Category Archives: Friendship

An Odd Day At The Beach

It was a gray day in San Diego, which means that it was somewhere between January and June.  The year was 1970 and I had been home from the Army for about seven months, which was long enough for my hair to increase from sub-military length (they threatened to not let me leave Vietnam unless my hair was short enough.  I made certain that it was) to somewhere around my collar.  My beard, which I had dreamed of for years, was a sparse and raggedy affair hanging miserably off of my chin, but by God, at last I had one.

Benson “Benny” Beck and I were posted up at the south end of the La Jolla Shores beach, by the end of the street which ran in front of the 7-11 store.  We had gathered driftwood from all along the beach and had a nice little fire going in a hole that we had dug in the sand where a concrete pad made a ninety degree angle from a wall.  The 7-11 was close enough to provide sunflower seeds and donuts and six packs of Budweiser, and we were doing our part to make sure that their business was successful.

Benny and I hung around together a lot during that first year back from the War.  He had arrived home about two weeks before I did, and I went to his parent’s house on my first evening back in San Diego.  We did nearly everything together that first year, with everything consisting mostly of drinking beer, smoking weed, eating pizza from Nicolosi’s, Pernicano’s, and Sorrento’s, all of which were located on El Cajon Boulevard.  Occasionally we would diversify and eat hot dogs from Der Weinerschnitzel on College Avenue (or ‘Der Tumorschnitzel,’ as we called it) or burritos from some nasty little joint on El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and 54th.  Strangely, Benny never gained a pound.  I, on the other hand, ballooned to over 200 pounds from my svelte post-Army 132.

We went to the mountains.  We went to the desert.  We went to the bar owned by Dave “Monk” Callabretta’s dad, and on that day we went to the beach in La Jolla.

There was no thought in either of our heads about going into the water.  I guess one could say that there was rarely any thought in either of our heads one way or the other, but that’s a different story.  Anyway, in lieu of bathing in the frigid waters off of the Shores – yes, in the winter they are just plain frigid – we sat back, opened packages of snacks and bottles of beer, and maintained the warm fire while we talked about – – – everything.  And nothing in particular.  And it was while I was pontificating about nothing important that Benny pointed out to sea and said “What is that?”

I looked to where he was pointing and saw nothing at first.  “Ain’t nothing there” I said.  “You’re tripping.”

“What’s the matter?  Ain’t you got eyes?” he asked.  “Look over there.”

Benny pointed to an object about one hundred meters off of the beach.  I squinted at the waves and at last perceived a dark object just barely protruding above the water  “Looks like a piece of wood” I said.  “Or a seal.”

The object was moving toward us and soon was joined by another similar object, and then another.  We watched, speculating on the nature of what we were seeing, until the objects came close enough for us to see that they were the heads of divers in wet suits.

As they approached the shore they rose up out of the water and we could see that they were carrying one of their number, or at least helping him to struggle out of the water.  In no time the divers spotted us and, more important, our fire, and made a beeline to where we were seated.

“What’s wrong?” Benny called out to them as they approached.  “Can we help?”

“Our friend here got cold” one of them replied.  “His suit failed and he’s got some hypothermia going on.  Can we sit by your fire for a while?”

“Sure” I said.  “Help yourself.  We’ll go dig up some more wood for you.”

The divers sat their friend in the sand in front of the fire, propped up against the concrete pad.  Benny and I didn’t take long to find more wood and we built the fire up a little more to help the cold diver recover.  We chatted with those guys for a while until the diver in distress claimed that he was warming up.  One of his friends volunteered to stay with him while the others resumed their dive and returned to wherever their cars were parked.  They would then return to pick them up.

Benny and I shared our beer with them and kept the fire going until a car appeared at the end of the street that runs by the 7-11 store, right where we were waiting.  They climbed into that car and disappeared.

After a few more beers we walked along the beach back to the La Jolla Shores parking area, which was almost empty on that gray, murky day.  Probably, we were going to grab some pizza, or a hot dog.  Who the divers were and where they went to I haven’t a clue.

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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.

The Garden, Chapter X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you told them that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have any contact with Maureen now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you moved yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the tip will really suck.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

“And is there?”

