The Garden, Chapter XVIII

Charlie arose the next morning rested and excited about his day.  He could have easily overindulged in Billy’s whiskey the night before.  The release that he had experienced when Billy sent his email to Maureen left him feeling giddy, and it was only because there remained only an inch or two of whiskey in Billy’s bottle that Charlie started his day without a very bad headache.  He realized that he had dodged a bullet, and quickly gathered up what he needed for the day and hit the road.

His first stop that day was at Leroy’s where he gave half of his remaining vegetables to LuAnn.  The place was very busy, so that Peggy had been called to help out.  Consequently, he had little opportunity to talk with his friend.  He took advantage however of what little he was given.

“I sent the email” he told her, and she gave him a pat on the back.

“That’s good, Charlie.  I’m glad you did.  Let me know if she writes back” and off she went.  When she came back to fill his mug again he said “I don’t know if she’ll even respond.”

“She will” LuAnn assured him, and then she was once again pulled away.

“Well, this isn’t helping much” Charlie thought.  He paid Peggy at the cash register, waved to LuAnn and departed from Leroy’s.  He then drove to D’Andra’s house in order to give her what remained of the vegetables.  He intended to put the sack on the doorstep, as it was still quite early.  Shelby, however, was exiting the house when he got there and was happy to receive the food.

“Man, you have no idea how much D’Andra loves this fresh food” he said.  “I intend to make a garden for her sometime, but we’ve just got way too much going on for that right now.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  I’m by myself and I can hardly get time to work this garden of mine.  I really appreciate how much your wife’s helped me, and I’ll be keeping the groceries coming for as long as they grow.”

“That’s a big win for me” Shelby said.  “I’ll put these in the kitchen, and then I have to run.  You have a good day.”

Charlie wished him a good day also and then drove to Parker’s Landing.  There was very little heavy work to be done at this job, other than hanging the drywall, so he was able to move right along.  He completed the subfloor and placed several electrical boxes in the walls and canister lights in the ceiling.  After wiring those boxes and canisters he left to grab a couple of burgers at the Burgerville on a corner a couple of blocks away and ate them as he drove to Carolyn’s job.

The shiny pickup truck was there when Charlie drove up, and Charlie was happy to see it.  “I looks like he’s not quitting today” Charlie thought, “at least not yet.”  He strapped on his tool belt and walked into the house.

It was quickly apparent that Gerald Jackson had arrived only just before Charlie.  He was at that moment chewing Lester out for following Charlie’s instructions instead of his own, and had been found tearing out the soffit in the kitchen.  “Good morning everyone” Charlie said in a booming voice, interrupting the ass-chewing that Lester was at that moment enduring.  “Oh, I guess it’s afternoon” he corrected himself.  “So good afternoon.  Ah, good.  I see you’ve gotten onto those changes for Mrs. Preston.  Jerry, you’ve got yourself a good crew here.  I’ve told Mrs. Preston that, too.  There are some things that she and I agree should be changed, but basically we’re pretty happy.”

“Well, what the hell is the soffit all about then?” Jackson asked, too flustered by his recent wrath being interrupted by a consultant who was now giving him compliments to notice that he had once again been called ‘Jerry.’

“Oh, that’s not a big deal.  I just noticed while I was in the attic that it was constructed with two by twos with one by four spacers.  Probably and oversight, and actually it would probably be OK in the long run if the drywall had been fastened with screws.  It won’t take long to fix, so Lester here and I are going to rebuild it with two by fours.  Shouldn’t take long at all.”

Charlie turned to Lester and asked “You have the men working on those other items?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Hamer.  Larry’s nearly got the box put into the wall to anchor the porch light and Chuck will have that larger drain pipe put in under the toilet pretty soon too.  Frank will be back from the store with that hot mud and we can have those patches in the bathroom, kitchen and master bath mudded and sanded and ready to paint by this afternoon.”

“Strong work, Lester.”  Charlie looked at an angry and confused Gerald Jackson and said “Yessir, Jerry.  You’ve got a good team here.  I’m going to enjoy working with them very much.  Lester, would you finish the demo on that soffit while I talk with Mr. Jackson?”

