The Garden, Chapter XIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’d have to kill me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And did you run?”

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

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

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

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden, Chapter 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?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden

Charlie Hamer pounded his fist into the dirt, which did nothing to assuage his frustration.  He had just pulled up the weed which had sprung up next to an onion that he had planted from seed.  The roots of the weed had become entangled with the roots of the onion, and both came up out of the damp, brown earth together.  To make matters worse, Charlie’s aim was off and instead of simply burying his knuckles in the dirt, he accidentally flattened an adjacent seedling which had committed no other crime than to be growing where Charlie’s fist came down.

“Damn it!” Charlie barked.  “Damn it!  Damn It!  Damn it!”   Charlie looked at the corpses of the two onions and then sat back in the dirt of the garden.  He put his head on his knees and quietly sobbed until tears and snot were running down his face and onto his hands and knees.

“Are you all right?” was the question that came from a voice nearby.  Charlie was reluctant to look up and acknowledge the voice.  He was not comfortable showing such emotion in public and had always striven to prevent crying where he could be seen.  Many times at weddings and funerals, or even watching a sappy movie on the television with his ex-wife Evie, Charlie would think about football games or Civil War campaigns or a complicated construction project that he had worked on in the past in order to deflect his mind from whatever was threatening to draw out his tears.  That stratagem had rarely worked, but he tried it anyway, so uncomfortable was he with showing emotion.  Now Charlie had no time to retrace in his mind the Battle of Chickamauga, so with barely repressed sobs he looked up in the direction from which the voice had come.

Standing at the edge of his 20’ X 20’ garden plot at the Muir Park Community Garden in Camas, Washington was the young woman who tended the plot just to the east of his own.  They had hardly spoken a dozen words in the two months that he had been working his plot that spring.  Charlie stared up at her with eyes blurred with tears.  He drew the sleeve of his loose, long-sleeved shirt across his nose, not caring two cents that he left a streak of glistening mucous that resembled a slug’s trail along that sleeve.

“No, I don’t suppose that I am all right.”  Charlie stated peevishly, already beginning to think about the landing of the Marines on the beach at Guadalcanal in August of 1942.  “This is not the way that I carry on when everything is just hunky-dory.”  Charlie saw the woman flinch, and her face turned a light shade of red.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to intrude” the woman said stiffly.  “I thought that you might be – – -, well, I’m just sorry.  That’s all.”

The woman turned away and walked across a four foot border path and back onto her own garden plot, her back ramrod straight and turned to Charlie.  Charlie sat, collecting himself, looking first at the onions that he had just murdered, and then at the back of the woman who had been stung by his pain-spawned outburst.  He then looked straight in front of him and saw the guy with the pot belly who tended the plot just to the north.

Pot-belly was a crusty geezer of at least sixty five years.  Charlie knew this because the old guy had spoken of receiving medicare benefits one day. His chatter had been bothering the hell out of Charlie as he tried to focus that day on building a trellis for the green beans that he hoped to grow.

“I’m going to get what I can out of the system before the goddam politicians bankrupt it” Pot Belly had declared with his usual absence of delicacy.  Charlie just nodded and continued with his trellis building.  The geezer didn’t really need a response; any breathing blob of protoplasm that could maintain homeostasis and wouldn’t turn its back on him was audience enough to keep the geezer going for far longer that Charlie would volunteer to listen.

“That’s a sweet little piece of ass that works the plot next to you” the geezer had said one day, and on this day the unending verbal wood rasp chaffed a little flesh off of Charlie.  The young woman was an adult; Charlie could see that clearly enough, but she didn’t look to be a lot of years older than his daughter would have now been.  The rasp that drew across the flesh over Charlie’s bruised and bleeding heart today drew a purulent wave of stinking emotional pus that oozed out of the wreckage that now rested there in his chest.

“I would prefer that you don’t speak of her, or any other woman within my hearing, in that manner to me” Charlie snapped.  Her ass is her business, and I’ll be content to look after my own.”  The geezer had looked surprised by Charlie’s outburst but was hardly chagrined.  He simply shrugged his shoulders and returned to building frames around his tomato plants.  On this day, geezer just looked at Charlie, shook his head a little, and turned back to his bed of beets and carrots.

Charlie felt bad about his response to the woman’s act of compassion.  He rose up from his sitting position and as he did so he stirred up the dust, which settled on his sleeve and highlighted the shot that had now soaked into the fabric.  Charlie scowled at the brown streak but realized that it would be useless to try to wipe it off, so he ignored it.  He walked over to the edge of the garden plot to within a few feet of where the woman was bent over, wresting weeds and grass from between corn shoots which had just emerged from the ground.

“Excuse me, Miss”  Charlie said.  “I believe that I owe you an apology.”

The woman continued to work at her weeds for enough additional seconds to convey that she had little interest in Charlie’s apology.  At last she straightened and turned to face him.  She said nothing as she looked at Charlie with an expressionless face.  Charlie became confused at her silence and began to look at his fingers and snot-stained sleeve as he shifted his weight from one foot to another.  The woman at last broke the silence.

“I believe that you said you owe me an apology.  You’re right.  You do.  You don’t have to give me one, but if it will make you feel better I would be willing to hear it.”

Charlie looked at her for a moment longer, tongue-tied and embarrassed.  He realized that she was right; he had made the offer and it was time to follow through.

“Oh, yes.  You’re right.  You were trying to be nice to me and I snapped at you.  You didn’t deserve that and I apologize for my bad temper.  Thank you for the concern that you showed to me.  I’ve had a nasty couple of years and I’ve lost the knack for behaving well with other people.  I have no right to take it out on you though.  I’ve just gotten off track with the social graces.”

Charlie looked back down at his fingers, digging some dirt out from under this thumbnail.  When he looked back up the woman’s expression had softened.  She said “Apology accepted, and I hope that your day gets better.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied softly.  His day wasn’t the problem; it was the last two years that were a weight that he could hardly carry anymore.

“My name’s Rachael”  the woman said.  “I don’t mean to pry, and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. but if it’s alright to ask, what was it that set you off over there?”

“I was pulling up a weed that had its roots already wrapped around an onion sprout.  I tried to pull the weed and ended up pulling both of them out of the ground.  I had forgotten how much work went into this gardening thing and how intentional it has to be.”

“Yes,” Rachael said,  “gardening isn’t done by accident.  Well, welcome to our little world; it can be a blessing and, when you lose a crop to cucumber beetles or tomato blight, a damned curse.”  Rachael chuckled at her own statement, as if the memory of past gardening failures and frustrations came to her mind as a joke more than an annoyance.  “I am not the best gardener in the world” she stated to Charlie.  “But what I know I would be happy to share with you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “I hate to be a bother, but I don’t doubt that I need all of the help that I can get.  Oh, by the way, my name’s Charlie Hamer and I now formally agree to take you up on your kind offer.  But maybe some other day.”