“Is there what?”

“is there anything to clear up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you make any attempt to see him?”

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

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

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

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

“How much did you try to talk to him?

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

God Has A Special Providence—

I have already written stories about the sumer and fall of 1976.  That was the year that my first marriage disintegrated, beginning in February and extending to the end of the year.  That year was one of considerable transformation for me in some ways, and a bit of regression in others.  I had only just left the wild party-animal phase of my life in the summer of 1973 and had slowly, painfully, been settling down into a slightly more stable role of construction worker, student and then construction worker again, all the while assuming the role of husband and provider, establishing a home and living as a married, working, home owning middle class sort of guy.  I had not approached anything like becoming some sort of rock of the community by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was I spending very much time sitting with a bunch of stoned college students by a swimming pool using the bottom of a saucepan as a bongo drum while croaking out my best version of any given rock tune.

All of that began to unravel in February of ’76’ when my wife announced that she wanted to separate.  We agreed to do so in June, but in May when I learned that she was already involved in a relationship with someone else I left the next morning and then spent the next six months floundering in a sea of pain and self pity, trying to regain my balance but stumbling more than standing and rarely taking two steps forward without taking one or two or three steps back.

My first step in dealing with my situation was to avoid dealing with it.  I moved with four others into an old residence which was upstairs from what had once been a neighborhood grocery store.  Here the party went on day and night.  Once a friend from work came over to our place with a friend of her own.  After a little while her friend apologized for showing up at our place with neither food nor beer nor marijuana.  “If I would have known that you were having a party I would have brought something” he said with a guilty and embarrassed look.  My friend Evelyn laughed.  “They aren’t having a party,” she explained.  “It’s like this here all the time.”

And so it was.  I couldn’t stay loaded all of the time however, and sometimes even when I was the pain and loneliness became oppressive and on those occasions there was nothing better to bring me up than family.  I called my father and spoke with him every day for a month after the split with my wife, and that helped me to survive those awful first days.  Dad went to his grave not knowing the role that he played in keeping me out of my own, or at least if he did know it wasn’t because of my telling him.  He might have known now that I think of it.  Dad always had a way of knowing more than I thought he did.  I wonder if my kids feel that way about me?  Both of them are a good deal more bright than I was, so I doubt it.  And then there was my brother.

Brad is four years my senior and we have always been close.  We spoke on the phone often even before the end of my marriage and continued to do so afterward.  But these were desperate times, and Brad felt that I was in need of a little more assistance than frequent telephone conversation could provide.  Therefore, upon completion of the spring semester at the University of New Mexico where he was both teaching and taking classes, Brad packed some clothes and pointed his Ford pick up north and west and rode into town to help me keep my head above water.

Whenever Brad and I got together however it was frequently a question as to who was going to keep both of our heads above water.  Brad and I had always enjoyed being together and after I returned from the Army and turned twenty one years of age we had great fun, frequently with our father as well, trying to drink all of the beer in California.  All of the Budweiser, at least.  Brad has a very fast wit and Dad was no slouch either.  The three of us might sit around discussing philosophical or literary issues, sending Mom to the kitchen to escape the hot air, or after dinner (and a large number of cans of Bud) Brad and I might go to the soft, green front lawn, roar at each other like developmentally delayed orangutans, and bang into each other in what we called a ‘belly contest’.  I had never had a belly during my childhood but in the year after I exited the Army, after stuffing myself nonstop with pizza and beer and hot dogs from Der Wienerschnitzel, which we called Der Tumorschnitzel due to the dubious quality of it’s product, I had developed my first significant gut.  We would roar and bang into each other belly to belly, back up, and then roar and crash into each other again, all the while laughing maniacally.  At these times Mom would retreat to the deeper recesses of our tiny Southern California cubical of a house to avoid being seen in her humiliation by any of the neighbors whom she knew were peeking at the idiot Durden boys from behind curtains or between blinds.  So when Brad arrived to cheer me up it didn’t take long before we were back at our old tricks with only the faintest evidence of any maturity having occurred in the interim.

