The Garden, Chapter XX

Walt’s van pulled into the Burnt Hills Creek campground at a little past three in the afternoon.  Neither Walt nor Billy felt like sitting in the middle of the bench seat of Charlie’s truck, so it was agreed that Walt’s van took that issue off the table.  Billy and Charlie squabbled like high school students over who would get the front passenger seat and Walt had to settle the issue with a round of Rock, Paper and Scissors.  Charlie’s scissors fell to Billy’s rock, and so he crawled while grumbling good-naturedly into the back seat.

They drove east through the Columbia River Gorge and Walt never stopped talking about any and every topic.  “Can you believe how stupid that bastard Trump is, and how much time he spends golfing?  I thought he said that he was going to drain the swamp  Hell!  He’s the biggest fucking gator IN the swamp.”

“Wait a minute Walt” Billy interrupted.  “I believe that I’ve spent the last three years listening to you rant about Obama.  What’s it going to be here?”

“They’re both liars and thieves, so I’m not being inconsistent.  Didn’t Obammy just take four hundred thousand dollars for schmoozing with a bunch of bankers?”

“Come on, Walt” Billy objected.  Don’t start in on that ‘Obammy’ thing with me, OK?  We’re all pretty loose here but I don’t want to listen to that.  Let’s just leave the race thing out of this, all right?”

“OK, OK.  I didn’t mean to offend your sensitive ears.  You know that skin color doesn’t mean jack shit to me.  I’d vote for Condi Rice in a heartbeat.  That woman’s smarter’n a whip and kicks butt like a linebacker.  You remember when that shithead running Sudan tried to screw with her?”

“She smarter than you, Walt?” Charlie asked, getting in a rare word sideways.

“Don’t get carried away with this” Walt replied with a laugh.  “There’s one or two people as smart as me, I’ll allow, but there ain’t none smarter.  She plays a mean piano, too.”

On and on it went virtually non-stop as the three friends rolled along the broad Columbia River and then left it as they diverted east towards Walla Walla.  Billy had visited that agricultural city in Eastern Washington as a high school wrestler and had fallen in love with it.  “I’m moving here some day when get my shit together” Billy said as they approached the city limits.

“I think you’re shit’s pretty nearly together already” Charlie said.  “You get that program done and whatever license or certification you need and you’re going to do just fine.”

They stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the west side of town.  Although it was at least four times the size of Leroy’s little shoebox cafe, the grease was the same.  The waitresses all seemed to be cut from the same cloth as LuAnn too.  Chatty, good natured and obviously fond of their own cafe’s cooking, they bustled around the room dispensing smiles, country wisdom, and heaping plates of food.

“This stuff’s as good as it gets” Walt said, followed by a satisfied belch that almost echoed across the room.  “So damned greasy you don’t have to waste energy chewing.  It just sort of sli-i-i-des down the old gullet.”

Within the hour they were on the road again, headed toward Spokane and the Colville National Forest north of there.  Walt drove along, just five miles above the speed limit while nursing one of the bottles of Pabst that he had brought along in the cooler that was by his side.

“Shit, Walt.  What’re you doing?” Charlie asked when Walt fished the beer out of the ice and twisted off the cap.  “That is a major bust!”

“No worries” Walt replied.  “I’ve been doing this for fifty years and ain’t been busted yet.”

“Yeah” Charlie countered.  “But it’s one hell of a bust if you do.”

“Luxury tax” was all that Walt said in reply.

“I know” Billy said to Charlie.  “It’s crazy.  But what the hell do you expect?  He’s crazy.”

“Holy shit” was all that Charlie could say.

“We’ll get there” Billy said, in a minimally successful attempt to reassure Charlie.  “I don’t know how the old goat does it, but he does it.”

“The old goat does it because the old goat knows what he can do and what he can’t do, so you children just mind your own business and let Old Walt get you to where you’re going without any more back talk.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance that I’d get to drive back” Charlie ventured to guess.

“No chance in hell” was the expected reply.  “My van, I drive.”

They paid for a space at the campground, surprised at how full it was until Walt pointed out that many of the hunters who wold be out in the woods the next weekend were here to scout, same as they were.

“Half of them will be snot-slinging hammered too” he told them.  “It’s probably better that we won’t be out there in the woods with them.  I just might snap and take a few of them out if they got to shooting my way.”

“Yes Walt, I believe that you would” Billy added.  “Thing is, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same thing.  I grew to dislike being shot at while I was in Iraq.”