Rachael thrust forward her hand in a grand manner and Charlie took it and gave it a grave shake.  They then separated to return to their own gardens.  Charlie resumed plucking the weeds out of the dirt between his onion plants, but now more judiciously.  He was absorbed in his work and didn’t notice that the geezer from the adjacent plot had walked over and was standing nearby until the old guy cleared his throat.  Charlie looked up and wasn’t concerned whether displeasure showed on his face or did not.

“Excuse me for butting in” he began, “but I heard that you had a problem with pulling some of your weeds.  If you would like I could share a little trick with you.”  Charlie wanted mostly to be left alone, but he had already been rude once today and didn’t feel like repeating that performance.  “Oh, it looks like I need all of the help that I can get today,” he replied.

“OK, so here’s how it is.  These weeds come up right in the middle of what you want to keep and it’s impossible to get some of them out without harming the good stuff.”

“So I’ve noticed” Charlie commented drily.

“So I keep these little snips,” the old guy pulled what looked like a pair of outdoor scissors with a short, sharp blade, “and just clip the tops of the weeds every other day or so.  You can’t get rid of some weeds, but you can sure manage the little bastards.”

“What good will that do?” Charlie asked.  “The weed is still there, and still competing for nutrients with my onion.  My father taught me to get the weed by the roots once and then you’ll not have to do it again.”

“Your Dad was mostly right.  Sometimes, though, it isn’t feasible.  Like in your case here, for instance.  What you have to do in these circumstances is keep the weed from thriving.  The leaves feed the weed plant, and so if you keep it clipped and let the onion grow. The strong survive and the weak gets pushed aside.  You really are new to this, aren’t you?”

     “I really don’t want to get chummy with this guy” Charlie thought.  “Maybe he’ll just impart some wisdom and go away.”

“Yes, this is my first year here.”

“Well, then welcome to our community.  My name’s Walt, and I would be happy to give you some tips if you would like to hear them.  It looks like you’ve had at least a little experience though.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  My father made me help him in the garden when I was a kid.  I hated it and hated vegetables, which is why he did it I think.  Dad was pretty good at growing things and a little bit of that rubbed off on me.  Not very much though, it seems.”

“Well, the let me share with you the little bit that I know.”

Walt proceeded to show Charlie how to build proper beds for planting tomatoes and cucumbers, how to protect bean seedlings from slugs and a dozen other techniques designed to coax clean food out of the dirt.  By the end of an hour Charlie had a respectable looking garden and the beginning of a new opinion of Walt.  The old guy was crusty, to be sure, and his language as earthy as the soil into which Charlie had just deposited beet and carrot seeds, but Charlie could see that Walt cared about him and his garden.  That human connection had been missing in Charlie’s life for – how long had it been?  More than a year now.  Charlie didn’t feel the need for a confession, but a kind ear was not a bad thing to have.

“What brought you back to gardening?” Walt asked.  “My Dad used to make me play the violin and I haven’t touched one of the damned things since the day I turned 18.”

Charlie hesitated.  He hadn’t talked about his life with anybody for a long time, and while his usual reticence to be open with anyone was still strong, the need for human contact had begun to grow in him.  At last Charlie decided to pull the curtain back, a little at least, and see what would come of it.

“Well, I’ve had a pretty shitty last couple of years” Charlie began.  “My wife ran off with my pickup truck and took my dog too.”  Charlie tried to smile at his little attempt at humor, with scant effect.

“Yeah” Walt replied.  “I hate it when that happens.  I’ll bet she held the title on your single wide too.”

“Yeah.  She took it clean.”

For another moment Charlie stared down at his feet.  Then, with a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders he looked up at Walt.  Tears were once again forming in his eyes and he had to clear his throat two or three times before he could speak clearly.  Finally he could begin.

“Well, my wife really has left me,” Charlie began.  He sniffed back a nose full of snot and coughed to clear his throat again.  “We didn’t have a dog, but we did have two kids; a girl and a boy.”  Charlie had to stop there once again and regain his control.  Thinking about some military action was just not going to draw his attention away from his grief, so he just studied the new bed that housed a tomato plant while he got his act back together.  Walt at last spoke to fill the uncomfortable silence.

“Yeah, I’ve heard from a friend that divorce is a bitch, especially when kids are involved.  I’ve never been in that situation, but I do believe that it’s tough.  Do you have visitation rights?  I know of some divorce lawyers who are really good at fighting for stuff like that.”

Charlie stared blankly at Walt for a moment, and then said “visitation is not a problem for me.  I can visit Stevie’s grave any time that I want.”

Walt stood in front of Charlie, still as a statue.  Charlie’s shoulders slumped forward and his head was down.  The sobs returned, but this time softly.  Charlie wasn’t trying to hold anything back, but he was simply exhausted from having carried this load for so long.  Walt put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder but said nothing, which was probably the best thing that he could have done.


The young woman, who had been listening to this while trying to not appear as if she was eavesdropping, now dropped all pretense.  She stood up, took off her gloves, and walked over to where the two men were standing.  Coming up to charlie she said “I’m sorry that I was listening to your story, but I’ve heard it anyway and I can see that you are hurting.  I can’t imagine the pain that you are feeling.  Would you let me give you a hug?”

Charlie wished desperately that there was someplace where he could hide.  The grief that he carried was like an anchor of lead and he was just tired as hell of carrying it.  Charlie had lived a solitary life for over a year and now the idea of the enfolding arms of a compassionate stranger were a gift that he had not expected, and one that he readily accepted.  She placed her arms around his shoulders and gave him a gentle embrace, which she held silently for what might have been two or three minutes.  Charlie’s sobs continued and he tried, with mixed success, to keep tears and snot off of her shoulder.  At last Charlie regained control and the young woman released her embrace and stepped back.

“My name is Monica” she said, “and if you would like to take a break from the garden and tell your story I would be happy hear it.  Sometimes it is good to pick the scab and let some of that stuff ooze out.  I will understand if that is not something that you want to do, but if you think it will help I will be glad to do it.”

“I think that she’s right” Walt chimed in.  “I’m in a PTSD group, and letting out the bad air is usually a good thing to do.  If you’re up to it of course.  We could take ten and go sit under the canopy.”

“Take ten?” asked Monica.

“Oh, you kids” Walt smiled.  “Take a ten minute break.  In the Army, when we were marching from one place to another, every so often the company commander would say “Take ten, hope for five, get two.”  He was talking about taking a rest, and ‘ten’ could really mean just about anything.”

The three of them walked out of the garden plots and over to a covered area that they called the canopy.  There were several plastic chairs and a rickety wooden bench that had been exposed to too many winters there.  They found seats and waited quietly as Charlie tried to get his thoughts together.  It was obviously a struggle, and after a short while Walt decided that the pump needed to be primed, so he began to speak.

“I don’t know anything about you’re problem, man, and I don’t want to turn this into a pity party.  I told you that I’m in a PTSD group, that means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, in case you aren’t familiar with it – and I have seen that it sometimes helps to know that you’re not alone in this world of hurt.  Can I tell you a story?”

