FINDING OUR WAY

FINDING OUR WAY

“Here we are,” Larry said as he steered his Plymouth station wagon into the parking lot.

“Where in the heck is here?” Willy asked.

“Lake Merwin.  It’s part of a series of reservoirs that were built during the Depression.  This is one of my favorite places on earth.”  He pulled into a parking space, set the brake, and turned off the engine.  “Come on.  Let’s get out so that you can get a good look at this place.”

The two men exited the vehicle and walked towards its front.  Willy stood by the right headlight and looked around at his surroundings.  Larry did the same, and was infused with a peace and wonder that he rarely felt anywhere else.

A soft breeze mitigated the heat of the early fall day and raised swarms of small ripples that danced and played across the otherwise smooth surface of the deep green waters of the lake.  The needles of the tall Douglas fir trees barely quivered in the breeze, and filled the valley in which the lake nestled with their clean aroma.

The school year having begun and it being a midweek day, the parking lot at the lake was silent and nearly empty.  Two older men puttered around in the trunk of their car, apparently stowing the fishing gear that they had been employing since long before Larry and Willy arrived.  How successful they had been could not be determined.

The silence in that place was almost overwhelming.  A hawk cried in the distance and the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the cooling engine were all that prevented the two men from hearing the noises that everyone has in their heads.  Larry drank in the silence, but it made Willy squirm a little.

“How did you find out about this place?” Willy asked.

“A buddy told me about it over in the ‘Nam.  He grew up in Vancouver, back where we crossed into the state.”

“Did he make it back home?”

“Yeah.  He was chairborn.”

Willy laughed at that and then asked, “Okay, so how did you get to know anyone who was chairborn.  You were a grunt too, just like me.”

“I was until I got a million dollar wound.”

“You got the heart?”

“Yeah, I got a heart, but it wasn’t for the wound that I’m talking about.”

“Okay, so what was the wound all about?”

“It was actually our battalion clerk who got popped.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, you remember when I was failing chemistry at Hoover and they yanked me out and stuck me in a typing class?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Well, you should.  I typed an English paper for you when we were seniors.”

“I don’t remember that either, but if I turned in a typed paper it’s a sure bet that somebody else typed it.”

“Yeah.  Well anyway, they needed somebody to take his place, and I was that somebody.  I got to hang around base camp because of that, typing transfer requests and morning reports and other stuff.  In the process I met a guy from Division HQ at the NCO club.  He was from Vancouver and was pretty close to rotating back to the Real World when we met.  Before he left he told me about this place.  He said that it was his favorite spot on earth, and I think it might be mine too.”

“So, is he living in Vancouver now?  Why don’t you stop and see him on the way back?”

“Nah, he’s not living around here.  He’s a lifer.  After he left the Nam he went to Korea and re-upped.  Or was it Germany?  I don’t remember exactly; he was going somewhere else.”

“No chance outside, eh?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.  He was a pretty smart guy.  He just liked the military life; the structure, the order, you know.  He figured twenty or thirty years and he’d retire comfortable with all of the bennies.”

“Yeah,” Willy repeated dryly.  “No chance outside.”

“I guess, maybe.  Different strokes for different folks.  Anyway, he told me about this place and I came up here after I got back.  I love it, and have been back twice.”

“Hmm, I guess I can see why.  It is pretty here.”

“Hey man, you want to rent a canoe?  It’s even nicer back up the valley.”

“Uh, I don’t know.  I’m not so crazy about being on that much water.”

“We’ll have life jackets on.  It’ll be safe.  Besides, the lake’s really calm.  Come on, man.  Let’s give it a shot.”

Willy didn’t relish the idea but was persuaded by his friends persistent urgings.  “Okay,” he said at last.  “But if you get me drowned I’m really going to be pissed at you.”

“Outstanding!  If I get you drowned I’ll let you kick my butt.”

They walked across the parking lot to the rental office where a bored matron put down her romance novel and, with an economy of conversation, rented them a canoe with two paddles and life jackets.  Willy returned to the car to retrieve their cooler of food and drinks while Larry picked out a canoe.  By the time that Willy returned with cooler in hand, Larry was seated in the canoe with his life jacket on and ready to go.

“You sit in the front,” Larry said as he threw Willy the other life jacket.  “You’ll like the view of the lake better than the view of the back of my head.”

“I don’t know.  This seems a little freaky to me.”

“Okay.  If it will help, I’ll sit in the front.”

“Nah, it don’t make no difference.  Let’s just do it.”

Willy put on the life jacket, set the cooler in the middle of the canoe, and stepped cautiously into the front of the canoe while Larry held the craft as steady as he could.  At last Larry was seated on a bench.  Larry realized that his friend was more nervous than he had first believed to be the case and said, “Why don’t you just sit there for a while and don’t paddle.  I’ll get us away from the landing and you can join in when you feel like it.”

“Yeah, good idea.  Let me get used to this.  It’s like I told you, I never really get around this much water.”

Larry dipped his paddle deep into the water and, with strong, smooth strokes, propelled the canoe across the marina towards the opening in the large log boom that separated the boat launch from the lake.  The water outside the boom was nearly as calm as it was inside, and the canoe slid easily through the gap and onto the open lake.

Larry stayed close to the shore, hoping that Willy would settle his jitters and become able to enjoy the ride, and that’s what happened.  Soon he too began to dip his paddle into the water, and Larry discerned the loosening of the tight muscles of his friend’s shoulders.  One time Willy’s inexpert technique resulted in the paddle getting too close to the surface, which then resulted in a spray of water flying back and soaking Larry.  “Hey, man.  I can get a shower later, okay?”

“Sorry about that!”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you are,” Larry replied, but he was pleased to see his friend begin to enjoy himself.

In very little time Willy’s comfort level increased to a point where Larry struck out for the center of the lake.  They reached that spot at a point where the valley in which the Lake lay bent to the north, and as they paddled around that bend they could see the green steel trestle bridge that they had crossed barely an hour earlier.  Three teenagers were swinging on a rope that hung from the bridge and dropping themselves into the cool, green water.

“They weren’t there when we drove over that bridge, were they?” Larry asked.

“Nope.  Probably playing hooky, unless they have a real late start of the school year up here.”

“Yep, probably hooky.  If school was still out this place would be packed.”

They glided under the bridge, waving at the two boys and one girl who waved back, and thereafter slid silently and almost effortlessly across the surface of the lake.  Both young men were deep in their own thoughts and the rhythmic dip and pull, dip and pull, created a hypnotic space in which each was enclosed.

After a while Larry decided to break the silence and bring up a subject that he had been searching for a way to approach with delicacy.

“Willy.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad that you came back.”

“I’m glad that you got back home too.”

They glided along for several more yards before Larry spoke again.  “No, I mean I’m glad that you came back to San Diego from wherever you’ve been keeping yourself.  A lot of us have missed you.”

They continued to paddle in silence.  Larry wondered if he had touched a raw nerve.  He began to plan how he would apologize, but before he could speak again Willy said, “Thanks.  It’s been an interesting ride.  You want to hear about it?”

That was more than Larry had expected to get for his effort, and he determined to take the opening and run with it.  “Yeah, I would.  How ‘bout we paddle over to that island and have a snack?”

“Good with me.”

They soon reached a low island of silt and sand and beached the canoe.  A bleached log was washed up six or seven feet from the water’s edge.  Larry sat on the log and took off his life jacket and shirt while Willy hoisted the cooler out of the canoe and sat down on the log next to his friend.

“Man, they stitched you good,” Willy said as he looked at the purple scars that bore testimony to Larry’s service in the war.”

“Looks worse than it really was.”

“Yeah?  Well it looks like shit, so it still must have been bad.”

“Wasn’t bad enough to send me home.  The shit-dipped pungi stick that I stepped on didn’t get me out either.  It took that clerk catching steel to get me out of the meat grinder.”

“Oh, man.  You never told me anything about no pungi stick!”

“Well, who wants to tell the story of having some Cong’s shit running through his veins?”

The two men sat in the sun and continued to share stories that could only be appreciated by people who have gone through the same hell.  Willy pulled a couple of beers out of the cooler and some jerky out of his pack.  As they began to enjoy their snack Willy removed his own shirt and showed Larry his unmarred body.

“Not a scratch,” he said.  “They never even gave me a scratch.  Came damned close from time to time, but no luck for them.  I dusted a whole bunch of them for trying though.”

Larry munched silently on the jerky and said nothing.  Soon, Willy continued to speak.  “I couldn’t stay around, man.  I got to hand it to you though.  I don’t know how the hell you could.  I got back and saw that every neat house was on its neat lot, and every street was lined with neat lawns.   There were traffic lights and stop signs, and people paid attention to them!  It all seemed artificial.  You know, like it was a movie or a play.  I felt like I couldn’t trust it.  Like, you know, it might all dissolve right before my eyes at any moment.”

Willy quit talking then and began to stare across the lake.  Larry looked in the direction in which he thought Willy’s gaze was falling, but he could see nothing in particular.  He was glad that his friend had begun to talk about his problems and did not want the tap to be turned off prematurely.  “Yeah, I had a little of that too.  I hid in my house the first New Year’s Eve that I was home.  I wanted to round up every asshole who lit off a firecracker and send them to where they could enjoy all of the explosions that they wanted.”

Willy chuckled at that.  “Yeah.  ‘Bombs bursting in air’  loses a little of its charm when they start bursting up your ass.  Anyway, I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t think about how something I did today would impact what I would be doing in ten years.  Hell, I don’t think I really believed that anything around me was real and besides,” he turned to look directly at his friend, “how am I supposed to think clearly about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life when I had quit believing that I would even have a rest of my life?”

“I don’t know man.  It’s a bitch.”  Larry’s mind drifted to his own homecoming but Willy’s next question snapped him back to the present.  “So, how did you do it?  How did you go from being an 11B grunt to a friggin’ college student?

“I don’t know.  I’m saying that a lot, but it’s true, I really don’t.  It’s like I told you; it was hard for me too.  I jumped at every loud noise.  Shit, I still do.  I damn near killed a scrawny prick who called me a baby killer, too.”

“You never said nothing about that!”

“Kept it quiet.  It was at the bus stop at Horton Plaza.  A sailor pulled me off of him and told me to get out of there before the police came.  He probably kept me out of jail.  I’m not really proud of that now, ’s why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Whoa, that’s pretty heavy.  So do you still feel like doing that when people piss you off?”

“Nah.  One and done.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How did you turn it off?  You beat up one shitbird and then everything makes sense?”

“Nope.  I talked to people who helped.  I was starting to see Alice Montgomery – you remember Alice? – and she suggested that I talk to her pastor.”

“I don’t know if I have much time for pastors.”

“Well, that’s okay.  I’m not trying to push it.  It just helped me.”

“Did he hit you over the head with his bible?”

Larry chuckled.  “No, none of that.  He has a lot of veterans at his church, mostly World War II guys.  He told me that I had seen enough of hell and that it would be good for me to look more for heaven, stuff like that.  I don’t know; it helped me.  I talked a lot with the older guys there.  They were pretty cool too.  Some of them had been through worse than I had.  They knew where I was coming from.”

“Hrmmph!” Willy grunted.  “Anyway, I hung around town with some other guys who were having the same troubles that I was, and that sort of felt good.  Misery loves company, you know.  But I ran into your Alice Montgomery one day down by the pier at Pacific Beach and she looked at me like I was some sort of disease.”

“She told me about that.  She said that she was afraid.  You know, she didn’t bad mouth you, not to me at least.  She told me later that she felt bad about her reaction.  It’s just that you looked pretty rough at the time.  I don’t know any more about it than that though.”

Willy thought about that for a moment and then said, “Yeah, I guess I didn’t look very approachable.  Anyway, that was the final straw I guess.  I left the city that day.”  He quit talking then and turned his attention to the chunk of jerky and his beer.  Larry followed suit, pondering whether or not to push his friend to continue the conversation.  He decided to wait and see if Willy would continue on his own.  Willy washed down a bite of jerky and did just that.

“So I went to the Central Valley and did some farm work.  Most of the workers were Mexican, but there were a number of other folks out there too, so I didn’t stand out too much.  I learned enough Spanish to get along, and it was those folks who helped me to get a grip.  As good a grip as I’ve got, anyway.   Most of them have had a hard time of it too, and it was pretty hard to feel sorry for myself for very long around them.”

“Man, that’s tough work.”

“You ain’t said shit, brother!  My back hurt, my knees hurt, my arms hurt, my white skin got cooked if it was exposed to the sun and I sweat like a fire hose if I covered up.  You think about that the next time you eat a salad.”

“I’m thinking about it right now.  So, you just do that all that time you were gone?”

“Nah.  I’m pretty good at fixing things, so in time I got promoted to working on the farm equipment.  It wasn’t any cooler, but it was a heck of a lot easier.”

“Wow man.  That’s a cool story.  You should write a book.”

“Shit, first I’d have to read a book.  So anyway, I did the equipment thing for about another year.  When I felt like maybe I had my head screwed on straight I decided to come back to San Diego and give it another try.  I’m telling you, Daygo beats the hell out of Fresno!”

Willy fell silent again, and Larry decided that this would be a good place to leave things.  “Come on,” he said.  “There’s something across the lake that I want to show you.”

