot under another guy who’s had the shit kicked out of him by life and knows how that can feel?”

It didn’t take Jason more than a minute to consider Charlie’s proposal, and he said “Your offer is intriguing.  Let me make a counter offer.  I’ll keep my job at the hospital, but I’ll mostly take the off-hour shifts.  You know, the night shift and weekends and so forth.  If I find that construction suits me, I’ll back away from the hospital, but if construction isn’t my cup of tea I’ll still have my hospital gig.”

“That makes sense to me,” Charlie replied.  “Do you have a phone, or some way that we can stay in touch?”

Jason answered in the affirmative and they exchanged phone numbers.  Peggy quickly noticed that the wo men were ready to leave and brought the checks to their table.

“There’s no way that you’re going to let me pay for this, is there?” Charlie asked.

“Not on your life,” Jason answered.  “But I wish that you would let me pay for yours.”

Charlie thought about Jason’s offer, and then about all of the time that he had recently spent disconnected from the world, just as Jason had been.  He had descended into a dark pit where he would not allow anyone to intrude, nor from which he would make any effort to escape.  He looked at Jason and saw a dim shadow of himself.

Charlie liked this young man who, like himself, was only beginning to rebuild a life.  He had hated himself for two years, and was disgusted with his failure to attend to the things that really mattered.  But this young man; this dim shadow, this metaphor for himself, was also emerging from his own dark place and was a very likable person.  He was worth taking a chance on.  he had something to offer to the world that the world would be the loser to ignore.  Could it be that this description fit Charlie the same as it did Jason?

And now this wounded, broken fellow traveller had just asked if he could do Charlie a favor.  He had asked Charlie if he could “bless” him, to borrow LuAnn’s terminology.  In some dim, disorganized way, Charlie understood that something important was happening here.  The course of the rest of his life, and perhaps Jason’s too, could turn on the answer, and the answer was clear to him.

“Yeah.  Sure,” he replied. “There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but nobody’s said anything about there not being a free breakfast.  How ‘bout I cover the tip?”

The two men agreed to that arrangement and put their money on the table.  In keeping with his promise to LuAnn, Charlie left a generous tip for Peggy.  They got up from the table together and Charlie headed for the door while Jason walked into the kitchen.  “Probably still needs to work for a few meals” Charlie thought.  “That’s good.  Shows responsibility.  Yeah, I think Jason could work out.  If he wants to, that is.”

By now Charlie was coming very close to being late fort his appointment with D’Andra.  He climbed into his truck and made the short trip to her cottage in less than five minutes.  He parked the truck and picked up a sack of vegetables that he had picked from the garden.  “There’s no way that I can compete with what comes out of her oven,” Charlie thought, “but I can at least try.”

He knocked on the door and it was quickly opened by D’Andra.  “Hello, Charlie,” she said with her warm and pleasing smile.  “Please, come in.”

Charlie was prepared to hand D’Andra the bag of cucumbers and squash and green beans, with a couple of onions thrown in, and hoped that he would receive a little praise for his gardening expertise.  And indeed that did come.  Eventually.  But before he could hand over the sack his nose was assaulted, in the best sense of the word, by a smell that he remembered from his childhood.

“Oh. My. Goodness!” he said.  “You’ve been baking bread!”

“I certainly have,” she replied.  “It’s a family tradition to bake our own bread and it’s our family recipe.  I’d tell you what’s in it – – -.”  D’andre paused at that point, and Charlie picked up the thread seamlessly.

“But you’d have to kill me?”

“Something like that,” she said, the smile not changing really, but somehow seeming even warmer than before.  At last her eyes fell on the sack that Charlie cradled in his arms.  “What have you got there?” she asked.

Charlie remembered his gift and extended the sack to D’Andra.  “Here.  This is for you.  I grew this in the garden that I’ve been telling you about.”

As she looked into the sack her eyes lit up and her smile erupted even larger than it already was.  “Oh, Charlie.  That is the nicest gift that I could ever imagine.  We had a truck patch behind our house when I was growing up and I loved the foods that my mother and older sister, and sometimes my aunt Clarissa would make out of what we would grow.  Believe me, Charlie.  I will enjoy this produce every bit as much as I enjoy the things that come out of my oven.  And they’ll be better for me, too” she said with a laugh.  “Now come on in and sit down.  We’re having home baked white bread, toasted or not as you prefer, with jam and butter and coffee.  Does that sound OK?”

“That sounds like heaven,” Charlie replied as D’Andra carried the sackful of produce into the kitchen.  Instead of sitting down, Charlie followed D’Andra.

“When I was a boy, we used to go up to College Avenue, to a bakery that was about two blocks from our house.  Mr. and Mrs. Metzler owned that bakery, and they lived in a house on the opposite side of the alley, behind our place.  The Metzlers were Seventh Day Adventist, I think, because the bakery was closed on Saturdays but open for business on Sunday.

At 10:00 in the morning they would bring the day’s bread out of the ovens and place it on the racks to cool.  My brother and sometimes the other kids in the neighborhood and I would show up at 10:15 and buy loaves of it while they were still warm.  We sat down on the curb right outside of the bakery and pulled off handfuls of warm bread and washed it down with sodas.  Those are some of my best memories.”

“Well, I hope this bread gives you some warm memories too.  Here, put some butter and jam on this toast, and pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Charlie did as he was told and then sat down in his usual spot on the love seat.  Salome the cat was nowhere to be seen, so he placed his small plate with buttered and jammed toast on the table next to it and found a coaster for his coffee.  D’andra joined him shortly with two pieces of toast of her own, but hers was spread much more thinly than was Charlie’s.

“Oh,” he said.  “It looks like I made a pig of myself here.”

“No, it looks more like you made yourself at home, which is what I would like for you to do.”

“Well,” he responded.  “Then don’t be surprised if I make another trip to your kitchen.”

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

Charlie still had a stomach full of the best grease that Tank could cook, and knew that seconds on D’Andra’s bread was unlikely.  “There’s no harm in setting the stage, just in case” he told himself.  At length, D’Andra put her plate of toast on the table and sat back in her chair.

“Well, Charlie.  What are we going to talk about today?  Have you made a decision about trying to contact Maureen?”

“Yes, I actually have.  But there’s something new that I would like to discuss first.”

“You’re in charge,” she said.  “What is it?”

I got some pretty sad news today.  Pretty sad.  You know my friend LuAnn, whom I have spoken of?”  Charlie went on to explain the details of Duane’s death, as best he knew them.

“So, how did it make you feel when you heard about it?”

“You know, my first impulse was to eat my breakfast as quickly as I could and leave; just get away from that scene as fast as I could.”

“Sort of like when your mother would be depressed when you were a child?”

“Yeah, sorta like that.  I was really sad for LuAnn.  I remembered how fondly she spoke of him, and how she once told me “I don’t know what I would do if something ever happened to him,” or something like that.  I just knew the sadness that she was feeling, and I wanted to run from that sadness.  I didn’t know what to do with it.”

“And did you run?”

“No, I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  LuAnn was a friend and a kind voice when I was really at the bottom.  I can’t express how much her kindness meant to me; still does mean to me.  Well, I couldn’t just throw her under the bus.

Trouble is, I don’t know what to do.  How do I help her?  I think she’ll be OK financially, and she has family and friends, so what in the world could I ever do?”

D’Andra took a small bite from her toast and chewed it slowly, and then took a sip of coffee.  At last she said “Maybe she could tell you what you can do.”

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

“Maybe she could communicate to you, one way or another, how it is that you can help her.  Sometimes people want to talk about their loved one, and all you have to do is listen.  Other times people don’t want to talk at all, but they dread being alone.  In those cases just being a friend and sharing someone’s space with them is what they want.

Some people want a shoulder to cry on.  I know how uneasy that would make you, Charlie, but maybe that is what you would need to do to help your friend.  The problem is that you can’t know unless you make contact with her.  Is there any way that you can do that?”

“Yes, there is,” Charlie replied.  “There will be a memorial service this Saturday at a little church not too far from here.  Peter and Paul Lutheran, I think Peggy said.”

“Oh, yes.  I know where that is.  Corner of 13th and Knox.”

“Well, I’m thinking of going, but I don’t have a lot of experience at being in churches.  I’ve asked Rachael if I can go to hers sometime, but I haven’t really gotten around to it yet.  I just don’t know how I’m supposed to act in a church.”

“I think the key is to not act at all, Charlie.  Just bring who you are and don’t give two thoughts about any sort of show that you’re supposed to put on.  Your friend sounds like she will let you know if there’s anything that she needs.  Other than that, you just being there will probably be the best thing that you can do for her, right now at lease.  Besides, you’ll know her at least, so you won’t exactly be there alone in the church.”

“No, I wouldn’t be alone,” he agreed.  “Jason, a recently homeless guy who I’ve eaten with at Leroy’s said that he’ll be there.  And I’ll bet Tank, the cook, will be there too.  I don’t know him really, but I’d know his hash browns and gravy anywhere.”

“Good.  That settles it.  You know, Charlie, I believe that I can see something important here.  This feeling of wanting to be present for your friend, and actually stepping up to do it, is what you were not able to do for your wife and son.  And really, couldn’t do for your mother either.  How do you feel about that?  Does it feel like something’s changed, or maybe shifted there?”

Charlie thought about that for a while.  In his concern for LuAnn he had nearly forgotten about the trauma of his daughter’s death and the effect that it had on his family; the events that were the reason for his meeting with D’Andra in the first place.  Now he thought about Maureen and Jack, suffering in silence while he dealt with his own grief – or didn’t deal with it – in his own cocoon.  The same way that he had dealt with his own father’s desertion and his mother’s loneliness.

“You know, something has changed.  I can’t just turn my back and walk away.  ‘I don’t know what to say or do’ just isn’t a good enough answer, even if it’s the damned truth.  Uh, pardon my language.”

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

“So, this is where I got stuck with my family; I couldn’t help them because I couldn’t help myself.  Just like I couldn’t help my mother.  But, why couldn’t I help my mom?  It’s not like I really cared one way or the other if my father stayed or left.”

“Really, Charlie?  Is that true?  Can you remember your relationship with your father before he left?”

Charlie thought hard about that, and at length he answered “No, I can’t say that I do.  It’s like I said; he didn’t do much with me, so I didn’t have any real connection with him.”

“Well, I know that this will sound a little wierd, but try to go along with me.  Do you remember not-doing things with your father?  I mean, did you ask him to play catch with you, and he said “No”?  Or do you remember waiting for him to come home when you got A’s on your report card?  Or F’s?  Do you remember a birthday party where he didn’t show up?  Or when he did?  What, exactly, do you remember about your father?”

“Oh, I remember a lot,” Charlie began.  “I remember him being at the dinner table – – – .”  Charlie’s mind wandered at this point, as he tried to dredge up a memory of his dad.  After a few moments of silence D’Andra spoke again.

“Do you remember him being there on specific occasions, or do you remember that he was sort of generally there around that time?”

“Well, I remember—-. I remember the night that, – – -.  Uh, I remember spilling my milk once.  He grabbed me by the collar and made me go to my room.”

“That’s it?  You remember once that you spilled your milk at the table and your father got upset?”

Charlie thought hard about his relationship with his father, certain that a flood of specific memories would soon erupt out of his clogged brain, and that he would then share them with D’Andra, but the flood never came.  After a few minutes of this Charlie just looked a D’Andra with a puzzled expression on his face and finally said “You know what?  You’re right.  I don’t remember diddle about my dad.  I don’t even remember what he looked like.  I’ve always had an image of him in my mind, on the few occasions when I would think of him at all, but that could just as well have been a mannikin at the Sears store down at the mall.”

Charlie fell silent again, and D’Andra was silent too.  He picked up his piece of toast, which was quite cold by now, and munched on it absently as he let the idea sink in that he had no true picture of his father in his mind, and hadn’t had any such picture for a very long time.  D’andre was obviously giving him space to ponder this revelation, and Charlie was using this time to begin to try to sort things out.

It was at this moment that Salome decided to make her entrance.  She jumped towards the back of the love seat from behind and overshot the landing, which caused her to slide over the back and tumble, a ball of fur and claws, onto the cushion right next to Charlie.

“Ah!” Charlie cried, and jumped up out of the seat.  D’andre jumped as well when Charlie reacted to the unstable flying feline.  Salome, the center of the commotion, decided that two startled humans watching such an undignified performance was no place for a cat to loiter and took off running towards an open doorway into a back room.

Charlie looked down and saw that his half-eaten toast with butter and jam lay face down on the hardwood floor, right next to what he suspected was a very expensive area rug.

“Oh, good grief!  Excuse me!  Here, let me clean this up.”

As he reached down to pick up the toast D’Andra began to giggle, and soon it swelled into a belly laugh that was infectious.  Charlie soon was laughing too.  D’andre brought some paper towels and a squirt bottle out of the kitchen and quickly cleaned up the mess while both of them still laughed.

“I guess I should write a textbook and advise students to never let a cranky old cat without front claws have free rein in a house when you are in a session,” she told Charlie.

“On the other hand, I don’t know of anything that can loosen you up more quickly,” he replied.

At last they sat down and returned to business.  “I think this is important Charlie, but I want to move on now.  I would like for you to think about your father though.  Think of anything you can remember about him, and most of all think of anything you can remember about how you felt when he left.  Will you do that?”

“I’ll certainly give it my best shot,” Charlie said.

“Good.  Now, what about Maureen and Jack?”

Charlie shared with D’Andra the advice that he had received from Rachael and LuAnn and the guys at the Key and Lock, and especially from Billy.  “I was especially impressed with Billy’s thoughts,”  he said.  “I think it’s possible that there’s still a job that it’s my duty to perform.  No, not a job really.  More like, well, I don’t know.  Like a responsibility.  No, it’s not that either.”

Charlie told D’Andra about the fingers in the arteries, while she listened intently.  When he finished she softly said “Yes.  Exactly!  You tell that young man that I couldn’t say it any better than he did.  On second thought, I don’t even know if I could say it that good.  It’s neither a job nor a responsibility.  It’s more like a will to act on behalf of someone who is in some way a part of your soul.  A part of your soul that is incomplete; it’s wounded and bleeding, so to speak, and by acting to stop the bleeding from somebody else’s wound, somebody who you love, or even once loved, you are stopping the bleeding in your own wound”

D’Andra was beginning to get excited, or as close to excited as Charlie had ever seen her.  “And by addressing Maureen’s wound you help with your own healing, and in the process you offer Maureen the opportunity to help in her own healing by helping you.  Yes.  Excellent.  Charlie, I have worked very hard to learn ways to help people, but your Billy sounds like a natural.  So what do you intend to do?”

“I don’t exactly know,” Charlie replied.  “In less than two months billy will begin attending classes at the college.  I’m taking him hunting before that, and I’ll be on my job for another couple of weeks or so.  I think that between ending my job and taking Billy hunting I’ll have a couple of idle weeks.  Of course, I’ll have to be looking for work, but I think I’ll take a weekend, or maybe three or four days, and fly to San Diego.  I’ll visit my mother – I know that she isn’t expecting that – and I’ll call my former in-laws from her house.  I hope they will allow me to speak to them.  Maybe they will give a message to Maureen.”

“Mmmm.  That sounds like a workable plan” D’Andra said, and then sat silently.  After a moment or two she continued speaking.  “I think that is a very good plan, and I would say ‘get to it.’  I wish that I could call them for you and tell them how hard you are working at getting your experiences into a proper perspective and making things right, but I guess that would run counter to just about every accepted practice in my field.