Charlie listened to these two veterans as they talked and began to get a better understanding of the bond that existed between them.  These men had learned to exist and even normalize their lives in some of the worse situations that humans could create.  Walt had found a groove that he could live in and Billy was still in that process, and with all of Walt’s rough edges and Billy’s struggles to bring his mind into focus, Charlie had to admire these deeply wounded men who had met life at such a grinding level and emerged injured but erect.

Charlie’s own struggles had been real and desperate, if of a different nature than Walt’s and Billy’s.  He felt validated though by these men who knew of his circumstances and considered them to be on a level with their own.  The bullets that penetrated his soul were as real as the ones that had torn through Walt’s body, and the two warriors acknowledged that fact.  “I believe that I love these guys” Charlie thought, and then chuckled as he pictured telling them that.  “That’d freak Walt out but good!”

They parked in their space and quickly set up camp.  Billy and Walt would share a tent while Charlie slept on a cot in the open air.  The wooden pantry was soon stocked with food and other supplies and a pile of wood was stacked next to the sone and steel camp stove.  “Probably built by the CCC during the Depression” Walt opined.  “My daddy might have built it.”

Camp duties secured, the three men struck off down a Forest Service road into the wilderness that would be crawling with hunters a week from now.  Charlie carried a pack with water, snacks, and a collapsible chair that was only slightly larger than a rolled-up umbrella but opened into a very comfortable instrument of relaxation.  This was part of his plan for accommodating Billy, who was having trouble dealing with his injured pride more than his injured leg.

“Shit, man” he growled.  “I feel like I’m you grandmother or something.”

“Hey, I told you that I was going to make allowances for your physical capabilities when I suggested this trip” Charlie replied.  “There’s nothing here that wasn’t part of the plan.  What you went through?  I’m just glad that you’re here and only need a chair to rest in from time to time.  Me carrying this chair ain’t nothing compared to what you carried over there.  Ain’t nothing compared to what you’ve carried since you came back, either.  So pipe down and let’s take a walk.”

And so they walked.  Charlie would have loved to go several miles up the road before diverting to the woods, but Billy would never manage that long of a walk.  They rested twice before they reached a mile and a half, and at that point found terrain that would lead them into the woods without requiring much climbing or, what was worse, walking downhill.

They rested two more times before they found an area of brush and trees that made a serviceable blind.  After Charlie set up Billy’s chair, all three made themselves comfortable and then spoke in low tones or not at all as they watched for any sign of wildlife.

This quest met with minimal success.  In the short time that they had before they had to head back to camp a hunting bobcat came into view and a group of mule deer were spotted crossing the valley at a distance in front of them.  No elk showed up to make their day, and soon it was time to begin their return trip if they wanted to get back to camp before dark.

The return took longer because Billy was getting tired and sore.  He chafed at having to stop and rest, but Charlie and Walt paid no attention to the inconvenience of it.  Walt’s chatter would draw Billy out of his mood, and as soon as he felt rested they would continue.  About an hour before sundown they returned to camp, built a fire in the stove and heated up some soup and beans.

Billy sat in his chair and swallowed a couple of Ibuprofen tablets to ease the pain in his damaged leg.  “Why don’t you get some Oxy for that pain, boy?” Walt asked as he threw some freeze dried beef stroganoff into a pot of boiling water.  “That stuff you’re popping won’t do any more than take the edge off of your pain.”

“I did Oxy, Walt.  I liked it too much” Billy replied.  “I could get hooked on that stuff easy as pie.  Nope.  A little pain now is better than a bigger one down the road.”

“What do you think, Charlie?” Walt asked.  “Why should Billy-boy here hurt when he has as good a reason as anybody I know to justify a prescription?”

“Well I don’t know” Charlie replied.  “My hurt the last few years hasn’t been physical, so I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

“That hasn’t stopped Walt” Billy said with a smile.

“Screw you” Walt replied.  “Yeah, Charlie, you’re probably right about that.  They make a different medication for your sort of problems.”

As Walt said that he drew a half pint of rotgut bourbon out of his pack, took a swig, then passed it to Charlie who poured some of it into a mug.

“Oh, too good to drink after me, eh?” Walt chided.

“I don’t think you want to catch my HIV” Charlie responded, and passed the bottle to Billy.  He also picked up a mug and said “I don’t want what either one of you skanky characters have” and poured a mugful of his own, then handed the bottle back to Walt.