The two friends stowed the cooler in the bottom of the canoe and regained their places at the bow and stern seats.  Larry pushed away from the beach and they resumed paddling up the reservoir.  They hadn’t gone far before Willy wanted to continue the conversation.  It seemed to Larry that maybe he had pulled some sort of cork out of Willy’s bottle.

“Right over there,” Willy said and pointed with his paddle towards the opposite side of the reservoir.  “That’s where I would expect a sniper to set up.”

Larry didn’t need to follow Willy’s gaze to find the spot.  It was a cluster of boulders in the thick tangle of brush and ferns.  The exact spot would be any one of three gaps in the rocks.  “Yeah,” he said.  “But we really don’t have snipers around here.”

“That’s just the thing.  I still do have snipers.  Oh, I know that they’re not there.  At least I hope they’re not there!  Anyway, it’s kinda like phantom pain in your leg after your leg’s been blown off.  You know that the leg’s gone but it still hurts.  Well, I know that there’s no sniper in those boulders.  Still, it feels like he’s sighting in on me right now.  I feel like a sitting duck out here, and it makes it hard to enjoy it.”

“Man, that’s hard to imagine.  That really sucks!  I can see how it would be hard to deal with that.”

“And it’s all the time, man.  It’s all the time.  Don’t you have to deal with shit like this?  I mean, you were in the same places that I was.  Don’t you feel his scope on your forehead?”

“Well, I didn’t until you brought it up,” Larry said with a laugh.  “Thanks a pant-load, man.  But really, no.  I don’t.  I remember having that same feeling over there, but there really were snipers there.  That’s where they were supposed to be and where I expected them to be.  I don’t really feel any threat here.”

“So maybe you want to switch with me and sit in the front then?”

“Oh, hell no.  Now you’ve got me paranoid!”

Both laughed.

“We’re aiming for that gap in the rocks,” Larry said, and he pointed to where he was speaking of.  They paddled across the lake towards a crack in the otherwise continuous fifty to sixty foot high cliff that formed that part of the southern edge of the lake.  As they approached and then entered the gap they saw that the walls, which displayed many minor irregularities, rose otherwise straight up to the top of the cliff much in the way of a slit canyon in a Southwest desert.

The water within the gap was as smooth as glass, there being no way that the east-blowing breeze could penetrate this north/south canyon.  They slipped like a whisper through the water, hearing only a few birds that sang their joy or settled their grievances in the branches of trees high overhead.  The place was one of unbroken peace; at least, that’s how it felt to Larry.  He wondered how it felt to Willy.

Slowly the sound of water flowing over rocks penetrated the silence.  The crevasse up which they were traveling became more narrow and ripples began to be seen on the surface.  “Look at that!” Willy said softly.  He was pointing down at the water, and Larry guessed what he had seen.  He looked into the water and saw several large fish swimming around and under their canoe.

“I was hoping that they would be there,” Larry said.  “They were there the last time that I was here.”

“What are they?  Trout?”

“Maybe.  They sorta look like trout to me, but they’re bigger than any trout that I have ever caught before.  They might be rainbows, steelhead, bull trout or something called a kokanee.”

The canoe came to a stop between where two mostly submerged boulders poked up just above the surface of what was now easily seen to be a creek.  They stayed as still and quiet as they could and admired the fish.  The fish, in turn, ignored the canoe and its two admiring passengers as if they weren’t there.

The velocity of the stream flow was now gradually picking up as they edged farther up the canyon.  They continued upstream until the shallowness and flow of the stream and the profusion of boulders rendered further passage first unsafe, and then finally impossible.  They spun on their benches and Larry’s position, which had been in the stern, now became the bow.  Carefully they picked their way between the rocks until they at last regained the silent and slow-moving waters of the canyon.  They allowed the current to propel them almost imperceptibly forward, paddling intermittently only to keep the bow pointed downstream.  Larry was lost in his own thoughts when Willy spoke in a hushed tone, as if unwilling to disturb some sanctuary.

“So you talked to some pastor, huh?  What was that like?  Did he tell you to turn or burn?”

The sound of Willy’s voice was a mild jolt to Larry and he replied with a “huh?” to buy time to get his thoughts together.  Willy repeated the question.

“No man, it wasn’t really like that.  Like I said earlier, he helped me to focus more on the good stuff and less on the bad, that’s all.”  Willy didn’t reply to that, so Larry decided to continue his thought.  “He said that God was big enough to carry that stuff and I didn’t have to.  He also said that if I asked him – God, that is – to help me, He would do it.  Well, it worked.  He did.  I know it doesn’t happen like that for everyone and I don’t know why that is.  I can’t tell you why it worked for me, but it did.”

Willy didn’t answer right away, but after a brief hesitation said, “I know guys who have heard that shit; uh, I mean that advice, and it didn’t do jack for them.”

“Yeah, me too.  Like I said, I don’t know why it clicked for me.  I did the same bad shit that a lot of other guys did over there.  It’s not like I was already some sort of angel or something.  I lit up one nest of Cong with Willy Peter one day and I enjoyed watching them burn.  Angels don’t do stuff like that.”

“Damn!  White phosphorus is some hard shit.  I can’t say that I do just as bad or worse though.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.  Wasn’t nothing anyone over there did that I didn’t do.  I’m rotten as hell, if you judge by all of that.  The pastor told me that God doesn’t judge like that though.  I’m not going to give you a sermon, ‘cause that’s not my thing.  I’m just telling you that there’s more to it than earning points to become a good boy, and I don’t know why knowing that helped me and didn’t help the next guy.  The point is, it helps me keep my shit together.”

They floated for a while towards the mouth of the canyon and Larry had almost forgotten about the conversation when Willy spoke again.  “So god helps you even when you don’t act like a choir boy?”

“Yep.”

“Even when you drink and cuss?”

“Fucking-A right He does.”

“That don’t sound like any god that I ever heard of.”

“Well, I guess maybe you ain’t heard about mine, or maybe somebody was saying shit about Him that ain’t real.  Anyway, I figure He’s a lot bigger than all of that ‘I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do’ bull shit.”

Willy laughed out loud at that. Larry laughed too.  Then they both fell silent again.  After a few more minutes they rounded a curve and saw the lake open up before them once more.  As the canoe slipped forward they left the confines of the canyon and floated into the broad valley that was mostly filled by the lake.

Larry had fallen back into his reverie as they paddled toward the back end of the lake.  Willy snapped him out of it once again with another question.  “So, did Alice Montgomery really feel bad about freaking out on me?”

Once again Larry answered with a reflexive “Huh?”  Then, gathering his thoughts again, he replied, “Yeah.  She said that she was sure that she had hurt your feelings, and she was sorry about that.  By the time that she got a grip, you were gone and she couldn’t find you to apologize.”

“Hmm.  Alice is a pretty foxy lady.  You suppose she would like to apologize to me now?  In person?”

“Down, boy.  The foxy lady would undoubtedly be happy to apologize, but she happens to be in a long distance relationship with another guy.”

“Well, if the guy’s not around she’s fair game, eh?”

“It ain’t like that, Romeo.  It’s Alice that isn’t around.  She’s at Arizona State.  Will be for the next one and a half years.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.  Who’s the lucky joker who’s enjoying her favors?  Anybody that I know?”

“Yeah.  Me.”

(SILENCE)

“Oh.  Sorry man.  I didn’t mean to go there.  No offense, okay?”

“No offense at all.  I didn’t tell you, so how could you know?  It’s cool.”

“No, really man.  Why didn’t you tell me that you were tight with Alice?  You made it sound like you just kinda knew her.”

“Ah, shit.  I don’t know.  You’re last time seeing her wasn’t all that good and I didn’t know how much you would want to know.”

“That’s pretty weak.  You and me, we know each other well enough to not worry about a thing like that.  What’s the skinny, man.  Sounds to me like there’s more to the story?”

“Well, I’m only going to be seeing her on holidays and stuff like that.  She’s doing summer classes so I won’t even get to see her much during the summer.  I just worry about how it will all turn out.  Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.”

“What, you think she’s fooling around on you?”

“Heck, I don’t know.  I hope not, but who knows?  I mean, she’s in a school full of kids and there’s parties every weekend.  She’s a fox, and there’s guys smarter and more cool than me all over the place.  It’s kinda twisting me up a little.”

They had reached the back of the lake by now and turned around to paddle west, back towards the marina.  Willy returned to the conversation.  “It was Alice that had you talk to her pastor, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So she’s a Christian, Right?”

“Yeah.”

“And so she’s heard all of that stuff about being, I don’t know, good and all of that, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose she has.”

“So, if you are going to believe in that god that you’re talking about, and Alice believes in that god that you’re talking about, then maybe you ought to believe in Alice a little bit too.”

Larry thought about that and then replied, “Well, Alice isn’t God.  A goddess maybe, but not God.  She can mess up.  Or no, it wouldn’t be messing up really.  We’re not married or anything.”

“But you are a couple, like you’re going steady or something?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“You suppose so?  Shit man, come on.  Do you suppose so or do you know so?”

“Ah, fuck!  I think I know so.  There’s no engagement; no rings.  It’s just like, uh, an understanding.”

Willy snorted and made a few more strokes with his paddle before speaking once again, saying, “Look man.  I appreciate it that you’re taking time to hang out with me.  I really do.  I also know that you would normally be back up at Sonoma State by now:  Oh, yes, I know that you bailed on this semester for my sake.  Ain’t many guys have a friend like you, and don’t think for a minute that I don’t know that.”

“Who told you that?”

“Your sister, Trisha.”

“Big mouth!”

“Yeah, whatever.  Shut up and listen.  Why are you spending time with me when you should be finding out what the story is between you and the lovely Alice?  I know that I’m all wit and sparkling conversation, but you’re blowing it, brother.”

“Ah shit, man.  I’m going to look like a jealous jerk if I start trying to pin her down when we’re still trying to get through school and everything.”

“You’re worried about how you might look?  Hey, maybe it will look like that but maybe it won’t.  I think it’s going to look more like you give a damn, but that’s just me.  The more important question though is if you don’t try to pin her down, will she decide that you don’t care?  What’s that going to look like?”

Larry didn’t answer, so Willy answered for him.

“It’s going to look like you were a fool, that’s what.  A sad, damn fool.  Look, it’s not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing trying to get my shit together when you should be in Tempe getting your own damn business straight?”

Willy quit talking then.  They paddled along in silence for several hundred yards while Larry thought about what Willy had just said.  At length Larry spoke again.  “You’re right, man.  I’m an idiot.  I’m going to tell her exactly what I think of her the next time that I see her, and I mean all of it.”

“And when will that be?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  Maybe Thanksgiving?  Yeah, for sure.  Thanksgiving.”

“Dumb shit.  You’re still half-stepping.  What the hell’s the matter with you?  You want her to think that you don’t care, or are you just willing to take the chance?

“No.  Hell no.  What are you saying?”

“Don’t they need carpenters in Tempe, or plumbers or whatever else the hell that you could do for the next year and a half?”

“You think that I should go to Tempe?”

“Heck yes!  If she’ll consent to put up with you, then find a job and be there with her.  You can take your turn next if you feel that you just have to be a snot-nosed college graduate.”

Larry pondered Willy’s words and, as he did so, the sense in them became more obvious.  He knew that he could find a job if she wanted him to stay around.  Heck, maybe they could even get married if she would accept his proposal.  At least she would be in no doubt about where he stood, and that would be a big improvement over where he stood now.

He suddenly felt a desire to find out at the soonest moment if there was hope for such an outcome.  “Come on, man.  Let’s dig for the boat ramp.  I’ll call her from the first phone that we come to.”

“Weak move,” Willy replied.  “Screw calling her.  Go there.  Take her hand.  Look her in the eye.  Let her know that you mean it.  She may tell you to fuck off, but at least you’ll know where you stand, and if you have to you can move on.  You want your best shot at the truth?  Well, go there.”

“Shit, man.  Who made you cupid?  Three months ago you couldn’t figure out which town to stay in and now you’re putting my stuff straight with Alice.”

Willy fell silent when Larry said that.  After a few moments Larry felt that he had been out of line and said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it that like that.  I wasn’t talking down about your troubles.  I just wondered how you got smart to put my own dumb ass straight.  And you did put it straight.  You’re right about all of this.  I’m going to drive you back to San Diego and then I’m going straight to Tempe.

“Apology unnecessary, but accepted,” Willy said.  “Let me suggest this:  We drive straight to Tempe and I hitchhike or something back to San Diego.  You take care of your business and I’ll get on with taking care of my own.

“Aw, man.  That sounds great, but I won’t let you hitch though.  It’s, like, over 100 degrees at midnight now down there.  I’ll buy you a bus ticket.”

Willy laughed and said, “I ain’t broke, man.  I got money enough for a ticket.  Besides, I’m high class.  I might take the train.”

They quit talking then and both dug in with their paddles, propelling the canoe swiftly past the island, under the bridge, then around the bend to the boat launch.  They settled up with the dock master and when they reached Larry’s station wagon they climbed in and Larry turned the engine over.

“You start,” Willy said, “and I’ll spell you in a few hours.  We’ll drive straight through to Tempe.  Should take about 15, 16 hours.”

“Right that.  Man, you don’t know how much your advice and help means to me.”

“Hey, no sweat.  You’ve been a life saver to me too.”

Larry turned the station wagon around and eased out of the parking lot.  He followed the access road out of the campground and turned left onto State Route 503, the straightest road available back to the Interstate Highway.