Charlie nodded in the affirmative, and Charlie began to speak.  “I’m sixty nine years old.  I wasn’t three months out of high school before I was drafted.  Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder and six months later I was pounding ground in The Nam.  I was 11B.  A grunt.  My paid vacation in the tropics took me to Dak To, Pleiku, and a hundred hilltops and villages and valleys with names and numbers that I’ve either forgotten or am still trying to forget.  I just wanted to survive my year and go home, but it didn’t go quite that smoothly.  Somehow I would always find myself in the hottest shit that was going down in-country, and usually when I least expected it.  I made some friends early on, but when my first buddy’s head exploded right next to me like a melon with a cherry bomb inside of it, and then another got gutted like a fish by a bouncing betty land mine, I quit making friends.  Oh, we covered each other’s asses all right, but I wasn’t making any more friends ‘cause I didn’t like seeing them die on me.  We went from one engagement to another; some that made the news but most that didn’t; some that made sense but most that didn’t.  Big or small, smart or stupid, they had one thing in common:  men got torn open.  Men bled and men died.

When I was taken out of the jungle and assigned to an armored unit that mostly secured a road from Saigon to the highlands I thought that maybe I would make it out of there in one piece.  At least we weren’t walking around in the bush looking for trouble.  Now I got to spend some time in an APC – oh, sorry.  I mean and armored personnel carrier – and sometimes I rode shotgun on a jeep.  The best thing to me, as I saw it was that I didn’t have to walk so goddam much, and sometimes had something metal to hide in.  In fact, my new posting made me feel like I was the hunter instead of the hunted.

We were on the road to Cu Chi one day and it seemed quiet.  I was sitting in the back of a jeep, manning the machine gun.  I can still remember that I was thinking ‘I could like this country, if they weren’t fucking shooting at me that is,’ when some VC bastard opened up on me as we passed by.  The little son of a bitch must have come up from a tunnel, because nobody saw him come up or go down.  I felt like a quarterback who got tackled by a 300 pound dickdoo.  I got knocked forward and landed on top of the passenger up front.  I thought that I couldn’t get a good breath because the wind had been knocked out of me.  I later found out that it was because the little fucker had walked a couple or three rounds up my back and blew out my left lung.”

“Dickdoo?”  asked Monica.

“Yeah.  One of those big linemen who’s bellies droop lower than their dicks do.”

“Oh”, Monica replied.  “Sorry I asked.”

Walt paid no attention to Monica, and at that point lifted the bottom of his tee shirt and pulled it over his head.  Fifty years after the fact the discolored, blotchy exit wounds still disfigured Walt’s belly and chest.  “Lucky for me he went from right to left.  The prick missed my right kidney and aorta, but he punctured my left lung and got my spleen.  Recovery was long and hard though, and I can’t be around kids because without a spleen, if anyone gets a cold I catch it.

The worst part for me was that when I got home I got shat on by just about everybody.  I grew up in Seattle, but Seattle wasn’t my home when I returned.  I still had to convalesce after they released me, first from the hospital and then from the Army.  Until my hair grew out and I was no longer identifiable as military, people spat at me and called me shit that you wouldn’t believe.  I was still so weak that I couldn’t murder the bed-wetting little sons of bitches with my bare hands, which I would have loved to do, so I dreamed of getting an M-16, putting it on full auto, and killing as many of the snot-nosed pukes as I could before the police took me out.

A smart doc at the VA hospital picked up on that and got me hooked up with a psychologist and a PTSD group; other guys who saw the same shit that I did and in some cases even worse.  I can’t tell you how much that helped.  I still have trouble with dreams and loud noises – the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve aren’t my favorite days of the year – but mostly I can function OK now.”

Walt stopped speaking and looked at Charlie and Monica, who were standing in front of him speechless.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. ”You two never seen a bat-shit crazy Vietnam vet before?”

Charlie allowed a little chuckle a little at that, and Walt said “That’s better.  You’re not the only guy with a wood file up his ass, see?  So what’s your story?”

Charlie’s mind returned to his pain, but the knowledge that somebody was with him who knew what pain was made all the difference in the world.

“Well, two years ago my daughter died in a surfing accident.”  Charlie’s throat tightened up again, but after a moment or two it loosened back up.  “She was in cold water off of the Oregon coast.  It was good surf, and we think that she just stayed out in it too long, until the cold overwhelmed her suit.  Hell, we don’t really know to this day what happened.  They found her in a cove, pretty beat up by the waves bouncing her off of the rocks.  An autopsy couldn’t pinpoint a particular reason for her death.  It’s like the goddam ocean just rose up and took her.

After we buried Stevie – her name was Stephanie, after her grandmother – nothing could get back to right in our home.  Insignificant things became issues.  What was once just an annoyance became a crisis.  I can’t say that Maureen and I ever quit loving each other, but any return to normal seemed like a betrayal of Stevie.  Because it WASN’T normal.  It could never be normal again.  After a year we separated, and two months later Mo filed for divorce.  I didn’t fight the divorce.  I couldn’t.  I didn’t have the energy.  Hell, I didn’t care.  Jack, our son, was mad at the world but focused most of his anger at me, and I didn’t do much to help him out.  I couldn’t do much to help myself out.  Mo never tried to poison Jack’s relationship with me but she saw that it was over, for now anyway, so she took my son with her and moved out of state.

We settled the whole thing without a fight.  I liquidated my company, Hamer Properties & Construction – you might have seen some of our signs around the county. I gave her the whole damned enchilada.  The company went for a pretty penny; enough for her and Jack to be comfortable for the rest of their lives if they’re careful.  I do handyman work now and live in a studio downtown.  It’s all I need.  My family doesn’t live close to me, but they told me that I should get out of my cave, get some fresh air and meet people.  Well, this is out.  I guess this air is as fresh as any around here, and I decided to start with plants and work my way back up to people.”

The three gardeners sat silently after Charlie wrapped up his story.  It was warm, with hardly a breath of a breeze.  Charlie saw a snake slither between rows of a neighboring gardner’s spinach plants.  He pointed it out and Walt said “Ugh.  I hate snakes.”

“That’s a garter snake” Monica said.  “They eat slugs, among other things.  I’m glad he’s there.”

“Yeah?” said Walt.  “Well you didn’t have to put up with the fucking snakes that I did in Vietnam.  They called ‘em ‘step-and-a-half’s ‘cause that’s about as far as you would get after one of the sons of whores bit you before you were face-down in the jungle.”

“Well, if I see a step-and-a-half Walt, I’ll surely chop his damn head off” said Charlie with a chuckle, which, if the other two gardeners had known Charlie better, would have known that this chuckle was the first hint of a release from his pain that he had shown in many months.’’

Monica spoke up at this point and said “I have nothing like the stories you guys do.  My family is fine, and I’ve not had any major trauma.  I’m a Messianic Jew however, which is a Jew in all ways except that I believe that Jesus was the Messiah.”

