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.

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