Category Archives: faith

The Garden, Chapter XXIV

“This is really weird” Charlie said softly as he and Rachael took their seats at Beth Shalom church in Vancouver, Washington.  “It looks like I’m in Israel.”

“I can’t imagine why that should be” Rachael replied with a chuckle.  “After all, we’re a bunch of Jews here who just happen to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah.”

Charlie took in the menorahs, the stars of David, the men wearing the little hats that Jewish men wear, and especially the wall on the right side of the room that was painted to look like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  He even had to walk up to that wall to convince himself that the grass growing in the racks wasn’t real.  “So you learned how to be so nice by going to church here?” he asked.

Rachael sighed.  “Not really” she answered.  “If I really am all that nice, I learned if from my parents.  They really are two of the most wonderful people that I ever have known in my life.”

Rachael’s tone grew more somber after she told him that.  Charlie remembered her story from the first day that they had met, and began to connect the dots.  “But you don’t see them anymore, do you?”

Rachael heaved another sigh and sat silently next to him.  After a minute he spoke again.  “I’m sorry Rachael.  I shouldn’t have brought that up.  I guess I forgot that my pain wasn’t the only pain in the world.  Let’s just drop the subject, OK?”

“No” she replied.  “It’s not good to ‘just drop’ things.  Things don’t usually stay dropped.  It’s alright Charlie.  My parents consider me to be dead in their eyes.  They feel that I have left the faith that has sustained my people for thousands of years.  In their opinion, that places me outside of the community.  I know that they will always love me, but I am as dead to them as your daughter is dead to you.  I will be married within the year and, God willing, will begin a family, but my parents, my aunts and uncles, and all of the family except for two black sheep cousins won’t be a part of it.”

“I really am sorry Rachael.  I don’t know how to say it better than that.”

“It’s OK Charlie.  Really, it is.  I feel your sympathy more than hear it, and it’s appreciated.  The Holy Spirit interprets our prayers to the Father when our words fall short.  I think that the Spirit works like that between humans sometimes too.”

“Oh boy, have I got a lot to learn about this stuff.  I really don’t know anything about this Father and Holy Spirit business.  I thought it was all about Jesus; er, I mean Yeshua.”

“Yes, it is a lot to learn, and we Jews are very dedicated to learning.  ‘We learn so that we can teach’ is a guiding principle with us.  But don’t get tangled up in the details.  Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Do that and you’re way ahead of the game.”

“Well, that’s not too – – -.”

“Ahhh-Ooohhhh!” A horn wailed.  A man emerged from a side door with a long, curled horn raised to his lips.  “Ahhh-Ooohhh!” A second man entered the room from a different door, blowing on a similar horn with a higher pitch.  The service had officially begun.

Three hours later Charlie and Rachael were walking toward the parking lot.  Two hours of service, nearly half of which had been spent singing in Hebrew, had been followed by a meal in a large room downstairs.  “Schmooze. Dance. Nosh” said the bulletin that had been handed out at the door, and that is exactly what went on downstairs.

“These people are my family now” Rachael said as they walked toward her car.  “They’ll never really take the place of Mom and Dad, but they’re not supposed to.  They’re my community.  We worship together, pray together, celebrate together, grieve together.  We complete each other.  I’m not close to everyone that you saw today.  In fact, there’s a few with whom I spend as little time as I can.  But I would do anything for all of them because they were made in God’s image and Yeshua loves his creation.  I will try as best I can to love them too.”

“That explains a lot” Charlie said.  “I suppose you believe that the kid that hit you is made in God’s image.”

“Exactly.  Yeshua loves him and died to redeem him just as he did to redeem me.  So how could I hate him?  Hate is the devil’s work, and I’ll let him keep that to himself, as best I can.”

“Rachael, can I just say this?” Charlie asked as they reached her car.  “You are one of the sweetest, most kind human beings that I have ever met.  I don’t know whether to thank your parents or your God for you, but I feel like a very lucky man to be able to call you my friend.”

Rachael blushed deeply, which lent an extra radiance to her usual beauty.  “Thank you Charlie.  I really don’t think that I deserve all of that, but a girl loves to hear a compliment.”

“That fact that you don’t think you deserve it makes it all the more applicable” Charlie replied.  “Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me.  “I don’t know where I’ll go with it, but you’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I’m glad for that, Charlie” she replied.  “OK, I’ll see you soon at the garden.”  Rachael climbed into her car, backed out of the parking slot, and disappeared into the traffic on 49th Street.  Charlie watched until she drew out of sight.

He had no set plans for the rest of the day.  Carolyn was helping her sister to move a niece to Cheney, Washington, where she was beginning college at Eastern Washington University, and would be out of touch for a couple of days.  Charlie had been given a lead by his friend Manny Baca on a house that a speculator intended to have built for immediate sale, and Carolyn had been agreeable to letting Charlie put his crew on the job while all of the proper hoops were being jumped through on the strip mall project, which increasingly looked like it was going to happen.  Lester and the crew were good men.  They appreciated Charlie’s efforts to keep them busy, and repaid him by being diligent in their work.

Charlie drove by the project and saw that footings had been dug and forms were being set for the foundation.  Nobody was working that day and there was nothing there to inspect, but Charlie got out of his truck and walked among the trenches and forms and rough plumbing anyway.

The idea slowly formed in Charlie’s mind that for most of his life places like this had been his church.  Building codes, tax codes, balance sheets and labor laws had been his Bible, or maybe his Torah, the rolled up scroll or whatever it’s called that was carried around the room at the Jewish/Christian church he had been at that morning.

Those building codes and laws had outlined how he should live, what rules to follow, how to succeed, and what gave his life meaning.  But when the hammer of Stevie’s death came down on his head those codes didn’t have any answers for him.  Despair could not be countered with the hope offered by a balance sheet.  A family could not be held together by five nails in the field, on sixteen inch centers.

Charlie felt an unexpected moment of hatred toward the trades; this false god.  It promised him that it would be sufficient for him but it was a damned lie.  The trades had stabbed him in the back and then thrown him under the bus when he needed it the most.  Then he remembered Rachael’s words:  “Hate is the devil’s work.”  With an effort he switched gears and, maybe for the first time, looked at the trenches and pipes and forms around him and saw what they really are, which is trenches and pipes and forms, and nothing more or less than that.

Charlie inspected those artifacts one more time, but as a construction project this time, and not as a sacrament.  Satisfied with what he saw, he climbed into his truck and debated where to go next.  Billy was at home, studying hard in order to get a good start on his program at the community college.  Charlie could go there and do a little work on the main house where Billy’s parents lived, but he didn’t feel like it at the moment.  Finally, he simply turned on the engine, put the truck into gear and began to drive.

It seemed as if the truck drove itself, and soon Charlie saw that he was near the Blake Meadows neighborhood where he and Maureen had lived.  Charlie had not been in this neighborhood since the separation and felt an aversion to going into it now that he realized his proximity.

Another feeling overwhelmed that aversion.  Was it curiosity?  A desire for self-punishment?  A hope for, what?  Hope itself?  Charlie didn’t know, but whatever it’s provenance, that feeling gave him the steel to turn left onto Winston Street.  After a few turns he pulled up in front of 14513 NE Brownfield.

He parked across the street but allowed the motor to continue to idle.  The house looked a little the worse for wear.  It had been only two and a half years since he had lived there, but more like three and a half since he had cared about the place.  Now the roof shingles were sporting a coat of moss, thanks to the shade provided by the Enyerts’ maple tree next door.

The paint on the trim around the garage door was cracking at the bottom, where the splash from years of rain had weakened it  The lawn needed mowing and was sprinkled with a crop of dandelions.  Charlie felt a sadness, and an impulse to make an offer to buy the place back and restore it to health.  He quickly laid that aside however.  “You’ve moved on” he reminded himself.  “Maureen and Jack are moving on.  There’s nothing to be gained here, so it’s time to leave this place alone to be somebody else’s problem.”

Charlie put the truck into gear and drove through the neighborhood, remembering people, places and events in the same manner as when he had  walked through his old neighborhood in San Diego.  “That was yesterday” he thought.  “I’m more interested in today and tomorrow.”  At last he turned out of the neighborhood and after more aimless wandering found himself on the edge of downtown.  Having nothing better to do, he drove on into the area, found an empty spot along Main Street, pulled into it and shut down his motor.

Charlie simply sat in the cab of his truck, listening to the ‘ping,ping’ of the engine cooling.  “Why am I so melancholy?” he asked himself.  “Things are as good for me now as they have ever been, and yet I feel empty and aimless.  What the heck is this all about?”  After a few minutes he emerged from the truck and began to walk.  Leroy’s was not too far away, but LuAnn wouldn’t be working there that day.  He had no intention of eating but he decided to walk past the restaurant anyway.  It was almost ready to close.  He looked through the front window and saw Peggy cleaning up the last tables.  He waved to her and she waved back.

Charlie walked south, down Main.  “Funny” he thought.  “I enjoyed seeing Peggy and waving to her, and she’s not one of my favorite people.”  He passed by the pawn shops, past the homeless people congregating outside of a kitchen that soon would be passing out soup and sandwiches, and finally under the railroad bridge to where the path across the I-5 bridge began.  “I haven’t been here since that night last spring” he thought, and then he began walking up the approach and then onto the bridge itself.  The noise was awful, but he tuned it out and focused on a spot perhaps a seventy five yards in front of him.

When he reached that spot Charlie stopped.  The pedestrian path widened here at the middle of the river.  He looked over the railing at the water and watched it gurgle, ripple, and flow around the concrete pier and on down river towards the sea.  Today there were no faces imploring him to jump over the railing into those waters, and no voices coming out of the white noise produced by the traffic.

He stared into that water and thought of the Maureen who had visited him that night, and of the Jack who screamed at him to jump.  Now he had new faces to occupy his memory; Jack eating tacos and talking excitedly about music and history, and a forgiving Maureen offering her hand in friendship and mutual concern for their son’s welfare before driving away to meet Carl.  “Those are a good deal more welcome than the last faces were” he thought.  He continued to stare at the corner of the pier, where Stevie’s body had once appeared to be bumping up against it in the waves.  Today there was nothing but water, with the light of the sun sparkling on the tiny waves.  Stevie had elected to stay dead and buried today.

Charlie stayed there for perhaps twenty minutes, looking at where ghosts once played and beckoned.  Several pedestrians and bicyclists walked and rode past him.  He was aware that some looked at him strangely.  “Probably think I’m going to jump” he thought.  He assumed that the ones he didn’t pay attention to were looking at him in the same way.  Finally he grew tired of staring at the water, or to be more accurate he found no further reason to stay there.  He turned his back on that place and walked back across the bridge and into Vancouver.

Charlie’s restlessness was tempered but not cured.  He kept walking, and soon was walking past the apartment building where he had once lived.  “Existed would be more like it” he said to himself.  He walked past the window that he had nearly always kept open.  Today it was open too, probably in order to let a breath of cool air penetrate to allay the stuffiness of the warm summer day.  When he had lived there it was open in order to make the path easier for anyone who wanted to enter the apartment and kill the occupant in the process.

He didn’t linger near the apartment.  There were no good memories there and no good reason to linger, so he began his walk back to where the truck was parked.  That last few blocks led him past the big cathedral that he had entered a couple of times before, and he decided that he may as well go inside and pay it one more visit if it was open.

The building was in fact open, and Charlie stepped through the heavy wooden doors, into the cool interior of the cathedral.  There was nobody in the sanctuary at that time of the day.  Charlie was not sure why he had come in to this place.  He thought of the times the he had been there before; of how odd it felt and how he had been afraid that somebody would talk to him.  It now occurred to him that that was exactly what was causing his restlessness that day.  He wanted somebody to talk to.

Billy was busy, Carolyn was out of town, and his crew was off work today.  Rachael was relaxing at home on this sabbath day.  The only person with whom he could possibly connect at this time of the day was Walt, who was probably harvesting vegetables to take to the food bank.  Walt was a friend, it was true, but he was not what Charlie needed at this time.

On an impulse, he pulled out his phone and punched in Jack’s number.  Perhaps his son would spend a few minutes chatting with his lonely father.  After five rings the sound of a dog barking came over the phone, followed by a message:  “Hi!  This is Spunky the Dog.  My boy Jack is not available.  For the price of a bone I’ll pass on any message that you leave after the beep.  Woof.  Woof.”  Charlie thought about hanging up but rejected that idea out of hand.  He had already hung up on his son enough for one lifetime.  “Hi Jack.  This is your Dad.  I was just listening to a work by Haydn and it made me think of you.  I’ll try to touch bases with you later.  Bye.”