The three men ate their dinner while sitting in the dark around the glowing remains of their cooking fire.  The sky was clear and a half moon poured pale light down onto them.  Dozens of lanterns glowed in the surrounding camp sites.  It was quiet in the campground.  Dinners had been finished and children mostly put to bed.  As the whiskey was consumed the conversation became oddly more quiet, as the men began to discuss the things that dogged their lives.

“This time next week I’ll be getting ready to hear my boy play the piano” Charlie said.  “You know, I don’t really remember ever hearing him play, other than practicing on the piano that was in our living room.  Hell, I hardly remember even that.  I didn’t think music amounted to much.  ‘Jack has to learn how to make a living’ I told Maureen when she twisted my arm into buying the piano.  ‘Jack is an eight year old boy’ I remember her telling me.  ‘I don’t think he’ll have to carry his own weight just yet.’

“You know what?  Maureen was right  One hundred percent.  I can’t believe what an ass I was.  It’s just that I always believed that since I had to take care of myself from an early age, I should teach Jack to be the same as me.”

“Well” Walt said.  “There’s really no harm in that.  A guy does have to pay his own way after all.  Unless he’s a bottom feeding bum, anyway.  You wanted your boy to become somebody.  There’s no shame in that.”

“Yeah” Charlie replied.  “You’re right.  Partly, anyway.  But I guess I could have let him be a kid for a while.  And I suppose that I could have let him be something other than a little model of me.  If he chose to become a musician or anything else other than a construction worker, where’s the harm in that?  He could be anything that he wanted and he’d still be my boy.  Why the hell didn’t I think that was good enough?

“You’re right about that” Billy said.  “But hey, better late than never, no?  If he grows up reasonably happy and well adjusted, and he has a relationship with his father, I think that could be all that you could hope for.  So what are you going to say to him when you see him?”

Charlie sat glumly in his chair, looking at the dying embers in the stove.  He took another sip of the whiskey and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.  At last he looked up and said “I haven’t got a clue.  Not one damned clue.  I’ve imagined all sorts of scenes; I hug him and tell him that I’m sorry.  I give him a high five and tell him he’s the next Chopin.  I shit my pants and trip over my shoelaces.  Hell, I don’t know what I’ll say to him.  I don’t know what I’ll say to his mother either.”

Walt began to speak, saying ‘Well, you could tell her to get – – -“

Billy held up his hand near Walt’s face.  Walt was surprised by that, and when Billy slowly shook his head signaling ‘no,’ Walt settled silently back into his chair and took another pull on the nearly depleted whiskey bottle.

“I want to tell her that I’m sorry, and not just to make myself feel better.  I really am sorry.   I want to tell her that she deserved better than she got.  I want to tell her that I was too busted up to think straight.  I want to tell her that hurting her and Jack was the last thing that I wanted to do, and it tore me up so bad that I almost killed myself one night on the I-5 Bridge, and only some stupid promise that I’d made to do something for somebody, and maybe some act of a god I don’t even think I believe in, is all that kept me from doing it.”

Charlie sat back deeper into his chair and looked up at the star-strewn sky.  He drained the last of his whiskey, and Billy and Walt sat silently as he collected his thoughts.  At last he finished with “I’m not going to say any of that shit though.  I should, but I won’t.  Not that night, anyway.  I’m going to tell Jack that he played wonderfully, whether he does or not.  I’m going to tell Maureen that it was good to see her, even if seeing her is hard as hell.  And then I’ll just have to play the rest by ear.”

“Charlie looked straight at Billy, and then at Walt.  “This is going to hurt like all the fires of hell, guys, but it has to be done.  And for the first time in my life I’m going to do the hard thing.  And Walt, I’m a little wobbly, so if you would be so kind as to rummage in my pack you’ll find a pint of better stuff than that rat piss you just fed us.”

Walt finished the last few drops in his bottle and walked surprisingly well to the camp table where Charlie’s pack rested.  He dug around and found a bottle with the cap covered in red wax.  “Oh, Mr. High Pockets is sharing his Maker’s Pride.  Well done, Junior.  That’s what I call respecting your elders.”

He handed the bottle to Charlie, who cut through the wax with his pocket knife and pulled the stopper out of the neck of the bottle.  He took a pull of the whiskey and sighed, saying ‘Now that’s a better sort of brew,” and passed the bottle to Billy.

Mugs were forgotten at this point, and the bottle was now passed freely from hand to hand.  “So,” Charlie said.  “You start school in two weeks.  How’re you feeling about that?”