“Thanks for clearing my head,” Larry said to Willy.

“Thanks for clearing mine,” Willy replied.  “And who’s that pastor you spoke with back in San Diego?”

 

FINDING OUR WAY

“Here we are,” Larry said as he steered his Plymouth station wagon into the parking lot.

“Where in the heck is here?” Willy asked.

“Lake Merwin.  It’s part of a series of reservoirs that were built during the Depression.  This is one of my favorite places on earth.”  He pulled into a parking space, set the brake, and turned off the engine.  “Come on.  Let’s get out so that you can get a good look at this place.”

The two men exited the vehicle and walked towards its front.  Willy stood by the right headlight and looked around at his surroundings.  Larry did the same, and was infused with a peace and wonder that he rarely felt anywhere else.

A soft breeze mitigated the heat of the early fall day and raised swarms of small ripples that danced and played across the otherwise smooth surface of the deep green waters of the lake.  The needles of the tall Douglas fir trees barely quivered in the breeze, and filled the valley in which the lake nestled with their clean aroma.

The school year having begun and it being a midweek day, the parking lot at the lake was silent and nearly empty.  Two older men puttered around in the trunk of their car, apparently stowing the fishing gear that they had been employing since long before Larry and Willy arrived.  How successful they had been could not be determined.

The silence in that place was almost overwhelming.  A hawk cried in the distance and the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the cooling engine were all that prevented the two men from hearing the noises that everyone has in their heads.  Larry drank in the silence, but it made Willy squirm a little.

“How did you find out about this place?” Willy asked.

“A buddy told me about it over in the ‘Nam.  He grew up in Vancouver, back where we crossed into the state.”

“Did he make it back home?”

“Yeah.  He was chairborn.”

Willy laughed at that and then asked, “Okay, so how did you get to know anyone who was chairborn.  You were a grunt too, just like me.”

“I was until I got a million dollar wound.”

“You got the heart?”

“Yeah, I got a heart, but it wasn’t for the wound that I’m talking about.”

“Okay, so what was the wound all about?”

“It was actually our battalion clerk who got popped.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, you remember when I was failing chemistry at Hoover and they yanked me out and stuck me in a typing class?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Well, you should.  I typed an English paper for you when we were seniors.”

“I don’t remember that either, but if I turned in a typed paper it’s a sure bet that somebody else typed it.”

“Yeah.  Well anyway, they needed somebody to take his place, and I was that somebody.  I got to hang around base camp because of that, typing transfer requests and morning reports and other stuff.  In the process I met a guy from Division HQ at the NCO club.  He was from Vancouver and was pretty close to rotating back to the Real World when we met.  Before he left he told me about this place.  He said that it was his favorite spot on earth, and I think it might be mine too.”

“So, is he living in Vancouver now?  Why don’t you stop and see him on the way back?”

“Nah, he’s not living around here.  He’s a lifer.  After he left the Nam he went to Korea and re-upped.  Or was it Germany?  I don’t remember exactly; he was going somewhere else.”

“No chance outside, eh?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.  He was a pretty smart guy.  He just liked the military life; the structure, the order, you know.  He figured twenty or thirty years and he’d retire comfortable with all of the bennies.”

“Yeah,” Willy repeated dryly.  “No chance outside.”

“I guess, maybe.  Different strokes for different folks.  Anyway, he told me about this place and I came up here after I got back.  I love it, and have been back twice.”

“Hmm, I guess I can see why.  It is pretty here.”

“Hey man, you want to rent a canoe?  It’s even nicer back up the valley.”

“Uh, I don’t know.  I’m not so crazy about being on that much water.”

“We’ll have life jackets on.  It’ll be safe.  Besides, the lake’s really calm.  Come on, man.  Let’s give it a shot.”

Willy didn’t relish the idea but was persuaded by his friends persistent urgings.  “Okay,” he said at last.  “But if you get me drowned I’m really going to be pissed at you.”

“Outstanding!  If I get you drowned I’ll let you kick my butt.”

They walked across the parking lot to the rental office where a bored matron put down her romance novel and, with an economy of conversation, rented them a canoe with two paddles and life jackets.  Willy returned to the car to retrieve their cooler of food and drinks while Larry picked out a canoe.  By the time that Willy returned with cooler in hand, Larry was seated in the canoe with his life jacket on and ready to go.

“You sit in the front,” Larry said as he threw Willy the other life jacket.  “You’ll like the view of the lake better than the view of the back of my head.”

“I don’t know.  This seems a little freaky to me.”

“Okay.  If it will help, I’ll sit in the front.”

“Nah, it don’t make no difference.  Let’s just do it.”

Willy put on the life jacket, set the cooler in the middle of the canoe, and stepped cautiously into the front of the canoe while Larry held the craft as steady as he could.  At last Larry was seated on a bench.  Larry realized that his friend was more nervous than he had first believed to be the case and said, “Why don’t you just sit there for a while and don’t paddle.  I’ll get us away from the landing and you can join in when you feel like it.”

“Yeah, good idea.  Let me get used to this.  It’s like I told you, I never really get around this much water.”

Larry dipped his paddle deep into the water and, with strong, smooth strokes, propelled the canoe across the marina towards the opening in the large log boom that separated the boat launch from the lake.  The water outside the boom was nearly as calm as it was inside, and the canoe slid easily through the gap and onto the open lake.

Larry stayed close to the shore, hoping that Willy would settle his jitters and become able to enjoy the ride, and that’s what happened.  Soon he too began to dip his paddle into the water, and Larry discerned the loosening of the tight muscles of his friend’s shoulders.  One time Willy’s inexpert technique resulted in the paddle getting too close to the surface, which then resulted in a spray of water flying back and soaking Larry.  “Hey, man.  I can get a shower later, okay?”

“Sorry about that!”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you are,” Larry replied, but he was pleased to see his friend begin to enjoy himself.

In very little time Willy’s comfort level increased to a point where Larry struck out for the center of the lake.  They reached that spot at a point where the valley in which the Lake lay bent to the north, and as they paddled around that bend they could see the green steel trestle bridge that they had crossed barely an hour earlier.  Three teenagers were swinging on a rope that hung from the bridge and dropping themselves into the cool, green water.

“They weren’t there when we drove over that bridge, were they?” Larry asked.

“Nope.  Probably playing hooky, unless they have a real late start of the school year up here.”

“Yep, probably hooky.  If school was still out this place would be packed.”

They glided under the bridge, waving at the two boys and one girl who waved back, and thereafter slid silently and almost effortlessly across the surface of the lake.  Both young men were deep in their own thoughts and the rhythmic dip and pull, dip and pull, created a hypnotic space in which each was enclosed.

After a while Larry decided to break the silence and bring up a subject that he had been searching for a way to approach with delicacy.

“Willy.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad that you came back.”

“I’m glad that you got back home too.”

They glided along for several more yards before Larry spoke again.  “No, I mean I’m glad that you came back to San Diego from wherever you’ve been keeping yourself.  A lot of us have missed you.”

They continued to paddle in silence.  Larry wondered if he had touched a raw nerve.  He began to plan how he would apologize, but before he could speak again Willy said, “Thanks.  It’s been an interesting ride.  You want to hear about it?”

That was more than Larry had expected to get for his effort, and he determined to take the opening and run with it.  “Yeah, I would.  How ‘bout we paddle over to that island and have a snack?”

“Good with me.”

They soon reached a low island of silt and sand and beached the canoe.  A bleached log was washed up six or seven feet from the water’s edge.  Larry sat on the log and took off his life jacket and shirt while Willy hoisted the cooler out of the canoe and sat down on the log next to his friend.

“Man, they stitched you good,” Willy said as he looked at the purple scars that bore testimony to Larry’s service in the war.”

“Looks worse than it really was.”

“Yeah?  Well it looks like shit, so it still must have been bad.”

“Wasn’t bad enough to send me home.  The shit-dipped pungi stick that I stepped on didn’t get me out either.  It took that clerk catching steel to get me out of the meat grinder.”

“Oh, man.  You never told me anything about no pungi stick!”

“Well, who wants to tell the story of having some Cong’s shit running through his veins?”

The two men sat in the sun and continued to share stories that could only be appreciated by people who have gone through the same hell.  Willy pulled a couple of beers out of the cooler and some jerky out of his pack.  As they began to enjoy their snack Willy removed his own shirt and showed Larry his unmarred body.

“Not a scratch,” he said.  “They never even gave me a scratch.  Came damned close from time to time, but no luck for them.  I dusted a whole bunch of them for trying though.”

Larry munched silently on the jerky and said nothing.  Soon, Willy continued to speak.  “I couldn’t stay around, man.  I got to hand it to you though.  I don’t know how the hell you could.  I got back and saw that every neat house was on its neat lot, and every street was lined with neat lawns.   There were traffic lights and stop signs, and people paid attention to them!  It all seemed artificial.  You know, like it was a movie or a play.  I felt like I couldn’t trust it.  Like, you know, it might all dissolve right before my eyes at any moment.”

Willy quit talking then and began to stare across the lake.  Larry looked in the direction in which he thought Willy’s gaze was falling, but he could see nothing in particular.  He was glad that his friend had begun to talk about his problems and did not want the tap to be turned off prematurely.  “Yeah, I had a little of that too.  I hid in my house the first New Year’s Eve that I was home.  I wanted to round up every asshole who lit off a firecracker and send them to where they could enjoy all of the explosions that they wanted.”

Willy chuckled at that.  “Yeah.  ‘Bombs bursting in air’  loses a little of its charm when they start bursting up your ass.  Anyway, I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t think about how something I did today would impact what I would be doing in ten years.  Hell, I don’t think I really believed that anything around me was real and besides,” he turned to look directly at his friend, “how am I supposed to think clearly about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life when I had quit believing that I would even have a rest of my life?”

“I don’t know man.  It’s a bitch.”  Larry’s mind drifted to his own homecoming but Willy’s next question snapped him back to the present.  “So, how did you do it?  How did you go from being an 11B grunt to a friggin’ college student?

“I don’t know.  I’m saying that a lot, but it’s true, I really don’t.  It’s like I told you; it was hard for me too.  I jumped at every loud noise.  Shit, I still do.  I damn near killed a scrawny prick who called me a baby killer, too.”

“You never said nothing about that!”

“Kept it quiet.  It was at the bus stop at Horton Plaza.  A sailor pulled me off of him and told me to get out of there before the police came.  He probably kept me out of jail.  I’m not really proud of that now, ’s why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Whoa, that’s pretty heavy.  So do you still feel like doing that when people piss you off?”

“Nah.  One and done.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How did you turn it off?  You beat up one shitbird and then everything makes sense?”

“Nope.  I talked to people who helped.  I was starting to see Alice Montgomery – you remember Alice? – and she suggested that I talk to her pastor.”

“I don’t know if I have much time for pastors.”

“Well, that’s okay.  I’m not trying to push it.  It just helped me.”

“Did he hit you over the head with his bible?”

Larry chuckled.  “No, none of that.  He has a lot of veterans at his church, mostly World War II guys.  He told me that I had seen enough of hell and that it would be good for me to look more for heaven, stuff like that.  I don’t know; it helped me.  I talked a lot with the older guys there.  They were pretty cool too.  Some of them had been through worse than I had.  They knew where I was coming from.”

“Hrmmph!” Willy grunted.  “Anyway, I hung around town with some other guys who were having the same troubles that I was, and that sort of felt good.  Misery loves company, you know.  But I ran into your Alice Montgomery one day down by the pier at Pacific Beach and she looked at me like I was some sort of disease.”

“She told me about that.  She said that she was afraid.  You know, she didn’t bad mouth you, not to me at least.  She told me later that she felt bad about her reaction.  It’s just that you looked pretty rough at the time.  I don’t know any more about it than that though.”

Willy thought about that for a moment and then said, “Yeah, I guess I didn’t look very approachable.  Anyway, that was the final straw I guess.  I left the city that day.”  He quit talking then and turned his attention to the chunk of jerky and his beer.  Larry followed suit, pondering whether or not to push his friend to continue the conversation.  He decided to wait and see if Willy would continue on his own.  Willy washed down a bite of jerky and did just that.

“So I went to the Central Valley and did some farm work.  Most of the workers were Mexican, but there were a number of other folks out there too, so I didn’t stand out too much.  I learned enough Spanish to get along, and it was those folks who helped me to get a grip.  As good a grip as I’ve got, anyway.   Most of them have had a hard time of it too, and it was pretty hard to feel sorry for myself for very long around them.”

“Man, that’s tough work.”

“You ain’t said shit, brother!  My back hurt, my knees hurt, my arms hurt, my white skin got cooked if it was exposed to the sun and I sweat like a fire hose if I covered up.  You think about that the next time you eat a salad.”

“I’m thinking about it right now.  So, you just do that all that time you were gone?”

“Nah.  I’m pretty good at fixing things, so in time I got promoted to working on the farm equipment.  It wasn’t any cooler, but it was a heck of a lot easier.”

“Wow man.  That’s a cool story.  You should write a book.”

“Shit, first I’d have to read a book.  So anyway, I did the equipment thing for about another year.  When I felt like maybe I had my head screwed on straight I decided to come back to San Diego and give it another try.  I’m telling you, Daygo beats the hell out of Fresno!”