“I don’t believe any of that hocus locus bullshit” said Walt.  “I never saw no God when young men were blowing each other to bloody goddam pieces in Vietnam.”

“I don’t care whether you believe it or not Walt.  I’m not trying to convert you.  I’m telling you what story I have to tell.  Will you allow me to do that?”

“OK, ok.  Fair enough” Walt replied.  “I guess I get a little cranky about all of that.  I’m sorry.  Go on.”

“Thank you Walt.  My family is Jewish but not religious.  It’s an ethnic thing.  I was raised Jewish with the understanding that I could decide for myself if I wanted to go fully into the faith or remain outside of it.  My parents never dreamed that I would choose to follow Jesus.  At first they were really pissed; I mean, Jews don’t do that.  I told them that I was exercising the freedom that they gave me, and they accepted that.  Eventually.  Sort of.

But it was hard.  Other Jews want nothing to do with me.  I am functionally cut off from the faith of my birth.  And Christians don’t really know what to do with me either.  I know that you don’t buy any of this Walt, and I don’t know what you believe or don’t believe Charlie, and that’s OK.  I’m not asking.  It’s none of my business and I don’t look to stick my nose in it.  But you guys were talking about being separated from friends or people you love, even society.  And traumatically too.  I’ve tasted that as well.  Not the seven course meal that you two have had to choke down, but I’ve tasted it.

Now I work for the City, providing counseling for abused and disturbed children.  I won’t share names or circumstances, but I’ve seen young lives that have been through meat grinders like you’ve described before they had tits or pimples.  That doesn’t make me an expert on experiencing pain, but I’m pretty familiar with trying to clean up after it, all the while knowing that I may not really do any lasting good at all.  My faith tells me that I have to try, and hope that Someone from outside the world that we see will do something that will bring a little healing to this screwed up place.”

All three sat in silence for a while longer, pondering what each had said.  At length Charlie stood up and said “Thank you both for listening to me, and for telling your stories too.  This pain has been killing my soul for a couple of years now, but maybe you two are the beginning of the fresh air that I was told that I needed.  I guess I should feed what is good in my life and pull as many weeds as I can.  The ones I can’t pull I’ll just have to manage.”

Monica stood and gave Charlie another hug.  “That sounds like a good plan.  And if you see a snake or two, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”  She gave Charlie a pat on the shoulder and then turned and walked back to her garden.

“I hate a fucking snake” growled Walt, but he had a ghost of a smile on his face as he turned and walked back to his own.

A Garden of Delights, Part II

After I graduated from high school in 1966 gardening ceased to be a part of my life for a while.  Summer began with me kicking around the neighborhood with my friends, the ones of whom my father disapproved back when I was a child in school.  Now I was a graduate and although my friends were still not welcome at our house, where I went and with whom I went there was now only my own business.  There was a war going on however, and I was pretty certain that the draft board would be calling me sooner or later, so before that summer ended Matt Hanley and I took a bus downtown and joined the Army.

There was little time for gardens at boot camp, and while opportunities for tending a garden abounded at my first real duty station in Texas the impulse just wasn’t there.  I was assigned to a supply company that did not have a mission to supply anything, except warm bodies for any number of really crappy details that needed to be done around Fort Hood.  We would get up in the morning and get dressed, fall out into formation to be counted, harassed, and dismissed to breakfast.  We were then supposed to return to our barracks and await the First Sergeant who would come through and choose “volunteers” to mow and edge the fort commander’s lawn or haul latrines into the field for the 2nd Armored Division or whatever.  The challenge, of course, was to not be found.

Some of the guys had no imagination and just laid around the barracks as instructed.  Those suckers were sent on some really nasty details.  The First Sergeant, or “Top” as we called him, soon tired of sending the same old guys and began to seek out those of us who were less inclined to be willing players in this ridiculous game.  Some guys walked to a snack bar less than a block away and drank Cokes, smoked, played music on the juke box and shucked and jived about how cool they were back home.  They were low-hanging fruit.  Top busted them quickly and just as quickly yielded to the urge to find the more imaginative of us shitbirds.  Some he found at the fort swimming pool, some at the main PX, some at various baseball fields and the fort theater.  Top loved finding a goldbrick just when the goldbrick thought that he was home free and ready to enjoy a day of freedom and goldbrickery.

But Top never found me.  My nickname at that time was Weasel, because if I didn’t want to be seen I would not be seen, and Top hated me for it.  I occasionally took my chances like the other guys at the swimming pool, the theater or the Main Px, but most of my time there in Texas I spent at a branch library little more than a half a block away from Top’s orderly room.  My guess is that Top wasn’t the greatest reader in Texas, and the last place that he would have thought to look for an indolent yardbird like myself was in a library.

I loved that library.  It was air conditioned.  It was loaded with books.  It had access to the books of the main library and beyond.  I read everything that I could get my hands on that was written by Bradbury, Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, et. al.  I would lean back in a comfortable chair, put my feet up on a metal folding chair that the GI’s running the place provided for me, and read and doze for hours on end.  At length, about 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, I would emerge from my cocoon and stroll back to the barracks for an evening of heavy partying with a kaleidoscope of guys of all races and economic classes and geographical provenance.

In such a scenario playing in the dirt would have made me entirely too visible, and so I had to abstain from the pleasure that I am certain that gardening in the Texas dirt under that glorious Texas sun would have been.  There was room.  There were seeds.  There was time.  I was both in Texas and the Army, so there was no shortage of bullshit.  But the thrill of reading great science fiction and eluding Top at the same time was more than I could overcome, so gardening had to take a distant back seat in the train of my life at that time.

I left Texas in September of 1967, a little more than a year after leaving home on that bus, and spent most of the next two years in Vietnam.  As one might imagine, the garden was not on my list of higher priorities while I was over there, but one plant was added to my short list of consumables:  marijuana.  I had smoked some in Texas but the intoxicating weed became a staple for me as I self-medicated in order to ignore the reality that surrounded me, and after my two tours in ‘Nam I returned home and began to grow my own stash as an alternative to the more expensive ten-dollar bags that were readily available in the drug community.

I had a partner in this crime.  Wes, my oldest friend, had developed a green thumb while I was away.  How that happened I have no idea, but as soon as we reconnected we began to farm our seeds and seedlings wherever we could.  Like little Johnny Appleseeds we would traipse up and down the unused canyons of Balboa Park or we would walk parallel to the shoulders of the two lane road that led from east El Cajon up the face of a hill to the appropriately named village of Crest, planting our crop.  Once, after a large forest fire denuded a huge patch of the Laguna Mountains, we volunteered to help replant evergreen seedlings in the scorched area.  We would plant two seedlings and two marijuana seeds, then two more seedlings and two more marijuana seeds, and so on until we had exhausted our supply of both.

