The Garden, Chapter XVI

Charlie tried to relax as he crawled slowly across the garden on his hands and knees.  Walt had been faithful to his pledge to tend Charlie’s garden, but that seemed to extend only to watering and harvesting.  There was almost nothing ready to be picked and eaten, and a fine carpet of weeds had sprouted and begun their bid to take over his plot.  He was not too worried about his harvest though, since the vines and bushes were heavy with ripening tomatoes and cucumbers and so forth.  The weeds, however, demanded immediate attention, and Charlie got busy.

He had been scheduled to fly home Sunday afternoon but had changed his flight to Monday.  All day on Sunday he had waited for a call from the Prentisses informing him of Maureen’s change of heart and agreement to meet with him and discuss Jack, but that call never came.  “I’ll give it one more morning” he had said to his mother.

I think that’s pretty low of them to keep you in suspense” Elaine said to her son.  “They should at least let you know that they’re still trying.”

“I don’t know what they could tell me, Mom” he replied.  “They said that they would let me know if she changed her mind.  I guess she hasn’t done that yet.”

“Huh!” Elaine snorted.  “I really liked Maureen too, but my opinion of her is definitely going downhill.  I have rights too!  Why haven’t I seen my own grandson for two years now?  And what makes her so high and mighty that she can’t even talk to you, when you came all this way and are willing to talk to her?”

“Come on, Mom” Charlie replied.  “Give her a break, OK?  I’ve got a pretty good idea of what she’s gone through ‘cause I went there too.  I’ve had the benefit of some counseling and some pretty good friends.  We don’t know anything about Maureen’s situation.  Maybe she’s in worse shape than I was.

“Well, she’s not had to lift a finger, since you gave her everything you had, so I don’t know what she should be so depressed about.  She could at least show you some consideration for that.”

Charlie knew that it would do no good to continue with this conversation so he proposed to take Elaine shopping on his last day.  She was more than happy to go, and they spent many hours walking through stores as Elaine poked at and fingered the fabric of many items of clothing, ultimately buying a new sweater and a couple of blouses.

They ate in Old Town and in the afternoon, after a long day together, Charlie excused himself and took another long walk in the neighborhood.  Partly, he wanted to avoid further conversation concerning Maureen, but mostly he just wanted to soak up as much of the warm San Diego ambiance in his old neighborhood as he could.

Monday morning had arrived with no call from Maureen or from the Prentisses, so Charlie returned his car and took the shuttle to the airport.  He had a disappointing sandwich and a beer in the terminal as he waited for the one twenty five flight to Portland, which put him back in Vancouver by four thirty.  He called Carolyn from the cab of his truck and arranged to see her at nine the next morning, and then drove to Billy’s cottage to pick up his garden tools.

It was almost five thirty when he arrived at the garden.  Rachael had already left, if she had been there at all, and Walt was putting his tools away when Charlie drove up.

“Well, look what the cat drug in” he said cheerfully.  “Did you get yourself remarried down there?”

“Not hardly” Charlie replied.  “Never meant to, either.  You wanna hear about it?”

“No” Walt said.  “That’s personal stuff, and I don’t think you’d want to see me cry a tear for you.”

Charlie laughed and said “Actually, I’d tell you the story right now if I thought that I had half a chance to see such a thing.”

Walt laughed as well, and said “Special night at the Smelly Socks tonight.  Joe and Dom will be out of town this Thursday, and Ted on Wednesday, so we’re getting together early.  You going to make it?  You can tell us all about your sob story then, and the beer will keep us from running away.”

Charlie looked forward to drinking a few beers with these men who knew something more about hard times than did most of the people of his acquaintence.  His three days with family had been good; better in fact than he had expected them to be.  But these men knew what it was like to pass through the fire.  Charlie was anxious to share the current state of his quest with these good and trusted friends.  “You bet I’ll be there.”

After waving goodbye, Charlie fell to his knees and began to tear into the weeds, knowing that he had only an hour before he would want to be at the pub.  At the end of that hour he had almost two thirds of the plot weed free.  “That’s going to have to be enough for now” Charlie said to himself.  “I’ll get the rest tomorrow.”

The pub was crowded and noisy when Charlie arrived just before seven.  The Seattle Mariners baseball team was playing somebody somewhere, and the game was being televised.  With the Vancouver area dominated by media from nearby Oregon, the fan base was not what one would expect for the home state team.  Most of the Clark County contingent however seemed to be at the Key and Lock, and the cheering was loud and raucous.

“Hi guys” he shouted above the roar that must have accompanied an important play in the game.  “Do you think you could have picked a louder night?  It seems like a graveyard in here tonight!”

Ted, Billy and Dom held their hands to their ears and said ‘Huh?”  Speak up; I can’t hear you” in unison.

“You guys practiced that, didn’t you?” Charlie asked with a smile as he plopped down into his chair.  Greetings were given all around the table and the server’s attention was caught.  She knew what Charlie liked and soon a pint of cold beer was placed in front of him.

It was Billy’s turn to open the evening’s discussion, which was to proceed regardless of the noise coming from the crowd.  It was the usual “What will we talk about tonight, gentlemen?”  Everybody at the table knew about Charlie’s mission to San Diego, so all eyes turned automatically toward him.

What?” he asked.  “Do I look like I’ve done anything worth talking about?”

“No” Walt said.  “Not really.  Let me tell you a story about when I was working for the school system.”

“Pipe down” Joe said, tossing a pretzel at Walt, who tried to catch it in his mouth but failed.  Charle waited for the laughter to die down and then told his story.

“So you went to all that trouble” Walt said when Charlie had finished, “for nothing.”

“”No.  Absolutely not.  I don’t mean anything of the sort” Charlie replied.  “I haven’t been close to my family for years; heck, when I look back, I don’t believe that I ever really was close to them.  It was worth it if all that I accomplished was that.  I feel like some sort of lifeline was reestablished, and that’s a good thing.”

“Oh, so we aren’t family enough for you?’ Dom asked.  “And here I thought that Walt was your mother.”  Another pretzel flew across the table, toward Dom this time.

“Yeah, Walt’s good, but he can’t cook like Mom does” Charlie replied.  “And, I also know that my former in-laws don’t blame me for everything that happened.  When Maureen and I started dating, they were more like my family than my family was.  Mr. Prentiss was about the coolest dad that I knew, and it was a big relief to know that we could still be friends.

And speaking of fathers, I didn’t have any idea what a jackass my own father was.  It turns out that I really don’t remember anything that he did; things that I should be able to remember.  I’m pretty sure that my counselor will have a field day with that!”

“So, where will you go from here?” Billy asked.

“Well, it was disappointing at first, but I think that I’m OK with the situation now.  I mean, I still really want to renew my relationship with my son and all, but if I have to rely on my in-laws to keep some sort of connection until he’s eighteen, then I can go that route.  I’ll talk it over with my counselor and see what she says.”

At that moment a ring tone sounded in somebody’s pocket.  All hands reached down to see if they were the offending party.  Phones were to be kept off while the group was in session at the pub, and the price for breeching that regulation was that the offender had to buy the next round.  One by one, the phones were ceremonially extracted from pockets, beginning with Walt, then Dom, Billy, and then Charlie.

Charlie was not concerned because he specifically remembered checking for a message and then turning down his phone’s ringer before entering the pub.  He pulled his phone out and saw that a call had indeed come from “PRENTISS.”  He let his glance linger for only a moment before showing to the group that his phone was in silent mode.  The next one was Joe, and it was his phone that had been left on.

“Miss!  Miss!” Walt waved at the server to get her attention.  When she saw that it was Walt bawling at her she made certain to take several minutes longer than necessary to attend to their table, and Walt seemed like he enjoyed every minute of it.  When she finally came to take their orders Walt asked for a point of a good craft beer in place of his usual Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “When the beer’s on the house, the rules are all changed” he said with a big grin.

Charlie made a determined effort to put the phone call out of his head.  He would not have known about it at all if Joe had turned off the ringer on his phone, and his loyalty to this group of friends had deepened to the point where he would not slight them in order to jump right back to his quest.

“So, where were we before we were so rudely -“ and at this Ted raised his beer “- but deliciously interrupted?”

“I was just wrapping up my tale about the trip to San Diego” Charlie said.  “I’m going to be pouring my energy into ramrodding the work for Carolyn starting tomorrow and getting ready to go hunting with Billy here.  Other than that, we’ll just have to see how it goes.”

“Well, all right then.  What pressing world problem shall we put on the right track next?’ asked moderator Billy.

Charlie excused himself early, claiming that he wanted to be fresh and rested when he started work the next morning.  He would be making an early inspection of the work under way on Carolyn’s three ongoing projects and then begin the conversion job in Parker’s Landing.  He knew that the conversion would be a rather straightforward job and could be quickly completed.  The interaction with Carolyn’s general contractor would require more delicacy.  It would do her no good to run him off and leave her projects hanging while Charlie tried to cobble together a crew to finish the work.

As he drove home, his mind was racing as to what the message would be that was at that moment resting in his phone.  He knew that the Prentisses retired early, and that there would probably be no use in returning the call at this hour.  Of course, they might be staying up late, expecting him to call back the instant that he saw they had tried to reach him.

  “I don’t know if I want to make myself look too eager” he thought.  “I don’t want anybody to think I’m holding my breath, waiting for Maureen to call.”

Then a wave of shame rolled over him.  “That’s exactly the attitude that I had before; always questioning her motives or thinking the worse about what she said and what I thought she was thinking.  I thought she was playing head games with me but it’s me that’s playing them now.”  All I want is to reconnect with Jack, and maybe help Maureen too, if she needs it.  Why am I being such an asshole?”

Charlie decided to call as soon as he got home, and that is what he did.  After he opened the door he walked straight to the tiny kitchen table and hit the ‘return call’ button.  As he had expected, the same message that he heard when had called in San Diego came on, inviting him to leave a message of his own.

“Hello.  This is Charlie, returning your call.  I’m sorry that I was out of touch earlier, but I’m eager to speak with you.  As you know, I rise early too.  Feel free to call me whenever you would like to.  Thank you, and I’ll speak with you tomorrow.”

“There” he thought, “it’s done.  Now I have to forget about it and get some sleep”

That was easier said than done.  Charlie undressed and took a shower, washing a day of travel and work in the garden, and thoughts of Jack and Maureen and his San Diego connections down the drain.  He had toweled off and was getting into bed when Billy came in the front door.  He sat on the edge of his bed, trying to force himself to climb under the sheet and put an end to the day.  After a few minutes of debate he decided that it was of no use.  He had to talk about this development with somebody, and Billy was going to have to listen to him.  He got up and walked out to the kitchen, where Billy was making a cup of tea.

“Hey man.  Guess what!” Billy said as he walked into the tiny room.

“Uh, I don’t know.  What?” Charlie asked.

“Walt wants to go hunting with us.  He said that he hasn’t killed anything in decades, and it would do him good to get back into practice.”

“Well, that isn’t exactly the sprit that I think of hunting in, but it certainly sounds like Walt.  Are you cool with it?”

“Yeah.  Hey, Walt’s really a pretty OK guy.  Rough around the edges to be sure, but he knows what it feels like to have walked through the fire, and that makes me pull closer to him than maybe some others do.  Shit, nothing that I experienced in Iraq comes close to the hell he walked through in ‘Nam.”

“He told about that” Charlie said.  “Getting hit with machine gun fire and seeing friends die.  I really can’t imagine what that was like.”

Billy looked at him for a few moments in silence, mulling what to say to Charlie’s comment.  At last he said “His wounds were only what got Walt sent home.  He saw a lot worse shit than that.  Hell, I’ve got nothing on him.  When he was over there – – -.”

Billy stopped, having realized that the beers that he had been drinking at the pub had lubricated his tongue a bit too much.  “Sorry man, I’m talking about stuff that I got no right to talk about.  Walt wants you to know about that, he can tell you himself.  And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring this topic up, too.  I just stepped way out of line there, and I feel bad about that.”

“Yeah man.  Sure.  No problem.  I’ve already forgotten it.  But hey, Ive got something to tell you, if you’re up to it.”

Billy was still obviously upset with himself for having touched on a subject that he should have never gone near.  “You know, Charlie.  I think I’d better take this tea into my room and get ready for bed.  I’ve had a bit too much to drink tonight and I got a slip in my grip.  Would that be OK?”

“Sure man.  That’s cool  It’s not really that important, anyway.  I’ll save it for tomorrow.  We both probably should get some shut-eye.”

With that Charlie went back to his room, closed the door and turned out the light, and then crawled into bed.  “Oh, great” he thought as he lay there.  “Now I’ve got the phone call and some mysterious past of Walt’s that’s even crazier than what I already knew buzzing in my brain!”  He lay on his bed pondering a thousand possibilities while listening to the night sounds on the other side of his screened window.  Eventually the crickets and cicadas won out over his wild thoughts, and fell fast asleep.

The next morning found him rested and ready to go.  The thoughts which had vexed him the previous night had been put to rest and a deep and dreamless sleep had prepared him for a new day.  Charlie was excited about taking his next step towards regaining his spurs in the construction trades by running Carolyn’s operation, and had actually forgotten about the Prentisses until the phone rang at seven o’clock sharp.

“Hello” Charlie answered.

“Hello Charlie” came the familiar voice of Warren Prentiss.  “How are you today, Son?”

“Oh, I’m fine sir.  Just getting ready to get to work.  I have a general contractor who probably needs to ge given a little incentive to improve his performance.  I probably should’t be looking forward to this as much as I am, but there it is,”

Warren Prentiss chuckled and replied “Ah, it makes me want to go back to work myself.  I envy you, I think.  Anyway, getting to the heart of the matter, I’ve finally heard back from Maureen.  She’s nervous about the idea, but Mrs. Prentiss and I assured her that you were getting yourself back on the right track, as near as we could tell anyway, and that there would be no harm in hearing you out.  She said that you can call her or send her an email.  Does that work for you?”

Charlie didn’t hesitate to respond.  “Yes sir.  That works just fine.  Give me a minute to get a pencil.”  He found one quickly and said “Shoot.”

“OK.  Her number is 503 774-2837, and her email address is moha@gmail.com.”

Charlie wrote that information down quickly and then said “Thank you sir.  I appreciate this more than I can say.  I’ll let you and Mrs. Prentiss know how this goes.”

“By all means, do so” Mr. Prentiss said.  “We’ll be hearing this from both sides and hoping for the best.  Now, I’ll let you get to work.”

“OK.  Thank you again, sir.  You and Mrs. Prentiss have a great day too.”

Charlie clicked off of his call and sat still in his chair for a minute, absorbing this news.  Maureen’s area code was 503, and that placed her somewhere in Oregon.  This made a visit with her and Jack much more easily doable if it should come to that, and he knew instantly that he would be sending and email, and that right soon, but not until he had a chance to talk with D’Andra the next day, and probably Billy too.

He also noticed that the first part of her email address was moha;  Mo Hamer.  She still used his last name and the nickname that he had come to believe she was not fond of.  Was she hanging on to some aspect of their marriage?  “I guess I won’t know the answer to that for a while, if ever” he thought.

Having decided on how he would proceed, Charlie gathered up his clipboard and writing tools, and a few other necessaries, and walked out to the truck.  He would get breakfast at Leroy’s this morning and hopefully see Jason.  He wanted to keep the young man updated as to the possibility of learning some of the construction trades, and thought that face time would be preferable to a phone call.  LuAnn, he expected, would not be back at work yet.

When he arrived at the restaurant he quickly learned that he was wrong on both counts.  Jason was nowhere to be seen and LuAnn was flitting about from table to table, seemingly as chipper as she had ever been.  Charlie was surprised by that, but after thinking about this thin but very tough lady he asked himself “Why should I expect anything else?”

LuAnn saw him and waved him over in the direction of the counter.  He did as he was told and perched on a stool at the far end, near the front window.  The place was not terribly busy, and soon LuAnn was standing next to him, waiting for him to stand up so that she could hug him.  He complied quickly and gladly, and after the hug she walked around to the other side of the counter, picked up the coffee pot and a mug and returned to Charlie.

“My goodness” he said to her as she filled the mug.  “I didn’t think I’d see you here yet.  How are you doing?”

“I guess I’m getting on OK” she replied.  “Sitting around an empty home wasn’t doing me any good, so I thought I’d get back to work.  I guess I love this old hash house more than I thought.”