Willy fell silent again, and Larry decided that this would be a good place to leave things.  “Come on,” he said.  “There’s something across the lake that I want to show you.”

The two friends stowed the cooler in the bottom of the canoe and regained their places at the bow and stern seats.  Larry pushed away from the beach and they resumed paddling up the reservoir.  They hadn’t gone far before Willy wanted to continue the conversation.  It seemed to Larry that maybe he had pulled some sort of cork out of Willy’s bottle.

“Right over there,” Willy said and pointed with his paddle towards the opposite side of the reservoir.  “That’s where I would expect a sniper to set up.”

Larry didn’t need to follow Willy’s gaze to find the spot.  It was a cluster of boulders in the thick tangle of brush and ferns.  The exact spot would be any one of three gaps in the rocks.  “Yeah,” he said.  “But we really don’t have snipers around here.”

“That’s just the thing.  I still do have snipers.  Oh, I know that they’re not there.  At least I hope they’re not there!  Anyway, it’s kinda like phantom pain in your leg after your leg’s been blown off.  You know that the leg’s gone but it still hurts.  Well, I know that there’s no sniper in those boulders.  Still, it feels like he’s sighting in on me right now.  I feel like a sitting duck out here, and it makes it hard to enjoy it.”

“Man, that’s hard to imagine.  That really sucks!  I can see how it would be hard to deal with that.”

“And it’s all the time, man.  It’s all the time.  Don’t you have to deal with shit like this?  I mean, you were in the same places that I was.  Don’t you feel his scope on your forehead?”

“Well, I didn’t until you brought it up,” Larry said with a laugh.  “Thanks a pant-load, man.  But really, no.  I don’t.  I remember having that same feeling over there, but there really were snipers there.  That’s where they were supposed to be and where I expected them to be.  I don’t really feel any threat here.”

“So maybe you want to switch with me and sit in the front then?”

“Oh, hell no.  Now you’ve got me paranoid!”

Both laughed.

“We’re aiming for that gap in the rocks,” Larry said, and he pointed to where he was speaking of.  They paddled across the lake towards a crack in the otherwise continuous fifty to sixty foot high cliff that formed that part of the southern edge of the lake.  As they approached and then entered the gap they saw that the walls, which displayed many minor irregularities, rose otherwise straight up to the top of the cliff much in the way of a slit canyon in a Southwest desert.

The water within the gap was as smooth as glass, there being no way that the east-blowing breeze could penetrate this north/south canyon.  They slipped like a whisper through the water, hearing only a few birds that sang their joy or settled their grievances in the branches of trees high overhead.  The place was one of unbroken peace; at least, that’s how it felt to Larry.  He wondered how it felt to Willy.

Slowly the sound of water flowing over rocks penetrated the silence.  The crevasse up which they were traveling became more narrow and ripples began to be seen on the surface.  “Look at that!” Willy said softly.  He was pointing down at the water, and Larry guessed what he had seen.  He looked into the water and saw several large fish swimming around and under their canoe.

“I was hoping that they would be there,” Larry said.  “They were there the last time that I was here.”

“What are they?  Trout?”

“Maybe.  They sorta look like trout to me, but they’re bigger than any trout that I have ever caught before.  They might be rainbows, steelhead, bull trout or something called a kokanee.”

The canoe came to a stop between where two mostly submerged boulders poked up just above the surface of what was now easily seen to be a creek.  They stayed as still and quiet as they could and admired the fish.  The fish, in turn, ignored the canoe and its two admiring passengers as if they weren’t there.

The velocity of the stream flow was now gradually picking up as they edged farther up the canyon.  They continued upstream until the shallowness and flow of the stream and the profusion of boulders rendered further passage first unsafe, and then finally impossible.  They spun on their benches and Larry’s position, which had been in the stern, now became the bow.  Carefully they picked their way between the rocks until they at last regained the silent and slow-moving waters of the canyon.  They allowed the current to propel them almost imperceptibly forward, paddling intermittently only to keep the bow pointed downstream.  Larry was lost in his own thoughts when Willy spoke in a hushed tone, as if unwilling to disturb some sanctuary.

“So you talked to some pastor, huh?  What was that like?  Did he tell you to turn or burn?”

The sound of Willy’s voice was a mild jolt to Larry and he replied with a “huh?” to buy time to get his thoughts together.  Willy repeated the question.

“No man, it wasn’t really like that.  Like I said earlier, he helped me to focus more on the good stuff and less on the bad, that’s all.”  Willy didn’t reply to that, so Larry decided to continue his thought.  “He said that God was big enough to carry that stuff and I didn’t have to.  He also said that if I asked him – God, that is – to help me, He would do it.  Well, it worked.  He did.  I know it doesn’t happen like that for everyone and I don’t know why that is.  I can’t tell you why it worked for me, but it did.”

Willy didn’t answer right away, but after a brief hesitation said, “I know guys who have heard that shit; uh, I mean that advice, and it didn’t do jack for them.”

“Yeah, me too.  Like I said, I don’t know why it clicked for me.  I did the same bad shit that a lot of other guys did over there.  It’s not like I was already some sort of angel or something.  I lit up one nest of Cong with Willy Peter one day and I enjoyed watching them burn.  Angels don’t do stuff like that.”

“Damn!  White phosphorus is some hard shit.  I can’t say that I do just as bad or worse though.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.  Wasn’t nothing anyone over there did that I didn’t do.  I’m rotten as hell, if you judge by all of that.  The pastor told me that God doesn’t judge like that though.  I’m not going to give you a sermon, ‘cause that’s not my thing.  I’m just telling you that there’s more to it than earning points to become a good boy, and I don’t know why knowing that helped me and didn’t help the next guy.  The point is, it helps me keep my shit together.”

They floated for a while towards the mouth of the canyon and Larry had almost forgotten about the conversation when Willy spoke again.  “So god helps you even when you don’t act like a choir boy?”

“Yep.”

“Even when you drink and cuss?”

“Fucking-A right He does.”

“That don’t sound like any god that I ever heard of.”

“Well, I guess maybe you ain’t heard about mine, or maybe somebody was saying shit about Him that ain’t real.  Anyway, I figure He’s a lot bigger than all of that ‘I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do’ bull shit.”

Willy laughed out loud at that. Larry laughed too.  Then they both fell silent again.  After a few more minutes they rounded a curve and saw the lake open up before them once more.  As the canoe slipped forward they left the confines of the canyon and floated into the broad valley that was mostly filled by the lake.

Larry had fallen back into his reverie as they paddled toward the back end of the lake.  Willy snapped him out of it once again with another question.  “So, did Alice Montgomery really feel bad about freaking out on me?”

Once again Larry answered with a reflexive “Huh?”  Then, gathering his thoughts again, he replied, “Yeah.  She said that she was sure that she had hurt your feelings, and she was sorry about that.  By the time that she got a grip, you were gone and she couldn’t find you to apologize.”

“Hmm.  Alice is a pretty foxy lady.  You suppose she would like to apologize to me now?  In person?”

“Down, boy.  The foxy lady would undoubtedly be happy to apologize, but she happens to be in a long distance relationship with another guy.”

“Well, if the guy’s not around she’s fair game, eh?”

“It ain’t like that, Romeo.  It’s Alice that isn’t around.  She’s at Arizona State.  Will be for the next one and a half years.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.  Who’s the lucky joker who’s enjoying her favors?  Anybody that I know?”

“Yeah.  Me.”

(SILENCE)

“Oh.  Sorry man.  I didn’t mean to go there.  No offense, okay?”

“No offense at all.  I didn’t tell you, so how could you know?  It’s cool.”

“No, really man.  Why didn’t you tell me that you were tight with Alice?  You made it sound like you just kinda knew her.”

“Ah, shit.  I don’t know.  You’re last time seeing her wasn’t all that good and I didn’t know how much you would want to know.”

“That’s pretty weak.  You and me, we know each other well enough to not worry about a thing like that.  What’s the skinny, man.  Sounds to me like there’s more to the story?”

“Well, I’m only going to be seeing her on holidays and stuff like that.  She’s doing summer classes so I won’t even get to see her much during the summer.  I just worry about how it will all turn out.  Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.”

“What, you think she’s fooling around on you?”

“Heck, I don’t know.  I hope not, but who knows?  I mean, she’s in a school full of kids and there’s parties every weekend.  She’s a fox, and there’s guys smarter and more cool than me all over the place.  It’s kinda twisting me up a little.”

They had reached the back of the lake by now and turned around to paddle west, back towards the marina.  Willy returned to the conversation.  “It was Alice that had you talk to her pastor, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So she’s a Christian, Right?”

“Yeah.”

“And so she’s heard all of that stuff about being, I don’t know, good and all of that, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose she has.”

“So, if you are going to believe in that god that you’re talking about, and Alice believes in that god that you’re talking about, then maybe you ought to believe in Alice a little bit too.”

Larry thought about that and then replied, “Well, Alice isn’t God.  A goddess maybe, but not God.  She can mess up.  Or no, it wouldn’t be messing up really.  We’re not married or anything.”

“But you are a couple, like you’re going steady or something?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“You suppose so?  Shit man, come on.  Do you suppose so or do you know so?”

“Ah, fuck!  I think I know so.  There’s no engagement; no rings.  It’s just like, uh, an understanding.”

Willy snorted and made a few more strokes with his paddle before speaking once again, saying, “Look man.  I appreciate it that you’re taking time to hang out with me.  I really do.  I also know that you would normally be back up at Sonoma State by now:  Oh, yes, I know that you bailed on this semester for my sake.  Ain’t many guys have a friend like you, and don’t think for a minute that I don’t know that.”

“Who told you that?”

“Your sister, Trisha.”

“Big mouth!”

“Yeah, whatever.  Shut up and listen.  Why are you spending time with me when you should be finding out what the story is between you and the lovely Alice?  I know that I’m all wit and sparkling conversation, but you’re blowing it, brother.”

“Ah shit, man.  I’m going to look like a jealous jerk if I start trying to pin her down when we’re still trying to get through school and everything.”

“You’re worried about how you might look?  Hey, maybe it will look like that but maybe it won’t.  I think it’s going to look more like you give a damn, but that’s just me.  The more important question though is if you don’t try to pin her down, will she decide that you don’t care?  What’s that going to look like?”

Larry didn’t answer, so Willy answered for him.

“It’s going to look like you were a fool, that’s what.  A sad, damn fool.  Look, it’s not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing trying to get my shit together when you should be in Tempe getting your own damn business straight?”

Willy quit talking then.  They paddled along in silence for several hundred yards while Larry thought about what Willy had just said.  At length Larry spoke again.  “You’re right, man.  I’m an idiot.  I’m going to tell her exactly what I think of her the next time that I see her, and I mean all of it.”

“And when will that be?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  Maybe Thanksgiving?  Yeah, for sure.  Thanksgiving.”

“Dumb shit.  You’re still half-stepping.  What the hell’s the matter with you?  You want her to think that you don’t care, or are you just willing to take the chance?

“No.  Hell no.  What are you saying?”

“Don’t they need carpenters in Tempe, or plumbers or whatever else the hell that you could do for the next year and a half?”

“You think that I should go to Tempe?”

“Heck yes!  If she’ll consent to put up with you, then find a job and be there with her.  You can take your turn next if you feel that you just have to be a snot-nosed college graduate.”

Larry pondered Willy’s words and, as he did so, the sense in them became more obvious.  He knew that he could find a job if she wanted him to stay around.  Heck, maybe they could even get married if she would accept his proposal.  At least she would be in no doubt about where he stood, and that would be a big improvement over where he stood now.

He suddenly felt a desire to find out at the soonest moment if there was hope for such an outcome.  “Come on, man.  Let’s dig for the boat ramp.  I’ll call her from the first phone that we come to.”

“Weak move,” Willy replied.  “Screw calling her.  Go there.  Take her hand.  Look her in the eye.  Let her know that you mean it.  She may tell you to fuck off, but at least you’ll know where you stand, and if you have to you can move on.  You want your best shot at the truth?  Well, go there.”

“Shit, man.  Who made you cupid?  Three months ago you couldn’t figure out which town to stay in and now you’re putting my stuff straight with Alice.”

Willy fell silent when Larry said that.  After a few moments Larry felt that he had been out of line and said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it that like that.  I wasn’t talking down about your troubles.  I just wondered how you got smart to put my own dumb ass straight.  And you did put it straight.  You’re right about all of this.  I’m going to drive you back to San Diego and then I’m going straight to Tempe.

“Apology unnecessary, but accepted,” Willy said.  “Let me suggest this:  We drive straight to Tempe and I hitchhike or something back to San Diego.  You take care of your business and I’ll get on with taking care of my own.

“Aw, man.  That sounds great, but I won’t let you hitch though.  It’s, like, over 100 degrees at midnight now down there.  I’ll buy you a bus ticket.”

Willy laughed and said, “I ain’t broke, man.  I got money enough for a ticket.  Besides, I’m high class.  I might take the train.”

They quit talking then and both dug in with their paddles, propelling the canoe swiftly past the island, under the bridge, then around the bend to the boat launch.  They settled up with the dock master and when they reached Larry’s station wagon they climbed in and Larry turned the engine over.

“You start,” Willy said, “and I’ll spell you in a few hours.  We’ll drive straight through to Tempe.  Should take about 15, 16 hours.”

“Right that.  Man, you don’t know how much your advice and help means to me.”