Once we tried our luck closer to where we lived.  On a chaparral covered hillside on the north end of Mission Gorge, not far from Wes’ mother’s house, we crawled through the dry, prickly brush and found a flat area that got good sun.  We planted seedlings this time and watered them from our canteens.  A few days later we returned to water again and as we approached our little garden we were greeted by the unmistakable whirr of a rattlesnake warning us to seek our fortunes elsewhere, which we did at nearly the speed of light.

All of these gardening endeavors fell short due to our inability to tend to our crop.  Weed, just like tomatoes and cucumbers, needs to be cared for in order to succeed.  It was therefore easiest to grow our stash as close to where we lived as possible, and that ended up being in our back yards.  This presented no problem for Wes, since his mother almost never ventured into their back yard, and she wouldn’t have cared anyway.  My situation was different, since Dad was in the back yard nearly every day.  I planted my seeds anyway and told Dad that they were a variety of tomato.  Dad bought it, and even helped me to cultivate the little devils.  This was a first class stupid and self-centered act on my part.  My father was a public school teacher and the repercussions from finding pot growing in his back yard could have been crushing.  I am not at all proud of that little move.  Pop helped to grow some dynamite weed though.

Real gardening returned to my life when Wes, Clarice (who was to become my wife), and I moved into an apartment in El Cajon in 1971.  Across the parking lot was a large and mostly unused back yard covered with weeds and junk.  Wes caught the attention of the owner one day and asked if he would mind a small corner of his yard being used as a garden.  The owner agreed and soon Wes and I had dug pup, fertilized and planted a 20′ by 20′ plot, cut in two.  I grew tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans, while Wes did the same and added squash and peppers.

The garden was successful, and out kitchen was full of produce, as were those of the other tenants in our building.  This occurred while Wes and I were completing our two years at Grossmont Community College, where we were taking a world history class together.  We were both completely invested in that class and so it is not surprising that we jokingly made little alters to various Mesopotamian agricultural deities, with Wes selecting those from Assyria and me preferring those from Sumer.  None of this signified anything like a theological impulse.  I had given up on God while still a teenager when He stubbornly refused to dance the way I wanted Him to whenever I whistled a tune, and my resumption of a relationship with the Great Gardener would have to wait more than a decade to be achieved.

We build shrines out of bottle caps, an old tennis shoe, a bent fork, in fact any silly little thing that we could scounge up out of our trash can or the junk that littered the barren yard.  And we had a great harvest too!  Of course the steer manure and slug repellant and daily watering and tender, loving care that we administered while we sat back in the garden under the warm San Diego sun, nearly naked and smoking pot while working on our homework assignments probably had something to do with the harvest as well.  We moved out of that apartment before the end of the season and I don’t know what came of the garden.  If anybody cared to pick up the responsibility for it, I know that they were well rewarded.

In September of 1972 I travelled north to Rohnert Park, north of the San Francisco Bay, to attend Sonoma State College.  During the fall and winter I was busy with school and making new friendships, but with the arrival of spring the sap began to flow in my limbs once again and I felt the urge to get my fingers back into the dirt.  On a corner of the property where the two buildings of my apartment complex came together was a large square of field grass that was mowed but otherwise ignored.  I contacted the owners and inquired whether I might put a garden there.  They agreed and even produced a pick, shovel, rake, and some other hand tools, and I fell quickly to work.

Initially my efforts drew little attention, but as the grass was hacked out, the dirt turned over, and squares and hills fertilized with manure purchased out of my meager G.I. Bill check, more people became interested in my project.  Jan and Sheila, a couple who lived around the corner from my unit, were vegetarians and very interested in my idea.  I told them to pull weeds and help me water the beds, and then to help themselves to all that they wanted.  One day, while I was employing a pick in the act of expanding the plot and sweating profusely, Lisa and Esther happened to come by.  Lisa and Esther were a couple who lived in Building B and had spent time in Israel on a kibbutz, and thereby came to respect the growing of one’s own food.  They came down to admire “a sweating man.”  I enjoyed the attention but knew that neither of these very pretty ladies had much in the way of romantic interest in men, sweating or otherwise.  They were good people though, who pitched in and then helped themselves to the bounty.  They remained friends until I left northern California for good.

That garden was hugely successful.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, onions, peppers, even eggplant (from Jan and Sheila’s contribution; I still don’t consider eggplant to be food) were some of the vegetables that poured out of the garden and into our student kitchens.  I was good at eating cheaply, with beans and hamhocks and rice making much of my diet.  The addition of the green stuff helped to stretch things even further.

And then came the long drought.  I returned to San Diego in the summer of 1973 while the garden was producing in full force and began to do construction work with Brad, my brother.  Many years, a couple of different careers, and a marriage or two would come and go before I would once again have the opportunity to reestablish my relationship with the dirt and the things that can grow in it.

That drought came to an end sometime in the late 1990’s when I could no longer stand to see my back yard barren of any edible vegetable life.  At this time I lived at the edge of a low hill and my back yard sloped in two directions; one towards the road cut to the west and the other towards the creek to the north that trickles westward towards the Columbia River a few miles downstream.  This double slope was ungardenable, and therefore it took several years for me to haul, by hand, sixty and twenty pound concrete blocks into my yard in order to build up five terraces of usable level ground.  Over twenty yards of dirt was dumped on my driveway and rolled, one wheelbarrow at a time, into the back to fill my terraces with the dirt that would soon put food on my table.

I wanted clean dirt, but there was no way of knowing where my dirt had come from.  Perhaps it came from a new cut into a hillside, or maybe from the back lot of an auto wrecker.  Heck, for all I knew it came from the Love Canal.  None of this mattered much to me; I had my dirt and I would make it into what I wanted, and four-way mix and steer manure and maple leaves and grass clippings; all were worked into the rock-infested clay that they had dumped in my driveway, and year after year the soil grew looser, the earthworms thicker, and the yields more plentiful.  In fact today, as I write this in April of 2016, there are a few green beans and blueberries yet in the freezer that grew in last year’s good earth.

And now, at last, I have the farm that I used to dream about with my father.  With the addition of a 20′ by 20′ plot at a nearby community garden to my five productive terraces in the back yard I am able to grow enough food to fill my freezer, cover my table, and give away to neighbors and friends to my heart’s content.  With earplugs in place to block the street noise I will sit in the midst of my gardens all summer, pulling weeds, feeding and aerating plants, and being entertained by the pollinating work of the honey bees.  I’ll watch as the tiny wasps and bigger Tachinid flies flit in and among the flowers planted especially to attract them, knowing that they are feasting on aphids and cabbage worms.

The best part of my gardening life now lies in sharing my experiences with younger gardeners, mush like my father shared his with me.  Neither of my children developed a passion for the soil like I did and that’s OK.  They have built there own lives and done a fine job of it.  It feels good though to pass on my knowledge to people who may pass it on in their own turn.  Perhaps I’m sharing a little of my Dad, who shared his father with me and so on.