Charlie hung up and put his phone away.  “It’s probably bad form speaking on a phone in church anyway” he thought.  “Even if nobody’s here.”  He sat on the hard wooden pew for a while longer, thinking that he should go somewhere, but unable to think of anywhere to go that was any better than were he already was.

At last he arose and began to look at the art work, in the same manner as he had when he came here the previous spring.  The same statues; the same saints with their fingers raised in a silent blessing, the same sad Madonnas, the same bleeding Jesus.  Yeshua.  Charlie looked closely at the statue of the crucified Yeshua.  There was blood running down his forehead and into his beard, from the nails in his hands and feet, and from his side.  “I wonder what made that wound” Charlie thought.

Once again Charlie walked around looking at the pictures that hung on the walls and depicted Yeshua’s very bad day.  The art was beautiful, but Charlie looked more deeply into the story this time.  Yeshua condemned by a Roman governor, Yeshua, already bloodied, receiving his cross.  Yeshua stumbles.  “Man, that guy got a really bad deal” he thought.  “How could he carry that cross even if he hadn’t been beat to a pulp.  I know how heavy that much wood would be.”

     Now some guy gets to carry the cross for Yeshua.  A woman wipes his bloodied face.  He falls again. “The Rabbi didn’t talk about that today.  Why did Jesus/Yeshua have to do all of that?”  Yeshua is stripped, he’s nailed to the cross.  Charlie looked over at the statue of the crucified Yeshua and thought “That statue isn’t an isolated moment frozen in time.  That was part of a bigger, horrible deal.”  Yeshua finally dies, is removed from the cross and is buried.

“So, Rachael believes that this Yeshua went through all of this and is still alive.  I don’t know how you can believe such a thing, but she does and it guides her to be one of the most decent people I know.”  Charlie’s internal debate continued.  “But Carolyn’s a wonderful person too, and I’ve never heard her mention anything about religion, or if she has, I’ve forgotten it.  So why do I feel drawn to this?  Why did I go to church – she called it a synagogue – with Rachael this morning?  Was it just to be with Rachael?  No.  She’s a lovely woman, but that’s not why I went.

     And why am I here now?  This place with its saints and candles and bleeding god/hero is just as foreign to my life as is the Hebrew and the horns and all of the other trappings were this morning.  Why did I come here, and more important, why do I want to stay?”

     Charlie failed to find a good answer to that question and abruptly turned to leave the cathedral, and promptly walked right into a man in dark clothing and a white collar, exploding a box of papers that he was carrying and spraying hot coffee over both of them.

“Shit!” Charlie barked.  “I’m so sorry!  Let me help you with these.”  He bent down and began to gather up the papers and was quickly joined by his victim in that task.  After a moment though the man in black began to chuckle, then to laugh, and finally sat down on the floor with his back against the wall, right underneath where Yeshua was being laid to rest by some guy accompanied by a couple of grieving women, and laughed until tears ran down his face.

This was confusing to Charlie.  He finished collecting the papers and tried to give them to the man, who could hardly compose himself enough to receive them.  His laughter was as infectious as a benevolent bubonic plague, and soon a confused Charlie began to chuckle too.  He, too, sat down and leaned against the wooden pew opposite where the man in black rested.

“You’re a pastor, aren’t you?” Charlie asked.  “Or a priest?  I don’t know much about these things, but I’m pretty sure that you’re not a rabbi.”

“Father Krempke, but you can call me anything that you like, except late for dinner.  And you are – – -?”

“Uh, Charlie.  Charlie Hamer.”

“Pleased to meet you, Charlie Hamer.  I take it you’re not Catholic.” Father Krempke said as he began to get his laughter under control.  “A good Catholic boy would never steamroll a priest carrying his coffee.  His pathetic scribblings perhaps” and he pointed toward the papers.  “But never his coffee.”

“I really am sorry about that” Charlie said.  “And I’m sorry about my profanity too.”

“Oh, you mean shit?  It seemed perfectly suitable for the occasion to me.  I’m just glad that you couldn’t hear what I was thinking.  You can call me a priest if that is more comfortable to you, but I wouldn’t mind if you called me John.  That’s what my friends call me.”  The priest then looked at his empty cup of coffee and the brown liquid on the stone floor.  “I suppose I should get that up and get myself another cup.  Would you like to join me?”

Charlie felt at ease with this affable young man – what was he, in his thirties? – and offered to clean up the mess while Father Krempke poured two cups of coffee.  Soon they were seated in the pew near where the collision had occurred beneath the fourteenth station of the cross, sipping their coffee and becoming acquainted.  Father Krempke asked him about his life; not in an inquisitorial manner but as if he was genuinely interested.  Charlie responded to this young man’s kindness and interest and spoke of his going to the synagogue with Rachael that morning as his first real exposure to the religious experience, and of the questions that now bothered him.

“I’ve had a rough time the last few years, and I’m only now beginning to get a handle on things.  I’ve run into a few people who go to church and they seem to be onto something that I’m not.  But I know other people who don’t go to church and they’re doing OK too.  I feel sort of drawn to this” – Charlie waved at the interior of the church, – “but I don’t really know why.  I look up at those paintings and I can see that Yeshua – I mean Jesus – had a bad time of it, and I wonder, if he was a god or something, why did he take it in the shorts like that?  And if he was a god, why do all of the really crappy things that happen in the world still happen?  I can say crappy around here, can’t I?”

“Yes.  You can say ‘shitty’ if you want to” Father Krempke replied.  “You just asked enough good questions to produce a couple dozen books with good answers, and some of them I don’t have a good answer to.  Let me try to give you a thumbnail, even a drive-by, answer to some of them if you will.

You pointed out that you know good and decent people who are believers and others who are not.  How can that be?  I mean, if you’re not one of God’s flock you must be a total jerk, right?  Well, it’s not all that easy, and it’s not easy to explain either.  Let me put it this way.  God has created all of us.  All of this” – Father Krempke’s arm swept from his right to his left – “and he created it to be good.  We have a problem, though, that God calls sin, and that problem separates us from him but it doesn’t change who made us and how we were made to be.  That goodness can still shine out, regardless of a person’s religious belief or lack thereof.  Some of the nastiest people I know are religious while some atheists put a lot of effort and love into their community.  Remember, the people who killed Jesus were the religious leaders of his time.

“I don’t really know much about all of that, but I’ll take your word for it.”

“You really are new to this!  Well, anyway, God has said to us that he was interested in your heart, not in your credentials, and he preferred a helping hand offered to a neighbor more than the sacrifice of a thousand bulls.  Don’t get too tangled up in that sacrifice thing; that comes in Theology 1.02.  If you have unbelieving friends who are extending love to you, just know that their love is coming from God Himself, and he’s crediting that love from your friends to them as righteousness.”

“So” Charlie said, picking up on that thread.  “You’re saying that the God you’re talking about cares about us, even if we don’t know anything about him?”

“No, I didn’t say that at all, but I’m sure that I would have gotten around to it eventually.  What I was saying is that Jesus – God With Us – died for all of us.  He didn’t go through all of that” – Father Krempke again swept his arm, this time at the paintings of the stations of the cross – “just because it was the next step in the Big Plan.  He did it because he loves all of his creation.  There’s a verse in Romans, a book that a very smart Jew wrote to Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Rome.  ‘God demonstrated his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’  So God loves us all, and all of us, to one degree or another, reflect that love back into the world.  God pays attention to that.”

“But then why does he let all of this awful stuff happen in the world?” Charlie asked.  “Why did my friends get so badly damaged in their wars?  Why did my boss’ husband die of cancer?  Why – – -,”  Charlie choked back a surge of emotion that was tinged with anger.  “Why did my daughter die?”

Father Krempke sat silent for a moment.  At last he said “Charlie, in the first place I’m sorry for your loss.  I truly am.  We priests don’t get to have daughters, so I won’t pretend to know how that hurt feels.  But I’ve buried enough sons and daughters to know that the hurt is deep and the anger is natural.  Again, I’m sorry.

As to why those things happened, I won’t try to give you a facile argument, because I frankly don’t know why they happened.  Humans just seem to love wars and they love to send their young men to fight in them.  The world is bent, if not fully broken.  I can assure you that God does not like the idea of war.  And disease was not God’s plan either.  He made the world perfect.  It got bent, as I said, and I won’t go into the ‘how’ about it right now.  It just did and now God’s working on straightening it out.  That’s why he did what he did” – the priest pointed at the paintings of Jesus on his journey to the cross and then to the grave.  “That was the only way that God could sort this mess out.

Finally, I don’t know why your daughter died, but it was not because God wanted it.  Like I said, he is straightening this mess out but it isn’t finished getting fixed just yet.  Until it does get fixed, these sad things will continue to happen.  But he IS working on it and paid a pretty high price to get things in motion.  When he gets this all sorted out it will make sense in the end.  Until that happens, we just have to live by faith.  But know this; God loved – no loves – your daughter, and wants the very best for her.  Her death was not because God was angry with her, that I can assure you.”

“So you think that Stevie might be in heaven?”

“Hmm.  That’s above my pay grade.  Let me try to wriggle off of that hook by saying that it is very possible that she is.  I told you earlier that I believe that people who show God’s love, whether they know that he is the source of it or not, have that credited to them as righteousness.  How that plays out in the end, I don’t know.  The Bible is an operator’s manual, not an exhaustive schematic.  But I do know that God doesn’t want anyone to die an eternal death.  Not one person.  He’s not some sort of cosmic spoil sport who creates people just so that he can cook them.  There’s other scripture that says God wants all people to live, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with that.”

“But you ARE saying that Stevie MIGHT be in heaven” Charlie persisted.

Father Krempke sighed and said “Yes, I guess that is what I am saying, but it’s so much more complicated than that; so much nuance.  But I will say to you again that the answer is ‘yes’, I believe that she might be in heaven.”

“The sheep and the goats thing, right?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, exactly.  So you do know something about all this.”

“Very little.  A Jewish Christian told me about that, but I don’t really know the context or anything.”

“Well, bless his or her heart.  Look, God is gracious and loving.  God made a lot of people who couldn’t possibly know anything about Abraham or Moses or Jesus and his ministry.  Native Americans who fished for salmon in the Columbia River right here three or four thousand years ago, for instance.  How could they know how to pray the sinner’s prayer and punch their ticket into heaven?  Unless you believe that God created those people, people that the Word of God clearly says that he loves, specifically to go from birth to barbecue, and I emphatically DON’T believe that, then you have to believe that there’s more to the story than what we generally know.  That smart Jew that I mentioned earlier?  He wrote about that issue too.”

“Well, if we can get into heaven just by being good, why do all of this?” and it was Charlie’s turn to sweep his arm from right to left through the sanctuary.  “Why worry about all the rules and restrictions?”

“I never said anything about rules and restrictions, and I don’t believe God said much about them either.  He said ‘Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.’  It was actually a little more poetic than that, but that’s what he said.  Love God because God is good and deserves to be loved, and love your neighbor in the same way that God loves you, or as near to that as you can get.  That’s about it.  We men have laid a lot of other stuff on top of that, but that’s really what God said.  He gave us a lot of suggestions about how we can make a better life, but that one commandment was the one that he said he really wanted from us.

And faith means a lot to God. Doing good things is certainly valuable to him, to your neighbor and even to you, but trying to run up a score as if you have the power to work your way into heaven isn’t the whole trick.  Doing this because you have faith in God is really what he wants, but this is a lot to pack into a first conversation.”

Charlie was beginning to think the same thing.  That morning with Rachael he had been introduced to the awe and mystery that a people had felt for thousands of years for a God who they had never seen, but who’s presence they had felt through their few victories and their long and murderous list of persecutions.  Now he was listening to this priest tell him of a God who knows him and loves him personally, and who loves Stevie and Walt and Jack, and everyone else that he knew and cared about on a personal level.  It was a lot to think about, and Charlie felt like it was time to go and do that.”

Charlie rose from the pew and asked Father Krempke if they could talk again.  “Of course” the Father had replied.  “I live here.  I look forward to seeing you any time that you like, as long as I’m not baptizing a baby or something.”  Charlie smiled at that and then walked out into the sunlight of the Vancouver afternoon.

His truck was only a couple of blocks away and soon he was in it and driving east.  At first he didn’t know where he was going but it soon became clear as he drove closer to the cemetery where Stevie lay resting.  He entered the lot in front of the cemetery office and parked the truck.  A lot of bodies had been added to this place in the last two and a half years, but Charlie walked straight to a spot that he knew he could never forget.

There it stood, the granite marker that announced the final resting place of Stephanie Allison Hamer, August 7, 1995 – June 12, 2015.  Charlie walked slowly up to the marker and knelt down in front of it.  He stayed there silently for a long time, he had no idea how long.  At last he began to speak.