“You bet” Lester replied, and turned to his work.

“Maybe we should step out where it’s more quiet” he said to Jackson, and they walked into the garage.

“I was wondering who you had lined up to pour the driveway?” Charlie asked.

“I use A-Able” Jackson replied.

“Ah, yes.  They’re a good operation.  When is the pour scheduled?

“Well, it’s not on the schedule yet.  I want to get closer to finished before I have the driveway poured.  We don’t want the construction process to put any stains on the finished product and I want to wait until we have a better idea of when that time will be.”

“No, we don’t want to stain a new driveway.  That makes sense.  Have you made contact with them about the job?”

“No, not yet.  I don’t really think that’s necessary.  It’s never taken me more than a week or two to get them out in the past, so I don’t feel pushed at all.”

Charlie’s bullshit meter was running near redline.  “Uh-huh” he said.  “If you’ve got that under control, I’ll go and help Lester then.  Oh, and I was wondering.  What do you think of pulling Frank and Larry from here and putting them at the unit over on Sieverson tomorrow.  Lester and Chuck and I can bang away on this unit.  Killing two birds with one stone means a quicker payday.”

Jackson liked the thought of money, and so he acceded to Charlie’s idea right away.  They talked over a few more details with Charlie letting Jackson believe that he was in charge, and soon Charlie went back to work while Jackson drove off to do whatever it was that he did.  By the time Charlie got back into the house lester had torn down the soffit, and in very short order they had it replaced with a structure that was not likely to fall down on the owner’s head.

Charlie spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with the crew, and by four o’clock they had accomplished more even than Charlie had hoped they would.  “Lester, you guys have really picked it up today.  I’m impressed with your work.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hamer.  I don’t mind telling you that its because you’re here with us.  We aren’t used to that, working for Mr. Jackson and all.  If you stay out here with us, I’ll show you how much we can get done.”

“You know, I think you could.  Listen, I have another obligation to finish before I can devote full attention to this project.  I’ll make you a proposition.  You and Chuck help me this Saturday on my side job and I’ll pay you cash money when I get paid.  If I can insulate, hang drywall, tape it and get the first coat of mud on, I’ll be out of there in a week.  Then I could be here full time.”

“I’m OK with that” Lester said, “And I can speak for Chuck too.  But let me make a counter offer to you.  We could work over there tomorrow evening after work here, if that is OK with the homeowner, and then both Saturday and Sunday, too, if necessary.  I think that we could probably finish it off by then, if it’s only what you’ve told me that remains.”

“Lester, you have a deal.  Anything that might be left would  be just be pick-up stuff that I could knock out in a day or two after working here.  I’ll drive over there tonight and make sure that the customer is happy with that plan, and if he is I’ll be here at nine tomorrow morning.”

The two men shook hands and parted company.  Charlie returned to his truck to get Carolyn on the phone and bring her up to speed on the day’s activities.  He pulled out his phone and checked for any incoming emails.  There were none.  He punched in Carolyn’s number and she answered on the third ring.

“Hi Charlie.  I thought you might call about now.”

“Yeah.  Quitting time.  I thought you would like to get an update on the day’s progress.  Are you able to talk?”

“Not really.  I’m doing a walk-through on a project that I would like your opinion on.  Is there any chance that you could come by?”

“Uh, well, yes.  Sure.”  Charlie wanted to go talk with the homeowner at the Parker’s Landing job, but he felt more of an obligation and commitment to Carolyn.  “Where are you at?”

“11503 SE Hazelton St.  It’s in Parker’s Landing, right off of the intersection of 138th and Cornwall.  Charlie smiled and thought “Thank you, whoever,” and then said “Not a problem.  I have to make one very quick stop near there first.  I should be there in thirty minutes.  Will that be OK?”

“Sure.  I’ll drag out the walk-through.”

The homeowner was happy to hear that his job could be wrapped up by Sunday evening or Monday at the latest, and agreed to the plan right away.  They shook hands on the deal and then Charlie left to keep his appointment with Carolyn.  The address turned out to be an apartment building with sixteen units.  At first glance it seemed to be in decent shape, but Charlie knew how appearances could be misleading.  He saw Carolyn’s car parked among a cluster of three others in the far corner of the parking lot and he added his truck to the number there.  Carolyn and three men were just then leaving an upstairs unit, and when she saw Charlie she waved and called for him to come up.