Oh, and there’s not a tennis shoe or a bottle cap to be found in any of my gardens.  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

A Garden of Delights, Part I

The sun came out yesterday and in my corner of the Pacific Northwest we seldom take that for granted, especially anytime before July 4.  Yesterday happened to be April 8, and so this happy event was relished all the more because of its early date.  To me such a blessing is not one to be ignored nor allowed to pass without being enjoyed to the fullest, and in my world that means spending time in the garden.  In 1963 the Beach Boys sang about a sanctuary to which they could flee from the troubles of the day.  In their song “In My Room” they sang “Do my dreaming and my scheming. Lie awake and pray.  Do my crying and my sighing. Laugh at yesterday.”  In 1963 I liked that song.  In 2016, when I’m in my garden, I understand that song.

Going back ten years before Brian Wilson wrote that song it would have been hard to peg me as a guy who would grow up to love growing edible things.  At five years of age I was already engaged in a war with my father over what I would and would not eat, and nearly anything vegetable other than corn, tomatoes and potatoes clearly fell into the ‘would not’ category.  I couldn’t understand why my mother would buy those odious weeds and cook them when she knew, plain as day, that I would not eat them and then there would be the devil to pay.

“Just try a bite” my mother would say.  “They really taste better than you think.”  I knew a bald faced lie when I heard one, and my mouth would temporarily remain free of whatever nauseating plant matter Mom was trying to foist onto me.  “Eat those peas!” Dad would growl.  “I’ve seen Chinese people row their boats up to the garbage chutes to get what the sailors threw away—.” I wanted to ask Dad if he ever threatened the other sailors who were enjoying their right to chose what they did and did not want to eat the way he was threatening me, but Pop would not put up with backtalk from his offspring, so I would bite back hard on my disgust and insert about half a teaspoon of peas into my mouth and roll them over to my cheek, where I would store them like a chipmunk storing nuts.  Dad would continue to insist, I would continue to insert, roll and store, and eventually the dinner table experience would melt down and conclude in a most painful and unpleasant manner.  The next day Mom would cook something more congenial to my taste buds and I would enjoy a little caloric intake in peace.  Eventually, however, she would have to produce something more consistent with my father’s taste and the tension would begin anew, ending in the next eruption.  No sir, nobody would ever have guessed that I would ever want to grow those ghastly plants, least of all me.

Dad wanted to grow them however, and when he wasn’t involved in the aftermath of the Korean War or the opening stages of America’s intervention into the affairs of an obscure corner of Asia called Indochina that was engaged at that moment in throwing off French rule, Dad was planning the garden that he intended to create in our back yard.  Dad was just the guy to do it too.  He was born and raised on a Georgia farm, and when he joined the Navy after completing high school it was to escape the Great Depression, not the rigors of farm life.

In fact, Dad intended to return to Georgia after his six year hitch in the Navy but a little impediment to his plans called World War II popped up and at that point all thoughts and plans of civilian activities were put on hold for the duration.  The duration came to an end in early August of 1945 in the form of mushroom clouds over two unlucky cities in Japan, and not long after that the U.S. armed services began to draw down from their swollen wartime numbers.

“Take Brad and return to Tifton” my father instructed Mom in a letter sent from somewhere on the other side of the world.  “I’ll meet you there and we’ll buy a farm with my savings and severance pay.  You can stay with my family until I get there.”

That wasn’t a good plan.  My mother would have probably done OK on a farm, her early life having been lived in the rough and impoverished coal mining hills of eastern Kentucky.  She knew how to wring the neck of a chicken, grind sausage, make preserves and some of the best gravy known to man and so on, but putting my Mom into the orbit of my father’s family was like throwing water onto a grease fire.

I don’t suppose my father’s family was all that different from anyone else’s, but there were one or two peculiarities that stood out to me about them.  My grandmother suffered from some sort of mental/emotional disease; I don’t know what you would call it now but I’m sure that it has a name and a chapter or two in a textbook somewhere.  I just thought that Grandma was crazy as hell, and she scared the shit out of my young self whenever I was back there.  And then there was my uncle who once sent Brad to fetch his guitar out of a closet so that he could sing and play for us.  “Why does Uncle Fred have a sheet hanging in his closet?” Brad asked when he returned with the guitar.  I don’t recall hearing what Uncle Fred’s answer was.  Finally, after Grandma died in an automobile accident and Grandpa was forced to live with his kids, I secretly read a letter that Dad had received from his sister, who complained that Dad was not paying enough to support their father.  I knew Dad pretty well and knew also that he was, in his own complicated way, a generous man.  I’m sure that the language my aunt used in contradicting that assertion was sufficient to turn that old sailor’s ears red.

So off to Georgia Mom went, carrying a one year old and a battered suitcase, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable explosion left Mom and Brad in the only hotel in Tifton until she could get together enough money from Dad or Grandpa or her own family in Kentucky to purchase a ticket on the Greyhound bus back to San Diego, from whence she informed Dad that he could join here or not as he chose.  Dad chose to remain united with Mom, and with his Georgia farm plans now lying in smoldering ashes he re-enlisted in the Navy and made it a twenty year career.

Dad was to remain estranged from his farm in Georgia but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t have a garden in San Diego, so when we moved into the house on Highland Ave. in that city a garden was one of the first things that he wanted to begin.  As fate would have it, he didn’t get to start right away.  Our old, square stucco house needed a lot of work to bring it up to Dad’s standards, and faulty electrical work and inadequate plumbing and the demands of a Navy that still insisted on sending him on six month deployments forced him to put off the ground-breaking that he desired, and so I was six or seven years old when the plan began in earnest.

Dad’s plan ended up being more of a project for Brad and me in the beginning.  The adobe clay of our back yard was hard as concrete and thick with rocks which varied in size between pea gravel and bowling balls.  Dad still had plenty of other work to do so, as punishment for all of the screwing-up that two little shitbirds like Brad and me could get ourselves into, we would frequently be banished to the back yard with picks, shovels, hoes and rakes and made to break up that unforgiving clay and extract the rocks which would then be heaped into piles and later hauled away to a landfill.

How  we didn’t kill each other I haven’t a clue.  Brad and I would be simultaneously attacking the dirt with picks and with other sharp metal tools, and rocks and pieces of rocks and our own metal tools would be flying everywhere.  Then one of us, usually Brad, would attack the large clods of dirt with a hoe while I would crawl in the dirt and pull out the biggest rocks.  Finally we would rake through the rubble of what could have once passed for a perfectly good parking lot and remove the smaller rocks.  At the end of a prescribed period of such punishment a small square of broken dirt and a large pile of rocks would be the result of our efforts.

The punishment worked as such on Brad; he really hated having to work in the back yard.  It was not in Brad’s personality to work with the dirt.  At all!  Brad was very good with mechanical things and would have been perfectly happy to have been told to change the oil or perform a tune-up on the family car, or even to wash and wax and vacuum it out.  I guess that’s why Dad called it punishment; it wasn’t supposed to be fun.