Well, Charlie.  It looks like the time has flown past us again.  Just to recap though, I think your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and be with a hurting friend is wonderful.  This LuAnn must be a remarkable woman.  Certainly, she is a lucky one to enjoy your friendship.  Also, I would like for you to spend some time remembering all that you can about your father.  There are some locked doors there, I think, that would benefit from being opened to let a little air in.

Lastly, I’m already excited about your trip to San Diego.  Perhaps you can learn some things about your father from your mother, if she will talk about him.  But most important is the chance to complete some business with your wife and son.  Even if Maureen is not interested in your help or being in contact with you, you will be reaching out; doing your part.  I think that will be very important as you go forward.

Now, let me wrap up the bread.  No! Don’t even try to argue.  If you don’t want it, take it to that excellent young man that you’re living with.  No ten loaves of bread could make us even for those beautiful vegetables that you brought me.  Shelby loves them too, but he grew up in the city and doesn’t know the first thing about growing vegetables.  I hope that we can get around to putting in a garden some day.”

Charlie dutifully took his bread and bid D’Andra good bye.  As she closed the door behind him he walked in a haze to his truck.  The shock of hearing about Duane’s death was jarring enough by itself, but the possibility that his own father had more of an impact on his life, both by his presence and later by his absence, was a thought that truly shook his mind.

But he would have to think about that later.  Carolyn would be waiting for him to come as soon as possible to begin putting her new kitchen back together.  The external walls were once again secured, and although Luke was now free to return to his normal activities he chose to stay on and help every day that Charlie was working.  Charlie enjoyed the company of both Carolyn and Luke, and must now clear his mind of distractions so that he could devote all of his attention to his work and to these two new and unexpected friends.

The Garden, Chapter XII

Charlie and Billy arrived at the Key and Lock a little bit earlier than the others.  They staked out possession of the group’s favorite table and ordered their beers.  Charlie told Billy on the way to the pub that he would have to leave early so that he wouldn’t drink too much.  He was to tear out Carolyn’s outer wall the next day, and using a jackhammer on the old concrete front porch while nursing a hangover was not something that he looked forward too.  “Smart move,” was Billy’s reply to that pearl of wisdom. “I’ll get Dom to give me a ride home if I choose to stay longer.”  They were talking about their upcoming hunting trip when  Ted and Joe came in and took their seats at the table.  Walt came in next and few minutes later Dom rounded out the group.

Beers were ordered as well as a huge nacho plate, and Charlie ordered a burger and fries.  Soon the chatter dropped to a lull and Dom, who was the leader of the group that night, asked “So what world problems of major proportions shall we solve tonight, gentlemen?”

There was the usual amount of staring from face to face, waiting for somebody to break the ice.  If nobody spoke up it was the leader’s duty to pick a topic.  Dom appeared to be drawing his breath to speak when Charlie presented an opening question for the first time since he had become an accepted member of the group.

“I’ve got something that I would like to throw out for you tonight.”  Everybody stopped talking and looked at Charlie with surprise.  “I want your advice about something that I’m thinking of doing.”

“Go ahead” said Dom.

“Shoot” chimed in Ted.

The others just stared at Charlie and waited for him to speak.  “OK, so some of you know some of my story, and for you others I’ll give you the short version so that you can be up to speed.”

Charlie took a few minutes to tell of Stevie’s death and the meltdown of his life, his counseling and recovery process, and now the question of establishing contact with his ex-wife.  “I’m thinking that I’ve got a more clear vision of what was happening with me and with Maureen and my son, and it would help me and maybe help Maureen and Jack if we could clear the air of any misconceptions.  Besides, I am beginning to believe that I have a duty, especially to Jack, that I need to start fulfilling.”  The table was silent as the men mulled over Charlie’s question.  As usual, Walt was the first one with something to say.

“Charlie,” he began.  “I just want to know something first.  Did you fall and hit your head today?”

Charlie had grown accustomed to Walt’s jaded outlook on life and grinned as he replied “Maybe so, Walt.  I do have a little amnesia about and hour or two today.  But all the same, what do you think about my question?”

“Well, for starters, I wonder why a guy who has finally gotten himself free of the ball and chain, and now is picking himself up off of the floor at the end of it all, would ever want to get himself shackled up again?  She ditched  you and took you for every last penny that you had.  Isn’t that enough grief to take from one broad?”

“No, that’s not how it went down at all,” Charlie answered.  “That ‘broad’ is a very decent woman.  Neither of us handled my daughter’s death well; her no better than me.  And she didn’t take me for anything.  I liquidated everything I had  and gave it to her and my son of my own free will.  I was in no shape to run it and I let her lawyer guide the process because I didn’t have a lawyer. Maureen resisted taking the money at first but when I told her that I would otherwise just give it away she finally agreed.

And as to the ball and chain, I have no intention of trying to patch up the marriage.  That’s over and done with, as far as I’m concerned.  Heck, as far as I know she’s already remarried.”

“So,” Joe interjected.  “You’re going to try to re-connect with your ex-wife so that you can clear up misconceptions.  What I would like to know is why you would want to do that.  If there’s no interest on your part in trying to restore the marriage, why do you care to clean up anything?  What difference does it make?”

“That’s a good question,” Ted said.  “She’s in the past and you’ve both moved on, or at least you have.  So what do you gain by beating on that dead horse?”

“Well,” Charlie said.  “I haven’t moved on as much as you think, or I guess I should say that I haven’t moved on as much as I would like.  I still spend a lot of time carrying the weight of how I saw the whole thing unfold.  My counselor is helping me to untangle my recollections of that time and she’s probably saved my life.”

“Here’s to the counselors in our lives,” Dom said, raising his glass.

“Here.  Here,” was the response, and glasses were raised around the table.

“And I would also like to point out that Walt, here, and a girl at our community garden probably saved my life too.”

Charlie turned and raised his glass towards Walt and said “I never told you about that, you old fart.  I didn’t want to give you a big head.”

Billy said “Now you’ll have to tell us that story.”

“In time,” Charlie said.  “In time.” He then turned back toward his grizzled friend.

“Walt” he said.

“Walt” the other men at the table echoed, and they drained their glasses.  Walt just sat there speechless, his face turning red but clearly enjoying his celebrity.

“So, returning to your question,” Dom began.  “I can see you wanting to restore some sort of relationship with your son.  My old man was the Iron Duke of our household, but I never doubted his love for me, and he was always there when I needed him.  Pop and my grandfather didn’t have such an easy time of it though.  Grandpa left the family when Pop was a teenager.  Grandma said he just got itchy feet and had to scratch them on the road.

I don’t know anything about where he went or what he did while he was gone, but after he came back, which was ten years later and Dad was married and Mom was pregnant with my sister, Dad had a hell of a hard time accepting him.  Grandma took him back in, but they never had what I would call a normal relationship.  Pop would be ready to fight Grandpa at the drop of a hat at first, and only very slowly did they reach something like a detente.

I don’t know how it went with you and your son.  With me, I value my relationship with my father as much as anything else in my life.  If you think you can handle what could be a very difficult reconciliation with him, I think it would be worth anything that you have to do to achieve it.”

“That was long-winded even for you, Dom,” Walt said.  Dom crumpled up a napkin and threw it at Walt.  “Here’s my two cents worth,” Walt continued.  “Kids are a pain in the butt.  You know how much regard that I have for the little creeps.”

Charlie smiled and said “Yes Walt.  I remember you telling me something about that.”

“So if your kid doesn’t like you, why let him use you for a punching bag?  You gave his mother enough money to buy a small country, so what else do you owe him?”

“I guess I owe him the chance to have a father,” Charlie replied.  “And if that works maybe I can even offer him a chance to have a dad.  But I won’t know if any of that is possible unless I ask, right?”

“So, to go back to my point,” Joe said.  “If you don’t want to restore your relationship with your ex, how is it going to work restoring it with your son?  The two come as a package, don’t they?  I mean; yeah, lots of fathers and children maintain a relationship after divorce, but those details get agreed to during the process.  If I heard you right, you’re saying that you want to drop in out of nowhere, become a presence in your son’s life, but not restore a relationship with his mom.  I don’t know how that’ll work.”

“Joe’s got a point” Dom added.  “When my grandpa came back he engaged the whole family.  I don’t know that you can separate the two, at least not until he’s over eighteen years old, if then.”

“OK,” Charlie said.  “I guess I have to clarify my thoughts.  I’m not opposed to having some kind of a relationship with Maureen again.  I only said that I had no intention to try to revive the marriage.  That is over and done with, like I said earlier.  I know that connecting with my son would involve connecting with my ex.  Like I said, she’s a good person and, if we can both move on past our hurts, I think we could relate well enough for Jack’s sake.  But as to that, I won’t know if any of it is possible unless I ask, right?”

“Yeah, sure.  That makes sense,” Said Ted.  “But I’m curious about a couple of things.  What if she slams the door in your face?  What if she really does feel about you the way that you’ve believed that she’s felt about you from the beginning?  What if she tells you to keep the hell away from her and her son?  What’ll that do to you?”

“I’ve thought about that,” Charlie replied.  “I wouldn’t be any worse off than I am now, would I?  Look, I have felt like roadkill for two years.  A very political friend of mine once told me that the only thing that you find in the middle of the road is a yellow stripe and a dead skunk.  Well, I’ve felt like a stinking, dead skunk with a yellow stripe for long enough.  If I don’t take a chance, I’ll still be getting better, what with my counselor and sage advisors like you guys.”

Charlie raised his glass to the men at the table and they returned the salute and then drank their beer.

“But if I take this step and things get straightened out, even a little, I get it together even faster, no?  So what’s the downside?”

“Well, I still think you should leave well enough alone,” Walt said.  “I’ve never found a woman who was worth exposing yourself to.”

“Have you tried?” asked Dom.  “I don’t mean that in a mean way.  I really don’t believe that I’ve ever heard you talk about a wife or a fiance or a girlfriend.  Hell, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you talk about a mother.  You’ve got one, right?”

Walt picked up the crumpled napkin that Dom and thrown at him and chucked it back.

“No.  A seagull took a crap on a fencepost in the sun and I hatched from it.  Yes, I had a girlfriend in high school.  We were pretty thick.  When I got drafted I asked if she wanted to get married.  You know, she could have had a nice life insurance policy on me, courtesy of Uncle Sam, shop at the PX at Fort Lewis, and have the privilege of being married to me.

Well, she said ‘No.’  She said that she would wait until I got out of the Army, because soldiers weren’t cool.  You know, the Vietnam protest and all of that.  Anyway, she wrote a lot at first, but the letters became fewer and farther in between.  By the time I got home she was shacked up with some pimple-faced, long haired dickweed that she met at the University of Washington.  The only reason that I didn’t kill the prick was because I knew what he was getting for a girlfriend.  And sure enough, I learned that a couple of years later she screwed him over too.

That was it.  I don’t need to get hit in the head with a shovel: ‘Screw me once shame on you, screw me twice shame on me,’ I’ve heard some people say.  Now I only observe the Four F rule.”

“The Four F rule?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah,” Walt replied.  “Find ‘em, Feel—-“

“Um, I think we get your point” Joe said, interrupting Walt’s profane model for male/female relations.

Walt gave a malicious smile and said “Yeah, I bet you probably do.  And you should observe it yourself.  The probability of Charlie Boy here walking into the lion’s den and getting his ass handed to him on a platter is pretty high, and he should be careful if he even wants to think about it.”

“Walt does have a point,” Dom said.  “About the risk, I mean.  This could put you right back through the meat grinder if it goes bad.  But the part about your son sticks with me.  How much pain are you willing to endure just on the chance that you might reestablish even the most tenuous relationship with him is what I want to know.”

Charlie thought about that question for a while as the rest of the men at the table sat silently.  Here was the nub of Charlie’s question:  how much potential pain was he willing to risk in order to reap an uncertain relationship with his son, if any such thing could even be hoped for at all?

Three women had advanced the idea that his was the right thing to do, and they were people who he liked and trusted.  These five men took a more jaundiced view of the affair.  Charlie didn’t know much about their marital histories, but their experiences with marriage and male/female relationships were naturally different than those of his female friends, and they were advising caution, to one degree or another.  At last, Charlie came to a decision, of sorts.

“OK, guys.  I’m hearing what you’re saying and I’m going to give this more thought before I pull the trigger on any action.  So that’s enough about me.  Who’s next?”

The conversation around the table bounced from one topic to another, and rounds of beer were ordered and consumed.  After an hour of this Charlie announced his intention to turn in.  To his surprise, Billy said that he, too, was finished for the night and that he would ride home with Charlie.  They paid their tab and walked out as the four friends who remained at the table began to debate the prospects of the new presidential administration.

As they walked out of the pub and towards Charlie’s truck Billy surprised him by saying “I think you should contact her.”

“What?  Why?  You didn’t agree when we were inside.”

“I didn’t disagree either, did I?”

“Well, no.  I guess you didn’t.  Actually, I don’t remember you saying much at all.  Well, what do you think, and why?”  They reached Charlie’s truck and Billy waited by the passenger door while Charlie unlocked the driver’s side door, climbed into the cab and opened the passenger door from the inside.

“Well,” Billy began, “I’m no model for a successful marriage.  I got married right out of high school.  I guess I was luckier than Walt on that score.  Anyway, we were a ship headed for the rockets before we even left the pier.  For four years I thought everything was great.  Then, little by little, I became aware that my wife was not so responsive to me anymore.  She worked late, or had to stop at a friend’s house, or, well, whatever.

 

Anyway, I heard from a guy that I’d never seen before in my life that my wife was cheating on me with some damned banker or lawyer or something.  I found out where the guy lived and went over there to kick his ass.  Unlucky for me he had been an amateur boxer.  He cleaned up the floor with me.

So I joined the Army, partly to get as far away from Clark County as I could and partly to get myself killed, I think.  Yeah, I was real clear headed:  ‘I’ll go to Iraq and get my ass shot off.  That’ll really show her!’  So yeah, I’m no expert on women” Billy said with a wry laugh.

Charlie had nosed the truck out of the parking lot and was starting the short trip to Billy’s cottage.  “So, did you get shot?” he asked.  “I can’t remember how you said that you got injured.”

“Shrapnel,” Billy said.  “I was in a building that we had taken over for a command post.  We had the area pretty well secured; you know, clear field of fire, concrete barriers, all the usual stuff.  Well, I don’t know how they did it, but the bad guys loaded a van with explosives and somehow jumped the damned thing over the barrier.  It was a good four feet high, too.  The van got hung up on the barrier; sort of hanging by it’s back wheels when it detonated.

I was deep inside the building and it didn’t have any glass in the windows, which was good for me.  The pressure wave came through a window and picked me up and bounced me off of a wall.  Knocked me shitless, but I didn’t totally lose consciousness.  When I got the world to stop spinning I found my weapon and put my pot back on my head and went towards a window to take a defensive position.  No telling if the bad guys were going to try to exploit their surprise, or what.

Except that my leg crumpled.  I went down like a sack of potatos.  I looked at my leg and I thought ‘Oh, shit.  I’m going to lose it.’  The shrapnel had come through that window along with the blast wave and turned my leg into what looked like dog food.  Then I saw all of the blood spurting and I thought ‘Oh, shit.  I’m going to die.’

Something, maybe a part of the truck or a ball bearing or maybe a part of the bastard who set off the bomb, had just nicked my femoral artery, and I was squirting blood like the fountain in front of the casino pool in that movie “Ocean’s Eleven.  Digger, one of my buddies, saw it and ran over and put some serious pressure on the wound that was squirting.  I kinda lost consciousness then, and the next thing that I knew I was on a Blackhawk headed to Baghdad.

But I didn’t intend to talk about me.  I don’t really talk about that stuff with people who weren’t in some sort of action themselves.  You’ve been through some hell though, so maybe it’s all right with you.”