“Hi Stevie” he said.  “It’s been a long time.  I guess I would normally ask somebody how they’ve been doing, but it seems a little misplaced here, with you being dead and all.  But on second thought, maybe you aren’t really dead.  That’s a new thought, and it’s taking some getting used to.  I think that I like it though.  I could sort of get used to it.  I’ll let you know how it works out.

I’m doing fine, I think.  I’m back in the saddle as far as work goes, but it’s not the most important thing in my life any more.  I think it was people, and not work that saved my life.  Well, actually, some really cool people are telling me that it was God sending those people into my life that have saved my life.  I never really thought about God much before.  Well, to be more truthful, I never thought about God at all.  I’m thinking about him now though.  I think that maybe you’ve even met him.  Funny, talking about God as a him.  God would have to be pretty big to be creating all of this stuff and keeping it going.  Like, does he – it – have a body?  I dunno.  You might know, but I don’t.

Anyway, your mother seems to be doing OK.  I saw her last week and she looks good.  She’s still a beautiful woman, really.  She’s where you got your beauty from, in case you didn’t know.  She’s got a boyfriend.  You know, that sounds really weird.  Unless the guy’s like seventeen or something, why would I call him a boyfriend?  Anyway, she does, and she says that he’s a good man.  We’re talking again and I hope that we can always be friends.  I think we can.

I’m seeing a woman too.  I guess I have to call her a girlfriend.  I suppose it’s only fair.  But she really is a woman, and a beautiful one.  I know that you would like her.

Stevie – – -.  Stevie, some people that I know have suggested that you aren’t really dead, that you are alive and in a place called heaven.  I don’’t know about that but I feel the greatest possible comfort knowing that it is at least a possibility.  I mean, a year ago I didn’t even believe that heaven exists.  Now, I believe that it is possible.  How?  I don’t know.  A very nice guy just told me today that some knowledge was above his pay grade.  I guess that knowledge is above mine.  I mean, it’s possible that this is all a bunch of crap and I’m kneeling here talking to a piece of rock in the middle of a big lawn.

But maybe not.  Maybe you are alive and can hear me and are the happiest that you could possibly be, and maybe I’ll be with you someday, just as happy as you are and never to be without you again.  Maybe you had to have that accident and die so that I could figure that out.  I like that thought.  For now, I think that I’ll hang onto it and see how far I can go with it.

“Say ‘Hi’ to Yeshua for me.  That’s what a Jewish friend of mine calls Jesus, but I guess you might already know about that.  I’ll be seeing you when my time rolls around.

The Garden, Chapter XV

Charlie didn’t feel ready to start looking for Maureen yet, but his mother’s advice to do so won the day.  He didn’t know yet what he would say, or how he would even say ‘hello.’  But first things first.  At the moment he had no idea where Maureen was.  He knew where her parents lived however, or at least where they had lived two years earlier, and that was less than a mile from his mother’s house.  He  knew that his best hope was to start there.

Charlie remembered their phone number, for what reason he couldn’t say. Butterflies were doing barrel rolls in his stomach as his fingers punched the numbers into his mother’s land line telephone.  He almost held his breath as the phone on the other end began to ring, but he made a conscious effort to steady himself for the moment when somebody picked up his call.  That effort paid off, and Charlie was reasonably calm by the time he realized that nobody was going to answer.  Sure enough, a voice came on saying “You have reached 821-0733.  Nobody is available at this time to answer your call.  Please leave a message at the beep and we will return your call as soon as we can.”

Charlie debated for a moment whether or not to leave a message.  If he did so, he would hot have the flexibility of a live call in which to make his case.  Perhaps his call would be unwelcome but not immediately rejected, and his speaking to a live human on the other end would give him a chance to make a case for continuing the conversation that might otherwise be lost.  On the other hand, he was now anxious to begin the process, and delay was more distasteful to him than maneuvering for advantage with a possibly reluctant ex-in law was attractive, and so he took the plunge.

“Hello.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I am in town visiting my family, and if it is at all possible I would like to speak with you while I am here.  I know that this comes as a surprise to you, but I hope very much that you will agree to a phone call or a visit.  The phone number at my mother’s house is 227-4413, and my cell is 360-415-4253.  There is not a voice recorder on my mother’s phone, but I do have one on my cell.  I hope that I will be able to speak with you soon.  Good bye.”

“There, it’s done” Charlie thought.  “They will answer or they won’t.  It’s out of my hands now.”  He placed the telephone receiver in its cradle and walked down the hall and into the living room, where his mother waited.

“They weren’t home, I guess,” he told her.  “That is, if that is even still their number.  A lot of things can happen in two years.”

“I’ll bet that they’re still there,” Elaine said.  “Our generation didn’t move around like yours does.  I think they’ll get the message.  It’s what they’ll do with it that’s the real question to me.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Charlie said.  “I don’t really know what I would try next if they won’t talk to me.  I suppose I could get in contact with her lawyer and try that angle, but I doubt that she would help.  Some sort of professional rules or something like that.”

“We could try to find her on the internet,” Elane suggested.  “Those snooper websites can find anybody.  If you want to give them $7.95 after the first free month, that is.”

Charlie chuckled at that idea.  “Mom! he said.  “You surf the internet?”

“Why, sure!” she replied.  “Why should you youngsters have all the fun?  You can find just about anything you want to know on the Web.”

Charlie laughed outright at this response.  He could still see his mother hanging clothes on a clothesline in the back yard, putting his school lunch into a paper sack and watching soap operas on their old Magnavox television in the summertime when he was out of school and home at that hour.  Now, in her late seventies, she was instructing him on how to snoop on the internet, and for only &7.95 per month!  “You can find anybody,” she continued to say,  “plus their tax and police records too.”

“You’re amazing, Mom!” he told her.

“Naw, I’m not amazing,” she replied.  “I’m pretty damn good, but not really amazing.”

They sat in the living room and visited for an hour more before Charlie began to get restless.  His business was weighing on him, and he knew that only by discovering if Maureen’s parents were really still at that number and would answer his call could he remove that weight in its entirety.  Having at least made his first attempt he felt some relief, but knowing that any moment they might call made this business so much more real now.  At last, his mother noticed his fidgeting.

“Look, Charlie.  Why don’t you go and do something?  You’re nervous as a cat at the dog pound.  You gave them my number, right?”  Charlie nodded that he had.  “OK then.  I’ll stay here and answer if they call.  I can say that you had to step out for a minute and that you’ll be right back.  I would call you then and let you know.”

That sounded like a good idea, and Charlie decided to take a walk in his old neighborhood.  He exited through the front door and began to walk north, towards southern rim of Mission Valley.  Almost immediately he was in front of the house on the corner, where the Burtons had lived.  “I wonder if they are still alive?” he thought.  “I wonder what that little girl’s doing?  I wonder if Mom could find them on the internet?  I wonder why I can’t remember a thing like what Mom told me about them, and about Dad.?”

He walked on, burning up nervous energy, and soon saw the Henning’s house.  In front of that house, on the side of a lawn that had now gone to seed, was the stump of the pine tree that he had climbed to find refuge from his troubles one day long ago.  “Jeez, why can’t I remember that?”  he asked himself.  Charlie could remember climbing that tree many times, in spite of the Hennings always chasing him out when they caught him up there.  Why couldn’t he remember that one traumatic day?

Charlie walked past Bobby Crowe’s old house and wondered what happened to him.  “I remember plenty about him,” he thought.  “I’d probably kick his punk ass if I could find him now.”  Charlie was surprised at how the resentment that he had felt against his tormentor of four decades ago rose easily into his consciousness now that he stood here in front of the house where Bobby had once lived.  “It would be a good idea to not have Mom find him!”

Charlie continued walking and soon came to the recreation center which still occupied a full block in the neighborhood.  He went into the field where some kids were throwing a frisbee and sat on one of the concrete picnic tables that had replaced the old wooden ones from when he was young.  He was sitting there, remembering times both good and bad, when the cell phone in his shirt pocket began to ring.  He pulled it out of the pocket and looked at the screen.  “PRENTISS” it said.  Charlie’s heart leapt into his throat as he pushed the place on the screen that said “Accept This Call.”

“Hello,” Charlie said, and lamely, he thought.

“Hello,” came a voice.  “Is this Charlie?”

“Yes sir, it is,”  Charlie answered.  “How are you doing?”

“Well, I suppose I’m doing well enough.  Question is, how are you doing?”

“Pretty good, I think.  And Mrs. Prentiss?  How is she doing?”

“Same as always; an angel for putting up with me.  I have to tell you that I’m very surprised to get this call.  So I ask again, how are YOU doing?  Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything is fine sir.  I’m visiting my mother and family here for a few days.  I’m pretty busy up north but I wanted to come down here between projects.”  Charlie hesitated for just a moment at this point, and then continued.  “And, well, there is something in particular that I would like to discuss with you.”

Charlie paused for a moment, and Mr. Prentiss prompted him to continue.

“Well, this is the deal.  As you know, I had a very hard time dealing with Stevie’s accident.  I guess, really, that’s putting it too mildly.  Anyway, I finally realized that I needed help, and now I’m getting that help from a professional.  Because of that I’m getting back on my feet and I realize that even now, after all that has passed by me, there are still responsibilities that I have to my son and, who knows, maybe to your daughter as well.  I’m not trying to pick up where we left off, if that is what you’re thinking.  No, I’m trying to figure out what is the right thing to do in this situation and at this moment, and then finally do it.

Trouble is, I don’t really know what the right thing to do is.  Now, I always respected you, sir.  You always seemed to me to be the father who knew what to do.  So I was hoping that maybe I could talk with you while I’m here and ask you to help me figure this out.  If you would be willing to give me a few minutes, I would love to speak with you, and Mrs. Prentiss too, so that I can get a better idea of what helping would look like.”

After only a moment’s silence, Mr. Prentiss responded to Charlie’s request.  “We would love to speak with you Charlie.  Can you come over later on tonight?”

“You bet I can,” Charlie replied, knowing at the same time that Elaine had planned to have Clark and Emily and their families over for dinner that evening.  But it was her idea to have Charlie fast-track the process of reconnecting with the Prentisses, so he was certain that she would understand if he missed dinner with them that night.

“The only thing is that we will be with our Care Group from church until eight o’clock.  Can you come over at eight thirty?”

“Care Group?  Do you go to church now?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, yeah.  We started a couple of years ago, right after Steph – – -.  Well, right after the tough part set in.  It really didn’t have anything to do with your situation, but it was certainly in the nick of time.  Anyway, we get together and eat some wonderful food that everyone brings pot luck and we’re usually done by nine.  We could slip out and be home by eight thirty, if that would work.”

Charlie heard a murmur of conversation in the background and then Mr. Prentiss came back on the phone.  “On second thought, I suppose that you already have your own plans for this evening.  Why don’t we make it tomorrow morning for breakfast?  Maudie is already looking in the kitchen to make sure we have the fixings for pancakes and ham and the other stuff that she remembers you like.”

Mr. Prentiss’ response to Charlie’s call had relaxed his concerns completely.  He had feared that they would have considered him the author of their daughter’s misfortunes and shut the door in his face.  To his pleasant surprise they still seemed to like him and were open to communication with him.  Charlie wanted very much to press on with the main purpose of this visit to his home, but now he felt like there was space for him to connect with his own family as well.

“That sounds very good to me sir.  What time would you like for me to come over?”

“Oh, you know, I’m an early riser, so anytime after seven is fine with me.  Maudie usually has food on the table by seven thirty.  Does that sound OK?”

“Seven thirty is fine.  I’m an early riser too.  I’ll be there on the dot.”

“Bring your appetite.”

“Oh, I remember Mrs. Prentiss’ cooking.  I certainly will.  See you tomorrow then, sir.”

“You bet.  Oh, and Charlie.  It’s really been good to hear your voice.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with you tomorrow.”

Charlie pressed the disconnect button and continued to sit at the picnic table, processing the conversation that he had just concluded.  It was clear that Maureen’s parents did not harbor a grudge against him.  They could have easily held him somehow responsible for Stevie’s death and their daughter’s family meltdown, and they could have made a case against him for not taking care of his family; their daughter and grandson, after the accident.  But they did not seem to be inclined to do that.

Of course, this could be just a ruse; a friendly face designed to lure him to their house, where they could tear into him.  It wasn’t too long ago that he would have given serious thought to that possibility.  Today however, he was willing to accept Mr. Prentiss’ expression of good will as genuine and go to their house the next morning with hope for a good outcome.  “Heck,” he thought.  “Even if they do jump on me I can still try to do what I came for.”