“I’m pretty sure that I know what you mean” Charlie said, thinking back on the last two years when his work was his only grasp on sanity, and probably kept him alive.  “I didn’t enjoy my work the way you seem to, but it kept me focused on something besides what I was going through.”  Charlie lifted the mug to his lips and took a careful sep, and then said “But you didn’t really tell me how you’re doing.  You don’t have to if you’d rather not, but my question was asked because I really do care how you’re doing.”

LuAnn was silent for a moment, and then put her hand on Charlie’s arm.  “Charlie, I’m doing fine.  As fine as could be expected, anyway.  I miss Duane almost more than I can stand, but our two families have come together during tough times before, and we’re doing it now.  But people are always asking that question and not really wanting to hear the truth.  You surprised me Charlie, although I don’t suppose that I should have been surprised.  The answer is that I’m taking it day to day but I’m making it.  And I will make it.  And thank you for asking.  Thank you even more for meaning it.”  LuAnn wiped away a tear and then said “So, what’ll you be having today?”

Charllie placed his order and LuAnn returned to work.  He got up and went to the kitchen window and waved to Tank, then returned to his stool.  He wanted badly to speak of his trip to San Diego and his chance to make contact with Maureen, but she was busy and he felt like she might not be ready for that anyway.  He sat quietly instead, drinking his coffee and waiting for his breakfast.

His food arrived and his mug was refilled, and LuAnn had a break in the action.  She pulled up the stool behind the counter and began at last to visit with her friend.  “So” she asked.  “How did your visit to San Diego turn out?”

Charlie swallowed a mouthful of hash browns that he was chewing and answered.  “Do you want to talk about that?” he asked.  “With all that you’re going through, I’m surprised you have time for my stuff.”

“Of course I have time Dearie” she replied.  “Last thing I want to do is wallow in my own pity.  You said you care for me, and your life’s been no bed of roses lately, so I care for you too.  And besides, I’m really interested in your mission down there.”

“Well, it was about as good as it could be.  Actually, it went a lot better than I expected.  I had a great time with my family and I got in contact with Maureen’s parents.  They contacted her and she said that I could call or email.  And guess what!  Her area code is in Oregon, so she might not be too far from here.”

“That’s swell, Charlie.  So, you gonna do it?”

“Yes, that’s my plan.  I’m thinking that email is the best way to go.  Jumping right to speaking with her on the phone is a little bit more than I’m up to, I think.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.  That’s how I would do it anyway.  When are you going to do it?”

“After I speak with my counselor tomorrow.  I’m going to write my own message, but I’m looking for input from a couple of people.  In fact, I would like to know what you think about that.”

“About asking for advice, or asking about what to write?”

“Both, but mostly about what to right.  I would love to know your thoughts about that.”

“Well, hold that thought for a bit.  I’ve got to go earn my pay.  I’ll be back shortly.”

LuAnn left to seat a new customer and give some others their check.  Charlie sat waiting for her to return, and was beginning to feel a little pressure from the clock on the wall.  He still had plenty of time, he thought, but a wave of new customers could torpedo this chance to speak of his plan with LuAnn, and he hoped very much to hear her wisdom on the matter.  At last, she returned.

“OK.  So what are you going to say?”

“Hah, I haven’t a clue, and probably won’t until I get to writing.  What would you say if you were me, or I guess a better question would be what would you want to hear if you were Maureen?”

LuAnn didn’t take a second to answer that.  “The truth.  That’s my answer to both questions.  Tell her the truth.  And I’ve never been in her shoes; yours either for that matter, but I guess she’ll want to hear the truth.  Or deserves to hear it anyway.  Heck, I don’t believe that she would want to hear a lie, do you?”

Now, I know that sometimes a lie’s exactly what some people want to hear.  I can’t figure that one out, but I know it’s true.  But would you want to open up a conversation with your family with a lie?  Naw, I can’t see that.  That sort of thing always comes back to bite you in the butt.  You intentions are good Charlie.  Least ways, as far as I know they are.  So run with them.  Besides, if your mission isn’t successful and you fall on your face, at least you wont have a lie in your mouth when you land.”

Charlie thought about that for a moment and quickly recognized the wisdom in it.  “I think you’re dead right on.  LuAnn, I believe you missed your calling!”

“Oh no, I don’t think so.  In fact, I hear my calling calling right now.  Gotta go to work.”

LuAnn gave Charlie another pat on the arm and crossed over the tiny restaurant to fill water glasses and take orders and generally fuss over her customers with the care of a mother hen and the simple kindness of a friend.  “Duane was a very lucky man” Charlie said to himself.

Charlie finished his breakfast, left a twenty on the counter which covered the cost of the meal and included a generous tip, and returned to his truck.  Minutes later he was pulling up in front of Carolyn’s home, ready to begin earning his pay.  Carolyn was ready too.  She met him at the doorway, a leather pouch with files and other papers in it in her hand.

“Shall we get right to it?” she asked.

“Absolutely.  I’m tanned, rested and ready.  Your coach or mine?”

Carolyn chose the truck without a moment’s hesitation.  Quickly they buckled up and Charlie headed the truck towards her projects on the other side of the city.

“So, how did your trip go?” she asked.

Charlie filled her in on the details, much in the same manner as he had with LuAnn.  He omitted the part about The Prentiss’s call, and wondered why he did that.  Carolyn was obviously focused on the job at hand and didn’t pursue the thread of conversation too deeply.  “Park over there” she said finally, pointing to a space against the curb a quarter of a block in front of them.

Charlie did as he was instructed and the two exited his truck and entered a house that had a ‘FOR SALE’ sign pushed into the dry dirt that in better days had been a front lawn.  For the next three quarters of an hour Charlie slipped into construction mode as he inspected the work in progress.  He crawled underneath the house and up into the attic, and through every room in the place.  He would write on his clipboard, ask questions about this or that, and about what the general contractor had told her about the progress of the job so far.

When Charlie felt that he had gleaned all that he could at this site they drove to the two others, both of which were smaller scale operations.  Charlie repeated his inspection at the second house but found a team of plumbers at the third.  Out of courtesy he did not subject the house to his inspection protocol.  He did, however, introduce himself to the plumbers as a consultant to Carolyn, and asked a few questions, the answers to which he already knew.  At the end of the tour they returned to Charlie’s truck and began the return trip to her home.

All of this time Carolyn had refrained from asking him questions.  She could see that he had wheels turning in his head and left him alone while he did his work.  She was anxious to hear what he thought though, and the moment that he started the truck she decided that her patients had been extended for too long.

“Well?” she asked.

Charlie was silent until he navigated the truck onto a busy street and then replied.  “I’ve seen worse, but I’ve seen a lot better.  There’s corners being cut.  They’re subtle, but you can see it if you know what you’re looking for.  These houses should move for you well enough, but the new owners are going to be having problems in a little while.  If you plan on doing this long term, that could come back to haunt you.  It’s a digital world, and work of mouth has expanded exponentially on social media.  Short version?  I don’t think this guy’s giving you fair value.”

Carolyn’s face showed her disappointment, and Charlie continued to speak.  “I wouldn’t take that too hard, Carolyn.  You’re not a contractor.  How in the world could you be expected to be on top of all of the fine points of the trades?  That’s what a general contractor is supposed to do; be the experience that an owner doesn’t have.  He either doesn’t know his job or has decided to not do it.”

“So what should I do?  I feel like firing the bastard right now!”  Carolyn was visibly angry, which was something that Charlie had not seen yet.  She sat motionless, looking forward through the front window of his truck, but her body was rigid and the muscles of her jaw bunched as she considered the bad work currently underway and, what was worse, the bad work that she had already sold to innocent buyers.”

“That’s sort of what I would advise you to do, but just not right now.  If I’m not mistaken you’re making payments on these properties and won’t be able to get out from under that until the work’s done and their sold.  This guy’s a jerk, but him and his crew are all that you have right now.

So what I suggest is that you let me put my boot in his backside and get what we can out of him while I get in contact with some guys that I used to know back in the old days.  I don’t know who’s doing what right now, so I’ll make some calls.  How’s that sound to you?”

“That makes sense” she replied.  Charlie could tell that more was coming however.  “I’m putting my name on this business, and my name means something to me.  Charlie, I would like to expand your duties.  I would like for you to teach me some of what you know.  I’ll back off a bit from the acquisition end of my business and spend time learning how to see this stuff for myself.  I hate being at the mercy of creeps like that Jackson.  Would that be acceptable to you?”

Of course” Charlie answered.  “That is exactly what I would do if I was in your position.  I’m not going anywhere soon though, so let’s get these jobs sorted out and then get you moving forward again.”

“Well, I hope you’re not going anywhere but you never know.  If you get back together with your family I could see you moving somewhere where there were fewer ghosts.  I would hate to lose your expertise.”

Charlie was shocked by her statement.  He hadn’t told her of the Prentiss’ call.  She knew of his desire to reconnect with his son, but they had not spoken of that at length.  He was surprised that she had thought about this at all.  Charlie felt that he had to clear this issue up immediately.

“There’s not much chance of anything like that happening.  My two main focuses right now are my son and this job.  I must tell you, I haven’t felt the juices flowing like this for quite a while, and I like it.  I’m fully invested in getting your construction issues sorted out and your business set on a good foundation.  You helped me up when I was at rock bottom, and I won’t forget that.  I’m enjoying myself these days, and I’m not going anywhere.”

“Thank you Charlie.  I’m sorry that I suggested that you were.  And it’s none of my business anyway, really.  I’m just ticked off about getting snookered.  I don’t like being at somebody’s mercy when I can’t trust them.”

“I don’t either” Charlie responded.  I’ll be here, helping you all that I can, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”

They arrived at Carolyn’s house soon after this conversation and she invited Charlie in for lunch.  He declined her offer, reminding her that he had one last project of his own to finish before he could work exclusively for her, and that his customers deserved his attention.  “Of course they do.  So you go and give it to them.  I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“You bet” he answered.  She then exited his truck and walked up to the front door and entered her house.  “I wonder if she’s going to kick somebody’s ass” he thought.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if she does.  That wouldn’t be the best idea she’s ever had, but I wouldn’t blame her if she does.”

Charlie pulled over to the curb a couple of blocks away from her house and pulled out his phone.  He searched for a few moments until he found the website for Gomez, Baca and Sons; General Contracting, and then punched the number that was listed.  After a few rings he heard a voice say “Hello, can I help you?”

“Manny?  Is this Manny Baca?”

“Yes it is.  May I ask who’s calling?”

“Oh, sorry.  This is Charlie Hamer.  How’re you doing Manny?”

“Ai!  Charlie!  Hijo de su madre!  How’re you doing, man?”

“Pretty good.  Pretty good.  How’s the family?”

“Ah, growing up too quick.  No really, how’ve you been doing?  I heard about the crap you went through, at least some of it.  Are you really OK?”

“I’m getting there.  And I’m getting back into the game too.  It feels good.”

“Ai, man, I’m glad to hear it.  Well, what can I do you for?”

“I’ve got a situation.  I’m working as a consultant for a lady named Carolyn Prescott.  She’s flipping houses and has some pendejo named Jackson generalling her remodel work.  You heard of him?”

“Jackson.  Jackson.  Nope, can’t say that I have.  There’s a lot of new players out there Charlie; you know how it can be.  So, what’s the problem?”

“He’s a rip-off.  Putting lipstick on a pig.  He’s cutting corners and doing crap work with a nice cover on it.”

“Ah, cabrón.  Rape it and run, eh?”

“Exactly.  She’s called him on a few things but he’s pretty good at covering his shitty work just well enough to get paid for it.”

“Well, why don’t you general it for her?  You still got your license, no?”

“Yeah, I still got it.  I don’t know.  I got a few other irons in the fire.  I was wondering, are you busy right now?”

“Yeah.  I’m busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest.”

“Well, I’m glad and I’m disappointed about that.  You know anyone who’s worth squat that’s available?

“You might try some guy who’s new to the area.  He’s a Rusito named Pavel.  Let’s see, I have his name around here somewhere.  Hold on for a minute.”  After less than a minute Manny came back on the line.  “Kolochek.  Pavel Kolochek.  He’s new, like I said, but he does pretty good work.  I don’t know about letting him general a job, but he’d make a pretty good sub and would take a lot of heat off of you.  You want me to give you his number?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

Manny Baca gave Charlie the phone number and hung up after saying “It’s good to hear your voice amigo.  I’m glad to hear that you’re back.  Rosa and I have prayed for you.”

Thank you Manny.  It’s good to hear your voice too, and I am really glad to be back in the game.  Give my best to Rosa and the family.”

Charlie hung up and pulled away from the curb.  He turned his attention to driving safely and putting his energy into the remodel project before him.  As he pulled up in front of this last solo job, for a while at least, Charlie reflected that his life, all in all, had become something worth living again.  He felt like he wanted to thank somebody, but it would take a long time to get in touch with all of those people.  Instead, he decided that he would thank everyone by doing the best work that he possibly could, and jumped into it with energy and a big smile.

 

The Garden, Chapter XIV

Charlie glanced out the window of the Boeing 737 as it flew past Long Beach, California.  He had brought a book, thinking that he might kindle an interest in reading on the two and a half hour flight from Portland to San Diego.  That plan didn’t work out however.  He had never been much of a reader before and it didn’t look like that was going to change any time soon.  The book remained in his lap as he flew south, back to the town where he was born and where he hoped to continue stitching his life back together.  His mind was free to roam as he sat back as far as the seat would allow, and he used that freedom to review the past three weeks.

The memorial service for Duane had been harder on him than he expected.  LuAnn looked drawn, and more frail than her normally thin frame usually looked.  Her eyes were red, as if her tears had tattooed her grief into her flesh.  The smoker’s cough was worse, suggesting long hours of finding solace in those packs of death instead of sleeping.  Charlie had expected LuAnn to be above grief such as he had felt after losing Stevie.  Why she should be any more impervious to the effects of losing a loved one than he had been, he couldn’t say.

LuAnn was surprised to see him there at the church, and when she did she put her arms around his neck and her head against his shoulder, gently sobbing and unwilling to let go for several minutes.  Perhaps it was because she knew about Charlie’s own dance with death, and she felt a kinship with a fellow sufferer.

All that Charlie felt at first was awkwardness,  This was something that he had never been able to do in his life, and his impulse was to disengage from the embrace and leave the church as quickly as possible.  That is what he would have done at any time before the last two months.

 

On this day however, he had memories of his conversations with LuAnn, with D’Andra, with Rachael and Billy.  Charlie knew that it was important that he stand and offer consolation to his friend, even if he had no way of knowing if he was doing anything the right way or the wrong way,  so he stood and held LuAnn’s thin and softly shaking body against his own.

He thought of the weight and health that he had added to his own body the past few months and wished that he could simply transfer some of that to LuAnn if only he could hold her long enough.  And perhaps something like that did happen.  When at last LuAnn released her grip around his neck and stepped back away from him she had ceased to sob or tremble.

“Now I know how you were feeling, Charlie.  I think I understand you better now than I ever did before,” she told him.

“You probably do,” he replied.  “And so you should also know that we can recover from it, with a little help from others.  Whatever you need, and whenever you need it, just call on me.  Remember.  Whatever it is.”

Other friends and family then surrounded LuAnn and she went to sit in the front of the church.  Charlie went to the back row and took his place between Jason and Tank.  Jason openly expressed his discomfort at being surrounded by a bunch of people who believed in fairy tales.  Tank was a little bit more comfortable, although he was Catholic and felt awkward in a Protestant church.

 

“In my community, Latino and Catholic were like saying the same thing” Tank told him.  “This here, it’s kinda like the same as being in a Catholic church, but at the same time it’s all different too.”

“So, how did you come by the name of Tank?” Charlie asked before the service started.

“Well, I was always bigger than the other kids in my neighborhood, and they began to call me ‘El Tanque.’”

Charlie looked at Tank uncomprehendingly.

“”El Tanque” he repeated.  “You know, The Tank.  Like a Sherman tank.  Well, it just sorta stuck.  You know what?  I like it.  Who’s gonna mess around with a guy named El Tanque?”

Charlie acknowledged the wisdom of that, and soon the service began.  Jason fidgeted and looked like he might bolt at any minute, while Tank sometimes said something softly in Spanish and did that crossing thing that Catholics do between head and chest and their two shoulders.

Charlie’s attention, though, was mostly on the speaker.  He guessed that he was a priest or pastor, or whatever they called him, and he listened carefully as that person spoke of a victory over death, of a place where Duane was whole and without pain in his leg and things like that.  He spoke of death not being final, but instead being the beginning of a new life, and how God was present here in this world of suffering and there in the next world where suffering ceased to exist, and was tying the two together and making all things make sense in the end.