The place seemed to be familiar to Charlie as he climbed up the stairs to meet them.  Introductions were made and Charlie’s name was once again recognized.  “I wonder if Carolyn is using my reputation as leverage?” Charlie thought, and then he put that idea aside and got down to work.

Charlie went off by himself and poked his head in apartments that were vacant and inspected the building in general.  The three suits that Carolyn had been with left soon after Charlie’s arrival and she waited in her car until he was finished  At last, he concluded that he had seen all that he needed to see and walked to Carolyn’s car.

“Do you want to go over this here, or at your place?”

“Actually, there’s a pretty decent Mexican place in the mall on the corner of 138th and Cornwall.  Would you like to discuss it over dinner?  I’m famished, and I’m buying.”

“I never turn down a free meal.  I’ll meet you there.”

Ten minutes later they were seated in a booth at Los Brunos with chips and salsa in front of them and margaritas on the way.  Carolyn cut directly to the chase, as she usually did.

“So, what’s the verdict on the structure?”

“I can vouch for the structure, because I built it” Charlie replied.  “It’s been a while, but I remembered while I was poking around in it.  I built them to last, and I saw no evidence of any major structural damage that has occurred since then.  There’s the usual wear and tear in the units that I could get into and I suppose it’s pretty much the same in the ones that I couldn’t.  How much do you want to put into this?  Cleaning it up is one thing and bringing it up to date is another thing entirely.”

For the next half hour they discussed the details of what Carolyn wished to do if she decided to acquire the building.  Her grasp of business impressed Charlie and he agreed after much talk, Combination Plate number 5 and two margaritas, that she could make a profit either by fixing it up and flipping it or by holding onto it for rental income.

After business it was small talk, and Charlie realized that he was very comfortable in the company of Carolyn.  “Why the heck haven’t I noticed this before?” he wondered.  They ordered flan for desert and then Carolyn excused herself from the table.  Charlie sat back in his seat and allowed pleasant thoughts to pass through his brain, thoughts that were interrupted when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket.

“Ah, maybe it’s Jason” he thought, and pulled his phone out to check.  It was indeed Jason, and the text message said “I’m sorry, but things are working out well for me at the hospital.  I think I’ll just stay with this gig.  Thanks for having a little faith in me.”  Charlie wasn’t entirely disappointed by the news.  With everything moving at breakneck speed at the moment, breaking in a rookie was not exactly what Charlie wanted to do.

While he had his phone out he flipped over to his email app and checked to see what had come in.  There were several new emails of no particular consequence and one that came from moha@gmail.com.  Charlie looked at the email address for a minute before he even began to think again, and when he did think he quickly discarded the idea of opening the message.  That would have to wait for later.

Charlie closed the app and put his phone back into his pocket, and then tried to regain the composure that he had been enjoying all evening.  When Carolyn returned he tried to reengage in the same easy manner as he had before she left, but he knew that he was failing miserably.  At last he decided that Carolyn cold not fail to notice his changed composure and he told her about the message.

“Carolyn” he said.  “I know you’ve noticed that I’m a little fidgety now, or you would pretty soon if you haven’t already.  I got an email earlier and I saw it while you were gone.  It’s from my ex-wife, and probably says something about whether I can see my son again.  I didn’t open it though.  This is now and that’s for later, but I wanted you to know.”

Charlie couldn’t read Carolyn’s face clearly, but he thought he could see hints of disappointment there.  Had he ruined what had been a very good evening?  But what was there to ruin?  This was a business relationship, wasn’t it?  Yes, this was a business relationship.  Carolyn is a very nice person who is also a very good businesswoman, and she recognizes Charlie’s potential for contributing to her business.  So why would she be disappointed?  He was just imagining that she was, and it was just him that was disappointed.

“Well, that’s good Charlie” She said.  “I hope that this gets you closer to where you want to go.  You can go ahead and open it if you want.  I guess I would be champing at the bit if I was in your shoes.”