Billy took a slug and passed the bottle.  “I feel like a bowl of Jello” he said.  “Everyone in that classroom will be younger than me and able to do stuff that scares the shit out of me right now.  They’re all just continuing what they already know how to do, while I’ll be trying to remember how to do the school thing.  Or learning how to do it all over again would be more like the truth.”

“You’ll do fine, Billy” Charlie said.  “You’ve already learned the hard stuff in life. Now you’re going to do something a lot easier.  I think you’ll blow everybody in that program away.”

Billy sat silently for a couple of minutes, looking at the stove that was now growing cold.  At last he said “Funny choice of words.  ‘Blown away,’ I mean.  I’ll be the only one in the program who actually was nearly blown away.  There’ll be kids there who are driving nice cars, have cute boyfriends and girlfriends, and who hit the hipster places downtown if they’re old enough.  They know how to be cool.  I know how to clear a building of guys with AK 47s and RPG launchers.  Guys who want to take my ass out.

These kids party and socialize and get laid every other night by somebody new, and I got taken out like a sackful of garbage and placed on the curb by my girlfriend. I joined the Army in order to get killed in battle and couldn’t even do that, and now I’m damaged goods.  Yeah, I’m looking forward to moving on, but it’s not like I’m going to be tiptoeing through the tulips while I do it.  I think that getting home each day after school and unloading on you,” he pointed towards Charlie, “and getting together with you and the other guys,” he now pointed at Walt, “will be the only things that will keep me sane for the next two years.”

The bottle came around to Charlie and he took another sip, while silence reigned over their camp.  After a few minutes Charlie said “Billy, I can’t tell you how it’ll be.  I got no idea.  It might be just like you say it will.  But then again you’ve never done this before, right?  I mean, you’ve never gone into a classroom full of people who’ve never had to make a more important decision than whether they should buy Nike’s or Adidas.

You’ve seen how rough things can really be.  You’ve seen shit exploding all around you.  You’ve seen parts of good guys and parts of bad guys sprayed all over the streets.  Shit, I’ve never seen anything like that!  You’ve had to strap on your gear in the morning, going out and knowing that you or one of your buddies or, shit, maybe all of you won’t be coming back to camp that evening.  Mann, these kids don’t know any of that stuff.  They’ve never had to shoot a kid or a woman before they could explode a bomb vest and kill you and all of your comrades.  Compared to that this will be a cakewalk; a stroll in the park.  Hell, you’re laying around the shack telling me about Chopin and Polish history and Napoleon after seeing the shit that you saw.  You’ll do just fine.

And I don’t think that you should think about the other students at all, really.  Hell, they’ll probably turn out to be decent, normal people, just like us.”  Walt snorted at that idea.  “Hell, man.  They’ll probably have their own good points and their own baggage.  Maybe you’re just seeing images in your mind that you’re getting from movies or gossip magazines.  Those other students are kids who haven’t seen the shit that you have, I’ll wager, but are otherwise not all that different from you,” Charlie pointed at Billy with the neck of the bottle.  He then took a swig and pointed the bottle back toward himself and continued speaking. “Or from me, for that matter.  Now Walt; that’s a different story.”

They chuckled and Charlie handed the bottle to Billy.  Walt, however, didn’t make a sound.  He sat motionless in his chair, a dim figure in the dark.  Charlie and Billy shared laughter and insults and tossed pebbles and twigs at each other, forgetting for the moment that Walt was there with them.  After a few minutes, when Billy passed the jug to Walt, the scarred old veteran cleared his throat and said “I have a story to tell you.”

Charlie continued to joke, but as Billy became silent, Charlie realized that this moment deserved a more restrained attitude.  He quieted down and said “Sorry Walt.  Go ahead.  I’m listening.”

Walt took a chug of bourbon, scarcely reacting to the fiery stuff as it slid down his throat, and began to speak.  “There used to be a guy that I worked with at the school.  He was one annoying bastard, I’ll tell you.  It didn’t matter what story you would tell; he’d always act like he could tell you a better one.  ‘I hit a grand slam in the World Series’ you’d say, and he’d say ‘Well, that’s nothing.  I hit two grand slams.’  Or maybe you’d say I shot down a space ship at Roswell and killed a dozen blood sucking aliens,’ and he’d say ‘That’s nothing.  I shot down the space ship that was carrying Elvis away, and he performed in Las Vegas for 10 more years.’  It didn’t matter what you’d say.  He’d just come back with that goddam ‘That’s nothing.’  Made me want to strangle the son of a bitch.”