“Well, thanks,” Charlie said.  “I respect your service and would be happy to hear more about it whenever you want to talk about it.”

“So here’s why I think you should try to get in touch with her; with your wife.  In my opinion she was collateral damage.  She didn’t cheat on you, nor you on her.  She was with you for a lot of hears; enough for you to have a daughter out of high school.  How old was she your daughter?”

“Twenty,” Charlie said.

“OK.  So the way those things are supposed to work you were together at least twenty one years.”

“Twenty three.”

“So.  Twenty three.  Your house wasn’t a war zone, was it?”

“No,” Charlie replied.  “It was pretty normal, I thought.  I’d gripe about her buying things and she’d gripe about my long hours, but nothing huge.”

“Well then, your daughter’s accident was sort of like that van that took me out.  You didn’t see your troubles coming.  I didn’t see the van coming.  You got knocked shitless against a wall.  I got knocked shitless against a wall.  You tried to get up and couldn’t.  I tried to get up and couldn’t.  I had a friend come and sticks finger into my artery to keep me alive.  You didn’t have that.  Neither did your wife.

Man, I think the friend who should have stuck their finger into your artery was your wife, and you should have stuck your finger into hers.  You were both bleeding all over the place, and your kid was bleeding too.  And speaking of him; talk about the ultimate collateral damage!

So, here’s the thing.  You tell us that you’re just now beginning to get your shit back together.  Walt and that girl at the garden, us at the Smelly Socks and your counselor.  We’re your friends.  We’re helping you to stop the bleeding.  Who ar your wife’s friends now?”

“Ex Wife’s friends,” Charlie corrected him.

“Pardon my French,” Billy said, “but fuck that ex-business.  She was your wife for twenty three years.  I’ve only been alive for thirty two!  You two raised a daughter and still have a son.  Tell me; do you really no longer give a damn about her?”

Charlie was silent for a moment.  Finally he answered “No, I can’t say that.  We didn’t separate ugly like that.”

“Well, I DID separate ugly like that.  I was humiliated in my own home town and got my ass kicked good by her new lover in the bargain.  And you know what”  I would stick a finger into her artery!  What was there in the beginning is still there, or some part of it at least.  I don’t walk around whining about my lost love; it’s over, and that’s a fact.  But I don’t wish her any hurt.  If she needed help, I’d give it to her.  I wouldn’t walk across the street and piss down her boyfriend’s throat if his heart was on fire, but she was my wife, and in some corner of my mind or heart or my dumb ass or wherever, she still is.

So you have to ask yourself if, in some way and for some purpose, she still needs you.  Not to come back riding on a white horse to restart your marriage, but to correct something that’s still out of joint, or to say ‘I’m sorry; I was just too torn up to help you then.  If there’s anything I can do, you only need to let me know.’  A little of that can go a long way.  All I’m saying is that maybe you’re the finger that she needs.”

Billy stopped talking at this point, and the two men were silent the rest of the way home.  When they got to the cottage Billy invited Charlie in for a cup of coffee, or to move in that very night if he wanted to.  Charlie declined, saying that he was going to finish out his last couple of days at the apartment.

As he drove across town Charlie’s mind rehashed all that he had heard that day.  He was deep in his thoughts when he ran a red light and was nearly T-boned by a bus.  “Oh, shit!” he thought.  “I have to clear my head!”

He drove past the hipster organic grocery and thought about buying something for breakfast the next morning, but he decided against that.  He would eat at Leroy’s the next morning and see how LuAnn was doing.

As he drove on he passed the big Catholic church.  On a whim, Charlie whipped into a parking slot in front of the building.  There was a mid week service going on and Charlie debated going in.  Just like it had been the first time that he had stopped here the light streamed out of the building every time the thick wooden doors were opened, bathing the steps up from the sidewalk in its warm glow.

Charlie wanted to walk up those steps.  He wanted to see the people sitting in the long wooden seats or kneeling in the aisles next to them.  He wanted to hear the odd singing that wasn’t like the hymns that he had sometimes heard before.  He wanted to see the pictures of Jesus as he was beaten and crucified.  “Jesus didn’t have anyone to put a finger into his artery,” he thought.

He decided to drive on home.  The red light of the bridge blinked a short distance in front of him but he hardly noticed it, and in less than five minutes he was standing in front of his apartment.  There was an argument going on around the corner of the building, and Charlie knew that a fight could break out at any moment.  For the first time in two years he hurried to get to the safety of his apartment.

Outside his window the two disputants at last came to blows.  Charlie wanted to lower the window, but to do so would invite attention, and he decided that he needed none of that.  He left the light off and sat in his chair, listening to the grunts and curses, and the dull ‘thwak’ of fist on face and body.   At last a round of curses was growled out into the night and a last thud of fist or shoe into flesh signified that a winner and a loser had been established.  After that, silence descended over the apartment building.

Charlie thought of taking out his phone and calling Maureen’s parents right then.  “Hello, Mr. Prentiss.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I would like to get in touch with your daughter – – -, yes, that’s right.  The Charlie who screwed everything up the last time.  Hello?  Mr. Prentiss?”  Yeah, that would work.  Or maybe he should write a note.  Charlie’s mind could picture Mrs. Prentiss going to that funny mail slot that was on the inside wall by the front door.  The mailman would place letters in the outside chamber and they would fall down a slot to the chamber inside the house.  Charlie had been fascinated by that 1940’s concept and would have incorporated it into some of his own construction if Clark County had mailmen who walked their routes.

(Mrs. Prentiss): “Walter, will you take a look at this!  We’ve got a letter from Charlie!”  (Mr. Prentiss): “Charlie?  Charlie who?”  (Mrs. Prentiss): “You know, Charlie Hamer.”  (Mr. Prentiss): “Oh.  That’s lovely dear.  Put it in the bottom of the bird cage.”

No, that wasn’t going to work either.  “So maybe I’ll try – – -“

At that moment Charlie heard a car come to a screeching halt outside and the several doors that opened and then slammed shut.  Multiple voices were soon calling a man’s name.

“Oh crap,”  Charlie thought.  “Round two.”

Somebody, probably the victor of the recently-concluded fight, was dragged out of an apartment and a quality ass-kicking soon began at almost the same spot where the previous one had so recently concluded, right outside of Charlie’s window.

“This one’s going to end with the police involved” Charlie thought.  “They might kill the guy, or one of his friends might start shooting.”

At this point Charlie decided that he had had enough of this apartment.  Sitting in the dark in that worn and musty chair, Charlie looked at the place that he had inhabited for the last two years.  The old couch by the open window were he had slept, hoping that sleep would give him a few hours’ relief from his pain, was gray in the deep shadow of his apartment.  He could see the television that would normally be on all night, giving him something to focus on rather than his thoughts or the fact that sleep often eluded him.  Behind him was the kitchen which he had used only sparingly, and to his right the bathroom where a pile of shit-filled clothes had so recently lain stinking on the floor, yet had proclaimed that Charlie Hamer still lived.

Charlie felt no nostalgia.  This place was never a home.  “More like a tomb” he thought, and now the time had come to leave it.  Charlie rose up out of the chair and walked over to the couch.  Leaning over it he grasped the window and pulled it down less than gently, and he didn’t even know why it mattered to do so.

He then walked to the door, opened it, stuck his key in the inside lock, and then closed the door behind him.  What few things of his that remained in the apartment could stay; he was done with them.  As he walked down the hall towards the main doorway and then into the night outside the building he heard the gunshot that he had expected.  “Was that into the air, the ground, or somebody’s head,” he wondered.  Without looking around he walked straight to his truck and climbed into the cab.  He could already hear the sirens that could signify ambulance or police or both when he started the truck and pulled away from the curb.

Charlie punched in Billy’s number as he left the vicinity of the apartment.  “Hello,” came Billy’s voice.

“Hey, Billy.  It’s Charlie.  Did I wake you up?”

“No, man.  I was just having a cup of coffee and reading.”

“Reading?”

“Yeah.  I’m going to have to be doing a lot of that in less than two months, so I’d better start getting used to it now.”

“Probably a good idea.  Hey, you OK if I change my mind about moving in tonight?”

“Heck yeah.  The book’s pretty good, but I was getting a little lonely tonight.  Talking about my wife, and thinking about Iraq; well, I guess I got a little down.”

“I know how that can happen.  I’ll be there in under twenty minutes.”

“OK.  You want I should put some more water on the stove?”

“Yeah.  I don’t think I’m all that ready to sleep tonight.”

Charlie made it to Billy’s cottage in fifteen minutes.  Billy had a cup of coffee ready for him when he arrived and the two friends sat up until almost midnight putting fingers into each others’ bleeding arteries.

Charlie and Billy arrived at the Key and Lock a little bit earlier than the others.  They staked out possession of the group’s favorite table and ordered their beers.  Charlie told Billy on the way to the pub that he would have to leave early so that he wouldn’t drink too much.  He was to tear out Carolyn’s outer wall the next day, and using a jackhammer on the old concrete front porch while nursing a hangover was not something that he looked forward too.  “Smart move,” was Billy’s reply to that pearl of wisdom. “I’ll get Dom to give me a ride home if I choose to stay longer.”  They were talking about their upcoming hunting trip when  Ted and Joe came in and took their seats at the table.  Walt came in next and few minutes later Dom rounded out the group.

Beers were ordered as well as a huge nacho plate, and Charlie ordered a burger and fries.  Soon the chatter dropped to a lull and Dom, who was the leader of the group that night, asked “So what world problems of major proportions shall we solve tonight, gentlemen?”

There was the usual amount of staring from face to face, waiting for somebody to break the ice.  If nobody spoke up it was the leader’s duty to pick a topic.  Dom appeared to be drawing his breath to speak when Charlie presented an opening question for the first time since he had become an accepted member of the group.

“I’ve got something that I would like to throw out for you tonight.”  Everybody stopped talking and looked at Charlie with surprise.  “I want your advice about something that I’m thinking of doing.”

“Go ahead” said Dom.

“Shoot” chimed in Ted.

The others just stared at Charlie and waited for him to speak.  “OK, so some of you know some of my story, and for you others I’ll give you the short version so that you can be up to speed.”

Charlie took a few minutes to tell of Stevie’s death and the meltdown of his life, his counseling and recovery process, and now the question of establishing contact with his ex-wife.  “I’m thinking that I’ve got a more clear vision of what was happening with me and with Maureen and my son, and it would help me and maybe help Maureen and Jack if we could clear the air of any misconceptions.  Besides, I am beginning to believe that I have a duty, especially to Jack, that I need to start fulfilling.”  The table was silent as the men mulled over Charlie’s question.  As usual, Walt was the first one with something to say.

“Charlie,” he began.  “I just want to know something first.  Did you fall and hit your head today?”

Charlie had grown accustomed to Walt’s jaded outlook on life and grinned as he replied “Maybe so, Walt.  I do have a little amnesia about and hour or two today.  But all the same, what do you think about my question?”

“Well, for starters, I wonder why a guy who has finally gotten himself free of the ball and chain, and now is picking himself up off of the floor at the end of it all, would ever want to get himself shackled up again?  She ditched  you and took you for every last penny that you had.  Isn’t that enough grief to take from one broad?”

“No, that’s not how it went down at all,” Charlie answered.  “That ‘broad’ is a very decent woman.  Neither of us handled my daughter’s death well; her no better than me.  And she didn’t take me for anything.  I liquidated everything I had  and gave it to her and my son of my own free will.  I was in no shape to run it and I let her lawyer guide the process because I didn’t have a lawyer. Maureen resisted taking the money at first but when I told her that I would otherwise just give it away she finally agreed.

And as to the ball and chain, I have no intention of trying to patch up the marriage.  That’s over and done with, as far as I’m concerned.  Heck, as far as I know she’s already remarried.”

“So,” Joe interjected.  “You’re going to try to re-connect with your ex-wife so that you can clear up misconceptions.  What I would like to know is why you would want to do that.  If there’s no interest on your part in trying to restore the marriage, why do you care to clean up anything?  What difference does it make?”

“That’s a good question,” Ted said.  “She’s in the past and you’ve both moved on, or at least you have.  So what do you gain by beating on that dead horse?”

“Well,” Charlie said.  “I haven’t moved on as much as you think, or I guess I should say that I haven’t moved on as much as I would like.  I still spend a lot of time carrying the weight of how I saw the whole thing unfold.  My counselor is helping me to untangle my recollections of that time and she’s probably saved my life.”

“Here’s to the counselors in our lives,” Dom said, raising his glass.

“Here.  Here,” was the response, and glasses were raised around the table.

“And I would also like to point out that Walt, here, and a girl at our community garden probably saved my life too.”

Charlie turned and raised his glass towards Walt and said “I never told you about that, you old fart.  I didn’t want to give you a big head.”

Billy said “Now you’ll have to tell us that story.”

“In time,” Charlie said.  “In time.” He then turned back toward his grizzled friend.

“Walt” he said.

“Walt” the other men at the table echoed, and they drained their glasses.  Walt just sat there speechless, his face turning red but clearly enjoying his celebrity.

“So, returning to your question,” Dom began.  “I can see you wanting to restore some sort of relationship with your son.  My old man was the Iron Duke of our household, but I never doubted his love for me, and he was always there when I needed him.  Pop and my grandfather didn’t have such an easy time of it though.  Grandpa left the family when Pop was a teenager.  Grandma said he just got itchy feet and had to scratch them on the road.

I don’t know anything about where he went or what he did while he was gone, but after he came back, which was ten years later and Dad was married and Mom was pregnant with my sister, Dad had a hell of a hard time accepting him.  Grandma took him back in, but they never had what I would call a normal relationship.  Pop would be ready to fight Grandpa at the drop of a hat at first, and only very slowly did they reach something like a detente.

I don’t know how it went with you and your son.  With me, I value my relationship with my father as much as anything else in my life.  If you think you can handle what could be a very difficult reconciliation with him, I think it would be worth anything that you have to do to achieve it.”

“That was long-winded even for you, Dom,” Walt said.  Dom crumpled up a napkin and threw it at Walt.  “Here’s my two cents worth,” Walt continued.  “Kids are a pain in the butt.  You know how much regard that I have for the little creeps.”

Charlie smiled and said “Yes Walt.  I remember you telling me something about that.”

“So if your kid doesn’t like you, why let him use you for a punching bag?  You gave his mother enough money to buy a small country, so what else do you owe him?”

“I guess I owe him the chance to have a father,” Charlie replied.  “And if that works maybe I can even offer him a chance to have a dad.  But I won’t know if any of that is possible unless I ask, right?”

“So, to go back to my point,” Joe said.  “If you don’t want to restore your relationship with your ex, how is it going to work restoring it with your son?  The two come as a package, don’t they?  I mean; yeah, lots of fathers and children maintain a relationship after divorce, but those details get agreed to during the process.  If I heard you right, you’re saying that you want to drop in out of nowhere, become a presence in your son’s life, but not restore a relationship with his mom.  I don’t know how that’ll work.”

“Joe’s got a point” Dom added.  “When my grandpa came back he engaged the whole family.  I don’t know that you can separate the two, at least not until he’s over eighteen years old, if then.”

“OK,” Charlie said.  “I guess I have to clarify my thoughts.  I’m not opposed to having some kind of a relationship with Maureen again.  I only said that I had no intention to try to revive the marriage.  That is over and done with, like I said earlier.  I know that connecting with my son would involve connecting with my ex.  Like I said, she’s a good person and, if we can both move on past our hurts, I think we could relate well enough for Jack’s sake.  But as to that, I won’t know if any of it is possible unless I ask, right?”