“Hey, no sweat.  You’ve been a life saver to me too.”

Larry turned the station wagon around and eased out of the parking lot.  He followed the access road out of the campground and turned left onto State Route 503, the straightest road available back to the Interstate Highway.

“Thanks for clearing my head,” Larry said to Willy.

“Thanks for clearing mine,” Willy replied.  “And who’s that pastor you spoke with back in San Diego?”

 

FINDING OUR WAY

“Here we are,” Larry said as he steered his Plymouth station wagon into the parking lot.

“Where in the heck is here?” Willy asked.

“Lake Merwin.  It’s part of a series of reservoirs that were built during the Depression.  This is one of my favorite places on earth.”  He pulled into a parking space, set the brake, and turned off the engine.  “Come on.  Let’s get out so that you can get a good look at this place.”

The two men exited the vehicle and walked towards its front.  Willy stood by the right headlight and looked around at his surroundings.  Larry did the same, and was infused with a peace and wonder that he rarely felt anywhere else.

A soft breeze mitigated the heat of the early fall day and raised swarms of small ripples that danced and played across the otherwise smooth surface of the deep green waters of the lake.  The needles of the tall Douglas fir trees barely quivered in the breeze, and filled the valley in which the lake nestled with their clean aroma.

The school year having begun and it being a midweek day, the parking lot at the lake was silent and nearly empty.  Two older men puttered around in the trunk of their car, apparently stowing the fishing gear that they had been employing since long before Larry and Willy arrived.  How successful they had been could not be determined.

The silence in that place was almost overwhelming.  A hawk cried in the distance and the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the cooling engine were all that prevented the two men from hearing the noises that everyone has in their heads.  Larry drank in the silence, but it made Willy squirm a little.

“How did you find out about this place?” Willy asked.

“A buddy told me about it over in the ‘Nam.  He grew up in Vancouver, back where we crossed into the state.”

“Did he make it back home?”

“Yeah.  He was chairborn.”

Willy laughed at that and then asked, “Okay, so how did you get to know anyone who was chairborn.  You were a grunt too, just like me.”

“I was until I got a million dollar wound.”

“You got the heart?”

“Yeah, I got a heart, but it wasn’t for the wound that I’m talking about.”

“Okay, so what was the wound all about?”

“It was actually our battalion clerk who got popped.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, you remember when I was failing chemistry at Hoover and they yanked me out and stuck me in a typing class?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Well, you should.  I typed an English paper for you when we were seniors.”

“I don’t remember that either, but if I turned in a typed paper it’s a sure bet that somebody else typed it.”

“Yeah.  Well anyway, they needed somebody to take his place, and I was that somebody.  I got to hang around base camp because of that, typing transfer requests and morning reports and other stuff.  In the process I met a guy from Division HQ at the NCO club.  He was from Vancouver and was pretty close to rotating back to the Real World when we met.  Before he left he told me about this place.  He said that it was his favorite spot on earth, and I think it might be mine too.”

“So, is he living in Vancouver now?  Why don’t you stop and see him on the way back?”

“Nah, he’s not living around here.  He’s a lifer.  After he left the Nam he went to Korea and re-upped.  Or was it Germany?  I don’t remember exactly; he was going somewhere else.”

“No chance outside, eh?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.  He was a pretty smart guy.  He just liked the military life; the structure, the order, you know.  He figured twenty or thirty years and he’d retire comfortable with all of the bennies.”

“Yeah,” Willy repeated dryly.  “No chance outside.”

“I guess, maybe.  Different strokes for different folks.  Anyway, he told me about this place and I came up here after I got back.  I love it, and have been back twice.”

“Hmm, I guess I can see why.  It is pretty here.”

“Hey man, you want to rent a canoe?  It’s even nicer back up the valley.”

“Uh, I don’t know.  I’m not so crazy about being on that much water.”

“We’ll have life jackets on.  It’ll be safe.  Besides, the lake’s really calm.  Come on, man.  Let’s give it a shot.”

Willy didn’t relish the idea but was persuaded by his friends persistent urgings.  “Okay,” he said at last.  “But if you get me drowned I’m really going to be pissed at you.”

“Outstanding!  If I get you drowned I’ll let you kick my butt.”

They walked across the parking lot to the rental office where a bored matron put down her romance novel and, with an economy of conversation, rented them a canoe with two paddles and life jackets.  Willy returned to the car to retrieve their cooler of food and drinks while Larry picked out a canoe.  By the time that Willy returned with cooler in hand, Larry was seated in the canoe with his life jacket on and ready to go.

“You sit in the front,” Larry said as he threw Willy the other life jacket.  “You’ll like the view of the lake better than the view of the back of my head.”

“I don’t know.  This seems a little freaky to me.”

“Okay.  If it will help, I’ll sit in the front.”

“Nah, it don’t make no difference.  Let’s just do it.”

Willy put on the life jacket, set the cooler in the middle of the canoe, and stepped cautiously into the front of the canoe while Larry held the craft as steady as he could.  At last Larry was seated on a bench.  Larry realized that his friend was more nervous than he had first believed to be the case and said, “Why don’t you just sit there for a while and don’t paddle.  I’ll get us away from the landing and you can join in when you feel like it.”

“Yeah, good idea.  Let me get used to this.  It’s like I told you, I never really get around this much water.”

Larry dipped his paddle deep into the water and, with strong, smooth strokes, propelled the canoe across the marina towards the opening in the large log boom that separated the boat launch from the lake.  The water outside the boom was nearly as calm as it was inside, and the canoe slid easily through the gap and onto the open lake.

Larry stayed close to the shore, hoping that Willy would settle his jitters and become able to enjoy the ride, and that’s what happened.  Soon he too began to dip his paddle into the water, and Larry discerned the loosening of the tight muscles of his friend’s shoulders.  One time Willy’s inexpert technique resulted in the paddle getting too close to the surface, which then resulted in a spray of water flying back and soaking Larry.  “Hey, man.  I can get a shower later, okay?”

“Sorry about that!”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you are,” Larry replied, but he was pleased to see his friend begin to enjoy himself.

In very little time Willy’s comfort level increased to a point where Larry struck out for the center of the lake.  They reached that spot at a point where the valley in which the Lake lay bent to the north, and as they paddled around that bend they could see the green steel trestle bridge that they had crossed barely an hour earlier.  Three teenagers were swinging on a rope that hung from the bridge and dropping themselves into the cool, green water.

“They weren’t there when we drove over that bridge, were they?” Larry asked.

“Nope.  Probably playing hooky, unless they have a real late start of the school year up here.”

“Yep, probably hooky.  If school was still out this place would be packed.”

They glided under the bridge, waving at the two boys and one girl who waved back, and thereafter slid silently and almost effortlessly across the surface of the lake.  Both young men were deep in their own thoughts and the rhythmic dip and pull, dip and pull, created a hypnotic space in which each was enclosed.

After a while Larry decided to break the silence and bring up a subject that he had been searching for a way to approach with delicacy.

“Willy.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad that you came back.”

“I’m glad that you got back home too.”

They glided along for several more yards before Larry spoke again.  “No, I mean I’m glad that you came back to San Diego from wherever you’ve been keeping yourself.  A lot of us have missed you.”

They continued to paddle in silence.  Larry wondered if he had touched a raw nerve.  He began to plan how he would apologize, but before he could speak again Willy said, “Thanks.  It’s been an interesting ride.  You want to hear about it?”

That was more than Larry had expected to get for his effort, and he determined to take the opening and run with it.  “Yeah, I would.  How ‘bout we paddle over to that island and have a snack?”

“Good with me.”

They soon reached a low island of silt and sand and beached the canoe.  A bleached log was washed up six or seven feet from the water’s edge.  Larry sat on the log and took off his life jacket and shirt while Willy hoisted the cooler out of the canoe and sat down on the log next to his friend.

“Man, they stitched you good,” Willy said as he looked at the purple scars that bore testimony to Larry’s service in the war.”

“Looks worse than it really was.”

“Yeah?  Well it looks like shit, so it still must have been bad.”

“Wasn’t bad enough to send me home.  The shit-dipped pungi stick that I stepped on didn’t get me out either.  It took that clerk catching steel to get me out of the meat grinder.”

“Oh, man.  You never told me anything about no pungi stick!”

“Well, who wants to tell the story of having some Cong’s shit running through his veins?”

The two men sat in the sun and continued to share stories that could only be appreciated by people who have gone through the same hell.  Willy pulled a couple of beers out of the cooler and some jerky out of his pack.  As they began to enjoy their snack Willy removed his own shirt and showed Larry his unmarred body.

“Not a scratch,” he said.  “They never even gave me a scratch.  Came damned close from time to time, but no luck for them.  I dusted a whole bunch of them for trying though.”

Larry munched silently on the jerky and said nothing.  Soon, Willy continued to speak.  “I couldn’t stay around, man.  I got to hand it to you though.  I don’t know how the hell you could.  I got back and saw that every neat house was on its neat lot, and every street was lined with neat lawns.   There were traffic lights and stop signs, and people paid attention to them!  It all seemed artificial.  You know, like it was a movie or a play.  I felt like I couldn’t trust it.  Like, you know, it might all dissolve right before my eyes at any moment.”

Willy quit talking then and began to stare across the lake.  Larry looked in the direction in which he thought Willy’s gaze was falling, but he could see nothing in particular.  He was glad that his friend had begun to talk about his problems and did not want the tap to be turned off prematurely.  “Yeah, I had a little of that too.  I hid in my house the first New Year’s Eve that I was home.  I wanted to round up every asshole who lit off a firecracker and send them to where they could enjoy all of the explosions that they wanted.”

Willy chuckled at that.  “Yeah.  ‘Bombs bursting in air’  loses a little of its charm when they start bursting up your ass.  Anyway, I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t think about how something I did today would impact what I would be doing in ten years.  Hell, I don’t think I really believed that anything around me was real and besides,” he turned to look directly at his friend, “how am I supposed to think clearly about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life when I had quit believing that I would even have a rest of my life?”

“I don’t know man.  It’s a bitch.”  Larry’s mind drifted to his own homecoming but Willy’s next question snapped him back to the present.  “So, how did you do it?  How did you go from being an 11B grunt to a friggin’ college student?

“I don’t know.  I’m saying that a lot, but it’s true, I really don’t.  It’s like I told you; it was hard for me too.  I jumped at every loud noise.  Shit, I still do.  I damn near killed a scrawny prick who called me a baby killer, too.”

“You never said nothing about that!”

“Kept it quiet.  It was at the bus stop at Horton Plaza.  A sailor pulled me off of him and told me to get out of there before the police came.  He probably kept me out of jail.  I’m not really proud of that now, ’s why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Whoa, that’s pretty heavy.  So do you still feel like doing that when people piss you off?”

“Nah.  One and done.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How did you turn it off?  You beat up one shitbird and then everything makes sense?”

“Nope.  I talked to people who helped.  I was starting to see Alice Montgomery – you remember Alice? – and she suggested that I talk to her pastor.”

“I don’t know if I have much time for pastors.”

“Well, that’s okay.  I’m not trying to push it.  It just helped me.”

“Did he hit you over the head with his bible?”

Larry chuckled.  “No, none of that.  He has a lot of veterans at his church, mostly World War II guys.  He told me that I had seen enough of hell and that it would be good for me to look more for heaven, stuff like that.  I don’t know; it helped me.  I talked a lot with the older guys there.  They were pretty cool too.  Some of them had been through worse than I had.  They knew where I was coming from.”

“Hrmmph!” Willy grunted.  “Anyway, I hung around town with some other guys who were having the same troubles that I was, and that sort of felt good.  Misery loves company, you know.  But I ran into your Alice Montgomery one day down by the pier at Pacific Beach and she looked at me like I was some sort of disease.”

“She told me about that.  She said that she was afraid.  You know, she didn’t bad mouth you, not to me at least.  She told me later that she felt bad about her reaction.  It’s just that you looked pretty rough at the time.  I don’t know any more about it than that though.”

Willy thought about that for a moment and then said, “Yeah, I guess I didn’t look very approachable.  Anyway, that was the final straw I guess.  I left the city that day.”  He quit talking then and turned his attention to the chunk of jerky and his beer.  Larry followed suit, pondering whether or not to push his friend to continue the conversation.  He decided to wait and see if Willy would continue on his own.  Willy washed down a bite of jerky and did just that.

“So I went to the Central Valley and did some farm work.  Most of the workers were Mexican, but there were a number of other folks out there too, so I didn’t stand out too much.  I learned enough Spanish to get along, and it was those folks who helped me to get a grip.  As good a grip as I’ve got, anyway.   Most of them have had a hard time of it too, and it was pretty hard to feel sorry for myself for very long around them.”

“Man, that’s tough work.”

“You ain’t said shit, brother!  My back hurt, my knees hurt, my arms hurt, my white skin got cooked if it was exposed to the sun and I sweat like a fire hose if I covered up.  You think about that the next time you eat a salad.”

“I’m thinking about it right now.  So, you just do that all that time you were gone?”

“Nah.  I’m pretty good at fixing things, so in time I got promoted to working on the farm equipment.  It wasn’t any cooler, but it was a heck of a lot easier.”

“Wow man.  That’s a cool story.  You should write a book.”