One evening when Brad was doing an outstanding job of cheering me up and the party that was my routine existence was in full throat I received a phone call.  The call was from my friend Walt, with whom I had roomed when I first moved to Sonoma County to attend the University there.  We had remained friends ever since.  On this particular evening Walt was calling because his Land Rover was resting comfortably on the side of Highway 12 just west of Santa Rosa.  Walt loved that vehicle, although I could not for the life of me tell you why.  It looked like it could easily carry an intrepid explorer safely from one end of Africa or the Australian Outback to the other, while in fact it frequently had trouble carrying Walt from one end of Sonoma County to the other.  I have previously written of Walt getting his ride stuck in the mud near a house that he was renting.  That was not an infrequent occurrence, four wheel drive and all.  Still, Walt was committed to his vehicle and so he was calling me from a bar at the end of the nearest off ramp, asking me to come and drag the carcass of his Land Rover that was at that moment achieving ambient temperature on the shoulder of Highway 12.

Walt said that it would take him twenty minutes to walk back to his car, so Brad and I downed the rest of our open beers, took a few more hits off of a joint that was circulating through the crowd at my residence, and left to go and retrieve Walt and his dead Land Rover.  In order to give Walt time to return to his car Brad and I stopped at a corner grocery store to pick up another six pack of beer.  It’s not like we needed any more, but that had little to do with anything.  After exchanging pleasantries with the grocer we climbed back into Brad’s truck and roared off down the road to where we could get on the highway and get to Walt.

Along the way we did what we had been doing all night; drinking beer, discussing anything and everything that came to mind, and viewing the world through filters that were uniquely our own.  We might have told stories that we had told a hundred times before and still laughed at as if it was their first hearing.  We still do that, to the considerable amazement of those around us who are not wired in the same way that are we.  We were engaged in this manner when we came upon Walt and his disabled vehicle.  About a half mile further west we found a place to make a U-turn and came back to link the Land Rover to Brad’s truck with a chain.  That being accomplished to everybody’s satisfaction we all regained our mounts and slowly started rolling down the highway towards town.

Along the way, Brad and I began to slip back into the place where we had been only a few minutes before.  New beers were popped open, new (old) stories and jokes were dredged up, and new takes upon the affairs of our lives and the world in general were passed through our fuzzy and thoroughly unique lenses, and soon we were flying down the road without a serious thought in our heads or a care in the world.

In short order we arrived at our turnoff, made a quick left turn and sped through it to avoid being T-boned by a car that was speeding toward us from the opposite direction, and finally came to a halt in front of the building which housed my residence.  Laughing and wobbling a little we exited Brad’s truck and only then remembered that Walt and his Land Rover were still attached.

Walt was as white as a sheet.  He had been riding his brakes and hanging onto the wheel for dear life all the way to our house.  He got out of his car and was visibly shaken.  You could smell the smoking-hot brakes and i thought it looked like they might be glowing a little bit from the heat.  I asked Walt if he would like a ride home but he quickly declined the invitation.  Walt wanted nothing more than to get away from us and Brad’s truck as quickly as decorum permitted.  I offered Walt the keys to my own truck, which he gratefully accepted.  He climbed into the cab and fired the Ford up, waved weakly to us, and rolled off into the dark Santa Rosa night.  Brad and I returned his wave, and then went upstairs to rejoin the party which hadn’t missed a beat since we had left.

There are not enough words to describe how poorly thought out our actions on that night were.  On any of a number of occasions we could have been pulled over by the police or gotten ourselves, Walt, and perhaps others killed.  It is ascribed to the German Prince Otto von Bismarck the quote that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.”  I’m not entirely sure about the United States part of that quote, but I can testify with complete certainty that on this particular night God was most generous with two drunks and fools.

I Can’t Get No Traction

Just the other day I discovered an old photograph of me and a friend that dates back to 1973.  That photograph is forty one years old, and at first glimpse it is hard to believe that the figure seated on a tractor stuck in a sea of mud with a beer in his hand and more hair than I have had in a good many decades is me.  As I look more closely however I can see more clearly a guy whom I used to know pretty well.  A friend of mine saw that photograph and asked if I was responsible for that tractor being stuck in the mud or had climbed upon the vehicle once it was already immobilized in the mire.  What follows is the story of me and that tractor.