“Yeah, sure.  That makes sense,” Said Ted.  “But I’m curious about a couple of things.  What if she slams the door in your face?  What if she really does feel about you the way that you’ve believed that she’s felt about you from the beginning?  What if she tells you to keep the hell away from her and her son?  What’ll that do to you?”

“I’ve thought about that,” Charlie replied.  “I wouldn’t be any worse off than I am now, would I?  Look, I have felt like roadkill for two years.  A very political friend of mine once told me that the only thing that you find in the middle of the road is a yellow stripe and a dead skunk.  Well, I’ve felt like a stinking, dead skunk with a yellow stripe for long enough.  If I don’t take a chance, I’ll still be getting better, what with my counselor and sage advisors like you guys.”

Charlie raised his glass to the men at the table and they returned the salute and then drank their beer.

“But if I take this step and things get straightened out, even a little, I get it together even faster, no?  So what’s the downside?”

“Well, I still think you should leave well enough alone,” Walt said.  “I’ve never found a woman who was worth exposing yourself to.”

“Have you tried?” asked Dom.  “I don’t mean that in a mean way.  I really don’t believe that I’ve ever heard you talk about a wife or a fiance or a girlfriend.  Hell, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you talk about a mother.  You’ve got one, right?”

Walt picked up the crumpled napkin that Dom and thrown at him and chucked it back.

“No.  A seagull took a crap on a fencepost in the sun and I hatched from it.  Yes, I had a girlfriend in high school.  We were pretty thick.  When I got drafted I asked if she wanted to get married.  You know, she could have had a nice life insurance policy on me, courtesy of Uncle Sam, shop at the PX at Fort Lewis, and have the privilege of being married to me.

Well, she said ‘No.’  She said that she would wait until I got out of the Army, because soldiers weren’t cool.  You know, the Vietnam protest and all of that.  Anyway, she wrote a lot at first, but the letters became fewer and farther in between.  By the time I got home she was shacked up with some pimple-faced, long haired dickweed that she met at the University of Washington.  The only reason that I didn’t kill the prick was because I knew what he was getting for a girlfriend.  And sure enough, I learned that a couple of years later she screwed him over too.

That was it.  I don’t need to get hit in the head with a shovel: ‘Screw me once shame on you, screw me twice shame on me,’ I’ve heard some people say.  Now I only observe the Four F rule.”

“The Four F rule?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah,” Walt replied.  “Find ‘em, Feel—-“

“Um, I think we get your point” Joe said, interrupting Walt’s profane model for male/female relations.

Walt gave a malicious smile and said “Yeah, I bet you probably do.  And you should observe it yourself.  The probability of Charlie Boy here walking into the lion’s den and getting his ass handed to him on a platter is pretty high, and he should be careful if he even wants to think about it.”

“Walt does have a point,” Dom said.  “About the risk, I mean.  This could put you right back through the meat grinder if it goes bad.  But the part about your son sticks with me.  How much pain are you willing to endure just on the chance that you might reestablish even the most tenuous relationship with him is what I want to know.”

Charlie thought about that question for a while as the rest of the men at the table sat silently.  Here was the nub of Charlie’s question:  how much potential pain was he willing to risk in order to reap an uncertain relationship with his son, if any such thing could even be hoped for at all?

Three women had advanced the idea that his was the right thing to do, and they were people who he liked and trusted.  These five men took a more jaundiced view of the affair.  Charlie didn’t know much about their marital histories, but their experiences with marriage and male/female relationships were naturally different than those of his female friends, and they were advising caution, to one degree or another.  At last, Charlie came to a decision, of sorts.

“OK, guys.  I’m hearing what you’re saying and I’m going to give this more thought before I pull the trigger on any action.  So that’s enough about me.  Who’s next?”

The conversation around the table bounced from one topic to another, and rounds of beer were ordered and consumed.  After an hour of this Charlie announced his intention to turn in.  To his surprise, Billy said that he, too, was finished for the night and that he would ride home with Charlie.  They paid their tab and walked out as the four friends who remained at the table began to debate the prospects of the new presidential administration.

As they walked out of the pub and towards Charlie’s truck Billy surprised him by saying “I think you should contact her.”

“What?  Why?  You didn’t agree when we were inside.”

“I didn’t disagree either, did I?”

“Well, no.  I guess you didn’t.  Actually, I don’t remember you saying much at all.  Well, what do you think, and why?”  They reached Charlie’s truck and Billy waited by the passenger door while Charlie unlocked the driver’s side door, climbed into the cab and opened the passenger door from the inside.

“Well,” Billy began, “I’m no model for a successful marriage.  I got married right out of high school.  I guess I was luckier than Walt on that score.  Anyway, we were a ship headed for the rockets before we even left the pier.  For four years I thought everything was great.  Then, little by little, I became aware that my wife was not so responsive to me anymore.  She worked late, or had to stop at a friend’s house, or, well, whatever.

 

Anyway, I heard from a guy that I’d never seen before in my life that my wife was cheating on me with some damned banker or lawyer or something.  I found out where the guy lived and went over there to kick his ass.  Unlucky for me he had been an amateur boxer.  He cleaned up the floor with me.

So I joined the Army, partly to get as far away from Clark County as I could and partly to get myself killed, I think.  Yeah, I was real clear headed:  ‘I’ll go to Iraq and get my ass shot off.  That’ll really show her!’  So yeah, I’m no expert on women” Billy said with a wry laugh.

Charlie had nosed the truck out of the parking lot and was starting the short trip to Billy’s cottage.  “So, did you get shot?” he asked.  “I can’t remember how you said that you got injured.”

“Shrapnel,” Billy said.  “I was in a building that we had taken over for a command post.  We had the area pretty well secured; you know, clear field of fire, concrete barriers, all the usual stuff.  Well, I don’t know how they did it, but the bad guys loaded a van with explosives and somehow jumped the damned thing over the barrier.  It was a good four feet high, too.  The van got hung up on the barrier; sort of hanging by it’s back wheels when it detonated.

I was deep inside the building and it didn’t have any glass in the windows, which was good for me.  The pressure wave came through a window and picked me up and bounced me off of a wall.  Knocked me shitless, but I didn’t totally lose consciousness.  When I got the world to stop spinning I found my weapon and put my pot back on my head and went towards a window to take a defensive position.  No telling if the bad guys were going to try to exploit their surprise, or what.

Except that my leg crumpled.  I went down like a sack of potatos.  I looked at my leg and I thought ‘Oh, shit.  I’m going to lose it.’  The shrapnel had come through that window along with the blast wave and turned my leg into what looked like dog food.  Then I saw all of the blood spurting and I thought ‘Oh, shit.  I’m going to die.’

Something, maybe a part of the truck or a ball bearing or maybe a part of the bastard who set off the bomb, had just nicked my femoral artery, and I was squirting blood like the fountain in front of the casino pool in that movie “Ocean’s Eleven.  Digger, one of my buddies, saw it and ran over and put some serious pressure on the wound that was squirting.  I kinda lost consciousness then, and the next thing that I knew I was on a Blackhawk headed to Baghdad.

But I didn’t intend to talk about me.  I don’t really talk about that stuff with people who weren’t in some sort of action themselves.  You’ve been through some hell though, so maybe it’s all right with you.”

“Well, thanks,” Charlie said.  “I respect your service and would be happy to hear more about it whenever you want to talk about it.”

“So here’s why I think you should try to get in touch with her; with your wife.  In my opinion she was collateral damage.  She didn’t cheat on you, nor you on her.  She was with you for a lot of hears; enough for you to have a daughter out of high school.  How old was she your daughter?”

“Twenty,” Charlie said.

“OK.  So the way those things are supposed to work you were together at least twenty one years.”

“Twenty three.”

“So.  Twenty three.  Your house wasn’t a war zone, was it?”

“No,” Charlie replied.  “It was pretty normal, I thought.  I’d gripe about her buying things and she’d gripe about my long hours, but nothing huge.”

“Well then, your daughter’s accident was sort of like that van that took me out.  You didn’t see your troubles coming.  I didn’t see the van coming.  You got knocked shitless against a wall.  I got knocked shitless against a wall.  You tried to get up and couldn’t.  I tried to get up and couldn’t.  I had a friend come and sticks finger into my artery to keep me alive.  You didn’t have that.  Neither did your wife.

Man, I think the friend who should have stuck their finger into your artery was your wife, and you should have stuck your finger into hers.  You were both bleeding all over the place, and your kid was bleeding too.  And speaking of him; talk about the ultimate collateral damage!

So, here’s the thing.  You tell us that you’re just now beginning to get your shit back together.  Walt and that girl at the garden, us at the Smelly Socks and your counselor.  We’re your friends.  We’re helping you to stop the bleeding.  Who ar your wife’s friends now?”

“Ex Wife’s friends,” Charlie corrected him.

“Pardon my French,” Billy said, “but fuck that ex-business.  She was your wife for twenty three years.  I’ve only been alive for thirty two!  You two raised a daughter and still have a son.  Tell me; do you really no longer give a damn about her?”

Charlie was silent for a moment.  Finally he answered “No, I can’t say that.  We didn’t separate ugly like that.”

“Well, I DID separate ugly like that.  I was humiliated in my own home town and got my ass kicked good by her new lover in the bargain.  And you know what”  I would stick a finger into her artery!  What was there in the beginning is still there, or some part of it at least.  I don’t walk around whining about my lost love; it’s over, and that’s a fact.  But I don’t wish her any hurt.  If she needed help, I’d give it to her.  I wouldn’t walk across the street and piss down her boyfriend’s throat if his heart was on fire, but she was my wife, and in some corner of my mind or heart or my dumb ass or wherever, she still is.

So you have to ask yourself if, in some way and for some purpose, she still needs you.  Not to come back riding on a white horse to restart your marriage, but to correct something that’s still out of joint, or to say ‘I’m sorry; I was just too torn up to help you then.  If there’s anything I can do, you only need to let me know.’  A little of that can go a long way.  All I’m saying is that maybe you’re the finger that she needs.”

Billy stopped talking at this point, and the two men were silent the rest of the way home.  When they got to the cottage Billy invited Charlie in for a cup of coffee, or to move in that very night if he wanted to.  Charlie declined, saying that he was going to finish out his last couple of days at the apartment.

As he drove across town Charlie’s mind rehashed all that he had heard that day.  He was deep in his thoughts when he ran a red light and was nearly T-boned by a bus.  “Oh, shit!” he thought.  “I have to clear my head!”

He drove past the hipster organic grocery and thought about buying something for breakfast the next morning, but he decided against that.  He would eat at Leroy’s the next morning and see how LuAnn was doing.

As he drove on he passed the big Catholic church.  On a whim, Charlie whipped into a parking slot in front of the building.  There was a mid week service going on and Charlie debated going in.  Just like it had been the first time that he had stopped here the light streamed out of the building every time the thick wooden doors were opened, bathing the steps up from the sidewalk in its warm glow.

Charlie wanted to walk up those steps.  He wanted to see the people sitting in the long wooden seats or kneeling in the aisles next to them.  He wanted to hear the odd singing that wasn’t like the hymns that he had sometimes heard before.  He wanted to see the pictures of Jesus as he was beaten and crucified.  “Jesus didn’t have anyone to put a finger into his artery,” he thought.

He decided to drive on home.  The red light of the bridge blinked a short distance in front of him but he hardly noticed it, and in less than five minutes he was standing in front of his apartment.  There was an argument going on around the corner of the building, and Charlie knew that a fight could break out at any moment.  For the first time in two years he hurried to get to the safety of his apartment.

Outside his window the two disputants at last came to blows.  Charlie wanted to lower the window, but to do so would invite attention, and he decided that he needed none of that.  He left the light off and sat in his chair, listening to the grunts and curses, and the dull ‘thwak’ of fist on face and body.   At last a round of curses was growled out into the night and a last thud of fist or shoe into flesh signified that a winner and a loser had been established.  After that, silence descended over the apartment building.

Charlie thought of taking out his phone and calling Maureen’s parents right then.  “Hello, Mr. Prentiss.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I would like to get in touch with your daughter – – -, yes, that’s right.  The Charlie who screwed everything up the last time.  Hello?  Mr. Prentiss?”  Yeah, that would work.  Or maybe he should write a note.  Charlie’s mind could picture Mrs. Prentiss going to that funny mail slot that was on the inside wall by the front door.  The mailman would place letters in the outside chamber and they would fall down a slot to the chamber inside the house.  Charlie had been fascinated by that 1940’s concept and would have incorporated it into some of his own construction if Clark County had mailmen who walked their routes.

(Mrs. Prentiss): “Walter, will you take a look at this!  We’ve got a letter from Charlie!”  (Mr. Prentiss): “Charlie?  Charlie who?”  (Mrs. Prentiss): “You know, Charlie Hamer.”  (Mr. Prentiss): “Oh.  That’s lovely dear.  Put it in the bottom of the bird cage.”

No, that wasn’t going to work either.  “So maybe I’ll try – – -“

At that moment Charlie heard a car come to a screeching halt outside and the several doors that opened and then slammed shut.  Multiple voices were soon calling a man’s name.

“Oh crap,”  Charlie thought.  “Round two.”

Somebody, probably the victor of the recently-concluded fight, was dragged out of an apartment and a quality ass-kicking soon began at almost the same spot where the previous one had so recently concluded, right outside of Charlie’s window.

“This one’s going to end with the police involved” Charlie thought.  “They might kill the guy, or one of his friends might start shooting.”

At this point Charlie decided that he had had enough of this apartment.  Sitting in the dark in that worn and musty chair, Charlie looked at the place that he had inhabited for the last two years.  The old couch by the open window were he had slept, hoping that sleep would give him a few hours’ relief from his pain, was gray in the deep shadow of his apartment.  He could see the television that would normally be on all night, giving him something to focus on rather than his thoughts or the fact that sleep often eluded him.  Behind him was the kitchen which he had used only sparingly, and to his right the bathroom where a pile of shit-filled clothes had so recently lain stinking on the floor, yet had proclaimed that Charlie Hamer still lived.

Charlie felt no nostalgia.  This place was never a home.  “More like a tomb” he thought, and now the time had come to leave it.  Charlie rose up out of the chair and walked over to the couch.  Leaning over it he grasped the window and pulled it down less than gently, and he didn’t even know why it mattered to do so.

He then walked to the door, opened it, stuck his key in the inside lock, and then closed the door behind him.  What few things of his that remained in the apartment could stay; he was done with them.  As he walked down the hall towards the main doorway and then into the night outside the building he heard the gunshot that he had expected.  “Was that into the air, the ground, or somebody’s head,” he wondered.  Without looking around he walked straight to his truck and climbed into the cab.  He could already hear the sirens that could signify ambulance or police or both when he started the truck and pulled away from the curb.

Charlie punched in Billy’s number as he left the vicinity of the apartment.  “Hello,” came Billy’s voice.

“Hey, Billy.  It’s Charlie.  Did I wake you up?”

“No, man.  I was just having a cup of coffee and reading.”

“Reading?”

“Yeah.  I’m going to have to be doing a lot of that in less than two months, so I’d better start getting used to it now.”

“Probably a good idea.  Hey, you OK if I change my mind about moving in tonight?”

“Heck yeah.  The book’s pretty good, but I was getting a little lonely tonight.  Talking about my wife, and thinking about Iraq; well, I guess I got a little down.”

“I know how that can happen.  I’ll be there in under twenty minutes.”

“OK.  You want I should put some more water on the stove?”

“Yeah.  I don’t think I’m all that ready to sleep tonight.”

Charlie made it to Billy’s cottage in fifteen minutes.  Billy had a cup of coffee ready for him when he arrived and the two friends sat up until almost midnight putting fingers into each others’ bleeding arteries.