“Shit, first I’d have to read a book.  So anyway, I did the equipment thing for about another year.  When I felt like maybe I had my head screwed on straight I decided to come back to San Diego and give it another try.  I’m telling you, Daygo beats the hell out of Fresno!”

Willy fell silent again, and Larry decided that this would be a good place to leave things.  “Come on,” he said.  “There’s something across the lake that I want to show you.”

The two friends stowed the cooler in the bottom of the canoe and regained their places at the bow and stern seats.  Larry pushed away from the beach and they resumed paddling up the reservoir.  They hadn’t gone far before Willy wanted to continue the conversation.  It seemed to Larry that maybe he had pulled some sort of cork out of Willy’s bottle.

“Right over there,” Willy said and pointed with his paddle towards the opposite side of the reservoir.  “That’s where I would expect a sniper to set up.”

Larry didn’t need to follow Willy’s gaze to find the spot.  It was a cluster of boulders in the thick tangle of brush and ferns.  The exact spot would be any one of three gaps in the rocks.  “Yeah,” he said.  “But we really don’t have snipers around here.”

“That’s just the thing.  I still do have snipers.  Oh, I know that they’re not there.  At least I hope they’re not there!  Anyway, it’s kinda like phantom pain in your leg after your leg’s been blown off.  You know that the leg’s gone but it still hurts.  Well, I know that there’s no sniper in those boulders.  Still, it feels like he’s sighting in on me right now.  I feel like a sitting duck out here, and it makes it hard to enjoy it.”

“Man, that’s hard to imagine.  That really sucks!  I can see how it would be hard to deal with that.”

“And it’s all the time, man.  It’s all the time.  Don’t you have to deal with shit like this?  I mean, you were in the same places that I was.  Don’t you feel his scope on your forehead?”

“Well, I didn’t until you brought it up,” Larry said with a laugh.  “Thanks a pant-load, man.  But really, no.  I don’t.  I remember having that same feeling over there, but there really were snipers there.  That’s where they were supposed to be and where I expected them to be.  I don’t really feel any threat here.”

“So maybe you want to switch with me and sit in the front then?”

“Oh, hell no.  Now you’ve got me paranoid!”

Both laughed.

“We’re aiming for that gap in the rocks,” Larry said, and he pointed to where he was speaking of.  They paddled across the lake towards a crack in the otherwise continuous fifty to sixty foot high cliff that formed that part of the southern edge of the lake.  As they approached and then entered the gap they saw that the walls, which displayed many minor irregularities, rose otherwise straight up to the top of the cliff much in the way of a slit canyon in a Southwest desert.

The water within the gap was as smooth as glass, there being no way that the east-blowing breeze could penetrate this north/south canyon.  They slipped like a whisper through the water, hearing only a few birds that sang their joy or settled their grievances in the branches of trees high overhead.  The place was one of unbroken peace; at least, that’s how it felt to Larry.  He wondered how it felt to Willy.

Slowly the sound of water flowing over rocks penetrated the silence.  The crevasse up which they were traveling became more narrow and ripples began to be seen on the surface.  “Look at that!” Willy said softly.  He was pointing down at the water, and Larry guessed what he had seen.  He looked into the water and saw several large fish swimming around and under their canoe.

“I was hoping that they would be there,” Larry said.  “They were there the last time that I was here.”

“What are they?  Trout?”

“Maybe.  They sorta look like trout to me, but they’re bigger than any trout that I have ever caught before.  They might be rainbows, steelhead, bull trout or something called a kokanee.”

The canoe came to a stop between where two mostly submerged boulders poked up just above the surface of what was now easily seen to be a creek.  They stayed as still and quiet as they could and admired the fish.  The fish, in turn, ignored the canoe and its two admiring passengers as if they weren’t there.

The velocity of the stream flow was now gradually picking up as they edged farther up the canyon.  They continued upstream until the shallowness and flow of the stream and the profusion of boulders rendered further passage first unsafe, and then finally impossible.  They spun on their benches and Larry’s position, which had been in the stern, now became the bow.  Carefully they picked their way between the rocks until they at last regained the silent and slow-moving waters of the canyon.  They allowed the current to propel them almost imperceptibly forward, paddling intermittently only to keep the bow pointed downstream.  Larry was lost in his own thoughts when Willy spoke in a hushed tone, as if unwilling to disturb some sanctuary.

“So you talked to some pastor, huh?  What was that like?  Did he tell you to turn or burn?”

The sound of Willy’s voice was a mild jolt to Larry and he replied with a “huh?” to buy time to get his thoughts together.  Willy repeated the question.

“No man, it wasn’t really like that.  Like I said earlier, he helped me to focus more on the good stuff and less on the bad, that’s all.”  Willy didn’t reply to that, so Larry decided to continue his thought.  “He said that God was big enough to carry that stuff and I didn’t have to.  He also said that if I asked him – God, that is – to help me, He would do it.  Well, it worked.  He did.  I know it doesn’t happen like that for everyone and I don’t know why that is.  I can’t tell you why it worked for me, but it did.”

Willy didn’t answer right away, but after a brief hesitation said, “I know guys who have heard that shit; uh, I mean that advice, and it didn’t do jack for them.”

“Yeah, me too.  Like I said, I don’t know why it clicked for me.  I did the same bad shit that a lot of other guys did over there.  It’s not like I was already some sort of angel or something.  I lit up one nest of Cong with Willy Peter one day and I enjoyed watching them burn.  Angels don’t do stuff like that.”

“Damn!  White phosphorus is some hard shit.  I can’t say that I do just as bad or worse though.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.  Wasn’t nothing anyone over there did that I didn’t do.  I’m rotten as hell, if you judge by all of that.  The pastor told me that God doesn’t judge like that though.  I’m not going to give you a sermon, ‘cause that’s not my thing.  I’m just telling you that there’s more to it than earning points to become a good boy, and I don’t know why knowing that helped me and didn’t help the next guy.  The point is, it helps me keep my shit together.”

They floated for a while towards the mouth of the canyon and Larry had almost forgotten about the conversation when Willy spoke again.  “So god helps you even when you don’t act like a choir boy?”

“Yep.”

“Even when you drink and cuss?”

“Fucking-A right He does.”

“That don’t sound like any god that I ever heard of.”

“Well, I guess maybe you ain’t heard about mine, or maybe somebody was saying shit about Him that ain’t real.  Anyway, I figure He’s a lot bigger than all of that ‘I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do’ bull shit.”

Willy laughed out loud at that. Larry laughed too.  Then they both fell silent again.  After a few more minutes they rounded a curve and saw the lake open up before them once more.  As the canoe slipped forward they left the confines of the canyon and floated into the broad valley that was mostly filled by the lake.

Larry had fallen back into his reverie as they paddled toward the back end of the lake.  Willy snapped him out of it once again with another question.  “So, did Alice Montgomery really feel bad about freaking out on me?”

Once again Larry answered with a reflexive “Huh?”  Then, gathering his thoughts again, he replied, “Yeah.  She said that she was sure that she had hurt your feelings, and she was sorry about that.  By the time that she got a grip, you were gone and she couldn’t find you to apologize.”

“Hmm.  Alice is a pretty foxy lady.  You suppose she would like to apologize to me now?  In person?”

“Down, boy.  The foxy lady would undoubtedly be happy to apologize, but she happens to be in a long distance relationship with another guy.”

“Well, if the guy’s not around she’s fair game, eh?”

“It ain’t like that, Romeo.  It’s Alice that isn’t around.  She’s at Arizona State.  Will be for the next one and a half years.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.  Who’s the lucky joker who’s enjoying her favors?  Anybody that I know?”

“Yeah.  Me.”

(SILENCE)

“Oh.  Sorry man.  I didn’t mean to go there.  No offense, okay?”

“No offense at all.  I didn’t tell you, so how could you know?  It’s cool.”

“No, really man.  Why didn’t you tell me that you were tight with Alice?  You made it sound like you just kinda knew her.”

“Ah, shit.  I don’t know.  You’re last time seeing her wasn’t all that good and I didn’t know how much you would want to know.”

“That’s pretty weak.  You and me, we know each other well enough to not worry about a thing like that.  What’s the skinny, man.  Sounds to me like there’s more to the story?”

“Well, I’m only going to be seeing her on holidays and stuff like that.  She’s doing summer classes so I won’t even get to see her much during the summer.  I just worry about how it will all turn out.  Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.”

“What, you think she’s fooling around on you?”

“Heck, I don’t know.  I hope not, but who knows?  I mean, she’s in a school full of kids and there’s parties every weekend.  She’s a fox, and there’s guys smarter and more cool than me all over the place.  It’s kinda twisting me up a little.”

They had reached the back of the lake by now and turned around to paddle west, back towards the marina.  Willy returned to the conversation.  “It was Alice that had you talk to her pastor, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So she’s a Christian, Right?”

“Yeah.”

“And so she’s heard all of that stuff about being, I don’t know, good and all of that, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose she has.”

“So, if you are going to believe in that god that you’re talking about, and Alice believes in that god that you’re talking about, then maybe you ought to believe in Alice a little bit too.”

Larry thought about that and then replied, “Well, Alice isn’t God.  A goddess maybe, but not God.  She can mess up.  Or no, it wouldn’t be messing up really.  We’re not married or anything.”

“But you are a couple, like you’re going steady or something?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“You suppose so?  Shit man, come on.  Do you suppose so or do you know so?”

“Ah, fuck!  I think I know so.  There’s no engagement; no rings.  It’s just like, uh, an understanding.”

Willy snorted and made a few more strokes with his paddle before speaking once again, saying, “Look man.  I appreciate it that you’re taking time to hang out with me.  I really do.  I also know that you would normally be back up at Sonoma State by now:  Oh, yes, I know that you bailed on this semester for my sake.  Ain’t many guys have a friend like you, and don’t think for a minute that I don’t know that.”

“Who told you that?”

“Your sister, Trisha.”

“Big mouth!”

“Yeah, whatever.  Shut up and listen.  Why are you spending time with me when you should be finding out what the story is between you and the lovely Alice?  I know that I’m all wit and sparkling conversation, but you’re blowing it, brother.”

“Ah shit, man.  I’m going to look like a jealous jerk if I start trying to pin her down when we’re still trying to get through school and everything.”

“You’re worried about how you might look?  Hey, maybe it will look like that but maybe it won’t.  I think it’s going to look more like you give a damn, but that’s just me.  The more important question though is if you don’t try to pin her down, will she decide that you don’t care?  What’s that going to look like?”

Larry didn’t answer, so Willy answered for him.

“It’s going to look like you were a fool, that’s what.  A sad, damn fool.  Look, it’s not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing trying to get my shit together when you should be in Tempe getting your own damn business straight?”

Willy quit talking then.  They paddled along in silence for several hundred yards while Larry thought about what Willy had just said.  At length Larry spoke again.  “You’re right, man.  I’m an idiot.  I’m going to tell her exactly what I think of her the next time that I see her, and I mean all of it.”

“And when will that be?”

“Uh, I don’t know.  Maybe Thanksgiving?  Yeah, for sure.  Thanksgiving.”

“Dumb shit.  You’re still half-stepping.  What the hell’s the matter with you?  You want her to think that you don’t care, or are you just willing to take the chance?

“No.  Hell no.  What are you saying?”

“Don’t they need carpenters in Tempe, or plumbers or whatever else the hell that you could do for the next year and a half?”

“You think that I should go to Tempe?”

“Heck yes!  If she’ll consent to put up with you, then find a job and be there with her.  You can take your turn next if you feel that you just have to be a snot-nosed college graduate.”

Larry pondered Willy’s words and, as he did so, the sense in them became more obvious.  He knew that he could find a job if she wanted him to stay around.  Heck, maybe they could even get married if she would accept his proposal.  At least she would be in no doubt about where he stood, and that would be a big improvement over where he stood now.

He suddenly felt a desire to find out at the soonest moment if there was hope for such an outcome.  “Come on, man.  Let’s dig for the boat ramp.  I’ll call her from the first phone that we come to.”

“Weak move,” Willy replied.  “Screw calling her.  Go there.  Take her hand.  Look her in the eye.  Let her know that you mean it.  She may tell you to fuck off, but at least you’ll know where you stand, and if you have to you can move on.  You want your best shot at the truth?  Well, go there.”

“Shit, man.  Who made you cupid?  Three months ago you couldn’t figure out which town to stay in and now you’re putting my stuff straight with Alice.”

Willy fell silent when Larry said that.  After a few moments Larry felt that he had been out of line and said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it that like that.  I wasn’t talking down about your troubles.  I just wondered how you got smart to put my own dumb ass straight.  And you did put it straight.  You’re right about all of this.  I’m going to drive you back to San Diego and then I’m going straight to Tempe.

“Apology unnecessary, but accepted,” Willy said.  “Let me suggest this:  We drive straight to Tempe and I hitchhike or something back to San Diego.  You take care of your business and I’ll get on with taking care of my own.

“Aw, man.  That sounds great, but I won’t let you hitch though.  It’s, like, over 100 degrees at midnight now down there.  I’ll buy you a bus ticket.”

Willy laughed and said, “I ain’t broke, man.  I got money enough for a ticket.  Besides, I’m high class.  I might take the train.”

They quit talking then and both dug in with their paddles, propelling the canoe swiftly past the island, under the bridge, then around the bend to the boat launch.  They settled up with the dock master and when they reached Larry’s station wagon they climbed in and Larry turned the engine over.