Tractor Picture

After the first semester of my college days at Sonoma State College (now ‘University’) near Santa Rosa, California, my two roommates Walter and Arlen moved away from the zoo that was the apartment complex where we lived near the school.  It’s not that my friends were committed students seeking serenity so that they could pour unbroken hours into their studies in order to go on and cure cancer or develop a way to produce energy by cold fusion and thereby make mama proud.  They had no such idea.  They found an old, square, brown stucco house in a field outside of the city limits of Santa Rosa where we rocked out many of the days and nights of the week.  The advantage to my old roommates was that they each had their own bedroom, and that when their guests left or passed out in the living room they did enjoy enough peace and quiet to allow them to study just enough to pass their classes.  This house sat next to an open expanse of land which I believe was used to grow some sort of feed, or to pasture animals when the grasses were high.  I really don’t know, because Walt and Arlen moved out at the end of the second semester, before summer and its agricultural rhythms had fully kicked in.

One day in the late winter or early spring of a wet year I drove out to the house in order to hang with my friends.  We smoked a few joints and drank what little beer was to be found in the fridge while discussing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers and the hyper-introspection of their style.  They’re all so excitable and moody in my opinion; very childlike  Perhaps that is why I love them so much.  Anyway, when the beer was gone and we were in need of further lubrication to ease our progression from “Crime and Punishment” to “One Day in the Life of ivan Denisovich”, I shared the news that upon checking the mail before I came over that day I received a small, rectangular piece of plastic which the Bank of America assured me would serve in place of cash at any store which announced its acceptance of said card by a sign in the window.

“No shit.  Really?” said Walter.  “That’s what they tell me” was my reply.  “That’s crazy” added Arlen.  “They don’t give those things to students, do they?”  “They gave one to me.  Wanna go see if it works?”  Approval was instantaneous and the three of us piled into Walt’s Land Rover and drove to the nearest liquor store, which was a mile or two from the house.  Upon arrival we went to the cooler to secure a cold six-pack, but as we stood in front of the glass doors it struck me that we were setting the bar of this experience far too low.

“Grab a sixer” I said to Arlen, and then made my way to a shelf in the back of the store where serious quantities of beer were to be found.  I returned to where my two friends were standing with their paltry six-pack carrying a whole case of the precious 12 ounce cans.  Walt and Arlen stared at me with amazement and admiration as I confidently sashayed past them and plopped the case on the counter.  I motioned for them to bring the cold six-pack, which they set on top of the case, and I turned to settle up with the clerk.

The clerk, who was probably also the owner, was old school.  Medium height and overweight, he was wearing khakis and an off-white button down shirt, a little bit frayed at the seams.  His large face housed beady, suspicious eyes which seemed to be seeking out evidence that he was being somehow swindled every time that we entered that store.  Perhaps he had been robbed or shoplifted too many times, or maybe his friends were named Mugsy and Clubber.  At any rate, he squinted at me and my two friends as if we were making him the butt of a joke or distracting him while some unseen accomplice relieved him of more precious merchandise in the liquor area of his store.  He had never seen us buy more than a quart or a six pack, and then count out nickels and pennies The probability of us having the capital to secure an entire case seemed to him to be pushing the envelope of credulity.  It was into that gale of doubt and disbelief that I reached for my wallet, extracted, and then flipped onto the counter with a nonchalance that I nowhere near really felt, The Card.

It worked!  The clerk ran a roller device over a carbon paper receipt placed over the plastic card and imprinted the necessary numbers to conclude the transaction.  The clerk was slightly more cordial as I signed the receipt, accepted my copy, returned the card to my wallet and began to carry the case of beer towards Walt’s car.  We laughed and whooped with joy all the way back to the house, and upon arrival cracked open three cold ones as other six-packs were placed into the fridge to await their turns.