The Garden, Chapter XI

Charlie didn’t think about D’Andra, LuAnn or Maureen for the next several hours.  Carolyn was ready to go shopping when he got to her house, so they both climbed into Charlie’s truck and rumbled off to look at kitchen appliances.  Carolyn was by no means a sloppy shopper, and color, dimensions and that certain ‘something’ were weighed and evaluated and put through the fire until three very complimentary pieces had made the grade.  They were duly purchased.  Delivery was set for three weeks hence.  Charlie now had a timetable to wrestle with.

“Your choices are really good” he said as they walked out the door.  “The style isn’t my favorite, as you already know, but I didn’t expect to like the combination as much as I do.”

“Aw, you’re just trying to butter up the boss,” she retorted with a smile.

“Of course I am” Charlie agreed.  “I wasn’t born yesterday.  But no, seriously.  I really do like your plan.  You’ve got an eye for this.”

Carolyn was clearly pleased upon hearing Charlie’s approval.  He was happy too.  His problems with Carolyn’s plan were now firmly in the rear-view mirror and he was glad to let her know it unequivocally.  “And besides,” he thought.  “It is always a good thing to butter up the boss.”

“I’ve got to go to Home Supply to get some stuff for tomorrow.  I’d be happy to drop you off at your house first” Charlie said.

“Don’t you dare!” was Carolyn’s reply.  “I could get to love this business.”

“I’ve loved it for as long as I’ve done it, the last two years excepted, and even then there was a sort of draw to it.  I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

They chatted in this manner while they drove to the store.  Charlie learned that his guess at Carolyn’t occupation was correct; she was in real estate.  “My husband died of cancer” she told him.  “I don’t know where the primary tumor was, but by the time we discovered that he had a problem it was in his liver and lymph nodes and bones, even in his brain.  He went fast, which was sort of a blessing, I guess.  Six months after diagnosis Wesley was gone.  He left me a nice sum in the bank and a generous life insurance policy, and his medical insurance through his job was very good.  I didn’t get slammed too hard by medical bills.

So now I’m trying to make it in real estate.  My father used to buy houses and fix them up to the point where they were just decent, and then rent them.  He did pretty well with that; did most of the work himself.  I’m more interested in selling the homes I pick up, so I have to put more into them.  And it’s harder for me because I have to rely on a general contractor.  Do you know how frustrating that can be?”

“Oh, yes.  Do I forever know.  I AM a general contractor, remember?  I just haven’t done any generalling for quite a while.  I’m sorry to hear about that” Charlie said, and then continued.  “About your husband, that is.  That must have been a hard time for you.”

“It certainly was a hard time.  We couldn’t have children and so we decided to focus on making the most of our marriage.  Huh!  Funny how the best laid plans sometimes go straight into the shredder.”

Both Charlie and Carolyn were silent for a while as they drove towards their destination.  Charlie wondered how Carolyn had managed to avoid the free-fall that he had experienced when Stevie died.  What Carolyn was thinking he could only guess.  Finally, he had to ask.

“How did you handle your husband’s death so well?  My daughter died a few years ago,”  Charlie gulped back a catch in his voice, “and I lost everything.  I still can’t say that I’m over it.”

Carolyn thought a minute before answering.  “Well, my first week was very hard.  There wasn’t anything I would do that his memory wasn’t a part of.  Walk down the hall, make coffee in the morning, go to the store, drive past a restaurant.  I slept in a guest room and tried to keep up as many routine activities as I could.  I did them on auto pilot though.  In fact, I can hardly remember much in the way of details of that week.

I guess the best thing was that I was not alone.  Mom and Dad and my sisters were all there for me, and Wesley’s family too.  They cooked and cleaned and sat with me; took me to the beach or up to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood.  My sister and her family go to a church and a bunch of her friends from there made freezer meals for me.  They would mow my lawn and – – -, well, whatever needed to be done.  Wes and I didn’t think too much about church and I can’t say that I do even now.  But I sure appreciated their help.  They acted more like how I thought a religious person should act, although I couldn’t really tell you then what that should be and don’t know if I could tell you now.  I think I may still have a lasagna or two left in the freezer.”

“How long ago did this happen?” Charlie asked, surprised by the lingering lasagna.

“It was a year ago next month.”

Charlie was left speechless by this.  Less than a year after losing her husband Carolyn was starting a business, overseeing a kitchen remodel, and moving on in life.  Charlie began to compare his handling of Stevie’s death with Carolyn’s response to her husband’s and he didn’t like the comparison at all.  Old demons of self-blame and doubt began to claw away at his heart, but he was determined not to give in to them this time without a fight.

“I handled my loss a lot less capably than you did.  I’m really impressed with your story.  You’ve seen what condition my problem left me in.”

Carolyn seemed to sense Charlie’s struggle.  “We’re different people, Charlie.  There’s no right or wrong way here; no weak or strong.  I could have walked the same path as you if my life had been different; if I had been alone.  And if you had all of the family support that I had – I take it you don’t have much family here?”  Charlie nodded in the negative.  “Then you might very well have handled your trouble in the same manner that I did.”

Charlie had his doubts, but Carolyn made sense.  He felt that he had dwelt on this conversation long enough; was amazed that he had done so and kept his composure.  “I’ll have to tell D’Andra about this” he thought, and then he changed the subject.

“Who are you using as a general contractor?”

Carolyn gave a name that Charlie didn’t recognize.  After spending two years on the margins of the construction trades he was unfamiliar with many of the new players.  Something like a protective urge rose up in him.

“If you have any questions about their work, I’d be glad to look at it with you.  Not to step on anyone’s toes, but I don’t want you to get short-changed in what can be a pretty dog-eat-dog business.”

“Why, thank you Charlie.  I appreciate that” Carolyn replied.  “But aren’t building inspectors supposed to check such things?”

Charlie remembered hearing stories of bottles of scotch whiskey being left in buildings that were ‘ready’ for inspection; ‘Christmas in July’ they called it. He had never resorted to such measures, and all of the inspectors he had dealt with were honest.  He knew that they though, like anyone else, could miss things or just not be as good at what they did as they should be.

“No system’s perfect” he finally chose to say.  “Inspectors can miss things.  If you’re still new at this, things could slip by you.”  Charlie remembered the poor design of the shower door in the bathroom remodel that he had just completed.  “So if you have any doubts or questions, I’ll be happy to take a look.”

Carolyn was thanking him for his concern and offer when they pulled into the parking lot of Home Supply.

For the next hour Charlie was busy scheduling the drop-off of some heavy braces and a large supply of lumber for the next morning.  He would be tearing out the existing outside wall and replacing it four feet further toward the front of the house.  Carolyn was mostly quiet as she watched every step of the transaction with interest.  Charlie noted this and decided that she was looking for knowledge that would help her in her own business.  “Smart woman” he thought.

At last the business was finished and Charlie began to drive them back to Carolyn’s house.  She offered to buy Charlie a burger or something but he declined.  “I’ve already eaten enough today to feed a village” he said with a laugh.  “I’ll stop if you’re hungry.”  Carolyn also declined and told him that she’d see if she could dig that old lasagna out of the freezer and zap it in the microwave oven that would be doing much of her cooking for the next month.

When they arrived at Carolyn’s house Charlie got out of the truck to open the door for her but she was already out, being fully capable of opening her own doors.  He was momentarily thrown by this but made a smooth recovery and walked her to the front door.

“I’ll be here at 9 tomorrow” he told her.  “I’ll be making a racket, so I don’t want to annoy your neighbors any more than is necessary.  You’ve got somebody staying with you until I get the new outside wall sealed up, right?”

“Yes.  My sister’s oldest son will be here.  He’s a big kid; plays football for Camas High.  He’ll stay for as long as I need him.  Or as long as I can feed him is more like it!”

“It won’t take long.  I’ll put in some long days at first and get that part done.  I don’t have any other pressing responsibilities, so I can focus on just that.”

“Well, I appreciate it.”  Carolyn drew a breath and let it out in a long, deep sigh.  “Now it’s time for me to go back to looking at numbers on paper.  Charlie, I do think you’ve got the best end of this business.”

“I’d have to agree,” he replied with a laugh.  “Well, good bye.  See you tomorrow.”

“Good bye, Charlie.”

Carolyn disappeared behind the closing door and Charlie returned to his truck.  Thoughts swirled in his brain as he fired it up and drove away from the curb.  His meeting with D’Andra this morning had stirred up questions that he needed to ask himself, and his conversation with LuAnn had given him more than roast beef to chew on.  No, he had spent the last two hours with Carolyn, fully engaged in work that he now found satisfying once again.

Charlie’s appreciation of Carolyn had grown even more as she selected appliances with a discerning eye and soaked up details of his business at Home Supply like a sponge.  It was very rewarding to work for her, and he hoped that her general contractor appreciated her and wasn’t taking advantage of her newness to the business.  “I hope that she’ll let me check some of their work,” he thought as he drove.

Upon arriving at Mill Plain Blvd. Charlie realized that he didn’t have a clue where he was going.  Reflexively he had turned toward his apartment, so he decided to continue in that direction.  He would take most of what he would be moving from his apartment to Billy’s cottage  Billy would not be home this early in the day but Charlie had a key already.

While he loaded clothes and a box or two of personal items he thought about what to do for the rest of the day.  “Ah!  The garden,” he thought.  He would stop at the storage shed and retrieve his bucket of gardening tools.  As he prepared to leave the apartment his eyes fell upon the old, beat-up coffee pot with the flowers in it.  Charlie had continued to replace the flowers in that unlikely vase whenever the old ones began to wilt.  He had become attached to that spot of color, and looking at it reminding him of his own coming back to life.  He crossed over to the table by the television and picked up the pot.  “You’re coming with me,” he said to it.

Charlie drove across town to Billy’s cottage and unloaded his belongings into the spare room that would be his home for the time being.  He put the coffee pot on a small table by the window then returned to his truck and drove back across town towards Camas and the community garden.

It was a little early for Rachael or Walt to be there but several other gardeners were.  Charlie surveyed his own plot and saw that the cucumbers and squash were almost ready to be picked.  The onions were developing plump yellow globes at the soil line, carrots and beets were growing luxurious greens and the green beans were now about two inches long.  Best of all, the tomato plants were thick with green tomatoes, all plumping up and getting ready to burst into red deliciousness.

Charlie checked for pest damage; he had already been forced to spray something on the squash and cucumbers for some sort of beetle.  The nursery worker swore that the spray was an environmentally friendly product and Charlie took his word for that.  He followed this with a bit of weed pulling and then decided to mow the grass that surrounded the garden plots.  It being a community garden, all were expected to pitch in and keep the place neat.

Charlie followed the self-propelled mower and waved at the other gardeners, feeling a peace that he hadn’t known for a very long time.  The sun was bright and warm, and he worked up a good sweat before he was finished with the lawn.  A convenience store sat on the corner two blocks away, and Charlie went there to buy a bottle of water and a bag of potato chips.  He didn’t have anything else to do and so he figured on waiting a while to see if Walt or Rachael would show up.

He took a seat under the canopy and made himself comfortable.  “I should start to read again” he thought as he sat in the shade, daydreaming while he sipped on his water and nibbled on his chips.  After a while, Charlie’s head began to dawdle and the water bottle nearly slipped out of his hand.

The warm air, cool breeze and feeling of being more financially and emotionally comfortable than he had been for a long time, seemed to give Charlie the space to let himself drift into a good nap.  That was hard to do though, sitting upright in a plastic chair, so Charlie sipped and nodded, snacked and dozed, until he finally drooped his head forward and fell fast asleep.

“Hi farmer!” Rachael said as she walked up to the sleeping Charlie.  He jumped upon hearing her voice and dropped his water bottle and half-eaten bag of chips onto the ground in front of him.

“Oh!” Rachael said with a laugh in her voice.  She sprang forward in a futile attempt to catch the falling items before they landed.  Charlie lurched forward in pursuit of the same goal and their heads collided lightly.  The two friends pulled their heads back and looked at each other mutely, and then both broke out in a happy laughter.

“Well, we’re not going to get much work done if we knock each other out!” Rachael said as her laughter subsided.

“I already have mine done” Charlie replied.  “I was just catching my beauty rest after all of the hard work.  Charlie reached down and picked up his bag of chips and saw that a handful or two remained in the bag.  “Care to sit down and share a meal?”

To his surprise, Rachael did pull up a plastic chair and sit next to him, extending her hand towards the bag.  Charlie filled the hand and they chatted while they munched on their chips.

“The bruise is just about gone” Charlie said, stating the obvious.  In fact, the bruise had been tenacious, but it had failed in it’s effort to spoil Rachael’s big night.  Her boyfriend had indeed proposed on the night that Charlie and Walt had first seen the damage that a young client had done to her.  All of the normal protocols for proposing marriage had dropped by the wayside once her now-finacé saw his future wife and heard of her fear of being an embarrassment to him if they went out for dinner that night.

“Embarrassment!” he had expostulated.  “There is nothing about you that embarrasses me.  I had intended to propose to you tonight; I’m telling you this because I assume that you had already figured that out.  Heck, I’d like to marry you tonight, right there at the table.  Beauty like yours can’t be hidden by such a little thing as a shiner on your face.  In fact, I wonder if the Maitre D’ could act like the captain of a ship, or maybe the Chef de Cuisine.”

Charlie’s and Walt’s opinion of Rachael’s choice for a partner rose appreciably upon hearing this tale, and Charlie noticed that Walt’s language and attitude had softened whenever Rachael was present or spoken of.  “She’s all right, for a female and a bible-thumper,” he had said.  “High praise indeed!” Charlie thought when Walt said it.

“So,” Rachael said as she finished her handful of chips.  “If you’ve finished your work, what are you doing hanging out here?  Did they finally kick you out of your apartment for making too much noise?”

Charlie thought of the bedlam that erupted at his residence from time to time, which would in some cases bring the police to the scene.  He laughed at the thought of him doing anything that could get him ejected from there.

“No,” he replied.  “They say they’ll put up with me for another week.  “Actually, there’s something that I would like to talk with you about.  I didn’t intend to when I got here, but I’ve been thinking that maybe your advice could help me with a decision.

He paused, and Rachael straightened in her chair, assuming a professional aspect.  “Now, I’m not asking you this as a shot at free counseling.  This is as a friend, and I haven’t had a lot of those lately and don’t want to take advantage of the few that I do have.  Are you willing to hear me on that basis?”

Rachael smiled and relaxed, slumping into her chair in an exaggerated manner.  She laid her hands on her knees in a yoga ‘mudra’ pose and exhaled.  “OK Grasshopper” she said.  “Shoot.”

Rachael’s light-hearted response put Charlie at ease, but he quickly became serious again.  “OK.  Well, here it is,” he began.  “Today D’Andra – have I told you ‘thank you’ enough times for telling me about her? – suggested that I get in touch with my ex-wife, Maureen.  What do you think of that?”

“Well, goodness, Charlie.  I would feel awkward about inserting myself between you and your counselor.  I don’t think that would be a proper thing to do.”

Charlie thought about her reply and then said “I’m not really trying to get you to critique her advice.  I’ve already bounced this off of a friend this morning, just trying to get a second point of view.  I wouldn’t want to impose on you though, so maybe I’ll just withdraw the question.”

Rachael gave it a moment’s more thought and then replied “No, it’s OK.  As a friend.  I’ll talk about this with you as a friend.  Perhaps I need a little practice at putting down my job and just being a friend.  So, why did she want you to do that?”

“I’ve been talking with her about our break-up; how I couldn’t come out of the shell of my own pain to help her deal with hers.  I came to believe that she hated me for my weakness and was disgusted with me, and finally left in order to get as far away from me as she could.  When we talked about it, D’Andra asked a lot of questions about how I came to believe this and I had to admit that I really didn’t have any real evidence that she felt like I believed she did.”