Charlie thought of Stevie not as the pale, battered corpse that he had been called to view in the Clasp County Morgue, or the body thumping up against a pier in the middle of the Columbia River imploring him to jump and join her.  No, if this man was right, Stevie was now an even happier and more perfect model of a beautiful person than the one that he had previously adored, and was only waiting until he could join her in his own natural time.  That picture gave Charlie a chill, and he wished desperately that this message was the truth.

  “I’lll have to bounce this off of the guys at the Key and Lock,”  Charlie told himself.  He knew what Walt would think of it, and was pretty sure that Billy would not be sold on that idea either.  Dom, Ted and Joe however might have another point of view.

  “Rachael!” he thought.  “I’ll have to speak to her about this.  She’s more into this stuff than anyone I know.  I’ll see how she views this idea.”

But he didn’t get a chance to do that before his trip to San Diego.  Now that he had decided to make that trip he applied himself with even more energy than usual to the task of completing his remodel job for Carolyn.  He was on the job at precisely nine in the morning and worked with little more than a lunch break if there was enough to do in a single day.  At the end of two weeks after the memorial service he was dusting tile and countertops, adjusting the level on the gas range, and giving the cabinet doors their last swing open and shut to ensure smooth motion and balance.  Carolyn was very pleased with his work.

“Charlie, this is better than I ever imagined that it could be,” she said as she took her first walk through the completed project.  “This is exactly what I wanted.  I feel as if Mom could walk through that door at any moment.”

“I’m glad that you like it,” Charlie replied.  “And that’s not just blowing smoke.  I really do appreciate that you took a chance on me when I didn’t look like such a good horse to bet on.  Your confidence in me gave me back some confidence in myself, and that was worth more than the pay itself.  Well, maybe by only a little bit.”

Carolyn just looked at Charlie for a moment, wondering where that thought had come from.  She had worked with Charlie for nearly a month, off and on, and he was not given to expressing thoughts like that.  Charlie could sense her puzzlement.

“I learned about that stuff from my counselor,” he said with a laugh.  “I don’t usually think up smart stuff like that on my own.”

Carolyn laughed with him and assured him that her confidence had been amply repaid.

“And speaking of pay,” she said, “here’s your final draw.”  She handed him a check which signified her satisfaction that the job was finished.

Charlie thanked her and said “You know, I’m a little bit sad that this is finished.  I have really enjoyed working with Luke and you, and this was the first job that I’ve had in a while that was actually fun again.  I hope that it can stay like that for me now.  I’m guessing that it will.”

“I hope so too,” Carolyn said.  “And while were on the subject, do you have any other work lined up now?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “I’m converting a garage into a family room over in Parker’s Landing.  I’ll start in maybe two weeks.”

“Oh,” Carolyn responded.  “Well, the reason I asked is because I want to make you a proposition.  Have you got time to sit down for a few minutes?”

Charlie agreed and sat at his usual place at the table, which now rested closer to the dining area window and farther away from sink and stove.  Carolyn sat down opposite him and launched directly into the topic which she had in mind.

“I’ve told you a little about my work Charlie, how I purchase houses and renovate them to a level such that I can make a good profit and still give the buyer a good home.”  Charlie nodded and Carolyn continued.  “And I’ve also told you that I am not entirely satisfied with the general contractor whom I usually use for this work.  Since I began helping you on this project I’m beginning to notice how he cuts corners, does some things ‘good enough,’ and simply doesn’t pay attention to details.  Not the way that you do anyway.  When I all him out on something, I get a look that I don’t like.  Oh, he does what I tell him, but there’s no real respect for the work, as far as I can see, and there’s no respect for me either, I think.

So what I’m thinking is that I would like to replace him, and if you would be interested, I would like to hire you.  If you would like to general the whole deal, that would be great.  If you would rather work alone, and just do some of my work, that would be OK too.  Either way, I would like for you to still work for me in some capacity.  I trust your work and I appreciate the way you respect me.  As a woman, and still relatively new to the business that I’m in, both of those things  mean a lot to me.”

Charlie didn’t take long to accept Carolyn’s offer.  He could fulfill his obligations to the remodel at Parker’s Landing easily enough while preparing to take over the construction end of Carolyn’s business.  He would begin immediately as a consultant, supervising the work that was already underway, which would release Carolyn to find more houses which showed promise of being acquired and profitably resold.

“There is one thing though,” Charlie said.  “Next week I will be flying to San Diego for the weekend, and maybe a little bit longer if needed.  It is very important to me that I make this trip.  Once I return I should have no distractions other than a short hunting trip in August.  I’m taking a friend who’s got a disability, so it won’t be a long one.”

Carolyn smiled broadly at him when she answered.  “You enjoy your trip to San Diego, and it just figures that you’re taking a disabled guy on a hunting trip.  You know, you really have a heart for other people Charlie, and it shows all over you.”

Charlie blushed at this unexpected praise and replied “You may not have thought that about me for most of my life.”

“Well, maybe you’re right.  But this model of Charlie Hamer is the only one that I know, and this is what I see.”

They spoke further about Charlie’s new position, which was to begin immediately and with pay, and Charlie told her of Jason.  “He’s a guy who has been homeless, I think, since he got out of the Army.  Or nearly that long.  He’s now getting his life back together too.”  And then he asked her approval of giving him a chance on her work.  Carolyn just laughed and said “Oh, yeah.  This guy who never had a heart for people!  Of course you can give him a chance on my work.”

At last Charlie stood to leave.  He loved the feelings that he had experienced here in this kitchen with this sharp and compassionate person.  But it was time to attend to other things.  Charlie walked to the door and promised to be ready in the morning to begin supervision of the work of her contractor.  At the doorway Carolyn stood until he had cleared the storm door and was prepared to close it, and then spoke once again to him.

“Oh, and Charlie.”

“Yes’” he replied.

“I just want to thank you for sleeping in your truck while the exterior wall was open.  That was very sweet of you and I felt very protected.”

Charlie’s jaw dropped and he turned bright crimson as he realized that he hadn’t been nearly as clever as he had thought.  He recovered quickly though and said with an embarrassed smile “Well, I had to keep you safe so that I could get paid.”  They both laughed and Charlie drove away feeling something like ecstasy.

That feeling of elation had not entirely worn off as the day arrived for Charlie to board the plane to San diego.  He had expected that he would be nervous about flying to his old home to begin the process of trying to renew contact with Maureen and Jack, but the nerves were not nearly what he had expected.  The events of the last three months had made a huge difference on Charlie, and he viewed the journey that he was now on with a mix of anxiety and excitement, in what ration and proportion he wasn’t entirely sure.

As the airplane began to make its descent toward Lindbergh Field he decided that excitement was winning the contest.  Beach communities passed underneath him and now he could see the greatly changed skyline of downtown San Diego.  His heart began to beat just a little faster, and when the wheels touched the ground an unexpected sensation of being home greeted him.

Charlie’s mother had offered to pick him up at the airport but he had declined.  “No, Mom.  I’ll want my own wheels,” he had told her, and she was too excited about having her son visiting as if from among the dead to offer any resistance.  It didn’t take twenty minutes for him to be in a car and driving up the hill towards the Hillcrest neighborhood, and home.

Elaine Hamer was on the front porch waiting for Charlie before the car rolled to a stop two houses down the street from her residence.  Charlie knew that she would be sitting in a chair in front of the big picture window and watching for him, and so he wasn’t surprised at her greeting.

“Hi Mom,” he said as if he was just getting home from school.  Mrs. Hamer couldn’t say anything back; she just softly clapped her hands again and again as he walked up the flagstone path from the sidewalk to the house and mounted the stares to the porch.  When he arrived at the top she threw both hands into the air and wrapped her arms around her son.

Charlie had begun to learn the art of the hug and was able to return her embrace, which lasted longer than all of their previous embraces combined, he thought.  At length she commented that he must be hungry, which in fact he was. She ushered him into his old home for a lunch that would have satisfied three Charlie Hamers.

Finally, after eating and stowing his suitcase in his old bedroom, he sat down in the living room and began to get down to the point of his trip.

“So, Mom,” he began.  “I’m going to take this first day easy and relax right here.  I might take a walk in the neighborhood, or if you have any small repairs that are needed I could probably take care of them.  But tomorrow I’m going to start trying to find Maureen and Jack.  Have you been in touch with them at all, or with their parents?”

“No,” I haven’t seen Maureen or Jack in years, and I’m frankly unhappy about that.  I liked Maureen, and Jack is my grandson, after all.  I would have thought that I would get a little consideration”

Charlie was surprised to learn that there was another casualty in this affair; that there was another bleeding wound.  He considered carefully what to say next.

“Well, Mom, I think you have a right to be upset.  But I don’t believe that anything was done as an intentional slight to you.  Maureen liked you too, and her withdrawing from contact with you just shows how hurt she was by this whole thing.  Maybe if I can start a little healing, things can loosen up and you can reconnect too.”

And then an idea that Charlie hadn’t expected occurred to him.  “You know, Mom, this affair was probably as hard on Maureen as Dad leaving us was on you.  Maybe it was even harder for her, since at least all of us were still alive.  Do you think that’s possible?”

Elaine quit rocking her chair.  There was no expression on her face that Charlie could read.  She simply stared out the window for what seemed like several minutes, but was actually much less than that.  Finally, she began to rock her chair again slightly, and then looked at her son.

“Yes, I suppose that is possible.  Very possible.  I hadn’t thought of it in that context, but it could be.  The circumstances were very different though, so I would have to think about that.”

“How so, Mom.  How were they different?”

Charlie and his mother had never discussed his father before; he had never asked and she had never brought up his name.  In fact, Charlie realized, he didn’t even know his father’s name!  Mrs. Hamer thought a minute more and then spoke to Charlie on this topic for the first time.

“Everything that happened to your family was an accident, son.  Stephanie’s death was not your fault.  It wasn’t her fault either, and it damn sure wasn’t Maureen’s fault.  Sometimes when you roll life’s dice you get sevens and sometimes you get snake eyes.  Like the saying goes; ‘shit happens.’  Well, it happened to you.  I’ll not criticize how you handled it either, since I haven’t walked an inch in your shoes, much less a mile.  I guess I handled my grief a little better, but like I said, mine was different.  What went on in our house was no accident.”

Elaine quit speaking and stared back out the big window.  Charlie sat quietly on the sofa.  It was the same sofa that he would lie on as a child when he was sick.  He would watch the television and sleep, and wait until his body began to heal enough for him to keep down chicken with rice soup and Jello with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks in it.  He thought of that healing, and how he hoped that it would be replayed here once again. Elaine continued to look out the window, and at last Charlie prompted her to continue.

“So,” he said softly.  “So how was it different, Mom?  If you want to tell me, that is.”

Elaine looked back at her son, and in a low and soft but clear voice and with dry eyes began to speak.  “I kicked him out of the house.”

Charlie was shocked.  “I thought that he left to play the high roller,” he said.

“Oh, he was a high roller all right,” Elaine replied.  “He made good money.  Always did.  And he could flash a big wad any time that he liked.  But he was a player too.  He wasn’t satisfied with having a wife and a family and a home, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with keeping it a secret from me either.  He was not usually mean, but he really didn’t care about us at all.  We gave him a veneer of respectability, but I got tired of being used as a prop on his stage.”

Charlie was shocked to learn this about his father.  He didn’t know why he was shocked, exactly, but this was not the picture that he had expected.  He wondered what else he had wrong, and pressed his mother for more information.

“I was asked by my counsellor – oh, yes.  I’m seeing a professional who’s helping me to get my life back together.  So I was asked about my relationship with my father, and I realized that I don’t remember anything about him, really.  She thinks it might be good for me to know something about him; it might help me to get myself sorted out.  If you don’t mind talking about it, could you share some memories with me?”

Well, I suppose that I don’t mind.  Not really,” she said.  “But I don’t get any pleasure out of it.  Your father usually ignored you and the other kids, but you most of all.  You were the youngest and I think he was tired of kids by the time that you came along.  You also had an independent streak that irked him.  He always wanted to be the star of the show, even if he didn’t have a show worth watching, and you didn’t worship him enough, I guess.  He would push you to do things that you didn’t want to do.”

Things like what, Mom?”

“Well, I do you remember Bobby Crowe?”  Charlie nodded in the affirmative.  “You remember how he used to bully you?  Well, your father knew that you were not an aggressive kid and he said that he was going to “make a man out of you.”  So he took you up to the playground one day when he saw Bobby there and told you to go stand up to him.”

“Shit, I don’t remember anything like that!”

“Well, it happened.  You didn’t want any part of it but he wasn’t going to let you leave until you stood up to Bobby.”

“So what happened?  I don’t remember ever getting into a fight with Bobby.  He pushed me around until I graduated from high school, but I don’t remember a fight.”

“That’s because there wasn’t one.  Your brother, Clark, saw what was going on and came home and told me.  I went up to the playground and intervened.  While he was explaining himself to me you slipped away and climbed up in the big pine tree that grew in front of the Hennings’ house and stayed there until nightfall.”

Charlie declared that he did not remember any such thing.

“Well it’s all true,” she said.  “Chet always insisted on having dinner at four thirty in the afternoon, and when you didn’t come home until nearly dark he was mad, but I told him that if he said one word to you, well, let’s just say that he was in our bedroom pouting when you got home.

And then there was the time in the back yard.  We had guests over for a barbecue.  You remember the Burtons who lived on the corner?”

“Again, Charlie shook his head in the negative.”

“Well, they moved when you were seven or so.  Anyway, he was fiddling around with Mrs. Burton then, or maybe he hadn’t gotten that far yet and was still trying to impress her.  Anyway, you and Clark and Emily and their little girl, I can’t remember her name, were playing in the yard while Chet was cooking.  You threw a dirt clod up into the air for some silly but innocent reason and it came down on that little girl’s head.  It didn’t hurt her really, there was no blood or even a bump, but it scared her and she started to squeal like an angry tomcat.  Chet took off his belt and lowered your pants right there in front of everybody and whipped you until you nearly passed out.  You don’t remember that either?”

Charlie shook his head again to signify that he did not remember, and he now began to wonder how much more he had suppressed, and what D’Andra would make of this.  His mother began to talk again though and interrupted his thought.

“I didn’t know what I would do if I left him.  I had no skill that I could use in the labor force.  A lot of women were in that position back then.  I felt powerless, and as much a victim as you were.  I thought that I just had to be quiet and take it.  That day though, I began to wake up.

On that day I finally told him that that was enough.  I pulled your pants back up and took you into the house, and I made you a dinner in there.  He was really mad at me that night, and I thought that he might start in on me too.  He had been drinking that day and continued to do so into the night.  I think he passed out before he could get to that point though, and he forgot the whole thing by the next day.

Mr. Burton finally learned about the affair and they left that house on the corner.  I don’t know if they divorced, but they probably did.  Mr. Burton was a pretty big man, but your father moved in higher circles and knew people, so he simply came over one day and cussed Chet out and we never saw that family again.”

Charlie’s head was spinning by all of this information that was entirely new to him, and he pressed on to learn more about this man who was a total stranger to him.

“So, how did his leaving come about?” he asked.

“Well like I said, he didn’t just leave.  I kicked his ass out of the house.  I almost kicked it right out the door.  By the time that you were finishing elementary school I had had enough.  He was usually careful enough to not do anything that would show up on a police blotter but I had no guarantee that we were safe, so I went to our friends, the Turpins, the Essexes, and the O’Leerys, and I borrowed enough money to hire a good divorce lawyer.  In no time he had Chet out the front door with nothing but his clothes.

Our friends were more than happy to help.  They had watched him over the years and knew that he was trouble.  He could be a charmer when he wanted to, and we had friends, but making friends and keeping friends was two different things.  Soon enough they could see his true colors.  They swore under oath about the things they had witnessed, and this house, and those exceedingly ‘generous’ alimony and child support checks?”  My lawyer wrung them out of his cheap hide, and the judge smiled when he dropped the gavel on him.”

Elaine then turned her head and looked back out the window.  There was a glitter in her eye and her jaw was set so that Charlie doubted that he could open it with his wrecking bar.

“So I’m really confused now about something, Mom.  After he left I would sometimes see you sad, and I didn’t know what in the world I could do about it.  I thought you were sad because it was an anniversary or a birthday or something.  What was that really all about?”

“You were actually right about those times.  They were anniversaries and so forth; days that were special to me.”

“But, with all of that history, why did they make you sad?”