Walt took another sip, and even he was visibly impaired by now from all of the alcohol that had been consumed.  “But I have to say, and I feel embarrassed to say it, but your stories are nothing.  You two have had a tough go of it, I’ll grant you that.  It’s the only reason that I’m sitting with you tonight, to tell you the truth.  I ain’t got much time for anybody who hasn’t been kicked in the nuts once or twice by life.

Anyway, you both know that I spent time in The Nam back in the Sixties.  It sucked.  Big time.  Not as bad in some ways as it was for you, Billy.  I mean, a quarter of the people over there liked us, a quarter hated us, and the other half didn’t give a flying fuck one way or the other.  I think that they just about all hated you guys in Iraq.

We needed to get information from the V.C., the same as they needed to get information out of us, so prisoners were a good thing to capture.  Now, we had ROE’s; that is, rules of engagement.  That meant that we weren’t supposed to do all of the ugly shit that they did to us.  I’ll give you three guesses how much attention we paid to our ROE’s, and the first two don’t count.

Well, our G2 guys had their own way of interrogating Charlie.  Oh, that’s what we called the Viet Cong back then.  No reflection on you, Charlie.  Anyway, they would take them up in a chopper and hang them out the door a couple of thousand feet off the deck.  About half of the VC still wouldn’t talk even then, so they pitched their asses out the door.  The other half – the smart half – would talk.  Then about half of them got pitched out the door just on general principle.  You’d look up and it’d be raining Cong, soon to turn from being bad guys to being good guys.

Well, Charlie had his ways of asking questions too.  You’ve all heard about bamboo slivers under the fingernails and all that happy shit.  Well, in the jungle those kinds of things were just thought of as being playful.  It got worse than that.  A lot worse.

We would put some guys in forward listening posts at night.  They would be out there in front of the wire, hunkered down in a hole and trying to be silent and invisible.  If Charlie came sneaking in, trying to catch us by surprise, they would trigger a flare that would alert the guard detail.  Pretty soon a shower of flares would be turning night into day while Huey gunships were turning the jungle into chopped salad with rockets and mini guns.

One night all was quiet, but when a squad went out in the morning to relieve the forward guys they found one of the holes empty.  We sent out patrols trying to pick up his trail, and put Bird Dogs into the air hoping to see Charlie if he got careless, which he seldom did.  He didn’t get careless this time, either.

We figured that Bertie – that was the guy’s name – was just shit out of luck and if he was lucky he’d end up spending the rest of the war in the Hanoi Hilton or some place just like it.  But he wasn’t lucky.  A week later I was on a routine patrol out in the bush.  After a while of being out there the guy walking point came back and said something to our lieutenant.  He looked like he’d seen a ghost, and our lieutenant looked like he wanted to kill someone.

He gave us the order to spread out, and we did.  We walked slowly through the thick brush on either side of the trail.  The guys on the right wing couldn’t see the guy on the left.  After several yards we could see a wide spot in the the trail and in the middle of it was Bertie.

He was tied to a post, and a bamboo cage that fit tight around his neck just under his jaw had been attached over his head.  Inside the cage was a big-ass Vietnamese rat, and it was probably hungry when they put it in there.

Well, most of what could be eaten on Bertie’s head was gone.  It was like a bloody skull on the body of a man we used to know that was tied to that post.  I just stood there flat-footed and stared at what was left of Bertie and that’s when the shit hit the fan.

Charlie had placed Bertie there knowing that we would be knocked off our guard by it, and he blew some real smoke up our asses just as soon as we saw him.  Four guys died right then and there; one of them being our lieutenant.  The rest of us found cover and started blazing away while the radioman called for support.  We couldn’t see Charlie but we knew where he probably was, and started putting fire in the direction of those positions.

It was while this was going on that I looked at Bertie again and I’ll be damned if he didn’t move!  I thought ‘Holy Shit!  He’s still alive!’  Well, that thought chilled me right down to the marrow in my bones.  I sorta forgot about Charlie then; I couldn’t take my eyes off Bertie.

Like, what could they do for him?  They couldn’t grow him a new head.  Even if we got him out alive, he would be a freak who could never walk down a sidewalk again.  Hell, he’d make Freddy Kreuger shit his pants.

Bertie wasn’t a close friend of mine, but we had covered each other’s asses a lot, so I figured that it was time for me to cover Bertie’s one last time.  I was a pretty good shot; not sniper good, but pretty damned good.  I took my time and took good aim, bullets flying all around me and mortars dropping, too.  I squeezed off a round that hit Bertie flush in the chest.  I’m pretty sure that my first shot killed him, but I set up for one more and I put that one right through his bloody skull.