“So maybe you’ve spent the last two years blaming yourself for something that isn’t true?”

“Yeah, exactly.  Maybe Maureen really does hate me, but maybe she doesn’t.  Maybe she doesn’t blame me for not trying to make Stevie more careful.  Maybe she doesn’t blame me for ignoring her own pain.”  Charlie gulped back a rise of emotion in his throat and continued.  “Maybe she doesn’t blame me for not being a Dad to Jack.”

Rachael reached out and put a hand on Charlie’s knee.  “Slow down there,” she said.  “Hold on.  Take a minute and breathe.  Remember, I’m going to be a friend, not a counselor, so you come first and not your story.”  She waited while Charlie got himself back together.  “OK?” she asked.

“Yeah” Charlie replied.

“All right.  As a friend.  Do you want to do what D’Andra suggested?”

“Well, I’ve thought about it all day,”  Charlie said, “and I think that maybe I do.  One of the things that D’Andra mentioned that struck me the most is that Maureen may be hung up on these points, or points like them, the same as I was.  Or maybe still am.  If that’s true, then it would be wrong for me to use this knowledge, or possible knowledge I suppose I should say, to help me and not help her.  We’re apart now; I know that, and it’s not my responsibility how she’s doing now.  It just seems like maybe this would be a cleaning up, or a tying up of loose ends.  Maybe I even owe it to her.”

Rachael thought in silence about what Charlie had told her.  At last she replied “Charlie, I’ve been trying to put myself into your shoes, which I’ve decided is impossible.  So instead I’ve tried to put myself into Maureen’s shoes.  Of course, I know practically nothing about her and I can’t possibly imagine what it is like to lose a daughter.  I don’t even have any experience at being a wife yet.  I am, however fairly experienced at being a woman, and speaking from that point of view I can tell you that, if it is properly done, I would welcome somebody’s interest in helping me to deal with a big problem like that.  Now you said that there were no fireworks in your divorce, right?”

“Yeah, it was pretty mechanical.  I didn’t know what to say so I pretty much didn’t say anything.  I assumed that she had plenty to say but didn’t figure that I was worth saying it to.”

“And it didn’t occur to you that she might have been just as bound up as you were, did it?”

“No, it didn’t.  And I still don’t know one way or the other, really.  I suppose there’s only one way to find out, but my debate is whether or not that’s the right thing to do.”

“Ah, there’s a concept I wrestle with,” Rachael said with a sigh.  “The right thing to do.  How much time has been spent and how much grief has been inflicted on the self by trying to figure out the right thing to do?  Sometimes I wonder if there’s any such thing as the right thing to do.”

Charlie was surprised to hear the thought which Rachael had just expressed.  “What, so you don’t believe that there are right things and wrong things to do?” he asked.

“On no, it’s not like that,” she replied.  “It’s clear that there is right and wrong.  I’m just not certain that in every situation you can boil every option down to a single ‘right thing to do’ which makes everything else the ‘wrong thing to do.’”

“Huh?” Charlie grunted.  “I think you’re going too deep for an old carpenter like me.”

“Well, let me give you an example.  A certain German gentleman in the middle of the last century became the leader of his country and pursued policies that had a disastrous effect on a lot of people, especially people who were Jewish like me.”

“I thought that you were a Christian” Charlie interjected.

“I am, but we’ll clear that up later.  Anyway, a group of people tried to kill Herr Hitler towards the end of the war that his policies had caused.  By July of 1944 the Soviets were closing in on the east, the Allies were firmly entrenched in Normandy in the west and were clawing their way north in Italy.  It was clear to anybody who had eyes to see that Germany would be defeated.  A bunch of people wanted to kill Hitler and try to negotiate a peace that would keep Germany from being conquered and ruled by the Allies or, much worse, the Russians.  They failed, and the war ground on for almost another murderous year.

Now here’s my point.  As a Jew and a Christian, can I support the effort to kill Hitler?  God commanded on Mount Sinai “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and in Torah it says “Vengence is mine.  I will repay.”  In the Gospels Jesus is declared the Prince of Peace.  “Render unto Caeser that which is Caeser’s” He said, and “love your enemy.”  Later a good Jewish boy named Paul said something like every Christian is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  It was Nero who was the governing authority at that time, and he was a pretty bad actor too.

So was it right to ignore the teaching of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and try to kill Hitler?  Or would it have been right to not try to kill him, thereby giving him another year to murder as many people as he could?”

Charlie guffawed at the question.  “Of course it was right to kill Hitler, or at least to try.  You can’t be trying to defend that guy.  Not even you are saint enough for that!”

“Oh, Charlie.  I’m no saint.  And I actually do believe that it was right to try to kill Hitler.  I’m a Jewish girl, remember?  But I’m a Jew and a Christian because I believe that some things were said by God to lead us in our lives.   In this case, the reality of life on the ground made it complicated and difficult to decide which action was right.  In the end, I have to choose which action of a group of options is MOST right and go from there, hoping – even praying – that I am right.  God will judge my intentions and has the grace to forgive me if I’m wrong.

So now let’s bring it back to your situation.  What’s the right thing to do?  Maybe correcting mistaken views will help you deal with your life after Maureen, or maybe the views that you’ve held for the last few years are correct, and it will only make it hurt more for a while if you stir them up.  Maybe Maureen has moved on and doesn’t need your ghost showing up to trouble her now, and maybe she’s stuck and you could help free her from her own prison.  And you haven’t mentioned your son – it was Jack, right?  Maybe he really is angry enough to hate you, and maybe he has found some other male figure to look up to, and maybe he hasn’t found that figure at all and is in limbo.  And maybe he’s an angry boy who wants his real father to love him.

How can you possibly know the answers to all of these ‘maybes?’   In my experience there’s no mathematical formula that will crunch all of those variables and spit out an ironclad answer.  There’s too many x’s and y’s in the input to expect anything but a few x’s and y’x to populate the output.  And I don’t know any psychologists or philosophers or theologians who can render the variables down to one neat answer.  Life isn’t like that.

So, all of that being said, you asked me for my opinion, and nothing more than my opinion is what I’m going to give you now, if you still want to hear it.”

Charlie mutely nodded for her to continue.

“If you go forward with this, the worse thing that could happen is that your assumptions are confirmed.  Those assumptions are what you are dealing with already.  All that would change is that you would know them rather than have to guess them.  The best that could happen is that all of your assumptions could be wrong; that you and Maureen would reunite, that Jack would rush to you, give up his current occupations and become the perfect child in your eyes, and that you would also find out that unicorns really exist.

Probably – and again, this is just my opinion – the result would be somewhere between those extremes, and in my opinion it would be closer to the unicorn end than the other.  How much closer would be the big variable.  You weren’t the perfect husband, Charlie.  There’s only one of those and he’s marrying me next June, which only leaves him a year to enjoy his perfect status.

I can tell you that you are a kind person though and that you care about people, once you let them get close enough to you.  Speaking as a woman, I believe that Maureen knows this about you at some level, and that she will take that into consideration if you decide to try to contact her.  Beyond that, I don’t know any more than you do.  I think that it is a good thing, or at least more of a good than a bad thing, and I think that your son may benefit from this more than either you or your ex.  Most boys need a Dad around, and I believe that hearing from his father would be a good first step in making that happen.”

Rachael was finished and sat back in her chair.  Charlie sat back in his own, mulling over everything that he had just heard.  D’andre had made a suggestion, LuAnn had supported it, and now Rachael had eloquently confirmed it.  ‘Three trees make a row’ he had once heard, and here he saw three trees standing right in front of him.

A decision such as this requires a pretty solid conviction though, at least as far as Charlie could see.  It was less than two months ago that he was leaning over the rail on the Interstate Bridge, listening to ghosts who were calling for him to join them.  Could he trust these new thoughts to be true and friendly?  This was something that would require more time and thought, and maybe even more input.

At this point both friends heard the squeak of the gate.  They turned to see who it was that came to work in their garden.  It turned out to be Walt.

“You won’t get anything done that way, you loafers!” he called out.  Charlie and Rachael just laughed and waved to him as he made his way to his plot.

Charlie then looked at Rachael and said “That is some good advice, and I will think about it.  Really. I really will.  Rachael, you’re one of the most, well, I don’t know how to say it.  One of the smartest, or most level-headed, or, I don’t know.  You just have a way of seeing things that I don’t.  That a lot of people don’t, I suspect.  I guess you learned some of this stuff at school, but you base a lot of it on your religion, don’t you?”

“Yes Charlie, I do,” Rachael responded.  “My faith is very important to me, and it guides me in much of my very imperfect life.”

“I don’t know if I believe in any religion,” Charlie began.  “Oh, I believe that it exists, but I don’t know if it’s true.  I’ve never thought about it much, but I think that I would like to know more about it.  About yours, at least.  I haven’t been a reader since I was a kid;  I was always too busy for that, so I don’t think that I would gain anything from asking you for a reading list.  And I don’t think I’d be comfortable to go into a church where anybody might come up to me and talk.  I’ve walked into a Catholic church once or twice recently; you know, that big brick one downtown?  It was weird how that place felt comfortable when I was really in the tank, but there was no way that I was going to speak to anyone.  I was wondering then, well, I guess I was just wondering if it would be all right if I went to church sometime with you?”

Rachael looked at Charlie for what seemed like an eternity but, in reality, was only a moment or two.  At last she said “Of course Charlie.  I would be happy to sit with you at synagogue.  I have many friends there who would want to meet you too, but I could tell them beforehand that you need a little space.  You would not be expected to know any of the rhythms  of our worship and so you could just watch and listen.  Would that be OK?”

Charlie nodded and said that it would be.  Rachael then continued, saying “This is new to me too Charlie.  I’m not the most evangelical person on the planet.  I’ve never taken a guest to synagogue with me.  I hope that we can just enjoy it together.  We meet on Wednesday nights, Friday nights and Saturday mornings.  I usually go Wednesday because we study Torah, and I am at heart a Jew.  Saturday mornings are when we have what would look more like a church service to you, and the people who attend are made up of Jews and non-Jews alike.  Of course, you can go any time you like, and I will be happy to go with you.  Here,” Rachael began to dig into her purse and at last found the business card that she was looking for.  “This has my phone number on it.  It’s my work phone, but I check it all the time.  You think about it and call me whenever you feel like joining me there.”

Charlie accepted her card and thanked her for the invitation.  Silently he thanked her for the lack of pressure as well.  When he was young some aggressive Christians pestered him about coming to church.  He remembered how he felt like all they really wanted was to make of him a notch on their belts.  Rachael was much more low key and inviting.

“I’ll give you a call.”

“Good.  And now I have some gardening to do.  Wanna make yourself useful?”

Charlie looked at his fingernails, paused and then said “Well, I don’t know.  I’ve just had a manicure and my poodle needs to be clipped and I have some flowers to arrange.  Maybe I can squeeze out a few minutes.”

Rachael reached down and grabbed a handful of the grass that was growing under the canopy and threw it at Charlie.  “Don’t be such a fop!” she said with a laugh, and the two friends rose to go help Rachael make her garden grow.

You’re In The Army Now Boy

You’re In The Army Now

In the summer of 1966 I graduated from high school, celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and joined the Army.  Graduation came naturally as I was a better than average student, and turning eighteen was almost inevitable.  Enlisting in the Army however was an act born of shear boredom.  I had no desire to become a police officer or a fireman, a college student or get married and generate one child per year until the war ended, and so after a couple of months kicking around the neighborhood and doing nothing in particular my friend Walt and I took the route 5 bus to downtown San Diego and paid a visit to the Army recruiter.  Three days later we were in a shabby hotel in Los Angeles and a day after that, at about midnight, I was rolling through the gates of Fort Ord, California.   Walt was not with me as he had some issues to clean up before he could enter military service, so I began this journey entirely on my own.

It took another two days of processing paperwork, receiving my issue of Army clothing and equipment, G.I. haircut and so on before we were bussed to our three story concrete barracks on the highest occupied point on Fort Ord.  Beyond our barracks was the brush and trees of the undeveloped portion of the vast fort.  On a day when it was not foggy or I was not so tired that I showered, shined my boots and brass and fell dead asleep on my bunk, I could look out of my window and see the Pacific ocean and the curve of Monterey Bay as it swept north towards Santa Cruz.  Today you would pay $750,000 to $1.5 million for that view.  Back then I would have given it to you for a nickel.

Basic training for me contained the usual mix of activities know to so many other servicemen;  some demeaning, some exhausting, and some terrifying, but even in this milieu sometimes fun.  Fun?  You mean while crawling in mud under barbed wire obstacles with dynamite explosions going off around you as live machine gun fire is flying over your head while an assistant drill instructor is blowing tear gas on steroids at you through a three inch hose?  Yeah, even with that nonsense going down we still found ways to relax and have a little fun.  Young men always seem to be able to ignore the worst of their lot.  Maybe that’s why the military drafts them instead of older guys who want to hold a town meeting.  There were the usual diversions; writing letters and reading their replies, sharing stories, playing cards and so forth.  We filled our few free hours with such activities.  There were other times, special times however, when we were able to lift the cork out of the bottle and really have a laugh.  This little story is about just such a time.

One of the things that recruits of any branch of the military truly hates is vaccinations.  The military seems to have identified about 100 different dread diseases against which a vaccine has been produced to keep government property (us) in top working order.  When I was in basic there were several different methods for administering these vaccines, with the air gun being their favorite. Unlike the old needle and syringe method, in which the medic administering the shot would plunge a needle the size of a railroad spike into a targeted body part until it bounced off of the bone, and then injected a wad of syrupy vaccine the size of a golf ball, the air gun used highly compressed air to literally blow the vaccine through the skin.

It was bad enough if you stood there still as a statue while a medic on either side of you hit both shoulders or upper arms at the same time.  It got worse if you moved.  The force of the air gun would rip the flesh open if it did not encounter a perfectly flat surface, thereby wasting the vaccine and causing the medic to select a new flat surface and try again.  Usually we would line up by platoon, with each platoon taking it’s turn to be the first to go through the ominous doors of the barracks and get the needle in the rump and two stations of air guns on either side as you walked the gauntlet before falling out into formation on the company street and await as our comrades in the final platoons got their share of the pain.  We would then march off to do physical training or close order drill or throw grenades or whatever sadistic nonsense our instructors would dream up to exacerbate the pain in our violated bodies.  As I wrote earlier, we really hated vaccinations.

It was with this history in mind that we were lined up by platoon on the company street one day for the dreaded vaccinations.  My platoon, the Third, was to go first, and we waited nervously for the door to the barracks to open and the medic to wave for the first victim to step inside.  At last the door opened and our platoon leader stepped up onto the small porch and disappeared into the gloom of the barracks.  We slowly shuffled forward snaking our way towards our turn in the gauntlet, but stopped dead in our tracks when we heard a blood-curdling scream and saw our platoon leader stagger out of the exit from the barracks, stumble forward clutching his crotch, and collapse writhing on the grass of the company lawn.

We all stared in horror at this.  The line simply froze from front to back.  After a moment’s pause however the Drill Sergeant and the medics, with maniacal grins on their faces, began to exhort the line forward with the usual curses and threats.  I was in the first third of my platoon and so it was not long before I stood before that baleful portal which led inside where the screams and cries of the soldiers for mercy continued, and men continued to stagger back into the sunshine clutching their family jewels and collapsing on the lawn.