Elaine turned and looked directly at Charlie and said “On those days I remembered the dreams that I had when Chet and I first met and married.  I remembered how a girl from a poor family of Okies who fled the dust bowl and came to California met her Prince Charming.  He would come into a restaurant where I was working my first and only job on his lunch break.  I remembered moving into my first home of my own, my first dance, my first sex.  Oh, yes.  Don’t look so scandalized.  How do you think you got here?

I thought that I had moved into my best daydream, but it was not long after you were born that I learned that I’d moved into my worst nightmare.  I remembered the day we met, our first date, when he proposed to me and when we married.  His birthday, your birthday, and Clark’s and Emily’s.  Each one of those days had once been a blessing to my heart, and later became a bitter epitaph to my dead dreams of how it was supposed to be.”

Charlie was stunned and sat in silence as he tried to process all that he had just heard.  He had believed that his father had been a non-factor in his life and now had learned that he had been a terror to him.  He had believed too that his mother was abandoned and lonely.  Instead, she was the victorious survivor who cherished her freedom from the oppressive hand of this faceless father of his.

“So Mom, I’ve been feeling guilty lately because I never could help you when I saw you were down.  I’m thinking now that you were down, but in a lot different way than I thought you were.  I don’t know now if there was any way that I could have helped.  Was there any way?”

“I probably was in a different state than you could have imagined, and I suppose that I could have used a hug back then, but I didn’t know how to ask for one.  I had pretty much given up on sentimental stuff by then and felt like I had nothing to offer to anyone.

Fact of the matter, I’ve felt bad myself for a good many years because I was never able to be there for you.  You would get hurt, by your own doing or at your father’s hand, or get picked on by that damned Bobby Crowe, and I could clean you up and put a band aid on the worst of it, but I could never give you a hug, or even think of a word to say to you that would help.

I was so bound up in my own troubles that I couldn’t find a soft shoulder for you, and as time passed, my anger and bitterness about how life had turned out for me seemed to grow instead of wane.  By the time you met Maureen I felt like I was your nanny more than I was you mother, and that by my own choice.  Clark and Emily had grown up and moved out as quickly as they could by then and there was only us, and when you met her, she and her family took that responsibility off of my shoulders it seemed.

And I was glad to give it up.  I loved you and Clark and Emily.  I celebrated your victories and suffered for you all when you stumbled, but I didn’t know how on earth to connect with you on any more than the most superficial level.  I have friends, true enough, but it’s still like that.  We give each other enough support to keep a friendship alive but not much more than that.

That is not the girl that I used to be.  What I became was the result of being pressed and squeezed and deformed by my fifteen years with Chet.  I could protect you from him, but I couldn’t give you much more than that, and for that I am truly sorry.”

Elaine sat back in her rocking chair but did not allow herself to relax.  The jaw was still set, the spine rigid and straight, her chest rising and falling with short, shallow breaths, as if trying to vent off the anger that her story had dredged up from a vault of painful memories.

Charlie sat equally still, trying to begin to sort this new information that was exploding into his brain.  He didn’t need D’Andra to realize that his inability to extend comfort to other hurting people did not arise from his father.  It was his mother, who was a victim herself, and who’s wounds had locked her heart in an iron cage for which no key could be found, that had modeled this aloofness.

Now, as she approached her eighth decade of life, she had opened up to Charlie and allowed some of that hurt to ooze out onto the old, familiar living room floor; a floor that Charlie once played on, and where he had stretched out on a rug watching the television with Maureen, whispering things in her ear that would make her giggle and punch him lightly on the shoulder.  He thought of LuAnn, who had just lost her husband and was pouring out her grief to God and to family and friends, and who opened her heart to receive comfort in return and regain her balance.

Elaine Hamer never had those blessings; didn’t know how it all worked.  Charlie hadn’t either, until recently at any rate.  But as he looked at his mother he felt the beginnings of a caring response such as he had never experience towards her in his life.  He thought of Rachael and her damaged eye, Jason and Billy struggling to live and move on with the trauma of what they had experienced in war, and LuAnn, and it was as if a tide of human caring had at last ceased its ebb and slowly began to flow in his life.

He had no idea how it would be accepted, but he decided that he would not try to staunch that flow.  This was not a time to think of Civil War battles or problems in matching drywall to plaster.  Charlie looked at his mother, sitting proud yet wounded in her chair, lonely and still a victim of the disappointment that she had experienced in her life.

“Mom, would you let me hold you now?” he asked.

She stared at Charlie as if she didn’t understand his words.

“I know.  We don’t do this sort of thing; either of us.  It’s weird for me too.  But if it’s OK, I would like to hug you.  I’ll keep it short, if your like, but I wish you would let me.”

Charlie could see emotions playing behind the eyes of his mother, and he could only guess at what they could be.  He rose up from his place on the sofa and walked half-way to the chair where his mother was sitting and stood there.

She looked at him and said “We’ve hugged before.  We did on the porch, just today.”

“Yes, I know,” he said.  “That was ‘hello.’  This one would be ‘I know that you’re hurting.  This one would be ‘I want to help you carry the load.’  This one would be ‘I love you, regardless of our history.’”

Elaine sat for a minute longer and then, slowly and almost mechanically, she rose up and walked the few feet to where her son stood.  He wrapped his arms around his mother and pulled her gently against his chest.

And then, little by little, he felt the beginning of a melting, like springtime on a snowfield.  The spine softened and the head lowered onto Charlie’s shoulder.  No words were said; not a muscle moved, but two souls shifted with a power that could shake mountains.

After a long embrace Elaine let go and returned to her chair.  Charlie stood still for a moment longer, and then returned to his place on the sofa.  Elaine was rocking her chair again but the motion was more fluid and easy, a rocking of the cradle as opposed to a burning of nervous energy.  Charlie could see the change and wondered if a change could also be seen in him as well.  At last Elaine spoke to her son.

“Charlie, I know that you were going to wait until tomorrow to start looking for Maureen and Jack, but I suggest that you start right away.  I’ve been wound up tight as a drum for most of my life and it looks like I’ve shared that curse with you.  You’ve come here with a good mission in mind.  An important mission.  I suggest that you get busy with it now.”

The Garden, Chapter XIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’d have to kill me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And did you run?”

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

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

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

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you told them that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have any contact with Maureen now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you moved yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the tip will really suck.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

“And is there?”

“Is there what?”

“is there anything to clear up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you make any attempt to see him?”

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

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

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

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

“How much did you try to talk to him?

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter VI

Charlie awoke the next morning with what he  thought at first might be a hangover.  His gut felt tight and his head felt like there was a band around it with a screw increasing pressure by being ever-so-slowly tightened.  “Dang it, I should know not to drink too much after being away from alcohol for so long” he thought.  But in his heart Charlie knew that the discomfort that he felt had nothing to do with the couple of beers he had enjoyed the night before with Walt and his friends.  This unease was just a new manifestation of the hurt that had been Charlie’s unwanted companion for the last two years.

Charlie rubbed the gritty sleep from his eyes and the first thing that he saw was the flowers in his old coffee pot.  “Damned waste of a coffee pot” Charlie growled under his breath.  Rising from his sofa, Charlie walked across the tiny living room, picked up the pot and walked toward the kitchen.  “I’ll throw these weeds into the trash” he thought, but when he arrived at the trash can by the kitchen counter he couldn’t bring himself to throw them away.  “What the hell” Charlie thought.  “This pot makes crappy coffee anyway,” and so the flowers received their last minute reprieve.

Charlie fried some bacon, then fried some eggs, and then fried some potatoes.  All the while he wondered if he could fry broccoli.  He gave up on that plan however and peeled an orange.  This orange was the first piece of fresh fruit that Charlie had eaten in many months, although he didn’t think of that at the moment.  His stomach was probably surprised at this intrusion by something with nutritional value.

Charlie looked at the coffee pot again, and again nearly threw the flowers into the trash.  Once again however he denied the impulse and even returned the flowers to their spot on the table next to the television.  Charlie remembered what he had thought the night before:  “It’s not the flowers’ fault.”  And it wasn’t.  The thought helped to relieve some of the pressure around his head, just a little.

Still, Charlie needed coffee.  He knew that finding somewhere to get a cup of coffee would not be a much of a problem.  Coffee in the Northwest is like cheese in Wisconsin; you could buy cheese with your tires or appliances or anything else.  As Charlie locked the front door and walked toward his truck the solution to his coffee shortage leapt into his mind.  “I’ll get a cup at Leroy’s.”

The morning rush was in full swing when Charlie walked through the door of that tiny reflection of an earlier time.  Every table and every seat at the counter was taken.  Charlie had arrived a little bit later than he had the day before and the workers getting off from the night shift at the port and railroad yard, plus the commuters waiting for traffic to die down before tackling the interstate highway that crossed the bridge and flowed into every corner of Portland (a futile act, that was, and everyone knew it) had filled the place.

LuAnn was bouncing from table to table, chapped red hands filled with steaming plates of ham, eggs, waffles and every other good thing that you would expect to find at a truck stop or a small town greasy spoon cafe.  Charlie chuckled as he thought to himself “News flash Charlie.  This IS a small town greasy spoon cafe.”  LuAnn looked up as she deposited her load of dishes and turned to pick up another that had appeared on the window shelf between the dining area and the kitchen.

“Hello there” she said cheerily when her eyes landed upon Charlie’s.  “Sit anywhere.  We don’t stand on formality around here.”

Charlie quickly assessed that standing was all that was going to happen at that moment if he was to stay, and he opted not to do so.  He sought LuAnn’s attention in order to sign his departure.  She at last looked his way again and he subtly waved his hand, sweeping the room.  LuAnn could see in an instant what the problem was and signaled back for Charlie to come to the corner of the counter, closest to the kitchen window.  Charlie did as he was told while LuAnn brought the stool that she had sat on the day before.  She moved some newspapers and a small pile of menus to clear a place at the counter and placed the stool in front of the newly liberated space.

Charlie thanked her and sat down as LuAnn walked away to clean up a table that had just been vacated by a party of burly men who looked like they could unload a ship or a boxcar with their bare hands.  At length LuAnn got the table cleared, poured a few more cups of coffee, and returned to take Charlie’s order.

“What’ll it be Dearie?” she asked.

“Just coffee” Charlie responded somewhat sheepishly, embarrassed that he had caused her to make a fuss over him for only a cup of coffee.

“Glory be, Hon” LuAnn said with a broad smile as she reached for the nearby coffee pot. “I told you that you were a blessing!  I’ve been busier than a one legged man in a fanny kicking contest.  They must’ve put on a second shift at the port or somewhere.  I need a rest!”

LuAnn cackled a good natured laugh at her own metaphor, followed by the smoker’s cough which she buried politely in the crook of her elbow.  Then, after pouring a cup full of industrial grade coffee which was still better than anything Charlie had made at home, she went off to seat another couple of men and clear two more tables where customers were beginning to look restless and ready for their check.  At this point a middle-aged, overweight man with a florid face beneath his cook’s hat and a stained apron emerged from the kitchen in order to run the cash register and pour coffee refills for the customers sitting at the counter.

Charlie watched the rhythm of the cafe as he sipped his coffee and reflected on the business that he had once owned.  Hamer Properties and Construction was no giant, by the standards of the real giants of industry, but in Clark County, Washington it was a very prominent player on the commercial scene.  The company had begun in the same manner that many construction outfits do, as one man with two acquaintances who acted as independent contractors and paid their own taxes.

Charlie was a natural at building things and in fifteen years had built a company that employed forty three workers plus various independent contractors, and built single dwellings, small residential developments, and small to medium commercial projects.  Additionally, HP&C held rental and lease properties that provided an even inflow of cash during the ups and downs of the construction business cycle.  Yes, Charlie had done very well for himself.

But all of this empire building did not happen by spontaneous creation.  Charlie would rise before the sun, eat a breakfast prepared by Maureen, and get to the job site early and stay late.  Charlie did good work.  His customers were satisfied and his workers well treated.  The money flowed in, and although Charlie had little taste for newer and more expensive toys, the security that his bank account and investments provided was like a drug to him.  “How much is enough” John D. Rockefeller was once asked.  “Just a little more than I have” was the gazillionaire’s answer.  Charlie would have denied the wisdom of that quote if he had ever heard it, but if he was honest with himself he would admit that he was a lot more like Rockefeller than he was like Mother Teresa.

Maureen would have agreed with that assessment without hesitation.  Charlie had never been a bad husband to her or a bad father to the children.  In fact, he was reasonably good in both of those areas.  It was just that he was an absent husband and father too much of the time.  Maureen first learned to miss her husband.  Then, ominously, she learned to not miss him.

Charlie’s relations with the children were complicated.  He favored his Golden Girl, Stephanie, who was a tree-climber and fly fisher and wave rider; in short, a girl after his own heart.  With Jack however his relationship was less secure.  Charlie loved Jack and was proud of his obvious intelligence and musical ability.  Jack took piano lessons and was his teacher’s best pupil.  Jack could also pick up just about any other musical instrument and quickly begin to sort out the techniques necessary to tease a little music out of it.

But Jack didn’t work well with his hands.  Whenever he tried to work with his father on a project around the house Jack would inevitably cut a board too long or, worse yet, too short.  The cerebral wiring necessary to enable a worker to see a finished project even before it was begun just wasn’t there for Jack.  Charlie wasn’t angry with Jack about this, but inevitably Jack receded from the center of Charlie’s attention as he drove on towards the goal of more business and more money,

Charlie’s eyes began to redden at the thought of his son.  Maureen had surrounded the boy with love and attention, and his big sister treated him like a rock star.  Several of Stevie’s friends were caught up in her affection for her little brother and gave him more attention than a young boy usually expected from older girls.  Jack was never made to feel like a pest with his sister and her friends.  Charlie, however, withheld the whole-hearted attention that Jack, and for that matter the rest of the family, deserved.  Maureen dealt with it, Stevie rose above it, but Jack was injured by it.  Charlie by now had plenty of time to reflect on that fact, and reflecting on it this morning caused the tightness in his chest and pressure from the invisible band around his head to increase.

The cook returned to his kitchen to prepare the order for the men who had come in a few minutes earlier.  More customers were paying up and heading toward the door, and none were entering to take their place.  After a huge inhale, the cafe appeared to be making an exhale.  LuAnn cleared one of the tables and a couple of places at the counter, and then refilled Charlie’s cup.  She shoved a pile of dirty dishes a little further down the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee, then perched on the round counter stool next to Charlie.

“Well, how are you doing today, young man?” she began.  “Two days in a row makes you a regular – – -.”

LuAnn saw the redness in Charlie’s eyes and stopped in mid sentence.  “Is something wrong, Sugar?  Are you OK?”

Charlie sat on his stool and said nothing.  He focused on his breathing, thought about the D Day invasion, and then gave up on that diversion.

“Yes and no” Charlie said.  “There’s some things that get me down when I think about them, and I’m thinking about them today.  I try not to, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.  Anyway, I wouldn’t want to bother you with it.”  Charlie reached for a napkin and blew his nose.

LuAnn sat quietly by Charlie and blew on her coffee.  Charlie was glad that she didn’t say anything, and he was also glad that she was there.  The warmth generated by the nearness of a kind human being penetrated his skin in some mystic way and spread warmth to his frozen heart.  Shortly, the last customer sitting at the counter began the usual rustlings and movements that signaled readiness to pay up and leave.  LuAnn patted Charlie affectionately on his wrist, handed him another napkin, and left to begin cleaning up the now nearly empty cafe.

Charlie dabbed at his moist eyes with the napkin and blew his nose one more time.  He wanted be on his way to work, but his coffee mug had just been refilled.  Also, he was feeling a peace imparted to him by LuAnn and he hesitated to leave that.  For just a moment he thought about helping her to clean the tables.  The young homeless guy wasn’t here today, so the full load would fall on LuAnn and the cook.  “Naw” he thought.  “You’re not their daddy.”

At that thought he remembered Jack again, and the time when he really had been a daddy, or could have been one had he chosen to do so.  The pain boiled up before he even saw it coming, and it hit him broadside.  Charlie felt like he was going to lose it, so he put twice the cost for a cup of coffee on the counter and stood up.  LuAnn looked his way as the motion caught her eye and watched as Charlie walked across the cafe towards the door.

“Dearie” she said, and Charlie stopped and turned towards her.  “Forgive me for butting in.  You don’t have to carry what you’re carrying alone.  Any time you want to sit somewhere where nobody’s going to judge you, you come here.  I’ll make a place for you if I’m here.  I know what pain is, and I’m going to pray for you.”

Charlie had no idea how to answer that.  He thought of God as a pissed off white guy in the clouds looking for the next sinner that he would roast in hell.  That picture didn’t make for much of a refuge.  The simple sincerity of LuAnn’s words conveyed none of that image however.  They just tried to give comfort, and Charlie decided to accept it.  LuAnn walked over to Charlie and gave him a hug.  As she separated she reminded him “You have a place here.  You aren’t alone.”