The funny thing is that Dad’s plan didn’t work on me.  I initially groused and whined about the inhumanity of it all because that’s what Brad did, and he was as much of a role model to me as was my father, if not more so.  It slowly dawned upon me however that I liked digging in the dirt and hauling rocks off to the dump.  I hid this knowledge from my father however because it its a wonderful thing when you have penance to pay to be sentenced to perform what you like to do anyway, although by my teen years Pop had that scam pretty much figured out.  By the time that I was eight years old the back yard duty mostly belonged to Dad and me, and that’s when I really began to love the dirt and what it could do.

The first thing that Pop had to do to make our back yard soil suitable for something other than making bricks for Pharaoh was to work organic material into it.  Dad knew just what was needed and after a few trips to a dairy in Mission Valley he soon had a pile of cow poop in our back yard that would bring a smile to any Georgia farmer’s face.  The only drawback to that was that our neighbors; Mr. Robertson, the Butlers and the crazy Italian lady to the south of us, weren’t Georgia farmers.  The fine, rich aroma of a couple of yards of fresh cow shit wafted up out of the picked, shoveled, hoed and raked area that had previously been a surface that could stop a bullet, but at least didn’t stink.  Mom was aware of the grumbling that was beginning to circulate throughout the neighborhood but Dad, who had endured five and a half years of naval warfare in the Pacific and was possessed of a naturally truculent attitude anyway, could not have cared less.  In fact, I suspect that he enjoyed it.

We worked that manure into the garden area time and time again that summer and fall, and also spent a lot of time sitting in a big bench swing that Dad had built back there or on folding chairs right in the middle of the garden.  We would eat peanuts and watermelon and other such treats and throw the shells and rinds,  apple cores and potato peelings and everything else that a kitchen might produce into the garden where it would rot and enrich the soil.

It was in these times that Dad and I would enter into a fantasy world.  Pop would open a beer and tell me stories about being a boy in rural Georgia.  I would help myself to my portion of the beer and we would dream of building a cabin in the forest or maybe a farmhouse on 160 acres somewhere in the countryside.  I remember talking about taking one green bean seed and growing from it one pant.  I would sell the fruit of that plant and use the profit to purchase more seeds, which I would plant again until, sooner or later, I would become a sort of Green Bean Rockefeller.  Dad seemed to enjoy my fantasy as much as I did, and I don’t know whether he approved more of my incipient capitalist leanings or just my love of the idea of growing green beans.  Maybe it was both in equal measure.  In any case, in a childhood where my father’s moods could turn him from Dr. Jeckyll to Mr. Hyde with little warning, these were times when I felt as close to my father as I ever would.

By the next spring the manure had composted enough to allow planting, and plant we did. Seeds for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, radishes, turnips and anything else that tickled Dad’s fancy and could be fit into our rather small garden were stuck into the ground and there was great joy when the first little shoots poked their heads up out of the warm, damp earth and into the sunshine.  We babied those shoots; further fertilized and protected them with snail and slug bait, and supported them with wood frames for the tomatoes and high crossbars dangling strings for the pole beans to climb.  I would spend hours of solitary time in that garden, watering and examining for pests, and at last drew the duty of taking Mom’s stainless steel ‘produce bowl’ into the garden to bring in that day’s bounty.

Most of that stuff I still wouldn’t eat, but how I loved to bring it in anyway.  The war at the table raged on unabated until, about age 13 or so, I was given the option of eating what was prepared for me or starve.  After literally starving myself Dad threw in the towel, and my love of growing only increased once I was released from the obligation of eating what I had grown.

Fewer evenings of my later teen years were centered on the back yard garden with Dad.  On the occasions when we were there we would share some beers and speak of politics, the war that had taken center stage of most people’s attention, Dad’s life as a youth and my thoughts on what I would do after high school was finished.  The truth was that I had no plans really, and I’m sure that my lack of aim and goal bothered Dad, who always had some sort of project in mind.  He hid any anxiety well enough however, and on those increasingly rare occasions when I wasn’t goofing off with friends of whom Dad wisely disapproved, or wasn’t pining over a pretty girl who would rather go out with a banana slug than an awkward, skinny, tongue-tied kid like me, I was probably digging my fingers into the rich, fertile dirt of the back yard garden and drawing inspiration, perhaps even in ways that I didn’t then understand, from the steady and solid promise of soil well tended with amendments, work and love.

Reflections On Lent, Day 11

No, you didn’t miss something.  I did not post a Reflection on day 10.  Some days are so full that you cannot squeeze one more thing into it.  Yesterday was one of those.  Today I was able to get to the task, and here goes:

The sun broke over the eastern horizon with an almost summertime brilliance today.  I know this because even though it was a Saturday morning I was awake at my usual 5 AM.  I could not go back to sleep and so tried my favorite method for catching a few more winks.  I stretched out on the living room sofa and plugged in an old black and white science fiction movie from the 1950’s, closed my eyes and tried to imagine the scenes from the dialogue.  This is a strategy that works nearly all of the time.

No dice today, so I gave up at about seven and began to read Joshua Ryan Butler’s “Skeletons In God’s Closet”.  By nine I was finished, my wife was stirring, and it was clearly time for some kitchen action.  Soon we were feasting on bacon, potatoes andchard, and eggs for me, and as we ate I could only stare out of the window at the deep blue sky and sparkling sunlight that washed the landscape that spread out before us.  I knew that this was a day to be outside, and after cleaning up I put on my gardening shoes and grabbed my shovel, hoe, foam kneeling pad and an old Craftsman screwdriver with the business end rounded off into an oval shape by the decades that I have used it exclusively as a weeding tool.

Soon I was kneeling in one of my raised beds pulling weeds.  The soil is wet and loose, and the roots came up with relative ease in most cases.  In other cases I had to work just a little bit harder.  In no time at all I had a rhythm going and the weeds were literally flying into and old trash can that I have kept for just that purpose.

While I was thusly engaged, face to the dirt and fingers actually in the soil, I remembered the Lent project of spending more purposeful thought and time in the things of God.  My mind had been racing from subject to subject; work and its complexities, plans for the spring, projects which needed to be completed at home, and so on.  Now I tried to corral my mind and focus it on God and His ways, and it was not easy.

I think that if I had been born in these times I would have been saddled with the diagnosis of ADD.  I have always had a struggle concentrating on one thing only for any length of time, and today was no exception.  Eventually however I did manage to get my thoughts flying in formation, and this is what I think God told me today.

The dirt the earth, for me, is a reset button.  As the screwdriver blade rooted out tenacious weeds and as the shovel head bit deep into the wet soil I was reminded that the soil is what God made my ancestor Adam out of and soil is what we all will eventually return to, except for Jesus, Enoch, Elijah and V.I. Lenin.  I am not at all sure how they keep that latter guy looking so fresh; seems like some sort of dark art to me.