It was finally my turn to step into that torture chamber and as I did so my eyes adjusted to the lower light inside.  I saw that the vaccination du jour was for polio.  Dr. Sabin had created a vaccine for that nasty disease which was dripped onto a sugar cube which was then popped into the mouth of each G.I. as he passed by the medic’s station.  That was it.  The first soldier passing through had the bright idea of faking out a company of 250 men, and when he pulled his practical joke the drill sergeant, medics, and every G.I. in line behind him picked up the cue and continued the joke until the last man stepped into the barracks that day.

I played my part to the hilt, and as I staggered to the nearest patch of green lawn I slumped to my knees, holding my guys, and fell forward moaning piteously on my face.  From that vantage point I occasionally cocked a surreptitious eye towards the line and I could barely keep from laughing as I watched horror, disbelief, dread, and even rebellion wash over the poor Joes waiting their turn. I would have to writhe a little so that I could turn my head the other way to keep the joke going.

We all had a good laugh with that bit of clowning and the Drill Sergeant and Company Commander were in such a good mood because of it that the rest of our day of training was light and we were released to our platoon areas early.  We ate and then relaxed in our barracks and generally felt good about life.  At two A.M. tear gas was pumped through the ventilation of Third Platoon and we fell gasping in underwear and gas masks and not much else into formation on the company lawn, while the other four platoons watched out of their windows and laughed at our discomfort.  It was a small price to pay for the best act of punking that I have ever been a part of.

Reflection

Ah, the vicissitudes of this mortal frame!  For sixty five years I considered myself to have lived a somewhat charmed life.  “Never had a major disease or even a broken bone” I would crow when sitting on a chair in the break room at work, or on one in a friend’s living room, or a stool at some local watering hole.  I have to confess that I found my relatively clean health record odd, all things considered (which we will do shortly),  but I was very pleased with the state of my health as I charged into my energetic sixties.  And then reality dropped it’s hammer onto my head.

“Glenn, you’ve had a heart attack.”  I had worked with this Emergency Room doctor for decades, and I could see that it wasn’t easy for him to bring me this news.  The news didn’t come as a surprise though.  Two years of symptoms had eluded test after test, and when the chest pain and the blood work were put together, the truth was right in front of my eyes.  An angiogram the next day confirmed that three of my cardiac arteries needed to be bypassed, using vessels from my leg and chest.  I said “Get to it then,” and they did.

Over the last two and a half years I have been more or less OK.  With diet and exercise, massage, acupuncture and a very good naturopath I have gotten along pretty well.  Until the last two months, that is.

Since then I have found it hard to eat anything solid without running the risk of very severe abdominal pain and sometimes throwing up.  By staying on a diet of smoothies with small amounts of solid food thrown in I’m able to usually avoid the problem, but after sixty eight years of chewing my food, one finds oneself used to the exercise.

Two weeks from today I will have the pleasure of an endoscopy procedure.  A doctor called a gastroenterologist (they give themselves Latin and Green names which sound SO important so that they can charge more) will advance a scope down my esophagus, into my stomach, through the pyloric valve and into the duodenum, in hopes that he can find a cause for this problem.  I hope that he is successful.

 

I find myself reflecting on all of this on a gray Vancouver winter day when I have already planted three new blueberry plants and have nothing better to do.  I could, on the one hand, ask “Why me?”  I eat better than most Americans (and I can provide a grocery bill to support that assertion!), I exercise, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol on only social occasions (which don’t happen every night, if that’s what you’re thinking).

On the other hand, I might answer “Why not me?”  I began to smoke cigarettes when I was eight years old and did so, off and on, until I  was twenty.  I spent two years in Vietnam where a lot worse than GERD was flying around me, and I walked through pools of Agent Orange while I was there.

And in the years that I was overseas and in most of the next ten years I smoked or ingested God-knows-what on a daily basis, trying to self-medicate pain that I really had no good excuse to be experiencing.  During those years I should have died or experienced serious life-changing circumstances well more than a half-dozen times.  So there’s no point in whining about that now.  At sixty eight something might be catching up with me.  Wouldn’t be surprised.

The point of writing this is not that I think I’ll drop dead tomorrow.  I might do just that, but I don’t expect it.  I’m not going down the drain, nor even circling it.  But at long last I can SEE the drain.  I’m not going to live forever.  Until now, that has been an abstract notion.  Now it’s a poke in the ribs.  I finally understand that, sooner or later, it will become a kick in the butt.

Death is just a part of the drill.  Odds are, we’re all going to get our shot at it.  That leads me to ponder not “How can I avoid thinking about death?” but rather, “How can I make the best use of my time in the one hour or thirty years that I have left?”  What can I do to make this place better, even if on a scale so microscopic that it doesn’t register on most graphs and scales?”

“How do I redeem the time that God gives me?”  That seems like a better question than “Why me?’

The Garden, Chapter X

Charlie sat back deeply into the love seat in the cottage behind D’Andra’s house.  As usual, D’Andra was finishing a kitchen project when he arrived.  Today it was scones, which she pronounced ‘skons’.

“A British lady working at a tea parlor pronounced it that way,” she told him.  “Can’t argue with anyone with a British accent” she said with a smile.

“I wouldn’t have a clue” he had replied.  “I’ve never been west of Colorado.”

A pot of tea, wrapped in a cloth tea cozy, already rested on the small table which sat between the love seat and the chair adjacent to it.  D’andre had chosen that chair for today and Salome the cat had already claimed the cushion at the far end of the love seat.  Charlie found that he didn’t mind sitting so close to D’Andra.  This was their fourth meeting and the first which he would pay for, and she had not bitten him or pushed him too far in the three previous.  In fact, he found that he liked her very much.

At last D’Andra emerged from the kitchen with a plate of the triangular pastries.  She placed them between his teapot and hers, and invited him to dig in.  Charlie did so with gusto.  After a few minutes of tea and ‘skons’ and polite conversation D’Andra began to earn her pay.

“Well, Charlie.  How have you been this week.  Have you begun your job?”

“Yes, at last!” he replied.  “I have the permits and we tore out all of the old kitchen.  Stripped it to the studs and subfloor.  Everything that I can’t recycle is in a dumpster in the driveway.”

“You said ‘we.’  I believe that you told me you don’t have a partner or an employee.  Who is this ‘we?’”

“Oh, Carolyn, the homeowner.  She is either gone or busy in her office most of the time, but when she has some free moments she puts on her gloves and goggles and pitches in.  She’s a good worker and puts her back into it.  She says she enjoys the physical effort; says it gives her brain a rest.  I certainly know how that works!  Frankly, I’m ahead of schedule because of her help.  I know that it won’t last though.  Never does.  Those things always get behind schedule, no matter how hard you try.”

“That’s great Charlie.  I’m glad to hear it.”  D’andre paused a moment and then continued.  “Tell me, how do you like working with somebody?  How does it feel to be doing something as important as your job is and having another person involved in it?  Or, maybe I should say ‘depending on somebody else,’ even if only to keep you ahead of schedule?”

Charlie had learned by now to think before answering D’Andra’s questions.  At first he had tried to think of what was the ‘right’ answer; the one that she wanted to hear, rather than give her what truly was the right answer.  After a minute’s thought he responded.  “It felt good.  I like my work, and I appreciate that she likes and values it too.  When we pulled down the cabinets and tore out the counters and flooring I enjoyed the feeling of being on a team.  It’s my job, and it will get done because I do it, but I liked doing some of it together with someone.”

“Did you feel the same way before your trouble began, Charlie?  Did you enjoy being part of a team then?”

“Uh, well, no.  I can’t say that I did.  I knew, or at least I thought, that it was all my show.  I built the business from the ground up.  I thought that I was a pretty OK boss to work for, as such things went, but I was still the boss.  I thought that I could do everything better than anyone else, and even now I still believe that.  It’s just that now it’s not so important to me whether I can or can’t.”

D’Andra smiled broadly at his answer.  She took a bite of a scone and washed it down with a swallow of tea.  “Charlie, you’re making my job easy.  That can be the hardest thing to learn.  Can you tell me how this change came to be?”

Charlie paused and then replied “No, I can’t.  Not really.  I guess I first noticed it at the garden.  You know, the community garden where I met Rachael.  My relatives live in San Diego, where I grew up.  They would fly up here to try and help out after the accident, but they didn’t help much.  Couldn’t, I guess.  Anyway, they suggested that I get into the dirt and begin to garden, like I did as a kid.  My sister-in-law is a hippie earth-muffin and felt that ‘reconnecting with Mother Earth’ would be good for the soul.”

Charlie paused again, thinking about the advice that he unexpectedly took from this unlikely source.

“And I take it that it really was good for your soul?”

“Yeah.  Funniest darned thing.  I got into it.  And the best part was meeting Rachael and this other guy, Walt.  Rachel is easy to like, as you know, and Walt is a bit more of a challenge.  But they’ve been a real help to me.  We’ve been helping each other with our garden plots and I found that I enjoy being there with them, even if we’re not speaking.  I don’t want to get dramatic, but I think they might have saved my life.”

“Have you told them that?”

“No.  It never occurred to me.  Do you think I should tell them?”

“That’s for you to decide, Charlie.  Listen to your heart on that one.  Now, let’s shift gears a little.  Will you be comfortable talking about your family now?”

“You mean Maureen and Jack?  No.  Not really.  But I WILL talk about them whether it’s comfortable or not.”  Charlie smiled wanly at D’Andra.  “I guess that’s what I’m paying you for.”

D’Andra smiled back and said “We’ll stop any time you must.  Now, if I may ask, how did your relationship with your wife differ from that of your employees?”

Charlie stared at her for a moment before responding.  “Well, I didn’t have any children with my employees,” he said drily.

D’Andra laughed lightly.  “I’m sure that was a comfort to your wife.  But what I’m interested in was how your wife and you related to each other on a day to day basis.”

“Yeah.  OK.  Maureen.  I called her ‘Mo’, which I don’t believe she liked all that much.  I don’t know now why I thought it was funny to do that.  Anyway, we worked pretty well as a team.  For a while she would pay attention to all the business details; you know, payroll, accounts payable and receivable, contracts, permits.  Stuff like that.  I did all of that at first, and by the end of things we had accountants and lawyers and such to do all of that grunt work.  She was really good at interacting with the human cogs though while I ran the rest of the machine.”

“So, did you ever feel that Maureen was like another employee?”

“No, of course not.”  Charlie prepared to dispute this further but the memories of his relationship with Maureen began to trickle into his mind.  In fact, he always did believe that he could have done Maureen’s job too, and perhaps better, even though many of his business contacts periodically suggested otherwise.  “Well, maybe sometimes, I guess.”

“Take your time and think about this topic, Charlie.  There is no judgement here.  You know that.  You are not on any witness stand, and if you feel that way at any time, you just say so.  I think that it will be good for you to sort these feelings out in order to get to some truths that may be buried or hidden, but if you are having trouble with it today we can put it off until another time.  In fact, we can not touch it at all if that’s your wish.  You remember, Charlie.  You are not just some kind of a case study here.  I want to work together with you to get the most out of this that we can for you and you only.  I’ll be back in a minute or two.”

D’Andra rose up out of her chair and carried the empty plate into the kitchen.  Meanwhile, Charlie sat and thought about his relationship with Maureen in a clear manner for the first time in years.  D’andre’s question prompted him to remember how he had been the head of the family economy, while he had allowed Maureen to be the head of the house as a subsidiary of what was virtually “Hamer Family, Inc.”  She ran the home while he was running the business, although she was an important part of the business too.  In fact, she was engaged in the home AND the business while he was truly focused on only one of those activities.

He thought that he was the head of the household, but what happened when the household exploded?  What happens when your daughter dies and you don’t have a friggin’ clue what to do?  How do you manage that?  How can you expect your wife to manage that and also manage the wreck that you’ve become?

D’Andra re-entered the room and sat in her chair.  Salome got up, stretched, and walked into Charlie’s lap.  He stroked the cat’s coat and scratched behind her ears as she tested his lap for the perfect spot, circled two or three times and the lay down to purr and accept Charlie’s distracted attention.

“You know, I think I may have been a less than perfect husband.”

“My Shelby would tell you ‘Welcome to the club.’”

“Yeah.  I guess it’s a big club.  You know, I think I kept a few doors closed; a few rooms in my life were off-limits to others.  Stephanie had a way of getting into some of them – you have no idea what an angel from heaven that girl was to me – but I kept everyone else out.”

“How long have you kept those rooms closed, Charlie?”

“Huh!  All of my life, I guess.  Least ways, as long as I can remember.  I’ve always thought that it was the right thing; ‘a guy has to have some space to himself.’  Well, I’ve had most of the last two years in a space of my own, and I don’t think that I like it much.”

“Do you have any contact with Maureen now?”

“Naw.  When we settled and she got the proceeds from the liquidation of my business she disappeared.  I have no idea where she is.”

“Charlie, I do want to tell you here that your conduct in the divorce speaks very well of you.  I realize that there was a web of different and conflicting feelings and emotions swirling there, but I don’t see it as you just not caring what became of your business.  I believe that your love for Maureen and Jack was genuine and deep, and you sacrificed everything; gave everything that you knew how to give, to make sure that they were taken care of.  You may not feel it, but I believe that it was apparent to your wife, and your son too, that you cared for them very much.  That may be a new thought to you Charlie, but I wish that you would give it some time and consideration.

So, when your family entered into a crisis, your understanding of how to deal with such a blow was insufficient.  Don’t let that make you feel like a loser Charlie.  I can’t honestly tell you how I would deal with such an event.  Nobody can predict a thing like that.  It seems as if your employer/employee model of relationship, to whatever extent that describes your marriage, was not adequate to permit you to console your wife, much the same as you could not comfort your mother when she would experience melancholy after her disappointment with your father.  Would that be accurate Charlie?”

Charlie took his time to think about that one.  He put Salome back on the cushion next to him, excused himself and went to the restroom, more to be alone with his thoughts than to empty his bladder.  D’andre had picked at a scab, and he wondered if it was about to bleed.  He had indeed loved Maureen, but had always kept her at some distance from his core.

“Do I still love her?” he asked himself.  “Don’t be stupid.  Of course I still love her.  It’s not like love or an absence of love was ever the problem.  Maureen never did anything to intentionally hurt me.  Things just melted down and I couldn’t feel my way through my own pain to go and be any help to her in hers.

     No, I don’t feel ill-will toward Maureen; not by a long shot.  I did resent her need for my comfort, especially as I needed comfort myself when the shit hit the fan, but how could I expect her to do that when I kept my last door or two closed to the outside world?”

Frustrated, he washed his hands and returned to the love seat.  D’andre sipped at her tea and waited patiently for Charlie to be ready to continue.  At last, he did.  “Yeah, that would be accurate.  There were obstacles between us that kept us from being there for each other, and I’m afraid that they were all on my part.”

“Well, that’s good to see, Charlie.  And it’s not an easy thing to see at that.  I do want to point out to you right here though that things are seldom a one-way street.  Maureen is a human, just like you are.  She, too, is not perfect, as I am sure she would admit if she was here.  She undoubtedly has obstacles of her own.  That’s where the real heavy lifting of marriage, or any close relationship, begins.

Charlie, I would like for you to do something for the next week.  I would like for you to consider making contact with your ex-wife in order to tell her what we have talked about today.  Perhaps it would be healing for you to express to her your understanding of your obstacles, and maybe apologize for not being able to overcome them, or even recognize them in that time of pain.  I believe that it would be healing for you and, who knows, Maureen may need to hear that to help with healing of her own.”

Charlie sat still as a statue as D’Andra finished speaking.  “No fucking way!” he thought.  “That page is turned; that body is in the ground and I’ll not be digging up any bones.”