Charlie did want to open it, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserved if he did.  Maureen and Jack were a subject that needed to be considered without distraction, and Charlie was feeling pretty distracted at the moment.  He had been enjoying himself this evening and didn’t want it to end; not just yet.  And he decided to tell Carolyn that.

“No, I don’t think that I will.  I’ve waited two years for this and I suppose that it will keep just a little while longer.  But thanks for your understanding.  Now, where were we?”

Charlie brought himself back to to Carolyn and the desert, which was excellent, and the overall satisfying day that this had been.  Carolyn seemed to be puzzled by his decision at first, but it finally occurred to her that Charlie had chosen to return to their evening rather than stop everything and attend to other business.  She felt complimented, and doubted that she could have done the same.

They were not at the restaurant much longer anyway.  With their desert finished and the bill paid – and that by Carolyn after some dispute – they arose from their booth and walked into the parking lot.  About half way to their cars Charlie slapped his forehead and let out a guffaw.

“What is it?” Carolyn asked.

“I haven’t said one word about your other job!” Charlie explained.  That’s what I called you about in the first place.”

Carolyn laughed at his chagrin and assured him that it was OK.  “Is there anything that won’t wait until tomorrow?” she asked.

“No, not really.  I just had some things to tell you that I think you’ll like.  What a dunderhead I am!”

Carolyn laughed again, and there was nothing in the laugh that agreed with Charlie’s self assessment.  “Then I’ll like it just as much tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll drop by the job at lunch and you can fill me in.  Now go find out about your son, Charlie, and thank someone that you have one.”

Charlie stood rooted to the spot.  Carolyn opened her car door, sat inside, and pulled on her safety belt.  She then started the car, looked at Charlie and laughed again.  She waved and he waved back weakly, and then she put the car into gear and drove away.

Charlie watched every one of these steps and after Carolyn’s car entered into the traffic on Cornwall he walked to his own vehicle on auto pilot.  He had been surprised by how the dinner had turned out.  “Hell” he thought.  “I’m surprised how the whole day has turned out!”  He had not run Gerald Jackson off, which he had known was a real possibility.  Lester and the crew seemed to be able to do good work when they were allowed to, and now he would get his remodel finished in three or four days so that he could concentrate on Carolyn’s work,

And then there was Carolyn.  She was a good boss, a smart businesswoman, and kind person who had given him a break.  He wanted to pay her back by using skills he hadn’t tested in two years, and he was determined to do that.  But, standing in that parking lot, Charlie felt something that he hadn’t felt in over forty years.  In the pit of his stomach, between the carne asada burrito and the margaritas that he had just consumed, was an unruly flight of butterflies as he thought of her.

Charlie opened the door and climbed into his truck, and then sat motionless behind the wheel as his mind continued to churn.  He was attracted to Carolyn!  The idea surprised him, and then he was surprised again by the fact that it did.  He had been married for most of the time since right after high school and, among his many faults, letting his mind wander to other women had not been one of them.  The two years since his separation from Maureen had not been ones in which he fit into the dating scene.  In fact, the only date that he had come close to making was the one that he narrowly avoided on the I-5 bridge.  Now, sitting in his truck, he felt an old impulse that had lain dormant for a very long time, and he was not immediately impressed with his prospects.

  “What on earth are you thinking of?” he asked himself.  “You’re one cripple living with another with nothing but your tools and your truck to your name, and you’re in the middle of trying to reconnect with your son through Maureen, who was the last woman that you disappointed .  What the hell’s wrong with you, Charlie Hamer?”

He jerked the safety belt across his lap and fired up the truck, determined to get his mind working straight again.  He accomplished that, sort of, and by the time that he returned to the cottage he had his focus back on Jack.  Billy was home but Charlie didn’t say anything when he entered through the front door.  He just pointed towards his phone and walked into his room.  Charlie sat on his bed and immediately punched to open the email.  “No point in putting things off” he thought.  He wasted no time in beginning to read.