I don’t really remember much more of what happened that day.  We were dropping Willie Peter on them – that’s White Phosphorus – and pouring fire into their positions, like I said, but I don’t know how much effect it was having.  We were dropping one by one and I was thinking that I wouldn’t get out of there alive when the Cobras arrived and began to give them hell from the air.  I guess the Cong, or what was left of them anyway, slipped away through the brush or down into tunnels or something.  Anyway, they were just suddenly gone.

The brass made us walk back to our base camp.  I think they wanted to wear us out a little bit; you know, walk off some of what we’d just seen.  And I suppose it worked, sort of.  We all got a shit, shower and shave when we got back and they gave us a few beers each and told us to stay in our hooches that night. They didn’t want us to go to the EM Club and get properly fucked up and then unload on the first guy who said something wrong to us.

After that, we didn’t take much in the way of prisoners.  The drill was that if Charlie came out of the brush with his hands up and saying ‘Chu Hoi,’ that meant that he wanted to give himself up and we were supposed to take him to G2.  Well, we mostly just wasted the sons of bitches and let them rot where they fell.

Pretty soon the brass figured out that we were too fucked up in the head to keep us together any longer, so they split up our unit and farmed most of us out to other assignments in The Nam.  The guys who were short timers; they just went ahead an shipped them out to isolated areas in the far East where they could try to fix their heads a little before they cut them loose on society back home.  I don’t think that it helped much, though.

I got reassigned to convoy duty, and I told you about that already.  A couple of bullets later I was in a hospital in Vung Tau, then in Japan, and finally home in Seattle.  And that, my friends, is my story.”

Walt took a tug on the bottle and passed it to Charlie, but he didn’t take it.  Billy, who had heard much of the story before, nudged Charlie and said “If you don’t want a drink, pass it over to me.”  Charlie took the bottle and without drinking from it passed it on to Billy.  At last he said “Walt, I wish that you would tell me that you’re bullshitting me.”

Walt shook his head and just said “ Uh uh.”

Charlie looked at Billy and said “I think I need that drink now.”

The bottle was returned to Charlie and this time he took a long drink.  By now all three men were deep in the effects of all of the liquor that they had consumed, but in an odd way it felt as if Walt’s story had pushed them into something that looked like sobriety.

“Gentlemen” Walt said.  “We live in a fucked up world, and there ain’t no two ways about it.”  He looked at Billy and said “You’re young and got help early.  You’ve got a chance to put your shit behind you and make a life for yourself.  Yeah, you’re a gimp and will probably always be one, but you can be a productive gimp.  Might find a woman who’ll put up with your gamey young ass and make a family.

And you,” he pointed towards Charlie, “haven’t left any body parts of yourself in a jungle or a desert somewhere.  You had a bad turn, sure as shit.  But looks like you can come back from it.  Looks that way to me anyway.  You go and see your son.  You tell him you’ve been through hell.  Maybe tell him you know that he’s been through it too.  Heck, maybe your wife’ll take you back, too, if she isn’t riding some other guy by now.

Point is, you both got lives, if you want ‘em.  Billy, you’ve made more progress than I could believe possible, and Charlie, you aren’t the guy I met last spring sniveling in the garden.  Me?  I’m a guy who killed a living skeleton in a place called Hell.  I see that bastard Bertie all the time.  I don’t have to be asleep either.  Been that way since the day it happened and will be until the day I die.”

They sat silently in their chairs after Walt finished speaking.  A third of the bottle remained and Charlie plugged it.  They were through for this night.  Walt at last spoke up with the voice that Charlie was used to hearing.  “Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’ve had enough of such stories for one night.  I’m turning in.”  He rose up out of his chair and walked in a more or less straight line to the tent.  Soon after that Billy was out of his chair; said ‘good night,’ and wobbled after Walt.

Charlie stayed in his chair and soon fell fast asleep.  His alcohol-addled mind was filled with dreams of Carolyn, his dead daughter, Rachael and her black eye, Jack at the piano and a living skeleton tied to a post.  At some point in the night he woke up with a sore neck and left his chair for the more comfortable surface of his cot.  “I’m going to feel like royal shit tomorrow” he thought as he pulled the covers over himself and buried his head in his pillow.  Once again the picture of Bertie tied to a post invaded his mind.  “I feel like royal shit right now.”

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