Charlie sat at the table for a while longer, watching the frisbee throwers and some other kids shooting baskets in a court on the other side of the field.  Charlie had done those things here when he was young, but he was never really a part of the group of regulars at the rec center.  He had been too busy studying, delivering morning and evening paper routes, and working first as a laborer and then as a craftsman for a construction company in the summers, to spend much time playing.

The boys and girls his age would always be together, whether shooting baskets or playing wiffle ball or just sitting on the picnic tables smoking cigarettes.  They knew about each other’s lives and acted like some kind of surrogate family to each other, and he had never sought nor was ever invited to be a part of that family.

Bobby Crowe had been a part of that group, and that was one good reason not to want to join it.  Bobby had been a big kid for as long as Charlie had known him, and Charlie’s penchant for being more of a loner had tended to make him more of a target.  He had never been actually beaten up by Bobby, but the taunts, the shoves, the trippings and so forth were always a direct invitation to greater violence, and it was a challenge that Charlie had no interest in accepting.

As the years went by, Charlie had come to this playground less as his other activities occupied more of his attention.  The summers of intense physical work with the construction team had filled out Charlie’s previously thin frame and he had become quite muscular.  Bobby Crowe, who came into contact with Charlie less and less anyway, was a punk but he wasn’t stupid.  Well, not too stupid.  Their brief encounters at school or in the neighborhood became much more neutral events than before.  Charlie had thought from time to time about evening the score, but that seemed to be a pointless act compared with the more positive things in his life, and after he met Maureen there was no room in his mind for Bobby Crowe.

After a while Charlie’s mind returned to the present.  He had family coming to his mother’s house soon and she did not know yet if Charlie would even be there.  He punched her phone number into his cell and she answered on the first ring.

“Hey Mom,” he said.  “Looks like I’m going to the Prentiss’ house tomorrow for breakfast so I’ll be home soon.  What’s for dinner?”

“Oh, they called you on your phone!” she replied.  “Tacos.  So how did it go?”

“Better than I had hoped for.  Mr. Prentiss sounded friendly, and I think that he meant it.”

“So, does Maureen live here?  Is she going to be there too?”

“I don’t know, Mom.  He didn’t mention Maureen, I think.  Not much anyway, if he did at all.  No, I don’t think that she’ll be there.  We didn’t discuss a whole lot,  which is OK by me.  I don’t really like talking on the telephone anyway.”

“OK.  I can take a hint.  I’ll get off the phone.  The kids are going to be over in about an hour, and we’ll be eating right away.”

Charlie laughed at his mother’s quip and said ‘good bye.’  Tacos.  That called for beer and iced tea, depending upon one’s age and preference.  He remembered that Moe’s Liquors once stood on the corner of First St. and Washington, but there wasn’t the smallest likelihood that it still existed.  He had seen a small market on his walk, and he retraced his steps to that market and purchased two six packs of Coronas and a box of tea bags.  These he carried the short distance back to his mother’s house.

Elaine was in the kitchen when he returned.  He quickly put the beer into the refrigerator and placed a large pan of water on to make a pitcher of tea.  He then busied himself helping his mother to cut, chop and cook all of the ingredients necessary for a taco feast.  They were finished and Charlie had time to open a Corona and sit down before the first of the crowd arrived.  Soon after that, the Hamer home was bursting with family, from Elaine down to the several grandchildren, the oldest of whom was pregnant with her first child.

Charlie and his brother and sister gave affectionate hugs, an occurrence which surprised them somewhat.  Charlie was new to this hugging thing, and it would take some getting used to.  Introductions were made to grandchildren and before too long the dining room was filled with the happy babble of a family enjoying a vast meal and a reservoir brimming with fondness and joy.

Perhaps the happiest person in the room was Juliette Hamer, the ‘earth muffin’ wife of Clark who had suggested to Charlie that he should get outside of his apartment and reconnect with the soil.

“That was good advice,” he had told her at a moment when his mouth was empty of taco.  “In addition to growing some good and free food, I’ve met some people who have been a big help to me.”

“Who’s taking care of it while you’re loafing down here?” Emily asked.

“A very odd piece of work named Walt,” Charlie replied  “He’s a crusty old Vietnam vet who you wouldn’t want you children to be around, yet he works his own plot and mine too while I’m gone so that he can give the food to the county food bank.  I don’t think you would like him very much; not at first anyway, but he’s one of the best people that I know.”

“And just how many people DO you know?” Clark asked .

“Oh, let’s see.”  Charlie began counting on his fingers.  “I guess twelve people who I talk with much at all.”

Clark looked impressed with that number.  “That’s a heck of an improvement over the last time we saw you up in Washington.”

“You have no idea,” Charlie told him.  “Really, you don’t.  There’s no way that you could.”

He then looked directly at Juliette.  “And your advice came at the time when I needed it the most.  A couple of my new friends are religious people, and they talk about blessings.  Well, I haven’t had a lot of those the past few years but it looks like my luck is changing.  Or maybe it isn’t luck.  Anyway, it all started with your suggestion that I get into the dirt, and so I think that if anything or anyone has been blessing me lately, it’s you who’s leading the parade.”

The people sitting around the scratched old family table were silent for a moment, and then Clark raised his beer in preparation for a toast to Charlie’s rebirth into the ranks of the living.  Charlie saw that move coming and waved it off.

“No, man.  Don’t raise your beer to me.  Raise it to that lovely woman you’re married to.”  And with that Charlie lifted his beer in the direction of Juliette.  Four beers, two iced teas, and a mix of sodas and glasses of milk were lifted in the direction of a surprised and embarrassed Juliette Hamer.

Clark leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek before looking back at Charlie and saying softly “Bravo.  Well done little brother.  Can I toast you now?”

The toast was received and soon the room was once again filled with the happy chatter of family eating too much food and making up for too long of an absence.  Elaine Hamer sat back in her chair from time to time and looked at her brood.  This much joy had not visited her dining room, or any other part of her house, for a very long time.  In fact, she was not sure if she had ever seen it there before.  Several times she sat silent, not because she had nothing to say but because she feared that her voice would tremble if she dared to try and say it.

After dinner and the clean-up, which was performed by Clark and Charlie and the eldest son of Emily, the family spent some more time together before parting to return to their lives.  Charlie talked with his mother for a short while longer and then retired to his room.

Lying on his old twin bed in the darkness he wondered how much of the life that he had lived in this house was locked away from his memory.  He had not lain in this bed for – how many years?  It had been a lot of them.  Now he lay here after spending an evening with his family that was unlike any he could remember, and the glow of this evening accompanied him into a deep and untroubled sleep.

Charlie’s internal alarm clock went off well before seven thirty the next morning.  Elaine continued to sleep and Charlie knew that a good meal awaited him at the Prentiss residence, so he dressed quickly and silently and began to walk the mile or so towards the Prentiss’ home.

Charlie had walked this path many times before, usually taking as long as possible to walk Maureen home from his house.  He thought about those times while he strode down the sidewalk, not nostalgically glorifying them, but simply reflecting on how things were so much simpler then, and what he would do differently if he could replay those days again.  He slowed his pace so that he could arrive on the front porch of the Prentiss’ at seven thirty, sharp, which is exactly what he did.

“Come in, son,” Mr. Prentiss said when he opened the front door.  Charlie did as he was asked, and shook the hand that was extended to him.  “We’re very glad to see you.  Maudie!” he shouted over his shoulder.  “Charlie’s here.”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” came a voice from the kitchen.  “See if he wants some coffee.”

Charlie said that he would love some coffee and before Mr. Prentiss could move to get it Maude Prentiss came out of the kitchen with a steaming pot of coffee and three cups.  She placed those items on the table and gave Charlie a long hug.  This was more than Charlie had expected or hoped for, and he had to fight to keep his composure.

Warren Prentiss refused to talk business until after breakfast, and soon all three were busy packing away a small mountain of pancakes and ham and eggs and fruit.  “I’m going to be big as a house if I keep this stuff up” Charlie thought as he wiped his fingers with a napkin and placed it on his empty plate.  The Prentisses were also finished, and Warren Prentiss suggested that they clear the table later and get down to business in the living room.  Maude and Charlie agreed and soon they were seated in comfortable chairs in that room that still looked nearly the same as Charlie remembered it.  Without wasting any time, Charlie launched into the reason for his visit.

“Like I said yesterday, I’m trying to make some things right that I dropped the ball on when Stevie died.  I can’t say that I know exactly what making things right  looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t look anything like the last few years of my life, so I’m asking other people, healthier people, for help in doing it.”

“Well, you look like you’re off to a good start,” Maude said.  “I have to say that the picture of you that Maureen gave us was a whole lot different than what I am seeing now.”

“Maureen’s picture was probably pretty accurate,” Charlie replied.  “It’s only been a couple of months since I began to climb up out of a dark place, and I’ve been very lucky to have met some good people who have helped me on my way.”

“I’m not sure that luck has anything to do with it,” Warren said.  “But continue.”

“Well, I’m seeing a counselor.  A professional.  She’s really one of the smartest and most kind people who I’ve ever met.  Anyway, she suggested that I try to get in contact with Maureen in order to find out if there was a way to be a father to Jack, given the circumstances.  Another friend suggested that, without trying to write a fairy tale ending to my story, Maureen and I might have a need to help each other in some way to move on with our own separate lives.

I expect that Maureen is doing all right; she always was a stronger person through all of this than I was, but that’s basically what this visit is all about, and I wanted to get your advise and opinion on it.  I would also like to ask you to find out for me if Maureen is interested in any of this.

Warren and Maude Prentiss were quiet for a minute after Charlie quit speaking.  Warren seemed to be picking at a splinter in his though, wrinkled hand while Maude raised the now-cold cup of coffee to her lips and drained the last sip.  They looked at each other quickly, and then Warren  looked back at Charlie and answered him.

“Well, we spoke with Maureen last night and she said that she has no desire to see you.”

Charlie’s heart dropped into the soles of his feet.  He had known that this was a possibility, but hearing it straight and direct was like getting hit in the chest by a truck.  As he pondered what this refusal might mean to him Warren continued.

“We told her that you would be coming over here today and that we were going to share a meal with you.  You had always been welcome in our house before and unless you gave us some reason to change that policy you would continue to be welcome here.

I also told her what you said yesterday about getting help with your troubles, and that you were interested in being a presence in Jack’s life it it seemed like he needed it.  I’ll tell you now that I told her that I agreed with you on that idea.   Anyway, she said ‘no.’  I asked her if she would keep an open mind about the idea, for now anyway, and allow me to speak with her again after we met with you and could make our own assessment of the sincerity of your intentions.  She agreed to do that.”

Charlie was stunned by the frankness of Warren Prentiss.  He had always been a very direct sort of person, but Charlie had forgotten how he could cut right through the clutter and get to the heart of a matter.  As he reflected on this Warren continued to speak.

“Charlie, I’ve only spent an hour with you but I feel like you are on the right track.  I didn’t see you when you and Maureen were going through the aftermath of Stephanie’s accident, but I trust my daughter’s account of things and I like the path that you seem to have chosen.  Being smart enough to ask for help, even if it seems like you’re shutting the barn door after the horses have gotten out, is something that a lot of people won’t do, and it says a lot, to me at least, that you’re doing it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Charlie said.  “It means a lot to me that you feel that way.  I knew that Maureen might respond like that so it doesn’t really surprise me much.  I’m very disappointed, but not surprised,  I would appreciate it very much if you would just tell her that I am more sorry than I can express for how I wasn’t equipped to be there for her and Jack when I had the chance, and that my only intention now was to be a help if I could in any way.”

“Now hold your horses, Charlie,”  Warren said.  “I wasn’t quite finished.  Maureen said that she has no desire to see you right now.  She didn’t say anything about later, though.  You’ve sort of dropped in out of the blue, you know, and it might take a while for the idea of you being alive again to sink in.”

  “Being alive again,” Charlie thought.  “Yeah, that pretty much describes it.  Or maybe even being fully alive for the first time.”

“I told her that you would come over here and that I would see what I thought about you, and that I would speak to here again after I do that and tell her what I think.  Well, I’m going to do what I said I would do, and I’m going to tell her that I think you’re making an honest attempt to “do the right thing” as you say, even if you don’t know what that right thing is.  I’ll also tell her that I believe she should at least speak with you and give you a chance.”

Charlie’s thoughts were flying in at least a dozen different directions and it was hard for him to think, and he told Warren of that.  “I’m feeling kinda tongue-tied, Dad” he said, relapsing to the title that he had used long ago when addressing Maureen’s father.  “I appreciate what you’ve just said.  God knows I can’t thank you enough for that.  On some level I can’t even believe that I’m sitting here and that you’re talking to me at all, while on another I’m not surprised that Maureen might slam the door and close out this part of both of our lives.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  I will tell you one thing though, and you can share this with Maureen if you think it’s wise to do so.