Anyway, all of the rest of us have dirt in our futures, and as I worked in that dirt today, especially with an eye to coaxing vegetables out of it that would cost me a pretty penny at Whole Foods, I reflected on how God has given us the tools and now we just have to squeeze our sustenance out of the soil.  Even more than that, I felt a weird sort of kinship with the soil.  Yeah, I know:  “Tree Hugger Gone Wild”.  It’s not like that.  I don’t think of that dirt clod as my cousin.  I cannot help but reflect though that we we share the same creator, and that my loving work with the soil will be responded to by an outpouring of sweet, healthy organic and cheap vegetables which will nourish my body as well as my soul.  This is a blessing indeed.

What also struck me was the permanence and stability of the soil.  I have had that dirt back there for at least fifteen years.  I know that dirt well because I carried all twenty cubic yards or so of it back there one wheelbarrow load at a time.  A walking path is the only access that I have to my back yard.  I have no idea where that dirt came from either; it could have come from the Love Canal for all I know or Hanford, which would be more likely.

But every year I return to that soil in the spring and turn under by hand the cover crop that grew over winter and fixed either nitrogen or potassium in its roots, and also turn under the compost that I have been cooking since the previous spring.  Several overpriced bags of compost from Shorty’s Garden Center also find their way into the beds that I prepare for my cold weather crop that I begin my garden with, and then the tomatoes and cucumbers, onions and carrots and green beans that are the crown jewels of my summer and fall dining room table.

I tend this garden the way that God tends me.  I have to have my weeds pulled daily, and some are rooted deep and require a sharp metal point at times to get the job done.  I am good with producing manure.  But God takes that manure, which would burn and kill my soul garden the way that fresh chicken or steer manure would burn my vegetable garden, and he cures it, composts it, and when it is ready He uses it to produce fruit in my own life.  Pests invade my garden and I plant flowers which draw insects that prey on those pests.  In like manner, God plants human flowers in my life which strengthen me to resist the nasty, Screwtapesque pests that would challenge my soul in its relation to the Gardener.

For many it would seem that the garden is a metaphor for my relationship with God, but for me it is deeper than that.  The garden IS my relationship with God in microcosm.  As long as I am able to I will spend the warm – more or less – months of the year out there relating to God in my own way.  I hope and pray that all of you find your own “garden” and allow God to nurture you through it.

To Bee or Not To Bee

I was recently invited to a friend’s newly purchased house to help them restore an old garden in the back yard.  There were six raised beds built of cedar that were in very workable condition, although the beds were overgrown with weeds and the soil was in serious need of amending.  We got busy with shovel and rake and soon had half of the beds cleared of weeds and ready to plant the summer crop.  By the end of the day we wanted to have tomatoes, broccoli, onions, cucumbers, squash and a lot of other vegetables planted either as starts or from seed.  When we were half done with the project we retired to a covered porch in order to relax in the shade and have a cold beer.  Upon sitting down in the deck chairs my friend noticed a wasp nest in the corner of the roof over his deck.  “Just a minute” he said, and disappeared into the house.  He emerged a few minutes later with a spray can.  Walking over to the corner where the nest was he prepared to cut loose.

“Whoa, wait a minute.  What are you doing” I shouted.

“I’m going to kill those wasps” was the answer, and he raised the can again.

“Bad idea” I exclaimed, rising up out of my chair in case the need arose to physically restrain my friend.  “Why on earth do you want to do that?”  My friend lowered the can but looked at me like I had lost my mind.

“Because they’re wasps.  They sting.  And besides, they chew the wood on my house to make the paper for their nests” he said, and he began to raise the can again.  This time I got out of my chair and told him to put the can down slowly, keep both hands where I could see them, and sit his hind end down in the chair and drink the cold beer that I extended to him.  My friend laughed, took the beer, and sat in his chair.  He knew that I am an organic gardener and so wasn’t surprised by my outburst, although he was unsure of what paper wasps had to do with gardening.  I proceeded to fill in that lapse in his education.

“How many times have we been stung today” I asked?

“None” was the reply.

“And that wasp nest was there all the time and probably a lot more just like it as well, huh?”

“What’s that got to do with anything” he asked.  And so I told him.

“Those wasps couldn’t care less about you or me or anyone else.  They would much rather be putting their stingers into caterpillars and cabbage worms that would otherwise be eating your vegetables that we’ll soon be planting.  They paralyze the hungry little critters and then lay their eggs on them so that when their young hatch they’ll have fresh meat to feed on.”

“Ugh” was my friend’s reply.

“Yeah, it wouldn’t be my first meal choice either, but it seems to work for them really well and it will help you to keep pests to a minimum without turning your garden into the Love Canal” I said, referring to a chemical dump that was covered up in some eastern state and a neighborhood built over it.

“Well, I got stung last year by one of these while I was mowing the lawn”.

“I’ll bet that wasp came up out of the ground” I said.

“Yes, it did.  And I nuked it good”.

“I don’t blame you; that was a yellow jacket.  Yellow jackets have a very bad attitude, especially in the fall.  I have a theory about yellow jackets.

“What’s that” he asked, knowing that something absurd was coming.

“When God created everything and said that it was good, Lucifer came up to him and asked ‘can I create something”  Huh?  Huh? Can I?  Just a little something?’  God knew that it was a bad idea but he was a little soft with Lucifer, who was a high strung but otherwise didn’t seem to be such a bad kid.  ‘OK,’ said God, ‘but don’t do anything stupid.’

‘I wouldn’t do anything stupid; you know me!’

‘That’s what I’m talking about’ said God, but before he could say another word Lucifer snapped his fingers and BAM: there were ticks.  BAM: there were spiders (some people say snakes, but I disagree) and BAM: there were yellow jackets.  God was horrified and said ‘OK, that does it.  You’re grounded for, like, eternity’.  And that’s how we got into this mess.”

My friend laughed and said “so I can nuke the yellow jackets and you won’t have a cow?”

“Yeah, it’s alright if they are in your yard or where they would be a threat to you or your family.  Otherwise I just leave them alone unless they are buzzing me.  Then it’s personal.”

“But what about them eating my house” he asked.  That paper comes from somewhere.”

“It does indeed” I replied.  “It comes from dead wood and live plant stems.  Painted buildings made of commercial lumber is a great place to build a nest but not very tasty. The wasp is getting its fibers for nest building from out there”.  I pointed out to an overgrown vacant lot a few houses down from my friend’s new place.  I can’t count how many hours I’ve worked in my yard sharing space with honey bees, bumblebees and wasps of all kinds and never had one bit of trouble, and my house has lots of nests but it’s still standing.

My friend knew that I practically lived in my yard from late spring through fall, so he was certain that i knew what I was talking about.  We yakked for a while longer and his wife brought out some snacks for us to munch on before we got back to work.  Before long however a yellow critter began buzzing around our heads and hovering over our salsa.  With little effort or fanfare I removed my sweat-stained baseball cap and awaited my moment.  When it came I struck like a cobra.  “Thwak!”  The stunned bug lay wriggling on the concrete deck.  I arose and went over to it, then ground it into a greasy stain.

“Yellow jacket?” was my friend’s two word question.