“You start,” Willy said, “and I’ll spell you in a few hours.  We’ll drive straight through to Tempe.  Should take about 15, 16 hours.”

“Right that.  Man, you don’t know how much your advice and help means to me.”

“Hey, no sweat.  You’ve been a life saver to me too.”

Larry turned the station wagon around and eased out of the parking lot.  He followed the access road out of the campground and turned left onto State Route 503, the straightest road available back to the Interstate Highway.

“Thanks for clearing my head,” Larry said to Willy.

“Thanks for clearing mine,” Willy replied.  “And who’s that pastor you spoke with back in San Diego?”

 

FINDING OUR WAY
“Here we are,” Larry said as he steered his Plymouth station wagon into the parking lot.

“Where in the heck is here?” Willy asked.

“Lake Merwin. It’s part of a series of reservoirs that were built during the Depression. This is one of my favorite places on earth.” He pulled into a parking space, set the brake, and turned off the engine. “Come on. Let’s get out so that you can get a good look at this place.”

The two men exited the vehicle and walked towards its front. Willy stood by the right headlight and looked around at his surroundings. Larry did the same, and was infused with a peace and wonder that he rarely felt anywhere else.

A soft breeze mitigated the heat of the early fall day and raised swarms of small ripples that danced and played across the otherwise smooth surface of the deep green waters of the lake. The needles of the tall Douglas fir trees barely quivered in the breeze, and filled the valley in which the lake nestled with their clean aroma.

The school year having begun and it being a midweek day, the parking lot at the lake was silent and nearly empty. Two older men puttered around in the trunk of their car, apparently stowing the fishing gear that they had been employing since long before Larry and Willy arrived. How successful they had been could not be determined.

The silence in that place was almost overwhelming. A hawk cried in the distance and the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the cooling engine were all that prevented the two men from hearing the noises that everyone has in their heads. Larry drank in the silence, but it made Willy squirm a little.

“How did you find out about this place?” Willy asked.

“A buddy told me about it over in the ‘Nam. He grew up in Vancouver, back where we crossed into the state.”

“Did he make it back home?”

“Yeah. He was chairborn.”

Willy laughed at that and then asked, “Okay, so how did you get to know anyone who was chairborn. You were a grunt too, just like me.”

“I was until I got a million dollar wound.”

“You got the heart?”

“Yeah, I got a heart, but it wasn’t for the wound that I’m talking about.”

“Okay, so what was the wound all about?”

“It was actually our battalion clerk who got popped.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, you remember when I was failing chemistry at Hoover and they yanked me out and stuck me in a typing class?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Well, you should. I typed an English paper for you when we were seniors.”

“I don’t remember that either, but if I turned in a typed paper it’s a sure bet that somebody else typed it.”

“Yeah. Well anyway, they needed somebody to take his place, and I was that somebody. I got to hang around base camp because of that, typing transfer requests and morning reports and other stuff. In the process I met a guy from Division HQ at the NCO club. He was from Vancouver and was pretty close to rotating back to the Real World when we met. Before he left he told me about this place. He said that it was his favorite spot on earth, and I think it might be mine too.”

“So, is he living in Vancouver now? Why don’t you stop and see him on the way back?”

“Nah, he’s not living around here. He’s a lifer. After he left the Nam he went to Korea and re-upped. Or was it Germany? I don’t remember exactly; he was going somewhere else.”

“No chance outside, eh?”

“No, it wasn’t like that. He was a pretty smart guy. He just liked the military life; the structure, the order, you know. He figured twenty or thirty years and he’d retire comfortable with all of the bennies.”

“Yeah,” Willy repeated dryly. “No chance outside.”

“I guess, maybe. Different strokes for different folks. Anyway, he told me about this place and I came up here after I got back. I love it, and have been back twice.”

“Hmm, I guess I can see why. It is pretty here.”

“Hey man, you want to rent a canoe? It’s even nicer back up the valley.”

“Uh, I don’t know. I’m not so crazy about being on that much water.”

“We’ll have life jackets on. It’ll be safe. Besides, the lake’s really calm. Come on, man. Let’s give it a shot.”

Willy didn’t relish the idea but was persuaded by his friends persistent urgings. “Okay,” he said at last. “But if you get me drowned I’m really going to be pissed at you.”

“Outstanding! If I get you drowned I’ll let you kick my butt.”

They walked across the parking lot to the rental office where a bored matron put down her romance novel and, with an economy of conversation, rented them a canoe with two paddles and life jackets. Willy returned to the car to retrieve their cooler of food and drinks while Larry picked out a canoe. By the time that Willy returned with cooler in hand, Larry was seated in the canoe with his life jacket on and ready to go.

“You sit in the front,” Larry said as he threw Willy the other life jacket. “You’ll like the view of the lake better than the view of the back of my head.”
“I don’t know. This seems a little freaky to me.”

“Okay. If it will help, I’ll sit in the front.”

“Nah, it don’t make no difference. Let’s just do it.”

Willy put on the life jacket, set the cooler in the middle of the canoe, and stepped cautiously into the front of the canoe while Larry held the craft as steady as he could. At last Larry was seated on a bench. Larry realized that his friend was more nervous than he had first believed to be the case and said, “Why don’t you just sit there for a while and don’t paddle. I’ll get us away from the landing and you can join in when you feel like it.”

“Yeah, good idea. Let me get used to this. It’s like I told you, I never really get around this much water.”

Larry dipped his paddle deep into the water and, with strong, smooth strokes, propelled the canoe across the marina towards the opening in the large log boom that separated the boat launch from the lake. The water outside the boom was nearly as calm as it was inside, and the canoe slid easily through the gap and onto the open lake.

Larry stayed close to the shore, hoping that Willy would settle his jitters and become able to enjoy the ride, and that’s what happened. Soon he too began to dip his paddle into the water, and Larry discerned the loosening of the tight muscles of his friend’s shoulders. One time Willy’s inexpert technique resulted in the paddle getting too close to the surface, which then resulted in a spray of water flying back and soaking Larry. “Hey, man. I can get a shower later, okay?”

“Sorry about that!”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you are,” Larry replied, but he was pleased to see his friend begin to enjoy himself.

In very little time Willy’s comfort level increased to a point where Larry struck out for the center of the lake. They reached that spot at a point where the valley in which the Lake lay bent to the north, and as they paddled around that bend they could see the green steel trestle bridge that they had crossed barely an hour earlier. Three teenagers were swinging on a rope that hung from the bridge and dropping themselves into the cool, green water.

“They weren’t there when we drove over that bridge, were they?” Larry asked.

“Nope. Probably playing hooky, unless they have a real late start of the school year up here.”

“Yep, probably hooky. If school was still out this place would be packed.”

They glided under the bridge, waving at the two boys and one girl who waved back, and thereafter slid silently and almost effortlessly across the surface of the lake. Both young men were deep in their own thoughts and the rhythmic dip and pull, dip and pull, created a hypnotic space in which each was enclosed.

After a while Larry decided to break the silence and bring up a subject that he had been searching for a way to approach with delicacy.

“Willy.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad that you came back.”

“I’m glad that you got back home too.”

They glided along for several more yards before Larry spoke again. “No, I mean I’m glad that you came back to San Diego from wherever you’ve been keeping yourself. A lot of us have missed you.”

They continued to paddle in silence. Larry wondered if he had touched a raw nerve. He began to plan how he would apologize, but before he could speak again Willy said, “Thanks. It’s been an interesting ride. You want to hear about it?”

That was more than Larry had expected to get for his effort, and he determined to take the opening and run with it. “Yeah, I would. How ‘bout we paddle over to that island and have a snack?”

“Good with me.”

They soon reached a low island of silt and sand and beached the canoe. A bleached log was washed up six or seven feet from the water’s edge. Larry sat on the log and took off his life jacket and shirt while Willy hoisted the cooler out of the canoe and sat down on the log next to his friend.

“Man, they stitched you good,” Willy said as he looked at the purple scars that bore testimony to Larry’s service in the war.”

“Looks worse than it really was.”

“Yeah? Well it looks like shit, so it still must have been bad.”

“Wasn’t bad enough to send me home. The shit-dipped pungi stick that I stepped on didn’t get me out either. It took that clerk catching steel to get me out of the meat grinder.”

“Oh, man. You never told me anything about no pungi stick!”

“Well, who wants to tell the story of having some Cong’s shit running through his veins?”

The two men sat in the sun and continued to share stories that could only be appreciated by people who have gone through the same hell. Willy pulled a couple of beers out of the cooler and some jerky out of his pack. As they began to enjoy their snack Willy removed his own shirt and showed Larry his unmarred body.

“Not a scratch,” he said. “They never even gave me a scratch. Came damned close from time to time, but no luck for them. I dusted a whole bunch of them for trying though.”

Larry munched silently on the jerky and said nothing. Soon, Willy continued to speak. “I couldn’t stay around, man. I got to hand it to you though. I don’t know how the hell you could. I got back and saw that every neat house was on its neat lot, and every street was lined with neat lawns. There were traffic lights and stop signs, and people paid attention to them! It all seemed artificial. You know, like it was a movie or a play. I felt like I couldn’t trust it. Like, you know, it might all dissolve right before my eyes at any moment.”

Willy quit talking then and began to stare across the lake. Larry looked in the direction in which he thought Willy’s gaze was falling, but he could see nothing in particular. He was glad that his friend had begun to talk about his problems and did not want the tap to be turned off prematurely. “Yeah, I had a little of that too. I hid in my house the first New Year’s Eve that I was home. I wanted to round up every asshole who lit off a firecracker and send them to where they could enjoy all of the explosions that they wanted.”

Willy chuckled at that. “Yeah. ‘Bombs bursting in air’ loses a little of its charm when they start bursting up your ass. Anyway, I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think about how something I did today would impact what I would be doing in ten years. Hell, I don’t think I really believed that anything around me was real and besides,” he turned to look directly at his friend, “how am I supposed to think clearly about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life when I had quit believing that I would even have a rest of my life?”

“I don’t know man. It’s a bitch.” Larry’s mind drifted to his own homecoming but Willy’s next question snapped him back to the present. “So, how did you do it? How did you go from being an 11B grunt to a friggin’ college student?

“I don’t know. I’m saying that a lot, but it’s true, I really don’t. It’s like I told you; it was hard for me too. I jumped at every loud noise. Shit, I still do. I damn near killed a scrawny prick who called me a baby killer, too.”

“You never said nothing about that!”

“Kept it quiet. It was at the bus stop at Horton Plaza. A sailor pulled me off of him and told me to get out of there before the police came. He probably kept me out of jail. I’m not really proud of that now, ’s why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Whoa, that’s pretty heavy. So do you still feel like doing that when people piss you off?”

“Nah. One and done.”

“How?”

“How what?”

“How did you turn it off? You beat up one shitbird and then everything makes sense?”

“Nope. I talked to people who helped. I was starting to see Alice Montgomery – you remember Alice? – and she suggested that I talk to her pastor.”

“I don’t know if I have much time for pastors.”

“Well, that’s okay. I’m not trying to push it. It just helped me.”

“Did he hit you over the head with his bible?”

Larry chuckled. “No, none of that. He has a lot of veterans at his church, mostly World War II guys. He told me that I had seen enough of hell and that it would be good for me to look more for heaven, stuff like that. I don’t know; it helped me. I talked a lot with the older guys there. They were pretty cool too. Some of them had been through worse than I had. They knew where I was coming from.”

“Hrmmph!” Willy grunted. “Anyway, I hung around town with some other guys who were having the same troubles that I was, and that sort of felt good. Misery loves company, you know. But I ran into your Alice Montgomery one day down by the pier at Pacific Beach and she looked at me like I was some sort of disease.”

“She told me about that. She said that she was afraid. You know, she didn’t bad mouth you, not to me at least. She told me later that she felt bad about her reaction. It’s just that you looked pretty rough at the time. I don’t know any more about it than that though.”

Willy thought about that for a moment and then said, “Yeah, I guess I didn’t look very approachable. Anyway, that was the final straw I guess. I left the city that day.” He quit talking then and turned his attention to the chunk of jerky and his beer. Larry followed suit, pondering whether or not to push his friend to continue the conversation. He decided to wait and see if Willy would continue on his own. Willy washed down a bite of jerky and did just that.

“So I went to the Central Valley and did some farm work. Most of the workers were Mexican, but there were a number of other folks out there too, so I didn’t stand out too much. I learned enough Spanish to get along, and it was those folks who helped me to get a grip. As good a grip as I’ve got, anyway. Most of them have had a hard time of it too, and it was pretty hard to feel sorry for myself for very long around them.”

“Man, that’s tough work.”

“You ain’t said shit, brother! My back hurt, my knees hurt, my arms hurt, my white skin got cooked if it was exposed to the sun and I sweat like a fire hose if I covered up. You think about that the next time you eat a salad.”

“I’m thinking about it right now. So, you just do that all that time you were gone?”

“Nah. I’m pretty good at fixing things, so in time I got promoted to working on the farm equipment. It wasn’t any cooler, but it was a heck of a lot easier.”

“Wow man. That’s a cool story. You should write a book.”

“Shit, first I’d have to read a book. So anyway, I did the equipment thing for about another year. When I felt like maybe I had my head screwed on straight I decided to come back to San Diego and give it another try. I’m telling you, Daygo beats the hell out of Fresno!”