This is the last time that I will bother her.  If she does not want to speak with me after your next contact with her, I won’t make a pest out of myself.  There’ll be no stalking ex-husband or any of that stuff.  If she wants this to end once and for all time; if she’s got her life going in a good direction and does not need me being a distraction to hold her back, it will end right here.  If she wants anything else, whatever that might be, I will be eager to pursue it.  Your word, sir will be the final word for me.”

Warren and Maude sat still and quiet after Charlie quit speaking, and the three of them sat motionless and in their own thoughts for what seemed like an eternity.  What Maureen’s parents might be thinking Charlie had no idea, and he wasn’t trying to guess.  His own thoughts were of Jack and Maureen; what he owed to Jack, at least, and to himself.  He thought of D’Andra and her wise, kind listening and advice.  He also thought of Billy, who knew a wound when he saw one and what to do with it.  Finally he decided that his business here was finished, and that any further lingering would be an imposition and an intrusion.

“Well, sir.  Ma’am.  I think it’s probably time for me to go.  I thank you for the breakfast,”  he looked directly at Maude.  “You know that I always thought you cooked the best meals in San Diego.  I also thank you for your kindness towards me.  I couldn’t complain if it had turned out otherwise.  And I thank you for your willingness to speak to Maureen in behalf of my attempt to help Jack, and maybe her and even myself too.  Please let her know that I only want the best for them both, even if that means that I disappear again forever.”

Warren was not able to say anything in return.  He extended his hand and pulled Charlie into a bear hug.  When he let go Maude took her turn, and she found her voice.”

Charlie, like we’ve already told you, you will always be welcome in this house.  When you get home, call us from time to time, or write to us even.  We don’t do any of that fancy electronic stuff.  Let us know how you’re getting on, and how we can pray for you.  No matter how this all works out, we will always be your friends, and you can always consider this your second home.”

With that, Maude gave Charlie a hug and then let him go.  His eyes lingered on this amazing couple for a few moments longer before he nodded to each and turned toward the door.  Without looking back, for fear that he would begin to cry like a baby, he stepped through the door and out into the warmth of a San Diego summer day.

Charlie had no idea how long he walked before he finally returned to his mother’s house.  He remembered walking along Park Boulevard, past the museums and art gallery in Balboa Park, over the high bridge that had the unfortunate name of ‘suicide bridge’ when he was young because of the many people who had found it a convenient place to put an end to their earthly troubles.  He remembered his own appointment with the middle of a bridge, and as he looked down at the traffic flowing under him far below he thought about how foreign that thought now seemed to him.

He turned at Cedar and walked the long, straight street back to his mother’s home.  She was sitting in her chair, pretending to have been reading, while Charlie knew that she had been gazing out the window, waiting for him.  He said hello and went to the refrigerator to get one of the last two beers that remained from the night before.  He opened the brew and sat down on the sofa opposite where his mother sat waiting.

“Well, how did it go?” she asked, point-blank.

Charlie took a long swig from the beer and then replied.  “It’s complicated.  The Prentisses are just like I remember them.  They’re on my side, I think, although of course they’re on Maureen’s side too.  Maureen doesn’t want to talk to me though.  Maybe not now, or maybe not ever.  I don’t know for sure.”

Charlie took another swig of beer and sat back into the sofa.  Elaine, as usual, wanted more details.  “So, how is Maureen doing?  Where does she live?  Why won’t she talk to you?  What all did the Prentisses say?”

“You know Mom, they didn’t say anything at all about Maureen.  I hadn’t thought about that before, but they didn’t.  I think they did that on purpose.  If Maureen wants to talk to me, she can tell me all of that stuff.  The Prentisses just talked about me and them and what I’m trying to do.”

“Well, I think that’s a shame,” Elaine said.  “They should have told you more about her.”

“I don’t think so Mom.  I think they did just the right thing.  They’re going to speak to her again and if she’s still opposed to the idea, I’ve promised to stay clear of her life.  And Jack’s too.  Under those circumstances, I think that they were on the right track.”

Elaine fluttered over that idea for a while but Charlie’s obvious contentment with it eventually smoothed her ruffled feathers.  Charlie talked his mother into joining hem in his rented car to drive around and see the city that had changed so much since he had lived there.  From Hillcrest to Alpine, and then back to Del Mar on the coast they drove and talked of anything that entered their heads.  Charlie stopped for ice cream cones here and donuts there, which Elaine loved, and ended with a dinner at a seafood place in Point Loma.

It was evening when they returned, and Elaine soon excused herself and retired to bed.  Charlie had the last beer while sitting in the back yard and watching what few stars could shine through the light pollution of San Diego at night.  His phone was in his shirt pocket, where he could instantly reach it should it ring.  It didn’t ring.

Finally Charlie went inside, took a long shower and stretched out on the bed.  It was a warm, humid night, but he chose to shut the vent that allowed cooled air into his room.  He opened the two windows and lay on top of his bed, listening to the crickets outside his window and distant traffic noise.  The emotional exertion that he had expended this day crept upon him and before he had lain on his bed for ten full minutes he fell into a dreamless and restful slumber.

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 XI

Charlie didn’t think about D’Andra, LuAnn or Maureen for the next several hours.  Carolyn was ready to go shopping when he got to her house, so they both climbed into Charlie’s truck and rumbled off to look at kitchen appliances.  Carolyn was by no means a sloppy shopper, and color, dimensions and that certain ‘something’ were weighed and evaluated and put through the fire until three very complimentary pieces had made the grade.  They were duly purchased.  Delivery was set for three weeks hence.  Charlie now had a timetable to wrestle with.

“Your choices are really good” he said as they walked out the door.  “The style isn’t my favorite, as you already know, but I didn’t expect to like the combination as much as I do.”

“Aw, you’re just trying to butter up the boss,” she retorted with a smile.

“Of course I am” Charlie agreed.  “I wasn’t born yesterday.  But no, seriously.  I really do like your plan.  You’ve got an eye for this.”

Carolyn was clearly pleased upon hearing Charlie’s approval.  He was happy too.  His problems with Carolyn’s plan were now firmly in the rear-view mirror and he was glad to let her know it unequivocally.  “And besides,” he thought.  “It is always a good thing to butter up the boss.”

“I’ve got to go to Home Supply to get some stuff for tomorrow.  I’d be happy to drop you off at your house first” Charlie said.

“Don’t you dare!” was Carolyn’s reply.  “I could get to love this business.”

“I’ve loved it for as long as I’ve done it, the last two years excepted, and even then there was a sort of draw to it.  I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

They chatted in this manner while they drove to the store.  Charlie learned that his guess at Carolyn’t occupation was correct; she was in real estate.  “My husband died of cancer” she told him.  “I don’t know where the primary tumor was, but by the time we discovered that he had a problem it was in his liver and lymph nodes and bones, even in his brain.  He went fast, which was sort of a blessing, I guess.  Six months after diagnosis Wesley was gone.  He left me a nice sum in the bank and a generous life insurance policy, and his medical insurance through his job was very good.  I didn’t get slammed too hard by medical bills.

So now I’m trying to make it in real estate.  My father used to buy houses and fix them up to the point where they were just decent, and then rent them.  He did pretty well with that; did most of the work himself.  I’m more interested in selling the homes I pick up, so I have to put more into them.  And it’s harder for me because I have to rely on a general contractor.  Do you know how frustrating that can be?”

“Oh, yes.  Do I forever know.  I AM a general contractor, remember?  I just haven’t done any generalling for quite a while.  I’m sorry to hear about that” Charlie said, and then continued.  “About your husband, that is.  That must have been a hard time for you.”

“It certainly was a hard time.  We couldn’t have children and so we decided to focus on making the most of our marriage.  Huh!  Funny how the best laid plans sometimes go straight into the shredder.”

Both Charlie and Carolyn were silent for a while as they drove towards their destination.  Charlie wondered how Carolyn had managed to avoid the free-fall that he had experienced when Stevie died.  What Carolyn was thinking he could only guess.  Finally, he had to ask.

“How did you handle your husband’s death so well?  My daughter died a few years ago,”  Charlie gulped back a catch in his voice, “and I lost everything.  I still can’t say that I’m over it.”

Carolyn thought a minute before answering.  “Well, my first week was very hard.  There wasn’t anything I would do that his memory wasn’t a part of.  Walk down the hall, make coffee in the morning, go to the store, drive past a restaurant.  I slept in a guest room and tried to keep up as many routine activities as I could.  I did them on auto pilot though.  In fact, I can hardly remember much in the way of details of that week.

I guess the best thing was that I was not alone.  Mom and Dad and my sisters were all there for me, and Wesley’s family too.  They cooked and cleaned and sat with me; took me to the beach or up to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood.  My sister and her family go to a church and a bunch of her friends from there made freezer meals for me.  They would mow my lawn and – – -, well, whatever needed to be done.  Wes and I didn’t think too much about church and I can’t say that I do even now.  But I sure appreciated their help.  They acted more like how I thought a religious person should act, although I couldn’t really tell you then what that should be and don’t know if I could tell you now.  I think I may still have a lasagna or two left in the freezer.”

“How long ago did this happen?” Charlie asked, surprised by the lingering lasagna.

“It was a year ago next month.”

Charlie was left speechless by this.  Less than a year after losing her husband Carolyn was starting a business, overseeing a kitchen remodel, and moving on in life.  Charlie began to compare his handling of Stevie’s death with Carolyn’s response to her husband’s and he didn’t like the comparison at all.  Old demons of self-blame and doubt began to claw away at his heart, but he was determined not to give in to them this time without a fight.

“I handled my loss a lot less capably than you did.  I’m really impressed with your story.  You’ve seen what condition my problem left me in.”

Carolyn seemed to sense Charlie’s struggle.  “We’re different people, Charlie.  There’s no right or wrong way here; no weak or strong.  I could have walked the same path as you if my life had been different; if I had been alone.  And if you had all of the family support that I had – I take it you don’t have much family here?”  Charlie nodded in the negative.  “Then you might very well have handled your trouble in the same manner that I did.”

Charlie had his doubts, but Carolyn made sense.  He felt that he had dwelt on this conversation long enough; was amazed that he had done so and kept his composure.  “I’ll have to tell D’Andra about this” he thought, and then he changed the subject.

“Who are you using as a general contractor?”

Carolyn gave a name that Charlie didn’t recognize.  After spending two years on the margins of the construction trades he was unfamiliar with many of the new players.  Something like a protective urge rose up in him.

“If you have any questions about their work, I’d be glad to look at it with you.  Not to step on anyone’s toes, but I don’t want you to get short-changed in what can be a pretty dog-eat-dog business.”

“Why, thank you Charlie.  I appreciate that” Carolyn replied.  “But aren’t building inspectors supposed to check such things?”

Charlie remembered hearing stories of bottles of scotch whiskey being left in buildings that were ‘ready’ for inspection; ‘Christmas in July’ they called it. He had never resorted to such measures, and all of the inspectors he had dealt with were honest.  He knew that they though, like anyone else, could miss things or just not be as good at what they did as they should be.

“No system’s perfect” he finally chose to say.  “Inspectors can miss things.  If you’re still new at this, things could slip by you.”  Charlie remembered the poor design of the shower door in the bathroom remodel that he had just completed.  “So if you have any doubts or questions, I’ll be happy to take a look.”

Carolyn was thanking him for his concern and offer when they pulled into the parking lot of Home Supply.

For the next hour Charlie was busy scheduling the drop-off of some heavy braces and a large supply of lumber for the next morning.  He would be tearing out the existing outside wall and replacing it four feet further toward the front of the house.  Carolyn was mostly quiet as she watched every step of the transaction with interest.  Charlie noted this and decided that she was looking for knowledge that would help her in her own business.  “Smart woman” he thought.

At last the business was finished and Charlie began to drive them back to Carolyn’s house.  She offered to buy Charlie a burger or something but he declined.  “I’ve already eaten enough today to feed a village” he said with a laugh.  “I’ll stop if you’re hungry.”  Carolyn also declined and told him that she’d see if she could dig that old lasagna out of the freezer and zap it in the microwave oven that would be doing much of her cooking for the next month.

When they arrived at Carolyn’s house Charlie got out of the truck to open the door for her but she was already out, being fully capable of opening her own doors.  He was momentarily thrown by this but made a smooth recovery and walked her to the front door.

“I’ll be here at 9 tomorrow” he told her.  “I’ll be making a racket, so I don’t want to annoy your neighbors any more than is necessary.  You’ve got somebody staying with you until I get the new outside wall sealed up, right?”

“Yes.  My sister’s oldest son will be here.  He’s a big kid; plays football for Camas High.  He’ll stay for as long as I need him.  Or as long as I can feed him is more like it!”