Charlie didn’t trust his mouth so his eyes had to speak his thanks.  He nodded goodbye and walked to his truck.  Once seated in the cab he prepared for the torrent of sobs that would usually come at this time, but oddly they failed to materialize.  Charlie was confused by this and thought full-on about Jack, expecting that to trigger the usual response.  It did not.

As Charlie thought about his son he remembered his love of music, his quiet demeanor, his intelligence.  And he also remembered that Jack was alive.  It was Stevie who died, not Jack and not Maureen and not himself.  He had thought before that Jack might as well be dead to him but today, for reasons that he could not quite fathom, he understood clearly that Jack was not dead.  He was very much alive.  And he needed a father.  This thought brought considerable confusion the Charlie, and he put it in the back of his mind to chew on it later.  Now, he realized, he had work to do.

Charlie put the engine in gear and drove to the site where he was working on the bathroom job.  He arrived at the house and quickly perceived that the homeowner was waiting anxiously for his arrival.  Charlie looked at his watch and saw that he was not late, and so assumed that she had something on her agenda.  Charlie assumed right.

“I’m sorry, but I have to run” she said on her way out the door.  “I have a client that I have to meet earlier than I thought.  There’s coffee in the pot if you’d like some.  I hope to be back in an hour or two.”

Charlie said “OK” and entered the house.  The homeowner lived in a house of sixteen or seventeen hundred square feet, the usual ranch style, that was about thirty years old.  Charlie had noticed that everything in the house was dated; carpet, appliances, and especially the bathroom.  The homeowner was always well dressed – professionally so when she went out to meet with clients – and this seemed to be out of place in this somewhat dreary house.  He therefore assumed that she had recently purchased the home.  Charlie had never seen a husband there, but he had never really thought about what that might mean one way or the other.  The homeowner, Carole or Carolyn or something like that, was the only person he had made contact with there.

She was about thirty five or forty, and pleasant, at least as much as he had had any interaction with her at all.  Usually she was in an office that had once been a bedroom while he worked.  From time to time she would disappear, sometimes leaving Charlie to lock up when he left.  “She must sell something” Charlie thought.  “Probably real estate.  Everybody thinks that they can sell real estate.”

Charlie entered the house and looked in the kitchen.  He had drank all the coffee he needed at Leroy’s but thought that it might be rude to ignore the offer that had been made to him.  The coffee maker had a glass container that was about a quarter full, and Charlie poured some into a white china cup.  The coffee was less than boiling hot, so Charlie could sip some rather quickly.  “This is the good stuff!”  Charlie thought.  “I have got to get me one of these.”  Charlie quickly finished his coffee and fell to work on the bathroom project.

Charlie soon forgot about the homeowner and lost himself in his work.  When she returned to the house he didn’t hear her come in.  Therefore, when she saw the progress that had been made on her bathroom she exclaimed “Oh, that’s wonderful.”  Charlie was not expecting that and jumped at the sound of her voice.  Worse yet, he had at that moment been preparing to break wind, and when he jumped the fart got away from him.

Braacckk!  Charlie turned beet red and apologized for the fart, the odor of which was beginning to permeate the bathroom’s air.  The homeowner was apologizing at the same time, but soon smiled, then giggled, and then simply broke down in laughter.  The laughter was not malicious; was in fact infectious, and Charlie’s embarrassment quickly melted away and soon he, too was laughing.

The homeowner sat down on the bed as tears rolled down her face.  She continued to struggle, trying to apologize some more,but the effort was only partially successful.  Charlie, for his part, was glad to escape the embarrassing moment, and chose that time to also escape the now-fetid air of the bathroom.  He flipped on the wall switch that engaged the overhead vent and exited the room.

As Charlie left the bathroom a wave of air drafted out with him, which brought the homeowner back into control.  “I think it’s time to beat a retreat” she said.  Standing, she walked toward the bedroom door and said over her shoulder “I’m going to make some lunch.  Would you like something to eat?”

“Sure” Charlie replied.  It was nearing his lunch break anyway.  “I have my own lunch that I should eat today, but I would love another cup of your coffee.”

The homeowner accepted that proposal and soon had coffee beans grinding in the kitchen.  Charlie retrieved the salami and cheese and apple that he had in a cooler in the cab of the truck.  The day was getting warm, as spring was plodding towards the summer that eventually came to the Northwest, most of the time anyway.  “I’ll have to start putting some ice packs in my cooler soon” he thought.  Charlie returned to the kitchen to find two plates placed at the table and the air filled with the aroma of coffee.

“You can sit over there” the homeowner said while pointing towards one of the plates.  “I’ll have the coffee made in a few minutes.”

Charlie sat down and placed his meat, cheese and apple on the plate.  The plate  was unnecessary, but it looked like it was expected of him and so Charlie complied.  The homeowner got some blueberries and yogurt from the refrigerator and some sort of cereal in a glass container off of a shelf.  She made a bowl of cereal out of those ingredients and then poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table.

“Thank you for the coffee this morning” Charlie said as the homeowner sat down.  “I mostly drink industrial strength mud, so that was a – – – treat.”  Charlie almost said ‘blessing’, and didn’t know why he hesitated.

“You’re welcome” she answered.  “I didn’t have time for breakfast, so excuse me for digging in,” and then she began to spoon slightly indelicate amounts of the cereal into her mouth.

“Excuse me too” Charlie said before he dug into his own lunch.  “I’m terrible with names, and I have forgotten yours.”

“Oh,” she replied.  “I don’t know if I told you more than once.  I’m Carolyn.  Carolyn Hatcher.  And don’t feel bad.  I’ve forgotten yours.”

“Charlie.  Charlie Hamer” he replied.

“Charlie Hamer” Carolyn repeated.  “That sounds familiar.  Ah, I remember.  There was a company by that name.  Any connection there?”

“Yes, that was my company” Charlie replied.  He was obviously unwilling to speak much further about it though.  Carolyn recognized his reticence.

“Bad memory there?  OK.  I’ll drop it.”

Charlie appreciated the sensitivity and felt compelled to say so.  “Thank you.  It’s still a raw wound.  Yes, I used to own that company, but just now I don’t feel comfortable discussing it much.”

“OK.  But that explains why your work on my bathroom is so good.  I have to tell you again how much I appreciated the suggestions that you made to me on the redesign, and also how much I like the work that you are doing.  I’ve told Al Schaeffer a couple times now how pleased I am that he gave me your phone number.  I’m not an expert, but I would say that you are quite a craftsman.”

“I’ve tried to be that all of my life” Charlie replied, finding that he enjoyed the compliments that he was receiving.  “I think it was Michelangelo, or Rodin, or somebody like that who said that a sculptor sees the figure that is locked in the marble and then releases it with his chisel  I look at my work sort of like that.”

“It shows” Carolyn noted as she chewed a spoonful of the cereal.  Charlie looked a little embarrassed as he picked up a chunk of cheese.  Embarrassed but pleased.

“I’m glad that you like it” Charlie said.  I’ve always taken pride in my work.”

“Why did you get out of it then?” Carolyn asked, and then continued “Oh, I’m sorry.  I said that I would drop it and there, I’m at it again.  Please, forget that question.  Your business is your own.”

Charlie looked down and pushed a chunk of cheese around on his plate.  He had spoken openly of his history a little more than a week ago with Walt and Rachael, but he was still not comfortable with doing so on a regular basis.  Charlie was touched by Carolyn’s obvious sincerity however, and decided to tell some of his story to her.

“It’s OK.  There was a – a death in the family.”  Charlie’s voice tailed off until it was hard to hear.  “I still have trouble dealing with it.”

It was now Carolyn’s turn to blush, and she became tongue-tied as well.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to – – – .   Ah, I’ve always had a big mouth.  Just ignore me” she said.  She then got up and began to fuss with plates and the dishwasher and almost dropped the coffee pot.  Carolyn’s agitation surprised Charlie and brought him out of his funk.

“It’s all right” Charlie said.  “Really, it is.  I’m slow at getting used to talking about this but I have actually started to do so a little.  I’ve appreciated your kind words and love your coffee.  It would be OK with me if we hit the reset button and go back to you saying what good work I do.”  Charlie smiled at his own attempt to lighten the moment and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had been successful.  Carolyn settled down and finished her impromptu kitchen chores quickly.  She then walked back to the table and sat down.  “OK”  she said.  “Reset.”

Carolyn breathed a deep sign, and then sat for a moment collecting her thoughts.  At length she said “There’s something else that I would like to discuss with you though, and I hope that I haven’t mucked things up so much that it gets in the way.  I picked this house up on the cheap because I like the location and, frankly, it’s what I could afford.  It definitely needs work though, as you could tell from the bathroom.  This kitchen,” Carolyn nodded towards that room with her head, “needs help too, possibly more even than the bathroom did.  I’m not sure of exactly what, but it needs something.  A lot of something!  I have some ideas but I would be interested in your thoughts.  Maybe, if we make a plan that I like, you could fit it into your schedule?”

Charlie thought about that for no more than a minute.  “I don’t really have much of a schedule.  Because of my – situation – I have not been all that engaged.  Yeah, I think that I might be able to put something together; share a few ideas with you.  One thing though, and I’m a little embarrassed to say it.  I’m going to be raising my labor cost a little, I think.  I’ve been pretty close to the bone for a long time and I think that I should bump it up.  It won’t be much, but I think I should.”

“I think you should too” Carolyn replied.  When Al told me your rates I almost didn’t call you.  I never trust the low bid; it’s usually low for a good reason.  I’m not rich,” Carolyn smiled at that.  ‘Not yet anyway.  But I believe in fair value, and you do better work than what I’m paying you for on the bath.  And speaking of that, will you accept more for that job?  I feel like I should be wearing a mask if I’m going to be robbing you.”

Charlie thought about that.  He really could use the money.  Ultimately however he decided against it.  “No, but thank you for the offer.  A deal is a deal, and I’ll keep my end.  Maybe, if we come up with a kitchen plan however, I could draw an advance?”

“Deal” Carolyn said.  “Now I have a lot of T’s to cross for my client that I saw today.  Would it be alright if I sketch out what I have in mind tonight and share it with you tomorrow?”

“That would be fine” Charlie replied.  When I finish today I’ll take a few measurements and pictures on my phone.  I’ll draw up some ideas and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Excellent!” Carolyn said.  She gave a little wiggle in her chair, and then quickly regained her composure.  “Then I’ll let you get back to work.  I think the air’s cleared out in the bathroom.”  They both laughed at that and then went back to their respective occupations.

Charlie took his measurements and pictures that afternoon after wrapping up work for the day.  He felt certain that he could finish the tile tomorrow, and the new shower door would arrive then or the next day.  Charlie felt the old construction rhythm returning as his tape measure stretched and then snapped back, and in his mind he saw a new kitchen take shape.  He wanted to discuss details with Carolyn right then and there, but she had sequestered herself in her office and had only emerged from there once to make a cup of tea.  At length Charlie knocked on her door.

“I’m going now” he announced when she opened the door.  “I have all that I need to work with for now.  I’ll bring some drawings tomorrow.”  Carolyn smiled and said that she looked forward to seeing them, but he could see that she was thinking about her work.  “Must be a big deal” he thought, “or a big cluster bang.  I hope this doesn’t fall through.  I really would like to do a kitchen and I could use the money.”

Charlie waved good bye and said that he would lock the door behind him.  Once he got to the cab of his truck Charlie leaned back on the bench seat and blew out a long breath.  The prospect of Carolyn’s job was exciting; it would be the largest job that he had done since the divorce.  The increased pay would be a good thing too.  Yes, the day had turned out better than he had imagined it would when he woke up that morning.  Charlie thought about Jack, Stevie and Maureen, and although the thoughts reminded him of sadness they did not plunge him back into despair.  “Fine” Charlie thought.  “I’ll keep it that way, for now at least.  I’ll let their memories rest for the time being.”

And then Charlie’s mind turned to the garden.  Walt would almost certainly be there.  “Shit” Charlie thought.  “I think he lives there.”  Rachael might be there too, although it was a little early for her.  Charlie continued to debate his next move as he pulled from the curb and headed to the busy main street a few blocks away.

“Turn left and go to the garden, or turn right and go home.”  Charlie didn’t feel quite ready to go home so he turned left.  To his surprise Walt wasn’t there at all, but Rachael was.  The garden was still fairly damp, so he didn’t feel the need to water.  Instead, he pulled weeds with Rachael for an hour, telling her about the job prospect and letting her vent about some particularly difficult issues that she had to confront at work.  The hour passed quickly, and they parted company.

As Charlie drove back towards Vancouver he remembered that all he had to eat in his apartment was some bacon, a couple of eggs, lunch for tomorrow, and a head of broccoli.  “Well”, he thought, “I guess it’s eggs and bacon and broccoli.  I have got to spend more on my diet!”

The thought of cooking tonight seemed like a waste of time though.  Charlie was anxious to begin work on the kitchen plans, and so he stopped at the Top Burger, a throw-back hamburger stand where they still actually cooked the burger patties.  “I can just afford it” he thought to himself.  “I’ll ask for a draw if she likes my plan and we agree to the job.”  What he would do if she did not like the plan didn’t enter into his mind.   He ordered a couple of burgers and and order of fries and drove home so that he could get to work.

Once in his apartment it was all burgers and fries, rulers and calculator.  Charlie had very little paper in his apartment; mostly the backs of envelopes that he received in the mail from a variety of people seeking his non-existent business.  After an hour he drove to the nearest home improvement center to look at appliances, counter tops, lumber and flooring.  Charlie wanted to put a nice package together for Carolyn to consider.  He knew that she would have some of her own ideas, and he also knew that it would aggravate him to have to modify his work of art; it always had been that way.  She seemed businesslike however, and Charlie felt like he wanted to be able to work well with her on this project.  And it was, after all, her house.

Late that evening, with drawings on some better paper that he purchased at the store and price estimates on all of the components of the job, Charlie felt like he could relax.  The sadness that he had experienced that morning had vanished, and Charlie didn’t know if that was good or not.  “Do I have the right to feel good?  Am I forgetting about my family?  About Stevie?”  Charlie let his mind chew on these questions for only a short while.  At last he concluded that life might suck from time to time, but he was still alive and had the right to feel good.  “For tonight at least” Charlie thought, “I’m glad to be alive.”

With that thought Charlie took a shower, turned on the television, turned out the lights and fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.

 

 

The Garden, Chapter IV

Charlie began the next morning early and hungry.  He rarely needed an alarm, as he had always awoken early, eager to begin what the day would bring to him.  Lately, he had begun his days only because he couldn’t make the decision to end them.  Nevertheless, he still usually began them early.  Today Charlie woke up  earlier than usual; the sun only beginning to shove daylight westward before it as it began to creep towards the horizon from it’s hiding place in the east.

Charlie arose from his sofa and got dressed.  “I’ll have to replace that pair of pants” he thought as he pulled some jeans out of the laundry basket that still sat in a corner since his evening at the laundromat.  He thought about fishing his pants out of the dumpster and giving them a good washing, but quickly dismissed the thought.  The foulness resting in that trash bag and the pain which had produced it were things that Charlie would be happy to leave well behind him.

Charlie realized that he was hungry – really hungry.  It had been a while since food went into his stomach, and his stomach was letting him know of it’s displeasure with that state of affairs.  He poked around in the refrigerator and found two eggs and little else.  In a cupboard was the half-empty box of instant oatmeal packets.  On the stove, in the coffee pot, was the day-old remnants of yesterday’s coffee, which had been nasty when it was fresh and had only gone downhill from there.  Charlie made a face at the thought of anything that he had available and decided to look for something better outside the cold walls of his apartment.

As he turned to leave the kitchen and ultimately the apartment he sensed, maybe for the first time in a very long while, that his home didn’t need to be so cold.  The open window was letting cool, damp air in, as it had been doing for most of spring.  Walking over to the window, Charlie gave it a pull downward.  It didn’t budge.  “Nothing good happens without work” Charlie remembered hearing somewhere, and he gave the reluctant window a good yank.  After breaking free from its accustomed resting place the window slid downward, coming to a stop against the bottom sill.  “That’s better.  Now for some breakfast.”

Charlie had just been paid a couple of days ago but it was not a large amount of money, so he knew that he should be careful with his small pool of cash.  Leroy’s Downtown Cafe was only four blocks away from his apartment and was affordable, so Charlie fired up the engine of his truck and prepared to drive there.  Then, thinking about the nearness of the cafe and the earliness of the hour, he decided that he would walk instead.  He turned the engine off, returned to his apartment to get a jacket, and then began to walk the short distance that separated him from his morning meal.