I don’t know how much of that case we drank that day – probably all of it, knowing us – but at one point we grew tired of listening to music and discussing Russian literature.  Walt was very proud of his four wheel drive Land Rover, the type of vehicle one would see in documentaries of work on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, and began to brag about it once again.  We had all heard this many times, and Arlen began to tease him, saying that the car really wasn’t all of that.  Walt swore that he was telling the truth and then told us to climb in; he would drive out into the muddy field and prove the limitless worth of his extraordinary ride.  We all did as requested and Walt fired up the Land Rover, engaged the four wheel drive, and pushed the gearshift into first, and then we nosed out into the field.  All went well for a couple of minutes but soon, inevitably, the vehicle sank down into the mud up to its hubs.

We had a good laugh at Walt’s expense and then got out to see how we would go about extracting the entrapped Land Rover from the muddy field.  I had once rescued my father’s car from beach sand by jacking up the car and placing rocks under the drive wheels, but here the jack would only sink into the mud, and there were no rocks on this Russian River floodplain to be found.  We did find some short pieces of lumber, and Arlen and I would try to wedge them under any wheel that we could as Walt would rock the vehicle back and forth.  This produced nothing but splinters and a bit of mud splashed into Arlen’s face.  It soon became obvious that some other method would be needed to enable the Land Rover’s escape from the muddy clutches of the soggy field.  We began to look around, and all of our eyes fell one by one onto the neighbor’s tractor.

We knew that enlisting the neighbor’s help was a long shot.  That worthy farmer was not at all pleased with his new noisy neighbors and had done little to disguise his displeasure.  Still he looked like our only hope, so Walt walked over to the front door and rang the bell.  No answer.  Walt rang again two or three times, just in case the neighbor was laying low, hoping that we would go away.  Still no answer.  Walt walked back glumly and said “No dice.  He isn’t home”.  We were about to call for some friends to come over and get their car stuck in the mud too by trying to get Walt’s car out when Walt said “Wait a minute.  Let’s hot wire the tractor and pull it out ourselves.”  “You’re crazy,” said Arlen.  “He’ll have us arrested.”  “He won’t ever know” Walt replied.  “We’ll pull out the car, wash down the tractor and replace it where we got it.”  We briefly debated the insanity of this plan and insanity won.  We agreed that it was the best plan that we had, and so Walt walked over to the tractor, climbed into the seat, fiddled with a few wires, and the iron beast roared into life.

With a broad grin, Walt drove the tractor over to our field and with Arlen and I walking alongside,  the mud sucking at our boots, we made our way to the entrapped Land Rover.  Walt turned the tractor around and backed up to the front end of his car.  We then attached a tow rope from the back end of the tractor to some point underneath the front of the Land Rover.  Arlen climbed into the Land Rover, started it up, and prepared to drive out of the mud once the tractor had broken it free.  Walt put the tractor into gear and began slowly to strain forward.  The Land Rover budged, lurched, and seemed like it was about to pull free.  Then it fell back into the deep pits its wheels had dug.  The tractor, straining to pull the car out of its muddy prison, had begun to bog down into the mud as well.

This was a serious problem, and we all knew it.  There was no way on earth that the owner of that tractor would be amused to find it stuck in the mud, courtesy of the pack of stoned slackers living next to him in rural Sonoma County.  We began to work furiously to dig the tractor out, get lumber under one of ITs wheels, do ANYTHING!  No luck  We were in it and we knew it.  There was nothing that we could think of besides wait for the neighbor to return home and face the music.  Being who we were, the only thing left to do was to roll another joint, open three more cans of beer, and enjoy what was otherwise a very pleasant, sunny, almost warm Northern California afternoon.

So there I am in a photograph which was clicked by Arlen as Walt and I sat in the seat of that tractor with it’s wheels entombed in a sarcophagus of mud.  I had not yet learned how to truly worry, and the implications of the situation soon rolled off of my back as we smoked and joked and generally had a pretty good rest of the day.  You can see in that photo that life was still my playground, no matter the circumstances that I found myself in.

I returned to the apartment that afternoon before the neighbor returned, and it was a day or two later that I saw Walt and Arlen again.  On that occasion I asked them how it all worked out.  “He laughed” said Walt.  “He just laughed.  Then he drove over to a larger building and came out with a tractor twice as big.  With that he pulled the other two vehicles out like they were nothing.  We asked him how we could repay his kindness and he told us to wash off both of the tractors and keep the noise down after 9:00 at night”.