Willy fell silent again, and Larry decided that this would be a good place to leave things. “Come on,” he said. “There’s something across the lake that I want to show you.”

The two friends stowed the cooler in the bottom of the canoe and regained their places at the bow and stern seats. Larry pushed away from the beach and they resumed paddling up the reservoir. They hadn’t gone far before Willy wanted to continue the conversation. It seemed to Larry that maybe he had pulled some sort of cork out of Willy’s bottle.

“Right over there,” Willy said and pointed with his paddle towards the opposite side of the reservoir. “That’s where I would expect a sniper to set up.”

Larry didn’t need to follow Willy’s gaze to find the spot. It was a cluster of boulders in the thick tangle of brush and ferns. The exact spot would be any one of three gaps in the rocks. “Yeah,” he said. “But we really don’t have snipers around here.”

“That’s just the thing. I still do have snipers. Oh, I know that they’re not there. At least I hope they’re not there! Anyway, it’s kinda like phantom pain in your leg after your leg’s been blown off. You know that the leg’s gone but it still hurts. Well, I know that there’s no sniper in those boulders. Still, it feels like he’s sighting in on me right now. I feel like a sitting duck out here, and it makes it hard to enjoy it.”

“Man, that’s hard to imagine. That really sucks! I can see how it would be hard to deal with that.”

“And it’s all the time, man. It’s all the time. Don’t you have to deal with shit like this? I mean, you were in the same places that I was. Don’t you feel his scope on your forehead?”

“Well, I didn’t until you brought it up,” Larry said with a laugh. “Thanks a pant-load, man. But really, no. I don’t. I remember having that same feeling over there, but there really were snipers there. That’s where they were supposed to be and where I expected them to be. I don’t really feel any threat here.”

“So maybe you want to switch with me and sit in the front then?”

“Oh, hell no. Now you’ve got me paranoid!”

Both laughed.

“We’re aiming for that gap in the rocks,” Larry said, and he pointed to where he was speaking of. They paddled across the lake towards a crack in the otherwise continuous fifty to sixty foot high cliff that formed that part of the southern edge of the lake. As they approached and then entered the gap they saw that the walls, which displayed many minor irregularities, rose otherwise straight up to the top of the cliff much in the way of a slit canyon in a Southwest desert.

The water within the gap was as smooth as glass, there being no way that the east-blowing breeze could penetrate this north/south canyon. They slipped like a whisper through the water, hearing only a few birds that sang their joy or settled their grievances in the branches of trees high overhead. The place was one of unbroken peace; at least, that’s how it felt to Larry. He wondered how it felt to Willy.

Slowly the sound of water flowing over rocks penetrated the silence. The crevasse up which they were traveling became more narrow and ripples began to be seen on the surface. “Look at that!” Willy said softly. He was pointing down at the water, and Larry guessed what he had seen. He looked into the water and saw several large fish swimming around and under their canoe.

“I was hoping that they would be there,” Larry said. “They were there the last time that I was here.”

“What are they? Trout?”

“Maybe. They sorta look like trout to me, but they’re bigger than any trout that I have ever caught before. They might be rainbows, steelhead, bull trout or something called a kokanee.”

The canoe came to a stop between where two mostly submerged boulders poked up just above the surface of what was now easily seen to be a creek. They stayed as still and quiet as they could and admired the fish. The fish, in turn, ignored the canoe and its two admiring passengers as if they weren’t there.

The velocity of the stream flow was now gradually picking up as they edged farther up the canyon. They continued upstream until the shallowness and flow of the stream and the profusion of boulders rendered further passage first unsafe, and then finally impossible. They spun on their benches and Larry’s position, which had been in the stern, now became the bow. Carefully they picked their way between the rocks until they at last regained the silent and slow-moving waters of the canyon. They allowed the current to propel them almost imperceptibly forward, paddling intermittently only to keep the bow pointed downstream. Larry was lost in his own thoughts when Willy spoke in a hushed tone, as if unwilling to disturb some sanctuary.

“So you talked to some pastor, huh? What was that like? Did he tell you to turn or burn?”

The sound of Willy’s voice was a mild jolt to Larry and he replied with a “huh?” to buy time to get his thoughts together. Willy repeated the question.

“No man, it wasn’t really like that. Like I said earlier, he helped me to focus more on the good stuff and less on the bad, that’s all.” Willy didn’t reply to that, so Larry decided to continue his thought. “He said that God was big enough to carry that stuff and I didn’t have to. He also said that if I asked him – God, that is – to help me, He would do it. Well, it worked. He did. I know it doesn’t happen like that for everyone and I don’t know why that is. I can’t tell you why it worked for me, but it did.”

Willy didn’t answer right away, but after a brief hesitation said, “I know guys who have heard that shit; uh, I mean that advice, and it didn’t do jack for them.”

“Yeah, me too. Like I said, I don’t know why it clicked for me. I did the same bad shit that a lot of other guys did over there. It’s not like I was already some sort of angel or something. I lit up one nest of Cong with Willy Peter one day and I enjoyed watching them burn. Angels don’t do stuff like that.”

“Damn! White phosphorus is some hard shit. I can’t say that I do just as bad or worse though.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Wasn’t nothing anyone over there did that I didn’t do. I’m rotten as hell, if you judge by all of that. The pastor told me that God doesn’t judge like that though. I’m not going to give you a sermon, ‘cause that’s not my thing. I’m just telling you that there’s more to it than earning points to become a good boy, and I don’t know why knowing that helped me and didn’t help the next guy. The point is, it helps me keep my shit together.”

They floated for a while towards the mouth of the canyon and Larry had almost forgotten about the conversation when Willy spoke again. “So god helps you even when you don’t act like a choir boy?”

“Yep.”

“Even when you drink and cuss?”

“Fucking-A right He does.”

“That don’t sound like any god that I ever heard of.”

“Well, I guess maybe you ain’t heard about mine, or maybe somebody was saying shit about Him that ain’t real. Anyway, I figure He’s a lot bigger than all of that ‘I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do’ bull shit.”

Willy laughed out loud at that. Larry laughed too. Then they both fell silent again. After a few more minutes they rounded a curve and saw the lake open up before them once more. As the canoe slipped forward they left the confines of the canyon and floated into the broad valley that was mostly filled by the lake.

Larry had fallen back into his reverie as they paddled toward the back end of the lake. Willy snapped him out of it once again with another question. “So, did Alice Montgomery really feel bad about freaking out on me?”

Once again Larry answered with a reflexive “Huh?” Then, gathering his thoughts again, he replied, “Yeah. She said that she was sure that she had hurt your feelings, and she was sorry about that. By the time that she got a grip, you were gone and she couldn’t find you to apologize.”

“Hmm. Alice is a pretty foxy lady. You suppose she would like to apologize to me now? In person?”

“Down, boy. The foxy lady would undoubtedly be happy to apologize, but she happens to be in a long distance relationship with another guy.”

“Well, if the guy’s not around she’s fair game, eh?”

“It ain’t like that, Romeo. It’s Alice that isn’t around. She’s at Arizona State. Will be for the next one and a half years.”

“Oh, that’s a pity. Who’s the lucky joker who’s enjoying her favors? Anybody that I know?”

“Yeah. Me.”

(SILENCE)

“Oh. Sorry man. I didn’t mean to go there. No offense, okay?”

“No offense at all. I didn’t tell you, so how could you know? It’s cool.”

“No, really man. Why didn’t you tell me that you were tight with Alice? You made it sound like you just kinda knew her.”

“Ah, shit. I don’t know. You’re last time seeing her wasn’t all that good and I didn’t know how much you would want to know.”

“That’s pretty weak. You and me, we know each other well enough to not worry about a thing like that. What’s the skinny, man. Sounds to me like there’s more to the story?”

“Well, I’m only going to be seeing her on holidays and stuff like that. She’s doing summer classes so I won’t even get to see her much during the summer. I just worry about how it will all turn out. Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.”

“What, you think she’s fooling around on you?”

“Heck, I don’t know. I hope not, but who knows? I mean, she’s in a school full of kids and there’s parties every weekend. She’s a fox, and there’s guys smarter and more cool than me all over the place. It’s kinda twisting me up a little.”

They had reached the back of the lake by now and turned around to paddle west, back towards the marina. Willy returned to the conversation. “It was Alice that had you talk to her pastor, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So she’s a Christian, Right?”

“Yeah.”

“And so she’s heard all of that stuff about being, I don’t know, good and all of that, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose she has.”

“So, if you are going to believe in that god that you’re talking about, and Alice believes in that god that you’re talking about, then maybe you ought to believe in Alice a little bit too.”

Larry thought about that and then replied, “Well, Alice isn’t God. A goddess maybe, but not God. She can mess up. Or no, it wouldn’t be messing up really. We’re not married or anything.”

“But you are a couple, like you’re going steady or something?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“You suppose so? Shit man, come on. Do you suppose so or do you know so?”

“Ah, fuck! I think I know so. There’s no engagement; no rings. It’s just like, uh, an understanding.”

Willy snorted and made a few more strokes with his paddle before speaking once again, saying, “Look man. I appreciate it that you’re taking time to hang out with me. I really do. I also know that you would normally be back up at Sonoma State by now: Oh, yes, I know that you bailed on this semester for my sake. Ain’t many guys have a friend like you, and don’t think for a minute that I don’t know that.”

“Who told you that?”

“Your sister, Trisha.”

“Big mouth!”

“Yeah, whatever. Shut up and listen. Why are you spending time with me when you should be finding out what the story is between you and the lovely Alice? I know that I’m all wit and sparkling conversation, but you’re blowing it, brother.”

“Ah shit, man. I’m going to look like a jealous jerk if I start trying to pin her down when we’re still trying to get through school and everything.”

“You’re worried about how you might look? Hey, maybe it will look like that but maybe it won’t. I think it’s going to look more like you give a damn, but that’s just me. The more important question though is if you don’t try to pin her down, will she decide that you don’t care? What’s that going to look like?”

Larry didn’t answer, so Willy answered for him.

“It’s going to look like you were a fool, that’s what. A sad, damn fool. Look, it’s not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing trying to get my shit together when you should be in Tempe getting your own damn business straight?”

Willy quit talking then. They paddled along in silence for several hundred yards while Larry thought about what Willy had just said. At length Larry spoke again. “You’re right, man. I’m an idiot. I’m going to tell her exactly what I think of her the next time that I see her, and I mean all of it.”

“And when will that be?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Maybe Thanksgiving? Yeah, for sure. Thanksgiving.”

“Dumb shit. You’re still half-stepping. What the hell’s the matter with you? You want her to think that you don’t care, or are you just willing to take the chance?

“No. Hell no. What are you saying?”

“Don’t they need carpenters in Tempe, or plumbers or whatever else the hell that you could do for the next year and a half?”

“You think that I should go to Tempe?”

“Heck yes! If she’ll consent to put up with you, then find a job and be there with her. You can take your turn next if you feel that you just have to be a snot-nosed college graduate.”

Larry pondered Willy’s words and, as he did so, the sense in them became more obvious. He knew that he could find a job if she wanted him to stay around. Heck, maybe they could even get married if she would accept his proposal. At least she would be in no doubt about where he stood, and that would be a big improvement over where he stood now.

He suddenly felt a desire to find out at the soonest moment if there was hope for such an outcome. “Come on, man. Let’s dig for the boat ramp. I’ll call her from the first phone that we come to.”

“Weak move,” Willy replied. “Screw calling her. Go there. Take her hand. Look her in the eye. Let her know that you mean it. She may tell you to fuck off, but at least you’ll know where you stand, and if you have to you can move on. You want your best shot at the truth? Well, go there.”

“Shit, man. Who made you cupid? Three months ago you couldn’t figure out which town to stay in and now you’re putting my stuff straight with Alice.”

Willy fell silent when Larry said that. After a few moments Larry felt that he had been out of line and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that like that. I wasn’t talking down about your troubles. I just wondered how you got smart to put my own dumb ass straight. And you did put it straight. You’re right about all of this. I’m going to drive you back to San Diego and then I’m going straight to Tempe.

“Apology unnecessary, but accepted,” Willy said. “Let me suggest this: We drive straight to Tempe and I hitchhike or something back to San Diego. You take care of your business and I’ll get on with taking care of my own.

“Aw, man. That sounds great, but I won’t let you hitch though. It’s, like, over 100 degrees at midnight now down there. I’ll buy you a bus ticket.”

Willy laughed and said, “I ain’t broke, man. I got money enough for a ticket. Besides, I’m high class. I might take the train.”

They quit talking then and both dug in with their paddles, propelling the canoe swiftly past the island, under the bridge, then around the bend to the boat launch. They settled up with the dock master and when they reached Larry’s station wagon they climbed in and Larry turned the engine over.

“You start,” Willy said, “and I’ll spell you in a few hours. We’ll drive straight through to Tempe. Should take about 15, 16 hours.”

“Right that. Man, you don’t know how much your advice and help means to me.”

“Hey, no sweat. You’ve been a life saver to me too.”

Larry turned the station wagon around and eased out of the parking lot. He followed the access road out of the campground and turned left onto State Route 503, the straightest road available back to the Interstate Highway.

“Thanks for clearing my head,” Larry said to Willy.

“Thanks for clearing mine,” Willy replied. “And who’s that pastor you spoke with back in San Diego?”

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