Leroy’s was a tiny cafe on Main Street that had been slinging hash since the shipyard workers built the liberty ships that helped win World War II, and maybe longer.  The entire cafe was only a few feet wider than Charlie’s garden plot, with a row of tables running along the wall to his left and the counter along the right.  The place was already busy.  Most of the tables hosted men going to work at the port or the railroad yard.  At one table sat an elderly couple who might have been eating here since those liberty ships rolled down the ways, and in the back sat a youngish-looking man who appeared to be homeless at a table near the swinging door which led to the kitchen.  He had a steaming cup of coffee and a plate of eggs and bacon and hash brown potatoes in front of him, and Charlie wondered if some act of kindness had produced breakfast for this throw-away bit of humanity.

Charlie’s mind wandered to the homeless man who had spoken to him the evening before.  “It’s just that life is precious.  Warn’t yours to throw away” he had said, and “Death be a part of the drill – – – you aren’t the first boy, black or white, what life’s put a big-ass whuppin’ alongside yo big melon haid.”  Charlie knew that he had heard some wisdom there, and wished that he could buy that derelict sage a breakfast.

Two stools were open at the counter and he sat on the one closest to the door.  A plastic-covered menu was tucked behind the napkin holder at the back of the counter.  Charlie plucked it out and scanned the breakfast offerings, which were pretty standard.  The waitress, a middle age woman on the thin side, with chapped, red hands, lines produced by age, care and hard work beginning to crease her face, and a gravely voice that spoke of too many cigarettes, came to take his order.

“What’ll it be junior?” she asked.  Charlie wondered about the “junior” thing.  She was probably close to his age.

“I’ll have sausage and eggs and potatoes.”

“How d’you want the eggs?” she asked.

“Just keep ‘em off the floor” Charlie thought.  “Over hard” he then answered.  Best to cook the snot out of those things and kill anything growing in them.

The waitress didn’t ask what kind of toast he wanted, and Charlie suspected that it came only in white, white and white.  He was right.  In little more than ten minutes a steaming plate of food appeared on the shelf of the window that separated the dining area from the kitchen.  The waitress, exchanging banter with the regular customers, poured a refill into the mug of the homeless man in the back and then brought the plate down to where Charlie sat.

He was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, and wolfed it down with gusto.  The coffee kept coming and Charlie was grateful for the improvement that it represented over the hog swill that he routinely boiled up in his own kitchen.

“I haven’t seen you in here before, honey.”  The waitress was standing in front of Charlie and talking to him.  Several of the other customers had hurried off to begin their morning shift and the cafe had emptied considerably.  “You new in the neighborhood?”

Charlie had grown rusty at the art of making small talk, and wasn’t prepared for this.  He stumbled over his words for a moment and finally answered “No, I’ve lived a few blocks away for a couple of years.  I usually eat at home.”

The waitress eyed Charlie’s thin frame; the way his shirt hung on his shoulders.  “Looks like you could do with a little more eating out then” she said, and then laughed her hoarse smoker’s laugh, followed by a short, barking cough.  “How about I throw in a donut for you?  On the house.”

Charlie’s immediate reaction was annoyance.  He could take care of himself, thank you.  But the kindness in that damaged voice and the gentle friendliness that radiated from her own thin body and face tempered that thought.

“Sure” he replied.  “As long as you let me buy one for you.  You could use a few pounds yourself.”

The waitress’ jaw dropped a fraction of an inch and then she laughed with a warmth that could still shine through the years of insult that the cigarettes had imposed on her larynx.

“What’s your name, honey?” she asked as she brought Charlie his donut and her own on a separate plate.

“Charlie” he replied.  “And yours?”

“LuAnn.  You’ll have to excuse our informality around here.  If you like eating on a production line you’ll have to go somewhere else.  We’re sort of like a family here.  Maybe not exactly a “Leave It To Beaver” family, but we get on as best we can.”

Charlie was quiet for a moment.  This random interaction with another human was pushing his comfort zone.  LuAnn was open and friendly though, and did not seem to be poised to pry or judge, and so Charlie relaxed his guard ever so slightly.

“I don’t have much of a family, Leave It To Beaver or otherwise.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that” LuAnn said.  “I hope there’s nothing too bad behind it.  Life can be a trial sometimes.  But it can be a blessing too.  That’s how I look at it anyway.”

“I haven’t seen a lot of the blessing part lately” Charlie said.  “How has it been a blessing to you?”  It’s none of my business and all, and don’t answer if you think I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong.  I just don’t know if I could pick out a blessing if I saw one in a crowd.”

LuAnn looked like she grasped at last that she was sitting with a lonely, troubled man.  “Wait a minute” she said, and then went to grab a high stool.  She placed the stool across the counter from Charlie, poured herself a cup of coffee, and then sat down.  ‘It’s good to take a load off of my feet” she said.  “Them poor old dogs down there are barking.”   LuAnn laughed at her own metaphor and Charlie had to grin as well.

“Well, let me see where I should start.  My old man Duane is home right now.  He’s pretty well crippled up from having a big roll of paper get away from a forklift and almost crush his leg.  You’d think that paper would be light, huh?  Not a big, tightly wound roll of it, I’ll tell you.  The doctors saved his leg, but it doesn’t work so well anymore.  We had good coverage through the Union and the company didn’t want a big lawsuit, so our basic needs are pretty well taken are of.  I could be a widow, or he could be completely laid up, but we’re neither of those things.  That’s a blessing.

“And over there.” LuAnn nodded in the direction of the homeless-looking man in the back.  “I won’t mention names or relationships because a person’s entitled to their privacy, but he served in the Army in Iraq.  From the outside he looks like he came back in one piece, but something got left over there.  I got no idea what he seen over there, but he just somehow couldn’t fit the pieces back together when he got home.  He’ll go in the back in a while and do a little work; scrub up some pots or mop the floor and such.  Ain’t like he’s an employee though.  We don’t know if he’ll be here tomorrow.  But all the same, he got home, or most of him did anyway, and there isn’t a mean bone in his body.  If you ask him for that old coat he’s wearing, he’ll take it off and give it to you.  And the folks at the V.A. have a counseling program that he goes to sometimes.  We hope that it helps, and we just keep thinking of him as sort of family too.”  He’s a blessing to us, in his own way.

LuAnn stopped speaking for a moment and her gaze rested on the disheveled figure at the back table.  “What is he, or rather who is he?” Charlie wondered.  “LuAnn’s son, or the son of Leroy?  Maybe he’s just one of the many throwaway people who could be seen sleeping in a doorway or bumming a cup of coffee at a downtown church on Sundays.  Well, he’s somebody’s son, and he’s lucky to have this ‘family.’”

The door behind Charlie opened and closed and three men in dirty work clothes came in and took their seats around a table.

“Shift change” LuAnn said.  “Gotta go to work.”  Then she added  “You know what?  You are a blessing to me today.  I missed out on my cigarette break but I got a free donut and a chance to sit down out of it.”

“Those cigarettes will kill you, you know” Charlie told her.

“Yeah?  Well, something will kill me sooner or later.  Might as well be them as anything else.  Been nice talking with you.  You come on back, you hear?”

LuAnn went around the counter with the glass coffee pot in hand and advanced to the table which hosted her new customers.  “‘Morning boys” she said as she began to fill their mugs with coffee.  “What’ll it be today?”

Charlie finished his donut and drained his mug of coffee.  He laid a generous tip under the lip of the plate and waved at LuAnn as he walked over to and out through the door.  Outside the cafe the sidewalks were bustling with people going to work or home after a long shift at night.  Charlie walked to his truck, climbed in and started the engine.  He drove to the shed and secured the tools that he would need that day, and as he dug for the keyhole saw that he would need for making cuts in the drywall that he would be applying he saw his gloves in the bottom of a box.

The gloves made Charlie think of the rock that he had promised to break up, and that in turn reminded hm of the safety goggles that rested in a drawer back in his apartment.  He stowed as many of his tools in the cab of the truck as would fit and then returned for the goggles.  Leaving tools in the bed of his truck, even for only as long as it would take to enter his apartment and return, invited theft.  Having secured the goggles Charlie returned to the truck, and this time he looked down on the seat and saw the safety belt.  “This is getting to be a habit” he chuckled to himself, and snapped the two ends of the belt together.

Charlie went about his work that day with the same efficiency that he always did, but today he did so with a little more energy, and enjoyed a little more satisfaction with what he had accomplished.  He pointed out to the homeowner a design flaw that would have the shower door hitting the toilet if it was opened all the way, and offered to either move the toilet or order a different design of shower door, as she chose.  He told her that he would do these changes at no additional cost, although it would take an extra day or two to make whatever adjustments that she desired.

The grateful homeowner thanked Charlie profusely for pointing out what would have been a very messy problem after the job was finished, and she showed her appreciation by paying Charlie half of what remained to be paid to him for the job.  By the end of the day, the bathroom was ready for tile and the installation of the toilet, sink and cabinet.  Charlie would return the shower door that the homeowner had picked out and replace it with the one that would actually work in her bathroom.

Charlie gathered his tools and loaded them into the truck, and and after returning the shower door and ordering the new one he headed straightway towards the garden.  To his relief, nobody was there.  Charlie exited the truck with his goggles and gloves, grabbed his sledge hammer from the cab of the truck, and went through the gate and into the garden.  He went first to his garden and saw with satisfaction that all of his plants had survived the several days that it had been since he had last been there.  Finally, he walked over to where the boulder still lay.

“I should just roll this beast to the fence” he thought, but quickly gave up that plan.  It was just to damned big.  Besides, he had promised that he would break the rock into pieces, and that was exactly what he was going to do.  Putting on the goggles and gloves, Charlie picked up the hammer and gave it a good swing.  The ten pound steel head of the hammer came down and a couple of rock chips few off into the air.  Otherwise, the rock looked untouched.

“Hrummph,” Charlie grunted.  “Gonna be a tough bastard, aren’t you!” Charlie swung again, and again chips flew, one right past his ear.  The rock remained otherwise unaffected.  Charlie felt some competitive juices begin to flow.  “Oh, so that’s how it is eh?”  he addressed the rock.  “It’s just you and me now!”

Charlie swung away again and again, banging into the rock and gouging chips and eventually larger pieces from the stubborn stone. He was so focused on his mission that he didn’t hear the tires of a van pull up onto the gravel just outside the gate.  Charlie was completely unaware of the arrival of Walt until he caught movement in the corner of his eye.  He looked up just as Walt was approaching him.

“Well, I’ll be damned.  I’ll be washed, ironed and starched.  I didn’t believe that you would would really do it”  Walt said as he walked up the path carrying a bucket full of tools.  “Welcome back, Pilgrim” he said with a John Wayne accent.

Charlie almost bristled at this vote of non-confidence, , but he couldn’t ignore the reality that, now that Walt was there, he was actually a little bit glad to see him.  And it HAD been several days since he had made his offer, and only last night he had come close to fulfilling Walt’s prophecy completely.

“Yeah”  Charlie responded.  “I did it just to piss you off.  And really; ‘washed, ironed and starched?’”

“I read that in a book somewhere.  Can’t remember where.  Anyway, like I said, welcome back.  Rachael will be glad to see you.  She kept saying that you would come back and I kept saying that she’s crazy.  I still think she’s crazy, even if she was right this time.”  Walt laughed at that and walked over to his plot, where he fell to working on something and ignored Charlie for the time being.

Charlie didn’t pay much attention to Walt either.  Instead, he went back to attacking the rock with renewed vigor.  The pressure from Charlie’s assault was beginning to take its toll on the rock, and shortly after Walt left him Charlie gave it a good whack and a large chunk fell away from the body of the stone.

“Hah!” Charlie roared out.  “Hah! Hah! Hah!  Take that you big, hard, S.O.B.”  He jumped around the rock, waving his sledge like a lance in a war dance.  Walt looked over at him and then came over to have a look.

“Well done, young man.  That’s whittling it down to size.  You want me to take a crack at it and give you a break?”

To be honest, Charlie didn’t want a rest, but the look on Walt’s face was somewhat like that of a little boy who wanted to play too.

“Sure.  Help yourself.  That big bugger is wearing me out” Charlie lied.

Walt began to wail away at the rock, with less force than Charlie could muster and with less effect, but nevertheless with more energy that Charlie would have expected from such an old guy.  In fact, Charlie began to be glad for the break.  He pulled up a chair from under the canopy and sat while Walt swung away at the rock.  Walt managed to separate several large flakes from the rock before he turned the project back over to Charlie.  Walt took up Charlie’s place in the chair and began to talk while Charlie kept at the rock.

“I was going to water for you until you came back,  If you came back, that is.  You’ve got a good start to a respectable garden there.  I’d hate to let it go to waste.  You tell me if you get tired of taking care of it.  It won’t be much trouble to add it to my own.”

Charlie wanted to say something nasty in response, but bit his tongue and simply kept pounding at the rock.

“You’ll produce a lot of groceries in that dirt; more than you can eat.  I’ll know what to do with them if you’re just going to let it go to pot.  I grow most of this stuff for the food bank.  They get all sorts of canned stuff and boxed stuff, but nobody else is bringing stuff like this.”  Walt swept his hand across the garden.  The idea of Walt giving food to people who needed it surprised Charlie, but he kept up his hammering.

“A lot of people don’t want fresh vegetables” Walt continued.  Charlie could sense that Walt didn’t always need two people to have a conversation.  “But some people do.  Some were raised eating good food and simply can’t afford it.  A box of junk can be cheaper than a bag of carrots.  I tell ya.  When I take a box load of produce into the food bank it’s gone by the next day.  All of it.”

Charlie finally put down the hammer for a minute and addressed Walt’s revelation.  “I’m surprised that you are so involved in other people’s problems Walt.  I thought you just took care of yourself and let everyone else take a flying f—-.”  Charlie pronounced the ‘F’ in his final word but didn’t complete the profanity.

“Yeah.  Pretty much I don’t give a flying fuck what somebody thinks about me.  Or what ANYBODY thinks about me, for that matter.  What you see is what you get.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t give one if I want to though.  Shit, I came over and helped your sorry ass in the garden, didn’t I?”

Charlie grinned at that.  “Yes, I suppose you did.  And thanks again for that, by the way.”

“Don’t mention it.  I feed stray dogs too.  No, man,” Walt continued, “I grew up in Seattle and we had plenty to eat, but my father always made us finish all of our dinner or there’d be the devil to pay.  ‘I’ve seen people starving in China, eating the garbage that we’d throw away’ he was always saying.  And he did see it, too.  He was in World War II and served in the Pacific.  He was a Squid; a Swabbie.  That’s why I joined the Army.  It was my little rebellion.  Pop had been in the Navy, so I would go into the Army.  I can’t remember all of the times that I crouched in some stinking fucking shithole while the Cong threw all of the shit in Ho Chi Minh’s arsenal at me, and thought about Pop floating through his war with three hot meals a day and a clean bunk to sleep on.”  Walt chuckled at the thought.

“Anyway, while I was there I saw what Pop had talked about.  One day I was eating a hard boiled egg.  Now I only liked the yolk, and so I peeled the egg and then pulled off the white part and dropped it on the ground.  A Vietnamese woman saw that and picked the egg white up.  She looked my right in the eye and asked if she could have it.  I said yes, of course.  She brushed off some of the sand and dirt and ate it right down.  I swear that the look in her eyes said ‘You miserable, spoiled bastard.’  I felt like a turd in the punchbowl.  I bought all of the hard boiled eggs that vendor had and gave ‘em to her, and she thanked me for them like I had given her the ability to shit gold.  I’ll never forget that look in her eyes though.

And you know what?  She was right.  We piss away more stuff in one year than most of the people in the world will see in their entire lifetimes, and that bothers me a lot.  I’m not a rich man now, but I do all right and still do better than most people in the world.  I get a partial disability from the fed because of the wounds I got in The ‘Nam, a pension from twenty five years as a janitor with the school district, and some Social Security.  The eagle shits on me a little, but it’s enough for me to get by OK.”

“The eagle shits on you?”  Charlie queried.

“Yeah.  That’s what we called payday from the Gubmint when I was in the Army.  I guess it just stuck with me.  A lot did.  I’m still trying to get rid of some of it.  Anyway, I’m good at growing food, and that’s one thing that I can do to help.”