They did keep the noise down after that, and washed up the tractors real good as well.  For the remaining months that Walt and Arlen lived at that house they were on pretty good terms with their now-respected neighbor.

The Joke’s On You, Part III

I have always had a unique love of practical jokes.  From the time that I learned what a practical joke was I have been drawn to playing them on other people and having them played on me in my turn.  Of course it was important to choose as my victims people who could take a joke, as some people just do not take them well.  I tended to avoid playing tricks on prickly people, even anonymously, since somebody was bound to run off at the mouth and there’d be a fight in no time at all.  I was never really interested in that.

Not all people were like me however.  Some of the guys in my neighborhood would pull off a  joke on just about anybody, and some of those jokes were not at all just in good fun.  Willie Starnes was such a guy.  Willie was bigger than most of the other kids and not at all afraid to cross the lines of propriety when it came to having fun at other people’s expense.

Willie’s jokes ran the gamut from simple fun to intimidation to outright sabotage.  For example, there were two slender trees growing at one end of our neighborhood park.  Willie one day took two lengths of surgical rubber tubing and tied one end of each to holes punched in opposite sides of a metal funnel.  He then tied the two rubber tubes to the trees and had in effect made a huge slingshot.  Willie then took a bag full of water balloons and began to rain them down on kids playing on the playground about 100 yards away.  Getting smacked in the head with a water balloon launched from half a block away was not a fatal event, but it was far from fun.  Willie liked it however, and that is all that mattered.

The boys in our neighborhood also had a little game that we called “Bam”.  In this game one could punch somebody in the shoulder, throw a basketball into their lap or hit them with a white bean shot through a pea shooter and be safe from retaliation if one would only say “Bam” out loud when the hit was delivered.  The effect was usually startling or embarrassing but rarely painful, at least the way that most of us played it, but Willie could be counted on to take it to extremes.  A punch in the chest, a football thrown at the head or groin, or a painful flick on the ear delivered by Willie to the accompaniment of a shouted “Bam” took all of the fun out of the game for the rest of us.

When Willie wasn’t annoying us he was sure to be somewhere stuffing a potato up somebody’s exhaust pipe or letting the air out of somebody else’s auto or bicycle tires or, as he once did, running a kid’s bicycle up the flagpole at the park and tying the ropes up high on the pole so that the little guy couldn’t reach it.  Willie was not the roughest guy in our neighborhood by a long shot, but he certainly had his own rough edge and was far from my favorite person to hang around with.

All of us guys looked for a chance to get back at Willie without taking a thumping on the head as part of the bargain.  Willie had a bicycle but nobody dared to mess with it for fear of being caught.  We would play the “Bam” game with him but always be sure to tap him lightly or telegraph the throwing of any object his way.  It was critical that we extend to him a sense of inclusion since he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon that we knew of, yet not make our actions aggressive enough to be interpreted as a challenge.  Walking that tightrope came to be a big pain in everybody’s necks.

The solution to the problem came to us unexpectedly when the older brother of Frank Cortner, one of the smaller kids in our group, got a summer job working at a movie theater in the suburb of La Mesa, which sprawls just next to San Diego.  This theater ran all of the old cheesy black and white “B” science fiction and horror movies; the ones we all loved and watched at the movie house in our own neighborhood.  Most of the movie companies produced posters to be displayed in the windows outside of the movie houses and wanted those posters back when the movie’s run there was completed.  Sometimes, however, when a poster got torn or soiled or in some other way defaced the company let go of it and printed up new ones to accompany their crappy movies to their next showing.  When this would happen anyone who wanted them could take these posters home, and that is how a poster from a monster movie came to find its way into the garage of Frank Cortner.

I do not at this time remember which movie that poster with a torn corner and a smudge of ketchup across the title came from.  I was certain that it was from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” starring Michael Landon of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, but my friend Wes is equally certain that the poster was of “It! The Creature From Beyond Space”.  To add to the confusion another of my co-conspirators who still lives in San Diego, Ron Larimer, believes that it was the “Creature From the Black Lagoon”.  I guess it really doesn’t matter.  What is relevant to this tale is that we had at our disposal a nearly life-sized poster of a very frightening creature, and one fine day while we were all lounging in and around Frank’s garage a bright idea occurred to one of us concerning how we could use that poster to gain a small measure of revenge on Willie Starnes.