“Charlie;” it began.  “It came as a considerable surprise to learn that you wished to get in touch with me.  I thought that I was finished with you and would never see you again, and then I set about to live into that reality.  As you know, when my parents told me about you trying to contact me I didn’t want to do that.  In fact, I still don’t.  Not really.  What I’ve been through, and what I am still going through, is hard to put to rest and writing to you just wakes it up again.

But what you wrote about wanting to reconnect with Jack has forced me to reconsider my position.  Jack seems to be doing fine.  His grades are good at school, and he is doing very well at the piano.  I have no more conflicts with him than I would expect, and none of them are major.  But he doesn’t have friends, and that, it seems, is by his own choice.  He says that things are better if he only has himself to worry about.

Well, that worries me.  I have therefore asked him if he is interested in being in contact with you.  I’ll tell you bluntly, he said that it didn’t matter one way or the other.  This surprised me.  I thought that he would say ‘no’ outright.  So, I’ll make you an offer.  Jack has a piano recital in three weeks in the auditorium at Mr. Hood Community College.  It will take place on Sunday, September 4, at 1 PM.  If you are serious about this, you can come to the recital and afterward we can have something to eat at the Iguana Feliz, a little taco place where we can sit down.  Jack likes it there.

I must be frank with you again Charlie.  I’m doing this for Jack only.  I appreciate what you did for us by giving us all that we’ll need for the rest of my life.  I will also tell you that I think you are a good person, and that I do not harbor resentment or ill will toward you.  But I have suffered more than I ever believed that I could suffer, and in fact I still do.  I believe that seeing you again is more likely to increase and prolong that pain that it is to do me any good.

So I guess that I’m saying that this is all conditional.  If it seems to be a benefit to Jack, then I am willing to endure what I can.  If it is a benefit to both you and Jack, so much the better.  But there is no way that I can see that this will be painless or easy for me, and if i detect any insincerity on your part, or even if I simply find that it is more than I can take, I will break it off instantly.

You may reply or not as you wish.  For my part, your presence or absence at the recital will be answer enough for me.

Charlie, I was pleased to hear that things are beginning to turn around for you.  I hope that it continues in that way.  I am getting by, and I guess that will have to be enough for now.  Maureen.

Charlie sat on the edge of his bed, reading and re-reading Maureen’s message.  He tried to analyze each word, weigh them for every nuance, read between the lines.  After at least fifteen minutes he realized that he would benefit from a second pair of eyes, and arose to share this message with Billy.

He emerged from his room and found Billy in the living room, tearing apart and cleaning his hunting rifles for the one hundredth time since he had met Charlie.  Billy put down the trigger housing, wiped his hands on a rag and asked “What’s up?”

Charlie sat down in a chair near Billy’s work station and said “I got a reply to my email.  I wonder if I could read it to you.  Get your opinion about it?”

“Sure, man.  Go ahead.”

Charlie read the email slowly; every word, and then sat back in his chair and exhaled deeply.  “What do you think about that?”

Billy didn’t respond right away, and the silence hung thick in the little cottage.  At last, Billy spoke up.  “Man, I think she’s bleeding all over the place.  You know her better than me though, so maybe I’m way off base there, but that’s how it sounds to me.”

Charlie sat and digested what Billy had said, which was very nearly what he thought too.  “Yeah” he finally said.  “I think you’re right.  Shit!  That really bothers me.”

“Why’s that?  You’re not responsible for her any more” Billy asked.

“Hell” Charlie replied.  “I never really was exactly ‘responsible’ for her.  She’s not a child.  But I feel like I’m the reason for her situation, and I can’t think of one damned thing that I can do about it.”

Silence returned to the cottage as the two men pondered Maureen’s message.  Charlie felt a rip tide of emotions, with his old hurt pulling him one way and a new, simple empathy for Maureen pulling him in another.  Billy broke the silence by asking Charlie if he wanted a beer.  Charlie shook his head ‘no’ and Billy got up to get one for himself.

“Well you know”Billy said as he twisted the cap off of his brew.  “You didn’t send her an email asking her to get remarried.  You asked her if you could begin to get to know your son, and she said ‘yes.’  That has to be a good thing.”

That thought worked to ease some of Charlie’s pain.  “Yeah, you’re right.  Man, what a minefield! I have to remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  You’re right.  I’m going to get to see my boy on September the – – -, oh shit!”