Charlie returned to pounding on the rock as Walt continued talking about the garden, politics, the price of rice in China, and whatever came to his mind.  After a few minutes Charlie brought the hammer down and the rock split nearly in half.  Walt bounded out of the chair and gave Charlie a high five.  Charlie was breathing heavy from his exertions and said nothing.  After looking at the broken rock for a minute he looked up at Walt and said “They let you work around kids?”

Walt didn’t miss a beat.  “Yeah.  Hard to figure, huh?  I cant stand the little shits, so I did as much of my work as I could when they were in class.  Early on, one smart-mouthed prick almost got my mop handle shoved up his ass and broke off, and I did my best to avoid ‘em after that.”

Charlie constructed a mental image of that exchange and laughed out loud at it.  Walt chuckled too, satisfied that he had gotten a rise out of old sourpuss Charlie.

“You going to do any more on that rock?” Walt asked, and Charlie nodded in the affirmative.

“This bigger piece should be split again, and then I’ll call it good.”

A few more swings of the sledge produced the split that Charlie desired.  He and Walt carried the now-manageable rock pieces to a pile next to the fence and congratulated each other.  Charlie then returned to his plot and began to pull up weeds that had sprouted since he’d last been there.  He was fully engaged in that task and hadn’t noticed that Rachael had arrived at the garden.

“Thank you for taking care of that rock for me” she said, and Charlie jumped a little, startled out of his thoughts by her voice.

Charlie stood and replied “Oh, it was nothing.  I enjoyed taking out my aggression on it.  And Walt helped too.”  Rachael looked in Walt’s direction with doubt showing all over her face.  “I suppose you didn’t think that I would return either.”

“No, not at all.  Walt suggested that, and I disagreed completely.  I was quite certain that you would do what you said that you would.

Charlie felt a little glow in his soul at hearing those words.  With Walt he had shared victory over the stubborn rock.  Much male grunting and sweating and many physical blows had gone into conquering that foe.  From Rachael he now heard affirmation; he had said that he would do something and she had believed him.  She took him at his word, and he had rewarded her trust. This was something that he had not felt in a while.  In fact, he couldn’t remember when he had really felt it before.  Certainly, he had followed through on promises before, but it had never had the impact upon his mind then like it did now.  Perhaps Charlie needed to have a reevaluation of much of the life that he had once taken for granted before he would be able to clearly experience the feeling of a promise made and a promise kept.

Charlie’s thoughts had led to a pause in the conversation, and he clumsily tried to reignite it.  “So, are you get getting here from work?”

“Yes.  It’s been a long day.  I’m looking forward to getting my fingers into the dirt.”

“You probably can’t talk about your work, can you?”  Charlie asked.

“No” she replied, “I can’t.  And to be honest with you I don’t want to.  It isn’t all gloom and doom, and there are times when I really get to celebrate kids getting victory over some really awful things.  But even then, they couldn’t be getting victory over something unless they were down in an awful mess.  I’m not complaining; this is my choice to pursue this profession, but it can be a pretty heavy weight sometimes, so I’m glad to put it down and do something fun, like play in good clean dirt.”

“Yeah, I guess I know a little about carrying a weight” Charlie said.  He thought about telling Rachael about the bridge the night before, and how her voice and face, and that rock, pulled him back from the edge. Then his demons began to clutch at him one more time, and he struggled to shrug them off.  “I’m glad that I have this to come to also.  Changing the subject, do you have a cat?”

Rachael was startled by that but then laughed.  “Why, yes.  I do have a cat.  Why do you ask?”

“No particular reason” Charlie answered.  “Well, actually, I was imagining you and Walt relaxing.  Relaxing is not something that I do well.  I could just see Walt sitting at a bar alone, or with some crusty friends like himself, lifting a beer, and I saw you with a cat in your lap and cup of tea, reading a book.  I was just letting my mind wander.”

Charlie thought of himself with a book and a cat and a cup of tea.  The idea made him chuckle, but the chuckle died and early death.  His mind turned to the cold, cheerless apartment in which he existed but didn’t live.  The demons of his shattered life crawled back from behind the screen where they had been pushed by the rock and his promise to break it up.  They were not shouting of his hopelessness in the same manner as they had been the night before as he leaned over the railing of the bridge.  Instead there was the unmistakable hiss of the lying serpent of pain that they had hung around Charlie’s neck like a lead weight; a hiss that said “Relax?  Hope?  Peace?  Normal?  Who are you kidding?  Who the hell do you think you are to deserve those things?”

Rachael saw the smile vanish from Charlie’s face and her instincts, bred of her hours counseling children in traumatic situations, kicked in without having been consciously summoned.

“Charlie, I don’t know what you’re feeling now.  I can’t know it.  I can’t get into your head, or be you.  What I can see though is that you have a good and kind heart, and something doesn’t want you to know that.  I’m not trying to be your shrink here, and I don’t mean to pry.  You’re struggling with a lot of stuff but you don’t have to let the stuff win.  You don’t need to relax like I do or like Walt or anyone else does. You should just cut yourself a little slack and find something to do like to do and do it for no other reason.  You can’t turn your mind off, but you can turn it to something good.”

Charlie’s eyes were becoming moist and he thought “Oh, shit.  Not again!”  Then he said “That’s not easy to do.  It’s like anything that I try to do that’s healthy causes the memory of my – situation – to just rise up lie a wave and drown me.  I feel even worse than before.  It’s sort of like trying to move forward only confirms my failure.”

“Well, that’s a big, fat lie, Charlie” Rachael said softly but emphatically.  Charlie flushed as she said it.  “Not that you feel that way.  It would be more surprising if you didn’t.  It’s the thought itself that’s a lie.  Either you’re lying to yourself or someone else is, but its a lie all the same.  You’re not as guilty as you think you should be and you deserve a rest from all of that baggage you’ve been carrying.

Oh, shoot.  Look at me.  It’s like I’m still at work!  I’m sorry Charlie.  Like I said, I don’t mean to pry and I’m not your counselor, although I think one would do you a lot of good.  You’re a nice person, whether you can accept that or not, and you don’t deserve the beating that you been giving yourself.

That’s it.  Session’s over.  Thank you for taking care of that rock for me.  I’d like to return the favor and help you with these weeds.”  Rachael looked around Charlie’s plot at the fresh crop of weeds that had popped up in the several days since he had last been to the garden.  “You’re bringing down our property value” she said with a smile.

Charlie was tempted to decline Rachael’s offer, but something in the simple kindness of her bearing and the truth that inhabited her words drove his demons back behind their screen, where they could lurk and plot their revenge for this, their setback.  “I would be grateful for the help” Charlie said.  Rachael reached out and touched Charlie’s elbow with the very lightest brush of her fingertips and smiled, saying “I’ll start in that corner.”

The human warmth of that touch reminded Charlie dimly of something he might have felt long ago.  Was it when his mother had lifted him up after a fall, brushed the dirt off of him and kissed a reddening knee?  Or was it the memory of Maureen, when she tried to comfort him with a touch as he stood back many feet away from the hole in the lawn of the cemetery where his daughter was being lowered to rest?  He had not been able to walk up to the grave, to look within and see the casket; the dirt being replaced over it.  Maureen had touched him, and he felt the tenderness of it, but it had been like cool drink of water intended for a thirsty man which had instead been thrown onto a grease fire.

Charlie had not reacted well then, and the memory of that was one of the demons that even now sought to worm its way back into the open and take another pound of flesh our or Charlie’s heart.

Charlie shook that thought off.  Rachael’s touch was only of kindness; one human in a good place comforting one human who was not.  Charlie chose to accept the comfort.  Smiling, he turned to the opposite corner and said over his shoulder in Rachael’s direction “I’ll meet you in the middle.”

The Garden, Chapter III

The next morning dawned cold and gray in Vancouver Washington. Inside Apartment C it was cold and gray as well. Charlie emerged from the condition that he called sleep with a headache and no will to move off of the sofa. Neither did he want to go back to sleep. His dreams had been haunted by visions of Stevie riding horseback and playing soccer, Jack at the piano recital and Maureen coming home from work and wrinkling her nose in mock disgust at the perfectly delicious lasagna that he was pulling out of the oven. As is the nature of all dreams there was little cohesion, just a series of disconnected snippets of a life that Charlie could now hardly believe he had once lived.

At last the images of his dreams faded to obscurity and Charlie arose, dressed and got busy filling his mind with something other than painful dreams. He had been tormented by his dreams off and on after Stevie died and as his life melted down, but they had been stilled of late by the numb pseudo-existence into which Charlie had settled. Work, eat, stare at the television, sleep, work again. Not much room in that routine for dreams. This morning, in the aftermath of the unexpected dreams from a happier time, Charlie wished for a return to his numbness. Even his occasional bad dreams failed to cause him the pain that these unwelcome good ones did.

The only food Charlie had in the apartment to was some instant oatmeal and a couple of sausage patties that he had cooked several days ago. He gnawed on the cold patties, unconcerned by their tastelessness and the cold, gray grease that was congealed on the bottom of the unappealing discs. While the water boiled for his oatmeal. A cheap aluminum coffee pot was bubbling on the stove, turning the cheapest coffee he could fine into the bitter brew that Charlie would drink. It was not unlike the bitter life that he now lived. Charlie’s kitchen was a good deal cleaner this morning than it had been for a long time, but it felt to Charlie more like a rebuke than a victory.

“What business do I have with hope?” he asked himself. “All that brings is memories, and memories haven’t been my good friends lately.”

But what was the alternative to hope? The bridge? Charlie shuddered as he thought again of the bridge and how close he had come to taking a final step off of it the night before. Even now he thought of it as possibly the best of a very limited number of realistic options for whatever remained of his life.

The spartan breakfast completed, Charlie placed his bowl and cup in the sink and turned out the light. The remains of the coffee would sit in the pot until evening, when he would reheat it and drink it to the last bitter dregs.

Charlie still owned a few of his once vast set of tools; things necessary to do the small jobs that earned the little that he needed. He kept these in a storage shed near his apartment that he rented by the month. It was to this shed that he drove and extracted the tools that he would need to cut a fiberglass bathtub out from where it rested against a wall. He would also remove the toilet, sink and cabinets, and prepare the room to be put back together. Charlie had once loved doing remodel work. Now it was just a payday.

None of the tools that he needed included the ten pound sledge hammer that rested next to the wall. Charlie remembered the rock that at this moment was resting on the path next to Rachael’s garden plot however, and his promise to break it into manageable pieces. He didn’t feel much interest in that rock right now; in fact, he didn’t give a shit about the garden at all. He regretted that he had ever begun the garden or promised to break up the rock. Still, he had said that he would, so he grabbed the sledge and placed it in the bed of his truck. “Perhaps I’ll need it for something else today” he justified as he rolled away towards the job and the diversion from painful thoughts that he hoped it would provide.

Today however Charlie was only partially successful. Demolition requires less concentration than does construction and Charlie’s mind perversely refused to be quiet. “I’ll be back tomorrow and break up this rock” Charlie had promised. Then Charlie remembered another promise: “I, Maureen Prentiss, take you Charlie Hamer, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—-“ Maureen had made a promise too. And then that other promise: “Don’t worry Dad. I’m good at this. I’ll be home by dinner.” Yeah, Charlie knew a lot about promises.

Charlie had sawn through the tub and was now trying to remove it in small pieces, one of which stubbornly refused to come out without a struggle. “It must be one of those screw-type nails” Charlie thought, “or somebody put some glue on it before they drove it in.” He picked up his crowbar and placed the curved end as nearly under the offending nail as possible and gave it a full-bodied jerk downward. The nail came out, and the crowbar came down hard with Charlie’s fingers between it and the floor.

“Shit! Damn it! Son of a Bitch!” Charlie howled as the pain crescendoed and a little blood began to seep out of his damaged knuckles. The homeowner was away and Charlie was glad that she had not heard his outburst. He thought of Walt and how he wouldn’t have cared whether she was there or not. “Maybe Walt’s onto something” Charlie muttered softly.

Charlie then went to his truck to retrieve his first aid kit. The bleeding from the abrasions on his knuckles was not bad, but he didn’t want to get blood on the walls or on his clothes, and infection would not help anything either. He poured a little alcohol on the knuckles, making not a sound as the sting set in immediately, and then placed bandages over his wounds. The design on the bandages was “Hello Kitty.” Charlie couldn’t remember where he had gotten those and he

wasn’t inclined to plumb his memory too deeply in order to solve the mystery. He wasn’t sure that he would like the answer.

“You should wear goggles or something” Rachael had told him and now he remembered that warning, and how he had buckled his seatbelt as a result. Today he had driven to work with belt unbuckled as usual, and worked without gloves, and now he had paid for that laxity. “Know-it-all!” he hurled at her memory, but Rachael’s simple human concern for him had moved him once before to take the prudent step of buckling his belt. The memory of that compassion softened Charlie’s thoughts again toward this odd girl who was into religion and growing food and comforting old stray dogs like himself. He looked in the cab of his truck for the gloves that could have avoided the blood, if not the pain, but they were not to be found. They were probably somewhere in the storage shed. “I’d better get those before I screw with that rock” Charlie thought, although later he would forget that resolution.

The day ended with the bathroom cleared of all old fixtures, cleaned up top to bottom and a low step built from wall to wall where a tiled walk-in shower was to replace the cheap, stained tub. The homeowner gave Charlie an advance to cover the next day’s purchase of construction materials and part of his pay. Charlie liked it that way; clean and easy with no loose ends, as he saw it.

Charlie wanted to go home now; not because he enjoyed himself there or even because he was hungry. It was just what he did. He didn’t want to think about much, and he didn’t have to think about much of anything there. He would have to cook something that he would pick up at the store on the way home, but that didn’t require much thought. Maybe fry some hamburgers, boil some potatoes and heat some frozen corn; that sort of thing. Charlie couldn’t remember the last time that he had eaten anything green.

But he had promised to break that damned rock. Charlie put his tools into the back of his truck and climbed into the cab. He started the engine and reluctantly pointed the truck in the direction of the garden. The traffic wasn’t bad and before very much time had passed he came to a stop in a church parking lot across the street from the garden. Walt was there (“Doesn’t that old bastard have a home?”) but not Rachael.

The rock was there too. Big as a house, it looked. Yesterday’s mud had dried, and the formerly wet, brown soil was now a gray covering over two thirds of the thing. Charlie didn’t feel like listening to Walt today, and didn’t want to be seen by Rachael without gloves and goggles. In fact, the more he thought about it as he sat in the cab of his truck, the more he realized that he didn’t want to see Rachael at all.

Charlie was surprised at that and pondered it for a while. She was a nice kid and all, but what did she have in common with him? Young, optimistic, probably had a good boyfriend who wanted to be her partner for life, or would have one soon enough. It was not like he had any sort of romantic notions towards Rachael. Charlie wouldn’t have believed that such a capacity remained inside of him, if he chose to think about it at all. It was just that Rachael represented many of the good things that Charlie could no longer claim to have access to. Rachael represented a fullness of life that highlighted the emptiness of life that was Charlie Hamer. The very idea of Rachael caused Charlie pain in the same manner that his good dreams had caused him pain the night before.

Even watching old Walt caused Charlie’s emptiness to grow. He was not an attractive fellow but he had cut his own deal with life. He cursed and leered at Rachael and didn’t show as much as one soft edge, but he seemed content to proceed with life as it came to him. It didn’t seem to Charlie that Walt cared a lot about life, but he didn’t hate it either. Charlie decided that he was not ready to

deal with Walt or the rock or Rachael. They all stirred up thoughts and feelings that he was trying to avoid. He started up the engine and drove to the shed, then to a store for that night’s meal, and finally home. His safety belt lay unbuckled on the seat beside him.

Arriving home, Charlie exited his truck and walked up to the front door of his apartment. The mother who had been sitting on the porch yesterday was nowhere to be seen, but Charlie probably wouldn’t have seen her even if she had been seated at her previous post. He entered his apartment and set to preparing something to eat. It was the predicted fried hamburger patties, but only with a can of blackeyed peas to go along with them. He cooked the burgers and then began to eat the unseasoned meat out of the skillet. He ate half of the peas and then left the mess where it lay.

Charlie plopped in front of the television again with the volume turned low and stared at the moving images, trying to get his mind to quiet down. He tried to resume the numb equilibrium that he had achieved over the past year. It hadn’t been much, but it had helped him to keep his sanity. The effort was in vain.

No arguments came through the open window tonight; only cool air as the clouds which had parted late in the morning came back to reclaim mastery over the Vancouver skies. Afternoon bled into evening and Charlie fetched his blanket to keep out the chill, dank air. Closing the window did not occur to him.
Wrapped up in his blanket sleep overcame him, and Charlie slept with his head lolling against the side wing of his chair. The images on the television screen flickered all night, making little sound and entertaining nobody.