“I don’t think that I could do that.  It was pretty clear that Mo didn’t want to see me again and Jack hates me.  I don’t think that I need to be hit over the head with that brick again.”

D’Andra was unruffled by the vehemence of his response.  “It’s OK.  You needn’t do anything today.  I’m only asking that you think about what we’ve discussed and consider the possibility of reaching out to Maureen.  You must decide for yourself what is right to do.  I’m only here to help you with the process.  Will you think about this.”

Charlie was only half-way honest when he finally answered ‘Yes.’  D’andre seemed to be satisfied with his answer though, and took the conversation in a new direction.

“Have you moved yet?”

“No, I’ll do that next week.  I haven’t got much to move, really.  Billy’s house has all of the stuff I need, so I’ll leave my dishes and that sort of thing for the next tenant.”

“How do you feel about living with somebody else after being on your own for so long?”

“I’ll admit, it’s a bit unnerving.  Billy’s a nice guy, and he really is pretty quiet.  It’ll be weird having to share a kitchen and shower though.  I’ve gotten out of the habit, I’m afraid.”

“Well, we can talk about that as things come up, like they almost always do.  Ah, look!  The hour’s up.  Too bad.  I enjoy talking with you Charlie.  I am very encouraged by the progress I see you making and it gives me joy.  Alas, I have to get ready for my next visit.  Salome, you’ll have to let Mr. Hamer go on about his business.”

Salome had crawled back into Charlie’s lap and was ignoring D’Andra, as cats like to do, so Charlie gently lifted the offended feline and once again laid her back on the cushion next to him.  She glared at him crossly and then jumped down onto the floor, stalking away with injured pride towards a back room.

Charlie rose up out of his seat and walked toward the door.  D’andre opened the door and stood by it.  As he prepared to pass through it she said “Please consider what I’ve spoken of.  I won’t mention it again unless you bring it up first.”  Charlie gave her a noncommittal nod and walked out into the bright sunshine of a Vancouver summer day.

Charlie had slept late this day, something that he rarely did, and had taken a pass on cooking breakfast.  There was cereal in the kitchen but he had not wanted to be full when he arrived at D’Andra’s cottage.  The little baked snacks that she always brought out of the kitchen were delicious and he had resolved to enjoy them fully today.  “She’ll just send the rest home with me, so I might as well eat them here.”  He had met Shelby, D’Andra’s husband, the previous week, and could not believe how trim he was.

“How do you stay in such good shape?  he had asked.

Shelby had laughed and answered “With a whole lot of work.”

The scones had been delicious, but now Charlie wanted a real meal.  Leroy’s was a lunch spot as well as breakfast, and he hadn’t talked with LuAnn for what now seemed like a long time.  Having walked to D’Andra’s cottage today, Charlie  began to walk back in the direction of the restaurant.

The sun was bright and warm, summer having finally erupted over the Pacific Northwest.  Charlie walked along sidewalks buckled by the enormous roots of ancient maples and elms which lined the downtown streets.  Today the trees, and the 100 year old houses that he passed, gave Charlie a feeling of solidity and place in a cycle of life, instead of the sense of alienation that he had so recently felt all of the time.  Back then, it was as if the trees and buildings were saying “I was here decades before you were born and will be here decades after you die, so your comings and goings are nothing to me.”  Meanwhile the victorian houses that now housed lawyers and bail bondsmen would tell him “Babies were born in me and grandparents have died here.  Dinners were cooked and games played at the table.  I’ve hosted life; what do you know of such things?”

Today, as Charlie walked along the shaded sidewalks towards the cafe near the train tracks and the river, the homes and trees were more friendly. “Stay under my shade and I’ll keep you cool in the heat of the day” the trees said, and instead of cringing from the censure of the houses, Charlie now extended sympathy to them.  “You were once the home where families grew and loved.  Now you house only lawyers and their squabbling clients.”

These thoughts, and others even more pleasant, filled his mind as he left the area of shade and houses and entered the concrete and asphalt world of downtown Vancouver.  It is not a big city, so no more than six blocks of the urban landscape separated him from a hot meal and, what was better, conversation with LuAnn.

The cafe was almost empty when Charlie walked through the door.  Two tables were occupied but LuAnn was not in sight.  He sat at the counter on the stool closest to the window into the kitchen.  Within a minute LuAnn came through the swinging door in the back of the room, carrying an armload of napkins and boxes of salt and pepper.

“Here” he said as he rose from his seat.  “Let me help you with that.”

“Why, thank you dearie” she said, willingly giving up her burden.  “I would use our cart to bring this stuff out here but it threw a wheel this morning.  I guess all of us old parts around here are wearing thin.”

Charlie could see tiredness in Lu’Ann’s face, and it surprised him.  She always seemed to be cheerful and above the things that troubled the rest of the world.  “Is there more back there that I can help with?” he asked.  There was, and for the next few minutes he was busy bringing out condiments and coffee and silverware while LuAnn placed those items where they went.

“Thank you and bless you, Charlie” she said as the task was completed and Charlie regained his perch on the stool at the counter.  “I believe that you’ve earned your lunch today.”

“Thanks for the offer,” he replied.  “But I don’t think so.  I’ll pay, and if you want you can apply the money to the next spare part who wanders in.”

“I’ll do that” she said, “and I’ll thank you for your help and generosity.”

Charlie chuckled and replied “Now who would I have learned such a thing from?”

LuAnn’s tired face brightened a little at that, and then she asked “And what will you be having today?”

Fifteen minutes later Charlie was left alone to enjoy a meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes with thick, rich brown gravy, and a medley of vegetables, followed by a slice of cherry pie.  “I’m going to turn into a blimp if I keep this up” Charlie thought.  “But what a way to go!”

After he had finished his meal LuAnn poured a cup of coffee and sat down next to him.  The two parties that were in the cafe when Charlie arrived had left and nobody had come in to take their place.  “So how have you been, young man?” she asked.

Charlie really did want to talk about how he was doing; had in fact prepared himself to answer just such a question.  Now, after seeing her tired and more vulnerable face he didn’t know exactly what to say.  “I’ve been doing pretty good.” he said at last.  “How about you?”

LuAnn sighed and replied “Well, it’s been a little tough.  My old man had a bad spell a couple of days ago.  He got dizzy and couldn’t stand up.  His leg never is very good but that day it didn’t want to work at all.  Worse thing was that he just couldn’t seem to get his words out.  Vomited all over the kitchen floor, too.  Good thing there’s linoleum there.”

“Oh, my god!” Charlie exclaimed.  “Is he going to be OK?”

“Uh, well, I don’t know.  We called 911 and an ambulance got him to the hospital really quickly.  I gave him some aspirin before they got to our place – they say it’s good to do that sometimes.  He got all of his faculties back in a couple of hours and they said he had something called a T I A.  They told me what that stands for but I can’t remember.  Doctors like to say stuff in Latin and Greek.  I think they figure they can charge more that way.”

LuAnn laughed at her own joke, and the simple joy in that cigarette-damaged voice was like music to Charlie.  Even in tough times she could let herself see the lighter side of things.  Charlie’s regard for LuAnn grew as she completed her story.

“Duane had some tests before they let him come home and they found that he has an artery in his neck that’s just about plugged up.  They’re going to put him under the knife next week and clean him out.  Peggy will be taking over duties here while I’m out.”

“Well, I’ll make sure that I don’t come then,” Charlie said, and then immediately regretted it.  “Not really,” he continued.  “You guys are good people.  I’ll still come.”

“Thank you.  I’ll consider it a personal favor if you do.”

“But the tip will really suck.”

LuAnn’s laugh was music once again.  “That’s your business dearie.”  Now, enough about my problems.  You haven’t said a word about yourself.”

Charlie thought again about all that he would like to talk about, but only the last part of D’Andra’s conversation stuck out as being important.  He therefore brought it up.

“Well, as you know, I’ve been talking with a lady about some of the stuff going on in my life and she’s raised a question for me.  I’ve told you a little about my story, but I should probably tell you a bit more before I go on.”

Charlie then told LuAnn more about his recent history.  She listened attentively as Charlie spoke of the death of his daughter and the dissolving of his family.  He then told her of D’Andra’s suggestion that he think about contacting his ex-wife.

“What do you think?” he asked.

LuAnn thought for a while before answering.  Before she could give a response a couple entered and took their seats at a table.  “Hold that thought” she said and she held up her index finger.  Soon, after getting water and coffee for the couple and placing their orders on the wheel in the window she returned.

“Why did she think that you should do this?” she asked.

“Well, this last few years I’ve not dealt with the accident and divorce well.”  Charlie chuckled sardonically at this.  “Like, how are you supposed to handle the death of your daughter and the destruction of your life?  Anyway, she’s pointing out that I might be seeing things that aren’t really there, or if they are, they might not be exactly the way that I think they look from where I’m standing.

She thinks that it might be a good thing to communicate with my ex, just to clear up any misconceptions that might continue to be dragging me down.  She said that maybe they could be dragging her down too, and so it might benefit us both.  Maybe it’ll help us both see things a little more clearly.”

LuAnn whistled softly.  “Get in touch with your ex!  That can be a pretty dicey proposition.  You think you could do that without a fight?”

“Yeah, there’d be no fights.  We didn’t split up that way.  I just don’t know that she’d want to do any of this again.  We’re over and done.  If she’s moved on better than I have, why would she want to look back?”

“Well, I don’t know.  Is this lady you’re seeing a smart person?”

“Order up!”  A voice came from the window.

“Hold that thought” LuAnn said, holding up her finger once again.  Soon, she was back.  “So, is she?”

Charlie’s thoughts had strayed elsewhere while LuAnn was bringing the food to her customers.  “Is she what?”

“Is she smart?  I thought you were going to hold that thought.”

“Oh, yeah.  I was.  Guess it got away.  Anyway, yeah, she’s smart.”

“Good.  I wouldn’t want you to take advice from a dummy.  Present company excluded, that is.  So she thinks you should maybe contact your ex in order to see if there’s anything that you should clear up.  Is that it?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

“And is there?”

“Is there what?”

“is there anything to clear up?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  Two months ago I would have said ‘No’.  Hell, two weeks ago I would have said ‘No.’  Now I’m not sure.  My counselor said that we might have seen things differently, got tangled up in the misperceptions and followed paths guided by the wrong assumptions.  Something like that.”

“Is she trying to get you to think about restarting the marriage?”

“I doubt it.  There’s not much likelihood of that anyway.  No. No likelihood of that.  I don’t know if she would even want to talk to me, and I know that my son wouldn’t.  I’m pretty sure that my counselor just wants me to let my ex know what really happened between us instead of what maybe I just think happened.  It’s best to know the truth if possible, and not just what I think is true.”

“Well, that makes sense to me.  Of course, I’m not the one who’ll have to do it.”

“And I don’t even know if it can be done.  I have no idea where she lives.  I got on very well with her parents though, and they might help.  Then again, they might not.  I’ll have to think a lot more about all of that.  And then there’s Jack.”

LuAnn put a hand on Charlie’s arm and said “Excuse me.  I’ll be right back.”  She went to the table where her customers were eating and refilled water glasses and coffee mugs, took orders for desert and cleared the dishes.  Charlie was glad to have the time to collect his thoughts.  This time when she returned, Charlie had held that thought.

“Jack was devastated by Stephanie’s death.  I think he loved her more than I even did.  He came to me after we heard about what had happened, and I was so absorbed in my own pain that I had no room for his.  Or anyone else’s for that matter.  So he went to his mother and found comfort there.  As Mo and I grew apart, he grew even further apart.  Buy the time we finally separated I hadn’t been alone with Jack for months.  He wouldn’t stay in the same room with me.  I didn’t even see him the last week or two before I left the house.”

“Did you make any attempt to see him?”

Charlie thought back to that awful time.  “No,” he finally said.

“Did your son ever say that he hates you?  Children aren’t that shy about saying such things.  Some of ‘em, anyway.”

Charlie thought about that question for a little longer while LuAnn went to receive the pay from the customers.  The transaction took only a little bit of time and LuAnn returned, leaving the dirty dishes on the table.

“Well,” Charlie continued.  “No, he never actually said that he hates me.  But he couldn’t stand to be in a room with me.  He didn’t talk to me at all.”

“How much did you try to talk to him?

“Huh?”

“How much of an effort did you make to talk to Jack, Charlie?  I’m not trying to criticize you; I’m just trying to help you figure this out.”

Charlie fought the impulse to shut down and not think about that painful time.  That’s what he had done for more than two years, and it’s what he knew to do.  But now he was learning that that was not the best path to go down.  In fact, it wasn’t even a good one, so he let his mind play over the final weeks and months of his marriage.  There were blow-ups over stupid things with Maureen.  Nothing loud or violent but definitely isolating.  Those would be followed by peevish days of icy silence.  But he could not remember interactions with Jack.  He didn’t try to start them, and neither did Jack.  He told this to LuAnn.

“Well, I can’t imagine being in your shoes, Charlie, so what I have to say should be taken with a grain of salt, OK?”  Charlie nodded his assent.

“Seems to me that the boy was wrapped in his own blanket of pain, just like you were.  And you weren’t able to get out of your blanket in order to help him, right?  Now don’t get me wrong here; like I just said, I can’t imagine what you went through.  I don’t know that I would handle such a thing any better.  If anything happens to my Duane, I don’t know how I’ll make it- – -.”

LuAnn stopped talking as tears of fear for her husband welled up in her eyes.  She gulped a couple of times and reached for a napkin to dab at her eyes with, and then continued.  “But Charlie.  If you hurt so much that you couldn’t reach out from your blanket of pain, how on earth could an eleven year old boy do it?”

They both sat still and silent on their stools.  The front door opened and closed, but LuAnn paid no attention to it.  Charlie sat on his stool, stunned by the thought that Jack’s silence and remoteness might have been more about his own pain and not about hating Charlie at all.

“Did Jack ever actually say that he hated you?” LuAnn repeated.

“No,” Charlie finally replied.  “No.  I don’t remember that he ever did.”

“Well, then, I’d say that the book is still open on that question.  You may have a boy who’s still waiting for his Dad to come and comfort him.  But like I said, what do I know?  I’m just a waitress at a crummy downtown restaurant.”  LuAnn smiled and patted Charlie on the arm.  “Gotta go to work.  I’ve got medical bills to pay now.”

She rose from the stool and began to make up for ignoring her new customers, fussing over them like a mother hen.  Charlie sat hunched over his cold cup of coffee and thought about what he had just heard.  He had believed that his son hated him for over two years, and that had grown to be a greater source of pain than the emptiness he felt without Maureen.

In one day he had heard it suggested that he might at least try to make some peace with Maureen and perhaps give her some peace too.  Even more astounding, it was possible that his son did not hate him at all, or at least didn’t two years ago.

This was something that would require thought, but now Charlie had to go to work.  He was to meet Carolyn at an appliance showroom and begin to select the stove and refrigerator and dishwasher that was to go into her new kitchen.  Evaluating the virtues of one stove versus another would be a welcome release from the thoughts with which he was wrestling now, but he knew that he was dealing with things that must be touched at long last.

Charlie knew pretty close to what the price for lunch would be.  He fished easily twice that amount out of his wallet and slid it under his plate.  Pulling a napkin out of the dispenser, he took a pen out of his shirt pocket and began to write.

“It looks like I’ve enjoyed the blessing of two smart women today.  ‘Just a waitress’ my ass!  Keep the change.  I hear you have some medical bills to pay.”

Charlie got up and waved at LuAnn as he opened the door.  She waved back and he walked out into the sunlight.  “Life doesn’t feel a whole lot easier,” he thought as he walked the two books to where his truck was parked.  “But it feels like it might make more sense than I ever thought it could.  I’ll be grateful today for that.”