“It won’t take long.  I’ll put in some long days at first and get that part done.  I don’t have any other pressing responsibilities, so I can focus on just that.”

“Well, I appreciate it.”  Carolyn drew a breath and let it out in a long, deep sigh.  “Now it’s time for me to go back to looking at numbers on paper.  Charlie, I do think you’ve got the best end of this business.”

“I’d have to agree,” he replied with a laugh.  “Well, good bye.  See you tomorrow.”

“Good bye, Charlie.”

Carolyn disappeared behind the closing door and Charlie returned to his truck.  Thoughts swirled in his brain as he fired it up and drove away from the curb.  His meeting with D’Andra this morning had stirred up questions that he needed to ask himself, and his conversation with LuAnn had given him more than roast beef to chew on.  No, he had spent the last two hours with Carolyn, fully engaged in work that he now found satisfying once again.

Charlie’s appreciation of Carolyn had grown even more as she selected appliances with a discerning eye and soaked up details of his business at Home Supply like a sponge.  It was very rewarding to work for her, and he hoped that her general contractor appreciated her and wasn’t taking advantage of her newness to the business.  “I hope that she’ll let me check some of their work,” he thought as he drove.

Upon arriving at Mill Plain Blvd. Charlie realized that he didn’t have a clue where he was going.  Reflexively he had turned toward his apartment, so he decided to continue in that direction.  He would take most of what he would be moving from his apartment to Billy’s cottage  Billy would not be home this early in the day but Charlie had a key already.

While he loaded clothes and a box or two of personal items he thought about what to do for the rest of the day.  “Ah!  The garden,” he thought.  He would stop at the storage shed and retrieve his bucket of gardening tools.  As he prepared to leave the apartment his eyes fell upon the old, beat-up coffee pot with the flowers in it.  Charlie had continued to replace the flowers in that unlikely vase whenever the old ones began to wilt.  He had become attached to that spot of color, and looking at it reminding him of his own coming back to life.  He crossed over to the table by the television and picked up the pot.  “You’re coming with me,” he said to it.

Charlie drove across town to Billy’s cottage and unloaded his belongings into the spare room that would be his home for the time being.  He put the coffee pot on a small table by the window then returned to his truck and drove back across town towards Camas and the community garden.

It was a little early for Rachael or Walt to be there but several other gardeners were.  Charlie surveyed his own plot and saw that the cucumbers and squash were almost ready to be picked.  The onions were developing plump yellow globes at the soil line, carrots and beets were growing luxurious greens and the green beans were now about two inches long.  Best of all, the tomato plants were thick with green tomatoes, all plumping up and getting ready to burst into red deliciousness.

Charlie checked for pest damage; he had already been forced to spray something on the squash and cucumbers for some sort of beetle.  The nursery worker swore that the spray was an environmentally friendly product and Charlie took his word for that.  He followed this with a bit of weed pulling and then decided to mow the grass that surrounded the garden plots.  It being a community garden, all were expected to pitch in and keep the place neat.

Charlie followed the self-propelled mower and waved at the other gardeners, feeling a peace that he hadn’t known for a very long time.  The sun was bright and warm, and he worked up a good sweat before he was finished with the lawn.  A convenience store sat on the corner two blocks away, and Charlie went there to buy a bottle of water and a bag of potato chips.  He didn’t have anything else to do and so he figured on waiting a while to see if Walt or Rachael would show up.

He took a seat under the canopy and made himself comfortable.  “I should start to read again” he thought as he sat in the shade, daydreaming while he sipped on his water and nibbled on his chips.  After a while, Charlie’s head began to dawdle and the water bottle nearly slipped out of his hand.

The warm air, cool breeze and feeling of being more financially and emotionally comfortable than he had been for a long time, seemed to give Charlie the space to let himself drift into a good nap.  That was hard to do though, sitting upright in a plastic chair, so Charlie sipped and nodded, snacked and dozed, until he finally drooped his head forward and fell fast asleep.

“Hi farmer!” Rachael said as she walked up to the sleeping Charlie.  He jumped upon hearing her voice and dropped his water bottle and half-eaten bag of chips onto the ground in front of him.

“Oh!” Rachael said with a laugh in her voice.  She sprang forward in a futile attempt to catch the falling items before they landed.  Charlie lurched forward in pursuit of the same goal and their heads collided lightly.  The two friends pulled their heads back and looked at each other mutely, and then both broke out in a happy laughter.

“Well, we’re not going to get much work done if we knock each other out!” Rachael said as her laughter subsided.

“I already have mine done” Charlie replied.  “I was just catching my beauty rest after all of the hard work.  Charlie reached down and picked up his bag of chips and saw that a handful or two remained in the bag.  “Care to sit down and share a meal?”

To his surprise, Rachael did pull up a plastic chair and sit next to him, extending her hand towards the bag.  Charlie filled the hand and they chatted while they munched on their chips.

“The bruise is just about gone” Charlie said, stating the obvious.  In fact, the bruise had been tenacious, but it had failed in it’s effort to spoil Rachael’s big night.  Her boyfriend had indeed proposed on the night that Charlie and Walt had first seen the damage that a young client had done to her.  All of the normal protocols for proposing marriage had dropped by the wayside once her now-finacé saw his future wife and heard of her fear of being an embarrassment to him if they went out for dinner that night.

“Embarrassment!” he had expostulated.  “There is nothing about you that embarrasses me.  I had intended to propose to you tonight; I’m telling you this because I assume that you had already figured that out.  Heck, I’d like to marry you tonight, right there at the table.  Beauty like yours can’t be hidden by such a little thing as a shiner on your face.  In fact, I wonder if the Maitre D’ could act like the captain of a ship, or maybe the Chef de Cuisine.”

Charlie’s and Walt’s opinion of Rachael’s choice for a partner rose appreciably upon hearing this tale, and Charlie noticed that Walt’s language and attitude had softened whenever Rachael was present or spoken of.  “She’s all right, for a female and a bible-thumper,” he had said.  “High praise indeed!” Charlie thought when Walt said it.

“So,” Rachael said as she finished her handful of chips.  “If you’ve finished your work, what are you doing hanging out here?  Did they finally kick you out of your apartment for making too much noise?”

Charlie thought of the bedlam that erupted at his residence from time to time, which would in some cases bring the police to the scene.  He laughed at the thought of him doing anything that could get him ejected from there.

“No,” he replied.  “They say they’ll put up with me for another week.  “Actually, there’s something that I would like to talk with you about.  I didn’t intend to when I got here, but I’ve been thinking that maybe your advice could help me with a decision.

He paused, and Rachael straightened in her chair, assuming a professional aspect.  “Now, I’m not asking you this as a shot at free counseling.  This is as a friend, and I haven’t had a lot of those lately and don’t want to take advantage of the few that I do have.  Are you willing to hear me on that basis?”

Rachael smiled and relaxed, slumping into her chair in an exaggerated manner.  She laid her hands on her knees in a yoga ‘mudra’ pose and exhaled.  “OK Grasshopper” she said.  “Shoot.”

Rachael’s light-hearted response put Charlie at ease, but he quickly became serious again.  “OK.  Well, here it is,” he began.  “Today D’Andra – have I told you ‘thank you’ enough times for telling me about her? – suggested that I get in touch with my ex-wife, Maureen.  What do you think of that?”

“Well, goodness, Charlie.  I would feel awkward about inserting myself between you and your counselor.  I don’t think that would be a proper thing to do.”

Charlie thought about her reply and then said “I’m not really trying to get you to critique her advice.  I’ve already bounced this off of a friend this morning, just trying to get a second point of view.  I wouldn’t want to impose on you though, so maybe I’ll just withdraw the question.”

Rachael gave it a moment’s more thought and then replied “No, it’s OK.  As a friend.  I’ll talk about this with you as a friend.  Perhaps I need a little practice at putting down my job and just being a friend.  So, why did she want you to do that?”

“I’ve been talking with her about our break-up; how I couldn’t come out of the shell of my own pain to help her deal with hers.  I came to believe that she hated me for my weakness and was disgusted with me, and finally left in order to get as far away from me as she could.  When we talked about it, D’Andra asked a lot of questions about how I came to believe this and I had to admit that I really didn’t have any real evidence that she felt like I believed she did.”

“So maybe you’ve spent the last two years blaming yourself for something that isn’t true?”

“Yeah, exactly.  Maybe Maureen really does hate me, but maybe she doesn’t.  Maybe she doesn’t blame me for not trying to make Stevie more careful.  Maybe she doesn’t blame me for ignoring her own pain.”  Charlie gulped back a rise of emotion in his throat and continued.  “Maybe she doesn’t blame me for not being a Dad to Jack.”

Rachael reached out and put a hand on Charlie’s knee.  “Slow down there,” she said.  “Hold on.  Take a minute and breathe.  Remember, I’m going to be a friend, not a counselor, so you come first and not your story.”  She waited while Charlie got himself back together.  “OK?” she asked.

“Yeah” Charlie replied.

“All right.  As a friend.  Do you want to do what D’Andra suggested?”

“Well, I’ve thought about it all day,”  Charlie said, “and I think that maybe I do.  One of the things that D’Andra mentioned that struck me the most is that Maureen may be hung up on these points, or points like them, the same as I was.  Or maybe still am.  If that’s true, then it would be wrong for me to use this knowledge, or possible knowledge I suppose I should say, to help me and not help her.  We’re apart now; I know that, and it’s not my responsibility how she’s doing now.  It just seems like maybe this would be a cleaning up, or a tying up of loose ends.  Maybe I even owe it to her.”

Rachael thought in silence about what Charlie had told her.  At last she replied “Charlie, I’ve been trying to put myself into your shoes, which I’ve decided is impossible.  So instead I’ve tried to put myself into Maureen’s shoes.  Of course, I know practically nothing about her and I can’t possibly imagine what it is like to lose a daughter.  I don’t even have any experience at being a wife yet.  I am, however fairly experienced at being a woman, and speaking from that point of view I can tell you that, if it is properly done, I would welcome somebody’s interest in helping me to deal with a big problem like that.  Now you said that there were no fireworks in your divorce, right?”

“Yeah, it was pretty mechanical.  I didn’t know what to say so I pretty much didn’t say anything.  I assumed that she had plenty to say but didn’t figure that I was worth saying it to.”

“And it didn’t occur to you that she might have been just as bound up as you were, did it?”

“No, it didn’t.  And I still don’t know one way or the other, really.  I suppose there’s only one way to find out, but my debate is whether or not that’s the right thing to do.”

“Ah, there’s a concept I wrestle with,” Rachael said with a sigh.  “The right thing to do.  How much time has been spent and how much grief has been inflicted on the self by trying to figure out the right thing to do?  Sometimes I wonder if there’s any such thing as the right thing to do.”

Charlie was surprised to hear the thought which Rachael had just expressed.  “What, so you don’t believe that there are right things and wrong things to do?” he asked.

“On no, it’s not like that,” she replied.  “It’s clear that there is right and wrong.  I’m just not certain that in every situation you can boil every option down to a single ‘right thing to do’ which makes everything else the ‘wrong thing to do.’”

“Huh?” Charlie grunted.  “I think you’re going too deep for an old carpenter like me.”

“Well, let me give you an example.  A certain German gentleman in the middle of the last century became the leader of his country and pursued policies that had a disastrous effect on a lot of people, especially people who were Jewish like me.”

“I thought that you were a Christian” Charlie interjected.

“I am, but we’ll clear that up later.  Anyway, a group of people tried to kill Herr Hitler towards the end of the war that his policies had caused.  By July of 1944 the Soviets were closing in on the east, the Allies were firmly entrenched in Normandy in the west and were clawing their way north in Italy.  It was clear to anybody who had eyes to see that Germany would be defeated.  A bunch of people wanted to kill Hitler and try to negotiate a peace that would keep Germany from being conquered and ruled by the Allies or, much worse, the Russians.  They failed, and the war ground on for almost another murderous year.

Now here’s my point.  As a Jew and a Christian, can I support the effort to kill Hitler?  God commanded on Mount Sinai “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and in Torah it says “Vengence is mine.  I will repay.”  In the Gospels Jesus is declared the Prince of Peace.  “Render unto Caeser that which is Caeser’s” He said, and “love your enemy.”  Later a good Jewish boy named Paul said something like every Christian is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  It was Nero who was the governing authority at that time, and he was a pretty bad actor too.

So was it right to ignore the teaching of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and try to kill Hitler?  Or would it have been right to not try to kill him, thereby giving him another year to murder as many people as he could?”

Charlie guffawed at the question.  “Of course it was right to kill Hitler, or at least to try.  You can’t be trying to defend that guy.  Not even you are saint enough for that!”