“What?” Billy asked as he sat down with the beer.

September the fourth.  That’s the weekend when we’re going hunting.”

Billy’s beer stopped half-way to his mouth and he put it back down on the table next to his rifle.  “Yeah” he said.  “That’s right.  It is.”

Disappointment was all over Billy’s face, and an agony of conflict gripped Charlie’s heart with iron claws.  “Shit!” he growled and rose up from his chair.  “Shit!  Shit!  Shit!  Shit!”

Charlie walked around the room repeating this expletive and several other, more colorful ones.  Billy sat quietly, finally taking a sip of his beer and running his finger along the barrel of his rifle.  At last he softly said “Charlie.”  Charlie, wrapped in his frustration, didn’t hear him, so he repeated it more loudly.  “Charlie!”

Charlie stopped walking in circles and answered “What?”

“Sit down, man.  You’re wearing out the carpet.”

Charlie sat.

“Look, bro.  It’s not like the end of the world here.  You gotta take care of business, man.  You gotta take care of your boy.”

“Yeah, I know” Charlie replied.  “But I can’t do that without disappointing you and Walt, and I’ve been doing too damned much disappointing of people who I care about for these last few years.

“Well” Billy said.  “Then you’re getting tired of life, ‘cause that just seems to be a part of living.  Look, man.  Your boy needs you.  That message comes through loud and clear.  What kind of a shit would I be if I whined about a hunting trip that I probably can’t even hobble through anyway instead of telling you to go and be with your boy?”

Charlie thought about that for moment and recognized the good sense in it.  “OK, I think you’re right.  Look, I’m going to make this thing right for you, I promise.”

“Dude, you already have.  For the last couple of weeks I’ve realized how lonely I was in this place.  I’m totally invested in getting back to school and moving forward, and I love how the improvements that you’ve already made on the place have cheered my folks up.  You can’t fix the whole world, brother, so be nice to yourself a little, OK?”

“OK, if you insist” Charlie answered.  “I think I will have that beer after all.”

Charlie got up and retrieved a beer and sat back down in his chair.  Billy had been thinking while he was gone and said “How ‘bout we just do a scout trip to the mountains the weekend before the season opens.  That’s the only time the game will let us see them anyway.  Just to see an elk again, or even a mulie, would be like heaven to me.”

“Yeah, I don’t see why we couldn’t do that.  You suppose Walt would be good with that?”

“Yeah, I expect he would.  He’s pretty much his own boss.  And his bullshit about killing something is just a bunch of crap anyway.  I know that he likes you – and I can’t say that about a large body of the population – and just wants to hang out in the woods with a couple of friends.  Walt talks a lot of tough guy crap but he’s really just a lonely old man.”

Charlie felt a rush of genuine affection for this young man with a wisdom that was beyond his years.  Perhaps nearly dying in a war gave that to you, or maybe he was just born with it.  Either way, Charlie knew that he had a friendship here that was worth the having.

“I like that idea” he said.  “I’ll have things at Carolyn’s job sites running smoothly by then, unless some other crazy shit comes up, and there’s a guy on that jack wagon general contractor’s team who’s worth something.  I think I can count on him if I’m gone a day or two.  We leave Friday morning and come back Sunday night, agreed?”

Absolutely.  I can’t wait.  Now, go and answer your email.”

Charlie rose and went into Billy’s room.  He woke up the desktop and pulled Maureen’s letter up on the screen.  Below, bottom right, was the curved arrow that signified ‘Reply.’  He clicked on it and pondered what to write for several minutes.  Finally he began.

“Dear Maureen;  Thank you for your quick reply.  I will most certainly be in attendance at the recital, and I can hardly wait to hear Jack play.  The thought of sharing a meal with you and Jack fills me with pleasant anticipation as well.  You are very kind to allow this to happen and I am grateful behind words.  I have heard you regarding your discomfort in this process, and will be open to anything that you need to say as we go through it.  I have no wish to increase your pain and will do everything that I can to avoid that.  I promise that I will be listening to you, and I will hear you.  Once again, thank you.

Charlie.

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