We carefully cut out the figure of the monster from the poster and glued it to a large piece of cardboard which had remained in the garage since Frank’s parents had bought a new refrigerator the year before.  We then cut away the excess cardboard so that we had a fairly sturdy, nearly life-sized image of a monster; trust me, it was the Teenage Werewolf.  The other guys don’t know what they are talking about.  Next we went to the hardware store a few blocks from my house and bought two eight foot 2 X 4 building studs.  We used a couple of strips of plywood as joiners and nailed the two studs together, and then tested it for height.  It was too big, so we took about four feet off of one end and now it was just right.

Willie Starnes lived in an upstairs apartment with his parents on the corner of Polk and 43rd Street, about five blocks from my house.  Willie always had his window open, wanting to see what was going on outside and liking being seen in return.  There was a streetlight on the corner opposite Willie’s window across the intersection, and a row of palm trees between that light and the window.  Those trees let a lot of light through but softened it so that things would not be seen outside in the sharpest clarity from inside Willie’s room.  We all knew that Willie had to be home on Thursday nights because his father insisted on family time, and Willie hated the thought of not being able to hang out at the park or prowl the streets with the rest of us so he would retire to his room as soon as he possibly could.

Darkness came early on the day that we got our revenge on Willie.  By 5:30 PM there was little more than a glow on the western horizon.  Willie was finishing his dinner and crafting his best effort at a credible excuse as to why he had to retire to his bedroom.  We were waiting in the shadows across the street when we saw Willie’s figure walk past his window, and at that moment we knew that our time had come.  Using a hammer that we had smuggled out of Frank’s father’s garage we pounded a couple of carpet tacks through the image of the monster, fixing it to the end of what had become a twelve foot pole.  We crossed the street, which was not a particularly busy one, and crowded behind a hedge which ran the full length of the apartment building in which the Starnes family lived.  Frank hoisted the pole with the image of whichever movie monster it really was and placed it squarely in the middle of Willie’s bedroom window.

We were probably not there for a very long time, but it seemed to us like we were there forever holding a long wooden pole with a silhouette affixed to it on a well lit corner in a big city.  We were worried that some curious neighbor would call the cops on us before we hit pay dirt, but all of those fears came to an end abruptly when we heard a terrified shriek come out through the open portion of Willie’s window.  Frank bobbed the pole up and down and Willie shrieked again, then we hauled down the pole and took off running, trying to stay out of the light as best we could.  We ducked into an alley, disconnected the cardboard monster, chucked the pole into somebody’s back yard, and trotted back to Frank’s garage where the monster was fixed in a place of honor on one of the walls.

Willie never did mention this event when he came to hang out with us at the park.  Frank or Ron or I would sometimes mention monsters that we had seen on the big screen at the Crest Theater on University Avenue and comment on how scared we would be if one of those creatures ever jumped out at us from the dark, but Willie would never take our bait.  I think that he suspected us, but that may just be the product of a guilty mind.  We never told any of the other kids about our prank, but all of the other kids went to the weekend matinees just like we did, and all of them would talk about this monster or that one, so Willie could never really be sure who had got the best of him.  That just made it that much better.

Frank and Wes and I are still in contact and we still laugh about that prank on rare occasions when we get together.  Nobody knows what happened to Willie however.  We have one clue only.  One day, many years later, Wes ran into Willie at Pacific Beach in San Diego.  Willie was living on the margins of society, probably what we would now call ‘homeless’.  Drugs had obviously wrought havoc on his life already and he seemed to be walking blindly into an alternate universe of delusion, paranoia, separation and eventually violent or drug-induced death.  I have no confidence at all that Willie still lives.  Nevertheless, Willie Starnes occupies the exalted position of recipient of the number one, all time best prank that I was ever a part of, and if for no other reason than that I wish him happiness if he yet lives and peace if he has gone to meet his Maker.