“Oh, Charlie.  I’m no saint.  And I actually do believe that it was right to try to kill Hitler.  I’m a Jewish girl, remember?  But I’m a Jew and a Christian because I believe that some things were said by God to lead us in our lives.   In this case, the reality of life on the ground made it complicated and difficult to decide which action was right.  In the end, I have to choose which action of a group of options is MOST right and go from there, hoping – even praying – that I am right.  God will judge my intentions and has the grace to forgive me if I’m wrong.

So now let’s bring it back to your situation.  What’s the right thing to do?  Maybe correcting mistaken views will help you deal with your life after Maureen, or maybe the views that you’ve held for the last few years are correct, and it will only make it hurt more for a while if you stir them up.  Maybe Maureen has moved on and doesn’t need your ghost showing up to trouble her now, and maybe she’s stuck and you could help free her from her own prison.  And you haven’t mentioned your son – it was Jack, right?  Maybe he really is angry enough to hate you, and maybe he has found some other male figure to look up to, and maybe he hasn’t found that figure at all and is in limbo.  And maybe he’s an angry boy who wants his real father to love him.

How can you possibly know the answers to all of these ‘maybes?’   In my experience there’s no mathematical formula that will crunch all of those variables and spit out an ironclad answer.  There’s too many x’s and y’s in the input to expect anything but a few x’s and y’x to populate the output.  And I don’t know any psychologists or philosophers or theologians who can render the variables down to one neat answer.  Life isn’t like that.

So, all of that being said, you asked me for my opinion, and nothing more than my opinion is what I’m going to give you now, if you still want to hear it.”

Charlie mutely nodded for her to continue.

“If you go forward with this, the worse thing that could happen is that your assumptions are confirmed.  Those assumptions are what you are dealing with already.  All that would change is that you would know them rather than have to guess them.  The best that could happen is that all of your assumptions could be wrong; that you and Maureen would reunite, that Jack would rush to you, give up his current occupations and become the perfect child in your eyes, and that you would also find out that unicorns really exist.

Probably – and again, this is just my opinion – the result would be somewhere between those extremes, and in my opinion it would be closer to the unicorn end than the other.  How much closer would be the big variable.  You weren’t the perfect husband, Charlie.  There’s only one of those and he’s marrying me next June, which only leaves him a year to enjoy his perfect status.

I can tell you that you are a kind person though and that you care about people, once you let them get close enough to you.  Speaking as a woman, I believe that Maureen knows this about you at some level, and that she will take that into consideration if you decide to try to contact her.  Beyond that, I don’t know any more than you do.  I think that it is a good thing, or at least more of a good than a bad thing, and I think that your son may benefit from this more than either you or your ex.  Most boys need a Dad around, and I believe that hearing from his father would be a good first step in making that happen.”

Rachael was finished and sat back in her chair.  Charlie sat back in his own, mulling over everything that he had just heard.  D’andre had made a suggestion, LuAnn had supported it, and now Rachael had eloquently confirmed it.  ‘Three trees make a row’ he had once heard, and here he saw three trees standing right in front of him.

A decision such as this requires a pretty solid conviction though, at least as far as Charlie could see.  It was less than two months ago that he was leaning over the rail on the Interstate Bridge, listening to ghosts who were calling for him to join them.  Could he trust these new thoughts to be true and friendly?  This was something that would require more time and thought, and maybe even more input.

At this point both friends heard the squeak of the gate.  They turned to see who it was that came to work in their garden.  It turned out to be Walt.

“You won’t get anything done that way, you loafers!” he called out.  Charlie and Rachael just laughed and waved to him as he made his way to his plot.

Charlie then looked at Rachael and said “That is some good advice, and I will think about it.  Really. I really will.  Rachael, you’re one of the most, well, I don’t know how to say it.  One of the smartest, or most level-headed, or, I don’t know.  You just have a way of seeing things that I don’t.  That a lot of people don’t, I suspect.  I guess you learned some of this stuff at school, but you base a lot of it on your religion, don’t you?”

“Yes Charlie, I do,” Rachael responded.  “My faith is very important to me, and it guides me in much of my very imperfect life.”

“I don’t know if I believe in any religion,” Charlie began.  “Oh, I believe that it exists, but I don’t know if it’s true.  I’ve never thought about it much, but I think that I would like to know more about it.  About yours, at least.  I haven’t been a reader since I was a kid;  I was always too busy for that, so I don’t think that I would gain anything from asking you for a reading list.  And I don’t think I’d be comfortable to go into a church where anybody might come up to me and talk.  I’ve walked into a Catholic church once or twice recently; you know, that big brick one downtown?  It was weird how that place felt comfortable when I was really in the tank, but there was no way that I was going to speak to anyone.  I was wondering then, well, I guess I was just wondering if it would be all right if I went to church sometime with you?”

Rachael looked at Charlie for what seemed like an eternity but, in reality, was only a moment or two.  At last she said “Of course Charlie.  I would be happy to sit with you at synagogue.  I have many friends there who would want to meet you too, but I could tell them beforehand that you need a little space.  You would not be expected to know any of the rhythms  of our worship and so you could just watch and listen.  Would that be OK?”

Charlie nodded and said that it would be.  Rachael then continued, saying “This is new to me too Charlie.  I’m not the most evangelical person on the planet.  I’ve never taken a guest to synagogue with me.  I hope that we can just enjoy it together.  We meet on Wednesday nights, Friday nights and Saturday mornings.  I usually go Wednesday because we study Torah, and I am at heart a Jew.  Saturday mornings are when we have what would look more like a church service to you, and the people who attend are made up of Jews and non-Jews alike.  Of course, you can go any time you like, and I will be happy to go with you.  Here,” Rachael began to dig into her purse and at last found the business card that she was looking for.  “This has my phone number on it.  It’s my work phone, but I check it all the time.  You think about it and call me whenever you feel like joining me there.”

Charlie accepted her card and thanked her for the invitation.  Silently he thanked her for the lack of pressure as well.  When he was young some aggressive Christians pestered him about coming to church.  He remembered how he felt like all they really wanted was to make of him a notch on their belts.  Rachael was much more low key and inviting.

“I’ll give you a call.”

“Good.  And now I have some gardening to do.  Wanna make yourself useful?”

Charlie looked at his fingernails, paused and then said “Well, I don’t know.  I’ve just had a manicure and my poodle needs to be clipped and I have some flowers to arrange.  Maybe I can squeeze out a few minutes.”

Rachael reached down and grabbed a handful of the grass that was growing under the canopy and threw it at Charlie.  “Don’t be such a fop!” she said with a laugh, and the two friends rose to go help Rachael make her garden grow.

Reflection

Ah, the vicissitudes of this mortal frame!  For sixty five years I considered myself to have lived a somewhat charmed life.  “Never had a major disease or even a broken bone” I would crow when sitting on a chair in the break room at work, or on one in a friend’s living room, or a stool at some local watering hole.  I have to confess that I found my relatively clean health record odd, all things considered (which we will do shortly),  but I was very pleased with the state of my health as I charged into my energetic sixties.  And then reality dropped it’s hammer onto my head.

“Glenn, you’ve had a heart attack.”  I had worked with this Emergency Room doctor for decades, and I could see that it wasn’t easy for him to bring me this news.  The news didn’t come as a surprise though.  Two years of symptoms had eluded test after test, and when the chest pain and the blood work were put together, the truth was right in front of my eyes.  An angiogram the next day confirmed that three of my cardiac arteries needed to be bypassed, using vessels from my leg and chest.  I said “Get to it then,” and they did.

Over the last two and a half years I have been more or less OK.  With diet and exercise, massage, acupuncture and a very good naturopath I have gotten along pretty well.  Until the last two months, that is.

Since then I have found it hard to eat anything solid without running the risk of very severe abdominal pain and sometimes throwing up.  By staying on a diet of smoothies with small amounts of solid food thrown in I’m able to usually avoid the problem, but after sixty eight years of chewing my food, one finds oneself used to the exercise.

Two weeks from today I will have the pleasure of an endoscopy procedure.  A doctor called a gastroenterologist (they give themselves Latin and Green names which sound SO important so that they can charge more) will advance a scope down my esophagus, into my stomach, through the pyloric valve and into the duodenum, in hopes that he can find a cause for this problem.  I hope that he is successful.

 

I find myself reflecting on all of this on a gray Vancouver winter day when I have already planted three new blueberry plants and have nothing better to do.  I could, on the one hand, ask “Why me?”  I eat better than most Americans (and I can provide a grocery bill to support that assertion!), I exercise, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol on only social occasions (which don’t happen every night, if that’s what you’re thinking).

On the other hand, I might answer “Why not me?”  I began to smoke cigarettes when I was eight years old and did so, off and on, until I  was twenty.  I spent two years in Vietnam where a lot worse than GERD was flying around me, and I walked through pools of Agent Orange while I was there.

And in the years that I was overseas and in most of the next ten years I smoked or ingested God-knows-what on a daily basis, trying to self-medicate pain that I really had no good excuse to be experiencing.  During those years I should have died or experienced serious life-changing circumstances well more than a half-dozen times.  So there’s no point in whining about that now.  At sixty eight something might be catching up with me.  Wouldn’t be surprised.

The point of writing this is not that I think I’ll drop dead tomorrow.  I might do just that, but I don’t expect it.  I’m not going down the drain, nor even circling it.  But at long last I can SEE the drain.  I’m not going to live forever.  Until now, that has been an abstract notion.  Now it’s a poke in the ribs.  I finally understand that, sooner or later, it will become a kick in the butt.

Death is just a part of the drill.  Odds are, we’re all going to get our shot at it.  That leads me to ponder not “How can I avoid thinking about death?” but rather, “How can I make the best use of my time in the one hour or thirty years that I have left?”  What can I do to make this place better, even if on a scale so microscopic that it doesn’t register on most graphs and scales?”

“How do I redeem the time that God gives me?”  That seems like a better question than “Why me?’

A Boy And His Dog, Part 1

Jerry Warnock had never been able to inspire much in the way of respect, and I can’t really say why that was the case.  In stature, Jerry was neither taller nor shorter than most of the rest of us.  His build was neither skinny nor chubby.  Jerry’s parents seemed to make decent money, as his house was as good as most of ours and better than some, and his clothes were always new or at least well washed and maintained.  Jerry did not have a lisp or walk pigeon-toed, or play the accordion or anything else that would make him a target for disdain and abuse from the other kids in the neighborhood, but regardless of whether there was physical evidence of inferiority or not, the dynamic of the neighborhood pre-adolescent mob had detected some defect – to me unidentifiable – which drew their attention to Jerry with relentless and irresistible pressure.  It was just fun to beat up on Jerry Warnock.

Kurt Schmitz, one of my oldest friends, told me once of inviting Jerry to play Monopoly with him at Kurt’s house.  Kurt’s father was in the Navy and was frequently assigned somewhere out in the wide world.  His mother responded to her months of loneliness by working long shifts at a department store downtown and spending long evenings at the slightly seedy little bar on University Avenue, a few blocks away from their home.  As a consequence, Kurt and his sister Margot grew up more or less alone.

I suspect that Kurt must have been really bored to have invited Jerry to play any game with him, and I know for a fact that Kurt had no idea that Jerry was actually pretty good at playing Monopoly; good enough to put houses on Boardwalk and Park Place, hotels on Marvin Gardens, Ventnor Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, and also on the orange properties around the corner from the Free Parking space.  Kurt didn’t have much to counter with and soon Jerry had cleaned him out.  Kurt took offense at this and socked Jerry in the face and kicked him off of his front porch.  When we heard about this from Kurt we all laughed and took it for granted.  That’s what you did with people like Jerry Warnock.

I don’t want to create the impression that Jerry was a patsy however.  He never backed away from a fight, even if it was almost certain that he would not win it.  One time Jerry showed me the lacerations inside his lips that had resulted from the last time he had stood his ground, and consequently had the shit kicked out of him.  To him, those lacerations were a badge of honor.  “I may not win but I won’t lay down and take it” he once told me.  Yeah, he stood his ground, but that didn’t change the fact that Jerry was a punching bag, and he hated the fact that he could do nothing about it.

The worse day in Jerry’s life, at least that part of his life that I knew him back then, began one morning before school started in the fourth grade.  Jerry had been out on the schoolyard playing some game or other and a couple of the guys cooked up a little plan for him.  They liked to call Jerry “She-Miss-Woman” because that is as cold an insult as a bunch of ten year old boys could come up with, and Charlie Shipley threw out what seemed like a bright idea.

“She-Miss-woman probably needs to go to the bathroom before class starts.  Let’s throw her in there and hold the door closed.”  All present quickly agreed to do so.  Jerry was of course completely unaware of the plot and had no idea what was about to befall him.