In the morning Charlie was stiff and utterly unready for the day. The television was still on and Charlie turned it off. Now the apartment was still and silent, without color or motion or anything like life. Charlie saw that it was nearly nine o’clock and was surprised that he had slept so late. Hell, he was surprised that

he had slept at all. There had been no repeat of his dreams. No visitations from his lost family had come to him in the night. For this he was both pleased and at the same time saddened even further. He picked up his phone and called the homeowner where he was working and said that he was not feeling well. He wouldn’t be coming in today, and hoped that he could make it tomorrow.

“I hope that I can make it tomorrow” Charlie had said. “I hope I can make it UNTIL tomorrow is more like it” is what he thought. Charlie sat in his chair nursing those and similar thoughts for much of the rest of the day. Hunger grew, but he had no energy to make something to eat. He found no joy in eating, and it just took more energy to fix something and eat it than it was worth, so he sat in his chair and did nothing, trying to make his mind stop its brooding on things lost.

His appetite Charlie could ignore, but not his bladder or bowels. By five in the afternoon charlie had to take a dump. “Maybe I’ll just sit here and shit my pants” Charlie thought. “Nobody is here to tell me I can’t.” The image of Walt came to mind; vulgar, uninhibited, not caring what anybody thought of him. Walt would shit his pants if he felt like it. “I can too. Or maybe this is when I go off the bridge. How about that? With this brick in my ass I’ll probably sink like a stone.”

The bridge once again captured Charlie’s mind, and he forgot about his bowels and what lurked within them. He simply could not go on this way any more. Anything that looked like hope, or peace, or comfort, was just a fading memory or a mirage. It was similar to people who had lost the use of their legs. Memories of dancing, climbing a tree, or running along a beach were sources of torment rather than comfort. Rachael could go home, make a cup of tea and read a book. Maybe her Bible. Walt could sit in a bar, hoist a mug of beer and leer at the young women. Charlie didn’t really know if either of them did those things but he imagined that they could, and he imagined – no, he knew – that he had nothing like that sort of freedom in his life.

Pain was his lot. Pain was his now. Pain was his tomorrow. Numbness was only an illusion. Pain had lain incubating under the cover of a false numbness and now this illusion had been torn off to expose the raw, suppurating wound that was Charlie’s life. It was stupid, thinking that he could ignore this hungry and devastating truth; like putting one of his “Hello Kitty” bandage strips over a leper’s sore. No matter what he did, the pain lived. It was all that Charlie could ever hope to feel, and there was only one way to put an end to it.

Charlie pushed himself up out of his chair and almost leapt for the door. Now that he had realized there was no other answer he longed to get to the highest point on the bridge, near the middle of the wide Columbia River and get it over with. The north end of the bridge was only three or four blocks from his apartment, and he made his way through the last gloom of the evening in only a couple of minutes. A light drizzle had begun and it was cold, even though this was a spring day. Once Charlie stepped onto the bridge the southbound traffic was only a few feet from his left ear, and the noise should have been almost deafening, but Charlie didn’t really hear it. He walked on with urgency, eager to get to the place that he had imagined hundreds of times before. Thousands of times maybe.

Charlie almost ran the last fifty yards that separated him from that gateway to peace through which he had made up his mind to cast himself, and at last he arrived. Night was almost fully upon him, and the river was a silver ribbon flowing beneath his feet and off into the west. Directly below him the water was shadowed by the gloom underneath the bridge and could be heard churning around the concrete piers that supported the middle span of the bridge.

Charlie leaned over the rail, and as he did so he saw images come to him out of the dark. Stevie came first, bubbling with life and shining her ebullient soul light into all dark corners that dared come into contact with her world. Then

Maureen, who had stood by him as he built a company, and who he had stood next to and spoke comfort to as first Stevie came into the world, and then Jack.

And then Jack. The sad eyed boy who preferred the piano to playing football. The boy who wanted to be like Dad and would hang out around Dad, but who was not good with a hammer or the rowdy play of classmates at school or the other kids at the neighborhood park. Charlie had always been busy, and didn’t spend a lot of time with Jack. Not nearly as much as he should have. Jack looked back from the swirling water and spat at him.

“Why wasn’t I good enough for you?” he accused “Why did I have to be something that I am not? Why couldn’t you spend some time with me? What did I ever do to you that made you turn your back on me? Why couldn’t you answer my questions? WHY DID YOU LET STEVIE DIE?”

There it was! From the mouths of babes. “Why did you let Stevie die?” “Well, why did I?” Charlie asked himself. Jack’s face Stevie’s returned, but it didn’t stay his vibrant and lovely Stevie for long. Gashes appeared across cheek and forehead. The beautiful, roundish face that he had loved morphed into the bloated, pale blue face that he had identified at the morgue as being that of his dead daughter. The full lips that had seemed always to be framing a smile now formed a blue slit, one corner torn where fish, or possibly crabs, had made a meal. Those cold, dead lips parted and spoke: “Come on Dad. I’ve been waiting for you for two years. Why do you leave me looking like this? Come and join me and I will be young and beautiful again. I will be your daughter again.”

Charlie leaned further over the rail, stretching his head downwards toward the dead daughter whom he could now see from head to toe. She was whole, blue and bloated, and bumping up against the concrete pier. “Come to me Dad. I need you. You weren’t there for me before, so come to me now. I need you now more than I needed you then.”

“Yes” hissed a second voice. “Do something right for once in your life.” It was Maureen. Her face glowed in the ripples of the river, and it pulled him further over the rail as if it was a magnet. “You said that you would be a husband and a father, but what were you really? A failure! A failure! A failure who wouldn’t save his own daughter! All of your money! All of your success! What was it good for? Jump. Jump, you bastard. Jump, damn you, and save your daughter!”

Charlie could hardly breathe, and decided that there was no point in breathing anyway. He would have scant need of breath in a couple of moments. Charlie coiled the muscles in his legs, reading himself to spring over the rail, and as he did his one last thought before he left the world was how a rock tied around his leg would guarantee success, and a guarantee of success was something that was important to someone who was usually a failure. The image of a rock formed instantly in Charlie’s mind, tied by a short rope to his ankle, but on the end of that rope was the rock that currently lay on the path next to Rachael’s plot at the garden. He stopped at the very moment of his leap at the thought of that rock.

“Come on Dad” Stevie cried out from her watery place against the side of the pier. “Yes” sneered Maureen from her shimmering manifestation in the waters below him. Are you going to fail again? Jump, coward!” Now even Jack had joined into the chorus. Charlie couldn’t see him but he heard him. “Won’t you help Stevie? Won’t you finally try to make me happy? Die Dad. Die!”

Charlie edged back again toward the rail, but as he looked over it this time he saw the rock; the rock he had promised Rachael he would break up. Then he heard Rachael ask him to keep his word. “You said that you would do it, and I certainly can’t. I trusted you then and I still do. I could ask Walt, but I would rather not. He makes me uncomfortable. I need your help Charlie.”

Stevie, Maureen and Jack began to hurl threats and curses at Rachael, who vanished into the darkness. Charlie pushed back from the rail, nearly fainting from the extremity of his anguish, and fell backwards, coming to rest against a steel girder. The spell, or whatever it had been, was broken. Now there was just a middle aged man sliding down the steel girder to wind up seated on the concrete walkway that lay a girder’s width outside of the traffic, coming to rest on his butt and sitting in the large pile of shit that now filled his underwear.

Charlie was dazed, only dimly aware of the malodorous pile of feces in which he was resting or the urine which drenched the front of his pants. The voices though were gone; silent, for the moment at least. He sat there staring into the pitch dark night sky, and felt something snap in his heart. The tears began again but not in response to some physical pain or even some thought of deeds; deeds undone or done wrongly. Charlie felt something like a steel band that had been getting tighter and tighter around his chest for the last two years finally release, and he felt as if he could truly fill his lungs with clean air again.

That sense of release, and an approximation of peace that accompanied it, swept into Charlie’s heart and mind and produced an unstoppable torrent of tears. These were healing tears though. There was at least a hint of joy and hope in those tears. Stevie was still dead. Maureen lived in another state and could be even at that moment in the arms of another lover, and Jack still thought that his father was a loser and a failure, but Charlie still had a purpose even if it was only breaking up that rock, and at least one person who cared if he lived or died and in fact even needed him, even if for such a small reason. That, it seemed, would be enough to get him through one more night.

Charlie sat back against the girder and let the tears flow. In a way, he was sad that he was still alive. The hard battle still lay before him, and he had no idea if he had the strength to win it. In some way however, a way hard for him to

explain, he was glad that he still lived to fight that battle. As the tears began to slow their progress down his face Charlie kept seeing the rock that could have carried him to the bottom of the river, but instead seemed to have brought him back up to the top.

“Man, you look like shit” came a voice out of the night that cut through Charlie’s reverie like truth through a lie. “You smell like it too. You just try to jump?” The voice belonged to a black guy of indeterminate age, homeless by the look of him. Charlie wasn’t in a mood to judge anybody and had no energy left to fuel any lies.

“Yeah. Looks like I don’t have the balls to do it though.”

“Well, I don’t know nuffin’’ ‘bout your balls, but I’d say you made a good choice.”

“How the fuck would you know” asked Charlie, using rare profanity.

“It’s just that life is precious. Warn’t yours to throw away. You chose to stay alive. You smarter ’n you look.”

Charlie stared at this apparition with a mixture of amazement and annoyance. “Where the hell did you come from?”

“I was watchin’ to see if you were goin’ to do the deed. You ain’t the first loser I watched off hisself, here or somewhere else. I sure did think you was goin’, too! How come you didn’t pull the trigger?”

Charlie just continued to stare at this interloper onto the scene of his crisis. At last he said “Look. I’m not having the best night of my life. In fact, I’ve had a pretty screwed up last couple of years. If you don’t mind I’d like to be left alone right now.”

“Yeah, I s’pose that’s so” the black guy replied. “In fact, bad as you stink, I s’pose leaving you alone is good advice. Hah! And they say that I stink! Hoo boy Dog, you sure done got me beat by a mile. Before I go I’m gonna tell you

something though. White as you are, all them good cards done fell into your hand. What you sniveling about? Somebody walk out on you? Somebody rip you off? Somebody die? Shit, that stuff happens every day of the week. Ain’t nuffin’ new, and ain’t no big deal. Death be part of the drill Bro, and you ain’t the first boy, black or white, what life’s put a big-ass whuppin’ right alongside yo big melon haid. Won’t be the last neither. So I recommend that you jump yo punk white ass off this bridge or get on home and clean up. You smell like the Devil hisself.

Charlie wanted to argue but he was tired. Besides, he knew that he really did smell like shit! He leaned forward to grab the rail and then, instead of pulling himself over it, he pulled himself upright, stabilizing himself in order to walk back to the north side of the bridge and back to life. Charlie turned to deliver another criticism to the homeless man but saw the back of that worthy gentleman walking away from him, already a dim figure heading towards the south side of the river.

Charlie regrouped and look one last time over the railing. Below there was nothing but water which Charlie could not see. The water, as the current divided around the one hundred year old pier and then continued, reunited, on it’s way to the sea some seventy miles to the west, could only be heard. Faces filled neither the evening sky nor the darkened river. No homeless black man stood on the pathway dispensing rough wisdom. Only a tired, broken, very smelly white guy stood on that pathway and looked in the darkened direction in which the river flowed.

Maybe that was a metaphor for his life, Charlie thought. Standing on the brink of suicide, staring into a future obscured by darkness, while covered with shit. “Yeah, that pretty much describes me” Charlie thought. The major question of course was where did he go from here? Charlie looked one last time over the rail, thinking that the water below might be very hospitable to fish and seals and

other creatures of the water, but it was not especially friendly to humans. Then he looked back at the lights of Vancouver and saw life, pulsing and optimistic, and he reflected on how little that description resembled himself. And then Charlie caught a good wiff of his own aroma.

That was shit. No dodging around that odor! That turd that Charlie should have expelled hours ago had blown out into his shorts when he was about to take a nose dive into the Columbia. The faces he had seen and the voices that he had heard were very likely not real, he now believed, but log he had dropped in his underwear would not admit to second guessing. Charlie had a lot to think about; to process. But right now what he wanted to do the most was get the stinky soiled clothes off of his body.

Walking home completely under the radar was not possible, but to Charlie’s relief only a few people passed him along the way. He didn’t look back to see their reactions to the stench that followed him like a banner. In fact, by the time charlie got home he was proud of that stink. “That’s the price I paid to stay alive one more night” he thought. “I could have jumped and not given it a second thought. But I did give it a second thought and then a third, and at the end of things I smell like shit, but I smell alive. That will have to be enough for now.”

Charlie arrived at his apartment complex and walked his fragrant ass right up to his door, grossing out several apartment dwellers who were close enough to smell him on his way. He unlocked his door, walked into the bathroom and then stripped off his soiled clothing which he then stuffed into a trash bag. He started the shower and didn’t wait for the warm water to come. Cold, warm, it didn’t matter. The water would wash him clean of his filth no matter the temperature, and Charlie wanted to be clean more than anything he could think of. The cold water hit him and he flinched, but as it slowly warmed up Charlie turned again and again, first front and then back and then front again.

The cleansing water washed over him, and then the soap bubbled as he scrubbed himself again and again, washing shit and sweat and tears and mountains of grief off of himself. Of course, there were more mountains of grief left to take their place, but for tonight, this night, it was enough to lift ever so slightly the pall of guilt and dread that had held Charlie down for more time than he wished to remember.

After finishing the shower Charlie toweled down and got into some clean clothes. He carried the trash bag full of shitty clothes outside and pitched it into the big dumpster in the back of the parking lot. A vision of the homeless man who he had met on the bridge diving in this dumpster crossed his mind and he smiled at the vision of him opening THAT bag. Charlie then returned to his apartment and dug into the refrigerator. A pound of bacon and some eggs remained from what he had purchased earlier in the day. Charlie cooked up two eggs and half of the bacon and wolfed the whole thing down with gusto.

After eating Charlie looked over at the television but decided not to turn it on. “Ain’t nothing but shit to look at” he reasoned to himself, “and I’ve been covered with enough of that for one night.” Instead, Charlie washed the day’s dishes and then sat in the chair in his silent living room. He had no interest in the television, and jumping off of any bridges would have to wait for another, more desperate night. “I’ll take a walk” he decided, and stepped out into the damp air of the Vancouver night.

Charlie walked along the sidewalk toward the light of downtown, drawn to the life that he knew throbbed among the businesses which clustered there. Along the way he became aware of the life that went on behind the windows and doors of the few downtown houses that hadn’t been converted into offices for lawyers, architects and bail bondsmen. As Charlie walked along the streets, he saw the light pour out of those windows. Inside the houses people could sometimes be

seen through those windows. On window showed an elderly couple watching the television and having a glass of wine, or maybe some other drink. In another, two small children were wrestling with their father on a sofa, while a mother held her infant and looked upon her brood with a big smile. The serenity that Charlie saw through those windows and the love; yes, the love, were not a rebuke to him tonight like they would have been only a few hours earlier. In fact, he took comfort from it.

Charlie came to the Catholic cathedral and stood outside, watching as people came for the evening mass. He stood in the shadows, not inclined to enter himself but once again feeling comfort as he watched the people walking up the stairway and into the building. Charlie didn’t enter the cathedral tonight but was glad that it was there and was offering comfort to those who chose to enter therein, or even watch from a distance.

After standing in the shadows for a while Charlie moved on, past O’Tarnahan’s Irish Pub, past Luigi’s Pizza and Suds, past the Guild Theater. Within all of these establishments was life, and Charlie felt no animosity toward them for it. He was tempted to enter some of those establishments but didn’t feel quite ready for that much stimulation. Instead, he turned and walked back to his apartment. Inside, the apartment was clean, his old, fouled clothes were outside in the dumpster, and there was little to do but go to sleep.

And that is what Charlie did. Stretching out on the sofa by the window Charlie felt the warmth of his blanket as a contrast to the cool and damp night air. Outside the window Charlie could hear the rain begin to fall. Tonight however, the rain did not seem to be a reflection of the emptiness of his heart falling upon the travesty that was his soul. Tonight it was just rain. Water falling out of the sky, refreshing the plants growing in the good earth. Probably good for his garden. Charlie decided to go see if that was the case when he finished work

tomorrow, just before he fell into a deep and, for the first time in a long while, refreshing sleep.