“Hey Jerry”  Charlie yelled.  “Come over here for a minute.”

Jerry should have known better, but he came over anyway.

“Whata you want?” he asked.

Before an answer could be given he was grabbed by Charlie and Frank Schmidt and Dutch Plimpset, and while Kurt held open the door to the girls’ bathroom Jerry was unceremoniously tossed into that bathroom where there were no urinals.  The door was slammed shut and leaned against.  Jerry roared out his indignation, which barely penetrated the thick, wooden bathroom door as muffled yells, while the  shrill screams of the girls who had been availing themselves of the facilities added their higher decibels to the cacophony erupting behind those doors.  We didn’t hold pressure on that wound for long because the principal’s office was only a few feet down the hall and opposite the side which housed the girls’ bathroom.  Mr. Hensil, the new principal, was a fair man, but with his prematurely bald head he projected a no-nonsense image, and was in fact not at all afraid to use the paddle which hung from his office wall, a fact to which Dutch (whom we would later nickname ‘The Worm’) and Greg Blackstone could frequently attest.  We waited only a few moments before we stepped away from the door and melted into the crowd of kids moving like an innocent river through the halls of Henry Knox Elementary School.

Jerry came boiling through that door like a cork liberated from the neck of a champaign bottle, followed by a froth of young girls pushing and squealing and doing everything they could to escape from their violated sanctuary.  We heard this from Frankie Martinez, who just happened to be entering the hallway from outside the building when Jerry and his unwilling entourage made their exit.  Frankie hated that he had missed out on the fun, but he had the upper hand in that he could tell us about the aftermath;  Jerry’s red face and the giggles of the girls which found room for expression between their squeals, as those girls seemed to purposefully add to Jerry’s humiliation.

Later that day Jerry was looking for payback, and thought that he had found his opportunity at lunch.  A bunch of us kids were playing dodge ball and Jerry came late to the game.  Many of Jerry’s antagonists from that morning were in the center of the ring, dodging the three soccer-style balls which were being used simultaneously in order to ratchet up the degree of difficulty in dodging them.  The kids usually aimed for the body or, better still, the legs.  Balls aimed at the legs were harder to catch, and if somebody caught a ball that was thrown at him or her they could exit the circle and change places with the person who had thrown the ball.  Then, they could have the pleasure of nailing other kids in the ring.

Jerry wasn’t interested in the fine points of the game.  When the ball bounced his way he waited with it until Dutch was diverted by somebody who launched a shot at his kneecaps.  At that moment, with Dutch’s attention distracted, Jerry fired that ball with all the power that his spindly arms could muster, straight at the side of Dutch’s head.

The impact was something which roused admiration even among Jerry’s most better antagonists.  The ball collided with the side of dutch’s melon and knocked him right on his ass.  The blow was so expertly dealt that we all simply stopped the game and stared in mute amazement.  Dutch rolled on the ground for a moment and then sat up, rubbing his hand over his ear and drawing it back repeatedly to see if he was bleeding.

Jerry, who had a pitifully underdeveloped sense of self preservation, began to laugh like a hyena.  “There!  That’s what you get.  Who’s laughing now?  Maybe you’ll think about that next time you want to throw somebody into a bathroom.”  Jerry continued to laugh, and the rest of us couldn’t help but start to laugh too.  After all, Dutch was a nasty little shithead and many of us didn’t care so much for him ourselves.

Once Dutch cleared the cobwebs from his addled brain he grew red as a beet.  Rising from the ground he threw himself at Jerry with a hail of blows.  Jerry fought back gamely, the rage and humiliation of the morning driving him to efforts that he could rarely muster, but it was all in vain.  Dutch was too accomplished a fighter and had felt the sting of our laughter after being nearly cold-cocked by Jerry.  He quickly gained the upper hand and administered a terrific beating to Jerry before an adult playground monitor noticed the fracas and separated the boys, taking each one by an arm and marching them towards Mr Hencil’s office.  Jerry’s bleeding face was already beginning to redden and swell, and Dutch’s butt was almost certainly going to follow suit in the immediate future.

It was on this particular day when I began to feel sympathy for Jerry.  He hadn’t snitched on us when he gained his freedom from the bathroom; in fact, he never snitched on us when we made his life miserable.  And I didn’t really like Dutch any more than I liked Jerry.  Dutch and I had never tangled, but his friendship with some of the guys who I knew in my neighborhood had led me to disassociate with some of them.  There was an amoral crassness about Dutch that no ten year old boy could put his finger on and describe, but I felt it and sort of hoped that the shot that Dutch had taken from that hard leather ball would have softened him up a little so that Jerry could kick his ass good and proper.  That day wasn’t this day however, and a triumphant Dutch and a bloodied Jerry were marched away across the asphalt playground towards the principals office while we reformed our circle and continued our game.

Later that afternoon, at the recreation center that formed the nucleus of our neighborhood, Jerry ventured out of his house and came over to join the group of kids who had gathered there.  Dutch was not welcome at the recreation center per the leader of that place and so Jerry usually had an easier time of it there.  Today was not Jerry’s day however, and it was while Jerry was distracted by pushing the merry-go-round for some smaller kids that Dutch took advantage of the leader, Mrs. Lebec’s absence  that day, to venture onto the forbidden grounds of the rec center, or the Park as we called it.

Dutch, who never suffered any discipline in his single mother-led home, had nevertheless had his butt lit up for him by Mr. Hensil, who had a pretty good grasp on the dynamic at play here.  So when Dutch saw Jerry, one eye already black, lips puffy and a large red splotch across the right side of his face, he decided to finish the job he had started earlier at school.

Coming up behind Jerry, Dutch grabbed the back of his neck and slammed Jerry’s face into the metal seat of the merry-go-round.  The little kids screamed as blood spurted out of Jerry’s nose, and then Dutch threw him to the ground and knelt over him, pounding his face and body without pity.  Even Kurt and Greg and Frankie and Ray Loretto, who came with Dutch, seemed uneasy with this and at length I reacted impulsively and pushed Dutch off of the groaning and nearly motionless Jerry.

Dutch came up and prepared to take a swing at me.  I knew that I probably couldn’t take Dutch on but I was prepared to give it my best shot.  Dutch’s friends held him back however, apparently more than satisfied with the carnage already inflicted.

“Come on Dutch” I said.  “I don’t want any trouble with you.  He’s had enough though.  I don’t think he’ll mess with you again, so there ain’t no point in killing him.”

Dutch quit struggling to get free from his friends after a few moments and seemed to cool down.  “Yeah, OK” he said.  “I won’t beat on him any more.  I won’t beat on you either.  Today at least.”

I didn’t say anything back, but made a mental note that someday Dutch and I were going to have to settle this.  I hoped that I would be a little bigger when that day came.

I looked down and saw that Jerry was looking up at me through swollen eyes.  I couldn’t read the expression on his battered face then but now I know that it was something like a mix of surprise and gratitude.  Jerry wasn’t accustomed to kids defending him, and he was trying to figure out if he could trust his senses that this was really happening.  I was in no position to take my opposition to this abuse too far though, and so I stepped back, defusing the situation between Dutch and me.

That allowed Dutch to return his attention to Jerry.  He leaned down and picked Jerry up by his shirt, dragging him upright, and began marching him off of the Park grounds.  The commotion was sure to draw the attention of one of the assistant Rec leaders at any moment and Dutch knew it was time for him to vanish.  He began to half push, half carry Jerry to the sidewalk, then across the street, down three houses and then across the front lawn of the house belonging to the Larsons, who owned the neighborhood bakery and, also, a large and aggressive German shepherd.

“Come on guys,” Dutch said.  “Let’s pitch him over the fence.”  I hadn’t followed the other boys but I was watching from the Park.  When I saw them first push Jerry down and then raise him up over their heads, squirming and kicking, and then throw him over the fence into the domain of the fiercely territorial German shepherd, I ran across the street and down to the Larson’s house to see if I could stop a killing.  Dutch and the others had taken off and I ran up to the locked gate and peered in to se if, by any chance, the dog wasn’t there.

No such luck.  The dog was indeed there, and when the scared, bloody wreck that was Jerry fell hard on the dog’s side of the fence he emerged from his doghouse like a shot out of a gun and flew growling and barking straight at Jerry.

I arrived at the fence a few moments after the dog did and I expected the worse.  I had always feared dogs in general, and this brute in particular, and I almost turned away to go to the front door and see if the Larsons were at home, and if they wanted to pick up a dead body from their back yard.  Instead, I went directly to the fence and looked through the privacy slats which ran diagonally through the wire links.

Inside, Jerry had pulled himself up and was lying with his back against the fence.  The dog had stopped its mad dash and was sitting on his haunches a foot or two away from Jerry’s extended feet.  The dog seemed to be studying Jerry, tilting his head first one way and then the other.  Jerry was in so much pain, and was so thoroughly beaten in body and spirit, that he seemed resigned to the dog doing whatever it wished.  He just lay there, his back up against the fence with his arms beside him on the ground.  If the dog wanted his throat Jerry no longer had the will nor the interest to resist.  One thrust by the giant German shepherd and Jerry would bleed out in a matter of minutes, and his problems would finally be over.  Jerry knew it and the dog knew it, and I most definitely knew it.

I began to yell at the dog and try to attract its attention toward me, in order to give Jerry a chance to climb the fence and make his getaway.  To my surprise, the dog barely noticed me.  Usually my presence as far away as the sidewalk was sufficient to make the Nazi canine go ballistic.  Now, he glanced up at me as if I was no more than a passing car, and then stretched forth his neck and licked at the bruised and bleeding face of Jerry, who lay still but not seemingly in terror, or showing any kind of fear at all.  After a minute the dog turned its head to the right and lightly bit Jerry on the left arm.  The bite barely broke the skin and the dog licked the tiny dot of blood which had appeared there.  Jerry seemed not to notice this at all.

At this point I had seen enough to know that something very weird was going on, and that I had to do something about it.  I knew that I would not get into and out of that yard alive, no matter what was happening to Jerry, so I arose and went to the front door of the Larson’s home.  To my relief, Mrs. Larson answered when I pushed the bell.  “Hello Mrs. Larson” I began.  “I was at the Park across the street and I saw some boys throw another boy over your fence.  He’s back there now.”

“Oh, heaven’s sakes!” she cried and left me there on the steps in front of the door.  I heard the back door open and slam shut, and Mrs. Larson called for the dog to come to her, which it apparently did.  By this time I had descended from the front porch and returned to the fence.  The dog was chained up next to his doghouse on the other side of the yard and Mrs. Larson was helping Jerry to his feet.

“Who did this to you?” she asked Jerry as he gained his feet and stood there , wobbling slightly and trying to regain his balance.

“I don’t know” Jerry mumbled between broken lips.  “I never saw them before.”  Like I said, Jerry was not a snitch.

“Do you know who they are?”  Mrs. Larson asked, looking at me.

“No ma’am” I responded.  “I was way over there”.  I pointed towards the basketball court halfway across the Park.  “I could see what was happening but I don’t know who was doing it.”

Mrs. Larson looked skeptical and said something about the police.  Jerry said “I just want to go home ma’am.  If my parents want to call the police, maybe they should do it.”

That made sense to Mrs. Larson, and I added “I’ll help him to get home ma’am.  I know where he lives.”

Mrs. Larson agreed to that plan and led Jerry through the house and out onto the front porch.  I was going to help him walk but he seemed to have recovered his balance sufficiently to make it under his own power.  I walked with him anyway to make sure that he didn’t run into Dutch, who might have been lurking behind a parked car or a bush for all I knew.  I had decided that even if I had to fight Dutch and lose the friendship of the others, I wasn’t going to let this continue, at least not today.

When we got to Jerry’s house he asked if I wanted to come in.  I told him that I had to be getting home myself, which was a lie, and that I hoped he would be feeling better soon.  Before we separated however I had to ask him one question:  “What was that all about with the dog?  I thought he was going to eat you.”

“I did too” said Jerry.  “I knew that there was nothing I could do so I just got ready to be eaten.  I don’t know what happened.  I just knew that when he stopped and sat down, he was not going to hurt me.  It was like I knew him, or maybe more like he knew me.  I went from thinking that I was going to die to feeling safe.  I can’t explain it.”

I just shook my head and said “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever seen.  Well, I’ll see you around, and if I was you I would stay away from Dutch.”

Jerry smiled when I sat that and announced that he agreed with me wholeheartedly, for the time being anyway.  He then turned and walked up the steps and onto his front porch, and then through the door.  He looked back at me and gave me a little wave.  I waved back and then just shook my head again as the door closed behind him.